Tag: british film

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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Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning

A timeless film about young adulthood.

Albert Finney drives this film with his brilliant performance as Arthur Seaton, an angry young factory worker from Nottingham who lives for the weekend.

His infectious appetite for trouble has developed a reputation for being a rogue in the terraces and ginnels of his neighbourhood. He likes the ladies, and although there are plenty of single women out there for him, he chooses to sleep with Brenda (Rachel Roberts), the wife of his workmate Jack (Bryan Pringle). A scene early in the film shows Arthur gleefully finishing breakfast at Brenda’s house when Jack is moments away from walking through the door. Arthur deliberately takes his time in escaping, relishing the close shave.

Opinionated and disaffected, Arthur enjoys regular rants with his close friend Bert (Norman Rossington) about the banality of the quiet life and how he has ‘fight’ in him. Although he dislikes authority figures and the local old bag who pokes her nose in everyone’s business, the enemy that he’s fighting isn’t a human, his enemy is conformity; the prospect of settling down and facing the daily grind makes him very anxious and fiery indeed.

This leads to an awful lot of troublemaking, which can be very funny. In one moment he loads his rudimentary pellet gun, quietly opens a window and shoots Mrs. Bull (Edna Morris), the aforementioned nosey cow, in her fat backside while she gossips. I laughed excitedly like a naughty adolescent as if I was really with Arthur, frightened of what the petty old hag was going to do. Inevitably, Arthur treads on some toes and he doesn’t always get away scot free, the gravest example of this being a fight scene that, unsurprisingly, is very dated. However, Arthur isn’t bothered by a tough fight, ‘It’s not the first time I’ve been in a losing fight, won’t be the last either I don’t spose… I’m a fighting pit prop who wants a pint of bitter, that’s me.’ During a fishing trip, his friend Bert asks the ranting Arthur ‘Where does all this fighting get you?’ It’s an important question and I don’t think Arthur is sure of the answer.

Arthur knows that he’s following the same well-trodden path as all the old farts around him and it seems he has an existential crisis every time he considers it, but he’ll probably soon mellow and learn to, in the words of Bert, ‘go on working and hope something good’ll turn up.’ Either that or move away and do something completely different, something that breaks away from his area’s cyclical nature that he detests so much.

Unlike so many romantic dramas and especially comedies, the film has a romance that you genuinely care about. Arthur meets the lovely Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), a beautiful, measured and reserved woman who keeps Arthur’s charm at bay, which entices him even further. You hope that the angsty, impetuous Arthur won’t squander his chances of a good relationship with a good woman.

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning is a epochal piece of realist British cinema that remains resonant and largely undated.

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Threads (1984)

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Devastating film.

Even to those who know of Threads‘ reputation, the film still packs a punch that leaves you winded and miserable. It is a comprehensive and compelling insight into nuclear warfare that brutally highlighting the abject foolishness of MAD – the apt acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction.

The film focuses on young couple Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) and Ruth (Karen Meagher) and their respective families. Ruth’s pregnant, so they’ve decided to do the proper thing by marrying and moving in together. Of course, their plans are never realised. The cast consists of unknown actors, which is a smart move because any household names may have detracted from the reality of it.

Although it is a drama, much of the film adopts a documentary format. Informative captions are typed across the screen by what sounds like a teletyper, producing that loud, mechanical sound as it ominously details the strategic and economic importance of Sheffield and the rapidly worsening international relations. It is this documentary realism that gives Threads a disturbing authenticity that further adds to the tension preceding the inevitable attack.

When the bomb finally strikes, the preamble that has led to it ensures that it remains powerful even if the special effects aren’t spectacular. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the special effects, the image of the mushroom cloud rising above the screams and hysteria of Sheffield is haunting, albeit lacking in scope compared to that infamous sequence in Terminator 2. It certainly blows ‘The Day After’, a similar American production, out of the water.

‘In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong, also make it vulnerable.’

‘Threads’ opens with this profound piece of narration from Paul Vaughan, explaining its title and foreshadowing the abject horror that’s to come. It is after the bomb strikes that the viewer really begins to understand what it looks like when this vulnerable fabric of society is absolutely shattered. Once humanity has their veneer of civilisation destroyed, they become desperate and animalistic. Money becomes worthless, the new currency is food, food such as stale bread and raw meat, and people work frantically for it. Crops are scarce and the diminishing fuel reserves lead to the use of hoes rather than combine harvesters. Within a few years of the attack, the British population reaches medieval numbers of 4 – 11 million.

These damning facts and figures either appear in the aforementioned captions or are narrated by Vaughan, whose diction is comparable to Laurence Olivier’s in the brilliant Thames Television series The World at War.

Threads is a trenchant argument for nuclear disarmament. What an obnoxiously reckless species we’d be if we allowed nuclear warfare to destroy our planet. Imagine if some extra-terrestrial tourist with knowledge of Earth’s abundance of natural beauty, culture and technology landed on our planet only to find themselves amidst a nuclear winter, what a shameful task explaining ourselves to them would be.

We’ve all seen depressing, harrowing films, but the utter nihilism that is explored in such grinding detail here will make the idea of merely existing in a functioning, productive society seem positively Utopian.

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Rise of the Footsoldier (2007)

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An amusing film about obnoxious people.

