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Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnace film posterSynopsis

Russell (Christian Bale) works in a steel mill and is paying off the gambling debt of his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) who is in between Iraq military tours.  Rodney gets into bare knuckle boxing influenced by John (Willem Dafoe).  John is threatened by Harlan (Woody Harrelson).  Harlan is violent towards women and men.  Russell goes stag hunting with his uncle Gerald (Sam Shephard).  Russell causes deaths in a motor accident and is imprisoned losing his partner.  Harlan kills Rodney and goes after John.  Russell seeks revenge…

Review

This is a failure of a film.  It tries very hard to be like The Deer Hunter but falls short.  Russell and Gerald hunt stags just like in The Deer Hunter but we know Russell is really sensitive because he does not like killing animals, although he’s okay about going after people.  Deer hunting seems to have passed the ‘Outstanding Appropriate Symbol test for American Values’, so it is in this film.  Shephard of course plays himself again as he did in Osage and Mud.  He is the reliably macho man of cowboy art and Marlborough Man mysticism.  Shephard’s presence in a film ensures it effortless Mount Rushmore gravitas.  Christian Bale seems determined to play down that irritatingly squeaky schoolboy he played in Empire of the Sun.  This film gives us the most reliable red neck cliches: the decent cop that the good woman lives with, the silent strong guy who becomes a reluctant killer, the cartoonish psycho waiting for his comeuppence (Woody Harrelson also has to live down the good natured guy in Cheers).  There’s the usual inability to resist the drug of gun vigilantism we see in numerous films e.g. Mud.  The film is all steel town tattoo and sawn-off denim orthodoxies, the plot is the stuff of lots of country and western ballads.  Violence and self pity perform their usual ever so slow and self absorbed dance.  The woman is of course the usual voice of decency and conscience, all nurturing and support.  Guess what – she is a primary school teacher.  If she hadn’t been that, she would have been a social worker.  The closest this film gets to thoughtfulness is Russell looking moody on his porch. Casey Affleck’s Rodney (who ever heard of an American soldier called Rodney?) of course says all the right things about the horrors of war as if you have to go to Iraq to work that out.  Like deer hunting, bare knuckle fighting also passed the ‘Outstandingly Appropriate Symbol test for American Values’.  Rodney might regret violence but he’s hoping to knock the lamplight out of his opponents in order to pick up money.  Willem Dafoe plays his often tried rattyman-with-mence.  The confrontation between him and Harlan provides the only real tension.  There are interesting details of a steel town but these are sacrificed as placements for the arthritic familiarities we associate with the industrial proletariat on film.  All these distinguished actors can’t save this film from catastrophe.

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Posted by on April 16, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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The Butler

The Butler film posterSynopsis

Forest Whitaker plays Cecil Gaines who is a black kid on a cotton plantation in the 20s.  His mother is raped and his father is murdered.  To escape poverty and persecution he becomes a butler, eventually moving in as the White House butler from the Eisenhower era (1956) to Reagan (1989).  He serves through the Civil Rights movement to Kennedy’s assassination, to Nixon and his son’s involvement in the Black Panthers, and later in the anti-aparteid movement.  One of his sons is killed in Vietnam.  Oprah plays his spouse and we see heated domestic times.  Cecil Gains lives to see the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Review

The film turns history into soap opera and a pretty demeaning one for black people.  That the key period of the history of the struggle for civil rights is tracked through the subservient role of being a butler is surely trivializing.   Cecil Gaines and his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) are invited to dinner by the Reagans surely as a patronized mascot and show trophy.  That this is played for acceptability by the ex-radical Jane Fonda (playing Nancy Reagan) is breathtakingly ironic. At one point Cecil Gaines’ son attacks Sidney Poitier for being the white man’s idea of what a black man should be (anyone who’s suffered watching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner will see the point), yet The Butler itself is little more than an updating of that film insofar as it simplifies and sanitizes the struggle for equal rights.  It does this by turning this struggle into soap opera routines brought on as a dramatic backdrop to the life of the butler, history as walk on epiphanies for the serious business of sorting out domestic happiness and keeping the silver polished.  We’ve seen this in lots of films that trawl through the crucial moments of the 20th century.

This film could also be called “The Shawshank Redemption all over Again”.  In that film the passing years are marked by change of film stars on the wall posters in the prison cell, in The Butler it’s the change of decor and style in the White House.  Like Morgan FrTheeeman in The Shawshank Redemption, the early deference shown by Gaines when he appears before white authority in asking for a pay rise or in Freeman’s case, in asking for his freedom, is replaced by a more self confident attitude.  A more perceptive look at a butler’s life is the novel and film  Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro in which Anthony Hopkins show that this kind of servitude can be escapism from personal responsibility and emotional commitment.  The false idealism of this kind of self effacing indignity, (after all, he’s serving some pretty worthless people) is well exposed in that story.  In Remains of the Day Hopkins is insulted by being patronizingly cross examined over his presumed political ignorance, but in The Butler the cross questioning of Cecil Gaines is more benign but still paternalistic.  It does show that The Butler lacks the insight of Remains of the Day.  Cecil Gaines is perceived merely as an anachronistic Uncle Tom or “House Nigger” by his radicalized children.  The presidents are wheeled on to provide the game card quotes, another Shawshank way of marking the passing years.  Eisenhower is elderly and genteel, the Kennedys are chic, John Kennedy as usual is overly praised for providing cost-free rhetoric whilst the real work of civil rights goes on down South.  Nixon is cornered and self pitying.  The only other president deemed worthy of a walk on part is the mobile statue called Ronald Reagan.  Martin Luther King also gets a walk on part, he defends the butler’s job against Gaines’ radical son but one gets the feeling he’s simply making excuses for the film itself.  The film is just a soap opera of acceptable black stereotypes.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2014 in At the cinema, Film Reviews

 

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