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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Oz the Great and Powerful by Sam Raimi

Oz the Great and Powerful by Sam Raimi

Oz the Great and Powerful is the story of Oscar Diggs (played by James Franco), who arrives in the Land of Oz and encounters three witches; Theodora (played by Mila Kunis), Evanora (played by Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (played by Michelle Williams).

When I was a kid, every time I got sick meant that I would risk an ear infection. My mom would take me to the Sick Kids Hospital in downtown Toronto. The most distinct thing I remember about that hospital was that in every waiting room they would loop The Wizard of Oz over and over on a television screen for kids. As a child, I do not recall ever sitting down and properly watching from beginning to end but my body was frequently shitty enough for me to bracket the entire movie through multiple shortened viewings.

As a child, the following things about The Wizard of Oz distinctly struck me. First, I remember the vibrant Technicolor look of Oz. Second, I noticed how every character in the story had an impediment or flaw, which was something they all had to overcome together as a group. Lastly, I recall being deeply scared by the Wicked Witch of the West, her flying monkeys and even the initial appearance of Oz.

Sam Raimi has reportedly said he does not believe in 3D filmmaking, but decidedly to make an exception for this film, believing it would immerse the audience into the world. Along with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi last year, this is probably one of the best uses of 3D I have experienced. Not once did I squint during the movie or was tempted to take off the glasses at any point.

The 3D enhances the spectacle of Oz, but it’s not solely responsible for it. There’s a really great sense of wonder from the world and it even builds upon the world of Oz you see in the original. There’s an imminent feeling that things are happening in this world beyond what you are witnessing onscreen. The set pieces often felt like a theme park ride and like a child I would physically flinch to the things happening onscreen. I held onto my legs in a sequence where Oz’s balloon is tossed by wind and descends through a waterfall. Suffice to say, I recommend seeing it in 3D.

The film has a great cast. James Franco carries the film competently by making an unlikable character very watchable. The best performance by a mile is Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch. She hits the right combination between doing an impression and adding her own interpretation of the role, like the cast of the Star Trek films.

The origin of the Wicked Witch of the West could have used a little more time to flesh her character out, but it was the most intriguing out of all the subplots. The actress who plays the fully-formed Wicked Witch of the West is seemingly lacking in vocal range. A lot of the Witch’s dialogue is screamed and it seemed like her voice was constantly on the verge of cracking.

Sam Raimi has an in-depth understanding of the similarities between a laugh and a scare. He knows when to pull back and hold a shot to build tension. You know something’s about to happen, but there’s no way to foresee if it’s good or bad until it happens. There’s a great sense of rhythm running through the film. I can only imagine it comes from Raimi’s DIY approach directing the Evil Dead films. Yes, this is a very funny movie. The dialogue between Oz and his monkey sidekick Finley is witty and stands out as some of the best-written clean funny dialogue I have heard in a while. For it’s scary moments, it’s balanced to the point that I think the majority of kids can still withstand and enjoy it. I laughed my way through the scares myself.

It’s unfair to measure Oz the Great and Powerful to The Wizard of Oz. The explorer who discovered Nova Scotia is simply not going to measure up to Christopher Columbus discovering America. You cannot rediscover a creative landmark. It’s just that simple. But I do think Oz the Great and Powerful gets as close as one can to realistically matching the joy of The Wizard of Oz for today. It spiritually retains the things that I found compelling about The Wizard of Oz. I was awed, tickled, scared and finally was touched at the film’s conclusion. Above all, it made me feel like the sick boy in the hospital waiting room again.

Hitchcock by Sacha Gervasi and The Girl by Julian Jarrold

Foreword: a solution to reviewing two similarly-themed films

On my “Common film review clichés to be avoided” page, I have previously stated that I will critique every film as a standalone piece of work. Recently, a special case has surfaced that now has me reconsidering a possible exception to my previously established rule.

Two films about Alfred Hitchcock released this year: Hitchcock and The Girl.

There is an element of timing for when a movie is released that affects one’s experience of how someone views the subject matter afterwards. Theoretically from a film critic’s mentality, two films sharing the same subject matter should not matter and on principle every piece of work should be critiqued as a standalone piece. However, I am too aware that The Girl will be overlooked because Hitchcock has bigger stars in it, a stronger promotional campaign and a theatrical release.

Funny enough, Toby Jones, who plays Alfred Hitchcock in The Girl, has gone through a similar “double case” with playing Truman Capote. I am no expert on Truman Capote, but from what I have read, Toby Jones’ performance seems like a more accurate depiction. Jones’ version showed more colors of emotions; particularly presenting the playful socialite side of Capote in Infamous, an aspect that seemed muted in Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s take in Bennett Miller’s Capote. Toby Jones’ performance was overlooked after Phillip Seymour Hoffman won the Oscar, it is as if as a social group we have exhausted the amount we can possibly care for a subject in its first interpretation and cannot give the same amount of care or attention to the second.

So as a film critique experiment and also to satisfy my lifelong yen to serve justice for the underdog, I have decided to watch Hitchcock and The Girl back-to-back. I chose Hitchcock first because it chronologically takes place before the events of The Girl. Let’s see what happens.

On with the review of Hitchcock

Hitchcock by Sacha Gervasi

Hitchcock centers on the relationship between director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville during the making of Psycho, a controversial horror film that became one of the most acclaimed and influential works in the filmmaker’s career.

Anthony Hopkins’ performance is more pantomime than a result of inhabiting a role. There’s a lot of emphasis on Hitchcock’s physicality and his droopy face and it comes off as a very good impression played for comedic effect. It’s possible that it is not Hopkin’s fault as director Sacha Gervasi and writer John J. McLaughlin do not have a particular perspective on how we should view Alfred Hitchcock as a person. The film’s not interested in delving too deeply into who he was but aims for laughs with its comedic self-referential tone and many witty remarks from Hitchcock himself.

Helen Mirren as Alma Reville is a good straight man to Hopkins. The interplay between Hopkins and Helen Mirren is the heart of the film. I wish there was more things for these actors to do, to explore their parts with more insight. It forces me to think that they only casted Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh to sell tickets based on the tease of how they filmed her famous shower scene.

The first third of the film starts off decently plot wise, the central question being “How is Hitchcock going to get Psycho made?” However, once the production of Psycho goes underway, there is no more tension in that storyline. It’s as if there was a checklist of events and the film goes on autopilot and checks them off as we move along for the rest of that storyline. I am sure there was more drama to the production and if there wasn’t, the film should take narrative liberties to dramatize it. For example, we all know the security cars missing the airplane taking off by an inch in Argo did not really happen in real life, but it’s more dramatic depicting it that way than just having the crew sigh relief after passing the three security checks as the film’s climax. No, the film shifts focus onto the relationship between Hitchcock and his wife Alma.

The use of humor gets in the way as well. There is a device where Alfred Hitchcock has imaginary conversations with Ed Gein (played by Michael Wincott), the real-life serial killer that inspired Psycho. It’s a great idea for a device as the manifestation of Ed Gein represents Hitchcock’s drive to complete his controversial vision. In essence, Hitchcock is having a supportive conversation with himself. However, the film chooses to score these conversations with a thriller type score that suggests that the imaginary non-existent Gein is going to stab Hitchcock at any second as if we were suddenly watching a Hitchcock film. This tonally defuses the original goal of the device, all in the place for a self-referential laugh.

Did I learn anything insightful about Alfred Hitchcock? Not too much other than I would really like a supportive wife like Alma. It works as a light dramatic comedy about an aging odd couple.

The checklist nature in which Hitchcock glosses over the events of the making of Psycho ultimately makes for more of a televisual experience as opposed to a cinematic one.

Now on with the review for The Girl

The Girl by Julian Jarrold

The Girl depicts the turbulent relationship between filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and actress Tippi Hedren. Hitchcock becomes infatuated with his leading actress, and ends up subjecting her to a series of traumatic and gruelling experiences over the making of The Birds and Marnie after she rebuffs his advances.

The Girl is as far away tonally as one could go after watching the light and funny Hitchcock. Aesthetically it’s a much more cinematic experience, it’s a much darker film and it has a very firm perspective of how it depicts its characters. In fact, the most interesting thing about The Girl is it pretty much decides that Alfred Hitchcock was a sexual predator, and fully depicts him that way one hundred percent. This is where The Girl may distance audiences.

Sienna Miller gives a great performance as Tippi Hedren. Even as a victim, Tippi Hedren is not a weak helpless inactive character. Miller manages to find a lot of things to play dramatically which makes this dark subject matter very watchable. I was scared for her in her scenes with Jones and even have a feeling of how beauty can be a problem for a woman if you are constantly gazed at all day by your boss. Something I probably would not think of if not for the film. As naive as it sounds, I would love to hear what women have to say about this film.

Toby Jones delivers. This is a more natural, deeper performance but the ultimate result doesn’t feel like the humorous facetious Hitchcock we know from his onscreen persona. It’s as if Jones had to inhabit the role of Alfred Hitchcock deeper to shift his image to suit the film’s thesis. For example, Jones nails Hitchcock’s voice to a tee, but at times he would shift Hitchcock’s voice to a more sinister place, and at times it was like he was part Alfred Hitchcock, part Cockney gangster. He plays him like an old pervert and through his stare we can see the fantasies that Hitchcock is superimposing onto this woman and experience the emotionally violence. Never has a dirty limerick felt so scary.

I am of two minds about The Girl. If only it was a complete work of fiction with imaginary characters, I could tell you that it was a great film about abuse, harassment and power dynamics against women in the workplace. It’s a story worth telling, it’s a more cinematic film than Hitchcock and I am glad I saw this movie, but I cannot simply dismiss somebody as a sexual predator simply from watching a film.

Not to dispel anybody who has been a victim of emotional or physical abuse, but I cannot verify whether the events in this film really happened or not. As a viewer, I can go as far as viewing it as an interesting speculation at best. I simply cannot answer the film’s plea for justice the way it demanded.

That’s the choice everybody will have to make when watching The Girl: do you believe it for fact or does it stop as an interesting speculation?

Verdict: 
It’s hard to access if this was successful because I cannot rewind and experience this in another way, but I do this works as a solution. Mainly because I had to digest both films together in their individual goals and this is as fair an assessment I could have given for both films individually. It was an ironic experience because the two films have completely opposite depictions of Alfred Hitchcock.

Let me know what you think! =)

Dark Shadows by Tim Burton

Dark Shadows by Tim Burton

 

Barnabas Collins, a 200-year-old vampire who was imprisoned in a coffin but is unearthed and makes his way back to his mansion now inhabited by his dysfunctional descendants. He soon runs into trouble revitalising the family’s canned fish business, as his jealous ex-flame and imprisoner Angelique Bouchard, runs the rival company.

A screenwriting teacher of mine used to stipulate that for each scene you write in a screenplay, you must ask yourself, “What is the goal of this scene? How do I want the audience to feel in this instance?” For Dark Shadows, I imagine it would be a difficult question for the screenwriter to answer and he would end up thinking for a long time the right combination of words to describe the specific feeling.

The story structure of Dark Shadows is an issue common amongst TV-to-Film adaptations. It reminded of Andrew Lau’s 2005 cinematic adaptation of the Japanese anime Initial D, where they tried to cram the first season into one cinematic film experience. Dark Shadows has a meandering TV show-like storyline where it plants several subplots that it doesn’t have enough time to develop within the span of a theatrical film. There is a delayed sense of driving action in this enclosed world. For instance, considered that all the evil things she has done to him, Barnabas has a lot of patience with Angelique. It would have made complete sense if Barnabas set out to kill her on a quest of revenge right after he is unearthed in the 70’s. They stylistically choose not to do that, which explains this heavy sense of TV pacing in this movie.

The ephemeral tone is what really drives the movie. It’s tongue-in-cheek at times with the 70s, there are fish-out-of-water jokes and people are murdered at the drop of a hat. There is a very “anything goes” tone and the weirdness of it all kept me entranced, anticipating where it was going to go. It was very funny, but not in a laugh out loud sort of way, but in a cerebral way. It’s hard to describe but there is structure in its chaos and it’s existence alone is something to be marveled at.

The cast and performances were noteworthy, mainly because of how specific they were to building the tone of the film. Johnny Depp plays Barnabas completely straight, much to many of the movie’s fish-out-of-water gags. Maybe because he looked so much like Nosferatu in his appearance and in some of his physicality (notice how he wraps his arms), if they ever made another post-modern silent movie like The Artist, Depp would fare well in a silent film performance.  I really liked the amount of humanity Eva Green was able to inject into Angelique Bouchard. She finds a human center to such an evil character and we see the motivation behind her irredeemable actions. I’ve complimented her performances three times now and she’s slowly becoming a favorite. Lastly, it was nice seeing Michelle Pfeiffer in a film again.

I do wonder what people who have seen the original series would have said about this movie. I’m too young to know. Personally I  had no prior knowledge of the original television series and for anybody who aren’t ready to put in the effort and fill the gaps mentally, they will probably be disappointed by the film adapation. It’s a very odd film operating on an obscure frequency and it wouldn’t have been made without the prior financial success of Burton-Depp collaborations. In a sense, they’re both getting weirder together.

If Tim Burton’s goal was to adapt the original Dark Shadows tone to film, then he accomplished it. Is that a worthy justifiable goal? Does it justify the TV-like tone? I can’t say but I would rather see Burton experiment with something than just slapping the usual “Tim Burton Brand” onto something.

The film worked on me, but I honestly cannot say I’d watch it again. As a movie about a vampire, it might not have longevity.