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out_of_the_furnace_poster

Christian Bale racks up another career highlight performance as Russell Baze, a good but deeply flawed man at the end of his tether in Out of the Furnace, a strong, deeply American film from writer-director-to-watch Scott Cooper. Baze is an endearing dead-end ex-con and mill worker who, in a relationship reminiscent of that between Keitel and DeNiro in Mean Streets, attempts to look out for his war-damaged deadbeat brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rodney is in debt but uninterested in conventional employment, leading to his involving himself in the dangerous world of underground fighting.

Out of the Furnace stands as a stark statement that the American Dream is deceased. Its rust belt setting rings all too true, and a barroom television moment more subtle than a similar scene in 2012’s Killing Them Softly shows that Obama’s hope-and-change rhetoric has no reality for the typical working (or unemployed) stiff. Out of the Furnace is a film of its time and timely, its story enthralling, with each frame carrying fascination and a feeling of immediate importance.

Those who enjoy tense, earthy family dramas and character studies with gritty, realistic settings – movies like Sling Blade, Mud, or The Place Beyond the Pines – are certain to appreciate Out of the Furnace, which, in addition to the showcased character creation of Christian Bale, features sharp supporting performances from Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard, Zoe Saldana, and Willem Dafoe. Deserving special recognition, furthermore, is Woody Harrelson, frightening light-years from Cheers here as hillbilly drug kingpin Harlan DeGroat. Harrelson’s hot dog moment in the opening scene sets the grotesque, tenebrous tone of the film and constitutes the most shocking piece of fast food humiliation since the fried chicken scene in 2011’s Killer Joe.

5 stars. Highest recommendation.

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Out of the Furnace is:

7. Diversity-skeptical. In one of his underground fights, Rodney is pitted against a black thug who taunts him, calling him “white boy” and mocking his military service. Pleasantly, Rodney makes a comeback and gives this rascal a vicious and racially charged beatdown.

6. Antiwar. Rodney comes back from Iraq as an angry and alienated man.

5. Protectionist. The mill is scheduled to be shut down, with American jobs exported to China.

4. Pro-miscegenation. Notwithstanding no. 7, Russell is in love with brown beauty Lena (Zoe Saldana), but loses her after his stint in the pen.

3. Anti-drug. Drunk driving lands Russell in prison. Harder stuff turns Harlan DeGroat into a maniac.

2. Anti-redneck. Harlan DeGroat is the scariest white trash bad guy since Deer Crossing‘s Lukas Walton.

1. Pro-family. Russell Baze is driven by his devotion to his family, caring as best he can for his sick father and brother while both are still alive, and diligently avenging them after they are gone.

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American Hustle poster

To be perfectly honest, this reviewer was bored for lengthy portions of American Hustle, David O. Russell’s unaccountably lauded opus about the Abscam scandal. Like too many period pieces set in fashion-distinctive epochs, Hustle evinces an overly polished and inorganic quality, more concerned with fussing about its garish clothing, bizarre hairstyles, and flaunting an unwarranted sense of its own super-coolness than with the development of characters deserving of the audience’s interest. As with the less inspired moments in Scorsese’s oeuvre, American Hustle is too content to slide by on the likability of its vintage pop soundtrack and slick but empty visual flair, with – of course! – the obligatory trip to a decadent discotheque.

The performances of Bale, Cooper, and others are fine, but hardly career highlights. Russell’s unconvincing dialogue, co-credited to Eric Warren Singer, bears much of the blame for the film’s lifelessness. Actors can hardly be blamed for failing to salvage compelling drama out of the likes of the following yawners: “This is bullshit. We are bullshit. You were bullshit. You were bullshit.” While no character in American Hustle is particularly sympathetic, there are some affecting moments toward the end of the film when flimflam man Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) begins to feel guilty about misleading and ruining a mark he has come to view as his friend. This in no way justifies a run time in excess of two hours, however – leaving the viewer to wonder whether the tale of this potbellied, philandering Jew con artist with a heart of gold needed to be told at all.

ICA’s advice: For a 70s con game period piece, see Richard Gere in The Hoax instead.

3 out of 5 stars. Ideological Content Analysis indicates that American Hustle is:

8. Pro-drug. Nothing sells marijuana like the sight of a beautiful temptress (Amy Adams) smoking a joint.

7. Anti-American. Check the title.

6. Multiculturalist. Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) maintains friendly relations with the minority community and even adopts a black kid to show what a great guy he is.

5. Pro-gay, with one gratuitous lesbian kiss.

4. Pro-slut. Movie stars making out in a bathroom – how glamorous! Rosenfeld does “the right thing” by marrying single mother Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).

3. Zionist, calling attention to the undying bogeyman of American politicians’ insidious willingness to sell out the country’s well-being to the Arabs. Dismissive reference is also made to (Israel-hating, Palestine-loving) “fuckin’ Jimmy Carter”.

2. Relativistic. “That’s the way the world works. Not black and white like you say. Extremely gray.”

1. Obamist. In union-friendly Carmine Polito, American Hustle portrays the corrupt but humble and likable politician as tragic hero, a man of the people, a caring, avuncular figure genuinely concerned with the welfare of his constituents, and who presides over a system of corruption only so as to create new jobs. “We dream and we build,” he says. Overly zealous investigators like DiMaso (Cooper) are ruining America, Rosenfeld charges, by exposing high misdeeds and so destroying the people’s faith in their leaders. So lay off the Solyndra, Benghazi, NSA, IRS, and other scandals, American Hustle cautions, lest the spiritually vulnerable masses lose their precious hope.

With influences ranging from Scanners to The Terminator, Rian Johnson’s new film Looper nonetheless succeeds in being highly original and might best be described as a time travel western or sci-fi gangster film.  Crime organizations of the 2070s are in the habit of disposing of unwanted people by sending them back in time to be executed by “loopers” in the 2040s.  Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is one such looper working in Kansas and finds himself in a terrible predicament when faced with the option of either assassinating his future self (Bruce Willis) or disobeying his boss (Jeff Daniels) by letting himself run free.  Complicating matters still further is the intention of the older Joe to assassinate a young boy, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who will grow up to be the Rainmaker, the mass-murdering mutant mega-crimelord who wants Joe and all the other loopers erased.  The boy’s mother (Emily Blunt) naturally tries to prevent this from happening and wonders if young Joe, who shows up on her farm, is someone she can possibly trust.

Futuristic films rarely instil hope, and Looper‘s predictions for human society fit nicely into this tradition.  Looper keeps its forecasts relatively modest by movie standards, with a few technologies and other developments having changed dramatically, while other aspects of society – not to mention all of humanity’s failings – remain remarkably the same.  10% of humans do manifest a mild telekinetic mutation, however, which plays into the Rainmaker origin story.  The Great Recession appears to have settled into an ongoing American decline, with systemic unemployment creating vagrant gangs and making people with money intolerant of the poor.  China is the ascendant power, and with the dollar apparently having lost all value, gold, silver, and yuan are the preferred forms of payment.  Joe is planning to emigrate after saving enough money, and is learning French toward that end, but his boss, who has lived in the future, advises him to forgo France for China.

With a plot revolving around strategic child murder, Looper is strong stuff, not to be dismissed as fantastic escapism, and is arguably a meditation on the ethics of abortion.  The older and presumably wiser Joe wants Cid dead to save his own and his wife’s future life, while young Joe, a junkie and whoring materialist, is divided by his loyalty to himself and to his boss, his new knowledge of potentially preventable future horrors, and his revulsion at what he sees himself attempting to do to correct the situation.  If time travel allowed Abraham Lincoln, Lenin, or Hitler to be located and neutralized as children, would the future outcome of the action justify their preemptive murders?  This is the problem Looper addresses.

The story can be disorienting, and Looper may not make complete sense even according to its own logic, but the ideas are important, the vision compelling, the direction certain, and the acting almost uniformly accomplished and affecting.  Bruce Willis, after appearing in the excellent Twelve Monkeys, now has two very memorable time travel films to his credit, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt can add one more to his recent string of high-profile roles in action winners.  Pierce Gagnon turns in a remarkably intimidating child performance as the future Rainmaker, and writer-director Rian Johnson identifies himself as a talent to watch in the years to come, with Looper easily earning 5 of 5 possible future star outcomes.

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Looper is:

6. Anti-drug.  A psychedelic eye drop trip almost results in a young boy being run over.  Joe is an addict and more than once is depicted going through withdrawal sickness.  The film is cigarette-ambivalent, however.  In one scene, Emily Blunt sits on her porch and mimes the smoking of a cigarette, as if she’s given it up and misses the naughty ritual.  While cigarettes appear to be equated with hypodermic needles and eyedrops as an addiction, smoking is still, in the classic Hollywood tradition, also the mandatory film noir post-coitus convention.

5. Pro-miscegenation.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s flirtations with a black waitress are punctuated by lurid shots of cream billowing in his cup of coffee.  He leers lasciviously at Chinese women before marrying one of them as Bruce Willis.

4. Gun-ambivalent.  One particular murder is appalling, but gunplay can be horrific or thrilling depending upon the target.  In one montage of mob hits, machine gun fire actually provides the percussion to the accompanying music.

3. Arguably anti-capitalist and egalitarian.  The silver currency evokes the Judas story, with a montage alternating mob executions with shots of silver bricks being neatly stacked, seemingly equating the profit motive with treachery and murder.  The lives of the poor are increasingly worthless as income inequality has broadened.

2. Feminist/pro-slut.  Emily Blunt’s character is a single mother who also manages to run a farm by herself.  Her telekinetic ability is stronger than that of the men who have used that tactic to try to impress her, and she knows how to handle herself with a shotgun and even doctor a man after she’s shot him.  Who needs some presumptuous penis mucking up her life to be a good, protective, and affectionate mother?

1. Pro-life/pro-bastard.  Looper can leave the viewer in no doubt as to its attitude toward innocent human life.  Only after they grow up and join criminal organizations do humans become entertaining machine gun target galleries.

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