Tag Archives: British

Dizzy Heights with Mountainous Films

Sometimes you get that odd confluence when a string of films of the same ilk all pop up at once. Well two and a half anyways, with one modern film, one silent, and a string of documentaries on the BBC iPlayer to follow. The release of the British Film Institute’s beautifully restored version of the silent Epic of Everest is a visually stunning and particularly rare treat on broadcast and catch-up TV, and the accompaniment of the archive-rich documentary Battle for the Himalayas is a hugely welcome double bill that feels all too rare these days. That all this should be followed by a documentary about a have-a-go vertiginous sheep-herder at the Cube in Bristol this week is perhaps half-ways tenous, but with Audrey of the Alps it feels like the altitude of my recent watchlist has gone up a few thousand feet in a very short space of time.

The Epic of Everest

The mountaineering genre holds an odd place in film history, from early expedition documentaries such as Epic of Everest, to the politically charged Bergfilms that fired German pre-war audiences, and the more immediate and almost resurrective stories of Touching the Void and Alive, the core drama is of the human spirit overcoming the odds be that for personal triumph or national glory. The recent news coverage of the duo that managed the first free climb of the notorious Dawn Wall of El Capitan in California shows there’s a still a wider interest in stories of conquest where we can find them, and the tension of potential/inevitable tragedy is the fuel of jeopardy that feeds a good story.

Setting up camp on El Capitan

While the assurance of a dramatic mountain backdrop practically guarantees something visually arresting on screen, the insistance by Netflix that nigh-on every mountaineering/skiing film in their collections features ‘stunning cinematography’ makes you wonder if the cameramen even have to bother beyond pointing the camera in the right direction. Which further begs the question why so many independently produced skiing and snowboarding films are so utterly dull? Beautiful vistas and the threat of serious injury or death, and still they can’t visually muster anything more complex than tricks and pratfalls to whatever shade of punk suits. An odd exception is Swedish director Ruben Östlund who cut his teeth making daft skiing films on the Val D’Isere, eventually got to film school, made some critically lauded observation dramas, before in time getting around to setting his latest award winning feature on, where else, but the Val D’Isere. There’s more to be said for Force Majeure when it hopefully gets to British cinemas later this spring, but the film balances the destructive force of mountains with the seismic fissures in a shattered family dynamic. It may be a mountain film, but not as we know it.

Anyways, for the soul with time to kill and a hankering for good screen histories on mountaineering the iPlayer is the place to go at the moment, with the aforementioned Timeshift documentary Battle for the Himalayas being of note, as well as a repeat of Eiger: The Wall of Death. Both are rich in archive footage and to-the-point talking head interviews, and both document periods when mountaineering achievements were a running story of national interest.

Audrey of the Alps at The Cube

As for the story of Audrey of the Alps, well I don’t know much beyond the blurb about it being a doc following a twenty-something trying to find themselves in the Alps. With a load of sheep. Beyond it’s pitch as a possible lost episode of the TV series Girls, the prospect of fine wines and even finer fromages from The Bristol Cheesemonger is the sort of thing which quite easily swings me towards at least giving the film a go. Get yourself to the Cube in central-ish Bristol for 8pm on Tuesday the 3rd if you too are easily tempted by wine, cheese, and a peculiar new documentary.

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Finding Sheffield’s Loose Threads

Protect and Survive Mushroom CloudThe docu-drama you are about to witness is one of the most intensely realistic portrayals of nuclear holocaust ever seen. So daring is this British production, that it has never been scheduled on U.S. network television. Threads is not a polished Hollywood star-studded feature… it is an honest portrayal of events that could take place should there be a nuclear war. “Threads” is graphic and shocking, and may not be suitable for children. Viewer discretion is advised.

