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-

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Zombie Violence and Action, and brief Suggestive Material

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Directed by: Burr Steers

Written by: Burr Steers

(based on the novel PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES by Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith)

Starring: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance & Lena Headey

Jane Austen’s acclaimed classic gets an undead, ass-kicking twist in this straight-faced spoof. Based on a parody novel in which Seth Grahame-Smith inserted zombies and martial arts into a beloved romance, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES might be the perfect date movie of 2016. There are zombies and combat scenes for the guys, and a comedy of manners and old-fashioned romance for the gals. This is all executed in a stylish way that kept my eyes glued to the screen from start to finish. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES is the kind of film that you simply have to see in order to believe that it actually exists.

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A zombie apocalypse has broken loose in pre-Victorian England. Families now live in fortified homes and train their children in the ways of the orient (Chinese and Japanese fighting styles). Little matters like hordes of flesh-eating monsters and daily bloodshed won’t keep wealthy families from trying to marry off their children though. Elizabeth Bennet is a cynical young woman who doesn’t believe in love until she meets the inscrutable Colonel Darcy. While her four other sisters find love in various places, the sword-wielding Elizabeth is given a variety of suitors and begins to develop a complicated relationship with the zombie-slaying Darcy. All of this is set to the backdrop of a humans vs. zombies war raging in London.

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES gets credit where credit is due in being (mostly) faithful to the original Austen novel…just with added explosions, fights, and brain-eating ghouls thrown into the mix. One can’t help but admire how seriously this film takes itself as even the silliest moments are played out with a straight face. Director/writer Burr Steers manages to execute his zombie-filled version of Austen’s classic in a stylish manner that makes the film entertaining to watch the whole way through, even in the zombie-free scenes. A prologue near the beginning is pulled off in a ridiculous, yet very cool, way that made me realize that I was in for quite a ride.

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The self-serious (and equally hilarious) tone of ZOMBIES is aided by the performances of a talented cast. Lily James takes a break from her family-friendly and typically British fare to kick ass and fall in love as Elizabeth. This zombie-slaying version of the literary character rightfully seems up to snuff in her distinctly Austen sophisticated manner, but also joins the ever-growing list of strong female heroines in recent years. Sam Riley is equally entertaining as the sullen, but likable Darcy. Darcy’s introduction is a stand-out moment and he remains a compelling character as both a romantic interest and professional zombie killer. Elizabeth’s sisters receive substantially less screen time (after all, this movie could only be so long), but Bella Heathcote is great in her own romantic subplot as Jane.

Lily James;Bella Heathcote

Two GAME OF THRONES alumni pop up in brief side roles. Charles Dance is occasionally glimpsed as the Bennet sisters’ good-humored father, while Lena Headey is appropriately intimidating as the one-eyed Lady Catherine. Jack Huston is great as the mysterious Mr. Wickham, Elizabeth’s rival love interest with unique theories about how to end the zombie apocalypse. Meanwhile, Matt Smith’s Mr. Collins is easily the funniest part of the entire film. His comedic timing and quirky line delivery are pitch perfect.

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Though it’s only rated PG-13, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES gets away with a lot. All of the fight and combat scenes are impressively choreographed. The deceptive teenage-oriented rating still allows room for exploding zombie heads, severed limbs, and other bits of gore. The make-up work on these zombies ranges from creepy to over-the-top (in a good way). Aside from the onslaught of sword-fighting, martial arts, and undead corpses, Austen fans will be glad to hear that the film remains a romance through and through. Lines of dialogue have been tailored to include words like: zombies, undead, arts of the orient, and combat. However, they don’t feel as out-of-place as you might think they would be.

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My only complaint (and it’s a noticeable one) with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES is that the screenplay includes vague bits of a subplot involving the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse that seems entirely useless to the film as a whole. The only reason that I can think of for its inclusion was to set up for possible sequels (which is also evidenced by a mid-credits scene). This is my sole gripe with an otherwise surprisingly solid film. This zombified take on PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is entertaining as hell and all the better for it. Austen’s beloved romance remains fully intact and we still get to see zombies being slain by classic literary characters. What more could you want from a movie like this?

