Hell Or High Water

Director: David Mackenzie (2016) BBFC cert: 15

With scorching violence, bone dry humour and a social conscience, this hard baked heist movie is an extraordinary ride into the dark heart of the new wild west.

Jeff Bridges is magnificently grizzled as Marcus, a cantankerous Texas Ranger leading his Native American partner in pursuit of a pair of likeable bank robbers.

This finely balanced construction contains a timelessness and an immediacy as mythic archetypes canter across the cruel climes of current economic conditions. The four lead characters suggest reincarnations of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid being pursued by The Lone Ranger and Tonto. And the film is frequently and intentionally entertaining as that sounds.

This acidic exploration of the American Dream touches upon the ownership of oil, land, money and its effects on life chances and family legacy. It reaches deep into the history of the nation to bring forward a lament for the state of the Union.

The of setting of Hell Or High Water is the macho world of dirt poor West Texas. An irony free world of cowboy hats, casinos and cattle drives, where every male of age carries a gun and drives a 4X4. Long shadows are cast by absent mothers and wives.

The action sequences are fast slaps to your face and the morally complex script bites with the venom of a rattlesnake. The melancholy tone is layered with lyricism via the earthy soundtrack provided by Aussie songsmiths Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The cinematography of Giles Nuttgens captures the rust and neglect of abandoned farm machinery, symbols of a poverty line existence.

Director David Mackenzie’s last offering was the vicious prison drama Starred Up (2014). Once again he demonstrates his keen ear for dialogue, sharp nose for a story and an astute eye for an image.

Mackenzie references the crime movies Touch Of Evil (1958) and Rififi (1955). He does it not to demonstrate his own knowledge, pad the film’s length or to distract the audience during a lull. There are no lulls in this film. The references are chosen for thematic sympathy and used sparingly and appropriately.

Bridges’ turn is also a modern day riff on Rooster Cogburn, the US Marshall from the remake of True Grit (2010) for which the actor was Oscar nominated. Plus the star’s presence recalls the actor’s early career where he sparred with in Clint Eastwood in Michael Cimino’s crime road trip Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). That film was based on Captain Lightfoot (1955) which also concerned a pair of highwaymen brothers.

The tremendous script by Sicario (2015) scribe Taylor Sheridan so acutely observes human behaviour  it could have been penned by the late great Elmore Leonard, the writer of novels from which sprung the films 3:10 To Yuma (1957 & 2007) Mr Majestyk (1974) and Out Of Sight (1998).

Marcus is partnered with Alberto, a native American officer played with a wearied reservation by Gil Birmingham. Knowing Marcus is days away from retirement, Alberto chooses to dismiss his casual racism as office banter.

Thieves Toby and Tanner are played by the film’s other excellent double act, Chris Pine and Ben Foster. They’re on a stealing spree from the very banks which are threatening to foreclose on their ranch. And they’ve only a couple of days to raise the cash. After every job they bury the getaway car, an exercise laden with grave portent.

Best known as Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, Pine’s leading man looks and easy on-screen charm often obscure his talent. He plays Toby, the younger, more bright and reflective of the siblings, an estranged father who owes months of child support.

Neither pair are abundantly blessed with great intelligence or skills and this ordinariness helps to incubate an empathy for all four protagonists.

Elegiac, bleak, funny  and always accessible and commercial, come hell or high water, you have to see this movie.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

Star Trek Beyond

Director: Justin Lin (2016) BBFC 12A

Beam yourself aboard the starship Enterprise for a non stop rocket ride of outer space adventure.

This third film in the rebooted sci fi franchise is a solid improvement on the muddled second episode Star Trek Into Darkness (2013). Lin has directed 4 of the Fast Furious films and he’s energised this series after JJ Abrams’ faltering tenure. There’s every suspicion Abrams’ head being turned by the opportunity to direct Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2014) resulted in the mess that was Into Darkness.

Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Zaldana, Anton Yelchin, John Cho and Simon Pegg slip easily into their natty new uniforms as Captain James T. Kirk, Mr Spock, Uhura, Chekov, Sulu and Scottie. Though it’s Karl Urban as the irascible Dr McCoy who is gifted the best lines.

Sofia Boutella enjoys herself in an aggressively  physical role as Jaylah, a non human. In the Federation, everyone is an alien. There’s no return for Alice Eve as Dr Carol Marcus and at no point are any women required to pose in their underwear, a gratuitous moment which embarrassed Into Darkness even more than the script did.

While on a rescue mission through an unchartered nebula, the Enterprise is attacked by a swarm of giant insect like steel spaceships.

Most of the crew are killed or kidnapped, the Enterprise is destroyed and the captain is stranded on a nearby planet. It’s home to a powerful warlord called Krall, played with muscular menace by Idris Elba.

There’s a jaw dropping action sequence on a beautifully designed space station, anti gravity combat and a mysterious ancient alien weapon. I can’t stress how fabulous the space station is. It’s fragile grace is one of the most remarkable pieces of design I’ve seen this cinema year.

As well as starring, uber Trekkie Pegg co-wrote. In his best work for years the script cleaves closely to the soaring spirit of joshing optimism and adventure of the original 1960’s TV show.

There’s a touching moment of remembrance for Leonard Nimoy who essayed the part of Spock for many years and the film is dedicated to Anton Yelchin who sadly died this year.

A fourth film has already been announced and on this form the series is set in the words of Mr Spock, ‘to live long and prosper’.

@ChrisHunneysett

The Finest Hours

Director: Craig Gillespie (2016)

Batten down the hatches and prepare for heroism on the high seas in this historical drama.

It’s a sturdy old fashioned tale of duty, courage and comradeship in extreme circumstances.

But it offers only a squall of excitement, not a storm of danger.

During the ferocious winter storm of 1952, a Massachusetts coast guard crew combats ferocious conditions to rescue the crew of a stricken oil tanker.

But when a second tanker is ripped in two, it is left to a lowly Boatswains mate to launch a second mission with an inexperienced crew and unsuitable craft.

The action is a well staged mix of real action and special effects but the soggy performances threaten to capsize the story.

Bernie Webber is a shy, cautious soul. As the quiet hero Chris Pine carries none of the arrogant swagger of his Captain Kirk from the recent Star Trek reboot.

Instead he acts his little serious socks off, trying to out furrow the knotted brow of a typically downbeat Casey Affleck.

He plays Ray, the engineer and acting skipper of what remains of the tanker.

His authority is challenged by Seaman Brown, an enjoyably dissident Michael Raymond-James. Being a Disney movie, these are the most profanity free sailors ever to set sail.

The story flounders as when Bernie begins to abandon his cherished regulations to follow his instinct. It’s almost as if he’s using the Force from Star wars.

As Bernie’s pretty telephonist fiancee Miriam, Brit actress Holliday Grainger has little to do by drive about the dock and look worried. It’s a thankless role but the script at least attempts to give her a mind of her own.

A thunderous score seeks to drown out the scolding winds and though there’s some fine moments, you won’t be blown away at any minute or hour.

 

 

Star Trek Into Darkness

Director: JJ Abrams (2013)

This spectacular looking but disappointing sequel to 2009’s brilliant franchise reboot is a bumpy retread of the best Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan (1982).

It’s shamefacedly self-referential, surprisingly violent and riddled with plot-holes.

The cosmic cast returns with Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Karl Urban as ‘Bones’ McCoy and Simon Pegg as Scotty.

After breaking Starfleet protocols on an alien planet, Kirk is recalled to Earth where former agent Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is conducting a terror campaign.

Harrison escapes to Qo’noS, the Klingon home world, and Kirk hunts him down only for the Enterprise to be stranded, powerless on the edge of the Neutral Zone.

Photon torpedoes, phaser fights, space battles and armour-suited Klingons zip past in a blur of CGI.

As Kirk and Spock’s bickering bromance continues, Cumberbatch’s purring villain brings much needed intelligence and depth.

