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Out in Theaters: ‘JOY’

Through most of David O. Russell’s latest film, Joy Mangano is a hot mess. So too is the movie recounting her admittedly impressive story. O. Russell’s mop drama, which tells of the meteoric rise of an enterprising, low-income single mom, reprises the director’s almost voyeuristic fascination with lower-class dysfunctional families. This narrative thread was accomplished to great effect with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook (don’t forget the wide-eyed Tiffany lived in a makeshift hodunk studio in the later) and, if Joy is any indication, this recurring thematic motif has run itself dry as menopause with O. Russell. The once-great director, known for culling Academy Award worthy performances one after another, is left floundering with little but the awesome starring power of Jennifer Lawrence to revive this spark-less, cluttered trainwreck of soapy family melodrama. Read More

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Out in Theaters: GRUDGE MATCH

“Grudge Match”
Directed by Peter Segal
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro, Alan Arkin, Kevin Hart, Kim Basinger
Comedy/Drama
113 Mins
PG-13

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If Grudge Match could stand on its own, the casting of Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone would be a mistake, since it would never be able to shake itself of Rocky and Raging Bull’s iconicism. Grudge Match doesn’t want to stand alone, though. It rests itself on the assumption that, because they have boxing in them, Raging Bull and Rocky are alike, which is falsified by anything but the most shallow reading of the films. For Rocky, this may be acceptable, because the series long ago devolved into steroid-addled workout porn and ridiculously silly fights, the excellent Rocky Balboa excepted. But for Scorsese’s classic, the winks and nods are a sin. Jake LaMotta is not a Marvel superhero. And this crossover is something that was best left in the minds of late night, drug-fueled conversations – conversations that, like this film, don’t survive a dose of sobriety.

 

Opening to audience groans, with a CG fight between Stallone’s Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp and De Niro’s Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen. (Note that this was not supposed to be some kind of simulation. Peter Segal actually thought using CG to make them younger would be a better choice than leaving the fight off screen.) We learn that they are two undefeated fighters who have only ever lost to each other. ‘The Kid’ wanted a rematch, claiming he was not in shape for their second fight, but ‘Razor’ left boxing in his prime, for personal reasons. After an altercation in their old age, Kevin Hart’s character seizes the opportunity to put them in the ring again, for a sum of money that Stallone can’t turn down due to losing his job.

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Any good sports film is not so much about the sport as it is about the turmoil of those who play. Grudge Match follows this model, but the stories it brings in are so trite that you will find yourself rolling your eyes again and again. De Niro must reconnect with his son, who he had after a one night stand with Stallone’s ex-wife, while Stallone must reconnect with said ex-wife (and they somehow neglected to stick in a referential “You fucked my wife?”). Their stories operate in parallel, not leaving enough time for either to really shine. While the ex-wife serves as the intersection of the stories, the plot structures don’t really interact. Instead, they opt to have two mini-movies, side by side, even going as far as having the predictable early third act struggles happen back-to-back, leaving no impact. We watch something bad happen to Stallone, right before we watch some other, entirely different, bad thing happen to De Niro. The consequences of these “bad things” last about five minutes. Tear jerking stuff.

In these parallel stories, however, it is De Niro’s that is far and away the most entertaining, as he doesn’t take himself too seriously and has an ability to make the clichéd material fun. As a result, the Stallone story is a chore. His character’s similarities with Rocky stop at egg drinking and meat punching. Gone is the light-hearted sense of humor and optimism that make Rocky such a beloved character. We are left with a brooding old man and a flat performance.

Obviously, these are new characters and we should not expect them to conform to the exact same traits of their previous ones. But when they are so clearly trying to draw from the classics, why not draw enough to make the film watchable? This becomes a problem, because Grudge Match relies on us liking the actors and their former characters, rather than building its own. We don’t have anything invested, but the movie wants us to. Any investment stems from our fandom of Rocky and Raging Bull, but the similarities are only skin deep, like everything else in this farce.

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Without spoilers, that is about as much plot as I can say. Second chances are given, people once thought bad turn out to be not so bad, character growth occurs, Alan Arkin delivers crotchety one-liners, and Kevin Hart is stoked to be in a movie. There are some laughs, but they aren’t worth it.

This may sound like the ramblings of a film snob, which it is. But I have to plead that no one spends money on this. Every ticket purchase for this film sends a message to the chumps in charge of this poop feast, saying, “This is acceptable.” It cheapens Rocky. It cheapens Raging Bull. It cheapens film. And it cheapens its audience. Exploitation, exploitation, exploitation. Attending the theaters on Christmas day takes far more effort than it did to conceptualize, write, plan, and shoot Grudge Match. Since this is being marketed as a movie to see on Christmas, here are some better choices: The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, Anchorman 2, staring at a wall, Rocky, and Party at Kitty and Stud’s (the Stallone porno). If you are a fan of these two, you may find the premise of this pseudo-crossover enticing. Resist.

 F

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Out in Theaters: AMERICAN HUSTLE

“American Hustle”
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Robert De Niro
Crime, Drama
138 Mins
R
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

B-

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Out in Theaters: LAST VEGAS

“Last Vegas”
Directed by Jon Turteltaub
Starring Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Jerry Ferrara, Romany Malco
Comedy
105 Mins
PG-13

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A kind of Expendables for Viagra-popping retirees, Last Vegas throws Hollywood golden boys Michael DouglasMorgan FreemanRobert De Niro, and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Kline at the screen amongst a scourge of dilapidated “We’re old now” jokes. But instead of slipping in old catchphrases and nods to their former glory, the narrative hones in on a periodic nostalgia existing outside of the collective careers of these (re)tired bunch of 70-odds.

Arguably better than it has any right to be, Last Vegas dodges expectations of “phoning it in”with half-heartfelt performances from these behemoths of the silver screen. But try as hard as Douglas and crew do to make something with surface-level sincerity, cheese-ball direction from Jon Turteltaub preaches to the lowest common denominator of moviegoers as the ill-conceived script from Dan Fogelman begs for laughs like a dog for scraps. Like a spritz of water to your furry friend’s face or aged bowels spontaneously releasing themselves, it’s often embarrassing to behold.

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Dressing death up as a catalyst for living while you can, we meet Douglas’s Billy – a man with the orange-tinted tan of an Oompa Loompa – at his business partner and close friend’s funeral where, in the heat of the moment, he proposes to his 30-something girlfriend – a woman far too young to be marrying him for anything other than the inevitable life insurance payout. However much you expect this generation-gap relationship to be a goldmine for gravedigger jokes, this comedy-rich quarry isn’t touched with a ten-foot pole. It’s as if the producers all glanced at their own wives and nixed all wily commentary on marrying young. Instead, the movie uses this marriage-to-be as a window into the psychology of an older man trying to escape into his more formidable years. What follows is not unlike a plausible synopsis for American Reunion: We’re Retired Now. 

Life long friends Archie (Freeman), Sam (Kline), and the ever-reluctant Paddy (De Niro) join Billy for one last stint in Vegas as a formal send off to the man about to seal his fate in his first marriage. It’s strange to think that these four performers have never shared the screen before as they actually have an ample amount of chemistry together, even though their relationships are built on a thin foundation of lazy writing.

Along the way to the alter, Paddy and Billy feud over past betrayals. A growing rift in their friendship, begat by Billy skipping out on Paddy’s wife’s funeral, promises to tear up the group before the “I do’s” have a chance to be spoken. They bicker like old crows until Diana (Mary Steenburgen) – a lounge singer who becomes the recipient of both of their affections – takes the stage and their hostility turns to competition.

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As it turns out, their tug-of-war over the same woman is par for the course of their friendship, as both had eyes for the same sweetheart back in their youthful days, a malted milkshake lass named Sophie. Sophie is the same woman that Paddy eventually married, the same woman whose funeral Billy stood up. In a revamped version of Sophie’s choice, her decision to saddle up with Paddy has always left an unspoken dent in their friendship. Just as these more meaningful ideas of love and friendship begin to be explored, they’re quickly abandoned. Anything worthy of thoughtful consideration is ultimately left examined with the finesse of a kid with a magnifying glass toasting ants. In such, nothing genuine survives the scorching melodrama of Turteltaub’s touch. 

Much like a granny that confuses a nickel for something of actual worth, Turteltaub fails to understand Last Vegas‘s value. Rather than treat his audience to a pat on the head, he could have left us with something weighty, or at least a lump in our throats – something worthy of dealing with friendships that end in funerals. But his fundamental misunderstanding of the film’s purpose quickly becomes his own downfall. Crafting a story around the framework of coping with age has proved successful in the past – just take a look at the resounding success of last year’s admittedly grim Amour. The success of that film, like this one, depends on a sense of stakes and what higher stakes are there than dying slowly, alone and isolated?

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In Last Vegas though, these ideas are mentioned but never actually experience. Consequently, there are no solid ramifications for anything that takes place. It’s all just an act in front of a curtain. Every issue becomes a performance of reaction, a cookie-cutter replica of tropes of past aging journeys. As it goes, everything feels like a carbon copy of a copy of a copy – three layers removed from any real feeling.

But judging Last Vegas on the terms of a serious drama isn’t quite grading it on a fair rubric because it was never intended to be a serious drama. Through and through, this is a fluffy star-laden romp intended to steal laughs rather than tears. Never masquerading as something of deeper intent, Last Vegas is happy to churn along and snag a smile here and there. Still, giving it a pass for having low ambition is an equally miscalculated way to sum up the film.

Regardless of its intention, any film with staying power hopes to tap into something universal; a reaction typically gleamed from a true emotional response. But with Last Vegas, any real emotional response is second-tier to sigh-inducing knee-slappers.

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Following suit, Last Vegas is fast food entertainment for the elderly. Lacking anything of substance, this is an easily digestible stencil of a comedy that flushes right through your system, causing little more than a fading smile, all the while making you a little worse for the wear. The host of talent may look pretty being passed through the filter of a camera lens and crammed into a trailer’s two minute time frame but once Last Vegas has trudged through its entire arsenal of hardy hars, you’re unlikely to remember anything about the experience and would surely flush it out of your mind to make room for something better.

But Last Vegas‘s greatest crime comes with its relentless pursuit to pitch to a younger crowd, the most egregious of which involves mixing a wiener-shaking AWOL Nation gag amongst a torrent of ED jokes. Even though the film clearly skews towards the majorly slim 70-plus demographic, disingenuous attempts to win laughs from the younger crowd come across as misguided. The two generations irreparably clash, stripping the film down to its uninspired core and revealing the mess underneath. Like getting a pair of socks for Christmas, it’s not really a gift at all.

D+

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Bale Leads Second AMERICAN HUSTLE Trailer

Christian Bale stars in 'American Hustle,' due out in December. 
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?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5Cb4SFt7gE

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.

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