#354: Wild Bill (2012)

WildBillSince Guy Ritchie’s 1998 feature debut Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, British drama has been obsessed with cliched gangster movies. They’re relatively low cost to make, quick turnaround shoots with huge box office opportunity. Stylistically a mixture of fifties kitchen sink drama and the angry young men fronted British New Wave, the genre today has quickly become an outmoded self-parody, in desperate need of revitalising. Along comes venerable actor Dexter Fletcher. Rising from the fag ash of Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, his first foray into filmmaking takes the same hackneyed themes of…Hackney, and tells a new story full of satire, sincerity and heart.

After eight years behind bars, “Wild Bill” Hayward (Charlie Creed-Miles) returns home to his family in their tower block home. The wife is nowhere to be seen, abandoning their two children – paternal teenager Dean (Will Poulter) and his potty mouthed brother Jimmy (Sammy Williams) – for the sunny sights of Spain with her new boyfriend.

A tough nestle back in to normality, the broken home soon leads to social services reps (Jaime Winstone and Jason Flemyng) asking questions. They fend them off by pretending to play happy families, but the bossy Dean tells his workshy dad to go straight and get a job. Doing porridge has changed the ex-drug dealer, but unfortunately the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as Jimmy is accosted by local thug Terry (Leo Gregory) as a drug mule. Fighting for his freedom on the outside, Bill steps back in to the game, saving his son and taking a quick crash course on parenthood in the process.

Whilst the story is far from revolutionary, Fletcher and his writing partner Danny King have crafted a truly excellent script, which is neither excessively ghettoized, nor saccharine. The good works lead to good performances too, particularly from Son of Rambow‘s Bill Poultner, showing great range as the apathetic teenager turned surrogate father figure. Virtually a non-budget movie, it’s clear that Fletcher went through the phonebook and asked for a few favours of his supporting cast. Everyone’s here: the compelling Olivia Williams as the concerned social worker, Sean Pertwee as the no-nonsense constable who through Bill in the slammer those eight years ago and, best of all, Andy Serkis puts down the motion capture play things for a menacing performance as an East London mafioso. I wish he put down the motion capture play things and started doing more straight-up screen performances; his animated face-acting is always a scene stealer.

Unfortunately there is some duds amongst all the finite work. Misfits‘ Iwan Rhoen is insufferable as a slang-tastic hoodlum – so much that he even starts to annoy his co-stars. Newcomer Liz White’s turn as an abused call girl is too flippant and lacks character depth. The biggest disappointment comes from Wild Bill himself. Sublime as a drugged-up Billy incarnate in Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth, he is too emotionally uncharged throughout.

Evenstill, it’s still a brilliant debut from Fletcher. Working on film sets since the young age of ten when he played Baby Face in Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, he clearly has a deep insight of how to craft a story, shoot a scene and carve out some solid performances. All that, plus a great ska fever soundtrack and the best pub-fight sequence since Shaun of the Dead. It’s as good as a gangster film can get. Let’s hope he puts down the faux-Burberry scarves and trade them in for invigorated, ambitious new material.

IMDb / Trailer

#217: Sleepless Night (2011)

Pistol whippin’ the night away

Perfectly simple, yet deceivingly intricate, French action-thriller Sleepless Night may seem less than remarkable on paper. A classic “give me what I want or the kid gets it” premise, co-screenwriter and director Frédéric Jardin brings an intelligence and disciplined glee to familiar territory; far surpassing his brawny, cinematic influences.

As is often the case, it all kicks off with a heist. Crooked Parisian cop Vincent (Tomer Sisley), and his snivelling lackey Manuel (Laurent Stocker), jack the wrong cocaine stash in a daring daylight raid. The coke belongs to Marciano (Serge Riaboukine), a fearsome local gangster who identifies Vincent and ups his bargaining power by acquiring collateral in the form of Vincent’s son, Thomas (Samy Seghir). If he wants him back, he needs to bring the cocaine to the sprawling nightclub that Marciano owns for the trade-off. If only things were that simple we wouldn’t have a movie.  Throw in a mass of drunken club-goers, two internal affairs officers, a rival gang of drug traffickers, not to mention that this vast club is the size of a shopping mall, and it turns into a frenetic, exhilarating hundred minutes of cinema. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

Appearing in almost every scene, Tomer Sisley is magnetic as France’s equivalent to John McClane. Physically pained from an open stab wound during the initial drug robbery,Vincent wanders around the night club hunched, sweating and close to collapse. It makes his plight and desperation to escape with his son all the more tenable, leaving you on the edge of your seat making sure they both get out alive.

