Saturday, April 08, 2017

Free Fire

Ben Wheatley's Free Fire is set in the 1970s, but the era it conjures is the 1990s. Like Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, the film is set largely within the confines of an abandoned warehouse, with a group of suspicious crooks turning on each other in the aftermath of their best laid plans going awry. The film could easily have been part of the torrent of imitators that Reservoir Dogs spawned; in fact it did bring to mind one of them, Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. “I don't fucking believe this. Could everyone stop getting shot?” Frank Harper says in the middle of that film, which sounds exactly like the kind of glib throwaway line that one of Free Fire's characters might utter. “I've forgotten whose side I'm on!” one of them wails as he limps across the screen, bullets zipping around him.

The bullets start flying after about twenty minutes and they keep going until the film's end, with only a few lulls for characters to catch their breath, check their wounds and trade quips. If this isn't your kind of thing then Free Fire might prove to be an arduous experience, so make the most of that opening sequence. Wheatley and his co-writer Amy Jump do a very efficient job of making the introductions and setting up the various loyalties and rivalries that will become muddied over the course of the movie. Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy are IRA operatives in the US to buy some machine guns, in a deal facilitated by two Americans, played by Armie Hammer and Brie Larson. The seller, a sleazy and cowardly figure in a garish Savile Row suit, is played by Sharlto Copley, who sadly doesn't catch a bullet in the head the first time he appears on screen and is therefore free to give one of those uniquely Copley-esque turns that will antagonise as many viewers as he entertains.

These actors are the central figures in the ensemble, although it's a dispute between two minor henchmen – Sam Riley and Jack Reynor – that provides the spark in this tinderbox situation. The couple of minutes surrounding this skirmish, as tensions rise and the protagonists start reaching for their firearms, are the best in the film, but when the starting pistol has fired and everyone has scrambled for cover, Free Fire settles into a mode of furious gunplay, although nobody here is a crack shot. Aside from Babou Ceesay, who immediately takes one in the head, the bullets in Free Fire tend to clip characters' shoulders (“It's okay, it's mostly the suit”) or strike them in the leg, doing enough to slow them down but still keeping them in play. There is talk of a “golden hour-and-a-half”, apparently the time it takes for somebody to die from a bullet wound (Free Fire, incidentally runs for a shade over 90 minutes), and as the film reaches its final stages the characters still alive are reduced to crawling, lethargic, dead men (and woman) walking, with barely enough strength left to lift their guns.

It should be fun to watch all of this mayhem unfold in real time, and to watch Wheatley attempt to stretch a scenario that might be a third-act climax in most movies to feature length, but it soon descends into a noisy mess that's hard to stay invested in. On a recent visit to the Curzon Soho I noticed a hand-drawn map of the warehouse on the wall as part of Free Fire's promotional materials, and I found myself longing for such a visual aid while watching the film itself and trying to make sense of its spatial incoherence. For much of Free Fire it's impossible to tell where these characters are in relation to each other and who's firing at who, and while some might suggest that this is intentional, to place us in the middle of the carnage and make us share the characters' confusion, that feels like a very weak defence. When Wheatley attempts to stage two parallel sequences in which characters attempt to get to a phone that's somewhere in the building  Copley chasing Smiley and Noah Taylor crawling after Larson  the staging and cutting makes it unreasonably hard to ascertain who exactly is where. If only the visuals could keep pace with the sound, as the way the bullets, dialogue and music have been mixed by Rob Entwistle to give us a sense of location and distance is one of Free Fire's unqualified successes.

But maybe this film was never going to work for me. I've watched all of Ben Wheatley's six feature films and found myself alternately intrigued, perplexed and irritated by them, and ultimately feeling distinctly unsatisfied as the credits have rolled. Sometimes a filmmaker just isn't on your wavelength and there's no bridging that gap, and Ben Wheatley is certainly beloved by enough film fans to suggest that the problem is more mine than his, but I still can't get on board with how shoddy much of his work is and how often it is little more than a solid premise botched in the delivery. One minor but telling detail in Free Fire has stayed with me: Armie Hammer taking a moment in the middle of a gun battle to admire his reflection in a wing mirror. It's an obvious joke, but between Hammer spotting the mirror and actually fixing his mussed hair, Wheatley inexplicably cuts to a random shot of Brie Larson, thereby destroying the rhythm of this simple gag. This throwaway moment seems to sum up my reaction to the films of Ben Wheatley: nice idea, shame about the execution.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Lost City of Z

Far from his native Brooklyn, working without his regular lead Joaquin Phoenix, and telling a true story that spans decades, continents and wars, The Lost City of Z is on the surface a dramatic departure for James Gray. But by the time this languid epic has drawn to a close, the film feels very much of a piece with the classical and romantic but clear-eyed vision we’ve seen from him in previous films – the beautiful closing shot even mirrors the end of his wonderful 2013 film The Immigrant. While the ending of The Lost City of Z is perfectly judged, the path that takes us there is more troublesome, with Gray sometimes struggling to assemble the unusual events of Percy Fawcett’s remarkable life into a narrative shape that flows satisfyingly, but the film still exerts an irresistible pull as it follows this intrepid explorer into unknown territory. As Percy’s wife reminds him, “To look for what is beautiful is its own reward.”

Percy is played by Charlie Hunnam, who initially appears awkwardly suited to the character but gradually grows into the role. Perhaps an ill-fitting quality is appropriate anyway; when we meet Fawcett he’s stationed in Ireland, a British soldier with no medals on his uniform and struggling to advance beyond his current rank. “He has been rather unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” one of his superiors snidely observes, and an opportunity to reclaim the family name tarnished by his drunkard father is presented to him when he’s tasked with mapping the uncharted Amazon and defining the borders between Brazil and Bolivia.

This task grows into a lifelong obsession when Fawcett stumbles across evidence of an ancient civilisation and dedicates himself to finding this lost city, in defiance of the British establishment that scoffs at any suggestion of these “savages” being capable of such feats. His journey brings to mind similar cinematic odysseys of the past. It’s impossible to avoid thinking about Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, for example when the explorers encounter an opera house in the heart of the jungle, while the journey downriver recalls the same director’s Aguirre or the more recent Embrace of the Serpent. Similarly, Fawcett's first encounters with the natives hints at the mutual curiosity and sense of discovery that distinguished Malick's The New World, and yet I found myself getting lost in all of these films more completely than The Lost City of Z. I can't quite put my finger on why that is, but perhaps it's that Gray doesn't seem to get lost; the film always maintains a stately, composed air that's barely troubled even by a piranha attack or an onslaught of arrows.

Still, this is an intelligent adaptation of a difficult life story. Fawcett's multiple excursions into the Amazon are streamlined down to three, and his many travelling companions composited into a few key characters. Edward Ashley and Robert Pattinson both give fine, modestly supportive performances as his loyal right-hand men, while Angus Macfadyen delivers a tremendously entertaining turn as the egocentric and cowardly biologist who scuppers Fawcett's second trip. But it is Fawcett's relationship with his own family, particularly his wife (Sienna Miller) and his son (Tom Holland) that becomes the movie's central thread. Each time he returns from his expeditions, Fawcett has missed the birth of a children or some key years of their development, and Miller in particular does well to bring warmth and shades of complexity to her intermittent appearances. These scenes tend to have an awkwardness and stiffness that stalls the proceedings, however, with the Gray struggling to create the necessary tension that Fawcett's absence causes in the family home in an organic and convincing way.

I've seen The Lost City of Z twice now and on both occasions I have been transfixed by its craft – Darius Khondji's gorgeous images; John Axelrad's ability to collapse months or years into a single David Lean-like cut – while always feeling at a slight remove from the drama; that is, until the very end. It's with Fawcett's final journey that the film transcends the basic details of its narrative and finds an emotional weight that hasn't been evident in the preceding two hours. The film suddenly takes on a mysterious, dreamlike quality, and incorporates a few judicious flashbacks that have a devastating impact. “What you seek is far greater than you ever imagined,” Fawcett is told during the film, and this proves to be the case. Perhaps the story of Percy Fawcett was ultimately too great for James Gray to successfully imagine, but the moments when it does come together certainly make the endeavour worthwhile; and as The Lost City of Z reminds us, a man's reach should exceed his grasp.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Song to Song

“There is a beauty in them that makes me ugly,” Michael Fassbender says in voiceover near the start of Terrence Malick’s Song to Song. He’s observing the relationship between the characters played by Rooney Mara and Ryan Gosling, and considering his own feelings of jealousy and his desire to intrude on that union, but I thought of this line in a different context while contemplating the reception that Malick's films have received in the past five years. No other American filmmaker in that period has given us so many original and beautiful images, has pushed against formal convention so radically, or has chased emotional epiphanies with such sincerity; and yet, with each new release the chorus of jeers and dismissals grows ever louder. The response gets uglier every time.

Song to Song is unlikely to win over any Malick sceptics, but by this point you surely know if you're into this artist's late period or you're not. Each film he makes is an evolution on the one that preceded it – a refinement of his techniques and a furthering of his experimentation – and this film now feels like it completes a powerful thematic trilogy with To the Wonder and Knight of Cups. “I was desperate to feel something real,” Mara says in voiceover, as her character Faye, an aspiring musician, wanders through decadent parties and festival throngs with her eyes downcast and earphones cutting her off from the surrounding noise – like Knight of Cups, Song to Song captures the sense of feeling completely alone in a crowd.

This yearning for a connection, for something that feels real, in a world that surrounds us with shallow, fleeting pleasures, is the main recurring motif of Malick’s recent work. Perhaps this is why the relationships in his films are so tactile; the characters embrace, tumble, run, dance, and communicate through glances and gestures more than words, telegraphing their emotional states through their physicality. Via these impressionistic encounters we can discern the outline of a series of relationship arcs, involving multiple characters who come together and drift apart in a variety of ways over the course of the film. Rooney’s Faye is in love with Gosling’s songwriter BV, but she is also involved with Fassbender’s Cook, a record company mogul, whom she initially slept with in order to aid her career.

Song to Song's central romantic triangle – later adorned by Cate Blanchett, Bérénice Marlohe, Lykke Li and, most affectingly, Natalie Portman – gives the film an emotional grounding and narrative shape that feels almost conventional, even as Malick's stylistic approach grows ever more audacious. These characters are sketched in – we often don't even hear their names. They represent notions of desire, disillusionment, ambition, greed, self-loathing, romance and loneliness, and he pushes these bodies together to see what sparks. I can't think of another current director who is so determined to eschew scripted actions and capture spontaneous moments on screen, and Song to Song feels exhilaratingly alive from scene to scene, as if Mara's early line of dialogue “We thought we could just roll and tumble, live from song to song, kiss to kiss,” should be taken as a statement of intent. The perspective shifts fluidly between characters (the voiceovers, interestingly enough, feel more introspective here), and the milieu jumps from the cacophony and vibrancy of a festival stage to the peaceful beauty of the beach; from the gleaming coldness of a high-rise apartment to the freedom of the open road.

Even more so than Malick's previous pictures, Song to Song feels restless and untethered, as if it can float off in any direction at any moment. (The film's original title was Weightless – and the characters do indeed float in zero-gravity at one point.) Emmanuel Lubezki, shooting on a variety of formats, has again delivered some of the most imaginative and adventurous cinematography you'll see anywhere, his cameras constantly attuned to the world around him, capturing it in ways that make familiar sights seem dazzlingly strange and new. Terrence Malick's films look, sound, feel and move like nobody else's, and the sensory experience of watching Song to Song is one that will stay with you for days afterwards, its images swirling in your mind, its cuts still making the heart jump.

Song to Song ends with a shot of two lovers entwined beneath a setting sun, which feels like a fitting closing image not only for this film but for this whole trilogy, which has run the gamut of emotions from the pain of a breakup in To the Wonder, to feeling rudderless and hollow in Knight of Cups, to finding second chances and – finally – reconciliation here. Taken together, these three films feel like a considerable achievement, the work of an ageing artist testing the limits of the medium, trying to find new ways to express timeless and ineffable ideas, and to simply share with us his unique vision of the world. Perhaps it's understandable that so many people find his films confusing and exasperating, but it's still worth taking a chance on Terrence Malick, because when you do connect with the singular wavelength he's operating on, there's nothing quite like it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

There's a curious mismatch between form and content in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. This is a very traditional story at heart, the kind we've seen many times before. A soldier returning home from the front struggles to reconnect with life in the place he once called home. He's hailed as a hero but plagued by nightmarish flashbacks, and he is torn between his family's desire to see him safe and the sense of duty and brotherhood that he has found in service. The themes are timeless, in other words, but the methods Ang Lee has used to tell this story are right at the cinematic cutting edge, with the images being captured in 4K and 3D at 120 frames per second, although few will ever have the chance to see it in the director's preferred format.

I saw Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk in 2D and in one of London's most compact screens, the film having been unceremoniously dumped in a handful of venues by its distributor. This outcome was perhaps inevitable following the film's dismal box office returns in other territories, but it still feels like a cruel fate for a thoughtful and touching picture that's more interesting in its own right than the focus on its technical innovation might suggest. Adapted by Jean-Christophe Castelli from Ben Fountain's novel, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk struggles to overcome a certain structural awkwardness throughout. The film unfolds over a single day, with Billy (Joe Alwyn) and his squad returning home from Iraq as heroes having shown courage under fire in a battle caught on camera. “It is sort of weird being honoured for the worst day of your life,” Billy admits, and it's only going to get weirder, as he and his fellow soldiers are due to act as the backup performers for Destiny's Child during halftime at a Texas football game.

Like the good soldiers they are, Billy's squad follow orders as they are shuffled from one part of the stadium to another – from a press conference, to a photo opportunity to a meet-and-greet – while an agent (Chris Tucker) attempts to secure a movie deal based on their exploits. (Hillary Swank's interest in the role is one of the film's best gags.) The film is at its most involving when putting us inside Billy's subjective experience. During the press conference he zones out while the soldiers deliver boilerplate answers to inane questions, and imagines more interesting responses instead; one reporter asks what they did in their downtime in Iraq, and in Billy's head they reply in unison: “Masturbate.” When he locks eyes with a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) the two young actors sell their instant infatuation effectively, making this whirlwind romance feel like a credible pull against Billy's plan to return to the frontlines. This same kind of connection is evident in his relationship with the rest of his squad; the characters frequently look directly into the camera when addressing each other, and his Sergeant “Shroom” (Vin Diesel) looks each of them in the eye and states, “I love you” before they go into battle.

These relationships provide the film with a strong emotional spine, but things are complicated by other factors that Lee doesn’t integrate quite as smoothly. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also attempts to act as a commentary on the public response to American soldiers and their valour is exploited for self-serving ends, but the characters who represent these more devious sensibilities feel cartoonish. The clumsiest scene in the film occurs when a Texan oilman played by Tim Blake Nelson is given a dressing down by Sergeant Dime (the impressive Garrett Hedlund) other supporting characters never come into focus. Steve Martin looks very uncomfortable in the role of a slimy football team owner, particularly when subjected to Lee’s ultra-close camera, and Kristen Stewart’s character feels short-changed with just a couple of scenes; she never really adds up to more than an anti-war mouthpiece. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is full of these awkward sidesteps and subplots.

