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Ben Foster—currently tied with Ethan Hawke for the title of World’s Most Improved Actor—is phenomenal in Leave No Trace as Will, a homeless vet living in an Oregon park with his daughter, Tom (an incredible Thomasin McKenzie).

Will trains his daughter to live off the land—and how not to be seen. When a jogger sees and reports them, the two wind up in the social-services system, undergoing a barrage of tests and eventually being relocated to a work commune. While Will simply can’t adjust, Tom starts liking being indoors. When Will takes them back into the forest, their two worlds start to truly separate.

Directed and co-written by Debra Granik, the movie poses some serious questions about PTSD should be handled, and what freedom really is in America. Foster is tragically sad as Will, a man we know very little about, although we know something has really messed him up. McKenzie will break your heart as the loving daughter who only knows the wilderness, but wants to know more.

Leave No Trace is of the summer’s—and year’s—best films.

Leave No Trace is now playing at Century Theatres at The River and XD (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

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I am grateful for the existence of Inferno, Ron Howard’s latest installment in his Da Vinci Code film series.

Without Inferno, Tom Hanks would’ve had no reason to be out promoting a movie around Halloween time. Because he was, he stopped by Saturday Night Live to host for a ninth time. While there, he was in a totally bizarre sketch as David Pumpkins, a weirdo in a haunted house elevator ride accompanied by two beatboy dancer skeletons. The sketch is already a classic.

That’s it … that’s the only reason I am grateful for the existence of Inferno. David Pumpkins.

The film itself is easily the worst of the series, a series that was already pretty terrible in that both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons blew ass. Hanks returns as Robert Langdon, something the world’s most beloved actor shouldn’t need to do. This series needed to be put down after the first installment.

When Langdon wakes up in a hospital room, with a bullet scratch on his head and a loss of memory, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) is there to help. Then, somebody starts toward Langdon’s hospital room with guns a-blazing, and the so-called adventure begins.

Langdon is having hallucinations about something akin to Dante’s Inferno while trying to work his way through amnesia. He’s in Italy, and he doesn’t know why, but Sienna, for reasons unknown, is going to stay by his side until he works things out.

For starters … the amnesia gimmick is one of the most desperate plot gimmicks anybody could put in a novel or a screenplay. I was half expecting Robert Langdon’s evil twin brother, the villainous Michael Langdon, to appear and kick Robert in the balls. This feels like a cheap soap opera from beginning to end.

Also, if you are going to employ the amnesia gimmick, be consistent. Moments after barely being able to remember anything, Langdon manages to grab a laptop and use the Internet (even though he didn’t know what coffee was just seconds before). He then he remembers his password and surfs the net. So he has selective amnesia: He can remember intricate details about passwords and how to surf the net, but that darned coffee stuff mystifies him.

The main “puzzle” Langdon has to solve this time out is finding out where a doomsday bomb containing a virus that will wipe out the majority of the Earth’s population has been planted. If he doesn’t find the Make Everybody Sick bomb, it will be an apocalypse like no other. Gee, I wonder if he’ll find it. I wonder if the whole world will die in a Ron Howard movie.

The first quarter of the movie does have some decent visuals as Langdon has nightmares about a plague-infected Earth, although it makes little sense why he’s having them at all. Much of the rest of movie consists of Robert and Sienna running around, pausing to talk about some sort of puzzling business that needs to be solved, and then running around again. The puzzles, as in the prior films, are ridiculous.

Hanks is just going through the motions, having to spend much of the movie looking confused and sweating profusely. Jones is a good actress, but she’s given nothing to do with a completely ridiculous part. If you’ve seen the commercials for this one, you already know the fate Ben Foster’s character suffers. He wastes his time here (after a great performance in this year’s Hell or High Water) as a billionaire who thinks the world is due for a cleansing.

Apparently, author Dan Brown is at work on a new Langdon novel, due out in 2017. Given that Inferno is a bomb by all accounts, let us all hope we have seen the last of Hanks and Howard wasting their precious time on this series.

And if you haven’t seen the David Pumpkins SNL sketch yet, you need to Google that shit, pronto.

Inferno is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster are simply amazing in Hell or High Water, a terrific modern Western from director David Mackenzie.

Pine and Foster play two brothers who devise a bank-robbing scheme to save the family farm; Bridges is the soon-to-be-retired sheriff trying to stop them. Pine takes his career to a whole new level with his work here; he disappears into his part, making us forget he’s Captain Kirk. Foster, an actor I couldn’t stand when he was younger, gets better and better with each film; this is his best work yet. Pine’s Toby is supposedly the more sensible brother, while Foster’s Tanner is the nut. However, those roles sometime switch, and the acting by both makes it mesmerizing to watch.

What else can you say about Bridges at this point? He’s one of the best actors to have ever walked the Earth, and Hell or High Water further cements that fact.

Mackenzie, whose most notable prior film was the underrated Starred Up, takes a step into an elite class with this one. His staging of car chases and manhunts is nerve-shredding.

This is a movie without a bad frame in it. It’s a masterpiece—one of only a few to be released so far this year.

Hell or High Water is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

I haven’t been on a boat in many, many years. After seeing The Finest Hours, I have no need to be on a boat in many, many more years.

In 1952, an oil tanker called the Pendleton split into two during a blizzard off the coast of Cape Cod. The eight crewmembers who were in the stern perished; 33 men initially survived in the bow section of the ship.

Upon hearing news of the situation, a four-man crew boarded a smallish Coast Guard 36500 lifeboat and set out in the midst of the storm to assist the Pendleton crew.

