Wind River

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Given another shot at the director’s chair after the critical acclaim lavished upon his first two produced screenplays, Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016), former actor Taylor Sheridan confirms his success has been no fluke. His second turn behind the camera, after obscure 2011 horror film Vile, shows him to be no slouch in terms of handling the demands of his narrative and actors. Wind River (2017) proves to be another impressive screenplay. Set in the blighted snowy expanses of Wyoming, it is, superficially, a murder mystery but as it unravels the strength of characterisation comes to the fore, especially in the form of lead character Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a Wildlife and Fisheries officer and local tracker who knows the dimensions and layout of the surrounding landscape like the back of his hand. Cory is a haunted man however, having being visited by tragedy of the worst sort in the not too distant past. The daughter he shared with estranged Indian partner Wilma (Julia Jones) was taken from him in terrible circumstances.

The discovery of a young Indian girl, Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), on the outskirts of the ‘Wind River’ reservation in the film’s opening sends shockwaves through him though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from reading external indicators. Cory’s a classic figure of a mythologised West, the impenetrable, strong silent type who observes constantly but speaks only out of necessity. He’s a model of constraint, a man who internalises and compartmentalises his pain and angst to save face and allow him a reluctant reconciliation with the wider world. He is, then, not a naturally compatible partner for the young FBI agent, Jane Bremmer (Elizabeth Olsen), drafted in to oversee the case and make a determination about murder. Together they dig into possible leads, with Jane utilising Cory’s intimate, detailed knowledge of both the environment and the wild assortment of people who call it home at every turn to uncover clues from beneath every overturned rock. What she finds is a world apart from her own big city life, one immersed in a doom-laden fog from which an unpredictable enemy might emerge at any time.

Sheridan’s screenplay includes a couple of fine set-pieces, including an explosive early confrontation with one group of suspects and another suspenseful sequence which involves a trawl through the snow with local enforcement officers and a band of men who they naturally distrust. It’s this latter scene which trips the film into an electrifying and brutal flashback sequence through which all the film’s lingering mysteries are filtered. Despite the mystery taking precedence, Sheridan is able to poignantly and effectively address other issues. On a broader level Wind River provides sobering insights into the poisonous malaise laying over this place like a fresh coating of snow in the form of a senses-dulling inertia and dead-end hard-scrabble lives – mostly Native American – robbed of direction, motivation or even a flicker of comprehension.

It’s this saturating helplessness and the wavering moral boundaries it generates that sit in stark contrast to the intrinsic strength of Cory’s character. Though enigmatic, he’s highly empathetic, a fact which doesn’t discount his flaws. If anything it accentuates his humanity, his integrity, and the depth of his losses, including his daughter and his marriage. But despite everything it’s the innate ability he retains to feel and console the pain of others like his friend, Natalie’s grieving father Martin (the wonderful Gil Birmingham) that we admire.

With Cory, Renner has been given his finest role since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) the film that hurtled him into the spotlight and has led, mostly, to high-profile but empty roles in big-budget fare. He’s magnificently understated, bringing an impressive level of stillness and thoughtful consideration to nearly every scene. that might otherwise have seen overblown emotional reactions and chaos as a more appropriate response to the turbulence. Equal credit must be given to Sheridan too, of course, for the exceptional quality of performances he’s extracted from all his cast members, including Olsen as the fish-out-of-water agent who proves she can handle herself despite needing local intelligence to shine an investigative light down some very murky rabbit roles within the reservation.

Though the minimal, eerie textures of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score tips over into questionably eccentric deployment on a couple of occasions, there is little else to fault in Wind River. The resolution may deny us a truly visceral sense of vengeance enacted but, on reflection, it’s perfectly weighted and consistent with all that we know of Cory. And then there’s a final scene between Cory and Martin; this too is memorable and a moving encapsulation of the film’s deeper concerns which are as much about the nature of hope and perseverance as about the eternal grip of grief and despair.

