Category: Reviews

Film Review: A United Kingdom

Harry Casey-Woodward, movie connoisseur, reviews last year’s romantic drama on race and politics in 1940s Botswana.

A United Kingdom, 2016, cert 12, dir Amma Asante, 3/5

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When the caption ‘based on a true story’ appears onscreen at the start of a movie, I can’t help but feel a mild form of dread. At their worse, some of these films demand to be taken seriously while simplifying historical events and real people into ‘goodies vs baddies’ situations. While this true-story movie is also somewhat guilty, I was pleasantly surprised by its quality which is nearly worthy of the events it depicts.

The film opens in 1940s London, where we meet Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana who is studying while awaiting the time to return home and be king. He is played passionately by David Oyelowo, who also gave a great performance in Disney’s 2016 chess underdog story Queen of Katwe.

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He meets Ruth Williams, a young white London woman played by Rosamund Pike. They fall in love and even decide to marry, regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately these consequences turn out to be huge.

They meet opposition from everyone, not just from casual racists in the street but Ruth’s father even disowns her. The situation worsens when Prince Khama brings Ruth to Botswana to be his queen. For marrying a white woman and defying tradition, his uncle tries to undermine his right to the throne.

The British government in charge of Botswana exploit this division to seize further control of the country and its possible resources of diamonds. They even go so far as to have Khama exiled, separating him from Ruth. Even when apart, the pair struggle on to unite Botswana and be re-united with each other.

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This romantic drama may have a lot of clichés you may recognise. For example, despite this being a complex political situation the goodies and baddies are clearly defined. Jack Davenport (Admiral Norrington from Pirates of the Caribbean) and Tom Felton (aka Draco Malfoy) are typecast as the slimy villainous bureaucrats representing British imperialist politics and thwarting the main characters’ romance. There are also times where the film feels a bit overly positive. Rosamund Pike somehow wins over the hearts of the Botswana people and overcomes their prejudices just by being… nice.

However, the film is still a strong comment on racism in the twentieth century. Two people of different colour marry and political turmoil ensues. It also helps that the performances are good. The romance of the leads feels powerful and believable thanks to their incredible acting. Oyelowo reduces himself to tears in one scene when he’s giving a speech to his people on his right to rule. The intense political conflict also makes this more gripping than other milder historic dramas. To be fair, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this cry for love and unity in the face of state-sanctioned prejudice.

5 Best Films of 2016

Hobbyist reviewer Harry Casey-Woodward takes a look back over last year’s films and lists his five personal favourites.

5. Deadpool, cert 15, dir Tim Miller 

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There’s nothing deep about this film, but it’s such a refreshing stab (pun intended) against the conventional superhero image. Ryan Reynolds has great fun as the spandex-clad, mercenary joker in this hilarious cocktail of adult humour, pop-culture references and darkly comic violence.

4. Bone Tomahawk, cert 18, dir S. Craig Zahler

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Besides The Witch, this is perhaps the most original horror released in the UK this year. Not only is it a good horror, it’s a good western too. Kurt Russell plays an ageing sheriff leading a small band against a tribe of cannibals who kidnapped their fellow townspeople. There’s some brutal gore but this film thankfully focuses more on the characters, their drama and the building suspense.

3. Julieta, cert 15, dir Pedro Almodovar

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Spanish director Almodovar does it again with this emotional, feminine drama worthy of his previous classics like All About My Mother. A middle-aged woman living in Madrid is troubled by her tragic past and her relationship with her estranged daughter. With such striking quirks as two actresses playing the main character, this is powerful and imaginative cinema.

2. The Revenant, cert 15, dir Alejandro G. Innaritu

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This Oscar-winning historical epic is a brutal but beautiful survival story set in the early days of the American frontier. Leonardo Di Caprio won Best Actor for his gruelling performance of a fur trapper left for dead after a bear attack, but who stubbornly drags himself through the wilderness after his nemesis, Tom Hardy. This great story is not only well acted but well shot, with unusually long tracking shots giving you a thrilling and unique cinematic experience.

