Free Fire ***½|****

Michael Smiley and Cillian Murphy in Free Fire
English director Ben Wheatley follows his dreadfully boring and self-serious High-Rise with a film that recaptures the unbridled madness and idiosyncratic style of his previous effort but puts it to much better use this time around. Free Fire recalls the quippy banter of Guy Ritchie fare like Snatch along with the cartoonish violence of Shoot ‘Em Up and hosts an 85-minute wall-to-wall shootout that justifies its runtime with a bracing fusion of absurd comedy and innovative gunplay. Its apt tagline promises “All guns. No control.” and it ably delivers the goods in a wickedly enjoyable package that left me with wide eyes and a goofy smile on my face.

It’s 1978 and an arms deal, brokered by Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) between IRA soldier Chris (Cillian Murphy) and flashy gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley), is taking place in an abandoned warehouse in Boston. The meeting goes smoothly enough at the outset with members of each party introducing themselves to one another but after a pair of misunderstandings (one business related and one much more personal), the deal goes sour and everyone involved is soon scrambling towards the nearest available firearm and taking cover. Negotiations for the remaining ammo and money play out as characters parlay loudly over the sound of errant bullets whizzing through the air.

Keeping track of the stakes and “who’s who” of Free Fire can be a tricky proposition –one character even admits he doesn’t know who he’s aiming for at one point — but the craftsmanship behind the choreography and camerawork is far from haphazard. Some may fault the claustrophobic cinematography that lacks establishing shots that might better outline the terrain but as these are characters who spontaneously find themselves in a volatile situation, I appreciated that Wheatley tends to keep us in the trenches as opposed to giving us the privilege of bird-eye perspectives. He also isn’t opposed to the occasional visual flourish to give some extra flare, like the point-of-view shot of a crosshair as it’s quickly being raised up to the shooter’s eye.

As much as this film has to offer on the visual side of the coin, the sound design is even more impressive when you break down the technical components of making an action movie like this. Not only do each of the weapons that the characters fire have their own unique sonic properties but the sounds of the competing gunfire create a sort of “chatter” of its own kind apart from the actual dialogue that’s spoken. It’s also important that the words don’t get drown out by the gunplay and the voices have just enough clarity to them while still sounding like they’re being spoken in the natural environment; I imagine most of the lines were recorded with ADR but they don’t have that “vocal booth” sterility to them.

The banter that’s spoken between the members of this all-star cast could have been cheeky or a bit too on-the-nose but the screenplay, written by Wheatley with frequent collaborator Amy Jump, is irreverent and playful in all the right ways. It also doesn’t introduce major contrivances to help move the bare bones narrative along; developments arise naturally from the reckless action (or inaction) of its characters and tension is distilled from the fact that they’re primarily stuck in this one location for the entire incident. Free Fire may not aim high with its cinematic ambitions but as the lean and mean action indie that it is, it does the job exceedingly well.

Personal Shopper **½|****

Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper

Clouds of Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas teams up once again with Kristen Stewart for this intermittently tense but frustratingly illusive psychological thriller that mingles in both the very tangible world of high fashion and the equally intangible spirit realm. Personal Shopper is quite the blend of genres — part ghost story, part soul-searching drama, part murder mystery — and Assayas almost manages to pull the concoction off. Unfortunately, the ethereal side of the storytelling offers more tantalizing questions than satisfying answers and doesn’t provide the kind of closure that both the main character and the audience seek.

Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, a lonely young woman who lives in Paris and travels around Europe buying clothes for wealthy supermodels who don’t have the time or inclination to shop for themselves. We find out that Maureen is also grieving the recent death of her twin brother Lewis and, based on a pact they formed before his passing, is using her abilities as a medium to make a connection with him from beyond the grave. While on a business trip, she receives a string of ominous text messages from an unknown number that suggest a sort of otherworldly omnipotence which indicate they could either be from Lewis or a more malevolent force.

Assayas is able to manufacture tension just from the sheer peculiarity of the narrative alone and from the unconventional shifts in tone that may throw some for a loop but may actually be the film’s biggest asset. The sequence in which Maureen initially spars with her mysterious texter during a train ride to London is gripping and insidiously patient as it unfolds in what feels like real time, with the infuriating bouncy ellipses and all. The creepy haunted house scenes like the one that opens the film have an eerie unpredictability to them and actually tend to be spookier than the jump scares of full-blown horror movies.

If the thriller-based sequences make for the most effective portions of the film, then it’s the drawn-out musings on the afterlife and the relationship between the living and the dead that ultimately bring it down. When the mystery plot wraps up, we’re treated to one conversation after another that essentially hits the same beats about the nature of spirit world and doesn’t add to a greater understanding of the characters. It’s as if Assayas had an hour and twenty minutes of a decent movie together and he decided to go on auto-pilot for the final twenty minutes and hoped that the audience either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care.

Even in the film’s most dubious of choices, Kristen Stewart does her best to pull it all together with another excellent performance of passion and power that further proves that she’s the real deal. Her portrayal of grief and loneliness is one that isolates her from almost all social interactions and yet she still finds ways to make her character more accessible and vulnerable than she has in previous roles. She elevates the flimsy material to such a level that it’s almost worth watching just for her but there’s too many curious missteps in Personal Shopper to give it a full-fledged endorsement.

Win It All ***|****

Jake Johnson in Win It All

Joe Swanberg has been credited as a pioneer of the “mumblecore” movement, which is comprised of lower-budget films that often focus on largely improvised dialogue as opposed to a tightly crafted plot. While his new feature Win It All is more conventionally structured than previous efforts like Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas, it still retains the hallmarks of the genre by keeping the scope of the story small and by making the dialogue naturalistic and believable. It also stars frequent Swanberg collaborator Jake Johnson (credited as co-writer and co-producer as well), who extends past his typical comedic range and turns in his most compelling performance to date.

Johnson plays the down-on-his-luck gambling addict Eddie Garrett, who spends his days as a parking attendant at Wrigley Field and spends his nights lurking for any underground card games he can find around the city. He seems to catch a break when an acquaintance offers him $10,000 to look after a mysterious duffel bag, provided that Eddie doesn’t open the bag to peruse its contents, while he does jail time for the next 6 months. Going against orders, Eddie takes a look inside and finds $50,000 in cash, which sends his mind racing with how many different ways he can gamble it all away.

After celebrating a successful night of blackjack, Eddie meets a single mother named Eva (Aislinn Derbez) and the two form a relationship that unfolds at a pace that seems leisurely for a wheeler-dealer type like Eddie. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the hilarious Keegan-Michael Key steals all of his scenes as Eddie’s Gamblers Anonymous mentor who doesn’t mince words when dispensing advice to his struggling confidant. Also filling out Eddie’s support system is his brother Ron (Joe Lo Truglio), who’s the head of his own landscaping company and begs Eddie to work for him in an effort to straighten out his path.

Ultimately, the film’s focus is on Eddie and his unwavering compulsion to gamble away every last cent that he has; as another character puts it to him, he’s “addicted to losing”. Swanberg delivers this addiction  with moments of lightheartedness but also with a palpable sense of the stakes at hand, which is made quite literal with a counter that appears intermittently in the bottom right corner which denotes Eddie’s monetary standing (if you hadn’t guessed, it’s frequently a negative number). Even though there are plot points and contrivances that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a gambling movie like this before, the story has an emotional undercurrent of desperation and loneliness that’s undeniable.

Credit to Jake Johnson for creating such an affable deadbeat who always seems like he’s on the edge of throwing away his life and running as far as he can from the problems he’s created for himself. There’s a constant anxiety and unease from his performance that made me feel on edge, along with an unending sorrow that comes across his face during every bad beat that he endures at the poker table. Indeed, there’s so much losing depicted in Win It All that it’s almost ironic how much of a winning formula Swanberg and Johnson have concocted with a movie that feels authentic and oddly endearing.

The Discovery **½|****

Rooney Mara and Jason Segel in The Discovery

Writer/director Charlie McDowell follows up his heady, sci-fi romance drama The One I Love with another film that seems to fit neatly into that very same category. The difference with The Discovery lies in its tantalizing, elevator pitch of a premise: what would happen in a world where the existence of an afterlife was proven scientifically and considered as absolute as gravity? The answer to that question and the multitude of implications that it generates makes for a solid foundation of intrigue as this story’s jumping-off point but McDowell seems to get too lost inside the plot’s machinations to give us any satisfying conclusions to its queries.

The man responsible for the titular revelation is Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), who opens the film by giving a television interview about the enormous impact that his scientific finding has had on a global scale. When asked if he feels even partially guilty for the large uptick in suicides that seem to have been spurred on by the new found guarantee of life after death, he argues that keeping such a discovery from the human race would be more criminal than divulging it. His principled stand on the subject finds a formidable counterpoint by way of a cameraman’s suicide caught live on the air, making Harbor’s stance seem even more calloused than it had before.

Also opposed to Harbor’s approach is his estranged son Will (Jason Segal), who journeys to his father’s estate two years after the discovery to dissuade him from further investigating his afterlife findings. On the ferry trip there, he meets the quirky but disturbed Isla (Rooney Mara) who is secretly planning to commit suicide once she reaches her destination on the island. After Will witnesses her attempt and intervenes, the two join Dr. Harbor and his other son Toby (Jesse Plemons) on their compound as they try to decode the mysteries behind Harbor’s research and prevent any further damage to society.

McDowell has drawn comparisons to Charlie Kaufman before but here, the similarities to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are a bit too close for comfort, especially in the way that both films introduce their central couples. A key difference is that The Discovery‘s examination of Will and Isla’s relationship is much more cursory by comparison, though it is rare to find a film with a more complete portrait of a romantic relationship than that Michel Gondry masterpiece. Still, it’s disappointing that the screenplay doesn’t spend as much time fleshing out a believeable chemistry between these two as it does positing philosophical quandaries to mentally digest.

Even if the blend of science fiction and melodrama doesn’t quite work in this instance, McDowell and his team do an excellent job of building a bleak world run amok with hopelessness and a quiet devestation that permeates every frame. Without a spiritual anchor and a meaningful way to guide the ship, every character in the story is essentially lost at sea and constantly searching for something new to grasp. If The Discovery had followed through with the promise of its premise, I have no doubt that it could have been a lasting achievement in existential sci-fi but with all of the other distracting elements in play, it’s a frustrating but admirable effort.