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

Being Flynn


Note to self: no more unfunny comedies!

Note to self: no more unfunny comedies!

(2012) Dramedy (Focus) Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, Julianne Moore, Olivia Thirlby, Wes Studi, Lili Taylor, Eddie Rouse, Victor Rasuk, Liam Broggy, Chris Chalk, Thomas Middleditch, Sarah Quinn, Benjamin Foronda, Dale Dickey, Joshua Alscher, Dawn McGee, Billy Wirth, Michael Gibson, Kelly J. McCreary, Deidra O’Connell, Michael Genadry, Katherine Waterston. Directed by Paul Weitz

The relationship between father and son can be tricky. Not everyone who fathers a son can be a father. Often, whether or not we choose to accept it or even acknowledge it, the sins of the father are inherited by the son.

You wouldn’t think there was much of a chance of that in the case of Nick Flynn (Dano). He hasn’t even seen his dear old dad Jonathan (De Niro) in 18 years and has demons of his own to deal with. His mother (Moore) has recently committed suicide and he has continued to sink into a well of addiction, infidelity (his girlfriend has kicked him to the curb for both of these reasons if one wasn’t enough) and depression. He gets work at a homeless shelter, doing the kind of work that most people would shy away from – delousing new residents, bathing them, that sort of thing. Nick is a writer who has lost his muse; this could be a gold mine for him if he chooses to view it that way.

Unfortunately, Nick is too self-involved in a downward spiral of booze and guilt to see the opportunity and that spiral only gains speed when he finds his father taking a bed at the shelter. Jonathan, who is happy to tell you that he is the great American writer you’ve never heard of, has lost his only steady employment as a taxi driver and has been kicked out of his apartment for starting fistfights, is almost certainly suffering from some sort of dementia, growing more aggressive and misanthropic by the day until his antics get him ejected from the home, further straining the bonds between the two men. Both are if not at bottom pretty damn close; can they get past their demons and reclaim their relationship and use it to help each other rise above or are they destined for the same shabby fate?

De Niro has been in the pantheon of America’s greatest actors for decades although as of late he hasn’t had a truly memorable performance, sticking to mainstream comedies, mob roles that are a shadow of his triumphs with Martin Scorsese, and a few maudlin dramas here and there. This is a reminder of why he is De Niro, perhaps his most scintillating role since Casino which coincidentally was the last film he made to date for Scorsese. Jonathan is larger than life, an Irish bard with the edginess of a Holden Caulfield and the cynicism of a film critic. De Niro inhabits the role, giving us a man whose actions are unpredictable and mainly self-aggrandizing but there still remains somewhere buried deep among the bravado and the BS a decent human being.

Dano who has in the last few years begun to emerge as a pretty decent actor after years of playing the same sorts of roles has the thankless job of playing with De Niro but actually manages to hold his own. Nick refuses to acknowledge his own issues and like many addicts doesn’t see the dangerous reefs he is steering directly towards. There are times that his character is heart-rending but others when you just want to give him a good smack across the chops.

Also worthy of note is Moore in a brief but memorable turn as Nick’s mom and Jonathan’s ex. Even in the face of two really excellent performances she manages to stand out in her limited screen time. If I haven’t said it before, Julianne Moore is one of the best actresses in the world today and she deserves more discussion when it comes to that.

Where the production suffers is that Weitz (in all likelihood pressured by the studio) has made a kind of schizophrenic movie and I’m not even talking about the dual narration (we get the POVs of both Jonathan and Nick). What I mean to say is that there are times when the movie is edgy and gritty, but then others when it sinks into cliche. I get that this is based on a true story – yes, there really is a Nick Flynn and he really did run into his dad at a homeless shelter that he worked at – but there are some moments that really don’t ring true here.

This is one of those movies that came and went quickly with little fanfare or attention which is kind of a shame because De Niro’s performance alone is worth checking out. While the movie itself is flawed, there are some pretty good moments in the movie that you might want to give your attention to. If you haven’t already seen it, this is one of those movies worth watching when you’re looking for something different to watch.

WHY RENT THIS: De Niro is in top form here which is all you should really need.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes goes cliche instead of edgy.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of foul language, some sexual situations, some drug usage and alcohol abuse as well as some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Another Bullshit Night in Suck City which is the same title that the memoir that it is based upon is titled but studio brass balked, feeling that it would alienate its potential audience before they even walked in the door.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $540,152 on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Asylum

Iron Man 3


Robert Downey Jr. mans the Iron Man customer service phone line.

Robert Downey Jr. mans the Iron Man customer service phone line.

(2013) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Stephanie Szostak, James Badge Dale, Wang Xuequi, Paul Bettany (voice), William Sadler, Miguel Ferrer, Dale Dickey, Shaun Toub, Bill Maher, Joan Rivers, Sarah Burkhardt. Directed by Shane Black

When you’re an iron man, the question is important – is it the suit that makes you, or do you make the suit? That’s the question that Tony Stark (Downey) a.k.a. Iron Man is forced to confront in the third installment of the Marvel Superhero film series.

We begin with a prologue in Switzerland back in the ’90s when Tony Stark was just Tony Stark, the boy wonder engineer who was one of the most brilliant weapons designers on this ol’ planet Earth. He seduces one scientist – Maya Hansen (Hall) – and blows off another, Aldrich Killian (Pearce). These acts will have, as Tony narrates in voice over (which only appears at the beginning and end of the movie) a profound consequence on what is about to happen.

These days, Tony Stark is a mess. He has come back from New York after the alien invasion of The Avengers with nothing less than Post Traumatic Stress Disease. He can’t sleep, spending nights in his workshop building all sorts of new sets of armor (he’s up to his 42nd iteration) and driven into panic attacks when his experiences in New York are discussed – or even when the mere name of the city is mentioned.

Pepper Potts (Paltrow) has moved in and their relationship has become one of the few touchstones of Tony’s chaotic life but even she is frustrated, feeling like he’s slipping away from her. To make matters worse, there’s a terrorist who calls himself the Mandarin (Kingsley) who is setting off bombs all over the world, although they can’t find any bomb fragments to figure out what kind of devices he’s using that set off temperatures of over 3000 degrees.

To make matters worse, Aldrich has shown back up, the head of a think tank called AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) that has made him a wealthy man. No longer the long-haired nebbish geek, he’s confident and good-looking, capturing Pepper’s attention and Stark Head of Security Happy Hogan’s (Favreau) ire. However, Happy is caught up in one of the Mandarin’s explosions at Graumann’s Chinese Theater and is gravely injured.

Now it’s on. Tony goes on TV essentially daring the Mandarin to come get him – and even gives him his address. The Mandarin obliges him, taking out Stark’s Malibu in him just as Dr. Hansen comes to warn him to get out. He manages to save Pepper and Dr. Hansen but is trapped in the rubble which falls into the sea. He is presumed dead.

Of course he’s not; his armor, with a flight plan preset by Jarvis (Law), Tony’s computerized butler/assistant, takes him to Tennessee. He meets a young boy (Simpkins) who idolizes him, alternately helping him get back together even though he has nothing, and setting off new panic attacks. Tony really does need to get together; the Mandarin has plans not only for taking out the President (Sadler) but for perpetuating eternal terrorism and counter-response. Tony is far away from his armor and his friends in the Avengers. He will have to take on the Mandarin with just his intellect and his ingenuity. Will it be enough?

This is the first Iron Man movie not directed by Jon Favreau who still appears as an actor however, which he likened to being a grandfather who gets to play with the baby without having to change its diapers. Newcomer Shane Black had previously worked with Downey on the critically acclaimed but financially unsuccessful Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang as well as having written the Lethal Weapon series. Having already scored big numbers in international box office before even opening in the United States, this movie is poised to become this year’s box office champion and quite possibly the highest grossing film of the Iron Man series.

There’s good reason for it. While the tone has changed somewhat, the movie still retains much of what has made the series so successful – the dynamic special effects, the clever gadgets, Tony Stark’s irreverent attitude and the epic sweep. It also puts a focus squarely on Tony Stark which Favreau also did – and that’s a wise thing. When you have an actor the caliber of Downey, you’re crazy not to take full advantage of him – and Black ain’t crazy.

Stark is one of the most complex, layered characters in all of comics and that has translated to the film version. He’s arrogant, sure – but there’s a vulnerability to him here that is so much more evident than in the first two films. He is battling insecurity – when you encounter a living God and a living legend, it’s easy to develop an inferiority complex. He is terrified of losing the one relationship that matters to him, the only one that has since his father passed. Deep down, Tony is a generous, heroic guy – but he doesn’t have all the social niceties developed. Downey brings all of these aspects to life and integrates them nicely. Tony Stark is as fully realized a character as we’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.

His antagonists are not nearly as well-realized which is often a problem in superhero movies, particularly those that have become franchises. Kingsley has great fun with the Mandarin, giving him a bizarre accent that accents certain syllables (i.e. “teach-urrrrrrr”) that make him sound like a menacing idiot. This is explained late in the movie to my satisfaction however – but it still is a bit off-putting at first. Pearce is an underrated actor who is as versatile as they come. Some critics have huffed that they don’t understand how a snub in an elevator can turn a nerdy scientist type into a psychotic megalomaniac but they must have fallen asleep during the movie as Killian has a soliloquy which partially explains his change – and one gets the sense that his marble bag wasn’t quite full to begin with.

Paltrow hasn’t really gotten to run with the Pepper Potts character much – and she doesn’t get to here although she does have a couple of good scenes, and she does get to don the armor – well, Tony has the armor cover her to protect her as their home is buffeted by rockets and machine gun fire from attack helicopters. Still, the character is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and she has a mind and a will of her own. She makes a formidable girlfriend for Tony, although that aspect is still yet to be explored fully. Then again, the movie is about the superhero, otherwise it would have been called Pepper Potts 3.

Cheadle and Favreau don’t get much screen time either, although both make the most of what they get. As I mentioned earlier, this is very much a Tony Stark movie even more in a lot of respects than Iron Man, although there are oodles of different armors which all come to play in the climactic battle (the website, which you can reach by clicking on the picture above, has details about some of them). For fans of the comic book, some of the story line borrows from the Extremis storyline although there are some significant changes.

The movie is the longest of the trilogy and might have benefitted from a bit of judicial trimming in the middle third. The final battle, which consists mostly of Tony’s suits flying about battling super soldiers infected with Extremis who are super strong and can shoot fiery breath from their mouths is spectacular but similarly overlong.

The reason to go see this is not just the eye candy however, although there is plenty of that. It’s Downey and a pretty dang well-written script. While I personally think the first Iron Man was better than this on a number of different levels, this one is a slight improvement on Iron Man 2 and while there isn’t a fourth film on the immediate horizon (word comes that Disney is in negotiation with Downey to extend his contract which expired after this film – if not just for future Avengers movies) the credits clearly state that Tony Stark will return. I for one look forward to it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Explores whether the hero is the suit or in the suit.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little too long; could have used a bit of editing.

FAMILY VALUES:  Superhero violence and some sexually suggestive content. Fine for all but the very youngest comic book fans in your household.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dragon tattoos on Aldrich Killian’s chest are actually drawings of Fin Fang Foom, an Iron Man villain from the comic books.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100; the movie is getting solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 2

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Sightseers