1. The Hateful Eight, cert 18, dir Quentin Tarantino

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Tarantino reminds us that sometimes to make a great film, you can just strand some violent, well-armed characters in one cabin and let mayhem ensue. Tarantino defies genre conventions and predictability yet again in this snowbound western. It may test your patience at three hours long, but I enjoy it’s simplicity. It’s proof you can capture an audience’s attention not just with action and special effects but with dialogue, suspense and great actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Film Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

Hobbyist reviewer Harry Casey-Woodward reviews a cool kid’s movie, the magical epic of Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings, 2016, cert PG, dir Travis Knight, 3/5

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The best kid’s films have some basis in the oldest stories. See Disney’s biggest successes for example. So what with a lot of the classic fairy tales having been filmed (or re-filmed in the case of Disney’s recent remakes), it’s always exciting when a new family film comes along based on something that isn’t princesses and palaces.

Enter Kubo and the Two Strings, a dazzling mix of stop motion and computer animation with a story set once upon a time in Japan. I don’t know which parts of the story are based on actual Japanese folklore and which are made up, but the movie has a rather authentic mythic feel even when it’s served with dollops of Disney-style, family-friendly goo.

Kubo is a boy with a rather emo fringe that hides his missing eye. This eye was stolen from him by his grandfather and the film opens with Kubo and his mother fleeing their wicked relatives during a storm. Cut forward a few years and Kubo lives with his mother in a cave just outside of town.

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Kubo spends his time in the town below, entertaining people with violent samurai stories and acting them out with his enchanted origami. He brings the paper to life by playing a two-stringed, guitar-like instrument that is the source of his powers. So he’s having fun, until one day he accidentally stays out too late and his witch-like aunts wearing creepy masks come chasing him. His mother saves him by enchanting his robe to grow wings and carry him away.

He finds himself stuck with a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) who tells him the only way he can be safe is to seek the three powerful objects he told stories about: a sword, a breastplate and a helmet. Kubo finds himself on the quest of his dreams, but it doesn’t come without challenges. However with the help of his origami, his monkey and a new samurai friend cursed into a half-beetle creature (Matthew McConaughy), he gives it a go.

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So as you can see, the plot has some quirky ideas. Who doesn’t love a story of a young boy going on an epic quest with talking animals, fighting monsters with cool weapons in rather impressive action scenes? For kids it’s going to feel like one big video game. It has its soft side too, with a stress on the importance of family and friendship in the face of hardship, that sort of thing.

There are some funny moments too, often at the expense of the monkey which is a slight shame because she’s an awesome character. The beetle samurai reminded me of Kronk from Emperor’s New Groove, which will be good for people who like loveable idiots. The animation isn’t sloppy either and may be the best thing to see this movie for. Slick, colourful and genuinely beautiful in places, this is a feast for the eyes. If you can adjust to Japanese characters speaking in American accents, you should enjoy it.

Music Review: Seasick Steve at Wembley

Casual music lover Harry Casey-Woodward was lucky enough to see bearded bluesman Seasick Steve playing in our merry capital at Wembley Stadium…

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Apart from Elvis, there is perhaps no other musician who embodies the American dream than Seasick Steve. In particular, he embodies the mythical spirit of American freedom, that gets lost on highways and hitches on trains. In October, this big-bearded icon graced our shores with a one-off show.

After fruitlessly circling the wrong Wembley arena, me and my companion found the right venue. We were introduced by Steve himself on a giant screen to his support act, a two-man band named Black Dog Revelation. They sounded like a gnarly Black Keys with slow snarling songs powered by thunderous drums.

After they rocked the house, we were treated to a video of Steve driving up to the venue in a tractor before he walked on stage to deafening applause. He started off with some politics, voicing his disapproval of Trump before opening his set with a hushed Dylanesque solo song.

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Steve and his small handful of musicians then proceeded to turn the cavernous venue into a warm, cosy atmosphere. Steve was as relaxed as if he was playing in your front room. The lighting helped too. The stage was backlit by simple but pleasant fairy lights, draped as if over a tree. The most striking lighting was used when Steve played solo songs like ‘Treasures’. One spotlight would light him up in the middle of the dark venue, making him look dramatically humble.

Humble is something Steve is very good at. More than once, he asked for the spotlights to sweep his cheering audience and appeared constantly stunned at their adoration. He came close to tears when he expressed gratitude for his slot on the Jools Holland show that got him exposure.

He was also good at being kickass during his louder songs like ‘Thunderbird’. He and his giant bearded drummer lost themselves in colossal solos as they thrashed their instruments, even the homemade ones Steve expressed fondness for like his Diddley Bo.

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His most stunning performance was when he pulled a random woman from the crowd and played her a tender rendition of ‘Walkin’ Man’. The lucky lass looked as if she would melt from tearful gratitude.

Other ladies who joined Steve onstage included a singing guitarist from Glasgow who played a cover of a Steve song she had already done on YouTube, which Steve had admired. There was also a gifted filly on the fiddle and a talented square dancer who could tap along to Steve’s songs with her shoes.

The gig ended with Steve being given a cake, showing us a picture of his tractor and playing ‘Dog House Boogie’, which took a while to finish since he forced his drummer to repeat faster and faster endings.

So despite drunken calls of ‘Steeeeeeve-oooooh’ and one or two fights (one of which broke out in front of our seats) the gig was an evening of musical magic and thrilling musicianship. It was also a pleasure to be in the company of such a character like Seasick Steve.

Images from bluesmagazine.nl.

Film Review: The Girl on the Train

Casual film viewer Harry Casey-Woodward investigates the psychological thriller of The Girl on the Train, based on the bestselling novel.

The Girl on the Train, 2016, cert 15, dir Tate Taylor, 2/5

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Naturally a lot is expected of a cinematic adaptation of a popular book, especially when it’s released so hot on the heels of said book. There is the assumption that just because the book was a success, the film will be just as good. Unfortunately this is not often the case.

Before I talk about one of this year’s most hyped book adaptations, The Girl on the Train, I better admit that I have yet to read the novel by Paula Hawkins, so this isn’t going to be one of those reviews where I list point by point what the film gets wrong. Nevertheless there is one fact I learnt about the film that bothered me.

I was informed that the story has been transferred from the UK to Manhattan. Not only do I feel it a bit much to adapt a bestseller a year after publication, but it also feels like extra cashing-in for DreamWorks to Americanize the story for bigger US audiences. There’s no denying however that its dark story is gripping.

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Emily Blunt plays Rachel, the woman who likes to ride on trains. We gradually learn some unpleasant facts about her life, such as her alcoholism and her obsession with her ex-husband (Justin Theroux), his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson) and baby. One night their young neighbour Megan (Haley Bennett) goes missing and Rachel is terrified that she was somehow involved, but can’t remember due to a drink-induced blackout.

The film’s strongest feature is Emily Blunt, who gives a convincing portrayal of a woman on the constant verge of emotional and mental breakdown. This doesn’t mean she acts so mental that we don’t feel sorry for her, but when she does fly off the handle she’s genuinely scary. She is also a fascinating protagonist since we can never trust her view of the plot, for she has no firm grip on reality or even her memories.

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The remaining cast’s performances are also good, but they are too good-looking to be believable as ordinary people. This is where the Americanization of the plot rears its ugly head. I feel if the film had been made in the UK, it would have felt much grittier. Instead it has this slick sheen of beautiful actors and glamorous sets that makes it feel like an episode of some glossy US drama.

In fact the whole film, despite its fine performances and dark, occasionally moving story, feels like a formulaic thriller, which would be fine if there hadn’t been so much hype. As it is it feels underwhelming, a familiar helping of suburban strife and domestic depression. It’s a maze of twists, flashbacks and awkward sex scenes that tries to be some menacing film noir but cinematically lacked ‘oomph’. Blunt’s powerful performance deserves to be in a better film.

Film Review: Ava’s Possessions

Casual reviewer Harry Casey-Woodward reviews a new breed of exorcism film, Ava’s Possessions.

Ava’s Possessions, 2015, dir Jordan Galland, 4/5

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This movie answers the question: what does a person do after they’ve been possessed by a demon? The Last Exorcism Part II tried to give an answer in 2013, but its main character was some delicate flower who floated around, trying not to bother anyone. Ava’s Possession is the first exorcism film I’ve seen which shows a down-to-earth person struggling to piece back the nuts and bolts of her old life after a traumatic supernatural experience. It also has a sense of humour.

Apart from The Exorcist, I generally dislike films about demonic possession since they tend to be Exorcist rip-offs that take themselves far too seriously without any of the power of that classic pea-soup-spurting original. Ava’s Possessions is the first I’ve seen with an original and refreshing approach. It focuses more on the aftermath of an exorcism rather than on the event itself.

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The opening credits are interspersed with distorted shots from the point of view of a girl tied to a bed while a priest chants above her. The audience is forced to see the world through the eyes of someone possessed, which is quite creepy. The film opens with said priest sitting on the bed of said girl (named Ava, in case you hadn’t guessed and played by Louisa Krause), matter-of-factly informing her that he has saved her from a demon.

It doesn’t take long for Ava to discover that the possession has completely ruined her life. The actions she committed while possessed, including wild sexual behaviour and violent assaults, have driven away her friends, her boyfriend and even her family, none of whom seem very understanding or sympathetic. Even worse, the law is looking to prosecute her for her crimes, even though she can’t remember committing them. Her lawyer informs her that the charges can be dropped if she takes a possession therapy course.

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Her moustached therapist encourages her to seek out people she wronged while possessed and make amends, which will also help her realise everything she did. In the process however, she discovers evidence that suggests she committed crimes much worse than she can imagine. She is also troubled by weird, terrifying visions as the demon tries to return and there’s also a girl she befriends in therapy who is far too eager to be reunited with her own demon.

This tangled mystery is more like a neon-lit film noir than your typical exorcism movie. For one thing, rather than going for that muted Gothic look most horrors go for, Ava’s Possessions uses a lot of bright, trashy colours and stylised, disorientating shots to create a misleading, glamorous look. Also, as I’ve mentioned above, this movie thankfully focuses more on messy human relationships and frustrations, rather than on horror clichés or showing off the demon with bad CGI. Overall this is one of the coolest, sexiest and most blackly comic horrors you could see. While it may not be as gut-wrenching as The Exorcist, it maintains some degree of realism and still has the ability to chill.

Images from frightday.com, thehorrorhoneys.com and imdb.

Music Review: Slaves, ‘Take Control’

Harry Casey-Woodward, hobbyist reviewer and noise lover, reviews the new album by Kent punk duo Slaves, Take Control.

Slaves, Take Control, 2016, Virgin/EMI, 4/5

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Slaves are something British music has needed for a while. We’ve had plenty of cool noise-making bands over recent years, but none have been as fun or direct as Isaac Holman on drums and Laurie Vincent on strings, both gleefully roaring their sharp, hilarious lyrics on working class problems. Hot on the heels of their official debut last year Are You Satisfied?, Slaves’ second album Take Control came out at the end of this September, sporting a florescent cover painted by the guitarist.

Their previous album was a hard act to follow. Catchy, exhilarating and ballsy, it was surely the Never Mind the Bollocks of 2015. I was a little worried therefore that Slaves would fall into the pattern that ensnares a lot of noisy bands and just spend their careers replicating their first album over and over. Thankfully, while the style of the new album is still very much Slaves, it is a bit of a different creature.

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For one thing, there’s more songs. Some admittedly are random skits, but Take Control also has a greater range of styles and thus feels like a bigger project. Are You Satisfied was a compact burst of shout-along joy rides, while Take Control boasts a little more sophistication, musically and lyrically.

