WIND RIVER (2017)

August 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. With his two most recent screenplays, Sicario (2015) and the Oscar nominated Hell or High Water (2016), Taylor Sheridan seemed acutely attuned to the fine line between right and wrong, and the twisted complexity of new age American values when contrasted with “old school”. This time out, he both writes and directs. The themes remain familiar while the landscape shifts to the frozen tundra of Wyoming.

We first meet Fish & Wildlife Service tracker/hunter Cory (Jeremy Renner) as he picks off (with a long range rifle) a pack of wolves that is methodically encircling goats on a ranch. A very similar type situation plays out later in the film … only with humans in place of wolves and sheep. Not long after dispensing with the wolves, Cory stumbles upon the barefoot corpse of a young girl he recognizes as the former best friend of his daughter. Her frost-bitten bare feet visible, face buried in the snow, bleeding from an apparent assault, and miles from the nearest house or dwelling, the girl’s corpse is telling a story that Cory knows requires the immediate attention of law enforcement.

Ben, the Native American Reservation Police Chief (Graham Greene) has jurisdiction unless the Medical Examiner rules it a homicide. In the meantime, FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up dressed more for winter in her native Florida than the brutally cold Wyoming plains. Jane quickly proves she is no ordinary “fish out of water” (even if she lacks experience for such a case), and commissions Cory to help her out with the local people and land.

The film has many ties to the fine TV series “Longmire”, and though Mr. Renner and Ms. Olsen are well known in the Marvel Universe as Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch, there are no superheroes present here – just a convoluted society within a seemingly forgotten (or at least) ignored part of the country. It’s a police procedural blanketed in the always-falling snow, an underground drug culture, and the quiet animosity between the outside world and the Reservation (where many have given up hope).

These aren’t people that talk much, although they say plenty. Sometimes the dialogue is a bit too obvious in Mr. Sheridan’s goal of leaving no viewer behind, especially when combined with overly detailed flashback that will have the amateur sleuths in the audience feeling a bit letdown in receiving a full explanation. However, when cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Fault in Our Stars) loses the shaky-cam from indoors, and beautifully lays out the vastness of the snow vistas, forest and mountains, the remoteness and stunning landscape becomes a character as important as any other.

The supporting cast is stellar and features Julia Jones, Gil Birmingham (Jeff Bridges’ partner in Hell or High Water), Jon Bernthal, Kelsey Asbille, and a crazed James Jordan. Mr. Greene adds a touch of deadpan humor and resignation to his plight, while Ms. Olsen is effective as the ‘green’ agent dealing with an unfamiliar white-out. Mr. Renner truly excels as the throwback cowboy carrying out his duties while bearing a burden exacerbated by this case. The crunching snow, predatory lions, and high-speed snowmobiling never cause us (or Cory) to lose sight of how important it is to know the land and the people … and walk that line between right and wrong.

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ARRIVAL (2016)

November 12, 2016

arrival Greetings again from the darkness. Our cinematic love affair with aliens goes back decades, and these films typically fall into one of two categories: evil aliens attack earth, or aliens come in peace and humans react poorly. We’ve seen aliens trying to provide us with righteous advice (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951). We’ve connected via a few musical notes (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977) and radio frequencies (Contact, 1997). And we have certainly had our share of surprise and unwanted meetings (Alien, 1979; The Thing, 1982). Leave it to cutting edge director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Prisoners, Incendies) to find a new, more head-and-soul approach for the genre.

This high concept project is born from Eric Hiesserer’s screenplay of Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” … a title that makes sense by the end of the movie, but one a bit too blah for a big time production with Oscar hopes. Five time Oscar nominee Amy Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist and interpreter. There is an interesting and well done sequence at the beginning of the film that provides the back story for her character and the foundation for the final reveal.

A dozen oddly shaped spaceships have docked (mid-air) at various points around the globe. The one in the U.S. is hovering over … no, not Area 51 … Montana of all places. Forest Whitaker plays the military officer charged with assembling the team that will try to communicate with the aliens. He chooses Dr. Banks due to her remarkable track record with languages. She is joined with uber-Science and Math guy, Physicist Ian Donnelly played by Jeremy Renner.

We do see the aliens and their artsy style of communicating (a touch of Rorschach), but this is about so much more than learning a new inner-galactic language. It’s about how the military reacts, how the general populace reacts, how the world leaders work together (or not), and even how the military, intelligence agencies and academia coexist. It’s about smart people working out a plan when the problem isn’t even clear … a between-the-ears head-scratcher.

Mr. Villeneuve utilizes what appear to be flashbacks in helping us better understand Dr. Banks, but the element of time may not be what we typically accept in story-telling. The story, characters, cinematography and score (one of the best matches of music and movie all year thanks to composer Johann Johansson) work together to provide an engaging, nearly hypnotic movie going experience. Plus, I’m fairly certain this is the first alien movie to reference Abbott and Costello and crack a Sheila Easton joke. This is beautiful filmmaking that is also thought-provoking and encouraging of some species self-analysis (our species).

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (2015)

August 16, 2015

MI rogue nation Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been almost 20 years since the beginning of the MI movie franchise, and in that time, Tom Cruise has aged at least 3 months. Perhaps the prank is on us and Mr Cruise actually filmed his scenes for all 5 Mission: Impossible movies in 1995. Of course that didn’t happen, yet somehow each entry of the series manages to get bigger and louder and wilder, so that we may continually marvel at the fountain of youth and physical prowess of the actor seemingly born to play Ethan Hunt.

Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) becomes the fifth different director to helm a film in the franchise, and he kicks things off with the stunning pre-credit action sequence you have probably already heard about … Cruise tackles an Airbus A400M (aka a huge cargo plane). It’s a short, but incredibly impressive stunt sequence that sets the stage for a movie filled with action, fighting, stunts, comedy, and intrigue – all with minimal CGI.

Alec Baldwin appears as the head of the CIA and the guy trying to permanently shut down the IMF (Impossible Mission Force), while Jeremy Renner does his best to prevent this from happening – without officially confirming or denying any specific action of Ethan Hunt’s team. When Baldwin wins, Cruise goes rogue in an attempt to track down Soloman Lane (played by Sean Harris), the sinister leader of the terrorist group known as The Syndicate (mentioned briefly at the end of the last MI movie).

As spectacular as Cruise is, the real flavor of the movie comes courtesy of Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa – a spy, double spy, or something else. Ilsa is smart and exceedingly well trained, and the perfect partner/adversary for Hunt … depending on the moment. Admittedly, this viewer knew nothing of Ms. Ferguson prior to the film, as her best known work as come on TV’s “The White Queen”. While I couldn’t help but chuckle as Ilsa made her way through Casablanca, it seemed apropos since fellow Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman made cinematic history there some 73 years prior.

Simon Pegg returns and as a bigger role this time alongside Cruise. Pegg plays gadget-dude Benji Dunn, and as you would expect adds a welcome dose of comical dialogue along the way. Joining Cruise as the only actors to appear in all five MI movies is Ving Rhames as Luther. He is given little to do this time, and it’s pretty clear Mr. Rhames has not adhered to the same workout program as Mr Cruise over the years. Alec Baldwin seems to be parodying Alec Baldwin these days, and he has become a real on screen distraction – seriously in need of a change-of-pace role. Sean Harris uses his voice to generate an unusual coldness to his role as villain, and Simon McBurney and Tom Hollander deliver the expected steady turns.

With a nod to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, there is a wonderful sequence at the Venice Austria Opera House … in the background to Puccini’s Turandot. In addition to the Opera and the opening aviation-based fun, we also have an exhilarating motorcycle chase, some new and tricky high-tech gadgetry, an unusual car chase through the hairpin turns of Morocco, the patented MI “mask” trick, and plenty of fight scenes involving Cruise and Ferguson.  Even if none of that existed, fans like me would still buy a ticket just to hear the theatrical version of one of the most iconic theme songs ever written (by Lalo Schifrin).

If you are a fan of the Mission: Impossible franchise, you will undoubtedly find this to be a welcome and fun addition. And since Cruise has already signed on for another, the most impossible mission may be in determining whether he gets any older prior to its release.

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AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

May 17, 2015

Avengers Ultron Greetings again from the darkness. Joss Whedon returns as writer/director for the sequel to his 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, and this time he juggles an exceptionally large, diverse and talented group of characters and actors who are not only involved in good versus evil, but also in the battle for screen time.

There is no shortage of write-ups from film critics and fanboys who have analyzed every aspect of the movie from every possible angle, and while I admit to taking that same approach to most movies, there is something about the Marvel franchise that cause me to flip off the film critic part of my brain and just sit back and enjoy. And enjoy I do. The characters are fun and interesting and the action is at times breath-taking.

Since there are, by my count, at least 23 actors who deserve mention, it makes little sense for me to list them here. It is worth noting that the key actors all reprise their roles as Avengers, and many of those in supporting roles are back as well. This time there are also many significant newcomers, and those include “The Twins” – Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch. Other newbies include Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men”,” Bloodline”) as Hawkeye’s wife, Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho, Thomas Kretschmann as Strucker, and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. Though each is a nice addition, it’s the stellar voice work of James Spader as Ultron that really makes this movie click. Somehow Mr. Spader manages to convey a powerful presence despite maintaining a (mostly) even keel throughout. It’s masterful voice acting.

Missing this time out are Pepper Potts and Loki, though we hardly notice thanks to the first look at Vision (Paul Bettany) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) … plus the unveiling of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. If you thought the first Avengers movie made it difficult to keep up with the characters, this one will have your head spinning. It’s probably the only quibble I have with it … character overload at the expense of character development. The Hawkeye family farm represents a meager attempt to have this group of superheroes set in a “normal” environment, but it just doesn’t quite work. The Avengers are at their best while snipping at each other or saving the planet … fortunately the movie offers plenty of the latter.

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KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

October 13, 2014

kill the mesenger Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those true stories that probably works better as a drama than as a documentary. Jeremy Renner brings passion and believability to his role as infamous journalist Gary Webb. This allows us to gain insight into Mr. Webb as a father, husband and man, rather than only as a fiery investigative reporter.

You likely recall Webb’s published story (San Jose Mercury News) from 1996, when his research uncovered the likelihood that cocaine imported into the US was sold as crack cocaine and the profits had funded arms for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua in the prior decade. The kicker being that the CIA was well aware of these activities.

The film presents Webb as an idealist, too naive to comprehend that the story would have ramifications to his employer, his family and his self. The use of actual news footage adds a dose of reality, as does the inclusion of Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, John Kerry … and even the role Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky played in outshining the ultimate redemption of Webb’s work.

The underlying message here … beyond the governmental cover-up … is the lack of a truly free press. Of course, the issue remains front and center today, but in this particular instance, it’s surprising to see the influence and pressure applied by outside forces. It’s further proof that any hope for checks and balances from our news outlets was snuffed out many years ago.

The movie is based on two books: Gary Webb’s own “Dark Alliance” and Nick Shou’s “Kill the Messenger”. The frustration as a viewer is derived from the fragmented presentation brought on by steady stream of new characters who mostly appear in only one or maybe two scenes. The list of known actors is impressive: Rosemary DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Robert Patrick, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Barry Pepper, Michael Kenneth Williams, Andy Garcia, Gil Bellows, Lucas Hedges, Richard Schiff, and Ray Liotta. That should help explain what I mean by fragmented.

The story is an important one and the film is worth seeing. Director Michael Cuesta’s approach makes it impossible to not think of All the President’s Men while watching. The Granddaddy of crusading journalism continues to produce heirs … those that are a black eye for the newspaper industry and our government.

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AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

December 21, 2013

american1 Greetings again from the darkness. Over the years, there have been some very entertaining con artist films, and they range from outright comedy (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) to cheeky (The Sting) to dramatic (The Grifters). My personal favorite is David Mamet’s House of Games, a very quiet and subtle look at the con. The stylistic opposite of Mamet’s gem is the latest from director David O Russell. It’s like comparing Duke Ellington to Donna Summer – both of which are featured on this soundtrack.

For the past few months, I have said that this film’s trailer is one of the best I have ever seen. The energy and visuals were enthralling and have had me anxiously awaiting a chance to see the film. So please understand when I say that american2the movie does not quite match the expectations, it’s not really a criticism … more of a tip of the cap to the marketing efforts. This is one showy, flamboyant, often frenetic wild ride that is also a bit messy and sometimes even clunky.

Hair, clothes, cars, music … the best and worst of the 1970’s … are on full display. Christian Bale sets a new standard for worst (and most elaborate and labor-intensive) comb-over in film history. Bradley Cooper’s perm wins the contest for tightest curls over Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks. Jeremy Renner’s pompadour would make any rockabilly performer envious. And let’s not forget the women. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence provide a steady stream of flowing and floppy locks that would keep any shampoo or blow dryer american3company in business. The soundtrack, usually coordinated to story events, also includes Steely Dan, Jeff Lynne, Elton John and many others.

Director Russell’s most recent films include The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. He is obviously infatuated with odd characters who are slightly off center from society. What better topic than con artists so desperate to be liked that they spend all effort trying to rip off the gullible types? Now mix that trait with the overly ambitious persona of Bradley Cooper’s FBI Agent and the US Attorney played by Alessandro Nivola, and you have a collision of worlds that results in a fictionalized account of the ABSCAM events of the late 70’s and early 80’s. I say fictionalized because the film starts with a banner that states “Some of this actually happened”. What did or what didn’t really doesn’t matter here.

