Free Fire (2017)

 

Released: April 21, 2017. Directed by: Ben Wheatley. Starring: Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson. Runtime: 1hr. 30 min.

I actually saw this at the Toronto International Film Festival last year (on Sept. 9, 2016), and this is a revised review I wrote in mid-September. I didn’t post this because I was a bad blogger back then but without further adieu, here it is…

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, a balls-to-the-wall 1970’s gun battle, is one hell of a ride.

The premise is simple. Brie Larson’s Justine has arranged a gun deal between Irishmen Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), and gun dealers Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Armie Hammer’s Ord. It’s set in 1970’s Boston in an abandoned warehouse and is largely in this one setting, and it’s the perfect set-up for the wild shootout.

Wheatley knows how to build tension from the word go, as the characters walk into the deserted warehouse to do the deal. Some characters don’t like each other, and after some developments, you can cut the tension with a knife.

The sound design make the initial gunshots sound like an IMAX film, almost like they’re in the same room. For the characters, chances of getting out alive decrease when all hell breaks loose and it becomes a true Mexican standoff. It’s like the atmosphere of The Nice Guys mixed with tension and dialogue that would make Quentin Tarantino proud. This does feel like parts Reservoir Dogs, too, with its limited setting and tension.

Free Fire Armie

Armie Hammer in Free Fire. (Source)

This still effortlessly manages to be fresh, and makes me want to see more of Ben Wheatley’s films (like Kill List and High-Rise). His movies all seem unique and different as he tackles many different genres. Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump (they’re also married) also edit Free Fire – editing it in such a way where you can follow its quick pace, but you’re not always able to tell where some characters are hiding in the warehouse. It might be a ploy to put the audience in the same space as the characters – not knowing who they’re shooting at or where everyone’s hiding.

The ensemble created is great and each performer brings something memorable to their characters. The costume design, wigs and different accents also set everyone apart. Sharlto Copley’s a scene-stealer as Vernon and he has some of the best moments. Everyone from Brie Larson to Cillian Murphy to Michael Smiley hold their own, delivering physically demanding performances as they crawl on the dirty warehouse floor avoiding an array of bullets.

One of the film’s most pleasant surprises is Armie Hammer. I thought he was bland in The Lone Ranger (to be fair he had little to work with), but here as the calm and collected Ord, he’s badass. He’s also funny as hell, and the range he shows feels like he should be getting more comedic roles.

The most impressive thing about Free Fire is that it’s just deliriously fun. Action comedies can be hit-and-miss especially when there’s a task of finding the right balance. But director-writer Wheatley, and Amy Jump, manage to make the action consistently fresh. The people shooting at each other doesn’t feel repetitive and there are many ways to get characters out of situations. The dialogue’s sharp, witty and hilarious, and this is just some of the best fun I’ve had at the movies in awhile.

Score: 88/100

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Maleficent (2014)

Photo source: http://www.imdb.com/media/rm2488531712/tt1587310?ref_=tt_ov_i

Maleficent (Source: IMDb)

Released: May 30, 2014. Directed by: Richard Stromberg. Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley. Runtime: 93 min.

In the fairy tale re-imagining sub-genre, this is the best addition yet, and it seems that first-time director Richard Stromberg learns from the mistakes of the the previous two films in the sub-genre.

“Oz the Great and Powerful” was too generic, and this has a great narrative. “Snow White and the Huntsman” was too morbidly dark tonally, but this is only dark when it has to be.

The story re-imagines Disney’s 1959 cartoon “Sleeping Beauty” from the perspective of the film’s titular protagonist, Maleficent; the original story’s villain. After experiencing the ugly greed of man, Maleficent seeks revenge on King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), and she takes her anger out on is his baby daughter, Aurora. Stefan learns that if you’re going to take a fairy’s wings, you should kill her instead. And not only because she could sue for airfare costs.

Aurora is cursed to enter a deep sleep on the sunset of her sixteenth birthday, and can only be awaken by true love’s kiss. The story is written intelligently by Linda Woolverton (“The Lion King” and 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland”). The film’s sweetness and sincerity is a pleasant surprise. The film’s human and raw cinematic storytelling is also impressive. One of the film’s most realistic aspects is a teaching that anger is a curved blade.

Great performances and characterization help add emotional depth. Angelina Jolie is deliciously evil as the titular Maleficent. She handles the cruel grace and pain of Maleficent so well in one of her strongest performances in recent memory. In one adorable scene, Jolie’s real-life daughter Vivienne, as Aurora (5 Years Old),  goes up to her and hugs her around the waist and pulls at the prosthetic horns. It’s impressive that Jolie doesn’t break character.

