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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2010 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor

#5: Jonah Hill – Cyrus, Cyrus

In this film from Jay and Mark DuPlass, most of the film’s dialogue was improvised by the actors, and I can only imagine what kind of direction the brothers gave to Jonah Hill as the title character. Creepier… Wider eyes… Like you’re boring into my soul with a searing fireplace poker… This film presents an utterly bizarre, almost marriage-like relationship between Cyrus and his mother (Marisa Tomei), and an instant antagonism for her budding romantic interest, played surprisingly straight by John C. Reilly. All three actors boast a fantastic chemistry, but it’s Jonah Hill’s performance that is easily the most memorable and comedically disturbing.

#4: Armie Hammer – Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, The Social Network

I don’t generally give credit to an actor simply because of the likely-difficult circumstances of production (I’m sure Sam Worthington’s Avatar shoot was no picnic), but Armie Hammer managed to navigate the movie-magic vagaries of playing composited crew-rowing twins while simultaneously imbuing each of them with a distinct and memorable personality. The level of sympathy for these characters will likely depend on your feelings on the Facebook/Harvard Connection litigation (ongoing as of this writing), but Hammer’s take on the brothers Winklevi never waivers from portraying them as consummate and forthright “gentlemen of Harvard”. Even as they seem determined to bring down the ostensible antihero of the tale, they never quite seem like true villains – they are honest, self-conscious, and perhaps a little naive. Hammer manages to convey all of the dimensionality and noticeably distinct personalities amid Sorkin’s signature rapid-fire dialogue, turning in two of the most memorable performances in an equally impressive cast.

#3: Andrew Garfield – Eduardo Saverin, The Social Network

Minor spoilers for the film, and to a lesser extent, real life, will follow.
The effectiveness of The Social Network hinged on a great many things, but easily the most important aspect of the film is the erstwhile friendship of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin. Without Zuckerberg, there’s no Facebook. Without the relationship with Saverin, there’s no movie. Garfield and Eisenberg had a great comedic chemistry (a scene in which Saverin explains to Zuckerberg his treatment of a pet chicken is easily one of the funniest in the film), but Garfield also played the character with such earnestness and emotionality that this relationship and its inevitable dissolution were utterly captivating to behold. What happens to Saverin is business, to be sure, but the film manages to also sell it as a significant personal betrayal. While this owes a great deal to Sorkin’s writing, it is Garfield’s heartbreaking final scenes that make it succeed so masterfully.

While Garfield is receiving this award for The Social Network, I was also impressed by his turn in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go. I can’t imagine what sort of Spider-Man he’ll be, but I’m a lot more interested in finding out after such a remarkable year of introductory performances.

#2: John Hawkes – Teardrop, Winter’s Bone

While Jacki Weaver may have played my favorite villain this year, it is John Hawkes who beats her out for the most terrifying screen presence. Given his unassuming and light comedic performance in 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, and his thoroughly likeable run on HBO’s Deadwood, I was completely blown away by Hawkes’ transformation into the heroine’s wiry meth-addict uncle. From my original review:

His physique was more or less unchanged (except for a slightly graying beard), but his demeanor was something new and thoroughly intimidating. Every word Teardrop says seems to carry a simmering threat of violence, and although the character actually perpetrates very little, Hawkes brings a fiery intensity that makes him downright terrifying to watch.

He and Jennifer Lawrence match each other’s grit quite nicely, and their unlikely alliance was crucial to the film’s effectiveness.

#1: Christian Bale – Dicky Eklund, The Fighter

As I noted in the podcast review, Christian Bale has mostly approached his last few years’ worth of roles in a gruff and humorless fashion, and the resulting performances have not been too impressive. The moment Dicky Eklund steps into frame in the film’s opening street scene, I forgot all of that. This character is such a firecracker. As Eklund saunters down the streets of Lowell, Mass. greeting every inhabitant he comes across, Bale utterly oozes with charisma. His physical and verbal commitment to this character is unparalleled in this cast or any other film this year.

