Sunday, September 25, 2016

Film Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

If this summer's film slate of superheroes and reboots and sequels, all of them CGI-heavy, has tired you out, cast your eyes on Hell or High Water. It's a modern western set in the driest, most destitute corner of Texas that borrows tropes from the horse-powered westerns of yesteryear to tell the story of two brothers who rob banks to pay off the mortgage on their mother's land.

The brothers are Tanner and Toby. Tanner (Ben Foster) is a career criminal and all-around hell raiser. Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced dad who needs to pay off the mortgage on his late mother's land. The land isn't worth much, but the oil underneath it, which has just been discovered, is worth $50k a month. But if he can't pay off the mortgage the bank will get the land and the oil. Toby has not, we gather, been a good husband or father, so as an act of redemption he wants to put the land in a trust for his kids once he's cleared the mortgage. The amount he needs isn't much, but it involves robbing banks in a variety of flyblown towns across west Texas. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is soon on their trail.

What's striking about this film is its conscious effort to harken back to the American filmmaking aesthetic of the late 1960s and early '70s. Films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands are obvious visual influences, also the use of local, non-professional actors in small roles. Director David Mackenzie has clearly absorbed the feel of those films and tried to bring them back to life, particularly in the handling of the brothers. Tanner and Toby are the kind of antiheroes that were common in the '70s. They aren't well-equipped in temperament or skills to deal with normal life and have ended up living on the fringes of society, which also makes them unconsciously anti-establishment, a key element of the films of that era.

The most modern aspect of the film is its emphasis on the poverty and despair gripping this part of world. Billboards for payday loan  and debt relief companies dot the landscape, most businesses are shuttered, and the population seems either very old or very unemployed. This is Tea Party America, even though the film never makes any direct political statements along these lines. The bad guys, as in so many old westerns, are the banks, who are eagerly foreclosing on anyone and everything. A briefly glimpsed piece of graffiti at the beginning of the film neatly captures the film's political viewpoint: THREE TOURS OF IRAQ BUT I NEVER GOT A BAILOUT. Sadly, the film is content to just blame the banks rather than drilling down deeper to the politicians who are the banking industry's enablers. The western tropes are cleverly woven through the film, especially during a climactic bank heist that results in an impromptu posse chasing the brothers out of town, and, like the legendary James brothers, Toby and Tanner receive protection from some of the locals. Nobody likes banks.

But this isn't a perfect film. The character of Tanner is too much of a generic crazy cowboy, and Ben Foster overacts accordingly. Chris Pine as Toby is fine, but it's not a very demanding role since he's mostly asked to just look hurt or depressed. Although kudos to Pine or the director for the visual motif of Toby constantly hanging his head down as though literally beaten down by Fate. Only at the very end do we see him standing proud. There are some plot holes, and some awkward and superfluous scenes (did we really need to see Tanner bonking a hotel receptionist?) that mar what's otherwise a lean and efficient film. Part of the blame for that, aside from the script, might be due to the director being a Brit. This kind of gritty, regional story is hard for outsiders to get right when it comes to the details, and Mackenzie is sometimes tone deaf when it comes handling his Texan characters. On the plus side, you can count on Jeff Bridges getting an Oscar nom for best supporting actor.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Film Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

First the good news: Ghostbusters is funny. Not as funny as the original, but miles better than Ghostbusters II, a film almost no one cares to remember. What's made this film relatively unsuccessful (it's still grossed over $200m) is that while it succeeds as comedy, it fails as a film. The original version was funny and atmospheric, mildly spooky, exciting, and visually clever. The new one has none of those qualities. The ghosts were a major star of the first film, but in this iteration the spectres are like props tossed on stage for a group of improv comedians to riff on. That's OK to a point, but eventually you have to try and tell a story, develop an atmosphere, or create a sense of crisis or tension.

The fault lies with Paul Feig, the director. I saw Spy, his previous effort, and was astonished at what an incompetent director he is. He doesn't know where to put the camera, and many scenes feel utterly slapdash, as though he'd gone into the editing room and selected the worst takes on offer. He'd be fine directing a sitcom, but when it comes to features he's out of his depth. Another reason for the film's modest returns is that SFX ain't what they used to be, or rather, our enjoyment of them has changed. When the first Ghostbusters came out in 1984 the effects were ooh and aah-worthy. Audiences were only seven years removed from the SFX revolution that was Star Wars, and were eager for more of the same. By today's standards the '84 film looks a bit primitive, but at the time it was impressive. These days audiences don't view effects as anything special. Even middling budget films have great effects, so you can't expect to entice people with the prospect of seeing CGI ghosts. And the creative minds behind the CGI in this film definitely haven't done anything special. There isn't a single memorable entity, and the climax, featuring an unholy version of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade is annoying because it could have been brilliant if they'd used the actual balloon characters from the parade.

And now for the Leslie Jones portion of my review. When it came out that Jones, who is black, was playing the one Ghostbuster who is self-described as not knowing about "this science stuff," the social media reaction was swift and merciless--once again, critics said, Hollywood racism dictates that blacks can't be thinkers. They can provide the muscle or "street smarts," but it's the whites who do the heavy intellectual lifting. The critics were right. Casting Jones as the single non-academic Ghostbuster is liberal racism at it's worst. In interviews defending this casting decision, the filmmakers sound pleased with themselves just to have given a black woman a major role, but the lazy racism becomes apparent when you realize that Melissa McCarthy, who's made a living out of playing women who don't know much about "stuff," has been promoted to the holder of a post-graduate degree. Apparently if there's a black woman in the cast McCarthy has to get an educational upgrade. But the casting decision that annoys me almost as much is that Julia Louis-Dreyfus isn't in the cast. How can you do an all-female Ghostbusters reboot without using America's funniest female actor? Oh well, perhaps they can squeeze her into the sequel to replace Jones' character, who'll be off attending night classes to get her university degree.