Tag Archives: indie

Free Fire

So, if Monty Python and Quentin Tarantino had a co-production to recreate the Black Knight of The Holy Grail as a heist gone wrong, you’d get Free Fire. This is an almost ceaselessly vulgar and violent confrontation at (of course) a gun sale gone wrong. Whether that is a good thing for you or not, is going to be a matter of mood and taste.

Director and co-writer Ben Wheatley reteamed with his High-Rise writer, Amy Jump, to bring this blood-fest to screen. The humor is dark and just as often missed the mark as hits it. On the other hand, the sound effects and engineering are really quite amazing. The biggest directing mistake Wheatley made was never giving us an overhead shot of the participants making their way around the killing field. It would have helped a little with the geography of the fight if folks were more easily located.

At the extreme end of the characters are Sharlto Copley (Chappie), Sam Riley (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). Neither plays a believable character, but they certainly do so with abandon. It is the combination of both of them that is the excuse for the mayhem that follows.

As basic tough guys Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders), Jack Reynor (Sing Street), Noah Taylor (Deep Water), Babou Ceesay (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and Michael Smiley (Luther) fill out the gangs. Each feels a bit like stock characters, but none are overly empty of interest.

But the two that really stand out as characters for me were Armie Hammer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island). Each clearly has another life somewhere and all manner of things going on under the surface that we never get to understand, but which make their performances interesting rather than just loud.

Generally speaking, this isn’t a film for the weak of stomach or with sensitive hearing (language or gunfire). It, frankly, isn’t a very good film either, but it certainly will have its audience. I did laugh, on occasion, and winced a great deal through moments…even cheered once or twice quietly inside at the demise of a character or two. But there is little story and little to recommend. It is a vignette drawn out in loving detail for 90 minutes of lead filled hell. If that’s for you, then go for it, but there are plenty of better bullet strewn extravaganzas that actually have characters and plots you can latch onto.

Free Fire

Identicals

I don’t mind weird, but I need a little bit of conclusion with my weird to make it pay off. This really didn’t have that.

Simon Pummell’s first fiction feature has the makings of something intriguing and the trappings of a solid, hard science fiction tale, but lacks answers as it spins out the story. It certainly was visually interesting, though his accompanying script was either cleverly minimal or purposely obtuse. The overall result was…head-scratching.

The film is driven by three main actors, of which Nora-Jane Noone (Brooklyn) is the only one who turns in any kind of performance. It isn’t a brilliant performance, but it has levels and change to it. The two main men, Nick Blood (Bletchley Circle, Agents of SHIELD) and Lachlan Nieboer (Charlie Countryman) are wooden at best and never particularly sympathetic. On the other hand, Tony Way (Edge of Tomorrow) turns in a bit performance that lights up the screen briefly.

Ultimately, this story is either hard sf or purely an allegory about inner struggles. It could be both in better hands, but neither manages to come together. Honestly, save yourself the time unless you really like experimental film that leaves you hanging. Mind you, I don’t think this was intended as experimental. I think Pumell over-cut or under-shot to make his point and got left with a movie without meaning.

Identicals

The Lovers

So often, tales like this become overwrought or overplayed. But this film really tries to keep it all contained, much like the exhausted relationship of the main characters that has reached a failure (as opposed to a breaking) point. Debra Winger (The Ranch) and Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) turn in wonderfully understated and nuanced performances in what is really an odd and amusing farce about love.

In fact the only people who over-react in the film are the supporting characters: Aidan Gillen (Sing Street), Melora Walters (Big Love), and Tyler Ross (The Killing).  There is also a nicely balanced turn by Jessica Sula (Split).

Writer/director Azazel Jacobs (Doll & Em) really captured the age and sensibility of a long-term relationship that has drifted. More importantly, he did all of this without a syrupy sense of reality. He has a sense of the absurd, as does life, but he stays grounded in reality and honest to the story.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started watching the film, which way it would go and whether or not I’d even like the characters. But every one of them manages to gain just a bit of your sympathy, though not a lot in some cases. And the structure of the story is in itself a fun piece of commentary. I suspect it makes more sense the older you are, but the performances alone are really worth your time.

The Lovers

Wilson

It’s a good idea to be in a relatively good mood before you sit down for this disturbing, little flick. It is funny, in its way, but it is also a sort of dark Forrest Gump. Wood Harrelson (War for the Planet of the Apes) delivers a curmudgeon you can almost understand. Unlike similar kinds of stories, like St. Vincent, the path for the main character is less sure and not entirely uplifting.

Moving along his trail of tears and cheers is a collection of oddly broken women including Laura Dern (99 Homes), Judy Greer (Men, Women, Children),  Cheryl Hines (Nine Lives), and relative newcomer Isabella Amara (Spider-Man: Homecoming). 

There are some dark laughs to be had as Wilson navigates his life with wide open eyes and and an even larger open mouth. But it is just as often painful. I think director Craig Johnson’s (Skeleton Twins) control of first-time script writer Daniel Clowes was solid and there was no residual sense of its graphic novel roots, other than the left turns in the plot. When you have the urge for a story that is more true to life than true to Lifetime, this may do.

Wilson

A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness has many layers and is definitely not for everyone. It isn’t a great movie, but it is worth seeing.

It is, at its core, a suspense/horror film very much in the vein of Frankenstein and Dracula, even a dash of Phantom of the Opera. But it isn’t a B-grade flick nor is it histrionic or intended to get you with cheap scares.

Balancing the classic influences, there are also nods to Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch and Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut. For the former, it is the thin veneer of reality and matter-of-fact absurdity of what is going on, as well as some of the sense of the imagery. From the latter, it is the use of a simple, repeating musical theme and, particularly near the end, a sequence that echos Eyes and a load of Argento and other films from the 70s including Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and others.

Visually, the film is full of gorgeous cinematography by Bazelli. The composition and clarity of the shots will make you want to pause every few moments to really examine the detail and relationship of the various objects. It is painterly in its execution, but always in support of the story.

The story itself is somewhat obvious, but what is reality is somewhat not. There are clues, but it is ultimately contradictory, and the ending is nebulous at best. And yet, somehow this gorgeous, Gothic, mental trip to the Swiss Alps is mesmerizing, even with a 2.5 hour run. The whole is, somehow, more than its parts.

There are several nice, small performances, but are only three main roles that form the framework of the movie. Dean DeHaan (Valerian) as the lead isn’t any more likable than he is in other roles, but he has a bit more energy. Generally, I’m finding DeHaan to always have a cool distance; an odd disconnect between his voice and his physical movement that removes you from caring about him. It can be very effective when you aren’t intended to like him, but it makes it hard to even care about what happens to him.

On the other hand, Jason Isaacs (The OA) is wonderfully creepy. He rides the line between care and conspiring beautifully. And Mia Goth (Everest) is practically ephemeral, going through her inevitable changes in a controlled and believable progression. You can see why DeHaan is drawn to her, why anyone would be. And yet she also manages to have a layer of both innocence and poisonousness lurking beneath her surface, like a toxic flower.

As I suggested, the end feels like it could be read in many ways. It is a strong choice, but not a clear one. And I say this despite one of the characters providing an explicit meaning to the title and their philosophy…I just don’t think it covered all that was going on nor the last image. Honestly, I’m still not sure what I think the entire intent was, and that’s somewhat OK because I’ve plenty to chew on.

Director Gore Verbinski and writer Justin Haythe reteamed for this production after their somewhat confused and misfire of The Lone Ranger. Bazelli returned behind the camera again as well. Seeing their efforts in an unfettered venue, absent any expectations, gives me a much better sense of their creative scope. While the end-result is a little baffling, it is a ride I willingly took and continue to think about. Make time for this when you’re in a mood for something darkly beautiful but very different.

A Cure for Wellness

Alien Arrival (aka Arrowhead)

There is an interesting story somewhere in this script (and probably on the cutting room floor), but it doesn’t really come together on screen. The largely unknown cast is led by Dan Mor as a brooding rebel with mixed and muddled motivations. Pretty to look at, he doesn’t create a character we can invest in or root for because we never understand him or what he wants and needs to do.

Writer/director Jesse O’Brien really attempts to tackle the difficulty of bringing hard science fiction to the screen…with a healthy does of science fantasy on many points. I applaud him for not treating the audience like idiots, and for some interesting moments and storytelling. But, he needed a few more “connect the dots” revelations to help us put together the story he intended to tell. What we end up with is a nihilistic opening chapter in a larger tale about some kind of galactic war that never quite makes any sense. 

