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 /

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REVIEW: The Hollars

23 08 2016

The HollarsSundance Film Festival

With a tender blend of comedy and drama, solid work from a big ensemble cast comprised of some surprising players as well as an acoustic-heavy soundtrack, John Krasinski’s “The Hollars” more or less epitomizes the kind of film that put Sundance on the map. And yet precisely because Krasinski earnestly embraces just about every indie cliché, the film manages to move and delight.

Sure, we could probably do without Krasinski’s John Hollar, another struggling artist (a graphic novelist) who fumbles when it comes to commitment. But he’s worth taking a journey with since Krasinski endows him with the kind of idealized everyman charisma that he perfected in 9 years behind a desk in “The Office.” John does not hesitate to break down as his world collapses around him, and Krasinski is there with vulnerability and empathy.

Yes, we likely do not need another dying mother like Margo Martindale’s Sally Hollar, whose sudden brain tumor discovery brings John home from New York. A few minutes into her spewing Southern fried wisdom, however, and you hope she never stops. Sally knows exactly what to say to people while also possessing the uncommon gift of knowing when people need to hear her sharp observations. She’s the glue holding together the lives of her husband and two sons, and Martindale approaches her character’s dawning acceptance of the the inevitable with a truly moving grace.

Fine, we might not need the vast array of supporting turns. Anna Kendrick is delightful, per usual, as John’s newly pregnant girlfriend Rebecca, although the script gives her little to do besides constant worrying and supporting about her boyfriend. Charlie Day provides nice comic relief as a jealous ex-high school rival of John; the fast-talking pipsqueak routine is very in line with his persona, though. Richard Jenkins turns in another excellent performance as an emotionally distraught patriarch. (The only real surprise of “The Hollars” is Sharlto Copley, in his first non-effects driven film, as John’s unexplainably neurotic brother Ron.)

Complain all you want about this movie existing. Point out all the boxes it checks. But “The Hollars” is here whether you like it or not, and Krasinski welcomes all with a wide embrace and an open heart. Be it your first or umpteenth indie family dramedy, the genuineness of the film can be disarming for those willing to let their guard down and just fall for its charms. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Hardcore Henry

19 04 2016

The vicarious thrill-ride and emphasis on spectacle over story are just two aspects of video games that seem to have infected the contemporary action movie. Yet very few, if any, can commit to maintaining the first-person aesthetic so prevalent in the format. At least, that is, not until Ilya Naishuller’s Hardcore Henry.”

The film takes its viewers on a wild ride through a strange Russian criminal underworld through the eyes of Henry, a man saved from death thanks to the installation of a few cybernetic limbs. Though he lacks the mental capacity to fully understand what this means, it makes him into a ruthless killer – essentially a human weapon.

“Hardcore Henry” is best understood – no, best felt – as a visceral experience. Though what it replicates is less the effect of playing a video game and more a kind of “Cloverfield”-style nausea. With perpetual off-balance motion, the film recalls the sensation of being a fumbling, stumbling drunk more than it gives the feeling of being an assassin. Its GoPro-shot immediacy also does the video quality few favors, summoning memories of YouTube videos more than any kind of cinematic adventure.

Furthermore, the authenticity of the mad rush of blood to the head gets consistently undercut by Naishuller’s visible artifice. When assuming the identity of an avatar with their joystick, gamers get a level of continuity. Essentially, their play only gets interrupted by the end of a round (or by pausing the action). In “Hardcore Henry,” however, the action gets spliced up like a “Bourne” film, and each cut only serves to showcase the limitations of the technology Naishuller and producer Timur Bekmambetov tout as being so awesome.

But those gamers need not worry, as “Hardcore Henry” panders to them even more obviously than “Deadpool.” Women are little more than sex objects; at one point, their subtitled dialogue overlaps as if to suggest that one female is indistinguishable from another. Bloodshed and murder take place at gratuitous levels, enough to raise the possibility that its creators have little to no regard for human life. At least in the films of someone like Tarantino, gore goes in purpose of themes or characters. “Hardcore Henry” just revels in raking up a body count because it can. Naishuller’s innovations here are worth exploring – mainly so they can be improved. B-2stars





REVIEW: Maleficent

1 06 2014

What’s old must become new again in order to keep movie studios’ back catalogues fresh so they can earn money; thus, we end up with “Maleficent,” a reimagining of their “Sleeping Beauty” tale.  It’s a film that uses the same formula as “Oz the Great and Powerful” and then splashes it with flourishes from Tim Burton’s 2010 revisionist “Alice in Wonderland.”  It trots out the familiar mythology – only now in sleek CGI! – and then puts a few twists on it to justify the remake.

