So as you may have gathered, things have been pretty quiet around here lately. That’s because I’ve taken some time out to adjust to becoming a parent for the first time (yay!). Fantastic though that is, it’s left very little time to spend writing about films. I hope to pick things up again over the coming months, but it may take a while. I’ve not disappeared completely – you can still follow me on Twitter – but the pace will be rather more leisurely, I suspect. Thanks for stopping by, and hopefully I’ll have some new stuff for you in the not too distant future.
Dear Dr Cable,
I am writing to you as a concerned Huntingdon constituent with regard to the recent decision by the Competition Commission to enforce the sale of one of Cambridge’s cinemas owned by the Cineworld chain: either its main multiplex or the Arts Picturehouse, which it acquired when Cineworld purchased the owners of the Picturehouse group, City Screen Ltd, last year.
No decision has yet been taken by Cineworld as to which cinema it will divest, but the likelihood is that the Picturehouse will be the one sold off, given its smaller profit margins and (thanks to its central location) higher running costs. In Aberdeen and Bury St Edmunds, the other two cities that have been forced to sell either a Cineworld or Picturehouse cinema, Cineworld have already chosen the Picturehouse as the one to be sold. It is therefore urgent that the case be made for reviewing the Competition Commission’s final decision, which I and many other cinema-goers believe to be fundamentally flawed (the well-publicised petition to save the three Picturehouses was signed by over 14,000 people – http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/competition-commission-stop-the-enforced-sale-of-three-picturehouse-cinemas).
Though Cambridge is outside Huntingdon’s constituency boundaries, the potential sale of the Arts Picturehouse will be keenly felt by those of us who live across the region. Huntingdon has a Cineworld multiplex of its own, but there is no nearby alternative to the Picturehouse. Contrary to the Commission’s ill-informed findings, the Arts Picturehouse offers a distinctly different programme and experience from major multiplexes like Cineworld or Odeon.
For cinema-goers keen to look beyond standard Hollywood blockbuster fare to more artistically daring films from Britain or abroad, or just any film that isn’t backed by a gargantuan marketing campaign, the Arts Picturehouse represents the only local venue to find such content. Rising cinema talent need opportunities to have their films shown to the public, and cinemas like the Arts Picturehouse are often the only outlet willing to take that chance. Likewise, films with more limited appeal, such as that from overseas or the BFI’s archives, would struggle to find an audience without the backing of a substantial group of cinemas that have the expertise and savvy to invest in them.
The Picturehouse chain makes use of a diverse programme of films, some of which do admittedly overlap with Cineworld, to run a profitable business. But the Commission have failed to take in to account the fact that far less profitable films are only shown at Picturehouse cinemas, many of which might never have otherwise been screened. Indeed, cinema-goers would have to travel to London to see the kind of films shown at the Arts Picturehouse if it were to be replaced by a standard multiplex.
The type of films physically capable of being shown at the Arts Picturehouse also distinguishes it from the Cineworld. The ability to project 70mm films is now limited to a tiny number of cinemas across the UK, and Cambridgeshire should be proud that we have one such venue. There is no guarantee the technical setup would be retained under new management.
The Picturehouse experience is very different from a customer perspective too. The atmosphere and surroundings are much more appealing to an older audience than that of a Cineworld: less brash, more inviting and relaxed. The bar is excellent and the staff are always friendly and helpful. Alcoholic drinks purchased at the bar can be taken in to screens. Special screenings, for over-60s or parents with babies for example, cater for groups often excluded from the usual cinema experience. Local cultural events are often promoted inside, and there are active links with local businesses.
The Arts Picturehouse also provides support for local ventures such as the Cambridge Film Trust, which runs the annual Cambridge Film Festival – one of the highlights of the region’s cultural calendar – and the Cambridgeshire Film Consortium, which runs educational activities related to film. There is no provision for these activities being safeguarded or continued in the event of the Arts Picturehouse being sold off.
The film industry itself has rallied support for the affected cinemas. Letters from Lord Puttnam and Amanda Nevill, Chief Executive of the BFI, to the Competition Commission attest to the damage that the sale of the Picturehouse cinemas will do to their respective localities. The BFI in particular single out the Arts Picturehouse as
“an exemplary regional ‘arthouse’ cinema. It is host to a well respected annual film festival, carries out strong educational work and is one of a handful of venues in the UK with the facility to show 70mm film.”
It is clear to me that the Arts Picturehouse is a pillar of the region’s cultural and economic activities. Without it, the city of Cambridge and the surrounding area will be materially worse off. I would urge you in your capacity as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to determine what action can be taken to overturn or review the Commission’s findings, with a view to finding a way forward that doesn’t compromise the quality of life for Cambridgeshire’s residents or risk one of the area’s major cultural providers.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I look forward to reading your response.
