Out of the Furnace



Out of the Furnace
Runtime 116 minutes.
Not for children.

Christian Bale in “Out of the Furnace.”

Christian Bale in “Out of the Furnace.”

…and into the fire for an unsuspecting person who wanders into a theater not knowing what to expect. This is unremittingly depressing and graphically violent. At times during the first hour, however, I thought I had died and gone to a Terrence Malick movie, so slow is the first hour with so many Malick-like shots of inanimate objects and people thinking.

Written (from an original script by Brad Inglesby) and directed by Scott Cooper, this is an attempt to tell the story of life in a Pennsylvania steel town, in this case the real town of Braddock, where the film was shot, and where Andrew Carnegie opened his first steel mill.

The story doesn’t really begin until after the first hour has run its course. It’s an ordeal to sit through it, one of the longest setups one will be forced to endure before getting into the guts of the story. But once the plot becomes apparent, it’s so dark and drear that it destroys the point that Cooper might be trying to make, whatever that is.

When you sit through it, the result seems to have no premise, no moral, and no story except for revenge. It is basically an exposition of the disheartening life of those living in places like Braddock. On the positive side, it does contain some fine performances by Willem Dafoe, Casey Affleck, and Woody Harrelson, however. Star Christian Bale isn’t pressed much by the script or his role. He’s kind of the glue that holds things together. Problem is, there’s not much to hold together.

Dafoe is particularly effective. I was wishing he had been on screen more. Harrelson, for his part, creates one of the creepiest villains since Richard Widmark’s debut as psychopathic killer Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947). Both give award-quality performances.

Maybe Affleck’s performance doesn’t reach the award level, but it’s good enough that he produces a distinctive quality making his scenes memorable.

In addition to the fine performances, the cinematography (Masanobu Takayanagi) creates much of the darkness and lack of hope which permeates the film and makes Braddock and the New Jersey Ramapo Mountains, where Harrelson and his incestuous crime gang exist, essential characters in the film. In fact, the way the film is shot in these locales is one of the reasons to justify sitting through this.

Filming was accomplished in 34 shooting days, an astonishingly short period of time for a full length feature, especially when it was all shot on location. There wasn’t one scene filmed on a sound stage.

But the downside is that the film reeks with hopelessness and disaster. Even the dénouement is unsatisfying.

Tim’s Vermeer
Opens Dec. 13 for one week,
Jan. 31 for a full run

Runtime 80 minutes.
OK for children.

“Tim’s Vermeer.”

“Tim’s Vermeer.”

Genius scares people, so they are constantly looking for explanations that will satisfy their mundane intellects. Thus, William Shakespeare is persistently subjected to claims that he did not author his brilliant plays. People like Christopher Marlowe, who was killed, maybe assassinated, at age 29 in 1593 under very suspicious circumstances, are sometimes given credit; anybody but Will himself. Apparently it’s hard for ungifted people to accept the fact that genius arises in strange places and is not subject to normal explanation.

Now 17th century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer, is being subjected to the same speculation. Many years ago, in 2001, Professor Philip Steadman wrote a book, Vermeer’s Camera, postulating that Vermeer’s paintings, only 35 of which are extant, which are known for their unusual detail in the way he rendered the effects of light and color, were created, not freehand, but using a camera obscura. A camera obscura was a device that could project the image of sunlit objects placed before it in stunning detail.

But how to explain a genius who doesn’t celebrate another’s genius? Enter Tim Jenison, a tech-savvy billionaire, and clearly a computer genius himself. He taught himself to play piano when he was seven and throughout his childhood could fix almost anything. He decided to tackle the job of proving or disproving this theory. Not a painter, he chose Vermeer’s The Music Lesson and proceeded to spend 1,800 days replicating the room and contents thereof that appear in the painting and then spent 130 days laboriously trying to duplicate the painting by hand using a camera obscura and two mirrors that the speculators think Vermeer had to use if he did, in fact, paint his paintings this way.

One of the nice things about being a billionaire is that you can make your own movie and, apparently, get it distributed, because, even though there are some interesting points made in the film, this is a real snorer. To give Tim the benefit of the doubt, maybe he wanted to convey what back-breaking, tedious work duplicating a painting is by making the film tedious to sit through. In this he has succeeded.

Produced and directed by magicians Penn Jillette and Teller, respectively, on the positive side the production values are of high quality. But did I really want to sit there and watch a guy paint a painting for 80 minutes backed by monotonously repetitive music? This could have been an interesting 30 minute TV documentary, not a feature length motion picture. What it turns out to be is an ego trip for a billionaire. One genius should respect another.

Bottom line is just as I believe Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and Julius Caesar and all the others, not Christopher Marlowe or someone else, I think that Vermeer’s use of color and creation of photo-like detail came from his genius, not a camera obscura. If, on the other hand, it was through the use of camera obscura, more power to him for harnessing the power of technology to create great art, and, to give Tim credit, he does express this thought in the movie! It’s interesting, and what Tim did is admirable. But is it a movie?

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