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 “In the Heart of the Sea”

Author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) has travelled to visit former seaman Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to interview him about the last voyage of the whaling ship Essex. Nickerson is reluctant at first but is convinced by Mrs. Nickerson (Michelle Fairley) to talk to the writer. Nickerson recalls setting sail as a greenhorn (played as a teen by Tom Holland) on his maiden voyage with first-time captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Chase should have been captain but the company that owned the ship was run by Pollard’s father. Pollard and Owen didn’t get along but worked together as best they could to fill their hold with whale oil and return to port as quickly as possible. A scarcity of whales drives the men and ship into the middle of the Pacific where they encounter a massive white sperm whale. In protecting its herd the whale attacks the Essex, damaging her beyond repair and forcing the men to abandon ship. Setting off in small whaling boats the crew soon faces starvation and must do the unthinkable to survive.

“In the Heart of the Sea” is epic film making. It takes a fantastic tale of survival against all odds and narrows its focus down to a few common men. Despite the presence of Thor and Spider-Man, there are no great heroes that save the day. These are merely men doing what had to be done to get home. It’s the kind of movie that features incredible visuals and small emotional moments in equal measure. It also has a strong environmental message that becomes a bit overbearing at times. It is far from perfect but it still manages to be effective in producing an emotional response.

While the trailer for “In the Heart of the Sea” sells the story as more of a monster movie with a man fighting against an unnaturally intelligent and aggressive whale, the beast plays a fairly minor role. It is the struggle between the survivors and the elements that makes up the biggest part of the story. There is also a secondary story of clashing egos as Captain Pollard and First Mate Owen Chase clash in an effort to establish who is in charge. Pollard has little experience and is the captain only because his father is a powerful businessman within the whaling industry. Chase is told by his bosses to make sure the crew respects Pollard but Chase quickly sees his new captain is in over his head. How can he make the crew respect Pollard if he doesn’t? It is a conflict that roughly mirrors the struggle the crew has to survive after the attack of the whale: The arrogance of Man believing he is ordained by God to control and use all the beasts of the sea is quickly and violently shown for what it is when a single whale destroys their boat and leaves them to die in the middle of the ocean.

The struggle for survival occupies about half of the film’s two hour running time and it gets bleak. Star Chris Hemsworth, best known of the physique he shows as Thor in the Marvel superhero movies, and the rest of the cast of survivors lost huge amounts of weight living on 500 to 600 calories a day. The gaunt faces, made even more so by makeup highlighting their cheekbones, are haunting. At one point, those left alive appear to barely have the energy to breathe. Director Ron Howard chooses to focus on the faces of those left alive, making it impossible not to feel a little guilty for sipping on the giant over-priced drink from the concessions stand while looking at the cracked lips, sun-bleached hair and burnt skin.

Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy and Tom Holland are outstanding in their roles. Hemsworth plays the hardened whaler Chase with a tinge of playfulness that comes out around the greenhorn deckhand Nickerson played by Tom Holland. Chase acts as something of a father figure for Nickerson who is an orphan. Walker’s Captain Pollard is a man of privilege who knows he’s only captain because of his father. Seeing Chase scramble up the rigging to fix a problem, knowing he would be incapable to doing the same thing, makes Pollard embarrassed and jealous of his first officer. We see Pollard grow to respect and even like Chase as they struggle to survive. Cillian Murphy plays Second Mate Matthew Joy, a long-time friend of Chase. He seems to be playing both sides of the fence in his relationship to the two men, acting as a kind of peacekeeper and moderating influence on both. Tom Holland’s wide eyed wonder at seeing whales for the first time and then being introduced to the interior of one that’s been killed and in the process of being butchered gives him and the audience the introduction to both the beauty and the savagery of his job. Brendan Gleeson plays Tom Nickerson as an adult and gives a moving performance as a man being forced to remember all he had to do to survive over three months lost at sea. The pain and anguish play out over Gleeson’s face in a way that makes you worry for the sanity of the character.

Visually, “In the Heart of the Sea” is stunning. The TV commercials don’t do what the special effects team has accomplished justice. The scenes of whale hunting and when the sperm whale attacks the small whaling boats and the Essex are spectacular. We see the attempt at survival of a harpooned whale from the beast’s perspective, diving down deep in an effort to escape what is attacking it. We witness playful dolphins and huge whales gliding effortlessly through the water. We also see what happens when a whale is killed then brought alongside the ship to be butchered and its oil harvested. The beauty and savagery of nature and whaling are put on full display and in vivid detail.

The movie makes a point of stressing how wrong whaling is and that tends to bring the film to nearly a dead stop. At the time in the early 1800’s, whale oil was the best fuel to light lanterns and streetlamps. It made many people rich in the buying and selling of whale oil. With the discovery of petroleum products and the introduction of vegetable oils, the use of whale oil declined and was eventually outlawed by environmental laws. Despite all this history, the film makes a big deal about how wrong it was to hunt whales. The character of Pollard, who is usually shown on the wrong side of things, points out how God gave man dominion over the animals including the beasts in the sea and it is our duty to exert our control over them. Chase questions whether that’s the right thing to do. This happens, in one form or another, a couple of times in the film. While I agree we don’t need to hunt whales any more, it seems like a waste of time to include these scenes in the movie. We could have been shown Chase’s wife waiting and longing for her husband or the leaders of the whaling company lamenting the apparent loss of their ship and money. It feels like the time could have been better spent on the surrounding drama of their situation.

“In the Heart of the Sea” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of peril, intense sequences of action, brief startling violence and thematic material. The attack of the whale on the smaller boats and the Essex leads to the death of some crewmen and the injury of others. There is a scene where one crewman is trying to escape the ship as it is sinking and on fire. One character is shown shooting himself in the head. What is done to survive at sea, while not shown, is discussed and described. Foul language is scattered.

“In the Heart of the Sea” tells a bleak and depressing story that doesn’t get much happier by the time the end credits roll. It shows men pushed to their limits and forced beyond them by nature and their circumstances. It wants to teach the viewer a lesson about how Man is a minor player on the stage of life and the elements don’t care if you live or die. The movie does a pretty good job pounding that into the consciousness of the audience but it continues that message to the point of assault. We get it: Whaling is unnecessary in the modern age. Perhaps those living in the most extreme polar regions need to harvest a few whales a year to survive but the rest of the world needs to leave these intelligent and majestic creatures alone. The aggressive environmental evangelizing degrades what is otherwise an impressive bit of film making. Despite the less than subtle preaching, “In the Heart of the Sea” is worth the time to watch.

“In the Heart of the Sea” gets four guitars out of five.

Animated animals, dissimilar siblings and a galaxy far, far away are on screens this week. I’ll see and review at least one (can you guess which one?).

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip—

Sisters—

Star Wars: The Force Awakens—

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