Hell or High Water screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s new film, Wind River has a lot in common with the Longmire TV series. Both are set in Wyoming, both feature a lawman (Federal Wildlife Officer and Sheriff) mourning the violent death of a loved one (daughter and wife) in a jurisdiction that is partly an indian reservation. This geographical overlap dictates interaction with the tribal police chiefs and interloping FBI agents. In the movie, the FBI sends a woman—which because she is called in to investigate a violent murder/rape makes both logical and story telling sense. It also sets up the dynamic tension between the “I’m a hunter” male and the “I need to get these Indians to talk to me” female. Both are focused on their job—they just utilize different skill sets to uncover the answers.
Jeannette Walls’ memoir of growing up in her dysfunctional, nomadic family provides the basis of Destin Daniel Cretton’s film The Glass Castle. We first meet Jeannette as a New York Magazine gossip columnist who is the personification of circa 1980‘s success. But her carefully hidden past suddenly intervenes when a shabbily dressed man leaves his wife to continue dumpster diving while he threatens Jeannette’s limo. It turns out these are Jeannette’s parents, and we flash back to the Jeannette’s nomadic childhood when the family lived out of their station wagon. When Jeanette was 10, Dad was a charming man who dreamed of building a house made of glass, and Mom was an artist who paints whenever the mood strikes her. However, Jeannette begins to notice the cracks in her family’s way-of-life, and the increasing conflicts dreamers have with the reality of raising a family. To survive, Jeannette develops a number of coping mechanisms that subtly transform her identity and create the building blocks critical to becoming a “success” in the Big Apple.
I recently checked out the original Planet of the Apes (1968) and was struck by a couple things: First, the rubber masks the apes wore look like they came from Party City; Second, the script (written by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson from Pierre Boule’s novel), was exceptionally good, and The Twilight Zone twist at the end (with Charlton Heston discovering the Stature of Liberty ruin), became iconic. Two things strike me in Matt Reeves newly-released War for the Planet of the Apes as well. Thanks to phenomenal advances in CGI technology, and masterful motion-capture by Andy Serkis and his pseudo simian co-stars, the apes look astonishingly real. Second, the script by Director Matt Reeves and co-writer Mark Bombeck, has taken a Shakespearean approach to the horrors of war—focusing on the intensely personal moments of richly-drawn ape and human characters while battles rage on in the background. Caesar (Andy Serkis), the escaped lab experiment, is at the center of things. Uncommonly intelligent, he has evolved into an empathetic and admirable leader who strives for peaceful co-existence but is willing to have a war-to-end-all-wars between apes and humans. He is confronted by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) an Apocalypse Now-style warrior bent on victory at all costs. The result is that rarest of all Hollywood blockbusters—an almost perfect movie
A movie reworking an ethnic stand-up comic’s routines isn’t new. Neither is a film about an ill girlfriend in a critical care ward. However, in The Big Sick, with a script by Kumail Nanjani and his real-life sick girlfriend, Emily V. Gordon, the onscreen charisma of Nanjani and his “playing Emily” costar Zoe Kazan, and crisp direction by Michael Showalter, everything clicks. The story is about a Pakistani-born comic who meets the aforementioned girlfriend at one of his Chicago gigs, falls for her hook, line and sinker, but can’t muster the courage to tell his traditional matchmaking parents about Emily. She gets mad and leaves, and then ends up hooked to the machines in intensive care that go PING. Both sets of parents have aspirations for their grown-up kids, and Anapum Kher and Zenobia Shroff and Ray Romano and Holly Hunter play these parents to perfection. Laid out in linear fashion, the plot doesn’t seem to have many places for laughs, but in the hands of these masters, it’s a rom-com filled with humor, laughter (and a few tears), and well worth your time and money.
In 1921, the boundaries of the country that became Iraq were drawn by a British explorer, writer, spy and archaeologist named Gertrude Bell. Known to many at the time as “Gertrude of Arabia,” this real-life Wonder Woman was overshadowed by the exploits of a certain T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). In Zeva Oelbaum's and Sabine Kreyenbuhl's documentary, Letters From Baghdad, an historic photo shows Bell perched on a camel with Egypt’s Sphinx and Pyramids in the background. On the camel to her right, is an uncomfortable-looking Winston Churchill. To her left, in business suit and tie, is the unflappable T. E. Lawrence. Bell created over a thousand letters (read aloud by Tilda Swinton) and panoramic photographs that documented her work, and captured the way things really were in the Arabian Peninsula after WWI. These artifacts tell a tantalizingly fantastic tale of real Arabian Nights (and days) and are the best part of this movie. In contrast, the ill-considered, sepia-toned talking-head scenes of actors “recreating” historic figures only detracts from the endeavor and make it like a History Channel show.
Baby is a guy who was born to drive. He can shift gears, flip donuts, and slide through gauntlets, with nary a scratch. Which is why a meticulous bank robber picks Baby to be his get-away driver for the latest heist. Baby only has a couple of faults. Because he was “dropped on my head as a child,” he has a constant buzzing sound in his brain which he masks by wearing earbuds playing the movie’s soundtrack. His other weakness is a short-skirted waitress with a Southern drawl who dreams of “hitting the road.” Director Edgar Wright brings the slightly-off-kilter quirkiness he used so well in Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz to create a car-chase movie thats far, far better than anything fast and furious.
Its been eleven years since Lightning McQueen was the fastest race car on four wheels but that’s like 100 years in the high-stakes world of auto racing. Just like the venerable Hudson Hornet was labelled a “classic” (AKA Old Fashioned) in the first film, Lightning is past retirement age. Except (there’s got to be an except here or there wouldn’t be a movie), that he won’t retire gracefully. Cue the homily-spouting old-timers and the whiz-bang, “we can mold you into shape” newcomers vying for Lightning’s attention. Underlying everything is the savvy marketing genius of Disney/Pixar who understands how much a baton-passing theme makes demographic sense. Face it, some of the kids who went to the movie in 2006 already have kids themselves. On the plus side, Cars 3 has a welcome moral-to-it-all: that even an egocentric car like Lightning can have a breakthrough moment and realize that he can become mentor to a (gasp of disbelief) Latina hotshot.
The 1951 Daphne de Maurier novel, Cousin Rachel, was made into a movie a year later starring Olivia de Haviland and Richard Burton. Through 21st Century eyes, the story of a young woman whose husband dies in mysterious circumstances and the cousin who suspects his widow, is obviously, a morality tale about the challenges facing an intelligent, single woman in a decidedly male-dominated, patriarchal world. Using the “Dogma” directing style that uses only natural settings and available light, infuses the film with a reality that is in stark contrast to the well-lighted and decorated sets in the Victorian soap-operas we watch on PBS. And the acting... Weisz plays the heroine in classic de Maurier style as secretive and reserved yet oozing with carefully controlled passion, and Claflin is excellent as a man fueled by the conflicting feelings of vengeful anger and unrequited lust.
An Amazon princess lives on an island inhabited only by female warriors (where, contrary to mythology, even the archers have both breasts). Rescuing a British pilot/spy from a crash landing, she discovers (no, not the obvious anatomical differences) that the “War to end all wars” is raging. To our surprise, we discover something as well—Wonder Woman’s real super powers are ensuring that morality and goodness and positivity prevail. Thank screenwriter/director Patty Jenkins and Gal Godot’s miraculous acting ability for elevating a character who was played by other actresses as camp and cliched into an intelligent, and completely capable being willing to literally “man the trenches” amidst the idiocy of “a mortal’s war”.
The original Baywatch TV show was reportedly seen in 142 countries by over a billion people every week! In addition to the skimpy swimsuits, part of the show’s “charm” was the less-than-stellar acting by performers stuck in Scooby-Doo style plots. The reboot for the BIG SCREEN keeps alive the same campy stylings of the original, but with currently hip “BIG NAME STARS” wearing the latest cheeky swimsuit designs and making insider jokes about how what they do everyday would make a really great TV show. Then there’s the slapstick humor, and slo-mo running sequences, and jokes about how the character played by Zach Efron looks amazingly like Zach Efron. Lets admit it. Shakespeare it ain’t, but everyone seems to be having a good time.