Review Monday: 12/23/13 (American Hustle, Dallas Buyers Club)

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David O. Russell is one of those directors who has a polarizing fanbase, a group that includes some of the actors he worked and sparred with on set (including George Clooney and Lily Tomlin). He aims for a madcap intensity, which often results in performances that border on irritating. Thankfully, Russell has finally made a film that moves with the same boisterous energy as he does, filled with characters just as crazy for control. That film is American Hustle (B+), an ambitious ensemble piece based loosely on an elaborate sting operation in the Northeastern United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The first piece of this mayhem is Irving Rosenfeld, a forty-something con artist with a beer belly and bad hairpiece. Christian Bale, who gained 40 pounds to work for Russell again, plays him. He lives deceptively, putting on airs to con New Yorkers with forged artwork and promising broke middle-class men loans that are never paid. Irving finds a much skinnier brunette, an intelligent fan of jazz music named Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who becomes his business partner-in-crime. In an early scene, the two of them go to one of the dry-cleaners Irving owns and they both try on different wardrobes. This oversells the metaphor for how they will put on appearances to trick naïve New Yorkers.

However, the FBI soon catches word of their swindling. Agent Richie DeMaso (Bradley Cooper) makes a deal with Irving and Sydney for immunity in exchange for their help in entrapping white-collar criminals engaging in backroom deals. The trio get to work on a fix to catch these launderers by getting close with the trusted, Elvis-haired mayor of Atlantic City, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). However, Irving’s shrewd wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), has just the right grip on her husband and knows enough about his illegal dealings that she can let the con job go haywire.

American Hustle is fast-paced, reckless and convoluted, occasionally messy but always spectacularly entertaining. Russell rewrote Eric Warren Singer’s script, originally titled “American Bullshit,” which sat unproduced before the director picked it up and elaborated on some of the characters (notably, Rosalyn). Russell and Singer pack the story with a lot of moving parts and character dynamics to fulfill. To American Hustle’s benefit, the ebbs and flows of the relationships directly feed into the story, creating a rich blend of character-study and throttling crime saga.

The cast is all aces, especially Bale and Adams. The camera lingers on the former actor’s big belly and ugly comb over with as much amusement as it does on the latter’s cleavage-baring dresses. (In fact, cinematographer Linus Sandgren is probably just as fixated on Adams’ body as the two characters who end up competing for her love.) However, these appearances are just a façade and the sterling script fills these characters with ambition and cunning wit that makes them fascinating and, oddly, relatable. Lawrence is also a firecracker as the feisty, butter-haired Rosalyn, although she looks about ten years too young to be Mrs. Christian Bale, making this a casting decision that sparkles as much as it distracts. Louis C.K. shows up in a fine, self-deprecating performance as DeMosco’s boss, probably the least embellished character in the film.

The film soundtrack, meanwhile, oozes with plush, Seventies soft rock. At certain moments, characters sing or mouth the words to the songs that have already started playing moments earlier. This nifty stylistic trick steeps the film in its history and uses the characters’ performances as they sing the songs as reflections of their dual personalities, of who they are and the rock stars they want to be.

Russell and Singer’s screenplay is something of a wonder, holding so many intricate characters in its grasp without losing too much of their humanity while also steering the plot down many different directions. It is an ambitious and mostly successful piece of storytelling. A few indulgences, such as an over-reliance on Goodfellas-like voice-over near the top, and a few obvious metaphors – such as an enhanced discussion about a nail topcoat that is both rotten and delicious, like the film’s characters – soften its power.

However, these story issues are only small stains on one supreme entertainment. American Hustle shines with that new movie sheen, with characters as complex as the twisty true-life caper and five Oscar-nominated actors (plus a cameo from an ex-Oscar winner) working at or near the top of their game. It is both a deliriously madcap comedy-thriller and a rich ensemble piece that, finally, shows the strengths Russell has as a writer and director. For a career filled with near-great films and missed opportunities, American Hustle proves to be a delightful silver lining.

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Moving from the glitzy seventies to a more morose period of modern U.S. history: the AIDS Crisis in the mid-to-late 1980s: Dallas Buyers Club (B) features two of the most vivid performances by any actor on screen this year, yet the film is not quite daring enough to tackle the emotionally charged subject matter associated with those dark days.

Matthew McConaughey, hitting a peak of his career already in an ascent, is mesmerizing as Ron Woodroof. Ron was a bigoted rodeo cowboy and electrician who also engaged in promiscuous sex acts just outside the ring. Through an unfortunate sexual encounter, Woodroof contracts HIV. This does not sit well with a man who routinely mutters the word “faggot” and uses his hypercharged masculine persona to diminish the people around him with similar derogatory words.

Ron first denies this disease, but stricken with a doctor’s diagnosis that he has 30 days left to live, he confronts his own mortality and tries to find the right drugs to cure his illness. This quest to retain his life (and his livelihood) drives him south to Mexico to grab medications that can help him, but are unapproved by the FDA. Back on American soil, Ron starts selling memberships to a buyers club that gives AIDS patients quick access to these drugs. (Meanwhile, the slow traction on getting drugs out to AIDS sufferers and the controversy surrounding the much-hyped AZT gets a context through news bulletins throughout the story.)

McConaughey, jockey thin and with a gaunt face, has built to this role throughout his career. He has the swagger and confidence to sell Ron’s seemingly immortal gazing at his own life – he acts as if nothing can kill him – but also the gravitas to pull off moments when the character is in agonizing grief. What makes Ron so fascinating is that he remains filled with a sense of righteous invincibility – he snorts and sips whiskey even as he swallows pills to make him better – even when the consequences look bleak. As Ron says, he would prefer to die with his boots on. The bull fighting proves to be an effective motif for the character, to represent his risky behaviour (a symbolic goring near the start also mirrors Ron contracting the virus).

The other actor drawing awards buzz is Jared Leto. Leto had not starred in a film in four years but rarely shies away from challenging films and roles (among them, Requiem for a Dream and a part as Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27). He plays Rayon, a transgender woman taking a drug trial to quell her AIDS who befriends Ron in the hospital and serves as his right-hand woman at the buyers club.

Leto is almost unrecognizable at first glance, brittle-boned (he lost nearly 30 pounds for the role) but glowing with a feminine tenderness. However, when she removes the wigs and makeup, heads to the office of a family member who abandoned her and pleads for financial support to keep her alive just a little longer, you are witnessing one of the most shattering moments of any film this year. Made up, Leto is a fully realized soul with a playful banter and kindred spirit that brightens Ron’s life. Stripped down, Leto is emotionally naked, cut off from the essential things that make Rayon whole.

Dallas Buyers Club is a strong, if sometimes unfocused, look at a fascinating man and his travails to deal with a lack of access to a cure. Screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack however, should have excised some of Ron’s relationship with a sympathetic doctor, Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), in exchange for more scenes between the rollicking protagonist and the sassy, sweet Rayon.

The film comes from director Jean-Marc Vallée, the French-Canadian filmmaker behind C.R.A.Z.Y. and Café de Flore, two films that brimmed with lively soundtracks and dealt with tense family matters. He mines great performance from his cast, although Dallas Buyers Club does not have that same energy as his earlier projects. Furthermore, in comparison to two recent documentaries that chronicled the AIDS crisis, the enraging How to Survive a Plague and the deeply moving We Were Here, Vallée’s film cannot boast the same level of anger or emotional impact.

Dallas Buyers Club is compelling history and an intriguing character study. However, it lacks the feeling, both the agony and the ecstasy, which pulsated through the early years of the AIDS epidemic. It is worth seeing for two monumental performances, although it ultimately gains more value from its performances than the drama.

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The Essentials: No Country for Old Men (2007)

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Editor’s Note: Due to poor weather that caused power outages in Toronto, this week’s Essentials column is coming later than expected.

“There was this boy I sent to the electric chair at Huntsville Hill here a while back. My arrest and my testimony. He killed a fourteen-year-old girl. Papers said it was a crime of passion but he told me there wasn’t any passion to it. Told me that he’d been planning to kill somebody for about as long as he could remember. Said that if they turned him out he’d do it again. Said he knew he was going to hell.” – Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones)

Joel and Ethan Coen, filmmakers known for their attention to detail, got the most Academy approval (and their only Best Picture Oscar) for making a film about chaos. Making one of their only adaptations, this time from a spare, grim crime story from Cormac McCarthy, the Coens chose to tell a deceptively simple story that spoke volumes about violence and the nature of good and evil. This was a much different film from the brothers, one that abandoned the dark humour that lingered through their other macabre tales of sin and insinuation (Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, The Man Who Wasn’t There). Instead, it was a bleak reinterpretation of yet another classical genre: the western.

No Country for Old Men was the appropriate winner for Best Picture, since it boasted a high pedigree in a year full of revisionist Westerns. This shortlist included James Mangold’s superb 3:10 to Yuma, Paul Thomas Anderson’s mesmerizing There Will Be Blood and to-be cult classic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, from Andrew Dominik. Although I do not think the Coens’ film is vastly superior to any of those works, the film is a stark, striking reminder of the dark power the Coens could have on an audience. Few films since could retain its unbearable suspense, its encapsulation about the will of evil and the triumph of disorder.

The film tells the story of three men on different spectrums of law, order and morality. The first is Sheriff Ed Bell, the last in a long family legacy of officers in a West Texas town not far from the Mexico border. Bell is always a step or two behind the criminals running rampant underneath his jurisdiction. He is having trouble coming to terms with the increasingly violent world. He has almost given up on the job he has. In one scene, he lets his younger deputy head into a dangerous trailer home first, explaining that he does not have a weapon. As he tells the viewer through voice-over, “Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun.” He aches for the old days when the crimes were not so vile and passionate.

The man that Sheriff Bell chases is a psychopathic killer, Anton Chigurh. (Don’t pronounce it ‘sugar.’) This is the role that Javier Bardem won an Oscar for, a venomous yet principled killer who often decides to murder based on random circumstance, like the flipping of a coin. Traveling through Texas in pursuit of a satchel full of $2 million in cash, Chigurh has a voice filled with venom and a menacing stance, easily intimidating nervous locals into slurring messes. He wants the money but Chigurh is a mystery, a wanderer in all black. He walks around with a stun gun powered by compressed gas, which makes his victims like cattle led to slaughter.

Chigurh, meanwhile, is chasing Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). Moss does not have Chigurh’s violent tendencies, but he is still driven by greed. He abandons a crime scene, the aftermath of a vicious shootout that left many bodies and several pounds of illegal drugs in the back of a truck. Instead of calling the police, Moss takes the guns and bullets from the dead men, as well as that $2 million collection Chigurh wants. Unbeknownst to Moss, the case has a tracker in it, ensuring that the madman is always right on his tail.

No Country for Old Men is the Coens’ most suspenseful film, although it shifts from a cat-and-mouse pursuit in the first hour to a drama from Bell’s perspective as he contemplates the level of violence and vileness in society. To create a palpable intensity, the Coens chose not to include a musical score until the credits. Instead, the landscape shots of dusty West Texas hold an aura of dread rather than beauty. The sound design gives a quiet stillness to the dry land. The lack of triumphant music lets us drift with the characters as they do. In an early scene, when Moss finds the grisly aftermath of the drug deal gone wrong, the sound of wind, buzzing flies and rustling clothing adds atmosphere. Scenes sometimes build through a contrast between quiet and loud volumes, adding beats to the story events and making the moments breathe even with minimal dialogue.

Like any typical Western, the big shootouts have a quiet, pregnant build-up. A slithery camera crawls forward onto the characters and lingers on them as they hold their breath, waiting for their antagonist to show up and aim. Unlike a typical Western, the big duel at the end between Chigurh and Moss is shown off-screen. We catch the tail end of it from Sheriff Bell’s cruiser, as he approaches gunshots. During this climax, we have already shifted into the second and more evocative half of the film. The journey in the second half is less about the money and more about Bell searching for redemption in the face of danger and death. We do not see the climactic shootout because the film is more about Bell’s reaction to the hostile, dismal descent of the Old West than the glorification of violence.

For Bell, he retires, unwilling to understand the contaminated world he lives in. The land he used to know so well, the place where his father was heralded as a noble and trustworthy figure, is all but a dream. Instead, he sits at home and imagines the good ol’ days, as a respite from the dreary world he lives in. In one scene, Bell hesitates before heading into a hotel room where he suspects Chigurh is hiding. He clenches his gun and opens the door. It is one of the only moments of action by the horse-riding Sheriff throughout No Country For Old Men. However, he does not find Chigurh; instead, the room is empty, his weary shadow illuminating the wall.

Similar to the sheriff, No Country for Old Men frustrated some moviegoers turned off by the randomness of certain story events (as well as the coarse, unflinching violence). We never find out what brought Chigurh into the drug deal (the film eliminates the back-story that McCarthy’s novel had). One controversial scene has Chigurh riding through a neighbourhood and being hit, abruptly, by a car zooming through the intersection. In the preceding moments before the crash, the camera is inside the car looking through the front window. The light is green, which should give Chigurh the right of way.

Or, is the traffic light just green in Chigurh’s mind (the camera is set from his point-of-view) and he is actually going through a red light, which causes a collision? Since the character’s direction is so skewed through his own psychopathic tendencies – remember, he decides who to kill by chance of a coin toss – could this car crash be a metaphor for the consequences of blindly following a set of irrational principles?

There is something mythical about the mired, Faulkner-esque Texas environment in the Coens’ Oscar-winning suspense-thriller. It is a land scorched with bleakness and fatalism, shot with stark, dark beauty by the great Roger Deakins. No Country for Old Men is a meditative, macabre turn from the Coens, one defined more by its restraint and unease than films filled with the brothers’ usual directorial quirks. It is a mix between a mythical drama and revenge western, probably the bleakest film to win Best Picture.

A Rant of Rhyme and Reason: Is Frozen A Step Backward for Disney?

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Disney’s Frozen will soon be the studio’s biggest non-Pixar animated hit in close to 20 years, buoyed by strong word-of-mouth from critics and audiences, who touted the film as a more “progressive” animated film that plays with gender conventions in creative ways. At the film’s heart, Frozen is the touching story of two sisters, Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), and at points, the film abandons some of the gender norms that so often appeared in classic Disney films. There is no wedding. The love interest is a secondary character that does not save the day. The two sisters are largely independent characters who abandon their royal roots and are more proactive than your typical Disney princesses.

However, critics are over-exaggerating the film’s claims to being female-positive. Some react to the animated drama – which, finally, is the first Disney animated film to have a female director, Jennifer Lee – as if it is a watershed moment for a studio with a historically patriarchical dusting over its fairy tale stories. I am not denying that Frozen is not a beneficial film for young girls, as there are headstrong, independently motivated role models on display, at certain moments. However, there are some troubling aspects, especially in comparison to Tangled and Wreck-it Ralph, Disney’s two prior animated films that also boasted positive female characters, that suggest the studio is not moving forward with its heroines as decisively as you might think.

Before looking at the dimensions of the characters, it is important to look at the actual physical dimensions of their animated bodies. Anna and Queen Elsa are freakishly thin and surrounded by able male characters with fuller bodies. This slender design is problematic since it continuously reinforces how Disney is only interested in telling stories about girls who look unnaturally skinny. Underneath Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell’s powerful singing voices, their characters look even more brittle, more like dolls than humans. It is a minor miracle that none of the Disney princesses have ever had to deal with anorexia.

Now, to be fair, most animated films I can recall have thin female characters – another recent instance is Despicable Me 2. However, the slender frames of the characters become especially noticeable when they try to act heroically or do feats of great physical strain, which occur often in Frozen.

Another drawback is that screenwriter Jennifer Lee plays into a weakened feminine identity near the start, as both princesses focus on their behaviour around men. When Anna is finally able to leave her kingdom’s palace on Coronation Day and immerse herself with the plebeians below, her first major encounter is with a man – a handsome prince, Hans – who quickly sweeps her off her feet. Anna engages him in a cheery romantic duet before making an impulsive move to get married to Hans.

When Anna asks her sister to approve the marriage, Elsa is stricken with jealousy for her sister’s decisive romantic conquest. Arguably, one can argue that Queen Elsa vanquishes Arendelle under a deep freeze due to a similar lust for male company, the one that her sister gained so easily. The Queen’s pivotal action in the film comes out from an emotional insecurity. She has no self-control – especially when a handsome man is involved. It is hard to see their behaviour during these opening scenes as active and headstrong, as men easily manipulate the female protagonists into withering and indecisive people.

Recently, Disney has a solid track record with autonomous female characters in their animated films. In 2010’s Tangled, despite the eventual focus on creating a romantic angle with Flynn and Rapunzel, the protagonist is a self-sufficient character who follows her own dreams after she leaves the home she was locked up in, instead of pursuing the first man she happens to meet. (In one of the film’s pivotal scene, Rapunzel defeats Flynn by smashing his face with a frying pan, which also takes back that object as belonging in a ‘feminine’ space, the kitchen.)

Furthermore, in Wreck-it Ralph, Disney’s 2012 release, racer Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) and military fighter Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch) are bad-ass characters who can stand on their two feet and do not need men to accomplish their goals. Vanellope is a refreshingly smart-aleck kid with a keen sense of purpose and no desire to descend into any stereotype. At the end, when Vanellope transforms into the ‘princess’ of arcade game Sugar Rush, she says, jokingly, “As your merciful princess, I hereby decree that everyone who was ever mean to me shall be… executed.” Being a princess means nothing to her. In the meantime, Sgt. Calhoun is an assertive, tough character often relied on to save a male character, Felix.

In addition, one has to ask: if Disney is a studio so comfortable with showing off its strong female characters, why were Anna and Elsa so hidden in the film’s marketing campaign? They were shelved for Olaf, a character who does not appear until close to an hour into the 102-minute feature and has almost no impact on the story. If the studio was really focused on promoting its interest in strong women, why were Anna and Queen Elsa sidelined in the ad campaign? Disney could have been trying to pander to male audiences by removing the mention of a more female-friendly story from trailers and posters, similar to how the studio shifted the focus in Tangled’s ads from Rapunzel to Flynn. (Also, the studio altered the title from the Hans Christian Andersen story it is based on, The Snow Queen, to a more gender-neutral name.)

I am not arguing that Frozen refuses to display positive qualities toward its sister protagonists. The last 20 minutes, in particular, break convention with the idea that a man always has to be the savior and insists that this is a story about the love between sisters. Also, the film does pass the Bechdel Test, standards for proving that a movie is female-positive, with flying colours. However, despite the female-friendly ending, Frozen is not the feminist breakthrough that Disney’s admirers have been waiting for.

Recent Disney films like Brave, Tangled and Wreck-it Ralph have already shown off independent females mostly uninterested in men and marriage. It seemed like the company was veering closer to making a completely feminist film – and Jennifer Lee forgot this until wrapping up her script to Frozen. With Disney’s latest film, the company’s traditional patriarchical values are still frigid, in place, for much of the running time.

Review Monday: 12/16/13 (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Out of the Furnace, The Crash Reel, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)

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Can a film be both spectacularly thrilling and infuriatingly slow at once? Well, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (B-) fits that bill, draggin’ out J.R.R. Tolkien’s tale until the audience gets a glimpse of the dragon’s tail. Oh, and what a dazzling slice of dragon flesh that is. An event film both bracing and bloated, director Peter Jackson does not know how to keep focus on the main story, although the immersive action sequences are almost stellar enough to overcome the padding.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and 13 dwarves, led by heir to the throne Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), are on their way to Erebor to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the dwarf homeland. Abandoned early on by wizard guide Gandalf (Ian McKellen, largely missing throughout the film yet still getting top billing), the pack encounters a number of knotty situations that keep them in harm’s way and far from reaching their destination. They stay in the home of skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), are nearly dinner for a family of giant spiders, and fend off parading, computer-generated orcs, with help from a couple of elf allies, archers Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and new character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly).

