What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
A lot of digital ink has already been spilled over Fantastic Fest 2012 and since I am writing post-fest, I wanted to discuss a couple of the films I saw through a different lens, just to spice things up a little bit.
Every so often, certain subgenres get particularly hot and a slew of films will release that revolve around similar elements. I’m not just talking about the dueling asteroid movies or dueling volcano movies of the big studios back in the 1990s. I’m talking about full on subgenres with multiple entries, all trying to capitalize on a trend. Recent examples would be the glut of young adult fiction we have seen being adapted into films after the success of the HARRY POTTER franchise. Or even more obviously, the zombie craze that has had us in its grip for a few years now and may (or may not) be slowing down of late.
But who would have ever predicted a subgenre of films, releasing in rapid succession that are all set in and around tenement high rise buildings? If there were one or two films set against the backdrop of “the block”, one could easily write it off as happenstance. But it is a little harder when you think about the fact that no less than 8 high rise / tower-themed films have come out in just the past few years! (And let me know if I’ve missed any, which I probably have.) Two of those films were entries in this year’s Fantastic Fest, and 4 of them are specifically set in tenement blocks in the UK.
What films am I talking about? Here is the quick list:
GOMORRA (2008), HARRY BROWN (2009), ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011), TOWER HEIST (2011) (This is the only film on the list I haven’t seen, but in many respects it seems to fit the list. Am I wrong, folks who have seen it?), THE RAID: REDEMPTION (2011), CITADEL (2012), DREDD 3D (2012), and TOWER BLOCK (2012).
I’ve got a couple of ideas as to why we are seeing this backdrop move into the foreground. For one thing, times are tough around the world these days. The economy has people on edge and tenement blocks shine a light on the reality of not only poverty, but the governments’ unsuccessful attempts to combat poverty. The projects, the blocks, the tenements; all are intended to be cheap, affordable housing subsidized by the government. But as we know from real life experiences, and from our movies, the projects are often breeding grounds for crime. In turn, those from the outside tend to fear and avoid them.
And so the tenements become symbols for things beyond inexpensive housing. They become home to rough and tumble young kids, struggling families, and yes, maybe even some criminals, or just folks who are willing to earn a few dollars outside of the law.
It seems logical, then, that story tellers and film makers are taking the projects and using the rich symbolism they provide to add a layer to their stories.
From a filmmaking perspective, the blocks in the UK also offer some pretty stunning visuals. The tower blocks are hulking, concrete monoliths that provide their own character just by turning a camera on them. Not to mention that stories set in isolated tenements also give filmmakers a way to isolate events and make their stories more airtight and insular. The majority of the films on my quick list are also low budget films, so it makes sense that filmmakers would use a very manageable and controlled location for their laser-focused stories.
I’m going to quickly dive into a few thoughts on each film and focus on their tenement settings. But I’d love to hear your thoughts on this rising trend in the talkbacks.
I remember very little about this film because I haven’t seen it in several years. But the movie transpires in an absolutely filthy Italian housing project that was visually shocking at the time. Like in ATTACK THE BLOCK, our main characters in GOMORRA are the children who live in the projects. In this story, our main characters aspire to be a part of the gangs that operate all around them. Children’s playgrounds are gangsters stomping grounds, and the two groups are bound to collide.
A vigilante story set in a London project and starring an aged Michael Caine as Harry Brown. Caine’s Brown is a war veteran and all around slow burning badass. There is a particular tunnel which tenement residents avoid using in this project due to all the criminal activity that goes on there. HARRY BROWN is kind of a small scale vigilante story in that the focus is very much on this man and the cleaning up of his little plot of turf. But as with most vigilante stories, things here are very personal indeed. And when Brown starts taking justice into his own hands, the moral ambiguity is just getting started.
My guess is that ATTACK THE BLOCK is one of the biggest reasons subsequent films on this list were set where they were. As aliens land near a block in London, a small gang of street teens become reluctant heroes, taking on the aliens on their home turf. ATTACK THE BLOCK is my favorite film in this list in part because of the tenement dynamic I’ve been talking about. Here, the block is these young teens’ playground. They are able to outsmart the aliens and successfully fight them off precisely because of the toughness that their upbringing has saddled them with, and their knowledge of every crevice of their home. Director Joe Cornish used the tenement setting to create inventive action and meaningful drama. Despite the rough nature of life on the block, Cornish’s film turns preconceptions on their heads and gives us heroes to root for who come from the places many of us fear to go.
Again, I haven’t seen it. But the premise appears to be as economically motivated as some of the stories set in poorer tenements. Here, you’ve got some scorned building employees, led by Ben Stiller, exacting revenge on the Bernie Madoff-like penthouse dweller who has swindled all of their money. Although this is a comedic heist film, it is very clearly set in a high rise, and there is an heir of economic unrest beneath the plot summary. Stiller’s rag tag team sounds a lot like the 99% to me, and if Bernie Madoff wasn’t the 1%, I don’t know who was.
An absolutely fantastic action film, THE RAID is an Indonesian film which pits a team of elite cops against a drug lord living in the top floor of a crumbling old tower.
My sense, with this film, is that the setting had more to do with the ability to create a claustrophobic atmosphere for our heroes to be trapped in as they battle for their lives against an insane drug lord. Many facets of tenement life come into play in this film, though. The setting of THE RAID is smart to create both great action and introduce some important drama to the proceedings with the residents of the building who range from innocent bystanders to addicts to full on villains.
CITADEL is probably the only straight up horror film on this list. Shot in Ireland, CITADEL is set in a condemned tower block that veers into fantasy and post apocalyptic territory. Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) lost his wife and becomes increasingly unable to care for their baby daughter as he is terrified to leave the house. Hooded, child-like creatures are introduced to this tale to terrify the audience and the protagonist. Here, tenements are places of great horror, where everything happening outside your doors is terrifying, and the only way to stay safe is to hole up in isolation. Perhaps by breaking with reality, CITADEL has the most to say about the world’s perception of project housing.
This time our setting is in a futuristic mega-tower, but many of the settings’ tropes have not changed. Sure, DREDD is a completely awesome sci-fi, comic, action film. But regardless of the drug being dealt, or the ravaged world outside of Mega City One, Peach Tree Towers feels JUST like the project housing of many of the other films on this list.
In DREDD there are more residents crammed into a larger building, but much like THE RAID, you have a mixture of residents who are part of the gang trying to kill our heroes, but also many innocent residents just trying to survive. As Judge Dredd seeks to end the reign of drug dealer Ma-Ma, we see that many of today’s vices and societal issues have only evolved in this overcrowded and hellish future.
The top floor of the Tower Block in London is the only inhabited floor that remains. The tenants are holding out from moving and their landlord can’t wait to get them moved out so he can sell the land. But when a sniper entraps them and starts shooting up the block, Becky (Sheridan Smith) assumes leadership over the shrinking group of residents and tries to outwit their attacker.
TOWER BLOCK is a sniper-as-slasher film that sees our cast picked off one by one by an unseen assailant. It is also an airtight thriller that is a lot of fun while also introducing the audience to a varied cast of characters who all have their reasons for living in a tenement block like this one, no matter what walk of life they hail from.
Interestingly, I actually like all of the films on this list, and outright love ATTACK THE BLOCK, THE RAID, and DREDD. So I’m all for seeing the tenement block further utilized as a backdrop for killer cinema. And although TOWER BLOCK didn’t make my Top 5 Fantastic Fest films, I really had a blast with it and think it’ll find a loving audience here in North America.
What films did I miss? Why do you think we’ve seen the arrival of this trend? What awesome films haven’t we seen yet that would benefit from being set on the block?
Honorable Mentions: The DISTRICT 13 films and CANDYMAN.
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis