Saturday, September 30, 2017

Wind River

Alternate Title:  Home on the Range
One sentence synopsis:  A professional hunter and an FBI agent try to solve a brutal murder on an Arapaho reservation in remote Wyoming.

Things Havoc liked: As anyone who listens to my end-of-year podcasts already knows (and that is all of you, right?), last year was a pretty dismal year for movies. It happens. But one of the shining exceptions was the neo-western crime thriller Hell or High Water, a superb film set in the bleak landscape of the West Texas plains, about a pair of brothers robbing banks to try and save their family's farm, while being pursued by Texas Rangers. I waxed eloquently over the virtues of Hell or High Water twice, once during the review itself, and once during the best-of-the-year Havoc Awards, but what I did not know when I was waxing-so was that the writer of that film, a man named Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote Sicario, was in the process of making the leap from writer to writer-director of another windswept neo-western, this time a murder mystery set in the magnificent desolation of North-west Wyoming.

And it's amazing.

Wind River is one of the best films of the year, a staggeringly-good and unflinching character-and-setting study mated with an excellent murder-mystery. Like Hell or High Water before it, it is a film with a tremendous sense of place, specifically in this case the Wind River Arapaho Reservation of Wyoming, a place which, in the dead of winter, is not particularly conducive to human life. Also like Hell or High Water, it is a quiet, subtle film, taking the time to languish over its setting and characters, indulging in the magnificent desolation of the wintry mountains, and punctuating things when necessary with scenes of brutal violence. I was always a fan of Sheridan's writing, his pedigree alone demanded that, but with this film he has vaulted himself into the ranks of excellent writer-directors, a perilous perch that few can ever attain.

Wind River stars Jeremy Renner, an actor I have long admired, as Cory Lambert, a Fish & Game agent who works in the remote Wyoming mountains. Lambert is white, but his ex-wife, and thus his son and daughter are or were Arapaho Indians, and his job as a predator hunter places him in close contact with the inhabitants of what everyone calls "The Rez". I say 'are and were' because Renner's daughter is dead, killed in unknown circumstances, as so many Native American women are, and found in a remote area with no evidence as to how she came to be there. As such, when he discovers the body of another young woman in the snow, raped and dead of exposure, the daughter of a friend of his, he throws himself into the task of finding out what happened to this one girl with the aid of anyone he can find. Make no mistake, this is a tricky role, as it would be very easy to appear as the typical "white savior", or follow the Dances with Wolves trope of the white man being purged of his evil white guilt by becoming an Indian, but the film is too well-made, and Renner too good an actor to fall into these pitfalls. A standout scene early on in the movie has an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) inadvertently insult the grieving parents of the murdered girl through ignorance and officiousness, only for Renner to show up moments later to ask more or less the same questions, but with a completely different attitude and level of experience with the culture he's dealing with and the people he's talking to. Lest I sound like I'm picking on Olsen, though, she's excellent as well, a fresh-faced FBI agent who knows next-to-nothing about the situation she's been dropped into except for the fact that she knows next-to-nothing about it, which is the most important fact of all. Aware that the only reason she was sent to the Reservation was because crimes there are considered unimportant, she does her level best, conscious of her inadequacy for the task, because nobody else is coming.

But while Renner and Olsen are both very, very good, it's the supporting cast that really sells the film. Gil Birmingham, of Hell or High Water (and the Twilight series, though we'll forgive him for that), plays the aforementioned father of the aforementioned murder victim, a small role that is nonetheless fantastically-well-done, combining existential-grade grief with a practical side generally missing from roles like this one. Graham Greene meanwhile, one of my favorite character actors working,
plays the Reservation Police Chief, whose task it is and has been for years to try and police an area the size of Connecticut with six men. As this is manifestly impossible, Greene's character, like everyone else, simply does what he can do, despite everything, and Greene is exceptionally good at showcasing someone whose choices are cynicism or doggedness, and whose chooses the latter with open eyes despite all evidence to the contrary. There is also an extended flashback sequence involving Kelsey Chow and Baby Driver and Fury's Jon Bernthal as Natalie, the murdered girl, and Matt, her boyfriend, both of whom are superb, as are a host of other more minor actors such as James Jordan. This sequence, though difficult to watch (it involves murder and rape, among other wholesome pursuits), is one of the best scenes of the sort that I have ever seen, a sequence that showcases, without histrionics or dramatic irony, just how the most heinous of crimes can come about through a combination of alcohol, testosterone, group dynamics, and unrestrained escalation. Were the film nothing but this scene, it would justify its existence, but as it stands, it is the jewel in the film's crown.

Indeed, the entire film is remarkably well-made, from the gorgeous cinematography and understated
score, to the brief, brutal flashes of violence that erupt without warning. It calls back, quite consciously, to westerns and crime dramas like Unforgiven, Collateral, or Heat, using referential shot selection and self aware stylism. The soundtrack is all mood-music, western-influenced electronica and rock, primarily scored together by legendary musicians Warren Ellis and Nick Cave (the latter of whom holds the most awesome nickname in history as "Rock Music's Prince of Darkness", bestowed on him by Johnny Cash of all people). The pacing is slower than any of Sheridan's previous works (probably an effect of him directing, this time), but the result is a sombre, windswept, dramatic piece that doesn't luxuriate in darkness or give in to rabid polemic. It's a balancing act that gets more impressive every time I think about it. It's close to being a masterpiece.

Things Havoc disliked: Honestly, there's not much wrong with Wind River whatsoever, at least nothing that isn't clearly done for effect as opposed to sloppiness. Some of the predator/prey symbolism is a bit on the nose for my taste, but that's the risk that comes with shooting movies in the American West, an area rich with scenic mythology and symbolic landscapes. There are also a handful of plot cul-de-sacs that are reasonably well-established before being dropped unceremoniously, such as Renner's relationship with his son, ex-wife, and in-laws, all of whom get time devoted to their setup, all of whom are forgotten about in the aftermath of the film's payoff. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a bit of tonal whiplash on occasion, as the film oscillates between hyper-realistic murder-mystery and sudden, explosive gun battles (I'm not quite sure what the end-game of someone who decides to start a shootout with six cops and the FBI is). But overall, none of these issues mar the film's qualities beyond the occasional quizzical moment.

Final thoughts:   In case I've somehow been unclear, Wind River is a phenomenal film, one of the best neo-westerns I've ever seen, and a strong contender for the best film of 2017. I absolutely love and unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone even casually interested in westerns, thrillers, mysteries, or any one of the fine actors that appear within it. As for myself, I will be watching Taylor Sheridan closely for whatever he does next, as a new filmmaker capable of producing a movie this good can only either continue to make spectacular movies, or can take the Michael Cimino/Tod Browning route, and follow up their breakout hit with a movie so off-kilter that it bankrupts their studio and gets them blacklisted from Hollywood forever.

Either way, it'll be fun to watch.

Final Score:  8.5/10

Next Time:  And now we consider another sober and reasonable film in which Taron Edgerton beats a man with his own arm.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Logan Lucky

Alternate Title:  Ocean's 5 1/2
One sentence synopsis:  Two brothers in West Virginia assemble a team to rob a NASCAR speedway during one of the biggest races of the year.

Things Havoc liked:   I can take or leave Steven Soderbergh. The man makes good movies, at least on occasion, from Ocean's 11 to Magic Mike to Erin Brokovich, but he also makes a whole lot of meandering crap such as Bubble, Che, or Eros (don't ask), and seems to regard filmmaking as an occasion to shower everyone with his insightful views on the world, such as his many public resignations from directing (Logan Lucky being the fifth consecutive "last film" of his, with a sixth in the works for next year), his predilection for pseudonyms (such that nobody's actually sure who the screenwriter of this film is), and his fervent support of internet censorship as a means to save the soul of art (???). That said, when it comes to procedural heist-comedies, at least nowadays, Soderbergh is pretty much the man you look to to get things done. So leaving aside Soderbergh's hangups for the moment, I decided that this one, a redneck-themed remake of Ocean's 11, sounded promising, particularly when it came to the cast.

And what a cast it is. Channing Tatum, a long-time Soderbergh regular, and Adam Driver (of Star Wars), play the Logan brothers, a pair of blue-collar West Virginians, who like all West Virginians in all movies, are fated to suffer under the cruel arm of "the man" while evidencing down-home folksy character and virtue in contrast to the slick hucksterism of the city folk that surround them. Tatum, sadly, gets stuck with not much more than the above character description, but Driver gets a bit more, as a none-too-bright Iraq war vet with a prosthetic arm who gets dragged into his brother's hair-brained scheme for getting rich by means of robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway on the day of an enormous NASCAR race. Driver's an actor I've become a big fan of in the last couple of years, as every performance he gives is so strikingly different from the previous. This time he plays what amounts to the role of a Steven Soderbergh heist character with stonefaced aplomb, and it's perfect.

Surrounding Tatum and Driver are other actors having a grand old time. Brian Gleeson (son of Brendan) and Jack Quaid (son of Dennis) play the Bang Brothers, two redneck idiots with pretensions of religious scruple who are among the funnier things in the film, and whose older brother is played by Daniel Freaking Craig, James Bond himself, as a safecracker and felon brought along to bring his particular knowledge of homemade explosives into the mix. Craig is goddamned amazing in this movie, a screamingly-funny old lecher of a bomb expert who steals every scene he's in and runs away with them. His role is effectively that of Don Cheedle in the Ocean's movies, but an Appalachia layered over. If you've ever wanted to watch James Bond hit on everything in sight... well you'd watch a James Bond film most likely, but if you wanted to watch him do so in a comedy, this is probably your best bet. If nothing else, Daniel Craig wins his way onto the ever-elongating list of British actors whose American accents are undetectably flawless. It must be all the warm beer...

Things Havoc disliked: So, the whole point of a heist film is to watch the heroes work. To see them undertake a seemingly-impossible task and accomplish it through clever planning, outsmarting their rivals, dumb luck, or whathaveyou. That's the whole reason that heist movies make such great comedies, the entire purpose of the film is to showcase how much smarter one group of characters is than another, and humiliation is the foundation of most comedy. You'd think that Soderbergh, of all directors, would know all this, having now made three Ocean's films (with a fourth in the works), to say nothing of things like Traffic or The Good German, which while not comedies, had labyrinthine plots full of people outwitting one another. And yet, judging from the evidence, either Soderbergh has entirely lost the plot or I have, because I have no goddamn idea what happens in this movie.

Heist plots are complex. They have to be, in order to hold the audience's attention, but the point of the entire exercise is to marvel at how clever the characters (and by extension, the filmmakers) are once we see just how elaborate the plan was, that's the been the genre's mainstay since The Sting for God's sake. Yet the whole last half of Logan Lucky makes no damned sense, not in the more common manner of the characters acting out of character, but in the sense that I literally had, and still have, no idea whatsoever of what was intended to be happening. Once the plot is underway we rapidly lose track of what's going on, to the point where it's not made clear at all if the heist is a success, a failure, or some mixture of the two. To be fair, a certain amount of confusion on those points is only natural to the genre, as a means to build tension if nothing else, but it's customary to at least let the audience in on what the hell the plan actually was before the movie ends. I've seen a lot of movies in the last six and a half years, many with plots far more labyrinthine than anything this movie puts together, but I still wasn't sure of what the hell had happened in this thing until I read the Wikipedia summary in preparation for this review. And even then, I wondered how the article's author had managed to puzzle it out. It's not a matter of artifice or winking or the filmmaker trying to show off how much smarter he is than the audience (which would be bad enough). Necessary information to the interpretation of the events on screen is simply not provided.

And it would be bad enough were the plot simply impenetrable, but there's a lot of strangeness surrounding this film, a lot of fat that went untrimmed, so to speak. Fairly major actors, such as Katie Holmes and Hillary Swank, the former of whom plays Channing Tatum's ex-wife, the latter an FBI agent, are barely in the film, to the point where one wonders if there wasn't a massive editing fiasco somewhere in the movie's production. Holmes is there more or less just to make Tatum look long-suffering and saintly, while Swank only enters the film at the very end, with a role that feels rather like its missing two thirds of its character arc (the awful Louis Gossett Jr. impression she adopts throughout does her no favors either). Seth McFarlaine, of all people, also makes an appearance as a stuck-up British racer straight out of a Ricky Bobby movie, for no reason other than to be annoying and get punched once or twice. Meanwhile the film takes an inordinate amount of time dealing with Tatum's family drama, with his ex-wife (Holmes), his adorable daughter , his ex-wife's husband who is of course an abrupt douchebag with more money than him, etc, etc. Admittedly, this isn't the first heist movie to drum up stock family drama to give the hero a reason to steal things, Ant-Man did much the same, but the difference is that Ant-Man established the family and then left them out of the picture for a while so that the heist could take place. This movie, on the other hand, is the first film I can remember that combines waacky heist hijinx with the tired old question of whether Dad will be able to make his daughter's recital/talent show contest, as though the prospect of goofballs robbing NASCAR wasn't a big enough sell, and what we're really here for is the inevitable moment where the father races in at the last minute and shares and understanding nod with his long-suffering child. Awwww.

Final thoughts:   Logan Lucky is a frustrating movie, as it's nowhere near badly-made enough to actually be bad, but all that means is that we feel resentful that the actually good movie we can see signs of doesn't show up. Craig and Driver are excellent in the thing, don't get me wrong, and some of the fifty-three tangents that the film flies off on are actually pretty funny (the demands that the prisoners make during the prison riot are inspired). But the whole thing plays like a mass of dead-ends, truncated plot elements, and tired cliches, layered over with a thick helping of utter bewilderment as to what is actually going on. I know the film has been praised immodestly by critics and audiences alike, but I'm of no use to anyone if I fail to give my honest opinion. And my honest opinion is that this movie, like so much of Soderbergh work, enthusiastically fails to work.

Still, if you're a hardcore Daniel Craig fan, and frankly who isn't, it's not the worst thing you'll have been forced to put up with.

Final Score:  4.5/10

Next Time:  Hell or High Water 2:  Hotter Hell.  Higher Water.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Dark Tower

Alternate Title:  The Lord of the .45 ACPs
One sentence synopsis:  The last of a legendary order of gunslingers and a boy from New York must stop an evil wizard from unmaking all creation.

Things Havoc liked:   "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed."

Since it was first published in serial in 1978, people have been trying, off and on, to bring Stephen King's Dark Tower to the screen in some form or another. It wasn't until 2007 that active production began on what would become this film, with directors as varied as J.J. Abrams and Ron Howard being attached to the project, while the list of actors offered the role of the semi-titular gunslinger is too long to repeat here. One would have been forgiven for wondering if this Development Hell victim would ever wind up showing its face, but at long last it has arrived, a troubled production of a difficult property, but one with two excellent actors attached to play the leads.

Who am I speaking of? Why Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey of course, taking on respectively the roles of hero (Roland of Gillead) and villain (The Man in Black). Neither role is all that well fleshed out beyond the basic character archetypes of epic fantasy literature, but both actors are supremely fun to watch working even in bad films, and remain so here. Elba is in his element as a world-weary gunslinger of legendary skill, a cowboy crossed with a questing knight, who wields six shooters the way Legolas wields his bow (and with a lot less pretty-boy annoyance). It's nothing revolutionary here, in fact it's pretty much Idris Elba doing a Clint Eastwood impression crossed with a standard fish-out-of-water story when he heads to New York and starts tipping hospital nurses with gold coins, but I'll be damned if Elba doesn't make the most of it. He doesn't make as much as McConaughey though, who gets the juicier role of playing Walter Padick, the Man in Black. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from McConaughey as a villain, but this is pretty much the exact scenario I should have been envisioning, as McConaughey takes the Angus Macfadyen approach to villainy, constantly grinning at his own delicious evilness, as he seeks to do nothing less than destroy the universe by... you know I'm not actually sure what the evil plan at work here is, but it scarcely matters. McConaughey's black magic takes the form not of fireballs and special effects, but of whispered commands that vary from "kill each other" to "stop breathing", and unlike a lot of villains in movies like this, he is given free reign to kill more than just random passers by, decimating everyone and everything that crosses his path all while chortling to himself about how gloriously wicked he is. It's not the most subtle thing in the world, but it works.

Indeed, subtlety isn't the strong suit of The Dark Tower in general, and believe it or not, that's a good thing. Most YA-style fantasy movies are quite pedestrian in their aims and ambitions, with the bad guys pushing the good guys through a hero's journey so standard that one can (and in the case of many a Hollywood film, has) write it all out by rote outline. It's not that Dark Tower is all that different in that regard, but that the film commits to its premise with more aplomb than most of its competitors do. Villains do not take people prisoner for no reason other than to grant the heroes a chance to save them, but instead outright murder everyone they come across, whether a traditional narrative would hold that character important or not. The backstory is not delivered in a massive narration dump, nor does the movie over-emphasize the one plot element that will turn out to be drastically important later on. Indeed, very little is actually established in this movie before it's actually used, which would be bad storytelling in any genre that was less formula-ridden than YA Fantasy, and which paradoxically actually turns this movie into a frankly surprising one at points. And if nothing else, it's the only movie I've ever seen which tries the old "buck up the hero at his lowest point with an inspiring speech routine" by means of giving an untrained teenager a gun to play with, as well as one of the very few whose moral is not that one should be content with the life one has, but that when one is given a chance to go do awesome fantastical things in another world, you say yes.

Things Havoc disliked: That all said, I don't want to give the impression that Dark Tower is some kind of fantasy masterpiece, re-inventing the genre for all time. Oddly enough for a movie called The Gunslinger, there's precious little action to it, and such action as there is is rather lackluster, as the Gunslinger simply shoots his enemies with unerring accuracy, while six thousand henchmen armed with machine guns fail to hurt him. I grant that guns are a fairly one-dimensional tool insofar as awesome action is concerned, but given the premise of a preternatural, divinely-gifted pistolier with weapons forged in crucibles of legend, surely anyone could come up with something a bit more exciting than "shoot a guy, then shoot another guy."

But it's the writing, the Achilles' heel of these sorts of works, that really lets the side down, something which makes the decision not to give the writing much time to showcase its poverty a bit more context. Backstory elements that seem like they ought to merit an explanation or two are simply dropped onto us for no reason at all, particularly a sudden and baffling reference to Arthurian mythology that lands out of nowhere and is never mentioned again. More seriously though, the film commits the unfortunate (and commonplace) sin of having characters explain things to other characters that they already know for the benefit of the audience. Obviously, given a seven-book series famous for its labyrinthine, interconnected mythology, and the need to condense it into a workable two=hour film, certain liberties have to be taken, but there's never an excuse for clunky writing, no matter what the structural pressures the source material layers upon you. References to other Steven King works such as It or the Shining go well beyond the level of easter egg and are catapulted into major elements of the plot with no explanation, confusing what's actually going on for anyone who's seen a movie in the last thirty years, and the unevenness of the script combined with the aforementioned sparseness of detail gives the film a rather arbitrary feel, wherein we get the impression that things happen because the filmmakers made something up at lunch and shot it.

Final thoughts:   I have to admit that my original review of Dark Tower, the one I was formulating in my head as we walked out of the theater, was considerably more critical of the film's flaws, but over time, I've softened on it considerably, partly because all of my viewing companions liked it more than I did, and partly because I realized that the movie it reminds me of the most is 2012's epochal failure, John Carter, the greatest box office disaster in the history of Hollywood. Like Dark Tower, John Carter was a flawed movie, but one that had considerable virtues to it, mostly to do with the cast (Taylor Kitsch notwithstanding), and the overall pulp-irreverent feel of the thing. So many bad movies compound their mistakes by taking their source material over-seriously, while John Carter, and The Dark Tower like it, accepted the fundamental oddball nature of the story they were trying to tell, recognizing that epic fantasy has to be taken in its own terms, and doing just that. As such, while Dark Tower is no masterpiece, it's actually not a bad rendition of a legendarily un-filmable property. It's true that my native sympathy for actors like Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey probably slants my opinion somewhat, but then again the whole point of an exercise like this one is to identify actors and concepts you like, and then go see them.

And if nothing else, rest assured that at least this one's better than Maximum Overdrive.

Final Score:  6/10

Next Time:  Robbing NASCAR, a Steven Soderbergh story.

The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup

Let's get back into the swing of things, shall we? The General's Post Summer 2018 Roundup Ant-Man and the Wasp Alternate Ti...