Between those who stayed up to watch it on the 23rd of September 1984, and a whole generation of children who were shown the film at school, the impact of the BBC TV play Threads seems to have left an indelible mark on viewers well beyond its original broadcast. The warning quoted above, given by the local Vancouver station CKVU, both captures the impact the film had on audiences while also overselling what is ultimately quite an understated film. It is indeed about the end of the world, but its power is its focus on two very average families and the domestic drama which ties them together. The horror is of course how a narrative so familiar from British soaps gets up-ended by thermo-nuclear war. Absurd as that sounds the film demonstrates that the abstraction of a truly global catastrophe can only effectively be told through a more immediately personal perspective.

For some audiences the horror is also inextricably wound up in the film’s use of location, and the familiarity of Sheffield plays strongly to locals, but also to a wider recognition of a location which is identifiably the North of England. As discussed a very long while back, the strength of Sheffield as a location on screen seems to consistently be that it is both visually striking yet on some level quite anonymous too. Threads bears this out, with a very limited number of wider establishing landscapes shots breaking up a string of location shooting which presses in to limit recognisable features. The trained eyes of Sheffielders on local history, and local interest forums have however done a fair bit of work identifying the city with the scant clues to be seen on-screen, and along with this information I did a rewatch recently to see what other locations I could work out. The results made for quite a satisfying google map:

The locations pinpointed are not all locked, and I’d be very interested to hear anyone’s ideas about other sites from the film in the comments section below. Threads Sheffield Radio Times CoverAdditions and corrections will of course be made to the map as suggested!

As for the status of Threads in Sheffield, it lives on with an eerie after-life that goes well beyond any form of ‘cult’ status that might be bestowed upon it. Over the years I lived in the city there was a consistent club night that took the name of the film, but which has since gone into retirement. The film also has an ever growing word-of-mouth reputation that swells with each new intake of students, and working in a university video library it was plain to see that the single copy we held got a lot of usage throughout the year as word got around about the uncanny post-apocalyptic tale set on those recognisable hills. It was after all from a battered VHS copy in the very same library that I first had a chance to see the film, and I’ll always quietly resent the friend who suggested we give this unknown film a go at ten to midnight on a weekday.

Anecdotally I’ve heard that a number of attempts have been made over the years to put the film on ‘officially’ at a cinema in Sheffield, but owing to a nasty mess of rights, and the fact that the contract wranglers at the BBC had never conceived that someone might want to show the TV play on the big screen, meant that a screening could never be cleared. Thankfully the brilliant Sensoria music and film festival in Sheffield have pulled it off this year, with a special screening taking place outdoors next to Park Hill in the city centre. Ruth in ThreadsThe fact that tickets for the event sold out 4 days before the screening stands as some testimony to the TV play itself, especially when tickets stand a few pounds North of what you might pay for a DVD of the film.

The final enshrining of Threads as a Sheffield classic has however been sealed in the week gone by the efforts of the ’30 Years of Threads’ project which deftly pulled together a number of comments and readings of the film by staging a co-ordinated twitter “live re-watch” of the film on the exact 30th anniversary of the film, down to the minute of its original broadcast! One of the curators behind the project, Rob Barker, did a good job of summarising the event and the film, and you’d do well to cast an eye over his notes and review of the event over here.

Add to this a curated film and audio work by Matt Stokes, which used contemporary performances from Sheffield locals to imagine and re-stage the long-term impact on the world well after the attack portrayed in Threads. The resulting installation, In Absence of the Smoky God, uses film and dialogue, alongside materials borrowed from Barry Hines personal archives, sounds riveting and original, and I’m gutted to be missing it. Those within reach of Sheffield would do well to get there before it closes on the 8th of November.

For a former resident stuck in another corner of the country with only a DVD to go on, the overflowing source of Youtube has proven a valuable distraction for all things tangentially related to Threads. A QED documentary from 1982 proved to be a spark which instigated the commissioning of Threads, and is well worth a look. As is the Newsnight discussion which followed the original broadcast of the TV play, which while being a bone-dry panel debate between experts on all sides of the issue, is still interesting as a historical document, in particular in showing the odd minutiae which the panellists get hung up on.

Overall it’s brilliant to see such a devastating film enshrined and lionised by the cultural establishment and the people of Sheffield itself. Unforgettable is an overused word, but the horrific images and the devastating story of Threads is not an easy one to block out.

