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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Wheatley’

It occurs to me that two of the most demanding forms of fiction to attempt are comedy and horror, mainly because the criteria for success are just so non-negotiable – it doesn’t matter how good the acting, dialogue, or direction are in a film, if people aren’t laughing at it, then it’s not a very good comedy. The same arguably applies in more general ways too – there’s a sense in which setting out to make a niche, art-housey kind of film is less challenging than attempting to make a whopping mainstream hit, simply because the former are primarily judged on their critical success (always subjective and open to dispute), whereas with the latter it’s just the case of the bottom line and the box office take, which you can attach a figure to.

And it’s not even as if going mainstream and commercial is necessarily easy – some people just aren’t built that way. The director John Singleton started his career making hard-edged issue-based dramas like Boyz N The Hood, which received acclaim and made him the youngest ever Oscar-nominated director, but his transformation into a maker of popcorn action movies just produced a stream of completely undistinguished films (the most notable probably being 2 Fast 2 Furious, and that’s only because it’s the only completely Diesel-free installment of the franchise).

Which brings us to Ben Wheatley’s new movie, Free Fire.  Wheatley’s career has been growing in prominence, if not commerciality, for a good few years now, and his latest project sees him working with Martin Scorsese (credited as exec on the new film) – now there’s a name with a bit of a cachet to it. The movie also features a rather strange juxtaposition of currently-hot star names with the more marginal type of performer Wheatley has made good use of in the past.

 

The setting is Boston, in the late 1970s, and criminality is afoot. A major arms deal is about to take place. On one side are Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), two Northern Irish gentlemen with strong political views, intent on buying a load of M16s from South African arms dealer Vern (Sharlto Copley). Facilitating the deal are Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). Everyone convenes in an abandoned warehouse and things proceed to get very tense indeed, not least because a couple of the participants are clearly somewhat unhinged. Trust is in short supply, and the fact that Vern has turned up with a van full of ArmaLites rather than M16s does not help matters much. Still, a deal of sorts is on the cards, until it transpires that one of Vern’s hired hands (Jack Reynor) has a serious bone to pick with one of the Irishmens’ (Sam Riley).

Things degenerate, shots are inevitably fired, and then… well, the rest of the movie depicts, essentially, an hour-long gun battle, moving between various different parts of the warehouse as the different participants try to outmanoeuvre each other or reach particular locations. Matters are complicated by the appearance of a mysterious third group of shooters, whose allegiance is unclear, and also by the fact that this isn’t the kind of film where it’s straightforward to just kill someone with a single shot.

There is something slightly computer-gamey about the set-up for Free Fire, in that virtually everyone in it gets shot multiple times and usually just carries on with what they were doing, albeit slightly more slowly and uncomfortably. I’ve played in team games of Quake and other first-person-shooters which were a little bit like this movie; it also feels a bit like a particularly weird game of the RPG Fiasco which has gotten completely out of hand. However, the cultural reference point a normal person is probably going to reach for is accompanied by the adjective ‘Tarantino-esque’ and I can see where they’re coming from.

This is, obviously, a very violent film – there’s a consistent ongoing level of violence through practically the entire last two thirds of it – and the language is not really that usually heard at the annual church picnic. When you add the criminal milieu, the generally foggy morality, and some interesting soundtrack-based gags, it does almost look like Ben Wheatley has decided to go commercial by making a Tarantino pastiche, albeit one with the kind of off-the-wall black comedy which has featured in his other films.

Does it really work, though? Well – the idea of a film mainly consisting of a roughly 60 minute gun battle, when I first heard of it, put me rather in mind of the Fast Show sketch The Long Big Punch up, in which Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse just take it in terms to thump each other at very great length. How can you possibly get a story out of something like that?

Well, the secret, of course, lies in the first act of the film, which features the characters standing up and talking to one another, rather than crouching behind cover, shouting, and trading gunfire: a lot of quite subtle set-up and establishment of characters and relationships goes on here, which provides the fuel for the rest of the movie. It helps that Wheatley has primarily cast performers who are character actors rather than juvenile leads – this always remains a film about individual characters interacting with each other, not just ciphers blazing away. It doesn’t hurt that the film is frequently very funny, too – Sharlto Copley produces another one of his comic grotesques in the form of his leisure-suited highlight-haired ‘former Rhodesian commando’ – ‘Africa’s no place for sissies,’ he declares at one point. But this is a great ensemble performance overall.

As I’ve been suggesting, it seems that Free Fire was intended to be Ben Wheatley’s ‘commercial’ movie after supposedly less-accessible works like Sightseers, High-Rise, and (especially) A Field in England, and yet it looks unlikely to match High-Rise‘s box office take despite hefty promotion and the appeal to Tarantino’s audience. Does this make it Wheatley’s first big failure as a director? (Not counting Into the Dalek, of course.)

Well… I still think this is an engaging, fun film, and the weird nature of the premise gives it a certain novelty value as a sort of formal experiment. You could argue the pace of the film flags a bit near the end, as Wheatley and his regular co-writer Amy Jump run out of complications to throw into the mix (‘I can’t remember which side I’m on!’ wails a minor character at one point), but it’s inevitably slightly static all the way through, and the nature of the piece really doesn’t lend itself to huge, kinetic action set-pieces. In the end this is a distinctly odd film, but by no means a bad one at all – inventively scripted, with moments of great black humour, and well-played throughout. I doubt it’s going to be Ben Wheatley’s ticket to the heart of the mainstream, though.

 

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Ben Wheatley is a director who has been making a name for himself for the last few years, more often than not working on low-budget genre movies of various kinds. In hindsight it looks like a dead cert that the mainstream was always going to come calling on him – you could argue this happened when he was recruited to direct two high-profile episodes of the BBC’s premier Saturday night sci-fi-comedy show – and with a talent as singular as this, the question is always whether they’ll be able to retain what makes them so special under the unforgiving eye of major studio oversight.

Well, I think we have something of an answer, in the shape of Wheatley’s adaptation of the noted J.G. Ballard novel High-Rise, which has received the widest release of any of his films to date. The book was published over forty years ago and has arguably proved quite influential ever since, but all previous attempts to be bring it directly to the screen have foundered.

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From what we see and hear on-screen, the film retains the very-near-future setting of the novel – which in this case means some point in a 1976 that never actually happened. Tom Hiddlestone plays Laing, a doctor who as the story starts is just moving into an exclusive new housing development, a huge tower block that seems to exist at a remove from the rest of civilisation. He soon befriends several of the other residents (played by Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, and Luke Evans) and even makes the acquaintance of the architect of the building (Jeremy Irons), who lives in seclusion at the very top of the tower.

Initially all is well in the high-rise, with all the inhabitants enjoying the various amenities at their disposal. Soon, however, tensions start to build over seemingly innocuous things – access to the swimming pool, demands upon the building’s power grid – and these snowball into disputes that soon spin out of control. Open hostilities soon break out between the different social groups, as the amenities fail and the building sinks into squalour and misery. Where will it all end? One thing is certain: despite the architect’s great hopes, life in these towers is far from paradise…

Well, the high-rise itself may not be quite as rectilinear as Ballard himself envisaged (honestly, if you had a drink every time Ballard uses the word in the novel you’d probably pass out within the first few chapters), but in every other way this seems to be to be a highly impressive and very faithful adaptation. The structure of the book survives intact, which I didn’t expect, and if the characters remain a little more articulate throughout their degeneration, that’s only to be expected. The central conceit of the novel – that within the civilised exterior of the tower block, horror reigns, something which the outside world remains totally oblivious of – is also preserved, although this is remains something you have to kind of go with.

Anyone unfamiliar with the novel might be expecting a sort of narrative-driven action-horror somewhat in the vein of The Raid, as Laing and his companions battle to survive against the other tribes of the high-rise, but this is really not that kind of a film. The focus is much more on the way that all the inhabitants are complicit in the savage anarchy that consumes the building, willing participants, and the way that it is an oddly more honest expression of the normal social forces at work in modern society. One of the brilliancies of the book is the way that it isn’t really a clumsy metaphor for the class system – everyone is very middle-class, a doctor or an architect or something in the media.

The emphasis on mood and small details of character appears to be a perfect fit for Wheatley’s own sensibility: few directors can bring encroaching madness to the screen with same degree of carefree nonchalance, and naturally he gets very nearly free reign in that area here. The film’s excursions into surreal black comedy also suit him perfectly – at one point a group of senior residents, dressed in blood-stained rags, have a committee meeting where they discuss driving out the lower inhabitants, converting the lower floors into a golf course, slaughtering the building’s animals for food, and lobotomising troublemakers, and it’s impossible to see where Ballard’s vision ends and Wheatley’s begins.

Wheatley brings it all to the screen with his customary skill and control of sound and image. (One unexpected but rather brilliant touch is the use of ABBA’s S.O.S as a musical motif throughout the film, although one wonders if Benny and Bjorn were quite aware of the images their masterpiece would be playing on top of when they allowed its use.) Seeing the story brought to the screen in quite this way also brought home to me just how influential it has arguably been – you can surely see elements of High-Rise in Cronenberg’s Shivers, and also in the nightmarish city-block dystopia of the Judge Dredd strip.

