Stream of the Week: WIND RIVER – another masterpiece from Taylor Sheridan

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER

With the contemporary Western thriller Wind River, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has delivered another masterpiece, this time in his first effort as director. Wind River was probably my most anticipated film of the year because I pegged Sheridan’s previous movie Hell or High Water as the best movie of 2016. Wind River doesn’t disappoint and is one of the best movies of 2017.

The story is set in and around Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation. Cory (Jeremy Renner) is a professional hunter who finds the body of a native American teenage girl. To find out what happened to her and who is responsible, the tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) calls for help from the feds. That assistance arrives in the form of FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen), an inexperienced city slicker who has no clue how to survive in the lethal elements of the wild country. She is canny enough to understand that she needs the help of Cory, who knows every inch of the back country. He has his own reason – very important to the story – to solve the mystery, and the unlikely duo embark on a dangerous investigation, which they know will end in a man hunt.

The man hunt leads to a violent set piece that Sheridan directs masterfully. There’s a sudden escalation of tension, then apparent relief and then an explosion of action. Deadly chaos envelops several characters, but we’re able to follow it all clearly, while we’re on the edges of our seats.

Jeremy Renner’s performance as Cory is brilliant. Cory is a man whose life has been redirected by a family tragedy. He’s a Western stoic of few words, but – unusual for his type – an individual who deals with his grief in a very specific and self-aware way. Playing a character who reloads his own rounds, Renner is able to deliver hard-ass, determined efficiency along with some unexpected tenderness.

Olsen is also very good as Jane who understands that she may appear to be the bottom of the FBI’s barrel because she is a woman and very green and tiny. Resolute and spunky, she moves past what others might take as a slight because no unaided outsider is going to be able to navigate the harsh environment and the culture of the reservation. She isn’t trying to make a name for herself, but just to take responsibility in the old-fashioned way that we would expect from characters played by Glenn Ford, Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. She’s got to do the right thing.

As Martin, the dead girl’s father, Gil Birmingham (Hell or High Water) has two unforgettable scenes. His first scene is phenomenal first scene, as he processes the worst possible news with an outside Jane, and then with his friend Cory. Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal are also excellent. Kelsey Asbille and Jon Bernthal are also stellar in a flashback of the crime.

Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) make great use of the Big Sky country, with the jagged topography of its mountains and the feral frigidity of its forests. Wind River opens as Cory hunts in spectacular postcard scenery; when we first see the reservation, we are jarred – this is a very bad place.

Taylor Sheridan has a gift for writing great, great movie dialogue:

      “Who’s the victim today? Looks like it’s gonna be me.”

and

     “This isn’t the land of backup, Jane. This is the land of you’re on your own.”

When Cory says, “This isn’t about Emily”, we know that this is precisely about Emily. When Cory says, “I’m a hunter”, we know exactly what his intentions are – and so does Martin.

Sheridan hates that, in much of our society, people are disposable. He has explored that theme in Sicario, Hell or High Water and now Wind River. Wind River begins with a title explaining that the story is inspired by actual events, and ends with a particularly horrifying non-statistic.  I’ve also written an essay on Sheridan’s filmmaking signatures, the films of Tayler Sheridan.

Smart, layered and intelligent, Wind River is another success from one of America’s fastest-rising filmmakers. It’s now available to stream from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

WIND RIVER: another masterpiece from Taylor Sheridan

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner in WIND RIVER

With the contemporary Western thriller Wind River, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has delivered another masterpiece, this time in his first effort as director. Wind River was probably my most anticipated film of the year because I pegged Sheridan’s previous movie Hell or High Water as the best movie of 2016Wind River doesn’t disappoint.

The story is set in and around Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation.  Cory (Jeremy Renner) is a professional hunter who finds the body of a native American teenage girl.  To find out what happened to her and who is responsible, the tribal police chief Ben (Graham Greene) calls for help from the feds.  That assistance arrives in the form of FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen), an inexperienced city slicker who has no clue how to survive in the lethal elements of the wild country.  She is canny enough to understand that she needs the help of Cory, who knows every inch of the back country.  He has his own reason – very important to the story – to solve the mystery, and the unlikely duo embark on a dangerous investigation, which they know will end in a man hunt.

The man hunt leads to a violent set piece that Sheridan directs masterfully.  There’s a sudden escalation of tension, then apparent relief and then an explosion of action.  Deadly chaos envelops several characters, but we’re able to follow it all clearly, while we’re on the edges of our seats.

Jeremy Renner’s performance as Cory is brilliant.  Cory is a man whose life has been redirected by a family tragedy.  He’s a Western stoic of few words, but – unusual for his type – an individual who deals with his grief in a very specific and self-aware way.  Playing a character who reloads his own rounds, Renner is able to deliver hard-ass, determined efficiency along with some unexpected tenderness.

Olsen is also very good as Jane who understands that she may appear to be the bottom of the FBI’s barrel because she is a woman and very green and tiny.  Resolute and spunky, she moves past what others might take as a slight because no unaided outsider is going to be able to navigate the harsh environment and the culture of the reservation.  She isn’t trying to make a name for herself, but just to take responsibility in the old-fashioned way that we would expect from characters played by Glenn Ford, Gregory Peck, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.  She’s got to do the right thing.

As Martin, the dead girl’s father, Gil Birmingham (Hell or High Water) has two unforgettable scenes. His first scene is phenomenal first scene, as he processes the worst possible news with an outside Jane, and then with his friend Cory.   Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal are also excellent.   Kelsey Asbille and Jon Bernthal are also stellar in a flashback of the crime.

Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) make great use of the Big Sky country, with the jagged topography of its mountains and the feral frigidity of its forests.  Wind River opens as Cory hunts in spectacular postcard scenery; when we first see the reservation, we are jarred  – this is a very bad place.

Taylor Sheridan has a gift for writing great, great movie dialogue:

      “Who’s the victim today? Looks like it’s gonna be me.”

and

      “This isn’t the land of backup, Jane.  This is the land of you’re on your own.”

When Cory says, “This isn’t about Emily”, we know that this is precisely about Emily.  When Cory says, “I’m a hunter”, we know exactly what his intentions are – and so does Martin.

Sheridan hates that, in much of our society, people are disposable. He has explored that theme in Sicario, Hell or High Water and now Wind River. Wind River begins with a title explaining that the story is inspired by actual events, and ends with a particularly horrifying non-statistic.

Smart, layered and intelligent, Wind River is another success from one of America’s fastest-rising filmmakers.

I SAW THE LIGHT: but the theater was projecting this dull movie

I SAW THE LIGHT
I SAW THE LIGHT

You really can’t blame Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olson or any of the cast for the unremitting dullness of the biopic I Saw the Light.  The life of Hank Williams, Sr. was so filled with pathos and singular achievement that it should inspire a captivating movie.  After all, Hank’s songwriting genius (36 hits and six #1 songs in only six years) catapulted him from the obscurity of backwater Alabama to national celebrity.  Being a womanizing alcoholic with chronic back pain made him a less than ideal husband, resulting in martial carnage.  And his meteoric career ended when he died in the back seat of his Cadillac at age twenty-nine.  Now THAT’S a compelling life story.

Unfortunately, neither the singularity of Hank’s talent nor the urgency of his self-destructiveness comes through in the series of vignetted in I Saw the Light.  Marc Abraham is an able producer (The Commitments, The Hurricane, Children of Men) – writer-director not so much.  Halfway through, I was contemplating where to dine afterwards.

As Hank, Hiddleston impersonates Hank’s singing voice well and brings a special gleam to the performances.  But he can’t enliven this plodding movie.

DVD/Stream of the Week: VERY GOOD GIRLS: two girlfriends and one guy

Dakota Fanning in VERY GOOD GIRLS
Dakota Fanning in VERY GOOD GIRLS

This week’s DVD/Stream of the Week is this year’s outstanding coming of age movie Very Good Girls.  Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen play best buds who graduate from high school and decide they need to lose their respective virginities before heading to college. Both fall for the same guy, and they’re each drawn to him and wary of him.  But what elevates this story above those with similar set-ups is that it’s not so much about girl-and-boy but about girl-and-girl and how the circumstances affect their lifelong friendship.

Although there’s potential conflict over the boy and each girl’s family goes through a crisis, Very Good Girls is completely free of emo pretension.  Genuine through and through, the story lets us relate to these girls and keep us engaged in what is happening to their bond.

Olsen is 25 and Fanning is 20, but they are entirely believable as 18-year-olds.  Fanning and Olsen are right up there with Jennifer Lawrence, Shailene Woodley and Bree Larson as our best young film actresses.  Fanning recently made an indie breakthrough in The Motel Life.  Olsen has been excellent in Martha Marcy May Marlene and even in the awful In Secret. 

The girls’ parents are played by Richard Dreyfuss and Demi Moore and Clark Gregg and Ellen Barkin.  It’s kind of a hoot to see the actresses that gave played some of the hottest scenes in 1989/1990 cinema (Ghost and Sea of Love) play the curfew-enforcing moms.  Peter Sarsgaard also shows up, at his most pervy.

Very Good Girls is the first film directed by screenwriter Naomi Foner (Oscar-nominated for Running on Empty), mother of Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal.  Foner has a wonderful touch, and I hope we see her direct some more.

It pisses me off that, if Very Good Girls had been about high school boys getting laid, it would have gotten the theatrical release that eluded this film.  But we can make up for hat by watching it at home. Very Good Girls is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video.

In Secret: predictable, stilted and too many clothes

in secret

In Secret is a period romance with the look and set-up of a Jane Austin movie, the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice and the appeal of neither.  A poor orphan girl (Elizabeth Olsen) is dispatched to living with her wealthy relatives, who eventually force a marriage to her sickly cousin Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies).  His hunky friend (Oscar Isaacs from Inside Llewyn Davis) shows up and, before ya know it, he and the young bride are humping like bunnies.  And before you can say “Double Indemnity”, it occurs to them that they could be together forever with a lot of money if only the husband met his end.  This being the 19th Century, the poor cuckold hasn’t yet seen A Place in the Sun or Leave Her to Heaven, so he gets in the boat…

Unfortunately, In Secret telegraphs every point in the plot, so the audience is never surprised.  In Secret fails to deliver the edginess of a noir thriller, but it retains the worst of the Austin period movies – the stilted dialogue and all the boring stuff.

Olsen is a fine actress and she makes the most of the material.  Unfortunately, Jessica Lange, as the family matriarch, has some meltdowns that are embarrassing.

One more complaint: the two lovers may well be having a torrid affair, but one of my pet peeves is movie-sex-in-clothes.  I understand that women wore more layers of garments in the 19th Century, but – trust me – NOBODY has this much sex without undressing.

In Secret is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video.

Liberal Arts: promising, but hollow

I liked so much about Liberal Arts that I wondered why I felt so unsatisfied leaving the theater. I finally realized that the central character just didn’t work for me, making an otherwise good movie into a hollow one.

Liberal Arts is written and directed by TV sitcom star Josh Radnor, who also plays the lead character, Jesse, a college admissions officer in NYC.  Jesse is now 35 and adrift.  He returns to his old college to speak at the retirement of his favorite professor, falls back in love with college life and meets a spirited 19-year-old coed.  As Jesse examines where he is in his life, he is book ended by his world weary professors and by the naive young students that he meets.

That’s a promising premise and the very well written supporting characters provide some funny and thoughtful moments.  Richard Jenkins is brilliant as a man grappling with the end of his career, and Alison Janney has some delicious moments as a very tough broad whose expertise is Romantic literature.  Elizabeth Olsen is very good as the coed, and Zac Efron is downright hilarious as a college age stoner dude.

But it comes down to a main character that has it pretty good, but resists acting like a grownup.  He doesn’t get credit from me for figuring it out at least thirteen years too late.  The movie wants to give him credit for that, and for a “noble” decision that is implausible.

The Wife liked it, though.