The Tower

Son Ye-jin and Sol Kyung-gu make their escape in The Tower

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

10 July

 

London burns, 1212

Ask any British schoolkid about the Great Fire of London and 1666 is the date they have ready before the question has even been finished. But if you’d asked a schoolchild of 1665 about the Great Fire of London, they’d have offered you one of two dates – either 1135 or 1212. Fires on both of those dates started near London Bridge, built of wood at the time of the 1135 fire and only just rebuilt in stone when the second fire started on 10 July 1212, south of the river in Southwark.

The 1212 fire first destroyed Our Lady of the Canons church before being driven by strong southerly winds towards the bridge. Built of stone it might well have been, but the bridge was festooned with wooden structures, King John having rented out the space on the bridge for dwellings and shops. As embers from the south bank blew northwards, they ignited the wooden buildings on the bridge and also buildings north of it, trapping many people on the bridge who were rushing either to put the fire out, or just to stare at it.

Contemporary estimates suggest that 3,000 people died in the blaze, but since the population of London at the time was only 40,000 to 50,000, this is probably an exaggeration. Fire would strike again in 1220, 1227 and 1299, and again in 1633, before the big fire of 1666, which led to Londoners abandoning wood as their favourite building material.

 

 

 

The Tower (2012, dir: Kim Ji-hoon)

If The Towering Inferno is the iPhone of disaster movies – does everything you want with a sexy, starry interface – then The Tower is the Samsung equivalent. It’s a Korean film, too, and though laboured references to iPhones can stop here, the comparisons to the 1974 movie keep coming.

The Tower is all set on a too-big luxury highrise and the curtain rises to the sound of White Christmas playing on the soundtrack. Time and space established, we meet the fire crew who, as in Inferno, are later to feature quite large, in a knockabout comedy sequence in which the gallant guys are called to put out a tiny fire in the kitchen of this huge skyscraper. The sprinklers don’t seem to have worked, possibly, we learn, due to shoddy or even downright negligent construction. Fans of the original Towering Inferno tick another box.

We meet the various people who are about to be subjected to trial by fire – a stuck-up bitch who treats her dog better than the hotel staff, a cute kid, a lottery winner sharing in his joy at having an apartment in this fabulous building, a very pretty lowly admin assistant trying to fix the various glitches the new building continues to throw up, while being danced around by a fellow admin assistant, a nervous young man with eyes only for her. And we meet the developers, a dodgy politician, a self-serving architect. Boo, hiss, tick another box.

With 90 minutes of the movie still to go, a helicopter swings into view, about to shower fake snow on a Christmas party held to celebrate the gigantic wealth of those throwing it, rather than the birth of the baby Jesus. The stunt goes (brilliantly) awry, of course, and the disaster kicks off.

Immediately the fire crew swing into action. But their ladders aren’t long enough (another box), and off we go, waiting for the moment Robert Wagner’s equivalent plunges to his death.

The Tower doesn’t stack up as a great film, but individual moments in it are really very special – the pregnant woman walking over a glass bridge suspended hundreds of feet in the air springs immediately to mind as just one of many. And excessive though its set-up is, it can’t outdo the acting, which is pitched almost entirely in the red zone. Everyone is clownish, abjectly miserable or jubilantly ecstatic, and the further away you get from the leads the more exaggerated it gets.

The film clearly cost a very large amount of money and its set pieces are properly awesome. It’s also brilliantly tricked out, the cinematography is as sharp as anything I’ve seen and the lighting has clearly been sweated over.

Its big-money finale won’t be to everyone’s taste – too reminiscent of some of the gruesome scenes from 9/11 (I won’t say which). But Koreans can point to a disaster in Haeundae’s Golden Suites apartments in 2010 as source material, so in that sense at least, this copy can claim a small patch of originality all its own.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The cinematography of Kim Young-Ho (Haeundae)
  • See why it spent two years in post-production
  • The Towering Inferno knock-off
  • The touching performance of rising star Son Ye-jin

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Tower – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

6 May 2013-05-06

Naomi Watts in The Impossible

The Impossible (Entertainment One, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The Spanish have an appetite for mutilation. Look at bullfighting, or the bloody effigies of the crucified Jesus Christ in their churches. And though this film is entirely in the English language, it has a Spanish director, writer and production money behind it. It’s very much a Spanish film.

So, parking my misgivings about a drama wrought from the 2004 tsunami in the bay marked “Anglo Saxon squeamishness”, let’s turn to the story of the nice family who copped the big wave while on holiday in Thailand.

It’s based on a Spanish family’s true experiences and does at least put a human face on the tragedy. Though human faces are pushed to one side when director Juan Antonio Bayona unleashes the monster wall of water after the film has only been running a scant number of minutes in scenes that completely eclipse Clint Eastwood’s tsunami drama, Hereafter.

Ewan McGregor and, particularly, Naomi Watts work like donkeys to keep this from being an exercise in shouting and, against all expectation, they succeed. The Impossible, bizarrely, successfully, is more an actors’ film than you might expect, more than your standard disaster-movie SFX spectacle.

 The Impossible – at Amazon

 

The Facility (Momentum, cert 18, DVD)

A bunch of people who don’t know each other spend the weekend at an isolated clinic where they are to be guinea pigs in the trial of an unknown drug. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it happens, and much of it is memorably nasty in the debut by writer/director Ian Clark, whose variant on the aseptic white room thriller (see Cube) gabbles through its set-up but then settles down nicely for the running-around screaming bit that these sort of films invariably work their way towards.

The Facility is well cast, knows how to play with genre expectations, has a couple of amusing thoughts about the older generation and their bloody recreational drug-taking – kids these days, eh – and marks Ian Clark out as a man to watch.

The Facility – at Amazon

 

Gangster (High Fliers, cert 15, DVD)

A Canadian film about one of the country’s more notorious hoodlums, Edwin Boyd (the film’s title in some areas), a WWII veteran driven by some shellshock and a fair amount of greed into becoming a bank robber.

Scott Speedman is Boyd, Kelly Reilly is his wife, Brian Cox barrels on to lend a bit of much needed weight, and the whole thing has been shot in that vaguely sepia tone achieved by turning the colour knob down a bit (ok, a lot).

Which is pretty much a metaphor for the whole film – an efficiently told tale, nothing more.

Gangster – at Amazon

 

Midnight’s Children (Entertainment One, cert 12, DVD)

Sneaked out with no fanfare as if it were a guilty secret, and on DVD only, tellingly, this adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel about the birth of modern India says a lot without saying very much at all.

The story – two children, one rich, one poor, switched at birth – is familiar enough. Its preoccupations – race, class, gender and the return of the empire – mark it out as a cultural product of the 1980s, as does the literary style, with its digressions into magic realism.

Which possibly is making it all sound much more interesting than it is. Because what is strange about this film is that it manages to have it all – charm, humour, breadth, budget, depth, politics.

It’s an epic, in other words, or should be, but its fleetingly episodic nature makes it impossible to get a handle on it. Perhaps the decision to get the book’s writer to do the screen adaptation wasn’t such a wise one.

Midnight’s Children – at Amazon

 

The Tower (Entertainment One, cert 15, DVD)

Now here’s a nice little curio, a complete crib from The Towering Inferno, done in Korean, set in a huge double skyscraper on Christmas Eve, where a succession of well introduced characters – the cute kid, the pretty young woman, her nervous beau, the stuck-up bitch, the dodgy builder, the fireman – are subjected to disaster movie mayhem.

The acting is about as over the top as it gets, particularly among characters further down the cast list, but this is a highly effective film, beautifully made, with some fabulously staged set pieces. There’s even a “die you callous bastard” Richard Chamberlain moment, which warms the cockles.

Tower – at Amazon 

 

Quartet (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut isn’t quite what you’d expect from one of the world’s most famous Method actor mumblers. Unless you expected a drawing-room drama peopled by British actors of cut-glass diction.

The trailer had me reaching for a noose but the film itself, set in a home for retired musicians, is a guilty pleasure. But then it has Maggie Smith in it, and her gift for comedy is well to the fore in a script about an ageing diva (Smith) being coerced into performing Rigoletto by three other residents – Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly.

Sensibly, Hoffman at no point lets us see the stars singing or even miming – since there is no way in hell that they would be plausible – and has packed the supporting cast with real singers of a certain age. Which really gives this gentle wallow an air of authenticity, an ideal accompaniment to Ronald Harwood’s script, which examines age, decay and death in a genteel unfussy fashion. Cocoa probably mandatory.

Quartet – at Amazon

 

Billy Liar (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

Tom Courtenay again, in one of the films that first made his name, and the reputation of the British New Wave of the early 1960s.

An adaptation of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s play about a penpusher at a funeral business whose fantasy life both helps him escape the daily grind and prevents him from properly breaking free of it.

The film gave a breakthrough role to Julie Christie, as the free spirit Billy is fixated on, and this 50th anniversary restoration also reminds us of the beauty of John Schlesinger’s widescreen, deep-focus cinematography, which dresses the drab industrial settings with a wash of monochrome glamour.

Billy Liar – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013