Wind River (Sheridan; 2017)

The Western as a film genre pokes its head out every now and then every few years, but it’s been done as a regular Hollywood staple for roughly half a century.  For the past three years, however, Taylor Sheridan has been slyly bringing the genre back with a modern twist.  The Western takes on many forms, but it always takes place in the American West, of course, and it focuses on white men taming a frontier they are new to.  Once white civilization has taken over a territory, the film focusing on that place can no longer be called a Western.  Taylor Sheridan’s films all take place in rural Western communities, the twist being that these communities are in areas which have long since been tamed, but they are now largely overlooked.  In his film debut as a writer (Sheridan has been an actor for a long time) he gave us Sicario, the modern take on the Federales vs Banditos Western.  The next year he gave us Hell or High Water which is the modern retelling of the sheriff vs outlaws story.  Now, he writes and directs the classic cowboys and Indians Western, Wind River.

Wind River‘s central character is a Department of Fish, Game, and Wildlife agent named Cory Lambert played (Jeremy Renner).  He describes his job as hunting predators, and while doing his job hunting down a trio of mountain lions who killed one of his father-in-law’s cattle he comes across the body of a young girl from the nearby Wind River Reservation where his father-in-law lives.  After notifying the authorities, Cory finds himself working with the reservation’s Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) and young FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, which means, yes, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch are the two main characters in the film).  Jane is new enough to the FBI that she doesn’t really know how to handle the situation, but smart and self aware enough to realize this and convinces Cory to work the case with her by asking him to help her by doing his job and hunt down a predator.  It seems Cory has personal reasons to help, as well, and solving the murder mystery becomes the driving force of Wind River‘s plot, if not really the heart of its story.

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In Sicario Sheridan tells a story in which the law are just as corrupt as the criminals they are hunting, and the only difference between the two is who is pulling the organizational strings.  Hell or High Water shows us the banks being robbed are far more immoral and dangerous than the criminals doing the robbery, and even those on the side of the law are aware of this.  Wind River gives us a brutal metaphor which barely even counts as metaphor due to its lack of subtlety of how white civilization has treated the Native Americans since they were conquered and forced onto reservations.  He is intelligent enough to not make matters so black and white (no pun intended) than one side is completely sympathetic and the other completely despicable, but this modern cowboy and Indians story shows what affect 100 years plus of brutality and neglect by one group to another can have on the group on the receiving end of said neglect.

Sheridan’s script is up to his normal insanely high standards.  In addition to a plot which is gripping and meaningful he also serves up authentic but still engaging dialogue.  His metaphors will be a bit too much on the nose for some tastes, however, I don’t think the thematic elements of a story have to be subtle to be effective, and here Sheridan makes sure you can’t ignore his message.  The characters he creates are never stereotypes nor generalities, and that is still the case here as he gives us real three dimensional people with pasts which resonate strongly through their goals and actions, and he makes sure we understand why even the most despicable among them, and he gives us some of his most despicable characters to date in Wind River, act the way they do.

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The direction, however, is not up to the usual near perfection of a Taylor Sheridan film as Sheridan himself decided to direct this one and not hand off the reins to someone else, and while he is an excellent apparently natural talent, his lack of experience does show in a few areas.  The pacing is a bit off at times, showing that Sheridan most likely had a hard time editing himself, a very common mistake made by writer/directors.  The camera work, too, is on the basic side as conversations between people tend to devolve into scenes where the camera shoots whichever character is speaking at a mid-distance, then switches to the other person when they speak, and back and forth until the conversation ends.  Some of his shots of nature, however, can be quite spectacular, and the contrast between functional but dull and beautiful can actually add to the pacing problems felt from the not perfect editing.

The acting is also excellent for the most part, with most of the actors doing justice to the excellent script.  The minor roles, however, can be performed amateurishly breaking the story’s flow at times when a performance not quite up to the same snuff as the others stands out.  Still, if a character has a name, then the actor portraying that character is excellent, and this may in fact be the best performances of both Renner’s and Olsen’s careers.