That still doesn’t mean it isn’t fun though. Take opening track ‘Spit it Out’. It may not be a cover of Slipknot’s awesome single but it is a contender for best single of the year, mainly because it’s such a perfect punk anthem. Making brilliant use of the quiet/loud song dynamic that made bands like Nirvana sound great, repetitive jabbing guitar builds up to a roaring chorus, where the singer screams the song title over and over. The other lyrics reflect themes Slaves have raged about on several songs, namely getting lads off their arses and doing something with their lives.

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Other current topics Slaves attack on Take Control include mundane media (on such rollercoaster tracks as ‘Hypnotised’) and material wealth (see the blistering ‘Rich Man’). Once again Slaves prove themselves masters of the punk rock formula: fast, simple topical bullets of humorous anger. However, there is more of the sophisticated side that peeked through the energetic blast of Are You Satisfied.

Half of the tracks are as post-punk as Public Image. Songs like ‘Lies’ sound like catchy but creepy pop hits, with slow, menacing riffs. Even the vocal mix sounds more post-punk. While Isaac was shouting in your face before, now his charismatic voice sounds like it was recorded in an empty concrete room, giving it a spooky echo while losing none of its edge.

Beastie Boy Mike D of all people even supplies rap on the thundering ‘Consume or be Consumed’. Joined by Baxter Dury, Slaves also reveal a sensitive side on the tender ‘Steer Clear’, where the singer begs someone he cares about not to go drink driving after an argument. Once again, Slaves have produced a winning combination of subtlety and savage bluntness while upping their game.

Images from gigslutz.co.uk, greatescapefestival.com and theguardian.com.

Film Review: Julieta

Hobbyist reviewer Harry Casey-Woodward has taken a dip in the ocean of grief and guilt that is Pedro Almodovar’s latest melodramatic epic Julieta.

Julieta, 2016, cert 15, dir Pedro Almodovar, 4/5

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To say that Pedro Almodovar is an interesting director is a bit of an understatement. Each one of his films boast extraordinarily complex plots that manage to pick at the dark drama and desires seething under the surface of everyday life.

The director’s latest movie Julieta sees him returning to the themes of his revered 1999 classic All About My Mother. Subjects such as motherhood, grief and guilt are once again dissected, making for a compelling and gripping drama. I will try to give a small summary of the plot without giving away too much, since this film’s greatest power is its mystery. Almodovar captivates you from the start with a character who we know nothing about but is immediately fascinating.

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The film opens in Madrid, where a woman named Julieta is packing up her belongings, ready to move away to Portugal with her partner. She goes out shopping and bumps into an old family friend. This chance meeting brings a drastic change over Julieta’s priorities. She decides to stay in Madrid and moves back into her old apartment. Something is clearly troubling her and it’s when she starts writing a letter to her absent daughter that her whole sorry story comes out: a story where tragedy, secrets and the inability to talk about such matters have torn Julieta’s old family apart.

Despite the Pandora’s box of emotions this move is, it’s also beguiling to watch. Every setting has its own character and looks stunning, from the bustling streets of Madrid to the gorgeous shots of the ocean near which Julieta’s family used to live. There’s one important flashback scene set on a night train, where the intimate drama playing in the well-lit, comfortable carriages is contrasted with the wild, snow-bound night outside, where a stag fearlessly runs in slow motion beside the train.

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The events and themes of the plot are all connected. Overall, this film focuses on the shared experiences of each female character. Although they feel they are isolated, all are affected by similar tragic circumstances of death, disease and depression that ultimately bring them together.

As heavy as the film sounds, there’s plenty of typical Almodovar playfulness for contrast, whether it’s in some of the more charming and romantic scenes of the film or the playful way he directs. For example, there are two separate actresses playing the character of Julieta, one for a younger version (Adriana Ugarte) and one of an older version (Emma Suarez). In one striking scene, he seamlessly switches between the two.

It is incredible that over the past forty years Almodovar has been directing, his films remain so daring and deep. In fact, I would even go so far as to say Julieta is a powerful summary of everything great about Almodovar’s films and may well be his best, a masterful combination of beautiful filmmaking and incredible performances.

Five Inspiring Film Characters with Disabilities

Inspired by this year’s Paralympics, hobbyist reviewer Harry Casey-Woodward lists a few of his favourite film characters with disabilities.

Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) 

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Charlize Theron certainly surprised me with her portrayal of a tough-as-nails war commander in this post-apocalyptic road rage. The fact that she’s missing an arm doesn’t stop her fighting tooth and claw to save some slave girls from the clutches of a vile warlord.

Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) 

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In every spy movie the villain needs a badass henchman and none come more badass than hench-woman Gazelle, played by Sofia Boutella. Having replaced her missing legs with spikes, she slices up foes with a deadly combo of speed and acrobatics.

Stephanie in Rust and Bone (2012) 

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On a more serious note, Marion Cotillard gave a powerful performance as a killer whale trainer who loses both legs in a horrific accident. In this moving French drama, Stephanie strives for dignity with the help of her friend and lover Alain.

Phillippe in Untouchable (2011) 

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Another French drama for you now, in which an aristocrat becomes a quadriplegic and hires a reluctant young man from the projects to be his carer. His unprofessional but fun-loving new carer is a breath of fresh air in Philippe’s life.

Cherry Darling in Planet Terror (2007) 

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I felt I had to mention this character, since she’s the most iconic element of director Robert Rodriguez‘s zombie splatter-fest. Rose McGowan plays a stripper who loses a leg during a zombie attack and sticks a machine gun in its place to get her own back on those infected nasties. An aspiring attitude for a zombie epidemic at least.

Images from nerdist.com, comicvine.gamespot.com, cinematiccorner.blogspot.co.uk, Odysseypictures.co.uk and fanpop.com.

5 Great Food-Based Films

With the release of the animated comedy Sausage Party (definitely not for kids), film and food lover Harry Casey-Woodward discusses five movies based on things we love to eat.

Ratatouille (2007) 

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When I first saw this in the cinema, I thought this was one of Pixar’s best. The story is charming enough, with a rat fulfilling his dream to be a chef in one of the most esteemed restaurants in Paris. However, the film also invited us to share in his passion for food and cooking, even the simple dish of the title. Let’s just forget the fact that everyone in Paris has American accents.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) 

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I’m not a huge fan of this movie, but it’s such a celebration of our food lust I couldn’t afford to miss it off the list. An ambitious young scientist, trapped in a small town where all there is to eat is sardines, achieves surely everybody’s greatest wish and invents a machine that makes food rain from the sky. The film goes one step further, showing yet again how such a fantastic scientific achievement can get dangerous very quickly.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) 

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In honour of the late, great Gene Wilder this musical chocolate banquet surely earns a place here. Based on one of Roald Dahl‘s most imaginative and celebrated children’s books, the film follows a little blond angel named Charlie who wins one of the fabled golden tickets to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Although I’m sickened slightly by the Americanised sappiness thrust into the story, the filmmakers did a great job of recreating Wonka’s factory with the finest of 70s effects, as well as keeping Dahl’s dark streak of humour intact.

Chocolat (2000) 

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Let’s keep up the literary-inspired choc fests shall we? Based on the novel by Joanne Harris, a mysterious woman arrives in a small French town during Lent and promptly sets up a chocolate shop. When she starts awakening the townspeoples’ repressed desires, this does not sit well with the local priest and he and the woman begin a battle of ideologies. This is an exploration of the emotional power of food and Johnny Depp is dishy as a guitar-playing gypsy pirate.

Delicatessen (1991)  

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Let’s stay in France, except we’ll travel into the future a bit. From visionary director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Alien: Resurrection) came this dystopian romantic comedy about an ex-circus performer moving into a flat. Unfortunately, in post-apocalyptic France food is scarce and the landlord, who happens to be a butcher, is eyeing up his tenant. But his daughter is nice. Cue a lot of comic action about human desperation for food, including some vegetarian revolutionaries.

Images from themovieman, amazon, space538.org, snoskred.org and fact.co.uk.