Director Craig Gillespie has crafted an exciting movie about the sea—that is, it’s an exciting movie when the action is actually on the sea. Unfortunately, some of the stuff that happens onshore bogs down the movie in schmaltziness. That’s OK: The action sequences, and the performances during those sequences, put The Finest Hours over the top as worthy entertainment.

Chris Pine plays Bernie Webber, who captains the tiny boat tasked with saving more than 30 men. Yes, this means the guy who plays Captain Kirk gets to be called “captain” a lot during the course of this film. It’s a slight distraction, but a good one nonetheless.

As Ray Sybert, one of the unlucky fellows aboard the Pendleton, Casey Affleck is rock-solid as the man who takes charge in the face of great peril. When some crew members think it’s a good idea to board the lifeboats in the middle of gale-force winds, Sybert gives them a demonstration that renders that option moot. Affleck, one of the more underrated actors in the biz, offers the film’s best performance.

Unlike the dreadful In the Heart of the Sea that Ron Howard shat into the ocean last year, The Finest Hours packs a major, exciting action punch with a lot of water. I haven’t felt this freaked out watching people ride into slamming waves since Wolfgang Petersen tortured Clooney and Wahlberg in The Perfect Storm.

Chris Pine rides into the belly of the beast with three crewmembers played by Ben Foster, John Magaro and Kyle Gallner. All four are terrific at looking scared shitless while being drenched and bounced about. When the action covers their voyage, or Affleck struggles aboard the sinking vessel, the movie is top-notch.

Sadly, Gillespie feels the need to make this a love story, too. Holliday Grainger plays Miriam, Bernie’s new girlfriend, and her face-offs with Bernie’s commander (Eric Bana with a distracting accent) at Coast Guard HQ are tiresome stuff. Bernie and Miriam’s courtship is actually kind of sweet in the early part of the movie, but their love story becomes nothing but an unwelcomed distraction once waves start hitting Bernie’s boat.

The film looks and plays like a movie that could’ve been shot in black and white. Some of the faces in this film (especially Foster’s face) have an old-timey look; there were times when I was expecting one of the Bowery boys or Humphrey Bogart to show up and lend a hand.

Pine comes to life when his character is out at sea, but his stilted choices back onshore seem almost gimmicky. He’s very charismatic in most of his roles, yet the sheepishness he portrays on dry land feels forced and overdone. He salvages his work during the action sequences for sure, but the movie does feature some of his career-worst work at times.

If you are looking for a good sea movie with a decent love story, your best bet is still Titanic. The Finest Hours is no masterpiece, but it gets the job done. 

The Finest Hours is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Lone Survivor, an explosive passion project from writer-director Peter Berg, takes an unrelentingly gruesome look at Operation Red Wings, the failed 2005 mission in Afghanistan that claimed the lives of 19 American soldiers.

Autopsies and first-hand witness accounts have revealed that three Navy SEALs were brutally killed by bullets and the rugged countryside tearing them apart. As for the other 16 soldiers killed, they died when a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade struck their helicopter and sent them crashing into a cliff.

Most of the movie centers on the four Navy SEALs dropped into hostile territory, and how an unfortunate civilian encounter and communications problems led to a massive gun battle with insurmountable odds.

In a performance that stands among his best, Mark Wahlberg plays Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL who co-wrote the book upon which this movie is based. (The real Luttrell actually has a cameo early in the film; he acted as a consultant.) Luttrell and fellow Navy SEALs Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster) were performing reconnaissance for a mission meant to capture or kill a notorious Taliban leader when a trio of goat herders stumbled upon their camp.

In a powerfully acted scene, the four men debate whether or not they should let these prisoners go, or “terminate the compromise.” Their decision ultimately leads to a skirmish wherein they are far outnumbered.

This is where Berg and his stunt-and-effects crew really go to work. Aided in part by Greg Nicotero, who does the makeup effects for The Walking Dead, Berg shows injury after injury; it’s a true horror show. When the actors take hits in this movie, they sound very real—and extremely painful. This is especially true during two sequences in which SEALs must evade bullets by jumping off cliffs. These plummets feature stuntmen crashing into rocks and trees with a ferocity that looks positively deadly. Berg seamlessly injects edits of the actual actors falling as well.

There’s a story circulating (told by both Wahlberg and Berg) that the first stuntman to leap off a cliff for Lone Survivor broke a bunch of ribs, punctured his lung and had to be airlifted off the set. When you actually see how jarringly realistic this movie is, you’ll be shocked the stunt guy’s injuries weren’t worse.

The last act of the film depicts how some sympathetic Afghani villagers found one of the SEALs and sheltered him from Taliban forces until Americans arrived. Don’t think this part of the film represents anything near relief, because the SEAL endures plenty of pain and near-death episodes during this stretch, too.

This film features one of the best acting ensembles of the last year. Wahlberg leads the group with fury, as well as the occasional—and much-needed—humorous touch. Kitsch, who recently headlined the Berg stinker Battleship and starred in the ill-fated John Carter, experiences a complete career resurrection here. He offers a strong, sympathetic presence as Murphy.

Hirsch, so good in the recent Prince Avalanche and The Motel Life, breaks hearts as Dietz, who loses his drawing hand during a battle. Foster is perhaps the most powerful of the bunch as a man who actually gets shot in the head, yet keeps on fighting.

Lone Survivor pulverizes the senses and features good actors at the top of their games, giving the film the sort of emotional anchor sorely missing in too many military-based movies. The men here don’t die waving American flags accompanied by “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” They die some of the hardest, loneliest deaths you will ever see—and that fact is all the more horrifying because these deaths are steeped in reality.

Lone Survivor opens Friday, Jan. 10, at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews