Friday, 30 November 2012

Ben Wheatley - 6 Recommended British films

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to see Kill List close to it's release in 2011. As you'll see from my appraisal, I rather liked it. You will too, because it is an incredible tour de force of a film. Being honest, I missed Down Terrace on release in 2009 but have seen a number of times since and guess what? I love that film too!

Hence this blog, and the second in my personal series on great new British Directors.  

Ben's third cinematic release "Sightseers" was released in November 2012 closely followed by "A Field in England" in 2013 and the hotly anticipated adaptation of JG Ballard's novel "High Rise" in 2015. Now fully updated with Ben's sixth film "Free Fire" in 2016, all six cinematic releases are fully reviewed below, bringing together films that are breathless, anxious, difficult to watch pieces of absolute cinematic gold. They are all highly disturbing insights into the human psyche, of cold and calculating human beings full of frailties, recriminations and angst ridden portrayals set against a beautiful and enchanting backdrop from regular Director of Photography Laurie Rose. All six films have numerous common threads running through them: A detachment from reality, living in a self contained bubble, a "might is right" attitude and numerous more that spoilers won't allow! They also have that elusive element in film whereby the characters created are often distasteful and wholly unlikeable yet you cheer for their redemption whilst being unable to understand their motivations and unable to change them. All six films also have cinematic climaxes that are just a film fan's joy to behold.

As with all of my film blog's I write from a fan's perspective, of the Director's art and craft for making incredible films, rather than producing endless fact tracks and trivia. I also do not intend to provide large spoilers as it is not my intention to spoil these great films for you in any way. Moreover, this blog is an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful British Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy these wonderful, yet disturbing creations. I hope you enjoy.

Down Terrace (2009)

"I feel like a teenage, tantric Superman!"

How do you sum up Down Terrace? An edgy, very darkly comedic edged crime drama? An 89 minute debut feature that will leave your jaw on the floor in horror, bemusement and appreciation of an astounding film? It certainly did me. But first, the incredible characters:

Bill (Robert Hill) Recently acquitted of an unexplained crime who returns to his domain to continue his shady and purposely vague criminal business. Seemingly the Family Patriarch and a font of all knowledge, he speaks in sound bites, oblique references and has a methodical answer for everything. He has a constant air of being right, of being just and correct, however his duality is quickly established, as is his paranoia and blatant two faced attitude to everyone apart from his devoted wife Maggie. His plain, matter of fact style of speaking grates at first but that should be regarded as a compliment as it blends with the other richly detailed characters he comes into contact with. With jiffy bags of unexplained content, a Club constantly referenced but never seen, and an air of control over his domain, it's interesting to note the crumbling surrounds of his home and a key metaphor for the film as a whole. Describing his spiritual awakening feels deliberately rehearsed and forced, with his son Karl's reactions matching this "I was a smoker, an artist, a poet". A heavy drug user combined with an unexplained clear liquid and white tablets (occasionally referenced as "vitamins") Robert Hill's performance is sublime, always reinforcing his character's determination that he is right and his path the right one. A performance that has everything, a stillness, a clear adoration for his wife, unhinged and frightening, ruthless and determined. It's a brilliant but shocking portrayal.

Karl (Robin Hill) also acquitted with his Father for the unexplained crime. Almost a mirror to his Father, explaining perhaps his painful descent into paranoia and all out aggression. Robin Hill's performance of calm serenity to nasty, aggressive bully is incredible at times, and always very unnerving. It's a great compliment that whilst Karl is on screen you simply can't settle, you're unnerved by his performance, awaiting his next violent outburst or bemused by his strangely sadistic laugh! His mental anguish is quickly established as he struggles with his "monkey suit", as is his frightening outburst as he tries to find some prison letters from his girlfriend, a scene that has to be seen to be believed. Hill's portrayal of a man on constant edge, bordering on psychotic and schizophrenic is brilliant. The mirror metaphor to his Father is apt in many ways, except their apparent mental state. Heavy drug use (seen rolling a joint in the opening minutes) and sharing the unexplained "vitamin" drink, Hill's performance is frightening, unnerving and at times incomprehensible.

Maggie (Julia Deakin) The family Matriarch and real head of the household who seemingly is always in the background. The important confidant to husband Bill and despite the chaos and blazing rows surrounding her seems strong, determined and unflappable. The film's moral centre, but her unravelling is heart breaking at times (especially when backed by the beautiful violin score of "Scarborough Fair") and her singing to son Karl to soothe and comfort him is truly heart warming and breaking in equal measure. The smaller of the three main roles, yet Julia Deakin does so much in an accomplished performance.

Pringle (Michael Smiley) a strange, quirky and "buzzing" performance from Smiley who as always, is pitch perfect throughout. From broad smiling and comfortable to snarling and hurtful in the blink of an eye, his admonishment of Karl is as frightening as it is simple. Karl, playing innocently with Pringle's son who is having an absolute ball and loving every minute of the attention but it's Pringle's complete about turn from smiling and jolly to outright anger that staggers "Less of that. I don't mind the kissing and cuddling, but less of the farting noises". A quick cut but another immediate admonishment, this time dead pan and even more threatening "Just stay where I can see you". The shared scenes with Karl continue in a similar manner later when again Pringle, now switching from flat out anger to a warm smiling embrace at Karl's impending Fatherhood couldn't be happier for him "Hug it up bitch!".

Following a daily narrative with the days of the week themselves listed as scene accompaniments, this is a deliberately tough watch at times and a disturbing portrayal of family life and relationships mirroring one another and spiralling out of control. There is a underlying warmth to many characters yet the juxtaposition against a ruthless determination of being right and just outweigh this and the vacant detachment in seeking that ground is starkly displayed. Awkward conversations often lead nowhere, or seemingly nowhere yet still tail off, but this is not a criticism. It's a heavily veiled compliment as the vagueness and vacuosity of the conversations actually engage you as the audience as you try to piece the puzzle of the narrative together. Random conversations and oblique references build a compelling story. The violence is often brief but shockingly brutal, the scenes that contradict this are frighteningly portrayed. The intense build up and the boiling over of fractious arguments that lead to the violence are by far the most affecting.

Cameo and supporting roles are provided by David Schaal as "Eric" a loyal and ambitious member of Bill's crew. The joker of the pack, his bad taste musings often hang in the air awkwardly. Tony Way plays "Garvey" a clumsy yet loyal member of the crew, with Mark Kempner as "Berman" and Gareth Tunley as "Johnny". A particular stand out is Kerry Peacock's performance as Karl's girlfriend "Valda" deliberately obscure, yet straight talking and unafraid of the chaos unfolding around her.

Bill and Karl's Father and Son relationship drive the film and their dual scenes are always full of tension and angst. Often filmed in close up throughout, their awkward vague conversations are constantly broken by violent reprisals but are quickly cut to more jovial, happier times together. Again a metaphor perhaps for their individual states of mind, their character duality and their scenes together are brilliantly portrayed, and equally brilliantly shot and captured by Director Wheatley. With many scenes contained within just one room of the terraced house (predominantly the Lounge), often one camera only panning between characters, you are immediately engaged with the screen action as you follow the camera motion. Equally so when two cameras are used and there are numerous scenes or segments of scenes to enjoy from a slightly obscured viewpoint or angle. With subtle quick cuts the film moves at a real pace and is engaging and thoughtful throughout. Scenes are segued by either a black/blank slide to cut between scenes or a host of brilliant songs. Only four songs are used and each are a joy. "Babes in the Wood" and "The Lark of the Morning" from The Copper Family, "The Ship's Carpenter" from Lisa Abbott and "Are you leaving for the Country" by Karen Dalton.

Written, Produced and edited by Ben Wheatley and Robin Hill, this 89 minute film with a total cast list of just sixteen actors is simply incredible. I find this film fascinating and the waxing lyrical above is also a tribute to Director of Photography Laurie Rose who with Ben blend moments of bone crunching and deeply dark humour with brilliant character portrayals and a real grating angst that runs through the entire film. With fifteen minutes to go you may be shaking your head at the achievement of this debut film from Wheatley. By the end of those fifteen minutes, you'll be picking your jaw off the floor. An incredible first feature film.

Kill List (2011)

"You shouldn't shout at Mummy"

At just 95 minutes long, this horror/thriller has damn near everything. The scene is set from the very first shot, very first look and the film is unrelenting until the final scene. It's difficult to classify as a horror/thriller as it's so much more than that and even after several re-viewings it still surprises with the touches you missed the first time which are more evident, yet still you see something, a piece of the puzzle on further viewings. Not strictly a three act structure, more a fluid film weaving a narrative between the main characters. I'll briefly appraise the opening act, fully explore part of act two and leave the rest to your imaginations and hopefully your DVD and Blu Ray players. It's a film that simply must be seen.

