Film Review: Wind River 

Wind River is a brutal, gripping thriller based around true events. It’s hard to watch at times, but the writing and acting keep you riveted and grounded. US Fish and Wildlife Agent Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner) and FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) investigate the death and apparent murder of a girl on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. This is a film whose message is necessary for people to see, difficult as it is.

Beyond this point, I’ll delve into some spoilers, just because the point of this film is so important.

The tale told here by Taylor Sheridan (writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water–both excellent films) is one that needs to be told. Sheridan adds his voice to the mounting number of calls for justice for unheard women, in this case Native American women–alongside works like Longmire, or The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. This is an intensely disturbing film at times, though not for its over the top gore or excessive violence, which other films have depicting in more graphic detail, but for its reality.

Wind River tells the tale of a young Arapaho woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. She’s not even with the wrong guy–Jon Bernthal makes a memorable side appearance as a good guy (for once!) who tries desperately to protect the woman he loves and wants to run off into the sunset with from a bunch of drunk contractors who took a horrific opportunity when it came.

This film depicts the darkness in men’s hearts and the depths of depravity to which they can descend, unplanned, at a moment’s notice. There is no vast, Dr. Evil-led conspiracy here. No drug cartel is using and squashing the people below it. The Hand is not waiting to unleash Hell on Hell’s Kitchen and New York City. This is a simple story of the women who go missing on Indian Reservations, with no one to hear their cries or search for them.

I have two stylistic complaints to accompany this brilliant film, which is certainly an Oscar contender.

Taylor Sheridan wrote and directed this film, and his writing has been lauded for both Sicario and Hell or High Water, which was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. His directing, however, is still a bit of a work in progress. His last directed film was a 2011 Horror film called Vile (which looks like a Saw knockoff) and, to be fair, I’ve not seen it. However, Wind River was uneven in its atmosphere. It wanted the touch of Denis Villeneuve to bolster the mood. Wind River depicts blizzards and harsh country, but I don’t feel the atmosphere. Some slow-moving drone shots would have helped, or a stronger score. One of the best shots would be a helicopter shot flying over a ridge and up to the Oil Camp where the climax of the film takes place–more of that would do well.

My last critique is that Renner should not have been white. Don’t get me wrong, both Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen do amazing jobs here–Olsen in particular, could be up for a nomination. And yet, Renner is married to an Arapaho woman (Julia Jones, from Longmire and Twilight, along with most of the other Native American/First Nations actors here–it’s almost a reunion, highlighting that Hollywood is drawing from a shallow pool of actors) and has a son and has lost a daughter (in an eerily similar way to the girl at the center of this mystery). He’s a hunter and tracker and speaks with deep knowledge of Reservation life, going as far at one point as discussing “My family’s people” being forced into reservations. I don’t know why he was not played by a Native American man. Having Elizabeth Olsen be the only non-Native American and seeing things from her perspective how the reservations are criminally understaffed and ignored would make such a strong impact. In fact, there was a point at which she nearly ignores everything the reservation police chief (Graham Greene) is saying and turns to the only other white guy to get his input. That’s only a short moment, but it was noticeable.

This doesn’t mean Sheridan failed as a director–far from it. In fact, this film has one of the most tense standoffs ever. You can feel it develop and build until the climax. When Olsen gets to the Oil rig, along with the police chief and their meager backup, they’re greeted warmly by the security there, and as they walk toward the trailer of the suspect, they realize they’re being flanked by the security contractors. You see it happening, and you feel uneasy, and then they call attention to it and all hell breaks loose with a sudden force that leaves you shell shocked–Sheridan definitely took notes from Denis Villeneuve on this one, as it’s reminiscent of the early scenes in Sicario.

In the end, this is a film that people need to see, about a subject that demands discussion. I would be surprised if this didn’t show up on year’s best lists or on award nominations.

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Film Review: Logan Lucky

Logan Lucky is more than just hillbilly Ocean’s 11 (or Oceans 7-11, as the film calls itself), though it is that, too. It’s actually a touching story about a down-on-their-luck West Virginian family who decides to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. 

The cast of characters is memorable, led by Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver) and their sister Mellie (Riley Keough). There’s no traditional antagonist (the closest we get is Seth MacFarlane, as a gigantic tool), except the apparently notorious bad luck of the Logan clan. I really enjoyed the film and the chemistry between the cast, and was surprisingly moved by a scene between Jimmy and his daughter. Daniel Craig is a revelation as a jailbird explosives expert with a plethora of hilarious moments and a spot on accent. My main complaint is that Hillary Swank was entirely underused—she’s almost an afterthought, barely used to underscore the quiet brilliance of the brothers’ plot. 

See this movie with the biggest crowd you can; get ready to laugh and try to figure out Steven Soderbergh’s master plan (the mystery even extends to the unknown writer of the film!). 

Film Review: Unacknowledged 

Unacknowledged (directed by Mika Mazzola) wants to stand up next to Citizenfour, but it just isn’t in the same league. There’s a lot of compelling ideas and evidence presented by Dr. Steven Greer, but there’s also a lot of ranting from the people he interviews. There’s not enough of a narrative to propel everything forward. It needed a throughline other than “EVERYONE IS LYING TO US ALL THE TIME EVEN THOUGH THEY SAY THEY’RE NOT!”

That said, do some googling as you watch and you’ll find some eyebrow-raising things (the monoliths on Mars and Phobos, as well as many of the documented UFO encounters they mention). I’m not a dyed in the wool skeptic, so I was ready to listen. I just was yearning for a cohesive narrative. I want to believe, after all. 

Some Reflections upon Star Trek

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Because this year marks the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek, I’ve been making my way through the series and films, and even some of the books. I knew at the beginning of the year that, with my busy schedule, I wouldn’t be able to commit to an insane “all series and all films in a single year” challenge (though I’d have loved that). But with my summer a bit more free (or at least flexible), I started The Next Generation just to see how far I could get, and I binged like I never have before, plowing through the entirety of TNG in just about a month. I’ll move onto Deep Space Nine soon, after finishing the TNG films. With the school year starting, I’ll not be able to go as quickly through DS9, but I still plan to try. And after that will come Voyager, and after that Enterprise–I’m excited to continue this trek.

I grew up watching Star Trek. It’s probably been the most influential aspects of pop culture for me (of course followed closely by The Lord of the RingsStar Wars, and Harry Potter). But Star Trek has been with me the longest, a fast and reliable friend. I’ve journeyed countless times with the crews of the starships Enterprise, most often with Captain Kirk and his crew, but often enough with Jean-Luc Picard.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is almost exactly one year younger than me–our birthdays are both in September–and my father has been a fan of The Original Series since before syndication, collecting the Bantam and Pocket Book novels and novelizations, all of which became my reading material growing up. Even more, he subscribed to a VHS-a-month club which sent us a new videocassette with two episodes of The Original Series on it. Because of his fandom, the VHS tapes and books on the shelf, I was inundated from birth. I didn’t stand a chance. I’m not saying I remember watching the TNG premiere, but I might as well have, because I was there from the beginning and right through until the end.

Only once have I gone chronologically through Deep Space Nine (we didn’t watch it as much when I was a kid, because they didn’t do as much exploring as Picard’s Enterprise did), though I have regularly caught episodes enough to have seen most of them two or three times. I clearly remember watching Voyager‘s premiere: there was a storm that day which messed up the TV signal, and I was furious because who knew when it would be on again. Likewise, I’ve watched through Voyager only once chronologically on DVD, though during its original run I recorded as much as I could on used-and-reused VHS tapes, which I horded and watched again and again, though never really in a cohesive order. It wasn’t until college where my local library’s DVD collected brought me a full rewatch of each series.

The first time I ever tried my hand at creative writing was Star Trek fan fiction, somewhere around the age of ten. I produced (bad) fan art, long before DeviantArt was a thing. I read and reread the books (many of which I inherited from my father, who introduced me to Star Trek), pored over technical manuals, the compendiums, the Encyclopedia. The first websites I remember going to, early in the 1990s, were Star Trek fan sites, with people in chat rooms and message boards creating their own crews, and role-playing or proto-LARPing. When the Next Generation movies came out I remember going to the films’ websites, waiting impatiently for a poor-quality video to load at a glacial pace, hoping for a glimpse of the new Enterprise-E, or just seeing the cast I adored in uniform once again.

I endlessly played make believe with action figures and props from each of the incarnations, coercing my friends (and, more reluctantly, my brother and sister) into both reenacting missions from the series and then creating our own. I did not keep my action figures in their packages (only a little to my current-self’s chagrin)–they were well played with, their batteries constantly wearing out, and when they did, I provided the much more varied sound effects.

There are bad episodes of Star Trek out there: “Spock’s Brain” and “The Turnabout Intruder” from The Original Series, “Code of Honor” and “Genesis” from The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine’s “The Emperor’s New Cloak” and “Move Along Home,” Voyager’s  “Threshold” or “The Thaw,” and from Enterprise “Two Days and Two Nights” and “A Night in Sickbay.” Other people will have other episodes on a “worst of” list. Yet for every poor episode or eye-rolling moment (and there are many), there’s exponential redemption in some of the best Science Fiction on television: “The Best of Both Worlds,” “All Good Things,” “The Inner Light,” “Trials and Tribble-ations,” “The Way of the Warrior,” “Year of Hell,” “Blink of an Eye,” “Carbon Creek” or “Regeneration.” I know some will dispute this list, and that’s fine.

Good Star Trek is science fiction at its best. Sometimes its just fun technobabble (oh, those flighty tachyons and the hijinks they get up to), and sometimes its an exploration of humanity, of our nature, of the great things science can do–or the treachery to which over-dependence on technology can lead.

What I’ve always loved about Star Trek is the idealism, the code of ethics they pursue with each and every mission. They fail at times, yes, but they pursue some greater good throughout each series, striving to stand for something. During the turbulent 1960s they subtly yet powerfully advocated for racial tolerance, dealt with the futility of the Cold war in the 1980s, and told tall tales of great themes that would make Shakespeare proud. They struggle (and often fail) with relativism, often allowing beliefs to stand even when they are wrong, all in the name of tolerance. Quite often, tolerance is equated with acceptance or endorsement–and yet time and time again, a standard of Right is maintained.

This is why I watch Star Trek. As we move into this series’ 51st year and beyond, I hope that Star Trek‘s roots are maintained. We’re about to have a new series: I say push boundaries, say new things, go new places. But, stay with what is Right. I hope the more serialized nature of Discovery will tell brilliant stories of that Final Frontier. However, Star Trek does not need to be Breaking Bad. We don’t need anti-heroes and dark, brooding shows (though of course there is an excellent place for that in today’s TV canon). We need inspiration in our pop culture, a return to optimism, to pursuing what is right and good, to taking us on exciting and fun adventures, to hope.

Film Review: Fantastic Four (2015)

In an attempt to be different, Fantastic Four leaves out everything lovable about superhero films – including fun.

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After months (possibly years) of bad press and mixed anticipation for Fox’s reboot of Fantastic Four, the film released to scathing reviews and some added behind-the-scenes drama. The movie, helmed and co-scripted by Josh Trank, director of Chronicle, seeks to do something different in the superhero genre.

The story we probably know from the first series of films. In the name of science, a (future) husband and wife, her brother, and their friend, are essentially infected with different powers. They must learn to harness their abilities, while working as a team, to save the world. 

The first two films were largely disliked for their goofy tone and cartoonish plot. In this 2015 reboot, they attempt to ground the film as hard as they can in reality, so as to not make the same mistakes as the other films.
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a brilliant young scientist who, with help from his childhood best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), builds some impressive spacetime-bending equipment. Noticed by Dr. Storm (Reg. E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara) at a high school science fair (I guess they were just browsing random science fairs? Not too clear on the reasoning there), Reed is given a scholarship in exchange for help building the Quantum Gate with the Storms and the moody Victor Von Doom. Oh yeah, and Johnny Storm crashes a car and is punished by being made a high-valued member of the Quantum Gate team, for some reason.

Von Doom’s entire part in the film is completely inexplicable. From his introduction where he’s simply an angry brat who hates everyone, to his only occasional feelings for Sue Storm, to his on-again off-again friendship with Reed, to whatever his motives are for briefly trying to destroy Earth, Von Doom just doesn’t make any sense.

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There are some admirable aspects to Fantastic Four. I appreciate the attempt at a grounded, realistic tone, but “realistic” doesn’t have to mean it sacrifices fun. In fact, there’s almost no action in the entire film. Isn’t that why we go to superhero movies? There’s only one real fight scene, and it’s horribly predictable.

The film started to really interest me when the four returned with their powers. Each was under observation, and everyone was scared for what could happen. Just when I thought the film would really explore the fear and psychological effects that these strange powers would have, the film jumps ahead a year, skipping the interesting part! I was so disappointed.

In the end, Fantastic Four had a lot of potential, ultimately wasted by forgetting why people see superhero films: to have fun and see crazy action. Without either of those elements, replaced by a really confusing and uninteresting story, Fantastic Four is a bust.

Sidenote: There was a lot of talk about either Trank being really hard to deal with or Fox putting too much pressure and control on a creative, leading to this mess. Without any of us truly knowing what happened, it’s hard to put the blame on any one person. For an interesting timeline of the bad press, check out this great article from Film School Rejects.

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Film Review : The Gift

The Gift surprises and impresses at almost every turn.

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At the start, The Gift appears to be a traditional thriller. The setup is so average that the viewer could assume he knows the plot and the twist within the first few minutes. As the film progresses, however, it becomes fairly clear that nothing is as expected.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move from Chicago to California, close to where Simon grew up. Soon enough, while out shopping one day, the couple runs into an old acquaintance of Simon’s, named Gordo (Joel Edgerton). Everything feels pretty standard; Gordo is a weird dude who hangs around a bit too much, creeping out the couple. Things go in very unexpected directions more than once, keeping you on your toes.

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The audience of course tries to guess where the film is headed at every turn. Every time it seems like you may have figured it out, the film completely surprises you. The writing here is really strong. Not only does the plot trick you, it’s not even the type of movie you think it is.

In addition to his excellent performance, Edgerton writes and directs this very promising debut. There may not be anything groundbreaking here, but The Gift is a very enjoyable, tense, and unexpected delight. Edgerton is certainly a filmmaker to keep our eyes on.

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Film Review: Ricki and the Flash

Stuffed with Oscar winners, Ricki and the Flash delivers a fairly unsurprising plot with a nice polished exterior.

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Meryl Streep stars as Ricki Rendazzo, the wannabe-rock-star and nonexistent mom trying to figure out how to reconnect with her family. When her daughter Julie, played by Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer, attempts suicide after losing her husband, Ricki returns home to help her pull herself together. Of course, Ricki must learn to pull her own life together first.

The premise alone is pretty unremarkable. We’ve heard this all before. Luckily the film has enough charm and superb performances to make up for the cliches.

Ricki and Greg (Rick Springfield) lead The Flash, the aging house band at a tiny bar in Los Angeles. The film opens on their performance, a great sequence that starts only on the band, leading the audience to believe it might be a successful group, until swiftly cutting to the small, old, and odd crowd in the bar.

Once Ricki returns to the family in Indiana, the family drama shines. Ricki’s ex Pete (Kevin Kline) is fairly uninteresting, but the family dynamic keeps things snappy. A dinner sequence with the whole family in particular overcomes so many predictable moments with hilarious dialogue.

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As with every Streep performance, we’ll see this performance coming into the awards conversation soon, but it’s deserved. Ricki is a severely insecure character who covers with false confidence. Streep’s subtleties let the insecurity feel so true. Mamie Gummer holds her own alongside her mother: Julie’s depressed character also steals the show. While it may not be groundbreaking or Oscar-caliber, Gummer deserves awards talk of her own.

Ricki and the Flash is nothing new in the family drama realm, but the humor and performances make it an enjoyable, if unremarkable, film.

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