Hell or High Water Review: High Plains Drifters


Director: David Mackenzie

Writer: Taylor Sheridan

Stars: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham

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Release date: October 27th, 2016

Distributor: CBS Films, Lionsgate

Country: USA

Running time: 102 minutes


4/5

Best part: Pine and Foster’s chemistry.

Worst part: The two-dimensional female characters.

The western has experienced several overwhelming highs and lows. In Hollywood, the genre thrived on manliness and simplicity. Later on, it turned to existentialism and revisionism to illustrate its points. More than any other genre, western fiction reflects fact. Hell or High Water is only one shade away from reality.

Hell or High Water is a rare gem: a 21st-century western. 2016 has delivered a couple to mixed success. The Magnificent Seven was a fun but flawed action extravaganza. However, Jane Got A Gun threw its prominent director and cast under a stagecoach. This movie’s promotional material seemed entirely samey. The independent-drama feel marked it as ‘yet another’ straight-to-Netflix project. Indeed, Chris Pine’s Star Trek Beyond paycheque is probably worth double the budget. It follows brothers Toby (Pine) and Tanner(Ben Foster)’s pitiful existences in middle-of-nowhere Texas. Toby, a divorced dad, lived with their mother throughout her fatal illness. Tanner, fresh off a ten-year prison sentence, always finds trouble. With the house in reverse mortgage, the two must find cash before Texas Midlands Bank carries out foreclosure.

Hell or High Water immediately launches into the action. Rather than building to it over the first act, writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) hurls us into their first bank robbery. His script is an ode to good ol’ Hollywood’s western/crime filmmaking style. Here, unlike with most heist set-pieces, everyone acts and reacts like real people. Hilariously, their first robbery is almost bungled by poor timing and preparation. Like classic western/gangster flicks, the movie evenly develops the cops and robbers. In reality, Toby and Tanner’s actions are despicable. Here, however, they are rebels with a cause. Toby, discovering the family’s land has struck oil, pushes to support his ex-wife and kids. Tanner, with nothing better to do, simply wants to help. Of course, Texas rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Brimingham) view the brothers’ antics as detrimental. Dutifully, Sheridan never makes us side with either party. His approach unveils both parties’ wants and needs throughout a tight cat-and-mouse game.

The movie’s fusion of western, crime-drama and heist-thriller elements flows. It handles several conventions (the ranger close to retirement, the partner with a target on their head, the criminals fighting against the system etc.) with slight twists. Playing with Sheridan’s sparkling dialogue, director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) could be Hollywood’s next talent goldmine. His style balances dark-and-gritty and enjoyably comedic. Thanks to the talented ensemble (in front of and behind the camera), each scene delivers intensifying moments. Whenever the brothers’ quarrels reach critical mass, Bridges comes along with a witty retort. However, its few female characters resemble nagging ex-wifes, one night stands, and sassy waitresses. Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens capture an unenviable plethora of one-horse towns and indian casinos. Furthermore, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score is nightmarish yet addictive.

Hell or High Water delivers more substance, thrills and laughs than most of 2016’s major releases combined. The marriage of cast and crew works wonders. Pine, Foster and Bridges showcase leading-man charisma and character-actor class simultaneously. This throwback proves some still make films the way Hollywood used to.

Verdict: A tight western-thriller.

The Infiltrator Review: Bryan the Boss


Director: Brad Furman

Writers: Ellen Brown Furman (screenplay), Robert Mazur (book)

Stars: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Diane Kruger

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Release date: August 25th, 2016

Distributor: Broad Green Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 127 minutes


3/5

Review: The Infiltrator

 

War Dogs Review: Bros in arms


Director: Todd Phillips

Writer: Todd Phillips, Stephen Chin, Jason Smilovic

Stars: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper

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Release date: August 18th, 2016

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 114 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Hill and Teller’s chemistry.

Worst part: The derivative structure.