"Jay" (Neil Maskell) has been out of work for nine months and with money problems mounting, this is clearly affecting his relationship with wife "Shel" (MyAnna Buring), as is very starkly demonstrated by their furious arguments followed by awkward and unconvincing reconciliations. The tension is always evident and with subtle jump cuts even within a simple series of scenes (a tearful telephone call cut to a play fight with rubber swords and shields), an air of dread and tension continues and we quickly arrive at the pre-arranged evening dinner party with friends "Gal" (Michael Smiley) and "Fiona" (Emma Fryer). A fractious dinner party ensues, always bubbling with innuendo, caustic wit, accusations and an unrelenting tension that finally snaps before a gear changing "breather" scene drains away the tension, to be replaced by a proposition from Gal. A kill list is available. 3 targets. Big money. Towards the end of Act One another "breather" scene is brilliantly played, equal parts terrifying and funny, there follows a contract signing that is quite literally signed in blood and Jay and Gal prepare for their first kill professionally and meticulously and not "as gang a hail of bullets". The kill list is made up of three individual targets and the film pronounces these targets with simple slides before each contract kill, "The Priest", "The Librarian" and "The MP". Here is my dissection of The Priest:

Staking out a picturesque church from their car, Jay and Gal approach the church and another of the film's themes is used again, that of a scene continuing quickly with jump cuts and continued dialogue becoming a short narrationThis time it's Gal as he protests "For the record, I've hardly done any terrible shit" as they break into the church we cut quickly to The Priest continuing his ceremony, a pattern of constant cutting back and forth between the two scenarios is set, however the audio from each scene has been replaced by a mournful orchestral track which is also replaced with a sinister "hum" as The Priest packs away the last of his Bibles. 

Gal crosses himself (Jay in background with nonchalant stare at the door) before they both prepare their killing zone, methodically and professionally. The Priest enters his office slightly bemused at the see through plastic covering the entirety of his desk area and with a faint but frightened smile sees Jay pointing a pistol directly at him. "Turn Round" is the order from Jay, with a "Thank You" response from The Priest.

With no expression from either Gal or Jay, the body is unceremoniously dumped from a height, bundled quickly into their waiting car and burnt at an incinerator. "Why do you think he had that smile on his face?" enquires Gal to which Jay dismissively replies "Probably at peace, you know"The scene itself continues but rather than continue in detail, I'll note a continuing theme of the film and that of the nature of the Killers themselves. The scene continues with Jay and Gal checking into yet another hotel, another bland, soulless, and crucially, low key hotel. Their preparations and discussions are seen, a monotonous grind of every day interactions within a low key hotel room juxtaposed against a life away from which are anything but monotonous or unremarkable. The same can be said for the other main characters, both of whom have a duality of character not always visible, but this theme is a constant throughout the film. All characters have a matter of fact nature about them, an ends justifies the means Machiavellian response which often unnerves you.

Act Three contains fifteen minutes of truly terrifying suspense and anxiety. It is unrelenting and sometimes difficult to watch and on many levels, comprehend. The clues have been laid out throughout the film, but to list them or even hint further would be to spoil the story which is not my intention. Jim Williams original music score was mentioned in my dissection of The Priest scene above and is a haunting, thoughtful joy, heightening the tension slowly throughout. There's often only a faint "whistling" as a score, which is unnerving at times. An outstanding support cast in mainly cameo roles is headed by a lovely performance from the youngest cast member, Harry Simpson as Jay and Shel's son "Sam", his early tender scenes with Jay so funny and joyful. Struan Rodger as "The Client" is superb and there are returning roles for both Robert Hill as "High Priest" and Robin Hill as "Stuart".

The comparisons with "The Wicker Man" are stark and very apt, but being a little biased, I love this film far, far more. Employing regular subtle jump cuts similar to his previous film, and brief blank slides to literally cut between the scenes, the Director moves this brief film along at a pace despite some scenes giving an air of normalcy, of vacuous routine. But the sense of dread, and of intrigue and apprehension is always there, sometimes leaving the film a difficult watch. The violence is at times horrific, blatant and graphic, the lead up to the violence often far worse and similar in theme to his previous film Down Terrace. Expertly helmed by Wheatley, he brings the absolute best out of his four stars yet again.

Jay His background unexplained, his bad back a cover for deeper psychological wounds and so desperately over the edge, Neil Maskell is just outstanding. Central in every scene, we see his stark descent so vividly, so inexplicably and so painfully. A stellar performance. 

Gal Teetering on the edge, the joker of the two hired killers, Michael Smiley is sublime in his second collaboration with Director Wheatley.


Shel The mirror to her husband's descent, MyAnna Buring is just stunning and a heart breaking portrayal. The film's pulse and heart beat.

Fiona The smallest of the four star roles but a fantastic performance from Emma Fryer. Nuanced and underplayed, but wait for the smile! Oh, and the hotel visit!

As with Down Terrace, Ben Wheatley wrote, edited and directed this masterpiece. Co-written with Amy Jump who also edited with Ben and the returning Robin Hill. Special praise is reserved for returning Director of Photography Laurie Rose for the film as a whole naturally, but for two scenes in particular, the hotel visit of Fiona as briefly mentioned above and for a series of scenes that I'm not even going to hint at for spoiler reasons. When you've seen them, you'll know the exact scenes I'm referring to. 

