In Conversation with HOME’s film programming team

“I don’t think cinemas should only be there to provide entertainment. They also need to educate, enlighten, provoke, stimulate.”

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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: Only the Brave

The story of the most deadly event for US firefighters since 9/11

The Yarnell Hill Fire was the deadliest incident for US firefighters since the September 11 attacks. 19 brave men of the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives protecting the homes and lives of a countless more. Joseph Kosinski, whose previous works include the innovate yet ill-received Oblivion, takes on this devastating story and the result is devastating in equal measure. Out of the 20 firefighters from the City of Prescott, Arizona who went to tackle the wildfire, only one returned.

That man, Brendan McDonough, is played by Miles Teller. The only wildfire he tackles initially is the one destroying his life. He gets kicked out of his mother’s house after a slew of bad decisions; his addiction to heroin, his arrest for theft and his discovery of an ex-girlfriend’s pregnancy. Now at rock bottom, he decides to follow the straight and narrow to support and provide for his child. The quest for employment takes him to the headquarters of the Prescott Fire Department when he hears of two open slots on their team.

McDonough’s reputation as a burnout preceded him and the firefighters almost laugh him out until the boss (Josh Brolin), known affectionately as Supe, decides to give him a chance. Although lacking the strength or stamina to keep up with the pack he eventually completes the test and gets a space in the crew. Teller’s portrayal of an addict is remarkable, showing that there is still much we haven’t seen from him.

As this arc develops we follow another simultaneously. Supe’s wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly) wakes up to find her husband packing up his gear, the call to arms sounded, and asks to resolve their previous night’s fight before he goes. During the conversation, she mentions that she has a love for lost causes. This embodies her whole story, from the broken dishwasher, to her occupation of caring for horses that would otherwise be put down, to her longing to start a family with a husband who does not share her ambition.

The theme of this lack of family and loneliness in Amanda’s life is especially evocative when juxtaposed with the brotherhood that the firefighters have. As they battle blazes the necessity of tight bonds is what keeps them alive and if just one man fails out on the line, he risks the lives of them all. Kosinski puts this love front and centre without it becoming overly macho. The banter and practical jokes never feel exaggerated and, excluding their chiseled physique, they are relatable.

One of these crew members, the principal prankster, becomes McDonough’s best friend and roommate. Taylor Kitsch who plays Chris MacKenzie does a marvelous job and frankly, it’s the first role in which the character he plays is even memorable. The pseudo-homosexual relationships between the two roommates, especially when they have McDonough’s baby for the night, don’t feel out of place, rather a natural extension of their bonds.

This is the latest entry into what seems to be the latest craze sweeping Hollywood. To choose a tragedy, namely one that happens in America or to Americans, and recreate it using a lot of CGI and special effects. The market for war films seems to have diminished slightly in the past few years but producers have been quick to replace them with these. Only the Brave is a fantastic example of a tragedy film done right and regardless of slight pacing issues and an at times flat dialogue there is an underlying message that is deeply affecting, especially in the final scenes.

They are playing a dangerous game however by choosing tragedies that have occurred closer and closer to the present day. The real Yarnell Hill Fire took place in 2013 meaning it only took four more for the film to reach the cinema. Similarly, the Boston Bombings happened four years ago and now has two blockbuster films about it. While this undoubtedly has something to say beyond theatrics I strongly believe making films based on events still tender in our hearts and minds is exploitative and I hope focus shifts to scripts that place those tragedies into a fictional world.

Review: Breathe

Andy Serkis’ debut film is a charming and uplifting real life tale

Andy Serkis is renowned for his acting in films such as The Lord of the Rings and King Kong but he takes a step back with Breathe. His first directorial effort, it is starkly contrasted with the performance capture heavy films he has previously been involved with. Regardless this is a very impressive debut and shows Serkis has plenty more to offer.

Serkis delves into polio for second time after his role as Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Now behind the camera, he tells the incredible true story of the man who sparked a change in the way the disabled were treated, from prisoners to the free. Andrew Garfield plays that man, Robin, an ever-jolly 28 year old seemingly has it all; a beautiful wife in Diana (Claire Foy), a child on the way, a great job in the thriving African tea business and a large social circle.

His life is turned upside down when, whilst working in Kenya, he contracts Polio, a disease all but wiped out in the Western World two years prior with the widespread use of Jonas Salk’s remarkable vaccine. Polio, for those unaware, paralyses the body from the neck down, with sufferers unable to breathe without apparatus. Garfield channels an entire body’s acting through just his head in a marvellous portrayal with Robin’s real life wife noting that he ‘even had the twinkle in his eye’.

The first act takes us on a breakneck journey, introducing us to Robin and every character and event that will influence the remaining runtime of the film. This furious pace inhibits the emotional connection with Robin’s suffering, the scenes showing his depression and wishing for death initially after he receives the disease should tug at the heartstrings but if it wasn’t for Garfield’s performance, the scene would have fallen entirely flat.

Thankfully the pace slows to a cantor from here on in. Diana, refusing to let her husband die locked away from the world, decides to break him out, much to the fury of the doctor who shouts he’ll ‘be dead in two weeks!’ With the effort of a merry band of friends Robin moves to an idyllic country house where he can enjoy the peace of the country, except for the ever-present wheeze of his respirator.

All the while the risk of suffocating is mere minutes away, shown when their yappy dog knocks the plug from the socket. Robin tries to shout for help but without air in his lungs nothing comes out. He can hear Diana in the next room with their son saying ‘Where’s Daddy?’ while he suffocated unbeknownst to her. When she finally enters the room and sees, horrified, an unconscious Robin, she plugs the ventilator back in and after a nervous few seconds he springs back to life. Garfield is sublime in this scene, the increasing desperation in his eyes with every moment that passes is haunting.

Now settled in the country, Robin decides he wants to travel freely, not tied to an extension cord, and here lies the point of massive historical significance. An entrepreneurial friend designs and builds what is essentially a wheel chair featuring a mobile, battery powered respirating unit. This contraption allows Robin to live a free life, to go where he wants to go.

There is a heartwarming scene where Robin, Diana, their adult son and friends travel to Spain. The respirator’s electrics are fried whilst driving down a rural country road and they have to take turns hand operating a smaller respirator while the original maker flies to fix it. During the wait a mass of locals come and by the time he arrives there is music playing, people dancing and an all round jolly time. Not one of them was scared of Robin’s appearance, if anything they liked him more.

Before the invention of the mobile wheelchair, people with disabilities were locked away in hospitals with an ‘out of sight, out of mind approach’. Polio will never allow you to live a full live, but because of Robin Cavendish and his determined wife Diana sufferers could live a happy life. Serkis captures the magic and charm of Robin’s extraordinary life, a life he well and truly lived.

Review: Cotton Wool

Nicholas Connor’s latest short film is his most evocative yet

Director Nick Connor belongs to the Loachian school of filmmaking, that uses the medium as a way to tackle social issues and provoke discussion. For Cotton Wool that issue is the families of stroke victims, especially young children, who have no choice but to become full time carers. This desperately needed to be feature length over forty minutes but it demonstrates that, with the right funding, Connor can rise up to take the place of the ageing Loach himself.

Rachel (Leanne Best), a single mother living in the North of England, works tirelessly to support her two children. There is little time for introductions however and just a few minutes in she suffers a devastating stroke.

The only person by her side is son Sam who is far too young to understand the gravity of what he is seeing, and thinks his mum is trying to scare him. Best is sublime in this sequence, painting a horrifically realistic portrait of the realtime effects of a stroke.

The road to recovery is very slow and Rachel finds it difficult to cope initially. Wheelchair bound and forced to use a tablet to communicate, she is relying on Sam to take care of her. Best continues to excel here, the frustration at her own helplessness is painfully clear. Her daughter Jennifer is resentful in having to take care of her mother, opting to go to a pub with her friends instead.

Sadly the short runtime impacts this aspect of the film greatly. Had there been a handful more scenes fuelling the tension between mother and daughter both before and immediately after her stroke, Jennifer’s escape to the pub would have evoked far more emotion. A necessary escape from the stress of being the sudden head of the household rather than the petulance of a selfish young girl.

It is during this time that Rachel has another, smaller, stroke. Thankfully Sam, having been taught by a nurse a few days prior, knew exactly what to do. The awareness of Sam (Max Vento) at his young age is astonishing, calmly waiting the five minute he was told before pressing the button for help.

When Jennifer comes home, she discovers that neglecting to care for her mother could have meant losing her entirely. This forces a change in mentality, and she tearfully apologises to her mother. The scenes of Jennifer coming home and of her apologising were fraught with emotion but again suffered in the rush to squeeze an 80 minute story into 40 minutes.

While Best was the standout performance in Cotton Wool, she was not alone in bringing Connor’s thought-provoking vision to life. Having previously worked on his last film Northern Lights, Gemma North and Katie Quinn once more delivered capable performances and Max Vento, at just 6 years old, perfectly encapsulated the innocence of a small child in the face of a traumatising situation.

With his next film, The Wall, already announced, Connor is hardly pausing for air before taking on his next challenge. Following the distinct climb in quality from Northern Lights, it feels only natural that The Wall would see his step up into feature length filmmaking, a challenge I’m sure he would face with great vigour.

Review: Borg vs McEnroe

The greatest game of tennis ever played becomes another boring day at the office in this underachieving film

The 1980 Wimbledon Final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe is arguably the greatest game of tennis ever played. Therefore the decision to hinge all the drama on the notion the viewer won’t know the outcome of said match is bewildering and director Janus Metz’ film suffers greatly as a result.

How the tennis is presented was always going to be an inescapable issue for the film as BBC’s Wimbledon coverage has such a distinctive style. Wide court and crowd shots are juxtaposed with close ups of players and fans. When the rallies begin the camera sits behind the players capturing play in its entirety from start to finish. Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason through no fault of their own cannot reproduce the same level of tennis of Borg and McEnroe and the method of capturing the footage has to be different.

One singular, glossy shot of each point turns into a sea of rapid cuts and barely any of the action is seen. The tension that should have built up throughout the match, especially during the nail-biting 20 minute tiebreaker, is non-existent. A potential solution to this problem is to weave the actual footage from the game into the film but that too has its own stumbling blocks.

Away from the court writer Ronnie Sandahl tried to challenge the general perception of the two players being polar opposites. Borg, disciplined and collected and McEnroe, unpredictable and volatile. He uses an array of flashbacks to show how they are instead two sides of the same coin, that Borg as a child was equally as volatile but learnt to hold it in. This story arc takes up the majority of the non-tennis runtime but gets lost deeper and deeper within itself, he is perpetually a ‘volcano ready to erupt’.

With Metz constantly looking forward towards the final to generate tension, he fails to find ways to make it in the present, every scene is overly-dramatic regardless of its real meaning. Even moments as simple as a small talk conversation feature a grandiose score that swells as the conversation reaches a mild climax. That climax is always a question destined to remain unanswered for eternity.

The orchestral soundtrack as an individual collection of music is undoubtedly fantastic. Drawn from four different composers it would not look out of place in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. One scene in particular as Borg finally defeats McEnroe in the fifth set tiebreakers features marvellous strings that would evoke great emotion had the film created it. Likewise the cinematography Niels Thastum deserves plaudits for his work in making each scene visually resplendent.

The core vision was to produce a film that would stand shoulder to shoulder with not just great sports films like Moneyball but great films in general. Sadly the failure to presume the viewer already knew about the iconic match, the over reliance on flashbacks and the weak plot arc about them being the same on the inside created a disparity in quality between the expected and realised films.

Review: American Made

Tom Cruise’s smile and a breakneck pace do little to disguise the lack of real substance

Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman reunite in an adrenaline-fueled tale of former Trans World Airline Pilot Barry Seal. Had this been a work of pure fiction writer Gary Spinelli would be slammed for the unrealistic twists and turns the plot takes, but it is surprisingly grounded in truth. From smuggling drugs for Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel to running guns for the CIA to Central America Seal’s story was destined for a big screen portrayal.

His initial descent into smuggling was to add excitement into an otherwise humdrum life whilst also earning some extra money for his family. As so many true story rise-fall films before this, the protagonist begins chasing the American dream and their inevitable greed for greater leads to their downfall. After a few years Seal has so much money the local bank dedicates a vault purely for him yet this does not stop him from continuing. The question as to why is left perpetually unanswered, is it more money, notoriety, thrills? Even his passion seems to slowly die as time progresses.

Eventually he is arrested in a ludicrous scene where every law enforcement agency in America raids his hanger at exactly the same moment, with one member from each helping to take him. The events that follow include a Presidential intervention, Harley Davidson Motorcycles and the charity Salvation Army but  any attempt at an explanation would be fruitless in a bizarre climax to the film. One that leaves both Seal and I questioning our sanity.

Very quickly the repetitive formula of the film became monotonous and tiresome. He’ll get caught in an act red handed but miraculously escape every time with a smile while simultaneously digging himself a little deeper into the crime world. Equally frustrating was the incredible wealth Seal accrued without spending it on anything more lavish than putting in a pool. Part of the thrill of similar films such as The Wolf of Wall Street was seeing Belfort’s drug fuelled escapades. The craziest moment during Seal’s free time comes when he takes a shot of Tequila at a garden party.

American Made offers up little to show the consequences of his actions, fuelling both a drug war in Miami and a rebellion in Central America. His pivotal role in the rise of the Medellín Cartel will have indirectly cost the lives of thousands but this isn’t mentioned. Alternatively Liman could have made a critical political commentary of Reagan’s reign or the CIA but opts not to. Instead he relies on the charm of Cruise and a breakneck narrative pace to disguise the lack of any real underlying meaning. The journey is undoubtably an entertaining one but this, like Liman’s last project The Wall, is destined to be forgotten.

Peculiarly director Liman has a personal involvement with the resulting Iran-Contra scandal. His father Arthur L. Liman was chief counsel for the Senate investigation into the events and questioned Colonel Oliver North in the public hearings, a man who appears late on in the film.

Review: The Wall

An intriguing concept let down by the poor screenplay

Doug Liman goes back to his filmmaking roots for his ninth feature film with a budget of just $3 million. Set in Iraq after the American declaration of victory in 2007, this cat and mouse story involves an injured American soldier and a fabled Iraqi sniper and is shot entirely around, unsurprisingly, a wall. Unfortunately both walls collapse into a pile of rubble, one from repeated high calibre sniper rounds, and the other by the inconsistent debut screenplay of Dwain Worrell.

Sniper Shane Matthews (John Cena) and his spotter Allen ‘Ize’ Isaac (Aaron Tayor-Johnson) are called to investigate the construction site of an oil pipeline which the bodies of the workers and their security detail litter. 22 hours of scanning the area for any movement later and Matthews decides that it was the work of a group of terrorists who have long since vanished rather than a single sniper, much to the anger of Ize who repeatedly asserts that single, headshot bullet wounds are telltale signs of a sniper. Fuelled by pure American bravado, hotheadedness and with not the slightest concern for protocol, Matthews takes off his camouflage, leaves the safety of his hideout and heads into the war zone alone to prove he was right all along.

As Matthews reaches the bodies, he quickly senses something is wrong and in perfect cinematic timing his retribution is swift and instantaneous, taking a bullet to the stomach. Ize attempts rescue but gets hit in the knee in the process and is forced to take cover behind a small wall, his brother in arms lays in the open, alive, barely. Shortly after, the Iraqi sniper appears on Ize’s radio impersonating an army officer trying to trick Ize into giving his exactly location by firing in the air but is sussed out when Ize gets suspicious at the officer’s disregard for protocol, as if that stopped anyone before.

This scene is both the highlight of the film and the cause of its downfall. Verbal camouflage and trickery is an idea rarely explored in cinema but to fool the viewer as well as the on screen character the portrayal has to be convincing which it was absolutely not, think Ewen McGregor in Big Fish. Once the sniper or ‘Juba’ reveals himself the plot wanders into no mans land, slowly sinking under the weight of irrelevant dialogue and lacklustre sub-plots.

In an interview, Liman noted that the characters in his movies are unconventional superheroes, Tom Cruise’s Bill Cage in Edge of Tomorrow for example, and the same can be said here. Although the Groundhog Day ability of Cruise is far more believable than the pinpoint accuracy of this Iraqi sniper. From over 1500 yards we are to believe that ‘Juba’ intentionally hits the radio antenna, water canteen and knee of ‘Ize’ as he frantically strafes trying to dodge the bullets, leaving him without backup, water and bleeding out.

Despite the numerous flaws of the film, Liman deserves praise for creating an almost heatstroke-inducing environment. The endless dust and blazing sun emphasises the harsh conditions of the Iraq conflict. Aaron Taylor Johnson continues to go from strength to strength putting in the performance of his career as Ize, and John Cena proves to everyone that he most certainly can act, at least in the handful of scenes where he was conscious.

The Wall falls into the most frustrating category of cinema. Movies that aren’t distinctly good or bad, but are remarkably average and as a result, utterly forgettable. The only question that you’ll be left pondering when the credits rolls is ‘Why does Doug Liman repeatedly shame me for the Iraq War as if I was the one who said they had WMD’s?’