The Marvelous Brie Larson — #5

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. If you are a newcomer to this series, the idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skill sets and to see how they contribute to a story.

Okay, it’s probably not the best time to be bringing up a summer blockbuster, not for us in the northern hemisphere at least as we slip into the early autumn, but here goes this anyway.

We’ve all seen this one. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ 2017 Monster-verse contribution came in the form of Kong: Skull Island. It immediately followed up Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. It was a cotton candy blockbuster that put fun first and character and symbolism second. It’s not a storyline that reinvents monster mayhem in any significant way but the film does benefit from a distinct ’70s milieu and a stellar (and I mean STELLAR cast — including a memorably antagonistic Samuel L. Jackson, who actually makes this installment more appropriate as it was during this film shoot when Jackson campaigned hard for Larson to put him in her directorial debut Unicorn Store, the previous role I highlighted for this feature).

There’s no denying the movie delivers in its capacity as a crowd-pleasing, goofy throwback to creature features of the past. And while the characters certainly aren’t the main attraction here (sorry Brie, it’s true) she fits in to this crazy world with ease, fulfilling a role that’s arguably the closest to providing an audience proxy than any of the other famous faces along for the ride.

Brie Larson as Mason Weaver in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island 

Role Type: Supporting

Genre: Action/adventure/fantasy

Premise: After the Vietnam war, a team of scientists explores an uncharted island in the Pacific, venturing into the domain of the mighty Kong, and must fight to escape a primal Eden.

Character Background: Just to start off, I’d like to say how relieved I was to learn this wasn’t going to be yet another Kong-goes-to-New-York story, which necessarily meant the fate of the lone woman in this big burly blockbuster wasn’t going to be anything like the classic Ann Darrow/damsel-in-distress arc made famous by Fay Wray and most recently inhabited by Naomi Watts in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. (And can I also just say how much I hated how excessively indulgent that movie’s running time was?)

Mason Weaver is a natural fit for Larson’s preference for playing strong, independent female characters. Self-described as an “anti-war photographer,” Mason is a woman of conviction and toughness who has leveraged her experience in capturing humanity at its worst into securing a coveted position on an “exploratory” mission to the mysterious Skull Island, an expedition Mason has strong suspicions is not what Monarch researcher Bill Randa (John Goodman) initially describes it as. Raised a pacifist, Mason’s biggest obstacle isn’t a 100-foot-tall gorilla who can fling helicopters for miles or slings 50-foot-tall trees like missiles, but rather the aggressive and war-crazed Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Packard believes it’s hippie journalists like Mason who undermined the American presence in ‘Nam, and some of the best scenes in the movie result from the pair’s starkly opposed viewpoints on whether to kill Kong or . . . let him Rule.

Larson had appeared in some fairly high-profile movies prior to Skull Island (a supporting role alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his directorial debut Don Jon; with minor parts in popular comedies 21 Jump Street and Trainwreck) but as an action blockbuster this is decidedly new territory. Like her costars Larson had to base much of her performance around reactions to images she was provided of characters’ spacial relationships to Kong via an incredible augmented reality app provided by visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic (whose undeniably breathtaking work earned the film an Oscar nomination). That she was convincing and sympathetic in that capacity surely must have convinced someone at Marvel of the indie darling’s ability to play to a bigger crowd at the cineplex.

Marvel at this Scene: 

I can’t help but feel like this is meant to be a tribute to the Jurassic Park scene where Lex reaches out toward a brachiosaurus with a runny nose. The ultimate in human-giant creature diplomacy. Fortunately this one doesn’t end in someone getting covered in snot. This is quite literally a touching scene, Mason having the unique opportunity to show Kong not everyone here is all about killing and exploiting.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

30 for 30: Mike and the Mad Dog

Release: Thursday, July 13, 2017

→ESPN 

Directed by: Daniel H. Forer

Love them or hate them, any appreciator of grown men yelling at each other over the airwaves in the name of entertainment has Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo to thank for giving birth to modern sports radio talk. At the height of their success, no one could touch them.

Directed by 10-time Emmy Award™-winning documentarian/writer/producer Daniel H. Forer, Mike and the Mad Dog offers one final parting gift to fans of the sports talk show that aired for 19 years and five — count ’em, five — hours each weekday afternoon on WFAN 101.9 FM. Nestled deep in the heart of New York, “The Fan” is famous for becoming the first radio station in the country to offer 24/7 sports coverage. Over the course of a fleeting but highly entertaining hour Forer digs into the origins of the show, the personalities that made it happen, and the mechanisms that both drove its success and that ultimately led to its downfall.

The first broadcast of Mike and the Mad Dog aired in September 1989. At the time there was little evidence to suggest the experiment would be successful, never mind end in the tearful manner in which it did in August 2008. Francesa had done the grunt work at CBS, starting out as a stat boy and college sports analyst, before expressing an interest in shifting over to radio broadcasting. WFAN at the time were looking for established talent rather than someone with no experience. Though Francesa’s encyclopedic knowledge helped him gain footing, station management had no desire to give him his own platform.

Chris Russo, on the other hand, was all but born on-air, his voice “a bizarre mixture of Jerry Lewis, Archie Bunker and Daffy Duck.” He was energetic, a Tasmanian devil behind the mic. Russo began his career at a station in Central Florida, where his thick New York accent was so alien he was sent to a speech therapist twice a week. He later relocated to The Big Apple, briefly dipping his toes into Christian radio at WMCA before becoming roped into a most unlikely gig with WFAN, where he’d spend the next 19 years foaming at the mouth over the days’ hottest sports stories.

Mike and the Mad Dog was created out of a need to better reach WFAN’s target audience — the city proper and its surrounding suburbs. A more traditional, buttoned-up format predated it and featured a revolving door of national anchors who all failed to resonate. The station desperately sought a more local feel, and in the seemingly diametrically opposed Francesa and Russo they struck gold. Not only were they true-blue New Yawkas, they were bona fide geeks who spoke in the language of the typical sports fan. They both loved sports and talking about them — they just didn’t really love the prospect of talking about them with each other.

The documentary covers an impressive amount of real estate, touching on a number of personal aspects before moving beyond the personalities and their disparate upbringings to address the numerous controversies they became involved in and occasionally triggered themselves. From the Don Imus firing in 2007 to the infamous broadcast on September 12, 2001, Mike and the Mad Dog have taken the show to some incredible highs as well as cringe-inducing lows. Consistent with their style, they dealt with backlash in their own acrimonious ways.

Given how routinely Francesa and Russo together (and individually) became the thorn in the sides of local sports figures — be they current team owners or retired players (even columnists, like the Post’s Phil Mushnick weren’t exactly safe) — those events weren’t aberrations. Of course their stance on Imus and reaction to 9/11 also didn’t do much to dispel the notion that after so many years the two had developed egos larger than the city they were covering. Their vast sports knowledge wasn’t to be questioned, yet it also couldn’t save them from getting into trouble. Forer holds interviews with friends and former colleagues who admit there were times the two just couldn’t help themselves.

Arranged marriages can be awkward, as the pair attest on camera. That’s how they viewed their relationship — less a natural coming together as it was a forceful shoving. Chemistry lacked to say the least in the early going. Yet, as time passed, they found their rhythm and gained a respect for each other, with Mike in particular being impressed with his very animated partner’s ability to hold his own in a debate. After so much time together, they became more like a family and the documentary effectively captures that spirit. As Russo might put it, sometimes family drives ya frikkin’ nuts.

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews.

Recommendation: Mike and the Mad Dog is an intriguing exploration of the way ambition, recognition and egotism all play a hand in the shaping of high-profile careers. It is close to essential viewing for those who have lamented the break-up (now 10 years ago) and have never quite gotten over it. 

Rated: TV-G

Running Time: 50 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.newyork.cbslocal.com

Month in Review: February ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Happy New Year from Thomas J! Since I didn’t create one of these posts end of last month, I figured I’d belatedly wish everyone it now. And this also gives me a chance to ask: how well are you keeping up with those new year’s resolutions? That’s okay, I didn’t make any either. And if I did, they are so well-forgotten only eight weeks into the year it begs why I even made them in the first place.

Despite appearances, I have been seeing many a good movie. But out of fear of getting further backed up, I think at this juncture I’m going to be cutting ties with a few reviews and moving on. I’ve had ideas about what I have wanted to say, but at this point getting back into that headspace feels like beating a dead horse. I’ll list a few of my reactions to this year’s crop of Best Picture nominations with incredibly in-depth, one-line reviews. I think by now everyone has settled far enough into a consensus on many of these titles anyway.

So, without further ado, here is what has been happening in the last several weeks. (Hold on to your butts.)

Mansfield, NJ


New Posts

The Commuter

The Cloverfield Paradox


My Oscar Reactions (best picture only)

The Shape of Water — didn’t see; didn’t want to see; won’t see. I’m not supporting inter-special romances. I’m just not.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — two of the very finest performances of the year in Frances McDormand as a grieving mother and Sam Rockwell as a racist hick cop. Jaw, meet floor.

Phantom Thread — sigh. Why did PTA and the great DDL have to get locked in on this boring twaddle about the haute couture of 1950s London? Pass.

Darkest Hour — a towering performance from Gary Oldman means he is all but guaranteed the Best Actor award, but Best Pic seems a long shot. The drama that surrounds him plays out far too didactically to be considered a true heavyweight contender.

The Post — safe, predictable and disappointingly trite, not to mention a tad too leftist, even for me — a decidedly liberal snowflake.

Dunkirk — amazed to see this nominated. Good for Christopher Nolan. It’s about time.

Call Me By Your Name — the nominee that I know the least about. What little I have read about this one has been glowingly positive. Bummed that it never even veered close to my area.

Lady Bird — I was blown away by a little independent picture that has next-to-no chance of winning it all. From Greta Gerwig, here comes a firecracker of a coming-of-age story that tells it like it is. Loved this one. And Saiorse Ronan — you go, girl.

Get Out — . . . really? I mean, this was fun but it’s a little too “lite” for the Oscars, don’tcha think?


Blogging News 

So there is going to be a sacrifice. I will NOT be participating this year in the Blind Spot series. Last year it was fun, but I don’t think I can make that kind of a long-term commitment this time around. Perhaps next year.

But as Natalie Portman deduces in Annihilation, “it’s not killing everything. It is just making something new.” Well, this isn’t technically a new feature, but my 30-for-30 spotlight has been long dormant. (You can check out all posts in that series by clicking here or by visiting the submenu up top under ‘Features’). It is making its return in March. Look for extensive basketball coverage as we enter the NCAA Tournament (where my Tennessee Vols are actually, finally, going to enjoy some post-season action). Most likely these will be posted on the last day of each month. If you too are a sports fan, keep your eyes peeled!


That’s it for now. What do you hope will win in the Big Four categories this coming Sunday? And will the Best Picture presenters find an even more creative way to confuse us all this year . . . ? 

Blade Runner 2049

Release: Friday, October 6, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Hampton Fancher; Michael Green

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Denis Villeneuve proves himself a worthy heir to Ridley Scott with his hauntingly beautiful and poetically told Blade Runner 2049, a narratively and emotionally satisfying expansion of Scott’s 1982 classic. It proposes an even darker version of an already grim future reality in which a potential war between humans and an advanced race of A.I. known as replicants could break out after an unlikely discovery is made on the property of a farmer.

Over the better part of the last decade Villeneuve has enjoyed something of a meteoric rise to prominence resulting from a string of blockbuster-level successes. From his award-winning debut film curiously titled August 32nd on Earth in the late ’90s to last year’s awe-inspiring Arrival, the Québécois has been riding a wave of momentum à la Britain’s very own Christopher Nolan, delivering consecutive heavy-hitters in Incendies (2011), Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015). Villeneuve has entered a point in his career where he just might have forgotten how to truly disappoint an audience. The man has a knack for detailing heavy, sometimes profound stories with genuine humanity. Which brings us to the Blade Runner sequel.

It went virtually unnoticed at the box office, taking in roughly the same amount as The Emoji Movie in the U.S. — thus confirming reality is far more depressing than any dystopian future, even one imagined by Philip K. Dick. Yet there’s no denying Blade Runner 2049 is a seismic sequel, one that not only justifies the ambition but all those years spent waiting (or not waiting). Hampton Fancher returns to screenwriting duties and is joined by Logan scribe Michael Green on an original collaboration that expounds upon key themes and introduces a few compelling new characters. Fortunately at this point in the calendar I’m somewhat less terrified of possibly revealing spoilers so it’s also time to mention how a big part of the experience is the way in which Harrison Ford returns like a childhood memory — though, if you’re like me and it took the news of a sequel being developed just to see the original, maybe it’s more of an implanted memory.

