Hell or High Water (2016)

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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

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

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threehalfstar

One of the best, most unexpected developments in recent media has been the resurgence of Kurt Russell. His work in 1980s John Carpenter classics Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York, and The Thing helped establish Russell as a genre flick icon, a charming-but-gruff personality with a history of cult classic works backing up his instant likability. A starring role in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof threatened a comeback for Russell back in 2007, but it doesn’t feel like that potential has really been put into motion until this past year. After an oddly humorous supporting role in Furious 7, Russell has returned to the Western cinema work he began in Tombstone, in both the recent Tarantino film The Hateful Eight and in Western-horror genre mashup Bone Tomahawk, making 2015 the first time he’s ever had three feature film credits in a single year. And with a great part coming up in the next Guardians of the Galaxy entry, it feels like he’s just getting started.

In Bone Tomahawk, Russell plays a mustachioed, old-timey sheriff of a small, Old West town humorously named Bright Hope. When a couple of Bright Hope’s own are abducted by a rogue tribe of “inbred” Native American “troglodytes”, Russell’s hardened sheriff embarks on a rescue mission with his elderly deputy, a hothead husband bent on retrieving his missing wife, and a wildcard cad. As the cad exposes himself as a self-aggrandizing blowhard, the husband increasingly becomes crippled & enraged, and the deputy continues his descent into the mutterings of a doddering old fool, the sheriff remains as the sole member of the rescue party seemingly well-equipped for the journey. No one can be truly prepared for what lurks at the end of this particular rainbow, though: a ruthlessly sadistic tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals.

I’ll be upfront as I can about this: I’m not typically a huge of fan of the Western as a genre. Its hyper-masculine, protect-the-wives-and-horses-from-the-savage-bandits mentality & spacial pacing aren’t my usual go-to idea of entertainment. Worse yet, Bone Tomahawk delves into some grotesque Eli Roth/Cannibal Holocaust bodily horror that I have a difficult time getting behind. The latter half of the movie in particular is jam-packed with field surgery, scalping, decapitation, internal burning, and all sorts of other unpleasant gore I would typically avoid. For all of its brutality & no-nonsense masculinity, however, Bone Tomahawk does know how to subvert these genre hallmarks enough to leave behind a generally pleasing picture. The man-vs.-nature vulnerability of a broken leg or a lost horse is still essential to the plot’s macho problem-solving, but it’s undercut by nuances in the dialogue, like when a woman comments on the doomed-to-fail rescue mission, “This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the elements or the Indians, but because of the idiots. You’re idiots!” Speaking of “the Indians”, the film’s othering depictions of the antagonistic tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes’ demonic screams & skull armor is balanced by representation of other Native Americans who are much, much less barbarous & in exchanges like when a cowboy calls a native “a godless savage”, then immediately scratches his genitals with the barrel of a pistol.

Bone Tomahawk strikes a satisfying balance between living out a (possibly outdated) genre (or two)’s worst trappings & subverting them for previously unexplored freshness. Part of what makes it work as a whole is the deliciously over-written dialogue, like when David Arquette’s ruffian thief complains to the sheriff, “You’ve been squirting lemon juice in my eye since you walked in here,” but mostly it’s just nice to see Kurt Russell back in the saddle participating in weird, affecting genre work. I tend to go for a more cartoonish, morbidly humorous approach to gore than what’s presented here & I don’t see anything accomplished in this film that I didn’t enjoy far more in 1999’s criminally-overlooked Ravenous, but I also recognize that there are fans of the Western & of blunt, brutal horror that will get a kick out of what’s presented here. It’s a well-constructed, highly-disturbing genre pic with a solid lead hero, the exact kind of thing I’m glad to see Russell return to at this point in his career.

-Brandon Ledet

Shanghai Noon (2000)

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threehalfstar

(Viewed 8/15/2015, available on Netflix)

Shanghai Noon is an entertaining buddy romp that presents the Wild West through a unique lens. The main character is neither white nor American. I’d say that Shanghai Noon makes for a post-modern Western movie that deconstructs the genre, though I would hesitate to say that this is an intentional subtext, even as the movie delves into the treatment of Chinese laborers on the Intercontinental Railroad. Jackie Chan stars as Chon Wang (say it out loud . . .), trying to rescue the damsel in distress, and Owen Wilson sidekicks as Roy O’Bannon, an outlaw with an image problem.

It’s a funny and energetic movie. I trust Jackie Chan implicitly with action and humor, and he delivers. Owen Wilson brings his regular brand of self-aware goofiness and performs solidly here. The main humorous setup is along the vein of Culture Clash at the OK Corral with a side helping of Buddy Comedy, and I think that it works out well as Chon Wang explores the tropes and narratives of the cinematic Old West and Roy O’Bannon tries his hardest to not learn anything about himself.

Shanghai Noon utilizes Jackie Chan’s kinetic brand of physical humor to great effect, leaving you both impressed and laughing. He and Owen Wilson make a successful odd couple, and their relationship is the most important one in the movie. It’s clear that O’Bannon thinks that he’s the protagonist, and it’s important to his characterization that he keeps this perspective even in the face of massive evidence that he is indeed the sidekick. I wonder if there is subtext here that captures the feelings of non-Americans in a wider sense, that Americans think that everything is about them.

The romantic relationships fall weirdly flat though, as Chon Wang accidentally marries a nameless Native American woman (while blackout drunk, not ok, all right?) who silently follows the boys around and keeps them out of trouble, then eventually takes up with O’Bannon. At the end of the movie, Princess Pei Pei inexplicably falls in love with Chon Wang and presumably gives up her life of royalty to live in a frontier town as a sheriff’s wife. This romantic side is so strange to me because the women are presented as powerful on their own, and then just seem link up with the men because it makes for tidy ending. The Native woman takes on the classical Western roll of the Man with No Name and saves the day time after time as Chon Wang and O’Bannon bumble along. Princess Pei Pei is noble, strong, courageous and self determined as she tries to balance her own desires and her role as a leader. Were the romantic subplots really necessary?

I’d recommend this movie on its own merits as fun and entertaining, perfect for a bowl of popcorn and not having to think about anything. I think that you could also work it into any list of Jackie Chan movies since it’s a good example of an American production that fully utilizes his skills in both action and comedy. It would also be of particular interest to anyone looking at deconstructive or post-modern Westerns, or looking at comic Westerns as a genre.

-Erin Kinchen

Near Dark (1987)

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fourstar

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In 2009 the war drama The Hurt Locker won six Oscars, including Best Picture, becoming the lowest-grossing movie to ever sweep the Academy Awards. What’s more astonishing is that in the Academy Awards’ 82nd year, Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow became the very first & only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director. Five years later it’s still a feat that somehow has not been repeated. Unfathomably, no woman has even so much as been nominated for Best Director since Bigelow’s win. Bigelow herself struggled for nearly three decades to earn the accolade. With the exception of a couple box office successes like Point Break and (more recently) Zero Dark Thirty, her career is a frustrating succession of near-hits & complete flops. Her Hurt Locker Oscar was the pot of gold at the end of a very troubled rainbow.

If any of Bigelow’s less-successful pictures were destined to hit it big, it was 1987’s vampire-Western Near Dark. Striking the 80s vampire craze instigated by Fright Night & Lost Boys while the iron was hot, Near Dark made a commercial gamble by simultaneously reviving the much-less-hip Western genre, but it was still packed with so much 80s cool that it should have been a huge hit. Not only did Bigelow craft a film with stark imagery that could rival, if not top, anything you’d find in Fright Night or Lost Boys, she also employed synth wizards Tangerine Dream to provide the film with an era-epitomizing soundtrack. Tangerine Dream’s nightmarish score for Near Dark floats moodily in the background, building slowly like a thick fog until its heavy drums interject to match the escalating violence of the movie’s action. There’s so much 80s-specific brutality, sexuality, and pop music aesthetic to the film that it’s difficult to imagine why it flopped in the box office (before later gaining its rightful cult classic status).

Audiences’ reluctance to embrace the film may have to do with the slow, brooding pacing of its first act. Near Dark opens with a teenage cowboy hitting on a female stranger, luring her into his pick-up, and refusing to driver her home as she ominously worries about sunrise. It’s a great reversal of the typical dangers of a woman accepting a ride from a strange man, as the man’s life is eventually threatened by a bloodthirsty vampire coven as a result. It’s an chilling initiation into the world Bigelow establishes here, but it’s one with a slow build. The film doesn’t truly become energized until it follows the ritualistic nightly feedings of the coven as they hunt for meals in small town bars & back alleys. The open Western nighttime sky gives the film an otherworldly look, which is starkly contrasted with scenes like a rather lengthy & violent barroom altercation that’s aggressively relentless in its cramped containment. The vampires in Near Dark are confined to hotel rooms & the backs of trucks during daylight, but at night they’re free to prowl like a pride of lions. In some ways they’re portrayed to be as unfairly persecuted as the monsters of Nightbreed, but with the major difference that they actually murder people regularly & viciously.

Near Dark is not a perfect film. It frankly gets by more on style & mood than it does on content, but it’s so stylistically strong that it can pull off a lack of depth with ease. Just the basic concept of a Kathryn Bigelow vampire-Western with a Tangerine Dream soundtrack is enough to inspire enthusiasm on its own. Performances from the always-disturbing Lance Erikson, Bill Paxton as a perfect 80’s alpha-male/blowhard/murderous monster, and the kid who played the creepy little brother from Teen Witch go a long way as well. The movie’s gore, especially in its burning flesh & gunshot wounds, is surprisingly up to par with its art house visual tendencies and there’s enough police shootouts and vocal posturing to make even the most casual Tarantino fan gush. The film even remains loyal enough to the Western format to conclude with a lone cowboy riding into town on horseback for a final showdown. Bigelow may have not had her first commercial success until Point Break or won her career-defining accolades until The Hurt Locker, but she had already established herself as a formidable creative mind with the cult classic Near Dark, box office numbers be damned.

-Brandon Ledet