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

“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

2017 Summer Movie Review: Baby Driver

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Baby (Ansel Elgort) puts on his earbuds and goes for a ride in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. (Source: The Playlist)

That’s what I’m talking about!

When it comes to writing and directing, Edgar Wright is unlike any other filmmaker. He brings forth the most unique visual style in movies, such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (a colorful tribute to graphic novels and video games) and The Cornetto trilogy—Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End (my absolute favorite). After ditching Ant-Man (which, to this day, has no interest in seeing), to do Baby Driver, the latest action-comedy that only Wright wrote the screenplay.

Baby (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in our Stars) is a marvelous getaway driver living in Atlanta working under crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey). As a child, he witnessed his parents getting killed in a car crash. It left him with tinnitus, or constant ringing in the ear drum. The only way he can drown out the ringing is listen to music on his iPod. While he doesn’t sit with his team—including Buddy (Jon Hamm), his girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Bats (Jamie Foxx)—he can repeat back the heist plan even though he’s preoccupied with his music.

One day, at a local diner, he locks eyes on a gorgeous waitress named Debora (Lily James, Cinderella and Downton Abbey). He decides to leave behind his life of crime, so he can be with her.

I have never had this much fun at a movie theater all summer. Baby Driver is no exception! The movie has it all: action, laughs, romance, twists, turns, and straight-up emotion. Most—if not, all—of the action and stunts seen on the screen is actually real. There are a couple of shootouts in the movie where the guns go off in sync with the music, compared to Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim. Goofy, yes. However, it’s a ton of fun to watch, and it makes the audience wonder how the sequences were performed without any accidents.

Elgort leads a terrific cast bring enough energy, either behind the wheel or interacting with his crew, foster dad, or his new girlfriend. Even when he is singing and dancing to his playlist (particularly during the opening credits), it’s hard not to crack a smile. The soundtrack is one of the best of the year. It’s as if Awesome Mix Vol. 1 and Awesome Mix Vol. 2 had a baby (a big baby!), and got Baby Driver. Featuring music by Queen, Golden Earring, The Commodores, and many more, the movie is like a rock opera mixed with a straight-up action film. One of the year’s best films.

Oh—and always remember: “The moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.”

4/4

2017 Summer Movie Review: It Comes at Night

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Paul (Joel Edgerton) tries to find answers about an intruder in It Comes at Night. (Source: Slash Film)

Director Trey Edward Shults made his directorial debut last year with Krisha. Made on an extremely low budget ($30,000, no less), he cast his family members in a movie about a woman (played by Shults’ real-life aunt, Krisha Fairchild) whose past begins to haunt her while at a Thanksgiving dinner. It unnerved audiences at the SXSW Film Festival.

He’s back to unnerve audiences again with It Comes at Night. It is unlike your average cabin-in-the-woods horror picture. Without any annoying characters doing dumb decisions or cheap scares, it features a claustrophobic atmosphere and humanity. A lot of people called it “a horror masterpiece” prior to its release. After going into this movie blind, I found it to be far from a masterpiece. Nevertheless, it is nothing short of a solid shocker.

Paul (Joel Edgerton) is a patriarch of a secluded house in the woods. He’s doing everything he can to protect his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from a nasty virus that wiped out the outside world. One day, a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbot) is seeking shelter. Paul reluctantly agrees to have him, his lover Kim (Riley Keough), and son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) into their home. After breaking a few ground rules, the group must fight for survival.

Compared to last year’s The Witch, Shults has crafted a slow-burning psychological horror-thriller featuring a solid cast—with Edgerton doing what he does best—and some of the creepiest images in all of horror (I’m talking about the one where an old man is seen with black eyes and blood dribbling from his mouth). However, what falters is the limited character development and sluggish pacing. While a lot better than most horror movies today, It Comes at Night isn’t something I’ll revisit anytime soon.

3/4

2017 Summer Movie Review: The Mummy

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Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) unveils something evil in the reboot of The Mummy. (Source: IMDb_

The Mummy has been around for a long time. Boris Karloff played the titular character in 1932, and became one of the most memorable horror movie villains. In 1999, it rebooted as a straight-up action-fantasy-thriller starring Brendan Fraser as the cocky hero embarking on a journey to rid the curse of an Egyptian tomb, while two sequels followed after that. Today, The Mummy is rebooted again as the first installment of a new cinematic universe featuring the Universal monsters. The “Dark Universe” is going to feature the Bride of Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Invisible Man, Van Helsing and Dracula, and the Wolf Man.

In the latest reimagining, The Mummy is a female instead of male. With Tom Cruise doing what he does best, he cannot save this shallow dud of a movie.

Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a soldier-of-fortune looking for ancient artifacts to sell at a black market. In Iraq, he and his friend Chris Vail (Jake Johnson, who plays one of the most annoying characters in cinema) discovers a tomb of an Egyptian princess. Her name is Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who is betrayed by the Pharaoh and is buried alive. Thousands of years later, her spirit returns with a vengeance. After surviving from a plane crash (don’t ask), Nick wakes up in a London morgue, and learns that he is cursed by the princess (again, don’t ask). Along with archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis, Annabelle), Nick must “outwit” Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe), and rid Ahmanet’s curse once and for all.

Cruise has starred in some bland movies. However, this is the first movie of his I genuinely hate. Along with director Alex Kurtzman and screenwriters David Koepp and Christopher McQuarrie, the movie is fascinating within the first thirty minutes explaining the backstory of Ahmanet (which makes the audience ask more questions). Then, it all goes downhill with Cruise and the gang wrapped in (no pun intended) a ridiculous script with plot holes big enough to ride a bus through. None of the characters have any charisma whatsoever; making it damn near impossible to care on what’s going to happen next. While the humor feels forced and the movie takes itself so seriously, it does have its fair share of unintentionally goofy moments. For instance, whenever Nick and the Mummy go head-to-head, she would smack him upside the head and send him flying. And also, Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll (horribly miscast, by the way) must have been added in the movie as a build-up to a possible standalone film in the franchise. This is not a good start for the Dark Universe. I highly doubt it will get better in the future.

1/4