Leave No Trace

July 13, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Dale Dickey
Directed by: Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”)
Written by: Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) and Anne Rosellini (“Winter’s Bone”)

There’s something very intriguing about watching an individual taking on Mother Nature with little at their disposal. That’s probably why the Discovery Channel’s critically acclaimed reality series “Naked and Afraid” is currently in its ninth season.

In cinematic form, these stories work best when there is an intimate narrative attached to those characters hoping to survive a situation they either have no control over (Tom Hanks in Castaway) or one they have undertaken on their own (Reese Witherspoon in “Wild;” Emile Hirsch in “Into the Wild”) to test themselves.

The latter is the case for military veteran and single father Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in the compelling drama “Leave No Trace.” Living off the grid in a nature preserve outside Portland, Oregon, Will and Tom have mastered their solitary lifestyle — sleeping in tents, foraging for food and occasionally traveling into town to buy groceries with the money Will makes by selling his unused prescription drugs to other drifters.

Not only is the father-daughter duo able to live off the earth, they also live with the mindfulness that, if not careful, someone could accidentally discover them living in the wilderness. To avoid this, they run through escape drills just in case a park ranger or random hiker gets too close to their basecamp. Their attempt to hide from the outside world ends, however, when a jogger inadvertently spots Tom and reports it. This leads to the involvement of state officials who, at first, separate Will and Tom so they can get answers about their living arrangements, but later help them find sufficient housing and adapt to a regular life.

Directed and co-written by Oscar nominee Debra Granik, who formally introduced audiences to actress Jennifer Lawrence in the deeply moving 2010 drama “Winter’s Bone,” the thought-provoking and emotionally complex film is adapted from author Peter Rock’s 2009 novel “My Abandonment.” With top-tier performances by Foster and newcomer McKenzie, Granik has captured an authentic dynamic between two characters who find themselves at an impasse with one another.

“We didn’t need to be rescued,” was the most instinctive thing Tom could have said when she and her father were discovered in the woods. But it’s amazing to watch her come into her own, experience life in a completely different way and realize that she, at least, did need to be saved.

Hell or High Water

August 21, 2016 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster
Directed by: David Mackenzie (“Starred Up”)
Written by: Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”)

With the ever-increasing demand for complex narratives, there is something to be said for a film that expertly tells a basic story. It may be ground that has been treaded many times before, but very few things are better than simplistic storytelling with well written dialogue and pitch perfect performances. In “Hell or High Water,” director David Mackenzie takes a rudimentary bank robbing plotline and elevates it to truly special heights.

In order to save their family farm, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) go on a series of increasingly dangerous bank robberies to get the money. The investigation to find their next location is led by veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who uses every sense of knowhow and the input of his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) to take down these amateur, and quickly-turning-professional criminals.

Every performance in “Hell or High Water” is exceptional, led by the always underrated Foster and Pine. Pine in particular is great at playing a level of reluctance bouncing off the loose cannon nature of his brother. It’s also a really great platform for Bridges, who in recent years seems to be playing the same marble-mouthed character over and over. As a grizzled veteran, the act really works in this film, and is made even better by the ball busting, buddy-cop relationship with Birmingham.

Story-wise, the plot for “Hell or High Water” truly can be summed up in a quick few sentences. It is, at times, almost too basic. There is still, however, something really intriguing about the desperation breeds necessity elements as well as the complexities family relationships can cause. It’s a story about brothers who don’t want to let anyone down, but it’s also about figuring out what to do when your back is against the wall.

It’s no surprise that “Hell or High Water” is well-crafted, given the pedigree of director Mackenzie, whose most recent film “Starred Up” was one of the hidden gems of 2013. It’s too funny to be a pure drama and too Western to be a straight up heist movie. Whatever you want to call it, one thing is for sure: it’s one of the best films of 2016 thus far.

The Guilt Trip

December 21, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Seth Rogen, Barbra Streisand, Dale Dickey
Directed by: Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal”)
Written by: Dan Fogelman (“Crazy, Stupid Love”)

About halfway through “The Guilt Trip,” Andy Brewster (Seth Rogen) looks on as his widowed mother Joyce (Barbra Streisand) eats a 4-pound steak at a Texas restaurant during a layover on their cross-country road trip. Filled to the brim with red meat, I would have bet $100 that Joyce’s entire meal would have been violently vomited out all over the interior of the vehicle as soon as she buckled herself in. Never mind that the legendary Streisand would have been the one puking; it was the presence of Rogen, known for his roles in raunchy comedies, that had me waiting for something gross to happen. I mean, his frustratingly over-bearing mother ate a steak the size of a small dog and was cramming herself into a comically-undersized car. That’s a setup for a spew if I’ve ever seen one, right? Weirdly…no.

Anyway, anyone with a mother will find a frustration to relate to in “The Guilt Trip.” Rogen’s Andy lives far from his mom in Los Angeles. Andy is a former biochemist turned inventor struggling to pitch his all-natural cleaning product to disinterested retailers. Even from 3,000 miles away in New York, Joyce dotes on Andy, leaving dozens of voice mails about everything from the underwear she bought him at The Gap to theories she developed with her friends about his failed love life. When Andy visits his mother on the eve of a big sales trip, Joyce confides in him that he’s named after a long-lost love. Deciding that his mother, who hasn’t dated since her husband died more than 20 years ago, deserves to be happy, Andy concocts a plan. After secretly tracking down his namesake, Andy invites Joyce along on his road trip, intent on surprising her in San Francisco at the doorstep of the man she once loved.

One would be forgiven for expecting this to be a typical Seth Rogen comedy. After all, there aren’t many live-action movies featuring the actor that you’d be comfortable watching with your mother in the same room. “The Guilt Trip” changes that, though, with an amusing (if not laugh-out-loud funny) screenplay from Disney and Pixar vet Dan Fogelman and a fun performance from Streisand, who is game all the way through. This time around, it’s the younger viewers who might be experiencing discomfort as Streisand’s character hits a little too close to home. While Joyce often veers dangerously close to stereotypical “annoying Jewish mother” territory, she winds up tossing out just enough recognizable nuggets of nagging Rogen’s way to spark twinges of, “Ugh, my mom says the exact same thing!” recognition in every member of the audience.

Yeah, sorry Mom. Even me.

Winter’s Bone

July 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey
Directed by: Debra Granik (“Down to the Bone”)
Written by: Debra Granik (“Down to the Bone”) and Anne Rosellini (debut)

Situated somewhere in the wilderness of the Missouri Ozark Mountains, local girl Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) teaches her younger brother and sister how to cook deer stew and hunt for squirrel. She shows them how to live off the land, how to be thankful for the little they have, and how to survive.

In any other film, the backwoods setting and Midwestern drawl might have some directors and writers taking the easy route and relying on stereotypes to portray their characters. Filmmaker Debra Granik (“Down to the Bone”) has other plans in her film “Winter’s Bone,” winner of the 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. Instead, Granik takes this little known region and brings it to life through a steady and minimal tale of strength and determination. It’s this year’s “Frozen River.”

Fairly unknown actress Lawrence plays Ree, a young girl who spends her days tending to her siblings and mentally-frail mother. When news comes that her meth-addicted father has put their house and land up for his bond and has skipped out on court, Ree is forced to search for him before the authorities can take away the only things keeping the family together.

But even in a small community like theirs, not many people want to get involved in other people’s affairs. Doors may swing open for Ree as she questions her neighbors about her father’s whereabouts, but they close just as quickly.

Beautifully shot with the vast and bleak landscapes of the Ozarks in every frame, “Winter’s Bone” is an authentic and deeply moving experience propelled by the amazing performances of Lawrence and John Hawkes, who plays Ree’s detached uncle. It’s really Lawrence, however, who etches a name for herself in the industry with her heroic role.