Monthly Archives: August 2016

Hell Or High Water – 8/10

HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016, David Mackenzie)

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s SICARIO expertly built a pessimistic, hopeless world and let its characters slowly drown in it like quicksand. HELL OR HIGH WATER does a similar job, staging the background of a simple cops and robbers story with a whole lot of resonance. Much like Andrew Dominik’s superb KILLING THEM SOFTLY (and, to some extent, Emilio Estevez’s WISDOM), this modern-day Western sets its sniper sights on the depressed economy, loud and clear. The opening shot tells you exactly what you’re in for: graffiti on a wall laments doing three tours in Iraq but not being the one to get a bailout. All Mackenzie needs to do is pan past that scrawl in his opening camera move and we know to expect a little bit of sermonizing.

Shortly after that, we discover our bank robbing brothers are just trying to steal enough money from Texas Midlands banks in order to settle a lien against their family ranch. A witness says, “They robbed the bank that’s been robbing me for thirty years.” A waitress points out that a $200 tip will go towards the mortgage keeping a roof over her family’s head. And when the cops are looking around the bank for its manager, they zero in on one guy by saying “That looks like a man who could foreclose on a house.” Law-abiding citizens, the authorities, and the outlaws are all on the same page here: they’re beaten down by the system, as much victims of the economy as perpetrators of crimes. And in a state like Texas, there doesn’t seem to be much of a future. In what could have been a throwaway scene, the cops are stalled in a pursuit by a herd of cattle crossing the road to avoid a large brush fire: one cowboy tells Jeff Bridges’s lead Texas Ranger, “No wonder my kids don’t want to do this for a living.”

In lesser hands, this much message could be preachy, but Mackenzie leavens the dosage with his signature wily camera movement and focus on character. A big step up from STARRED UP, this picture manages to flesh out both sides of its cat and mouse chase, forming similarities between the partnerships you can’t see coming despite some of the shorthand clichés Sheridan delivers. We get the retiring cop taking on one last case (FALLING DOWN, SEVEN), the good-hearted lead tempted by his fuck-up brother/best friend (ROUNDERS, et. al.), and heist-gone-wrong-thanks-to-hero-hostages (you name it). But Bridges, Pine, Foster, and the underrated Gil Birmingham are good enough and sympathetic enough that every relationship matters and the end earns a great deal of emotion. When Bridges is finally wearing the same shirt as Pine instead of Birmingham, the effect says a lot without saying a word. Perhaps the rest of the film could have stood to do more of that, but this one still leaves a mark.

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Jason Bourne — 4/10

JASON BOURNE (2016, Paul Greengrass)

When Doug Liman departed the franchise after one movie (still my personal favorite of the bunch), and producer Frank Marshall brought in Paul Greengrass to direct, the series continued picking up steam. So you’d think Greengrass was the key to their success. Both Greengrass and Damon were absent from the fourth entry, THE BOURNE LEGACY, but that too had its merits, despite being the weakest entry to that point. Now Damon and Greengrass are back, but JASON BOURNE is a bad movie. So what’s missing? The answer is Tony Gilroy. This is the first film he hasn’t been credited as a writer on, and whaddayaknow — maybe writers are important!

If Gilroy is indeed the key to the Bourne movies, then it makes sense that what bothered me so much about this entry is how incredibly dumb it is. The other films demanded a serious suspension of disbelief, so incredulity is a state of mind best left in the parking lot no matter what — but here, our intelligence in insulted to such a degree that the earlier films now feel like documentaries about geniuses. This is a spy movie where the CIA has in its online database a black ops folder… which is labeled “Black Operations.” An operative downloads said folder to a USB drive which is clearly labeled “ENCRYPTED.” You know, so we’re aware it’s encrypted. These are just some of the myriad ways Greengrass has assumed you’re a fucking idiot.

And it didn’t have to be this way. The first-act setpiece is framed amidst the anti-austerity movement in Greece, as Athenian citizens riot against police. While an economically-strained populace is rebelling against a capitalist authority that has threatened their well-being, our heroes are simply spies trying to elude capture. The third act setpiece begins with Bourne once again sprinting through a fleeing mob, this time consumers who have just seen their capitalist hero the victim of an assassination attempt by a corrupt government. But just as Greengrass carefully dodged any political message in his previous movie (the solid CAPTAIN PHILLIPS), here he uses the riots and the tech giants as window dressing for his chief concern: action. Gilroy might not have leaned on the politics either, but at least the narrative would have been intelligent, with information doled out efficiently and with nuance. And remember in ULTIMATUM when Bourne taped a flashlight to a rotating desk fan to fake out his would-be killers? There’s nothing remotely that clever here. Bourne spends the movie either just punching people, outracing them, being a pickpocket, or shaking down old men to learn what he wants to know. (Furthermore, he’s almost a supporting character — this film belongs to Alicia Vikander; much of the plot is told from her point of view).

Speaking of Greengrass’s beloved chief concern, the action here is as badly staged as it ever has been. Although the spectacle has risen with every movie (Liman’s was a quaint character study by comparison, with a little hand-to-hand and some ledge-dangling; each subsequent entry had more shooting, crashing cars, and explosions), the clarity has not improved. People complained that ULTIMATUM was hacked to bits in the editing room, but the ingredients of those cuts were well-composed combos of wide shots, inserts, second unit choreography, stunts, and CG. With this film, we’re almost exclusively in tight shots so dark and senseless that the action becomes incomprehensible. Maybe that’s why your thoughts drift to the screenplay, uncovering all the reasons it’s so head-slappingly insipid. Almost makes you miss the “chems.”

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