Cult Screens Outdoor Cinema 2017

Luxury outdoor cinema experience in Oxford Castle Prison Yard and Oxford Museum of Natural History. Classic films, with a glass of bubbly, as the stars come out.
Cult Screens Outdoor Cinema 2017

August 29, 2017
Peril and Prosecco at the Pitt Rivers

Only in Oxford? This time, Cult Screens got it right, presenting a lumbering, snarling film about biological anachronisms in the grounds of the Pitt Rivers, hosts of the UK's largest archaeological collection and a pair of sizeable dinosaur skeletons. What else could we have had? A Ray Harryhausen classic, perhaps; The Land Before Time; Bringing up Baby would be my personal favourite, and Night at the Museum might've been too close to home. Yet Cult Screens draws a crowd, and that crowd must be pleased - thus Spielberg's blockbusting 1993 sci-fi is our entertainment for a temperate August evening.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, in all its splendour

Firstly, the building is magnificent. And the opportunity to wander around indoors free from the school holiday bustle is irresistible. Next, there's a selection of food and drink, and though the queues eventually look punishing, we soon have our cinematic accompaniment of pop, popcorn and prosecco. A host of bean-bags (which encourage an almost horizontal viewing position) and deckchairs are laid out across the lawn, and several of the audience have brought their own camping chairs. Merriment is abroad in the atmosphere - being so at the mercy of the elements, it could've gone so wrong, but in the end, we find ourselves under a blanket of stars.

Chips to be cashed in for wine and popcorn

After a nicely judged funk-house-rock mix and plenty of time to find consumables and a seat, there's not much of a fanfare before our titles roll. It's a fine digital projection, showing every scale, every bit of glinting saliva and every inch of Jeff Goldblum's needlessly naked chest, and unlike some other Cult Screens events, we're without headphones. Fortunately, the sound is impressive - that it can transmit hushed dialogue as well as orchestral explosions of terror, and do so without shaking foundations of nearby buildings, is notable.

As fun as the feature is and as unique the experience, Cult Screens maybe doesn't target cinema purists. A new film or an arthouse gem isn't ideally served in this environment - despite the name, a cult film wouldn't fare as well here as one in which we all know the twists, can chuckle at the meme-worthy moments, and take a second to study the starry canopy above us. So all bound up in this atmosphere is some heckling (comedy screams from the audience when a T-Rex appears), traffic (up to twenty crew trucks zoomed by us, having finished their day's work on Mamma Mia 2) and technical wobbles (the digital projection froze midway, leaving us with a grinning family tableau of Laura Dern, Sam Neill and a baby 'raptor popping out of an egg).

Before the cult crowds assembled

The animatronic effects stand up really well 24 years on, as do some pulse-quickening set pieces, the positioning of Richard Attenborough's DNA-splicing tycoon as a Wizard of Oz figure, and Goldblum's freestyle diction. But despite being populated by (supposedly) all-female dinosaurs, this is basically an alpha-dude specimen of the B-movie, with some nastiness in the scenes of sweet children in peril, and a moment when a cameraperson forgets to show us the scenery while ogling Dern. A trip to dictionary corner, then: the term 'dinosaur' means 'terrible lizard', and as we are shown the beasts in all their tame and voracious variety, it reminds us that 'terrible' until recently meant something that inspires both dread and awe. Don't be taken in by my grouchy tone - there's awe in the spectacle yet.

May 26, 2017
'Moonlight' by Moonlight

Cult Screens is a company offering outdoor, pop up screenings of films in pretty locations around the UK, some of which are in Oxford. I went along to (finally) see Moonlight.

The film is shown in the beautiful surroundings of the old exercise yard at Oxford Castle, and you get a choice of deckchairs or beanbags. Tickets include a drink and some popcorn, and there's a bar for more. Seating is not assigned so it's best to get there as soon as the doors open, and hunker down for some drinks. This does lead to a LONG wait but they'll let you get a takeaway pizza, so it's perfectly doable.

There are a few niggles with the basic setup. Firstly, the film started a good 25 minutes late, apparently because they were waiting for it to get dark enough. This is a bit ridiculous - sunset is not like rain, it is a predictable event. You could only rent a blanket in advance, with a beanbag seat. This seemed like an odd little meanness from a company that will give you a free glass of Prosecco on arrival. The screen itself is much smaller than you'd expect - from the back row, barely bigger than a normal telly.

Sound is provided by silent-disco style headphones. These have the advantage that you can have the volume how you want it, but the disadvantage that you are very much watching the film in your own cocoon. They are not noise cancelling, so the noise of local bars, and even a passerby having a normal conversation, is fairly audible - this would have been far less annoying with a different film choice.

Moonlight is, of course, a beautiful and moving film, left tantalisingly open-ended. It was not necessarily the right choice for this event. The colour palette is too dark to render well in dusky light, and the mood is too quiet and thoughtful. Also, people are watching it for perhaps the second time at most. This set up seems like it would have been far more suited for the millionth rewatch of a brightly coloured popcorn classic - they are showing Pretty Woman on Saturday and Jurassic Park in August, both of which sound like a much better fit. Moonlight feels like it needs the attention of a cinema. The fantastic acting and delicate heartbreak of it did come through though, particularly towards the end.

The positives of the night are that it makes a much more fun film watching experience - more of an event. I got in some properly nice chats with strangers, which rarely happens at the Odeon. Watching the stars come out is kind of magical, and the venue is gorgeous. The staff are extremely friendly and efficient, and the concept is fun and unusual - while it's a gimmick, it's a nice one, and it's the kind of thing I can imagine booking as an early-relationship date.

While I wouldn't recommend the more serious films in this series because of the sound and audio issues, I would recommend checking out the site and seeing if they're showing one of your old favourites. Do you think you'd have fun dressing up and watching Moulin Rouge, snuggled up under a blanket with some of your best mates? Do you want to rewatch Jurassic Park with your brother, but drunk? This might be the perfect event for you. Bring your own blanket.

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