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.

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Czechmate

anth12017.6: Anthropoid (2016)

Anthropoid seems a strange title for a film -it must have seemed a nightmare for the marketing boys- but the title does make sense when you watch it. This is a tense, gripping, edge-of-your-seat World War II thriller based on the true story of a Czech resistance operation that may have had considerable bearing on the outcome of the war.

I’ll get this out of the way- this is a great WWII movie. Its got a brilliant script, a great cast and fine direction…. and it looks… brutally  beautiful?  I’m not sure what I’d call it exactly, but there is such a convincing sense of time and place. Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia is another world from anything we can experience today; it’s almost like reverse-science fiction, the film taking us to a world that once existed rather than a future-world yet to exist, but quite alien all the same. Art direction and photography is excellent (there is a wonderful filmic quality to the image, it isn’t soft-focus or sepia but it does give a wonderful sense of period, perhaps it’s the overall colour scheme and the lighting). I guess there may have been some fairly extensive cgi enhancements and effects but everything is handled so carefully nothing particularly stands out and distracts you, it all just serves the story. And its a great, inspiring story.

Its 1942, and Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) are Czech soldiers parachuted in on a secret mission to assassinate Nazi Reinhard Heydrich – Germany’s third highest-ranking commander and architect of the Final Solution; he’s a nasty piece of work and one of Hitler’s key men.The attempt to assassinate Heydrich and its aftermath leads to chilling reprisals. Its a study of bravery and dedication and ordinary people rising to take their place in historic events.

When I was young, references to WWII seemed to be everywhere; it was, after all fairly recent memory. As another fifty years have gone by now it’s clearly slipping further back, and I wonder how relevant the war might seem to young people now who don’t associate, say, Germany with that European war in the same was as I did playing wargames with my boyhood friends. Sometimes I watch and read about stuff like this and I think people were somehow different back then in that war, perhaps a whole generation who were different to what we are today. Are we weaker now? How would we measure up thrown into a world at war like that in 1939-1945?

I suppose if there was any criticism of the film, its that the  first half is fairly routine espionage thriller stuff, the film establishing the politics within the resistance network and the mechanisms of the surveillance and planning. But I think this deliberately slow pace is designed to catch viewers unaware, as at the midway point time finally runs out for the plotters and they have to take decisive action. The film clearly steps up a gear as events threaten to overwhelm the resistance and their courage and dedication to the operation is put to the test- some do better than we expect, others are found wanting, but they are only human, as opposed to the superhumans dominating our screens today.

What happens next is a brilliant exercise in edge-of-your-seat tension and a horrifying reminder of the brutality of war. The action set-pieces are easy to follow and edited very well indeed. No frenetic cuts and shakey-cam here. Its unnerving stuff.

Yeah, a great war movie. I don’t say that enough on this blog. We do need more great war movies.

 

 

Red Lights (2012)

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2016.58: Red Lights  (Amazon VOD)

Here’s a question. I’d like to think that actors are basically honest. That actors sign-on to films hoping for the best, full of confidence in the script and the director…but  do they really just sign-on for the paycheck, getting involved in a problematic film just for the money? Sod the poor saps that pay to watch the film, just take the paycheck, do the gig and run?

Red Lights is a film about lies and deception. The irony being, is the ultimate lie and deception, a sort of meta-deception if you will, the one being these actors performing in such a bad film?

Because considering the talent in front of the camera, its rather alarming that this film turns out to be such a hackneyed, poor-mans bad X-Files episode.  Paranormal investigators Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) and Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) study house-hauntings and other supposed paranormal events, debunking said hauntings and fraudulent psychics.with cynical aplomb. Unlike the X-File‘s Mulder, neither seem to be believers, neither seems to believe they might actually discover something for real. Matheson perhaps wants to believe, wants to be convinced- she is a cynic with a tragic background (her son has been on life support for years but she can’t let him go -switch off said life support- without proof it would mean him going to a better place). Even Matheson is at a loss to explain what Buckley is doing wasting his time as her assistant. You can smell some kind of twist coming a mile off.

Cue the return of infamous blind psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) once a famous celebrity back in the seventies who has re-emerged from retirement for some incredibly  lucrative shows in Buckley and Matheson’s neck of the woods (handy that). Matheson apparently failed to debunk Silver back in the day and sees Silver’s return as some kind of personal affront. Also new on the scene is Sally (Elizabeth Olsen) as a student of the two investigators (they run some kind of college course on debunking fake psychics and Sally joins in on their efforts for extra credits or something). Sally seems to act as Buckley’s love interest and the audience’s POV (she’s handily often asking the questions the audience might have) but there’s surely some other purpose to her… except maybe not.

You see, that’s the problem with this film – for a little while its almost fun, you sense all sorts of twists and elaborate stuff going on but there really isn’t. Its like you are making up this better movie in your head as you watch it, expecting it to reveal its secrets like a M. Night Shyamalan film would, but it doesn’t. Matheson dies mid-film but somehow it isn’t convincing- it feels like a hoax to put Silver at ease for a spectacular reveal towards the end but, nope, she’s really dead. Likewise as Silver seems able to second-guess what our investigators are doing and his return seems to coincide with Sally’s arrival on the scene, I was always expecting her to be unmasked as a traitor who was working on Silver’s behalf throughout. But she isn’t and she wasn’t. She’s just a love-interest. And as for Silver being maybe the Real Deal, well, De Niro doesn’t seem interested in giving the character any nuances or anything, he’s clearly a bad ‘un and De Niro treats the role like some kind of audition for a Bond villain gig.

When the eventual twist does come it feels awfully empty and leftfield. Inferior to the ones being cooked up in audience heads as they are watching the film anyway.

What I cannot figure out though- the script was clearly problematic. It desperately needed a few more drafts to iron out its problems and actually add some genuine twists/motivations/arcs. What on earth did De Niro see in the part of Silver other than a paycheck? Sigourney Weaver may not get too many decent roles these days but surely she doesn’t need the money so badly to get caught in thankless roles like that of Matheson here? I don’t know. I really don’t know. Films like this, films so absurd and broken and frankly pointless and empty, simply don’t deserve this kind of talent, such decent actors in such bad roles. What’s going on? Is it really just about the money, even for veterans like De Niro and Weaver?

 

Another Sunshine Reprise

sun1Sunshine (2007)

I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something endlessly rewatchable about Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. I must watch it once, sometimes two or more, times a year. Infact, of all the films made in the last twenty years, its one of the few that I have rewatched several times since its release, and possibly the one I have rewatched the most. It’s not a huge blockbuster, it wasn’t even particularly a success, either financially or critically, on its release, but something about the film just ‘clicks’.

Part of it might be that it’s like a Sci-Fi Greatest Hits. It takes elements of Alien, The Black Hole, Event Horizon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, amongst others. There’s all sorts of stuff in the film that can be recognised from other films, but for once it doesn’t really irritate. For one thing, it might be imitating other films but it’s doing so with a small budget and pulling it off well too. It looks fantastic on a budget of something like $30 million- compared to bigger films it looks remarkable and shows what is possible with careful planning and craftsmanship.  Really it’s astonishing how good the film looks for what it cost and it stands as some kind of testament to what can be done. Most importantly, the film has a genuine sincerity to how it borrows from the other films, a genuine care and appreciation and respect to those films. It doesn’t feel like a rip-off, or anything remotely negative.

sun2When the crew sits down around a table to eat together, of course it brings to mind the similar scenes from Alien; the set design, the banter, all of that, but you sense that Boyle is being respectful of Alien, not simply ripping it off. Its something that resonates so well from Alien that Boyle and writer Alex Garland obviously felt it was the right way to introduce the characters and the setting. Some shots even seem choreographed to echo shots from Alien– look at the scene when Cillian Murphy’s Capa fills the foreground and extreme right of the frame when he is informed its his decision regards diverting to the Icarus One: it perfectly copies an early scene in Alien with Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert filling the same part of the frame when she is told she is on the excursion team and she mutters “shit” in response, just as Capa voices his own bitterness at having to make his decision.

The characters are a big part of Sunshine. The cast is diverse and top-class, but wisely lacking huge ‘star’ names that might distract (although inevitably some of the cast are certainly ‘star’ names now from more successful ventures since). All of the cast bring their A-game and something to their characters, and the film is carefully threaded with character beats and moments that are important. Not all of them are likeable- some of them irritate but only because they seem so genuine and convincing with their flaws and mistakes. There is a sense that they have been stuck together for sixteen months and frictions are brewing as well as friendships. It always seems convincing to me, how they relate to one another and interact. It’s all very well-written, well performed and well-observed/directed.
sun3Some moments in Sunshine are extraordinary, like when the crew all gather at the viewing port to witness the transit of Mercury across the Sun. It is a beautiful and awe-inspiring spectacle, with a real sense of the wonder and majesty of space that most films would make us think mundane. But more than just the magnificent visuals and music, Boyle takes time to examine the faces of the crew so we can compare and contrast their seperate reactions to what they are watching. It informs us subtly what they are thinking, and where they are ‘at’ regards the mission, in a much more profound way than simply through dialogue and exposition. Its one of my favourite moments from any science fiction film.

Its when Sunshine slips into Event Horizon territory that most viewers seem to think it jumps the shark. I like Event Horizon, I think it’s the best Alien film that isn’t part of the official franchise (and to my mind is likely a better Alien film than Resurrection or Prometheus or even -controversial!-  Aliens). And I certainly don’t mind when things go all apeshit as the Space Madness-inflicted Pinbacker runs amok. What’s so nuts about a Captain whose mind has collapsed under the stress of his mission, in the face of sights no human has likely witnessed before? Its something that the transit of Mercury scene surely portends, in how the Icarus 2 crew react to what they see. Some are awed, some are bored.  Pinbacker saw stuff like that and saw God. His brain pulls a Hal 9000 and he kills his crew and aborts the mission thinking he’s doing The Right Thing.  Boyle and Garland are reaching to 2001 here even when they slip towards exploitation-horror territory. What does ‘Space’ really mean, or our place in this vast unthinking/unfeeling universe when you are millions of miles from home trapped in a steel can on a likely one-way mission probably destined to fail? What does that mean when that failure dooms all of humanity? You can’t wrap your head around stuff like that. It could drive you nuts and with Pinbacker it does (even the name Pinbacker nods to a character in the John Carpenter comedy Dark Star, itself an anti-2001, another example of the thought and respect running throughout Sunshine with its nods to past films).

Yes, Sunshine suddenly shifts in tone from semi-serious 2001/Alien hybrid towards a slasher flick, but you have to appreciate what Garland and Boyle are doing. They are making a science fiction film to entertain, and are no doubt enjoying taking the risk in pulling the rug from under the audience’s feet.  Its also adding dramatic conflict to the piece and ramping up the tensions regards will they/won’t they succeed in nuking the sun. It’s putting greater and greater obstacles in front of Capa and forcing sacrifices from the remainder of the Icarus 2 crew. And even though they succeed, no-one on Earth will ever know what happened or what sacrifices they had to make or tasks they endured.

You either buy it or you don’t, I guess. But I think Sunshine is a hugely satisfying and rewarding little film far superior to so many bigger-budgeted blockbusters. I wish it might have been successful enough to enable more similarly-themed, similarly-budgeted films. You don’t have to spend $200 million to make a convincing and entertaining space movie, and for all that critics moan about its last third, it still isn’t likely as daft and nonsensical as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, for instance. Sunshine is the little guy that done good.  I only wish Garland and Boyle might one day return to the genre again, and make another great little sci-fi movie together.