Saturday, September 3, 2016

Eye on Movies: "Hell or High Water" and "The Boxtrolls."

Hell or High Water is a good snapping show, the kind of movie corporate Hollywood lost the skill for long ago—the smart, well-made crackerjack thriller.

Toby Edwards (Chris Pine) and Tanner Edwards (Ben Foster) are quarrelsome brothers eking out an existence in today’s West Texas, where the once great wide open spaces are being used as a rusting trash heap for the twenty-first century, as Americans withdraw to the cities, leaving behind the big banks to suck dry whatever wealth is left from whomever they can find to exploit.

To make money, these querulous partners rob banks. Each brother comes to the job with different motives and a different approach. Toby is trying to guarantee some sort of future for his estranged son, Justin, an escape from the grinding poverty the Edwards family has known for generations. Once he makes enough to cover the mortgage on the broken-down family ranch, he figures to quit. He’s not a greedy man and while a criminal, he’s not evil. You may not like what he’s doing, but you get the why of it.

Brother Tanner is a thousand acres of trouble. Rivetingly played by Foster, he’s the real bad guy of the pair, a trigger-tempered loudmouth and ex-con who couldn’t stay out of trouble if you gave him the key to Fort Knox. He loves robbing banks for the hell of it, like Willie Sutton, but he’s truly dangerous. Tanner would be well rid of him, but sibling loyalty, along with its twin, resentment, runs deep as a mine. You just know someone’s going to buy the farm before this is over.

But as the bank robbers tear across the Texas, through landscapes beautiful like we imagine the Old West to be and desperately dreary, as they are now, trouble is on their trail. And because it’s Jeff Bridges, playing Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, bringing it, we know it won’t be a smooth escape for them. By Hamilton’s side is his deputy, Alberto Parker (played by sad-eyed Gil Burningham) who suffers his boss’s oblivious racist teasing, occasionally getting him back, while sticking to his job. Their tense biting rapport make for some of the film’s best moments. Bridges brings some of the same phlegmatic gruff he brought to his Rooster Cogburn in the Coens’ True grit. The movie wouldn’t be the same without him.

Chris Pine does very well as the careful taciturn Toby. It’s pleasing to see him away from Captain Kirk in Star Trek making his own path. Unluckily, though, he’s up against a broadly written character played by a most skilled villain in Ben Foster.

It’s a brisk modern Western, well-structured with the suspense pitched tight and high, with the violence blunt, believable and not overdone. Writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) has written plum roles for all four main actors and director David Mackenzie, a Brit making his first American film, allows them to run lose through the landscape magnificently framed by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, with New Mexico dressed up as West Texas.

The dialogue is mostly excellent, occasionally didactic and sometimes muddled as both Pine and Foster, digging deep for their West Texas accents, occasionally bring up curdled oil (or maybe it’s just my hearing). The film has a fine feel for low-living, hard-bitten types strongly reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah at his most attentive and heartfelt.

But what sticks to me most about Hell or High Water is the landscapes, portraits of places once conquered, now abandoned by the conquerors to gather. The very next day after I saw it, I toured the California and the West photography exhibit now on display at SFMOMA, which contains dozens of similar photographs, full of charmless ruins. All modern empires, it seems, leave little in the way of legacies but waste and ruin.


At my darling wife’s request, I checked The Boxtrolls (2014) from the Berkeley Public Library’s wide selection of DVDs. For serious animation devotees and artists—not to mention kids—it’s a treat offering a fine fusion of stop-action, CG and traditional animation (and 3D if you, have it; we don’t).

The best moments come from the villain Archibald Snatcher and his giant steampunk trash incinerator marching around the Victorian town of Cheesebridge, scooping up the innocent Boxtrolls of the title. The DVD extra discussing the painstaking production process proved more fascinating to me (unusual for extras, which I’ve come to ignore).

In fact, the extras may be the best part. For viewers not supremely devoted to animation, the film plays a little flat. The dialogue is pitched low, voiced by a mostly Brit cast, including Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris (from Mad Men) and Simon Pegg, plus Americans including Elle Fanning and Tracy Morgan. The story, which, of course, celebrates tolerance, never caught fire in my soul.

Yeah, I know: maybe, just maybe, my soul is made of asbestos.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield
Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel will appear this Fall 2016. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies and Now Speaks the Devil (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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