It’s astonishingly late, but at last here’s a round-up of my reviews for TAKE ONE from this year’s Cambridge Film Festival. There was, as ever, a fine selection of films and special guests; when there are several movies you want to see all being shown at exactly the same time, then you know it’s going well. Two of the reviews below are actually of my favourite films in the whole line-up: the re-release of NOTHING BUT A MAN and the Middle Eastern western MY SWEET PEPPER LAND, and I was chuffed to be able to introduce the latter. Neil Brand’s two appearances – brilliantly accompanying the restored print of NOSFERATU and his NOT SO SILENT MOVIES family show – were also a highlight. The bar was always humming with activity and chatter, and the staff and volunteers were incredibly helpful and friendly (not always easy when the inevitable last minute hiccups pop up). Not even the stinking cold I caught at the midway point could keep me away.
A pity then, that the excitement and atmosphere was somewhat dampened by the unsettling prospect of a death sentence being handed to the Arts Picturehouse by the Competition Commission, in its inexplicable bid to wreck one of Cambridge’s cultural pillars. We’ve yet to learn which of its cinemas Cineworld will sell in Cambridge, but the signs aren’t promising: the Picturehouses in both Bury St Edmunds and Aberdeen have already been given their marching orders, and Cineworld don’t appear to be interested in appealing the Commission’s decision. So what becomes of the Festival next year is anybody’s guess.
However, that didn’t stop Tony Jones and his seemingly tireless team from putting on a great show. All sort of new discoveries, old faithful friends and other intriguing oddities were given the big screen treatment. If this does prove to be the last festival in its current form, then at least it bowed out with grace and pride intact. Well done to all.
So here are my reviews:
My Sweet Pepper Land
A satisfying blend of Middle Eastern drama and spaghetti western homage, MY SWEET PEPPER LAND is a flavoursome brew to savour. Director Hiner Saleem (himself a Kurd) has created, in some ways, a rather old-fashioned drama which frequently raises the expectation of violence in one form or another, but mostly backs away from the bloody retribution normally associated with the genre. The result is a film where tensions remain bottled and passions are kept in check, with the outcome feeling slightly unsatisfying as a consequence.
My Beautiful Country
A new spin on the old biblical story of The Good Samaritan, MY BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY delicately explores a tentative romance between a young Serbian widow and a wounded Albanian soldier against the backdrop of the 1999 Kosovo War. Whilst there may not be anything dramtically fresh or new in Michaela Kezele’s film, it does wield plenty of emotional heft in its focus on a forbidden romance and the unforeseen consequences of helping someone who has suddenly become the enemy. It also attempts to raise awareness (none too subtly) of the use of depleted uranium ammunition by NATO in the conflict, through a sub-plot centred on children’s wartime experiences.
Danny Trejo’s indestructible federale returns in this amusing if nonsensical sequel to the original 2010 grindhouse-inspired parody. Changing tack from the down-and-dirty revenge movies that drove the earlier plot, the inspiration this time around is late 70s/early 80s action films; and director Robert Rodriguez takes his cue from Roger Moore’s Bond era, when gadgets and fantastical action came to the fore. This entry is basically Rodriguez reconfiguring his family SPY KIDS movies for adults, adding lashings of violence and saucy humour to the mix.
Nothing But A Man
A low key yet unwaveringly honest assessment of racism in the American South during the mid-Sixties, NOTHING BUT A MAN is an unfairly neglected gem that fully deserves its forthcoming BFI re-release. Directed by Michael Roemer – a man with barely a handful of credits to his name – its poignant tale centres on black railroad worker Duff (Ivan Dixon), an easygoing free spirit who tries to improve himself by settling down with schoolteacher Josie (Abbey Lincoln) and working in a ‘normal’ job. He slowly discovers that little has changed while he’s been away; the local white population still call the shots, and anyone who acts above their station is quickly and comprehensively shut out of the community.
Google and the World Brain
Just how much intellectual property should be placed in the hands of a single entity? And who exactly should profit from it? It’s a moral dilemma that Ben Lewis’ compelling documentary attempts to pick apart through an investigation of Google’s digital books project. Inevitably it fails to explore the issue in as much depth as the subject truly deserves, but given the importance of the debate, Lewis should be applauded for getting it this far into the public eye. After all, the decisions being made now about how far one company can go in publishing any book it chooses may have far-reaching consequences for us all.
