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 Avengers by Joss Whedon

The Avengers by Joss Whedon

Nick Fury, director of the peacekeeping organization S.H.I.E.L.D., recruits Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America to form a team that must stop Thor’s brother Loki from enslaving the human race.

It’s here, finally. The movie that Marvel really wanted to make and arguably the film every fan really wanted to see, anyways. It really started to test my patience while I was watching Captain America: The First Avenger. It wasn’t that it was a bad movie, but it’s more or less of the same thing and I wanted to see these Marvel movies go somewhere else. The good news? The Avengers go somewhere else with it and it works!

The major sell of The Avengers are the characters themselves and that’s what the story is mainly about. In Joss Whedon’s own words, there is no reason for all these heroes to share a movie. After all, if I had superpowers and had the ability to solve my own problems, why would I work with another dude? Or take orders from somebody that’s supposedly weaker than you?

Whedon accomplishes this with a lot of discipline and balance. For example, the alien army that Loki employs to take over the Earth with are underdeveloped and their motivations are quite simplistic, but it works because it acts only as an extension of the heroes’ conflict. They’re fighting these aliens not because the monsters necessarily have a direct beef with our heroes, rather they just exist as an idea to push them to working together as a team. It is functioning quite like a musical in that aspect. Conflicts are physicalized in the form of fights (everybody fights with everybody at some point like a fighting game), comedic verbal banter and things are kept light and bounce along smoothly. Personally I found myself enjoying the banter more. Yes, The Avengers was a lot more funnier than I expected.

It was fun anticipating and seeing how each character interacted with each other, very much like how you might anticipate different friends will interact with each other at your birthday party. Like in 2009’s Star Trek, I appreciated that each member had a individual specific contribution to the team.

People tend to argue about how filmmakers interpret the Hulk in the past. I do like the Ang Lee version because Lee attempted to bring a genuine pathos to The Hulk that seemed unpopular with the masses. The issue I actually have with the Hulk is that his character never seemed heroic to me because he is not in control of his own actions once Bruce Banner is in the Hulk state. It’s just random carnage and it happens that he’s a hero because he does good, albeit accidentally. Suffice to say, they solve that in this movie.

As for the switch with Mark Ruffalo, fans will perpetually argue over which actor played the best interpretation of the Hulk. I personally do not see an actor-specific interpretation. It seemed like Ruffalo is playing the continuation of Bruce Banner/The Hulk after the events of The Incredible Hulk (what Edward Norton would have played had he stayed in the role). This is a less conflicted Bruce Banner who’s made peace with who he is and is in better control. I do not know why in the past the actors who have played Bruce Banner did not get to play The Hulk on motion capture, I am glad that is over because the consistency really makes a huge difference. Ruffalo manages to be scary at times but it is ultimately drowned out by the film’s light tone. The ever-present humor does work against the story at times because I would have liked a few darker moments in the film. Suffice to say, Ruffalo makes the role his own.

I can see from a writer’s standpoint how Captain America is a challenging character to tackle. There is no real darkness within him and he always does the right thing. So how do you make that engaging? The story of The Avengers was originally going to be based from Captain America’s point of view and there was a whole subplot about him trying to reconnect with the modern world. I’m glad that was cut out (this is fully packed as it is). All those scenes can totally be in Captain America 2. Even stripping his storyline away, they do manage retain Steve Roger’s charm in The Avengers. The charm of Captain America are not his powers; the character represents the human limit and how human will and heart can push someone to do great things. He is a competent superhero in his own world and story, but his powers do not mean much standing next to Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man or even the alien army. They do highlight this fact in the battle scenes. There were many instances where I was thinking, “Wow, Captain America can totally die right now.” The humanity and obvious vulnerability of the character engaged me and it stood out as he starts leading the Avengers. It made me think about how poorly Cyclops was handled in the X-men movies. Captain America was the stand-out character for me.

The Hawkeye and Black Widow story is serviceable and it only gives them enough motivation for the duration of this installment, which really is just giving them an excuse to exist and kick ass in the story. It doesn’t really develop them that much in my opinion, I’m not complaining but it didn’t really do much for me either. They are not interesting enough to have their own movies.

Robert Downey Jr. has really settled into his Tony Stark role and gets all the zingers, as expected. I liked that his character is consistent with the end of Iron Man 2. They give him a small arc in The Avengers and I rather liked that. He is comparatively less of an ass and more likable than in Iron Man 2. Shane Black is doing Iron Man 3, sign me up baby!

I like Chris Hemsworth as Thor, he plays the role with the right combination of masculinity and vulnerability. Thor carries the guilt of bringing a new threat to Earth while trying to stop his brother’s madness without killing him. The film presents all this but it seems like there’s a lot more untapped drama that is not explored. We only get a very serious side of Thor compared to the last installment because the characters like Jane or Darcy that bring out other sides of Thor are not present. I do look forward to seeing if there are more Thor scenes in the 30-minutes of cut footage.

Tom Hiddleston oozes charisma as Loki. Honestly at times I found myself rooting for Loki to win. It’s important that people see Thor to understand his motivations. I wonder if fresh viewers will miss Loki’s complex characterization and magnetism. He’s magnetic as hell and steals the show.

The set pieces are great and should satisfy any comic book fan. We get every superhero match up possible without hindering the story. The end set piece is reminiscent of the finale in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I do wonder if Michael Bay is at home screaming, ripping his hair out right now. The Avengers puts his Transformers films to shame and shows how a similar finale can be truly exciting by developing characters and a story.

So the problems? My biggest criticism of The Avengers is probably that it was overhyped. Even with actively avoiding all the promotional clips and featurettes online, I dangerously felt the presence of the movie before actually seeing it. There’s enough clips of the movie currently available online right now for anybody to piece together the entire story. It was a real fight to go in with a fresh clean mind. There’s a moment at the very end of the finale that was ruined by a shot that was shown in the trailer and I would have preferred if they just left that one shot out because the pre-knowledge ruined the tension of the scene. If it was left out, it would have been more tense wondering if the movie would have just ended on a dark cliffhanger with a character possibly being dead.

It’s imperative that I warn anybody who has yet to see the movie: do not see this movie in 3D. The light loss was problematic (duh!) and I found it very difficult to follow the action scenes (to it’s own credit, they were not edited in a choppy fashion) or anything indoors or at night. Please do your part and pay to see it in 2D and let 3D die. And also, there are 2 end credits scenes, stay till the very end.

What can I say? Marvel has made an awesome achievement with The Avengers and it only seems natural to ponder how Marvel will escalate things for the future. For my money, it seems superfluous to have to go through another set of sequels with each individual hero before an Avengers 2: Still Avenging. Let’s just get to it!