Scott Cooper transitioned from small-time actor into big-time director when his debut film Crazy Heart earned Jeff Bridges a Best Actor Oscar in 2009. It has taken five long years for his follow-up film, Out of the Furnace, to be made and released -- and that was partially due to Cooper's insistence that Christian Bale play the lead role of Russell Baze, a long time steel miner in rural Pennsylvania struggling to make the best out of his life.
Russell has a beautiful girlfriend named Lena (Zoe Saldana) and works hard to make the lives of those around him better, checking in on his ailing father every morning before work and bailing his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) out of his gambling debts even though he doesn't really have the money. Rodney has been on four tours to Iraq and has no interest in following in his brother's footsteps of working for a living. He's always on the hunt for a quick buck, teaming up with a local bar owner (Willem Dafoe) who specializes in underground bare-knuckle fights to make enough cash to stay afloat.
On the way home from paying off some of Rodney's debts, Russell drives home from the bar after having one too many and gets into an accident, killing two people. As he goes off to jail, his life slowly begins to slip away from him. His father's health gets worse, his girlfriend refuses to see him and his brother goes further and further off the deep end. While we aren't shown exactly how many years he's incarcerated, the world that Russell returns to after he is released from prison is far different than it was when he went away.
There is an artful slow-burn to the filmmaking on display here, but Out Of The Furnace shows that no matter how many talented actors you have, some stories just can't be redeemed. It's just not very original and even though Relativity is doing a full-court press for awards season, it's hard to imagine this revenge thriller gaining much traction.
The best thing about the movie, quite surprisingly, is Woody Harrelson. He gives a frightfully good performance as the ringleader of an Appalachian crime syndicate who spends his days violating women, cooking up meth and throwing fights so that he can make as much money as possible. He's pure evil personified, but even this gritty role (which kicks off the movie in a disturbingly violent way) doesn't save Out of the Furnace from feeling like something we've seen a million times before.
In his latest film Go for Sisters, which screened at SXSW and opens today in Austin, longtime indie filmmaker John Sayles (Lone Star, Matewan) brings us yet another almost noir-ish mystery set on the U.S.-Mexico border. But like his other films, it's primarily character driven. The characters in Go for Sisters are strong, complex and interesting, and make up for a story that seems to meander aimlessly at times.
Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton) is a parole officer who is inadvertently assigned to an old high-school friend, Fontayne (Yolonda Ross). Bernice was always the straight arrow, but Fontayne is on parole after serving time for drug-related crimes. But Bernice needs Fontayne's help to find her son Rodney, who has mysteriously vanished after one of his friends has been murdered.
Bernice and Fontayne soon realize they need help and engage the services of an aging, sight-impaired ex-detective, Suarez (Edward James Olmos) and end up on a long journey involving the border to find out what happened to Rodney and if he's even still alive.
Olmos could have stolen this movie quite handily, but Hamilton and Ross hold their own, especially in scenes where the two lead female characters are together. The changing relationship between Bernice and Fontayne is the centerpiece of the film, but is complemented by Olmos's charming performance. A scene at the border in which the trio poses as a musical group is one of the film's quiet gems.
The mystery plot should be in service of the characters, but it veers off into scenes that feel irrelevant. The scenes are often fun to watch, as when Hector Elizondo makes a brief appearance, but they cause the movie to drag slightly in the middle. One sequence involving the possibility of tunnels across the border felt like it could have been eliminated entirely, especially with the over-two-hour running time.
If you stop to absorb the lyrics of most bluegrass songs, you’ll find they’re not just sad, they’re heart, gut and soul-wrenching. This gives you an idea of what to expect from The Broken Circle Breakdown, a romantic drama that uses bluegrass music to frame its characters' tumultuous lives.
Directed by Felix van Groeningen, The Broken Circle Breakdown follows two young creatives, Elise and Didier, as they meet, fall in love, play in a band together and soon enough end up married and parents to a little girl. As life continues to throw surprises at them, they find the strength to keep going in different ways.
Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh play the leads, and each brings great charisma and energy to the screen. Physically tiny compared to Heldenbergh's towering, banjo-playing figure, Baetens exudes passion and heart as Elise, an impulsive tattoo artist with a lovely singing voice and superstitious leanings. Heldenbergh is alternately gruff and warm as Didier, Elise's atheistic counterpart who is defined by his deep love for American culture and deep hate for its politics.
The two have sharply different views when it comes to religion, philosophy, and just about everything else, but their chemistry and love for their daughter make them a believable couple who you hope finds their way towards happiness.