What better way to open this year’s Cambridge Film Festival than with an exploration of one of its most famous residents? HAWKING is an intimate look at the life of the renowned physicist. Switching between his current hectic schedule of lectures and media appearances, and pottering through a history of his life to date, the film gives a polished overview of its remarkable subject and his defining achievements.
I’ve been tweeting like mad the past few days about the campaign to save the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse from sale or closure. This monumentally stupid predicament has been forced upon it by the UK Competition Commission who, in a fit of extreme diligence, have decided that having two cinemas with differing aims and audiences but owned by the same business in the same city is a social evil that must be prevented at all costs.
In fact, in their provisional findings, the Commission have recommended that either the Picturehouse or the Cineworld in Cambridge must be disposed of by parent company Cineworld Plc. Given that the Picturehouse, with its more adventurous programming and smaller number of screens, is surely the less profitable, it would seem likely that it is the one in imminent danger of eviction, which would be a huge loss to Cambridge as a city, not just its loyal customer base.
A coalition of local writers and cinema-goers have urged the Commission to think again. In a press release, we have set out the reasons why their findings are fundamentally flawed:
- The Picturehouse and Cineworld cinemas have strikingly different programmes and settings, making them very different propositions with only minor audience overlap (which was the reason cited by Cineworld for purchasing the Picturehouse chain in the first place)
- The Cambridge Arts Picturehouse is home to an array of in-house skills and screen technology (like the much-valued ability to run 70mm screenings), the likes of which are almost impossible to access outside of London
- The Arts Picturehouse hosts renowned events like the Cambridge Film Festival, is the base for long-term community projects like the Cambridge Film Consortium, and stages other cultural events such as exhibitions, school activities and film education
- There are many audience members who, if deprived of the quieter ambience of the Picturehouses under threat, would simply stop going to the cinema altogether – this is especially true of older audience members
- Local independent competition still exists in the form of the VUE cinema in Cambridge’s The Grafton shopping centre
- The social atmosphere engendered at all three Picturehouses under threat, from the welcoming and knowledgeable staff to the variety of food and drink available in the bar, is one that would irrevocably disappear under new management
Thanks for reading. You can find further coverage on TAKE ONE, the official organ (as they used to say) of the Cambridge Film Festival, which may well find itself homeless this time next year as a result, and The Movie Evangelist, who has done sterling work in breaking down the report and revealing it to be useless bilge.
We can only hope that common sense prevails. Whichever cinema it loses, Cambridge will be worse off. Consumers are the only losers here. Let’s make the Commission see that.
On TAKE ONE’s website, I argue the case for why Cineworld’s buyout of the Picturehouse chain might be a good thing:
Now that Cineworld’s purchase of the Picturehouse chain has been referred to the Competition Commission by the Office of Fair Trading, we all have an opportunity to have our say on an issue with the potential to affect filmgoers up and down the country. Initial fears from Picturehouse customers (us among them) that their cinema-going experience was about to be compromised, or worse, removed altogether in a round of “cost-savings” and “streamlining”, have so far proved to be unfounded. It has been, as promised, business as usual. Assurances from Cineworld that Picturehouse Cinemas would be run as an entirely separate business unit under their corporate umbrella, and that their independence would be maintained, appear to be true, though admittedly it is still early days.
It’s now only a few days until the 32nd Cambridge Film Festival kicks off. From Thursday 13th September I will once again be hanging around the screens and bar at the Arts Picturehouse where most of the action takes place, as is my wont (though there’s a fair few screenings in other locations around the city too, like Emmanuel College and the Buddhist Centre). For me and many others, it becomes a second home.
Last year I was a general festival volunteer, but this time I’m on the editorial team of Take One, the official festival review. So I’ve been busy planning which films I want to see (all twelve films in the Hitchcock strand for starters) and which I’ll be reviewing, as well as helping out with the general editorial preparation. I’ll specifically be overseeing the daily edition of the magazine, which may only be a two-sider but will still be enough to fulfil my childhood ambition of becoming a newspaper editor. I can only hope there will be an opportunity to bark “Stop the press!” at someone.
So if you don’t see much from me on this blog during the next two weeks, it will be because I am busily occupied with writing or editing film reviews. I urge you to visit the Take One site between 13-23 September, as we aim to cover every single film screened. I’ll try and post updates here too as and when I can, but do stay in touch on Twitter for regular festival chatter.
Ridley Scott’s sci-fi blockbuster (which it now most certainly is) seems to have really divided audiences. There are those who are willing to look past its faults and enjoy it, and those who aren’t and don’t (as far as I’m aware, it has yet to be hailed as flawless). I’ve already reviewed Prometheus at length (over at The Digital Fix), but I’ve now seen it a second time, so for what they’re worth here’s a few additional thoughts which occur to me.
Firstly, I stand by my original view that this is a beautifully crafted and entirely gripping slice of science-fiction. There’s no need to restate the obvious by praising its visuals – Scott is an artist above all else, and even the film’s detractors concede it looks the business. Its willingness to think big and not pander to the lowest common denominator makes Prometheus the most cinematically rewarding sci-fi vision this century has produced thus far.
The two-hour running time for me simply flew by. Indeed, if anything the film is too short. There were several moments where I wished Scott had lingered a little longer, especially in the run-up to the landing on the planet/moon. Remember how unwelcoming that original planet was in Alien? How that ominous mood was gradually built up? This is a film that needs to breathe a little more slowly and a little more deeply, to let the atmosphere really envelop you. I suspect it would be all the more satisfying for it.
Equally some of the characters could have benefited from being fleshed out more. It’s the one area the film genuinely falls down on, which is a shame because Alien is a text-book example of how to sketch memorable characters in a genre film. I liked Idris Elba’s Captain Janek, for example, but without adequate screen time he remained little more than ‘the guy with the accordion’. A script polish could have made all the difference – where’s Dan O’Bannon when you need him?
As for those alleged plot-holes, I didn’t have any significant problems with the narrative. On a second viewing I think the film flows more smoothly, and nagging details about character motivations became less bothersome (although they don’t recede entirely). As for things like ‘Why didn’t Vickers run away to the side of the crashing ship?’ (SPOILER), it seemed to me that she WAS running away to the side, albeit at an angle; the sheer size of the Engineers’ ship doesn’t make it clear how futile her actions were.
This is all just idle fan nit-picking, of course. I suspect Scott is an astute businessman and recognised the need for a tight theatrical cut that came in as close as possible to two hours. But I also suspect a longer version of the film is done and dusted and waiting to be shipped on dvd and blu-ray. I can’t wait to see it, and I’m willing to bet that it will come to be seen as the definitive version of the film, just as the special edition of James Cameron’s Aliens is now viewed as the superior cut of that movie.
Incidentally, you’d be forgiven for thinking early on that Prometheus is actually a remake of Paul W.S. Anderson’s unloved 2004 spin-off Alien vs Predator, which similarly posited the notion that the Xenomorphs had connections with Earth’s long distant past, and that a man called Weyland had known of their existence long before his eponymous company sent Ripley and her crew to investigate planet LV-426. In fact, the AvP films are not only ignored by Prometheus but are cut loose from the franchise altogether (which one suspects won’t be the cause of too many shed tears).
Oh, and if/when the sequel is eventually announced, what are the odds it’s going to be called Prometheus Unbound? You can have that one for free, Sir Ridders.
So, Prometheus then. I know I’m not the only person eagerly anticipating Sir Ridley Scott’s latest project. As we all know by now, it’s set within the Alien universe before the events of his classic sci-fi horror, though to what extent it serves as a direct prequel remains to be seen. It’s in 3D (which saddens me a little). It stars Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba and Guy Pearce. Fassbender’s character is an android. And it has something to do with the origins of the mysterious ‘Space Jockey’ corpse briefly seen in the first film.
That’s about as much as I know, and I’m desperately trying to keep it that way. Occasionally a film comes along that you really, REALLY don’t want spoiled for you. That you want to unfold afresh before your eyes, letting the story take you to its conclusion with no knowledge of the journey to come. To allow the surprises to catch you unawares. In short: to really, truly, honestly experience it.
It’s a tricky thing in the age of the internet though. Scripts are reviewed online before they are even greenlit. Spoilers abound everywhere. Images are sneaked and spread through social media. Trailers are available across hundreds, if not thousands of websites. Even the trailers themselves now have trailers.
To ignore all of this about a film you are desperate to see requires a significant amount of willpower. In fact, it requires you to embark on some sort of hermit mission by inhabiting a kind of digital cave, only occasionally venturing out to see what’s new in the weird and wonderful land of civilization. Needless to say, I haven’t been completely successful. New images from the film crop up on sites like Facebook unbidden and I am forced to click hastily away, mentally renewing my sworn oath of spoiler chastity.
Mercifully, the release date for Prometheus is slowly ticking round and within a matter of weeks I will be privy at last to its mythical contents. Until then, please don’t tell me anything about the film, otherwise I might be forced to kill you, and then eat you. Just in case, you understand.
So Michael Bay has signed on to direct Transformers 4. For the love of God, this has to stop.
Those of you familiar with my older blog stuff will know that I was, and still am, quite a big fan of The Transformers. It was the all-consuming passion of my childhood: I bought the toys, watched the cartoons, collected the Marvel comics. For fans, the prospect of a live-action movie adaptation was an outlandish pipe dream, doomed never to see the light of day after the 1980s craze for the Robots in Disguise inevitably burnt itself out.
Then a funny thing happened: Hollywood went and made one. With the big studios increasingly turning to established properties and brand names in their search for bankable hits, and with special effects technology having matured to the point where it was both technically and economically viable, it was only a matter of time before Optimus Prime and company conquered the multiplex, having already succeeded on so many other media platforms. Even better, Steven Spielberg himself signed on to executive produce. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, in two words: Michael Bay. Actually, to be fair, I did enjoy the first movie. No, it wasn’t the epic experience I had been dreaming about for twenty years, but it captured something of the spirit of the early comics and cartoons, and certainly had plenty of action and spectacle to dazzle the eyeballs. Crucially, it also had a human dimension on which to hang the tale of warring robots – a necessary entry point for newcomers as well as old timers like myself. As Spielberg himself pitched it, it was the story of a boy and his car. You could quibble about the casting, the changes to established Transformers mythology, or the flimsy plot, but to me it was a satisfying experience; and there was plenty of scope for future installments to build upon its foundations whilst delving deeper in to the franchise’s rich history.
That’s the frustrating thing about being a TF fan. Too often they are dismissed as a cheap toy series for kids whose convoluted backstory is childish nonsense and whose carcass has provided rich pickings for Hollywood. Sorry, but this just isn’t true. It was the UK Marvel comics (populated by a talented and enthusiastic bunch of artists and writers, led by the brilliant Simon Furman) that treated these characters with real respect and developed a series of gripping, intriguing, and thought-provoking stories told on an epic scale which fired the imagination.
Bringing together a variety of different genres – not just adventure and science fiction, but also fantasy, horror, comedy, even noir – the best of these tales were real page-turners for boys (and maybe girls too) of a certain age. There was even politics on offer. One long-running storyline concerned the prolonged absence of an elected Autobot leader following the death of Optimus Prime and the potential candidates in the running to take over. I like to think this was a political commentary on the state of the Conservative Party at the time (the aggressive Grimlock/Michael Heseltine (delete as appropriate) vies for the post as soon as it is vacant, without a great deal of internal support).
Incredible as it may sound, these robotic characters were vividly brought to life with distinctive personalities and relationships. Of course there were a few duds, as with any comic (usually they were the imported American strips…), but there was a genuine consistency in its quality of output. So good was his standard of storytelling that Furman was put in charge of the US Marvel TF comic, and he’s been writing TF comic scripts on and off ever since.
I know that these characters are interesting and I’ve seen great stories told with them. So it was sad to see what Michael Bay did with his first sequel, Revenge of the Fallen. The plot had tantalising possibilities as it indeed reached back in to its own version of Transformers lore, but the least satisfying parts of the first film were this time promoted to the front line: the tedious humour was made longer and even less funny, the characters became sillier, the action noisier and more confusing. It became clear that Bay had no real interest in the Transformers themselves beyond grabbing them like a five-year old and smashing them together for the sake of instant gratification. All he saw was cool action scenes involving giant robots. Hey, we all want cool action scenes with giant robots; of course we do. But we also want strong characters and a good story – things that seem to elude him, or he is content to ignore.
The third film, Dark of the Moon, promised to fix the problems in the second and return the series to the tone of the first, with even more impressive action. We got the impressive action, but everything else about the threequel was a dismal failure. The worst entry in the series yet, it was a loud, obnoxious bore, content to deafen us with ever larger scenes of mass destruction, intermittently broken up with ogling shots of the new female lead. It left a nasty taste in the mouth, and the closing scenes confirmed that Bay now appeared to view the Transformers with utter contempt. Unfortunately, it was also staggeringly successful at the box office.
Now comes news that the director has signed on for part four. This means two things: that enough truckloads of cash were dumped on Bay’s front porch to make him sign on the dotted line, and we’ll be getting more of Bay’s own “interpretation” of The Transformers. Which is nothing short of a disaster. PR guff about how the next film will deliver “a whole new re-imagining of Transformers” do little to assuage one’s fears, despite the fact that he has apparently been developing an idea with Spielberg in recent months.
Spielberg’s diminishing influence on the series is all too apparent; a shame, as it is probably only he who could take the series away from Bay and place it in the hands of someone with a greater understanding of the franchise’s potential. The best thing they could do is start from scratch: hire a director who appreciates the material, leaf through some of the classic comics and adapt one of the great stories (like Target: 2006 for example, or Wanted: Galvatron – Dead or Alive). My dearest wish is to see Death’s Head on the big screen – but not if Michael Bay is calling the shots.