Review: Hell or High Water

Directed by: David Mackenzie
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Dale Dickey
Released: October 27, 2016
Grade: A-

Hell or High Water
Having made roughly $30m, Hell or High Water is one of the highest grossing independent films in the United States this year.  A clear point of attraction is the quality cast.  If you’ve got a total production budget of $12m, you’re doing well if you can get the faces of Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster on the poster.  Names aren’t everything though.  Audiences have also been lured by the strong word of mouth and having now seen the film, it’s easy to see why.

Written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) and directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe), Hell or High Water begins with a robbery.  Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster), two middle aged brothers from West Texas, steal a small sum of money from two banks.  These heists are well planned.  They’ve picked quieter banks with easy getaway routes.  They wear gloves and ski masks to help conceal their identity.  They only take small bank notes ($20 and under) as they are much harder to trace.

These guys aren’t driven by greed.  They’re not looking to steal millions of dollars and then move to a beachside mansion in Cuba.  Toby is after revenge and redemption.  His mother recently passed away and title of the family ranch was transferred to him.  Unfortunately, it’s subject to a reverse mortgage and the bank will be seizing ownership if the outstanding debt is not repaid within a few days.  It’s no coincidence that he’s stealing from the same predatory banks who had been harassing his mother up until her death.

Toby doesn’t want the property for himself.  Having failed to pay child support to his ex-wife and two sons for several years, Toby sees this as a way of making things right.  He intends to set up a trust whereby his children get ownership of the ranch to ensure they won’t grow up poor like he did.  Tanner, fresh out of a lengthy stint in prison, has been promised nothing from the transaction but is keen to help is brother out of a sense of loyalty.

The film offers a second perspective which is given equal weighting.  Marcus (Bridges) is a soon-to-be-retiring Texas Ranger charged with the investigation of the robberies.  He is assisted by his partner, Alberto (Birmingham), and their playful, comedic banter provides a nice break from the film’s otherwise dark tone.  They get the sense that the perpetrators have other banks in mind and need to predict their next move.

This is a damn good film and your feelings about the characters will oscillate throughout.  Toby and Tanner are committing crimes but they’re doing so out of a sense of desperation.  It’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for their plight.  They’re far from perfect though.  Tanner makes several errors of judgement (such as early scene where he hits a bank manager with the butt of his gun) that threatens their plans and “nice guy” personas.

With a thick, muffled Texas accent, Jeff Brides (Crazy Heart) delivers the film’s standout performance.  His character is a little reminiscent of the one played by Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men.  He has a relaxed, laid-back attitude on the outside but a shrewd, calculator demeanour on the inside.  His experience in these situations is invaluable.

Sheridan’s screenplay deserves praise for not always succumbing to convention.  There are a few “red herrings” that are more about developing the characters rather than furthering the storyline.  This is typified in a scene where Marcus and Alberto are waiting for something to happen outside a dingy café.

The string-heavy music score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Lawless, Far From Men) will stick with you as the credits start to roll.  So too will the finale which ends on a poignant note.


Review: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Directed by: Edward Zwick
Written by: Richard Wenk, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Patrick Heusinger, Danika Yarosh
Released: October 20, 2016
Grade: B-

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
You don’t find Jack Reacher.  He finds you.  Those that have read the Lee Child novels or seen the 2012 film will know that’s the essence of this character.  He’s a former high flier in the U.S. military who quit several years ago because he “woke up one morning and uniform didn’t fit.”  He now lives in the shadows with no fixed address and no identification.  He pops up when the time is right to help put bad guys behind bars and dish out his own brand of justice.

Child has written more than 20 books about the fictitious Jack Reacher.  After the moderate success of the earlier movie, the writing team picked out Child’s 18th novel in the series to bring to the big screen.  This time around, Reacher is helping Major Susan Turner (Smulders) who has been charged with treason – a crime she didn’t commit.  As you can imagine, they need to ascertain why she has been framed and who’s behind it.

I was a fan of Christopher McQuarrie’s original film from 2012 as it was a little different from your standard action fare.  At the time, I wrote that Cruise had created a protagonist that was “full of personality” with a “sharp sense of humour”.  McQuarrie also gave a film as sense of style with a great opening sequence and some well-selected camera angles.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back doesn’t feel quite as exciting.  Perhaps it’s the inevitable letdown that comes with most sequels or perhaps it’s just not as good.  There’s a different director at the helm this time around.  Ed Zwick had previously worked with Tom Cruise on The Last Samurai (2003) and was clearly keen to do so again.

The script isn’t as compelling this time around.  You’ve got some stereotypical, Eastern European type villains who are up to no good and are prepared to kill all and sundry.  In trying to show Reacher’s softer side, a subplot is introduced where he learns he may be the father of a teenager girl.  He can kill several armed men but family bonding is not his strong suit.

Let me caveat my disappointment by saying this is still worth a look.  It comes with a few snazzy one-liners such as an early scene where Reacher confronts someone and smugly proclaims that “I’m the guy you didn’t count on.”  Cruise does his best to create a character that is fun, strong and determined.  It’ll be interesting to see if this franchise has the legs for another instalment.


Review: Julieta

Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Written by: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Adriana Ugarte, Emma Suárez, Daniel Grao, Inma Cuesta, Michelle Jenner, Darío Grandinetti
Released: October 13, 2016
Grade: A-

If you Google the term “Spanish film directors”, the first photo that comes up is of Pedro Almodóvar.  He is not just an icon in his home country.  Over the last 30 years, he has put together a superb resume that has earned him the respect of film lovers across the globe.  He won Oscars for All About My Mother (1999) and Talk To Her (2002).  His other works include Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Volver (2006) and The Skin I Live In (2011).

Julieta is the latest creation from Almodóvar and fans will recognise his fingerprints throughout. For starters, it’s a film with women at the centre.  The few men that appear in the film pop up in smaller, supporting roles.  It’s also an intriguing mystery.  The film is scant on detail in the opening scenes and then develops into something that you won’t see coming.

The movie opens by introducing us to the title character.  Julieta (Suárez) is a middle-aged woman who has spent a significant chunk of her of life in Madrid.  After a lengthy period living alone, she has finally found love in the arms of the successful Lorenzo (Grandinetti) and the pair are about to immigrate to Portugal so as to start a fresh chapter in their lives.

Julieta’s plans change when she runs into woman on the streets of Madrid.  Her name is Beatriz (Jenner) and she was the close childhood friend of Julieta’s only daughter, Antía.  She mentions that she recently spoke with Antía who is now living in Switzerland with her husband and three children.  It may sound like a simple, innocuous statement but it strikes Julieta like a bolt of lightning.  Her daughter has been missing for more than a decade and Julieta didn’t even know if she was still alive.

This unexpected encounter releases the dam on a flood on memories.  Julieta sits at her desk, opens the first page of a blank journal, and starts writing.  She begins with – “I’m going to tell you everything I wasn’t able to tell you.”  It clearly intended for Antía and implies a fractured history between mother and daughter.  Julieta needs to get something off her chest and the journal is her outlet.

With the stage set, Almodóvar’s screenplay delves into the past by way of flashback.  We see the younger Julieta (Ugarte) at several key events in her life.  It includes the moment where she meets Xoan (Grao), an already married fisherman who would later become Antía’s father.  That’s about all I’m willing to reveal in terms of story.  The less you know going into the film, the better.

This is a powerful piece of cinema.  Emma Suárez is stunning as the older version of Julieta.  You will get a clear sense of the confusion and heartbreak that has tormented her for so long.  It’s as if a hand is pulling her back into the past and preventing her from moving forward to a more promising future.  A brooding film score from composer Alberto Iglesias further adds to the film’s unsettling vibe.

Selected as the Spanish entry for the foreign language film category at next year’s Academy Awards, Julieta is for admirers of Almodóvar and for those who enjoy a mystery fuelled by the darker elements of human nature.


