In 2009, Austin, Texas native and noted fashion designer Tom Ford made his feature film debut with A Single Man. A delirious and stunningly photographed vision quest through loss and grief, A Single Man defined Ford as a filmmaker whose haute couture background greatly influenced his aesthetic and in turn his very process. Earning a Best Actor nomination for Colin Firth, A Single Man also established Ford as an actor’s director and helped in turn attract the likes of two of Hollywood’s finest, Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams, for his latest feature, Nocturnal Animals. Read More
Overlong and under-focused, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a deceptively dark furlough into the blackest corner of DC’s batcave where men battle gods, Wonder Woman finally gets the spotlight (guitar solo and all), Jesse Eisenberg puts on an entertainingly manic Lex Luthor face, and none of it feels like much fun. As expected, the heavy-handed fog that is 155 minutes of super-porn allows itself splashes of clear-eyed splendor, most notably those that center around Ben Affleck’s positively boiling Batman, but Batman v Superman hardly has the desired ratio of grandeur to gratuity to do the battle of the century it’s pitched as justice. Read More
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Robert De Niro
However great all of the performances in American Hustle are, great performances do not a great movie make. This kooky tale of maladjusted thieves, sleezy politicians and unscrupulous government employees is rich with standout performances – particularly from proven powerhouses Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence – but director David O. Russell‘s identity as an “actor’s director” has taken precedence over his being an effective storyteller.
The film opens with a telling long shot in which Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld is going about the delicate process of putting together his elaborate comb-over. He’s got little hair to work with – and the thatched mop he’s got to work with is straggly and thin – so he glues clumps of hair-like substance to rake the real hair over. The final product isn’t pretty but it’s better than before. This strange but captivating opening scene is an unintentional metaphor for the movie at large – a little bit of story, padded with movie-like substance, and combed over with the icing that is these great performances. It may look passable when all is said and done but you have to know that inside, it’s a bit hollow.
Post-comb job scene, we discover we’re in media res con, somewhere halfway down the line where Irving has teamed with Bradley Cooper‘s Richie DiMaso and Amy Adams‘ Sydney Prosser. They’re on their way to bribe a pompadoured Jeremy Renner‘s Mayor Carmine Polito because… well we find out later. But rather than set us on the edge of our seats with this choice to begin in the midst of things, we’re only slightly intrigued and are hardly left anticipating what the hell is gonna happen next. This isn’t Fight Club. There isn’t a gun in anyone’s mouth. So why bother starting somewhere down the line at all if that moment is just arbitrary? While this hardly creates a huge issue story or structure-wise, it is a symptom of the larger issues at play.
Since American Hustle is a story about con men told through the lens of various con men (Bale, Adams and Cooper each provide voice-over narration), we’re never really sure who is and who isn’t reliable narrator. While this worked wonders for the likes of The Usual Suspects (although I personally was never won over by that film), the effect here is exaggeratedly diminished and feels like a last-minute attempt to pull the rug from beneath the audience’s feet rather than an astonishing story turn.
As for the variety of voice-over work that seeks to fill in the blanks on character’s histories, backstories, relationships and anything else that passes for pertinent information, there is definitely far too much on the table. Having one narrator is fine (in the right circumstances) but having three is plain overkill. If anything, it’s an indication that O. Russell needed to patch up the narrative and beef up scenes shared between characters. Infamous as a story crutch, voice over is very hit or miss and here, it’s mostly a miss. Show, don’t tell. It’s filmmaking 101.
Even with all the disappointment found in the story’s patchiness, American Hustle does have one thing in spades: fantastic performances. Everybody in the cast shines in their distinctive roles, each throbbing with eccentricity and lighting up the scenes beyond anything going on behind the camera. Assured yet another nomination at this year’s ceremonies, Lawrence proves that her Academy Award was no fluke. Her haphazard Rosalyn is a revelation and whenever she pops up she steals the scene. Her riotous “science oven” scene is sure to be the talk of the town come Christmas.
