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Entries in Revenge Film (3)

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
Sep162011

Drive

Now, here’s a movie that gets things right. Drive blends tones, genres, feelings and perceptions to the point where you’re waiting for it to go wrong, but it never does. It takes things that, in a lesser movie, wouldn’t work and shifts and shapes them perfectly to fit its narrative flow. Drive is an incredibly well rounded movie that only falters in minor areas.

Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed character known simply as Driver, a movie stunt driver and mechanic by day and getaway driver by night. He lives alone in a small apartment complex where he meets Irene, played by Carey Mulligan. She’s the girl-next-door, literally, and she begins to break through his tough outer shell while he bonds with her son. However, her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, has just been released from jail and is coming back home. Unfortunately, he owes protection money and his inability to pay threatens his wife and son. Because he has grown close to the two, Driver takes on another job to earn the money and protect them, but things go horribly wrong.

Drive is the best kind of movie: one that takes you by surprise. It sits you down and keeps you calm before smacking you over the head with a sudden and shocking narrative turn—not many movies can do that these days in a cinematic world of remakes and sequels. This sudden shift is carefully set-up, giving us only glimpses into a man that is quiet and reserved. Aside from his illegal side job, he’s a normal, though seemingly lonely, young man. In these early moments, his character reminds most of George Clooney in last year’s The American. He’s calm and collected, but he is somewhat emotionless, confined to the four walls of his room (or car) and, though only subtly suggested, longing for companionship.

In a movie that begins as a slow, thoughtful drama, its shift into a dark, gruesomely violent and sometimes hard to watch revenge picture is abrupt, though certainly recognized (and intended) by the director who effectively uses sound effects at an increased volume to create the jarring effect. At this moment, the entire feeling of the movie changes, eventually running itself into even blacker territory and, in one particular scene, recalling a masked killer film, but it somehow gels together. Sometimes, there’s no explanation as to how this happens; it just does.

Of course, Driver isn’t the most likable character in the world, but that’s the point. He’s a flawed individual, an anti-hero that strikes women and is perhaps a bit too quick to anger, but the wonderful screenplay and terrific performance from Ryan Gosling keep him grounded. While you certainly won’t approve of some of his actions, you still hope for redemption because Gosling keeps a glimmer of hope alive in him. As one of the most versatile and underrated actors working today (just look at the contrast between this role and his last in Crazy, Stupid, Love), Gosling does wonders and he’s only strengthened by strong supporting actors that include Bryan Cranston and the aforementioned Carey Mulligan, who is perfectly cast (as she always is). She has a real world type of attractiveness, not like the glossed up Hollywood ladies we've become accustomed to, and she brilliantly communicates how her character is feeling with the slightest of expressions.

The lone casting flaw comes in the form of Ron Perlman, who usually comes through when given good material, but he overdoes it here. His over-the-top approach to his character comes with profane language that isn’t offensive because it’s profane, but because it’s excessive and distracting. Similarly out of place are a few unnecessarily long sustained close-ups and the awkward synthpop soundtrack that comes off as somewhat laughable given the dark subject matter (despite the attempted 80’s vibe). All in all, however, Drive is a terrific movie. It’s not always fun (actually, it never is), but it’s gripping, nerve-wracking and well made. If you have a weak stomach, it may not be for you, but for everybody else, it’s a must see.

Drive receives 4.5/5

Friday
Jan292010

Edge of Darkness

Edge of Darkness has an impressive resume. It's directed by Martin Campbell, the man who helmed the excellent James Bond reboot Casino Royale, written by William Monahan, writer of the Oscar winning picture The Departed and stars Mel Gibson, an excellent actor in his first role in seven years, since 2003's The Singing Detective. It has all the parts needed to come together and create an amazing, visceral action picture. So where did things go wrong? Or more precisely, how in the world did these talents come together to create such a mediocre product?

The film follows Craven (Mel Gibson), a Boston detective who has just picked up his daughter (Bojana Novakovic) from the airport. Once she arrives, however, she starts to puke and her nose bleeds uncontrollably. In a panic, she tells her father she needs to go to the hospital, but before they do she insists on telling him something. Before she can get it out, a man in a ski mask appears at the front door and kills her with a shotgun blast to the chest. Craven, now a man with nothing to live for, goes on the hunt to find her killer and unravel the conspiracy that led to her demise.

So basically what I'm saying is that it's your typical revenge flick. Although this does differentiate itself a bit from the others, namely because his kid dies for a reason rather than just plain bad luck (like in 2007's Death Sentence), which gives the protagonist something to track other than the murderer, it's still a routine revenge movie where a vigilante father goes berserk on the baddies with a wide assortment of firearms.

Which is fine. I'm all for a good revenge movie, but Edge of Darkness fails to keep consistent with the whole novelty of the sub-genre. More often than not, nobody really cares about the fallen family member so much as the bullets that fly afterwards. This is no different. Craven's daughter is onscreen for such a small amount of time that it's impossible to truly care about her, even after she's filled with holes, but the movie nevertheless tries to wrangle some teardrops out of nothing. After she is killed, Craven takes her ashes to the beach and dumps them in the ocean, reflecting back on the film's opening 30 seconds that shows an old family video where she is playing in the water as a kid, which is hardly a set-up for an emotional payoff. My complaint isn't the fact that the film lacked emotion. Rather, it's that it tried too hard to force that emotion through when none was really needed.

Now, there are only a couple of things I hated in Edge of Darkness and for every bad thing, there's a great one to balance it out. For instance, the acting is terrific. It's a return to form for Mel Gibson. His gritty determination as the hellbent father vowing justice for his fallen daughter is played pitch perfectly, even if he is forced to act out a few ridiculous scenes where he sees the ghost of her or hears her voice speaking to him. Couple him with another great actor, Ray Winstone, who plays a government operative sent to clean up their messes, and you have a sublime pair whose scenes play out like a fluid dance. Their dialogue together is wonderful and neither outshine the other. They simply do their part in telling the story. Their scenes together are easily the best part of this movie.

Unfortunately, the skillful panache of those scenes does little more than draw attention to how haphazard the rest of the production is. Some scenes don't fit into the flow of the story, working as an unnecessary way to break up the talking with some action, the material doesn't stay completely afloat during its two hour run time and the final shot of the movie is, I'm pretty sure, the dumbest possible way this thing could have ended.

That's not to say this is a bad movie. It's not. It's just a painfully mediocre one. I'm tempted to recommend Edge of Darkness anyway given the poor quality of movies this month, but it is in its failure to realize its own potential that prevents me from doing so.

Edge of Darkness receives 2.5/5