Jeremy Renner

Wind River

I love many genres of film, but dramas and thrillers are my favorites. I particularly enjoy a good mystery or well-crafted psychological thriller, e.g. Prisoners or Gone Girl. Moreover, independent films tend to be hidden gems. Wind River got my attention with its unsettling, mysterious plot and talented cast. Starring Elizabeth Olsen (Captain America: Civil War) and Jeremy Renner (Arrival), the film is a slow burner, both suspenseful and unsettling. Obviously many great elements comprise a successful film, but for me the most important element will always be the story, the foundation of any movie. Wind River was perfectly structured, for my tastes. The film began in arresting, chilling fashion, but was sustained throughout by the quiet intensity of its story. It struck an emotional cord, exploring the hollowness of grief and the tragic loss of a life extinguished needlessly.

Wind River established an early quiet tone, beginning in the remote locale of a Northwestern Indian Reservation. The setting is an unmistakable driver of the film, insulating its main characters with peaceful solitude, but isolating them from the familiar comfort a community breeds. The cold and desolate locale is a haunting place to spend one’s last moments, but that is the fate that befalls teenaged Natalie, who begins the film running for her life. The scenario is the stuff of horror movies: a young woman chased by an unseen psychopath. Barefoot, she runs full tilt until her lungs give out. Mentally impervious to the freezing temperatures and stinging snow, we know that the prospect of the unknown is less frightening than whatever hell she’s escaping. Wind River asks simply, what happened to Natalie?

We know the question, but who’s asking it? Enter Cory Lambert (Renner), an animal tracker who’s familiar with the landscape and has a personal connection to Natalie. His insight will prove invaluable to the FBI agent assigned to the case, Agent Jane Banner (Olsen). Banner is earnest and sincere, but refreshingly unabashed in her complete lack of preparedness. She is the proverbial outsider, unfamiliar with the physical and cultural terrain. She frankly enlists Lambert’s help, and the two of them set about piecing together the last moments of young Natalie’s life. As the pair close in on a suspect, their lives fall in jeopardy, and Banner shows that although she’s new in town, she’s no stranger to putting someone on their back when necessary.

Wind River was a subdued, yet satisfying film with enough mystery to leave viewers intrigued throughout. There was an ominous, foreboding air about the movie and an emotional vulnerability conveyed through performances tinged with melancholy. Renner and Olsen delivered their performances with emotional intensity, but with the proper restraint demanded by the story. I usually wouldn’t enjoy such a bleak film, but the compelling air of mystery tempered its somber tone. Atypical summer fare, Wind River is worth seeing.

Grade: A

Jason Bourne

I try to keep celebrities’ personal lives separate from the way I view their work, but sometimes it’s hard for me to draw a line between the two. Matt Damon (The Martian) was one of my favorite actors, and I thought of him as cool and smart, and he is – but recent comments have lead me to believe that he’s tone deaf at best, and ignorant at worst as it pertains to diversity in Hollywood. As an aspiring screenwriter, this troubles me. I still appreciate his work as an actor, but I can’t divorce myself from his recent statements and opinions. That being said, of COURSE I was going to see Jason Bourne. I own the first three installments in the trilogy on DVD, and I’m a big fan of the franchise.

Jason Bourne promised to reveal the secrets that have always tormented the super spy from the beginning. Who is he? Who can he trust? Has his government betrayed him? Unfortunately, I think the film was long on promises and short on results. It opens with the familiar face of Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles, 11:55) whom you may recall is one of Bourne’s few allies. She hacks into the CIA database, accessing their black ops files in the hopes of gaining intelligence that might help Bourne piece together his past, including information about his father. Meanwhile, our hero is off the grid, earning a living as a bare-knuckle boxer. When Nicky reconnects with Bourne, she leads The Agency right to him, as they began tracking her as soon as the files were hacked. Headed by Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, Criminal), the CIA dispatches an operative (Vincent Cassel, It’s Only the End of the World) to dispose of both Jason and Nicky.

What follows next is an exotic game of cat and mouse, as Bourne criss-crosses the globe in an attempt to exact revenge upon the CIA for betraying him. He is as formidable as ever, dispatching foes with ruthless efficiency. However, from a viewer’s standpoint, these scenes didn’t excite me. Part of the appeal of the first three Bourne movies was witnessing great hand-to-hand scenes like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yp2mYEKLxcA . If Bourne is knocking people out with one punch, where is the fun in that? Furthermore, the intrigue and mystery just weren’t there for me. The backstory involving his father was never fleshed out in a satisfying manner. The movie just felt like an opportunity for Damon to cash in, though he certainly doesn’t need the money. I thought he had moved on from this franchise? That’s why Jeremy Renner (Captain America: Civil War) stepped in for The Bourne Legacy. Now we have another installment with Damon and instead of rewarding, it’s just disappointing.

The film’s final act was effective, but after two hours of mediocrity, it wasn’t enough for me. And I wanted to like this movie, trust me. This franchise should’ve ended in 2007 and been limited to the true trilogy it once was. Grade: C

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

I used to love Tom Cruise (Edge of Tomorrow). He’s always been a capable actor, but I think people are reluctant to elevate him to the upper echelon of Hollywood elite when it comes to talent. Make no mistake, he’s an undeniable superstar – but that just means he’s popular and his movies do well. I think he’s talented, but his thespian skillset is overshadowed by the perception of him as action star. I credit him with a knack for self-deprecation and an overwhelming commitment to his craft, evidenced by the fact that he’s long performed his own stunts. Action movies are in his wheelhouse, so I was excited to see Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (aka Mission Impossible 5).

The franchise began with an emphasis on espionage and has since become more reliant on action. Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be much consistency with characters from one movie to the next, other than Cruise as steadfast superspy Ethan Hunt. This time around the IMF (Hunt’s covert employer) is on thin ice, with its leader William Brandt (Jeremy Renner, Avengers: Age of Ultron) clashing with CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin, Aloha) after a mission to recover a nuclear weapon is unsuccessful. The film’s opening sequence details Hunt’s attempt to stop a moving plane from absconding with the deadly missile. Intel reveals that a rogue “nation” known as The Syndicate has stolen the weapon in order to execute terror attacks against Western allies. Complicating matters even further is the fact that the head of The Syndicate, Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, Prometheus) has ties to British Intelligence and the IMF, utilizing disavowed agents from both agencies.

One such agent is Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, Hercules), formerly of British Intelligence. She and Ethan both want to stop Lane, but we aren’t sure if she’s friend or foe. One minute she’s helping Ethan escape The Syndicate, the next minute it looks like she’s doing their bidding in an assassination attempt against the Austrian Prime Minister. In one of the movie’s better scenes, Ethan foils the assassination attempt at the opera; deftly battling spies atop a catwalk while the audience watches the performance, completely unaware. That scene reflected all that’s great about the franchise (action, clever plot development, suspense), but unfortunately that level of tension was not maintained throughout the film.

I thought the movie suffered in its third act, when it got a little too smart for its own good. There was one twist and turn too many, and little things just didn’t add up for me. I know that a good spy movie should keep you guessing, but the plot quickly went from simple to complicated, which wasn’t necessary. Ethan Hunt felt like a poor man’s Jason Bourne, and although the action scenes were top notch – I still found myself bored as the movie wore on. The interplay between Ethan and Ilsa was fun to watch, but for me the movie was a bit of a mixed bag. I wasn’t disappointed, but it wasn’t quite as good as I thought it would be. Grade: B

 

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

This is my favorite time for movies, even more so than the so-called Oscar season. Summer blockbusters might not be the most critically acclaimed movies, but they sure are entertaining, and with me that counts for a lot.

Marvel has proven successful in bringing the iconic heroes of comic book lore to the big screen. The Avengers franchise combines some of the most individually popular characters for one collective ensemble of awesome star power. 2012’s The Avengers was wildly successful, leaving little doubt that a sequel would be forthcoming. Last weekend I got to check out the highly anticipated sequel The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the first blockbuster of the season.

The sequel finds our heroes more comfortable with each other, as their shared chemistry reveals an amiable familiarity and easy rapport. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) complement each other perfectly, and the opening scene highlights their collective strength. The movie begins with the Avengers attempting to infiltrate a base controlled by Hyrdra, the rogue sub-agency within SHIELD. Despite the aforementioned chemistry, the Avengers face a new challenge as they encounter two uniquely worthy foes. Hydra has trained a pair of orphaned twins to counter the Avengers. They are gifted with super speed and telepathy, respectively – and their initial salvo against the Avengers deals the crew a crippling early blow.

The opening scene was successful, because it was action-packed and wasted no time giving us what we wanted. However, the convoluted plot is introduced in the first fifteen minutes, and I found myself struggling to piece it all together. I’ll try to recount it for you, giving only the most pertinent details. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner had been working on new technology in the form of Ultron, an elite global peacekeeper with enhanced capabilities on par with the Avengers. When combined with an element from Thor’s home planet, Ultron comes to life ahead of schedule, but he has been corrupted with evil. He is not a peacekeeper, rather he seeks to destroy the planet – and the Avengers are no match for him. Ultron disables Tony’s trusted cyber soldier Jarvis, and he is hell-bent on going from a computer program to a physical being. The bulk of the movie follows the Avengers as they try to thwart his efforts and save the world.

Age of Ultron strives to give us a deeper insight into the insecurities and personal lives of the Avengers. Natasha has a thing for the good Dr. Banner. Hawkeye actually has a family, and perhaps Tony is the most layered of all. He feels guilty about having created Ultron, but his ego won’t allow him to completely abandon the technology or the ambition that allowed him to create it. The team becomes fractured, as vulnerabilities are revealed. For example, it’s not often that Captain America and Thor get their asses kicked, but the twins and Ultron prove too difficult for them, and even the Hulk. If they want to defeat their enemies, they will have to work together and trust each other.

The film’s first act simply captivated me with the action-packed fight sequences, but the plot details quickly became muddled. Admittedly, plot is secondary in movies like this – but it was confounding nevertheless. At first I thought it was dope, but by the time the credits rolled I thought the movie was just pretty good. The storyline was deficient, but the action and chemistry amongst the cast mostly made up for it. Of the recent Marvel entrants, I thought Thor 2 and Iron Man 3 were among the worst. Avengers: Age of Ultron is definitely better than those, and I put it on par with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s worth checking out. Grade: B+

 

Kill The Messenger

“Blame Reagan for making me into a monster

Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra

I ran contraband that they sponsored”

-Jay Z, “Blue Magic”
Conspiracy theories are funny. On the one hand, only a fool believes everything their government tells them. On the other hand, if you find a conspiracy behind every corner, your assertions lose credibility. That being said, I know the U.S. government is capable of some appalling behavior. An entity that intentionally infected Black men with syphilis is capable of anything; so the notion that the government facilitated the sale of crack cocaine to its own citizens is not unbelievable to me. Under the Reagan administration, the CIA funded the Nicaraguan Contras by allowing them to export cocaine into Los Angeles (and other American cities) while funneling the profits back to them.

That revelation forms the crux of Kill the Messenger, a film based on true events involving San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner, American Hustle) and his exposure of the CIA’s involvement in what came to be known as a massive crack epidemic. The movie takes place in the mid 90’s, just before the dawn of the information age in which we now live. Although we weren’t in a “24 hour news cycle” back then like we are now, you can imagine the controversial uproar Webb’s articles caused.

The government’s actions were layered and corrupt, as an intricate scheme revealed their use of an informant who doubled as drug middleman. Danilo Blandon was a go-between for the Contras and American dealers like the infamous “Freeway” Ricky Ross, who grossed upwards of a billion dollars by selling drugs to the Blood and Crip street gangs of Los Angeles. Blandon informed on Ross, collapsing his empire while working at the behest of the government. I’d encourage you to read up on this scandal yourselves, as it is quite interesting. These types of events are nearly unbelievable, and lend themselves well to cinematic re-telling.

Webb should’ve been a Pulitzer winner, as he had the courage to risk his life to expose the truth of a corrupt government. However, those who pull back the curtain often fall victim to those they are exposing. Webb’s career was ruined, as the paper began to distance itself from him and his reputation was smeared and character assassinated. In a tragic turn, he was found dead in 2004 of two gunshot wounds to the head, in what was deemed a “suicide.” How one could be capable of shooting himself in the head twice is truly baffling, but after all I’ve told you – are you really surprised?

Jeremy Renner turned in a very good performance, effectively conveying the idealism, passion and doggedness that drove his character. Webb risked his own safety and that of his family in pursuit of what he believed was right. Saddest of all was the realization that his career was ruined. It was cruelly ironic that Webb’s assertions were subsequently confirmed in a government report that went largely unnoticed while the nation was distracted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I often talk about the goal or purpose of film. Aside from the obvious emotional effect movies have on us, every now and again the purpose of film is to educate and expose. Kill the Messenger was a nice reminder that you can actually learn a thing or two from the movies. Grade: B+

American Hustle

For me there’s nothing like that familiar buzz of excitement I feel when I’m anticipating a new movie.  I eagerly awaited American Hustle because crime dramas are among my favorites, and I looked forward to the reunion of Oscar nominee David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and charismatic lead actors Bradley Cooper (The Place Beyond the Pines) and Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire).  Amy Adams (Man of Steel), Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises), and Jeremy Renner (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) rounded out the talented cast, making for a promising lineup.  Awards season is upon us, and you’ll hear lofty praise for American Hustle in the coming weeks and months.  While it’s not the instant classic I thought it might be, I found its performances to be nearly flawless – and it’s one of the better movies I’ve seen this year.

The film takes place in 1978, and much like my fascination with Argo I have a personal interest in a depiction of the time period around which I was born.  The film centers on the relationship between three people: a con-artist couple and the federal agent with whom they cut a deal to avoid jail time.  Irving and Sydney (Bale and Adams) have a passionate, tumultuous relationship based on a shared, volatile chemistry essential to their grifter lifestyle.  There is genuine affection between the two, but the dynamic of their relationship is inherently complicated.  Irving is mired in a loveless marriage to Rosalyn (Lawrence), an immature, impetuous woman from whom he cannot extricate himself.  Despite their apparent unhappiness, they have a lasting connection that isn’t easily broken.

Irving’s loyalty to Rosalyn and her young son preclude him from making a clean break in favor of Sydney, and this drives a wedge between the pair despite their uncanny success at separating fools from their money.  After being caught mid-hustle by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), Sydney and Irving are given little choice other than to cooperate with authorities by bringing in some proverbial bigger fish.  Richie is ambitious and wants to make a big splash with a significant bust; he’ll do anything to break up a major criminal enterprise.   His “cowboy” attitude jeopardizes Irving and Sydney, as they’re the ones who must do the double-crossing of any prospective mark.  As their relationship woes increase, Sydney grows less enamored with Irving and more willing to exact a measure of revenge with Richie, who is all-too compliant.  Whose side is she on, and are two well-oiled hustlers really ready to drop a dime?

David O. Russell delivers once again, always able to elicit the best performances from Cooper and Lawrence.  Cooper is starting to bring a characteristic realism to his roles, and there was a manic, visceral quality about his performance.  Bale turned in another transformative performance as the well-intentioned Irving.  His character could have easily been a sleazebag, but Bale made him a sympathetic figure for which viewers could feel compassion.  Lawrence made her supporting role a layered and textured one, conveying subtle depth beyond first blush.  Russell’s storytelling was superb, and I appreciated the briefly non-linear way he began the film.  The performances were buttressed by authentic cinematography and costuming, which masterfully captured the era.  The movie seemed to get a little stodgy about halfway through, but I thought it rebounded well in its final act.  Definitely worth checking out.  Grade: B+

The Bourne Legacy

I love Matt Damon.  I think he’s extremely talented and versatile.  His turn in The Bourne Identity convinced me that he could do nearly anything.  Prior to that movie I never would have pegged him as an action star or deadly super spy.  He ushered in that franchise and made Jason Bourne a household name.  I couldn’t imagine the series continuing without him, yet any plotline involving his character seemed to have been exhausted with the last installment in the trilogy.  Acknowledging that the Jason Bourne plot had run its course, I was receptive to a new take on the franchise.  Enter Jeremy Renner (MI: 4 Ghost Protocol), who has seen a steady increase in popularity since his award-winning turn in The Hurt Locker.

Renner stars in The Bourne Legacy as Aaron Cross, one of many covert spies working for the same entity that produced Jason Bourne years ago.  I can’t say with certainty whether this entity is a government agency or a private defense company, because I honestly can’t keep up with all the intricate plot details.  When we last saw Jason Bourne in the The Bourne Ultimatum, he was tied up with Blackbriar and Treadstone, with the on-again off-again assistance of Pamela Landy (Joan Allen).  Those covert operations are present once again in The Bourne Legacy, only this time the Powers That Be want to disavow themselves from the program all together.  This means that any agents in the field must be eliminated, as they clean house in advance of a very-much-alive Jason Bourne blowing the whistle.  Bourne knows too much and still poses a threat, especially after the way he was betrayed and hung out to dry when we last saw him.  Once the decision is made to 86 the program, past and present agents are systematically destroyed.  This includes Aaron Cross, who was enduring a hellacious training exercise when his bosses sent a missile to obliterate his wilderness checkpoint, killing a fellow agent.  Cross narrowly escapes, eventually making his way back to civilization.

Like Jason before him, Aaron is extremely resourceful and resilient.  His first order of business is to retrieve some “chems,” pills that he took to sustain himself as he completed the training exercise.  If he doesn’t get another one soon, his body may begin to shut down.  A large pharmaceutical company works with the agency in the development of its internal medicine, and Aaron must travel to the plant where it’s manufactured to retrieve some tablets.  Rachel Weisz (Dream House) features as Dr. Marta Shearing, a chemist who works for the company.  She treats the agents and has treated Aaron previously, though she doesn’t remember him.  He seeks her out in the hopes she can get him a pill, but she explains that they have been transitioning agents off the pills.  Aaron was unaware because he had been completing his training exercise and was in remote locations for several months.  His continued ingestion of the pills has made him a more physically imposing spy.  For some reason that isn’t entirely clear to me, Aaron still wants to obtain some new chems.  From what Shearing explained, it sounds like the chems aren’t necessary for his survival.  Yet Aaron is still determined to go to the plant where they are manufactured in the Philippines and get more.  If it were a life and death situation, I would understand that – but it’s not.  Aaron says something about having witnessed what happens when you go off your meds, and he doesn’t want that to happen to him.  Yeah, ok.  Furthermore, it wasn’t realistic to me that there wasn’t a single pill anywhere in the United States.  Nevertheless, Aaron must get more chems and figure out what’s going on, all while trying to evade his murderous employer.

There were some effective elements of the movie, and some that were less successful.  The aforementioned plot point annoyed me, because it just didn’t make any sense.  It’s important to know what drives your protagonist.  The need for survival is a no-brainer, and I got that.  I also understood his need to protect Dr. Shearing, once they became caught up with one another.  But why is he going to the Philippines if she just told him that he basically doesn’t need the chems anymore?  That seems like a lot of trouble to go through just to avoid withdrawal symptoms.  Aren’t you being hunted?  Shouldn’t you lay low?  Despite that plotline, there were some very good scenes – particularly a workplace shooting that occurred at the pharmaceutical company.  It was a chilling scene that had particular relevance, considering the times in which we live.  At any rate, Jeremy Renner was convincing in his role.  I can’t say that he can fill Matt Damon’s shoes just yet, but he is promising.  He nailed every physical aspect, but I didn’t get a sense of his character’s underlying personality.  Jason Bourne was a more layered, tortured character, and I feel like we only scratched the surface with Aaron Cross.  I’m willing to see what’s in store for the future.  Grade: B.