Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Everyday We are Hustlin': American Hustle Shows the Beauty in Survival

The con is on: Ensemble of American Hustle. Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
The art of survival is a story that never ends. 

These are the last words of American Hustle, and they echoed in my head long after I left the theatre. As an avowed word nerd, I was impressed that the whole plot of a film could be summed up so succinctly and with such elegance.

It should be noted that  director David Owen Russell also directed 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, which I LOVED. I also love movies made and based in the 70s – that era of American history holds a certain draw for me, so the bar was set pretty high right from the get-go. 

What strikes me about Russell’s directing style is his knack for showing life as it is happening. He winds up the plot and lets the actors take it away. He chooses his actors carefully and gives them the creative space to make their characters come to life, to slip into their respective skins, which is the point of American Hustle – how people create images, caricatures of themselves in order to survive.  The actors are being actors of the characters they are acting. (Try saying that five times fast).

Christian Bale as head con man Irving Rosenfeld gives the performance of a lifetime. Almost unrecognizable with a paunch and a comb over, he drives the plot and owns the storyline with all the languorous reluctance of a king who doesn’t want the throne he's placed on. Amy Adams as his business partner and lover Sydney Prosser acts as his perfect foil, a hard-charging, fiery beauty masked under wide blue eyes and a sweet smile who eschews conventional society as easily as she does her bra. 

Stirring the pot is the ever-versatile Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s unstable wife Rosalyn, and Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso, an unhinged FBI agent who finds an opportunity to force Irving and Sydney to use their dubious talents to uncover a crime ring in New Jersey. This also includes deceiving the mayor of New Jersey, Carmine Polito, who is played with understated panache by Jeremy Renner. What quickly escalates is a power play of wills, and the stakes become increasingly higher as the con gets underway. There's also an excellent cameo of one of my favorite actors (I won't say who, don't want to ruin the surprise) and a very welcome appearance of Jack Huston as a mobster, whom I'm well acquainted with as Richard Harrow on Boardwalk Empire.

Pounding in the background behind all of this is an excellent selection of 70s hits, including “Delilah” by Tom Jones and “Long Black Road” by Electric Light Orchestra. Throw in a score composed by Danny Elfman and you’ve got a pretty bangin’ soundtrack. However, there are times when I wished Russell had opted to turn down the booming tunes and turn up the dialogue. Watching Rosalyn with her ever-present crazy updo furiously cleaning her house while singing along to “Live and Let Die” struck me as vaguely ridiculous, and didn’t add that much to the film overall. 

It is the inspired ordinary moments amid the glitz and glamour that make the film worth a second view - love blossoming in the mundane as clothes on dry cleaning racks swirl around, the simple joy of walking down the street hand in hand. Camera angles dip and whirl to create their own statements. In one memorable moment we view Richie's frantic movements through the flashing lights of a disco club so they appear stilted and slow. This deftly shows rather than tells the paradox of heightened passion and slow motion effectively trapping Richie in his own mental anguish of wanting to move forward but never getting ahead. 

All of this leaves the audience wondering  - what does it take to survive? And is it possible to make an art out of doing so? 

If American Hustle gives any indication, than the answer is yes. 

Toby sez: Solid storytelling, acting, and execution that leaves one coming back for more. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Length Hampers this Tale's Flight of Fancy

Bilbo and Thoren a bit concerned: pictures courtesy of New Line Cinemas.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s own words, The Hobbit films are starting to “feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” The latest installment, The Desolation of Smaug, has a sense of the franchise eeking itself out to feed the fan frenzy that ate up the epic majesty of the original Lord of the Rings films. The problem is obvious – LOTR is an actual trilogy, while The Hobbit is not. And it is becoming painfully clear that Peter Jackson is pulling every elfin rabbit out of his hat to make this light-hearted prequel into a similar sweeping epic. 

While this installment has enjoyable moments,there are sequences that seem long and stilted, most particularly the final battle with the dragon, Smaug. While Benedict Cumberbatch is effectively menacing as the voice of Smaug, the scene overall takes an eternity. Apparently basic laws of physics do not apply to dwarfs, as evidenced by dwarf King Thorin taking a ride down a river of molten hot metal on an iron shield, and surviving without even a burn mark on his hands. In the same category of bad logic, the dwarves surmise the dragon’s firey breath would be hot enough to stoke the furnaces of the old smithy and melt the iron in the vats, so if they just piss off Smaug enough, he’ll light the fires for them. Then they can pour the molten metal on top of him.The dwarves and Bilbo proceed to hide behind iron pillars while the fiery blast goes right past them. Nary a singed beard amongst them – forget the fact they’ve just established that Smaug’s breath is hot enough to MELT the very pillars they are hiding behind. Then there's the trip down the river in barrels while being chased by orcs, which is worthy of its own ride at Universal Studios. Fun, but again - far too lengthy.  
Legolas' pop Theranduil looking appropriately bishounen.

All is not lost, however. Ian McKellen, whom we see far too briefly, does his usual incredible turn as Gandalf the Grey, and Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as Bilbo, who is the bravest and the most logical of all the characters that he surrounds himself with. The first glimpse of Sauron is impressive, as his silhouette forms from the iris of the great, pulsating eye, and Orlando Bloom gives a welcome return as Legolas, although his bright blue eyes look too fake to be effective. One added character not from the book is an elven warrioress, Tauriel, played by the evocatively named Evangeline Lilly, who forms a charming bond with Kili, one of the Thoren’s dwarf company. Her storyline was one of the more brilliant departures from Tolkien’s original storyline, setting up a foreshadowing of an alliance between elves and dwarfs that will come to solidify itself in the relationship between Gimli and Legolas in The Fellowship of the Ring.I was also delighted to see a cameo by the talented British actor Stephen Fry as the pompous and overstuffed Master of Laketown, who with great panache poo-poos the naysayers in regards to the danger of Smaug and embraces Thorin’s plan to reclaim the dwarve’s long-lost riches with barely restrained moustache-twirling opportunism. 

But all the brilliant performances and casting a great film does not make, and while I try to view each film I see with a fresh eye, The Desolation of Smaug falls far short of even its predecessor, and even its more poignant moments lose their sheen when held up against the original Academy Award-winning trilogy.

 Toby sez: A fun ride, but too long by half. 


Parting shot: Dwarves in barrels! 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Critic's Pick for Valentine's Day Weekend: Lars and the Real Girl

Lars and Bianca: Image courtesy of MGM Studios
Back in 2007, an unassuming little indie movie came out about a sweet but painfully shy man who, to the utter surprise of family and friends, decides to take his romantic fate into his own hands by buying an atomically correct, life-size doll - not for sex, but for companionship.

I will be the first to admit that many dolls scare me. Something about their lifeless eyes and wan, sometimes forced cheerful faces, have always been the stuff of nightmares for me. So the concept of a man falling in love with a large doll sounded creepy, and looked even creepier in the trailers.

Perhaps I was not alone in my feelings on this, since the movie flew significantly under the radar of the general public, despite having heartthrob Ryan Gosling in the starring role and being nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing and Original Screenplay as well as winning several other awards. But at the urging of a good friend of mine, Chris, (who could win a look-alike Ryan Gosling contest), I took a deep breath, decided to get over my phobias, and Netflixed this baby.

What an odd little treasure it turned out to be. When Lars introduces "Bianca," a girl he explains he met on the Internet who is of Brazilian and Danish descent to his brother Gus and his sister-in-law Karin during a rather awkward dinner, they, of course, worry about Lars' sanity. Gosling does an incredible performance treating Bianca as a real person, a sort of gentle puppy love affection towards her, despite the fact that she comes dressed as a hooker when she arrives fresh out of her box.

The emotions in this movie are real and not overdone - the audience is not manipulated into tears or made to pity Lars. Despite all the stresses and concerns of the imminent arrival of their first child, Karin and Gus gamely set Bianca up in the guest room, give her some regular, less provocative clothing, and the whole town suddenly gets wrapped up in the project of Bianca, seeing that she is helping Lars get out of the painfully, quiet little world that he has been living in. As the plot gently unfolds like a spring blossom emerging from the snows of winter, we, the audience, realize that Bianca has become a therapy tool for Lars to begin loving what is most important - himself.

Toby sez: Refreshing as a spring thaw, quirky and original. Sure to melt the snowiest of hearts.