Sunday, October 8, 2017

"Blade Runner 2049"

                                    ½                                  

As lugubriously paced as your great-grandmother's funeral and about as fun to watch, Blade Runner 2049 at least has the advantage of its rapturous physical design, though even that grows wearying.  This is a ponderous movie, whose appeal is largely based in nostalgia.

Consider for a moment whether Blade Runner 2049 would have any reason to exist other than paying tribute to Ridley Scott's 1982 original, which was only slightly more entertaining, primarily because everything about it was so damned new.

Thirty-five years later, Blade Runner 2049 (set, curiously 30 rather than 35 years after the original) is obsessed with the first movie. To some, this will come across as a fond tribute, but to me it felt like a laborious attempt at re-creation. Its story is another dull "examination" of what it is to be human in an age of robots, a topic that has been so thoroughly examined by movies and TV shows in aftermath of the original that it's starting to feel like so much nonsense.

From Cylons Battlestar Galactica to little David in A.I. to rampaging cowboys in Westworld to the self-aware sexy robot in Ex Machina ... come on, even Number Five was alive in Short Circuit.  It's natural to hope that Blade Runner 2049 will have something new to say; more's the pity to find out it has nothing to say at all, new or otherwise.

There's some hoo-hah about miracles and mechanized disposable workforces and walls and breaking the world, all of which evoke Rutger Hauer's famous, poetic but still vaguely non-sensical speech in the original, but that's the problem with Blade Runner 2049: it's all meant to evoke something else.

The running time of more than two and a half hours wouldn't be the slightest problem at all if it didn't lead to more than a few fidgety moments.  The script by Hampton Fancher, writer of the first film, and Michael Green (of "Heroes" and, ominously, Alien: Covenant) is directed with the same slow, dreamy stylishness that Ridley Scott brought to the first, though this time the filmmaker in charge is Denis Villeneuve, so far removed from the hair-trigger anxiousness he brought to Sicario that even he seems more to be aping rather than building on first Blade Runner.

The first Blade Runner didn't have much of a story to begin with: In a dystopian, overcrowded, over-commercialized future world, a detective called a "blade runner" has to find androids ("replicants") who took part in a violent mutiny and returned to earth.  The trouble is, there's no way to tell them apart from humans.

The story is mostly the same this time around, as Ryan Gosling plays a replicant detective who needs to find the last few remaining rogue robots that ran amok the first time around.  He finds one of them, then finds a mysterious tree that yields a buried treasure of sorts.  He's got to tell his LAPD boss (Robin Wright) about it, and when they discover the contents of the box the story -- in theory, at least -- gets intriguing, because it looks like one of those old-timey replicants might have been pregnant.

Who was the child?  What does this mean for the future?  Gosling's character, named "K" (short for his serial number) goes wandering around looking for some sort of clues.  But whether it goes anywhere is hard to say.  Blade Runner 2049 is not a film eager to get to its plot; the script never met a two-minute scene that couldn't be played in 20 minutes, and is more interested in its visual style.

If Blade Runner 2049 had been the first, its visual sensibilities would have been overwhelming and enough on their own to see it at least once (which, I think, is largely why the original endures), but it isn't the first, and  how many times in the last 35 years have we seen this sort of overstuffed future world?  Everything from the aforementioned A.I. and Battlestar Galatica to the Star Wars prequels to Brazil have shown us this. For crying out loud, head to Tokyo and it's all made real!

So, then, Blade Runner 2049 better wow us with a stunner of a story, but the plot seems to be an afterthought here. Yes, Roger A. Deakins' cinematography and Dennis Gassner's production design are genuinely splendid, and the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Walfisch suitably recalls the synthesized spa music that Vangelis created for the first, but the whole thing leads absolutely nowhere.

