Free Fire: Movie Man Jackson

 

Take your shot. In 1978 Boston, an abandoned warehouse is the scene for a weapons transaction between Republican Army agents (Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley) and gun runners (Sharlto Copley, Babou Ceesay), brokered by neutral yet-in-the know Americans (Brie Larson, Armie Hammer).

Tensions arise naturally, but the deal is still in place. Just as the deal seems to be squared away, chance undoes it. Immediately, everyone in this warehouse is left to fend for themselves. What does the last man (or woman) left standing receive? Whatever large amount of money is in the now unclaimed briefcase.

On one hand, it’s sort of impossible not to get somewhat taken aback by the frenetic, 90 minute ballistic blitz that is Free Fire. And on the other hand, Free Fire jams much more than anticipated. Why? Let yours truly try to take a shot at explaining.

Want to get right into the bloodshed? Director Ben Wheatley (The ABCs of Death, High-Rise) does just that, creating an adequate igniter that puts the two factions in each others’ crosshairs. Okay, 90 minutes of ballistic blitz isn’t entirely accurate, but 70 minutes is. And it’s during this beginning and subsequent immediate aftermath of this igniter that Free Fire is at its most enjoyable. The action, while a little hard to follow exactly at times, is nonetheless fascinating during this period, with seriously impressive SFX to boot.

However, the second half comes (which is a little of a misnomer, more on that shortly), and it’s around this point in time in which Free Fire’s premise gets spread too thinly and stretched too widely as what essentially amounts to an entire 1st act. It is cool to see action immediately in a movie, but doing that without any real expansion of its participants—or at least some breathing room to shine light on the characters taking part in said action—kind of dilutes it.

With few standout qualities and characteristics, most of the characters in Free Fire end up blending into one another. Everyone seems to say the word “c**ksucker.” It’s honestly hard to remember names, which side of the divide they’re on, who they’re shooting at, etc. If there were more fun dialogue interspersed or a locale change provided by Wheatley, Free Fire may have avoided that feeling of crawling and dragging to the conclusion.

This is a big cast, and as previously mentioned, most sadly blend into each other. Even stars like Cillian Murphy and Brie Larson don’t pop out like envisioned. But, Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley do. Hammer, seemingly on a career uptick after The Lone Ranger, is right at home at being the coolest guy in the room…err…warehouse, as well as the biggest badass within it. Copley, South African accent and all, gets to be eccentric and physical in his comedy; every time his mouth opens something funny comes out of it. The two get a good amount of screentime together on the same side, having that vibe that Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe had one year ago in The Nice Guys. Maybe these two should have been the stars of CHipSthey’re that good, and make up for many of the film’s issues.

Free Fire definitely has its share of blank rounds, but also possesses some pretty explosive ones that occasionally hit center-mass. Worth a cursory view, if just for Hammer and Copley alone.

C+

Photo credits go to sundaypost.com, drafthouse.com, and theplaylist.com

For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com. 

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Nocturnal Animals: Movie Man Jackson

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Whenever you’ve got it, hold onto it. Art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) has made a new life with husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). It’s a bourgeois life, one that Susan has been accustomed to with well-off parents. It’s also an empty one that only looks glamorous from the outside.

Many years before, Susan found love with writer Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). They married, and things were rosy for a while, until Susan determined that Edward couldn’t take care of her like she wanted to be taken care of due to his overly sensitive nature and writing profession.

Susan receives a manuscript of her ex’s latest novel, Nocturnal Animals, a name Edward affectionately called Susan. It’s a dark tale, about a Texas man and his family who run into a gang of unstable individuals on the highway. Seems random, but the more Susan delves into the novel, some characters and some events hit awfully close to home.

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With a title fitting for a horror movie, Nocturnal Animals is dark. It’s uncomfortable. It can be hard to watch and even a little scary. But like the best fashion, it is also impossible to take eyes off of, or forget. Nocturnal Animals illuminates in quality and memorability from from start to finish.

Attention is seized right from the movie’s opening credits sequence. Fashion mogul turned director Tom Ford (A Single Man) certainly sears this sequence on the brain as one that is equal parts revolting yet extremely mesmerizing, with a beautiful dreamlike musical track by composer Abel Korzeniowski.

While the meaning and/artistic merits of said scene are likely to be debated for a while (count yours truly as a guy who gets the meaning but still feels that it’s done for shock more than anything), I’ll admit that it was rather alluring. Much—if not all—of Nocturnal Animals is, whether it be in the sweltering Texas desert heat, or in the cool interiors of an NYC penthouse or art gallery. The color red makes its way into a great deal of the movie. Red typically symbolizes a lot: Love, anger, attention, revenge, courage, to name a few. These are all themes that Ford touches upon or goes into depth on, maybe not perfectly, but they are there.

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Honestly, Nocturnal Animals works a lot better narrative-wise than it should. What could easily become confusing to follow never does become so, thanks to on-the-point editing and stylistic choices. The parallels between stories aren’t always congruent with one another, but when they are, Ford’s feature is extremely fascinating and rewarding, and maybe it just requires another watch for every piece to fit snugly. Aside from one visual in particular, he pushes audiences to make their own final decision as to what the meaning of the story is, whether it’s positive or negative, what happens to the (real world) characters, etc. Another strong strength? It’s unpredictable.

