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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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Trilogies. They’re always interesting concepts; sometimes they work (Star Wars), sometimes they fail (The Hangover). Often, the success of these franchises hinges heavily on how compelling the second instalment is. It’s got to glue together the “intro” put down in the first film, but also leave it hanging at the end in order to get you to come back for the final film. See, Star Wars, although not my favourite series of films, did this well. Arguably, The Empire Strikes Back was the best of the three films as it ended on a fantastic cliff-hanger that left audiences walking out saying “What? They can’t end it like that? This is bull****!” – this is the PERFECT response that’ll sucker you back in for the ending. So, how does the middle of The Hunger Games trilogy fare…?

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

The Hunger Games franchise has picked up a lot of steam over time. The original Hunger Games was a success… a big success. Obviously, it fed off the fandom generated by the set of books, but it also pulled in others that hadn’t read the books (The Phage included). Although at Film Phage, we thought that The Hunger Games was essentially a new version of the Japanese classic, Battle Royale. It was fun, but it wasn’t mind-blowing. If we’re honest, we weren’t that phased by the thought of the second instalment… but we were pleasantly surprised.

Obviously, a lot has changed since the first and Catching Fire. Notably the fact that the star, Jennifer Lawrence, has seen her star rise higher and higher thanks to… you know… that little Oscar she got for Silver Linings Playbook. Now people really care about her. No more crappy roles in films like The House at the End of the Street. Hopefully…

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Anyway, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up where the original left off… Katniss (Lawrence) has won The Hunger Games (a fight to the death to keep her home town alive and thriving) along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), after they faked their love so that there could be two winners. Now they must continue this premise on the orders of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). But there’s something stirring… a revolution. And Katniss finds herself at the centre of it all as the unintended figurehead thanks to that damn badge of a bird she has!

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a fun ride. As I’ve attested, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the original so I didn’t bother to re-watch it in preparation. The film makes no apologies for this, and doesn’t really remind you of what went on before. This can be a bit jarring as you quickly try to recall what was going on. It doesn’t provide a quick little recap like Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 did… this is a shame, but I could soon piece together what happened. The film then riots along at a fair old pace. I must say that not knowing the books’ plots makes these films far more enjoyable as I don’t know what twists and turns lie ahead. This is kind of the point of films, so being a fully-fledged fan of the book may not help you.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

I also hear that the book is much more graphic in its depiction of violence than this film. That’d be owing to the PG-13 / 12A rating that THG:CF has picked up. This is neglected somewhat here. It’s not an overly violent film. Sure, people get killed (in a goreless way) and there are some disgusting looking boils on people’s skin, but it’s not a shocker. This isn’t a reason to slight the film though; not in my eyes.

The strength of the film lies in the plotting. Sure, the casting is good and everyone delivers on what you’d expect, but for me the film isn’t there. As I said at the outset, the success of a second instalment rests on it being glue. And Catching Fire IS the glue in this franchise. It develops the plot an absolute ton, sucks you in, then leaves you begging for more at the eleventh hour. I heard a lot of people complaining about the ending, and that was fantastic. They weren’t complaining because the ending was bad… it wasn’t… but it sure does end on a “what the hell?” note. Yes… Han Solo is in carbonite…

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire continues to develop this ridiculously successful franchise. Whilst I found the first outing to be somewhat derivative, this second dose of Katniss and friends (and enemies) sated my appetite and in fact got me excited again. I’m now looking forward to 2014’s next entry: Mockingjay. Let’s hope it can keep up the pace and action. I can already see where the plot’s heading, but I’m hoping I’ll be surprised with developments…

Although saying that, my excitement is tempered somewhat by the sad fact that (Part 1) is attached to the end of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. Just like Twilight and Harry Potter, Hollywood can’t help but extend a series by splitting the final book into two… Star Wars this ain’t… or maybe it is… considering we now have parts I, II, III and VII on the way. Only time will tell whether this pays off, or whether audience fatigue will have set in by the time we see The Hunger Games‘ trilogy (or quadrilogy) wrap up.

Phage Factor:

4 Star

The 2012 Phagee Awards

Phagee Awards 2012

The years… they come and go faster than Lindsay Lohan‘s court appearances. But 2012 was special. It was the year that Film Phage entered the universe, kicking and squealing at the bright lights… once again, just like Lindsay Lohan. And as is traditional at this time of year, I think it’s apt to take a retrospective look at the year that was and hand out the coveted Phagees [pronounced fay-jeez]. In this, the First Annual Phagee Awards, there are a number of categories and prizes up for grabs – none of which are worth the paper they’re printed on, or indeed, the pixels they’re displayed on.

Loyal readers who’ve been with us from the start will know that our birth was only in the middle of the summer, so the films released in the first half of the year were in the months BP (Before Phage) and as such, have no reviews. We’ve been thinking long and hard whether it’s right to include these “unreviewed” films in our awards, and we came to the conclusion that yes… yes it is right. If you disagree, then please write to the Awards Committee at thisaddress@doesntexist.com and make your voice heard!

In each category, we have up to 5 nominees from all the films released this year. But there can be only one winner in each! Also, we’re running with the UK release schedule – we got some 2011 films in 2012 and won’t sadly be getting the likes of Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and Django Unchained until 2013! Regardless, let’s get this show on the road!

Best Animated Film

FrankenweenieParaNormanBraveIce Age: Continental DriftRise of the Guardians

Winner:

Phagee Frankenweenie

Yes, like you, we also don’t think Tim Burton is the Messiah, nor do we rate many of his newer movies, but we really felt Frankenweenie was a cut above the rest of this year’s nominations. It looked gorgeous and had a deliciously macabre sense of kooky humour to it. Its innumerable nods to horror films of yesteryear was also really nice to see and easily merits repeat viewings. Plus, it’s Burton… you never know how he’ll end a film. He’s not afraid embrace the darkness. All this being said… had Disney decided 2012 was an appropriate year to release Wreck-It Ralph in the UK, the winner’s podium may not look exactly like this…

Best Male Actor:

Matthew McConaughey (Killer Joe) / Tom Hardy (Lawless) / Pierce Gagnon (Looper) / Ben Affleck (Argo) / Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)

Winner:

Phagee Tom Hardy

Now, as my loyal Phagelings know all too well, I’d be more than happy if they cast Tom Hardy in every movie until the end of time and 2012 really has marked his arrival with the mainstream audiences courtesy of his roles in The Dark Knight Rises and Lawless. I think the guy is a sheer force of nature, which is why we’ve awarded him the 2012 Best Male Actor Award. Not just for his subdued and stunning performance in Lawless, but also for his sheer presence and abilities as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. I do however have to give much credit to the young Pierce Gagnon. I’d be very tempted to give him the prize owing to his skills in Looper, but I think there’s more to come from this little guy. I want to see what his next move is.

Best Female Actor:

Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) / Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) / Juno Temple (Killer Joe) / Kate Winslet (Carnage)

Winner:

Phagee Jennifer Lawrence

Having looked through all the releases that have dropped in the UK this year, I’ve got to say that it’s something of a paltry selection for Best Female Actor this year. In the US, you have Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and Les Miserables already released. But here? No such luck. That being said, Jennifer Lawrence has really come into her own thanks to that performance in Silver Linings Playbook and is totally deserving of the Phagee here. I really enjoyed her performance here and the chemistry and back-and-forths between Bradley Cooper and Lawrence made for a sleeper hit for the year. Glad to see she’s being recognised in the “real” Awards Ceremonies in the world too.

Best Comic Book Adaptation:

The Amazing Spider-Man / Dredd / Avengers Assemble / The Dark Knight Rises

Winner:

Phagee Avengers

What a year for the comic book fan! Ultimately though, this came down to a two horse race between Marvel’s Avengers Assemble / The Avengers and DC’s The Dark Knight Rises. Although I found the dark tone and Tom Hardy‘s portrayal of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises to both be particularly appealing, you’ve got to hand it to Marvel Studios for pulling off the film that many thought would be too big and too grandiose in scope. But Joss Whedon scripted and directed one hell of a film. I must confess, I’m a Marvel fan boy, but who didn’t laugh at Hulk’s squabbles with Thor and Loki? Or feel the “ooo, this is awesome” sensation upon seeing the trailer for the first time. Be honest! And with the quick glimpse of Thanos in the closing credits… well… I can’t wait for Joss‘ next script and instalment in 2015.

