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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Director Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is an uncompromising, brutal Western. It makes Clint Eastwood’s classic, somber Unforgiven look like Mary Poppins.

Christian Bale turns in another spellbinding performance as Capt. Joseph J. Blocker. Joe—a quiet, tired, jaded soldier—is spending the closing days of his military career in 1892 capturing and imprisoning Native Americans. He has fought many battles, seen many atrocities, and committed many of his own.

When aging and terminally ill Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is granted freedom by the president of the United States, somebody who knows his dialect must be chosen to escort him and his family back to Montana. Joe is the best candidate for the job … but it’s a job he doesn’t want: Joe fought against Yellow Hawk and witnessed him murdering his friend many years ago. The idea of leading a man he sees as the worst of murderers to a graceful death in Montana doesn’t appeal to him; in a scene as tense as any other filmed last year, he says so to his colonel (Stephen Lang) and a stuffy bureaucrat (Bill Camp, who occupies one of the few characters in the film that qualifies as cartoonish). This scene makes it clear that Joe is going to rank among Bale’s best performances … and the movie has barely begun.

Actually, Cooper establishes the unrelenting darkness of the film before the title credit. Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is seen teaching her young children what adverbs are as her husband tends to their farm. In an instant, Rosalie’s family life is decimated by Comanche bandits, who kill her husband and all of her children.

Joe, having no real choice but to lead Yellow Hawk to his homeland (his colonel threatens his pension), reluctantly sets out on the journey with the dying chief, the chief’s family (which includes the terrific Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher) and a handful of soldiers. He then stumbles upon a destroyed Rosalie and her dead family at their burned-out homestead. He takes her into their traveling party—a gesture that possibly starts to awaken a decent human being within himself.

Cooper, who also wrote the screenplay, avoids sermonizing, and opts for a film that takes its sweet time delivering its message. The movie is far from predictable, and nobody in the cast is safe. That cast includes soldiers played by Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird), Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad) and impressive relative unknown Jonathan Majors. Rory Cochrane (Dazed and Confused) is a true standout as a longtime fellow soldier of Joe who is battling “the melancholia.”

Adding to one of 2017’s greatest—and most underrated—acting ensembles is Ben Foster, who shows up late in the film as Charles, an imprisoned soldier handed off to Joe mid-journey. It’s Joe’s job to lead the murderous Charles to the gallows; in an undeniable way, Charles represents the horrors of Joe’s past ways. It’s no surprise that this results in more than one tensely acted scene between Foster and Bale.

Pike, who hasn’t done much since her bravura performance in Gone Girl, shows devastating grace and beauty as the mother who loses everything. She makes Rosalie a true symbol of human resilience during harrowing times. Studi is pure brilliance as Yellow Hawk, saying everything with his majestic, chiseled face. He has a moment with Bale near the film’s end that is heartbreaking and beautiful.

How Max Richter’s haunting soundtrack failed to garner an Oscar nomination is beyond me. Also delivering top-notch work is cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who has helped make one of 2017’s better looking films.

Bale deserved an Oscar nomination for his work in this film. Joe is the sort of complicated, wounded character at which he excels, and Bale’s work with Cooper (they also partnered on Out of the Furnace) continues to be one of cinema’s more compelling partnerships.

While Hostiles is far from a fun time at the movies, it’s an essential film for those who like their history served with a fair share of truth and tragedy.

Hostiles is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The annual Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Awards Gala provides a cadre of A-list film actors and directors with oddly titled awards for their trophy cases—along with a low-stress, fun night in Palm Springs, the “home away from L.A.” for many celebrities.

This year’s honorees at the Saturday, Jan. 2, gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center included Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett, Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Alicia Vikander, Rooney Mara and Tom McCarthy.

The 11-day festival proudly presents a broad gamut of films within nearly every genre, produced both here and abroad; some of these films receive little or no viewership in the commercial marketplace otherwise. In contrast, the celebrity cast of honorees and presenters—Michael Keaton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet and Ridley Scott were among the latter this year—as usual included a host of attention-grabbing nominees for the rapidly approaching major award season in Los Angeles. This proven strategy creates fund-raising fodder for the mix of industry players and local philanthropists who pay to get inside the Convention Center event. This year, more than $2 million was raised to support the year-round community service and film appreciation activities of the Palm Springs International Film Society, organizers said.

However, for me, the night proved to be a bust. While larger national media sources received prime space on the red carpet, the stars—most of whom were accompanied by a phalanx of PR representatives—were quickly whisked past those of us at the very end of the carpet where media outlets not offering national outreach were banished. (As for photos … the Independent was denied a photo credential, period … hence the mediocre smart-phone pics below.)

Special recognition was earned by Mr. Depp, who took time to amble at a leisurely pace, offering smiles and a couple of mumbled responses to urgently proffered inquiries.

In summation, I offer, for your enjoyment, a few freeze-frame stills and a brief video I shot to prove that I did, in fact, cover the event.

Enjoy. 

Published in Snapshot

Director Adam McKay, the master behind broad-comedy gems Anchorman and Step Brothers, flexes his more-serious muscles for The Big Short, a take on the housing bubble that nearly destroyed the global economy.

An ensemble cast including Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt makes this a funny yet scary look at how big banks nearly sent our economy back to the Stone Age. Carell is especially good as Mark Baum, a banker with a conscience who realizes a little too late that things are going down hill—and that his wealth is coming at the expense of many U.S. homeowners.

Bale is typically good as Michael Burry, a man who saw the storm coming and made a boatload of money by betting against the biggest monsters of modern finance. Pitt has fun as a financial guru who has taken to the hills in anticipation of the oncoming financial apocalypse, while Gosling gives the whole thing a nice Martin Scorsese vibe as a fast-talking banker/narrator.

This is a drama, but it’s often funny. (Margot Robbie in a bubble bath…brilliant!) McKay shows that his chops go well beyond directing Will Ferrell with a fireman mustache.

The Big Short is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Ridley Scott somehow makes the Old Testament quite boring in Exodus: Gods and Kings, a laborious treatment of the story of Moses (Christian Bale) and his tumultuous relationship with Ramses (Joel Edgerton).

There are stretches of the movie that look pretty good, including a massive gator attack that turns a river blood red, and the infamous frog plague that makes things unpleasant in Egypt. As good as some of these things look, however, they often sound really stupid, thanks to a pedestrian screenplay and an ever-wandering Bale accent. There are times when he sounds like straight-up Christian Bale, and others when he inexplicably sounds like an American rabbi from Brooklyn.

Scott can make great movies, but his period epics, including this, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood tend to stink. While he wastes time in this particular sandbox, he’s being taken away from more important matters, like getting the Prometheus and Blade Runner sequels into production and in front of my face. No more historical epics from Ridley Scott, please!

Exodus: Gods and Kings is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Director David O. Russell continues his impressive roll with American Hustle, a semi-comedic look at the notorious 1970s Abscam scandal.

Russell is shooting for Scorsese-style glory here, and while the style of the movie seems copied at times, there’s no denying the power of the ensemble cast. Bradley Cooper scores laughs as a pathetic FBI agent looking to make a name for himself, and Christian Bale looks great with a comb-over as the conman forced into an alliance with the law. Amy Adams gets one of the strangest roles of 2013 as a con artist pretending to be British; she pulls it off quite nicely.

Jennifer Lawrence steals every scene she’s in as a seemingly dim Long Island housewife, a role for which I thought she deserved an Oscar. The film scored nominations for Lawrence, Cooper, Bale and Adams among 10 total nominations—yet it didn’t take home a single award.

Also worth noting: Louis C.K. is hilarious as Cooper’s field boss. C.K. canceled a show for which I had tickets make this movie. I was pissed but, after seeing how good he is here, I’m OK with it now.

The film falls a little short of greatness due to the fact that it seems copied at times, but the cast pulls it out of the fire. It also has the best usage of Robert De Niro as a bad guy in many years. I keep forgetting that De Niro was once the greatest actor on planet Earth; with this film, and his terrific turn in Silver Linings Playbook, De Niro seems to have found a great director in Russell.

