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.

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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

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REVIEW: “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”

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After a couple of shaky early installments the “Mission Impossible” franchise seems to have found its stride. Personally I’ve never considered any of the films bad, but a couple definitely showed a dip in quality. But 2011’s “Ghost Protocol” gave the series a new and stable identity. It was an action-packed blockbuster anchored by an entertaining story and an almost self-deprecating sense of humor. Now we have the fifth film “Rogue Nation” which embraces everything right about its predecessor and then elevates it.

Say what you want about Tom Cruise but he is an actor who has redefined himself and he remains successful because he knows who he is at this stage of his career. His Ethan Hunt character in “Rogue Nation” perfectly encapsulates his current state. Gone are the cheesy “Top Gun” grins, the “Risky Business” dances, and the “Jerry Maguire” flamboyance. In this film Ethan is still an IMF super agent, but he is also overmatched, fragile, and often dependent on others. It’s a refreshing approach that makes Ethan less of a superhero and more of a human being.

The story begins with two separate battles taking place. The first is before a Senate oversight committee. CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) is seeking to shut down IMF due to their reckless and damaging tactics (see the Kremlin from the last film as an example). Agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner) defends the group but to no avail. IMF is shut down and all field agents are to be placed under CIA control.

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But Ethan Hunt is involved in another battle – a covert operation intended to expose a global crime consortium known as the Syndicate. Ethan is lured into a trap and captured by the Syndicate’s mysterious leader Solomon Lane (deviously played by Sean Harris). But an equally mysterious British operative named Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) helps Ethan escape without revealing her reasons or motives. Convinced more than ever that the Syndicate must be stopped, Ethan sets out to stop Lane while avoiding the hounding CIA and determining which side Ilsa is fighting for.

Cruise has a lot of input into these films and he wisely surrounds himself with quality filmmakers. Christopher McQuarrie directed, wrote the screenplay, and is a regular collaborator with Cruise. You may remember he won an Oscar for writing the brilliantly verbose “The Usual Suspects”. Here his script features the adrenaline-fueled action sequences, but it also services its characters with good dialogue and smart humor. Then there is the wonderful cinematographer Robert Elswit, an Oscar winner for his work on “There Will Be Blood”. His camera never frames a bad shot and it never lands in a bad place. His action scenes may be the biggest treat particularly an exhilarating car and motorcycle chase through the streets of Casablanca.

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Getting back to the story and particularly Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, I can’t say enough about how refreshing it is to see this type of lead character in this type of movie be so dependent on others. So many cliches and overused tropes are tossed aside to give us a more human Ethan Hunt even amid his crazy stunts and top-notch spy work. We repeatedly see him being rescued or him relying on the strength and wisdom of others.

This is mostly seen in his relationship with Ilsa. So often she bests him and at other times she saves his life. He’s no knight in shining armor. Actually I think it could easily be said that Ilsa is the toughest character in the film. Cruise’s performance often highlights her strengths. Plus it helps to have such a great performance from Rebecca Ferguson. What’s best about their relationship is that McQuarrie and Cruise don’t force a run-of-the-mill romance on us. I kept waiting for the movie to strike that all-too-familiar note. After all this is Tom Cruise, right? Instead the film deviates from yet another overused story development which was so satisfying.

There are so many other things I could say about “Rogue Nation”. I could talk about the beautiful locations and the global feel. I could talk about the rest of the supporting cast and the strong work they do. I could talk more about the story and its aversion to cliches while still being a big budget blockbuster. Instead I’ll just say “Rogue Nation” is a very good movie from a franchise that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves. It definitely rises about most of the other summer tent pole pictures we’ve seen. Now bring on MI:6.

VERDICT – 4.5 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: “The Immigrant”

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Whenever the topic of greatest working actress pops up Meryl Streep so often finds her name at the top of the list. I do belief Streep can be really good, but I believe a strong case could be made for Marion Cotillard. She is a sensational actress who has proven herself with every role she has tackled. She does it again in James Gray’s new film “The Immigrant”. This period drama was a very personal project for Gray. In an interview with Variety he said “It’s 80% based on the recollections from my grandparents, who came to the United States in 1923.” We see this personal connection running throughout the entire film.

The story starts in 1921 as Ewa (Cotillard) arrives at Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). The two have left their home country of Poland, which has been ravaged by World War I, in hopes of starting new lives. But during the processing, Magda is quarantined for a suspected lung disease and Ewa is set to be deported due to some questionable immorality that took place on the boat to America. But she catches the eye of a man named Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) who uses his money and influence with a particular guard to free Ewa and save her from deportation.

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With no place to go, Ewa accepts Bruno’s offer to work for him in hopes that she can earn enough money to get her sister the medical care she needs. The problem is Bruno runs a ‘gentleman’s show’ and the women he employs are prostitutes. Bruno is charming and persuasive but he also exploits Ewa’s desperation. Ewa is torn between the moral consequences of her actions and her desire to help her sister. Things are complicated even more as Bruno develops an infatuation with her which brings with it jealousy, rage, and even violence.

The movie centers itself on its characters and the different plights of each. Ewa’s circumstances are obviously difficult and the dream of a new life seems practically unattainable. Bruno is often a despicable and detestable man, but at times we see glimpses of compassion. The reasons behind his occasional generosity is a puzzle. Is it due to a genuine love he has for Ewa or is it in the interest of making money? Jeremy Renner plays a struggling magician named Orlando. He is a cousin to Bruno but the two haven’t been close in years. He too is drawn to Ewa and he looks to be a more gentle and loving alternative. But even he shows glimpses of instability making us question who he really is inside.

These characters are magnetic of themselves but they are even richer due to the brilliant cast. Phoenix is always good and while this role doesn’t ask him to dive as deep into the character as some of his previous work, he still has moments where he just takes over a scene. Renner is also very good and he often offers some needed changes in tone which he has no problem handling. But the true standout is Marion Cotillard who once again completely immerses herself in a role. Watching her dissect her character and give her such strong emotional form is akin to watching a fine artist. It’s heavy material and Cotillard expresses it with an emotional precision that we rarely see. She also has a classic-styled radiance that fits this type of movie well and translates beautifully with the camera. Cotillard is brilliant and this is my favorite performance of the year so far.

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James Gray’s story is engaging and heartbreaking. His characters are interesting and compelling. But there is also a perfectly realized 1920s New York City that plays a major role in the film. Gray’s vision combined with Darius Khondji’s cinematography creates shades of the city which sometimes look bustling and vibrant but often times looks cold, harsh, and unwelcoming. It’s a portrait that walks hand-in-hand with the characters and their situations.

There are a few things in “The Immigrant” that could be picked apart and a case could be made that it has a few lulls. But for me the selling point here are these characters who I happened to latch onto instantly. It’s also a period film featuring a master class in acting by Marion Cotillard who I believe is one of our finest. She absolutely owns the screen and she leaves nothing behind. That alone makes “The Immigrant” worth seeing, but I’m happy to say it has even more to offer its audience than just that.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “American Hustle”

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I may not be a card-carrying member of the David O. Russell fan club, but there are several things you have to give him. He has a knack for creating and developing raw and thoroughly engaging characters. He is also able to put together incredible ensemble casts perfectly in tune with his characters. Both of these strengths are the key reasons why Russell’s new film “American Hustle” works. The movie has several of his same indulgences that don’t always work for me but it’s the characters and performances that makes this film so intriguing.

The movie is set in 1978 and is loosely based on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation. It’s a time of good music, big collars, and really bad hair. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con artist who joins up with and falls for Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). The two run a small time but controlled loan scam that is bringing in some nice cash. Things are going well until they are caught up with by an ambitious FBI agent named Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper). But Richie doesn’t want small time cons. He wants the career-boosting big fish. So he forces Irving and Sydney to work for him and entrap bigger targets, namely politicians and government officials.

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Irving doesn’t like his circumstances at all. He likes things small and low-key. He also doesn’t like Richie and his constant changing of the rules. He feels that going too big will jeopardize the whole operation. But the biggest threat to their plans may be Irving’s loose cannon wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s loud, volatile, and she knows Irving has a thing for Sydney. That’s a pretty lethal cocktail. Another complication comes in the form of a New Jersey mayor named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). He’s a popular and seemingly well-meaning guy who develops a friendship with Irving. The trouble is he becomes one of Richie’s prime targets.

This interwoven web of ‘who’s conning who’ could have been an utter mess but it actually plays out in an entertaining and fairly cohesive way. Much of that is due to the sharp script penned by Russell and Eric Warren Singer. It’s not perfect. There are lulls along the way and I couldn’t help but feel that they stretched the story to its limits. There are also a few glaring questions that remain unanswered. They don’t cripple the story the way major plot holes do, but they did stand out to me. Still, in terms of delivering a slick and stylish story, Russell and Singer pull it off.

But getting back to a previous thought, neither the direction nor the script are the film’s strongest point. The movie’s true success lies in the performances. It starts with Christian Bale. Armed with pretty much the same voice that he used playing Dicky in “The Fighter”, Bale was the most compelling character of the bunch. While he may sound like Dicky his physical appearance was quite different. In “The Fighter” Bale lost over 30 pounds to convincing depict a crack addict. In “American Hustle” he gained nearly 50 pounds which we get a good look at in the film’s opening scene. But Bale delivers much more than just a physical transformation. He gives us a character who is funny, selfish, crooked, pitiful, sympathetic – all encapsulated within a wonderful performance.

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I also liked Bradley Cooper, an actor who has gotten surprisingly better over time. His character is a little hard to gauge at first but as the story unfolds so does Richie’s personality and ambitions. Cooper gives an hearty performance that does at times get a tad too big but is still impressive. And speaking of big, Jennifer Lawrence is also good as the powder keg Rosalyn. She has already raked in a ton of critical acclaim but I wouldn’t call this her best work. The character is loud and abrasive by design so the performance has to be big. But it isn’t until later in the film that Lawrence is actually allowed to show her range. On the other hand Amy Adams (goofy split-up-the-front blouses aside) is fantastic. Her character isn’t a ‘take home to meet the parents’ kind of girl, but there is a sad and needy underlying thread to her. Adams never misses a beat. And I can’t forget Jeremy Renner who has a smaller role but to me was just as good as anyone else.

I can’t say that “American Hustle” has any kind of staying power and I don’t think I’ll remember it as one of the great films. But there is something about these generally unlikable characters that draws you to the screen. In typical David O. Russell fashion they are a little too abrasive for my taste. But each is fascinating in their own right and each truly desires something more: Irving – to be a more successful con, Richie – an FBI superstar, Sydney – British royalty, Rosalyn – a loved and appreciated wife, Carmine – a legendary mayor. Most of the credit for this goes to the performances. “American Hustle” is more of a showcase of great actors than it is great storytelling, but it still keeps you glued to the screen as you watch them do their work.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“THE BOURNE LEGACY” – 3.5 STARS

I was late catching up with the “Bourne” series which is highly unusual since they are the type of movie I gravitate towards. I’ve now seen the first three films starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, one of several physically and mentally enhanced government black ops projects. Damon steps aside but the series continues with “The Bourne Legacy”. Jeremy Renner is the new leading man playing a new leading character but writer and director Tony Gilroy maintains an import sense of connection and familiarity with the previous films. Gilroy wrote the first three movies and goes to great lengths to make this feel like a Bourne film while also possibly launching the series into a new direction. While Gilroy does occasionally struggle matching up with earlier films, the movie definitely has its moments that nicely falls in line with the series.

While Jason Bourne isn’t in the movie his presence is clearly felt. Gilroy (and his brother Dan who also helped with the screenplay) connect the actions of “The Bourne Ultimatum” to this story. As Jason Bourne continues to threaten the government’s black ops programs, Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is called in to clean the mess up. His solution – to wipe out all of the human projects and those connected to them. One of those projects turned target is Aaron Cross (Renner), an Operation Outcome agent who is considered a step up from those involved in the now exposed Treadstone. But when the attempt on his life fails, Cross is sent scrambling for answers. He’s also ran out of a special medication that keeps him both mentally and physically balanced. Cross tracks down Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor connected to Operation Outcome who he hopes can get him get the pills he needs. But she soon finds that her connection to the project has made her one of Byer’s targets and Cross is her only chance at survival.

For many, the big question revolves around Renner. Does his Aaron Cross match what Damon was able to bring to his Jason Bourne character? Well, yes and no. Renner is most certainly Damon’s equal when it comes to acting. Renner is completely convincing and he’s got the physical abilities to sell each and every action sequence. Cross is different from Bourne in that there is no amnesia.  He knows he’s part of a government project although the amount of knowledge he has is limited. While this isn’t necessarily a flaw with the character, it did take away one of the most intriguing elements of Bourne’s story. But a slightly bigger problem with the character isn’t as much about Renner as it is the writing and direction. Cross is a solid protagonist but I couldn’t help feeling that he lacked the intensity of Jason Bourne. There are a couple of scenes where he “loses it” for a lack of a better phrase, but overall he seldom comes across as intense or as threatening as Bourne.

Nonetheless, Renner’s performance is very good and he’s also surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Weisz is always great and she’s no different here. Her character is the most sympathetic in the film and I loved how Weisz portrays her through the numerous emotionally charged situations she has to deal with. Norton is also good as the evil government clean-up guy. He easily sells the amoral “just doing my job” persona and we genuinely dislike this guy from the moment he first enters the picture. I also really liked Oscar Isaac as a fellow Outcome operative who Cross encounters early in the film. Bourne fans will also enjoy the small but interesting returns of David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Scott Glenn. Each have cool little tie-in scenes that answer questions left over from the last film.

“The Bourne Legacy” doesn’t hurry out of the gate. Gilroy takes his time laying out the story and defining his characters. There were a couple of times when I did feel things were moving a little too slow, but overall it works well  and the movie’s third act is pretty action packed. Speaking of the action, it captures some of the same qualities of the past Bourne flicks – hard-hitting hand-to-hand fight scenes and of course a vehicle chase scene. I mean you can’t have a Bourne movie without a vehicle chase and this film gives us a great one. Renner thrills as he runs, jumps, punches, and kicks. Unfortunately his fight scenes are almost rendered incoherent due to moments of inconsistent editing. There were a couple of fight scenes where I literally had no idea what was going on other than punching.

I can see where some would consider “The Bourne Legacy” a cash grab. But even with its few flaws it’s still a fun movie that fits right in with the Bourne series. It stumbles in a few areas and I wouldn’t consider it the best of the series. But Gilroy knows the material well and he knows how to bring new characters into this universe. Renner gives a strong performance and Weisz is wonderful to watch. It also features a chase sequence at the end that is nothing short of awesome. But more importantly, it left me anxious and anticipating what’s coming next. So I would call it a success.