Best Comedy Film:

21 Jump Street / American Reunion / Seven Psychopaths / Silver Linings Playbook / Goon

Winner:

Phagee 21 Jump Street

2012 was a great year for comedy and we thoroughly enjoyed all of the selections in this category, especially the underrated Goon, with Sean William Scott acting his chops off in a role that wasn’t Stifler. Having said that, the runaway hit of the year for me was 21 Jump Street. Who’d have thought that Channing Tatum, the dancing fiend, would have such comedic timing? It was also great to see Jonah Hill in a funny comedy once again. We all know that he was great in Moneyball, but it’s good to see him back at home getting some laughs. And who doesn’t love it when Ice Cube shouts at people? Roll on the sequel…

Most Searched For Term on Film Phage:

Is Kevin Dillon (Johnny Drama) in Sinister? / Sofia Vergara’s boobs / Ron Perlman as an ape / Pierce Gagnon / Merida in Brave

Winner:

Phagee Pierce Gagnon

We’ve had some truly bizarre search terms bringing people to Film Phage this year. Some of you are rather odd. Let’s just say there’s been some extremely peculiar terms entered into Google! Whilst lots of people were searching for a glimpse of Sofia Vergara‘s cleavage, courtesy of The Three Stooges, she didn’t bring us the most traffic. No, that honour went to the young Pierce Gagnon thanks to his sterling turn in Looper. However, it was nice to see that some of my odd comparisons this year also brought in the traffic. Hundreds of people still want to know if Kevin Dillon aka Johnny Drama from HBO’s Entourage is in Sinister. I’ll again answer this… no, it’s just Ethan Hawke doing his best Drama impression. Similarly, no, Ron Perlman does not voice Gutt the pirate-ape in Ice Age: Continental Drift – that honour goes to Peter Dinklage. So many of you also were trying to hunt down pictures of Ron Perlman shirtless / in his younger years / grinning. You crazy bunch.

Worst Film of the Year:

Piranha 3DD / The Three Stooges / Keith Lemon: The Film / Snow White and the Huntman / The Muppets

Winner:

Phagee Keith Lemon

Wow, there really were some stinkers this year – even before Film Phage launched. And no, I didn’t think The Muppets was fun either. I fell asleep for the first time in a movie since I was about 4 years old. But the dubious honour of “Worst Film of the Year” goes to Keith Lemon: The Film. Never have I been so bored and unentertained in a comedy movie. Even the teenage target audience were walking out of the screening before the 1 hour mark was up. Maybe Kelly Brook should have opted to somehow appear in Piranha 3DD after her turn in the original Piranha 3D, instead of opting to guest in this. Not “bang tidy”.

The 2012 Film of the Year:

Argo / Looper / Avengers Assemble / The Dark Knight Rises / Killer Joe

Winner:

Phagee Looper

And so we arrive at our biggest Phagee: The Film of the Year. It was tough. Real tough. Although Killer Joe was the first film reviewed here on Film Phage, it still remains one of the year’s best for me thanks to McConaughey‘s performance. However, my film of the year rests with Looper. I know… a controversial choice. Although I loved Avengers Assemble and really think it achieved so much, it had a rather basic plot. I understand that this was probably needed as it was essentially an “Avengers Origins” movie, but it still lacked a riveting story. Looper cannot be accused of the same. Yes, it has its plot holes, but it also has Pierce Gagnon. And Bruce Willis back at his best. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt pretending to be Bruce Willis back at his best. We enjoyed every moment of the film and brand it with our Phagee for Film of the Year.

What were your most enjoyed films this year? I’m sure many of you have opinions and your own favourites. I’m also sure many of you disagree with me on my big Phagee winner of the year: Looper. I’ve yet to see it figure anywhere else in any other poll of the year. Controversial? Probably. But I bloody enjoyed it… and that’s what matters.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2013)

“You don’t go full retard.” These were Robert Downey Jr.‘s words in 2008’s Tropic Thunder. In the film he was referring to Ben Stiller‘s character Simple Jack, who was severely mentally handicapped to a charicature-style level. But the blacked up Downey Jr. raised a good point… it’s hard for Hollywood to tackle mental illness in an effective way, especially when you try to throw comedy into the mix. You don’t want the audience laughing at an illness, nor do you want them feeling ashamed of themselves for doing it either… but you do want them to laugh. So, enter Silver Linings Playbook – the latest film to tackle the tricky problem. But does it succeed?

