Out of the Furnace

ImageOut of the Furnace poses a rather critical conundrum.  On one hand, the film’s gritty exploration of one man’s quest for justice is finely acted, but on the other hand, it is substantially conventional. 

Director Scott Cooper follows up his enormously successful 2009 film Crazy Heart with Out of the Furnace.  In it, steel mill worker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works in order to take care of his terminally ill father while his Iraq-War veteran brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) tries to find a way to adapt to life back at home.  On the surface, it is a film about fathers, sons, and brothers.  However, Cooper opens his film with an alarmingly tense and violent scene at a drive-in movie theater that includes neither of the film’s two main characters.  This scene sets the tone for the film as well as attempts to set the stage for its ambition.  Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace can not quite maintain its balance between narrative and ambition.

The ambition angle aims to document and test the two brothers as life locks them in a metaphorical “furnace.”  Russell spends several years in prison for a drunk driving accident and Rodney begins a downward spiral after the war that leads him to an underground fight-ring headed up by a ruthless kingpin, DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, in his most frightening role in years).  When Rodney suddenly disappears, Russell takes matters into his own hands and goes on a manhunt.  This is when Out of the Furnace ends up stepping on the heels of a film released earlier this year, Prisoners.  Both films want the audience in a “what would you do?” type of scenario, but Prisoners executes it much better.  Both films even have a deer hunting motif!

Out of the Furnace is clunky structurally and it is heavy handed in its treatment of flawed characters who “just want to do the right thing.”  However, the film did attract big, big stars who all came to play.  Affleck and Bale turn out career performances, and the supporting players include Willem DaFoe, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and the aforementioned Harrelson who are all quite compelling as well.     

Out of the Furnace is all guts and not much glory.  The film desires to resonate with the audience, but I was left feeling unsatisfied and disappointed.  I appreciate great performances, but they are rarely enough to carry a film on their own merits.  C

Out of the Furnace is rated R, and has a running time of one hour and 46 minutes.  I say see Prisoners instead.

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Ender’s Game

ImageThe People’s Critic is back!  Some excellent and major life changes had forced me to put the site on a brief hiatus, but nothing will keep me away from the “critically” important task of telling all of you what I think about recent films!  So let’s get on with the show…

Let me get this out of the way, I have not read Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel, Ender’s Game.   This review does not reflect quality of adaptation but merely the merit of the film as it stands independent from the book.  That being said, Ender’s Game is intriguing enough and perhaps marks the start of a potentially strong franchise.

Regardless of how you feel about Ender’s Game, it is nice to see Harrison Ford in space again.  Ford plays Colonel Hyrum Graff, a likely pun on the word “gruff” as his characters is certainly that.  Following the common tradition involving child protagonists, this is a film about the future.  Graff and his International Military seek out and train only the most promising children in his Battle School because only children have the potential to master the intricate “war games” necessary to protect Earth from a looming threat from an alien race known as the Formics.  The Formics nearly triumphed over the humans once before and every child grows up learning the story of Mazer Rackham, who sacrificed his life to destroy the mothership.  Now, the humans are preparing to take the offensive and eliminate the Formics forever.  Graff finds his golden child in the form of Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield), an introverted yet brilliant young recruit.

Sacrifice is a pervasive theme in the film and it is dealt with in a very provocative way.  The title itself plays the title character’s surname within the colloquial term “End Game,” which suggests the notion of performing actions for the supposed greater good.  Thus, there is always a looming sense of distrust and darkness regarding the motives of Graff and his school.  Graff’s methods are harsh and borderline abusive.  However, this does keep the audience guessing and on edge throughout the perpetual “hazing” of Ender as he single handedly rises through the ranks despite tremendous adversity from his fellow recruits and superiors.

Ender’s Game is a surprisingly bleak and dark look at humanity, but so it is with most good science fiction.  The main hurdle that the film struggles with is its unevenness in developing Ender’s time in Battle School and his relations with family and life on Earth.  The film makes a habit of glossing over details that could have made the film more character driven.  Instead, screenwriter/director Gavin Hood chooses to downplay characterization and simply toss archetypes into moral ambiguity with clever special effects, especially some of the “war game” scenes.  Nonetheless, the moral ambiguity that he does emphasize is palpable and the film’s premise is fascinating at times.