But just like in a bluegrass song, happiness is hard to come by. When Elise and Didier's daughter Maybelle becomes sick with leukemia, they are forced to watch helplessly as medicine, luck and their own bond as a couple all begin to fail. Maybelle, played by the extraordinary Nell Cattrysse, is the star that guides these two, and when her light begins to fade they are both at a loss.
Director Shaul Schwarz examines the drug war in Mexico in the riveting and occasionally gruesome documentary Narco Cultura, opening Friday in Austin. Schwarz is an Israeli photojournalist who shot a series of images in 2011 on the violence erupting across Juarez, but decided the topic needed to be brought to life on the big screen. With this movie, he keeps the spotlight on Juarez, which has become the murder capital of the world while sitting directly across from the safety and relative security of El Paso, Texas.
What struck me right away about the film was the on-camera interviews with children, who could not be older than 10, talking about the murder of their family members as though it was the most common and natural thing in the world. Their day-to-day reality is skewed in an obscenely harmful way thanks to the drug syndicates who rule the streets.
The violence in Juarez grew slowly, but steadily over the years with the murder rate eclipsing 3600 people last year alone. We are introduced to several police officers who work as the "C.S.I." of Mexico, a specialized unit that has been targeted by the drug lords. Every day they are on the job, they are taking the risk that they'll be killed, most likely to be followed on their way home after they leave the office. The irony is that for all of the evidence that they gather, there is such widespread corruption that the majority of cases are never solved.
For this Thanksgiving week edition of Lone Star Cinema, I selected an influential football film from the mid-aughts. Before the acclaimed series Friday Night Lights started shooting in town, the 2004 film, starred Billy Bob Thornton as coach to a Texas high school football team. Based on the same-titled book by Buzz Bissinger, Friday Night Lights depicts the 1988 season of the Permian Panthers of Odessa, from the promising pre-season to their challenging finish at state.
The movie places quick scenes from the lives of several of the senior players in between montages of the Friday night action in Odessa's Ratliff Stadium. Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) plays Boobie Miles, an assured running back who is the team's star. I'd argue Luke gives the best performance in the movie. Midway through Friday Night Lights, his character faces an obstacle he may not be able to overcome, and Luke aptly conveys Boobie's bluster, might and heartbreak.
Quiet quarterback Mike Winchell (Lucas Black, Sling Blade, Jarhead) finds it hard to engage in the game as his thoughts dwell on his uncertain academic future and the fate of his sickly mother. Billingsley, the fullback played by Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy), lives with an abusive drunk dad (country singer Tim McGraw) who was once on a Permian team that won the state championship.
I wanted to know more about the backstories of younger player Comer -- the recently departed Lee Thompson Young (The Famous Jett Jackson) shows such promise here -- as well as stoic linebacker Ivory Christian (former UT player Lee Jackson) and safety Chavez (Jay Hernandez, spotted on ABC's Nashville). For a film that is practically two hours long, Friday Night Lights is relatively light on plot and spends much of its time on the field. I guess if I want to know more about the players, I'd have to read the book.
The movie Frozen may be Disney's best animated film in 20 years. The adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" is a return to Disney classic form with a few new twists on old tropes.
The pairing of composer Christophe Beck (Pitch Perfect, Burlesque) with lyricist Kristen Anderson-Lopez recaptures some of the magic of Menken/Ashman from 1989-1992 in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. The screenplay by Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph), who also shared directing duties with Chris Buck (Tarzan), carefully balances dark subject matter with good-natured humor as it transports the audience into a magical frozen world.
Idina Menzel won a Tony for her Broadway performance in Wicked as Elphaba, the misunderstood "wicked witch" forced into isolation by her appearance and powers. The role of snow queen Elsa she plays in Frozen is not a very far stretch from that character, though she is not the heroine of this tale.
Princess Anna is voiced by Kristen Bell, who also performs her own songs. Who knew Kristen Bell could sing like this? Performing in four tracks that include duets with Santino Fontana, Josh Gad, and Menzel, her voice is flawless.
The most memorable numbers in Frozen, however, are "In Summer," performed by Josh Gad (Jobs, Ice Age) about a snowman's light-hearted musing on dreams of warm weather, and "Let It Go," which inspired youngsters in the audience to sing along with the credits.
After she accidentally injures younger sister Anna while playing with her budding magical powers, Elsa's parents hide her away, isolated from people in order to avoid hurting them. She grows up striving to repress, rather than control, her feelings and thus her powers. After their parents' deaths, Elsa comes of age and must assume her role as queen at a coronation ceremony, resulting in a disaster from which she flees.
War is hell, but not in The Book Thief.
This is not to say war is a picnic in the film; the specter of war's ultimate toll is ever present and personified by the narrator, Death. But The Book Thief's absurdly sanitized depiction of World War II barely hints at the horrific realities, and a story that should be gritty and deep is mostly mild and superficial.
The titular book thief in the film (based on a bestselling young adult novel of the same title) is young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse). Her mother, a communist in pre-war Nazi Germany who fears for her family's safety, takes Liesel and her younger brother to live with foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann. Liesel's brother dies aboard the train en route to meet the Hubermanns; after his trackside burial, the illiterate Liesel steals the gravedigger's manual to remind her of her brother. This is the first of many books she'll take throughout the film as she becomes more literate.
Kasi Lemmons, director of Eve's Bayou and Talk to Me, chose a play by poet Langston Hughes as the basis for her new movie. Black Nativity is first and foremost a musical, featuring original pieces of music as well as new arrangements of familiar hymns and carols. Lemmons even co-wrote some of the songs, with Raphael Saadiq producing the music (he shares the "Music by" credit with composer Laura Karpman).
The music is the best thing about Black Nativity. Without the songs it would likely be a far more disappointing movie, as you can see plot lines coming from a mile away. There are a couple times when a character says something that punches you in the gut with its earnestness, but otherwise the story is as ridiculous as it is predictable.
Langston, a fatherless kid from Baltimore played by young Jacob Latimore, is sent to live with grandparents he's never met. His rhyming narration kicks off the movie, and his singing voice has a light tone. Singer/Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson plays his financially-strapped mom who sings more often than she talks. Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker are the grandparents living in Harlem (and both of them sing in the movie!). Bassett's tentative alto harmonizes nicely with Hudson's more assured voice for a duet in "He Loves Me Still."
Tyrese Gibson (Baby Boy, Transformers) shows up as a gritty man Langston meets in NYC, and his performance of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" late in the film is simply beautiful. A homeless couple -- obvious Joseph and Mary stand-ins as soon as they appear onscreen -- are played by R&B singer Luke James and newcomer Grace Gibson. Mary J. Blige is an angelic figure with startlingly white hair, and Nas is... himself, I guess?
Some aspects of Philomena can be the stuff of films that critics loathe: It's a crowd pleaser, the central characters are borderline cinematic clichés, they form an unlikely friendship (I wish there were more films about unlikely animosities), and the story's morality isn't complicated.
But thanks to a smart, funny script, a likeable vibe, direction by the esteemed Stephen Frears and superb performances by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, Philomena avoids all these potential pitfalls. It's a great movie that may be a hit with audiences for all the right reasons.
Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film is based on the true story of the titular Philomena (Dench), an Irish woman who spends nearly 50 years wondering what became of her long-lost son. As a teenager in 1952, she becomes pregnant and, like many "fallen" girls and women in Catholic-dominated Ireland, is sent away to a convent. After she gives birth, the proudly cruel nuns force her to sign away her parental rights to the baby, Anthony, who lives with her at the convent until he's adopted at age three. Knowing nothing about Anthony's adoptive parents, Philomena loses touch with him.
It's been almost a year now since Jennifer Lawrence has captured the collective hearts of America with her adorable quality and humility paired with her humor. To look at anything Lawrence did in early 2013 you'd think she could do absolutely no wrong. As is typical of American culture, her illustrious shine is still amazingly bright, but now we're ready to see what she can do onscreen again. Can she impress us, still? Her first major release of 2013 is the sequel to the hugely successful franchise, The Hunger Games.
In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Lawrence's character Katniss Everdeen remains a polarizing figure in the dystopian society of the future. Her success in the previous year's Hunger Games, a competition held annually in which a tribute from every district is randomly selected to participate in a fight to the death where only a single winner is to remain, elevated her status as a living example of the type of courage that is present in the poverty stricken districts of the country.
Her victory didn't come easily, and without controversy though. Her male counterpart, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) also came away from the previous year's Hunger Games as a victor due to some clever posturing by Katniss. Now that she has fully grabbed the attention of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), forces are conspiring to eliminate Katniss from causing any more trouble, but there are also forces looking to join Katniss and her fight for survival and survival of her people.
The strengths that were present in the first film are more pronounced in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Lawrence's character seems to carry the world on her shoulders now, and it's appropriate since, on a weird parallel scale, Lawrence seemed to always be on everyone's mind in the last year in a way similar to Katniss in the film's universe. Her combination of ease and uneasiness with the burdens that are now ever present is handled beautifully. When Katniss has to act confident and complacent, she does so with a smile on her face that seems genuine, but is able to maintain that uneasiness in her eyes.