Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Kitchen-Sink Gangsters: Down Terrace and London Boulevard

Robin and Robert Hil star in Down Terrace

As I said in my post last year about the death of the DVD rental shop, one thing I would miss was the habit of walking the aisles looking at all the titles and stumbling across a gem I'd never heard of. Then after reading the plot on the back of the box, I decided whether to take a flier and rent it. The Eclipse was one such gem I discovered this way, which I've already discussed here. Now, with the announcement three weeks ago that Rogers would no longer rent DVDs, that window of discovery, for me at least (there are no independent DVD rental shops in the city north of Toronto where I live), has now closed.

However, I had one final chance this past weekend that resulted in, if not huge dividends, at least some very pleasant surprises. Three weeks ago, after Rogers announced their decision, I ventured to our one-remaining store to see what deals I could get. All DVDs were listed as buy one get one free. So, I was able to pick up about 8 or 9 recent films, such as Hugo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2012), A Dangerous Method, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, plus others, for about $7 each. Over the next two weeks, I went a couple of more times to see if the discount got greater. It had not. But this past Friday I decided to go one more time. The discount was now buying one get two free. They had been pretty picked over, but there were still a few things of interest, such as the three discs of Season Two of The Republic of Doyle. Then just as I was about to wrap it up, the manager came out and announced they had just been informed all DVDs were now $1 each. That changed things. I bought 27 movies. Timing is everything.

My selections were a mixed bag, including several pictures I'd thought about renting, but never got around to, such as Splice, 30 Days of Night, Me and Orson Welles, Casino Jack, Margin Call, Triage, and others. Now, not a lot of these were pictures I'd want to normally add to my collection (since I hadn't seen them), but at $1, what was there to lose? I even picked up Mean Streets and Sleepy Hollow – they were a little kicked in, but played fine. I also picked up a title or two that are probably pieces o' crap, such as The Invasion, the fourth version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers that was lambasted when it was released in 2007. But since I'd seen the other three versions, I decided to “complete the set.”

Keira Knightley and Colin Farrell in London Boulevard
I also took a chance on a few films I knew nothing about: The Ledge (a film about a man on a ledge, not to be confused with The Man on a Ledge), Down Terrace and London Boulevard. Of this group, the only two I've just watched are Down Terrace and London Boulevard. Both are British gangster films, and both deal with just-released gangsters dealing with freedom, but, except for the fact they made almost the same amount of money when released theatrically in the US (they never opened in Canada) – less than $17,000 – they couldn't have been more different. London Boulevard is a big-budget British film starring Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone and David Thewlis. It was the directorial debut of William Monahan – screenwriter of The Departed and Kingdom of Heaven. With its pedigree on display, there were clearly a lot of expectations for this picture. Monahan took pages from several other films, especially Guy Richie's filthy-mouthed gangster pictures like Snatch, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, the Daniel Craig picture Layer Cake, and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard to craft his screenplay. He then created a mash up that, up to a certain point, actually worked rather well until it came apart at the end when he tried too hard to come up with an ironic ending (that he actually copped from Layer Cake, if truth be known).

Farrell plays Mitchel, an ex-con, released from prison for assault who decides to go straight (so far, so clichéd). He's got problems, though, including his drug-addled former partner in crime, Billy (Ben Chaplin), who wants to recruit him back into bad ways. Billy continues to work with the film's Big Bad, Gant (a credibly disturbing Ray Winstone) as a debt collector. He also has to contend with his ditzy tart of a sister, Briony (Anna Friel). After doing a little muscle work for Billy and Gant, Mitchel decides to take a job he's been offered to work as a handyman/bodyguard for reclusive, paparazzi-bothered actress, Charlotte (Keira Knightley). Of course, when Mitchel comes into her world, Gant decides he will horn in and find a way to steal her Francis Bacon paintings and her collection of super cars. With Mitchel on the inside, Gant figures he's got an inside track. He figures wrong because Mitchel and Charlotte start to fall in love. Once again, so far, so clichéd. And yet, during these rather touching parts, the film starts to take on an edge of originality. Charlotte's keeper is a hilarious ex-hippie druggy played with stoned wisdom by David Thewlis. He guides Mitchel through his early days on the job giving the picture a sense of humour it desperately needs along with the developing love story between Mitchel and Charlotte.

And yet, because of Monahan's divided ideas, the picture – beautifully shot by Chris Menges – never can decide if it wants to be a Richie gangster picture or a meditation on fame and love. It is unfortunate that it spends far more time on the former rather than the latter because the latter is the far more interesting material. Farrell and Knightley are both very good here, and their growing attraction to each other is quite credible.

The biggest problem with London Boulevard is that it just doesn't take enough chances. Monahan again and again falls back on the safe and violent instead of really digging into the meat of the story. Maybe he's developed the Ridley Scott disease of doing whatever The Suits say regardless of what it does to the picture (Kingdom of Heaven being the prime example of this), because it looks like the love story was seriously truncated at the expense of the bang bang. And yet, it is still a film worth checking out. Why it never got a real release in the US is beyond me because if it had been properly handled, it probably could have made, if not $50 million dollars, a damn sight more than $17,000 (it made about $4 million internationally).

Robin Hill in Down Terrace
The real surprise amongst the 27 films so far, was Down Terrace. It cost $30,000 to make and sure looks it, and only made less than $10,000. How it ever got a DVD release in Canada is beyond me, but I'm glad it did. Down Terrace examines a criminal family in an unnamed city outside of London. As the picture starts, the son, Karl (Robin Hill), has just been released from prison for an undisclosed crime. His father, Bill (Robert Hill – Robin's real life father), has also just been released for another undisclosed crime, and they go home to a cramped home where Mom (Julia Deakin) makes tea and tries to keep the peace. The first 15 minutes of the film are a bit confusing because the accents are very thick (and there's no subtitle option), and the fact the narrative doesn't really find its feet until about the 20-minute mark. For the first 15 minutes, the family and some hangers on gab about innocuous things, play music, drink booze and tea. The film is broken into fragmented pieces by black screen inserts between each sequence. It takes a while to get used to this technique because at first there seems to be no story here, just a bunch of yobs shooting the breeze. Robin Hill also wrote, co-produced and edited the film. He's a good actor and his screenplay, though it feels more improvised than really scripted, is ultimately a credible slice of (low) life. He is no editor, though. He doesn't succeed in the first 15 minutes building any rhythm or structure to the story. Finally, after Karl's very pregnant girlfriend arrives on the scene, things begin to make sense. The girlfriend is loathed by the father and she makes no bones about telling Bill she doesn't like him much either. Mom tries to find a way through to the girl in order for calm.

Bill is also under threat because his “bosses” are unhappy with the money he's making (another thing that is deliberately never made clear is what illegality Bill and company are involved in). Facing these threats, he becomes convinced that Karl and he were ratted out (or “grassed” as the Brits say) by one of their team. Once the film gets its legs, it manages to find a fine balance between humour and explosive, out-of-nowhere violence as the family tries to determine who may be the rat and what will have to be done to him/her.

Robert Hill as Bill is also very good. When the anger of this tormented family gets too much, he escapes into either booze, a crack pipe (the scene when both he and Karl do crack together is both strangely funny and disturbing), or guitar playing and singing. He is also very believable as a mid-level criminal trying to find balance between home life and his “work.”

Now, I don't want to overpraise Down Terrace, because it is a bit of a mess for the first 15 minutes, and it is really hard to understand the characters throughout, but working from a nothing budget (80% of the picture was shot in that cramped house) it has more ambition in examining a criminal family than most bigger budget Hollywood crime epics. These are kind of dull-witted people who have nothing else but crime from which to earn a living. There is nothing glamorous here. The Godfather, or The Departed, this ain't. No doubt this is probably what the life of a career criminal family is really like: scrambling to make ends meet while keeping the wolf (be it a snitch or an impatient boss) at bay. There's no happiness here and nothing cool about this life. It is a deep trench that even when the “proper revenge” is meted out, it doesn't mean by film's end that there's ever going to be anything good for these people.

I still have several pictures to go, such as the aforementioned The Ledge that may end up being a unexpected surprise, but the saddest part is that joy of discovery is now gone. It's not the same flipping through the choices on Rogers On Demand or Netflix (especially since I hate watching movies on a computer), or prowling through various download sites that are all over the Internet. The model has changed and I don't think it is for the better.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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