*NEW* HELL OR HIGH WATER REVIEW *NEW*

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Best film of the year? Hardly BUT this is still one well crafted and brilliantly acted crime thriller. Yee-ha!

A divorced dad (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother (Ben Foster) resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas.

A gripping opener certainly set the tone with the amateurish brothers holding two banks in quick succession. The contrast established early on between Pine’s nervous BUT calculated Toby to Foster’s volatile and reckless Tanner.

Pine (Star Trek) was a charismatic presence yet again bringing a subtlety to the troubled thief. BUT it was great to see Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) finally getting a role worthy of his talents. He lapped it up and delivered an engaging performance. You felt your loyalties tested as you loathed him with his bipolar mood swings in one scene and laughed with him in the next.

Suspenseful and intriguing as the crazy duo raced around a barren Texan landscape stealing from the very institution that was trying to steal from them. You could feel for the pair as we got a little hindsight into their fractured relationship.

The pace didn’t mess about for the first half. It jumped from one thing to the next. I was really impressed with Taylor Sheridan’s (Sicario) script. It oozed dark humour with some cracking one liners; “What colour were they? You mean their souls?” He captured a gritty Texan underworld with lively characters. A perfect neo-noir. Hookers sharking around the casino for a quick buck. The townspeople a law onto themselves.

At first glance, I could have argued that anyone could have played Jeff Bridges’ role of Marcus Hamilton. Apart from drawling out racist Native American jibes at his partner (Gil Birmingham – Twilight) and spitting feathers about his impending retirement, I was more intrigued with Hamilton’s interaction with the community.

Draining blood out of a stone as he questioned witnesses; “Yeah, I watched them rob the bank that’s been robbing me for 30 years”. Their unwillingness to help the cops (and banks more importantly) spoke volumes. Especially when the sheriff tries to take back a tip from a waitress (played surprisingly well by Katy Mixon – Mike and Molly) as evidence. A tip that made half her mortgage payment for the month.

Sheridan’s social commentary on the state of rural communities was food for thought; “It’s the 21st century and I’m racing cattle against a field of fire and I wonder why my kids won’t do this?” – a dark glimpse into the future. Ranches and farmers feeling the gloomy uncertainty of what the next generation will bring.

BUT great writing could only really come to life with talented performances, great direction from the Starred Up director David Mackenzie (He’s come a long way from Corbridge) and some picturesque cinematography by Giles Nuttgen. How could he make something so desolate look so stunning? I was even happier when I noticed the original score was penned and performed by Nick Cave.

However, the only problem with these gritty crime thrillers is that there are only ever two outcomes which made certain moments a little predictable and the promising pace did slacken in the middle act.

BUT just when I felt the momentum was dropping; the film swiftly cranked up the heat on this slow burner as a bank run went wrong. Leading to a tense, nail biting and gripping closing act. The adrenaline-fuelled police chase had me on tenterhooks.

Bridges’ character finally came into the fold (unleashing some of that Oscar winning prowess) after countless scenes of him wandering around and playing the waiting game.

The unravelling of the brother’s motives behind the robberies was actually quite clever. I loved how Sheridan encapsulated the hypocrisy of the financial system through the incompetent Loan Officer (Richard Christie). Bureaucracy at its best.

Hell Or High Water was very much in the same vein as No Country for Old Men. Just without all the cryptic metaphors. And the closing minutes. Tense doesn’t even come close. The bubbling tension and still atmosphere, aided by the mere sound of creaking oil pumps between the thieves and their fate, felt like something out of a Western. Perfect.

Film of the year? Too early to tell. BUT certainly worth your attention if you’re in the mood for a well acted gritty crime thriller.

3.5/5

STARRED UP REVIEW

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Scum, this ain’t san. A slow hard boiled film that doesn’t deserve to be locked up and is reprieved by an unexpected brutal climax and a very talented cast.

It’s great to see low budget British films like this getting recognized and put out on the cinema circuit. We follow the incredibly volatile Eric Love (Jack Connell) as he is transferred to an adult prison and ends up in the same wing as his old man, the even more explosive Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn). Director David Mackenzie excels at providing a grim look at the prison system. What starts as a good opener as we go through the check in procedure (strip search, etc) at the prison soon meanders along, bordering on a Porridge parody. I mean once Eric walks through one walkway, we don’t need to see several. Connell is fantastic and gives a stellar performance. His character to start with is very unlikeable as he goes out of his way to make trouble. But through his bravado and dominance, you can’t stop watching him. And once he meets his father, a fantastically creepy Mendelsohn, we soon get a better insight into Eric and see why he is the way he is. The only problem Connell has always excelled at playing the hard man. You can only worry that he will be type cast but if he plays the part so well, does it matter.

Starred Up is gritty, violent, at times brutal but beneath that, Mackenzie does try and make a statement about young offenders and the inner workings of the prison, providing an all too realistic insight. This is demonstrated perfectly in the “anger management” class sessions led by posho volunteer Oliver (another stand out performance from Rupert Friend – Quinn from Homeland). His unique style and questionable motives make for good viewing as he desperately tries to help the offenders, a well acted bunch of British bandits; David Ajala, Anthony Welsh, David Avery, Ashley Chin and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr. This is where the film stood out from all the usual Scum spiel that has been ripped off endlessly. Eric’s erratic behaviour is crazy, at times brutal and at one point, hilarious. But once he flies off the handle, the more times he does it and effs and blinds with some (granted) memorable quotes, it gets irritating but that is the point. That is why he is here. The sessions allow us to see his vulnerability and makes for some great moments and banter as he bonds with the class.

As we delve deeper into the prison, you see that not even the powers that be are any better. Sam Spruell (The Hurt Locker) and Sian Breckin (recently featured in BBC’s Truckers) playing the shifty governors working and undoing Oliver’s work. However, where it excels in violence, testosterone, good characters and great acting, the film lacks in pace and stutters along. The hype helps draw attention but the first hour doesn’t justify it for me. However, the last half hour makes for crucial watching and redeems a film that was starting to lose my attention and questioned whether this should have been put on FilmFour as one of their TV movie premieres. However, it all seemed to be brewing up for one big climax (steady now) that is brilliantly done, compelling and endearing. All in all, a mixed bag but one of the better ones. The best prison film? Not for me san. But certainly not the worst. Mackenzie is definitely going to be one to watch for me now. 3.5/5

Currently ranks #48 out of 155!