REVIEW: Free Fire

17 04 2017

SXSW Film Festival

Ben Wheatley is not the kind of director to slowly ease you into the milieu of the world he creates. He simply plunges you into the deep end with piranhas, primarily through the use of stylized and highly specific situational dialogue. “Free Fire” does not wait for you to catch up. The loquacious characters simply start spitting out Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump’s words at a mile-a-minute pace, as they naturally would. You either start running or get left in its dust.

The only time Wheatley slows down is not for our sake. It’s to commemorate the first bullet fired of what must be thousands over the course of the film. In suspended animation, we watch it travel and have a moment to consider its impact. Then the full playground game breaks out between two rival Boston gangs in an arms deal, and it becomes absolute pandemonium.

Wheatley uses the film’s singular warehouse location to its absolute fullest, utilizing it like an adult jungle gym occupied by men (and Brie Larson’s Justine) who showed up in what looks like costumes for a trashy ’70s party. Every move to advance around the space requires at least four bullets, and the gunfire eventually immobilizes every participant one limb at a time. Towards the end, Justine relies on a firearm to serve as a combined cane and replacement appendage. Yes, “Free Fire” is that kind of movie.

It’s also a film that leaves behind little but empty bullet cases. Enjoyable though it may be to watch these bumbling gangsters unleash load after load on each other to period tunes (executive producer Martin Scorsese must have lent his personal jukebox), those pleasures prove fleeting. “Free Fire” unyokes the hysteria of Wheatley’s last film, “High-Rise,” from any form of social commentary. This is a very different movie with no pretensions of intellectual depth, yet even adjusting for the difference, it still fires a few blanks. B /





REVIEW: The Birth of a Nation

7 10 2016

In Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” many an incident between slaves and their white captors in early 1800s America feels like the first ripple leading to the tsunami of racial tension washing up today. A black man walking home innocuously who is greeted with distrust and violence from roving vigilantes recalls the charged interactions between minorities and police officers. The employment of selective Bible quotes to reinforce racial hierarchies draws attention to how religious groups often impede, rather than promote, equity and justice. Black women are commoditized and then made the targets of sexual violence – well, nothing much has changed there.

Parker’s message becomes apparent quite quickly: it’s a movie about Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, but it’s ~really~ about contentious race relations in 2016. Historicizing the present is, on its face, certainly nothing worthy of complaint; plenty of great films have used this technique to stirring effect. But “The Birth of a Nation” falters because in the relentless focus on contemporary concerns, Parker loses sight of what makes slavery so horrible.

By favoring present-day relevance over historical trauma, Parker denies us a full glimpse at the true terrors of slavery. It’s a pure spectacle, one that primarily exists to provide moments that propel Nat Turner’s ultimate transformation from plantation pastor to rebellious renegade. Parker’s parade of images meant to illustrate the brutality of the system do a disservice to the atrocity of slavery by avoiding anything that causes pain.

His sanitized glimpses at the violence include cutaways during forced teeth extraction, a painless whipping against the pole and an implied rape. Parker is so concerned about locating the pulse of “The Birth of a Nation” in modern times that he winds up taking a gallingly non-confrontational attitude about the subject of slavery. Placing his agenda on a pedestal over their pain rings both cheap and hollow.

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REVIEW: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

11 08 2015

Director Guy Ritchie got to where he is today – directing major studio action films – by never shying away from style.  At times, this tendency manifested itself in an almost enfant terrible fashion by flashing pizzaz when not necessarily required.  This was the Achilles’ heel of the “Sherlock Holmes” series, which suffered under the weight of his excessive flourishes.

Ritchie’s latest film, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” finds the writer/director on his best behavior.  Along with a gaggle of other writers, he adapts 1960s television series for the screen in a manner completely fitting for a Cold War-era property.  It has subtle modernizing twists but always feels like a throwback to a bygone age of unimaginable suaveness.

Leading the charge, perhaps more than Ritchie himself, is leading man Henry Cavill as CIA operative Napoleon Solo. From the second he first struts across the frame, Cavill radiates an old-school electricity. He owns the screen, and he knows it. Cavill’s Solo feels cut from the cloth of debonair screen legends, and coupled with his completely self-assured booming vocal inflections, he excitingly recalls a Cary Grant or a Humphrey Bogart.

The film sees him paired with an equally formidable force, Armie Hammer as the sculpted stoic KGB agent Illya Kuryakin.  Trained to remain unmovable and unflappable, Kuryakin makes a worthy counterpoint to Solo.  The two are archrivals by nature of their countries’ ongoing diplomatic stalemate yet must become buddy cops by necessity to prevent the last holdouts of the Nazi regime from activating a nuclear weapon.

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REVIEW: J. Edgar

29 03 2012

Is the biopic headed the way of the sports movie?  “J. Edgar” seems to point towards a larger genre decline.  Clint Eastwood’s latest attempt at biography moves slower than molasses or “Invictus,” whichever better communicates the idea that this movie is boring and stuffy.  Everyone knows that he can do better, and with this following “Hereafter,” I have to wonder whether Eastwood should just retire after his next good film (if there is ever another good one).

Really, “J. Edgar” is more worthy to be analyzed as a Dustin Lance Black movie.  The Oscar-winning writer of “Milk” seems to be far more interested in Hoover, the rumored closet homosexual, than Hoover, the revolutionary founding director of the FBI.  There’s so much hinting when it comes to his sexuality and so much omission when it comes to his career that Black’s portrait really amounts to little more than a pencil sketch on café napkin.  If he intended to make Hoover a counterpoint to Harvey Milk, he should have just outright said it.

Eastwood claims “J. Edgar” is not a love story, but the tenor of the movie he intended to direct is directly clashing with Black’s script.  As a result, the film just feels like a half-hearted attempt at everything it sets out to do.  Black writes so many scenes with sexual overtones that so flagrantly obvious, but Eastwood tries to keep it as platonic as he possibly can without changing the lines.  What ultimately makes it onto the screen is just awkward and uncomfortable as everyone seems far too worried about slander or decorum to go for it.

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Oscar Moment: Final 2011 Predictions!

23 01 2012

Well, folks … guesswork is almost over.  In a little over 12 hours, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) will announce their nominations for the best of the best of 2011.  We’ve had plenty of nominations and winners to give us an idea of what’s to come tomorrow morning.  I’ve done plenty of analyzing the categories, but I think now I just have to go with a mix of gut and knowledge.

Best Picture

  1. The Artist
  2. The Descendants
  3. The Help
  4. Hugo
  5. Midnight in Paris
  6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  7. War Horse
  8. The Tree of Life
  9. Moneyball
  10. Bridesmaids

I’m feeling only six Best Picture nominees this year.  (For those who don’t know about the new rules and regulations of the category, the Best Picture field is now an elastic number of nominees between five and ten.  In order to be nominated for Best Picture, a movie needs to receive at least five percent of the number one votes.)  The top five are very obvious.

I would say “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” takes the sixth spot because it’s the only other plausible nominee with enough guild support (sorry “Bridesmaids”).  If we learned anything from 2010, it was that the guilds still win out in the end.  “War Horse” has been far too silent on the guild front and hasn’t made nearly enough money to be a smashing success.  Plus, there’s an opportunity – and a likelihood – that they can give him another Oscar win in the Best Animated Feature category for “The Adventures of Tintin.” “The Tree of Life” has the critical support, but I don’t think that’s enough to break it into this race.  Oscar voters aren’t critics.

Best Director

  1. Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
  2. Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
  3. Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
  4. Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
  5. David Fincher, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

The top three are rock solid locks.  Woody Allen seems very inevitable given the widespread love for his movie and that the directors have nominated him six times before.  The last slot could go any number of ways – Fincher like the DGA picked, Malick like every critic proclaimed from the rooftop, Spielberg if “War Horse” actually makes a strong showing, or maybe even Tate Taylor if they really love “The Help.”

Looking at history, the lone director slot comes when there’s a particularly unknown director for a well-liked movie: Joe Wright missing for “Atonement,” Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris missing for “Little Miss Sunshine,” Marc Forster missing for “Finding Neverland,” and Gary Ross for “Seabiscuit.”  So I think it’s safe to say that the vulnerable director of a leading movie is Tate Taylor.  But who gets the slot?

I would say look to the DGA, but looking over their nominees, they do a better job of picking the Best Picture five than they do picking Best Director.  So thus I glean from their slate that “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has the strength to crack the Best Picture field, but Fincher might not necessarily show up here again.  My brain says go with Malick since lone director nominees usually represent far-out, well-directed artsy films.  But my gut says Fincher gets it, if for no other reason that Hollywood seems to have found its new anointed golden director and just wants to shower him with awards for everything.

Best Actor

  1. George Clooney, “The Descendants”
  2. Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”
  3. Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
  4. Michael Fassbender, “Shame”
  5. Leonardo DiCaprio, “J. Edgar”

Best Actor is, on the whole, a very conservative category.  Save the occasional Tommy Lee Jones for “In the Valley of Elah” or Javier Bardem for “Biutiful,” it almost always unfolds according to plan – no matter how boring that plan may be.  So yes, I still pick Michael Fassbender for “Shame” even though there has been some skepticism raised recently.  And yes, I will even defend Leonardo DiCaprio who stars in what will surely be one of the most maligned movies of 2011 to receive an Oscar nomination.  This year, he accumulated the three most important precursor nominations.  And he managed to get nominated in 2006 even when he had two performances in play.  They like him, and I think that (unfortunately) they’ll probably reward him with another nomination.

Best Actress

  1. Viola Davis, “The Help”
  2. Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
  3. Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”
  4. Tilda Swinton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
  5. Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

Yes, even though she missed with the BFCA and SAG, I have confidence that the late surge of support for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” can net a nomination for Rooney Mara over Glenn Close.  I don’t think “Albert Nobbs” has much buzz about it anymore, and even though they like Glenn Close, there are a lot of quotients that Mara would fill.  She’s under 30 and hasn’t been nominated before; you have to go back to 1994 to find a year where the Best Actress category was all prior nominees.  Thus, I rest my case and cross my fingers.

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
  2. Albert Brooks, “Drive”
  3. Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn”
  4. Jonah Hill, “Moneyball”
  5. Armie Hammer, “J. Edgar”

I only feel sure of the top pick Plummer; the next three are fairly vulnerable; the fifth spot could go any number of ways.  I still can’t predict Nolte for “Warrior,” and maybe it’s because I can’t separate my dislike of the movie from the nomination process.  I just don’t think the performance was good, and I’m hopeful that the Academy will validate my opinion.  It could be Brad Pitt as a double nominee for “The Tree of Life;” it could be Ben Kingsley sneaking in for “Hugo;” it could be SAG nominee Armie Hammer for “J. Edgar.”  When in doubt, go with SAG, I guess.

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Octavia Spencer, “The Help”
  2. Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”
  3. Jessica Chastain, “The Help”
  4. Janet McTeer, “Albert Nobbs”
  5. Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”

Someone else suggested the Woodley comparison to Andrew Garfield’s snub for “The Social Network,” and I’m dreading that it might be the case.  But I really have a hard time picking Melissa McCarthy for a nomination, even if she was a SAG nominee.  I just don’t see it happening.  I don’t think the performance is enough of a stand-out to break the funny woman barrier at the Oscars.  The nomination could be a symbolic vote, but I think traditional performances win the day.

Best Original Screenplay

  1. Midnight in Paris
  2. The Artist
  3. Bridesmaids
  4. Win Win
  5. Beginners

This category always has some surprises up its sleeve for nomination morning, so I don’t know how confident I feel picking so close to the WGA nominations.  I think “Bridesmaids” will see the prize for its remarkable awards run here, and I think “Win Win” has built up enough steam to get in too.  “50/50” has the WGA nom but not much else going for it.  Some say “A Separation” takes its enormous buzz and makes a showing here, but I think the drama of choice will be “Beginners.”  Just another gut feeling.

Best Adapted Screenplay

  1. The Descendants
  2. Moneyball
  3. The Help
  4. Hugo
  5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Four Best Picture nominees will be adapted, so I feel like those will make it in over some arguably “better written” or “more loved” work.  And “Moneyball” has too much acclaim and steam to ignore; it could win even if it doesn’t get a Best Picture nomination.

So that’s what I think!  What about you?  Anything you are hoping for?  Rooting against?