Film review – Out of the Furnace (2013)

22 March 2014
Christian Bale as Russell Baze

Christian Bale as Russell Baze

There is something mythical about the American blue-collar town where Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace is set. The hardworking and racially harmonious population are decent folk trying to get by, despite work drying up at the steel mill. Brothers Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) are good men, but afflicted by inner demons. One does time for manslaughter after a drink-driving accident, while the other is an Iraq War veteran with gambling debts that lead him into serious trouble.

What begins as an engaging drama about proud yet flawed working-class men becomes a silly revenge thriller involving drug dealing and bare-knuckle boxing. For a film so overtly set in the shadow of the Global Financial Crisis, it is disappointing that it abandons any opportunity for social critique. Instead the villains of the film are identified as cartoonish hillbillies, lead by a sociopathic Woody Harrelson. Out of the Furnace ultimately squanders its potential, resulting in a second-rate Winters Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) when it could’ve been a contemporary The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978).

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 453, 2014

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

19 July 2012
The Dark Knight Rises: Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway)

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway)

The most striking thing about the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is it looks like a real film. In an era when shooting a Hollywood blockbuster on actual film and not filming in 3D is a novelty, The Dark Knight Rises stands out for looking like something tangible as opposed to a hyperactive virtual world created on a computer. Even the elements of the film created with CGI have a photorealistic tactile quality to them; further validating Nolan’s decision to resist digital filmmaking. Not that Nolan isn’t a technical innovator as demonstrated by the film’s impressive scenes shot in IMAX and the visceral sound design where every bullet, grind of metal and kick to the head sounds like a mini symphony.

The Dark Knight Rises is a fine piece of cinema that successfully mixes outlandish comic book scenarios with a gritty realism that gives the proceedings an alarming plausibility. Curiously, it doesn’t deliver the adrenalin rush moments that were present throughout Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). It’s a much bigger film in scope with more at stake, bigger set pieces, grander themes and a far more complex narrative, but the results offer a different level of engagement than a mythical origins story or a showdown between two extreme personalities with more in common than one of them would like to think. The Dark Knight Rises is a tonally different film that successfully establishes a scenario of complete despair where much of the action seems futile. Within this bleak context the biggest spark of life is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (better known as Catwoman in the original comics) who is not only involved in the film’s most exciting fight sequences, but becomes an ethically dubious anti-hero in a film exploring complex ethical terrain.

Similar to The Amazing Spider-Man, this is a film where the superhero persona takes a background to the ‘real life’ persona of the protagonist. While Peter Parker learning to reconcile his identity as Spider-Man is a coming-of-age narrative, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) coming to terms with what Batman stands for becomes a story of the old guard making way for the next generation. Wayne begins the film as a physically and psychologically damaged man and spends a good deal of the film grappling with how useful Batman is to his own sense of self and to the community of Gotham City. Characters from the previous films and important new characters express a variety of opinions, contributing to the film’s intriguing exploration of individualism versus social cohesion and truth versus myth.

The political arena that unfolds offers an enticing range of arguments about how to interpret the downfall of Gotham City, which is overtly linked to various recent American crises such as domestic and international terrorism, the global financial crisis and the Occupy movement. On the one hand, The Dark Knight Rises could be read as a hysterical conservative vision of socialism. The film’s villain Bane (Tom Hardy) is identified early in the film as a super terrorist with quasi-fundamentalist religious zeal. His plans to obliterate the rule of law, undermine the financial sector and return Gotham to the people results in a nightmarish scenario that plays upon every fear perpetrated by plutocrats who feel that their powerbase may be threatened. Bane and his followers are a disturbing fusion of fundamentalist terrorism with a perverse version of a people’s revolution.

