Author: Eloise Wright

In Conversation with HOME’s film programming team

By reaching out to all demographics of its area, independent arts organisations are a wonderful way to build community in large cities. Here in Manchester, we have HOME, a place where film, theatre, art, and dance converge. But how do film societies work, and what do they do?

A core element of building a film society is its programming, which involves developing an audience through the venue’s choice of films and events. Independent arts organisations such as HOME work on a basis of consent and consensus between the staff and the audience, meaning that the films and events put on must reflect the audience’s taste by finding a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the old and the new, the popular and the obscure.

It is that balance that the film programming team attempt to perfect with every season though multiple facets.

A crucial one is the lengthened running time in the cinema or a slower turnover of what gets screened. HOME’s Cinema 5 allows there to be a rotation of films, a room able to seat around 40 people, and is a unique space that allows opportunities to approach artists through Q&As (although these can take place in any of their cinema rooms), which is a step towards making the cinema goer’s experience an immersive and enlightening one.

Being a part of a large city, the people working at HOME take it upon themselves to reach out to different demographics/communities in the area It is important for any film society to develop an ethos surrounding their film programming. HOME Mcr has done so by limiting the amount of Hollywood/Blockbuster films, ensuring that a certain number of films are UK/World cinema, showcasing a proportion of documentaries and animation each film calendar, but also by making sure each season to programme a film which reaches out to a certain community in the area. For example, hosting half of the Jewish Film Festival, discounted tickets for students in Manchester, a £1 ticket scheme for people from an impoverished background, or hosting a workshop in January for creatives with disabilities.

By installing such initiatives, HOME has seen results and proven how important programming is within the building of a film society’s audience and their loyalty to the organisation. There is a real creation of community, and the volunteers within HOME help this community function and thrive. Film societies depend on a large staff of both employees and volunteers, who either indirectly or directly tend to the audience’s experiences, by greeting the audience, introducing them to the concept of HOME or simply talking about the event they are about to or have just seen.

Places like HOME make it their duty to prevent certain films from falling into the abyss, or not being widely shared with future generations – planned well in advance, “States of Danger and Deceit” had been in the making for over a year in order to coalesce with the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. This is when the idea to showcase a retrospective of European thrillers came up. Senior Visiting Curator for HOME and Film Studies Professor at the University of Salford, Andy Willis expressed his personal concern that some canonical, pivotal films of his generation had never been heard of before by his film students.

At the centre of the film team is the Film Programmer for HOME, Rachel Hayward, and is pivotal to the smooth running of each film calendar. Her role involves a lot of public relations, connecting and creating links with people in the industry, as in Arts organisations, the employees are all trying to share the art, whether that be theatre, paintings, or films. “Everyone tries to help each other,” Rachel explained, when talking about the process of putting together a film season for HOME, locating often niche material and obtaining the rights to showcase it.

HOME’s Artistic Director Jason Wood started off as a filmmaker, but after co-directing three films, realised “it was going to be quite hard to make a career out of”, then moving on to work in distribution. At Entertainment Film Distributors, Jason worked on releasing independent films, including Paul Thomas Anderson’s first two films, and Se7en by David Fincher. Progressing to work in exhibition at Picture House cinemas for ten years as programming manager, he then joined the team at Curzon Artificial Eye as director of programming for five years, and during this time began to write film articles, notably for Sight & Sound and The Guardian.

What appealed to Jason about Curzon, in the beginning, was that “they were a cinema which showed almost exclusively independent films, not many of the Hollywood blockbusters”. It was when “they wanted to go much more mainstream with their programming”, partly due to financial benefits, that Jason knew he couldn’t work with them anymore.

Previously, Jason had been involved with the Cornerhouse in Manchester and their film programme, and gradually developed much more affinity with their agenda than that of Curzon’s. The opportunity then came up at HOME for Jason to take on the role of artistic director, in “a cinema that was truly a space for independent thought and filmmaking.”

What Jason, Rachel, and Andy work towards developing at HOME is a “film programme led by culture, not by commerce”, showing films that might have an alternative point of view from the mainstream or an urgent commentary regarding race, class, gender and/or sexuality. HOME has “proven that you can show a film programme which is led by culture and not just a need to make money”. In fact, as HOME’s cultural led programming has been so successful, other venues have reached out to the programming team to programme their venues as well, such as the Art House in London.

The people behind places like HOME are truly committed to the idea of culturally led entertainment and have shown what the cinema-going experience can be like if you treat your audience with respect, sensitivity, but also financial inclusion.

Review: Negative Space

In a moment of reflection, the protagonist of “Negative Space” recounts the way he bonded with his late father whilst growing up, through the art of packing.

Adapted from Ron Koertge’s poem of the same name (2014), film students Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata carefully created a masterpiece worthy of the sorrow and nostalgia that the story carries. The narrator takes us through the steps of perfectly packing his father taught him, each item laying itself out, folding itself up and making its own way into the suitcase, as if animated by a life of their own.

Remembering, the narrator revisits his memories of these times he felt close to his father, together and apart, now forever in the past. The short concentrates on just using Koertge’s short poem for narration, the rest of its message coming through the beauty and attention to detail it possesses. His father now gone, all that is truly left of him is this inherited special knack for making good use of any nooks and crannies, or negative space. Can you blame him for only being able to wish there was not so much wasted space in his father’s coffin?

“Negative Space” is not only a technical marvel, but also a strikingly moving story of lost parents, the characteristics we pick up on as children that make them our parents. The loss of a parent is one almost too painful to bear, yet it is through our memories of them, the traits we inherit from them (good or bad) that allow us to keep hold of something from them.

Review: Revolting Rhymes

Roald Dahl’s “Revolting Rhymes” is here brought to life in a two-part animated film co-directed by Jan Lachauer, Jakob Schuh, and Bin-Han To with breath-taking detail and care that gives the entire viewing experience magic. It takes some of our internationally canonical fairy-tales, such as Snow White or Jack and the Beanstalk, and provides a number of delightfully unexpected twists and turns to the original plots.

The first episode of the two opens one rainy evening in a small café, where a middle-aged woman settles in the window booth with her cup of hot tea. A lone, tall wolf dressed in a trench coat and hat follows in tow, asking the woman if he may join her as he waits “for an old friend”. We are as suspicious as the sweet lady, who, perhaps to her own detriment, is too polite and frightened to refuse.

The Wolf notices her book of fairy-tales on the table and, opening it, voices his dislike of Little Red Riding Hood, and pointing out the book’s error in Snow-White’s hair colour. Hence begins a small exchange which gives the premise to the wonderful story-telling we are about to behold.

In this version, the lives of Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood intertwine so imperceptibly that one wonders how this is not how the story originally goes. Other fairy tales are merged together throughout the two episodes, and much like a Russian doll, a story seems to naturally come out of another.

With each episode being 28 minutes long, only the first episode was able to be nominated for Best Animated Short, which rules out the second from being taken into consideration. As much of a delight as the first part is, the pure brilliance of the animation comes through when watching both parts as there is a continuity within this special universe where one is not quite sure what is make believe or not.

“Revolting Rhymes” ends with the unexpected, and was an incredibly emotional experience. Its beauty and eloquence were truly astonishing, communicating some truths that may have escaped its predecessors, bringing a perfect balance to the old and the new. Therefore, I am afraid that part one was not intended to be a stand-alone episode, and may suffer from that when it comes to selecting a victor amongst the 5 nominees for the Best Animated Short Oscar.

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand incarnates Mildred Hayes, rightfully vengeful but so much more than that, as she takes it upon herself to get to the bottom of her teenage daughter Angela’s unresolved rape and murder. By renting three rusty billboards on a generally empty roadside, which bluntly and plainly address Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) as to why seven months on, there are still no arrests and seemingly a decreasing interest in the case altogether.

Mildred is a powerful, quick-witted, no-bullshit woman who is past the point of weighing up the consequences of her actions. The grief has turned into anger, and to even begin to accept the death of her Angela, she needs to hang on to the search for answers, for results.

Chief Willoughby and his protégé Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, who brings one of the most layered performances to the film) pay a visit to the advertising company responsible for renting out these incendiary billboards in the first place. Enter the not-so-innocent Red (Caleb Landry Jones), who is smart enough to use the rulebook of capitalism against the police’s urges and threats to take the billboards down.

Although our first instinct is to muster up as much anger towards Willoughby as we can, there are a few things that cut that feeling at the root. For one, it is quite easy to see that Mildred is merely focussing her unsurmountable grief at the only people she can for now, who by not even making arrests, are not doing what they are being paid to do. More than that, Mildred and Willoughby actually share a matter-of-fact kind of bravery, in the sense that they can see a situation for what it is and take whatever course of action will suit them best, no matter the consequences.

Lucas Hedges plays Mildred’s son Robbie, and brings a similar presence to the one he brought in Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Manchester by the Sea’. He deals with the broken pieces of his family and the backlash of his mother’s billboards with a of mixture of sarcasm, indifference, and anger (not necessarily in that order).

Martin McDonagh’s writing allows the characters to develop and act naturally, rolling with their impulses, never painting them as people to root for or hate, but framing each person’s reactions in their context. Dixon’s character development is by far the most emotionally challenging, starting of with all the elements of your stereotypical deep-south cop who thanks to his gun and badge deals out the law in his own way, to whomever displeases him, accentuated by a seemingly constant state of being ever so slightly drunk.

A stroke of genius occurs here, however, as the turn of events brings out the parts of Dixon only Willoughby saw in him, and it is truly through Dixon that McDonagh showcases his understanding of the necessary layers that make up a human being, and to what extent our personal grievances and hurt can interfere with our lives and actions.

The film is brilliant in its resistance to a classical Hollywood wrap up of the narrative, and pervades the reality and cruel randomness of life. People are always more than what they let you see, grief is never rational, and as Dixon put it himself, “It’s not so much about hope, but about getting better at English. Because you need English to be a cop. Or to be anything, really”.

Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Noah Baumbach’s latest picture, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), differentiates itself from most of the past year’s films, in the best way possible. Each of the Meyerowitz kids are introduced by vignettes, giving us the feeling of an assemblage of short stories that are connected, especially with the bracketed “New and Selected”.  It is the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family in New York, portrayed by a refreshingly talented cast including the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson and Elizabeth Marvel to name a few. The script is full of quickfire Jewish New-Yorker wit reminiscent of Woody Allen classics such as Annie Hall or Crimes & Misdemeanours, as are the apartments we see, full of books and art.

The Stories emanate from the “only artist in the family”, Harold Meyerowitz, as he puts it himself. His three children, Danny, Jean and Matt, all have very different relationships with each other and especially their father. Constantly working on his sculpture and aspiring for appropriate recognition led to displacement of time and care that should have been spent on his kids. As a result, they all share a bizarre mixture of respect and hatred towards him, but equally have become extremely self-critical of themselves.

Danny (Adam Sandler) is the eldest, and it’s by focussing on his sense of failure in the Meyerowitz clan that we begin. We’re introduced to him and his daughter as he tries to find a parking space in the East village, a notoriously stressful experience. Through a lot of commotion and a song on the radio, the pair radiate a comfortable, sarcastically-fuelled relationship.

Upon arrival we meet the others, and get a taste of what’s to come. It is a relief to discover Dustin Hoffman’s performance is not embarrassing or forgettable like “Meet the Fockers” (2004). Something that built Harold’s character in the film was his repeating of the same anecdote to each of his children, each time differently, each time searching for a specific reaction, and each time failing to get the reaction he wanted. He has expectations of how people should treat him and when those expectations are not met, Hoffman knows how to conjure up just the right amount of self-entitlement and passive-aggressiveness.

One of the best scenes of the movie occurs at the MoMA, where Harold’s friend L.J. has a new art collection on display. Arriving with Danny, apparently the only two in tuxedos, they are declined entry to the private showing as they are “not on the list” – Harold’s embarrassment starts here. Thankfully L.J. happens to walk by, greats them with a warm embrace and begins introducing him to New York’s social elite. It is clear that Harold can’t help but wonder why his friend and equal has his art exposed in prestigious galleries, but his own art has only gained a small degree of success, most of it still in the garage at home. The night goes on, Harold keeps getting ignored or cut off and soon he must leave.

The script is fluid in its reflection of authentic human behaviour. An example of this is the day Matt (a brilliant performance by Ben Stiller) and his father go to lunch. Dialogue goes back and forth without stopping for breath which the camera mirrors with a singular tracking shot. Matt wants to sell his father’s house and art, his life’s work. Both get increasingly flustered and amidst all the distractions never actually order any food.

Elizabeth Marvel (Jean) gives one of the most vibrant and unusual performances of the film, playing her awkward, deadpan but sensitive character to perfection. Her talent and role left me wanting a longer segment devoted to her, but the way it is is fitting to her part, as Jean is more of a wallflower, content with being on the side-lines.

The Meyerowitz Stories take you on a drawn-out emotional ride that is quite tiring, and it works. Baumbach hits the perfect balance of comedy and tragedy, proving his directorial and screenwriting talents. This is a film about the family you are given and the long-lasting effects of the quality of the relationships one has within that family. It’s about your life’s work, and ultimately how much we let that define our self-worth.

Review: Jungle Fever

“Jungle Fever” was Spike Lee’s sixth feature, first shown in cinemas in 1991. Recently shown at Home Mcr, the film was followed by a panel discussion with Akua Gyamfi (The British Blacklist), where we delved into some of the many layers of the film, such as the glass ceiling in the workplace, black women’s thoughts about black men, and of course how Spike Lee approaches what “jungle fever” actually is.

The movie begins one morning in Harlem, taking a look into the harmonious life of Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes), a successful architect who is happily married and is a wonderful father. On this particular morning, Flipper’s bosses introduce him to his new temp worker, Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), a young and alluring Italian-American woman from Bensonhurst.

Their first interaction is not pleasant, as Flipper almost immediately strides back to his bosses’ office, angrily protesting he asked for an African-American to be hired, on the basis that he is the only person of colour in the entire office. “This sounds dangerously like reverse discrimination” one of the two bosses points out. The issue Spike Lee is tackling here is that the modern American workplace needs to normalize hiring people from all backgrounds, especially African-Americans.

When talking to his wife Drew (Lonette McKee) about his long overdue promotion to partner of the architectural firm, as much as she agrees he deserves it, she carefully warns him to be prepared. “Prepared for what?” Flipper asks. “In case they say no.” Flipper throws that statement to the wind, to him it’s all very straightforward, “Most of the money they make in the company, it’s because of me”.

This glass ceiling is still hugely present in the workplace today, as many of the people confirmed during the discussion panel – one woman recounted her experience of deciding to leave her job to start her own business due to the very same problem Flipper faced almost 30 years ago.

Angie and Flipper grow increasingly drawn to each-other, creating a routine of working late and eating Chinese takeout together, one night finally giving in to temptation. It is quite obvious that the pair share more of a physical attraction than a romantic one, and the backlash their liaison causes quickly outweighs the fascination they held for one another.

It is this unhealthy sexual attraction that Spike Lee evokes as “jungle fever”, or the fetishization of different skin colours or ethnicities than one’s own. Both ruin the relationships they were in, Angie receives a vicious beating from her father when word gets out she is seeing a black man. Her boyfriend Paulie (John Turturro, also known for the role of Pino in Do the Right Thing) is a “nice guy”, their break-up scene is so well played that it is genuinely upsetting to watch.

