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-

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 57 minutes

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Starring: Douglas Booth, Charles Dance, Maeve Dermody, Burn Gorman, Anna Maxwell Martin, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Toby Stephens, Noah Taylor & Aidan Turner

Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE might sound familiar because: (a.) it’s required reading in some schools and (b.) it’s commonly cited as one of the greatest mysteries of all-time. With a fantastic reputation and worldwide acclaim, one would think that Christie’s novel would have been properly adapted to the screen already. You’d be sadly mistaken though, because most screen adaptations of the text rely on a silly clichéd ending (used in the stage play) and go for light-hearted chills instead of a dread-soaked atmosphere. BBC’s miniseries of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE may have added changes to the source material (after all, it needed to fill three hours), but remains a highly suspenseful, dark, and faithful execution (pardon the pun) of Christie’s most famous work.

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Ten strangers have been invited to Soldier Island, off the coast of England, by an unseen host. It appears that each guest was summoned under different pretenses, but they all share one thing in common. They are all, in some way, connected to the death of an innocent person. After eating a delicious dinner and still not having met their host, a strange record plays and reveals that all ten guests stand accused of murder. Nine of them shrug it off, while one fully admits to it. Soon, a death results from a glass of poisoned wine. It appears that someone on the island has the intention of murdering all ten guests (in ways related to a grim children’s rhyme) and bodies begin to pile up…

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I’ve purposely kept the plot synopsis vague, in case you’re not familiar with Agatha Christie’s novel. There are many twists and turns strewn throughout this complex mystery and I wouldn’t dare spoil any of them. Seeing that a few of these characters are killed throughout the three-hour running time, I will not single out a specific performance that might potentially reveal key details. Instead, I’ll briefly run through these performances one-by-one. Douglas Booth is perfectly smarmy as a reckless rich kid/motorist. Charles Dance brings his usual sophisticated manner to the table as a government official. Maeve Dermody is sympathetic as a teacher with some serious baggage.

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Burn Gorman is delightfully scummy as a questionable police officer. Anna Maxwell Martin and Noah Taylor play a foreboding servant couple. Sam Neill is tragic as the PTSD-suffering general, while Toby Stephens is equally distraught as a doctor with a drinking problem. Miranda Richardson is perfectly despicable as a holier-than-though upper-class zealot. Finally, Aidan Turner is great as a man who says what’s on his mind. All of these characters are potential suspects and each has a part to play in the proceedings, even if that just means being gruesomely murdered.

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A deliberate change that was not in Christie’s original novel are added flashbacks that flesh out these characters/suspects. Besides including some fantastically disturbing imagery in these moments, the miniseries masterfully dishes out nuggets of background information that grow as the number of living guests steadily decreases. I thought I had one character completely figured out (I’ve read the book) and flashbacks revealed something I didn’t see coming. These flashbacks are creative deviations from the original text, but actually feed off of the source material to make the already suspenseful story even more compelling.

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I appreciated that AND THEN THERE WERE NONE had a thick, gloomy atmosphere that rang absolutely true to Christie’s darker than dark mystery. There’s a sense of hopelessness and impending dread that’s aided by the stormy isolated setting. Slight tweaks are made to the book’s original conclusion that help it play out cinematically (and arguably in a far more brutal manner), but this is the most faithful on-screen conclusion to Christie’s twisted book. When I originally read the novel, my jaw was on the floor during the final chapter. The same thing happened here during the final ten minutes. I absolutely adore this miniseries’ final scenes and its unflinching eye for a chilling note to the send the viewer out on.

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The only subplot that I didn’t care for was a love-interest angle between two of the characters. This forced romance seems to come out of nowhere, with little rhyme or reason. People are dying, only a handful of survivors are left, there’s a killer in your midst, and you think it’s a good idea to start flirting with a stranger? It was too far-fetched for me to buy, though it does benefit a later scene. The deaths themselves are kept mostly off-screen, but we do see the graphic aftermath of each kill (packing graphic gore into a couple of moments).

