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The Man Who Invented Christmas

This entertaining account of how Charles Dickens brought A Christmas Carol to life is as warming as a glass of mulled wine. A top-notch British cast make the familiar festive story go with a swing and Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Beauty and the Beast) plays ‘the Shakespeare of the novel’ with energetic charm.

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It’s a surprise to see Dickens portrayed as a dashing young man with matinee idol blue eyes, but in real life he didn’t always look like a stern Airedale terrier.  An early portrait shows a foppish dandy sporting a raffish cravat, and this is the look that Stevens goes for.  As the film starts, the author is caught up in the noisy adulation of his sensational 1842 American reading tour, and we are reminded that Dickens was the first literary rock star.

Back in London a year later, the comedown is sobering. Dickens has writer’s block. After three flops in a row his publishers need another bestseller. But he is haunted by ghosts of Christmas past: his father being arrested and carted off to debtor’s prison; the horrors of working at the age of 12 in Warrens Blacking factory. ‘Debt is an ogre,’ he tells his wife Kate, ‘if you’re not careful, it will eat you up.’ With a fifth child on the way (‘not another little stranger!’), the pressure is on.

Director Bharat Nalluri shows Dickens wrestling with his own dark side as he accumulates the material that will become A Christmas Carol. The author’s prodigious energy is what has made him great, but it also makes him difficult to live with.  ‘Slow down, Charles,’ his sensible best friend John Forster (the excellent Justin Edwards) tells him, ‘you move at railway speed.’

What makes The Man Who Invented Christmas worth watching are the nicely-judged performances from old-timers such as Christopher Plummer (Scrooge), Jonathan Pryce (Dickens’ dad) and Donald Sumpter (Jacob Marley), as well as relative newcomers Stevens and Edwards. In the fictional world of Dickens’ grotesques and larger-than-life characters, they are remarkably understated. As Mrs. Fisk, the usually reliably Dickensian Miriam Margolyes is strangely muted.

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This ‘film within a film’ requires a delicate balancing act and, to his credit, Nalluri swerves both the excesses of heritage or realist adaptations. The screenplay is adapted from the 2007 book by Les Standiford, a specialist in historical narrative non-fiction.  The Man Who Invented Christmas sometimes feels a bit small screen but the film is admirably old-fashioned in its charm and, except for one London vista, avoids CGI altogether, which means that we concentrate on the human drama. When visual delights come our way, they are those produced by magic lantern, Punch and Judy show, or Pollock’s Theatre.

Did Dickens really invent Christmas? Before the publication of A Christmas Carol Christmas as we know it today was a ‘minor holiday’, one which his publishers doubted many people celebrated anymore, forcing Dickens to self-publish his classic story. There certainly wasn’t a market for Christmas books before 1843, and the film shows the Dickens household taking delivery of their first Tannenbaum tree, as made fashionable by Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert.

Perhaps the greatest impact A Christmas Carol had was on donations to charity, which soared after it was published. ‘In the season of hope,’ wrote its author, ‘we will shut out nothing from our firesides, and everyone will be welcome.’

Volunteering at Wandlebury Country Park

Last week a group of us from ProQuest used one of our Volunteer Days to help the rangers with conservation tasks at nearby Wandlebury Country Park. We have been coming here for a few years now and it is always a welcome change from the workaday grind of computer screens and meeting rooms. Fresh air and exercise! Getting back to nature! Getting bitten by annoying gnats …

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This time we joined members of the public in removing unwanted ash and sycamore trees. Some of these showed signs of the dreaded ash dieback disease (blackened buds); others had been planted too close to one another, blocking the light and preventing more biodiversity at ground level.

We also did a bit of coppicing of hazel and lime trees. According to the noticeboard, “Coppicing is a type of woodland management practised in Britain for centuries, and is a sustainable way of harvesting wood without harming the tree. By cutting close to the base of the tree, leaving ‘stools’, it will encourage regeneration and sprout a number of fast-growing shoots.”

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The increased light created by coppicing aids the growth of new flora, which attracts insects and birds. To illustrate this, ranger Andy asked us to listen. Silence. No birdsong or birdcalls. He explained that this habitat offered no cover for smaller birds, who were easy prey for the native sparrowhawks. The only bird sounds we heard all day were the high-pitched ‘sss, sss, sss’ of a flock of long-tailed tits.

And the only wildlife we saw were clouds of gnats, brought out by the mild November weather. Getting bitten on the eyelid got Andy onto the subject of insect bites. Horsefly bites were bad, he conceded, but the worst were the burrowing and parasitic bot files that made cows buck with pain.

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Visits to Wandlebury are always educational when the rangers are on hand. We were shown a ‘bonsai’ beech tree that was 80 years old. We learned that female sparrowhawks are bolder than their male counterparts, that thrushes mimic other birdcalls and car alarms, and that tractors are computerised nowadays. Ranger Ed said the old days were more fun, when you tied rope around the steering wheel and jumped off and on again.

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[Photos by Heather Daniels and Nick Walker]

The Florida Project

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Set amidst the garish motels and soulless concrete of out-of-town Orlando, The Florida Project dramatises the contrast between the Disney childhood dream and the harsh reality of living on the breadline. With its natural acting and gritty realism, the film casts its own spell, finding magic in the mundane and humour in its characters and landscape.

Six-year old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) lives with mum Halley (Bria Vinaite) in the Magic Castle, a motel near Disney World painted the colour of Palma Violets sweets. Mostly left to her own devices over the summer holidays, she runs wild with her friends, getting up to fun and mischief in the ‘playground’ of their own neighbourhood.

Filmed using hand-held cameras The Florida Project has a documentary feel to it and writer-director Sean Baker coaxes marvellously unselfconscious performances from his cast. Moonee is allowed to be herself: fun-loving, funny and fearless. She charms strangers into giving her money for ice-creams (‘the doctor says we have asthma, so we have to have ice cream’) and takes new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) on a guided tour of their ‘purple palace’ home, introducing neighbours (‘that woman’s married to Jesus’) and explaining that ‘no one uses the elevator cause it smells of pee’.

Moonee has a loving relationship with her mum, one that seems more like that of sisters. But Halley is more teenager then responsible adult – she is rebellious, bolshy and rude – and some of this rubs off on Moonee, who is encouraged to flip the finger to the frequent police helicopters that mark the area out as a crime hotspot. As the film goes on Halley’s struggle to make ends meet becomes more dark and desperate, as does her behaviour.

Landlord Bobby (Willem Defoe) is the moral centre of this world, a good man trying to look after his people. He acts as a surrogate Dad to the kids, keeping an eye on them and trying to fix any problems that arise. But can he fix Halley?

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From a child’s eye view this Florida is a weird and wonderful theme park landscape, full of gaudy murals and monstrous plastic creations – Orange World and the wizard in a hat gift shop. The kids love their ice creams and Barbie dolls but they are far from spoilt. They also appreciate nature whenever it shows them its magic – a rainbow, a rain shower or a picnic under a beautiful old tree.

Baker juxtaposes a sign for a shop called Machine Gun America with the incongruous appearance of a flock of cranes outside the motel. There is always hope, he seems to be saying: nature finds a way. Tenderly, and with exaggerated courtesy, Bobby escorts the birds off the premises.

For a film that shows us childhood under threat from poverty and poor parenting, we worry how The Florida Project will end. Sean Baker succeeds in pulling a rabbit out of the hat, wrong-footing the audience with a finale that takes the breath away. Filmed on an iPhone, as was the whole of his debut feature, Tangerine, this sequence will surely come to be acclaimed as one of cinema’s great endings.

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The Wages of Fear (1953)

(original title: Le Salaire de la Peur)

As seen at Cambridge Film Festival 2017 in a newly-restored version.

This extraordinary French suspense drama will shock and startle a modern audience expecting vintage black and white cosiness. Its characters are nihilistic and politically-incorrect. They throw rocks at tethered dogs, talk about ‘boffing a black’ and swear a lot (‘putain’ and ‘merde’). The Wages of Fear starts like an existentialist Western and recalls the opening scene of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Instead of scorpions, the camera lingers on cockroaches, harnessed together by thread – the playthings of a  naked boy, who pokes them with a stick.