Director Todd Phillips exists in the same realm as Michael Bay and Zack Snyder. He began his career with adult-comedies Old School and Road Trip before delivering smash hit The Hangover. However, with the Hangover sequels and Due Date, his career fell over. Now, he’s back with something completely different and exactly the same.

War Dogs provides more meat to chew on than his earlier works. This docudrama, black comedy, war, crime flick chronicles one of the 21st Century’s most baffling true stories. Based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article and book – Arms and the Dudes – its follows twenty-something layabout David Packouz (Miles Teller) being put through the ringer. David is a disappointment – spending maximum time smoking pot and tending to rich clients as a massage therapist. After quitting his job, his one-man bed sheet business fails spectacularly. At an old friend’s funeral, he reunites with former partner in crime Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). Diveroli is also a pot-smoking loud mouth. However, he is also a gunrunner/arms contractor for start-up AEY with ties to the US Government and troops overseas.

War Dogs resembles a blender with all-too-familiar ingredients thrown together. This sloppy and inconsistent mess is slow-moving-car-crash fascinating. Phillips, evidently, idolises Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers. Similarly to Bay’s 2013 sleeper hit Pain and Gain, it’s an assortment of excessive visual flourishes and questionable decisions. With any docudrama, ethics and moral quandaries come into play. Phillips – along with two other screenwriters – beef everything up for cinema purposes. The frat-boy humour and serious material never congeal. It follows the rise and fall narrative structure at every turn. Of course, the first half depicts the dynamic duo’s transformation from slackers to successes. Phillips becomes indulgent, even borrowing whole sequences from The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas and Boiler Room.

Compared to the genre’s aforementioned big-hitters, War Dogs struggles to keep up. Phillips floats between admiring and despising the lead characters. Seriously, what does his movie say about these events? Does it salute young entrepreneurs slipping through the cracks? Or condemn Cheney’s America and the military-industrial complex? Nevertheless, he makes no apologies for their behaviour. Packouz, despite being the audience avatar, starts off as an unlikable schmuck and gets worse. He either blindly follows his crazy business partner or lies to his pregnant girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas). Despite the first half’s many fun moments, the second trudges towards the predictable dénouement. If anything, it proves Teller and Hill are charismatic enough to escape with their reputations in tact.

War Dogs is the gym junkie of rise-and-fall movies – tough and mean with little depth. Phillips’ latest places him on thin ice. This, essentially his version of a ‘serious’ effort, is The Social Network and The Big Short evil, immature brother.

Verdict: A middling docudrama.

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The Drop Review – Gangster’s Paradise


Director: Michael R. Roskam

Writer: Dennis Lehane (screenplay & short story)

Stars: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts


Release date: September 12th, 2014

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 106 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Hardy & Gandolfini.

Worst part: The heavy-handed symbolism.

In the 1990s, TV producer, writer, and director David Chase took a big chance on an intriguing premise. Showcasing one crime family’s good times and bad blood, HBO’s The Sopranos reigned supreme from 1999 to 2007. Thanks to its immense prowess, Hollywood recognised the hype and made many film and TV copycats. Despite the arresting Godfather-like concept, the world became awe-struck by its portly leading man – James Gandolfini.

Tom Hardy & James Gandolfini.

Latching on to The Sopranos and James Gandolfini’s aura, crime-drama The Drop pays tribute to lost people and genres. Honouring the character-actor’s immense career and persona, the movie lingers on many intriguing elements. As the latest in a string of existential crime-thrillers, the movie throws the studio system, the gangster-thriller genre, and Middle America to the wolves. Oddly enough, despite Gandolfini’s immense acclaim, the late Tinseltown icon is not the movie’s lead. In fact, along the way, we uncover several mesmerising aspects. The Drop revolves around one of America’s most dilapidated neighbourhoods. The story focuses on a modest watering hole – tucked inside Brooklyn, New York – known to some of America’s crummiest low-lifes. Cousin Marv’s, housing many strong whiskeys and nasty surprises, is run by socially awkward bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy). Taking orders from Marv (Gandolfini), Bob runs the joint more diligently than his own life. Working extensive shifts, our lead floats through a tiresome routine. Forced to confront unlikable citizens, Bob and Marv understand the rules of the game. Marv, having handed the bar over to the Chechen mob several years earlier, succumbs to immense stress and emotional detachment. Despite the subdued drama, the movie lays everything out on the table.

