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

Batman Begins (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #8

Evil fears the knight.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English, Urdu & Mandarin
Runtime: 140 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 10th June 2005 (Russia)
US Release: 15th June 2005
UK Release: 16th June 2005
First Seen: cinema, June 2005

Stars
Christian Bale (American Psycho, The Fighter)
Michael Caine (Alfie, Harry Brown)
Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Taken)
Katie Holmes (Go, Woman in Gold)
Gary Oldman (Léon, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Director
Christopher Nolan (Memento, Interstellar)

Screenwriters
David S. Goyer (Blade, Man of Steel)
Christopher Nolan (The Prestige, Inception)

Based on
Batman, a comic book superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. In part inspired by Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli.

The Story
After Bruce Wayne’s philanthropic millionaire parents are murdered when he’s a kid, he dedicates his life to fighting crime, travelling the world to learn combat skills, then deciding the best way to scare the Mafia-esque scum of his home city is to dress as a bat. As you do.

Our Hero
Nana-nana-nana-nana nana-nana-nana-nana Batman! But, y’know, serious. Important crimefighting jobs include getting hold of cool gadgets your company developed, messing around in restaurant fountains with models, and perfecting a ludicrously gruff voice to use when in costume.

Our Villains
Batman really has his work cut out for him this time: there’s crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), mad scientist Dr Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), commander of a league of assassins Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), his subordinate — and Bruce’s one-time mentor — Ducard (Liam Neeson). That’s not to mention the bloke doing something dodgy with his family company (Rutger Hauer).

Best Supporting Character
It’s a toss up between two British thesps: there’s Michael Caine as the most involved and caring version of the Waynes’ butler Alfred that we’ve yet seen, and the ever-excellent Gary Oldman as Gotham’s only honourable cop, Jim Gordon. Both are a world away from previous screen incarnations of their characters.

Memorable Quote
“Well, a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.” — Bruce Wayne

Memorable Scene
Trapped in Arkham Asylum, surrounded by police and with SWAT officers storming the building, Batman activates a device on his boot for “backup”. Moments later, hundreds of bats flood the building, allowing him to make a dramatic escape.

Technical Wizardry
Previously, the Batmobile was a sleek and desirable supercar-type vehicle. Taking inspiration from some of the comics, Begins reinvents the vehicle entirely, rendering it essentially a road-ready tank. A massive change in the very concept, but one that now seems only natural.

Letting the Side Down
Hardly a major point for the viewer, but the design of the Bat-costume meant the actor in it couldn’t turn his neck — a problem also in the previous post-’89 Bat-films. Christian Bale’s frustration with this led to it being redesigned for the sequels (and explicitly referenced on screen, too).

Making of
According to some trivia on IMDb, before shooting began Nolan treated the crew to a private screening of Blade Runner, after which he told them, “this is how we’re going to make Batman.” For more on how exactly Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi thriller influenced Begins, check out these interview excerpts.

Previously on…
Batman’s big-screen popularity was kicked off by Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, but that goodwill was gradually squandered, ending with 1997’s Batman & Robin, which many regard as one of the worst films ever made. It killed a once-profitable franchise, therefore paving the way for an eventual reboot.

Next time…
The Bat-world shaped by Nolan and co reached its apotheosis in the first sequel, The Dark Knight. The trilogy-forming second sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, did that rarest of things: it gave a superhero a definitive, final ending.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Cinematography)
3 BAFTA nominations (Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actress (Katie Holmes))
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Christian Bale), Writing)
4 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actress (Katie Holmes), Director, Music, Costume, Special Effects)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.

What the Critics Said
“If there is one Batman film anyone should see, this is it. It’s a superhero film with a dark tone that’s very well-written with nothing but incredible actors involved. In a world where most movies these days are usually either remakes or films that are made as quickly as possible to cash in on the latest trend in Hollywood, a reboot that is not only worthy of your time but tends to make you forget about every other version that came before it says quite a bit.” — Chris Sawin, examiner.com

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“One of the best things about Nolan’s Batman is that he grasps the idea of the three personas of Bruce Wayne. There’s Bruce when he’s playing the billionaire playboy, Bruce when he’s alone in the cave or with Alfred, and Bruce when he’s wearing the cowl. This movie truly delved into this in a way that no Batman movie had before it and was performed flawlessly by Christian Bale — whether you like the voice or hate it, Bale did a great job at playing three distinct personas.” — Blue Fish Comics

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before the release of The Dark Knight Rises I went back over all the live-action Bat-films of the ‘modern era’, i.e. since Tim Burton’s Batman. Of Begins, I wrote that “Nolan’s first foray into Bat-world really is a stunning piece of work… The monumental achievement of The Dark Knight has come to overshadow Begins, which is now rendered as a functionary prequel to the next film’s majesty. Don’t let that reputation fool you: on its own merits, this is very much a film at the forefront of the action-adventure, blockbuster and superhero genres.”

Verdict

If there was one thing the Burton and Schumacher Batman films were collectively notorious for, it was focusing on their villains more than their hero (not least because they cast bigger name actors in the villain roles). Personally, I don’t think that’s wholly true, but there’s no doubting that Christopher Nolan’s much-needed reboot of the franchise focuses on Bruce Wayne, his reasoning and his psychology, more than ever before. In the process, Nolan and co made us believe a man might reasonably choose to fight crime and corruption by dressing up as a bat. No small feat, that.

For #9 Burton’s Bat’s back.

Transcendence (2014)

2015 #16
Wally Pfister | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & China / English | 12 / PG-13

TranscendenceChristopher Nolan’s regular director of photography (he’s lensed seven Nolan films, from Memento to The Dark Knight Rises inclusive) makes his directorial debut with this near-future sci-fi thriller.

Johnny Depp plays scientist Will Caster, one of many artificial intelligence developers who are targeted in a coordinated series of assassination attempts by an anti-technology terrorist group. When he dies, his wife (Rebecca Hall) and best friend (Paul Bettany) use his brain patterns to recreate him as an AI. With access to the entirety of human knowledge as found on the internet, plus a mass of computing power and a lot of money, artificial-Will sets about research and development that will change the world. But his new advances may have a more sinister edge…

Transcendence is best known for the massive negative reaction it received on release, from critics and viewers alike. To be frank, I don’t really know why. Some say it’s too slow — well, I thought it moved like the clappers. What I thought was going to be the story was done in under an hour, from which point it spiralled off in new and interesting directions. How good is its science? I don’t know. I also don’t care — it’s about the characters and the spirit of what they do, more than whether it’s all literally possible. As a layperson, I didn’t think it was so ridiculously implausible that it took me out of the movie.

Dell? Maybe if they'd used a Mac...Another element that’s probably too challenging for some is where our allegiances are meant to lie. (Some spoilers follow in this paragraph.) At the start, it’s clear Depp & friends are the heroes and the murderous anti-tech terrorists are the villains. As events unfurl, however, artificial-Will perhaps goes too far, Bettany teams up with the terrorists, and eventually so do the government and Will’s other friends. There is no comeuppance for some characters who are initially begging for it; a good one self-sacrifices somewhat heroically. This doesn’t fit the usual Hollywood mould at all (well, the last bit does, sometimes), no doubt to some’s annoyance. The number of people who clamour for any sliver of originality or texture to their blockbusters, but then are unhappy when they actually get it…

Also up for debate is the film’s relationship with technology. It wouldn’t be wholly unfair to call it sceptical, maybe even Ludditish. That reading is only emphasised by Pfister’s Nolan-esque insistence of shooting on 35mm film, rather than now-standard digital, and going so far as to grade the movie photochemically rather than use a DI. This is an effects-filled film, too, so in all kinds of ways a computer-based post-production would’ve been the sensible way to go. Whether this insistence on old-school methods is artistically merited or not, it serves to underscore the film’s suspicion of where rampant technological advances may take us in the future.

A flaw I will absolutely acknowledge, however, is the film’s opening: set five years on from Will’s death, we see Bettany in a power-less world, where laptops are used as doorstops and discarded mobile phones are strewn across the street. Regular readers will know how much I hate pointless flashforwards at the start of films, but this is one of the worst ever — it gives away almost everything that will happen, Another photo with Rebecca Hall inrobbing the entire film of tension and nullifying any sense of surprise, and the movie doesn’t compensate with, say, a feeling of crushing inevitability. The climax in particular becomes a drawn-out exercise in connect the dots: we’ve been shown how this all ends up, now we’re just seeing the minutiae of how it got there. There’s no twist or reveal to speak of, just a wait for it to marry up with what we already know.

Some say Depp is wasted in a role where he cops it in the first act and is basically a computer voice from then on. There are pros and cons to this. From an acting standpoint, Hall and Bettany are really the co-leads; from a storytelling perspective, it’s them plus Depp. It pays off repeatedly to have a proper actor, rather than a glorified extra, as the third pillar of that relationship. Plus, having the film’s sole above-the-title star absent himself so early is an effective move — “he can’t die, he’s the star! …oh, he did.” Etc. As an acting showcase, it doesn’t give Depp much to do, other than reign in the flamboyance that is his go-to these days. Points for appropriate understatedness, then.

It’s left to Hall to carry the weight of their relationship. While he’s alive the pair don’t make for the most convincing “most in love couple ever” you’ll ever see, that’s true, but her emotions and dilemmas after his death and in the years that follow are more affecting. That said, this isn’t a low-budget drama. There’s definitely potential with this concept to make a film like that — one that focuses more firmly on the ethical and emotional effects of recreating someone after death (I think there’s an episode of Black Mirror that does something similar, in fact, but I’ve not seen it). Those considerations are in the mix here, but it’s a $100 million blockbuster too, so it has to allow plenty of time for military machinations and an explosive climax.

TranscendentI guess that’s probably the explanation for Transcendence’s poor reception, in the end: it’s too blockbuster-y for viewers who’d like a dramatic exploration of its central moral and scientific issues, but too lacking in action sequences for those who misguidedly expected an SF-action-thriller. I maintain it’s not slow-paced, especially if you think it’s going to be, but nor does it generate doses of adrenaline on a committee-approved schedule. It’s not all it could have been, but if all you’ve heard is the mainstream drubbing, it’s probably better than you expect.

4 out of 5

Transcendence debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 2:30pm and 8pm.

Inception (2010)

2010 #69
Christopher Nolan | 148 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

This review ends by calling Inception a “must-see”. I’m telling you this now for two reasons. Primarily, because this review contains major spoilers, and it does seem a little daft to end a review presumably aimed at those who’ve seen the film with a recommendation that they should see it.

Secondly, because Inception — and here’s your first spoiler, sort of — also begins at the end. Now, this is normally a sticking point for me: too many films these days do it, the vast majority have no need to. I’m not convinced Inception needs to either, but it makes a better job of it than most. It does mean that, as the film approaches this moment in linear course, you know it’s coming several minutes ahead of its arrival, but for once that may be half the point.

As you undoubtedly know, Inception is about people who can get into dreams and steal ideas. Now they’re employed to get into a dream and plant an idea. This is either impossible or extremely hard, depending on which character you listen to. And that’s the setup — it’s really not as complicated as some would have you imagine. What follows is, in structural terms, a typical heist movie: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb is the leader, he puts together a team of specialists, they do the heist, which has complexities and takes up the third act. Where it gets complicated is that this isn’t a casino robbery or betting scam or whatever other clichés have developed in heist movie history, Cobb and Arthurbut the aforementioned implanting of an idea; and so, the film has to explain to us how this whole business works.

The explanation of the rules and the intricacies of the plot occupy almost all of Inception’s not-inconsiderable running time. There’s little in the way of character development, there’s (according to some) little in the way of emotion. But do either of these things matter? Or, rather, why do they have to matter? Why can’t a film provide a ‘cold’ logic puzzle for us to deduce, or be shown the methodology of, if that’s what it wants to do? When I watch an emotional drama I don’t complain that there’s no complex series of mysteries for me to unravel; when I settle down to a lightweight comedy I don’t expect insight into human psychology; musical fans don’t watch everything moaning there aren’t enough songs; you don’t watch a chick flick and wonder when the shooting’s going to start. That is, unless you’re being unreasonable with you expectations.

The film centres on Cobb, it uses Ariadne (Ellen Page) as a method to investigate Cobb, and everyone else plays their role in the heist. And that’s fine. Perhaps Ken Watanabe’s SaitoBath time could do with some more depth, considering his presence in that opening flashforward and his significance to Cobb’s future, but then perhaps he’s the one who most benefits from the mystery. Some would like Michael Caine’s or Pete Postlethwaite’s characters to have more development and, bluntly, screentime; but I think their little-more-than-cameos do a lovely job of wrongfooting you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some say the same thing about Lukas Haas’ tiny role, but I don’t know who he is so he may as well be anyone to me. Cast aside, there’s not much humour — well, no one promised you a comedy. At best you could claim it should be a wise-cracking old-school actioner, but it didn’t promise that either.

To complain about these things being missing is, in my view, to prejudge the film; to look at it thinking, “this is potentially the greatest film ever because, well, I would quite like it to be. And so it must have a bit of everything I’ve ever liked in a film”. Which is patently rubbish.

The Team

Taken on its own merits, Inception presents itself as a heist movie, a big puzzle to be solved, with a team leader who has some of his own demons. Now, you can argue that his demons are revealed in chunks of exposition rather than genuine emotion, and that might be a valid criticism that I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with; and you can argue that we’re not shown enough of the planning to fully appreciate the big damn logic puzzle of the heist, instead just seeing it unfold too quickly as they rush deeper and deeper into levels of dream, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that either; and you can argue that some of the action sequences could benefit from the narrative clarity Nolan (in both writer and director hats) clearly has about which level’s which and how they impact on each other, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that either… but if you’re going to expect the film to offer something it didn’t suggest it was going to… well, tough.

And the film isn’t entirely devoid of character, it’s just light on it. All the performances are fine. DiCaprio is finally beginning to look older than 18 and better able to convince as a man who has lost his family and therefore most of what he cares about. EamesHe wants a way home, he gets a shot at it, and he goes for it. Him aside, it’s a bit hard to call on the performances after one viewing: there’s nothing wrong with any of them, it’s just that they’ve not got a great deal to do — the film is, as noted, more concerned with explaining the world and the heist. How much anyone has put into their part might only become apparent (at least to this reviewer) on repeated viewings. Probably the most memorable, however, is Tom Hardy’s Eames, which is at least in part because he gets the lion’s share of both charm and funny lines.

The plot and technicalities of the world are mostly well explained. Is it dense? Yes. Some have confused this for a lack of clarity but, aside from a few flaws I’ll raise in a minute, everything you need is there. Some, even those who liked it, have criticised it for the bits it definitely does leave out. How exactly can Saito get Cobb home? Whose subconscious are they going into now? What are the full details of the way the machinery they use works? The thing is, it doesn’t matter. None of it does. It would’ve taken Nolan ten seconds to explain some of these things, but does he need to? No. Do you really care? OK, well — Saito is best chums with the US Attorney General, so he asks nicely and Cobb’s off the hook. Sorted. It’s not in the film because it doesn’t need to be; it’s not actually relevant to the story, or the themes, or the characters, or anything else. Nighty nightApparently this distracts some people. Well, I can’t tell them it’s fine if it’s going to keep distracting them, but…

It’s fine. Because Nolan only skips over information we don’t need to know — precisely because we don’t need it. Should it matter whose mind we’re in? Maybe it should. But it would seem it doesn’t, because it’s all constructed by Ariadne and populated by the target anyway, and apparently anyone’s thoughts can interfere — they never go into Cobb’s mind, but Mal is always cropping up, not to mention that freight train — so why do we care whose brain they’re in? It seems little more than a technicality. And as for how the system works… well, we’re given hints at how it developed, and the rules and other variables are explained (for example, how mixing different chemicals affects the level of sleep and, as it turns out, whether you get to wake up), but — again — we’re told everything we need to know and no more. Because you don’t need anything else. It’s all covered. And if it’s as complicated as so many are saying, why are you begging for unnecessary detail?

And I have more issues with other reviews, actually. I think the desire for more outlandish dreams is misplaced. It’s clearly explained that the dreamer can’t be allowed to know he’s dreaming, so surely if they were in some trippy psychedelic dreamscape — which would hardly be original either, to boot — they’d probably catch on this wasn’t Reality. AriadneOn the flip side, this rule could be easily worked around — “in dreams, we just accept everything that happens as possible, even when it obviously isn’t” — but where’s the dramatic tension in that? There’s tension in them needing to be convinced it’s real; if anything goes… well, anything goes, nothing would be of consequence, the only story would be them completing a danger-free walk-in-the-park mission.

Much has also been made in reviews of the skill displayed by editor Lee Smith in cutting back & forth between the multiple dream levels, a supposedly incredibly hard job. And it is well done, make no mistake — but it also sounds harder than it is. Really, it’s little different than keeping track of characters in three or four different locations simultaneously; it’s just that these locations are levels of dream/consciousness rather than worldly space. Still no mean feat, but not as hard as keeping three different time periods/narrators distinct and clear, as Nolan & co did in The Prestige.

This isn't in the film...

Then there’s the final shot, which has initiated mass debating in some corners of the internet (yes, that dire pun is fully intentional). In my estimation, and despite some people’s claims to definitiveness, it proves nothing. Some have taken it as undoubted confirmation that Cobb is dreaming all along — the top keeps spinning! Mal said it never stops in a dream! — but I swear we saw it stop earlier in the film, so was that not a dream but now he is in one? How would that work? Others have suggested Cobb is in fact the victim of an inception; that we’ve watched a con movie where we never saw the team, and couldn’t work out who they were. Perhaps; but for this to work surely it’s dependent on a way that we can work out who they were, and what their plan was, and how they did it? Otherwise we may as well start picking on every movie and sayCobb considers the ending “ah, but characters X, Y and Z are actually a secret team doing a secret thing, but we never know what the secret thing is, or what the result of that is”. In other words, it’s pointless unless it’s decipherable.

And still further, the top doesn’t stop spinning on screen. But you can make those things spin for a damn long time before they fall over, if you do it right, so who can say it’s just not done yet? If it does fall over, eventually, sometime after the credits end, then that’s that, it’s the real world after all. Presumably. And that’s without starting on all the other evidence throughout the film: repeated phrases, unclear jumps in location, the first scene that may or may not be different the second time we see it…

Something’s going on, but is it just thematic, or is it all meant to hint that Cobb’s in a dream? And if he is, who (if anyone) is controlling it? To what end? I’m certain that those answers, at least, aren’t to be found, so, again, are the questions valid? My view — on the final shot, at least — is, perhaps too pragmatically, that it’s just a parting shot from Nolan: it doesn’t reveal the Secret Truth of the whole film, it just suggests that maybe — maybe — there’s even more going on. Maybe. And I’m not sure he even knows what that would be or if there is; Debatebeyond that the top still spinning as the credits roll is an obvious, irresistible tease. He wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to do such a thing Just Because.

Or there’s always the ‘third version’: that the top doesn’t stop not because it doesn’t stop but because the film ends. Ooh, film-school-tastic. Also, stating the bleeding obvious. I believe it was suggested as a bona fide explanation by one of Lost’s producers, and so is surely automatically classifiable in the “tosh” bin along with that TV series. Presumably it’s ‘deep thoughts’ like that which led to an ending that left many fans unsatisfied. But I digress. He’s right in the sense that the film doesn’t tell us, but it’s not an explanation of it in and of itself unless you want to be insufferably pretentious: it is ambiguous, yes, but it’s not a comment on the artificiality of storytelling or whatever. And if it is… well, I’ll choose to ignore that, thanks, because, no.

Bored now

I alluded earlier to flaws. If anything, the final act heist is too quick. With, ultimately, four layers of dreams to progress through, not enough time is devoted to establishing and utilising each one. It’s as if Nolan set up a neat idea then realised he couldn’t fully exploit it. They have a week in one world, months in the next, years in the next… but it doesn’t matter, because events come into play that give them increasingly less time at each level. Would it not have been more interesting to craft a heist that actually used the years of dreamtime at their disposal, rather than a fast-edited & scored extended Cobb and Ariadne at the climax. Oo-er.action sequence across all four levels? It makes for an exciting finale when they need to get out, true, but I couldn’t help feeling it didn’t exploit one of the more memorable and significant elements enough.

Indeed, at times the film operates with such efficiency that one can’t help but wonder if there’s another half-hour cut out that it would be quite nice to have back. I appreciate some have criticised the film for already being too long; it would seem I quite decidedly disagree. And not in the fannish “oh I just want more” way that really means they should just get hold of a copy and watch it on loop; I literally mean it could be around half an hour longer and, assuming that half-hour was filling the bits I felt could handle some filling (i.e. not the omitted bits I was fine with nine paragraphs back), I would be more than happy with that. I did not get bored once.

Still on the flaws: Mal (that’d be Cobb’s wife — I’ve been assuming you knew this, sorry if I shouldn’t have) is talked up as a great, interfering, troublesome force… Cobb and Malyet she’s rarely that much of a bother. At the start, sure, so we know that she is; and then in Cobb’s own mind when Ariadne pops in for a visit, but that’s why he’s there so it goes without saying; and then, really, it’s not ’til she puts in a brief appearance to execute Fischer that we see her again (unless I’m forgetting a moment?) And apparently Ariadne has had some great realisation that Mal’s affecting Cobb’s work, and Ariadne’s the only one who knows this… but hold on, didn’t Arthur seem all too aware of how often Mal had been cropping up? Does he promptly forget this after she shoots him? Mal is a potentially interesting villainess, especially as she’s actually a construct of Cobb’s subconscious, but I’m not convinced her part is fully developed in the middle.

