Tag Archives: Sicario

Wind River (2017)

After scripting both Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan made a name for himself as a writer of taut action films; light on exposition but heavy on tension. He makes his directorial debut with Wind River. Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) plays Cory, a US Wildlife Service agent that stumbles upon a dead body in the Wind River Native American reservation. He recognizes the body as the best friend of his daughter, who also died years earlier. He, along with the under-resourced local police and FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen; Martha Marcy May Marlene), search for her killer in the harsh backdrop of frigid Wyoming.

Renner commits an admirable effort, but is miscast. He elongates his speech and uses short sentences to make himself seem world weary, but his still isn’t believable as the character. 25 years ago, this role would have been played by Tommy Lee Jones. His performances always feature a curt directness that suits Cory’s mountain man characterization but Renner can’t match Jones’s brand of gruff credibility. Olsen’s ingénue helps him seem experienced in comparison, but his performance falls just short of the verisimilitude needed.

Gil Birmingham (right) and the Native cast deliver the standout performances.

For all of Sheridan’s history with succinct writing, this is his weakest script. It’s still well-written with a twisting plot far above most other films, but has some clumsy dialogue and exposition. The film begins with a flowery poem that never amounts to anything and the tragic backstory about Cory’s daughter is awkwardly repeated, even in scenes where it has no relevance. The entire subplot is a manufactured method to make Cory more sympathetic but has little material effect on his behavior. His actions would have been the same without it and the film would have benefited from reduced exposition. Sheridan frequently shifts the focus back to Cory’s past at the expense of the greater story: the plight of the Natives in modern America. Perhaps without the extra eyes of a different director, some of these missteps made it through to the final version.

Many will compare this film to the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Yes, it features a murder in a wintry rural setting, but that is where the similarities end. While there are brief moments of humor, Sheridan isn’t interested in the sardonic wit of the Coens. The closest analog is Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Both films are about the fringes of society and the suffering of the people who reside there. The Native reservation is depicted as a desolate place. A land and a people that have been mistreated for so long that hope is a thing of the past. Several characters are shown as frustrated with the systemic disadvantages they face and the vicious cycles they are limited to. When Jane sees the victim has been raped and asks if their medical examiner is qualified, the police chief answers simply “He’s kept busy.” Everything has an air of accepted despair. Sheridan aptly uses this as the prevailing tone of the film. The overwhelming misery creates apprehension. Injustice is a daily occurrence so the prospect of failing the investigation has a high possibility. It surely wouldn’t be the first unsolved crime for the area. By ingraining the futility of reservation life into the plot and atmosphere, Sheridan creates an action film with a tense, discomforting bleakness.

4/5 stars.

Get Out (2017)

Making a 180-degree switch, Jordan Peele (Key & Peele) directs and writes Get Out, his first feature. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya; Sicario), a black man, has been dating Rose (Allison Williams; Girls), a white woman, for some time. They decide to spend the weekend at her parent’s house so Chris can finally meet her family. Chris is uneasy about what her parent’s reaction might be and his initial concern turns into suspicion after meeting the two family servants, both black, who seem to be too polite and too satisfied with their current situation.

Despite the genre, Peele remains true to his comedy roots. Comedian Lil Rel Howery costars as the TSA agent best friend. Normally this type of role could conflict with the film’s intent, but Peele is able to use this character to prevent the film from becoming too serious. Howery becomes the viewer surrogate. He says all the things that audience members normally shout at the screen during a horror movie and is able to be consistently funny without ever becoming obnoxious or distracting.

Get Out’s strengths in confronting racism come out in the little details. Rose’s family aren’t overtly racist, cross-burning, KKK members, but their prejudices comes out in subtle ways. It’s the way Rose’s dad keeps calling Chris “my man” and the way an older female relative feels his muscles as if he is an animal. It’s not that these people think less of him because of his race, it’s the assumptions they make about him. All of these behaviors, while satirical in nature, ring true. Any minority can attest to being in similar situations. Peele deserves enormous credit for accurately highlighting these forms of ingrained prejudice.

Rose’s family’s interactions with Chris capture the minute changes they make because of his race.

Where the film stumbles is with its narrative turns. The setup is nothing new and was mostly shown in its trailers. It’s basically The Stepford Wives with race instead of gender and the film doesn’t ever build past that starting point. The exact details of the situation might be a slight surprise to some, but the direction the film is headed is clear from the beginning. The underlying cause of this failure is Peele’s inability to produce sustained tension. For the audience to be invested in Chris’s situation, there needed to be a possibility that everything was normal and that Chris was just being paranoid. By not keeping the alternatives plausible, Peele effectively saps the film of the suspense it needed to be successful.

