American Hustle (2014)

American Hustle (2014)

I like it when a director shows favouritism towards working with certain individuals. I really believe it brings the best out of the actors. Perhaps one of the most notorious directors for this is Quentin Tarantino, who makes no great secret of the fact that he favours using Samuel L. Jackson at every opportunity, as well as Uma Thurman and Christoph Waltz when the opportunities arise. Another pairing that’s recently come to light is Neil Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley who will soon embark on their third outing together. So, when I saw the billing for David O. Russell‘s American Hustle, I won’t lie; I was excited. He’s seemingly done a great job of welding together the casts of The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook to deliver his latest outing. How does Russell‘s Frankenstein’s Monster turn out though?

American Hustle (2014)

The cast of American Hustle is like a glorious chef’s recipe: 2 parts The Fighter (Christian Bale and Amy Adams), stirred with 2 parts Silver Linings Playbook (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence), folded in with new turns from Jeremy Renner and a host of others. What’s delivered? A delicious slice of 1970’s Americana revolving around blagging, conning and a whole host of escalating events. To break it down, Irving (Christian Bale) is a con-artist – small time – but a con-artist all the same. He takes this up a notch when he falls for Sydney (Amy Adams), who completes his criminal duo perfectly. The first problem? Sydney isn’t his wife. Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) is his wife. The second problem? Well, don’t try and con an undercover FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), as you’ll get enveloped into working with one wild agent. And third? Don’t make friends with your next con; especially when he’s the Mayor (Jeremy Renner)… Believe me, there are numerous other problems for our cast, but that would be spoiling things somewhat!

American Hustle (2014)

The strength of American Hustle is clearly in its cast, but the same too can be said of its plotting. But let’s first dwell on the performances. It’s no secret that The Phage is a huge fan of Bradley Cooper. We tell you this every time we see him in a film, and indeed, tell you at numerous other times too. Cooper is again on sterling form, with a role that’s got more in common with The Place Beyond The Pines more than his “typical” Hangover-esque portrayals. In fact, I’m not sure it’s even fair to use The Hangover roles to describe Cooper any more; he’s done far too many other films. Similarly, Christian Bale is on great form too, clearly relishing the role. Likewise, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence deliver solidly in their performances. I’m a little surprised to see Lawrence up for BAFTAs and Globes with her performance here, which isn’t as captivating as that of Silver Linings Playbook, but that’s mainly because she’s not strictly a main character here. I was pleasantly taken aback by Jeremy Renner’s turn here too. He’s new to the David O. Russell stable, but his role was interesting and deep.

Indeed, it’s this level of “deepness” that makes American Hustle as interesting as it is. It’s not some ham-fisted attempt at a con film, as each character has flaws and dilemmas. It’s not Oceans Eleven. Thankfully. The plot continues to thrust forwards, leaving you wondering just who is going to come out on top. I like the fact that films don’t necessarily end happily nowadays, as this introduces a lot of guesswork on the audience’s behalf as they try and second-guess where the film’s ultimately going to end up.

American Hustle (2014)

Having said all of this, the film isn’t perfect. It’s got a meaty run time, that perhaps almost outstretched its welcome. Considering I’m a fan of all people involved in the movie, that says something. Quite what I’m trying to say? I’m not sure; it’s just that there’s fat that could otherwise have been trimmed here. Even just a swift 10-15 minutes hacked off the run time could have done wonders. That’s not to say it makes the film back… it just stops it being a “classic”.

American Hustle is a wonderfully vivid movie set against the backdrop of the 1970’s. David O. Russell contnues his directorial run to deliver a beautifully written and shot film, albeit with a little extra fat than was perhaps absolutely necessary. As awards’ season looms large, I wonder whether we could see any wins for American Hustle; it’s certainly a great film, but in a year with so many enormously strong contenders, can it walk away with any of the big ones? Time will tell.

All of this just makes me interested to see what David O. Russell will deliver next, and who he’ll be using in his next ensemble piece. Although Nailed is cited as being his next production, it deviates somewhat from the more serious / likely to get acclaim films that he’s become synonymous with in recent years. We just want more Bradley Cooper, but who didn’t see that coming from us?!

