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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Captain Phillips by Paul Greengrass

Captain Phillips by Paul Greengrass

 

Captain Phillips tells the real life story of merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips, who was taken hostage by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean during the Maersk Alabama hijacking in 2009 led by Abduwali Muse.

The most noteworthy aspect of Paul Greengrass’ canon is his ability to create immediacy, which is the key ingredient in Captain Phillips. The surface explanation behind Greengrass’s crackling visual style is simply that he shoots handheld. The truth is much more complicated than that. What’s behind Greengrass’ method is not merely the shaky cam, but his ability to create reality and punctuate immediate tension in his dramatic filmmaking. He understands that people receive information in fragments all the time and has found a way to incorporate that human reflex into a cinematic experience. So even with the fast cuts and shaky photography, the audience is able to follow what’s going on. It is emotionally connective.

The set pieces in the first half of the film are visceral and tense. They feel like they’re happening right before us and we are immersed into the crew’s helpless dilemma. There’s a significant genre shift in the second act, as the film becomes a rescue mission procedural. It goes on a bit long by the end. The first half is definitely more fun than the second half, if only because the crew members become less active in the latter portions.

Tom Hanks plunges into the title role in a way I haven’t seen in years. The trademark Tom Hanks movie star charm is removed and what remains is Hank’s everyman quality. Captain Richard Phillips comparatively is a relatively colder character compared to Hank’s past roles, which frees him up to embody the role. The last few moments of Hanks’ Captain Phillips in shock dealing with the aftermath is breathtaking. It’s a great human moment, though overall the entire performance is probably not Oscar worthy.

The Somali pirates are well casted. It’s baffling how the filmmakers found these actors in a cating session in North Carolina. They rise above their skinny appearances and rough-hewn looks and each individually play dimensional characters. Greengrass builds an interesting group dynamic between them and gives them a backstory that suggests that they are not intentionally evil people.

Something noteworthy is how Greengrass depicts the military in a cold neutral fashion that doesn’t take political sides. They aren’t glorified like they are in Michael Bay films. The military here is functional and follows procedures to get the job done. There’s a lot of room for audiences to bring in their own views about the response time of the coast guard, the military’s handling of the rescue or the harsh circumstances of the Somali pirates. Although interested in world issues in a journalistic fashion, Greengrass isn’t overbearingly preachy in any sense. His focus is the drama and fully delivers on that.

Retrospective Review: Double Team by Tsui Hark

Double Team by Tsui Hark

There comes a time for every filmgoer when you like a bad movie that nobody likes. You can’t really pinpoint why you like them and it’s a bit embarrassing. Nobody really cares why you liked it because nobody wants to talk about a bad movie. You cannot exactly defend the movie because you see why it’s bad but you feel obligated to point out what’s fun about it. I’ve been wanting to write about films that aren’t new releases. This seems like a good opportunity to write about a film that I enjoy and really want to have a discussion about. So here are my thoughts on the 1997 Tsui Hark action film film Double Team

Let me set it up the historical context. It was 1997. There was a rising trend of Hong Kong action cinema in the West that came in the form of VHS, thanks to the long gone Blockbuster video store. A mutual interest begun to develop; Hollywood producers wanted to inject a new style into American action movies and Hong Kong directors were curious and excited about working with Hollywood resources. John Woo was the first Hong Kong director to be hired for a Hollywood project, and later Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark followed. Coincidentally, all three worked with Jean Claude Van Damme in their Hollywood debuts. This trend eventually died when the Hong Kong directors weren’t that curious anymore and felt that they were being treated to the equivalent of low-cost B-movie directors and the Hollywood resources did not seem worth it by comparison.

John Woo was the only director to rise up the ranks working with other A-listers. Tsui Hark eventually returned to working on Hong Kong productions and Ringo Lam collaborated with Van Damme on a few more straight-to-video productions before retiring from directing.

Tsui Hark has always been a hit-and-miss director for me. He always wants to do too much and ends up overstuffing his films at the expense of the primary idea he started with. But here, perhaps because it was hi American debut, that problem is not here. Working with an American studio and an English language script forced Tsui Hark to reign himself in.

So the setup… Counter-terrorist agent Jack Quinn misses his target, Stavros, on his final mission. He is sent to the Colony, an organization for presumed-dead assassins. He breaks free and seeks aid from Yaz, a weapons dealer for his final battle with Stavros.

Just a few small thoughts to get out of the way. The film is shot like a cartoon with its pastel-like color palette. The art direction is noteworthy as well, it gives a futuristic sense to everything here without being too far into the future or going too over-the-top. It looks like a future that can exist one day.

