Friday, September 2, 2016

"Hell or High Water" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new movie "Hell or High Water" as well as DVDs "Dark Horse" and "Miss You Already."  The Book of the Week is a novel (I told you I was expanding my reading horizons!) "The Kitchens of the Great Midwest."  I also bring you up-to-date with "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die" with "The Naked Spur."]

Hell or High Water

Two brothers resort to robbing banks to save the family farm.  It's a classic plot elevated by great acting and direction and a multi-layered script.

West Texas has been hit hard by the economy and by those damn banks. With the death of their mother, divorced dad Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) are on their own.  Their mother has left the family farm to Toby but slight problem.  She had fallen victim to the bank during the economic bubble and gotten herself into a bad reverse mortgage. The farm is about to be foreclosed on in about a week, and Toby needs over $40,000 to save the farm.  He feels like a bit of a screw-up in life, but the one good thing he wants to do is save the farm for his sons. Turns out the farm is worth far more than what Toby owes because oil has been discovered there. 

Toby enlists Tanner to help him get the money by robbing branches of the very bank that scammed their mother.  They are going to steal just enough money to save the farm and come hell or high water, Toby is going to get that money to the bank in time to pay off the mortgage and get the farm back. Toby has figured out a good plan - rob small bank branches with few people around, steal only loose bills to avoid dye packs, wear masks and bury each car they use in the robbery on the family farm so there is no trace.  Sounds like a plan. But, of course, things have to go terribly wrong.

For one thing, the brothers didn't expect a tenacious Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) to be enlisted by the local police.  Marcus is on the verge of retirement and is not particularly happy about it so he wants to solve this case - "come hell or high water" - before he retires.

Jeff Bridges is always a draw and can be counted on for a stellar performance, and he doesn't disappoint, though I became fixated on the prosthesis he was wearing in his mouth to make his character seem older.  It reminded me of the marbles Marlon Brando employed in his mouth to play "The Godfather."  And Chris Pine shows he has more going for him than his amazingly handsome face - he can act!  He also puts in a great performance.  But the one to watch is Ben Foster as Tanner.  He's been toiling on TV and in character roles until now, and I suspect his career will take off with this performance.  He's the screw-up kind of crazy brother with a possible death wish and combines a bit of crazy with a bit of sensitivity.  He is fascinating to watch.

Directed by David Mackenzie with a script by Taylor Sheridan, this film has many layers.  It's a Bonnie and Clyde kind of bank robber movie set in the vast wasteland that is modern West Texas, but it's also a film about the old way of life that no longer exists in the small rotting towns and farmlands of the United States because of the lack of opportunity and those unscrupulous banks. But it also mourns the old way of life in the West, when Native Americans owned their own land and farmers could make a living.  And it's also about old versus young.

Speaking of Native Americans, Marcus has a partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who is part Native American and part Mexican, and the two have a close relationship, though Marcus loves to "tease" Alberto, by needling him about Indian and Mexican stereotypes.  Clearly Alberto doesn't care for these comments, but he gives as good as he gets by telling Marcus how glad he will be when he retires and how much he hopes he hates it.  I guess scriptwriter Sheridan was going for the kind of good-natured give and take relationship we like to see between two cop partners and to make a statement about the inherent racism that exists even in "good people," but I have to say some of the comments Marcus made to Alberto were cringe-worthy.

Giles Nuttgens' cinematography beautifully captures the dusty, poverty stricken land of the modern West, with its signs advertising debt relief and bible- thumping spiritual relief, and the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis hauntingly underlines it all.  

There was "The Big Short" which gave us a wonderful overview on how the banks bamboozled us, and then there was "99 Homes," which gave us a glimpse into the human side of all of that pain when many individuals lost their homes, but here it's all honed down to one man's story and how he got some measure of restitution.

And you know I have talked about this before - that I cry at the end of a really great movie whether or not it's sad.  I cry because I am so moved by really good filmmaking. I cried.

Rosy the Reviewer says...If you have been tired of all of the summer blockbusters and have been yearning for an adult drama that has something to say, this is for you.  And remember, I cried.  It's that good.

***Some Movies You Might Have Missed***
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)!

Now on DVD

Dark Horse (2015)

Welsh working class people form a syndicate to breed a horse and participate in "The Sport of Kings."

In a small coal mining community in Wales, Jan Vokes works in a pub.  One day, she overhears Mark Davis, a tax lawyer, talking about his unsuccessful foray into horse racing and, right then and there, she gets the idea that she wants to raise a race horse.  After all, her Dad raised budgies and racing pigeons and showed whippets.  How hard could it be? 

Jan knows that she doesn't have the money to buy and raise a racehorse, but what if she got her friends to all chip in?  She does, including Davis, whose dream it still was to get into horse racing, and they all form a syndicate. Everyone pledges 10 pounds per week and they set about finding their horse.  And mind you, they aren't going to buy a racehorse.  They are going to find a mare, breed her and the colt will be their horse. They do and "Dream Alliance" is born, an apt name for a horse born of an alliance of dreams.  Though at first he doesn't look like a typical race horse, they find a trainer and when Dream Alliance wins his first race, they start really believing in their dream. 

But that's just the beginning of the story.  Dream Alliance has his ups and downs.  He starts as a bit of a joke but becomes a serious contender when he wins The Perth Gold Cup.  But then at a preparatory race for the 2008 Grand National he is injured.  His injury is one where the horse is usually put down but Jan feels the money they had won is Dream's money so they use their winnings for stem cell surgery on Dream and guess what?  Well, you will just have to see the film to find out.

Written and directed by Louise Osmond, I would call this film a "dramatic documentary."  The story is compelling and unfolds like a feature film, but it also includes interviews with the main characters and real racing footage.  It's a story about class with working class people rubbing elbows with their richer counterparts, those you would expect in the pricey "Sport of Kings," but it's also a story of the love these people had for a horse and what he represented to them.  And it's a feminist story because without the will and fortitude of Jan Vokes, there would never have been a Dream Alliance.

Rosy the Reviewer says...this film is not just for those who love horses and horse-racing, it's for everyone who likes to feel good. It's the most human and uplifting movie I have seen in a long while.  Have some hankies handy.

Miss You Already (2015)

Two life-long girlfriends face life's ups and downs together.

Millie (Toni Collette) and Jess (Drew Barrymore) met as young girls in the 1980's in London when Jess's family moved from America to the U.K.  They were instant friends.  Millie was the ebullient bon vivant and the one who got married and had a kid first.  Jess was more centered. She also wanted to have a child, but so far had been unsuccessful. The women love each other, share everything and when they take leave of one another always say "Miss you already," hence the movie's title, though I swear I only heard them say it once.  Millie is the one with the perfect life so of course she is the one who has to get breast cancer.

Jess lives with her boyfriend, Jago (Paddy Considine), on a canal boat, and she is trying to get pregnant so we get to see how IVF works up close and personal.  I think Drew must have been pregnant for real during this film because she wears the most god awful sack dresses and baggie coats. I'm just sayin.'

We also see the ravages of cancer up close and personal as Millie navigates wig shopping, head shaving, the trauma of a mastectomy, the hospital stay (though this hospital looks more like a 5-star hotel) and Millie's husband (Dominic Cooper) and family trying to deal with this unexpected turn in their otherwise perfect lives. Millie's mother, Miranda, an almost unrecognizable Jacqueline Bisset with blond hair and possibly plastic surgery, is not in touch with reality, can't connect with her daughter and is no help whatsoever.

Millie and Jess decide to go to the moors because Millie is obsessed with "Wuthering Heights."  Why is it that whenever we have a film where someone is dying, we have to go on a road trip?  We saw it in "Me Before You" and again in "The Fundamentals of Caring."  Anyway, off they go to commune with Emily Bronte, and there Millie connects with a very hunky bartender in what is a rather unbelievable and jarring plot twist.

However, I'm a sucker for these kinds of films.  Remember "Beaches?"  I cried my eyes out.  Though this is not in the same league as "Beaches," because how can you compete with Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey? - but it's that kind of film so keep some hankies handy.

I don't know why, but I havn't likedToni Colette since she lost weight after making a splash in "Muriel's Wedding," her breakout film.  Maybe it's because she's now too skinny.  And likewise, despite what appears to be Drew Barrymore's ever present optimism and good nature, I haven't really connected with her either.  Maybe I have seen her too many times on late night talk shows being sunny and chipper.  I guess I'm not particularly into sunny and chipper.  But the two are good together here and you believe the friendship.

The gifted and handsome Dominic Cooper, who cut a swath as Ian Fleming in the 2014 British mini-series "Fleming" and has been everywhere you look ever since, plays Millie's husband and Paddy Considine plays Jago, Jess's quirky husband.  Both add a dimension to the story by not being the stereotypical husbands who are insensitive to their wives' struggles.

Written by Morwenna Banks and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, this film avoids sappy sentimentality when tackling Millie's cancer and Jess's struggle to have a baby, but the strength of this film is how well it captures that special bond that really close girlfriends share, one that exists on its own apart from husbands and family, so, I guess, it's only fitting that it was also written and directed by women.

Rosy the Reviewer says...the two may not be Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey but they have chemistry and pull you in.  The message?  Girlfriends transcend husbands.  Remember that ladies.  Keep your husbands close but your girlfriends closer.

***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***

238 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?

The Naked Spur (1953)

Three bounty hunters and a woman work together (sort of) to bring a man to justice.

