A Retrospective by Gail Spencer

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A critique on a selection of releases of the year is offered as an insight into what Britain had to offer. Written in order of preference - reversed, least preferred first.
We Are the Freaks
, Hello Carter
, We Still Kill the Old Way
, Cuban Fury
, Downhill

We Are the Freaks          Director: Justin Edgar    80mins

There is what this film would like to be, rather what it aspired to and the final result. This film is a waste of the time of the watcher - it should never have been made. Trainspotting was a UK runaway success which was less slacker movie and more of an anti-consumerist/conformist statement with drugs as convenient diversion from the inevitable leap into maturity. Human Traffic flowed on the success and heels of Trainspotting, a lesser work, but with rich characterisation and a bird's eye view into the Acid House scene of Britain in the 1990s, besides, who can resist John Sim?

We are the Freaks lacks a single redeeming feature and is without doubt one of the worst films of 2014. Not one of the characters is likeable, is empathetic, has a journey or story arc, so consequently the whole shebang is a bit flat. No-one learns anything - the proposition isn't there to challenge anyone - so what we have is a mix of unlikeable characters occupying a screen for over an hour irritating the living daylights out of us. The difficulty with this film is that is does depressingly, mirror the 'me' generation of today - the one that has a really mad mindset of all deservingness being a right and not earned. The only reference to this is made by a parent who in trying to reach their offspring uses Syd Vicious as paragon of hard work as example to emulate. It may well be that this was done deliberately by the writer to show just how out of touch with their children the parents are. However, this film is set in the 1990s and as such is twenty years too late to use a messed up nihilist as example - even if it were relevant. The characters are posed as careless as though this in itself were interesting.

The US Slacker films were a treat in the nineties and noughties. Clerks, Chasing Amy, Swingers, Ghost World - all were films depicting kids or young adults with not much to do but observe life but did so whilst occupying a story with an element of development and they (the characters) had some beauty and grace in making boredom and confusion the utterly consuming and limiting creatures that they are.  Wrestling with the inner demons getting in the way of character development is the stuff of Shakespeare with Henry V having spent Henries Parts One & Two going through the motions of getting drunk and laid only to find it absolutely vital in the journey in becoming a King. So were the rejections of morons. The preoccupations of geeks and freaks maybe what the film had in mind, had there been a central character with a dream to deal with.

We are kind of given this with our main man Jack - Jamie Blackley carrying an envelope with what could or could not be a college offer, with a whim towards a girl who can play the piano and cello (yeah, right). Here the film thinks its Saturday Night Fever - but without the coherence in character or narrative.  The focus of this young man's attention is not a girl from the other side of the tracks but is an equally messed up creature, who like the rest of them take drugs to feel different or edgy.  The youngster who has a perverse fixation on Margaret Thatcher (Parsons, played by Mike Bailey)is the most interesting with the worst parents and girlfriend in the world. However, his storyline revolves around having his penis trapped in the vagina of his girlfriend and it getting ripped. His friend, another slightly more interesting character 'Killer Colin' - an Irish nutter (Michael Smiley) sticks up for him against his parents in the unlikeliest scene in any living room with not a hint of a phone call to the police. The so called posh kid we know is posh because he has never had to work for anything and is therefore jaded and reckless - Chunks is the worst of all of them with his over exaggerated mannerisms grating from the moment he is on screen. Sean Teale is a good looking young chap and this film with the attendant hairdo he has to adorn does nothing for his CV at all. He spends most of the film being objectionable with his tongue hanging out of his face. The nineties was not a time for punk clothing and make up but this is his style and there is never any explanation for anther misplaced reference point to the wrong era. The sense of time is covered only by the television footage of Thatcher's demise; there is no indication in the music which was pretty great at the time and at the height of a BritCult curve. The conclusion is unsatisfactory and overall this is a film to avoid.

Hello Carter    Director: Anthony Wilcox    81mins

This is a small British film, told mostly in flashback, with our hero lying in the road after the credits have rolled in front of a sweeping London skyline. London, is incidentally the biggest star of the film, with the rest of the cast either under or over acting to a clunky plot which is practically identical to the John Cleese vehicle 'Clockwise.' We are slightly intrigued as to how this appealing young man got to this position and eighteen hours prior to this point then unfolds. Carter (an unlikely name for a British guy) is sleeping on his brother's small front room floor on an inflatable mattress. He has been made redundant and previously lost his American (sigh) girlfriend, Kelly.

The rest of the story/plot is about his attempt, via the acquisition of her new phone number to get her back. Right here there was the idea for a great romantic comedy. Men, as is the case with country and western songs believe that the love of a good woman is the very fix all potion that puts the rest into place whilst women often think that it is a man that fucks everything up for them. Going after this central premise would have been great. As it is, the film diversifies greatly from romantic reasoning and turns into a kind of caper movie/chain reaction film. This is not to say that the film does not throw up some endearing characters - by far the best of these is Carter's Aunt (Judy Parfitt)who is about as eccentric as they get (the dotty old English that is)and should please the Americans. But this is obviously what this film is setting its stall out to do complete with the inclusion of a good looking Lancastrian a la Daphne Moon from Frasier in the shape and form of 'Jenny' played by the sumptuous Jodie Whittaker.
Carter meets his ex-girlfriends' brother co-incidentally on the tube (hmm, fat chance but never mind) who is a psychotic b movie actor with issues about his failing career. Aaron (Paul Schneider) is very intense and watchable, not to mention extremely good looking. This is on the same day that Carter has an interview with a recruitment agent. Here is another good film in the making. Recruitment agents in London control massive percentages of the workflow to the needy and ambitious and the film could have been set to this undernourished arena.  In a conversation with Jenny - Carter hints at what he is looking for: to go to a desk every day, go home, have colleagues and meet people. A homeless Carter could have had countless appointments finding his USP in a kind of vocational British Groundhog Day whilst living in the car park of the agency. The treatment of Carter's CV is spot on as is the self-involvement of London people.

This is why the rest of the film is so darned unlikely and screams for its own release as soon as the spiralling mayhem starts. The associate characters would just run a mile rather than be the bit part accomplices in something that would take some risk or character. Everyone on the tube avoids eye contact; no-one in the wildest imaginings would get involved in the high jacking of a baby. The film just tries too hard in its representation of a fistful of caricatures fighting their way through a confused script and need to tick a box of clichés - including caper cliché. Of course there has to be an eccentric older person with a cat, who has a house that would appeal to an American audience. Kensington would have to be the focus of this address; the film just couldn't have an older woman occupy a house in say, Clapham - which is just as unobtainable for most Londoners now.  The representation of London as a city full of fruitcakes is right enough but this is not dark enough. IN truth, those from the north of England are different and have a different take on the big city and this could have been tapped into more as it is relevant to the story and the relative compatibilities of Carter and Jenny as fish out of water.

There is a very odd and dissatisfying ending with a reference made to the connectivity of human beings with on screen fuzziness appearing when there is a bad connection via mobile phones. Of course, this covers some of the credible territory of 'Friends' - where the fucked up and loser-like without a job can still manage to maintain life as they knew it - when in reality, without work in London, life is likely to be hell and no-one finds you attractive. Playing this card a bit more would have borne meaningful fruit.
There are a couple of really good films in Hello Carter had some of the good things it occasionally throws up been fleshed into a script. Unfortunately the sum total of Hello Carter, as it is, isn’t it.

Hello Carter is on general cinema release from 5th December

We Still Kill The Old Way    Director: Sacha Bennett  

We Still Kill the Old WayThis is following on from the traditions of The Krays, Harry Brown, Sexy Beast, and 44 Inch Chest. They all have in common old school Cockney Hard Man values that just refuse to die. Everyone knows that The Long Good Friday is the very best British Gangster film ever, with the moderns having Sexy Beast as pinnacle and The Business as low point.  This has been released within the distant echo of the news of Mad Frankie Fraser's death. For those who did not know, Mad Frankie was one of The Richardson Gang - the South East London nutters that rivalled The Krays - Ron & Reg in the 1960s. These men were infamous for the appropriation of hard core violence on their own if they got a bit lairy and rival gang members if they got a bit umpty.

The acts of violence are the stuff of legend and the depiction thereof known as Gangster Chic - is where the perpetrators carry out such acts as electrocuting genitalia and pulling out nails (fingernails) with crow bars by day and by night prance about in a well styled suit and the contrast is presented with gloss and no moral judgement. Goodfellas was Gangster Chic from across the water and Marty has confessed to have loved The Krays and drawn from it. Not just cinema has known this Brit Cult phenomenon: The Long Firm was the television adaptation of a series of short novellas covering the fictitious life of a homosexual gangster Harry Stark, played wonderfully by Mark Strong. All of them hark from the mythology of the Krays where the local community felt protected and preserved by the fear that these characters inspired in petty local thieves and nasty pieces of work that may just need putting in their place. There was also rampant fear inspired on local shops to give perpetrating gangsters protection money to keep the peace- whether they could afford it or not.

According to old school cockneys - whom one will hear now and again in some of the pubs in London, talking about how the real Kray brothers loved their mother, back in the day, one could leave their door open, everyone felt safe and the villains keeping the peace only were violent to those that deserved it. We Still Kill the Old Way pitches these value systems against the new fears instilled in the ghettos of modern council estates. This is not the first time this has been done. The amazing Harry Brown did the same: but HB was a vigilante story in the old framework of the 1970s Deathwish and Harry Callaghan detective stories where there was virtuousness presenting the moral order. Harry Brown was an old soldier coming to terms with the pointlessness of the violence of today as opposed to his time spent in Northern Ireland being about something. Here the mores are the same in kid and old villain, but there is a contest between who has the better style and methodology. There is never any question that the murder of Charlie is nasty, brutal and perpetrated as a come on by the new order to show who's boss. However there are so many problems with this story, which sharpened could have made this the commentary on violence old and new that it could have been.

What made Sexy Beast wonderful is that the film wasn't really a gangster flick but a romance. The characters of Gary and Dee Dee (played by Ray Winstone and Amanda Redman), are under threat after leaving the old crap behind in London with the arrival of Don (Ben Kingsley) to shake their world and happiness. The opening sequence implies that the character of Richie has done the same: he lives in Spain and has his daughter with him. The focus is on London and on the characters that Richie (Ian Ogilvy - still a very handsome man) left behind, including his brother Charlie, played by Steven Berkoff (who co-incidentally played George Cornell in The Krays). The world is very different and under threat: a thoroughly nasty piece of work - Aaron (Danny-Boy Hatchard) terrorising everyone in his path is a Don in development. Aaron comes from an intergeneration of council estate losers with no education though this is never articulated. The gang culture and focus upon technology as substitute is there, again but not articulated. The film implies that there is no respect due to these elements but hasn't got the heart to present this as reasoning for the violence in the revenge of Charlie's death. The downside of the nihilism isn't there because the up side of the love isn't either.

There is a desperate need for a bit of flashback to a hot and steamy night way back when between the younger Richie and Lizzie that they both remember and still think about wistfully.
The relationship between Lizzie (a still very beautiful Lysette Anthony), and Richie is very unchartered territory with these two holding a torch for each other after years have swept by with nothing done to spark the flame. Centring the film instead around these two would have made the sense of threat double in the first act, making the viewer root for the old villains more.  The film suffers for having a lack of moral core. It tries to have the sympathies weighted in the favour of the old guys and old ways, but what we have to represent this is the relationship between the two brothers, which is slender, and the interchanges between the female cop (Anouska Mond) and Richie.  By the time we get to the capture of the new order - we are gratified to a certain extent in their torture but it's execution is not convincing. Far better would have been the employment of a new set of younger men paid for by the old order, so that they could watch without having to lift a finger.  This would have given the film a bit of what Hostel has to offer: the idea that psychotic behaviours can be delivered by those paying for it and be masturbatory material for the voyeur. Lizzie and Richie having great reunion sex whilst the 'kids on the block' got their comeuppance would have been a film to rival 'Performance' for weirdness, nastiness and gratification through sex and violence played out equally and unashamedly.

As it is - we've seen it all done before, but better. Great to see Ian Ogilvy though, truly unforgettably dashing in Witchfinder General and still scorching hot.

We Still Kill The Old Way is out on DVD

Cuban Fury    Director: James Griffiths

Earlier this year, Cuban Fury was released on the Studio Canal label and this was a bit of a surprise. It is not a serious affair or a foreign art house usually associated with the distribution company. The film unashamedly follows in the tradition of Fame, Footloose, Flashdance, Strictly Ballroom and Dirty Dancin.' Salsa is MASSIVE in London with enormous amounts of guys in the city going out there finding their feet literally on the dance floor in the hopes that this will bring them closer to women. And, yes it does. Women love men that can dance - and this film cleverly taps its way into the dichotomy of this well-known fact with the other well-known fact that men think men that can dance are 'gay.' There is a story in here that is reminiscent of the ugly ducking into swan sub plot of Strictly Ballroom thrown in for good measure as well as starring the best of the salsa dancers that London has to offer. With the story plodding along as an ordinary Joe rooting for the girl, it never seems as though it does much more than have us root for the bloke in a boy boxing above his weight scenario. But the film almost ignites the screen - and often.

The dancing high points of the film just thrill and show off the excitement, pleasure and addiction of dancing felt by those that practice. Attendees of the Peacock Theatre in London and/or Saddlers Wells, know what it is to feel this level of contagious exuberance. Dance is used as metaphor for the bravery to live - just as it was in 'Strictly' and this film is likely to have a cult following with dancers, gay scene and with women. The backstory is told in the opening credits with a championship kid knocked off his pedestal by some nasty bullies that have broken his self-esteem and love of dance: the implication being that he is a puff because he can dance. The poor duck is not the same thereafter. Nick Frost, the usual side kick of Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz/Paul), is Bruce, an overweight chap that is also a bit of a geek. His new boss is a gorgeous American woman - Julia, played by Rashida Jones (The Social Network) The film has a great cast: Ian McShane is on fine form as the dance teacher, sexy, sleazy and cruel. Intermittently he emasculates Bruce for not following his passion - deliberately and rightly appealing to his wounded pride at letting the opinion of others get between him and what he wants. Salsa may be for pussies but giving it up makes you a bigger one. Of course as is always the case with Frost - there has to be a truth finding session which involves referencing some pop culture: his masculinity returns when he can do 'Say Hello to My Little Friend' Scarface impersonation.
Finding out that his boss does Salsa, Bruce gets back into it with the help of his friends and sister, played by the eternally excellent Olivia Coleman.  The classes are a bit like F Murray Abrahams walking back into the fencing class in By the Sword with an old hand finding his way back into his skill by starting back at the bottom.  The dance off in the car park with the rival in the office for his boss - played by Chris O Dowd is very deftly handled and must have taken some practice and shooting. In the special features, Nick confesses to the desire to at all times give the dance and the dancers' credit and to treat it with respect. The whole film works its way to a big showcase finale - as do all dance films and it doesn't disappoint.  It was originally planned to be shot in Miami, but it does work in London. The extras are all professionals in their field and this shows in the final work with actors and extras, dancers and non-dancers blending well, seamlessly to exciting result. A big smile of a film which will be enjoyed over and over by those who decide to buy it.

Cuban Fury is available on DVD on Amazon.

Downhill    Director: James Rouse

Of all British features released this year, Downhill is the best. It is comparable with Withnail and I - the character of Julian almost replicating that played by Richard E Grant all those years ago for drunken vitriolic sharp observer, not willing to hold back on what needs saying. The title is wordplay: the story follows the trek of four friends that had taken the very same trip 20 years earlier and are walking Coast to Coast from Cumbria to Yorkshire, 192 miles. It far from goes smoothly - or to plan. They expect to do it as seamlessly and with as much willing pleasure and energy as they did when in their twenties. The first truth about this wonderful bitter sweet comedy drama is the diversity of characters and how accurate this would be in life.
Three of the four are married; one a complete undiplomatic nutter due to the fact there has been no one to censor him: one of them confesses to being gay and unhappily married to a woman. All of them are living with life's disappointments which come out at various points of the journey as and when there is a test of some sort. The film has taken little to produce. The cast is small, there is the technique of fly on the wall documentary which is pulled off with effortless ease, and we get staggeringly beautiful countryside - complete with weather thrown in. The film also shows the British public house off at its best and is one of our most exportable features: those that think London offers this kind of authenticity is sorely mistaken. These charming places won't have changed in hundreds of years and here the staffs are likely to be English.

The men Gordon (Richard Lumsden), Keith (Karl Theobald), Steve (Jeremy Swift), and the brilliant Julian (Ned Dennehy) are fatter, less idealistic and with attendant problems. They each in turn has intense conversations with spouses on route which is being filmed by Luke, Gordon's son who has been brought along to document the trip. This film is just so good, it makes the viewer believe all the time that the moments being filmed in secret are just that and the camera acts as soliloquy. Only we and the main leads know the full extent of the problems that they have, unless the confessions are public. After a phone confessional with his wife, the otherwise very stolid Keith whilst very drunk tells the others that he is queer, goes out for a wee and tells us all 'I'm queer and covered in piss.'

The situations and embarrassments are very realistic and it is very apparent that we are in the presence of professionals in the comedy genre knowing exactly just what note to strike - hitting at all times the balance between drama/comedy and pathos. This just has to be compulsory viewing for Americans. They do feature in the guise of two twenty something girls that join these troubled men for a leg of their journey only for one of them to make advances when drunk. The beer is almost near enough to touch it and feel it - the authenticity of the locations is right on the money: real ale with real life pouring out. Anyone watching this film will want a pint of Wizard's Sleeve immediately afterwards. There is genuine emotion, loss, fear and regret felt by all of the characters at some point in the journey - as well as the physical stuff that happens like throwing up the morning after the night before and the acquisition of blisters and exhaustion.
The male midlife crisis was last done to good effect in City Slickers - the US film with Billy Crystal and Jack Palance. This is by far superior with the hurt of lost pride, opportunity and vim and a sense of wonder at where the time goes all almost tangible. The music is spot on, a bit folksy, very English and not overdone. The plot is split into a narrative with chapters focusing on each of the characters and events that reveal something about the lives and personalities of the men and their lot. There is also a lot of love, years and forgiveness between them.

Buy, watch and see absolute masters at their craft. Downhill is simply flawless: simply superb.

Downhill is available on DVD from Amazon

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