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AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is easily the best adaptation I’ve seen of Agatha Christie’s novel. It captures the sense of impending dread and gut-punches the viewer multiple times with clever twists, turns, and guilty revelations. Though it tweaks a few of the book’s details along the way, only one of these changes was to the miniseries’ detriment. The rest adds to the already stellar and suspenseful viewing experience. AND THEN THERE WERE NONE is a must-see for fans of dark mysteries, intense thrillers, and (yes, I’m saying this) slasher flicks!

Grade: A

PREDESTINATION (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, some Sexuality, Nudity and Language

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Directed by: Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig

Written by: Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig

(based on the short story ALL YOU ZOMBIES by Robert A. Heinlein)

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, Noah Taylor, Madeleine West & Christopher Kirby

The Spierig Brothers, an Australian duo of directors/writers, seem to have a knack for adding creative spins to well-worn ideas. Their debut feature came in 2003 with UNDEAD, an ode to cheesy zombie comedies that also had the good sense to throw aliens into the mix. Initial feelings were split and I can’t remember much about watching that film. Their sophomore effort came in 2010 with DAYBREAKERS, a futuristic look at a world run by blood-sucking vampires. More positive reviews peaked out of that film and I do think it’s underrated. Now, their third feature is upon us. PREDESTINATION is a dark time travel tale that’s sure to start a lot of interesting conversations. Thus far, this intelligent science-fiction piece is the best movie to come out of the Spierigs’ filmography.

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An unnamed agent travels back in time to catch a terrorist known as The Fizzle Bomber. This agent’s initial attempt ends in devastating failure, so his strange superiors send him on a final mission to the 1970’s as an undercover bartender. Things should already be weird for this time-traveling crime fighter, but they get even weirder when a stranger named John starts up a conversation with the unnamed agent. John’s life story is told and time-travel is used. I can’t go into too much detail, because there are tons of twists and turns throughout the whole film. In the interest of avoiding huge and minor spoilers, I’ll just keep things vague.

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On the technical side, PREDESTINATION looks incredible. The visuals are gorgeous and this is especially impressive given that this was made on a relatively small budget (ranging from 1 to 5 million depending on which source you read). The alternate futuristic/past world feels real. The film treats its science fiction elements as a mere tool in a large-scale story. This is probably the most minimalist version of time-travel that I’ve ever seen and it’s treated as a fact of life known only to a few within the context of the film.

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There could easily be a misconception going into this film (especially from the trailer) that it’s action-packed, but this script relies far more on character interactions. Comparisons to MINORITY REPORT and LOOPER are valid enough, but PREDESTINATION creates its own unique world and has a slightly more dramatic story than either of those films. It definitely feels derivative, but manages to pull off the plot in a way that kept me hooked by shocking twists and turns. There were multiple points in the movie where I gasped at certain surprise revelation. The whole movie has been bouncing around in my head for a few hours now and the more I think about it, the more I like it. There is one stretch of the film that does seem slightly unfocused, but an incredible development occurs to pick things up right away. PREDESTINATION is not without the tiny plot hole or two that comes in any time-travel story with paradoxes, but these aren’t too distracting.

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Ethan Hawke is convincing in his mysterious agent role and plays this odd character in a way that keeps the viewer invested in him, even when the story isn’t specifically focused on the unnamed man. Sarah Snook (the best discovery of last year’s JESSABELLE) shines in a part that surely required a lot of dedication from this young actress, but she makes her complex character believable and tragic. Noah Taylor is a welcome presence, even if he really doesn’t show up for more than a couple of exposition monologues.

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I wish PREDESTINATION was receiving a nationwide theatrical release as opposed to just popping up on VOD as I can only imagine crowd reactions would be full of gasps, confused faces and sudden moments of realization. Though the script isn’t immune to plot holes that usually come in time-travel movies and feels somewhat derivative (being based on a story from the 1950’s helps its case), this film manages to add plenty of originality and imagination to stay fresh. The visuals are beautiful and it’s definitely a thinking man’s science fiction film (no huge action sequences or anything along those lines). It is most preferable to watch PREDESTINATION with a group of friends as this will likely lead to discussions afterwards about paradoxes, relationships, and the nature of the inevitable. Highly recommended!