A little over an hour in, Harrison Ford finally shows up as Rick Deckard, the character he played in the first, and he lends a whole lot of Harrison Ford-style gruff apathy to the role.  Perhaps that's because Deckard was never a character in the first so much as a recollection himself of hard-boiled film noir detectives from the '40s. Does his character hold a secret to some mystery that will, as Wright's character says, "break the world"? Far be it from me to spoil anything, so let me just say: No, he does not. Nor does he bring any more clarity to the occasional plot. He is in the film for the same questionable reason the film is on the screen: for some people, more Blade Runner seemed like a good idea.

The thing is, the reason we remember 1982's Blade Runner is largely because it fused together a panoply many familiar elements to create a vision no one had seen before.  Blade Runner 2049 takes parts of things we've seen too many times and creates nothing new at all.





Viewed October 18, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

1630

Saturday, October 7, 2017

"The Florida Project"

                                 ☆☆☆                              

After the success of Disneyland in 1955, Walt Disney was discouraged; his company hadn't been able to secure enough financing to buy up as much land in Anaheim as he wanted, and seemingly overnight tacky tourist motels cropped up to cater to eager park visitors.

Ten years later, he swore he wouldn't make the same mistake, and when he announced "The Florida Project," it was massive in scope, swallowing up 43 square miles of Florida swampland.  Life there is perfect.  It's better than perfect.  Tens of millions of people visit to experience the squeaky clean, highly polished world of Disney.

But you can't erase the real world.  Disney's Florida Project tried to shut out problems like slums, squalor, poverty and homelessness. The Florida Project, Sean Baker's languid, meandering but affecting and sometimes beautiful movie, is a powerful reminder that no matter how far Disney pushes the problem out of sight to create a world of make believe, reality has sharp edges that can hurt and cut anyone, especially a child.

The word "Disney" is never spoken in The Florida Project, but from its first moment the forced happiness of the Disney ethic pervades the movie, which mostly takes place in a couple of tacky motels somewhere near the border of Disney's vast Floridian property, primarily the Pepto-Bismol-colored Magic Castle.  From the outside, the Castle and its neighbor Future Land ("Stay in the Future!" its rundown marquee beckons) look like places made for really unlucky tourists or really cheap prostitutes, and both are indeed occasional visitors.

Its tenants, though, are sad, desperate people a quarter-step ahead of homelessness.  They include a far too young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her 6-year-old daughter Moonee, who is less "played" by than inhabited by an extraordinary, precocious, entirely natural and wonderfully winning actress named Brooklynn Prince, who in some ways is reminiscent of Beasts of the Southern Wild darling Quvenzhané Wallis.  Everything about Moonee is charming, fiercely intelligent and ultimately heartbreaking.

As The Florida Project begins, Moonee is goofing around with some of the other kids from The Magic Castle, getting into the kind of minor trouble that kids have been in since the beginning of the movies, and for a while as the screenplay by Baker and Chris Bergoch, who together also created the shot-on-an-iPhone awards-circuit favorite Tangerine, seems content to just ramble along.  Mooney is the leader of her little group, which sometimes resembles a raunchier Little Rascals.  They vaguely terrorize the manager of the hotel, Bobby, who is played by Willem Dafoe, whose star status never overwhelms the movie; Bobby seems more like a guy who everyone says, "Anyone ever tell you you look like that Willem Dafoe actor?" And as the film slowly gets going, it is clear that neither Bobby nor Moonee nor Halley nor any of the other characters (except maybe Gloria, the drunk old lady who likes to sunbathe in the nude) is going to be a stereotype.

Bobby loves his strange little motel, and with just a nudge, The Florida Project could be a CBS sitcom from the mid-70s, one of those with a little grunge around the edges.  Except The Florida Project avoids that kind of cliché, even when it presents the shows us just how far foul-mouthed, crude but heartfelt Hallee will go to keep a roof over their heads, even if it's a sad and pointless roof.

The Florida Project makes no judgments about its characters, except some surprisingly uplifting ones.  Bobby loves his hotel and the people who live there, and they create a family unit because, in the end, everyone needs a family.

