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

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

2017 #39
Jordan Vogt-Roberts | 118 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, China, Australia & Canada / English | 12A / PG-13

Kong: Skull Island

The king of the giant apes returned to the big screen this year as part of Legendary’s MonsterVerse, which will see him tussle with Godzilla in three years’ time. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

This new incarnation of Kong wisely dodges being a third remake of the original classic, opting for a new story of how mankind first comes across the eponymous island and its super-sized inhabitants. Set in the ’70s as the Vietnam war comes to an end, a mixed group of scientists and military men head for the uncharted island to see what lies within, and a monstrous battle for survival ensues.

Skull Island is a monster B-movie realised with a modern blockbuster budget and a dose of class from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Its major thrills come from the dust-ups between humans and giant beasties, or giant beasties and other giant beasties, but these are executed with a verve and enthusiasm that renders them a constant delight. Vogt-Roberts unleashes his skill with a palpable sense of excitement for the material, never seeming to hold back as he fills the entire movie with cool imagery and vibrant colours. The period setting is well evoked, bringing the sensation of witnessing a certain kind of non-specific throwback to adventure and monster movies past, even as lashings of expert CGI realise this new vision. (Also: two monkey movies this year and both with an Apocalypse Now vibe? Coincidencetastic.)

A skull, on the island

There’s a game cast, too, with Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, and, in particular, John C. Reilly having a whale of a time as just some of our adventurers. Between them they help navigate a tone that could’ve been a jumble but instead feels just right, neither too pompous nor too comical. It’s never so grounded that the ridiculous stuff feels silly; never so silly that any of it stops mattering.

Kong: Skull Island might be the most fun I’ve had at the cinema so far this year. I can’t wait to watch it again on Blu-ray, and in 3D this time — I’m hoping that’ll really show off the scale of the big ol’ monsters. At the end of the day it’s a B-movie about giant monsters hitting things, which is what has held me back from giving it full marks, but don’t be surprised if this ends up on my year-end top ten: it’s superb blockbuster entertainment.

4 out of 5

Kong: Skull Island is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

It placed 10th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

My review was a bit short to have more than one picture, but here’s a bonus one of Brie Larson being badass:

Badass Brie

Room (2015)

2017 #37
Lenny Abrahamson | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, Canada & UK / English | 15 / R

Room

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
4 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Actress.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay.





Inspired by the infamous Josef Fritzl case (but most decidedly not a a direct fictionalise thereof), Room is a drama about a horrific crime — at times it could even be said to be a crime thriller — but it’s not interested in dealing with the usual outcomes of such filmic narratives; namely, justice or revenge (or both). Rather, it has a goal both more realistic and humane: it’s about the victims, and the psychological toll the crime exerts upon them.

It’s told primarily from the point of view of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a five-year-old boy whose entire world is Room, the small space he lives in with his mother, Ma (Brie Larson). What Jack doesn’t understand, but is quickly obvious to the viewer, is that they’re being held captive by ‘Old Nick’ (Sean Bridgers), who visits nightly for… well, you can guess what for. Ma has tried to keep Jack sheltered from the reality of their situation, not telling him properly about the outside world — until one day she hatches a plan for their escape.

Which possibly makes Room sound more action-packed than it is. There’s a sequence of edge-of-your-seat tension in the middle of the film, when Jack and Ma execute their plan, but otherwise this is a very grounded movie. Obviously the situation the characters have found themselves in is pretty extraordinary, but we know these things happen (Fritzl is, sadly, not the only example), and Room is committed to being a plausible exploration of such cases rather than an adrenaline-fuelled Movie version.

In Room, no one can hear you scream

This is a spoiler, really, but it’s also vital to understanding the film’s point and focus: that escape attempt, which occurs more-or-less exactly halfway through the movie, is a success. After seeing the existence Jack and Ma endured inside Room for the first half, the second is about how they adjust and cope to being in the real world after their ordeal. This half-time switch-up is the film’s primary strength. A comment I read online taps into why that’s the case: “At the beginning it was great. I thought it was gonna be a claustrophobic thriller/horror film following the line of others like Cube, Panic Room or even Das Boot… I got the feeling that if they would had escaped later on, the film would have been better.” This person is, of course, wrong, and their own comment demonstrates why. Sure, you could make this kind of story into “a claustrophobic thriller/horror film”, but that would be a genre B-movie and nowhere near the psychological realism (and, by extension, respect for real-life victims of such crimes) that Room is clearly interested in. I have to reluctantly agree that the first half is the more gripping and involving, but the second half — the having to cope with the psychological fallout once their ordeal is over, a very real but much less-seen aspect of crime — is where the meat and heart of Room lies. Or wants to.

The thing is, is it the case that the characters’ situation is inherently emotional, and therefore it’s pretty hard for a film about it to not elicit strong responses, rather than that this film in and of itself is doing anything particularly special? Some would give that an emphatic “yes” — criticism of Lenny Abrahamson’s plain direction abounds. I think that does him a disservice. This is not a showy movie, but nor should it be. Saying it’s no better than a cheap cable TV movie shows a lack of understanding for the quality of being understated, and the difference between that and thoughtless point-and-shoot quickie filmmaking. Indeed, the wiseness of the filmmakers in not giving the story an overly histrionic treatment is one of its biggest assets.

If you're happy and you know it stare blankly into space

Another is the performances. Larson is excellent, full of subtleties even when called on to enact more obvious Dramatic Moments. Ma runs the emotional gamut throughout the movie and Larson negotiates every changing facet with believability. Tremblay isn’t half bad either. I stop short of bigger praise for him because, frankly, I found his character pretty irritating at times, but that might be part of the point so maybe I’m being unfair. While those two are the natural focus, there are effective supporting turns from the likes of Joan Allen as Ma’s mom and Tom McCamus as her new partner, who gets one of the best scenes.

Despite these qualities, I was left wondering how much it had dug into Jack and Ma’s psychology, really? The decision to focus on the kid keeps us removed from Ma at some key points, giving us a snapshot of how she’s been affected rather than a detailed portrait. But we never fully get the psychology of Jack either. On the one hand that’s because, well, he’s only five years old; and on the other it’s because he’s lived his entire life in a situation we can only try to imagine — it’s hard to connect with his very unique worldview. That’s not to say the film fails entirely — there are moments, even whole scenes, where we’re able to access some level of understanding for what these characters have experienced — but as for the totality of it? Well, as I said, it’d be hard for the film to not generate sympathy just given the pure facts of the story it tells, but in terms of going further than that, I just felt there was something missing.

Hammock

Make no mistake, Room is a very good, very affecting film, powered by two strong lead performances, but at the end I felt there was more left to understand about these characters and their experiences.

4 out of 5

The UK network premiere of Room is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.