Wind River (****): In the battle between you and the world…

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Written and Directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow, Graham Greene, Martin Sensmeier

It seems in an ever political world that one can find statistics for everything. Everything except missing Native American women, according to Taylor Sheridan. If it were not for this film about two such women found murdered, and the lives their loss affected, the reality of these losses might have been lost to me, too.

Whatever one can glean from the well written trio of films on his resume, Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River, we get to see damaged and resilient people who forge ahead in a world without mercy. That doesn’t mean that mercy is absent from the experience for the viewer.

In the winter on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, we see a young woman, Natalie Hanson (Chow) struggling barefoot though the snow in the midst of night. She doesn’t make it far, from what we see. We find out that her last trek is much more astounding, however tragic.

The next day Wildlife Agent Cody Lambert (Renner)is in the midst of a normal winter morning, tracking down predators of the local herds. We see him take down a significant portion of a wolf pack in the midst of sheep. This is not the last time we will see this. After picking up his boy from their mother Wilma (Jones) we discover the reason for their divorce, ostensibly in the altar displaying the short beautiful life of a young woman on the mantle.

Soon Cody is asked to help his in laws track a mother mountain lion. On his way to visit them on the reservation we see a tattered American flag blowing upside down in the wind over a group of Natives building a bonfire in the snow. He takes a sled to follow the tracks and comes across the last tracks Natalie Hanson ever made. He crumbles into the snow beside her.

Natalie was the daughter of his own deceased daughter, found much the same way a few years earlier. After calling it in, the FBI sends Jane Banner (Olsen) from a seminar in Las Vegas. She is nowhere near ready to handle this case. Like many of Taylor Sheridan’s female protagonists, she has more than enough fortitude for the task.

There are two separate journeys in Wind River, neither of which revolve around the mystery of who committed the murders. Instead we are seeing how one grieving father sees the legacy he thought was cut short survive through his helping another person in her quest to do the same.

Renner is excellent here, choosing to play his character as one who expects little from life, even if he’s still willing to give what he has to those that he feels are deserving. His interactions with the Natalie’s father Martin (Birmingham) are among the film’s highlights. A companion in grief, he offers what solace he can while promising to help Banner hunt for the “predator” who brought his friend’s daughter to her end.

When giving Natalie’s brother the news, we get an insight to his mind:

Chip: Man, I get so mad i want to fight the whole world. You got any idea what that feels like?
Cory Lambert: I do. I decided to fight the feeling instead. Cause i figured the world would win.

As Banner, Olsen has the least amount of room to move. If there can be one criticism of Sheridan’s characters, it’s that he tends to put them on an idealistic pedestal. She’s young and willing to help and learn, and she has to yet go through every road that the seasoned men have already gone through. And unlike men, women here are either victims or on their way to deliverance. The men get to cause the victimhood, learn from it, and understand their nature as the harsher sex.

If this is the limit to Sheridan’s ability, he’s still got more wisdom than most artists in the film industry. His prose and dialogue are incredible in their power, understanding and wisdom. And he’s quotable as hell.

The character actors are a huge asset as usual. Graham Greene is exactly the perfect combination of wisdom and humor. It’s a crime that they don’t have a spot for him in every movie. His delivery is impeccable, like when he answers Jane’s request for backup:

This isn’t the land of waiting for back up. This is the land of you’re on your own.

Gil Birmingham may be my favorite actor right now. He’s been around for years, but it wasn’t until Hell or High Water when I realized how much nuance a man can show with such a stoic demeanor. Seeing him (lower right) in this Diana Ross video for Muscles gives no indication of an actor, but it sure is funny. The best work he’s done give no indication of that body, just a depth of soul.

muscles

The fact that there is little mystery to the film shouldn’t matter if character and feeling are what you are seeking. The reveal at the end is less of a surprise than the action of the climax. And in typical Sheridan fashion the climax is never the conclusion of the story. Time must be taken to recover. That is time where most people live in a world without mercy.

(**** of *****)

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Arrival (****1/2) is learning to accept a different language.

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Arrival – 2016

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by Eric Heisserer based on “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang
Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O’Brien

For those of us who are interested in good sci-fi, Arrival hits the mark pretty solidly on the head. Approaching the concept of first contact from a practicality rarely seen in films, it asks questions few movies dare to ask. One that kept coming to mind for me, Prometheus, loses its lustre just a smidgen.

One always knew that the Ridley Scott attempt at an opus took short cuts that undercut the grander vision for which it’s aimed. When seeing the courage Arrival has in breaking down tasks to the most basic level, it’s easy to understand they will lose some people. For those who want to give up and say it’s too hard, know this, my 10 year old daughter figured it out before they even entered the ship.

This is not to say the film is predictable. It is not entirely. There are so many wider questions that the story asks us to ponder, it is easy to understand why this film has not become the blockbuster it deserves to be. There are very few explosions, the firefights take place mainly offscreen. The bluster is as much philosophical in nature as anything.

The thing that catches the willing viewer in this story is the obsession with language and communication. Arrival takes our preconceptions on the tenets of communication and adds another dimension that may or may not be intuitive, depending on your learning style. The process of seeing smart people work out hard challenges is fascinating. Making it something we all can decipher with a little work is even more amazing.

