An open letter to The Rt Hon Dr Vince Cable MP

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.

Yours sincerely,

Gavin Midgley

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Cambridge Film Festival 2013 Round-up

Cambridge Film FestivalIt’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.

Press pass

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.

Machete Kills
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.

Hawking
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.

Cinematic heaven: watching the Alien trilogy on the big screen

As this is my first proper post, I’ll own up to my favourite film series: the Alien movies. Some films just make such an impact on you when you are surviving your formative years, that you can’t help but love them for the rest of your life. They are movies that you are intimately familiar with, that you can just sink in to each time you watch them. They do not breed over-familiarity; instead you notice something new about them each time, or they trigger a new thought or angle that you hadn’t considered before.

So it is with me and the Alien films. The first one I saw was James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which I watched on video one summer holiday. It was the time in my youth when sci-fi, horror and fantasy computer games, films and magazines were the coolest things; when girls were still to be feared, but also secretly worshipped; and when watching 18-rated movies was finally becoming possible. I managed to convince my mum to rent Aliens out for me, as my sister had promised to rent out the just-released Alien 3 for me to watch while babysitting my extremely young nephew. I hadn’t even seen Alien yet, but I had heard of the Alien films and was intrigued by them. After I watched Aliens I knew this was just the best film ever made. It was (and still is) a tour-de-force. Every single element of the film is unified in to a perfect whole, which, considering how many elements there are in making a film, is a miracle. The action, the atmosphere, the music, the special effects, the instantly quotable script, the sets, the designs, the monsters themselves, the performances – what could possibly have been done to improve it? Ok, the lead character was a woman, but Sigourney was no stupid Hollywood babe, she was cool and quite sexy in her own weird kind of way. It was brilliant science fiction. Aliens invited me in to an entirely credible universe that I became hooked on.

Alien trilogy all-nighter flyer

So it was with huge anticipation that I awaited Alien 3 (1992). Not being a movie geek quite yet back then, I had no idea what the story was for the sequel. But it’s safe to say that the almost instantaneous demise of Hicks, Newt and Bishop was not what I expected. Talk about gutted. I’m sure these feelings are pretty much what every fan of Aliens felt when first seeing Alien 3. It was like A3 robbed the ending of Aliens of all its power and meaning.

And yet… and yet, I still loved it. The astonishing production design, the camerawork, the bleak setting, the prisoners of dubious loyalties, the weird new Alien – it still felt true to the Alien universe. The ending especially so. And that’s still what I feel today. Also, just like Aliens, it scared the crap out of me.

So, where next? Back to the original of course. I had yet to see The One That Started It All. Now, this is my main regret in watching the films out of order – that the surprise had been taken out of who survived Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Of course, still being under 18, there was no way I was going to buy the video, if it was even available, and certainly renting was impossible (renting a 15 year old movie? Who ever heard of such a thing?). So it was that my first experience of Alien was on ITV one Saturday night, with my dad watching it too. The advert breaks didn’t spoil it for me: Scott’s movie could overcome any obstacle in it’s path. The thing that struck me at the time was that, even though I knew Ripley had to survive, and that the others almost certainly couldn’t, I was still rooting for them all. And the awesome sets and production design still looked cool. Like it’s sequel, it was a brilliant piece of science fiction.

Over the years, with repeated viewings, my opinions and critical tastes developed and changed. Aliens was the best one, easily. I increasingly disliked Alien 3. The first one was almost as good as Aliens. Then, Alien 3 wasn’t too bad actually. Later on Alien was the best one, with its greater emphasis on atmosphere and characterisation. Today, I still can’t pick between Alien and Aliens – they are both magnificent films, with different strengths. Alien 3 I still admire and support, although there’s no doubting its flaws. It brings the series to a logical and fitting ending in my view, while imprinting its own identity on the franchise.

Alien: Resurrection (1997) eventually came along, attempting to revive the story, when I was actually old enough to go to the cinema to see it. I enjoyed it then and enjoy it now, though there’s just a bit too much humour in it for my liking and its certainly the weakest of the series. Good story though (writer Joss Whedon recycled the concept to much greater effect with his short-lived but hugely enjoyable tv series Firefly). After several years they tried to take the series in a new direction with the spin-off Alien vs Predator (2004). There are of course many things wrong with this film, not least the fact that the Aliens aren’t remotely scary. It was nice to see Lance Henriksen back in the series however. Here’s hoping the forthcoming sequel Aliens vs Predator (2007) will salvage something from the wreckage.

My one great cinematic hope over the years was to be able to see the first three movies in a huge screen, preferably alone, or at least with an appreciative audience that similarly loved the movies. I saw the director’s cut of Alien in 2003, which was totally spoiled by two teenage twats in the back laughing and talking through it. I also saw an old print of Alien in a tiny screen in Cambridge, which was in distractingly poor condition.

Then… a miracle happened. My prayers were answered. Out of nowhere, the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge (Lord Bless them) announced they were screening an Alien trilogy all-nighter, from 11.30pm to 7am on a Saturday last June. In their biggest screen. 70mm prints, with THX sound. My brother noticed this first and pointed it out to me – my jaw dropped some several feet and I knew I had to be there, come hell or high water. I told him he had to come too, which he happily agreed to.

What can I say? To rediscover these films in such good condition, on such a big screen, was a revelation. The details in the picture, the atmosphere of the soundtracks. My only concern was not staying awake through the third picture – there was no way that Cameron’s adrenaline rush was going to let me fall asleep. And indeed by 6am, halfway through Alien 3, I could feel my eyelids start to droop. But I kept eating my trusty sweets, and kept refocusing, and made it through. It was pure cinematic heaven. Even the audience were well-behaved.

I love these movies – the epic stories, the action, the suspense, the tangible universe they created, the horror of the creatures themselves, the human characters who must face them, and Sigourney Weaver’s magnetic presence onscreen. I will always enjoy re-entering their universe. I only wish everyone could experience their favourite movies this way.