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 “Kong: Skull Island”

It’s 1973. An agreement to end the Vietnam War has been announced. Bill Randa (John Goodman) with the Monarch Project is trying to get a US Senator to approve an expedition to a previously unknown South Pacific island. Randa, and his assistant Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), sell the expedition as an opportunity to discover new resources and to get to it before the Soviets do. Reluctantly, the senator agrees to piggyback Randa’s project with a survey by Landsat to explore the island. Also going on the trip is a military escort led by Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). He and his men are fresh from Vietnam and are diverted from going home to go on the mission. Others in the group include a former British Special Forces soldier named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to act as a tracker and hunter, and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a photojournalist that formerly worked in Vietnam. The island is surrounded by constant electrical storms that cut off communications with their base ship as they fly in on helicopters. To conduct the geological survey explosive charges are dropped from the helicopters and their vibrations through the ground are picked up by sensors. After a few charges are dropped the fleet of helicopters is attacked by a 100-foot tall gorilla. Swatting all of them out of the air and killing several soldiers and researchers, the survivors are split up and must survive in the jungle while dealing not only with the giant gorilla, but the massive insects and lizards that want to eat them for a snack. Conrad, Weaver and a few others run into a group of natives that live on the island as well as a WWII fighter pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) who was shot down by the Japanese. Marlow tells the group that the ape is named Kong by the locals and is treated like a god. He protects the natives from the other animals on the island that come from caverns underground. Lt. Col. Packard wants to kill Kong in retaliation for the deaths of his men and is willing to risk the lives of the other survivors to get the job done.

“Kong: Skull Island” is the second film in a series that plans on bringing giant monsters back to theatres over the next several years. The invasion of the giants began in 2014 with the “Godzilla” reboot and will culminate with a battle royale featuring Kong and Godzilla in 2020. In the interim we’ll see a second Godzilla film where he likely takes on other kaiju from his past including a giant moth and a three-headed monster. While fans of the Japanese “Godzilla” films weren’t thrilled about the latest reboot, the film made over half a billion dollars worldwide. Is the big, hairy ape reboot worth your hard earned money? Read on.

“Kong: Skull Island” delivers on the action front with several encounters between Kong and the numerous massive creatures on the island. We also get a very early look at Kong in a flashback that starts the film. While the CG is a bit flat at times (I saw the 2D version) the digital creations look amazing and the artists are able to keep Kong’s size consistent relative to his surroundings throughout the film. The other monsters on the island, including the big lizard that gives Kong the most trouble, are all creative inventions. Some are based on known animals while others are totally new. It was good to see some other creatures instead of the usual dinosaurs that are the bad guys on Kong’s home turf.

The various monsters are far more interesting than any of the people in “Kong: Skull Island.” Other than Samuel L. Jackson’s intense and insane Army man and John C. Reilly’s goofy marooned pilot, the characters are all pretty cookie cutter and interchangeable. Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Corey Hawkins and John Goodman are largely wasted in clichéd and underwritten roles that are mostly good for exposition and little else. While each gets a brief moment when the character is spotlighted none of it is interesting enough to make the audience really care what happens to any of them. The supporting players are mostly used as monster kibble so don’t get too attached to anyone even if some of them are far more intriguing than the top-billed players.

What is far more interesting is the struggle Kong has to survive not only his natural enemies but the two-legged variety that shows up uninvited. The audience is meant to root for Kong against the island creatures and it isn’t hard to take his side against the humans. Jackson’s Packard is a seething hate machine that is looking for redemption after the feeling of betrayal by politicians in Vietnam. He wants to fight a war he can win and believes he is just the man to cut the massive ape down to size. The fact that Kong is the only thing keeping the giant lizards at bay and possibly spreading over the rest of the world isn’t enough for him to end his fight. He’s obsessed and won’t let common sense or the fate of the world deter him from winning this time. I’m sure there’s a political statement in this character somewhere but I was too interested in the outcome of the final battle to figure it out.

“Kong: Skull Island” is rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence/action and brief strong language. While most deaths aren’t shown we do see Kong smash several people with his paws. The lizard monster consumes a few people. One character dies when impaled through the mouth. We see various creatures burned and ripped apart. Several human characters are shown with blood from injuries. Kong is shown with a large gash on his arm. Kong and another monster are shown being shot by machine guns. Several creatures are shown being cut apart by a sword. One character is carried away by flying creatures and is shown getting an arm ripped off. Foul language is widely scattered but one “F-bomb” gets dropped.

The climactic battle between two massive creatures was surprisingly thrilling despite it being two monsters completely created in computers. Both Kong and the giant lizard are made with very robust personalities. While they are just pixels molded and shaped by various talented artists and engineers they are also extremely well made. I actually cared about how the battle would turn out even though I had a pretty good idea which beast would come out victorious. Even though the human characters are mostly bland and forgettable, “Kong: Skull Island” has monsters with far more personality and they make the movie entertaining. I think next time it would be a better movie if it just had the monsters and used the puny humans as just extras to be crushed under foot…or paw…or claw…or tentacle…or whatever.

“Kong: Skull Island” gets five stars for the monsters and the fights, not for the people.

P.S. There is a brief bonus scene at the end of the credits. It teases what’s to come but should you need to go pee or whatever and miss it, it won’t be a catastrophe.

This week at the local multiplex it’s a tale as old as time along with survival of the fittest. I’ll see at least one of the following:

Beauty and the Beast—

The Belko Experiment—

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