Free Fire

Cast: Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley


When it comes to action films, there is often a certain detached quality that can make them somewhat unfulfilling to watch. As much as I enjoy, say, watching James Bond take on a sinister villain or a dozen henchmen, it can get a little disaffecting when Bond is able to shrug off every blow he’s dealt, every car crash he’s in and every injury he suffers from an elaborate, deadly gadget like it’s nothing. Sometimes it’s just more fun when people get hurt. Wheatley takes this to an extreme with Free Fire, a movie where the injuries suffered are altogether smaller in scale than the atypical Hollywood blockbuster (single bullet wounds, falling rocks, shards of broken glass, etc.) but are still painful enough to affect the outcome of this haphazard gunfight. Not only is it more authentic, it’s funny as well because many of these injuries like banging your fingers or falling over and spraining your leg are the kinds of things that we can relate to. To see these kinds of things happen in a setting such as this makes for a thoroughly enjoyable farce.

The film is set in 1970s Boston and starts off when Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilente) set out to meet two IRA members, Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) for a weapons deal. They meet outside a warehouse and wait there for Christine (Brie Larson), an intermediary, and Ord (Armie Hammer), a representative for the arms dealer they are all meeting. They are led inside and are introduced to Vernon (Sharlto Copley), the arms dealer, and his associates Martin (Babou Ceesday), Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor). As the weapons deal proceeds, a series of tensions, grudges and misunderstandings between the gangsters emerge and intensify until they finally erupt violently. Once the shooting begins, everyone in the room scatters and takes cover and must then work out how to escape with either the money, the weapons, or even just their lives.

In terms of plot, Free Fire is essentially a 90-minute gunfight (kind of like how Mad Max: Fury Road was essentially a two-hour car chase). The fun comes in how the gunfight unfolds and how the characters interact with one another. Wheatley has a masterful command of both the geography and the continuity with a keen, continuous awareness of where each character is and what kind of injury they’ve suffered. The whole act unfolds much like a game of chess. Whenever any of the pieces make their moves, Wheatley knows exactly what the outcome will be depending on the other pieces’ positions on the board and acts accordingly. He knows who is in whose sights, he knows which characters are incapacitated or handicapped by which injuries, and he knows where each character wants to go or who/what it is they want to reach. Throw in some external elements like the rubble or the arrival of some extra shooters to add a little chaos into the mixture and what we get is 90-minutes of wonderfully directed anarchy.

The wounds suffered here are largely minor, most of them being inflicted on such parts as the hands, ankles and ears, but are still so painful that, once each character has suffered one injury or another, the bungling shootout finds itself at a stalemate. There’s a lot of ducking and crouching involved as at least half of these characters are unable to even remain upright. The cinematography follows suit, making use of low angles and slow crawls to covey this sense of being pinned down. The film also take place in real time, or at least feels like it does, making us appreciate the agony and anxiety overcoming these goons with each and every painstaking second. The longer the impasse is drawn out, the more desperate and wrathful they become, and so the more intense the fight becomes.

Free Fire is a crazy film and so it allows its cast to have a bit of fun, dressing them up in flamboyant costumes and letting all of them, especially Copley, chew up all the scenery they like. It’s funny enough watching a whole bunch of incompetent criminals trying to kill each other, but it’s even funnier when some of them are thoroughly loathsome and unlikeable people who probably deserve to be shot. The clash in personalities is awesome and the actors are all having the time of their lives playing them. The film has drawn many comparisons to Reservoir Dogs and, like Tarantino, Wheatley has found that delicate balance where we are drawn in enough that the violence feels real but are detached enough that it we can still recognise it as movie violence. That’s why we can wince at all the bloody, fiery, head-crushing moments and yet still laugh at them. This film is neither Wheatley’s nor Jump’s most ambitious or surprising film, but it does what it does very well and makes for good watching from beginning to end.

★★★★

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Power Rangers

Cast: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Becky G, Ludi Lin, Bill Hader, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Banks

Director: Dean Israelite

Writer: John Gatins


I was a 90s kid which means that I watched my fair share of Power Rangers growing up. The shows were spectacularly corny and silly but it worked very well for what it was, a campy kids TV show. However many different versions were made, the movies and shows all followed the same tried and true formula. A baddie would release some monsters to wreak havoc, the power rangers would suit up and fight them, the baddies would intervene by making one of monsters enormous, and then the rangers would work together in their animal-robot things to take it down. It was the exact same thing episode after episode after movie after episode. But it worked. It was a formula that children could recognise and follow and the show itself was fun enough that its ceaselessly repetitive structure didn’t really matter all that much. Looking back now it’s clear to me what a stupid, lame show it really was, but back then I couldn’t have cared less.

In the idyllic town of Angel Grove, high school football star Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) gets himself into trouble for an elaborate prank gone wrong and ends up in detention. There he meets Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott), a shunned cheerleader, and Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler), an autistic nerd. The three end up at an old gold mine along with Trini (Becky), a moody loner, and Zack (Ludi Lin), a reckless maverick. After Billy breaks some rocks with his explosives, the five discover strange coloured coins and each take one. They later find that they’ve all acquired superhuman abilities overnight and return to the mine to discover the source. There they discover a spaceships inhabited by the robot Alpha 5 (Bill Hader) and the consciousness of Zordon (Bryan Cranston), a ranger from long ago. Zordon reveals that the five have been chosen to assume the roles of the Power Rangers and that they must begin training in order to defend the world against the imminent return of the dreaded Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks).

This is a film that truly exceeded my expectations. It isn’t by any means a great movie, but it is far, far better than a Power Rangers movie has any business being. All I really expected was five teenagers in coloured suits performing elaborate karate moves on weird-looking monsters. Instead I got a compelling teenage drama worthy of John Hughes with a Power Rangers episode taking up the last 30 minutes or so. The movies gives us five diverse teenagers who really do have attitude and showcases them all in believable, gripping ways. Billy’s autism and Trini’s sexual orientation don’t feel like topical traits the movie tacked on to score diversity points, they feel like genuine parts of their characters. The film actually takes time to show how much of an outsider Billy is, especially after the loss of his father who was the one person he felt he could really talk to, and how disconnected Trini feels with her clueless, conservative parents. Zack meanwhile shares a touching bond with his sick mother and is torn up by her illness while Kimberly struggles with being the subject of resentment amongst her classmates after committing an offence that’s actually pretty deserving of animosity. Jason completes the ensemble as its least interesting member, but he has his own father issues as well that leads to a couple of good moments.

As much as I enjoyed getting to know these characters and watching them bond, it did result in one rather glaring flaw. It takes forever for these characters to actually become the Power Rangers. After they meet Zordon about 30 minutes in, the five teenagers spend the subsequent hour training and learning about their abilities. In order to become the Power Rangers they must learn to morph, but the only way they can do that is by believing in themselves and discovering the power that is already within them. The climax cannot start until this happens and, when it finally does, there’s little more than twenty minutes left to go. The disconnect between the discovery of their abilities and their climatic showdown isn’t nearly as mishandled as it is in Fant4stic, but it’s still an issue. The teenage drama that takes up the first 90 minutes is good, but after a while it started to drag and I found myself looking at my watch wondering when they were finally going to master morphing and become the Power Rangers.

Once the climax does get started its about what you’d expect. The movie follows the standard Power Rangers formula to a tee in their battle against Rita as she comes to Angel Grove to find the something crystal of something power so she can something something destroy something Krispy Kreme something. Banks for her part completely commits herself to the role of the gold-obsessed alien and fully embraces the campy, ridiculous nature of this franchise. The rest, especially Cranston, play it straight for the most part but not to the point where they’re taking themselves too seriously. There’s plenty of comic relief, albeit some of it crude and predictable, and enough over-the-top action for the film to live up to the Power Rangers name. It isn’t a smart or a well-made film, but to be perfectly honest I never expected Power Rangers to be either of those things. That the film is at all thoughtful or compelling is in itself a miracle. There is an earnestness and sincerity to Power Rangers that I found rather charming. It’s a silly film but it falls on the right side of silly, offering kids some good, harmless fun with a couple of good lessons to take away and think about.

★★★

Beauty and the Beast

Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson

Director: Bill Condon

Writers: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos


Another year, another Disney remake. For the most part I’m not against the idea of updating and modernising Disney films in principle, but in practice I think the result has been mixed at best. Cinderella for example did a lot that worked better than in the original animation, but did just as much that did not. Meanwhile I felt that The Jungle Book did a lot that was different to the 1967 film, but little that I felt was better or worse. In both cases however I was open to the idea of the remake because I felt that both of the animations, while classics in their own rights, left something to be desired. In this, Beauty and the Beast is different. Beauty and the Beast, as far as I’m concerned, is as perfect as Disney gets. Not only is it a marvellous fairy tale with wonderful characters, fantastic music and beautiful animation, it’s also one of the few Disney films that actually gets better as I get older. It may be bias on my part, but I just couldn’t see what Disney hoped to accomplish by remaking this film.

In an 18th-century French provincial town lives Belle (Emma Watson), a solitary bookworm who dreams of excitement and adventure. She lives with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) and spends her days reading, thinking and rejecting the advances of the oafish Gaston (Luke Evans). When Maurice gets lost venturing through the forest, he seeks refuge in a castle where he is taken prisoner by the Beast (Dan Stevens). Belle comes to the castle in search of her father and offers herself as a prisoner in his place. The Beast, cursed by an enchantress to live as a horrific monster unless he should learn to love another and be loved in return, agrees. Also living in the castle are the Beast’s servants who, thanks to the curse, have taken the form of animate objects. These included Lumiere the candelabra (Ewan MacGregor), Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), and Mrs. Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson). With their help the Beast hopes to win Belle’s heart and break the curse.

Now, while I haven’t been a terribly big fan of the Disney remakes overall, I do appreciate how many of them have at least tried to do something different with the stories that we all know so well. This is why I found this new Beauty and the Beast to be so aggravating. This film, rather than trying something different, is almost as much of a shot-for-shot remake as Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. It’s actually a bit of a paradox really. This film is exactly like the 1991 film, and yet somehow nothing like it. It copies everything the original did but it lacks all of the magic and humanity that made the film work as well as it did. None of the movie’s events occur because they are motivated by the story or its characters, they occur because they’re following what happened in the original. The ballroom dance for example, by far the animation’s most iconic scene, is not built up to in any way. There’s no romantic dinner, no exchange of nervous glances, no playful sense of spontaneity; the film just cuts straight from the couple meeting at the staircase to them dancing in the ballroom. Why are they dancing? Because that’s what they did in the original movie.

I know that I shouldn’t be dwelling so much on how much better the 1991 classic is and comparing it with the remake, but this movie has brought it on itself. It spends so much time trying to recreate the original that I couldn’t help but be reminded of how wonderful and magical these moments felt when they took place in the animation as opposed to how empty and lifeless they felt here. When the film does vary, it’s to the story’s detriment. There are some additional scenes, such as when Gaston and Le Fou (Josh Gad) venture into the woods with Maurice to search for Belle, which only serve to pad the runtime. Occasionally there are some interesting ideas, one being the idea of Belle and the Beast bonding when they learn that both of their mothers died when they were young, but the film never goes anywhere with them. Then there are some elements like the magical teleporting book and the inclusion of a character called Agathe (Hattie Morahan) that are just plain stupid. The film’s greatest accomplishment is that it looks like Beauty and the Beast, which I think is the secret to the movie’s success. The sets, costumes and visual effects in this movie are so evocative of the original that it can sometimes be quite easy to fall for the illusion and think that you actually are watching Beauty and the Beast.

That illusion however is just as easily broken by the missteps the film takes in its direction. The casting of Emma Watson as Belle for example was a great idea on paper but not in practice. Not only is Watson a subpar singer whose voice lacks both power and expression, she’s also quite a limited actress. Her performance as Hermione worked because she was able to build that character very much in line with her own personality, but as Belle the limits of her acting ability became all too apparent. Her facial expressions rarely varied, her line deliveries lacked range and her body language felt forced. The rest of the cast meanwhile varies from bland to passable (with the exception of McGregor’s indefinable accent). Some of the CGI characters do pretty well and Gad gets an occasional laugh (despite his role as Disney’s first openly gay character being grossly overblown. I’m all for inclusivity but I’ve seen gayer characters in The Lord of the Rings!). Watson was the only one who struck me as out of her depth here.

I’d be lying if I said that I went into this movie with a completely open mind. Even putting aside my mixed on feelings on the Disney remakes I had already seen, this was a movie I already felt sceptical towards. After the trailer made it clear to me that this was very much going to be the same movie as the animation rather than a different take, I couldn’t understand why Disney would want to recreate what was already perfect (creatively I mean. The real rea$on Di$ney made thi$ film wa$ obviou$). I would have liked to be wrong. Nothing would have pleased me more than to be moved and enchanted by this film the same way I was by the original Beauty and the Beast. I wouldn’t exactly categorise this movie along with the worse of the Disney remakes. In fact, all things considered, it’s not even that bad a film. It was never as inane as Maleficent or as dire as Alice in Wonderland. On the other hand though, those two movies at least tried to take their stories into new directions. Thus, while Beauty and the Beast may not be the worst of these films, it is, for me, the most pointless.

Kong: Skull Island

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly


When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla came out, it was criticised for its slow-reveal approach with the titular monster, who only appeared on-screen for about eight minutes. While Jaws is one example of how well this approach can work when done right, Godzilla shows how tedious it can be with the absence of compelling characters or an engaging story. Kong, the second instalment of the proposed MonsterVerse franchise, takes the opposite approach. We meet the gigantic ape as soon as the characters reach Skull Island and then he remains prominent throughout as he battles monsters and whatnot. This approach will undoubtedly work for many viewers as it allows them to see plenty of exactly the thing they paid to see: epic monster-on-monster action. It didn’t work for me though. This was because the misgivings with character and story were still there. It terms of pure action alone, this movie is weird, exciting and fun. As a whole it is a messy, misguided, and often tiresome film.

It is 1973 and the war in Vietnam is virtually over for the Americans. At this time Bill Randa (John Goodman), a government agent, hires the former soldier James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to lead an expedition to Skull Island. Escorting them is a U.S. army squadron led by the ruthless Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Also accompanying them is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist and vocal peace activist. Upon arrival the troops start dropping heavy explosives to map out the island until they are interrupted by the arrival of Kong, an enormous ape, who attacks the party and scatters them all around the island. The survivors must navigate and survive the threats and creatures that inhabit the island in order to find each other and escape. Packard however has other plans for the monster that wiped out his troops.

The design and animation in this film is first-class. The monsters look like they could’ve been designed by Guillermo del Toro or Hayao Miyazaki. Kong himself is larger than life and he looks and feels as real as any of the human characters. The ground trembles with his every step, the blows he delivers to his foes leave a shattering impact and the sounds he makes teem with life. This authenticity however is only true on a visual level because, unlike the previous incarnations in the 1933 classic or in Jackson’s remake, this Kong has no personality. He isn’t keen or intelligent, he isn’t protective or vengeful, and he isn’t hard-hearted or compassionate; he’s just an exceptionally animated CGI monster there to wreak havoc or to rush in as the saviour depending on what the plot wants him to do. Even if Kong were an interesting character in his own right, he has to fight for his screen time against the half-dozen or so human characters the film saw fit to focus on. Hiddleston somehow has less of a character than Kong, Jackson is one-dimensionally crazy, and Larson’s character only exists because blonde damsels are mandatory in King Kong movies.

What really got on my nerves though was that Kong was not satisfied with being a simple King Kong movie. Even with the lack of character, I would’ve been just fine with two hours of mindless, visually stunning action (I’m only human). The truly baffling thing about this film is the statement it’s trying to make (whatever that statement may be). The movie is unreservedly intent on creating some sort of parable to the war in Vietnam, pitting its gung-ho soldiers and their advanced weaponry against a savage foe who bests them with guerrilla tactics, and clutters the movie with homages to Apocalypse Now and Platoon just in case there was any ambiguity on that front. The point however is lost on me. All I got from the movie’s ‘meaningful’ statements about the war, its superficial characterisations and its extravagant imagery complete with napalm explosions was that the film really wanted to make a Vietnam metaphor.

The total clash in tones makes Kong: Skull Island feel like several different films blended together into an indefinable mixture. There’s the monster movie that we all wanted to see but it has been mismatched with some kind of political allegory that is so blatant and unsubtle and yet so random and unfocused that I’m not sure whether ‘allegory’ is even the appropriate word. The movie somehow takes itself too seriously and yet not seriously enough. It is certainly a weird and crazy enough film that the mess will work for some viewers. At its best the action is thrilling, awe-inspiring, and epic. I however found myself so distracted by the confused, cluttered story and the soulless characters that I was never able to lose myself in the spectacle. Godzilla may have lacked character but at least it was tonally consistent enough that I never felt like the story ever derailed or lost track of itself. This movie was anarchy from beginning to end. Visually stunning anarchy, but anarchy nonetheless.

★★

Logan

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Dafne Keen

Director: James Mangold

Writers: Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green


In Jackman’s final turn as the character that made him a star, Fox has finally delivered the Wolverine movie that fans have been waiting for. It’s probably significant that this movie was made with the intention of being Jackman’s final turn as the metal-clawed mutant. After having already seen him featured in two solo films, one terrible and one boring, I can imagine the filmmakers felt some pressure to use this one final chance to get it right. There will be other Wolverine movies I’m sure, but there may never be another actor who embodies this character as perfectly as Hugh Jackman did. With Logan he is finally allowed to fully realise this character he helped bring to life in a way he never he could in any of the prior X-Men films and it was well worth the wait. What makes Logan great is not just the way it portrays this iconic character, but also how it stands within the X-Men franchise and how it comments on the superhero genre that has dominated Hollywood for well over a decade.

Set far in the future where mutants are all but extinct, Logan (Hugh Jackman) has long since abandoned his calling as Wolverine. Now working as a limo driver, his healing factor has faltered and he has now become weaker and weary with age. With the help of the mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Logan cares for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now suffering from dementia and no longer in control of his telepathic abilities. At this time Logan is approached by Gabriela Lopez (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse on the run from a secretive government organisation, who begs him to take in and protect an eleven-year-old girl called Laura (Dafne Keen). Hot on their trail is Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cybernetically-enhanced security officer charged with the girl’s retrieval. After an encounter where Logan learns that Laura possesses abilities similar to his own, they must go on the run with Xavier in search of a place called Eden.

After Deadpool proved once and for all that superhero movies could go for an R rating and still be massively successful, Logan followed suit and fully embraces the liberties that became available. In the very first scene Logan is protecting his car from a gang of thugs intent on stealing his tires and the fight that ensues is unlike anything we’ve seen from Wolverine before. Skulls and bones are being sliced, blood is splattering all over the place, and Logan swears like a sailor with every blow he’s dealt. However what makes the action feel so different from what we’re used to extends far beyond the blood and gore. Here Mangold does away with the rapidly edited, distantly shot action that the Marvel blockbusters tend to favour. Here the fighting is up close, intensely choreographed and much more raw and organic. When Logan gets hit, he feels it.

What makes Logan truly special though is not just the action, but also the characters and the story they tell. Logan is an old man now and Jackman plays him as a wearied soul, haunted by past traumas and losses and reluctant to ever fight again (not unlike Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven). He has grown disillusioned with the ideals he once believed in, especially now that the man who originally inspired him is little more than a raving loony. Professor X has gone senile and Stewart is loving every second of it as he rants and raves about the place while Logan tries to care for him. Keen is also great in her turn as Laura, a silent role that requires her to be as expressive as she can with her looks and gestures. All three play their role with such resolve, comedy, pathos and humanity that Logan reaches beyond what we’ve come to expect from the superhero genre and provides something altogether deeper and more stimulating.

Jackman was there when the cinematic superhero craze started, and now here he is 17 years later where the fatigue has set in for many audiences. Who better then to use as a model for the consideration and analysis of the genre and how it has evolved? There is a complex morality that comes with the superhero mythos, full of grey areas and contradictions, that goes largely unexplored (or perhaps underexplored) by superhero movies for the most part but which Logan fully embraces. The movie takes a fundamentally cynical view towards the superhero myth, establishing that the whole thing very much as a myth, the kind that only exists in children’s comic books or movies like Shane. Even after all the heroics he accomplished as Wolverine, Logan has gone on to lose everyone he cares about and none of the problems he solved or the people he’s saved have really mattered. Things have gone to hell and people have gotten hurt despite (and sometimes because) of what he’s done. And yet there are still some who believe in him and who believe that what he does is important and is for the better. The deconstruction of the genre is a fascinating one that at once dispels the myth of the superhero while also reaffirming it.

Between Logan and Deadpool, it looks like the game is very much changing for the superhero movie. As much as I enjoy the popcorn quality of the Marvel and DC movies, there is an undeniable fatigue that has set in. These franchises have adopted a certain business as usual sensibility that hasn’t exactly made them less enjoyable to watch (not for me anyway) but somewhat less fulfilling. It is for example difficult to feel that anything is really at stake in the Marvel and DC films when all of their actors are contracted to appear in future titles. It’s also true that these movies often spend so much time setting up future stories that you never really feel like you’re watching an actual story unfold. The superhero films are also falling victim to their conventions which, unless done very well, can feel tired and predictable (as it can with any genre). This is why movies like Logan are needed to shake up the genre, explore new directions and possibilities, and go deeper than any has gone before. What’s more, Logan is quite simply a great film with a profound story, excellent action, and a marvellous performance by Jackman.

★★★★★