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Entries in Casey Affleck (4)

Thursday
Dec052013

Out of the Furnace

It should be said right off the bat that “Out of the Furnace” is not a great movie. In fact, it’s relatively typical of your normal revenge thriller, though it clearly aspires to be more. It stumbles in many areas, but what makes it so appealing is its terrific ensemble cast. Everyone in the film gives applaud worthy performances, elevating the tale to something better than it has any right to be. While it may not reach many “best of” lists, it would be a shame to see it not receive some acting nominations from awards groups nationwide. Although by-the-numbers in many ways, “Out of the Furnace” is still a gripping watch because of them.

Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a small town mill worker who wants nothing more than to live a normal life. He’s one of those quiet heroes screenplays are so fond of, someone who gets things done, helps others and fixes mistakes without dealing with any real confrontation. Despite his non-confrontational attitude and desire to live a normal live, his days are complex. His brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck) who is likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after his stint in Iraq, is a gambler and can’t find the money to pay his bookie, John (Willem Dafoe). This means Russell has to bail him out with the little bit of money he has earned, lest something bad happen to him. His girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), wants nothing more than to have a child, though his hesitance shows he may not be ready for one. And on top of that, his father is gravely ill.

This is enough to give the film its dramatic and emotional edge, but “Out of the Furnace” takes things a few steps further. Russell eventually ends up killing a mother and child when he accidentally slams into their car, which incarcerates him. By the time he gets out, his dad is dead and his girlfriend has left him. It should also be noted that all of this happens in the front end of the movie. These things pile on so high that it would be tragic if it wasn’t so comical. Things get even more complicated later on, if you can believe it, when the psychotic crime boss Harlan (Woody Harrelson) enters the picture and threatens violence against Russell’s brother.

Cramming so much into one picture proves to be the film’s biggest downfall. It’s like the screenwriters didn’t have total faith in their material, so they just threw more and more on top of it until they reached a point where they thought it would practically force viewers to sympathize. It’s a tactic that doesn’t work and it comes off as a tad insulting. Its interesting messages also find themselves skewed by this oversaturation and by some late movie muddle that takes otherwise grounded characters and jumps them to extremes with some questionable actions.

Essentially, “Out of the Furnace” is about how we handle desperation. In the film, Russell handles his situation with poise, showing his kindness whenever he can, even if that kindness means something as seemingly minor as sparing the life of a deer he has resting at the end of his sights, while Rodney is self-destructive, opting to fight in an underground ring, but refusing to throw the fight as instructed due to his own vanity. The juxtaposition is striking at first, but as the film goes on and characters abandon these ideals, it loses its focus. One could argue that what happens is still an exploration of how we handle desperation when we reach our tipping point, but it makes the message no less flimsy. What it explores in its opening moments are negated by its closing.

Even without its hypocrisy in its final moments, the climax is too silly to be taken seriously, ending with your typical Hollywood stylization with an event that would never be allowed to happen in real life given the circumstances. To say more would be to give it away, but what it all boils down to is that “Out of the Furnace” doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to be. Yet it all goes back to the performances. Every one of these actors, including the ones I’ve neglected to mention, give uniformly excellent performances, doing their absolute best with material that is decidedly subpar. For those less interested in acting and more interested in story, “Out of the Furnace” won’t be too enticing, but if you enjoy seeing some of today’s most talented performers at the top of their game, this is one you won’t want to miss.

Out of the Furnace receives 3.5/5

Friday
Aug172012

ParaNorman

Animation is too often thought of as a children’s medium, which is an unfair classification. While it does tend to skew towards them, adults can be just as thrilled, delighted, scared and amused as any young kid. This week’s ParaNorman is evidence of that and it hits all of those emotions many times. This is the first film since 2009’s underrated gem 9 that feels more mature and more alive than most other conventional animated films. Despite its PG rating, it takes many risks in its sometimes unnerving tone, frightening visuals and boundary pushing jokes (let’s just say some parents won’t be pleased by a late movie character reveal) and it’s absolutely wonderful. This is not animation for kids. This is animation for everyone.

The film follows Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young boy who has a special gift: he can see and talk to the dead. The people of Blithe Hollow think he’s a freak, as they watch him walk down the street seemingly talking to the air. What they don’t realize is that the afterlife is indeed a real thing and Norman gets to watch as people journey through it. Perhaps appropriately, he’s a horror fan and stays up most nights watching scary movies on television. The walls of his rooms are lined with zombie posters, his slippers are zombie heads and his alarm clock is a tombstone with an arm sticking out of it and a big “RIP” on the front. Naturally, his odd behavior hasn’t landed him many friends, but he soon learns he’s more important than even he realized. His crazy uncle, whom he was told not to talk to and who happens to share Norman’s powers, suddenly dies. His spirit tells Norman that he must now keep an evil witch at bay. It’s approaching the 300 year anniversary since her death and he must read a book at her resting place before sundown or the dead will spring to life. Unfortunately, Norman is unsuccessful, so he’s forced to set out and correct his blunder.

ParaNorman feels like something “The Simpsons” writers would make if they went a bit darker and tried to tackle horror. It’s fearless, imaginative and incredibly clever. It has plenty of throwaway gags that are surprisingly effective if you catch them, including one billboard gag exclaiming that the local school would be hosting the “Spelling Bee next Wensday.” It’s moments like these that highlight how the filmmakers left no stone unturned. They packed as much as they could into a short 93 minute runtime and somehow pulled it off seamlessly. Gags like that are usually followed by a dramatic or scary scene, but the tone never falters. It never feels inconsistent, like they needed to pick one and stick to it. They take everything that’s great about laughing and crying and being scared and throw it together to form a magical piece of entertainment.

The fact that the animation is smooth and pretty should go without saying; it’s the film’s smarts that surprise the most. It references and spoofs a number of other horror movies, including Halloween, Friday the 13th and those classic Hammer horror films. The opening, in particular, is wonderfully reminiscent of a horror film double feature many would find playing at their local theaters back in the 70’s. It’s a love letter to the genre itself and the unique experience that genre delivers, and it continues this admiration throughout. It creates a voice of its own with a downright wonderful story that concludes in an incredible fashion that manages to be terrifying, sad and beautiful all in one sweep, but it never loses its respect for the genre it obviously endears.

In a strange way, ParaNorman is even a bit profound, finding an odd peace in death, though it’s not quite as involving as this year’s wonderful Studio Ghibli film, The Secret World of Arrietty, where the possibility of life after death was treated less factually, but it nevertheless remains interesting. In the movie, the characters must face their fears, so it’s only appropriate it doesn’t shy away from the reality of death, everyone’s biggest fear. By the time the end rolls around and Norman faces an enemy that is far different than what many will expect, the film has taken on a whole new meaning. ParaNorman wears many faces, both thematically and narratively, but they all combine to create something truly special.

ParaNorman receives 4.5/5

Friday
Nov042011

Tower Heist

Movies are such an inconsistent thing. Some are great, some not so much. Some end up surprising you while the quality of others can be deduced simply by watching trailers. Then there are those that are forgotten as soon as you walk out of the theater. Director Brett Ratner’s new film, Tower Heist, is definitely a member of the latter breed. It’s not a particularly bad film, but it’s certainly nothing worthy of praise. It moves, it makes sounds, the credits roll and it’s gone.

The plot follows the employees of a high-rise building, where its tenants expect 24 hour assistance, 7 days a week. There’s Josh (Ben Stiller), the building manager, Charlie (Casey Affleck), Josh’s brother-in-law, Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), a newly bankrupt Wall Street businessman, Enrique (Michael Peña), a new employee whose only previous work experience is at Burger King, and Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), a cleaning maid. All of them have given their hard earned money to their boss, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), and trusted him to invest it wisely for them. However, they quickly realize they’ve been the victims of a Ponzi scheme and have lost their money, putting them all in dire financial situations. Deciding to take matters into their own hands, they partner with Slide (Eddie Murphy), a man with expertise in thievery, to steal Shaw’s fortune.

In what is essentially Rush Hour meets Ocean’s Eleven, Tower Heist is nothing more than a mild pleasantry, which, in this cinematic day and age, is both above average and not enough. It has a few good jokes and it attempts to tap into the economic woes many Americans are feeling today, though it’s not so much a smart deliberation on the 2008 collapse as it is an economic revenge fantasy, but at least it’s relatable. What this movie does so well is flip the real world on its head and bring to justice those who have gained from the suffering of others. It creates an ugly man, seemingly gentle on the surface, but a monster underneath, and puts him in his place. And it does it all with a smile. It doesn’t make any assessment on the current situation; it only uses it as a tool for over-the-top shenanigans.

And over-the-top does it get. This thing gets so crazy, it could be argued it’s more of an economic revenge fantasy than last week’s similarly themed sci-fi fantasy, In Time. The ending sequence is so ludicrous it’s hard to take seriously, but that’s precisely the point. If In Time dissected the current financial situation with political statements and an allegorical narrative, Tower Heist is pure fluff. It’s for those who aren’t aware of the specifics of how we got to where we are, but know they should be angry at someone. A thinking person’s movie this isn’t, but that’s not to say the silly approach to such a serious issue isn’t welcome all the same.

Despite its intention to be simple fun, the heist depicted in the back half of the film is only moderately interesting. It’s not carried out with precision like in other heist movies, but rather in the way one can only assume the script was written: without a plan and in haste. It’s pulled through, however, thanks to its talented and diversified cast. It’s fun watching Eddie Murphy finally let loose again after hiding behind so many fat suits and subduing himself with wretched family comedies. In this movie, as mediocre as it is, he reminds us why we loved him so much all those years ago. The rest of the cast is good as well, though Ben Stiller’s on-again, off-again New York accent is distracting to the point of amateurism. Why an actor who has been around for so long fell into such an obvious trap is beyond me, but he nevertheless does what he can. The problem is there just isn’t much for him (or anyone else) to do that doesn’t involve outlandish situations and helpful narrative coincidences. Tower Heist is diverting fun while it lasts, but it’s not funny enough, smart enough or exciting enough to be anything more.

Tower Heist receives 3/5

Friday
Sep102010

I'm Still Here

Two years ago, award winning actor Joaquin Phoenix announced his retirement from the film industry. While no specific reason was given, he stated that he wanted to focus on creating a rap album, which would be produced by Sean “Diddy” Combs. It shocked many. The cinema world was losing a major talent. But in early 2009, videos of Phoenix rapping appeared online and his performances were being filmed by none other than his brother-in-law, Casey Affleck. Speculation arose. Soon after his awkward appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” the public really began to wonder whether or not his antics were real, especially after it was announced that a film of his exploits was being made.

I’m Still Here is the chronicle of those exploits, from his sudden realization that he was unhappy acting—even as himself, the media friendly Joaquin Phoenix—to his tragic (or not) downfall. Rumor has it that when searching for a distributor for the movie, potential buyers were unsure whether or not it was a true documentary or a fictional mockumentary. After having seen it, I share in their uncertainty.

If it is fake, it’s one of the most effective ruses ever put to film. Phoenix is believable as the newly retired actor going through a Britney Spears like collapse and given his proven talent, it’s difficult to judge the film’s authenticity. If forced to choose, I’d bet my chips on it being fake, as most movies of this type are, but it really doesn’t matter. The extent of its fiction does little to save what is one of the most self-indulgent movies I’ve seen in a long time.

My colleague, friend and co-host Kevin McCarthy made an interesting comment after the conclusion of I’m Still Here. He said it was the only movie he could recall that you could review in two ways: from the perspective of it being real and the perspective of it being phony. It’s a situation of, “If it’s real, then…” and “If it’s fake, then…” And he’s right, but no matter how you cut it, it's hedonistic. Throughout its runtime, Phoenix acts like a jerk no matter who accompanies him. An interviewer, close friends and even random folks in his general vicinity receive the brunt of his vile verbal ranting. He is so full of himself that he emotionally shuns even those who have stuck by him and love him. So if I’m Still Here is real, Phoenix himself is self-indulgent. If it’s fake, the movie as a whole is.

For two years now, Phoenix has hid behind a façade, plastering his face all over entertainment media with wild speculation about his supposed career change. His relationships have been damaged and his name tarnished. His role here, if the movie is indeed fake (and for the sake of this argument, it is), is of a man who merely wants to get away from the superficiality of Hollywood and do what he wants. He is essentially playing a fake version of himself who is tired of playing a fake version of himself. The very idea spins heads, but it also comes off as a snarky display of exhibitionism done just for the sake of doing so. It’s an artsy, more acceptable way for the whiny kid inside of him to scream, “Look what I can do!”

Frankly, if you took away all of my criticisms so far and looked at I’m Still Here on the basis of whether or not it works as a movie, it merely evokes a feeling of an overextended YouTube clip, which is fitting seeing as how a good chunk of its content is available on that popular video site. In fact, the best parts of the movie, like the hilarious David Letterman segment and the embarrassing hip hop performance that culminates in his falling off the stage, have been online since this whole escapade began. The unseen content involves Phoenix doing things normal people would avoid, like snorting coke, ordering up some hookers, receiving oral sex from aforementioned hookers and so on.

Again, whether or not he is actually partaking in these activities is up in the air, though I sense it wise to retain some skepticism. Besides, if Joaquin Phoenix really wanted to retire from acting, why make a documentary? Surely he must know, as any actor should, that documentaries never fully capture real life. It’s only natural to act out, even to the slightest degree, when a camera is shoved in your face, a fact that contradicts Phoenix’s supposed desire to retire. So perhaps he shouldn’t leave the film industry just yet. He apparently still has a lot to learn.

I’m Still Here receives 1.5/5