HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

August 16, 2016

hell or high water Greetings again from the darkness. A good guy doing bad things for a good reason. A bad guy doing bad things for a good reason. A good guy whose make-up doesn’t allow for bad things by anyone for any reason. Director David MacKenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) serve up a quasi-western featuring a crusty old Texas Ranger doggedly pursuing two bank robbing brothers. If not for the numerous destroy-the-flow screaming political statements, this could have been a near instant classic – just a tick below No Country for Old Men.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers Toby and Tanner Howard. Details eek out slowly about each … most importantly that Toby is a divorced dad and Tanner is an ex-con. Toby has meticulously planned out their bank robbery spree. The goal is to save his family ranch so his boys can escape the “disease” of poverty. Tanner is along to support his brother … and probably because he enjoys the adrenaline rush.

Soon enough, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is on the trail of the boys, and his highly developed instincts and gut feelings annoy his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) almost as much as Marcus’ incessant and insensitive racial teases – a reminder of the days when buddies would verbally jab each other without the risk of class action lawsuits.

The performances are all excellent. Pine is the quiet guy resigned to a life without happiness, but refusing to give up on his boys. Foster is the wide-eyed trouble-maker who long ago realized he would always be one careless moment from the end. Bridges literally becomes the Ranger being forced into retirement (age) but intent on remaining somewhat relevant. Additional support work is also quite colorful in a west Texas kind of way. The wonderful Dale Dickey gets an early sequence with the boys, the great Buck Taylor is always a pleasant presence, Margaret Bowman adds yet another memorable character to her resume as the T-Bone waitress, and Katy Mixon (“Eastbound and Down”) gets to stand up for the little people.

West Texas is a character unto itself with massive poverty, oil pumps on the horizon, dusty streets, rickety fences, and gun-toting citizens everywhere. Each of these elements is beautifully captured by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Dom Hemingway), as are the actual bank robberies and the quiet moments between brothers and Rangers partners. To cap it off, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis add a nice score and even better soundtrack … the best of which is an opening song from Townes Van Zandt .

Mixed in with the impending gloom are some terrifically witty exchanges and some downright funny moments. Exceptional acting, a spot on setting, wonderful photography, and superb music are only slightly offset by the previously mentioned obnoxious and too obvious shots taken at big banks and oil companies. Sometimes a good story can be just that … and not a political statement.

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THE PROGRAM (2016)

March 18, 2016

the program Greetings again from the darkness. The fallen king. The disgraced idol. We expect there to be more to the story of Lance Armstrong, but the bottom line is really pretty simple. Lance Armstrong is a liar. Lance Armstrong is a fraud. The movie offers little in the way of excuses or explanations, and you’ll likely think even less of Armstrong after the movie … if that’s even possible.

Ben Foster turns in a nice performance and is believable as Lance the cyclist, Lance the teammate, and Lance the doper. But even Foster can’t quite capture the public façade or reach the level of deception that the real life Lance maintained for years. Chris O’Dowd is spot on as David Walsh, the sportswriter who wrote the book on which the film is based, “Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong”. In fact, the movie would likely have been more interesting had it focused on Walsh’s research and pursuit, rather than re-hashing the all too familiar Armstrong deceit.

Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity, The Grifters) works with the screenplay from John Hodge (Trainspotting) and we see how Lance battled through testicular cancer and later sought out Dr. Ferrari (Guillaume Canet) – the Godfather of blood doping. We get many shots of the familiar yellow jersey during numerous Tour de France races, and we hear Lance pontificate on what sets him apart: desire, hunger, heart and soul, and guts. Later we hear his proclamation of innocence followed by “I’m the most tested athlete on the face of the planet”.

Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad”, “Fargo”) has slimmed down and plays the crucial role of Floyd Landis – a devout Mennonite, Lance teammate, and the final straw in the crumbling of an empire. It’s Landis who broke “the silence around cycling”, and forced an industry and the public to accept what most of us hoped against all hope wasn’t true.

Armstrong’s infamous “Oprah” appearance and public admission brought poignancy to his own words: “We are the authors of our life stories.” Perhaps this lesson is as valuable as all the money Livestrong raised for cancer research. Picturesque Hamilton Pool in Austin makes an appearance, as do songs from The Ramones, The Fall (“Mr. Pharmacist”) and Leonard Cohen. While the film is not at the level of Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie, it is a reminder that real life can be more dramatic and devastating than the movie version.

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THE FINEST HOURS (2015)

January 29, 2016

finest hours Greetings again from the darkness. The U.S. Coast Guard has played a role in many movies over the years, but only a few have placed this service branch directly in the heart of the story … most recently The Guardian (2006), which was little more than a cheesy, too-talkative water-based rip-off of Top Gun.  Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, 2007) takes a much different approach as he presents a look at one of the most legendary and heroic real-life rescues in Coast Guard history.

The Oscar-nominated writing team behind The Fighter (2010): Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson have collaborated on the screenplay based on the book from Casey Sherman and Michael J Touglas. It’s a worthy tribute (and clearly Disney-influenced) to what is described as the greatest Coast Guard small-boat rescue. It combines a boat-load (sorry) of tension-filled ocean-based sequences with some pretty interesting character-based sub-plots within a Massachusetts community that has become all too familiar with storm-based catastrophes.

Chris Pine stars as Bernie Webber, an awkwardly shy and obsessive rule-follower, who has lived under a cloud of doubt ever since a previous rescue mission failed, resulting in the death of a local fisherman/husband/father. We first meet Bernie as he bungles through a first date with Miriam (Holliday Grainger, a young Gretchen Mol lookalike). The film then jumps ahead to 1952 when they become engaged and Bernie is ordered into a questionable mission by his “not-from-around-here” commanding officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana). See, a huge storm has literally ripped apart not one, but two giant tankers, leaving crew members battling for survival. It should be noted that Bana the Australian, tosses out a laughable southern accent that is a joke within the movie and within the theatre (for different reasons).

Bernie and his crew: Richard Livesay (Ben Foster), Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), take off against all odds in a too-small boat against too-big waves in a desperate attempt to rescue the tanker crew that includes brilliant engineer (and quiet leader) Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) and characters played by John Ortiz and Graham McTavish. Affleck excels as what can be termed a quiet leader. Of course, we know how the story ends, but the heroic efforts against a very powerful Mother Nature show-of-force make for compelling movie watching.

The special effects are stout, though not be as spectacular as The Perfect Storm (2010) or In the Heart of the Sea (2015), and it’s the human-factor that provides more than enough thrills, excitement, and tension. In fact, the biggest issue I had was that I saw a 3-D version which is an absolute disservice to the film. Most of the story takes place at night and at sea, so the 3-D consequence of dimmed light and muted colors results in a far too dark and dull look to the film. I spent much of the movie sliding the 3-D glasses down my nose in a simple attempt to enjoy a bit more brightness. The recommendation would be to skip the higher-priced (money grabbing) 3-D version and take in the more pleasing “standard” version.

Disney makes feel-good movies. Their target market is not cynics or the overly critical among us. The romance pushes the “corny” meter, but keeps with tradition of other Disney movies based on true stories like The Rookie (2002) and Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (2005). Keep this in mind you’ll likely find this one pretty entertaining. Stick around for the closing credits as a slew of real photographs from the actual 1952 event are displayed, as are photos of the real heroes from that night.

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AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (2013)

May 18, 2014

ain't Greetings again from the darkness. Finally catching up with this one after it received such critical raves on the festival circuit last year. It’s one of those films that cause so many “normal” movie goers to question the tastes of critics. It certainly has the look and feel of a terrific independent art-house film, but as they say, looks can be deceiving.

The cast is outstanding and play off each other and the setting exceedingly well. Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster and Keith Carradine are a pleasure to watch … they make it easy to KNOW these characters. Daniel Hart’s score is the perfect balance of haunting and complimentary – understated at its best. The most exceptional thing of all is the cinematography of Bradford Young. The look of the film is right there with the best of Terrence Malick … and that amplifies the film’s biggest problem. The story is highly recollective of Malick’s Badlands, and that’s where the shortcomings jump out. There is just not much substance to this story – it’s really just another in the line of disillusioned criminals dreaming of a clean slate.

Writer/director David Lowery is a definite talent, but his dependency on look and feel prevent this one from reaching greatness. We recognize immediately that this can’t end well. The only question is how badly will it get for each of the main characters. Crime may not pay, but some criminals just seem to keep paying … and drag down others with them. For those that enjoy the indies, this is one to catch up with … and filmmaker David Lowery’s best work is still ahead of him.

**NOTE: This may be one of the worst movie titles of all time

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LONE SURVIVOR (2014)

January 21, 2014

lone survivor Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those times where, in order to analyze a movie, one must separate from the emotion of the subject matter. In the traditional sense, this is not a great movie. However, in terms of practicality, the true story and characters and their actions, leave us emotionally exhausted and questioning whether any war actually makes sense. The other thing it does is bring to light just what impressive beings these brave soldiers really are.

The story is taken from the book (co-written by Patrick Robinson) and real experience of Marcus Luttrell. A Texan and member of Navy SEAL Team 10, Luttrell was one of four chosen for the June 2005 Operation Red Wings … the capture or kill of al Qaeda bad guy Ahmad Shahd. Dropped into the Afghanistan Hindu Kush mountains, the mission goes horribly wrong once the group is stumbled upon by goat herders. The Rules of Engagement provide guidance that is supported by CNN concerns … and the decision is made to release them and call off the mission.

To say all hell breaks loose after that is simply an understatement. The four SEALs face insurmountable odds that end according to the spoiler title. If you have seen Blackhawk Down or the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, then you have some idea of what to expect on screen as these elite soldiers fight for their lives and their country. The intensity and visceral violence is impossible to describe here. The bullets rip flesh and bone, while desperate re-grouping efforts lead to horrendous tumbles down rocky cliffs.

The movie begins with a glimpse at SEAL training, followed by a few minutes of base life … the competitiveness, the bonding, the breeding of fighting machines. Director Peter Berg does allow for a peek at humanity and personality, but the Band of Brothers culture is unmistakable. When one of them states “moderation is for cowards“, we never doubt for a second that this is part of their psyche.

The four Seals are played by Mark Wahlberg (Marcus Luttrell), Taylor Kitsch (Michael Murphy), Emile Hirsch (Danny Dietz), and Ben Foster (Matt “Axe” Axelson). While they are all believable, this is not an actor’s seminar. Neither is it a geopolitical editorial. Partisanship is non-existent here. Rather, we are reminded of the sacrifice that comes with war, and left to decide for ourselves if this approach is the best we can do … but never having any doubt that these are heroes and extraordinary men.

The real Marcus Luttrell makes an appearance in the movie … he is the SEAL that spills coffee and tells the rookie to clean it up. Finally, as director Berg was meeting with the families prior to filming, this quote came from Danny Dietz’s father after reading the obituary: “That’s who my son was. That’s how hard he fought. Make sure you get that right“.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you’re looking for a realistic glimpse at just how horrific war can be

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you’re looking for a political statement about whether US policy is right or wrong

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoLFk4JK_RM

 


RAMPART

February 9, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Dirty cops happen in real life sometimes, and in the movies quite often. It can be an intriguing subject to explore … psychological demons, ego, power-mongering, etc. Typically we see it presented as a cop torn between doing the right thing and feeling like he is owed something. Rarely do we see a cop portrayed as beyond hope … so far gone morally that redemption is no longer even a possibility.

Writer James Ellroy (LA Confidential) and director Oren Moverman (The Messenger) present to us Officer Dave Brown, known to his fellow cops (and even his daughter) as “Date Rape” Dave. The moniker stems from a vice incident where Brown supposedly dished out street justice to a serial date rapist. With no proof of his guilt, Brown remained on the force and his rogue manner has now escalated to the point where he is a constant danger to himself and others. This guy has no moral filter for everyday living.

 Officer Brown is played with searing intensity by a Woody Harrelson you have never before seen. As loathsome a character as you will ever find, you cannot take your eyes off of him. He is hated by EVERYONE! Somehow he has daughters by his two ex-wives (who are sisters) and they all live together in a messed up commune where ‘hate’ is the secret word of the day, every day. Most of the time no one speaks to Dave except to tell him to “get out”. He spends his off hours drinking, smoking, doing drugs and having meaningless sex. Heck, that’s just about how he spends his time while on duty as well.  Dave’s behavior and the theme of the movie seem to be explained in a scene when he tells the IA Detective (Ice Cube) that he is not a racist because a he hates “all people equally“.  

The supporting cast is phenomenal, though most aren’t given but a scene or two. This includes Robin Wright (who nearly matches Dave in the tortured soul department), Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Ice Cube, and Steve Buscemi. The first hour feels like an Actor’s Retreat as most every scene introduces another familiar face.

 Still, as terrific as Harrelson is, and as deep as the cast is, the film is just too one note and downbeat and hopeless to captivate most viewers. Some of Moverman’s camera work is quite distracting and the sex club scene was pure overkill and unnecessary. Downward spiral is much too neutral a term to describe this character’s path and ultimately, that prevents the film from delivering any type of message. Harrelson had been mentioned as a possible Oscar candidate, but it would not be surprising if the film itself worked to his detriment.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a fantastic performance by Woody Harrelson OR you are just looking for a way to kill that pesky feeling of joy that’s been following you around lately

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need to like at least one character in a movie

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THE MECHANIC (2011)

December 26, 2011

(Video review)

 Greetings again from the darkness. This one delivers everything we have come to expect from a Jason Statham movie … plenty of action, fight scenes, gun play, and a man wronged by the system and on a mission for vengeance. It is a remake of the 1972 film starring Charles Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent, and written by Lewis John Carlino.

As in the original, a master hit-man (Statham) takes an apprentice under his wing. Here, it’s played by Ben Foster, who was so good in 3:10 to Yuma. Foster brings energy and intensity to his role, and a playfulness that Statham’s character doesn’t always appreciate. The two have pretty good chemistry, but face it, the only real reason to watch this movie is for action scenes and violence.

Donald Sutherland has a fairly brief role as Statham’s mentor and the film definitely misses him once he’s gone. The bad guy is played by Tony Goldwyn, who just doesn’t have the screen presence to play a big time baddie. Goldwyn is an excellent TV director and seems much better suited behind the camera. He has been typecast as the bad guy ever since Ghost and his presence often evokes groans from the audience.

The director is Simon West.  His best film is from 1997 … Con Air.  No surprises in this one, which is fine. With Statham movies … we want what we expect. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

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