Review: Cafe Society

Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell, Blake Lively, Corey Stoll, Parker Poser
Released: October 20, 2016
Grade: C+

Cafe Society
He may have turned 80 years of age last December but Woody Allen keeps making films and he keeps doing things he own way.  He’s also one of his harshest critics.  Allen refuses to watch his own films once complete and believes that there’s only a handful of them that are actually any good.  He doesn’t read reviews, he hates having to do publicity and he seldom goes to the cinema.

Café Society begins in the same manner as other Allen films.  The opening credits are shown in simple white writing against a black background, the actors’ names are listed in alphabetical order, and a crackly 1930s-type tune plays in the background.  These credits culminate with the words “written and directed by Woody Allen” and then it’s time for the movie to begin.  It’s a routine that he’s used so often that it ought to be trademarked.

Allen’s latest outing was inspired by his own as a teenager.  He would be fascinated by the powerful talent agents in Hollywood and their influence within the film industry.  Set in the 1930s, Café Society is structured around three characters.  Phil (Carell) is the fast-talking talent agent who oozes success.  He has a beautiful mansion, a deep wallet, and appears to know everyone in industry.

Arriving at the door of his office one day is Bobby (Eisenberg), his nephew who was moved from New York to California in search of work and other opportunities.  Phil doesn’t have much time for Bobby and so he creates a small, pointless job requiring him to makes deliveries across town.  He proclaims that he doesn’t want to “overemphasize the nepotism.”

This is ultimately a love story and the person who comes between them is Vonnie (Stewart).  She acts as Phil’s secretary and the two have been having an affair for a year.  Vonnie has a few doubts about their future but it’s hard to get inside her head.  Is she worried because Phil has been making empty promises about leaving his wife?  Or is it that she’s not truly love with Phil and has been seduced only by his wealth and power?  These concerns push her into the arms of the naive Bobby and a complicated love triangle ensues.

I’m a long-time fan of Woody Allen (and always will be) but this is well below his best work.  It’s a choppy story in that there are several subplots that detract from the main show.  One involves Bobby’s brother back in New York who has become a gangster/murderer.  The relevance of these detours is revealed in the film’s later stages but they don’t add up to as much as you might hope.

Allen has clearly enjoyed recreating 1930s and throws in numerous references to real life people at the time (largely actors and filmmakers).  This technique worked successfully for him in Midnight in Paris but this time around, feels like more of an unnecessary name-dropping exercise.  Of the cast, Jesse Eisenberg does his best to mimic Woody Allen traditional on-screen persona (evidenced by a scene with a prostitute) but it’s Kristen Stewart who impresses most as the likeable starlet torn between two suitors.

Lacking the sharp, witty dialogue synonymous with other Allen films, Café Society is forgettable.


Review: The Girl On The Train

Directed by: Tate Taylor
Written by: Erin Cressida Wilson
Starring: Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Allison Janney
Released: October 6, 2016
Grade: B-

The Girl On The Train
The life of Rachel Watson (Blunt) is a mess.  She’s a thirty-something-year-old woman who went through a nasty divorce, lost her job at a PR firm, and is now a struggling alcoholic.  The only high point of her daily routine is when she goes on a lengthy return train ride from Westchester County to Manhattan.

It is during these train rides where Rachel uses her “overactive imagination” to push her problems aside.  She takes sips from her big water bottle (which is actually filled with vodka) and delves into a world of fantasy.  She looks around the train carriage and conceives fictitious stories about other passengers.  She does the same when passing some of the beautiful houses situated beside the train tracks.  She’s created backstories for the residents and adds a little more to her fantasy each day.

Rachel’s troubled existence takes a further twist when a police detective (Janney) arrives at her doorstep.  A young woman went missing in a nearby park and Rachel was identified by witnesses as being in the area at the time.  She has no answers though.  She caught the train at 6pm, arrived home at 11pm and doesn’t know what happened in between.  The most plausible scenario is that Rachel was passed out drunk somewhere (it certainly makes sense to the detective) but not everything is what it seems in this peculiar mystery.

It’s not often that a movie studio buys the rights to a book before it is first published but that was the case with The Girl on the Train.  A book scout for Dreamworks Pictures came across Paula Hawkins’ manuscript and thought this female-centric murder thriller might appeal to the same crowd that made Gone Girl such a box-office smash.  Their instincts were right.  When the book was actually released in 2015, it sold more than 1 million copies in the first 2 months.

Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) and director Tate Taylor (The Help) have struggled in translating the novel into a cinematic form.  To illustrate the turmoil inside Rachel’s head, they’ve given the film a rough, fragmented feel that continually slips between events and timeframes.  Perhaps it was the casting of Justin Theroux that triggered the thought but the movie reminded me of Mulholland Drive in that you won’t know what’s real and what’s not.  This isn’t as big a challenge though.  As Rachel’s mind starts to sharpen, so too does the narrative.

Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) is the film’s strongest asset.  She uses an array of tears, bloodshot eyes, and quizzical looks to bring her character to life.  It’s as if she’s goes through every human emotion with the exception of laughter.  There are several key scenes where Rachel builds up a little confidence only to have torn away by insecurities and self-doubts.

Without giving too much away, I wasn’t wholly satisfied by the finale.  It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing.  The Girl on the Train offers intrigue and a few red herrings but doesn’t provide a knockout punch.   


Review: Inferno

Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: David Koepp
Starring: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen
Released: October 13, 2016
Grade: C+

To its credit, Inferno has a villain with a thought provoking motive.  It refreshingly goes against the mould of standard action films where bad guys concoct bizarre plans to go in search of wealth and power.  That’s not the case here as evidenced by the very opening scene.  Bertrand Zobrist (Foster) jumps off the top of the church and commits suicide.  He certainly wasn’t going to wait around and be killed by the hero (as is tradition).  He was happy to do that himself.

There was a method to his madness.  Zobrist was an eccentric billionaire who was worried about the rapid rate at which the world’s population was increasing.  We see a video of him speaking at a seminar where he mentions that it took the world 100,000 years to reach a population of 1 billion and yet we’ve grown to almost 8 times that size in the space of two centuries.  If that trend continues, it’s only a matter of time before the planet becomes overpopulated and there won’t be enough resources for us all to survive.

He refers to some of history’s great plagues.  While many would see them as a dark chapter in our history, Zobrist takes a contrasting view.  They helped reduce the population and kept it from rising at an unsustainable rate.  It’s why he’s spent two years developing a virus to create a plague that will trump all others.  He believes that we need to kill half of the planet now or run the risk of us all dying in the near future.

Inferno marks the third adaptation of a Dan Brown novel.  The 2006 release of The Da Vinci Code was followed by Angels & Demons three years later.  Tom Hanks reprises his role as Robert Langdon, one of the world’s leading professors of religious iconology and symbology.  He doesn’t have a look of a traditional action hero (he’s actually a bit of a nerd) but there’s seemingly no mystery he can’t put together.  He’s not too bad at bullet dodging either.

He has reluctant found himself caught up in the search for the virus so he can prevent it from being released.  This time around though, he doesn’t have the clearest of heads.  It’s Monday evening and he wakes up in a hospital bed in Florence with a splitting headache and a bleeding scalp.  He doesn’t know how he got there.  The last memory he had was being back home in Boston on the Saturday.  Dr Sienna Brooks (Jones) diagnoses him with acute amnesia and believes his recent memories will soon return.

There’s not a lot of time though.  A policewoman turns up at the hospital and tries to kill Langdon.  She’s not the only person on his tail.  Three separate groups of people are trying to locate him for reasons that won’t become clear until the film’s second act.  Langdon isn’t sure who he can trust and the audience will find themselves in the same position.

It’s never easy translating book to screen but this is a few notches below the earlier two movies.  There’s an unnecessarily long introduction where director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) uses a mix of blurred images and dream-like sequences to take us inside Langdon’s head.  It’s all a bit too messy and repetitive and you’ll be anxious for the action to get started.

Langdon isn't doing much this time around.  There are a couple of puzzles to solve but the more prevalent scenes involve him running from the authorities Jason Bourne style.  Drawing from Dan Brown’s novel, screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) tries to spice things up with a few twists but again, the characters appear to be relying more on good luck as opposed to good planning.

Brown’s books have captivated readers but I’m not convinced this film adaptation will do the same.