And yet, the film is not that simple. The oppressive collectivism that Bane offers is one of mob rule that exploits the simmering hatred and resentment that is the result of the Zero Tolerance approach to crime initiated by the late Harvey Dent. Furthermore, Dent has been given near sainthood status, his psychotic and homicidal behaviour suppressed in order to maintain his myth. He is presented as a visionary leader despite having ended up as the Gotham equivalent of a war criminal. When a population places unquestioning faith in the false prophet that is a charismatic leader guilty of vast sins, the resulting order will eventually be undermined. In The Dark Knight Rises Bane is the figure that does the undoing. He is not an external threat, but the product of a civilisation that is sick to the core.

Furthermore, this is not a film where a lone individual defends the population against a socialist-style enemy. Bruce Wayne does not act alone in The Dark Knight Rises and the intertwining storylines within the film exist to facilitate an ensemble of characters working together to fight back, using brains, brawn and the ideal of Batman. The most interesting character in the film is Selina Kyle who is able to undermine Wayne physically and intellectually, as well as challenge his life of material privilege in a world of inequality. While Hathaway’s Kyle possesses the same moral uncertainty that the character does in the comics she is still a sympathetic character in the film. Her anti-one percent attitude is represented as markedly different to Bane’s exploitive manipulation of a population’s discontent and pandering to criminality. If anything The Dark Knight Rises could be regarded as a warning for how radicals with dreams of puritanical world domination get what they want by manipulating the corporate and financial sectors, and hijacking technology.

The Dark Knight Rises is about an older generation accepting their mistakes and maintaining as much dignity as possible while facing the consequences. The ‘rise’ of the title becomes a literal plot point that also serves as a symbolic rebirth where Wayne re-enters a new world where the people deserve the truth instead of faith in symbols. If Batman Begins was an independence story about a city rejecting the rule of an exploitive criminal class and The Dark Knight was a war film about sacrificing liberty to combat an unimaginable threat, then The Dark Knight Rises is a film about the need to return to a more civilised time now that the war (or perceived war) is over. Otherwise, that civilisation will turn against itself and reproduce the destructive elements that it was once fighting against in the first place. The time of symbolism and individualism is over and the generation that identifies with such notions need to clean up any mess they have left behind and then move on. Gotham is No City for Old Costumed Vigilante Men as a new dawn approaches.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Cinema Autopsy on the 83rd Academy Awards winners

1 March 2011
The King's Speech

The King's Speech

Wow. Did I do a terrible job this year with my Academy Award predictions. I got a total of seven categories right and none of them were exactly radically or surprising results that demonstrate any sense of insight on my behalf. A full list of all the winners is on the official Oscars nominees and winners page and here are the ones that I picked:

Writing (Adapted Screenplay): The Social Network (Aaron Sorkin)
Actress in a Leading Role: Black Swan (Natalie Portman)
Actor in a Supporting Role: The Fighter (Christian Bale)
Animated Feature Film: Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
Music (Original Score): The Social Network (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)
Sound Editing: Inception (Richard King)
Visual Effects: Inception (Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb)

How did I not predict The King’s Speech as the film that would clean up in several major awards including Best Motion Picture, Directing, Actor in a Leading Role, and Writing (Original Screenplay)? I even acknowledged that it is exactly the sort of  film that is destined for Academy Award glory as did the people who left comments on my predictions post. Regardless, The King’s Speech is still an excellent piece of cinema that was crafted by several talented people who deserve their acclaim.

Colin Firth in The King's Speech

Colin Firth in The King's Speech

Writer David Seidler, who based a lot of the film on his own experiences getting treatment for his stutter, gave a wonderful acceptance speech as did director Tom Hooper, whom I was lucky enough to interview a couple of months ago. However, it was best male actor winner Colin Firth who was the highlight of the night for me. He somehow managed to be funny, sincere, grateful and humble all at the same time, reenforcing how much I’ve come to like and admire him over the past few years. Firth has always been a wonderful screen presence but he’s really come into his own with The King’s Speech and what I like to call his grief trilogy: And When Did You Last See Your Father?, Genova and A Single Man.

Overall I was actually really pleased with the outcome of many of the awards despite being so off the mark with my predictions. It was terrific seeing Inception getting several of the key technical awards including Cinematography. While I was hoping Inception was also going to get Music (Original Score) I was still very pleased The Social Network won, not just because I had predicted it but because it is a great score and seeing Trent Reznor accepting the award was a tremendous rush for 16-year-old me.

Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in The Fighter

Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in The Fighter

Alice in Wonderland winning Art direction and Costume design was completely unexpected but I was thrilled that the Academy were finally recognising films in these categories that display innovation and imagination over films that simply reproduce the past. It was also very pleasing to see the under appreciated Melissa Leo win Actress in a Supporting Role for The Fighter. I was especially thrilled that the excellent films Inside Job and In a Better World (review to come) respectively won Documentary Feature and Foreign Language Film despite my predictions that they would not.

However, one of the biggest unexpected treats was seeing the marvellous Australian film The Lost Thing win the Animated Short award. Not only is it a magnificent film but on a personal note I am just so proud to have been on the 2010 Melbourne International Film Festival short film jury that gave it the Grand Prix for Best Short Film award, which first made it eligible for an Academy Award. Of course The Lost Thing would have succeeded regardless of my presence on that jury, but still, it’s nice to have that tiny bit of early contact with an Academy Award winning film!

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – The Fighter (2010)

31 January 2011
The Fighter: “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dick "Dicky" Eklund (Christian Bale)

“Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dick "Dicky" Eklund (Christian Bale)

Mark Wahlberg teams up once more with Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees director David O. Russell to play real life boxer “Irish” Micky Ward. Before turning pro Micky struggled to live up to his potential while under the dubious guidance of his overbearing mother (Melissa Leo) and his brother Dick “Dicky” Eklund (Christian Bale), a former professional boxer and crack addict.

The excitingly edited and choreographed boxing is complemented by the film’s slick cinematography, which give the domestic scenes several energetic flourishes without compromising its gritty urban aesthetic. The battle for Micky’s heart and loyalty outside of the ring provides most of the drama with Micky’s new girlfriend (Amy Adams) attempting to pull him away from the manipulative control that Dicky and his mother have over him.

Situated somewhere between the crowd-pleasing melodrama of Rocky and the psychological character study of Raging Bull, The Fighter is an enjoyable underdog-triumphs-over-adversity story that demonstrates once again just how cinematic a sport boxing is. Adams is sensational in a tougher role than audiences are used to seeing her in while Wahlberg and Bale deliver their best performances in several years.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 372, 2011

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Public Enemies (2009)

6 July 2009
 John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard)

John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard)

Set in America in the 1930s, against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Public Enemies portrays the bold activities of celebrity bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the attempts by FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, Terminator Salvation) to bring him to justice. FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup, Watchmen) may have labelled Dillinger a public enemy but Dillinger’s charisma and popularity meant the FBI had to also fight him on the PR front. The battle between the public enemies Dillinger and straight-laced Purvis, whose profile inspired the look for Dick Tracy, is therefore classic material for director Michael Mann. Mann’s Heat (1995) is a modern crime film masterpiece about a professional criminal and a brilliant detective who are pitted against each other. Heat combined everything you could want from such a film with its strong characters, intriguing psychology, compelling story and breathtaking action scenes. It therefore makes absolute sense that Mann was drawn towards the great real life crook-versus-cop story that he depicts in Public Enemies.

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Film review – Terminator Salvation (2009)

31 May 2009
John Connor (Christian Bale)

John Connor (Christian Bale)

Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the latest instalment in The Terminator series follows on from where audiences last saw John Connor at the end of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines when the war with Skynet and the machines began. However, it also feels like a prequel, covering the back-story that leads to Connor’s decision to find and then send resistance fighter Kyle Reese back in time to protect his mother, Sarah Connor, as depicted in the original 1984 Terminator film. The other key character in this fourth instalment is Marcus Wright. Wright is a character who was supposedly executed in 2003 but finds himself very much alive in 2018 and helping Reese to stay one step ahead of the homicidal machines.

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