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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.

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

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The Last Jedi

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, 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.

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PFF 2017 review: The 4 best movies from this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival

Our own Sam Mauro reviews the four best films they saw at the 26th annual Philadelphia Film Festival earlier this month.

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WOLFE RELEASING

Princess Cyd

A Chicago-set neo-folktale of queerness, Princess Cyd marks itself with both lightness and assurance. The film feels novelistic in its structure, sprawl, and sense of rhythm. Yet, its levels of performance, allowing for different scenes to register as presentation. It’s the rare humanist film to not only have clear aesthetic choices, but also a sense of composition, a visual sophistication beyond well-intentioned empathy. The film’s editing is straight fire, moving at a clip that still allows individual moments to expound upon themselves. Jessie Pinnick is a revelation, with the maturity and wisdom of a hundred lives, sprawling outwards, into this fully realized, organic, true sense of Buffalo Grove’s humanism. Despite the title, this is a dual-helmed film. Though, in actuality, this is a work of so many lives, colliding at all levels of intimacy. Cone’s last work, Henry Gamble, showed how the rigidity of religion and so much of White American suburbia conflict with the fluidity and empathy humans crave. Princess Cyd is near utopian by comparison, without abandoning the hardships and trauma of existence. It is healing, empowered art. Despite its safe exterior, Cone’s near-radical rejiggering of the American indie feels like the amicable cousin to Nathan Silver or the less ostentatious Rick Alverson.

TIFF

Let the Corpses Tan

A total fetish object. Comparisons to Quentin Tarantino seem misguided; the latter interrogates loosely through dialogue and structure, repurposing grindhouse optics without shifting them. Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s cinema is composed almost entirely of inserts, an affront to the coy smarminess of Ben Wheatley’s horrendous, regressive Free Firewith the warm, hallucinogenic parade of demolished stimuli. Admittedly a mild step-down from the Eurocore purgatory of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, this moves beyond their last work’s metatext phantasmagoria, to all kink, a vicious bombardment that never lets its political aesthetic rest or wither. Gnarly and beautiful stuff, this is a brusque, magical alt-porn rush.

A24

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig’s first solo directing outing (though debut is too fine a point—even if it was not for her co-directing with Joe Swanberg on 2007’s The Dish and the Spoon, Gerwig’s collaborations with Baumbach have long established her voice) is rich, if not as daring or complicated a work with which she’s been involved in the past. A fine, unexemplary high school film (Saoirse Ronan plays the age wonderfully, and its structure strikingly mirrors the rhythms of senior year). But further, this is a fantastic mother-daughter film, a great Sacramento film, a great film about 2002, interrogating its cultural touchpoints and influences further. It is perhaps too generic, less unbridled. Of all people, Gerwig should be one of the few permitted to adapt Sondheim, with as little music as possible. I would love for her to work with Diane Keaton.

MERRICK MORTON

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Not particularly enamored with In Bruges, and even more irked by Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a wicked sort of trauma. Though, its sense of humor still feels both glib and down-trodden, and its sentimentality too easy (by structure, not by the magnificent details). It is a desperate, rough work of mourning, but confuses formula, pattern, and genre with almost willful disregard. Frances McDormand transforms the adjective of “stout” into a collection of torso movements and half-gestures; if hacks produce only posture when acting, McDormand seems so deep within her character, so receptive to the world, that her body’s movements feel like an afterthought, a total powerhouse of Midwestern grit. Though Three Billboards flirts with the Southern Gothic and the noir, its roots serve as a more authentic Greek tragedy than Yorgos Lanthimos would dare dream up.

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‘The Florida Project’ review: Sean Baker’s latest effort is humanist exploitation pop art realism

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Props to Sean Baker, at least, for shooting The Florida Project on film. With 2015’s bottle rocket screwball breakthrough Tangerine, the festival circuit labeled the film with the unfortunate informal tagline of “the iPhone movie,” though the dialogue eventually circled around to the meatier discourse on representation in cinema. A blitzkrieg Christmas comedy following two trans women of color on the Sunset Strip’s sex work industry, the film received equal parts praise and backlash for its spotlight on the L.A. nobody talks about.

Fast forward to this past May, when The Florida Project stormed the Cannes Film Festival. Though it failed to scoop up any awards, the film was showered with glowing reviews. Set around an Orlando motel filled with a collection of extremely poor outcasts, the film follows Mooney (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) and her friends on a wandering, tangential journey through a world never given its own iconography, its own recognition.

As a Tangerine agnostic, the marketing leading up to The Florida Project kept expectations in that same limbo. (As smart as it was to flip the script on the follow-up by making such a visually gorgeous work distinctly classical.) Alexis Zabe lights the film so perfectly, plaster walls and muted, damp climates, communicating the weather as truly normalized to the character’s interior expectations. This is some of the showiest work of the year, to be sure, but it is also some of the best.

Here’s the thing: this is social realism disguised as pop art, so why not just make it pop art? The imagery of the Magic Kingdom, the sense of place, is irrevocably tied to the capitalist institutions, yet the movie chooses to visually root its more somber moments in the palette of arthouse poverty porn. The most striking elements of Tangerine were the aimless, flourishing interludes, where the simple act of walking down the street was fully voyeuristic, and thus reclaimed and brought to life the kind of attention paid to the sex workers in real life, glaring L.A. sunset and all. The issue with combining the quotidian and gritty with such vibrancy is clearly meant to reflect the tone, but the aesthetic awareness of the surroundings proves, inversely, too cute for Baker’s central conceit. The kids have no idea what’s going on around them.

Willem Dafoe, as the motel’s manager, soars above the entire film. One of the most skilled and innately personable actors in Hollywood, Dafoe’s performances appear to be siblings, all akin to one another in their distinctively shared mannerisms and operations, yet so wildly disparate in their emotional range and dramatic function. Though Bobby is written essentially as the motel’s patron saint, Dafoe renders him parts civil servant, father figure, nuisance, hardened wise-ass, stage manager, and ringmaster.

The kids are adorable, acting out obnoxious, shrill, totally cute interludes, the non-actors led by the magnetic Brooklyn Prince. Baker’s main contradiction, that empathetic objectification, works best and most interestingly here. The innately compelling notion of observing children as they go about the world is so endearing, and Baker’s commitment to keeping the children as dynamic and egocentric as possible puts the film’s visual language to use with what many critics have called the “entertainment” of such a relentlessly bleak film. 

The film’s greatest disservice falls upon Mooney’s young mother Hailee (Bria Vinaite). There’s a fascinating interview from the festival circuit where Baker describes looking at Bria Vinaite’s Instagram, wanting to capture that “free-spirited” attitude onscreen. Baker sees her for an individual quality, a single trait which defines a character so fully it rings hollow, from a performer who shows such produce if, under different circumstances, were allowed to flourish and operate in a more varied range. Hailee serves as both a maternal and sororal figure for Mooney, and although the film is especially intelligent on her temporal space in the film – the effect her mother’s schedule, specifically, has on Mooney is the closest the film comes to structural sophistication – Baker has no real sense of their interactions; Unlike the spontaneity of the kid’s interactions, Hailee and Mooney’s feel railroaded, speaking not to shared experiences but rather the most overwritten and underdeveloped parts of the film’s skeleton. The mirroring between the two’s attitude only comes across as a function of the script’s paring down of Hailee to her impoverished standing, defined only in that context, even for herself.

For all the film’s focus on class, it has no interest in interrogating late capitalism, racism, or media, which, admittedly, caters to a very specific audience. Consider the people of color who inhabit the film, gesturally outside any sociopolitical climate. So much of the film looks like the greatest collection of Tumblr posts, VSCO filters, Instagram stories, any number of soon to be outdated forums for a quintessentially modern vision (and most of which are dominated by specific visions of whiteness). That this is guided by some vague, ill-defined sense of humanist cinema, a genre which itself was borne out of privilege, arrogance and a lack of context for various cinematic forms, where the film’s political concerns are broad and caricatured, its characters loose nothings, a window dressing against which actors struggle aided only by personality. Baker never comes close to capturing even the multi-faceted display of iconography on Vinaite’s Instagram feed, let alone a more intimate assemblage of portraiture.

The ending feels like the inevitable evolution – an aesthetically divergent, manipulative, moving, artistically dubious finale that feels like a pure fantasy on a visual and dramatic level. The desperation of the catharsis is perhaps not wise enough, thanks to the film’s guiding commitment to childish subjectivities, but it is worth noting that this near-satirical ending (or perhaps it feels as such just because it’s the only time the film’s thesis proves biting) does not conflate the children’s ignorance with resilience. The system will swallow these kids up whole, both Hailee and Mooney alike. Baker holds a generic but resonantly shrill documentation of a childhood oblivious to its own dire, poverty-stricken backdrop. The work’s fatalism is at least pointedly opposed to glib contrast, but The Florida Project fails to synthesize the two beyond a naive sort of exploitation and representational displacement.

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