There's a wealth of material for filmmakers to pry out of the troubles that America has faced in the past decade. The depressed economy, the plight of the returning soldier, and the loss of American industry have all informed the plots of many of the best films written in the past couple years. In his second directorial effort, Out of the Furnace, filmmaker Scott Cooper attempts to turn the myriad of America’s most pressing issues into a story set in the backdrop of the country’s hard suffering Rust Belt, but he comes away with a merely competent dramatic thriller that clearly aspired to be something grander.
In the film, Christian Bale plays the hardworking and upstanding Russell Baze, an almost impossibly good-natured man who has worked in the local steel mill his entire life, and had planned, just like his ailing father, to do so until the day he died. But when the steel mill is scheduled to close, Baze's way of life as well as the town itself is crippled. Casey Affleck plays Russell's sensitive brother Rodney, whose tours in Iraq have left him emotionally eruptive and dissatisfied with his brother’s working man existence; Rodney would rather spend his time competing in underground fighting rings where he can still feel something. Rodney soon finds himself wrapped up in violent and reactionary crime ring that doesn't take kindly to strangers. It’s up to Russell to save his brother from the grips of the areas most terrifying criminals
Out of the Furnace is appealingly glum. Cooper finds beauty in the rolling hills and crumbling infrastructure of small town Pennsylvania, and the film fully embraces the derelict beauty of its settings, down to even the homes and the cars that the characters own. The film clearly prides itself on feeling authentic and it reaches its goals visually — at the very least.
The relationship between the brothers Baze also feels remarkably authentic. Both Bale and Affleck sell the relationship deftly, and have an almost tangible amount of on-screen chemistry that expresses their bond for each other in a way that no script could. This chemistry makes the scenes where Rodney has gone missing burn with terrific dramatic intensity.
There’s a quiet desperation in these people. Though they may be hopeful and happy in their set paths, there’s a feeling that they’re all walking along streets heading nowhere. America isn’t the land of opportunity anymore, not for the soldiers or the factory workers. The only thriving ones seem to be the criminals like Woody Harrelson’s Curtis Degroat, who is so overarchingly villainous that the only thing the character is missing is a dastardly moustache to twirl.
And this is the big issue with Out of the Furnace. While Harrelson’s performance is at times chilling, the script often dovetails Degroat into an overdone cartoon bad guy, and this weak characterization flows through a lot of the characters and seriously undermines a lot of the authenticity that the film believes itself to be built upon. There's a particularly groan-inducing scene where Degroat decries the human race in the gruffest voice he can muster. Woody’s Degroat character, and most of the others in the film, aren’t so much developed characters, but act more like clichéd archetypes in Cooper’s parable about a broken America. Degroat is simply the bad guy, and not characterized beyond that one-dimensional role in this story. Affleck’s wounded war veteran feels overwrought as well, with many of his scenes laying down the melodrama in thick sheets, particularly when he’s discussing the terrors he’s faced in the war oversees.
Out of the Furnace has a lot of things on its mind about the state of America’s small towns and working class heroes, but it doesn’t know the best way to express itself, and while some of it’s sentiments ring true others clank harshly like an off-note. The remarkable cast does its best to prop up a film that wants to tell a great American story, but it only manages to tell a fairly middling one.
A character drama with a twisted sense of humor Silver Linings Playbook follows Pat (Bradley Cooper) a recently released psychiatric hospital patient who moves back in with his parents and begins a quest to reclaim his broken marriage. Despite the warnings from doctors Pat's mom Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and dad Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) take him in hoping familiar settings and a little Eagles football may be the perfect cure. It isn't — Pat continuously loses his s**t over his ex-wife Nikki frantically stressing over her high school English class' reading syllabus (he toss Hemmingway's A Farewell to Arms straight through a glass window) and breaking down every time he hears their wedding song. There's no hope for him and Nikki — catching her with another man and beating him to a pulp led to his institutionalizing — but Pat's focused mind doesn't let him deviate.
After being invited to a friend's house for dinner Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who sees a friendship in the bipolar patient. After the death of her husband Tiffany went off the deep end engaging anyone and everyone for sex. She's sees a companion in Pat and although he's reluctant the off-kilter pair can't fight the magnetic power of their psychological issues.
Most of their conversations end in screaming or blunt admissions — but they're relatable.
Mental illness and human connection may sound like an equation for eye-roll-worthy saccharine but director David O. Russell mines Cooper and Lawrence's comedic strengths to turn Silver Linings Playbook into one of the funniest movies of the year.
Nothing is off limits for Russell; one reoccurring joke is that Pat can't stop bringing up the fact that Tiffany's husband is dead. As Tiffany puts it to Pat, "You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things."
To make Pat aware of how his bipolar existence affects the people around him and to make us the audience feel for this heart-wrenching experience Russell shoots and paces Silver Linings Playbook for awkward comedy.
He also returns to the always-reliable family dynamic. The Fighter is to Boston as Silver Linings Playbook is to Philadelphia De Niro perfecting the Eagles-loving everyman with a collection of betting buddies who may be just as delusional as Pat.
The legendary actor proved he had comedy chops in Meet the Parents but here he blends it with gravitas that earned him a legacy in the first place. Rush Hour actor Chris Tucker also pops up as Pat's good friend from the institution. More restrained than ever Tucker helps add warmth to the picture. Pat has a support system everywhere he turns. In essence the film emanates with positive vibes.
Even with a great ensemble Silver Linings Playbook is Cooper and Lawrence's show. To the bitter end Pat and Tiffany never get sappy with one another always at each other's throats over the feelings they harbor and the pasts they can't shake away.
Cooper loses himself in the chaotic mind of Pat without ever slipping into a caricature of the mentally ill. He can stir up laughs with his desperate search for Pat's missing wedding video and then shock us in the blink of an eye when things turn violent.
Impressively Lawrence's Tiffany is never written down. She never succumbs to being a comforting presence always provoking Pat to push himself.
She's a strong woman but a strong woman juggling her own set of issues. Lawrence conveys all of that without missing a beat. That dynamic should be make Silver Linings Playbook the talk of the town come Oscar time.
Gavin O’Connor’s (Miracle Pride and Glory) stirring new drama Warrior is an underdog tale set in the nascent sport of Mixed Martial Arts fighting. In its relatively short life MMA has yet to inspire much quality cinema of note. It now has its Rocky.
Warrior’s twist on the traditional underdog formula is to provide us with dual protagonists: the fightin’ Conlon brothers Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy). Neither have spoken to each other since the dissolution of the parents’ marriage fourteen years earlier. Both of late have fallen on hard times. Tommy is an Iraq war veteran who has turned to pills and booze since returning from abroad; Brendan is a high school science teacher and devoted family man victimized by the financial crisis. Circumstances compel them both to seek salvation in the fight game.
Conveniently enough the opportunity of a lifetime arrives in the form of Sparta a brand-new winner-take-all MMA tournament that awards its champion a cool $5 million – more than enough for Brendan to save his house from foreclosure or for Tommy to make good on his pledge to provide for the family of a friend killed in Iraq. By this point we know for certain that fate has determined Brendan and Tommy will meet in the final and we know for certain how utterly ridiculous this scenario is. And yet we accept it because by this point Warrior already has us in its corner.
The origins of the brothers’ enmity are ultimately traced to their father Paddy (Nick Nolte) a monstrous alcoholic whose abusiveness led their mother and Tommy to flee fourteen years prior. Brendan stayed behind and Tommy never forgave him for it. When we see Paddy he’s broken-down husk of a man God-fearing and 1000 days sober his face creased with shame and regret. Neither son can stand the sight of their old man but Tommy in need of someone to train him for the tournament reluctantly enlists his father’s help. Paddy eyeing a last chance at redemption enthusiastically complies.
Cue the training montage. A fighter rising from obscurity to the upper echelons in his sport within a matter of weeks is hard to swallow; when two fighters do it it’s a borderline insult to the sport. MMA aficionados might blanch at watching Tommy and Brendan gain one unlikely win after another; more likely they’ll be too absorbed by the action to care. It helps that Hardy and Edgerton both look the part and are both skilled enough at their craft to lend the film’s many brutal fight scenes a distinct realism. It helps even more that the story and the actors' stellar performances have us firmly aligned with their goals.
O’Conner a veteran of the genre deploys the underdog tropes at his disposal freely but assiduously crafting a tale that is unabashedly far-fetched but grounded in characters who are intensely appealing and who feel authentic. The storytelling is clumsy at times – that Nolte’s character listens to a book-on-tape of Moby Dick throughout the film feels particularly heavy-handed – but Warrior wisely steers clear of bombastic speeches or cloying sentiment.
Warrior’s climactic final fight in which the estranged brothers at last meet in the ring is both gut- and heart-wrenching. When the film’s suitably happy ending does eventually arrive the film gives way ever-so-briefly to hokeyness. But after what these kids have gone through you can forgive them for getting a little emotional.
Like the depression-era brass-and-bass pop hits that its wiry protagonist covets Meet Monica Velour is a pleasant little ditty that plays smoothly and entertains from start to finish. Anchored by a refreshing turn from Kim Cattrall as the title character Keith Bearden’s feature debut is a firm freshman effort one that will undoubtedly grant the film journalist-turned-filmmaker a crack at something bigger.
A high-concept coming-of-age story with a significant social message the movie centers on seventeen-year-old Tobe Hulbert (Dustin Ingram) – an innocent and awkward recent high school graduate on the verge of a breakdown from boredom. The only solace he finds in his mundane existence comes from collecting assorted pop-culture items: vintage records from the 1930s comic books from the ‘40s and most interestingly pornography from the late ‘70s and ‘80s. When he hears about a rare appearance by his lifelong porn star crush at a sleazy strip club four states away Tobe leaves his drunken grandfather’s home and heads to Indiana to finally meet Monica Velour.
Of course after thirty years of professional wear and tear and marital and substance abuse Ms. Velour is nothing more than a decaying façade of the glimmering beauty she once was. Spiteful and world-weary Cattrall shines through the runny make-up and cheap outfits her character has become accustomed to and delivers an authentic portrayal of a woman who walked on the wild side and came through a marvelous mess. Her performance along with the nostalgic reminiscence of porno’s home-video heyday offers a loving nod to the skin-flick industry while poking fun at its ludicrous unnecessary plot lines and C-rate production values.
While Ms. Cattrall will help sell tickets young Dustin Ingram steals the show as the nebbish Tobe. Looking and acting like the bastard child of Napoleon Dynamite and Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka the twenty-year-old actor taps into the misery of America’s disaffected youth and turns it into enjoyably wry comedy that shares its tone with the picture as a whole. Writer/director Bearden brightens his character’s bleak outlook on life with vibrant colors that convey the magic of Americana that fuels the film as well as his protagonist’s quest.
Though the movie may be likened to popular teen comedies like The Girl Next Door Porky’s or Fast Times at Ridgemont High underneath the crude humor and sex jokes is a poignant story of an unlikely friendship between a faded star and her number one fan. There is a great deal of emotional depth to both the characters and the narrative and though the relationship between Monica and Tobe is mostly comedic Bearden allows the mold to be broken at times to reveal a genuine connection between these two lost souls. Furthermore the picture attacks the hegemonic perspective of the aging woman in a society that worships youth and beauty and is quick to dispose of one who is past her prime. It has more in common with Juno and Little Miss Sunshine than the aforementioned mainstream studio movies and like both of those critical darlings deserves to be picked up for wide distribution where it will surely prosper.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Political intrigue corruption scandal sex — it’s all here in this Americanized adaptation of the much acclaimed 2003 six-hour BBC miniseries. With the story shifting from London to Washington D.C. the focus is now on a married congressman who is chairman of an important committee overseeing defense spending. He is a rising star in his party until his beautiful young assistant with whom he has been carrying on a clandestine affair is suddenly found dead. Things get complicated when his old friend Washington Globe investigative reporter Cal McAffrey is assigned to track down the story and try to uncover the identity of the killer. With cub blogger Della Frye forced on him as a partner the two journalists step into a government coverup that is much bigger than anyone could have imagined.
WHO’S IN IT?
Four days before production kicked off Brad Pitt dropped and Russell Crowe replaced him in the key reporter's role. It’s hard to imagine Pitt in this part since Russell Crowe disheveled-looking with long hair and about 30 pounds overweight owns it in his best performance since A Beautiful Mind. As his blog-savvy young partner Rachel McAdams firmly captures the essence of a determined but inexperienced young journalist in over her head. A sharp-tongued and feisty Helen Mirren is ideal as the newspaper boss more concerned with profits than integrity as she spouts out lines like “I don’t give a s--t about the rest of the story. We are going to press!” Ben Affleck also has his best screen outing in a while as the ambitious congressman Stephen Collins who gets caught with his pants down. A bevy of fine supporting turns include Robin Wright Penn as Collins’ unhappy wife; Jeff Daniels oily and smarmy as a conservative politician who knows more than he lets on and especially Jason Bateman stealing scenes as a slimy PR guy who provides some key details.
Not only does State of Play work well as a political thriller its pointed take on the failing state of newspapers and lax journalistic standards could not be more timely. Stunning widescreen cinematography and lavish sets add to the authenticity of a movie that in its best moments can be compared favorably with similar '70s classics like All the President's Men.
As the dense plot unfolds it gets a bit confusing trying to keep all the players straight particularly towards the end where you might need "State of Play for Dummies" just to follow it all.
A nail-biter beautifully staged by director Kevin MacDonald (Last King of Scotland) where Crowe plays a cat-and-mouse game in an underground garage with a mysterious armed suspect he has just confronted.
HOW MANY WRITERS DOES IT TAKE TO SCREW IN A LIGHT BULB?
Four major ones in this case. Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom) Tony Gilroy (Duplicity Michael Clayton) Billy Ray (Breach) and an uncredited Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon The Queen) are the superstar team of scribes who each took a crack at whittling down a six-hour miniseries into a two-hour flick.
Look for Bateman and the art directors responsible for the massive newspaper office to turn up on the shortlist for next year’s Academy Awards.