Grade: B+

MALEFICENT (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Sequences of Fantasy Action and Violence, including Frightening Images

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Directed by: Robert Stromberg

Written by: Linda Woolverton

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Miranda Richardson & Peter Capaldi

Disney is the biggest thing to ever happen to family entertainment! From the history making first-ever animated feature (SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS) to a well-known golden streak from ’89 to ’94 (including LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN, and THE LION KING), the studio has revolutionized fairy tales and made kids films into movies that every generation can enjoy on different levels. MALEFICENT is the first instance of Disney taking one of their own cartoons (which in turn was based on a Brothers Grimm story) and translating it into a live action adaptation with a twist. The cool spin being that this actually one of the darker Disney films as it follows the villainess of that original 1959 animated film and treats princess Aurora as a secondary character. Everything focuses on Maleficent’s view instead of the traditional story that everyone has become accustomed to. It may be receiving some mixed response from critics and general audiences, but I absolutely adored this new take on an old fairy tale.

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In a far away land, there exists two kingdoms at odds with each other. One is ruled by a greedy king and the neighboring kingdom is a wondrous place populated by magical creatures. A young fairy named Maleficent adores her massive wings and finds what she believes to be kindness in the beastly mankind, only be hideously betrayed. A wicked side is born within this once peaceful fairy and an unbreakable curse is placed on the newborn princess Aurora. From there on the tropes that everybody knows and loves are retold, but from a fresh perspective. The story is turned in significant ways that completely changes the flow and ultimate message behind the tale.

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To be perfectly honest, I think that Disney’s 1959 SLEEPING BEAUTY is actually one of the studio’s lesser films. It’s bland as bland can be, despite some pretty cool scenes. Every single thing that was done differently in MALEFICENT actually benefitted the well-worn story in more ways than one might have anticipated. Of course, this move might displease a lot of Disney diehards, but it signifies a step in a new direction for the fairy tale brand. With another originally bland cartoon being turned into a live-action film on the way (CINDERELLA), Disney seems to be moving forward into exciting new territory. MALEFICENT is a family friendly, dark (but not too dark) fantasy that absolutely delighted me and seems to be working on a number of others.

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Taken on a purely spectacle level, MALEFICENT is visually gorgeous. The effects are incredible and fantastical creatures (of which there are plenty) are brought to life in awesome fashion. As the title character, Angelina Jolie fully inhabits the role of Maleficent. Everyone else plays second fiddle, some more than others, but that’s a necessity to the story being told. The character of the cursed princess herself is filled by Elle Fanning (younger sister to Dakota Fanning) and she does a wonderful job in the role of the kind, naïve girl who is far more fleshed out than her animated counter part. As the three good fairies, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville are essentially comic relief, but they hit the marks with some very funny moments. Meanwhile, Sharlto Copley is a tad underused as the king with a lot of motivation to kill Maleficent, but does shine in the scenes he’s fully used in. A new character added is Sam Riley playing Maleficent’s shape-shifting servant (mainly seen as a crow or a human) and I dug the little details on the design of this bird-turned-man (a beak-like nose among other subtle touches).

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An area where MALEFICENT excels is carving out a new mythology for the well-known villainess. Certain fantasy plot points are thrown in that were either glanced over in the animated film or completely new to this version. The film is very in sync with the fantastical atmosphere that it maintains for the running time. Originally, the running time was listed at being over two hours long, which would make for a more epic approach. This is one of the few cases where I will say that the rumored studio interference with the final cut may have been far more of a benefit than a curse. The pacing is fast, but I never felt it was going at a hectic speed that one might not be able to keep up with. It’s short, not too complicated with the heart of the story being front and center.

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The movie isn’t a masterpiece. There’s some voice narration that felt tacky, especially in the closing. Some whimsical moments are used purely to supply some laughs that some may argue that detract from the dark fantasy being told. The movie is also very cartoony in moments and by this, I mean that the creature design can be so creative that some may find these creations to come off as too cheesy. I will defend my stance on this film and why all of these supposed problems can be seen as invalid. MALEFICENT is essentially a live-action Disney cartoon that was adapted from a well-known fairy tale. One can expect all of these things to come with the territory and I actually appreciated the film even more for including some of these tropes.

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It will be interesting to see what the general consensus is on MALEFICENT after a huge amount of people see it this weekend. I think it could go either way (being considered great or terrible) or it just might wind up with indifference. At any rate, I can see a group of moviegoers (Disney fans, fans of dark fantasy, and those just looking for an imaginative ride) loving this film. The few flaws that I spotted can easily be forgiven on the basic level that this is at heart a family film and a live-action version of a Disney cartoon. I loved this movie. MALEFICENT is magnificent!

Grade: A

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