FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #114 – “Wind River” (dir. Taylor Sheridan), “Sicario” (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel a contentious ride into Taylor Sheridan‘s directorial debut (Update: nope!), Wind River, as well as a trip down memory lane in Sheridan’s prior filmography, including Denis Villeneuve outstanding 2015 drug war drama,
Sicario (43:01).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Sicario): 8 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Wind River): 6.5/10 (Glenn), 3/10 (Daniel)

Show notes:

  • [00:33] Review: Sicario
  • [08:23] Review: Wind River
  • [24:00] Spoilers: Wind River
  • Music for this episode is the track, “Convoy“, from the Sicario score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, and the track, “Bad News“, from the Wind River score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
  • CORRECTION: In our discussion of Sicario, we referred to a report from a few months ago by the International Institute for Strategic Studies that named the Mexican drug war the second-deadliest conflict in the world in 2016. The Institute has since cited a methodological flaw in this calculation, and issued a retraction, although they still expect the conflict to be in the top ten. The Mexican government released its own response as well.
  • As out-of-touch, big city film critics, we were admittedly rather ignorant if an agency of US Fish and Wildlife Services existed to cull predator species. The answer is emphatically yes – it’s called…Wildlife Services. Its deeds are outlined in this NatGeo article:

    “Since 2000, the agency has killed at least two million mammals and 15 million birds. Although it’s main focus is predator control in the West, Wildlife Services also does things like bird control nationwide at airports to prevent crashes and feral pig control in the South.”

  • We referred to a Kroll Show sketch called “Dead Girl Town“. Click and enjoy.
  • Graham Greene wasn’t on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, but he was in Dances With Wolves, in which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

Listen above, or download: Wind River, Sicario (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

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FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #50 – “22 Jump Street”, “Edge of Tomorrow”

Poster for "22 Jump Street"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel take in a criminally underseen sci-fi romp from director Doug Liman, Edge of Tomorrow. Listen and find out why we thought this film was an instant sci-fi action classic, right alongside the likes of Starship Troopers. But first, listen to us talk about a sequel that also felt like it was stuck in a temporal loop, 22 Jump Street. How precisely can this film toe the line between trolling its audience with its genre-savvy and deliberate stupidity, and merely being funny? Listen as we struggle to answer that very question. (57:11).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Edge of Tomorrow"

FilmWonk rating (22 Jump Street): 4.5 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Edge of Tomorrow): 8 out of 10

Show notes:

  • (02:02): 22 Jump Street
  • (16:00): Spoilers for 22 Jump Street
  • (24:07): Edge of Tomorrow
  • (41:26): Spoilers for Edge of Tomorrow
  • Music for tonight’s episode includes the…truly abysmally-named track, “#STUPiDFACEDD (White Boy Wasted)” by Wallpaper, from the trailer for 22 Jump Street. It also includes the track “D-Day“, from the original score to Edge of Tomorrow, which was indeed composed by Christophe Beck.
  • We actually referred to our Divergent podcast in both reviews, so listen here if you’re curious what we’re talking about (specifically with regard to female action hero casting). We promise we like Shailene Woodley, you guys! She just needs the right roles.
  • Update: Just learned we’ve been mispronouncing Peter Stormare‘s name for years (the last part is closer to rhyming with “Sorry” than “Stare”). Rest assured that the irony of us mispronouncing his name in the process of criticizing his accent work is completely lost on us. We’re pretty sure we could pronounce his given name (Rolf Peter Ingvar Storm) correctly.

Listen above, or download: 22 Jump Street, Edge of Tomorrow (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Rian Johnson’s “Looper” – An audacious temporal thriller

Rian Johnson’s Looper may be the closest thing to a perfect time travel paradox since the Terminator franchise. Once again, meddlers from the future are changing the past, using their perfect foreknowledge to make things better for themselves. If they want to make someone disappear, they don’t just murder them and destroy the body- they zap the target back in time to be killed by assassins in the present day (in this case, 2044), called loopers. The problem arises when looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is presented with having to murder his own future self (Bruce Willis). Joe the Elder escapes from his younger self and strikes out on a mission of his own, to preserve his life in the future.

This outlandish premise works for two reasons. First, the world-building for both time periods is extremely effective. 2044 is a grim, dark, crime-ridden place, and 2074 seems perhaps even more so, just a bit cleaner (especially if you go to China, which is obviously an economic powerhouse). Both periods feel very lived-in despite their obvious budgetary constraints.

Second, the film sets up a clever time travel mechanic wherein Future Joe – whose mere presence is altering his own timeline – doesn’t know the outcome of every situation involving his younger self, but he does remember it once it happens. It’s an action-oriented version of Marty McFly fading away from a photograph, and the film explains it with just the right amount of technobabble and disturbing imagery, punctuated by Willis telling his younger self (and perhaps the logic centers of the audience’s brains) to kindly shut the fuck up and stop wasting time slogging through the murky waters of time travel.

This bit of hand waving makes for an extremely haunting and effective ending, as we’re left to consider the full and lasting impact of Future Joe’s presence in this timeline. Looper dares to present us with high personal stakes for both versions of its protagonist, set them in opposition to each other, then force us to consider whether the future of this despicable person should be saved. It’s a theme that has been touched upon before (Doctor Who’s The Girl Who Waited comes to mind), but never with such a thoroughly unsympathetic protagonist. It’s a bold choice, and it definitely pays off.

Gordon-Levitt’s performance is unsettling, to say the least. His face is nearly unrecognizable in its attempt to resemble Willis- so much so that I suspected some kind of digital alteration, but after watching the film, the illusion is surprisingly convincing. When Gordon-Levitt is telling his older self to “do what old men do and die”, I could almost shut my eyes and imagine Willis delivering the line. Much of this is due to Gordon-Levitt’s physicality and voice work. But the physical alterations (whether digital or cosmetic) went from being a slight and deliberate distraction to an effective filter for the audience to forget at least one famous face and think of these two men as one and the same. And for the record, I never would have guessed this from the trailer.

Along the way we meet Sara (Emily Blunt) and her possibly-adoptive son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), whose farm becomes the central setpiece for the film’s final act. The film takes a bit of a turn with the introduction of this odd little family. Cid is an alarmingly precocious child, and not in a grating, Short-Round sort of way. In fact, Cid’s intelligence and command of the situation is intimidating to characters and audience alike. To put it mildly, there’s something off about this boy. While it would spoil much of the film’s climax to reveal his precise role, it’s safe to say that his effectiveness hinges on a brilliant performance from this child actor.

The only weak link is Blunt’s character. Much of the film’s ending hinges on her intrinsic good nature, and we get very little evidence of it apart from her own word on what a good mom she is. The best explanation I could muster for the obligatory love scene was “Why not?” Sara’s baffling seduction of Joe could be readily explained by the loneliness of a rural, single mom, but it seems a bit far-fetched given his status as a murderous drifter – which she seems fully aware of from the moment they meet.

Despite this issue, Rian Johnson has crafted a smart and effective thriller with well-drawn characters and a novel take on time travel. During his grand hiatus of TV directing since The Brothers Bloom, I’ve had time to forget just how effective his dialogue can be. Every exchange in this film is multifaceted enough that it will surely benefit from repeat viewings. The relationship between mob boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) and young buck Kid Blue (Noah Segan) – who may in fact be the same person – is certainly worth another look.

FilmWonk rating: 8/10

George Nolfi’s “The Adjustment Bureau” – All according to plan

When I saw the trailer for this latest Phillip K. Dick adaptation, I was intrigued, but mostly disappointed. To see the film squander its high-minded concepts of fate, free will, and strangers in suits in the service of what seemed to be just another “us against the world” romance seemed like a profound waste of time. We see Matt Damon, an able presence in any film, once again showcasing his four-minute mile, this time with an out-of-breath Emily Blunt in tow, and the film seemed like little more than a chase thriller saddled with superficial overtones of meant-to-be amour.

It’s the story of New York State Congressman David Morris (Damon), who meets the girl of his dreams in ballet dancer Elise (Blunt), but never gets her last name or phone number. The besuited members of the Adjustment Bureau, guardians of fate the world over, go out of their way to ensure that the two never meet again. And why? Because “the Plan” says they’re not supposed to be together. But when Adjuster Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) dozes off on the job, the two star-crossed lovers meet and form an instant and irrevocable attraction, prompting higher-ups Richardson (Mad Men‘s John Slattery) and Thompson (Terence Stamp) to come in and set the world back on track.

David’s inadvertant glimpse at the Adjusters in action has cosmic consequences, leading to a multitude of lengthy deliberations about fate and free-will. These discussions are probably where Dick and Nolfi’s carefully-crafted dialogue is at its strongest, striking just the right balance between existential technobabble (“We’re seeing some shifting confluence tides!”) and adept worldbuilding. In addition to the discussions, there are plenty of foot-chases wherein the Adjusters show off their uncanny ability to flit between any two locations via doorways. This is a mechanic we’ve seen before, in both Pixar’s Monster’s, Inc, as well as The Matrix Reloaded. I regret to invoke that first Matrix sequel, but The Adjustment Bureau feels in many ways like a spiritual successor to that film. It has a similarly controlled and constructed reality (complete with its very own Agents), but unlike Reloaded, manages to philosophize without becoming overly self-indulgent. The foot-chases increased in length and complexity, and I actually found myself getting bored with them as the film went on. Its parallels to Reloaded became so striking at this point that I thought the only way the film could end was with David and Elise pleading their romantic case in front of the Architect (or “The Chairman”, as he’s known in this film).

I won’t spoil how the film ends, but I will say I found it mildly satisfying. It was a brave choice to focus on such a seemingly conventional romance (and give us not one, but three meet-cute scenes), but the undeniable chemistry between Damon and Blunt managed to justify it even as each leap forward in time made it less and less coherent. Blunt’s performance is striking, but her character exists as little more than an object of beauty and desire, her appeal explained solely as a product of her masterful skill in the art of ballet. Damon, meanwhile, is given a great deal more to work with as a would-be politician as well as a romantic. He delivers a speech that the film’s fictitious journalists rightfully refer to as “electrifying”, and has a number of fantastic scenes debating fate and free-will with the always enjoyable Terence Stamp. If the film’s romance offers one great disappointment, it’s that Elise is never given any say in the matter- indeed, she’s never even given a chance to understand what’s going on, and pays a great emotional price for it. While David knows he’s risking his life and defying his fate to be with her, Elise is simply caught in an on-again, off-again romance with an unreliable politician, and comes along for the ride simply because it feels right.

The romance aside, the film’s most fascinating character might just be Harry (Mackie), the Adjuster who’s had just about enough of manipulating people’s lives. Mackie gives an adeptly understated performance. Even as he delivers the bulk of the film’s exposition, he remains aloof and otherworldly while clearly feeling a measure of compassion for the people he’s manipulating.

In the end, The Adjustment Bureau is an adept rendition of unoriginal ideas, and that might just make it worth watching. Its grand questions about fate vs. free will are doled out at about the right pace – just as I began to wonder how the present world (or indeed, the past century) can be explained as a delicate web of clockwork predestination, the film offered what can at least be deemed a plausible excuse. In this world, God (or “The Chairman”) appears to be quite fallible, or at least willing to indulge in the kind of experimentation that inadvertently brings about the Dark Ages or the Holocaust. The film sidesteps the contradiction between omnipotence and omnibenevolence by never quite presuming either. The Adjusters aren’t all-seeing or all-knowing (despite their frequent claims to the contrary), and film’s resulting deity is neither a hands-off Deist type nor an ever-present micromanager that makes everyone’s dreams come true. The Bureau’s specific interest in David is never quite explained, but any success he might achieve will come at a significant personal cost.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10