2017 Summer Movie Review: Wind River

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Cody Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is on the hunt in Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River. (Source: Slash Film)

Taylor Sheridan has crafted two of the best screenplays so far this decade with Sicario and Hell or High Water. He perfectly blends graphic violence with humanity set in a social and economic climate—for instance, the War on Drugs of Sicario and the economic crisis of Texas in Hell or High Water. Sheridan’s latest, Wind River, is his directorial debut and brings forth what made his two previous films so brilliant. This time, set in the most remote area of the United States. So remote even the officials do not have the statistics of how many Native American people have gone missing.

In Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cody Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is assigned to hunt for predators who kill livestock. One day, while out in the snowy wilderness, he stumbles upon the corpse of an eighteen-year-old Native American girl named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille). Along with FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), Lambert is assigned to investigate the presumed murder of the girl, whose father (Gil Birmingham) is stricken with grief about his loss.

Filmed in and around Park City, Utah (the home of Sundance Film Festival), this movie is as realistic as it is devastating. Sheridan puts it to miraculous use with his great screenplay and direction, hauntingly beautiful visuals, and violence so sudden it’s effective. The characters feel like real people.

Renner’s Lambert almost resembles the tropes of a classic Western hero. He’s a caring father who is dealing with a rough past. He knows every area of the snowy Wyoming Mountains (not to mention a keen eye when it comes to hunting game). The scenes he has with the girl’s father (superb performance by Birmingham) are some of the finest moments I’ve seen this year at the movies. Olsen’s Banner, in contrast, is a rookie coming from Las Vegas. She arrives on the scene without bringing any winter clothes. But—she ends up being in charge of the investigation with Lambert. These two stars are at the top of their game here.

Once the violence comes into the picture, it makes the audience jump out of their skin. With its slow burn, the movie leads up to one satisfying payoff. I’m hoping Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay will be a tie-in for an Oscar nomination. This is one of the year’s best films.

4/4

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2017 Summer Movie Review: Logan Lucky

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Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver) go through their heist plan in Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky. (Source: Charlotte Observer)

In his review of Side Effects, Roger Ebert wrote, “Steven Soderbergh has announced that, at 50, this will be his last feature. Well, that’s up to him. This one brings together threads from a lot of his work. Crime. Sex. Complicated yuppies. Smart people doing heedless things. Corruption in high places. Soderbergh came, he saw, he conquered, and now he’s moving on.”

It’s such a shame Ebert didn’t get to see his return to filmmaking.

After directing Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra, Soderbergh decided to take a break from directing to become a painter. Known for directing the suave heist film Ocean’s Eleven and the excellent Magic Mike (based on Channing Tatum’s experiences as a stripper in Tampa) he has helped Spike Jonze with his brilliant film Her. And he also was attached to some projects during his retirement, including being the executive producer of two television shows—The Knick and Red Oaks—and the cinematographer for Magic Mike XXL (under pseudonym Peter Andrews). Now, he’s back to the director’s chair to return to his Ocean’s roots in Logan Lucky, the year’s best comedy.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum, a frequent collaborator of Soderbergh) has lost his construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway (the home of NASCAR) due to insurance liability issues. He was a football star in high school whose career fell short when he gets a permanent limp. In desperate need of money, he plans to rob the speedway during the Coca-Cola 600. Jimmy recruits the following people:

– His brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a bartender who lost an arm in Iraq.

– Their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), who works as a hair dresser.

– Demolition expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig)—I know, awesome name!—who is serving time in prison. Jimmy and Clyde plan on breaking him out of prison to do the heist, and sneak him back in once it’s over without getting caught.

– And, lastly, Joe’s two whack-job brothers—Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid), who both claim to be experts in computers.

Once they begin the heist, it doesn’t take long for them to run into problems.

2017 is officially called “The Year of John Denver in the Movies”. Logan Lucky is the fourth film this year (the others being Free Fire, Alien: Covenant, and the overrated Okja) to use John Denver in its soundtrack. In the film’s opening scene, Jimmy talks to his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) about why he’s a big fan of Denver. Given it also takes place in West Virginia, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is the perfect theme song for the film; not to mention being used in a delightful scene near the end of the film.

With Soderbergh’s slick direction and cinematography and Rebecca Blunt’s wondrous screenplay, there are plenty of laughs and thrills to be given. The heist feels authentic, due to it not being an easy job and the complications these characters face. Kudos to the wonderful editing (going back and forth between the race, the heist, and the prison), there’s a possibility that this movie will get an Oscar nomination for Best Editing.

The cast is having a wonderful time here. It’s amazing how Tatum has matured as an actor; from being in misfires, such as G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Dear John, to massive successes, such as 21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street and Magic Mike. There is this charm he has that is damn near impossible to resist, even with that Southern drawl. Logan Lucky is the finest moment of his entire career. With the offbeat likes of Driver, Keough, and Hilary Swank as an FBI agent, the biggest scene-stealer goes to Craig as the bleach-haired, tattooed criminal Joe Bang. His accent never slips, and he is nothing short of a laugh riot.

I think the movie would be better off without Seth MacFarlane as the British businessman sponsoring his energy drink at the race. His performance isn’t terrible, but it feels unnatural to the rest of the movie. But—Soderbergh gets back on track with the main plot. Logan Lucky is great end-of-summer entertainment.

3.5/4

2017 Summer Movie Review: Maudie

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Maud Dowley (Sally Hawkins) gets married to Everett (Ethan Hawke) in the biopic Maudie. (Source: IMDb)

Ah—what a delightful little film!

Maudie follows the true story of Maud Lewis (Sally Hawkins), an arthritic woman from Nova Scotia (although the movie is filmed primarily in Newfoundland and Labrodor), who gets a job as a housekeeper for fish meddler Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke). She brings the ad to his small house and starts working. While they may be rough on each other at times, they slowly begin to fall in love. One day, Maud picks up a bucket of paint and a brush. She decides to paint simple things from flowers to animals around the house until she is convinced by Sandra (Kari Matchett), a woman from New York City, to sell her paintings for five dollars (“Show me how you view the world,” she says to her). She immediately becomes the talk of the town.

What makes the movie works is the performances by Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. Since being nominated for her supporting role in Blue Jasmine, Hawkins has starred in Godzilla and Paddington. She portrays Maud’s physicality and charisma to perfection. It’s impossible to resist her big heart. Featuring a sharp wit and gorgeous scenery, Maudie is a pleasant surprise!

3.5/4

2017 Summer Movie Review: Detroit

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Officer Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) tries to find out the commotion at the Algiers Motel in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. (Source: IMDb)

Director Kathryn Bigelow has come a long way from collaborating with her ex-husband on Point Break. A movie that is nothing but pure ‘90s entertainment. It’s dumb, hilarious, action-packed, and cool; featuring memorable dialogue and a great cast playing memorable characters. What’s not to love?

Heading into the 21st century, she—along with screenwriter Mark Boal—made the transition to capture the brutal realism of the War on Terrorism in The Hurt Locker (which won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2009) and Zero Dark Thirty. This time, they go back to a devastating time in history. Detroit brings the 1960s culture and the racial tensions of the time to pure life.

Michigan’s largest city has become one of the most diverse in America. Known as The Great Migration (as stated in the film’s opening scene), millions of African-Americans moved from the cotton fields of the South to the Northern states in hopes of living a better life and earn extra money. After World War II, however, the white population moved to the suburbs which caused tensions to rise.

On one of the hottest days of 1967, the police force (who are mostly white) make arrests on the streets, which pisses off the black community. They start robbing stores, put buildings and cars on fire, and protest to no end. The National Guard, the Michigan PD, and the Detroit PD patrol the streets day in and day out, and address a curfew to the residents.

Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is a security guard who hears shots at the nearby Algiers Motel. He goes over there to see what’s going on. Three white cops, led by Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) who has faced murder charges for killing a black male from robbing a grocery store in broad daylight. He lines people up against the wall to find out who’s responsible for shooting at the police. This resulted in three black males getting killed, and nine others—including a Vietnam veteran (Anthony Mackie) and two white females, Julie (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever, Last Man Standing)—injured.

The riots from fifty years ago are relevant to the racial tensions of today—from the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, to the shooting of Oscar Grant at San Francisco’s Fruitvale Station (depicted in 2013’s overlooked Fruitvale Station), to the riots in Baltimore in 2015; where a game between the Orioles and the Boston Red Sox went on without any fans in the stadium whatsoever. Detroit is a reminder of today’s racial discrimination.

Barry Ackroyd’s handheld camerawork resembles the films of Peter Berg and Paul Greengrass. The entire sequence at the Algiers Motel had the same impact as the lifeboat sequence in Captain Phillips; nothing but edge-of-your-seat intensity. While filmed in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the sets look as authentic as the city and the events that took place.

I cannot ask for a better cast. From Poulter’s sinister work as Officer Krauss to Boyega’s raw, convincing performance as Officer Dismukes (who seems to be a great guy to be around with, particularly in an early scene where he serves coffee to a small group of white officers), Algee Smith steals the entire movie as Larry Reed, the lead singer of the Dramatics, with a stellar voice. After his performance gets cancelled, reality begins to hit him across the face.

According to an article in the Detroit Free Press, most of the audience members who attended the world premiere at the Fox Theatre were actually a part of the riots—from police officers to ordinary residents. They were moved to tears over the film’s portrayal. It’s a shame Detroit underperformed at the box office this past weekend. This is a movie everybody needs to see; not to mention being viewed in every high school in America.

4/4

 

2017 Summer Movie Review: A Ghost Story

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C (Casey Affleck) wakes up as a ghost in David Lowery’s magnum opus, A Ghost Story. (Source: Rolling Stone)

How can something so simple go somewhere so deep?

After Disney’s surprisingly wonderful remake of Pete’s Dragon, director David Lowery returns to his indie roots with the Sundance hit A Ghost Story. It reteams the duo of the sluggish yet decent Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It might turn people off who expect it to be a straight-up horror film. With a budget of $100,000 and shown in the 1.37.1 aspect ratio, Lowery explores the afterlife through the eyes of a person wearing the cheapest Halloween costume in the world. This is a strange yet devastating roller-coaster ride through the afterlife.

C (Casey Affleck) is a musician living in a house in rural Texas with his wife M (Rooney Mara). They both keep hearing bumps in the night; trying to find the source of the sounds. As C dies from a car crash, he wakes up in the hospital in a white sheet with two black holes for eyes. As a ghost, he walks back to his house to reconnect with M. No one seems to notice he still exists. C’s ghost goes on a journey through the past, present, and future.

In his first Sundance feature-length hit Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowery pays homage to Terrence Malick with films, such as Badlands and Days of Heaven. It comes as no surprise for A Ghost Story that it has ties with Malick among other directors. Ranging from faraway shots and long takes, Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo put it to good use with every shot, accompanied by Daniel Hart’s haunting score. They are nothing short of breathtaking!

A Ghost Story features very minimal dialogue. The old saying, “Actions speak louder than words”, is rather appropriate here. In one particular scene, the ghost watches his wife grief in silence while eating a whole pie. During the long take, we see her get more upset after each bite until she rushes to the bathroom to throw it up. As devastating as the scene is, it’s quite impressive to see it done in one take. It proves how talented Rooney Mara is.

Affleck’s performance is one of the most subtle yet ambitious performances to date. Fresh from winning an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, he spends most of the movie in the bedsheet without delivering a single line (with the exception of a few in the beginning and the end of the film). With the theme involving the endurance and perception of time, Affleck’s ghost spends time observing his wife move out of his house as other people start to move in; including a Hispanic family and one of the partygoers (Will Oldham) talking about the end of the universe. “We do what we can to endure…you do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone,” he says, summing up the film’s main idea.

A Ghost Story may not be for everyone. It doesn’t move at a fast pace. However, for those who are patient and willing to give it a shot, be my guest. You might love it or hate it. For me, one of the main reasons why I think this one of the best films of the year is that it’s full of originality, which is rare for movies nowadays. This definitely requires repeated viewings.

4/4

2017 Summer Movie Review: Dunkirk

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Three British soldiers waiting to be rescued in Christoper Nolan’s Dunkirk. (Source: IMDb)

Who doesn’t love Christopher Nolan? He’s one of the most ambitious yet brilliant filmmakers working today, who has a very unique style relying on the practicality. He is widely known for rebooting the Batman franchise after the dismal Batman and Robin. He often transports the audience to another world in movies such as the mind-bending Inception and the disappointing and overrated Interstellar. His latest film, Dunkirk, is a different approach for Nolan. A film taking place in a historical setting; let alone, World War II. Is there anything he can’t do?

Dunkirk features three storylines set on land, at sea, and in the air, told in non-linear fashion (make sure you pay attention to what’s going on). During the evacuation on the beaches of France, Nazi Germany has surrounded 400,000 men from Britain, Belgium, Canada, and France. Among those who are waiting to be rescued are Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (One Direction’s Harry Styles), both of whom are in the British Army. While on the pier, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Col. Winnant (James D’Arcy, Agent Carter) are making sure the soldiers are settling on the ships safely.

Meanwhile, out at sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is driving in his yacht with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney). They rescue a wounded soldier (Cillian Murphy), whose U-boat got hit by a torpedo, while three Spitfire planes—one of them piloted by Farrier (Tom Hardy, who is in a mask again)—fly overhead to keep the Germans out.

It has been said a thousand times, but it’s a fact that every war is hell. Even every war movie depicts them as hell. This is no surprise for Dunkirk. Unlike the graphic nature of Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge, this movie is more of a survival story than anything (hence the PG-13 rating). Nolan takes this incredible story to full advantage with minimal dialogue and tension that never lets up until the end. Hans Zimmer’s outstanding score, like the rest of the movie, resembles a ticking time bomb.

What I appreciated about Dunkirk is the authenticity and realism of its depiction. As stated above, Nolan is known for using more practical effects than CGI, which is rare for a summer blockbuster. Not only is the movie filmed at the actual location of the evacuation, it also features real WWII-era carriers, planes and guns. The action sequences—set in all three locations—are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It makes the audience feel like they are actually there witnessing these events.

Being their acting debuts, Whitehead and Styles both bring forth such nuanced bravery into their performances as the two British soldiers risking their lives. Featuring such a tremendous cast, the audience sympathizes with the characters while it shifts between these three storylines. It’s an experience that I’ll definitely revisit time and again.

There has never been a movie that hit me harder all year than Dunkirk. This is a suspenseful, emotional roller-coaster ride. Even Peter Travers went as far as calling it “the greatest war film ever”, which is saying a lot. Dunkirk is definitely up there with some of the greats. I would be surprised if it receives little recognition at this year’s Oscars. It’s easily a front-runner for Best Picture. The question is: Will Christopher Nolan receive his first nomination as director? We’ll just have to wait and see.

4/4

“War for the Planet of the Apes”: The Ending to Something Extraordinary

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Caesar (Andy Serkis) returns, and he is not happy, in War for the Planet of the Apes. (Source: Screen Rant)

“War has already begun. Ape started war. And human will not forgive,” says Caesar at the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. This is a send-up to the next film in the beloved franchise.

It has been almost 50 years since Planet of the Apes revolutionized the science-fiction genre with its groundbreaking sets and costume design, thoughtful ideas on faith and evolution, and its shocking twist ending. The franchise has come a long way with the reboots. In Rise, a scientist created a possible Alzheimer’s cure tested on apes including Caesar. While Caesar and his apes are given enhanced intelligence which leads to a battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, the humans are given a virus. In Dawn, the so-called Simian Flu wipes most of humanity. The remaining survivors go into an all-out conflict with Caesar and his fellow apes, while Koba betrays him and begins his trek to kill every human soul. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) returns director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Mark Bomback to focus more on the apes, and give a much darker, grittier, and devastatingly powerful conclusion to one of the best trilogies ever made.

A military group called Alpha-Omega, led by vicious Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), begins to emerge. In a breathtaking opening sequence, they attack the apes’ sanctuary in the heart of Muir Woods. Caesar (Andy Serkis), who wanted to offer peace between his fellow apes and the humans for so long, is driven mad after seeing many lives lost. He has plans of relocating his homeland in the middle of the desert, so no humans can be in sight of the apes. Before he could do that, however, he must begin his quest for revenge. Along with Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), Maurice (Karin Konoval), and Rocket (Terry Notary), they encounter a mute girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) and a chimpanzee named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who directs them to the facility on the border, operated by McCullough. Once they arrive there, Caesar sees his apes captured and used for slave labor to build a wall to protect his army (I won’t make any Trump jokes, I promise). This immediately becomes the battle of wits.

It’s no surprise that the original Planet of the Apes gained controversy for its allegory of American slavery and the racial tensions of the Civil Rights Movement. To be fair, we still live in a world where racial tensions are the norm. A different race will be discriminated anywhere at any time.  In the case of the Planet of the Apes movies, the irony is that the humans are the least dominant species. War, the ninth film in the franchise, is relevant to the Trmup era (again, no jokes). Reeves directs this social sci-fi movie to his full advantage with the themes of supremacy and prejudice. It asks the question: What does the future hold if the apes are the most dominant species, in terms of evolution?

In a recent interview with Stephen Colbert,[1] Andy Serkis explained that he had no idea he would return to motion capture after doing The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. “This is the end of type casting as we know it,” he said. “Anyone can play anything.”

I can’t agree with him more. Motion capture is certainly the future of film acting. And hopefully for the better. Serkis has fully embraced the instinct of Caesar. Take note on how grayer and wiser he’s getting in each of these movies. In War, we finally get to see the darker side of this brilliant character. We see him evolve from a pet to a leader through compassion. Now—he is getting revenge on losing something so dear to him. With numerous references to the Bible and films of the past, he can be looked at as a Clint Eastwood-type protagonist (one of the film’s biggest inspirations is The Outlaw Josey Wales). He also resembles the biblical Moses.

When we finally get our first glimpse of Col. McCullough, we see a spine-tingling image of him wearing black war paint on his face (one of the references to Apocalypse Now). Later on, we learn more about his motivation and his ties with the Simian virus. With Caesar in his office, he explains how he made the ultimate sacrifice to kill those infected with the virus, which makes humans have the inability to talk. . “The irony is we created you,” says the Colonel. “And nature has been punishing us ever since…no matter what you say, eventually you’d replace us. That’s the law of nature.” From watching the original movies, this makes perfect sense about the humans living on this particular Earth now!

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Comparing behind-the-scenes to the final product. (Source: IMDb)

Zahn, a newcomer to the franchise, provides the film’s comic relief. His Bad Ape is one of the franchise’s most fascinating supporting characters. Originally from the Sierra Zoo, he becomes exposed to the virus and has been hiding out in the snowy mountaintop for years. He becomes their guide leading them to the facility on the border. This results in a funny scene where they make their way through a tunnel.

The beginning and the end of War features two big action set pieces that are as nerve-wracking as they are breathtaking. With the gritty nature going on, what carries the movie through is the simple moments of poignancy. Miller’s Nova represents the innocence during the dark times. Her moments with Maurice are so sweet I want to choke up as much as the rest of the movie. Her moment of grace, however, is during one powerful scene where she sneaks into the facility. She sees Caesar tired and hungry from working on the wall. What does she do? She gives him food and water before escaping from the army. We see one of the apes holding two fists together side-by-side; indicating that “apes together are strong.” The other apes later repeat the act. Accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s outstanding score, it’s impossible not to get teary-eyed.

(As much as I loved Patrick Doyle’s score in Rise, his doesn’t quite capture the gritty nature and simple poignancy of Giacchino’s score in this movie and in Dawn.)

War for the Planet of the Apes may be the end of the trilogy, but the franchise is most certainly not over, according to Matt Reeves. “The idea would never be to remake the ’68 film,” said Reeves in a 2014 interview with JoBlo.[2] “But it would be sort of a re-telling of those events from a new perspective. And the events themselves would probably be a bit different since they will have grown out of these films.” I’m definitely looking forward to seeing exactly where the franchise will go.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64mWOoj68qo

[2] http://www.joblo.com/movie-news/exclusive-matt-reeves-talks-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-169