Sunday, August 20, 2017

On "Wind River"

With three efforts in a small amount of time ("Sicario", "Hell or High Water" and now "Wind River"), writer-director Taylor Sheridan is slowly bringing intelligence back to the action thriller. While stepping behind the camera for his sophomore film in "Wind River" and lending only his writing abilities to the other two, a clear pattern of sublime understanding for complex characters in a deadly, shifting and unrelenting environment. It's also becoming clear he loves to shade half of his films from a somewhat feminist point of view. In "Sicario", Emily Blunt was the audience's naive entrance into a world of conspiratorial government machismo and nocturnal desert drug deals. In "Wind River", part of the perspective falls on the shoulders of Las Vegas FBI field agent Elizabeth Olsen.... so out of her element that she first arrives to the Indian reservation whose name the film derives its title from wearing only a windbreaker and high heels. But this spare choice of clothing certainly doesn't define her attitude, intelligence or will when it comes to solving the crime laid at her feet. Instead, she (like Emily Blunt) becomes the beating heart of an affair that will see her constantly checking her emotions, acting with confidence and smarts when the time is right, then lamenting the sadness of the whole thing once its over. She gives yet another tremendous performance in a film that's stunning, shocking, brutal and eventually wise about the patterns of violence that continually rear its ugly head in a winter wasteland where the margins of a culture have been confined for a century.

The other half of "Wind River's" grand perspective falls on the stoic but dented Corey (Jeremy Renner), a Fish and Wildlife tracker suffering from his own personal family trauma when he stumbles across the dead body of a family friend. It's this body that summons Olsen's FBI Agent Jane Banner to the blustery Indian reservation, immediately coming into conflict with both the customs and procedures of the territory. Teaming up with Renner, the two embark on a quest to find the killer or killers.

Part of the film's poetic success- besides its highly attuned care to make every bullet and punch resound with a thunderous thud- are the quiet moments interspersed throughout. The conversations had throughout "Wind River" are often just as incisive as the action. A quiet moment between Renner and Olsen when he explains why he's doing what he's doing for her is one of the seminal moments in film so far this year. Likewise, the way Olsen bottles and chortles up her emotions for a good majority of the film- finally allowing them overtake her in the penultimate scene- is so moving because its timed perfectly to allow the breathless, swooning violence of the previous few scenes gently settle over her. Like Emily Blunt shaking and washing the blood out of her hair in "Sicario", its okay for women to cry in Sheridan's universe.... just not when the shit hits the fan or when other people are around to judge your frazzled self.

If, ultimately, most of the wisdom is dispensed from Renner's Corey and he enjoys some of the more applauded moments of last-minute entrances, "Wind River" remains a companion piece about two people from vastly different worldviews learning that the world can be a literal and figurative cold place. It's also an extremely sad film about loss. During the opening of the film, a girl's voice recites a poem. Only later do we learn its probably not the voice of the girl violently running through the snow, but the disconnected voice of another lost person. It's said it doesn't matter who the poem is written to, only who its from. With "Wind River", Sheridan has crafted a masterpiece with the same prevailing wisdom.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Current Cinema 17.7


As he's so masterly done since his debut feature almost twenty years ago, Christopher Nolan's penchant for the manipulation of time features prominently in his WWII feature, "Dunkirk". Literally suspending the rigors of war across three distinct and overlapping timelines (land, sea and air), it's a technical gambit that, in other hands, could be problematic. However, in Nolan's radical conceptualization, "Dunkirk" is essentially a silent film with sporadic bursts of dialogue that imposes the idea of time being the strictest enemy against his relatively anonymous cast of men desperately running away (and towards) the waning vestiges of combat. Refusing to carve out a central figure of empathy (although Tom Hardy's ace fighter pilot comes the closest thing to a hero the film has, including a momentous bow), "Dunkirk" is even more radical for the way it drops us in the midst of war and allows us to experience the waves of anger, desperation, intelligence, cowardice and loyalty that ebbs and flows over its young men facing a dark hour of the war. I find this more honest and revealing than so many other war films that impose a facade of heroism on its characters. In a war that spanned so many years and re-wrote both the internal and external geography of so many men, women and landscapes, "Dunkirk" feels all the more courageous.

Atomic Blonde

Suckered into this twisty, fluorescent thriller because of the trailers featuring a butt kicking Charlize Theron is just one of the many pleasures of David Leitch's "Atomic Blonde". Technically, the film is pretty spectacular. And if spy thrillers derived from a pulpy graphic novel featuring the skulduggery of Berlin's waning Cold war days, then its even better. Highly enjoyable.

A Ghost Story

As a David Lowery devotee- from his early experimental short films to the languid, country-fried fatal romanticism of his masterpiece "Ain't Them Bodies Saints"- I've willfully absorbed everything he's done. Yet, with his latest film "A Ghost Story", he leaves me wanting for the first time. When it focuses on the patient yearning between young couple Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, it soars. Watch as Mara listens to Dark Rooms "I Get Overwhelmed" and the way her eyes and face subtly hold back the ruptures of emotion that threaten to overtake her. When the film wanders into a ponderous meditation on time and the residual emotions of those left behind (i.e. the now infamous image of Casey Affleck wearing a bed sheet with holes for the eyes), it becomes woefully pretentious and strained. I understand the grand gestures filmmaker Lowery was reaching for, but it mostly left me cold.

First Kill

Low grade thriller with Bruce Willis. At the very least, it's one of the better things director Steven Miller has done. Full thoughts at Dallas Film Now

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Cinema Obscura: Demons (aka Shura)

Toshio Matsumoto's follow-up to his avant-garde-shot-across-the-bow "Funeral Parade of Roses" (1969) was this bleak, nocturnal samurai revenge epic titled "Demons". Released in 1971, "Demons" couldn't be more different than that debut feature. Where that earlier film seemed to exist as a fly-on-the-wall experiment- blending Godardian nouvelle vague and queer cinema theatrics into a student film like adrenaline rush- "Demons" is measured and even patient at times, wallowing in its inky black and white images as if Akira Kurosawa wanted to get very dark....literally and figuratively. But this patience is often shattered by shocking acts of violence. Always a fan of the spurting squib effect, Matsumoto and "Demons" uses the sword and its devastating impact on the human body to angry effect. Throat slashing and quick swipes to the chest are felt and experienced quite unlike any other samurai film. And then there's the twisting Shakespearean acts of deceit and revenge that ultimately take hold and push the film's unrepentant ronin Gengobei (Katsuo Nakamura) farther and farther into the darkness. "Demons" may be a sophomore film for a director who left behind only four feature titles, but it places Matsumoto in the hallowed echelon of Japanese New Wave directors who not only successfully regurgitated an emblematic moment of their nation's history, but managed to graft something exciting onto the shadows of the past as well.

And shadowy may be the best description for "Demons". Without a hint of daylight observed once during the entire film, "Demons" is a film whose characters exist in a netherworld or purgatory. Gengobei himself is a lost samurai, devoid of his rightful place serving his master and involved with a geisha named Koman (Yasuko Sanjo). When Gengobei comes into possession of money that will buy back his rightful place in the ronin contingency, Koman spins an elaborate charade to rob him along with her lover Sangoro (Juro Kara). Unwittingly setting in motion a series of violent confrontations, double-crosses and seething retribution, "Demons" obliges its dark aesthetic by pulling no punches in its savagery. Just witness what fate Matsumoto (and writer Nanboku Tsuruya whose play the film is based on) hold for even the most innocent of children.

Choosing to call itself "Demons" seems perfectly apt. The opening scene of the film observes a group of people running through the darkness carrying lanterns..... discombulated bodies swallowed up by the night as the only thing visible are the lanterns bobbing and weaving as they move. This eerie yet calculated image sets the tone for a film that refuses to give light to anyone. It's as if everyone involved has already sunk into the netherworld, becoming remorseless carbon copies of themselves. Demons. And like his transvestite youngsters in "Funeral Parade of Roses", they're living a life they've accepted on the margins of reality. It may not be pretty, but at least its true to them.