Christopher Nolan’s WWII drama, Dunkirk, has finally landed on these shores. We drafted our podcast host, Steve Norman, to write a few words on this “triumph in storytelling”.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Flash back with me about 60 hours or so, fellow readers, to my press screening of Nocturnal Animals on a Friday morning. It’s a sold-out screening, completely full from front-to-back of people dying to watch Tom Ford’s new feature. Now I want you to picture, as soon as the film makes its final cut to black, the sound of the entire back section standing up, grabbing their things, and making straight for the doors. Not even before a single end title card appeared to denote the film had absolutely and officially finished were a bunch of people making a beeline for the exit. I was joining them from my slot in the middle of the third row about 10 seconds later, before you judge, and a whole bunch of us basically sprinted the length of Leicester Square to get to the Picturehouse Central, greeting a queue that had already stretched around the corner of the cinema and into the middle of the street.
We were sprinting, you see, because we were all desperately trying to make it into the queue for the press screening of the Closing Film, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire (Grade: B), before the intangible cut-off mark became apparent. It was a queue that had clearly started long before Nocturnal Animals had wrapped, made up of critics and industry professionals either shut out of or uninterested in that film, or who had decided that missing Nocturnal Animals was an understandable sacrifice given the opportunity of making it into Free Fire, but both crowds had clearly gotten there a good hour early. I got real lucky and made it to the queue well before the shut-out point, which meant that I got to see Free Fire a good 2 days before the screening I had already bought a ticket for! It also meant that I’ve been under embargo for the past 2 days, but I’m still at that stage in my critical career where embargos fill me with a kind of geeky excitement so that’s all good.
Anyways, Free Fire is Ben Wheatley’s attempt at lean, mean, semi-mainstream genre fare and comes to you with an incredibly simple premise. Set entirely in an abandoned warehouse somewhere in America in the 1970s, a group of IRA members led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are trying to buy some guns from South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley), the deal being facilitated by Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer). But what should be a very simple transaction keeps turning ever more complicated and sour the longer it drags on – the guns aren’t what Chris ordered, Vernon is secretly withholding the ammo from the order, nobody trusts each other, and everybody on both sides is a complete goddamn idiot. When it turns out that one of Chris and Frank’s group (Sam Riley) got into an altercation the night before with one of Vernon’s men (Jack Reynor) over something unconscionable, things turn heated very quickly, and then somebody pulls a gun…
In essence, Free Fire is one of those finger-gun battles you used to play as kids given the big screen treatment, with elements of Sam Peckinpah thrown in for good measure. That giant kind of free-for-all where everybody’s wildly shooting at everybody else, where every bullet doesn’t kill you cos it totally just hit your shoulder pads rather than any vital part of your body, where everybody has unlimited amounts of ammo for unexplained reasons, and where things eventually just devolve into a lot of people crawling around pathetically in a desperate attempt to finish off everyone else for reasons that are lost even on themselves. It purposefully aims lower than any of Wheatley’s other films so far, clearly being positioned as a more mainstream calling card and the kind of genre fare that gets placed in various Midnight Movie programmes for many years down the line, which is why it is inarguably his weakest. It’s a giant empty stylistic exercise, at a stretch you could read the film as being a commentary on rampant unchecked masculinity, but the film also relies on that very thing for its premise and action.
No, Free Fire deliberately aims rather low. That said, I don’t consider that a particularly bad thing. If the film were any less than the massive amount of fun that it is, then I would consider it a bad thing, but I do love me an exquisitely-made and very fun genre piece. In fact, Free Fire is near-flawless in what it sets out to be. The idea of an hour-long gun fight can sound tiring on paper, but Wheatley and his partner-in-crime Amy Jump break that macro concept down into more micro elements, feuds, and tasks in order to keep that pace up – going from that initial exchange, to having to deal with a pair of gate-crashing snipers, to re-igniting the initial feud, to trying to figure out a way to diffuse the situation, and so on. As a result, the film is impeccably paced, its first half-hour very slowly turning up the pressure, exploding all at once when things go to Hell, and then having contained peaks and valleys despite not too much changing in the grand scheme of things.
Wheatley and Jump wring every last drop they can out of their premise – whilst that 70s setting pulls double duty in explaining why nobody can call for back-up, and allowing the pair to indulge themselves in some truly criminal facial hair and snappy suits from the era – and they manage to stage and edit the firefight with surprising coherency. Logistically, this must have been a nightmare to organise and edit, but it’s almost always clear where everyone is in relation to everyone else and who is shooting at whom, with the few instances where it’s not creating the intentional effect of disorienting the viewer in the same way that the cast are disorientated. The script does a very good job at crafting a varied cast of characters when it could have been very easy for each of them to become interchangeable and samey, and it’s often very funny, albeit not as funny on paper as it often thinks it’s being.
That’s where the cast comes in. Stacked from top-to-bottom with a mixture of big names and talented character actors, they’re more than up to the task of picking up the slack when the script occasionally lets them down and turning quips that otherwise wouldn’t be that funny into howlers, as well as finding a hundred different ways of yelling out the f-word. They’re all clearly having the absolute time of their lives playing thoroughly awful people and staging an over-the-top gunfight, and that enthusiasm is properly infectious. Brie Larson gets to remind you that she’s capable of some of the best eye-rolls in the business, Jack Reynor continues his recent redemption streak for Transformers: Age of Extinction, Armie Hammer is delightfully smug, Sam Riley is often a goddamn riot, Sharlto Copley finds the sweet-spot between “hammy” and “irritating” that he doesn’t always nail, Michael Smiley is a load of fun, and Cillian Murphy gets to bust out his natural Irish brogue for once and it’s still as dreamy a voice as ever.
Like I said, Free Fire is almost likely going to be a minor footnote in Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s respective careers once they both finally wrap up and get those giant deserving retrospectives, but that’s by design. Free Fire isn’t trying to go down as a classic, it isn’t trying to blow minds, and it isn’t trying to say anything at all. It’s a 90 minute style exercise, an attempt by the pair to make a slice of lean, mean genre fare. And I can’t really knock them too hard for it, not when Free Fire is this near-flawlessly constructed, and not when I had this much fun the two times I saw it. I’m cooler on it after my viewing of it on Closing Night than I was after the press screening, but I still really enjoyed it, as did the rest of both of the capacity screenings I was in, and that’s really all you can ask for out of genre fare.
Sticking with Wheatley-affiliated works, because I did in fact watch other films today, Gareth Tunley’s directorial debut The Ghoul (Grade: C+) is a really hard one to talk about. I would tell you the premise, except that the premise is not the premise at all, as revealed about 20 minutes in to this 81 minute film, and it’s the kind of reveal that’s necessary to experience fresh in order to get the most out of the film. In as vague terms as I can put it, The Ghoul is a psychological thriller about depression, daydreams and imaginations, and psychotherapy, that manages to create the impression of the film withholding its ultimate explanation for a reason rather than because the film itself doesn’t even know what it’s doing. At its best moments, it creates this unsettling bad dream atmosphere; the kind where it feels real but keeps jutting around, and where you feel like something’s wrong but aren’t sure why until it’s far too late. Like I said, it’s hard to properly talk about The Ghoul, which is why this review’s so short, but it is a solid first effort. It’s messy, a bit too self-serious, and a little over-ambitious given its no-budget, but that atmosphere and a very well-handled lead performance by Tom Meeten pulls it through. Worth a look, overall.
Since I didn’t get an approved ticket for Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, the kick-off film to my final day at the festival was the Chinese-funded, American-made, Western-aimed kids animation Rock Dog (Grade: C) in 3D (which added absolutely nothing to the film beyond mild dizziness as usual). Set in an all-animal world – which is distressingly becoming the default setting for most animated films once more – the film follows Bodi (Luke Wilson), a dog and the son of Snow Mountain’s chief protector, Khampa (J. K. Simmons). Snow Mountain is entirely populated, apart from Bodi and Khampa, by sheep and, once upon a time, they were terrorised by evil wolves, until Khampa used mystical martial arts to repel the village of them. Bodi is being groomed to take over as protector of the village, but he’d rather become a musician and, after a radio falls from the sky and exposes Bodi to rock music, he becomes inspired to pick up sticks and move to the city to become a rock star.
If you pulled out your Generic Kids Animation Bingo Card halfway through reading the description and got almost a full-house by the end, you’re pretty justified in doing so. Rock Dog is absolutely generic interchangeable animated kids fare, almost exactly the same as any other foreign kids animation that’s given a haphazard English dub and punted into UK cinemas in the hopes of a quick easy buck. There’s the usual “be true to yourself and everything will work out” moral, an excessively naïve and optimistic lead character, a soundtrack filled with incredibly on-the-nose needle-drops, far too many characters that distract from the main tale and lead to the film being far too busy, wacky physical comedy and screaming for the kids and almost-swearing gags for the adults, way too much plot that just needlessly keeps the film in first gear… If you can think of a cliché, it’s almost definitely here.
That said, it’s not as numbingly dull as most other generic and effortless animated kids fare. The art style may be poor – although it does feature the interesting design choice of having Bodi’s village represent Eastern, and particularly Tibetan, aesthetics whilst the city more represents Western aesthetics – but the character animation itself is halfway decent, going for the kind of 3D squash-and-stretch that Genndy Tartakovsky and the Hotel Transylvania crew have been trying to accurately transfer over the CG medium. The film also does pick up some steam once Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard) enters the scene, being a delightfully self-centred and cantankerous rock star parody that’s so over-the-top, and so well-performed by Izzard, that he actually pulls out laughs on a regular basis that are otherwise lacking in this film. Look, you probably already gathered that Rock Dog wasn’t going to be worth much once you realised that they likely expanded all of their creativity and effort on the title (reverse the Dog part) and those are low expectations the film mostly fulfils. It’s not bad or offensively lazy, it’s actually quite watchable, but there’s also not much to recommend here either. It’s ok.
Although it does now hold the title of being the weirdest place that I’ve heard Radiohead’s “No Surprises” crop up in. So, that’s something, I guess.
Day 13: I reflect on the madness of the last 12 days and provide my list of the 10 best films of the festival.
“The tragedy of the Essex is the story of men. And a Demon.”
It’s been a long year; a year that seems to have been filled with more guff films than decent ones. Of course, you may disagree; you may not enjoy the same things I do and I may think what you like is complete toilet. The subjective nature of films aside, I think In the Heart of the Sea may be the film that finally killed my 2015. And I was hoping to end it on a high note, too.
Inspired by the true story that inspired Moby Dick – we’ll get to THAT in a bit – In the Heart of the Sea sees Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), an author looking for inspiration for his next book, tracking down and persuading Brendon Gleeson’s Thomas Nickerson; a deckhand and last surviving member of the crew of the doomed whaling ship, The Essex; to tell the story of the ship, its crew and their encounters with the demon that tried to send them all to the bottom of the ocean.
Spinning Melville (and us) a yarn about his time as a teenager upon the Essex at the height of the lucrative whale oil trade of the early 1800’s, Thomas tells us the tale of a ship, captained by George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) a man who shouldn’t be captain and has instead been born into the position; with a first mate (Chris Hemsworth) who really should have got the job but has been nudged back because his surname isn’t Pollard. This man, Owen Chase, is the perfect man to run a ship like this, on a mission like this, but has instead been shunned because of his lineage and now we have a ship with the two people in charge already at odds with each other. This doesn’t bode well for our crew that includes the adolescent Nickerson (Tom Holland) and a sailor trying desperately to stay sober (Cillian Murphy).
As the weeks go on and the whale sightings dwindle, the crew catch word of a part of the ocean far from any known fishing area where the sea is brimming with the giant mammals to hunt. With promises of enough oil to fill their hold twice over, the crew set to these uncharted waters with hopes of a fortune ahead. The problem is, almost as quickly as they find what they are looking for, something finds them; a monstrous whale that dwarfed all those around it takes umbrage at the sailors’ presence there and proceeds to obliterate the whaling boats, the sailors, and eventually the Essex using nothing but its size and strength. The whale – let’s call him Moby – then taunts the survivors for an hour and a half as they Jerry-rig a life raft and try to float home via desert islands, cannibalism and intense beard growth.
In the Heart of the Sea may be the most disappointing Ron Howard film that I’ve seen to date. It acts as if it has something to say but doesn’t even come close to telling me anything of note. The film is about as plain, and by the numbers, as it could possibly be, substituting characterisation for celebrity – hoping that casting Thor will be enough to carry the film – and storytelling for nice special effects. Sadly, neither do their required job and about the only thing I got from my trip to the flicks to see this was a comfy seat for two hours and an excuse to eat popcorn. In truth, the only reason I stayed until the end of the film was the fact that I had already bought my popcorn and didn’t want to leave it, or my Starbucks, behind.
Make no mistake, it’s a very pretty film. The CGI looks great, the boat and its movement on the water look amazing and I’d even go so far to say that a lot of the scenes, especially the underwater ones, look spectacular in 3D. But this doesn’t save the film from being a dull, lifeless two hours where the only thing it serves to tell us is that both Chris Hemsworth and Brendon Gleeson can’t do a Boston accent very well and that humongous fish are not to be trifled with when all you have is a rowing boat and a large cocktail stick to stab it with! Much has been told of Hemsworth’s transition from muscle man to starving survivor. Unfortunately, I have seen Christian Bale do it three times now and I find myself unimpressed when you put yourself through that for a lacklustre film.
Finally, I promised I’d bring this up, but I am really getting a little sick of this “inspired by true events” shit. Every other film is “inspired” by some true story or another and In the Heart of the Sea is the most heinous of these films. The trailer tells us “inspired by the true story, that inspired the legend, Moby Dick”. Forgetting for a second that a trailer filled with huge fuck-off whales knocking seven shades of shit out of boats didn’t need to tell me it was Moby Dick; but this whole “Inspired by…” shit just screams “I wanted to tell this story, but couldn’t make it interesting enough without changing it”. But to do that to Moby Dick? That, Mr Howard, is arrogance of the highest order and is absolutely inexcusable from a veteran director. Shame on you.