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.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), directed by Francis Lawrence

For all the contact I’ve had with The Hunger Games and how much it seems I liked the first movie, going by my review, I have a hard time getting excited about it. Maybe it’s because I’m getting tired of hearing it. Maybe it’s because I only thought the books were pretty good and not much more in the first place. Whatever it is, I wasn’t exactly shaking in anticipation to see Catching Fire.

Which might piss some people off, seeing as I ended up getting to see it before the damn thing even opened. Sorry, Hungerers. Or is it Hunghards? That just sounds wrong. Someone work on this and get back to me.

So, Catching Fire, part two of the saga. Here we go.

Not much has changed since the first go round, despite Katniss and Peeta pulling off a surprise underdog win at the Coke-a-Cola Presents the 74th Annual Hunger Games. Sure, they have nicer homes and are less likely to starve, but just outside the gates of their drab new subdivision is the same old drab mining town with people in drab clothes, moving about like worn out old drab coal miners.

It’s like England, basically. Right?

People have been talking about how hard it is to pull off a good middle series of a trilogy, but I’m not sure that’s true. For that argument is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Iron Man 2 and Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (very disappointing). On the other hand you have The Empire Strikes Back, The Bourne Supremacy and Police Academy 2: The First Assignment.

By my count it’s about 50/50.

Well worry no longer folks because Catching Fire officially belongs in the latter category. In fact, I’m going to go so far as to say it’s better than the first film. GASP. I know.

The main difference surely must be the change in directors. While Gary Ross brought some pedigree to the job (it’s a Seabiscuit joke), his initial outing turned out rather mediocre, without much in the way of deep emotions or even tense excitement. And he insisted on a near constant use of that damn shaky cam technique that’s all the rage right now.

Francise Lawrence isn’t exactly God’s gift to Hollywood (although I did rather like I Am Legend) he seems to be a good fit here, with a skilled sense of pace and production. He also seems to own a good tripod, which probably got him the job.

Catching Fire is a tough cookie because in some ways it’s kind of more of the same from the first film, and that does slow it down a tad. But the fact it does the first film better than the first film did makes it worth your while. Just like Rocky 2 (howzat?), I enjoyed watching how these character’s are functioning after the fame of the games and Katniss’ struggle with wanting to run away but finding herself the up and coming leader of a revolution.

Jennifer Lawrence handles Katniss really well in this sequel, and I really think it’s in this film she fully inhabits the role. There’s a bit more to grip on to here, with this inner struggle becoming even more tearing and a lovely amount of conflict with a great number of people. Everyone wants a piece of Katniss and she doesn’t know who to go with.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is also added to the mix, at his mischievous mumbling best. I liked him, and he helped an old indie film fan like myself find an entrance point into this tween world.

Despite my enjoyment of this film, I still think the series as a whole is slight. I still groan at the thought of having the third book broken up into two movies spread out over two years. While I see the appeal, I have the unfortunate vantage point of experience. I grew up with other distopian futures (Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Death Race 2000) and already know the dangers of fictional totalitarian rule.

This isn’t to say I’m above it all. I’m not. I thoroughly enjoyed Catching Fire. But I’m not losing my head over it. For those who are though, this should hit the spot.

May the odds forever be in your flavour. I like chocolate peanut butter.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens today in cinemas.

Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths (2012), directed by Martin McDonagh

(I took a much needed break from horror to watch this “normal” movie. Don’t worry, I’m going to see Sinister tonight.)

In Bruges is one of my favourite movies from the past decade or so, so I have been pretty stoked to see Martin McDonagh’s followup film Seven Psychopaths, coming about four years after Bruges. In Bruges has this magnificent character-driven plot matched with a wonderful cinematic quality, larger, overarching concepts and a hilarious sense of humour running through it all. It’s a great movie.

Seven Psychopaths is not as great a movie, but it’s a pretty darn good one.

It’s about…well, a lot of things. It’s about these dognappers who steal dogs and then return them for reward money. It’s about this writer, Marty (Colin Ferrell), who is trying to write his screenplay, Seven Psychopaths, but is being slowed down by a lack of inspiration and alcohol. It’s about a killer who only kills mobsters and leaves behind a jack of hearts at the crime scene. Also there’s a part with Tom Waits and a bunny. So lots going on.

All of this is delivered with a buddy comedy type feel, splashed with intense violence, a postmodern trim and a coating of existential philosophy.

McDonagh is the type of director who can make this chaos work, and he does for the most part. Despite all the ins and outs of the plot, the film flows smoothly and makes sense. The characters are fantastic, as are the actors playing them. It has everything that makes an action comedy work, but with a little more substance to it, thanks to McDonagh’s unique take on storytelling. And, of course, what makes it all come together is the humour, which is excellent. Laugh out loud even.

I’m going to be this guy again and talk about the film’s use of racial, sexist and homophobic slurs. The film is littered with them, especially the latter two.

I had a great, real life example last night of why these things can be troublesome. Behind me in the cinema was a group of three or four college guys who were drinking a mickey of vodka and obviously felt everyone else in the theatre would appreciate their comments as much as they obviously did.

Most of their comments were just general jackass hoots and hollers and declaring the return of Chris Walken whenever he said something slightly odd (I would bet money these guys have never seen The Deer Hunter, so they need to shut the hell up and show some respect). But at one point they started to compare an older black woman in the film to Aunt Jemima (which is nauseatingly racist). And then, once Woody Harrelson’s character used the n-word they decided that must be okay then and used it too.

I myself have used the argument many times that characters in the movie using homophobic or racist or sexist slurs is just an honest reflection of their characters. I still believe that’s true for many movies. But in something like this, something designed to be “cool”, with characters that are funny and stylish, that are going to be quoted ad nauseam, a film you know is going to be a college hit, can’t we try a little harder? Isn’t there a more intelligent way to use these words? Or hey, maybe even not use them? I don’t think not having the characters use ‘f-’ or ‘bitch’ throughout the movie would have in any way taken away from it.

McDonagh is a smart man and an intelligent director. He questions these pitfalls even as he commits them. There’s a great part where Walken’s character, Hans, asks Marty why his female characters are all so useless. He says he’s known a lot of women and most of them are able to at least string a sentence together. A part I really liked too is when Hans rewrites a part of the script with a topless hooker so that she is in a pretty dress and wants to have a conversation.

It’s a bit of a cop-out because then you can do anything you want and no one can hold you accountable because you’ve pointed it out yourself. I wrote a term paper like that for a class on media studies claiming that the teacher had to either fail me or give me an A because I recognized the shortcomings of my own argument (in a nutshell). I got a B-. I deserved it.

That’s how I feel about McDonagh’s handling of the use of slurs and his depiction of women. He gets a B-. If he knows his approach is flawed, as he admits, why not try to do a better job?

But most of the film is much better than that. And at least McDonagh has the wherewithal to question these things and not just slip them in unnoticed like in most Hollywood movies.

It’s no In Bruges, but Seven Psychopaths is still one of the more interesting and entertaining movies out lately. And I’m still intrigued to see what McDonagh comes up with next, because he is certainly a talented writer and director, who I feel can do a lot better and has a lot more to offer.

Seven Psychopaths is in theatres Friday.

Rampart

Rampart (2011), directed by Oren Moverman

The trailer for Rampart tells us that this is going to be a haywire, crash-to-pass ride through the life of the “most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen”. It’s almost gleeful in its challenge to shock and disgust. It looks like a great exploitation film.

Well, it is and it isn’t. The film, as it turns out, is a bit more serious than a romp and, I’m sorry Woody, but compared to my man Nic Cage in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, you’re a rookie. This is more of a realty bites film on the downfall of a corrupt cop, the pitting of a soul and the results of a system that bred corruption and abuse of power.

Admittedly some of this was lost on me. I didn’t know anything about the Rampart scandal going into the movie and didn’t even realize what the title referred to. I know little about LAPD culture or police relations in that city or anything else that this movie is diving into. I’m sure it had some interesting insights into that whole world, but they were lost on me.

So if, like me, those sort of topics are outside of your radar what you’re left with is basically a character study. “Date Rape” Dave is certainly an interesting character. He comes out of a system that celebrated corruption and hard policing. He is a remnant though. The system is already changing, Dave’s cohorts have already fallen or retired, he has survived this long because of knowledge of legalities and a refusal to compromise.

Why are we so interested in corrupt cops? We’ve had more than enough films on the subject. There’s Training Day, Pride and Glory, the two Bad Lieutenant films, Brooklyn’s Finest and, of course, Police Academy 6: On the Take. We certainly do like the “men behaving badly” type characters and I suppose it’s all the more juicy when that person is actually paid, by us, to do “good”. Maybe it makes us feel better to know that even those paid to uphold the law have a hard time being good people. Maybe we’re just sick and like watching cops fall from grace. Who knows.

So listen, I’m beating around the bush here I realize. I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in Rampart, but I’m not sure that it adds up to any sort of significant whole. It’s one of those films where I feel like I got an interesting look into a life and into a subject, but I’m not sure I gained anything out of it. Nobody can deny how amazing Woody Harrelson is in this film, and it would take somebody hard indeed not to be drawn into his character and the story, but I’m not sure I took much away from it beyond that.

The end bothered me. Sometimes I like the open ending, but I feel like it’s used to much and that it’s a cop out (pun intended) on having to actually decide on a conclusion. It can also feel like a cheap trick to make a film “meaningful”, like by throwing on a open ending it’s meant to make you go “Oh, just like real life!”. Personally I wanted to know what happened to Dave. I mean, I know it seems fairly obvious. His days are numbered. But I wanted to know if he turns it around, or kills himself or what. Do his daughters take him back? Does he feel shame for what he has done?

One more thing I’ve been wanting to write about, and it comes up again here: the ambiguous “something’s wrong” sex scene. You know the one, two characters start going at it and then something goes wrong and one apologizes, the other says “It’s okay” and you’re left wondering what the hell happened. It’s like the filmmaker doesn’t want to say what happens and can only muster a “You know…Come on, you know.”

The problem is we don’t always know and you end up having that conversation with someone after the film where you both say “Yeah, not sure, but I think…” I mean, we’re all adults watching these movies, let’s have the characters say “It’s alright if you can’t get it up” or “I’m sorry I orgasmed so quickly”. These are always important character points, like in Shame, so let’s get it straight.

In this film Dave sleeps with a woman and then covers his eyes with a pillow and she looks frustrated. I didn’t get it. Did he not perform? Was he just being distant after they had had sex? Is it a KKK thing he was pulling, given he’s clearly racist and she was African-American? What’s the deal Moverman, tell. us.

This is a performance film, albeit a compelling one. Harrelson, who was also fabulous in Moverman’s The Messenger, is captivating and complex here. Dave is a horrible excuse for a human being and yet you can’t look away. I still didn’t feel like the film as a whole rose above the performance, but Rampart is nonetheless a fascinating watch.

Rampart is available on DVD and Blu-ray.