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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Man of Steel by Zack Snyder

Man of Steel by Zack Snyder

A young Clark Kent is forced to confront his secret extraterrestrial heritage when Earth is invaded by members of his race.

The story of Superman, a character created during World War II, is dated by today’s standards. The fragility of his dual identity is never touched upon. The supposed smart career woman who he’s in love with never sees through his disguise as Clark Kent. He’s all powerful, doesn’t lie and always does the right thing. Nothing can physically hurt him except Kryptonite. How do you find conflict for this character? How can he grow? What is there for him to learn? This makes Superman a writer’s nightmare. The original material has written itself into a corner. It’s clear that the filmmakers’ goal was to undo many of these trappings and update Superman to a real modern context. Content aside, I’m a Christopher Nolan fan but I have never liked any of Zack Snyder’s films. What would be the end result of a Nolan-produced Zack Snyder production? Would they accomplish their goals? Is this vision of Superman going to be entertaining? This left me going in with an open mind.

Henry Cavill makes both a great Clark Kent and Superman. Surprisingly much of it is a silent performance, as he has minimal dialogue and communicates a lot of the inner turmoil through his face. The story gives him a lot to play and watching Clark grow into Superman step-by-step make up for the the most interesting segments. When he makes the choice to become Superman, we feel the gravity of that choice. The film is called Man of Steel for that very reason.

Lois Lane is the trickiest part to cast out of all the characters. The career-driven overachieving qualities of Lois Lane, if not balanced correctly, can easily make her into a bitch. She should be a jerk, but a likable jerk. It’s in Superman’s overwhelming presence where her heartier side slowly surfaces.
 Amy Adams nails the career woman part of Lois from her first scene. The heartier side she plays out convincingly as well but unfortunately the romance is a bit rushed. I would have liked to see Lois’s vulnerable side melt away slower and have it unfold in a sequel.

Russell Crowe gives the film an engaging energetic kickstart as Jor-el; he puts an enthusiasm into this role he hasn’t in years. Michael Shannon brings a ferocious intensity to General Zod, who’s written as more complex and more relatable than Terrence Stamp’s version. I believe his motivation and anger. Laurence Fishburne is always a welcome presence and makes a fine Perry White, but what is up with that diamond earring? Is that suitable for work?

Kevin Costner is the heart of the movie as Jonathan Kent. He and Diane Lane make really convincing on-screen parents. Both are real-life parents and there’s something about how being a parent that physically changes the way carry yourself that’s hard to fabricate. That quality is captured effectively here and the values the Kents instill into Clark echoes throughout the film. Martha Kent’s first scene with a young Clark at school almost moved me to tears.

Hans Zimmer’s music punctuates the film’s goal by scoring a “Man of Steel” theme as opposed to a Superman theme. There’s no distinct attempt at trying to capture Superman’s presence with musical keys, the emphasis is the man himself. This separates it from John William’s class original score. The bombastic loud soaring god-like moments are operatic, and the quieter human moments show a lonely man moving from contemplation towards action.

Zack Snyder makes good directorial choices. Snyder’s held back with his trademark slow motion shots and thank goodness for that. The handheld cinematography effectively grounds the scenes, particularly the childhood scenes in Smallville evoke Terrence Malick films. The non-linear flashbacks is a great choice as it mixes things up for an origin story that we have seen before. It was more interesting we didn’t have to go through it linearly.

The finale is too long, partly it’s a reaction from all the complaints of no action from Superman Returns. People have been talking about the issue of too much destruction. It’s more that a lot of the destruction is caused by Superman himself. He seems unaware of his surroundings and is actively using the surrounding buildings to hurt his enemies. This would have been nullified if Cavill’s Superman just saved more civilians between the fights and if the aftermath of the destruction was addressed by the media. Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh’s versions had no problem multi-tasking. The only one Superman power that wasn’t shown was the super breath, and there were many instances he could have used that power to put out a few fires. Maybe Superman hasn’t learned that power yet but he could have used his powers more creatively as well. On a tangential note, I loved the design of the heat vision. There was a destructive ‘last resort’ quality that looked scary and painful to fire out of your eyes.

Finally, some people might feel cheated by or downright reject these changes to the Superman mythos, but these changes properly inject the necessary weaknesses that can set this version of Superman on a journey with enough lessons to learn for subsequent films (assuming they’re making at least three of these including a Justice League movie). The new places they go with Superman were ultimately what thrilled me and the quiet human moments were what moved me. Personally I would have traded 10 minutes out of the finale for 10 more minutes in Smallville.

I look forward to where they take this version of Superman. Depending on which direction of the next film may affect how I feel about Man of Steel because there are a lot of things that are left unfinished that can be fixed in the sequel (i.e. the romance, the aftermath of the damage, Superman saving more people, how the world is reacting to his presence). It’s time to cast Lex Luthor!