Above all, though, The Florida Project pays tribute to the awesome, overwhelming, sometimes head-scratching resilience of childhood.  Moonee doesn't know what she's missing, even as she dresses in thrift-shop shirts with castles on them and plays with cheap dolls of obscure Disney characters.  It has never crossed her mind that life could be better than it is in The Magic Castle, that everyone doesn't live in a single room with a queen-sized bed co-occupied by a chain-smoking mother.

At one point, Moonee and her best friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) take a walk out to a breathtakingly beautiful break in the forest, just off the main highway, and sit on the branch of a giant tree.  "You know why this is my favorite tree?" Moonee asks. "Because it got knocked down and it's still growing."  Baker pulls his camera back to show the sideways, still-growing behemoth, and the moment is as stunning as anything you'll see in a big-budget blockbuster -- and more affecting.

The Florida Project takes a lot of patience for audiences more used to linear storytelling.  Its last few moments, though, elicit an equal mix of smiles and tears and reveal the brilliance of its leisurely ways: We've seen these people through something real, something life-changing, something that is disturbing and painful to watch but that views the uncomfortable reality of life through the lens of something that Walt Disney understood, then packaged and resold: the innocence of childhood.

In a moment of exquisite beauty, Moonee promises to show Jancey something wonderful -- and she does indeed, a rainbow that appears after a Florida thunderstorm.  The little girls see the wonder, and even as we smile at their joy, The Florida Project dares us to look at the scene and not mourn a little for the pain and the suffering of the future world that awaits the children living on the edges of a dream.



Viewed October 7, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood

1930

Saturday, September 30, 2017

"Battle of the Sexes"

                                ☆☆☆½                              

In Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King knows the stakes of what she's doing, but the wonder of the film is that even if we know the broad strokes of the story, that tennis match between King and Bobby Riggs, we're so focused on the specifics of the people involved that we forget about what it all means.

And that's what makes Battle of the Sexes into a fantastic movie -- bold, funny, tense and emotionally resonant.  In its final minutes, the film, which was directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (of Little Miss Sunshine) and written by Simon Beaufoy (of Slumdog Millionaire), Battle of the Sexes pulls back to show the really big picture -- the match was both a gaudy, ridiculous spectacle and a genuine commentary on gender equality.  It's a dazzling display, in large part because the rest of the movie knows to pull back.

Most of the movie is about the complicated, difficult people who took to the tennis court that day, and of the two the movie primarily focuses on King, and rightly so.  Hers is a story of awareness and awakening; if a really great story finds its main characters in very different places at the end than at the beginning, Battle of the Sexes is really great.

A winning, perfectly pitched performance by Emma Stone finds a deeply conflicted woman inside the public persona of King.  She's as surprised as anyone when she finds herself physically and emotionally attracted to another woman (Andrea Riseborough, whose aloofness is the film's sole weakness) -- and also as surprised as anyone to find that a challenge by the crass self-named male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) stirs her in ways she never expected.

It's about equality, yes.  King is prodded and goaded by women's tennis promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, simultaneously edgy and restrained) to be the public face of equal pay.  But Beaufoy's screenplay finds an undercurrent of early gay rights activism in the story, too -- and, most importantly of all, a message of self-confidence.

Already the No. 1 women's tennis player in the world by the time the movie opens in 1972, King is hardly a shrinking violet.  But she's driven more by her passion and her sense of justice than by self-aggrandizement.  The same could not be said for Riggs, whose macho swagger seems so over-the-top by today's standards that he's almost laughable.

Like King, though, there are sides to Riggs that no one sees, not even himself, and even if he's the antagonist here, Battle of the Sexes won't work if he's the villain.  The film finds a surprising humanity in his intolerable attitude, and one remarkable scene with his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, who shines in a small but pivotal role) is heartbreaking for its emotional honesty.

Similarly, there's beautiful interplay between Stone and Austin Stowell as her handsome, painfully aware husband, who comes across as so in love with and committed to his wife that he wants to see her become a full person -- even though the cost will be his relationship with her.  Stowell begins the movie as a caricature of a blank blond stud and ends as the second most-intriguing person in the story.

