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Oculus is a sloppy horror movie about a possessed mirror and the
vengeance that a grown woman, whose family was destroyed by the mirror
when she was a girl, attempts to wreak upon it. There are a couple of
shock moments - not shocking, just shock - but for the most part the
plot is weak, overly murky, and aimless.
This is much more of a comedy than a scary movie, if the screening audience was any indication. Boy, you never heard such laughter. True, there was some gasps from time to time, but truth be told, those scenes were predicated on the audience's not knowing that something might happen when a camera pans slowly around a room or focuses tightly on our heroine's face.
For the story, it seems that 11 years ago something dreadful happened in the Russell family. Our first encounter is with the grown Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who's being released from a mental hospital. Seems that Tim was blamed for whatever happened so long ago and has been institutionalized ever since. He's met outside the hospital by his older sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan). Kaylie wants to help her brother adjust to life on the outside, but first she has a favor to ask, and it involves helping her (or them) overcome their demons once and for all.
The movie jumps back and forth in time, sometimes a little too seamlessly. As things unfold, we're able to piece together what happen - or at least how Kaylie and Tim remember it. It all has to do with an old, old mirror that their father had purchased for their new home. In the present, Kaylie has gone to the trouble of finding a buyer for it at auction and then offers to fix a crack in the mirror (this makes sense in the movie). Instead, she hauls it to the old family house, where she plans to prove - to herself, to the world - that the mirror is evil and that it's to blame for the deaths of Tim and Kaylie's parents.
Kaylie, to my mind, seems unhinged right from the start. She pays cursory attention to Tim's adjustment period, focusing on the mirror instead. She sets up an elaborate system involving the use of multiple cameras, the presentation of historical evidence of the mirror's effect on (some of) its previous owners, the monitoring of the temperature in the house, the health of the plants in the house, and so on. She also employs several egg timers to indicate when she needs to hydrate and eat, when she needs to change the videotapes, and when she needs to reset the kill switch. The kill switch here is a large descending weight that launches a swinging blade directly at the mirror. So Kaylie's put some thought into this, is what I'm getting at.
But the movie spends far too much time trying to persuade the audience that Kaylie's right, rather than just presenting her evidence and then moving on. The movie's practically a third over by the time scary stuff really starts to happen. And because there's so much flitting between time frames (often in the same scene), with perception itself becoming more and more muddled, that it's at times tough to discern if what appears to be happening to the characters is actually happening. There were far too many times when I just wasn't sure if the whole mess was all in Kaylie's head, and that kind of uncertainty made the movie hard to enjoy on that level.
I would have liked if the slow pace near the beginning moved quickly into creative, fast-paced horror action; instead, there was a lot of talking (mostly between Kaylie and a disbelieving Tim) punctuated by intermittent pieces of propelled plot. On the more positive note, both Gillan and Thwaites are good, as is Rory Cochrane as their father.
The denouement kind of fizzles. It's the kind that's supposed to come out of nowhere and startle you something fierce, but all I felt was sweet relief that the end was nigh. The ending just feels like a cheat, or maybe a cheap toupee slapped over a shaved weasel with digestive problems. And although that may not be a particularly coherent analogy, it still seems quite appropriate for this movie.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is appropriately quirky, farcical drama
featuring near-flawless casting and superior direction and
cinematography. The year may be young, but Wes Anderson's film is one
of my favorites so far.
A young writer (Jude Law), staying at the titular hotel, chances to encounter the establishment's elderly owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who relates the tale of how he came to own the place "between the wars" in the mythical eastern European country of Zubrowka.
Zero began his career as a lobby boy in the hotel, under the mentorship of the hotel's legendary concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave knows his eccentric, rich guests very well, particularly the elderly female ones. One such guest is Madame D (Tilda Swinton), with whom Gustave has an occasional fling. She is due to leave the hotel and return home, but she's anxious, feeling that someone is conspiring around her. She fears she won't see Gustave again.
Well, it's not long before Madame D turns up dead, and Gustave (with Zero) rushes to her wake, only to find himself at the reading of the will. It will surprise few people that the only item of value in Madame D's large estate has been bequeathed to Gustave - a painting called Boy with Apple. But the inheritance is quickly challenged by the deceased's son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who's a plain mean and profane jerk. And then, as the trailer indicates, Gustave and the loyal Zero abscond with the painting anyway and hide it; Gustave is arrested and jailed.
The movie is brimming with spot-on performances. Bill Murray, Fisher Stevens, and Bob Balaban have small roles as fellow concierges. Jason Schwartzmann is a present-day lobby boy. Owen Wilson is Gustave's immediate replacement as concierge. Harvey Keitel is a tough inmate. Willem Dafoe is a ruthless hit-man in Dmitri's employ. Most have worked in Wes Anderson films before, and all work very well together.
I've seen a few Wes Anderson movies, and I think this one most closely resembles Moonrise Kingdom in terms of its whimsical tone. In fact, it may even bear some relation to the Coen Brothers masterpieces O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Raising Arizona - black comedies whose success depends so much on their actors' ability to really sell deadpan humor in an otherwise-serious context. Fiennes, who's not known for his comedies, is superb as the gentlemanly Gustave, and he drives the movie with equal parts British reservedness and explosive irritation - but always with the utmost in manners. The movie is also beautifully shot, but frequent Anderson collaborator Robert D. Yeoman. From the stylish structure of the hotel to the stark desolation of the Alps, the film has a delightfully distinct look to it, par for the course for Anderson films.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier turns out to be about some guy
named The Winter Soldier, rather than Cap himself being a winter
soldier (you know, because he was in deep freeze). Well, with that
mystery solved, I settled in to watch what has become a rather typical
comic-book movie: intelligent, evocative, thrilling, and entertaining.
Here's your quick-and-dirty summary to set the scene; comic-book nerds out there, please correct me if I'm wrong, because that'll prove someone's reading this other than me. The movie takes place after the events in The Avengers. Captain America (Chris Evans) is trying to assimilate into the present day, and he leads an elite forces team. In the opening scenes, his team, aided by Black Widow (Scarlet Johanson), infiltrate a SHIELD boat that's been commandeered by terrorists who have a beef with SHIELD. Cap and the Gang roust out the bad guys, but Cap is somewhat surprised to see Black Widow grabbing info from hard drives. He's soon briefed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that SHIELD is involved in a huge defense program called Project Insight: three enormous helicarriers that are linked to spy satellites, the better to knock out threats before they happen. Shades of Minority Report.
Fury has joined forces with the World Security Council and its leader, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) for this enterprise, and true to comic trope, there's soon skulduggery afoot. It's not hard to see who's treacherous and who's not, but that's part of the fun of these movies, anyway. As a result of the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere, Captain America and Black Widow, along with new superhero Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who sports an exoskeleton with wings and weaponry.
The movie forces Steve Rogers, aka Cap, to face parts of his past that he might be better off leaving alone. His girl from back in the 1940s, Peggy Carter, is convalescing in a home for retired people, Steve's apparently last living link to that past. But Steve's straight-arrow, black-and-white moral compass seems oddly out of sync with the gray areas of the present, which makes Black Widow a great match for him. You know, opposites and all of that.
This is a movie in which secrets upon secrets are revealed, like layers of an onion and often just as odorous. Anyway, although it's not tough for Cap and Black Widow to determine who the bad guys are, stopping said villains is another problem altogether. This leads to several fantastic action scenes, very well choreographed and a treat to watch - even in 2D, or perhaps especially in 2D.
I sat, by necessity, in the second row for this movie, which meant that my head was inclined as if I were talking to a giraffe with an overactive pituitary gland. It also meant that I needed to focus harder on the action before me, because at that distance the illusion of the celluloid tale can more easily be broken. This movie captivated me throughout, pardon the pun, and it's a terrific vehicle for both Captain America and Black Widow, not to mention the slippery Nick Fury himself.
I did wonder, as the plot centers around something that could endanger the entire world, where was the rest of the Avengers squad? Tony Stark is mentioned once (but not Iron Man), and we see a portrait of his father, but that's it for connections to The Hulk, Thor, Hawkeye, and Iron Man. If the world's about to be harmed, you'd think that would rise to the importance level of those guys, right? Okay, that's nitpicking.
It's true that the movie's plot is familiar and that many of the characters, being based on comic-book characters themselves, lack real depth. But these problems are minor, because the action scenes - hey, this is a comic-book movie, not some weepy melodrama! - is so exhilarating. Great care has been taken to curate the Marvel Universe in cinematic form, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not only a fine standalone picture but also a elegant lead for the next Avengers movie - not to mention future Captain America movies. Watch those end credits!
Released ten years before man actually landed on the Moon and during
the height of the race to the stars between Russia and the United
States, First Man into Space is oddly deficient in actual science. No,
it's not very good, but it's okay for a few unintentional laughs.
Simple plot runs like this: cocky ace test pilot Dan Prescott (Bill Edwards) is on a mission to fly an experimental plane/rocket (it's kind of both) up, up, and away, higher than anyone's gone before, and then come back down, nice and easy. But our Dan, he's a daredevil! So he goes higher and higher, trying to become the first man to go into space. Not the first IN space, just into it. I know, it's sketchy. Anyway, he does come back down, sasses his superior his brother Charlie (Marshall Thompson) and is immediately assigned to pilot the next plane, to go even higher.
Which he does, only instead of making his turn and heading back Earthward, Daring Dan goes higher and higher, and this time his craft, bombarded by meteorites (I know, I know) and the ever-popular cosmic rays, is smashed open. Dan and the ship crashland. And then the killings start, and no one can find ol' Dan's body.
As the picture hints, there may be some kind of ugly monster involved. I don't want to give away the twisty plot, but oh, who am I kidding, there is no twisty plot. Dan's survived his crash, only he's now covered in some sort of protective layer of cosmic whatever. Seems that when his ship broke apart, this stuff coalesced on Dan's mortal human body in order to protect him from those nasty cosmic rays. (Doesn't explain how he could breathe when there was no air to be breathed, but perhaps they were SUPER COSMIC RAYS, now with added Oxygen!)
Anyway, it's a funny movie.
I saw Mud last night. Yes, I know I'm a couple years late. But what a
terrific movie. Not a false note in it. It's compelling, original, and
full of heart.
Two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, go looking for a boat that's found its way to the top of a pine tree on an island in the Mississippi River. They find the boat, all right, but it seems that living in that very boat is a scraggly looking man (Matthew McConaughey) who introduces himself as Mud. Mud is waiting for someone, he tells the boys, his beloved girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The boys agree to help and to tell no one of MUD's residence on the island.
But there's more to the story than meets the eye. Yes, Juniper exists, but the relationship that she and Mud have (and have had) is not all peaches and cream. And there are folks out for Mud's blood, pardon the phrasing. Still, the man is persuasive, particularly for a couple of teenagers from the less-affluent side of town. Mud gives the boys something to believe in and a real sense of self worth.
The boys don't come from broken homes, though. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) has a mother and father who, unlike stereotypical movies about struggling families, are fairly well grounded. They're good parents who love their only child, even if the love in their marriage has waned somewhat. Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) lives with his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), who's anything but an obnoxious, sullen jerk.
The chemistry between McConaughey and the two young actors is fantastic. The elder thespian doesn't dominate their scenes, he complements them. This is what you get when Matthew McConaughey drops the aw-shucks act and gets serious. But he's not in every scene, and young Sheridan proves to be more than capable of carrying a movie. Ellis tries, succeeds, fails, but always wants to do the right thing. He helps Mud out of a sense of duty; he feels that since he and Juniper love each other, they deserve to be together. It's a simple worldview, but he is only 14, after all.
Director Jeff Nichols, who also made the superb Take Shelter, has a keen sense of when to show action and when to let his talented cast mesmerize their audience. This isn't a character study, but it is an study of the characters of two protagonists: the world-weary fibber Mud and the perceptive, honorable Ellis.
Her is one of those movies that I thought I would and could like, given
its unorthodox plot, but I found it to be sad and dull and not so much
invigorating as depressing and numbing. It does feature fine
performances, but the promising premise quickly winds its way through
predictable scenarios and foreseeable outcomes.
Joaquin Phoenix, doing his best Jude Law impression, plays Theodore Twombley, a man who writes "handwritten" letters for clients in what's probably the future. He gets the basic idea from the client and then goes to town, dictating his letter to his computer, which renders the letter in nice neat cursive for the recipient. The letters are sincere and heartfelt, and Theodore is very good at his job.
When we first meet Theodore, he's a lonely, mopey guy, still recovering from a separation from his wife (Rooney Mara) a year prior, even though the divorce papers haven't yet been signed. His friends Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles worry about him; Theodore never really goes out. Then he sees an ad for a new operating system for the home, a system with not only a personality but also the ability to grow and learn.
Since he's looking for some companionship anyway, he purchases the new system and installs it. The system has the voice of Scarlett Johansson and names herself Samantha. Soon, Samantha is best-friends-for-life with Theodore; she helps him to stay organized and focused, plays the role of supportive friend, offers advice and conversation, all things that Theo really needs. But, since she is an operating system designed to evolve, she begins to want more out of existence. She, like Data from Star Trek and countless other not-human characters, wants to know what it's like to be human, to have both a body and feelings.
This may seem like an odd relationship (and it is), but it's more normal in this pseudo-future than it is in real life. People left and right have personalized operating systems. You think it's still strange to see someone talking to themselves? You check yourself and realize they're using Bluetooth for something, right? Now imagine most people doing that, only instead of an obvious Bluetooth headset there's only a tiny earpiece. It's a little counterintuitive, in a way: a movie that's all about getting a man to get out and enjoy life more does so by isolating him from the world, just him and his operating system (in portable, iPhone form). Come to think of it, I can't remember seeing Theodore talking on the phone with anyone other than Samantha.
It isn't long before Theodore and Samantha realize they have very strong feelings for one another. Again, not really as weird as it would be today, as so many people apparently do date their operating systems in Theo's world. He's soon taking Samantha places, at her behest, and they live and love and play and laugh and so on, just as if it were a humans- only relationship. That they do hit some rough patches points again to Samantha's ability to grow - to become more human, really. But how human can she be? More human than human?
This is the first movie that Spike Jonze has both written and directed. That fact may have no bearing on the pacing on the film, but I include it just in case. I thought that the movie moved excruciatingly slow, as it were filmed in a dreamy fog, or a foggy dream, or a nightclub. This is a character study, and a sci-fi one at that, so one would expect deliberate pacing. But in Her, I felt that the story moved even more slowly than that. The camera sometimes lingered for several seconds on a close-up shot of a character, usually Theodore. The setup for scenes (for example, Theo's blind date with Olivia Wilde) takes longer than the scenes themselves, which means a lot of exposition and a lot of talking.
That's not a bad thing if your movie has some profound wisdom to share or if the methodical pacing is offset by actual movement and plot development, but neither one of those criteria apply here. We do get strong performances by Phoenix, Adams, and Johannson, but in the end it feels like nothing really happened. Sure, Theo has changed a little, but we're left in the dark as to how much and if his life has truly improved.
12 years a Slave, an unflinching account of a free black man in the
antebellum North who is abducted and sold into slavery in the Deep
South, is a brilliant adaptation, a real work of art by auteur Steve
McQueen. It's brutally forthcoming and neither panders to its audience
nor glosses over the evil that men (and women) do. It features an
transcendent performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as the lead, nearly
matched by Michael Fassbender, as an exceptionally cruel slaveowner.
The story opens in Saratoga Springs, New York. Solomon Northrup (Ejiofor) has just seen his wife and two children off on a trip. While walking across the town square, Solomon meets a couple of men who wish for Solomon to play violin for their circus. He travels with them down to Washington, DC and wines and dines with the gentlemen in celebration of Solomon's contribution to the entertainment. But Solomon becomes ill and is put to bed by the men; in the morning, he finds himself in a slave pen, unable to produce papers that would prove him to be a free man.
Solomon is acquired by a slave trader named, ironically, Freeman (Paul Giamatti), who in turns sells Solomon and others to a landowner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) down in Georgia. Solomon's name is now Platt, and his odyssey proceeds through several owners, some meaner than others, but none quite capable for seeing him as the human being he is. Solomon witnesses many evils, including torture, rape, and murder for even the smallest slights against white people and finds that even to survive he cannot count on any help, inside or out.
This is not an easy movie to watch. It's not just about shining a light on of the most morally deplorable times in our nation's brief history; it's about getting inside the head of a trapped man, a man desperate to return to his loving family but beset on all sides by incoherent rage and inhumanity. As Solomon himself puts it, "I don't want to survive. I want to live."
Ejiofor is terrific. When Solomon feels pain, physical or emotional, we feel his pain as well, through Ejiofor's heart-breaking, commanding performance. Solomon's attitude transforms him from a this-must-be-a- mistake nonbeliever trying to convince people he is indeed a legally free man to a defiant, determined, and desperate sojourner. It's a remarkable piece of work by Ejiofor, who had his first break into movies with Steven Spielberg's Amistad - also with slavery as its main theme.
McQueen has assembled a profoundly talented cast to back him up. As the worst villain in the lot, Fassbender (as slaveowner Epps) is more than just convincing - you half expect to learn that Fassbender is a true Southern boy rather than being German born - he is also spellbinding as the horrid Epps, a man even nastier than Leonardo DiCaprio's vaunted Calvin Candie from Django Unchained. Candie was a smirking frat boy compared with Edwin Epps, a man who delights in using his slaves for whatever he wishes, punishing them when they don't pick enough in his cotton fields, favoring one as a plaything even over his own wife (Sarah Paulson).
One aspect I really liked about this movie was that it never paints any white person as the savior of the black protagonist. Never. How many movies have we seen about slavery and civil rights in which some white person deigns to help the black people and is thus their hero? It's not so here. The closest is Cumberbatch's Ford, but even then the landowner would rather save his skin than form a connection with Solomon (or hear that Solomon is actually a free man). There is no help to be found from kindly white folks here. (Aside - okay, there is, right near the end, but it's apparently true to Solomon's experiences and does not make up for the years of agony that Solomon experienced before running into said white person by chance.) A lesser movie may have tried to shoehorn in a ray of hope for Solomon Northrup in a half-baked attempt to reach a wider audience, but thankfully that didn't happen here.
This isn't a popcorn movie, and it's probably not a date movie. It's intellectual and brutish, realistic, believable, painful, and astonishing. It's clearly one of the best of the year and of the careers of McQueen, Ejiofor, and Fassbender.
The second Hobbit movie is sort of the Back to the Future II of its
series: at times thrilling, at times confusing, and ultimately a little
unsatisfying. It boasts terrific effects and choreography but perhaps a
little too much plot, too many new characters, and a lengthy running
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug picks up more or less where the first film left off; the dwarfs, Bilbo Baggins, and Gandalf have left the Misty Mountains and continue their quest to the Lonely Mountain, former dominion of the Dwarf race, aiming to recapture it and the treasure below it from the demonic dragon Smaug. (Interestingly, Smaug himself doesn't even make an appearance on screen until the final half hour of the film.) The outfit is led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), descendant of the last King beneath the Mountain, before Smaug took over; the other dwarfs are more-or-less interchangeable, much like those who accompanied Snow White in her adventures. Their names are, I think, Palin, Marty Balin, Gerald McBoingBoing, Doink, Coin, and Gilligan. I'm not sure.
Now, the movie's title implies that Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) is desolate - he sort of is, living beneath the Lonely Mountain and all - but since this is more about the journey than the destination, we are treated to concurrent plots and unexpected encounters. The troupe loses Gandalf when the latter rushes off to deliver one of his legendary Important Messages, so he's absent for much of the film, and within some time the gang finds itself within the forests of Mirkwood, which is inhabited by Elves who aren't really like the stern-but-nice ones at Rivendell. (You know, from the last film.)
And these Elves are a heck of a lot more suspicious of, well, everything. They're led by Thranduil (Lee Pace), who wishes to keep his realm closed off from the problems of the outside world, much like Elrond would for Rivendell in the later LOTR films. Thranduil's son is Legolas (Orlando Bloom), whom we're well acquainted with; he's smitten with the chief of the wood-elf guards, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) - but, like Shakespeare's star-cross'd lovers, Papa would never let the sylvan elf be with his offspring. You know how it is.
But lest you think this is all about the Elves and Dwarfs and how they dislike/despise each other, there's another fun thread to follow: it looks like a certain Evil is gathering strength, both in body and in numbers, although remaining hidden from view. Thus the Orcs are both tracking Thorin and his merry men and helping their Master - you know who I mean - to become more corporeal. And then, to riff on an old 1970s TV show, there's Smaug. So there's truly no shortage of Bad Guys, and nor is there a shortage of ominous foreshadowing.
The movie never drags, and it makes good (judicious) use of 3D, but it suffers from a real lack of personality. Bilbo and Gandalf, who have the most charisma and charm of the bunch, are given less to do here than in the first film; the Dwarvish leader Thorin, by contrast, isn't a sufficiently interesting character to hold extended attention. In addition, you have all of these Dwarfs whose names aren't entirely memorable, so when one is left behind all one can do is shrug and wonder who else is left.
Which brings us to the the truly positive aspects of the movie. The fight and action scenes are supremely entertaining to watch, with Elf versus Orc, Elf versus Dwarf, Dwarf versus Orc, Dwarf versus Human, Wizard versus Orc, Wizard versus Something Evil, and Dragon versus Hobbit and Dwarfs. The intensity of each of these scenes is almost poetic, with Lilly and Bloom miles beyond everyone else in their seemingly effortless Orc-slaying abilities. Lilly in particular is remarkable, both beautiful, humanistic, and cunning beyond her years; her Tauriel (oddly enough, not really a Tolkien character) is savvy, level headed, and soft hearted.
The final scene, more than two and a half hours into the film, is a bit of a letdown, a mere gateway to the final part of the trilogy. It's true that the first Hobbit film took the same tack, but this time out the denouement feels abrupt; we left not just wanting more but simply hanging.
Inside Llewyn Davis is an intimate, well-executed, and honest slice of
life. It features a humanistic, heartfelt performance by Oscar Isaac as
the titular folk singer, arresting cinematography, and a sharp,
tight-fisted script by the Coen brothers, who also directed.
It's Greenwich Village in the early sixties, when folk music was either coming into its own or ready to be usurped by a more mainstream genre. Llewyn has no home, drifting from gig to gig and crashing on couch after couch as a matter of design; is vagrancy is his life's plan. Llewyn is at turns a noble soul who exists for the sake of making the music he wants to make and a resentful twerp who mooches off friends just to sustain his unsustainable lifestyle.
The movie is only somewhat linear, with closing scenes mirroring opening scenes, and it is told entirely from Llewyn's point of view. The Coen brothers masterfully show us not only Llewyn's perspective but also an outside perspective; this allows us to feel both empathy and loathing toward him.
Llewyn is nothing if not complex. The movie does a terrific job of avoiding the usual clichés, such as a down-on-his-luck musician catching a lucky break, or a bitter man having a quick change of heart. It's not that Llewyn is constantly sneering at everyone, holding his poverty up as both a shield and a trophy, it's that he is so multilayered that when he does a kind act or offers some praise or thanks, we don't feel that his doing so is in any way out of character. Llewyn is a self-tortured soul, but unlike caricatures of wandering folkies, he is at his center a realist, albeit a prideful one.
During his travels and travails, Llewyn encounters people ranging from the genuine (his singing friends Jim and Jean, played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) to the absurd (a rotund, blustery John Goodman). Oh, and a cat that travels with Llewyn - at least until he can get him or her back to the owner. The encounters with the genuine folks feel just as normal as if you or I encountered them; those with the more absurd of the lot feel perfectly surreal, and when they do end one almost wonders if we've all imagined the encounters through Llewyn himself.
The music is beautiful and moving. Isaac himself performs Llewyn's songs, with a sweet, vulnerable voice that offers a touch of soul to Llewyn's otherwise-bleak surroundings. When Llewyn is really on, you can feel his pain leap right off the screen into your brain; when he appears to be going through the motions and not singing from his heart, you can feel the lack of depth that his intended audience also feels. Isaac is just flat-out terrific.
Ultimately, it is Isaac and the music that push this film into the territory of great cinema. The story itself is stark, moody, unyielding - just like a New York City winter, really. And the movie, like Llewyn's own life, appears to have no point - except to illustrate just how pointless Llewyn is making his life, through his stubborn marriage to his craft and a desire to stay uprooted
Out of the Furnace is, as advertised, a grim, gripping tale of two
lower-class brothers trying to raise their heads above water. It's
exceptionally well cast, but it trods over some well-worn ground and is
an almost-relentless portrait of desolation, isolation, and depression.
Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, an ironworker in the local steel mill. When Russell is sent to prison following a supremely tragic event, his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is left to his own devices - such as bare-knuckle fighting and betting on ponies - while helping to take care of their invalid, dying dad.
The problem is that Rodney finds himself very easily in hock to the local crime lord, John Petty (an epic performance by the underrated Willem Dafoe); Rodney doesn't want to work in the mill, doesn't want to do actual work, does want to fight. But he's not terribly good at throwing the fights, thus placing him even further in debt to Petty.
Shortly after Russell gets out of prison, Rodney disappears. The Pennsylvania cops have an inkling where he might be - he's across the state line, in New Jersey, where the mountain folk don't take kindly to strangers in their midst; they're always a few steps ahead of the law, and folks being close knit and all in the community, the police can never seem to find anyone to cooperate against the white-trash bad boys of the mountain, led by one Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).
Like The Fighter before it, Out of the Furnace features two down-on- their-luck brothers, one smart and one sort of shifty, although here Bale switches it up and plays the smart one. It's a movie you've probably seen before. When the police appear to be impotent in finding out what happened to Rodney, Russell takes matters into his own hands to exact his revenge.
The performances are worthy of acclaim. Bale and Affleck show excellent chemistry with each other, although Affleck's half-whiny/half-nasally voice grates after a while. Dafoe is nearly flawless, and Zoe Saldana (as Russell's girl), Forest Whitaker (as the local sheriff), and Sam Shepard (as Uncle Red) offer plenty of grit (in Saldana's case, charm) and charisma.
But it's sort of an obvious movie. It has an obvious villain, an obvious (anti)hero, and an obvious denouement. The script, by director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) and Brad Ingelsby, tosses no curveballs and offers no mystery. In short order, the plot points align, and the only thing for the viewer to do is wait the movie out. Still, Bale's so effective that even the pedestrian story becomes compelling to a certain degree. But it's telling that for a movie called Out of the Furnace, it takes a good hour before we even see anyone in a furnace.
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