Skip to main content

You let me worry about who’s the nasty son-of-a-bitch.

Out of the Furnace
(2013)

Scott Cooper’s sophomore film is a handsomely mounted, well-performed revenge drama with pretensions of being about “stuff”. You know, meaty stuff, like man’s propensity for violence and the disintegration of local economies. As good as it is in moments – a scene here or there – it fails to resonate on a broader level. As if merely invoking thematic content and having it stretch in bloated fashion across the Pennsylvania landscape, accompanied by Pearl Jam, is enough. It isn’t and the result is distinctly underwhelming.


Cooper wrote the screenplay with Brad Ingelsby, and he takes in a range of tropes, all of them over-familiar. Christian Bale is Russell Baze, a blue-collar steel worker who serves a stretch for vehicular homicide (he was over the limit at the wheel). While he is inside his Iraq veteran younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) has resorted to bareknuckle boxing, in consort with John Petty (Willem Dafoe) a loan shark and wheeler-dealer. The two of them go missing after Rodney persuades Petty to get him a fight in New Jersey. This is Deliverance territory, where even the police fear to tread, which leads Russell to make his own justice.


We’ve seen all this before, but rarely with quite such sombre and self-important posturing. Yet none of it feels quite right. Elements are plucked out of the air because they sound dramatic, rather than because they add up. It’s an easy dramatic device to feature an unstable soldier in a movie, one who can’t handle the things he saw. And it’s an even easier one to have a psychotic backwater loon who’ll kill you as soon as give the time of day. Affleck, master of mumblecore delivery, gives it his best shot but he’s miscast as a super bruiser. We just don’t believe he’s that tough. In contrast, Woody Harrelson steals the picture as Harlan DeGroat, the crazy drug dealer who force-feeds his date a hotdog during the opening drive-in scene. We’ve seen Harrelson do crazy-eyed lunacy before, but here he manages to out-intimidate himself. It’s a rivetting performance and the picture only really kicks into gear when he’s around.


Furnace is littered with good actors in small, unrewarding roles. Dafoe is ever watchable. Forrest Whitaker must have wanted to work with Cooper badly, as he hardly needed to show up for the non-plum part of the local police chief. Likewise Zoe Saldana as Russell’s ex. Then there’s the great Sam Shepard as the Russells’ Uncle Gerald. Bale is typically sincere and determined, but there really isn’t much to get worked up about in Russell. He’s well-meaning (paying off his brother’s debts), makes mistakes (getting over-the-limit, not thinking through the consequences of luring DeGroat into his trap), but is stoically dull.


Like Killing them Softly, the film picks up at Obama’s first election, although this appears only as a means to gauge how long Russell is in stir for (that said, I’m not clear if this is set mainly in the present day; I don’t think we find out how long he’s incarcerated). Cooper seems to want to make all sorts of commentaries, but cant disguise how this breaks down into a simple revenge thriller with some fairly unlikely developments along the way. He makes heavy weather of certain sequences too. The intercutting between Russell and Gerald going hunting (invoking The Deer Hunter) and Rodney preparing for his fight is excruciating and banal. There’s the occasional inspired moment – a SWAT team approaching through a quiet field – but they are few and far between. Whatever themes Cooper is aiming for, he misses. There’s no discernable debate on the rights and wrongs of Russell’s violence path, or no more than in your average thriller.


Indeed, Furnace takes its merry time to reach a conclusion, and one can’t help but wonder what it was all in aid of. Cooper is keen on verisimilitude in performance and location, but his plotting actively works against this. It is neither weighty not insightful, and some elements, such as the PTSD, are so obvious as to be near glib. Cooper’s languorous filmmaking style suited Crazy Heart, but here he comes unstuck. Out of the Furnace is neither fish nor fowl, not smart enough to reach for some sort of hallowed Winter’s Bone status and not nearly hokum enough to have a good time with its revenge plot (Harrelson at least knows he is in the latter movie). This doesn’t bode well for Cooper’s next, Black Mass with Johnny Deep Whitey Bulger. This is one of those movies few will remember; neither especially good nor bad, it is only the casting that sustains interest. Still, if you have a rep as an actor’s director (Cooper is also an a thesp) you’ll probably attract names no matter how mediocre the results are.


**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…

What I have tried to show you is the inevitability of history. What must be, must be.

The Avengers 2.24: A Sense of History
Another gem, A Sense of History features one of the series’ very best villains in Patrick Mower’s belligerent, sneering student Duboys. Steed and Mrs Peel arrive at St Bode’s College investigating murder most cloistered, and the author of a politically sensitive theoretical document, in Martin Woodhouse’s final, and best, teleplay for the show (other notables include Mr. Teddy Bear and The Wringer).

Ruination to all men!

The Avengers 24: How to Succeed…. At Murder
On the one hand, this episode has a distinctly reactionary whiff about it, pricking the bubble of the feminist movement, with Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. On the other, it has Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. How to Succeed… At Murder (a title play on How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, perhaps) is often very funny, even if you’re more than a little aware of the “wacky” formula that has been steadily honed over the course of the fourth season.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

This here's a bottomless pit, baby. Two-and-a-half miles straight down.

The Abyss (1989)
(SPOILERS) By the time The Abyss was released in late summer ’89, I was a card carrying James Cameron fanboy (not a term was in such common use then, thankfully). Such devotion would only truly fade once True Lies revealed the stark, unadulterated truth of his filmmaking foibles. Consequently, I was an ardent Abyss apologist, railing at suggestions of its flaws. I loved the action, found the love story affecting, and admired the general conceit. So, when the Special Edition arrived in 1993, with its Day the Earth Stood Still-invoking global tsunami reinserted, I was more than happy to embrace it as a now-fully-revealed masterpiece.

I still see the Special Edition as significantly better than the release version (whatever quality concerns swore Cameron off the effects initially, CGI had advanced sufficiently by that point;certainly, the only underwhelming aspect is the surfaced alien craft, which was deemed suitable for the theatrical release), both dramatically and them…