REVIEW: Hell or High Water

15 08 2016

Hell or High Water“3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us,” reads an eerily accurate graffiti tag on a West Texas building in the opening shot of “Hell or High Water.” The scrawled phrase of anger provides a fitting epigraph for the events to follow. Within the framework of the Western sheriff and bank robber folklore, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan finds the ideal setting for an examination of post-recession fallout and the remnants of small towns left behind by the behemoth economic forces of urbanization and globalization.

Anxiety, even anger, over forces out of these humble folks’ control seeps into virtually every corner of the film. Jeff Bridges’ Marcus Hamilton, a graying Texas Ranger, receives a Mandatory Retirement Notice in his first scene. A video surveillance system fails to capture a bank robbery because the management team has yet to fully make the change from VCR to digital recording. A farmer herding animals across a road frustratedly exclaims, “Wonder why my kids won’t do this shit for a living?” Everything in this provincial world seems on the verge of collapse at an accelerating rate.

And in the midst of all this turmoil, two estranged brothers unite for a spree of low-impact bank heists to pay off the ludicrous reverse mortgage their family was swindled into taking out on their farm. This “rob the rich” mentality has been rippling through American cinema in the years following the Occupy movement, but scarcely has it felt more poignant or less politically charged as it does in “Hell or High Water.” In a racket where bankers – those who men who “look like [they] could foreclose on a house” – rig the rules in their own interest, what hope is there besides throwing the system into disarray and tipping the scales in one’s own favor?

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REVIEW: The Giver

15 08 2014

The GiverIf there was any doubt that we’re reaching the point of supersaturation with dystopian YA adaptations, “The Giver” confirms that the tipping point has arrived.  I get that life in post-recessional America doesn’t exactly inspire hope, be you a teenager or an adult.  But I doubt real life could be any worse than escaping into this derivative and, often times, outright laughable film.

I first read the film’s source material, Lois Lowry’s Newberry-winning novel that is now a staple of middle school English curricula, as an impressionable 12-year-old in 2005.  At the time, the post-“Harry Potter” adolescent fiction boom had not begun to tarnish the newly bolstered reputation of writing aimed for emerging readers (not even the “Twilight” series had been published).  YA was neither a dirty word nor a marketing buzzword then; it was just my demographic.

Lowry’s book might have been relatively short, but it sure packed a punch.  “The Giver” can serve a crucial function in the escalation of material for language arts, providing a key stepping stone towards more weighty adult literature.  If you can place yourself in the position of a teenager, the dialectical push and pull between order and chaos as well as pain and pleasure are actually quite thought-provoking.

Yet no matter how deeply one might have regarded the thematic content of the novel, it’s entirely possible to discredit “The Giver” as little more than a compilation of shallow marketing hooks for a cookie-cutter dystopian YA film.  The very premise of the story loses sophistication and nuance as it’s forced to fit the mold made popular by “The Hunger Games.”  What made Lowry’s story special is largely discarded in favor the conventional, leaving behind a film that’s a shadow of its literary incarnation.

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REVIEW: True Grit

5 01 2011

I haven’t seen the 1969 John Wayne “True Grit,” so I can’t really put the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” into that context or perspective.  What I can do, however, is look at it as just another one of their movies that just happens to be a second film adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel.  As it turns out, the movie fits in perfectly with all the rest of the Coen canon.  After some of their high-brow humor hit a sour note for me, I’m glad to see them return to form in the kind of movie they are best cut out to make.

Everything moviegoers have come to love in the directing duo over the last quarter-century is on full display in “True Grit.”  The nihilism, the bleakness, the dark humor, the biting dialogue, the crazy and three-dimensional characters are all there in full force.  While it may not be the high point for the Coens, the movie is definitely an exclamation point on their careers thus far.

The truest grit of the movie belongs to 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a tenacious Southern girl who can talk fast enough to make your head spin around, drive one heck of a bargain, and make your jaw drop with her rugged tenacity.  She’s looking for a way to avenge her father’s murderer, the lawless drunk Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).  Mattie looks to a U.S. Marshal that fits a similar description, the unreliable, uncomely Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges).

But she’s also not the only one hunting Chaney; Mattie also has to contend with LaBeouf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger with a voice uncannily similar to Matthew McConaughey’s and so dead-set on doing his job that he’s about as big of a joke as Matthew McConaughey.  LaBeouf and Cogburn assume they are a two-man searching party, but Mattie, insistent on seeing justice done herself, tags along much to their chagrin.  The three cross into the Indian Territory, enduring much lifeless terrain on Cheney’s trail.

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REVIEW: Tron: Legacy

30 12 2010

The so what factor looms large over “Tron: Legacy” as it thrills the eye but leaves the mind way in the dust.  It provides a visual spectacle in an entirely digital world that’s dazzling enough to merit the extra cash for 3D and IMAX.  But even with all of that firepower, when the credits roll, it leaves no sort of statement or impact.  It’s almost as if the movie wants you to leave your experience in the theater and take nothing with you.

The movie features a storyline that can be understood only in its most general sequence of events.  It’s a step up from its predecessor’s plot – which was about as intelligible as binary code – in that it makes sense and has a simple theme at its core.  “Tron: Legacy” deals with perfection and its ultimate subjectivity pretty sloppily; I doubt the writers even know what the words utopia and dystopia mean.  And in a year where “Black Swan” provided an all-encompassing cinematic exploration of similar themes, an ugly stepchild is a generous term of endearment for this movie.

Nearly two decades after the mysterious disappearance of his father, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) investigates a strange page in the run-down family arcade.  What he doesn’t expect, though, is to get unwittingly swept into the server that his father built where he is ill-prepared to face the hostilities of the computer.

In a world of “programs,” Sam (the 2010 model of Jake Sully) is a rare “user” and thus hunted by the tyrannical power of the server, CLU (also played by Jeff Bridges).  Only thanks to Quorra (Olivia Wilde), the protege of the now Zen Buddhist-like Kevin Flynn, is Sam saved from almost certain death or deresolution.  Kevin has discovered life-changing developments for the real world inside the computer but has been exiled thanks to CLU’s evil bidding and unable to escape with the information.  However, Sam’s arrival opens up a mystical portal to the outside world, and the journey there takes them to the ends of cyberspace, including a stop off at the house of a David Bowie-wannabe (Michael Sheen).

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Random Factoid #516

26 12 2010

It looks like Halloween came early (or two months late).

In Fort Smith, Arkansas, the setting of “True Grit,” 500 dedicated fans donned eye-patches like Rooster Cogburn, the character played by John Wayne in the 1969 original and Jeff Bridges in the 2010 update, to celebrate the release of the Coen Brothers’ adaptation.  They recited lines from the movie (as can be seen in the video below) and had a grand old time.  According to Cinema Blend, “the town is the place where more Marshals worked, died and were buried than anywhere else in the United States.”

Cogburn might be one of the most Halloween costume-worthy characters of 2010 not counting your obvious comic-book characters.  Personally, if I would dress up as any cinematic character of 2010, I’d take Mark Zuckerberg.  Get a heinous turn-of-the-millenia Gap sweatshirt, pajama pants, and Adidas sandals, and maybe stick a sign on my back that said “Facebook me!”





SAVE YOURSELF from “Tron”

5 12 2010

Disney has invested quite a bit of money into promoting “Tron: Legacy” – $150 million, to be exact.  I’ve been watching as they’ve hyped this movie for the past three years with a fair bit of skepticism.  I’ve wondered why they need such a massive push for a big-budget visual effects spectacle for quite some time, so over the fall, I decided to look for answer in “Tron,” its 28-year-old predecessor.

I found one pretty good reason to promote “Tron: Legacy” so excessively: the original “Tron” is TERRIBLE!  And not even terrible in the sense that you can step back and laugh at it; it’s just terrible!

Sure, the visual effects are obscenely outdated, and that’s reason for a few giggles.  It’s also dated by kids playing games at an arcade.  I mean, who does THAT anymore?  I guess you could say that watching “Tron” certainly gives you an appreciation for the flawless integration of FX into movies, and it sure makes you want to bow at the feet of “Avatar” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

With its extensive use of computer graphics for visual spectacle, “Tron” is considered by many to be a pioneering film in technological development and a window into the future.  Well, I can tell you know from a 2010 perspective that the future came and left “Tron” in the dust a very long time ago.  Plenty of movies have done similar things, and watching “Tron” is like sending a telegram when you could just send a text message: that’s to say extremely antiquated and a futile waste of time.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s something very cool and novel about seeing how things were done in the past and seeing our progress.  But it’s brutal when that movie doesn’t have any value other than its depreciation to offer.  “Tron” has a completely incoherent plot that baffled moviegoers back in 1982 because it dealt so much with the unfamiliar computers.  The filmmakers claimed that it was misunderstood back when the movie came out largely to cover the movie’s lackluster box office receipts.  (To be fair, there was also a little science-fiction movie called “E.T.” dominating the market at the same time.)

Yet even now, in a generation of overexposure to computers, the movie still doesn’t make sense!  All I could discern from that plot was that Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn invented the TRON program, his intellectual property was stolen, and he beams himself inside the program to prove his creation.  From then on, it’s a total mess of seemingly unconnected events inside the computer that have little going for them other than the retro ’80s appeal.

The movie has managed to become a cult hit over the years, and I’m a little flabbergasted that people actually love this movie.  I don’t see anything other than effects that are funny for a few minutes, and then when the novelty wears off, we are left with nothing but a snooze of a movie with a strange plot.

So I’m honestly shocked that Disney would throw so much behind “Tron: Legacy” when the original is so pathetic.  I think they know it and are starting to fret that people like me would see the 1982 movie; according to a report in The Los Angeles Times, the DVD of the original is pretty hard to find since Disney is hardly releasing any new copies to meet the demand.  Most studios release some new edition of a predecessor when a sequel comes out, and a special edition of “Tron” is nowhere to be seen.

“Tron: Legacy” is being built as the cinematic equivalent of Wall Street’s “too big to fail” companies.  The commonly held theory is that if enough money is poured into a production, moviegoers will recognize the investment and go see it on blind faith.  While the fanboy hype is high on this release, reality may be setting in that this might not have been such a smart move (which I could have told you the second I finished the original).  According to The Hollywood Reporter, tracking indicates an opening weekend of a low $35 million, which would mean the movie would probably only net about $150-$175 million in the United States.

Given that the film will cost the studio $320 million by December 17, these numbers would be catastrophic for Disney.  Just as when the “too big to fail” firms sunk led to change on Wall Street, /Film reports that if “Tron: Legacy” were to bomb, the impact on Hollywood could be enormous.  My prediction is that if the sequel is anything like the 1982 “Tron,” the road to failure has already been paved.





Oscar Moment: “True Grit”

12 11 2010

Unlike “The Fighter,” which seems Academy-appealing on premise, “True Grit” is appealing on pedigree.  It comes courtesy of the Coen Brothers, who each have three statues thanks to their work producing, writing, and directing “No Country for Old Men” in 2007 and another for writing “Fargo” in 1996.  Including the nominations they have received for editing under the alias Roderick Jaynes, Joel and Ethan Coen have each received a whopping TEN Oscar nominations.

Beyond just their own history, the Coen Brothers have roped in some phenomenal talent to make this look like one heck of an Oscar contender on paper.  “True Grit” is an adaptation of the novel by Charles Portis, NOT a remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne.  According to sources, the two are very different, and those expecting a remake are in store for something entirely different.  However, John Wayne’s leading turn as Rooster Cogburn won him an Academy Award for Best Actor, so keeping in the same vain wouldn’t be such a bad thing for Jeff Bridges.

Bridges is hot off his Best Actor win for “Crazy Heart” last year and looks to be in striking range of a second trophy.  The “too soon” political argument will surely be a factor, but it’s not a novel concept for an actor to be nominated the year after they win.  It happened twice over the past decade with Russell Crowe nominated in 2001 for “A Beautiful Mind” after winning for “Gladiator” and Penelope Cruz nominated in 2009 for “Nine” after winning for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”  Then, of course, there’s the once in a lifetime case of Tom Hanks, who won back-to-back Best Actor statues for “Philadelphia” and then “Forrest Gump” in 1993 and 1994.  The only other actor to pull this off was Spencer Tracy back in the 1930s.  While I think Bridges has the respect to achieve this massive distinction, I doubt the politics of Academy voting nowadays will allow it.

Bridges isn’t the only threat the movie has in the acting categories.  Two-time nominee Matt Damon looks to make an entry into the Best Supporting Actor category, as does prior nominee Josh Brolin.  The race still has no clear frontrunner (hard to believe), and either of them with enough buzz when the movie screens around Thanksgiving could lead to a major shake-up.

My money is on Damon, the more respected actor in the eyes of the Academy.  He was nominated just last year for “Invictus” and has history with the Oscars dating all the way back to 1997 when he won Best Original Screenplay with pal Ben Affleck for “Good Will Hunting” and also received a Best Actor nomination.  2010 has been yet another banner year for Damon, starring in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” and narrating Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job.”  He has also been recognized as a great humanitarian and just a general class act.  It’s hard to judge his chances without anyone having seen the movie, but I think Damon could easily win the whole thing.

Brolin, on the other hand, has only recently emerged as an actor to be reckoned with thanks to roles in “Milk,” which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and “No Country for Old Men,” the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture winner which earned him a SAG Award for Best Ensemble.  He has a more volatile personality, and this could harm him.  In “True Grit,” he plays the outlaw Tom Chaney, another villainous role that he has gained so much notoriety playing.  Unlike the Best Supporting Actress category where double nominees from the same film are common (see the Oscar Moment on “The Fighter” for statistics), the feat hasn’t been accomplished in Best Supporting Actor since 1991 when Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley were both nominated for “Bugsy.”  So if I had to pick one of the two “True Grit” supporting men, I take Damon at the moment.

Then there’s also the easy Oscar nominations that the movie will pick up since is this is a Coen Brothers movie that happens to take place in the 1880s Wild West.  Best Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design and Film Editing are certainties.  The movie could bomb and those three nominations would still be in the bag.  Best Adapted Screenplay should be an easy nomination to net given that they have been nominees four times in the category and winners twice.  Best Director will be interesting for the same reasons that it will be interesting for Danny Boyle, but if “True Grit” is a huge hit, there’s no way the Coen Brothers won’t come along for the ride here.

But perhaps the movie’s biggest wild card is the spunky teenaged heroine Mattie Ross, played by newcome Hailee Steinfeld.  She will be a more central figure in the 2010 version of “True Grit” since the novel focused more on her perspective. Still, Steinfeld will likely be campaigned for Best Supporting Actress where the field is thin and the category is more hospitable territory for young actresses.  In the past decade, 13-year-old Saiorse Ronan and 10-year-old Abigail Breslin have been nominees for “Atonement” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” respectively.  The category has also seen pint-sized winners like Tatum O’Neal for “Paper Moon” at the age of 10 and Anna Paquin for “The Piano” at the age of 11.

Steinfeld is in good company, but we have nothing other than a trailer and the confidence of the Coen Brothers to indicate whether or not she has the capability to execute this role.  Their word is good, as most actors who have worked with the duo state that they are perfectionists obsessed with precision.  All signs point to this being an inspired casting, and it won’t be hard for Steinfeld to make it a pretty meager Best Supporting Actress category this year.  But still, like everything else about “True Grit,” we still have to wait and see the critical reaction – just to make sure.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bridges), Best Supporting Actor (Damon), Best Supporting Actress (Steinfeld), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Film Editing

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actor (Brolin), Best Original Score