But it's Stone's film as much as it's King's story, and she is utterly convincing playing a historical celebrity whose image and destiny we know before the lights go down.  That Battle of the Sexes had the audience I saw it with cheering despite full advance knowledge of the outcome is in large part because Stone's so damned good, confident yet tenuous, brave yet scared.

It doesn't hurt, either, that everything about the movie's look and feel gets the era exactly right.  Technologically, there are moments that rival anything in, say, Forest Gump for the seamless interplay between vintage footage and new material, but Battle for the Sexes casts such a spell that none of that visual trickery dawns on us while watching. That's a feat in and of itself.

But there's no feat as big as this one: This dissection of what has always seemed a frivolous media stunt winds up being stirring, emotionally resonant and even politically relevant, a feel-good winner that leaves you both smiling and thinking -- and hoping that, like the familiar cigarette slogan featured prominently in the film, we really have come a long way, baby.  Let's just hope it hasn't all been for naught.



Viewed September 30, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

1930

Friday, September 15, 2017

"mother!"

                                    ☆☆½                                   

Ah, mother!

On one level, that's about all there is to say about Darren Aronofsky's new film, a movie that makes the director's Pi, Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream look like staid models of cinematic form and structure by comparison.

What is it, exactly, this film?  Because although it's being released by a major studio and features one of the biggest movie stars in the world in the leading role, mother! is not, by any definition, a traditional film.  But it's not quite experimental, either; even in its wildest moments, and there are some insanely wild moments, mother! doesn't remake or even toy with cinema-as-art the way directors did in the 1960s and '70s, when so much of moviemaking still seemed new.

mother! is, I guess, more of an art installation in your local cineplex, the work of a singular (but not single, I'll get to that in a moment) director who undoubtedly has a vision.  But what is the vision, exactly?  It's tempting to want to write, "Spoilers Ahead!" in a sort of traditional caution, but: When you look upon, for instance, a giant Hieronymus Bosch triptych, the more you know about it in advance, the more you appreciate it, or at least understand it.  Or at least can acknowledge what you are seeing.  Or something.

It's the same way with mother!  Or something.  So, if you're going to go see this crazed, frenetic, chaotic, apocalyptic, religious, surreal horror-comedy-disaster-melodrama, it helps to know a few things.  Like, it's a religious allegory.  I think.  One that has something to do with the way artists create.  Maybe.  And that carries a lot of Aronofsky's own guilt about his personal life.  Probably.  And observes how we live in insane times that are filled with religious zealots and overbearing, self-absorbed people who invade our lives even when we try to keep them away.  That last bit I'm pretty sure about.

So, you should know that about mother!, and you should know that if you go into it looking for a plot or thinking that it might be like Rosemary's Baby (check out that misleading homage in the poster above), you should know that you're going to be terribly disappointed.  You may end up like one of the half-dozen or so people who walked out of the opening-night screening I attended.  Or like the people I heard walking out of the theater who said, "I don't get it."

You probably won't get it.

I certainly didn't get it.

Or maybe I did, on some level.  I don't know yet.  I do know that it starts with a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who is married to a much older man (Javier Bardem), and they live in the country.  Aronofsky seems to want us to believe they have some sort of idyllic life -- she has been fixing up the house for who knows how long (maybe forever, wink-wink) and he is a famous poet.  All they need is each other, there in that big house in the middle of nowhere.  You'd almost think they were Adam and Eve, until a chain-smoking, vaguely creepy guy (Ed Harris) shows up one day, followed not too long later by his sexually open, inappropriate wife (Michelle Pfeiffer).

More people show up.  The tranquil house is overrun by life ... and death.  And Mother (that is, the woman, that is, Jennifer Lawrence) is overcome.

By the way, no one has traditional names in mother!  It's that kind of movie.  Because, you see, it's all a big allegory.

mother! is going to attract a lot of attention among film enthusiasts because it breaks so many conventions, and because it heads into some of the craziest, most unexpected, most off-putting and deeply disturbing territory of almost any recent studio film I can think of.  There's a scene of cannibalism, and a long, loud sequence in which war and anarchy invade the house that Mother has built, in which Mother and the Man who will be Father to their Child have a cataclysmic disagreement over whether to stay safely inside the house or let the world in.

That's the kind of movie it is.

And visually, it's undeniably magnificent.  I mentioned earlier that it's the work of a singular visionary, but what's really extraordinary is that it clearly took many, many people to make this movie -- and they all were able to convey Aronofsky's grand ideas.  Actors, set designers, camera crew, editors; lots and lots of people worked on the movie, and yet, it is Aronofsky's accomplishment.  That may seem a silly thing to point out; after all, it's the same on every film, isn't it?  But the realization that all those people are in service to one man's ideas seems more relevant on this film than maybe any other.

Still, though, there's a big problem: It's not clear, not by a longshot, whether mother! is any good.  It's certainly something, and it's certainly an artistic achievement.  Aronofsky probably couldn't give a hoot about whether audiences will like it, he has made his artistic statement that will live on long after him, will see many lifetimes.  But did I enjoy mother!?  It's hard to say yes.  There were many stretches were I was fascinated by it, even drawn into the fleeting moments of linear storytelling; and there was no time during its entire two-hour length when I wanted to look away.  But I wouldn't want to do it again.

Filled with surrealist, disconnected, hyper-violent, warped and strange images, seeing mother! is like walking through an elaborate Halloween haunted house created by visual arts majors who are minoring in religious studies.  There are a lot of freaky moments that completely unnerve you, and there are other times when you're almost giddy with the rush of adrenaline it pumps into you.  It's an experience unlike any you'll ever have.

And one time through is most certainly enough.

Ah, mother!




Viewed Sept. 15, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

1945

Sunday, September 10, 2017

"It"

                                   ☆☆☆                                   

There's a cinematic recipe to It, which goes something like:

1 part The Goonies
1 part Poltergeist
2 parts Stand By Me
3 parts Stranger Things
Dash of Carrie
Pinch of The Shining

Mix thoroughly, and bake until almost but not quite done.  Best when served warm with a little slice of ham and a bit of cheese.

It's tasty enough and a lot of people will love it -- but for some, the experience will be both underwhelming and oddly unsatisfying, like being served a Big Mac in a fancy restaurant.  There's a particular irony to its almost unsettling similarity to the TV series Stranger Things, which, oddly enough, was deeply influenced by It in the first place.

I've never been enough of a fan of Stephen King's particular brand of writing to have tackled the 1,138-page behemoth of It the novel, nor did I watch the previous filmed version, which was presented as a two-part TV movie.  So, I was essentially unfamiliar with the basic plot of It other than knowing it was about a malevolent clown.  I walked into the theater prepared for and expecting a dark, forbidding horror film.  I didn't expect a gentle and tender coming-of-age story dripping in the nostalgia of an earlier, simpler time.

Funnily enough, that simpler time in It is 1989 -- a turbulent and pivotal time, to be sure, but hardly simple; the time of Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall, of the Exxon Valdez and the Afghanistan war, of Cold War and nuclear tensions, of AIDS and the savings-and-loan crisis.  It's far from the sun-dappled world of the 1950s, but then, I suppose part of the point is that the sun-dappled world of the 1950s was not as lovely as it seemed in retrospect, either.  (The novel is set in the late 1950s.)

But, few films have been as insistent about the almost magical power of youthful innocence as It does -- really, the only one that comes to mind is Stephen King's own Stand By Me, and there are times in It when you might as well be watching that earlier, superior film.

There's a group of misfit kids who hang out together and like each other.  There's a horrifying truth about the violent insanity of life waiting for them to discover.  There's a small town that they know they will have to leave.  But for nowhttp://thereinthedark.blogspot.com/2017/09/it.html?m=1, there is this group of swell friends, best buddies who will do anything for each other.

One of them is Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), whose little brother Georgie begins the movie excited about trying out a paper sailboat.  (It's sweet and mildly silly that the filmmakers think that kids were playing with paper boats in 1989.)  Bill is sick in bed so can't go out with Georgie, and when the boat gets stuck in a storm drain, it's returned by a sinister, killer clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, under a ton of makeup and augmented with lots of CGI), who then kills little Georgie.  That should be the setup for something out of Nightmare on Elm Street, another one of the 1980s movies that this film name-checks, but it never really gets going on that front.

Pennywise the Clown, who in actuality is some sort of shape-shifting monster, is creepy and sometimes icky, to be sure, but he's not all that scary.  He's a sinister threat, but the film's presentation of him is mostly a setup for the loving depiction of childhood group dynamics. The movie is at its best when it shows the group of kids interacting with each other. That leaves It feeling uncertain if it wants to be a horror film or a sweet-natured reflection on youth.  And even within its horror ambitions, does it want to be a character-driven or an effects-driven sort of movie?  It can never decide on any one of these approaches long enough, so it all feels disjointed, curiously unmoving and disappointingly un-frightening.

It is a film that wants to give you nightmares but makes so much effort to mix the horror in with sweet-natured, humor-laden observations about youth that the scary stuff is watered down, and ends up mostly being successful when it's accompanied by very loud bursts of music and sound effects.  It has to settle for jump scares rather than real dread.

The acting by the kids is uniformly terrific, particularly Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the sole girl in the group, Jeremy Ren Taylor as Ben, the "fat kid" who has a crush on Bev; and Jake Dylan Grazer as hyopchondriac Eddie.  The rest of the child actors are fine, and Skarsgård is best in his first scene attacking Georgie in a sewer.  Most of the rest of the time, his performance is overpowered by the incessant use of CG effects to depict the malevolent character.

The story is fine, the kids are really wonderful, and while It delivers on some of the visceral thrills, the movie never meshes its two parts effectively, and the final showdown between the kids and the clown is the kind of overblown, overproduced and murky sequence that mostly leaves the audience wondering why characters are doing what they're doing, and who is supposed to be doing what to whom.  The big confrontation is the worst thing about It.  That climax plays a lot like a creepier version of a Harry Potter film.

The best parts of It are the elements that seem feel like a remake of Stand By Me -- the easy rapport between the kids, the way they are determined to find things adults can't or won't find, and the way their own little skirmishes can become minor wars -- not to mention nostalgic talk about the entertainment of the time.

I confess I had no idea, until the final title card appeared, that It is actually the first of two parts.  That left me feeling mildly better about the movie, because a lot of motivations, ideas and actions are not explained in any satisfying ways in It.  The assumption is the important characteristics will pan out when Part II shows us the kids 27 years later.

Stephen King fans should be pleased about that response.  Everyone else, I'm not so sure.  Fitting the filmmaking trend of the day, it's not a standalone film, and if motivations, character development and even some plot points (like the origin and purpose of the clown) are unclear, it's because the studio and the filmmakers assume no one will complain that it's unfinished because, hey, it's a franchise!

But that makes it a less than entirely satisfying movie on its own.  Neither the best nor the worst Stephen King adaptation, it's the first part of a longer-term project, and can only be judged on its own as well and as fairly as you'd judge a movie if you walked out halfway through.

It as it is is more or less fine. It's not particularly effective as horror, at least not the kind that gets under your skin, and it's only mildly thrilling at times. It works best solely as a nostalgic reminiscence of an easier time that, in fact, wasn't easier at all.


Viewed 9/9/17 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

2000

Monday, August 21, 2017

"Wind River"

                                ☆☆☆½                              

It begins in loneliness, isolation and, yes, fear.  A solitary figure, it seems to be a woman runs through a hostile and unrelenting landscape, clearly afraid of whatever might be following her.  What has she done?  What has been done to her?

She collapses, and that's the moment that sets up the story of the bleak but utterly mesmerizing Wind River, which is set on a sprawling Native American reservation in Wyoming.  It's an area the size of Rhode Island -- 3,400 square miles with a population of 40,000 people.  But this isn't a society filled with cops and CSI investigators and the kinds of crime-fighting characters you see on TV.  Writer-director Taylor Sheridan, whose script for Sicario turned that into one of the most aggressive and disturbing crime dramas in a very long time, knows how to turn an stark, uncompromising environment into a backdrop for compelling drama, and very little about the Wind River reservation is anything less than stark and uncompromising.

This is not a film like The Revenant, in which the wilderness was seen as vast, untamable but beautiful, or a standard Western that's set against a backdrop of striking desert vistas, ready to be settled by strong-willed men and women.

Wind River is brutal.  "Did you guys get the memo that it's spring?" asks the freezing, shivering FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to a group of local law-enforcement officials who laugh at her joke from somewhere deep within multiple layers of fleece and down.  Jane has come from Las Vegas to investigate the murder on the reservation, and she has come alone.

It remains unspoken throughout Wind River, but there within the uncomfortable pauses and knowing looks, there's a clear message: Americans don't care what happens on Indian reservations.  Sure, maybe the casinos, but those are way out on the fringes of the territory; what happens deep inside, where people have their lives, is something we don't want to know about.

The most unnerving thing about Wind River isn't the mystery at its core, though that turns out to be pretty unnerving, but the way it lifts a heavy, opaque curtain on a part of American life that most people are quite content to keep hidden.  This is a world of desperation, with little access to standard resources, nothing in the way of the kind of daily support we are so used to receiving, and a basic assumption that, you know, they're Native Americans, they like it like this.

Within moments of arriving, Jane is aware that she -- and the couple of law-enforcement agents on the reservation -- is in way over her head.  She has no idea where to start.  She gets help from a local U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service hunter named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who works the land to keep predators away from the livestock.  He has spent his life looking for tiny clues in the snow and in the woods that other people would overlook.

Cory used to be married to a local woman.  They're divorced now, and she's bound and determined to get off the reservation and make something of her life.  She's not going to get caught here the way he has been -- trapped not just by the land and its circumstances but by memory: She and Cory used to have a daughter, who was also murdered.

Through sparse dialogue that spends almost no time on words it doesn't need, Wind River becomes increasingly complex.  The tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) knows a lot of things he wishes he didn't about the desperate lives of the people he protects.  The father (Gil Birmingham) of the dead girl does not know how to begin to grieve.  He is lost; another bit of his own history has been stripped away from him.

And then there is Natalie (Kelsey Chow) herself, whose story turns out to be nothing at all what we imagine it will be.  Wind River is like that, it begins with a lot of correct assumptions about what we think of Indian reservations and the people who live on them, and then it slaps them away -- violently, sometimes, even angrily.  But never with righteousness.  It turns out Wind River has a lot it wants to say, but writer-director Sheridan makes sure never to lose sight of the striking procedural drama at its core.  It's an aching, sad, maybe even bitter film, but it's also one of the best murder-mysteries in a long time.

Its large and convincing cast reflects the vast canvas on which the very personal story plays out, and though the movie has a lot of characters and a lot of story to tell, it's all held together by the two arresting central performances by Renner and Olsen.  Wind River uses Renner's sleepy, sad and slightly battered face to its best advantage; Cory is a man who is just on the verge of giving it all up himself.

And Olsen has the kind of strength and clear-eyed intelligence that people say movies don't give women a chance to display.  This one does.  Olsen is a revelation here, an FBI agent who maybe grew up herself watching Jodie Foster play Clarice Starling and has used that merely as the foundation for her own inspiration.  As played by Olsen, Jane is deeply aware of her limitations (early on, she's got one of the best off-handed bits of character exposition in movie history) and of her deep sense of justice and integrity.  She does not believe the people she is trying to help are being treated fairly, but she also knows there is little she can do about it except solve the crime and try to help them find some closure.  She'll follow the clues where they lead.

And where they lead is nowhere you'd expect.  Wind River reaches a thoroughly satisfying, genuinely unexpected climax: bloody, shocking, intense.  So much of the rest of the film has been slow and tense, like the buildup to a winter storm.  When it hits, it's a whopper.  So's this movie.



Viewed Aug. 18, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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Sunday, August 6, 2017

"An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power"

                                     ½                                   

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is going to convince exactly zero climate-change deniers that their position is wrong, and it may convince a few people that they should become evangelists for former Vice President Al Gore's impassioned endeavors, but first and foremost, An Inconvenient Sequel should be a good movie, and the problem is it's not.

Because it's not particularly good, An Inconvenient Sequel will be even more vulnerable to attacks from the right than it would have if it had been as incendiary, bold and committed as An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning film from 2006 that became a flashpoint for awareness of global warming.

The response to An Inconvenient Truth was both alarming and sadly telling -- rather than acknowledge the detailed and convincing scientific evidence Gore presented in his elaborate PowerPoint presentation, opponents began denying the facts, leading us, well, to where we are now in the world: If you don't like the information you're getting, just flat-out deny it.  The success of An Inconvenient Truth, as well as more liberal-leaning documentaries from filmmakers like Michael Moore, resulted in a slew of cinematic responses, especially from arch-conservative Dinesh D'Souza, which took opinions and half-truths and distorted them into the form and shape of a "documentary."

So, the real challenge for An Inconvenient Sequel is to find a way to offset those quasi-documentaries and present compelling information in a way that is so incontrovertible that it can't be denied, while acknowledging the rise of conservative opinion-oriented commentaries that are presented as facts.  If An Inconvenient Truth was a small stepping stone on the way to our facts-versus-"facts" society, how would its sequel remark upon the role it played?

The answer is: It doesn't -- and it fails, sometimes stupendously, in the challenge to create a new, less partisan view of climate change, to win over the skeptics and showcase the way the earth has been changing in the last decade alone.

An Inconvenient Sequel certainly does present chilling, often downright depressing, evidence.  The scientific data along with the eyewitness video of weather-based calamities combine to sobering effect.  If the film focused on those elements, it would be a winner, a worthy follow-up to the eye-opening original.

Instead, An Inconvenient Sequel ends up being near-hagiography of Al Gore.  This is a movie made for people who see Gore as an innocent victim whose still-stunning loss of the presidency is something they'll never quite get over, who still believe we should have had eight years of President Gore and are still bitter about it.  An Inconvenient Sequel commits the tactical error of not making climate change the subject but of making Al Gore the subject.

In one galvanizing sequence, Gore visits Miami and sees the city overwhelmed by water that local politicians admit has only one source: sea-level rise.  He wades around in rubber rain boots while city officials express understandable shock at how quickly the predictions from the first film have come true.  But instead of adding to our understanding of the problem, the cause and the solution, An Inconvenient Sequel spends the next 10 minutes getting ready for a presentation, being interviewed by media, and proving how indefatigable he is.

I've no doubt that Al Gore is committed.  I've little doubt he is sincere that he does not want to be a politician anymore --though the movie more than hints that maybe he's still got it in him.  And in its most effective moments, An Inconvenient Sequel left me with little doubt about the benefits of solar energy.  (Though highly ineffective as a movie, An Inconvenient Sequel is a tremendous, and shameless, infomercial for Solar City.)

But it also left me thinking that it was all a huge wasted opportunity.  While it's interesting, and illuminating, to learn the details of the machinations behind the Paris accord, it's disconcerting that a movie theoretically 10 years in the making misses its chance to comment on climate-change deniers.  The original film was filled with scientific evidence, but this film makes no effort at all to attack the pseudo-science of skeptics.

More than a few times in An Inconvenient Sequel, Gore expresses regret that despite his efforts there is still a great deal of opposition, that despite the facts there are too many people who want to believe opinion.  Yet, An Inconvenient Sequel does far too little to undermine the deniers, much less to convert them to his way of thinking.  An Inconvenient Sequel is made for those who already believe.  That's a shame.



Viewed Aug. 5, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

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