American Hustle

Out of the Furnace (2013), directed by Scott Cooper

American Hustle (2013), directed by David O. Russell

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Double-Shot Review (or a review at all, really. My apologies.) but I’ve recently been inspired by a couple of films featuring the occasionally-great Welsh actor Christian Bale (Reign of Fire).

They’re two films which really have a lot to say about what it means to be American, so I find it ironic having a Welshman in there, but maybe that’s just me.

Out of the Furnace is the type of film I find extremely frustrating to watch because all the elements are there for what could be a really whiz-bang, gritty revenge film, as the trailer made it seem like it would be, but it all simply goes to waste.

First you have a great cast of rough and tumble character actors with some meaty roles. Just tell me you have a film starring Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard and Woody Harrelson in which a steel mill and illegal boxing figures heavily and I’ll gladly wait in line opening night.

Which brings me to the subject matter. Some people, David Edelstein for one, don’t have the same affinity for dark movies about small-town violence bathed in Southern gothic themes as I do. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a mill town, maybe it’s because I watched Five Easy Pieces too many times as a teenager, I don’t know. All I know is you give some actors a Southern accent, throw them a few guns and tell them to argue about meth and, again, waiting in line.

Some call it “poverty porn.” It may be. There’s certainly nothing truly glamorous about welfare and substance abuse. But isn’t all cinema exploitation? At least most of these style of films genuinely want you to care about their characters.

But I digress.

My point is that even with all of these ducks in a row, Out of the Furnace still manages to be an absolute bore.

It’s got a good setup, with Bale’s brother (Affleck) back from Iraq and getting mixed
up in the wrong crowd as he deals with some mid-level PTSD. You know he’s going to get in trouble and Bale’s going to have to bail (eh?) him out. We know the main baddy, played by Woody Harrelson, is a psychopath from the prologue, and the movie poster tells us Bale is going to be holding a rifle at some point, so it seems all good.

And then the movie starts in with this rambling, meaningless cross-scene of Bale hunting and Affleck boxing, and Bale going to jail for no apparent reason in terms of plot arch, and then when you think the movie is finally getting to the climactic violence it puts on the brakes and heads for home, and then when it does hit its peak it involves a lot of walking and talking in a field etc.

I get that the director is trying for something more here but, son, when you have the elements in place and the eye for a gritty 1970s-style revenge film, you go for it. The Deer Hunter is an obvious inspiration here, but The Deer Hunter this film is not, and a lot of people even look back on that nearly-forgotten film as a rambling mess. (I love it, for the record.)

Get the brother killed, put a rifle in Bale’s hands and let’s go get us some meth heads. Because even with the moody ramblings, that’s exactly what this movie still ends up doing. So why not have some fun with it?

Far less frustrating is American Hustle, which in terms of setup and execution is the complete opposite of Out of the Furnace. With Furnace we have a film with a few strong basic elements which it stretches out and completely fumbles. With Hustle we have a film with so many elements in play only a truly impressive directorial touch manages to spin them into a solid, legible and highly entertaining movie.

This partially-true (“Some of this is true” reads the screen before the film) take on the Abscam bust on the late-1970s is a dense film. It has, ostensibly, four main characters, a notably complicated conman plot, fast dialogue, complicated personalities and at any time seemingly dozens of things going on all at once.

And yet Russell manages to make it all work.

What he’s doing here is going for the Scorsese approach. (We’ll see who does it better when The Wolf of Wall Street comes out on Christmas.) While watching American Hustle kind of made me miss the magnificent cohesion Scorsese manages in an incredibly complicated film like GoodFellas, Russell almost hits that same swirling high.

Like Scorsese, Russell brings out all the tricks: swooping camera movements, an attention to detail for the period of the film, gaudy costumes, rockin’ soundtrack, quick cuts, fast talking. He’s good with them too and American Hustle captures that wonderful combination of dizzying and captivating.

While GoodFellas was clearly about the temptation and ultimate trappings of a life of crime to a low-level nobody, American Hustle is pretty much about just a bunch of absolute morons, let’s be honest.

Which may be the point in and of itself. The film seems to be asking who isn’t a conman? We get actual conman Irving, played by Bale, but we also get the FBI, politicians, the mafia and regular ole people, with everyone lying to everyone else, not to mention themselves.

I don’t know if any of it comes together for any sort of profound point, but it is a scathing peek at the pathetic trappings of modern America.

More than it is important though, American Hustle is entertaining. It’s shockingly funny and full of wonderfully energetic performances, particularly from Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, reunited with Russell after Silver Linings Playbook. The film races along with an invigorating pace. It has a kick ass soundtrack.

And so, so much side-boob, if you go in for that sort of thing. I know that sound juvenile, but just watch the film. It’s all I heard anyone talking about after it let out.

It falls into a few traps, including some painfully unnecessary narration and occasional meandering, but in general American Hustle is, like all movies, a great con. I doubt it will crack my Best of 2013 list, but it wouldn’t be far behind.

Sorry I didn’t really have much so say about Bale, despite the lede. I get distracted. You know, side-boob.

Out of the Furnace and American Hustle are in cinemas now.

Fast & Furious 6

The Hangover Part III (2013), directed by Todd Phillips

Fast & Furious 6 (2013), directed by Justin Lin

Well folks, this is my first Double-Shot Tuesday in a while, but seeing as how the Hollywood machine is cranking out the summer blockbusters right now I knew it was time.

Sometimes you try to walk away, but something draws you back in, you know?

We started out with a bang with Iron Man 3 and the people who like that sort of thing sure seem to be digging Star Trek Into Darkness (which I haven’t seen), so things have been going swimmingly, no?

Time to hit the brakes, in other words.

Just in time to spoil the party is The Hangover Part III, which is easily the worst movie I’ve seen so far this year and I wouldn’t be surprised if it manages to hold that title clear through ’til Christmas.

No great fan of the second outing (okay, I thought it was pathetic), I hoped for this pleaseGod finale the crew might be able to return to some of the bombastic heights that made the original movie one of the best comedies in recent memories.

No such luck.

It seems that somewhere along the way everyone involved with these films forgot they were supposed to be making a comedy. While it was sweet relief to see Phillips and co. move away from the been there, done that format of the first sequel, what this film gains in originality it quickly ruins with a dull plot and a shocking lack of humour.

I think the audience I was with collectively shared one giggle throughout the entire film.

Instead of, you know, jokes, funny situations etc. Hangover 3 instead goes for the dark action which the other two films merely touched on. Gone are the days of partying, instead the Wolf Pack needs to steal gold to stop a drug dealer (John Goodman) from murdering the perpetual odd man out, Doug. Hilarious.

If the decapitation of a giraffe, effeminate men and a Chinese man swearing are the heights of comedy in your eyes, you might just have a good time. Otherwise, steer clear.

And then steer yourself into a screening of Fast & Furious 6. It’s a car joke.

Anytime someone makes a “what did you expect? An Oscar winner?” type comment while you’re expressing disappointment over a blockbuster action movie, kindly direct their misguided attention to the Fast & Furious series.

Because here we have a franchise which has gone on longer than any self-respecting franchise should, which stages some of the most ridiculous, impossible stunts we’ve ever seen on the screen, which harps on stock characters and motto-ridden dialogue and hasn’t had an original bone in its body since the first outing.

And it’s still fantastic.

Because despite all that Justin Lin and his crew still know how to have a good time, still know how to direct competent, thrilling action sequences and still put the peddle to the metal in every outing. The Furious films, especially the last two, avoid the laziness we see in other long-extended franchises such as Die Hard, and six films in still manage to elicit that excitement and wonder you aim for in a summer movie audience.

Not only that, the audience laughed pretty much 400 per cent more for Fast & Furious than it did for Hangover 3.

Fast & Furious delivers what it promises, which in my mind is about the greatest compliment you can pay to a summer blockbuster action film. When people who actually like and respect action movies complain about the Die Hard 5s and Michael Bay movies of the world it isn’t because we don’t know how to have a good time, it’s precisely because we do know how to have a good time, and can tell it apart from lazily produced, incompetently directed rubbish.

Nobody expects or even wants the Citizen Kane of action movies when they go to see a summer flick, so quit being reverse-snobs, y’all. What we do want is to be entertained and not force-fed the lowest common denominator.

I like how Fast 6 is even willing to settle for something to boost its strengths. Take Gina Carano. Her acting fit the understated tone of Haywire, but sticks out like a sore thumb here. Her lines are flat and she has a total of two facial expressions (confident and cocky).

But as soon as she starts fighting, I couldn’t have cared less. Because she kicks ass. Her hand-to-hand fights with Michelle Rodriguez are easily some of the best moments of the film and she is simply thrilling to watch. So, fair trade.

I’m even willing to give it a pass for the amnesia plot line. And that says a lot.

It’s this keen understanding of action which makes the film. For all its breaking of the laws of physics, its stock characters, its ridiculous dialogue (does Dom ever answer any question not in motto format?), it’s still one of the best movies in theatres right now, because it’s fun, fast and fundamentally functional.

Oh, and for all you rush the doors as soon as the credits start type people, stick around, because there is a coda which has me unreasonably excited for the seventh outing. Trust.

Ride or die.

The Hangover Part III and Fast & Furious 6 are in cinemas now.

The Place Beyond the Pines

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013), directed by Derek Cianfrance

If you’re excited to see Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper act together but are wondering why they never appear together in the trailer for The Place Beyond the Pines, well, you’re on to something.

Oh right, spoiler alert.

The movie, the sophomore film from Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance, features a pairing with hints of the modern equivalent to De Niro and Pacino in Heat (and thank God not Righteous Kill), and is a simmering tale of morality, crime, absent parents and the cyclical nature of human faults (I believe once tackled in an Offspring song).

Just like Heat, we have two of our best actors working with some pretty chewy, hearty material here. Gosling shows us his best thousand-yard stare again, but with a character with more range than his Driver. Cooper tackles his first real serious, reality-based drama I can think of, and manages to sustain the attention built by Gosling, which says a lot.

I’m a champion of ambitious filmmaking, and of intimate filmmaking, and here we have both. With a running time of nearly two and a half hours and a plot which spans generations and three nearly separate stories, The Place Beyond the Pines has nothing if not scope. Of course, scope in and of itself is nothing without the entry point of compelling characters and story. Pines has both.

For the most part, it works. The hardest part in a film like this is making each segment equally compelling as the last. With attention spans wearing, I feel the third act is perhaps the weakest, partly because it lacks the star power of the first two, but also partly because the jump in time it requires is jarring. I was eventually swept up in it, but the film teeters dangerously on outstaying its welcome.

The film has a coda too, which I found entirely unnecessary and a cheap way to attempt to slap some easily graspable meaning onto the very end, for those who might be scratching their heads. It felt like a studio decision, to be honest, but I could be wrong about that. Any points the film is trying to make about generational cycles, the march of time, fathers and sons, are clear by then.

Also, after Rust and Bone and now this film, there is now an official CineFile ban on using Bon Iver’s “Wolves” in brooding indie movies.

I do worry that the power of The Place Beyond the Pines lies in only some of its performances, in certain moments, in a particular song, and less so in the film as a whole. It’s a great film to watch, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t know if it is one I would revisit often or feel differently about in five, ten years. But I’m still mulling that over.

But sitting there in the theatre I was transfixed and entertained by Cianfrance’s attention to characters, his commitment to taking the long road and letting the emotions of the film simmer, his refusal to (mostly) refrain from pinning heavy handed moral or philosophical lessons to his work.

Instead he has delivered an extremely ambitious, well crafted film that I wouldn’t hesitate to consider for a “best of the year” list.

The Place Beyond the Pines is in cinemas now.

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook (2012), directed by David O. Russell

This is the feel-good movie of the fall for slightly screwed up people.

And I mean that in a good way.

Silver Linings Playbook is a romance, it’s a happy-ending type, make your heart flutter film, but it’s also realistic, as in its characters have flaws (large ones), it doesn’t shy away from the struggle of life and it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. It feels “real” in a way the best romantic movies manage.

The film is really about mental illness. Bradley Cooper, in the first role I really respected him in, plays a man with serious issues that have lost him everything (marriage, job, freedom, trust). Jennifer Lawrence, in her first really mature role, plays a woman with just as many problems on her plate, also struggling to hold her sanity together.

The portrayal of mental illness in movies can be a hard line to walk, but, without being any sort of expert, I feel like Russell’s film does a good job of tackling it. Pat and Tiffany have diagnosable mental illnesses that could easily define their characters, but ultimately they are portrayed as people, not as illnesses.

The stereotypical association of violence and mental illness may not exactly be a step forward, but I believe showing these characters overcome their illnesses and go on to achieve success is. The film recognizes the importance of medication, it shows characters wanting to be healthy and working to get better, it aptly demonstrates the complexities of mental illness and all the ups and downs those with problems, and those that love them, go through.

Bradley Cooper turns in a what hopefully turns out to be a defining role for him. I’ve never really been a fan, but he is excellent in this one. He moves past his usual douchey frat boy persona and comes out with a performance that is mature, dynamic and compelling. He’s far from just a pretty face. The role requires him to hit a wide array of tones and he pulls it off with noticeable skill.

Also expanding her repertoire is Jennifer Lawrence. She first came to our attention in Winter’s Bone, an excellent film with her excellent performance. But she was playing a teenager, and has done so in pretty much every film since, despite being 22 now. This is her first role where she is decidedly an adult, and she is excellent in it.

It’s hard to say whether Lawrence will go on to become a well-respected actor (her upcoming films suggest she’s sticking with the Hollywood fluff for the time being) but Silver Linings Playbook gives a glimpse that it’s certainly possible. Cooper is the focus, but Lawrence brings a well-rounded, powerful performance that lets us see her fun, Hollywood star side, as well as that gritty, down-to-earth edge that first made us pay attention.

She’s also insanely beautiful in this movie, if you will allow me to indulge my crush for just a moment.

Okay, back to professionalism.

It should be mentioned too that Robert De Niro gives an impressive, interesting performance, the first for him in quite a long time. He gives a glimpse of what once made him the most talented film actor in America.

Russell’s film isn’t some gritty, anti-Hollywood marvel. Like most of his films, it has some edge but is still ultimately mainstream in tone, form and content. But it’s an excellent mainstream film, a real tear-in-your-eye inspirational type fare. And while films like that are usually eye-rollers, Silver Linings Playbook has enough talent, content and maturity to pull it off without it ever becoming insultingly simplistic or phony.

There’s some Oscar buzz around this one, and I think it’s deserved for the performances. The film is nothing revolutionary, however, and I think would be a weak choice, but for an enjoyable night out at the movies it’s hard to beat right now. And I mean that in a very complimentary way.

Silver Linings Playbook is in cinemas now.

Hit & Run

Hit & Run (2012), directed by Dax Shepard and David Palmer

You know what, I might be in the minority here, but movies like Hit & Run have to be my favourite popcorn, escapist cinema fare going. It’s light but exciting, it’s funny and smart, there’s plenty of action but none of it is gratuitous. Nobody dies, which is so refreshing, but there’s enough swearing and sex jokes to make the film decidedly adult.

It’s actually probably one of the best movies I’ve seen in theatres this summer.

Hit & Run is Dax Shepard’s baby. He wrote it, co-directed it, edited it and, of course, stars in it. I only really know Shepard from The Freebie, but I liked him a lot in that. I hear he used to be on Punk’d but I never watched that so I don’t have any preset opinions of him. From what I have seen I think he is really quite talented, both as an actor and also, seemingly, as a writer.

I say that because this is a shockingly well written movie. It actually does what I wish so many Hollywood films would do, in that it celebrates what makes a Hollywood action movie good, while throwing away and explicitly making fun of all the rubbish that normally comes along with it.

It’s a smart movie. Not like, Fellini smart, but smart in a way that it’s not insulting to audiences and actually gives us some credit for being people that can enjoy a car chase or two but also might not be comfortable with having that surrounded by sexism, homophobia and predictability. It gives us some credit for wanting something more.

It’s the kind of movie that can have a reference to Charles Bronson, but then explain that it’s actually a reference to the British prisoner who named himself after the American action star. I liked that.

Kristen Bell’s character, Annie, is someone we can like and respect, not just leer at or find annoying. She’s smart. She has a degree in nonviolent conflict resolution, which comes in handy at times in the movie. She is funny and charming and makes decisions that make sense.

This is the kind of movie where the main character can use the homophobic slur f-word and you’re like “well, there it is. Awkward,” and then the movie ADDRESSES THAT and actually makes a running joke about how he used that word and how inappropriate and juvenile it is (even if the line he used it in is a great one…he’s right, nitrous is bs.)

I guess I’m a sucker for smart dialogue in a movie like this. It’s certainly nowhere near as dense or reference-laden as a Tarantino movie but the characters still converse in a way that’s a lot more intelligent and literate than us average folk. But I love it. It’s a pleasure to listen to. I like a film that pays as much attention to that as it does to the action.

And then you combine that with a car chase movie and I’m really sold. Carsploitation films are my absolute favourite bubblegum movies. I’ve done the list before on the blog, but Hit & Run harkens back to the great classics Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Gone in 60 Seconds, even Smokey and the Bandit. And that works for me. Few things get the old ticker going like the sound of a big-block ripping rubber up the street with someone hot in pursuit. Man, oh man.

I wish we got more films like this. And I don’t think I’m alone. Everyone leaving the preview screening that I went to last night seemed notably happy and entertained as they left. There was a buzz in the room. People had a good time. That’s more than can be said for most of the movies this summer, even for something like The Dark Knight Rises, which, though impressive at times, wasn’t exactly a lot of fun.

Hit & Run is fun. I like fun.

Hit & Run is in theatres on Friday.