Friday, April 21, 2017


Maybe my expectations were too high. I’d seen the trailer for FREE FIRE months ago and it peaked my curiosity. After all, I’m a sucker for crime capers, it stars Brie Larson and she's one of my favorite actresses, and director Ben Wheatley greatly impressed me with his 2015 psychological thriller HIGH-RISE. So why did I like this new film that just opened today, but not love it?  

Sometimes expectations can confound a filmgoer. I’ve been led astray many times before by word-of-mouth, publicity materials, or even celebrity interviews that seemed to paint a picture of one thing when the film is very much another. That’s not the case here. What happened here is simply that the film didn’t quite live up to its potential. It is very good, but it should’ve been great.

It starts off as such though setting up its dark comic tone and criminal characters with an efficiency and vividness that thrills. FREE FIRE takes place at a dilapidated and abandoned Boston factory in 1978 where IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) have come to receive their order of arms they’ve bought to help fight the English back in Ireland. Frank is old and cynical, whereas Chris is idealistic. He wants things perfect in the deal, and he isn’t above even being romantic about her ideas of perfection. It’s certainly why he comes on to Justine (Larson), the comely American go-between who helped broker the deal. She’s smart, beautiful and doesn’t mind hanging out with low-life’s. What’s not for him to love? Then as he cements dinner plans with her for later, other vested parties show up for the deal. The suave and GQ-ready fixer Ord (Armie Hammer) strides in to ensure them all that the arms dealer he’s procured will deliver the goods and everyone will be happy. Famous last words, of course.

Such peace will be very short-lived as we will soon see due to the erratic nature of some of the other hoods who arrive to seal the deal. IRA henchmen and pals Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) arrive with a truck to haul off the goods but they’re on edge due to the former’s fracas at a bar the night that left Stevo bloodied and bruised. His ego got the worst of the beating. Then Vernon (Sharlto Copley) arrives and his insecurity doesn’t help things either. He’s a clotheshorse dandy who doesn’t like everyone teasing him about his threads, plus his South African accent becomes a point of ridicule amongst the den of thieves and he feels like an outsider who’s not getting the respect he deserves.

His calm colleague Martin (Babou Ceesay) is low-key and cool, but he doesn’t rein his partner in and the babbling Vernon starts making everyone tense. It doesn’t help that he’s come with guns that don’t make Chris’s specs. It also doesn’t help that Vernon has two suspicious assistants Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor), and one of them is the guy who beat Stevo to a pulp the previous evening. Stevo instantly recognizes Harry, and soon their fight from the night before spills into the proceedings. Harry tells everyone that he beat up Stevo because the hoodlum came on to his sister. She refused and Stevo walloped her badly enough that it sent her to the hospital. So, what do you think happens to our boys after that revelation?

Brie Larson down but not out in FREE FIRE.
Indeed, tensions rise, fisticuffs ensue, friends try to keep friends from fighting, and soon enough Harry’s gun is drawn and he grazes his enemy in the shoulder. Then all hell breaks loose. Everyone ducks for cover, bullets start flying like popcorn exploding out of a popper, various hoods are tagged here and there, everyone starts yelling in pain, and Vernon’s expensive threads get shredded. That’s a lot of characters and scenario to set up and Wheatley aces it. Unfortunately, once the guns come out, these rich characters and their multiple storylines get lost in the fray. Rather than deepen their stories, the remaining film becomes repetitious, mostly consisting of shooting and a lot of characters crawling through debris for cover. There is a ton of crawling in this movie. Worms would be jealous for how much time folks in this film spend scurrying about on their bellies.

Sure, watching these previously prideful men, and one woman, all kidding themselves that there is honor among thieves, rummage around on the ground and get shot in their butts, shoulders and thighs is darkly hilarious, but their B stories are shot to hell as well. The set-up of the attraction between Chris and Justine grinds to a halt as do too many of the other relationships amongst the characters. There’s too much gunplay, everyone’s a terrible shot, death comes way too slowly for most, and our interest waivers. It mostly becomes a guessing game of who’ll die next, but even Agatha Christie knew that such a premise needed something more enticing. That’s why she had the “10 Little Indians” rhyme as her benchmark. Here, everyone’s as guilty as her island of baddies, but there’s little real surprise in this one about how anyone is going to be dispensed, at least until we’re down to the major stars.

Sharlto Copley plays Vernon, a comedic villain well-suited to his talents in FREE FIRE. 
Larson makes the most of her underwritten part, two-for-two now in conjuring 70’s era women perfectly. (She did the same earlier this month in the monster movie KONG: SKULL ISLAND.) In FREE FIRE, she rocks bell-bottomed pantsuit and Farrah wave, but I wish Wheatley and his co-screenwriter Amy Jump had given her just as good quips as flips. Larson is killer at delivering acidic barbs, as ROOM and TRAINWRECK proved, but mostly what’s she’s delivering here is the standard “girl” role one finds in actioners.

Wheatley misses more opportunities as well. He could’ve deepened some secondary characters like Gordon, especially when he’s cast noted character Noah Taylor, but instead gives the actor too little to play. The same goes for veteran actor Patrick Bergin. He shows up later in the story as a mysterious hit man sent to take out some of the players, but he doesn’t register much except for being a new body to get pierced. Wheatley didn’t have to go Quentin Tarantino deep here, but he could’ve at least continued to plumb the depths of his baddies the way Joe Corcoran did in 2006’s SMOKIN’ ACES. That similarly fun and nasty shoot ‘em up gave a dozen characters a lot of ripe dialogue and memorable scenes to play, and every actor shone from Ryan Reynolds to Tariji P. Henson to Nestor Carbonell. I really liked FREE FIRE, but Wheatley should’ve aimed a little higher.

