Saturday, 18 January 2014

American Hustle

Academy Award Nominations: 10

·         Best Picture
·         Best Director (David O. Russell)
·         Best Original Screenplay (Eric Warren Singer, David O. Russell)
·         Best Actor (Christian Bale)
·         Best Actress (Amy Adams)
·         Best Supporting Actor (Bradley Cooper)
·         Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence)
·         Best Editing (Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, Alan Baumgarten)
·         Best Production Design (Judy Becker, Heather Loeffler)
·         Best Costume Design (Michael Wilkinson)

Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser have just met and fallen madly in love. A few problems: They’re working as con artists with Sydney pretending to be a British aristocrat, and Irving’s married and he refuses to leave his adopted son alone with his wife. When they’re finally caught by FBI agent Richie Di Maso, they’re forced to help Di Maso entrap Mayor Polito of Camden, New Jersey with the help of a fake Sheikh. However, as soon as Di Maso gets wind of a bigger target higher up the food chain, the operation grows despite the concerns of Rosenfeld, Prosser and Di Maso’s boss Stoddard Thorsen. The plan continues to escalate until finally they end up meeting Victor Tellagio, a violent Mafia kingpin. Can Irving and Sydney work their way out of an impossible situation? And can they keep Irving’s wife Rosalyn under control?

Does anyone else remember the days when David O. Russell was a director to be feared, rather than adored? He makes tremendous films, but this is the guy who almost got into a fist fight with George Clooney during the making of Three Kings. This is the guy who famously had an explicit verbal argument with Lily Tomlin during the making of I Huckabees. Well, that happened in 2004. He took a 6 year break, and has since come back with 2 absolutely blinding films. 2010 saw the release of The Fighter, with award winning turns from Melissa Leo and Christian Bale. 2012 saw the release of Silver Linings Playbook, with an award winning turn from Jennifer Lawrence which everyone loved (except me apparently). Now, having developed a new reputation as an “actor’s director”, he’s returned after a year, combining the casts of his previous two films in American Hustle, his supposed magnum opus based on the ABSCAM operation of the 70s and 80s. Let me tell you, it is ALL about the crazy hair…

How this film didn’t get nominated for hair and makeup is beyond me, because this film features every kind of wig you could possibly think of. It’s the 1970s, so it is all about the crazy hair and garish outfits, and they more than deliver on that front. Looks aside, American Hustle is all well and good, I’m just not convinced they knew quite what they wanted to achieve with this film. The tone is all over the place; shifting from slapstick to thriller to rom com to drama to PG to rated X at 100 miles an hour, and when you’re sitting through 2 hours of ever-shifting tone and pace, it just becomes a real labour to watch, even though for the most part it is an enjoyable film. Never has the phrase “jack of all trades, master of fuck all” been more appropriate for a film. I think Russell just got a bit overexcited while he was writing it and assembling his cast, because it seems as if the dialogue and the characters were given the majority of his focus and attention, whilst things like coherent plot and consistency were merely an afterthought.

Being an “actor’s director”, David O. Russell is able to elicit a number of great performances from his actors and actresses here. Christian Bale has performed his now-usual trick of losing or gaining weight for a role, this time adding a ton of weight to play Irving Rosenfeld with a Bronx accent. It’s not Bale’s greatest performance, but he makes his fat, balding, con artist someone to feel sorry for which is an achievement in itself. Amy Adams, for most of her time on screen, speaks in an almost flawless British accent. Other than that, she steals most of the limelight and is better in this than she is in The Fighter, and I thought she was fantastic in that. Bradley Cooper is great as Richie Di Maso, playing an FBI agent hungry for a shot and getting in way over his depth, and he has great chemistry with Louis C.K. who plays his boss. Jennifer Lawrence is… Amazing. Her character isn’t on screen nearly enough. But then, if she was, it might be overkill, because her character is an incredibly strong presence on screen and is the most memorable thing in this film. Well…

Lawrence is the most memorable thing in the film except for the uncredited cameo appearance by Robert De Niro as Victor Tellagio, Mafia crime boss. He appears suddenly near the end of the second act, and steals the show. He’s like De Niro of old; terrifying, enthralling, captivating, electric, sinister… It’s a performance he would have put in for Martin Scorsese thirty years ago, but it’s hidden away in a short 10 minute scene without any mentions of him being there before or after. The problem with De Niro’s cameo is that it’s his best performance in years but it’s hidden in a film which is extremely shallow and self-centred. No one cares for anyone else, there’s no thought of depth, and it’s all about the surface and the non-real. Given that the film is centred on an ever escalating scam, it’s hardly surprising that the entire film is a depth-less affair, but it’s a real shame it is because you can see that there’s a lot of potential in here for American Hustle to be a really spectacular film.

Overall, American Hustle ends up being just OK, it’s not anything spectacular, but it’s not terrible. The characters are great to watch, brought to life by 5-6 great performances from its lead and supporting actors and actresses, and the humour is at time laugh out loud. The drama and tension, however, is patchy, drowned out by the overlapping tones. It’s a real mixed bag, and at times, it’s even hard to comprehend who’s meant to be scamming who. Meanwhile, the conclusion is extremely short, sweet and sudden. After two hours of build-up, the film ends so suddenly that you’re left wondering what the hell happened and where your satisfying conclusion went. The film looks great and is well put together for what it is, but what it is is a shambles. A clusterfuck on a grander scale than we've previously seen from David O. Russell. The performances are worth watching, though.

Rating: ***1/2

American Hustle was released on 1st January 2014 and is still being shown in cinemas.

Friday, 17 January 2014

12 Years a Slave

Academy Award Nominations: 9

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Steve McQueen)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley)
  • Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender)
  • Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong'o)
  • Best Editing (Joe Walker)
  • Best Production Design (Adam Stockhausen, Alice Baker)
  • Best Costume Design (Patricia Norris)

Solomon Northup is a renowned fiddle player, living as a free man with his wife and children. However, after meeting two gentlemen who claim to be interested in hiring him, he awakes from a night of drinking to find he has been tricked, as he is shackled and about to be sold into slavery. He is shipped to New Orleans and given the name Platt while he works for plantation owner William Ford, with whom he gets on with. But he soon falls afoul of Ford's carpenter, and is moved to Edwin Epps's plantation. Epps is known as a slave driver in every sense of the term who believes he is doing God's work in keeping slaves to pick cotton. Northup witnesses the horrors of slavery, especially an uncomfortable relationship between Epps and slave Patsey, as he considers his place amongst the workers: As a wrongly imprisoned man, is he still free, or does he belong amongst the slaves and imprisoned?

Steve McQueen has rapidly established a name for himself in dramatic cinema. I say rapidly, his career has consisted of only 3 feature films since 2008, as well as a Turner Prize in 1999. His debut feature, Hunger, starred Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, the IRA prisoner who went on hunger strike in an attempt to regain political status. 3 years later, McQueen and Fassbender re-teamed for Shame, a story of a sex addict and his sister as they attempt to find their way in the world. Now, McQueen returns again with his most ambitious and epic project yet: The story of Solomon Northup, a free man wrongfully imprisoned and sold into slavery for 12 years. Films about slavery are a tricky proposition; one must find the balance between the brutal nature of slavery in order to make it a realistic document of a horrific time, whilst not going overboard and exploiting the ordeal of the hundreds of thousands of slaves, making it a spectacle rather than a drama. Mercifully, McQueen doesn't just get it right, he makes something of real cinematic importance.

First of all, let's make things clear: For the majority of the film, the same material from every other film about slavery is covered. The brutal beatings for insolence, the wicked plantation owner, the group of slaves singing as they work. What makes this different is the character of Solomon Northup. As a free man, he is considered an extraordinary negro. Yet when he becomes a slave, he doesn't fit because he's far too educated and he hasn't spent his life in slavery like 90% of his cohorts. Essentially, Solomon Northup is the most relatable face of slavery you will likely ever find in cinema. That's not to say you relate to him, I'm saying he's as close as you'll ever get to relatable, which is still a million miles away from understanding what exactly they went through. That being said, 12 Years a Slave feels like you're watching about as realistic a portrayal of life as a plantation slave as is humanly possible without first hand knowledge. This film never becomes exploitative in any way, it always keeps the viewer engaged albeit uncomfortable. The set pieces and events of Northup's life as a slave are as mesmerizing and astounding as they are horrifying and distressing. This is not an easy watch.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is given the grave task of bringing Northup to life, and does so with great aplomb. There's a lot of emotion in his actions, which shows Northup's internal struggle as he wonders whether he belongs with the slaves he shares a cotton field with. It's a really visceral performance that is unlikely to be matched this year, and has great chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with, and that's a lot of main characters and cameo appearances. He shares screen time with Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael K Williams, Michael Fassbender, and Brad Pitt, and yet manages to outshine them all thanks to the strength of his performance and the depth of character he creates on screen. For all the praise being heaped upon Lupita Nyong'o for her performance as Patsey, I was unconvinced by what I deemed to be an uneven performance. For every scene where she evokes heartbreaking pain and agony, there's a scene where she seems vacant and inappropriately emotionless. Michael Fassbender is terrifically psychotic and frightening as Edwin Epps the plantation owner though, and ends up becoming a dominating presence on screen. McQueen has a way of drawing out phenomenal performances from this man, and this time gives him a character where he can do something fantastically different.

The film is captured in McQueen's usual visual style; it captures the events in a documentary style with steadicam work mixed in with more elaborate set-ups, but the images captured are extremely rich and stylised and feel extremely cinematic rather than realistic, which creates the impression of an 'epic' film in the vein of Ben Hur and Cleopatra. There are two moments in particular which highlight both McQueen's visual style, as well as his aptitude as a director and story teller. At the impromptu funeral of a fellow slave, a song breaks out amongst the slaves, Roll Jordan Roll, a song typically sung by slaves in plantations. Close ups show Northup's face as he struggles with the decision to join in; even after all he's seen, he's unsure whether he belongs within the group of slaves. The struggle of his face is clear, and eventually he relents, begins joining in, his voice becoming more and more powerful as he becomes more asserted in his now assumed role. Later, near the end, there's a scene involving Epps and Patsey, which is filmed on a steadicam. It's a long scene, and there isn't a single edit. The content of the scene was uncomfortable enough, and the longer the take goes on, the more uncomfortable it is to watch. It never becomes overwhelming, but it shows McQueen's determination to show the real brutality of slavery in southern America and we shouldn't shy away from the facts.

Overall, this is a great film with an important message, though what that message is is up to you to decide should you choose to watch. It's brutal viewing, but ultimately rewarding, even though its conclusion is sudden and abrupt. The cinematography and editing are great, and the music becomes more than just background atmosphere as the score becomes to reflect the position of Solomon in the film and becomes its own character. It's a very deliberate film, in that every small aspect has clearly been well thought out and is deliberately on screen or coming through the speakers. It is, ultimately, the acting performances of Ejiofor, Nyong'o and Fassbender which keep you watching and make this film as good as it is. You feel in the hands of other actors, the impact of the film may have been lessened, but the combination of cast and director have created something which I would hope people will recall as 'something special' for years to come.

Rating: *****

12 Years a Slave was released on 10th January 2014 and is still being shown in cinemas.

Thursday, 16 January 2014


Academy Award Nominations: 6

  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Alexander Payne)
  • Best Original Screenplay (Bob Nelson)
  • Best Actor (Bruce Dern)
  • Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb)
  • Best Cinematography (Phedon Papamichael)

Woody Grant is a millionaire. Or at least that’s what the sweepstakes letter he received in the mail says, and he’s determined to walk the 850 miles from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his winnings. Unfortunately, it’s a mail scam, and everyone including Woody’s son David knows it. However, Woody is determined, so David decides to humour him and take him on a road trip to Lincoln so Woody can see for himself. However, after an accident halfway through the journey, plans are made for David and Woody to return to Woody’s home town of Hawthorne in Nebraska for a family reunion. It’s there where we meet Woody’s family, Woody’s old friends, and David gets to know his dad a little better than he did, but maybe he’s about to find out too much…

Alexander Payne has carved out a niche for himself, creating a series of reflections on contemporary American life in his films through satirical, understated, lightly funny dramedies. Election reflects on American politics through a high school election, whilst examining what happened to Ferris Bueller when he grew up. About Schmidt reflects on old age and life in general, whilst Sideways reflects on friendships and relationships. After a while away, he came back with The Descendants (which I loved) which reflects on the impact of death and the monotony of life. He returns for this award season with Nebraska, a look at family and monotony in monotone. It’s strange to think that as popular as Payne and his films have become, this feels like he’s taking a step back to his independent roots, and to be honest, it’s a real joy to watch.

Payne has spent a lot of time reflecting on who he’s become as an auteur, focusing his films on relationships, friendships and monotony in an extravagant life. However, with Nebraska, it feels like he’s chosen someone else’s script where he’s able to return to his own roots and look back at where he came from, focusing on an eccentric father and an eclectic family, as well as returning to a home town, which is almost foreign compared to the life they lead at home. The town is different and behaves in a strange way, the family members are different and lead completely different lives run by a different set of rules. This is something I can certainly relate to, so no surprise that I related entirely to this film and loved it much like his other previous works. The awkwardness and the stubbornness that emerges when two different cultures clash under the pretence of a common denominator makes for an awkward yet laugh out loud funny viewing experience, as I believe I can attest to the fact that his portrayal of this kind of culture clash is so accurate it hurts.

The story itself is charming: Old man believes mail scam is real and sets out to claim a non-existent million dollars. Bruce Dern is unbelievably good in this, really. He may be old, but he plays even older and less-able in this film to the point where you feel the performance is rooted in real life, which based in recent media appearances is entirely untrue. You feel for the guy, he’s a loveable idiot character and an adorable pensioner character in rolled into one, it’s impossible not to root for Woody by the end of this one. Also great, June Squibb as Woody’s wife Kate, who is the archetypal matriarch of the family and refuses to stand for any of Woody’s nonsense, constantly belittling him in a way that make you feel as if she’s almost reminiscing for the days when Woody wasn’t as senile as he’s becoming. Also, great here is Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram, Woody’s old business partner who tries extorting money. He’s unlikeable from the moment he hits the screen, and the character he plays only works in his favour, a real old school villain who you don’t often get to see on screen any more.

You know who isn’t good in this? Will Forte as the main supporting actor, playing David, Woody’s son. But you know who’s even worse, amazingly? Bob Odenkirk as Ross, Woody’s other son. Personally, I think they’re horribly mismatched in this film and their presence in the film undermines both the tone and the objectives of the film. This isn’t a super serious drama by any means, it is whimsical and light hearted for the most part, but Will Forte is meant to be playing a straight guy character that doesn’t play for laughs. That goes against everything he’s used to, and kudos to him for attempting to play against type for a change, but it doesn’t work, his performance is wooden and only gets better towards the end. Bob Odenkirk, however, is shockingly bad in this. You’d have thought that his experience in drama as Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman would have helped him, but he sticks out like a sore thumb in this. The performance is atrocious, just all over the place, extremely inconsistent and distracting whenever he’s on screen, and it breaks my heart to say it.

Overall though, this is a really charming film about small town life and the decisions you make in life, all told in typical Payne manner. The older actors and actresses are who steal the show and carry the film to its conclusion, as well as develop most of the plot points. It seems very deliberate that the younger people are along for the older people’s ride in this film, rather than the usual vice versa, which is a good take on the parent-child road trip and one which works for the kind of tone they are aiming to achieve with this film, which I have to say, they get right throughout. The cinematography is lovely, vividly capturing a barren part of America whilst not stealing focus from the performances, and the dialogue is witty, snappy and realistic. It’s a feel good story with a sentimental side without becoming overly gooey and cliché ridden, which is absolutely OK with me.

Rating: ****

Nebraska was released on 6th December 2013 and is no longer being shown in cinemas.