Paulie’s friends or closer to what you could call entourage are quite intensely racist and attempt to push him to be angry not so much about the adultery, but more about the fact the man in question is black. Thankfully Paulie does not share this point of view, and quite soon asks a regular client out on a date. Contrasting with Angie and Flipper’s relationship, this was a nice addition to the story as Paulie is infatuated with her not only because he finds her beautiful, but also for her intelligence – He does not have “the fever”.

It is interesting how the pair’s different skin colours are recurrently seen as a larger issue than the adultery itself. Angie’s father is ashamed of her actions, throwing her out of his home because the man she is seeing is not white or Italian. Flipper’s wife Drew has struggled all her life being mixed-race, and for this reason feels all the more hurt upon discovering the other woman is white.

This opens up a discussion she and her friends have that evening. She is now convinced Flipper has always fantasized about white women, wondering aloud if it’s for her light-coloured skin that he married her. They criticise that men’s ideal of beauty is far too often the white woman. Growing up, the black girl is constantly surrounded with media and advertisements that push that stereotype.

Lee and the actresses improvised this whole scene over the course of two days, and is one of the realest scenes of the entire film. It evokes what women of colour felt and experienced then, and as women during the discussion panel confirmed, reflects what women of colour feel and talk about now.

Many of the people at the screening confessed that the film didn’t ring as true as when they first saw it in 1991, but we all agreed that Spike Lee had once again brought together an incredibly talented cast and a realistic grasp of the tensions on the streets of Harlem and Bensonhurst that must be watched, shared and talked about continually.

In Conversation with Neville Pierce

Having seen the marvelous short comedy “Ghosted” (review here) at this year’s Lift-Off film festival we approached director Neville Pierce. His career consists of many facets, from journalist to screenwriter to director, and shares with us some very interesting and honest insight into the world of film journalism.

It was during his time at Bournemouth University that Pierce first developed his interest in journalism, and more so in writing about film. Being naturally good at storytelling, “spoken or written”, it is this that drew him to the art of reporting. Whilst studying journalism more generally, Pierce religiously read the now extinct magazine Neon which led to him to pushing himself to try, based on the mere logic that “Someone has to write for movie magazines – so why not me?”.

Starting off as the logical next step as a part of his journalism degree, a week’s work experience turned into two months working at the North Devon Journal. He recalls that the journalists there “were mostly only recent graduates themselves, but at the time seemed much older and wiser (and sexier) than I could ever aspire to be”.

Having been editor of the fortnightly paper The Nerve for a year, it was a natural question to ask what were his best and worst experiences in that position. To this, Pierce’s answer was an event that was simultaneously both, as he remembers “being shouted at by a columnist for editing his work – but he subsequently apologised, accepted the edit and we remain close friends, 20 years later”. If he could give his student editor self some advice, it would be to “admit your mistakes – even if only to yourself. Everything is useful – even the failures. Everything can be shorter – from articles to meetings”.

A journalist before the explosion of internet in the 2000s, his experience of journalism was quite different to that of film critics or any journalists today, the main problem being that beforehand, “People paid to read things. So YOU got paid”. A result of the use of internet for film criticism was the development of aggregated review sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, which Pierce recognises as a useful tool “if you want a barometer of critical opinion, though inevitably reductive”. He also points out that percentages will never replace an actual film review, as he might watch something a critic has not liked, depending on their taste.

As for him and his incentive to review films, he sums it up as a combination of “ego, enjoyment and earning” which I think can be said for the majority of film critics, as his response to what he wished to achieve through creating artistic content: “Buying a house”. His process to reviewing films is a unique one (this was before he was directing them), advising to “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you just told them. I was told that at school, about public speaking, but it applies to that type of writing too I think. Sometimes you can be more playful, especially if you’re writing a long, lead review – you can give more career context or make a point about theme. I always try to judge a film on what it is trying to achieve, as well as whether it is personally to my taste”.

Even critics have favourite critics. Pierce gave me this response when posed the question: “David Thomson changed the way I looked at film writing, with Rosebud, his biography of Orson Welles. His Biographical Dictionary of Film is wonderful, too. I can’t remember who said if you write about film then you get to write about everything, but that would apply to him. Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) maintains a remarkably high standard. Robbie Collin (The Telegraph) is eclectic and insightful. Guy Lodge (Variety) has a delightful turn of phrase”.

He continued: “I am in awe of the breadth and depth of Kim Newman’s knowledge. Others who are less critics – though they do write reviews – than general film journalists would be Damon Wise (Neon and Empire), who was a big influence who became a friend. Matt Mueller (Screen International) is a fine editor and a fine man. Ditto Dan Jolin, who gave me my first bit of paid work, back at Total Film. It’s a long list, really. I’m impressed by what Joe Utichi is doing with Deadline’s magazine Awardsline. Chris Hewitt and co are very good on the Empire podcast. Jamie Graham is a very fine interviewer and informed critic – I value his opinion highly. The best all-rounder, broadcast and print, is Mark Kermode, for my money. Entertaining, informed, fluent on paper or on screen or speaker – superb”.

Getting more and more influential in his work, Pierce went from a staff position editing Total Film to being a freelance journalist for Empire. The transition from one job to the other was a noticeable one. “I didn’t have to manage people, I just had to manage my time. I didn’t have as much influence on what went in the magazine, of course, but I did have more freedom”, which lead to an obvious change of pace for Pierce and a much better quality of life.

Less of a transition of sorts and more of a variation in that field of work, Pierce described his experience in both radio and print journalism as quite different ones. “Print generally allows more depth (though not always). It also allows you to edit yourself more effectively and hide your incoherence. Radio is merciless in that regard”.

Pierce managed to obtain exclusive access as a member of press to the film sets of Fincher’s Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “I had interviewed Fincher for a retrospective piece on Fight Club and we had got on, but when I emailed his assistant asking to visit the Zodiac set I expected to be told no – because he doesn’t generally allow journalists on set. So, really, I was incredibly surprised to be there. I also felt – and feel – he is one of the greats. So I was soaking up every bit of detail I could – for me, it’s like having the opportunity to go on set with Kubrick. I think the best set visit article – of the many I’ve written for Fincher films – was probably for Zodiac, because it was so fresh and exciting an experience for me”.

Now Pierce’s time is mostly taken up by screenwriting and directing, this did not happen over night and was a gradual shift in his career. The short version of why exactly he is in the filmmaking end of movies now is that he always “at least subconsciously, wanted to do it – and eventually the fear of failure was outweighed by the fear of not trying”.

In an industry where one’s work is constantly scrutinized, the fear of failure never dissipates. “Whether it’s articles or scripts or finished films, I don’t think you’re ever completely satisfied. You may look back years later and be able to say you think something was good – or, at least, close to what you had in your head”.

For my final question, I asked Pierce how he would describe the relationship between filmmaker and film critic. The answer was “carefully”. “I think Barry Norman probably said it best: ‘All critics are parasites – but parasites can be useful.’ So, yes, critics can’t exist without something to comment on. But great criticism can be beautiful – and definitely useful. Some critics are snide and ill-informed, of course, and that must be infuriating when you’ve worked hard to make a film (I’ve felt angry and frustrated upon reading ignorant reviews of the work of friends or filmmakers I admire), but a great many are dedicated, informed people who love cinema and work very hard for modest reward. I think I used to look down on film journalism, basically because I did it. Now I see its value much more. And it irritates the hell out of me when filmmakers are scornful of critics as a whole – especially filmmakers who are happy with critics when they love their work, then dismissive of them when they don’t. You have to take your lumps”.

You can find out more about his past, current and upcoming projects at nevpierce.com