Phage Factor:

4 Star

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Killing Them Softly (2012)

Have you ever read the title to a film and had a thought that has nothing to do with the film itself? Maybe it’s an inappropriate one? Oh come on – you’re saying you haven’t read the title Debbie Does Dallas and wondered how she managed that feat, or who the hell Dallas is? How about Blow, Snatch or Free Willy? Let’s get one thing clear – the title of Killing Them Softly doesn’t make me think of an innuendo. I’m not some weird deviant. Maybe Ted Bundy would find it appropriately inappropriate. No, Killing Them Softly just makes me think of that damn Fugees song from years ago with a very similar name. I was disappointed when the film didn’t open with this tune… but I certainly wasn’t disappointed with the film itself.

Killing Them Softly tells the story of the aftermath of a gambling den robbery carried out by two money-hungry guys: Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). The robbery goes well… but you can’t let bad guys get away with a robbery like that now can you? Cue the hiring of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to dispose of the problem. And by dispose, I truly mean it.

If the plot sounds fairly generic and simplistic, then that’s probably because it is, but don’t let this deter you from the movie. The whole vibe of the film reminded me a lot of a hybrid of Killer Joe, Death Proof and Drive. It had the malice of Killer Joe, the extended, witty, well written dialogue that Tarantino favours, and the occasional bouts of brutal violence that Drive employed.

All of this is held together by the main man: Brad Pitt. Now, he may be the biggest name on the poster, but he doesn’t appear for quite a while. This leaves the film to be driven primarily by McNairy and Mendelsohn. I thought their dialogue was fantastic. It was rough – maybe too rough for some, but grounded. It felt believable. Sure, it may not have contributed much to the plot but it coloured the characters perfectly. You quickly felt that Mendelsohn‘s Australian character was scummy – a real low life, but you noticed that McNairy’s was less obtusely offensive and more reserved. Real kudos has to go to writer / director Andrew Dominick (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James…) for adapting George V. Higgins’ book so well. The lines really pop off the screen. Similarly, James Gandolfini picks up where The Sopranos left off to deliver another delicious slice of mob mentality. His performance was particularly noteworthy just because he’s such an abrasive, unlikeable character.

I’m sure you’re yearning to know how Pitt performs and he’s his usual reliable self. Possibly giving his best performance of the past few years. His take on this role wasn’t as jaw-dropping as Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe; namely because you didn’t expect such a performance from McConaughey. But with Brad Pitt you’ve seen him play the good guy and the crazy guy before. That takes nothing away from his performance though, which was as mesmerising as ever.

What I liked less about the film was it’s idea of supplanting the story against the backdrop of the global recession and the 2008 US election. It was just a peculiar way of shoehorning in some political agenda. You’d have lengthy pieces of the film which consisted of nothing more than George W. Bush or Barack Obama talking about the recession. I appreciate the fact that the dialogue was semi-related to the plot point of the film, but it just seemed jarring and removed me somewhat from the movie.

This scene is pure Tarantino when not directed by Tarantino.

That being said, at 97 minutes in length, the film rips along at a fair pace. For some, the use of long dialogue scenes will be off-putting. If you’re not a fan of Tarantino‘s reliance on similar scenes then you may not be in for a thrill ride. This film is much more Reservoir Dogs and less of a bang-bang shoot ’em up of a film. If that appeals to you, as it does to me, then I heartily recommend you get yourself a ticket. It’s not one of Pitt‘s tent pole films, but nor is it one of his surreal indie flourishes. Yes, I’m looking at you Tree of Life

Killing Them Softly isn’t this year’s most cerebral film, nor does it ever seek to challenge you intellectually. That’s not to say it’s a mindless effort like Transformers, but it doesn’t require that much energy to compute what’s going on. However, it’s one hell of a ride to be on. All actors, both big and small names alike, are really firing on all cylinders here.

And you’ll be glad to know that the film no longer makes me think of Killing Me Softly. That song is way too mellow and peaceful to embody Killing Them Softly. If I had to pick a song to convey the film’s message it’d be Slayer’s Raining Blood, because oh yes… there will be blood. Ted Bundy would bloody love that too the basket case!

Lawless (2012)

Doesn’t the past always sound so exciting and cut-throat? Especially when it’s up there on the big screen looking all lavish and sexy. Take mediaeval times – a period when disease was rife, living standards were through the floor and you were oppressed at every angle by your local land baron. It wasn’t a happy time. But chuck in some Hollywood pizazz and you have something like A Knight’s Tale, or Robin Hood. The so-called “wild west” – a period of instability, uncertainty and crime also provides plum pickings for film-makers, so long as you throw in some idyllic looking towns, guns and raunchy lead actors. The only other area that rivals it for “sexy yet dangerous setting” is the period of post-Great War USA, the roaring 1920’s… cue Lawless. It was time of gangsters, prohibition and money, and Hollywood likes going back to mine it for more – we can’t get enough of the mob. But does Lawless, the newest film to draw from this period, figure more like The Untouchables, or does it have more in common with Bugsy Malone, minus all those grating kids?

For once, a film “based on a true story” means just that, as the film revolves around the Bondurant brothers – three guys that decided to flaunt the law and turn a tidy profit from the sale of illegally distilled moonshine. The book on which the movie is based, “The Wettest County in the World” was penned by the grandson of one of these brothers. Sure, the film-makers will have embellished some things, but overall you can take this as a “true story”. Come on – it’s got more truth to it than The Possession hasn’t it? The film follows Jack, Forrest and Howard Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke) as they build their business and live their lives, whilst contending with the ever-encroaching arm of the law, personified by Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). It’s a case of pay off the authorities, or be burned. Literally.

The Bondurant boys on the big screen. Knitwear is in.

The first thing that needs to be mentioned is the sheer calibre of acting talent on offer in this film. Whilst every single actor is fantastic (yes, even LaBeouf for you doubters out there), the film is really stolen by two people: Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce. Hardy continues his run of great form following Warrior and The Dark Knight Rises with a role that really calls for strong acting. He really sells you every emotion, be it sadness, anger or humour. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a laugh-a-minute performance (or film), but he delivers some brilliant wry one-liners that sit well.

Pearce meanwhile has had a rather odd portfolio as of late, with his weirdly over-made up appearance as a very old man in Prometheus and his peculiar decision to star in Lockout, which didn’t sit well with critics, but I quite enjoyed Pearce‘s performance. Like a grumpy John McClane in space. But his portrayal of Charlie Rakes here is sublime. He’s a thoroughly detestable and loathsome character and you’re really sold on this by Pearce from the way he walks, talks and sneers. Absolutely riveting.

Guy Pearce: Never afraid to shy away from some creepy facial effects and hairdo’s.

My main problem with the film is pacing. Now, maybe this is due to the fact that I approached it without expectations – I didn’t know what I was going in to see really. I knew it was prohibition-era set, and featured a stellar cast, but little else. The trailers didn’t really show me what the core of the film was. If you think Lawless is going to be an all-out gangster film with guns and speakeasies galore, then you’re in for a cruel shock. I’d say that it’s more of a character-driven period drama that has criminals as its focus. Hardy and LaBeouf‘s characters grow throughout the running time and you actually care about them. This led to a rather slow opening first act whilst the scene was being set and the characters established. Had they been more vapid, I’m sure we could have delved into the core of the story much faster, but they’re not. I just felt there was too much padding in this area, which lowered my enjoyment levels somewhat. However, once the film kicked into gear, I was engrossed.

LaBeouf tests out the car to check if its a Decepticon, without raising suspicion.

One thing I really ought to address is the ordering of the names in the posters, which would have you believe that Gary Oldman is a big player in this film – he’s typically listed after LaBeouf and Hardy, but don’t be swayed into seeing Lawless just because of his name. He doesn’t figure heavily in the plot. In fact, I could argue that he’s merely there as a “name” and to personify the Capone-esque gangsters of the era who’d drive round with Tommy guns. His inclusion baffled me somewhat and had a minuscule impact on the story. A great actor, sure, but his role was somewhat mis-sold. Similarly, putting Guy Pearce‘s name in the “and…” bracket at the end of the list is a) misleading and b) a disservice, as he’s one of the best things about the film. I guess he’s not seen as a “big draw” at the minute. Maybe Iron Man 3 will change that next year.

Ultimately, I found Lawless to be a compelling slice of cinema, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Maybe this is through my own naivety, but maybe not. If you’re expecting a gun-toting action-fest then you’ll be cruelly disappointed. Conversely, if you want to see a great story acted out by a fantastic cast then this is just right for you. The film won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I’d thoroughly recommend seeing it – just for Hardyand Pearce‘s acting.

In fact, this film has much in common with Inglourious Basterds, and not just in the way in which itself made another period of desperation: World War II, look more exciting than horrifying. It’s more the fact that you were drawn into Inglourious Basterds by the lure of the names Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt, but you walked out talking about Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbender (maybe you mentioned Mike Myers, but not in the same positive light as these two). Similarly, you’re drawn into Lawless by the lure of the big names, like Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy, but you’ll leave talking about Guy Pearce, and rightfully Hardy too.

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star