It’s a good time, but it ultimately feels a tad unoriginal.

Special Features: There’s a bunch of deleted and extended scenes, along with a making-of featurette. Not much to enjoy.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

David O. Russell continues his impressive directorial roll with American Hustle, a semi-comedic look at the notorious 1970s Abscam scandal. Russell is shooting for Scorsese-style glory here, and while the style of the movie seems copied at times, there’s no denying the power of the ensemble cast.

Bradley Cooper scores laughs as a pathetic FBI agent looking to make a name for himself, and Christian Bale looks great in a combover as the conman forced into an alliance with the law. Amy Adams gets one of the strangest roles of the year as a con artist pretending to be British—and she pulls it off quite nicely. Jennifer Lawrence steals every scene she’s in as a seemingly dim Long Island housewife. You also get Louis C.K. as Cooper’s field boss. (He canceled a show for which I had tickets to make this movie. I was pissed then, but after seeing how good he is here, I’m OK with it now.)

The film falls a little short of greatness due to its sometimes carbon-copy feel, but the cast pulls it out of the fire. It also has the best usage of Robert De Niro as a bad guy in many years.

American Hustle is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Christian Bale is at his simmering best in Out of the Furnace, a dark, often scary and desolate look at two brothers who get dealt numerous bad hands. Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), this is not a holiday-season film designed to send you home smiling.

Russell Baze (Bale) is a good-spirited, quiet man working at the town mill. He looks out for his military-vet brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rodney is having trouble adjusting after multiple tours in Iraq that have left him physically and emotionally scarred. This makes Russell ultra-patient when it comes to his bro—even paying off Rodney’s gambling debts behind his back to a local bookie (Willem Dafoe, who somehow makes this sleazy character seem like a nice guy).

Russell, after a brutal and costly mistake, goes to jail, while his brother does another tour. When Russell is set free, he has lost his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), and his brother is in bad shape. Rodney’s debts have gotten too big, so he starts bare-knuckle boxing. He eventually finds himself in a situation in which he should be taking a dive for a nasty criminal (Woody Harrelson, playing one of the year’s most memorable and lecherous movie villains).

Rodney disappears, and Russell takes matters into his own hands when a local authority (Forest Whitaker) appears to be dragging his feet. At this point, the movie starts to really heat up, thanks to an added element involving the Whitaker character that I won’t give away.

In some ways, Out of the Furnace is a typical revenge thriller, with semi-predictable plot points. However, what makes the movie so worthy of your time is that it commits to a dark, despairing mode—and all of the performers revel in it. It’s a downbeat movie for sure, but Bale and company give it a steady, dark pulse.

Affleck has had a good year with this and the little-seen Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. His Rodney is the sort of tragic figure who feels all too real. You pull for him, but there’s a sinking feeling he can’t be helped. He has a brief face-to-face showdown with Harrelson that counts as one of his career highlights.

Harrelson is pure, unadulterated evil here. His Harlan DeGroat is established in the very first scene as an entity not to be messed with; he’s terrifying. Harrelson is such a good performer that he never falls into caricature. You ultimately get a sense that a moral code may’ve once existed within DeGroat, but that core was decimated by meth, hatred and violence.

Out of the Furnace features one of the more sublime and understated recent Bale performances. (I was reminded of his subtle, brilliant work in Terrence Malick’s The New World.) After every emotional blow, Russell seemingly remains a good man, convinced things can all work out in the end. He has an optimism that is heartbreaking to behold.

Cooper prominently uses Pearl Jam’s “Release” at the film’s start and finish. It’s a powerful song choice that sets a mood that is both triumphant and somber—a lot like the movie itself. He further adds to the mood by casting Sam Shepard in a small but crucial part. Shepard’s presence adds gravitas.

Out of the Furnace doesn’t try to make any grand statements in its two hours. It tells a sad story of two brothers who love each other, the hardships they face, the bad hits they take, and their somewhat regrettable coping choices. The film is no happy party—but it is a showcase for three actors who nail it.

Out of the Furnace is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews