The Gate Notting Hill – your friendly neighbourhood cinema

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I love the Gate cinema in Notting Hill http://www.picturehouses.co.uk/cinema/Gate_Picturehouse/. It’s welcoming and cosy, giving a sense of the personal to your visit, even when surrounded by strangers. This might have something to do with the layout. You start in a small foyer which, on a busy night, involves getting to know those strangers better than you’d expected. You then walk straight into the auditorium (there’s only one screen) which is always darkly lit and has chairs comfy enough to pass in your sitting room. A word of warning however: do choose seats further forward than you’d first think necessary. The screen is relatively small. There are double love seats at the back, but if you’ve actually come to see the film rather than smooch, you might want to forgo the romantic seating!

The building dates from 1861, but only opened as a cinema in 1911, with a knocking shop above and billiard hall below. The original domed roof and façade were damaged in WW2 and changed again when Notting Hill Gate was widened in the 1950s, but you can see the rather beautiful (restored) Edwardian plasterwork. Despite various refurbishments, this cinema isn’t especially disability friendly. There are no disabled toilets and the ones that exist are pretty tiny. I can only repeat second hand from Colin that in order to wash your hands in the gents, you have to step over the urinals which is a bit difficult if they’re in use at the time. Likewise, there’s limited disabled parking nearby. Despite all that, this is a great area for a night out and not too busy for central London – all the tourists come in the day and immediately turn right out of the tube station to head down Portobello Road.

We saw The Imitation Game, which fitted the retro surroundings well. I’d be happy to see most films at the Gate, but it’s not the place for big blockbusters or special effects. Not that you’ll find the next Marvel on its schedule anyway!

I’ll just finish with a mention to the Coronet which is just up the road from the Gate. If you know the area, you’ll be wondering why we’re not visiting here next. Another beautiful Victorian building, it’s being refurbished by its new owners, and should be reopened as a cinema later in 2015 http://www.the-print-room.org/cinema/

Combined scores:

How comfy were the seats? 7/10

How good were the snacks? 7/10

How nice were the staff? 8/10

How sticky were the floors? 5/10

How great was the ambience? 8/10

Average: 7/10

How much did we like the film? 9/10

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A quiet (Picture)house in Stratford

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Once you’ve fought your way through the crowd of train and tube users at Stratford (possibly the least well signposted station in London), arriving at the Stratford East Picturehouse is a pleasant and calming experience http://www.picturehouses.co.uk/cinema/Stratford_London An attractive, purpose built cinema next to the Theatre Royal, it was surprisingly quiet for a Saturday night. The magnetic pull of Westfield (and its multi-screen Vue cinema) might be to blame but, unless you’re desperate to combine your film watching with shopping, you’d be missing out. Tardis-like, the Picturehouse is much bigger on the inside, with a nice bar, decent food and drink selection and friendly staff. Local art displayed on the walls reminds you how nice it is not to be in a shopping mall. Comfortable seats, steeply tiered for the shorter amongst us, a good screen and an excellent film made for a good night out. Though (lady in her 30s alert!) why, oh why, do so many cinemas let themselves down with grotty toilets?

Grotty brings me round to the film, Nightcrawler, but in this context, it’s not meant as an insult. Actually, it was amazing to watch characters so repulsive and a story so unpleasant yet be so gripped and in awe of the performances. Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal’s twisted relationship (as TV news editor and sociopathic wannabe journalist respectively) makes 50 Shades of Grey pale in comparison. We know that this type of degraded journalism exists and that we buy into it via TV and the internet, and this leaves a sour, depressing taste in the mouth that keeps the film lingering long after the latest bonkbuster has been and gone. But films are always a matter of taste and, if Colin were writing this review, he’d be saying how boring this film was!

We did agree that Picturehouse membership was a pretty good deal at £30 top whack, discounts for the retired and students only £10 each. That gets you 3 free tickets, an 12 month discount on other films, money off food and drinks at Picturehouse and a range of restaurant chains, 3 months free online movies and, my personal favourite just for the name, money off membership to Shooting People, the network for independent film. Worthwhile if your local is a Picturehouse, although you might still feel hard done by if you read Patrick Collinson’s blog comparing the cost of going to the cinema around the world http://www.theguardian.com/money/blog/2014/nov/21/cinema-prices-big-hunger-games (central Londoners beware of the green eyed monster)!

Combined scores:

How comfy were the seats? 7/10

How good were the snacks? 8/10

How nice were the staff? 8/10

How sticky were the floors? 5/10

How great was the ambience? 7/10

Average: 7/10

How much did we like the film? 7/10

Across Canada Water – Odeon Surrey Quays

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We don’t tend to read up on a cinema before we visit, but if you do look at any online reviews of Odeon Surrey Quays, you’ll get a pretty fair picture of what to expect. Whilst we didn’t see any mice, the building was pretty dirty and unkempt: gaffer taped chairs and blocked toilets being particular lowlights. This was especially disappointing considering the discouragements we had gotten past in order to make it at all! Without a car, it’s pretty difficult to reach comfortably unless you live very close by. Even Google Maps doesn’t seem to know where it is, taking me on a circuitous route from the tube station, via the dreary Surrey Quays shopping centre. My mood wasn’t helped on arrival, as my sore feet had nowhere to rest in a foyer without any seating at all, save a couple of terrifying electric massage chairs. Room was taken up with a mini games arcade, as low on punters and the cinema, some standard pic n mix and a milkshake bar (which was at least a novelty with its chocolate bar flavour selections).

On the plus side, the staff were very friendly and the film was surprisingly good. Before I Go To Sleep is a suspenseful thriller based on SJ Watson’s novel and starring Nicole Kidman as an amnesiac whose recent memory is lost and reset every night. Trying to find her way through this situation with her was disconcerting and tense. Having not read the book, I for one was completely unable to guess which of the people around her was telling the truth, who to fear and what the final twist would be. A bit of a potboiler (although not half as daft as Gone Girl, which has a similar people-aren’t-what-they-seem premise and came out around the same time) Before I Go To Sleep is elevated by excellent performances from Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Anne Marie Duff.

Unfortunately the cinema itself and the general experience were pretty poor. Unless you live right next door, you’d be better off jumping in your car or on the bus and heading to the O2. We’ll let you know why next week…

Combined scores:

How comfy were the seats? 4/10

How good were the snacks? 7/10

How nice were the staff? 7/10

How sticky were the floors? 1/10

How great was the ambience? 4/10

Average: 4.6/10

How much did we like the film? 7/10

Rainclouds in Regent’s Park

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A small diversion took us to Regent’s Park and the Open Air Theatre at the start of September. With so many open air cinemas around London these days, we felt we had to try at least one. With so many to choose from, of course we managed to pick a day when the heaven’s opened and it felt more like November than 1 September! But in true British fashion, we stuck it out with raincoats, scarves, waterproof shoes and brollies to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s as the sun went down.

The Luna Cinema http://www.thelunacinema.com/ certainly puts on a good show. VIP tickets, photo competitions and live music to match the film would have added much to an already magical location had it not been for the terrible weather. The film was only slightly spoiled by people manically taking photos of Audrey Hepburn (why on earth would you want a grainy picture off a screen when you can get the same from a quick search online?) and I managed to get past the damp to enjoy watching an old favourite in the Park. Colin’s assessment summed up the evening however: ‘Holly Golighty? What a drip…’

Curzon independent…

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On a hot August day, we went to Green Park. But, squandering the sunshine, we ignored the grass and went to the famous Curzon Mayfair cinema instead. Needless to say, it was a quiet afternoon, but a pleasant experience nonetheless.

I was a little embarrassed to admit I had never been to the Curzon (http://www.curzoncinemas.com/cinemas/mayfair/). One of the UK’s oldest independent cinemas, it has long been considered a place to go for art-house film lovers and regularly features on recommended lists of things to do in London. Wonderfully preserved in all its 1960s glory (it first opened in 1934 but was rebuilt in 1966), the building is now Grade II listed. It has one large, 530 seat, 43×20 ft screen and one much smaller room. So small, in fact, I’d bet a few of the swankier Mayfair houses include comparable private screening rooms. But it was perfectly comfortable and suited to the kinds of films on offer. Bearing this in mind, our tickets felt rather pricey at £14.50 but, depending on age, day of the week and membership, you can visit the Curzon for as little as £4.25 or as much as £100 if you fancy sitting in the royal box!

We watched Mood Indigo, Michel Gondry’s latest. Surreal at best, unexpectedly boring at worst, the audience did not seem to enjoy it. Visually inventive and off the wall, the storyline and characterisation fell flat. Colin fell asleep, while another viewer said he wished he had as well, to save himself from watching the entire film.

It’s worth saying something more generally about the Curzon group in this blog. They have been caught up (out?) in recent campaigns for the living wage and an end to zero hours contracts http://rs21.org.uk/2014/05/10/behind-the-screens-an-interview-with-two-curzon-cinema-workers/ Although the Wingate family, who bought the cinema in 1940, are still shareholders, the company’s continued expansion is now funded by a new private shareholder, a British Virgin Islands investment company. (if you’re interested in who owns your local cinema, you might find an answer here: http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/cinema-chains/31378/who-owns-britain-s-cinema-chains).

Whatever the ownership, the Curzon’s growth strategy is particularly interesting. They are expanding the number of traditional cinemas they own (8 at the time of writing), but are also developing unusual franchise partnerships to reach new filmgoers. A new screen has opened in HMV Wimbledon, you can go along to a weekend screening at Pinewood Studios, or join a community arts centre screenings in Ivybridge, Crawley and Banchory. I might not rush back to Mayfair, but look forward to visiting another Curzon location soon.

Combined scores:

How comfy were the seats? 6/10

How good were the snacks? 8/10

How nice were the staff? 7/10

How sticky were the floors? 7/10

How great was the ambience? 8/10

Average: 2/10

How much did we like the film? 8/10

Swiss Cottage Surprise!

Today’s blog is a tale of the unexpected. It involves a cinema on a traffic island in an unprepossessing part of north-west London, a Tom Cruise blockbuster and a novelty pub. And a great evening out. Read on if you dare…

If you know Swiss Cottage and the Finchley Road, you’ll know it’s not the most beautiful part of town. It’s long been a mystery to me just how the Odeon – seemingly stuck in the middle of nowhere – survived. Or why anyone would choose to drink in the next door Ye Olde Swiss Cottage pub, aka ‘Ye Olde Piss Pottage’ according to Face Book’s location service. We’ll come back to that, but I can give you the answer about the Odeon straight off. It’s survived, because it’s great. Friendly staff greet you and help you find the best seats in the house. You can choose from a full range of traditional cinema snacks, or go upstairs to the wonderfully refurbished Art Deco Ambar for cocktails, hot food and the latest Wimbledon results. Then you settle in to comfy seats in the large IMAX theatre or one of the smaller 2D screening rooms. We chose Edge of Tomorrow and the IMAX. Not quite as immersive as the larger BFI screen experience, and seats could have done with being a bit steeper to avoid ‘back of head screen creep’, but still a thoroughly good time was had by all. Even the 80s/Tron-style Odeon intro raised a smile and made a nice change from the normal chain adverts.

Talking of things from the 80s that make me smile, the idea of seeing a Tom Cruise action flick doesn’t normally top my film going lists. But, having read quite a few good reviews, and loving Emily Blunt, in we went. The film provided the next surprise of the day, being actually really good. Decent acting from all concerned, an implausible sci-fi story plausibly handled and great action. It also raised a patriotic cheer – at long last, aliens have invaded and destroyed most of Europe rather than the States, and London not Washington is mission control. A dubious honour I grant you, but a fun novelty none the less. Heathrow as battle training ground also rang more than one bell for someone who regularly faces airport security. The film did suffer from some poor expository scenes, and the ending felt like a tiny cop out, but overall didn’t detract from £14.95 (+glasses) well spent. If you live nearby, or even within easy transport reach, head to Odeon Swiss Cottage for a good night out with touches out of the ordinary or the expected.

And Ye Olde Piss Pottage? Well, anyone with a sense of humour will appreciate a visit. It’s a Sam Smith’s pub, so it won’t break the bank, but don’t expect too much atmosphere. The area is named after a nineteenth century pub, but the current chalet style building only dates from 1960s. On the night we visited, it was randomly filled with tourists including a young American boy wearing a Tommy Cooper Fez. A comedy end to a fun night out.

For some more old and new photos, look here:
http://www.camdennewjournal.com/news/2011/sep/historic-odeon-swiss-cottage-cinema-comeback

Combined scores:

How comfy were the seats? 7.5/10

How good were the (cinema!) snacks? 8/10

How nice were the staff? 8/10

How sticky were the floors? 7/10

How great was the ambience? 7/10

Average: 7.5/10

How much did we like the film? 8/10

Tricycling in Kilburn

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One tube line down, 10 to go! Now we’ve done with the Hammersmith & City line, we’ve moved onto the Jubilee and, to our surprise, the first cinema on the list doesn’t appear till Kilburn. And what a cinema it is. None of your mass marketed chains for this part of North West London, instead we visited The Tricycle, an independent centre for theatre, film and community engagement with a strong focus on innovation and an international view http://www.tricycle.co.uk/ On the day we visited, the programme included creative workshops for young people, Olivier award-winning plays (Moira Buffini’s Handbagged), a couple of films on offer and some fantastic looking West Indian food served in the fully stocked bar/café. I would strongly recommend you check The Tricycle out even if you’re not local, as it has so much to offer and provides a diverse cultural viewpoint for our beautifully diverse capital city, showcased to perfection on Kilburn High Road.

The cinema itself has clearly been done up more recently than the rest of the centre and was comfy enough, although it felt a little like a lecture hall thanks to its layout. As The Tricycle holds regular Q&A’s with directors, actors and writers, this may be deliberate, but a bit more leg room and a central aisle would have made relaxing in front of a film slightly nicer. As mentioned, the café/bar offers good hot meal options and drinks in a pleasant space, giving the visitor the option of a good, albeit slightly pricey night out. Our tickets were only £9.50 each though, so things balanced out. If you’re looking for traditional cinema snacks the options are limited, but you might feel that home-made cakes and cold beer more than make up for the lack of giant M&Ms. A member of the Europa Cinemas Network http://www.europa-cinemas.org/en/Network/About-Europa-Cinemas I would come back to The Tricycle to see interesting films not on show in my local multiplex, but wouldn’t class it as a ‘destination’ venue in the same way as I might the theatre.

Everyone we met on this evening was lovely – from the genuinely friendly and helpful staff to our fellow film-goers. In particular the groups of older Irish ladies watching Jimmy’s Hall for whom the story was obviously close to home. Much less bleak than expected, the film really engaged the viewer with characters who could easily have felt uncomfortably one-dimensional within such a predictable story arc. This is a gentle film which doesn’t delve too harshly into the political divides which shaped Ireland in the 20th century, but stays focussed on individuals as ciphers for the clash of ideals taking shape in the 1930s. It left me wanting to know what happened in this small community next but that, obviously, is another story.

Combined scores:

How comfy were the seats? 5/10

How good were the (cinema!) snacks? 5/10

How nice were the staff? 9/10

How sticky were the floors? 6/10

How great was the ambience? 8/10

Average: 6.6/10

How much did we like the film? 7/10

Way out East – The Showcase, Barking

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Barking, the end of our first line and into a part of London Henri and I really didn’t know. I arrived early because it’s actually a lot easier and quicker to get to than I had thought. I soon discovered there wasn’t that much to do, unless you wanted to place a bet or buy something for a pound. I’m sure it’s a nice enough place to live, but it’s not somewhere I feel the need to go back to.

