HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) – Superior Movie Might Be Year’s Best

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hell-or-high-water poster

Taylor Sheridan is quickly becoming one of my favorite screenwriters working today.

He wrote SICARIO (2015), which was my favorite movie of the year last year.  And now he’s followed that sensational film up with another, HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016).  Sheridan is also an accomplished actor.  Among his acting credits, he played Deputy Chief Hale during the first couple of seasons of SONS OF ANARCHY.

HELL OR HIGH WATER tells two separate stories which run parallel to each other until they converge during the film’s conclusion.

Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are on a bank robbing spree in Texas.  No, this isn’t the Old West, but present day where the economy is so bad that the locals are actually happy these guys are robbing banks, since the banks are the ones which are robbing the people of their livelihood.

Meanwhile, Texas Marshall Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is days away from retirement. He catches wind of the robberies, and while his Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) thinks Hamilton is only interested because he wants to go out with a bang, to find one last case to work on to delay his retirement, the truth is, Hamilton is intrigued because he sniffs out a plan that is a step above the crimes he usually comes in contact with.  There’s something more going on here than just a string of small time robberies.

And that’s because while big brother Tanner is an ex-con and a hothead, the bank robbing scheme is not his idea.  It’s his younger brother Toby’s, and it involves paying off the reverse mortgage on his recently deceased mother’s property, property the bank is only too happy to confiscate.  It also involves being able to leave his two sons something, something that he never had.

As Toby says at one point in the movie, poverty is like an inherited disease.  You’re born into it.  Your parents are born into it, they pass it on to you, and you in turn pass it on to your children.  Tanner says that’s not going to happen to his kids.

So, as Toby and Tanner continue their meticulous spree, stealing only small amounts of money to keep off the fed’s radar, Hamilton continues his pursuit, trusting his gut that he’s got these guys figured out, and that he knows where they will strike next.  It’s a perfect set-up to a suspenseful and fully satisfying conclusion.

There are so many good things about HELL OR HIGH WATER.

The best part, to be sure, is the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan.  It covers a lot of ground and contains many poignant moments.  The theme is clear:  the American dream is dying, and the culprit is big money and the banks who control it.

Hamilton’s partner Alberto says it point blank, telling Hamilton that 150 years ago the land was stolen from his people by Hamilton’s people, and now it’s being stolen again, but this time the victims are Hamilton’s people, and the thieves are the banks.

There are many other fine moments as well.  When Hamilton requests the $200 tip Toby left a diner waitress because it’s evidence, the waitress refuses to give it to him, scolding him, saying that he’ll need a warrant to take away the money from her, money that she needs to pay her mortgage to keep a roof over her daughter’s head.

Earlier in that same diner, Toby wonders why his brother doesn’t seem to think they’ll get away with it, to which Tanner answers that he’s never known anyone to get away with anything, a hint that the crazy ex-con isn’t above some planning of his own.

Another time, Toby takes his estranged teen son aside and tells him how much he cares for him, and that he doesn’t want him and his brother to turn out like Toby and Tanner.  He then offers his son a beer, to which the teen replies, “You say you don’t want me to be like you, and then you offer me a beer.  Which one is it?”

The screenplay is deep and resonates on all levels.

The performances are all first rate.

Chris Pine is excellent here as Toby, and it’s fun to see him deliver a much more nuanced and satisfying performance than his Captain Kirk portrayals in the current STAR TREK reboots.  It gives Pine a chance to show he’s more than just a handsome face.

I always like Ben Foster. He has wowed me in a bunch of movies, none more than his powerful performance in 3:10 TO YUMA (2007).  He’s terrific again here as the hothead brother Tanner.  It’s the type of role Foster can play in his sleep, yet I never get tired of watching him.  It’s funny because the Jason Statham actioner sequel MECHANIC:  RESURRECTION (2016) also opened this weekend, and Foster co-starred with Statham in the first film THE MECHANIC (2011).  He was one of the best parts of that first movie, and Statham sure could have used Foster’s presence in the sequel, which was pretty dreadful.

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Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Pine in  HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016).

Even better than Pine and Foster, is Jeff Bridges as Marshall Marcus Hamilton.  As played by Bridges, Hamilton is old, slow, and days from retiring, but he hasn’t lost a step.  Bridges makes what could have been an annoying old fart, a man who is constantly making ethnically charged jokes at his partner’s expense, into a compelling, believable, and likeable  character.  It’s fun to watch Bridges, because as he’s gotten older, his performances have gotten better.  He’s always been good, but these days, as he’s in his 60s, he’s really good.

Director David Mackenzie also does a fine job at the helm.  He captures the feel of economically strained Texas.  On more than one occasion, folks say they’re glad these guys are robbing the banks, which they see as the real villains in their lives.  He also captures life in Texas.  Several times during their robberies, Toby and Tanner encounter men with guns who are quick to shoot at them.  One point, a large group of these men jump into their pick-up trucks, form a “posse,” and head off in hot pursuit of the bank robbers.  Who said this isn’t the Old West?

Another time, Marcus and Alberto come across some cowhands who are driving pathetic looking cattle away from a large brush fire.  One cowhand remarks, “It’s the 21st century and I’m doing this!  I can’t believe this is what I have to offer my kids!”

In a way, what this movie captures best is the feeling that here in the 21st century we have taken a step backwards.  The mantra that life is better for the next generation doesn’t seem to exist anymore.  And the villains, the reason that life isn’t better than it was, is big money and big banks.

HELL OR HIGH WATER is a superior movie.  It’s that rare film where everything works.

As such, it just might be the best movie of the year.

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BEST MOVIES OF 2015

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

It Follows poster

10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

mad max fury road poster

6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

spotlight 2015 poster

1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

sicario poster

And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

SICARIO (2015) – TAUT THRILLER IS ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR

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MOVIE REVIEW:  SICARIO (2015)Sicario poster

By Michael Arruda

 

In Spanish, “sicario” means “hit man.”  In English, it means “hit movie.”

That being said, SICARIO is not exactly tearing it up at the box office, which is a shame, since it’s one of the best films of the year.

SICARIO is the new thriller by director Denis Villeneuve.  Its story about the hunt for a Mexican drug lord has it all:  riveting direction by Villeneuve, a multi-layered and deeply resonating screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, and fantastic acting performances all around, led by Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, and Josh Brolin.

Wow.  And wow again.

Del Toro has been exceptional in a bunch of movies, so it would be difficult to call his role in this movie as the mysterious and oh-so-cool and deadly Alejandro his best, but he is phenomenal here.  Alejandro instantly joins the ranks of cinema’s most fearsome hitmen.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an idealistic FBI agent who in the film’s opening segment leads a drug raid on an Arizona home that leads to both a gruesome discovery and tragedy.  Kate and her agents discover over two dozen dead bodies buried within the walls of the house, and later as the agents continue to scour the grounds, a bomb goes off killing members of Kate’s team.

Kate’s exemplary work attracts the attention of special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), and he invites Kate to join his team.  His mission is to hunt down the drug lord responsible for the death of Kate’s men, and so naturally Kate wants in, despite her misgivings about the operation, fueled by Graver’s evasive answers to her questions.  For instance, he refuses to give her a straight answer regarding the government agency for which he works.

Kate’s by-the-book partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) warns Kate not to go, but she is determined to take down those responsible for her agents’ deaths.  Things grow murkier when Kate learns that they’re not going to El Paso as promised but to Mexico.

On the plane to Mexico, Kate meets Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a man whose demeanor immediately raises a red flag for Kate.  She demands to know who Graver and Alejandro are working for, and she wants to know if they are, as she suspects, CIA.  Graver, in his usual relaxed, calm, confident manner, tells Kate to chill and to simply go along for the ride to observe and learn, because as he says, the battle that they’re taking to Mexico, is on its way to the States, and she’ll soon be waging a similar battle back home.

Kate relents and goes with Graver and Alejandro to Mexico, where she sees firsthand the horrors and crimes committed by the drug lord they are seeking, a man known as Fausto Alarcon.  Graver has assembled a crack team including Texas Rangers and other military types to complete their mission which is to go in and extract one of Alarcon’s cousins in order to stir things up and ruffle Alarcon’s feathers.  Kate is uncomfortable by the methods she witnesses, knowing they are illegal, but she stays with Graver and his team anyway.

They get their man, and in one of the film’s tenser sequences, attempt to bring him back across the border to the States, where Graver’s work is far from finished.  As Kate is drawn deeper into a world she wants no part of, a world where the lines between friend and foe become more and more difficult to discern, she struggles between keeping to her ideals and knowing what is right, and helping Graver, a man who’s eventual goal in spite of his off the chart methods is exactly what Kate wants to achieve.

SICARIO tells a fascinating story that works on multiple levels.  It’s written by Taylor Sheridan, who has worked more as an actor than as a writer.  Sheridan played Deputy David Hale on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2010). SICARIO is his debut screenplay, and it’s pretty darned impressive!

We are immediately drawn into Kate Macer’s story from the very first scene.  We share her determination to hunt down the man responsible for her team’s death, but this is no vengeance plot.  Like Kate, we become increasingly frustrated by the constant slipperiness of Matt Graver.  We are made uncomfortable by the cold presence of Alejandro.  And like Kate, we are increasingly torn between these men’s methods and their goal.

Alejandro’s story might be even more compelling.  At first, he’s this shadowy figure who we, like Kate, immediately suspect is not who he seems.  And we’re right.  But his back story explains his motivations, and as the movie goes on he becomes more of a central player.  The best part of Alejandro is his complexity. He puts Kate on edge immediately, and yet he’s the man when they’re in Mexico who seems to have her back.  She eventually trusts him, but later his actions cause her to pull a gun on him, an action he quickly makes her regret.

And the plight of the Mexican people, caught in the crossfire between the drug cartel on the one hand and the U.S. government on the other, is captured brilliantly yet simply in a touching subplot involving a corrupt Mexican police officer named Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) and the relationship he shares with his son.  The simple shot near the end of the movie of his son standing next to his empty bed is just one of the many powerful images captured in SICARIO and succeeds in making its point far more effectively than any long drawn out scene of dialogue.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve, SICARIO is full of potent images.  From the disturbing sight of naked mutilated bodies hanging above Mexican streets, to the more subtle scenes of Mexican children playing soccer with the sound of gun shots in the distance, to the blazing display of gunfire and explosions in the Mexican night witnessed by Kate from a distant rooftop.

Villeneuve also directed the well-received kidnapping thriller PRISONERS (2013) starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.  I enjoyed SICARIO better than PRISONERS, as it tells a more complex story and it’s more of a complete package.

SICARIO also features some of the more riveting film sequences I’ve seen in a while.  The trek to extract the prisoner from Mexico, where Graver’s convoy gets stuck in traffic because of an accident, allowing drug hitmen the time they need to descend upon them, is one of the more suspenseful and exciting sequences in the film.  Likewise, later in the film a pursuit into an underground tunnel is just as exciting.  There are plenty of nail-biting moments in SICARIO.

The cast is flawless.

Emily Blunt delivers her finest performance to date in SICARIO (2015).

Emily Blunt delivers perhaps her finest performance to date in SICARIO (2015).

Emily Blunt is outstanding as Kate Macer.  She’s the perfect combination of tough-as-nails strength and later as her world crumbles around her, frightened vulnerability.  Blunt’s performance in the Tom Cruise science fiction film EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014) was one of my favorite parts of that movie.  She’s even better here in SICARIO. It’s Blunt’s best performance to date.

Even better is Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro.  He possesses such a presence in this movie that he can unnerve you just by standing there without uttering a line.  And when he gets into his adversary’s faces, and he does, up close, you can feel their trembling.  Yet, as played by Del Toro, Alejandro is not a one-note heartless robot of a killer.  He’s much more intricate than that, and while he may be one of the more cold-blooded hit men you’ll find in a movie, his backstory and its resolution, may have you shedding a tear.

Benicio Del Toro delivers yet another exceptional performance in SICARIO (2015).

Benicio Del Toro in another exceptional performance in SICARIO (2015).

Alejandro also shares a bond with Kate.  When he tells her that she reminds him of someone special from his past, it’s not a cliché set-up for a long lost love, but something deeper and more touching.

Josh Brolin is just as good as his fellow co-stars, playing the evasive and confident Matt Graver who doesn’t seem to have a straight answer for anything, and yet he often is the most honest man in the story.  And that’s because in the process of not answering Kate’s questions, he tells the truth.  It’s just not what Kate wants to hear, but the information is accurate.  If ever there was a true CIA man it’s Graver.  Brolin is perfectly cast as the relentless government agent who is so relaxed chasing mass murdering drug lords that he wears sandals during high level meetings and sleeps like a baby on flights into enemy territory.

The supporting cast is also excellent.  Daniel Kaluuya is memorable as Kate’s loyal partner Reggie Wayne.  In addition to being an FBI agent, he’s also a lawyer, and he represents law and order in this story, constantly attacking Graver and Alejandro and their methods.  He’s also loyal to a fault to Kate, and in a world where it’s difficult to know who to trust and who might shoot you in the back, it was refreshing to have a character like Daniel in the story.

Victor Garber [ARGO (2013)] makes a memorable impression as Kate’s boss Dave Jennings, and Jon Bernthal (THE WALKING DEAD) impresses in a small role as a man Kate meets in a bar for what seems like a harmless sexual encounter, except that in this story very little is as it seems.

Probably the best of the supporting roles belongs to Maximiliano Hernandez who plays the Mexican police officer Silvio.  In a series of brief scenes, we get to know him as a father to his young son, which makes his ultimate and unfortunate fate as he crosses paths with Alejandro all the more sad and touching.

SICARIO also has an effective music score by Johann Johannsson which completely captures the mood of this one and complements the edge-of-your seat suspenseful scenes.

SICARIO is the perfect combination of suspense and drama.  It’s riveting from start to finish, and it’s full of deep layers that keep this one from being superficial and trite.  It’s as complex as the multi-faceted drug world it portrays, and yet it’s never confusing.  Like Kate, we are torn by this world, are put off by the methods and partnerships embraced by our own government officials to get the job done, and yet also like Kate, at the end of the day we are not completely sure we want them to be stopped.

SICARIO is a deeply satisfying and rewarding movie that will have you on the edge of your seat throughout.  It’s one of the best films of the year.

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