Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water

I don’t know how you’re gonna survive without someone to outsmart.

I don’t really know what I was expecting with Hell or High Water; in all honesty, when I was making potshot guesses as to the other Best Picture nominees of this past year that stood a chance of making the 1001 list, I’d pegged Hacksaw Ridge over this one. I’d heard the good will towards this going into the Oscars last year, but didn’t really have any reason to want to see it, so to have it added to the list, essentially making me see it much earlier than I otherwise would’ve, I was nevertheless ambivalent when I actually sat down to start it. Now that it’s finished, I can understand my ambivalence a little better, as even though I’ve now seen the film, I still feel a slight bit of ‘nothing’ in regards to my desire towards watching the film. But, and here’s the key point for me, that is not to say that Hell or High Water isn’t a really solid film, all ambivalence aside.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are two Texan brothers who, at the beginning of the film, rob two branches of a Texas-based bank; Foster proving himself the wilder of the two, while Pine seems to be the cooler head, the brains behind what’s going on. It soon becomes apparent that there actually is something going on, a greater plan behind the brothers’ actions, especially as Pine’s character has no criminal record at all up to this point. To figure out what’s happening and to bring in the two brothers is Jeff Bridges as an old-hat, salt-of-the-earth Texas Ranger, who’s spending his last couple weeks or so on the job doing little but playfully belittling his Native American partner until the brothers’ case comes his way, and he and the brothers work their way in and around and toward each other as the boys try and get their plan wrapped down before Bridges’ ranger can work out where they’re headed next. If that plot summary sounds like I’m sorta fumbling around what actually happens in the film, I am; a lot of the film is poised such as to get us to wonder what’s going on, or what’s coming next, and there is a distinct air of mystery to the proceedings as we try and figure out along with the Rangers what the two brothers are really up to. I also tried to stress the Texas upbringing that the film is absolutely saturated in; this film is Texan in every which way, down to its very core. The whole experience comes across very much as a slightly watered version of No Country for Old Men; No Country’s eager if elementary little brother, so to speak, which, as a comparison, isn’t one a film like this wouldn’t necessarily want to strive towards, so to see Hell or High Water embrace this aspect of itself so fully is highly encouraging. The performances from the cast were also really solid, especially Ben Foster, who steals nearly every scene he’s in, but Pine and Bridges are up to the task of carrying the film themselves when they need to.

This film, for me, ended up being a good lesson in how to approach the worth or value of a film (provided the film itself has worth or value). A lot of films, especially on the list, are there because they are important in some way, or unique in some other way, or special in some third way, etc. That’s all well and good for something like the list, but it’s not really a good way of determining if a film, any film, is worth the time put into it. Hell or High Water is a great example of a film that is none of the above things, but still gets by on the fact that it’s just a really good film all around. Sometimes, a film doesn’t need to be important, or unique, or one-of-a-kind; all that really matters is that it be good – well-written, well-made, and well-performed, and Hell or High Water is absolutely all of those things. Now, I can’t say that a film like Hell or High Water is worth a spot on this list, or that it will survive future revisions, but I can be glad that it was added just for the fact that it got me to see the film; a film that may not seem like it at first, but ends up being worth your time in the end.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

13th

13th

We have to understand that, in order to escape from it.

13th, a documentary by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, takes its title from the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery and freed all those ensnared in it… but, argues the documentary, was slavery really ended? Or did it merely take a different form? It’s a little obvious to say that there’s a multitude of political issues at work with a subject like this; a multitude of political stances one can take in regards to this subject matter. I wasn’t concerned with that, at least not in my watching the documentary itself. For me, with 13th being a documentary, it really had one goal; not just to cover its subject thoroughly and invite discussion about it, but to get me to care about watching a documentary about the subject in the first place, which is something too few documentaries over the years have really tried to do. Well, coming out of my viewing of it now, I can say: I care. I absolutely do.

