As Is (2017)

Imagine being told the best band you’ve never heard before just played a mind-blowing concert nearby, but it’s okay that you missed it because there was an all-access documentary produced around the event. The documentary shows you all of the practice, fine-tuning and songwriting leading up to the day of that mind-blowing, life-changing, world-stopping concert, and then documents none of the performance itself, just the reactions of the people who were there in the audience. Would that leave you frustrated or satisfied? The recent small scale documentary As Is details the behind-the-scenes production of a one-time-only multimedia performance staged by visual artist Nick “Not That Nick Cave” Cave in Shreveport, Louisiana in 2015. The film documents all of the artist’s intent, production logistics, and cultural context in the weeks leading up to this performance, then stops short of documenting any of the real thing once it’s executed. It’s like watching the behind the scenes footage of a concert you weren’t invited to for a band you’ve never heard of before. It’s very frustrating.

Glimpses at Nick Cave’s visual creations is certainly the draw for this unassuming art doc. Cave is most well-known for his “sound suits,” costumes that essentially look like a Yo Gabba Gabba! character made out of brightly colored cheerleader pompoms. The construction of these costumes is very reminiscent of the similar traditional garb worn at Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations (Courir de Mardi Gras); the beaded blankets meant to accompany them in the one-time performance are similar to the beading of Mardi Gras Indian costumes. This Louisiana cultural context is entirely ignored by Cave, an “international artist” who acts as if he were creating these works in a void. Incorporating over 600 collaborators from the Shreveport area as beaders, dancers, musicians, and lyricists, he certainly interacts with the local community. He just treats that interaction like an act of charity instead of a cultural exchange by making a huge to do about how his show has elevated local visual art with high falutin’ NYC production values. He speaks of the cultural & religious undertones in As Is in such vague terms that by the time a gospel choir arrives to sing about how “He changed my life and now I’m free” it’s understandable to assume they’re praising Nick Cave, not God. Lip service is paid to healing the trauma of Katrina, homelessness, mental illness, and so on among the local people of Shreveport, but as the film goes on the whole show starts to feel like a complex ego boost for Cave himself and nobody else.

So, was As Is a once-in-a-lifetime art event that forever transformed Shreveport and sealed Nick Cave’s legacy as a charitable, soul-healing deity? It’s tough to tell, because this film does not invite the audience to see the performance for themselves. The gospel, zydeco, light shows, sound suits, and (appallingly muted) Big Freedia performances suggest that it could have either been a total mess or a work of genius. Without being given enough evidence to verify either way, it’s difficult not to turn on Nick Cave as he boasts at length about the transformative nature of his art and all of the good deeds he’s done bringing real culture to Shreveport (again, without acknowledging the immediate similarities between his work & long-established Louisiana culture). As Is might be a much more rewarding doc for anyone who actually witnessed its subject in person, but for everyone on the outside looking in, it’s a frustratingly incomplete work about the supposedly transformative accomplishments of a very vain man. At least the beading and sound suits are verifiably cool-looking; there isn’t much else to latch onto.

-Brandon Ledet

Hell or High Water (2016)

EPSON MFP image

three star

I’m going to preface this review by saying that Hell or High Water is far outside my comfort zone in terms of genre. A story about a world-weary lawman attempting to chase down & outwit a pair of haphazard bankrobbers just days before his retirement, the film resembles an awful lot of ultra-macho neo-Westerns I’m often told are great, but usually leave me bored silly. The problem is fairly deep-seated too. Even the Coen Bros’ No Country for Old Men, which I’m sure is fantastic, has put me to sleep every single time I’ve tried to watch it, including twice in the theater. So, I totally believe people when they say Hell or High Water is their favorite movie of the year so far, but I suspect these folks are just more finely tuned to the intricacies of its genre & tone than I am. For me, the film is formally a little flat, playing like what I’d imagine a modern Showtime drama version of Walker, Texas Ranger would look like, right down to the wince-worthy music cues. However, even as an outsider I did find myself entertained, especially by the film’s showy dialogue & muted performances.

Outside being a fairly standard bankrobbing thriller, Hell or High Water mostly stands out as a screenwriter’s playground. Taylor Sheridan, who also penned last year’s Sicario, recognizes the rigid restraints of the film’s simple narrative & throws most of his weight into the its quietly humorous dialogue. When Jeff Bridges’s perpetually exhausted Texas Ranger asks a recently robbed bank teller whether her assailants were black or white, she retorts, “Their skin or their souls?” It’s these kinds of colorful turns of phrase that make him mutter to himself, “God, I love West Texas.” I can’t echo that sentiment, but I do appreciate the film’s ability to capture that terrain’s slow, desolate atmosphere by bringing the more action-packed aspects of the plot down to an occasional halt in favor of some porch sittin’ & beer drinkin’, a perfect stage for showy exchanges of phrase. Sheridan understands the glass beer bottles, vastly empty roads, grunts, football, and poverty that make up a large part of that state & he uses that terrain to stage a somewhat believable modern version of a Cowboys vs. Indians Western. One of those Native Americans just happens to be a cop (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Gil Birmingham) trying to hold his aging white partner together for a final ride. His cowboy opponents are two in-over-their-heads brothers living out a revenge plot similar to Jeff Nichols’s (far superior) Shotgun Stories, except their target is a predatory banking institution instead of a rival family. The only question is if the calm, collected half of the criminal duo (played by an admirably restrained Chris Pine) can hold together his wildcard brother (a grimy Ben Foster, who plays the part like Guy Fieri reimagined as a methed-out murderer), long enough to escape the cops’ wrath. The evenly-distributed amusement of the proficient dialogue leaves a lot of grey area of which side to root for here (although, I guess you’d have to be a monster to root for the banks), so the fun of Hell or High Water is mostly in watching the pieces fall into place in an inevitably satisfying way, whatever the result.

I can’t say for sure if I would’ve enjoyed Hell or High Water more if it were staged in a different setting or if it didn’t feature gruff country songs with lines like, “I am lost in the dust of the chase my life brings” (an aspect of the film Nick Cave had some apparent involvement with, speaking of things I’m often told are great but I don’t really understand). My brain does usually shut all the way off when it comes to certain macho genres like Westerns or James Bond flicks or straightforward war movies, though, and I have to admit I didn’t have that problem here. This was far from my Film of the Year, but I was mostly on board with its Who’re the Real Thieves, Really? approach to predatory banking & its last legs lawman performance from Jeff Bridges (which brought me back to the novelty for Kurt Russell’s similar role in last year’s Bone Tomahawk). Like I said, though, it’s the film’s dialogue that really makes it distinct and I suspect that aspect is what’s going to have the moviegoing dads, uncles, and grandfathers of the world chuckling to themselves in delight. This movie was seemingly made with that specific crowd in mind & I’m not sure they’re going to appreciate its finer charms more than I was able to tap into myself.

-Brandon Ledet