More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)
When Kevin Spacey (@KevinSpacey) talked – on the Wogan t.v. show ? – about K-PAX (2001), in which Jeff Bridges and he starred, the indications were that the film was going to be one from which one would derive much more than from his account of it¹.
Were it not that one has the practice of seeking to go ‘blind’ into films, and letting them speak for themselves, hearing the interesting and excellent Q&A at The Arts Picturehouse with Ben Wheatley (@mr_wheatley), director and co-writer of Free Fire (2016) (@FreeFireFilm), and well hosted by Evie Salmon (@eviesalmon), might nonetheless have persuaded one that the film itself, even if it would not just seem like a technical exercise¹, was one in whose outfolding one would find relatively little more of interest.
Maybe a title at the top of the film, which said that it had been inspired by a report into what had happened in a real-life gun-battle, would have given one a different perspective from which to watch ? Since, despite the script’s origins, the actions and motivations of the characters are principally fictitious (e.g. we learnt that there had been a sincere expression of interest from Cillian Murphy in appearing in a Wheatley film, and so the question had arisen what business could Michael Smiley and he be about together), one doubts that something such as the step of having an image inset into the frame of where they all were, so that one could much better follow who was shooting at whom (at any time), and from where, would have made much difference to engaging some viewers (others may, of course, have been able to understand that very much more easily - and so also do not find battle-scenes boggling).
Self-confessed fan Ben Johnston writes thus, in a review for TAKE ONE (www.takeonecff.com, @TakeOneCinema), and for whom he also interviewed Ben Wheatley² [surely 'a Ben thing' going on... ?] :
While the tenuous unions form the basis for a lot of the character motivations and a fair bit of the plot, it is the rivalries that bring the most laughs, with plenty of insults flying in between the bullets. This razor sharp banter makes it extremely difficult to figure out who to root for at any given time, especially since nobody seems to be taking the whole situation very seriously. One minute a guy is shouting out that he’s forgotten whose side he’s on, the next someone is taking a quick headcount of who’s still alive – there’s a distinct element of cartoonish slapstick that helps keep the extended gun battle from feeling too monotonous [my emphasis].
Having watched the film, one found that, in the event, it had had an essentially similar effect to Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise (2015) (@HighRise_movie), in that one largely, and to an equivalent degree, really did not give a damn about what happened to any of the characters (Laing’s being so naively self-deceived about his importance (and other things) did not help³), or so tend to maintain much active awareness of where one was (obvious exceptions were for the swimming-pool, or Royal’s (Jeremy Irons’) penthouse), because the script could be used to draw one’s attention to it. In fact (unless one can generate enthusiasm and / or concentration), whichever happens first, the law of diminishing returns is likely to apply, because of a feedback loop in which the other is undermined, and then in turn undermines the first. In High-Rise, the issues started early, with what had brought Laing (Tom Hiddleston) to be where, and as, he was shown at the opening of the film.
Yet Laing’s matter-of-fact observation about the dog being barbequed rather said it all in a nutshell (or as with Wheatley’s account of how he saw the report that had documented a shoot-out) : the act of saying it presupposes another state of affairs, and who necessarily can maintain interest in what then led up to that point - even though some films work perfectly well so (such as American Beauty (1999), or Sunset Blvd. (1950)) ? When Wheatley spoke to The Arts Picturehouse audience (Screen 1), he made quite clear that he rebels against the portrayal of ‘good guys and bad guys’ per se, but one supposes that it depends what reaction a director hopes to gain for his or her work, if everyone is seen to be flawed. As it is, the presenting reason for everyone to be there at all in Free Fire, initially or later, is illegal activity – quite apart (please see comments above) from the double-dealing between the two groups that constitute the parties, or, as it emerges, the tensions between individuals in the same group, and the other group (a continuing theme since A Field in England (2012)). (In High-Rise, an additional element of more moral illegality / dishonesty is also in play.)
By contrast, with Prevenge, the quality of Alice Lowe’s self-direction, acting and editing [at the latter of which activities, as Jo Hartley (@MissJoHartley) told us at Saffron Screen (@SaffronScreen), Lowe’s baby Della Moon Synott was, as by then fully present, able to be there] is such that her wicked jokes are both amusing and feel truly transgressive⁴ (about the word ‘cut’ after, say, her character Ruth has used a knife on someone : on reflection, one recalls that tone in Roger Moore as Bond, speaking chummily to someone who is, at least, unconscious).
Whereas, except for those members of the Free Fire audience (who also found every injury or wounding a source of great amusement), the bickering and next bad behaviour that cause matters to unravel felt fairly functional, if arbitrary⁵ – could one even locate this at the level of Tarantino’s successful black humour in Pulp Fiction (1994), or did it just feel awkward when, for example, an actor is trying to be off hand with some doubt whether a character has really been killed ? As predictively Tweeted, Michael Palin and Terry Jones seem to hit the mark well with an episode from the first series of Ripping Yarns (Murder at Moorstones Manor (1976) [the link is to IMDb's web-page])...
Still out after not playing on the laptop, may viewing that was casual prove timely for @FreeFireFilm and @mr_wheatley at @CamPicturehouse ?— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) March 27, 2017
Taken back to 11 October 1977, for Murder at Moorstone's Manor, and splendid production quality from Terry Hughes :https://t.co/1tHWqNf3z6— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) March 27, 2017
At Saffron Screen (@SaffronScreen), Jo Hartley (@MissJoHartley), who plays the midwife in Prevenge (2016), deliberately used the word 'gestation' to refer to the timescale (as confirmed by IMDb, @IMDb) within which the film was both written and shot (very quickly, and yet with no compromise in values !) :
As told by @prevengemovie's @MissJoHartley [@Saffronscreen's guest], @alicelowe scripted @prevengemovie in a fortnight, shot it in 11 days.— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) April 1, 2017
No time, there, for 22,000 storyboards, etc., of which Wheatley spoke, or mapping the interior terrain (such an amazing space !) and plotting all the movements out on it, or six weeks with actors such as Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley, 'lying in shit' (as Wheatley put it). (As for Ripping Yarns, one can hear Michael Palin commenting on the quality effect that director Terry Hughes and he were aiming to achieve : the shoot for 'Murder at Moorstones Manor' (in 1976), just a thirty-minute episode, was Friday 15, Monday 25 to Friday 29 and Sunday 31 October, and (on set, for the final shoot-out in the hall) Wednesday 3 to Friday 5 November.)
Despite the time-pressures on her to get the film made, Alice Lowe lets dawn on us, at our own pace, what we see happening (or why), but we certainly have no idea of it when her character Ruth has an opening encounter with Mr. Zabek (Dan Renton Skinner), a fruitily-suggestive-cum-titillatingly-menacing proprietor of an emporium of exotic creatures : we ask what it means, and what perversion he committed that – by a voice from which we will be hearing more fully⁶ – is being 'called in' (Ruth arrives with a prepared weapon, and we also see clothes being destroyed) ?
.@alicelowe @prevengemovie @Saffronscreen Maybe the freshness of @SightseersMovie (2012) was really in @alicelowe's co-writiten screenplay, because @FreeFireFilm feels so restrained.— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) March 31, 2017
We hear and enjoy how Alice Lowe (@alicelowe) has scripted her own role to give us a person with immense verbal and social facility, fully as much as Dennis Price’s ready charm as Louis Mazzini in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), and an equal, in her personas / accents, for Alec Guinness’ celebrated cameos as members of the D'Ascoyne family (even though, properly seen, he is not the star of the show anyway, but Price’s impressive adjunct – i.e. when not seduced by novelty and the wonders of make-up, as by Linklater's gimmick in Boyhood) (2014)). For Len (Gemma Whelan), shown confronted here by Ruth (feigning to sound Welsh), Lowe has created someone who has the presence of mind to don gloves to try to box her assailant into submission, but who cannot quite help simultaneously believing - to Ruth's incredulity - the presenting story that all this is part of Ruth’s trying to sign her up to donate to a children’s charity !
Likewise, we are not only amused by DJ Dan (Tom Davis), when he casually takes his hair off, but also by the added grotesquery – here, more reminiscent of Steve Oram, with Lowe, in Sightseers (2012) (@SightseersMovie) than of Mr. Zabek’s particular qualities – of what happens to it later. Irrespective of Ruth’s motives in meeting someone such as Dan, and going through with everything necessary to be invited back, we can also – if we try – glimpse our own faiblesse in who he is happy to think that he is, as against where he turns out to live : as Ruth, Lowe does not allow herself to see her own banality (does, also, Louis Mazzini ?), but she roundly presents to us the people whom Ruth can only denigrate into prey (who disparages what someone would do on account of being called Josh - although she did try to relate to him, and, having humorously tried one, called him Dr Anchovy).
The manner of filming, and the intense look of some shots or scenes, working in conjunction with the score⁶, evoke moods and emotions in a very cinematic way : because cinematographer Ryan Eddleston seems to have free rein to make dramatic adjustments to focus and depth of feel within a shot, one experiences more than viewing what is literally depicted, so as to include being aware as a participant that (and how) one does so. There are also other moments, which are more expressionistic than suggestive, but, of course, still vocal, such as when the tables are turned on Ella (Kate Dickie), at the other end of a long, corporate table - in that Ruth is the one who gets Ella talking about her interests and activities outside work, as if she were a candidate for employment at interview. Meanwhile, at some level, we may notice that Ella’s end of the room is blue, in a cool way, whereas Ruth’s lipstick and skin-colour are alive, and fresh...
In cinema, which principal characters, and / or their relations to others (without our necessarily needing to like them, or their behaviour), will happen to interest us, but perhaps not someone else (and vice versa), may vary greatly (such as in our response to Free Free). Our reaction may be partly, but signicantly, influenced in the manner of the telling, e.g. when Stanley Kubrick decides (amongst other changes) to employ a narrator (Michael Hordern) in adapting Thackeray’s novel as Barry Lyndon (1975) [discussed in reviewing Further Beyond (2016)]). Without an obvious device (such as the inset location, mentioned above, as if the film were a crime construction), Free Fire would be different, say, with the guidance of a sardonic narrator's words, making comments such as To hammer home the offence of having been shot, Justine did not resist expressing a lot of pain, or Vernon really was more affronted at the damage to his jacket than to his shoulder.
At which point, and excused by the fact that Ben Wheatley shows what can happen to gas-cylinders, it is apt to slip in the funniest reference (in context) to people in a building and bullets, with Mia Farrow (Tina Vitale) and Woody Allen (Danny Rose) : this link is to YouTube, of Danny and Tina being shot at in Broadway Danny Rose (1984) [the scene in the hangar for the Macy's Day Parade].
Equally, a perfectly good film may build to a conclusion, as The Rocket (2013) does, but only give a pay-out that leaves one satisfied just then, rather than thinking about (the world of) the film afterwards : for some, this would be a deficit in a film, that the story’s end is co-terminous with the ending of our active satisfaction in it. In a way, A Quiet Dream (2016) falls into that category [(whether it tries, it does not achieve the effect that concludes The Hairdresser's Husband (Le mari de la coiffeuse) (1990)), whereas one almost defies anyone to be left in that place by the latter two on this list :
Films this week :— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) April 1, 2017
* A Quiet Dream (2016) - @koreanfilmfest teaser
* @FreeFireFilm + Q&A
* @ElleMovieUK re-watch
* @prevengemovie + Q&A
In the Saffron Screen Q&A, Jo Hartley referred to how, as the midwife and during one of Ruth’s appointments with her, she tells Ruth, You have to decide what's right, what's wrong - clearly, the midwife is not exactly a conscience personified (as Jiminy Cricket, in Pinocchio (1940)), or an angelic character (such as Clarence, from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)), as both of those know what, respectively, Pinocchio and George Bailey have been doing / going through. Still, as with any prophecy, whether that inherent in a pronouncement of the oracle at Delphi or otherwise sibylline in nature, the effect is dependent – and incalculably so – on the attitude(s) of the hearer to what he or she is hearing : Jocasta and Laius, by trying to avoid what is said of Œdipus, as surely more bring it about that it does happen than as if they had ignored it. At any rate, Jo Hartley’s character is kind enough to shield Ruth from enquiry about how and where she is living, given that the story of Prevenge is inevitably heading towards a birth.
Talking, in The Arts Picturehouse Q&A, about Free Fire's ending, Ben Wheatley (without naming any films) effectively confirmed a suspicion, when watching, that there is a resemblance to one for which, around the time of Reservoir Dogs (1992), Quentin Tarantino was an executive producer. Contained in a derelict factory (which nevertheless has more resources and working utilities than one would expect ?), the film speaks of the world outside, which continues to exist, even if the warfare of person against person makes it seem remote.
In Prevenge, if we even take none of what we have seen on the level of phantasy, the question What happens next ? is not asking to be answered at the end of the film : what we have seen has been so full that we do not need to project into a future.
Spoiler alert for the following images...
Some film-references, for Prevenge (by Tweet) :
Some film-references for @prevengemovie [other than Crime Without Passion (1934)] appear to be :— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) April 1, 2017
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) pic.twitter.com/6hXnEBi92o
.@prevengemovie The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) (1979)@SightseersMovie (2012) - @alicelowe @steve_oram directed by @mr_wheatley :https://t.co/tzn5ezTu85 pic.twitter.com/mHdxKrppxB— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) April 1, 2017
.@prevengemovie @SightseersMovie @alicelowe @steve_oram @mr_wheatley And, of course, a little bit - or more - of Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004)... pic.twitter.com/jNrOyjegTb— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) April 1, 2017
¹ As one did, and so went on to read the novels by Gene Brewer, of which the first (K-PAX) was the only one adapted for the screen. Twenty years on, do films, etc., still get this sort of exposure on a chat-show (probably only later at night, with the likes of Graham Norton – though he is perhaps more interested in increasing the quotient of dubious double entendre than any real form of culture ?) ?
Having said which, the documentation that Wheatley reported originally having seen, and which had been a springboard for the film, did sound to show potential at the level of forensic documentary : in the case of this film, it was just that hearing him talk about it for a short time, as against what had ‘panned out’ in ninety minutes, gave rise to a disparity in what the two time-frames had communicated. Whereas - presumably by the real Wheatley fans in the house - the opportunity was being taken to laugh deeply and fully at every moment of comedy, and not a joke, of any kind, went unbidden.
² Here are some #UCFF Tweets, which give a link to the interview (and suggest perils in being too impressed by one's interviewee) :
.@TakeOneCinema @mr_wheatley @CamPicturehouse @FreeFireFilm BJ answered 'Do FREE FIRE and HIGH RISE strike you as ridden with compromise?' with 'As a fan – I agree with you' :https://t.co/kHg5H8xtPi— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) April 2, 2017
³ Blue paint aside, though, this is not a Godard film, and so Laing’s disintegration does not have the weight of Jean-Paul Belmondo (as Ferdinand Griffon) in Pierrot le Fou (1965).
⁴ We know that, when someone says something – it may be us, tickled by how our words have come out – or something happens, there is a difference between registering humour, because what was said or done takes a comic form, and actually smiling because of it, or finding oneself laughing – the latter is mainly involuntary (although one can, of course, set out to have a good time). With Alice Lowe's performance, we laugh despite ourselves (and not even with a groan) - for which a close correlate, as argued further down in the main text, is Dennis Price in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).
⁵ Ben Wheatley said, in the Q&A, that he dislikes genre, but Free Fire belongs to one that comprises plots that are dependent on animosity going beyond antagonism to propel behaviour, and which then tend to be located in some types or circumstances of human interaction : the Bond films, already just mentioned, for one are where we often see competitiveness in the line of some sort of spy duty take on an aspect of personal rivalry (obviously, unto death – or apparent death).
⁶ Some of us may be reminded by it of Oskar, in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) (1979). (An odd coincidence, since IMDb credits the music to Toydrum, along with, first, to Pablo Clements and James Griffith (because it does not seem to appreciate that the latter are Toydrum).)
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)