Free Fire (USA/UK, 2016): Ben Wheatley is without a doubt one of the most interesting contemporary filmmakers at work, but his filmography is far from immaculate. He often engages in self-indulgence and glamorization of violence.
Free Fire embodies both of Wheatley’s main flaws. In fact, more than a movie, Free Fire feels like an exercise in style, following the infinitely more complex and ambitious High-Rise.
1978, Boston. A group of IRA members intents to purchase a number of automatic weapons from a shifty South African dealer at an abandon warehouse. The already tense exchange shifts into hyper-drive when men at both sides of the transaction succumb to the pressure.
The impish shoot’em up is undeniably entertaining, even though Wheatley fails to establish a visual geography to better follow the dispute. A number of recognizable actors (Cillian Murphy and Armie Hammer as the pros, Sharlto Copley and Sam Riley as the hotheads, Brie Larson as the liaison) are game to some down-and-dirty action, but Free Fire is just a minor detour for a filmmaker who can be more than another Tarantino clone. Three planets.
Elle (France, 2016): Perennial provocateur Paul Verhoeven has been very quiet lately. Outside a more or less traditional WWII flick (Black Book) and a forgettable short, the man who turned Hollywood on its head in the nineties has kept a low profile since.
His latest, Elle, is perhaps a career best. Verhoeven mixes genres with remarkable dexterity and is still capable of building a complex protagonist: The credits haven’t even finished rolling in when Michele (Isabelle Huppert, never better) is raped at home by an intruder. Reporting the attack is low in her list of concerns: Her son is about to move in with his pregnant girlfriend even though he may not be the baby’s father, her videogame company is developing a product that could make or break her business, and her long-time jailed father is up for parole.
You would think Michele is on the edge, but she remains in control and more together than everyone else around her. So much so, that the idea of being powerless becomes a thrilling one. You can figure out where this is going.
A layered mystery with a dollop of black comedy, Elle is very wrong in the best way possible. A contained Verhoeven is as good as his most debauched self, with the invaluable assistance of Huppert in a bravura performance. Four and a half planets.
Snowden (USA, 2016): It has been a long while since Oliver Stone was last relevant. His last few movies have gone from goofy (W.) to flat (World Trade Center). Even his attempt to be commercial (Savages) lacked the pizzazz his best efforts had.
While not entirely a return to form, Snowden is at least a fully shaped film that makes clear why the actions of the NSA contractor are worth our appreciation, regardless of the authorities’ scorn. Stone gives Edward Snowden the hero treatment: A former soldier of conservative tendencies appalled by the liberties the American government takes with civil surveillance. As the titular character, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a remarkable job matching the man himself, from the voice pitch to the deceptive composure.
Snowden does a much better job than Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour filling in the audience on the programmer’s trajectory and his motivations. Once again though, Snowden’s partner Lindsay Mills gets the short shift, in spite of a spirited performance by Shailene Woodley. It’s never clear why Mills has stuck through thick and thin with the whistleblower. Love only gets you so far. Three and a half planets.
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