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Final verdict:  Taylor Sheridan gave us one of the best films of 2015 and of 2016. and so far Wind River is absolutely one of the best films of 2017, though it is just a bit more flawed than his previous two efforts.  Sheridan has proven himself that he is one of the greatest working screen writers, and while it is only a matter of time before he wins an Oscar if he keeps going at this rate, this year will not be the one.  Wind River does not quite reach the must see status of Sicario and Hell or High Water, but it is still absolutely fantastic, and I will bump it up to must see status if you, like me, find great writing to be the best element of film making.  No matter your general tastes or inclinations, though, Wind River is an amazing film that should be seen, it just may be worth waiting until you can rent it to do so.

 

 

The Dark Tower (Arcel; 2017)

The Dark Tower has had quite the long journey on its way to the screen.  The film is an adaptation of the book “The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger” written by Stephen King and originally published as novel in 1982, but its roots go back even farther than that as it was first published in installments from 1977 to 1981 in “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”.  Rumors of a film or series of films chronicling the adventures of Roland the Gunslinger have been circulating for decades due to the books’ huge fan base, but until now, 40 years after the initial story was printed, no one has actually been able or willing to make it happen.  Columbia Pictures has plans for this movie to be the first of a number of installments which will be released both in movie theaters and as television shows, another cash grab ala Marvel Studios and their Cinematic Universe, but while the rabid fanbase of the books may be able to still make that a reality, the quality of the flagship film in this series’ launch does not bode well for future endeavors in this Stephen King franchise.

The Dark Tower focuses on three main characters, two protagonists and an antagonist.  We are first introduced to Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) a young man of an indeterminate age, but young enough that if he has hit his teenage years its barely.  Jake has dreams which he draws in his art book of a tower, a man in black, a man with two six shooters, and the numbers 19-19.  His dreams are accompanied by earthquakes when he wakes up and everyone thinks he is crazy.  Matthew McConaughey plays the Man in Black from Jake’s dreams, and he is an evil sorcerer who uses psychic children as a weapon to destroy the Dark Tower which will allow demons to entire our universe and several others attached to ours.  Finally, Idris Elba plays the Gunslinger Roland who wants to kill the Man in Black as revenge for the murder of his father and the rest of the Gunslingers at the hands of the Man in Black.

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Let’s start with the good in this movie, which would be the acting.  Matthew McConaughey in particular is a lot of fun as the villainous Man in Black chewing the scenery with aplomb and radiating a cartoonish charm which you can’t help but enjoy.  Idris Elba is much more subdued as Roland, but an actor as accomplished as he can’t help but ooze charisma even if he tries to hide it.  Finally, while Tom Taylor is not the greatest child actor, he holds up his part of the story well enough to never be distracting.

Past that, there is not much to like about The Dark Tower.  The film is shot in the annoying fashion of the day with incredibly tight close ups at inappropriate times, jerky camera movements, and lighting dim enough that what we are seeing is barely more than a sillhouette.  Trying to follow the action here is nearly impossible as we are never given any anchor for our perspective and the action takes place willy-nilly with no context as to positions and movement.  The camera is more interested in framing whatever is the most spectacular thing to look at at the moment than it is with giving us a coherent vision of the action of the story.

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As bad as the camera work is, though, the script is far worse.  The visuals are at least decent during The Dark Tower‘s quieter moments and the special effects are fun, but the script has no saving grace whatsoever.  The entire story is written to formula, and very obviously so at that, with no thought given to anything beyond how the action of the story would fit into said formula.  Character motivations are non-existent.  Why does the Man in Black want to destroy the universes?  Er, he’s evil, and evil guys do that?  What did the Gunslingers do before they were all killed?  Hell if anyone knows.  What is a Gunslinger for that matter?  A guy with guns as far as I can tell.  Decisions made by the characters are nonsensical, doing something 2 seconds after they said they couldn’t do exactly that thing for reasons never really explained well, or just plain idiotic.  Characters make relationships just because it seems like they should and all of a sudden can do incredible things because they need to do it at that moment.  The story is easy enough to follow, so it isn’t Michael Bay level bad, but it is so obviously contrived it’s distractingly hilarious.

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I’ve never read “The Dark Tower” series of books, so I can’t speak to the quality of the film compared to the quality of the books.  However, I can say that knowing the books have such a large and loyal fan base, consisting of quite a few people whose taste I respect, I can only guess that fans of the books are going to come away greatly disappointed by the film, and those who have never read the books are not going to understand what others see in this series.

Final verdict:  With good acting and absolutely nothing else going for it, give The Dark Tower a big miss.  It’s possible Columbia will go ahead with further film and television installments in this series, and it’s possible some of them could be good – the premise does have promise and Idris Elba has charisma and talent to spare.  If this is the case, then maybe come back and give this one a watch to catch up on the action.  Until then, though, I can’t see this formulaic to a nonsensical degree story appealing to anyone, fan of the books or no.  And, what is it with the Gunslinger’s mantra they say over and over in the film?  That thing isn’t cool or comforting, it’s downright creepy and disturbing.

The Magnificent Seven (Fuqua; 2016)

Hollywood knows that you claim to hate remakes.  They also know you go see them despite this.  Film directors know very well which films are classics that can’t be improved upon and which aren’t.  Remakes of classic films are made for one of two reasons, those being that a studio needs an easy cash grab and assigns a director looking for work to a project they are sure will bring in some box office numbers due to name recognition or that a director decides a classic film needs to be brought to the attention of a new audience even if the remake can never be as good, the film’s legacy must be allowed to carry on.  Since it’s been 62 years since Seven Samurai was initially released and 56 years since the first The Magnificent Seven, I like to think this is a case of bringing a classic to a new generation’s attention.  It’s unfortunate that updating it didn’t do the story any favors.

The plot of this 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven remains more or less the same as its predecessors.  A small town of farmers is beset upon by a group of outsiders (a mining company run by a robber baron rather than bandits this time around) and they have to find someone who will defend them from these outsiders with very little reward since the farmers have already lost most everything they own.  This simple and now classic set up allows for a deep exploration of character as we discover why the various members of the group of saviors put themselves in this situation.  It allows for fantastic action scenes and tense anticipation.  In short, everything you need for truly great drama.  This version of The Magnificent Seven, unfortunately, does not give itself the time it needs for plot and character development.  At over an hour shorter than its predecessors it instead rushes through the gathering of the seven together and straight into the climactic battle.  If Hollywood studios feel, perhaps correctly, that modern audiences will not sit through a movie longer than 2 and a half hours, they shouldn’t attempt films that need more time than that to truly develop.

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Get it?  Develop?  Film?  Just kidding.  It’s all digital now.

The many flaws present in this latest remake, however, are almost never the fault of the actors.  There are a few poor performances here, particularly by the film’s major bad guy (Peter Sarsgaard as Bartholomew Bogue) and the lead female role played by Haley Bennet who was apparently cast more for her admittedly very impressive figure than for her acting range.  Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, and Vincent D’Onofrio as our primary four of the seven are, while certainly not at the top of their game, quite good and give as charming and commanding of performances as we have become used to seeing from them.  D’Onofrio in particular is great in his turn as an older tracker nothing like anything we have ever seen from him in the past, once again showing that he is one of the most underappreciated actors in Hollywood today.

The camera work and choreography in The Magnificent Seven is also very impressive for the most part, though in a few of the more frenetic action pieces late in the movie shaky cameras are relied on a little too much, though not to the extent many recent films have taken the technique and it doesn’t mar the experience too terribly much.  Visual effects are also very well done and seamless to the extent that you can very easily forget that they are even in play here.  Overall the visuals never achieve any level of greatness, but they definitely display a high level of expertise on the part of all those involved.

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Good at shooting is good at shooting, whether it’s with a camera or something else.  But, not really.

Ultimately, The Magnificent Seven is a film I cannot recommend even as a modern reimagining as most of what made Seven Samurai and the 1960 The Magnificent Seven great is missing here.  The action is better, but that’s it, and we lose all the deep characterization, all the thematic brilliance, and the ebb and flow of tension that make Seven Samurai a masterpiece and the 1960 version a rarity among remakes.  The 2016 The Magnificent Seven is more than just a hollow shell of it’s predecessors, but not much more, especially when the predecessors are still out there to demand your attention instead.

Rating:  5.6 out of 10

Hell or High Water (Mackenzie; 2016)

One of the most criminally overlooked films at awards ceremonies in 2015 was Sicario.  While Sicario did not win a single award and was never even nominated for Best Picture, though it was certainly deserving, it was nominated on 10 separate occasions at 10 separate awards programs for Best Original Screenplay.  The writer of that screenplay was one Taylor Sheridan, and one year later he’s showing us that his first screenplay was not a fluke and loudly announcing with Hell or High Water that we had best get used to hearing his name at those ceremonies year after year for the forseeable future.

Hell or High Water features Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard, two brothers on a bank robbing spree across rural West Texas and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker, the Texas Rangers partners out to find and put a stop to them.  All four of these men are at the top of their game giving us four characters who are likable, sympathetic, flawed, surprising, and most of all, real.  For Jeff Bridges, this is a performance we’ve come to expect, though he outdoes even himself here, and for the other three we get to see some truly break out performances from three men who have until now been known more for being pretty than for being talented.

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Are you trying to say I’m not pretty, asshole?

The West Texas scenery is filmed gorgeously, and makes what could have  been a well done, but more or less typical crime thriller into a modern day Western in which you can believe that in the 21st Century there are still swathes of the American West still waiting for someone to come settle them (steal them) and that there can still be cowboys riding around in an untamed frontier.  It’s great to see a modern film that looks gorgeous and doesn’t have to rely at all on special effects to get the job done, but just excellent camera work and old fashioned art direction.

David Mackenzie gives us nearly perfect direction in Hell or High Water.  Not only does he manage to get the best performances of their lives out of his main cast of actors, but he also gets us a film that relies a great deal on dialogue and quiet visuals to still have the pacing and tension of an action movie.  It seems like not a second is wasted, but the movie still has time to spend on small details which add so much to the overall experience.  Mackenzie knew exactly what to cut and keep, how long to hold a shot, and when it was more important to focus on story and when on character.

The greatest star of Hell or Highwater, though, is the absolutely brilliant screenplay by the aforementioned Taylor Sheridan.  It gives us a script with a perfect pairing of antagonists and protagonists, not just in ability, but in theme as well.  We have characters who are mirror images of each other, we have strong themes about what makes family and what strong family ties make us willing to do for one another, and some of the crispest and wittiest dialogue you will hear this year.  It does all this without ever calling attention to itself.  You never once hear a line and think the writer is attempting to be clever or have it called to your attention that he’s attempting to make a point.  The screenplay for Hell or High Water is always subtly brilliant, but it absolutely is brilliant through and through.

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You come for the fantastic script, but you stay for the horsies.

There never has been, nor do I think there ever can be, a perfect movie.  But, I’ll be damned if I can think of any real flaws in Hell or High Water beyond what they possibly could have done, which is never a way to judge a movie.  This is  a film I recommend everyone sees, and in the theaters so you don’t miss out on the gorgeous cinematography on display.  I will double down on this statement for those who have any interest in the Oscars or Golden Globes, because if you don’t see Hell or High Water garnering multiple nominations come that season, I’ll eat a ten gallon hat.

Rating:  9.4 out of 10