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 Messenger (2009)

21 November 2010
The Messenger: Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson)

Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson)

Discharged early from serving in Iraq, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) returns home to the US and is assigned to Casualty Notification. Partnered with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), Montgomery learns the procedure of informing families that their loved ones have recently died while serving as soldiers. The Messenger is partly a strange and dark buddy film and also an incredibly moving examination of grief and anger.

Director Oren Moverman shoots the casualty notification scenes in unedited long takes so that they play out in real time. It’s a confronting effect and the scenes are made all the more powerful by the performances. Harrelson was nominated for an Academy Award for this film but everybody is excellent including Samantha Morton and Steve Buscemi in supporting roles.

As well as being very entertaining, The Messenger is commendable for how it beautifully humanises the soldiers. They may be tough guys with a hardened exterior but underneath that they are repressing an enormous amount of pain. This is a great anti-war film examining the residual effect of war on the people who fight it and the people who are left behind.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 367, 2010

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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MIFF 2010 Diary: Part 3

27 July 2010

I sat down last night for the final MIFF Shorts Awards deliberations with my fellow judges Alan Finney and Wendy Haslem. After lots of robust discussion, where we were all willing to have our minds changed by each other’s differing perspectives, I believe we’ve made excellent decisions about what films should win what awards. I think audiences will enjoy the diversity and high quality of all these films so come along next Sunday for the awards and screenings. There is also a repeat screening the following Sunday.

The Messenger

The Messenger

Before the judging I saw The Messenger, a film I had moderate expectations for and basically only saw because it was one of the few films I hadn’t seen that was nominated for a couple of Academy Awards this year. I’m so glad I went as it is one of the best film I have ever seen about soldiers who have returned home. It alternates between being a fun buddy film to a painful exposé  of how families react when confronted with the news that their loved ones have died while fighting. Most significantly is how plausibly The Messenger humanises these tough-guy soldier types by showing that deep inside they are broken people experiencing immense repressed pain.

[EDIT 21/11/2010: Read a full review of The Messenger]

The Housemaid

The Housemaid

I also saw The Housemaid last night and wasn’t as impressed by it as I was hoping I would be. Director Im Sang-soo was at the screening to introduce his film, and also took questions afterwards, and he frequently talked about how it is a critique of South Korean society, in particular the gap between a new class of super rich and the working classes. This is certainly reflected in The Housemaid where a young maid becomes seemingly gladly subservient to a wealthy family, including making herself sexually available to the husband. All of this was fine and the film was very engaging but I found it increasingly heavy handed, obvious and melodramatic. That may have been the point I suppose and possibly exactly what other people have liked about it but it left me feeling a little unsatisfied.

[EDIT 24/10/2010: Read a full review of The Housemaid]

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Seven Pounds (2008)

7 January 2009

Every now and then an ambitious film comes along that turns out to be a complete misfire. Seven Pounds is one of those films. Seven Pounds reunites actor Will Smith with director Gabriele Muccino after they so successfully collaborated on the terrific 2006 drama The Pursuit of Happyness. Smith is a capable dramatic actor and Muccino is a strong director who also has the Italian hit The Last Kiss (L’Ultimo bacio) to his name. While the biggest weakness with this film is its script, neither Smith nor Muccino do much to help.

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Film review – A Scanner Darkly (2006)

5 December 2006

Most adaptations of novels or short stories by cult science fiction writer Philip K Dick (Paycheck, Minority Report, Total Recall) use his imaginative scenarios for action sequences but sideline his extraordinary philosophical musings. With A Scanner Darkly director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, The School of Rock) has directly adapted Dick’s novel from page to screen.

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