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Thomasin Mckenzie, Ben Foster

“LEAVE NO TRACE” My rating: A- 

109 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Literature tells us.

Cinema shows us.

And few films are better at showing us than “Leave No Trace,” Debra Granik’s second feature (after 2010’s flabbergastingly good “Winter’s Bone”).

There’s little dialogue in this film, and most of that is of a matter-of-fact nature. Situations that other movies would take pains to explain here  go unaddressed.

But far from diminishing the experience, this oral reticence makes  “Leave No Trace”  a rewardingly rich viewing experience.  Nobody tells us what’s going on; we simply watch…and then we know.

As the film begins 15-year-old Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father Will (Ben Foster) appear to be on a camping trip. They’re foraging for food, cooking over a campfire, sleeping under a tarp.

But at certain points Will announces that they’re having a drill. Dropping everything, Tom races into the thick forest undergrowth.  If her father can find her, she’s flunked.

Clearly,  this is no suburban father and daughter on a weekend retreat. The two are living in the woods, evading hikers and a groundskeeping crew of prison convicts. Periodically they go into town — they’re squatting in a park just outside Portland — where Will picks up his cocktail of psychotropic drugs from the V.A. and resells them to other veterans in a hobo town.

How did father and daughter end up hiding out in the woods?  What happened to Tom’s mother? What is the nature of Will’s mental illness? (A big clue is the way he involuntarily flinches whenever he hears a helicopter.) And is he dangerous?

The screenplay by Granik and regular collaborator Anne Rossellini (based on Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment) lets those questions hang. But no worries…everything we need to know about these fugitives is there if we pay attention.

(more…)

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Chris Pine, Ben Foster

Chris Pine, Ben Foster

“HELL OR HIGH WATER” My rating: A- 

102 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Hell or High Water” is about two brothers on a crime spree. But David Mackenzie’s film has a lot more on its mind than mere suspense and thrills.

Imagine the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” filtered through the sensibilities of a Bruce Springsteen ballad about sibling tensions and economic alienation, enacted by players who in some instances are giving their best perfs ever, and set against a bleak West Texas landscape so carefully rendered you may find yourself trying to spit out the dust.

And although it was filmed a year ago, it  damn near serves as an ethnological study of Trump voters.

The film begins with a bank heist.  Brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) pull on ski masks and barge into a branch of the Texas Midlands Bank in an oil spot of a rundown town. Brother Tanner is clearly enjoying his power over the employees and customers — a bit too much, actually. He has to be admonished by his sibling after pistol whipping a slow-moving bank employee.

Because Ben Foster has so often played eye-rolling loonies, we assume that his ex-con Tanner is the criminal mastermind behind the unfolding series of bank robberies. Actually it’s the low-keyed Toby who came up with the plan to steal  money from the same bank threatening to foreclose on the family’s run-down ranch.

Estranged from his wife and two teenage sons and way behind on his alimony, Toby hopes to pay off the mortgage with the bank’s own money. At least he’ll be able to leave the family spread to his boys. Heck, there may even be black gold under it.

The brothers have a system, hitting different branches at off hours, then burying the getaway cars out on the back 40. They launder the stolen cash by gambling at an Indian casino up in Oklahoma.

But it’s a given that at some point the hair-trigger Tanner will deviate from the plan and throw the entire enterprise into jeopardy.

Because there’s a relentless lawman on their trail. Jeff Bridges is Marcus, a crusty old Texas Ranger facing an uneasy retirement. Marcus has been catching crooks for so long that he thinks like them; he’s just waiting for one little screwup.

In the meantime he passes the time making politically incorrect observations about the heritage of his long-suffering half-Commanche partner (Gil Birmingham).

That’s the plot.  But the screenplay by Taylor Sheridan (who most recently gave us the first-rate drug war saga “Sicario”) is noteworthy for all the other stuff going on just below the surface. (more…)

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Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck

Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck

“AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS” My rating: C+ (Opening August 30 at the Tivoli and the Rio)

96 minutes| MPAA rating: R

Like its title, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” tries too damn hard.

The difference between effectiveness and affectation is often a matter of degree, and for my money David Lowery’s Sundance hit  always lays things on just a little too thick.

Or perhaps not thick enough.

In this norish crime drama/romance Lowery apparently is trying to channel Terernce Malick, particularly the early Malick of “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” both of which took the form of dreamlike folk ballads. 

Like virtually all Malick movies, “Ain’t Them Bodies…” relies on voiceover narration by one of the characters (in this case a prison escapee played by Casey Affleck).  And the film unfolds in a classic small American town so frozen in time (old trucks, flower print dresses, denim work shirts, cowboy boots) that I was taken aback late in the story when one character produced a cell phone. Like a Malick effort, the movie has been photographed (by Bradford Young) so as to discover the beauty in human faces,  brown Texas landscapes, and even old buildings losing their peeling paint. (more…)

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