Woody Harrelson

December 22, 2013

Out Of The Furnace

PERFORMANCES

Perhaps it is because I’m a black man born and raised in a city environment that the world of the country gangster interests me so much.  Their world is an entirely different world than the one I’m used to, and it’s just a short ways up the highway.  I watched The Dukes Of Hazzard religiously as a kid…before I realized that them Duke boys were driving ’round with a big “Go F%*k Yourself Black People” flag on their car.  It is no secret that Justified is my favorite show on television. (SCREW YOU GOLDEN GLOBE COMMITTEE)  Even Roadhouse tickles the hell out of me.  Especially the absurdity of that final scene.  So, Out Of The Furnace seemed like a film set directly in my entertainment wheelhouse.  Unfortunately, the film has an overly simple and predictable plot that merely serves as a platform for its real asset.  The thoroughly stellar PERFORMANCES.

Out Of The Furnace comes from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper.  Crazy Heart also ended up being a film with an unremarkable plot but extremely remarkable and Oscar winning PERFORMANCES.  Furnace is about the chaos that happens after two brothers get mixed up with a psychotic mountain man gangster.  That’s it.  Okay, there are some other secondary facets to the story.  This includes a regretable accident, an awkward love triangle, and a combat veteran’s hardship.  However, hardly anything happens that you will not see coming or have not seen before.  Because the premise is this simple and familiar, the moments that connect the important plot elements feels like overly long and extraneous padding.  You could easily cut forty minutes from this barely two hour film and still not miss a thing.  A very unfortunate problem, seeing as those padded moments have some of the film’s better acted scenes.  This makes me think they were kept in, not because the story needed it, but because of how good the actors were in it.  You never want to have a film where great PERFORMANCES are playing defense with your story.

Scott Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi are real artists when it comes to framing and light.  I think Cooper could make a terrific western if he wanted to.  The western genre is centered on confrontation, tension and the anticipation of violence.  That is maybe what he was trying to do here.  A modern day western.  If that is the case then the pacing of the film makes sense.  However, there are still some elements that don’t serve the build up of confrontation.  Though, Cooper should be credited for once again getting what he got from his actors in this film.

People still forget how great of an actor Christian Bale is.  Even after his recent Oscar win for The Fighter.  In The Fighter, Bale played a larger than life character that required his usual body transformation.  It was a character that gave him many things to do and many things to play with.  His character Russell Baze is precisely the opposite of Dicky Ward.  Russell is more subdued and still.  Most of Bale’s PERFORMANCE is internalized.  And yet, the PERFORMANCE is tremendous.  A scene with him and Zoe Saldana on a bridge is probably some of the finest acting you’ll see this year.  Yeah, Zoe Saldana is in this.  She isn’t in it for a long time, but long enough to give a strong PERFORMANCE.  Bale’s brother Rodney is played by the Affleck brother who can act.   (You’re an awesome director Ben, but Casey can act circles around you)  Again, the dynamic between the two brothers is nothing new.  However, Casey and Bale elevate the relationship in every scene they share.  You would never think Casey could display an intensity that rivals the always intense Bale, but he does.  And speaking of intense, the real standout of this movie is Woody Harrelson.  From the first scene, you know that Harrelson is going to steal this film.  He is tough, funny, and scary as hell.  He is such a great character, I wish there was a little more time dedicated to him.  His inevitable showdown with Bale struck me as a bit anticlimactic.   Cooper might have meant to keep his character Harlan Degroat (What a great name) simple and vague.  However, I would have appreciated a little more time with the character and see the behind the scenes of how he ran his organization.

I’ve focused on the main stars, which really short changes the fine work done by the supporting cast.  From Forest Whitaker, to Willam Dafoe, to Sam Shepard.  Every actor brought their A game.  Sadly, the story surrounding them is simply just a B-.  Grab your rifle…and your boxing tape…don’t let Woody Harrelson serve you a hotdog…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.

November 23, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (DJ’s Take)

STEADY

See what I did there?  I made a joke about the shaky cam used in the first Hunger Games movie in comparison to its usage in this film.  A cheap shot, I know.  However, STEADY can also be a word attributed to several things about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and the franchise in general.

 My biggest takeaway from the first Hunger Games was that everything up to the games was surprisingly new and interesting.  But when the games started, the film became a missed opportunity.  Whether that be from the…(ahem)…nauseating shaky cam…or the violence getting scaled back for the rating…or the rushed narrative.  The film only scratched the surface of what it meant to kill someone innocent, someone you know, or someone you love in order to survive.  A subject I don’t think we’ll ever properly explore in a film from this series.  The sequel Catching Fire left me feeling the same way I felt after watching the 2003 film The Matrix Reloaded.  It was a sequel that gave me more of what I loved in the first film, less of what I didn’t, threw in a direction altering twist, and ended so abruptly that I was sickenly desperate for more.  Unlike The Matrix films, The Hunger Games franchise has always had an established blueprint.  It also has expectations nowhere near as unachievable as the ones the Wachowskis were faced with.  So, my hopes for this franchise’s conclusion don’t feel as futile.

I’m typically skeptical of any Young Adult novel film adaptation.  Mainly, because their stories are usually formulaic, shallow, and just not made for me.  From Twilight, to The Mortal Instruments, to the upcoming Divergent, to even Harry Potter.  The subject matter of those films never struck me as having anything deep about them.  The Hunger Games, on the other hand, is a Y.A. idea that actually has interesting material.  War, oppression, rebellion, gladiatorial combat, political appeasement of the masses, questions on morality, self sacrifice.  I could go on.  Material like this is probably why the films have attracted arguably the best ensemble cast of any Y.A. adaptation.  And why its main character is played by inarguably the best actor.

I hate Jennifer Lawrence.  No, not in the way you think.  I hate her for the fact that she is such a rare, real, STEADY, good actor, that she can convince me of literally anything.  I try and stay objective when I see her work, but I’m captivated by her characters the instant she starts doing her thing.  Every time there is a moment in Catching Fire where I’m sure the material will be too ridiculous or ponderous for me to stand, Lawrence comes in and totally blows me away with her honesty.  There is a scene where she is speaking about the fallen tribute Rue, and god help me, I found my eyes welling up with tears.  It is a scene meant to tug at your heartstrings with all the subtlety of a semi-truck.  And yet, I was astonished at how perfectly personal Lawrence plays it.  Katniss’ grief for Rue was played out mostly in silence in the first film.  Here, you finally get to listen to her describe her sadness and guilt and rage for what happened to Rue in one brief speech.  And Lawrence delivers it with not one false beat.  There are several instances like that in the film where I should groan and roll my eyes.  But the performances of Lawrence and Sutherland and Harrelson and Hoffman and even Hutcherson and Hemsworth are strong enough to sell this world.

I understand that previous director Gary Ross was using shaky cam in an attempt to hide the bloodshed and capture the primal nature of the games.  However, there is a distinct difference between being visceral and being incomprehensible.  Francis Lawrence has a much STEADIER(It’s almost too easy) hand when it comes to the camera.  I don’t just mean the action scenes, though, they are much better.  I mean with everything.  He just seems to have a better grasp on when to hold on an emotional beat, pull back on an enormous set piece, and shake up the visuals during a pulse pounding fight scene.  At least, in a way that I’m used to.  I think Ross, who has done some great work on his earlier films, just had a style that was too distracting for this content.

The one flaw that really gets in the way of Catching Fire’s potential is probably the most integral reason for its drawing power.  And that is the film’s love triangle.  No, I’m not some cynical douche that detests any time a film is inundated with mushy teen romance.  I’m a cynical douche that detests being browbeaten over the head by plot threads, whatever they may be.  I appreciate nuance, timeliness, and skillful integration.  The love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale still lacks these things and acts as an obstacle to the story.  Katniss switches back and forth between her love interests to an almost comical extent in this film.  I seriously began to lose track from scene to scene as to where her love currently lied.  The much richer lead up to the games and increased political intrigue gives the story some really strong momentum.  Momentum that is stopped dead whenever the characters are forced to deal with their romantic issues.  I know me complaining about how unnecessarily domineering the love triangle plotline is in The Hunger Games is the equivalent of me complaining about how unnecessarily domineering the huge red spoiler is on a sports car.  I know why it’s there and I know it appeases the teenage girl demographic.  Yet, it could be scaled back significantly and the ride would be all the better for it.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a strong sequel for any franchise, and continues to easily be one of the more interesting Young Adult novel film adaptations going today.  I hear they are going all Hobbit with the next book by splitting it in two.  Let us hope they can remain on their STEADY pace upward.  Grab your bow…and your pin…and your superconductive metal coil…watch it…tick tock…then tell me I’m wrong.

November 14, 2013

White Men Can’t Jump

White Men Can’t Jump – Chemistry

CHEMISTRY

It seems fitting that we are a few weeks into the NBA season, as well as NCAA Basketball just getting underway, that we finally post a review about something basketball oriented.  While football gets most of the glory, cinema-wise, there are a handful of decent b-ball films.  Most people will automatically name “Hoosiers” as the best in the genre, if not one of the best and most inspiring sports films of all-time.  I tend to disagree.  While “Hoosiers” is all well and good, and features a drunk Dennis Hopper, it’s the classic underdog story that has been done to death, so to me, it kind of looses it’s shine after nearly 30 years.

When I think of a basketball film it always comes back to one of the first films I ever saw on HBO back in the early 1990’s, and that would be “White Men Can’t Jump.”  It’s the Ron Shelton-directed flick that made basketball fun and not some inspirational true story.  However, I’m sure a lot of white guys can relate to going to an outdoor basketball court, getting crap from a Wesley Snipes-like player, and eventually embarrassing them with a cross-over and a fade away jumper.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of those players. Think of ME as Dennis Hopper in “Hoosiers.”

Like most Shelton films, “Jump” deals with misfits who become endearing to the audience.  While he’s gone outside of the sports realm with mixed results, see “Hollywood Homicide” as a prime example, his wheelhouse has always been how sports can be romantic and bring people to common ground.  “Jump” tells the story of two hustlers who constantly try to out hustle each other.  Woody Harrelson plays Billy Hoyle, a former college basketball player on the run with his Jeopardy-loving girlfriend, Gloria, played by Rosie Perez, still enjoying her 15-minutes of fame.  Hoyle meets Sidney Deane, Wesley Snipes’ best role outside of “Blade,” a braggadocious street ball player with aspirations of escaping the inner-city.  The irony of Deane is his love for the street, while still trying to escape it and do what he needs for his family, which is really at the heart of the film.  Despite the fact that Hoyle and Deane are always trying to one-up each other and hustle each other, there always seems to be a mutual respect between them.  What I like to pretend sometimes is that “Money Train” is a direct sequel to “Jump” and Jennifer Lopez takes over as Rosie Perez’s character.

“Jump” is in the vein of Shelton’s other sports films, namely “Bull Durham” and “Tin Cup.”  The characters feel lived in and the chemistry between Harrelson and Snipes is undeniable.  There are times when you think they hate each other, and the next minute you think they are the best of friends.  It feels like the same relationship “Nuke” LaLoosh and Crash Davis had in “Durham.” Whether how much of the dialogue between Hoyle and Deane was ad-libbed, it feels authentic and something you would normally hear during any pick-up game, anywhere.

There are a few weak points to “Jump.”  Rosie Perez, if you’ve seen her in any movie, can become quite grating after a while.  I don’t know if it’s the voice, the accent, or simply both, but after hearing “Beeeeleeeee!!” about 100 times you’ll want to take a charge from Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer at the same time.  Does that sound a little too erotic?  There is also the subplot of Billy and Gloria being on the run from two gangsters looking for money.  It’s a little weak, and doesn’t add much to the story as a whole.

While some of the characters and story elements are lacking, as a whole, “Jump” is still great, and while the fashion has been left in the past, the film has aged incredibly well.  The jokes are still funny (I mean who doesn’t appreciated a well crafted “Yo Mama” joke) and they took a sport that was lacking any real cinematic flare, and gave it some.  I know I’ll hear crap about this from “Hoosiers” purists, but c’mon!  Oh, we can’t forget that any self-respecting basketball player always goes to Sizzler after a game, just ask Dwyane Wayne.

Fun Fact:  Duane Martin, who played Willie in this film, was also a baller in 1994’s “Above the Rim.”

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