Hell or High Water (2016)

2017 #19
David Mackenzie | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Hell or High Water

Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
4 nominations — 0 wins

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing.





The line between right and wrong, legal and illegal, is blurred once again by the writer of Sicario in this tale of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) committing a series of bank robberies for reasons beyond greed, and the two Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) hunting them down.

I don’t think it would be unkind to describe Hell or High Water as a genre picture: it’s a crime thriller about bank robbers and the police out to catch them, with its setting and tone also bringing something of the Western — or, rather, neo-Western. (It bugs me a little when people refer to films not set in the Old West as “Westerns”, because that seems an inherent part of the genre to me. Naturally, the term “neo-Western” has already been coined, and I feel it’s one we should start using more widely.) There is something more to it than that though, which might explain its slightly incongruous presence among 2017’s Best Picture nominees. In part it’s a social drama, the characters’ motivations based in very topical concerns, including their plan that represents a form of revenge against the banks who have it coming.

Pair of crooks

In another part it’s a character drama. Indeed, the acting is the best part. Jeff Bridges subsumes himself in the character, an old lawman on the verge of retirement, but still sharp and capable, who won’t know what to do with himself once he’s put out to pasture — this is his last great hurrah. He got all the plaudits because he’s Jeff Bridges, but it doesn’t feel massively outside his wheelhouse. Conversely, Chris Pine is practically a revelation. Best known for leading blockbusters, here he convinces as a father who’s finally trying to do the right thing for the future of his kids, whether that thing is legal or not. When these two finally come face to face, it’s nail-biting. That’s to do no disservice to Ben Foster, as Pine’s wildcard brother, who perhaps has less honourable intentions; or Gil Birmingham as a fellow Ranger, who Bridges spends most of the film mercilessly teasing, though it turns out conceals an underlying affection for his friend.

Credit is also definitely due to director David Mackenzie, who certainly has an eye for a shot and a way with constructing an action sequence, for which credit must also be due to editor Jake Roberts. Similarly to cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who evokes a dusty West Texas with its own kind of sandblasted desolate beauty.

Pair of cops

Hell or High Water is a very good film, a neo-Western crime thriller genre movie that is exceptionally well directed, shot, and performed. Yet somehow it feels out of place among the Best Picture nominees — like, it’s not that good. Of course, Oscar has a long history of nominating films that aren’t good enough, and Hell or High Water is better than most of them. So while I don’t feel I can stretch to giving it five stars, I certainly recommend it highly.

4 out of 5

Hell or High Water is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

Nightcrawler (2014)

2017 #63
Dan Gilroy | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir thriller is part “state of the nation” observational drama and part character study.

The character in question is Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man who, like so many in modern America, struggles to find paid employment. Indeed, as the film opens he’s resorted to stealing fences to hawk to scrap metal dealers — and, when cornered by a security guard, also resorts to violence. That’s the kind of man Bloom is, which will become important as the film goes on. On his way home he comes across the aftermath of a near-fatal car accident, and witnesses the freelance news cameramen rushing to the scene. For some reason this job strikes Bloom as glamorous, so he buys a camera and a police scanner and throws himself into it. His boundary-pushing enthusiasm soon puts him on the way to success, racing around nighttime L.A. chasing bloody imagery. It’s a cutthroat industry, but Bloom is prepared to go pretty far for exclusive footage…

Any well-informed viewer isn’t likely to glean much from Nightcrawler about the state of modern America. That Bloom is desperate for employment is more of an inciting incident than a dissected issue, though it does also partially fuel a subplot when he employs an assistant. That US TV news is all about shock value — “if it bleeds it leads” — is a truism that’s decades old, too. If the film contributes anything to that discussion it’s to wonder if things have reached a nadir. Writer-director Gilroy says he was trying to tell an objective and realistic story, but it’s coming from a very cynical, almost satirical place about TV news. Or maybe local US news really is that extreme, I don’t know. Either way, this observational stuff isn’t bad, but nor is it revelatory.

If it bleeds it leads

Where the film really flies is in its characters. There are impressive supporting performances, from Riz Ahmed as the uncertain and kinda gullible young guy Bloom employees as his assistant, and Rene Russo as the outwardly confident but actually kinda desperate TV news producer Bloom sell his work to; plus an almost cameo-level appearance by Bill Paxton as a rival nightcrawler who rubs Louis up the wrong way.

But the film belongs to Gyllenhaal. Wild-eyed, eager to please, but not quite right in how he interacts with other human beings, and with a real thirst for the gory profession he lands upon, Bloom has a sense of morality that is quite removed from the norm. From the start we’re in no doubt that this is a guy prepared to take relatively extreme measures to secure what he wants, but how far will he go? As he begins to establish himself as a respectable businessman — or, at least, someone who wants to be thought of as respectable — how much has his attitude changed, if at all? Gyllenhaal immerses himself in the role, skilfully negotiating Bloom’s swings from smarmy charm to emotionless non-engagement with the horrors he films. He’s physically transformed too: he lost weight, didn’t eat, and stayed up nights in preparation for the role. On the Blu-ray, Ahmed comments that the literal hunger Gyllenhaal was enduring contributed to his performance as a guy who is so hungry (for success) he’ll do anything necessary to achieve it.

(Talking of the Blu-ray, it’s only special feature (aside from an audio commentary) is a five-minute featurette that briefly features the two real-life nightcrawlers who consulted on the film. They share a couple of quick anecdotes about what the real job is like, which is quite fascinating — it’s a shame there’s not a fuller feature about those guys and their work. I don’t know if it would sustain a whole feature documentary — maybe it would — but a decent length DVD extra would’ve been nice.)

Nighttime L.A. car chase

Outside of its characters, Nightcrawler impresses with technical merits. The lensing of nighttime L.A. by DP Robert Elswit is highly evocative, a netherworld where flashing red-and-blue lights illuminate scenes of carnage. The film’s pace is apparently unhurried but constantly engrossing. You’re not exactly sucked into this world alongside Bloom (Gilroy’s right that presenting him as unnecessarily aggressive upfront serves to stall sympathy from the viewer), but you become an interested observer, unable to look away — like a rubbernecker at an accident, appropriately enough. Several scenes, especially in the film’s second half, generate a level of nail-biting tension, while a climactic car chase is an action scene for the ages. Gilroy’s brother Tony, a producer on the film, was one of the architects of the Bourne franchise, and you wonder if he brought some expertise to the realisation of that sequence. This isn’t a film for adrenaline junkies on the whole, but that scene is a kick.

Driven by a sharp character examination from writer-director Dan Gilroy, brought to life in a compelling, committed performance from Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler is an appropriately cynical exploration of modern morality as embodied by one outsider, moulded in the shape of a fantastic noir thriller.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Nightcrawler is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm, after which it will be available on iPlayer.

Nightcrawler was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

War on Everyone (2016)

2017 #52
John Michael McDonagh | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

War on Everyone

The third feature from John Michael “older brother of the guy who made In Bruges” McDonagh, War on Everyone is a comedy crime thriller about two dodgy New Mexico cops (Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård) who are tricked while trying to prevent a heist and so set about tracking down the stolen money — to pocket for themselves.

I’ve read that War on Everyone is massively offensive. Well, I mean, if you want to be precious about it, I guess some of it is. Maybe reading that left me expecting something incredibly outrageous, but sadly the film doesn’t hit those highs. I say “highs” — offensiveness for the sake of it is pointless, but some of the best material in the previous movies of the McDonagh brothers has come from a willingness to say and do un-PC things. War on Everyone doesn’t feel neutered in that regard, but nor is anything it does so striking.

Worse, it has a rambling narrative, wandering pace, and inconsistent tone. It’s not funny enough, frankly, but nor is the crime plot interesting enough to sustain the humour drought. Peña’s comedic gifts carry some of the flat material, though barely, while Skarsgård seems a little lost in an underwritten role. He and Tessa Thompson attempt to salvage something from a romantic subplot that springs from almost nowhere and then occupies a bunch of screen time to no one’s benefit. Caleb Landry Jones fares best as a foppish strip club owner, one of the henchman to Theo James’ big bad, whose entire character is basically, “he’s English — they make good villains, right?”

Not-so-nice guys

There are broad similarities to another irreverent comedy thriller from 2006 about a pair of not-so-nice fellas investigating a somewhat-complicated crime plot, but War on Everyone just serves to demonstrate how hard it is to do what Shane Black makes look effortless in The Nice Guys. I thought War on Everyone trailed well and looked like it would hit that same level, or at least something close to it, but sadly the final result feels fumbled.

2 out of 5

John Michael McDonagh’s debut feature, The Guard, is on Channel 4 tonight at 12:05am. I’ve got the Blu-ray knocking around somewhere; really ought to get round to watching it…

Don’t Breathe (2016)

2017 #21
Fede Alvarez | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Don't Breathe

One of the most talked-about thriller-cum-horror movies of last year, Don’t Breathe (which is available on Sky Cinema as of last Friday) concerns a gang of young house burglars — Rocky (Jane Levy), who’s doing it to help get her little sister away from their good-for-nothing parents; her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), who’s a bit of a dick; and Alex (Dylan Minnette), who’s secretly in love with Rocky, and whose dad runs a security company from which they ‘borrow’ the necessary information to access homes without setting off the alarms. After a big final score, they set their sights on the remote home of a chap (Stephen Lang) whose daughter was killed in a car accident, from which he netted a hefty settlement. Plus he’s blind, so it’ll be easy money. Right? As is no doubt obvious, the blind bloke turns out to have a few secrets up his sleeve… and down his basement…

Despite how it was advertised (doesn’t that poster scream “horror movie”?), really speaking Don’t Breathe is a thriller — it’s about a trio of crooks trying to rob a home and its owner fighting back. Though I suppose it depends what you use to define “a horror movie”, really. I tend to think of them as featuring an enemy who is either supernatural or possibly supernatural, but I suppose the only real prerequisite is that they be scary. Don’t Breathe doesn’t have a supernatural villain (though the blind man’s abilities do stretch credibility), but it’s so gosh-darn suspenseful that the viewing experience is similarly tense to a horror movie, even if outright scares are few. And one memorable scene in particular is certainly classifiable as horrific, most especially for female viewers. So, as a sub-90-minute exercise in mood and thrills it’s a very effective viewing experience; but it’s best not to stop to think about the practicalities if it were real because a lot of the film doesn’t withstand scrutiny. I won’t rehash all of the plot’s logic gaps (there are plenty of articles online that already do that, if you’re interested), but I think it’s best enjoyed as a go-along-with-it experience.

Bad guys gone good?

One point of contention for many seems to be the likeability or otherwise of the characters. The ostensible heroes are a gang of crooks who we first meet robbing the home of an undeserving victim, and being needlessly destructive about it too. You might think this sets the blind man up as some kind of avenging hero, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that he’s an even bigger bad guy… so are we meant to side with the crooks after all? For me, this raises a question I’ve come up against before: does a movie actually need to have any likeable characters? Some people need that, for sure, but I don’t think a film does per se. I’m not sure Don’t Breathe has really thought through its position on this issue, which makes reading online commentary about this point a funny thing. For instance, I saw someone argue that the writers make no effort to make us like the burglars — so, what’s the whole thing with Rocky trying to get her sister out of their shitty life for, then? And then another person stated that they actually found themselves liking two of the “bad guys” — so, if the burglars are the bad guys that makes the blind guy the hero? I don’t want to spoil anything, but if you’ve seen the movie you’ll know why holding that opinion is either, a) ridiculous, or b) deeply troubling…

As I said, it’s best not to think about it too much. I think Don’t Breathe is perhaps the movie equivalent of a theme park attraction: designed to thrill you and scare you during its brief duration, not withstand plot and character scrutiny when dissected afterwards. That’s why my rating errs on the lower side, though if you want nothing more than a gripping hour-and-a-half it maybe merits another star.

3 out of 5

Tokyo Tribe (2014)

2016 #149
Sion Sono | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 18

Tokyo Tribe

Adapted from the manga Tokyo Tribe 2, the film version is a hip-hop musical, sung (or rapped) through by an expansive cast who make up the titular tribes — gangs who rule the streets of a divided near-future (or possibly alternate reality; or possibly it doesn’t matter that much) Tokyo. The world of the story is pretty barmy, and much of the plot follows suit — I’m not going to attempt to describe it, but suffice to say it involves kidnapped girls, rescue attempts, and brewing gang warfare.

Much of the film does feel like a cartoon brought to life, with the ultra-heightened scenario and larger-than-life scenery-chewing villains — as the big bad, Riki Takeuchi hams it up so ludicrously his performance circles back round into genius. It’d definitely be an adult cartoon, though, because director Sion Sono brings a kind of trash-art, exploitation vibe, with gratuitous helpings of nudity and violence. Indeed, that direction is indicated early on when a young female police officer ventures into gang territory and is grabbed by one of the villains who, in front of a baying crowd, rips open her shirt and begins to trace a knife around her naked breasts to explain the various gang factions. It’s kind of kinky, kind of nasty, kind of distasteful, kind of not (I mean, he is a bad guy) — if you wanted to summarise the feel of the whole film in one sequence, it’s actually not a bad start.

When too many tribes to keep track of go to war

I watched Tokyo Tribe out of pure curiosity (a rap musical isn’t exactly my usual kind of thing) but I ended up rather loving it, which is why it made my 2016 top 20. There I summarised that its mix of “battle rap, comic grotesques, ultra violence, gratuitous nudity, more barmy notions than you can shake a stick at, and probably the kitchen sink too, [made it] possibly the most batshit-crazy movie I’ve ever seen.” So those extremes don’t bother me per se (other than to the extent they should bother me), but there’s an undoubted not-for-everyone-ness to a lot of it. That, plus some rough edges, are all that hold me back from giving it 5 stars.

4 out of 5

Tokyo Tribe placed 19th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Cold in July (2014)

2016 #118
Jim Mickle | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Cold in July

After a family man (Michael C. Hall) shoots dead an intruder in his home, the intruder’s ex-con father (Sam Shepard) threatens his family.

People often call for more originality in their stories, then criticise a film like this for jumping around in genre and tone. Personally, I didn’t think it changed much in either. The plot is far from straightforward — twists take the story in unexpected directions with each act (if not even more often) — but as a whole it remains a neo-noir crime thriller.

Filling out the film beyond its story, there are some great performances — Shepard, in particular, says very little but conveys his whole character and attitude. It’s very nicely shot by Ryan Samul, and there’s an amazing score by Jeff Grace.

At first blush Cold in July may look like just another crime thriller, but, with an unguessable narrative supported by strong filmmaking, it stands out from the crowd.

5 out of 5

Cold in July placed 9th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

The Nice Guys (2016)

2016 #156
Shane Black | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Nice Guys

I’ve been struggling to think what to write in this review because, really, why I loved this movie can be thoroughly summed up in two words: it’s hilarious.

Screenwriter Shane Black has been doing this kind of action-thriller buddy comedy for decades now, but he’s still got it where it counts — there are quotable lines galore, and visual gags that would be just as quotable if you could quote a visual. As a director he may not be a great visual stylist or anything, but in an era of ShakyCam and obfuscatory editing, his helmsmanship has a welcome clarity.

As the titular duo, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling reveal heretofore unseen comedic chops (at least as far as I was aware). Crowe is more of the straight man, though gets his share of good lines, while Gosling bumbles around with pratfalls and slapstick, like in a perfectly-executed bit with a toilet cubicle door… which I would quote but, you know, visual gag. Like most of the best characters, they’re entertaining just to be around, often making scenes of exposition as entertaining as actual set pieces. Most of the villains serve as foils for our heroes, but young Angourie Rice shines as Gosling’s clever kid.

What do you mean there's not much chance of a sequel?

Tonally, it’s every inch a spiritual sequel to Black’s directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and I’m very much OK with that. If you copy someone else it’s plagiarism; if you copy yourself it’s your style — you know, that kind of thing. If someone lets Black do another one of these once he’s finished with The Predator — either literally The Nice Guys 2 (as has been mooted, but probably ruled out by the so-so box office) or just something else in the same vein — I would be a very happy bunny.

5 out of 5

The Nice Guys is available on Netflix UK from today.

It placed 11th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

2016 #142
John Huston | 96 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart is private dick and consummate bullshitter Sam Spade in this (re-)adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, considered the first major film noir.

The twisty plot of murder and thievery is enlivened by duplicitous performances from femme fatale Mary Astor, an effeminate Peter Lorre, the always welcome Elisha Cook Jr., and the humungous presence of Sydney Greenstreet, making his film debut at 60 and stealing every scene.

It’s also the directorial debut of John Huston, whose work alongside cinematographer Arthur Edeson is the greatest star: the low-key lighting and dramatic angles are (like the rest of the film) archetypal noir.

4 out of 5

The Maltese Falcon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

iBoy (2017)

2017 #11
Adam Randall | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

iBoy

When it comes to TV, Netflix are dominating the cultural landscape with much-discussed original series like Stranger Things, Making a Murderer, Orange is the New Black, the Gilmore Girls revival, their cadre of Marvel shows… I could go on. But when it comes to their original movies — the eponymous “flix” — well, it’s a bit different. Their Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon sequel went down like a lead balloon; Beasts of No Nation was well reviewed but couldn’t translate that into the awards buzz that was clearly hoped for; and their Adam Sandler movies… well, those are apparently very popular with viewers, at least.

Their latest effort, iBoy, is based on a young adult novel about a teenager who fights against bad people — so that’s pretty zeitgeisty at least. It’s not set in a dystopian future, though, but why bother when our own days are so bleak? So iBoy sets its stall in present-day London, where Tom (Bill “the sweet one from Son of Rambow” Milner, looking completely different) is just a normal teen — going to school by day, blocking out the sounds of violence around his tower block by night. When the girl he fancies (Maisie Williams) invites him round to study one evening, he turns up at her flat to find her being, to not put too fine a point on it, gang raped. He runs, trying to phone the police, but the gang give chase and shoot him in the head. When he wakes up, parts of his phone have been inoperably embedded in his brain, which he soon comes to realise has given him the ability to interact with technology using his mind.

Look, it's London!

So, yeah — scientifically, it’s a thoroughly dubious premise. But is it any worse than having abilities bestowed by a radioactive spider-bite or spilled toxic goo? In respect to Tom’s newfound powers and how he chooses to use them — as a vigilante seeking revenge on the gang that have been terrorising his estate — iBoy is more in line with superhero narratives than other young adult adaptations. Where it comes unstuck is the tone. How many superhero films are going to feature gang rape? Well, somewhat appropriately, I guess the Netflix ones might. But the disjunct between iBoy’s daft premise and the grim world of inner city gangs (there are more acts of shocking violence) is a difficult one to negotiate.

To its credit, iBoy doesn’t use the assault as a starting incident and then discard its aftereffects — the presence of Maisie Williams, who’s been quite outspoken about the treatment of female characters in media, should give an indication that it’s not so thoughtless. But nor does a 90-minute movie that’s fundamentally about a superpowered vigilante have much time to dig into it properly. Nonetheless, Williams essays the role with some subtlety, aided by a screenplay that keeps things appropriately unverbalised. Perhaps the most effective part is when, home alone, she has to venture outside for some milk.

Nasty gangs

Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t pay the same amount of attention to the hows-and-whys of its hero and his abilities. Apparently hacking someone else’s phone involves watching a progress bar; he can learn how to fight while watching a couple of YouTube videos during the ten seconds he’s walking towards an assailant; and so on. A little more effort would’ve sold the premise more and could’ve removed these niggles (at least have him download a phone-hacking app or something; maybe the YouTube videos could be downloaded into his brain, but his unpracticed muscles struggle to perform the moves). Problem is, the notion of phone fragments getting stuck in your brain and giving you superpowers is pretty silly, so even if you provide better internal consistency, it’s still a struggle to parse that implausibility being mashed up against the ultra-real-world stylings of the rest of the story. Films like Super and Kick-Ass do the “real-life superhero” thing by making their hero a bit inept. Maybe iBoy isn’t shooting for “real-life superhero”, but then why are the threats he faces so serious?

Talking of the threats, Rory Kinnear turns up near the end as the Big Bad, and lifts the film considerably. I suppose there’s not a whole lot of originality in a politely-spoken but actually horrendous villain, but Kinnear sells the part effortlessly. You kind of want to see that character (or at least that performance) turn up in something bigger and better. Elsewhere, Miranda Richardson brings some much-needed lightness as Tom’s grandma, who serves as an Aunt May figure. If nothing else, you can rely on British productions to have quality acting, eh?

British baddies are best

For all this criticism, on the whole I didn’t dislike iBoy while it played out, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As Netflix’s first genuine original movie from the UK, it’s a shame it can’t demonstrate to the rest of the Netflix-viewing world what British film could be capable of if encouraged, but maybe that would be too big a weight to put on its little shoulders anyhow.

3 out of 5

iBoy is available on Netflix everywhere (I presume).

Raising Arizona (1987)

2016 #164
Joel Coen | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Raising Arizona

Once upon a time I did a Media Studies A level, and (for reasons I can’t remember) our teacher showed us the pre-titles sequence of Raising Arizona because it was noteworthy for being the longest pre-titles sequence ever. As it happened our teacher was wrong, because The World Is Not Enough had already exceeded it a couple of years earlier.* And now it’s completely meaningless because most blockbusters don’t bother to show any credits until the end of the film, technically rendering the entire movie as the pre-titles “sequence”.

My point here is twofold. One: I miss the structure of all films having title sequences somewhere near the start. Two: before now all I could have told you about Raising Arizona is that “it has the longest pre-titles ever (except it doesn’t)”. Well, that and it stars Nic Cage and was directed by the Coen brothers. But now I’ve watched it and, three months after the fact, …that’s still almost all I can tell you. I also remember there was a kinda-cool semi-fantastical thing going on with, like, a demon biker or something. Oh, and it’s quite funny. Not very funny, but quite.

I have an awkward relationship with the Coen brothers. I always feel like I should be enjoying their movies more than I actually do, and I think some of their stuff is downright overrated. Unfortunately, Raising Arizona has done little to change this situation.

3 out of 5

* For what it’s worth, the length of TWINE’s pre-titles wasn’t intended. It was originally supposed to be just the stuff in Spain, with the MI6 explosion and subsequent Thames boat chase coming after the titles, but it was decided that didn’t make for a strong enough opening and it was recut. It runs about 17 minutes vs Raising Arizona’s 11. ^