Tag: 1970s

High-Rise (2015)

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Ben Wheatley is one of the most exciting British directors working today. His two best films are Kill List, a deeply disturbing horror/thriller about a tormented contract killer, and Sightseers, a black comedy about a troubled couple on their parochial, psychopathic honeymoon.

Key to these films’ success are strong characters with interesting dynamics. Kill List begins almost like a domestic kitchen-sink drama centred on the failing relationship between Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Burning), but it subsequently evolves, or rather devolves, into something dark, dank and horrible in a most unpredictable manner. Sightseers may be most commonly remembered for its scenes of outlandish violence, such as when Chris (Steve Oram) deliberately runs over a litterer in a fit of righteous anger. However, underneath the comic outbursts of gore is the poignant relationship between Chris and Tina (Alice Lowe), an oddball pair with a past of loneliness and insecurity.

Having proved himself as a director of visceral horror and emotional substance, Ben Wheatley is the natural choice to direct J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, a Goldingesque tale of violent class war exploding within a brutalist tower block. The fragility of civilisation, and the primitive savagery that lurks beneath it, is a darkly fascinating subject that has made for excellent films and books, such as Threadsa devastating vision of post-apocalyptic Britain, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which needs no introduction.

High-Rise does not brush shoulders with such works, for its allegory of class divide gets lost in a dull montage of blood, sweat and blue paint. Oh, and dancing air hostesses, for reasons that are, to put it politely, enigmatic.

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The focal characters – Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a measured, middle class doctor; Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a sultry woman who serves as Laing’s gateway in to the upper floors’ high culture; Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a pugnaciously aspirational documentary maker; and Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the patrician architect who designed the building – are introduced well enough, but ultimately do not receive sufficient development.

As the lead and perhaps most relatable character, we are in the body of Laing when he traverses the tower’s social scene, which he admits to ‘not being very good at’. Some may find him steely, but Laing has an affable reserve and high emotional intelligence. He isn’t particularly interested in the petty one-upmanship that comes with climbing the social ladder, but he manages to deftly negotiate it anyway through his insouciant reserve that maintains peoples’ interest and disarms any potential enemies. Hiddleston, one of Britain’s hottest exports, is well cast here, he delivers the best performance of the film.

However, after a competent introduction to society in the high rise, Laing and the others get lost in an incoherent narrative that favours aesthetics and absurdity over credible character interplay. It begins three months ahead of the main events, showing a blood spattered Laing roasting a dog’s leg over a fire surrounded by dirt and detritus. After the aforementioned introductory period of around thirty minutes, the film then charts what led to this repellent spectacle with a disjointed series of set pieces that give little sense of progression.

Electrical problems are plaguing the building and resentment is brewing between the upper and lower floors, but the descent into nihilism just… happens. Dogs are being drowned, Laing’s painting his apartment (and himself) like a total madman and the whole building becomes a rubbish-strewn nightmare – but there’s no tension, no crescendo, no credibility and, curiously, no one who considers leaving! The worsening relations should have been more gradual and given much greater depth and meaning by the characters, their dialogue and their relationships. Instead, the main character covers himself in paint to communicate his increasingly aberrant state of mind, which appears to be an obvious metaphor for tribal decorations.

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Blue Jasmine – a real film about class.

High-Rise fails as a film about primal savagery and particularly as a film about class. In Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, I cringed as Jasmine and her husband Hal, arrogant members of New York high society, barely contained their raging superiority complexes as they awkwardly condescended to Ginger (Jasmine’s sister) and Augie, a decidedly blue collar couple who wonder at Hal and Jasmine’s luxurious home. No such realist interplay is to be found in High-Rise, because its characters are thinly drawn and it isn’t rooted in reality, which is very much to its detriment.

Towards the film’s end, there are moments in which Royal and his minions discuss the politics and future of the tower, with Royal remarking that the lower floors should be ‘Balkanised’, meaning that they should be fragmented and pitted against each other in a manner reminiscent of the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. I liked the use of that phrase, there should have been a lot more of this in the script, more overt political manoeuvring rather than surrealist claptrap and brutalist 70s chic.

