Out of the Furnace
Given the cast, I had some high expectations (how many times have I said that?) for Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart follow-up, Out of the Furnace. It’s a shame that it’s an overwrought bit of melodrama with some fine moments spread throughout.
There is great acting in Out of the Furnace. Woody Harrelson as Harlan DeGroat is the best mainstream nightmare villain since Bardem’s turn in No Country For Old Man; Christian Bale is great as always as the lead, Russell Baze, a blue-collar mill worker out for revenge. There’s some weird acting moments in here: I’m a Forrest Whitaker fan, but what accent is he doing? I’m a big Casey Affleck fan, and he’s really good as Russell’s younger brother, Rodney, but Bale and Affleck have no chemistry together.
The worst part about Furnace are the series of events that befall Russell prior to the third act. I get it: the point is to put so much pressure on the character that his final, violent turn is somewhat justified, but some scenes – including, particularly, an unintentionally hilarious pregnancy announcement – are just unnecessary and don’t fit the otherwise grimy mood.
The third act of Furnace is the best. Things pick up pace. Russell starts doing things rather than just whining to his brother. Harrelson – who steals every moment he’s on-screen for – shows some real range in the final 15 minutes. But the ending – the final few shots, in fact – aren’t satisfying. Without spoiling the conclusion, the movie quickly moves from an attempted soulful meditation on violence, to untethered, unchecked violence. An ambiguous ending shot does little to help that, and feels tacked on.
I liked the last 30 minutes of the film, but I wish there had been serious script changes: lose the whole bit about the “old mill”; lose the prison sequence – in fact, since the guilt is never followed-up on, lose prison altogether; move the inciting incident up about 25 minutes; cut down your overall cast of characters so Russell’s journey is better-focused; and for the love of god, someone lose that pregnancy scene!
Cutie and the Boxer (Heinzerling, 2013)
A contender for best documentary at this year’s Academy Awards, Zachary Heinzerling’s intimate, funny, and melancholy portrait of husband and wife artist team Usio Shinohara and Noriko is really very moving. It doesn’t pack the bite of my pick, The Act of Killing, but it’s a really well-crafted insight into aging, art, and relationships. While it features some beautiful painting, drawing, and animation, the real highlight of Heinzerling’s film is Noriko, whose honesty, artistry, and nostalgia could make for an hour long talking-head doc.
Dallas Buyers Club (Vallee, 2013)
Count director Jean-Marc Vallee alongside Denis Villeneuve as making the successful French-Candian to Hollywood transition. Dallas Buyers Club is beautifully acted and moves with some serious life – ironic given the death that hovers all around it. Vallee, who I know from C.R.A.Z.Y. seems to really love 70s soundtracks and slick transitions that feel natural. Father-son relationships also permeate both films.
The best part of Dallas, in addition, of course, to Matthew McConaughy’s awesome performance as AIDS patient Ron Woodroof, is the attention paid to side characters, including his business partner Rayon (a great turn by Jared Leto), his friend (brother?) Tucker (a great turn by Steve Zahn), and his former friend T.J. (a great turn by Kevin Rankin). It’s a hard thing to do: juggle that many characters and make them at least somewhat multi-faceted, and Vallee’s film really succeeds that way.
Philomena (Frears, 2013)
Ultimately, I’m neither here nor there with Philomena. It’s a well-written script, and I like Steve Coogan, but it’s just not a style or narrative that I’m too interested in. What I absolutely love about the film is Judi Dench as the title character. She’s magnetic and flawless. She should be getting more consideration and hype in the Oscar race. Yeah, Blanchett was incredible – as always – in Blue Jasmine, but Dench’s performance is subtler and just as great.
The script also has plenty of moments that appear on the verge of hitting a cliche or stereotype and then suddenly, and logically, take a left turn and avoid it, including a gay character, and an “evil reporter must make his subject do something he doesn’t really want to do” moment.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lawrence, 2013)
I’ve never read The Hunger Games, so this is a film-only paragraph. The first film was entertaining, but damn, do we really need that much rapid cutting and handheld camera? It also really suffered from killing off characters that I care nothing at all about (see: Rue).
The second one feels much cleaner. Director Francis Lawrence slows things down a little. It’s not boring, it’s that more time is spent with each individual scenario. There’s actually tension in this one…and there’s really absolutely no tension in the first one. Maybe this is a function of the adaptations, I don’t know.
The penultimate scene of Catching Fire actually features a few moments where the outcome is unclear! That’s something any suspense film should aspire to. I’m also pretty impressed with Josh Hutcherson’s acting. His character is a little bland and he could really use more screentime and fewer pouty looks, but Hutcherson manages to pull it off believably. And I love Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson in here.