Tag Archives: western

Hell or High Water (2016)

Even months before I even knew what it was about or who was in it, I had heard about some movie called Hell or High Water. I don’t think it even got a cinematic release where I’m based, but the praise was fairly universal.

And so, just a few days before it was named one of the 9 Best Picture nominees at the Oscars later this month, I finally got to watch it — and I absolutely concur: Hell or High Water a brilliant film, completely different to what I expected but an authentic, immersive experience fueled by high-octane performances, tense action and a surprising amount of depth and insight into today’s America.

I went into the film knowing virtually nothing about it except that it’s regarded as a “modern western”. Set in West Texas, the film tells the story of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who turn to robbing banks. Jeff Bridges plays a Texas Ranger hot on their heels as he tries to piece together their patterns and the reasons behind their intense crime spree.

Hell or High Water is directed by David McKenzie (Young Adam, Perfect Sense) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), and if you’ve seen any of their past films you’ll be able to get a decent sense of the tone and pacing. Granted, westerns are not my favourite genre, and the rhythm of the film is more contemplative than frenetic, with long segments of pure dialogue.

However, there is just something magnetic about how the film has been executed. The cinematography is stunning and the depiction of the desolate landscapes and foreclosing ranches is sobering. The troubled characters come across as genuine and the sharp dialogue they get to spew out is some of the best of the year — insightful, humorous and cutting. Actually, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Hell or High Water probably explains Donald Trump’s election victory better than any other fictional film released in 2016.

The performances are wonderful. Chris Pine isn’t known for his acting, though his turn as the more level-headed of the two brothers is perhaps the best performance of his career to date. Jeff Bridges has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, though for me, the guy most deserving of recognition is Ben Foster (either as Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor), who plays the crazy, unpredictable brother. His presence is so intense and managed to keep me at the edge of my seat because he’s just so unpredictable.

Hell or High Water is also a film that shows you don’t need a huge budget or special effects to crank out spectacular action sequences filled with tension and impact. Despite a budget of just US$12 million, McKenzie makes the most of the landscape and creative ideas to infuse the action scenes with gripping thrills. Some moments actually reminded me of the action in the final season of Breaking Bad. It’s that good.

Some viewers might find the pace a little on the slow slide, though my only complaint is that there’s too much mumbling in the dialogue. I thought it was just be Jeff Bridges because we’ve heard it before, but both Pine and Foster do their fair share of it too. Apart from that, Hell or High Water is a sublime cinematic experience that ticks all the right boxes — an intriguing plot, well-rounded characters, great dialogue, compelling action and thought-provoking drama. Definitely check it out.

4.5 stars out of 5

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

So I was on a short flight recently and had the opportunity to either do some work or watch a movie. When I saw that they had The Magnificent Seven, which I missed out on during its theatrical run,  the choice became a no brainer.

I’ve never watched the 1960 classic or Seven Samurai, the 1954 Japanese film that inspired the American version, but I knew of their reputation and the fact that this remake was unlikely to live up to either. That said, I also knew this latest version of The Magnificent Seven is directed by gritty action director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and written by Nic Pizzolatto, creator of True Detective, so I knew it was unlikely to be bad. After all, it does feature a superstar cast led by Denzel Washington, along with Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett, Cam Gigandet, and Matt Bomer.

I was kind of surprised just how simple the premise is. Sarsgaard plays a corrupt, mean baddie who likes to take advantage of the little people. Before he returns to pillage a little town, Haley Bennet decides to hire a warrant officer played by Denzel Washington to save them. Denzel goes on to recruit a group of magnificent gunslingers and warriors from all walks of life to help him, along with assistance of the townspeople. They prepare and then engage in a spectacular battle. It’s essentially a tower defense game masquerading as a Western.

I liked the tone and spirit of the film. All seven dudes are cool and charismatic in their own ways, with Denzel and Pratt being the obvious standouts. And the action, when it finally hits, is spectacular and unrelenting. I didn’t time it, but it sure feels like nearly half the movie was spent on this all-out gunfight with bullets and explosions galore. It’s well-executed action with a blazing score from legendary composer James Horner before his tragic passing last year. As far as popcorn entertainment goes, The Magnificent Seven is indeed quite magnificent if you’re into old school Westerns.

On the other hand, it felt like the movie didn’t have time to develop the characters with any level of depth. There are, after all, seven of them, plus a main villain and a couple of important supporting characters, but there’s only 133 minutes to share between them. So really, all you get is a slick introduction and then not much more with the exception of a one-liner here or there. Some are handled better than others, but on the whole,  film is unable able to do any of the characters or their interactions and relationships justice. And as  result, the motivations of these characters in fighting a battle with the odds firmly stacked against them are never properly fleshed out. There are virtually no subplots, and certain plot points are set up in a way that make the resolutions blindingly obvious.

In all honesty, I think The Magnificent Seven would have been better off as something like a 10-episode TV series, where you introduce a new character each episode and have them fight it out in a long two-episode finale. That’s the only way they would have been able to address the shortcomings and add a little more flesh to the bare bones story. As a full-length feature film, it is what it is — a fun, largely forgettable popcorn ride with a super cast and some cool moments — but not much more than that.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Salvation (2014)

salvation

After Hannibal, it’s difficult to watch great Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen these days without thinking that he’ll start eating everyone on screen. But such is his awesomeness that I almost forgot this when I saw him in The Salvation, a good, old-fashioned Western about a man’s quest for vengeance.

Directed and co-written by Danish filmmaker Kristian Levring, The Salvation tells the simple story of two Danish brothers who immigrate to the US in search of a better life. Seven years later, Jon (Mads — what an awesome name) finally brings his young son and wife to the country, but a stroke of fate ends up shattering his Amercian Dream. What follows is a brutal tale of revenge that will bring Jon face-to-face with a notorious gang leader played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and his damaged sister-in-law, played by Eva Green.

There’s not much to The Salvation in terms of plot or character development, but that doesn’t stop it from being a highly watchable film. That said, while I was expecting a violent rampage like Taken, The Salvation actually has more depth than that. It’s one of those films where you have to keep watching the protagonist suffer — whether it is pain, loss or injustice — with the unspoken promise that he’ll eventually turn things around in the end and get his “salvation.”

It’s far from an original concept, though when executed well it can still be darn entertaining. The Salvation succeeds in doing that thanks to the aesthetically pleasing cinematography (certain scenes look like paintings), the grounded direction of Levring, and of course Mads’ mad performance (I’ve always wanted to say that). Keeping in mind that he’s an immigrant in 1870’s America, Jon is a man of few words and expressions, but you can sense his pain beneath the stoic surface because that’s the type of nuance Mads can deliver.

Notwithstanding that there was less action — especially less stylised action — than I had anticipated (not to mention less cannibalism), The Salvation is a gripping and satisfying Western fuelled by a master performer at the peak of his powers.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Rover (2014)

the-rover-poster

The Rover is David Michod’s highly-anticipated follow-up to one of the best Australian movies of all-time, 2010’s Animal Kingdom. Set in a world 10 years after a global economic collapse, the film stars Guy Pearce as a quiet and relentless anti-hero who sets out to retrieve his car from a band of robbers on the run, and during his journey forms a strange and uneasy bond with the abandoned brother of one of the robbers, played by Robert Pattinson.

I had very high expectations for The Rover because Animal Kingdom (review here) is THE film that restored my faith in Aussie movies. And like Animal KingdomThe Rover is a confident piece of filmmaking that is bleak, tense and uncompromising. But at the end of the day, I still have to consider The Rover somewhat of a disappointment even though it was probably exactly the way Michod wanted it to be.

The film is set entirely in Australia and has been marketed as a modern Western of sorts, taking advantage of Australia’s hot, dry air and sandy, desolate landscapes. It’s a visually impressive film, but it’s also one that doesn’t explain anything to its audience. There’s no voice-over or extensive opening crawl that explains to us how or why the economic collapse happened or what the world has become. All we know is that we’re in Australia, and it’s been 10 years since the collapse. Consequently, much of the intrigue of the film comes from discovering what the world is like (I won’t spoil too much), though you have to keep your eyes and ears open because all of it comes in little bits and pieces.

What it creates is an unsettling experience where you don’t really know what is happening and what will happen next. You are forced to put the pieces together to understand how this new world works and what the characters’ motivations are and why they’ve become the people they are. That’s what makes the film, despite it’s deliberately slow and considered pace, so compelling and compulsive to watch. It’s a fairly typical hook, but Michod’s direction and the screenplay by Michod and Joel Edgerton are so confident and understated that you never feel manipulated.

Having said that, The Rover can also be considered somewhat dull and nonsensical. Some of the slower scenes drag and don’t work as well as they should, and when you break the film down, it’s really quite a stupid story masquerading as something more profound. You can call much of the seemingly random stuff in it “realistic” and “unexpected”,  or you can call it “contradictory” and “pointless.”

The film offers more of an experience than a story in that you are just thrown into it and made to observe for about 100 minutes, and you come out of it knowing only what is shown to you on the screen. It intentionally under-utilizes its innovative setting, so much so that you might think it’s a waste, and anyone expecting to get a complete picture of a post-economic-collapse world will feel as though they’ve been cheated.

Despite what can be perceived as flaws, I found The Rover to be highly watchable thanks to the performances of two leads. We already know what we’re going to get from Guy Pearce, who honestly has to be one of the most under-appreciated A-listers ever (seriously, does anyone even remember that he was in Best Picture winners such as The King’s Speech and The Hurt Locker, and played the lead role in films like The Count of Monte Cristo, The Road, Memento, LA Confidential, The Time Machine  and Lockout, as well as the villain in Iron Man 3 and Prometheus?). But my goodness, did anyone think Robert Pattinson would be exceptional as well?  People said he was good outside the Twilight films (eg, Remember Me, Cosmopolis, Water for Elephants), but I thought he was just OK in those movies. Here, he is genuinely believable as a weak, slow-witted American redneck with stained teeth, and I’d be totally OK if he received some awards recognition for this performance (especially since he’s evidently trying so hard to break out of Edward Cullen mode).

Still, The Rover is nowhere near as exhilarating as Animal Kingdom, which may have set the bar too high. I applaud Michod for trying something different and a little daring for his sophomore feature rather than going down the commercial route (that’s probably coming next in his adaptation of the Afghan war book, The Operations, by the late Michael Hastings, and will reportedly start Brad Pitt), but I do wish The Rover could have been a more complete, satisfying story, rather than what ultimately feels like a short story stretched into a semi-experimental full-length feature.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Red Hill (2010)

Red Hill is a strange one.  Starring Ryan Kwanten (who rose to stardom with True Blood), it’s an old-fashioned, modern ‘Western’ of sorts set in rural Australia.  It has a very simple (and may I say pretty predictable) plot, a scarred, ‘cliched’ villain, and it’s not particularly action-packed or fast-paced for the most part — and yet, for whatever reason, I really enjoyed it.

Kwanten is Shane Cooper, a big city constable who has just moved to Red Hill for “personal” reasons.  Red Hill is exactly what you would expect from a tiny rural town in Australia, where just about everyone owns a farm and police still get around on horses.  But Cooper is going to have one hell of a first day on the job, because Jimmy Conway (Tom E Lewis), a convicted murderer, just escaped from prison, and he’s heading back to Red Hill to cause havoc.

Written and directed by Patrick Hughes, Red Hill is a slick, well-made thriller that I liked a lot more than I probably should have.  Naturally, being an Aussie film set in the countryside, there are many wide shots of the beautiful landscape, but Red Hill kept me intrigued because of Hughes’s handling of the brewing tension and unsettling mood.

There are lots of weaknesses with this film, which I suppose some may consider boring and silly at times, and despite the unoriginal plot, it felt like I had just seen something a little different, a little more unusual.

3.5 stars out of 5