We are returned to a rotting carcass of a planet that, through the lens of acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, suffocates under blood orange skies dripping their silver acid down upon the lonely and the damned. The Los Angeles of 2049 continues to play host to a claustrophobic theater of misery, its streets crammed to the curb with imposing edifice and huge holograms. Away from the über-metropolis we have turned to worm farming as a source of protein — it’s important to maintain a sense of nutrition even post-apocalypse — and it’s over these mechanical monstrosities of desperate agriculture we initially swoop in, to arrive at a critical point in the saga.

A few important details first: In the interim, the job of the blade runner (or LAPD officer of the future, if you prefer that vernacular) has been updated. There’s a new level of discretion being applied to targeting suspects as the majority of the replicant population has been integrated into the rest of society and given “purpose” as slaves and servants. These updated Nexus models are the scientifically and aesthetically perfected products of new-sheriff-in-hell Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who seeks a way of expanding intergalactic colonization. This new sinister figure has of course risen out of the ashes of the fallen Tyrell Corporation.

Meanwhile, a young blade runner named ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling) is preparing to interrogate a Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista in a fantastically nuanced performance), one of the last remaining old-model replicants who have apparently gone rogue in the aftermath of a nuclear blast some time in the 2030s. There on Morton’s worm farm he finds the remains of a female replicant who apparently had died during childbirth, and after some digging learns that the child is in fact still alive. His commanding officer Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), fearing an all-out war between the two factions, orders K to destroy all evidence and find a bullet-shaped solution to the problem. Will he succeed, or will an even more interested party get there first?

Blade Runner 2049 is nothing if not itself a beneficiary of major technological advancements. This is a much sleeker, sexier presentation that feels somehow more lavishly detailed than its predecessor. We may have lost the scrappier, more primal aesthetic of old, but this is nevertheless the Sistine Chapel of modern science fiction cinema. Villeneuve also is afforded a longer leash than most when it comes to introducing computer-generated graphics — in part because they are so convincingly integrated into their environment but more importantly because they have purpose and are sparingly used.

None are more the beneficiary of that kind of movie magic than Ana de Armas portraying Officer K’s live-in girlfriend, the attractive product of a mathematical algorithm designed to keep citizens from feeling quite so hopeless. The Wallace Corporation has manufactured entire lines of robots suited to meet your every need. The Cuban actress may be confined to a supporting part, but her fleeting performance does more to advance the plot than her official movie credit would suggest. Her warmth offers dramatic contrast against an otherwise bleak landscape. De Armas has described her character as something of a cheerleader for Gosling’s beleaguered blade runner. I see her avatar as something more: a spirit guide for those who roam seemingly without purpose.

In taking over the reigns from Sir Ridley Scott, Villeneuve digs further into the fascia of what makes us who and what we are. In Blade Runner 2049 we are beyond the days of primitive experiments like the Voigt-Kampff Test. They are no longer helpful in separating the flesh from the synthetic. The facsimile has in fact become so convincing we hire real people as surrogate vessels (like Mackenzie Davis‘ Mariette) to live out our fantasies. The question is no longer “what makes you believe you are real?” It is now: “what reality makes you feel less alone?” As K inches ever closer to an understanding of his role in the larger scheme of things, Gosling increasingly appears to inhabit the soul of his wizened co-star. His enigmatic qualities suit this role perfectly, while the trajectory he fulfills offers a compelling new wrinkle in the narrative.

“You’ve never seen a miracle,” Sapper Morton sighs before succumbing to the inevitable. I’d beg to differ Mr. Rogue Replicant, sir, because Blade Runner 2049 is something of a miracle for those of us who carried in a healthy skepticism of sequels, both as a rule and specifically when it comes to updating a veritable classic. While some of that fear is actually confirmed in the sequel — for all the ambition, Villeneuve’s predicative never quite strikes the emotional depths of what was offered more than three decades ago, particularly in the closing moments on that rooftop in the rain — this is a logical next step that proves there’s much more story to tell. Indeed, I have seen things in this movie you people wouldn’t believe.

Recommendation: A science fiction sequel that does the brand justice. Packed to the gills with visuals that will haunt you for days and a star-studded team of accomplished actors wholly devoted to the cause, Blade Runner 2049 does the almost unthinkable in becoming not only a worthy spiritual and physical successor but as well suggesting that perhaps the greatest hurdles still lie ahead. An exciting-in-the-extreme entry for lovers of smart sci fi.   

Rated: R

Running Time: 164 mins.

Quoted: “I always knew you were special. Maybe this is how. A child. Of woman born. Pushed into the world. Wanted. Loved.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Month in Review: November ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Time sure flies when you’re posting once a month! This November I think I spent more time growing a beard than growing my list of movies I need to keep tabs on. Now that we’re officially in the swing of the holiday season, awards chatter (and those WONDERFUL Christmas jingles . . .) have picked up dramatically. And there are questions. Lots and lots of questions. What movies are you most anticipating as this year comes to a close? What movies are you going to try and avoid because of crowds? Will Ridley Scott turn a miracle with All the Money in the World? What if Dunkirk takes home Best Picture? Could it be any more poetic that the great Daniel Day Lewis is choosing to bow out of the limelight after one more collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson? And how will Phantom Thread stack up in the PTA pantheon?

There’s as much to chew on there as there was at Thanksgiving dinner. Without further ado, here’s my November in a nutshell. Movies AND music combine in this month’s round-up! Let’s do it!

Hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving!


New Posts 

New Releases: Thor: Ragnarok

Blindspot Selection: The Usual Suspects (1995)


Asbury Park in a Blur

On Saturday, November 18, my dad and I took a two-hour jaunt south to famed Asbury Park, New Jersey to catch Dream Theater on their 25th Anniversary tour commemorating the release of their classic ’92 album Images & Words. By the time we got there it was long after dark, and a relative ghost town, most of the shops along the boardwalk darkened in their off-season slumber. The show at the historic Paramount Theater was my fifth DT show overall, our second experience together and in as many years, and for me it’s the one that won’t be topped.

While I will forever lament my inability to time travel back to the mid-’90s, before the band’s front man and singer James LaBrie ruined his voice thanks to a bout of food poisoning, there’s something uniquely entertaining about the way he tries to compensate in the live setting. In his older age, for the notes he can’t hit (that F-sharp at the end of Live Another Day comes to mind) he simply substitutes volume for pitch. That tendency, along with the gesticulations, are the kinds of quirks that tend to leave the most lasting impression. That and Petrucci’s attempt to grow a Gandalfian beard. By the time I saw him, he was halfway there.

Saturday’s official setlist (for those interested):

Act I
Intro sample: “The Colonel” (taken from Two Steps from Hell’s album Skyward)
“The Dark Eternal Night” (Systematic Chaos)
“The Bigger Picture” (Dream Theater)
“Hell’s Kitchen” (Falling into Infinity)
“To Live Forever” (Images & Words b-side)
“Portrait of Tracy” (Jaco Pastorius cover by John Myung)
“As I Am” (Train of Thought) — segue in/out “Enter Sandman”
“Breaking All Illusions” (A Dramatic Turn of Events)
Intermission
Act 2 — “Happy New Year ’92!” sample
“Pull Me Under”
“Live Another Day”
(James LaBrie notes the strong whiffs of marijuana in the crowd. Proceeds to give the thumbs-up)
“Take the Time”
“Surrounded”
“Metropolis Pt1 Miracle and the Sleeper” — segue in/out Mike Mangini drum solo
“Under a Glass Moon”
“Wait for Sleep”
“Learning to Live”
Encore
“A Change of Seasons” (A Change of Seasons EP)

Another Two-fer

Coco · November 21, 2017 · Directed by Lee Unkrich; Adrian Molina · An absolute feast for the eyes and for the soul, Coco is another richly entertaining and emotionally nourishing adventure that follows a young boy in his quest to live a life just like that of his idol, the great Mexican singer/songwriter Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Unfortunately Miguel (newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) has more than stage fright to get over if he wants to make it big. For generations the Rivera family has banned music because it is believed to be the source of great emotional pain, caused when Miguel’s great-great-grandfather walked out on his wife and child to pursue a career of fame and fortune. Rejecting music outright, each subsequent offspring turned to shoemaking as a way to make ends meet, and now that burden has fallen to Miguel. Yet for him the plucking of guitar strings is as natural as putting one foot in front of the other, and soon he finds himself going to extraordinary lengths to prove his talents as well as the fundamental flaw in his family’s extant beliefs. Coco, steeped in the resplendent color and conceptual profundity of Mexico’s “Day of the Dead” festivities, offers audiences both a reliable Pixar package and a unique opportunity to experience culture as few animated films have before. Pixar isn’t taking as big a creative leap as they did when they conceived of a plot about what’s going on inside a child’s head, but they manage to arrive at a similar emotional depth with the way Coco gives equal weight to both cultural and individual values. (4.5/5)

The Babysitter · October 13, 2017 · Directed by McG · The latest offering from the director of Charlie’s Angels takes an almost perverse pleasure in serving bullies a dose of their own medicine in a violent, profane and generally antagonistic tale about an outcast teen who learns a shocking truth about his babysitter. Australian actress Samara Weaving inhabits the role of the “hot but psycho” babysitter whose trust is violated one night when young Cole (Judah Lewis) begins to spy on her when she thinks he’s gone to bed. Somewhere in this sloppily made, middlingly acted drama you may find amusing if not righteous commentary about standing up for yourself and fighting back against . . . well, cult-y babysitters who hit (and hit on) you. It might have even worked as a suggestion of where sexual frustration begins its descent into sexual deviation. Alas, the film is more immediately concerned with the cosmetic — cleavages doused in blood-syrup; abdomens scarred by sexy wounds; the generally ridiculous way people lose their heads over things. Any number of more meaningful readings could well be accidental. The Babysitter gets decent mileage out of shameless exploitation, but it very easily could have been something more than a goofily-acted male fantasy.  (2.5/5)


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: my dad’s iPhone!; http://www.impawards.com

Thor: Ragnarok

Release: Friday, November 3, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson; Craig Kyle; Christopher L. Yost

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Save yourself a pat on the back for me, Marvel. The Taika Waititi experiment has paid off and now you’ve got a great big success on your hands. Thor: Ragnarok isn’t a revelation but it is a very entertaining package, and that largely comes down to the studio investing in yet another unlikely candidate for the job. The New Zealand-born comedian-turned-director has the global audience in his hands as he sets about parodying the realm of fancily-clad, musclebound superheroes into oblivion.

Rarely do you find a franchise hitting a high note late into their run, yet here we are three films in and Ragnarok is unequivocally one of those highs. Thor (2011) had its moments but too often it took pleasure in slamming you in the gut with corny dialogue and half-hearted attempts at levity. The Dark World in 2014 overcompensated by going really heavy and really broody. In the end it was even sillier than its predecessor. Cut to another eight films deeper into the superstructure of the MCU and we finally get a Thor film that beats everyone to the punch by being the first to make fun of itself. It’s still not quite a balanced effort but Thor: Ragnarok is a much better film for using humor as its primary weapon.

From the opening scene it’s apparent things are going to work a little differently under the Kiwi’s creative leadership. In his fifth reprisal of the legendary son of Odin, Chris Hemsworth is able to find the funny in everything, including being hogtied upside-down and held captive at the hands of the fire demon Surtur on a remote planet. (Well, almost everything. He doesn’t seem to enjoy being tasered, being bound to a chair or losing his beloved Mjölnir.) It’s been two years since we’ve last seen Thor, when the Republic of Sokovia was lifted dramatically skyward during another marquee Avengers moment. He’s been scouring the Nine Realms for the remaining Infinity Stones ever since but we find him now caught in a bind.

Spewing exposition for the benefit of the audience is never a glamorous job, so Waititi figures why not let it fall to an anthropomorphic molten rock thingy. Surtur informs us that ‘Ragnarök’ — the prophesied destruction of Thor’s home world — is nigh, and that essentially nothing can stop it. Even though he Houdini’s his way out of this initial hang-up, Thor is sent on a collision course with an even bigger problem: dealing with his incredibly dysfunctional family. In tracking down Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), who is in failing health and has exiled himself from Asgard, Thor, along with half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), learn about the sister they never knew they had in Hela (Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett) as well as her imminent return to Asgard.

