Monthly Archives: January 2014

American Hustle – 2013

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David O Russell is back with all his favourite players nicely arranged. Out of five main characters only Jeremy Renner hasn’t worked with Russell before. Of the others, all four gained Oscar nominations or wins last time they worked with Russell so you can see why they’re back.

American Hustle is the story of two con artists who are forced to team up with the FBI to con more con artists into giving themselves up. It sets up a bizarre, unclear dynamic between every character. Russell gives us a situation where everyone is scamming everyone else but strangely the audience is in on it. It’s like the opposite of The Sting, when the plot finally falls together it’s not a surprise, it’s just the inevitable comeuppance for whoever the protagonists didn’t like.

American Hustle is slick and smarmy as foreshadowed by the intertitle that flashes up on screen before the film starts. “Some of this actually happened.” If ever there was a sign that you’re about to watch something self-satisfied and ‘quirky’ that is it. Bemusingly the film seems to be billed as a comedy, critics have been describing it as “hilarious”, “uproarious” even. Now I think we can all agree that I am a hardened cynic, but I watched this film in a huge cinema that was totally full. One guy laughed once. American Hustle just isn’t funny. Maybe I’m watching it in the wrong country, maybe this truly is an all-American film that’s only funny on the other side of the Atlantic. Either way if I was meant to be carried along on a wave of humour and entertainment, I wasn’t. Instead the film just seemed to be filled with the awkward knowledge that some of these appalling stereotypes and contrived nothings were meant to be funny.

It really feels as if the cast gets drowned in this film. Christian Bale is unrecognisable in his role as Irving Rosenfield, an aging conman earning enough to support a wife (Jennifer Lawrence), child and mistress (Amy Adams). Adams’ performance is not as good as Bale, mainly due to a slightly patchy English accent (an accent that has some plot points resting on it) but she’s solid throughout. Unfortunately, the costume department seemed desperate to make sure that Adams’ breasts get almost as much screen time as her face. To her credit Adams does manage to pull off still being a believable and interesting character in spite of the mission to objectify the personality right out of her. Jeremy Renner, who seems to be largely typecast as a brooding action hero is fantastic as a bumbling, naïve politician that gets the raw end of the scam. But despite these performances they all seem wasted in a pretty mediocre film.

The production design is totally flawless, from the cinematography to the sets and even the costumes, everything screams late-seventies glamour and corruption. The hair styles range from the impressive to the bizarre with Christian Bale sporting an “elaborate” comb-over and Bradley Cooper seen styling his hair into tiny ringlets. Jennifer Lawrence is given a mass of half-highlighted hair that sits primly on her head at all times. However the real award goes to Jeremy Renner for acting through the mile high quiff he was given. These choices wouldn’t seem so odd if these characters were the quirky, hilarious stereotypes they are meant to be but, as established, they’re not really that funny, they just look funny. All in all it doesn’t actually add up as a complete film, there’s nothing to carry through the emotion in the film. There’s not enough humour, or suspense or even human drama to make this film not feel overlong.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5
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The Wolf of Wall Street – 2013

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One year ago today I decided that I was going to start a blog so that, if nothing else, I could review every Oscar-nominated film I saw before the 2013 award ceremony. Well, Oscar season is in full swing once again and today’s offering was Martin Scorsese’s newest film The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese is no stranger to Oscar nominations. Even Hugo, which was met with lukewarm acclaim, won five of the awards in 2012. The Wolf of Wall Street is based on a true story of greed and excess in Wall Street. It’s not exactly ground-breaking stuff. We’ve seen enough of this in the news in the past few years for the dealing room parties and drug-fuelled sex to not really be very shocking.

With greed and excess as the defining theme there’s not very far to go for The Wolf of Wall Street. DiCaprio gives another accomplished performance as Jordan Belfort, the stockbroking millionaire in question, complete with a roguish narration, often directly to the audience. He’s selling his life story to the audience, just as he sells stocks and, just as the real Jordan Belfort who’s laughing all the way to the bank, having sold the rights to his memoirs to Martin Scorsese.

If anything, The Wolf of Wall Street reminded me of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon earlier this year, just replacing porn with money. Scorsese, despite accusations of romanticising the events, is just as moralising in his direction. He paints Belfort as a thoroughly selfish and unpleasant individual, a woman beater, a disappointment to his father, a negligent father and a raving drug addict. Had Scorsese wanted to promote this behaviour he wouldn’t be superciliously portraying the traders as apes and cavemen: they even beat their chests in a tribal bonding ritual to reassert their manliness (they needed reassurance after snorting cocaine off hookers). Yes, there was greed, excess and debauchery in the business. We know that. Just showing us that once there was a corrupt stockbroker in New York is not an interesting enough story.

It’s undeniable that DiCaprio owns this film, it circles around him, he oozes charisma and power at every turn and he barely leaves the screen. The characters around him are somewhat interchangeable, expendable even, with the exception of Donnie (Jonah Hill) and Naomi, his wife (Margot Robbie). As the best friend and wife of Belfort they counteract his greed and lust, a little. They serve as a barometer, as Belfort gets greedier and greedier his treatment of the two people closest to him becomes worse and worse. Jonah Hill seems to be playing to type but does a great job as the right-hand man of a character wealthier, more successful and more charming than he is. Where Belfort revels in the wealth he thinks he deserves, Donnie is never far behind being surprised that he got this far and meekly accepting second place. It’s a very interesting dynamic which comes to a head when Donnie’s jealousy finally gets the better of him. It’s an understated moment, when he finally throws caution to the wind to grab wealth for himself, but one of the more powerful ones in the film. In fact, the film is littered with small moments of brilliance, be they funny or unexpectedly poignant. Unfortunately they get drowned in the mire of unnecessary footage.

The Wolf of Wall Street is overstuffed. It’s not boring but it’s just overwhelmingly empty for a three hour film. The messages are received and understood within the first ten minutes and it doesn’t take the ideas very far from their origins. There’s nothing daring or surprising in the film, it’s very easy to consume and while it may be DiCaprio’s long-awaited call to the Oscar arena but it may well fade into obscurity once the buzz dies down.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:              3/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5

May there be another year’s worth of films for me to write about.

Cold Mountain – 2003

cold mountain 2.jpgThere are a few themes in cinema that just never get old. In Cold Mountain Minghella addresses two of them, impossible love and war. It’s a difficult story to place on screen. Apart from the two lovers who drive the story (Jude Law & Nicole Kidman) other characters seem to drift in and out of the narrative, starting as passers by, extras almost, before becoming part of a tapestry of people held together and torn apart by the war.

In clumsier hands it could be a dark film, overbearingly sad and hopeless. Minghella doesn’t allow it to fall into misery, there’s more than a fair share of tragedy – almost everybody who appears onscreen has a backstory that could be worth a film on its own. These stories are hinted at more than anything else. The glimpses into the lives of the minor characters are unsentimental but uncompromising. They are harsh scenes of tragedy and violence presented with a documentary detachment. We’re not meant to be attached to them, they are not our protagonists. What these scenes give the viewer is a sense of reality. No character exists purely as a foil or a stereotype, they have their own lives and troubles, they just happened to coincide with the story we are being told.

Minghella is helped along in this style by a fantastic ensemble cast. Led by Kidman and Law the film could become stale if not buoyed up by Renée Zellweger as Ruby Thewes, a tough, no-nonsense woman who forms a powerful but unlikely friendship with Ada (Kidman) as she wastes away over her absent love. There’s something haunting in the cinematography, the images of the landscape and horrors of war stay with you for a long time after the film is over. Each shot of another beautiful thing being destroyed serves as a microcosm of the film. Truly if Cold Mountain communicates anything it is the pointlessness of the war. A war where one side killed it’s own people as punishment. Despite the archetypical villains that appear in the latter half of the film the true antagonist is the war. All the real harm is no one’s fault, just the result of terrible circumstance, like Romeo and Juliet. It’s useless, and the faint hope of a better future is dashed by our present day knowledge that nothing changes.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5

Shirley Valentine – 1989

oLdXKt55pHX4P6TUjPMu128nOvmIn 1989 a director named Lewis Gilbert decided to adapt the one-woman play Shirley Valentine. The absolute best decision made in this adaptation process was to cast Pauline Collins, the original stage actress for Shirley, as the eponymous character in the film. Perhaps this gave Collins an unfair monopoly on the role, any audience seeing a revival of the play would probably expect to see something similar to the familiar performance from the film. However, giving the role to an accomplished actress who already knew it inside out allows Shirley Valentine to stand on its own two feet.

Collins gives a virtuoso performance as the middle-aged housewife mourning her lost vitality. Parts of the film are truly gut wrenching as we experience her profound sadness and regret in the way her life has turned out. This isn’t to discount any of the side characters, they all give brilliant performances, but they are stereotypes, they only exist as Shirley’s impression of them, not as fully rounded characters. The humour of these characters is that every so often they break out from the boring role Shirley has pigeon-holed them into and be genuinely human. It’s rather sad to think that for every Shirley who gets out of their rut there are another four or five women who continue as unfulfilled, unhappy and lost British middle-aged women.

It’s a shame that most of what makes this film so great are the elements that are distinct to cinema. The script is beautiful but existed before the film, the lead performance likewise. What lets the film down is the cinematography. Perhaps it’s a relic of its time, it’s certainly very stylised. At odd moments the camera will zoom in for emphasis as if it were a cartoon rather than a film. The main lure of the film is that it preserves a fantastic play and performance that may well have fallen into obscurity were it not for Gilbert.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:              3/5
  • Intellectual:       4/5

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – 2013

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUGI remember my eager enthusiasm last year when I bounced into my local cinema to see Peter Jackson’s new Tolkien-universe film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I found An Unexpected Journey to be self-indulgent, over-stuffed and, frankly, painful to watch due to the bizarre use of 48fps. I was so thoroughly unimpressed by that film that I’ve only just got round to seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. What I can gladly say, is that Desolation of Smaug is no longer the same ultra HD “feels like someone scratched this with a razor on your retina” 48 fps experience as An Unexpected Journey. This is a definite improvement and Jackson has stated on record that it was a reaction to how unpleasant audiences found the first film. However what I did notice this time round was the slight overuse of shallow focus. Characters in the background are almost entirely invisible due to the blur and this was on a cinema screen. I dread to think how much of this film would be lost on a TV screen.

The plot is much, much more engaging. The half hour dishwashing sequence is joyously replaced by a half hour barrel rapids chase and it’s a welcome exchange. Richard Armitage (Thorin) and Luke Evans (Bard) are the standout acting performances in contrast to Ian McKellan (Gandalf) and Martin Freeman (Bilbo) seem to be on archetypical autopilot. While there was widespread outrage about Legolas’s appearance, and the love triangle that came with it, I found this one of the better handled parts of the film. Leaving aside the fact that Legolas’s eyes have changed to be bright blue in his young years and are brown when he grows up (probably so that a re-release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy can be sold with things like this “corrected”) Orlando Bloom (Legolas) and Evangeline Lily (Tauriel) give graceful, accomplished performances and it’s nice to have some romance to balance the incessant swashbuckling.

It does pain me to see how Jackson has abandoned the extras and prosthetics that made Lord of the Rings so good. Where before there would be three humans having a conversation there are now three CGI constructs. It’s good CGI but there’s something much more visceral in seeing something real on screen. An army of Uruk’hai made up of a thousand extras screaming will always be more scary than a wide shot where you can see the crowd cloning. Although, credit where credit is due, Smaug is a truly terrifying creation, although he does spend rather too much time doing the old “bond villain monologue” rather than advancing the film in any way. The cinematography and symbolism does borrow unashamedly from the Lord of the Rings to the point where it just feels as if Jackson is exploiting the positive associations to make us view Desolation of Smaug in a better light.

The real problem in this film is difficult to pin down. Everything is handled pretty well, the cinematography is good and it’s a truly engaging watch. The problem is that however nice it is, you can’t escape the feeling that this film just shouldn’t exist, at least not in this format. As the credits roll you are left with the sinking knowledge that the third film can only include battle scenes and made up filler material that wasn’t in the book. It stopped being a Tolkien adaptation a long time ago, it’s now a relatively good children’s fantasy film set in the same universe.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:              2/5
  • Intellectual:       2/5