Alas, Wheatley’s High-Rise is more concerned with aesthetics and the 1970s, which means there’s more in the way of shag-pile carpets, dodgy hair and the colour brown than developed characters, coherent narrative structure and sociopolitical substance.

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Silent Running (1972)

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A soporific film whose message seems to be – eco-terrorism, it’s noble. (Spoilers, sort of.)

Read a brief synopsis and Silent Running looks interesting, it imagines the dreadful prospect of a dystopian world that’s bereft of wildlife and personality. It’s well intentioned and quite prescient; it chimes with contemporary environmental issues. This should all be interesting, but it’s very dull indeed.

Silent Running takes place aboard a spaceship which has several domes containing an array of plants and wildlife. These are maintained by Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), a man whose strong views on ecology make him a pariah among the other crewmen. When Lowell’s forestry is arranged to be destroyed by the powers that be, he reacts in a way that is, to understate, morally dubious.

One of the main reasons why this is all such a drag is because we’re given no depth, it isn’t explained why Earth is a barren dystopia or why they’re going to Saturn. You expect the crew members to imbue the film with substance however the character development is cut fatally short when Lowell blows them up early in the film. This plot development doesn’t do many favours for the sole remaining character either, because as much as Lowell’s indifferent and stupid colleagues annoyed me, did they really deserve to die? The film seems to justify their hurried dispatching, we’re supposed to care for this drab murderer and his forest.

One-man shows like Cast Away require a good leading man in an extraordinary situation. The last one I saw was All Is Lost with Robert Redford. It was the most extreme example of the genre I’d seen and was grossly overrated on the ‘tomato-meter’ at 94%, but the ambitious film just about worked for me.

Silent Running gets neither an interesting lead character nor a compelling situation. Outside of an impassioned diatribe against his colleagues’ indifference about the environment and the human condition, Lowell is a long faced, shaggy haired non-entity. Once he is the sole remaining homo-sapien, Lowell’s only companions are three charisma bereft robots called Huey, Dewey and Louie (this is cute apparently), whose organs of communication are metal flaps that emit a quiet, meaningless sort of whistle.

The supposed spectacle of Silent Running is also underwhelming. Director Douglas Trumbull worked on the special effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey, they’re very much of their time in parts but nonetheless sensory and epic in scope. However, in Silent Running, Trumbull’s directorial debut, the exterior shots of the spacecraft often look decidedly fake and miniature and the explosions are lamentably dated and intangible.

I watched this film on Mark Kermode’s recommendation. He loves this film, he considers it superior to 2001 and shockingly names it one of the greatest films ever made. He says that it’s a human tale, that Dern’s relationship with the robots is deeply affecting, I couldn’t disagree more. The reason why Kermode likes it so much is because it’s nostalgic for him, he saw at just 11-years-old and subsequently grew up loving the film – I’ve had similar attachment to films like Jaws, which is of course infinitely better.

After a while I was willing for the film to end, I became entirely indifferent towards the narrative’s dreary developments and the politics beneath them. I love nature and beautiful landscapes, I empathised with Lowell to a certain degree, however his actions make the film’s message all rather muddled. Silent Running may appeal to Green extremists, however I think even they’ll grow tired once they realise how little there is beyond its eco-friendly sentiment.

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The Stoke Film Theatre – a beacon of light for local film fans.

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The Stoke Film Theatre is celebrating its 40th birthday this year. It opened its doors in September 1974, a time of great vitality in world cinema. With people like Michael Bay running amok, how well does contemporary cinema serve film fans?

Located in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, the Stoke Film Theatre has committed itself to showing a wide range of films to the public. It’s a great cultural jewel whose considerable patronage is of all ages. The Theatre’s schedule is split into three parts: Main Programme, Screen Monday and Screen Wednesday. The Main Programme comprises new films that are both obscure and wide releases. Tickets cost £6 or £5 for a concessions ticket. Screen Monday showings are free and vary in content, the latest Monday season is in tribute to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Screen Wednesday, which is also free, is an outlet for the Staffordshire Film Archive, which was founded by Ray Johnson and is situated in Staffordshire University. (For details on what’s showing, visit their website.) Following Staffordshire University’s semesters, the Stoke Film Theatre closes in July and reopens in September.

Grace Jordan has worked with her husband John at the theatre in a voluntary capacity for 40 years. She said: ‘The Film Theatre evolved from The North Staffordshire Film Society in September 1974, it is a non-profit organisation run largely by volunteers, the only paid members being manager Alexandra Scott and administrator Gill Yates.

‘There are 8 teams of volunteers, each comprising 6 people. They run the front of house, managing ticket sales and running the bar. We also have several volunteer projectionists. To conform to industry standards, we had to equip the theatre with digital technology at the expense of around £50,000.

‘Our anniversary is in September, we plan to celebrate this with a collection of films that were shown back in 1974, however we haven’t decided what they are yet.’

Peter Hames has been a governor of the Stoke Film Theatre since 1974 and was also head programmer for over 30 years. Peter, who lives in Stone, was also involved in the creation of the film studies course at Staffordshire University. Peter said: ‘It is the function of the Film Theatre to provide a considerably wider range of films both in terms of country of origin and in terms of subject matter.’

peter hamesPeter Hames has been a Film Theatre governor since 1974.

The Stoke Film Theatre is part of the Europa Cinemas Group, which is a theatre network that focuses on European cinema. It is a vast organisation comprising 1,182 cinemas and 3,194 screens in 682 cities in 69 countries. Europa’s objective is to provide ‘operational and financial support’ to cinemas like the Stoke Film Theatre that are committed to screening European films.

Peter said: ‘Originally the Film Theatre was set up in association with the British Film Institute, who advised on film availability and programme selection. We’ve also always had an advisory programming committee’

The booking of films is done through the Independent Cinema Office, who negotiate directly with film distributors. Peter said: ‘There have been occasional problems with distributors, but generally relations have been okay.’

Peter specialises in Slavic cinema, having written a book titled ‘Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition’. He is the Russian and Eastern European film programme advisor for the BFI London Film festival. When asked his favourite films, Peter named the five films he selected for Sight and Sound’s best films of all time in 2010: ‘The Man in the White Suit’ (UK), ‘The Searchers’ (US), ‘A Tale of Tales’ (Russian animation), ‘Celine and Julie Go Boating’ (France), ‘Daisies’ (Czech). But like so many film fans, he finds such a small number just isn’t enough: ‘I estimate that I would have to select at least 60 with a claim to being representative of ‘the best of cinema’.

Volunteer Beth Walton said: ‘I have been a volunteer at the film theatre for two years now, but I have been an audience member for about eight. I work in the box office selling tickets and occasionally on the bar which is what all the volunteers (apart from the projectionists, who only project) do, but I also keep the Facebook page and Twitter feed up to date with what is going on, along with one other volunteer.

‘Updating these is really enjoyable, especially when we do fun things like the programme board that said ‘Hello to Jason Isaacs’ and got re-posted by Kermode and Mayo, where it got well over 100 ‘likes’!

‘I have also been able to program a couple of our Screen Monday seasons. Every Monday night we show a film for free in seasons of four or five around a theme, usually an actor or director. Back in September we had Monday of the Dead which was really fun. I’ve met so many great people through volunteering at the Film Theatre and count a couple of them as some of my best friends’

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Beth Walton has been a volunteer at the Stoke Film Theatre for two years.

When asked what her favourite films were, Beth said: ‘It is really hard to say what my favourite films are – the list depends on what I’ve been watching recently or what mood I’m in, but today it is: ‘Harold and Maude’ (1971), ‘If…'(1968), ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ (1960), ‘Cria Cuervos’ (1976), ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1951).’

The Stoke Film Theatre was launched at a time of great invention and transgression in world cinema. The late 60s and 70s were dubbed ‘New Hollywood’, they introduced audiences to levels of realism that had been seldom seen. Sex, violence and counterculturalism proliferated with titles such as ‘The Wild Bunch’(1969), ‘Easy Rider’(1969), ‘Midnight Cowboy’(1969), ‘Bonnie and Clyde’(1967), ‘Deliverance’(1972), ‘A Clockwork Orange’(1971), ‘The Exorcist’(1973), ‘Taxi Driver’(1976) and many more.

Many complain that modern cinema has become excessively commercialised, with some of the harshest criticism levelled at confectionary prices. (Not a problem at the Stoke Film Theatre, they even sell alcohol too!) BBC film critic Mark Kermode has frequently criticised the ‘multiplex culture’, writing whole books about the issue. Scores would agree that the summer blockbuster, which began with the excellent ‘Jaws’ in 1975, has been steadily bastardised with many long, boring and incredibly loud films like ‘Transformers’ inexplicably managing to rake in the cash.

Peter Hames pointed out: ‘Commercial cinema is there to maximise profit and is therefore not going to experiment with unusual (or foreign language) cinema, this is where places like our theatre come in’

Of course, not everything at the Staffordshire multiplexes is directed by Michael Bay (the notoriously explosion-happy director responsible for tripe such as ‘Pearl Harbour’ and the ‘Transformer’ series), there are plenty of interesting films that receive wide releases. But the Stoke Film Theatre, which is a cultural jewel of not only Stoke but Staffordshire, hosts the largest breadth of world cinema in the area. It reassures any dissenting voices that there is still a wealth of interesting, original and challenging cinema being produced.The Theatre has done a sterling job showing the best of the past couple of years, with packed audiences for ‘The Hunt’, ‘Captain Phillips’, ’12 Years a Slave’, ‘Nebraska’, ‘The Act of Killing’, ‘Rush’ and ‘Blue Jasmine’ to name only a few of just their main programme.

Compared to the music industry, cinema is in perfect health. Much like the shouty blockbusters of cinema, the nonsense that is chart music may obnoxiously steal the attention away from the proper artists, but are the proper artists comparable to the proper films like Thomas Vinterberg’s brilliant ‘The Hunt’? I’m not sure they are. If you’re a fan of cinema who’s become disillusioned with the local multiplex, let me assure you that the Stoke Film Theatre is a place with like-minded patronage that go to the cinema to actually watch a film. Visit their website.

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

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This image may summarise the film’s implausibility.

Although it features a superb transformation from Forest Whitaker and a series of well-constructed scenes,  the largely fictional narrative that surrounds them is ultimately rather formulaic and implausible.

‘The Last King of Scotland’ is all about Forrest Whitaker; as soon as he graces the screen, he is Idi Amin. The unison of Whitaker’s physicality and his superb East African accent, which is perhaps the most impressive element of his performance, transforms him into the Ugandan dictator.

Although it is clear that Amin is a manipulator and intent on getting his own way, he is loquacious, magnetic and, surprisingly, quite affable. He charms both the viewer and Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), the impressionable Scottish doctor who initially believes Amin’s rousing yet hollow speeches.

It soon becomes apparent however that this is a charm offensive, a manipulative process that wears very thin once Amin’s deeply ugly, frenetic megalomania is laid bare. Like many of history’s dictators – Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot – Amin succumbs to paranoia, and mass violence ensues.

The film begins with the proclamation that ‘This film is inspired by real people and real events.’, however it fails to state that the central character Nicholas Garrigan is actually entirely fictional. I hadn’t looked into the film’s veracity before watching it, however although there appeared to be clear narrative exaggerations at times, I had presumed that Garrigan was at least a real person. It is a typical example of the ‘inspired by real events’ cliché, ‘inspired’ is always the key part of the sentence.

The film follows Garrigan as he inadvertently becomes Amin’s personal physician and at times ‘closest advisor’; it is indeed an extraordinary predicament, but I suppose stranger things have happened. McAvoy is good as Garrigan, his gradually souring relationship with Amin is interesting and intense, they have many great exchanges.

However, with the knowledge that Nicholas Garrigan is an invention of Giles Foden, author of the book on which the film is based, Scotland’s narrative seems rather formulaic and implausible. I found Garrigan’s relationships with medic Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson) and Kay Amin (Kerry Washington) to be hackneyed plot mechanisms.

While the film includes real events such as the Israeli hostage crisis at Entebbe International Airport, much of what occurs is either historically unfaithful or sheer fiction. The story was inspired by one of Amin’s many self-bestowed titles – The King of Scotland.

An example of the film’s implausibility is the scene where Garrigan and Amin first meet. Amin’s Citroen DS has been in a collision with a cow (what appears to be an Ankole-Watusi), leaving him with an injured hand that Garrigan tends to. The creature appears to be fatally wounded and wails in a pain until Garrigan, who has repeatedly asked for it to be put out of its misery, takes Amin’s gun from the roof of the car and mercifully shoots it twice in the head.

Although the surrounding guards train their guns on Garrigan, predictably Amin respects his audacity, and, amusingly, is particularly pleased when he finds out he is Scottish. It is a scene that is quite bereft of credibility.

Although the film has elements of character study, my main problem with the film is that it doesn’t give an insight into Amin’s rule and the atrocities committed under it. Although he is clearly a despot, a mentally ill bully, the film’s emphasis on his fictional relationship with Garrigan rather than fact meant that I didn’t find him hateful.

‘The Last King of Scotland’ features a superb transformation from Forest Whitaker and a series of well-constructed scenes, however ultimately the largely fictional narrative that surrounds Whitaker is rather formulaic.

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Get Carter (1971)

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‘Get Carter’ is certainly an icon of British miserablism, however my most recent rewatching left me unimpressed.

I love British films of the 60s and 70s. Everything’s very grey and very brown and the characters are thoroughly downbeat and pessimistic; there’s also vile patterned wallpaper everywhere.  The visceral kitchen sink drama is a British trademark that can still be found in later films such as Gary Oldman’s ‘Nil by Mouth’ (1997) and Paddy Considine’s ‘Tyrannosaur’ (2011).

‘Get Carter’ is an icon of British miserablism, I first saw the film on TV when I was quite young, I liked it. I’ve had it on DVD for years and always regarded it as a nasty, hard hitting classic. However, after watching it again in 2013, I was left rather deflated.

There’s no doubt that it continues to be drab and nasty. The abject horror of 60s architecture can be seen throughout the film; I think the brutalist architects of the 50s and 60s did more damage to our landscape than the Luftwaffe. ‘Carter’ really corroborates the saying ‘It’s grim up north’, as the film’s great climax shows that even the beaches can’t escape the polluted, achromatic hell of the city. (I’m pleased to see that the beach has since been completely cleaned up)

Despite this, the problem at its core is simply age, it has dated badly. The violence has no punch, quite literally; the choreography of Caine’s beat-downs on various enemies is unconvincing and in some instances just risible. The worst example of this is when Carter manages to catch someone’s fist and slap him round the face in a scene that is horrendously edited. There’s also a moment where he lunges towards a woman (who cannot act) in a café and wraps his hand around her throat in a highly orchestrated fashion.

All of this amateurism is exacerbated by how, in this film at least, Michael Caine is not an intimidating figure. In ‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980), Bob Hoskins is short, stocky and has a very bad temper, however Caine, whilst cool and moody, is rather lanky and weak.

The script is also dated, it’s all ‘bloody’ this and ‘you’re a git’ that. While there’s no doubt that the British have an affinity for such words, it felt like the script was under the gaze of Mary Whitehouse (Well, someone more lenient actually, the ridiculous Whitehouse would even object to the lexicon of Get Carter)

Aside from its age, I also found the story weak. It is basic, which can be great, however as the characters and their relationships are so unremarkable, Carter’s straightforward revenge narrative suffers. I didn’t particularly care for Carter and his cause, he’s a blandly nasty character meting out justice to other equally flat characters.

Caine is fine as Jack Carter; he has moments of great anger, especially in an emotional outpour in the film’s final minutes. Outside of these moments however is a rather standard hard man stock character performance.

While ‘Get Carter’ is still bleak and perhaps captures the zeitgeist of 70s working class Britain, it is rather dramatically unaffecting. After years of thinking it was a great film, I was left unimpressed by its lack of character development, its collection of poor supporting performances and its dated action and script. The shocking climax on that foul, polluted beach and Roy Budd’s fantastic score are still high points, though.

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