This is the self-destructive crackhead you’d love to be friends with. At the outset, he’s wiry, twitchy and completely high in every scene, but just a load of fun to be around. He plays the most dysfunctional member of a severely dysfunctional family, and yet every one of his early scenes is an absolute pleasure. Minor spoiler, revealed in the trailer: When the character detoxes in the second half of the film, Bale manages to make the personality change believable, and yet still keeps the character completely engaging even without hopping uncontrollably as he did in the first half. This is the best Bale performance in several years, and easily boasted enough screentime to rightfully be considered for Best Actor. But the Academy has spoken

Honorable Mentions:

  • Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker in The Social Network
  • Ewan McGregor as Phillip Morris in I Love You, Phillip Morris
  • Jeremy Renner as James Coughlin in The Town
  • Matt Damon as LaBoeuf in True Grit
  • Mark Ruffalo as Paul in The Kids Are All Right

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.

Ben Affleck’s “The Town” – One last job, done right

I’ve never entirely understood why, but Ben Affleck has always been a bit of a divisive figure. While I can certainly take issue with some of his role choices over the years, he’s always struck me on the balance as a talented performer, whose earnestness and commitment have often managed to elevate even the hammiest of roles (Armageddon?). He became a talent to watch out for behind the camera with his 2007 directorial debut (Gone Baby Gone), and with The Town, he has crafted a supremely ambitious followup.

The film, adapted from Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves”, stars Affleck as Doug MacRay, a career criminal in the seedy Boston neighborhood of Charlestown. Claire (Rebecca Hall) is a bank manager who is briefly taken hostage by MacRay’s crew after they rob her bank. At the behest of his partner, Jem (Jeremy Renner), MacRay begins surveilling Claire, and they ultimately strike up a relationship (with Jem and Claire each none the wiser). Beyond this classic rom-com premise, Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm stars as FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley, who is charged with investigating the string of bank robberies.

We see a number of heist sequences in this film, and it is in these scenes that the direction absolutely shines. Each of them is slickly designed and executed, and cinematographer Robert Elswit (of many P.T. Anderson films) shoots them with a masterful sense of space and action. The editing (from Dylan Tichenor, another P.T.A. alum) also remains nice and taut even as the action ratchets up in the second half. The opening robbery sequence reminded me favorably of The Dark Knight, only a bit less cartoonish, with all the brutality intact – I cringed far more when the bank’s assistant manager was rifle-butted in the face (in a masochistic cameo by Victor Garber) than with any of the Joker’s bloodless shotgun blasts.

Much of this brutality is inflicted by Jem, and I must say, I found myself rather disappointed with his first several minutes of screen time. I had no beef with Renner’s performance, but the idea that his strong turn in last year’s The Hurt Locker would be followed up by playing that same unstable psychopath from a dozen other heist films (including Renner’s own character in S.W.A.T.) – was downright depressing. But I was wrong. This film puts an unmatched, revelatory spin on a familiar character – rather than relying on him as a firebrand to ratchet up the tension and advance the plot with poor judgment and random violence, Jem is a fully realized character with a believable backstory and connection with MacRay. In a number of splendid scenes, the dynamic between these two very nearly upstages Claire and MacRay’s romance as the film’s most fascinating relationship. It’s all the familiarity of a buddy comedy with an absolutely sinister twinge – a brutality and familial closeness that somehow feels right at home in the film’s [probably very fictitious] depiction of Boston. Affleck and Renner’s deft performances certainly back this up, but I must give credit to the screenwriting.

MacRay is plausibly depicted as a master criminal, and FBI S.A. Rawley (Hamm) is a mostly worthy adversary. When a crime drama endeavors to show both sides of an investigation, it’s always a pleasant surprise when they seem an equal match in intellect and skill. Hamm’s performance didn’t entirely work for me at the beginning of this film, but I gradually warmed to it – as the film went on, Hamm’s intensity is showcased in increasingly effective ways. In an interrogation scene, there’s a moment [also in the trailer] when he stares straight through MacRay and icily tells him he’s going to die in federal prison. The line was absolutely chilling in the trailer, but the surrounding scene had me fidgeting in my seat even more than I expected. Rawley is not a particularly well fleshed-out character, but Hamm’s performance serves him up as an effective nemesis.

While the police procedural aspect of this film was not too elaborate or detailed, it rang completely true for me. It reminded me favorably of HBO’s “The Wire” – a police drama in which the cops rely less on forensic techno-babble and more on the personal connections between criminals. Rawley and his agents know exactly who the bad guys are and what they’ve done; they just need a way to prove it. While a feature-length police procedural is a lot more limited in its complexity than five seasons of television, this film realistically sold its investigation, as well as the notion that a criminal is far more likely to fall prey to a personal connection than an errant hair follicle.

It is these personal connections in an environment of unforgiving criminality that the film effectively explores. Nearly every relationship, from the film’s central romance (featuring a capable performance by Hall) to the brotherhood and friendship amongst the gang feels carefully realized. While the other gang members (besides MacRay and Jem) are fairly one-note, there’s really only one character that rings false – and it is unfortunately attached to an impressive turn by Pete Postlethwaite. I swear, when the mobster known as “Fergie the Florist” first appeared on screen, I thought I’d sleepwalked into a Guy Ritchie film. Everything about this character – his appearance, accent, and demeanor – was completely jarring and more than a little cartoonish. He ultimately serves little purpose but to prod the plot along by adding an additional [unnecessary] threat to the third act. On the balance, it does more harm than good to MacRay as a character… Wouldn’t it be nice if just once, our hero goes along with one last job just because he wants to? At least the scenes with Postlethwaite aren’t a complete waste – his demeanor was effectively intimidating, and his backstory with MacRay is nearly worth the time spent on him.

While The Town doesn’t completely avoid feeling like a rehash of other works*, it is nonetheless a complex, thoughtful, and well-made heist drama. Like Affleck himself, it deserves to be judged on what it has brought to the table anew, and it does not disappoint.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

*Including a sequence which managed to quite jarringly rip off both The Shawshank Redemption and the musical score of Band of Brothers.

2009 Glennies, Part 4: Best Actor

#5: Sharlto Copley – Wikus Van De Merwe, District 9


Sharlto Copley in "District 9"

I can’t remember the last time I saw a film with such a thoroughly despicable protagonist as Wikus Van De Merwe. He is vicious, self-serving, inept, and almost a complete coward. But newcomer Sharlto Copley (a producer and personal friend of director Neill Blomkamp) completely brought this character to life. Wikus begins the film as the consummate corporate stooge, showing obvious enjoyment and aptitude at his middle management job, even as he perpetrates some incredible acts of callousness and destruction in the alien ghetto known as District 9. Copley’s performance in some of these moments is downright giddy, with a thoroughly believable grin on his face as he supervises the abortion – via flamethrower – of an alien breeding shack (“It’s like popcorn!”). Copley’s character and plotline reminded me a great deal of Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond, and as with that film, if the character had remained the terrible person he was at the start of the film, there would have been little for the audience to connect with. But even as District 9 loses some of its more provocative social themes and becomes more of a big, fun action film, Copley’s emotional transformation becomes as real as Wikus’ physical one. And this is especially remarkable considering that every line of Wikus’ dialogue is improvised! (source). Copley gives a masterful performance that absolutely makes this movie work, and I’m simultaneously eager and a little frightened to see what he does next.

#4: Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Tom Hansen, (500) Days of Summer


In my original review, I noticed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt had once again proven his two central characteristics… He’s one of the finest young actors working today, and he hasn’t aged a day since “Third Rock from the Sun”. He was utterly charming in this film, proving as capable at reckless, romantic zeal as sullen, intractable brooding (as the story’s unconventional breakup narrative demanded). His chemistry with Zooey Deschanel was fantastic, and made this one of the most memorable romances (if not love stories) of the year.

#3: Jeremy Renner – SSgt. William James,
Anthony Mackie – Sgt. JT Sanborn,
Brian Geraghty – Spc. Owen Eldridge, The Hurt Locker


Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie in "The Hurt Locker"
Brian Geraghty in "The Hurt Locker"

I’ll admit, this is a total cheat, but as I noted in my original review, I can’t single out any of these performances in Kathryn Bigelow’s fantastic Iraq War action film, The Hurt Locker, as the superlative one. As an ensemble, however, these three work immensely well. Renner’s performance is appropriately intense (and only slightly clichéd, as the new, loose-cannon commander of the squad), but Mackie and Geraghty are just fantastic, and make for ample balance among the three. The film features Bigelow’s typically strong portrayal of male friendship in intense circumstances, when the characters aren’t sure if they want to embrace or murder each other… But thanks to these three performances, the dialogue feels authentic, and the characterization is solid. These men may be considered heroes, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re just doing what they have to do. They’re here, and they’re going to keep doing the job until they go home or get killed.

#2: George Clooney – Ryan Bingham, Up in the Air


George Clooney in "Up in the Air"

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a corporate road warrior who spends over 300 days a year flying around the country firing people for a living. Ryan is already a fascinating enough character just from that description, and Clooney’s performance delivers on every bit of promise the character demands. He has remarkable chemistry with both of his co-stars, and his relationships with each of them are completely what make this film work. As I noted in my original review, the film constantly tries to have it both ways with Ryan, granting him semi-omniscient voiceovers that are equal parts self-aware and self-deprecating, but shying away from taking a position on whether he truly believes in what he’s doing. But somehow, Clooney’s performance just makes it all work. He plays with this ambiguity in a way that keeps Ryan’s rhetoric as one of the film’s most important themes, but stops it from becoming didactic. And later on in the film, as the character’s transformation becomes apparent, he completely conveys (but doesn’t overplay) how emotionally shaken Ryan has been by the film’s events. This is surely one of Clooney’s finest performances, and one of the best I’ve seen this year.

#1: Sam Rockwell – Sam Bell/Sam Bell, Moon



In my original review of Duncan Jones’ Moon, I called it a film for people who love big ideas. The film’s “big reveal” comes in the first 15 minutes, as Sam Bell (Rockwell), the solitary worker of a lunar mining base, wanders outside to investigate a crashed lunar rover, and finds an unconscious clone of himself behind the wheel. As the film begins to explore its deeper sci-fi themes, Rockwell imbues each of the Sam Bells with a distinct, but related personality. They both play to familiar territory for Rockwell – unshaven and slightly unhinged, but even as the film skips over the expected tropes of its genre (at no point does one clone chase the other around with a knife), Rockwell’s performance creates a compelling dynamic between the two. The only other character in the film is GERTY, the artificially intelligent base computer, which can only communicate its emotions via on-screen emoticons and the mellifluous voice of Kevin Spacey. But while the relationship between Sam and the computer is one of the most fascinating aspects of Moon, it is Rockwell that carries the weight of the film. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away before him, this is Rockwell’s one-man show, and he acquits himself masterfully in the role.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Seth Rogen as Ronnie Barnhardt in Observe and Report
  • Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody as Stephen and Bloom in The Brothers Bloom
  • Clive Owen as Joe Warr in The Boys Are Back
  • Jesse Eisenberg as James Brennan in Adventureland
  • Robin Williams as Lance Clayton in World’s Greatest Dad

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

Glenn’s Indie Movie-Wank – Part 2: Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”

hurtlocker

I would say that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is the best film yet about the Iraq war, but it’s not as if it’s had much competition.The closest thing yet to a “good” Iraq war film was Paul Haggis’ small 2007 offering, In the Valley of Elah, which combined a heady realism and some strong performances with Haggis’ typically heavy-handed political message. The Hurt Locker has been described as “forcibly apolitical”. I’m not sure if I buy this sentiment, but more on this later.

The Hurt Locker tells the story of three members of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team – the army’s bomb squad. When soldiers discover one of the many IEDs hidden in trashpiles and animal carcasses around the streets, EOD is the team they bring in to disarm it. The film is ostensibly about adrenaline addiction (a pre-credits title screen informs us that war is, indeed, a drug), coupled with a portrayal of intense (and only slightly homoerotic) male friendship that Bigelow has previously depicted so effectively (Point Break), amidst a backdrop of intense action and violence.

The bomb diffusion sequences in this film are immensely entertaining and suspenseful, but it’s really the action where Bigelow distinguishes herself as a director. Ever since Paul Greengrass decided to start using shaky-cam in close-quarters (the Bourne series), it has been a problem endemic to modern action films that much of the action is incomprehensible. The physical environment, the characters, and where they are in relation to each other ends up being at least partially unclear. This has happened in good films (The Dark Knight), bad films (Transformers 2), and middling, mediocre films (Quantum of Solace), and I think it’s fair to say that Bigelow’s direction leaves many modern action films in its dust.

Every scene in this film is well established, and the audience always has an excellent sense of what’s going on. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) dons his protective suit (a relative misnomer) and marches through the blazing sun toward his objective. Civilians watch from every surrounding building, and bustle through the adjacent streets and alleys. The soldiers behind him take cover behind a Humvee and survey the crowd. Anyone with a cell phone could be trying to detonate the bomb. And all the while, the audience understands exactly where everything is in relation to everything else. And when all hell breaks loose, they can still understand what’s going on.

This commitment to well-directed and comprehensible action is one of the film’s persistent strengths, and it works immensely well against the backdrop of the Iraq War (in particular during a pitch-perfect long-distance sniper battle midway through the film).

Joining an appropriately intense performance by Jeremy Renner (28 Weeks Later, ABC’s “The Unusuals”) are strong supporters Anthony Mackie (We Are Marshall, 8 Mile) and Brian Geraghty (The Guardian, Jarhead). I can’t single out any of these performances as the superlative one; but as an ensemble, these three work immensely well. The film has Bigelow’s typically strong portrayal of male friendship in intense circumstances, when the characters aren’t sure if they want to embrace or murder each other. The dialogue feels authentic, and the characterization is solid. These men may be considered heroes, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re just doing what they have to do. They’re here, and they’re going to keep doing the job until they go home or get killed.

hurtlocker2

Shortly after diffusing a car bomb at a UN building, Sergeant James is approached by a colonel (David Morse, in a completely wasted cameo). “You’re a wild man”, the colonel says several times, practically giddy with excitement. Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce also appear in minor, if slightly meatier roles. With all the celebrities joining the party, I half-wondered if there was some thinly veiled anti-war message I wasn’t picking up on. The film is only anti-war inasmuch as a hyper-realistic war film inexorably conveys the notion that hey, perhaps it’s not such a fun place to be. But while the film may set out to be apolitical, it simultaneously exhibits unapologetic contempt toward any attempt to analyze or understand these men. The audience’s perspective is best exhibited by a well-meaning armchair psychologist colonel (Christian Camargo), whose story is easily the most overwritten and predictable part of an otherwise solid and suspenseful film.

That’s about as close as the film comes to a political message. You’re not there. You don’t know. Now go home, and enjoy the streets that aren’t filled with potentially explosive trashpiles. But this message is merely the subtle underpinning of one of the best action films this year, and it is well worth seeing. It is absolutely gorgeous to behold, and if you can catch it before it leaves theaters (it’s out in limited release), see it on the largest screen you can.