Reviews of “Free Fire” and “Phoenix Forgotten”

Free Fire

Justine, Chris and Frank (Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) are outside an abandoned factory in Boston waiting for the arrival of their hired help Stevo and Bernie (Sam Riley and Enzo Cilenti). They are also waiting on Ord (Armie Hammer). The group is there to purchase rifles from South African arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley). Chris and Frank are with the IRA and plan on sending the rifles back to Ireland. Once Ord, who arranged the deal, arrives, he walks the group into the factory. There, Vernon shows up, the weapons are brought in by Harry and Gordon (Jack Reynor and Noah Taylor) and the money is counted. Stevo has some unpleasant recent history with Harry and tries to hide; but Harry sees him. After some shoving and exchanged words, Harry grabs a gun and shoots Stevo. Soon everyone has a gun drawn and the fight for money, the weapons and survival is on.

I had heard about this film and saw a trailer several months ago. It looked interesting and had a great cast but didn’t seem to have much of a promotional push as it was being distributed by art house company A24. Unlike “Fate of the Furious” which opened on over 4000 screen across the country, “Free Fire” opened on a little over 1000. It won’t make nearly the money of the fast cars franchise but it is well worth your time as “Free Fire” is a crime caper with attitude for days.

First, “Free Fire” looks extra gritty due to its 1970’s setting. Ugly clothes, “porn” mustaches and John Denver music on 8-track tapes firmly cement the time. With nearly everyone on screen smoking cigarettes, joints and heroin, you just know they all have a smell that would stick to your clothes, hair and skin. The abandoned factory setting also adds to the notion that everyone in the film is dirty. The floors are covered in dirt and debris. Giant sections of formed concrete are setting about as if they were put there to use later then forgotten. It is a desolate location being used by desperate people to commit a crime.

That may sound depressing but “Free Fire” is anything but. The movie is filled with interesting characters that, by the end of the film, you’d like to know more about most of them. Chris and Frank are in America to buy automatic rifles for the Irish Republican Army. How did they get here? What drove them to fight against the British? What is their relationship and how did it start? Justine is a woman in involved in arms dealing. How did that happen? Ord is a straight up enigma. Obviously educated, well-groomed and handsome, how did he get into the arms dealing business? The four peripheral characters of Stevo, Bernie, Harry and Gordon, while minor players, are equally interesting. Their appearance and speech would indicate lesser education and that makes them more tragic. It would seem they haven’t had much opportunity in life and crime is the quickest way for them to make money. I want to know more about everyone with the possible exception of Vernon. He’s a blowhard that believes he’s some kind of criminal genius. Sharlto Copley has played similar characters in other movies. While Vernon is entertaining to a degree he also is the one that grates on the nerves the fastest.

While I enjoyed the movie a great deal the story loses steam in the middle. We can only watch wounded people drag themselves across the floor so much before it becomes a bit tiresome. It also feels like a romance that pops up between Justine and Chris is misplaced. While it becomes part of a larger plot point later on, Chris makes some decisions that felt out of character and like an attempt to humanize him in a way that was unnecessary.

“Free Fire” is rated R for pervasive language, drug use, sexual references and strong violence. There are numerous shootings with various amounts of blood. There are also a few beatings. There are also some graphic and violent sexual references. One character is shown smoking pot a couple of times while another is shown smoking heroin. Foul language is common throughout.

“Free Fire” has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. The movie is a character study wrapped in a comedic shootout. It is a surprisingly entertaining film that understands what it is and isn’t afraid to revel in its ridiculousness. The cast filled with talented actors playing interesting characters is a joy to behold. Despite dragging a bit in the middle with characters behaving in a way that seems out of place, “Free Fire” is a little low-tech gem that delivers enormous fun.

“Free Fire” gets four stars out of five.

Phoenix Forgotten

In 1997, Phoenix, Arizona was dazzled by lights floating above the city. Videotaped by Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts), a teenage boy hoping to become a filmmaker, he becomes intrigued by both the lights and the Air Force fighter jets that appear to be chasing them. While interviewing people for a documentary about the sighting, Josh meets Ashley (Chelsea Lopez), a like-minded young woman about his age, and the two set out to learn more about the Phoenix Lights. A second sighting shown on the news convinces them to go into the desert and look for evidence of UFO’s. They ask Mark (Justin Matthews), Josh’s best friend, to come along and head out to the place Josh believes the lights might be seen next. While in the desert, the three disappear and no trace is ever found. Twenty years later, Josh’s sister Sophie (Florence Hartigan) is making a documentary about her brother’s disappearance and makes a discovery that changes everything.

“Phoenix Forgotten” is a faux-documentary/found-footage sci-fi/horror mashup that is surprisingly good during the documentary part and understandably bad during the found-footage section. Working best when examining not only her brother’s mysterious disappearance but the dysfunction within her family and that of Ashley’s, “Phoenix Forgotten” would have been better if it had forgotten about finding the missing teens.

Trying hard to mimic both “Paranormal Activity” and “The Blair Witch Project,” “Phoenix Forgotten” succeeds early on in creating an understandable sense of dread and mystery as Sophie interviews those that searched for the teens as well as the parents and siblings. All the actors playing law enforcement and the searchers perform perfectly by looking like they aren’t performing at all. They stumble over their words at times and appear to be couching their language as to not offend or upset Sophie (she conducts most of the interviews). This part of the film manages to avoid the pitfalls of this reality-style of filmmaking by not trying too hard to look real. The same can’t be said for other parts of the film.

One last tape is discovered by Sophie and it contains the three teens’ final moments. Here is where the film goes badly off the rails. Falling into the found-footage death traps of overacting and implausible actions, “Phoenix Forgotten” undoes all the goodwill the earlier sections of the film created. From batteries that never die to keeping the camera’s light on at times when it is dangerous to do so, the movie seems to be trying to annoy any audience member with half a brain. While we are provided with answers as to what happened to Josh, Ashley and Mark, you might be so exasperated by the film that you are relieved once their fate is revealed so you can leave the theatre.

“Phoenix Forgotten” is rated PG-13 for terror, peril, and some language. There isn’t much of any of any of the three. Foul language is mild and scattered.

I’m still a fan of the found-footage horror film. The first “Paranormal Activity” is one of my favorites. Sadly, very few films made this way have lived up to that standard and “Phoenix Forgotten,” while starting out strong, collapses so badly and completely in the last third that it drags the whole film down. While I like the premise and enjoyed the documentary part, I can’t recommend the movie except to those that don’t mind utter nonsense in their found-footage.

“Phoenix Forgotten” gets two stars out of five.

This week, films about technological overreach, an aging Lothario and magical magicians are hoping to catch your eye and entertainment dollar. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

The Circle—

How to be a Latin Lover—

Sleight—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Review of “The Man from UNCLE”

If there’s a saying that sums up the thinking of movie executives it must be “Everything old is new again.” So far this year we’ve had reboots or sequels to “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Mad Max,” “Fantastic Four,” “Jurassic Park,” “Ted,” “Magic Mike,” “Terminator,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Entourage,” “Pitch Perfect,” “Despicable Me,” “The Woman in Black,” “Taken,” “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Cinderella,” “Divergent,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Avengers,” “Poltergeist” and “Insidious.” And that’s just through the middle of August. The rest of the year has more ranging from another visit to the animated “Hotel Transylvania” as well as a galaxy far, far away for another episode of “Star Wars.” Many of these are or were greatly anticipated while others caused either a collective groan or disinterested shrug. Probably falling into the disinterested category is the big screen interpretation of a 50 year old TV show about Cold War spies from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain that work together to keep the world safe. While I was aware of “The Man from UNCLE” TV show and may have seen an episode or two, I can’t say the idea of a movie version ever crossed my mind. It apparently crossed the minds of movie executives who approached director Guy Ritchie to bring his unique visual style to this reimagining. While it certainly has style and very pretty people playing the roles, “The Man from UNCLE” doesn’t feel at all substantial.

Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) was a notorious thief in Europe until his capture by a task force of elite law enforcement. His prison sentence was suspended in exchange for using his special talents to help the CIA. Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is a KGB agent with anger issues due in part to his treatment after his father was caught skimming funds from the Communist Party and sent to a gulag. It’s the early 1960’s and the Cold War is at its zenith. Solo is sent into East Berlin to help Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) escape to the West. Her father was a German nuclear scientist helping the Nazis in World War II try to make an atomic bomb. He has developed a way to quickly and easily enrich uranium and has recently disappeared. The CIA thinks Gaby can lead them to her father. In trying to escape, Solo and Gaby are followed by Kuryakin and a chase ensues. Solo and Gaby are able to escape. The next day, Solo’s boss Saunders (Jared Harris) reintroduces Solo and Kuryakin and, along with Illya’s KGB boss, informs the pair that they will be working together to find Gaby’s father as it is in the best interest of both sides that her father’s work not fall into the wrong hands. Gaby’s Uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) works for Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra (Luca Calvani and Elizabeth Debicki), the owners of a shipping company in Rome. His late father started the company and was a fascist that supported Mussolini. The company may have ties to Nazi sympathizers. Despite their utter dislike and distrust of one another, Solo and Kuryakin must work together to find Gaby’s father and keep the world safe from Nazis with nukes.

It’s hard not to like “The Man from UNCLE.” From the far flung international locales to the witty banter, the film is designed to be interesting to both the eye and ear. Director Guy Ritchie pulled a few pages from films of the past to embed the notion that this is a 1960’s film that just happens to have 21st century actors in it. The action scenes are tight with little wasted space and the story zips along almost faster than the audience can keep up. It has all the makings of a giant money maker that should launch a franchise. Then why did I feel like I’d just walked through a sprinkler when I intended to jump into the deep end of the pool? I should have been soaked head to toe in nostalgia and international intrigue but instead I feel practically bone dry.

Perhaps the fault lies in setting the story in the early 1960’s: Kennedy is president, the Soviets are perceived to be the biggest threat to freedom and the scourge of Nazism isn’t that far in the rearview mirror. While I certainly remember the old USSR and the fear that the world would fall under totalitarian rule, it isn’t something I look back on with fondness or warm feelings. “The Man from UNCLE” seems to long for the day when our enemies were much easier to identify and target. Moving the story into modern times would have been easy as the U.S. and Russia don’t get along much better now than they did back then. Preventing a terrorist group from getting their hands on a nuclear device would seem to be an easy enough translation from the 1960’s to now since that’s one of the intelligence community’s biggest fears. Drop the Nazis and put in ISIL and you have a modern story that could throw in a few digs at NSA eavesdropping on all our calls and emails. It could have felt more relevant while also being a globetrotting romp.

Maybe it is due to the heroes having only a small amount of trouble in dealing with the bad guys. In the latest “Mission: Impossible” movie, Ethan Hunt gets put through the ringer a couple of times. He actually seems to be in some peril. Neither Napoleon Solo nor Illya Kuryakin is in any real trouble during the course of the story. They do get in a few tight spots but get out practically unscathed. When the heroes of a story appear to be able to cruise through any danger it makes the whole thing seem unimportant.

Despite the setting and lightness of tone, “The Man from UNCLE” still manages to be entertaining. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer make a winning team of likable secret agents that have a begrudging respect for each other. Cavill’s Solo is the more James Bond-like with a command of several languages, a love of fine wines and a winning way with the ladies. A nice counterpart to that is Hammer’s Kuyrakin. The stereotypical ice-cold Soviet agent that has a warm spot buried deep in the Siberia of his soul, Kuryakin has knowledge of fashion as well as a number of ways he can kill someone with his bare hands. Both agents possess skills complimentary to the other. Throwing Alicia Vikander into the mix as the master mechanic Gaby Teller and you have a team that can handle just about any situation that is thrown their way.

Director Guy Ritchie keeps the action moving from scene to scene with very little wasted time. Ritchie’s style is quite recognizable with the occasional odd camera angle, the uniqueness of the soundtrack and the use of quick flashbacks that show what happened in scenes just a few minutes earlier. Ritchie keeps the eye moving along with the story and that helps to keep the momentum at a fast pace.

“The Man from UNCLE” is rated PG-13 for action/violence, some suggestive content and partial nudity. There are several fist fights with one resulting in the death of a character from a stab wound. There is a scene of torture using an electric chair. Several nameless henchmen are shot. One character is shot at point blank range. There is very little blood shown. There are some sexually suggestive sounds heard over a radio. We see a topless woman in silhouette and get a brief glance of side breast. Foul language is widely scattered and mild.

“The Man from UNCLE” is a stylish and witty spy romp that puts to full use the fashion and look of the 1960’s. It is about as substantial as cotton candy and may leave the viewer with a feeling of “that was nice” but that’s about all. Apparently audiences want more than “nice” since it was left in the dust by “Straight Outta Compton” and came in third at the box office behind “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” which is in its third week. I enjoyed the film and think it is worth seeing but I can’t say it’s great.

“The Man from UNCLE” gets four stars out of five.

Three new flicks this week and at least one of them will get a once over by yours truly.

American Ultra—

Hitman: Agent 47—

Sinister 2—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.