Review: Wonder Woman

Without doubt the best DC universe movie (not a difficult achievement!), and definitely one of the better recent comic-book films, Wonder Woman blazes one hell of a trail for female superheroes, movies and directors.

Diana (Gal Gadot) is one of the Amazons, an ancient race of warrior women created by Zeus to defend humanity. However, her mother Hippolytia (Connie Nielsen) has withdrawn them from the world on the mystical island of Themyscira, much to the consternation of militaristic sister Antiope (Robin Wright). Everything changes when WW1 spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) somehow crash-lands, and Diana feels a compulsion to intervene against the heinous work of German commander Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and mad chemist ‘Dr Poison’ (Elena Anaya).

Director Patty Jenkins (originally set to direct Thor: The Dark World, and dodged a bullet) is both the first female director in this latest phase of comic-book movies, and the director of the first female-led superhero movie in a proper franchise (Elektra doesn’t count). She crafts a thrilling, thoughtful and stylish movie that most evokes Captain America: The First Avenger – it’s well set in WW1 this time, perfectly judges the insanity, despair and also hope of the war, and gifts us another likeable, iconic hero standing up for what’s right.

Diana’s child-like naivety about people being good is brought into sharp focus as she adjusts to WW1 Europe and the fraught world she’s sworn to protect, while Steve’s flawed decency and that of his rough-and-ready comrades brings home to her that everyone has heroic potential. This is a story and a movie that foregrounds the superhero’s super perspectives on right and wrong above her ability to bound great distances and block bullets with her gauntlets.

From the fantastical yet grounded Themyscira through to gloomy, muddy and smoky Europe, it looks excellent, though some naff CGI is crowbarred in at the end for a less unusual and more stereotypical super-finale. At times, Matthew Henson’s cinematography appears too similar to the metallic gloom and murk of Batman v Superman, though that film’s director Zack Snyder’s typical speed-ramping of the action actually works better here – perhaps because we can actually see what’s going on in the well-shot set-pieces, thanks to editor Martin Walsh.

The majority of that action is great – from formidable Amazon warriors effortlessly evoking John Wick with crossbows, through to Wonder Woman utterly destroying swathes of German soldiers. Perhaps the most interesting thing is how evocative a lot of the action scenes are – there’s definitely no doubting the main set piece, Diana’s fury at the injustice all around spilling out in a one-woman charge on the German lines. Much like Captain America and even Inglourious Basterds, the scene balances out historical wish fulfilment with that sense of cinematic righteousness (it is even addressed later in the larger context of struggling to keep hope, as a reminder of the hell of war).

The soundtrack from Rupert Gregson-Williams is predictably bombastic and carries the action along too, while the character’s central theme from Batman V Superman surges in every so often to give it all an extra kick. If I had a plot complaint, it would be that the main villain (and their dastardly reveal towards the end in a twist) is fairly uninteresting just because the human bastards are worse.

Unfortunately, when you have a superpowered heroine, you need a capable adversary, and this is where the film trips up a little. However, for a hero “origin”, the rest is pretty excellently done. The well-judged comedy on show reminded me a lot of Superman, Diana’s fish-out-of-water antics funny while reminding the viewer of how bizarre gender politics have (and continue) to be, at the same time.

Gal Gadot melds together a performance from Chris Evans’ Captain America and Christopher Reeve’s Superman comprising naivety and positivity, but adding a ferocity against what she perceives as injustice. The Israeli actress was the very best thing about a very terrible BvS, and here she does it again, bringing some heart and humour to a dour film universe in much need of it.

Chris Pine’s co-star role feels groundbreaking, bizarrely and simply because he’s playing second-fiddle and the one who “needs protecting” – the man is the damsel! He’s great though because he utilises his trademark charm and comedic ability, but also his rarely seen acting range (see Hell or High Water), as Trevor strains to explain to a more and more crestfallen Diana that it’s not all as simple or as polarised as she thinks.

Of the rest of the cast, Nielsen and Wright’s royal sisters offer an impressive blend of protective parent and stern mentor that are feminine inversions of stock male archetypes, and in all honesty the partitioned world of Themyscira and their performances could have been given more time to develop. In our world, Huston chews the scenery as sadistic bastard Ludendorff, supported by the largely wasted and enigmatic Anaya, whose role of mad doctor is again an interesting inversion of the standard male stereotype (particularly her story’s conclusion).

The best of the rest include Lucy Davis’ put-upon, ever-cheery secretary – who provides a lot of the clash of culture laughs (but again doesn’t appear that much), while Ewen Bremner, Said Taghmaoui and Eugene Brave Rock embellish stock rogueish war characters with a smidgen more humanity than such roles are usually allowed. Finally, Thewlis pops up with an intriguing performance that reminded me a lot of his great work as Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter series, the actor’s many abilities on show (though to say more would be to spoil the film).

So with the exception of the rote conclusion (which does however, like Captain America, have elements of maturity and introspection that are surprising), Wonder Woman is excellent. It’s about time that the superhero renaissance gave a heroine the chance to shine, and with a female director finally given a blockbuster chance (this is the first female-directed film I’ve reviewed here), I hope it opens eyes and proverbial floodgates.

Review: Baywatch

Baywatch was a surprisingly good comedy that could definitely have been better, but just about does the job lovingly mocking the original show.

Mitch Buchanan (Dwayne Johnson) heads up a team of lifeguards in Florida, solving crimes, running in slow-mo and saving drowning people. His comfortable existence is shaken up by the enforced arrival of Matt Brody (Efron), a washed-up Olympian. The two must learn to work together against a mysterious conspiracy on the beach centred around hotelier Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra).

If you ever watched the original show, you’ll know it took itself hilariously seriously, and the movie is often willing to tear apart the stupid premise. The screenplay by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift hits 21 Jump Street peaks at times, especially when Brody’s character questions how the lifeguards think they can go around solving crimes, or the show’s women running in slow-mo (mostly mocked by the female characters too).

However, a far-ranging corruption plot feels a bit odd, and I guess my problem was: where does it draw the line between a show pisstake and a 21 Jump Street clone? Unfortunately, the answer is it doesn’t commit entirely to either. While some characters are more self-aware and comedic, others (including Johnson’s Buchanan) are an odd combination of the two. This makes for some odd scenes, where we laugh at him ribbing Brody or his ridiculous physique, but are then supposed to take his stance on ‘beach crime’ as a more serious plot point.

Honestly, the whole film would have been a scream if the writers and director Seth Gordon had decided it should be more one way or the other. Instead, the tone is a little misjudged, particularly towards the end. None of that is to detract too much from the humour, which while sometimes is obviously aimed at teenage boys, is also often pretty good (Buchanan’s inventive and continuous nicknames for Brody based on ’80s and ’90s boybands, or the baywatch administrator’s hilariously creepy obsession with Brody’s athletic prowess).

The plot’s simple and inoffensive, though one missed opportunity was the main female villain, pretty standard fare for these types of films, and someone that could have been more interesting. This is also the standard redemption story (times two), somewhat layered beneath a suncream-like veneer of muscles, sun and dick jokes. On the action front, it’s mostly average, with some naff CGI not helping, and perhaps a little more physical comedy would have been welcome, as Johnson and Efron prove pretty adept at sending their famously muscly physiques up.

There’s little to no point discussing acting ability – it’s more interesting to highlight just how good Johnson and Efron are at comedy and taking the mick out of their personas. I was particularly impressed with Efron, who carries on from sending himself up in Bad Neighbours and who ably copes with the charisma machine that is ‘The Rock’. He can honestly do no wrong, though as I said above the character could have been more funny and less serious at times.

The female characters are a mixed bunch – Alexandra Daddario’s Summer is the most self-aware, poking holes in Brody’s machismo whenever possible and definitely a more normal woman than model Kelly Rohrbach’s CJ, who largely serves as the lesser-dressed attractive foil to the idiotic comic relief character Ronnie. However, while played awkwardly by Jon Bass, he does seize the odd chance to stand out from the stereotype.

Chopra’s villain is (as said above) fairly one-note and a bit of a waste, while Ilfenesh Hadera bizarrely closes out the crew as the seen but barely defined Stephanie. Making her Johnson’s foil might have been a good plan, but instead she meanders in and out with no further development. Finally, there are cameos from the two most famous TV show actors, one more substantial and entertaining than the other.

I liked Baywatch and I laughed throughout – there weren’t really any hysterical bits, but it’s funny enough! I wish it had committed to really mocking the show, as it seems stuck between reverence and poking fun. It’s definitely nowhere near as bad as most reviews will suggest though.

Review: Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant is a return to form for the franchise, offering satisfaction to Alien and Prometheus fans and anchored by the great Michael Fassbender, though it became a little too predictable, losing momentum and tension.

10 years after the events of Prometheus, the Covenant spaceship is travelling with colonists to a new planet and a new life. After progress is interrupted abruptly, the crew including Daniels (Katherine Waterston), android Walter (Fassbender) Oram (Billy Crudup) and Tennessee (Danny McBride) discover a nearer, perfect planet, and decide to investigate despite Daniels’ trepidation. You can more or less guess what happens next…

With Alien, Blade Runner and The Martian most recently, Ridley Scott is one of the best science-fiction directors of all time. The 78-year-old is a near guarantee of quality, and having begun the Alien franchise, he knits together that and the fledgling Prometheus storyline alongside a clever script from John Logan and Dante Harper. What works so well is the early, slow build-up of tension and foreboding – much like Alien and Prometheus – followed by a promising leap into horror and terror, both fittingly macabre and bloody (just how this gore fan likes it)!

The interesting moral and metaphysical questions posed by the Prometheus storyline in turn give this movie an extra degree of intellectual perspective that was quite surprising, some talky scenes during the middle part feeling more akin to Ex Machina than an Alien movie. The increasing doom meanwhile is supported by clear and skillful editing from Pietro Scalla and Jed Kurzel’s interesting score, which seamlessly wraps in Jerry Goldsmith’s original Alien themes (though some of the themes, particularly in set pieces, were very reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed).

Scott is also a master at framing scenes and utilising both dingy, futuristic sets and stunning locations, embossed by the glossy and textured cinematography of Dariusz Wolski. The effects on show in space are – as usual for Scott – spectacular, and the creation of the planet is also excellently balanced between unintrusive effects and natural landscapes for a tangible environment. The two monsters on show include the original xenomorph, which at times feels a bit too unreal (thanks CGI), but the bizarre and nightmarish ‘neomorph’ offers a sickly and quite disturbing alternative that feels better than the older alien.

However, the aforementioned tension and dread dissipates after a given point, and the movie becomes a bit too “action-filmy CGI” in the latter stages, which was a disappointment. The script and plot in the early stages flows very well, but as the movie moves onward (and particularly in its last act), everything rushes and unfortunately becomes predictable. In a way, it’s fitting this follows Prometheus, one of the major examples of a movie that fell apart in the second half.

I enjoyed both, but that doesn’t mean that the plot holes and glaring issues don’t annoy me. Here, you can see what’s going to happen from miles away, though a last-act twist was notable for being one I was never sure was going to be true until it was revealed. I was impressed with that, and the film’s conclusion – it’s just a shame that a positive start crumples and takes this from excellent to good.

When it comes to the cast, one name is head and shoulders above the rest – Michael Fassbender. His dual role as androids Walter and David (from Prometheus) elevate him above it all, with the two performances complex – Walter is cold, methodical and dispassionate, but with a slowly melting heart (Pinocchio-like and a clear precursor to Aliens‘ Bishop), while David is impulsive, megalomaniacal and foppish alongside being a devious bastard.

Fassbender (thanks to camera trickery) plays against himself in some of the best and eeriest scenes, the androids’ very different drives and ambitions laid bare alongside some Fassbender-on-Fassbender homoeroticism that entertainingly vents the tension. David is the most fascinating (you could almost argue he is as integral to this series as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley was to the Alien films), and it rarely crosses your mind that you’re watching the same actor twice, the performances are so different. The actor is also adept at that eerie stillness of poise and body, expertly providing further depth to the androids’ characterisations.

Katherine Waterston is fairly disappointing as Daniels (her first name, ridiculously), in all senses a Ripley cipher down to the clothes and being the lone voice of caution. She’s not given enough to do that sets her apart, though her emotional state influenced by events gives Waterston a chance to shade in some depth early on. I just felt like she was in the shadow of the Fassbender performances and the spectacle of Danny McBride (more on him later).

Billy Crudup plays man of faith Oram fairly well, as someone thrust into a position of responsibility and filled with doubt about his choices. However, he bears the brunt of the script’s inanity in the second half, consistently the fall guy for idiotic choices that make you groan. A large, poorly-defined cast have interesting connections hinted at then ignored in lieu of rushing to the violence, with the issue probably that the crew is too big and features few known faces.

Danny McBride is perhaps the most curious member of the cast as pilot Tennessee, the comedic actor reining in his braggart, egotistical stereotype and actually fitting into the mythos’ “space trucker” persona perfectly. He also gets a few chances to add some colour and humour to the proceedings in true McBride fashion, and to be honest is the second best actor on show. Who would have thought he’d seamlessly make an impression in an Alien film?

In essence, if you’re a fan of the Alien films and Prometheus, this is definitely worth seeing, as any Ridley Scott sci-fi movie is a must-see. It looks great, largely feels original and starts by sustaining tension very well, but it’s let down by the plot’s inanity. However, Fassbender and some good old Alien sci-fi horror make it a recommended watch.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Following up Guardians of the Galaxy was always going to be a challenge, and the strange thing is that Vol. 2 is both better and yet not as good, though it’s at least just as hilarious.

Only a couple of months after the events of the first film, the alien supergroup led by human Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and including Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and ‘Baby’ Groot (Vin Diesel), bicker and argue while working for and then offending alien species. When Quill learns of the identity of his absent father, the team fractures and everyone questions themselves.

Directed and written by James Gunn, this follow-up is wisely set just after the first, meaning that while the sadly predictable overarching plot (after a given point) is a bit weak, their relatively-recent coming together creates those further ructions but also develops the characters. Every member confronts his or her own psychological or familial hang-ups, making for a surprisingly talky and emotional movie (in the sense that the characters are, not that the viewer is). My issue was that it didn’t feel like much of a progression, and the action – a big part of these films – is good, but wasn’t as creative as before.

Gunn utilises the large scale of Marvel’s comic book catalogue to bring in new races, famous individuals (to readers) and new locations, making the universe feel alien and fresh. Those worrying how this ties in to other movies: it’s actually surprisingly removed from the greater story with the Avengers. This self-contained plot has time to breath, but despite twists that come being dramatically interesting, they’re slightly predictable. What was surprising (and good) about it was how emotional a note it ends on, the focus appearing (quite nicely) to be on the team over the overarching saga.

Pratt continues to develop his career as a leading man hearthrob with a hilarious sense of timing and comedy, and it’s fitting that Guardians kicked him into the big-time, as here he gets a chance to act a little more and clown a little less. On the other hand, some of his clowning seems more forced, which is a shame knowing his aptitude for comedy and the character’s role in the first film, but he’s pretty good in the emotional scenes confronting his parentage and destiny.

Saldana is honestly robbed, really only serving as half love interest, half conscience, with the only interesting parts of her performance concerning Gamora’s bizarre and fractious relationship with sister Nebula. Hopefully in future the only female member of the team might have more interesting things to do than act as the “sensible” one. Karen Gillan’s slightly more fleshed-out role here is dramatically interesting (in relation to the sisterly issues), but beyond a couple of scenes of that she might otherwise not be in the film again. It appears here that the women in the Guardians saga are a little left behind.

The other three Guardians are the comic centrepiece, Bautista’s Drax the absolute standout. This musclebound nutjob is completely off the leash, with many of the film’s best lines, and always seems to appear when the emotion or drama is getting a bit much to let off steam with some ridiculous comment or statement. The ex-wrestler is so good at this, and his other notable appearances, such as Spectre and the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel, mean he might yet challenge Dwayne Johnson in future for the wrestler-turned-actor crown.

Cooper’s voicework for the angry, embittered, cynical Rocket is good, but again the character seems almost immature, his not-as-funny interactions defined more by an exploration of why he’s bitter and twisted. That this comes a little later in the film is a shame, as the character’s tortured sense of self makes it more interesting. Finally, Diesel’s heavily-adapted voice work (read: high-pitched) works perfectly in tandem with ‘Baby’ Groot, who stole the film judging by my audience. The cute little shrub is the sympathetic heart of the team and also the childishly hilarious heart of the movie, always nearby to generate more laughs (particularly in the deviously brilliant opening credits).

Michael Rooker not only gets more time as space pirate Yondu but also more to do, the actor’s gritty features adding nuance to the character’s surprising and at times touching journey. Kurt Russell continues his late-career renaissance as the human embodiment of the planet Ego, bringing his macho swagger and style to the movie and again offering more depth when the movie demands it, while a pre-credits scene de-ages him so frighteningly well I’d wager Marvel might start casting older actors just to change them into their younger selves!

A few other characters worth a mention include Elizabeth Debicki’s haughty and villainous Ayesha, who brings arrogant menace and anger to a secondary antagonist’s role; Sean Gunn (the director’s brother), as the loyal but stupid Ravager Kraglin; Pom Klementieff as the ditsy, innocent but impassioned Mantis (surely joining the Guardians in future); and – surprisingly – Sylvester Stallone, who honestly appears to be stunt casting, but whose character (upon further research) appears to have been chosen for the future, though he doesn’t make much of an impression (beyond the shock value of being Sylvester Stallone).

The score is largely forgettable from Tyler Bates, who rehashes his theme from the first movie, but this is largely down to the once-again excellent use of 70s and 80s music on Quill’s second ‘Awesome Mix’ cassette. This is again well chosen by Gunn, particularly with more well-known songs in shorter number and more random tracks utilised, so I’m not sure how big an impact they’ll make compared to the first film’s tracks. But it’s still one of the best parts of the films.

Marvel’s CGI as always is pretty good if a bit too glossy (probably because it’s trying to paint an alien universe rather than add realism to earthbound action), but the effects on Ego in particular are quite fantastically prog-rock. Practical and make-up effects meanwhile are fantastic – character make-up in particular for not only Drax and Gamora, but many of the alien species we encounter, is testament to the tangible power of make-up compared to a shoddy CGI paint-over.

To be honest, I’d have liked Vol. 2 a lot more if it had been a bit more out there. I guess you can’t achieve the successes of the first film again, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. Just that I hope a Vol. 3 is a bit more weird and out-there!

Review: Ghost in the Shell

A great looking if superficial movie, Ghost in the Shell fits well into the robotic sci-fi oeuvre but feels a little threadbare.

In the near-distant future, humans are being fitted out with cybernetic enhancement, with tech company Hanka Robotics managing a world-first with a ‘shell’ inhabited by a human brain, or ‘ghost’. Major Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) is this first ‘ghost in the shell’, and works in a secretive government unit to fight counter-terrorism, but she soon starts to be haunted by visions as the group hunts mysterious hacker Kuze (Michael Pitt).

The film is an adaptation of a famous Japanese anime film from the 1990s, and there has been a lot of controversy over Johansson’s casting over an Asian actress. While the issue of minority representation in cinema shouldn’t be ignored, original anime creator Masamune Shirow went on record to voice his approval of the casting because the character’s performance is the ‘shell’ – meaning that for him, it doesn’t matter who plays the ‘shell’. The film’s successes at the Japanese box office was another interesting element of the situation as well

The main story is common in science-fiction, particularly in regards to the fine line between machine and woman, but director Rupert Sanders and writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger craft an intriguing if lightweight plot emboldened by sharp and unique imagery. The vivid cinematography from Jess Hall uses a pan-Asian city backdrop filled with neon advertisements and skyscrapers to paint a believable near-future, with murkier and darker areas reflecting the seedier underbelly of the technological metropolis.

The excellent special effects add to this, alongside interesting set and character design, with all feeling unique and diverse (it seems to be aping other science-fiction futures but striking out on its own path, particularly in the ethical dilemmas posed). However, the story’s Hollywoodisation means that areas of plot I’d rather have been further explored were passed by for more action (which is pretty good, though if you’ve seen the trailers you’ve seen most of it).

In turn, the moody and eclectic soundtrack by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe sometimes reaches exciting peaks of electronic menace, but the movie never seems to match it. I’d say this was likely a consequence of making it a blockbuster that needs to appeal to all audiences, as the conclusion leaves a little to be desired (perhaps a response to the public attention paid to the film), and other elements are somewhat overlooked (I’d have liked more development of the backstories, the format of the police unit and some more character development from the rest of Major’s team-mates).

The cast is actually quite good across the board, Johansson portraying the Major with heavy, considered and alien movements and gestures, physically acting out the ‘shell’ of her character’s body while her facial expressions allow for slightly more development, especially as the plot progresses. I think some reviewers have been hard on her, but she seems to be making quite a name for herself by choosing alienated, distant roles such as this (and Under the Skin). It won’t win awards but she continues to select more interesting lead roles than she could.

Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbek is able support as her number two soldier Batou, with the Dane like a bearish big brother to the Major with many of the film’s best lines. Japanese veteran ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano plays their commander Aramaki, speaking completely in Japanese, but retains his prior performance archetypes of little outward emotion and swift, brutal movement alongside a dry sense of humour.

Michael Pitt’s heavily digitised performance as Kuze is an interesting role to see the actor play, as he usually focuses on smaller dramas, but the character – ostensibly the villain – has many shades, and Pitt gives him a kind of cold, disturbing detachment that slowly blooms into understandable human emotion. Juliette Binoche plays the mother figure to the Major as Dr. Ouelet, the scientist who created her, and the French actress gives what might have originally been a male character an interesting frisson of motherly care and devotion to her cyborg ‘child’. Finally, Peter Ferdinando broods and glowers as the head of Hanka Robotics, while other smaller roles include Chin Han’s cop stereotype (cigarettes, sharp suits and gruff demeanour).

Overall, Ghost in the Shell isn’t a bad film from my perspective, though it doesn’t reach its full potential either. It’s definitely worth a watch for sci-fi fans, but it needs a little bit more of everything that’s good about it.

Review: Free Fire

Free Fire might be the best film I’ve seen so far in 2017 – it’s darkly humorous, quick and an effective action movie that succees despite a sparse plot.

In 1970s Boston, IRA representatives Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) aim to try and buy guns for the fight back home from Rhodesian arms dealer Vern (Sharlto Copley). The deal is brokered by Americans Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson), but despite the main players’ attempts to do the deal, petty and macho disagreements between the two sides’ underlings cause everything to go, very quickly, to hell.

Having seen all but two of director (and co-writer) Ben Wheatley’s films, it was a welcome surprise to see he’d moved away from horror-thrillers with Free Fire. Retaining his skill at mixing genres together in a captivating film (with grim violence), this movie shows his potential as an action-thriller director is immense – and that comedy is a welcome addition to that mixture. The events and throughplot, from Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump, are pinned on the barest of premises, but it’s the quick and impressive work their writing does that clues you in on the characters, their personalities and motivations, before spinning everything off into mayhem. Their arguments and insults are also pleasingly foul-mouthed for such a bunch of “bad dudes”, with some zingers dotted about.

What I enjoyed most was it extends what other movies or TV shows might focus on for one scene – the dodgy arms deal gone wrong. Much like Reservoir Dogs, it’s based in a dingy, disused location with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells, and nobody’s really innocent going in, let alone once it goes downhill. Early conversations paint in clearly how each character behaves or might act – the impulsive, the borderline psychopathic: they’re all just wind-up toys waiting to be set loose. And once the shooting starts, the character relationships are pleasingly and amusingly in flux, so you might end up favouring or liking one, while another viewer might feel differently. Curveball plot points are thrown in too just to add to the clusterf*ck, and come the excellent ending, you’re questioning how you felt about some characters over others.

The action, violence and comedy crash together to make the film what it is – and it’s hilarious. Posturing idiot Vern gets most of the best lines, while the assorted international crims pick each other apart for that too. This is a dark comedy filled with reprehensible people you can’t help but like, while quips and interchanges spark and simmer with macho bullshit, ready to ignite onscreen. The attention to period detail in costumes, hairstyles and ‘taches seamlessly throws you back, while the single location (amazingly, an old factory in Brighton) is meticulously thought-out and designed, lit excellently by cinematographer Laurie Rose through a haze of dust, metal wreckage and decay, painting a sorry picture (and making you cringe at the idea of having an open wound in there).

This is added to by slick yet clear editing by Jump and Wheatley – you’re nearly always aware where everyone is, which goes to show just how important to a solid, defined location can be. It’s attention to detail that only bolsters the realistic sheen, but the comedy pulls it entertainingly back into the world of make-believe. Their editing also helps illustrate the shifting loyalties and more urgent conclusion, as the “golden hour” for bullet wounds starts to elapse and our characters start to realise they’re in for it.

The cast is an integral element of Free Fire’s success. Murphy’s Chris is a rather dour and sarcastic Irishman whose bravado and mouth (like so many others here) land him in it, while Michael Smiley again channels his Irish rage as the unpredictable, bitter Frank, angry at the world and younger people. Sam Riley is a sleazy delight as the odious Stevo, Frank’s American cousin, while Enzo Cilenti rounds out the ‘IRA’ side with another sleazy, greaseball performance as the hapless Bernie. On the other side, Copley is the standout, oddball character – Vern is an unbelievably preening, hair-trigger idiot, and the South African actor dials up the regional stereotype for some of the funniest scenes. Babou Ceesay, as Vern’s despairing partner-in-crime Martin, starts off exasperated and keen to get the deal done, and finishes the movie in quite a different, no less hilarious state.

Noah Taylor’s henchman Gordon is largely obscured by the other, more outlandish characters on Vern’s side, which is a shame given his odious role in Game of Thrones. Jack Reynor (who I’ve only ever seen in a terrible Transformers film) however is excellent as the long-haired, impulsive snake Harry, who acts as the proverbial match for the fireworks, and illustrates the selfish desire of most criminals. Finally, we have Brie Larson and Armie Hammer’s mediators Justine and Ord, with Larson (the only woman) growing into the character as the events get more heated, and displaying a very resigned, incredulous and furious perspective on this most macho of meetings – offering in fact the most interesting character path.

Hammer meanwhile almost steals the show from Copley, with his clean, bearded and suave Ord working hard early on to both disparage and keep the peace with varying degrees of success, before displaying an almost psychopathic detachment and glee once the bullets start flying. Much like Reynor, he’s great at showing just how committed some people are to saving themselves, and gets many of the best lines, often as the resigned voice of reason when short ceasefires break out.

The music from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is largely underheard, but effective at setting the tone for the era and action – they also use a well-known John Denver song for hilarious and grim effect. On a final note, the violence is constant but funny – most movie characters that are shot go flying back, or keep running as if nothing happened. Here, gunshots are messy and debilitating, so before long everyone’s crawling, limping or moaning, and it just adds to that madcap, Looney Tunes sensibility. It’s not Hollywood, slow-mo action, but concussive and loud nonetheless – and when the going gets rough, it gets gruesome, with some life-ending injuries harking back to Wheatley’s previous films in terms of gore.

I honestly can’t find much fault with Free Fire – it’s short, it’s well-acted, it’s hilarious and it’s a genius movie to build on such a small event and expand it out like it does. I would watch dozens more films like this from the British director – it’s highly recommended for action, comedy and Ben Wheatley fans.

Review: Get Out

Get Out is a funny, searing and quite tense horror-comedy that (beyond an out-of-place plot point toward the end) does an excellent job of skewering and confronting racial barriers and awkwardness.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is nervous about meeting the family of his girlfriend Rose (Alison Williams), because they don’t know he’s black. On meeting parents Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener), as well as weird brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), Chris is slightly placated, but gets a really odd vibe from the family and their almost too-nice behaviour. Regularly staying in touch with cynical friend Rod (Lil Rey Howery), Chris soon realises his paranoia isn’t really misplaced, and things get weird…

From American comedian Jordan Peele, who wrote and directed the film, Get Out is an uncomfortable yet hilarious watch, a great blend of tension and humour that still has a hell of a lot to say about the differences, prejudices and stereotypes brewing between Americans. Peele’s biting, satirical look at those working almost too hard not to be racist is one of the film’s strengths, including a garden party with a host of awkward and rich, older white folks spouting cringeworthy nonsense. In addition, Dean’s immediate statement that he “would have voted for Obama a third time” indicates what to expect – people overcompensating for something…

The funny thing is, the racial aspect is played upon and strongly so for a large part of the film, before that aforementioned “out-of-place” plot point, which somewhat takes the wind out of the proverbial sails. If Peele had maintained the bizarre tension and creepy undertones, I get the feeling it might have needed to become more reactionary and focused on race, where as where he takes the movie is more straightforward horror. There are good and bad things about this choice, and it does damage the film a little, though it also gives it a very different spin towards the end that probably means the comedy doesn’t seem out of place.

That weird and creepy tension is what gives the film its horror element (until it becomes more overt later). Mixing together a heady cocktail of uncomfortable racial differences, an evocative setting (both inside and outside the home) and a pair of unsettling performances from the family’s two black employees, Peele makes you laugh one second and your skin crawl the next. The comedy is both necessary and totally suited to the film, using it to puncture what could have been a much more uncomfortable plotline and give Chris and his friend Rod an easygoing and naturalistic friendship, which proves key.

Adding to the tension is the eerie and bizarre soundtrack by Michael Abels, using chanting and an unsettling score to really get to the viewer during those moments when Chris is beginning to question what’s really going on, while cinematographer Toby Oliver utilises the woods of Alabama and a ridiculously ornate, dark wood-filled home to conjure up foreboding and unease from the off.

Kaluuya is excellent as the calm Chris, very well displaying polite tiredness with the stereotypes and generalisations coming his way, and just as capable when the shit hits the fan – he’s good at expressing some emotional range too, as Chris is forced to confront his younger life in a powerful and unsettling scene with Missy. Alison Williams gives Rose that sense of the girl who doesn’t see race, but unfortunately doesn’t see how her community might see it, while Whitford and Keener are at turns welcoming, friendly and unsettling as the parents, Keener in particular fairly disturbing in that same scene with Kaluuya (to say more would spoil the plot).

The best of the rest include Lil Rey Howery, who steals the show as Rod – the comedic centre and remaining so even towards the end, operating almost as a connection to reality for Chris. The actor’s comedic timing and generally cocksure behaviour are an antidote to the all-too-earnest family. Stephen Root and Caleb Landry Jones make an impression respectively as a more aware member of the family’s community, and Rose’s brother Jeremy – Landry Jones’ shifty, uneasy performance brought to mind a creepy, younger Johnny Depp, which is more praise than criticism! Finally, Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel deserve a mention for their eerie, unhinged portrayals of the odd and disoncerting Walter and Georgina.

For a good laugh and a scare, as well as some genuinely unsettling tension, I’d recommend Get Out – it makes a strong point of confronting assumptions on both sides of the US’ racial divide, but tempers it with humour. It’s only the odd shift towards the end that lets it down, but then I understand the reasoning!