Friday, August 26, 2016

Hell or High Water and Ben-Hur [2016]

                                    Still No Country for Old Men 
                     (ancient Jerusalem’s not so hospitable either)
             
                                                         Reviews by Ken Burke
           
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
               
                                    Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie)
                
In desolate contemporary west Texas a pair of hard-luck brothers go on a bank-robbing spree to get enough cash to pay off the overdue mortgage on their mother’s ranch property, even though the ex-con of the team is prone to taking risks that his sibling despises; meanwhile, a pair of insult-trading Texas Rangers attempts to figure out the next intended hit.

What Happens: In contemporary, economically-depressed west Texas, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) faces a more-miserable-situation than usual because the local Texas Midlands Bank’s about to foreclose on his recently-deceased-mother’s-ranch, which he’d hoped to leave to his estranged sons, Justin (John-Paul Howard) and Randy (Christopher W. Garcia)—he doesn’t contact them all that often, especially given the hostility toward him by ex-wife Debbie (Marin Ireland)—not because they have any interest in working the land but because Chevon’s recently discovered oil there (with drilling set to commence when the ownership’s settled) so he wants his teenage boys to have a better life than he's has as well as not letting the heartless bank that loaned his Mom more than she’d reasonably been able to pay back (a common tactic in this region, apparently) be the ones to profit from the petroleum.  In an attempt to set things right Toby enlists the help of his recently-released-ex-con-older-brother, Tanner (Ben Foster, one of my early candidates for Oscar’s Best Actor), to help with robbing Texas Midlands’ various branches but taking only small (untraceable) bills from the cash drawers until they’ve got enough to pay off the debt.  While Tanner’s eager to slip on a sweatshirt and ski mask, brandish a pistol in the face of terrified tellers, then roar down the highway in a getaway car that they’ll then bury on the ranch (then use another for the next heist; I guess Toby’d been stockpiling cars as well), Toby’s always tense about their criminal decisions (even as he endures local “wisdom”: Elsie [Dale Dickey], the clerk at their 1st robbery chides them for not knowing how to do it right as well as saying “Y’all ain’t even Mexican!”), frequently feuding with Tanner in a manner that makes you wonder what keeps them from shooting each other.

 However, the holdup plan does work well, given that their strategy is to hit small branches of Texas Midlands Bank at slow times in dilapidated towns with little police presence while somehow knowing that Midlands' new digital surveillance system, to be hooked up to a central computer rather than the on-site-VHS-recorders, isn’t operational yet so there’s no clue who these guys are.

 Equally obnoxious in pursuit of these thieves after the 1st robbery’s reported are the Texas Rangers (seemingly from a field office in Lubbock but having to cover extensive territory, just like my cash-register/ computer-repairman Dad did in south-central Texas when he worked for NCR) assigned to the situation, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, great in his role, as are all of this superb cast) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham, another early Oscar contender, for Best Supporting Actor).  Marcus is just a few days from retirement (which he’s physically ready for but not mentally, as he often shows effectively in brief, quiet scenes of lonely contemplation [accompanied by a 6-pack for the night] about what he’ll do with himself after the job’s over, given that he has no compelling interests—such as writing interminably-long-film-reviews—to fill his soon-to-be-endless-free-time [my Ft. Worth policeman-uncle, a CSI-guy, felt the same way so as soon as he retired he got his old job back as a civilian, keeping busy while drawing both a pension and a new paycheck]), so he distracts himself with constant racist comments about his partner’s mixed Native American-Mexican heritage (although we just hear the Indian jokes because Marcus says he needs to finish those first before moving on to the next category), which are seemingly-intended for good-natured-joshing between colleagues (nasty as the remarks are), but it’s hard to tell whether Alberto sees any humor in them given his stoic demeanor (he must have learned well from Victor Joseph [Adam Beach] in Smoke Signals [Chris Eyre, 1998] how a “true” Indian presents himself to the White world), suddenly punctuated by a spot-on-zinger of his own.  Hamilton begins to get a sense that these robberies are intended to raise a specific amount, then sets out on a methodical plan to catch the perps even as Parker longs to just go back to Lubbock.

 Toby’s situation is complicated further by the $400 he owes Debbie for child support (sadly for him, he hadn’t been able to raise much cash lately, because he's spent most of the last 3 months taking care of his dying Mom, even though no one seems to have fond memories of her, which is especially true for Tanner as she left him out of the will, but if I heard some quick-dialogue properly he was responsible for killing his abusive Dad, although there may have been some extenuating circumstances in that he only spent 10 years in prison), which he notes to Tanner as they’re eating lunch in a diner across the street from a bank not on their hit-list.  While Toby’s finishing his meal, casually flirting with waitress Jenny Ann (Katy Mixon)—ultimately leaving her a $200 tip, with the understanding that she’s in financial straits too—Tanner’s spontaneously robbing that convenient bank, with the brothers roaring off as loose money sails around the parking lot (forcing Toby to bury this car ahead of schedule), but the locals mostly clam up about what they saw, both because they have the same disgusted attitude toward the banks that the Howards do (reminds me of Muley Graves' [John Qualen] agitated son [Hollis Jewell] in The Grapes of Wrath [John Ford, 1940], asking a foreclosure agent as their family land’s being confiscated, “Who do we shoot?”) and because when Marcus investigates he insists on taking Jenny Ann’s tip as evidence, even though she resists, needing it for her own expenses.  The Rangers aren’t going to close in further on their targets anytime soon, though, because the next part of the plan comes into play as the brothers head to an Oklahoma Indian casino where they effectively launder their loot by cashing it in for chips, then waiting awhile before they cash-out, giving them new bills that have no connection to the robberies.

 Tanner takes some of the chips, though, for a few hands of poker where he manages to enlarge their stash, before having harsh words with a local Comanche about both of them being “enemies” toward each other, then running off a woman flirting with Toby, likely intending to set him up for her own heist given the large amount of chips he’s holding at the bar.  But in a marvelous intercut scene later that night we see Tanner in the brothers’ motel room humping a woman he’s picked up at the casino while Toby pretends to be asleep, paralleled to Marcus leaving his own motel bed to brood over his life and this troubling case, choosing to sleep outside by the parking lot in a metal chair.