And it is imminent. Hopkins has barely finished his monologue before we get our first glimpse of a goddess scorned. Blanchett, resembling at the very least in her eye shadow an evil version of Canadian pop singer Avril Lavigne, comes storming on to the scene, a wicked grin transforming her naturally pretty visage. The anticipation of her return proves to be far more interesting than the return itself however, as not even Ragnarok can stem the tide of Marvel’s history of disappointing villains (though the irony of this franchise spawning arguably the entire MCU’s best baddie is never lost). Spouting the platitudes of power-hungry deities isn’t the actor’s forte, yet Blanchett is such a pro she hides her inexperience well, clearly relishing the opportunity to do something a little different. If only the writing around her character aspired to do something different as well.

The major beats of the story ping-pong us back and forth between two alien worlds, the Eden-above-Eden that is Asgard, and a garbage planet called Sakaar, a wild land that feels like an extension of a music video for Empire of the Sun. There we are walking not on a dream, but amongst the brokenness of dreams, of spirits. It’s a planet literally comprised of junk and over which Jeff Goldblum‘s Grandmaster deludedly reigns. As the resident Crazy, the Grandmaster likes to put on gladiatorial battles for his scavenging underlings to drool over. (Cue Thor’s involvement and, so as to emphasize the film’s newfound identity, his new haircut.)

Contrived writing and trailer-provided spoilers aside, this is an important detour as it introduces a pair of fringe players who end up vying for MVP of the movie. And when Waititi prioritizes entertainment over logic at almost every turn he could always use more hands on deck. In the arena we meet Korg, a warrior made out of rocks and brought to life by Waititi himself in a motion capture performance. He’s a gentle giant whose voice is guaranteed to throw you for a loop. Then there’s Tessa Thompson’s hard-drinking bounty hunter, who at the behest of the screenwriters consistently rejects Thor’s pleas for help. The Valkyrie brings a beguiling new attitude that makes her eventual turnaround not only convincing but emotionally satisfying. She needs a movie of her own.

Thor: Ragnarok is a spirited good time, and it is surely an impressive feat for a director who considers himself decidedly more indie. The guys over at Industrial Light and Magic contribute an appropriate sense of scale and the rich textures needed to make these alien environments feel lived-in. The world-building is beyond reproach, but not even Waititi’s brand of comedy is enough to cover up all the existent flaws in the design, the likes of which seem to accrue rapidly along a common fault. The tonal shift is so jarring between the events taking place on poor old vulnerable Ass-guard and those on Sakaar that the film could be clinically diagnosed as bipolar. One part of the film is unapologetically fun, the other — Hela’s brave new world — feels like Game of Thrones. Enormous man-eating wolves only solidify that impression.

It’s ironic that the third Thor film suffers from precisely the opposite problem its predecessors had. It seems almost unfair or overly harsh to criticize the new one for correcting and then overcorrecting, but the scales are nevertheless still unbalanced. The comedy is too varied for Ragnarok to be dismissed as purely asinine — you’ll find elements of slapstick coexisting with wry observational humor, and then there’s always the familiar Marvel formula for giving us a sense of power dynamics (the Hulk smash is once again invoked, and we all know that’s not something Waititi invented). Indeed, there’s much to celebrate with this movie, and while there’s nearly as much to criticize, I’d call this progress. Significant progress at that.

Recommendation: Colorful, energetic, popcorn-destroying fun. The continued adventures of Thor are given a new lease on life with the Johnny-come-lately director who seems to take advantage of the timing of his arrival. When in full comedy mode, Thor: Ragnarok is at its best but as with all of these movies, I’m not the expert. I wonder how more dedicated fans in the long run come to view movies like this, like Shane Black’s Iron Man 3. Will these movies be remembered for the history they helped shape or what they had to sacrifice in order to make room for more laughs? 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 130 mins. 

Something kinda neat: Thor’s “friend from work” line about the Hulk was suggested to Chris Hemsworth by a Make-A-Wish child who paid a visit to the set on the day the scene was filmed.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.flickeringmyth.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Month in Review: October ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Ah, nothing like putting out a Month in Review post a week late. And as you may have noticed, October was another insanely busy month of film reviewing on Thomas J. For those of you who have been able to keep up with this blistering pace, man. You all are the real MVP. And I thank you with one winky face.

😉

In this edition join me on the confession couch as I open up about major movie omissions and my inexplicably resurgent interest in watching more Independence Day. I also lament the disappearance of my all-time favorite movie candy and $6 Tuesdays.

Thor: Ragnarok — TONIGHT! See you there?


New Posts

New Releases: Stronger; The Foreigner

Blindspot Selection: Cujo (1983)


What’s Been Playing in the Background

October introduced me to Bladerunner. You read me right. I had never seen Ridley Scott’s classic science fiction epic until a few weeks ago. I instantly fell in love, but then, that was kind of my destiny. The Tears in Rain monologue in particular trapped me in a glass case of emotion. I don’t know how you really sort through your favorite movie moments of all time, but I do know that Roy Batty’s eventual acceptance of his own mortality is one of them. The plan was, of course, to see the original in advance of the premiere of Denis Villeneuve’s sequel. You haven’t missed anything there. As soon as I see 2049, you’ll know about it.

And speaking of falling in love: Stranger Things 2 will be my winter warmer for the next several weeks. This show is phenomenal and I have become so cozy in its world. I expect to find much solace in it while House of Cards, my first true Netflix love, is apparently collapsing.

But here’s where things get weird. While I’ve been procrastinating tending to my Blind Spot reviews and learning what those Nexus replicants are all about, I’ve had no such hesitation returning (again and again) to that terrible and awful and embarrassing sequel to Independence Day. (If you’re going to throw things at me after reading this, try to at least throw things that are soft. You know, pies and things of that nature. No beer bottles, please.) Anyway, yeah. It didn’t take many not-very-sober viewings to confirm that indeed Resurgence is, as the French would say, merde. But then I started to think about how dumb it was that Jeff Goldblum saved us from those little green bastards by infecting the mother ship with a computer virus . . . in an age where we were running Windows ’95.

Big Tom has realized that some things in this world just aren’t as holy as they were to Little Tom. The sequel may be in direct competition with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in terms of being 2016’s most hated movie. Audiences everywhere took this long-delayed/ill-advised sequel as a personal sleight. The writers had 20 years to prepare, apparently — so why didn’t they prepare better lines? “This is definitely bigger than the last one” is a pretty poor attempt to deflect from the fact that there’s really no justifying the aliens coming back. But, whatever. This movie has grown on me, like a benign tumor. Dr. Brakish Okun’s reappearance is the most unlikely thing ever, but I’m glad it was able to be contrived. Brent Spiner is a lot of fun in these movies. And though Liam Hemsworth is no Will Smith, I’ve also warmed to him. So here is where I stand  (and talk about damning with faint praise): Resurgence has improved from being “terrible and awful and embarrassing” to being just “terrible.”

Meanwhile, and on a less serious note (what am I talking about, this is way more serious!), my regular enjoyment of movie theater snacks has been somewhat interrupted because of Maltesers. Specifically, the disappearance thereof. My local AMC theater used to carry them. It was pretty random, though. You get shelves overflowing with American confections and then you get this one British outcast. As someone who regularly shuns concessions at the theater because things like the Dollar Tree exist and you can buy candy there for less than the mark-up price at the theater, I made the exception for these tasty little pooh-colored morsels.* What do they expect me to do now, go back to Skittles? Ugh.

This isn’t as annoying as my even-more-local Cinépolis seemingly doing away with $6 ticket Tuesdays. Down the road from me is a crummy little complex at the end of a crummy little strip mall where crummy projectors often play good movies, but those discount rates have made visits there more attractive. That theater has changed ownership more times than I can count, yet $6 night has been the one constant. (Well that and the fact that you really don’t want to touch anything once inside the theater.) The price may have only gone up a dollar, but what’s to stop it going up again? And if it does, I may have to start prioritizing my theater trips. It may well be time I start ravaging Netflix for more alternatives. Maybe I’ll become a more regular patron of AMC if it does one of two things: 1) diversifies its weekly showings or, better yet 2) BRINGS BACK MY DAMNED MALTESERS!


Double Feature

Baby Driver · June 28, 2017 · Directed by Edgar Wright · If all you need is one killer track, I choose Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. This high-energy heist film leaks charisma all over the road as it follows a youthful and talented getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) who burns rubber day and night for Doc, a shady mob boss played by Kevin Spacey. When a meet-cute with a diner waitress (Lily James) pumps the brakes on Baby’s aimless drifting, Doc’s Good Luck Charm must make a choice between a life of crime and an uncertain future with Debora. The story’s assembled out of parts from countless other films of course, but it’s the synergy between the production’s aural and visual elements that not only make Baby Driver instantly engaging, but consistently and almost unreasonably entertaining. The choreography on display is such that Wright’s new movie becomes more a musical sans the random dance interludes, one where the song selection may be important but the placement of those songs is where the true artistry lies. Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss’ editing entrances with rhythmic precision and the director’s familiar energy and passion ensure the project steers as far away as possible from self-conscious affectedness, while barreling down the road with purpose and a great sense of humor toward something more pure and honest. One of the summer’s most feel-good and bittersweetly fleeting escapades. (4/5)

Only the Brave · October 20, 2017 · Directed by Joseph Kosinski · Only the Brave presents Mother Nature as an ultimate and merciless foe as a group of dedicated firefighters seek to prove themselves among America’s most elite responders. From the director of such vacuous (if gorgeous) sci fi fare as Tron: Legacy and Oblivion comes an altogether more impressive work, one that deftly balances visual spectacle with touching human drama. Joseph Kosinski’s steadily absorbing tribute pulls inspiration from the GQ article by Sean Flynn, dedicating the bulk of its two-hour running time to fleshing out a handful of the 20-member Granite Mountain Hotshots, a Prescott, Arizona-based squad who faced the ultimate test when they came up against the infamously deadly Yarnell Hill fire in the summer of 2013. The cinematic treatment benefits from an all-star cast who provide great depth to broadly drawn characters, with Josh Brolin leading the charge as the gruff but likable crew supervisor Eric Marsh, torn between his professional and personal commitments. He’s got a lot of support from the likes of James Badge Dale and Taylor Kitsch who contribute to the Band of Brothers-esque camaraderie but arguably overshadowing them all is Miles Teller as Brendan ‘Donut’ McDonough, a former heroin addict who vows to turn his life around by seeking employment with the volunteer fire department. Only the Brave may be the beneficiary of the gut-wrenching facts upon which it is based (the likes of which you are strongly encouraged to ignore until after you’ve experienced the film), and yet the contributions of Academy Award winners Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly are as indelible as they’ve ever been. (4/5)

 

* If you’ve never had Maltesers, don’t let anyone try to convince you they’re the English equivalent of Whoppers. That’s a HEINOUS lie.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com

The Foreigner

Release: Friday, October 13, 2017

→Theater 

Written by: David Marconi

Directed by: Martin Campbell

Martin Campbell has been behind two of my all-time favorite Bond movies, Casino Royale and Goldeneye (incidentally two films that also saw a changing of the guard amongst the ranks of the 00 elite), and now he’s responsible for one of my favorite Jackie Chan movies ever. The Legend is back, and as The Foreigner he’s kicking ass and taking names in ways we haven’t seen before.

Before going any further, before my bias toward the Kiwi’s new movie renders me a totally unreliable resource, I should point out that this is the same director who made Vertical Limit, the face-palming result of woefully apparent and inadequate research that turned the rock climbing community into the laughingstock of audiences everywhere. The critical and commercial failure that was Green Lantern in 2011 further sullied the good Campbell name. Fortunately those are stains that have come out in the wash. The Foreigner is his first theatrical release since then, and it’s one of his best.

The New Zealand-born filmmaker is arguably an entertainer first and a director second, as not even his lesser output — Vertical frikkin’ Limit included — fail to provide at least some degree of escapism. The Foreigner offers something a little different in that regard. Though the movie does at some point become farcical, the viewer can’t afford to completely detach, much less get comfortable, for it is the gnarly landscape of our present reality over which the narrative cautiously treads. Steeped in the world of dastardly complex politics in an age of global terrorism, the story tells of a retired Vietnam War special forces op named Quan (Chan) who seeks justice for his daughter who is killed in a London department store bombing.

Hong Kong’s biggest action star subverts roughly 30 years of expectation by portraying a father pushed to the brink of sanity, a man who tiptoes the line of morality in his quest to expose the identities of the culprits — a group who call themselves “The Authentic IRA.” In The Foreigner, Chan goes full-on Liam Neeson, a brute force awakened from slumber whose very particular set of skills, shaped by his survival of Vietnamese internment camps as well as a life overflowing with personal tragedy, are called upon when he finally loses everything. So, yeah. Rush Hour this ain’t. Reportedly Campbell had to make two separate trips to China in order to convince Chan this is a role he should take.

Not everything is unfamiliar. At 63, and in post-Lifetime Achievement Award territory, Chan is still risking life and limb for the sake of bona fide performance art. The stunts aren’t as spectacular as they once were, that’s true, but I’ll run that number by you again. He’s 63 and still jumping out of second-floor windows, narrowly avoiding death like a parkour expert in their early 20s. It’s as if death wishes are part of some non-negotiable clause in Chan’s career contract. Separating this role from most, however, is that added edge of emotion that sees that mischievous grin of his traded in for a face twisted in grief and pain.

Chan’s not the only one turning in a surprisingly impactful performance. Quan’s queries, which in the language of these familiar action movies become obsessions, eventually lead him into the office of Irish deputy minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan). He’s an intimidating man with a dark history to match, one made public by his own admission but the true extent to which it remains relevant becomes a mystery only Quan seems prepared (or desperate enough) to investigate. Aging suits Brosnan well, particularly in a more complex role like this where he appears to be bad at keeping the peace — let all The Troubles be forgot — but better at playing the sadistic puppeteer.

As the story unfolds it relies increasingly on these performances. Throughout we become bombarded with subplots detailing the total lack of trust between the Irish and the British, where acts of terrorism are perpetrated in the name of government favors and special interests. There’s a lot of orchestration going on behind the scenes, most memorably highlighted in an intensely heated exchange between Hennessy and a rogue IRA member played by Dermot Crowley. In the end, it’s the cat-and-mouse game between the film’s two stars that gives us reason to invest. The politics may become a bit silly, but these guys really aren’t fucking around. I enjoyed The Foreigner probably more than I should have, for that reason alone.

Recommendation: Fans of The Legend and the James Bond that M once lovingly called “a relic of the Cold War” should have a lot of time for a movie like The Foreigner. As a story it’s familiar, but Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan challenge the assertion that a cliché movie is a bad movie.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Politicians and terrorists, they are just two ends of the same snake. What’s the difference?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Month in Review: September ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

As Green Day’s very own Billy Joe Armstrong once whined: wake me up when September ends. (I guess I overslept, because it’s now October and all the trees are thinking about getting naked.) If you’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world right now, Setbacktember has been a disheartening month, politically, socially and morally. But I have literally edited myself ten times here trying to figure out a good way of expressing my thoughts about recent events without going on a rant. I failed, epically. (If you want to read one of those drafts out of morbid curiosity, here’s a link.)* There’s already too much negative energy in the room right now anyway, so I’d rather talk about the good movies I’ve seen this month. While escapement has been rather difficult to say the least, here is what I have been seeing/doing/being a snob about.

It’s important right now to not feel de-feeted.


New Posts

New Releases: What Happened to Monday (Seven Sisters); mother!; Wind River

Blindspot Selection: Reservoir Dogs (1992) · The nucleus of everything Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs is an economically produced, yet chatty and hyper-violent crime thriller that takes place almost entirely in a single room. Its plot focuses squarely upon a group of jewelry thieves who, after bungling a seemingly simple job, suspect a traitor to be in their midst.

Though rough around the edges, this bold and brazen feature debut demonstrates Tarantino’s EAR for natural dialogue, not to mention characters that feel plucked right from the seedy streets of a more dangerous side of America. While certain scenes that tend to ramble on offer a little too much transparency with regards to budgetary constraints (his overhead famously rose from a very modest $30,000 to $1.5 million after actor Harvey Keitel signed on as a producer and agreed to take part), these small-time, thin-tied crooks whose volatile, panicky temperaments make for often uncomfortable and unpredictable viewing, anchor the movie. They’re sloppy, but they’re at least icons of criminal slop. Between Steve Buscemi’s “I don’t tip waitresses” Mr. Pink and me discovering that Sean Penn has a younger brother, and can do C-R-A-Z-Y so disturbingly naturally it may not even be acting, I might well have discovered the one Tarantino movie I will constantly be surprised by no matter how many times I watch it. This shouldn’t work as well as it does.

(Also, why is Tim Roth playing a guy named ‘Mr. Orange?’ He spends far more time being red!)

A Four-Pack of Film Reviews

Good Time · August 25, 2017 · Directed by the Safdie brothers · The criminal life has never looked so stressful and unsexy in the Safdie brothers’ highly emotive and constantly subversive look at life as a desperate youngster trying to survive on the streets of a side of New York you don’t usually see in the movies. The film appears to provide rising star Robert Pattinson another showcase for his not inconsiderable dramatic talents, but what it actually does is offer the former Twilight star his best shot of Oscar glory in years. Possibly the best he’ll ever have. Gah, if only the movie had better timing. As Constantine “Connie” Nikas, Pattinson reaches deeper than he ever has to construct the profile of a truly desperate young man, a criminal lowlife who does well to reject every attempt the viewer makes to feel for him. Connie finds himself enduring a night from hell when he makes the rounds trying to free his mentally handicapped younger brother Nick (Benny Safdie) from a Rikers Island holding cell in the aftermath of a botched bank robbery. The energy of the film is what strikes you most, radiating directly from Pattinson who rushes about the scene like a Tasmanian devil, destroying lives and burning out like a comet himself in the process. It’s quite simply an awesome performance and the film essentially lives or dies on whether you find him effective. The Safdie brothers are a duo you’re going to want to keep an eye on going forward. (4.5/5) 

The Big Sick · July 14, 2017 · Directed by Michael Showalter · A romantic comedy standing defiantly against the odds, this based-on-a-real-life-courtship offers more than just the deets about how Pakistani-born actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani met his wife (screenwriter Emily V. Gordon). Cultures clash and toes are trodden upon — often painfully — as Kumail (playing himself) and Emily (Zoe Kazan) struggle to reconcile their radically different upbringings along with the expectations heaped upon them both by family and society at large. This uncommonly emotionally resonant and surprisingly enlightening story is not always pleasant to endure. It often feels like real heartache, and that’s a compliment of the highest order when it comes to this genre. One of the year’s greatest surprises, and yet more proof that Nanjiani is among the more disarming comics working today. (4/5) 

Their Finest · April 7, 2017 · Directed by Lone Scherfig · Lovingly crafted and superbly acted by a likable ensemble led by Gemma Arterton, Danish director Lone Scherfig’s testament to the power of propagandistic filmmaking also doubles as a rousing tribute to the strength and courage of one woman who managed to ascend to a position most women living in 1940s Britain could only dream of — being regarded as equal amongst their male peers. Aspects of Catrin Cole’s personal and professional lives are rather well-balanced, though it’s undoubtedly her rise to prominence as a screenwriter on the production of an epic reenactment of the Dunkirk evacuations that weighs heavier here. While Sam Claflin’s contributions as an already-established screenwriter who initially struggles to curb his chauvinism are earnest, his increasing prominence threatens to undermine the film’s seriousness of purpose in its thematic explorations of female empowerment and independence. Still, Their Finest is just too finely acted to become caught up in the lesser details. Arterton is complemented by an almost exclusively British cast, with Jake Lacy providing some American color to proceedings as an Allied hero/wooden actor. (3.5/5)

It · September 8, 2017 · Directed by Andy Muschietti · The horror event of the year failed to strike fear into my heart (though that’s not to discredit Bill Skarsgård as the titular freak, who is kinda-sorta fun). A tediously long and uninteresting slog through horror cliches, Andy Muschietti’s highly-anticipated adaptation of Stephen King’s epic horror novel plays out like a haunted house attraction in which you are constantly being led around by a tour guide who tells you you can’t touch anything. (Out of fear of ruining the magic, I would assume.) As everyone knows by now, It of course isn’t over. Chapter One merely describes the initial encounter with a shape-shifting demonic entity from King’s imagined Macroverse, in which the teen protagonists must do battle with not only Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but a ring of local bullies whose threat often and ironically drowns out that of the central villain in his own movie. If only the kids (minus Jaeden Lieberher‘s “Stuttering Bill”) facing down their demons were in the slightest bit developed, maybe I would have been able to use my heart instead of my brain to get over Muschietti’s disappointingly workmanlike treatment. (2/5) 

Blogging News

More music might be in the future on Thomas J! We are drawing nearer to the one-month mark to my next Dream Theater show, this time in historic Asbury Park, New Jersey. That post will drop sometime late November. As we’ve seen lately with how I follow through on Blog-related promises, I can’t capital-P promise, but how bout I just lower-case-p promise for now?

Word.

* Ha! you got duped; there is no link, plus now you’re wasting time reading this!

Photo credits: http://www.dailydot.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Wind River

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Taylor Sheridan

Wind River is a haunting little crime thriller that creeps into your soul and nestles there. It’s brought to you by the writer of Sicario and last year’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, which may tell you everything you need to know about this movie, based on true events about a tracker working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services who teams up with a rookie FBI agent to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding the death of a young Native American woman.

The journeyman actor-turned-screenwriter trades the scorching temperatures of the southern U.S. for the bitter chill of wintry Wyoming. Tumbleweeds for evergreens; cowboy hats for furry down jackets. The harsh terrain changes but Sheridan, who has proven his worth in a very limited amount of time, fortunately does not. He remains committed to the same gritty, humanistic perspective that has helped identify him as among the most powerful emergent voices in Hollywood.

As we have come to be spoiled by the writer-director, certain things are givens: impeccable acting, complex morality, sympathetic tonality. Wind River operates most apparently as a straightforward police procedural but that’s just the part of the iceberg that’s visible. What the screenplay hides beneath the surface is where the film is at its most affecting, not just as a deeply nuanced exploration of personal grief but as damning evidence of the marginalization of Native Americans.

Wind River tells a story about fictional people; however, as a title card at the end of the film suggests, this could be the story of any one of the thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of women who have disappeared from Indian reservations across the country. As of today, it is not known how many Native American women go missing or what even becomes of them, as they remain the only demographic for which the U.S. Department of Justice does not compile that data.

While Kelsey Asbille as the victim — a teenaged resident named Natalie — provides a face to these unknowns, Jeremy Renner proves once again to be a major comfort. He injects warmth into an environment characterized by precisely the opposite. His Cory Lambert has earned the trust and respect of many of the residents of Wind River, a plot of land in central-western Wyoming home to members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Cory’s dedicated years to protecting them and their livestock from the predatory animals that roam this yawning expanse of pillowy hills and knife-edge ridges. Of course, he has done this at the expense of his own family, a familiar but still effective flaw of character that grafts perfectly with the film’s thematic explorations.

Cory’s commitment to the community deepens when FBI Special Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up on the scene, determined to take control of what appears to her to be a sexual assault case. Her woeful unpreparedness for the conditions, though initially played off as broadly humorous, ultimately proves to be the first of many obstacles that will truly test her resolve. Gender dynamics come into play as Banner has something to prove as an outsider in this world. Olsen plays her hand perfectly, her sizable ego soon humbled by taking bullets in subzero temperatures and by listening to the stories of the people who call this frozen hell home.

Renner is reliable and Olsen makes for interesting company, but you cannot overlook Gil Birmingham, who re-teams with Sheridan after playing the butt of every Jeff Bridges joke in Hell or High Water. That’s in stark contrast to his brief but dramatically hefty role here, in which he portrays the victim’s father as a man consumed by grief. An early scene in which Banner is cringingly unaware of her aggressive style confesses to the delicate nature of her assignment. It’s a traumatic moment, with Birmingham’s not-so-quiet sobbing memorably given privacy by remaining just out of shot.

The locals call Wind River the “land of you’re on your own.” That’s a harsh lesson for Banner to have to take back with her to Las Vegas, but for everyone else it’s just a fact of life. As a boy who grew up on a ranch before his family lost it to the economic downturn of the 1990s, Sheridan has a pretty firm grasp on man’s relationship with mother nature and how tenuous a relationship it is. That manifests powerfully here as well, but Wind River evolves into something much more personal and even profound than a tale of survival. That old Darwinian theory is a byproduct of the story, but it’s not the story.

Wind River is about being found, being recognized. Being heard. And the heavy sigh in which the film ends echoes back decades of silence. The kind of silence that kills, by madness or by wolf, by pulmonary edema or just plain-old ignorance.

Recommendation: Taylor Sheridan rewards viewers once again with an absorbing, emotionally stirring and deeply disturbing crime drama based on real events. Both a tribute to the untold number of victims as well as a culture that has had indignity upon indignity heaped upon it since the appearance of Anglo-American settlers, Wind River feels especially timely if you take into consideration recent headlines, such as those involving the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their continued battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort, you get used to the pain if you let yourself. I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just . . it hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away. That’s what I wanted this seminar to do, make it go away. The instructor comes up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, ‘I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. Your daughter’s gone. Now the good news: as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, you’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you?’ He said, ‘that’s what not accepting this will rob from you.’ If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain. Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com