American Hustle

January 1, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

David O. Russell has been one of of the best filmmakers of the 21st century and his last film, “Silver Linings Playbook”, was my favorite film of the year. In “American Hustle” he reuses many of the same actors he’s been using for his past few films, and brings another great story to the screen. There’s a caption at the beginning of the film letting us know that “some of this actually happened”. The true part of the story centers around a con set up by the FBI to nab politicians, including the mayor of Camden, NJ as part of what they called “Abscam”.

In the film, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small time crook posing as a legit businessman who embezzles money from his clients. He meets Sydney (Amy Adams) and for the first time in his life he falls in love. He is already married, and has a child, whom he tries to take care of. But his double life as a con artist keeps him from being anything close to an All American Dad. He hires Sydney to play the part of his assistant, going by the name of Edith Greensley and is busted by a potential client named Richie (Bradley Cooper) who happens to be an undercover FBI agent. Once they’re busted, Rosenfeld has one shot to stay out of prison by helping the FBI go after bigger fish in a program they call ABSCAM. Rosenfeld goes along with it, but finds himself becoming genuinely friendly with the Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). The mayor is not corrupt at all, and Rosenfeld shares a similar childhood background. Meanwhile, the FBI sets up a staged meeting with the Arab Sheikh (Michael Pena) as a potential investor to work with the mayor. But things get complicated when it’s discovered that the mayor, while being free of actual criminality, is involved with big time criminals that gives Irving some doubts as to the plan working. He also doesn’t want to sell out his now friend, something he’s never really had to confront. For the first time in his life, he has an actual moral dilemma. His wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) also becomes friends with Carmine and his wife Dolly, which complicates things as well. Rosalyn is a dangerous girl–smart, but also absent minded sometimes. But Irving really doesn’t have a choice but to go along with everything, even though he starts to see Sydney seemingly having feelings for Richie as they start to work together.

This is all pretty familiar territory as far as plot and theme goes. But with a strong cast and David O. Russell’s unique touch, it brings the film out of anything formula and turns it into a rather special film to experience. Bale’s Irving is a very conflicted person, and at times you’re not really sure what’s going on in his head. Even when he’s narrating the film. He has a heart condition, and at times stresses himself out almost to the point of having a heart attack. His demeanor never really shifts, even when his comb-over is messed up by Richie at one point.

The whole film has a comedic tone but also an underlying seriousness that keeps it credible. It doesn’t ever cross the line into obvious comedy, except a few moments including an altercation between Richie and his boss, Stoddard (well played by Louis C.K.). “American Hustle” has laughs, but also moments of poignancy that gives the film depth. It may not be as great as “Silver Linings Playbook” but it’s certainly another great addition into David O. Russell’s filmography.

My rating: :-)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

December 4, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

So here we go again. Or do we? Well, Katniss and Peeta are heroes and are back in their District, living in better conditions but the District is still impoverished. The rest of the Districts don’t know that they believe Katiss and Peeta are really in love; but most importantly, President Snow (reprised by Donald Sutherland) doesn’t believe it. He knows they faked it to win, and got one over on him. He can’t handle it, so he tries to play a game of his own, to try and out them publicly while the new Gamesmaker, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) comes up with a way to get Katniss to expose herself as a fraud and stifle some sparks of a new Revolution.

Katniss is still in love with her longtime friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but does have some feelings for Peeta. They’re just not strong enough to be considered “true love”. As she and Peeta go on tour through the Districts, they’re given scripts to read to each one; and are basically paraded around to show that the Hunger Games were worth all the death, I guess. I still can’t really figure out the purpose of what the “Hunger Games” is about. I mean, the overall message to the audience. But by now, I don’t think it matters that much. This movie, once it gets going, really is more about the action and adventure…and love. It’s  not really about having a message.

And, like the first one, that’s all fine well and good. Meaning, I still enjoyed it. I think Jennifer Lawrence is even stronger in this film, showing a more emotionally fragile Katniss who has to be stronger than she was in the first Hunger Games. Hutcherson is still likable as Peeta, and we’re introduced to some new characters too: Finnick (Sam Claflin), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Wiress (Amanda Plummer), and Mags (Lynn Cohen), who cannot speak. Her partner in her district is Finnick, who seems cocky and arrogant but does have a soft heart underneath. Beetee and Wiress are sort of nerds who are more tech savvy. And then there’s Johanna (brutally played by Jena Malone) who…really isn’t necessary at all. All of these characters were former winners of Hunger Games as well. Because of the plan to stifle talks of a new Revolution, Snow believes it’s time to make a distraction with a new Hunger Games. So it’s kind of like, Hunger Games: All Stars. Mark Burnett would be so proud. Oh, Woody Harrelson is back as well as Haymitch. Only he’s even less useful in this…but he still is always drinking. Have to love that. What else is there to do in a dystopian future?

The Hunger Games begin again and it becomes very familiar territory…although I did like the poison fog. It’s quite disgusting what happens to your skin if it engulfs you. But just when it starts getting too familiar, the game is changed. Literally. And what it sets up is a delicious looking conclusion…which we’ll have to experience in two parts, like “Harry Potter”.

Overall, this is a good continuation of the story. I don’t know that I’d call it a true sequel because it’s just another part of a clothesline story that’s inevitably going to conclude itself in the fourth film. It’s like calling “The Two Towers” a sequel. Just doesn’t sound right. Hey maybe if “The Lord of the Rings” was made now, there would be a “Return of the King Part 1” and “Part 2” as well. Can you imagine how long that would be? Probably as long as it was anyway…

“Catching Fire” is fun, and now that we’ve gotten it out of the way that it’s not anything more than that…I suppose it’s time to start just enjoying it.

My rating: :-)

The Hunger Games

April 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Movies

Oh, those dystopian futures. We can’t seem to escape them in arts and entertainment. The future is always bleak, and it’s always violent. This has been visited many times in film, including the screen adaptation of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, “Blade Runner”, and “Children of Men”. This time, it’s not adults killing each other, though, it’s kids. This plot is almost identical to the film (also a book) “Battle Royale”, but with a few changes. This, too, is based on a popular novel series, by Suzanne Collins. Its protagonist is a girl, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who is known as a Tribute, when she “volunteers” for her sister who was selected in her District to partake in the annual Hunger Games, a tournament in which 24 Tributes (participants) compete in a battle to the death, and one sole survivor wins. That’s what I call March Madness.

The Districts are all controlled by the Capital, a place where the wealthy inhabitants look like a cross between a Star Trek convention and a Culture Club reunion. This Capital’s fascination with seeing adolescents fight to the death isn’t really explored in the film–except that I suppose it represents the harsh coldness of the ever oppressive government. This is what they’re willing to subject the people to. Oh, and it’s sort of “punishment” because at some point, one District decided to rebel against the Capital. So they control the Districts, which are all ravaged and starving, and they give these Hunger Games out as entertainment (they’re broadcast to all the Districts). They also have their own version of SportsCenter with two hosts, played amusingly and joyfully by Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones, who comment on the games while they go on, and Caesar (Tucci), interviews each participant before the Games.

Before the Games begin, there is a series of trainings by mentors, and Katniss is given Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former winner in District 12 and a drunk (but he serves more as just comic relief than anything else). He helps her along the way, and the boy from the same district, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). During the interview process, Peeta reveals to Caesar on air that he has had a crush on Katniss, seemingly to spark a new interest in the two of them as they’re hyped as “star crossed lovers”.

The two of them initially don’t get along, but as Katniss recalls in a flashback, Peeta had tried to give her a loaf of bread in the rain. Instead of handing it to her, though, he merely threw it on the ground. She also mistrusts Peeta after his revelation of the crush he has because she thinks he’s only done it to gain favor by the audience. Haymitch is on Peeta’s side, however, and tells her to go along with it because it will help her chances as well.

Throughout the Games, Katniss survives by skills she had learned in her own homeland, including bow and hunting skills. She scores high during the training and is hunted by an alliance of other Districts. She escapes them with the help of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) who forms an alliance with her. Meanwhile, she has to remain faithful to Peeta as rules begin to change, and her own feelings for him do as well.

The performances by Lawrence and Hutcherson are what make this film so captivating. There are some inconsistencies in the plot and some elements that seem to set up for a bigger pay off and don’t–but the genuine chemistry between these two cannot be denied and take you from beginning to end cheering for each of them in your own way.

There are a few logical problems I had with the structure of the Games themselves: everyone at the start is right in a circle. Normally, in a game where you fight to the death to win, wouldn’t everyone just clamor at the center, grab the biggest weapon, and kill everyone they could? That sort of happens, but some people just escape into the woods, leaving themselves to the elements. It seems like if this were an option, it would be a keener idea to drop them off at random points and let them find each other. Besides, according to the Gamemakers rules, they can change just about everything in the Games’ little universe. Everything from starting forest fires to creating mean little dog-like animals seems to be at a finger’s length. So why not just randomly put them in different parts of the forest? I also didn’t see much audience participation. It’s said that they could help the Tributes by sending aid. But the only person who does that is Haymitch, for his own District. And then I thought, if he’s doing that, where are the other mentors for the other Tributes? One of them dies by eating poisonous berries. Wouldn’t their mentor have told them about things like that to watch out for? There are some other contrivances but I’d have to give away some of the secrets of the plot and I don’t want to do that.

The main reason is, for all the nitpicking I could do, I still found myself enjoying it, even though the biggest flaw with it was in its inherent theme that it seemed to be completely ambiguous on whether this dystopian future is good or not. Sure it’s violent and it’s sad to see some of the Tributes die–but on the other hand, sometimes you’re rooting for some for them to die. If you’re trying to make a statement against humankind’s violence, that pretty much betrays your message. If you’re trying to say that this is the way mankind is, then why give us any humanity to side with at all? In the end, you do of course side with Katniss and Peeta. And you certainly have no choice but to be against the cocky Tributes from other Districts who are out to get our heroes. But in a world where the Capital is the ultimate villain, it just seemed like the film merely poked fun at the outrageous way the “infotainment” motif is exploited at the expense of the human lives.

This coming from the director of films like “Pleasantville”, Gary Ross, is somewhat curious to me. In the past he’s had no problem making statements about politics (“Dave”) and the human condition (“Big”) in amusing, heartwarming ways. With “Pleasantville”, even harshly critical ways. But here in “The Hunger Games”, he, like the Capital, just lets these kids go out and slaughter each other without saying much about it. While the ride is enjoyable, it leaves you a bit hollow afterwards. And for something with a premise that has this much gravity, that’s a bit of a disappointment.

My rating: :-)