'Free Fire' Loaded With Fast Quips, Wayward Bullets, Little Else

Directed by: Ben Wheatley; Runtime: 90 minutes
Grade: B-

There's a portion of the American population that sticks to the mantra: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." Well, Free Fire tosses together a bunch of different types of people and crates full of guns into a confined space, and a lot of shooting and killing happens regardless of who's behind the artillery and pulling the trigger. Does that support any side of the argument, or both? That matters about as much as the story itself matters within Ben Wheatley's latest pure action guilty pleasure ... that's to say, not much at all, really. Encased in a dilapidated factory with tons of jagged hiding spaces, an eclectic group of largely untrained criminals and renegades are thrown into a firefight after a large arms deal goes south, propelled by rapid humor and off-the-wall violence that's stimulating while caught in the crossfire. One the dust settles, however, there isn't much worth taking away from Wheatley's one-location shootout, leaving in its wake only the shallowness of its amusing characters and the vain foolishness of the whole endeavor.

With the darkness of night surrounding their Boston meeting space, a group of loosely-connected individuals gradually come together into two sides of a significant transaction involving a whole lot of guns. One faction, which can be loosely interpreted as the "good guys", features members of the Irish Republican Army hoping to obtain weapons for their cause, led by Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cilian Murphy). The other side makes up the arms suppliers, introduced by Ord (Armie Hammer) and led by free-wheeling Vernon (Sharlto Copley). A beautiful, self-composed blonde woman, Justine (Brie Larson), serves as a liaison between the two factions, though her allegiance seems to tilt more toward the buyers than the sellers. Clashing personalities, twisted details of the deal, and some recognition between members of the opposing groups create a tense atmosphere that eventually spirals out of control, resulting in a chaotic gunfight between the two with the money and the guns themselves there for the claiming.

Free Fire kicks off with two henchman driving to that meet-up spot, one -- something of a "pretty boy" (Sam Riley) -- covered in blood and complaining about the beating he received the night before due to his womanizing pursuits, which flips into a nonsensical quip about a "reluctant panda bear" through his thick Boston accent. Co-writing the script alongside his longtime collaborator Amy Jump, director Wheatley makes it clear that this will be the kind of amplified characterization that'll fill the ranks of both squads, sporting overstated dialogue that aims for clear laughs instead of realistic chatter. They become clearly-drawn, muted caricatures with observable traits that confirm how they'll react and perform once their hands get on firearms, and very few of ‘em stand out as noteworthy performances within the superficial boundaries of the characters, whether it's the innate charisma of Cilian Murphy and Brie Larson in largely straight roles or the bloated shenanigans of Sharlto Copley's fiery and unfiltered South African machismo. One exception is Armie Hammer, whose suave and tongue-in-cheek persona forms a distinct, retro character who's far more intriguing than the rest.

The circumstances that start the shootout in Free Fire are too clumsy and unthinking to take seriously, though, hinged on doubtful small-world circumstances and a shoddy choice of henchman on both sides of the table. This becomes the point when Wheatley's film veers away from being a credible guns-blazing actioner to a comedy with an action-oriented foundation, something a little closer in attitude to Shane Black's The Nice Guys than, perhaps, the versatile works of one of the film's executive producers, Martin Scorsese. Free Fire also doesn't have any deeper intentions to fall back on, unlike Wheatley's equally exaggerated but more conceptual High-Rise; no socioeconomic commentary and fondness for source material are to be found in the dusty layout of this danger zone of a factory. Instead, it becomes abundantly clear that co-writers Wheatley and Amy Jump wanted to create an unpredictable environment where everyone could feasibly shoot at everyone, and they'll all jokingly spar with one another while waiting for an open shot.

Once the first piece of artillery gets drawn and the trigger pulled, Free Fire begins its plummet into jubilant mayhem, escalating quickly and anxiously once the two sides are pushed over their limits. Shoddy aiming, ricocheting bullets, and a lack of clarity over where they landed -- and in whom they've landed -- combine with the flippant attitude emphasized in Wheatley and Jump's scripted dialogue, and suddenly the lack of taking itself seriously starts to pay off. It's pretty clear that none of these people have been trained to handle guns with James Bond or John Wick-caliber precision, so their endless missed bullets are justified alongside the accidental, darkly humorous bedlam that it all produces. The humor never eases up from its exaggerated tempo, as if those caught in the fray know they're playing to an audience watching them awkwardly try to kill one another, but the playfulness and adaptability of the dialogue lands more than a few hilarious hits throughout.

That said, Free Fire's deliberately hectic action and constant verbal zingers end up being a double-edged sword once the numbers start thinning out on both sides. As Ben Wheatley relishes the incremental landed shots and odd-and-end methods that inch the participants closer to death, it also loses its grip on making the audience give a damn about who's going to get out of the situation alive. That leaves this elaborate showdown -- which gets exponentially unrulier with explosions, fires, and active cars driving about -- in a state of constant anticipation of the next goofy line and/or lucky shot instead of building one's investment toward the stakes and outcome, something that doesn't really change from the moment that the whole thing blows out of proportion. Despite a few grisly surprises and predictable twists involving the person responsible for making this bad situation even worse, there isn't much that develops throughout Free Fire beyond its raucous bodycount and a pile of one-liners at their feet, kneecapping its potential as a standout genre pic. That doesn't stop it from being something of a blast, though.

'Tanna' Provokes Senses, Glimpses At Evolving Tribal Customs

Directed by: Bentley Dean and Martin Butler; Runtime: 104 minutes
Grade: B

There's a degree of authenticity that's fundamentally built into films that use non-professional actors from around their focal settings in telling their stories, and often it's because those people are expressing a kind of enduring challenge or life-changing element to their everyday lives. From classic Italian neorealist cinema like Bicycle Thieves to contemporary urban depictions like City of God, these glimpses into everyday lives become compelling because of the truth and experience they convey, reflecting upon their distinct culture and hardships. Few have ventured as far out into the wilderness with the intent to capture a narrative feature as Tanna, however, the fruit of the labors of documentary directors Bentley Dean and Martin Butler. Planted in the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, it weaves together a beautiful, heartrending cinematic story out of a meaningful tribal song, one which poetically chronicles how two star-crossed lovers are caught in arranged marriage customs and intertribal conflict that would ultimately change how their culture would view marriage from thereon out.

Within the village of Yakel and across the landscape of Tanna island, natives continue to hold onto the traditions and politics of Melanesian kastom, perpetuating the way of life that involves living completely natural, respecting taboo locations, and conducting arranged marriages between tribes for mutual gain. It's a peaceful life, but not one without conflict, as exhibited by the violence that a neighboring tribe, the Imedin, have consistently exacted upon their rivals. And as of late, another issue has emerged within the Yakel tribespeople: two younger members of the tribe, warrior Dain and the beautiful Wawa, have built an affectionate kinship for one another. Eventually, however, the marriage arrangements and bloody history that exist between the tribes comes into play, which threatens to split apart Dain and Wawa despite their natural love for one another. Following the verses of a song telling their true story, Tanna chronicles what comes of their relationship and how the tribes handle their resistance to the customs.

Doubling as cinematographer, co-director Bentley Dean filmed Tanna with an unobtrusive Canon handheld camera, yet that's all he really needs to capture the verdant splendor of the Vanuatu island and its gracious people. This is very much a sensory experience that emphasizes the seclusion of the village and the enormous power of Tanna's active volcano, Mount Yasur, designed to be felt in much the same way that these tribespeople might feel their surroundings. Adoring glances between lovers through small breaks in foliage and a naturally flowing perspective within the tribespeople in their village taps into a raw visual experience reminiscent of Terrence Malick's work, notably both The New World and Days of Heaven in how it captures a sense of community and seemingly hidden rays of beauty. It's hard not to get swept up by the dense foliage and the bright orange embers of the volcano surrounded by the purple-gray sediment surrounding it, yet the same effect can also be felt by glancing over the unfettered beauty of sprigs from Dain's fern crown and the bright innocence of Wawa's eyes.

Tanna's natural atmosphere allows the audience to forget, or disregard, the unremarkable storytelling involved with distilled its folklore and intentions. The couple's obligation to their family and fellow tribespeople cultivates a sense of unpredictability about where it's headed, since their passion for one another could feasibly either buckle under the pressure and succumb to their customs or become a driving force for their growing individual desires. Remarkably, the performances from the Yakel tribe are, for the most part, so incredibly earnest and nuanced that they preserve our immersion in the moving parts of their society. Shamans and chieftains are played by the Yakel's shamans and chieftains, so the opportunity for these individuals to play slightly modified versions of their own personalities pours through in their personas. Wawa's bashfulness and Dain's smoldering gazes occasionally tilt into excessively amateurish territory, but the effortlessness of the performances surrounding them within the radiance of the island atmosphere keep their dramatics in check and further endear them.

Tension and danger mounts in Tanna as taboo lines are crossed and violence against the Yakel tribe once again rears its ugly head, which puts the gears in motion for arranged marriages to smooth out the transgressions occurring on the island. These rites and the shifting dynamics of "romantic" relationships amid their culture form into a poetic tale of thwarted love and unquenchable vengeance, despite the simple, drawn-out narrative not blazing the same trail of uniqueness as its focal lovebirds. Even though they're not from rivaling tribes, there's a forbidden relationship vibe going on here akin to a certain Shakespearean tragedy, as well as a sense of duty and responsibility to maintain one's cultural status quo that mirrors the likes of Disney's own tale of independence and destiny amid a tribal life, Moana. What sets Tanna apart is, of course, the real-world essence powering the tale being told, and that devotion to realism -- to getting such a significant part of their evolving heritage right -- resonates in each line mentioning the Kastom and every conflict, verbal and physical, over the lovers' fate.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]

Huppert Stands Tall in Verhoeven's Sardonic, Challenging 'Elle'

Directed by: Paul Verhoeven; Runtime: 130 minutes
Grade: B-

The terms "comedy" and "rape" should probably stay as far away from one another as possible, since it's hard to imagine how anyone could transform such sensitive material into anything even in the ballpark of humorous. Paul Verhoeven comes about as close to legitimately doing so as one can get with Elle -- though, as the director himself has been on record stating and as one discovers while watching the film, this "is not a rape comedy". Elevated tonality, a faint satirical edge, and direct exploration and manipulation of the subject matter brushes against what could be deciphered as humor surrounding the topic, but this is, at its core, more akin to a pitch-black psychological thriller in the vein of Black Book or Basic Instinct than one of Verhoeven's more overt satires. A commanding and challenging performance from Isabelle Huppert shines amid over two hours of perplexing, warped suspense centered on a woman's coping process following an attack, producing an intriguing yet overdrawn exercise that's burdened by how it pulls the curtains back on its mysteries too soon.

Adapting from Philipe Dijan's prize-winning novel, Elle begins by depicting a violent attack upon Michele (Huppert), whose surprisingly nonchalant response to being violated by a masked intruder sets off some alarm bells about the kind of person she is. Turns out, she has a complicated history: once the underage and manipulated accomplice in a disturbing act of murder committed by her father, she has paved a career path for herself as a creative executive in the videogame industry. Michele begins to wonder whether someone involved with her latest project -- gaming aficionados will recognize the character models and gameplay of the recent release Styx: Master of Shadows as the game she's working on -- might have been responsible for the action. Amid her demanding relationship with her critical mother, her dwindling affair with a co-worker, and her burgeoning attraction to a next-door neighbor, Michele decides to pursue her attacker by herself and, perhaps, exact vengeance if she's able to locate him.

No stranger to shock value, Verhoeven leaves a lasting mark right at the beginning of Elle with the volatile rape sequence. Obviously, this event impacts the mood and context of everything else that follows, in how Michele interacts with family and friends and how she approaches her life afterwards, but it's not in the conventional ways you'd probably imagine. Michele's handling of the situation interweaves with her development of violent and vulgar cutscenes in a videogame, with mundane activities like dealing with her home association's trash separation demands and with meals where she joined by her ex-husband and her mother, all the while focused upon whether she divulges the information of her assault. Even anticipated sequences where she builds a self-protection arsenal are given a unique spin with Michele's sardonic, direct yet calculated responses. This is where the charges of Elle being a kind of comedy originate, in how brazenly Verhoeven accelerates into these scenes with his avant-garde evasion of political correctness, while also shining a light on the situation's gravity.

Isabelle Huppert's performance remains critical to the success of Elle from start to finish, and the credible, unswerving poise she gives to Michele elevates everything that happens in the thriller. The actress is no stranger to trailblazing roles like this: she's delved into the psycho-sexual challenges of sadomasochism and repression in Michael Haneke's abrasive The Piano Teacher, and coped with navigating domineering social issues and moral grayness in White Material, among others. Here, the amplified cynicism of how Michele navigates her life post-attack stays within the lines of integrity because of Huppert, else the events that transpire and the ways that relationships evolve -- especially whenever her son's bond with his twisted pregnant girlfriend enters the equation -- could've easily stumbled into the realm of sheer, exploitative pulp. Huppert's shrewd glances and stalwart poise allow the film to continue grasping onto the more perceptive merits of its design, yielding a powerful manifestation of composure and empowerment as she sparks her independent investigation.

Problem is, all the other things going on around Michele combine this extended study of her trauma with melodramatic diversions and a meandering development of suspects for her assault, which Verhoeven has drawn out over the two-hour mark. Ruminations on the deceased, fading and emerging extramarital affairs, and baby-daddy issues involving her son evolve into a complicated, yet jumbled dramatic epic that lacks the resonance (or sense of humor) to endure that amount of time. The world might keep spinning after Michele's attack, and that's a worthwhile message, but the density of other issues surrounding her -- her history with a murderous father, her mother's taste for younger men, and her own inclination toward married men -- has too much going on for it to hold focus on its deeper considerations about what Michele's going through. There's a commentary involved here about the dynamics of people who don't report being assaulted and the post-traumatic psychological stress that can result from this, as well as deriving strength from the situation, but it gets lost in the clutter of Michele's already screwed-up life.

Elle already stumbles as a thriller because of its exaggerated distractions, but its biggest trip comes in how soon the identity of Michele's attacker gets revealed, which subdues much of the momentum. While the film has been touted as having potential revenge overtones, there's little that suggests what she'll actually do if her independent investigation ever produced a suspect … which ends up being by design, for the sake of suspense and shock value delivered by Verhoeven. The execution of the gap between the identity reveal and the culmination of Michele's plan leaves something to be desired, though: despite taking her psychological turmoil to some dark thematic places, the moving parts struggle to line up in a plausible fashion, leaning too far over into Verhoeven's style of exploitation for the gravity of the subject matter he's dabbling in. It's hard not to stay intrigued with seeing where Elle -- and its complex heroine -- will ultimately end up, but the director's adaptation of Djain's novel doesn't make it an easy affair, even with touches of absurdity and sarcasm in there trying to amplify the mood.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]