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.

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.

House at the End of the Street

House at the End of the Street (2012), directed by Mark Tonderai

My journey deep into the heart of horror continued this week in the cinema, with a catchup viewing of House at the End of the Street, a decidedly Hollywood-ie horror film that’s really more of psychological thriller than horror.

Not that that’s intrinsically a bad thing, but I have to say this one didn’t do it for me.

Jennifer Lawrence (full disclosure: I have an immense crush on Jennifer Lawrence) plays teenager Elissa (she’s not really a teenager), newly moved into the house next door to a murder house. She befriends the shy boy living there whose parents were the victims in aforementioned murder, at the hands of his sister.

Elissa, of course, feels sorry for the boy but her mum is suspicious of him. Anyway, this goes on for some time before things start to get weird, the sister reappears, the knives come out and the plot works really hard to try and blow our minds with twists and turns.

In fact the “twist” (SPOILER) at the end is very similar to the end of High Tension. Or Psycho. The end is pure Psycho, now that I think about it some more.

This movie didn’t work for me because it’s too long, spends too much effort really trying to get us to sympathize with these characters and has a weak payoff. It also never really brings the horror goods and with its PG-13 rating feels like it’s made for teenagers who haven’t ever seen any real slasher films. And that’s fine, but I was pretty bored, I must say.

I’m a fan of Lawrence, both as a red-blooded male and as a film critic. I think she is a talented actress. But the problem here is the movie doesn’t give her the space to do anything interesting. I liked some of the early bits where she’s established as a tough, no nonsense teen who has been through some hard times with her family. There’s one scene where some young dbag tries to take advantage of her and she isn’t having any of it.

I liked that, but by the time things get crazy I felt that had been abandoned in favour of her running around in a white tank top scared. Don’t get me wrong, not complaining, but I really wanted her to solve the situation using her smarts and bravado, and really it comes down to blind luck. She never gives up and is far from the screaming bimbo cliche native to the slasher film, but, I don’t know, I wanted more personality up there on the screen.

The fact there’s nothing inventive about the film at all is also a downfall. The story is only whatever, the characters really quite mundane and the “horror” part of it pretty standard stuff. A knife. A gun. A lights-out finale reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs. Some teenage drama stuff that never amounts to much.

I like horror films that follow the basics. The basics are what make horror work and I find when you mess with them too much the film suffers (Cabin in the Woods). But you have to get the basics right and put some passion into them. House at the End of the Street is a lifeless (no pun intended) affair that end up cold on the gurney (OK, maybe the pun is intended).

Onwards and forwards.

House at the End of the Street is in theatres now.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (2012), directed by Gary Ross

Have you guys heard of this one? It’s some small indie film I think that opened on a few screens this past weekend. No big deal. Or it’s one of the biggest movies of the year that made a tonne of money at its midnight screenings on Friday and a tonne more over the rest of the weekend. I went to the theatre Thursday night to see something else and wondered why all these weird looking teenagers were lined up around the block. And then went ‘ohhhhhh right. Hunger Games.’

I try to make a point of following these cultural phenomena, even if I don’t understand them. Last year, for instance, I watched all the Twilight films over a weekend. I haven’t been the same since, but I did it all for you dear readers. It’s been the same with The Hunger Games. Yes, I have read all the books. No, I did not fall head over heels in love with them. I like the story but didn’t care for the writing and overall thought they were pretty good but not amazing. I expected even less from the movie.

I gotta say though, despite all the critical backlash, The Hunger Games is a pretty darn good movie. If you were to get a couple of drinks in me I might even go so far as to say it’s better then the book. But I’d say a lot of things at that point.

As far as a book to screen conversion goes, the movie, of course, trims a lot of the fat of the book, which may disappoint some. Gale gets a little short changed and is reduced to mainly a few reaction shots to the Hunger Games broadcast. Man looks good smiling in a crowd though, gotta say.

In general though I like what they kept. We get a nice build up to the actual games and a good, if not condensed, version of the lives of people in District 12 and our main characters. The film did a good job of bringing to life the world that was somewhat inadequately described and hard to visualize in the book. The games themselves are exciting but horrible. It’s an enjoyable movie to watch.

The film is a bit easy. I never felt challenged at any point. I never felt it was making any insightful comments on our own society and the dangers of totalitarian rule or on the relationship between humans and violence. I felt sorry for the tributes but because the violence was fairly glossed over I never got a full sense of the brutality of the games. Teenagers are hunting and killing other teenagers, but it still played out as an exciting movie, the very thing the story seems to be criticizing.

I like Jennifer Lawrence. As with everyone else, she blew me away in Winter’s Bone. It was exciting to see a young, mature, talented actor emerging. This is her big breakout role. Not a whole lot of people saw Winter’s Bone, so for them this, and X-Men: First Class, is their introduction to this very talented woman.

What makes this performance stand out though is that Katniss is not a flashy role. Throughout the Hunger Games series she is a serious young woman who has trouble garnering sympathy from people and refuses to try and make people like her.

Lawrence nails it. She hardly smiles throughout the whole movie but when she does it’s an event. And that’s the way it should be for this character. She is not your typical movie hero. She is divided and confused and damaged. She does not want to be in the situation that she is but is dragged into her role as rebel icon. You can see this conflict in Lawrence’s performance.

Here’s my main complaint with the movie, and it’s one you might hear out of me from time to time when I feel like harping on it: too much shaky, handheld camera work. This is seemingly the only way we know how to film action nowadays, and while I can appreciate the immediacy and chaos of it in the right situation, when I can’t tell what’s happening in the most important fight of the movie, that’s a problem.

At some points I felt a little motion sickness to be honest, such is the amount of jerky, swinging camera work in the film. At times it worked, but for the most part it was so overused it felt unnecessary. Do I really need the reaping to look like something someone shot on their cellphone and put up on YouTube? This is a proper movie here, use a tripod for heaven’s sake. I get the theoretical ideas behind this approach (immediateness, creating a sense of unease in the audience) but it’s a cheap and lazy move.

All told, however, I enjoyed The Hunger Games far more then I thought I would and I think the filmmakers did a better job then they are getting credit for. Could it have been better? Yes, absolutely. Could it have been worse? Very much so. The movie they did make is nothing revolutionary (pun intended) or anything we haven’t seen before (this is an exact remake of The Running Man, right? Kidding.), but still a heck of a good watch in a crowded movie theatre. I look forward to the sequels.

For a more detailed and passionate analysis please consult someone 14 years old.

The Hunger Games is in theatres now.