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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Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive

Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive

Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive

The core aspect to Aziz Ansari’s standup, from his previous specials Dangerously Delicious and Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening, is his ability to create random tangents. Here is the structure: 1) Aziz encounters something absurd or silly. 2) He deconstructs it with logic. 3) He then expands the absurd concept on imaginary random tangents. For his last special, this got repetitive and I distinctly remember zoning out until he changed it up. They’re funny anecdotes, but the core message under his bits don’t hold water because we know these imaginary tangents he exits his jokes on never happened. More importantly, they never could happen.

He has improved upon this for Buried Alive, no longer relying on anecdotes of meeting strange people or talking about his oddball cousin Harris or Kayne West stories. Instead he focuses his logic and ability to create imaginary scenarios onto real life. In Buried Alive, it’s mostly centered upon the subjects of dating, marriage and raising a family. The difference is, he has a point of view and uses his humor to highlight his fears and trepidations about marriage, the massive responsibilities of marriage and raising a child and how strange dating has become in the day of modern technology.

My two favorite segments where Aziz does crowd work, a considerably risky move for a comedian taping a comedy special. He interviews a couple on how they got engaged and another woman about receiving obscene penis photos from men. It’s in these segments where he displays his immediate comedic reflexes, quickly spinning jokes out of people’s answers. He probably has performed this a thousand times touring the country with this hour, but it still had a raw quality to it that brought genuine surprises. These were the highlights of the special.

There’s one portion where Aziz boasts how many white women he beds to argue how pointless it is for people being against interracial dating. I agree with his point. I don’t even like the word ‘interracial’ as a concept. But the fact that he put himself above the audience for a laugh seemed off color for a moment.

Part of the fun of following an artist is watching them grow. For that reason, fans that have watched Aziz’s two previous specials will probably enjoy this one more. This is Aziz Ansari’s best comedy hour thus far and he knows it. He has found meaningful things to say and more clever ways to deliver them.

Related Links
Jim Norton: American Degenerate
Louis C.K.: Oh My God

Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen

Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen

Blue Jasmine by Woody Allen

A New York socialite, deeply troubled and in denial, arrives in San Francisco to impose upon her sister.

To start off, Blue Jasmine has a tremendous cast. A lot of unsung credit belongs to Allen’s long time casting director Juliet Taylor, who’s assembled a cast that aptly plays the social distinction between the lower and upper class. Each character, whether it’s a glass-clinking socialite or a muscled tough guy builder, says the pitch perfect thing in the exact way they would say it. They all felt like real people.

As of right now, Cate Blanchett should win the Oscar for Best Actress.  She is the film’s main event. There’s no sense of where Cate Blanchett starts and Jasmine French begins, she simply was just the character. Her character, Jasmine French, is not a likable character in any traditional sense. But she in such immense physical stress and on the brink of complete mental breakdown, it is an awesome spectacle to be marveled. It was like Blanchett was suffering in front of me for the entire 98 minutes.
Sally Hawkins is a great partner to Blanchett as her onscreen sister Ginger. Hawkins provides the necessary counter balance for the audience to gain true insight into Jasmine. It is like watching a master class in acting watching them. Alec Baldwin makes a great slime ball. I couldn’t help laughing when Louis C.K. showed up as a sleazy boyfriend. His character reminded me how some of my male friends are with women. The real surprise was Andrew Dice Clay, who gives a heartfelt performance as Ginger’s husband Augie. I hope he gets a nomination.

Blue Jasmine is by no means the most audience friendly of Allen’s works. Actually, it may be the most uncomfortable film Allen has made. For some audiences, this might be too akin to real life to be truly entertaining. There are many laughs, however most of it is nervous laughter from witnessing an oncoming train wreck situation perpetually worsening. Woody Allen’s sense of irony and truth is so strong, even when he tries to be dramatic it still comes off funny.

Allen has masterfully written the script in such a way that it was hard to see where the story was heading. It was not traditionally written where one scene set up the next. Instead, it was more like I was looking into these characters’ lives. Whether you like Woody Allen or not, it doesn’t matter. Blue Jasmine fires completely on another level and it’s really something to behold.

Related Links
Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen
Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert B. Weide
Louis C.K.: Oh My God by Louis C.K.

Louis C.K.: Oh My God

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Louis C.K.: Oh My God by Louis C.K.

I have no intention of going through and naming each comedy bit, that would ruin the surprise and fun of watching this new hour from Louis C.K.. The core of C.K.’s comedy is not the material itself. He is not reliant on comedy mechanics for laughs. Nothing he says ever feels like a joke in the traditional ‘setup, punchline’ sensibility. No, the humor is sourced in his energy and inflections, where the audience is experiencing the world through his point of view as if we were in his body, thoughts or fantasies. Sometimes it’s all three.

Often I find myself laughing at his word choices and visual descriptions. At times, he’s merely just stating the obvious. But the way C.K. utilizes a metaphor or simile is artful in how he can conjoin two separate ideas together, where he can wormhole the audience’s minds to some unexpected grotesque places for comparisons. And then he builds on it by acting out these ridiculous thought trains. There was also one improvisational moment where he accidentally spills water and he comments on it that had me aching in laughter. The bit he did as his closer was truly the climax of this new hour.

C.K. makes a point that being older makes a more intelligent and interesting person. He is the living embodiment of his own point. We’re watching a comedian who has grown into himself, and we’re intrigued not just for the laughs, but because he has something to say. A voice with true gravitas that he has earned from living a life.

And for that, Louis C.K. seems eternally connected to the grotesque and the morbid, but it’s all enwrapped over a positive message: appreciate life and what you have. That’s how he gets away with saying very horrible things on stage. As an audience member and a student of stand-up comedy, I enjoy watching him get away with it.