Film Review: Free Fire

Free Fire

After the disappointing High-Rise, Ben Wheatley impresses with Free Fire. The film is contagiously fun.

In Boston in the late 1970s, Justine brokers an arms deal between two gangs. The deal is set to take place in an abandoned warehouse. What should be a simple transaction turns into something else entirely…

Writer-director Ben Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump have created a very entertaining film with Free Fire. The pair keep things simple with the set up. The premise is basic, functioning to get the characters into a controlled environment. Very little of the action takes place outside of this setting.

With a simple premise and an almost one-room setting, the emphasis of the film has to be on the script and the characters. Wheatley riffs off the 1970s gangster films with Free Fire. The film has the style of gangster films of this era, and functions as something of a homage to the genre. Characters are quickly established, and the protagonists are given enough depth to engage viewers. The script, meanwhile, is frequently funny throughout the duration. The humour mixes character-driven jokes and wit with slapstick incidents. As is Wheatley’s way, humour is mixed with goriness for some black comic laughs.

Aerial shots early on in the film work well to establish the setting. At later stages, however, the camera work is sometimes too dizzying to figure out what is going on. One song in particular is used to great effect. Sharlto Copley is wonderfully humorous as Vern. He is the stand out character in the film. Elsewhere, Armie Hammer shows his comedy chops, and Cillian Murphy instils some much needed dryness. Sam Riley and Bree Larson are also decent.

Free Fire is a gangster comedy which does the job of entertaining its audience throughout. A very enjoyable film.

Free Fire is being screened at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2016.

Film Review: Maleficent

MALEFICENT

Disney’s Maleficent is a rich fairy tale which should prove beguiling to viewers.

A young fairy grows up in a peaceful forest which neighbours a human kingdom. As Maleficent grows up, a betrayal sets in motion a series of events which has consequences for both worlds…

Robert Stromberg’s directorial debut is an aural and visual fantasy feast. The director’s visual effects background is clear from the outset. Notwithstanding, the story is also strong; functioning as a compelling retelling of a well-known tale.

Screenwriter Linda Woolverton’s narrative works to both provide back story to the Sleeping Beauty tale, and to subvert it to make its antagonist more rounded. More than a one-sided villain, Maleficent is given shades to make her character more compelling in this version. Perhaps it says something that she is most enthralling when she is bad, nevertheless the portrayal is satisfying overall.

The influence of recent Disney films is present in Maleficent. This is by no means a bad thing; but simply means that the film may have a twist that some viewers will predict. Nevertheless, the depiction here is a healthy one, that few will find fault with.

Like Woolverton’s work in Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent is a darker fairy tale that still remains accessible for family audiences. The small elements of humour work well to bring lightness. The film would be less family friendly without these moments.

The art direction and costuming plays a substantial role in Maleficent. The effects are also superb, and the cinematography makes the most of its striking subjects. There is some marvellous silhouetting, and camera work in transporting viewers through the fantasy landscape.

Angelina Jolie shines as the title character. She brings a suitable campness to the role of Maleficent. Elle Fanning is well cast as Aurora, and Sharlto Copley is on good form as Stefan.

Maleficent is a highly entertaining fantasy, combining traditions of classical Disney with that of the emerging direction of the studio.

Film Review: Elysium

Elysium

Science-fiction blockbuster Elysium ticks the boxes in terms of action and special effects. The only real negative is that the film feels a bit hollow.

In the late 21st century, the world has become overpopulated and the wealthy have fled to Elysium, an artificial environment built close to Earth. As a boy, Max dreams of living there, but it is only as an adult that his need becomes more urgent…

Elysium is standard blockbuster fare in that it offer a world-changing narrative through the microcosm of an everyman protagonist. Max is the unlikely hero with a momentous destiny. Elysium plots this protagonist against the might of the corporate overlord in a David versus Goliath style battle.

The dystopian world depicted in Elysium is one that will be familiar to sci-fi film fans. There is nothing wrong with this, merely that that film offers a recognisable dystopia. There are a number of elements which appear to have been influenced by sci-fi films from the last thirty years or so.

Although the setting is markedly different, Elysium evokes the same themes as Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut District 9. Both films depict apartheid, and the stigmatisation of otherness. With Elysium, this is much more of a divide of class lines, rather than race. The film is very much a commentary on inequality and the distribution of wealth.

Whilst the film ticks along as it should, and there are some great action sequences, there is an inescapable feeling of hollowness. There are points at which tension is successfully generated. However, the main characters feel a bit too bland for the audience to fully engage with them. The inclusion of a child (although it makes sense in the overall narrative) feels like a ploy to pull at the heart strings.

Special effects in Elysium are faultless. Performances are also good, with Matt Damon ever the competent action hero. Sharlto Copley is great fun whenever he is on screen, and Jodie Foster is well cast.

Perhaps it is simply the dashed hope that Blomkamp would do something smarter than this, which makes the film a little disappointing. Elysium is proficient and entertaining, but there is a lingering feeling that the film could have gone beyond this.

Film Review: The A-Team

The A-Team is an action blockbuster that entertains, for the most part. If you are expecting a movie that engages your brain, or one that will rival your fond memories of the television show, disappointment will surely ensue.

An elite army team are accused of a crime they did not commit. In order to clear their names, the four men must find the real perpetrators of the crime, whilst evading the unit sent to bring them back to jail…

Based on the popular television show of the 1980s, the film provides the well-known characters with an origin story of how the team first came together. It is updated to the modern day, with the Iraq conflict as a backdrop to unfolding events. The story is unapologetic in its straight-forwardness – do not expect character development or any attempt at emotion to get in the way of the big action set-pieces.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of The A-Team is the decision to include a love interest for the character Face. Charissa, played by Jessica Biel, is in charge of the unit sent to recapture the A-Team. She is also a former girlfriend of Face, played by Bradley Cooper. Given the testosterone-fueled nature of the film and the television show, her inclusion rings hollow. In an attempt, it seems, to attract a female audience, the filmmakers try to generate interest in this angle of the narrative. There is, however, a lack of authenticity to this love story; the film would have benefited to omit this element.

Performances are adequate in The A-Team. Cooper is charming, and Sharlto Copley does well as Murdock. Whilst the four display a sense of camaraderie, this does not match excitement generated by the original A-Team. This is particularly pertinent when both Liam Neeson (Hannibal) and Quinton Jackson (B.A. Baracus) voice the famous catchphrases. In this way, the film screams ‘inferior imitation’ rather than ‘loving homage’.

The action sequences are frequent, outlandish and entertaining. So much so that director Joe Carnahan should have dispensed with the half-baked attempts to add depth (the identity crisis of B.A., for example), and aimed squarely at those who like their plots simple and their explosions big. On the upside, children of the 1980s will want to revisit the series to be reminded of how it should be done.