David O. Russell

Review: American Hustle

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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: Silver Linings Playbook

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Silver Linings PlaybookThe Pitch: Madness is all in the mind.

The Review: If you visit my Twitter profile, you’ll find this at the top of the page, my vaguely self-deprecating description:

Profile Grab

Now, for anyone that’s read any amount of this blog, you’ll be aware that I have a somewhat addictive personality. When I invest in a subject, I tend to invest hard, having seen 635 films in the cinema in the last five years and 447 of those since I started writing this blog. But if you think that’s an actual OCD, then you’re very wrong; obsessive, clearly, but it lacks the physical compulsions which can debilitate its sufferers and in the most severe cases ruin their lives. I’ve always known that the day I start a family is the day that my cinema dwelling will dwindle to nothing for a while, and I’m ready for when that day comes. But from schizophrenia to psychosis, mental illness is generally misunderstood in our society, so any film looking to imbue its characters with such afflictions would be advised to tread carefully.

Silver Linings Playbook features a number of characters who have an array of mental difficulties: Pat (Bradley Cooper) is discharged from a mental hospital after his mother (Jacki Weaver) intervenes, but struggles to come to terms with both his home life and the absence of his wife, estranged after Pat’s bipolar disorder came to the fore when he catches her cheating. His only real friend (Chris Tucker) is still struggling with his own mental health issues and regularly attempts to escape from the same hospital, but even he can see that the more classically depressed Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) has an interest in Pat, but both Pat and Tiffany have their own deeper motivations for wanting to spend time with the other. Meanwhile Pat also struggles to reform a bond with his father (Robert De Niro), who shows his own signs of both obsessive behaviour and addiction and which start to come to the fore when Pat struggles.

In terms of the film itself, it’s worthwhile trying to separate the characters from their afflictions for the depictions of mental illness are shaky at best. Oddly, Chris Tucker fares best in that respect, as he appears outwardly normal and little attempt is made to characterise his illness, which actually makes his the best description. For the others (Pat / Pat Sr. / Tiffany) the seeds of their illnesses can be seen, but the characteristics are poorly sown by David O. Russell’s script (based on Matthew Quick’s novel) and somehow the Asperger’s syndrome of Pat’s literary counterpart attempts to become bipolar disorder here. It wouldn’t matter so much if the characters were more generally well written, but the script gives them little else to feed off for most of the time and when it does, the contrast is sharp; Jennifer Lawrence fares best in that respect, again getting the chance to show off the skills that got her recognised for Winter’s Bone and in one pivotal scene, waltzing in and acting everyone else, De Niro included, off the screen. Cooper, De Niro, Weaver and even Tucker put in good work but this turns out to be Jennifer Lawrence’s show.

Successfully portraying mental illness on screen is one challenge that Silver Linings meets only with partial success; the other half hearted attempt is to put a new wrinkle on the romantic comedy. For a film so serious for much of its running time, the occasional laughs sit uncomfortably, although thankfully they are driven out of the situations and never at the expense of the characters themselves. But the third act turns into the kind of romantic comedy plot that’s hamstrung the careers of the likes of Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, and it’s only the likeability of Lawrence and Cooper that helps to see it through. It is predictable in the extreme, and once the pieces are laid out the last act plays out with a total lack of surprise and not much more suspense. It’s a totally mixed bag directorially from Russell as well, shepherding his characters through to the resolution with only occasional flashes of the touch which he’s shown in his best films. A mixed bag all round then, worth seeing for the performances but not doing very much to advance just about anything else.

Why see it at the cinema: The drama of the last act comes across well in the cinema, even if it is lacking in surprise, but it’s not enough of a comedy to benefit from the audience buzz and there’s nothing remarkable in direction or cinematography. If you’re keen, worth catching in the cinema, but otherwise wait for the DVD.

The Score: 6/10

Review: The Fighter

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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