Analyzed in tandem with the Mouse House’s 2013 megahit “Frozen,” the film yields interesting insights into the psyche of Disney.  This marks their second straight tentpole that does not give the audience the expected male-female romantic ending, leaving them to ponder the many different forms love can take.  One can only wonder where these progressive messages will ultimately end.

But that’s about all the intellectual discussion I can pull out of “Maleficent.”  It’s a sloppily written film filled with feckless characters whose discernible motivations are few and far between.  The movie needlessly complicates the simple 1959 classic story, making it a slow plod.  And, from a perspective likely only depressing to me, it reduces great actors like Imelda Staunton and Lesley Manville to playing cartoonish fairies in a failed comic relief subplot.

What should be the star in absence of these elements, the visual effects, are even quite confused.  Scenes designed to showcase the work of artists who work in the medium of pixels are cluttered with details that don’t cohere for a unified look.  At times, the film resembles the Pandora of James Cameron’s “Avatar;” at others, Burton’s “Alice.”  The opening scenes resemble an illustrated children’s storybook … and then, there are 3 mo-cap fairies.  The whole collective vibe recalls a 2002 video game like “Kingdom Hearts.”

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REVIEW: The A-Team

14 06 2010

I think part of the reasons that few people listen to film critics anymore is because they seem to review every movie expecting it to be “Citizen Kane.”  Such ridiculously lofty expectations have put the trade on the verge of extinction as a profession.  It’s important to have high expectations of a movie as a reviewer and moviegoer, yet at the same time, it’s important to keep things in perspective.

For a movie like “The A-Team,” the most we can expect is some well thought-out action sequences, a decent plot that has the ability to engage, and potentially some character development.  For pure entertainment, it’s fairly successful.  For much else, you’re might be out of luck.

“The A-Team” is no “Citizen Kane” of action movies, but it’s a very different kind of action movie that is a nice change of pace in the nearly homogenous summer market.  The action focuses on the plan, not just indiscriminate shooting and killing.  Many of the sequences weave in the team of elite operations carrying out the plan with them formulating it.  It’s a very cool way to execute the action, and the filmmakers nailed the only thing that was essential for them to get right.

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REVIEW: District 9

18 08 2009

In life, we often fear the unknown; with movies, I embrace it.  I saw “District 9” on blind faith, not recognizing the director or actors and knowing virtually nothing about its plot (credit this to the subtle yet effective viral marketing for the film).  I also saw it in spite of the fact that Peter Jackson, who I consider vastly overrated, was giving it a major push.  The element of the unknown only adds to the suspense of “District 9,” which is fresh and exciting to watch unfold.

The less you know about the movie, the more you will enjoy it.  I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but it involves aliens being segregated in Johannesburg’s District 9 that evokes a powerful comparison to South Africa’s Apartheid era.  And Wikus (Sharlto Copley) works closely with the aliens’ situation but will soon get much closer and gain different insight into their presence.

The first half of “District 9” is sublime.  It has power on so many different levels and you will feel it hit you hard in your gut.  The originality and unpredictability is unlike any movie of its kind you have ever seen.  Unfortunately, its second act lapses into your common, banal action flick.  And it is such a shame because it isn’t your run-of-the-mill movie; it is a smart, inventive tale that takes a concept so surreal and makes it completely believable.  Neill Blomkamp’s masterful direction allows us to be so convinced by utilizing a unique narrative voice, but I wish he had stuck to his vision throughout the movie.  But the success of the movie should be equally attributed to star Sharlto Copley, who provides a tender portrayal of Wikus that really hits home.  The film’s visual effects are breathtaking, making the aliens scary and gross, but also allowing the audience to feel some compassion for them.  But what really sets it apart from the plethora of similar movies is its simplicity.  So many science fiction movies feature really elaborate and intricately woven plots, but “District 9” is straightfoward and doesn’t try to hide anything from you.  It lets one event and motivation drive the movie, eliminating a lot of unnecessary confusion and making it quite a bit easier to watch.  Other sci-fi movies that have executed a similar formula to great success are “Alien” and “The Terminator,” and “District 9,” although not a landmark like the aforementioned, is poised to take its rightful place as a classic in the genre.  A- / 3halfstars