The Showcase cinema isn’t actually walking distance from the tube, you need to get Bus 366 from the opposite side of road just outside the station. It’s about 10mins and obvious when you are at the cinema. We then got bus 325 to East Ham for the way home, though it was a bit of a longer journey. I think you could also get there from Beckton DLR if that is easier. And for those really not aware of east London this was north of the Thames – at one stage we thought we had crossed it! http://www.showcasecinemas.co.uk/locations/newham

I recognise Showcase as chain from when I lived up north, though this is the only one in Greater London (there is one just outside the M25 at Bluewater, so maybe a special trip in the future). This one is located between various motorways, waterways and industrial estates south of Barking and is actually called Showcase Newham. Not much in the area, but ideal for those with a car as there are plenty of spaces. This is so so different from any one we have been to before simply by being focussed on suburban car owners. Fairly standard food options – having chips on sale might seem good but it meant that was all you could smell as soon as you entered the foyer. Much better is to go earlier to Moe’s American Diner for its booths, old American car outside and friendly service. Though I suspect Americans from the 1950’s might not really recognise it that much. Go on the second Saturday of the month and you’ll be there with the UK-American Car Association. There was also a Lithuanian restaurant and a Frankie and Benny’s.

The cinema itself is nice enough, and was fairly busy for a wet Wednesday evening. And with Orange Wednesdays we got out tickets for £8.95 which was good value, especially in comparison to cinemas we’ve visited further into central London. We had a bit of a kerfuffle about which show we’d actually booked, but once the manager got involved, everything was sorted out straightaway.

The unimpressive and dirty toilets, tired decor and pervading smell of chips really didn’t help the overall ambience. And the seats were oddly uncomfortable, some being higher than others, or prone to tip back unexpectedly. But we enjoyed simply being somewhere so different that was fairly easy to get to from central London. If you’ve got a car, combine it with a visit to Moe’s and it would be an OK way to spend an afternoon.

We watched Maleficent, which is a reimagining of the Sleeping Beauty story from the perspective of the ‘Bad’ Fairy. It reminded me a lot of the musical Wicked – if only in trying to remember how the new story lines agreed or disagreed with the traditional version of events. A few too many wooden performances and holes in the story line make this more a kid’s film than you might have expected, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Combined scores:

How comfy were the seats? 3/10

How good were the snacks? 4/10

How nice were the staff? 7/10

How sticky were the floors? 3/10

How great was the ambience? 4/10

Average: 4.2/10

How much did we like the film? 5.5/10

WHITECHAPEL: GENESIS CINEMA

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Going to see X-Men: Days of Future Past was a no-brainer for a comic-book geek like me. Going across the city on a (rainy) day the Hammersmith & City line tube was down to watch it in Whitechapel? Not so much. Luckily the Genesis cinema was interesting enough to make the trip worthwhile. The first true independent we’ve come across for our blog, this cinema on the Mile End Road has been run as a family business since the late 1990s. The oldest cinema in the East End, the building has gone through a number of refurbishments, but the site has been used for entertainment businesses since 1848.

http://www.genesiscinema.co.uk/about.php

The Genesis management are trying everything to get the punters in. As well as the main screen (distractingly small for such a massive space) and a smaller ‘luxury’ screen experience, there is an exhibition space for local artists, a pie shop and a cocktail bar showing football on the night we visited. Despite this, and there being no close competition, the place was quieter than I’d have expected for a Saturday night. I hope this was just an unusually slow day, but the slightly worn look of the cinema and toilets seems slightly ominous. Whether the increasing gentrification of the local area does it good or not, it would be a shame not to see such a unique film centre survive and flourish.

