Film Review: Free Fire (dir by Ben Wheatley)


Last night, I saw Free Fire, the latest film from the visionary British directing-and-screenwriting team of Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump.

Free Fire takes place in Boston in the 1970s.  We know it’s the 70s because of all the wide lapels, the flared jeans, and the impressive facial hair.  In short, everyone looks like an extra from Thank God, It’s Friday.  Note that I said Thank God, It’s Friday and not Saturday Night Fever.  None of the characters in Free Fire could pull off John Travolta’s white suit.  As much as they try to pretend otherwise, everyone in this film is low rent.  No one is as clever or street smart as they believe themselves to be.  Even more importantly, no one is as good a shot as they think.

The film takes place in a decrepit warehouse, the type of place that is strewn with rats and hypodermic needles.  Chris (Cillian Murphy), Frank (Michael Smiley), Steve-O (Sam Riley), and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) are members of the Irish Republican Army and they’ve come to the U.S. to purchases weapons.  Chris and Frank are no-nonsense professionals.  Bernie is a well-meaning moron.  Steve-O is a drug addict who, the previous night, got beaten up after he smashed a bottle across the face of a 17 year-old girl.

Working as intermediaries are Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer).  Justine specializes in keeping jumpy people calm.  She and Chris flirt as they wait for the guns to arrive.  As for Ord — well, let’s just say that Ord was my favorite character in the film.  He’s always calm.  He looks really good in a suit.  And, whenever things get intense, he’s always quick to light up a joint and make a sarcastic comment.  This is probably the best performance of Armie Hammer’s career so far.  (Or, at the very least, it’s the best performance of his that I’ve seen.  I hear that he gives an excellent performance in the upcoming Call Me By Your Name.)  Certainly, this is the first film that I’ve seen, since The Social Network, in which Hammer seemed to be truly worthy of the hype that has surrounded his career.

Finally, there’s the gun dealers themselves.  There’s Martin (Babou Ceesay), who seems to be fairly low-key professional.  There’s Gordon (Noah Taylor), who is a henchman who looks disconcertingly similar to Chris.  And then there’s Vernon, who is from South Africa and who is constantly talking and smiling.  Not surprisingly, Vernon is played by Sharlto Copley.  Finally, Harry (Jack Reynor) is a driver who desperately wants to impress Ord.  Harry loves John Denver and he also loves his cousin.  In fact, he loves his cousin so much that, when he recognizes Steve-O as the junkie who smashed a bottle across her face, Harry pulls a gun and starts firing.

The rest of the film deals with the resulting gun fight, which is complicated with two mysterious snipers (Patrick Bergin and Mark Monero) suddenly open fire on both of the groups.  Who hired them and why?  That’s a mystery that could be solved if everyone stops shooting and yelling at each other.  Of course, that’s not going to happen because 1) no one is a good enough shot to actually get the upper hand and 2) almost everyone in the warehouse is an idiot.

At it’s best, Free Fire mercilessly parodies the excessive violence of modern crime cinema.  When it comes to crime films, most people just remember the shoot outs so Free Fire takes things to their logical extreme by just being a 90-minute gun fight.  At its weakest, Free Fire occasionally becomes exactly what it’s parodying.  The film’s structure — one night in one location — proves to be limiting.  At times, you find yourself really wishing for a flashback or at least a little exposition to explain who everyone is outside of that warehouse.  The cast is full of good actors and they all give good performances but the characters are, at best, thinly drawn.  At times, it was difficult to keep track who was who.  I especially found myself mixing up Michel Smiley and Sharlto Copely.  It was all the facial hair.

About 30 minutes into Free Fire, I was already composing a bad review in my head but, by the final shot (and yes, the double meaning is totally intentional), Free Fire had won me over.  It’s an experiment that doesn’t really work but it’s so relentless and dedicated to seeing its story to its conclusion that I couldn’t help but appreciate the film’s efforts.  When the guns finally did stop firing and the end credits started, I was shocked to discover that, without even realizing it, I actually had gotten just a little caught up in the film’s story.

Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump previously gave us one of the most memorable films of the decade (so far), A Field in England.  Free Fire might not quite work but I’ll always make the time to see the latest from Wheatley and Jump.

 

Here’s The Red Band Trailer For Free Fire!


Hi, everyone!

When Jeff and I went to see Logan on Thursday night, one of the many trailers that played before the film was this red band one for Free Fire.  Free Fire is an action comedy, one that I think is meant to satirize the ultra violent heist films of the 90s and early aughts.  Seriously, there are parts of this trailer that should make Guy Ritchie cringe.

That said, this trailer is also about a minute too long.  At first, everyone in the theater thought it was kind of funny but then, around the two minute mark, the yawns started to kick in.  “Are they just going to shoot at each other for the entire trailer?” someone asked.

The answer is yes.  And you know what?  The trailer probably doesn’t do Free Fire justice because this movie was directed by Ben Wheatley and I’m still having dreams inspired by his oddly hypnotic A Field in England.  I’ll follow him anywhere!

Free Fire has a March 31st release date in the UK and an April 21st release date in the States.

Anyway, here’s the red band trailer for Free Fire!

Film Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (dir by Burr Steers)


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I had high hopes for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the just-released film which, like the novel upon which it is based, attempts to combine Jane Austen and The Walking Dead.  The source material was good.  The cast — with Lilly James as Elizabeth Bennet, Jack Huston as Wickham, and Matt Smith as Parson Collins — was impressive.  The trailers looked great, promising a combination of zombies, ornate costumes, and a very British sense of humor.  Sadly, however, the ultimate film is a bit of disappointment.

Actually, it’s more than just a bit of a disappointment.  It is a HUGE disappointment.  To have so much promise and then to turn out so bland — well, it’s enough to make you wonder if maybe zombies have become so common place in popular culture that they’re no longer as interesting as they once were.  Don’t get me wrong, as a symbol of the impossibility of escaping death, zombies are great nightmare fuel.  But, when you see them in a relatively bloodless PG-13 film like this, you realize that it takes more than just a few random zombies to make an effective horror film.

Plotwise, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is exactly what it says it is.  It tells the same basic story as Pride and Prejudice, with the exception being that England is now under siege from zombies, the Bennet sisters have now been trained in how to kill zombies, Mr. Darcy (played by Sam Riley) is now Col. Darcy and he’s an expert at tracking down zombies and killing them, and Wickham is now more than just a cad, he’s a cad who wants to help the undead overthrow the living.  As I typed all that out, I realized I was probably making the film sound a lot more fun than it actually is.  And really, the movie should be fun but it’s not.

Director Burr Steers never manages to capture the proper tone for telling this story.  The satire is never as sharp as it needs to be.  The scenes that are meant to pay homage to Austen try a bit too hard to capture Austen’s style without contributing any of her insight and the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy is sabotaged by the fact that Sam Riley and Lilly James had absolutely no chemistry together.  The scenes with the zombies are bland, largely because this is a PG-13 rated film and bloodless zombies aren’t particularly scary.  A typical episode of The Walking Dead is more graphic than anything you’ll see in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Which is not to say that there aren’t a few moments when Pride and Prejudice and Zombies kind of works.  It has moments but they’re isolated and they never really come together to build any sort of narrative momentum for the film as a whole.  Sam Riley is a bit of a dud as Darcy but Lilly James, Jack Huston, and especially Matt Smith all give good performance.  (Smith, in particular, is so good as Collins that I would like to see him play the role in an actual adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.)  Early on in the film, there’s a fun scene where the Bennet sisters destroy a horde of zombies and it actually strikes the right balance between comedy and horror.  Before that, we get the traditional scene that we get in all Austen adaptations, of the Bennet sisters preparing for a ball and, in between lacing up corsets and discussing whether they will all be able find husbands, they also carefully conceal the daggers and knives that they will be carrying just in case they happen to run into any of the undead.  It’s one of the few scenes that suggests what Pride and Prejudice and Zombies could have been if it had only found a consistent tone.

For that matter, I also liked the animated opening credits, which wittily explained how the zombies first appeared in England and, not surprisingly, suggested that it was all the fault of the French.  And the film also had a fairly effective scene that shows up in the middle of the end credits and suggested what would might happen if Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 2 is ever put into production.

But ultimately, even those moments that worked only left me frustrated that the rest of the film did not.  For all of its potential, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies disappoints.

Horror Trailer: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


PrideAndPrejudiceAndZombies

It looks like they’ve actually gone ahead and made the damn thing. I remember writing about news of the Seth Grahame-Smith horror mash-up novel being green-lit for the big-screen all the way back in 2010. Yet, nothing much ever came of it. Directors were hired and the cast was set, but each passing year something would derail the project and things would go back to square one.

Now, over five years since that initial announcement back in 2011 we finally have proof that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has actually completed filming and will soon be up on the big-screen this February 16, 2016.

For Your Consideration #3: Angelina Jolie in Maleficent


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Way back in March, when people like me first started to ask ourselves what and who would be nominated for Oscars in January, a lot of us assumed that 2014 would be the year of Angelina Jolie.  We predicted that her film Unbroken would be an Oscar front-runner and quite a few people felt that Angelina herself would become the second woman to win the Academy Award for directing.

And, it could still happen!

However, with Angelina being pretty much ignored by most of the traditional Oscar precursors and Unbroken getting positive but hardly rapturous reviews, it’s starting to look more and more like Unbroken will be lucky to receive a picture nomination, much less a mention for Jolie.

Now, I haven’t seen Unbroken yet so I can’t really judge whether it deserves any awards consideration or not.  However, I can say that Unbroken is not the only film for which Angelina Jolie deserves consideration.

Maleficent came out this summer and did quite well at the box office but it seems to have been forgotten and that’s a shame because it features one of Angelina Jolie’s best performances.  The film itself is a revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty, re-telling the story from the point-of-view of the fairy queen Maleficent (played, of course, by Angelina.)

In this version of the story, we see that the true villain was Sleeping Beauty’s father, Stefan (Sharlto Copley).  When they were younger, Stefan and Maleficent were lovers but the Stefan eventually abandoned her, knowing that having a relationship with a winged fairy would only serve to thwart his own ambitions.  Years later, when the humans attempt to conquer Maleficent’s kingdom, it is announced that whoever slays Maleficent will become the new king.  Knowing that Maleficent is still in love with him, Stefan drugs her and then cuts her wings off.  Using her wings as evidence to back up his claim that he has killed her, Stefan becomes the new king.  The now wingless Maleficent is left alone and embittered.  When Stefan’s daughter, Princess Aurora, is born, Maleficent announces that, on her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will sink into a deep sleep and will only be awaken by the kiss of someone who truly loves her.

Maleficent was one of those films that truly divided critics.  Male viewers tended to rightfully criticize the film for being tonally inconsistent and for relying too much on CGI.  Female critics, however, understood that none of that mattered.  As flawed as the film may have been, we knew that the most important thing was Angelina Jolie’s performance.  She may have been playing a fairy and she may have been appearing in a movie that was dominated by CGI but Angelina Jolie brought such strength and complexity to the role that she transcended all of the film’s flaws and instead created a thoroughly real character.  We understood and we related to Maleficent’s fury.  When she first woke up to discover that her wings had been stolen from her, it was devastating because the moment was real.  We all knew what had truly happened to Maleficent.  When she sought revenge, we sought it with her.  When she regretted her actions, we shared her regrets.  Her pain was our pain and her triumph was our triumph.

Angelina Jolie gave one of the best performances of the year in Maleficent and she certainly deserves your consideration.

Angelina-Jolie-as-Maleficent

Trailer: On The Road


Here’s the trailer for the film that will probably end up dominated my twitter timeline when it’s eventually released.  I follow a lot of big Kerouac fans (and I think Big Sur is one of the great American novels) and I’ll be interested to see what they think of the long-delayed film version of On The Road.  For now, I’ll just say that it’s rarely a good sign when the film version of an iconic novel is full of star cameos and I have a hard time imagining the dependably dull Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty.

(Already, I can hear people complaining about the prominence of Kristen Stewart in the film’s trailer….)

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Brighton Rock (dir. by Rowan Joffe)


Brighton Rock is a British film noir that’s currently both playing in limited release and which is also available via video-on-demand.  Based on a novel by Graham Greene, Brighton Rock is the story of Pinkie (Sam Riley), a sociopathic gangster who murders a gambler.  The chase leading up to the murder is witnessed by a mousey waitress named Rose (Andrea Riseborough) who doesn’t realize what she’s actually seen.  In order to keep her quiet, Pinkie marries Rose.  Rose, however, works for Ida (Helen Mirren) and Ida just happens to have been friends with the murdered gangster.  Realizing that Rose is in danger, Ida takes it upon herself to expose Pinkie for the murderer he is.

Brighton Rock is a visually striking film and it has a handful of good performances but it never quite comes together.  Before making his feature film directing debut here, Rowan Joffe wrote the script for last year’s The American and, much like The American, Brighton Rock has an abundance of style and is full of references to the classic crime films of the 60s and 70s.  Also, much like The American, the style — too often — seems to exist separately from any larger vision.  As a result, the film ultimately feels like several disconnected — if pretty scenes — strung together by convenience.  The film has an intriguing-enough plot but the narrative lacks any sort of forward momentum.  Interestingly enough, Greene used the story of Pinkie, Rose, and Ida to examine larger theological issues within the Catholic church.  With the exception of a scene where Pinkie prays, an over-the-top sequence featuring a judgmental nun, and a few inserts of crucifixes artfully hanging on grimy walls, Joffe pretty much jettisons the story’s religious angle but without it, Pinkie and Rose’s actions make a lot less sense. 

Joffe’s decision to cast Sam Riley, whom I’ve had a crush on ever since I first saw Control, in the lead role of Pinkie is problematic.  It’s not that Riley gives a bad performance because he doesn’t.  He makes a convincing psychopath and if he’s never quite charming enough to be a true anti-hero, he’s still makes Pinkie into a compelling figure.  Unfortunately, Riley is still totally miscast in the film.  In Graham Greene’s original novel, Pinkie was only 17 years old.  Sam Riley is 31 and looks even older.  Unfortunately, all of the other characters in the film continually refer to him as “the kid.”  John Hurt, at one point, gives a monologue in which he wonders how someone so young could be so evil.  But Riley isn’t young and as a result, I found myself wondering just how old someone had to be before they were considered to be an adult in 1960s England.

Still, if nothing else, Joffe gets some good performances from his supporting cast.  Andrea Riseborough manages to be both poignant and annoying as Rose while Andy Serkis appears to be having a lot of fun playing a slightly ludicrous gangster.  Not surprisingly, Helen Mirren commands every scene she appears in and she and John Hurt have got a great chemistry.  Regardless of how you might feel about the film as whole, it’s impossible not to enjoy their scenes together.  They’re final scene together made me squeal with delight and, in the end, that has to count for something.