American Hustle by David O. Russell

American Hustle by David. O Russell

American Hustle by David. O Russell

 

David O. Russell’s latest caper American Hustle is fundamentally more interested in its characters than doing anything with them.

The story is a fictionalized account of the FBI ABSCAM operation in the late 1970s. Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale), a con man, falls in love with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), and the couple start running a con operation together. Everything seems perfect at first, but Irving refuses to leave his adopted son and wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who refuses to divorce him. When FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) catches Irving and Sydney in a loan scam, they are forced to help him make four arrests for their release.

What happens with the characters never matches the depth of their characterizations. As the narrative switches perspectives and cross-sections into the inner monologue of several characters, it keeps the viewer perpetually wondering who is the main character of the story. The con, or more specifically the plot, is cast to the side. The joy of watching the construction of the con is not present; O. Russell is not interested in those nuts and bolts.

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are all very good and very free in their parts. Louis C.K. even has a funny supporting role as Bradley Cooper’s FBI superior who is frequently bullied. Despite of the nominations, the acting is not Oscar worthy. It just seems like it should be.

O. Russell directs like an acting coach running a class exercise, having the actors improvise scenes and go off script to no end. The scenes do feel raw and unrehearsed. At its best, energy is building and chaos seems to be imminent, like a lit fuse burning its way to the end of a dynamite stick that we cannot see. At its worst, it feels plodding and going over information we already know. The inverse effect is it makes the actors, as good as they are in their parts, look like they are playing dress up. So as much as it wants to be an anarchic character study, the final result is oddly shallow.

American Hustle does not quite live up to its awards hype. The truth is, it was overhyped from the beginning, and somehow David O. Russell has everybody believing he has made something good. Or somehow the people just want to believe he has made something good. Good for him, but I really doubt anybody will be talking about this film six months from now when the hype dies down.

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The Place Beyond The Pines by Derek Cianfrance

The Place Beyond The Pines by Derek Cianfrance

A motorcycle stunt rider turns to robbing banks  to provide for his lover and their newborn child. This decision puts him on a collision course with an ambitious rookie cop navigating a department ruled by a corrupt detective. The sweeping drama unfolds over fifteen years as the sins of the past haunt the present days lives of two high school boys wrestling with the legacy they’ve inherited.

Ryan Gosling gives the silent minimalist performance as the motorcyclist Luke Glanton. It’s slowly becoming to be his trademark, and justifiably so because he’s great at it. Bradley Cooper appeared on Inside The Actor’s Studio as a guest, where it was said he was the most promising acting talent of his graduating year at Pace University. Bradley Cooper is officially starting to show that talent now. It wasn’t displayed in his previous projects. Dane DeHaan is a promising versatile talent. He really sells torture well. I look forward to seeing him as Harry Osbourne in the next The Amazing Spider-man movieBen Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta both sell slimy well. It’s a good cast and they all deliver, but they all have accomplished similar roles in other past projects.

The Place Beyond The Pines‘s core theme, due to the nature of the plot structure, will not be clear to the audience till the latter half. The story makes a shift and changes its central character. In that very moment, to really enjoy the film, the audience has to let go, take a step back and view the film on a larger canvas. Characters becomes archetypes and plot becomes saga. The sins of the father pass onto the son and we see the cause-and-effect echo from generation to generation.

For me, I took that step back and all of a sudden I was pondering on bigger themes. Instead of thinking about bank robbers stealing money or police battling corruption, I thought about karma, the butterfly effect and the idea of violence perpetuating violence. At the final shot of the film, I was moved. It was a poignant, beautiful and poetic ending. I was impressed how the narrative touched me with its subtext by completely divorcing it with its supertext. This gambit the film plays on the audience is probably what will divide them. It doesn’t help that the supertext of the film utilizes familiar genre conventions; at times it’s a heist movie, other times it’s a police corruption movie. That might throw some people off but that’s what I loved about it. It was a bold narrative move and it was well played. Derek Cianfrance, well done!

Next Round of Reviews! Upcoming thoughts about Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

My next round of reviews:

Who takes 7 months to review a Batman movie? I do! It’s been a long struggle reviewing The Dark Knight Rises and Rust and Bone, realizing that the more you like something, the harder it is to articulate why it was personal to you. It was a repetitive cycle of opening up the post and geting lost in my own scrambled feelings that needed to be unknotted and structured for a reader. I encountered a similar problem with The Grandmaster review but thank goodness that only took me a week. My goal is to finish these two reviews by Chinese New Year.

Three titles that will likely be reviewed faster than the above two films.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons by Stephen Chow

As of right now, I haven’t seen the new Stephen Chow film yet. Even though my interest in the film is halved by the fact that Stephen Chow is not acting in it. It’s been pretty funny seeing the trailers playing in Hong Kong theaters, as it shows a lot of behind-the-scenes footage of Stephen Chow directing his actors. Which begs me to question, if they are flat out marketing the movie with footage of Stephen Chow acting out the scenes for his actors, what’s the point in seeing a Stephen Chow movie without Stephen Chow in it? I intend on finding the answer.

I have never been someone that feels my childhood is at stake when something I like is being rewritten upon, but it feels like that this time. Stephen Chow has given me some all-time highs throughout my childhood. It feels brutal. On one hand, its always fascinating to see how an artist evolves, for better or for worse. Maybe I have to accept its the end of an era. That there won’t be a Stephen Chow film with him acting in it ever again and I’m going to have to come to terms with that. Heck, I took it hard when I realized he probably wasn’t going to work with Ng Man Tat anymore.

So I’m both looking forward and dreading it at the same time.

Read my review here.