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Entries in Willem Dafoe (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
Mar092012

John Carter

Money doesn’t make a movie. A big budget film can still be hackneyed and derivative (see Avatar for that) and a movie with a low budget can be wonderfully imaginative with richly drawn characters and thought provoking subject matter (like Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, which was made on a budget of well under one million dollars). This week’s John Carter, with its purported budget of around $250 million, is a clear example of the former. No amount of money could save its abysmal script, uninteresting and hopelessly convoluted story, bad acting and generic action. If early predictions are correct, John Carter could end up being one of the biggest flops of the year, perhaps of all time. Based on what I’ve seen, such failure wouldn’t only be justified. It would be worth cheering over.

The story revolves around the titular John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) a Civil War veteran who one day stumbles upon a fabled cave. There he finds a medallion which transports him to Mars. Upon arriving, he is greeted by a species of tall green creatures led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), who is initially interested in John’s ability to jump vast distances (due to the different gravitational pull of the planet), but soon finds his rebellion untrustworthy. John becomes their prisoner, but soon a war breaks out between the planet’s different factions and he is called upon by Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to help stop Matai Shang (Mark Strong), the leader of a race called the Therns, who, I don’t know, control the planet’s destiny or something.

As with most movies that are too complicated for their own good, it’s not difficult to get the gist of what is happening in John Carter—an ordinary man is placed in an extraordinary situation and must help defend Mars’ inhabitants from an approaching evil—but specifics are difficult to decipher. Much of this is due to the fact that it’s far too hard to even distinguish between characters, much less figure out their motivations. The aforementioned tall green species, for example, all have four arms, tusks growing out of their heads and nearly identical skin tones. I’m sure you could spot tiny differences from alien to alien, but the baffling story will most likely keep you from caring enough to do so.

Such a lack of imagination permeates not just in those creatures’ design, but through the entire film. Although Mars is indeed nothing more than surface rocks in the real world, such bleak, dreary visuals are unbecoming for a science fiction film. When Carter first arrives, his surrounding environment looks more like a Western than anything else, only without trees and with a redder hue. There are aliens other than those generic green people on the planet too, but they’re nothing more than humans with tattoos on their faces and silly costumes that look like they were made out of plastic. In a sci-fi world set on Mars, there needs to be more. It’s too simple to make half of the creatures human and the other half humanlike, only with two more arms and green skin.

Such blandness begs the question: where did that $250 million go? The effects are good, though not always effective, and most of the actors aren’t recognized enough to demand too high of paychecks. It shows too. Taylor Kitsch doesn’t have the chops to carry a big action film such as this and he annoyingly speaks in a whispered monotone, similar to Jack Bauer in TV’s 24, which South Park so brilliantly lampooned in Season 11’s “The Snuke.” His love interest, played by Collins, is similarly poor. If you look through her filmography, you’ll see that she’s been in well known films like Bug, The Number 23 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but chances are you won’t remember her in any of them. Something tells me there’s a reason for that.

Twenty minutes into John Carter, I was ready for it to end, but then it went on for another two hours. That’s a long time to sit through a movie with almost nothing going for it, including its shoddily up-converted 3D effects that remind us, even after Scorsese utilized the format so beautifully in Hugo, that it’s little more than a cash grabbing gimmick and rarely useful in the telling of a story. Simply put, John Carter lacks the vitality of the science fiction genres most beloved films. It’s a waste of time of money.

John Carter receives 1/5

Monday
Jan112010

Daybreakers

There was a time when vampires used to be the epitome of cool. There was a time when Blade ruled the box office with its hard R rating, providing plenty of action and blood for fans. There was a time when vampires weren't reduced to frilly angst ridden teenagers entwined in a romantic love triangle with a self-pitying high school girl and shirtless werewolf. I remember those times. Oh, how I miss them. Vampires used to be scary, stalkers of the night out for the blood of unsuspecting humans. Now they sparkle when they walk in the sun. Thankfully, nay, blessedly, Daybreakers is here to set things straight. While it may be coming at an unfortunate time, in the wake of those silly Twilight movies, it's nevertheless a riotous good time.

The year is 2019. Due to a single bat with a strange virus, a plague of vampirism has spread across the world like a wildfire. Now, less than five percent of the population is human. Everybody else has turned into a demon of the night, but things still run as usual. They still go to work, drink coffee (with blood instead of cream) and drive and the television politics still rage on. The only difference is that they do it all at night and the political arguments are about the extermination of the human race. During the day, the world is one giant ghost town, which proves to be a perfect opportunity for the last remaining humans to venture outside in search of other humans. Edward (not to be confused with that pale skinned, love sick ninny), played by Ethan Hawke, a vampire himself, runs into a group of them one day on his way home from work. Although they threaten to kill him, he has no desire to feed on them and helps them instead. He's one of those human-hugging types. Hippie.

He does this despite a global shortage of blood. In fact, in another few weeks, the last remaining human harvests will dry up and the vampires will all go mad feeding on each other, which will increase the rate of their deterioration until they all finally die. However, those humans have found a cure for vampirism thanks to a former vampire called Elvis, played by Willem Dafoe, and they enlist Edward in their attempt to save not only themselves, but the whole world.

Not since 2000's Shadow of the Vampire, which also starred Willem Dafoe, have I seen such a unique vampire movie. Finally a film comes along that dares to switch up the tried and true formula. It takes the basic concept of vampires feeding on humans and flips it around. What if there were no humans left to feed on? The premise is intriguing and an interesting commentary on our dwindling resources with our growing population. Who knew a bloody horror flick could be so smart?

But then again, it's not like I had my brain tuned to "think" when I sat down to watch Daybreakers. All I really wanted was a slickly done vampire movie with humor and gore and that's what I got. After watching Twilight and New Moon, where the only pain inflicted on anyone was purely on an emotional level, it was nice to see some pain transcend to the physical realm. This thing gets red with some excellent moments I didn't see coming, including a hilarious vampire combustion that had me cackling with glee.

What I came out of Daybreakers surprised about, however, was that the film was actually made well. A horror movie not screened for critics being released in the theatrical dump month of January? There's no way it could be good, right? Wrong. The Spierig brothers, the directors, whose only other feature length film was the 2003 straight-to-DVD horror/comedy Undead (which was pretty damn awesome if you ask me), showcase some skill here. Whereas Undead was fun, but amateur, Daybreakers promises better things to come in the duo's future. It's slyly directed and the little attention to details makes for a pleasurable experience.

Even more impressive is that they wrote the picture as well, toning down their jocular tone from Undead to make a more mature horror/drama. With the sole exception of Willem Dafoe's character, who spouts some really dumb one-liners that feel out of place in an otherwise rock solid picture, the writing is spectacular. It doesn't explain everything, but it doesn't need to. It's not about how it happens. It's merely about what happens and why. Though I fear putting these two films side by side may confuse the levels of their quality, this film is like The Road in that it's more of a warning than anything else. It intends not to show the causes of certain situations, but rather create an allegory revolving around them that can be related to real life.

Now, Daybreakers is no Oscar contender like The Road, but not every movie has to be some amazing display of filmmaking to be entertaining. Despite combining quality acting with a clever script and skillful direction, this is really nothing more than a fun romp at the movies. Given the quality of films usually released in this month, what more could you ask for?

Daybreakers receives 4/5