The film purports to be about how the criminal justice system has been and is abusing the black population of America, mostly by having the prison population be so disproportionately African-American, but where DuVernay really succeeds is making what this film is about a lot more than that. The film is actually about a number of topics, all covered with a heaping helping of style coupled with plenty of hip-hop and rap music to underline the film’s main points. And when I say style, I mean it; when I first started the film, I was actually a little bit in danger of writing it off almost entirely just based on DuVernay’s sense of presentation, which seemed to overshadow whatever point she was only on the cusp of making. The rap music, for instance, is used as an inter-topic transition, with the key words of the music appearing in giant letters on the screen a la Jean-Luc Godard; not to mention each time the word ‘criminal’ is spoken by an interviewee, DuVernay interposes a giant title card bearing the word in all-caps, bludgeoning you with what it seemed she wants you to feel about what she’s talking about. The more the film went on, though, the more it became apparent what she was really doing; DuVernay explores a bunch of seemingly barely-related topics, but, while doing so, still manages a tangentially-perceptible insidiousness underlying everything she covers that serves to make her actual point: that everything she is covering is, in reality, all about holding down and keeping down the post-13th-Amendment black population, which then evolved into the concept of finding a way to exploit them both for financial gain and for gain of additional power – hence how blacks are so commonly arrested, or even killed, all by the for-profit prison system.

This is effective, almost evilly so; it worms its way into your trust, so that at the end of it, you don’t even realize that you’ve been made to think about the whole situation the way DuVernay wants you to think about it. It’s to DuVernay’s, and the producers’, credit that this inception, this sense of manipulation is being used as a force for good, for positive cultural change; quite the opposite of what’s been happening and being used against the African-American population since the aftermath of the Civil War by all the powers that be, on both sides of the aisle. It’s pretty ingenious, if indeed it is intentional, and I’d like to think that it is. I’m really glad to have seen this, even if I felt mildly ill after my viewing of it; this is the sort of thing that really does need to be seen, as basically a cultural responsibility in today’s day and age. You may not want to, and you may even feel disgruntled if made to, but it is a point that needs to be hammered in, or bludgeoned with, if we are to better ourselves as a community, as a culture, and as a species. Not just a race, but as a people.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Test Pilot

Test Pilot

It was a thrill to see you come out of the sky. It’ll be a greater one to see you disappear in it.

After my rewatch of Captains Courageous turned out as well as it did, I got a little excited when I found out that Test Pilot was also directed by Victor Fleming, just one short year before he’d go on to have one of the best directorial years in Hollywood history. It also stars Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy, so goddang by golly does this one have some heavy hitters in all aspects of it. In my usual bit of research, I got the impression that this one would have some of the best aerial sequences put to film since Wings, which I was looking forward to even without Test Pilot being set in a war (which, to mention, was something to be thankful for). While the flying sequences were certainly well done, if a little transparent with how they managed to film most of them, where the film really succeeds is by taking its own high-flying premise and seeing what happens when you look at it with your feet planted squarely on the ground.

Clark Gable is Jim Lane, a renowned test pilot for plane prototypes, where his job is to push the planes he flies as far as they can reasonably be handled, and then further than that. In one instance, he is poised to set a new coast-to-coast flying record, but his plane begins to dump oil and he’s forced to land it somewhere in Kansas. Here lives Myrna Loy, who houses Gable until his crew, chiefly his main mechanic and devoted best friend Spencer Tracy, can make it there to fix the plane, and as things are wont to happen, the two fall in love over the course of a single day. However, Loy’s young farmgirl soon comes to realize: the only thing that may be more stressful and harrowing than being a test pilot, pushing yourself and the high-flying machines you operate to and past their limits, is being married to a test pilot. After the film got going, a lot of things surprised me about it. For one, for a film called Test Pilot, I was surprised at how much of the film didn’t deal with planes and flying, opting to give us the aerial sequences in sustained bursts spaced quite a bit apart instead of all together or throughout the two-hour running time. I was also surprised at how much of the script consisted of the main trio cracking wise at each other (which they did as well as any other), which made me feel that films like His Girl Friday and The Big Sleep, both done by Test Pilot screenwriter Howard Hawks, were absolutely only a few years away. What surprised me the most, however, was somewhere in the middle, during one scene with Loy and Tracy talking to each other about Gable, when the film dropped the cracks and got pretty damned serious, and alarmingly affecting as a result. This film isn’t about the dangers of being a test pilot, or the thrill of adventure that calls to pilots like Gable’s Jim Lane; it is about how the dangers of being a pilot and the call to adventure that Lane answers to an almost reckless degree affect the people who truly care about him – best friend Tracy and partner Loy. All three stars have rarely been better in a script that really knows how each character affects the others, in both good ways and very negative ways, and by the end, I was impressed as hell with the overall film.