 All of this intercut-activity ultimately begins to reach convergence (along with some poignant words from Alberto about how this land was taken from his people only about 150 years ago by the White invaders, yet now most of them are losing it to their own financial institutions [as the power-struggles shift from racial to class conflicts]) when Tanner decides that they need to skip the small bank in Coleman (near the even-smaller-town of Clyde, which I discuss below) in favor of the larger one in Post (more towards New Mexico), but Marcus has figured out that option as well so he and Alberto are on the way, not far behind the Howard boys.  Post’s a bigger place with a more active bank, though, so the brothers have to be more aggressive than usual in attempting to commandeer all the people in the building while their robbery’s in motion, with further complications coming from someone (while lying on the floor) sending a text message to the cops even as armed (it’s legal-open-carry; this is Texas, you know, where this sort of thing is now in process of being allowed even on college campuses) customers begin firing at the holdup men, forcing the Howards to kill a couple of shooters in order to escape, even as they’re being shot at themselves while driving away.  This time, they’ve left a 2nd car out on the highway so they head off in different directions (Toby back to a casino, Tanner to who—including him—knows where).  Toby manages to get through a roadblock after a few tense minutes, finishes the laundering which gets him enough cash to work with a shady lawyer (also disgusted by the local banking practices; oddly with a picture of LBJ on his wall, so I'm not sure what the implication is there) to clear the lien on his land, set up a trust for his sons, eventually watch the oil pumps bring them into prosperity (he doesn’t live at his old home anymore, though, just helps renovate it for Debbie and the boys).  

 Tanner’s not so fortunate, as he’s pursued by a squad of revenge-minded-bank-customers whom he sends packing after he stops, shoots ferociously at them with a submachine-gun; however, by now the Rangers and cops are also after him so he buys some time by driving up a steep hill, setting his truck on fire, sending it down into a mini-conflagration against his pursuers, then uses his sniper rifle to fire at them, killing Alberto.  Finally, Marcus sneaks around behind him, killing him with a sniper shot of his own, but it’s a miserable day out on the plains when the action’s all over.

 A bit later, after Marcus is retired he’s still quite determined that Toby was the one helping his elder brother with the robberies (therefore he also has culpability for Alberto’s death, through which we understand he did have a strong connection to his partner despite their gruff interactions, when about the only time that we see them in harmony over something is the day they go to lunch at a T-bone steakhouse [in the dusty town where Marcus insists they do a stakeout on a Texas Midlands branch] only to both be astounded by the gritty waitress [the snappy Margaret Bowman] who rudely informs them that the only thing on the menu is that specific steak, cooked medium rare whether you like it or not, with your dining choice being to have or not have the corn-on-the-cob and/or green beans that might accompany it; despite Bowman’s hilarious delivery, I doubt her screen time’s sufficient for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but maybe she’ll be given consideration for one of the best waitress scenes since Jack Nicholson told one to “hold the chicken” between her knees in Five Easy Pieces [Bob Rafelson, 1970]) even though no evidence (nor help from those earlier diner patrons) can connect Toby to anything (even the sudden mortgage payoff's explained as good luck at the casinos), so Marcus drives out to the ranch for a face-to-face-accusation which Toby continues to deflect, with no engagement, ending in a tense stalemate, although each implies that there might be a further conversation some day to bring some peace to at least one of them about what went on (Marcus even tries to up the ante by telling Toby he’s the one who killed Tanner, but Toby still grimly refuses to take the bait).  There’s no inner peace to be had by anyone here except Toby’s sons who can someday head off to college on their new oil money, completely escaping the hardscrabble life that’s plagued the other Howards and many of their neighbors all over this territory, struggling for it to not devolve into a hopeless wasteland.

So What? I’ve spent a lot of time in west Texas (primarily in what the "metropolitan"-Abilene-newscasters refer to as the “Big Country” that rolls increasingly-more-emptily-westward from the heavily-populated-area of the Dallas-Ft. Worth-metroplex into the flatlands of southeastern New Mexico—where this film is actually shot, but I can testify that if you traveled to the small Texas towns noted here you’d find that the visuals remain accurate) visiting my late grandmother and 2 of her now-deceased-husbands (she had a tendency to outlive them as she almost made it to 100 herself), then my parents (after Dad retired from his many years rambling around Texas for NCR, then being transferred to the Dayton, OH headquarters toward the end), so I’ll vouch for what’s presented here in terms of territory (with some occasional mountains or mesas in the far background but mostly a region of flat, hot, dry, dusty, vegetation-challenged plains), attitudes (cryptic or smart-ass answers to questions, assumptions of success within the cynicism that you can never count on anything working out right), “cultural” signifiers (chicken-fried steak for lunch, Tanner insisting on actual Dr. Pepper rather than the Coca-Cola Co.’s rip-off imitation Mr. Pibb, plenty of beer consumed by the main characters including Lone Star and Shiner Bock, when Toby’s injured in the Post bank shootout he patches his wound with duct tape), and the overall sense of people determined to survive in these small communities where better days have passed them by, many Main Street-storefronts (in towns where there’s only 1 main street) are boarded up, pickup trucks are a constant form of transportation, and the hard, weathered looks on the locals’ faces tell you in an instant that you’d better always be on the alert for what the next dawn may bring if you truly intend to survive out here, “come hell or high water.”  

 Richard Linklater’s shown a fine cross-section of lives more in central and east Texas over the years (Slacker 1991, Dazed and Confused 1993, Bernie 2011, Boyhood 2014, Everybody Wants Some!!; reviews of the last 3 respectively in our May 24, 2012, July 31, 2014, April 14, 2016 postings), but to appreciate the struggles of life in small towns far-flung from escape-routes such as those found on the I-10, I-20 freeways, or Southwest Airlines, leading to destinations miles away from these arid communities, you’d have to turn back to the magnificent-yet-melancholy-depictions of near-empty-spaces and dead-end-lives in The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)—filmed in Texas’ Archer City (site of a Hell or High Water bank robbery; no coincidence, I’m sure).

