Wind River

September 4, 2017 at 11:17 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

“Wind River” starts out promising enough. Set in Wyoming in the dead of winter, the film begins with scenes of a stark and imposing landscape. The audience gets a sense of foreboding right off. There is a murder and an outsider comes in to solve it. Sometimes this works well (as in the terrific “Insomnia”) and sometimes not so much (as in “Thunderheart,” which this movie kept reminding me of). “Wind River” lies somewhere in the middle. An FBI agent sent in from Vegas (Elizabeth Olsen) to work alongside the local sheriff (Graham Greene) and a US Fish & Wildlife employee (Jeremy Renner). She’s in over her head but Renner’s character keeps her pointed in the right direction. If you have seen a film like this before, you have essentially seen this film. There are dark people doing dark things but the good guys will stop them. There are some twists and dead ends along the way, a couple of brief outbursts of violence and an ending rich in “justice” (or revenge, anyway). The scenery is visually arresting and helps to create the right mood for a film like this but mood alone can’t sustain you. Writer and director Taylor Sheridan has a great track record. This is the third film he has written. The first two were “Hell or High Water” and “Sicario,” both of which I loved. But this one lacks the humanity of the former and the punch of the latter. Sheridan appears very earnest in wanting to shine his light on the injustices faced by American Indian women but that goal would have been better served by a multi-layered drama, whose focus was on developing complex characters dealing with real life issues, including possibly the one that is the central focus of this film. Instead, what we get is a fairly paint-by-numbers detective thriller, in which two white people swoop in and save the day. The film appears to belie Sheridan’s intent, in that it consistently goes for cheap thrills (tension, violence, revenge catharsis) rather than for empathy or insight. Audiences will leave the theater having no more understanding nor feeling any greater concern for American Indians but they will have had a moderately successful thrill ride.

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Arrival

November 15, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

In the range of Sci-Fi movies from flash-bang, special effects overload (think “The Fifth Element”) to slow, moody and ponderous (think “Moon”), this one lands somewhere just north of middle. In mood and theme and pacing, it very much reminds me of “Contact.” It isn’t devoid of action but it’s filled with more big ideas than big explosions. The short story that the film is based on, “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, was the winner of three prestigious science fiction literary awards in 1999. It draws heavily on mathematics and modern linguistic theories to construct a plausible, but very science-fictiony, story about how an alien language might look and how it might influence us. So, yeah. No Bruce Willis in this one. Instead, we getting acting heavyweights like Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker, and Jeremy Renner (who may be making his bread off of franchises like “The Avengers” and “Mission Impossible” these days but, all you have to do is rewatch “The Hurt Locker” to understand how powerful he can be). The three of them do an admirable job, well below their skill levels, of bringing these characters to life. This isn’t Scorsese but it’s a cut above your regular genre fiction. The plot is complex and interesting and the twist, which is revealed slowly, is a gratifying one. Director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario”) isn’t going for shocks here, he’s going for quieter surprises, so don’t expect a “Shutter Island” moment. The reality of the twist is in its implications more than its reveal. The short story spends more time on those implications and why certain choices aren’t made differently. Chiang is posing a question and asking us to consider how language shapes our perception and what free choice really is. Unfortunately, the film only hints at some of these issues but then, I guess, it couldn’t have delved too deeply. After all, it did need to leave room for an explosion somewhere.

Captain America: Civil War

May 7, 2016 at 7:39 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Watching this film, I kept being reminded of what Marvel has figured out that DC hasn’t: a superhero movie should be fun. It is too easy to compare this film with it’s DC counterpart, “Batman V. Superman.” They both attempt to explore the vigilante aspect of superhero characters and what their responsibility is to societal mores. And they both pit classic heroes against each other as they find themselves on opposite sides of the moral divide. Beyond that, though, they share little in common. “Batman V. Superman” took itself deeply seriously but was, otherwise, not at all deep. The arguments for both sides were presented in passing as they served only as a flimsy (and improbable) excuse to bring the two lead characters to blows. And, when that finally happened, it lasted only a few minutes.  In “Civil War,” by contrast, the two sides were explored much more deeply and the characters’ rationales for standing where they did made much more sense. That gave the battle more depth and more weight because the conflict seemed so deeply personal and costly. And, unlike “B v S” (where the fight was a tiny part of the film), the battle between the heroes in “Civil War” continued on and off throughout most of the film. This was a fun and dramatic ride, full of great action scenes, typical Marvel humor and real character development. Plus, the introduction of 2 cool new heroes: the Black Panther and the best Spider-Man we have seen to date. If Marvel continues to make films like this one, they’ll be making them for a long time.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

May 2, 2015 at 6:46 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

Here is the risk that all sequels run: there is an implied pressure to outdo their predecessor. This can often lead to more of the Bigger/Louder and less of the softer/deeper. And, unfortunately, this is the primary problem here. First movies have a sort of natural pacing built in because they have to introduce all the characters. This requires some degree of character development and it slows the action down, often resulting in a slow building of excitement toward the climax. This is what made “The Avengers” work as a film. By the time the Battle of New York (as it’s now called in the Marvel cannon, known as the MCU) occurred, the audience was dying to see the Avengers fully unleashed. That is what made the final battle, and the whole film, so satisfying. But, where do you go from there? Well, director Joss Whedon decided to do what most sequels do: start big and get bigger. The film exploded from its opening scene and then tried to keep that momentum up. As a result, you have plenty of action but not a lot of need for acting. With the exception of some interesting dynamics between The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), most of the characters were treading familiar ground. To that end, even the battle scenes felt like more of the same. They were definitely high paced but there was nothing there essentially different from the first film. Also, unlike the clever and well choreographed action of the first film, this one sometimes had so much happening, it was difficult to focus on it all, giving it a dreaded Michael Bay-like quality at times. I couldn’t help but compare the action here to the brilliant Marvel TV series “Daredevil” on Netflix; that show’s action scenes are elegant in their simplicity and so much more effective. None of this is to say that this was a bad film. It was often funny, occasionally surprising, at times clever and mostly quite entertaining. It was also clearly a set up for more things to come. Marvel Studios has become so focused on this behemoth cash cow they call the MCU that films are beginning to feel a bit like stepping stones along a path rather than ends in and of themselves. This was good summer fare; it just wasn’t much more than that.

American Hustle

December 30, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

“Some of this actually happened.”  Thus states the disclaimer at the beginning of “American Hustle,” David O. Russell’s new film about the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s. That statement not only gives fair warning for any artistic license taken but also sets the tone for the film; for all the seriousness of the subject matter, it is also wryly funny. I knew little about Abscam prior to this film but it was, apparently, even wackier and further reaching than the movie portrays, ultimately bringing down a US senator, 6 representatives, a mayor and couple of other smaller elected officials.  Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Fighter,” “Three Kings”) brings together several of his previous partners-in-crime to fill out an all star cast including Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner. Russell captures the mood of the 70s with lavish costumes (especially on Amy Adams), outrageous hair and a score filled with the likes of Elton John, ELO, & Donna Summer. Russell also manages to get top notch performances from his actors, particularly from Cooper, whose coked-out maniac FBI agent steals most of the scenes he is in. All of the characters in this film are wacky enough and complex enough to be interesting and there are a couple of fun cameos to boot. The story mostly moves along at an entertaining pace, though it drags a bit in the middle and felt a tad over long. Those small quibbles aside, this is a clever movie about a story that could have only happened in the 70s with it’s strange mix of excess and naiveté.  This was a moment in history that would have otherwise been completely forgotten.

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