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)Silver Linings Playbook focuses on the post-psychiatric ward recovery of Pat (Bradley Cooper), as he goes about trying to improve himself to rekindle his marriage with his adulterous wife. But as he tries to get his life back on track, he runs (literally) into Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) – a girl who also has some of her own issues stemming from a difficult few years, who tries to help him in his pursuit. OK, so far so good… in fact, if you strip away the mental illness issue, you could probably say it sounds quite formulaic and generic. And it probably is to a certain extent. But that would be a disservice to what is a truly fantastic movie.

I’m a big fan of Bradley Cooper. A big fan. However, one criticism that could be levied at him in recent years is the type of role he’s cast in – the “cool” guy. See The Hangover, Limitless and The A-Team for example. But this is different and really allows him to flex his acting chops in an entirely new direction, which he runs with. Pat is a disturbed character who combines rage, tranquility and confusion as he tries to deal with his life post-incident that got him committed to psychiatric care. All of this is delivered with aplomb alongside some well delivered comedic moments. I was really taken with Cooper every time he was on-screen. A really engrossing performance.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Cooper & Lawrence: Effortless chemistry.

And whilst we’re talking about performances, let’s talk about Jennifer Lawrence. Wow. Now, I thought she was a good actress and her roles to date have been OK, but they’ve never really startled me. But Silver Linings Playbook really brings her to the front of my mind now, as she really owns her roles as the emotionally fragile Tiffany. The best parts of the film are when her and Cooper are firing back and forth at one another – not only do they deliver some of the funniest moments of the film, but they also harbor some of the most beautiful scenes too. Despite the fact that Lawrence is only 22 and Cooper is 37, this is never an issue as Lawrence is really acting beyond her years here.

So what of the plot? Although some of it is formulaic, it has enough nail-biting moments to keep you guessing to some degree; much in the same way that The Fighter (David O. Russell‘s last directorial effort) was ultimately predictable but a fantastic film. As I mentioned earlier, some films about mental illness try to incorporate comedic elements and I’m happy to say that Silver Linings Playbook uses them really effectively. Speaking of comedy, it’s great to see Chris Tucker also returning to the screen after a hiatus that has gone on way too long. Why isn’t he in more movies? I really only know him from Jackie Brown and the Rush Hour trilogy, and there’s good reason for that: he’s not been cast in much else. Come on Hollywood – I love this guy. You can ditch your obsession with Chris Rock and bring back Tucker! Although he’s not on screen for large swathes of time, he’s magic when he is. With Tucker you know what you’re going to get – laughs. Man, I miss seeing this guy on my screen.

Tucker! Tucker! Tucker!

Tucker! Tucker! Tucker!

One criticism of the film that could be made is the somewhat mish-mashed nature of the film: emotional one moment, but funny the next. It’s bi-polar, a lot like Cooper‘s character. But I don’t see this as a problem. Its shifts in tone are nowhere near as jarring as those in Due Date – where Zach Galifianakis delivers his comedic lines one second to only break into a very somber speech about his dead father. That was jarring. That was a hard gear change. This film does not have the same problem. It seems to ebb and flow in a very natural manner that never stalls.

And one final parting note – I’ve read that some people are confused by the American Football terminology thrown around in the film. Why? It’s not hard to follow, so don’t worry about that if these opinions concern you. Sure, there’s a lot of focus on football, but that doesn’t mean it’s a film about it. Hell, Moneyball is all about baseball, which I know very little about aside from the fact you have t-shirt cannons and drink a lot of beer whilst some guy spent 3 days swinging a bat and missing. But the fact it was about baseball and I have little knowledge of it had no bearing on my enjoyment of that film. The same is true here.

Silver Linings Playbook is one long constant silver lining. The chemistry and performances from Cooper and Lawrence are truly fantastic, with both of them showing acting skills that they’ve not had on display in recent efforts. Some will argue Cooper‘s performance is better, some will argue for Lawrence, but in my eyes they’re both on a par and really make this movie what it is. Although the plot isn’t too cerebral, it throws up enough “will it / won’t it” moments to keep you engaged with the film.

It sounds like Cooper and Lawrence have heeded Downey Jr.‘s somewhat non-PC advice from Tropic Thunder. The film deals with mental illness: not in a mocking way, but in a very endearing manner. It acknowledges the rage and downsides, but also fuses them with some truly tender and lovely moments. And once again, let’s hear it for Chris Tucker – I want to start the campaign for his return. Either with him coming back to scream “Leeeee, Leeeee you crazy!!” in Rush Hour 4, or in some other comedic vehicle. The world needs more of him. We should always go full Tucker.

Phage Factor:

4 Star