Let’s Do the “American Hustle” (2013)

For some reason my review of this film has been sitting in my inbox for longer than should have. But never you mind, I am on it now so without further ado …

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Image: Sony Pictures

To quickly recap, American Hustle is the latest outing for director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and is based in part the actual FBI ABSCAM operation (look it up for the deets) that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The films stars Christian Bale and Amy Adams as New York City con artists ‘strongly encouraged’ to work with agent Bradley Cooper or face the full wrath of the feds. Their job? To take part in a multi-layered sting operation to catch corrupt politicians in the act. One target is the popular mayor of Camden, New Jersey (played by Jeremy Renner). Rounding out the cast is Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s neurotic wife, who among many of her idiosyncrasies, really loves the smell of a particular brand of nail polish. (Source: Wikipedia)

There are several things to like about the film, including:

  • The performances: all the actors acquit themselves quite well., which should come as no surprise given the talent Russell has assembled.
  • Authenticity: a problem with a film like this is that it can fall prey to is creating a lack of  ‘trueness’ to the time and place presented in the story. From the costuming, hair, makeup, music, EVERYTHING frankly, American Hustle nailed the era down to a tee.
  • Equilibrium: American Hustle balanced the comedic and dramatic elements of the narrative very well. I know that it is a dramatization of actual events, but if there was an inkling of these happenings in the true account of the operation, I can easily see how the dramatic tension of the situation can be balanced with some levity. After all, truth is often stranger than fiction.
  • Things are not always as they appear. There are some very pleasant (and unexpected) twists and revelations to the plot that will keep you engaged in where the story is going.

Now onto the bad(ish) news. Oddly enough, my reservations almost have nothing to do with the film itself as much as to my response to the praise and accolades thrust upon it subsequent to its release. I admit my bias but when I compare it to the other noteworthy films (that I have seen) of 2013, American Hustle lacks the gravitas of these films it is competing for several awards with. Is it entirely fair for me to base my reservations solely on this? As I stated, probably not, but it is a feeling that I had when leaving the cinema and has stuck with me ever since.

I hope in reading this assessment, your want to see this picture is not diminished, because, again, it is a really entertaining cinematic excursion. I only lead with this bit of advice: sit back and take it for what it is …

How do you feel about American Hustle? Hit the comments section to share your thoughts and views.

Sundance ’14: Life Itself (2014)

Life Itself is a documentary based on the late writer and film critic Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name. This Sundance Documentary Premier was directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and executive produced by Ebert friend Martin Scorsese.

The film takes passages from Ebert’s memoirs and weaves them with interviews and footage from Ebert’s battle with the cancer that would ultimately claim his life. In a way, Life Itself is part biography/ part tribute, examining a man who lived life to its fullest and left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape by making the art of film criticism available and palatable to the masses.

Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel

To distill the documentary to its most resonant moments, presents quite a challenge for me. I never claimed or even thought I knew much about the man, beyond what I saw on TV or read on his website, but the level of depth and insight I gained, from his early rearing to his professional and personal triumphs and setbacks was very engrossing and well executed.

And as we the audience move through these various stages of his life, we get to a point where we see how he ultimately impacted and influenced others. An especially poignant moment that speaks directly to this is the story shared by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who recounts in the film her first meeting Ebert as a girl outside the Academy Awards and her remembrance of the kindness bestowed upon her then and years later as she emerged as an up and coming filmmaker.

Another part of the film that I liked was how to delved into the impact of Ebert’s popularization (commercialization) of film reviews and presented the critique many of his contemporaries had with how his success (re)defined the trade, which up until then, enjoyed a solidly didactic and academic reputation.

Particularly in the latter stages of his life, Ebert really embraced the populism that the ‘interwebs’ and social media provided in terms of everyone getting their message and opinions out there. I can only speak for myself when I say if not for this, I am sure I would not have 1) the agency or 2) the desire to express myself on this or any platform.

At the time of this writing, Life Itself does not have a theatrical distributor but the cable network CNN has television distribution rights and will air on their network following its theatrical release.

Check out the film’s official website for special screening events.

Her (2013)

I honestly have so many places I can go with this review post, so pardon me in advance if it comes off as a shambolic rambling …

Simply stated, I LOVED this movie. Her is proof positive that at their best, trailers do not a movie make …

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While I was intrigued by the premise based on the trailer, it did not do the film justice in presenting the amount of humor and levity that this interesting story – that of the romantic relationship between a milquetoast (Joaquin Phoenix) and his software operating system (voiced perfectly by Scarlett Johansson).

Our Mitty-esque hero, Theodore Twombly (Phoenix, in an understated, moving performance) lives in a near futuristic Los Angeles, where he works at a company that writes custom letters for its clientele. After enduring a recent breakup with wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), he goes about his days in a very non-descript manner, that is until he purchases and installs his new, highly advanced and adaptable operating system, in the voice of Samantha (Johannson).

What starts off as give and take, with Samantha’s main directive being the managing of life, develops into something more intense and seemingly more enduring.

In the process, the film attempts to challenge our very deeply held perceptions of love and what it means to love and be loved. The emotional consequences (as many are well aware) can be euphoric and devastating, regardless of with whom (or in this case) what we form that unrelenting attachment to. It is a wonderful thought-provoking presentation that stays with you long after the credits roll and you leave the theater.

While Phoenix and Johannson are the heart of Her, there are appearances by the likes of Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde (among others).

I would never consider myself either an aficionado or follower of the films of Spike Jonze (having only seen Being John Malkovich), but this is clearly the work of a really good director. This definitely merits a revisit of his oeuvre.

Ironically as I worked on the initial draft for this piece, I was reminded of the Twilight Zone episode Lonely featuring Jack Warden. In this, Warden’s character is placed on a prison desert planet, his only companion that of a female robot companion. Over time he comes to form an unbreakable attachment with the artificially intelligent being. While the robot in this case is believable, in so much as it is a physical manifestation, the idea of love and what it means is a subject of debate here as well.

There are moments you actually forget that Samantha is not a sentient being, but a machine programmed to be as close to human as possible. The film is a perfect balance of dramatic tension and levity.

I would say this was quite possibly the best film I saw last year.

Don John (2013), Written, Directed and Starring Joseph Gordon Levitt

As far as directorial debuts go, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Don Jon is quite an auspicious one.

A rather unconventional romantic comedy, Don Jon follows the romantic travails of the eponymous Jon (played by Levitt), I suppose one would classify him as a “stud,” and who balances his structured life with an unhealthy relationship with a very specific form of “online entertainment.”

All of this comes awry when he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) a seductive woman who has her own perspective on love and romance and with all of her best efforts tries to find that ideal in the form of Jon. She wants her ‘happily ever after.’ For the filmgoer, these characters represent dueling sides of expectations for love, sex and relationships. Between the laughs and these somewhat divergent views there is an ambivalence that resides in the middle, replete with life’s ups and downs. This is why the film ends the way it does – “real talk” in the truest cinematic sense.

Film Title: Don Jon

Performance wise, everyone serves his or her roles quite well. JGL seems an unlikely “player,” but he acquits himself well. His leading lady, ScarJo goes back to her “Noo Yawk” roots and plays a manipulative vixen very well. In a small, but key to the plot supporting role, Julianne Moore does what she does best. Other performances of note include Brie Larson as his silent yet observant sister and Tony Danza, as the tree from whence Jon comes. Finally, as an added treat, there are a couple of cameo appearances in the film.

Film Title: Don Jon

All of this aside, are there aspects of the narrative that I wished were more fully formed? Of course – in particular, as an exercise in exploring a very paradoxical cultural fascination with female sexuality (often in its most explicit form), I am not sure the film will resonate with any but the most self-aware of individuals. Still, it is start. I think that this type of artistic refinement is a skill that will come with practice. Hopefully, JGL will continue to hone his craft and become a skillful and effective storyteller.

Film Title: Don Jon

 

 

 

i luv cinema Pick: Blue Caprice (2013)

Blue Caprice is director Alexandre Moors’ debut feature and tells the story of Beltway Sniper, John Allan Muhammed (portrayed by Isaiah Washington) and his protégé/accomplice, teen Lee Boyd Malvo (played by Tequan Richmond).  While the film centers on the events 2002 reign of terror, there is also a strong emphasis on the twisted ‘father/son’ bond that developed between the two men.

BlueCaprice

Moors, through his steady handling of the subject, succeeds in creating and maintaining a high level of dramatic tension while also weaving into the film archival footage from the events that terrorized the metro Washington, D.C. area in October 2002. Although we know WHAT is going to happen, the story captures its audience by telling the HOW and (possibly) WHY.

I for one was watching in anticipation for that flashpoint which could have possibly marked the point of no return for the main characters (on film and in real life, which I am guessing was one of the director’s intentions when pursuing this project).

Obviously for purposes of the narrative, some of the information and details have been slightly altered and/or condensed, but not in any manner, at least by my opinion, that takes the story in any exploitative direction. The film could have gone the route of showing in graphic detail the horrors of the shootings, but instead handles the subject in a tactful manner all without minimizing the sheer terror surrounding the incident

For my part, as the credits drew to a close,  the one thing I think the film does make abundantly clear is Muhammed using Malvo as a pawn and proxy for the murderous rampage – by falsely representing things noticeably absent Malvo’s life: a father figure and stable home life. It was a compelling and ultimately sad thing to watch unfold onscreen.

While Washington and Richmond dominate the action on screen with aplomb, Tim Blake Nelson and Joey Lauren Adams each put in solid performances as Muhammed’s army buddy and wife, with whom Muhammed and Malvo stay as Muhammed grooms Malvo to execute his plan.

Even before seeing this film, it had made my list of films of note from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Its thoughtful execution reaffirms this.

Blue Caprice is currently in select cinemas and available for rental/streaming through SundanceNow.

‘Touchy Feely’ Left Me Feeling ……

Written and directed by Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Keeper, Safety Not Guaranteed), Touchy Feely stars Rosemarie DeWitt and Josh Pais as a sibling pair that could not be any more dissimilar.

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Abby (DeWitt) is a Seattle-based masseur renowned for her ability to heal her clientele through her remarkable touch. Her brother Paul (Pais) on the other hand is a dentist with a practice that is fledgling, to say the very least. He is assisted in office by his equally emotionally awkward daughter Jenny (Ellen Page), with whom he has a strange co-dependent relationship.

Everyone’s lives are turned upside down, when almost simultaneously – Abby develops a crippling aversion to human bodily contact, while Paul sees his business thrive with reports of his having the ability to heal all ailments of the mouth. As one can imagine this reversal of fortune on the professional front has reverberations on their emotional and personal lives. Abby’s ‘touch-o-phobia’ hinders her relationship with boyfriend (Scoot McNarry). Contrastly, Paul begins a  journey to discover the source of his newly gained powers, thus bringing him into the sphere of Bronwyn (Allison Janney).

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While it had its funny (and emotionally resonate) moments, I should readily admit that this type of film is not necessarily my cup of tea – too high a ‘quirkiness quotient.’ Don’t get me wrong, the performances are well delivered and evoke a degree of sincerity, but in the end, I felt like in trying to be offbeat, Touchy Feely missed a beat, leaving me exiting the screening with more questions than I was happy with. For example, the B-story of Jenny (Page) seems a bit trivial and inconsequential to the overall plot mechanics in my opinion. In many ways, it feels like it was an add-on to put Page’s acting on display. This quibble also relates to a larger problem I had with the film – the pacing and editing sometimes left me WHERE I was in the story and how one moment connected to another. This did not occur frequently, but the unevenness cropped up enough to give me pause for the duration of the film.

Ultimately, Touchy Feely is a well-intentioned film but its heavy-handedness in the direction of the unconventional, make it a miss for me.

 

Short Term 12 Delivers on All Levels

Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton took his own personal experience as a worked in a California group home as the basis for his latest project, Short Term 12. A standout at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival (and based on Cretton’s 2009 Sundance short), Short Term 12 offers a personalized and harrowing insight into the lives of the staff and residents of a children’s ‘short-term facility’ in California.

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At the film’s opening, we are introduced to Grace (Brie Larson), by way of Nate (Rami Malek), the newest staff member. Grace heads of the very young staff a staff that surprisingly appear very close in age to their charges. As the story progresses we meet other members of staff and residents of the campus, including Marcus (Keith Stanfield), Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) and Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), Grace’s coworker and boyfriend.

Often in ensemble pieces, it is hard to connect with many of the characters we encounter. Here that was not the case. I really felt that the loved was shared among all and felt a profound connection to the characters’ lives. Cretton accomplished this by not just focusing on an individual/story for an elapsed time, he gives his audience just enough information at points of the narrative that allow us, over the film’s run time, to create a complex and complete picture. It was done exceptionally well.

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The performances of the students in the group home, many of them with limited or non-existent previous screen credits; they leap off the screen and connect with the viewer on a raw, emotionally charged level. In his turn as the emotionally troubled, ‘about to age out of the system’ Marcus, Keith Stanfield has a standout performance.

Simply put, Short Term 12 is a moving story, well told and featuring some really good performances across the board.

Short Term 12 is currently showing in select cinemas across the country.

The Boys are Back and Headed to “The World’s End” (2013)

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I cannot imagine any better place to catch at the newly opened Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, NY (more on this later) for the final installment of Edgar Wright’sCornetto,” a.k.a “Blood and Ice Cream” trilogy, The World’s End.

For the uninitiated, the trilogy started in 2004 with the hilarious zombie (we don’t say the zed word!) installment, Shaun of the Dead followed a few years later by the police spoof Hot Fuzz. Headlining each of these films are Wright’s frequent partners-in-crime, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. If you are worried that you have to catch up on these films before catching this feature, DON’T; this series is a trilogy in the loosest sense – many of the key players happen to be the same but the stories are totally different and not interconnected in any way. However, that said, you would do yourself a great cinematic disservice if you chose not to catch the prior two.

Now that this is all settled, here is my summary of the action that takes place in The World’s End:

The year is 1990 and in the suburban U.K. enclave of Newton Haven, five buddies decide to celebrate the end of school by embarking on an epic pub crawl. Sadly they fall short of their quest, with the last pub on the list, The World’s End eluding them. Fast forward roughly 20 years later, and we seen the boys, now men (obviously) in their adult stations, far away from the days of reckless youth – they are responsible husbands, fathers, career men – with the exception of Gary King (played by Simon Pegg). Gary is a manchild, who never moved past those halcyon adolescent years. Despite years of estrangement, he decides to “get the band back together” to finish what they started oh so many years ago. The crew includes Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Peter (Eddie Marsan). After convincing them to return to Newton Haven to complete the long-delayed mission, they notice that things are not quite as they remember them and soon find themselves on a mission of an entirely different sort …

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At this point, the film descends (ascends) into a race against time to save humanity, really. It achieves this while making us laugh. In addition, there is theme that strikes a chord with the film’s target demo – it is a piece that underneath the surface includes some retrospective on vanished youth and lives approaching middle age, often at a pace that is a little more rapid than one wants.

My thoughts? The balance of comedy sci-fi works in a way similar to how the previous films revised and re-imagined the zombie and buddy-cop film genres respectively with the same, enjoyable result. Obviously Pegg (who again co-wrote with Wright) and Frost are the most recognizable performers and as always deliver the goods (I am especially a fan of Mr. Frost’s performances), it should be duly noted the rest of the cast, including (among others) Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan are equally effective at bringing the right amount of laughter and enjoyment to the proceedings.

The Wright-Pegg stable of comedy films (and television shows) definitely carry a certain cache with them, in this case making an end product that has a VERY loyal following who share their fan-boy devotion to many of Generation X’s cultural milestones. I say this because, as always, it may not be suited to everyone’s taste and some of the comedy MAY (just may) be lost in translation to moviegoers not familiar with some of the cultural references in the film. In my mind, this is another reason you may want to see the first two films before The World’s End. In fact, this is exactly what I did.

As part of the promotion leading up to the release of the film, cinemas nationwide were running Cornetto trilogy marathons, exhibiting the three films in a row. I tell you, I think sitting in the theater with a large group of like-minded folks was the perfect way to usher in the screening of The World’s End. Just wanted to put that out there.

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At this late date, I highly doubt you will able to have this experience of seeing all three on the big screen; regardless, The World’s End is recommended viewing.

My Thoughts on “The Story of Film: An Odyssey”

Originally released in the UK in 2011, The Story of Film: An Odyssey got its US television broadcast premier Monday night (9/2) on TCM. An inspired piece, the documentary spans 15-episodes and is presented by UK-based film critic Mark Cousin, its content adapted from his 2004 book The Story of Film. Each episode covering a fixed span of time serves as an “introduction” to a series of films related to the theme of the episode.

Story of Film

What is it about you may ask? Well, it is exactly as advertised on the tin – it traces the history of cinema as an art form, starting with the visionaries and pioneers (Edison, Lumiere Brothers) and eventually working its way up to contemporary cinema.

How it gets there is unique to say the very least. It is often a personal insight that combines history with the more technical aspects of the movie-making process, all the while interconnecting these elements to the entire world of cinema, past and present. In that way it truly spans all corners of the globe and looks at film from a decidedly international perspective.

Be warned, as I was earlier in the evening: it does contain some plot revelations (“spoilers”) to films that you may have yet to see; for example, in the first episode (the only one I have seen so far), the ending of Once Upon a Time in the West was revealed. Will this stop me from watching? Heck nah. I find the history and the various clips chosen to accompany the documentary far too compelling to turn away.

Well that's a shame ...

Well that’s a shame …

It should also be noted that the documentary is narrated by Mr. Cousins himself, and is delivered in what I can only describe as an unconventional manner. I suppose may be due in part with his rather distinctive brogue (although Northern Irish, Mr. Cousins is currently based in Scotland). Another characteristic I have surmised early on is that some of the statements made by M. Cousins may come off as rather jarring and opinionated. In his preamble to Episode 1, he states that Casablanca is not a classic film. What the … ? However, upon further reflection, I realize this does not mean that he is saying the film is bad or unworthy of special merit, praise or noteworthiness, but rather I suspect/hope he is trying to blow wide open, to challenge and expand our notions about what he calls “the language of film,” in a way that moves beyond films being merely a Hollywood convention. In other words, Casablanca may very well be a landmark of American film making history, but it is just one in a larger canon of what makes cinema CINEMA. Even in this light, or maybe because of this, I am here for all of it.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey will air new episodes every Monday night through December, with a repeat airing on Tuesday, although the accompanying films will be new each evening.

Have you seen this documentary (in part or in whole)? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Thérèse (2012)

It has been a while since I first saw Thérèse, French director Claude Miller’s final film. Upon seeing it, I made the decision to sit on putting together my reaction piece, for I felt almost certain that Thérèse was destined to get even the most limited theatrical run here in the States for the following three reasons:

  1. It’s French
  2. It was an ‘Official Selection’ of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival
  3. It stars Audrey Tautou

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Audrey Tautou assumes the eponymous role, itself sourced from the 1927 novel (titled Thérèse Desqueyroux) written by François Mauriac. Interestingly enough,  Thérèse was previously adapted in 1962. But I digress– we are here to talk about the most recent version. So, without further ado, WHAT exactly is this film about?

Well, here you go (via the official synopsis):

Thérèse is a heroine from the same school as other literary heroines, such as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina. Married less for love than for convenience, Thérèse feels suffocated by her marriage to Bernard (Gilles Lellouche). Although she is afforded a comfortable country life, she soon grows tired and her frustrations sets her mind in motion. This desire to break free is exacerbated by the arrival of Thérèse’s best friend Anne and Bernard’s sister (Anaïs Demoustier), who promptly falls madly in love with a handsome young Portuguese man who is deemed ‘inappropriate’ by the family. Anne’s simmering passion makes Thérèse feel like she is missing out on something in her life. She sees Anne’s passion leads her to go to any length to keep her lover by her side. Soon, Thérèse begins her own fight against the oppressive Desqueyroux family.

Wow! That surely is a mouthful – Anna Karenina and/or Madame Bovary?

As for my own reaction? I have not read the source material so I may lose a little of the story’s context. But from what I am able to synthesize from the film is that thematically, there is a common idea that all of these ‘heroines’ in their own way, are trying to challenge the status quo and rise above their repressive, provincial lives. I don’t think I am spoiling anything for my readers to say that in end, in all these examples, unfortunately, circumstances do not end well for the protagonist and they are left to pay for their insolence.

Looking at the film in terms of its complete execution, let me just say this – while the performances were all well-played, I left the screening with an overwhelming cold response, lacking any emotion. I can only hope to assume that in part, this is what the director Claude Miller was going for – to create a stolid world in so much allowing us, the audience to feel what the titular character feels, and in turn, evoking a sympathetic response so we understand and possibly forgive the lengths Thérèse goes to break free from her imprisonment. I cannot even say I felt ANY response to her actions (either positive or negative), I just felt like wow, that sure is crazy to both her actions and the subsequent fallout including the film’s conclusion. Again, this reaction is based solely on how I feel the film has presented the narrative. I have a feeling that the source material would go a long ways in getting me to a point of at least understanding Thérèse’s plight. Like I said, in the end, my reaction and response will always circle back ’round to the barren cold feeling that jumped off the screen while I was watching the film.

On a positive note, the film’s primary setting of south west France looks absolutely lovely.

Thérèse opens in cinemas today (23 August).