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The Beguiled

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With distant sounds of artillery lingering in the air, a young Virginian girl gathering mushrooms, Amy (Oona Laurence), chances upon a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John Patrick McBurney (Colin Farrell) as the Civil War rages on. Unable to walk without assistance, he accepts the girl’s offer of medical assistance at the nearby girls Seminary. Though headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is willing to tend to the barely conscious enemy soldier, the other females, including teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the oldest of the students, Alicia (Elle Fanning), are concerned about being discovered harbouring an enemy soldier, regardless of the seriousness of his infirmities. McBurney’s appearance will soon set the cat amongst the pigeons, so to speak. The presence of a man is not something these women are accustomed to contemplating, especially in the intimate, strangely sensuous way as the tending of his wounds and ensuing recovery will inevitably require. Each of them, in turn, will fall under John’s spell as he regains consciousness and begins his recuperation, attempting to win favours and win a place in their lives, camouflaged from battle and returning to his duties.

The visual aloofness and emotional coldness that so often characterises Coppola’s films is kept to a minimum here and it’s a welcome evolvement in her stylistic approach after the overly self-conscious inertia of Somewhere (2010) and, later, the vacuous excess standing in for tired metaphors in the utterly redundant The Bling Ring (2013). The Beguiled (2017) conversely, is a masterfully weighted piece of storytelling and very different from Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel which featured Clint Eastwood in the role of McBurney. There is undoubted simplicity in this tale’s telling but rather than harming the overall effect, the strong foundation of engaging dialogue taken from the novel and flawless performances from this neatly assembled ensemble, have merged to produce what is an exquisite work of art.

Unlike Siegel’s version, the melodrama is admirably underplayed this time, for the most part, more in the way of Peter Weir’s Australian masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) which Coppola seems to draw numerous inferences from in the way she informs her own film’s tone, pacing and visual conception. It’s not an insult to Weir’s film to draw comparisons either as The Beguiled equally stimulates the senses in a deliberate, slowly evolving way. No resonating intrigue sits at its heart, as in Picnic at Hanging Rock with its delicately suggested whiff of the supernatural, but the storytelling is just as exactingly realised. Coppola offers haunting images aplenty whilst skilfully appropriating the natural environment, casting occasional broader glances into the distance as the gunfire continues unabated, as well as cryptically setting her characters in the foreground against the mansion’s impressive gothic surrounds.

The performances all superbly reflect the characters’ increasingly pained constraint. Kidman and Dunst using silence and telling glances to convey the growing unease that McBurney’s mere presence provokes. Farrell is utterly unlike Eastwood but I don’t think he’s had many better roles than this, at least not in recent times. That effortless charisma and those classically sculpted Black Irish looks are exploited to full effect by Coppola. Without much of a challenge he’s able to project an aura of dangerously charged, corporeal possibilities that the more mature women are afraid to verbally contemplate and the younger girls can hardly comprehend in any rational way. This wilting influence of McBurney’s overt masculinity works as a compelling narrative device in its own right; it acts as an oppressive force that leads the women to confront pent-up emotional inhibitions and causes dangerous rifts in their cloistered, held-together version of a life constrained by the war lingering on the horizon each day. Though the ending carries with it an air of inevitability – even for those who’ve never seen Siegel’s film – there’s an impressive, haunting visual eloquence in the way Coppola draws the threads together, putting a final idiosyncratic stamp on proceedings and marking this as her finest film since Lost in Translation (2003).

American Honey

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As she did with Fish Task (2009), director Andrea Arnold has justifiably put her faith in a young, first time actress to encapsulate the despair, confusion and danger of a young woman escaping the world beyond her impoverished beginnings in American Honey (2016). Arnold, venturing to the U.S for the first time, has crafted a dazzling, mesmerising freeform road movie that sees a young woman, Star (Sasha Lane), living in poverty, being sexually abused and lumbered with two young children, before jumping at an opportunity to escape her life.

