Ben Foster

The Program (2015, Stephen Frears)

The Program does not tell a particularly filmic story. It doesn’t have a rewarding dramatic arc. Telling the story of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, with Ben Foster in the role–and as the film’s main character–does not offer many moments of joy. Foster’s spellbinding. He humanizes the sociopath enough to make him understandable in his cruelty. The Program is not a mystery, it starts with Foster figuring out how to cheat. At no moment is he playing the hero, not even when he does something heroic. It’s nearly a biopic, albeit an inspiring one, but it’s also a condemnation of character.

Rightly so too. But it does mean having an “anti-hero” in the lead position of the film and that situation holds The Program back. There’s a lot of historical footage used for the bike racing. While director Frears and cinematographer Danny Cohen do shoot some excellent cycling sequences, this film isn’t about the sport. It’s not about the thrill of it. It’s not even about the cost of fraud, if only because the subject isn’t capable of feeling guilt. Foster’s performance is phenomenal in the third act, when things come crashing down, because he’s got to collapse silently. It’s a tour de force performance (no pun) without a great defining scene. He never faces off with the people he’s tried to ruin. He’s a snake. He has a lawyer do it. And Foster’s perfect at it.

In the antagonist positions are Chris O’Dowd as the reporter who tries to figure out why Armstrong has to brake while going uphill. For a while, O’Dowd has a lot to do. Then he disappears. He’s excellent, but the film just doesn’t have enough for him to do. The same goes for Jesse Plemons as one of Foster’s teammates. He’s great, he has a complex arc (sort of), but he doesn’t have a lot to do. Again, history fails to provide the necessary melodrama.

Once things get legal, Cohen and Frears employ some odd spherical lenses to create claustrophobia in the Panavision frame. It’s not successful, but Frears is more about his actors, more about the way the film conveys its narrative than its visual sense. In many ways, The Program is just watching to see what Foster is going to do next, just like the viewer.

Good support from Guillaume Canet and Denis Ménochet. Cohen’s photography, spherical choices aside, is strong. The same goes for Valerio Bonelli’s editing. Except the historical footage. It might have made sense if it were a metaphor for O’Dowd waxing poetic about cycling turned into a fraud, but it isn’t. It’s mostly an expository shortcut, a budget requirement.

The film starts strong, but it’s obviously relying on its actors and on John Hodge’s sturdy, methodical, somewhat thankless script. Frears takes the time to set up expectations, then lets Foster surpass them all. The Program doesn’t want to answer all the questions its raises, it’s happy to just come up with some good questions. It might limit the film’s overall potential, but Foster, O’Dowd, Plemons, Cohen and Frears all do excellent work here.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Frears; screenplay by John Hodge, based on a book by David Walsh; director of photography, Danny Cohen; edited by Valerio Bonelli; music by Alex Heffes; production designer, Alan MacDonald; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tracey Seward and Kate Solomon; released by StudioCanal.

Starring Ben Foster (Lance Armstrong), Jesse Plemons (Floyd Landis), Chris O’Dowd (David Walsh), Guillaume Canet (Medecin Michele Ferrari), Denis Ménochet (Johan Bruyneel), Lee Pace (Bill Stapleton), Edward Hogg (Frankie Andreu), Elaine Cassidy (Betsy Andreu) and Dustin Hoffman (Bob Hamman).


Liberty Heights (1999, Barry Levinson)

Liberty Heights is about protagonist Ben Foster's last year in high school. Levinson never puts it in such simple terms because the film is about quiet, deliberate, but perceivable life events. Every moment in the film's memorable because Levinson is going through these people's memorable moments of the year. Of course, he never forecasts the film will take place over a year. Heights is an epical story, lyrically told.

Levinson splits the film primarily between Foster and Adrien Brody, as his older brother. But Joe Mantegna, as their father, and Orlando Jones, as Mantenga's business antagonist, also get some of the individual focus. So Levinson, along with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, editor Stu Linder and composer Andrea Morricone have to figure out how to identify these moments for the characters. Through the sound, the light, everything has to be perfect because of Levinson's approach.

