Archive for January, 2014

american hustle (2013)

Posted: January 28, 2014 in Uncategorized
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When two con-artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) are caught by an ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), they find that the only way to stay out of prison is to use their unique skills to help him make four arrests in a week.

The latest film from “Silver Linings Playbook” director David O Russell, “American Hustle” is a comedy thriller loosely based on a genuine FBI sting operation from the late 70s. Much humour is mined from the period setting and easy targets like comb-overs and man-perms are mercilessly lampooned, while the introduction of the new-fangled microwave is a hilarious highlight (“I told you not to put metal into the science oven!”).

The meandering style is a throwback to the auteurs who grew out of 1970′s cinema, with the work of Scorsese a clearly recognisable influence, from the voice-overs to the gliding camerawork. There is also a 70s style deference to the actors, as if Russell truly fell in love with his cast and the characters they created.

If Russell is aping Scorsese here, Bale is De Niro, his Irving Rosenfeld a fat Jewish schlub with irrepressible charm and charisma. It is another great performance from Bale, channeling the very essence of De Niro himself from behind his method weight gain and elaborate comb-over. You are often left with the feeling that if Bobby in his late 70s/early 80s pomp had been cast in the role, this is exactly how he would have played it, from every hand gesture and line delivery to the constant, subconsciously extravagant, repositioning of his oversized glasses.

As his partner in crime Amy Adams is stunning, pure electric sexuality; legs and breasts falling out of her flimsy dresses, leaving battered hearts and unfulfilled erections trailing in her wake. Bradley Cooper is also excellent as the FBI agent Richie Dimaso, playing the role like a coked up version of 1970s character actor Tony Roberts, superficially charming but overtly arrogant and ruled by hubris; every “no” just making him desire more and more, like icarus flying ever closer to the sun.

The supporting cast is also exceptional. Jeremy Renner is goofily charming but also undeniably charismatic as the straight-forward dupe at the centre of the scheme, Carmine Polito, a man whose desire to do what’s right for his community leaves him vulnerable. Comedian Louis CK has a fine cameo as Dimaso’s FBI boss, a sensible pencil pusher steamrolled by momentum of the operation. The interplay between him and Cooper is a real highlight of the film as the two bounce off each other with natural comedic timing. From this dynamic comes one of the films standout running gags, a delicious undercutting of the “superior with a parable” cliche that hits the mark superbly. Not to be outdone, Alessandro Nivola, as the prosecutor trying to make a name for himself, delivers a pitch perfect Christopher Walken impression, a guilty treat of a performance that shouldn’t work but perfectly matches the tone of the film.

With all this talent bringing their a-game it would be easy for an actor to get lost in the shuffle, which makes it all the more impressive when Jennifer Lawrence steps onto the screen and absolutely steals every scene she is in. She is able to seem like the sexiest girl in any room as well as the most repellant, the dumbest and the smartest; all at the same time. Her character could so easily be detestable, seemingly written as the basest of cinematic caricatures, a manipulative shrew existing purely as an obstacle for the love-lorn leads to overcome. Lawrence has taken this basic template and given her such depth, charm and brassy humour that it is impossible to hate her, no matter what she does. She owns the screen for every second she is in shot and the film misses her energy when she is absent, which is sadly all too often.

As the film is so driven by performance, it is easy to overlook that it is very slight. The story here is incredibly slender and essentially just “happens”, with the leads along for the ride, only taking control when it matters. The major plot-points on which the film hinges are also very simplistic for a “con” movie, especially as modern audiences have been conditioned to expect elaborate twists that require a second viewing to fully appreciate. Worst of all, certain elements that seem important for periods of the movie are tritely tied up by a throwaway line or two in the final coda, undermining their importance completely. Although in many ways it is refreshing to find a film so far removed from the over-plotted “twist-a-thons” that have become the norm for this genre, many will likely end up feeling under-whelmed by the low-key approach.

“American Hustle” is a charming, superbly acted caper movie; an incredibly fun and achingly cool homage to a style of cinema that we see too little of nowadays. It is also uproariously funny, with a welcome indie ethos that places character above spectacle. However, when the final credits roll you are left with the feeling that there was very little substance to go with it’s undeniable style, a small flaw in what is otherwise a real gem.

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A group of estranged childhood friends gather together as adults despite their personal differences and return to their old hometown to attempt a legendary pub crawl they failed as youths. Upon arriving at their old stomping ground they find things strangely alien, but they have no idea exactly how alien things have become…

“The World’s End” is the third cinematic collaboration of “Spaced” creators Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright, a triumvirate of films that has become known as “The Three Flavours Cornetto”. Every movie in this trilogy has allowed them to attack different a genre and give it their own unique spin, with “Shawn of the Dead” being their take on zombie movies, while “Hot Fuzz” was a loving salute to Hollywood action blockbusters set in a sleepy Somerset village. “The World’s End” is a primarily a tribute to classic British science fiction with a good dollop of contemporary American action sci-fi thrown in to keep modern audiences pleased.

Whereas the previous instalments in the trilogy have been rooted in the friendship between Pegg & Frost’s characters, here that dynamic is much less at the fore. Pegg’s Gary King, rather than the hero, is a belligerent fool, an unsympathetic catalyst for the action. Frost’s Andy Knightly is equally damaged; bitter, angry and unforgiving toward his former friend. They don’t need each other or even like each other and rather than become closer together they simply realise they can never be as close as they were. Both are excellent playing largely against type, particularly Pegg; brash and exaggerated with every twitch hinting at the troubled truth behind his over-the-top exterior.

Paddy Considine’s Steven Prince is essentially the leading man of a slightly different film that remains just out of focus, lurking in the background of the one we are watching. He is a clean cut decisive hero, Prince by name and in role, romancing the girl, leading the action and a noble foil for the rest of the cast. The other players are equally strong, with Martin Freeman absolutely hilarious as the gently smarmy estate agent and Eddie Marsan turning in a likably sweet performance that further underpins his growing stature in British cinema. Rosamund Pike is also excellent, her understated delivery ably capturing the conflicting fondness and pity she has for these characters, particularly Pegg’s Gary, and leading to a few of the films bigger laughs.

The third member of the Cornetto trio, director Edgar Wright, delivers with his typical kinetic visual flair, able to make the pouring of a pint as exciting as his well staged fight scenes. He also reels himself in when the film calls for it, never afraid to let a moment breathe for maximum impact. Although this is more a film that has funny moments than an actual comedy, he has not lost his touch when it comes to wringing laughs from a scene. Wright is a director with an understanding of how to make a pratfall funny that would make Harold Lloyd proud, while his cinematic version of a tumbleweed, as a bad joke rolls across the the unimpressed faces of Gary’s friends, is a thing of subtle beauty.

The real revelation of “The World’s End” is the writing. Wright and Pegg have crafted an incredibly intricate script, full of allusions and foreshadowing, from the names of the characters to the monikers of the pubs on the golden mile. The film has a distinct three act structure, broken up into clearly signposted segments for easy consumption, yet they never spoon-feed the audience. This is a film that will reward multiple viewings, enabling you to peel away the layers of the cinematic onion to see the depth that could easily be missed on the first viewing.

At it’s heart “The World’s End” is a film about growing up and what that means; going back to old places, old friendships and falling into old habits before realising why you don’t do those things any more. Gary’s journey, the 12 steps he takes to recovery, is very much the soul of the movie and when everything is finally stripped away it may seem like the end of the world, but it isn’t. Ok, it is, a bit.

With all this going on, alongside a subtle subplot about the homogenisation of modern townscapes and humanity in general, it would be easy to think this film could have too many ideas, but it never feels dense. The characters come first, everything else is just a side salad, always there but never force-fed, delicate little touches for you to imbibe at your leisure as our heroes neck pints and battle “blanks” at breakneck speed.

Some may have wanted “The World’s End” to be funnier, some may have wanted it to be more upbeat, but you have to appreciate it for what it is: tightly written, wonderfully performed, great to look at and a real meditation on what it really means to get older. It is also a cracking sci-fi romp that is, at times, genuinely funny. While some may miss the goofing around of some of Pegg and Frost’s other collaborations, this is a film with loftier ambitions, and, like an ice-cold pint on a hot summer’s evening, it really hits the mark.

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Old school magician duo Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carrell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) have a cushy gig headlining sold out shows at a Vegas hotel. When Wondestone’s selfish behaviour causes the duo to split, he finds himself left behind by the ever-changing world, losing almost everything and needing to rediscover the true “magic” behind his profession.

Directed by television veteran Don Scardino, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”, is the latest comedy from John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, the writers behind surprise hit “Horrible Bosses”. Like so many recent comedy flicks we are presented with a classic “fall and rise” arc against an easily recognisable but over the top backdrop, this time the world of stage illusionists. Rather than taking the easy route of mocking it’s subject, the film is fairly reverential toward traditional magic and dismissive of the shock heavy style of some modern magicians. Fans of the grand spectacle of performers like David Copperfield (who makes a small cameo) or Siegfried & Roy will certainly find a lot to love here, although the magic circle will no doubt be displeased, as the techniques behind various classic tricks are exposed in a fairly off-hand, yet amusing, fashion.

Wonderstone himself is a very “Will Ferrell-esque” creation, an arrogant yet talented buffoon who has to learn humility to get back what he has lost and gaining much more along the way. Carrell nails the extremes of the character but he finds the shades of grey much harder to manage, occasionally slipping into his Michael Scott schtick to paper over the cracks. At times it feels that Carrell is as jaded as his character and hasn’t put in the effort necessary to really pull off the role, his performance as inconsistent as his character’s hair. He certainly falls well short of Ferrell’s absolute commitment to similar roles, and every aspect of Wonderstone feels like an act, a character that changes from scene to scene because the script demands it, rather than developing organically.

The supporting cast is incredibly stacked with talent, with strong turns in underwritten roles from Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, Steve Buscemi, Jay Mohr and the late James Gandolfini (in one of his last roles). The real standout is Jim Carrey, given the bulk of the best material as Steve Gray; a demented amalgam of David Blaine and Criss Angel. Carrey attacks the role with real relish, obviously welcoming the chance to play a character with no redeeming features. His ultimate comeuppance is by far the biggest laugh in the movie, and Carrey’s exclamation of “Ta-Da!” to sell the moment will really live long in the memory.

The main problem with the film is that, while it does have some brilliantly constructed comedic set-pieces, it just isn’t funny enough. Jokes frequently miss the target or are hammered into the ground by repeated use. One terrific gag, the name of Steve Gray’s televison special, is funny at first but repeated so often that it loses it’s impact. A broad comedy, which this clearly aims to be, doesn’t have to be subtle, but it should at least credit an audience with the ability to get a joke the first time rather than beating them over the head with it.

“The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” is a decent if uneven and slightly derivative comedy, with it’s fair share of laugh out loud moments. While a diverting way to pass the time, with a cast this strong you would have hoped for more than this fitfully amusing film ultimately delivers.