Director JJ Abrams has difficulty juggling his large cast and some are wheeled on and off at warp speed to pay lip service to the character.

Alice Eve is particularly ill-served as a scientist required to get her kit off to defuse bombs.

Plus the irritating Pegg has far too much screen-time, his comic delivery is laboured and light on humour.

As it’s played at a breakneck speed throughout, it demonstrates Abrams has little time for, or possibly understanding of, dramatic relief.

Abrams is happy to fly at lightspeed past the emotional hub of the film in order to pursue a far less interesting – and over extended – fist fight.

Abrams may wish to be considered the new Spielberg but this appropriately, is more worthy of a latter-day George Lucas.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Director: Kenneth Branagh (2014)

This insipid reboot of Tom Clancy’s CIA agent Jack Ryan is the character’s fifth big screen outing – and the least entertaining.

It squanders its acting talent, glossy design and glamorous locations on a dated plot, weak script and limp action sequences.

Lacking the self-knowing ridiculousness that makes the Mission Impossible films so much fun, it resorts to stealing its best (only?) joke from Indiana Jones and the finale of a Batman movie.

Chris Pine plays Ryan, a US marine turned top analyst. He’s commissioned by a CIA division so secret the movie can’t even be bothered to invent a name for it.

Pine has one excellent scene as a boorish drunk but isn’t allowed the swagger that made his Captain Kirk so entertaining. Kenneth Branagh plays the menacing Russian agent Viktor Cherevin and smuggles in some welcome acting subtlety.

Ryan is sent undercover to Moscow where he forgets his training at the first opportunity and is left huddling at night on the cold streets. Luckily, incompetent CIA chief Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) – his first kill was an innocent bystander – rocks up with a van full of surveillance gear to help out.

Then Ryan’s civilian fiancée Cathy (Keira Knightley) jets in to check on his suspected infidelity and immediately mucks in with the assignment.

She’s a natural at the espionage game and even helps out Ryan with some analysis – his best talent, don’t forget – and loyally doesn’t take any credit. Clearly the CIA have employed the wrong man, er, woman.

Mind you, the Russians are no better. Their not-so-dastardly two-pronged plot involves creating a huge economic depression – as if anyone would notice these days – and blowing up some Wall Street banks, which may not cause the outrage among the western world they anticipate.

☆☆☆

Into The Woods

Director: Rob Marshall (2014)

Disney embraces the dark side in this dazzling big budget live-action adaption of the award-winning magical musical fairytale.

Based on the stories of the Brothers Grimm, the wicked lyrics of songwriting maestro Stephen Sondheim are performed by an all-star cast on top form.

Plus as great sets and costumes boost the sometimes uninspired direction, it all makes for a spooky and frequently funny fantasy.

Once upon a time, a baby-stealing witch (Meryl Streep) has cursed the house of a poor baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) so they cannot conceive a baby.

Corden and Blunt share a bickering chemistry and play commendably straight which allows the more fantastical characters to showboat.

Streep indulges herself with may a shriek and cackle as the witch who is also under a spell, forcing the couple to help her before she will lift their curse.

They must go into the woods to find a white cow, a golden slipper, a red cape and some yellow hair before the full moon in three days’ time.

On the way, they meet familiar characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, played by an astonishingly confident and scene-stealing teenage Lilla Crawford.

She is of course preyed upon by the big bad wolf, an excellent Johnny Depp in an extended cameo.

There’s also Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), Jack of the beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone) giants, ghosts and some golden eggs, Anna Kendrick is pitch perfect as Cinderella.

She is pursued by a a philandering Prince (Chris Pine). He’s wonderfully vain, self-centred and thoroughly enjoys himself delivering the funniest song and the best line.

Proving you should be careful what you wish for there are betrayals, mutilations and deaths as well as some unpardonably poor parenting.

As greed is punished and bravery and honesty win out, you won’t fail to be charmed by this wonderful tale’s dark magic.

★★★★☆