Old Henry


Tim Blake-Nelson takes aim at a career-changing role.

(2021) Western (Shout!) Tim Blake Nelson, Scott Haze, Gavin Lewis, Trace Adkins, Stephen Dorff, Max Arciniega, Brad Carter, Kent Shelton, Richard Speight Jr. Directed by Potsy Ponciroli

 

We are all of us haunted by the mistakes of our past. They keep us up at night, pondering “what if” (and not in an MCU kind of way) and praying that we can in some way protect those we love (particularly our children) from the repercussions of those mistakes. Eventually, we all must come to terms with those past mistakes. Sometimes, though, that reckoning is forced upon us whether we are ready for it or not.

Henry McCarty (Nelson) is an Oklahoma dirt farmer in 1906. His wife having died of consumption some years prior, he has endeavored to raise his son Wyatt (Lewis) alone, and not always successfully. Wyatt has reached that age where he wants to spread out his own wings, but Henry is steadfast about what he will and will not teach his son. Among the things he will not teach him is how to shoot a gun, a curious omission considering the time and place. All it does is drive the wedge between father and son further apart, which Henry’s brother-in-law Al (Adkins) who lives on a nearby farm, tries his best to referee.

When his father finds an unconscious man who has been shot with a wad of cash, his first instinct is to ride away and let things settle themselves without his involvement. Perhaps it would have been better for him if he had, but he can’t help but want to help out a stranger in need, so he takes the man – whom we eventually learn is Curry (Haze), a lawman whom has tracked down a group of bank robbers to the area.

But then comes a group of riders led by the garrulous Ketchum (Dorff), who claims that HE is really the lawman and he has been chasing a group of bank robbers led by Curry and he’d be much obliged if Henry would just turn over the fugitive to him. The trouble is, Henry is not sure which of them is telling the truth, so he lies to all of them, hoping to buy some precious time, which is the one thing he doesn’t have. And when Henry’s secret comes to light, it will affect everyone in the story in profound ways.

Like most Westerns, the cinematography (in this case by John Matysiak) tends to have an epic feel, even in the scrub brush of the Oklahoma panhandle. While much of the action takes place in Henry’s sod farmhouse, the dynamic between father and son is really the central theme of the film.

Nelson has tended to play comic relief and he is wonderful at it, but this is very much a different role for him and he responds with a performance that is going to have casting directors looking at him a lot more intently. His cold-eyed stare hints at a past that he would much rather forget, but the worn exhaustion speaks to the fact that it won’t let him. His relationship with Wyatt is strained; he tends to be the sort that brooks no nonsense, but doesn’t seem to understand that his son isn’t a child any longer and needs to be given the respect that 16-year-olds demand, whether they deserve it or not. Trace Adkins is fine, continuing his streak of appearing in every Western being produced in the 21st century.

There is a humdinger of a twist near the end of the movie that will answer the question about Henry’s sordid past and it is one you are unlikely to see coming unless you are a scholar about the Old West (and if you are, this might not be the movie for you). It is one that left my jaw flat on the floor, but felt absolutely perfect for the movie that preceded it.

I also have to say I love the tone here. It begins kind of melancholy, and evolves from there. It isn’t always easy to watch the dynamics between Henry and Wyatt. Any father (or son) will tell you that it hits uncomfortably close to home. But really, this is a high-quality magnificent entry into the modern western pantheon. It’s worth seeing just for Tim Blake Nelson alone, but also for a well-written script and a fairly bloody climactic shoot-out. A winner all around.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the best twists you’re likely to see. A tremendous, career-changing performance by Nelson. Nice tonal qualities.
REASONS TO AVOID: Moves a bit slowly at the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the prestigious Venice Film Festival this past September.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Unforgiven
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Stop and Go

Hell or High Water


Chris Pine finds that those "Beam Me Up, Scotty" jokes get old fast.

Chris Pine finds that those “Beam Me Up, Scotty” jokes get old fast.

(2016) Crime Drama (CBS) Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Katy Mixon, Gil Birmingham, Buck Taylor, Dale Dickey, William Sterchi, Marin Ireland, John-Paul Howard, Debrianna Mansini, Kevin Rankin, Paul Howard Smith, Christopher W. Garcia, Heidi Sulzman, Richard Christie, Gregory Cruz, Amber Midthunder, Kristin Berg. Directed by David Mackenzie

 

Sometimes things happen to us. Other times, we make things happen. There are also occasions when things that happen to us force us to make things happen, things that we would never do under ordinary circumstances. When times are tough, that becomes a far more common occurrence.

A small regional bank in Texas is having its branches getting robbed. The two robbers are very clever and seem to know the workings of each bank thoroughly, although they are prone to making mistakes. The frequency of the robberies gets the attention of the Texas Rangers (not the baseball team) and elder statesman Marcus Hamilton (Bridges), just short of retirement, is assigned to the case along with his partner Alberto Parker (Birmingham), who is of Mexican and Indian descent which are both causes for un-PC teasing for Marcus.

Marcus is a dogged detective and he follows the thieves through their next few strikes. He correctly deduces that they are only taking small bills (harder to trace) and seem to be working towards a fixed number. He is confident that given the mistakes they have made that he will catch them soon enough.

As for the bank robbers, they are in reality two brothers. Tanner Howard (Foster) was recently released from jail after a stint for armed robbery. He has a wild streak and can behave unpredictably. His brother Toby (Pine) is more restrained; a family man in the midst of a divorce. The boys’ mother recently passed away and her property, a farm which has been in the family for generations, is about to be foreclosed on by the same bank that they are robbing unless they can pay off the remainder of her loan by Friday of that week. The boys are using a local casino to convert the ill-gotten gains from cash to chips and back to cash again – sometimes with a little extra that Tanner won at the tables.

But the law is closing in as is their deadline. To make matters worse, the boys are having a bit of a disagreement on certain aspects of their plan. Still, they are brothers and blood is thicker than water. They are determined to meet their deadline come hell or high water – and a certain Texas Ranger means to catch them before that.

In the dry dusty desert that has been the summer movie season of 2016 this is like a desert rose. The script is smarter than usual, even if there are a number of tropes present here, like the bank robbers who aren’t really bad guys, the bank as main villain, the brothers who have each other’s backs even when they are squabbling. Blood is certainly thicker than water, but only just; the relationship between the Rangers is portrayed as being as close as that of the brothers Howard. There is a moment of shock late in the film when Hamilton is faced with an unspeakable tragedy from his point of view; he literally loses it for a moment. It is one of Bridges’ best moments as an actor ever.

Pine also does some of his best work as the smarter brother. On the surface it seems that Tanner is the more violent one and the one to be feared but as the movie develops, we discover that Toby is the true rattlesnake who is in many ways even more cold and vicious than his brother, who is more of a ball of fire exploding overhead.

Foster, who is proving to be a very versatile and talented actor, has fun with his role. Tanner is occasionally mean and certainly amoral but he’s loyal to a fault, and Foster captures all of the facets of his personality, making the character kind of an anti-hero and showing both sides of him without putting undue emphasis on one side or the other. It’s a bit of a tightrope he walks but he walks it perfectly.

Mackenzie has some well-regarded films on his filmography including Asylum and Tonight You’re Mine. It surprised me that he is an Englishman; he certainly gets the rhythms and the pulse of West Texas really well. He also was smart enough to hire Nick Cave and his frequent collaborator Warren Ellis to do the soundtrack. That’s reason for going to see this right there.

The movie takes place in the midst of economic recession and the reputation of banks, never sterling to begin with, is still as low as ever. Most people believe banks are run by money-grubbing scoundrels who care only about getting every last penny they can for themselves and aren’t above screwing over the working people to get it – largely because that seems to be the case. In a sense, this is a bit of revenge porn for most of us who have been screwed over by financial institutions one way or another, either through predatory loans, outrageous fees and onerous interest rates or all the way down to shitty customer service. Most people these days look at banks pretty much the same way they look at drug cartels and if we can see a movie about a person sticking it to a bank, most of us are quite all right with that. If you’re not okay with that, you might want to give this one a miss.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous performances by the three leads, all worth savoring. The cinematography of the desolate West Texas plains is starkly beautiful. The juxtaposition of the relationships between the brothers and the Rangers is thought-provoking.
REASONS TO STAY: The commentary on economic issues may be unwelcome to conservative sorts.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of violence and bloodshed, profanity throughout and a couple of scenes of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Pine and Foster also co-starred in The Finest Hours earlier this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The People vs. Fritz Bauer

Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday


When hitchhiking, always levitate to get an immediate ride.

When hitchhiking, always levitate to get an immediate ride.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Paul Reubens, Joe Manganiello, Alia Shawkat, Stephanie Beatriz, Jessica Pohly, Doug Cox, Richard Riehle, Katherine VanderLinden, Josh Meyers, Corey Craig, Paul Rust, Monica Horan, Brian Palermo, Linda Porter, Tara Buck, John H. Mayer, Dave Power, Bobby Ray Shafer, Frank Collison, Brad William Henke, Leo Fitzpatrick, Christopher Heyerdahl, Sonya Eddy. Directed by John Lee


Sometimes when confronted by something that was an important part of our growing up, we are surprised that it meant anything to us at all. Other times, we are reminded why it was so important in our memory in the first place – it’s like rediscovering who we once were all over again.

So it is for those who grew up with Pee-Wee’s Playhouse during its CBS run from 1986-1990. It garnered 15 Emmys in those five years and changed the nature of children’s television. It also ended with the star disgraced after a public indecency incident which effectively derailed his career. Reubens, who played a man-boy character in a skinny grey suit with red bow-tie, pale skin and red lips, a 1950s haircut and an irrepressible attitude, made some cameo appearances but only recently has returned as a character actor, appearing most recently in the Gotham TV series.

Reubens is 63 now and his image is digitally enhanced to retain the youthful appearance of Pee-Wee Herman (Reubens). Still, he is placed in the idyllic small town of Fairville where he is the beloved fry-cook at the local diner, a man who’s never left the town limits and doesn’t aspire to. That is, until Joe Manganiello (Manganiello) roars into town on his motorcycle.

At first, all Manganiello wants is a chocolate shake – and Pee Wee makes a tasty one. But the men bond over a shared love of Root Beer Barrels candy and Manganiello impulsively invites his new best buddy to his birthday party in New York City in a week. He also advises Pee Wee to take a road trip rather than an airplane – the better to learn more about himself.

And so Pee-Wee hits the road and in some ways, the road hits back from a trio of brash bank robbing women straight out of a Russ Myers movie to an Amish community who are not ready for Pee-Wee to the most drawn-out Farmer’s Daughter joke in history, Pee-Wee discovers an America which is in many ways the way we imagine it would be, only through a skewed lens, but the more that happens to Pee-Wee the farther it seems he gets from his goal. Will he make it to New York for Joe’s party?

Those who loved Pee-Wee’s Playhouse are going to greet this movie with affection and nostalgia. Does it live up to the expectations of that show? Well, let’s be honest – Reubens set a very high bar with the show and movie, and I will have to say I’m not sure that Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday clears that bar, but it comes close enough that most devoted fans should be satisfied.

It also stands to reason that those who found Pee-Wee’s Playhouse less of a place they wanted to play in will probably not find this any more palatable. The same goofy vibe pervades and the same scattered sense of humor dominates. While most of the characters from the original show (other than Pee-Wee himself) are not involved, most fans will find the tone right in their wheelhouse.

Like much of the Playhouse material, the humor is a bit scattershot and some of the stuff works here better than other stuff. There is a sense that the filmmakers are trying a little too hard to recapture the magic and at times things feel a little forced. I have heard the complaint that Pee-Wee is essentially something of a one-note character but I don’t think that’s true, although he doesn’t have as much depth as some of the Muppets who always seem to have a lot of that for characters made of felt and wood.

I suspect those who have planned to see this likely already have and are either planning future viewings or have had their fill. However, those of you who are on the fence about this should be warned (or re-assured) that this is essentially more of the same of what you’re used to – not a bad thing of itself, but the material here while it doesn’t live up to the standards of the original doesn’t disappoint overly much either.

REASONS TO GO: Quirky and imaginative. Very charming in places.
REASONS TO STAY: An acquired taste. One gets a sense that the filmmakers are trying too hard.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lyonne and Greenfield both appear in the sitcom New Girl.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Mermaid

Point Break (2015)


Attack of the flying squirrels.

Attack of the flying squirrels.

(2015) Action (Warner Brothers) Edgar Ramirez, Luke Bracey, Ray Winstone, Teresa Palmer, Matias Varela, Clemens Schick, Tobias Santelmann, Max Thieriot, Delroy Lindo, Nikolai Kinski, Judah Lewis, Glynis Barber, Steve Toussaint, James Le Gros, Bojesse Christopher, Ronak Patani, Eddie Santiago Jordan, Patrick Dewayne, Seumas F. Sargent, Senta Dorothea Kirschner. Directed by Ericson Core

In 1991, Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze toplined one of the most iconic action films of that decade – Point Break – and now, two decades later, a remake is in theaters. I suppose that was inevitable. In the spirit of “bigger better more,” the Ex-Presidents are now not merely surfers but extreme athletes and world class ones at that.

Johnny Utah (Bracey) is an FBI agent. He wasn’t always one. Seven years ago, he was a YouTube warrior who wanted nothing more than to film extreme motocross stunts that would get him hits on the venerable Internet video channel, but something goes wrong and a friend winds up paying the ultimate price for Johnny’s hubris. Now, he is looking at a daring diamond robbery in which the thieves escape via parachute. Later, they grab some currency from a plane, drop the bills into an impoverished Mexican village and escape via a daring sky dive into a gigantic cave. Utah, being from that world, deduces that the criminals are trying to complete the Ozaki 8, a list of extremely demanding tasks meant to test the limits of the human spirit while at the same time honoring the forces of nature.

When Johnny finds out that there are ginormous waves occurring in the Atlantic, he is certain that the thieves will be there. He is dispatched to the scene under the wing of Agent Pappas (Winstone) from the UK office. He sees a whole flotilla of ships in the region with thrillseekers attempting to surf the waves that are the size of five story buildings. Johnny was never quite as skilled a surfer as others and when he attempts to surf one of the waves, he ends up going to the bottom, only to be rescued by Bodhi (Ramirez), who takes him to a huge yacht owned by Pascal al Fariq (Kinski), one of those insanely wealthy people who have more money than they know what to do with – so they get other people to tell them what to do with it.

As Johnny gets to know Bodhi and his crew, including Grommet (Varela), Roach (Schick), Chowder (Santelmann) and the lovely Samsara (Palmer), he knows he’s found his thieves but he has to prove it. Going against orders, he infiltrates the group and goes with them to ski down insane mountain ranges and put on flysuits to jump off of mountains. Eventually he earns their trust – well, at least the trust of Bodhi and Samsara, the latter of whom he ends up in bed with – but by this time he has begun to change his mind about their motivations and perhaps sympathize with them. So when push comes to shove, which side will Johnny end up on?

This is very much a Keanu Reeves movie without the benefit of Keanu Reeves in it. As Johnny Utah, Bracey resembles Heath Ledger facially but resembles a young Reeves in line delivery and not in a good way. He’s a bit wooden and stiff in his performance. I’m not sure whether that has to do with the writing or Bracey’s ability as an actor. Hopefully it’s not the latter.

The writing is a definite problem. This is the most bro-tastic movie you’ll see, unless the threatened Bill and Ted sequel comes together. You will never hear the word “brother” used so much in a single movie that doesn’t have two males with the same mother in it. It’s definitely a film loaded with testosterone and bro-bonding and bro-mancing is the order of the day here.

I can handle that but dumb is not as easy to dismiss. The plot grows more and more preposterous as the movie goes on and one begins to see through the Bodhi character as a selfish jerk spouting off New Age aphorisms; why would anyone in their right mind follow a guy like him? He talks about giving back to the poor while murdering middle class police officers and endangering innocents all to attain his personal goal. Of course, this is a different time now and people do worship at the altar of the almighty mirror but I didn’t get that feeling from the original film.

Let’s face it; the 1991 film had something in spades that this movie has little of – fun. The original was an entertaining ride. While the stunts here are impressive – and they are impressive – there’s no soul to them. There’s nothing here that makes me feel like I’m having a good time and why on earth would you go to a movie where you weren’t having one?

REASONS TO GO: Nice stunt sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Dumb and dumber. Too much bro-ism. Ham-fisted acting. Wastes great locations.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and language, some stupid ideas that nobody should remotely try to imitate, a little bit of sex and a little bit of drugs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film Teresa Palmer acted in after giving birth to her son, coincidentally named Bohdi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 8% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Mavericks
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Joy