One curious amendation to the novel comes at the very end of the film, when part of a speech by Margaret Thatcher is heard, praising free-market capitalism. Prior to this point the film hasn’t been explicitly political at all, although you can certainly see how Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’ beliefs could be relevant to the goings-on in the high rise. That said, it feels as if it’s there just to drive a point home, but the actual point remains a little obscure, and one wouldn’t usually expect something quite so on-the-nose from Wheatley or his regular co-writer Amy Jump.

Whether this qualifies as a serious wobble or not is probably down to your personal taste and political views, but the rest of the film is very impressive – perhaps a bit too cerebral and artful to totally engage the emotions, but made with enormous skill and intelligence. Followers of both Ballard and Wheatley should be very satisfied with the end product.

 

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There’s a website which I regularly visit, fairly admirable when it comes to news relating to all things in the horror, SF, and fantasy genres, but just a little bit taxing in some of its politics. How can I describe the ethos of the place? ‘Dogmatically progressive’? That makes it sound like I’m some kind of baleful reactionary, which I hope is not quite yet the case. But even so, the view that any story must necessarily be improved by making the characters more diverse is one I have trouble subscribing to. Look at, for instance, John Carpenter’s The Thing – I don’t think you can improve this movie, all you can do is make it different. Perhaps less accomplished, but equally distinctive and even less diverse is Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, in which five straight white blokes wander about the countryside for about an hour and a half.

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Well, there are obviously other things going on, but I don’t really want to commit to saying what any of them are. The movie opens with Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), a cowardly astrologer, fleeing the carnage of the English Civil War. He finds himself in the company of various other ne’er-do-wells – deserters and idiots – heading for the dubious haven of an ale-house. However, through slightly obscure occult means – hallucinogenic mushrooms also appear to be involved – they find themselves in the ominous company of the magician O’Neill (Michael Smiley), who is intent on uncovering an obscure mystic treasure secreted in a nearby field…

At least, I think that’s what it’s about. This is not a film which feels the need to offer much in the way of easy answers, or indeed normal narrative coherence. ‘Non-naturalistic’ doesn’t begin to do justice to this film’s weirder sections, but then it does scream ‘experimental film-making’ too. Shot for well under half a million quid in less than a fortnight, it was also the recipient of an equally adventurous release strategy, being shown on TV the day of its cinema release (which, of course, was also the day it was released on DVD and for download).

Perhaps they would have been less unconventional with a less unconventional film, for A Field in England is deeply strange: Ben Wheatley specialises in a particular style of deeply ominous horror, occasionally married to a very black sense of humour, but even compared to something like Sightseers, this is an unashamedly unsettling film, by turns earthy, comic, graphic, and surreal: filmed in black and white, almost always an intentional distancing device nowadays, it also features strange posed tableaux of the various characters at key junctures, and at one point cuts to one character singing a folk song straight to camera.

If we’re going to talk about English Civil War horror movies, the inescapable thing-that-must-be-acknowledged is, of course, Witchfinder General, and the influence of Michael Reeves’ film is clear, if subtle. The main difference is that Witchfinder General, despite its title, is fundamentally about very mundane human evil and corruption – but there is a sense of darker forces being in play here, and the structure of the world breaking down.

Magic mushrooms are a recurring presence in the film, and it seems to be implied that whatever forces O’Neill commands are in some way connected to them – his character seemingly materialises out of thin air while most of the other characters are high on them. They also seem to fuel the deeply bizarre hallucinatory visions afflicting Whitehead at one point during the climax, but then the whole film has a skewed, nightmarish feel to it. People appear and disappear almost without reason, abruptly vomit up stones inscribed with strange markings, even rise from the dead without any explanation being given.

It’s quite possible the whole thing is intended to be allegorical on some level – the film is structured so it concludes practically in the same way it began, and you could interpret the whole thing as some sort of solipsistic psychological crisis undergone by one of the characters. Certainly the nature of the treasure everyone is after remains wilfully obscure, and there’s arguably a sense in which the story is about discovering your own inner strength, surely the greatest treasure of all. Then again, I could be completely wrong, of course.

What’s certain is that Ben Wheatley’s direction retains its usual dark magic, while Amy Jump’s script gets the balance between dreadful strangeness, earthy splatter, and identifiable characters just about right. Michael Smiley, resplendent in a rather magnificent hat and cloak, is revelatory, and Reece Shearsmith’s performance is also just about the best thing I can remember him doing. A Field in England is small and strange, but it always looks and feels like a proper movie, and one which has clearly been made with great skill. Despite all that, however, it’s more hypnotic to watch than it is genuinely enjoyable – or so I found it, anyway. The atmosphere of brooding, dislocated menace throughout it makes it slightly uncomfortable to watch, but still probably worthwhile. I was looking forward to Wheatley’s forthcoming adaptation of High-Rise already, but this has stoked up my expectations still further.

 

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I don’t know, you wait years for a movie about violent murder and dog-kidnapping and then two come along in consecutive weeks. That’s about all that Seven Psychopaths and Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers have in common, though: Martin McDonagh’s film drinks deeply of American culture, locations, and attitudes, while Wheatley’s latest offering is intensely, almost painfully English in both its subject matter and its themes.

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This is the story of Tina (Alice Lowe), a woman in her 30s still living with her clingy, demanding mother, who blames her for the death of a beloved family pet in a freak charity-related accident a year earlier. But Tina is about the fly the nest, at least temporarily, for she is going on holiday with her new boyfriend Chris (Steve Oram), something which both hope will prove to be an erotic odyssey. An erotic odyssey aboard a 1996 Abbey Cachet caravan, to be more precise, with destinations along the way including Fountains Abbey, the Keswick Pencil Museum and the Ribblehead Viaduct.

Will their adventure allow Tina to conquer her guilt over the death of the dog? Will the two forge a real and lasting relationship together? Or will Chris’s interest in stopping people dropping litter, engaging in class warfare, and doing a little light serial-killing en route get in the way of their burgeoning romance?

‘Show me the world, Chris,’ says Tina near the start of the film. ‘I think we’ll start with Crich Tram Museum,’ Chris replies, and this establishes the tone of Sightseers rather well. There is something peculiarly English about caravanning as a leisure pursuit – this is not one of your giant colonial Recreational Vehicles, but an unwieldy off-white box, inelegant on the outside and cramped within. Chris and Tina’s selected itinerary is similarly eccentric and underwhelming. Eccentric is a good word to describe this film; underwhelming is not.

A lot of attention has been paid to the serial-killing aspect of Sightseers‘ storyline – this is understandable, given it’s largely being advertised on the strength of Wheatley’s record as director of Kill List, and executive producer Edgar Wright’s involvement in Shaun of the Dead. I suspect it’s much easier to sell a horror movie with some comic elements than a very black comedy-drama, which is what I would say Sightseers really is (if my Comparison Wrangler were on duty he’d doubtless describe it as ‘Natural Born Killers directed by Mike Leigh’).

The campaign of bloody slaughter which becomes such an integral part of Chris and Tina’s holiday is not that central to the film, and when it does appear it’s very much in keeping with the tone and style of the rest of it, which is concerned with the minutiae of their relationship.

There is some serious splatter at various points in this film (when Tina complains about Chris smashing a person’s head in with a piece of wood, Chris responds ‘he wasn’t a person, he was a Daily Mail reader’ – so maybe he’s not all bad), but I found this weirdly less uncomfortable to watch than the various human interactions. Tina’s relationship with her mum is squirm-worthy enough, but her romance with Chris is even worse – there’s a cocktail of naivete, desperation, delight and lust going on here which rings horribly true even if much of the writing and acting is done with a broad brush. Bathos and pathos abound and you sense the writer-performers have a degree of sympathy for their characters even while they are forensically exposed to ridicule – there’s a running gag about the caravan rapidly filling up with ghastly tat and Tina’s awful knitted gew-gaws which I particularly liked (although, once again, Tina’s woollen lingerie is probably pushing the joke too far to be credible).

One certainly gets the message that neither of these people was entirely normal even prior to the serial killing becoming an issue – though the film suggests Chris has form in this area, it really looks like this is something they fall into almost naturally as the film goes on. It definitely seemed to me that the murders are there to illustrate the state of the characters’ minds and their relationship, rather than being the central subject of the film per se. If so, this works rather well right up until the end, which to me didn’t quite follow from what had come before – I got a distinct sense of someone thinking ’90 minutes are up, better think of a finish.’

The ferociously banal nature of this sort of holiday is well-evoked and Ben Wheatley comes up with some startling effects in the course of the film – a particularly savage murder is accompanied by a distinguished thesp reading a poem on the soundtrack, for example. The micro-budget nature of the film is never really in doubt but then this suits the story on all sorts of levels.

Sightseers is ultimately an exercise in the presentation of grotesques, and although it does this with great wit, economy, and attention to detail, this still means that it’s quite a hard film to completely engage with. Serial-killing notwithstanding, this is a look at the less magnificent side of obsessiveness – it works as a comedy better than a horror movie, and a character study probably better than either. But it’s fun, funny and original: I enjoyed it a lot.

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