On a different note, some of the visuals are truly spectacular. I don’t hold to the notion, expressed by some disappointed reviewers, that we’ve seen it all before. The Matrix may have offered broadly similar basic concepts in places, but Inception provides enough work of its own for that not to matter. But there is another problem: we have seen it all before. In the trailer. It’s a little like (oddly) Wanted. That comic book adaptation promised amazing, outrageous, impossible stunts through an array showcased in the trailer. “Wow,” thought (some) viewers, “if that’s what’s in the trailer, imagine what they’ve saved for the film!” Turned out, nothing. And Inception is pretty much the same. The exploding Parisian street, the folding city, the Zero-G corridorzero-G corridor, the crumbling cliff-faces… all look great, but there’s barely any astounding visual that wasn’t shown in full in the trailer. Is that a problem? Only fleetingly.

But it’s the kind of thing that makes me think Inception will work better on a second viewing. Not for the sake of understanding, but to remove it from the hype and expectation. I’ve seen it now, I know what it is, I’ve seen what it has to offer, I’ve had the glowing reviews and the lambasting reviews either affirmed or rejected, and next time I can actually get a handle on what the film is like. Which makes for an anti-climactic ending to a review, really — “ah, I’ll tell you next time”. Well, I can say this:

Inception is certainly worth watching. I’m not sure it’s a masterpiece — maybe it is — but I’m certain it’s not bad. I don’t think it’s as complicated to follow as some believe, but maybe that’s just because I was prepared to pay attention, and equally prepared to disregard the bits that aren’t necessary rather than struggle to fully comprehend every minute detail. It is flawed, though perhaps some of those I picked up on can be explained (in the way I’m certain some others I’ve discussed can be explained). The very first kickIs it cold and unemotional? Not entirely. Is it more concerned with the technicalities of the heist and the rules of the game than its characters and their emotions? Yes. Is that a problem? Not really.

At the very least, if only for all the reaction it’s provoked and the debate it will continue to foster, Inception qualifies as a must-see.

5 out of 5

Inception placed 3rd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010, which can be read in full here.

forever spinning

Sunshine (2007)

2008 #23
Danny Boyle | 103 mins | DVD | 15 / R

This review contains minor spoilers.

SunshineAfter branching out into the genres of horror (with 28 Days Later…) and ‘family’ (with Millions), Danny Boyle turns his hand to sci-fi with this effort, which tells the story of a spaceship in the apparently not-too-distant (but, clearly, distant enough) future transporting an improbably large nuclear bomb to restart our dying sun.

Sunshine is what some would call “grown-up science fiction”, often more concerned with the crew’s moral dilemmas than thrilling action set pieces or dazzling CGI. Luckily, though, the former aren’t too pretentious and both of the latter are still present. Similarly, the fact that it’s a British rather than American film is apparent early on: there’s an international crew (the Captain is even Foreign! Shocking!), there’s no time wasted on the melodrama of what life is like back on Earth, and the plot slow burns, carefully depicting the crew’s day-to-day relationships and tasks before, inevitably, It All Goes Wrong. The crew notice their failed predecessor floating nearby and have to decide whether to continue on their present course or divert to meet the other craft. I’m sure anyone can guess which option they choose. The ensuing slow slide from relatively minor problems to increasingly major ones fills most of the running time and, like every aspect of the film, is very well executed.

One stumbling block is that, in many ways, it’s territory that’s been trod before. Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland mix in elements of Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Armageddon, and no doubt several other spaceship-based movies. To their credit, it doesn’t feel like a total rip-off, but the influences are apparent. I was also reminded of the BBC miniseries Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, though I doubt that was a huge influence! (It is quite good though, so you never know…)

Most reviews of Sunshine primarily criticise a shift in quality for the third act. It’s hard to disagree on this, as the film moves from a realistic(ish) Apollo 13-esque space mission movie into slasher horror territory. It almost works, though does feel a little like they were desperate for either a multiplex-pleasing round-off or anything that would carry the film through the last 30 minutes. The real let down is the final sequence, a logic-vacant confusingly-shot finale that consequently feels a tad disappointing.

Yet it’s not bad enough to make too large a dent in the film’s overall quality. The first hour may be better than the final half hour, but it’s all still good enough to pass. Ultimately, the weak ending’s only impact may be in knocking one star off the final score — though, without an alternate final act to compare it to (obviously), it’s hard to be certain it’s even that bad.

4 out of 5

Sunshine placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.