You might think you know where the film is headed only twenty or thirty minutes into it. You would be right; the film does end up pretty much how you’d expect a film like this to end up. What you absolutely will not expect is how the film manages to get to the end, and for a film made near the end of the 1930s, I was amazed at how mature and forward-thinking the screenwriting was, and equally amazed that it all came across the screen so well, thanks to the main stars. This picture will wallop you, mostly because a picture like this, for when it was made and released, really comes out of nowhere with how effective, and affecting, it actually is. Kudos to Victor Fleming, writer Howard Hawks, and the stars of the film; I was expecting this to be particularly thrilling and with maybe half as much backbone in-between the flying sequences, but man was I not expecting what I actually got with this.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

A Star is Born

A Star is Born

I’m going out and have a real life! I’m gonna be somebody!

It’s a little disorienting to look at groundbreaking films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind and realize that they aren’t as much the groundbreakers you thought they were. Two years before those two films changed the canvas and introduced color to the public, it had already been done by 1937’s A Star is Born, which incidentally was also produced by David O. Selznick, and which became the first all-color film to be nominated for Best Picture, even winning a special Oscar essentially for being so. Now, you’d be forgiven if you heard the title A Star is Born and thought immediately of the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason, since I’d absolutely be one of the people who would do just that, but I gotta say; this original screen version, with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, does have a lot going for it.

Esther Blodgett moves to Hollywood to chase her dream of becoming an actress, despite discouragements from her family (save for her appreciative grandmother). Starting with nothing, Esther winds up serving at a party and meets Norman Maine, one of her favorite actors, who’s entering a downslope in his career thanks to his persistent drinking. Immediately taken with the young wannabe, Norman wrangles her a screen test, and later persuades his producer friend to give Esther the lead opposite him in a picture, which (after some rebranding of her farmgirl roots and a new stage name: Vicki Lester) catapults her to stardom. Of course, with every shining star comes a cloud to darken its light, and after she and Norman are married, that cloud threatens to be Norman himself, who can’t kick his drinking habit, nor his indignation at his own career coming up in shambles in comparison to Esther’s. Then again, if you know Hollywood and Hollywood pictures, you know this story already, either from this one or one of the remakes. So, what does this have that the other versions of this story don’t? To be honest, not all that much, but for once, it really didn’t matter; this was not only enjoyable, but it was a damn sight better than most of the riff-raff that’s been nominated for Best Picture in the past few years of my odyssey or so. Both Janet Gaynor and Fredric March earned nominations for this film, and they are both well deserved; March in particular was overall better and more grounded than I’ve seen him in a few films of his, which considering he’s made his name for being pretty good and grounded as an actor, is saying something about this film and his work in it. Of course, the film is in color, and the color photography is very nice, but it doesn’t punch you in the face with the fact that it’s in color, which I was even more appreciative of.

Now, just because this film does have a lot going for it, as I said in the opener, doesn’t mean that it’s better than the ’54 remake, and in my opinion, I don’t think it is. But, thankfully (given the lesser Best Picture fare thus far), it’s not by much. This is a really solid picture, and the fact that it was in color just made the overall solidity of its quality even easier to admire and appreciate. This isn’t a fine picture because it’s in color; it’s a fine picture first, and the color merely adds to it. That’s some damn fine praise from me for an early color picture, outside of the absolute pinnacles of the genre like the two supposed groundbreakers I mentioned in the first line of this review. This isn’t one of those, an absolute pinnacle of the genre, but it’s still pretty darn good, and I was thankful as hell for that, and just as entertained by this.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Force. The Jedi… All of it. It’s all true.

So. Star Wars. Again. Yep, it happened; we got a sequel trilogy, and the expectations and hype for this first installment of it were absolutely stratospheric. Of course, when it came out, I went to see it opening day; I really couldn’t avoid it, being a movie guy, and wanting to make sure I wouldn’t be spoiled as well as being able to keep up with the conversation as it happened instead of being days behind. Was I pleased? Yep; it was entertaining, all right. But there was absolutely a caveat to the entertainment I’d experienced, which I shared with quite a few other viewers and reviewers that I came across. So, let’s get the big question out of the way right off the bat: Does Star Wars: The Force Awakens deserve a spot on the fresh edition of the List? In my opinion, not particularly, and I’ll explain why.

It is some 30-odd years after the downfall of the Empire, and from its ashes has risen the First Order, which is basically the Empire in all but name. Countering them is the Resistance, led by Leia Organa, just like the old days. Missing from the equation this time, however, is Luke Skywalker, who has vanished after his fledgling New Jedi Order was eliminated by a rogue student of his… Sound slightly familiar? Well, the rogue student, now going by the name Kylo Ren, has made it his mission, and the First Order’s, to exterminate Skywalker, and to do that, he needs the only remaining map to Skywalker’s destination; information found inside a droid unit (named BB-8), who ends up on a desert planet, found by a wayward scavenger living in the desert, who becomes involved with the Resistance, and who also finds a new path to destiny through their latent ability to use the Force. In case you’re that one single individual who didn’t see The Force Awakens, I guess I should remind you: no, this isn’t Episode 4, this is Episode 7, but I’d easily forgive you if you read that plot synopsis and got confused as to which film this was. And there you have it; my main issue with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and the issue I shared with a good percentage of other viewers I found – it’s Episode 4 all over again. Director J.J. Abrams basically did the same thing he did with the sequel to the Star Trek reboot; he made a love letter to the original, and called it a proper sequel. Now, that’s not exactly a bad thing, since the resulting film is certainly an entertaining one. But it just feels derivative, because it is exactly so, and that’s not what a good sequel, and especially a reintroduction to a franchise, should be. As one last note, and there will be mild spoilers to anyone who can’t infer the plot from the synopsis up there, but: I found it quite hilarious that Mark Hamill was billed second in the credits, when he is missing from literally the entire film until the last 40 seconds or so, and has exactly zero lines; I just got a kick out of that.

I have a feeling Abrams deliberately made this film as a handoff of Star Wars to the next generation, of fans and of characters. I’m not sure that sort of idea can support the beginning of the long-awaited and highly-anticipated Star Wars sequel trilogy, of all freaking things. It’s nice to watch, sure, but it absolutely did not live up to the expectations going into the film; though, I will admit, it would’ve been hard for any film to live up to the level of expectations that this film had to it. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a perfect meld of a J.J. Abrams film and a love letter to the original Star Wars, and that should not have been what this film ultimately amounts to. It might get an extra point onto the rating just for being as entertaining as it is, but I was so let down by how derivative it was of Episode 4 that I ended up not giving it that point, and that I think says a lot more than I’ve actually been able to in this review. Did this deserve to get onto the list, just by virtue of being the Star Wars sequel we ultimately got? No, because it wasn’t the one we should’ve gotten.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

And I guess that’s all for 2015, at least for now. Now, back to my regularly scheduled programming.

San Francisco

San Francisco

I wonder what the end is going to be.

I pretty much thought I had San Francisco figured out before I even started the film; it was about the 1906 earthquake, so it was bound to be either a straight-laced drama or a progenitor of the action-disaster films of the 70s. Well, then I started it, and I was fairly soon not too sure of what exactly the film really was. I spent a good amount of time trying to figure this out as the film went on, as well as generally following along with the characters and the plot, but I just couldn’t pin this down to a few key words or labels. Then the earthquake happened, and everything kinda fell by the wayside, except for that which really mattered to the characters. Then, in a weird moment, it clicked in my head, and the film made a lot more sense than it had been making up to then.

Clark Gable is Blackie Norton, a nightclub owner in San Fran who stumbles upon a young and nearly penniless singer named Mary Blake, played by Jeanette MacDonald, and hires her for his club. She soon becomes popular, particularly with opera house owner Jack Burley, who happens into Norton’s club and recognizes the classical training in Blake’s voice. Ms. Blake soon becomes torn between affections for both Norton and Burley, and her indecision between which man to be with and which place of employment to sing with comes to a head when the earthquake finally arrives. Now, all I knew about this going into it was that it was about the earthquake, and Wikipedia’s labeling the film as a musical-drama, which seemed incongruous at first, but really, Wikipedia’s label is probably the closest thing that comes to describing San Francisco the film; there’s music and songs, but the film isn’t really a musical, and the dramatic scenes are really the heart and soul of the picture. It was actually so much about the plot and the characters that I actually forgot about the earthquake being in the film until it finally did happen, which I believe says more about how well the film does work with what it has, mostly thanks to W.S. Van Dyke and the screenwriters. Make no mistake, the earthquake sequence is absolutely spectacular, mostly because of how practical the effects are, but the film isn’t really about the earthquake; it instead merely uses the quake as a backdrop for the events transpiring between the characters, which I thought was a very smart decision, and makes both halves of the film work equally well.

Here’s what I really liked about the film, and it took me until the end of the picture for this to make itself known to me; I’d been struggling with trying to figure out what the film was about, and I’d been following along with the characters and their interactions well enough, and then the earthquake hit, and everything I’d been trying to figure out just kinda disappeared. The quake is such a massive event, almost a literal deus ex machina, that when it comes, all the drama between the characters, and about who wants to end up with who, all of a sudden didn’t matter anymore; everybody just wanted everybody to be okay, and safe, and everyone came together in the wake of the disaster, literally singing together and expressing wishes to build an even greater San Francisco than existed before. All that mattered was that those that each character loved were all right, which is exactly how I’d imagine it really was in San Francisco on that fateful morning in 1906, and that I think is why this film works as well as it does. Van Dyke has himself another winner here, and it’s a very inconspicuous winner, not seeming like much until it’s all over and done with, and that’s exactly the way the film should be.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

The Revenant

The Revenant

I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I done it already.

After Alejandro Inarritu won Best Picture and Best Director for Birdman, it seemed the world was his oyster; whatever he wanted to do next, he would be able to do it. Well, he wanted to do The Revenant, a film he’d been wanting to do for some time, but was a project deemed too ambitious to really succeed. Now, however, that he had some clout behind his name, Inarritu was given the go-ahead, and he forged forward on his next film to an almost reckless degree. Crew members quit on him, the budget he’d been allotted ended up more than doubling, and word began to spread that this might be Inarritu’s Heaven’s Gate. Well, then the film came out, and everyone who was concerned or wanted Inarritu to fail shut their mouths real quick; this was a monster of a film in almost every way. However, it should be noted that, just because this was a mammoth production, both in its construction and in the end product, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a totally worthwhile one. It’s worth your while, absolutely, but for me, it wasn’t the unprecedented masterpiece I’d been led to believe it was going to be.

Leo DiCaprio practically gives his life and soul to the role of Hugh Glass, a mountaineer part of a fur trapping expedition in the wilds of untamed Missouri circa the early 1800s. The party, after being set upon by hostile natives in a sequence that must’ve amounted to a good chunk of the film’s budget (and absolutely delivers on it), winds up fleeing back to their fort, leaving most of their pelts behind. Glass, their navigator, ends up alone to scout their path, and happens upon a couple of bear cubs and their mother. Mauled and beaten by the encounter, and barely clinging to life, the party’s captain sets three men to wait with Glass until he passes from his injuries, which includes his half-native son Hawk, and John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy. Fitzgerald, however, ends up killing Hawk and convincing the other man to leave Glass behind, haphazardly buried in an open grave, sure that he is soon to die regardless. Glass, however, survives, and sets about traversing the wilderness, healing, and trying to survive, so he can make it back to civilization and exact vengeance upon Fitzgerald for murdering his son and leaving him for dead. I honestly wish there was more about The Revenant to talk about besides the big three, but there pretty much isn’t, so I’ll get those three out of the way. First up is DiCaprio, whose performance is really only about half that; the other half is entirely enduring, surviving, and committing himself wholly to the role, even if it means swimming through a freezing river wearing bear skins or eating raw bison liver. I can see why he finally got his Oscar for this, but I’m in the camp of those who both feel that he’s done better work and that his performance is mostly an endurance match instead of actually acting, but what he puts himself through for this film is still absolutely extraordinary. Second is Inarritu, whose direction in this film rode the gamut of his crew and his cast, all to get his vision across on the screen in its most fully realized form, and he succeeds amazingly. Third, and most certainly not last, is Emmanuel Lubezki, and I really cannot say enough about this man and his accomplishments with light and camera. More than anything, this film is stunning to look at, and with Lubezki becoming the first cinematographer to win three consecutive Oscars, I am certainly not going to be the one to argue that he didn’t deserve this one. What also surprised me was that the score for the film was deemed ineligible for Academy contention, the second time in a row that this would happen for an Inarritu film, which I still don’t fully get, especially when the score for this film is so majestic and beautiful and absolutely helps solidify the vision and artistry of the film as a whole, and should’ve walked away with the prize.

Here’s the thing about The Revenant, though, and it’s this that is pretty much why I’m giving it the rating I’m giving it, even while generally loving the film even more than I originally thought I did when I first saw it. The Revenant does a lot of things right, but while the individual parts (as well as the whole) are absolutely sublime, the whole thing doesn’t amount to very much, and the experience isn’t completely worth the time invested into it. I can see why this was added to the list, as well as its nomination for Best Picture, but as for winning the award, I’m not 100% sold on why this should’ve won over some of the other nominees. It’s a hell of an experience, absolutely, but it’s not a wholly worthwhile one; I’d imagine that a good half of the people who’d see this one will feel like it wasn’t worth the two-and-a-half hours it takes to get through it. Still, exceptional work on display here, and if you’re one to take to art-minded, meditative, almost Tarkovsky-esque filmmaking, this will likely be a new favorite for you.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10