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Film Review: American Hustle

american-hustle

Con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are forced to work with FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) after being caught out running a loan scam. However, what starts out as a straightforward sting operation soon becomes embroiled in the world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.

In the opening scene of American Hustle, we see an overweight Christian Bale meticulously attaching a hairpiece to mask his baldness. So much attention is paid to each strand of hair; it’s a work of art. By the end of it, he actually looks pretty good, and that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film.

See, practically everyone in American Hustle is hiding behind a façade, whether it’s part of a con to bring down corrupt politicians, or simply in the privacy of their own home. Everyone is putting on a front, be it for self-preservation or to attract or please the ones they love. It’s an interesting theme and one that really lets you get inside the characters, their motivations and their aspirations.

This depth to the characters is essential as American Hustle’s story isn’t really its strong point. The ‘hustle’ part of the story is loosely based on a true story, the Abscam operation of the 1970s and 80s, but never really has the required depth and thus feels rather shallow. I found it difficult to really care about the actual con and the payoff at the end was somewhat underwhelming. The pacing is also a little erratic with certain sections that lull and feel too drawn out.

first-tv-spot-for-american-hustle-question

However, as with all David O Russell films, the story is largely of little consequence; it’s the characters who form the basis of the drama, and this is where American Hustle really excels. O Russell has assembled quite the cast and pretty much everyone delivers a stellar performance. Christian Bale as the overweight, balding lead is magnificent as we see him transform from confident grifter in the outset to someone who’s way out of his depth once the operation gets into full swing.

Amy Adams, who plays a quasi femme fatale character, is also brilliant as she constantly keeps you (and the other characters) guessing where her allegiances really lie. Bradley Cooper plays, well, Bradley Cooper whilst Jennifer Lawrence is superbly trashy yet vulnerable as Irving’s wife. Robert De Niro also crops up in an uncredited role and absolutely steals those scenes, which almost makes you wish he had a more prominent role.

Many have claimed that American Hustle plays a little like a Scorsese-lite film, borrowing heavily from films such as Goodfellas but without the same substance and depth, and there is some truth in this. There are definite nods to Scorsese’s films but American Hustle does manage to find its own identity, sticking its tongue firmly in its cheek as it does so.

As with O Russell’s previous film, Silver Lining’s Playbook, American Hustle’s story might only get you so far but the ensemble’s performances ensure you become invested in characters you care about even if they’re tremendously flawed and not altogether likeable, and that’s not an easy feat.

Pros

  • Stellar performances, particularly from Bale and Adams
  • Great period setting, clothes, hairstyles, etc
  • Jennifer Lawrence singing Live and Let Die

Cons

  • Somewhat weak story and climax
  • Dodgy pacing at times

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Following the events of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdean (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are paraded round as celebrities by the powers that be in The Capitol. However, worried about her Katniss’ growing popularity amongst the repressed Districts, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) creates the Quarter Quell to mark the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games, sending Katniss, Peeta and other previous winners back into the arena.

The second installment of a trilogy is often the darkest; just look at Star Wars and Lord of the Rings as examples. And it’s this way for a reason. We’re at the mid-way point in the story where the threat is usually at its highest and still a way off finding a resolution for the characters. This is where we’re at with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

The first Hunger Games film was a surprisingly adult affair considering its young adult demographic and featured a strong female lead, an attribute many considered an advantage over its Twilight peers. It was also a satirical look at today’s society, examining the class system and adding a modern twist to Orwell’s ‘big brother’ ideas.

Catching Fire is essentially split into two parts. The first focuses on Katniss coming to terms with the events of the first film and how she’s struggling to deal with having killed people and consequently being hailed as a celebrity because of it. This half may seem a little slow to those expecting the intensity to instantly match that of the first film, but it’s necessary to evaluate the past events as well as set up the second half of the film.

The second half plays out in a very similar fashion to the first film and, as such, feels a little repetitive at times. There are a few added elements and new characters but it does tread familiar ground perhaps too often. The film does also feel rather flabby with its two and a half hour runtime. There are a few scenes which probably could easily have stayed on the cutting room floor to make it a much tighter film which, considering the rather rushed denouement, is a little damaging to the pacing.

Now, onto the film’s tone and just how dark it is. The first film wasn’t exactly sweetness and light, particularly with its Battle Royale theme, but Catching Fire takes it to a new level. Here we have public executions and torture, as well as a really quite disturbing turn of events that isn’t dwelt upon too much but adds another dimension to the second half of the film. It’s a brave decision from director Francis Lawrence to run with a darker tone but the film benefits massively as a result.

Catching Fire’s cast have also developed along with the film. In the first film, it was Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch who really stood out but here pretty much everyone else has upped their game. Elizabeth Banks as Effie is a much more human character this time around, whilst Stanley Tucci as TV host Caesar Flickerman is fantastically creepy. However, it’s Jennifer Lawrence who really steps up to the plate. There was little wrong with her performance as Katniss Everdean last time around but she’s matured so much since then. She shows real conflict in her actions, perfectly portraying Katniss’s strength one minute and frailties the next.

Catching Fire has done exactly what it needed to do. It’s still true to the first in terms of style and message but has evolved the story and the main characters just the right amount. Splitting the final book, Mockingjay, into two films is a somewhat risky choice, but thanks to Catching Fire the franchise is doing nothing but growing in strength.

Pros

  • Great performances from Jennifer Lawrence, Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks
  • A real dark undertone to the film
  • An interesting comment on society
  • Fantastic costume design

Cons

  • Rushed denouement
  • Some characters feel underdeveloped
  • A little too long

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Quickie: Winter’s Bone

Winter's BoneRee Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) looks after her mentally ill mother and two siblings when a bail bondsman shows up telling her that her father is out on bail for producing methamphetamine, and if he doesn’t show up to court, she risks losing her house as part of the bond. Ree then goes in search of her wayward father, risking everything to prevent her and her family becoming homeless.

There’s a bleakness to Winter’s Bone that never lets up. Even during its lighter moments, which are few and far between, there is a ubiquitous, unrelenting dreariness that could drown lesser films. However, Winter’s Bone uses it to its advantage, totally enveloping you and drawing you into Ree’s struggle. This family isn’t as much living as surviving, and there is always the sense that Ree’s life could have been so much more. However, the fact that her family comes above everything else shows that there is real purpose to the character and this is film’s driving force.

The two main roles on display here are Lawrence’s Ree and her uncle, Teardrop, played by John Hawkes. Both actors are superb in their roles and well worthy of their Oscar nominations in 2011. Lawrence in particular shows that she is more than capable of handling a lead part, and it’s no surprise that bigger roles have since come her way.

Winter’s Bone isn’t the most accessible of films, and some may be put off by its somewhat slow pace and largely uneventful (not a criticism) plot. However, it’s an affecting film that will resonate with many as a tale of austerity and family struggle, and one that has a real warmth under its icy exterior.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings PlaybookMental illness and family issues are clearly very close to director David O Russell’s heart having dealt with them in some of his previous films, namely The Fighter and I Heart Huckabees. It is also known that he has personal experience of mental illness with his son, which makes Silver Linings Playbook perhaps his most personal film yet.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just been released from a mental hospital following a breakdown after he caught his wife having an affair. He meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who has her own problems after the death of her husband and subsequent firing from her job after sleeping around the office. Pat still believes that he and his ex-wife are meant to be together and Tiffany agrees to help him in exchange for him being her partner in a dance competition. Meanwhile, Pat’s father, Pat Sr., is struggling with to come to terms with life with a mentally ill son.

It can be difficult to handle the subject of mental illness subtly in film, particularly in mainstream cinema where things often have to be explicitly spelled out. However, Silver Linings Playbook manages to portray mental illness in a realistic and sensitive way without resorting to straight jackets and in doing so elevates the film way above the standard of the usual ‘romantic comedy’ that it was so wrongly marketed as. The ordinary suburban setting also helps to bring a much more grounded feel to the film, reminding you that mental illness is something that can occur in each and every family.

Silver Linings Playbook is still a film that could have easily descended into mediocrity were it not for the outstanding performances from just about every cast member. Bradley Cooper successfully shrugs off his The Hangover image and gives a superb, wholly believable performance that shows just what he can do with the right role. He manages to convey both the subtle and more drastic sides of mental illness with a deftness many may not have thought him capable. Similarly, Jennifer Lawrence delivers a fine performance and perfectly conveys Tiffany’s constant battle with herself. Lawrence has shown some intelligent role choices already and looks set for truly big things.

Backing up these two excellent leads are some equally impressive supporting performances. Jacki Weaver is beautifully understated as Pat’s mother Delores, whilst Chris Tucker is entertaining as Danny, a friend of Pat’s from the hospital. However, it’s Robert DeNiro as Pat’s father who shines perhaps brightest of all. Pat Sr has his own demons to battle and is clearly not sure how to cope with a mentally ill son. He clearly feels helpless but his willingness to help and unconditionally love his son is truly touching.

Whilst the vast majority of the film strays away from usual rom-com fare, it does revert to type slightly towards the end, although by this point it has earned its ending and gives a payoff most viewers will appreciate and understand. Silver Linings Playbook deserves to be seen to act as proof that romantic comedies can be clever, thought-provoking and can tackle serious subject matter.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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The Hunger Games – A review by someone who hasn’t read the book

As the title of this review states, I have not read The Hunger Games. I have no idea if the filmmakers have added things, missed things out or stuck totally faithfully to the text – for all I know, in the book Katniss Everdeen could be bloke, or an animal, or a pirate. Basically, what i’m trying to say is, i’m just going to write a film review, with no comparison to the book whatsoever. So, without further ado, let’s get on with it.

The Hunger Games is further proof that young adult fiction is a licence to print money. Twilight and, to an extent, Harry Potter (although Potter does appeal to younger readers as well) have gone on to become nothing short of box office sensations, and it looks as if The Hunger Games and its sequels are well on their way to doing the same.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

For those unfamiliar, plot thus: Following a civil uprising, America (known as Panem here) has been split into twelve districts. To remind them all not to mess with The Man, and for the amusment of the upper classes watching on TV, every year one boy and one girl from each district are forced to fight to the death in The Hunger Games with only one person being victorious. When Primrose Everdeen from District 12 gets chosen for the games, her elder sister Katniss offers to take her place and, along with Peeta, the male chosen from her district, they must do their best to survive.

It’s a very interesting concept, even though not a totally original one as the Japanese Battle Royale has already covered similar territory. However, despite the similarity between the two films (that’s another blog for another time), The Hunger Games stands on its own two feet superbly, and there’s a good chance anyway that many won’t even be aware of the Japanese film. No harm, no foul there.

The characters were well realised for the most part and Jennifer Lawrence played the role of the strong yet vulnerable Katniss admirably. However, we don’t get to see much of what drives Katniss and, aside from a couple of particular touching moments, she seems to take everything in her stride, which seems odd for a girl thrown into an insane kill or be killed tournament to do. Perhaps it would have been nice to see a little more anger or conflict in Katniss, particularly when she makes her first kill; she doesn’t seem to show much emotion and just acts as if it’s totally natural. Peeta is probably the weakest character in the film, seemingly being there for necessities’ sake rather than anything else, and his ‘super strength’ seems an odd skill for someone who is smaller and skinnier than most of the other male contestants.

Woody Harrelson shines

Probably the best piece of casting in the film is that of Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss and Peeta’s mentor and a former winner of The Hunger Games. Now a drunk, Haymitch really can’t be bothered with the fuss of training the pair, although takes Katniss under his wing as he admires her fiery nature – the typical ‘you remind me of me when I was younger’ type of thing. Harrelson steals every scene he’s in, although this does take away some of the focus from the two about to enter the games and what they are going through. Still, i’d have happily seen more of Haymitch and his drunken, laissez faire attitude.

As for the film itself, it plods along at a decent speed, although it did perhaps take a little too long to get into The Games themselves. Many people will go and see the film wondering how Katniss is going to survive and avoid being worm food, but they might be a little disappointed having to wait half the film to find out. It’s easy to see why everything pre-games is included, I would just have liked more time in the arena. Once you’re there though, the action rarely lets up and it’s suitably violent for the older audiences but not so much that it’ll make the young’uns have nightmares. There are bludgeonings, snapped necks, impalings, but most of it is cleverly hidden through editing and camera work, and arguably the most eye-wincing death comes at the hands (or equivalent) of something entirely not human.

Effie and Katniss

As is often the case, the huge amount of hype surrounding a film can ulitmately be its downfall, but The Hunger Games has more than enough substance to carry it through. It straddles the line of teen and adult excellently, and the characters are infinitely more likeable and believeable than those in its peer, Twilight. Lionsgate have said that whether the sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, get made is purely on whether The Hunger Games makes enough money. With box office takings in the hundreds of millions of dollars and still rising, it seems Lionsgate may just green light the sequels, and i’m already looking forward to seeing where the story goes. Although I may well have read the books by then.

Words: Chris Thomson

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