Hell or High Water

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for some strong violence, language throughout and brief sexuality
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive crime-related violence, guns, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, some ethnic insults
Date Released to Theaters: August 12, 2016
Date Released to DVD: November 20, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01KP7LB3M

Copyright Film 44 2016
Copyright Film 44 2016
“Hell or High Water” is a modern western that reminds us why spare, dry landscapes have so often been the settings for grand American epics. Like frontier stories of ranchers, farmers, cowboys, Indians, masculinity, and bank robbers, this film has a gripping story that touches on the most profound American struggles — from guns to real estate, race, and income inequality — specific in detail but universal in scope.

One of the film’s wisest choices is in keeping important information from us until just the right moment, so I will be especially scrupulous about spoilers and keep the description of the plot to a minimum. There are four main characters, two bank robbers and two Texas Rangers. The bank robbers are Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine), and we can tell immediately that they seem less experienced than the staff at the small Texas Midland bank branch they are robbing, just before it opens on a dusty morning. Both bad news and good manners are so deeply ingrained in the bank manager that he courteously wishes them a good morning before turning over the small unmarked bills.

The Texas Rangers are about-to-retire Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), who is of both Native American and Mexican heritage, as Marcus constantly reminds him with a stream of amiably delivered insults. As Tanner and Toby continue to rob banks, always Texas Midland branches, Marcus begins to discover a pattern that begins to reveal a plan.

The characters are skillfully drawn and performed with a deep and understanding humanity, not just by the four lead actors but by everyone in the cast. Every performance in even the smallest role conveys an arid and dusty world, physically, financially, and emotionally. Standouts include Katy Mixon as a waitress, Richard Christie as a bank loan officer, and Dale Dickey as the woman who opens the bank in the morning.

The outstanding screenplay is written by Texan Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario,” “Guns of Anarchy”), who knows these people and these places. He has a gift for finding the poetry in dialog as dry and spare as the setting. And he has the confidence in himself, his characters, and his audience to let the story unfold without telling us too much at first, and to present complex issues without feeling that he has to provide simple answers. Sheridan also has a gift for the small, telling details, the bank manager who courteously wishes the bank robbers good morning, the Indian casino, the ex-wife, the way some men say more in the pauses than the words. His deep appreciation for people overlooked by just about everyone makes this cops and robbers story into something real and meaningful.

Parents should know that this film has extended crime and law enforcement-related violence, with characters injured and killed, themes of moral and legal crimes, drinking, smoking, sexual references, prostitute, and a brief explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Why does the movie keep some of the details of the plan secret for so long? Why does Marcus insult Alberto? Why does Tanner say he is a Comanche?

If you like this, try: “99 Homes” and “The Newton Boys”

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Crime Drama Western

The Revenant

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong frontier combat and violence including gory images, a sexual assault, language and brief nudity
Profanity: Some strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense, graphic, and disturbing violence including arrows, knives, guns, sexual assault and prolonged animal attack
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 8, 2016
Date Released to DVD: April 18, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01AB0DX2K
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2015
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2015

In the 1820’s, ladies of fashion liked fur trim. And, true then as now, men like money. So frontiersmen went on trapping expeditions into the wilderness of the young country of the United States of America (played here by British Columbia and Alberta, Canada). The rewards for bringing back fur pelts are significant. The risks, including attack by the Arikara Indians, are dire.

A frontiersman named Hugh Glass was the guide for one of these expeditions. According to lore, he was savagely attacked by a bear and left to die by his companions, but survived and made it back over 250 miles to the nearest fort, intent on revenge. The story has been told — and embroidered and adapted — over the years, reflecting each era’s perspective and concerns. This version is based on the novel by US Trade Michael Punke (who, as Deputy US Trade representative and Ambassador to the World Trade Organization is restricted from promoting the film). As co-written and directed by “Birdman’s” Alejandro González Iñárritu it is a story of resolve. As often with Westerns, it is a way to explore the fundamental contradictions of the American spirit: determination, vision, courage, but sometimes without any regard for the damage they can cause.

Both Iñárritu and his Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki won Oscars for this film. They filmed only in available light, meaning they had to limit themselves to just moments of filming each day. As the director told Deadline, they created “little-by-little jewel moments; that’s the way I designed the production…But those locations are so gorgeous and so powerful, they look like they have never been touched by a human being, and that’s what I needed.” They filmed under conditions so arduous that Will Poulter, who plays real-life frontiersman/trapper Jim Bridger, told me that no acting was necessary to show that they were freezing and exhausted. The bear is CGI (and the bear attack is truly horrifying), but almost everything else was really there and really happening, including diCaprio’s hacking coughs (he had the flu).

The cinematography is the most stunning I have ever seen, perfectly focussed throughout the depth of field, even across endless vistas. Second only to the visuals is the movie’s real theme, not revenge or even will, but law.

When there is no structure, no church, no police, courts, or jail, no lawmakers, no appeals, how do you decide who is in charge and what to do? The film’s most fascinating moments are the ones where we see characters across the continuum on those questions, with one in particular who is still deciding where he fits in, decide what they should do, what they must do. In an early scene, the Indians attack and the frontiersmen’s response is: pelts payload first, and every man for himself second. Wounded men are left behind without a second’s hesitation.

But when Glass (Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio) is critically wounded in the middle of nowhere, Captain Henry, the leader of the expedition (Domhnall Gleeson) is certain what he is owed. Because he has been an essential and honorable part of their expedition (and, unstated but evident, because no one is shooting arrows at them at the moment), he decides two men will be left behind to care for him until he dies and then give him some semblance of a Christian burial. They are John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (17 years old at the time). Glass has a teenage son (Forrest Goodluck), from his marriage to a Native American woman who was killed, and he stays with his father as well.

But Fitzgerald becomes impatient and commits a terrible act of cruelty while Bridger is away from the campsite, then lies to him about what happened. Glass is left for dead. As Glass, Fitzgerald, Henry, and Bridger deal with the consequences of these actions, we see the beginnings of a society and culture. Some day, the pristine landscapes explored by Glass and Bridger would be covered with roads and cities and we will try to re-create them by filming in other countries to show us what we were. But the story of the struggle for justice, always the great work of this country, is a story we will keep telling forever.

Parents should know that this film includes extremely graphic and disturbing human and animal violence with many explicit and disturbing images of dead bodies and wounds, murder of family members, sexual assault, brief nudity, some strong language, and racism.

Family discussion: How many different views about law and morality do you see among the characters? What should the group have done with a severely injured member?

If you like this, try: “Touching the Void,” a documentary about an extraordinary story of survival in the wilderness

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Based on a book Based on a true story Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical Western

A Million Ways to Die in the West

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong crude and sexual content, language throughout, some violence and drug material
Profanity: Very strong, explicit, and crude language throughout
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use including marijuana and hallucinogens
Violence/ Scariness: Comic but graphic violence, many characters injured and killed, grisly images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, strong female character, some comic stereotyping including sexual orientation and racial humor
Date Released to Theaters: May 30, 2014
Date Released to DVD: October 7, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00KM9MP9I

A_Million_Ways_to_Die_in_the_West_posterWhen Seth MacFarlane tops his unprecedented success on television with three animated series (“Family Guy,” “The Cleveland Show,” “American Dad”) and his first feature film was a blockbuster — the talking teddy bear movie Ted is the highest grossing R comedy of all time, in both senses of the word, with a sequel in the works.  He also found time to put out an album of American songbook standards that received widespread if somewhat grudging critical acclaim (Music Is Better Than Words) and produce a popular reboot of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series.  His only real flop to day was his disappointing hosting job at the Oscars (the song “We Saw Your Boobs” and sexist jokes did not go over well).  So, he can write his own ticket in Hollywood.  And that is what he has done with “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” a silly comedy that reflects the excessive deference given to someone with that track record.  You want to do a western?  Fine!  You want to not just write and direct but also cast yourself as the lead opposite top-ranked actors?  With lots of fart jokes?  Where do we sign?

And that is how “A Million Ways to Die in the West” got made.  It is too long, too dumb, and too gross.  But sometimes funny.

