BULLETS GRATIA BULLETS

 

With the release of Reservoir Dogs 25 years ago, Quentin Taremtino launched a thousand genre-bending would-be artistes.

Rabble-rousing British director Ben Wheatley, in league with his wife and collaborator Amy Jump, have been among the more successful. 

Free Fire is their latest project,  and they’ve decided to supercharge Chekov’s  edict about the gun in the first act (got to be used by the third): if a crate full of assault weapons appears in the first act, why not screw the plot and just let ‘er rip?   

Say what you will about the Wheatleys, they aren’t dull, so in their honor, this week we’ve picked a selection of “Super B’s” — films with auteur aspirations and genre roots, 

   

FREE FIRE
FREE FIRE (2017)

British director Ben Wheatle seems perennially poised on the brink of that transformational Tarentino-style breakthrough.   His career started with a wild grab-bag of projects — animation, viral videos and adverts; TV shows (check out seasons 5&6 of our cult favorite Ideal and the whacked sketch series Modern Life).  With grade school sweetheart/wife/screenwriter/ collaborator Amy Jump he launched his online laboratory mrandmrswheatley.

In 2009 they dived into features with the 8 day/$30,000 Sopranos-meets-Mike-Leigh crime drama Down Terrace.

In their latest, they’ve virtually eliminated plot: if this is violence porn, who cares if the pizza delivery guy gets home?

It makes sense on at least one level – their last film, a style-driven adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise was regarded as a noble failure at best.  So why not shoot for the mainstream with a Tarentino-meets-Richey bullet fest?  Starring, among others, Oscar winner Brie Larson.

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A Field In England
A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

One of the reasons everybody holds out so much hope for the Wheatleys is that despite being steeped in pop/mainstream culture the Mr. and the Mrs. have a relentlessly arty  streak – as exhibited by their fourth film, the B&W historical drama A Field in England.

If they were satisfied with simply churning out cult classics, the Wheatleys might be happier puppies.  But you always get the feeling that they’re torn between a desire for a mainstream hit and critical acceptance; in interviews Wheatley roll calls all the right names: Roeg, Goddard, Cronenberg, Kubrick.

Shot on $300k in 13 days, A Field is set in the 17th century during the British civil wars – the period which inspired Hobbes famous “nasty, poor, brutish, and short.”  A Field in England hits every miserable base and adds in buried treasure, alchemy, and, just for good measure, some psychedelic mushrooms.

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 Reservoir Dogs
RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)

We’re old enough to remember the tremor that Reservoir Dogs produced, foreshock to the earthquake of Pulp Fiction.  Despite the scores of imitators, nobody has been able to duplicate its louche brilliance.   Not even, for us, Guy Ritchie who was fun but slight.

 

Of course you’ve seen it, probably more than once.  But it’s been a few years.  Don’t you want to watch it again?

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Shivers
SHIVERS (1975)

The Wheatleys have done horror flicks too.  Canadian master  David Cronenberg used that genre to mine his own deep obsessions, resulting in widespread acclaim.

Shivers was Cronenberg’s first commercial feature and he used it to start his own subgenre (body horror; parasites erupting from victim’s stomachs, two years before Alien).  He married it to a cultural critique provocative enough to trigger arguments in the Canadian Parliament.

The whole film takes place in a antiseptic upscale apartment building.  An aging scientist – Hobbes, Dr. Emile Hobbes — kills a teenaged girl, cuts open her stomach and pours in acid; and then commits suicide.

Only gradually do we learn that Hobbes wasn’t psycho killer but an idealist desperately trying to save the world the world.  Believing that in the antiseptic modern world humans had lost touch with their deeper natures, he created a sluglike parasite to bring them back into balance.  And he believed so strongly that he implanted the sluglike parasite in his teenage mistress.  Oops – it infected her with irresistible sexual desire.  He kills her in a futile attempt to stop the parasite from spreading.

Too late patient zero has already screwed half the men in the building, and we watch the parasite spread like wildfire.  By the end of the movie the whole city is doomed.

Wheatley was following in Cronenberg’s footsteps when he adapted an unfilmable J.G. Ballard novel.  But Crash was something astounding you’d never seen before, whereas High-Rise was flashy but static. Not even Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons could save it.

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REDEMPTION
THE RAID: REDEMPTION (2012)

 This kinetic tour de force of action and bullets is the bar that  Wheatley has to clear with Free Fire.  Even though it was made by a British film-school grad artistic pretensions are put aside for dead-on world-class genre.

Welsh director Gareth Ewans is 6’7” and for many years lived in Jakarta with his Indonesian wife and daughter.

After graduating from film school in Wales, he signed on to direct a documentary about pencak silat, an Indonesiam martial art form.  Through that he discovered pencak silat expert Iko Uwais working as a deliveryman and cast him in their first feature, the low-budget Merantau, which became a cult hit and led to two Raid films.

In The Raid, Iko Uwais plays Rama, member of a SWAT team who are trapped in a high rise when a gang raid goes wrong.  Rama and his fellow officers must then battle their way out of the complex fighting both drug lords and corrupt cops but enlisting unexpected help along the way.

Uwais also choreographed all the action sequences.

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A Clockwork Orange
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1972)

Even though The Killing inspired them all, for violent choreography nothing trumps the Singin’ In The Rain sequence from A Clockwork Orange.   In a Guardian article, Wheatley recalls traveling to Paris to see it.

This was because Kubrick himself asked Warners to pull it in the UK after it was linked to several cases of juvenile violence and his family got threats.  It didn’t reappear in England until after Kubrick’s death.

As dystopian violence goes, it is still without parallel.  At the time, Kubrick toned it down in various ways for release in various countries; but even after all these years it’s still at the edge of the envelope, equally mesmerizing and disgusting.

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MAD DOGS AND EXPLORERS

There have been explorers throughout history — but for some reason when we think of restless, obsessive, sweat-drenched souls wandering exotic lands in search of something that’s lost deep inside themselves, we always think first of Englishmen. 

British explorer Percy Fawcett traveled to the Amazon in search of a lost civilization, as chronicled in this week’s release The Lost City of Z.  Although we could have easily focused solely on Brits, we decided it would be fun to change it up this week by throwing in a few foreign nationals.     

 

 LOST CITY OF Z

THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

New York-centric director James Gray ventured far beyond the five boroughs with this film based on the book by New Yorker writer David Grann.   It’s loosely based on the astonishing true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who journeys into the Amazon at the dawn of the 20th century and discovers evidence of a previously unknown, advanced civilization that may have once inhabited the region.

Despite being ridiculed by the scientific establishment, who regard the indigenous peoples as “savages,” the determined Fawcett – supported by his devoted wife (Sienna Miller), son (Tom Holland) and aide de camp (Robert Pattinson) – returns time and again to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case, until finally disappearing with his son in 1925.

Fawcett received one of the Royal Geographical Society’s highest medals for his work charting and exploring unknown territory in South America – but his fervent belief in a lost civilization somewhere in the Amazonian jungle was still regarded with extreme skepticism by many members.

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 LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

David Lean’s epic follows the the true-life experiences of Arabist adventurer T.E. Lawrence, better known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia.

A young, idealistic British officer in WWI, Lawrence (Peter O’Toole in his break out role) is assigned to the camp of Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), an Arab tribal chieftain and leader in a revolt against the Turks.

In a series of brilliant tactical maneuvers, Lawrence leads fifty of Feisal’s men in a tortured three-week crossing of the Nefud Desert to attack the strategic Turkish-held port of Aqaba. And following his successful raids against Turkish troops and trains, Lawrence’s triumphant leadership and unyielding courage gain him god-like status among his Arab comrades.

Screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson used T. E. Lawrence’s own self-published memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom as a source.

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SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC
SCOTT OF THE ANTARCTIC (1948)

Charles Frend directed this 1950’s Technicolor hit.  Robert Falcon Scott (John Mills) was determined be the first man to reach the South Pole.  His journey starts off well, with three alternative modes of transportation — dogs, ponies and snow tractors.

Scott becomes increasingly concerned about the health of two of his men—Evans, who has a deep cut on his hand, and Oates, whose foot is frostbitten.  Evans dies and is buried under the snow.  Then realizing that his condition is slowing the team down, Oates sacrifices himself by walking out of the tent into a blizzard to his death, leaving with a  casual “I’m just going outside and may be away some time.”

The rest of the team are eventually trapped in their tent by a blizzard and die just 11 miles short of a supply depot.  Scott leaves behind the famous “I do not regret this journey…” entry in his diary.  The film is based on the true story and inspired by footage the expedition shot on the actual journey.

If all the firm-jawed heroism here is getting too much to bear, check out Monty Python’s lampoon “Scott of the Sahara” –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=152tLmGkgZY

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MARCO POLO
THE ADVENTURES OF MARCO POLO (1938)

 John Ford directed this lavish adventure classic chronicling the exploits of the 13th-century explorer, played here by Gary Cooper. Accompanied by  his assistant, Binguccio (Ernest Truex) Marco endures shipwrecks, terrible sandstorms, and other natural disasters as he makes his way to China.

Once there, he is taken to the exotic court of Kublai Khan where Marco falls in love with the beautiful Princess Kukachin (played by Norwegian actress Sigrid Gurie).  The emperor’s adviser has other plans for the princess; plotting to overthrow the emperor, he banishes Marco.

Marco meets a bandit and talks the thief into helping him invade Peking to save Khan. A massive cavalry attack is launched against the great walled city and Polo vanquishes the defenders using his new invention — gun powder — and freeing the captured Princess. A young Lana Turner played one of the princess’ handmaidens.

Fantastical and absurdly racist by today’s standards (all actors are white, and even their accents are all over the map), the movie is worth watching as a swash-buckler in the Robin Hood vein and a monumental testament to the subjectivity of historical fiction .

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MOUNTAINS OF THE MOONMOUNTAINS OF THE MOON (1990)

Director Bob Rafelson fulfilled a lifelong dream when he finally received backing to complete Mountains of the Moon. The film recreates the adventures of 19th century visionaries Sir Richard Burton (Patrick Bergin) and John Henning Speke (Iain Glen).

The heart of the film is the effort by Burton and Speke to discover the true source of the Nile river. This occurs well into the film, after several torturous scenes involving the injuries sustained by the protagonists during other expeditions — and the growing friendship that results.

Here at The Thread we’re admirers of both Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) and Burton (who successfully impersonated a Muslim to circumambulate the Kaaba).  While the ultimate Burton film is yet to be made, Mountains is worthwhile for the rapport between its stars and the brilliant, sweeping cinematography of Roger Deakins.

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AGUIRRE
AGUIRRE – THE WRATH OF GOD (1972)

 As we researched this post, many sources agreed on one thing – if you’re going to get anywhere in the explorer business, it helps to be at least a little crazy.  The same may be true of the filmmakers who chronicle them.

The most famed and well-regarded collaboration between New German Cinema director Werner Herzog and his frequent leading man, Klaus Kinski, this epic historical drama was legendary for the difficulty of its on-location filming and the zealous obsession of Kinski in the title role.

Exhausted and near failure in its quest for riches, the 1650-51 expedition of Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repulles) bogs down in the impenetrable jungles of Peru. As a last-ditch effort to locate treasure, Pizarro orders a party to scout ahead for signs of El Dorado, the fabled seven cities of gold.

Traveling by river raft, the explorers are besieged by hostile natives, disease, starvation and treacherous waters. Crazed with greed and power, Aguirre takes over the enterprise, slaughtering anyone that opposes him. Nature and Aguirre’s own unquenchable thirst for glory render him insane, in charge of nothing but a raft of corpses and chattering monkeys.

Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes  (German title) was based on the real-life journals of a priest, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (played in the film by Spanish actor Del Negro), who accompanied Pizarro on his ill-fated mission.

            “Jungles and deserts are at the extreme ends of the landscapes this planet has to offer, and both have enormous visual force. They also both hit back at idiots like me who challenge them by wanting to make films there.”    -Werner Herzog in A Guide For The Perplexed.

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