Review: American Hustle
The Pitch: The David O. Russell Repertory Company Presents Hair: The Movie.
The Review: I used to worry about my looks. When I was younger, I developed a beer and crisp-based pot belly, had teeth lifted straight from any American stereotype of Brits and my height had given me a weird hunchback from repeatedly bending over to talk to short people (i.e. everyone). One thing I’ve never had to worry about is my hair, which might sit somewhere on the strawberry blonde spectrum but it’s all mine and while many of my contemporaries have receded or gone completely bald, I’ve still got more than I know what to do with. Maybe it says something about us as a society that so much of the publicity for this film has been devoted to the hair, but it’s also possibly because the film makes such a fuss of it too. From the very first shot, which sees Christian Bale – pot belly, check – struggling to wrangle his unwieldy combover, American Hustle is keen to flaunt its Seventies stylings and the hair can also tell us a lot about the characters.
Take Christian Bale: his Irving Rosenfeld is a shady dealer, with fingers in every pie in the area and most of them as dishonest as the matting of wispy hairs he uses to hide his balding pate. He soon falls for the wily charms of Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), her taste for the high life reflected in her lengthy, sweeping curls. As they cheat and swindle their way through the citizens of New York, they miss the signs from the uptight, permed curls of FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who sees through their scams – well, some of them – and puts them to work helping to bring down the rich, powerful and corrupt, even if they’ve got the honest, hard working hair that Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) has. Amid it all, Irving’s young trophy wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and her attention seeking updo might be the spanner in the works, the most unpredictable element in crosses and double crosses that threaten to spiral out of control more than Amy Adams’ party hair.
David O. Russell is forming a reputation for being an actor’s director, and on that front he succeeds admirably. Those faring better are the The Fighter alumni, Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who take a firm grip on the film and never look likely to let go. Bale’s usual physical transformation shows a typical absence of vanity, but he nails the more comedic tone superbly. Amy Adams once again shows, as she did in PTA’s The Master, that she can more than hold her own in male dominated casts and switches from powerfully sexy to fragile and vulnerable as required. Those coming back from Silver Linings Playbook are slightly less successful, Bradley Cooper just dialling up the performance to indicate frustration and Jennifer Lawrence feels a good ten years too young for her role (despite being as enjoyable as ever to watch). Jeremy Renner does exactly what’s required of him with little opportunity for more, while the stand out in the supporting cast is Louis CK’s long-suffering boss of Bradley Cooper.
But, as with Silver Linings Playbook, a collection of strong performances don’t necessarily add up to a great film and while American Hustle isn’t aiming to be as profound or emotional and does hold together better, it is the cinematic equivalent of Christian Bale’s elaborate combover. While it’s never less than fascinating to watch, it’s lacking in substance and unsatisfying the closer you get to it, and it in the final analysis it feels wispy and thin. While you don’t have to have depth to have quality, American Hustle always has the feeling that it thinks it’s better than it is, and in particular the ending is aiming for clever twists that feel disappointing and obvious. David O. Russell is capable of films with urgency and immediacy such as Three Kings, but other than a sense of period American Hustle lacks any sense of visual panache that would help elevate it to the pantheon of Great American films. Maybe, then, it’s not surprising that American Hustle should be a little (hair)style over substance, but will work if you set your expectations to somewhere between enjoyable and forgettable.
Why see it at the cinema: It has a certain swagger, and it’s consistently entertaining, but David O. Russell isn’t quite the visual stylist of a Scorcese or a Soderbergh. The casino sequences are probably the visual highlight, but lovers of Seventies music will appreciate the soundtrack on a decent cinema sound system.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language. Not affecting the rating significantly, there’s also some violence in the dark and some drug taking that “isn’t remarked upon.” Remember kids, just say no(thing).
My cinema experience: A packed Saturday evening at the Cineworld in Cambridge, and an audience that by and large seemed a little disappointed as they filed out at the end.
The Score: 8/10
Review: Man Of Steel 2D
The Pitch: He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentleman. (Like you imagined? Not so sure about that.)
The Review: Comic book superheroes are now a staple of the modern cinema diet, but only in the last ten years have the creatives of Hollywood really cracked how to engage audiences and turn the bright colours of the page into box office gold. Would any of it have been possible without the original, and some still say best, superhero movie? 1978 saw Superman become a box office juggernaut, and from the hiring of Marlon Brando to the score of John Williams it was no expense spared and an attempt to imbue a simple myth with a sense of cinematic grandeur was successful enough that the shadow of its cape still casts itself across every comic book effort since. Superman Returns proved the dangers of adhering to that template too reverentially, and many of the successes of that particular version was where it didn’t simply replicate the Christopher Reeve / Margot Kidder version. So the Superman story is ripe for reinvention, and rather than the Batmans or Spidermans we’ve had enough of with their repeated reboots every few years, enough time has elapsed to allow a truly fresh interpretation of the man in blue and red spandex. And who better to bring that interpretation to the screen than the winning team of David Goyer, Christopher Nolan and, er, Zack Snyder?
Before you start listing names – and we could be here all day – it’s fair to say that the new Super friends have at least flown sufficiently clear of what’s gone before to justify their new version. Unlike some of the other mooted adaptations of the past thirty years which didn’t get off the ground, Man Of Steel sticks fairly close to the basic origin story elements: Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his wife have just had a child on the doomed planet of Krypton, the first in generations not born in a laboratory. When General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts an uprising, Jor-El takes the decision to send his newborn son out of harm’s way to another planet where he might stand a chance of a better life, but one where he’ll be different, different enough to attract the fear and paranoia of the inhabitants of that world if his true identity becomes known. His adoptive family (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) attempt to protect him through his difficult adolescence, but his attempts to hide from humanity may not be enough to keep him from the searching gaze of investigative journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams); her investigations prove to be as much a blessing as a curse when Zod escapes his prison and attempts to track down the young Kal-El, believing him to hold the key to the future of the Kryptonian race.
For large stretches of the first half of the film, Man Of Steel successfully reinvigorates the Kryptonian myth, both in the old world and the new. Snyder and Goyer let their imaginations run in the home of the Els, and Krypton feels both genuinely alien and sufficiently exciting to make it compelling. The casting also works splendidly across the board, with the two father figures in particular being well portrayed by Costner and Crowe. The film also takes advantage of the fact that the audience is likely to be familiar with the origin story, using a similar framework to Batman Begins to drop the backstory in via flashbacks. Man Of Steel is at its best when combining these two, from Michael Shannon’s vastly different interpretation of Zod to Russell Crowe storming around Krypton on the back of a dragon. This first half also sets up a number of interesting questions, not least as to how a superhuman would be accepted in our society – undoubtedly differently to how he’d have been viewed thirty years ago – and also to how we as people, friends and family, would react, feeling occasionally more like M. Night Shyamalan’s Untouchable than Superman The Movie, and all the better for it.
It’s the second half that then proves a crushing disappointment, where Snyder shows a Wachowski-like gift for squandering potential. If you find any of the questions asked compelling, then don’t hope for answers as Man Of Steel becomes hopelessly obsessed with spectacle. Its superpower is seeing how few of the plots and subplots set up it can ignore, or allow to meander aimlessly into dead ends. This can all be put down to the myth-making, for where other versions of Superman have sought to explore the two sides of the dichotomy of man and Superman that is Clark / Kal, Man Of Steel aims broader. But when the time comes to focus in on the heart of that myth, Snyder and Goyer haven’t invested enough in their core. Clark is a cypher (and Lois not much more) and Henry Cavill struggles to do any more than to look iconic and to carry off the blue tights – which he does manfully, although the lack of underpants on the outside certainly helps – and the Lois and Clark dynamic, around which entire versions of Superman have been built, is fatally left floundering. When Man Of Steel realises it has nowhere to go, it just takes its toys like a frustrated toddler and throws them around for half an hour to little effect while Hans Zimmer’s score bombabsts around in the background, a succession of massive set pieces having neither the wow of modern Batman or the tension of modern Spider-Man. By the end little of it makes any sense, and what does makes the wrong kinds of sense, but at least in this case we still have the original to fall back on. In terms of quality, this Man Of Steel falls a long way short.
Why see it at the cinema: Up until the mindless (and dull) destruction starts, there’s some great images and Snyder’s visual style has been corrected to make the most of them. If you actually like indestructible men and women interminably throwing each other into buildings, then frankly this should be a no-brainer.
Why see it in 2D: I can barely even begin to imagine the horror that this would have represented in 3D. It’s the one way in which Snyder dispensing the visual style of his earlier films would have been to the detriment of Man Of Steel, the previous slo-mo and cranking a fine fit for 3D, but the murky hand-held vibrations and quick cuts of Man Of Steel rendering it a visual disaster.
What about the rating: Rated 12A for moderate violence. If by moderate you mean “almost constant for the last 45 minutes” then I’m happy to go with moderate.
My cinema experience: A Sunday afternoon at the Cineworld in Cambridge, and although I was parked near the front it was by no means a full audience. Oddly, for a day that was far from the hottest of the year, there was a humid atmosphere and a smell of sweat hanging heavy in the air, not something I’d normally associate with that particular cinema. Thankfully it didn’t detract from the experience, as by the end I was too wound up by the film to even notice.
The Score: 5/10
And some quick spoiler related thoughts on the ending…
BlogalongaMuppets Review: The Muppets
The Pitch: It’s finally time to play the music again…
The Review: Star Trek: Generations. Police Academy: Mission To Moscow. Trail Of The Pink Panther. Movie geeks will often debate the merits of sequels, prequels, interquels and lots-of-other-made-up-word-quels, but you can be sure that any film series that’s already been to the well six times has already taken quite a lot of the well water. But the Muppets have done more than that; on and off TV for over forty years, with two Sesame Street films and two TV films as well as countless other ventures which didn’t have the name Muppet in them, so you could be forgiven for thinking that the Muppets had seen their time come and go. But what if the very nostalgia for the good times gone by was what could make The Muppets great again?
Jason Segel obviously craves that nostalgia, having tried to write a puppet Dracula adaptation while a struggling actor. Much of his back catalogue has also been filled with meditations on nostalgia or reflection, as well as themes of family and relationships, and The Muppets is built around two clear aims: to evoke an emotional response from a collective fondness for the Muppets, which might burn stronger in anyone old enough to remember the TV series from the first time around, and to explore the nature of relationships and relationships and themes of loyalty and love, using both the Muppets and their human counterparts. The early stages of the film are slightly more stylised than many previous outings, but after that The Muppets settles very much into the kind of formula established in the first three Muppet movies of the Seventies and Eighties.
Those formula elements include a small central human cast, in this case Segel and Amy Adams as the romantic couple whose trip to LA kicks off proceedings, and as both have form in this area both are well suited to their roles; Chris Cooper is more of a left-field choice as the nominal baddie, but has his moments to be allowed to chew scenery. There should also be a wide variety of smaller cameos, which indeed there are, although your recognition of some and enjoyment of many will depend on how much US TV you watch. The songs range from good to excellent, Flight Of The Conchords’ Bret McKenzie adapting his usual intense wordplay style to a more traditional musical feel, although there could possibly be time for one (or two) more of them. Finally, in terms of the Muppets themselves, unlike many other supposedly great Muppet films which end up sidelining their stars, Kermit and Miss Piggy are centre stage, and although a handful of the Muppets Tonight-era Muppets get a look in at various levels, it’s the traditional Muppets that form most of the cast, so fans of everyone from Rowlf to Scooter and Animal to Bunsen and Beaker should be satisfied with the screen time for their Muppet.
What sets this apart from previous films is that the self-referential, fourth-wall breaking comedy that typified the earlier films is not only in place here to drive many of the jokes (and the Eighties Robot is a source of lots of them alone), but by referencing back to the TV series and earlier films, and the love that the charactes themselves had for those films, that sense of nostalgia sought is powerfully evoked, and there are a selection of moments spread throughout the first half of the film that could move a few of the grown-ups in the audience to tears. But the Muppets have always been about the laughs, and the last act of the film, when the telethon to save the Muppets themselves is in full swing, captures the random anarchy of the Muppets at their very best. Almost as if someone could distill pure joy and bottle it, for Muppet fans this is an absolute treat; there is still the odd rough edge (a slightly rushed ending that’s still playing out when the credits have started rolling, for example), but for the Muppets it’s the seventh time that’s the charm.
Why see it at the cinema: My one caveat for this would be that it’s maybe not suitable for very young children, judging by the amount of fidgeting in the screening I was at. For everyone else, the laughs, the tears and the pitch perfect recreation of one very particular Muppet moment demand to be seen on the largest screen you can find.
The Score (out of 10):
Final ranking of the Muppet movies
1. The Muppets
2. The Great Muppet Caper
3. The Muppet Christmas Carol
4. The Muppet Movie
5. The Muppet Treasure Island
6. The Muppets Take Manhattan
7. Muppets In Space
Review: The Fighter
The Pitch: I like Christian Bale, but then again I like Mark Wahlberg. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out…
The Review: Boxing movies have a lot to live up to when it comes to covering new ground, with both the fictional (such the “Rocky” series) and the biographical (including “Raging Bull”) giving this particular sub-genre an incredibly strong pedigree. There is, of course, a part of the audience who will be judging on the realism of the fights themselves, while others are looking for satisfying drama between the punches, and to be successful a boxing movie really needs to score on both counts. Given the depth and breadth of the history of the sport, it’s not surprising that you can still find true stories worth telling but, as a philosopher once said, “it’s the way ya tell ‘em.”
The first thing that The Fighter has in its corner is a story with a strong array of characters, strong enough that the cast were showered with awards and nominations. Christian Bale’s performance is the most obvious, and he does push his portrayal of Dicky, the once successful elder brother who lives off his moment of glory as he slides ever downwards, as far as he can – anyone who’s a fan of Christian Bale will know that’s pretty far. By contrast, Mark Wahlberg’s Micky is the polar opposite, quiet, reserved and unwilling to challenge his mother and manager, Alice (Melissa Leo), at least until he begins a relationshop the similarly reserved but more defiant barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams). The family is rounded out by Micky and Dicky’s father and seven sisters, and the influence of both becomes increasingly crucial as Micky attempts to further his career while Dicky begins to make promises he can’t keep.
Bale has stated that he couldn’t have given such a performance without Wahlberg to counterbalance it, and it’s hard to disagree, the quieter moments of Bale and Adams’ relationship providing a needed contrast to the family dramas that populate the rest of the film. Occasionally picking out humorous moments, the main body of the drama is driven by Dicky’s behaviour and its ramifications for all of those around him; themes of family and loyalty come up repeatedly, and also the impact that both the highs and lows of the brothers’ actions on the local community, but the drama eventually boils down to the actions of the two brothers. While Bale got all of the attention, Wahlberg’s contribution as both actor and producer shouldn’t be underestimated, having trained for four years (and made six other films in the mean time), working to turn himself into a believable physical specimen for a world championship fighter.
The fights themselves are maybe the weak link, having neither the poetic beauty of a Raging Bull or the physical intensity of the Rocky movies. Director David O. Russell has chosen to portray much of the footage as if seen through a TV screen, which serves to distance the audience slightly from the experience, although the punches still land with a certain amount of weight. That style does succeed in capturing the shiny glamour of the Vegas lifestyle and why it would be so aspirational to a couple of fighters from the poor end of Massachusetts. There is a tension as to the eventual outcome throughout proceedings, and this is despite the fact that the general structure doesn’t really deviate all that much from the majority of other sports movies ever made, never mind boxing movies. Russell manages his actors well enough, but the film lacks any truly standout moments to elevate it to true greatness. Still, it’s a fascinating story and the family dynamics give it a certain feeling of freshness, but by the time the final bell rings we’re left with a film that doesn’t quite site at the top of the genre.
Why see it at the cinema: You’ll need a big screen to be able to differentiate between all of the seven sisters and their mother, but the cinema is also the best place to take in the razzmatazz of the fight scenes.
The Score: 8/10