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.

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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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The Accountant (****) is compelling though predictable

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The Accountant – 2016

Director Gavin O’Connor
Writer Bill Dubuque
Starring Ben Affleck, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow, Jeffrey Tambor, Jean Smart

It’s a potential franchise for the perpetually disenfranchised. It’s Rain Man on steroids. It’s not so good will hunting. It’s a connection for all of us who thought we could never connect to someone of different ability, often referred to as being in an autism spectrum.

Ben Affleck is Christian Wolff, an accountant in a nothing town in rural Illinois. He’s got a straightforward demeanor that could be construed as rude. He doesn’t like to fish, but he will use your farmland as a shooting range for payment of services rendered.

Back in Washington D.C., Ray King (Simmons) is on the verge of retirement as Director of the financial crimes division of the Treasury Department. He gives a young analyst (Addai-Robinson) the opportunity of a lifetime that she literally cannot refuse.

Many miles away, a hit man threatens the life of a sleazebag financial pirate, coercing him into changing his ways.

Of course these three stories are connected. One sees the common threads for almost everything in the first act, but seeing how well O’Connor lets his actors play out is a genuine treat.

Affleck is an absolute dream playing someone with a social disability but a type of mathematical genius. It’s a role he’s been playing his whole post-Gigli life. He has a command of the screen with his inability to make eye contact but his incredible gift with numbers, graphs and two shots to the head. We are seeing a hero more easily remembered than any he’s played to now.

The rest of the cast is incredible, if overkill for their roles. Each provides a nuanced touch that brings the predictable story into a fist pumping ride along. Addai-Robinson, the relative new talent of the bunch is smartly invested as a young protege to Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon role, if we were to keep with the Batman theme.

That O’Connor would select this story makes sense if one were to see his previous classic Warrior, as it borrows many of the same themes. There is but one moment of this film that is a genuine surprise to the reviewer. What is truly the biggest wonder is that it all works from an entertainment standpoint. This is fertile ground for a series. Let’s hope they follow through.

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

Sicario (****1/2): The depth of darkness

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Sicario – 2015

Director Denis Villeneuve
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Screenplay Taylor Sheridan
Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya, Maximiliano Hernández, Jon Bernthal, Bernardo P. Saracino

Easily the one of the top films of 2015, Sicario pulls you in from the first moments of Roger Deakins amazing camera work and does not let go until everything fades to black. The story is a labyrinthian journey for FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) into the world of the CIA in the never ending battle against Mexican drug cartels. Her CIA counterparts, Matt Graver (Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (del Toro) sense an opportunity with her and she volunteers to work with them to further her efforts at investigating her own case.

That the CIA plays by different rules is a given. Their motives never do seem to be the same. After discovering that Gillick has a past in Mexico, they surprise her when they perform a bloody extradition of the cartel’s top men. Having the chance to prosecute a heavyweight in the states, Kate is overruled.  Eventually the two to let her know their true goal: to mess up cartel operations until the U.S. cartel head of operations Diaz (Saracino) is called back home to Mexico.

Everything works in this film. All the actors are completely absorbed into the sequence of events to the extent that it really feels like a much more complex story than it is. Leading the way are Blunt and del Toro. Both performances would be the best in just about anyone else’s career. del Toro in particular holds the viewer with a gravity that rivals his Oscar winning performance in Traffic.

Villeneuve is one of the best directors alive. He his streak is 3 near-classics and counting. His sensibility is one of quiet observation. He allows the viewer to draw his own conclusions on what they are seeing, without pushing even subtly in any direction. His work brings Fincher to mind, with a sense of humor dry as the Arizona desert. His work is given it’s most depth to date in the lens of Deakins. So much to look at with every shot, it would be a pleasure to watch even if there were no plot.

The plot is serviceable, but pushed to greatness with the aforementioned talents. Sheridan is Sheriff Hale from Sons of Anarchy. This is his first published work and he’s planning on working with Villeneuve and del Toro on a follow up. My interest in the sequel will hinge on their continued partnership.

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

Fury (***1/2) Rolls over familiar ground

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Fury – 2014

Written and Directed by David Ayer
Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Scott Eastwood

How to get a coward to fight late in the last days before VE Day? This is the question that Fury spends its time trying to answer. Pvt. Norman “Machine” Ellison (Lerman) is a young man with a “conscience” who can’t bring himself to shoot dead men or a Kraut in the back. This position, along with a general uneasiness with his new role as gunner on the titular tank make him an easy target for the rest of his crew. Then when he shoots some men emerging in flames from a blown up tank, he’s told that he “should have let ’em burn.” His commander US Army S/Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt) us a straight forward fighter who understands the risk having someone of such a high learning curve on his 5 man crew.

“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.”

Collier is not an unreasonable man. You can tell by the way that Pitt squints at opportune times that he has a lot on his mind. When he and Ellison come across a woman trying to hide her younger cousin, he asks them to make them a meal. While they do so, we get to see Collier take his shirts off, showing us how handsome he is, until he turns his back on them and we see what war has done. Still looks like Brad Pitt from the front, though as the older cousin gets to see and appreciate, after the two younger kids get to go in the back room and do stuff Disney-style. After all this serenity, the rest of the team (LaBeouf, Peña and especially Bernthal)  come along and ruin the next meal. Not long after, German bombs arrive to ruin the rest of the day.

Next thing we see, they are given the important mission to protect a vital “crossroads” somewhere in Germany. What they are protecting and why is not necessarily as important as seeing how the team reacts and begins to bond. Of course with every encounter with the armaments of the enemy they lose people they are travelling with until they are down to just their one tank.

Soon enough, Fury is inoperable and 200-300  SS troops are on their way. Norman has steadily developed into a vital part of the team. His enthusiasm as a response to his Staff Sgt.’s bravery helps prepare them all for the fight of their lives.

Ayer’s film looks beautiful as anything he’s done. With all the dirt rubbed on the faces of his stars, all except Bernthal look like they head right for their trailer after every shot. For his part, LaBeouf is at his best as Technician 5 Boyd “Bible” Swan. His character has a real sense of clarity for one who should be more conflicted.

Bernthal has worked himself into a typecast in this role. It’s a good performance, but he’s got more in the his repetoire than a southern piece of trash nicknamed “Coon Ass.” Peña is able to make much of his role as driver Cpl. Trini Garcia. He has more than one excellent scene and just may be one of the most versatile actors around today.

Lerman has the benefit of being able to voice everything a person battling his conscience and his cowardice would. His role is not as believable, especially when he goes through the gauntlet just to end up right where he started. His dough eyes would have been obliterated with the rest of him in the first few minutes of a real battle.

Overall, Fury doesn’t offer much more story-wise than we’ve seen in other WWII films.  It is presented with a lot of style and many moments of grace. One can tell, though, from the first frame who is going to die, in what order, and how many dramatic words they will get before it happens. Guess who will look the prettiest when the time comes. The war is a stage for spectacular moments and, ultimately just an ironic ending. It’s a good story, but it falls short of The Red Badge of Courage.

Grudge Match is as tired as it seems

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Grudge Match – 2013

Director Peter Segal
Starring Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin, Kim Basinger, Jon Bernthal
Screenplay Tim Kelleher, Rodney Rothman

It’s been so long since Stallone has been in a film that seemed unguarded of actor’s egos, one has difficulty picturing him going through the editing process with each of the actors, saying, “Do you think you look good there?  If not, we can redo it.”  Throughout the whole of Grudge Match, the only one taking any risk of looking bad is De Niro.  Even then, I am not sure he realizes that he looks bad.

The story’s mythical scenario has Stallone and De Niro as a couple of has been boxers, each with one loss to their name, and that loss is to the other.  Their names, respectively, are Henry “Razor” Sharp and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen.  I use the quotes because the dialogue is so bad that it feels like we are getting air quotes throughout.  The prologue gives us some badly animated footage that looks so funny you’d think it was part of Sharknado.  There is a third match set up, but before it goes through, “Razor” quits boxing, seemingly never to return.  The rest of the film labors through why “Razor” quit, what they both have been up to, and why they have the rematch.  I’ll give you one hint: it’s because Stallone is a saint.

The acting is strictly average throughout.  As I said before, no one looks bad in this film, so no one can look really good either.  There are no standouts.  They even make Alan Arkin look silly by putting him in a wheelchair first, then having him walk around later, then back to the chair.  It depends, really, on whether the sad music is playing in the background and Stallone needs another level of brightness to his halo.

Kevin Hart, who is in everything these days, offers absolutely nothing here.  The Stallone effect strains any of the (albeit slight) edge to his act and makes him just another loudmouth who kisses Stallone’s ass.

De Niro is an enigma.  He can do wonderful work when he is with the right director, but he does so much slop like this these days, it’s hard to picture him as Jake LaMotta, Travis Bickle, Vito Corleone or, hell, I would even settle for Al Capone at this point.  This guy “The Kid” isn’t swinging a bat at anyone.

It’s nice to see Kim Basinger, even if the role adds nothing to her resume.  Bernathal is as intense as one could picture De Niro’s kid to be, if a little old.

For Stallone, what else can this guy do at this point?  All of his non-Rambo stuff is the same.  Everyone speaks glowingly of him, and his humility seems too well practiced to entertain.  He needs another Mickey to tell him where to stuff that false humility.  He does not have it here.

This film is for people who are hanging on to the hope that there is something left with Stallone and De Niro.  Ironically, its this very kind of film that lets us know its pretty much over for one (Stallone) if not both of them.

(** out of *****)