Movie Review ~ American Hustle

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A con man and his seductive British partner are forced to work for a wild FBI agent who pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.

Stars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Peña, Louis C.K., Robert DeNiro

Director: David O. Russell

Rated: R

Running Length: 138 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Maybe it’s because I saw American Hustle so close in time to seeing Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street that I can’t help thinking that Hustle was really just Scorsese-lite.   All the elements that make-up a classic Scorsese film are present and accounted for here.  You have the West Coast setting of wheelers and dealers all looking for a break no matter how small time it may be.  The familial and familiar relationship that law enforcement has with these crooked folk is grist for the mill of the scheme that screenwriters Russell and Eric Warren Singer lay out.  And you have all the loyalty-testing double crosses (both real and imaginary) that have populated many a Scorsese crime drama for the last four decades.

So why isn’t American Hustle better?  That’s the question I kept asking myself as the movie slogged along for nearly two and a half hours and it’s a question that was left unanswered by the time the credits rolled.  With a talented director who scored so well with 2012’s surprise hit Silver Linings Playbook, a starry and award ready cast gnashing their way through the material, and a mostly true story to pull from this should have been a much more entertaining film.  But it’s not and that’s just the cold hard truth.

There’s enough fault to go around so we’ll go through it step by step.

First off, though Russell has assembled a cast culled largely from his previous projects there’s something to be said about working with your friends because they are right for the roles and simply working with them to have them around for a few months of shooting.  Two of the actors present have won Oscars for working with Russell and another three have been nominated so it’s easy to see why they’d eagerly sign up for another round with Russell.

In the case of Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises), Russell has made the right choice with the actor once again falling whole hog into the character.  With his bloated stomach and comically nutso comb over system, Bale’s puffy Bronx-born hustler Irving is truly a sight to behold.  Though married with an adopted son, he becomes enamored with kindred spirit Sydney (Amy Adams, The Master, Man of Steel) and soon they’re partnered up in the bedroom and in a loan scam that makes them comfortable if not rich.  Bale was better in Out of the Furnace but this performance is nothing to shake a stick at, either.

Adams is a strong actress that seems to appear in no less than four films each year and while I salute her work ethic I’m wondering if she’s not spread perhaps a bit too thin.  The vixeny femme fatale doesn’t sit quite right with her and no amount of plunging necklines can change that.  Side note, Adams wears so many dresses day and night with a neckline that plunges past her navel that if her character needed to go into the witness protection program she’d only have to put on a turtleneck and she’d be incognito.  Her performance winds up feeling governed by great costumes, perfect hair, and a justifiably awful English lilt.  She’s much more effective in her supporting turn in Her, coming out in early January.

I had high hopes for Bradley Cooper after his dynamite turn in Silver Linings Playbook but he dashed those tidings with summer’s grotesque The Hangover Part III and doesn’t quite regain his footing here either.  There’s a lot of showboating going on and you can just feel Cooper’s desire to Brando-ize every single scene he’s in.  The acting reeks out of him, to borrow an oft-repeated phrase from the movie, ‘from the feet up.’

If the movie has a secret weapon it’s most certainly Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) as Bale’s immature wife.   Fresh off her Best Actress win for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence is way too young for the role but otherwise takes the movie by the balls whenever she’s onscreen which isn’t often enough.  Her wise acre grimace and towering head of hair ignites the film in ways that no one else is capable of doing.  Though the buzz is growing on her for an upset win for Best Supporting Actress, it doesn’t make the kind of lasting impression that she did last year but should earn her a place on the shortlist for a nomination.

Rounding out the cast is Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy, Marvel’s The Avengers) as the mayor of New Jersey who unwittingly gets sucked into the abscam scheme Cooper’s federal agent cooks up to catch crooked politicians.  Renner is fine in the role but I can’t for the life of me figure out why Russell casts his children with actors that look at least a decade older than Renner and his wife.  Louis C.K. (Blue Jasmine) is totally out of place as Cooper’s beleaguered superior, Michael Peña (End of Watch) turns up ever so briefly as a Mexican impersonating an Arabian sheik, and if Alessandro Nivola wasn’t doing a Christopher Walken impression in his role then I’ll eat my shoe.

The central plot scheme of the movie is your standard compilation of betrayal and criss-crossing double crosses.  Only in the final fifteen minutes or so does the movie start to resemble something of interest and by that time I was nearly slumped over in my seat.  Though the film has an admirable production design that deftly recreates New York in the late 70’s without being obnoxious and a soundtrack of era favorites, there’s a dullness that really overtakes everything.

This film has been greatly lauded and I just can’t see why.  As a fan of nearly everyone involved I wanted to like this and desperately tried to latch on to something, anything, that would allow me to recommend it to others.  It lands with a thud, though, and for that I have to suggest you temper your expectations if you choose to take it in theatrically.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Exorcist

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a teenage girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her daughter.

Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Kitty Winn, Lee J. Cobb

Director: William Friedkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I remember when I was finally allowed to rent The Exorcist on VHS from our local video store after several months of asking (aka begging) my parents to see it.  When they finally relented, my dad delivered the caveat that it was the ‘scariest film ever’…which only made me hop on my bike faster to make it to Home Video before sundown.

I have to admit that my first impression of The Exorcist was disappointment because I found the film more funny than scary.  I mean, a girl pees her pants, swears a blue streak at anyone that gets near her, and she pukes a green soupy rainbow over a priest.  In my defense, at the time all I was interested in when it came to horror were masked killers, marauding sharks, and the gorier the film was the better.  While The Exorcist had its fair share of icky moments, there wasn’t enough of the red stuff to make it worth my while…I actually laughed more at the crazy swears coming out of the young and possessed Linda Blair.

Now thankfully over time my taste for subtle horror has developed and my understanding of cinematic technique has increased so The Exorcist means something very different to me now.  Though I never saw the film during its theatrical run (I wasn’t born yet, thank you very much) the film did show on network television, albeit heavily censored, the night I was born…coincidence?…my babysitters wouldn’t think so.

It’s next to impossible to watch the film without having its many spoofs and rip-offs influencing your enjoyment so it’s best to just acknowledge that the film inspired a whole demonic possession streak of films and countless other moments that populate the cultural lexicon of our understanding.  Once that’s taken care of, you can take the film for what it is…a true genre classic that takes its sweet time to unfold until it finally unleashes some lasting moments of terror that will stay with you throughout the night.

William Peter Blatty won an Oscar for adapting his hit novel surrounding a Georgetown pre-teen (Blair, Hell Night) that becomes possessed by an ancient evil.  Her actress mother (Ellen Burstyn, Interstellar) runs out of options and finally calls on the services of the titular character (Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Never Say Never Again) and a local priest (Jason Miller) to cast out the force that’s destroying her daughter.

Though the film jumps continents, director William Friedkin (Killer Joe) stages the film almost like a play (it actually was adapted for the stage in 2012) with the majority of the action taking place in the bedroom of the young girl.  Also winning an Oscar for sound (it was nominated for 10 total), all the elements come together to put the audience through the wringer and I can’t imagine how scary the movie must have been to viewers in the early 70’s just coming out of the hippy dippy peace movements.

Watching the film recently I was reminded at how level Friedkin and Blatty keep the movie, rarely straying into cheap scares or overly effusive dialogue.  The entity of evil is treated with an aura of respect and understanding which makes it all the freakier when the youngster is subjected to its grisly whims.  I’ve always found the ending of the film to be the tiniest bit of a letdown when you consider all that came before it…if you happen to look away for a moment (no one would blame you), you may miss a key wrap up development that influences the rest of the picture.

That minor quibble aside, on its 40th birthday The Exorcist is still celebrated for bringing horror stylishly into the mainstream…even being nominated for Best Picture at The Oscars where it was beaten by The Sting (I have a feeling it would have won had the Academy been a bit more forward thinking).

If it’s been a while since you’ve taken it in or if you’ve somehow never seen the film you owe it to yourself to give it a look…just throw away all your cans of pea soup first.

The Silver Bullet ~ Draft Day

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Synopsis: The General Manager of the Cleveland Browns struggles to acquire the number one draft pick for his team.

Release Date:  April 11, 2014

Thoughts: Kevin Costner (Man of Steel, The Bodyguard) is going to have a busy first few months of 2014 from the looks of it.  In February he stars in the action thriller 3 Days to Kill and in April he headlines this sports drama in a role that already feels like a good fit for the aging star.  Costner took a bit of break from mainstream Hollywood after his habit of producing overblown epics caused his A-List status to fade but the Oscar winner is bouncing back nicely in the last few years by centering in on scripts that play to his strengths.  With an impressive cast there for support (even though Jennifer Garner, Dallas Buyers Club, looks too young to be any kind of love interest for Costner) and veteran director Ivan Reitman on board, Draft Day may be the kind of film that helps Costner move up another rung in the comeback ladder.