 My apologies to anyone reading this either still living out there (As some of those folks might say, “It’s not the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from here.”) or with fond memories of the place, but I still recall heading out to Clyde (population about 2,000 then) in the 1950s-‘60s to visit my Grandma Babe Boone (maiden name, distant descendant of Daniel, distant cousin of actor Richard, you could see the resemblance in her brother Burleigh)/ Courtney (divorced him, he died from wasp-sting-allergic-reaction before we ever met, my Mother wouldn’t even discuss him)/Stevenson (distant cousin of the Democrats’ 1952-1956 Presidential candidate, looked a bit like him but no other connection at all, snored louder than the freight trains that roared through town at night)/Wise (a very decent man, died of cancer too soon after their marriage but at least left her materially-comfortable for the next 30 years), sitting on her front porch (on that only main street—named Oak but no sign would tell you that, while pecan trees were more abundant) watching cars drive out toward I-20 or airliners fly overhead, thinking to myself how lucky I was to soon be going back to Galveston or Austin instead of being out here every day, planning some departure strategy (if you think I exaggerate, listen later to my Musical Metaphor where famed Texas singer-songwriter Steve Fromholz verifies all this in great detail, although he's focused on the central Texas town of Kopperl, close to Waco).  The Howard brothers never planned on leaving, though—well, maybe Tanner hoped he’d get away to another state after the Post robbery but seemed prepared all along to go out in a blaze of glory if necessary—because like so many others with deep roots in their territory's heritage their goal is to make the best of it, whatever compromises you're presented with “when the sun hits the land” (a lyric from that Fromholz song below).  As for the banks being predatory on these virtually-helpless-people, I have no direct knowledge nor comment except that my cousin’s (the good one, not the felon who deserves to rot in whatever penitentiary she’s in) been a bank president near Dallas for quite awhile and I’ve never heard of such blood-sucking-behavior from her so I’ll just have to hope there’s decency west of Weatherford (just past Ft. Worth) as well.*

*A counter to my ongoing-escaped-to-California-distain for many aspects of my former home (but not the many good people there I still know and am glad to be in contact with) is contained in the details in this argument about "5 Reasons Everything's Is Better In Texas" (especially the State-Flower-bluebonnets)—no state income tax, diverse geography, world-class universities, job growth, lower cost of living—shared by good friend, ex-roommate, now Colorado-resident (!) Jerry Graham.

 In addition to the veracity of the location, tone, and characters of Hell or High Water there’s also its allusions to such older outstanding films as Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)—where a small group of poor thieves take on the financial establishment of a depressed area, with muted admiration from the locals for striking back at the banks (just like with Ranger Parker in this new film; I wonder if he’s possibly any relation to Bonnie Parker, as it's doubtful but remotely possible given his shared surname and Texas heritage [I presume] with this famous outlaw, herself born out in the Big Country)Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)—where an act of retribution against a heartless oppressor turns into a crime spree with a final man (well, woman in that case) hunt across desert lands that ends with death (for Tanner in the current film, who basically sacrifices himself so that Toby’s able to elude capture because of his clean record, unknown getaway car, and lack of witness identification, despite several people in that lunchtime café getting a clear look at his unmasked face; speaking of faces, the sun-wrinkled-ones in the little highway pull-offs where the female fugitives stop in Thelma … are even more indicative of lives on the border of ultimate loss than the ones we see in Hell …)—and, of course, there's No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Cohen, 2007)—set in the same general
west Texas location as Hell … (although closer to Mexico; there’s got to a good pun somewhere in these last couple of phrases) in 1980, also involving a cynical, aging lawman tracking stolen money, again not as the result of career criminals (at least where Toby’s concerned; Tanner may be truly a different case, as Ranger Hamilton characterizes him in the final dialogue with Toby) but with the complication of a vicious hitman also trying to find the missing loot.  I can’t say yet if Hell or High Water is in league with these outstanding predecessors (No Country … won Best Picture Oscar; Bonnie … certainly should have [although facing close competition from The Graduate {Mike Nichols}, with minimal complaints from me that the actual winner was In the Heat of the Night {Norman Jewison}]; Thelma … didn’t get nominated for Best Picture [but Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon were for Best Actress while Callie Khouri won for Best Original Screenplay] although I’d have chosen it instead of Bugsy [Barry Levinson] but concede the award to winner The Silence of the Lambs [Jonathan Demme, also winner for Best Director]), but it’s a damn fine film, constantly engaging, very timely, well acted and shot, well worth seeing if you can find it at 1 of the 472 theaters where it’s currently playing (with surely more to come as it continues to build momentum).

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: Critical momentum is already steamrolling for Hell or High Water, with a fabulous figure of 98% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, a significant 88% average score at Metacritic (that’s the 6th highest score the MC folks have given any film I’ve reviewed this year—with the only toppers being for Carol [Todd Haynes; review in our January 11, 2016 posting] 96; 45 Years [Andrew Haigh; review in our February 3, 2016 posting] 94; Anomalisa [Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson; review in our January 21, 2016 posting] 90; Son of Saul [László Nemes; review in our March 3, 2016 posting] 89—all of these were holdovers for me from 2015 films that didn’t get released in my area until 2016—Only Yesterday [Isao Takahata; review in our March 9, 2016 posting] 90); more details on these current Hell … reviews in the Related Links section very far below.  I hope it’s clear from my comments just above that it’s high on my list also, a strong contender for the best of 2016 (along with The Lobster [Yorgos Lanthimos; review in our June 9, 2016 posting], The Innocents [Anne Fontaine; review in our July 13, 2016 posting], and Indignation [James Schamus; review in our August 11, 2016 posting]), in that its dramatic power even within a straightforward narrative never lets up, with the parallel journeys of the 4 main characters (split into 2 bickering pairs, brothers and co-workers with varying degrees of mutual respect/distain) in a plot not unlike what you’ll find below in the review of the new Ben-Hur,* in that in Hell …’s opposing pairs each see themselves as the protagonists, with the Rangers simply following their legal obligations to catch bank robbers (who inadvertently turn into murderers) while the outlaws see themselves as descendants of Robin Hood, taking some back from the rich to settle family accounts that were always set up to profit only the Texas Midlands Bank corporation.  