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Political Trainwrecks and Cultural Shorthand

For the all the times musicians have come out to slander the politician who dared to use their tunes for political ends, you’d think the establishment would have understood the pitfalls of using cultural shorthand. With the Labour even getting a drubbing for having the temerity to play The Horror’s I See You, not symbolically but just as muzak, shows that the politician dressing in the raiment of cultural referents still does so at their peril. Not that such risk worried George Osborne, when at this year’s Tory Party conference he took the moment at hand to close his speech on a rousing cry taken straight from the pages of Trainspotting.

The ‘Choose Speech’ took on a much grander life with the 1996 film, and Renton’s immortal words found their way onto a stylized poster which seemed to win fans with disaffected students across the country. They could get onboard with the speech’s anti-establishment ethos, without having to get grubby with the realities of either heroin addiction or being Scottish.

Trainspotting-choose-lifeSo what then of Osborne adapting the form to drill home why the Tories are the natural choice for the discerning voter? An easy assumption might be that a politician without a slogan can always fall back on a crowd favourite, but however you cut the Tory demographic I think you’d be hard pushed to find any block support for the film in their ranks.

Suspicion edges towards this being a cynical echo, a knowing tip of the hat to an openly un-Tory film with a reference that might fly over the head of most, but would at least get the chattering classes twittering and blogging [why hello!] about it all. That Irvine Welsh’s response on twitter was practically guaranteed seems to show that the speechwriters could sleep easy in the knowing that coverage of the speech wouldn’t JUST be about strangling benefits to Britain’s poorest working families.

Ever since their Suspicious Minds billboard campaign of 2010, where a practically white canvas and David Cameron’s blank face was offered up to disgruntled photoshoppers everywhere, it seems pretty clear that the Tory’s are calculating how to play the moans of the easily riled twitter bubble to lock down their eye-rolling core voters. Osborne isn’t trying to say anything by using this cultural touchstone, but has rather taken a list of liberal Trigger Warnings to make sure his speech (if not his actual message) gets enough traction on social media. In a move so cynical I wonder if I really should be throwing another 500 words on the social media bonfire.

Or maybe I shouldn’t be so cynical. Maybe on quite a fundamental level it should be argued that the Choose Life diktat of self-determination and free choice are the ultimate prizes in a Thatcherite word view. Without a good word or qualification to his name Renton manages to kick the habit and fuck off to London to be become an estate agent during the property boom of the mid 1990s. When his life-long friends come down South and embroil him in the shadiest of drug deals he manages to screw them all, and get away with the capital that will secure his future above all else. The ultimate self-actualisation and the master of his own destiny, I suppose Mark Renton is a Thatcherite hero after all. Maybe that was Osborne’s reason for choosing Trainspotting, but to quote the punchline that the old Etonian never got around to, who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?

Mark Renton Chose Life Not The Tories

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Showing at the Showcase: Pusher

Growing up a child of Stockholm’s many video rental stores, the hovering presence of the Danish Pusher trilogy always stood out. The catatonic stare of round-faced Kim Bodnia seemed to glare from the walls of every cornershop, face covered in grime and blood, guns toting left and right, and garlanded in glowing praise from a phalanx of lads-mags. The film was brutal, blunt, unflinching, and Danish of all things. And yet my teenage self hadn’t even the slightest impulse to give it a second look.

That was before the WHOLE WORLD discovered Scandinavian crime drama, and here we are sixteen years and one genre phenomenon later, and Pusher (DK) has been retooled for an English language remake. Which meant I had to go rushing back to see the Danish original, with the hindsight of age and the knowledge that it was the debut of the director who made rather a success of Drive. And sure enough, Pusher (DK) lived up to its gritty profile, being the frenetic story of drug deals falling like dominos, forcing the titular middle-man into a doomed endgame of cat-and-mouse. Being the low-budget feature of first-time writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn, the whole is a bit of a rough mess, with an uneven script, but still exciting overall for its knock-about observational style. The grime of Copenhagen’s relentlessly unglamorous drugs trade is shot through a grey and dirt-speckled lens, and the moral ambiguity of the ‘Juggo’ [read: Serbian] importers helped give the film a sense of being only two steps removed from the real underworld. Which it patently wasn’t, but the complete package of Pusher (DK) holds together well enough to suck you in.


Now that we get to Pusher (UK) and the approach taken has been to brush off all the grot of the original, to polish it to a sheen to match the most expensive of adverts, and the sum total is a happily glamorous take on London’s cocaine trade. Sure, everything still goes to hell in a handbasket, but along the way we have plenty of club scenes with thick slices of ThumpThump, plenty of WubWub, and drink, and drugs, and merry times all-round. The girls! The glitz! The good times!

Where the moral and emotional vacuity of the Danish protagonist gives the original a really uncomfortable edge, Richard Coyle acting as the British equivalent refuses to fall back on this safer ambiguety. Maybe I can’t escape my liking of the actor, probably best known as the surreal Welshman Jeff in the sitcom Coupling, but his very best attempts at wringing a moral character out a not very strong script makes for some hard watching. Matching this with a cast of other wafer-thin secondary characters played by some equally lightweight acting talent, and the whole exercise just fails to be convincing on any effective level.

To put the glitzy remake in direct contrast with the bleak original is perhaps unfair, but a real opportunity to try something different has been missed here. Slight tweaks to characters and scenes have somehow managed to water down what was an obscenely taut script, missing the dramatic punchlines the Danish original hit every time. How they manage this is beyond me, but I suppose a Danish dub of Eastenders would still fall just as flat for that.

One out of Five

Pusher is showing at the Showcase Cinema De Luxe in Bristol’s Cabot Circus from the 12th of October 2012.

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Showing at the Watershed: Berberian Sound Studio

In the realm of modern popular cinema the expectation is that the craft remains for the most part seamless. The editing should not be distracting, the cinematography should not be too self-conscious, the score should not be too overbearing. Where these lines are drawn is the cut and thrust of film criticism itself, and one person’s subtlety is another’s frying-pan to the head. When a film comes along that tugs at these very seams, and indeed starts pulling them apart, critics very easily, and not unjustifiably go into fits of ecstatic praise.

Some British critics are going absolutely wild for Berberian Sound Studio. In part this is because Berberian is a demonstration of how intricately sound can be woven into a picture, and having established this fundament the film quite merrily pulls it apart stitch by meticulous stitch. Knowing as this process is, the manner of this rather brutal deconstruction makes for a really compelling film.

A 1970s period piece set in the titular Italian sound studio, the fastidious British sound engineer Gilderoy is shipped over to help record the soundtrack to a brutal yet perennially unseen Italian horror film. When the sound effect artists are suddenly taken ill, it is poor Gilderoy who has to step away from the mixing desk, and into the role of hardcore vegetable mutilator. Plump marrows dropped from great heights; heads of cabbage given the slasher treatment; whole watermelons tenderized to pulp; radishes torn stalk from head, all towards recreating the symphony of agonies bestowed variously upon set upon schoolgirls, and tortured witches alike.

The sonic body horror is one part of the chorus, and a rotating gallery of vocal talents are drawn in to scream their lungs out, or merely to supply the inhuman howls and cackles of the fiends which haunt the film we’re still forbidden to see. Add to this mix the lilting creep of synthesisers, and the manually looped and manipulated samples of music and noise, and resulting score is just as frenetic and souped up as you’d expect of a 1970s Italian horror film. Gilderoy is a consummate master of his craft, and in Toby Jones‘ strikingly careful performance can be found a quiet joy in just watching him tinker, manipulate and layer all the sounds step by step.

In focusing on sound alone Berberian somehow exceeds the fictitious Giallo it’s supposed to be shadowing. It’s neither breathless or lurching in its dramatic shifts; instead it builds up a tense and anxious mood which is never really scary per se, just endlessly uneasy. Which of course is indubitably worse in its own quiet way. Match this with an uncertain narrative arc, a seamless (!) if occasionally disjointing transition between scenes, and a final act which leaves you grasping at every hint of a conclusion, and the sum total is a non-horror film which is quite impishly beguiling in its own right.

While the first flush of the UK release is limited to the larger arthouse cinemas across the country, the alternative option of watching the film ‘on-demand’ instantly via computer can only be recommended for those too far away from an obliging bricks-and-mortar cinema. Like Enter the Void, Berberian Sound Studio thrives on being played in a dark room with a big screen and a LOUD sound system, and a tinny laptop speaker isn’t going to capture the uneasy creaks and synthesised hums which really gives the film its nervous life.

When the big studios are unremitting in promoting 3D as cinema’s last premium-worthy USP, it’s quite telling that one of the last films funded using the UK Film Council’s ‘Low Budget Feature Film Scheme’ can prove how vital the cinema ‘experience’ is, without the need for plastic glasses or condescending adverts.

Four out of Five

Berberian Sound Studio is showing at the Watershed in Bristol for two weeks from the 31st of August 2012.

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Getting Stuck Up River With Swandown

In the lift and on my way to see Swandown, I bumped into a neighbour. Niceties quickly dealt with, and his purpose towards Tesco established, I ended up trying to explain a film I hadn’t yet seen:
“This guy gets a pedalo shaped like a swan, and he rides it from Hastings to the Olympic village.”
“Ha, ok, right, so is it a documentary?”
“Well, sort of, a bit like a comedy too, I think.”
“Right”
“And it’s got Stuart Lee in it as well.”
“Oh, ok.”
While I do live on the fifth floor, my lift really isn’t as slow as that sounds. And nor is the film itself, which lugubriously floats along the aforementioned outline with a strange momentum all of its own.

Starting with a fruitless battle against a ceaseless tide, artist/captin Andrew Kötting eventually sets to sea with the skipper and word-smith Iain Sinclair at the helm. Their floating steed is a fibreglass swan-shaped pedalo called Edith, and over the course of a couple of weeks, the vessel does indeed get from A to B. As he journeys up the canals and rivers of East Sussex, Kötting casts out countless points of association for all and sundry to latch onto. He meets a few odd folks on the banks, and goes ‘fishing for sounds’. There’s no plan or scheme, just a simple impulse for adventure, and a strong faith in the power of serendipity.

The pleasure of the film is in its visual, be that the gorgeous misty morning shots of Edith calmly gliding through a modern pastoral idyll, or more directly in the sight of Kötting jumping fully be-suited into waters and muddy banks with aplomb. That, and we get a short sequence with Stewart Lee and Alan Moore riding the swan for a while, as bewildered in the act as any knowing witness would surely have been to see it.

The film quite happily establishes itself within the distinct realm of artist-driven filmmaking, and an immediate comparison, in form, and in its handling of British landscapes could easily be found with Patrick Keiller’s Robinson trilogy. Or you could quite happily associate it with Apolcalypse Now, or Deliverance, or any film which happens to go up or down a river. The associations are there for the taking, and the journey carries on quite happily regardless.

It’s difficult to say if the film would have held all 94 minutes of my unbroken attention if I’d just stumbled across it in a gallery, but even without conflict or purpose the film still held a strange allure. Though maybe not a universal allure, as the middle-aged burke in front of me swiftly found something of unbroken interest lurking on his luminous Blackberry. Having been reprimanded by an usher (!) he spent the last hour of the film itching and twisting like a caffeinated seven-year old at a slow church sermon. His declaration on leaving that ‘that was a load of fucking bollocks’ certainly cuts to the nub of the matter, but you can’t help but wonder what he was expecting. A song and a dance number? A laugh a minute? A nice nineteenth century oil painting of, y’know, REAL art?

Each to their own I suppose, but while Swandown hardly surprises it still manages to elicit the odd laugh, and to keep you watching. A strange if beautiful beast, to say the least.

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Staking a Claim for Kill List

Playing ‘spot the location’ with Kill List is a pretty thankless task for a Sheffield resident. The better part of the film is set either in soul-less ring road hotel suites, if not in equally beige new-build suburbs. In a Q&A following a preview screening in Sheffield, the director even made it clear that “it’s not supposed to be Sheffield, really” and that a local audience could probably pick holes in a story that purports to stretch across a large, if indefinite, part of the country. And a near anonymous backdrop makes sense for an occasionally graphic horror film, the emotional imbalance of the hit-men set against a strangely lonely and faceless world.

In a country covered in generic branded service stations, corporate hotels, and near identical high streets, the setting almost gives the film a universal quality; a dullness any Brit could instantly recognise. And it’s hardly the first time that Sheffield and its environs have taken the role of ‘wholly generic British backdrop’. In most recent memory is the 2008 horror Hush, where the lifeless scenery of Yorkshire service stations punctuates the stalking terror of a motorway trip from hell. Finding horror in the everyday is something you might normally associate with British cultural staples like Dr Who or John Wyndham, and both Kill List and Hush do a fine job of conjuring really quite unsettling weirdness in a rather mundane world.

Those in the know will already have spotted that the common link between the two horrors is Warp Films, the independent film production company based in Sheffield. Higher up the funding chain we find Screen Yorkshire, who no doubt played a big part in selling the city as the best place for filming. One of my favourite, if somewhat esoteric, of film artefacts is a Screen Yorkshire location catalogue, a lavish picture book of sites around God’s Own Country that can represent a surprisingly broad range of settings.

It’s not quite as wildly optimistic as this location map put out by Paramount in 1927, yet the case it states is quite the same: Yorkshire’s more versatile than you might think.

Yet the degree of recognition any given audience can find in a film presents all kinds of issues. My previous post on Four Lions stirred up quite some interest in Sheffield readers keen to pinpoint those backdrops they half recognised from the film. You could even say that the local audience actually claimed some small ownership of the film, with the film screening for close to three months straight at the Showroom cinema in town, representing one of their largest ever box office successes. The fact that scenes of the film were shot on the roof of the same cinema probably didn’t hurt sales either.

Stepping back from this local perspective, even Four Lions positioned itself in a broad and non-specific setting. Its backdrop is a working class Northern city with a muslim population, which could easily be any city North of the Watford gap. Yet even this regional nuance was lost on some international critics, with the film reviewer of the Toronto Star noting that the film’s bumbling jihadists ‘live in or near London’; a misobservation a Sheffield local would likely not take lying down.

But to return to a question of audiences and ownership, what stakes can we ever legitimately claim to a film? Sheffielders took Four Lions to its heart, but in all probability won’t do so with Kill List, as there’s nothing local which they can claim as their own. Conversely a wider British audience of film critics and genre fans have already started championing Kill List as the best ‘British Horror/Thriller/Genre Film in Years’, garnering it with awards galore at FrightFest, with and four and five star reviews both left, right and centre.

Much as I enjoyed the film, it still somehow felt uneven, brilliant in parts but never with enough momentum to give the story’s twists and turns the heft to ever be convincing. The blowing of trumpets and banging of drums which has since followed all feels a bit out of proportion for a film which is good but still flawed.

Yet like a number of others who share these reservations, I still side on the concluding remark that it is worth seeing, and that we should all get behind it, more of this sort of thing, yes thank-you kindly! The ownership here is towards something broader, namely an independent British genre film with a modicum of ambition. Perhaps it’s a gross disservice to claim that people like the principle of the film more than the film itself, but I think you’d be hard pushed to ever actually separate the two.

However complicated and thorny this question is, the film is definitely worth a look. If nothing else I’m keen to hear how the film lands with others less conscious of championing or scorning the film. And furthermore and most importantly, I’m ever keen to hear from those who might be able to contribute to the location map below. As before, be warned for HERE BE SPOILERS:

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Not Seen at the Showroom: Brighton Rock (2010)

It’s all too easy to cry foul when an adaptation doesn’t match your lovely and elaborate memory of fictional scenes, but the new Brighton Rock did a spectacular job of setting off on the wrong foot. Having had the novel battered over my head by a terrifyingly Anglophilic Swedish English-teacher [yes, exactly that] one of the early scenes of the novel, in a small, dingy, absolutely despondent pub on a weekday lunchtime, for some reason struck a chord with my teenage self. There’d be mould on the walls, an air of resignation as thick as the smoke, and despite all this the brash yet unequivocally human character of Ida Arnold appears.

The opening of said scene in the film puts it in a gleaming palace of brass and porcelain, the sun streaming in, the patrons elegantly propping up the bar with poised noses. They’re still drinking gin, but for all I remember it may as well have been to the clinking of dry martinis. And then Helen Mirren opens her mouth and my vague reminisces of dialogue appear to have taken the form of an Eastenders audition tape. It’s hard not to get stuck on a hundred little hang-ups, but the whole thing just sat really badly.

And then the story starts to unfurl, and well, after a while I fell asleep. It was the middle of the day, I’d had a coffee before I went in, it wasn’t particularly warm in the cinema, but still I was out like a light for a good half hour. I’m not prone to cinematic snoozing unless under certain narcoleptic duress, but this certainly wasn’t one of those instances. Boredom might be the short word for it, but I just didn’t care about the characters, their motivations, anything. A complete failure to engage on nigh on every level.

I like to kid myself that while I snoozed I dreamt of alternative approaches to the film. Maybe one set in modern Brighton, or perhaps in a completely distinct criminal subculture. Or maybe abroad, a Polish Brighton Rock could be interesting, especially as the tale of an anguished lapsed Catholic has more resonance there. Just anything that had a spark of imagination with the source material would do. Anything but what we got in this film.

Fell Asleep out of Five

Brighton Rock has been showing at the Showroom in Sheffield from last Friday (the 4th of February  2010.)

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Showing at the Showroom: The King’s Speech

Perhaps wary of stick-waving, royalist-poking republicans everywhere, The King’s Speech is almost a little desperate to win over any audience that comes across it. You WILL get behind the unproven hero, and whatever your allegiance, lords knows you WILL be rooting for him come the final act. In the simplest terms the film is Rocky recast in a royal mould, with all the pent-up British decorum that might suggest. It’s thoroughly enjoyable for it too.

The underdog is the unassuming Albert, Prince of York (Colin Firth), and the film is his path to succeeding the Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) and becoming the Reluctant King George VI. His struggle is with himself, battling a debilitating stutter which neuters him in the one demand of a royal, that of the public speaker. He was never meant to be a contender, swiftly consigned to the sidelines from birth, the knock-kneed, tongue-tied younger brother had steeled himself for a life outside the spotlight. Not that occasion didn’t demand of him to speak publicly, and the opening scene of the film sees Albert failing to address both an attendant Wembley stadium, and a nation of listeners on the wireless. Ushered in by the King’s finest English, a waiting nation is left hanging in silence, Albert humiliated, unable to even trip over a single word.

Having given up on the prospect of curing his affliction, ‘Bertie’s’ patient and supportive wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) corrals him into trying one last Doctor, whose ‘unorthodox’ approach had a good record of success. Descending into the bowels of Harvey street they meet the gauche Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who’s at no pains for airs and graces around the royals.

The initial session starts with an awkward bickering between a jovial therapist and prickily prince, the question of ‘how -do- I address you?’ opening up the formal and psychological minefield that the two of them spend the rest of the film trying to traverse. It’s not a million miles away from the therapy couch sessions of the equally guarded and overblown Tony Soprano; both subjects in desperate need of therapy, but outwardly set against the idea at every turn. The film skirts past the threat of overt psychoanalysis, as Bertie insists it’s a mere ‘physical affliction’ and that it should be treated as such. The coach (and the audience) obviously knows better, but our champ has to get in the comfort zone if he’s going to win the bout conquer his condition.

Of course, with the unwitting regent-to-be there’s the added tension of how Logue can interact with him on even the simplest of physical planes. The blocking of scenes is something you shouldn’t be too conscious of when watching a film, but the slow unstiffening of protocol, the opening of personal space is a nicely subtle way in which the drama plays out. As the Rocky has to learn to raise his guard (and slip the jab) so Bertie has to learn to drop his.

There’s initial doubt, the sudden epiphany, a training montage, an early victory, the inevitable rejection and push for independence, and the desperate and grovelling return to the mentor. Where the kernel of the story is drawn from historical details, the grand narrative arc is straight out of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and there’s something shamelessly enjoyable in seeing an underdog overcoming adversity and winning through in the end.

Having become the king, and following the nation into war Edward VI manages to lurch his way through a rousing speech to an uncertain nation. For all the grandstanding, the new found pomp carefully undermined with a human touch, the film goes all out to convince you Edward alone practically won the war before it had really begun. And the most embittered republicans aside, it’s very easy to get swept in the swoon of it, and no shame for that.

Many a voice online has been keen to echo this film as ‘one of those Sunday afternoon’ films. A DVD for the parents for Christmas. A safe bet. Could have been made for TV.

But that’s to do the film a disservice, and for all the film’s period trappings and royalist clappings, the heavyweight cast all pitch above average in trying to win you over and get you behind Team Bertie. The film is shot with a slight flair, the struggle (internal and external) played out more in personal space and in strangely conflicting shot-reverse-shot sequences. It’s a treat in more ways that one, and worthy of more than just your distracted ITV-matinee attention.

Four out of Five

The King’s Speech is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 7th of January 2011.

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Showing at the Showroom: Monsters

“A film about illegal ALIENS, the America fears of the unknown SPRAWLING issues South of the border, and the stretching TENTACLES of Latin influence into the States.” It’s all too easy to make light of Monsters‘ premise, but for an independent film in the true spirit of a B-movie it manages to deftly juggle a minimal budget, some impressive special effects, quite a few gripping moments, and that ever so essential political subtext, in really quite a brilliant fashion.

It’s an easy cop-out to state that “the less you know, the better” but Monsters is definitely one of those films. The situation is a near-future Central America, where half the sub-continent has been fenced into a quarantine zone following the destruction in low orbit of a returning NASA probe full of ‘alien matter’. Xenomorphic creatures have erupted into the area, and now the US army is effectively at war trying to keep these monsters at bay. In what remains of Mexico south of the zone, we find the Americans Samantha and Andrew, the latter being a photo-journalist tasked by his bosses to escort the former back to the States in one piece.

Needless to say it’s quite an eventful journey.

In such a curt synopsis the film can easily sound like a dunder-headed action film, but that isn’t the case, but neither is it an indie-schmindy mumblecore film either. A LOT of hoopla has been made about the film’s humble budget, and its profile as a breakout independent with a CGI edge to match many a blockbuster. But leaving value for money aside, Monsters is still an Action-SciFi-Thriller with two leads fated to be drawn together: one a pretty bottle-blond in hot-pants, and the other a tussle-haired handsome thing with well crafted stubble. The film is unashamedly pitching for the mainstream, taking as it’s starting point the child-friendly-but-wholly-terrifying 12A/PG13 perfection that is Jurassic Park. This is far from a bad thing.

The film is still brave in where it takes the audience, being more than comfortable at leaving a few things hanging, and giving those who want it something serious to chew on as well. Sometimes the symbolism can be a little blunt, perhaps self-consciously so, but equally there’s a fair portion of nuance in there as well. There are action-kicks, and things to think about, and that ticks many a box on my scorecard.

On reflection, credit goes to my friend who was along for both Monsters and Machete, to point out that both are ostensibly B-movies about real world issues (just like any B-movie worth its’ salt). It’s just that Monsters knocks Machete into a corner with a cocked sombrero in terms of actually having anything to say about something very current. A terrific achievement for a first time director with a tiny budget, but also a tremendous film quite in it’s own right.

Four and a Half out of Five

Monsters is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 3rd of December 2010

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