BAIT and DEAD STILL reviews

Bait.png

BAIT

In cinemas June 22nd (Victoria) / July 1st (elsewhere)

* * * *

Mark Jenkin has created the most visually memorable film so far this year with Bait, which he shot on 16mm B&W stock using a vintage wind-up Bolex, which meant he couldn’t record live sound, so the whole soundscape including all dialogue was added in post. Furthermore, Jenkin processed the film himself by hand, and used things like coffee grounds and vitamin powder in the process, giving the resulting image an honestly-achieved hand-made look. The story itself is also bold and original, the tale of Cornish gentrification seen through the eyes of a local fisherman struggling with economic survival in the new Cornwall tourist economy. The aesthetics of the film inevitably consign it to the arthouse, but for the right viewer, this film will be fresh, vibrant, exciting and extremely memorable. It certainly was for me.

DEAD STILL

Acorn TV

Everyone loves Michael Smiley, right? He’s on of those actors that, upon his entrance into a film, gives you a frisson of confident elevated expectation: “Oh, he’s in it. Well that’ll be good!” His role in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, as one of the most quotable hit-men in cinema, remains his signature performance, but among his 96 credits are scene-or-movie-stealing turns in A Field In England, The Lobster, Burke and Hare, Down Terrace and Free Fire. His big face and beautiful Northern Irish speaking voice are the tools through which his sardonic, ironic line deliveries flow: he’s the guy who can make all his lines funny without actually steering a scene or film’s dramatic intentions into comedy.

He’s the kind of actor you can end up taking for granted, and who often never gets their one great leading role, let alone their own TV series, but here it is, a vehicle of Michael Smiley, and an Acorn TV Original no less. He plays Brock Blennerhasset (what a name!), a post-mortem photography expert in 1880s Ireland (what a concept!) He takes staged photographs of dead people before they’re buried – which apparently was a thing – who gets tangled up in a series of suspicious deaths. It’s a mystery, and there are detectives and suspects, but Blennerhasset is neither, while, dramatically, at times serving as both.

Smiley’s decades-crafted persona sets the tone of the show: the aforementioned sardonic irony pervades, resulting in gentle humour and a classically cosy mystery vibe. Fans of this kind of gentle period crime show should lap it up; fans of Smiley, likewise. It’s a surprisingly buttoned-up role for him – Blennerhasset is successful, a bit pompous, and Smiley has to affect a posh voice, softening his trademark brogue – but his essence shines through: the man can spin almost any line into a funny one. He’s a treasure.

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.