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: Silver Linings Playbook
The 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:
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 Hunger Games
The Pitch: Forest Teen Hunger Force.
The Review: Young adult fiction is the hot ticket right now. It seems that if you can get to the heart of that market with your subject matter, then nothing is potentially off topic. Wizardry as a metaphor for adolescence? No problem. Star-crossed lovers who might have a problem with sunlight and being just a bit bitey? Ker-ching. Two dozen teens who must fight to the death because, in true Highlander style, there can be only one? Really? Writer of the original novels Suzanne Collins has claimed that the inspiration lies within Greek myth, specifically Theseus, although of course the Minotaur put paid to the Greek kiddies, rather than allowing them to take their issues out on each other. So what kind of role model is twenty four teens and tweens grabbing a weapon and taking pot shots?
The Hunger Games is actually an excellent role model if you consider where viewing habits will go when young adults become actual adults. There is an obvious level of satire on the current obsession with reality television that has obvious echoes of direct precedents such as Battle Royale, but also is only a couple of steps removed from Paul Verhoeven’s back catalogue. There’s also a dystopian future into which we are plunged which will hopefully inspire youngsters to seek out even darker material at some future date, but Hunger Games also works as a feminist ideal without ever really being overtly feminist, but shys away from casting the central teens as brutal killers, rather than desperate survivalists. From start to finish, there are seeds planted that are reminiscent of more adult films, and director Gary Ross does an effective job of weaving them together. Still, this is probably one you’ll not be wanting your own young’uns to emulate too closely on the playground.
This movie, as I alluded to earlier, is also being touted as the next Harry Potter or Twilight, and it’s certainly the equal of the former while probably besting the latter in terms of the cast that’s been assembled. Jennifer Lawrence is older in real life than her literary counterpart, but it’s worth the slight age gap for the quality of performance that she provides, not only showing steely determination and defiance but also allowing her guard to drop and showing real moments of vulnerability and fear. Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson have a long track record of top quality character roles, and if made a short list of potential menacing overlords, then Donald Sutherland would be on it. In an attempt to reflect futuristic fashions, the Capital’s garish colour schemes offset well against the drabness of the districts, but occasionally those artistic choices go a little over the top; Elizabeth Banks ends up wearing more than her fair share of them and it’s credit to her that her performance doesn’t get lost in them. The only slightly weak link is Josh Hutcherson’s slightly anaemic performance, but it doesn’t serve to unbalance the remainder.
Most people in the age range this is targeted won’t remember the delights of Saint and Greavsie, but as Jimmy was so fond of saying, “It’s a game of two halves, Saint.” Strictly speaking, the two halves are actually pre-game and game, and it’s the first half that’s the most effective, with the game itself struggling ever so slightly to throw off the shackles of the 12A rating, some shaky camerawork and some poor effects in the finale. There’s also the occasional pacing issue in this stretch, which is a shame as the first half has a steady build of tension marked out with some dark themes and leavened with the occasional dash of humour. The final score on The Hunger Games is that it’s respectable rather than compelling, but with enough to make it watching for adults of all ages.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s an ideal education for the young adult age range, who can expand into more grown-up themes easily from here, and apart from the occasional bit of dodgy CGI there’s plenty of meat here for the whole family, with both cityscapes and the countryside looking good on the wide screen.
The Score: 7/10
Review: X-Men: First Class
The Pitch: The origin of the species’ next evolution.
The Review: You’d be forgiven for having lost patience with the X-Men saga by now, after the complete mess that The Last Stand and the Wolverine spin-off turned out to be. Blame for that could feasibly be put at the door of two particular individuals: Bryan Singer, who ran away from the franchise to make a bloated, overly reverential Superman movie, and Matthew Vaughn, who stepped in to direct but then got cold feet over the resources he had to work with and disappeared off to make Stardust and then Kick-Ass instead. But obviously the call of the mutant still remained strong for both men, as Singer returns to produce and Vaughn to direct what was described in some quarters as a reboot but is actually positioned as a fairly direct prequel to the original trilogy. Given how poorly treated many of the mutants on both sides were treated by the original trilogy’s final chapter, it’s also a chance to redress the balance for many of the characters.
But if you’re going to go back forty years, then your most immediate challenge is to find someone to fill the younger shoes, and eventually wheelchair, of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Vaughn has turned to two of the hottest up and coming actors, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Avoiding the trap of direct impersonations that so dogged Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, McAvoy and Fassbender instead bring the same ethos and conflict to their pairing, but both with a twist; McAvoy’s Charles Xavier starts out by using his mind control powers to pick up women in the pubs around Oxford, but eventually his sense of responsibility takes over from his more lecherous tendencies, and Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr is almost the anti-James Bond, globetrotting in a mission of revenge that has its roots very much in the character’s origins right back at the start of the original movie. Both of the youngsters are up to the challenge, Fassbender very much with the more interesting and shaded role but McAvoy his equal in the more tense moments. Their relationship is the core of the movie, possibly even more so than in the originals, and they both keep you interested and invested every time they’re on screen.
So First Class is the origin story, and in this case it’s the origin of the differing viewpoints of Professor X and Magneto. Given their ages and the timeframe, the rest of the cast is mainly new mutants, although Mystique is slow enough in her ageing to have been around in the Sixties, here portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, and Hank “Beast” McCoy old enough, so Nicholas Hoult picks up the role. While neither rise to the heights of the two leads, both have some great moments and are absolutely right for their characters. Outside of these four leads the other new mutants get very little to do on the good side, but they do at least fare better than the baddies, where only half of them even get speaking roles, with mixed success. Kevin Bacon is deliciously evil as the head of the Hellfire Club, but January Jones appears to be in a competition of her own making to see how badly she can act and get away with it, as she looks diamond some of the time but acts plastic for the rest of it. The other main role is handed to CIA stooge Rose Byrne, who takes her clothes off to get into the Hellfire Club and then spends most of the rest of the movie earning back her dignity.
Vaughn has also taken the opportunity to populate the rest of the cast with a fantastic array of familiar faces to fans of sci-fi and action genres, with the likes of Oliver Platt, Glenn Morshower, Matt Craven, James Remar, Rade Serbedzija, Ray Wise and even Michael Ironside popping up, and giving the whole film a feeling of consistent quality – Jones is pretty much the only weak link in the whole film. There’s also some fantastic connections to earlier films, both in terms of visuals and personnel, but the depth of the acting quality and the reasonable structure would mean little if the story wasn’t up to much. The concept is great, putting the action in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis, although you’d be advised not to have your brain fully engaged, otherwise some of the silliness of the concepts may become too apparent. But Vaughn keeps the movie going at a cracking lick, with montages and split-screens used sparingly and effectively, and some set-pieces which have a scale which doesn’t feel out of place in the company of the other summer blockbusters. Singer’s hand as producer has achieved something on the fifth film of this franchise which he didn’t achieve on his Superman gig, which is to make a fifth film that can sit comfortably in the company of the first two. It falls short of the outstanding quality of X2, but there’s enough here to make you want to see what Singer, Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman can make of another trip round this universe.
Why see it at the cinema: Vaughn brings a scope and a scale to the whole enterprise that deserves to be seen on the big screen, and after the damage done to the franchise by the last two sloppy instalments, this will reward you if you’re willing to make the trip out.
The Score: 8/10
Cambridge Film Festival Review: Winter’s Bone
The Pitch: In The Bleak Mid-America.
The Review: The Sundance Film Festival has now been running for over 30 years, but in that time, although it’s initiated and promoted the careers of many illustrious film makers, the movies picking up the jury awards have generally found life a little tougher. But rather than being the kiss of death, receiving the Grand Jury prize seems to have given Winter’s Bone momentum, and talk of much bigger awards in next year’s season is already being banded around. In this case, that talk is justified, because what Sundance has discovered is a movie of real power, and within it a number of potential talents for the future.
At the centre of Winter’s Bone is Jennifer Lawrence. She portrays Ree Dolly, effectively left as head of the family despite being only seventeen, due to her mother’s spiral into illness and her father having disappeared after his seemingly only talent, for making crystal meth, has gotten him into trouble and leaves him facing a long jail term. Despite her age, she seems more than capable of caring for the family, although she has become reliant on the charity of neighbours due to their dire financial situation; when the bail bondsman arrives to announce that Dad used the family farm as part of his bail bond, it becomes apparent that finding him is the only way to ensure that she’s not protecting her family from somewhere in the woods.
The local community is isolated, with a division of roles down the line of the sexes that Ree finds herself on the wrong side of if she hopes to gain attention to her plight. But there’s a steely determination about her that keeps her on the path to finding the truth, and a willingness to consider any option. Unfortunately, this only serves to put her increasingly into harm’s way and she finds herself unsupported and challenged at every turn; not only does no-one want her to find her father, but it seems whatever’s happened is enough for them to be uncomfortable asking questions.
Given that she’s only a little older than the character she plays, Lawrence’s portrayal is remarkable. She perfectly embodies the resilience needed to stand up to the masculine hierarchy of the community who barely want to acknowledge her presence, but also shows her tender side when supporting the family, and the family’s plight feels all the more real for it. Those confrontations have a real edge from the start, but as matters escalate and the locals show their hand, or indeed their fists, Ree’s intractability shines through and is expertly balanced in all of the performances.
The other significant credit must go to director Debra Granik, who also contributes towards the screenplay adaptation. The bleakness of the community settings is thoroughly captured, and Granik uses this in conjunction with the tone of the performances to create an air of tension that threatens, and ultimately delivers, true menace. The pacing is unhurried but this just allows for the movie to apply its vice-like grip with that tension, and as events unfold there are some genuine edge-of-the-seat moments, before the narrative reaches its unflinchingly brutal resolution. But don’t be put off by the thought of that – although bleak, there is still a sense of hope, if not optimism, couched within that resolution. There is also an occasional sense of humour tempered through the bleakness, but more than enough to want to encourage you to become trapped in their world. Lawrence and Granik deserve all the plaudits they’re getting, and you owe it to yourself to experience this stunning adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel.
Why see it at the cinema: The stark cinematography is well complemented by the intense performances, but the fact that the performances are understated, but effectively so, means that the big screen is the best place to capture all the subtleties.
The Score: 10/10