Tag Archives: Ben Foster

The Sounds of Silence

Leave No Trace

by George Wolf

In her first feature since 2010’s gripping Winter’s Bone, writer/director Debra Granik is again focused on souls living on the rural fringes and scraping out a hardscrabble, under-the-radar existence.

But with Leave No Trace, any sinister, menacing layers have been replaced by a tender, sympathetic grace that feels achingly authentic, and often heartbreaking.

The film is driven by two haunting lead performances.

Ben Foster, surely one of the most underrated actors around, plays Will, a committed single father living deep within a massive state park in Portland. Will and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) get all they need from their illegal homemade camp in the forest, taking constant measures to avoid being spotted.

One mistake later, Will is desperate to break free from the bureaucratic pressure to adapt, while Tom begins to feel the pull of a “normal” she has never known.

Granik adapts Peter Rock’s novel with a subtlety that stuns, speaking volumes in the silences that would cripple lesser films. Sketches of Will’s backstory are casually provided, allowing the two main performers to let us into the touching bond they create with each other.

Though Foster’s tremendous turn is not exactly surprising, the little-known McKenzie delivers a statement performance full of wonder and quiet power. “Tom,” torn by the love of her father and the need to follow her own heart, becomes our window into this private world, and McKenzie comes nowhere close to any false notes.

Leave No Trace follows its own titular advice, broaching a variety of relevant social concerns without ever raising its voice, yet cutting so deeply you may not get out of the theater with dry eyes.

Less is so often more, and Leave No Trace emits a profoundly minimalistic beauty.

Still Searching

Hostiles

by Hope Madden

Hey, Christian Bale and Ben Foster are in another Western. Remember how fun 3:10 to Yuma was?!

Well, writer/director Scott Cooper is a very serious man. If there is one thing you won’t call his films—Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass and his latest, Hostiles—it’s a laugh riot.

Hostiles is a morose Western with too-obvious intentions. Thanks to Bale and cinematographer Mesanobu Takayanagi, though, the result is a graceful if revisionist image. With Takayanagi’s help, Cooper recalls the best of John Ford’s The Searchers, and with Bale’s help he rectifies its worst.

Facing retirement from a lifetime of warring with Native Americans across the West, Capt. Joseph Blocker (Bale) has one final assignment: escort the ailing Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana so he can die with his people.

After many years of hatred and resentment toward Native Americans in general and Yellow Hawk in particular, Blocker wants no part in this “parade.” But he is a good soldier.

The journey offers opportunities for many an adventure, the first of which is the meeting of homesteader Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike). Blocker’s party finds her in her burned-out home, but we already know what happened thanks to the profoundly brutal attack that opened the film.

Over the course of the film’s 133-minute running time, lessons are learned, each one coming at a very bloody cost. Though Bale and most of the supporting players deliver quietly devastating performances, their arcs feel more than forced. They feel patronizing.

Mainly that’s because the Native American actors have no such arcs. Studi, along with Adam Beach, Tanaya Beatty, Q’orianka Kilcher and Xavier Horsechief—the prisoners—are one-dimensional beings of pure wisdom, compassion and nobility.

Which is no doubt preferable to the being nameless, bloodthirsty monsters that stand in for Apache characters.

Cooper sets his tale at a bitter transition in American history when civilization was beginning to overtake the Wild West and people like Blocker were no longer sure of their purpose, no longer comfortable with their past. Like Blocker, Cooper seems determined to right a wrong but, again like his character, he doesn’t seem to know quite how to do it.

Texas Two Step

Hell or High Water

by Hope Madden

Two brothers in West Texas go on a bank robbing spree. Marshalls with cowboy hats pursue. It’s a familiar idea, certainly, and Hell or High Water uses that familiarity to its advantage. Director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) embraces the considerable talent at his disposal to create a lyrical goodbye to a long gone, romantic notion of manhood.

Two pairs of men participate in this moseying road chase. Brothers Toby and Tanner – Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively – are as seemingly different as the officers trying to find them. Those Texas Marshalls, played with the ease that comes from uncommon talent, are Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham).

Though both pairs feel like opposites at first blush, their relationships are more complicated than you might imagine. Foster, a magnificent character actor regardless of the film, is a playful menace. Though Pine’s Toby spends the majority of the film quietly observing, his bursts of energy highlight the kinship. Their often strained banter furthers the story, but moments of humor – many landing thanks to Foster’s wicked comic sensibility – do more to authenticate the relationship.

Likewise, Bridges – wearing the familiar skin of a grizzled old cowboy – makes every line, every breath, ever racist barb feel comfortably his own. Birmingham impresses as well, quietly articulating a relationship far muddier than the dialog alone suggests.

These four know what to do with Taylor Sheridan’s words.

Sheridan more than impressed with his screenwriting debut, last year’s blistering Sicario. Among other gifts, the writer remembers that every character is a character and his script offers something of merit to every body on the screen – a gift this cast does not disregard.

The supporting actors populating a dusty, dying landscape make their presence felt, whether Dale Dickey’s wizened bank teller, Katy Mixon’s spunky diner waitress, or a hilarious Margaret Bowman as another waitress you do not want to cross.

Even with the film’s unhurried narrative, not a moment of screen time is wasted. You see it in the investment in minor characters and in the utter, desolate gorgeousness of Giles Nuttgen’s photography. Every image Mackenzie shares adds to the air of melancholy and inevitability as our heroes, if that’s what you’d call any of these characters, fight the painful, oppressive, emasculating tide of change.

A film as well written, well acted, well photographed and well directed as Hell or High Water is rare. Do not miss it.

Verdict-4-5-Stars

Shoddy Gamesmanship

Warcraft

by Hope Madden

Video game movies rarely if ever work. Has the problem been lack of talent? Assassin’s Creed will feature Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, and Splinter Cell will star Tom Hardy. Maybe leveraging honest to god talent will be enough to meld these seemingly similar art forms? Or is the impending onslaught of high profile gamer flicks just an opportunity to waste some of cinema’s greatest working artists?

Warcraft, directed by one of our most exciting new filmmakers, Duncan Jones, is not the harbinger we were hoping for.

It’s a medieval fantasy with Orcs, dwarves, elves, bearded magicians – basically it’s a movie based on a series of video games that amount to little more than Lord of the Rings fan fiction. But if anyone can turn this into a worthwhile cinematic experience, it’s Jones. Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011) proved his mettle with fantasy and action, and showed him to be an inventive craftsman.

Though Warcraft proved too great a task, even for him.

Gaudy CGI and caricatured performances rob the film of any chance to pull the viewer in – the video game itself looks about as realistic. Weak writing by Jones and Charles Leavitt (who’s never written anything worth seeing) doesn’t help matters. When solid actors, including Ben Foster (who needs to fire his agent), look ridiculous delivering this faux-archaic dialog, what chance does a hack like Paula Patton have?

Patton plays Garona, halfbreed slave to the magic-wielding Orc Gul’Dan. When she’s captured by the humans, will she betray them, or has she finally found her clan? And will she be wooed by Travis Fimmell’s bizarre Paul Rudd impression as the knight Lothar?

The plotting itself just makes you sad – so much time is wasted setting up sequels that will never, ever happen. Worse, the visuals are clumsy, particularly compared to cinema’s history of onscreen Orcs.

Warcraft makes it impossible not to draw comparisons to Peter Jackson’s trip to Middle Earth. To say Jones’s effort pales by comparison is like saying American politics has taken an odd turn.

No, no. It’s gone horribly, hideously wrong.

Verdict-1-0-Star

 

 

Halloween Countdown, Day 26

30 Days of Night (2007)

If vampires can only come out at night, wouldn’t it make sense for them to head to the parts of the globe that remain under cover of darkness for weeks on end? Sure it would. And, given that those particular spots tend to be frozen death traps to begin with, more to love about this particular icy bloodsucking adventure!

The first potential downfall here is that Josh Hartnett plays our lead, the small town arctic sheriff whose burg goes haywire just after the last flight for a month leaves town. A drifter blows into town (Ben Foster – a bit over the top, but always a welcome sight) – and this is a town that sees a lot more snowmen than drifters. Dogs die viciously. Vehicles are disabled. Power is disrupted. You know what that means…the hunt’s begun.

Hartnett, a characteristically weak actor, holds up OK upon the frozen tundra. He’s asked to guide us through the action and little more, which is as it should be. Director David Slade keeps the pace quick and the action mean.

Much of his success is due to the always spectacular Danny Huston as the leader of the bloodsuckers. His whole gang takes a novel, unwholesome approach to the idea of vampire, and it works marvelously.

Slade cheats several times, like every time Hartnett’s chased by a vampire. One cut, they’re right behind him, the next cut, he’s hiding successfully beside some barn. What the…?

Still, Slade builds the pervasive feeling of being cornered with no way out, and more than once, the baddies employ rather ruthless measures to flush out those in hiding.

THE SCENE:

A pod of survivors hides in an attic, careful not to make any noise or draw any attention to themselves. One old man has dementia, which generates a lot of tension in the group, since he’s hard to contain and keep quiet.

There’s no knowing whether the town has any other survivors, and some of these guys are getting itchy. Then they hear a small voice outside.

Walking and sobbing down the main drag is a little girl, crying for help. It’s as pathetic a scene as any in such a film, and it may be the first moment in the picture where you identify with the trapped, who must do the unthinkable. Because, what would you do?

As the would-be heroes in the attic begin to understand this ploy, the camera on the street pulls back to show Danny Huston and crew perched atop the nearby buildings. The sobbing tot amounts to the worm on their reel.

Creepy business!

Just Keeping It Real

 

by George Wolf

 

From the opening moments of Lone Survivor, it’s clear writer/director Peter Berg kept one goal above all others: honor the Navy SEALS at the heart of this harrowing true life tale.

By most accounts he’s done that, and his adaptation of the 2007 memoir by SEAL Marcus Luttrell emerges as a single-minded war movie of both power and intensity.

In 2005, “Operation Red Wings” sent a four man SEAL team into Afghanistan to eliminate a  senior Taliban leader. The mission was compromised, a firefight ensued and an attempt to rescue the team turned tragic. Only Luttrell was left alive.

It’s a riveting tale, and Berg (Friday Night Lights/The Kingdom) anchors it with the brotherhood among the men involved, and the unflinching devotion to their duty. We don’t get intimate profiles of any of the characters, but we get enough to feel we know them, and more importantly, we see how deeply they identify with each other, with their team, and with their respective places in it.

Though Mark Wahlberg stars as Luttrell, Berg wisely does not tilt the screen time in his favor, and we fear for each member of his team equally, even though we already know what the eventual outcome will be. Credit Wahlberg, and co-stars Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch with solid performances that are able to resonate collectively, yet still illustrate the anguish of a fallen comrade.

Berg’s touch with the battle scenes is equally focused, filming with an intentional frenzy full of gut-wrenching stunt work.  Keeping these sequences nearly absent of background music or superfluous pageantry, the unmistakable aim is to present this hellish scenario as the men themselves knew it.

Of course, as a war film, Lone Survivor carries instant baggage, seemingly destined to be labeled either jingoistic, un-American or misinformed. Clearly looking to avoid the “that’s not how it’s done” barbs slung at Zero Dark Thirty, Berg spent a month embedded with a SEAL team in Iraq, and his film offers no apologies for its abundant machismo or respectful salute.

The catch-22 is, this approach works at the expense of a layered dramatic narrative that makes movies such as Zero Dark Thirty so compelling.

To be fair, though, Lone Survivor never aims that high. It is a film that mainly wants us to understand what it takes to do a job that most of us can’t even fathom.

Consider that mission accomplished.

 

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

 

Countdown: Best Underseen Films of 2013

Today we pay tribute to the most fabulous movies that no one saw in 2013. If you, too, missed them, don’t be too hard on yourself. Some were hard to find, some had such short runs that if you blinked, you missed them in theaters. But here’s your chance to make amends. Seek these out as part of your new year’s resolution to watch something awesome. They are sometimes bloody, sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, always intriguing, fresh and memorable. We give you the most tragically underseen films of 2013.

5. Only God Forgives

Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up to Drive offers a nightmarish, polarizing vision of the revenge thriller. The near-silent Ryan Gosling leads a cast of misfits and miscreants (and worse) through a bloody piece of nastiness in Bangkok. It’s a visual, aural feat of wonder creating a dreamlike hellscape. The one-dimensional characters and lurid story guarantee you will either love it or hate it, but you will not forget it easily.

4. Much Ado about Nothing

Joss Whedon proves he can do basically anything as he spins the Bard’s classic comedy. Giving Shakespeare a modern-day treatment trips up many great filmmakers, but Whedon takes it in stride, employing a game cast to create a playful, satisfying romp.

3. Mud

The forever underseen filmmaker of extraordinary talent Jeff Nichols follows up his bewilderingly wonderful Take Shelter with this Huck Finn style tale. Matthew McConaughey excels as the man-child fugitive befriending a couple river rats interested in adventure. The result is a lovely journey of lost innocence and a vanishing American lifestyle.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pv30J05U2nI

2. Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler’s impressive feature debut offers a powerful and superbly acted account of the tragic death of 22-year-old Oscar Grant. Michael B. Jordan’s revelatory lead performance deserves to be in the Oscar conversation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMrAH_rO_fM

1. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

No one saw this movie, which is a tragedy given all the film has to offer. The aching romantic drama boasts exceptional performances from Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster as well as understated writing and exquisite photography. It’s an overlooked gem of rare beauty – one worth finding.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjR3DLatrFg

Before the Howl

Kill Your Darlings

by Hope Madden

There are countless, fascinating stories surrounding the earliest Beat Generation writers – likely because they were sort of endlessly fascinating themselves. That, plus they kept writing about their adventures, so legends are born.

Any film about the Beats is a dream and a nightmare for writers and cast alike. What writer wouldn’t want to take a shot at a conversation between Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs? And yet, what writer would dare?

The same can be said for any actor hoping to capture these literary characters we know so well from their own pages. But Kill Your Darlings aims to do justice to all of it – the movement, the participants, the socio-political climate, and the true crime story few recall.

Kill Your Darlings revisits that burgeoning circle of geniuses to spin a more somber origins story than those we usually hear. Rather than emphasizing the madcap, mind-altering, conformity-be-damned journeys of Ginsburg, Burroughs or Kerouac we’ve grown accustomed to, the film is based on the murder that splintered the group.

It’s Columbia University of the mid 1940s. As World War II rages, young New Jerseyan Allen Ginsburg (Daniel Radcliffe) begins his life as a college freshman. He quickly falls in with the wrong sort. Thank God!

The film shadows Ginsburg along his journey toward self-expression by way of an infatuation with schoolmate Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan).

Carr introduces him to elder statesman/criminal element William H. Burroughs (Ben Foster), and later, to football playing senior and part time merchant marine Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston – of those Hustons). Together they alter their minds and begin a framework for a new world order for writers.

Carr also introduces Ginsburg to David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), whom Carr would later murder.

Though first time feature director John Krokidas has trouble deciding whether his is a coming of age tale or a murder mystery, and though he’s never able to clearly define the events’ connection to the actual writing that would eventually flood from these poets and scoundrels, he pulls together a competently crafted tale buoyed by well defined and tenderly animated characters.

Radcliffe’s growth as an actor continues to impress, as does his somewhat fearless choice of projects, but it’s DeHaan who steals the film. Damaged, vulnerable and seductive, he’s exactly the cauldron of conflict that inspires an artistic revolution.

Hall, Huston and Foster also impress as Krokidas throws light on some fascinating (if one-sided, fairly fictionalized, perfectly lurid) details of the spark that burst into the Beat Generation. They can’t quite transcend the limitations of a novice director and an under-focused screenplay, but they will compel your attention while they have you.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

Ain’t That Film Impressive

by Hope Madden

 

The screen fills with the sepia image of a bygone Texas. Sinewy lovers quarrel and forgive, then wait in a pick-up, planning a future with their unborn baby, until the third robber arrives. There’s a chase, a lonesome shack, a shoot out, and a compromise that sends the boy away to prison and the girl home to pine.

There’s good reason writer/director David Lowery’s romantic tragedy Ain’t Them Bodies Saints feels so confident. The breathtaking cinematography, the fittingly artistic framing, the poetry of the language and image, the heartbreaking authority of the performances – each element fits together beautifully and benefits from the artistic coordination of a maestro. It’s because the relatively unknown Lowery has honed his craft, spending time as a casting director, crewman, writer, director, sound editor, actor, producer, and cinematographer before tackling this, the culminating effort of a lifetime spent in film.

He’s blessed with a cast that embraces his understated drama. Casey Affleck animates a career full of characters with vulnerability and confused nobility, and he impresses again here as the outlaw who breaks out of prison, just like he promised, to reunite with his girl and the daughter he’s never met.

Rooney Mara’s quiet ferocity offsets Affleck’s tenderness, and the love story they create offers a poignant center to the film. Orbiting the couple is Ben Foster’s humble police officer, torn by his affection for one and duty to the other. Each actor embodies an image of lonesomeness that makes the film ache. What’s beautiful about this triangle is that neither the characters nor the filmmaker judges anyone. Lowery and his characters accept, however sadly, the motivations and actions of all involved.

The young mother also attracts the protective nature of a retired gangster/father figure played by Keith Carradine, whose presence reinforces the film’s bluesy connection to the other great, doomed Western romance, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

The film’s one shortcoming is that it does not tell a larger tale. This beautifully told story of loneliness, devotion, love and tragedy never manages to transcend its own intimacy to speak to something universal.

But it’s a hell of an effort, and one that establishes Lowery as one of the most exciting new filmmakers to come along in decades.

 

Verdict-4-5-Stars