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Out in Theaters: ‘THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI’ 

There are many words you can’t say on a billboard but in Martin McDonagh’s darkly comic and borderline brilliant Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri calling out the local sheriff for failing to bring to justice a rapist, arsonist and murderer is fair game. At least from a legal standpoint. This is the set-up for a crime saga unlike any other, McDonagh’s film a foul-mouthed mystery brimming with colorful characters, its jet-black tone and surprising emotionality capable of causing fits of laughter and bouts of urgent somberness in what is one of the best films of 2017. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES’

Let’s not split hairs – though with the sublime mane work the necromancers at WETA have accomplished here, splitting hairs is definitely within the realm of possibilities – War for the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable achievement on nearly any rubric. A narratively pulsating, emotionally turbulent survival epic complete with near-miraculous FX work and sumptuous production design, War sets itself so far apart from the average summer blockbuster that it risks being undefinable. As bleak as anything I’ve personally witnessed in a PG-13 effects-driven escape movie about apes, War for the Planet of the Apes is the Joseph Conrad-penned Schindler’s List of Apes movies. Dealing in genocide, slavery, exodus and death, War also finds room among its Old Testament adversity for growth, heroism and hope to take root. Perfectly culminating Caesar’s prequel trilogy and tying into the 1968 Charlton Heston-led original, War is everything fans of the franchise could hope for and more. And boy is it a breathtaking journey to be a part of.  Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘TRIPLE 9’

There’s so many tattered sleeves of other (greater) crime films sifting in and out of John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 that the final product plays a bit like a voodoo pincushion of greatest hits moments. There’s buttons of Heat, The Departed, American Gangster and many other crime classics, with characters seemingly beamed in from Bad Lieutenant, Sicario and End of Watch, all come to rumble in Hillcoat’s dirty little Atlanta playground. That this stable of influences is mostly able to coalesce into a largely exciting, ceaselessly dark and somewhat intelligible thriller is admirable, even if it sometimes finds itself a touch off the rails. Read More

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Out in Theaters: OUT OF THE FURNACE

“Out of the Furnace”
Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker
Crime, Drama, Thriller
116 Mins
R
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Out of the Furnace is not the movie you expect, it’s not quite the movie you think you want, and it’s certainly not a movie you’ll see coming, but it is one of the best movies of 2013. Petering along a solemn road of America as industrialized hellhole, the jet-black tone and snail’s pace cadence of the film may prove too overbearing for some but those willing to dive into the mire will find a film overflowing with themes of chaotic grace, personal sacrifice, ego death, spiritual deterioration, and unbounded duty. Many similarities to early Kurosawa samurai films and Drive – which itself is largely plotted like a samurai film – emerge and make the film rich with subtext, even though unearthing that subtext is a bit of a harrowing chore.

While the dark material present in the film – beat downs and drugs, depression (economic and mental) and murder – may yield endlessly gloomy circumstances, a trio of standout performances from Christian BaleCasey Affleck, and Woody Harrelson showcases actors at the top of their game that keep you glued to the screen and cemented into the emotional stakes of the film. The first scene involving a dead-eyed Harrelson, a harlot, and a hotdog will take your breath away and doesn’t let up from there.

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Cue Russell Baze (Bale), a genuinely good guy of the strong and silent persuasion, and lil brother Rodney (Affleck), a four-tour Iraq war vet trying to find his footing after his last deployment. In the barren, has-been Rustbelt of Pennsylvania, each face their own economic struggles while also, and more importantly, vying with their personal demons. Nightmares populated by decapitated babies, massacred friends, and piles of hacked off feet haunt Rodney, who can’t escape these grotesque images of war irrevocably burned into his tender mind. Russell, on the other hand, has never seen combat, but a drunk driving incident, where he was responsible for the death of a child, provides him with his own demons to combat.

Both men are bent by society and by themselves and seek means for redemption. As Rodney turns to bare-knuckle underground fighting – a gig he says is just for the money but we suspect that these acts of supreme self-mutilation provide some fleeting escape for his tormented soul – Russell courts serenity in the things of everyday living, like fixing up his Dad’s house. Also finding solace in the gentle monotony of manual labor at the soon-to-close steel mill, Russell tries to move past his spotted history while Rodney’s battle-worn psyche prefers to bask in dreams of grandeur; a grass is greener on the other side mentality that sees him losing his path and descending into Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat personal circle of hell.  

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In Russell, Rodney, and their fading pops, the Baze family represents the backbone of America: the laborer, the solider, and the invalid; the maker, the doer, and the needy. These three are a cross section of blue collar America caught in a deteriorating socioeconomic climate. Juxtaposed against DeGroat’s wealth (his financial stock culled from dealing crank and heroin) and utterly maniacal temperature, the Baze’s are the 99% to DeGroat’s brand of “elite” class. As they struggle and toil, he lumbers around, shooting spikes of crank into the crevices of his toes and growling intimidation at his underlings while his stacks grow higher. But rather than beat these metaphors over the head, the burrowing screenplay from Brad Ingelsby and director Scott Cooper is wildly subtle, allowing you to make up your interpretation about many elements scattered throughout the film.

While the marketing has played up aspects of this film as a gritty revenge story, these elements don’t really emerge until the final act (and I would strongly urge you not to watch any trailers for Out of the Furnace as they give away 90% of the film.) Instead, more than anything, this is a tale of two brothers who have lost their way.

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Making up their own humble sub-nuclear unit, Russell takes the role of big brother to distant but loving Rodney very seriously. When Rodney wracks up a debt gambling on racehorses, Russell plays provider, silently going to the bookie, a pitch perfect Willem Dafoe, and silently pays his struggling brother’s debts. But unlike Rodney, Russell doesn’t crave praise, just peace. As Rodney gets deeper into DeGroat’s playground, Russel loses his opinions of peaceful negotiation and must take up arms to fight for his brother’s honor.

From playing the watchful protector, Russell evolves from almost effeminate – a character trait hinted at through his soft spoken intonation and general aversion to conflict and violence – to a stone cold but silently compassionate hunter of men. Like a shepherd left to herd his flock, one can only rely on his shepherd’s crook for so long. When the wolves come, it’s time to take the old rifle out of storage and switch to old testament mode. And, like the wrathful God of the old testament, Russel doles out his own variety of penalty. Again, biblical themes are open to interpretation, and may entirely just be something that I alone got out of the film, but there is something palpably holy in Russell’s aura and his journey in the film.

As Russell, Bale puts in one of the strongest performances of his celebrated and illustrious career. Entirely captivating and utterly committed, the greatness of his performance is hard to put your finger on but it shines from beginning to end. The final scene we spend with Russell juxtaposed against a heartbreaking sequence shared with ex-lover Lena (Zoe Saldana) showcase Bale’s awesome range. Providing yet another masterclass of acting prowess, Bale excels at making his craft look effortless. It’s as if he’s changed skins since playing the shleppy Irving in American Hustle as he has once transformed himself physically to “become” someone new.

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Affleck too puts in a performance for the books and has finally begun to prove to this previously unconvinced critic that he may just be great actor. He balances camaraderie with solitude, laughs with anguish while having to sell his character both as a physical brute and an emotional mess and we buy every second of it. For his part, Harrelson’s DeGroat is the best, and most vile, villain of 2013. Despicable though he may be, his bridge-burning demeanor turns being cavalier into a bloodcurdling game of conversation, making him just about the worst person you could ever bump into at a bar. And though Saldana and a gruff-voiced Forest Whitaker don’t get the screen time they deserve, both bring complex elements to characters that could easily have been one-note and forgettable.

Adding even more depth to the film, the technical elements racket up the tension and help to accentuate the ripe metaphorical elements planted throughout. Dickon Hinchliffe‘s score, largely leaning on Pearl Jam’s “Release,” lends itself to the harrowing nature of the film as bleak yet bold cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi puts the rust back in Rustbelt. This is a dirty, decaying world the Bazes populate and the technical elements help prop up that fact, giving weight to the film and the metaphorical elements boiling within. All these elements – the stellar performances, crisp and dark direction, surging score, crunchy landscapes, an open-ended conclusion – all add up to a film that demands to be seen on the big screen and deserves to be dissected by its viewers.

A-

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Out in Theaters: THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Paula Malcomson, Willow Shields, Elizabeth Banks, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Toby Jones, Jeffrey Wright
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
144 Mins
PG-13

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Katniss Everdeen may be the girl on fire and Jennifer Lawrence may be Hollywood hot stuff (du jour), but this second installment of The Hunger Games is only slightly smoldering. In fact, the embers have already started to go cold. All the requisite franchise pieces are there to stoke the billion dollar conflagration this dystopian blockbuster is sure to light, but the overwhelming feeling that there is little spark behind the bark leaves us chilled to all this talk of fire.

Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned “safely” from the 74th Hunger Games but now they face the red hot wrath of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who’s now breathing down their necks. Their final act of near-berry-gobbling defiance in the last film has led to stirrings of revolution across the districts. Through Katniss’ willingness to sacrifice herself to preserve her moral scruples, the country stands newly empowered. Unwittingly, Katniss has located a kink in the armor of Snow’s totalitarian society and must now suffer the price.

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The seeds of hope Katniss and Peeta have planted, Snow plans to stomp out. He supposes that the country’s cautious optimism towards a new tomorrow can be quelled if Katniss and Peeta maintain the facade of their romance. By making them one of his own kind, they will become symbols of corruption – a constantly broadcast morphing into the upper class. But all of this is predicated on their selling their “true love” like it’s Oprah Winfrey coach hour. Anything that would even suggest their affection is a muse would be the equivalent of open rebellion and would lead Snow to “take care of” both Katniss and Peeta’s families mobster style. When Snow realizes that the country may not turn against the star-crossed apples of their eye, he launches a new scheme that will pit them, and former victors, again each other again. 

In spite of these constant death threats, Catching Fire lacks breathless moments of white knuckle suspense. No matter how many times the dialogue, aided by Sutherland’s ripe delivery, insist that Katniss and her loved ones are teetering on the precipice of danger, there is little to convince us that anyone could actually be offed. In a franchise like this, everyone is too padded to actually face death. No harm will last more than a few hours, no scar will be too deep to heal. We know Katniss has no expiration date as the franchise train booms towards a fourth film and so any threat towards her – or her cohort’s – life feels paper thin.

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And while the first film held a flicker of filmmaking as rebellion, everything about this one screams studio control and designed realism. It all feels so reined in, so calculated in its darkness, and so badly wanting to break free of its PG-13 constraints that it can’t help but lose track of the meaning behind the books. In trying to reel in the masses (and their wallets), Catching Fire as Hollywood product is almost exactly what “Catching Fire” as commentary rages against – turning its back on the central message of stoic individualism against the oppressive tyranny of the elite. The hand of the studio is omnipresent – although hardly malevolent – and there seems to be little to no room for creative flair in the directorial department. Again, big business trumps individual spirit.

Sorely missing is Gary Ross’s urgent camerawork and tight closeups that gave The Hunger Games such a sense of realism. Instead of jammed close in on character’s faces and sharing in their ghastly horror, we feel distant, an observer. With edge-of-your-seat scenes largely tabled, Francis Lawrence goes for something much more horrific – a near 12 Years a Slave for kids. One scene depicting poisonous fog is particularly distressing and uncharacteristically grim for a film of this rating. On the brink of being “too dark,” there is little artistry behind the darkness that feels more like “gritty per popular demand.”

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Shying away from the close quarters, almost independent film-esque combat of the first flick, the violence in Catching Fire is staged like the many CGI heavy blockbusters of late. Much violence take place offscreen, in a wide zoom, or in rapid, random bursts, making death almost as inconsequential as it is in a Pierce Brosnan James Bond movie. While the first film saw Katniss struggling with the murder of other children, this film sees her adversaries stripped of that very feature that made their slaughter so perverse and unsettling in the first place. Instead, these adult competitors become faceless baddies in another adventure film.

This franchise middle-child also suffers a pretty rough case of inbetweener syndrome, where it only works within the context of a larger story and not as a standalone film. While it propels what began in the first film into the coming finale, it lacks the finesse of a great middler. Without the pure adrenaline of The Two Towers and the tonal twists and turns of Empire Strikes Back, Catching Fire just carries on the torch, readying it for the next billion dollar installment. Although the bleak-o-meter has been cranked up, the stakes remain largely the same: do or die. 

As sets the gears to full throttle for the inevitable two-part conclusion, we ask, “Haven’t we seen this all before?” The skies have darkened and life on Panem is more unbearable than ever but for all the barrels of darkness and grit-drenched scenery, there is familiarity to this racetrack of escalation that we’ve seen in greater franchises (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter).

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But for all of my complaints and griping, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is still a smarter than average blockbuster. It’s hard to finger where the $140+ million budget went – none of the special effects are noteworthy – but hopefully most of it is going towards the performers, as they continue to be the strongest selling point of this franchise. However, it’s the supporting characters who outshine the love-locked trio. Stanley Tucci is simply a riot (and possibly the best part of the film) and Elizabeth Banks is as wacky and invisible in her character as ever. Even Woody Harrelson‘s haunted alcoholic Haymitch has more depth than before and seems to be more commited to the emotional toil of his role than many of his co-stars. And however lackluster some of the CGI is, the set design gives us a rock solid sense of place and tone.

Finally, fans of the source material will have little to complain about since the book is adapted to the T. But when all is said and done, it’s just not a terribly exciting movie and one which I don’t expect to return to. Really feeling the sting of its “part of a whole” status, Catching Fire is better at blowing smoke than fanning the flames. 

C+

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