We are in a crossroads shanty town of an unnamed South American country, with a motley crew of ‘tramps’ sitting around at the bar, wilting in the heat. It feels like a long way from Casablanca. There is no noble cause to fight here, only the struggle for work in this strange place where the American Sourthern Oil Company is king.

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So when the men are offered a job, four of them (including the pairing of Yves Montand and Charles Vanal) jump at the chance to earn $2,000. They have to drive two trucks of nitroglycerin along a 300 mile mountain pass to the site of an oil refinery fire so that the oil company can then blow up the pipeline and put out the blaze. But the mission is highly dangerous: their cargo is unstable and sensitive, liable to blow the drivers into minced morsels unless they are exceedingly careful.

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Writer-director Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) throws an assortment of obstacles in their way – rock falls, a river of oil, rickety bridges and hairpin bends, keeping the audience on tenterhooks. Being stuck with each other only fuels the characters’ distrust and dislike of one another, rather than foster team spirit. There is a tender scene in which Montand tries to keep a dying Vanal awake, naming the streets and shops of Paris where he grew up, but even this is undercut by nihilism: ‘what was behind the fence?’ puzzles Montand. ‘Nothing,’ replies Vanal. Then he dies.

An excellent craftsman, Clouzot was an acknowledged master of suspense, a sort of French Hitchcock, but unlike the latter, totally lacking in humour. He was a meticulous worker, planning every film shot long before production actually began. He also had a reputation as a tyrant on the set, often working his actors and technicians to the point of exhaustion until he got what he considered perfect results.

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The Wages of Fear was critically hailed upon its original release and is is unique in that it won both the Golden Bear and the Palme d’Or. It was also a hit with the public. Leslie Halliwell wrote in his Filmgoers Companion: the film “showed that France could make a big commercial thriller as well as anybody, and very nearly forced acceptance of continental movies in British cinemas: it was given a full circuit release, sub-titles and all, but not enough others in a similar category came along to make foreign films a habit, and dubbing finally won the day.”

In 1982, Pauline Kael called The Wages of Fear “an existential thriller—the most original and shocking French melodrama of the 50s. … When you can be blown up at any moment only a fool believes that character determines fate. … If this isn’t a parable of man’s position in the modern world, it’s at least an illustration of it. … The violence … is used to force a vision of human existence.”

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Cambridge Film Festival 2017 – preview

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The 37th Cambridge Film Festival is taking place between the 19th and 26th of October, promising a feast of over 150 films and events, including premieres, actor and filmmaker Q&As, exciting curated strands, and Virtual Reality screenings.

Founded 40 years ago, the Festival began life at the intimate old Arts Cinema in Market Passage, its home for 20 years, and was relaunched – following a short break – at the current Arts Picturehouse in 2001. As Festival Director Tony Jones points out, Festival screenings may now be the only opportunity to see many of the low-budget or foreign language films sourced by the Cambridge team.

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The digital revolution may have been ‘a boon for the big commercial releases, enabling cinemas to concurrently play what appear to be the most bankable titles’, but it is ‘squeezing out more adventurous or challenging fare.’ Jones laments that ‘while new cinemas may open with large-scale funding or community-based resources, there are still few models of truly independent programming’. All the more reason to celebrate and support the ‘intimate and approachable’ Cambridge Film Festival.

The opening night film is the hotly anticipated drama Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. It captures the unlikely-to-be repeated moment in sporting history where ex- tennis champ Bobby Riggs challenged the legendary Billie Jean King to a tennis match to prove who was better at tennis – men or women.

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Other must-see films which are showing in advance of their general release are: hilarious, unique and often surreal The Square which arrives fresh from its Palme d’Or win; Colin Farrell in the chilling The Killing of a Sacred Deer; Paddy Considine’s Journeyman, the much anticipated follow-up to Tyrannosaur (which was premiered at a previous Cambridge Film Festival); the emotionally and visually powerful drama A Fantastic Woman; The Florida Project, Sean Baker’s follow-up to his iPhone sensation Tangerine.

