Blu-ray Review: Hell or High Water

Review by Rob Vaux

Starring: Ben Foster, Chris Pine, Jeff Bridges, and Gil Brimingham
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Running time: 102 minutes
Year of release: 2016

“Now what I know about is Texas. And down here, you’re on your own…”
— M. Emmet Walsh, Blood Simple

 

There’s just something about Texas that lends itself to dark meditations and expressions of rebellion: the wide spaces; the beautiful, merciless environment; a culture born out of blood and fury, yet emerging ferociously self-sufficient and rightfully proud of its independent streak. That makes it perfect for a unique variation of Southern Gothic: one part outlaw culture, two parts laconic observation, all blended together with a deep, ingrained desire to stick it to The Man. The Coen Brothers are perhaps the best cinematic practitioners of the form with the likes of Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men but the roots go back decades and have included everything from Red Rock West to Cold in July.

Hell or High Water is the latest film to join their ranks, and it holds an honored place among them. It focuses on a fundamental injustice, hones it with a streak of wild rebellion, and invites us to watch it unfold with the serene calm of watching the sun go down on your porch. As a crime saga, it’s amazing, but it reaps its greatest rewards in the intimacy of the characters. Once again, we have a spree of robberies conducted by desperate men with nothing to lose. Once again, a dour law enforcement official arises, concerned with doing his job but sympathetic to the reasons behind the violence. It’s a powerful formula and it shows no signs of abating here, thanks more to the nuts and bolts of its details than to any originality in its story.

It helps to have a solid trio of actors front and center: Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger, and Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the bank robbers. The duo pull off a series of snatch-and-grab bank robberies against one particular branch: paying off the mortgage it imposed on their mother’s home with money seized from its own coffers. The elder brother (Foster) has experience with this kind of thing; the younger (Pine) is just trying to leave something behind for his children. They’re careful and smart, picking easy targets and striking right when the banks open so they don’t have to worry about big crowds. They take small amounts that can’t be traced, working over time rather than trying for one big score. And they’re striking back against a larger institution that clearly doesn’t give a shit about hard times and would happily turn poor folks like them out of their homes to add a little padding to their profits.

Director David Mackenzie plays out the reasons for the robberies slowly, focusing instead of the contentious-yet-loving relationship between the robbers and their specific methods in conducting their crimes. It becomes a fascinating exercise in how a reasonable person can get away something like this, and how the longer one does it, the more likely that things will go wrong. (Disastrously so if you know crime dramas at all.)

And that’s where the ringer comes in: Bridges, who has slowly honed his cantankerous old coot routine into something truly glorious. His character here is two weeks from retirement, of course, and bears more than a few similarities to Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men. But he hasn’t given into despair and his slow, careful assessment of his foes makes a delicious counterpoint to the outlaw rage lurking just beneath the surface of his targets.

It’s a simple equation, but the details make it sing. Mackenzie is English by birth, but like the Coens, he understands the strong beating heart beneath stories like this one, and why they’re tied to thoroughly to the state in which they’re set. Hell or High Water would be a superior crime thriller no matter where it was set, but doing so here gives it an extra bit of energy that elevates it to something special.  Hollywood is dominated by increasingly large, loud, and expensive epics: multi-movie franchises that almost constitute genres unto themselves. It’s easy to decry such trends… until you see that the stories supposedly getting squeezed out are still here. You just have to look a little harder for them. In the case of Hell or High Water, that extra effort delivers astonishing rewards.

Movie Review: Warcraft

Review by Rob Vaux

Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer and Clancy Brown
Directed by: Duncan Jones
Running time: 123 Minutes
Year of release: 2016

It’s easy to condemn a bad film for being bad, and before I get much further into this, I must stress that Warcraft is a bad movie. It’s much tougher to ask why a film is bad, but also gets a lot more interesting. This is not just a case of filmmakers who didn’t care or a story that doesn’t work. There are good things here, even great things if you look at them the right way. So with the scathing reviews in and the box office disappointment duly noted, it’s time to dig a tad deeper into Warcraft than just  “wow it stinks.” Why does it stink? And why does it stink in the face of such obviously strong potential?

Some movies stink because they don’t care about what they’re putting together. Some stink because they misunderstand the content or can’t form a coherent argument around it. Some fall victim to infighting during the production. And some stink simply because they have great ideas that they can’t show us clearly.

Warcraft falls firmly into that last camp: compelling material in the hands of a talented director who loves it deeply. Unfortunately, he never lets the rest of us in. The story, the characters, the entire affair, it all arrives in the oblique way that assumes we’re familiar with these characters before we sit down to watch it.

If you’re a fan of the beloved video game franchise, that likely presents few problems, and the film presents countless beloved components with the care and attention to detail that only a massively expensive studio tentpole can buy. Indeed, there’s some terrific ideas seething beneath the surface here. The story involves an army of orcs, driven to invade a human kingdom by the slow death of their world, and unaware that the dark magic they rely on may do the same thing to them here. Right away, that sets up a different vibe for a fantasy race usually relegated to hapless minions for the heroes to grind through. Tolkien could get away with it, since he created them. Everybody else needed to find something more interesting to do with them lest we check out completely.

The thing is, Warcraft does, and suddenly what looks like another boilerplate fantasy saga takes on some fascinating wrinkles. It gets better, with grand betrayals, unlikely heroes and seemingly clichéd genre figures who turn out to be much different than you thought. Director Duncan Jones peppers that with some real stabs at mythic resonance, including a messiah put into the river in a reed skiff, fathers avenging sons who died for their cause, and the wisdom to look at your opponent and see yourself reflected back. Jones displays a sure hand with these concepts, and when paired with the enormous potential of the scenario, you can see great things at the heart of it all.

There’s just one problem: the film doesn’t spend a single moment allowing those ideas to breathe. We see them presented as common knowledge without cluing us into the slightest detail. No one likes undue exposition, but Warcraft treats it like a cancer. That’s never a good idea for a fantasy movie, especially when the bulk of your potential audience has never actually played the wonderful game on which it is based. We need the hows and whys filled in before we get tossed into the maelstrom: providing a sense not only of what’s at stake, but why the figures we see on screen really truly matter. To do that, Warcraft needs to present us with a lot more information than two hours can hold. Peter Jackson made the prologues of these things look so easy, but sometimes you’ve got to spend some screen time setting things up, even if it’s awkward or unwieldy.

Without the time to flesh out its story or characters, it all becomes a mash of jumpy edits, poor development, and characters seemingly without a single backstory to their name. The film looks fantastic, and the gravitas with which Jones approaches this material speaks to great things. It even has a go-to character in a renegade orc slave (Paula Patton) who can convincingly ask any question the audience needs answered. But the filmmakers never consider the need for that, and without a reason to care, it becomes so much empty posturing. Fans will love it – my wife did and she’s been playing the game since the earliest days – and I imagine that its success overseas will keep alive the hope that more movies would come. I almost hope they do. I suspect there’s a three-hour director’s cut of Warcraft somewhere that would truly do justice to it: something to bring game’s countless compelling elements roaring to life..That’s just not the movie we saw. A good story poorly told is often worse than a bad story told well. With a bad story, at least you can see how bad it is right away. This one shows you how great it could have been… which just breaks the fucking heart.

(For another opinion, check out Kimberly Trate’s review over at the Sci-Fi Movie Page.)