It seems like a precarious approach–to set up a film to only have intense scenes; even scenes with Foster watching television or Brody talking to a friend, they all have to be intense in some way or another. Morricone's score is gorgeous and exuberant, but Levinson also uses contemporary popular music to get the scenes done too.

The performances are essential. Foster, Brody, Jones. All three are phenomenal. Bebe Neuwirth's great as Foster and Brody's mother, Rebekah Johnson is excellent as Foster's friend. The entire supporting cast is perfect.

Heights is simultaneously ambitious in its filmmaking, but also in its sincerity. It never hits a false note.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Barry Levinson; director of photography, Christopher Doyle; edited by Stu Linder; music by Andrea Morricone; production designer, Vincent Peranio; produced by Levinson and Paula Weinstein; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Adrien Brody (Van Kurtzman), Ben Foster (Ben Kurtzman), Rebekah Johnson (Sylvia), David Krumholtz (Yussel), Bebe Neuwirth (Ada Kurtzman), Orlando Jones (Little Melvin), Richard Kline (Charlie), Vincent Guastaferro (Pete), Justin Chambers (Trey Tobelseted), Carolyn Murphy (Dubbie), James Pickens Jr. (Sylvia’s Father), Frania Rubinek (Grandma Rose), Anthony Anderson (Scribbles), Kiersten Warren (Annie the Stripper), Evan Neumann (Sheldon), Kevin Sussman (Alan Joseph Zuckerman), Gerry Rosenthal (Murray), Shane West (Ted) and Joe Mantegna (Nate Kurtzman).


3:10 to Yuma (2007, James Mangold)

Another remake where they credit the original screenwriter as a contributing writer in order not to call it a remake.

Halsted Welles wrote the original 3:10 to Yuma’s screenplay… not sure why Mangold and the producers thought Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, writers of some vapid action movies, would match him.

I assume Brandt and Haas added the stuff where Logan Lerman (as Christian Bale’s kid, who tails along while Bale takes prisoner Russell Crowe to catch a prison train) is horrified to see how Chinese laborers were treated.

Yuma’s actually—with the exception of Marco Beltrami’s awful score—rather well-produced. Mangold composes the Panavision frame well. It’s not a significant film, but a competent one.

With the exception of the acting, of course. There’re so many people around Bale and Crowe, it barely feels like the two are supposed to be acting off each other. Worse, Bale’s terrible. The film opens with Lerman acting circles around him.

Mangold casts about half the film well and the other half awful. Gretchen Mol is Bale’s wife (and the only time he’s the better actor is in their scenes together). Peter Fonda’s weak, so’s Kevin Durand. However, Dallas Roberts, Alan Tudyk and Vinessa Shaw are all strong. Mangold’s got a surprise actor at one point and it livens things up. Yuma’s boring and not in a good way. Without a dynamic performance to match Crowe’s, it drags.

Well, Ben Foster’s pretty dynamic… but he’s not opposite Crowe.

It’s nearly decent.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Mangold; screenplay by Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, based on a short story by Elmore Leonard; director of photography, Phedon Papamichael; edited by Michael McCusker; music by Marco Beltrami; production designer, Andrew Menzies; produced by Cathy Konrad; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Russell Crowe (Ben Wade), Christian Bale (Dan Evans), Ben Foster (Charlie Prince), Dallas Roberts (Grayson Butterfield), Peter Fonda (Byron McElroy), Gretchen Mol (Alice Evans), Alan Tudyk (Doc Potter), Kevin Durand (Tucker), Vinessa Shaw (Emma Nelson) and Logan Lerman (William Evans).


The Mechanic (2011, Simon West)

It would be going far to say The Mechanic almost succeeds. There’s not very much it could succeed at–while a remake, the film could have been another in star Jason Statham’s Transporter franchise; there’s nothing distinctive about it. Except maybe Mark Isham’s awful score.

The film opens with some of director West’s worst work. Luckily, he tones down his rapid cuts after the pre-title sequence (which clears up whether he makes bad choices intentionally… he does). He never establishes a tone; even in Panavision, he keeps close to the actors and the New Orleans setting is wasted. But he does approach the low end of bland incompetence, an achievement for him.

It helps having Statham around. Statham’s made this film before; not just the Transporter series, but basically everything he headlines. The scenes with him and Ben Foster show what a waste the dumb action genre is for Statham. He can hold his own with Foster, who–and The Mechanic is just another example of it–is the finest character actor of his generation and probably the last too.

Richard Wenk’s script has some fine little moments for Foster and an action scene every seven minutes or so. It’s not clear if Lewis John Carlino (who wrote the original and is credited here as co-writer) actually contributed anything to this version or if the filmmakers didn’t want to call it a remake.

Foster and Statham make it pass easier than it should… but the ending’s still crap.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Simon West; screenplay by Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino, based on a story by Carlino; director of photography, Eric Schmidt; edited by T.G. Herrington and Todd E. Miller; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Richard Lassalle; produced by René Besson, Robert Chartoff, William Chartoff, Rob Cowan, Marcy Drogin, Avi Lerner, John Thompson, David Winkler and Irwin Winkler; released by CBS Films.

Starring Jason Statham (Arthur Bishop), Ben Foster (Steve McKenna), Tony Goldwyn (Dean), Donald Sutherland (Harry McKenna), Jeff Chase (Burke), Mini Anden (Sarah) and James Logan (Jorge Lara).


Pandorum (2009, Christian Alvart)

A lot of Pandorum is the best thing producers Jeremy Bolt and Paul W.S. Anderson have ever had their names on. It falls apart, after a weak open no less, at the end. The very end. It reminded me of Outland, the exit is so stupid. It totally invalidates the trials the protagonists went through for two hours. Very disappointing.

The film takes forever to get going–I think it’s about a half hour in before we hear anyone talk besides Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster.

Foster manages to apply his acting skills to what’s either a lame action hero role or a miscast character actor role. He turns it into something special, a self-reflective protagonist. He’s excellent.

Quaid’s good too, especially considering he spends most of his time talking into a radio to Foster.

What’s so nice about Pandorum, which is really just a b sci-fi movie made with modern special effects (in Panavision), is how it manages to actually have a surprise ending. It doesn’t set it up at all, it doesn’t hint at it at all–there’s some diversion going on, but the diversion seems a lot like it’s going to be the surprise ending. It’s great. Then it goes to pot with the exit.

There are some good supporting performances–Antje Traue and Eddie Rouse in particular. The only bad performance is Cam Gigandet, who’s just godawful.

Alvart’s direction is fine, but someone like John Carpenter probably could have done wonders with the script.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Christian Alvart; screenplay by Travis Milloy, based on a story by Milloy and Alvart; director of photography, Wedigo von Schultzendorff; edited by Philipp Stahl and Yvonne Valdez; music by Michl Britsch; production designer, Richard Bridgland; produced by Paul W.S. Anderson, Jeremy Bolt, Robert Kulzer and Martin Moszkowicz; released by Overture Films.

Starring Dennis Quaid (Payton), Ben Foster (Bower), Cam Gigandet (Gallo), Antje Traue (Nadia), Cung Le (Manh), Eddie Rouse (Leland) and Norman Reedus (Shepard).


Phone Booth (2002, Joel Schumacher)

IMDb doesn’t mention it, but I thought one of the problems with getting Phone Booth made (it went through countless potential leading men) was the script and screenwriter Larry Cohen’s contract–i.e. no one could be brought in to make it, you know, good.

The film’s a piece of crap and it’s too bad because some of the acting is amazing. Colin Farrell’s great until he says he’s from the Bronx, then that image falls apart–Cohen’s script, not surprisingly, is set in the seedier 1980s New York, but with some updates for modernity. It’s almost exactly like it would have played out if Cohen had made it himself on a hundred thousand back when he was making his own pictures for theatrical release. I don’t know how many Larry Cohen movies I’ve seen, but all of a sudden, I remembered his schlock when watching Phone Booth.

Schumacher doesn’t bring anything to the picture except mediocre composition and annoying split screen shots. He knows he’s getting a great performance out of Farrell and he lets him run with it. Unfortunately, none of the other principals are any good. They aren’t bad, but it’s the kind of role Forest Whitaker has been playing since The Color of Money, only without the reveal of the hustle. Radha Mitchell and Katie Holmes have both done much, much better work (it’s the atrocious writing).

However, John Enos III gives a spectacular performance in a small role.

At least it runs less than eighty minutes.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Schumacher; written by Larry Cohen; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Mark Stevens; music by Harry Gregson-Williams; production designer, Andrew Laws; produced by Gil Netter and David Zucker; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Colin Farrell (Stu Shepard), Kiefer Sutherland (the Caller), Forest Whitaker (Captain Ramey), Radha Mitchell (Kelly Shepard), Katie Holmes (Pamela McFadden), Paula Jai Parker (Felicia), John Enos III (Leon) and Ben Foster as the Big Q.


The Punisher (2004, Jonathan Hensleigh)

Considering Dolph Lundgren got famous playing a blond Russian and can definitely act better than Kevin Nash, who doesn’t even have any lines and is terrible, it’s telling Jonathan Hensleigh didn’t bring him back for a small role, an acknowledgment of the far superior 1989 Punisher adaptation.

Whereas that film–and to some extent, the one following this effort–tried to be a senselessly violent action revenge movie, Hensleigh’s Punisher tries to rationalize the comic book character, who’s never been conducive to such analysis. The closest is Garth Ennis’s recently concluded terminating work on the character, which acknowledges the unreality and tragedy of being an unstoppable killing machine.

Hensleigh tries to turn Thomas Jane’s Punisher into a sympathetic hero. He fails miserably and, as a result, gives Jane the worst written role in a movie filled with poorly written roles. When John Travolta, all in all, turns in a better performance than Will Patton, it might very be the end of the world as we know it.

Laura Harring is atrocious. Who else… oh, poor Roy Scheider. Why was he in this one?

The best performance is from Rebecca Romijn. Really. She’s actually totally believable as a regular person with real problems. Ben Foster and John Pinette are both good too, as Romijn’s sidekicks.

Hensleigh is a boring director, but not terrible. His wife, Gale Anne Hurd, probably got him the job. She should have brought in a real screenwriter.

Carlo Siliotto’s music, though inappropriate (it’s heroic), is all right.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh; screenplay by Hensleigh and Michael France, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Gerry Conway, John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru; director of photography, Conrad W. Hall; edited by Jeff Gullo and Steven Kemper; music by Carlo Siliotto; production designer, Michael Z. Hanan; produced by Avi Arad and Gale Anne Hurd; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Thomas Jane (Frank Castle), John Travolta (Howard Saint), Will Patton (Quentin Glass), Roy Scheider (Frank Castle Sr.), Laura Harring (Livia Saint), Ben Foster (Dave), Jon Pinette (Mr. Bumpo), Rebecca Romijn (Joan), Samantha Mathis (Maria Castle) and Marcus Johns (Will Castle).


Birds of America (2008, Craig Lucas)

The sub-ninety minute indie film is practically becoming a genre (I’m assuming these short lengths have a lot to do with sales to commercial cable–ninety minutes fits perfectly into a two hour slot on TNT). Birds of America is both a part of this burgeoning genre and the post-Little Miss Sunshine indie dysfunctional family comedy genre. But it isn’t actually funny, which sets it apart. It starts out like it’s going to be funny and the abbreviated opening is one of the big problems.

Matthew Perry is the lead, even narrating the opening (which makes the film sound like a sequel to a sitcom he never made but could have–a teenager has to take care of his eccentric siblings following their parents’ deaths), but he’s absolutely ineffectual for the first fifteen minutes. In a film running, not including the end credits, eighty minutes, fifteen makes a big difference. He’s fine, but he’s not doing anything special. Worse, the supporting cast is more centrally featured in the opening and there isn’t a strong performance among them. Hilary Swank’s got a strange small role as an annoying neighbor, but Swank’s not funny enough with it (Parker Posey would have been much better). She’s nowhere near as bad as the guy playing her husband, Gary Wilmes. Wilmes seems like an infomercial presenter (for what, I can’t imagine), not someone who ought to be acting in a scene with Matthew Perry, even a disinterested Matthew Perry.

As Perry’s wife, Lauren Graham’s annoying. The characters are all poorly defined in the opening and, while Perry gets to come around into a fully drawn person, Graham’s big change is too abrupt. She does better in the end than she does in the beginning, but Elyse Friedman’s script is particularly unkind to her.

When Ben Foster and Ginnifer Goodwin show up as Perry’s siblings and Birds of America forms its trinity, it finally works. It’s not revolutionary–even though Foster and Goodwin have interesting story arcs (Goodwin in particular), Perry’s tenure-obsessed teacher story is lame–but it’s solid. The trio works great together. Foster’s amazing, Goodwin’s excellent and Perry’s subtle but assured transition to leading man makes the opening weakness hard to remember.

Birds of America takes a place in that missing American genre–the family drama. If it weren’t for the recognizable from television faces–not including Foster, who’s got to be the only character actor of his generation–Birds would be almost entirely unassuming. It presents its story straightforwardly and lets it play out for the viewer. Some things work, some things don’t. More work than not. The film’s best when it’s taking place over one night, which cuts the short running time a little slack. But the direction really doesn’t hurt.

Craig Lucas shoots Super 35, but his widescreen composition is one of the best I’ve seen for that medium (maybe even since Mann and Manhunter). Lucas is in love with the frame and since most of Birds takes place indoors–being that family drama–he composes some fantastic shots.

Birds of America isn’t any kind of singular film event, but it’s a solid picture in an era without many solid pictures.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Craig Lucas; written by Elyse Friedman; director of photography, Yaron Orbach; edited by Eric Kissack; music by Ahrin Mishan; production designer, John Nyomarkay; produced by Jana Edelbaum, Galt Niederhoffer, Celine Rattray and Daniela Lundberg Taplin; released by First Look Studios.

Starring Matthew Perry (Morrie), Ginnifer Goodwin (Ida), Ben Foster (Jay), Lauren Graham (Betty Tanager), Gary Wilmes (Paul), Daniel Eric Gold (Gary), Zoë Kravitz (Gillian) and Hilary Swank (Laura).


30 Days of Night (2007, David Slade)

30 Days of Night is a fine example of bad writing hurting a good idea, which is what I heard about the comic book source too–vampires in Alaska with no sun, Dracula versus Northern Exposure, sounds like a good idea. But it’s just an idea, it’s not a two hour movie. There are some other basic writing problems–poor dialogue and an utter lack of back-story. It doesn’t make it difficult to sympathize with the characters’ plight (the nasty vampires do that one pretty well), but it does make it impossible for 30 Days to even approach a full experience. The simplest example is the absence of any explanation to why the characters are in the place they are in–the most isolation settlement in Alaska.

The actors take the most significant hits from the screenplay, Hartnett in particular. His character literally needs no more back-story than a reference to high school athletics (and where’s the high school in this town… couldn’t they have hidden in the high school? Or any school…) to be acceptable as the stoic lawman. In terms of his martial distress with Melissa George a lot more work is needed to make it good, but it doesn’t even have to be good, it just has to work. George is incredibly ineffectual in her role and I spent her first five minutes on screen recasting her role, then lost interest because she disappears. Mark Boone Junior probably comes out best.

The other big problem is the pacing. The first half hour or more takes place the first day, then it skips to the seventh, then to the seventieth, then to the twenty-ninth. It just isn’t believable, because there’s never any shots of the survivors surviving in the non-setpiece moments and because there’s not enough for the vampires to do when they aren’t attacking the survivors… I mean, I’d buy it if Danny Huston’s lead vampire (the vampires in 30 Days speak some variation of Klingon, which is real silly) sat and read poetry to his leading vampire lady… but they just go on pause.

But this post actually isn’t negative–it’s positive. David Slade’s a great director and he really works with the CG elements (mostly scenery) and the isolation. He also knows how to shoot actors (just doesn’t know how to hire writers–or a composer, the music is terrible) and action scenes and quiet scenes and make the whole thing a lot more palatable than the script deserves.

Oh, and Ben Foster. Foster chews scenery better than any actor in a generation, playing the film’s Renfield, in a performance Dwight Frye would admire. Foster only creates a performance here, not a character, which shouldn’t be a problem… if he were the only one….

Maybe Slade should have brought in the “Northern Exposure” writing staff to do the non-vampire stuff. They might have made the Alaskan setting a little more believable (the New Zealanders and Australians in the cast locking down American accents would have helped too).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by David Slade; written by Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson, based on the comic book by Niles and Ben Templesmith; director of photography, Jo Willems; edited by Art Jones; music by Brian Reitzell; production designer, Paul Denham Austerberry; produced by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Josh Hartnett (Eben Olesen), Melissa George (Stella Olesen), Danny Huston (Marlow), Ben Foster (The Stranger), Mark Boone Junior (Beau Brower), Mark Rendall (Jake Oleson), Amber Sainsbury (Denise) and Manu Bennett (Billy Kitka).


Hostage (2005, Florent Emilio Siri)

Hostage, towards the end, plays a little like a Die Hard movie, which isn’t surprising, since Doug Richardson did write it (he also wrote Die Hard 2) and Willis, who’s good in Hostage, is usually best in… well, Die Hard movies, actually. Like those films, Hostage lets him emote and he does a good job with it. When he’s doing the sly, wink-wink Bruce Willis, which he only does two or three times in Hostage, he’s irritating. But this film does contain one of his better recent performances.

I saw the film for director Siri and from that aspect, it was a little disappointing. There are some great shots, but Hostage‘s story constraints (hostage situation in a mountain house) don’t really allow for much. The scenes when the story’s away from the hostage situation, especially at the beginning, are much better. The house scenes are all nice and fine, but they aren’t interesting, much less dynamic.

The film attempts to complicate a hostage situation with a couple quirks–first, Willis is a burnt-out hostage negotiator turned small town police chief and second, the hostage is a mob accountant so the mob takes Willis’s family hostage. Obviously, the latter is going to affect the story a great deal, but Willis’s traumatic experience, shown in the opening, has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film, or even his character. He could have just given up on L.A. because the small town has good fishing and it wouldn’t have made a difference. The problem with the second situation–which makes it feel like that Die Hard sequel–is Serena Scott Thomas, who plays Willis’s wife. She’s so inept, it’s impossible to feel any empathy for her. The rest of the cast is fine. Ben Foster’s great as a psychopath, even if the role is a little undercooked, writing-wise. Of all the people in the film, he’s the one who gets the most to do and he takes advantage of that situation.

As far as mediocre, harmless Bruce Willis thrillers (that lost 1990s genre) go–Hostage is a fine return to form. Its greatest fault is when, scene-to-scene, there’s some potential and then the film doesn’t follow through. Usually, all that potential’s from Siri, but there are some really nice character relationships in the thing, and the finite story-time–maybe ten hours–don’t let them resolve. But, still, it’s harmless, even if the opening credits are an unbelievably stylized eyesore.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Florent Emilio Siri; written by Doug Richardson, based on the novel by Robert Crais; director of photography, Giovanni Fiore Coltellacci; edited by Olivier Gajan and Richard J.P. Byard; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Larry Fulton; produced by Bruce Willis, Arnold Rifkin, Mark Gordon and Bob Yari; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Bruce Willis (Jeff Talley), Kevin Pollak (Walter Smith), Ben Foster (Mars Krupcheck), Michelle Horn (Jennifer Smith), Jimmy Bennett (Tommy Smith), Jonathan Tucker (Dennis Kelly), Marshall Allman (Kevin Kelly), Serena Scott Thomas (Jane Talley), Kim Coates (The Watchman) and Rumer Willis (Amanda Talley).


Scroll to Top