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Fascinating new documentaries include 78/52, which analyses the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the ‘Man Behind the Curtain’, and the screen murder that profoundly changed the course of world cinema. 78/52 references the number of set-ups (78) and the number of cuts (52) in the still-terrifying scene. One entire week out of the four weeks scheduled to shoot Psycho – a full quarter of the film’s production schedule – was dedicated to the infamous shower scene.

Regular Restorations and Rediscoveries strand includes silent films with live music, such as new prints of Casanova (1927), Shiraz (1928) and The Woman That Men Yearn For (1929), featuring Marlene Dietrich’s first real starring role, alongside black and white classics such as noir melodrama Mildred Pierce (1945) and sardonic thriller The Wages of Fear (1953).

This year, in collaboration with the Festival of Ideas, the CFF team has programmed India Unboxed. From classics by the old masters of Indian cinema through to the best contemporary documentaries, this series is a great introduction to the film of India – beyond Bollywood! New Catalan cinema, Korean cinema, Short Fusion and an expanded microcinema programme (Archive and Memory) continue, along with the Family Film Festival, which includes free films and national treasure Neil Brand, with his piano-tastic Comedy for Kids and Adults, playing along to, and illuminating, silent classics featuring the likes of Laurel & Hardy.

New for 2017 will be a bespoke Virtual Reality strand, showcasing four extraordinary works which stretch the creative boundaries of this emerging medium. These will take place in a special ‘screening’ room located in Emmanuel College, limited to five participants per session.

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The closing night film is the critically acclaimed, powerful noir, You Were Never Really Here by British director Lynne Ramsay. It features a stand out performance from Joaquin Phoenix as a Gulf-war veteran and former FBI agent turned killer-for-hire, specialising in saving victims from child sex rings. There is also an evocative soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

You can see a special retrospective of Lynne Ramsay films, including Tilda Swinton’s award winning performance in We Need To Talk About Kevin and Samantha Morton in Morvern Callar.

The Cambridge Film Festival is operated by the charitable Cambridge Film Trust and backed by the BFI’s Film Festival Fund which awards National Lottery funding to UK film festivals, giving audiences the opportunity to see a broader range of British and international films.

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For more information on Cambridge Film Festival 2017 see http://www.cambridgefilmfestival.org.uk/

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is a feast for the eyes and ears, a worthy sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction classic. The film has many echoes of the original but creates its own sombre style and atmosphere, one more in tune with our troubled times. The acid rain is still hammering down on the city skyscrapers, but the neon adverts have lost their lustre.

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Thirty years on, the world of Blade Runner has changed. Before the action starts, onscreen paragraphs inform us that while bio-engineering has advanced, the world’s ecosystems ‘collapsed in the 2020s’, so the film’s predominant colour is grey. From the air, a patchwork quilt of grey and white factories might look like fields, but the ‘blackout’ has wiped out trees and flowers, so that wood is now a rare commodity.

Blade Runner 2049 taps into current anxieties about technological progress, about losing our jobs to robots and losing our souls to the digital screen. Its bio-engineered replicants sometimes speak of human feelings, experiencing a miracle, or having a real (rather than implanted) memory. As sci-fi author Philip K. Dick asked in the splendidly titled novel on which the world and characters of Blade Runner are based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) starts the film with a close-up of an eye, the window to the soul, and his main character spends much of the action puzzling over whether or not he is ‘special’. K (Ryan Gosling) is a newer model of replicant who seems more human than his colleagues in the LA Police Department. With his preternaturally cool manner, Gosling is magnetic. His eyes are not the glassy eyes of a synthetic human: they most definitely have soul.

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K is a blade runner, whose job is hunting down and ‘retiring’ older model replicants who have gone rogue. After one such mission he finds a buried box with what appear to be human bones inside. Forensic analysis reveals they are of a female replicant who died during childbirth. How was this possible?

His police boss (Robin Wright) orders him to destroy all evidence and to find and ‘retire’ the child. She believes the knowledge that replicants are able to reproduce is dangerous – it could ‘break the world’. When K ponders ‘to be born means you have a soul’, he is told: ‘you’ve been getting on fine without one’.