Grade: B+

THE DOUBLE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language

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Directed by: Richard Ayoade

Written by: Richard Ayoade & Avi Korine

(based on the novella THE DOUBLE by Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, Cathy Moriarty, Phyllis Somerville, James Fox, Chris O’Dowd & Paddy Considine

Lynch, Cronenberg, and Gilliam. You don’t necessarily have to like their films to admit they’ve had a profound impact in creating surreal worlds. It’s no wonder that there’s at least one new filmmaker trying to emulate these three every year. Sometimes, it works out well (ANTIVIRAL, ENEMY) in telling an original untapped story in a viciously wild environment. Other times, you get something like THE DOUBLE. Richard Ayoade’s sophomore effort is trying far too hard to rank alongside classics like ERASERHEAD and BRAZIL. Not to point out the cruel irony of bad timing, but there’s already been a superior doppelganger film this year in ENEMY. Ayoade tries to inject dark comedy into his film but ultimately winds up with a bad flick…that happens to have good set design and atmosphere.

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In a depressing future, Simon is a young man being ignored and abused by everyone in his life. He’s worked at a bureaucratic company for seven years, but remains unnoticed by his co-workers. Simon also has a crush on Hannah, a fellow co-worker and neighbor, and can’t muster up the confidence to talk to her. Things change when a young man named James is hired on at Simon’s company. James and Simon are exact doubles in appearance, thus causing an odd friendship to form between them. As things go in doppelganger stories though, events take a nasty turn and they two find themselves at each others’ throats in complicated revenge.

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The nicest thing I can say about Richard Ayoade’s directing is that he knows exactly what kind of world he wanted to construct. The sets are simplistic, but also create a suffocating atmosphere. The color palette is a simple one. Everything consists of black, brown, white, gray, and puke colored variations of yellow and green. It’s a depressing industrialized future and this actually winds up being the best part of the film. It’s understandable why suicide is a common occurrence in this landscape. It’s a real shame that the lack of interesting characters and a familiar plot turn what might have been a successful homage to Gilliam into a boring endurance test. The main fault falls upon Jesse Eisenberg, who just isn’t compelling as either Simon or James. Eisenberg fails to elicit a single convincing emotion. He just comes off as phoning it in when he’s trying to be sad, funny or menacing. It may not have been Ayoade’s direct intention, but I didn’t care about Simon in the same way as those around him. I never once felt pity for his plights and actually wished the movie would kill him off quickly so it would end faster.

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THE DOUBLE has been billed as a dark comedy/satire by many, but I didn’t laugh once. Every punchline the movie threw out was the same one-note joke. James is more confident and everyone loves him, but they ignore or put down his physical duplicate Simon. The “funny” scenes fall flat. As the movie goes further along and James becomes an antagonist, things spiral through the been-there done-that formula of doppelganger stories. ENEMY used the same sort of approach with two exact doubles meeting and one becoming an antagonist, but that was executed in a far more creepy and believable way. I realize Ayoade was trying for a dark comedic angle, but none of it worked. About 40 minutes in, the film had become so tedious and boring that nothing may have been able to save it.

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THE DOUBLE has received a lot of praise from critics (following a festival run at both 2013’s Toronto International and 2014’s Sundance), but I’m going to side with the naysayers on this one. The sour taste left in my mouth after watching THE DOUBLE comes from a boring screenplay, bland characters, and ambition that doesn’t pay off. Ayoade has a knack for creative visuals, but maybe he should let someone else write the script next time or pick more original material. There’s a bleak world brought to life in THE DOUBLE, but I just wish the story was worthy of it.

Grade: D

EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Action and Violence, Language and brief Suggestive Material

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Directed by: Doug Liman

Written by: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth

(based on the novel ALL YOU NEED IS KILL by Hiroshi Sakurazaka)

Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton & Brendan Gleeson

EDGE OF TOMORROW is on the same level as OBLIVION, Tom Cruise’s science-fiction movie from last year. Plot elements that are easily recognizable from other work have been incorporated into this story and everything seems haphazardly shoved together in the hopes of making a smart blast of entertainment. I wouldn’t say intelligent or amazing is what the result comes off as, but it is enjoyable as a popcorn-munching blockbuster that’s saddled with quite a lot of problems. Based on a Japanese novel, TOMORROW is a film that’s main issues come with the story. The film is very well-paced but also overly familiar and loaded with silly exposition.

