WIND RIVER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, a Rape, Disturbing Images, and Language

Directed by: Taylor Sheridan

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow, Graham Greene & Martin Sensmeier

Taylor Sheridan has been making quite the impression in the independent film scene. He made waves with his script for the bleaker-than-bleak cartel thriller SICARIO (which I’d rank as one of my favorite thrillers of the 2010s) and received praise for penning the modern-western HELL OR HIGH WATER. Sheridan finally directs one of his own scripts in mystery-thriller WIND RIVER. The premise for this movie sounds very simple, but Sheridan is prone to breaking conventions and loves to focus on complex characters. His unique style of storytelling elevates this film far beyond its seemingly clichéd set-up.

The body of a young woman has been found on the desolate, snow-covered landscape of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a tracker who’s used to hunting and killing predators. Saddled with a deeper emotional motivation than you might initially think, Cory takes to hunting down the person responsible for this homicide. Fish-out-of-water FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) also finds herself facing unfair odds in a no man’s land where back-up is a myth and survival is key. Together, Jane and Cory must piece together the clues behind this mysterious death, but Wind River’s harsh elements and tense environment are stacked against them.

Much like his previous two screenplays, WIND RIVER is a film that works because of its attention to characters, a genuine emotional core, and tense atmosphere. Though it’s not nearly as dark as SICARIO, I’d argue that WIND RIVER is a step higher than HELL OR HIGH WATER. This thriller isn’t perfect in its pacing, because there are a few scenes that noticeably drag a little longer than they needed to. However, the end result is a riveting thriller that will frequently punch you in the gut and constantly keep your eyeballs glued to the screen.

Jeremy Renner might have put in his finest performance yet as tracker-turned-investigator Cory. The film feeds us little vague tidbits about Renner’s character’s past and shows enough respect to let the audience put those puzzle pieces together for ourselves, though we do get a scene where more revealing details come out. Still, this slight bit of exposition keeps things enough of a mystery to remain realistic. Renner’s character has a bad past and this makes him a stronger protagonist to bring his own brutal style of justice to the proceedings. I was rooting for him the whole way through and found his final on-screen moments to be especially satisfying in two totally different emotional ways.

Elizabeth Olsen is the fish-out-of-water FBI agent, who’s appropriately outraged and concerned when she realizes the many injustices that the Wind River residents have to endure in a search for justice. Olsen’s Jane starts off as a tad unlikable, but gradually grows on the viewer as she begins to understand that she’s stumbled into especially dangerous territory and is investigating a case that nobody else wants to touch. Gil Birmingham gave a strong performance in last year’s HELL OR HIGH WATER as the Sheriff’s Native sidekick, but steals scenes here as a grieving father who has tons of baggage.

WIND RIVER’s unique setting adds a lot to the proceedings as well. The harsh, frozen elements are a constant plot point in this mystery and manage to pack in unexpected social commentary about the current sad state of how Native Americans are treated. This message isn’t overly preachy or forced in any way, but instead serves as a further powerhouse to the already depressing tale. The film is well-shot and there’s a constant air of menace lurking around this deadly white location. The mystery is further heightened by small clues that lead to big revelations. One particular moment, that cuts from a flashback to present day, is especially masterful. This carefully edited sequence racks up the suspense by giving the viewer damning information that the main characters are about to discover.

The biggest reason why WIND RIVER succeeds as a thriller, a mystery, and a great film in general is because it has a living, breathing emotional core. The characters, writing, atmosphere, and feelings elevate the material far above its meager set-up. I cared about these people. I cared about their plights. I wanted to see this mystery solved. I wanted to see justice delivered in a satisfying way. I gave a shit about every single thing in this film and that’s why Taylor Sheridan is a cinematic storyteller to watch. He forces his viewers to care by connecting them to believable fleshed-out characters and seemingly simple stories that are emotionally complicated. WIND RIVER is a must-see!

Grade: A

BABY DRIVER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language throughout

Directed by: Edgar Wright

Written by: Edgar Wright

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Bernthal, Eiza Gonzalez, Jon Hamm & Jamie Foxx

Since the mid-90s, director/writer Edgar Wright has been imagining BABY DRIVER. This action flick would serve as a passion project for years as he fine-tuned every detail and constructed the plot. In 2017, BABY DRIVER has finally arrived! There’s no other way of putting it: BABY DRIVER is awesome! The blend of music, action, and relentless storytelling that is lovingly placed into every scene, fleshed-out character, and carefully placed song is a wonder to behold. BABY DRIVER has cemented its place as one of my favorite action films and I guarantee that this will go down as a celebrated classic or (at the very least) gain a passionate cult following.

Young tinnitus-stricken getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) has spent years repaying a substantial debt to mob boss Doc (Kevin Spacey), all while blasting tunes to keep his “hum in the drum” at bay. With his affairs finally caught up, Baby believes that he’s out of the crime-filled lifestyle for good and begins to go legitimate. To further boost Baby’s upbeat look on life, he’s found a loving relationship with waitress Debora (Lily James). Unfortunately for Baby, Doc comes calling and the driver finds himself stuck in a heist that has unexpected, potentially deadly curveballs. As Baby attempts to escape his life and runaway with his girlfriend, bullets fly, engines rev, and music blares. It’s a cinema lover’s dream and will surely please loads of action fans.

Edgar Wright directs the hell out of this film with attention to detail in every frame and a style that perfectly feeds into the fast-paced storytelling. The soundtrack blares, blasts, and plays through the entire movie, making the music an essential ingredient to this adrenaline-pumping cinematic recipe. When Wright occasionally removes the music as certain characters threaten Baby or he drops an iPod in the middle of a chase, tension immediately erupts as the music (and its absence) takes the viewer into reluctant criminal’s head and lets us experience the world as he does. The action choreography and flow of scenes to the music is perfectly matched up, making for one hell of a thrilling, funny, and thoroughly entertaining ride.

To boot, BABY DRIVER’s action sequences are stellar. The car chases will have the viewer hooked as Baby pulls off insane moves and proves himself to be “Mozart in a go-kart.” I’m sure that certain moments were undoubtedly aided by computer generated effects, but these all appeared practical and it wouldn’t surprise me to find that BABY DRIVER had an insane stunt team of adrenaline-junkies who wanted to aid Wright’s action-packed art. The gun fights and heist sequences also have emotional stakes thrown into them as little details come back in big ways. Even when the film integrates well-worn action clichés (you can see certain plot points coming), it does so in a loving manner that fully embraces the genre as opposed to merely using them as lazy developments.

As the titular getaway driver, Ansel Elgort delivers the best performance of his career yet…turning Baby into a charming Steve McQueen type action hero and instantly winning the viewer over. Lily James has fantastic chemistry as Baby’s newfound girlfriend and their relationship seems totally natural on the big screen. As far as villains go, Kevin Spacey brings his usual high-caliber acting as an intimidating mobster who has a sense of humor and a genuine connection towards Baby. Meanwhile, Jamie Foxx is scary as the stone-cold psycho of the bunch. Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez are perfect as a Bonnie and Clyde pair, who are likable in moments and threatening in later scenes as their dark sides come out. It’s also worth noting that Jon Bernthal, Flea (from Red Hot Chili Peppers), and Lanny Joon are all very fun to watch as side thugs who only receive a few minutes of screen time.

To put it simply, BABY DRIVER is an action movie lover’s dream come true and also serves as an adrenaline-pumping masterpiece for cinephiles everywhere. It’s a film that weaves excitement, romance, comedy, and a quasi-musical score into the space of two glorious hours. Edgar Wright’s passion for this project comes through in every second of screen time and you’ll likely be listening to the soundtrack on repeat for days after sitting through this film. I’m gushing over BABY DRIVER, but it really is that amazing. BABY DRIVER is one of 2017’s best movies so far, it might be Edgar Wright’s best film (in a filmography that’s loaded with tough competition), and it’s easily one of the best action pictures that I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting through. See it!

Grade: A+

THE ACCOUNTANT (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout

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Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Written by: Bill Dubuque

Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jean Smart, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jeffrey Tambor & John Lithgow

THE ACCOUNTANT is a film that I vaguely heard about last year as it was scheduled to be released in January 2016 (usually a dumping ground for films that studios have no faith in). However, that release date was moved to the fall and the film’s marketing promised a smart, mature, and action-packed movie. Color me surprised, because THE ACCOUNTANT easily blows most other recent action films away in terms of its writing and characters. Though not without a few flaws, THE ACCOUNTANT also ties autism into its story in a way that never feels exploitative and levels the playing field by giving us an action hero unlike any we’ve seen before.

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Chris Wolff (Ben Affleck) is a mysterious autistic accountant who uncooks the books for very dangerous people. Chris has a talent for crunching numbers and, when necessary, bones. That latter talent becomes a necessity when Chris finds himself on the run with fellow mathlete Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) as some bad guys are trying to kill both of them. In order to stay alive, Chris will have to figure out who wants to kill him and how that relates to his last “official” job. This is easier said than done as bullets begin flying, the mystery thickens and we learn more about Chris’s shadowy past. Meanwhile, renegade Treasury agent Ray King (J.K. Simmons) and his protégé Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) are hot on Chris’s tail.

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Though some people have labeled THE ACCOUNTANT as a generic action movie, I think that description does this film a bit of a disservice. The plot isn’t about the action (rest assured, there is still plenty of it), because it narrows in on a unique character and subplots occurring around him. Ben Affleck plays Chris Wolff as a mostly believable autistic man, complete with social awkwardness, unique ways of bonding, special interests and extraordinary capabilities in certain areas. The script doesn’t exploit Chris’s condition, but rather shows how his state of mind has helped shape him into the antihero/action lead that he’s become. Details about his past are shown through well-placed flashbacks that fill in the blanks as the movie progresses, making THE ACCOUNTANT just as much of a mysterious thriller as it is an entertaining action flick.

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The supporting performances are stellar as well. Anna Kendrick plays a nervous potential love-interest for Chris, though the film never goes into fully clichéd territory that it seemed to be building towards. John Lithgow plays the head of the robotics company as a kindly old man who’s trying to find the rat in his company. J.K. Simmons is fantastic as a hard to read special agent with many reasons for tracking down Chris, while unfamiliar face Cynthia Addai-Robinson does a great job as his morally conflicted assistant. Jeffrey Tambor has a brief role as Chris’s former mentor, though I wish more time had been spent with his character. Finally, John Bernthal is clearly having a blast as an overly confident hitman who makes his way across various characters.

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With lots of big talent crammed into little over two hours, THE ACCOUNTANT occasionally seems crowded and I wish that certain characters received more focus. However, this isn’t necessarily a big complaint when you consider that the film holds the viewer’s interest the entire time and smartly lets its complicated web of a story unfold through well-placed flashbacks, evolving subplots and pacing that builds a solid amount of suspense. THE ACCOUNTANT is cleverly written and brings its bone-breaking, bullet-firing action into play when it serves a purpose in the plot. It’s not simply action for the sake of spectacle, because each bullet/punch is shot/thrown with a purpose…making them hit harder as a result.

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If I have any major annoyances with THE ACCOUNTANT, they stem from one scene during the final minutes that feels a bit too silly in a movie that seemed grounded in a bit of reality…despite how crazy the story got. Despite that problem, this is one of the best action films to hit the big screen in quite a while. Ben Affleck brings his A-game to this unique action hero and the rest of the cast excel in their roles as well. The plot is smart, kept me hooked into the movie for the entire running time, and delivers its violence with a purpose. It’s an all-around great movie that’s getting great responses from most audiences and I believe this is an example of when the critics got it wrong (it’s wavering at 50% on Rotten Tomatoes as I type this). Though it’s not perfect, THE ACCOUNTANT is solid entertainment that’s sure please action fans and those who just want to watch an out-and-out good movie!

Grade: A-

SICARIO (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Grisly Images, and Language

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya & Jeffrey Donovan

SICARIO is a movie that’s been gaining steam for a while now. Premiering at Cannes and receiving huge word-of-mouth, Denis Villeneuve’s latest thriller has slowly unfolded in a handful of theaters across the nation over these past two weeks. It’s now finally receiving a nationwide roll-out and I can say that this one was more than worth the wait. Violent, grim, and bleak as hell, SICARIO is one of the most original thrillers to hit in the past few years. It’s up there with NIGHTCRAWLER and PRISONERS. I can safely say that this has a spot reserved on my Best of 2015 list!

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SWAT agent Kate Macer is on what appears to be a routine kidnapping raid when she discovers a house of horrors. This crime scene includes corpses in the walls and a bomb in the backyard. It turns out this suburban home from hell is owned by someone with ties to the Mexican cartel. Desperate to bring the monsters behind this grisly site to justice, Kate is recruited onto a special tactical team that aims to bring down a notorious cartel lord and his cronies through any means necessary. However, by-the-books Kate is not fully prepared for the possibly illegal and morally questionable areas that her mission will take her to.

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If there’s anything to be said for Denis Villeneuve’s thrillers, it’s that they all maintain the same sense of suffocating unease. SICARIO opens with a disturbing bang and never lets up on its constant tension for the rest of the running time. This movie doesn’t give you room to breathe as it feels like potential chaos and violence could be waiting around every corner…and in this film, they usually are. Much like 2013’s stellar PRISONERS was a morality play crossed with a tense kidnapping thriller, SICARIO stirs up troubling ethical and moral questions with what, in any other hands, could have been a just another bombastic over-the-top action flick. Villeneuve’s brooding approach to every scene had me clenching my arm rests for the entire film. He also does something with a side plot involving a minor character that I truly loved, but I refuse to spoil anything by going into specific details.

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As far as the cast goes, everyone is perfect. Adopting a convincing American accent, Emily Blunt portrays the story’s only voice of reason as Kate. As she encounters more and more horrific scenes in the escalating hunt for the cartel, you can see the damage that it’s inflicting on both Kate’s psyche and health. A similar transformation seems to occur in Blunt’s face as she appears traumatized, broken, and physically ill by the time the film hits its third act. Josh Brolin dominates every scene he’s in as the secret team’s questionable leader. You can sense of the scummy nature of this character from the minute you first see him and a smirking Brolin uses that to his full advantage. Benicio Del Toro plays Alejandro, the team’s mysterious second-in-command, and he’s never been better. Combining the characteristics of a rough anti-hero with the mannerisms of a certain Cormac McCarthy villain, Del Toro becomes a wholly compelling, sympathetic character with an absolutely terrifying side to him.

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SICARIO might turn a few people off in its sheer darkness. This film is bleak! Seeing as it’s about a team hunting a cartel, you would expect some gruesome imagery. However, the attitude of which this movie treats those moments makes it so much more disturbing and brilliant. This is a film where a van full of characters drive by hanging mutilated bodies and it only results in a few passing comments, because it’s not out of the ordinary in hunting cartels. Villeneuve knows precisely what to leave off the screen as well, resulting in the implication of certain scenes being far worse than anything we could have possibly seen. The story goes into extremely grim places and that’s especially true of a final act that left me in a stunned silence.

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SICARIO is an uncompromising masterpiece of a thriller. Fueled by stellar performances, a suffocating sense of impending dread, and a script that will have you thinking about it long after it’s over, SICARIO simply needs to be seen to be believed. Between this film, ENEMY, and PRISONERS, director Denis Villeneuve has become one of my favorite modern filmmakers. SICARIO is not only one of the best films of the year, it’s also one of the most thought-provoking and intense thrillers that I’ve ever laid eyes upon.

Grade: A+

FURY (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sequences of War Violence, some Grisly Images, and Language throughout

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Directed by: David Ayer

Written by: David Ayer

Starring: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Scott Eastwood & Xavier Samuel

FURY, a historical fictional WWII film, looked like it was something along the lines of U-571 or BEHIND ENEMY LINES from the marketing. The trailers and TV spots gave a sense of this was a glossed over slice of what WWII was like and that Americans always save the day no matter what insurmountable odds they face. I wasn’t the only one with these impressions as I also found that other friends felt the same way. Turns out, we couldn’t have been more wrong. FURY is a gritty, realistic, and dark look at the horrors of war. It almost feels like the second half of FULL METAL JACKET relocated a few decades earlier to WWII. This is a bleak, depressing, but wholly rewarding film!

FURY, from left: Xavier Samuel, Brad Pitt, 2014. ©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

In the final year of WWII, the tank crew “Fury” make their way across enemy lines in Germany. In desperation that he’s losing the war, Hitler has ordered that all men, women, and children to take up arms and fight. The US military forces are going town to town, killing the opposition and capturing those who surrender peacefully. Along the way, plenty of people on both sides are lost. Private Norman Ellison is a pencil pushing clerk who has been ordered to serve as Don “Wardaddy” Collier’s (head of Fury) new bow gunner. Inexperienced and unprepared for the carnage that lies ahead, Norman gets a nasty wake-up call and must find a place within his new tank family as they do whatever it takes to complete their mission to the best of their abilities.

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Director/writer David Ayer (SABOTAGE) nails one important quality right out of the gate. These characters are excellent and performances from stellar cast members bring to them life. Some of these guys may seem a little iffy at first (especially Jon Bernthal) but they do grow on you. The sad truth is that these characters are hardened by seeing “what a man can do to another man” (as a remarkable Shia LaBeouf states early on). I warmed up to each person in varying degrees. It felt like these people had been together for so long that there was an honest family dynamic between them. Logan Lerman is outstanding as Norman, maintaining a kind of innocence in spite of how dire circumstances get. The stand-out performance belongs to Brad Pitt as “Wardaddy.” He may seem like a tough instructor and collected from the outside, but we’re given brief glimpses of him almost emotionally breaking down away from his crew. He is deeply affected by the violent repetition around him, but will deliberately walk away from his fellow officers to hide it in order to maintain his tough appearance.

FURY, Michael Pena (left), Logan Lerman (back, obscured), Alicia von Rittberg (standing, left),

FURY also has a thick, gloomy atmosphere that never once eases the viewer into feeling safe (the state of mind that the characters are always in). Though movies can never fully relate to reality, FURY seems to go out of its way to capture just how horrific war can be (at least on the screen). There’s a lot of gore in this film. I knew it was going to be bloody and brutal (R rating and all), but we actually see flattened corpses, limbs and heads exploding, pieces of gore that are sizeable enough to tell what they used to be (a piece of someone’s face in the opening 10 minutes). This is disturbing stuff, as it should be. Like FULL METAL JACKET, there’s no use in prettying up what is a horrific time to begin with. We never see the sun shine in FURY, clouds always loom over every town, field and road. This gives off a further feeling of bleakness.

FURY, Shia LaBeouf, 2014. ph: Giles Keyte/©Columbia Pictures Entertainment/courtesy Everett

Another fantastic quality in FURY is how well-paced the movie is. At over two hours, the running time whizzes by. It’s not as if the film is all combat sequences and battlefields either, because there’s a solid stretch where we see the aftermath of the U.S. forces taking a town. It leads to some revealing emotional scenes that tell a lot about both Norman and Wardaddy, but shows how hardened some of the other men are. Nothing particularly graphic or violent happens in this long sequence, but its gripping nonetheless. The finale is also fantastic and not portrayed in a way that feels like it’s a blockbuster action sequence or a piece of “America can do anything” propaganda. It puts us inside the tank with the men and kept me gripping my armrests.

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FURY is a grim, brutal war movie that delivers in every area. The characters might not initially seem like the kind of people you want to watch for two hours, but I warmed up to all of them over the course of the movie. The violence is shocking, but never feels exploitative. We see the consequences of killing a man and the tension is as thick as the clouds covering the enemy territory. FURY may not be a happy experience, but it’s a good and fulfilling one. I can safely recommend FURY as one of the best war movies to come along in years.

Grade: A

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