Tag Archives: Hell or High Water

Wind River (2017)

After scripting both Sicario and Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan made a name for himself as a writer of taut action films; light on exposition but heavy on tension. He makes his directorial debut with Wind River. Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) plays Cory, a US Wildlife Service agent that stumbles upon a dead body in the Wind River Native American reservation. He recognizes the body as the best friend of his daughter, who also died years earlier. He, along with the under-resourced local police and FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen; Martha Marcy May Marlene), search for her killer in the harsh backdrop of frigid Wyoming.

Renner commits an admirable effort, but is miscast. He elongates his speech and uses short sentences to make himself seem world weary, but his still isn’t believable as the character. 25 years ago, this role would have been played by Tommy Lee Jones. His performances always feature a curt directness that suits Cory’s mountain man characterization but Renner can’t match Jones’s brand of gruff credibility. Olsen’s ingénue helps him seem experienced in comparison, but his performance falls just short of the verisimilitude needed.

Gil Birmingham (right) and the Native cast deliver the standout performances.

For all of Sheridan’s history with succinct writing, this is his weakest script. It’s still well-written with a twisting plot far above most other films, but has some clumsy dialogue and exposition. The film begins with a flowery poem that never amounts to anything and the tragic backstory about Cory’s daughter is awkwardly repeated, even in scenes where it has no relevance. The entire subplot is a manufactured method to make Cory more sympathetic but has little material effect on his behavior. His actions would have been the same without it and the film would have benefited from reduced exposition. Sheridan frequently shifts the focus back to Cory’s past at the expense of the greater story: the plight of the Natives in modern America. Perhaps without the extra eyes of a different director, some of these missteps made it through to the final version.

Many will compare this film to the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Yes, it features a murder in a wintry rural setting, but that is where the similarities end. While there are brief moments of humor, Sheridan isn’t interested in the sardonic wit of the Coens. The closest analog is Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Both films are about the fringes of society and the suffering of the people who reside there. The Native reservation is depicted as a desolate place. A land and a people that have been mistreated for so long that hope is a thing of the past. Several characters are shown as frustrated with the systemic disadvantages they face and the vicious cycles they are limited to. When Jane sees the victim has been raped and asks if their medical examiner is qualified, the police chief answers simply “He’s kept busy.” Everything has an air of accepted despair. Sheridan aptly uses this as the prevailing tone of the film. The overwhelming misery creates apprehension. Injustice is a daily occurrence so the prospect of failing the investigation has a high possibility. It surely wouldn’t be the first unsolved crime for the area. By ingraining the futility of reservation life into the plot and atmosphere, Sheridan creates an action film with a tense, discomforting bleakness.

4/5 stars.

Best Films of 2016

2016 went by in a flash but some of its films have still left an impact. Yes, it has been a while since the year ended, but this list’s lack of timeliness means many of the movies discussed here are now available on streaming services.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was not just the quality of films but the strength of new filmmakers. Several of the films below are made by first-time directors which bodes incredibly well for the industry as a whole and means there will be even more impressive films sure to release in the future.

15. Nocturnal Animals

The framing narrative can be stale at times with unneeded avant-garde flourishes, but the inner story is thrilling. Tom Ford’s take on a Deliverance-style encounter is a frightening look at the fragility of one’s existence. Seemingly perfect lives can be destroyed in an instant and even deep affections can turn into resentment.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

14. Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson has never been one for subtlety and Hacksaw Ridge is no exception. The character development is saccharine but earnest and the action is gratuitous but visceral. He is a visual director whose skills come through in the wordless action scenes. Gibson deftly stages the many moving pieces of combat to create a deliberately disorienting chaos. The violence may be too gory for some, but he captures the pandemonium of battle with great success.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

13. The Witch

Stark and slow-moving, The Witch is a film that uses the bleakness of its period to full effect. It’s a horror film about the paranoia of a pilgrim family. When things don’t go according to plan and mutual mistrust builds, every character’s behavior becomes suspect. Even when the facts aren’t there to support assertions, it’s their perception of others and need for an easy explanation that leads to their downfall.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

12. Maggie’s Plan

Despite her busybody nature, the titular character is never anything but endearing. Greta Gerwig’s performance shows that her meddling comes from the best of intentions. As Maggie pulls strings in the relationships around her, the genuine affection she feels for her loved ones and sacrifices she makes for their benefit make her a lovable presence. Even as she fumbles her plans, her actions are filled with a palpable warmth.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

11. Love & Friendship

Who knew Whit Stillman’s arch humor would translate so well into a period piece? His clever phrasings and prim tone mix perfectly with the haughty manners of the setting. Kate Beckinsale as the deceptively loquacious widow is entrancing as she talks circles around her friends and family to get her every wish fulfilled. The swirling verbal dance she plays is a joy to behold, even when you know of her calculating nature.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

10. Hell or High Water

Hell of High Water is a film that strips a genre down to its core. It’s a modern western presented as a low-scale heist movie. Instead of relying on elaborate staging, it leans on the terse dialogue and body language of its characters. The acting is so expressive in its own subtle way that a brief conversation becomes as thrilling as a police shootout.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

9. Eye in the Sky

Drones have been a hot topic in the media lately, but Eye in the Sky is more than topical. It evaluates the minutiae of several stakeholders in each military mission. Politics, infantry, pilots, and data analysis all play a part in actions that have good intentions but inherent, often fatal, tradeoffs. The film succeeds by creating tension at each stage of decision-making and driving home the moral complexity behind every order.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

8. The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook is known for his often transgressive plotlines but with The Handmaiden he adds a more playful tone. Returning to Korea after a brief foray into English language films, he is clearly enjoying his freedoms back home. The story swivels through different perspectives, each revealing new, film-altering context. Every twist is a face-slapping surprise as the director expertly – and repeatedly – flips over audience expectations.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

7. Wiener-Dog

Director Todd Solondz has created another world of marginal characters locked into stagnant existences. Like Robert Bresson’s classic Au Hasard Balthazar, it follows one animal as it travels in and out of the lives of its owners. The overwhelmingly depressing tone may be too much for some, but there is truth behind each person’s failures. Their missed potentials or bleak futures are products of their unfortunate situations. Even as the characters sink further into their miserable realities, their plight is deeply sympathetic.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

6. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Balancing over the top antics with a heartfelt message of belonging, Taika Waititi has created his best film to date. The unlikely duo of a 13-year old ne’er-do-well and a grumpy old man mistakenly becoming the center of a nationwide manhunt is an endless source of humor and only buoyed by an eccentric supporting cast.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

5. Girl Asleep

Set in an elaborately designed 1970s, Girl Asleep is a fresh take on the coming-of-age movie. The first half is a vivacious look into a teenage girl’s interactions with her quirky classmates and family, overflowing with panache, and the second half is a surreal exploration of the pressures she faces as she tries to reconcile changing expectations in her transition to womanhood and independence. It’s an original experience that is as flamboyant as it is honest.

[Currently available on Netflix}

4. Swiss Army Man

While it will most definitely turn off viewers with its aggressively weird premise and moments of gross-out humor, Swiss Army Man is an incredibly emotional journey. It looks at the value of friendship from the angle of outcasts and examines the nature of conformity with Daniel Radcliffe’s talking corpse as the mouthpiece of the directors. It’s a call to break free from our own inhibitions and an indictment of the self-doubt that prevents us from being happy, filtered through the minds of two strange filmmakers.

[Currently available on Amazon Prime}

3. A Monster Calls

Movies are rarely more honest about grief than A Monster Calls, especially from a child’s perspective. At every turn, it eschews easy answers and delves deeper into the emotions behind the pain of watching a loved one suffer. Using beautifully rendered fairytale stories and a lifelike tree monster voiced by Liam Neeson, it tackles the seldom touched upon topic of guilt with uncommon sensitivity and insight.

[Currently available for VOD rental}

2. Sing Street

Sing Street is the most infectious movie of the year with an incredible original soundtrack and endearingly oblivious characters. As the kids start their own band in 1980s Dublin, their tenacious spirit and adorable naivete is irresistible. Whether it’s writing the next hit song or winning the affections of a certain someone, anything is possible. Director John Carney has proven once again that he is the master of the modern music movie.

[Currently available on Netflix}

1. Under the Shadow

Blending physical and supernatural dangers, Under the Shadow creates tension with every scene. The unexplained missing items, freak occurrences, and ingrained superstitions escalate into an unbearable level of suspense without ever resorting to frequent jump scares or cheap gore. I have never been more terrified of a piece of fabric in my entire life.

[Currently available on Netflix. DO NOT watch the dubbed version. Please change your settings to watch in the original Farsi.}

Special Mention: Pure Pwnage Teh Movie

Its appeal is incredibly small, but if you are in the specific demographic that grew up with the original web series, Pure Pwnage Teh Movie is going to be an unexpectedly successful modernization of an early-internet-video classic.

[Currently available for VOD rental on Vimeo]

Hell or High Water (2016)

While most heist films tend to increase tension by involving several moving parts like in Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels or by adding a new dimension like in Inception, Hell or High Water eschews these additional layers in favor of a stripped down look at a series of small-scale robberies. David Mackenzie (Starred Up) deftly executes on the familiar premise. Two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine; Star Trek) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster; Warcraft), plan a series of bank robberies on a local chain to gather enough money to cover their late mother’s reverse mortgage. Jeff Bridges (True Grit) plays the almost retired Texas Ranger tasked with catching the two.