Rise of the Footsoldier is a true-crime British gangster film that is both appalling and funny in equal measure. The film charts the criminal career of Carlton Leach, an Essex hardnut who was conditioned by the massive violence of the football terraces before he made his bones in the criminal underworld. Playing Leach is Ricci Harnett, who gives an appropriately obnoxious performance. His face regularly has this fixed expression of arrogance and bad attitude, and as Leach gets older and something of a veteran of the Essex underworld, he becomes so tough and smug that he can barely smile or even speak.

The initial phases of the film concentrate on Leach, but the focus later shifts to ‘The Essex Boys’, a moniker referring to Tony Tucker, Pat Tate and Craig Rolfe. Whilst Rolfe was largely just a minion, Tucker and Tate were successful and feared drug dealers, Tucker being some sort of kingpin of South East England.

They were all very profane individuals, firing a medley of Anglo-Saxon at each other every sentence. For people like this, ‘Cunt’ is a staple word even in innocuous small talk, where it appears to simply mean ‘person’ rather than anything derogatory. I don’t object to the film’s language, I can imagine the vernacular is depicted quite accurately. Indeed, the sheer vulgarity of the film’s horrendous characters is actually rather amusing.

After a brief exploration of the 1990s ecstasy scene and a routine plot of a drug deal gone awry in which there’s a lot of torture and cruelty, the film covers the most interesting element of the story – the Rettendon murders in which Tucker, Tate and Rolfe were shot to death in a Land Rover.

It’s a comprehensive account, depicting the three different accounts that have been speculated by followers of the controversial event. The director Julian Gilbey also ensured that we understand just how much blood sprayed everywhere on that fateful December evening. Indeed, the camera seems to relish the violence throughout, zooming right in on people being tortured with various instruments and headbuttings that spatter ludicrous amounts of corn syrup everywhere. While some of it is appropriately grisly and stark, like violence should be in a crime film that takes itself seriously, a lot of it borders on being comically gratuitous.

Rise of the Footsoldier made me laugh, I even bought it on Blu-ray, but it nevertheless falls into the Pooey category. There’s some competent acting, but the film fails because the whole thing is largely bereft of pathos or insight, it’s just a load of cockneys with dodgy wigs swearing and leering with frequent outbursts of syrupy violence. Ultimately, the main problem may be that the subject matter just isn’t worth adapting for the screen. However, judging by the seemingly endless stream of films based around the blasted ‘Essex Boys’, it appears that the lower echelons of the British film industry still hasn’t considered such an idea.

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Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

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Too much siege, not enough Alan.

When I first discovered the premise of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, which is a siege of the North Norfolk Digital building by a disgruntled former employee, I was concerned that, like many big screen adaptations, Alan Partridge was departing from its humble, unspectacular roots.

By half way into the film, my concerns had unfortunately been confirmed. There are gun shots, fire-extinguishers to the face, explosions, armed policeman – it is by no means an action film, but since when was there such commotion in Alan’s life?

It was the desperate loneliness, alienation and banality of Alan’s life in the original TV series that made audiences laugh and cringe while pitying and sometimes despising the pathetic central character. When I got home completely deflated after watching Alpha Papa, I reminded myself of just how good Alan could be by watching YouTube clips of the 1997 series.

A single five minute scene of Alan attending a funeral captured the essence of the character. The dialogue is so rich, almost every line provided a laugh and I was cringing at Alan’s complete and utter social ineptitude. Throughout the series you learn Alan’s behaviour, it doesn’t take one long to know when Alan has an agenda; he is so self-centred, immature and incredibly tactless that the viewer can read him like a book. It’s both amusing and toe-curlingly embarrassing to see Alan converse with people and deal with his many problems.

All of the subtlety and character study is missing in the film. Alan is no longer a sad-man, a complete liability. He’s still cringe-worthy, particularly in scenes where he attempts to court a colleague, but none of the gags even scrape the surface of the programme’s brilliance.

The gags are really quite tired. They’re predictable and rehashed, particularly scenes that initially appear melodramatic but are then abruptly interrupted by an action or one-liner like a needle scratching across vinyl. There’s also a genre-aware armed stand-off scene towards the end where the characters have ‘humourous’, flippant exchanges despite the immediate danger in the style of In Bruges, only not funny. More than once I found myself sighing with disappointment and embarrassment at just how off-the-mark and rehashed the comedy was.

Much like the film’s premise, Coogan’s performance is overblown – he needed to reel himself in. There would be flashes of classic Partridge, but generally both the dialogue and slapstick comedy just died. I commend Coogan’s skill for miming perfectly to Roachford’s Cuddly Toy, but it just wasn’t as funny as his air bass performance of Gary Numan’s Music for Chameleons in the second series. Also, Alan doesn’t look right in the film. His appearance is still demonstrably uncool, but he isn’t as awfully square and repellent as he was in the series. If anything, Alan’s ageing process seems to be in reverse.

The two principal characters of the programme, Lynn, Alan’s devoted and criminally underpaid secretary, and Michael, Alan’s good natured friend, seldom appear in the film. These characters were crucial in the series as they revealed many facets of Alan’s personality, exposing just how self-absorbed and manipulative he is whilst also showing how utterly dependent he is on their attention.

We have the original team of Coogan and Iannucci, but it lacks almost every element that made the series so funny, eminently quotable and re-watchable. It shares very little in common with its televisual sibling, all Alpha Papa has is a caricature of a caricature and a thin, boring siege plot.

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