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‘Wind River’ review: Taylor Sheridan’s cold-case thriller is certainly not a true story

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Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River opens with the title card: “This is based on actual events.” A clunky rewording of the typical “inspired by a true story” framing, the cut to a frigid Wyoming landscape draws parallels to the Coen Brothers classic Fargo. Sheridan’s directorial debut is much too dour an affair to exactly warrant the affair, but the pragmatic reprise points forebodingly to the notion that no matter how factually grounded Sheridan’s modern western may be, Wind River is built on a fundamentally false vision of America.

Focusing around the death of a woman on the eponymous reservation, Sheridan decides to channel the investigation through that of a wild animal hunter (queue the question, aren’t people just animals, etc), divorced and still-grieving for a brutally murdered daughter. Played by Jeremy Renner, the hunter is enlisted by Elizabeth Olsen’s fish-out-of-water narrative non-entity of an FBI agent.

Once again, Renner fails to do anything but gruffly smirk for the majority of a runtime, but I really admire and relate to his valiant fight against being likable, no matter the cost. Olsen continues to emerge further with each role as an actress of incredible skill and range, the sort whose talent can’t be edited out of a work; Yet the question of her character’s role in the film hangs unsteadily throughout. Sheridan’s film flirts with murder mystery for the first half before becoming the sort of sober prestige drama that’s typically an ill fit for the genre. Initially seeming to strike the four-way highway character mapping of Sicario, which was a beautiful, brutalizing film in its own right, the story’s focus on the Southern cowgirl FBI agent – this categorization is loose and reductive, but only because of Olsen’s ability to make underplayed acting feel organic and essentially Americana – tips towards romance in a thuddingly scripted moment cocooned in the film’s runtime.

Wind River features Sheridan’s weakest script to date. Sicario’s tightness and borderline indulgent nihilism bended to serve Denis Villeneuve’s camera as innuendo for the violence of gender specifically because of the ways Sheridan departed from the typical Western tropes, while the didactic bipartisan anti-capitalism (which exists only in grand entertainment, bless the lord it exists somewhere) of Hell or High Water cascaded in the exact opposite direction, towards a delicious sort of hyper-literalism. Wind River sits awkwardly between the two, alternating between moments of haunting iconographies, such as when Renner lays alone beside Natalie’s body in the snow, and the odd pseudo-realism of the film’s sole, floundering flashback.

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Sheridan’s treatment of Native Americans and women are respectful, but Sheridan only offers a Western that is contemporary, not modern. The racism is foregrounded as a genre-based, congruous journey through grief for Renner’s cowboy, but the notion of obscuring these fears within a traditionally reactionary genre feels like a misguided adjustment. The cowboy’s journey has always been one of solitude, and the Native Americans operated as a distraction. By making their struggle the rhyming sub-plot to a generic and clunky formed melodrama, this is Sheridan’s first film that fails as a Western, though it is explicitly the closest in form.

The failure is only compounded by the immediate, startling realization that Sheridan cannot direct for the life of him (and this film is directed within an inch of its life). His shots have no sense of composition, with each scenes pacing awkward, flittering between morose and suspenseful. It is a rough, visually amateurish film. Tonally, Sheridan nicely conjures thudding exposition with that same forward momentum. The film has no sense of altitude or climate, only capturing the paradoxically isolated and claustrophobic landscape of the Pacific Northwest in wickedly rousing, sparse snowmobile treks through the police district’s jurisdiction.

Exemplary of the film’s weirdly auteurist directorial deficiency is the central rape scene. It is not tantalizing, nor disrespectful, nor soft, but it is blunt to the point of surrealism, unfocused on trauma or even the sequence of events taking place. The scene feels non-committal and dazed, and it is so thoroughly bizarre in its ineptitude – make no mistake, the scene is a failure – that it has hovered for weeks, like a swarm of gnats on a bike ride in August.

I have been hesitant to label Sheridan as a major talent, and despite that, I believe this to be a weak film, it’s worth probing further as to why he’s become so successful. Perhaps it’s the undersaturated Western genre. Or rather, the half-hearted, righteous (but still familiar and regressive) vision of America finds half a foothold in audience’s chest, tapping into something deeper, the most innate part of patriotism; that is comfort with the guise of nihilism, a paradox that prefers to be ignored. Sheridan’s work has failed for me, despite its relative skills and charms, because it works against a consideration of a country in a position of such massive upheaval, replaced with practically weird “situation devices” as plots, like propagandic LARP-ing for those in willful disregard for the crisis and duty of a modern U.S. Citizen.

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‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ review: Annette Bening shines in this flawed Gloria Grahame biopic

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Annette Bening and Jamie Bell

Annette Bening is captivating in the role of former Hollywood starlet Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which follows the Oscar-winning actress in her later years as she develops a relationship with Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), an aspiring actor from England who falls head over heels for the fading star the moment he lays his eyes on her in the North London guesthouse where they are both lodging.

Based on the memoir of the same name by Turner, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which first premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last year, is as stunning as it is romantic, though, beyond the wonderful performances by Bening and Bell, whose chemistry sparks the moment they begin to interact with each other, there isn’t much here that we haven’t seen before—the film just feels too basic and too generic.

Perhaps its Matt Greenhalgh’s script or Paul McGuigan’s direction, but there’s something about Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool that causes the first hour or so of the film to feel unbearably boring, making it difficult to feel invested or even care about its rather predictable story that ends with inevitable tragedy. It feels as if the actors are doing most of the work in this film, and they do the best they can with what they have available.

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That being said, the film is still magnificent from a visual standpoint. Ula Pontikos’ magical cinematography, which utilizes lighting and color so effectively, is wonderful to soak in, while editor Nick Emerson flawlessly takes us back and forth between flashbacks and the present with such efficiency. And, oddly enough, despite the unauthentic look of the rear-projection used to transport Bening and Bell to cities such as New York City and Malibu, it makes Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool feel like one of the old Hollywood movies the real Grahame would’ve starred in back in the day.

By the time the film is over and the end title track, “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way,” written and performed by the great Elvis Costello, begins to play, you’ll probably wish that Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool had more to offer than just powerhouse performances and nice filmmaking techniques rather than a typical, by-the-books premise; especially one about someone as interesting and eccentric as Grahame.

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‘Call Me by Your Name’ review: Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicating gay love story is one for the ages

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Call Me by Your Name

From the moment the opening credits appear in Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicating new film Call Me by Your Name (scored to the sweet, melodious sounds of “Hallelujah Junction – 1st Movement” by John Adams), you know you’re in for a very special treat; a treat that will leave you thinking about the film you’ve just watched for hours upon end, like it did for me. It’s lush, erotic, riveting and, above all, simply delightful.

Based on the acclaimed first novel by André Aciman, and adapted for the screen by James Ivory (who cameos in the film, alongside producer Peter Spears), Call Me by Your Name transports its viewer to a sun-soaked Northern Italy in 1983 and follows Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), an awkward, horny, not-so-average 17-year-old who enjoys transcribing music, reading books, swimming at the local river, and going out at night, as he describes to Oliver (Armie Hammer) in one scene. The latter is a chiseled, charming 24-year-old American graduate student staying at Elio’s parent’s (Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar) gorgeous 17th-century villa as the annual summer intern tasked with helping Mr. Perlman, a professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture.

Elio appears dumbstruck by Oliver’s charisma early on in the film, invoking feelings of fascination, or perhaps even obsession, drawing him closer to the tall, sophisticated blond man that just seemingly waltzed into his own tiny little lazy world, surrounded by the walls of his parent’s villa. However, soon enough, we realize Elio isn’t the only one plagued with these feelings—Oliver feels just the same—and they share an amorous kiss on the side of a dirt road, surrounded by towering green grass and no one but themselves.

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“No, no, no. I know myself,” Oliver says after pushing Elio away when he comes in for a second kiss. “We’ve been good. We haven’t done anything to be ashamed of and that’s a good thing. I want to be good, OK?” Though, Elio doesn’t take this too seriously, as he places his hand on Oliver’s crotch, grabs it a few times, and asks him, “Am I offending you?” It’s a cutesy, playful moment, and is really just the beginning Guadagnino’s masterful tale of first love.

Oh, how wonderful it is to watch Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s (who also shot Guadagnino’s upcoming Suspiria remake) stunning 35mm cinematography as he captures a summer that will change the lives of Elio and Oliver forever; riding bike rides around the town square, indulging in luscious breakfasts under the sun, engaging in secret meetings on the villa’s balcony, smoking cigarettes while discussing European history, and, yes, for those of you who’ve read the book, making love to peaches. It’s a relaxing, peaceful, spellbinding film with no real antagonist other than time and Oliver’s impending departure.

Chalamet, a young, new, fresh face in the world of Hollywood, who also appears in this year’s Lady Bird and Hostiles, delivers what is undoubtedly the best performance of the year in Call Me by Your Name as Elio, while Hammer, perhaps best known for his work in The Social Network and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., proves just how much range he truly has an actor in the role of Oliver; the two are an impressive dynamic duo, and it’s hard to even imagine anyone else playing as their characters. And, just when you’ve thought Stuhlbarg’s wise Mr. Perlman has stolen the show with a riveting, heartfelt speech to his son during the final act of the film, Chalamet swoops in with a silent, delicate close-up under the end-credits that will, undeniably, give you chills, if not tears.

Call Me by Your Name is a modern gay love story for the ages.

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‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ review: Rian Johnson delivers a riveting intergalactic spectacle

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The Last Jedi Mark Hamill

Star Wars: The Last Jedi begins just like any other installment in George Lucas’ long-running intergalactic franchise: A static blue text that reads “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” followed by that rousing, iconic theme song composed by John Williams and a brief, yet informative opening crawl, teasing the adventures to come over the course of the next 150 minutes (making it the longest Star Wars movie to date).

But look a little closer and you’ll see that The Last Jedi is as unique and special as the diverse cast of characters it showcases, and writer-director Rian Johnson looks to take this series to a whole new level with the latest chapter in the seemingly never-ending Skywalker-saga that finds not one, but two central characters grappling with the Light and Dark sides of the Force.

As we see in that unforgettable The Force Awakens finale (the best part of a rather lackluster film), Rey (Daisy Ridley) has traveled to the gorgeous, Porg-infested island of Ahch-To to deliver Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) long-lost blue-bladed lightsaber and to convince him to join the Resistance in order to help defeat the First Order. However, a weary, worn-out-looking Luke doesn’t seem to have much interest in doing so, telling Rey that “it’s time for the Jedi to end” once and for all.

Meanwhile, the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), hot on the tail of the Resistance, is ready to strike again in retaliation for the destruction of its Starkiller Base. With General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) calling the shots, the Rebel army must act quick, as both time and fuel are running out fast. However, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), takes matters into his own hands and enlists the help of Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to help carry out his rather dangerous plan of infiltrating the First Order’s fleet and disabling their tracking system.

Though the pacing could certainly be a bit tighter at times, Johnson does a more than impressive job of balancing multiple storylines in The Last Jedi (three, to be exact), and they all eventually come full circle by the time the credits start to roll and the age-old mysteries of the Force and shocking revelations of the past have finally been unlocked. Chances are, though, fans will be too lost in this riveting, visual feast of a film to even notice (or care about) something such as minor pacing issues or out of place humor.

Much like he did in The Force Awakens, the scar-faced Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) practically steals the show and reveals a much different side to his character than we’ve previously seen. “Forget the Jedi! Forget the Sith! Forget the First Order!” he exclaims at one point in the film, revealing his desire to start an entirely new order. But it’s whether or not he can convince Rey to join him that will keep audiences on the edge of their seat for the duration of the film.

A dazzling, gorgeously put-together sci-fi action extravaganza, The Last Jedi was obviously handled with much love and care by Johnson in both his writing and direction and that certainly translates on screen. The multiple storylines are exciting, while the characters, both the newcomers and the veterans, are simply wonderful to watch develop over the course of the film.

It’s no wonder why Walt Disney and Lucasfilm decided to give Johnson an entirely new Star Wars trilogy to create; the franchise is in exceptionally good hands as indicated by The Last Jedi.

AROUND THE WEB

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