The Outsider (2018)

Review Date: 4/4/2018

Rating: 3/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

This gritty, surreal gangster film with an impressive performance from Jared Leto is weighed down by pacing issues and a lack of self-identity.

Full Review:

First and foremost, I want to talk about what this film does well. More than anything else, this film is an excellent modern addition to the Gangster genre. Despite being modern its historical setting prevents it from being directly compared against more recent entries such as The Departed or The Raid 2. And no, it's no Casino or Goodfellas, despite the (more) similar time period. To be sure, there are echoes of those two excellent Scorsese films, specially Goodfellas, but there is a considerable difference in tone which I will address in a moment. 

As a Gangster film, The Outsider follows Leto's Nick Lowell, an American GI who has gone AWOL from his unit and gets swept up in the fascinating world of the Yakusa, Japan's analogue to the American Mafia. As the title implies, Leto's character is an outsider, a foreigner (or "gaijin" in Japanese) and as such is learning the highly ritualized ways in which the Yakusa operate. Unlike other interpretations of Japan's criminal organizations which often stray into over-stylized camp (looking at you Tarantino), The Outsider provides what I can only surmise is a much more honest interpretation of this closed society. We are constantly shown images of gangs of besuited Yakusa walking down the crowded alleyways of the city of Osaka, the crowd parting before them, oftentimes with reverent bows. It is in these scenes where comparisons to Goodfellas are most obvious. Like their American counterparts, the Yakusa moved openly in the communities in which they lived and were treated almost as royalty in many respects. However, unlike in Goodfellas, Leto's character seems less drawn to the status aspects of the Yakusa lifestyle so much as the other main draw: that of belonging to a family.

Family and belonging are absolutely central to the film, and Leto's search for connection appears to drive the majority of his early decisions. His character Nick is a stranger in a strange land, and Leto's brutal, cold delivery paints the picture of a man who is empty inside. His cold, wide-eyed stare appears to bore holes into whatever his gaze falls upon with an intensity that is altogether unsettling, and it is not softened even when he finds the family and love that he seemed to be searching for. Indeed, it is this lack of true character arc that holds the film back. Leto's character attains what he is searching for, and yet he is left unchanged by it. This would be fine if the resolution was his dismay at finding no satisfaction in what he found, but instead he appears more to be a sociopath, lacking emotion no matter his situation.

And this is why the film suffers from an identity problem. It is a gangster film told from the outside, much the way that Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai was a warrior film told by an outsider. Though not quite as problematic with the "White Savior" dynamic as The Last SamuraiThe Outsider does indeed feature a White American man finding both love and a place within society in Japan who is ultimately the only one able to save is chosen family from the rival Japanese troubling them. But more than this, The Outsider struggles alongside Nick in defining exactly what it is and what it wants to be. Is it a film about family? For the first half, but that theme withers on the vine rather than being brought to conclusion. Is it a film about power in the criminal underworld? Only as window dressing and motivation for the events which the protagonist is forced to deal with, rather than as a driving force for Nick himself. Then is it a film about finding your own way? Quite the contrary, the film seems to hammer home that one must conform to the world around them and shape it only around the edges. 

So in conclusion, the film is good, but by no means great. Leto is magnetic as always, the supporting cast offers good performances and hint at compelling characters whose backstories are worth exploring (though they never really are). The cinematography is safe yet interesting, depicting a dark and somewhat unknowable world in an intriguing way, and the directing is oftentimes excellent. However, the stillness of the film, punctuated by brief yet excessive violence does not really work. It feels as if 15 minutes of run time could have been trimmed down without cutting a single line of dialogue and that's a problem with minimal plot or character arc to fill in the gaps. 

Ultimately, I feel this was an excellent premise which was not quite delivered upon. I feel as if there is the kernel (or even more) of a great film that was never fully realized sitting buried in what was ultimately delivered, just beneath the surface yet never unearthed. 

Wind River (2017)

Review Date: 4/3/2018

Rating: 3/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

Despite stellar acting from the entire cast, this decidedly dark tale of a murder mystery on an Indian Reservation tries to be many things while actually doing surprisingly little. 

Full Review:

I wanted to like this film. When watching the trailer it checked all the boxes for me in a way that few non-franchise trailers do. It seemed to have everything: a great cast, a compelling story, suspense, great cinematography, and a subject matter that was interesting and largely under-told. So it was to great disappointment that I sat down and actually watched Wind River. To be sure, some of what the trailer promised was delivered.

The entire cast, from leading roles down to minor supporting characters all delivered in spades. The dialogue was excellent, the characters felt real and their emotions (especially grief - more on that in a moment) were palpable and raw. It felt honest, more than anything else. The always great Jeremy Renner reunites with his Avengers co-star Elizabeth Olsen and their on screen relationship was fantastic. Renner's park ranger / wolf hunter character, a white man largely ingrained within the Reservation community is a man of long silences who wears his grief over his late daughter like a millstone around his neck is magnetic. Here he plays the role of the world-wise guide to Olsen's fish out of water FBI agent, a Las Vegas based Florida native who finds herself in a frozen land of crushing winter. For her own contribution, Olsen plays the young and semi-idealistic new agent character well, toeing the line between overeager book smarts without actually crossing over into naive incompetence.

The supporting cast, as I said, also does a fantastic job. Given that it takes place on the Wind River Indian reservation, much of the cast members are Native Americans. As such, anyone familiar with contemporary Westerns will recognize a few faces, such as the ever talented Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal, whom people may recognize from Netflix's Godless. Together with Gil Birmingham, the father of another lost daughter, they help present the face of loss that is all too common among Native American communities. There are other supporting characters as well, all played well, but they are too numerous to mention specifically. Suffice it to say there is no lack of acting chops in the film.

Though I imagine others will disagree, neither Renner nor Olsen fall into the trap of playing the white savior trope. Renner seems to have earned his place within the community, an outsider to be sure, but only by degrees. Olsen's character no doubt serves as the audience's viewpoint into the unfamiliar community of the reservation as well as the harsh realities of the frozen wild. However, she genuinely wants to help, not because the people there are incapable of helping themselves, but because it is both her job and the right thing to do. Her frustrations arise not from the local populace so much as the bureaucracy imposed upon them by her own employer.  

So with a great cast, great acting, beautiful cinematography as well as a simple, if not exactly compelling, plot, where does this film fall short? Two major places. First, the film tries to be too many things. Is it a fish out of water story? Only for about the first half, and the resolution there is hardly earned. Is it a murder mystery? Yes, but the mystery is solved through a flashback rather than through any real detective work. Is it a story about the oppression of Native Americans by White Americans? Surprisingly, not. While it is true that the crime itself is perpetrated by White Men on a Native American woman, I found that the crime itself was surprisingly absent of racial motivations. This woman could just as easily have been White and the crime, the cover up and the resolution all would have remained unchanged. So is this a story about rape and Man on Woman crime? Sort of, but the instigating indecent is so chaotic that it almost comes across as a byproduct of evil men left to their own devices more than anything else. There is a degree of senselessness in this movie that leaves you raw.

So if the film is not really about anything I just outlined, what is it actually about? It seems to me that the film is about grief: both what causes it and how do we deal with it. There is a crushingly somber tone to the film. Everyone is sad because tragedy has touched everyone in the film. And yet there is surprisingly little exploration of that theme. Renner's character is dealing with the grief of his lost daughter in a (probably) unrelated incident from years before. He imparts some hard learned wisdom on his friend and former brother in law who is now dealing with the present murder of his own daughter, and yet there is very little exploration of grief there as well. We are shown the grief of Renner's brother and sister in law, but they themselves do not deal with it. Renner's pursuit of the perpetrators is obviously partially motivated by a desire for catharsis for his own lost daughter, but he never actually acknowledges this. 

So if trying to be too many things is the film's first problem, what is the second? In my mind, the film actually doesn't do that much. The story itself is a fairly straight forward murder mystery. A girl is found dead and Renner, Olsen and Greene must work together to discover the cause. Unsurprisingly, the cause is a group of white men. Men, in this case, is perhaps too good a term for them as it is eventually revealed just how terrible they are, and how heinously senseless their crime. During the flashback showing the murder itself I found myself muttering "savages" out loud to my empty living room without realizing it at first. For real, these are bad dudes, and when you see the scene in question you will be left dazed. But all in all, not very much happens. There are very few clues, no real leads, and ultimately, they discover the trail of the bad guys by... literally discovering the trail they left in the snow. If you're not really going to be a film with a clear theme then you at least have to have a good plot, and unfortunately the film lacks anything but the barest skeleton of one. 

So in the end, should you see Wind River? I think it is a window into a world that White America sees all too little of, and by that merit alone it is worth seeing. Sure, if you're a fan of any of the cast, or simply want to see some beautiful cinematography it's worth a watch as well - just make sure you bring your tissues with you. 

The Death of Stalin (2017)

Review Date: 3/13/2018

Rating: 4/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

A surprisingly honest narrative of the events surrounding the demise of one of history's most notorious dictators, The Death of Stalin is both surprisingly funny and surprisingly dark.

Full Review:

When I first saw the trailers for The Death of Stalin I was instantly hooked. Boasting a surprisingly talented cast, the film looked to be a satirical dark comedy from some of the same team that worked on Veep. And so, it was with great excitement that I went to watch what I assumed would be a comedy. And true to form, the film was funny. Like, really, truly funny. But it also has a serious side to it that I didn't expect.

I'm not sure why I was surprised that a film about one of the deadliest regimes in history would be so dark, but it came as a shock. The callous, almost offhanded way in which vast numbers of people died in the film shocked me. Of course I knew all about Stalin's death lists and the bloody swath he cut through Soviet Russia, but this is supposed to be about after Stalin, right? Well let this be a reminder to us that coups are bloody, dangerous affairs. The power vacuum left behind after the great dictator's passing was chock full of murders of both the upper and lower echelons of society.

And this tonal duality is both the film's great strength and its great weakness. On the surface, it is exactly as billed - a silly farce bordering on slapstick at times. The actors, of whom there are too many to give a proper accounting here, all do a fantastic job with the film's lighter moments. But the undercurrents of eminently dark despair that pervade the film cut across in a way that is at times jarring. Watching Steve Buscemi's Nikita Khruschev somberly pivot around Stalin's coffin to scheme and plot while maintaining a modicum of decorum is a hilarious moment only to be followed almost immediately be the almost causal mention of the military killing 1,500 people trying to enter Moscow to pay their respects to their departed dictator. Humor and darkness walk hand in hand in the film.

Ultimately, the film is a triumph, but it falls short of greatness. The acting, writing and plot are all fantastic, and I really do appreciate any film that tries to stay true to the time and place it inhabits, but the violent (literally) shifts in tone made it difficult to stay in the narrative at times. I found myself itching to pull out my phone to look up things on wikipedia in order to sort out what was historically accurate and what was embellished. Though I restrained myself, it came only at great effort, and at the end of a day I watch movies to be distracted. Keeping me in the moment is a filmmaker's number one job, and director Armando Iannucci failed at that. 

Still, I find myself compelled to highly recommend this film to anyone interested in this intriguing period in history. The early Soviet Union was a time of great contradictions, and the film manages to present this in a way that is a few ticks more hilarious than Animal Farm, but remains no less insightful or itelligent. Go see it for sure, but don't say I didn't warn you. 

Dunkirk (2017)

Review Date: 1/117/2018

Rating: 3/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

A terse, tightly woven narrative of one of the most astounding military operations in recent history, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk focuses on the human side of war in a pleasing, if anticlimactic, narrative.

Full Review:

Let's just say it right off the bat - Dunkirk is not your typical war movie. Set during the harrowing retreat of British and French forces in their desperate bid to escape the Nazi war machine, Dunkirk focuses on three distinct yet interwoven stories of the survivors of the miracle that was the Dunkirk operation. Christopher Nolan, perhaps at the height of his powers as a filmmaker, manages to ably juggle between these narratives to keep the action coming and the tension turned up to 11. 

For those of you not in the know, a brief history lesson. In the early days of World War Two the Nazis are masters of Europe. After a stunning series of defeats the British Expeditionary Force and what remains of the French army have been chased to the sea and the noose is tightening. Approximately 400,000 British and French forces have literally been forced into the sea, almost within sight of the refuge of the island of Britain, and are left to be fish in a barrel to be systematically picked off by the Stukka dive bombers. Then, in one of those twists of fate that are so unrealistic that they must be true, the Germans halt their advance. In an act of pure desperation the British scramble their civilian fleet of yachts, fishing craft and other unarmed, non-military boats and head for France. Over the course of a few days more than 300,000 British and French forces are ferried to the relative safety of England. Battered and beaten, they remain alive to fight another day. 

And this is the tale that Nolan has set out to tell, in three parts - one week on the beaches, one day at sea, and one hour in the air. For those familiar with Nolan's prior films such as Memento, Interstellar and Inception, his fascination with time emerges here too. Indeed seeing where and when these story lines intersect is mesmerizing and in the hands of another director it would be nowhere near as effective - if they even attempted it at all which is doubtful. Nolan's other directorial decisions are likewise unique and yet textbook Nolan. The film is quiet and bleak, rationing out the action sparingly yet to great effect. Nolan also appears fascinated with the concept of violence, showing the impact it has on those suffering it rather than reveling in the glory of combat. Apart from the German aircraft the enemy is entirely unseen, apart from the staccato violence they inflict upon the harried British and French forces. 

Unfortunately what keeps this film from being truly great is that which is truly missing here - character. For all his focus on the human toll of war Nolan spends effectively no time developing his characters. The time on the beach is spent with a pair of soldiers desperately trying to escape the carnage of the beach. For all they go through the two of them barely speak. While this allows for a surprising revelation when aboard a stranded fishing boat it does not allow the audience to fully embody their experience, rendering them empty vessels for us to insert ourselves. However, while this technique works to great effect in video game story telling such as Halo, we find ourselves lacking someone to root for. And the stoic determination of the officers trying to organize the loading of their troops onto the beach presents us only with the classic stiff upper lip stereotype Americans have for the Brits. Zooming in to the day at sea, we find ourselves with a man and two boys piloting a pleasure yacht. While there is more character development here it too is lacking. Lastly, Tom Hardy's hour in the air provides the majority of combat you can expect to find in the film. While it represents what is undoubtedly the most exciting parts of the film the realism of airborne radio communication renders it difficult to follow. Sadly, here Nolan has once again relegated an actor of Hardy's quality to hiding behind a mask. 

So what are we left with at the end of the day? I found myself wondering that as well. The musical score evokes constant tension akin to a knife slowly descending upon its intended victim, much like Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum. I felt myself emotionally drained from the constant tension evoked here which I suppose was the intended effect. However, despite the miraculous rescue that eventually unfolds Nolan does not repay the audience with any kind of catharsis. While I applaud the choice to have a common soldier read a newspaper printing of Churchill's famous speech the next day the result was that we no longer felt inspired the way that England truly was upon hearing it. 

In conclusion, Dunkirk delivers drama and tension in spades, but lacks the emotional charge a story of this nature deserves. As the film's own marketing can attest, sometimes survival is its own kind of victory. The battle is lost (or won), but the war is far from over. 

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Review Date: 7/17/2017

Rating: 4/5 Peanuts

In a Nutshell: 

Marvel's prodigal son has come home (hehe) and though it failed to live up to my hopes, Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers the best version of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to-date, if not the best movie staring the lovable wall crawler. 

Full Review:

This movie had a lot to live up to, which is always a dangerous prospect in film-making. Spider-Man is such a bankable franchise, and Peter Parker is such a beloved character, that walking the fine line between satisfying fans and satisfying studio execs can take its tole on the final product. The results are almost never as pretty as the projects that were given the creative freedom to make the movie they wanted to make. 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming (more on the name in a minute) had an added layer of complexity given the legal acrobatics required to birth this particular movie. And given all that, I have to say the end result is pretty impressive. 

See, after Sam Raimi absolutely stuck the landing on the first two incarnations of the Tobey Maguire-led Spider-Man installments, his bloated, confusing and tonally incoherent Spider-Man 3 was so disastrous that they cut short the franchise. Not to miss out on the upswing of the super-hero blockbuster genre which they helped create, Sony quickly rebooted the franchise, taking a new direction with Andrew Garfield's decidedly mediocre two turns in The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012 and 2014. Nothing against Garfield, but his movies were unnecessarily burdened with trying to force a Spider-Man Cinematic Universe to compete with Marvel's MCU and DC's DCU, not to mention Fox's X-Men franchise, the Star Wars Cinematic Universe... the list goes on but you get my point - interconnected cinematic universes are the new it thing in Hollywood and everyone wants to suckle at the teet.

Unfortunately for Garfield, but fortunately for the fans, Sony read the writing on the wall and canceled further installments in its short-lived Spider-verse. After years of back-room dealings which are themselves worthy of a movie adaptation, Sony and Marvel (Disney) finally came to an accord the likes of which I wish I had been able to study while in Business School. So far as I understand it, Spider-Man has officially joined the MCU, and his adventures are officially canon. Marvel will retain full creative control of "MCU-Spidey", but the profits from all standalone MCU Spider-Man movies (such as 2017's Homecoming - now do you see where they got the name?) will belong to Sony, who has retained the actual movie rights to Spider-Man. Marvel still benefits because they: 1) retain all merchandising rights to Spider-Man, which always pays off when there are good, successful films out in circulation; and 2) they regain creative use of their most popular character to help energize the tiring MCU and (probably) carry the torch forward in a post-Iron Man, post-Captain America Phase 4.

The implications make my head spin just thinking about it, but that's not what this blog is supposed to be about, so suffice it to say this movie had a lot riding on it. And the result of this previously inconceivable marriage of multi-billion dollar rival power houses? Actually they managed to turn out a pretty decent movie. What a brave new world we live in!

Homecoming is a decidedly solid super hero movie. Though not as good as 2004's Spider-Man 2Homecoming manages to deliver a solid standalone film that is undeniably tied into both a larger Spider-Man narrative arc as well as a tangible part of the greater MCU. Having established the prior existence of Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil WarHomecoming was blissfully unburdened by re-telling Spider-Man's origin story. Unlike DC, who seemingly cannot help but show us the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne in every single one of Batman's cinematic appearances, Homecoming assumes you know the story beats. Spider bite, dead uncle Ben, great power, we get it. And fortunately for us, they acknowledged that we do get it. 

So despite it not being an origin story, we are also painfully aware of Spider-Man still being a mostly unestablished character as far as the greater MCU is concerned. It appears that there is a degree of notoriety that the wall-crawler is getting, but he still a street-level hero (sometimes literally) and I would go so far as to say he's really only a half-step up from the entirely unacknowledged Daredevil (and company) stranded in Netflix purgatory. The Peter Parker / Spider-Man we are presented with is insanely young (15-16) and firmly in high school. It is my great hope that we will eventually get a Spider-Man who is actually, you know, a man, but that remains years away. For now, Peter is shown to be a literal Avengers fan boy, who so earnestly wants to join the ranks of his school's PSA heroes that he spends most of the movie whining about it. 

This is where I'll bring up discussion of actor Tom Holland. So far as I'm concerned, the young actor manages to provide us with our best-ever iteration of Peter Parker. While Maguire was applauded for his portrayal of Peter he always struck me as too quiet and too low energy. By contrast, Holland's Parker is a high-energy, earnest, likable kid. He's insanely smart, but not implausibly so - the kind of smart where you believe he can develop his own web shooters and web fluid but not so smart where he's building Iron Man armor on his own. True to form, he's also a "high school loser", but again it is grounded more in reality than comic-book camp. Parker isn't being stuffed into lockers but rather he's simply ignored. He's the kind of kid who fades into the background as so many kids do in high school.

And this is a great contribution to his character. Holland's Peter Parker desperately wants to matter, and he recognizes that leading his academic decathlon team to greatness isn't going to get him there, but being an Avenger, standing shoulder to shoulder with Earth's Mightiest Heroes (of which he undeniably is one based on his power set alone) seems like a great way to get there - and hence his inner struggle. And remember, what separates great characters from merely good ones is that great characters have (believable) internal struggles and do not merely react to external ones in interesting ways.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Spider-Man knows that he's defined by his struggle with being both Spider-Man and Peter Parker. He's the hero that saves the world at the expense of getting the girl, and most of his greatest stories deal with his struggle to balance the competing responsibilities of his dual identities. Its clear that Homecoming's writers understood this, and delivered it in an organic-enough way that we instantly recognized an authentically Spider-Man struggle without it feeling forced.

What helps too is that most of the characters in this movie are also believable. Aunt May is played by Marissa Tomei, someone of an appropriate age to be the aunt of a 15 year old, and a terrific actress who I hope gets more screen time in the next installment. Parker's classmates are believable kids who feel like real, authentic high schoolers. It helps that they're played by actors in their late teens to early 20s and not 30 year olds, but that's a digression.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Michael Keaton plays a believable bad guy. He's no evil mastermind bent on world domination, but a down on his luck working class man who turned to a life science-fiction crime in order to make ends meat. It's this relate-able bad guy that adds so much to the movie, and casting Keaton was an added bonus. Like his equipment, Keaton's turn as The Vulture is larger than life, but only slightly, ("I thought this was the anti-gravity gun") and he truly seems like a dark mirror to Holland's working class super hero. 

Given the length of this review, I'll cut it short here. Afterall, the action is what you would expect from an MCU entry, the music is fine though un-remarkable, and the direction is effectively invisible. Marvel's getting really good at its assembly-line production of MCU movies these days, and in the end, Homecoming is no exception. The end result was a fresh look at the eventual future of the MCU. I look forward to what new heights Spider-Man may eventually reach.