I did watch the whole film, because there was just enough to keep teasing me along that there would be answers. Frankly, I’d skip this. But if you are a real fan of Australian science fiction or want to sample a new director and see what he may be capable of down the road, it isn’t entirely unwatchable, just not particularly satisfying.

Alien Arrival

The Calling

Navigating a dark world of pain and murder in the Great White North, Susan Sarandon (3 Generations) leads a solid suspense story (if a bit flawed in the police procedure). Of course, I am partial to good serial killer tales, if you hadn’t noticed, so I’m in the target audience for this one.

Sarandon is supported by a surprisingly well-heeled cast: Gil Bellows (Ascension), Topher Grace (The Big Wedding), Ellen Burstyn (The Age of Adaline), Donald Sutherland (Hunger Games), and Christopher Heyerdahl (Hell on Wheels). Their abilities and experience keep it all fresh and intriguing. 

What makes this particular story a bit different is the efforts by director, Jason Stone and writer, Scott Abramovitch; both having their first time at bat for a feature. In the script and the direction, the characters all act just a bit different than you expect. The plot, even when obvious, still has some very nice reveals. I will admit that the final moment, probably from the original material, is a tad eye-rolling, but not unanticipated, and it doesn’t diminish all that came before. It simply is a bit too, for lack of a better word, cutesy. 

If you like good suspense tales (and this is more suspense than mystery), it is worth your time investment. The driving purpose and the path to the resolution are really very clever. It would have made a great mini-series, but it manages not to feel too rushed, even in a two hour format.

The Calling

I Am Heath Ledger

Sometimes a disc just jumps to the top of your Netflix queue for unknown reasons. This one was way down my list, but appeared unexpectedly in my box the other day. It offers a 90 min docu which is part of Derik Murray’s “I am…” series of biographies; a genre he is drawn to. I’ve not seen the others, but while interesting, I can’t say this was a particularly insightful piece of biography or strong enough for me to search out the others.

Certainly, the loss of Ledger was a blow to many. I can honestly say I spotted him in Roar and followed him up through his triumphant Joker in The Dark Knight. He had amazing charisma and significant talent.

But a biography should be intended to provide insight and a balanced view of its subject, warts and all. That is what gives you a true appreciation for the person and context for their lives. The result of this film is purely a love letter to Heath. In fact, I left it feeling that if anyone had stood up to Ledger, rather than just idolizing or following him, he might still be alive; surely not the intended message. Heath was a manic and creative soul that seemed to just run rampant. Though there are indications of struggles, none are really explored, only hinted at. 

And this is part of the root of the problem with the film, the lack of any sense of real struggle on his part. Also, the structure of the piece is odd. For example, the revelation that he was a chess fiend, and pushing to be a Grand Master, comes very near the end of the story, but was clearly an important part of his personality and life from the time he was small. Yet that aspect of his daily routine and life is utterly absent till we are forced to re-evaluate him with that revelation near the end. 

Basically, if you want a nice, relatively light review of Ledger’s life and art, with some intriguing glances behind the curtain of his other pursuits, this will do. If you’re hoping for a real look at his life, who he was, and what really drove him, you’ll probably have to wait another 10 years for someone with distance to tackle the subject again.

I Am Heath Ledger

Paterson

Paterson is a quiet musing of the mundane, a perusal of poetry in the present. It is simple and absurd, much like life, and without a real plot, unless you consider the plot the exposure of how one man sees the world and how he copes with being in it.

Adam Driver’s (Silence) performance is compelling and quietly intense. He is an observer of life who is infrequently drawn into it to act. Mostly, he just captures it all in his notebook while the world happens around him. Opposite him, Golshifteh Farahani (The Patience Stone) is a loving cyclone of energy and unfocused ideas who gets a lot done, but accomplishes little. The two make a perfect yin-yang pairing, much like the black & white production design.

Jim Jarmusch (Gimme Danger) has very consciously created the visual equivalent of a bastard child between William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. It has the beauty in the small aspects of life, but from the perspective of a person without much of one and who is howling inside, quietly. His point is probably pounded home a bit too painfully in the final few scenes with Masatoshi Nagase, but it remains lyrical and thought provoking till the credits. 

As a poem of life and love, Paterson is about the city, the people, the person, and life, as well as a reminder to live it and appreciate it. It is more art than movie, but it manages to pull you along if you let it. Honestly, I’m still more partial to Only Lovers Left Alive, but they each have their charms, and each effectively obsess on the concept of “meaning.”

Paterson