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A race of aliens have invaded most of Europe. At first, it appeared that humanity was doomed, until a new battle suit came along that superpowers soldiers with lots of weapons close at hand and a heavy layer of armor. After a meeting gone wrong, Major William Cage is arrested and forced into combat duty on what should be the final battle to take down the otherworldly menace. After dying a horrible death, Cage awakens to find that he’s back in the previous day and everything repeats itself. Using the knowledge of what’s going to happen to his advantage, Cage trains to become a better soldier and teams up with Sergeant Rita Vrataski (a.k.a. Full Metal Bitch, which is an awesome nickname) in an attempt to take down the aliens with some extreme tactics.

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It’s hardly original to describe EDGE OF TOMORROW as “the GROUNDHOG DAY of Science Fiction” as so many other critics have already labeled it as such. However, the film owes a lot to plenty of other science fiction movies in recent years. The source material (which the movie deviates from in a lot of ways) may have been written before SOURCE CODE (an okay time-loop film starring Jake Gyllenhaal) or ELYSIUM (prominently featuring mechanized super-suits) were released, but one can’t help getting flashbacks that we’ve already seen these kind of tropes brought to the screen in the past few years. The film even hits well-worn clichés that I called in advance (such as a forced romantic kiss near the ending).

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At nearly two hours, EDGE OF TOMORROW is surprisingly well-paced. The storytelling technique of Cruise living the same day over and over supplies workable comedy relief. It’s not necessarily that the viewer is forced to experience the same scenes on repeat (a problem I had with SOURCE CODE), but that we’re shown deviations that Cruise makes as the movie progresses. There’s also a few moments that deliver on surprising the audience in cool ways (dialogue states just how many times these characters have repeated certain scenarios with specific outcomes). There’s plenty of room for smart writing in EDGE OF TOMORROW, but it seems like none of the three credited screenwriters used much of it to their advantage. The reasoning for why this untrained Major is stuck in a time loop is pretty silly when it’s revealed in a 5-minute scene that overloads on exposition. Matters aren’t made much better by the stupid design of the aliens. These are the worst movie monsters I’ve seen in a long while. It seemed as if their were too many cooks in the kitchen on how the Mimics (no specific reason is given why these extraterrestrials are even given that label) look. For a movie with a budget this size, there’s no excuse for the creatures to look as poorly as they do. Those complaining about the Muto in GODZILLA (a film that I enjoyed a lot more than this one) need to take a gander at these tendril-covered dogs with glowing eyes.

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For all the amount of negative I’m piling on EDGE OF TOMORROW, I can say that it was enjoyable to watch in the moment. It’s not going to rock your world. It’s just plain serviceable popcorn entertainment. Serviceable isn’t exactly a quality I’d recommend running out and blowing money on to see in theaters. As convoluted and downright ludicrous as things got, I was still interested in seeing everything play out (even if I had predicted a lot of developments). The ending also takes a cheap cop-out (which dips into a massive plot hole) and I wouldn’t expect anything less in a big summer movie starring Cruise (have you seen the ridiculous conclusion to OBLIVION?). There was yet another opportunity for a creative final scene that would’ve echoed a bleak 70’s sci-fi era feeling, but it was missed completely.

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At multiple points in EDGE OF TOMORROW, Cruise’s character begins to explain his bizarre time-loop circumstances to someone by saying “At first, this is going to sound ridiculous, but the longer I talk, the more rational it’s going to appear.” I felt like replying with something along the lines of “This is ridiculous and the longer it goes on shows that there’s nothing rational about it!” There’s plenty wrong with EDGE OF TOMORROW. It’s a stupid B-movie that somehow got turned into a summer blockbuster with a big name cast. The acting is good enough (Bill Paxton is easily my favorite character). The effects range from great (the environments and super armor) to silly (the design of the aliens). The plot is a total mess, but everything plays out in such a fast pace that I was interested in seeing what would happen next. It’s an alright summer blockbuster, but when there are so many better films currently on the big screen, this one doesn’t come recommended. If you do feel the urge to check it out, then wait to rent it or watch it on cable. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.

Grade: C+

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