Tagged: Armie Hammer

Box Office Democracy: “Free Fire”

Something hit me like a bolt from the blue during the third act of Free Fire: I am all the way over nihilistic action movies.  I don’t want to watch movies full of people who don’t care about anything commit violence against each other anymore.  In my teens and twenties this felt ok; that it was worth it to explore the space of cinematic violence.  Either we’ve completely explored that space or I’ve aged out of it or maybe Free Fire is just a particularly bad example of the form, but I can’t stand for it anymore.  I need my action movies to have people who care about things in them and those things can’t be violence for the sake of violence or money.  I need more than that.

Free Fire is about an arms deal that goes bad and that’s the entire plot.  We spend the first 20 minutes getting to know the 10 principal characters, and then spend 70 minutes watching them shoot at each other in a warehouse.  There are only two moments I would consider plot or character development after the shooting starts, and so we just get sequence after sequence of people mostly futilely shooting at each other.  There are no grand twists or revelations just an escalation of carnage.  Anyone that’s been to more than ten movies in their life could probably guess who “wins” from the trailer.  I kept waiting for some kind of escalation or turn and it never comes— we just get people crouching in the dirt until they run out of time.

I expected to come home and do my preliminary research for this review and discover the movie was based off of a novella or something.  It would be a fine novella, all of the characters could have internal lives and explored backstories.  It’s not often I come home from a movie wishing for more exposition or more navel-gazing, but here we are.

I don’t know what else there is to say about a movie that I reject so completely as a story.  The acting is fine.  Brie Larson is always fun to watch but she’s asked to do very little here.  Cillian Murphy is pretty good but I wish he reached in to his bag of expressions and came back with something that wasn’t “handsome pensive” a couple times.  Sharlto Copely gives a completely off-the-wall performance that I can’t decide if it’s brilliant or just completely random, but it’s probably at least 70/30 in favor of the former.  I’m not entirely sure why the movie needed to be set in the 70s other than some whimsical wardrobe choices, but it’s kind of fun seeing people dressed like that and I chuckled the first time I saw someone put in an 8-track tape.  It’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel when you’re giving a movie credit for using antiquated audio technology.

I’m honestly not sure if Free Fire is as bad as I’m making it sound.  Perhaps ten years ago I would have seen this and spent the next week gushing about it to anyone who would listen.  It’s neither offensive nor spectacular in its failures such that I could imagine no reasonable person liking it.  It’s just a bland film that never seems to aspire to be an interesting film.  Free Fire is a movie that might have seemed like a revelation in a world where Reservoir Dogs didn’t exist and we hadn’t been seeing movies inspired by it for the last quarter of a century.  But Reservoir Dogs does exist, and so I can’t see what use Free Fire has at all.

Box Office Democracy: The Birth of a Nation

I don’t particularly like movies that are graphic depictions of historical atrocities. I don’t like movies about the Holocaust or particularly gritty war movies or, as in this case, slavery. I don’t have a problem learning about troubling historical periods through nonfiction, but there’s something that feels exploitative about going over human misery so exhaustively. I get that there are probably people learning about these things for the first time any time one of these movies comes out; someone is undoubtedly seeing The Birth of a Nation and only now seeing how brutal slavery was. It feels unendingly elitist to say that this potential educational value is useless, or exceptionally privileged to say that a African-American writer/director shouldn’t tell a historical story of his people’s suffering, but I don’t have to want to watch it.

While I find it unpleasant, there’s a lot of good film-making in here. Nate Parker has a command as a director that belies his relative inexperience. He gets the best performance out of himself, but Aja Naomi King and Armie Hammer are both doing work deserving of high praise. Moreover there are so many small, practically speechless, parts that feature exceptional facial expressions, the kind of subtle things that I don’t associate with novice directors. With the exception of the assault on the armory, which I found confusing and a tad muddled, the shot composition is uniformly excellent. I particularly liked the way they frame the various plantation houses to quickly convey information about the inhabitants; I didn’t realize I knew so much about architecture and maybe I don’t, but Birth of a Nation sort of convinced me I do.

I don’t have the historical background to get in to the accuracy of the movie with any authority at all. I’ve read a few articles about it and rather than attempt to get into detail I will just say that there are a lot of things that happen in the film that have no relation to contemporary accounts. I don’t believe that films have an obligation to be accurate to real life but there are a few choices that damaged the narrative for me a little bit. They got out of their way to show Turner’s master becoming a more cruel man as time goes on and that cruelty inspiring Turner to begin his revolt. This is apparently not backed up by historical fact, and sort of makes the case that it’s this mistreatment that justifies the revolt rather than the general horribleness of slavery. This is the cinematic equivalent of the “most slaves were well-treated and provided with food and shelter” argument you see from gross historical revisionists. Owning another human being is terrible enough to demand retribution without any other extenuating circumstances. The other thing that jumped out at me were the pair of sexual assaults that also seem to be unsupported by the records. At best it feels like taking agency away from female characters and imperiling them to give motivation to the male characters, a practice we should discourage. At worst we could look in to Parker’s past and draw a number of unspeakable conclusions. I wish someone had talked them into cutting this way down.

I’m thrilled that Hollywood is starting to let people of color make movies about their histories of oppression. It’s strongly preferable to the previous policy of letting white people tell everyone’s story for them. I don’t want these opportunities to dry up (but maybe Parker is revealing himself to be a kind-of gross person who should not be benefiting from this) but this isn’t a movie for me. It’s heavy-handed and overwrought and while there are some amazing moments they all feel too isolated to constitute a fulfilling moviegoing experience.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: Great Spy Movie, Lousy U.N.C.L.E. Movie

We all know how it works. A movie company gets a hold of a classic property like a TV show or even another movie, and proceed to “improve” it for a new audience by largely removing almost everything that made the property good in the first place.  It takes a singular talent to perform such surgery on a concept and successfully replace the gaps with quality entertainment is a rare accomplishment.

Luckily, Guy Ritchie is a singular talent, and while there is effectively none of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement in the film, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a perfectly entertaining period spy movie, a fine film about two men named Napoleon and Illya, much in the same way his Sherlock Holmes films were about two clever fellows name Sherlock and Watson, just not the ones we’re acquainted with.

In this iteration, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is a former master burglar; captured but pardoned in exchange for working for the CIA, and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is the KGB’s best man, but prone to fits of violent rage. So clearly this is not your father’s (or in my case, my) U.N.C.L.E. agents.  Cavill plays Solo with a smooth charm that works perfectly, and while he’s not the cool emotionless Russian that sent hearts aflutter in the 60s, Hammer plays Illya as a semi-traditional Russian brute with a soft side.

Also missing is U.N.C.L.E.’s nemesis Thrush – here an unnamed “international criminal organization” is behind the plot, headed by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), a classic brilliant femme fatale, played to the hilt. The organization has obtained the means and the scientific expertise to manufacture nuclear weapons, still the hotly guarded secret in the sixties, forcing the US and USSR to team up and send in their best men, the aforementioned Napoleon and Illya, who have by now met once, before the were asked to play nice. Napoleon had just completed a tactical extraction, pursued by Illya, of one Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), daughter of the scientist believed to be working for Victoria. She is recruited to make contact with her…um, father’s brother, who is believed to have been the one to facilitate the arrangement, in the hopes of revealing their treasonous scheme.

The film hits all the points you’d like a period spy movie to hit— fast-paced split-screen editing, the stealth incursion into the bad guy’s lair, some staggering costumes for the ladies (none of which were particularly revealing, but still a retro joy to behold) and the requisite turncoat moment or two (to say who did it to whom would be telling). The soundtrack is a delight, a combination of Ritchie’s traditional amazing skill for picking existing songs, and a score chock fill of pan flutes and hammer dulcimers, the source of much of the music found in spy films in the sixties. But the film rises and falls on the chemistry between the stars.  Cavill and Hammer plays against each other perfectly, and both work well with Vikander.

As mentioned at the beginning, the only complaint one could have for the film is exactly how little a role U.N.C.L.E. itself actually plays in the film. Hugh Grant arrives in the third act as Alexander Waverly, here a member of British Intelligence, and it’s only at the very last moment of the film that the eponymous acronym is ever used, and even then, it’s made to sound like it’s going to be nothing more than a code name for the pair, um…team. I pretty much knew going in that we were going to be saddled with a “When they first met” movie, and we would have to sit there and wait for them to become the team we know with the same impatient frustration of sitting through Popeye, and just waiting for Robin Williams to eat the gorram spinach.  We didn’t get cameos by Robert Vaughn or David McCallum, I didn’t even see the U.N.C.L.E. special Walthers I thought I’d spied in the trailer.  I sat through the credits, hoping against hope they’d give us ONE tip of the hat, that iconic title card that made sitting through the TV show’s credit worth it every week.

Throw me a frikkin' BONE, here!

Throw me a frikkin’ BONE, here!

Happily, this was one of the few cases where I was able to put my feeling about missing what we didn’t get aside and just enjoy what we did get, because what we got was cherce.