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Cambridge Film Festival 2017 – preview

CFF2017_poster

The 37th Cambridge Film Festival is taking place between the 19th and 26th of October, promising a feast of over 150 films and events, including premieres, actor and filmmaker Q&As, exciting curated strands, and Virtual Reality screenings.

Founded 40 years ago, the Festival began life at the intimate old Arts Cinema in Market Passage, its home for 20 years, and was relaunched – following a short break – at the current Arts Picturehouse in 2001. As Festival Director Tony Jones points out, Festival screenings may now be the only opportunity to see many of the low-budget or foreign language films sourced by the Cambridge team.

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The digital revolution may have been ‘a boon for the big commercial releases, enabling cinemas to concurrently play what appear to be the most bankable titles’, but it is ‘squeezing out more adventurous or challenging fare.’ Jones laments that ‘while new cinemas may open with large-scale funding or community-based resources, there are still few models of truly independent programming’. All the more reason to celebrate and support the ‘intimate and approachable’ Cambridge Film Festival.

The opening night film is the hotly anticipated drama Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. It captures the unlikely-to-be repeated moment in sporting history where ex- tennis champ Bobby Riggs challenged the legendary Billie Jean King to a tennis match to prove who was better at tennis – men or women.

BattleSexes

Other must-see films which are showing in advance of their general release are: hilarious, unique and often surreal The Square which arrives fresh from its Palme d’Or win; Colin Farrell in the chilling The Killing of a Sacred Deer; Paddy Considine’s Journeyman, the much anticipated follow-up to Tyrannosaur (which was premiered at a previous Cambridge Film Festival); the emotionally and visually powerful drama A Fantastic Woman; The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s follow-up to his iPhone sensation Tangerine.

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Fascinating new documentaries include 78/52, which analyses the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the ‘Man Behind the Curtain’, and the screen murder that profoundly changed the course of world cinema. 78/52 references the number of set-ups (78) and the number of cuts (52) in the still-terrifying scene. One entire week out of the four weeks scheduled to shoot Psycho – a full quarter of the film’s production schedule – was dedicated to the infamous shower scene.

Regular Restorations and Rediscoveries strand includes silent films with live music, such as new prints of Casanova (1927), Shiraz (1928) and The Woman That Men Yearn For (1929), featuring Marlene Dietrich’s first real starring role, alongside black and white classics such as noir melodrama Mildred Pierce (1945) and sardonic thriller The Wages of Fear (1953).

This year, in collaboration with the Festival of Ideas, the CFF team has programmed India Unboxed. From classics by the old masters of Indian cinema through to the best contemporary documentaries, this series is a great introduction to the film of India – beyond Bollywood! New Catalan cinema, Korean cinema, Short Fusion and an expanded microcinema programme (Archive and Memory) continue, along with the Family Film Festival, which includes free films and national treasure Neil Brand, with his piano-tastic Comedy for Kids and Adults, playing along to, and illuminating, silent classics featuring the likes of Laurel & Hardy.

New for 2017 will be a bespoke Virtual Reality strand, showcasing four extraordinary works which stretch the creative boundaries of this emerging medium. These will take place in a special ‘screening’ room located in Emmanuel College, limited to five participants per session.

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The closing night film is the critically acclaimed, powerful noir, You Were Never Really Here by British director Lynne Ramsay. It features a stand out performance from Joaquin Phoenix as a Gulf-war veteran and former FBI agent turned killer-for-hire, specialising in saving victims from child sex rings. There is also an evocative soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

You can see a special retrospective of Lynne Ramsay films, including Tilda Swinton’s award winning performance in We Need To Talk About Kevin and Samantha Morton in Morvern Callar.

The Cambridge Film Festival is operated by the charitable Cambridge Film Trust and backed by the BFI’s Film Festival Fund which awards National Lottery funding to UK film festivals, giving audiences the opportunity to see a broader range of British and international films.

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For more information on Cambridge Film Festival 2017 see http://www.cambridgefilmfestival.org.uk/

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is a feast for the eyes and ears, a worthy sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction classic. The film has many echoes of the original but creates its own sombre style and atmosphere, one more in tune with our troubled times. The acid rain is still hammering down on the city skyscrapers, but the neon adverts have lost their lustre.

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Thirty years on, the world of Blade Runner has changed. Before the action starts, onscreen paragraphs inform us that while bio-engineering has advanced, the world’s ecosystems ‘collapsed in the 2020s’, so the film’s predominant colour is grey. From the air, a patchwork quilt of grey and white factories might look like fields, but the ‘blackout’ has wiped out trees and flowers, so that wood is now a rare commodity.

Blade Runner 2049 taps into current anxieties about technological progress, about losing our jobs to robots and losing our souls to the digital screen. Its bio-engineered replicants sometimes speak of human feelings, experiencing a miracle, or having a real (rather than implanted) memory. As sci-fi author Philip K. Dick asked in the splendidly titled novel on which the world and characters of Blade Runner are based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) starts the film with a close-up of an eye, the window to the soul, and his main character spends much of the action puzzling over whether or not he is ‘special’. K (Ryan Gosling) is a newer model of replicant who seems more human than his colleagues in the LA Police Department. With his preternaturally cool manner, Gosling is magnetic. His eyes are not the glassy eyes of a synthetic human: they most definitely have soul.

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K is a blade runner, whose job is hunting down and ‘retiring’ older model replicants who have gone rogue. After one such mission he finds a buried box with what appear to be human bones inside. Forensic analysis reveals they are of a female replicant who died during childbirth. How was this possible?

His police boss (Robin Wright) orders him to destroy all evidence and to find and ‘retire’ the child. She believes the knowledge that replicants are able to reproduce is dangerous – it could ‘break the world’. When K ponders ‘to be born means you have a soul’, he is told: ‘you’ve been getting on fine without one’.

K’s investigations take him to the headquarters of cloudy-eyed replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his kickass enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), and eventually to fellow blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) in radioactive Las Vegas.

Despite its running time of two and three-quarter hours, Blade Runner 2049 never sags. If the complicated plot is occasionally baffling, our senses are always diverted and often overwhelmed. Fans of the original will have fun comparing and contrasting what has changed in the last 30 years. The urban hologram adverts have got bigger and more naked, but this is recognisably the same world, albeit less dayglo and fun.

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The streets now boast ‘instant fix’ touch screens and you can buy a virtual wife. K comes home to Joi (Ana de Armas), who cooks for him, calls him ‘baby sweet’ and lights his cigarette by pointing at it.

But amidst all the techno wizardry and future thrills it is perhaps the simple, natural and reassuring images that delight us most: snowflakes melting on the palm of a hand, burning red embers dancing into the sky; raindrops chasing one another on a windscreen.

Mother!

With its disturbing finale and surreal plot, the psychological horror film Mother! has polarised cinema-goers and critics, receiving both boos and a standing ovation during its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Is it an ‘ambitious, dense, delirious, playful and serious work of capital A art’, or ‘the most vile and contemptible motion picture ever released by one of the major Hollywood studios’?

If you like horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby, fiendish plot twists and Jennifer Lawrence, then you will find much to admire here. The hand-held camera is literally in her face: it follows her around her dream house until we are acquainted with every mole on her skin, and feel dizzy with claustrophobia. And if you enjoy Feydeau farces or surrealist films such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, you will enjoy the blackly-funny escalation of guests, violence and domestic chaos. But make sure to avoid it like the plague if you are pregnant.

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Writer-Director Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! starts like a dark fantasy: a woman’s bloody face, wreathed in flames; a man putting a large crystal into a holder on a plinth, where it begin to glow with gold veins; a burnt-out house is transformed back into its former glory; in one of its bedrooms a woman (Lawrence) wakes up and calls for her husband – ‘baby?’

The characters in Mother! go un-named, perhaps to mark them out as archetypes in a fable. The film’s cast-list calls Jennifer Lawrence’s character ‘Mother’ and her husband (Javier Bardem) ‘Him’. She is lovingly restoring their old rural colonial mansion, while he, an apparently famous poet, attempts to write his next masterpiece.

When a stranger (Ed Harris) knocks at their door he is welcomed in by the poet, glad to be distracted from his writer’s block. Mother, though, is bothered and bewildered by this intrusion. She takes umbrage over the stranger’s attempts to smoke in the house and is annoyed by her husband when he invites the man to stay.

Next day the man’s waspish wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) breezes into the house, upsetting Mother with her rudeness. Upon learning that they do not yet have any children, she advises ‘why not finish breakfast and get to it’. They go down into the creepy cellar, with its industrial-sized washing machine, where Pfeiffer derides Mother’s choice of underwear (big white pants), leaving her holding a pair of her own lime green lacey ones.

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More strangers appear and Mother’s dream of domestic bliss turns into a nightmare, just as she becomes pregnant. Affronted and squeamish, Lawrence’s face does a good job of registering our own disturbance and disgust, as bizarre and violent events begin to accumulate, leading to a harrowing, though technically stupendous finale, which brings us cleverly back to the beginning.

By the end, we feel as though we have been put through the wringer, and gone a few rounds inside that industrial-sized washing machine.

Mother! can be seen as a satire on domesticity, or the impossibility of finding a peaceful room of one’s own amidst the hectic intrusions of modern life. The house becomes an extension of Mother’s psychological and physical disturbance, with its throbbing, womb-like walls, bleeding floorboards and erupting toilet. There is no score, so everyday sounds are accentuated: a copper kettle sings, a fly buzzes, and, as Mother feels the stress we hear a high-pitched ringing, like a migraine taking hold.

Aronofsky’s film could also be viewed as a fantastical depiction of the processes of artistic birth and creation for both director and poet – the gory mess of life transformed and crystallized into Art. Something out of nothing.

Wind River

Wind River is sometimes hard to watch, but this bleak and brutal crime thriller features strong performances, character depth and an intelligent script with a serious message: that the lawless frontier of the old Wild West lingers on and its Native American Indians are still treated as second-class citizens.

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The film is ‘inspired by actual events’ in its’ dramatisation of an horrific crime committed in a bleak outpost of snowy Wyoming. It completes a trilogy of films written by Taylor Sheridan, in which he highlights issues of social injustice in the United States. After Sicario (the war on drugs) and Hell or High Water (rural poverty), Sheridan’s directorial debut is concerned with the plight of Native American women, who, according to The New York Times, are raped and sexually assaulted at a rate four times the national average. They are also 10 times as likely to be murdered than other Americans.

The film concludes with a chilling quote: ‘While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women. No one knows how many are missing.’

Wind River opens with a dreamlike scene: a girl running barefoot in the snow, moonlit mountains in the background, with a voice incanting what sounds like Native American poetry: ‘the tree stands tall and grand’. Cut to a wolf circling sheep before it is despatched by a camouflaged hunter (Jeremy Renner). The frozen corpse of the girl, Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) is later found by the hunter, wildlife officer Cory Lambert, who teams up with FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to track down her killers.

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Rugged, stoic and compassionate Native American Lambert has personal motivation for justice and vengeance: he knew Natalie, and three years previously his teenage daughter had died in similar circumstances and he still doesn’t know exactly what happened.

The investigation takes them to the Wind River reservation, with its drug casualties, ‘snow and silence’. City girl Banner is unprepared for the inhospitable Wyoming weather: ‘didn’t you guys get the memo? It’s spring’. There is fish-out-of-water humour here and dry repartee from the Tribal Chief (Graham Greene), who provides some much-needed light relief. ‘This isn’t the land of back-up,’ he tells Banner, ‘this is the land of you’re on your own’.

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Overall, though, Wind River is infused with sorrow. You can hear it in regular collaborators Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s creaky fiddle and untuned piano score. It is a talky film, as if the characters are trying to fill the oppressive silence. They talk through their issues of bereavement, injustice and frustration and try to come to terms with ‘this land – it’s all we have’.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson does not make Wyoming into picture-postcard decoration. At times the snow-topped peaks look like a Bond film, but more often the landscape looks austere and bare, unforgiving of man’s attempt to forge a life here. As Lambert says, ‘luck doesn’t live out here, it lives in the city. Out here, you have to survive or surrender’.

When violence eventually explodes onto the screen with a flashback to the crime, it is horrific and disturbing, as if we have been transported into a different film. But Sheridan’s attention to character depth and fine performances from the cast ensure that, ultimately, we are moved and forced to confront the issues that are highlighted.

Because of her experience on this film, Elisabeth Olsen has since joined a The Rape Treatment Center, in order to provide practical support to those affected. ‘It’s one example of how we’ve mistreated an entire people from generation to generation to generation’, she says.

Laura Nyro, genius singer-songwriter

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I only properly listened to the songs of Laura Nyro (pronounced ‘Near-oh’, as in Robert De Niro) a couple of months ago, but she already has a special place in my heart. This neglected singer-songwriter genius, who died of cancer, aged 49, in 1997, inspires a deep passion and devotion in those on her wavelength.

Nyro was born Laura Nigro in the Bronx, New York. A precocious girl, she taught herself how to play piano and wrote her first song at the age of eight. By High School she was singing with a group of friends in subway stations and street corners. Her father’s work as a piano tuner brought him into contact with record company executive, Artie Mogull, who auditioned 18 year-old Laura in 1966 and became her first manager. After her first album, More Than a New Discovery David Geffen became a disciple, took her under his wing, and steered her to Columbia, for whom Nyro would record critically-acclaimed LPs, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry.

Writing all her own material, Nyro blazed a trail for female singer-songwriters at a time when they were in short supply (Carole King apart). Those first late-60s albums showcase an extraordinary talent. Nyro’s voice goes from honeyed Karen Carpenter crooning to soulful Aretha Franklin righteousness to primal Janis Joplin shrieking, often in the same song. This kooky, shy, softly-spoken young woman with waist-length hair, who was fond of wearing ‘grandmotherly’ gowns, explodes into life during her songs. Like Kate Bush after her, Nyro was happier in the studio than on stage. With the cream of New York session musicians as back-up, Laura could let it all hang out.

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In her best songs Nyro takes you on a rollercoaster journey of rapture, mystery, heartbreak and bonkers-ness. After repeated listens their twists and turns still confound and delight. The listener is bamboozled by changes of tempo and giddy melodic diversions. Laura didn’t play by the musical rules and mocks any attempts to pin her down. She is a soul singer in her passion, fearlessness and soul-baring, following her muse wherever it takes her. But she also does pop, folk, gospel, jazz, avant-garde and protest songs: Like Patti Smith, she is a force of nature who channels her spirit into her music, an alchemist who leaves you bewitched and enchanted.

Laura Nyro wrote songs to hold close to your heart, songs for the darkest days. They deserve to be part of your own musical patchwork quilt or comfort blanket.

 

Save the Country (long version)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E21KH_YOk7Y

Film of Laura Nyro performing is scarce, so enjoy her appearance on American TV:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwn97weAxa0

Lay that devil down!

 

Stoney End

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6diadP-g_7s

Never mind the forecast

‘Cause the sky has lost control

‘Cause the fury and the broken thunders

Come to match my raging soul

Now I don’t believe

I wanna to see the morning

 

Stoned Soul Picnic

There’ll be lots of time and wine

Red yellow honey, sassafras and moonshine

 

Timer

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFVpXiu73yo

And if the song goes minor

I won’t mind

 

Induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame 2012

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9sYxjBQ8tw:

 

Wedding Bell Blues

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvKzCspqGgQ

and in your voice I hear

a choir of carousels

Oh but am I ever gonna hear

my wedding bells?

 

Lazy Susan

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SO57qGhyTI8

I have lost and loved him

You have seen it all

 

Sweet Blindness

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZFD7gH1mJg

oh sweet blindness

a little magic

a little kindness

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s gut-wrenchingly powerful WW2 drama

Watching Dunkirk is almost like being there: we are immersed on land, sea and air in the desperate fight for survival as thousands of Allied troops wait on the French beach for deliverance. Writer-director Christopher Nolan ratchets up the tension to gut-churning effect, with the help of Hans Zimmer’s visceral score.

The true story of how a flotilla of small boats sailed across the English Channel in 1940 to rescue thousands of retreating soldiers is one we like to think embodies all that was Great about Britain during the Second World War. Dunkirk shows us the plucky underdog spirit, the ‘make do-and-mend’ pragmatism, the small acts of self-sacrifice and courage. It also shows us desperation, bigotry, shell-shock and selfishness, as young men fight for their lives in hellish circumstances.

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Nolan’s casting is spot-on. If we had to choose three British actors to go into war with, then we could not hope for a better trio than Mark Rylance (quietly brave, soulful and compassionate), Tom Hardy (ace Spitfire pilot and derring-do war hero) and Kenneth Branagh (stoic, talks about ‘home’, looks good in his uniform). We are not even on first-name terms with the young men in the thick of the action. Harry Styles might be pop star, but here he is just another bedraggled Tommy and he does a good job in the role.

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The film opens on the streets of Dunkirk, as a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) watches leaflets flutter down from the sky. He reads one and it spells out what he already knows too well: ‘you are surrounded’. With a deafening crack of gunshot, we are off. Unseen Germans are now firing at his regiment, so we follow his attempts to escape, down side-streets, over garden walls and sheds, until he eventually reaches the beach, where thousands more like him are ‘waiting for a miracle.’

Cue panic, as a dive-bomber screams towards them. ‘Where’s the bloody Air Force?’ shouts someone. Air defence against the might of the German army seems to be three Spitfires, but so long as Tom Hardy is flying one there is hope. Nolan switches from beach to air to sea, where, back on the English coast, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son are loading life-jackets into their sailing boat, in preparation for its requisition by the Navy. On ‘the Mole’ pier at Dunkirk a commander (Kenneth Branagh) gazes towards home and reasons that the Germans are not using their tanks because ‘they can pick us off like fish in a barrel’.

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Despite knowing how it ends, the tension that Nolan generates from his three dramas is at times almost unbearable. We experience Dunkirk kinetically through a sick feeling of dread in our stomachs. In large part this is down to the accompanying music by Hans Zimmer, who has composed a score which mimics both the noise of war (whine of sirens, descending bombs) and our bodily responses to it (accelerating hearbeats, panic).

At the darkest hour, when horror is piled upon horror, Zimmer combines his different motifs into a gut-wrenching crescendo: the quickening pulse of sawn cellos; the insistent mosquito whine of high-pitched violins; helicopter synths and engine-room metal-bashing. This is a devastating match-up of sound and vision.

Amidst the epic sweep of it all, Nolan is concerned with what unites us: our primal desire for survival and home. When Mark Rylance’s character is mocked for his small boat (‘you’re weekend sailors. You should be at home’), he replies: ‘there won’t be any home if we allow the slaughter across the Channel’).

The Beguiled

Passions unleashed in Civil War Virginia

Gorgeous photography and strong performances make Sofia Coppola’s gothic melodrama The Beguiled linger in the memory, though the sultry, drowsy atmosphere of this Civil War tale of sexual awakening in the Deep South might send some people to sleep.

Coppola has provoked a ‘whitewashing’ controversy by removing a black female slave character who appeared in the original 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan and the 1971 film version directed by Clint Eastwood. She also has a white actress playing the part of another mixed-race character. The director has justified this by saying that ‘young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African American character I would want to show them.’

Instead, the horrific realities of Southern racism are only hinted at through repeated images: the branches of massive trees hung with sunlit Spanish moss. We could be looking at girls’ hair, or Coppola could be nudging us to think of Billie Holiday’s classic anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, with its line ‘Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’.

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The Beguiled opens with a girl in pigtails wandering through a tunnel of trees, humming a tune and looking for mushrooms. It is a fairytale image and with her wicker basket Amy (Oona Lawrence) could be Little Red Riding Hood. It’s not long before she discovers a wounded soldier from the North (Colin Farrell). Could he be the big bad wolf?

Amy helps the soldier walk back to her home – Miss Martha’s Seminary for Young Ladies. She tells him that there are only five students now and that all the slaves have left. Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) decides to take him in because ‘wouldn’t it be the Christian thing to do?’ She tends to his gory leg wounds, taking out ‘enough metal to shoe a horse’ before stitching him up and leaving him to convalesce in bed.

Corporal John McBurney is an Irish charmer, just off the ship from Dublin, with a fondness for ‘wildness’ and ‘freedom’. He soon threatens the discipline and decorum of the household, catching the eyes and hearts of most of the girls, particularly Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), Alicia (Elle Fanning) and Miss Martha herself. Is this a wolf entering a hen-house or a dopey bear poking a hornet’s nest?

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The melodrama plays itself out against a beguiling backdrop of buzzing cicadas and Deep South birdsong, with magnificent misty shots of the palatial house with its crumbling doric columns, beautiful trees framing the girls as wander around in a woozy Picnic at Hanging Rock heat-haze. The Civil War makes itself felt through the boom of distant guns, black smoke drifting up from the horizon like a swarm of flies.

With its routines and rituals, its prayer meetings and civilised meal times, Miss Martha’s Seminary looks like the last bastion of Victorian manners under threat. ‘We could show him some real Southern hospitality,’ she says. But sexual tension in the household reaches ‘twanging’ point when McBurney gets back on his feet and his loud masculinity jolts us out of our stupor.

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The Beguiled shows us how quickly the veneer of civilisation is torn apart in times of war, whether on the battlefield or in the home. Miss Martha says she has taught her girls ‘what they need to survive’, and in this peculiar domestic battleground, she has taught them well. All loose ends tied up neatly …