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Film Review: Wind River

Wind River (2017; Directed by Taylor Sheridan)

Grim and stark like its snowy, spartan setting on a Wyoming Indian reservation, Wind River is the third and least of double-Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s heavy, violent crime dramas set amidst the socioeconomic margins of America. This is a bit unfortunate, as the core political issue that it seeks to spotlight – missing and murdered Indigenous women, an epidemic made worse by the complete lack of statistics about its frequency Stateside – is given far less attention than the push button issues of previous Sheridan scripts Sicario (the Mexican cartel drug trade at the border with the U.S.) and Hell or High Water (the financial system capitalizing on the struggles of poor whites).

At the centre of Wind River is a hard man acclimatized to the remote wilderness. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a Fish & Wildlife hunter and tracker, separated from his wife (Julia Jones) and son (Teo Briones) by the solitary demands of his job but also by a painful family tragedy in his past. Called onto the Wind River Reservation (the deprivations of its inhabitants are seen in standard-issue drive-by panoramas, one of which includes a heavy-handed upside-down U.S. flag) by his former father-in-law (Apesanahkwat) to track down livestock possibly snatched by a mountain lion, Cory finds a young woman’s dead body frozen in the snow, miles away from any human habitation.

There is evidence of rape and murder, which would constitute a criminal investigation beyond the stretched resources of the Tribal Police (their chief is Ben, played by veteran Aboriginal-Canadian actor Graham Greene, and it is noted that he has only five further officers to keep the peace in an area the size of Rhode Island, a true fact). FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, Renner’s Avengers co-star) arrives to evaluate the case, but is disappointed to learn from the medical examiner that the woman – named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), daughter of Cory’s good friend Martin (Gil Birmingham, who was in Hell or High Water) – died from the cold and that her death cannot be classed as a homicide. Procedurally, this means that no investigative team will be sent from the Agency to take over. If Jane wants to find the perpetrator of Natalie’s death, she’ll have to solve the case herself, with Ben’s team and Cory as her only collaborators.

Sheridan no doubt learned from the directors of his previously-penned pictures, probably Sicario‘s supremely skilled Denis Villeneuve in particular, how to stage a tense and visceral bloodbath of a shootout scene. Wind River includes two, first a nailbiting sequence of Jane creeping through a reservation junkie flophouse, then the centerpiece, a memorable massacre in the snow between law enforcement and the bad men behind not only the death of Natalie but of her boyfriend Matt (Jon Bernthal) as well. Unfortunately, Sheridan’s hand is not as steady with the use of flashback, utilizing one to reveal the circumstances of the murders at a juncture that he no doubt thinks is clever but comes off as clumsy and awkwardly placed.

Cory’s intervention in the big shootout with his high-powered hunting rifle is graphic but satisfying, if rather telegraphed. Indeed, Cory’s role in the proceedings is always realistically couched in terms of his hunting and tracking capabilities, and Renner gives a strong performance as a man used to a hard life of hard choices who has nonetheless not abandoned his sensitivity, empathy, or moral compass. But he’s a bit too much of the rugged plain-spoken hero with a heart of gold, a stock figure that Sheridan has thus far avoided deploying so uncritically in his work.

The events of Wind River are based on the foul-play deaths of three teenaged girls on the reservation about a decade ago. These deaths were similarly borderline murders, but with drug-use involvement, with both the victims and the responsible parties being Native American. Sheridan crafts Wind River‘s murder mystery as not an internal tribal matter but a case of outside forces (colonizers, if you will) both bringing predatory violence and redressing the wrong done in the name of justice. Government agents avenge the most obvious ills visited on the reservation residents by subalterns of acquisitive corporate capitalism, but as with many social problems in America, they can do little to alleviate base-level suffering and struggling to survive in parts of the country that make majority-Caucasian Appalachia – that locus of demonstrative political hand-wringing over endemic poverty in the States, the place where it counts to be poor, unlike reservations or majority-black or Hispanic urban communities – look like the Hamptons in comparison.

Wind River, its good intentions interwoven with unflinching but vaguely nihilistic hard-edged realism, can do little either. Canada’s First Nations reserves face similar problems as those of the U.S., but concerted efforts by Indigenous groups and political activist allies in this country have at least convinced the federal government to convene an official inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women (albeit an inquiry rife with problems already). The situation for American Indians seems that much more dire for the lack of government resources and concern, especially in a time of a federal administration actively engaged in worsening the conditions for anyone who isn’t identified as white (and plenty who are too, while they’re at it).

Still, Wind River might have at least lessened that burden with a story of Native American agency and self-reliance, with representational casting at its core. As good as Renner is in the role, did Cory need to be white? Could not a Native American actor (Zahn McClarnon, a mixed Lakota-Irish actor currently doing superb work in prestige television, would have been inspired casting) have played Cory, adding a further element of personal cultural conflict to the character by having him be caught between two worlds, on and off the reservation? Far be it for a mere internet critic to question the creative decisions of a twice-Oscar-nominated screenwriter, but such a choice might give an opportunity for meta-commentary about and deconstruction of the common Hollywood western stock character of the Native American tracker.

The possibilities are fascinating, but Wind River is a movie closed off from fascination. More than competent and often tense and evocative, with some lovely widescreen cinematography from DP Ben Richardson, Wind River comes across as too grim and paternalistic. Opening with a chest-puffing piece of grandiose poetic voiceover and closing with pulpit-ascending onscreen titles lecturing about the ignored issue of missing Native women, it’s a movie that can’t get out of its own way. Given the representational, thematic, and narrative good its messaging could have done if presented better, Wind River has to count as a disappointment.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys (2016; Directed by Shane Black)

The opening sequence of Shane Black’s rough and rowdy action/comedy/neo-noir is a sort of initial thesis statement for the project of subversion of genre violence and sly confrontation of audience perspective and expectations that The Nice Guys (like most of Black’s work) represents. On a clear night in Los Angeles in 1977, after ensuring that the dog is safely inside and the family is securely asleep, a boy named Bobby (Ty Simpkins) sneaks off excitedly to ogle a nudie magazine featuring popular adult-film star Misty Mountains (Murielle Tellio). The lurid pubescent rush of Bobby’s horny yet detached voyeurism becomes uncomfortably real and immediate, however, when a car carrying Misty herself crashes with sudden devastation through his house. In the aftermath, face to face with the idealized object of his youthful desire’s naked but torn and broken body, Bobby is overcome with sobering shame and covers her corpse with his nightshirt.

This scene is not the example from the film cited by the Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak, in his video-essay consideration of Black’s unique and defamiliarizing application of “awkward violence”, but it is a fuller summation of Black’s treatment of the elements of the film noir genre. Black delights in staging the dark, anti-social, vicarious thrills of hypermasculine action/detective movies with a sort of eruptive, direct realism that presents them as more painful and less safe than the generally empty spectacle of Hollywood blockbuster destruction. In this way, he challenges the audience to shake loose their assumptions about (and above all their numbness to) depictions of violence, to confront their voyeurism and realize its fundamentally problematic nature.

The Nice Guys overturns those assumptions and destabilizes Black’s favoured detective noir genre at every turn. The death of Misty Mountains (a perfect fake-pornstar name, complete with amusing cultural reference, from Black and his co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi) and the expanding conspiracy around it becomes the central mystery probed into by a mismatched duo of private dicks. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is an aging hard man who beats up and threatens people for money, and takes a commission from a young activist protestor named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) to dissuade a strange man from following her. This man is strange and is also Holland March (Ryan Gosling), an alcoholic ex-cop P.I. and single father to Holly (Angourie Rice), a teen girl who is probably more savvy than her father. Looking for Amelia in connection with Misty’s demise at the behest of the latter’s elderly half-blind aunt, who he is milking for as much money as he can while making a bare pretense of investigating, March is beaten and left with a broken arm by Healy.

Despite this inauspicious beginning to their acquaintance, the two men soon semi-reluctantly join forces to find Amelia and learn more about her connection to Misty via an porn flick with potentially inflammatory information about collusion between the government and the big Detroit automakers. From a indie filmmaker’s burnt-down home to a porn producer’s fanciful house party, from a Burbank Airport hotel to a final confrontation at the LA Auto Show, Healy and March, reluctantly with Holly’s aid, chase down Amelia and the film just ahead of a trio of criminal henchmen (Beau Knapp, Keith David, Matt Bomer) of increasing levels of competence and deadliness.

Black’s plot, like his application of violence, is surprising and even subversive, leaning into sharp turns and ironic reversals. As detailed by Puschak, March’s early genre-standard attempt to punch through a glass pane to open a bar’s back door in order to obtain Amelia-related information leads to a sliced wrist and a rollicking ambulance ride. Holly attempts to subdue an armed antagonist by throwing coffee on them; the coffee is unexpectedly cold, but her enemy slips on the spilled liquid and knocks herself out anyway. And a spectacular shootout with Bomer’s menacing hitman John Boy in defence of Amelia is made suddenly, stunningly moot after its conclusion.

The script’s jokes are fine-tuned, and its call-backs in particular are a joy, especially one involving Richard Nixon’s face being the last thing a man once saw before dying. References to gas shortages, the growth of the porn business, media-fed anxiety about killer bees (a man-sized version of which hilariously appears in the backseat of March’s car in a dream), and anti-smog die-in protests ground the film in its historical milieu while imparting a sense of instability and decay of morality and security that make the period and place an ideal setting for the stress-tests of noir. Crowe is solidly in his element as a gruff, violent man whose best years are behind him but who fleetingly wishes to be better. But Gosling’s unethical, grifting, mostly hapless and quietly guilt-ridden March, with his perpetual Chinatown-like injuries, lack of a sense of smell, and high-pitched, unmasculine shriek of alarm, steals the show, while also carrying Black’s reflections on the difficulty of moral conduct in a societal setting of dishonesty, exploitation, violence, looting, and subterfuge.

Shane Black understands well the appeal of violently transgressive content in such a genre setting, and could very well summon it in a manner commensurate with expected convention, pumped full of triumphant testosterone and audio-visual adrenaline. But from its opening scene, The Nice Guys dares its audience to interrogate their own complicity in the lies, danger, and violence of this cinematic milieu. It complicates the veneer of the ideal by making the violence on display and its clear costs undeniable and even difficult to digest.

This approach goes compellingly beyond mere screen violence into an open challenge to American idealized self-conception. The eventual object of the detective characters’ quarry is not Amelia but her film (How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?), an exposé in more ways than one that outlives those who made it. Its sociopolitical challenge is explicitly targetted at the car culture of the auto-centric metropolis of Los Angeles and its notorious smog (killing birds and threatening public health), and by extension at the centrality of the automobile in narratives of American freedom, mobility, and gender hegemony. Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger), Amelia’s mother and the nexus of the corrupt government-automaker conspiracy, states that Detroit’s power and permanence cannot be challenged (a winking irony is obvious in this argument, given the city’s precipitous urban degradation and depopulation in our era), and that “what is good for Detroit is good for America” (a paraphrase of a former Secretary of Defense and major stakeholder in General Motors). Big gas-guzzling automobiles, like violent Hollywood action movies, are consistently sold by corporate interests as being good for you, but Shane Black’s The Nice Guys stops you in the midst of your consumption to suggest, without pedantry or tiresome lecturing but with crisp, funny subversion, that they’re as bad for you as you would imagine, and that you think twice about the choice to consume them.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018; Directed by J.A. Bayona)

For all that the movies of the franchise-rebooting Jurassic World trilogy are not turning out to be very good, they are offering ample opportunities to consider and discuss the ideas and themes at the centre of Michael Crichton’s surprisingly resilient concept of a theme park featuring genetically-recreated dinosaurs. These latest movies in Universal’s lucrative blockbuster series don’t always manage to explore these ideas in fresh or intriguing ways, and they increasingly take place in a comic-book version of our world where people continue to do the exact same things with regards to dinosaurs and invariably expect a non-catastrophic result (which is maybe not so unlike our textbook-definition-of-insanity world after all). But with the exception of some fleeting, film-homage-drenched moments of visceral thrills, Jurassic World and its new sequel Fallen Kingdom don’t have much else to offer the committed moviegoer. Certainly not developed characters with relationships that we can invest in (with one slightly odd exception) or snappy, amusing dialogue or plot turns that make sense and amplify the impact of character arcs and script themes.

Jurassic World made heaping piles of money at the box office, but it was hardly a great (or even consistently good) movie even as summer popcorn-movie fodder. What it was, however, was a suprisingly complex if often self-contradictory and messy recontextualization of the ideas at the core of Jurassic Park, combining the original Frankenstein-descended thought-seed of corporatized science bringing prehistoric monsters to life (with disastrous physical and moral consequences) with troublingly Hitchcockian gender politics. Where Steven Spielberg’s glorified (but only really just above-average) 1993 Jurassic Park did build a re-socialization of Sam Neill’s child-hating paleontologist Alan Grant into its conflict between idealistic capitalist vision and crusty rational cynicism, Colin Trevorrow’s 2015 Jurassic World re-situated that association to career-driven woman Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). Claire’s professional authority and ambition is associated directly with the turbulent sublimated maternal/oedipal all-devouring violence of the Indominus Rex, a super-predator whose genetic creation she authorized as the new star attraction of the theme park she ran and whose escape precipitates that park’s disastrous destruction. Through the crucible of disaster, Trevorrow pushed Claire towards a more traditional path of a forged-in-crisis family unit with her ever-imperiled nephews and heroic man-of-action Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a combat veteran and animal behaviourist who trained a pack of velociraptors from a young age to bond with him and respond to his commands.

As Fallen Kingdom opens, this promised family unit has dissolved. Having broken up, Claire and Owen are brought back together by a mission to return to the ruined park on remote Isla Nublar and rescue as many creatures as possible from a volcanic eruption that threatens to destroy the whole island and the entire population of genetically-crafted dinosaurs with it. This effort is funded by ailing old rich man Benjamin Lockwood (a wheelchair- and bed-bound James Cromwell affecting a baffling bad Mid-Atlantic accent), who collaborated with original Jurassic Park head honcho John Hammond on the initial genetic experiments that brought dinosaurs back to life. Claire, who heads a bustling animal-rights-oriented NGO that is campaigning for the preservation of the remaining dinos, meets Lockwood, his business aide Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), and his precocious young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) at his neo-gothic estate, museum, and laboratory in Northern California. They need Claire’s handprint authorizations to access the system in the old park that will allow their hard-as-nails big-game hunter Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) to track and capture the dinos, and she jumps at the chance to fulfill her organizational goals. Owen needs a little more convincing to go back, but is persuaded to do so with the promise of a reunion with the prized alpha female in the raptor pack he trained, the intelligent and imperious Blue.

This adventure (whose description after this point includes deeper spoilers, to give fair warning) involves plentiful dinosaurid peril and a spectacular, sustained, impossibly apocalyptic escape from a massive volcanic explosion. It also involves increasingly incredible situations, as when Owen and Claire are tasked by feistily pragmatic ex-Marine paleoveterinarian Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda, who would make a better human lead in these movies than either of the top-billing stars) with drawing blood from a half-sedated Tyrannosaurus Rex in order to save the injured Blue with a therapod-match blood transfusion. Fallen Kingdom gallops over the edge into truly goofy but viscerally exciting genre-movie homage territory as the mission is revealed as a recklessly duplicitous scheme by Mills to raise millions of dollars by auctioning off the rescued dinosaurs to wealthy private bidders and then use the resulting funds to develop genetic super-dinos as even more lucrative weapons of war. The auction is hijacked by Owen and Claire with the help of an ornery headbutt-happy Pachycephalosaurus (I spelled that right first time, I swear), but as a result the prototype dino-super-soldier Indoraptor gets loose and chases the screaming Maisie through her grand-dad’s rambling quasi-Victorian pile in an enervated gothic monster horror episode on steroids.

Fallen Kingdom‘s director is Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona, a Guillermo del Toro disciple with an applicable resume of fright-fests and disaster movies who orchestrates the requisite frightening dinosaur pursuits with verve, intensity, and baroque visual flourishes. One compelling pastiche image of the Indoraptor’s curved claws reaching menacingly for Maisie as she shivers in terror in her four-post bed is already a defining image (one aesthetically worthy of his Oscar-winning mentor, even) for an otherwise-disposal film, it seems.

But Bayona’s adeptness in these genre sequences is constantly let down by a horridly misbegotten script, from Trevorrow and Derek Connolly. Texturally, it’s powerfully lame, full of unrealistic character motivations, dialogue that vacillates between awkwardly expository and painfully leaden, and flat, telegraphed jokes galore. Owen Grady is the more serious-visaged prong of Pratt’s blockbuster leading-man fame and thus less-beloved than Guardians of the Galaxy‘s more sarcastic Peter Quill, but Pratt’s comedic gifts are not anathema to Grady’s thinly-drawn character but rather buried in piss-poor lines and dubiously-timed deliveries. Pratt does manage one funny scene of physical comedy, at least, as a semi-tranquilized Grady rolls gradually away from inexorably advancing lava. Howard’s Claire, meanwhile, is not saddled with a character arc that attempts to send her back into the kitchen as a 1950s housewife (or any arc at all, really), but she has little enough to do but run from danger here, which she does magnificently well (pounding out a full sprint in heels is Ron Howard’s daughter’s superpower).

More problematically, like Jurassic World, Fallen Kingdom shoehorns in a child in peril to satisfy certain Spielbergian tropes in reflection of the master’s original work (Bayona includes a few direct tribute shots to the franchise’s father, and I swear I even spotted a stealth reference to a memorable Jurassic Park lampoon from the short-lived animated comedy series The Critic). It should be said, however, that the trauma that Maisie is put through in a single night over and above being pursued through her home by a ravenously vicious carnivorous reptile is frankly a bit much, and would doubtlessly lead to psychological scars of a remarkable magnitude requiring years of therapy to even begin to mitigate. As if this wasn’t enough, the screenwriters also feel the need to drop a much-teased bombshell twist about Maisie prior to the climax. But it’s weirdly perfunctory (a dino attack tramples over any hope of a reaction to it) and furthermore essentially weightless in its implications, as if Trevorrow and Connolly didn’t so much study and dissect shocking plot twists in order to produce an effective one of their own as they were vaguely told about their general existence by an aunt on Facebook.

Fallen Kingdom has these problems and more on a moment-to-moment basis, but loses the plot that much more completely in macro thematic terms. Five films of diminishing quality into the franchise, there appears to be little left to say about humanity’s dinosaur-creating hubris and how it is fed by corporatized avarice and compromised science. So little, indeed, that Trevorrow and Connolly retreat to that eternal safe ground of Hollywood critiques of capitalist exploitation and deploy cartoonishly nasty arms dealers (one of them even has a broad Russian accent, Slavically calling out his multi-million dollar bids in lurid closeup inserts). This would be only half-effective even if The Last Jedi hadn’t gone to the same well much more prominently and forcefully, and with a touch more nuance, a mere half-year ago, and the subplot even wastes Toby Jones (the Wayne Gretzky of sad, smarmy little men) as the smirking rodent-like broker to the ultra-rich bidders.

The new idea that is introduced into the Jurassic Park cinematic realm in this movie is one that has subsisted on the margins of the films so far. Namely, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom goes all-in on an in-text debate about animal rights for the dinosaurs, and more subtly flirts with the idea of empathy for them and how they are deserving of a chance to survive, whatever cost that chance might have for human civilization. Claire’s organization is only the spear’s head of a wider political debate about saving the dinosaurs or letting them go extinct again.

The film grounds the intellectual and moral case for their survival in empathetic moments: Bayona recuscitates the wondrous appearance of the Brachiosaurus from the 1993 film and then bathes it in sad elegy, having the same majestic creature cry out to the last departing ship from the Isla Nublar dock as the island is consumed by volcanic activity; the film’s climactic dilemma concerns a direct choice between releasing the surviving dinosaurs or preserving civilizational order by letting them die, and is resolved with the simple loving quasi-wisdom (and perhaps buried genetic solidarity) of a child. More than anything else, though, Owen Grady’s bond with the velociraptor Blue, the only relationship in the film that carries any weight or emotional power (and even then proscribed to fleeting moments), makes the empathetic case for dinosaur rights. As deadly as she can be, Blue is basically treated like Owen’s imposing but touchingly loyal dog, an impression strengthened by keeping her injured and in risk of dying in the care of the vet for much of the film, as well as incorporating video of Owen forming a bond with her and other adorable little raptor puppies years before.

Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom firmly puts forth and supports this idea of dinosaur rights, and the appeals to empathy work fairly well, aided as they are by excellent CG character work on the creatures that demonstrates how far the fine details of the technology and craft have come since Jurassic Park acted as a watershed for CGI effects in 1993. But it’s hard not to go along with the characteristically dire warnings of Dr. Ian Malcolm, played again in cameo by the incomparable Jeff Goldblum, testifying before a Congressional committee considering funding the ill-fated dinosaur rescue mission that Owen and Claire perform on the Lockwood dime instead. Having ignored his prognostications of doom and persisted on the path of a post-modern Prometheus, Malcolm considers mankind’s only rational decision concerning this self-created dilemma to be the one of enlightened self-preservation: Let a volcanic act of God erase the error of a man-made act of God. Not to be heartless, but it’s hard to say, given what happens between humans and dinosaurs in this film as in all of the others, that he isn’t right.

Watching dinosaurs rampage and devour humans is the core thrill of the Jurassic Park franchise, but the explanatory reasons for those humans’ stubborn and unwise persistence in keeping these deadly beasts around are becoming spread ever-thinner. Again and again during Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, you’re left wondering why people who know as much as these characters do about the dangers posed by dinosaurs keep getting into the cage with them, figuratively but very often quite literally. You need not wonder that about the film’s audience, protected as they are from the violent ends of their violent delights by the semi-permeable membrane of the movie screen. We keep getting into the cage with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park because it’s undeniably appealing, even in the diminished doses offered in the Colin Trevorrow-headed Jurassic World trilogy (which will be concluded by a third film once again directed by Trevorrow). What the Jurassic World films should be working harder to achieve is to give us better reasons to want to get into the cage. They have one more shot at it. Make it count.

Categories: Film, Reviews