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

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Joy


Jennifer Lawrence anticipates another Oscar nomination.

Jennifer Lawrence anticipates another Oscar nomination.

(2015) Dramedy (20th Century Fox) Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Röhm, Susan Lucci, Laura Wright, Maurice Benard, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Ken Howard, Donna Mills, Melissa Rivers, Ray De La Paz, John Enos III, Marianne Leone, Drena De Niro. Directed by David O. Russell

The world isn’t designed so that the little guy achieves success. It is even less designed so that the little gal achieves it.

Joy (Lawrence) is not your ordinary housewife. For one, she is surrounded by a family that seems tailor-made to bring her down. Her father Rudy (De Niro) owns a body shop and after being tossed out on his ass by his girlfriend, moves into the basement of Joy’s house where Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Ramirez), a budding Latin singer, is living. Also in the house is Joy’s mother Terry (Madsen) who has withdrawn from everything, staying in her bedroom and watching her soap operas. Only Joy’s grandmother Mimi (Ladd) – who is narrating – believes in Joy other than maybe her daughter and her son. Also in the mix is Joy’s super-critical and bitter half-sister Peggy (Röhm).

Joy has always had an imagination and a willingness to make things but has been held back by circumstances; she is basically the one who cooks and cleans in her household; she also is the breadwinner, although her Dad helps with the mortgage. Then, after an outing in which she is required to mop a mess of broken glass and ends up cutting her hands when she wrings the mop – regularly – she comes up with an idea for a mop that not only is more absorbent and requires less wringing, but also wrings itself. She calls it the Miracle Mop.

But a good idea requires money to become reality and she is forced to convince her Dad’s new girlfriend Trudy (Rossellini) to invest. Attempting to market and sell the mop on her own turns into dismal failure but it’s okay because that’s what everyone expects out of Joy. Heck, that’s what she expects of herself. But with the unflagging support of her best friend Jackie (Polanco), she takes her product to something new – a home shopping network on cable called QVC and an executive there named Neil Walker (Cooper) and a legend is born, not to mention a whole new way to market and sell new products.

Loosely (make it very loosely) based on the life of the real Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, the movie has a lot of David O. Russell trademarks; a dysfunctional family that seems hell-bent on destroying the dreams of the lead character, resolve in the face of insurmountable odds and an extraordinary performance by Jennifer Lawrence.

Say what you want about Russell (and there are critics who make no secret of the fact that they think him overrated) but he seems to be a muse for Lawrence. Perhaps the most gifted actress of her generation, Lawrence has received most of her Oscar attention (and she’s pretty much a lock for a nomination here after winning the Golden Globe last weekend) in films she has been directed in by Russell, including her win. Some have criticized the film for a variety of reasons, but you can’t fault Lawrence. She has given yet another outstanding performance as Joy, going from a nearly abusive lifestyle that seems bound to keep her down to becoming a wealthy, self-confident self-made entrepreneur whose success is like a protective shield. In the latter part of the movie, there is an almost emotionless feel to Joy who has erected barriers even when expressing warmth to women who were in similar circumstances to herself. I found Lawrence’s range inspiring, and even though her character keeps a lot in, it’s there if you know where to look for it.

In fact, most of the cast does a terrific job here, with De Niro once again showing he can do comedy just as well as anybody, and the trio of Rossellini, Ladd and Madsen all wonderful as older women with at least some sort of quirky characteristics to them although Ladd is more of a traditional grandmother as Hollywood tends to imagine them. Madsen in particular impressed me; she has been to my mind underutilized throughout her career which is a shame; she has given some terrific performances in films like Creator.

Where the movie goes wrong is in a couple of places. For one, the middle third is tough sledding for the viewer as the pace slows to a crawl. The ending is a little bit off-kilter and I left the screening curiously unsatisfied, sort of like craving good Chinese food and eating at Panda Express. One of the complaints I’ve noticed about the film is that most of the characters in the film are really not characters as much as caricatures. I understand the beef; there are actions taken by some of them that for sure don’t feel like things real people would do. However, I think this was a conscious decision by Russell and although at the end of the day I don’t think it worked as well as he envisioned, I understood that this was part of the comic element of the film in which Joy’s family was somewhat ogre-ish, particularly towards her dreams.

I blow hot and cold when it comes to Russell; I think he has an excellent eye for good cinematic material but other than The Fighter there really hasn’t been a film of his that has blown me out of the water. Joy is in many ways the most meh of his movies, neither hot nor cold, good nor bad. It hasn’t lit the box office on fire and quite frankly I’m siding with the moviegoers on this one; it’s certainly one worth seeing on home video but there are plenty of other movies out there in the theaters that I would recommend you see before this one.

REASONS TO GO: Another fine performance by Lawrence. She gets plenty of support from the rest of the cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Lags in the middle. The ending is ludicrous.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Joy Mangano, one of the main sources for the Joy character, developed the Miracle Mop (as seen on TV) in 1990 – the same year Jennifer Lawrence was born.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jobs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Carol

Water for Elephants


Water for Elephants

Pattinson and Witherspoon may come with their own baggage but the elephant brings her own trunk.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Ken Foree, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Scott McDonald, James Frain, John Aylward, Sam Anderson. Directed by Francis Lawrence

Be careful what you wish for, or so the old saying goes. Sometimes the things we wish for are the things we can’t have…or perhaps shouldn’t have.

A confused old man (Holbrook) is late coming to the Circus on a rainy night. He is escorted to the office by a sympathetic manager (Schneider) who is amazed to discover that the man worked at the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931, when one of the worst disasters in circus history occurred. The old man agrees to set a spell and spin the story.

Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) is studying veterinary medicine at Cornell, about to take his final exams. He is called out of his exam to receive some terrible news; both his parents are dead. To make matters worse, his father had gone deeply in debt to pay for his education; in a split second Jacob has lost everything.

He decides to walk to Albany to seek work but soon tires of walking. When he sees a train coming, he decides to hitch a ride. It turns out to be a circus train and a kindly roustabout named Camel (Norton) takes Jacob under his wing and finds him work. When the head animal trainer and ringmaster, August (Waltz) discovers Jacob’s veterinary experience, he brings him aboard as the circus veterinarian.

His particular charge is Rosie, a 54 year old elephant who is meant to be the star attraction. Jacob also casts his eye towards the beautiful trainer Marlena (Witherspoon) who happens to be married to August. Moreover, August turns out to be a somewhat sadistic and ruthless man who can be charming one moment, psychotic the next, often taking out his rages on the elephant and upon occasion upon Jacob.

Eventually it becomes apparent that Marlena has fallen for the callow young veterinarian and August’s rage defies all bounds. Jacob must find a way to get Marlena away from the clutches of her cruel husband if they are to find happiness – but what he doesn’t know is that the Circus and the people in it are headed for a date with tragedy.

The movie is based on the award-winning novel by Sara Gruen. Director Lawrence (who’s done I Am Legend and Constantine as well as a buttload of music videos) does a real nice job of creating the era and making it look lived-in. This is a terrific looking film, from the gorgeous outdoor shots of the train traveling in moonlit skies, to the seedy looking hotel rooms and flophouses of the towns.

Christoph Waltz made his bones as the villain in Inglourious Basterds and hasn’t looked back since. He is able to project charm and evil in equal amounts, making you at turns sympathetic and repulsed. He won an Oscar as the deranged Nazi in Tarantino’s film and he is nearly as good here, although sadly I somehow doubt he’ll get much Academy consideration.

Witherspoon has also won an Oscar (for Walk the Line) and she does good work here, playing a woman who is a star in her own limited firmament but knows that if she goes elsewhere her star won’t shine quite as brightly. She is in an abusive relationship, walking on eggshells all the time but lacks the self-confidence to believe she deserves better. It’s a marvelous role for Witherspoon and she hasn’t gotten nearly enough kudos for it.

Of the leads Pattinson fares the worst but in a very real way he isn’t in the league of Waltz and Witherspoon just yet. He plays his character as a little bit distant and unreadable. It’s hard to really get behind someone you don’t really relate to, and in many ways Pattinson is so distant that he becomes unrelatable. Doubtlessly legions of his fans from the Twilight series will disagree, but keep in mind he’s very new to the business and as he gets more experience he will be more expressive but here the chemistry with Witherspoon suffers because of it.

There are a few minor blips here and there. The climactic tragedy is a little bit disappointing; it hangs over the movie like the Sword of Damocles and when it finally arrives you hardly realize it’s there. Still, this is a quite good movie, one that at least met my expectations which were reasonably high. It won’t make me want to run right out and join the circus, but it did give me a greater appreciation for elephants.

REASONS TO GO: Waltz is terrific as is Witherspoon. Fascinating story and a nice look at circus life in the Depression.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of cruelty to animals and humans alike.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of extreme violence as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn was originally cast in the part of August but dropped out to be replaced by Waltz.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the scenes look very nice on the big screen but for the most part this is well-suited for the home.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Super

Brooklyn’s Finest


Brooklyn's Finest

Richard Gere drives his point home.

(2009) Police Drama (Overture) Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke, Wesley Snipes, Vincent D’Onofrio, Will Patton, Ellen Barkin, Brian F. O’Byrne, Michael Kenneth Williams, Shannon Kane, Lili Taylor, Shannon Kane, Wass Stevens. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

There aren’t many jobs more difficult and stressful than that of police officer. In places like Brooklyn, you can multiply the stress levels times ten. That stress affects different men differently.

Three of Brooklyn’s finest (hey, catchy title) are in crisis; Eddie Dugan (Gere) is seven days away from retirement (usually a death sentence in cop movies) and is self-medicating with alcohol and the tender mercies of a prostitute whom he has fallen in love with. Then there’s Clarence “Tango” Butler (Cheadle) is deep undercover in a drug ring and is torn between his loyalty to the force and to recently paroled drug dealer Casanova Phillips (Snipes) who is trying to go straight. Finally there’s Det. Sal Procida (Hawke) has a seven kids and two on the way with a wife (Taylor) beset by mold respiratory distress trying desperately to get a mortgage on a larger home that he can’t afford.

The three stories run parallel to each other, with Tango being put under pressure by his contact (Patton) and a brass-balled bitch from the DEA (Barkin) who want arrests. Eddie is being asked to train young rookies, which Eddie is patently unsuited for. Procida is looking for a means of stealing enough cash to come up with his down payment.

Fuqua directed Denzel Washington to an Oscar in Training Day and has shown himself to be a mighty capable director over the years, particularly with talented actors (Hawke also appeared in that movie) and he coaxes some really good performances, particularly from Cheadle and Snipes. The scenes that those two share together are some of the best in the movie.

Snipes doesn’t have many scenes here, but they serve to remind us of how charismatic the man is. He’s had some well-documented legal problems that have yet to be fully resolved; hopefully at some point in the future he’ll be back to delight audiences once again.

Gere has some great acting chops but he always seems to be playing above his role. It’s hard to see him as a suicidal cop when his haircut looks like it came out of a Rodeo Drive celebrity hairdresser. He’s not the grittiest of guys in that sense and he might have been a touch miscast; it’s a credit to his skill that he manages to make the part believable.

Ensemble movies with parallel storylines have been plentiful in recent years and they mostly have the same damn problem – the insatiable need to wrap all the storylines with a neat bow and relate them all in some backhanded way. It worked in Traffic and Crash – it’s gotten old since.

Still, the storylines are awfully compelling here. The idea of the cop with mortgage problems is very relatable and in many ways that’s the storyline I was most interested in; however, the Cheadle-Snipes scenes make that storyline the best.

Cop movies run the gamut between the heroic cop and the bad cop. Often they are a bit of both and that’s the case here. None of the guys here is 100% admirable except for maybe Tango. However they are interesting enough and human enough to make the movie worth the price of a rental for sure.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted with intersecting stories that, for once, are all equally compelling. Nice to see Snipes onscreen again.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Gere’s a bit miscast but still pulls it off. Final scene feels a bit forced, as these sorts of movies often do.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of bad language, blood, violence, sex, nudity…oh crap, just don’t let your kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film with Wesley Snipes in it to be released to theaters since Blade: Trinity (2004). All of his films in the interim had gone direct-to-home video.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interesting featurette on the Brooklyn projects where this was filmed, and the creation of Fuqua Film Movement. There’s also a piece on writer Michael C. Martin, who went from a toll booth to becoming a screenwriter.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.3M on a $17M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Twilight: New Moon