Who is playing whom? What is real and what is part of the con? Those are the questions that we as viewers ask, and oddly enough, these are the same questions the key characters ask. If they can’t tell, we certainly have little chance.

american4 This one is all about the characters. Mr. Bale (40 lbs heavier) bears no resemblance to Batman, or even Bruce Wayne. He embodies the falsely confident con man. Cooper is a bit over-hyped in his role, while Adams is at her best in a role that is the film’s most diverse. The real explosion comes every time Jennifer Lawrence is on screen. Not only do things blow up in her kitchen, but she jolts the film in each of her scenes. Some may be tired of Ms. Lawrence’s recent success, but as a film lover, I put her screen presence very near that of Marilyn Monroe. She grabs our attention and squeezes like a vise. That’s talent that very few possess.

Supporting work that should be noted includes Louis CK as Cooper’s reluctant supervisor, Michael Pena as a fake sheik (can they do that?), Jack Huston and Shea Whigham (both from “Boardwalk Empire“), and the great and rarely seen Anthony Zerbe (one of the all time TV villains). There is also a high profile cameo that seems right in line with Russell’s adoration of Scorcese’s Goodfellas.

If you are looking for a film to analyze and dissect, you will be most disappointed in this one. If you are looking for a fun, wildly visual and very entertaining retro film, this one should fit the bill. Just keep your hand on your wallet and don’t be one of the suckers.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are up for a wildly entertaining movie OR you want to see some of the craziest hairstyles packed into a single movie

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: scary hairstyles, bizarre characters and exemplary acting aren’t enough to distract you from an inconsistent script

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST7a1aK_lG0


THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012)

August 12, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Bourne series has often been viewed as the American version of James Bond … only more serious and with more action. Doug Liman directed the first, which was taken directly from the Robert Ludlum novel. Paul Greengrass then assumed control over the next two and added hyper-kinetic speed to the action sequences and focused on conspiracy theories, with a fascinating hero looking to take down a corrupt system. Involved in all three as a writer, Tony Gilroy (dir. Michael Clayton) takes over as director in this fourth entry. Unfortunately, the Bourne series is not similar to Bond, in that the directors and lead actors are not so easily replaced.

 With Matt Damon (Jason Bourne) present only on computer screens, Jeremy Renner takes over the lead as the next super-spy-weapon. When Pam Landy (Joan Allen) blows the lid off Treadstone in a Congressional hearing, the shady back office meetings lead to the decision to shut down the program. We all understand what that means … destroy the assets and lose the records. This decision is made by Edward Norton and Stacy Keach, both new to the series.

The decision leads to a vicious scene featuring the always dependable character actor Zeljko Ivanek who almost completes his assignment, but misses out on Rachel Weisz (playing Dr Marta Shearing). Dr. Shearing is involved in the manufacturing of the “meds” that keep our super-spies and super strength and super intellect. Yes folks, our superheroes are roided-up! You have to hand it to Dr. Shearing – for a lab rat, she has a remarkable ability to stay alive despite being the target of many highly trained assassins. Of course, she does have a bit of help from Aaron Cross (Renner).

 Here is the real issue with the film. Instead of Bourne trying to bring down the corrupt system, this is really two hours of survival mode for Aaron Cross. It reminded me of the Monty Python bit as they face opposition on their castle storm “Run Away!, Run Away!”. Most of the first half of the film is spent with him in search of meds, like a common drug addict, and the second half is spent on a motorcycle chase that, while quite exciting, seems to go on forever.

As an action film, this one works just fine. The limited fighting and expanded chase scenes are well filmed and intense, it’s just that as a viewer, it really isn’t as much fun to cheer for someone who is running away as it is for someone (Bourne) looking to bring down a corrupt system. In addition to those I’ve mentioned, we get brief appearances from series’ regulars Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Joan Allen, and Paddy Considine.

The hope is that this is just a placeholder in the series. It’s been five years since The Bourne Ultimatum, and hopefully, if the series continues, we will get Paul Greengrass back in the director’s seat and Matt Damon teaming up with Jeremy Renner to wreak havoc on the true enemies of state. Otherwise, the American Bond ends up as nothing more than an action film with no real purpose.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Bourne series and are curious to see it without Matt Damon OR you simply enjoy a well made action film

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the intricate conspiracy story line that put the Bourne series on the map

watch the trailer: