Tag Archives: Writer

Wind River

[3.5 stars]

Earlier this year, Wind River was seen as a hands-down awards winner.  Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, also gets behind the camera for this film. He delivers another intense script of a murder on an Indian reservation.

Jeremy Renner (Arrival) dials back his action-boy push to return back to his Hurt Locker roots. He is focused, quiet, and emotionally primed, but kept in check as he pursues his goals. Elizabeth Olsen (Avengers: Age of Ultron) also gives a great performance of a young FBI officer, not incompetent, but certainly unseasoned. Gil Birmingham (The Lone Ranger) is the other impactful surprise in the story. As a bereaved father, and mirror for Renner, he swings between strength and devastation in heart-breaking ways.

Wind River did capture a number of earlier festivals. But it has hit some bumps in the road having released so early in the year and with a number of other great films just starting to screen. It also is bucking the trend of naturalism I’ve been seeing on the screen. Wind River is very well crafted, but it feels that way too, especially by the final act. That doesn’t make it bad, by any means. It has incredible impact, though it does feel like Sheridan lost a little bit of his careful control during the climax of the film. But its competitors are large ideas and impact in smaller packages; more real life than screen life. What makes Wind River swim comfortably with these other films is the quality of its writing, acting, cinematography, and the reality that it is based on the truth. That last bit will leave you feeling hollow and ashamed by the final credits, and it should.

Wind River

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

[4 stars]

Awards season is off to a heck of a start, if Lady Bird and this film are any indication. Both are solid depictions of life with incredible casts and great film-making. In this case, writer/director Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges) delicately balances a challenging story without devolving into melodrama or nihilism. He creates a real world, painted mostly in grays, that doesn’t drown in its own bile; there is humor in the dark and there is truth in the extreme. In fact, it is a story that probably has come out at the right time to find its audience.

The movie is also a brilliant platform for Frances McDormand (Hail, Caesar!). She delivers an amazing performance in a long career of strong, put-upon women. Despite many of her characters coming from the same bucket, McDormand continues to find unique ways to bring these people to life. And, as is often the case, she dominates the film.

But McDormand is not alone in delivering. There is a solid ensemble around her navigating a complicated set of creations. Woody Harrelson (The Glass Castle) tops that group. In recent years his characters have been getting more nuanced, and Chief Willoughby may top them all. If it weren’t for McDormand’s incredible presence, he might have easily taken over the film himself. Sam Rockwell (Laggies) also delivers one of his career finest. It isn’t perfect, but he manages a journey for the character that is unexpected and, for the most part, earned.

There is also a series of smaller, but essential roles. Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out), Abbie Cornish (Robocop), Zeljko Ivanek (Madam Secretary), and Peter Dinklage (Rememory) each bring colors to the story. Every one of them gets at least a moment to shine and something new for their reels without detracting from the main story. And then there is Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird, Manchester by the Sea) who is having a really great couple of years in terms of projects and who keeps growing as an actor.

Three Billboards is a challenging story, no matter how you slice it. It forces you to considerable unanswerable questions and unthinkable acts. But whether you appreciate the bones of the story or not, it is worth seeing it for the performances alone. It is, in fact, only the end and a little (a very little) of Rockwell’s performance that has me knocking a bit off my rating. Because of these aspects, the film isn’t quite perfect but, damn, it is visually stunning, emotionally powerful, and at a level of intelligence that is usually avoided.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Lady Bird

[4.5 stars]

Coming of age stories have been around since, well, people were coming of age. Often they are fraught with hyperbole, grandiose dreams, heightened emotions, heroes and villains, and often triumph or tragedy on a large scale.

Lady Bird bucks all of that. There are no villains. It is quietly wonderful. Beautiful and painfully realistic. It is an unvarnished mother-daughter relationship told honestly from the their points of view, but with the maturity of an unbiased eye with the distance to see the truth.

Soairse Ronan (Brooklyn) holds this film up from its shocking beginning to its reflective end. She is utterly compelling and completely believable as a California teen in the early aughts; an era that is more different and distant now than you might realize till you see it recreated.

As her parents, Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) and Tracy Letts (The Lovers) are brilliant centers of love and stress for the teen. There is nothing simple about this family and no one pretends otherwise. But no one is really wrong or right either. There is a deep connection between these characters, however strained it may get. Must like life.

Ronan, as high schoolers are wont to do, has a couple of relationship interests. For this movie they take the shape of two very different, but very believable young men, Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and Timotheé Chalamet (Love the Coopers). Hedges, in particular, gets to create yet another character boiling inside with secrets and desires.

There are also the girl friends, in two very different flavors. Odeya Rush (The Giver) and, probably the least known in the cast, Beanie Feldstein are great foils and supports for Ronan’s Lady Bird. Feldstein will certainly be getting more after this performance.

There are a couple smaller roles worth calling out as well, for both their humor and humanity. Bob Stephenson (Jericho), Stephen Henderson (Fences), and Lois Smith (The Nice Guys) are all great character actors and really bring it for this movie. They add texture to the tapestry that is Lady Bird’s life and humor in very unexpected ways.

Lady Bird is a brilliant sophomore outing directing for Greta Gerwig (20th Century Women) and continues her sharp writing career. She has a wicked eye and sure hand to bring out the truth of the characters lives and the world around them while keeping it all interesting and well-paced. It has earned huge respect by critics and audiences alike, despite it being a very small and quiet tale. It will certainly be nominated for many of the big awards, and has already gathered some festival fame (and an unheard of 100% on Rotten Tomtoes with 185 reviews in to date). Whether it can walk away with any of them is still an open question but Gerwig will unquestionably get more opportunities in future. Her characters have been igniting audiences for years now. That she has brought those same qualities and ability to bear from behind the camera is an unusual and welcome feat.

So, yes, it is as good as you’ve heard. Go, relax, and fall into Lady Bird’s life and world. It isn’t an explosion filled adrenaline ride, but I laughed out loud many times (I mean really loud) and connected with this film on many levels. You may be wondering, given all the praise I’ve heaped, why I haven’t given it a perfect score myself? The simple answer is that the quality of the photography knocked it down a notch for me. The framing and editing were both well done, but the stock or the projection I saw was grainy and a tad soft in a way that I found slightly distracting. I don’t know if it was purposeful on Gerwig’s part to elicit a sense of nostalgia or if it was simply my theater, but either way it had me taking it just a shade off perfect.

Lady Bird

Your Name. (Kimi no na wa.)

[5 stars]

If you follow anime, it was hard to miss hearing about Your Name. It had taken Japan by storm and then was released worldwide, finally landing on US shores last summer. In the States, despite the advance word of mouth, it only grossed around 5M. However, worldwide it had amassed an additional 350M. Outside of domestic juggernauts that we export, this is the second highest grossing animation to date (topped, I think, only by China’s Monster Hunt from the previous year).

So, why discuss money out of the gate? Because it is an indicator of impact. This story transcended its original audience and spoke to the world. Even the US box office is impressive when you consider this is a sub-titled animation.

And it deserves all of its accolades. Your Name is a surprising tale of love that will keep you guessing and hoping as the plot unwinds. It starts off feeling like it is aimed young, but it rapidly becomes clear that it is richer than the typical romantic comedy it hints at being as it veers into other territory. It is also beautifully drawn and directed and, though retaining some anime tropes in character reaction, well acted. It’s artistic approach lives comfortably with and echos films like When Marnie was There or The Wind Rises (or any other Miyazaki film). Writer and director Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters Per Second) has created a classic film accessible to anyone over 12 years of age.

If I sound a little effusive, well…I am. This plays straight into my nature and love of films like Sliding Doors. But Shinkai’s novel and script is more complex and its plot not nearly as neatly constructed. Your Name has multiple, unrelated aspects playing out that interact with one another. Cause and effect aren’t quite as clear as they would be in a Western film where we prefer perfect construction.

Just set aside some time and see this gorgeously rendered animation with a tale that will grab you by the heart and shake you hard.

Your Name.

The Beguiled

[3 stars]

Told from the reverse angle of the original film, this version of Beguiled looks at the arrival of a Union soldier from the women’s lives he invades. Sofia Coppola (Somewhere) brings her strong sense of visual design and female strength to the screen and script, but I think falls a bit short in selling the intent despite a solid cast.

Colin Farrell (A Home at the End of the World), Nicole Kidman (Top of the Lake: China Girl), and Kirsten Dunst (Hidden Figures) make a mighty trinity on the screen, at least individually. The interaction is a little stilted, in part due to the nature of the period.

The younger women are a bevy of talent that few directors outside of Coppola could have pulled together. Among them, Angourie Rice (Spider-Man: Homecoming,The Nice Guys) and Oona Laurence (Pete’s Dragon) stood out nicely. On the other hand, Elle Fanning (3 Generations) while magnetic as ever, is still seeking the role that will make her a star. She is always interesting to watch, but rarely feels completely natural to me. Fanning has an otherworldly aspect, a detachment, to her performances that is haunting, but odd. And it is particularly off in period pieces such as this film.

But performances aren’t where this film feels weak to me, it is the directing and script choices. While Kidman and Dunst have some quiet moments of desire, and Fanning is pretty clear about what she wants, the conflict of jealousy is either too subtle for my blunt brain or it was just not strong enough to bring about the resolution. The women just never connect, either with each other or Farrell. Each is an island of desperation. Perhaps that was Coppola’s intention, but it made for a very distancing sensibility. I didn’t care for these women, didn’t worry for them, didn’t weep for their losses, nor enjoy their small triumphs. And the ending just sort of laid flat emotionally, though hauntingly beautiful in its presentation. That, to me, indicates the movie didn’t work or was, at most, a mixed success.

The Beguiled

The Glass Castle

[3 stars]

Watching Glass Castle, I couldn’t help but view it as a dark reflection of Captain Fantastic. Both tackle similar kinds of family, but Glass Castle is less simple and more realistic, which shouldn’t be a surprise as it is based on Jeannette Wall’s real life.

Some excellent performances make this film solid. Woody Harrelson (Wilson), Brie Larson (Free Fire) and Ella Anderson (Mother’s Day), as Larson’s younger self, are the real standouts. Naomi Watts (3 Generations) has some moments, but her character is mutable and not easy to understand which diminished the performance for me.

Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) tackled the story as director and co-writer in a clever way. He used a lot of flashback; not because it was easy but because it removed a host of expectations about where the story would go. Told in order, you’d be expecting tragedy over and over. It isn’t an easy story of growing up, but if you believe the people telling the tale, tragedy isn’t the point nor the outcome. And that is the issue for me, performances and flimmaking aside.

The end implies a forgiveness I’m not sure the people earned, even though the post-film footage makes it clear that it is what occurred. So this is either a testament to the strength of people, and children in particular, or is suggestion that anything can be and should be forgiven. I don’t know if I can get behind that sentiment. You certainly need to get past aspects of life, but that doesn’t mean you forgive or stay involved with those that created the bad situation. To Cretton ‘s credit, you want to buy into that choice, making this a challenging tale from a good filmmaker. For that, and the performances, it is worth the time. And it is certainly a fascinating look into humanity and our own individual choices.

The Glass Castle

Three peas in the pod (new Story Seed Vault tale)

A new small bit of humor this time (literally), is up on Story Seed Vault today.

The challenge for this market is to tell a whole story in 140 characters or less; essentially no more than one Tweet’s worth. And the story has to be based on some new bit of science. They can explain it a bit more and how you can tackle entry into the Vault yourself.

The current tale is at:
https://storyseedvault.com/2017/10/24/70/

My previous tale is still on the site at:
https://storyseedvault.com/2017/10/06/1451/
https://storyseedvault.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/40/

Baby Driver

[4 stars]

Edgar Wright is known for his outlandish films. From the Cornetto Trilogy (Worlds’ End, Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) to Scott Pilgrim he attacks the worlds of his films with complete commitment. It makes them unique and, often divisive with a reduced audience, but always, to my mind, a fun experience. It has also garnered him a pile of awards and nominations.

Why bring all of that up for what is, arguably, a basic car-chase film styled as a long music video? Because that description, however apt, sell the experience of the movie short by a few leagues. The craft in the construction and look of this wonderful piece of escapism is evident from the opening and carries through to the final frames. It takes a very human response to music, applying the songs we hear to our real lives, and turns that into the focus of a young man’s grip on the world, the life he’s carved out for himself, and the trouble he’s attempting to escape. And, of course, there’s a romantic relationship or two to mix it all up.

Ansel Elgort (Men, Women, Children) drives this film, no pun intended, with a quiet intensity and focus. His performance is very reminiscent of Miles Teller’s in Whiplash…a mono-maniacally focused youth on the cusp of life. He and Lily James (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) make a great couple that you could see at the center of any John Mellencamp video. It is the sweet purity and desperation of their attachment that gives the otherwise crazy tale of robbery and mayhem a focus and purpose.

There are a host of great actors around Elgort that kick the story into gear. Kevin Spacey (Nine Lives) as the conductor of it all is a perfectly calm and scary criminal mastermind; a role he always plays well. Jon Hamm (A Young Doctor’s Notebook) and Eiza González (Jem and the Holograms) play a creepy Bonnie and Clyde that dominates the screen nicely when they’re present. Even Jon Bernthal (The Accountant) and Flea make an appearance. Jamie Foxx (Sleepless) quickly rises to the top as the irritant in the smooth workings of the story. He is both believable and a curiosity. Criminals that crazy don’t tend to survive as long as he has…I’d like to have understood a bit more about him, but as a catalyst, he served his purpose well. As a character he left me scratching my head and a little dubious. But, in the structure and intent of the film, I gave the concerns a pass.

From the top of the movie, you know it is all going to go off the rails at some point. You aren’t entirely sure when, how, or where it will end up, but it is clearly an unstable and untenable balancing act. When it all goes south, it goes with intensity and absurdity. It also travels with one of the best soundtracks and driving scenes collected for screen. Think Transporter or Fast & Furious, but with a real script and characters, not just tongue-in-cheek nods to the audience.

There is a reason this was one of the surprise hits of the summer. It is funny, pulse pounding, and jaw dropping in its execution. It is also full of heart and joy. The ending is what it has to be to complete the intent…just go with it. This is ride worth making time for. My dings on its rating are purely for some of the believability gaps that I think could have been filled. They bugged me just enough to keep it out of the five star range, but I really did enjoy the movie regardless.

Baby Driver

The Magic Flute (2006)

[2.5 stars]

There is a reason Magic Flute has survived 100s of years; the music is glorious. But when Kenneth Branagh (Cinderella) and Stephen Fry (The Hippopotamus) collaborated to reimagine the opera as a tale from the battlefields of WWI, the shift is not really successful and no amount of great music can heal the issues. Generally, Flute is seen as a comic opera with a bit of adventure, but this version drops us into trench warfare and mustard gas as backdrop to the kinds of silliness and romance that drives the story. Frankly, it makes war and sacrifice feel cheap. And the new lyrics and plot don’t really come together into a complete story. Even done traditionally, Flute sort of skips ahead from song to song with the thinnest veneer of story to contain it.

Story aside, the design and production values are very good all around. The singers are excellent, even if the looping is imperfect. There is also an odd effect where some things are done with high realistic value, but others, like Papageno’s playing of his flute, look as fake as they do on stage. It was as if Branagh couldn’t decide if he was making a movie or filming a stage presentation. A commitment to one direction or the other would have made it all a little sharper.

Honestly, if you’re looking for an interesting take on this story that works better, seek out Julie Taymor’s (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) 2004 production (which was also remounted in 2006). It captures more of the fantasy aspect but doesn’t lose the menace and has an equally clever English libretto. There is a DVD, though I don’t know the quality, and you can read more about it and see images on the net. But as to this production…as a curio it is interesting. As part of the Branagh’s opus, it was good to seek out. As a piece of film: not something I’d recommend.

The Magic Flute

Blade Runner 2049

[4 stars]

When making a sequel, the first question you really have to ask is: Why? And in this case, the writer of the original Blade Runner, Hampton Fancher, along with his new co-writer Michael Green, found an answer. And with Denis Villenuve (Arrival) at the helm, this new tale in the universe is gripping and inexorable as it moves along. In fact, while 2049 is almost three hours long, an hour longer than the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner, it feels shorter due to its editing and tension.

Unlike the original bottomless noir that was Blade Runner, this story is more a compelling personal journey for its main character, Ryan Gosling (Song to Song). It has light and hope, despite being sunk in the same ruined Earth and financial disparity that was established with that world 35 years ago. And yet, the story and world still feel timeless. And that is the interesting part, it still feels like it could be our dystopian future; now more than ever. A world of overcrowding, rampant poor, and authoritarian over-reach doesn’t feel that outlandish.

Villenuve managed to pay homage to the original story but create his own world all at once. Yes, if you have recently watched the first film, you will pick up nods and winks throughout, but it isn’t a copy of the original. The nods and mentions aren’t distracting ones, simply enough to make it clear that you never really left that universe. It isn’t a perfect story, but it is solid and complex. It will keep you thinking and wondering. That trick is attained thanks to the directing and, of course, the acting.

Along with Gosling’s subtle portrayal of K, there a number of women who fill out his world. Interestingly, his world is dominated by women. Primarily, Robin Wright (Rememory) as his boss walks an interesting line with him while Ana de Armas (Hands of Stone) provides the most interesting companion since Her. In addition, Sylvia Hoeks does a nice riff and counterpoint to Sean Young’s Rachel. And then there are the additional building blocks for the rest of his story: Hiam Abbass, Mackenzie Davis (Black Mirror) and Carla Juri (Morris From America). As I said, quite the list of influence.

This isn’t to dismiss the men. David Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) actually gives us a bit of real emotion in his role. Only Jared Leto (Suicide Squad) came off to me as oddly empty. He has the presence and the story (particularly if you watch the 3 prequel shorts that bridge the original and sequel), but not a lot of it gets to the screen. It would have distracted from Gosling’s story, to be sure, so I understand the choice. However, Harrison Ford’s (The Age of Adaline) role manages to feel more complete without much more screen time, and not just because we know his backstory, there is just more there in Ford’s performance.

Be aware, this is not an action flick. It is a slow-burn and very personal mystery. It is beautifully filmed and expertly edited and directed to keep it all moving along. The story is one worth telling, and while it would lead to yet another story, it is complete as it is. I do suggest watching the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner before viewing this, much as I suggested rewatching Terminator 1 & 2 before viewing Terminator: Genisys. Though Terminator was all about what was changing, Blade Runner is more about providing a real sense of grounding and appreciation for what will unfold before you.

In case it wasn’t obvious, in prep for this late-conceived sequel, I rewatched the original Blade Runner. To be more specific, I watched the Director’s Cut, followed by the final 3 scenes of the original version and the Final Cut for comparison’s sake. It was an interesting exercise. I chose the Director’s Cut as that best dovetails to this new expansion of the story. I have to admit, the Director’s Cut is hampered by its slow pacing due to the removal of the voice-overs but no additional editing of the screen time where it was excised. However, it is the closest storywise to enter 2049.

As a side note, I think one of the things I’ve come to finally realize is that Ridley Scott has made only one brilliant film in his life: Alien. Blade Runner blazed new ground, but it isn’t a wonderfully directed film, it is just a fascinating world and a good story that he got lucky enough to have control over. Blade Runner remains a powerful influence on cinema from the Hunger Games to Ghost in the Shell; the claustrophobic, elite-class dominated hopelessness appears again and again in film since its release. The fact that he recut it multiple times trying to say what he “really wanted to” tells you that he isn’t a great director. And certainly his ouvre that followed Alien has never equaled that incredible piece of heart-pounding terror and rich world.

But Scott isn’t part of this outing. This is all Villenuve and his ability continues to impress me. I can only hope that this film will find its audience as the original tale did. It is worth the time spent, especially on the large screen.

Blade Runner 2049