FREE FIRE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Pervasive Language, Sexual References and Drug Use

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Written by: Amy Jump & Ben Wheatley

Starring: Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay, Enzo Cilenti, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley & Noah Taylor

Ben Wheatley has carved out a nice little filmography for himself thus far. His films are heavily divisive, but have more than their fair share of fans. It’s also safe to say that Wheatley seems to try something different with each new movie. He frightened audiences with KILL LIST, made sick people laugh hysterically with SIGHTSEERS, experimented with A FIELD IN ENGLAND, and adapted J.G. Ballard to the screen in HIGH-RISE (my favorite film from last year). FREE FIRE sees Wheatley entering action comedy territory and he goes absolutely bonkers with it! This film is an adrenaline-pumping, bullet-filled blast!

In 1970s Boston, a group of unsavory individuals meet in an abandoned warehouse to conduct an illegal transaction. Money is being exchanged for guns and the IRA is involved. Through a series of unforeseen circumstances, things go awry and the deal goes bad. This leads to a free-for-all gunfight in the factory-turned-battleground. FREE FIRE has a very simple premise. Basically, this movie is a feature-length gun fight. That sounds like it might be potentially boring, but Wheatley writes colorful characters into the fray, nicely sets up subplots between various thugs, and delivers hilariously awesome mayhem.

I need to praise the hell out of this film’s colorful characters and performances. In a short amount of screen time, Wheatley and Amy Jump’s screenplay establishes who these people are. All of them are villainous to some degree, which makes this a fun ride of bad guys vs. bad guys. Brie Larson is a major stand-out as the only gal (or “bird”) of the bunch, coming off as attractive, smart and deadly. She’s also the closest thing to a “good” person in this story. Armie Hammer is hilarious as a charismatic enforcer. Even when he’s attempting to kill some of the film’s more memorable folks, Hammer still remains likable and fun to watch.

Cillian Murphy is low-key charming as the main IRA member, while Michael Smiley gets in some stand-out moments and lines. Sam Riley and Jack Reynor star as smaller supporting thugs. Their subplot evolves in a big way and also makes for one of the best scenes in the entire film. Sharlto Copley is in fine over-the-top form as a well-dressed gangster who isn’t above bribing his associates with extra money to rush into certain death. While it seems like Noah Taylor’s John Denver-loving madman would play a bigger part in the story, he’s sadly underused and regulated to the background for most of his screen time.

FREE FIRE’s story may revolve around one big gun fight, but its action goes beyond bullets. This film’s various confrontations extend throughout the warehouse as new developments come to light and specific individuals decide to target other specific individuals. A cat-and-mouse sequence between Copley and Smiley is masterfully executed as both cunning gangsters are forced to use their wits to possibly end the other one’s life. Crowbars, broken glass and whatever’s lying around also makes its way into the violence. This bloodbath is executed in a mostly light-hearted, dark-humored manner though. Wheatley’s gangster opus frequently gets the viewer laughing as much as they’re cringing. For example, Armie Hammer has time to roll/smoke two joints in the space of this gun fight and a stray syringe stabbing into a guy’s hand made me wince more than any of the bullet wounds.

Clever dialogue, a strong soundtrack, and the worn-down warehouse setting all add a special flavor to FREE FIRE. The script reminds me of an early Tarantino film, but it doesn’t feel like a wannabe Tarantino knock-off. This movie does encounter flaws with Noah Taylor’s aforementioned one-dimensional character and two shaky-cam bits that took me out of the action. Thankfully, the latter were only used during one early scene. Also, there’s a specific plot point that’s mentioned and then never returned to. I was hoping this discovery would come back in a big way, but apparently this was just a small joke and the film forgot about it. These are minor gripes with an overall stellar action-comedy.

FREE FIRE is another winner from Ben Wheatley and one of the most enjoyable action films that I’ve seen in a while. It’s wildly over-the-top, darkly hilarious, well-acted, and cleverly constructed. The action is pretty much non-stop from the moment it gets going and constantly keeps things interesting, especially as new plot points arise. This is a mayhem-filled action-comedy, in which every character winds up getting shot (at least) once by the time the end credits roll. FREE FIRE is an awesome ballad of bullets and comes highly recommended!

Grade: A-

THE LOBSTER (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content including Dialogue, and some Violence

Lobster poster

Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos

Written by: Efthymis Filippou & Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, John C. Reilly, Lea Seydoux, Michael Smiley & Ben Whishaw

After receiving praise and notoriety for DOGTOOTH and ALPS, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has finally made his English-language debut and it’s a love story unlike any other. Throwing pitch-black satire about the modern dating scene, a disturbing dystopian future, and a truly oddball romance into one cinematic blender, THE LOBSTER is haunting, funny, and beautiful all at the same time. It’s almost impossible to properly categorize this film under one genre, because it effortlessly ventures into shocking and wholly unexpected places.

