Out of the Furnace – Classic Tragedy Overshadowed by Holiday Fare, But This Is the Bale We Love

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Out of the Furnace is Scott Cooper’s second film after 2009’s Crazy Heart.

Furnace stars Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Forrest Whittaker, and Sam Shepard.

The story is set in North Braddock, Pennsylvania.  Russell Baze (Bale) is a steel worker.  His younger brother, Rodney (Affleck), is a soldier who keeps rotating back to Iraq for another tour.  Baze has an incident which lands him in prison for a short while.  While inside, he takes a beating, his father dies, and his girlfriend (Saldana) drifts into the arms of another man.

Home from war for good, Rodney visits Russell in jail, and their loving bond is clear.  Once out, Russell breathes his freedom deep, though Rodney, troubled to his soul by the theater of war, is getting into bare knuckle fighting, and intertwining with a merciless criminal (Harrelson).

The film opens with a song by Eddie Vedder, and shots of North Braddock and the steel mill surrounded by the mountains of Pennsylvania Appalachia.  The timbre of the film is set immediately, imbuing every scene with a sense of lost love, and strength.  Beyond the perfect Vedder musical bookends, the rest of the score, minimal, with brooding cello, from Dickon Hinchliffe, carries the mood.  Cinematography by Mosanobu Takayanagi handles the blue collar palette as a setting for a classic, almost Shakespearean tragedy.  The script was originally written by Brad Inglseby and rewritten by Cooper; the story moves at the right pace, the characters sound and look like real human beings.

Furnace is produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Ridley Scott.  After a December 4th opening weekend, the $22 million dollar movie has struggled against family-oriented fare like Frozen, and market-share hogs such as American Hustle … which also stars Bale.

Out of the Furnace (2013) trailer -- Pictured: Christian BaleBale is hurting Bale, it would seem.  But unlike Hustle, which I just saw the night before (thanks to loving grandparents who took our kids while the wife and I skipped out to the movies two nights in a row!) in Out of the Furnace, this is the Bale we know and love from gems like 3:10 to Yuma.  Long hair pushed back, scruffy-bearded, tough; he’s a simple man with a heavy heart.

One of the highlights of Furnace is the relationship between Russell and his girlfriend, Lena.  Though his incarceration ended their relationship, there are clearly still feelings there when he visits her.  In a scene on a bridge overlooking the dying industrial landscape, the two try to find their way through a very difficult moment, and the acting is nothing short of superb.  Throughout the film, their circumstances, their longing, their maturity as people render this heart of the film both authentic and cinematic.

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All of the performances are excellent.  Sam Shepard’s quiet presence as Russell’s uncle leaves an indelible impression.  Even Harrelson, who is hard to take seriously some times, comes across as a legitimate menace; someone truly evil – thanks in part to the dark intimacy brought to crucial moments through Takayanagi’s tight lens.

Cooper is a fine director.  Furnace has everything in balance.  Classic, without being overwrought by its own sense of archetype; violent, with nothing gratuitous; filled with genuinely likeable characters who make mistakes, deal, and maybe even learn.  Some of its scenes can be tough to take for some, particularly for people who deal with real-life tragedy every day.

Yet there is a stillness to Furnace that pervades the film.  Never short on momentum, the narrative paces itself quietly, patiently.  That stillness is in the center of Russell’s turmoil, and is never more apparent and cutaneous than in the final scenes of the film.  Unlike the unmotivated, crazed, capricious Richie the Fed in American Hustle, Russell’s ambition is relatable and motivated.  But the film never telegraphs its ending, familiar as though some of its elements may be.

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There’s no shame in working for a living, Russell tells his younger brother, Rodney.  Rodney explodes: “Work for a living?  I gave my life for this country, and what’s it done for me?”

It would be easy to point to bits and pieces of Furnace and call them out as “done before.”  The soldier who struggles to readjust to civilian life.  The Fight Club atmosphere of the bare-knuckle matches.  Any Bruce Springsteen song with smokestacks and Pennsylvania.  But these elements are fresh and accessible through the writing and performances and never bog down the story.  And, they happen.  Nothing in the film is even close to outlandish when it comes to the shocks of everyday reality – as those nurses and social workers and doctors who deal with such tragedies can attest.

Tragedy is part of human existence.  This is why gratuity has no place in a film which explores it and why Furnace succeeds – the film, like Russell, is strong, subtle, introspective, does not announce or foretell itself, but gets the job done.

Perhaps the only flaw in the entire outing from Cooper-Bale-DiCaprio-Scott was something beyond their control – the placement of the film in the holiday season.  It’s possible that a film which takes place during deer season in Pennsylvania and involves bloody knuckles and loud cars did not find its best audience between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I had put up an argument to see Furnace, but the people I dragged along ended up glad that I did.

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American Hustle: Con-Artists at Work

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American Hustle stars Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Amy Adams’s boobs.

In the film, the actors act for a little over two hours.  The director directs, sometimes even telling the camera guys and editors to “push in real close on that,” probably like he saw in Boogie Nights, or because, as they say, he is a pushy director.

Hustle is directed and co-written by David O. Russell.  Davey O. has recently garnered critical and box office acclaim with his films The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook.  Here he takes the cast from both these successful ventures and mashes them together in American Hustle.

christian-baleChristian Bale plays Irving, a guy with a middle-aged pot belly and a horrendous comb-over, a character Bale has been wanting to play for a long time, to show fans how not-narcissistic he is.  Adams and her breasts play Sydney, a woman who gets her pants pulled down in a bathroom stall, a salacious role very different from the girl in Enchanted who just wants everything to be beautiful.

In the film, the screenwriters write.  Thus, the characters talk and talk, but not in a Quentin Tarantino sort of way – they’re supposed to be saying something meaningful.  The premise in Hustle is about a man named Irving (Bale), who is a small time con-artist, someone who has crafted a business out of predatory lending, but who never actually lends the money he’s supposed to deliver for the $5,000 deposits.  And the writers never tell us what happens to the hundreds of people he’s ripped off, how he’s able to keep the same office, and a family, even if he uses a fake name.  Maybe it’s because a woman named Sydney, who becomes his partner and his lover (Adams), uses a phony British accent when they rip people off.  That always works.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Irving’s wife, Rosalyn, a snarky little dynamo, and provides about the only entertainment in this otherwise long, boring film.  Cooper plays the agent, Richie, who catches Irving and Sydney in the act, and gets them working for the FBI.

The soundtrack plays like vinyl in the background at one of Davey O.’s favorite parties from when he was twenty.  Sometimes it works – there’s a fun dance scene in a night club with some killer disco music – but, speaking of Tarantino, something Quentin would call bullshit on – this feels like putting in period music as an artifice, a way to cheat your audience into their suspension of disbelief.  Sometimes the music is so happy and fun it plays right over scenes that it shouldn’t, drowning out the already thin storyline.

Perhaps that’s what the random, unmotivated voice-overs are for; each of the three principals – Irving, Sydney, and Richie the Fed – have a voice-over in the film, but none of what any of the disembodied voices say with their over-the-top Jersey accents provide any additional information about the story or insight into their characters.

LawrenceMostly, these characters work on scamming one another, confusing the audience about who loves whom and what’s real and what’s a con.  So, you never get to see any cops coming in to take someone down, not until the very end, and then it’s a couple of congressman who were honestly trying to do the right thing.  Robert Deniro’s cameo is misspent – his gravitas and menace takes us to a brink that almost scares us in an anti-climactic scene.  Finally, while Jeremy Renner plays a good Carmine, the Mayor, at least forty-five minutes of screen time are sucked up as Irving befriends him, and they take the wives out for Chicken Piccata, and Irving wrestles with his conscience about putting the whammy on this guy he generally likes, and still, nothing quite happens.

Maybe the real Hustle is what O. Russell pulled on the studios after his last two zinger films, flying this one without any supervision or oversight.  It’s a good con, and I bought the ticket, after all.

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Movies and Money

With Oscar Season approaching, a few decent movies can easily make us forget all of the riffraff we endured the other eleven months of the year.

Let’s reconsider the existence of these.

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When Movies Suck

When movies suck it’s often because of money. “Big” movies that bomb, a glut of sequels, the computer-animated, empty-headed extravaganzas, the crowded summer season, all point to Hollywood’s business model tanking.

And it’s because of money.

Many people will tell you that money is the way the world works.  This is not the case.  The world works like this:  The sun comes up each day, the plants give us oxygen, the bees pollinate the crops (at least until recently) and man and nature evolve together in a cooperative scheme of magnificent proportions.

Man invented money.  And that’s not “man” in the sense of “mankind.”  Women didn’t invent money.  Money translates into territory, and men are territorial.  If you don’t have much money, you might live in your car.  That’s small territory.  If you have lots of money, you might own thousands of acres of land in Costa Rica.  That’s big territory.

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.  The more money you have, typically, the more money you can make.  The less money you have, the harder it is to make money.  The widening socioeconomic gap is inarguable.  Some noted capitalists like Martin Friedman will say that the poor and middle class have come to enjoy a better standard of living through capitalism, but that depends on what you consider standard of living.  By increasing their debt, the poor and middle class have come to acquire more “stuff” in their lives, like TVs and cell phones on which to watch bad movies.  High conditionality loans which lead to the exploitation of natural and human resources abroad jonah-hexallow us to viddy gems like “Gigli,” but there has been no real wage increase since the 1970s, and just a few years ago there was a rash of underwater mortgages unprecedented in the housing sector, a burst bubble with spatter patterns as ugly as Jonah Hex.  I could go on and on, and talk too about the global lower class, or cleverly analogize our corrupt money-market system to various films, but that isn’t the point.

Some people will point to a cultural degradation and say that movies have diminished in quality because we are becoming a shallower, more decadent culture.  But the surface of culture reveals the socioeconomic structure of what lies beneath.

Money, and a top-heavy system of capitalism are what’s behind our culture now, influencing everything around us, including the movies.

Hey, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the model of capitalism.  Philosophically, there is an appealing side to the model – that each person be unfettered to achieve their highest self through healthy competition.  And that is self-actualization will ultimately contribute to the greater good for society.

But, as the movies show us, capitalism, without an enlightened touch, can run amuck.  Capitalism easily fosters greed.  Capitalism encourages a kind of indifference to one another – to see things in terms of “business” and not humanity, when we all are, at the end of the eight hour work day, still human.

And it seems that many of the films which have done incredibly well over the years did not germinate with a promise of big money – it was the love of storytelling, the joy of innovation itself which hatched them.

As humans, we continue to crave good stories.  We need art to remind us why we bear the suffering of life.  To remind us of the good things, too.  Otherwise, it would be just “business” out there.  Our culture craves quality storytelling just the same as any other time in human history.  We have the tools to do incredible things in the name of art and entertainment, but along comes money, and we wind up where we are now, with some good, but with bigger and bigger bad.

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10 Really Bad Investments

1. Jonah Hex (2010)  Cost: $47 million / Box Office (after 10 weeks): $16.2 million

2. Catwoman (2004)  Cost: $100 million / Box Office: $40.2 million

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3. The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)  Cost: $100 million / Box Office: $4.4 million

4. Gigli  (2003 – Ben Affleck? Jennifer Lopez?  A Marty Brest film?  What went wrong?  This stinker netted a 2.4 out of 10 stars on imdb.)  Cost: $54 million / Box Office: $6 million

ben-affleck-jennifer-lopez-gigli5. Australia (2008)  Cost: $130 million / Box Office: $49.5 million

6. Repo Men (2010)  Cost: $32 million / Box Office: $13.7 million

7. Speed Racer (2008)  Cost: $120 million / Box Office: $43.9 million

8. The Invasion (2007)  Cost: $80 million / Box Office: $15 million

nkid19. Town & Country (2001)  Cost: $90 million / Box Office: $6.7 million

10. How Do You Know (2010)  Cost: $120 million / Box Office: $30 million

Okay, so, some are just bad ideas, (Pluto Nash, Gigli, Catwoman), but some had the promise of ensemble casts of name actors (How Do You Know, Town & Country), the reputation of a successful franchise (Speed Racer, Jonah Hex, The Invasion), the formula of other successful ventures (Australia).  That these failed can only mean, well, they sucked.

And they keep the company of an increasing number of flops like them.  Too much money thrown at ideas “guaranteed” to work.  Moreover, too many ideas green-lit because of the promise of a mega-return.

What these films all have in common is that someone thought they would make a boatload of money by investing in them.  And, to be safe, and go the surefire way, the ventures were contrived to mimic successes from years past, to feature the actors who had drawn big crowds before, and to open sometime around when Jaws opened nearly 40 years ago, spawning the trend of summer releases – in the middle of July.

Money. Money-driven decisions.  Not creativity-driven decisions, but money-driven decisions.  How will we make as much as possible?

On the other hand…

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10 Really Good Investments

You could say, well, without money, we wouldn’t have the great films we have today.  Okay, let’s take a look at some of the consensus-voted “great” or at least “cult classic” films, and see about how much they cost to make, and what they took in at the box office.

1. Rocky (1976) was made for a cool million and took in 225 million at the box office.  Stallone was virtually a nobody at the time, and there are no boxing movie success stories which precede the film.  The success is arguably attributable to the story.

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2. Night of the Living Dead (1968) was produced for a little over a hundred thousand dollars.  It rakes in 30 million world-wide.  Not bad for a bunch of zombies.  Horror films were nothing new at the time, but the irreverence and gore was an innovative stab in the right direction.  Pun, I guess, intended.

3. Mad Max (1980)   Cost: $200,000 / Box Office: $100 million

4. El Mariachi (1992)  Cost: $7,000 / Box Office:  $2 million.

5. Brothers McMullen (1995) – dawn of the “independent film” (with Sex, Lies and Videotape a compatriot)  Cost: $25,000 / Box Office: $10.5 million

6. Supersize Me (2004)  Cost: $60,000 / Box Office: $29 million

7. Blair Witch Project (1999)  Cost: $35,000 / Box Office: $250 million

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8. Halloween (1978)  Cost: $320,000 / Box Office: $60 million

9. Swingers (1996)  Cost: $250,000 / Box Office: $4.5 million

10. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)  Cost: $400,000 / Box Office: $44 million

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 Happy Holidays.

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