My favourite film of 2011 and it had a lot of competition. 25 total credited roles in a 95 minute film of pure majesty. Ranks alongside The Blair Witch Project as a film I immediately want to dive into a conversation with someone and dissect it scene by scene. Horrific at times, but so brilliantly portrayed. It's my Blair Witch of the decade so far.

Sightseers (2012)

"I've never been a Muse before!"

Part funded and supported by both Film 4 and the National Lottery, Ben Wheatley's third fantastic film is bookended by two differing version's of Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" and therein lies the first of many metaphors for this darker than dark triumph. Written by the film's two stand out stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (additional material from long time collaborator Amy Jump), the film depicts a love story that on the surface isn't immediately apparent and is driven by instant carnal lust rather than a developing romance. Even 88 minutes later and following yet another Wheatley inspired cinematic denouement that crunches and takes the breath away in equal measure, their love affair fails to resonate fully but that's to the film's eternal credit as from beginning to end their love, their escape, journey and indeed their English caravanning holiday is tainted and fractious but in an incredibly endearing way. Amidst the genteel rolling hills of the English countryside and World Heritage museums that we share with "Tina" (Alice Lowe) and "Chris" (Steve Oram) we encounter chaos at every turn as their unusual love affair takes many oblique turns for the surreal and bizarre, often juxtaposing a natural high and pleasing moment with a disturbingly dark counter point. As with his two previous films, Ben Wheatley has again blended light with dark brilliantly and from the very outset and very first scene it is quickly established that nothing, and absolutely nothing at that, is what it seems.

Tina and Chris are two very disparate characters yet can also be seen as a mirror to each other despite their differences. Tina, cosseted from life by an overbearing Mother "Carol" (brilliant cameo from Eileen Davies) and leading a sheltered, withdrawn life is Chris' "Muse", the inspiration and driving force for his writing. Chris is on a sabbatical from the corporate world and trying to find his voice amidst the clutter of writers block and desperate for adventure and to show Tina the small world of museums and places of natural beauty that surrounds her. Their week long caravanning holiday is meticulously planned to the nth degree to include Crich Tram Museum, Blue John Cavern, Mother Shiptons Cave and the Pencil Museum before the ultimate end to their odyssey, the Ribblehead Viaduct. Both Tina and Chris are incredibly awkward, outsiders in a world where they both prefer to be living inside a bubble of their own making, away from the noise and clutter of the outside world. It could also be argued that both suffer from manic depression as they swing uncontrollably from tremendous and joyous highs to crushing lows and as the film develops (and Tina becomes the more dominant of the two) there is a sense of egging the other on, that they've come this far together and can't allow anyone or anything to get inside their bubble. There is a definite undercurrent of depression and especially societal anxiety at the outside world and all this despite their meticulously planned holiday and numerous destinations, but both Tina and Chris increasingly find it difficult to interact with the world that surrounds them. As with his previous films Down Terrace and Kill List, Ben Wheatley quickly establishes that uneasy feeling that nothing is quite as it seems, with conversations trailing off without an answer, awkward interactions prick the bubble of calm serenity and beauty and scenes often merge into one another with a continuing narration (of sorts) from a previous segment of the scene. This again propels the film but more importantly establishes the fractious nature of our characters minds, feelings and intentions. So often the film has an almost calming, single camera shot on one or both of the character(s) looking directly at the audience, almost asking "are you with us?". Chris' joy is etched all over his face after the early accident at the Crich Tram Museum as the one camera close up testifies, but his barbed "He's ruined the Crich Tram Museum for me now" comment later is another overt clue that all is not what it seems. This is all firmly established early on, as is the characters huge duality swinging from tremendous highs of joy and laughter to brutal, distanced and almost psychopathic tendencies as their week long holiday quickly becomes a random, cold and somewhat schizophrenic killing spree. Did I mention that Chris was on a violent and bloody killing spree? Neither does Chris or Tina! Neither do they mention their burgeoning love affair as this often mirrors the schizophrenic nature of the killing spree. On the surface only it appears cold and awkward with very little real tenderness between them. This is deliberately so but to comment further would be to enter spoiler territory. There is very little outward expression of love, the holding of hands or kisses and cuddles but theirs is a love of passion, of a moment in time, of extreme excess and carnal lust so aptly shown by a rocking caravan and Tina's screams from within! Tina, nose deep in her treasured Pot Pourri exclaiming "Oh God Chris, this is exactly how I imagined it!" is absolutely priceless! Their love is frantic and passionate, capturing that one moment in time of pure lust and absolute joy, living life one hedonistic moment at a time and damning the consequences. Yet by the time "The Power of Love" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (and another direct nod at the audience) is played you may well be cheering for yet more characters in a Ben Wheatley film than your conscience should allow. To continue the metaphor, that specific moment in time of the film, the capturing of Tina and Chris nearing the end of their journey, their broad smiles accompanying the music, their moment in time that they've dreamed of is absolutely stunning and befitting another darkly beautiful film from Wheatley.

