Sunday, August 6, 2017

WIND RIVER



Wind River is the third script in a trilogy written by former actor (Sons of Anarchy) Taylor Sheridan.  The first was the stunning thriller Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and James Brolin.  The second, directed by David Mackenzie, was Hell or High Water, with Ben Foster, Chris Pine, and Jeff Bridges.  Wind River is Sheridan's directorial debut.


For Sheridan, the theme of the trilogy, he's said, is a question:  how does one move on without getting closure?  He also sees it as dealing with issues of masculinity and fatherhood.  (Interestingly, when asked during a Q & A about his approach to writing female characters, Sheridan said he writes his women characters as if they were men, and leaves it to the male actors to react to them as if they were women.)


If you're a screenwriter or an aspiring one, it's easy to hate Sheridan.  Sicario was the first script he'd ever written, after he departed Sons of Anarchy for trying to lowball his salary.  Out of acting work, Sheridan completed all three scripts in three months, and gave Sicario to his entertainment attorney (since he'd fired his acting agent).  His attorney read it, loved it, sent it around, and the rest is history.

Wind River was financed by Native American tribes (Sheridan had spent much time on reservations) and shot in Utah (for Wyoming) in 30 days.  A key scene with many characters was rehearsed for a month and shot in a mere 45 minutes--because that's all they could afford.



The film stars Jeremy Renner in perhaps the best role he's had since The Hurt Locker. Sheridan described Renner as an actor who "can wear his emotion on his skin."  And indeed he does in the film--with his ex wife, his Native American grieving friend, and particularly in a scene towards the end, with Elizabeth Olsen (below), his co- star, who plays an FBI agent who is out of her element and smart enough to seek out Renner's tracker character's help.


This thriller is ostensibly about finding the rapist and killer of a Native American woman found dead in the snow (in reality, many women on reservations have gone missing), but its emotional core is loss, grief, friendship, doing the right thing, and trying to move on.  If one scene defines the film, it is the one below between Renner and his friend, the father of the dead woman, played by Apesanakwat of the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin, in which the two friends sit with their grief.



Wind River is a quiet thriller and a thoughtful one.  Sicario is still my favorite, followed by Hell or High Water, but this one must also be seen.  When asked what films influenced Wind River, Sheridan said it was one:  the tone of Michael Mann's The Insider.

Sheridan's next project is a limited series with Kevin Costner titled Yellowstone, which he described as being about the "gentritifcation of the West"..."The Godfather in Montana."

Here's the trailer for Wind River:





P.S.  Music by Nick Cave!

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Sofia Coppola's THE BEGUILED




Sofia Coppola has not so much remade the 1971 Don Siegel film; she's re-envisioned it through a more modern and less sensationalistic lens.  It's still a Southern gothic, but it's no longer a B movie; as Sofia (only the second female to win Best Director at Cannes, for this project) said in a Q & A at the L.A. Film Festival on June 15, "I wanted to make something beautiful."  Since pictures are worth thousands of words, the differences between the two films is more than evident in their trailers.

First, the Siegel version of Thomas Cullinan's novel starring Clint Eastwood:



And Sofia's, with Colin Farrell (and the "vengeful bitches"):




Sofia's Beguiled is very much a corollary to her 1999 film The Virgin Suicides (based on the novel by Jeffrey Eugenides), and the two would make a superb double feature.  The 1999 film involves a group of pre-teen boys spying on the beautiful, cloistered Catholic girls across the street and becoming beguiled by them.  If you haven't seen it, it's wonderful--perhaps Sofia's best film after her superb Lost In Translation (which she disclosed she wrote at her dining room table in Los Feliz, feeling like a "lost trophy wife"--I presume when she was still married to director Spike Jonze).


Sofia Coppola initially studied painting at Cal Arts, then focused on photography, with particular interest in fashion photography (if you recall, she also made a foray into clothing design).  Sofia was influenced by photographers David Hamilton and Helmut Newton; she found the latter's work dramatic and liked how he saw women.  When Sofia began planning the look of The Beguiled, she revisited at lot of photographs and talked to DP Philippe Le Sourd about how she envisioned the movie's look and palette.  

Sofia wanted a film that was "stark," "naturalistic," "minimal," "tense."  (I might add that it also has humor.)  So she also opted for very little, subtle music (some source music and other music adapted by Phoenix, whose frontman Thomas Mars is Sofia's husband).  The most prominent sounds are those of the Civil War in the background and cicadas on the grounds of the house fallen into desuetude.

The stars of the film are Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, but the entire ensemble of females, from the 12-year-old who finds the wounded Union soldier on up, play democratic roles in this iteration of the plot--I loved that.  Their resident teacher, played by Kirsten Dunst, instructs them in everything from French to sewing (sewing skills turn out to be a trés important motif here).

Sofia has made a more emotionally complex film while respecting its genre roots.  Farrell's character's presence causes not so much a sexual hysteria among the females (well, at least the older ones), but more of a sexual awakening, and, for all of them, relief from their dogmatic slumbers and the isolation of the war.  And Farrell's character is far more complex--he initially alternates between sympathetic and manipulative. 

Sofia shared that re-making the 1971 film was originally suggested to her by her production designer-producer Ann Ross; the two are friends, and both have 6-year-old daughters who reportedly made their own 30-minute version of The Beguiled.  Now that's the one I'm really curious to see....


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Sunday, June 11, 2017

BRINGING UP BABY DRIVER



If Damien Chazelle revived the contemporary musical with LA LA LAND  last year, writer-director Edgar Wright has reinvented the getaway driver/heist genre film by turning it into a musical actioner with his audacious, jaw-dropping BABY DRIVER.  It focuses on a young  getaway driver who needs the right music in order to do his job.  (The need goes back to an early trauma, but you'll find out all about that when you see the film.)  


I titled this post "Bringing Up Baby Driver" because, beneath its genre clothes, it's not only the story of Baby (actor Ansel Elgort) being the victim/product of trauma, but also because the movie is, at its core, Baby's coming of age story--Baby loses his naiveté and resignation and guard--he falls in love (or at least with the idea of love), and ultimately evolves from what Wright termed the equivalent of an "unpaid intern" to achieve moral development and become a man after being put through a series of what the writer-director called "morally sticky" narrative grinders.

Shelley wrote in his Defence of Poetry that "the great secret of morals is Love, or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own" (in short, empathy).  


The objective correlative of this identification for Baby is a lovely young waitress, Deborah (Lily James).  As such, she is more than a mere romantic interest.  It's as if she's an unattainable ideal for Baby.  When he first spies her, she's wearing headphones and singing a period "baby" song.  Since Baby is never without multiple iPods and earbuds, theirs is an inevitable connection.  (She also schools Baby on how to correctly pronounce the name of an older rock band, but I won't spoil that moment for you.)



But to get back to writer-director Edgar Wright (above left, in conversation with Elvis Mitchell post-screening of BABY DRIVER  at LACMA on June 9), Wright disclosed that the film had had its genesis when he was living in North London at age 21.  Wright had become obsessed with The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's song "Bellbottoms" (as you might expect, it figures prominently in the film), which caused him to visually associate a car case.  Over the 22 years that followed, Wright came to the U.S., drove by himself from New York to L.A. 10 years ago, and began writing, listening to the music of "state-specific artists" as he passed through each border. (Wright did not seriously decide to actually make the film until 4 years ago, thinking he had given away the concept for the music video he'd made for Mint Royale in 2003): 



Wright then began doing research, interviewing ex-cons about robberies and getaway drivers.  (His "technical" consultant on the film is an actual ex bank robber turned writer [who'd pulled 30 heists], with whom Wright first met over coffee at an Intelligentsia in Pasadena, and who has a cameo in the film.)

An obvious influence on the film is Walter Hill's minimalist masterpiece THE DRIVER (starring Ryan O'Neal), notable for its iconic parking garage sequence.  Both getaway drivers are laconic (Hill's in a more existential way); some characters in BABY DRIVER (i.e, Jamie Foxx's "Bats") wonder if Baby is "slow" (aka "retarded").  Other films that Wright mentioned as influences were RESERVOIR DOGS, KILLING ZOE, and HEAT.  Members of the standout cast include the menacing Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Eliza González, John Bernthal, and...Flea.

In an article in IndieWire, Wright is quoted as saying that, "I took that premise that Hong Kong movies are musicals that have about five big numbers, it's [BABY DRIVER] five action set pieces, a song for each." Plus, of course, the requisite three heists for the robbery genre film.  And for Baby, the classic "one last job."  Right....

The action sequence that the film opens with is a tour de force.  And that's before the opening credits!  Our audience erupted with cheers and applause.  It's stunning.  The meticulously curated soundtrack, already available as a playlist on Spotify, is diverse and outstanding. The music is married to, or rather, the action is dependent upon, the songs.  Baby needs his mix tapes.  You need to see this movie.



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