I’d heard great things about THE LOVE WITCH but had missed its theatrical release last autumn. Many of my colleagues at the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle loved it so much that it figured in our year-end awards of 2016. So, with that kind of build-up, I was anxious to finally catch up with it when it became on VOD a week or so ago. I’m happy to say I was indeed impressed, though I found it to be another film that gets in its own way.

FREE FIRE eclipsed its fascinating characters by relegating them to become mostly just a line-up of casualties after the gun play begins. THE LOVE WITCH script, written by Anna Biller, is a timely tale with a strong feminist slant on gender politics and the sexuality of a strong woman, but director Anna Biller gets in the way with her stylized retro ways.

It’s easy to see why Biller chose to shoot her modern tale with a look that is a total throwback to the sexploitation B’s of the 1960’s. She’s using film to comment on how things are similar today as they were for women back then. They’re still discriminated by many factions of modern society for being too smart, too progressive, too sexual – and it can discombobulate men as much as it did back in the MAD MEN-esque 60’s. Biller is having her film look like that world to showcase the parallels. But it overtakes the film.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson), dressed devilishly in red, drives into a new town in THE LOVE WITCH.
Her story concerns Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful but deadly woman who happens to be a witch, and it informs both the men she picks to tryst with, as well as how she literally and figuratively casts her spells on them. This enchantress gets looks just by being a gorgeous brunette walking into the room with her sultry ways and inviting red lipstick. But as soon as men are drawn to her, they begin to have difficulty handling her. She’s simply too much for them. Too smart, too forward, too orgasmic. Men lose their sense of control, their sense of domination and soon, their hearts. Their hearts give out and to this wily Wicca and she moves onto the next lover/victim.

This is a sexual horror tale but it edges so close to satire at every turn because of Biller's obsessiveness with every detail of her on-the-nose retro design aesthetic. Because of that, it often seems like its a lost Meyers film or some sort of sequel to VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. (Quick question - was Robinson cast because of her uncanny resemblance to Barbara Parkins?) This film's look starts to swallow the film as every period frock, wig and prop becomes a distraction.  

Now, it’s one thing for Biller to make every detail of your film’s look scream “period piece” to underline her point about how struggles for women remain constant just as they did 50 years ago, but it’s a whole other thing to start directing your actors to deliver their lines as if they are in one of those cheaply made and stilted films from yesteryear. It adds an amateurish to the proceeding that enhance its shtick, but that also hurts the political diatribes written for Elaine and the other female characters onscreen. After a while, such a mannered and stiff delivery overwhelms the dialogue to the point where it could almost be interpreted as bad acting. I don’t believe that was Biller’s intent, but why not have the men speak that way and have the women sound more modern? Wouldn’t that kind of direction have helped her message?

Biller did practically everything on this picture, from the directing and writing to the production design, scoring, set decoration and costumes. She even edited her film personally and gives certain scenes abrupt cuts to create shocks in the same way that Hammer productions did during their cheesy British horror heyday. Such edits elicit laughs and contribute to the darkly comic hilarity here, but again, such techniques almost push it into parody the way that Michel Hazanavicius did with his French OSS 17 spy parodies starring Jean Dujardin back in 2006 and 2009.

Biller has complained how some critics concentrated too much on the kitsch in their reviews, but frankly, it’s there in every frame. I think it is a counter to her modern arguments, yes, but combined with the stilted acting it may have thrown off too many viewers. And her feminist lecturing becomes too on-the-nose too as well, sounding like a screenplay that's trying too hard, and it sounds mostly unconvincing from the less than stellar deliveries by some of her cast. One can see what Biller was going for here, but she isn't wholly successful. Did she get distracted by the many tasks she took on in making this movie? Just because she can do so many aspects of the film’s below-the-line requirements doesn’t mean she should have done them, especially when they form one overwhelming pastiche of a parody which robs some of its larger meaning. And that script needed another pass through the laptop to iron out some of its blatant lecturing.

Finally, one area that she whiffs wholly, and I’d criticize this no matter what period she was emulating, is in how she portrays sexuality. For a movie that wants to be so liberating about the female take on sexuality and carnal power, Biller's surprisingly prudish about showing nudity and truly honest representations of sex. This film plays coy with star Robinson’s body in the same way that SEX AND THE CITY refused to show Sarah Jessica Parker naked on that HBO series. It became ridiculous after a while seeing Carrie, the progressive woman and writer of a sex column, constantly wearing a bra while making love. Here, Biller goes out of her way to shield Robinson and it too becomes laughable. For a character like Elaine to have hair glued down to cover her boobs is just silly. My God, Katherine Turner showed more in BODY HEAT over 35 years ago. A movie about sex should be more open about showing sex. Elaine might as well drag the sheet from the bed to wrap around her when she gets up after coitus here, that's how many punches are pulled in that area. 
THE LOVE WITCH should be anything but modest.

Because Biller grounds her film in the tapestry of the past, from the gowns to the wallpaper to the synth tracks, it often keeps her message from coming through. Her talent is obvious though, and her movie is a lot of fun in its weird, retro way. Biller’s political “Nonetheless, she persisted” message struggles to hold as strong a focus as it should, but in a modern world that still took a decade too long to oust the piggish Bill O’Reilly off the airwaves, any message of such a nature gets my applause. And it gets me excited to see just what this very talented filmmaker will attempt next.

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