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Film reviews


Robin Hood | The Forest Prince and the Pigman | The Stranger | Tridentfest

Robin Hood (1922)

Dir. Allan Dwan

We find ourselves arranged in a wide arc about a screen, courtesy of CFF's partner, Film in the Forest; a fresh breeze sighing against our expectant nostrils. Not quite Nottingham, but Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk nevertheless plays apt host to one of the marvels of silent cinema. Refreshingly fun compared with more recent portrayals, Douglas Fairbanks' Robin Hood flits and gambols about the screen with great enthusiasm, setting wrongs right and making oh-so-merry with his uncompromisingly playful men, all set to the rousing charms of Neil's Brand's live musical accompaniment. In a forest.

“... Fairbanks inhabits the screen...”

Fairbanks — he who is lit from below — stars in Allan Dwan's sumptuous production of the familiar legend. Canadian-born Dwan directed a self-attested 400 films in his fifty-year-long career, beginning at American Film Company with his first feature The Gold Lust in 1911 and stretching to his last, The Most Dangerous Man Alive, in 1961. His acknowledged technical prowess also extended from behind the camera to inventing new ways of capturing the action. He is credited with inventing the Dolly shot. From the earliest days of single-reel silent shorts, through to the introduction of modern Technicolor extravaganzas, Dwan saw — and made — it all.

The eye-watering (at the time) one million dollar budget is money well spent. Painstaking research on the part of both Dwan and Fairbanks, mean the costumes are to-the-ring accurate, although clearly romanticised. ROBIN HOOD had one the largest sets yet created, with Nottingham castle and an entire village being constructed in a Hollywood studio. In fact, the sets were apparently so startlingly huge that Fairbanks was afraid he would be lost within them. Dwan sold it to him however, and there is no sense of him being lost here. Far from it. Fairbanks inhabits the screen with his larger-than-life personality and his amazing aptitude for stunt work. In one scene, stuck as he is between two hoards of the Sheriff's men, he leaps onto and swoops down an enormous curtain to (temporary) safety. A trick he found so much fun he repeated it in his own time.

“... biffing foreigns in Jesus Town...”

The athletic and swooningly charismatic Fairbanks (look 'dashing' up in the dictionary and you'll find him above Errol Flynn — an actor he inspired), was a favourite of Dwan's and they collaborated often. So comfortable was he in front of the lens, it is said he regularly did away the concept of acting and simply played himself.

We all know the story by now. In the year of our Lord 12— er... something (I failed my History A-level), scowly Prince John (Sam de Grasse) puts the squeeze on poor Olde England in his capacity as Regent, while his brother, Richard the Lionheart (played by the prolific Wallace Beery), is out biffing foreigns in Jesus Town and it's down to R Hood to take the power back. Noble knights and flappy-sleeved maidens parade before us, forming a festival for the eyeballs, and we've not even got onto the robbing part yet.

The usual suspects are assembled in the lush woodland setting: from the bloody violent Friar Tuck (Willard Louis), to the ever-faithful Little John (who doubles up in his role as Huntingdon's squire and is notable for going on to play the role of Little John in a number of features). A strange knight appears, and is unwilling to remove his helmet. Who he? Also, see baddies in the form of the nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham (William Lowery) and the out-jousted Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Dickey). Boo. Hiss.

Much robbing of the rich and giving to the poor ensues. Swords everywhere. Then, faced with an untimely death by bowmen, the captured Robin is saved just in the nick of time by the return and redoubtable shield of good King Richard (for it is he) and the coup is dismissed. Victorious Robin, his curious former fear of girls melting in the moment of triumph, takes his prize in the form of the wooed-off-her-trolley Lady Marian (a glowing Enid Bennett). Hurrah! Let's do it all again next week.

This review was written for Take One magazine as part of Cambridge Film Festival 2011.


The Forest Prince and the Pigman (2011)

Dir. Craig Constantine

The point made at the centre of this beguiling documentary is that various studies conducted in America have found hitchhiking to be statistically no more dangerous than any other activity. A fact lent further credence through the same conclusion having been reached in similar research by Germans. This may come as a surprise to many as the horror stories surrounding hitchhiking are deeply embedded in our collective memory. THE FOREST PRINCE AND THE PIGMAN reminds us however that this is due to the prevalence of vague, often salacious, blood-thirsty second-hand anecdotes rather than from the bank of our own personal experience.

Director Craig Constantine (producer of TV's Ice Road Truckers) uses the device of following a guitar-wielding, behatted young man as he thumbs his way across the United States, east to west, meeting and sharing road-time with a frequently amusing random sample of American society. During the course of his adventure we are shown just how safe and rewarding hitchhiking can be, either as a practical necessity born of desperation, simple gap-year-style wanderlust or indeed as a chosen lifestyle.

“... horror stories surrounding hitchhiking are deeply embedded in our collective memory...”

As a companion thread to the young wanderer's narrative, we receive an education in the history of hitchhiking in America via a well-researched selection of archive photographs, footage and reports. We are shown the country's shifting, conflicted attitude to it from its modern genesis as a means of getting from A to B, which came with the invention of the motorcar at the turn of the last century, through to the present day. Many states by turns tried to ban or restrict hitchhiking over the decades — often against a backdrop of McCarthyist false-hype propaganda and news media scaremongering — or endorse it as a means to economise in times of war, which serves to demonstrate that the notion of giving or receiving a lift has forever been dogged by misinformation and strong emotional response.

A simple story told well, the film is marred only by the strong cheese of a deep-voiced Discovery Channel-style narrator who talks over the academic content, which grates rather and spoils the delicate and vaguely dream-like atmosphere that pervades the piece. The film closes with a young woman cheerily telling us that, despite a widely-reported story about a hitchhiking girl having her arms amputated with an axe by a maniac truck driver in the 1970s, she would happily share the same fate today as her mind-expanding experiences travelling the world by thumb have made it all wholly worthwhile.

This review was written for Take One magazine as part of Cambridge Film Festival 2011.


The Stranger (2010) (Short)

Dir. Rodd Rathjen

A mildly perplexing but generally satisfactory short that trails a young man of indeterminate intent as he steals a powder blue suit and gatecrashes a party. While there, he elects to answer a ringing phone and speak to the home-owner's mother about a sick grandmother, claiming a cold has modified his voice beyond recognition. We follow him; a stranger in a crowd of friends but not yet lonely, free from social burden to please himself and, despite a mild case of kleptomania, seemingly of harm to no-one. Indeed, in the end, there may be one who is especially grateful for the presence of this inscrutable interloper.

This review was written for Take One magazine as part of Cambridge Film Festival 2011.


Tridentfest (2010-2011) (Various shorts)

Dir. Various. See individual credits

Arts Picturehouse staffers' self-styled Project Trident 2011 offering. In no particular order then:

PAYLOAD — Music video

Dir. Simon Panrucker

This video to Hot Head Show's jerky funk rock ditty 'Payload' sports nifty freeze-frame shots, a well-judged flick between colour and Sin City-styled monochrome, and is a fair visual accompaniment to the musical action. Spurred on by the prospect of winning an ambiguous prize, a man dons a zebra mask and turns out to fight his opponent: a bloke in a lion mask. Zebra wins by kicking him to death. Easy really. The prize, a true poisoned chalice, completes the circle of events.

RODGER — Short

Dir. Thom Dobbin

There's nothing frightening about clowns ordinarily — although it seems oddly fashionable at the moment to claim that you find them creepy — but RODGER might make you think again. A dishevelled whiteface accidentally bumps into a couple of inebriated rough types who predictably take offence at this affront and promptly chase him into a blind alley. The table is turned with the arrival of his pleasingly freakish, rope-licking rescue party. Apparently the original audio was so bad on this they had to use something found on archive.org. Dobbin later claims, "I think clowns are fine." Good man.

DOESN'T HE KNOW — Short

Dir. Christian Lapidge, Andrzej Sosnowski and Temujin Doran

Set on a distant outpost in space, lonely labourer Jerome wakes on his 711th day on duty only to be told by his android companion that there's no cereal left for breakfast as the Sun went super-nova some time ago and everyone back on Earth, including Kellogg's, has been destroyed. This intriguing short was a runner-up in the 2011 Sci-Fi-London 48hr film challenge. There is less emphasis on cereal than I have indicated here.

THROWN — Short

Dir. Ryd Cook

Claiming the emotional throne at the night's roster is THROWN. Two men drive about with an armchair strapped to the roof of their car hoping to find an appropriate spot in which to set it, and the grief for a dead loved one, free. A real of mix of both pain and pleasure, tears and scotch eggs, THROWN succeeds in making you feel a lot of things.

EDITH — Music video

Dir. Carl Peck

Inspired by the director's affection for Nacho Libre, band Tellison's rather stonking song is represented well in this colourful and highly amusing mini-saga. The love for his dead cat (Edith) drives a wrestler to beat all challengers and who then solemnly pays tribute to his beloved feline by enshrining her ashes in the victory trophy. This prompts the best sentence of the night from the creators: "Moondust and/or cat ashes." Laugh. You won't get it.

REVELATIONS — Trailer

Dir. Christian Lapidge

A trailer for a film he couldn't be bothered to make, REVELATIONS is a brief but tantalizing insight into director C. Lapidge's brain which shows us all we need to know about him. Zombies. A chainsaw. Buckets of blood. There is a DVD behind-the-scenes 'making of' special available from tridentfest.com, apparently, although I can't find it.

PUSSYFOOT — Short

Dir. John Davis

Superbly funny little thing about a man in a cat suit which perfectly encapsulates many feline traits. Cat-man emerges reluctantly from the garden to accept a glass of milk handed to him by his owner before downing it with a sardonic "Cheers". He bites random strangers who only want a stroke and throws himself crushingly into his owner's lap when beckoned for a tickle. This was my favourite one!

THE PURPLE FIEND — Short

Dir. Carl Peck

Professor Laminut and his faithful chum Googy star in THE PURPLE FIEND. The film is met with rapturous applause, although one suspects this is in part due to the audience consisting mainly of friends, family, fellow film-makers and fstaff (Ed — please check that last one). Inspired by an idea had on New Year's Eve 2009 and thoughts had while in the shower, this half-hour effort endured an eighteen-month gestation period.

Despite containing myriad Enter the Dragon-style fist fights, a purple oven glove, arched eyebrows, a mini-several of moustaches and much maniacal laughter, this sadly doesn't altogether come off. This is true for a number of reasons, chief among which is that many scenes extend well beyond the idea that inspired them, almost as if that by stringing them out the viewer will be convinced of their hilarity.

“... Laminut himself is an uneasy mix of hero and cad who talks nobly but takes no prisoners...”

It also smacks of sub-par Fry & Laurie. Ill-defined characters confuse and make it difficult to invest without some sense of the lore. For example, Prof. Laminut himself is an uneasy mix of hero and cad who talks nobly but takes no prisoners, preferring to kill than to incapacitate and hints at a madness more disturbing than that of his nemesis, Count Viper. Sidekick Googy is a criminally under-characterised bumbling Watson cliché. But then perhaps I am taking this too seriously.

The makers show no fear of wearing their influences on their sleeve here. While it is clear that much loving effort was required to get set pieces just right — a singular head-punch sequence apparently took eight hours to pull off — THE PURPLE FIEND can firmly be categorised under 'A Bit of Fun'. This is to be encouraged.

VARIOUS SHORTS

Dir. The Fabulous Poo Brothers

A man complains that his mother thinks his friends are liars and no good for him. His friend claims to be Jackie Chan. In part two, they argue about whether this is true. "I am Jackie Chan." Jackie Chan. Jackie Chan.

Regal Squatting — laugh-out-loud sketch show stuff.

This review was written for Take One magazine as part of Cambridge Film Festival 2011.