Alongside Sisley – and,  following an excellently understated performance in Polisse – Joey Starr proves himself once again to be a terrifying yet charming screen presence as drug launderer and loose cannon Jeydek Starr. Then there is the strikingly beautiful – and strikingly French – Lizzie Brocheré as special detective Vignali, seemingly the only character throughout the proceedings with a moral compass.

How it’s shot is the other half of why the film shines. With The Hunger Games and Clint Eastwood regular Tom Stern in the D.P. seat, Sleepless Night is a masterclass in kinetic cinematography. Recalling the handheld style of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films, the invasive camera has difficulty keeping up with Vincent as he battles his way through the vortex of a club. Visceral and punchy, the finest achievement involves a drawn out, impactful fist-fight in the bar’s cooking quarters; giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘kitchen-sink’ film trope.

It’s always darkest before the dawn, and Sleepless Night is no exception, with Jardin’s attempts at weight political commentary in the film’s close are At it’s best, this is the strongest action film I’ve seen all year. Unlike the lionised Gareth Evans surprise hit The Raid: Redemption, Sleepless Night is able to smack you around the face with gutsy action whilst also being intelligent and thrilling. As is standard of the film industry, the Warner Bros. bigwigs at BLAH already have an American remake in the works. Probably starring Mark Wahlberg and probably shit. See the original: go French.

IMDb it.

PODCAST no.2: Week 31 / Films #188-194

Ernest Goes to Podcast

Popping down the quill and warming up the vocal chords, this is my second weekly round-up podcast for your ear’s delectation. Seven reviews, movie clips, and  thirty minutes of me talking. Why wouldn’t you want that?

Subscribe to the iTunes podcast HERE, or listen in to the Soundcloud hosting episode below. I may be biased, but I’d say that it is at the very least listenable.

#188: Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)

‘I would come and look at your groovy new record, but I’m too busy doing my melodrama touch-face routine.’

A few months past, I reviewed the latest from British drama stalwart Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue SeaA densely-packed love triangle story set in post-war Britain, the old show tunes, pub crawls and an astonishingly brilliant Rachel Weisz didn’t carry enough charm for me to enjoy all the haute-taute eliticism. Call my cynic, futurist, or just plain old prick, but I’d rather get my kicks watching progressive films rather than ones drowning in nostalgia. Imagine my surprise when I heard that one of Davies’ major influences of the film was to be remastered for the big screen. Now imagine how much of a mind-fuck it was to realise that Woman In A Dressing Gown is a mesmerising romance drama, worthy of my two shillings and sixpence.

Directed by J. Lee Thompson, Woman In a Dressing Gown is more fragile and melodramatic than his later sinewy flicks The Guns of Navarone and the 1962 original Cape Fear. Based on a British TV play, this 1957 film centres around a riveting performance from the late Yvonne Mitchell. She plays Amy Preston, who after 25 years of marriage still can’t hone in the domestic prowess required to be a prim, proper, and submissive 1950s housewife. Her long-suffering husband Jim (Anthony Quayle) can no longer sit back and digest Amy’s unpalatable dinners, slovenly dress, and their messy lower class London flat, and takes up with his young receptionist Georgie Harlow (Sylvia Sims). With his heartstrings stretched, he knows it’s only a matter of time before one of them needs to get the shove.

Unlike Davies film, Thompson isn’t heavy handed with the superficial aesthetics to water down the depressive realism of the heartbreaking tale. If anything, Ted Willis’ script presides over the fairly unambitious direction with a forthright depiction of love-loss, coming from both the mind and the heart.