Noomi Rapace.

Noomi Rapace.

Embracing its simple-yet-effective premise, The Drop is a chilling and resonant crime-thriller. In fact, the story delves into the ‘drop bar’ world. Used to launder pockets of cash from suspect business dealings, Cousin Marv’s becomes this dynamic narrative’s heart. After a frightening robbery, the movie drops its guard and delivers a moody and philosophical tale. The central plot-line, dealing with the mob wanting its missing $5000 back, propels the otherwise stagnant narrative. Based on Dennis Lehane’s short story Animal Rescue, The Drop relies on Lehane’s style for drama and thrills. Similarly to previous Lehane adaptations, Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River, visceral moments and comedic riffs complement one another. Subbing multiple players into the game, Bob and Marv become intent on settling the score and keeping everything flowing smoothly. Bob – introduced to a lost, injured puppy and Nadia (Noomi Rapace) within minutes – becomes a fascinating specimen. As our hearts melt for his new four-legged friend, The Drop becomes more approachable and entertaining. Flipping through gangster/crime-thriller tropes, the story occasionally creaks and groans. Compared to recent revenge fantasies including Blue Ruin, Killing Them Softly, and Cold in July, its airlessness and ponderousness may deter some viewers. However, the emotional core remains strong throughout. As Bob and Nadia’s friendship develops, the emotional resonance covers up the glaring flaws.

“There are some sins that you commit, that you can’t come back from, no matter how hard you try.” (Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), The Drop).

Hardy & Matthias Schoenaerts.

Hardy & Matthias Schoenaerts.

Sticking by Lehane’s solid screenplay, director Michael R. Roskam (Bullhead) brings the swagger and tempo. Coming from a distinctive European cinema background, his style delivers succinct and invigorating bursts of energy. Focusing on humanity and humility, his adaptation balances the crime, romance, and violence with panache and vigour. Bringing Bullhead star Matthias Schoenaerts with him from Belgium (playing seedy badass Eric Deeds), the director takes full control. As egos and tempers clash, Roskam fuses typical  gangster tropes with peculiar flourishes. Experimenting with light and shadow, the bar setting immediately lights up. Dank and sterile, the establishment is a breeding ground for scum and chaos. Throughout the climax, the overcrowded hangout sees sparks, slurs, and bullets. Roskam’s atmospheric direction crafts an earthy and eclectic version of the suburbs. Depicting Brooklyn’s most disturbing and undignified shades, it pays homage to the early Martin Scorsese era. However, despite Lehane and Roskam’s successes, viewers will fall for our two charismatic leads. Hardy – having brought charm to toughies like Locke, Warrior, and Lawless – fits comfortably into this hard-as-nails role. Switching between blisteringly harsh and endearingly sweet, his nuanced performance – aided by a pitch-perfect accent – is an instant drawcard. Despite playing a similar character to Soprano, Gandolfini deserves credit for his haunting and visceral turn. Sparring with Hardy throughout, the movie shimmers whenever the man sniffles, snorts, and wheezes.

Hardy and Gandolfini’s signature dialogue sequence is worth the admission cost. Marv, outlining his former prowess, reflects upon a time since lost. Showcasing the man’s immense talents, this sequence marks a stellar career cut short. Like our lead characters, The Drop strives for respect and earns it long before its explosive last act. Thanks to the immersive performances, tense set pieces, and attention to detail, this crime-thriller is one of 2014’s most deserving successes.

Verdict: A scintillating and well-crafted crime-thriller.