Bale too is on his A-game, offering another performance in which he not only completely changes his body-type but his persona entire. Character-wise, he’s painted with complexity and jostles back and forth between empirical confidence and shady anxiety with the effortlessness of an acrobat. Physically, his swinty eyes and schlubby build is a whole new ballpark for the usually hunky Bale. Although he’s gained quite the reputation for his physical transformations, there’s always something more to his embodying his characters that goes far beyond physicality. The man is a chameleon and, once more, he’s able to convince us of that he is someone else entirely.
Cooper’s zany FBI agent Richie DiMago also steals scenes like its his job. His manic behavior and shotgun psyche are built for an actor’s showcase and Cooper doesn’t fail the character. While DiMago lacks the roundedness of Cooper’s Silver Linings Playbook headliner, Pat, he is truly an actor coming into his own, proving that he can be oh so much more than just a comic actor. For her part, Adams also shows off why she is so valued in the thespian community even though the script doesn’t provide her with as many flashy moments as her co-stars. So though she tends to fall to the back of the pack in terms of wowing performances, she is still as solid as ever.
Smaller bit roles from Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Peña, and a quick, uncredited pit stop with Robert De Niro all have their moment in the sun and help to shape American Hustle into what could confidently be called the best ensemble performance of the year. As I mentioned earlier though, great performances are only one faction of a film’s impact and although the acting is this movie is grade-A stuff, the story lingers around a C.
You could probably also say that my expectations were too high going into American Hustle (I was ready to jam it in my top ten before even seeing it) but I don’t think that really accounts for all the disappointment found here. Just writing this review and finding out that the movie was over two-hours long shocked me. I hardly remember it being nearing two-hours and there was surely no need for the length in a movie that already felt light on story. Then again, maybe that fact that I didn’t notice how long it was is an indication of my enjoying the film. And don’t get me wrong, the performances are inspired, fine-tuned, and just plain lovely and the film itself is a lot of fun. Unfortunately though, it stops there. Instead of reaching for the stars, it settles with being fun and stuffed with great acting. Next time, I hope O. Russell pushes for that extra mile.
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde
Comedy, Drama, Romance
Spike Jonze has made a career out of thought-provoking eccentricity, strange tenderness, and powerhouse performances. Her is no change of pace. While both Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation found brilliance probing personal identity, infectious longing, and the delicacies of the human experience, Her strips back some of the junky, heady aspects (that comes hand-in-hand with working from a Charlie Kaufman script) to explore similarly heavy themes in this streamlined and entirely esoteric masterpiece.
In Her, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in the not-so-distant future of Los Angeles, a place where human interaction has nearly become obsolete. As Theo bumps through any given crowd, the many commuters he passes each have next-gen devises stuffed in their ears, reciting emails, updating global news, and dishing out the latest gossip scoop. For Theo, these future ear-products (which will likely be marketed in the next decade or so) are about as exciting as hanging out with your iPhone is nowadays, but it’s just about the only contact he’ll have all day.
Rather than paint him as a pathetic bumbleite, Jonze allows us to find ourselves in Theo. His crippling loneliness is an invention of instantaneous “contact” as the new highest order. Instead of bringing us closer, all this connectivity has led to a devolution of what it means to actually connect. When people become as dismissible as closing out of a browser, what it means to connect with someone has fundamentally changed.
A scene where a sleepless Theo voice “connects” with an equally restless vixen named SexyKitten (voiced by Kristen Wiig) sees a distant, instant voice embarks on a cat-based sexual tirade, get herself off, and bail out of the conversation. It’s evidence of a society that has ceased to be such. Society quite literally means “a group of people involved with each other through persistent relations.” [Wikipedia] This is no society. We need look no further than our own social media culture to see that this era of emotional distancing and the end of society is already upon us.
By day, Her‘s Theodore occupies himself working at a custom, hand-written card agency where he drafts letters “from” his clients to their loved ones. When an anniversary comes around, a husband pays a premium price for Theo’s handiwork. Christmas time? Theo’s writing thank you cards to Grandma. At that high school graduation, it’s not Dad who’s penned the heartfelt and tender note but Theodore Twombly, sitting in his cubicle. Theo’s got a preternatural knack for emoting warmth and his outpouring of caring sentiments put those buying Hallmark cards to shame. How tragic though that he’ll never meet these people he’s writing to. Almost worse is the fact that his clients need rely on him at all. Everywhere he looks, Theo faces a society that has come so far as to outsource emotion.
Enter her. She isn’t really a she though. She’s an advanced operating system (like Mac’s OS X or Windows) specifically designed to match Theodore’s needs. Imagine Apple’s Siri except everyone had a different one customized to their personal preferences. Voiced to perfection by Scarlett Johansson, this OS takes the name Samantha after “thumbing through” a book of baby names (a feat achieved in a mere microsecond) and begins to evolve beyond her wildest dreams, all the while stoking an accidental romantic relationship with Theodore.
Having closed himself off to the world after lifelong lover Catherine (Rooney Mara) set the scene for a divorce, Theo is a man halved. In relationships, Her reminds us, we pour ourselves into our counterpart and when that union ends, we lose something of ourselves. In the aftermath, we’re left haunted by these ghosts of lovers past. But as Theodore begins to unexpectedly fall for his OS, his haunting memories of Catherine change their tune. The melancholy melts away and the future becomes an opportunity rather than a sentence.
The early Sam is like a child, reaching out and trying to understand the many unexplained mysteries of life. Each day, her self-awareness and curiosity grows and she soon discovers the many wonders “surrounding” her. In Sam’s perpetual bewilderment and glowing enthusiasm, Theodore begins to rediscover his own love of life.
The romance that unfolds between Theodore and Sam may prove difficult for members of older generations or those with limited imaginative capacity to grasp (“He’s fallen in love with a computer?”) but for those willing to stretch their minds and let in something new, they’ll find an entity surprisingly earnest and exceptionally affecting. When this bi-species couple “consummate” their new relationship, the screen goes black and we’re left with a scene unspeakably powerful. Theo and Sam let each other, with moans of belonged need and physical desire, with such palpable love and affection that it’ll warm and break your heart simultaneously.
As she grows, Her gets more complex and begins to dig into some deeper issues of what it is to love and be loved. How much of love is about holding on and how much is letting go? With a cast spilling with talent, standout performances flow from everyone. Phoenix and Mara perfectly encapsulate the trauma of evaporating passion, while Amy Adams and Chris Pratt provide the necessary shoulders to lean on. Even Olivia Wilde as a nameless blind date turns in a quick but potent performance. But amazingly, the tippiest of the tip of the hat goes to Johannson as her performance here is a career best. Showing a range of emotion unthinkable for a limited performance of this nature, what Johnasson communicates with her voice alone provides some of the most commanding work of the year.
Anchored with a cast this talented that are each putting their all into each and every scene, Her is lightning in a bottle. Instead of feeling like this future world is strange, it feels entirely practical, a slightly scary yet peculiarity hopeful fact. And however weird the concept of falling in love with an operating system seems, when we’re in heat of the moment, it never feels weird. It just feels right.
As the Oscar race heats up more and more by the minute, American Hustle remains one of the biggest unknown contenders. Directed by David O. Russell and featuring a truly all-star cast of Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Robert De Niro, Michael Peña, Louis C.K. and Amy Adams, American Hustle could potentially be O. Russell’s third major Oscar player in a row.
With a year crowded with great performances, there’s no saying if O. Russell’s acting nomination hot streak will continue or who of his cast will receive the bulk of the accolades. Taking a look at this second trailer, who do you think looks the most likely to snag a nom?
American Hustle is directed by David O. Russell and stars Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Robert De Niro, Michael Peña, Louis C.K. and Amy Adams. It opens in limited theaters on December 13 and opens wide on December 25.