K’s investigations take him to the headquarters of cloudy-eyed replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his kickass enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), and eventually to fellow blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford) in radioactive Las Vegas.

Despite its running time of two and three-quarter hours, Blade Runner 2049 never sags. If the complicated plot is occasionally baffling, our senses are always diverted and often overwhelmed. Fans of the original will have fun comparing and contrasting what has changed in the last 30 years. The urban hologram adverts have got bigger and more naked, but this is recognisably the same world, albeit less dayglo and fun.

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The streets now boast ‘instant fix’ touch screens and you can buy a virtual wife. K comes home to Joi (Ana de Armas), who cooks for him, calls him ‘baby sweet’ and lights his cigarette by pointing at it.

But amidst all the techno wizardry and future thrills it is perhaps the simple, natural and reassuring images that delight us most: snowflakes melting on the palm of a hand, burning red embers dancing into the sky; raindrops chasing one another on a windscreen.

Mother!

With its disturbing finale and surreal plot, the psychological horror film Mother! has polarised cinema-goers and critics, receiving both boos and a standing ovation during its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Is it an ‘ambitious, dense, delirious, playful and serious work of capital A art’, or ‘the most vile and contemptible motion picture ever released by one of the major Hollywood studios’?

If you like horror films such as Rosemary’s Baby, fiendish plot twists and Jennifer Lawrence, then you will find much to admire here. The hand-held camera is literally in her face: it follows her around her dream house until we are acquainted with every mole on her skin, and feel dizzy with claustrophobia. And if you enjoy Feydeau farces or surrealist films such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, you will enjoy the blackly-funny escalation of guests, violence and domestic chaos. But make sure to avoid it like the plague if you are pregnant.

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Writer-Director Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! starts like a dark fantasy: a woman’s bloody face, wreathed in flames; a man putting a large crystal into a holder on a plinth, where it begin to glow with gold veins; a burnt-out house is transformed back into its former glory; in one of its bedrooms a woman (Lawrence) wakes up and calls for her husband – ‘baby?’

The characters in Mother! go un-named, perhaps to mark them out as archetypes in a fable. The film’s cast-list calls Jennifer Lawrence’s character ‘Mother’ and her husband (Javier Bardem) ‘Him’. She is lovingly restoring their old rural colonial mansion, while he, an apparently famous poet, attempts to write his next masterpiece.

When a stranger (Ed Harris) knocks at their door he is welcomed in by the poet, glad to be distracted from his writer’s block. Mother, though, is bothered and bewildered by this intrusion. She takes umbrage over the stranger’s attempts to smoke in the house and is annoyed by her husband when he invites the man to stay.

Next day the man’s waspish wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) breezes into the house, upsetting Mother with her rudeness. Upon learning that they do not yet have any children, she advises ‘why not finish breakfast and get to it’. They go down into the creepy cellar, with its industrial-sized washing machine, where Pfeiffer derides Mother’s choice of underwear (big white pants), leaving her holding a pair of her own lime green lacey ones.

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More strangers appear and Mother’s dream of domestic bliss turns into a nightmare, just as she becomes pregnant. Affronted and squeamish, Lawrence’s face does a good job of registering our own disturbance and disgust, as bizarre and violent events begin to accumulate, leading to a harrowing, though technically stupendous finale, which brings us cleverly back to the beginning.

By the end, we feel as though we have been put through the wringer, and gone a few rounds inside that industrial-sized washing machine.

Mother! can be seen as a satire on domesticity, or the impossibility of finding a peaceful room of one’s own amidst the hectic intrusions of modern life. The house becomes an extension of Mother’s psychological and physical disturbance, with its throbbing, womb-like walls, bleeding floorboards and erupting toilet. There is no score, so everyday sounds are accentuated: a copper kettle sings, a fly buzzes, and, as Mother feels the stress we hear a high-pitched ringing, like a migraine taking hold.

Aronofsky’s film could also be viewed as a fantastical depiction of the processes of artistic birth and creation for both director and poet – the gory mess of life transformed and crystallized into Art. Something out of nothing.