With the on-the-nose dialogue, Woman in A Dressing Gown‘s downbeat tone and close make the undermining theme of depression almost palpable. Yvonne’s stiff upper lip conceals the messy married life of her nightmares; Jim is sexually frustrated and unsatisfied; and naive mistress Georgie’s first love situation is hardly picture book. In some shape or form, all three of these wrestling protagonists are stuck, lonely and depressed. Common themes for any romantic drama, but never usually so beguiling as they are here, with the tension brimming until the film’s penultimate scene when distraught Amy invites Georgie over so the three can discuss the whole affair like ‘civilised adults’. Over a cup of tea, of course.

Even with a Berlinale-winning performance from Yvonne Mitchell as the disorderly housewife Mary, the best work comes from cinematographer Gilbert Taylor.  Years before his success as D.P. for Star Wars IV, Dr. Strangelove and The Omen, Woman In A Dressing Gown let’s us see a soon-to-be visionary get the vocational, with swooping panel shots and expressive close-ups.

The film is historically significant too, fitting in somewhere between British post-war, tea time melodrama and kitchen sink socio-realism. Ostensibly a heritage piece, it’s nevertheless fantastic to see these small, yet personable stories back on the big screen.

IMDb it.

102: The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Loosely adapted from the post-wartime Rattigan play, Terence Davies has another stab at the complexities of love, loss and contempt.

Carrying the heritage cinema baton on behalf of Good Ol’ Blighty, darling director Terence Davies has developed somewhat of a cult following across the globe; creating films which are unabashedly drenched in nostalgia and blitz-period romanticism. Such devotion is remarkable, not only because his films represent depressive themes, but also considering he has only realised five feature films in a career spanning three decades.

Stepping out behind his reclusive life, The Deep Blue Sea is Davies’ first feature film in over ten years. Is it the sea change, Gay Niggers from Outer Space sequel we’ve been crying out for him to make? Of course not. Instead, Davies continues onward through familiar means; tugging on the same old heart strings as usual.

Living passively in a passionless marriage, Hess (Rachel Weisz) gives up being the trophy wife of a high court judge (Simon Russell Beale) to pursue a new life with her fornicator, the hot-headed RAF pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). Underestimating her fall in class, and overestimating Freddie’s love for her, Hess struggles to keep her hair perfectly coiffed, her smile still gleaming, and her sanity in check.

Even with such a conventional, melodramatic storyline, Weisz is nothing short of magnificent in the central role. As the film progresses, her rendition of Hess’ vulnerability and digression is almost palpable, creating unequivocal sympathy for a character that could have otherwise been considered trite. Hiddleston too carries the burden of this weightily emotional rollercoaster with his take on the stark, stalwart Freddie, a man fractured out of love by the harsh realities of war. Currently entertaining multiplex cinema audiences with his lauded take on supervillain Loki in Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, Hiddleston is proving himself to be one of Britain’s finest actor exports, with a dazzlingly bright future.

But back to our old friend Terence Davies, although he has the ability to muster up astonishing performances from his actors, his education as a director seems to be falling short. Although The Deep Blue Sea is an emotive viewing experience, it isn’t necessarily an enjoyable one. Very loosely adapted from Terence Rattigan’s 1952 stage play, Davies has failed to bring the pioneering British playwright’s rich grasp of vernacular to the film, resulting with fuddled dialogue and sluggish pacing. A few minor moments from Hess’ landlady aside (played by the ever-fabulous Ann Mitchell, the film is virtually devoid from any form of stiff-upper-lip post-Great Depression humor, which the storyline so gravely calls out for.

Narrative and thematic issues aside, one can not help consider just how out of touch Terence Davies is within British society. Although his work as director may be less than prolific, his films have always been distinguished by their usage of a vintage aesthetic shtick. Although petticoats, excessively smoky parlors and Vera Lynn singalongs can be fun once in a while, it would be interesting if Terence Davies could use the medium for advancement of society and new audiences, not oppressive back-paddling.

After a long wait Terence Davies is back at his miserable best, portraying the irrationality of the human condition and its limits. A film that plays into the hands of critics, rather than the general, popcorn chomping public, it is nevertheless difficult to be ignored.

IMDb it.