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Entries in Thriller (24)

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
Mar152013

The Call

The worst type of movie is the type that starts out so strong and has so much potential only to fall apart by the end, completely squandering it. “The Call” is one of those movies and contains one of the most monumental meltdowns I’ve ever seen a film take. One moment, it’s an edge-of-your-seat nail biter and the next, it’s a laughable thriller that takes enough absurd plot turns to completely derail it.

The film stars Halle Berry as Jordan Turner, a 911 operator who has had her fair share of difficult calls. She’s usually at the top of her game, but one night she makes a grave mistake. She receives a call from a young teenage girl reporting an intruder in her house and she advises her to do all the correct things, effectively tricking that intruder into thinking she has fled. However, the call disconnects and she immediately redials. When the phone stops ringing, due to the girl’s answering of it, the intruder realizes she’s still there and finds her. Shortly after, they find the poor girl dead.

It’s a terrific beginning to the film and humanizes Jordan in an unexpected way. When her decision causes that young girl to die, she immediately breaks down and blames herself. She is haunted by what she has done and by the voice on the other end of the phone that tells her “it’s already done” when she pleads him to stop. It’s an effective opening because her job calls for her to be emotionally distant, never minding the fact that she is often the only thing standing between life and death for her callers. Despite her experience on the floor, she finds the event difficult to cope with, as anybody would, creating layers in her personality that a lesser movie would have kept hidden.

Six months later, Jordan has stepped off the operator floor and is training others, still unable to muster up the courage to answer the phone. However, when a newer operator finds herself lost in a similar situation, she takes the reins. This time, the girl is named Casey Welson, played by Abigail Breslin, and she has woken up in the trunk of a car. Here is where the movie works best because it finds its focus. With Casey in that trunk and Jordan at the call center, each talking to the other, you’re able to connect with them and fear for their plight. Their personalities are built up, broken down and the relationship they make with each other is meaningful because Casey knows full well that Jordan could be the last person she ever speaks to. One incredible moment comes when Casey, swelling with tears, gives Jordan a message to pass onto her mother, just in case she doesn’t make it.

Even better is that the characters do everything you would expect them to. Casey is asked to look for an emergency release lever, kick out the taillights and wave her arm around and even look around the trunk for objects that may help her. When she finds a paint can, she wisely opens it up and pours it out that now broken taillight in an attempt to provide a trail for police to follow. The only issue with these moments are the idiot civilians that try to help after seeing her in the trunk, but instead do everything they can to make the situation worse. Although necessary to keep the story moving, the decisions made by Jordan and Casey are so wise that it makes these moments somewhat frustrating.

But then it all goes downhill. Once Casey and her abductor make it to his hideout and the cops lose the trail, Jordan pulls that old action/thriller cliché and “takes matters into her own hands.” Without giving anything away, she becomes a better crime scene investigator than the actual crime scene investigators (at a place where, frankly, cops should have been posted anyway) and makes the boneheaded decision to follow the trail and attempt to rescue Casey herself rather than call the cops. Although meant to empower the character, help her overcome her fears and attain redemption, these plot turns take the film from something frightening and unique to silly and typical of your standard thriller.

This last act is so bad, it threatens to destroy everything that came before it, but to deny those early sequences their due would be foolish. “The Call” is half of a great movie and is enhanced by above average performances from a terrific ensemble cast. The villain, played by Michael Eklund, is truly wretched and only the most jaded of viewers won’t send their hearts out to Casey and Jordan. Because of this, “The Call” remains recommendable, but what could have been an enthusiastic recommendation instead becomes a passionless “meh.”

The Call receives 2.5/5

Friday
Dec072012

Deadfall

With December finally here and the awards season right around the corner, one can’t help but wonder what the motivation was to release Deadfall right in the thick of it. It certainly doesn’t deserve a place among the more coveted films to be released this month, instead feeling more like a standard throwaway thriller that should have been released in January or February, when studios dump whatever garbage they have sitting around into theaters just to get it out of their hands. To be fair, Deadfall isn’t terrible. It’s just terribly boring. With movies like Skyfall behind us and The Hobbit in front, there’s no real reason to see this. Just wait the extra week until it inevitably vanishes from our collective memories.

Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde) aren’t your typical siblings. They’re actually thieves who have just escaped from a casino heist gone wrong and are on their way to the Canadian border. However, when their driver crashes their car in an attempt to avoid a passing animal, they find themselves forced to make the trek on foot in a blizzard, splitting up and vowing to meet later. Eventually, Liza runs into Jay (Charlie Hunnam), a Silver medalist at the Beijing Olympics who has just been released from prison and is on his way to his parents (played by Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson) for Thanksgiving dinner. Liza and Jay start an innocent fling with each other, playing a game where they pretend to be together and go by different aliases, which puts a kink in Addison’s plan to reunite with his sister and cross the border, which Jay’s parents live very close to.

And, as expected, this leads to a final showdown at Jay’s household that plays out more like a whimper than a bang. Although it wouldn’t be right to spoil what happens, Deadfall is such a conventional thriller that all but those who are completely unfamiliar with the genre will be able to predict its sequence of events well before they actually happen. It plods along rather typically and banally; it’s not until that final sequence that the film manages to build up any excitement at all. When everyone converges on that house where Bana has taken the parents hostage and the game between Jay and Liza has blossomed into a full-fledged romance, everybody unaware of Liza’s true relationship to Addison, intrigue is built, but by then, it’s too little too late and it ends too abruptly, never allowing us to savor the feeling of watching certain characters get their comeuppance.

With such a boring, trite story, the least Deadfall could do was give us the pleasure of watching someone get what’s coming to them, but it instead favors wrapping up inconsequential side stories that were mostly uninteresting and laughable to begin with. The most egregious offender of this comes in the form of Hanna (Kate Mara), a police officer in this small, quiet town who has daddy issues revolving around sexism, blame and a lack of trust. Unfortunately for her, her dad is the Sheriff and she answers to him. It's a terrible an underdeveloped B-story and every exchange they have is forced to the point where I’m pretty sure the actors involved developed hemorrhoids. (When asked why she can’t go out and help in their investigation, he responds with a question about what she would do if something important came up. “What if you have to change your tampon?” he asks.)

Perhaps the only thing more bored than I was while watching Deadfall were the actors actually in it, most of whom seemed to be coasting by for a paycheck while they waited for their next big break, particularly Eric Bana, who has always been an underwhelming actor, even in critically lauded films like Munich. They all seem to put forth only the slightest bit of effort, as if they knew that pretty much nobody was going to watch their movie. If they somehow had that premonition, they’re likely to be right. Deadfall just doesn’t deserve our time. Put it out in the middle of February, when moviegoers have been numbed by at least a month of likely-to-be-bad films and perhaps it looks more appetizing, but now? We have plenty of better options.

Deadfall receives 2/5

Friday
Oct192012

Alex Cross

Tyler Perry has a niche audience that flocks to anything he has his name attached to. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it limits his appeal. His involvement in this week’s new release, Alex Cross, extends only to his onscreen persona—he didn’t write or direct this as he does his other work—so it makes me wonder if Perry is looking to branch out and try something different, something that doesn’t involve dressing up in a dress and wig. If that’s the case, he better look elsewhere. This movie is a train wreck, a disaster that I imagine even die hard Perry fans will hate. From the opening scene where a fleeing bad guy shoots what may be the slowest bullet ever shot to its banal and unbelievable (meaning stretching the limits of credibility) ending, Alex Cross does a grand total of zero things right.

Perry plays the titular character, Dr. Alex Cross, a Detroit detective who has an affinity for calling people “maggot” and who is tasked with tracking down a murderer nicknamed Picasso, played by Matthew Fox, who is running amok in his city. Along with his partner, Tommy, played by Edward Burns, Cross sets out stop him, unaware of the tragedies about to befall him.

I would say Alex Cross is your standard action/thriller, but the word “standard” implies some level of competence. It implies that the film is adequate, if unremarkable, and though it may not push the boundaries on what the genre can do, it serves its purpose well. That isn’t the case here. From lackadaisical direction to some of the most poorly edited sequences in a movie this year, like when Picasso seemingly transports from the top of a high rise building to the sewers without breaking the onscreen timeline, the film is a complete and utter mess. It’s so bad, I felt embarrassed for simply watching it; I can only imagine how the filmmakers must feel.

Director Rob Cohen, the man behind such classics as xXx and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, directs Alex Cross like someone looking to mature, but not knowing how. It’s a darker, sadder film than his previous efforts, or at least it tries to be, but he fails to make his actors bring it to life. It has long been said that a movie is only as good as its villain. If that’s true, Alex Cross is one of the worst movies to grace the screen in many a moon. Picasso is as boring as villains come and Fox, despite having already proven himself as a talented actor in his past works, plays him so over-the-top as to be unintentionally laughable. For the majority of the movie, he does little more than bug his eyes out and move with a twitch. Fox seems to forget that villains are supposed to be menacing, not comical.

It must also be said that the pairing of Perry and Burns is the worst buddy cop pairing since Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan in Kevin Smith’s 2010 disaster Cop Out (which Alex Cross is actually funnier than, though it’s not supposed to be). Perry and Burns strike up no chemistry and don’t feel like longtime partners. Their scenes are so bad, particularly when they’re trying to strike up witty repartee (“I’d rather take advice from a ham sandwich,” Perry says at one point), that you can still feel the awkwardness between the two actors, as if these scenes were the first ones shot and they hadn’t yet gotten comfortable with each other. To be fair, it’s not just their scenes. When the movie is littered with lines like “I didn’t get you pregnant by talking,” any attempts at legitimacy fly out the window.

Alex Cross is one of those master sleuths we see so often these days. You know the ones, the ones who can solve a crime in a matter of minutes with simple observation and who are so hard to believe or take seriously. If the whiz kids at NCIS can solve their crimes in 45 minutes, Alex Cross can do it in 20, which, coincidentally, is the maximum amount of time you’ll want to spend with him (if that). Of course, you’ll have figured out the mystery long before the characters onscreen—the film’s visual clues and expository dialogue are anything but subtle—so that inconsequential and uninteresting narrative twist at the end (that perfectly complements the inconsequential and uninteresting movie it resides in) doesn’t shock as much as I’m sure was intended. If you mistakenly decide to subject yourself to Alex Cross, it’s guaranteed to be a difficult movie to sit through; the desire to get up and leave will be a constant inner struggle. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about it and it fails on every level.

Alex Cross receives 0/5

Friday
Oct122012

Argo

Ben Affleck has made one of the biggest turnarounds in movie history, going from a laughable actor thanks to poor roles in movies like Pearl Harbor to a bona fide A-list director thanks to efforts like The Town and Gone Baby Gone. However, both of those movies were largely ignored by the Academy, which was a crime in the latter’s case. Thanks to an expanded Best Picture roster and its “based on a true story” description, his latest, Argo, is very likely to get a nod come awards season, but the irony is that it’s his least deserving. It’s definitely a good movie, technically well-made and emotionally gripping, yet it feels so standard. It feels like they took a real life event, glossed it up with dramatics that almost certainly don’t parallel what actually happened and dropped it in theaters. Like the rest of this year’s movie line-up, this promising attempt at cinematic glory ends up a disappointment.

The movie begins in November of 1979. Unrest is taking over Iran and the people are flooding the streets in protest. Their overwhelming numbers eventually lead to an inevitability: they take over the US Embassy in Iran and hold everyone hostage, everyone except for a smart group of Americans who flee out the back. They end up taking refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s estate while things outside boil over, but what they hoped would be days turn to weeks and the weeks to months. Eventually, the US hears of the Americans who escaped and sets up an exfiltration. They employ CIA expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to get them out, so he comes up with a plan. He, with the help of make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and Hollywood hotshot Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), decides to create a fake movie under the guise of a Canadian film production company looking to shoot in Iran. Once he arrives, he gives the Americans their fake identities and begins the process of moving them out of the country. It’s a long shot, but it’s the best option they have.

Argo has a lot going for it—a terrific cast, sharp writing and a gripping true story narrative set against the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis, one of the most tumultuous and nerve-wracking times in US history—and all of those strengths combine to make something worth watching. Still, its familiarity shines through. Its process of events is overdramatized like any typical Hollywood screenplay and, though still exciting, the ending is a foregone conclusion for anyone who is keen on history. Somehow, the film still manages to build excitement and tension despite those issues, which is a testament to the talent behind it, but what it lacks is verve and the raw emotion that was so present in Affleck’s two previous directorial efforts. The characters, despite their troubled situation, lack passion and never really hit one extreme or the other like they did in The Town or Gone Baby Gone. Although understandable, given that they had to keep their composure to fool the Iranians and escape the country, it strips the film of emotional weight.

The only actor who gets to flex his muscles is Bryan Cranston as Jack O’Donnell, the CIA boss with control over the operation, but the focus isn’t on him, so his contribution is comparatively negligible. However, it’s still better to not try to hit those emotional highs than to reach for them and fail. Argo doesn’t seem so interested in making you care, perhaps because we all know the ending, and instead focuses on delivering visceral thrills and plentiful laughs (strangely enough, it often plays more like a comedy than a drama). Although it largely succeeds, the end result is a fairly conventional thriller hiding under the guise of a meaningful political one.

If anything, the film’s standout aspect is the visuals, which blends archival footage with Hollywood magic. The transition between the two is so close to perfect that it’s hardly noticeable and it gives the film some convincing visual authenticity. Aware of this, the film flashes up side-by-side photos of events and people both in real life and in the movie during the credits. The comparisons are stunning. The care that went into recreating this turbulent period in history and capturing it on camera is clearly evident; it’s the rest of the movie that needed work. It’s still a good movie and it continues Ben Affleck’s impressive filmmaking streak, but it’s too funny when it should be unsettling, too over-the-top when it should be dramatic and too routine to stand out.

Argo receives 3.5/5