The saucer-eyed MacFarlane plays Albert, a sheep farmer who hates living in the west where “everything that is not you is trying to kill you.”  A motif of the film is the many ways minor characters are killed off, intentionally or by accident.  We meet Albert talking his way out of a shootout on the main street, to the disappointment of the assembled townsfolk and his fiance, Louise (Amanda Seyfried, the local schoolmarm).  Louise dumps him, and Albert is devastated.  His friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his fiancee Ruth (Sarah Silverman) try to comfort him, but he is inconsolable until he meets Anna (Charlize Theron), new in town.  She offers to help him make Louise jealous, but they find themselves attracted to one another.  Unfortunately (as we know early on but Albert does not), Anna is married to the West’s most notorious gunslinger, with the macho name of Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson).

The movie looks and sounds like a classic western, with sun-burnished views of Monument Valley from Director of Photography Michael Barrett and an evocative score by Joel McNeely, both MacFarlane regulars.  Neeson is outstanding, as always, never winking at the camera.  Neil Patrick Harris is a pleasure as Albert’s romantic rival, a mustachioed slicker who can dance up a storm.   Theron manages the more challenging trick of making Anna feel real, even though she is delivering contemporary dialog in buckskin and a bustle.  It is a wonderfully natural, appealing performance that does wonders to give MacFarlane more humanity and make him seem a little less whiny and juvenile.

Unfortunately, the move keeps things pretty whiny and juvenile anyway, with MacFarlane taking full advantage of the MPAA’s notoriously lax standards for a studio comedy to include material that is more tiresome than outrageous.  More unfortunately, it goes on at least 40 minutes too long, with an extended drug trip hallucination sequence that feels as endless as your college roommate’s moment by moment rendition of his dream.  Lame humor includes an extended conversation about people in olden days not smiling in photographs and Ruth’s activities as a prostitute who as a good Christian won’t sleep with her boyfriend until they are married.  There are no set-pieces as funny as Mark Wahlberg’s recitation of trashy girl names in “Ted” and the guest stars feel stunt-ish, not a part of the storyline as Sam Jones and Norah Jones were in that film.  By the time the sheep is peeing on Albert’s face, the audience may feel that in the old west as ever, dying is easy but comedy is hard.

Translation: Constant extremely crude and gross-out humor with very explicit and raunchy sexual references and situations and extensive bodily function humor, nudity, jokes about prostitution and child molestation, racial and sexual orientation humor, western-style violence with shoot-outs and many characters injured and killed, disturbing images, drinking, smoking, drug use, very strong and explicit language including the r-word

Family discussion: What do the “straight” western elements of this film like the cinematography, landscapes, and score contribute to its overall effect? Do you think any of these jokes went too far?

If you like this, try: “Ted” and “Blazing Saddles”

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Comedy Gross-out Western

List: Comedy Westerns

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Movies and westerns were made for each other.  Hollywood came along not long after the era of westward expansion and access to the stunning landscapes of Monument Valley and endless vistas of desert and sagebrush was nearby.  The earliest commercial films were cowboy stories and by the time Hollywood hit its stride in the 1930’s-50’s the western was the perfect metaphor for the American experience.  Most were action films and dramas, but there were a few comedies, like this week’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”  Some of the best include:

Cat Ballou  Jane Fonda stars as a young woman determined to get revenge for the murder of her father (John Marley, the horse head in the bed guy from “The Godfather”).

A Big Hand for the Little Lady  This neglected gem has an all-star cast and one of the greatest plot twists ever, in the story of a devoted wife and mother (Joanne Woodward) who takes over for her ailing husband (Henry Fonda) in a high-stakes poker game.

The Paleface and Son of Paleface star Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, and Jane Russell in a pair of western spoofs, with the Oscar-winning song “Buttons and Bows.”

 

Ruggles of Red Gap Charles Laughton plays a very proper gentleman’s gentleman who teachers the rough westerners a few things about their own heritage.  It was remade with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball as “Fancy Pants.”

Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks’ classic is one of the funniest films ever made, funnier every time you watch it.  My favorite part is Madeline Kahn as the dance hall girl.

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Comedy For Your Netflix Queue Lists Western
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