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Cult Screens - Oxford

Once again, this Summer Oxonians can enjoy 2k HD projection of cult and classic films at four location in Oxford: the Old Prison Exercise Yard, Hinksey Pool, the Pitt Rivers and the Castle Courtyard. Relax in bean bags with blankets, and enjoy drinks and popcorn!

July 30, 2015

Stand by Me, Oxford Castle Unlocked, Thursday 30th July 2015

If there is one film that benefits from being watched under the stars, it’s Stand By Me. What better way to be immersed in the journey of four adolescent boys hiking through American backwoods in search of a body? Alright, that last is creepy, but I certainly felt a kinship with the characters as they sat huddled around a campfire discussing things you’d only ever admit to contemplating as a child (like what animal is Goofy?).

Cult Screens have done a fantastic job of setting up at an outdoor venue that retains a sense of intimacy. The courtyard in which we were seated was sufficiently insulated by the surrounding castle buildings to shield from street-noise, yet the comfortable bean bags allowed a semi-reclined position with clear views of the screen and the moon behind it. Wool blankets are available for warmth, but I enjoyed the sense of homeliness in curling up under my own. Wireless headsets allow clear access to the soundtrack, and a well-stocked, if somewhat steeply-priced, cash-only bar provides hot and cold snacks as well as drinks. Nevertheless, the prices are comparable with any other cinema and there are plenty of eateries nearby for a meal beforehand. Note that food or drink purchased off-site may not be brought in so leave these at home.

Everything is arranged to provide a comfortable atmosphere with a sense of occasion you won’t get at an indoor venue. However, in spite of all that, there is one issue that left me very uncertain about returning. I was reminded of a phrase from Firefly: ‘There’s a special place in hell for child molesters and people who talk at the theatre…’ At any other venue pulling out your phone and spending the majority of a film holding it up whilst texting and taking pictures may well result in you being thrown out. Sadly, on this occasion, the organisers were more concerned about cinema-goers sneaking in their own food. This combined with people frequently getting up and obscuring the screen - eight times in thirty minutes at one stage - meant that it was difficult even to see the screen at times and certainly marred enjoyment of the film for those not seated in the front row. Given the cost of tickets and refreshments could easily set a couple back £50, I would seriously consider a different venue in order to guarantee simply being able to watch the film in question.

That said, the films being shown here are impressive, with a selection of recent hits as well as classics, of which Stand By Me is certainly one. A moving, at times gritty coming-of-age film, this movie is essentially a character study that captures effectively what it is like to be 12 years old and dealing with the stark reality of adult problems whilst on the cusp of maturity. Each child is confronted with his own unique circumstances that lead to a loss of innocence far greater than that caused by the grave spectacle of a dead peer. The combination of precocious acting, subtle but considered direction, and an understated but brilliant script leave you heavily invested in even the most pathetic of the four main characters.

Admittedly, there is a greater sense of pathos now, thirty years after its release, knowing what happened to each of those child actors – the premature death of River Phoenix being particularly tragic. However, you don’t need to be aware of its history to appreciate this film, any more than you need to be gifted with the relevant anatomy to appreciate the horror of a young boy discovering leeches in his underwear. And it’s impossible not to share a grim satisfaction as a weedy Will Wheaton faces off Kiefer Sutherland’s disturbingly well-crafted bully at the film’s climax.

There is a simple truth in the main character’s final declaration: ‘you never have friends like the friends you have when you’re twelve’. If you can’t remember that feeling, go watch this film – preferably under the stars; just make sure you’re in the front row.

June 21, 2015

Dirty Dancing, Oxford Castle Unlocked, Friday 19th June 2015

Clearly I won’t be reviewing the film. The film needs no reviewing. It is an 80s classic. A spectacle of sexy dancing, sexy romance and sexy old people who steal wallets. OK, scratch that last ‘sexy’. But the film is not up for review here – the film is awesome enough to be shown 28 years after its initial release, on a warm moonlit (if cloudy) night in the centre of Oxford. Patrick flipping Swayze is in it, so obviously it’s brilliant.

I am, however, going to review the event. It was organised by Cult Screens, who call themselves “the country’s most luxurious, comfortable and downright coolest open air cinema experience”. I would be inclined to agree, from this experience. We were welcomed like VIPs by the friendly staff, provided with headphones, and given a simple run-down of where everything was (bar, toilets – the important stuff) and after a brief search of our bags for contraband – no sneaking in of picnics and wines to this event, sadly – we were able to go and select our beanbags. We picked a lovely corner spot where we could snuggle up under a fleecy blanket and enjoy our drinks and popcorn (bought on-site, of course, and at rather marked up prices, as is the way of these things…) and people-watch before the film started.

I went to a similar event last week, at Warwick Castle, run by a different open-air cinema company. The major difference was that there were no bag checks and (as far as I am aware, at least) people were allowed to bring their own refreshments. I have to admit that I would prefer to take a bottle of wine and a tub of Ben and Jerry’s with me, rather than pay crazy prices, but that was the only downside to my experience at Oxford Castle.

The other difference was the weather – but no-one can control that. It absolutely poured down with rain at Warwick Castle, but on Friday night in Oxford it was just cloudy enough to provide a bit of warmth from the night sky, and just breezy enough to make use of the blankets I’d carried with me through town.

The beanbags were comfortable, the sound quality, through headphones, was good – apart from an occasional crackle – and the atmosphere was brilliant. The crowd were singing along, quoting the film and generally having a good time. I wouldn’t want to see a film I had never seen before at an event like this, but Dirty Dancing was perfect. There were whoops and cheers, and boos (that was just me, I think) and a group of girls were getting everyone up and dancing at the end. Or trying to at least.

The other event I went to had speakers, rather than headphones, but I definitely preferred the headphones. My friend and I both had one ear off, so that we could enjoy the crowd-ambience, and each other’s clever and hilarious comments and amazing singing, but at least with headphones you can block that nonsense out if you want to really concentrate on the film.

All in all a lovely evening – there are things that the organisers can’t control, such as the weather and the type of audience, but it was well-organised and jolly good fun!

June 20, 2015

Whiplash, Oxford Castle Unlocked, 17th June 2015

For their third year running, Cult Screens are back in Oxford, holding cinema screenings in outdoor venues around the city. Until September, they will be showing a range of classics and new favourites in places like the Old Prison Exercise Yard, the Castle Complex, the Pitt Rivers Museum and Hinksey Pool. With beanbags laid out on the floor, a personal headphone set and a nicely stocked bar, Cult Screens have certainly tapped into a novel and enjoyable way to watch films.

In spite of a little rain and some technical issues, the Castle Complex proved a pleasant spot to watch Whiplash, the story of the trials and tribulations in one’s boy’s path to jazz-drumming greatness. Unlike most who have seen this film, I have a hard time knowing what to say about it. If someone asked me whether they should go and see I would say, yes, definitely: the acting and the filming are brilliant, and you can’t miss the drumming sequences, they’re the tensest 20 minutes of cinema you will see this summer. But if someone asked me whether or not I liked the film I would have to say no, not really: the storyline was lacklustre, the characters two-dimensional and the script terrible.

In essence, this film is about the battle between one form of masculinity – violence, aggression and sadomasochism – vs another – arrogance and the idea that physical strength is the only strength that matters. Where most cinematic masculinity crises take place on the varsity sports field, Whiplash is set in a prestigious music college in New York and the macho relationship exists between a young drum student, Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), and his formidable teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K Simmons). There is one female character, but she’s totally pointless (no Bechdel points for this film). As Fletcher’s sadistic teaching methods are revealed, Andrew’s ambition grows, but what will be his path to success?

In most macho student/mentor sports films the jock will rebel against his coach and forge his own path. Many of the jazz greats might have done this too (if they had even got into Fletcher’s studio band in the first place). But in the end Andrew goes Fletcher’s way. Is this a twist on the common narrative or just an unsatisfactory conclusion? I’m tending towards the latter, although the incredible drum solo that ends the film will make you forget about the uninspiring plot altogether.

Go and see this film for Simmons’ acting (although it’s a shame his lines are so gimmicky) and for Teller’s impressive stab at the drums. Go see this film for some amazing camera work and some awesome jazz drumming scenes. But just don’t expect to care about the characters, or about the testosterone feud that ultimately comes to nothing.

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