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.

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.

In the name of sanity, save the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse

Cambridge Arts PicturehouseI’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

Please sign the petition to indicate your support for a cinema that deserves to be protected, not sold off. And by all means write to the Competition Commission too.

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.

We Went To War Q&A with Rebekah Tolley

On Monday 20 May I hosted a Q&A with Rebekah Tolley, producer and co-author of new documentary We Went To War. Directed by the late Michael Grigsby, it’s a terrific film and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to raise its profile a little.

Here are some photos of the event (courtesy of Chris Boland), held at the ever-obliging Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. Thanks to all who came along and supported it.

My original interview with Rebekah for TAKE ONE

Photos: Chris Boland

Cineworld-Picturehouse vs. the Competition Commission

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.

Full article: Cineworld-Picturehouse vs. the Competition Commission |

The Angels’ Share and Ken Loach

The Angels' ShareOn Thursday night I was fortunate to be able to attend a Q&A session with director Ken Loach at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, which immediately followed a screening of his new film, The Angels’ Share. The film itself is a thoroughly enjoyable and occasionally gripping mixture of inner-city drama and whimsical heist caper about Robbie (Paul Brannigan), a young Glaswegian lad who narrowly avoids a prison sentence and becomes a father within the film’s first five minutes. Thanks to his social worker he discovers he has a keen whisky palate, and it’s a talent he puts to profitable use when the opportunity arises to steal an extremely rare cask of whisky, which is due to go up for auction in the next few days.

Loach seems quite at home (if that’s the right phrase) with the grim reality of living in a crime- and drug-ridden neighbourhood, and the difficulty anyone faces in trying to escape that world. The film doesn’t shy away from this: Robbie’s encounter with the victim of one of his violent outbursts is powerful stuff, making it clear the sort of person he is. But unusually for the director, the film takes a more upbeat path than expected, getting the audience on Robbie’s side and willing him to succeed in his elaborate scam, even though he’s breaking the law once again. Despite its comedy credentials – and it is very funny at times – Loach still views the film as a tragedy, even if this one did get away, as he puts it.

I admit here and now that I’ve not seen many of Loach’s film – something I intend to put right as soon as possible. But I am of course aware of who he is and how much his impressive body of work is valued both here in Britain and abroad. The Loach ‘brand’ (a phrase I am sure he would shudder at) is famous for stories and characters that are often variously described as ‘gritty’ and ‘social realist’ in nature – two phrases he declared he would like to see buried forever. His political views are worn very much on his film’s sleeves; they are not diatribes, but by focussing on those parts of society that are too often neglected or marginalised, it is clear they have an underlying message.

Loach was a fascinating speaker, and I count myself very luck to have heard him talk. For such a brave and forthright filmmaker, he is rather quiet and considered in person. His comments on the changes he’s seen during the course of his long career, in terms of both politics and cinema, were always interesting; whether it was lamenting the degree of micro-management that occurs in film production today, or the failure of politicians to tackle the rise in youth unemployment, which he sees as the cause of so many problems in society. The fact that politicians no longer campaign for full employment as they did in the 1960s seems to particularly disappoint him.

To have directors working in this country today who have seen nearly half a century of political and social change, and who still want to shine a light on people and communities who deserve a chance to turn their lives around, is a fact that should be celebrated. Loach brings with him a wealth of experience and intelligence which guarantees any new film of his will be worth a look, and you will almost certainly feel better for having seen it. We should treasure him for wanting to carry on shining a light through his films; let’s just hope he doesn’t have to put up with too much micro-management.