Hell or High Water

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

Director: David Mackenzie

Writer: Taylor Sheridan


Hell or High Water is a modern Western. It is set in a rustic Texan landscape made up of small, washed-up towns scattered around an endless desert where most of the inhabitants live an unassuming, rural lifestyle. The age of the cowboy is long gone and so is the sense of romance and mythology that came with it. There are some of the trademarks in this film that we would associate with the classic John Wayne cowboy movies like bank robberies, shootouts and men with badges, but it doesn’t have that same classical feel to it. Much like No Country for Old Men and FX’s Justified, this film harkens towards a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore (and maybe never even existed in the first place) where men lived by a code and where justice and honour always won over cowardice and infamy. Now the world is older, the morality is greyer and the people who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adapt to the modern way of things have been left behind. This is the setting for Mackenzie’s brilliant, elegiac film.

Two brothers, Toby Howard (Chris Pine), a divorced father of two, and Tanner (Ben Foster), just released from prison, have begun a campaign of bank robberies, focusing on the branches of the Texas Midlands Bank. Although these robberies have been carefully planned, the executions tend to go awry due to Tanner’s reckless, changeable nature. Still, they get away with the money and proceed to a casino in Oklahoma where it can be laundered. The case for these robberies is handed to Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a grizzled, veteran Ranger on the verge of retirement, and his Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). As he pursues their leads, Hamilton focuses his investigation on determining the brothers’ methods and personalities in order to anticipate their next move.

What I really liked about this film was how natural and organic everything felt. The film was in no rush to get through the slow parts so that we could enjoy the more thrilling chapters in the story, it all unfolded over a steady, even pace. Moments were allowed to play out, the atmosphere was allowed to sink in and the characters were allowed to breathe. Some of the most memorable scenes in this film have absolutely no bearing on the plot, such as when Hamilton and Parker are greeted in a restaurant by an unsmiling, jaded waitress who, instead of asking, informs the men what they will be having for lunch. It is a wonderfully low-key moment that perfectly encapsulates the antiquated, melancholic nature of the world that these characters live in. That moment and the others like it are why the film is able to be deep and insightful without being pretentious. They are raw, subtle and utterly authentic.

As the two brothers Pine and Foster have never been better. Pine, who some might underestimate as another Hollywood pretty face, plays against type here and shows himself to be as much of an actor as he is a star. As Toby he plays a quiet and unassuming man, someone who isn’t a saint but who also wouldn’t get himself involved in this kind of activity unless he had a good reason. Meanwhile Tanner, played by the chameleonic Foster, is a loose cannon. His reason for robbing these banks is the same as his brother and he’s smart enough to know that their best shot is to stick to the plan but, while Toby is apprehensive about what they are doing, Tanner is clearly enjoying himself way too much. Bridges is predictably perfect for the role of the ageing lawman, but what is surprising is how well he and Birmingham play off each other. The banter between them is often unflattering and, in Bridges case, politically incorrect, but it comes from a place of mutual respect and perhaps even affection. The two are like an old married couple, they can barely stand each other but there’s no one they’d rather be partnered with.

Those are just the main performances. One of this film’s best qualities is that every character, from the main to the side to the one-liners (including the aforementioned waitress), is impeccably cast and memorable. That, I think, is one of the reasons why this film feels as fresh as it does. Even though this film takes a familiar concept from an established genre with a long and rich cinematic history, it never feels like the film is just going through the motions. Through strong acting, compelling storytelling and beautiful cinematography, the film is able to take some of the hallmarks of this genre and make them feel fresh and natural. Anyone who has seen a Western before will probably anticipate the climatic shootout that will inevitably take place, but the film exists so strongly in its own world that it doesn’t feel like an obligatory convention of its genre, it feels like an intrinsic part of the story.

★★★★★

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Inferno

Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Omar Sy

Director: Ron Howard

Writer: David Koepp


He’s at it again. For the third time Robert Langdon is drawn into a crisis with global ramifications and only by solving a trail of riddles can he save the day. SSDD. That the Dan Brown thrillers have an allure to them is beyond doubt. I was so drawn in by the historical mysteries and artistic secrets featured in his stories as a teenager that I didn’t really notice that he wasn’t a particularly good writer. There is just something so utterly fascinating about discovering that an ancient, secretive organisation like the Opus Dei or the Illuminati could have these great secrets hidden in all of these iconic buildings and works of art. Even when I began to catch on to the absurd and convoluted nature of these stories, the Ron Howard films still did a pretty decent job of making those absurdities and convolutions entertaining. With Inferno though (based on the novel that I didn’t bother to read) it got tiring. I wasn’t thrilled or mystified this time; I was bored and confused.

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), the Harvard professor of Symbology, wakes up in a hospital room with apocalyptic visions and no memory of the last few days. He discovers that the hospital is in Florence and Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) reveals that he is suffering from amnesia due to a bullet wound in the head. When the assassin Vayentha (Ana Ularu) enters guns blazing, the pair make their escape and try to work out what is happening. Among Langdon’s belongings is a small pointer that projects the image of Botticelli’s ‘Map of Hell’, based on Dante’s Inferno. This, they discover, is a clue left by Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), a billionaire geneticist who believes the Earth’s growing population spells humanity’s doom. Before committing suicide, Zobrist created a lethal virus called Inferno that could decimate the world’s population. Langon and Brooks decide that they must follow Zobrist’s trail and prevent the virus from being released. On their trail is Christoph Bouchard (Omar Sy), an agent of the World Health Organisation, Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan), the head of an organisation that is helping Zobrist with his mission, and Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the head of WHO and an old flame of Langdon’s.

That was a convoluted summary to write. The film is just so relentless with the amount of information it dumps and the number of overlapping stories involved. Recounting the plot is a little like listening to a History professor as he drones on and on through an inexorable sequence of “and then… and then… and then…” No “but…” or “therefore…”, just “and then…” There is seldom a moment where a character isn’t running or explaining something or explaining something while running. This is true of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons as well, but those movies at least had a sense of pacing and suspense about them. Also the second movie had a skydiving Pope, so there’s that. Here everything happens at such dizzying speed that nothing is allowed time to sink in. Before your mind has the time to work out what the Horses of Saint Mark have to do with anything, a big plot twist is revealed and then the characters are on their way to Istanbul. Who knew that a confused, anxious, amnesiac Langdon with a great big pain in his head could be such an appropriate surrogate for the audience?

Hanks (minus the mullet this time) does what he does with the usual amount of wit and charm. As Langdon he is simultaneously the smartest man in the room and the approachable everyman, a balance he pulls off like no one else can. Jones is the movie’s highlight though as she plays a plucky foil to Hanks while also matching him on an intellectual level. Her character follows a wholly ridiculous arc in this film but boy does she sell it. Foster, an actor who is usually excellent at disappearing into his roles, isn’t given enough screen-time or character to put his talents to use. All he does is spout ominous lines about the disease of humanity and the end times, the sort of lines that sound great in a trailer. Irrfan Khan however might be the only member of the cast who actually understands what a ridiculous movie he’s in. Playing the prim and proper leader of a secretive organisation who may or may not be the bad guy, he’s having the time of his life.

The film is dense and insane, but then so are the two previous films. This time however it’s just too much. The complicated puzzles, the leaps in logic, the haphazard twists and turns along the way; to quote a clueless emperor in his appraisal of a genius’ masterpiece, “there are simply too many notes”. Worst of all is the climax, an entirely incoherent mess both intellectually and visually. In the struggle that ensued I resigned myself to indifference, as I had no discernable way of telling who was who or who was winning. The production is pretty great, allowing us to see some neat sights including Il Duomo, St. Mark’s Basilica and the Hagia Sophia, so audiences looking to see more of Langdon’s trademark explorations of artworks and buildings will get their fill. What they won’t get is the gripping suspense of The Da Vinci Code or the enjoyable outlandishness of Angels & Demons. What they’ll get instead is two hours of excessive running and explanation, and they will exit the film knowing less than when they entered.

★★

Warcraft: The Beginning

Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Daniel Wu

Director: Duncan Jones

Writers: Charles Leavitt, Duncan Jones


I didn’t play much of the Warcraft games growing up. I gave World of Warcraft a go when I was 14 or 15 but never got into it the way some of my friends did. My knowledge of this universe with its expansive history and lore was thus little better than one being introduced to Warcraft for the very first time. Adapting such a universe into a movie franchise is tricky. There’s so much to share and yet so little space in which to include it. Sometimes introducing an audience to a world of magic, myth and adventure can be as simple as starting with “a long time ago in a galaxy far away”, but there are still many movies that make the mistake of dumping exposition or failing to establish their own rules. The Lord of the Rings trilogy however proved that such an adaptation can work. And so, considering the story this film wanted to tell and the space in which it had to tell it, I think that Warcraft: The Beginning did a pretty decent job.

The orc world of Draenor is being destroyed by a mysterious force called fel magic, and so the orcs must search for a new home under the leadership of the warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu). They enter the world of Azeroth through a portal and begin their colonisation campaign by raiding human settlements. Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), the military leader of Stormwind, is sent to deal with these raids and ends up meeting the mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer). He tells him that he has found traces of fel magic in their world, leading Anduin to call a meeting with Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), the king of Stormwind. Llane sends Anduin and Khadgar to find Medivh (Ben Foster), the Guardian of Tirisfal, hoping that he might hold the knowledge they seek. Their investigation soon leads them to Garona (Paul Patton), a half-orc warrior who pledges herself to Stormwind. Meanwhile Durotan (Toby Kebbell), orc chieftain of the Frostwolf Clan, starts to believe that Gul’dan’s channelling of fel magic is too dangerous and will cause Azeroth to suffer the same fate as Draenor. He therefore tries to reach out to the humans to form an alliance for the sake of both of their peoples.

One of the movie’s weaknesses is the sheer abundance of names and places that the audience is expected to remember while following this story. 30-45 minutes into the movie I was still trying to sort out who was who and what was happening where. Once I had a basic idea of all these things though I found that I was actually rather engaged by the story. It was difficult to keep track of but when it finally came down to the final battle I was both interested and invested. While the intricacies of the plot could be distracting and messy, I was still drawn into the larger story being told about two vastly different cultures struggling to overcome their differences in order to face a greater threat. The obstacles and perceptions that have to be overcome are great, perhaps insurmountable, and this film simply lays the groundwork for what will be a much larger conflict told over successive chapters. To that end I think the movie is satisfactory. It may not have astounded me the way it wanted to but I am interested in seeing what comes next.

One aspect of the games that this film has down to a tee is the look. From the different species and creatures to the cities and landscapes right down to the oversized armour and mystical auras, this game looks exactly like the World of Warcraft that I remember. Although the visuals do have a tendency to look cartoony, I think that can be forgiven in an adaptation of a video game franchise with a cartoony design. The area where the film probably struggles the most is with its characters. While I didn’t find them to be badly written or acted, there were just too many for the film to keep track of. There were a few standouts like Kebbell as Durotan, the orc who believes his people are losing their way, and Patton as Garona, who feels torn between two different cultures that both regard her as an outsider. The rest of the characters left large enough impressions that I could remember who was who, but that’s about all they did.

I think it’s fair to say that I liked Warcraft: The Beginning more than I expected to. It is messy and it is overstuffed with characters and plot details but not to the extent that I couldn’t enjoy the film. Once I got past the stage of working out what exactly was going on, I was able to enjoy it for the epic fantasy adventure that it wants to be. For those like myself who are not intimately familiar with the games and their universe, the film is not inaccessible to them. So far as I can recall there are not any excessive exposition dumps to scavenge through, no confusing plot developments that only make sense if you’ve done your homework and no gratuitous fan service that gets in the way. Warcraft: The Beginning isn’t a film that will have you deeply invested in its compelling characters or blown away by the massive scale and scope of its action like The Lord of the Rings did. However it is a fun and sometimes thrilling movie with neat visuals that has piqued my interest enough for me to return for the next instalment.

★★★