The idea of the Colony, a secret organization that helps police the world behind-the-scenes via surveillance and advice, is a pretty fun quasi-Utopian concept (the members of the organization live in a sea view resort but are not allowed to leave the place ever) and it is where the film picks up in its second act. The sequences where Van Damme rebuilds himself in a training montage and his escape from the Colony were both interesting and fun visual set pieces. They keep the movie interesting without relying on acting or fight choreography and are specifically designed around things Van Damme can do. Where John Woo dressed Van Damme with gunplay and Ringo Lam with drama, Tsui Hark dressed him up with visual crazy concepts and just let him shine throwing his signature kicks. Tsui Hark recognized that acting was not Van Damme’s forte (at least not until 2008’s JCVD) and decided to let him be the straight man and created chaos around him for contrast. This brings us to the casting of Dennis Rodman…

Dennis Rodman is funny in an absolute hammy way as Yaz the arms dealer. He is so blatantly obnoxious having so much fun playing himself and making basketball puns I can’t help it but laugh along with it. I’m not saying Rodman should be in every movie but he’s likable here. There’s an appeal in movies where the audience witnesses two characters that would never meet under normal circumstances. Van Damme and Rodman make such an odd pairing that it’s just interesting to watch. Heck, seeing Dennis Rodman fist bump a computer-hacking monk is mind bogglingly entertaining.

From a fight choreography standpoint, having to showcase Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks sacrifices a lot of smaller beats within a fight. Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks are beautiful but cinematically speaking, they look slow because of the 360° windup. It’s a powerful kick but also very one-note and requires a certain amount of distance, which means there is not a lot room for upper body parrying. You’ll notice Van Damme never does too much with his hands in his films but rather holding back so he can throw a kick. The roundhouse kick is also a definitive finisher; nobody who receives a kick like that can continue that particular round.

Double Team showcases Van Damme’s kicking ability by cinematically creating a sense of speed and power. Peter Pau, the cinematographer for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Sammo Hung, the action choreographer, both solve that problem by injecting a crackling frenetic energy into the action scenes that makes the audience flinch and jump as if they were in the fight.

As an example, I’m going to describe an action sequence in the film:

Van Damme kicks a henchman, who is firing at him with a machine-gun-in-a-suitcase, through a hotel room door. The henchman falls into the hotel room and is kicked back into the opposite direction by another Chinese henchman. The henchman flies toward Van Damme like a sad ping pong ball. Van Damme roundhouse kicks him off to the side. He drags along the floor, barely alive, almost smashing his head to the wall. The camera then swish-pans to a white marble statue of a thinking man and lingers there for 2 seconds. Van Damme then fights the Chinese henchman (played by Hung Yan Yan, Club Foot from the Once Upon a Time in China series) in the living room, who then crazily takes off his shoes, revealing a switchblade held between his toes and proceeds to cut Van Damme with a series of kicks.

The short ping pong game between Hung Yan Yan and Van Damme speeds up the entire feeling of the fight because we’re only seeing Van Damme for half the time. The focus is brilliantly on the poor henchman who is being knocked back and forth. By the time we cut back to Van Damme, he’s already winding up to kick him to the side.

So how do they maintain the speed of the scene for the next part? Admittedly, Van Damme is passively dodging Hung’s kicks before retaliating but the idea of a henchman who is using a knife clenched between his toes to cut the hero is so insane that we’re just completely distracted. Yes, it’s a game of shifting the audience’s focus. Plus, Hung Yan Yan is a fantastic kicker.

Lastly, why that swish-pan to the statue? It’s such a tiny odd detail but it adds a lot to that moment. I always find myself laughing at that moment. Why? 1) It’s a moment of relief. It’s a short recess for the audience to rest their eyes. 2) We see that the henchman wishing he were dead. 3) Marble statues are beautiful. It’s an odd hilarious short tonal shift.

Here’s a clip of that action sequence here:

A lot of action gets better and better as the films goes on with shots like this. The end sequence with Mickey Rourke at the Coliseum made for a nice finale. They share a good fight. Even though it doesn’t seem well-planned on the villain’s part to place a whole field of marked mines and fistfight over it with a live tiger roaming around.

As for Mickey Rourke, he’s a decent villain but I don’t know why he had to buff up like that. It just makes him move more sluggishly. Perhaps that’s the filmmakers were busy thinking how to make Van Damme look good, they forgot about Mickey Rourke. It’s a shame because there’s nothing that exhibits his boxing training here. It’s still a great finale sequence nonetheless. The final explosion builds to a hilarious ending involving a hallway full of Coca Cola vending machines and the end credits end on a techno song featuring Dennis Rodman on vocals.

There is a lot of craft in this movie, but it’s buried under its blatant obnoxious surface because it’s so insane. The insanity is what’s mesmerizingly fun about it. And maybe that’s why audiences failed to connect with Double Team when it was released. I genuinely like this movie a lot.

With that all said, I will officially say it publicly. 3, 2, 1… I liked Double Team!

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