Much of this is due to the writer and director. Villeneuve has cut a swath through the world of cinema that hasn’t been seen by this reviewer since David Fincher. His style is only matched by his ability to find and nurture great material. Heisserer is at his best here, showing much growth from horror remakes to something truly visionary.

The best thing about Arrival is Amy Adams. In a performance sympathetic and not at all maudlin, she gives a multi-layered performance that gives the viewer depth and keeps us wondering what she knows and, importantly, when she knows it. This role should net her a nomination, if not a win. She is a true acting force, on par with the best work that Jodie Foster ever did.

The story is very tight through the first 3 acts and starts to unravel a bit too quickly towards the end. We get to spend the last 15 minutes knowing what happened and just waiting for it to finish. This is not as much a betrayal to the viewer as a concession that some people may need a breather.

See this film. It will give you something to talk about and definitely fill your life with wonder.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Captain America: Civil War (*****) Goes where the Avengers cannot

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Captain America: Civil War

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo
Written by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl

Who would imagine a question posed in Marvel’s very first feature would take until the 13th film overall and the 2nd film in Phase III to be answered?  That is patience my friends. And confidence. And damn fine film-making. The question and answer is one of the many incredible things about Captain America: Civil War.

The story acts as the epicenter of two crossroads. The first is the trajectory of the Avengers. There have been two films thus far and thankfully we have not until now been forced to waste celluloid covering petty disagreements blown out into meaningless brawls. In this case, the disagreement is philosophical in nature, and has organically grown from the character of the principal leads, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. The time and care they have taken in developing the characters and motives for the two has been remarkable in that one can see it happen bit by bit in each movie (even in the Avengers) for the superheroes, but still retain the cohesion of each film’s original plot.

Tony is a man who moved from callous weapons manufacturer, to thinking he could manufacture weapons that could ensure peace until now, a man who doubts every idea he has other than the one where he seeks the help of a higher authority. This authority, Major Ross and the United Nations. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, has gone from whatever I can do to help Uncle Sam, to questioning anyone’s authority and judgement but that of himself and his friends. As we find out, Tony used to be one of those friends.

Steve’s journey is the other and in this case, most relevant crossroad. The purity of vision that his country had in WWII (The First Avenger) has given way to a new world in which most people in power are interested in keeping that power and blowing away anything that could remotely be a threat (The Winter Soldier). Now another force is playing Steve’s concern into downright paranoia and contrasting that with Tony’s doubts about his ability to control the use of his and his friends power.

As both Avengers move towards what they think is the answer, battle lines are drawn and sides are chosen. The best part of this battle is that it feels real and the stakes are something worth fighting for and about. As silly as one could feel Tony Stark is for deciding to have someone else in charge, one can see how he’s come to the decision. Rogers, meanwhile, makes us feel downright proud to be free and independent thinkers, until we find that he is not without his own poor judgement.

Therein lay the strength of Civil War. Each side has its own clear vision, but they also have downright viable flaws. The vision of Kevin Feige and his co-collaborators is that in making compelling heroes, one cannot make them infallible.

We’ve seen a pretty flawless Steve Rogers up to now, but the upward trajectory of his character lay in his always appearing to be the weakest link in the chain. Our enjoyment was from knowing that he knew the odds and he also knew how to turn them into his favor, without making a big todo in the process. He is America, in stature and make up. We’ve been the mutt that was given the smallest chance to succeed, and succeed we have. Imagine the feeling for those who have followed when we realize even he might have succumbed to weakness, calling it judgement, on his way to larger aspirations.

As for the Russo brothers, I think it’s safe to say they are the best directing siblings alive today. So far they are two for two, and the decisions they make are always in favor of the story over making any sort of distinct mark on the film, to which the Cohen brothers occasionally fall victim. The decision to have so many lead characters playing support in a film almost never works. It’s too hard to get everyone their moment in the sun. Joss Whedon spent the better part of two Avengers movies doing this, until the movie seemed like a series of one liners. The Russo brothers don’t cut corners here. The shots that might just be grand standing in lesser films move forward plot points here.

There are so many surprises in this film, there is never a time in which one does not feel like smiling, even when there is so much at stake. My favorite superheroes have always been War Machine and Iron Man, yet I found myself wishing for them to be at least incapacitated just to see heroes I couldn’t give a crap about 10 years ago succeed.

The story surges ahead and it really is quite centered, despite the number of characters involved. The premise is a simple one, yet the questions it asks are profound. It really extends on the premise on how we want to be governed. Do we want to fulfill our own destiny, or do we want to push that responsibility to the side in wait of the judgement of others who may or may not be wiser.

The Infinity Wars looks like a daunting task. The comic is tedious and lacks any real intrigue. If it succeeds, it’s going to require some serious pairing down. Can Feige, the Russo’s and Marvel succeed with such an outlandish plot that seems doomed to have more special effects and less development? It’s hard to imagine that it is possible to make it palatable, but I am glad they have the Russo’s at the helm.

(*****)

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (***1/2) Needs desperate times…

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – 2015

Written and Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin

One of the funniest scenes in the entire M:I series takes place during the 3rd act. As the principal protagonists surround a person of interest, one of the good guys, Benji (Pegg) is kidnapped by some of the bad guys. Instantly, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) tells his right hand man, Luther Sticknell (Rhames) to stay with the suspect as Hunt and Brandt (Renner) chase after the people who have already placed Benji in the trunk and started driving off. It takes about five steps for a lumbering Sticknell to lose his target. Cruise and Brandt burst into the next scene running at full speed in the garage as the car pulls away. They give up the ghost about 15 steps in, and literally within the same distance, we see Sticknell – moving faster towards diabetes than his running takes him – huffing his way right into the scene. How in the world did Sticknell catch them? Well, McQuarrie did not want to wait for him, so he just had him there when he needed him. They don’t want to waste the celluloid to watch Rhames run in real time.

Ving Rhames has never been what one might call a small man, but it’s clear that in this film where the action is constant, the most appropriate place for his character is in front of a keyboard. Luckily for him, Benji and Brandt can do a few other things. Hunt…well, he does everything else. Full bore.

By now, everyone has caught up to speed with the M:I cast. What was a hit and largely miss first couple of films has, since Cruise met up with J.J. Abrams, taken a turn for the best. At that point, we got a more solid team to form around Cruise, with a movement towards solid, often physical comedy. The series peak of Ghost Protocol brought in Paula Patton and Renner, director Brad Bird placed each of the actors in a prime position to excel. If this left Rhames off the screen for the most part, it still hinted at things to come when he made an appearance at the end.

This time we have the same team except for Patton who is missed, even if the one major character opposite Cruise is Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust. She plays a Femme Fatale who is surprising for her abilities, her mysterious alliances and that she is over 30. Faust is always in step with Cruise, except when she is a step ahead. Their dance is one of the good things about Rogue Nation, as it gives Hunt a different type of counterpart. One that he trusts, but probably shouldn’t.

She is a double (or possibly triple) agent who is in deep with The Syndicate, which is the titular rogue nation of ex-agents that are going everywhere and doing everything bad. Sean Harris is their leader, Solomon Lane. He provides a creepy, if almost wimpy voice. He is mostly there to remind us that there is one guy that Hunt will face off in the end, after he passes all the other bad guys.

It’s going to be tough, though, because CIA director Alan Hunley (Baldwin) has just lobbied the Senate oversight committee that MIF should be disbanded. This leads to Brandt and Benji joining the CIA, Sticknell quitting and Hunt going off grid, as he works on the mystery of The Syndicate.

In spite of what you’ve heard, the mystery is not real hard to solve. Just following the rule that it’s probably because of a couple pompous Brits and a blowhard American, one will be able to surmise what is going on.

The fun of it all, though, is watching Cruise’s reckless enthusiasm and willingness to look clumsy and lucky as often as valiant and athletic. While there are no scenes in here that match the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol, the airplane at the start of the film approaches it for comedic value and intensity. Still, the opening scene, the underwater scene and subsequent chase are as good as anything else in the series. If the film lets down in the last act, that’s okay. At some point soon, we have to feel a real sense of danger and, dare I say it, loss. If not, the films risk being too safe to be next level entertainment.crazy-underwater-stunt-in-the-new-mission-impossible

Pegg’s Benji is relied upon for much of the comic relief this time, and for the most part he delivers. The more he is used, the less effective he is overall. The film could have used a little more punch from Renner and Sticknell. The less I see of them, the more I wonder why have them in the film at all. If you can’t tell the kind of role Baldwin will play in an action film by now, just think of a Ving Rhames that doesn’t touch a computer. He is there mainly to provide an obstacle and occasional unwitting support. His role could have been played by anyone. Well, anyone but Andy Dick.

This is Cruise and Ferguson’s film, for worse and mostly better. In Faust, Hunt gets the female counterpart that was prominent in the first 2 films, but largely absent in the last 2. We can’t really count Monaghan, because she was not an agent, largely a target and she lasted more than one film. If the film is not as good as the two preceding it, it’s still one of the best films of the summer, and a worthy addition to the string. The effort Cruise puts into everything makes it remarkably breathtaking, even if there is never any thought that he’s ever not going to make it.

McQuarrie is not JJ Abrams, and he’s definitely not Brad Bird. His contributions behind the camera and the keyboard are incredibly solid, if equally safe. As a result, it’s not to the level we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Tom Cruise’s signature series.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (****1/2) too much good to be bad

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Avengers: Age of Ultron – 2015

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson

Tony Stark / Iron Man (facing fire of the enemy) Guys, wait. We gotta talk this through. (after incapacitating all of them with leg shots) It was a good talk.

Random bad guy writhing on the floor No it wasn’t!

It’s nice to know that after 3 years, Whedon hasn’t lost his sense of humor. After the stern Twitter lecture he gave about sexism the other day about a Jurassic World clip, that was no guarantee. With so much riding on the sequel to one of the biggest movies of all time, it’s easy to bet that he might take the thing too seriously this time. Thank God he didn’t script this film like he judges other people’s work.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a remarkable and assured piece of work. Once more, Whedon has taken many threads and woven them into a cohesive work that moves characters forward without sacrificing story and moves the story forward without sacrificing characters. Well, all of them except for War Machine. He always gets the short end of the hero stick, though.

This time around, Tony Stark has stumbled across some Artificial Intelligence tech that he can’t wait to work on with Bruce Banner. It’s nice to see them work. Together, with J.A.R.V.I.S (Stark’s almost living computer program), they decipher the code they come across and move toward Stark’s dream of being able to create a force of living Iron Men that can allow the Avengers to retire.

Ultron, their creation, decides to help them on their quest to retire, but not with a $50 watch and a spot on the beach. After incapacitating J.A.R.V.I.S., Ultron disrupts The Avenger’s after-party and starts on his own mission, with the help of two mutants (Can we call them that? No? Oh, well…), Wanda and Pietro Maximoff.

Wanda has the ability to mess with people’s minds and create red plumes of chaos. Pietro is really fast and creates a friction that tears stuff apart. That these are not exactly the “gifts” they have in the comics is of little consequence. It’s close enough for Avengers work.

The messing with the minds part provides a lot of the challenges in the story. Everyone sees their doubts exploited except for one of them. That one’s a nice, sensible surprise, just like much of the film.There are very few moments that don’t surprise or satisfy those who have invested much in this universe.

Tony Stark has been in a free fall since the end of the Avengers Assemble, and that continues here. His work has always been fueled by his perceived weakness. This imprint works itself into the prototype. He keeps trying through the end. It’s been this continually evolving spark that has been expertly applied since the first Iron Man film by Downey, Jr. We see a continuation of what we thought was an endpoint in Iron Man 3 that is not entirely explained. Since it is in the same direction, it works.

Ruffalo’s Hulk has been the most interesting take on a tough character to find compelling. His forward progression shows in the form of a relationship with Black Widow (Johansson). The tenderness shown between the two is an expression of the vitality of both and definitely neat to watch. What happened to the guy who’s angry all the time? He’s trying real hard to work through his feelings again. It feels like a backward step.

Thor has more effective lines in this film than he did in his second solo film. Hemsworth is clearly comfortable working with Whedon’s dialogue and situations. His quest for answers is intriguing and I like the role he has in creating a solution to the problem. Ragnarok could be the Thor film for which we’ve waited.

Black Widow, as usual, plays a Jackknife of all trades. She acts as a salve to every part of the Marvel Universe that needs one. Johansson is complex without being wordy or emotional and is probably the most fully developed character Whedon has produced. Given what he has invested in her, one can understand why he might be sensitive to how Chris Pratt’s character talks to Bryce Dallas Howard’s character. Doesn’t make him right for that, but it makes him right for Black Widow.

The other major woman character, Wanda, aka The Scarlet Witch is a bit more limited, which is understandable given her role in the story. Johnson’s job is to be pissed at the good guys, work for the bad guys, find out that they are bad and then work with the good guys. Then she gets all confused and emotional. One shouldn’t have to wonder if she’ll snap out of it.

Pietro, aka Quicksilver is even more emotionally isolated. Taylor-Johnson gives a good read on the arrogance of one waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with him, but the accent is considerably weaker than his uncanny strength,

Captain America was my favorite character from the first film. Evans had the best film of Phase II and he’s rolled right into the third film with the authority of one who owns the team. He has several of the best action scenes, simply for Whedon’s remarkable ability to make his strength’s and weaknesses believable. His morality is as entertaining as it is true to the spirit of the straight-laced character. The fight scene with Ultron in Korea is one of the highlights of the film.

Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is given tremendous depth and he nearly steals the show. As one of the more fragile Avengers, we discover he has even more to lose than his own life. It adds a nice resonance and makes the stakes something more identifiable. Whedon’s true gift is his ability to find a way to make the ones who might be easier to ignore impossible to forget.

Sam Jackson’s Fury acts as another sort of moral arbiter with the few scenes he shares with the rest of the cast. Nonetheless, Whedon gives him some great lines and allows him to fit inside his conspicuous existence, It’s hard to say where Fury goes in this Universe, but his character remains interesting.

As villainous voices go, they couldn’t have found one more delicious than Spader for Ultron. His lines are Spaderish to the point where he lays waste to cliche as easily as he does protagonists.His magnetism is lost a bit with the lack of expression afforded to a robot, but since when did Spader over emote?

Let me take the time to explain my plan...
Let me take the time to explain my plan…

Just when it seems like we’ve covered all the characters, we see an incredible new one. Bettany, who for several films has been the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. is allowed to evolve into an amalgam of Tony’s creations, along with some key assistance from other resources. Vision, always an enigmatic personage, is no less a mystery here. He is a creation – drawing strong allusions to Frankenstein – that will have huge implications beyond this film. Bettany has a complete grasp of the character and its role in the plot. His entrance begins the most intense part of the story and it doesn’t let up.

To say Whedon nailed it is an understatement. He inhabits this world as much a participant as creator. It is obvious that he cared as much for the enterprise as anyone this side of Kevin Feige. That he is not going to be here at the next duo of films would be more of a concern if the guys that are taking the helm from him hadn’t created the best Marvel film in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Anthony and Joe Russo are also directing the next Captain America film called Civil War. Judging by the cast, they might as well call that Avengers 3.

If he wants to leave, best to do it now, when the mistakes are far outweighed by the things he’s gotten right. As for those mistakes, it is a little long. There is a little too much walking away from destruction with a stern warning. And, really, how do they keep the body count so low? I’m talking heroes, too. At least they don’t have Coulson die again.

Perhaps the best thing for me, though is seeing War Machine in action without making him embarrass himself.

(****1/2 out of *****)

American Hustle: Like flowers, but with garbage

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American Hustle – 2013

Director David O. Russell
Starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence
Screenplay Eric Warren Singer and Russell

There is a feeling of barely restrained whimsy in the events of American Hustle.  Instead of being the kind of film that aspires to be truthful while embellishing the facts, Russell and co-writer Singer make the proclamation “Some of this actually happened.”  Originally titled American Bullshit, the film shows bad perms, comb-overs and bra-less bimbos playing fast and loose and listening to no one.  If Sandra Bullock wouldn’t have lasted more than 5 minutes in Space Cowboys, Adams, perhaps, could last about half-way through Goodfellas.  Bale, Cooper and Lawrence would have been snuffed faster than you could say “Pesci.”

This is not to say that American Hustle is not entertaining.  The desperation, the mugging faces and the bad accents all amount to a very fun 2:10.  Instead of trying to figure out where the filmmakers veered from accuracy, it is much more fun to roll with it, and to be pleasantly surprised when they indeed got something right.  There is no small amount of irony when Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper share a table with Robert DeNiro and, in the process, witness his abbreviated screen time as the best thing in the film.  Just when they put their method acting pants on, they get to see someone who hasn’t acted with any sort of method since Cop Land.

This is not to say that the performances aren’t all good.  Bale and Adams are excellent.  Cooper and Russell are good, if a little more campy than one would expect for Oscar nominations.  Really the film works for anyone who loves nostalgic films based in the 1970’s, like Dazed and Confused, Boogie Nights, and even Goodfellas.  The ’70s is the decade that just keeps on giving for filmmakers.  The music was awesome, the outfits were bad and everybody was clueless about how horrible things would be when W. and Obama got in office.  Back then we all thought Nixon was a punchline, not a standard of excellence.

As Russell films go, this one won’t make it into his top 3.  Those spots go to Silver Linings Playbook, Three Kings and (despite the overbearing Melissa Leo), The Fighter.   One can’t be entirely certain it will be remembered in 10 years for any more than The Age of Innocence comes to mind when pondering the Scorsese repertoire.

The fun of seeing people act tacky while out on the town will always be a great way for a movie watcher to spend a night.  Not necessarily a movie night out, to be sure, but it’s not like I write this blog because I spend a lot of nights out.

(**** out *****)

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters – Finally, a fairy tale that’s rated “R”

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Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters – 2013

Writer and Director Tommy Wirkola
Starring Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stromare, Pihla Viitala, Derek Mears, Robin Atkin Downes, Thomas Mann

Hansel and Gretel as children look to be less than a year apart.  When we see them as adults, in the forms of Gemma Arterton (27) and Jeremy Renner (42), one has to wonder where the time went for Gretel.  It’s the first detail I noticed in watching the trailer some time ago.  The second thing I noticed was the automatically firing crossbow held by Gretel.  That was the kind of thing they had in Hugh Jackman’s version of Van Helsing.  At the time it seemed an ingenious idea to blend into a film that took place in the late 19th century.   After watching that film, and countless others since, it is obvious that it’s only because the film makers want to blow crap up without having to be too creative.

A lot of ugly broads get shot, stabbed, beaten, burned and otherwise inconvenienced in by Hansel and Gretel.  It should be something other than comically entertaining.  For some reason, Wirkola forgets that women have charm that might be used to accomplish their goals of general survival.  That Janssen portrays the lead should have lent some ability in this area.  The erstwhile Xenia Onatopp does nothing here to entice anyone.  Instead, we get cracked gray faces along with bodies, heads and other things blown asunder with no thought or common sense applied whatsoever.

To say that Hansel & Gretel is an awful film is to diminish from it’s power.  It is more than awful.  Funny when it tries to be serious and sobering when it tries to be funny, it offers absolutely nothing in the realm of a lesson, like the fable it is based upon.  It is still mystifying the number of horrible films being made from stories by The Brothers Grimm is staggering.  These stories were meant to enlighten children on the dangers of the world, and they do this by scaring the hell out of them.  Here, we see Hansel getting it on with a chick that he helped to save from sure death in the “healing waters” of a pond under a large tree.  The only thing we discover here is he likes red heads.

In the next scene we have Mike Honcho (Stromare) beating the hell out of Gretel until a very large Ogre takes pity on her and puts his foot down.  The Ogre looks somewhere between a cartoon and a dude wearing a Jay Leno mask.

Enough about the good stuff, though.  The only film of Wirkola’s I had seen before was the foreign language, but promising Dead Snow.  One could have watched that film with the sound down and got better dialogue than we get here.  I could listen to Janssen all day when she speaks in her native (Dutch) tongue, or even that decent Russian accent that she used in GoldenEye.  Hearing her punishing English pound out the plot details that anyone could have guessed would make me want to pull a knife on her, too.

So now Renner has his massively crappy film under his belt (and a sequel to be made, too), and Arterton is in just another loud film (Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia) with cartoonish special effects.  It is important to remind oneself that all of these actors are capable of doing good work.  And this stuff…

So you see nudity, and you get plenty of gory violence, oh, and the F-word.  At least they did not make it PG-13.

But the important thing is we learned that in this big old world, there is more than one type of Witch.  Knowing this helps, especially when you need to know which direction to point the massive machine gun.

(*1/2 out of *****)

The Town: You know I’m from Boston, right?

The Town – 2010

Director Ben Affleck
Starring Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Pete Postlethwaite, Chris Cooper, Blake Lively, Titus Welliver, Slaine, Owen Burke
Screenplay Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard

There’s a moment in The Town where the 4 bank robbers, all Charlestown natives, are leaving the “switch car” dressed as Nuns with masks on.  Looking across the street, they see a police officer sitting in his stopped car, just staring.  They look at him, ponder, and the officer, knowing what is in store, chooses to look the other way.  The decision saves his life.  It’s the most riveting moment in the film filled with moments intended to be riveting.

It took a while to get motivated to see this film, given that the major artistic force behind the film is a guy whose career can best be described as spotty.  One can count on a single hand the number of Affleck performances that are worth seeing.  In fact, for me, Changing Lanes and Daredevil(for the attempt at a superhero flick more than the film itself) is just about the limit.

As for directing, Gone Baby Gone, was a decent start to things.  The talent involved and his willingness to loosen the reigns a bit was a benefit.  Then again, he wasn’t in that film.  Seeing his mug pop up in the trailer for The Town placed me in an awkward position.  Should one risk bad acting to see what could be a decent film?  The answer to that question is: of course.  The film is better than decent, and the acting ain’t half bad.

The good things about The Town is still, definitely the acting.  Jeremy Renner is reaching for rarefied air and he should be at the top of the heap soon.  This film is worth watching for his performance alone.  As a sociopath with a wavering loyalty gene, he marches through the film in a realistic and not overwhelmingly sentimental fashion.  As Jem, he does bad things, and not even for a real good reasons.  This is the kind of acting that will have him in front of our eyes until he is older than dirt.  The point in the movie alluded to earlier had me wondering most what he would do.  The fact that he avoided the “hot head” thing and did the prudent thing seals his character. Later on, when contemplating the relationship between he and his sister, Krista, it is much easier to understand his real motivation: and it’s not what one would assume.

Another great performance is that of the late Pete Postlethwaite.  His performance as the crime boss Fergie “The Florist” does more for the character than anything the screenplay provides.  Perhaps it’s that as the heavy in the film, he has only but one fat, middle-aged guy providing the intimidation and protection for him at the same time.  Any other actor would have made that arrangement seem naked to the world.  It’s a compliment to Postlethwaite’s ability that we get the feeling that there are other more dangerous forces lurking somewhere off-screen.

As the imprisoned father of MacRay (Affleck), Cooper gives a poignant performance in his lone scene.  His effortless misery pushes Affleck to another level that he rarely, if ever, has reached in the past.

Hamm and Welliver do well in their straight performances as the men in blue.  Hamm’s Special Agent Frawley of the FBI retains some of the slick charm he has employed so effectively for years on Mad Men.  One gets the feeling that were he not tasked with bringing these guys in, he could be running the show for the crooks.  Welliver, as Boston Officer Dino Ciampa is under used, as usual.  His performances are always on the periphery of something great.

The biggest weakness in The Town is the screaming lack of logic behind the film.  When it would be obvious to put a tail on the main, once kidnapped bank manager, Claire (Hall), even mentioned by more than one character.  Still, it doesn’t happen until the plot requires it. What’s more, once the task force has determined who their main suspects are, for some reason, they fail to put even the most casual stake out on them, in the midst of a robbery spree.

Hall’s performance is uneven, for the screenplay’s decision to give her most serious lapses in judgement, from the seemingly random bits of personal information that she shares with someone she barely knows, to her decision to just quit a couple of weeks after the trauma she suffered, then to her choices after she finds out what’s really going on.  There is no real sense that a real human being would choose to do these things, even if she is pretty with great lips.

For Affleck’s part, he pretty much plays it by the numbers.  He is somber when necessary and shows some flair when it’s time to move on his decisions.  One has a hard time picturing just what it is that would make him the leader of this troupe, as he is almost never seen planning or even contemplating his next assignment.  This film gives no sign that he will ever be anything more than a decent lead in a film, as there has been almost no movement on the needle since he first appeared on the big screen.  He’s really just a big, somber, jaw.  Anyone who doesn’t agree, just try to picture how much better this film would have been for all involved if his brother Casey had been in the lead.

The Town is a solid film, with well filmed action scenes that are not necessarily backed by any sort of logical premise.  The big push to make everything so home-grown down to the nicknames is getting a little old.  We get it, you’re not just from Boston, but a tough sub-section of Boston.  Going a little loose with the facts, like 300 bank robberies a year, when Massachusetts itself has around 100 as a state.  The acting is solid, though, and the characters allowed to breathe, for the most part.  There is a good amount of tension, especially in from the moment they think they are free in the last heist through the rest of the film.  A lot of clichés had to occur to get to the last act, but they don’t waste it.  It’s the best part of the film.

(***1/2 out of *****)

The Bourne Legacy changes direction, not the pace

The Bourne Legacy – 2012

Director Tony Gilroy
Starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Scott Glenn, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Albert Finney, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Stacey Keach, Donna Murphy, Željko Ivanek
Written by Tony Gilroy, Dan Gilroy

It wasn’t until many years after the fact that this reviewer discovered that there had been a 3rd Smokey and the Bandit released.  Lacking Burt Reynolds (aside from a cameo), Sally Field, and a coherent story it failed to net even 1/3 of the cost of making it.  The plot ranged from convoluted to stupid, and the people who came back were not the people that mattered.  The film series died at that point.

After Matt Damon stated that he was not interested in making another Bourne film, many wondered why the producers persisted.  Watching the film add new life and purpose through actual plot development and the insertion of an excellent actor who took the role of the government spook in a different but equally enthralling direction, one can appreciate the decision.

The plot of The Bourne Legacy is, perhaps, it’s best asset.  Taking place during the events of The Bourne Ultimatum, the story picks up in the midst of an evolution of the trained assassin program (known by many names) from which Jason Bourne emerged.  Aaron Cross (Renner) is one of the new generation.  These assassins have a trait afflicted upon them which simultaneously makes them more lethal, and more easily disposed of, should they go rogue.

As he is completing the training program, the actions of Bourne and Pamela Landy (Allen) has made the public aware of Blackbriar and Treadstone, making subsequent and current projects a liability.  CIA Director Kramer (Glenn) assigns Eric Byer (Norton) to take care of the residuals, and one can guess what this means.

Across the country, the laboratory scientists of the chemical controls are also targeted for elimination. In a combination of luck and affection, one of the scientists, Marta Shearing (Weisz), survives.  Shortly there after, as the powers that be come down around her, she is rescued by Cross, who immediately begins to work with her to unravel the mystery of how to not only break the chains of Cross’ existence, but escape the clutches of their pursuers.

The film style is intense, if less jarring than its predecessors.  Gilroy keeps things moving with a touch more eloquence.  This is integral to figuring out what is happening.  To the discerning viewer, it is easy enough to figure out, but for those just looking for fights and explosions, those are covered as well.

The opening scenes for Cross take a while to unfold, almost to the point of boredom.  This is in part to allow the antagonists to formulate their plan and explain why they need to do their bad guy stuff.  In short, it’s, you know, for the good of the country.

The exposition is worth going through, because, once things get going, the pace is such that you won’t have much time to learn on the run.  The time taken in exposition while on the run is exceptionally well spent, showing the excellence in casting both Renner and Weisz.

Renner’s Cross could not be more different from Bourne (or any of the other assassins, for that matter) and this works well.  He comes across much like Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn.  His comfort in discourse is unsettling to many in the field, but he integrates well with Weisz.  This is a refreshing continuance of a theme expressed in the earlier films, where women are seen as equals who offer something to the solution of every situation.  It takes a lot of confidence to not come across as though a woman is privileged to work with you.  For all of his loquaciousness, Renner has confidence to spare.

Weisz has always been a mixed bag.  She can be annoying as hell (The Mummy) or she can be competence and grace personified (The Mummy Returns, About A Boy).  This film shows the latter, better version.  Her performance is vulnerable, strong, intelligent and resourceful.  Her chemistry with Renner is more fully integrated than  Bourne and either of his two counterparts, if for no other reason than Bourne’s introverted nature prevented many two-way exchanges.  No such problems here.

Norton does an exemplary job walking the line of ethics and exigency.  This is the best performance he’s given since Fight Club, even if it is restrained to the hilt.  The rest of the players amount to bit parts and dual scenes shared with the last film.  Ivanek is memorable in his portrayal that has an eerie familiarity to anyone who’s had a long time single friend.

There is plenty of scenery in The Bourne Legacy, with Alaska, Maryland and The Philippines featured beautifully. The last chase through Manilla goes on for too long, and the interactions with the wolves, while somewhat understandable through the explanation of one of the characters, takes a willing suspension of disbelief.

Is this film enough to keep the fire burning on the series?  It certainly should.  The path the film takes is such an interesting one, it feels like an evolution in the journey and not a tacked on mess.  That Tony Gilroy has been involved in from the start has a great deal to do with the experience.  One can’t help wondering where it leads next.  I have a good feeling it won’t be like this:

(****1/2 out of *****)

Cool Papa E Reviews the Bourne Film Series

The Bourne Identity 

Release Date – June 14, 2002

Directed by Doug Liman
Starring Matt Damon, Chris Cooper, Franka Potente, Clive Owen, Brian Cox, Julia Styles, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Written by William Blake Herron, Tony Gilroy

Review – Based on the Robert Ludlum film almost in name only, Doug Liman took the nuts and bolts of the espionage from the experiences of his father Arthur, who grilled the likes of Oliver North during the Iran-Contra trial along with other events during his time in the National Security Administration during the Reagan administration.  The character of Jason Bourne, as conceived by Liman and portrayed by Damon, is one who becomes calmer during conflict.  The fighting style exhibited with Damon doing nearly all of his own stunt work is called eskrima.  The close hand to hand fights are exhilarating to watch as he economizes his movements and each combatant is quickly reassessing their strategy in an efficient, calculating way.  More than this, the dialogue is smart, expressive and intriguing.
Cooper, Stiles and especially Cox lead a stellar cast of remote antagonists, while Clive Owen leads a creepily effective group of assassins essentially several other Bourne types.  Each  of these operates effectively on their own to give the real appearance of an almost inescapable web.
In the center of this web, Damon and Potente create a believable bond light on theatrics and heavy on real tension.  The Bourne Identity is filmed in several beautiful places throughout Rome, but these places feel populated by genuine people.  They truly are set back by their shared dilemma.  When more is revealed, we do not have a false crisis, but instead, thinking through, the next move is the most logical,.  Every step forward is with purpose and, while not obvious, intelligently connected to the resolution.  Details are there, but they are not obvious.
The pacing for this film sets a template for the following films.  It is frenetic at times, reserved at other times, but overall, we have a good, and almost great, starting point.  Liman has a hand in the other two films as producer, creating a cohesion that makes this one of the strongest series of recent memory.

Best Sequence – The best moment in this film is, surprisingly, one of the quietest moments.  The scene in the hotel where Bourne coaches Marie down to the step.  Waiting outside, he gets nervous when she misses her cue.  Why she misses it is a moment of pure gold.

Rating – (****1/2 out of *****)

The Bourne Supremacy 

Release Date – July 23, 2004

Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Matt Damon, Brian Cox, Franke Potente, Joan Allen, Julia Stiles, Karl Urban, Gabriel Mann, Chris Cooper
Written by Tony Gilroy, Brian Helgeland

Review – Jason: “We don’t have a choice.”
Marie: “Yes, you do.”

With these words, we have Jason Bourne unleashed.  The movie, more importantly, the series, takes a turn that prevents it from being the same movie again to something entirely different from we have seen before in an espionage thriller.  Even more, what could have been a simple tale of revenge is made into something more.  Damon’s acting ability is pushed to the minimalist ledge, as we are parsed bits of information while the story unfolds. He becomes more human as his machine-like skills get sharper.  His mission is intensified and cemented in cinematic history under the unparalleled directing skill of Greengrass.  Unique camera angles, quick cuts and a soundtrack that ratchets the story while making an incredible amount of sense.
The acting for this film is incredible.  Joan Allen as Landy is a master stroke replacement for Cooper.  Cox becomes even more wily and dangerous as his cover is blown and he exists right out in the open.  The scenes between the two have a wonderfully dense garvity.  Julia Stiles begins a luminous journey as well that will carry on into the last act.
The fight scenes are remarkable.  Unlike Bond films that need ridiculous gadgets that people with lab coats work on, we see Bourne improvise.  There is a fight scene where he literally uses a magazine as a weapon that is exhilarating as it is awe inspiring.  As a renegade from the secret world of those who want to hold power, Bourne gives a glimmer of hope that some shred of humanity can defend us from them.

Best Sequence – The fluid action scenes were a new way to view action and there is much to gawk at in this film that is remarkably well put together, as far as action goes.  Yet it’s a simple act of atonement at the end of the film that stands out for me.

Rating – (***** out of *****)

The Bourne Ultimatum

Release Date – August 3, 2007

Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Matt Damon, Joan Allen, David Strathairn, Julia Stiles, Scott Glenn, Paddy Considine, Édgar Ramírez, Albert Finney
Written by Tony Gilroy, Scott Z. Burns, George Nolfi

Review – 

Landy: “You start down this path, where does it end?”

Varson: “It ends when we’ve won.”

Starting slightly before the end of The Bourne Supremacy, we find Bourne suffering still from flashbacks, this time further back during his training.  It is a journey designed to take Bourne back to where it begins, as he promises Marie’s brother.  This time, everything is touched off with one word; “Blackbriar.”  This, of course, is represented first by Cox’s Ward Abbott in front of an unnamed committee at the end of the first film.  Countering Bourne at this time is Strathairn, playing Blackbriar director Noah Varson.  The game of mental chess featuring the two brings a terse, fulfilling conclusion to the series.
The overall feeling of the film existing though crowded streets and out in the open in general keeps the tension alive and real.  The scenes are cut with a precision of a master in a style that has been imitated by hacks like Tony Scott, but never duplicated.  In Jason Bourne, Greengrass has one of the best assets available.  He gets calmer, more deadly and precise as the circumstances dictate one might do the opposite.  This helps to counter the paranoid feeling of being surrounded by technology which is designed, seemingly, to keep power in the hands of those who’ve become comfortable abusing it.  Greengrass’ skill as director is to bring the complexity of a dense plot and break it down to a moment by moment survival.
Back in the states, we again see Joan Allen’s Landy matching wits with men who think she has no clue.  That she can figure it out on the fly and, by now, become an asset for the good is delicious.  Stiles’ agent Parsons makes an even bigger commitment, hinting, but not bludgeoning with the idea that the two have a past.  The most remarkable thing about The Bourne Ultimatum is that, for all the physical confrontations that he undertakes, he does everything he can to avoid killing.  The violence is as desperate as it is brutal, but it always serves a purpose.
Damon’s acting here is a steady progression since the first film, and it reveals a contemplative side so gradually, you are pulled in with him, instead of dragged along with him.  Undoubtedly one of the best performances in an action film series in the history of cinema.
The soundtrack created by John Powell, even more than in the first two films, is intense, brilliant and memorable.  Moby’s excellent theme song says Bourne as well as anything else in the film.

Best Sequence – The chase scene in Tangiers excels on so many levels and at such an exhaustive pace.  It is a scene made more resonant with Bourne’s desire for redemption after Marie.

Rating – (***** out of *****)

The Bourne Legacy

Release Date – August 10, 2012

Directed by Tony Gilroy
Starring Tony and Dan Gilroy
Written by Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Rachel Weisz, Joan Allen, Stacey Keach, Albert Finney, Donna Murphy, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Oscar Isaac

Review – Click here

Best Sequence – Moving over the rooftops of Manila pursuing Marta as he is unwittingly pursued himself.  Incredible pacing and a walloping conclusion.

Rating (****1/2 out of *****)