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-

HARDCORE HENRY (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Non-Stop Bloody Brutal Violence and Mayhem, Language throughout, Sexual Content/Nudity and Drug Use

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Directed by: Ilya Naishuller

Written by: Ilya Naishuller

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Tim Roth, Andrei Dementiev & Cyrus Arnold

HARDCORE HENRY is an independent Russian action film that was born of a music video (Bad Motherfucker by Biting Elbows) and funded through an Indiegogo campaign. It was then filmed with a dozen GoPro cameras, a hundred stunt people, and lots of special effects. This seemed like an ambitious project that was destined to debut on video-on-demand, but the movie gods smiled upon HARDCORE HENRY and it’s been graced with a nationwide theatrical release. Part of the reasoning behind this decision revolves around HARDCORE’s interesting gimmick of being told entirely from a first-person point-of-view. This is essentially a live-action video game on the big screen. It’s a lot of fun to watch, but also comes with a couple of big problems that keep it from being as awesome as it probably should have been.

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You are Henry. After an unseen violent encounter, you wake up in a strange laboratory to find that you’ve been healed with superhuman cybernetic limbs. Before you can fully adjust to your new body (not yet fitted with a voice box), telekinetic villain Akan (Danila Kozlovsky) bursts into the facility and begins killing people left and right. You and Estelle (your wife, played by Haley Bennett) board an escape pod, but crash into a busy highway. After Akan’s mercenaries kidnap her, you find yourself on a dangerous quest to get your beloved wife back. Throughout your journey, you’ll be aided by a colorful individual known as Jimmy (Sharlto Copley). It also goes without saying that you’ll leave a high body count in your wake.

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Of course, HARDCORE HENRY’s main hook is the unique first person perspective. HENRY isn’t necessarily the first film to do this (2013’s MANIAC remake, 1947’s film noir LADY IN THE LAKE), but it’s probably the first action-packed adventure to take this approach. If you can handle motion sickness (this is on the same level as your average found footage movie) and love goofy action B-flicks, you’ll likely be entertained. I’m honestly surprised that this movie got away from the MPAA with an R rating. There’s definitely a borderline NC-17 level of violence here, but that’s not a complaint. It’s one of the goriest wide releases since 2012’s DREDD and 2010’s PIRANHA. Thugs are shredded through fans, heads are blown in half, bodies explode, and gallons of blood flood a massive final showdown.

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The flimsy storyline basically serves as an excuse to jump from one carnage-filled confrontation to another. While that’s not necessarily a terrible thing considering the gimmick and over-the-top tone of this film, it does transform into a noticeable annoyance when the script becomes so convoluted that it simply can’t make sense of itself. Director/writer Ilya Naishuller admitted in the film’s Q&A session that long sections of the movie were pretty much made up as they went along. Boy, does it show. The plot has lots of cool ideas, but can’t make sense of them in a coherent screenplay. I found myself sitting back and enjoying the first-person action, while simultaneously trying to block out just how stupid the story was.

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Bad writing isn’t HENRY’s only big problem though. The acting ranges in being varying degrees of bad across the board. I wasn’t expecting this film to have a pinnacle of award-winning performances, but you (as the silent Henry) give the best performance in this film from your theater seat. At least, Sharlto Copley seems to be having fun in the many colorful roles of Jimmy (a hippie, a hobo, a coke head, an overly polite general, etc.). Haley Bennett’s Estelle is a wooden damsel-in-distress, while Tim Roth pops in briefly to deliver one bad-ass line of dialogue. The worst performance in the entire film comes from Danila Kozlovsky as the psychic Akan, who frequently attempts to be funny and falls flat with every single line. Like I said, first-person POV Henry gives the best performance in this film (and he was played by fourteen different stunt people, not including the audience).

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HARDCORE HENRY will definitely appeal towards those who don’t necessarily need a plot to go along with their bloody action. In spite of my complaints, I had fun watching this film. However, I just wish (much like the director) that more preparation had gone into the story and project as a whole. HENRY’s unbelievably cool technical skills are unworthy of the mediocre writing and bad acting. HARDCORE HENRY probably has potential as a future cult classic for its sheer absurdity and balls-to-the-wall attitude. It’s a film that’s every bit as entertaining as it is stupid. If you feel like slaying hordes of Russian bad guys in creatively bloody ways, going head to head with a tank, plummeting from a helicopter, and doing other cool, violent things from the safety of your movie theater seat, then you’ve probably already made up your mind to see/become HARDCORE HENRY!

Grade: B

CHAPPIE (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Language and brief Nudity

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Directed by: Neill Blomkamp

Written by: Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Ninja, Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo, Hugh Jackman & Sigourney Weaver

In 2009, a little film called DISTRICT 9 burst onto the cinematic scene and surprised the hell out of everybody. It seemed like a fantastic new master of mature science fiction had been born in director/writer Neill Blomkamp. Everyone was stoked to see his follow-up effort, ELYSIUM, with the hopes that it wouldn’t disappoint…and it sort of disappointed. While ELYSIUM was just okay at best, I still found myself hesitantly excited for CHAPPIE. Now that I’ve sat through Blomkamp’s third feature, I can say that I’m a bit worried for his next film (an entry in the ALIEN series). CHAPPIE is a mess that doesn’t necessarily know what it wants to be and doesn’t have a single character worth rooting for.

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In the near future, South Africa has employed the use of robotic police, Scouts, to help enforce the law and bring down crime. Deon Wilson, genius behind the Scouts, is now working on something far more important in his eyes. He wants to build a living, thinking robot with a conscious A.I. After a trio of ridiculous looking gangstas kidnap Deon, he is given an opportunity to do just that. Using a rundown Scout, Deon creates Chappie! Chappie is like a child, but with a higher IQ. While the trio of thugs want to train Chappie to fight for them, Deon is more concerned about Chappie embracing his newly given life. Unfortunately for everyone, a snarky weapons designer plans to stop Deon, destroy Chappie, and sell his own battle droid.

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CHAPPIE is not an original movie. There are definite influences all throughout the film. It reminded me of a hodgepodge of SHORT CIRCUIT, ROBOCOP, and BIG HERO 6. It’s also not at all subtle in its messages and commentary. The nature of God, feelings, and what it means to be alive are all brought up multiple times to a frustratingly excessive level. Everything in this film feels so recycled and dusty. Chappie’s journey is interesting enough to watch, but the movie really doesn’t focus on his journey and instead makes the gangstas manipulating him into the main plot. I thought this film was middle-of-the-road until the final 30 minutes (which are so stupidly godawful that you’re liable to get brain damage from smacking your forehead so much).

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Die Antwoord is a South African rap group playing two of the cartoonish looking gangstas in this film. Besides playing over-the-top and exaggerated versions of themselves (using their real names), their music is also heard through the film’s soundtrack. This was a clear creative decision made on Blomkamp’s part that doesn’t work in the slightest. I couldn’t take Die Antwoord’s members seriously as hardened gangstas in this film and they are main characters who I was supposed to care about. As if this weren’t enough, Dev Patel plays his genius character as a whiny little wuss who seems like a clichéd nerd stereotype (going as far as to yell “Philistines!” as an insult to the gangstas). Sigourney Weaver shows up for a total of five minutes tops as a weapons dealer and is totally wasted. Hugh Jackman is the only human character that I really liked, but he’s basically playing a predictable villain. Maybe, it was just because I was watching Wolverine play this robotics genius using underhanded methods to get his way, but I enjoyed every scene with Jackman. Sharlto Copley is entertaining as Chappie, but he’s really not much of a character given that he should be the main focus of this movie.

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I really don’t know what Blomkamp was going for with CHAPPIE and I don’t think that he did either. The inclusion of the band Die Antwoord is distracting and ridiculous beyond belief. There’s also this exaggerated wacky vibe to the whole film that doesn’t work. The supposedly sentimental scenes (including Chappie being read a bedtime story) come off as silly rather than heartwarming. Apparently, Blomkamp wrote this screenplay as an intended trilogy and we’ll likely never see the two follow-up chapters. It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t fully dislike this film until it really jumped the shark in the final 30 minutes. The ending is just mind-numbingly stupid. CHAPPIE is, at the very least, a lackluster disappointment.

Grade: C-

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

OLDBOY (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Disturbing Images, some Graphic Sexuality and Nudity, and Language

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Directed by: Spike Lee

Written by: Mark Protosevich

Starring: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Sharlto Copley, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, James Ransone & Lance Reddick

When the announcement came that Spike Lee was remaking OLDBOY, the internet blew up in a cloud of cinephile rage. That seems to be the case with most remakes. As far as Park Chan-Wook’s 2003 OLDBOY is concerned, I find the original film to be good, but not the masterpiece that plenty claim it is. The original source material behind that film was a manga, so the possibility was left open that Spike Lee could be making his own adaptation of the manga instead of just remaking the previous film (e.g. David Fincher’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO). Having now seen the Lee’s version it’s pretty clear that he was just remaking the 2003 Korean film. Though there are some minor variations in the plot, this 2013 remake is the same story spoken in English. Some parts improve on the original film and other parts don’t measure up. 2013’s OLDBOY does wind up being a decent retelling of a story revolving around violence and revenge.

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Joe Doucett is a scumbag. There’s no other description for this alcoholic (as he refers to himself) bullshit artist. Over the years, Joe has made quite a few enemies. One of them wants revenge. After a night of hard-drinking, Joe wakes up in a hotel room. He discovers that the room is actually a cell and he spends the next 20 years of his life in solitary confinement of this single room. Framed for the murder of his wife and desperate to see his daughter again, Joe wakes one morning in a field to find himself free from the confined quarters of the room. His mind is immediately on revenge. As he investigates the list of possible suspects, a romantic relationship develops with a young nurse. Joe’s enemy isn’t through toying with him yet and has a few bigger surprises in store.

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Seeing as this is a remake to an acclaimed film, comparisons between both versions are inevitable. Personally, I still barely prefer the original film. Spike Lee did improve certain things that really didn’t work for me in the 2003 version. One of these is that the 2003 film had a grainy style to it, while the remake has a slick style that looks superior in every way. This OLDBOY remake also has a grimmer atmosphere than the original and I give credit to the glossy visuals for that accomplishment. One notable elongated fight scene (that has been nicknamed Hammer Time or the Hallway scene) is set in a different layout and I thought it was better executed in this version. The long scenes of Joe’s confinement do a great job of placing the viewer in the room with him. I felt the hopeless frustration he was going through and looked forward to him bringing an ungodly violent revenge upon the heads of those who imprisoned him.

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The actors range in their performances. Elizabeth Olsen fares far better here than in the last remake she did (SILENT HOUSE), but isn’t near her best performance level (MARTHA, MARCY, MAY, MARLENE). Samuel L. Jackson is without a doubt the most ridiculously laughable character. His crazy fashion sense, along with over-the-top threats are unintentionally hilarious. It took me right out of his supposedly serious scenes. On the other side of things, Sharlto Copley is great as the intimidating stranger who taunts Joe. Despite Josh Brolin being able to knock Copley’s character flat on his ass, the mastermind always seems to be one step ahead. Finally, there’s Josh Brolin himself and his performance seems to depend on which scene he’s in. The only real bad moment was when Joe was drunk. It kind of felt like watching a friend pretend to be drunk….when they’re not really drunk. It was on that level of embarrassing, but otherwise he delivers solid moments throughout.

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The biggest problems comes in important pieces in the story feeling forced. A big one would be the developing romance between Brolin and Olsen. Instead of giving the characters time to warm up to each other, the film seems to flip a switch for their love to be ignited when convenient for the plot to move forward. It also feels like there are a few scenes missing, which makes sense because the studio trimmed out a good chunk in the post-production. These pacing issues only start once Joe wakes up outside of the hotel room. From then on, there are rushed moments throughout. Notably, the film doesn’t puss out on the controversial ending though. There are some variations but the shocking nature of what comes packs a powerful punch. It would have been even more effective if certain scenes felt more convincing.

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Both versions of OLDBOY have flaws and silly moments. I prefer the original film, but just barely. If the studio hadn’t meddled to the point of removing nearly 40 minutes of film from the final cut, then the OLDBOY remake could have been on a level of remake near THE DEPARTED. The pacing issues and rushed scenes can easily be passed off on the studio’s mistake. There are many things that I dug more in this 2013 film than I did in the Korean original. It still hits the same beats and doesn’t stray too far from where the original went. So if you are a massive fan of Park Chan-Wook’s film, then you’ve got no real reason to watch this one. This is a decent remake in my opinion and improved on the original in some respects. In the end, it’s really up to you on which version of OLDBOY you want to watch. Either way, you’re in for a twisted tale of revenge (just depends on which language or director you prefer).

Grade: B-

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