Decent Ben Wheatley movie shocker!

free12017.72: Free Fire (2016)

Frankly, I didn’t see two things ever happening; one, me ever watching a Ben Wheatley film again after the frankly execrable A Field in England and High-Rise, and two, ever admitting I enjoyed a Ben Wheatley film. Well, colour me surprised, thanks to Amazon Prime putting this film up to watch and the cast enticing me in (Sam Riley, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor… I mean, Christ, it’s a cast to die for, really…). Ben Wheatley’s name on the credits hardly seemed a factor. Lucky me, because this is one of those films that goes with its almost one-line premise and actually delivers a little cracker. And hey, it’s nearly Christmas. Perfect.

Both A Field in England and High-Rise were competently-made high-concept films that drowned in pretentious arthouse shenanigans – Free Fire actually reminded me of 1970s John Carpenter. In a similar way to how Carpenter would skillfully craft a classic film from simple b-movie ideas with Assault on Precinct 13 or Halloween, here Wheatley shoots (unfortunate turn of phrase, all things considered) a taut, funny action-drama from a simple set-up.

Its 1978 and a bunch of IRA members meet some arms dealers in Boston to buy a van load of machine guns. A varied and eclectic group of misfits and crooks, the tense dealmaking collapses into a violent stand-off in an abandoned factory, with the two sides in a violent conflict that lasts through the entire film. Yeah, its one long gun-fight and most of these goons ain’t going to walk out of the showdown. Its simple, it’s effective, it’s littered with great dialogue, performances and twists and turns. Sure, it’s not perfect, certainly not as cool or as hip as thinks it is but for a Ben Wheatley movie it’s quite surprisingly brilliant.

It’s a decidedly pulp film just lacking the widescreen elegance of Carpenter in his prime or Tarantino’s witty dialogue or Scorsese’s gritty realism (Scorsese actually features in the films credits as a producer) but its a ball for the ninety minutes it lasts.  Maybe it was a case of extremely diminished expectations (I call that the Wheatley Factor) but I really quite enjoyed it. Great fairly mindless fun and yeah, a great, great, cast. The wrap party must have been an absolute ball.

free2

 

Advertisements

“No, there is another….” The Beguiled.

beguiled172017.70: The Beguiled (2017)

There was a story going around the internet, back when Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven was doing the rounds in 2016, that it was being marketed in America as a wholly original movie that deliberately avoided referencing its 1960 original (or the 1954 Seven Samurai that preceded that). It may indeed have been wholly apocryphal, but I did mention the film to a colleague at work who was completely unaware there had ever been a 1960 film, so I guess the misinformation age is alive and well and maybe the marketing boys pulled it off after all.

I only mention this because I wonder how many viewers have watched Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled with no knowledge of the 1971 original. Or how many watched this thinking it seemed rather familiar somehow.  I wonder only because I would imagine one’s enjoyment of this film mainly rests on familiarity with the 1971 film.

This 2017 The Beguiled is a ravishing beauty to watch, with a sense of mood and time and place that is almost tangible, and is surely a fine achievement. The darkness is pervasive, the setting almost a character of the film itself. Viewers unaware of the shadows of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood hanging over it will likely find it fascinating and surprising and dramatic; however, as someone quite familiar with the 1971 film, while I admire this new versions aesthetic I have to ask what else it brings new to the table. Or maybe that is simply because i have seen the 1971 film before and therefore have the new film at an unfair disadvantage. But why remake a film if you are only updating the premise with fancier visuals? Or maybe that’s the entire reason you remake a film these days, whilst Hollywood remains vacant of new scripts and ideas.

In anycase, somehow in spite of its fine cast (on paper, a mouthwatering proposition) I found its characters oddly disaffecting and difficult to distinguish (or maybe it was just the dark candlelight). Colin Farrell is not as charismatic as Eastwood either. Perhaps the unusually short running time of barely more than 90 minutes harms the piece, as it really feels almost like an abridged version. Somehow I felt it was missing some depth of characterisation. Or maybe I was just comparing it to the 1971 original too much. Ghosts of old films seldom rest easy in this age of so many reboots and remakes, as beguiling as they may seem.

beguiled 17b

A Day for Heroes: Patriots Day

patsy.jpg2017.65: Patriots Day (2016)

On the face of it, Patriots Day is a great, taut thriller recounting the dramatic events of the Boston marathon bombing of 2013. Even for viewers fully aware of what happened, the film manages a relentless sense of tension as everything unfolds, and it’s certainly very efficiently staged.

However, it’s also a Hollywood movie, so it’s filled with all sorts of well-known faces, and this may just be my own personal thing, but it always distracts me somewhat from what should be a riveting docu drama account when I see some guy from the latest King Kong film or Justice League or those mobile ads on British tv. It’s no fault of the actors themselves (and indeed it’s great seeing Kevin Bacon doing some proper acting for once), but just seeing their faces pull me out of it all a little, whereas it might be thoroughly engaging with a cast of unknowns. There’s an awful lot of distracting cinematic baggage being carried around in some of these scenes.

Moreover, I clearly have a problem with Mark Wahlberg, a guy who irritates me in most films he appears in, and moreso here when I learned his character is entirely fictional in this film. His character is obviously a construct to enable the narrative flow of the events to centre on one character that the audience can ‘root’ for, but unfortunately it feels… I don’t know; manipulative? All films are manipulative, but a film like this that purports, quite rightfully to some degree, to be very accurate in depicting the events and those real people who were caught up in in it, to then throw up a main antagonist who didn’t exist…. I don’t know. Maybe me real problem is my dislike for Wahlberg. For me he is Wahlberg, always Wahlberg, an extremely limited actor who somehow remains very popular with audiences and is a very successful producer (if only he’s remain behind the camera).  It doesn’t help that some of his speeches here are so on the nose and awkward, or that he always seems to be where something is happening (its as if he has a twin, how he manages to pop up all the time). He’s unnecessary, he’s irritating. It’s like he’s there just to bankroll/sell the movie, which is a shame, the subject should be enough.

So anyway, Patriots Day is, with some reservations regards polemic politics/patriotism and certain casting choices, a very good thriller and a commendable film about recent real-life events. It’s a pity that the British film industry hasn’t yet found it worthy to make a film about similar events in our own country, but films about a bear seem to be an easier sell to a country depressed enough about Brexit etc.

 

 

Ocean lights

lbo12017.54: The Light Between Oceans (2016)

The Light Between Oceans is a very beautiful-looking movie, and stars beautiful actors (Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz) and it’s all very… lovely. There’s a sense of it being very idealised rather than ‘real’, a sort-of hyper-reality, not a sense that this was the past, but rather what it should have been. Well, movies have been doing that for years. It just seems odd to be doing that now, in 2017. Fassbender plays Tom Sherbourne, a World War One veteran returning to Australia seeking solitude and quiet to recover from the chaos of the trenches. He finds a perfect job minding a lighthouse on a remote piece of rock off the mainland,  named Janus, but eventually decides he needs companionship. Through letters he courts Isabel (Vikander) and eventually they marry and she moves with him to Janus. They try to start a family, but suffer setbacks, until one day a small boat washes ashore with a dead man and a crying baby onboard. The baby seems to be a fortuitous gift and under pressure from Isabel, Tom agrees to keep the baby and the couple pretend it is their own. This story succeeds to fool family and freinds back on the mainland, until Tom realises who the baby’s real mother is and is overwhelmed by guilt in the face of that mother’s suffering.

There is nothing really wrong about this movie. As I have noted, it looks gorgeous with golden-hour sunsets and dawns and big skies and the cast are of course beautiful and rather perfect… the problem is that with all that perfection onscreen, all those great vistas and sunsets and those beautiful faces, when the story just strays too far over into melodrama it all seems a little too much. What saved the film for me was an absolutely wonderful, lyrical and heartfelt score by Alexandre Desplat, which just lifts the film to some other level and transcends the films tendency to slip into those heart-tugging dramatics. It’s like some other character in the film, one of those old-fashioned, strong scores that doesn’t follow the current fashion of being ambient at all, rather it’s up-front and all the better for it. Shades of James Horner and John Barry, too (it’s that good).

So while I may seem a bit dismissive of the film as a whole, I did really enjoy it, and the cast are fine. It just feels very much like a Sunday-afternoon drama, and there is of course no harm in that if you’ve a Sunday-afternoon free and you want something to pass the time. In light of the calibre of the cast though you could be forgiven to expect something rather more, and when the film ends you might be feeling a little underwhelmed. But there is that music. It’s something special indeed, and by the time the film finally ended I was looking up its score album with considerable aniticipation, and not many films do that these days.

 

Basic Instinct Revisited

hand12017.53: The Handmaiden (2016)

Much to my surprise, there’s actually a decent story in here with a few surprising twists and turns, but oh dear it’s a bit of a struggle getting there. Director Park Chan-wook is too intent on shocking the audience and getting the film a provocative reputation with its graphic scenes. It’s really Downtown Abbey for the Tarantino generation, which misses the point of its spiritual forebear, Basic Instinct, which was a pulp thriller deliberately cheesy and over the top,  Paul Verhoeven imbuing essentially a silly b-movie with a knowing, arch sense of style and nods to old genre thrillers. Verhoeven is a more sophisticated film-maker than most give him credit for. Maybe Park was intending the same here, I don’t know- in anycase, it doesn’t really convince.

Most of it looks gorgeous, as you would expect from a modern film that is digitally shot with all the processing available in post these days. So it looks good, and it seems pretty well acted. I just think the original story (it is based on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, previously adapted by the BBC) is probably captivating enough without being sensationalised with such graphic content. There’s a fine line between provocative and just plain silly, and some of this just seemed unintentionally funny- as the film goes on it just gets dafter and dafter.  Park just doesn’t seem to know when to stop, or reign in his excesses, the film almost becoming a parody of itself. Maybe it’s just me missing the point, but in hindsight, Basic Instinct was a pretty good thriller. Not so sure what exactly The Handmaiden is, other than a period exploitation film.

 

Eye in the Sky

2017.49: Eye in the Sky (2015)

It’s a ridiculous comparison, really, I know it is, but it’s so telling to compare the traditional warfare depicted in Saving Private Ryan with the hi-tech, almost detached warfare of Eye in the Sky. Although the whole point of Eye in the Sky is to show it isn’t really quite as detached as one might think, shooting bad guys via joystick from thousands of miles away. Whatever the other merits or cons of this film, it is fascinating to see this new kind of warfare and appreciate it isn’t as science fiction as it might seem. Distressingly so, really.

In any event, this film was surprisingly watchable, as I wasn’t expecting very much going in (the beauty of random rentals/choosing films on a whim). It was tightly directed, fairly well-cast (caveats below) and quite tense too and it thankfully took a few welcome twists and turns- turning out to confound my initial expectations.

Perhaps a little dry, it’s hindered a little by the casting of Helen Mirren as a British Colonel in charge of the military operation. I like Mirren but sometimes her familiar, charismatic persona from earlier films impacts on her appearances, as I think it does here. It feels like casting-by-numbers, her performance rather phoned-in, almost as if she’s still in some old Prime Suspect episode. It is a joy, though, to see the late Alan Rickman in something ‘new’ again.

A pretty good film though, and certainly well worth a rental.

Big Hollywood Giant

2017.48: The BFG (2016)

This is a decidedly lightweight movie. Far from Spielberg’s best, it’s serviceable enough I suppose, which is about the best that I can say about it. But it is rather depressing really, how Hollywood takes a simple children’s story and blows it up into a cgi blockbuster with sophisticated effects and art direction. Like it’s commonly assumed it’s the only  a way to do it, going the ‘wow’ route. Naturally in 3D too, I reflected, noting how many of the films shots were choreographed. It’s funny how 3D movies have impacted how we watch films, in that they so easily telegraph what they are when we watch them in 2D. My suspicions were confirmed when I later noticed that The BFG was available in both 2D and 3D on disc, but at the time viewing the film it was rather distracting. I suppose we are stuck with that distraction for awhile but that’s depressing in itself, that we can’t watch films on 2D without being beaten over the head with ‘immersive POV’ shots etc.

Of course so much of this film is cgi (characters and sets) that it feels more an animated film than a live-action film. Reminded me a lot of the (superior) Tin Tin film that Spielberg shot a few years back.

I’m sure this film was made with all the best of intentions but it was too big, too overblown and exhaustingly ‘Hollywood Blockbuster’ for me. Spielberg can’t even refrain from recruiting John Williams to compose an overly saccharin score much akin to his misguided Hook score.

It’s just… too functional, typical. It’s a whimsical, rather silly children’s story gone all Hollywood.

It’s alive!!!

life12017.41: Life (2017)

I always overthink movies. I know I do- especially those misfires that frustrate or are nearly great. Case in point: Life, a sci-fi thriller about scientists trapped on the ISS with an alien. Crikey, even that summary makes it sound bad- to be clear though, Life isn’t as bad as you might have heard. Admittedly it doesn’t need the A-list acting talent involved -indeed a cast of unknowns might even have been better- but that’s likely partly how the film and budget got greenlit anyway (studios love ‘names’ attached to give the  marketing boys a hand). At anyrate, the good cast (Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada) being under-utilised by an undercooked script is not really what scuppers the film.

The best way to approach this film is as a b-movie with excellent production values, and as such it is a pretty solid, albeit partly frustrating sci-fi adventure. What I do like about it is how it functions in much the same way as those 1950s b-movies inspired by fears of radiation and Cold War-terror of alien menace and nuclear war. This film in thirty years will likely inform historians of modern anxieties regards our place in the universe and alien life.

The problem with this film is that it is far too easy -and lazy- to just summarise it as being another poor-man’s Alien. Yes, it does rather degenerate into that but here’s the thing about this film- it’s such a wasted opportunity; it could have been much more, particularly with this cast.  It should have been titled ‘The Fermi Paradox‘ (yeah I know, tough sell at the multiplex) because what it suggests and portrays is an answer to one of the biggest questions facing us today, but instead this film never even mentions it. Midway through the movie I thought- I know where this film is going, and they are going to say it soon…. but they don’t. It just needs one scene, one exchange of dialogue, and it could have made it a better, more profound movie. Instead the opportunity sales right by as if the scriptwriters never saw it coming.

The Fermi paradox is simply this- the universe is vast, and with all we learn about the tenacity of life in the harshest regions of the Earth, and the discoveries of so many worlds orbiting alien stars increasing the statistical probability of other habitable worlds and with that the likelihood of other  lifeforms and intelligences in the universe the question becomes not so much is there life out there but rather where is everybody?

In a weird way, this film offers up a solution to that question.

life3

The premise itself is intriguing. A robotic probe is returning from Mars with soil samples that are to be tested for signs of life on the ISS. It isn’t really explained (and this is one of my issues with the script) but I would imagine that back on Mars the robot probe detected something or the samples are particularly promising, because the ISS has been modified to be a safe laboratory to test the samples without risk of bringing the samples/organism to Earth. It could, after all, turn out to be as deadly as anthrax if let loose in the terran environment. The ISS crew and the station mission has been wholly redesigned for this duty over years of planning. Of course there is indeed more to the sample than originally hoped/feared, but it wouldn’t be a movie without that. This isn’t just ‘life’ – it is a particularly dangerous critter that will wipe out everything alive on Earth if it gets down from orbit- every human, every animal, every plant…. everything.

