REVIEW: Free Fire

17 04 2017

SXSW Film Festival

Ben Wheatley is not the kind of director to slowly ease you into the milieu of the world he creates. He simply plunges you into the deep end with piranhas, primarily through the use of stylized and highly specific situational dialogue. “Free Fire” does not wait for you to catch up. The loquacious characters simply start spitting out Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump’s words at a mile-a-minute pace, as they naturally would. You either start running or get left in its dust.

The only time Wheatley slows down is not for our sake. It’s to commemorate the first bullet fired of what must be thousands over the course of the film. In suspended animation, we watch it travel and have a moment to consider its impact. Then the full playground game breaks out between two rival Boston gangs in an arms deal, and it becomes absolute pandemonium.

Wheatley uses the film’s singular warehouse location to its absolute fullest, utilizing it like an adult jungle gym occupied by men (and Brie Larson’s Justine) who showed up in what looks like costumes for a trashy ’70s party. Every move to advance around the space requires at least four bullets, and the gunfire eventually immobilizes every participant one limb at a time. Towards the end, Justine relies on a firearm to serve as a combined cane and replacement appendage. Yes, “Free Fire” is that kind of movie.

It’s also a film that leaves behind little but empty bullet cases. Enjoyable though it may be to watch these bumbling gangsters unleash load after load on each other to period tunes (executive producer Martin Scorsese must have lent his personal jukebox), those pleasures prove fleeting. “Free Fire” unyokes the hysteria of Wheatley’s last film, “High-Rise,” from any form of social commentary. This is a very different movie with no pretensions of intellectual depth, yet even adjusting for the difference, it still fires a few blanks. B /

F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 4, 2016)

4 08 2016

A Field in EnglandWhatever one thinks about the quality of Ben Wheatley’s films, the sheer variety of his work is commendable in and of itself. From gangster flicks to romantic road trips and loaded social allegories, his pitch-black comedic sensibilities never seem to settle. For me, that makes him one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.

“A Field in England” might not have the most perfect execution, but its sheer audacity alone makes it an easy candidate for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” You need not know all the details of the 17th century politics that caused the English Civil War, the conflict in which the film is set. All that matters is the knowledge that the film’s characters are deserters, wandering off the battlefield in search of something more.

Amy Jump’s script feels like a road movie as the soldiers – three Englishmen and a curious Irishman – amble through the countryside. Wheatley manages to keep the walk-and-talk interesting for at least an hour, which is no small feat. Though the film is shot in monochrome black-and-white, “A Field in England” never feels monotonous or monotone. The almost episodic misadventures of this crew recall Swedish philosopher-director Roy Andersson with its musings made around the rim of the burning pot that is modern society.

The film does take a bizarre detour towards the end that takes it into the realm of the surreal, leaving the overall effect to be akin to a mushroom morality play. “A Field in England” manages to be naturally evocative in the way Nicolas Winding Refn would like his belabored art films to be. So for purity of intent and sheer gall alone, check this one out.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 28, 2016)

28 04 2016

Down TerraceThe British cinema scene is full of people doing lots of interesting work, but it still gets reduced quite frequently to familiar genres: the black comedy, the kitchen sink melodrama, the suburban crime saga. In his debut feature, “Down Terrace,” Ben Wheatley has the gall to meld all three into one audacious genre-mashing movie. The result is something spry and altogether wonderful, so much so that it is my selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” (In case you’re just joining this six year old column, that’s a contrived acronym for “First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie.”)

The film begins on the five year anniversary of the U.K. following the U.S. into Iraq, as a muffled radio announcer lets us know. This seemingly insignificant detail grabs attention for its inclusion, precisely because it must somehow become significant. My take, for what it’s worth, is that the announcement indicates a fissure in The Special Relationship that presages a breakdown in a different kind of special relationship – that of a family, and specifically between the father Bill and his son Karl.

The two are played by a real-life father and son (Robert and Robin Hill), a fact that feels obvious after watching. But it is not necessary knowledge to buy their familial ties, nor does it serve as a kind of gimmick for “Down Terrace” to exploit. From the opening shot in which the pair leaves a police station, their difference of approach becomes starkly apparent. Bill remains committed to getting the family business running like it was, while Karl looks elsewhere. His girlfriend, Valda, shows up claiming to carry his child. Karl embraces the idea of keeping the child; Bill immediately suggests abortion and implies she might be trying to con Karl into fathering another man’s baby.

The main narrative engine of “Down Terrace” comes from smoking out a rat in the organization that may have put Karl and Bill in prison, yet the film’s real power derives from the ever-shifting family dynamics. Not only does the age-old father and son drama play out; the annoyances and angers of the matriarch, Maggie (Julia Deakin), get their time in the spotlight. Her worries and anxieties feel especially well realized, not simply brushed off the margins. Wheatley, who co-wrote the script with Robin Hill, makes her an equal participant in the family’s dirty dealings, not just a passive observer.

Maggie and Bill foil quite plainly with Valda and Karl, providing an excellent illustration in how generational differences can make one reluctant or welcome to change. The friction between them slowly builds until it reaches a shocking ending that you simply must see for yourself. I just hope you don’t see it coming.

F.I.L.M. of the Week (December 3, 2015)

3 12 2015

SightseersI must admit, I was skeptical of delving into some of the deeper cuts in director Ben Wheatley’s filmography after nodding off on two separate occasions during his cult favorite work “Kill List.” (It’s more me than the movie – I was tired both times and got further exhausted by working to understand the thick accents.) But after seeing his 2013 film “Sightseers,” I must say, I feel far more confident that I will like what I see going further back.

Funny enough, I actually saw Wheatley in person while he was promoting the film’s world premiere in Cannes back in 2012. Someone asked a question along the lines of, “What do you do while the movie plays?” Wheatley caustically responded that you could find him in a bar drinking away his nerves. Though why he would doubt that “Sightseers” could play like anything other than gangbuster escapes me. This bonkers road trip comedy is a creative, exciting blast from start to finish; as such, it’s my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Alice Lowe and Steve Oram star as Carol and Chris, two lovebirds who embark on a road trip across Britain – hauling a caravan behind them, of course. Carol goes against the instructions of her well-meaning mother, who still infantilizes her at the age of 34. She’s reeling from the loss of someone special, too, and remains somewhat unstable. Though she has only dated Chris a few months, Carol seems to think he is that special someone.

That is until, of course, she realizes that he is capable of committing some intensely violent deeds while feeling very little remorse. But that does not seem to bother her. She’s along for the ride, no matter what strange turn or bizarre twist their journey takes next.

There are moments along the way when it feels like “Sightseers” will start to fall in line with some other similar movie. Yet the longer it goes on, the less it resembles something like “Bonnie and Clyde” or “Thelma and Louise.” Wheatley, working with a script by his two lead actors, manages to make a film that is wholeheartedly unique. It vibrates at such an odd comedic wavelength, mostly black but also silly and solemn in places.

Perhaps most fascinatingly, Wheatley makes sure that murder never becomes something commonplace. He presents each killing in a completely different manner, shocking us all the new and making us really think about what we are digesting. This is quite a sight to see, indeed, and I look forward to being entertained and challenged all the more by what Wheatley has to offer after “High-Rise.”

REVIEW: High-Rise

27 10 2015

Fantastic Fest

If Ben Wheatley’s achievement in High-Rise were likened to anything, it might have to be juggling fire.  Not merely content to cautiously play with fire, he lights a few torches and tosses them back and forth into the air.  Having perfect form seems almost beside the point as execution gets subjugated by the power of sheer ambition.  The mere ability to keep so many dangerous objects in orbit without self-immolating inspires wonder.

Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise

Wheatley’s cinematic iteration of J.G. Ballard’s novel, adapted for the screen by his wife Amy Jump, is the kind of filmmaking so outlandish and ballsy that it might even be illegal in some parts. The film lingered in development hell for four decades but arrives at the perfect time both socially and artistically.  For a story that deals heavily with class conflict and economic inequality, High-Rise has only become more topical with each passing year.  Furthermore, all its idiosyncrasies make Wheatley’s gonzo style a perfect match of director with material.

The film uses its titular structure, a Brutalist skyscraper containing all the necessary supplies for a self-sustaining community, as a microcosm of our stratified social strata.  But where many stories obliquely commenting on the de facto arrangements that organize our world opt for obvious allegory, Wheatley finds a more satisfying film by exploring the realm of the metaphorical.  Not everything in High-Rise corresponds directly to a recognizable counterpart in the real world, which allows Wheatley the ability to operate at higher levels of ambiguity.

Elisabeth Moss and Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise

Over the course of nearly two hours, the film takes its audience on a thrill ride akin to the Tower of Terror at Disneyland as it goes back and forth between the Caligula-esque exploits of the top floors’ wealthy residents and the grunge of the working class who dwell towards the bottom.  The closest thing the film has to an entry point is Tom Hiddleston’s Robert Laing, a doctor who seems to fall somewhere between the two divisions.

Laing is more often witness to the proceedings than an active participant in the war that breaks out, yet in a way, that makes him all the more ideal to experience the escalating absurdity through.  Calling him a blank slate does a disservice to Hiddleston’s captivating performance, though he does serve that function ins some part.

When someone roasts a dog or bludgeons their enemy with a BAFTA trophy – both of which happen in ­High-Rise – there is something rather refreshing about not being told precisely how to feel.  Many events that take place come with no obvious response, and Wheatley allows us the chance to react as we feel appropriate.  But be it laughter, fear, shock or disgust, our mouths are wide open in awe regardless.  And since the ideas come flying fast and furious, with a new thought arriving before the last one has a chance to settle in, there is simply no choice but to see High-Rise again. B+3stars