Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Kevin Rankin
“Hell or High Water” is one magnificently self-aware film. There is a strong Coen brothers vibe to both the plot and the dialogue (if “Blood Simple” and “Fargo” were forced to mate, the offspring would turn out a lot like this), which is why the casting of Jeff Bridges is a stroke of genius. As a Coen veteran, he understands the material, and is able to not just humanize a character that would be monstrous in the hands of a lesser actor – he’s able to make the character charming and likable.
In the bleak, seemingly waterless landscape of west Texas, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) begin the day by robbing two small banks of all of their chump change. The Howards are in danger of losing their farm to the very bank that they’re robbing; the plan is to pay off their debt with the bank’s own money and put the land in a trust to benefit Toby’s children. Due to the amount of money being stolen, the FBI isn’t interested in investigating the case, but Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) has a week until he retires, so he drags his reluctant partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) along for one last rodeo.
There aren’t a lot of moving parts here, and that is a good thing. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”) keeps his characters focused on their respective prizes, with no unnecessary side plots about poor people foolishly spending their newfound riches, a common trap to these types of stories. The most pleasant surprise is how funny the movie is, and not solely of the pitch-black variety. There are some gut-busting moments here. The waitresses, in particular, bring the funny in spades.
Cocktail classicists beware, because this week we’re saluting the immanent blu-ray release of the Coen Brothers’ comedy classic, “The Big Lebowski,” as well as the historic Lebowski Fest cast reunion with a drink that not only contains vodka but which usually requires no shaking and perhaps not even a great deal of stirring. That’s not all, the White Russian is extremely sweet and seems to derive not from the cocktail heights of the early 20th century but closer to the mixological nadir of the 1970s. The fact that it was a drink simple enough for a stoner to love led to it being immortalized on celluloid in the aforementioned 1998 film with Jeff Bridges, easily the greatest example of the pot-driven comedy genre yet made. Next to James Bond’s shaken vodka martini, the Dude’s Caucasian — same drink, different name — is easily the most legendary of all movie cocktails.
Still, no movie can make a drink popular all on its own, and the White Russian’s appeal is obvious; it tastes like a frozen candy bar. Moreover, the fact that it contains a bit of caffeine and even some rudimentary nutrition also makes it a highly appropriate beverage, not only for achievers but for caffeine heads like me. No wonder that it was one of the first cocktails I gravitated to in my ignorant youth and no wonder I still enjoy it when the time is right. Sometimes there’s no time for a martini and a very sweet cappuccino to follow it up. Impact-wise, the white Russian gives you a bit of both.
The White Russian
1.5 ounces vodka
3/4 ounces Kahlua or other coffee liqueur
3/4 ounces of heavy cream (or somewhat larger portions of half-and-half, whole milk, or even 2% milk)
Pour vodka and Kahlua over ice in rocks glass. Add heavy cream, which should “float” over the top, or other dairy topping. Stir and proceed to get into endless arguments with your friends about whether or not urinating on a rug constitutes a Saddam Hussein-like act of imperial aggression.
There are a number of variations on the above, of course. You can eschew the diary product and go for a black Russian. I understand that if you use 2% or lower fat content film it’s called a Skinny Russian, which isn’t awful. On the other hand, I can tell you first hand that going past half-and-half and into the land of heavy cream will make the drink all the more tasty, though perhaps not tasty enough to warrant the eventual heart attack if you drink these things on too regular a basis. On the other hand, if you’re drinking as many Caucasians as the Dude seems to do during the course of a single day, wear and tear on your heart may not be your primary concern.
Also, I have to note cocktail historian David Wondrich‘s recipe actually calls for the drink to be made in a shaker and strained into a chilled rocks glass. It’s not bad that way, though it’s hard to imagine the Dude putting in all that work. As Wondrich points out, this is a drink beloved both by very occasional drinkers like my former self for its sweet-as-ice-cream taste and for the most down and out of out-and-out alcoholics, for whom it’s often the closest thing they’ll get to a balanced meal. Yes, a White Russian is for all, but really it belongs to just one man.
Everyone has taken that soul-sucking job in order to pay the bills. And while we proles may tease them for living the glamorous life, actors probably take that job more often than anyone, since they never know when the next job is going to come. (Case in point: Michael Madsen told us that he categorizes the movies he’s made as “good,” “bad,” and “unwatchable.”) Putting this theory to the test, we scoured the filmographies of this year’s nominees in the acting categories, looking for movie titles that screamed ‘bad idea.,’ and we were not disappointed with what we found. Jesse Eisenberg, for example, did a TV movie called “Lightning: Fire from the Sky,” which will be the main feature at our next Bad Movie night. Here are ten other films that this year’s candidates would probably prefer remained unseen.
Colin Firth (Best Actor, “The King’s Speech”)
Movie: Femme Fatale (1991) IMDb rating: 4.6 The plot: An English artist-turned park ranger falls for and marries a stranger, only for her to disappear days later. As he learns more about his wife, he gets deeper and deeper into the Los Angeles underworld looking for clues that will lead him to her. Firth’s character: Joe Prince, the aforementioned artist/ranger. How bad is it?: You may not see the ending coming, but that is about the only thing this movie has going for it. Armed with one of the most awkward love scenes we’ve seen in ages, this movie does not gel on any level, using mental illness as a means of providing psychological depth, not to mention Acting!, with that last word ideally spoken like Jon Lovitz. Firth is actually passable here, given the material, and Danny Trejo pops up as a tattoo artist. But you can bet that when someone assembles a clip show of Firth’s finest moments, this movie will not make the cut.
Jeremy Renner (Best Supporting Actor, “The Town”)
Movie: National Lampoon’s Senior Trip (1995) IMDb rating: 4.9 The plot: A group of delinquent kids takes a bus trip to Washington D.C. to tell the President first-hand what is wrong with the education system, something a couple of corrupt politicians intend to exploit. Renner’s character: Mark “Dags” D’agostino, a slacker stoner. With pierced ears. How bad is it?: Put it this way: the first actor listed in the credits is Matt “Max Headroom” Frewer, and the movie’s few laughs come from Tommy Chong as the drug-addled bus driver. On the “National Lampoon” movie scale, this one lands somewhere in between “Class Reunion” and “Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj.”