Here is the solution to the Fermi paradox in a nutshell. Life evolves. Life-forms develop and die out, destroyed by changes in environment or replaced by or out-evolved by other subsequent life-forms. In the film the scientists postulate that the creature brought back from Mars has lain dormant for thousands, perhaps millions of years. It can survive ultraviolet radiation, the intense cold of space and the harshest, slimmest of atmospheres. But they don’t raise the next possibility- what if it was not indigenous to Mars? What if it was extrasolar, brought to our solar system, and Mars, on cosmic winds, carried by dust or on a meteorite. What if it is a life-form that has existed millions of years, a life-form that like a virus is spread through space destroying other life forms and civilizations in its wake? What if the answer to the Fermi paradox is simply that there is nobody there anymore, because this thing destroyed it. And we are next. Alas, this film raises speculation about alien life but never rises the Fermi paradox or how what they have found informs a possible cautionary answer.

life5

Life looks pretty spectacular in places, and is always convincing in how it depicts the hardware, and the creature is horribly fascinating when it is onscreen – indeed it’s a notably successful alien creature most of the time- very nasty. On the whole this is a very successfully mounted film, particularly considering its not too-excessive budget (something around $60 million I think- certainly not as high as it might have been). It really is a case of a film having the cast, the budget and honest intent to be worthwhile, but let down by the script. It is so frustrating to think how good, how profound, this film could have been had it been as well-scripted as, say, Arrival was last year. There is a tantalising feeling that this film needed more time in gestation, it needed to evolve into a better script.

I guess this failing is easily noted from the start, with a wholly awkward set piece from the outset in which the returning probe has been hit by space debris and is off course and needs an action/effects sequence of the ISS changing its orbital path in order for an astronaut spacewalker to capture the hurtling probe with the ISS service arm. Its an unnecessary and unwieldy sequence that was there because the film-makers evidently thought thats how to get audience attention from the start; some big ‘event’/action sequence. But it’s not properly handled and  I think it lacks proper context- we can’t really feel any tension because we don’t know the crew/characters or the mission yet, which is partly handled via some clunky voiceover dialogue/exposition that doesn’t work at all. Better to have just calmy started the film with an explanation of the mission, the characters and calmly depict the probe docking and the samples transferred to the lab. Establish the setting, the mission parameters, the characters. Then let the shit hit the fan. And maybe, maybe midway when the scientists (who don’t really for a moment convince as scientists, that’s another problem) realise what they have on their hands, have one of them suggest, even in an offhand manner, that maybe they have stumbled on why SETI has never detected intelligent civilizations in space. Offer the tantalising -and scary- possibility that we really are the only ones listening, that there is no-one else. That we are really special. And yes, really in danger.

Alas, it seems that Life does not aspire to be the serious sci-fi flick that I think it could have been; indeed, perhaps a modern-day version of Alien is really all that was intended, and I’m simply over thinking a shallow movie. But it is certainly no disaster and certainly worth a rental.

 

 

All Aboard the Zombie Train

train12013.34: Train to Busan (2016)

Train to Busan is a thoroughly entertaining Zombie movie- it can’t be said that it really offers anything new to this post-Dawn of the Dead/28 Days Later/World War Z genre, but what it does deliver, it delivers well, with plenty of thrills, gore and spills. What else could you possibly want from a Zombie movie?

It’s curious, considering how the tv Zombie juggernaut The Walking Dead seemed to be suffering from such lethargy and tiredness with its most recent season, that this film still manages to be such a fresh, kinetic experience. WTD aside, it’s not as if we never see Zombie films etc these days- they are pretty much everywhere and yet this film feels so original and entertaining. Certainly the backroom staff of TWD would do well to see this film and heed its lessons- namely, maintain pace and maintain the threat: it’s the end of the world after all. The tv show seems more concerned with fellow humans being the real danger and the zombies just background noise- almost becoming incidental to the show, an occasional diversion for a little gore and action when the daily politics of survival become tiresome. It is almost becoming boring.

Train to Busan is not at all boring. An outbreak from a pharmaceutical lab or chemical factory (I may have missed details, it seemed vague, but no doubt it will be clearer on a second viewing) is getting out of hand and threatens South Korea with a Zombie Apocalypse. It’s almost as if this was some Far-East spin-off  from the World War Z movie from a few years back, which strikes me as being a pretty neat idea, letting film-makers from around the world write and shoot movies telling what happened in their locales during WWZ.  Could have been a very interesting and enjoyable franchise.

Anyway, it’s the dawn of a Zombie Apocalypse and an infected human gets onboard a train just as it begins its long journey. Instantly this train journey becomes a microcosm of what is happening out in the big wide world- a varied cast representing various age groups and areas of society, trapped in the restricted space of the train carriages as the zombie infestation takes hold and the brain-hungry critters work their way through the train. It rather reminded me of the great Snowpiercer; in some ways this is that films horror cousin. There are some great set-pieces and the film surprises, given its fine sense of claustrophobia, how it opens up the sense of scale at times, particularly near the end.

It’s good fun, and there is such a lot to enjoy. The acting, the twists and turns of the witty script, the make-up, editing and visual effects. Brilliant stuff, the only negative about the whole thing is I worry about the eventual Hollywood remake being announced someday- it seems almost inevitable, sadly. Starring the Rock, no doubt.

 

Who liked Trainspotting too?

t2b2017.30: T2 Trainspotting 2

This was great. I’m not a big fan of the original film- I watched it back when it first came out on DVD and never since; maybe it was just too harrowing to watch, too far removed from my own experiences to really fathom out the fuss (nearest thing I’ve had to drugs is a paracetamol, I’ve never even smoked or even gotten badly drunk). But T2, set and filmed some 20+ years after the original, is more akin to the world I know, with its jaded characters reunited and suffering the anxieties and crises of middle age. The funny thing is, watching this sequel has finally gotten me keen to watch that original film again.

The original Trainspotting was, from what I remember, full of youthful anger, of characters on the edge of life and a youth culture feeling impervious to the Big World; T2 has characters taking stock of their lives, their regrets and sense of waste, feeling beaten down by a world bigger and harder than their youthful selves had realised. In that sense, I could certainly relate to it more easily. I’m not sure its a better film- it doesn’t feel as bold and unconventional as the original, but then again, the whole zeitgeist has changed and this is a different world now. This really is a continuation.

I would go so far as to suggest that T2 is the perfect kind of sequel, reuniting the original cast and creative team, with nice cameos and a sense of real respect for the material, locations and characters. It doesn’t feel like the kind of cash-in so many sequels seem to be- I only hope Blade Runner 2049 feels so authentic and sincere as this one did. There are powerful, poignant moments here and it does raise particular issues unique to our times which the original couldn’t. I really liked the use of (sometimes quite sophisticated) flashbacks to imagery from the original. And mock Super 8 footage of events prior to that original film too, really adding a poignant sense of reflection and nostalgia/age. There is some really clever film-making here, and it again demonstrates Danny Boyle’s clever eye and deft touch in storytelling.

Yeah, I really enjoyed this and I’ve no doubt I’m going back to the original again. I’d even quite like to see a T3 someday too; I’m sure there is more of a story to tell and perhaps a bigger part for some of the characters unfortunately (though understandably) given some short shrift here, like Kelly Macdonald’s character. Yeah, bring it on boys. After all, with how fast times and politics change these days (Scottish Indyref, Brexit, Trump, terrorist attacks, hung elections…) I’m sure there isn’t any need to wait so long before making the next one- it would be welcome yesterday.