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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Next Round of Reviews! Upcoming thoughts about Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

My next round of reviews:

Who takes 7 months to review a Batman movie? I do! It’s been a long struggle reviewing The Dark Knight Rises and Rust and Bone, realizing that the more you like something, the harder it is to articulate why it was personal to you. It was a repetitive cycle of opening up the post and geting lost in my own scrambled feelings that needed to be unknotted and structured for a reader. I encountered a similar problem with The Grandmaster review but thank goodness that only took me a week. My goal is to finish these two reviews by Chinese New Year.

Three titles that will likely be reviewed faster than the above two films.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons by Stephen Chow

As of right now, I haven’t seen the new Stephen Chow film yet. Even though my interest in the film is halved by the fact that Stephen Chow is not acting in it. It’s been pretty funny seeing the trailers playing in Hong Kong theaters, as it shows a lot of behind-the-scenes footage of Stephen Chow directing his actors. Which begs me to question, if they are flat out marketing the movie with footage of Stephen Chow acting out the scenes for his actors, what’s the point in seeing a Stephen Chow movie without Stephen Chow in it? I intend on finding the answer.

I have never been someone that feels my childhood is at stake when something I like is being rewritten upon, but it feels like that this time. Stephen Chow has given me some all-time highs throughout my childhood. It feels brutal. On one hand, its always fascinating to see how an artist evolves, for better or for worse. Maybe I have to accept its the end of an era. That there won’t be a Stephen Chow film with him acting in it ever again and I’m going to have to come to terms with that. Heck, I took it hard when I realized he probably wasn’t going to work with Ng Man Tat anymore.

So I’m both looking forward and dreading it at the same time.

Read my review here.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by Alex Stapleton

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel by Alex Stapleton

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel covers the life story and legacy of Roger Corman, his films, his struggles and his impact on modern cinema. He’s worked with many of today’s top talents, he can make a feature film in 7 days and simply does not believe in the word “No”.

Even though I haven’t seen any of Roger Corman’s productions, how I have come to know about Roger Corman was hearing about his approach to filmmaking. The idea is you get the guy who wants to be the next Federico Fellini, give him 7 days to complete a movie with 2 chase scenes and a scene in a strip club that you will only have for a hour without going over budget. What I liked about this approach is that it cuts through all the pretentious notions that filmmakers/artists often get caught up on about expressing themselves or putting their stamp or trademark onto the film. What matters most is the film and whether the audience responds to the product. It comes down to problem solving and giving the audience what they want – entertainment. After all, the only thing a filmmaker owes an audience is to never bore them.

The behind-the-scenes stories were fascinating and insightful to Corman’s journey as a filmmaker. Particularly the story of Corman’s experience with The Intruder, a film starring a young William Shatner about race relations in the south. It was a film that Corman wanted to say something from his heart and it ended up being his first commercial failure. Corman later learned the idea of supertext and subtext from a method acting class and figured out the best way to balance putting his own message was to put it underneath the entertainment (i.e. monsters, boobies, or explosions). Other worthy mentions from the documentary was the story behind 1963 Corman film The Terror, which was a film shot on the same set and cast  as The Raven (Jack Nicholson and Boris Karloff) to capitalize on the new soundstage. Much of the story was improvised, it was done by 4 different directors at different points in time and the onscreen result hardly made any sense.

What made Corman a great leader was that he would push people to do things that seemed impossible. You could see how that pressure created seeds of creativity and experience which lead to mastery and success. One example was Ron Howard not having enough extras in the racing arena for the finale of Grand Theft Auto. He pleaded to Corman asking for more extras and was rejected. From what it looks like in the Grand Theft Auto excerpts, the shots with the audience members were done with tight shots. There’s another part with Pam Grier and they mention what made her distinct from other female stars was she was not afraid to get dirty and do her own stunts. I assumed that probably lead to her breakthrough with the advent of blaxploitation. It was a very Darwinistic process that I would have personally loved to be a part of.   

It was quite something to see Jack Nicholson break down and cry talking about his friendship with Roger Corman and how Corman was the only one to hire him before mainstream success.

The documentary shows the best way to learn something is just do it, learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward. To know that Roger Corman still continues to make films in the present proves that as long as you have the will, the possibilities are infinite. A very positive message for any creative/aspiring filmmakers out there today.

(As a postscript note, the Vincent Price Edgar Allan Poe films look intriguing. They were a massive success at the time. I’m an Edgar Allan Poe fan so I’m going to check them out.)

A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is something very cinematic about watching the creation of something. In A Dangerous Method, we see the beginnings of psychoanalysis and the intellectual debate about the approach to the mind. Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) treats Sabina Spielrein (played by Kiera Knightley), whom eventually becomes his assistant and one of the first female psychoanalysts. They begin a love affair, that breaks the boundaries of their doctor-patient relationship and threatens Jung’s family and career. Adding oil to the fire is the presence of Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen), of whom Jung seeks approval from but ultimately their relationship turns turbulent as they differ on views of sexuality and religion.

First of all, I liked the 2 lead performances. Michael Fassbender is great as Carl Jung. Viggo Mortensen brings true gravitas to Sigmund Freud, and we experience how Carl Jung is intimidated by his presence. Viggo is our generation’s Robert De Niro. He’s come a long way as an Omish dude sitting at the back of a carriage in Witness. Some actors are good at creating a character internally (i.e. Robert De Niro is always Robert De Niro but is able to create a character)and some actors are good at physicalizing a character (i.e. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or Willy Wonka). Viggo Mortensen is both. Any role Viggo is in, he truly transforms into his roles inside-out and always creates a presence to be marveled.

On the issue of Kiera Knightley convulsing and making spastic movements… given that it is a factually-accurate portrayal of mental distress, she’s performing the psychosis as if she were in a theatrical play. She has yet to learn how to use a close-up on film. In my opinion, it’s not her fault. The director should have cut around her or toned her actions down. Watching her face as she does them, it feels very performed. I think less is more in this case and this was somewhat of a miscalculation on Cronenberg’s part. However, Knightley does fares better in the latter half of the movie.

I can see why David Cronenberg was attracted to do this material. There is a mental violence underneath the relationships between Freud, Jung and Spielrein. At times it is about manipulation, most of the time, it is all about power. The main problem is the mental violence is not violent enough. That may be because these are true events with real-life historical figures. You end up with a dramatic replay of historical events. There is no prominent theme underneath that does not say anything about life that you can take away from.

Is it worth seeing for the performances? Not really. It would also require an interest in the foundations of psychoanalysis (which I do have an interest in) as well. But even with that, that’s still pushing it because there is nothing more beneath it’s surface to offer. In the end, I’m glad I saw it but A Dangerous Method is a bit unremarkable.