In her small Oklahoma town, Star spies a joker, a charismatic stranger, Jake (Shia LeBeouf), causing a stir in the parking lot of a supermarket. It’s a case of eyes meeting across a void and sensing a spark. The inevitable encounter leads to a proposition of work for Star from Jake who, with a ragtag, eclectic crew of ‘colleagues’, is heading to Kansas City the following day. Ditching her oppressive existence for the chance of a fresh start requires little deliberation and within she has dropped the young children with their natural mother and fled for the group’s hotel.

The next day, with little time to get a bearing on her new surroundings, Star is quickly indoctrinated into the fold of these magazine subscription sellers who must adopt any angle, cover story or other means of deception whilst doorknocking in affluent sections of cities to procure sales. The operation is the brainchild of Krystal (Riley Keough) who, running a tight ship whilst indulging in hedonistic activities on the side, tolerates nothing less than people who can genuinely earn their way. As the new blood, Star is assigned to Jake, Krystal’s personal assistant and top earner, for mentoring.

The chemistry between the two leads is genuine, setting off a strangely intuitive yet combative relationship that, frowned upon by Krystal, has a doomed inevitability about it. Both lead actors are nothing short of sensational. For LaBeouf this part is a gift, clearly the most interesting of his career, whilst Lane astonishes in her screen debut; she possesses an at times overwhelming physical presence and shines in many of the film’s finest sequences in which Star is seemingly placed in jeopardy as she assumes more individual responsibility for sales. Arnold’s has conceived some hypnotically terrifying moments, pregnant with dangerous possibilities and a palpable sense of Star’s vulnerability despite her bravado and willingness to take calculated risks.

Arnold continues to prove herself as a formidable talent. In the light of American Honey, her last film, a magnificent bleak skewering of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (2013) can be viewed as the next step of her radical evolution as a filmmaker unafraid of spiking convention, narrative form and visual grammar. One of the most remarkable aspects of this, her fourth feature, is her continuing collaboration with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, an equally fearless artist whose eye-popping immersion in Arnold’s world brings forceful scrutiny and a rare sense of authenticity. All the silliness, boredom-relieving silliness, idiocy, intensity and careless but genuine camaraderie shared between members of the group are captured with a purity that organically dissolves into captivating visual poetry.

American Honey is a dazzling, creatively daring film; it’s not only Arnold’s finest to date but one of the 2016’s most memorable and, sure to be, enduring cinematic achievements. Even at around 160 minutes it remarkably never feels overdrawn or bogged down in extraneous scenes for even a moment, and with a canny usage of source music, ends up creating a slew of scenes that will linger in mind for days after.

Nocturnal Animals

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An austere, bleak meditation on revenge and the blurred boundaries where fictional and non-fictional lives intersect, Tom Ford’s long-gestating second feature, Nocturnal Animals (2016) comes with high expectations after the excellent Christopher Isherwood adaptation A Single Man (2009). But the promise created by an interesting premise and a fine cast is gradually eroded as the film’s complexities are revealed to be skin deep, whilst narrative holes flower up like fresh wounds, exposing a paucity of credibility and leading to a wilting anti-climax.

Based on a novel by Austin Wright, Ford’s film quickly establishes the apathy and ennui of gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who has emotionally disengaged, not only from her work, but also her relationship to husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). Then she receives a manuscript from her novelist ex-partner Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) who has dedicated his latest work to her and named it ‘Nocturnal Animals’, a term he often used to describe Susan during their time together. The film then effectively transforms to a story within the story as she dives into the book; the disturbing story described within forms the basis of much of the film.

A man, Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal,) is driving through a rural landscape at night with his wife Laura (Isla Fischer) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) when they’re almost run off the road by a couple of cars. Soon they’re hounded to a stop in the middle of nowhere and being physically and verbally threatened by a group of rednecks led by the recklessly dangerous Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Even worse is to come when Laura and India are abducted before Tony can escape and struggle to freedom where his case, through the course of time, is investigated by cancer-riddled detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).

There’s a sense of aloofness established early on that distances us from these people, especially in the present world of Susan, their coldness permeating every verbal and physical inflection. Beyond these glimpses, the world of the novel brings the nightmarish existence of a single man into ever sharper focus as his torment grows exponentially. In some way, is this same striving for recompense also taking shape in the real world, with Edward using the novel as a way to ingratiate his way back into the Susan’s consciousness for some possibly sinister purpose?

The illusion of the fictional story prevents us from emotionally engaging with what we see on screen, as horrible as these events playing out are. The presentation of this story ‘within’ is also highly problematic in the most fundamental way with the ‘investigation’ becoming more ludicrous as it progresses. Unorthodoxy on the behalf of Bobby might be semi-credible but the method he undertakes is difficult to reconcile with any kind of believable notion of the measures and actions a police officer would take to solve a crime of this magnitude. Bearing witness to Bobby’s reluctant participation in Bobby’s displaced vendetta is both uncomfortable and grating for its blatant absurdity

Nocturnal Animals turns out to be a crushing disappointment, squandering talent in every aspect of the production. Composer Abel Korzeniowski, a rising star and shining light of film music in recent years, provides another classy, elegant score. The performances too are uniformly excellent with Gyllenhaal adding to his remarkable recent body of work, with another dark, powerful portrayal of a man driven to extremes. Adams has never given anything less than a great performance and she does her best work here in flashbacks which show the first blossoming of her relationship with Edward before external forces are set in motion, dooming their perfect love. But the drama fizzles out, the final scene a perfect encapsulation of sharply focused expectations tainted by an enveloping absence that pervades both narrative strands.

 

The Neon Demon

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‘Beauty eats itself’ might be the overarching maxim of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, an easily consumable, surreal, dreamlike but overly-mannered film sorely lacking in soul, insight or anything approximating skilled storytelling. A pretty young wannabe model Jesse (Elle Fanning) enters the fray, hoping to break-in to the fashion scene in what appears to be an eerily-empty, hollowed out version of L.A. Her youth and inexperience are soon overlooked in favour of her striking looks. She becomes the flavour of the month but in what is a brutally competitive field full of vindictive vixens looking to climb the ladder to fame and success – blood on their hands be damned – Jesse will have to watch her back is she hopes to maintain her place in the pecking order.

It’s almost impossible to believe this Refn screenplay was penned in collaborations with two playwrights – Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – whose currency, you’d imagine, is skilled verbal interaction. Yet there’s precious little evidence of subtlety or perceptiveness here. Hell, even a moment in the film not marred by stilted, usually absurd dialogue would have been appreciated. Certainly on a metaphorical level you can extract some socially relevant commentary about the cruelly disposable, interchangeable nature of beauty, but the message is hollow and futile when saturated by mediocre, sub-Argento stylings that leave you cold.

Refn is, and will always be a favourite director, but his two films since the masterful Drive (2011) have formed what may be the start of a regrettable, inevitable devolution, where his ever-expanding obsession with style curation has utterly stifled any possibility of simultaneously creating something of real substance. The film is, of course, glorious to behold from a visual standpoint, as any Refn film is, thanks on this occasion to a first-time collaborator, cinematographer Natasha Braier. Aesthetically intoxicating, there are moments of brilliance in the off-putting, disorienting way he distorts, eliminates, extracts or plays with colour and light, whilst Cliff Martinez’s amped-up retro score works to brilliant effect in certain scenes, often obscuring their vacuousness.

Fanning is far and away the best thing about The Neon Demon (2016). Jesse’s vulnerabilities and naivety are laid bare early on, exposing her to all sorts of exploitation. Yet her assimilation into this world and transformation into a hardened competitor in the fashion stakes is entirely credible despite being surrounded by increasingly weird goings-on and some truly putrid acting. Australian contributors Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as Jesse’s combatants Gigi and Sarah are just diabolically awful – two of the most wooden, dire performances of recent times. Dexter alumni Desmond Harrington also has a couple of hilariously awful scenes as a farcically intense, almost non-verbal hotshot photographer. Marlon Brando, he’s not. Even the usually reliable Jena Malone as the make-up artist of dubious intent who takes Jesse under her wing feels weirdly out-of-sync in nearly every scene she’s in, including the film’s most embarrassingly awful in which she spends time alone with a corpse.

An overwhelming sense of extraneousness is what ultimately sinks The Neon Demon. Ah, the agony of sitting through so many poorly written, utterly pointless scenes, including every one featuring Keanu Reeves, for starters. This disjointed film sorely lacks cohesion, whilst individual scenes never feel part of a narrative flow, making it a frustrating viewing experience. Those imagining a shrewd illumination of the film’s themes at the end of proceedings will be sorely disappointed. If anything, the final few scenes only exemplify the film’s ill-discipline and asinine, juvenile approach to narrative and, especially, to horror. Subverting social commentary beneath shimmering layer after layer of dizzying, rancid obliqueness does not render it in any way profound. In this case, the notion of creative depth is the very last one to come to mind. The Neon Demon, forgetting its most obvious shortcomings, has enough moments of flickering visual brilliance to make it semi-watchable, but this is, depressingly, but a miniscule step up from Refn’s career low, Only God Forgives.

 

On a side note, here is a film worth seeing in conjunction with this or any other Refn film:

Directed by his wife Liv Corfixen, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014) offers a fascinating insight into the creative processes of the director and the mental anguish that seemingly plagues him with some regularity. It’s basically a behind-the-scenes documentary shot during the production of Only God Forgives (2013) and shows Refn often overly burdened and struggling to come to terms with his day-to-day ordeals. His evaluation of the film ebbs and flows to dangerous degrees as he drifts, often, way too close to the heart of his screenplay, thus eliminating all objectivity in a search for solutions throughout the shoot. In post-production he basically deems the finished product worthless, something nearly every creative person must live with upon completion of a piece. A self-indulgent yet fascinating film; ultimately an acquired taste but essential viewing for Refn aficionados.

 

Ouija: Origin of Evil

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A prequel to a profitable but – in these parts – little seen film from two years ago directed by Stiles White, Ouija: Origin of Evil is the work of director and co-writer Mike Flanagan, an up-and-coming genre filmmaker having a prolific year and possibly best known for his minor hit Oculus in 2013. Set in 1967, Origin of Evil proves to be, against all expectations, one of the finest and creepiest horror films of recent times. A struggling single mother, Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) uses her persuasive skills and a few tricks of the trade to earn a living on the side as a spiritualist. She views her job not as a means of ripping off paying customers but providing them with comfort in the knowledge of deceased relatives finding solace in the next life. Her oldest daughter Lina (Annalise Basso) contributes to the special effects but views her mother’s work with increasing cynicism.

The soon after introduction of a Ouija board brings all sorts of wearying associations with it besides the whiff of surely B-grade fright-filled theatrics to come. But that’s far from being the case here as the film has a tone and feel that feels unique even if the narrative promises anything but originality. Neither does it work overtime to bombard us with shock moments that don’t feel earned or warranted until the stakes are truly raised in the predictably heated end showdown. Flanagan’s pacing is superb, as is his handling of the young actors, particularly the cast’s youngest member Lulu Wilson as Doris, the person able to channel forces from the next world with a dexterity and unnerving calm that surprises even her mother, especially in the painful wake of the recent loss of the girls’ father Roger (Michael Weaver).

A couple of scenes cleverly pay homage to genre classics, especially The Exorcist (1973), but despite the obvious influences, there’s something surprisingly fresh about Origin of Evil and it only gets better as intrigue grows and the tension is ramped up by Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard. There’s no over-reliance of CGI effects, whilst some of the creepiest little moments are subtly crafted and often kept at edges of the frame for maximum impact. The acting is credibly grounded, even authentically awkward at times. Screen debutant Wilson is a remarkable screen presence, able to transition from cuteness to creepiness as she becomes a manifestation of the evil summoned through the portal of the Ouija board. Even Henry Thomas, former E.T (1982) child star, gives a fine performance as the local school’s priest and principal, dragged into the drama at his own behest.

This is another work from Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, known for generating ridiculous profits from very low-budget genre films in recent years with franchises like Paranormal Activity, Insidious and The Purge, and excellent one-off efforts like Unfriended (2014) and M.Night Shyamalan’s only decent film of recent memory, The Visit (2015). Many of these films are clichéd but highly competent examples of modern horror. Ouija: Origin of Evil is now definitely a personal favourite, for me, and a great leap forward in the career of Flanagan whose next film, likely a Stephen King adaptation, is highly anticipated.

The Infiltrator

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The torturous plight of undercover workers constitutes an increasingly stale sub-genre of its own. Cinema is littered with dramas depicted police offices or special agents burrowing deep behind enemy lines to gain and then betray the trust of unconscionable criminals, all the while surrendering their domestic lives to the dogs as an inevitable payoff. Thankfully, Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator proves to be a cut above the competition in this crowded field. Adapted from former Customs agent Robert Mazur’s book about his 80’s exploits posing as a businessman attempting to gain access to the top financiers a level below the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, Furman’s film is stacked with credible layers whilst boasting a slick, high-gloss aesthetic, an economical screenplay – by partner Ellen Brown Furman – and a brilliantly chosen cast led by the imposing Bryan Cranston as Mazur.

In the film’s opening sequence we get a glimpse of the agent at work, easily able to immerse and ingratiate himself into an inner circle of lowlifes. But when the war on drugs requires a radical escalation, Mazur is chosen by his superior Bonni Tischler (a bland, wasted Amy Ryan) to weasel his way into the outer circle of narcotics players. Assuming the alias Bob Musella, he reluctantly takes on fellow agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) as his partner and co-conspirator in attempting to gain traction with the money men whilst climbing the step ladder to the vicinity of Escobar’s lair.

The film’s more generically captured family dynamics, namely the strain placed on Mazur’s marriage to Evelyn – wonderfully underplayed with an increasing apathy by Juliet Aubrey – tilt The Infiltrator into familiar territory but the film’s striking visual texture has a genuine magnetism about it. The crisp cinematography by Joshua Reis, who uses coloured lighting in a manner reminiscent of some of Steven Soderbergh’s best work, gives the film a richly enhanced visual exoticism whilst never betraying Furman’s credible re-creation of time and place.

The exceptional support players complement Cranston brilliantly, especially Benjamin Bratt as Escobar’s charismatic underling Roberto Alcaino who is utterly convinced by Mazur’s act. The two become very close and the genuine mutual respect shared by the pair has us almost dreading that the deferred moment of come-uppance will arrive with a strangely bittersweet charge. Most memorable of the criminal faction is Yul Vazquez’s hilariously eccentric Javier Espina who more than once rattles Mazur with his untoward attentions. The always entertaining Leguizamo tears it up as the mouthy, rabid dog Abreu whose alignment with the white hats is, nonetheless, never under scrutiny. Diane Kruger also makes a noteworthy contribution as the agent drafted to take part in the ruse as Musella’s fiancée, whose convincing role-playing becomes just as crucial to getting a result as Mazur’s dynamic wheeling and dealing.

With his latest film, Furman makes a lie of any notion of him being a one-hit wonder after his superb Michael Connelly adaptation The Lincoln Lawyer back in 2011. He most recently made the bland Runner Runner (2013) which went down that most hopeless of routes, trying to convince audiences that Justin Timberlake can strike a single credible chord as a dramatic actor. Though The Infiltrator looks great, it avoids being tainted by commercial-minded approach. Flawless cast aside, it has humour, grit, complexity and integrity and even when delving into familiar places, it manages to mostly put an entertaining and interesting spin on the material.