Decent Ben Wheatley movie shocker!

free12017.72: Free Fire (2016)

Frankly, I didn’t see two things ever happening; one, me ever watching a Ben Wheatley film again after the frankly execrable A Field in England and High-Rise, and two, ever admitting I enjoyed a Ben Wheatley film. Well, colour me surprised, thanks to Amazon Prime putting this film up to watch and the cast enticing me in (Sam Riley, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor… I mean, Christ, it’s a cast to die for, really…). Ben Wheatley’s name on the credits hardly seemed a factor. Lucky me, because this is one of those films that goes with its almost one-line premise and actually delivers a little cracker. And hey, it’s nearly Christmas. Perfect.

Both A Field in England and High-Rise were competently-made high-concept films that drowned in pretentious arthouse shenanigans – Free Fire actually reminded me of 1970s John Carpenter. In a similar way to how Carpenter would skillfully craft a classic film from simple b-movie ideas with Assault on Precinct 13 or Halloween, here Wheatley shoots (unfortunate turn of phrase, all things considered) a taut, funny action-drama from a simple set-up.

Its 1978 and a bunch of IRA members meet some arms dealers in Boston to buy a van load of machine guns. A varied and eclectic group of misfits and crooks, the tense dealmaking collapses into a violent stand-off in an abandoned factory, with the two sides in a violent conflict that lasts through the entire film. Yeah, its one long gun-fight and most of these goons ain’t going to walk out of the showdown. Its simple, it’s effective, it’s littered with great dialogue, performances and twists and turns. Sure, it’s not perfect, certainly not as cool or as hip as thinks it is but for a Ben Wheatley movie it’s quite surprisingly brilliant.

It’s a decidedly pulp film just lacking the widescreen elegance of Carpenter in his prime or Tarantino’s witty dialogue or Scorsese’s gritty realism (Scorsese actually features in the films credits as a producer) but its a ball for the ninety minutes it lasts.  Maybe it was a case of extremely diminished expectations (I call that the Wheatley Factor) but I really quite enjoyed it. Great fairly mindless fun and yeah, a great, great, cast. The wrap party must have been an absolute ball.

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High Rise (2015)

high1.jpg2016.93: High Rise (Amazon VOD)

About the only thing this film seems to get ‘right’, that at least makes it interesting enough to stomach all the way through its interminable two hours, is its cool-1970s aesthetic; the sets, the costumes, the hair styles, its all like some kind of strange alternate-1970’s universe, as if its all set a few years after A Clockwork Orange. Its a beautiful, funky horror. Which rather makes it a curio when you’re watching it. The problem is, most of the time you’re watching it wondering just what the hell is going on. Narrative is not Ben Wheatley’s strength, clearly, as evidenced on his earlier film A Field in England, another film I loathed. Like that film, this film seems to have its fans, but this s just not for me- I thought it was horrible.

Basically, its a hipster-arthouse film that is all style over substance, and fails to have any genuine coherence or narrative, simply glorifying in a great (wasted) cast and that 1970s aesthetic. I don’t mind ambiguity or ‘working’ at enjoying a film,  but I shouldn’t be watching a film wondering just what the hell is going on, or why nobody just simply leaves the bloody tower block when the shit hits the fan. Internal logic is not this films strength.

I ‘get’ that its all a social commentary, based on a book from 1975 , with the tower-block acting as a microcosm of society as author J G Ballard saw it at the time, but as the chaos ensues and the ‘society’ breaks down due to tower-block power-cuts and social conflict between the haves and the have-nots, the film is so intent on being clever and faithful (I presume) to the book that it fails to function as a proper film. Why are everybody such raving sociopaths? The rich and the poor alike just seem to degenerate into morally-bereft thugs, rapists and robbers.

Just why does nobody leave the building when everything falls apart (the outside world ticking by nicely)? Nominal ‘lead’ Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has an affair with one woman, then another, and doesn’t seem at all perturbed when his first lover is beaten and raped or his second enlisted as a slave to the ‘masters’ in the penthouse suites. No matter what bloody chaos ensues, the police never turn up. A guy throws himself off the building, women are brutalised and raped. Its like there is no law. Its all so very inconsistent and illogical.  Typical Ben Wheatley.

Frankly, Snowpiercer, a film that told pretty much the same story but replaced the tower block with a train, did it all so much better, and managed to tell a coherent and interesting story too. High Rise looks beautiful and has an at times arresting soundtrack (Abba’s SOS will never seem the same again) but its a horrible mess of a film.