If you look online, don’t let the website fool you, it’s the worst we have seen so far but not representative of the actual cinema experience. The Genesis is a one-off and, for that alone in these chain-dominated days, deserves some support. It also offers a full night out at a reasonable price if you live locally, or for anyone willing to battle English spring weather and TFL to get there.

Now, I could write reams about X-Men before I sign off. I’ll try to keep it reasonably short so as not to lose your interest. Bringing Bryan Singer back was clearly a masterstroke, and giving him free reign to eliminate the storyline and memory of the execrable Last Stand (X-Men 3), an even better idea. The last scenes back at Xavier’s School resets most of the major character’s story arcs and leaves everything up for grabs in the scheduled third reboot. Whether that film sticks mainly with the younger iterations, I expect some ongoing discussions for spin offs involving the older generation (not just Wolverine or the mooted Magneto film). Sadly the complicated machinations of the time-shift structure and Singer’s returning preoccupations do not leave enough room for originality of story. I feel like I’ve seen the ‘mutants/super heroes/aliens-are-different-and-scare-the-stupid-humans-so-get attacked-and need-to-prove-they’re-actually-just-like-us-only-a-bit-better’ theme used so many times, it now feels tired and lazy. With such great characters, a brilliant cast and money coming out of their ears, the team behind X-Men should have come up with something more imaginative, more emotionally engaging. There was never any real jeopardy here, not even when Wolverine gets sent down to the depths, as Hugh Jackman has signed a 6 deal contract! Having said all that, I really enjoyed this film. Not a classic, but still some of the best fantasy characters around, played by some excellent actors. And Hugh Jackman in the buff never does a film any harm in my book.

 

Combined scores:

How good were the snacks? 8/10

How nice were the staff? 7/10

How sticky were the floors? 7/10

How great was the ambience? 9/10

Average: 7.4/10

How much did we like the film? 8/10
How comfy were the seats? 6/10

Barbican Barbican, where for art thou Barbican?

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The Barbican might be the largest performing arts centre in Europe, but it also has a three screen cinema that needed to be ticked off. As ever with the Barbican part of the visit is simply trying to find where on the whole complex you need to be. This really is a unique part of London, and somewhere I should go to more often.

The three screens are split over two parts of the site, so be sure you know which screen you are going to. We saw Godzilla in the screen 2/3 screen section, which is in the newer building. Screen 1 is much larger and in the main Barbican complex.

Overall this is a nice mix of functional and friendly. Getting greeted on entrance was pretty nice, though that is probably also because they simply need to have greeters for directions to all those who go to the wrong place. There’s a great foyer with a cafe and lots of people just hanging out with their laptops. A special word on the offerings in the cafe – a great selection of fresh buns and cakes, and pretty reasonably priced too. You need to hunt a bit for the toilets though, but once you find them they’re nice enough.

The cinema itself was nice enough, though 13.50 a ticket is at the pricier end of what we’ve had so far. Comfy red leather seats, and the more durable form of 3D glasses too. Not a massive screen, but it was a small theatre.

And Godzilla. Obviously there were amazing effects, and a familiar story. It was fun, and surprisingly gripping, but easily forgettable. I actually got really confused at one stage as to which monster was Godzilla and who was good and bad, so it probably helps to know the storyline before. And for those with strong views on female characters and high tech military equipment, be warned. This is all about men saving the world with 3rd rate US military equipment.

Afterwards I went for a drink in the Barbican gin bar – who make a great martini. Highly recommended.

So overall this is a great cinema venue, really unique. But to really take advantage of it I recommend getting there early to take in one of the exhibitions and trying out one of the bars or restaurants after.

Seats, 7. Nice enough, but nothing special.
Snacks, 8. They looked great, and tap water to help yourself to is always good.
Floor, 9.
Staff 8. Really friendly and helpful. But losing marks for a lack of good toilet signage
Ambiance 9. A cool venue, with lots going on and lots to do
Film 6 – good effects