The morality of the crimes is deliberately kept ambiguous. The brothers stealing from a bank is clearly wrong, but the story takes place shortly after the 2008 financial crisis. Graffiti lines the walls of banks with phrases like “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us”. The screenplay almost places as much blame on the insatiable greed of banks as it does on Toby and Tanner. Many of the citizens seem to share the same sentiment and feel little compassion for the robbed branches. Furthermore, Toby’s reasons behind the crimes, trying to preserve the family house so he can have something to pass down to his sons, is relatable and the film takes a sympathetic stance towards him. While not a political film by any means, placing equal emphasis on this populist stance allows the audience the make their own judgements on the actions of the characters.

The film is steeped in the honeycomb yellow of the scorching Texas sun.

Mackenzie is able to draw uniformly strong performances from his cast. Jeff Bridges is great as usual. His seen-it-all Ranger displays the logic of a seasoned professional and the sharp jabs at his longtime partner add light humor while establishing the depth of their bond. As he pursues the brothers, his commitment overwhelms him and Bridges is able to convey the subtle instability. Foster is cast as the reckless brother. He takes some stupid risks that could easily have made him irritating, but through the clear affection he has for his younger sibling, Foster is able to make the character acceptable. Even Chris Pine, a serial offender in wooden acting, is able to hold his own against Bridges. This is easily Pine’s finest role to date and it shows what he is capable of when working with a talented director and a character that aligns with his innate stoicism.

While the plot is simple and recognizable, the realization of the film sets it apart. The director wraps its story in the trappings of a western. The cinematography highlights the beautiful but harsh landscape of small town Texas. Like in a western, characters are slow talking and terse. Their subtle motions carry as much weight as the few words the say. The screenplay is without filler and Mackenzie’s solid staging turns small interactions into big moments. A distant cousin would be the movie Drive. Both films feature straightforward stories, but deliver by committing to their personal style. While this film can’t match Drive’s arthouse action, it is able to succeed in its own right. Hell or High Water is an effective crime drama boosted by laconic writing and strong direction.

4/5 stars.

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

The reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise was never as successful as its box office results would imply. The first film was a passable start but the second was mostly a retread with a blundering plot. Both film’s suffered from director J. J. Abrams’s (Lost) biggest flaws: overreliance on nostalgia and initially appealing but ultimately unsatisfying mysteries. After Star Trek Into Darkness recycled the plot of its predecessor, it had seemed that the writers were out of ideas, but the series returned this year with Star Trek Beyond. The Enterprise is sent on a rescue mission to an uncharted nebula only to soon be destroyed a swarm of spacecraft controlled by an alien named Krall (Idris Elba; Prometheus) forcing them to abandon ship to the nearby planet. Split up, the crew has to find each other and stop Krall before he finds an ancient device on board that would allow him to use his swarm to attack bases and planets.

The films are increasingly feeling like extended $150 million dollar television episodes. That has both benefits and downsides. It frees the movies to be relatively independent of each other but has also leads to a significant amount of repetition. The sources of conflict are the same: Kirk doesn’t think he lives up to his father, Spock doesn’t know how to manage his duty to his people, and Uhura and Spock’s relationship is still “complicated” even though they break up at the start of the film. The plot is overly familiar and the relationships don’t show growth from the previous entries. It’s difficult to avoid the thought that the producers, and possibly the fans, value familiarity above all else.

Pegg's dialogue is barely intelligible.
Pegg’s dialogue is barely intelligible.

The script tries to bring an even lighter tone to the series. Co-written by Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz), the screenplay incorporates jokes throughout the film. However, these attempts at humor are almost always the same jokes made in the previous films (Spock doesn’t understand emotions, etc.). Repeating the same punchlines means few of the setups actually produce any laughs. They aren’t helped by the acting either. Chris Pine as Kirk (Hell or High Water) continues his typical stiff performance, vainly attempting to show charisma and Bones (Karl Urban; Dredd) delivers all his lines as if starring in an early 1930s talkie, overacted with shtick to spare. Even the minor roles do not hold up with several actors using irritating speech choices. Anton Yelchin’s (Green Room) Russian accent as Chekov appears to have been based off a comedian’s standup routine and Pegg as Scotty sounds like he is auditioning for the part of Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons. The weak script combined with worse acting thwart the desired humor.

With a different director at the helm, the film’s action has a new look. Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6) has handled large scale action many times before and his experience shows off. Set pieces are more clearly composed and more playful than ever before. In particular, the film’s climax relies on a plot device that will annoy some, but for the rest leads to an uproarious and gleeful display of demolition. Even though the majority of the effects appear to be computer generated, Lin is able to keep them exciting with his quick pacing. Thanks to Lin’s efforts, Star Trek Beyond’s spirited action scenes outweigh the poor writing and wooden performances, producing an adequate  entry in this middling franchise.

3/5 stars.