Free Fire (2016)

2017 #105
Ben Wheatley | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

Free Fire

The latest film from director Ben Wheatley (he of Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England, High-Rise, and the rest) is by far his most accessible movie yet. Set in Boston in the ’70s, it sees two IRA fellas (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) arranging through a pair of black market brokers (Brie Larson and Armie Hammer) to purchase guns from some arms dealers (Sharlto Copley and Babou Ceesay), with each side bringing along a couple of chaps to carry boxes (Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor, and Enzo Cilenti). But things go sideways when a couple of those minor participants have a falling out, leading to a protracted shoot-out. “Protracted” as in “two-thirds of the movie”.

If an hour-long gunfight doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, maybe Free Fire isn’t the movie for you. Conversely, this isn’t a Jason Statham flick: instead of an hour of highly-choreographed gunplay, most of the participants get injured early on and end up seeking cover around the rubble-strewn floor of an abandoned factory, occasionally taking potshots at each other. Most action movies are defined by their characters sprinting about — in this one, they crawl. The screenplay was partly inspired by FBI ballistics reports from real gunfights, so there’s actually some veracity to how things go down.

Guys with guns

So, on the one hand, it has a definite grit and reality. Bullet wounds actually hurt, leaving characters dragging themselves around in the dirt. Although there are occasional bullet-flying free-for-alls, just as often every shot counts. Similarly, their guns run out of bullets — frequently. Sometimes, permanently. On the other hand, however, it’s a bit like something Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie might once have made, although thankfully without slavishly duplicating either of their overfamiliar styles. Without being an out-and-out comedy, it’s often pretty funny, thanks to the ludicrous situation and outrageous characters — all while remaining just this side of plausible, that is.

Unfortunately, the thin premise means it lags a bit in the middle. It feels in need of a clearer overall purpose and one or two more ideas. A better sense of space would help, too. We know who’s shooting at who, but for a long time we don’t really know where they all are in relation to each other. That’s not a deliberate choice to evoke the confusion of a gunfight or something — the characters all seem to know where they need to point their weapons. It’s a lack of filmmaking clarity, exposed in the Blu-ray’s behind-the-scenes featurette when it’s revealed how meticulously and thoroughly the whole thing was mapped out — it’s a real shame that doesn’t translate on screen.

More guys with guns

These are flaws that hold Free Fire back from perfection, mind. It’s still a fitfully funny, sporadically tense, gleefully violent hour-long shoot-out. And events occur in real-time, too, which I always have a soft spot for. When all is eventually said and done, I doubt critics and scholars are going to hold it up as a key film of Wheatley’s career, but I’d wager it’s the one most people will get the most enjoyment from.

4 out of 5

Free Fire is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

She isn’t pictured in the review, so here’s a bonus one of Brie Larson being badass:

Badass Brie

Chappie (2015)

2016 #45
Neill Blomkamp | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & South Africa / English | 15 / R

ChappieNeill Blomkamp seems to be on M. Night Shyamalan’s career path: a massively-praised Oscar-nominated breakthrough genre movie, followed by a series of increasingly maligned follow-ups.

His latest is the story of a police robot that gets inducted into South African rap/gang culture. It’s incredibly idiosyncratic, and actually kind of interesting in its oddness and the way it exposes a different culture. So there’s something to be got out of it, but it feels like a failed experiment rather than a successful realisation of a bold idea.

Still, in the homogenised landscape of big-budget sci-fi movies, at least it’s something different.

3 out of 5

Maleficent (2014)

2016 #84
Robert Stromberg | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | PG / PG

Disney seem to be embarking on a project to remake all of their most beloved animated movies in live action,* with Cinderella being one of the highest grossing movies of last year, The Jungle Book currently doing gangbusters at the box office worldwide, an all-star Beauty and the Beast hotly anticipated for next year, and others in the pipeline that include Mulan, Pinocchio, The Sword in the Stone, both Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, another 101 Dalmatians, an Aladdin prequel, Winnie the Pooh, and Tim Burton’s Dumbo. (No, I did not make those last two up.)

But it all started… back in 2010, when Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was an unexpectedly ginormous hit. But then there were a couple of years off, so you could argue the current wave started here: a revisionist re-telling of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of its villainess. In this version, we meet Maleficent as a child, protector of some fairy kingdom that borders the human kingdom. One day she meets a trespassing human boy, Stefan; they fall in love; eventually, he stops visiting, set on making his fortune in the king’s castle. After Maleficent has grown up to be Angelina Jolie doing an English accent and Stefan has grown up to be Sharlto Copley doing a Scottish accent (goodness knows why), the human king decides to invade the fairy land. Maleficent repels his forces, and the dying king vows whoever can defeat her will be named heir. So power-hungry Stefan does something terrible, and we’re on the road to the story we know… more or less.

It’s an interesting idea to take an archetypal villain who’s evil for evil’s sake and try to give her motivation, to understand why she did terrible things. Maleficent makes a fair fist of this, beginning long before the familiar tale to establish a run of events that tip the titular character to the dark side. What Stefan does to her to win power is pretty dark, and a clear analogy to a real-world crime that you wouldn’t expect from a PG-rated Disney movie. Our sympathies, at this point, lie with Maleficent. Of course, then she goes and condemns an innocent child to eternal slumber, so that’s less nice.

However, this is a Disney movie — you don’t get to turn a villain into the central character and have her be evil throughout. This is where the film gets really revisionist, because Maleficent keeps an eye on cursed Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) as she grows, doing more to keep her alive than the trio of fairies she’s supposedly in the care of, and her heart is gradually warmed to the girl. Unfortunately, Maleficent was too good at the cursing malarkey: unable to lift her own spell, it plays out regardless, and the film serves us new renditions of the impassable thorns, giant dragon, and true love’s first kiss. It’s in the last where Maleficent is thematically revisionist rather than just a massive rewrite. Your mileage may vary on whether this version is obvious and cheesy, or actually more meaningful and (for the primary audience of little kiddies) more thought-provoking than the original’s — I’d go with the latter.

So in some respects, Maleficent is a success. In others, it’s a bit of a mess. For all the additional character development given to Maleficent herself, the rest of the characters are two-dimensional at best. It’s ironic that, in a movie all about fleshing out and understanding the villain, the new villain (i.e. Stefan) is so flat. Other elements are just pointless or nonsensical, like the corridor of iron spikes Maleficent & co briefly have to squeeze along. It’s not a bad idea per se — it’s been established that iron hurts fairies (goodness knows why, but there you go), so it’s a reasonable concept for a physical obstacle — but it’s really poorly integrated into the story, and it’s bested by… walking through it carefully. Thrilling.

Parts of the film test-screened poorly — mainly the first act, with audiences wondering why it took so long for Jolie to turn up. Consequently, the whole thing was thrown out and reshot; in the process, Peter Capaldi and Miranda Richardson were deleted (and after they’d had to endure hours of transformative prosthetics for their roles, too), and Maleficent was given a new backstory. How far this extended into the rest of the movie, I’m not sure, but at times it feels like stuff has been cut or rearranged. Certainly the story flies past — if it wasn’t trimmed down in the edit, it needed expanding back at the screenplay stage.

Then there’s the uncanny-valley-tastic rendition of the three fairies, with mini plasticky-CGI versions of Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville floating around until they jarringly turn into live action; the unintentional hilarity of the Prince Charming-type apparently being from the kingdom of Ofsted (it’s actually Ulfstead, but still); and the original film’s famous song, Once Upon a Dream, being slowly murdered by Lana Del Rey. Perhaps surprisingly, the work of production-designer-turned-director Robert Stromberg is pretty decent, though over-fond of crash zooms during action sequences, and an overall visual style that’s reminiscent of the likes of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful — both of which Stromberg designed, funnily enough.

For all its faults, Maleficent was still the fourth highest grossing movie of 2014 — though the top grosser was Transformers: Age of Extinction and second was The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, so that shows what quality matters to the box office. Nonetheless, it’s no wonder Disney have kicked into gear with the live-action remakes, and even a Maleficent sequel is in development. (No idea how that’ll work — Sleepier Beauty?) On the bright side, there is something more interesting going on here than just an animated film being re-done with real people (and copious CGI). Certainly, anyone interested in fairytales being deconstructed and/or reconstructed should be sure to check it out.

3 out of 5

Maleficent is available on Netflix UK as of this week.

* At least they’re not trying to tie them together as another shared universe! ^

Europa Report (2013)

2015 #158
Sebastián Cordero | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Astronauts head to a Saturnian moon to examine its water in this scientifically-accurate drama.

The voluminous “special thanks” to space-related organisations shows how seriously the filmmakers took that accuracy, and it pays off in the exploration of some neat ideas. A faux-documentary style lends verisimilitude, as well as an effective “unreliable narrator”-style twist.

However, story construction is frustrating, jumping around in time merely to create mysteries out of thin air, a technique so forced it becomes irritating. It also fails to disguise that Sharlto Copley’s entire storyline is just padding.

Still, worth a look for fans of realistic near-future sci-fi.

3 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.