Sightseers is another triumph for Ben but special praise is also reserved for Director of Photography Laurie Rose. Amidst the madness of furious sex and pot pourri, the violent and bloody killing sprees and Chris and Tina's nonchalant and detached attitudes to the aftermaths through to their incredibly awkward social interactions, Laurie Rose brings to life so many treasured English tourist destinations with ease. But it's the dawn and dusk pictures of England that please the most, the rising sun captured in glorious wide shots of the English countryside and the dark, haunting dusk of a full moon that capture brilliantly the intensity of impending dread and violent destruction. This is their third joint collaboration and I'm pleased to note that more are to follow. The musical choices of Soft Cell and Frankie Goes to Hollywood are inspired, as is the haunting "Season of the Witch" by Donovan, a scene which simply has to be seen to be believed. As with Ben's previous films there is a small supporting cast of just 29 total actors, some of whom return in minor cameo roles again but this is very definitely Tina and Chris' story, a bloody, brutal and brutally blackly comedic caravanning holiday that I simply adored from the first minute until the last. It is also Alice Lowe and Steve Oram's film and they should be lauded highly for their portrayals. Eminently quotable, wince inducing brilliance again from one of Britain's finest Directors of our age. I cannot recommend this highly enough. Light to dark and back again, and quite possibly again and again, I've dissected the following brief scene as a taster only as this scene encapsulates the majesty of this film perfectly:
An early morning ramble in the English countryside (brilliantly captured by Laurie Rose) as Tina and Chris head for a circle of sacred standing stones. Chris, always ahead of Tina and striding purposely forward ignores Tina's repeated requests to slow down as their dog Poppy relieves herself. Tina is approached by a separate rambler who is aghast that she is neglecting to pick up the excrement in an area of such natural beauty and Tina quickly crumbles, tearfully crying for Chris to return and help her. Their brief interaction is predominantly captured by one moving camera between the rambler and Tina with a second camera angle quickly cut into the narrative. Chris returns and quickly both he and Tina subtly egg each other on, taking an innocent situation which should have been rectified immediately into a subtext of sexual indiscretion to which Chris must now defend Tina's honour as a "serf" to their "Lord and Master". Chris strides purposely again, this time behind the retreating rambler who defends his public school education whilst Chris, prophetically one might argue, counters that China will soon own and dominate this once sacred Country.

Cue John Hurt: "And did those feet in ancient time. Walk upon England's mountain green. And was the holy lamb of God, on England's pleasant pastures seen!. And did the Countenance Divine, shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark satanic mills?"
Slumped against a sacred standing stone, Tina watches nonchalantly, without expression, as Chris violently beats this innocent rambler to death. No motive, no reason, just pure in the moment psychopathy. Slow motion cameras capture the violent madness, quickly cutting between a prone and still emotionless Tina and a raging Chris before he quickly regains his composure with an equally nonchalant "report that to the National Trust mate". The regaining of composure is key as it again establishes the psychopathy and random nature of the attack and of Chris' detached antipathy towards anyone apart from his muse. Tina dead pans "I've never thought about killing innocent people like that before" to which Chris coldly and completely detached from reality counters "He's not a person, Tina. He's a Daily Mail reader. Perspective. Grab it with both hands, it's free". This detachment continues as without a thought for the mindless act that has just transpired Tina urges Chris to use this as inspiration for his writing. "I'm musing!" Tina exhorts excitedly before the scene ends with Tina and Chris embracing the sacred stones that surround them.

Oh, and by the way "Mint Me!"

A Field in England (2013)

"This war's not being run to my liking"

The fourth and latest Ben Wheatley cinematic creation was released in a uniquely different way on multi formats on the same day of release, embracing a new viewing culture for everyone, from Film 4, Channel 4, On Demand, DVD and traditionally via the medium of the cinema itself. Written by regular collaborator and partner in crime Amy Jump (both Ben and Amy were also co-editors), regular collaborator Laurie Rose also returned again as Director of Photography and the film owes a great debt to Rose as a film shot entirely in a field in England and nature being a dominant theme throughout it is shot absolutely beautifully. Wide angled lens shots capture the field and surroundings superbly and lovingly, from the stunning sun rises through to close in shots of rye grass and the spiders webs of nature all around. Laurie Rose, as with all three previous collaborations with Wheatley provides a loving and detailed touch that is to be greatly admired.