It also features some incredibly contrived plotting. In order to push the story to a climax, many films have forced reveals that are caused by actions that don’t make sense for the characters to do. For example, the villain might just happen to leave out a notebook that contains their plans. Get Out unfortunately uses a similar plot device to progress the film. It breaks the immersion and feels entirely artificial. Get Out is an encouraging debut for Jordan Peele, but it’s well-balanced humor and look at the subtle details of race relations are held back by a borrowed, predictable, and often forced narrative.

3/5 stars.

Arrival (2016)

The typical movie about aliens coming to earth is a war movie where humanity has to fight off their attackers. Arrival chooses to examine this situation from two other perspectives: a linguist trying to communicate with them and the divided nations struggling to deal with this potential threat and its social and economic implications. Amy Adams (Man of Steel) plays Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics hired by the government to find out why the aliens have come to earth. She is aided by Ian Donnely (Jeremy Renner; The Hurt Locker), a theoretical physicist, and led by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker; Lee Daniels’ The Butler). As they make contact with the aliens, Louise discovers they use an extremely complex form of writing and struggles to understand them while dealing with exhaustion and visions of a young child.

The most frustrating, but realistic, aspect of the film is how terrible earth’s nations are at anything that requires coordination. After the aliens arrive, people are in disarray, economies tank, and the media goes wild with conspiracy theories and unfounded, inflammatory advice. Initially, the nations form a coalition and share their progress, but that changes when one country learns of something that might be a potential weapon. They immediately go offline and the rest of the world follows, effectively ending any cooperation despite its clear benefits. The aliens are viewed from a military defense perspective, not a scientific one. The Colonel tells Louise that everything she does has to be reported up to “a group of men asking ‘How can this be used against us?'”. Their fear causes them to make grave mistakes and construe any alien action (or non-action) as a potential threat of war. The script very convincingly captures how the mentality of self-preservation would likely doom any chance of a unified global effort.

Who knew linguistics could be so exciting?
Who knew linguistics could be so exciting?

The linguistics perspective provides a fresh take on familiar subject matter. Louise’s slow discovery process with the aliens is fascinating. Despite the incredibly complicated nature of the task, the closest parallel is a parent teaching a child to read, but with enormous consequences. Louise and Ian learn and teach certain words until they are able to form and understand rudimentary sentences. Director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) shoots the film with the foreboding tracking shots he has become known for. Each step forward is hard-earned and grants reprieve from the threat of conflict present throughout their meetings. Some may find the pacing of their discovery to be sluggish, but it feels realistic given the difficulty of their objective.

The veracity of Arrival‘s interesting angle is damaged by a hokey twist. There are hints that there is more to a character’s life than explicitly stated, but when this comes to fruition the deeper element is revealed to be a giant plot hole. As different governments plan to take offensive actions, Louise and Ian are working against their own government as much as they are an alien language. This creates an interesting dilemma as it is unclear how they will overcome this obstacle, but instead of attempting to grow the situation towards a climax, the screenwriter, or perhaps the writer of the short story the film is based on, uses a sci-fi element as a get-out-of-jail-free card to resolve the conflict. It is in complete opposition with the film’s sober tone and damages its intent. Arrival‘s realistic approach to encountering aliens is debilitated by a contrived plot device.

3/5 stars.

Top Films of 2015

Yes, I realize it’s almost halfway through 2016 already, but I wanted to be thorough and make sure I watched as many of 2015’s output before finalizing my list. The year end onslaught of Academy Award-ready films can be difficult to keep up with when you have another full-time job to attend to. Without further ado, here are my favorite films of the previous year.

11. Shaun the Sheep the Movie

Immaculately detailed and expertly choreographed, Shaun the Sheep is yet another great stop-motion film from Aardman Animations, the makers of Chicken Run. The film pulls from the best silent movies to produce an endearing, slapstick comedy with endlessly entertaining visual gags.

10. Predestination

presdestination1“What if I could put him in front you, the man that ruined your life?” Ethan Hawke plays a temporal agent traveling through time with his recruit Sarah Snook to prevent the bombings of a terrorist known as “The Fizzle Bomber”. The plot doesn’t take itself too seriously and instead makes use of the strong performances from its leads to explore the nature of cause and effect. Predestination is fun, twisty sci-fi at its best.

9. The Gift

The directorial debut of actor Joel Edgerton is a psychological thriller masquerading as a horror film. After Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) move to Los Angeles they run into an old friend of Simon, Gordo (Edgerton), who begins making unannounced visits and giving overly generous presents. Slowly the relationship dissolves and the past between Simon and Gordo is brought into question. Edgerton’s film draws heavy influence from Michael Haneke’s Caché in that it focuses on the guilt and repercussions of the past. Does time really heal all wounds? The Gift has a response to that question.

8. Meet the Patels

Meet the Patels is a heartfelt, often hilarious, documentary about the issues faced by 1st generation Americans caught between the culture they experience every day and that of their heritage. Co-directed by brother and sister Ravi and Gita Patel, the film shows Ravi as he takes the plunge into finding a spouse through an arranged marriage. Instead of making this overly serious, Meet the Patels affectionately focuses on the importance of bonds between this charismatic family.

7. 99 Homes

Centered on the 2008 housing crisis, 99 Homes looks at the human cost of financial disaster. Andrew Garfield plays a young construction worker kicked out of his family home by Michael Shannon. What ensues is an unexpectedly tense exploration of both the winners and losers of the collapse. It shows what greed, desperation, and even success can do to the relationships we value most.

6. Spotlight

Spotlight features news reporters tackling a deep rooted problem deliberately hidden by the powers that be. The year’s best ensemble cast featuring Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo deal with the struggle of not only finding the truth but clashing with the culture of a city and a religion. Always somber and honest, Spotlight treats its serious subject matter with the respect and attention to detail it deserves.

5. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

This film follows a boy and his friend as they begin a relationship with a girl who has just been diagnosed with cancer. While it falls into many of the standard Sundance tropes, it elevates above these with the gravity of its subject matter. The main character has to come to terms with his friend’s condition as well as his own changing life. Part coming of age story and part tribute to cinema (the film features “sweded” parody versions of classics a la Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind), Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is an expertly directed film about dealing with loss during adolescence.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller revives his classic franchise with some of the best vehicular combat ever shown on screen. The film is a 2 hour long car chase that uses incredible practical stunts that put the standard CG effects to shame. With breakneck pacing and surprisingly poignant quiet moments, Mad Max: Fury Road is the automobile action movie we’ve been waiting 30 years for.

3. The Tribe

Filmed using only deaf actors signing and lacking any subtitles, The Tribe is an experiment in visual storytelling. At first, the decision seems troublesome as it immediately alienates the audience, but as the film continues the subtleties of each scene begin to tell the story. The gait of a character, the way they stand next to others, or the speed at which they sign all convey the actions taking place. As The Tribe explores an underground crime ring at a school for the deaf, it uses its purely visual approach to wordlessly express complex emotions.

[BS Note: NSFW. Extremely explicit and not for everyone]

2. Wild Tales

Composed of six unrelated humorous revenge stories, Wild Tales showcases scenarios exaggerated just slightly beyond the realm of reality but not out of its reach. The characters, while seemingly normal, always overreact to their situations leading to ridiculous outcomes. The film is bursting with manic energy and earns its laughs through creative set ups. Easily the funniest film of the year.

1. Love

When Gaspar Noé announced his next movie was going to be called Love, I thought the title must be ironic. Surely the man who directed Irreversible and is often accused of nihilism wasn’t actually covering that territory. Yet, that is exactly what he did. Love is simultaneously Noé’s most personal and most indulgent work. There are characters named both Gaspar and Noé with the latter played by him and some scenes are exercises in unnecessary exhibitionism. Most of the news covering the film has focused on the details of its production and its explicit nature, but that is missing the point of the movie. Love, flaws included, is exactly the film Noé wanted to make. It’s a film that explores all aspects of the titular emotion. The spark of a new relationship, the heartbreak that can follow, and, unlike other films, physical desires. In other movies, intimate scenes between characters are unnecessary and voyeuristic, almost like a requirement needed to show how “adult” a film is. Here, Noé builds the entire film around these scenes. The physical contact is an extension of the emotions felt by the characters. With only a few exceptions, they are meaningful scenes that develop the characters and build their relationships. Combined with Benoît Debie’s beautiful visuals and an entrancing soundtrack, the film casts a hypnotic spell, pulling the viewer into the feelings – both physical and emotional – that love brings.

[BS Note: NSFW. Extremely explicit and not for everyone]

Honorable Mentions:

  • Sicario
  • Brooklyn
  • About Elly
  • Steve Jobs