Saturday, 14 May 2011

Best of British

After seeing ‘Attack the Block’ this week at a preview screening attended by Joe Cornish, some of the cast and Edgar Wright, I feel obliged to gush about how awesome British film of the last decade has been. Ok so I’m really talking about British film as in the fairly low-budget but generally commercial movies that might as well be American because of their obviously American influences and dedication to popular American genres.
The films I’m choosing to pick out will probably not be much of a surprise. Loved by critics and audiences and popular on both sides of the Atlantic, I’m not trying to dazzle you with rarely seen undiscovered gems.
So what’s got me all excited about British film (apart from the hilarious ‘Attack the Block’). Well obviously ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (2004), a film which is continually mentioned in the reviews and publicity for ATB. But going back a little further; 28 Days Later (2002), Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and This is England (2006).

Shaun, directed by Edgar Wright and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost took the zombie genre and affectionately parodied it. Written by Pegg and Wright as a tribute to Romero’s Dead trilogy and beating the disappointing ‘Land of the Dead’ into cinemas by a year, audiences loved it’s mix of zombie horror conventions and slacker romantic comedy character dynamics. It was released just after Zack Snyder’s running zombie remake of Dawn of the Dead (a film which owed as much to 28 Days Later as it did to Romero’s original Dawn!). Shaun took British settings (including a devotion to the great British pub), characters and actors and mixed them with the shuffling subtext-laden zombies of Romero’s Night, Dawn and Day trilogy.
Very funny, sweet and surprisingly gory, the film had something for most people. The use of Rom-Zom-Com in the marketing clearly helped the film to pull in men, women, horror and comedy fans. Not only did Romero love it, America and the world loved it leading to a $30 million gross off a £4 million budget. Edgar Wright became a hot director taking his kinetic style from ‘Spaced’ up a gear and sending him onto ‘Hot Fuzz’ and ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs the World’. Pegg became an international star delivering on his comedic potential so clearly visible in ‘Big Train’ and ‘Spaced’. And the breakout was blatantly Nick Frost who was gifted with the character of Ed, the loveable stoner/dealer sidekick.

Frost, incidentally plays another stoner/dealer in ATB and gets a lot of laughs with a relatively small role. It’s great to see this little unit working together again and again and supporting each other. Pegg and Frost have written and starred together in the recent ‘Paul’ while Wright went off to direct Scott Pilgrim. Frost pops up in ATB which is exec-produced by Wright. Cornish had a cameo in Hot Fuzz, wrote some material for ‘Big Train’ and has been co-writing the screenplay for ‘Tintin’ (for Spielberg no less!) with Wright.
Then there’s Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later which as far as I’m aware gave the world the gift of running zombies. As a Romero fan I feel bad for saying this but zombies that run are f**king cool! And 28 Days Later not only made them run, but it also called them ‘The Infected’ and introduced the Rage virus making the monsters absolutely terrifying in their ferocity… all red eyes, vomiting blood and animalistic snarls. Boyle was one of my favourite directors anyway with the classic ‘Trainspotting’ already proving what an amazingly gifted director he is. But after ‘A Life Less Ordinary’ and ‘The Beach’, I was concerned that Boyle had sold out big time and was destined to make films that would never reach the quality of Trainspotting. Boyle talks about his discomfort with mega-budget filmmaking briefly in this video (skip to 2.09)
Like Shaun of the Dead it took recognizably British settings, particularly the famous opening scenes of a deserted London, British characters and actors and mixed them with zombie horror conventions. The idea of other people being more dangerous than the zombies continued from the Romero films as well as the distrust of the military and authority in general. Again, audiences in Britain and America loved it with an $82 million gross from an $8 million budget. An inferior but still incredibly fun sequel followed and I hear rumours that Boyle might return to direct a third one day.

Then there’s the wonderful Shane Meadows. After super low budget social realist gems Twenty Four Seven and A Room for Romeo Brass, Meadows misfired in my opinion with Once Upon a Time in the Midlands. But then he made a very British, very unconventional take on the slasher film, Dean Man’s Shoes. Gritty and realistic, with outstanding performances from Paddy Considine (see also Le Donk and Scor-zay-zee for more Meadows/Considine magic) and Toby Kebbell, this is a horror with a heart. The vengeful returning soldier brother and his use of a gas mask when stalking prey feel like a mix of Western and slasher conventions, but the villains of the film are the most ordinary looking, recognizably British pathetic drug dealing criminals you will ever see in a film. As a result this one failed to set the box office on fire. Too real, too British and not as slavishly dedicated to following genre conventions, it is still a brilliant and emotional film.

Meadows soon went on to write and direct This is England, another film in the tradition of American History X and Romper Stomper that takes an extremely charismatic racist bastard and plonks him centre stage to give an up and coming actor the chance to show their skills. America gets Edward Norton, Australia gets Russell Crowe, and now Britain’s own Stephen Graham gives a brilliant, raw performance as nutjob Combo. This film is not a devoted genre film like others mentioned in this article but I had to mention it as it is one of the most unforgettable and powerful British films of the last decade.
So anyway back to Attack the Block. Taking science-fiction conventions (aliens invade earth) and splicing them with inner-city kids in a distinctly British tower block, the film is fast, funny and exciting. Filled with uniquely British slang, an exceptional young cast and brilliantly directed by first-time feature director Joe Cornish on a low budget, I highly recommend if you haven’t seen all the posters or the trailer for this yet, you seek them out and then go watch it. This is destined to be a huge hit and I hope that American audiences will be able to decipher the slang and make this an even bigger smash than Shaun.

I know there are countless other smaller British films that I should be supporting but the industry will only keep growing if Britain keeps producing films that can sell overseas. With the (soon to disappear) UK Film Council being prominent in the opening credits of ATB, it feels like an important time to big up British film. We can produce films that the whole world wants to see and for my money, the films listed here are some of the absolutely greatest films produced in the last decade.
Let’s just hope all the filmmakers don’t permanently move to Hollywood and forget the British settings, characters and actors that helped to make their name.
Any other low-budget but commercial British gems I should have mentioned?

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