Mini Reviews - Award Edition: Hell Or High Water (2016), 20th Century Women (2017), The Lobster (2015)

Days from the 2017 Oscars, it's time to look back on some of the contenders that I didn't manage to catch during their theatrical release and have since caught on DVD or Netflix - or, in the case of 20th Century Women, simply didn't have enough to say to fill out a full review. Let me know what you think of the three films and how highly you rank them!

Hell Or High Water (2016)

NOMINATED FOR: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay and Film Editing

Hell or High Water snuck into cinemas in the late summer of 2016, and while it didn't bring in the highest box office receipts, it displays signs of becoming something of a cult favourite, with the Western crime thriller finding itself in many year-end lists. Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water centres around two brothers who carry out a series of bank robberies to save their family ranch. It's a solid 102 minute film that you will easily find entertainment in - and maybe a little more regarding its thematic content - but I cannot say I'm sold on how it has wound up in the Oscar conversation.

David Mackenzie directs the four-times nominated picture, finding some real beauty in the Western setting and letting the characters shine on screen; Pine, Foster and the Oscar-nominated Bridges deliver terrific performances of the well-realised and fleshed-out characters, bringing an emotional resonance very rarely at home in the genre. Hell or High Water further exceeds through its potent mix of genres, and while the underserved Western is the clearest example of this, drama, thriller and crime elements are incorporated for a textured play-out that elevates it above its often stale, outdated stablemates. Its script is admittedly sharp regarding its multi-layered characters, utilising their stories effectively to deliver its multitude of themes, including institutions preying on the weakest in society, familial love and failure.

However, and probably more my own fault than anything the film does wrong per se, the Western genre does so little for me; The Magnificent Seven and The Hateful Eight, both well-regarded westerns from the past year or so, failed to win me over. It tenders to find itself wandering a little, spending too long having conversations that fail to interest for long and, emotional aspect aside, struggles to say anything we haven't already seen before. Despite the strong elements in play here, it never coalesces into a satisfying experience.

Summary: Despite the strong elements in play here - solid direction and impressive performances - Hell or High Water is a character-driven western that never coalesces into a satisfying experience.


20th Century Women (2017)

NOMINATED FOR: Best Original Screenplay

Once an Oscar front-runner, writer and director Mike Mills only managed a Best Original Screenplay  nod for his 1970s Southern California-based drama-comedy. Dorothea (Annette Benning) seeks the help of Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning) to raise her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in the 70s. It takes inspiration from Mills' childhood, as well as important events from the era, intent on displaying the influence of women and raising a child to the best of their ability.

We have a number of decent performances here; once a hot-favourite for an Oscar nomination, Annette Benning plays a free-spirited mother of the era, determined to raise her son in the right manner, inquisitively engaging herself in youth-culture to do so, like a fish out of water. Gerwig and Fanning are both solid here, although stronger in Jackie and The Neon Demon, respectively. However, the film belongs to Lucas Jade Zumann, providing a thoughtful performance and often musing on the journey of self-discovery. It must be difficult to embody a character growing up in an era never experience first-hand but Zumann makes fine work of it. Cinematographer Sean Porter discovers a subtle colour palette that enlivens the film effectively, with Mills finding some lovely shots and epilogue too.

However, beyond that, the film falls flat. It's ironic that a film about women essentially places them on the peripheral the entire time and centres, thankfully, on the young boy - the most interesting element of the film. It's characters are not one we care greatly for, despite the best intentions from the talented cast, mainly due to the writing, meaning its Original Screenplay nomination is lost on me. It's narrative appears aimless, stumbling to discover anything enlightening to say about the era and although it tries to flesh the 20th century as a character in its own right, it simply serves as a novelty plot point to bounce around and without, would be a completely lifeless, identity-less drama.

Summary: 20th Century Women finds itself wandering, aimlessly looking for something interesting to say and, despite solid performances and intentions all-round, it is ultimately an underwhelming character drama that falls flat.


The Lobster (2015)

NOMINATED FOR: Best Original Screenplay

A million miles away from the underwhelming screenplay of 20th Century Women, The Lobster is imaginative, eccentric and wickedly-dark black comedy set in an absurdist dystopia. It stars Colin Farrell as a newly-single man trying to find a romantic partner so he can remain human, or face being turned into an animal of his choosing. Peculiar and certainly unique, The Lobster is as wild as it sounds on paper, co-written by Yorgos Lanthimos (who also directs and co-produces) and Efthimis Fillppou.

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz star as two individuals in this dystopia searching for love to follow a strict set of societal rules. Awkward and maladroit, Farrell delivers a startling performance that demonstrates his talent - this really cannot be an easy performance to master but Farrell is more than up for the challenge. Weisz, one of Hollywood's most underserved actresses, acts as the narrator for a large part of the film, with her brash and almost robotic speech searingly memorable and unsettling. Olivia Colman is also sensational in a supporting role, wonderfully delivering a truly hilarious performance with a comedic timing nailed down to perfection. Abrupt and meticulous, The Lobster's script remains compelling and absorbing, often enchanting as we sink further into this dystopia that is so expertly presented on screen. It's certainly an acquired taste and not everyone will understand its charm, yet you won't be able to deny the sheer ambition and detail found within it.

The Lobster is occasionally overlong and its finale is probably its weakest act but its thematic content, incredible world-building, genuinely thought-provoking concept and terrific performances are all astounding, proving that unique ideas are still present in cinemas if you go looking for them. It's available on Netflix UK right now and although it won't be to everyone's taste, you will not be able to deny the power and eccentricities of this absurdist dystopia. It's one of the quirkiest, most surreal films you will watch in a good while and succeeds so tremendously because of its idiosyncrasies. 

Summary: Its idiosyncrasies encourage The Lobster to shine, a surreal, original film that succeeds on its deft and considered world-building, thematic exploration and terrific performances, particularly from Farrell, Weisz and Colman.