Home » New films: Hell or High Water, Ben-Hur, War Dogs plus seven more
Hell or High Water
Film Review

New films: Hell or High Water, Ben-Hur, War Dogs plus seven more

It has been a few weeks since this column appeared here but, on the upside (assuming that isn’t an upside in and of itself), we’ve managed to program a wonderful lineup for the 17th Annual Sacramento Film & Music Festival. But more on that later – for now, save the dates: Tuesday, September 6th – Sunday, September 11th at the Jean Runyon Little Theater inside Memorial Auditorium with two final screenings on the 11th at the Esquire IMAX.

Which leaves me with some “moviebriefs” style catching up to do.

Perhaps one of my biggest regrets of the hiatus is that one of my favorite movies of the summer, “Captain Fantastic,” has only a few nights left at the Tower Theatre and I neglected to write about it earlier. It arrived rather quietly at only Roseville’s Century, following a week later at the Tower – and it’s scheduled to end on Thursday this week, as also is “Indignation.” “Captain Fantastic” is a wonderful film starring Viggo Mortensen as a father raising his children in the woods but coming to realize that perhaps things aren’t quite as idyllic as he thought. In one particularly amusing scene, his children who have been raised to survive both mentally and physically, see average Americans on a rare trip to town and ask worriedly “Why are they so fat?” In Indignation, Logan Lerman plays the lead in an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel about a young Jewish student’s awkward start at college in the 1950’s. It’s worth watching although at times it feels a little like a stage play, with acting that feels more attuned to a distant audience than a close camera.

New Releases

There’s something both old and new about “Hell or High Water,” a modern Western set in Texas. On the one hand, the plot is intricately linked to the oil and mortgage industries, making it seem very current. On the other, the general tone and style of the film feel like it could be set in almost any era. Take away the steady parade of getaway cars, that bank robbing brothers Chris Pine and Ben Foster have at their disposal, and replace them with horses and the film would still feel right. Jeff Bridges plays the almost retired Texas Ranger trying to determine their motives, with Gil Birmingham as his routinely insulted partner. It’s my favorite of this week’s new films and worth finding amidst the crowds of people complaining about how awful “Ben-Hur” is.

On that topic, “Ben-Hur” is awful. Equal parts sandals, swords and suck, it’s a pitiful attempt to remake one of the most beloved epics of cinema history. In the process of re-writing assorted details of the same basic tale, the story has been consistently undermined. This time around, Judah Ben-Hur seems more worthy of blame early on and less worthy of success later – not a good combination. And while Charlton Heston had already filled Moses’ sandals in “The Ten Commandments” prior to the 1959 version, the new film rests on the shoulders of the less formidable Jack Huston, who many might recognize but fewer could name. It’s a lot to ask of any actor and even Morgan Freeman can’t save the film, although he tries valiantly. It’s a shame to watch a film that makes one reminisce about the pod racing scene from “The Phantom Menace,” a scene that in turn had made one reminisce about Heston’s 1959 chariot racing scene. It’s a further shame to watch chariot racing themed end credits and enjoy them more than the scene itself. Short of the preview for “Doctor Strange” before the film started, the end credits may have been my favorite part.

By comparison, “War Dogs” is a gem of a movie – but then so is the cinematic pitch for popcorn and soda. But, seriously, “War Dogs” is pretty cool – and simultaneously of the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ variety of storytelling. Jonah Hill and Miles Teller play two twenty somethings who became international arms dealers during the period of the Iraq War. The US Government, in the form of the Pentagon, having been accused of cronyism, put everything they needed out to bid, from boots to tanks. One of those requests was for 100,000,000 rounds of ammunition for AK-57’s to help equip the Afghan army. While “War Dogs” may not do for Pentagon supplying what ‘The Big Short” did for credit default swaps, it is a pretty enjoyable look at a system that seems, or at least seemed, terribly out of control.

In Continuing Release

Meryl Streep is predictably but somewhat ironically pitch perfect as the tone deaf “Florence Foster Jenkins” in this story of the real woman of the same name who couldn’t have carried a tune in a dumpster, let alone a bucket. Indulged by her friends, largely due to her generosity, she somehow managed to go almost her entire life without knowing that her voice could make wallpaper peel. Hugh Grant is delightful as her co-dependent and almost equally untalented husband but the stand-out performance here is from Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory”) as the well compensated pianist who is hired to accompany her. The look on his face as he first hears her sing is alone worth the price of admission.

Pete’s Dragon” is a lovely re-imagining of the partially animated Disney film from 1977. This time around, the dragon is computer generated rather than drawn, and the outcome is like The Neverending Jungle Book of How to Train Your Big Friendly Dragon. And alongside the latter “Big Friendly Giant,” this film has helped make this a decent summer for kids films, even if a little less showy than some years. Part of what makes the new “Pete’s Dragon” work is that the adult stars, most notably Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford, all seem happy to play backseat to the dragon the kids (who haven’t heard of them anyway) have all come to see. There’s a friendly and generous low key nature to most of the acting here that allows young Oakes Fegley and his furry (yes furry, not scaly) friend to take center stage and shine.

At the other end of the scale, don’t mistake “Sausage Party” for anything remotely resembling a kid friendly film or, for that matter, a film friendly to all adults. This is a bawdy, lewd and crude animated movie set primarily inside a supermarket and starring a cast of food characters who have all been taught to believe that being bought represents salvation, rather than the earliest stage of a process of consumer consumption filled with knives, extreme heat, and teeth. It’s an equal opportunity offending take on religion for anybody who thought “The Book of Mormon” (the musical, not the actual book) was too restrained. At times, frankly, it’s hilarious but it’s an idea that would probably work better in a shorter form and with less of a narrative arc and in that sense (and only that sense) it reminded of this year’s “The Secret Life of Pets.” There are parts of this movie that could, seen alone, leave you well satisfied and outrageously amused, while other parts make even the R rating seem low. So perhaps it’s fitting that a film about food provides an unintended lesson in portion control.

Jason Bourne” is a pleasant enough return to form for a franchise that last appeared without giving us any actual Jason Bourne. Of course, the problem with a storyline about a guy who can’t remember his own past is that when he finally remembers it, the premise has gone. But “Jason Bourne” counters that obstacle somewhat adroitly by bringing up a detail of his past that he couldn’t have known, amnesia or not. It’s a re-teaming of Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass for a result that’s long on action and almost equally short on dialog, in a good way. After all, Bourne isn’t really the chatty type and the lack of witty comeback banter will make you long to watch this again the next time you see almost any action comedy, where punches are always followed by punchlines.

By comparison, “Suicide Squad” seems more banter than action and largely falls flat despite enormous potential in the cast of characters it brings to the table. Feeling much like 1967’s “The Dirty Dozen” but set in the DC Comics world of superheroes, the plot revolves around a group of villains brought together, upon threat of death, to do battle against others of their kind. Naturally, the outcome doesn’t go quite according to plan. Two examples of the poor storytelling, without too much spoiling, come in the form of a team member who shows up without any introduction and a zombie-like army that never elevates the plot. To put the first of those in perspective, realize that a significant part of the movie’s beginning is dedicated to introducing the characters with their backgrounds and criminal (or medical) records. So when somebody shows up unannounced (and the only Native American character to boot), it’s no surprise that he’s dead within moments. They might as well have given him a red “Star Trek” uniform to wear. Even with all the flaws of that movie, it makes the messiness of “Captain America: Civil War” seem far less bothersome by comparison.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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