Elle Fanning also bring layers to the character of Aurora. Fanning captures the kindness of the character because her smile and gentleness is radiant. The loving curiosity of the character is also appealing. Fanning was cast for her physical likeness to Aurora and for her capacity as an actress; and the fact that she gets to sleep on the job is definitely a pro of the role. I learn cast members were also cast for their physical likeness to the original characters. Some unimpressive stars include Sharlto Copley as King Stefan; he captures the depression of the character, but he’s boring. Sam Riley as Diaval is also not compelling, but that could be because of the boring character. He’s a lot better as a crow, acting as Maleficent’s eye in the sky.

There are many strange creatures in the film, many of which reside in the Mores (which is kind-of cruel as I thought it was S’mores at first), the bordering forest Maleficent rules. The creatures range from weird swamp creatures with ant-eater like noses to something that looks like Groot of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It gets so strange, that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see those stone giants from “Noah.” Nonetheless, the visuals are great.

There are visuals reminiscent of other films, notably flying scenes (reminiscent of “Avatar”) and the visuals in a war scene that bring to mind “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Most of the time, the visual effects team make the visuals their own, except there are occasions where the visuals also look like “Oz the Great and Powerful” (mostly the colourful Mores creatures). It also seems that it is more difficult to differentiate style for director Robert Stromberg, because he is production designer on both “Avatar” and “Oz.”

Too creepy for my liking. (Source) http://www.awn.com/sites/default/files/styles/original/public/image/attached/1016753-bc1020ddlv1142.1104r-1200.jpg?itok=5g0b58kq

Too creepy for my liking. (Source

The three fairies that care for Aurora – Flittle (Lesley Manville), Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton) and Thistlewit (Juno Temple) – get sidelined in this version of the fairy tale. Even though they do have sporadic, amusing banter, the three actresses aren’t used to their potential. They’re a funny trio with strong costume design, but their pixie selves are visually strange. This is the film’s only poor visual effect.

They’re often in human form to make sure people see them as three women raising their child in a humble cottage. The set design for that is fun. The film flows improves on exhausting and overlong runtimes of “Snow White” (2hr., 7 min.) and “Oz” (2hr., 10 min.) and ensures that this film runs at a strong pace. Surely, this breezes by at one hour and 37 minutes, a perfect run-time for this well-told fairy tale.

Score: 85/100

Elysium (2013)

ElysiumReleased: August 9, 2013. Directed by: Neill Blomkamp. Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley. Runtime: 109 min.

In the prologue, it is said that the earth has been ruined by pollution, and only the wealthiest of people could escape. The rich now call Elysium their home, a place where the air is healthy and to be healed of any disease – one just has to lay in a bed, much like a bed seen in most science fiction tales. Jodie Foster portrays the Secretary of Defense in that beautiful place up in the sky.

The main protagonist of the film is Max (Matt Damon). He dreams of going to Elysium, a promise he also made to his childhood sweetheart. That is not Max’s sole motivation to go to Elysium however – after a misshap at work, he becomes desperate and must go to Elysium in order to save his life, and humanity.

Neill Blomkamp jumped on the fame radar with 2009’s Oscar-nominated (unseen by me) “District 9.” He returns with a great science fiction actioner that has a great care for his characters at play. Matt Damon portrays a desperate and likable protagonist. Jodie Foster is a memorable villain, and her motivations are real, as she would do anything to protect her children from members of Earth. She isn’t as memorable, though, as a ruthless, Aussie mercenary known simply as Kruger. (And no, he does not wear a ‘Where’s Waldo?’ Christmas sweater, like Freddy Krueger.) Sharlto Copley (“The A Team,” “District 9”) portrays the character well.

This film brings up interesting concepts of the health care system. If you have enough money to live on Elysium, you can essentially live forever, as long as you can get to the healing bed in time. I also thought of, while in this world people can be forced to do things at work, in this world we have rights and we could choose not to do certain things we aren’t comfortable with. Blomkamp’s vision of this earth set in 2154 is fascinating. It also makes this a solid commentary on class struggle. He envisions an Los Angeles that looks like a Third World country; decaying buildings, polluted streets, extreme unemployment rates. It would be interesting to see how Blomkamp sees what an already Third World country would like in 2154. I assume he leaves that up to our imaginations purposefully.

There’s something that lacks in the screenplay, but I can’t exactly put my finger on it. Actually, it might be because it is only 109 minutes, but it feels as if it’s about to pass two hours by the time it finishes. This is a well-done sci-fi about saving humanity. Blomkamp doesn’t shy away from gore, which makes the action pretty freaking awesome. It’s imaginative, violent, action-packed, and it’s one of the most beautifully shot films of 2013.

Score: 80/100