REVIEW: Wind River

28 05 2017

Sundance Film Festival

“You should move to a small town, somewhere the rule of law still exists,” stated Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro in the final lines of Taylor Sheridan’s “Sicario” script. “You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.” As if picking up exactly where he left off, “Wind River” continues following the journey of a law-abiding law enforcement official into the heart of darkness.

It’s almost a little too eerie how many parallels exist between Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer in “Sicario” and Elizabeth Olsen’s Jane Banner in “Wind River.” Both are female FBI agents sent to perform their duties in a place outside their jurisdiction where previously all-encompassing authority means nothing. For Jane, that’s an Indian reservation in the remote regions of Wyoming. In order to survive, both agents must rely on a more experienced, world-weary male who can serve as her shaman to a more questionable legal territory.

Jane’s guide is Jeremy Renner’s Cory Lambert, who unlike Alejandro in “Sicario,” does not belong to the group with whom he liaises. He is a white man who has gained the trust of the Native American communities by taking the time to understand how they live, a marked contrast from Jane’s treatment of a murder case on their land like it’s just another Las Vegas or Ft. Lauderdale homicide. The film’s most poignant scenes show how Cory can code switch and compartmentalize the many facets of his life. Going from a hunter to a father to “Cap,” as he’s known, takes a toll on his psyche – even if his stoic expressions never reveal such turmoil.

Otherwise, “Wind River” plays like a “Sicario” spinoff with far fewer surprises. The tone, attitude and general plot progression are familiar now and remain mostly unchanged. While the United States’ relationship with the Native American reservations is one that definitely deserves more attention, it lacks the searing topicality of a story set on the Mexican border. Without that heft, Sheridan’s signature terse one-liners like “Luck is in the city” come across as more risible than bone-chilling. B-





REVIEW: Arrival

13 11 2016

Fantastic Fest

Sometimes great films do more than change our thoughts. They change our way of thinking. Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” is one such film, reorienting our relationship with time and communication to jarring, enlightening effect. The only other recent comparison possible is a Christopher Nolan film: “Memento” or “Interstellar.”

The film attempts an ambitious coup that should be experienced, not described. But it spoils little to say that the ingenious storytelling from Eric Heisserer, adapting a short story by Ted Chiang, disorients a viewer to a point where entire sections of the film can come under reconsideration. By way of Amy Adams’ Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist tasked with figuring out how mysterious aliens express themselves, “Arrival” engages the brain while also raising questions about how that same organ processes information.

Much of the film unfolds rather plainly – Louise and a team of military personnel, including Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly, insert themselves into the belly of a “heptapod” that has landed in a Montana meadow. (Many others also situate themselves across the planet.) Through a series of experiments, Louise attempts to crack an extra-terrestrial Rosetta Stone of sorts. Picture the climax of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” stretched to feature-length, and that is somewhat akin to “Arrival.”

Louise has few luxuries as she carries out her work. Time, of course, is of the essence. Many of her collaborators consider linguistics a pseudo-science, dismissing the seriousness of her mission. And with each successive trip into the heptapod, the world moves closer to the brink as media blowhards push a campaign to save the species.

With stakes this high, the average moviegoer might anticipate a massive shootout or intergalactic battle as “Arrival” heats up. Nothing of the sort happens. Villeneuve never relies on spectacle to sell the film; instead, he patiently lays the groundwork for a finale that reveals the firing of synapses in our brains as something worth celebrating and considering. This science-fiction tale has an optimism rooted in humanism, and that is something to celebrate. B+3stars





REVIEW: Captain America: Civil War

4 05 2016

Presidential election years lend themselves to multiplex seat philosophy, perhaps another subtle confirmation of the fact that even escapism is neither complete nor absolute. Especially in years without an incumbent in the running, the culture of the present tense takes on the status of relic with stunning immediacy. As we see the contours of how future generations will remember the era, it gets easier to place a movie within its particular historical framework.

So what is the status of the superhero movie towards the end of the Age of Obama? Look no further than “Captain America: Civil War,” a film far more intriguing for its wide-ranging implications than anything on screen. (Ok, maybe those Spider-Man scenes got me interested in the character again.) It serves the same big budget movie of the moment role that 2008’s “The Dark Knight” played for the Bush era, both smashing the box office and setting the conversation.

Nearly four years ago, The New York Times’ critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Darghis described Marvel’s 2012 “The Avengers” as a tale about the triumph of community organizing in their piece “Movies in the Age of Obama.” Now, “Captain America: Civil War” feels like the response to four years of gridlock and bitter internal divides. Along with “Batman v Superman,” the big trend among 2016 tentpole features appears to be fighting the enemies within our gates as opposed to outside our borders.

At least this rupture among the Avengers crew was a plot development they adequately presaged in their recent plot build-up. (Yes, that was shade at DC. No, I am not being paid by Marvel to write good things.) After many a global escapade causing mass mayhem and destruction, the superheroes finally face accountability from an international governmental body. Roughly half the group believes submitting to authority is a worthy idea, while the others wish to retain autonomy even it means being called vigilantes by the public as a whole.

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REVIEW: Avengers: Age of Ultron

28 08 2015

At this point, I am unsure how much good it does me to review “Avengers: Age of Ultron” as I would a movie.  I feel like it would be more useful to write up the experience of the film as a writer for Consumer Reports would describe a car – with matter-of-fact bullet-points and statistics.  What is the point of trying to capture the artistry of a film in the intricacies of prose when that film is little more than a top-of-the-line product?

The latest item off the “Avengers” conveyer belt amounts to little more than an 150 minute billboard for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Perhaps the one notable difference between “Age of Ultron” and its predecessor is that the events tend to sow discord that cleaves a wedge between the heroes as opposed to uniting them.  (I can only assume that was a decision that arose organically from the material and not as some kind of tie-in to the impending “Civil War.”)

Maestro Joss Whedon ensures that the film matches all the tech specs any fan looks for in a comic book movie.  It has action sequences the way cars have cupholders.  To top it all off, he assembles a climax that feels like it could (and maybe should) just exist as its own movie and is probably fetishized in the same way automotive aficionados value a powerful engine.  Maybe some of this would be exciting if it were not so painfully predictable.  Rather than inspiring me to marvel at the screen, it just made me feel numb.

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REVIEW: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

30 07 2015

The “Mission: Impossible” series, now spanning nearly two decades with its five installments, somehow manages to sustain a childlike sense of adulation for its leading man.  Tom Cruise, perhaps the biggest movie star in the world when the franchise launched in 1996, has seen his ups and downs both personally and professionally in the years that followed.

But watching “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” it seems like his star has miraculously managed to lose no shine.  These movies see no parallels between the furious arm-pumping intensity of Tom Cruise’s movie run and the limber legs that propelled him to jump on Oprah’s couch.  Never does his stardom feel laced with irony or constrained by public perception.  The film treats Cruise like the greatest thing since sliced bread … or at least since Harrison Ford.

Cruise makes his first on-screen appearance by dashing into frame after a quick cut on his unexpected opening line, and it feels triumphant.  This is the cinema’s closest approximation to the kind entrance that Bernadette Peters or Idina Menzel can make when they walk on stage – which is to say, it mandates a pause to let the audience applaud simply on sight.  Cruise, working on assignment for writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and co-writer Drew Pearce, so thoroughly owns his superstardom here that he gains the power to push “Going Clear” completely out of mind for two hours.

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REVIEW: Kill the Messenger

20 03 2015

Michael Cuesta’s “Kill the Messenger” plays like an “All the President’s Men” for an era of the lone eagle rather than the journalistic tag team.  Jeremy Renner stars as muckraking journalist Gary Webb, a reporter who uncovers a 1980s CIA conspiracy that use the smuggling of crack cocaine into the U.S. as a front to launder weapons into Central America.  In essence, poor American communities are collateral damage to freedom fighting operations.

The first half features him uncovering the story, and the second half follows the fallout after publication.  Unlike Woodward and Bernstein, who had the backing of the Washington Post, Webb just wrote for a small outlet out of San Jose that lacked the resources or the confidence to stand with the controversial piece.  The CIA, of course, sought to discredit the story, and archival footage shows how the mainstream media ran with their smear campaign.

Renner is potent and forceful as the leading man of the film, clinging to his ethics and pride when all else around him seems to fail.  “Kill the Messenger” thrives because of his righteous anger.  His work also receives bolstering from a tremendous supporting cast with solid turns from character actors like Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, and Michael Kenneth Williams.

I can scarcely think of a critique for “Kill the Messenger,” except maybe the fact that it lacks an X-factor to take it from very good to great.  Still, Cuesta turns Peter Landesman’s tightly wound script into an entertaining, enthralling watch.  I can’t complain about that at all.  B+3stars





REVIEW: The Immigrant

1 07 2014

immigrant_noquote_finalCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

Over a year ago, I had the distinct honor to attend a panel in memory of my hero in the realm of film criticism, the late Roger Ebert, in Cannes.  His widow, Chaz, was in attendance a little over a month after his passing.  We all took a “500 Thumbs Up for Roger” picture (if you like a good Where’s Waldo puzzle, try to find me in this picture) and signed a book letting Chaz know how much her husband meant to everyone who cherishes film.

But it was not the words that I left her that mattered that day; rather, it was the words she left me and everyone else in attendance.  Kicking off the panel, she remarked, “Roger said that the cinema expands your imagination.  And when it’s done well, what it will do is allow the individual to be transported beyond linear boundaries and to take you to a world that you hadn’t seen before and allow you inside and outside to become a better person.”

People that take the time to write seriously about these illusionary worlds of light, shadow, and pixel have most likely achieved this exhilarating narrative transport.  It’s a difficult and thus extremely rare feat for a film to pull off.  Yet the sensation feeds the soul in such a sublime manner that it’s worth seeking out even if it means wading through seemingly endless mediocrity.

By year’s end, I manage to let the awards hype delude myself into thinking I have experienced this transcendent feeling multiple times.  In actuality, however, these little miracles only occur every few years or so.  I’m overjoyed to report that James Gray’s “The Immigrant” is one such film.

Most movies nowadays return me to the same spot from which I departed.  This masterpiece, on the other hand, picked me up at one place and deposited me at a higher ground.  The story of “The Immigrant” alone left me feeling spiritually enriched.  The complete package assembled by producer, writer, and director Gray left me renewed and reaffirmed in the power of the cinema.  I remain so stunned in slack-jawed awe at this exquisitely beautiful work that few words can fully capture my strong sentiments.

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