Sunday 25 September 2016

Hell or High Water by Taylor Sheridan

Other than its boringly generic title, this is a masterpiece in every regard. The critics are scratching their heads, wondering why it's so great and calling it a "sleeper hit". The reason they are so perplexed, and it's taken them by surprise, is because they can't read down the credits far enough to see who wrote it.

(At least, that's the case with English language critics — dig the French poster which gives full credit to the writer!)

The brilliant screenplay for Hell or High Water is by Taylor Sheridan (sometimes spelled Tayler Sheridan), who was responsible for Sicario, perhaps the finest film of last year. 

(I only say 'perhaps' because that was the same year that Steve Jobs hit the screens, another supreme example of screenwriting.)
Hell or High Water is a gritty crime thriller which tells the story of two 21st Century Texas rangers on the trail of two bank robbers. 

It conjures up shades of W.R. Burnett and features what may well be Jeff Bridges’s best performance ever. The movie delivers on exhilarating action and unbearable suspense.

But where it really scores is characterisation. We gradually discover that the two punks hitting the banks (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) are brothers, and then we learn what really motivates them... suddenly the whole film becomes deeper and more powerful. 

(There's a subtle and deeply moving moment where, in a beat up trailer, we see an old black and white photo of the two renegades as gap-toothed, tousle-haired young boys.)

And Sheridan doesn't skimp on the cops, either. The relationship between Marcus (Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is beautifully developed and moves in a startling direction. This a genre movie which offers us both non-stop excitement and a profound emotional experience. What begins as an Elmore Leonard crime spree ends up as The Last Picture Show.

Come to think of it, this is also the best performance I've ever seen by Chris Pine. Or Ben Foster (whom I last registered in The Mechanic and Contraband). And, although this is a writer-centric blog, full credit must also be given to the director David Mackenzie. 

A Brit, Mackenzie was responsible for one of the best films of 2013, Starred Up, which features a similar aesthetic of realistic, grimy, everyday brutality. There is one sequence in Hell or High Water which is particularly brilliantly staged — a violent encounter at a gas station which is all done in one shot, without any camera moves.

But if I'm going to start talking about individual scenes, we'll be here all day. The whole movie is outstanding.

I was on the edge of my seat for almost the entire picture, my heart in mouth, wondering how it was going to turn out. I can't remember the last time I was so invested in a film — I cared very deeply about what happened. 

And, without giving anything away, I can tell you that the ending is very satisfying indeed.

This is a magnificent movie and I can't recommend it highly enough. Race to the cinema and see it today.

(Image credits: three of the movie posters are from Imp Awards — and that French one will gladden the hearts of writers everywhere. As will the painted one I found on Indie Wire. The poster covered with laudatory quotes — all well earned — is from Flick Direct. That's all folks. For now. Go see the damned movie.)

Sunday 18 September 2016

Lights Out by Heisserer and Sandberg

I see numerous horror movies and they are almost always a big fat disappointment, stuffed with routine, ho-hum, attempts at scaring the audience — loud musical stings or somebody suddenly stepping into frame. 

This happens so much so that I'd begun to wonder if the genre was defunct...

But then last year there was the outstanding The Boy written by Stacey Menear and now we have the excellent Lights Out, written by Eric Heisserer and directed by David Sandberg.

The movie is actually based on a short film made by Sandberg a few years ago, which became an internet sensation. I'm not usually on the memo-list for these things, but as it happens my buddy Keith Temple sent me a link to it.

As I say, the short film had a big impact, but this new feature length chiller is considerably better. It tells the story of Diana, who is deeply disturbed, very dangerous, has a strange pathological sensitivity to light — oh yes, and she’s back from the dead.

The premise is somewhat similar to the Doctor Who story Blink, in which the monsters could get a little closer to you every time you closed your eyes. Here Diana can advance wherever and whenever it's dark.

Lights Out is a horror movie which actually works. It's a gem, and I particularly like it because it sweeps aside the usual clichés. Most films in the genre require the protagonists to behave really stupidly. (Would you go down into that creepy basement all alone, etc?)

But here the characters do all the sensible things to combat Diana — interestingly, this tendency is  present even in the short film. And you know that the point where you think, "Why don't they just call the cops?" Well, in Lights Out they call the cops...

And it doesn't do them any good.

David Sandberg has done an admirable job of expanding his original concept, with the help of Eric Heisserer (who wrote the 2011 remake of The Thing). 

They are greatly assisted by the dazzling colour cinematography of Marc Spicer and the presence of Australian actress Teresa Palmer as Rebecca. In a sense, the movie is all about Palmer's face. She looks great on screen and she can really act. Alexander DiPersia also scores as her likable slacker boyfriend.

And Maria Bello is well cast as Rebecca's mother. She is vulnerable, damaged and ultimately triumphant. 

The movie features some clever use of light sources to drive off the monster and all in all it's a terrific little horror flick. Highly recommended. 
(Image credits: Very slim pickings for posters at Imp Awards. So I've supplemented it with some Teresa Palmer Lights Out Wallpaper and the blue pic from Just Jared and the red one from Movie Web.)

Sunday 11 September 2016

Jason Bourne by Greengrass & Rouse

Jason Bourne (note the initials, shared with a certain 007) was the creation of bestselling thriller novelist Robert Ludlum (1927-2001). Ludlum wrote a trilogy of novels about his amnesiac secret agent and the first three Bourne movies are nominally based on them. At least, they share the titles.

After Ludlum's death Eric Van Lustbader began writing new novels in the series. There are now ten of these, the first of which was The Bourne Legacy.

This is the title of the best of the Bourne movies to date, as I discussed last week, although the film wasn't based on Lustbader's novel and Jason Bourne isn't even in it...

I also mentioned last week that the two main creative minds behind the Bourne film series are director Paul Greengrass and writer/director Tony Gilroy.  

What happened on Legacy was that Greengrass declared he wasn't intersted in making another Bourne, so star Matt Damon dropped out, too.

But Tony Gilroy just went ahead and made a movie anyway... and a great one... without Bourne and without Damon.

But now it's all change. Greengrass has changed his mind and is back on board, Damon is, too, and — for the first time in the franchise — Gilroy is absent. Instead Greengrass has co-written the screenplay with Christopher Rouse, his film editor on this and many other films.

Greengrass and Rouse have done a competent job. The movie works, and is thrilling and absorbing. But the lack of Gilroy — a truly world class screenwriter — definitely shows. The script has major holes in it... 

Why does Tommy Lee have four of his own agents murdered, when all had to do was call them off with a phone call? And how does Jason Bourne wander into a giant Las Vegas conference hall and immediately spot that there’s a sniper behind a grill in the wall at the back of the room? 

And then there's the annoying fact that everybody speaks in the same way (tersely replying "understood" to barked orders).

But the film's consistently compelling nonetheless, with an end-of -level fight which is much better than usual — actually almost gripping — and a car chase which really is gripping, thanks to the involvement of an armoured SWAT vehicle which ploughs through the cars of innocent bystanders, ripping them to shreds like a giant electric can opener. 

Full marks for revivifying these two tropes which almost always disappoint. And the reappearance of Moby’s song at the end was like having an old friend turn up. 

Plus I love the notion that the CIA keeps its black ops files in a folder labelled “Black Ops”...

Well worth praising is the cast, which includes Tommy Lee Jones as the big CIA bad guy, and the radiant Alicia Vikander, last seen in a very different spy movie, The Man From UNCLE. Here she is as wonderful as usual, though given precious little to work with. 

My main complaint with Jason Bourne is that nobody smiles during the whole damned film. And, as I said, Tony Gilroy's absence is a mistake. I believe the movie would have been better with his input. 

But still it held my attention from beginning to end. And when I saw it, I thought — as with Star Trek Beyond — Ah, at last here is a summer blockbuster which actually delivers the goods.

(Image credits: Thank you, Imp Awards.)

Sunday 4 September 2016

The Bourne Movies by Gilroy, Greengrass et al

With Jason Bourne in the multiplexes I thought it was time for a quick look at the background to this film series...

Up until now I'd been an adherent of the theory that the even-numbered Bourne movies were the ones worth celebrating. The first, The Bourne Identity (2002) was certainly fun, but not to my thinking great,  

But the second, The Bourne Supremacy (2004) was absolutely terrific and even managed to come up with an interesting and exciting variation on that most weary of cinematic clichés — the car chase (in this case, spreading mayhem through the streets of Moscow). 

Number three, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) saw a dip in interest, at least in my interest, although there was a memorably tense sequence in Waterloo Station. But then there was the fourth film, The Bourne Legacy (2012)...

This was in some senses not a Jason Bourne movie at all, making cheeky use of the name in the title, despite introducing an entirely new character, played by Jeremy Renner. Yet it was probably the best of the bunch.

Now, who is responsible for these? Well, the first movie was directed by Doug Liman, but the major creative personalities behind the series have been Paul Greengrass and, above all, Tony Gilroy. 

Greengrass is a former BBC documentary film maker whose work has a powerfully realistic feel. He directed the second and third films, and now the fifth.

Tony Gilroy was a screenwriter on all of the first four films, and also directed the fourth. He is one of the great Hollywood writers and with the excellent Michael Clayton (an unusual sort of legal drama starring George Clooney) he also became a first-rate writer-director.  

In addition, Gilroy wrote The Devil's Advocate, a favourite guilty pleasure of mine, and is currently involved in writing the new Star Wars spin-off Rogue One.

Yet Gilroy isn't involved in this summer's Bourne movie, Jason Bourne... and it's still a winner. And breaks the even-numbered-Bourne rule.

I'll tell you all about it next week. 

(Image credits: all from the very useful Imp Awards — Identity, Supremacy, Ultimatum, Legacy.)