Monday, May 10, 2010

The New British Cinema

Something very exciting is happening in the world of British filmmaking and I’m slightly worried we might all be missing it. If we don’t make the most of this opportunity it might not come again. Not for a very long time.

Get me started on the subject of blockbuster films and will likely you will be entering into an hours long conversation (monologue) in which I will tell you that the genre in question has been getting progressively worse for the past ten years, increasingly dominated by sequels, remakes and revivals. Coming to a screen near you in 2010: Iron Man 2, Let Me In (an American remake of the peerless Swedish vampire chiller, Let the Right One In) and The A-Team. Not to mention films based on theme park rides - Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series - and favourite toys from the 1980s - Mattel’s Transformers! My contention is that surely we are approaching some kind of cultural zenith at which point the masses will rise up and demand we return to stories with plot and character and something more profound to say than, ‘buy a ticket! Everyone else has!’

And before you finger me as the snob or the elitist that I am, I would counter by saying, yes, I am. and proud of it. However, the fact remains, I am big fan of all kinds of films, including many, many blockbusters. When blockbusters are done well they can be just as good as any other film. And I have nothing against films that aim to achieve mass appeal and make a lot of money (Avatar, despite its numerous flaws, was my top film of 2009). But I remember a time when blockbusters were allowed to tell stories too - Star Wars, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Jurassic Park, Crocodile Dundee... And that’s just off the top of my head.

One possible way of avoiding the rut of rotten Hollywood product we currently have to accept is simply not to watch it, and in this regard, we would not be better served. For anyone who has had the time or the inclination to notice, smaller films really have been picking up the slack. The past six months have been awash with independent cinema worth watching, much of it British! Unfortunately, the audience - that is us - has not been doing its part. We are still truding along to watch useless and pointless bloackbusters, knowing the entire plot before we see the first frame and already bored. Lured in by massive advertising budgets and slick special effects, while much more edifying fare goes largely unwatched in neighbouring screens.

The films I would like to bring to your attention offer a mixed bag of genres and styles, some of which have enjoyed moderate success, others of which have struggled to find an audience. Starting off with one of the successes, November 2009 saw the release of Terry Gilliam's, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. With a production budget of around US$30 million, and a total worldwide box office gross of US$60 million, this adventurous flight of fancy actually made money. 100 percent profit is not bad in most people's book. And certainly the film was an artistic success - even if it didn’t quite fulfil on the imaginative promise of a Terry Gilliam film starring Heath Ledger about a fantastic battle of wits between good and evil, it still hinted at the possibility that possibility is something that still exists in 21st century Britain.

Another notable success among the slew of British financed films that have made it to our screens in recent months which I have to mention, is Kick-Ass. An alternate take on the superhero genre - a geeky kid enters a world he is totally ill-equipped to deal with and flounders amid a colourful low lives and genuine costumed heroes. The film cost US$30 million to make and has so far taken over US$70 million at the box office.

There has also been a bunch of equally interesting but less financially successful fare. The fact that these films are unable to find an audience and that they fail to make money cannot fail to be an important part of the reason why Britain has no sustainable film industry to speak of (in France there is a ratio of 1:1, foreign to French films, which, despite the impressive recent round-up of British films descibred herein, we are still nowhere near matching. The Scouting Book for Boys is a superbly well-crafted low budget gem of a movie about a teenage boy and a teenage girl living in a Suffolk caravan park and the complications that arise when one of the goes missing. Made for a lowly £1.7 million, the film has only taken £80,000 at the box office, in no small part due to its very limited release in select ‘art house’ cinemas. Meanwhile, a similar fate has befallen the Andy Serkis starring Ian Dury biopic, Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, which has about as much joi de vive as one could hope for from a film. Estimated to have cost in the region of £2 million, after 14 weeks on release, the film has taken less than £900,000 at the UK box office.

Several more recent home grown films I have not seen are equally worthy of mention, including Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Cemetery Junction; best Picture nominee, An Education; and Roman Polanski’s latest, The Ghost.

All of these films share a commonality in terms of their divergence from the typical American blockbuster. They also represent a diversity of vision that is sadly lacking in the mainstream, offering alternate viewpoints, which, for anyone who watches films wishing to relate to and identify with the characters portrayed on screen, is a very good thing ineed. So, keep your eyes open, and buy British! It doesn’t always work out - Perrier’s Bounty was a definite miss - but it offers a far more appealing idea for the future. I don't think that anywone can seriously say they want to travel any further down the CGI blockbuster cul de sac.