Wind River (2017)

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On Wyoming’s remote Wind River Indian Reservation, the body of a barefoot young woman lies face down and frost bitten in the snow. Despite incontrovertible evidence indicating foul play, the medical examiner rules the cause of death pulmonary edema—her lungs had filled with blood, a sure sign she’d been running. But from what, out here? The closest habitable structure is six miles away. Most people wouldn’t make it 600 yards in these frigid, subzero conditions, let alone six miles.
     The man who finds her is Cory Lambert, a veteran game tracker for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He hunts predators for a living—coyotes, mountain lions, hungry wolves. The FBI sends in rookie agent Jane Banner from Vegas, inadequately attired, to investigate. Clearly she’s out of her depth here. She asks Cory if he will come hunt a predator for her.
     He agrees, partly, because he knew Natalie, the dead girl. She was his daughter Emily’s best friend, but Emily is gone now too. “I suppose you’d like to know how?” he asks Jane, during a rare moment of downtime, pausing to add “so would I.”
     The enormity of loss in Taylor Sheridan’s stark and unforgiving Wind River is a powerful presence, and the film’s performances, by Jeremy Renner as Cory, Elizabeth Olsen as Jane, and Gil Birmingham as Natalie’s father Martin, are equal to it. Birmingham is especially good, but Renner has rarely been better, and Olsen continues to impress. Dead daughters and sad, wasted lives make for emotionally difficult cinema and Wind River’s got them in spades. The scenery is spectacular, but some of the film’s brutal content requires a strong constitution.
     Sheridan, an occasional actor better known for writing the recent Hell and High Water and Sicario, takes a second stab at directing here (after the Vile slasher from 2011) and crafts a marvelous mood piece; he also penned the taut screenplay.
     Wind River is both thrilling and intensely moving, a testament to its novice director and fine cast which also includes Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves) as Ben, the local law enforcement, and Julia Jones (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1) as Cory’s estranged wife.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

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The absolute best use of Philip Glass’s opening title music for Koyannisqatsi—other than in the Godfrey Reggio film of the same name, of course—is in 2013’s “action” comedy Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (renamed for American audiences as simply Alan Partridge on the assumption that Americans don’t know what an Alpha Papa is). In that silly, irresistible film, the “’otherworldly’ dark, sepulchral basso profondo” of Albert de Ruiter, the “Voice of Koyannisqatsi,” overlays picturesque scenes of the Southeast English coastline with the underwhelming caption “Northfolk.” It turns out that Alan, North Norfolk Digital’s fictional radio “d. jock.,” is broadcasting Glass’s title song over the airwaves—and luxuriating in its funereal afterglow.
     ”Koyannis-catsy…” [affecting a deep baritone ala de Ruiter] “Dah dah dah dah, bom bom bom bom… Well now, that music was very foreboding; it made a shiver go right down my spine.”
     In the actual Koyannisqatsi, Reggio’s first film in his ‘Qatsi trilogy—Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi followed in 1988 and 2002, respectively—the initial musical strains are indeed foreboding, with repeated bass motifs and simplistic chord structures adding to the soundtrack’s sinister suggestions of malevolence. But Glass’s minimalist music, which later features brisk choral passages, is only half the picture.
     To look at, Koyaanisqatsi is like perusing a National Geographic magazine really slowly one minute, upsetting an anthill the next. Waterfalls and weather patterns, purposeful pedestrians and street people caught unaware, architectural implosions and the red glare of rockets—all are slowed to sublime submission. These hypnotic images soon give way to frenetic visuals that swirl and dance and careen in kinetic, time-lapsed motion—cabs and cars and subway riders. There’s no dialogue or dubious narration, just cinematographer Ron Fricke’s beautifully-crafted and wide-ranging scenes presenting a rich and vibrant “life out of balance” (the translation of the Hopi word koyaanisqatsi), the natural world juxtaposed with one of humankind’s own making.
     A majestic minimalist experiment, Koyaanisqatsi should send a shiver down your spine too.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Dave Made a Maze (2017)

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Bit player Bill Watterson’s directorial debut, the curiouser and curiouser Dave Made a Maze, ups the art of cardboard construction exponentially. Production Designers Trisha Gum and John Sumner teamed with the paper magicians—papier-mâchéians?—at the Cardboard Institute of Technology and fashioned some 30,000 square feet of cardboard into a pale brown labyrinthine world like no other, with pipes and vents and conduits belching forth steam and smoke and interior noises with equal ferocity. It would have made for a fantastically immersive installation at the Guggenheim; as a film, however, it’s less successful.
     Dave (everyman Nick Thune), a failed slacker artist, has built this particular maze in his apartment on a frustrated whim but now finds himself inexplicably lost inside—it’s a lot bigger within than without. When his girlfriend Annie (bit player Meera Rohit Kumbhani) arrives home, Dave has her contact various foul-mouthed friends for advice, including a documentary film crew led by Hal Hartley staple James Urbaniak. All eventually enter the maze to rescue Dave despite his repeated warnings to the contrary.
     The cool DIY construct and Alice in Wonderland-styled whimsy cannot compensate for the obnoxious cardboard characters who descend into Dave’s kitschy domain and run afoul of its booby-trapped dangers. Paper-bag puppets and origami cranes are among its stop-motion delights; there’s also a rampant Minotaur for good measure (Dave did warn them, after all). In many ways, the film is a lot like the recent Aimy in a Cage, an inventive Terry Gilliam-esque fantasy populated by fey and screeching poseurs you’d sooner want shot of. Clearly Dave’s maze was a better idea on paper than in execution.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

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Given the abundance of music-themed mockumentaries produced to date, including the big-bottomed one that started it all (if not chronologically then at least collective consciously), This is Spinal Tap, I approached the mock documentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping with some trepidation (although I was drawn by the silliness of its title). What were Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone hoping to say and do that hadn’t been said and done in such faux fashion before?
     Adding to my apprehension was the fact that Mssrs. Samberg, Schaffer, and Taccone (collectively known as The Lonely Island) are the trio responsible for “SNL Digital Shorts,” a division of Saturday Night Live that has produced some 100 short film parodies over 11 consecutive seasons. Short they can clearly do. Could they possibly drag out a poke at a previously-tapped musical genre to fearsome feature length?
     Maybe I was overthinking this. Maybe the boys just wanted to make a funny movie—they tried before with their feature-length Hot Rod from 2007 (a film which failed to find much of an audience despite the promise of its confrontational tagline: Smack Destiny in the Face). Well guess what? Popstar turns out to be—and nobody could be more surprised than I—a funny movie. Not a great movie, and by no means an original movie, but a funny movie nonetheless.
     And sometimes it’s a very funny movie—who knew what would happen if you commissioned live wolves and a Seal to help celebrate your marriage proposal?
     Speaking of seals, what’s most interesting about the film is just how many celebrities agreed to show up to Andy’s (and Akiva’s and Jorma’s) party. Was that an uncredited Emma Stone I spotted, briefly? Music producer par excellence Danger Mouse? Win Butler and Régine Chassagne from the Arcade Fire? And wasn’t that Questlove? Mariah Carey? Justin Timberlake? The number of musicians and producers and comedians and singers and actors who make an appearance in this film, beyond the principal cast, is staggering: Carrie Underwood, The Roots, Usher, 50 Cent, Adam Levine, Simon Cowell, RZA, Pharrell Williams, Jimmy Fallon, Snoop Dogg, Weird Al Yankovic, Michael Bolton, Pink, Martin Sheen, Katy Perry, Ringo Starr… The list goes on.
     Popstar skewers the whole white rapper solo artist concert footage boy band break-up sophomore slump schtick with such fondness and sweet-natured abandon, highlighted by some excellent song spoofs, that it’s often hard to remember we’ve seen this several times before. Funny, it seems, bears repeating. But I should have figured that out from the title.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015)

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The Witch: A New-England Folktale is somewhat of an anomaly in today’s cinematic marketplace: a horror film which favors atmosphere over dismemberment, period flavor over mutilation. Its creepily-effective mood builds slowly, driven by solid performances (especially from newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy) and a score stacked with discordant harmonics—Mark Korven’s groaning instrumentation repeatedly builds to a deafening crescendo before a scene cuts to inky black silence.
     This is writer-director Robert Eggers’ first film and it shows considerable promise in some of the risks it takes. Alas, its murky cinematography, frequently shot at night or by candlelight, often detracts, as does the muddy Olde English mumblecore required of the cast.
     I would have liked to see more of what I was supposed to be seeing and hear more of what I was supposed to be hearing.
     The year is 1630, give or take, and farmer William (Ralph Ineson, exercising his extra thick Yorkshire tongue) and his family are being banished from a Puritan plantation on account of his nonconforming religious views. William and his wife Kate (Kate Dickie) establish a farm on the outskirts of a foreboding forest for their family of six—eldest daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), middle son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), and twin brats Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson). Kate soon gives birth to a fifth child, Sam, but when Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with him in the woods one day, the child mysteriously disappears. Soon afterwards, Caleb also goes missing in the woods under Thomasin’s charge and the twins accuse her of being a witchironic given that they’ve been encouraged to do so by the family goat Black Phillip (a rather scary critter in his own right).
     Needless to say, things do not go well for this cursèd Puritan family.
     Baleful and brooding, The Witch (stylized as The VVitch, which is fun to say at least) evokes plenty of discomfort. It’s unhappy and eerie and tense… and doesn’t tip its hand. Most of all it succeeds by delivering up encroaching menace with a mysterious disregard for audience expectations.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Nerve (2016)

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Julia Roberts’ niece Emma and James Franco’s brother Dave get a serious workout in Nerve, an energetic teen techno-thriller from the filmmaking team of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Viral).
     Emma plays high school senior Venus Delmonico—Vee to her friends, although she doesn’t have a whole lot of those because she’s such a no-fun square. When Vee’s BFF Sydney (Emily Meade, suitably saucy) bullies her into competing in an online, high-stakes reality game called Nerve (“it’s like Truth or Dare only without the Truth,” e.g., kiss a complete stranger for five seconds, try on a couture dress, go to the city, get a tattoo), Vee quickly gets hooked on the game’s progressively more dangerous (and profitable) levels, eventually risking everything to prove just how cool she really is.
     Nerve’s rules are simple and threefold. The first rule of Nerve is: You do not talk about Nerve (to adults they mean). Rule number two: all challenges—dares—must be recorded on the player’s cell phone. Rule three: failure to complete a dare, either by bailing or running out of time, will result in forfeiture of all winnings.
     It sounds a lot dumber than it is, for what makes Nerve so entertaining in a low expectations kind of a way—in addition to our two rather likeable leads, that is—is just how believable it all is. With Big Brother monitoring our every move, mood, and transaction these days, Nerve (the video game) could be happening Right Here, Right Now. As someone near and dear to me explains: “We’re all aware on some level that our personal data is ‘out there,’ but most of us rationalize away our fears: ‘I’ve got nothing to hide,’ ‘they’ll go after people much richer or more famous than me,’ etc. And yet we can’t bring ourselves to stop using Google, Facebook, Amazon, SnapChat, Tumblr, and GPS on our phones, often simultaneously—that would be crazy. And yet… We are all vulnerable and our children grow up in a world where they are tracked, watched, and analyzed. All the time.”
     The plausibility of its scenario gives Nerve an unexpected edge. Watchers pay to watch, which funds the prize packages, but more than that the watchers film everything and egg the players on in a flash mob of peer pressure. And the film is so fast paced it’s hard not to get caught up in its delirium, like Vee does, always wanting more. We’re offered a minor back story about Vee’s dead brother and her dream of leaving Staten Island for a west coast art school, but this is mostly just to flesh out Vee’s conflicted good-girl image, worrying about her mom (Juliette Lewis) but wanting to show Sydney she’s no wimp.
     Dave (Franco, remember?) plays Ian, another daredevil Nerve player who helps Vee complete her first test (the kiss) and partners with her right till the colosseum-style Nerve ending.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Returning Citizens (2017)

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These are the stark facts: since 1980, the U.S. federal prison population has risen by more than 700%. Currently there are 2.2 million people behind bars and more than 65 million people living with a criminal record, many of whom come from poor communities and communities of color. Under the Obama administration, a new bipartisan message of hope emerged with politicians on both sides of the aisle agreeing to reduce the federal prison population. In November 2015, the U.S. government began a historic federal prison release program in which some 6,000 sanctioned inmates were reintroduced to society over a four-day period.
     Robert Bruce Jr. is one of those granted early release after serving 21 years of a lifetime sentence (it was determined, retroactively, that he was punished too severely for a non-violent drug crime). Robert has found it difficult adjusting to life outside—neighborhoods have long since been torn down, local watering holes are gone, pay phones and subway tokens are things of the past. And Robert is far from alone. 65-year-old Reggie “Cheese” Spriggs and Louis Bennett, also 65, have been incarcerated for 35 out of the past 40 years. Reggie sums their situation up this way: “You come out, and you ain’t got nothin’ on the ball. And people won’t hire you because you too old, and people won’t hire you because you got a record, and people won’t hire you because you got no experience.”
     It’s a cruel and ironic reversal of the “three strikes and you’re out” rule.
     Fortunately, these individuals found help. The Washington, D.C. Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs (ORCA) is headed up by Charles B. Thornton who knows a thing or two about what it’s like to reenter a society that has changed significantly; he was released from jail in 1988. Ninety percent of the ORCA staff are, in fact, previously-incarcerated individuals. That’s by design, Thornton proudly explains. Like Lashonia Thompson-El, who calls herself a “Female Re-Entry Coordinator.” She went to jail when she was 19, served 18 years, and has been out for three, working for Thornton. She attends college, has a government job, and “has totally turned things around.” “One thing I can attest to…” says Thornton, “You take an individual, and you provide him with the services that he needs to turn his life around… It will pay for itself tenfold.”
     Saffron Cassaday’s interesting and insightful documentary Returning Citizens follows Robert, Cheese, Lashonia, and other Southeast D.C. residents as they struggle to acclimatize to a new and challenging environment. The film also focuses on community leaders and government workers, like Thornton and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (also interviewed), who are committed to the fight against mass incarceration and working steadfastly to create programs and provide resources to make a new life possible for these people, who are truly starting from scratch.
     Returning Citizens, which Cassaday co-wrote with producer Brenda Rusnak (Cyber-Seniors), is a competent feature, neither slick nor preachy. Best of all, it satisfies its own self-proclaimed belief: in order to reform the criminal justice system, one must first humanize and learn from the individuals and communities that are impacted by it.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com