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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 19, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 34
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Hell or High Water an almost perfect modern Western noir
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

HELL OR HIGH WATER
Now playing


After the death of their mother, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) enlists the help of his ex-con older brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to help him save their family's farm so he can gift it to his ex-wife and the children, the fact a sizeable oil field has been discovered on the property certain to guarantee their futures in ways nothing else would have. Problem is, the bank holding the mortgage on the property had pulled a devious job on their ailing parent, and if the loan isn't paid off in the coming weeks they get to seize the property, as well as the liquid gold hidden underneath the dirt, all for themselves.

Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is a week away from retirement, a fact his longtime partner and friend Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) enjoys pointing out. But the two have one last manhunt to participate in as a team: a pair of robbers holding up small, rural branches of one of Texas' larger banks, going out of their way to nab smaller sums, almost as if they are intent on raising a predetermined amount and not just grabbing cash willy-nilly. Together, the Rangers will come up with a plan and figure out where these men will strike next, Marcus doggedly focused to go out with one last arrest before being forced to turn in his badge and go off into that sweet goodnight as a civilian.

Hell or High Water is a modern Western noir about a pair of sibling Robin Hoods who are determined to stick it to the bank that went out of its way to make it impossible for their mother to get out from under her mounting bills in order to snatch her property right out from underneath her. They are matched by a team of smart, if decidedly laid-back, law enforcement officers who figure out what's going on with relative ease, even if the identities of who it is they are chasing remain frustratingly hidden. It is a movie where two competing forces will run on parallel tracks until continuing to do so becomes a literal impossibility, the moment where they crash one into the other a moment that will be smothered in violence whether cop or robber wishes it to be or not.

Director David Mackenzie, the man behind movies as diverse as Young Adam, Perfect Sense, Tonight You're Mine and Starred Up, and writer Taylor Sheridan, who burst onto the scene last year with his dynamic, pulse-pounding script for Sicario, have delivered on a massive scale here. Not only is Hell or High Water just a great, character-driven thriller that busts through genre conventions, forcing the viewer to take notice of what is going on and why in the process, it also happens to be one of 2016's best motion pictures. It is a masterful effort that grows in power and depth as it moves along, building to a shattering, hauntingly destructive conclusion that had me sitting on the edge of my seat breathlessly excited to discover what was going to happen next.

I honestly can't come up with a single thing to nitpick. As far as I'm concerned, Mackenzie and Sheridan's film is pretty much flawless, delivering on just about every level imaginable. The controlled nature of the storytelling builds like a volcano on the verge of erupting, that anticipation of the eruption almost more unbearable than the chaos and carnage left in its wake. The two stories mirror one another, each playing itself out with sublime simplicity. This allows the emotions percolating underneath the surface to take center stage with startling efficiency, and in the process also helps the relationships between each pair of men feel all the more complex and fully developed.

The performances are extraordinary, Bridges adding another feather to his already legendary cap with his resolute, roguishly grizzled turn as the weary, if still resolutely clever, Hamilton. He's matched every step of the way by Birmingham, the veteran character actor forced to play straight man to his costar's eccentricities and borderline offensive wisecracks, finding a level of humanistic resolve lurking inside Parker that's sublime. For Pine, this could be his finest hour, the understated minimalism he brings to the younger Howard brother both unexpected and incredible.

Then there is Foster. What is there to say at this point? After 3:10 to Yuma, The Messenger, 30 Days of Night, Lone Survivor, Alpha Dog and Ain't Them Bodies Saints, it's safe to say this is one actor who knows how to make an impression. He's been deserving of accolades and end-of-year awards recognition many times over at this point, the fact it has stubbornly refused to come his way as perplexing as it is unfortunate. Once again, he is masterful, his performance as Tanner a hypnotically multifaceted line dance that moves to its own interior rhythms right from the very start. Foster is extraordinary, and it is highly doubtful I'll see a supporting turn any better throughout the remainder of the year.

The technical side of things is equally strong, Mackenzie allowing cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (What Maisie Knew) and editor Jake Roberts (Brooklyn) the freedom to craft images and build scenes that help fuel the emotions coursing through the picture without ever overshadowing them. Equally important is the dynamic, razor-sharp score by frequent collaborators Nick Cave (Lawless) and Warren Ellis (Mustang), their compositions an important element of the ambiance, augmenting tension in ways that are almost indescribable.

It all culminates in moments of revelation and understanding that spin the proceedings into unforeseen directions, and much like Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men or Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller it quickly becomes apparent the story Mackenzie and Sheridan are telling isn't all it initially appeared to be on the surface. Hell or High Water has a lot on its mind, but the most important one is a desire to entertain, and that it does, not just well, but beautifully, cementing the film as an instant stunner worthy of multiple viewings.


Ferocious Blood Father a violently entertaining genre throwback
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

BLOOD FATHER
Now playing


John Link (Mel Gibson) is an ex-con, recovering alcoholic and moderately successful tattoo artist living in a dilapidated RV in a secluded trailer park out in the middle of the California desert. His estranged daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) has been missing for the past couple of years, and even though she was living with his ex-wife at the time of her disappearance he feels responsible all the same.

After Lydia calls out of the blue pleading for help, John drops everything to do what he can for her, no questions asked. But his daughter's problems are much more dangerously destructive than any he could have imagined, the 17-year-old marked for death by a Mexican drug cartel after an incident with her boyfriend Jonah (Diego Luna) turns bloody. With thugs and assassins hot on their trail, John refuses to lose Lydia for a second time, exacting bloody vengeance on any and all that come calling intent on doing her harm.

If one was to imagine a film for Mel Gibson to star in it would likely look a heck of a lot like Blood Father. This down and dirty action throwback fits the former international movie star's perceived persona just about perfectly, reminding the viewer why they fell in love with the actor in the first place. Echoes of Mad Max and Lethal Weapon can be found throughout, director Jean-Fran├žois Richet (the Assault on Precinct 13 remake) tapping into the same form of primal, yet sometimes still playful, emotional ferocity that helped make Gibson a household name. It's a fast-paced burst of energetic gusto that's as violent and as cutthroat as one would expect it to be, all held together by a purposefully melodramatic scenario that would be unintentionally silly if it weren't so darn effective.

Peter Craig (The Town), working with Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton), adapts his own pulp novel, the pair's script containing zero fat as it moves its way towards a relatively anticipated, if still refreshingly ruthless, conclusion. It all moves as if it were shot straight out of a canon, the base elements a consistent punch to the gut that are as bruising as they are enjoyable. Craig and Berloff don't hide their hand while also refusing to pull their punches, understanding this is an adrenaline-fueled throwback to low budget 1970s and '80s action films of yore that have only grown in esteem and appreciation as the years have passed.

As for Richet, he brings the same sort of visceral, lived-in intensity to the story that he brought to both his French Mesrine thrillers, grounding things in ways that are moderately surprising, allowing the emotional through line powering events to feel a tiny bit more genuine in the process. He refuses to paint pretty pictures, and while there is much splendor to be found in Robert Gantz's (Mindhunters) lyrically intense cinematography, the visuals never overshadow the core emotional components at the heart of things.

He's also cast things perfectly, a number of character actors ranging from Oscar-nominated heavyweights like William H. Macy, to comfortably familiar faces like Miguel Sandoval and Dale Dickey, to up and coming newcomers like Thomas Mann, to colorful cult icons like Michael Parks, popping up at key moments throughout. Richet also stages a number of crackerjack sequences, including an early number where John's trailer comes under assault by the first crew of attackers intent on doing his daughter harm, the topsy-turvy way they come up with to unsettle him suitably amusing to say the least.

But this is Gibson's showcase, and while the movie might be some savvy combination of some of the actor's past efforts, most notably Mad Max, Ransom and Edge of Darkness, and while he isn't doing anything we haven't seen from him before, his enthusiasm tackling a character like this one is still readily apparent. This is a bad man trying to do the right thing, who must return to ways he has gone out of his way to suppress for a number of years, unleashing an inner demon that destroys everything it comes into contact with in the process. Gibson has a field day doing just this, his performance building in concentrated rage as the film progresses.

The actor is in fine form and has terrific chemistry with the exceedingly game Moriarty, and while Macy could have been utilized to greater impact, a couple of his imaginative facial contortions were more than enough for me to be okay with his somewhat muted presence. Parks' introduction, however, is superb, while his exit might be even better. There's also a great motorcycle chase during the third act that had me grinning ear-to-ear, the carnage that transpires giddily cringe worthy every step of the way. It's all pretty thin, of course, and I'm not entirely sure the story ultimately earns the reserved solemnity of its climax, but that doesn't make Blood Father any less entertaining or a rousing return to form for the controversial Gibson. The film works, that's it, and for genre fans this is one ferocious underground throwback worth putting forth the effort to see.


