Wind River (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
While not the most exciting mystery-thriller, “Wind River” excels in mood and atmosphere, successfully capturing the essence of how it might be like to live in an Indian reservation in Wyoming during the dead of winter. It is for the patient, detail-oriented audience. Those willing to look closer are rewarded with a specific experience. Credit goes to writer-director Taylor Sheridan for choosing not to make the material so pedestrian that the mystique is diluted to the point where an otherwise intriguing story becomes dull, just another case-of-the-week to be solved and then forgotten.
The case involves a possible murder of an eighteen-year-old Native American (Kelsey Asbille) whose frozen body is found by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), an experienced tracker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Due to the nature and location of the potential crime, Special Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is sent by the FBI to assess the scene and determine whether a murder, in fact, had been committed. But Banner must swim upstream because Wind River, as a community, has rules of its own and a unique idea of justice, too. Not everyone is impressed simply because one has a badge.
Although a mystery-thriller in its core, the screenplay provides plenty of attention when it comes to the partnership between the tracker and the outsider. For a while, admittedly, I found the manner in which Banner is written to be off-putting, distracting at times. Clearly lacking in experience, especially in snowy terrain, there is such a great imbalance in the supposed partnership that I felt Banner needed Lambert more than he needed her. In movies like this, I tend to weigh the reasons why the partnership works and what characteristics either person are able to bring to the table so that they are able to reach logical conclusions.
Eventually, however, details about Lambert’s past is revealed, involving a family tragedy of his own, that slowly it begins to make sense as to why he is so patient with the rookie FBI agent. In a way, it communicates that perhaps we, too, should be more patient with Banner. As the material unfolds, particularly during the latter half, we start to see why the pair is a solid match despite Banner remaining green. The more I thought about it, the more I enjoyed the dynamics because most films within the genre tend to make or create an impression that the partnership equal. This time, and upon closer inspection, Lambert and Banner’s inequality itself makes the dynamics interesting.
The cinematography is also a standout. There are numerous shots of the land being blanketed by snow which serve as punctuations between moments of puzzle pieces being put in their rightful places. These images provide an overall feeling that although the reservation has its beauty, it also has something foreboding and a certain unwelcoming feeling about it. I enjoyed that some similarities are drawn between the reservation and the outside world. For example, the level of brutality in terms of crimes committed and how family members, in their own way, respond to devastating news regarding their deceased loved ones. There is no one correct way to mourn.
“Wind River” may unfold slowly and the tone is rather languid. Clearly, it is not for the common public consumption. But I argue that because of this approach coupled with an intelligent script and solid performances, the film offers a transportive experience. At one point, I caught myself feeling cold because the camera is so willing to transfix on certain images like the snowy mountains, how domesticated animals gather together when hungry predators are around, the hardened ice around the mutilated corpse being cut with a chainsaw. Peer closer and appreciate the level of imagination within a seemingly conventional crime-thriller.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Clearly influenced by exceptional visual storytellers such as Kubrick, Malick, and Spielberg, “Arrival” is one of the most curious and profound science fiction films within the past ten years. It makes intelligent choices throughout, it is consistently grounded in realism, and it works both as entertainment and a statement piece about how humanity tends to respond when confronted with the unknown. Yet despite the fact that it is pointed in how fearing we are as a species, ultimately it offers an optimistic message. It is a work that highlights the importance of education and a willingness to pursue knowledge for these will define our future.
Under Denis Villeneuve’s confident and purposeful direction, the picture grabs us right from the opening minutes using a familiar template. Twelve black monoliths have arrived on Earth and the intentions of those inside are unclear. The world having just declared to be under a state of emergency, various countries where the extraterrestrial aircrafts appear decide to maintain open communication in order to try to figure out what the aliens want. In the US, Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) seeks the help of a linguist and a physicist, Drs. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), respectively. They airlift to the farmlands of Montana to establish contact.
Notice how the performances are almost subdued, melancholy, despite incredible events happening all around. It is almost as if the characters are in a constant state of whispering, accompanied by often dim but tightly controlled lighting and shadows. It is an interesting tactic so that we look into the screen a little closer, listen a bit more, feel inner turmoils of those processing a history-defining, life-changing event. By making the characterizations quite small, the importance of the event is all the more amplified. The tension builds, it twists, and it is released at just the perfect moments.
I admired the honesty in the picture’s portrayal of academics. Here, there is no crazed scientist with messy hair who talks really fast and receives confused looks every time he or she spoke. Instead, it shows the linguist and physicist as regular people who are given specific jobs at the military site. They just so happen to be highly intelligent and great at what they do. Sometimes they are shown on the field and other times they simply must sit on their desks for hours in front of brightly lit computers and stacks of papers, trying to make sense or attempting to put the pieces of the puzzle to make a relatively coherent conclusion. In many scenes, they look rundown, exhausted, craving a good night’s rest.
The look of the otherworldly beings, called the Heptapods, are inspired. Even though they do not have a defined face—we see mostly tentacle-looking things functioning as legs—in just about every scene we feel personality emanating from them through the way limbs move, the sounds they make, the various symbols they create. Adams creates a most convincing rapport with them and the scenes where Dr. Banks makes an effort to figure out whether the aliens can truly understand specific aspects of language are so fascinating to see unfold. In a way, these scenes are an extension of Dr. Banks and her students in a lecture hall—which was interrupted upon the day of the monoliths’ arrival.
Based on the award-winning short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang and screenplay by Eric Heisserer, “Arrival” takes risks by touching upon philosophical musings during the latter third but digesting them in such a way that makes sense for the story and its themes. To say more about its brilliant twist would do this thought-provoking and skillfully made film a terrible injustice.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Eleven children are missing and the town is desperate to hold someone responsible. Despite a lack of evidence, they welcome anyone in suspicion of being a witch to be burned at the stake. To gain control of the madness, the mayor hires Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton), siblings who hunt witches for a living. They discover that a sabbath called The Blood Moon, led by Muriel (Famke Janssen), a dark witch, is to occur in three days and one more child, a girl born in April, will be kidnapped for sacrifice.
A sinking feeling enveloped my senses while watching “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” written and directed by Tommy Wirkola. Instead of being a fun, silly, and engaging action-fantasy, the picture is largely composed of random scenes of ostentatious–at times gratuitous–violence. Meanwhile, the story moves slower than a snail’s pace. By the time the third act comes around, it is near impossible to care about what will transpire.
There is no strong connective tissue to pull the scenes together in such a way that is practical with respect to its own universe. As a result, it is often choppy. To compensate, when the next scene begins, there is almost always an attempt at explaining what is going on and why characters are taking certain courses of action. It gets boring real quick because it rarely breaks away from this approach.
The script is inconsistent and the dialogue is as dead as a fish that has been out of the water for a week. Characters like the siblings are allowed to utter anachronistic phrases which, I guess, is supposed to make them sound cool or modern, but others–though not all of them–speak with archaic tongues. Further, there is no punchline in the would-be amusing remarks. Perhaps the contrast might have worked if the screenplay had had a solid grip with its universe. Instead, it sounds like the filmmakers are trying to appeal to or impress the younger audiences, specifically those who crave only empty calories of visual acrobatics, instead of treating their work with dignity.
My favorite character is a troll named Edward (voiced by Derek Mears). He is so ugly but he has such a presence. Unlike the witches and the witch hunters, the troll does not pose as if it were in a photoshoot after a big action scene. It just walks away and when the attention is back on the humans, my mind goes back to the creature with gigantic face and hands. I started to think about how the film might have had a bit of an edge if the story were told through the troll’s point of view, a reclusive being feared by humans and treated by witches as slaves.
There is a subplot involving Hansel and Gretel’s history regarding their parents and, of course, a house made up of confections. But the subplot is not neatly tied into the main story. It simply appears and disappears whenever it is convenient. By the end, the whole thing is as mind-numbingly dull as it is frustrating because its potential just sits there.
Bourne Legacy, The (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
Eric Byer (Edward Norton), a retired colonel of the U.S. Air Force, is assigned to analyze, determine, and contain the damage that Jason Bourne started after information about the Treadstone and Blackbriar programs have been exposed to the public. He is also in charge of protecting the interests of the Outcome project which involves pharmaceuticals that have the capacity to enhance a person’s physicality and intelligence. Enter Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), one of the select participants of the program who relies on the drugs for his training. His stock has run out and in his attempt to get some more from Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), he becomes Eric Byer’s primary target.
Imagine being struck by a bat on the back of the head and then immediately being asked to solve a rather complicated jigsaw puzzle. That is how I felt while watching the first act of “The Bourne Legacy,” based on the screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Dan Gilroy, so early in the game but we are already neck-deep in the secret intelligence politics and seething frustrations of the officials in charge of trying to figure out who knows what and what can be done to prevent a bad situation from turning much worse.
The intercutting between Byer’s desperation to keep a lid on whatever is going on and Cross’ adventures in the snowy mountains of Alaska does not work because the latter is executed in a much more interesting manner than the former. Scowls and intense glares in a professional environment grow very dull quite quickly when the reasons behind the muted commotions and conflicting motivations are not always clear. I longed for the picture shift its focus on Cross and his interactions with an enigmatic man in the cabin (Oscar Isaac). There is a palpable tension between the two men, one friendly and the other reticent, because we are not quite sure how they are going to react to one another. One gets up from the table and our eyes are drawn to him, especially his limbs, because we expect them to duke it out any second.
Aside from the chilling killings in a research facility, the middle section sags like a deflated balloon. It is a mercilessly drawn-out rising action. The point where Dr. Shearing and Cross decide to work together has a slight sense of immediacy, but it feels a little bit too forced. For example, instead of being immersed in the duo’s struggles to go undetected at an airport, I was constantly reminded that I was watching an action-thriller because there are plenty of familiar elements designed to make us nervous for the characters like the two of them having to line up and get their boarding passes stamped. Of course they are bound to make it through the checkpoints. However, there is no surprise waiting for them–and us–once they do.
The momentum manages to pick up a notch with the scenes set in Manila. While the expected rooftop foot chase sequence proves underwhelming, the chase involving a motorcycle and a police car is an exciting wake-up call. I loved the way the film captures the place’s lack of space which renders the drivers impossible to safely maneuver their vehicles. When we are allowed to appreciate the lack of distance between the machines, there is a real sense of danger from the images shared.
“The Bourne Legacy” reshuffles familiar elements that have come to define the series. We know these elements work but it is the handling that it is ultimately lacking. If the intention is to reboot the series, I am not convinced that using the same bag of tricks is the smartest decision because Jason Bourne has cast such a large shadow, what once felt new is now hackneyed and formulaic. The resolution suggests that we will see these characters again. However, with such a lackadaisical resolution, if it is granted to be called as such, I cannot help but wonder if I really want to.
Avengers, The (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Tesseract, a cube with the potential energy to destroy the planet, was obtained by the egomaniacal Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from S.H.I.E.L.D., Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistic Division, led by one-eyed Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Overpowered by Loki’s strength and otherworldly powers, Fury sought help from Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) eventually joining the party. Based on the screenplay by Joss Whedon, comprehensive character development in “The Avengers” was simply out of the question because each superhero contained an interesting personality filled with quirks and unique sense of humor. The main question was how to keep the story interesting apart from massively entertaining explosions and jaw-dropping action sequences. I found that the film was similar to a great swimmer. Because of Whedon’s direction, the film knew how to pace itself so it didn’t drown in its own ambitions. When the movie kept its head underwater by delivering the intense and often breathtaking battle scenes, they were allowed to play out to our satisfaction without overstaying their welcome. For example, the duel between Iron Man and Thor was simply wonderful to watch. Out of the six, not only did the two of them have the biggest egos, they were my least favorite characters compared to the rest. (Personally, listening to Thor speak is as boring as reading about the history of differential equations hybridized with Shakespearean lingo.) Yet it didn’t matter because I was so involved in what was happening. Their brawl, and of those to come, was within the story’s context. Thor, prior to joining the group, wanted to convince his adopted brother against enslaving Earth while Iron Man worked for a cause and had to deliver Loki to the proper authorities. When the movie gasped for air, they were quick and memorable. The sense of humor stood out because the script played upon the elementary personalities of each hero or heroine. For instance, the material had fun with what the audience expect of Black Widow and her sex. The script was balanced in subverting the typicalities of women’s roles in superhero movies, given that they’re usually the romantic interest or object of desire, and remaining loyal to her character as a woman on a global and personal mission. Since she, along with Hawkeye, did not have a stand-alone movie, having not read the comics, I appreciated that her character was given a little bit more depth than her counterparts. While there were still unanswered questions about her history and the intricacies of what she hoped to gain by joining S.H.I.E.L.D., by the end, I felt like I knew her as well as the other guys. I felt like she had her own stamp in the dynamics of the group, that they wouldn’t be complete without her. Naturally, the film’s climax involved a lot of extirpation of expensive skyscrapers. But the main difference between the destruction seen here as opposed to, say, Michael Bay’s “Transformers,” was the action didn’t feel incomprehensible. Things blew up but the quick cuts weren’t injected with multiple shots of epinephrine. Each jump of perspective had something enjoyable to offer instead of relying on a false sense of excitement. In other words, the destruction was actively made interesting instead of allowing it on autopilot. “The Avengers” could have used more Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), less speeches between Loki and Thor, and an explanation on how The Hulk became more manageable toward the end. Nevertheless, such negatives are so small compared to the cyclopean roller coaster ride that the filmmakers had given us. When I was a kid, I played with a lot of action figures. Some even revolved around crazy narratives I made up, one of which involved a live caterpillar and beetle destroying Legos that stood for Gotham City. I must say, the sight of The Hulk tossing Loki around like a piece of spaghetti made me feel like a kid again.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
A relatively simple retrieval turned excessively complicated when three IMF agents failed to realize that there was another group interested in acquiring the same documents they were after. One of them ended up dead (Josh Holloway) so it was up to the other two to rescue Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) from a Berlin prison. While the prison break was successful, Hunt, Benji (Simon Pegg), and Jane (Paula Patton) were blamed for the bombing of The Kremlin which meant, in the least, a breach of international relations between Russia and the United States. As a result, the president issued Ghost Protocol: a disavowal of all IMF agents and their activities, which implied they were now rogue agents and, if captured, to be treated as terrorists. It was up to Hunt and company to exonerate the IMF from unjust blame and to prevent the real terrorists from starting a nuclear war. “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” written by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, was the expected fast-paced and globe-trotting action-adventure escapism with a myriad of twists to spare, proof that the franchise is worth continuing given that it has a strong script and is led by a director with a keen eye for detail and a solid grasp between thrill and suspense. Excellence was prevalent in the first hour and a half. The scene inside the Kremlin where serious Hunt and hilarious Benji had to set up an optical illusion in the hallway using advanced gadgetry, making them invisible to the guard as they broke into a vault, was genius. The scene was done without any dialogue and almost no sound but it garnered so much nerve-wracking tension, a beep on the computer or a silent opening of a door felt as threatening as watching someone put a gun on another person’s head, pulling the trigger, but no bullet comes out. Just a deafening click. Another scene I found myself very engaged in was when Ethan chased a terrorist through a sandstorm in the magnificently urban Dubai. Talk about using the environment as an inspiration for an action sequence. It was a typical cat-and-mouse chase but, like the first scene, made exponentially complicated when sand and wind were raging all over the streets which made our protagonist blind to potential threats like cars swooshing by. However, the film wasn’t without important missing pieces. I would’ve liked to have gotten to know more about the villains. Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux), a diamond collector, killed Jane’s partner in the field. While it was very exciting to watch them duke it out in a posh Dubai–and extremely, vomit-inducingly high–hotel room, if we had known Sabine’s background a bit more, either she was painted as more ruthless and cunning or, more interestingly, slightly more sympathetic, then it just wouldn’t be about Jane wanting revenge for someone she lost which, by the way, grew tired as the movie went on. Sentimentality was not this installment’s forté. I was more interested in the relationship between Hunt and Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst bearing a heavy personal secret, who may or may not be a double agent. Furthermore, Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), the leading terrorist, ultimately felt like a henchman. It was odd that didn’t we get to see Hendricks and Hunt speak to each other. Not one word. Regardless, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” directed by Brad Bird, had enough highs that gave me chills with how good it was. And guess what? It made me laugh, too.
★★ / ★★★★
Powerful ruler Odin (Anthony Hopkins) had two sons, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), with two very different personalities. Thor couldn’t wait to be king of Asgard. Wielding absolute power, in a symbol of a throne, was at the top of his priorities. Loki, on the other hand, was the quiet one. His actions were preceded by thorough thinking. However, there was brewing jealousy from his end. When Thor and his friends (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander) had unwisely broken a truce and caused a new war against the Frost Giants, Odin banished Thor to Earth to learn about humility and what it meant to be a great leader. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Thor” was unexpectedly comedic. I actually enjoyed the comedy, especially when sarcastic Darcy (Kat Dennings) was on screen, more than the action scenes themselves. Watching the action sequences, although supported by grand special and visual effects, failed to get me to become emotionally invested. I believe it had something to do with the fact that Thor’s evolution from a bellicose warrior to a more controlled leader wasn’t fully convincing. What did being romantically involved have to do with becoming an effective king? From what I gathered, he simply grew weak in the knees whenever he was next to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a fellow researcher of Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), one of the three people Thor met when he landed on Earth. And given that love was the answer to everything, I failed to understand why she would be attracted to him other than the fact that he had a nice set of abs and biceps. She was supposedly smart but her intelligence was thrown out the window the moment he took off his shirt. It was insulting. The director didn’t take enough time, other than one or two short scenes, to explore the relationship between the two lovers. Jane was supposed to be our conduit so that we would ultimately care about about the title character. As for Thor’s friends in Asgard, I wondered how they could stand him. Surely being a prince wasn’t enough to earn their loyalties. After leading them to a suicide mission and narrowly escaping, none of them questioned Thor’s ability to make smart decisions. Didn’t they have minds of their own? Instead of weighing the complexities of the somewhat cheesy story, I found myself focusing more on spotting other Avengers characters like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and references to the Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man.” What “Thor” lacked was the crucial journey designed to win us over. When he was on Earth, he didn’t learn what it meant to be human. He just developed a crush. It’s a bad sign when we find ourselves feeling nothing when Thor faced incredible danger.
Town, The (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
An adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s book “Prince of Thieves,” writer-director Ben Affleck hemled “The Town,” a story about four bank robbers (Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Slaine, Owen Burke) in Charlestown pursued by a determined FBI agent (Jon Hamm). In the opening scene, the four criminals did what they normally didn’t do: take a woman (Rebecca Hall) as a hostage because someone tripped the alarm. Later, in an attempt to ascertain if she knew of their identities, Doug “accidentally” met the woman they took hostage and the two fell in love. I’ve read reviews comparing this film to Michael Mann’s “Heat” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” but I don’t think “The Town” is quite at the caliber of those two. While it did make an entertaining commercial heist film, I didn’t think it was as gritty as it wanted to portray. I wished the material had dug its nails into the characters a lot deeper. By putting more pressure on them, I think it would have been more successful at showing us who these characters really were. I really thought about the importance of character development in this picture because in one of the scenes, Doug and his crew used police uniform as a disguise to successfully steal money for their boss (the fascinatingly menacing Pete Postlethwaite). It meant that cops and criminals were essentially the same, their similarities are (or should be) more pronounced the more we looked into them. But, no matter how hard I tried, that’s not what I saw or felt while watching “The Town.” I thought it spent too much of its time focusing on the romance between Affleck and Hall which I understood as necessary because Doug was the conscience of his crew. In the end, I felt uneasy rooting for Doug because the film tried to sell that he was a good guy when he was really not. There’s a difference between sympathizing with a bad guy and masking the bad guy into a good guy. I believe “The Town” crossed that line. However, I recommend “The Town” because I was always interested in what was happening on screen. Aside from some stupid decisions done by smart characters, such as Doug choosing to be a bystander at a critical time instead of running away as fast as possible, I felt something for each of them. Furthermore, I noticed that the acting was strong and I was surprised with some performances, especially by Blake Lively’s. Despite not having many scenes, whenever she was on screen, I was magnetized toward her and I couldn’t believe she was a glamorous rich girl on “Gossip Girl.” Lastly, the three heist scenes became more exciting as they unfolded. What “The Town” needed was less romanticism because crime is anything but. It would have been nice if it tried to do something different with its subgenre. Instead of sticking out as an example, it simply blends in with the others.
Hurt Locker, The (2008)
★★★★ / ★★★★
“The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow, focuses on a crew called the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty) as they try to dismantle bombs in Iraq in 2004. This film shook me in so many ways. Right from the very first scene until the very last, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen and I couldn’t help yelling “Hurry up!” at the characters because I had no idea what was going to happen next. Bigelow had an uncanny ability to make the environment as threatening as possible; when Renner was on the process of stopping a bomb from going off, the camera would quickly shift and focus on random onlookers and there were times when one of them had the remote that could trigger the bomb. The way she combined and balanced the soundtrack, the images, the dialogues and the camera movements was inspired because, unlike other films about Iraq, all the varying elements came together to make something almost tragically poetic. Even though this picture was set in Iraq, I hardly think it’s another one of “those” movies about the war. It was essentially a story of survival–how the three men coped when put in life-threatening circumstances. But it’s not just about the physical survival. It was also about what was happening in their minds as they got closer to ending their rotation: one was a risk-taker, one succumbed to fear and one put up a false front of courage. Another element that I loved about this movie was it did not repeat itself. Each action scene was very different from each other so we would not know what to expect. Some definite highlights include the snipers from 350 meters away (with Ralph Fiennes making an appearance), the first nail-biter scene with Guy Pearce, when the three leads took different alleys after a suicide bomber killed and injured innocent people in the middle of the night, and the horrific scene that involved a bomb being attached to man. I also liked the fact that Bigelow took her film to the next level by using contrasting images when one of the three main characters returned to the United States. I never thought I would experience so much sadness by looking at rows and rows of cereal boxes. Having not been in the battlefield, I often forget how much I’m surrounded by excess. In other words, I forget how lucky I am to not be out there. “The Hurt Locker” is a tremendous, first-rate dramatic-thriller film and I believe it deserves every recognition it received. I may not support the war in Iraq but there is no doubt in my mind and in my heart that I support our soldiers who are there (despite some of their negative portrayals in the media). It’s been a while since I felt so much tension in my body and adrenaline running through my veins as I did from watching “The Hurt Locker.”