“What is love if not a helpless acceptance of our lover’s shortcomings?” the powerful music drama A Star is Born asks. The tragic romance shared between career musician Jackson Maine and up-and-comer Ally at the center of A Star is Born is a refreshingly raw cinematic punch to the stomach. Seasoned with somber specificity, the film’s dramatic twists of the knife are fastened sharply to the beating hearts of its potent characters. We experience joy alongside them. We grieve with them. Their hardship pains us just as we celebrate their victories, small and large. From writing a song drunkenly on the sidewalk to belting it out live to a packed crowd, A Star is Born tends to the moments the define their characters’ lives, all the while holding its audience emotionally hostage to their often ill-conceived impulses. Read More
Like the US government, the big whigs at Marvel have a sordid history of interventionism. Professed “creative differences” drove visionary Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, ran Patty Jenkins off Thor: The Dark World and kept Ava DuVernay at bay from Black Panther. The films in the MCU are larger than any standalone film; they must click and connect in complicated corporate webs, webs that have given us material such as the infamous Thor in a sauna scene in the widely forgotten Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which makes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a film written and directed by one man, James Gunn, such a wildly fresh breathe of air.
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
It’s here! Fourteen years later, we finally return to Camp Firewood (unless you count the 50 or 60 times you’ve watched Wet Hot American Summer as “returning” – which I most certainly do.) In 2001, the parody of 1980s summer-camp-sploitation movies that no one asked for (and if they did they would have asked about twelve years earlier) debuted at Sundance to four sold out crowds and zero buyers. Eventually it was released in approximately 30 cities, made approximately zero money, and was pretty much ignored to death. But that is how legends are born (isn’t it?).
Cameron Crowe‘s Aloha is one hot saccharine sweet mess; a jumbled collage of love connections, island spirituality and fluffy, flawed emotional beauty that gave me all the feels, despite its occasionally glaring issues. It’s one of those features where one could curmudgeonly sit around and pick apart at its thatch of problems like a hot-breathed seamstress but you’d ultimately be missing the point. Aloha isn’t guided by substantive reality so much as by a dramaturgical sense of magical realism. Mixed in with the hopeful lyricism of the greatest rom-com ballads and imbued with a dulled barb of cynicism, Aloha is a visceral, passionate triumph even in the bright light of its freewheeling, sometimes nonsensical spirit. Read More
In 1977, George Lucas gifted the world Star Wars. Neither studio execs nor film critics could have ever predicted the momentous cultural phenomenon that Lucas’ strange little space opera transmogrified into; how it would touch every corner of the globe to the tune of billions upon billions of dollars; how it would leave an inimitable legacy for people to talk about from Boston to Beirut, Maine to Myanmar; how it would, quite simply, become one of the most important movies to ever be made. Everyone has seen Star Wars and if they haven’t, there’s a 97% chance it’s because they were born blind. Culturally, it’s a behemoth. Socially, it’s a must-know. Taste-wise, you like it or you’re a POS. It is the hive mind dictator itself; the all-encompassing King Shit. I’ve owned Star Wars toys since I could walk because who hasn’t?
Even now, almost forty years later, the prevailing zeitgeist within the science fiction community – from books to movies, TV shows to comic books – is populated by Star Wars‘ DNA, nearly to the point of pollution. Even when Lord Neckfat himself tried to capture lighting in a bottle again by making those junk jettisons that are the prequels, he forgot that his magnus opus was never about the special effects. Consider that Star Wars was for all intents and purposes a space samurai movie that shoed in equal parts Eastern philosophy and glo-stick swords. So what if the effects don’t hold up? We’re still dealing with giant slug gangsters and unforgettable cantina tunes and little green dudes who knew the force. And this is why we’ve witnessed such vehement backlash against Lucas’ irreparable re-tweaks, his ‘special ed’-itions: they take us out of the feeling of his dusty, late 1970s sci-fi sprawl. And it was always all about the feeling. And the feeling was good.
And like that untouchable trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy may be poorly acted (Chris Pratt aside) but I’ll be damned if it’s not the closely thing we’ve ever got to that 1977 original masterwork. It’s wonky, weird, wild, completely cartoonish and fun as fuck. It’s Star Wars Revisisted. Its space crawl is Chris Pratt dancing to 70s top forty songs. It’s got an emperic baddie lording over all on Hologram Skype. It’s everything that Harrison Ford has every done melted down into one. It’s even got a Chewbacca. There’s quirk overflowing from every end, and enough tips of the hat to Star Wars to make even Sam Elliot nervous. I’m already Indiana Jonesing to revisit it because it feels good and frankly, I’m hooked on a feeling.
Unlike the pantheon that is the MMU, cross-pollination with the outside Marvel Universe is kept to a minimum (with no mention of Tony Stark, Steven Rogers, or that big green head-case). Guardians of the Galaxy is able to stand on its own two feet and for it, I’m willing to stand on mine and applaud. After all, it was this ceaseless commercialization that cheapened the massively over-rated Captain America 2; the same sludge that made Iron Man 2 such a nightmare. Rather than lean on the platform of a larger universe, Guardians creates its own, expanding on the worlds that Marvel’s created naturally and with a sense of lively misadventure largely missing from its more club-footed counterparts.
In this regard, Guardians just might be Marvel’s crowning achievement. It’s pure unadulterated fun, made magical by hundreds of millions of dollars in top-of-the-line computer animation and made lovable by its plenitude of quirk and its narrow-yet-mammoth scope. The guardians may be set to save the entire galaxy but there’s an intimacy that’s lacking in similarly-sized superhero blockbusters. And did I mention how weird it is?
Guardians, more than anything that I can think of in the past decade, celebrates said strangeness like it’s a Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco. It’s not dark, it’s not gritty, it’s not “an untold origin.” It’s double-filtered, locally sourced, FDA-certified organic mirth. An anthropomorphized tree and a shit-talking, gun-firing, whiskey-slugging raccoon aren’t even the weirdest elements of this symphony of strange. I mean James Gunn isn’t known for being reigned in so you better believe there’s plenty of weird to go around.
Michael Rooker (because who better?) is dyed blue and rocks a glowing metallic mohawk. His signature weapon is a magic arrow that zips around when he whistles. Gunn even let Dave Batista try to act. Sure he fails desperately but it’s not like Mark Hamill was ever a shining beacon of thespian promise. But seriously, Batista is a talent vacuum. The guy couldn’t act his way out of a First Grade Thanksgiving play.
As for the story, it starts on Earth with Peter Quill (Pratt). His death-bed occupying mother reaches out for his hand and he runs away, too frightened to face the reality of his mother’s demise. Cue a looking up at the stars bit as the heavens open up, a beam shoots down and little Quill is sucked up into a space ship. Alright, alright, alright.
Twenty years later and Quill’s an outlaw ravager, scavenging planets for goods to pawn. When his sights are set on a mysterious orb, a series of mishaps land him under the gun with a sizable bounty on his head. This is all a MacGuffin to assemble the eponymous Guardians as they all come together looking to score on Quill’s asking price.
This ragtag collection includes Groot (Vin Diesel), the walking, not-so-much-talking tree; Rocket (Bradley Cooper who sounds nothing like Bradley Cooper), a gun-toting, vest-wearing, expletive-yelling raccoon; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a mean, green, alien-fighting machine; and Drax the Destroyer (Batista), a simple-minded, scarification-covered thug with a dead family. They’re as rag-taggy as the Millennium Falcon’s passengers, as disjointed as the Fellowship of the Ring. Some characters are better than others – I could do without Batista’s Drax ever opening his mouth and Saldana is surprisingly flat – but that’s par for the course.
The whole tree/raccoon angle though works wonderfully, their odd relationship giving weight to what could otherwise feel distant or simply strange. Continuing with my ploy to mainstream Star Wars analogies, Groot is very much the Chewie of the equation. His only utterances consisting of “I am Groot”, he offers little to a conversation other than a sympathetic expression or some much needed shrub violence. It’d be smart to avoid playing him in a round of Dejarik. Rocket, like Han Solo before him, is the only one who understand Groot, a bit that Gunn returns to whenever he needs to conjure up a chuckle or two. It’s weird but dammit, it works.
And for how much we fawn over Groot and his pet raccoon, our relationship with Quill isn’t one that neatly fits a description. There’s a distance we feel to him and his wise-cracking ways, but it’s a distance by design. Born of the general distrust of the world around him, he’s an alien that just happens to be human. Him being an abducted orphan and all, you sympathize with his armor of sharp witticisms, you sneer with him at a galaxy that’s too tidy and needs to be knocked down a couple pegs; you’re ok with him being a butterfingered outlaw.
Chris Pratt’s sarcastic banter is a weapon that he wields like a lightsaber. His each and every retort earns a snicker and Pratt has earned the right to play dumb and bumbling and yet oddly charming, a combination he wears perfectly here. From our first encounter with him, he’s a goon of an explorer, a whiff of an adventurer. He wants to be called Star Lord but he just hasn’t earned the handle (his ongoing relationship with said handle goes on to be one of the film’s many highlights.)
Guardians, in all rights, is about the creation of a mythology. It’s about carving out your stake in the world. It’s about grabbing a whip and a fedora and making the name Indiana Jones mean something. It’s about calling yourself Star Lord and not being satisfied until everyone else calls you that too. Darth Vader didn’t become the most feared name in the galaxy overnight. You gotta hone that shit (*hangs head that this was NOT what the prequel trilogy was about*).
Unlike previous Marvel movies, Guardians doesn’t rely on a cliffhanger; it’s not a sleek, flawless package; it’s not busy setting the table for what’s next; it’s not just another commercial for the inevitable team-up with Iron Man and Thor and Hulk and Black Widow and Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver and Captain America and The Winter Solider and Falcon and War Machine (er, Iron Patriot?). It’s a well-balanced breakfast in itself: it’s properly buttered toast and scrambled eggs and orange juice and a little bit of Dave Batista trying to act all served up with a smile.
For once, you won’t demand “But where are the other guys?!” Gunn’s triumph is happy to exist in its own little universe and for it, trumps Marvel’s other heroes. In 1977, George Lucas gifted the world Star Wars. In 2014, James Gunn gifted the world Guardians of the Galaxy, in all its strange glory.
If you ever wanted to see Andy Dwyer, the Hulk’s little sister, StarFox (er, StarCoon?), and a teenage Treebeard team up to wage a battle of galactic proportions, then you might want to check out the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy that released earlier tonight.
Marvel’s latest brand integration venture is based on a comic series written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning that first ran in 2008. Guardians of the Galaxy follows a team of five outcasts as they find themselves accidentally caught in a cosmos-bending conflict after stealing a powerful orb from some evil maestro named Ronan the Accuser.
Coming off recent successes in The Lego Movie and Spike Jonze’s Her, Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill (the self-titled “Space-Lord”), a drunkard American thief who doesn’t seem to take anything seriously. He’s joined by Zoe Saldana in green body-paint, Bradley Cooper voicing a space raccoon, WWE fighter Dave Bautista, and Vin Diesel, who plays an extraterrestrial plant monster (colloquially known as a “tree”).
If those names weren’t enough to catch your interest, then maybe John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Karen Gillan and Benicio Del Toro acting in supporting roles will. Even Lee Pace joins in as the story’s villain, continuing his recent trend of distempered characters.
Judging from the trailer, Guardians of the Galaxy has potential for some good laughs and jackassery. James Gunn directs what looks to be a crass, CGI-filled romp that will at least hold your attention until Avengers: Age of Ultron releases next year.
Guardians of The Galaxy is directed by James Gunn and stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Karen Gillan, Benicio Del Toro and Lee Pace. It’ll start maings boatloads of money starting August 1, 2014.
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.
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.