No Country for Old Men

Hell or High Water

When we think about interesting movie settings, we might think of some exotic locale, perhaps a far off land – maybe a jungle or the base of a volcano. But great cinematic landscapes don’t have to be on the other side of the world. Sometimes an effective movie setting is one that is rarely depicted, but not so far away. Such was the case for Hell or High Water, an enthralling film capturing a slice of southwestern America. The Texas setting lent itself surprisingly well to the story of two brothers who chart a dangerous course through the Bible Belt.

When we meet brothers Toby (Chris Pine, Star Trek Beyond) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster, The Finest Hours) they are brazenly robbing a small bank. Inexperienced but resourceful, the pair is bumbling in their execution but genius in their foresight. Tanner is fiery and violent, while Toby is sympathetic and measured, each the perfect foil. Inevitably, the siblings soon draw the ire of Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges, True Grit), a small town sheriff near retirement (a familiar trope, I know). He and his partner begin tracking the duo, mapping their likely targets, surmising that they are stealing small amounts to reach a modest, specific goal. If they can determine the motive, perhaps they can narrow in on a suspect.

Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) weave an atmospheric tale permeating with desperate energy. Toby and Tanner are just a half step ahead of the law, and it could all come crumbling down at any moment. As their motivation for the robberies is revealed, we feel the weight of their burden. A sense of foreboding hangs like a cloud over the film, hinting that the pair is on borrowed time. Many viewers will probably relate to the movie’s themes, particularly the brothers’ sense of frustration at the seemingly short hand life has dealt them, always a day late and a dollar short. Blue-collar, working class, somewhat marginalized and essentially impoverished.

The film was reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ work, with cinematography and setting similar to both No Country For Old Men and Blood Simple. I could also see Sheridan’s hand reflected in the story, which bore cinematic similarity to his work in Sicario. The Texas landscape was grimy and hot, and their desperation was palpable. Perhaps I shouldn’t have rooted for them, but I did – which is a testament to the film’s story and two leads. Foster and Pine gave textured performances, evincing wide-ranging emotion. While there has been praise from critics, the average moviegoer may be reluctant to see this film – but don’t be one of those people. Hell or High Water has been one of the better films of 2016, so far. Grade: A

Men in Black III

Will Smith (Seven Pounds) is a proven commodity, his movies having grossed over 5 billion dollars worldwide.  Marketing one of his movies during a post-Avengers lull shouldn’t be difficult, and since Hollywood is fond of beating dead horses, it was only logical that Columbia Pictures decided to make the Men In Black franchise a trilogy.  I’ll admit that I imagined Men In Black III to be a blatant money grab, but despite my reservations, it managed to add a new dimension to the series and was arguably the best installment yet.

Smith returns as Agent J, brash covert government agent and understudy to Tommy Lee Jones’ (Captain America: The First Avenger) Agent K.  Agent J is still a cocky loudmouth, but now he has the experience to back it up.  Agent K was his mentor and although J complained about him, none of his subsequent partners measured up to the grisly vet after his brief retirement.  Only a unique individual would find comfort in the anonymity of the Men In Black, a secret police force charged with protecting Earth from alien life forms.  In addition to policing aliens, the MIBs are an immigration and safety agency, helping the aliens co-exist with humanity, unbeknownst to the masses.

The Agency is really tested when an infamous alien criminal named Boris the Animal escapes from the lunar prison he’s inhabited for the past 40 years.  He’s hell-bent on punishing the man who put him there, none other than Agent K, who apprehended Boris back in 1969 at Cape Canaveral.  Boris’ arm was shot off in the process, and he’d love nothing more than to go back in time and wipe out Agent K before he maims him.  However, if Agent K’s life is cut short in 1969, he will not go on to create the Arcnet, a global defense system that includes a force field that shields the planet from alien invaders.  This is important because if Boris is allowed to alter history, his alien race of Boglodite brethren will not be rendered extinct and will ultimately invade and destroy the Earth.  Needless to say, it is critical that Boris be stopped.  Agent J travels back in time to 1969 to save K’s life, thereby saving humanity.  He tries to stay as far away as possible from K, focusing instead on Boris.  Eventually J and K’s paths cross, and J tries to convince a 29-year-old K to help him nab Boris, declining to mention that K’s own life is in danger.  J has a small window in which to operate, and Boris seems to be one step ahead of him.  There are infinite permutations of destiny that can fatefully occur, and the odds are against J.

In the first two Men in Black movies, Tommy Lee Jones had top billing over Will Smith.  This time it is Smith who clearly deserves top billing, whether because his career has blossomed tremendously since the last sequel or because Jones isn’t featured much in this third installment.  Instead, it is Josh Brolin (No Country For Old Men) who steals the show as the younger Agent K.  His southern deadpan is spot-on, and he sounds and looks just like Agent K, albeit a much younger and more handsome version.  Smith was fine in his role, but I don’t think much was required of him.  I actually thought his first few lines fell flat in their delivery.  Eventually he found his groove and was his usual charismatic self, but I remained more impressed with Josh Brolin.

I was skeptical about this movie, but it didn’t feel like a total re-tread, and the special effects advanced the storyline nicely.  The depiction of a 1960’s Manhattan was interesting, though not entirely original.  Director Barry Sonnenfeld presented a straightforward plot, but managed to have some fun with the time period, and of course – the aliens.  One of the funnier scenes involved Agent J at a party at Andy Warhol’s “factory,”  where it is revealed that Warhol is an alien.  Given his talent and eccentricity, this real-life addition to the plot was clever.  The Men In Black have always been a seemingly futuristic organization, and it was interesting to see that anachronistic concept play out in the past of 1969.  With enough cool tricks to please young and old viewers alike, Men In Black III made for a pretty good day at the movies.

Grade: B+

This article first appeared at and was reprinted with permission.