Better than Berlin, cooler than Cannes

Shane Murray 1 October 2009

Photo credit – Cambridge Film Festival/Tom Catchesides (www.catchesides.co.uk)

Shane Murray celebrates another successful year for the Cambridge Film Festival

The Cambridge Film Festival has now been running annually for over 30 years and is one the UK’s largest film festivals. Unlike many of its more famous counterparts however, the Cambridge Film Festival is open to the public, including free, outdoor showings and devoted to showing independent films, rather than serving as a launch pad for studio Oscar bait.

In addition to showing a wide range of up-coming independent films, the festival also runs a number of retrospectives, and has a surprise film on the last day of the festival, which is normally a “big” film that has yet to be released (this year it was Up, reviewed elsewhere on this website). The festival was recently moved to a late September date, allowing The Cambridge Student (TCS) to report back on some of the biggest and best films from the festival.

Le Donk and Scor-Zay-Zee (3 stars)

Le Donk and Scor-Zay-Zee is a wholly atypical Shane Meadows film. All of his previous films have been gritty, working-class, set in the Midlands, and violent in one way or another, so this mockumentary is a pleasant surprise. Set up as a documentary following roadie Donk, played by Paddy Consindine on his way to an Arctic Monkeys gig, it quickly develops into an Alan Partridge style farce. The film’s plot, such as it is, involve Donk’s half-hearted, but ultimately successful attempt to get his protege, rapper Scor-Zay-Zee, a support slot. However, this and the side-plot involving the pregnancy of Donk’s ex-girlfriend are just excuses for Consindine to be obnoxious and funny.

It’s a one-joke film based around Donk’s delusions of grandeur, but it’s a pretty funny joke, and Consindine brings a lot of charisma to the role. At around 70 mins long, it comes across as a double or extended episode of something like Saxondale, which is a compliment in terms of the jokes, but makes the film feel slight.

Later attempts to bring in drama with the birth of Donk’s child seem fairly half-hearted and don’t go anywhere, but don’t detract from the humour. It’s a surprisingly funny film, but one that seems like an afterthought or bit of fun for Meadows and Consindine in between more serious projects.

Humpdays (5 Stars)

Humpday’s premise is so unusual that it will probably discourage most of its target audience from going to see it, which is a shame, because it’s hilarious and nowhere near as unusual as its premise makes it out to be.

At the start of the film, Ben, a happily married man trying to start a family, awakens at 1am to find his old college buddy Andrew at his door, looking to stay for a few nights. In the course of the weekend, Ben joins his bohemian friend at a party, and in an attempt to prove that he’s not become a square, drinks heavily, and when the subject of an amateur porn festival comes up, agrees to the idea that he and Andrew, both straight, should make a gay porn film together. The rest of the film is basically a will-they-won’t-they scenario.

The premise is one rich in comic possibilities, which the script and director handle well. Most of the ultra-low budget film’s scenes are just people chatting, so the dialogue has to be funny and believable in order for the film to work. The actors certainly nail down the second part, with every scene between the two friends being both naturalistic and hilarious.

The two main characters talk to each other and about each other exactly as old friends do, and their games of one-upmanship to convince each other to go through with the idea are brilliant. Moreover, the dramatic elements are well-handled, especially Ben’s relationship with his wife, which could appear to be an arbitrary hurdle to the plot, but is instead dealt with cleverly and entertainingly. Humpday succeeds largely because it achieves what so many other films fail to – it’s realistic and natural without being boring.

Born in ’68 (3 Stars)

Born in ’68 is an ambitious film in almost every sense of the word. It deals with a large number of major characters, all with their own plot-lines and covers the period from 1968 up to the present day. For that alone, it deserves respect and admiration.

 Moreover, it cleverly avoids the pitfall of many historical and biographical films in that it puts the story above history. The directors ignored or skimmed over several events or periods in France’s history in order to give the central stories more coherence. Although this can make the film difficult to follow at points for those with little knowledge of French history, the decision has a big pay-off in terms of character development and the quality of the writing. All of the characters are well-written and fully rounded human beings, rather than being ciphers for a particular point of view.

However, the decision to make the film naturalistic also weakens it to a certain extent. The film follows the course of the main character’s lives, rather than a plot. While this has the advantage of creating some well-rounded and engaging characters, it also robs the film of an element of coherence and narrative tension.

In particular, when several characters vie for attention, the effect can be distracting, and the abundance of characters and storylines also makes the film very, very long at almost three hours. Without a strong plot to drive the action, the film becomes a bit of a slog around the two-hour mark. The film would be far stronger split into two, as it has a great deal to recommend it – good acting, compelling characters and some beautiful cinematography – but, in its theatrical form, it unfortunately drags somewhat. The film struggles to find a neat ending as a result of its structure, making it somewhat inconclusive.

Speaking to the directors, Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, afterwards, they explained that they wanted to make a film about 1968 because, “Generally in France, we don’t make films about the present, or about recent history. We don’t have anyone like Ken Loach, so it was a challenge for us to make a film about our recent political history and to tell this story.”

They also told me that, “Really, we would have preferred to do four films, one for each decade”, but that they were happy with the structure of the film, as it allowed the personal relationships to emerge.

“We were not that interested in the big political picture, as much as we are in the way in which the politics is articulated through personal relationships. The aim of the film was originally to tell the story of how 1968 changed history, but we realised that this wasn’t true.”

The contemporary art scene in London ought to be a ripe, and easy, target for devastating satire. It is full of pretentious, self righteous artists, venal dealers, and foolish collectors easily parted from absurd sums of money. There is surely a film waiting to be made that could deal effectively and funnily with all of these themes.

Boogie Woogie (1 star)

Boogie Woogie would like to be that film, but falls a long way short of its ambitions. Arguably the biggest problem with the film is revealed in the credits, when it emerges that the film’s “Art Curator” was none other than Damien Hirst. If you’re going to make a satire about the shallow and money-obsessed nature of modern art, having Hirst as part of the film is probably not a good idea. Indeed the film’s satire is extremely half-hearted and is very much an insider’s idea of a satire of the art world.

However, that is not the main problem with the film. For a supposed comedy, it’s fairly laugh-free and in fact, many of its attempts to attack its targets rebound on the film. In attempting to make the characters venal, sex-obsessed and unlikeable, the film itself becomes fairly unlikeable and unpleasant.

The film also struggles to bring any kind of dramatic impetus to the film, as the film’s multiple narratives divide the plot too much. The film is full of good performances by the likes of Alan Cumming and Gillian Anderson, but the script and story is lacking. Moreover, for a film about art, the direction and cinematography are curiously artless, and the film looks exceptionally ordinary. It’s a good idea with good actors that unfortunately happens to have a poor story badly executed.

The Godfather (5 stars)

Trying to review The Godfather is a bit like trying to review The Beatles – its borderline impossible to say anything worthwhile. Criticise it and you’re being a poseur, praise it and you’re saying nothing new. At the risk of being repetitive, The Godfather is a fantastic film and is incredibly gripping for a film that lasts almost three hours and has been ripped off and parodied so much that every scene is familiar, even if you haven’t seen it before. Seeing it for the second time, I enjoyed it even more than the first time. Every scene is expertly shot by Francis Ford Coppola and the film’s lengthy, meandering plot is well anchored by the chilling Al Pacino and the fascinating Marlon Brando. Above all, it’s surprising how well the film has aged considering the number of times it has been parodied – at first the “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” line is almost comic, but later in the film Pacino makes it unbelievably sinister. Watching it to understand what makes it so admired is an extremely rewarding experience.

Codename Melville (4 stars)

Codename Melville almost never recovers from its bravura opening. It begins with a clip of legendary French director, Jean-Pierre Melville on a chat show guiltily declaring that the war years were the best years of his life and that he looked back on 1940-44 with nostalgia. The opening credits which follow are a mixture of inventive and visually stunning graphics that take their inspiration from some of Melville’s most famous films, especially Le Cercle Rouge. After the opening twenty minutes (which also include a hallucinatory account of Melville’s first experience of a cinema) however, the film settles into more typical documentary mode, with talking heads interspersed with interviews with Melville and clips from his films.

At this point, interest in the film will vary from person to person, based on how much of a fan of Melville you are. The choice of clips and talking heads by the makers of the film are judicious enough, however, so that most people should be able to enjoy it. The film focuses on how Melville’s wartime experiences were central to his character and his outlook on cinema and life, and manages to tie this into a discussion of his films and legacy fairly neatly. It helps the film that Melville, in addition to being obsessed with cinema and America, was also a real character. Most famous for his gangster/crime thrillers, Melville dressed the part in old-fashioned trench coats and ever-present Ray Bans, and hung out with gangsters in St Lazare in Paris. Many of the talking heads could also easily have stepped out of a film noir, especially Melville’s chubby-tending-towards-Orson-Welles, Portuguese biographer, who looks like the cliche of a corrupt, muck-raking journalist. It’s a bit of a disappointment that he’s actually pretty respectable and never once stops to wipe his brow.

More than anything else though, the film is fortunate to have such a fascinating subject as Melville and it does its best to capitalise on his many quirks. The film finishes where it started, with Melville declaiming on the glory of wartime and the virtue of the men he met in the Resistance, and the portrait of Melville provided in between is that of a romantic and nostalgic hero – out of step of time, dedicated to his art, and sincere in his belief in the brotherhood and honour between soldiers.

Shane Murray