American Hustle: A Review

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I found myself home alone recently and took the opportunity to catch a movie. I decided on catching up with the Oscar contenders. Because I really enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook, I chose American Hustle as it shared a director and several actors. The fact that my friend Karen recommended it didn’t hurt either.

Well the title says it all! This was a good film about a wild scam, a fictionalization of infamous Abscam, actually. Everyone seemed to be conning everyone else and I had no idea how things would resolve until the satisfying end. It was a good film, not a great film and I was surprised at all the Oscar hype. I usually enjoy a good grifter movie, especially if it is done in a film noir style.  American Hustle was not filmed with typical film noir elements. Rather it was done as a period piece, taking place in the 70’s, at the height of the polyester disco era. Which for some, would lend some nostalgic charm.

This was a film about 2 scam artists, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). This star-crossed pair was nabbed by an eager young FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). In lieu of jail time, the pair of hustlers were coerced into cooperating with DiMaso’s scheme to lure and then take down corrupt politicians, mobsters and other high rollers. Quelle surprise, things did not go according to plan and chaos ensued.

The soundtrack and costumes were spot on and transported me back in time. The acting was good, really, really good. The 3 main leads were transformed and convincing. Additionally, I enjoyed Louis C.K. as Bradley Cooper’s reluctant FBI supervisor. The poor man didn’t know where to look before he was reluctantly dragged into DiMaso’s plan. Jennifer Lawrence did a phenomenal job in a pivotal role that had surprising little screen time, as Bale’s volatile neglected wife.

There were comedic elements in this film (Christian Bale’s character’s ridiculous comb-over comes to mind) but they were far too few. The dialogue was witty at times. So why did I think this film was good and not great? I guess it was because there was very little character development, at least not enough for me to care about the fates of anybody. With a film focused on people doing despicable things, the onus is on the director (David O. Russell in this case) to persuade me to care about what happens to those people. Some times I don’t care but the laughs along the way or the clever plot twists are enough to wow me. Not in this film. It often boils down to relatability, which, granted, is entirely personal. Still glad I saw it and I would definitely watch it again. And I probably will, as I know my husband wants to see it. Who knows? I might have missed something and reserve the right to be wowed after a second viewing.

Catching Fire: a review.

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My family and I saw Catching Fire at the theatre immediately after watching Frozen on a lazy Sunday. My eldest daughter had seen it as a sneak preview with friends a while ago and was keen to see it again with the rest of us. So why not? All but my youngest (a half-hearted attempt to start doesn’t count) had read the books and we thought they were a decent read.

The story picks up a few months following The Hunger Games. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) survived the arena by defying the authorities. In doing so, Katniss and Peeta captured the hearts of the people of Panem. Their fairy tale romance (fabricated or real???) was an endless source of distraction for the masses and consternation for the authorities. Their defiance appeared to trigger  revolutionary rumblings. As they toured the districts of Panem in celebration of victory and reverence to the fallen, symbolic gestures of revolution would follow. As fate (or conspiracy) would have it, Peeta and Katniss were destined to return to the arena. They found themselves part of a special 75th anniversary version (aka 3rd quarter quell) of the Hunger Games, facing previous champions. The other subplot, Katniss’ duelling suitors , Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) remained a minor thematic element and was thankfully dismissed in a few words.

I reviewed The Hunger Games last year here and much of my sentiment then can be cut and pasted in this review. Catching Fire is a good action film, suitable for older children. The biggest weaknesses of this film are that it expects you to be familiar with the first instalment and doesn’t spend any time with character development. To be fair, the source material is a bit thin in those departments as well. However, insight into character motivation was fleshed out on the page and that helped me  really care about the characters. These sentiments were not earned by either of the films. Do you have to read the books to enjoy this film? Clearly not, if my youngest daughter’s experience is anything to go on. But I am glad I did because it helped me understand the hype surrounding this adequately entertaining action film.

I think a female led  successful action franchise aimed at older kids and young adults is a good thing. One of my favourite parts of the movie was when Katniss acknowledged that she had various concerns competing for her attention. These concerns were refreshingly beyond the typical focus of YA oriented fare. Thus she acknowledged her inability to sort through her feelings regarding Gale and Peeta. I also enjoyed the arena scenes, the action and the thoughtful strategizing. In the arena, alliances were built and competitors were killed. Double crossing scoundrels remained a constant threat. Then the movie ended abruptly with a cliff hanger, just like the novel (a cop out IMO). I imagine it will inspire some people, who can’t handle the suspense of a year’s wait, to read the final novel if they hadn’t done so already.

The acting was fine, the cinematography good with tolerable CGI action sequences. This film was paced better than its predecessor. I really enjoyed the main cast and the veteran supporting actors (Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman).

If you liked the first film, I don’t think you will be disappointed with this sequel.

Awkward Quirky Romance: Silver Linings Playbook

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I went to the theatre to see this quirky romantic comedy. It was directed by David O. Russell and is about two abrasive characters with mental health issues. My husband and I really enjoyed it, but it isn’t a film for everyone. I am a fan of the main leads, Bradley Cooper (ever since he was Will on Alias) and Jennifer Lawrence (awesome in Winter’s Bone) and was impressed at their nuanced performances. In their portrayals of damaged characters, they are worthy of the Oscar nominations that they have received. Robert De Niro as Cooper’s dad is just icing on the cake.

Cooper plays Pat, a man who has just been released from an 8 month stint in a mental hospital into the care and supervision of his parents. He was hospitalized rather than jailed after he walked in on his wife and her lover went berserk and attacked the other guy. He is completely non compliant in his rehabilitation and still holds onto the hope of reconciliation. Shortly afyer his release, he meets his buddy’s recently widowed sister-in-law, Tiffany (Lawrence) and recognizes someone as off as he is. She manipulates him to help her out as a dance competition partner. From there we watch an interesting relationship and awkward dance routine develop.

Because the plot is pretty trite when reduced to it basic narrative, the strength of the movie hinges on the lead actors. A special shout out goes to Chris Tucker in a great supporting role as Danny, Pat’s institutionalized buddy. These characters are difficult people to like. Their family’s obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles football team is beyond my comprehession. However, if one has ever had to deal with someone close with serious mental health issues (it is surprising how many of us have), one knows how on the nose these nuanced performances are. I found them moving and at times, too close to home. I also enjoyed Jacki Weaver as Dolores, Pat’s mom and Pat. Sr.’s (De Niro) wife. Her silent expressions spoke volumes as she stood as go between for two irrational men in her life. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, I’m afraid.

This is a film about people I could not stand spending much time with on a day to day basis. They are difficult to get along with in their delusional obsessions and self destructive behaviours and besides, I can never get into sports that much. For this reason, this film may not have a broad appeal. So the fact that I really enjoyed it and found myself pulling for this couple is a conundrum that I haven’t yet been able to explain. This film is not free of Hollywood cliches that plague the romance genre. By the time I got to those moments, enough good will has been established to make them forgivable. If you like nuanced performances of damaged characters, awkward dance numbers, sports fanatics and/or quirky romances, you may want to check this one out.

The Hunger Games, a Good Read and OK Action Movie.

I saw the Hunger Games at the theatre a few days ago with my husband and daughters. Considering the movie has been in the theatres for a week, and there were 3 auditoriums running it simultaneously at the Cineplex, it was surprisingly busy.

Three of us had read the novels that the movie was based on. I had heard the series praised about 18 months ago on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast and when I saw the box set at Costco, I picked it up. First I asked my husband to read it and let me know if it was something that my eldest would enjoy. She is a voracious reader and had finished the Harry Potter trilogy before her 9th birthday. I was hoping to find something for her that was equally engrossing. With thumbs up from her dad, I gave her the trilogy 2 Christmases ago and it was a hit. For the past few months, the anticipatory movie hype has been unavoidable. There have been numerous cover stories and feature articles in Entertainment Weekly magazine. EW is the only magazine that everyone in our household seems to enjoy glancing at. So a few weeks ago, I decided to jump on the band wagon and I read all 3 books in no time at all. They were enjoyable, quick, action packed, first person narratives, told predominantly in the present with a few scattered flashbacks. There was only a bit of character development but the narrative cemented the key relationships of the main characters. It created food for thought and had some touching relationships. It even brought tears to my eyes more than once. I was curious to see how the first book would be translated to film.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is told by Katniss Everdeen, a 16 yr old girl who lives in a dystopian society which has 12 districts and an overseeing capital. Every year there is a celebratory televised arena spectacle called the “Hunger Games” as punishment/ reminder of a civil war/ rebellion against the capital, that decimated many of the districts.  Each district draws the names of a male and female ” tribute” /contestant (aged 12-18 years) to participate in an arena with a fight to the death. This is a televised event that monopolizes the airwaves. The winner becomes a national hero and is set for life. Katniss and her acquaintance Peta are sent to represent district 12 for the 74th annual Hunger Games. Their mentor is an alcoholic middle-aged man named Haymitch who is district 12’s only other victor. I do not want to get too spoilery, suffice it to say I enjoyed the movie well enough but this is not a rave review.

The strength of the film lies in the casting and performances. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss does an excellent job portraying a resourceful girl who is catapulted far beyond her comfort zone. Josh Hutcherson portrays Peta as a thoughtful sensitive soul who finds himself contemplating the unthinkable and trying to figure out his role within chaos. Woody Harrelson was a good choice for Haymitch, and pulled it off within the confines of the script. I will confess that the muting of his character onscreen was a disappointment.  But that cannot be blamed on Harrelson. Unless of course the producers realized that a true to the novel Haymitch, portrayed by Harrelson would have blown everyone off the screen. Then I guess it might be, in part, Harrelson’s fault.

Much has been hyped about the supposed romantic triangle between Katniss, her long-time friend and hunting buddy, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and her borne out of necessity relationship with Peta. This was barely addressed in the film. In fact, much of the film’s weakness revolves around how little time is devoted to establishing some of the key relationships between Katniss and Gale, Peta, Rue (a young contestant from district 11, with whom she establishes an alliance), even Haymitch, who is more than meets the eye and has a depth that would have been worth exploring. The only relationship that was developed was that between Katniss and her little sister, which was superfluous because; they are blood relatives and Katniss volunteered as tribute in her sister’s stead. I think we can figure out that they are pretty tight. This makes it harder to identify with Katniss.

As one would expect, fights to the death result in some pretty graphic violence in the novel. If portrayed on screen as written, this would result in a rating that would exclude the target audience. I am aware that there are many people who think that the violence in the novels is inappropriate for a pre-teen and indeed the movie is rated PG-13. That is a fair assessment if you believe in such things. I believe that the arbitrary rating system is an archaic formality that should be abandoned in the information age. Parents should be aware of what their child can handle and do their homework with websites such as rottentomatoes.com or metacritic.com, before deciding on a movie. And by the time your child is old enough to go to the movies on their own, ratings become meaningless. They are also old enough to go to friends homes and watch whatever they want to online or via Netflix. The horse is out of the barn and an R rating is a temporary hurdle. But I digress. My almost 9 year old enjoyed the film and was not particularly traumatized by it. The artistic choice to use extreme closeups away from the point of attack, fast editing and shaky cam during the brutality, circumvented the ratings game. We caught quick glimpses of steel blades, some blood, a few dead bodies on the ground, and a long shot of a larger boy breaking a smaller boy’s neck with a quick jerk. I understand the logistics of chosing these editing and filming techniques. Unfortunately, away from the violence, there were too many other instances when the close-ups and worse, the shaky cam was used. I imagine it was an artistic choice intending to help the viewer “enter” the chaotic arena. For some poor movie-goers’ it was a point of exit, literally, due to nausea.

I enjoyed the story because it is novel to see a strong young female who is not waiting around to be rescued or married. The books are worthy of the hype; the movie, not so much. The books are told from Katniss view point and the reader spends a lot of time in her head as she analyses her choices, deliberates before acting and fails miserably at times, between detailed action sequences. That which gives strength to the novels, weakens the movie. I should be thankful that the producers did not decide to go with an insufferable internal dialogue. But there are cinematic ways to get inside her head and it is in this way that the movie kept me at a distance. The run time is 2h22 min, which is plenty of time to  develop characters and relationships; however, this was not done well enough to elevate this movie above, OK. The movie doesn’t help us understand what Gale means to Katniss, what Peta means to Katniss, what Haymitch means; you get my drift. Without strong relationship building, I cannot get that emotionally invested with the characters on screen. Was this a deliberate short cut? Because much of the audience will be familiar with the novel, the depths of the relationships are assumed to be apparent? Or is it just weak story-telling? Maybe it is both. I can’t help but compare this with the movie Hanna (2011) which I believe did a better job at a female character driven action movie.

The Hunger Games is an ok action movie. I read the trilogy before watching the movie, and I wish I hadn’t. I probably would not have expected more if I hadn’t read the books first. It is all about expectations and hype, I suppose. I am curious to see where they go with the next installments because I am afraid that this movie does not prepare us for what lies ahead. Of course, I will probably go to the theatre with the family to see this story play out. I will temper my expectations and try not to get sucked into the hype.

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