*Where Messala is the obvious antagonist, but he’s equally concerned with Judah in keeping peace in Roman-occupied Judea, just with different pressures on him as to how this can happen; further, with the assassination-attempt on Pontius Pilate he gets a sacrificial confession from his foster-brother (intended to protect the rest of the Hur family, as you can read more about in the following review) so Messala does seem justified in taking some action, just not the harsh vengeance that he unleashes on his former family so as to maintain his hard-earned-position with the vicious Romans.

 The events of this film never imply that robbing banks (or other monetary-enterprises) is considered to be a legitimate means of balancing out the grim economic-inequality that’s been plaguing the U.S. (and, I’m sure, much of the rest of the world) for years now, but Hell ... certainly allows a sense of vicarious retribution for the millions caught in this horrid cycle of stagnation—even those moviegoers who’d rarely want to see what’s considered an independent/art film, so maybe strong-word-of-mouth will enhance the box-office appeal of Hell or High Water to a wider viewership (although soaring ticket prices of late may work against that audience-enhancement-factor, but maybe matinee discounts can help)—as well as this film providing a more visceral insight into what many of our fellow Americans are suffering through for those of us fortunate enough to be able to comfortably support ourselves.  My San Francisco Bay Area remains the primary region of job growth in California, although the multitude of tech-millionaires out here is creating its own socioeconomic-inequities as scads of newly-rich are pushing middle/working-class-families farther into the suburbs, driving up home prices again just like what happened with the great bubble of the early 21st-century that damaged so many lives when it finally burst at the end of 2007—although this time it’s because of actual wealth from companies pandering to our endless “need” for greater techno-sophistication rather than unreasonable real-estate-loans intended to fail, just like the one that almost led to foreclosure on the run-down Howard ranch. However, as to whether this story amounts to a contemporary version of a western—as many reviewers have implied that it does—is another topic entirely.

 Traditionally, the hallowed American western (and its later spinoffs into such international responses as the lauded “spaghetti westerns" of Italian director Sergio Leone) has been about conflict on the frontier (whether that means Kentucky, Missouri, or Arizona), the age-old-struggle between encroaching civilization with its rules, regulations, and resentments from independent-minded-characters vs. the ideal of individual freedom where people can make a living off the land, leave their mistakes behind in new environments, or forge communities built more on individual trust than legislated-restrictions (a great double feature to illustrate how the frontier ideal was still celebrated—during yet an earlier time of national economic hardship—in contrast to how that ideal was begrudgingly-seen as a relic in an era of social, technological change can be found in John Ford’s classics, Stagecoach [1939] and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence [1962], in which the mantle of heroism passes from brave gunslinger John Wayne [the Ringo Kid] in the former to lawyer-turned-politician James Stewart in the latter [although, with the transition brought about by a popular misconception regarding the marksmanship ability of Rance Stoddard {Stewart}, as the independent gunman, rancher Tom Doniphon {Wayne}, voluntarily recedes back into the shadows]).  While some of the great latter entries in the Western genre, like the powerful formula-
challenging-tales of The Wild Bunch, as presented by Sam Peckinpah in 1969 or Unforgiven from Clint Eastwood in 1992, address the closing of the frontier with the unanticipated coming of modern devices like cars and machine guns or reassess the grim truth behind the myths of the celebrated gunman, these stories still take place at a time where natural wilderness and implanted civilization coexist, even if the long-cherished-dream of the frontier is fast coming to a close.  For such a contemporary tale as Hell or High Water to truly be called a western* (rather than the concept of the western relocated to other genres such as what happens in Star Wars [with added title Episode IV—A New Hope {George Lucas, 1977}] or Bonnie and Clyde), I think that the frontier needs to be more than just a conceptual contrast to the cruel community-dominating-power of the banks and other metropolitan-based-industries; certainly, the Howard brothers want their family land back, then devise a scheme to reacquire it which involves harnessing the power of chaos to thwart the fortified-structures of modern civilization, but I still see the marvelous Hell or High Water evoking the allure of the traditional western, not truly carrying it into the 21st century.  (Feel free to disagree; I’d be glad to have some dialogue on this subject.)

*Although it’s called that by John Kass in the Chicago Tribune, but he sees it as the archetypal (he even cites Joseph Campbell) story of “an iconic man alone” against the debilitating forces of the high and mighty, “a celebration of the nation we think we used to be” (playing well to the frustrated dreams of the left-behinds who’ve energized the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders Presidential campaigns [Bernie's my addition to this link's info, just to be clear that I'm not promoting Trump]).

 But, whether this terrific film can truly be called a western is really of little consequence because what it does successfully is give voice to the many dispossessed in our modern world where land is no longer free for the taking (at least in the U.S., although indigenous people still struggle to maintain their traditional existences in much of the rest of the world, even as the forces of globalized-industrialization impound their natural resources, confiscate their territory, destroy their heritages, all in the name of progress for their surrounding countries), wealth and political influence is increasingly held by social elites, resistance is expressed as revolution where each side assumes that the other must be vanquished to either maintain or dislodge the status quo.  In contrast, the Howard brothers simply throw the power-wielders back onto themselves, using stolen money from the various Texas Midlands Bank branches (laundered, ironically, through American Indian-run-casinos, in a move that Ranger Alberto Parker might secretly admire) to buy back their homestead, to preserve it not for themselves but for Toby’s sons, lifetime-beneficiaries of the newly-discovered-oil on the property, just as James Dean’s character (Jett Rink) got his revenge against the wealthy Benedict family, led by “Bick” (Rock Hudson) in Giant (George Stevens, 1956) when the little parcel of land left to him by Bick‘s sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), turns out to be flush with oil, although his new-found-wealth allows him to become even more of a high-roller-jackass than the Benedicts ever were, devolving to a well-heeled-but-lonely-fate while Bick begins to finally open his mind to the multicultural, unequal world he’s living in by the end of that story.  

 Hopefully, Toby’s boys won’t go the rotten way of Jett but will take their father’s advice to learn from his mistakes, use their money to make something socially/personally-fulfilling of themselves, just as Richard Linklater’s Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) sets out to build upon but also away from his previous family life in the well-praised Boyhood (review in our July 31, 2014 posting).

 So, as the sun finally sets on Hell or High Water, let me get you back to that aforementioned Musical Metaphor that speaks to what we encounter in this great film in a similar yet different (aural) manner, with Steve Fromholz’s “Texas Trilogy,” at https:// www.youtube.com/watch ?v=rDVpz-qEnPs (from the 1969 album Here to There, performed with Dan McCrimmon who partnered with Fromholz as a 2-person-group [with studio accompaniment for the album] called Frommox in those long-ago-days).  I saw them, and just Steve, perform this song-cycle many times, always effectively evoking the people, situations, and challenges so well-addressed in Hell or High Water.  But just to give you one other sense of what this film’s exploring, I’ll also recommend this Ron Latimer video, where he sings the 1st part of the Fromholz trilogy, “Daybreak,” set to images of small, rural towns quite appropriate to what you see in the desolate territory which is so appropriately-dissected in Hell or High Water (plus verifying that this type of difficult life in many manifestations of small-town-Texas has been going on for decades, not just as a result of our relatively-recent-Great Recession-crisis).  Then, when you’re through with all that, another journey awaits you below, to go back in time, back to reminiscences of another Hollywood classic, back to another story where there’s also a desperate need for salvation from an oppressive ruling society.
                     
(Somewhat) Short(er) Takes (at least by my skewed-standards)
               
                          Ben-Hur [2016]* (Timur Bekmambetov)
               
*Unless I note otherwise in the text below, when I use the Ben-Hur title I’m referring to this current cinematic release rather than any previous print or audiovisual version.

Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince at the time of Jesus in Jerusalem, has his life turned to hate when his foster brother, Messala, now an important member of the Roman army, sends his former “sibling” into slavery through a tragic misunderstanding that builds to a climax when Judah comes under the protection of an African chariot owner who sets up a high-stakes race between the two.
               
What Happens: I’m going to minimize this part of the review with the assumption that you already have an understanding of this film’s main narrative details, either from reading the original 1880 Lew Wallace novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, or seeing the 1959 multi-Oscar-winning film, Ben-Hur (directed by William Wyler, starring Charlton Heston)—with well-detailed-narrative-summaries of each in these respective links if you wish.  But if you need a plot summary of this new cinematic version here’s a quick(ish) one: Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) of Jerusalem (living in the time of Jesus Christ [Rodrigo Santoro]) has an orphaned foster brother, Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell)—burdened with the heritage of his grandfather being one of the plotters against Julius Caesar; frustrated with not being part of his new family’s bloodline, wealth, nor religion he joins the Roman army where he succeeds under the guidance of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek).  3 years later, after Judah’s married Esther (Nazanin Boniadi), new-governor-of-Judea-Pilate enters Jerusalem in a parade of military power as Messala’s tasked with keeping the rabid, rebellious zealots under control, for which he asks Judah’s help (even as our protagonist is skeptical of God’s supposed providence) with both “brothers” hoping to maintain peace in the occupied land, but a wounded zealot recuperating in Judah’s barn shoots arrows at Pilate, wounding him, which calls for swift retaliation so Judah confesses to being the shooter, hoping to protect this family.  

 Messala arrests them anyway, sentencing Judah to galley-slavedom (as he’s led away in chains he collapses, revived by a drink of water from Jesus).  5 years pass; during a sea battle with Greek rebels Judah’s ship is sunk, but he manages to survive being washed to shore where he’s rescued by Sheik Ilderim (Morgan Freeman), a wealthy African who takes Judah on as a chariot driver after this refugee nurses one of the horses back to health, then Ilderim arranges a race at the Jerusalem circus pitting Judah against stern Messala (and others, some of who die horribly in the process).

 Upon victory, Judah’s given his freedom, drops his hate when witnessing Jesus’ cruel crucifixion, then brings badly-injured-Messala back from the Dark Side also even as he witnesses the miraculous curing from leprosy of his long-imprisoned mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), and sister, Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia), as the family is finally reunited, brought back to their happy state when the “brothers” were carefree chums, reveling in their mutual horseback abilities.  Much of this follows the essence of the previous Ben-Hur narratives, except for neither film including Part 1 (focused on the birth of Christ) of the book’s 8 sections nor most of Parts 6-8 where Judah’s life continues on quite a bit after Messala’s brutal injuries (eventually he dies at the hand of a former lover; in the 1959 film he dies just after the chariot race) as our newly-converted-Christian finally heads off to Rome to help protect members of this emerging religion from state persecution.  Another minor change in the new film is that in these older versions the problem with the arriving governor (not Pilate in those tellings) is that a tile accidently falls off the Hur-home-roof, almost killing this official during the parade; with a newly-devised-attack on Pilate, combined with Judah’s confession assuming that somehow Messala would pardon him, we’re allowed to understand Messala better, to see the cause of his brutality toward his foster-brother now understood as an enemy of the state he’s sworn to protect, especially given that Judah refused to divulge any name of zealots that he knew of, furthering the tension between these “siblings” now firmly rooted in their competing-visions of Judea’s future.

So What? Wallace’s book was extremely popular in the U.S for decades, 2nd in sales only to the Bible during the period of the later-19th to the early-middle-20th-centuries, dropping down to 3rd place only upon the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), shooting up to 1st place for awhile in the 1960s following the success of Wyler’s film.  However, from what I’ve gleaned from the summary (having, of course, never read Wallace's work, as it’s just another entry in the Mt. Everest-size-stack of books I’ve ignored even though they’ve been made into films that I’ve seen, with only a few known to me in both media such as The Grapes of Wrath [published by John Steinbeck, 1939; film directed by John Ford, 1940] or The Godfather [published by Mario Puzo, 1969; film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1972]—with even both of those being situations of screening prior to reading), it was intended to be much more of a Christian-celebration-story than either of the filmic versions I’ve seen of it (I know I should track down the silent Ben-Hur [Fred Niblo, 1925; Ramon Navarro in the lead role] for even further comparison, but so far I haven’t done that either), although any decision to stay more fully aligned with the book would likely require an even-more-churchgoer-based-promotion-campaign than what’s been attempted with this current manifestation of the story (seemingly not needed in the 1950s-early ‘60s when biblical spectacles such as The Ten Commandments [Cecil B. DeMille, 1956], the hugely-successful Ben-Hur, King of Kings [Nicholas Ray, 1961], and The Greatest Story Ever Told [George Stevens, 1965] could be made on massive budgets with easy expectations of audience support in an era when “under God” was incorporated into the Pledge of Allegiance [1954], a daily recitation-requirement in most schools [including the Catholic ones I attended through 8th grade], while “In God We Trust” was added to U.S. paper money [1957]).  Even as is, though, this new Ben-Hur’s been able to scrape up only $11.2 million in its opening domestic weekend, putting it in position to be one of the biggest-box-office-busts of 2016 (relative to its hefty $100 million budget), ongoing proof that ancient-historical/Biblical epics probably have about run their cinematic course, given they’re part of a genre often no longer with much appeal, even when helmed by noted directors.

 As examples of such under-performances vs. anticipated results of these formerly-popular-epics we have Alexander [the Great] (Oliver Stone, 2004; $167.3 million gross worldwide vs. $155 million budget, plus an additional notable sum in distribution costs; Rotten Tomatoes 16% positive reviews, Metacritic 39%), Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott, 2014; with $268.2 million worldwide gross vs. $145 million budget, plus the usual huge marketing costs; 
RT at 27%, MC at 52 % [review in our December 19, 2014 posting]), or Gods of Egypt (Alex Proyas; $145.7 million worldwide gross vs. $140 million budget, plus the massive extra expenses; RT 16%, MC 23%); proving to be the rarer, more-celebrated exceptions, though, are movies such as Kingdom of Heaven (Scott, 2005; $211.7 million gross worldwide [most of that coming from outside the domestic market, with solid success in Arabic-speaking-countries] vs. $130 million budget, plus marketing and distribution; RT 39%, MC 63%, but it generated strong criticism about historical inaccuracy in its depiction of the Crusades) or Noah (Darren Aronofsky, 2014; $362.6 million gross worldwide vs. $125 million budget, plus the extras; RT 77% MC 68% [review in our April 3, 2014 posting], yet it also generated opposition from potential viewers as conservative religious groups objected to its extensive enhancements of the Biblical story).  Nor can this type of grandiose movie format easily extend its generic tropes into contemporary settings—as can something like Hell or High Water when we’re only about a century removed from the closing of the actual Old West in the U.S.—where even monetarily/critically-successful fare such as Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999; $107.7 million worldwide income vs. $48 million budget; 94% on RT, 82% on MC) has little in common with what these Greco-Roman-extravaganzas had to offer except desert settings along with some form of intercultural-intolerance.

 Clearly, in an attempt to find connections with whatever's possible in any terms of diverse audiences that this film could muster, the team of creators behind this Ben-Hur wanted to put in whatever references they could find to anything that might seem familiar to the viewership so we have Messala connected via birth-family-heritage to Julius Caesar (with that traitorous grandfather being crucified); they bring in Pontius Pilate as the incoming Roman Prefect (governor) of Judea rather than the historically-correct but virtually-unknown (except for those blessed with sharp memories of the novel or 1959 film) Valerius Gratus; Judah has a few extra encounters with Jesus when He’s just a peace-loving-carpenter (who shouldn’t even be in Jerusalem at this point), including the scene where Jesus—with enough of a presence to give Roman soldiers reason to back away from Him—offers water to the newly-decreed-slave, setting up the later parallel where Judah attempts to do the same on Good Friday; even the crucifixion location of Mt. Calvary is located right above the circus where Judah defeats his I’ll-kill-you-before-you-kill-me-opponents so that all strands of this story can be easily woven together (including the implications of parallels between Judah and Jesus, such as the shot just above, where the layout implies a crucifixion-connection for Judah as he floats away from his former slave ship, as if this is the key to his own upcoming-“resurrection”).  In most of Ben-Hur Judah doesn’t have that clean-shaven-look that distinguished Charlton Heston’s character from most of the bearded men around him; in fact, Huston looks enough like the more-traditional-Western-depictions of Jesus that it’s easy to confuse who’s who, especially when they share the same frame on screen, although Judah does make a stunning tonsorial upgrade just before the big race (with what seems to be gardening shears) so that his new hipster look (Yet another concession to potential contemporary tastes?) gives him a stunning fashion-model-appearance appropriate to a cover shoot for Chariots Illustrated magazine.  
 This is definitely Huston’s—not Heston’s—Ben-Hur, designed in an attempt to satisfy today's patrons who may not have even seen the 1959 film (nor care to, given its connections to an era’s lifestyle that may hold no interest whatsoever for them), to do all it can to revive the sword-and-sandal-epic-clash-attitudes of yesteryear even though more-relevant-dramatic-competitions could likely be found by these highly-coveted-younger-movie-theater-attendees as they could easily have chosen to watch Rio Olympics highlights on their smartphones rather than go to a movie theater.

Bottom Line 
Final Comments: 
I certainly got plenty of warnings from those who’d previously seen this remake of Ben-Hur to not even consider seeing it, from the extremely poor scores of the standard-reference-critics’-collectives where you'll find a mere 30% at Rotten Tomatoes, an only-slightly-better-37% at Metacritic (more details in the Related Links section farther below), to dismissal by 2 prominent West Coast critics, Mick LaSalle of the noted San Francisco Chronicle and Justin Chang of the equally-noted Los Angeles Times, with the former contending (in a manner I really just can’t comprehend, after seeing what he’s writing about) that the original story was “conceived and executed to move readers and audiences in a spiritual and specifically religious way,” yet LaSalle claims this central element is missing in the new version so that “all you have left is a hard-luck story, set against the background of first century Judean politics.”  While I’ve evolved from Catholicism to borderline-atheism over time, I can’t agree with his assessment, especially given the miraculous conversions to Christianity shown about Judah, Messala, and the other Hurs in the quick-wrap-up-finale of this film, but I do find a bit more substance in Chang’s (an admitted-Christian) critique: Is this brand of evangelical pablum — full of piety and pageantry, but largely devoid of artistic merit or spiritual insight — what the Christian audience wants from its screen entertainment? To even pose that question is to fall into the trap that so many Hollywood decision makers have since the smash success of “The Passion of the Christ” [Mel Gibson, 2004] 12 years ago: They effectively niche-ified “the Christian audience,” turning it into some sort of distant, monolithic entity that could, if properly courted, deliver an embarrassment of box-office riches. In the eyes of the industry, Christian moviegoers are little more than like-minded robots with a more God-fearing set of aesthetic taste buds than everyone else, and who routinely shun serious, provocative art but will embrace a movie that ends with a worship song and an altar call.”*  (By the way, that's Judah—not Jesus—in the above photo.) 

*Yet, that response may be exactly what Paramount and MGM are hoping for to recoup the expensive budget, according to this Variety article, an embrace by churchgoers who rarely find much at the multiplexes to appeal to their sensibilities (a film blogger [a long-honored-occupation in our society] notes in this article: “It’s a movie that portrays faith in an honest, positive way without being triumphalist.”) in a culture where the box-office-embrace is currently going to movies such as Suicide Squad (David Ayer), Sausage Party (Greg Teirnan, Conrad Vernon; review in our August 18, 2016 posting), and War Dogs (Todd Phillips), with total domestic grosses of $262.4, $65.5, $14.7 million after their respective 3, 2, 1 weeks in release (here’s another Variety article that attempts to explain why this is happening, plus another one anticipating a $100 million loss for Ben-Hur).

 Quite honestly, I don’t think this new Ben-Hur’s as terrible as it’s being generally dismissed (although extraneous-logistics led me to a 3-D showing, certainly not worth the extra cash, with the various backgrounds somewhat-unnaturally-flat when set against the exaggerated foregrounds)—especially with the grandeur of the sea-battle and chariot-race scenes—although the quickly-stated “love is better than hate” theme does come across as contrived to be the intended outcome of a story that focuses so much on bloody military conquests, desperate-desires for revenge, and seemingly-justified-anger on all sides: Messala’s blamed early on for a horseracing accident with Judah by Naomi, even though it wasn’t his fault (reminding me of Ricky’s mother, Brenda Baker [Tyra Ferrell] in Boyz N the Hood [John Singleton, 1991] always blaming Doughboy [Ice Cube]—child of a different father—for anything that impacted her favored son [Morris Chestnut], including his death), intensifying his feeling of isolation from this family, with whom he shares nothing except time growing up (although Judah generously keeps trying to reconcile with him until his brutal condemnation to slavery; however, the mutual attraction between Messala and Tirzah doesn’t help family relations much either); the Roman occupiers are legitimately concerned about keeping order in Judea when their troops are being clandestinely-killed, yet the zealot-inspired-killers are furious that sacred stones are being taken from their cemetery to construct the new cruel-entertainment-circus; the zealots demand support from Judah’s prominent family, yet he rejects such action as bringing down a reign of terror from a superior enemy even as he risks danger by keeping the wounded archer on his property, leading to the debacle with Pilate; when Judah secretly returns to his home with a message for Messala to meet him in his abandoned-family-dwelling he demands to know where his relatives are buried but ultimately tries to kill his “sibling” in response to all the horror that’s come to his family (which allows Pilate to be seen as the true villain of this story—even though we see nothing of his acquiescence toward Jesus’ death—because he commands that 20 random Jews be executed in retaliation for Judah’s attack on Messala, sending a brutal reminder of Roman power).

 Even the Crucifixion scene hints at hatred—without elaborating through added narrative—with the Biblical accounts of the quick turn of the Jewish crowds against Jesus, despite an earlier scene of people in the streets rushing in a certain direction carrying palms (implying His triumphant Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem) followed by His painful march through those same streets carrying his cross on the way to execution but still offering forgiveness as He later hangs there, dying, looking directly at Judah in the gathered crowd as if they have always had some sort of special connection.

Again, this is Judah not Jesus
(nor is Morgan supposed to be a Black Messiah,even if it's what
you were hoping for; Hollywood's probably not ready for
that yet, but maybe Spike Lee is so try to be patient)
 I realize that the original intention of Wallace’s story was to promote the specific healing power of Christianity, with an emphasis on rejecting vengeance against your enemies, offering sincere multiple opportunities for true reconciliation with those who have wronged you rather than casting them out of your life, putting off your desires for material gain in return for spiritual rewards in the afterlife, but, despite Jesus’ multiple-on-screen-appearances here—rather than the few, enigmatic shots from behind in the 1959 film—He doesn’t fully come across as the manifestation of the long-sought Messiah (that concept doesn’t even come up this time around, unless I totally missed it) as much as He mostly seems to be a decent man who wants no violence done on his part (when Judah attempts to give Jesus water on his way to his fate on Mt. Calvary he’s stopped by the Roman soldiers; Judah has a rock that he’s ready to use as a weapon, but Jesus tells him that He’s willingly accepting this death—although Judah doesn't drop the rock just yet); we’re supposed to somehow understand why this sacrifice is a necessary aspect of salvation for all humankind, although I guess it’s an attempt to portray enough of the Christ story that would be easily understood by those with a background in this material yet not get into theological assertions that would confound those of other faiths (or none at all).   We only understand that something significant has happened here with the final voiceover narration from Sheik Ilderim that many miracles occurred (likely implying the Resurrection as well) during this time, as the Hur family healed physically and emotionally.  Maybe this is what LaSalle’s complaining about, that there doesn’t seem to be enough, “even in a small way, [of] a sense of magic or destiny,” although I still don’t see this story is merely being presented as just “misfortune, happening to a hapless guy who is really good with horses.”  Sorry, Mick.

Just for clarification, this is Jesus not Judah 
(I hope it's all clear now; if not, pray for enlightenment)
 If anything, I think I experienced this new version of Ben-Hur to be intended—not very successfully, I admit—to subtly glorify the healing power of just accepting Jesus into your life as both ultimate Savior and daily-life-coach while you're still on Earth, of faith in Him being able to inspire even the most-seemingly-lost-souls, such as Messala, to change their sordid-worldviews in a split-second (literally) from still being willing to kill Judah once his recovers from his awful chariot-race-wounds to having the healing revelation to suddenly embrace his long-lost-brother with an all-is-forgiven-will-you-please-forgive-me-too-sorrowful-hug.  Thus, it seems only appropriate to me to pick as my Musical Metaphor for Bekmambetov’s version of this story of Ben-Hur and Christ a traditional song interpreted by many, but possibly best known in more-recent-times from the performances by Ry Cooder, of “Jesus on the Mainline” (you can find it on his 1974 Paradise and Lunch album) such as this version at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVXJHknkpaI, accompanied by various singers and noted guitarist David Lindley (whom I saw years ago, in Jackson Browne’s band), from San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium on April 27, 1994, where no matter what we need He’s always available so just “call Him up and tell Him what you want.”  (Although if Judah had been a full-fledged-Christian before his epic race with Messala maybe he could have made that call and wouldn’t have had to endure so much of his own physical abuse in that arena, including the part where he’s being dragged along the hard ground by his own reins, finally pulling himself up into his chariot, just like Indiana Jones did to regain entry to the truck carrying the Ark of the Covenant [the sacred container of the Ten Commandments stone tablets] in Raiders of the Lost Ark [Steven Spielberg, 1981].)


                     


 I couldn’t resist adding these final photos (as best I can approximate with this posting software the widescreen difference between the older [above] and current versions of this film, although the new one [below] is shot in the 2.35:1 ratio so it should be a bit wider than shown here [should be about 4.75 inches on my screen rather than this actual 3.75, but hopefully you get the idea even from this compromised comparison), showing the 1959 Ben-Hur, shot in MGM Camera 65 with a 2.76:1 aspect ratio for the 70mm release-prints, which director Wyler didn’t care for because he preferred to use long takes with impressive depth of field which didn’t work well in such a exaggerated horizontal format. He said: "Nothing is out of the picture, and you can't fill it. You either have a lot of empty space, or you have two people talking and a flock of others surrounding them who have nothing to do with the scene. Your eye just wanders out of curiosity."*  But this format proved to be extremely impressive in 1959, especially for the thundering excitement of the chariot race, likely adding to the Oscar voting momentum which awarded this film 11 of those precious golden statues, including for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Color Cinematography (Robert Surtees).

*Go here for (among other extensive information) this quote's citation from a book by Jan Herman, A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler (1997, p. 406).

 Closing out, I still have no bragging rights for unique hits over the last month for this blog site (having now dropped from close to 24,000 about 3 weeks ago [Google apparently measures “last month” on a very precise basis] to about 18,600 currently) but I can report that France has surged into the lead again for last week’s tallies (1,432 vs. #2 U.S. at 679), with my latest greatest pride being a rare response from South America as Brazil logs in with 13 so maybe I’m the somewhat-go-to-entertainment now that the Olympics have concluded their final sensational performances.
                    
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
                
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Here’s more information about Hell or High Water:



Here are some clips (6:46) from the film (that expand on some of the scenes in the above trailer) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rKylcWWiUY (the brothers meet with a lawyer; the brothers talk at a diner; the Rangers discuss the robberies strategy; Tanner pulls off an unplanned robbery; Rangers taunt each other; lead-up to the final robbery; police and Rangers in pursuit of Tanner)



Here’s more information about Ben-Hur [2016]:



Here are abbreviated comparisons of the chariot race scenes from the original 1959 version of Ben-Hur at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frE9rXnaHpE (4:17, with Charlton Heston as Judah and Stephen Boyd as Messala) and the current one at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8OsezCQ 7Gc (1:44) where you can view it as if seen in 360˚ (but to see it properly you have to view it on the latest version of Chrome, Opera, Firefox, or Internet Explorer, or for mobile devices use the latest version of YouTube for Android or iOS where you can use the arrows in the little directional circle in the upper left-hand-corner to navigate around the compass—although it’s a little disconcerting when you do that and find no driver in Ben-Hur’s chariot [I also viewed this on Safari where it’s not quite as visually-viable as in the proper format but you still get a very interesting fish-eye-lens-effect of the horses galloping around the track])



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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

WE DO OUR VERY BEST TO PRESENT THESE TWO GUYS POSTINGS IN A VISUALLY-CONSIDERED GRAPHIC LAYOUT, BUT EXTENSIVE TRIAL-AND-ERROR HAS SHOWN US THAT UNLESS YOU’RE READING OUR REVIEWS ON A MACINTOSH COMPUTER USING MAC OS X 10.10.5 AND SAFARI 9.1.2 YOU’LL LIKELY SEE A SLOPPIER PRESENTATION THAN WHAT WE INTENDED (but Google Chrome 52.0.2743.116 usually comes fairly close to our intentions).  OUR APOLOGIES FOR ANY INADVERTENT MESS THAT WE HAVEN’T YET FOUND A SUCCESSFUL WAY TO CONTROL.