“There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” Hell or High Water and Southside With You

Hell_or_High_Water_film_posterDancing between the raindrops. One of the most powerful and essential things that film can do, arguably unlike any other medium, is to transform the smallest moments of daily life into something poetic, allegorical, epic, and identifiable. Film, at its best, is a concise narrative, simultaneously immediate and retrospective, exploring an embedded assumption that one exchange, one decision, one day can change a lifetime.

Two movie gems, exemplifying this remarkable storytelling attribute, are currently eking out a quiet subsistence in a far corner of your local multiplex. Stroll past the escapist CGI gargoyles, laser blasts, and gross out gags of those late summer wannabe blockbusters taking up the IMAX screens, and make your way to that tiny, itty bitty screening room. You know the one, beyond the garish birthday hall, clanging arcade, and Dippin’ Dots (“Ice Cream of the Future!”) outpost, at the far end of the hall … the one that seems like its sole existence is as a concession to the public television/NPR crowd or because an extra broom closet wasn’t needed? And catch Hell or High Water and Southside with You on the big-ish screen before they are consigned to Netflix next month.

Hell or High Water is as perfect a Valentine to people who love movies as I’ve ever seen. It wears its cinematic influences proudly and confidently, like that person in  your office who has figured out how to mix stripes, plaids, and polka dots into a breathtaking ensemble. Director David Mackenzie (Young Adam) mines A Touch of Evil (the tracking shot that opens Hell or High Water is a smooth, small-town honey), No Country for Old Men (dusty postmodern desperation), Giant (watch Hell or High Water‘s final front-porch confrontation and tell me I’m wrong), East of Eden (imagine Cal and Aron as kinder, gentler, floppy-haired Natural Born Killers), and Dog Day Afternoon (shaggy, sweaty bank robbers who have Robin Hood-aspirations to right the personal wrongs that corporate America has inflicted and who are destined to fail … spectacularly). Throw in one of the best depictions of Dust Bowl brotherly love/hate since Sam Shepherd’s classic play True West and pair it with the corrosive antipathy toward American Big Banking and the mortgage industry that The Big Short failed to capture compellingly, and you have a film for the ages.

Star Trek‘s Chris Pine (all dreamy, haunted dissipation) and 3:10 to Yuma‘s Ben Foster (Sean Penn 2.0 … damn, but he is SO good, and Foster even was engaged to Robin Wright Penn – twice – after she divorced Sean) play Toby and Tanner Howard, locked in a toxic cycle of arrested development, one a loyal son but failed husband and the other a loyal brother but ne’er-do-well prodigal. Toby has cared for their dying mother and stands to inherit the dilapidated family homestead (with its recently discovered oil reserves) if he can climb out from under the crushing reverse mortgage that mama foolishly, but necessarily, took out and which is now careening toward foreclosure. Tanner, whose lengthy prison record includes time for bank robbery but surprisingly not for murdering their abusive father, is the anarchic muscle, a Looney Tune with nothing to lose who helps support the otherwise straight-arrow Toby’s scheme. Their plan? Swipe just enough cash from the teller drawers of that very predatory lending bank holding the deed to the family home, pay said bank back the money, secure the land and the oil rights, and leave it all in trust to Toby’s two sons. It’s like the perfect Playhouse 90 – on steroids.

Oh, and the whole enterprise is set among the Great Recession-scorched badlands of Western Texas, where the endless dirty, rusty miles between neon-lit casinos are dotted with billboards touting “Instant, Easy Debt Relief” like Faustian blood-pacts with the financially damned. The long (and folksy) arm of the law is ably represented by True Grit’s Jeff Bridges (absolute mumble-mouthed perfection as Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger who views his impending retirement as more of a death sentence than an earthly reward) and Twilight‘s Gil Birmingham (as Alberto Parker – comically poignant gold, playing the stoic straight man, enduring a steady stream of Marcus’ jabs, zingers which shock for being as loving as they are racist).

The film is picaresque, taking place over the course of just a few days. And it is a beauty, well-acted and crafted with such thoughtful precision that it stuns in its quiet verisimilitude. It is an indictment and celebration of the day-to-day crushing dreariness of American life – divorce, mortgages, child care, jobs, ambition, law and order, vanquished dreams – depicting a society that by dint of its unintentionally intentional design oppresses the brightest of hearts, turning mere survival into insurmountable distress. And don’t get me wrong, the movie is still an entertainment of the highest order, bleak but funny and engaging as hell.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Southside with You – otherwise known as the “Obamas’ first date movie” – is a fabulous companion piece to Hell or High Water … believe it or not. Whereas Hell or High Water tweaks the template of “caper flick” into allegory for the complex economic forces that damn the American Dream while simultaneously dangling it before our collective faces, Southside with You takes the “romantic comedy” genre and infuses it with a subtle condemnation of the race/class warfare that squelches opportunity for too many Americans.

Zero Dark Thirty‘s Parker Sawyers (a fellow Wabash College graduate, though our time in those hallowed halls, alas, did not overlap) and Sparkle‘s Tika Sumpter (also acting as a producer on the film) are luminous as the eventual First Couple: Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. Director Richard Tanne grounds the proceedings in a lush but gritty depiction of the scruffy joys of Chicago-life, and his two leads reward him (and the audience) beautifully. They are so good, subtly evoking mannerisms and vocal stylings, without ever resorting to caricature.

The film opens as these two prepare for the date – Michelle in denial (sort of) that it actually is a date – interacting sweetly with family members, electric in their nervous anticipation of the day before them. There is a gangly charm to these early scenes, humanizing two historical figures whose global accomplishments may have placed them in that unreachable classification: icon. It’s a smart narrative move for all involved.

As the film progresses, we learn that Barack is a summer associate at Michelle’s firm, and she has been assigned as his mentor. Set in the summer of 1989 (and, wow, does Tanne get that right from the fashion and the set direction to the cars and the music, including vintage Janet Jackson and Al B. Sure! playing on the radio), Michelle is cautious about the challenges facing her as a woman of color in a white man’s world, and she will be damned if this upstart intern is going to derail her career with his romantic overtures. He, on the other hand, is as earnest as he is charming, and it is evident that the engagement of each others’ impressive intellectual capacity – their beautiful minds – is how this romance blossomed and flourished.

Southside with You mostly sidesteps the pitfalls of movie biography (the pressing need to tell a whole lot in two short hours) by focusing on just this one day. Given that the narrative hook is a date, the characters have the latitude to ask a lot of questions as they get to know one another, and, by extension, we, as audience members, catch up on essential biographical detail and helpful context. Ninety-five percent of the time this works beautifully, aided and abetted by the naturalness of the performers, but a few moments are jarringly expository (particularly the discussion in the park about Barack’s upbringing) and make Southside with You feel like more of a stage play than a film. Nonetheless, those flaws are few and far between, and as the film moves toward the inevitability of its conclusion, we as viewers are gifted with consummate appreciation for the challenges this partnership overcame – culture, economics, race, gender – to step onto the global stage and effect needed social change.

Early in their date, Michelle and Barack debate the merits and downsides of working in a corporate law firm when there is so much need outside the business world for legal minds to provide community leadership: “There’s no contribution at our level. Just the illusion of contribution.” It is this existential riddle that drives both Hell or High Water and Southside with You, and, whether you are two down-on-your-luck siblings weighing a life of crime just to pay your mortgage, two lawmen putting in a brutal day’s work and hoping you emerge unscathed, the future First Couple of the United States mapping out a future together, or just some lowly audience member chomping popcorn in the movie theatre, that resonates.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Narrative of isolation and persecution: The Wolverine

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

People may have forgotten, but, for better or worse, this current cinematic superhero love affair began its decade-plus-long courtship with a little movie directed by Bryan Singer in 2000 … X-Men.

That movie introduced the world to a new kind of comic book film that made superheroes seem just like us but with just a few extra gifts (e.g. flight, claws, invisibility, flame-throwing…you know…the usual stuff). These imminently identifiable characters exuded angst and anxiety about trying to fit in, in spite of or perhaps in reaction to humanity’s general aversion to if not outright loathing of difference and of talent.

The movie also introduced many of us to a gifted Aussie named Hugh Jackman, whose truly exceptional musical theatre skills and talk show host charm somehow translated brilliantly to a scruffy, violent, pissed off, immortal Canadian named Logan, nicknamed “The Wolverine.”

Some might argue that it was Jackman’s likeability as the be-clawed mutant anti-hero that propelled the X-Men film series to global dominance. I would agree. And miraculously Jackman’s sparkling career has defied being derailed subsequently by some colossal missteps – both within that franchise as well as some other choices, namely X-Men: Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Australia, and … Kate & Leopold.

Now, coming off his Oscar-nominated triumph in last year’s Les Miserables (he should have won!), Jackman reunites with director James Mangold (Kate & Leopold‘s helmer, plus 3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line, among others) to return to his career-launching role in this summer’s The Wolverine.

So how is it? Quite good actually. Blessedly, like earlier films set in the X-Men universe, there is a focus on the narrative of isolation and persecution (as opposed to selling as many action figures as possible at Wal-Mart). Jackman’s inherent kindness always underlies/accentuates the deep-seated sadness and disappointment that Logan/Wolverine carries from his nearly 200 years viewing man’s inhumanity to man. It makes for a compelling characterization.

The film picks up where X-Men: Last Stand left off, with Logan living in isolation in the Yukon after having murdered true love Jean Grey to save the planet from her out-of-control telekinesis. (Just typing that sentence explains pretty much everything that was wrong with that prior film.)

I have to admit I gave a little cheer when Logan, in the film’s opening sequence, attacks a group of beer-sozzled, stupidly-entitled redneck hunters who have slaughtered his sole companion in the wilderness: a beautiful, (though clearly CGI) lumbering bear.

From there, the film then whizzes to Tokyo where Logan reconnects with a former mentor whose life he saved in the bombing of Nagasaki in WWII. As Chris Claremont/Frank Miller realized thirty plus years ago with their seminal Wolverine comic book miniseries, rigid/gracious/mannered Japan makes a marvelous setting to explore the anarchic/raging/righteously indignant traits of this character.

There is nothing terribly groundbreaking about the movie other than this: it is quiet and it is character-driven. Even though it is yet another big, overdone, popcorn-spewing comic book adaptation, there is a lot of deep-feeling dialogue and introspection. Good for Mangold. The movie works hard (sometimes too hard) to dissect how cruel we can be to each other and how a little kindness here or there can make all the difference in one person’s life.

There are some mistakes. The green-haired Viper villain (villainess? is that word even used any more?) should have been sent packing to some other (dumber) movie. And I certainly could have done without the clanging/clunky finale where Logan nonsensically gets his claws chopped off by a gleaming Transformer-esque Silver Samurai (sad misuse of that character) and then fights … and fights … and fights.

Regardless, 75% of the film is atmospheric and engaging and fun … and, hopefully, will give Jackman’s career a five year boost so he can do another musical or two … before he has to step into his mutant boots again.

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P.S. For my Ann Arbor friends, we had dinner at a new place around the corner from The Rave Theater (or whatever it’s called these days). The restaurant is Elevation Burger, and, for us vegetarians, they offer not one but two different kinds of handmade veggie burgers, both of which are excellent. We chatted with franchise owner-manager Mike Tayter for a bit, and the sensibility of the restaurant is very caring and conscientious and earth-friendly. I’m not a “foodie” in any sense (in fact, I hate that cloying expression) but I did want to pass along the recommendation.