Howard Kemp (Jimmy Stewart) is on the trail of killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) when he runs into miner Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell).  Tate had seen a cold fire down the trail aways (I'm talking western talk), so Kemp enlists Tate to help him track Vandergroat.  Tate thinks Kemp is a lawman, but later learns he is a bounty hunter and Vandergroat is worth $5000.  The two also encounter Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), a less than honorable cavalry lieutenant, and when Anderson uncovers that Kemp is not a lawman but a bounty hunter, Tate and Anderson want in on the loot.

As the film progresses, it is revealed that Kemp is a sort of sad sack who needs the reward money to buy back the ranch his wife sold when she ran off with another man while Kemp was fighting in the Civil War. He is not a happy man.

After a shoot-out, the three capture Vandergroat, who just happens to be traveling with Lena (a young and beautiful Janet Leigh), and all kinds of sexual tension occurs not to mention the greed that erupts over that $5000 reward. 

"Plain arithmetic.  Money splits better two ways instead of three," says Vandergroat, trying to goad Kemp, Tate and Anderson into turning on each other.

There is also a big gunfight between Native Americans and our bounty hunters which doesn't really figure in the plot, though supposedly Anderson was dallying with one of their women.  But it almost feels like a gratuitous knee jerk accommodation to the whole "cowboys and Indians" mentality of the 1950's and I didn't think it was necessary.

Director Anthony Mann made three westerns with Jimmy Stewart, but I am still having trouble with Jimmy Stewart as a western star.  He's too twitchy.  He works better in Hitchcock films (he starred in four) as a guy caught up in a plot he can't figure out.  Robert Ryan as Vandergroat actually had the flashier part here.

Why it's a Must See: "What makes this an exceptional film is, first, the tautly scripted and finely acted exploration of the tensions between the characters...Second Mann has a wonderful way with mountain scenery, using the arduous nature of the terrain as a physical counterpoint to the characters' inner turmoil."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

The film was shot entirely on location but the scenery is so gorgeous it almost looks like a fake backdrop.

I have never been a big fan of westerns, but when I tell myself that westerns are just melodramas with horses, I like them better, but not that much better.  I don't like the dearth of women, the wide open spaces, the gun fights, horses falling down and the fights with Native Americans where the cowboys usually win.  However, all of that not withstanding, the plot also kind of bored me and the soundtrack...well, hearing "Beautiful Dreamer" every time there was a sensitive moment almost drove me nuts.

See what I mean?

Rosy the Reviewer says...if you like westerns, this one has lots of testosterone and heroics so you will probably like it, but I never did find out what a naked spur was.

***Book of the Week***

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (2016)

How great chefs are made...a novel.

Lars Thorvald lives in the Twin Cities and can't be happier.  After thinking he would be alone forever, he is married to the love of his life, Cynthia, and has a daughter, Eva, who he would die for.  Well, don't wish for something... Cynthia leaves him to become a sommelier and tragedy befalls him.

Eva has tragedy in her life but also has an amazing palate.  At the age of 11, she is already raising hot peppers and gradually works her way into kitchens around the Midwest until she becomes a chef famous for her "pop-up" dinners that cost $5000 per person.  Different characters weave in and out of her life as Eva moves toward her bliss.

But this novel is not just about Eva. This is one of those novels where seemingly unrelated characters are introduced chapter by chapter and then all come together at the end as we discover their relationship to her.  But though that kind of plotline has been done before, Stradal uses some interesting literary devices to take a fresh approach.  And there are recipes, recipes that all play a role in Eva's journey to become a great chef.

Stradal comments about mothers and daughters, regret, and missed opportunities.  His female characters show an understanding of women, and he is actually at his best when focusing on Eva and her journey to chefdom, but he also really captures the spirit of the Midwest.  I should know.  I grew up there.

Stradal also has a lot to say about our current food snobbism.

One of the characters has traveled all the way from Iowa to Minneapolis to enter her award-winning cookie bars in a national competition only to be sneered at by foodies who can't believe she used actual butter, not almond butter, but actual butter from cows, cows that were not necessarily hormone-free.  She is accused of trying to trick people into eating food that is bad for them.

"Her family, God was telling her, was all that mattered.  Not the judgment of these people and their awful food.  She suddenly felt sorry for these people, for perverting the food of their childhood, the food of their mothers and grandmothers, and rejecting its unconditional love in favor of what?  What?  Pat did not understand."

Well, I do.  When I was growing up, my mother made everything from scratch, but I was a very finicky eater.  Not a foodie, just finicky.  I would ask her what was in the food and she would reply, "Flour, butter, sugar, milk...all good things."  And you know what?  She was right because back them those ingredients were not verboten but they were also not rife with additives either.

Rosy the Reviewer says...if you like a good story about food with engaging characters...and will love this book.

That's it for this week!
Thanks for reading!

See you Tuesday for


"Fashion Essentials
for a Woman of a Certain Age"


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