Happy New Year, Colin Burstead

* * * 1/2

Like his contemporary Peter Strickland, whose In Fabric was reviewed last week, is now in Australian cinemas, and boasts him as an executive producer, Ben Wheatley is the kind of British auteur whose existence is a testament to the British film industry and particularly BBC Films, who co-produced his latest, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead. Like Strickland, Wheatley is an uncompromising and highly skilled writer/director who has a relatively small but very dedicated following. Where he departs from Strickland – thus far in their careers, anyway – is that he’s more wide-ranging in his tastes; while Strickland’s films kind of occur in a Strickland universe, Wheatley has shifted genres, styles and methodology. He’s made a funny gun movie (Free Fire), a creepy folk-horror hitman thriller (Kill List), a formally daring adaptation of a staple of Brit Sci-Fi lit (High-Rise), a flat-out psychedelic folk tale (A Field in England) and a low-key black comedy (Sightseers). You cover a lot of ground playing around in his filmography.

Here, he not only takes on Dogme, he delivers a film that riffs on the first, and greatest, pure Dogme film, Festen (1998, Thomas Vinterberg). That film saw an extended group of family and friends converge on a gorgeous country estate for a patriarch’s birthday party; here, so do a similar group for New Year’s Eve. As with all family gatherings, let alone family gathering films, there will be tension, there will be arguments, there may even be blood.

Indeed, if we’re familiar with Wheatley, we may even be expecting some blood. Minor spoiler alert: it’s not that kind of film. This is a legitimate family gathering comedy drama: there are no ghosts, monsters or sneaky horror events, and no guns. As with Festen and Dogme,since the filmmaking apparatus is minimized (handheld cameras, no fancy lighting, minimal locations, minimal props, no VFX or extraneous sound design etc), the enjoyment falls to the cast and the story. Here the latter is tight enough to be compelling but the former is an absolute cracker. Every character seethes with life, brought there by such singular British actors as Hayley Squires (who is also in In Fabric), Charles Dance (as you’ve never seen him!), Bill Paterson, Neil Maskell, Sam Riley, and Doon Mackichan (and if their names don’t ring a bell with you, their faces might). The whole thing is co-ordinated beautifully by Wheatley, who makes filmmaking look easy. It’s not, of course, it’s bloody hard, and just because a film like this appears so modest, that doesn’t make it any easier. Indeed, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead has to hold our attention with no tricks, gimmicks or flim -flam; it’s all about storytelling, and Wheatley is terrific at that.

Free Fire

FF092_rgb

Watch Jim Flanagan and I discuss FREE FIRE and Ben Wheatley’s other films here

*** (out of five)

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is an odd experiment that doesn’t quite come off. It’s absolutely entertaining and I completely recommend it, but, dare I say it, I was hoping for more – perhaps too much.

I’ve been expecting too much from Wheatley ever since I saw Kill List (2011), a wild, incredibly satisfying work of auteurist cinema. Terrifying, supremely confident and wholly original – while acknowledging fascinating forebears – Kill List instantly put Wheatley on my own, exclusive list of directors whose films I will always see as soon as I can. Sightseers (2012) kept me completely on board, while I brushed off 2013’s mystifying A Field In England as an allowable indulgence. But last year’s High Rise, while chock full of superb elements, went haywire in its storytelling, essentially replacing the second act with a montage of hysterical imagery. Indulgence indeed. Still, I love the cut of the man’s jib – I feel like he makes the kind of movies I want to see – so I went into Free Fire looking forward to something… well, I was hoping for astonishing. It isn’t that.

The experiment is simple: Set up a big arms deal in a contained location with a group of dangerous men (and one woman), get some fun characterisations going, then chuck a spanner in the works, get them shooting at each other – and don’t stop. Finish at ninety minutes.

For the experiment to really work, it needs to fulfil a few criteria. We should be entertained the entire time. The gun battle should have an interior logic allowing us to follow it. We should care, at least a little, about the characters and the situation. It should be fun.

FF028_rgb

The good news is, it’s definitely fun, and we do care, at least a little, about the characters and the situation. The first, shortest act of the film is the set-up, and a batch of really good comic actors get to strut out some terrific oddballs in very deft strokes. Sharlto Copley gets the juiciest ham as Vernon, the purveyor of the fine firearms; he gets to use his own South African accent to terrific comic effect. Cillian Murphy plays one of those small, good-looking IRA guys – he’s buying the guns – who just have a killer vibe about them despite their build. Armie Hammer, looking really tall amongst this bunch, plays a super-cool middle-man – he actually lights up a joint and gets high later on, as the bullets are flying – and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley plays the Michael Smiley role (on the IRA side). Brie Larson’s the chick (unfortunately not likely to get her another Oscar) and along the way, some more greasy thugs come to the deal, with terrifically icky turns from Jack Reynor, Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti. Babou Ceesay, as Vernon’s more level-headed offsider, stabilises things a little, at least for awhile. Oh, and it’s set in the late 70s, so everyone looks groovy, with facial hair, big lapels and leisure suits aplenty.

FF027_rgb

So far, so Reservoir Dogs (and we wouldn’t have Wheatley if we didn’t have Tarantino). Unfortunately, once the bullets start flying, the film stumbles a little in achieving its goals. Despite stupendous technical care – Wheatley planned out the hour-long-or-so gun battle on models, in storyboards, and on Minecraft (!) – we still lose track of who is where and when, who’s shooting at whom, how wounded everyone is, and what’s generally going on. The situation is confusing for the characters but when it is so for us, we can drift, and I certainly did. In its long second act and into its third, it’s a very easy movie to tune out of, because – hey – you know what’s going on: a gun battle. All you’re really sticking around for is to see who survives at the end.

I still have Wheatley on my list. I’m glad he’s playing with form. Good on him and more power to him. But accepting Free Fire’s flaws remind me that Wheatley’s most obvious modern influence – Tarantino – has never put out a film that is anything other than masterful. Tarantino takes his time. Wheatley is in a fertile, prolific, hyper-productive period. Perhaps if he slowed down, his films would be more polished… but there would be less of them. Not a bad dilemma for those of us who love cinema to have.

High Rise

HIGH-RISE.0

***1/2 (out of five)

Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 sci-fi dystopian nightmare High Rise is a faithful, stylised mess. It is chaotic and crazy, shambolic and discombobulating, all elements of the novel but not necessarily of coherent filmmaking. It is Wheatley’s most ambitious film but his second worst. It is also an artistic work of personal vision, for which it must be celebrated.

High-Rise_04His best – and I hope you know all about this – is Kill List (2011), a staggeringly creepy assault on your brain inspired by, it seems, equal parts Pulp Fiction, The Shining and The Wicker Man. His follow-up Sightseers (2012) was a delicious very black comedy; 2013’s A Field In England was bonkers strange but possessed of an absolute vision. He has a very strong voice and is uncompromising, perhaps to his detriment here. (I have not seen his debut feature, Down Terrace (2009)).

His coup de theatre is to set the film not in “the future” but in the future as a film director working in 1975 might be able to visualise it. Thus it’s both “futuristic” and retro, with sideburns, wide ties and big moustaches accompanying concrete bunkers out of Logan’s Run. It’s a brilliant conceit brilliantly realised on the production design side; the “high rises” themselves look exactly as I’d always imagined them (the novel is one of my all-time favourites).

imageUnfortunately Wheatley has a second “big concept” up his sleeve, which is to let the storytelling fall to pieces as the civilisation of the titular high rise does. The second act is essentially a montage of madness, unlike the novel’s deliberate linear progression from civility to orgasmic anarchy. I worry that audiences that have not read the novel won’t have a clue what’s going on. It’s a shame, because this was Wheatley’s chance to show a much wider audience his jazz, but his jazz remains too free for the general crowd. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

high-rise-film-ben-wheatley-mark-tildesley-interview_dezeen_1568_8