REVIEW: “Wind River”

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Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan is developing an impressive reputation. His first film script was for 2015’s stellar “Sicario” and he followed it up with last year’s “Hell or High Water”.  A deep-south crime thriller, “Hell or High Water” (despite a plot hole or two) would earn him an Academy Award nomination and highlight Sheridan’s gift for telling character-driven stories with a sharp regional authenticity.

His latest film “Wind River” is yet another showcase for Sheridan’s fascinating style of storytelling. It also sees him hop into the director’s chair, something he’s only done once before with a low-budget horror film appropriately titled “Vile”.

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“Wind River” begins with a startling scene featuring a terrified young woman running through a snowy wooded area during the frigid cold of night. Her frozen body is eventually discovered by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a Fish and Wildlife Service tracker for the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Lambert reports the death to Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) who promptly calls the FBI. The relatively uninterested Feds send earnest but ill-equipped rookie agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to oversee the investigation.

From there the story becomes an absorbing mix of slow-boiling murder mystery and thoughtful commentary. A lot is gleaned from the rough and rugged setting. As with Sheridan’s previous two films, setting is one of the most captivating components. “Wind River” is filmed mostly on location which adds a harsh natural edge to the mystery. But the territory’s ruggedness is equally presented in another form – drugs, poverty, isolation and violence all speak to the reservation life Sheridan clearly wants to examine.

Renner and Olsen shed their second-tier Marvel superhero personas and get to play interesting real-life characters firmly grounded by Sheridan’s dialogue. Sheridan loves fleshing out his characters through well-conceived conversation. Renner is superb giving a quiet and measured performance fitting of a character with plenty of baggage to unpack. Olsen’s role resembled that of Emily Blunt in “Sicario” but just a hair less convincing. She’s tough but inexperienced and forced to learn on the fly from the situation she is thrust into. They are a good team working through local obstacles as well as federal red tape and indifference.

Wind River - 70th Cannes Film Festival, France - 19 May 2017

Sheridan’s direction matches his screenwriting – steady and assured. His knack for pacing keeps the story bumping along all while building tension and fleshing out his characters. It is sure to be too slow for some and there are certain things Sheridan shows but has no interest in exploring. Personally speaking I appreciated his focus.

Things eventually reach their boiling point leading to a finale that obliterates the film’s patient rhythm. It’s a bit jarring but inevitable and satisfying. There are a few small questions left on the table and it’s hard to determine if they are intentional or oversights. Still Sheridan has written yet another solid screenplay in his crime story trilogy and has added a strong directing credit to his resume. He remains an exciting filmmaker with a refreshing cinematic eye and his next script “Soldado” is a sequel to “Sicario”. I’m all onboard.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

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REVIEW: “War for the Planet of the Apes”

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You would be tempted to call it the anti-blockbuster franchise if it wasn’t made up of three sure-fire blockbusters. Still it’s a label that seems to fit the newest “Planet of the Apes” prequel/reboot series. It has all the big budget bells and whistles yet there is clearly more going on underneath the blockbustery surface and it’s not hard to recognize its attempts at more provocative explorations.

Despite the rousing critical praise (for the most part) it has received, my relationship with the series is a weird one. Both of the previous films, 2011’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and 2014’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, are really good movies that have their own nagging missteps. But despite their issues, each film had its hooks in me enough to leave me genuinely excited for its follow-up. So that brings me to the latest installment that continues the Caesar trilogy and the trend of awkward movie titles – “War for the Planet of the Apes”.

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For some (unfortunately), how condemning or forgiving they are may depend on which political magnifying glass they choose to look through (yes, I’ve actually seen this ). Much like the previous two films, “War” has statements it wants to make. And much like the previous films, those statements are often thought-provoking and occasionally a tad heavy-handed. But messaging has never been the problem. Instead it was a handful of story angles that would sometimes trip them up. Nothing major, but they are there. For the most part “War” rights those issues.

“Dawn” ends with Caesar, the leader of the ape clan, acknowledging that war with the humans is all but inevitable. “War” begins with an explosive sequence revealing Caesar’s prophecy to be true. Troops from a military group calling themselves Alpha-Omega launch a sneak attack on an ape base in the forest. Returning director Matt Reeves’ staging of this sequence is exquisite. It’s beautifully shot and incredible to watch. There is also a lot of information we can glean concerning what’s to come.

Tired of the heavy casualties, Caesar (magically played by a returning Andy Serkis) moves from revolutionary to Moses figure and agrees to lead the apes out of the forest and to an isolated spot across the desert. Before they can leave they are hit by Apha-Omega and Caesar has a face-to-face with their leader Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). The attack is repelled, but for Caesar the results are intensely personal. He commands his clan to head for the desert while he seeks revenge, accompanied only by three of his most loyal (and insistent) friends.

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It’s here that “War” really hits its stride. The group’s effort to track down McCullough leads them north where they encounter several characters both human and simian. None are better than Steve Zahn who plays Bad Ape, a chimpanzee who lived in the Sierra Zoo prior to the Simian Flu outbreak. Zahn does a lot of interesting things both comically and dramatically. It’s a well-balanced character and performance that never pushes the ‘comic relief’ role too far.

Staying with performances, it has taken time for many people to warm up to Andy Serkis’ style of acting, but by now his unique skills as an actor should be beyond doubt. There is simply no one better at what he does. This is evident by his work in “War” which is the pinnacle of everthing he has done in the Caesar role. It’s Oscar caliber stuff. If only the Academy will take notice.

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The story pulls its influences from a wild assortment of films. Early resemblances to old school westerns like “The Outlaw Josey Wales” give way to shades of “The Great Escape” once the film shifts to what is essentially a prison movie. This is also where it loses a bit of its momentum and stretches out about fifteen minutes too long. Allusions to the Holocaust and concentration camps are effective yet it’s a fairly dramatic shift that takes too much time to develop and play out. And back to influences, it doesn’t take much of an eye to notice the similarities between Harrelsen’s McCullough and Brando’s Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now”.

“War” finally gets back on its feet and the pulse-pounding finale feels just right. The film ends with the story and franchise in strong place. Of course it won’t stay there. Another film is already said to be in the works. As for this installment, I feel it’s the best of this new series and despite its lag in the middle it avoids the narrative hiccups from the past film. More importantly it does justice to this central character who we’ve spent so much time with and genuinely care about.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Wonder Woman”

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You could almost sense the collective exhale from the heads of both DC Films and Warner Brothers – a profound release of sheer relief after seeing the first wave of rave reviews for the latest installment into their DC cinematic universe. It’s a monumental understatement to say, but they needed this. “Wonder Woman” was always rich with potential, but how many times has the same thing been said about other films in the DC fold (I’m looking at you “Suicide Squad”)? Well toss aside your concerns. “Wonder Woman” is not only a great movie, it unquestionably raises the bar for the entire genre.

DC has determinedly pushed forward with their Marvel-like vision despite the steady floggings from critics. Some of the rabid criticisms have been justified but certainly not all of them (Sorry folks, take out your stones, but despite its issues, “Batman vs Superman” wasn’t nearly as bad as the fashionable hate indicates). Still, only a dyed-in-the-wool fanboy would believe DC didn’t have significant ground to make up against its Disney-owned competitor.

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That’s one reason you could call “Wonder Woman” a game-changer. I don’t want to lean too heavily on that description, but it is a film that’s makes a strong creative statement for DC. It could also be said that it’s better than the bulk of Marvel movies from the past few years. That’s because “Wonder Woman” carves out its own identity while still playing by some of the genre’s basic rules. Sure, it’s another superhero origin story, but it avoids the formulaic quicksand that many recent superhero pictures have fallen into.

“Wonder Woman” has many things that work, but I keep coming back to the word ‘balance’. Director Patty Jenkins (a curious choice at first but one proven to be perfect) skillfully manages her movie in a fashion that never allows it to lean too heavily in one direction or the other. There is just the right amount of humor, just the right amount of suspense, and just the right amount of action. More importantly all of these mechanics work in harmony to serve the characters. So much so that even the seemingly mandatory bombastic finale feels rightly dramatic and laced with more emotional heft than most of these movies give us.

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An old photo triggers the story of Diana of Themyscira – a beautiful island paradise of high cliffs, lush greenery, and gorgeous waterfalls hidden from the world of man by none other than Zeus himself. As a young girl Diana is the golden child among her people, an all-female warrior race known as the Amazons. The daughter of Queen Hyppolita (Connie Nielsen), Diana grows up desiring to be warrior against the wishes of her intensely protective mother. Hyppolita soon realizes there is no stopping her determined daughter’s will to train.

Everything changes when a plane crashes in the ocean near Themyscira’s shore. Diana (Gal Gadot) saves the lone pilot, an American named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) who happens to be the first man Diana has ever laid eyes on. Trevor tells the Amazons of the violence and carnage just outside their protected home. It’s the waning years of World War I yet countless lives still hang in the balance. Against her mothers wishes, Diana offers to accompany Trevor off the island and to the war front where she believes she can end the war and the suffering.

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Allan Heinberg handles the writing and, much like Jenkins, keeps everything in balance. A handful of devices will feel familiar but Heinberg keenly keeps them under control. For example we get the often used fish-out-of-water angle which provides some genuine laughs while also holding up a mirror to some society norms worth discussing. Yet it never goes overboard. The same could be said for the Etta Candy character (played by Lucy Davis), Trevor’s loyal and peppy secretary who offers a dash of comic relief. But where many movies would have ran her into the ground, Heinberg and Jenkins stick to the “all things in moderation” idea. Smart move.

Another key to the film’s success is its persistent human-scale vision. While it’s often hard the glean the human element in many of these movies, “Wonder Woman” makes it a focal point. Jenkins shows off a stunningly astute knack for depicting human suffering without reveling in it. As it should, human loss feels significant and is never exploited. At the same time the film asks thoughtful questions about good and evil, not from the upright superhero and devious super-villain perspective, but from the very core of humanity.

It’s those questions that eventually weigh on Diana. That’s because she is presented exactly as she should be – consistently moral and just. Thank goodness Jenkins and Heinberg steer clear of any modern day tinkering and portray Diana much closer to William Moulton Marston’s original comic book vision. Gal Gadot is an essential ingredient and the strength of her performance shouldn’t be understated. Combined with her amazing physicality, Gadot portrays innocence, confliction, determination, and strength as naturally as the most seasoned actress. From her indomitable warrior gaze to her visible deep-rooted affections, the expressive Gadot serves as a magnificent centerpiece.

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Lots has been said about a woman finally being given the reins of a superhero movie. I usually don’t get into that yet I also recognize its significance. But for me it’s not just about a woman getting the job. That has happened before with less than stellar results. Instead it’s about a woman getting the job and making a film that is one of the very best of its genre. Patty Jenkins has done just that and if it doesn’t open eyes and open doors I don’t know what will.

“Wonder Woman” stands among the very best of its contemporaries. A visual splendor of precise period recreation and breathtaking superhero action. An emotional exploration of human proclivities towards good and evil and the ugliness of oppression and suffering. And at the center is a character who is a true untarnished hero – easy to care about, root for, and rally behind. “Wonder Woman” never loses that focus which is one of the many reasons it deserves every ounce of praise it has been getting.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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5STAR K&M

2016 BlindSpot Series: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

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When Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” landed in 1962 it set Broadway ablaze. Its scorching, abrasive story of a middle-aged couple’s volatile marriage won Tony Awards but was stripped of its Pulitzer Prize for Drama due to its controversial content. It was perceived as a story that could be told on Broadway but could never be filmed due to the infamous Production Code.

But things were changing in Hollywood. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman was determined to keep the play’s coarse language and twisted sensuality in hopes of capturing the same initial shock of Broadway. He succeeded and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is now known as one of the key movies of the 1960s that led to the abolishment of the Production Code. The movie became one of only two films to receive an Oscar nomination in every eligible category (the other being “Cimarron” from 1931).

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Real life husband and wife Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were cast to play George and Martha, a venomous, hard-drinking couple in marriage turmoil. George is an apathetic associate history professor at a small college. Martha is the bitter malcontent daughter of the college’s Dean.

After a late night campus party, Martha invites a young couple to their home for a nightcap. The guests are Nick (George Segal), a hunky newly-hired biology professor, and his mousy, reserved wife Honey (Sandy Dennis). George and Martha begin a caustic back-and-forth verbal assault. At first Nick and Honey are terribly uncomfortable by what they witness, but their hosts seem impervious to their rudeness or damaging words. At one point George flippantly explains “Martha and I are merely exercising, that’s all.”

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As more alcohol is consumed the conversations grow more toxic and soon the young couple find themselves caught up in George and Martha’s games of emotional destruction. Through various stages of drunkenness the four scratch and claw at every sensitive scar revealing deep-rooted anger and boiling secrets from their pasts. Lehman’s script is deeply loyal to Elbee’s story. Within it no feelings are protected and no verbal assault is too vicious.

The film marked the directorial debut of Mike Nichols who was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to Fred Zinnemann (but no worries, Nichols would win the following year for “The Graduate”). Nichols wisely takes a more conservative approach to this material, trusting his four key players and allowing them to do most of the heavy lifting. But that doesn’t mean Nichols vanishes into the background. His hand is seen in several strategic camera techniques ranging from shot framing to camera movement. His direction never overshadows the dialogue, but there are instances where he accentuates it.

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But when people talk of “Virginia Woolf” the performances most always top the conversation. The film earned Elizabeth Taylor her second Best Actress Oscar. Taylor dove headfirst into her character, gaining 30 pounds for the role, wearing a wig, and doing anything to shed her image as a beautiful movie star. Burton is equally good and brings a bruising passive-aggressive apathy to his character. Albee originally wanted James Mason but later admitted Burton was fantastic. Both Segal and Dennis also received Oscar nominations (Dennis winning her category) and each add their own unique and specific component to this dysfunctional tale.

There is simply no denying the strengths of “Virginia Woolf”, but your overall enjoyment may depend on your tolerance levels. This is 135 minutes of relentless verbal and mental cruelty. It’s a mean, acidic, piercing drama featuring one combustible scene after another. But the longer you stick with it the more layers are stripped away from the characters – the more we learn about them. And eventually the film asks if we are so different. Perhaps George said it best when watching Honey scratch the sticker off a bottle of brandy – “We all peel labels.” How true it is.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “The VVitch”

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Much of the inspiration for the independent horror movie “The VVitch” was gleaned from folktales, journal entries, and court documents from 17th century New England. Writer and director Robert Eggers faithfully and extensively researched with the intent of presenting the most accurate portrayal of his time period and subject matter. As a result he has made one of the few truly unsettling modern horror movies.

It’s not that Eggers only took plot points from old records. He also sought a deeper understanding of the 17th century mindsets towards religion, family, and specifically for this story, the idea of witchcraft. Add to that an almost obsessive attention to detail regarding the visual representation. For Eggers the authenticity of the language and setting was vital.

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The story begins with a family being banished from a Puritan settlement due to the father’s unwillingness to compromise his religious convictions. William (Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and two rambunctious twins eventually settle on a patch of land near a sprawling forest.

Over time the family builds a sufficient farm and William and Katherine have their fifth child, Samuel. Everything seems well until one day when Samuel seems to vanish while being closely watched by Thomasin. His disappearance begins a stream of unexplained and disturbing events that threaten the family and leaves them teetering close to madness.

I won’t say anymore, but Eggers plays with a handful of compelling themes. One of the biggest centers around the family’s puritanical faith. There is a genuine faithfulness to God  they all share. At the same time the rigidity of their adherence and their inability to live up to their own standards leaves each of them spiritually vulnerable to an evil force lurking in the forest. And it was that same rigidity that caused them to leave the protective walls of the settlement to begin with.

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The story’s slow-burn generates a surprising amount of unease. There is an ominous cloud hanging over this family. They can’t see it but we do. With each step forward Eggers adds another layer of suspense and by the film’s end the horrors are so uncomfortably realized that you can’t help but be effected. And it manages this with very little blood and gore. It is the clever melding of setting and subject matter that leaves you squirming.

It seems like I’m often complaining about the scarcity of originality in the horror movie genre. “The VVitch” is definitely original. It features a gripping story sure to be interpreted a number of different ways. The performances are phenomenal. The cinematography is impeccable. The score is haunting. It’s impossible to leave “The VVitch” and not feel you’ve seen something unique.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Wave” (“Bølgen”)

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I’m a professing disaster movie junkie. I admit it. I can’t help myself. For some inexplicable reason I always manage to find some degree of entertainment even from the flimsiest of the genre’s offering. And while many of these movies are admittedly bad, others can be top notch edge-of-your-seaters when they give us an interesting scenario and characters to actually care about.

Norwegian director Roar Uthaug gives us such a movie with “The Wave”. Called Norway’s first ever disaster movie, “The Wave” clearly pulls from western influences while at the same time bucking numerous parts of the tired Hollywood formula. Many things will strike a familiar chord – ignored warnings, a natural catastrophe, a family in peril. But it’s the film’s ability to competently and effectively craft something fresh and unique that leaves a much bigger impression.

Knowing that the film is not so much based on a specific past event but on a near certain future one adds a sobering perspective. It’s set in Geiranger, a tourist town threatened by the unstable Åkerneset mountain. Geologists believe the gigantic mountainside will one day crash into the fjord below spawning a massive tsunami. The people of Geiranger would have an estimated ten minutes to evacuate and get to safe heights. No one knows when it will happen, only that it will.

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Uthaug has said that the frightening reality of the situation influenced how he told this story. He felt obligated to represent the potential catastrophe honestly and without exploiting the true-to-life dangers facing the people of Geiranger. Knowing the collapse will eventually happen is concerning. Wondering if the people will have enough warning to escape is terrifying.

Kristoffer Joner plays Kristian, a geologist whose team is tasked with monitoring Åkerneset and issuing the warning if a collapse ever happens. Recently Kristian took a job in the oil business and is preparing to leave Geiranger with his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), frustrated teenaged son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), and adorable young daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande). But leaving the lure of the mountain proves to be a difficult task.

What happens next shouldn’t surprise you. The mountainside crumbles into the fjord sending an 80 foot wave barreling towards Geiranger. What is surprising is seeing a disaster film handle the entire thing with such smarts. First is how Uthaug handles the buildup. The setup to the mountain collapse is absolutely crucial. The film’s opening 45 minutes is deliberate and focused, steadily building the tension and raising extremely high stakes for the small community of Geiranger.

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Another key is the film’s willingness to give us characters to care about. There are no caricatures here. There is a very humanistic approach to to how Kristian and his family are presented and developed. They are individually down to earth and are never exaggerated for the sake of drama. The performances, particularly from Joner and Torp, keep the characters authentic and grounded.

Even the catastrophic wave itself is dealt with on a human scale. The visual effects are incredible and represent the wave as ominous and deadly. But unlike most of these genre films, there isn’t a dependence on vividly showing off their digital creation. Instead the intensity boils its hottest in the moments where the wave isn’t shown, as people desperately try to get to safety. Even more importantly the camera doesn’t revel in the death and destruction. So many disaster flicks bombard us with their digital devastation – crumbling buildings, massive body counts, etc. This film knows it doesn’t need to do that in order to be effective.

What Roar Uthaug and company have given us is a film that manages to be unashamedly a disaster movie while at the same time distinguishing itself as something unique. The result is a fabulous, intense, nailbiter that more often than not stays within the realm of plausibility. Then add in the ominous warning that this event could legitimately happen in the future. That makes it all the more effective.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS