Actor Taylor Sheridan certainly came bolting out of the gate as a screenwriter, with his scripts for 2015’s Sicario and last year’s Hell or High Water displaying a firm grasp of pulp storytelling dynamics and an eagerness to explore the darker aspects of the human condition. (That both films had terrific directors in charge, with Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie respectively, definitely didn’t hurt.)
Wind River, Sheridan’s first attempt at directing one of his own scripts, is a similarly tough, intelligently elevated B-movie, bolstered by unexpectedly deft novelistic touches and an exceptional, contents-under-pressure lead performance by Jeremy Renner. It’s got a kick.
I’m not sure when the phrase “the dialogue sounds written” became a put-down when we talk about movies. It’s good that people are hip to cinema as a visual medium and all, but smart, sculpted dialogue—from Shakespeare to Billy Wilder—is something to celebrate. In a movie age when words are meant to sound improvised by the actors (and often are), Taylor Sheridan’s talk is crafted to a degree that sometimes rings theatrical by comparison. Sheridan copped a well-justified Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination last year for Hell or High Water, a modern-day Western rife with carefully shaped, literate dialogue. You bet the dialogue sounds “written.” For this we give thanks.
A well-traveled actor before his writing breakthrough on Sicario (2015), Sheridan obviously understands the kind of material with which actors make hay: revelations, confessions, pauses, subtle shifts in power. Sicario and Hell or High Water were ably directed by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively, but Sheridan directs his own material in the new film Wind River, which premiered at SIFF earlier this year.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Paramount, Blu-ray, DVD, VOD), the fifth film in the big-screen franchise based on the sixties Cold War spy TV series, continues to spin its alternative to the James Bond brand of espionage thriller. Like the 007 films, they are globe-hopping spectacles with spectacular set-pieces and stunts. But while each film is tethered on Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, super-agent and loyal soldier in a spy war rife with traitors, the impossible missions are team events and Cruise surrounds himself with great teammates: Ving Rhames, Jeremy Renner, and Simon Pegg all return. There’s a kind of soldierly camaraderie among the agents, who constantly find themselves betrayed by politicians, military officers, and even their own commanders, and they band together to save the each other along with saving the world as we know it.
Cruise both produces each film with a hands-on approach and gives his filmmakers free reign to mix up the style from film to film. For the fifth film in almost 20 years, Cruise hands the reigns over to Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the screenplays to Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow and directed Cruise in Jack Reacher. While that film failed to launch another planned franchise, it was a sturdy piece of work and McQuarrie does even better here tackling spy fantasy. This is a world where technology is all powerful except when it isn’t (forcing Ethan to hang on to a jet plane as it takes off or dive into a cooling tank to punch in a key code and open some security system) and plot twists send our heroes to the most photogenic landmarks the filmmakers can dream up.
The characters in current superhero movies must’ve grown up reading comic books. In Marvel’s run of blockbusters, Iron Man and Thor and the gang (well, maybe not Captain America) are steeped in cultural references; they know all the clichés of pulp fiction, even as they embody them. Aware of the absurdity of wearing tights and wielding magical hammers, they make jovial banter about it when they’re not busy saving the world. This self-conscious tendency reached its peak in Guardians of the Galaxy, a stealth-bomber sendup of the superhero movie.
Avengers: Age of Ultron can’t top Guardians in that department. But writer/director Joss Whedon balances comedy and derring-do with dexterity, and this sequel to 2012’s top grosser doesn’t stall the franchise.
The Immigrant (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – Marion Cotillard earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the Dardenne Brothers’s Two Days, One Night but I think her best performance of 2014 is in this film. She plays Ewa, a Polish immigrant in 1921 New York who, turned away by relatives, is dependent on a mercenary burlesque producer and pimp (played with the cheap charm of a low-rent impresario by Joaquin Phoenix) for her freedom and for the money to get his sister out of quarantine on Ellis Island. (It is, of course, for bribes.)
If you think you know where this film is going based on that premise, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The film, co-written and directed by James Gray, isn’t just about her degrading ordeal (which isn’t explicitly shown but is made awfully clear). The initially shy beauty steels herself to the hard times of life on the margins of society, disconnecting her emotions not just from her work but her every interaction in this unforgiving culture, and Cotillard invests Ewa with the fiery will to survive and save her little sister from deportation. Phoenix, meanwhile, creates a fascinating figure of the pimp Bruno, chasing the American dream in the shadows and falling in love with Ewa as she hardens with every day on the streets. Jeremy Renner co-stars as a stage magician and rival for Ewa’s affections, though his underwritten character is easily overpowered by the vivid and nuanced portraits by Cotillard and Phoenix.
We should mention right off that the New York Film Critics Circle, which decided it needed to be first in the stampede of awards groups doling out accolades this year, bestowed its best-picture prize on American Hustle. That was back on December 3, which means NYFCC members likely saw the film a few days (if not a few hours) before voting on it.
This suggests something about American Hustle: If this isn’t a great movie, and it’s not, it sure is a fireworks display, designed to make an immediate and dazzling impression. The latest concoction from director/co-writer David O. Russell is full of big roundhouse swings and juicy performances: It’s a fictionalized take on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s, in which the FBI teamed with a second-rate con man in a wacko sting operation involving a bogus Arab sheik and bribes to U.S. congressmen.
Much—and now understandably—delayed, Hansel& Gretel: Witch Hunters is grim going. This horror-action-comedy pastiche possesses all the terror and suspense and visual pizzazz of a downscale videogame for dull-eyed teens happy to lap up lame wisecracks and lots of gore. Back in 2009, director Tommy Wirkola served up DeadSnow, a horror hit about rampaging Nazi zombies. Apparently that modest success convinced some Hollywood drone that the Norwegian helmer should apply his modicum of talent to H&G, a big-budget, faux-fairy tale about skanky witches and the amazingly uncharismatic siblings (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) who make a living by offing them. That was a mistake.
If there’s any justice, Wirkola’s career as writer-director will hit the wall, in the wake of the catastrophe that is H&G. The man hasn’t a clue how to dream up dialogue that real human beings might conceivably utter, even when stuck in his patently phony Dark Age. Gifted with A-list Renner and the often lively Arterton, Wirkola reduces his leads to unlikable smart-alecks who spend most of their time rolling around in the dirt, punched out by one seemingly unstoppable witch after another. Since H&G is essentially just a string of ultra-bloody dust-ups, it hardly helps that the hack in charge doesn’t know the first thing about directing kinetically and spatially coherent action.
Once upon a time, in the dark of night, a father leads his two kids out into the woods and abandons them. Eventually, Hansel and Gretel fetch up at a grotesque cottage made out of crappy-looking candy and cookies. Inside, a nasty crone fattens them up for the oven. Suddenly brother and sister gang up on the hag, and after a flurry of impossible-to-parse action, she falls screaming into her own cooking fire. Now, in Grimm or Guillermo del Toro, such a nightmare adventure—little kids deserted by their parents, then menaced by a cannibal crone—would be terrifying. Cold-sweat suspense should make us squirm as the witch prepares to cook the traumatized children. But H&G consistently flatlines, never engaging us emotionally, viscerally, any which way. This opening prologue sets the tone: from start to finish, nothing in H&G really moves—or moves us—authentically.
The Avengers (Disney), the Marvel comics superhero all-star team, is the most impressive example of synergy in the comic book movie industry to date.
Unlike The X-Men, which arrived full formed in 2000, The Avengers is the comic book version of the supergroup, with stars in their own right coming together (not without some friction and ego-thumping) for a battle royale. So Marvel put together a long term plan, launching their stars in a series of solo films and building an entire universe of heroes and villains for the screen.
They teased audiences with brief cross-overs and then, after years of setting it all up, brought together the team: Robert Downey’s cheeky, cocky Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s warrior prince Thor, Chris Evans’ earnest Captain America, and Mark Ruffalo taking over as Bruce Banner and The Hulk (the third actor in as many films), giving the character a haunted, embittered edge. To round out the team, the film expands the role of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), a slinky superagent, from the second “Iron Man” film, and adds Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), an archer marksman briefly seen in “Thor.” Samuel Jackson presides over it all as Nick Fury.
It could have been a disaster, with so many characters to juggle and personalities to respect while engaging in a big, noisy, apocalyptic battle with no less than gods and aliens. And it was a measured gamble to bring in Joss Whedon, a man with well-earned fan credentials and an affinity for this kind of genre storytelling. No question that he brings smarts and style and self-aware wit to his productions (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on TV, “Serenity” on film) but his audiences have been, shall we say, small and passionate.
It was the perfect marriage of subject and sensibility. You wouldn’t accuse The Avengers of being good drama but the sprawling, splashy spectacle and its much-much-much-larger-than-life heroes makes for a genuine comic book epic for the big screen.