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 scene being so awkwardly paced, 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, 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.
‘Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again’ review: A wholly ridiculous, totally enjoyable sequel led by Lily James
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a wholly ridiculous movie that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s the kind of movie that feels and sounds like a summer vacation should: Fizzy, lively, low-stakes and soundtracked by ABBA.
This is a world where things generally just work out, where folks are kind and willing to help, where everyone has perfect beach hair, where characters just (asterisk)know(asterisk) they’re pregnant after one bout of morning sickness, and where old flings and family members are not only welcome to suddenly sail back into lives they’ve abandoned but greeted with joy and a song. Who’s got time for bitterness and jealousy in these Greek isles?
The dialogue may be ridiculous, the plot may be questionable, and the musical numbers may be staged and stitched together like a manic fever dream (including a uniquely crazy rendition of “Waterloo” with Lily James and Hugh Skinner prancing around a French restaurant). But “Mamma Mia 2″ wears its happy heart so earnestly on its fringed suede sleeve that it almost doesn’t matter. Like an all-inclusive resort, it might be a little cheesy and there is surely some cooler and more authentic option out there with less green screen and more character development, but easy can be its own kind of fun.
And this all-inclusive resort has Cher. And Andy Garcia. And Colin Firth playing Leonardo DiCaprio to Stellan Skarsgard’s Kate Winslet at the bow of a boat packed to the gills with a mass of people singing “Dancing Queen.” And minimal singing from Pierce Brosnan. And a final show-stopper that’s so fun, you might be disappointed there isn’t an encore.
But the real reason this bonkers movie works so well is the incandescent Lily James. She plays a younger Donna (who 40 years later is played by Meryl Streep), during a very eventful summer in 1979 where she both finds her calling and meets (and sleeps with) the three men who all could very possibly be the father of her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). It should be said that two of the three suitors are uncomfortably overeager to get Donna into bed as soon as they meet her.
The flashback portions are told in tandem with what’s happening in the present day, where Sophie is preparing for the grand opening of the hotel Donna. Seyfried is good, if underserved, and her story picks up considerably when Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) arrive, but it’s the ’79 portion that you want to keep going back to (at least until Cher shows up for the last 10 minutes).
James, who is always strong no matter how big her role (from “Cinderella” to “The Darkest Hour”), gets a real star turn here. She also has a sweetly appealing voice that’s (thankfully) more 90s Disney than modern folk singer. And with some more talented singers in her male counterparts, young Bill (Josh Dylan), Harry (Hugh Skinner) and Sam (Jeremy Irvine), you find yourself actually looking forward to their songs instead of bracing for them. Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies also shine as young Tanya and Rosie, although I would like a word with whoever decided that they would have the exact same haircuts 40 years earlier.
English screenwriter and director Ol Parker took over directorial duties and slowed the pace considerably from Phyllida Lloyd’s impossibly energetic “Mamma Mia!” where there was rarely a scene where someone was running, skipping or bounding with joy. In “Here We Go Again,” which almost sounds like a threat, or at least bemused resignation, there is actually downtime and breathing room, which can drag at times. This is a movie that very much requires you to be in the “right mood.”
And perhaps the most surprising thing about this whole sequined bell-bottomed experience is you might even find yourself getting a little emotional. But not too much, this is vacation after all.
“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for some suggestive material.” Running time: 114 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr
‘Skyscraper’ review: Dwayne Johnson towers over action tropes in his latest summer blockbuster
I like to imagine what King Kong, as a popcorn-chomping moviegoer, might make of “Skyscraper,” the latest summer actioner starring Dwayne Johnson. Would he, watching a goliath ascend the exterior of a high-rise with helicopters and klieg lights swirling, woundedly mumble, “Hey, that’s my gig.”
But in Rawson Marshall Thurber’s thriller, there is Johnson steadily — and without too much trouble, really — swinging up a 100-story-high crane to then leap across a mammoth chasm and land in an open window on the burning 220-story tower where his wife and twin kids are trapped.
It goes without saying that if you’re the sort to scoff at a tale’s implausibility, “Skyscraper” may not be the movie you’re looking for. Experts in fields including physics, thermodynamics and screenwriting should proceed cautiously. But then again, few go to a movie starring the Rock and a tall building (they do have great chemistry) for sensible and realistic rescue methods. They go for the dumb fun, the crazy stunts and, above all, the Kong-sized appeal of Johnson, the towering movie star whose on-screen powers easily exceed those of any other action star today, superhero or not.
The Hong Kong-set “Skyscraper” is a kind of West-meets-East “Die Hard,” but without the gritty flair of John McTiernan’s film, nor anything like the villainous heights of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber. Johnson’s protagonist, too, is a polished family man, the inverse of Bruce Willis’ unshaven divorcee.
Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former military man who, after a haunting hostage encounter, has become a security systems consultant. “I put my sword down,” says Sawyer, who has a prosthetic leg from the incident — a welcome touch in a movie world where disabilities are seldom represented.
Along with his former combat surgeon wife (the nice-to-see-again Neve Campbell, whose part exceeds the stereotypical spouse role) and their two kids (McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell), Sawyer is in Hong Kong to ready the security for “The Pearl,” a state-of-the-art skyscraper promoted as three times the size of the Empire State Building. With a swirling turbine midway up and a tennis ball-like sphere at the top, it looks a little like a giant World Cup trophy.
The building is the pride of billionaire developer Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), who has filled it with extravagant attractions, like a kind of digital hall-of-mirrors that will inevitably serve as the setting for a “Lady From Shanghai”-like shootout. He presides over it from the penthouse, more than 100 floors above anyone else in the unfinished high rise.
The Singaporean star Han is one of the many Asian actors who populate the film, clearly fashioned to appeal as much to Chinese filmgoers as American ones, though their roles are largely peripheral.
Sawyer’s family is installed on floor 96, a precarious spot when, just below them, a band of terrorists led by Kores Botha (a ho-hum Roland Moller) sets a floor on fire, blazing a crimson line across the night skyline. (“Skyscraper” is lensed by Robert Elswit and it regularly looks better than you’d expect it to.)
Their aim, like countless bandits before them, is to smoke out Zhao. It’s an overly elaborate plan considering they mostly desire the flash drive Zhao carries with him. But what bloodthirsty international mercenary isn’t a big fan of “The Towering Inferno”?
That the timing felt right to Thurber and Johnson (who previously teamed for “Central Intelligence”) for a film about a skyscraper under terrorist assault is itself noteworthy. Such a movie would have been unthinkable in the years after Sept. 11, and for some, still is. But this year, for whatever reason, seems to close a chapter in the post-9/11 disaster movie. In April, “Rampage” (also with Johnson) didn’t hesitate to topple urban towers in clouds of dust.
“Skyscraper” doesn’t have any such thoughts — or, really, any thoughts, period — in mind. It’s counting on your amnesia to the past, on screen and off, and it will readily supply you with two hours of mindless escape. It does the job better than most, thanks largely to its hulking hero. When Johnson makes his crane leap — the movie’s much-promoted central set piece — throngs surrounding the building ooh and aah. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s the Rock.
“Skyscraper,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sequences of gun violence and action, and for brief strong language.” Running time: 102 minutes. Two and half stars out of four.
Follow Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ review: Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly deliver small-scale heroic fun
After the release of Avengers: Infinity War earlier this year, it became clear that fans needed a nice breath of fresh air after that horrid ending. Luckily, Lang and the gang are here to provide just that. Ant-Man and the Wasp is a light, yet exciting Marvel film that solidifies these titular characters as some of the most enjoyable in the MCU. While it may not necessarily be groundbreaking, this film is a much-needed escape from the dark future of our favorite heroes.
Ant-Man and the Wasp takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War (but before the events of Infinity War) where we find Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) placed under house arrest for his international crimes in Germany. Estranged from Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), Scott and his former associates’ paths meet up once again in order to reveal some secrets from their pasts. Meanwhile, a new threat known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) appears to threaten the heroes while they are on the run from the FBI.
The most exciting part of this film is the addition of the new characters and how their stories work together for the overall plot. Hope finally takes up the mantle of the Wasp and the arc with her father made for an interesting dynamic. While they are attempting to locate the whereabouts of Hope’s mother, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), they are forced to reunite with Scott to accomplish that goal. This all happens while the three are on the run from many different characters. The FBI, a vengeful gang leader named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), and Ghost along with her mentor Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne) are all trying to get their hands on Pym’s technology and will stop at nothing until they do so. These storylines are blended very well together and kept the audience engaged all the way through.
Rudd and Lilly, like the first installment, have the best performances of the whole cast. Rudd maintains Lang’s sarcastic and fun-loving personality while showing that he is truly the best dad of the MCU. His daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) provides his motivation throughout the film, as he is once again attempting to prove that he can be a great father regardless of his past. Lilly was fantastic in her fiercely determined role as Hope, and it is refreshing to see the strong chemistry shared between her and Rudd. Thankfully, this film did not dwell on or force any kind of romance until it was well-deserved.
The antagonists in this film, however, were very underwhelming and unfortunately forgettable. Even though Goggins’ character worked well within the context of what was happening to Hope and Hank, he could have easily been cut from the story. John-Kamen’s Ghost was also not as developed as she could have been. Her tragic backstory led to generic motivations as she tried to retrieve the technology to fix her deteriorating condition. This made for a very weak villain, but she did serve her basic purpose.
Humor is one of the strongest elements in this film, and it is written very well. It is not over-the-top, but it fits the tone of the movie perfectly. Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (T.I.), and Kurt (David Dastmalchian) are honestly comparable to the Three Amigos and this trio brings some of the best laughs.
On the technical front, the effects and the choreography truly stood out. Visual effects supervisor Stephanie Ceretti, SFX supervisor Dan Sudick, and their respective teams helped make this film absolutely gorgeous. In particular, every shot inside of the quantum realm was stunning to see and made the microscopic world seem enormous in comparison. George Cottle, the stunt coordinator, made the action sequences captivating, especially those with the Wasp. Her scenes were pure exhilaration and provided agile, action-packed entertainment.
While Ant-Man and the Wasp is quite dismissible in terms of world-building, it is as delightful as the first installment, if not more, and is one of the strongest summer blockbusters of the year. And of course—like every other Marvel film—don’t forget to stick around until after the credits.