There have been several murmurs in the press and film industry that Edinburgh is feeling the squeeze of a burgeoning Cambridge Film Festival, and while the last-minute withdrawal of Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 was surely a blow, originally the closing film, there was still plenty of choice on offer for the discerning viewer.
Opening with The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles’ recreation of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s 1952 journey with friend Alberto Granada through Argentina into Chile, set an affecting tone. Moments of sentimentality inevitably creep in during the second half, mirroring Che’s growing awareness and its culmination at a leper colony but by and large, the tone perfectly suits the buddy road movie narrative. Alternately moving and droll, it’s a voyage of social and personal discovery with Gael García Bernale embodying his iconic role with a studied seriousness and genuine emotion, and Rodrigo de la Serna charming as his genial, roguish companion.
With one the main competitive strands of the festival focused on British films, it was Pawel Pawlikowski who won The Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film with My Summer of Love, beating stalwarts such as Ken Loach, Antonia Bird, Richard Eyre and Shane Meadows. Having already received the prize in 2000 with the excellent immigration drama The Last Resort, the director’s follow-up, while less cohesive and more mannered, is still intriguingly played out and beautifully shot. Set in rural, small-town Yorkshire, the story charts the summer romance and obsessions of two 16-year-old girls, one rich and cynical (Emily Blunt), the other feisty, working class (Natalie Press). As their relationship grows increasingly intense, nights and days dreamily merge, reality fades and obsession builds. The actresses are compellingly confident, often mesmerising to watch, but the born-again Christian strand of the film would have benefited from further development, with more time given to Paddy Considine’s complex and volatile ex-con.
Somersault, an Australian debut, also focused on the subject of troubled teendom, with the emphasis firmly on the angst and guilt experienced by Heidi (a fine Abbie Cornish), when she makes advances on her mother’s boyfriend and is caught in the act. Taking flight to Snowy Mountains, she reels from one unfulfilling encounter to another, trying to make sense of her own guilt and fledgling sexuality, all the while trying to open up the emotionally stunted Joe. Particularly well received by audiences, comparisons with Thirteen abounded, but I personally found the soul-searching longueurs increasingly irritating. That said, Cate Shortland is a director whose interest is in fostering intimate, charged performances, which she does with an admirable skill.
Back in Britain, and several features chose to deal with contemporary social and political issues. Hamburg Cell is the first to handle with the events of 9/11 from the hijackers point of view, charting the conversion of Ziad Jarrah from a secular student of Aeronautical Engineering in Hamburg to a fundamentalist who trained as a pilot and boarded flight 93 (which may have been on its way to The White House). Ronan Bennett’s screenwriting is excellent, Antonia Bird’s direction appropriately low-key, and the acting superbly controlled. But it’s the research that really shines through here, which feels responsibly and impeccably undertaken.
Ae Fond Kiss, Loach’s latest, also explores the effects of religious difference when a young Asian Muslim man falls in love with a white Irish Catholic teacher. Working through the arising conflicts – the potential pain and disgrace for his family, and the unexpected effect her co-habitation has on her position at school – the film considers how love can exist alongside tradition and responsibility. Atta Yaqub deftly captures his character’s tortured indecision, and Eva Birthistle is luminous as she gradually begins to grasp the enormity of his choice; the result is a winning mix of romance and social realism.
The Purifiers, Richard Jobson’s follow-up to his recently released and haunting debut, 16 Years of Alcohol, couldn’t be more different. A martial arts movie set in a future Northern Britain divided into gangs, it’s a disappointment – poorly acted (presumably because martial arts proficiency was paramount) and cheaply rendered.
Like most portmanteau films, Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes only intermittently satisfies, which, given the eleven vignettes were shot over 17 years, is hardly surprising. Set mainly in diners and coffee shops, it features casual discussions between different characters as they drink and smoke. Some are very funny: Cate Blanchett, for instance, skilfully plays two characters in the same scenario; Bill Murray is suitably bizarre in a scene with GZA and RZA form the Wu Tang Clan; and Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina are hilarious as a hectored star and an overly-enthusiastic actor ‘fan’. Others miss the mark, such as the amateurish, unfunny encounter between The White Stripes.
For fans of conundrum films like Memento, The Machinist, is well worth checking out. Featuring as part of the Directors’ Showcase strand, which champions ‘groundbreaking new work form the world’s most important filmmakers’ it’s not quite as sophisticated or slick as its predecessor but certainly gets you thinking. Christian Bale (almost unrecognisable, he lost so much weight to do the part) is Trevor, a confused machine operator who has been unable to sleep for a year. Seemingly pursued by someone that may or not exist, he becomes a detective of sorts in the riddle of his own life, which becomes increasingly bizarre as events unfold … to say more would ruin the fun.
Quite what was ‘groundbreaking’ about Sylvia Chang’s 20:30:40 is harder too discern, but perhaps there was nowhere else for it to conveniently sit. Charming and amusing, the story follows three women as they try to cope with the men in their lives and deduce the meaning of love and happiness, but such sweetness sits rather awkwardly alongside the explicit sexual explorations of a film such as Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell.
Straddling the border of reality and fiction, Incident at Loch Ness is another curio whose premise would be spoiled by too much discussion. Suffice to say that it ‘follows’ the filming of Werner Herzog as he makes a ‘documentary’ about the Loch Ness monster, and while the first half stands up well, bolstered by some very funny dialogue and character detail, the second part takes an unredeemable nosedive. An opportunity squandered…
Most rewarding were the documentaries, which included eagerly awaited films such as Riding Giants, Stacy Peralta’s surfing follow-up to frenetic skater picture, Dogtown and Z-Boys, alongside lesser-known stories from around the world. Super Size Me is particularly enjoyable, an irreverent and vibrant look at fast-food multinational McDonalds through the eyes of one man, Morgan Spurlock, who vows to eat nothing else for one month. Winner of the Guardian New Director’s Award, it has already caused the corporation to take out adverts in the press, dissuading viewers from believing its hype, and is sure to be an even bigger hit here than it has been Stateside. Alarming, disgusting and thoroughly entertaining, it will definitely make you think twice before eating there again.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is another treat. Little could directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have known what they were getting into they signed up to make a film about the biggest heavy metal band in the world: how long they would be embroiled and the extent to which they would be privy to the inner workings of the group, the therapy sessions, the soul-searchings and the tempers. A film about egos and relationships – the moments where the personal and professional collide – the job itself is almost incidental, although the music is, of course, intrinsic to who these people are. Worth seeing alone for their therapist’s increasingly awful succession of jumpers (a great contrast to the band’s tattoos and rocker clothes) and the expression on his face when he thinks he might be out of his $40,000 a month job.
Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession was one of my personal favourites, a great find for anyone who enjoys programmes about films or getting the low-down on director’s cuts, lost films or rediscovered filmmakers. Made by John Cassavetes daughter, Xan Cassavetes, it’s about the film cable station that supplied LA from the late 1970s and the man who programmed and built it, Jerry Harvey. Although by no means as polished as one of Martin Scorsese’s wonderful personal journeys through cinema, it similarly conveys a person’s passion for cinema, and how that excitement can inspire others. Amongst many wonderful and unusual film seasons, Harvey screened both versions of One Upon a Time in America so audiences could make up their own mind which was the best, showed the entire Heaven’s Gate and pushed for a re-evaluation of Salvador, crucial at Oscar time. There are interviews with James Woods, Jacqueline Bisset, Quentin Tarantino, Henry Jaglom, Robert Altman, Jim Jarmusch and Alexander Payne, amongst others, and also a saddening personal twist to the tale.
Amidst these more entertaining documentaries, two others stood out. The inspirational Touch the Sound: A Sound Journey with Evelyn Glennie is an absorbing piece about the successful, profoundly deaf, percussionist. Glennie’s extraordinary experiments with discovering new sources of sound feature heavily as do her efforts to teach other deaf children how to ‘feel’ sound, all of which is sustained by an captivating, complex score. Legendary filmmaker Fernando E Solanas (The Hour of the Furnaces) offers sobering truths in the more traditional A Social Genocide, a look at the people in power in Argentina who have been responsible for getting the country into such dire financial and social straits. Lengthy, rigorous and studied, it’s precisely the sort of film that festivals should show; that, with the increase of authored documentaries, would be unlikely to screen widely at cinemas, but should hopefully find a home on television.