Presented in black and white to reflect the period setting of the English Civil War, the war itself seemingly (but unseen) rages on behind a hedgerow but we remain on the other side and in the company of five main characters out of a total of just six in the entire film. All characters are entirely different from each other, a wise and learned man, a coward, an aggressive and angry bully but on the surface each has his own simple, singular dimension, however as the film progresses we see further duality to each man's character. The coward for example becomes the aggressor and the abstainer becomes an abuser. Seeking a pub, beer and "English tits" our merry band of protagonists traverse the field in search of one further item, mystical buried treasure, but during their travels this surreal and often disturbing Ben Wheatley film has much more to offer than just beer, breasts and treasure!

The small cast in this 90 minute film is made up of five individual and eclectic performances from Michael Smiley, a stalwart of Ben Wheatley films, as Irishman "O'Neil", the outstanding Reece Shearsmith as "Whitehead", Ryan Pope as "Cutler", Peter Ferdinando as "Jacob" and Richard Glover as "Friend". There is also a minimal cameo from Julian Barratt as "Trower".

Suffice to say, throw into the mix five weary men, drag Michael Smiley literally out of the ground, a search for a "Master", a twisted concoction of old and new world vernacular typified by "Well, if God Almighty shall preserve my life, I may hereafter add many great things and light to my art" "What's he say?" "He says the next time his Master sends him on a job, he won't fuck it up" and amongst this madness add mushrooms of the magic variety, and you have another twisted gem from Ben Wheatley! But that is far from all. This darkly comedic tale is contorted further through the lens and mind of Wheatley via caustic wit, discombobulating visuals, disorientating slow motion segments, numerous fades to black and yet another final act that is highly disturbing and affecting. It will put a smile on your face but you may feel highly uncomfortable as to why. And the less said about "Baloo, My Boy" and the ultra surreal and disturbing use of "Ring a Ring a Roses" the better! Ben Wheatley is again on top surrealistic and highly disturbing form.

High-Rise (2015)

"Looks like the rot's set in"

Ben's fifth film is the third on which long time collaborator and Partner Amy Jump receives a deserved writing credit, but this time it was adapted from the original 1975 dystopian novel by JG Ballard. Having never read the book I went into this film fresh and with only repeated viewings of the enticing trailer and having read or heard various reviews of varying quality. As a long term fan of the film's of Ben Wheatley I wanted to love this film more than I did on my first watch and several watches later, whilst I don't revere it alongside Kill List or Sightseers, I certainly have very little time for the sniffy and scathing reviews many professional film critics have lambasted this movie with. It's my least favourite of his five current film releases but I admire the adaptation of an allegedly difficult novel, the scope of the world it portrays and the somewhat prescient nature of the crumbling social edifice this film metaphorically and quite starkly portrays. More of which later.

Before I continue with just a brief flavour for this film, here's a little self regarding nonsense and another, very different, review of this film. Firstly, when I originally penned this blog in 2012 (capturing Ben's first three films - Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers) I was incredibly pleased to receive first hand feedback from his regular Director of Photography Laurie Rose on my blog, with Laurie pointing out an error or two in my appreciation of Down Terrace but equally praising me on my honest and amateur film blog. To receive such feedback from such an integral part of Ben's film making process astounded and pleased me, however Laurie, should you be reading this 5 years later in 2017, please skip the following short paragraph and my normal fan appreciation service of Ben will resume after the picture segment!

After watching High-Rise with my lovely girlfriend (name withheld to protect the guilty) here is her capsule review of the film. I may be paraphrasing a little but the gist was:

"It's just an art film by art students who are standing back and saying Look at us, we've put a shark in a tank. Aren't we clever?"

I'm paraphrasing but that was the general response and suffice to say, she hated the film. Hated the premise, plot, the misogynist nature of the male characters, the disposability of the female characters and was most perplexed by a cast of characters who were living in their own created filth and degradation yet, without any police or authority figures to dissuade them, still didn't leave the crumbling High Rise tower block and seek refuge or help. Are the male characters misogynist and their female counterparts simply throwaway and discarded against an empty plot? And why didn't these poor wretches simply leave the High-Rise?

Set in JG Ballard's penned futuristic vision of a dystopian nightmare of society metaphorically, and in a grisly instance, quite literally, eating itself, we encounter "Dr Laing" (Tom Hiddleston) a Doctor at a School of Physiology, who moves into the building of the future, a High Rise Apartment Block of 40 Floors created and built by the self appointed "Architect" known as "Royal" (a brilliantly laconic Jeremy Irons). Other residents, and there are far too many dotted throughout the apartment block to name every character, include single mother "Charlotte" (Sienna Miller), heavily pregnant "Helen" (a brilliant Elisabeth Moss), her husband "Wilder" (with Luke Evans excellently living up to his name!), "Cosgrove" (Peter Ferdinando) and "Ann" (Keeley Hawes) enjoying life on the top floor of the apartment block as the wife of Royal but more importantly, able to ride her horse amongst the splendidly apportioned roof garden! Small cameo roles are also filled by returnees from previous Ben Wheatley films in the guise of Tony Way as the befuddled Caretaker "Robert" and Neil Maskell as "PC White".

Envisioned and created by the Architect Royal, Jeremy Irons reigns supreme on the top floor of the world and the building he created. Dressed all in white, he cuts a God like figure atop the world and in a building where money and affluence affords you a higher standard of living in every sense, with the upper levels of the building set aside for the wealthiest of clients. With it's own integral swimming pool and supermarket, the residents seemingly have no wish to venture further from their own luxurious environment, and this becomes bizarrely and starkly apparent even as the building, and their self contained world, descends into anarchy and chaos. Tensions mount, differences begin to show and three months into their vision of future living, anarchy reigns on every floor of the High Rise tower.

Are the male characters misogynistic? I think this criticism is fairly well argued but I equally feel they are deliberately so. Very early on the film establishes a bleak societal breakdown and impending doom throughout the vaunted futuristic nirvana that the High Rise is supposed to be. Based in the 1970's, the male characters are very much shown as men of their time, badly dressed, wide shouldered, hunter gatherer types and many are unlikeable due to these broad characteristics. Equally, the criticism of the female characters being just additions and throw away creations is well founded but I'd argue again this is deliberately and intentionally so. All characters regardless of their gender here are living in their nirvana, a hedonistic lifestyle to which they bought into when they took up their initial residence in the tower, and this is deliberately portrayed by Sienna Miller's character of Charlotte. But it could be argued that this is counterbalanced by the excellent performance by Elisabeth Moss as the heavily put upon but steadfast Helen. The simpler criticism to answer is why, when their dream life begins to crash in upon them in mere months, do the residents not leave and seek sanctuary elsewhere? They are indeed free to leave, there are no bars on the windows or guards on the door. So why do they not leave? Very early on in the film we see the residents leaving the High Rise for their daily commute to work and the outside world but this is very quickly (and poignantly) moved on from. Simply, the High Rise has become their entire world (for good or ill), their community, their belief in the life that the future holds. And why, when chaos and degradation and in fighting and hell on earth is unfolding, why would you want to leave?!

Set very much in the 1970's but with JG Ballard's eyes fixed on a desperately dystopian future, Ben and Amy have created a nightmarish world within a world with more than a nod to Stanley Kubrick and his "Droogs" from A Clockwork Orange. And I can't think of a more apt way (as a Kubrick fanatic) to end this brief appraisal of a film I heartily recommend. Even if my girlfriend doesn't. Sorry Ben, Amy and especially Laurie (if you've read this far!).

Free Fire (2016)

"Fuck the small talk. Let's buy some guns eh?"

As I pen these words it is just past midnight on Tuesday 28th March 2017 and I have just returned from a preview screening of Ben's sixth film, Free Fire. As with all of Ben's releases I have been childishly excited in the run up to it's official release on Friday 31st March and quickly took advantage of the early preview screening opportunity and immediately bought my ticket some weeks ago. Whilst his previous cinematic release was my least favourite of his five brilliant films to date this in no way dampened either my excitement or my expectation for Free Fire. The two trailers I have seen on a loop on nearly every other visit to the cinema in recent weeks only served to heighten my anticipation of what appears on the surface to be a renegade bunch of rogues attempting to buy guns at the height of the fashion disaster that was the 1970's. And here I am just mere minutes after leaving the cinema having made copious notes in the dark on a stunning film and I'm sitting here looking at a completely blank page! Having a leaky pen will bring on such a calamity and so with far more ink on my fingers than on the page of notes I thought I'd taken, this review will be rather more scatter gun than normal, and perfectly in keeping with the tone of Ben's latest majestic offering. For it is majestic, caustically funny, irreverent and brilliantly, brilliantly shot (pun not intended). Initial kudos falls to Ben himself and his Partner, indeed writing Partner Amy Jump for an incredible screenplay full of wit, invention, wisecracks and pointed humour, in this Ben's funniest film to date. And considering the opposition from Sightseers and the dark humour found in Kill List this is some achievement. I laughed like a drain constantly and left the cinema with a wry, beaming smile at the end, which is high praise indeed coming from a contrarian old curmudgeon like me! Ben and Amy also edited the film. Laurie Rose again returns as Ben's regular Director of Photography and immense praise should fall his way for his uncanny ability to have every character so well lit and present in the frame despite the dark and dank confines of the warehouse and covered with flying masonry, dirt and grime from all angles. Every aspect of the behind the scenes collaborations, be it the musical score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury through to production design, set decoration and the awful 1970's fashion inspired by costume designer Emma Fryer deserve special praise, but these guns won't sell themselves! So where were we? Oh yes.

A warehouse. In Boston. In the 1970's. We have a team of Irish buyers and international sellers headed by a South African, with an intermediary and fixer in between. We have a briefcase full of cash and trunks full of guns. But no-one counted on the third team of shooters hiding in the alcoves of the warehouse. Or the personal battle between two of the protagonists carrying over from the night before. Or the guns being delivered to the tune of "Annie's Song" by John Denver!

The opening fifteen minutes of Free Fire was everything I'd hoped it would be and far, far more. Scatter gun dialogue and pointed, sardonic, piss taking humour amid the tension and angst building amongst the buyers, sellers and a loquacious intermediary. Before the first shot is fired in anger, or otherwise, the film is littered with caustic one liners and personal jibes from all sides and as well as having a leaky pen I also have a leaky brain and so barely remember any at all but it is a thunderously entertaining opening to the film and the portents for the remainder of the film were high, and more than matched in the remaining 75 minutes of this 90 minute film. The film is almost entirely within one single location, an old warehouse and combined with the superb screenplay the film is eerily reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's eponymous debut film Reservoir Dogs. I may be just throwing two of my favourite Directors together for the sheer hell of it, but I've always wanted to write a line loosely comparing a Tarantino film with one of Ben's! But where Tarantino has his trademark Mexican Standoffs, Wheatley employs constant gun fire rattling around this old warehouse with many shots leaving superficial wounds galore as we see all sides frantically scrambling around on their hands and knees seeking shelter from the firestorm raging around them. Confusion reigns, as do personal grudges and scores to settle as a briefcase full of money sits in the middle of the chaos and a telephone rings in an office high above the warehouse seemingly the only way of seeking refuge and rescue from the madness below.

"I don't know whose side I'm on!" perfectly encapsulates the chaotic situation mid way through the film and so briefly we have the buyers "Chris" (Cillian Murphy), "Frank" (Michael Smiley), "Justine" (Brie Larson) aided and abetted by the "Retard Twins" of "Bernie" (Enzo Cilenti) and "Stevo" (Sam Riley). Returning again to a Ben Wheatley film, Michael Smiley is outstanding as Frank, wary and wily, he also has many of the film's funniest lines of dialogue with one snippet being "tits on a brass witch" which tickled me greatly! Cillian Murphy as Chris is ostensibly the leader of the buyers and is unsurprisingly excellent as usual, with Brie Larson more subtle and manipulative in her role as Justine. Early in the film Chris questions the motivations of Justine, both highlighting a key theme of the film as well as questioning her reason for being there. Is she from the FBI? No "IFM" comes Justine's terse reply "Init For Me". The intermediary or fixer for the deal is "Ord" with Armie Hammer outstanding as a garrulous, eloquent middle man who appears to find the whole ordeal a riotous laugh as he constantly smokes one joint after another as he hides from the bullets and debris falling around him! And so to the sellers "Martin" (Babou Ceesay), "Gordon" (Noah Taylor), "Harry" (Jack Reynor) and lastly the leader and the film's absolute stand out performance from Sharlto Copley as "Vernon" or self proclaimed "Vern the Learn". As with Michael Smiley, Copley is provided with the film's best dialogue but adds an off kilter, bizarre dynamic to the role that impressed me immediately and as with Michael Smiley and Neil Maskell's performances in Kill List and Steve Oram and Alice Lowe's performances in Sightseers, Copley's will undoubtedly age brilliantly with repeat viewings.

Ben Wheatley has made yet another British Film Institute, National Lottery funded, Film 4 masterpiece. Tense, brilliantly shot and realised in a single setting with some stellar and sublime performances I was absorbed and adored every one of the ninety minutes of screen time I shared with these characters and with three days to go until the general nationwide release of the film I cannot recommend this highly enough or sincerely hope that it reaches the widest audience possible. It was a joy to see on the big screen and I for one will be first in the queue on Friday to enjoy this masterful film all over again. I'll take a pen that works this time and maybe update this blog with a little more detail come Friday, but regardless, I know I'll laugh and smile again throughout 90 minutes of a brilliant film and leave the cinema again with a huge smile on my face and humming a song by John Denver! What further recommendation do you need?!

1 comment:

  1. In “Down Terrace”, the second song of the Copper Family is not "The Lark of (sic) the Morning" (the film credits are doubly wrong) but “Claudy Banks”. But agreed, the film is great.