Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Ben Foster’

You know you’re getting old, when those ‘You know you’re getting old, when…’ lists suddenly start to resonate with you. And to these let me add a new exponent – you know you’re getting old when actors who you think of as promising bright young newcomers suddenly start rocking up in roles where they’re playing the fathers of a new set of promising bright young newcomers. A case in point being Ben Foster, who I still think of as a juvenile character performer, pretty much, doing intensely committed things in indie films and prestige TV. (Though, of course, like everyone else these days he has done his time in dodgy mainstream entertainment too – he was rather underused as Angel in the third X-Men film, had a supporting role in the 2004 Punisher movie, and struggled through Warcraft just like the rest of the cast.)

Now here he is in Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik, who is best known for Winter’s Bone, the film which brought Jennifer Lawrence to the attention of the world. This being the case, all eyes are really on Foster’s co-star Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, who (once again) is a talented young actress whose first big role this is. Could it be that in eight or nine years time, it will be Harcourt McKenzie who will be appearing in sleazy sex-thrillers and being off with Joanna Lumley at awards ceremonies? On the strength of this film, I’m not sure I would bet against it.

Foster plays Will, an ex-US Marine and single parent to his daughter Tom (Harcourt McKenzie). As the film opens the pair have been living in a national park not far outside Portland, Oregon, under conditions of extreme circumspection – they routinely hide from anyone visiting the park and Will runs regular drills testing his daughter’s ability to evade anyone searching for them. Raised under this discipline, it seems entirely normal to Tom; the film makes their genuine affection and commitment to each other clear.

But then they are found by the authorities and all the usual machinery swings into action, to ensure Tom’s welfare in particular. Told it is not right for her to be homeless, Tom is confused; she has a home – in the park, with her father. They are told this cannot continue – they must live in a more conventional fashion. This is anathema to Will, and Tom initially follows his lead automatically – but slowly she begins to realise that her needs may not be the same as her father’s…

The first and most obvious point of reference for Leave No Trace, for me at least, is Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, for both films do concern themselves with the rights and responsibilities of parenthood, specifically when it comes to what we should probably call non-standard lifestyle choices. Both films make a point of establishing that the children involved are thriving, both physically and mentally, despite (or possibly due to) being raised outside of conventional society, but the deeper question persists – to what extent do they have an informed choice in this? Is this really responsible parenting?

Of course, there are differences: Ross’ film was in some ways a slightly off-beat comedy, as well as a drama, whereas this is much more sober and thoughtful in its tone. There is also the character point that while Viggo Mortensen’s character in the Cash film was making a philosophical choice in taking his children out of society, Will is driven more by a pathological need for personal privacy – to live unseen, in a state of true independence. He is not a bad person, but he does have severe issues, and it is to the great credit of Foster that he can communicate this while still being utterly convincing as an almost completely guarded, barely expressive individual.

And this does inform the film, for it mainly concerns the rising tensions between Will and Tom as she slowly begins to perceive that, no matter how much she and her father love each other, they may have very different needs. ‘Whatever’s wrong with you, isn’t wrong with me,’ she says, in one of the film’s key moments – a moment of self-discovery and self-actualisation for Tom. These are what the film is really about, in terms of becoming an adult, taking responsibility for your own life, recognising that moment when you look after your parents at least as much as they look after you.

This is not a complex story, but it is engrossing throughout and beautifully told in its understated way. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie is, as I have indicated, every bit as good as Foster in a really challenging role. Expect her to be appearing in a major superhero blockbuster within the next couple of years. That said, it is well-performed throughout; Foster is the closest thing to a well-known face in it, but it is filled with small, well-judged character turns. One of the most striking things about it is the fact that, for all that it is at heart a very personal story, it takes place in a vivid and completely convincing world on the fringes of American society. And it is an entirely compassionate and non-judgmental vision – no-one in it is perfect, but then who is, and everyone Will and Tom encounter is presented sympathetically. Homeless people, service veterans, long-distance truckers and trailer park residents normally appear in mainstream films only as figures of pity, or scorn, or fun, or menace, but here they are just shown as individuals, as capable of kindness and compassion as anyone else. It is a strikingly humane and predominantly positive film, given the times we are living through.

I must confess to watching Winter’s Bone a few years ago and finding it rather tough going, simply because of its thorough-going bleakness. Leave No Trace is a much more accessible film, made so by the general tone of the story and the strength of the two lead performances. This is the kind of film you wish had got a much higher-profile release than is the case, for it is extremely strong in every area. I doubt we will see many better dramas this year.

Read Full Post »

Here’s a (probably borderline) interesting thing: both the movies of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons came out on basically the same weekend in the middle of May (albeit three years apart), an extremely reliable release date for something aspiring to be a solid summer blockbuster. You can’t argue with success, one way or another, and so here we are with another film from the same people – Inferno, directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks, yadda yadda yadda. And yet, as a glance out of your window may already have revealed, we are in the middle of October, much more nebulous territory for films looking to make pots of money, and in some ways the preserve of those actually aspiring to receive a little critical acclaim and recognition. Has a multi-hundred-million dollar take gone to everyone’s heads? Or is this genuinely a more sophisticated and classy film than its antecedents?

inferno

Um, no it’s not. But it does have a go at being a rattling good yarn (I believe this is the term). One of the good things about these films is that you get the benefits of Dan Brown’s command of story structure without needing to be exposed to his prose style, and – following some prefatory material about someone falling off a tower in Florence while being chased by mysterious agent-types – we get a properly barnstorming opening, as maverick symbologist (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: hmmm) Robert Langdon (Hanks) wakes up in hospital with Movie Amnesia, having had a bang on the head. Rather to his surprise Hanks finds he is in Florence.

Events proceed apace as a slightly psychotic policewoman turns up and starts shooting at Hanks, leading him to take cover with the fortuitously English and pulchritudinous ER doctor, played by Felicity Jones. Sure enough, it seems that Langdon has got himself tangled up in another of those shadowy conspiracies he is so prone to encountering.

Basically, visionary cleverclogs Bert Zobrist (Ben Foster – he’s had a busy year) has come to the conclusion that the planet is hopelessly overpopulated and made what looks rather like a TED Talk to share his thoughts. Unlike most people who make TED Talks, however, Zobrist has also cooked up a lethal virus which will resolve the situation by killing off half the world’s population. (He really should have checked with Professor Hans Rosling first.)

However, Zobrist’s ability to carry out his cruel-to-be-kind scheme is limited as he fell off a tall building at the start of the film, and no-one knows where the virus has been hidden. Except, of course, that before his death, Zobrist created a trail of terribly erudite and subtle clues, all referencing the works of Dante, which will ultimately lead to the location of the virus. (As you would.) So the authorities have got Langdon in to find this very valuable, not to mention spectacularly dangerous, commodity. But is there something else going on? Did Zobrist have a back-up plan which is even now unfolding? Could be…

Well, Awix’s handy guide to the Robert Langdon films runs as follows: Da Vinci Code – a bit weird but actually quite thought-provoking and certainly original, in its own way. Angels and Demons – utterly ridiculous but secretly quite fun. Inferno may not feature skydiving pontiffs or photon torpedoes under the Vatican, but it definitely inclines more towards the preposterously daft end of the Dan Brown spectrum.

Things adhere very much to the style of the previous films, with a lot of breathless jogging from one art treasure to another while Hanks holds forth on the history of whatever it is they’re going to see – I’ve made the mistake of over-doing my schedule on a holiday and ended up having a similar experience, come to think of it – and then some pointing. One sequence sees Hanks and Jones fleeing a team of heavily armed men while Hanks tries to complete an anagram; this is kind of the level of the whole thing.

While it is, as I believe I mentioned, almost absurdly over-plotted and with a few truly outrageous twists along the way (the main one of which I must confess to having figured out well in advance of its appearance), on the whole this remains a pacy, slick and good-looking film – very much a potential apocalypse sponsored by the Italian and Turkish tourist boards. It may be nonsense, but it’s such busy and engaging nonsense that you never completely focus on this, though it’s a near thing.

Hanks is his usual personable self and a steady presence at the centre of the film; I don’t think he quite gets the material he deserves, though. As befits a film on this kind of scale, a top-rate cast has been assembled to try and keep a straight face around him – as well as Foster (who’s in the film an impressive amount considering he dies in the first five minutes), there’s Omar Sy, but my award for Best Thing in a Dodgy Movie goes to Irffan Khan, who delivers a bizarrely deadpan comic performance as the leader of a fairly improbable secret organisation. Howard’s direction is as competent as ever, and he stages some interestingly nightmarish hallucinations at the start of the film – these sort of fade away as it continues, which I thought was a bit of a shame, as if nothing else they gave the film more of an identity of its own.

I’m not sure what else to say about Inferno: the actual content of the story may be implausible cobblers, but the narrative structure itself is utterly sound, and there’s enough talent involved for the film to pass the time rather agreeably, provided you disconnect your critical faculties. (I’m still not sure if there’s some significance to a film about overpopulation ending with someone having a baby.) I will be utterly staggered if Inferno has any presence in the major categories of next year’s awards season, but it should probably make a tidy sum. A solid piece of rather hokey mainstream entertainment.

 

Read Full Post »

Summer has come to an end, and there are few more reliable signs of that than the disappearance of the really big studio films, in favour of a somewhat more mixed slate of releases: unashamed genre movies, smaller comedies, unnecessary remakes, and the odd serious quality film which has somehow snuck past security.

Definitely falling into the latter category is David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, a brooding, thoughtful thriller which oozes a very particular kind of Americana. The director’s name didn’t ring a bell and I was rather surprised to learn he’s actually Scottish – he was responsible for the slightly bonkers apocalyptic romance Perfect Sense – but I suppose it only goes to show you never can tell.

hell-or-high-water-poster-3

The film is set in Texas in the present day. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, a pair of brothers who embark on a spree of bank robberies in order to finance a get-extremely-rich-moderately-quickly scheme. Pine is taciturn and thoughtful, worried about his estranged family – Foster is a not-too-bright headcase with a short fuse. Luckily Tanner has form in the bank robbery department and things initially go according to plan, more or less.

Then the law gets on their trail, in the form of Texas Rangers Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. Bridges is crusty and close to retirement, Birmingham is long-suffering. Bridges soon figures out there’s more than meets the eye to the brothers’ activities, but will he be able to get one step ahead of them and put a stop to their scheme?

The most obvious thing that Hell or High Water has going for it is a very strong set of lead performances. For quite a few years now it has been generally accepted that Jeff Bridges has become one of the best and most reliable character actors working today, and his performance here does nothing to cast doubt over that. Initially it looks a bit like a collection of quirks and tics, but as the story progresses Bridges manages to make it very clear that much of this is a front his character affects, masking a very sharp and dedicated cop. Ben Foster isn’t a particularly well-known actor, but he has done some big movies – he was one of the X-Men for about ten minutes, not to mention starring in The Mechanic and Warcraft. He comes across as a fairly serious actor, though, and this film suits his talents better. You would have thought the weak link might be Chris Pine – there were, last time I checked, billions of people in the world who are not William Shatner, but Pine is the only one for whom this is a professional impediment. He’s never made much of an impression on me in the past, but here he is very good – there’s a two-hander between him and Bridges in which he holds his own very comfortably.

The film is, as you may have gathered, something of a western-inflected heist movie, with perhaps a bit of a resemblance to No Country for Old Men. Nearly everyone wears cowboy hats, some people even ride horses; many of the characters routinely carry heavy-duty firearms. Texas seems lost in the past – or not quite up to date with the present day, certainly.

This seems to me to be more than just background colour, for it’s quite clear that there is more going on here than a simple crime story: the script obviously has things to say about the state of the American economic system. The Howards are targeting one particular banking corporation, simply because they feel it ruthlessly exploited their late mother, and their ultimate motivation is to provide security for Toby’s sons. Pine even gets a speech about how poverty is like an inherited disease, one that can destroy lives. The subtext is woven through the film consistently, and if I had a criticism of it, it would be that it almost becomes text – the various characters are always driving past vistas of industrial decay, prominently featuring billboards with slogans about Debt Relief and so on.

This probably makes the film sound slightly heavier and more worthy than is actually the case, for there is some humour along the way (most of it courtesy of Bridges’ character and his somewhat unreconstructed attitudes), and some extremely well-mounted action, too. Mackenzie stages a very tense bank-robbery-goes-wrong sequence, which concludes in (perhaps) unintentionally comic fashion as it turns out practically the entire town is packing heat and seeking to stop the robbers’ escape. But the film doesn’t shy away from the consequences of violence, either.

If there’s a sense in which the film’s deeper concerns gradually overwhelm its identity as a straightforward thriller – it opts for a ending steeped in ominous ambiguity rather than conventional closure – this doesn’t stop it from being a highly accomplished and intelligent script, brought to the screen with skill and energy. Well worth catching.

Read Full Post »

Wouldn’t it be nice if they instituted a quota where, every year, each big studio was obliged to do at least one major blockbuster which was an original story? Not a sequel, not a remake, not a reboot (whatever one of those is supposed to be), not based on a comic, a novel, another movie, or a computer game. I know it’ll never happen, but imagine how it would transform the cinema landscape.

I say this, of course, as I survey a release schedule prominently featuring a new Tarzan movie, a movie based on Assassin’s Creed, a fifth Bourne movie, an Independence Day sequel… I mean, not that I’m not going to see most of these films – you have to admit another Damon/Greengrass Bourne is a tasty prospect – but even so. In much of the publicity material, all the talk is of ‘the latest instalment’ and ‘incredible visual effects’ with next to no mention of story, characters, ideas.

Front-loading a review of Duncan Jones’ Warcraft: The Beginning with all this stuff is probably bad form as it probably tips you off as to the general tenor of everything I’m going to say. This is the adaptation of the juggernaut computer gaming franchise which has been floating around in development for about a decade. Now, given the quality of Jones’ other movies (Moon and Source Code) you would usually be quite optimistic about the prospects for this one. On the other hand, this is a big-budget fantasy movie, something which even the best directors have struggled with, and a computer game adaptation, a genre which has produced more utter disasters than any other.

warcraft

The film opens with Generic Fantasyland being invaded by Orcs from another dimension, much to the concern of the locals. Some of the Orcs are a healthy apple-green sort of shade. Others are more your regular flesh tone. Generally, the colour of your Orc seems to reflect their morality: greener Orcs seem to be more evil. Does this constitute racism towards Orcs on the part of the film-makers? I’m not sure. Either way these are big chunky Orcs with hefty tusks and a love for big hammers and improbable costume jewellry. An especially pink, and therefore decent, Orc (mo-capped by Toby Kebbell), is along for the invasion, but troubled by the unhealthy magic employed by their leader.

Meanwhile, the residents of Generic Fantasyland are in a bit of a tizzy as the nature of the Orc threat becomes clear. Leading the defence is Sir Generic Fantasyname (Travis Fimmel – no, me neither), and a bunch of other characters who are an awkward mixture of archetype and stereotype. Actually going into detail about the plot is quite tricky, I’m finding – there’s a lot of riding about and fighting and people growling tersely to each other, and a lot of flashy CGI magic that looks like something from a Harry Potter film or a Marvel superhero movie, but in terms of actual plot and character development… it all just slips through the fingers of my memory. I saw this movie less than twelve hours ago, as I write, and yet most of the details of it seem to have slipped through the fingers of my memory.

What exactly do I recall? Well, there’s a bombastic, Poledouris-esque score from Ramin Djawadi which I quite liked, huge amounts of garish CGI, a bizarrely decorous scene of Orc childbirth, Paula Patton in a Raquel Welch-ish fur bikini…

Actually, I feel obliged to mention that Patton’s character is both friendly and very green, thus proving the general green-is-bad principle does not always hold. The thing is that Patton has, for want of a better expression, greened up to play the part. Given all the fuss about there not being any actual Egyptian performers in the forthcoming (over here) Gods of Egypt, should we be surprised at the lack of an outcry over the lack of genuine Orcs in Warcraft? Is this another example of anti-Orc prejudice on the part of the film-makers?

…where were we? Oh, yes. Well, the art direction is quite good, though not what you’d call understated, and in the end the story takes a few odd turns you wouldn’t normally expect from a film of this kind – some people die whom you might expect to live, and some people make it to the end credits who you’d normally expect to croak it. I’m not sure this is necessarily a good idea, because stories tend to be the shape they are for a reason, but it does a tiny amount in the way of making this film distinctive.

Many years ago I was lucky enough to interview a fairly successful writer of thrillers and horror novels who was at pains to make it clear that he did not write fantasy, because he considered it to be the equivalent of cheating at cards to win paper money. I was reminded of his words while watching Warcraft: The Beginning, because this is the most heftless and bland kind of fantasy. Here we are in the city of Stormwind. Why is it called Stormwind? Well, it’s just a cool name, isn’t it? The King of Stormwind can call on the assistance of the mystical guardian Medivh (Ben Foster), who commands all sorts of spectacular mystical forces. Why do they have this arrangement? How did he get the job? How exactly does magic work in this world? Well… it just suits the plot that things are as they are, doesn’t it? And here’s young Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), a mage from the flying city of Dalaran… why does it fly? Do all these names have any kind of thought-through etymology to them? Or are they just composed with the assistance of the Scrabble bag?

In short, there’s no sign of any consistent underpinning to the world of Warcraft, no coherent conceptual basis. If this place has any kind of detailed history or back-story to it, it’s not made clear in the film at all. All we’re left with are just people racing about waving swords and hammers and the CGI bill racing upwards at supersonic speed. As a result the story feels arbitrary and contrived, and the film is almost impossible to engage with as an actual drama, as opposed to simply a colourful, kinetic spectacle. (Films like this do at least remind you of what a miracle Peter Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings films were.)

Warcraft is a fairly joyless, gruelling experience, summoning up memories of a plethora of dodgy fantasy films from years gone by – everything from Dungeons and Dragons to Eragon. (I’d compare it to Krull, but it’s frankly not nearly as much fun.) But the most depressing thing about it is that there is no sign of Duncan Jones in it – his other films were smart, imaginative pieces of SF, built around strong central characters. This is just an amorphous glob of generic stuff, seemingly directed by a computer programme, with one eye firmly on the franchise: note, for instance, that subtitle, plus the fact that the story just stops rather than actually reaching a conclusion. Technically proficient though this movie is, I strongly doubt it has the potential to appeal to anyone not steeped in the computer game, and I also doubt that audience is big enough to turn this film into a hit. I just hope this doesn’t turn out to be another instance of a promising directorial career being utterly derailed by a brush with a big budget.

 

Read Full Post »

Looking back through the collected works, it occurs to me that I may, on occasion, have come across as just a bit snarky and oh-ho-ho about the life and works of Jason Statham – ‘my kitchen can act better’ (about The Transporter), ‘a nuanced performer he is not’ (Transporter 2), ‘Statham in genuinely good movie shocker’ (Killer Elite), and so on. I think I am guilty of misrepresenting myself, as I’ve never seen a Statham-led movie I haven’t enjoyed on some level, but more importantly doing the man himself a disservice: Statham is clearly aware of his own range as a performer and operates inside it exceedingly well. He hasn’t quite made a gilt-edged classic yet, but neither has he put his name to a complete dog (it’s just occurred to me that I should watch Revolver before throwing that kind of assertion about).

On the other hand, it might not go amiss were he to stretch himself just a little more in his choice of roles – because long stretches of Simon West’s The Mechanic are virtually interchangeable with bits from other Statham movies, or other recent action movies generally. It has the same colour-saturated cinematography, the same kind of graphic design, the same aesthetic, the same sensibility – with the insertion of a bare minimum of new material I suspect you could edit The Mechanic, Colombiana, either of the first two Transporters and Haywire together into one sprawling six-hour epic, so very similar are all of these movies.

In The Mechanic Jason Statham plays… well, officially, someone called Arthur Bishop, but really he’s just playing his standard Jason Statham Character. (There’s a broad unity between most of his roles, moreso even than with the average action movie star.) For the benefit of newcomers, the Jason Statham Character is a highly skilled and extremely dangerous mercenary, who is also either blessed or saddled with a strict code of personal honour which he does his best to abide by at all times. He has feelings, but most of the time he knows better than to show or act upon them – except when the plot demands it, of course. In this movie the Jason Statham Character is a professional assassin who specialises in invisible killings (making it look like an accident, in other words).

The Jason Statham Character’s code is stretched, however, when he is called upon to terminate his own mentor, Harry (Donald Sutherland), who has apparently gone bad. He initially demurs from this, but the client – another member of the same nebulous organisation – is insistent and makes the point that surely the Jason Statham Character would prefer to do it himself, and be sure that Harry doesn’t suffer unnecessarily. Harry himself expresses relief on the same point when the deed is actually done – there’s a strange commingling of sentiment and brutality here which I found rather creepy, to be honest.

Anyway, motivated largely by guilt, the Jason Statham Character takes on Harry’s troubled son Steve (Ben Foster) as an apprentice – not bothering to tell him that he killed his father, of course. Needless to say, Steve has issues of all kinds, which perhaps mean he’s not the best person for this line of work. And what will happen if he ever finds out the truth about his father’s demise…?

Well, The Mechanic is a solidly competent action thriller which should satisfy fans of both the genre and Statham himself. That it isn’t anything more is a shame, because West has previously shown himself to be a superior director and there are flashes here of what could have been a rather more accomplished movie.

Part of the problem is that the movie could really use another fifteen or twenty minutes to add onto the relatively brief running time: for most of its length the film is building up the relationship between Bishop and Steve, and at the same time increasing one’s expectations of what will kick off when – inevitably – Steve learns the truth about his father’s death. One kind of expects the climax of the movie to be an extended battle of wits and skill between master and apprentice. Suffice to say it’s nothing of the sort; the bulk of the movie turns out to revolve around a seen-this-before hero-is-screwed-over-by-his-own-employers plot, with the stuff you’ve been expecting handled in a very cursory way almost as an afterthought.

So the plot is a bit lopsided and doesn’t deliver on what it appears to be promising. On the other hand, what it delivers instead is a series of effective action sequences and character bits, slickly assembled and presented. Some of it is a little far-fetched – it’s a fairly big ask to have as total a professional as Bishop decide to take a loose cannon like Steve on as a trainee – but the script and (to be fair to him) Statham both work hard to make Bishop’s guilt (and thus his desire to help Harry’s son) plausible. As I mentioned, there’s nothing really very new going on here, but what does happen is playing to the strengths of the performers.

And, as I mentioned, there are moments that lift the film briefly above the average – early on we see Bishop meeting a woman in a bar, they dance, it then transpires they’re lovers – and you think, ah ha, she’s the girlfriend who doesn’t know what his job is, she’s going to get caught in the middle of this and force him to reappraise his lifestyle. But almost instantly the film kicks all this out from under you: she’s simply a prostitute Bishop regularly uses, and for all that she’s the top-billed woman she’s barely in the film (no pun intended). Your expectation of the worst kind of cliches is, refreshingly, not met. This kind of intelligence in a genre movie is welcome no matter how fleetingly it manifests itself.

This is a movie with a slightly harder edge than many action films, but not to the point where it ever becomes too gruelling or realistic to be entertaining. That said, there’s a slightly lurid flavour to it in a couple of places – a couple of incidental victims of the two hitmen both turn out to be sex offenders, for no other reason than to reassure the audience that they really do deserve to be executed. I can really do without this kind of material, to be honest: a dumb action movie it may be, but this just struck me as salacious and unnecessary.

Apart from this there was very little in The Mechanic I found myself taking exception to and a lot that I rather enjoyed. I must confess that a little more of Statham himself, properly in action, wouldn’t have gone amiss, but his actual performances these days are more than competent enough to lead a movie with the minimum of martial arts nonsense being required. This movie doesn’t quite give you exactly what it suggests it will, but it comes close enough to be satisfying.

Read Full Post »