Tolkien purists will find much to object in the second chapter of Jackson’s extensive Hobbit trilogy, three films of interminable length derived from a 300-page fantasy novel. A love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel and a brooding dwarf without a wispy beard, Kili (Being Human’s Aidan Turner) is superfluous. The biggest crime is when Jackson decides to intercut between the climactic showdown in Smaug’s cavernous mountain and Tauriel nursing Kili’s wounds back in Laketown. The constant jumping between these two moments kills the momentum.

Oh, but what a grand finale it is. The back-and-forth candor between Bilbo, a perfectly cast Martin Freeman, and the scaly, sinister, CGI sensation known as Smaug (with a voice smooth as velvet, provided by Benedict Cumberbatch), is spectacular and worth the wait. The first full shot of a Smaug, puffing out scandalous words and preying over the nimble hobbit, is pure spectacle, a movie moment that rivals the first reveal of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park for splendor and awe.

On the downside, Jackson’s Middle Earth, shot against scenic New Zealand backdrops, has never looked so much like the battleground for a video game. As spectacular as some of the action sequences are, some moments are over-drenched with computer effects – the especially elastic jumps of Legolas come to mind. Even though The Desolation of Smaug comes out 11 years after Jackson rocked the world of fantasy action fans with the Battle of Helm’s Deep, his digital orc armies look less convincing in 2013. The director also likes to stage his shots with distracting flourishes: there are enough extreme long shots followed by close-ups that these contrasting visuals become jarring. For a film that takes its time, Jackson’s intrusive visual style is needlessly hectic.

There are some small triumphs during this long road to Erebor, namely Martin Freeman’s terrific performance as the valiant Bilbo, who also has a thirsty draw to the power of that mystical ring he found in Gollum’s cave. The fresh-faced protagonist keeps our hopes high, even as the road feels longer and longer. It is worth the wait to see Smaug, a myriad of dazzling digital effects and deep-voiced fury that actually puts the thrill back into Jackson’s thrill ride. However, it is a rather desolate walk getting to that Lonely Mountain.

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Eddie Vedder’s cathartic growl on the song ‘Release’ (by his band, Pearl Jam) book-ends Out of the Furnace (C), the second film from writer/director Scott Cooper and one that attempts to be as bleak and powerful as a great Pearl Jam tune. However, even the presence of five Oscar-nominated actors cannot enliven a bland story of redemption that lacks the spark or weight of Vedder’s shredded voice.

Christian Bale broods beautifully but emotes little else as Russell Baze, an ex-convict working at a Pennsylvania steel mill and looking for purpose in his life. His younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), is an Iraq War vet with a penchant for gambling away debts and trying to rekindle his bank account through bare-knuckle scrapping with other men. However, his ambitions to fight up north lands him in the gaze of Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a menacing tweaker (and lollipop-sucker) with a very short fuse for people who do not honour his orders. Soon enough, Rodney is in DeGroat’s line of fire, sending Russell on a journey of retribution.

Cooper evokes a rustic, steel-town feel, setting the story amidst characters who only drive vintage trucks and old roadsters and go to the drive-in on Friday nights (the setting of the first jarring scene of violence) before taking off for deer hunting trips on the weekend. His script is too slight, using predictable, paint-by-numbers story conventions and obvious symbolism. He pays tribute to the setting, a small town location like the one in The Deer Hunter, but then stains it by using a deer on a hunting excursion as a parallel for Rodney. Yes, Russell is emblematic of that furnace at the steel mill. Of course, he will wash himself of that grime (i.e., his sins) before trekking out to punish his enemy.

Behind an uninspired story, a game ensemble tries to elevate the material. Casey Affleck fares the best. With a harsh, nasally voice, he turns Rodney into a fascinatingly off-kilter man driven by the wrong motives but too afflicted by trauma to control his impulses. Bale is suitably intense but his character is insipid, while Harrelson rattles DeGroat’s barbarism out on a chain and never feels inclined to reel the performance in. Rounding out the gruff, testosterone-filled ensemble is Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard and Forest Whitaker as the local sheriff.

Out of the Furnace burns an audience expecting that a film released right after American Thanksgiving yet far away from Christmas will be both dark and rewardingly intense. However, it is just dark, polluted with scummy characters, a script both loose (it takes nearly an hour to get to the first plot turn), familiar and – for the most part – filled with flatly drawn characters. It is a murky, meandering mess that lets down a master-class ensemble.

The Crash Reel

You can also find two new reviews of mine on entertainment website We Got This Covered. The first is for a deeply affecting documentary, The Crash Reel (B+) from director Lucy Walker, which uses the sudden collapse of pro-snowboarder Kevin Pearce as a way to look at traumatic brain injury and an increasingly competitive sporting world. The second is for the flat-footed but well-acted biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (C+), which a fiery Idris Elba performance cannot save. You can read my The Crash Reel review here and my Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom review here.

The Essentials: Barton Fink (1991)

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“I’ll show you the life of the mind!” – Charlie Meadows (John Goodman)

Barton Fink is Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterpiece, likely the most nightmarish and pointed satire of Hollywood this side of David Lynch and the directors’ first prominent look at Jewish identity. It is an easy film to get lost in and to feel lost in when trying to interpret the meaning of certain ambiguous elements in the absurd second half. Nevertheless, that hunt to figure out the metaphors and allusions gives Barton Fink many worthwhile repeat watches.

The story starts easily enough, and it is loosely based on the journey of playwright Clifford Odets. John Turturro plays the title character, an uptight Jewish playwright in New York City circa 1944. He is the heralded author of a hit play on Broadway, but Barton’s agent has bigger things planned. He ships Barton out to Los Angeles to work under contract for Capital Pictures, hoping a brief tenure in Hollywood could support him when he returns to the stage.

Barton is conflicted: on the one hand, he worries that working in Hollywood will cut him off from stronger material – he resolves to make cutting-edge theatre about the travails of the “common man” – but he is also dazzled by the possibility of finding fame in a prominent business. This is a struggle that the Coens, who rarely yield to the need of major studios anymore, likely know well.

In Los Angeles, a place where people speak quicker and have better haircuts than Barton, Capital studio head Jack Lipnick (the Oscar-nominated Michael Lerner) corners him into writing a Wallace Beery boxing picture. Barton knows nothing about boxing and cannot find any way to feel for the characters Lipnick describes.

Back at his residence, an eerie and nearly deserted hotel called the Earle, Barton spends his time staring at his typewriter, trying to summon up characters, stories and even words of description to get him started. Through this writers’ block, he is more mesmerized by a small-framed photograph above his desk, of a woman lying on the beach, peering out into an ocean oasis. That picture is his escape as his mind is imprisoned by the deadline of making a screenplay of nothing. (Fun fact: The Coens penned the script for Barton Fink during their own writers’ block while making Miller’s Crossing.)

During this tumultuous week, Barton befriends three people. The first, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), is his next-door neighbour at the Earle. (The initials C.M. are the same as the words “common man.”) Charlie is an insurance salesman who sells “a piece of mind.” He befriends Barton, who tells him about his authorly journey to write stories of people just like Charlie. “The hopes and dreams of the common man are as noble as any king,” he explains.

However, Barton also spends his time with a king of the craft, author W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, alluding to William Faulkner), a heavy drinker who also happens to be Fink’s favourite author. Mayhew took to screenwriting (and liquor) after initial success, and Barton hopes his newly kindled friendship with the experienced scribe can help him come up with a story. Barton also shares romantic feelings for Mayhew’s secretary and girlfriend, Audrey (Judy Davis), who turns out to be a more valuable help to Barton than he realizes.

The formal first half of Barton Fink, with its quaint period details and slang, leads into a surrealist second-half filled with ambiguities and shocking plot revelations more akin to Buñuel or Lynch. Here, Los Angeles feels more like an entry into an inferno of hell in many respects. In the first shot of the coastline, thunderously loud waves hit a rock and snap the viewer into paying attention. This West Coast world is going to be more dizzying than we expect.

The major setting, the haunting Hotel Earle, is a triumph of set and sound design. It is a creaky, smoky hotel, with a cavernous lobby. When Barton drifts up to the front desk, he rings the bell and it gives off a piercing, everlasting “bring” that echoes until Chet (the bellhop, played by Steve Buscemi) emerges from a trapdoor in the floor and touches it with his hand. As Barton walks from the elevator to his room, the hallway echoes in a sinister way, as if he was moving through a wind tunnel.

Barton has a drab room on the sixth floor. Lying in his sunken bed, the camera drifts forebodingly around him. The wallpaper is peeling; slimy ooze emerges from it as it droops around the room. The noises that the protagonist hears from other rooms sounds like a mix of sex and murder – both factors that figure into the macabre second half – and the intricacies (and ambiguities) of the sound design gives just the right touch of unease to put the viewer in Barton’s place.

Many critics and viewers have compared the Hotel Earle to Hell, with its mosquito population (bugs you don’t find down south), the immense heat (that makes the wallpaper drip) and the fact that Chet emerges from the floor underneath the lobby to entertain Barton on first visit. A more fiery moment from late in the second half comes to make the sixth floor (remember, 666) resemble an inferno. This tormented setting is appropriate, not just as an extended metaphor for the movie industry but also as a location that further plumbs the depths of the protagonist’s tortured psyche. (The film’s second half hints that Barton has a dark power of his own that he is too scared to confront, while another character turns out to be a figurehead of evil beyond anything we have seen.)

The photograph of the woman staring into the ocean that Barton sees in his room is later evoked in the film’s final scene, when Barton is at the beach and has a déjà vu. He notices a woman in the same pose and a light bathing suit at the beach. What does this mean? Well, in this writer’s opinion, the photograph is a piece of art that gives Barton an escape, like the B-picture Lipnick assigns him.

The picture awes him, a bright point of the dreary Hotel Earle; but in the end, the reality of what he sees does not bring any deeper meaning. It is just low and unexpressive, a merely adequate piece of art – like the kind of hack work that Barton does not want to write, aspiring to do richer material. (One interesting note: the last line of the screenplay Barton conjures up is almost identical to the final quote in the author’s play, recited at the very beginning of the film, hinting at his amateurism.)

However, the author’s fascination of the picture shows there is no reason to pursue these grand gestures of work about the “common man” if he is really drawn to merely good work. He longs for something more, but Barton is more of a common man than he gives himself credit for. (One more interesting note: in Barton Fink, all of the characters refer to movies as ‘pictures.’ I do not think that the word ‘movies’ or even ‘films’ is ever uttered.)

Barton’s drive to make something of his life brings up the theme of Jewish identity. Turturro, who also plays a Jew in Miller’s Crossing, is constantly uneasy with the level of success that he wants and tries to get more. He believes that he is chosen to bring forth triumphs that reflect the condition of the modern, common man. However, as a Jew who longs for the existence of something higher, he has difficulty finding a path that can bring him the realism he wants his work to communicate. He sees himself as a creator, to an extent that seems God-like. In one moment, the character opens a Bible and sees the first chapter of Genesis beginning with the few sentences he has already typed.

He tells Audrey and Mayhew that “good work is impossible without pain,” which turns out to be true if you go with the film’s interpretations that Barton only finds an enlightened work by fulfilling a much darker action. Although Charlie is impressed with the other’s authorly ambitions, Barton is too enamored with his own destiny to really mine Charlie’s mind for help with the story. “Barton, you think you know pain?” Charlie asks him. “You’re just a tourist with a typewriter.”

The second half begins with an unsettling ride down Barton’s hotel bathroom’s sink drain into the character’s underworld, filled with violence, infernos and artistic uncertainty. The protagonist begins to kill, lie and cover his tracks, becoming more like Mayhew than his own creation. He finds what is unlocked in his mind by losing it.

So, why does Barton turn so suddenly to a dark side? What is in the unwrapped box Charlie gives Barton? These are just some of the many thrilling questions from Barton Fink that the Coens have ensured film fans keep talking about more than 20 years after its release. A dizzying fever dream and a dreadfully funny Hollywood satire, Barton Fink is the Coens’ most creative film – and it just happens to be about creating films.