Hell or High Water (2016): A Modern Depression Film (Review)

Chris Pratt and Ben Foster in Hell or High Water

In many ways Hell or High Water is a modern-day depression era film. Helmed by Brit director David Mackenzie from a script written by actor/writer Taylor Sheridan, the film follows to down-at-their-luck Texas brothers who are robbing a specific set of banks. 

Chris Pine; Toby Howard, and Ben Foster; Tanner Howard, are the brothers and Jeff Bridges, along with his Texas Ranger partner Gil Birmingham hunt the two men down. It will be the last case of soon to be retired Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and the Howard brothers are only stealing enough cash to set up Toby’s estranged family.

The film is a tad slow and methodical, even a little predicable – especially towards the end of the film – but overall it hits all its marks. There is the odd surprise and Bridges may just steal the film with his reaction in the desert after one brother is taken out.

Hamilton “takes the shot” and in an almost thrown away moment ranges to convincingly portray a number of emotions in a few frames. It shows just why this Oscar winner is a sure bet for any film that requires not just massive acting chops but the cojones to know when to pull a coup. Whatever Bridges was paid for his smaller role was not enough.

Mackenzie manages to emulate, to a great extent, the murky and under-bellied world depicted so well by the Coen Bros. “No Country for Old Men” springs to mind as does the 1984 film “Blood Simple.” Both films are set in rural Texas and both about people trying to rise above their station despite the odds against them.

While the film can be seen as a homage to brotherly love and a cry of outrage against the banks who take advantage of the less well off in society, it also shows the opposite side of the same coin. Bridges’ character is a man “out of time” who works to get one last case solved before he is forced to retire.

Hell or High Water is also about family and how even dysfunctional ones can come together when they need to. Foster’s character, a repeat offender who really does not fit into society as a “useful” member helps out his straight brother. The siblings may not see eye-t0-eye on how to rob banks but they manage to work pretty well together.

Equally fractious is relationship between the two Rangers. They come across as being a bit too prickly but their jibes are good natured underneath those cutting remarks issued by both Hamilton and Parker. These two men have worked together long enough to have that brother’s in arms love that evolves regardless of the job performed.

Pine and Foster play well off one another and this works well for the film.  Bridges and Birmingham also fit together nicely as the lawmen who are chasing the bank robbers down. The whole story, regardless of the “familial” theme in the film, feels a bit “Bonnie and Clyde.”

The robbers take “small pickings” to keep the cops guessing and to make taking them that bit more difficult.  It ends in a sort of stalemate situation that feels very “western” in nature and overall the film is entertaining.

Hell or High Water is a solid 5 star film. It is evocative of a modern western with tinges of the great depression added on. The performances are solid and the director manages to pay homage to other “modern” western/cop films.

Towards the very end of the film, where Tanner is driving up to stage his final stand, the area and the path leading to the hills where the convict brother buys his brother some breathing space, looks much like the beginning of the Donald Segel film Coogan’s Bluff.

This alone shows an awareness of a cross-genre film that also takes place in the desert, although the 1968 film starts in Arizona and ends on New York.  Mackenzie clearly loves these types of films and applies himself accordingly.

Catch this one if you can, if for no other reason that to see Jeff Bridges ply his magic on more than one occasion in the film. The film is rated ‘R’ and has some nudity, a little sex and violence. There is some gore but it is not overly intrusive. There is not an overabundance of viscera.

Check out the trailer below:

Michael Cimino: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – A Look Back

Geoffrey Lewis, Eastwood, George Kennedy, Jeff Bridges

The announcement of Michael Cimino’s death today at age 77 was a shock and it allowed for amount of reflection at the career that began so well and ended so badly. So it seems fitting to look back at the film that started it all for Michael Cimino; Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974).

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot could be called a “Drive In” film. It was at a drive in that I saw it, aged 17, nearly two years after the film’s release.  Despite UA and their poor marketing of the film, and the fact that Bridges effectively stole the film from Eastwood, I fell in love with the story and the ending was the first one to ever make me cry.

Not so much a crime/comedy film, TaL was a buddy movie. A May-December bromance between Eastwood’s laconic former thief and the young conman played by Bridges. Thunderbolt was a man who turned his back on crime and Lightfoot was a young man in love with it.

The two meet up when  former colleagues of Thunderbolt turn up to extract their pound of flesh from their partner who they believe cheated them out of money from a big heist.

George Kennedy was the asthmatic bad man with anger management issues and poor self image; Red Leary.Geoffrey Lewis was Eddie Goody and as his name implies Eddie was the nicer of the two men.

The film was one of Eastwood’s least favorites according to author Marc Elliot in his 2010 biographical tome on the entertainer.  It is maintained that Clint felt, quite rightly, that UA let the side down in terms of marketing and that Bridges stole the film.  It does not mention that both Lewis and specifically Kennedy overshadowed the underplaying Eastwood.

As mentioned by other critics the film looked at the male dynamic, as a group, and focussed on the camaraderie of men in general.  But Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is also a combination coming of age film and a romance (bromance). It is also a blackly comic tragedy where the optimistic partnership goes pear shaped at the end.

Ironically it was Eastwood who insisted that Cimino direct his script. Clint initially wanted to helm the picture but decided to let Michael take the lead. While not overly successful, the film did finish number 18 on the list of top grossing films of 1974.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot garnered one Oscar nomination for Bridges and went on to become a cult favorite. Cimino then went on to write and direct the 1978  Oscar winning film The Deer Hunter.  The Vietnam themed feature  took in five of the little golden men.

(Christopher Walken took home the Best Supporting Actor gong for his portrayal of the doomed Nick.)

Then came Heaven’s Gate. The film that killed UA (United Artists) and stopped Cimino’s rise as the new wunderkind in town.  The “auteur” overspent on the production by millions and according to Steven Bach in Final Cut it was a fiasco of epic proportions. I have read the book and Bach clearly  believes that  in terms of disastrous filmmaking Heaven’s Gate was the perfect storm.

The film flopped and Cimino was essentially finished. He directed four more feature length films and one short film segment in 2007. The writer and director’s career died way before he did.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot feels like drive in fare. It  was a “B” movie out of the gate. Regardless of the requisite nudity and boob shots however the film managed to impress. It is evocative of all those ’70s crime movies yet different because it was all about the Bridges and Eastwood characters bonding and falling in love and becoming a team. The two were spiritual brothers by the end of the film and it was brilliant.

Watching the film at the 62 Drive In outside Fayetteville, Arkansas, I fell in love with Bridges as a performer and was enthralled by his “brain damaged” performance. Kennedy proved that he could still be a nasty bit of work as a bad man and Lewis was brilliant. The film also featured Gary Busey, a childhood favorite from when he was Gailard Sartain’s right hand man on the Dr. Mazeppa Pompazoidi creature feature show from Tulsa, Oklahoma. It also had a young Catherine Bach who would later become Daisy Duke on television.

More than anything else, the film showed that Cimino had that touch. The ability to tell a story that sang, even if it was about a bunch of thieves who had no honor amongst themselves.  It was a great start that peaked with The Deer Hunter and expired with Heaven’s Gate.

Ironically Heaven’s Gate is now considered almost a classic.

Rest In Peace Michael Cimino. An auteur whose career never reached the meteoric heights it could have all because of a western that killed a studio.

Michael Cimino

R.I.P.D. (2013) Howard the Duck Dressed as Jonah Hex?

Film poster for RIPDThere are many reasons that R.I.P.D. (Rest in Peace Department), the Dark Horse limited edition comic-based film died a dismal death on screen and Jeff Bridges announced that the “suits” screwed the whole thing up after the movie got panned universally and was even compared at one point to Howard the Duck. Critic Roger Moore also blasted the film and called it the worst comic book adaptation since Jonah Hex.

Ouch.

A trifle unfair of Moore as at least R.I.P.D. did not have Megan Fox in it. Although the film is a stinker overall despite having a good cast to work with. Starring Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, Mary Louise Parker, Kevin Bacon and Stephanie Szostak the film should have entertained with so much talent shoved into one film.

Directed by Richard Schwentke (RED, Insurgent) the film confuses more than it entertains and spends far too much time on the James Hong, Marisa Miller gag which appears to be a lift from Dead Like Me where the returned deceased look different from when they were alive. Having said that, the joke could have been used to much better effect with a little more emphasis on the interaction of the two “avatars.”

The comic book, published by Dark Horse Comics; who published, amongst other cult favorites, Hellboy and Sin City, ran for four issues. Not unusual for the comic publisher who seems to specialize in “one-offs” and limited editions of comics. In the comic, the joke includes the fact that Nick Cruz and Roy’s big boss is indeed “God” and that there is a heaven and a hell. While the film skirts around this issue by referring to “judgement” and they mention hell, Nick’s old partner Bobby Hayes (Bacon) mentions that he refuses to go there, the big boss thing aka, God, is shuffled off to the side.

*To be fair, however, I have never read the comics and apart from the odd synopsis of the short-lived series, can only guess at the “God angle,” although it does seem that this was part and parcel of the wry tongue-in-cheek delivery of the comic.*

The plot of the film, which apparently does follow the comic’s main premise, has Nick Cruz being killed, although in the Dark Horse publication he does not know who killed him and in the film Nick knows his crooked partner did him in.

*A major complaint that I had with the film was the whole “shot in the face” schtick that is mentioned several times in the movie and the scene where Reynolds as Cruz is pumped full of lead, not one of the bullets hits him in the face. Was this considered too graphic or horrid for the film’s PG-13 rating or just on oversight?*

Watching the film one cannot help but have a sort of Deja Vu feeling. It is not too dissimilar to Last Action Hero; the Arnold Schwarzenegger hodgepodge where the comedy made no real sense, such as the inclusion of a cartoon cat as cop, and the producers used a “kitchen sink” approach to the comedic mix. R.I.P.D. feels much the same. The biggest difference between the two films is reception, Roger Ebert actually admitted to liking parts of the Schwarzenegger film.

It should be pointed out that Bridges got a chance to pay respect to his late father Lloyd Bridges with a visual lifted straight from Airplane!. Father Lloyd played a character named McCroskey in the 1980 film who had “picked the wrong time” to stop a number of things, including sniffing glue. At one point in the hysterically funny film, Bridges Senior has a close up of his wildly smiling face and his hair is standing straight up. The camera repositions and the audience can see that McCroskey is upside down. Jeff Bridges replicates that shot as his Sheriff Roy hangs upside down under a building overhang holding a rope attached to a “dead-o.” Complete with wild smile and long hair dangling Bridges does the shot, although without the camera repositioning.

R.I.P.D. iS just not as entertaining as it could have been. The lack of direction, the kitchen sink attitude towards its comedy and the missing coherency hurts the film overall. Bridges and Reynolds fail to mesh as the former seems to be channeling his Rooster Cogburn and the latter plays it all too serious. The two styles never quite fit together.

Watching the film, I kept wanting to see more of Miller and Hong in action and wondered how Mary Louise Parker could still look so young and attractive. This is a 2 out of 5 star film with little to recommend it except for the presence of the beautiful Parker and Szostak who each brighten up the film with their performances. The chaps in the movie are never really given a chance to shine.

Sorry fellas.

While the film is not really Howard the Duck dressed as Jonah Hex, it is a curious blend of both these misbegotten films where direction and focus were both lost by those making the film and the actors never stood a chance. Wait for this one to show up on telly.

10 June 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Life in the Real Desert: Sleeping in a Cloudy Oven

Cloudy sky in Quartzsite, AZThe real desert is cloudy today. It has a solid covering of dark hues which cries occasionally and lets a few dry tears plummet to earth. Striking tin roofs with a clunky, non-melodic rhythm that is short lived yet oddly comforting. The covering floated in yesterday, slowly filling the vast Arizona sky with something that resembled peaceful candy floss (cotton candy) with varying tints of color. The temperature was a cool 106 degrees Fahrenheit despite the lack of direct sun and sleeping in this stuporous heat felt like being in a cloudy oven.

I tweeted, at half 10 last night, that the temperature was a staggering 91 degrees. I watched RIPD, with Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, Mary Louise Parker (whom I have a huge schoolboy crush on, sorry Mary) and Kevin Bacon while baking on high for the duration. The heat from my laptop was a little worrying on top of all that external heat. I checked and the mercury inside the house was standing at 99 degrees and I switched the thing off afterward.

Until then, I sat with all windows open and a pedestal fan scant inches from my face and the laptop. I sat oozing sweat and battled the elements in order to be fair to the comedy action film. (After all that “suffering” I found I did enjoy the film after all.)

Around midnight I gave up waiting for the heat to drop much further, the gauge outside on the porch read 82, and I crawled, sans PJs into bed. I lay on top of the sheets with fluid leaking in a steady stream from the back of my neck. By the time morning came, a cool 78 degrees for around two minutes, I was semi-rested from sleeping in a giant Arizona-sized oven and my top pillow was drenched.

I have been told that July and August resemble hell on earth and I must agree with that description after living in Vegas last year and seeing that Quartzsite is hotter than the casino town on a regular basis. Still what does not kill you, or dehydrate you, makes you stronger they say and after last night’s turbulent sleep I am not too tired this morning.

Unfortunately I will not be heading to town today as thunderstorms have been forecast and I do not want to cross the desert on a metal bike inviting lightning to strike me and my Schwinn. Of course there is the paranoia that my MacBookPro gets soaking wet thereby stopping my sporadic memoir writing and the chances of being paid by another content mill for journo pieces. I do have a waterproof bit of stuff that I wrap the thing in, but between the wind, rain and lightning, sitting today out seems wise.

It was interesting, and not a little disturbing, to see that the cloud cover kept the heat in over night. Generally on a clear day, besides being able to see “forever” the heat dissipates once the sun goes down. By half 11 or so the temperature has lowered enough to allow something resembling sleep. Even on the hottest clear day, the mornings are pleasantly cool.

Sitting here now, in the Arizona room, I can see the wind pick up. The sound of rain hitting the roof is slowly increasing in volume, not of a decibel level but amount, and the sky is becoming a more uniform color, grey without so much black mixed in. Rather interestingly there has been a lot of rain since my arrival.

Meanwhile, life in the real desert goes on and tonight I’ll wager that sleeping in a cloudy oven will not be an issue since the weather has driven the mercury down for the day. Looking at the forecast, the average temperature will be around 106 over the next week or so which means spending a lot of time in Burger King and the public library. An unexpected bonus of living in this environment is that I’ve met some lovely folks at the local eatery and managed to lose most of the tummy pod that I’ve carried with me for years.

9 June 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

The Giver: Memories Are Made of This (Review and Trailer)

The Giver: Memories Are Made of This (Review and Trailer)

2014 appears to be the year of films about similarly themed young adult science fiction stories, The Giver, opening in cinemas on August 15, does deviate a bit from the others in that this film is about sets of memories that are made up of all the pleasant and unpleasant things in life. This “utopian” society, so bland that it exists in a black and white world, has entrusted these remembrances to one member of society known as “The Receiver.” This person becomes known as “The Giver” when a new Receiver comes along to be trained.