It’s no surprise that the cast assembled here makes for one of the stronger ensembles of the 2016 calendar year. When Amy Adams, no obvious slouch, turns in what is probably the fourth best performance of the entire movie (more as a result of her character, not her actual skill), there’s some high level acting present. Jake Gyllenhaal, again pulling double duty in a feature, is brilliant once again, and the writing for his characters allows him to display his amazing skills as both are given wonderful arcs. As an aside, he has what may be the most truest and moving quotes about love I’ve heard in an extremely long time. They are lines of dialogue I’ll never forget.

It’s Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson who give Nocturnal Animals an element of “fun” that would likely not be there without them. Make no mistake as that does not mean the work they do here is not deserving of serious supporting category consideration (already has garnered it at the time of this writing), but their characters are so dogged and world-weary (Shannon) or eccentrically vile (Taylor-Johnson) and it makes for an interesting showdown that could easily be its own movie. Shannon’s been a stud for a while, but it’s nice to see Taylor-Johnson reassert himself as a talent. He’s more or less The Joker as a guy who seemingly just likes to watch the world burn and inflict suffering on people, but he’s chilling every time he’s on screen. Pick better roles please!

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I don’t pop Molly I watch Tom Ford. And with Nocturnal Animals, I want to keep watching him, and I hope he directs more. But if it takes seven years to come up with a unique story worth telling in cinematic form, keep on making those Gucci handbags and Saint Laurent dresses while prepping that next film, Ford.

A-

Photo credits go to thefilmstage.com, ukmovies.yahoo.com, and everythingaction.com

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The Birth of a Nation: Movie Man Jackson

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Looking for a happy ending? Not going to find it here. Southampton County, Virginia, the year 1831. Slavery has been in full effect for quite some time now. Nat Turner (Nate Parker) was born into it. Unlike most, he’s actually been taught on how to read, in particular, The Bible. While still not being seen as an equal, the white man does see Nat as a valued commodity who gets treated “better” as such, compared to his brethren.

Fearing rumors of a slave revolt which would be devastating during drought season, plantation owners such as Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) decide to use Nat as a tool to quell any revolution. Surely slaves hearing about how they should remain docile from a fellow slave would do the trick, right? Over time, however, Nat sees his people suffer horrible atrocities, and begins to question what he is doing. The stage becomes set for a revolution that promises to be just as bloody as the one fought between the Patriots and the Loyalists.

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The real talking point leading up to The Birth of a Nation (no relation to the 1915 KKK propaganda version, but its title was selected very deliberately), is the controversy that happens to surround star, producer, and director Nate Parker back when he was in college. It is a point that is sure to be brought up relentlessly from now until February 26. 2017, the date of the Oscars. But things deserve to be looked at as objectively as can be. Objectively as yours truly can be, The Birth of a Nation is a bold way to launch a feature directing career. The good outweighs the bad, but like most debuts, everything doesn’t hum perfectly.

The narrative isn’t the issue with The Birth of a Nation. It is actually a pretty thorough screenplay that goes beyond the “slavery is wrong” aspect by introducing religion and the identity that one has to themselves and their social group, especially in times of turmoil, which resonates today. Nat Turner the historical character has a lot of meat. Honestly, Parker doesn’t seem to get into all of it. But for what he does present to the audience, he does do an impressive job as the lead character.

Not a performance that immediately grabs the viewer, and starting out, it does feel a little suspect. But by the middle and into the end, Parker truly sells not just the physical anguish Nat experiences, but the mental anguish and internal crisis that Nat is exposed to. It is the latter that truly hits home, more so than the physical depictions of slavery. He’s firmly on the Best Actor nominee list.

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However, the cast as a whole isn’t an undeniable strength of The Birth of a Nation; for every strong performance, there is a role that lacks gravitas and even realism, which whips the movie down a few notches on the emotional scale. Armie Hammer does lose himself in his slave owner character Samuel Turner. Yes, he is a bad man, but there’s still a shred of humanity that makes one care for him if only because you know he could be a good person. And in a smaller role, Roger Guenvier Smith (Dope, Deep Cover) excels.

Most of the rest suffer from having too little to do (i.e. the women in the cast, either damsels in distress or conveniently written love interests), or from being a little too caricature-y to be taken seriously (Jackie Earle Haley, especially Mark Boone Jr.). The Birth of a Nation is also weirdly inconsistent in tone in places. While no one is going to confuse this for a fluffy watch, some of the moments of lightness are endearing, but others undercut the seriousness of what’s at hand.

Directing a feature film for the first time, Parker shows good raw skill. Not many shots truly stand out, but a few do in the latter half. He certainly takes inspiration from works such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan during the impressive climax. If there were a noticeable flaw, I’d say that scenes which show Nat’s destiny as a leader come off as a little pretentious and overly artsy for the sake of being so. While there may be some symbolism there that flew over my head, it doesn’t really add anything to the film, at least on first view.

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The Birth of a Nation doesn’t rise up to classic biography status. But all controversy aside, The Birth of a Nation is an imperfect, yet still overall compelling biography movie about a very intriguing character and moment in history.

B-

Photo credits go to IGN.com, armiehammerfans.com, and indiewire.com

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