Overall, Ender’s Game is a mixed bag.  It is dark and an interesting concept, but it wants to keep at least one foot in lighter territory in the hopes of appealing to a young audience.  The novel’s fan-base has been young-adult oriented – yet the novel debuted in 1985, resulting in a potentially wide audience appeal.  However, the film’s identity crisis does feel obvious and blunts the film’s overall impact.  This is certainly not a bad movie, and science fiction fans and fans of the book have a very worthy film to watch.  C+

Ender’s Game is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes. 

The To Do List

ImageThe easy comparison is that The To Do List is “American Pie in the female voice.”  In a nutshell that’s pretty much it, but writer/director Maggie Carey is cognizant of the likely association to the 1999 raunch-fest and offers enough deviations to keep it original…enough. 

Aubrey Plaza makes her feature lead actress debut as 1993 valedictorian Brandy Klark who is looking to spend her summer before college shedding her bookish persona for one who is on a sexual agenda.  This “agenda” is the driving force for the film as Brandy chooses to transfer her obsessive determination towards schoolwork to checking off items on an expansive list of sexual acts culminating in actual intercourse with hot college guy, Rusty Waters (Scott Porter). 

Brandy’s summer job as lifeguard at the local pool where Rusty works allows her to stay close to the man of her list as well as allow for the addition of a number of funny supporting roles from familiar faces like Bill Hader, Donald Glover, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Andy Samberg.  Brandy’s decision to go on a sexual quest is also propelled by her being a virgin surrounded by more experienced friends and a sexpot sister (Rachel Bilson).  The “list” element is very funny and the film is at its best when it is being outrageous (the freeze frames are hilarious).  Furthermore, the 1993 Boise, Idaho setting creates some excellent opportunities for some great Midwestern 90s gags.  Writer/Director Carey purposefully cites and references some classically shocking cinematic films in order to proclaim the company she hopes this film will keep: American Pie, Caddyshack, and Pink Flamingos to name a few.

I’m not yet a parent, and I don’t consider myself old or closed-minded, but I can’t help but sense a real shallowness in Brandy’s endeavor.  A bright girl victimized by peer pressure with a moral that sex is just sex is hard to get behind, even for a self-proclaimed outrageous comedy. The film’s issues lie in its oddly cold and indifferent attitude towards sex, love, and humanity in general.  These decisions seem to be made in order to distance the film from some of its predecessors, but the film’s final act is far from romantic and actually, rather ugly.   

The To Do List has some great comedic moments and Plaza is pretty fearless in her performance.  The film does accomplish some enjoyable outrageousness and reveals the budding talent of Maggie Carey as new voice in the envelope pushing comedy.  However, the tone is as awkward as its protagonist and actually goes as far as to present some very judgmental views towards making good and reasonable choices.  C+

The To Do List is rated R (obviously) and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes.  Comedy is hard, and the film is moderately successful, but it is not a must see.  Expect The To Do List to gather its audience as a DVD commonly found at sleepover parties.  Also, it appears this film sat on the shelf for a little while since its actors are noticeably younger.  Look out for an infantile Nolan Gould (who plays Luke on Modern Family).

Safe Haven

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“There is more than one way to skin a cat” has got to be humorously posted on a some wall somewhere within the offices of Nicholas Sparks Productions.  The latest proof of this has arrived in the form of Safe Haven

In Safe Haven, Katie (Julianne Hough) is introduced frantically attempting to escape being chased down by a Boston Police Officer (David Lyons).  The mystery of the film revolves around why this chase is taking place, but of course the point of this film revolves around her somehow ending up in North Carolina with a handsome man.  “Write about where you know” has got to be humorously posted on some wall in Nicholas Sparks’s North Carolina home.    

Katie does end up in the aforementioned state in the tiny town of Sea Port.  Sea Port offers all of the necessities for Sparks to work his magic: quiet streams for canoeing, beaches with virtually no one around, general stores, rusticity, no technology, one big event (that apparently draws over 100,000 people in for a day), and a laissez faire attitude.  Predictability ensues, but not to an offensive degree. 

This is the eighth Sparks novel to get the cinematic treatment, but it may as well be the eightieth.  It rarely rises above standard TV movie production quality and offers nothing unexpected to the viewers.  What it can cash in on is the likability and chemistry between its main co-stars Julianne Hough and Josh Duhamel.  I suspect that this is the main reason the film got green-lit at all.  An attempt, albeit a failed one, at adding some edge accomplishes little more than The Lucky One was able to accomplish last year.  What is surprising is that the novel does have some edgy back-story, but director Lasse Hallström and screenwriter Dana Stevens chose to downplay, simplify, and blatantly avoid these opportunities preventing this film from elevating itself above the standard warmed over genre-film that it became.  Formulas exist because they provide the framework for pleasing an audience, but unfortunately they grow tremendously stale and unsatisfying if they are not tweaked and modified from time to time.  This is a lazy movie from start to finish, and it is an apparent Valentine’s Day cash-grab at a movie hungry audience looking for a romantic film during a barren movie season.  Like most films that receive reviews like this, it will be very comforting to those who go in knowing what to expect and unappealing to everyone else.  How do you grade a film like this?  Skin the off the cat.

Mama

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Mama (an excuse to critically discuss horror)

The horror genre has an unusual history in the cinematic world. Unlike traditional genres like comedy and drama, horror films seem aimed at a slightly more specialized market. And yet, with this specialized market, one would expect more diversity in the content, but history has revealed that this is not the case. Studios that release horror films seem to pray on popular cultural fads and then, most likely due to inexpensive production costs, let loose clone after clone after clone until these films eventually become less lucrative. Take a look at how many films follow this storyline: a mother notices some strange behavior in her child or around the house. She tells her husband, but her pleas fall on deaf ears; she must simply be imagining the pots and pans all stacking themselves all over the kitchen. Eventually, the husband witnesses something he can’t explain and (hesitantly) agrees to contact an expert or specialist in strange behavior who is found on the Internet. Chaos ensues. The expert dies trying to help, one or more friends of the protagonist become victims, and it ends right where it started with a tiny difference that ties everything together. This form of formulaic market saturation as a business model may keep the genre alive, but it has also lessened its reputation. There’s no doubt that horror films have the potential to affect an audience more than any other type of film since audience reaction is basically the watermark for success (consider those film trailers that do not show clips of the film, but rather show a packed, darkened theater of people wildly reacting to some outrageously scary moment).

Now, I am actually a horror fan and will concede that some of the greatest films are horror films (The Sixth Sense, The Exorcist, Frailty – look it up-, Jaws). However, the worst film of nearly every year is also a horror film (intentionally or unintentionally). Consequently, I am always wary of cinema that resists progress to idly make money off of spent franchises that are too cheap, production-wise, to give up. They make you want to cry for your…

Mama is the latest demented fable loosely attached to Guillermo del Toro, regardless of the relentless name dropping that advertisements display. Del Toro did produce, but his influence ends there, and thus, Mama is not Pan’s Labyrinth. Mama begins with a catastrophic series of events that result in two young girls being abandoned in a strange cottage in the woods where they will live for five years before being discovered. Exposition sweeps us through a bizarrely simplified adoption process where the girls’ uncle, Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is permitted to raise the girls in a state funded research house in order for the girls to be continuously observed by a psychologist. At this point, most of the stereotypical formula laid out previously proceeds.

Mama is written and directed by Andres Muschietti who bases it off of his own short film, also called Mama. Fundamentally, the story is not incredibly strong, and leaves the viewer with some noteworthy qualms, but Muschietti clearly understands where the few strengths of his story exist and manages to create a couple good scares. Additionally, he adds some fresh complexity to the film by writing Lucas’s girlfriend, Annabel (Jessica Chastain), as a bass guitarist in a punk band who is apprehensive about having children and settling into a housewife role, but suddenly finds herself doing both. Muschietti also makes another honorable choice in that he tells a ghost story where the revelation of the ghost itself is not the object of the film. He, instead, introduces the ghost early and uses it as his chief form of tension building; that and the kids. The kids are creepy.

Mama is what it is. It raises no bars, but it holds a reasonably heavy one somewhat steadily in place. Expect the upcoming months to offer at least four more “clones” of this film as this fad works its way out. Then it should be smooth sailing… until it all starts over again in September. C

The Master

ImageTwo things can be said with certainty about Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master. First, Anderson definitely knows his way around a camera; second, Joaquin Phoenix emphatically knows his way around appearing ‘disturbed.’ Both of these elements are used to their absolute potential in order to challenge and entice the audience to look a little closer at this film than, perhaps, Anderson has asked in the past.

The Master is Anderson’s sixth stop on his cinematic journey through American culture and it may be his most polarizing one to date. Director, Anderson has mesmerized audiences with triumphantly engaging dissections of American culture in films like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and of course 2007’s There Will Be Blood. The Master returns Anderson to his role as writer along with being director after his singular exception, adapting Upton Sinclair’s Oil! into There Will Be Blood. This time Anderson takes an isolated and cold look at specific segment of post-World War II 1950s America. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a Naval veteran who struggles with alcoholism, anger issues, and repressed memories of a troubled upbringing which partially manifest in unhealthy sexual obsessions. After the war, Quell finds himself in a series of odd-jobs that he is in no way suited for, including one that results in his being chased off after one of his “home-made” alcoholic concoctions seemingly brings about the death, or near death, of one of his co-workers. It is here that Quell finds himself a stow-away on a yacht commanded by a charming, yet nefarious character by the name of Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who stars in four of Anderson’s six films). Dodd is at sea to officiate and celebrate the wedding of his daughter, but upon the discovery of Quell his interests turn to him and his story. Dodd’s compassion for Quell unveils to reveal his role as leader of a cultest group known as The Cause. Dodd uses his wit, intellect, and charm to pray on the affluent, which in turn results in additional wealth, appreciation, and power for him and his group. He is quick to accept compliments, but resorts to shouting down and conceivably condoning violence against his critics. Quell, who has been wrestling with his uncertain future, is easily drawn in by their hypnotizing appeal.

What follows is a slow-burn of a drama that gains all of its leisurely paced momentum from the conflicts that arise between Quell and Dodd. It is also a challenging film for the viewer. It is a cinematic puzzle on par with enigmatic films like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in 2011. We are forced to pay close attention as we constantly question a look, a question, or an action in an ongoing battle to understand these characters’ true motivations. A follow-up to There Will Be Blood, it is hard to ignore the similarities between Blood’s Daniel Plainview and Master’s Lancaster Dodd; the names are iconically memorable for starters. Furthermore, Dodd’s methodical and meticulous effort to distort and corrupt the psyche of Quell in order to vindicate or authenticate himself certainly rings a bell.

The Master is not an easy film to understand, nor is it an easy film to watch given its 140 minute running time. What it is, is a beautifully acted and orchestrated character analysis filmed on 65 mm film stock. Anderson takes endless risks here and while the film drags, his criticisms on some of the supposed motivations of those who promise answers, faith, or comfort do stay with you after the credits role. C+

Celeste and Jessie Forever

ImageIt seems like you can boil romantic comedies down into two distinct categories. First, there is the wildly exaggerated and romantically super-charged type (The Proposal, The Wedding Planner, He’s Just not that in to You). Then, there is the down-to-earth, subtle, more realistic type (When Harry Met Sally, Annie Hall, Love Actually). Both of these styles of “Rom-Com” can be tremendously successful or abysmally awful. Celeste and Jesse Forever can be described as a decent stab at the second type or a failure at the first.

Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg play Celeste and Jesse, a cute, happy, seemingly perfect couple with one surprising blemish, they are about to be divorced. The reason for their decision to separate remains somewhat unclear as we are introduced to them six months into their post-separation, pre-divorce limbo period. It seems Celeste is convinced that Jessie, while a great guy, lacks any form of motivation to be the husband she feels she deserves. This ambiguity about why they are breaking up allows the film to explore the minds of the characters as they struggle with the decision to either try again or be the first to move on. Both are determined to not hurt each other, but find that this is impossible as they exist in this touchy gray area of their relationship.

Writer and star, Rashida Jones deserves some credit for attempting to breathe life into a genre that has been, for the most part, rather weak as of late. Celeste and Jessie works pretty well when we are following the couple’s lives as they try to understand if and/or how they are supposed to love each other; these scenes are clever, cute, funny, and emotionally dramatic at times. That strength is tossed away when the film shifts focus towards Celeste’s silly rivalry with Riley Banks (Emma Roberts), a Ke$ha-like pop star at her media consulting firm. It is here that Celeste and Jessie Forever tries to tip-toe unsuccessfully into the other sillier type of romantic comedy with clichés abound like the gay friend, going on bad dates, and the perfect guy who’s right under her nose. Unfortunately, all this transition does is make the audience feel a bit manipulated and uneasy. In the end, Celeste and Jessie Forever feels a bit uneven. The film does make us care about these characters and there is a resolution that is somewhat satisfying. Emma Roberts’ vapid Riley Banks mentions in the film, “It’s about being who you are…unless who you are sucks.” Celeste and Jessie tries so hard not to suck that it loses what it could have been. C+