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In the not too distant future, people live in a place simply known as the City. The City is populated by happy couples, while single people are shipped away to a foreboding place simply known as the Hotel. At the Hotel, single people are given 45 days to fall in love. If they fail to find a significant other within that length of time, these unlucky single folks are turned into an animal of their choice. Yes, you read that correctly. Hotel activities consist of harsh rules, forced date activities, skits about the dangers of being single, and daily hunts wherein Hotel guests tranquillize Loners (single escapees living in the forest) for extra days. David (Colin Farrell) has just arrived at the Hotel. This recent divorcee has a 45 days to find romance or he will be turned into a lobster. Unexpectedly, he begins to find love in a most dangerous way.

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The story’s dystopian setting is deliberately vague and director Lanthimos reveals aspects of this society through small creative details that poke out in every scene. Rachel Weisz somewhat guides the viewer along through voice-over narration and provides context as well as brilliant bits of humor. Lanthimos creepily introduces the frightening elements of this story through a suggestive less-is-more approach. We don’t need to see the inside of the “Transformation Room,” because one character’s description of the process is gruesome enough for us to imagine its interior. Also, LOBSTER’s disturbing moments (there are a few) pack a ton emotional impact, because they make complete sense in the context of this already absurd film.

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As David, Colin Farrell plays a geeky, lonely protagonist unlike any I’ve seen him tackle before. Though he’s only handed a pair of glasses, a thick moustache and blandly colored clothes, Farrell disappears into the role of this strange main character. I won’t say that David is someone who’s entirely worthy of our sympathies, but nobody in this film fully shines as a morally “good” character. Instead, they’re all deeply flawed individuals who each have serious baggage attached to them. Rachel Weisz plays Short Sighted Woman, who begins a beautiful romance with David, even though it’s forbidden by the forest-dwelling society of Loners. The chemistry between Farrell and Weisz works flawlessly as their characters naturally play off of each other and I deeply cared about what might eventually happen to them, especially as the stakes gradually became higher as the story went along.

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On the sidelines are John C. Reilly as Lisping Man and Ben Whishaw as Limping Man, both of whom deliver some dry comic relief and disturbing moments in equal measure. The punishment for masturbation (self-pleasure is forbidden in the Hotel) is especially dark and so are the lengths that Limping Man goes to in order to force himself into a relationship. Olivia Colman is a formidable antagonist as the uptight Hotel Manager, whose first on-screen appearance includes locking a guest’s hand behind his back for an extreme demonstration about the dangers of being single. Michael Smiley and (especially!) Lea Seydoux both shine as the intimidating Loner leaders, while Ariane Labed receives a brief memorable role as the Hotel Maid and Angeliki Papoulia is intense as the appropriately named Heartless Woman.

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THE LOBSTER is impressive in never letting its humor drown out the more serious aspects of this darkly inventive satire. The plot constantly moves into interesting new places, making this one of the strangest and most original romances I’ve ever seen. The gloomy atmosphere, stark dialogue, and grim sensibilities may turn off viewers who want something a bit more upbeat and cheerful, but THE LOBSTER remains a beautiful work of art flourishing in its dark weirdness. I’ve described THE LOBSTER as best I can, but may not have done an adequate job…mainly because I feel this film is damn near indescribable in its humor, creativity, beauty, and sheer brilliance. It’s definitely not a movie that will appeal to everyone, but I’d still urge you to give it a shot. Love it or hate it, you definitely won’t ever forget it. I very much fall on the “love it” side of the fence. THE LOBSTER is one of the best films of 2016!

Grade: A+

BLACK MIRROR Season 2 (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

BlackMirror2 poster

Starring: Hayley Atwell, Domhnall Gleeson, Lenora Crichlow, Daniel Rigby, Jason Flemyng & Chloe Pirrie

Though it contained only three episodes, BLACK MIRROR’s darker-than-dark first season received enough critical acclaim and popularity to warrant a second outing. In early 2013, Brooker returned to British television screens with three more tales of insanity and futuristic technology run amok. Unlike the first season, which was a trio of greatness, this second season contains two winners and the show’s first real misfire. If you’re looking for more madness and brilliance in equal measure, then you’ll enjoy two episodes of the three. Without further ado, onto the stories themselves…

1. Be Right Back

BE RIGHT BACK: Martha (Hayley Atwell) and Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) are a loving couple, until Ash is killed in an accident. Desperate for closure, Martha signs up for an experimental software that allows her speak to a computerized imitation of Ash. It’s meant to be a therapeutic coping tool, but Martha soon takes this program to dangerous levels. BE RIGHT BACK is equal parts sad and scary, mostly hinging on Atwell’s performance as an emotionally distraught woman placed in a horrible scenario. As with most BLACK MIRROR episodes, you shouldn’t expect an upbeat message and positive outlook on the world. This cautionary tale’s natural progression builds tension and relies on believable emotions, both of which make up this episode’s tragic core. A

2. White Bear

WHITE BEAR: Season one’s FIFTEEN MILLION MERITS remains my favorite episode of BLACK MIRROR, but WHITE BEAR is a very close runner-up. A woman (Lenora Crichlow) wakes up with no memory and finds the world around her in a chaotic frenzy. Most of the population has been zombified by a scrambled electronic signal and masked psychos are spilling blood on the streets. WHITE BEAR begins as a derivative hodge-podge of clichés and then brilliantly becomes something else entirely. This story becomes absolutely nightmarish when realize the social commentary that Brooker was aiming for and the horrifying implications of the episode’s final minutes (keep watching through the end credits). A+

3. Waldo Moment

THE WALDO MOMENT: Every anthology series is destined to have weak episodes and WALDO MOMENT is BLACK MIRROR’s first so-so installment. This story isn’t bad, but doesn’t fit the tone of the series. Failed comedian Jamie Salter (Daniel Rigby) has found success in voicing satirical cartoon bear Waldo. When his producers want to move the character forward onto a bigger show and have Waldo cover the election year, Jamie reluctantly agrees. The public goes nuts for Waldo…more so than for any of the actual politicians. I feel that the only BLACK MIRROR quality in WALDO MOMENT comes from the somewhat predictable (but still effective) ending. The rest of this story plays out like a ham-fisted political drama and is a bit too obvious in its message. Not a bad episode, but not a particularly good one either. B-

Black Mirror White Bear

BLACK MIRROR’s second season isn’t as strong as its first, but I say that due to one out-of-place misfire. Fans of Charlie Brooker’s insanity/brilliance are sure to be pleased with the majority of this season and may even find something to enjoy in the weakest episode. WHITE BEAR is among the very best of the series, while BE RIGHT BACK is a haunting new spin on a tragic old tale. WALDO MOMENT is only recommended for purists who won’t feel content unless they’ve seen it. Two out of three isn’t bad!

Grade: A-

THE HALLOW (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Hallow poster

Directed by: Corin Hardy

Written by: Corin Hardy

Starring: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton & Michael Smiley

Ever since I started attending yearly Sundance screenings, there always seem to be two interesting films with conflicting showtimes. This year, those two films were THE HALLOW and IT FOLLOWS. I decided to go with IT FOLLOWS and proceeded to wait for months to catch my first glimpse of the folklore-inspired HALLOW. Having finally seen the film, I can say that I’m glad I chose IT FOLLOWS over this creature feature. There’s nothing particularly terrible about THE HALLOW. The film boasts impressive cinematography and crazy practical effects, but is fairly standard stuff in terms of characters and plot.

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Adam Hitchens is a British conversationalist who has recently moved his family (wife and baby) to the Irish countryside. In spite of warnings from the intimidating locals, Adam proceeds to trek into the woods, cutting off parts of trees and mucking about where he probably shouldn’t. However, Adam takes one step too far into the spooky forest and some baby-snatching fairy-folk come knocking for his child. In an effort to keep his family safe and survive the night, Adam must lock the doors, arm himself, and hope for the best.

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As mentioned before, THE HALLOW is a very good-looking movie. There’s a thick, fog-laden atmosphere throughout as well as palpable dread in the first act. The film is at its strongest when the fairy folk are merely hiding at the edge of the woods and we only catch a passing glimpse of one. The effects used to bring these monsters to life are a combination of people in suits (likely contortionists) and puppetry. To be fair, these fairies look freaky and there’s a cool origin story behind them that’s more implied than outright stated. However, we see entirely too much of them after the first act. THE HALLOW does a nice job of building up tension in the opening and then turns into an all-out chase/showdown between the family and the fairies for the next hour of the film. When you keep showing your monsters and nothing changes about them, they become less scary and threatening. The same effect happened in the DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK remake, which also dealt with evil fairies and dark folklore. As a result, the monsters are less than frightening by the time the last act arrives.

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THE HALLOW also has rather sloppy writing in its script. There are a few cool ideas here (one of which adds a scientific possibility for the fairy folk), but the characters and basic story are very by-the-numbers. All we know about Adam is that he’s a guy trekking into areas where he shouldn’t be. All we know about his wife is that she’s timid, frightened and desperately clings to their crying child for a majority of the film. Neither of these characters change much as the story progresses forward. To boot, there are certain plot developments that are telegraphed way too far in advance for moviegoers who are even paying the slightest bit of attention. I wish that the script didn’t highlight early foreshadowing in a blatantly upfront way that made one “twist” ridiculously obvious as opposed to a shocking surprise. The overly predictable plot results in the running time becoming slightly tedious during the second half as we just wait for certain scenes to happen.

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I wish I could love THE HALLOW. I like when horror films tackle creepy folklore and this film has stellar practical creature effects. It’s an atmospheric, but all too formulaic, ride that happens to be populated with bland characters who make stupid decisions for no other reason than to move the story forward. Don’t get me wrong. This film is entertaining and the monsters look really damn cool. However, there’s just not a lot going on in the story other than a family being warned for the first 30 minutes and then chased around by evil fairies for the last hour. As a whole, THE HALLOW is a fun, predictable horror flick that has beautiful visuals and freaky monsters. Those are about the only merits that I can recommend it on though.

Grade: B-

BLACK SEA (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, some Graphic Images and Violence

BSea poster

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald

Written by: Dennis Kelly

Starring: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, David Threlfall, Karl Davies & Michael Smiley

BLACK SEA is a nice surprise. Though I was sold on the concept and talent involved, the promotional material for this film made it look like a standard thriller about a killer picking people off one by one that happened to be set on a submarine. This was not the case at all. BLACK SEA turned out to be a thrilling adventure that had me on the edge of my seat and elicited many gasps from the decent sized audience who saw it with me. This might go down as one of 2015’s most underrated flicks.

BLACK SEA, Jude Law, 2014. ph: Alex Bailey/©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

Robinson is a dedicated submarine captain who has sacrificed his relationships for his job and has also just been unceremoniously fired. Frustrated with the prospect of living out of a dingy apartment and flipping burgers for the rest of his life, this former ocean expert is offered the opportunity of a lifetime. He and a specialized crew are hired to go on a treasure hunt. A sunken U-Boat lying at the bottom of the Black Sea is supposedly filled with millions in Nazi gold. The submarine is picked. The expedition is financed. The crew is assembled (half British and half Russian). As the trip begins, tensions ignite. Danger comes from all sides and the deep-sea voyage begin to go sour.

BLACK SEA, Jude Law, 2014. ph: Alex Bailey/©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

Being partially misled by a trailer that seemingly gave away the whole plot, I was surprised that BLACK SEA not only to avoided generic thriller tropes, but quickly turned into a adrenaline-pumping adventure. The story isn’t only about tensions rising in a crew that’s split down in the middle, but also about the many perils of the treasure hunt to begin with. While there are bombastic scenes of bad things hitting the fan (especially in the final third), there are equally moments of quiet dread and tension coming from the outside of the submarine as well. Plot developments can be predictable in moments, including the addition of a teenage sidekick in the submarine and a few generic memory flashbacks from Jude Law’s character, but BLACK SEA is a highly entertaining blast.

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Director Kevin Macdonald masterfully piles on intense atmosphere. This film will definitely make claustrophobic viewers majorly uncomfortable as most of the story takes place under the sea where death surrounds the crew with no easy escape. The cinematography is beautiful and I was wholly convinced that this film was shot on location, though it was actually filmed in England and not war-torn waters of Russia. The story takes a dark turn as bodies pile up, but these aren’t simply the result of a crazy crew member (though there are a couple of those in tow). These deaths are made more devastating given how damned good most of the performers are in their roles. When a character died, I was sad to see them go.

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Jude Law is a quality actor and that hasn’t changed for his role as hardened Captain Robinson. Ben Mendelsohn is particularly memorable as a diver with a short fuse. Scoot McNairy seems to have a knack for playing assholes and that translates well into his role as a snobby high-class assistant thrown on board with a lower-class crew. Michael Smiley is a nice addition as well, but young Bobby Schofield is annoying as the young teenage Tobin. That might be attributed to this character being a casualty of a number of clichés that make their way on board. Besides a kid-in-peril, there’s also familiarity in where things ultimately wind up. However, these issues don’t detract too much from the terrifically fun experience.

BLACK SEA, Jude Law, 2014. ph: Alex Bailey/©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

BLACK SEA might have a few clichés in tow, but is a great adventure nonetheless. This is not the generic thriller that was advertised, even if you can easily guess where the conclusion will wind up about 15 minutes before it hits. The performances are stellar as is the adrenaline rush left by this modern sea tale. BLACK SEA is a trip that’s well worth taking!

Grade: B+

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