Film review – The Cured (David Freyne, 2017)

What happens to the zombies after the disease has been contaminated and cured? This is a question many zombie-horror film fans have thought about, but that is seldom explored in cinema. There’s good reason too – an axe-wielding hero chopping off a zombie’s head is a much easier sell than someone dealing with social exclusion and depression following an almost-apocalypse.

Writer/director David Freyne’s feature debut dares to explore those themes, with considerable success.

The film is set in a ravished, desolate Dublin, in the aftermath of a zombie plague. Scientists have found a cure for the maze virus, but now the living and the former undead are finding the memories of the effects of the virus hard to handle. The cure is successful for 75% of the infected, though 25% remain immune and in secure isolation. Former zombie Senan (Sam Keeley) is released from quarantine and taken in by his American sister-in-law Abbie (Ellen Page). The film focuses on the reintegration into society of Senan and Conor (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a friend Senan has made during the quarantine period.

The film is an excellent piece of social commentary. It deals with the manner in which modern society lives in fear. It’s something that has always been prominent in humanity, although it seems especially prescient that it debuts in the same year that Donald Trump began his presidency of the USA. The cured are humans living with the horrors of the past, but are treated as lesser beings due to the fear from those who were lucky enough to avoid being infected. Fear is driven by a swirl or rumours, mistruths and a media willing to maintain the confusion and feed the fear. At its best moments it’s a thoroughly thought-provoking piece of drama.

Freyne does his best to maintain the suspense with a smattering of jump-scares, primarily in the form of flashbacks. I felt these were unnecessary but were clearly there to serve a purpose. This is a horror film and for all its successes as a sociopolitical piece, the threat of the maze virus eventually becomes the driving force for the film. The horror credentials of the filmmakers are truly opened up at the point the film finally hits pace, leading to a frenetic and pulsating finale.

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The central trio of actors all deliver great performances, but it is Ellen Page who has the most complex and thus most fruitful role. Abbie is a mother fearing for her son’s life and a woman mourning the loss of her husband. The complexities unravel as we go on the emotional journey with her and Page is a fantastic actor to take us on it. You can feel that she is giving it 100%, fully committing to a role and getting every drop of emotion out of the character. It’s the sort of performance that other actors love to feed off, and in the one-on-one scenes with Sam Keeley you can feel them both hitting their emotional peaks to devastating effect.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor delivers an unsettling turn as Conor, a former politician attempting to be accepted by society but struggling to come to terms with his newly-assigned job as a janitor. He puts in the groundwork in the early portions of the film to allow himself to deliver a brutal final act performance.

The big risk with this film is that it feels like it’s trying to be a horror film and a drama film at the same time. Fans of horror films hoping for an out-and-out zombie carnival may be bored before the action takes flight. Those looking for a more subtle take on the genre may feel cheated by the ending. That said, those invested in the emotional journey of the characters should find a genuinely refreshing take on the theme and will be rewarded by a superb feature film debut from a very promising director.

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Film review – Free Fire (Ben Wheatley, 2017)

Ben Wheatley returns this month with his latest feature film Free Fire, which blends brutal action and sharp humour to create a roaring success of a film that will keep audiences entertained way beyond the 90 minute running time.

The premise of the film for Wheatley stemmed from Wheatley reading online of various police stand-offs throughout history. He found one that lasted 45 minutes because neither party could hit their targets, despite years of training to do precisely that (sadly I can’t find the article to link to). This tickled a nerve with Wheatley, who thought it would be brilliant to see it on the big screen – especially since most stand-offs in films last no more than a minute.

Set in the 1970s, the story revolves around two gangs meeting in a warehouse to make a trade for some arms. One group includes Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), both presumably sourcing their weapons for IRA-related activities (though this is never explicitly mentioned), along with headstrong Justine (Brie Larson), idiotic junkie Stevo (Sam Riley) and even-more-idiotic Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). Providing the weapons are a group including bearded negotiator Ord (Armie Hammer), the sharp-tongued South African Vernon (Sharlto Copley), the intelligent Martin (Babou Ceesay), driver Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor) alongside a handful of support characters.

Speaking after the film at a preview at Broadway Cinema in Nottingham, Wheatley offered a brilliant insight into some of the production decisions on the film.

Hilariously, to get a feel for the environment and ensure the people were in realistic positions throughout to communicate properly, he had the entire set built in video game Minecraft. This allowed him to walk around the factory and get a feel of where he’d be once production started. A simple but brilliant solution, but also necessary as he stated this is the only 3D modelling tool he knows how to use.

On a similar note, the shoot-outs themselves were partly inspired by Wheatley’s experience of playing video games, a medium he is a fan of enjoying even though he is yet to be involved with the creation of one (sadly his comment about writing an adaptation of 1980s video game Gauntlet was probably tongue-in-cheek).

One issue they could have faced was in the continuity for the bullet shots. Clearly with 1000s of bullets flying around, there was a risk of wounds being out of place, or disappearing and reappearing between shots. The simple solution was to film it in sequence, which also plays into the building of tension at the start and exhaustion for the characters as the story plays out.

Learn from Vern

Of the many great performances here, the highlight is Sharlto Copley as Vern. Initially annoyed about his Savile Row suit getting damaged, his whitty one-liners had the audience in creases. He’s a complete jerk and Copley plays it brilliantly, his irritating mannerisms making the heightened-tension all the more believable. 
The result is a film that consists almost entirely of a shoot-out that feels far more realistic than anything we’ve become accustomed in Hollywood films. People aren’t simply experts in shooting guns and it takes practice and skill to be any good at it. The characters in this film aren’t experts and that’s why the film plays out as it does. It’s grim, gritty, exhausting and hilarious.

Seek it out and watch it.

Film review – Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)

Much more understated in its promotional campaign than its awards season rivals – and a much harder film to describe with any vigor and make it sound interesting – Room is a film that simply needs to be seen. It may not seem it but it’s a wonderful hidden gem, the quality of which will only become apparent once you’ve seen it.

It is a film set in two distinct acts. The first act is based entirely in the room in which a woman known as Joy (Brie Larson) and her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) have been held captive by the mysterious Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Following their release, they are reunited with Joy’s family and the outside world – a world that has left Ma behind and that Jack has never even experienced. Overwhelmed by their new freedom and affected by their psychological damage, we follow Joy and Jack as they try to find any kind of normality in their new life.

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Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson in Room.

The tiny room is suffocating in its lack of space and the feeling of being trapped is never more convincingly portrayed than when Jack is hiding in his cupboard. Looking primarily from his point of view in this first act, the room comparatively seems quite large – to him it is the whole world as he knows nothing else.

Through the unavoidable depressing nature of the situation, there are moments included that are truly uplifting. Seeing Jack finally open up to a family member is a beautiful moment. Indeed, it is surprising that Jacob Tremblay hasn’t been singled out for his stunning performance as Jack, a child who has gone through an impossible first five years of life. He has either been coached really well or is a true natural.

That said, Brie Larson can rightfully take the praise for her leading performance. Her character has taken the journey from childhood to motherhood within the confines of one small room and has remained strong for the sake of her child. The emotional turmoil is all there to be seen. It is deliberately difficult but equally rewarding to witness.

An early contender for one of my top films of the year.

Room is on general release globally now.