Friday, February 21, 2014

"Out of the Furnace" and "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" Squander Strengths by Overreaching

Despite it's drawbacks, there is a palpable emotional undercurrent to
Out of the Furnace, largely due to Bale's stellar performance.
I recently took in two extremely well-reviewed Casey Affleck movies – Out of the Furnace and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – and my feelings about them are so similar that it made sense to throw them together in the same review.

Both are stripped-down entries that admirably avoid artifice and offer subtle, lived-in work from a talented assortment of actors. But both also take narratives that would normally make for fun, pulpy b-movies and turn them into somber, artsy-fartsy ballads straining for profundity.

I’m all about subverting genre conventions, and as a general rule I’m not against these sort of lyrical meditations – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford does something similar, and it’s one of my favorite films (oddly enough, it also stars Affleck as a troubled outsider). But going this route can totally defang a story, turning what could be something worthwhile into a boring and opaque disappointment.

Of the two, Out of the Furnace is the superior film. It stars Christian Bale as a hard-working grunt at a steel mill who lands in jail after a fatal drunk driving accident. While incarcerated, he loses his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) to a local cop (Forest Whitaker) and misses out on the remaining days of his sickly father. The only thing he retains is the love of his troubled brother (Affleck), a restless and emotionally damaged Iraqi War veteran who falls into a bare-knuckle brawling ring populated by some shady criminals, including a mostly honorable loan shark (Willem Dafoe) and a homicidal maniac (Woody Harrelson).

The film has a lot going for it. All the actors are in peak form, insinuating as much character and personality as is possible with such a bare bones approach. Bale shares a particularly good scene with Saldana that brutally exhibits what his mistake cost him, and his brotherly bond with Affleck is believably wrought.

There’s also a nicely modulated mournfulness hovering over this story of blue collar hardship, and it has a good thread at its core. I could easily imagine all of these components adding up to an excellent drama about a good man who did a bad thing and is now left to pick up the pieces. Instead, writer/director Scott Copper gets bogged down with exploring unsatisfying revenge elements. The film builds to its logical conclusion and ends with a boldly tantalizing final image, but it’s all just so limp.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints embraces a Malick-like aesthetic.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints fairs worse because the character dynamics aren’t as engrossing and the bad guys are woefully undefined. It focuses on Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Affleck), Bonnie and Clyde types who get involved in a robbery gone wrong and end up in a shootout during which Ruth shoots a cop (Ben Foster). Since Ruth is pregnant with their child, Bob takes the fall, claiming Ruth was an innocent victim in all of it.

Several years later, Ruth is on the straight and narrow, leading a simple life with her daughter Sylvie. When Bob breaks out of prison prepared to whisk his family away, Ruth has to consider what’s right for her daughter. There’s also the matter of that cop Ruth shot, who in investigating Bob’s jailbreak grows closer to her and Sylvie.

Once again, there are things to like – the setup is decent, the cinematography is breathtaking and the acting is top-notch – but writer/director David Lowery’s emphasis is put so emphatically on the picturesque landscape and poetic atmosphere that the whole thing plays as if on mute. Once Bob breaks out, he not only has to worry about the law, but also three shady goons out for blood, and it is never explained where these baddies came from. Some might see this ambiguity as strength, but it only works to add confusion.

These movies have their share of positives, but ultimately they are just too ponderous and intentionally vague to register as great films. I imagine a certain type of person would go gagga over their delicate sinew or something like that, but there’s just a lifelessness to them that left me wanting more. Out of the Furnace B, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints C+

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Linklater Deepens Cinema’s Greatest Romance With Trilogy-Capping “Before Midnight”

After showcasing Vienna and Paris in the first two films, Before
takes place in Greece.
Every movie fan has more than a few films that their embarrassed to say they haven’t actually seen. For some reason, even though we all manage to catch up with our fair share of obvious duds like Baby Geniuses or Boat Trip, a multitude of true classics always fall through the cracks.

Despite my love for cinema and the crazy amount of time I spend on it, my list is still quite extensive. It’s probably no surprise that I haven’t seen many of the foreign classics by the likes of Godard, Traffaut, Bergman, and Fellini, but there are plenty of American films I’ve missed as well. For instance, although I’m a huge fan of the Godfather and have seen it about a dozen times, I’ve never actually seen Godfather, Part II. Meanwhile, it was only a few months ago that I finally caught up with The Silence of the Lambs, and I’m ashamed to admit I’ve yet to watch Apocalypse Now, A Clockwork Orange, Schindler’s List, Vertigo, and Lawrence of Arabia, among many other legendary films.

I try not to beat myself up over this, because, for whatever reason, there’s just so much more effort involved when you know you’re sitting down to watch a classic. Sometimes it’s just simpler to watch something of-the-moment, even mediocre drivel. Is We’re The Millers better than The Big Sleep? Most assuredly no, and yet I still spent two hours of my weekend watching Sudeikis and Aniston in lieu of Bogart and Bacall. It’s just the way things are.

I bring all this up as a preamble to my reaction to Before Midnight, which is the third in writer/director Richard Linklater’s series of talky films focused on soul mates Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). Up until a few weeks ago, I’d never seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the first two films in the trilogy. I was aware they existed and knew of the good buzz around them, and yet, I never went out of my way to seek them out. After all, how vital could two movies about star-crossed lovers bullshitting with each other during strolls through European locales possibly be?

After reading the raves for Midnight, I decided it was time to prioritize watching the first two films so that I could sit down for the third. Now, after having digested all three films, I’m fully confident that this trilogy belongs on the embarrassment list of any movie fan that has yet to see them. What Linklater and his actors (both of whom co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplays for the latter two entries) have accomplished with these films is outright mindboggling. Each one is great on its own, but as a whole, the trilogy places among the greatest cinematic triumphs I've ever seen.

Jesse and Celine are a long way from the idealized encounters they
shared in Before Sunrise (left) and Before Sunset (right).
For good reason, much of the emphasis on these films will be put on the romantic element and that makes sense. This is dubbed as one of the best romances in cinema history and with good reason – through three films Linklater has detailed the ongoing process that is love. Without giving too much away, it’s fair to say that Sunrise offers a dreamy evening between would-be lovers in Vienna, Sunset rekindles the passion after nine years apart, and Midnight catches up with the duo nine years later , during a critical juncture of what has become a long-term relationship.

There’s a universality to the whole journey – the idealism of a fresh connection, the realization that it wasn’t a fluke, that the love really was palpable and unique, and then, finally, the realism that sets in once you’re waist deep in a relationships, trying to keep love alive while maintaining your personal identity, making compromises and getting on one another’s nerves.

But these films detail not only the arc of a relationship, but the growth in these two people, and there’s something entirely relatable about the way the creative team so expertly captures the contradictions of the life stages in these three snapshots of life.

In his widely accepted Stages of Psychosocial Development, psychologist Erik Erikson* describes the psychosocial crisis for young adults (18 to 40) as love vs. intimacy, and the first two films fall in line with his teachings. There is a giddiness to the first film that echoes what it’s like being in your late teens and early 20s, a time when you’re fearless and exuberant but somehow simultaneously filled with all sorts of doubt. And the second highlights the mounting confidence that comes along midway through young adulthood that consistently clashes with a sort of restless desperation for things to finally come together.

*I’m not trying to be overly clinical here, but it’s very hard not to mention Erikson, especially considering Boyhood, Linklater’s latest film. Shot over the course of 12 years with the same four actors (Hawke included), the film is a literal coming of age story that chronicles the development of a boy from age 6 to 18. Clearly Linklater has a great interest in development and the passage of time, and it’s hard to imagine he hasn’t considered Erikson’s theory himself given that and how the theory perfectly dovetails with what he’s done in this series. If I ever were to get a chance to speak with the guy, you can bet I’d be sure to ask him about it.

Unlike the previous two entries in the series, Before Midnight features several other significant characters.

In Midnight, Jesse and Celine are no longer spring chickens. Erickson would place them firmly in adulthood (40 to 65), a time in which people begin wrestling with the psychosocial crisis of generativity vs. stagnation. It’s a time for people to focus on making a lasting mark in the world, and so, rightly, we find Jesse and Celine dealing with fears related to child rearing and career choices.

Overall, I think I like Sunset the best, mostly because it’s filmed in real-time, which lends immediacy to Jesse and Celine’s race to determine if this connection they’ve long idealized is a love worth changing their lives over. But all three films are absolutely fantastic in the way they capture the contradictions of life and love.

To focus specifically solely on the newest film, I greatly enjoy the ways in which it differentiates itself from its predecessors. Through the end of the second film, we had seen every moment shared between these two people, but now there’s nine years of added history – tender moments and strained concessions we haven’t witnessed – and that adds an extra weight to the proceedings.

Yes, Midnight ultimately focuses on a long and winding conversation in yet another European destination, but Linklater also opens up the narrative in the early going, including a revealing interaction between Jesse and his son from a previous relationship, as well as an extended dinner party sequence during which Jesse and Celine banter with several other couples. These two are no longer the sole voices on display, which is a clever way of indicating the mounting external factors these two are coping with now that fantasy has been replaced by reality. Things get darker in this third outing as the duo begins to feel boxed in by circumstance, and the narrative goes in some deeper and more complicated directions as a result.

Before closing, I have to mention that one of the very best things about these films is how wonderfully each one ends. All of them go out on satisfyingly poignant notes while somehow still leaving things provocatively unresolved. I’m not sure if Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have the desire to keep returning to Jesse and Celine every nine years, but further entries would be more than welcome if they remain anywhere near as thought-provoking and engrossing as the first three have been. A

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

McQueen Delivers With the Harrowing "12 Years A Slave"

12 Years A Slave has a number of squirm-inducing long takes.
Just a year after Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (reviewed here), director Steve McQueen has brought another slavery tale to mainstream America, but his 12 Years A Slave proves a far more unsettling experience.

Whereas Django Unchained had all sorts of accouterments that made its brutality palpable for viewers – clever dialogue, irreverent humor and, importantly, the revenge element – 12 Years A Slave is an unflinching horror story. It is a serious movie about a serious topic, and in depicting slave conditions of the mid 1800s, it offers no moments of levity to break up the ugliness.

Based on the autobiographical account of Solomon Northup, 12 Years A Slave tells the story of how a free, educated black man was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Northup languished on several southern plantations for 12 years before finally coming across a Canadian carpenter willing to send word to his family and friends up north. After being freed, he became a major voice for the abolitionist cause and joined the Underground Railroad before ultimately disappearing a decade later under mysterious circumstances midway through the Civil War.

Knowing all of that doesn’t spoil the movie since it basically gives away the resolution in the title. The film is much more concerned with communicating the slavery experience – the savagery of a broken and immoral system that shockingly and embarrassingly took root in our country. McQueen doesn’t shy away from the inherent inhumanity of the story, and he purposefully holds certain shots for unbearably long amounts of time.

Two whippings are depicted in one-shot long takes and a scene in which Solomon is left hanging by a noose, struggling on tiptoes to stay alive is made all-the-more uncomfortable by contrasting his squirming for survival against the everyday farm work happening around him. Meanwhile, another scene in which slaves are displayed naked for purposes of sale is particularly unnerving given just how blasé the customers seem as they roam around an open house perusing potential product.

The cast is uniformly excellent, as one might expect given the three acting nominations the film landed from the Academy. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a gifted actor who probably hasn’t gotten the opportunities he deserves because he’s something like the eighth or ninth middle-aged black guy vying for roles in Hollywood, but he owns the screen here, using his wonderfully expressive face to communicate an array of emotions from confusion to desperation to relief.
Prepare for some powerhouse acting.
Meanwhile, McQueen regular Michael Fassbender gives a terrifying portrayal as Edwin Epps, an unhinged slave owner who uses select bible passages to justify his unbridled mistreatment of slaves. Both Ejiofor and Fassbender are worthy of any recognition that comes their way and the two of them share a quiet and intense sequence by lamp light that is one my favorite individual scenes from a 2013 film.

Despite their greatness, most of the acting accolades for the film have been funneled toward Lupita Nyong’o. She plays Patsey, a slave with an unparalleled ability to pick cotton who becomes the unfortunate focus of Epps’ affections, leading to a great deal of abuse from his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson as an evil Lady MacBeth type). I wouldn’t normally have expected Nyong’o to get such awards traction, but it’s a relatively weak field and she gives a solid performance, so I have no qualms about her taking home as many trophies as possible.

The rest of the cast is populated by a number of well-known actors, which can, at times, become a bit of a distraction. Paul Dano and Benedict Cumberbatch are given enough to do that they blend in seamlessly, but Alfre Woodard and Paul Giamatti call undue attention to themselves despite delivering fine performances.

Worst of all is the casting of Brad Pitt as the Canadian who orchestrated Solomon’s freedom. Pitt’s a producer on the film and he deserves a lot of credit for its existence, but he’s too big a star to show up in a spot like this. The role is a bit problematic anyway since the character is sort of a deus ex machina, but considering Pitt’s producer status, his presence adds a seemingly self-aggrandizing element. There’s nothing wrong with his performance, but it does pull the viewer out of the narrative once Brad Pitt shows up to punch slavery in the mouth.

That’s a minor blight, but the film does have some other flaws. For instance, the passage of time is poorly delineated and the key relationship between Patsey and Solomon is underdeveloped. However, none of that takes away from the achievement that is 12 Years A Slave. This is a great piece of film-making filled with a number of harrowing sequences and exceptional work in front of and behind the camera. It's not the best film of 2013, but it's pretty damn close to the top of the list. A

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Polley Gets Personal With the Delightful "Stories We Tell"

Sarah Polley delves into her family history for her third film.
After the excellent one-two punch of Away From Her and Take This Waltz (which I reviewed last year), actress-turned-director Sarah Polley has ventured into the realm of nonfiction with her third feature. It's hard to talk about what makes the award-winning Stories We Tell such a treat without ruining some of the documentary's surprising revelations, but it is fair to say it covers the same thematic terrain of her fiction work – marriage, infidelity and the pursuit of personal fulfillment.

Using a combination of talking heads, family videos and cannily cast dramatic recreations, the film focuses on Polley’s enigmatic mother Diane, a woman with plenty of secrets who died when Polley was just 11 years old. Every player in the story – Polley's siblings and half-siblings, her father, her mother's various friends –gets a chance to offer their versions of the woman and her actions.

It’s easy to wonder why one would want to sit down and watch a documentary about a filmmaker’s mother, but the Polley brood is so intriguingly non-nuclear and each member so distinct that it’s hard not to get drawn into their orbit. Polley’s father Michael emerges as the heart of the film. When she begins to really pry into his past, he jokes, “What a vicious director you are” in a way that coveys he is both pained to dig up these emotions and impressed by the command of his daughter.

The film also makes some universal points that take it beyond the self-regarding piece it could have been. Initially it’s not clear which home videos are real and which are fabrications, but that only strengthens Polley’s argument about what she calls the “vagaries of truth.” There’s an often-unintended pliability to the way people process their pasts, and Polley captures that perfectly here.

“I’m interested in the way we tell stories about our lives, about the fact that the truth about the past is often ephemeral and difficult to pin down,” Polley says early in the film. By going the Roshomon route, Polley makes some keen points about skewed perceptions and unreliable memories, and she ultimately offers a layered presentation of Diane by stringing together the sometimes dissonant viewpoints of those left behind. A