Animated Sausage Party a half-baked R-rated meal
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SAUSAGE PARTY
Now playing


Tomorrow is the Fourth of July. Sausage Frank (voiced by Seth Rogen), along with best friends Carl (Jonah Hill) and Barry (Michael Cera), are beyond excited. Today is the day he and his compatriots will be selected by the Gods to be placed inside their loving basket of care. Today is the day they will be whisked from this supermarket existence through the doors of magical wonderment. Today is the day he'll be released from his package to hopefully fill the fluffy brown and white bun of his next door aisle mate Brenda (Kristin Wiig). It's a glorious day. The best day. A day all of them will remember for the rest of their lives. After all, safe in the hands of two-legged Gods, what could possibly go wrong?

Due to a series of unfortunate events, however, Frank and Brenda are separated from their respective packages right before a particularly friendly God seems eager to take them through the glass doors of wonderment. Determined to be selected by the Gods, they join forces with bagel Sammy (Edward Norton) and Middle Eastern flatbread Lavash (David Krumholtz) to traverse the store back to their proper aisles and insert themselves into new packages. But during their journey Frank, courtesy of nonperishable soothsayers Grits (Craig Robinson), Twink (Scott Underwood) and the seemingly all-knowing Firewater (Bill Hader), makes a startling discovery, one that shatters his faith in the Gods and makes him realize he, Brenda and everyone else inside the supermarket will have to fight back if they ever hope to avoid a gruesome, horrifically unappetizing fate.

Following in the footsteps of Team America: World Police, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Heavy Metal and Fritz the Cat, Sausage Party is an R-rated animated feature that never met a pun, sex joke or un-PC satirical jab it didn't want to warmly embrace. The movie fits right inside the wheelhouse of creators Rogen, Hill, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir and Evan Goldberg, fans of This Is the End, Neighbors, The Interview or The Night Before almost certain to find plenty to go nuts about here as well. And if directors Greg Tiernan (a veteran of PBS' 'Thomas and Friends') and Conrad Vernon (Monsters vs. Aliens, Shrek 2) don't initially feel like good fits to helm all of this weirdness they catch on fairly quickly, the manic energy driving things forward having a controlled madness to it that fits the whacked-out proceedings nicely.

Still, while there is fun to be had, and even if I did laugh more than a handful of times, personally, Sausage Party isn't a cinematic meal I found particularly satisfying. A central gag involving Frank wanting to worm his way inside Brenda's bun gets tiresome, while a number of the remaining gags are far too obvious to do more other than offer up a few polite chuckles, if little else. The journey through the supermarket seems to take forever, and even if a couple of the stops along this trek are humorous - the introduction of the amorous Teresa del Taco (a charmingly game Salma Hayek) particularly so - they aren't so much so my moderate boredom was noticeably lessened. Also, the sex and drug jokes Rogen and company love to trade in are growing much too obvious at this point, and while there is something chuckle-worthy in seeing a sausage, a bottle of whiskey, a box of grits and a Twinkie smoking pot, the gag itself can't help but get old seconds after it is unveiled.

There are some terrific bits, not the least of which is an aside featuring the diminutive Barry hiding out in the home of a scatter-brained addict (an unrecognizable James Franco) who makes friends with a number of frightened, half-eaten munchies, including the wheelchair-bound brainiac Gum (Underwood again). A sequence when this ragtag group discovers the power they have over the human mind while in the midst of a psychedelic trip is glorious, as is the revelation of what happens when the human attempts to use Barry to satiate his drug-fueled munchies.

Yet, while the vocal work is aces across the board (Norton is kind of spectacular, while Wiig tosses out droll pithy comebacks with viciously cutthroat ease) and the animation is strong throughout, excuse me if I just didn't get excited about almost anything Sausage Party had to offer. While there's not a lot wrong with the recipe, my pallet just didn't respond to what Rogen and company were cooking up, and as such this ended up being one meal that left me hungering for something more substantive, a second course that sadly hadn't been prepared for me to taste.






SGN EXCLUSIVE:

After 50 years, Olivia Newton-John still 'hopelessly devoted' to her Gay audience!

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Fresh from the Windy City
new artistic director Paul Caldwell
presents his first season with
Seattle Men's Chorus, Seattle Women's Chorus

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Village Theatre presents - 2016 Festival of New Musicals
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For the first time in 15 year
Culture Club is back, mature
and they really wowed Chateau Ste. Michelle


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Hell or High Water - An interview with Gil Birmingham
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DOUG TITUS
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Hell or High Water an almost perfect modern Western noir
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Ferocious Blood Father a violently entertaining genre throwback
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Animated Sausage Party a half-baked R-rated meal
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