Monday 7 August 2017

Free Fire, The Ghoul, and Land Of Mine: Your Week In Film (August 7-13)

Under Fire: Brie Larson's aim is true in Ben Wheatley's enjoyable shoot-'em-up

This week's best and worst in UK home entertainment on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD. All films featured are available to buy, rent or stream now, unless otherwise stated.

Ratings guide: WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

The Beatles once told us that "happiness is a warm gun" but, if there's one word I'd use to describe the various players in Ben Wheatley's crazy shootout caper Free Fire (DVD, Blu-ray and VOD) WWW½, "happy" certainly wouldn't be it. In fact, fractious, furious, cynical, scheming, greedy and deranged would better fit each and every one of the director's crew of ne'er do wells, career criminals and terrorists.

Set in late-1970s' Boston, Free Fire unfolds in real time within the dusty confines of a long-abandoned factory. It's the setting for an arms deal gone very wrong between Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley's IRA men and Sharlto Copley and Babou Ceesay's purveyors of lethal assault rifles. Desperately trying to smooth the wheels of commerce are Armie Hammer and Brie Larson, a middleman and middlewoman out to make a fast buck from the deal. The situation is further complicated by a bevy of drivers and associates, two of whom - Sam Riley and Jack Reynor - have recently had a violent run-in. Suffice to say, it isn't long before this combustible brew ignites and explodes in the only way it can - an hour-long gun fight in which everyone seems to have a bullet or two with their name on.

After his politically-tinged, and slightly underwhelming, JG Ballard adaptation, High Rise, this is Wheatley sitting back, relaxing, and letting loose. It's fast, funny, violent and cleverly choreographed. The first act in which the various participants meet and fail to hide their mutual antipathy is the best bit but the extended shootout itself certainly doesn't disappoint, as the director and his regular co-writer Amy Jump throw in some nice twists and, despite the escalating body count, some big laughs too.

The cast - playing it perfectly straight amidst the pitch-black humour - are uniformly splendid, particularly Copley (as insufferable gun-runner Vernon), Larson (as the mysterious Justine), and Hammer (as urbane Ord, who probably snags the funniest lines). Amusingly, though, it's the long-abandoned umbrella factory that slowly but surely becomes the star of the show, its shattered concrete, grubby floor, and labyrinthine corridors leaving an indelible mark on every one of the participants. It's pretty much all that's left standing at the end.

Gunsmoke: No one is safe from flying bullets in Free Fire

World War II has recently been in the cinematic spotlight with Christopher Nolan's rapturously received Dunkirk but, for my money, Martin Zandvliet's Land Of Mine (VOD and cinemas) WWWW, is every bit its equal. This Danish movie - from 2015 but only seeing the light of day here now - might lack the manic chutzpah of Nolan's editing and the sheer breadth of his vision, but makes up for that with an utterly compelling (and previously untold) story, as well as an astonishing central performance from Roland Møller (Atomic Blonde).

Set after the end of the conflict, Møller's Sergeant Carl Rasmussen is put in charge of a group of German POWs tasked with clearing thousands of land mines from the beaches of Denmark's picturesque west coast. The thing is, the soldiers being forced into carrying out such dangerous work aren't tough-guy Nazi veterans but frightened young conscripts, none of them seemingly a day over 17 or 18 years old. When we first see Rasmussen he is beating the tar out of a young POW he has spotted carrying a Danish flag. He is a very angry man who sees his role not just to clear the mines but to inflict as much humiliation on his charges - and therefore upon the defeated German army - as possible. Initially, the boys are pretty much starved and bullied mercilessly by the sergeant. Slowly but surely, though, he starts to develop a bond with them, especially Louis Hofmann's Sebastian, who tries again and again to find reason behind the sergeant's mask of anger and disdain.

There are a great many things I like about this film but the main one is its refusal, for the most part, to indulge sentiment. There are several times when you think it's about to turn warm and fuzzy, only for something jarring and awful to happen to pull the film back hard to its default setting. Rasmussen and the young German mine-clearers are given no backstory so you have no idea what they have done in the war. Is Rasmussen furious because of what the Nazis inflicted upon his county or has he suffered a far more personal tragedy? Likewise, are these kids exactly as they appear to be or have they, themselves, committed terrible acts? The fact you don't know - and it's never revealed - gives the movie a real frisson and unpredictability.

And if it's tension you want, look no further than the many scenes in which the boys go about the grim task of locating and defusing the mines. We're reminded of its danger early on when one of the young Germans is blown up in a training exercise but that is small potatoes compared to the horrors inflicted upon the group when the time comes to go out on the beaches and do it for real. Forget swaggering Hollywood nonsense like The Hurt Locker, this shows the merciless reality of a dirty, perilous job, its sheer ugliness set in sharp relief by the beautiful Danish coast, perfectly captured by Zandvliet's director of photography, Camilla Hjelm.

Enemy Mine: Zandvliet's war film is compelling and powerful

The hardboiled noir of Raymond Chandler gets a mostly pleasing new spin in City Of Tiny Lights (DVD and VOD) WW½, which stars Riz Ahmed (Rogue One) as Wild Turkey-guzzling private eye Tommy Akhtar on the trail of a missing prostitute in moody, multicultural London. Strong performances from Ahmed, Billie Piper, as Akhtar's old flame, and Roshan Seth, as his ailing father, plus Dredd director Pete Travis' intense vision of the capital as a city drenched in rain, neon and shadow, are the big plus points here. What undermines it, however, is that the villain of the piece is totally obvious the moment you first clap eyes on him, while the plot becomes jammed up with CIA spooks, jihadis and regular flashbacks to a painful incident from Akhtar's past, which is meant to tie the main characters together, but actually distracts from the main story. Overall, and despite the fact screenwriter Patrick Neate adapts his own 2005 novel of the same name, it's all a bit of a muddle. That said, the characters and milieu intrigued me enough to make this more than worth the effort and I hope we see the excellent Ahmed reprise his role as Akhtar in the future.

City slicker: Riz Ahmed is London PI Tommy Akhtar

The Ghoul (VOD and cinemas) WWW doesn't deliver the full-blown horror its title suggests but is instead an unsettling psychological thriller that reminded me variously of Mulholland Drive, innumerable undercover cop movies, and Omer Fast's 2015 British puzzler, Remainder, which employed a similar Möbius strip motif in its plot and structure. Gareth Tunley's feature debut focuses on Chris (Prevenge's Tom Meeten), who is either an unemployed man with debilitating depression, imagining he's a homicide detective... or a homicide detective in the thrall of two psychiatrists/supernatural beings (Niamh Cusack and Geoffrey McGivern), who convince him he's just an unemployed man with debilitating depression. I've seen the film twice and still haven't the foggiest idea which it is, or even if those are the only two possible explanations on the table. Suffice to say, The Ghoul (the name Chris gives his illness) is an opaque and baffling piece of work. It's also rather good, especially if you get a kick out of puzzle-box movies that refuse to give up their secrets without a good old wrestle first.

Secret cinema: Gareth Tunley's The Ghoul is opaque and baffling

Finally, there's violent revenge thriller, Message From The King (Netflix) WW. Black Panther's Chadwick Boseman stars as Jacob King, a mysterious South African badass travelling to Los Angeles to find his missing sister, Bianca. King's investigations lead to a horrifying discovery and the realisation his sister was involved with some very nasty people, typified by Alfred Molina's paedophile movie producer and Luke Evans', erm, dentist. Director Fabrice du Welz certainly knows how to compose an eye-catching shot and I enjoyed how King's real identity - who he is back home in South Africa - is kept under wraps until the very end. Unfortunately, the dialogue is clunky, the pace uneven, and the plot overcooked with rather too many bad guys. There was one piece of foreshadowing early on so clumsy it actually made me laugh out loud.

Hail to the King: Chadwick Boseman has a score to settle

What I shall be watching this week: Interracial rom-com The Big Sick, Japanese monster reboot Shin Godzilla, and, if I can squeeze it in, comic-book adaptation Atomic Blonde.

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