It’s worth sticking with the film through its uneven patches, though, because the central journey that Billy undergoes pays off at the film’s close, and it has at least one extraordinary sequence. In the centrepiece depiction of the halftime show, the hyper-real clarity of the images bring the coalescence of this surreal, garish spectacle and Billy’s Iraq flashbacks to life with remarkable immediacy. Lee may have doomed his own film with his audacious experimentation, but this set-piece alone is almost enough to validate his high-wire risk-taking, and to make one wish that more people would have the chance to experience it as he intended.  

Sunday, March 05, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

The cleverest conceit in John Wick – 2014’s Keanu Reeves-starring surprise hit – was the secret society of assassins that the title character belonged to. Operating underground from behind the façade of an elegant hotel called The Continental, this cabal is governed by its own peculiarly genteel set of rules. For example, in John Wick: Chapter 2, we see two of them engaged in a violent struggle, which has to come to an end when they cross the threshold of The Continental, where no blood must be shed. Instead, the two bloodied and bruised men take a seat at the bar to have a drink, just like two professionals at the end of the working day, ready to resume their feud at another time. Rules are rules, and heaven help anyone who crosses the line.

Rules are very important in the world of John Wick – “Without them,” Winston (Ian McShane) suggests, echoing Miller's Crossing, “we live with animals.” – and this new film from director Chad Stahelski follows the unwritten rules of the sequel-making. John Wick 2 is bigger, longer and more ambitious than the first feature, and it digs deeper into the world that the original set up for us. Is it a better film, though? Well, yes and no.

On a level of pure craft, John Wick 2 is a cut above Stahelski's already impressive debut. (David Leitch, the co-director of the first film, is not involved here.) Each of Wick's encounters with his assailants – whether through hand-to-hand combat or gunplay – is staged and edited with exquisite clarity, precision and ingenuity, not to mention a vital sense of humour. An added hint of absurdity is introduced through Wick’s bulletproof jacket, which allows him to withstand the unceasing hail of bullets, and the dog-eat-dog battles are punctuated by neat comic touches. As Wick and rival assassin Cassian (ably played by Common) pursue each other through a subway station, they need to sneakily get silenced shots away in order to avoid alerting the surrounding commuters, and a fistfight is interrupted by the comical sight of the two men rolling painfully down some stone steps. Not for nothing is the first man we see in the film Buster Keaton.

Reeves brings the same impassive, deadpan gravitas that made this character feel like such a perfect fit for his distinctive screen presence from the moment he appeared onscreen, reminiscent of Point Blank’s Walker. It’s fun to see returning cast members such as McShane, Lance Reddick and (briefly) John Leguizamo, but aside from Common, the new villains don’t feel like worthy foes. Riccardo Scamarcio is a limp disappointment as the Mafioso who pulls Wick back out of retirement (again), while Ruby Rose’s mute sidekick is so poorly defined I still don’t know if she is supposed to be deaf or not. It’s not a great film for women generally – the only other female character has a few lines as she disrobes, and then slits her wrists – and I missed Adrianne Palicki, whose hitwoman was a highlight in the first picture. There’s an interlude on a rooftop with Laurence Fishburne and his pigeons, but that occurs around the point when the additional twenty minutes John Wick 2 has over the first film starts to feel like a drag.

John Wick 2 has extended far beyond the lean, straightforward simplicity of its precursor, to the point where it seems every face in the crowd is a potential assassin, and the film tapers off towards the end as Stahelski switches his gaze to the forthcoming third film in the series. The John Wick universe will continue to expand, but as it gets bigger I find myself missing the basic emotional stakes of the first film, with Wick determined to avenge his dead dog and retrieve his stolen car (the equivalent of Walker’s “I just want my money” in Point Blank). Few films can match John Wick 2 for spectacle (the climactic hall of mirrors shootout is gorgeously shot) or skilful execution, but it’s a film I admired without ever really connecting with, and as the series grows I hope the filmmakers don’t lose sight of what made this character so appealing in the first place. It’s worth noting that the Buster Keaton clip at the start of the film comes from his 45-minute masterpiece Sherlock, Jr. There’s a man who knew the value of economy.