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: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

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It could be said that the first Avengers movie was in a ‘can’t miss’ position. Sure, with that much ambition comes a degree of risk. But fans had already shown their devotion to the Marvel movies at that point. Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor each had their own films which had earned a ton of box office cash. Bringing them altogether was sure to bring in truckloads of more money. That proved to be true to the tune of over $1.5 billion worldwide. And of course that doesn’t include home-video, merchandising, etc. More importantly, as a movie fan, the first film was fun and very satisfying.

So as is customary in modern Hollywood, a sequel was on the way and we get it in the form of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. Writer and director Joss Whedon is back this time with a new and unique set of obstacles in front of him. First, it’s always a challenge for a sequel to recapture the magic of a successful first movie while also being distinctly its own film. Also, if Whedon thought expectations were high for the first movie, they are nothing compared to what people will expect from the sequel. And then there is the question of superhero fatigue. Can Whedon and company continue to energize a genre that has a small but growing list of detractors?

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I always give Marvel Studios credit. Their movies aren’t the assembly line sequels that we see each and every year. Certainly some films work better than others, but Marvel is always building upon their bigger cinematic universe and continuity which I enjoy. But for those not thoroughly invested it could be a legitimate stumbling block. “Age of Ultron” is unquestionably an installment – a transition chapter in this enormous franchise. Loose ends are tied up and potential plot holes related to other Marvel films are addressed throughout. Again, these are things that will satisfy fans but probably fuel the indifference of those not on board.

The film starts with our heroes attacking the snowy mountain compound of Baron von Strucker. He was the guy last seen in the mid-credits scene of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”. Strucker has obtained Loki’s scepter and is using its powers for human experiments and other nefarious practices. The results of the conflict leads Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) to fulfill an ultimate peace keeping goal of his – the creation of an ultimate A.I. named Ultron (voiced by James Spader). Ultron becomes self-sustained and self-aware and immediately begins his own plan of global peace which happens to include the distruction of the world. Tony’s mishaps with Ultron and his failure to inform his fellow Avengers of his project creates a festering tension between the team. But they must work together if they have any hope of beating this new threat and once again saving the world.

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That is just a brief set up to what is a movie jam-packed with moving parts. There are so many characters and subplots that are being serviced and it is a testament to Whedon’s writing skills that the film is coherent at all. Wrapped around the central story are countless tie-ins from previous movies and setups for future films. It truly is a miraculous feat, but it’s not a flawless one. There were a handful of things that felt terribly shortchanged occasionally to the point of making no sense at all. During these moments it was as if Whedon was saying “Look, I have so much to cover. I just need you to go with this.” Sometimes I found that a little difficult to do.

But considering the insane amount of moving parts and the hefty ground the film is asked to cover, “Age of Ultron” is an impressive accomplishment. All of the core characters are back and get their moments to shine. In fact the amount of screen time between each hero felt much more balanced than in the previous movie. It also helps to have actors who have become more and more comfortable with their characters. In addition to Downey, Jr., Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), and Mark Ruffalo (Hulk) each are a load of fun. We also get a good assortment of past side characters and some very intriguing new characters. The super powers endowed Maximoff Twins, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are an interesting addition and there is the appearance of another new character who really got my geek juices flowing.

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“Age of Ultron” is clearly a movie aimed at serving a passionate fan base  which is really good for devotees like me, but maybe not so good for those unfamiliar with or lukewarm to its many intricacies. I ate up the funny banter between each unique superhero personality. I loved the large-scaled action which seemed ripped straight from the pages of a comic book. I was interested in the future movie tablesetting even when the scenes didn’t always play out smoothly. In a nutshell, “Age of Ultron” was a fun and entertaining ride that succeeded as the central cog in Marvel’s constantly moving cinematic universe.

“Age of Ultron” is not a movie devoid of problems and your experience will probably be influenced by the degree of affection you have for these characters and this universe. As a fanboy I loved being back in this world, I laughed at a lot of the humor, and I was thrilled by the big effects and larger than life action sequences. Yet while it scratched nearly all of my itches, it’s hard not to point out the messy patches. Still considering the film’s enormous importance to the Marvel movie universe and the even higher expectations, “Age of Ultron” succeeds where so many movies would have failed. Now I’m ready to start building towards the next installment.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Godzilla” (2014)

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Last year brought us “Pacific Rim”, an unashamed homage to the old creature features of the 1950s. By all right it should have been terrible but “Pacific Rim” was a decent film. It was far from perfect but it was a fun and entertaining romp. This year we get “Godzilla”, another monster movie that didn’t have me a bit excited at first and that could have been really awful. But it’s actually not. In fact not only is this new incarnation of the well known reptile better than last year’s “Pacific Rim”, it’s one of the better recent blockbusters and it was some of the most fun I’ve had at the theaters this year.

It doesn’t take long to notice several surprising differences in this film from what you might expect. The movie is built upon a very deliberate and methodical story. It certainly has its huge creature-feature action but we are never bombarded with it. The film is also set apart by its spectacular cast. “Godzilla” features a number of great performers that automatically enhance the experience. Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, and David Straithairn make up the film’s great supporting ensemble.

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Cranston plays a nuclear physicist who was present during a 1999 disaster at a nuclear plant in Japan. Fifteen years pass and he is still dealing with the consequences of the disaster while also determined to expose what he believes is a cover up of the true cause behind the event. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays his son, a military man married to Olsen. Watanabe plays a scientist studying hidden findings at the disaster site along with his assistant Hawkins. Obviously towering monsters come into play as the story unfolds and revelations are made. The inevitable global threat takes center stage but not before an intense and very well conceived buildup takes place.

Almost every character is given their moments. At first I was wishing I had seen more of this person or that person, but each serve the plot very well. A couple of performers don’t get a lot of screen time but I’m okay with that mainly because they work really well within the story being told. Better yet, everyone is really good. Taylor-Johnson is probably the weakest of the talented cast but he is certainly adequate for what he is asked to do despite his moments of blandness. Cranston is fabulous and Watanabe is rock-solid as always. Hawkins is always good although she is reserved to an almost background character. Olsen continues to impress and Straithairn is a really nice fit as a Navy Admiral in charge of stopping this massive scaly threat.

But perhaps what I like the most is how the movie doesn’t cater to preconceived notions. As I mentioned, it very slowly develops its story but I found it to be incredibly intriguing and always tense. This may not impress those looking for a constant barrage of big creature effects, but I found it to be a wonderful approach which made those big creature moments all the more satisfying once they come. Director Gareth Edwards constructs his film well which hearkens back to the fun sci-fi monster movies of the 1950s. He uses their formulas of build up, buildup, slight reveal, buildup, big finale. I loved that.

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Now an argument could be made that the “big finale” is a bit too big. There is some merit to that. But even during those moments the story is moving in different directions which kept things interesting. Better yet, we had only seen passing glances of Godzilla up to that point so watching him duke it out in the finale was pretty exciting. It also helps that the movie looks great. There is a touch of the disaster genre here so we get several wide shots of massive destruction. They are always in context and they look fabulous. I also loved the look of Godzilla. Clearly there is CGI used, but yet he maintains an undeniable familiarity with the old classic Godzilla models. I got a real kick out of that. There is also a brilliant use of sound through the picture from big earth-shattering roars to perfect moments of ominous silence.

I think it’s safe to say that “Godzilla” is one of the biggest surprises for me this year. I had such a good time with the film and I was surprised at how well made and well written it is. The cast is committed and there’s no winking at the camera at any point. It literally had me glued to the screen for the entire running time and more than once I was smiling as it reminded me of those old monster movies that I still adore. Maybe there is a bit of nostalgia talking but I’m fine with that. I had a great time with “Godzilla” and I can’t wait to see it again!

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS