REVIEW: OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013)

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OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013)

Out Of The Furnace is a very intense and well-acted drama that only makes one glaring plot mistake in an otherwise solidly written film by Crazy Heart’s Scott Cooper. The film takes place in the run-down steel town of  North Braddock, PA. and tells the story of brothers Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck) Baze. Russell is a good natured and hard working man who, like his ailing father, works at the steel mill and earns a meager but honest living. Rodney is a traumatized Iraqi war veteran whose inner rage prevents him from finding peace with a normal job and turns to gambling and illegal fighting under the guidance of small town crook, John Petty (Willem Dafoe). A tragic accident sees a tired and mildly intoxicated Russell hit another car and kill the mother and child within. This sends Russell to prison while Rodney’s inability to take a fall when required, leaves him in growing debt. Once his time is done, Russell is released to find his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) has left him for the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker), his father has died and Rodney in deep with the sleazy local gangster Petty. But despite his efforts to set his brother straight and get his life in order, Rodney forces Petty to get him involved with an illegal bare-knuckles fight run by vicious backwoods gangster Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) in the Ramapo Mountains in New Jersey. Rodney hopes this big payoff will clear his debt with Petty and clear Petty’s debt with DeGroat. But Harlan DeGroat is a devious and vile person and despite taking the fall he was told too, Rodney and Petty do not return home. The law’s inability to pierce the veil of silence around these mountain-folk and exact justice sets the mild-mannered Russell on a vengeful collision course that will put him face to face with a very dangerous man.

Make no mistake, as directed and co-written (with Brad Ingelsby) by Scott Cooper, this is a strong and sometimes powerful drama about a man who wants to live a simple, peaceful life, but is forced by circumstance to put his good-naturedness aside and take vengeful action. During the 80s this kind of plot might have been a far simpler film starring the likes of Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal, but under Cooper’s guidance, a simple revenge flick becomes a powerful story filled with multi-dimensional characters. And it is the characters that are the focus of this tale and not the minimal gunfire or occasional violence…though that has it’s own intensity as well. Which does bring me to my one gripe….

…As this film does choose to focus on the characters and the effects the film’s events has on their lives, I found it very hard to believe that Russell would put innocent people in harm’s way and in one instance, get someone killed for his own personal revenge. I understand he is driven by anger and frustration, but especially after seeing how torn-up he was after his car accident cost two innocents their lives, the fact that even now he would again put lives in danger, other than his own, is hard for me to accept. It’s the only major flaw I find with this otherwise engrossing drama. I don’t believe Russell would put his quest for payback before the lives of others and here he does not once but twice. To discuss it any deeper would be to present plot points important to the story, so I won’t go any further, but it doesn’t make sense coming from the character we’ve gotten to know.

And as we are discussing the characters, it’s only fitting to mention the great cast that brings them to life. Bale is once again near brilliant as the simple, kind-hearted Russell and portrays his slow burn path from simple steelworker taken by the events around him on courses that shatter the quiet life he seeks and has him turn against his very own moral code. Casey Affleck is a rage-filled powder keg and despite his anger and inner pain, we do feel sympathy for a man who fought through a nightmare for his country and now feels lost and abandoned by it. He and Bale have some really intense scenes together and I do mean intense. Defoe is solid, as always, as the sleazy, yet somehow likable small time crook Petty. He seems like the type of small fish criminal who doesn’t understand that he shouldn’t play in the bigger pond until it’s far too late. Harrelson again delivers the goods with his portrayal of  Harlan DeGroat. He is intense, frightening and a little intriguing as the backwoods drug dealer and crime-lord with very little morality or sympathy. He’s a monster, but one with multiple dimensions and not a cliché or caricature as the role could have been in a lesser film. Saldana shows she is more then a pretty face as Lena, but her character seems to disappear for the most part once the meat of the plot gets in motion. She is good in her scenes, but the character all but disappears in the last act and seems forgotten. Rounding out the cast is Forest Whitaker doing his usual good work as the sheriff with whom Russell has personal issues involving Lena and Sam Shepard, who can sit in a chair and ooze character, is very likable in a small role as the Baze boys’ uncle.

So basically we have a simple story made into a powerful drama by a skilled writer/director and a simply great cast that is able to overcome a glaring plot flaw to retain it’s strength and impact by the time the credits role. Not quite a great movie, but a really damn good one with some top notch acting by a first rate cast.

3 and 1/2 bulletts.

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REVIEW: AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

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AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

American Hustle is the new film from Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell that he co-wrote along with Eric Warren Singer based on Singer’s original screenplay. It uses the infamous ABSCAM sting operation of the late 70s as a basis for the fictional story of con-man extraordinaire Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his lover/partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who have a fake loan operation set up where they charge customers, who are too risky for the banks, an un-refundable $5,000 fee to get them approved for loans that they never actually get approved for. Despite Irving’s unease, Sydney accepts a fee from Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who turns out to be an ambitious FBI agent. But, Dimaso is out for far larger prey and forces Irving and Sydney to set up a con to catch bigger criminals in order to earn Sydney’s freedom. The deal is to catch 4 criminals and they are free but, Irving cooks up a scheme to catch all 4 crooks at once and soon they are on the trail of the mayor of Camden, N.J. Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and a bunch of US Congressman in a scam involving funding the rebuilding of Atlantic City as a gambling mecca with money from a fictional Arab Sheik (Michael Peña) and the bribes these men give/accept to set it in motion. But, Irving may have gotten himself in over his head as the more corrupt officials and criminals DiMaso thinks he can catch, the bigger the con gets and the more people it involves, such as Rosenfeld’s emotionally troubled wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and dangerous mob boss Victor Tellegio (a cameo I won’t spoil here). And the more people that get involved, the more relationships get entangled and the more complicated things get till the whole thing threatens to come down on Irving’s head. Like Silver Linings, Russell takes a serious toned story and fills it with a lot of sly humor and a large cast of eccentric, multi-layered characters… and despite the clever story, it is the characters that really charge this enormously entertaining and smart flick. He creates a large group of very real people who all have various reasons and motivations for doing what they do. Each character is manipulating others for their own purposes and Russell gives his great cast some really complex, colorful and yet very human characters for his actors to bring to life. And it is the life these actors bring under Russell’s guidance that elevates a really good movie to near brilliance. Christian Bale has given some simply great performances in his career ever since getting everyone’s attention at the age of 12 in Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun and he simply takes it to another level with his brilliant… and I don’t use that word often… performance as the con man who’s gotten involved in a con even he might not be able to pull off. Amy Adams is equally brilliant as Sydney, Irving’s lover and a woman who might even be better then he at the con game as she too gets caught up in the increasing size of the sting in order to keep herself out of prison. Jennifer Lawrence gives another Oscar worthy performance as Irving’s unbalanced and unpredictable wife who gets drawn into the con but, with her own agenda. Cooper once again shows some amazing growth as an actor and creates a portrait of a man ironically getting greedy when it comes with catching the greedy. His FBI agent is ambitious and relentless and his disregard for playing by the rules seems to increasingly blur the line between himself and those he’s trying to catch. Jeremy Renner finally gets a role worthy of the acting ability he showed in The Hurt Locker and The Town as Camden Mayor Polito, a man who truly believes he’s doing what’s best for the people even if it includes backdoor deals and payoffs. His sincere belief that he is doing what’s right and his genuine likability causes a confusion in Irving that could sabotage everything. And that’s another thing that elevates this film from being a routine thriller… and this flick is far from routine… is the complications that arise from the relationships that form between various members of the scenario such as Irving and Carmine, Richard and Sydney and Rosalyn and a mob enforcer. The game becomes so real and people get so involved in their roles that emotions flow and relationships form… or do they?… this is a con game after all. And that’s what makes this such an entertaining movie as you believe in the character relationships portrayed by the top notch cast and yet, you’re not completely sure if it’s not part of the game. And that is part of the fun. All I will tell you is that it’s a real treat to watch this great cast pull the wool over each other’s eyes, manipulate each other and you, the audience as well. And if all that doesn’t convince you, all the great 70s nostalgia and music, ads perfect atmosphere to the whole film. The music in particular is like another character and the songs placed perfectly. I can never hear Wings’ Live And Let Die again without thinking of Jennifer Lawrence. Altogether this is a wildly entertaining and intelligently written flick with a tour de force performance from it’s entire cast. Sure there are a few slow spots but, everything else is such a delight, one can forgive a few moments to catch their breath. A real treat especially if you are worn out by superheroes, Hobbits and over abundant CGI and are looking for some more substantial to enjoy with your popcorn. A blast from David O. Russell!

4 stars… doing some of their best work!

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REVIEW: BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

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BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

Watched this while I sat on the couch in my Thanksgiving food coma and decided to write a more comprehensive review then I had when it first came out…

After the disastrous Batman and Robin, the Batman series went on hiatus until Chris Nolan rebooted the series with this dark and yet energetic film that returns Batman (Christian Bale) to his origins and portrays The Dark Knight like he should have been portrayed all along, a dark brooding character who dwells in the shadows and not a cabaret act with plastic nipples on his costume. The story starts off with a first half that flashes back and forth between Bruce Wayne’s life as a child (Gus Lewis) and young adult and the subsequent murder of his parents in front of him, and his modern day quest to get deep inside the criminal mind-set by living and acting among them. While in jail in South Asia, Wayne is confronted by Ducard (Liam Neeson) an emissary for Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) a mystic who promises to give him the means to fight the criminal element. Ducard trains Wayne in the art of the ninja but, when Bruce finds that Ra’s methods include murder, he rebels and destroys The League Of Shadows hideout before returning to Gotham to put his training to use as a symbol of good who’ll combat the evil rotting away at Gotham… and The Batman is born. But not only must Batman, along with his trusty butler Alfred (a brilliant Michael Caine), scientist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and good cop Sgt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), battle crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom WIlkinson) and the psychotic Dr. Jonathan Crane AKA The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) but, a resurrected Ra’s al Ghul who has a catastrophic plan for the city of Gotham. Now that Nolan’s classic Batman trilogy is complete, I can say that this first entry is the lightest and least drama heavy of the three… thought it is far darker and more intense then the previous series. While Batman/Wayne is a brooding character, he has yet to gain the weariness and emotional battle scars he would experience in the following entries. And that works here as we see a Batman who is new at this crime fighting gig and is kinda enjoying it before the weight of the responsibility he has given himself sets in. There is depth to the character and Bale makes a great Bruce Wayne/Batman bringing the pain and rage that drives him to life, without losing the hero in the process. As for his beginnings, the story not only handles the origin strongly but, gives us some strikingly powerful scenes that give us a far better sense of how this man came to be who he is, far better then the Burton film did. Chris Nolan creates a dark and gothic Batman, both visually and conceptually, but, never gets swallowed up by it. The film is still fast paced and exceptionally entertaining despite it’s dark trappings and Nolan also mixes in 3 villains and  large cast of characters and does it without creating an overcrowded mess as with the last film. Every character is developed properly and a fine cast gets equal credit. And what a cast it is. This is possibly one of the best cast films… and series… that you can get. As stated, Bale is great in the part, he creates a Batman who is strong and noble yet very human and he creates a multi-layered Bruce Wayne who is carefree playboy to the outside world and a complex and emotionally scarred man to those few close to him. Watching him evolve the characters over the next two films is a cinematic treat. Caine is simply brilliant as the supportive, caring and honorable Alfred, as is Freeman as the Wayne Enterprises scientist who answers the question “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” and Oldman as the possibly last honest cop in Gotham, who may now have an ally who is above all the corruption and serves the same noble purpose. We can see the hope it gives him, thought is is imbued with caution. Neeson is near perfect… as always… as the villain who shares Batman’s nobility but, with a far different set of principles and methods. Cillian Murphy is slimy and creepy as both Crane and his alter ego Scarecrow and has some amusing cameos in the following entries. Tom Wilkinson practically steals the show as Carmine Falcone, the smug mob boss with a sarcastic sense of humor that makes him even more threatening. Katie Homes may not be quite up to the caliber as some of her co-stars but, she does present a strong and spunky assistant D.A., Rachel Dawes, who is quite believable when she stands up to Falcone’s thugs and Crane’s Scarecrow on her own and also as a caring love interest to Bruce. Rounding out are Rutger Hauer as Wayne Enterprises CEO with his own agenda, Mark Boone Junior as Gordon’s crooked partner and the incomparable Shane Rimmer as a DWP technician. Batman Begins is a great comic book movie and is still one of the best Batman films despite being overshadowed by the masterpiece that is it’s sequel and the epic and operatic third entry. It’s the most “fun” of the three modern classics Nolan has crafted and a great start to a film trilogy that is simply of of the best trilogies in movie history. A Bat Blast!

3 and  1/2 Bats with bats!

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REVIEW: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

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THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

Decided to have a quiet Sunday night on the couch revisiting the climactic chapter of Nolan’s Batman trilogy!

Dark Knight Rises is the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and despite some flaws, it still delivers a spectacular and epic conclusion that should satisfy most fans of this series. The film opens eight years after the events of The Dark Knight and Batman, having taken the fall for Harvey Dent/Two Face’s crimes, has disappeared and The Dent Act has locked up most of Gotham’s organized crime. Billionaire Bruce Wayne, still heartbroken over the death of Rachel Dawes, has become a Howard Hughes-like recluse, also not seen in as many years. But with the arrival of mysterious and beautiful cat burglar, Selina Kyle (a sensational Anne Hathaway) and a vicious mercenary/terrorist called Bane (a bad-ass Tom Hardy), Bruce Wayne decides maybe it’s time for The Batman and Bruce Wayne to return to Gotham.

Most of my issues with the film are in the first act…the set up. Nolan has a lot to bring us up to speed on, multiple interconnecting stories to start us on and a lot of characters to introduce us to. And it’s a bit too much to accomplish in a reasonable amount of time despite the 165 minute length of the film. The first act comes across as choppy and rushed and to be honest, some of the new characters could have been left out with no harm to the story (Matthew Modine’s jerk of a cop and Selina Kyle’s young friend for ex.). But once Batman hits the streets, the film settles into it’s groove and we get a strong second act, followed by an absolutely spectacular last act that alone delivers more movie for the buck than most flicks do. While The Avengers was a superhero epic for the kid inside all of us, TDKR is an operatic epic for the adults. Nolan gives the film his trademark intensity which overcomes the film’s first act flaws and some of the minor quibbles one might have during the rest of the film, to really deliver a riveting cinematic experience, as he brings his Dark Knight tale to a close. The set pieces are of an epic scale that has rarely been achieved in modern films and Nolan never loses track of the characters within the action.

His cast is almost perfect, even with some of the lesser characters being performed very well. Bale delivers another emotionally charged performance as a man who is not only larger then life, but very human as well. He successfully creates a man who has two distinct identities yet, is very much the same man. Ann Hathaway is simply a great Selina Kyle. She gives a complex portrayal of a woman who is desirable, dangerous, cunning and yet, not without her humanity. She is a survivor and an opportunist and outright lethal, if she needs to be, but there are also hints of vulnerability and a heart. She and Bale have a great chemistry together as both their outer characters and their alter egos. Tom Hardy is perfectly cast as the terrorist, Bane. A monster of a man, but with an intellect that is only matched by his ferocity and viciousness. Hardy hits a home run with this villain, who may not be quite The Joker, but makes his own impact and is totally believable as a man who could possible outsmart and outfight The Dark Knight. He makes Batman the underdog and that adds to the film’s drama and intensity. Marion Cotillard was the weak link here. Her Miranda Tate is given little to do through most of the film and when she does become important to the proceedings, she just doesn’t have the dramatic strength or intensity to make it work. She’s not bad, but just doesn’t give the role the strength it needs in the short amount of time the character is given to make an impact. In contrast Joseph Gordon-Levitt once again shows he’s an actor to watch as a beat cop who has never lost sight of the true hero that Batman is, despite taking the blame for Dent’s murders, and maybe has some of that hero in himself when everyone else around him gives up hope. To wrap up the casting call, Caine, Oldman and Freeman are brilliant as always. Caine in particular has a few scenes that prove he is, without a doubt, one of the greatest actors of all time, plain and simple.

On a technical level, TDKR is beautifully filmed with Nolan’s camera achieving a rarely seen grandeur and the SPFX are flawless. The action scenes are intense, especially the fights between Bane and Bats and any further questions or flaws with the film are drowned in the operatic spectacle that Nolan has delivered. Sure the first act could have been smoother in flow and there are some plot holes and one may not agree with absolutely everything Nolan and company chose to do in finishing their epic trilogy, but when the smoke clears, it is both entertaining and satisfying on a grand scale and if Nolan did get a bit bombastic in his final chapter, the indulgence can be easily forgiven when considering the overall achievement in delivering not only one of the greatest film trilogies, but giving one of the greatest comic book characters ever, the film series he needs… and the one he deserves.

3 and 1/2 Banes!

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