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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Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach

Frances Ha by Noah Baumbach


Frances Ha
is a character study of its lead character, Frances Halladay, a dancer in her late twenties trying to find herself career wise and work through with her friends and surrounding community.

The title character Frances and her friends, notably New York hipsters, are not particularly interesting company. Having seen Baumbach’s previous film Greenberg, what is Noah Baumbach’s fascination with these hipster generation-Z characters that have an aversion for employment? Is Baumbach critiquing them, implying they should better people? No, Baumbach just navel gazes at the New York hipster sheik. Did I learn anything new about this generation’s youth? No, because I already know people like this and generally avoid them.

For instance, Frances seems to be afraid of the typical career ladder and desires something more. Dancing, what’s she’s established as her job, doesn’t seem fulfilling. But being a waitress is out of the question because her privileged upbringing makes it humiliating. Meanwhile, things start to become financially difficult. She then starts to lie pathologically to keep up with her friends who have gone ahead in life. Is she active in discovering her passion? No, she just mopes around, hoping it’ll hit her one day.

And like that, the movie goes on and on. Even at 89 minutes, it felt long watching these characters mope along talking about nothing. Greta Gerwig is very good in the lead part and displays a considerable amount of depth playing a quarter life crisis. She captured that boomerang generation mentality to a tee. It succeeds at what it does as a character portrait, but it’s truly interesting only when her character gets active. I just wished more things, whether comic, dramatic or tragic, happened so that she can be more compelling. For me, only the last 15 minutes were interesting. After all, there’s only so much quirkiness one can take.

The Iceman by Ariel Vromen

The Iceman (film)

The Iceman by Ariel Vromen

The true story of Richard Kuklinski, the notorious contract killer and family man, who has claimed of killing over a hundred victims.

The cast gives good performances. Michael Shannon brings gravitas to the Iceman. It’s impressive how much life he’s breathed into a role that is so oblique and intimidating. The audience never really knows what is going on inside his head, but a threatening violence is communicated underneath his dead calm demeanor. It’s an engaging scary performance. Winona Ryder is good in the role of Kuklinski’s wife Deborah but the potential of the role isn’t explored to the fullest. The real-life Kuklinski did hit his wife and broke her nose several times. Unfortunately for Ryder, it is not explored in the film. Kuklinski’s wife in the film suspects something is wrong but is scared to pry, which is contrary to her real-life counterpart had no idea what was going on at all. This was all probably changed to create more character likability for Kuklinski, more on that later. Chris Evans gets to transform and do some character acting as the Iceman’s assassin partner Mr. Freezy. Evan seems to be reveling in this part, it’s probably a breath of fresh air from having doing the recent Marvel films. James Franco also shows up in a fun cameo role.

The story, however, fails to rise above the sum of its parts. One particular aspect of dramatic filmmaking is for the story to be compelling, the audience generally has to empathize and root for its protagonist. It’s hard to feel that for Richard Kuklinksi because he is fully aware of his actions. Kuklinksi was an effective killer from his lack of compassion for people. He gave zero thought to murder and that’s what made him scary. But director Ariel Vromen tries to insert the idea that Kuklinski had empathy and struggled with balancing his antisocial behavior with the safety of his family. This is only touched upon and never fully explored. But perhaps there was nothing behind the real Iceman’s psychosis, maybe he just did not have empathy. The truth is Vromen doesn’t know more than we do and the film is only working on pure speculation. . So it is soft pedaling solely for dramatic purposes, Vromen should have just taken narrative liberties and just fully presented his own take of what happened.

Perhaps it’s not even Vromen’s fault, dramatic film was probably not the proper format for this story. I recommend everybody see the 1992 HBO documentary The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer. Watching Richard Kuklinski recount his own story was a much more compelling and shocking experience. The Iceman, by comparison, seems relatively watered down and this isn’t a story that should be toned down.

The Place Beyond The Pines by Derek Cianfrance

The Place Beyond The Pines by Derek Cianfrance

A motorcycle stunt rider turns to robbing banks  to provide for his lover and their newborn child. This decision puts him on a collision course with an ambitious rookie cop navigating a department ruled by a corrupt detective. The sweeping drama unfolds over fifteen years as the sins of the past haunt the present days lives of two high school boys wrestling with the legacy they’ve inherited.

Ryan Gosling gives the silent minimalist performance as the motorcyclist Luke Glanton. It’s slowly becoming to be his trademark, and justifiably so because he’s great at it. Bradley Cooper appeared on Inside The Actor’s Studio as a guest, where it was said he was the most promising acting talent of his graduating year at Pace University. Bradley Cooper is officially starting to show that talent now. It wasn’t displayed in his previous projects. Dane DeHaan is a promising versatile talent. He really sells torture well. I look forward to seeing him as Harry Osbourne in the next The Amazing Spider-man movieBen Mendelsohn and Ray Liotta both sell slimy well. It’s a good cast and they all deliver, but they all have accomplished similar roles in other past projects.

The Place Beyond The Pines‘s core theme, due to the nature of the plot structure, will not be clear to the audience till the latter half. The story makes a shift and changes its central character. In that very moment, to really enjoy the film, the audience has to let go, take a step back and view the film on a larger canvas. Characters becomes archetypes and plot becomes saga. The sins of the father pass onto the son and we see the cause-and-effect echo from generation to generation.

For me, I took that step back and all of a sudden I was pondering on bigger themes. Instead of thinking about bank robbers stealing money or police battling corruption, I thought about karma, the butterfly effect and the idea of violence perpetuating violence. At the final shot of the film, I was moved. It was a poignant, beautiful and poetic ending. I was impressed how the narrative touched me with its subtext by completely divorcing it with its supertext. This gambit the film plays on the audience is probably what will divide them. It doesn’t help that the supertext of the film utilizes familiar genre conventions; at times it’s a heist movie, other times it’s a police corruption movie. That might throw some people off but that’s what I loved about it. It was a bold narrative move and it was well played. Derek Cianfrance, well done!

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.

Shame by Steve McQueen

Shame (2011 film)

Shame by Steve McQueen

In New York City, Brandon (played by Michael Fassbender) has a carefully cultivated private life, which allows him to indulge in his sexual addiction. That life is disrupted when his troubled sister Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.

It almost does not matter that Shame is a performance-based film, film is still a director’s medium. Whether you have a good performance or not in the can, it’s still up to the director to help the audience understand the performance in context to the story. That brings me to my next point: Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender have a really good thing going on. One trusts the other and the other completely knows how to use him in a movie.

McQueen is a director that knows 1) how to guide an audience through Fassbender’s performance and 2) knows how to put the actor and the audience into the world of the film. In fact, he does them both with the same technique: the long take. There are several long take sequences in the film that really put you into the world of the film and I think it was the right aesthetic choice. The long take not only brings reality by preventing artifice through editing, it allows us to really look inside Brendan.

Brendan is a protagonist with an unexplainable problem. It’s the compulsive need to find catharsis and escape through the flagellation of one’s body. As the emptiness grows inside through one’s growing addiction but cannot stop indulging to feel alive. The film doesn’t even go into telling us what happened to Brandon or Sissy before the story that may have been the genesis of his addiction. That does not matter. We only get the sense that they’ve been through some kind of trauma together.

Much of the journey is communicated through Michael Fassbender’s personal quiet performance. We understand Brendan through how he reacts to his surrounding world. A noteworthy scene was his boss David (played by James Badge Dale) mentioning the amount of pornography on his office desktop computer and we feel the immediate tenseness of his terrible secret and a fear of embarrassment as Brendan covers up with a poker face, even though his boss is totally unaware of his problem. Yes, Shame transports you into the mind of an addict. We feel why a moment’s thrill is better than perpetual existential gloom. Yes, Michael Fassbender deserves the praise and awards. I’m glad he’s getting both.

I’ve been writing this post for the past few days and I have found it very hard to sum up my thoughts. When I finished the film, it was very subtle and I did not completely understand the film. Through days of digesting it, it stuck a very deep cord inside me. I thought about man’s insatiable need for love and connection. I particularly thought about the scene where Sissy sings a sad rendition of New York, New York and why it moved Brendan to tears. I thought about Brendan’s romantic pursuit of his colleague Marianne (played by Nicole Beharie) and what happened there. I’m still digesting it. It is impressive how much deep underneath inside emotions Shame managed to communicate. This is a real work of art. Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender are a great team and I hope to see more work from the both of them.

One of the best films of the year. I’d be surprised if this wasn’t on my top ten by the end of the year. Now I want to see Hunger.

Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert B. Weide

Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert B. Weide

If you ever owned a DVD of a Woody Allen movie, you will know that there are never any special features. There is probably no budget for a behind-the-scenes documentary crew following him around on his film shoots, heck, Woody Allen has said he does not even like the concept of special features. He even burns the deleted scenes after the film is completed.

Up till now, the only way to truly learn about Woody Allen’s process was through books. I own Conversations with Woody Allen by Eric Lax (who’s in the film as his biographer) and Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation with Stig Bjorkman, which both are all fine reads and great insights into Allen’s creative process. I knew most of his stories: his workman-like approach, his approach to casting, , .

The structure of the documentary is tailor-made to its subject and it really fits. It chronicles Allen’s life from his career transitions beginning from a young joke writer to stand-up comedian to a filmmaker. Much of Allen’s frequent collaborators and family are interviewed, including his sister, actors, co-writers, casting director and producers. Each film that he’s made is covered more or less but much more emphasis is placed on his creative phases: his early funny films, the transition with Annie Hall and the Diane Keaton era, the Mia Farrow era, Match Point and now the current European city phase. The behind-the-scenes section on the set of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger where you see Allen rehearsing a scene with Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin in an argument scene was a real treat. Also, my top five favorite Woody films are all covered (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Stardust Memories, Everybody Says I Love You, Deconstructing Harry and Midnight in Paris), so I am a happy camper.

I had a dumb dream once where I met Wong Kar Wai and he took off his infamous sunglasses, looked me straight into the eye and spoke to me. I woke up realizing I saw Wong Kar Wai’s eyes in person and felt like I knew something deeper about him because I was in his presence.

That’s how this documentary made me feel. Despite that my previous knowledge, I didn’t know anything about Woody Allen in terms of a human being. The documentary offers that close proximity as we basically hang out with Woody Allen for 3 hours. We take a trip with Allen around New York visiting various locations like his cutting room, his old elementary school (which he hates), the jazz club (where he plays the clarinet every Monday) and the local cinema he used to frequent (inspired the idea for Purple Rose of Cairo) and we see the space of his own world and can visualize where the genesis of his ideas come from. One major highlight is when we’re in Allen’s actual home where he shows you his typewriter and takes out his notes for story ideas and reads out a few of them.

It’s an absorbing experience as we gain great insight into Allen as a human being and an artist. It totally makes up for the lack of special features for every Woody Allen DVD. A highly recommended experience for fellow Woody Allen fans.

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