“Her” – Humanity gets an ‘F’

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Whenever Spike Jonze surfaces with his new film, it invariably causes a fair amount of buzz, and for a good reason. He might not be the most prolific director with only four full-feature films under his belt (and a boat-load of shorts and documentaries), but it doesn’t change the fact that each and every one of his creations is unique, cerebral and unforgettable in a way. Jonze’s films always bring something new to the table, by either inciting an intellectual conversation, or by offering an interesting new angle to a currently relevant topic, and “Her” is no different. In fact, it is much more socially relevant and brutally insightful than any other of his previous films. And it is a delight to watch. Continue reading

“American Hustle” has too many fantastic performances for its own good

It might come across a bit strange, but almost directly after the credits to “American Hustle” started rolling (or even earlier, during the film) I felt this pulsating need to go back home and watch Martin Scorsese’s “Casino”. I find it even stranger, given that up to that point I have never seen it before, but somehow the newest addition to David O. Russell’s filmography pointed me to take it off the shelf, so that I could once and for all cross it off my list of shame.

But wait… There’s more. Only after I got round to see Scorsese’s epic, my opinion on “American Hustle” started to look more positive; before I was quite convinced the film was mediocre at best, but seeing it in context of “Casino” made me rethink my stance, which I find disturbingly amusing, as never in my life I would have thought those two films could have so much in common. I don’t quite know whether David O. Russell had planned for this, but assuming it was all coincidental, “American Hustle” becomes more and more amusing as a story.

I seem to remember “American Hustle” being touted as ‘the next big thing’ in the run-up to last year’s Academy Awards, all the while the hype was being drummed up for “Silver Linings Playbook”. Given how I loved that film, and how I regard “The Fighter” as an all-around phenomenal piece of film-making, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that at that time my expectations for “American Hustle” were already considerable in size and could only grow from there. Seriously, having written and directed not one, but two stunning tour de force films in a row, I thought David O. Russell would bring it home for the third time in this period drama(slash)comedy loosely based on the ABSCAM story.

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If, like me, you somehow missed out on the 70’s and/or were born in a country, where no-one would give a rat’s ass about the news from the US, then the word ABSCAM would most likely mean nothing to you. And I knowingly chose not to investigate this topic before watching “American Hustle”, as if to enhance the theatrical experience. The story is only (as the opening shot states explicitly) partially grounded in reality and in it we meet a pair of con artists, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who when caught red-handed by a hot-blooded FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), are given ‘an offer they can’t refuse’. In order to regain their freedom and walk away unscathed, the pair agrees to help DiMaso in setting up a massive sting operation, wherein they would bring a bunch of corrupt political figures down on charges of corruption. In order to achieve that, they would have one of the FBI agents pose as an Arab sheikh, who would like to ‘donate money’ to the cause of turning Atlantic City into the East Coast’s Las Vegas (hence ABSCAM – AraB SCAM, I believe). Little do they realize, the sheer scale of the operation in combination with the volatile nature and agent DiMaso’s delusions of grandeur with the added bonus of Rosenfeld’s eavesdropping mentally unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) being thrown into the mix, the group might end up with a bit too much on their plates.

I think the best way to describe my feelings towards “American Hustle” is to use the word ‘confused’. Because I couldn’t possibly believe that a story with such a stellar cast of high profile actors directed (and penned) by a high-calibre persona of David O. Russell could come across as bland, but yet it did. My ridiculously hyped expectations might have had something to do with it, I won’t deny that, but I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by what ”American Hustle” had to offer. It’s not that the film lacks in any way, because the performances alone are simply stunning, but overall it drags sometimes and all too often goes into boring territory. It only goes to show that it’s not enough to be friendly with a bunch of ‘hot actors’ (apart from the ones mentioned, the list includes Jeremy Renner as a good-hearted, but corrupt mayor, and Robert De Niro as a high profile mobster) to produce a great film. I realize that David O. Russell simply likes to work with those guys, and they like to work with him (naturally), but I fear that from this point onwards, his films might start their slow descent towards well-cast clichés.

What “American Hustle” could really use is a compelling story, because as it stands, the plot is sufficiently weak to be foreshadowed by the performances alone. There’s nothing wrong with that, because I will always appreciate Christian Bale’s very physical and wholehearted commitment to the role, or Jennifer Lawrence’s way of delivering dialogue that makes me believe she actually is not ‘all there’ emotionally; but in the longer terms, beyond the signature O. Russell’s small talk, there’s not much that would make “American Hustle” memorable, let alone a classic. The main problem I had with the film’s story lies in its seemingly complex nature that is additionally hidden within the vast network of interpersonal issues between the characters. This is where I would go on to postulate that David O. Russell was not the best man to bring the ABSCAM story to the screen in a compelling manner, as in my opinion, he got his priorities wrong while making “American Hustle”.

In his defence, he does know how to flesh out a character and make it pulsate with life, but in a film like that, which is story-driven, the characters need to know their place and work in service of the story, and instead their powerful nature (and Amy Adams’ cleavage) diverts attention from what should actually be the focus of the story – the elaborate con. And there’s only one person I could think of, that could film a story like that (especially in a period setting) and do it justice, and it’s Martin Scorsese. And this is where it gets weird…

After a quick google search it has become clear that I am certainly not the first one to drop Scorsese’s name in a review of “American Hustle” with the word ‘rip-off’ featuring prominently in some of the write-ups out there. While for a seasoned veteran critic it is almost second nature to draw parallels between “American Hustle” and “Goodfellas”, or “Casino”, I think there’s more to this than meets the eye, simply because from where I was sitting, I felt a very strong Scorsese vibe emanating from O. Russell’s newest piece, and I have never even seen “Casino” before. Surely, you could postulate “Casino” being a rip-off in its own right drawing from “Goodfellas”, but I think it would be doing Scorsese’s work a disservice.

If you look through Scorsese’s filmography, you’ll immediately notice that among the myriad ‘instant classics’ he directed, there’s only a handful he has also written the script for. And that handful includes “Mean Streets”, “Goodfellas”, and “Casino”. This big trio is truly representative of something you could call ‘Scorsese’s style’, because of the creative control he assumed over those particular films.  Therefore, I believe it is unjust to call any of those film’s rip-offs based on their recurring features, like the multi-personal narrative style and multi-faceted house-of-cards-like plotlines converging into a massive climax.

Now, putting “American Hustle” against the collective backdrop of stylistic traits present in “Casino”, or “Goodfellas” turns this film into a completely different beast; now it’s homage to Scorsese’s work and everything starts to make a bit more sense. Initially, I couldn’t get past the alien feeling of the narrative, or the scattered plotline, but in that context it seems David O. Russell made those choices knowingly to evoke the atmosphere of a mob epic drama; yet he couldn’t restrain himself from ‘doing his thing’ with the characters. In effect, “American Hustle” looks to me now a bit like a poor-man’s “Casino”, but at least I can put this film in context. Without that stylistic reference, nothing about this film makes much sense and it boils down to a bag of performances (top-notch, mind you); which is not enough for me to call a film ‘great’. It still is very interesting to me to regard “American Hustle” as inspired by Scorsese’s work and it certainly makes me wonder, what it would be like if the roles were reversed. I most certainly would love to see Scorsese’s attempt at writing characters and dialogue in homage to David O. Russell. Would you?

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“Man of Steel” – Kneel before Zod!

Now that’s a summer movie I’ve been waiting for! In reality I could end the review right now, because I have just shown my hand and, quite honestly, no amount of words will convey how awesome “Man of Steel” really is. Nonetheless, I think I’d like to say a little bit more on the subject.

Following yesterday’s screening of the long-awaited reboot of the Superman franchise I was so pumped I had serious difficulties focusing my thoughts enough to write the review and I spent a better part of the evening listening to the excerpts from the Hans Zimmer’s score to “Man of Steel” (which is epic, by the way, and come Monday there is no force in the universe that could stop me from buying the CD) wearing my Superman T-Shirt and feeling awesome and invincible. And before I get to the nitty gritty, I just wanted to say that this is what a superhero film is supposed to do to you; it ought to be the definition of ‘awesome’, epic and unforgettable. Clearly, Shane Black could learn a thing or two from Zack Snyder, because “Man of Steel” is everything that “Iron Man 3” isn’t. While it certainly has its flaws, which I’ll discuss later on, the film delivers on almost all fronts by being respectful to the iconic stature of Superman in pop-culture and all the while elevating his story to the proper modern standard.

The origin stories in superhero universes are almost invariably awkward – just as adolescence is in real life, I presume. In them one needs to provide enough background information for the story to actually count as an origin, but it needs to be done with some class so that it’s not heavy-handed. We all know how easy it is to desensitize the viewer by overloading him with data (“Oblivion” and “After Earth”, I’m looking at you, guys) and going for a sloppy brush-over job is not going to cut it any longer; it’s not the 70’s any more and we have the technical capabilities to give Kal-El a proper background story, without the cheap crystals, sheets and bathrobes. Moreover, “Man of Steel” – whilst clunky in the beginning in delivering the actual background – did give Superman solid foundation in his universe with very vivid interpretation of his home planet Krypton and the plot that led him to Earth.

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In that spirit – for those who are unaware – it all begins on a distant planet Krypton. Jor-El’s (Russell Crowe) is born and it is a special affair. I shan’t reveal why that is, because by some it might be seen as a minor twist in the movie, but the newly born Kal-El needs to be protected at all cost. More so because his father – being an important figure in the governing structures – discovers that Krypton has become unstable and is going to explode, thus claiming lives of its inhabitants. No-one, including the ruling council, believes Jor-El’s gruesome revelations, apart from General Zod (Michael Shannon) who stages a coup d’etat to ensure the planet’s survival. Jor-El doesn’t trust the young and ruthless general and refuses to join him. Despite all that, Zod with his insurgents carry on what they started, but Jor-El gets killed in the process. He does, however, ensure that his son is sent off in a capsule headed specifically to Earth. The revolution gets thwarted in the end, Zod and his henchmen banished, and Krypton – according to Jor-El’s predictions – meets its untimely demise.

When Kal-El lands on Earth (somewhere in Kansas) he is found by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane), who adopt him as their son and name him Clark. As the boy grows up, his other-worldly powers start to surface and make Clark into a social outcast. After years of living in solitude, drifting through the world and living under various aliases, Kal-El (Henry Cavill) gets a shot at understanding his past, his powers and his reason to exist. He tags along as a technician on an expedition where a young and ambitious reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is investigating a possibly alien artefact frozen in polar ice for millennia, which will turn out vital for Kal-El to become what he needs to become. And little does he know, that once banished General Zod, now brutally scarred, betrayed and hungry for retribution has found Kal-El’s refuge and will stop at nothing in order to claim his revenge.

This is why I think origins stories are difficult to get right: it takes 350 words to summarize 25-30 minutes of a film and I think I held myself back a little with the details and intricacies of the story. I would certainly understand that to some people the first act of “Man of Steel” feels a bit out of tune and needs a bit of time to start rolling, and by the time the final act is upon us, it’s gleefully steam-rolling through the screen in a sensory overload of epic proportions. However, I found the first act quite pleasing, as the very details of Clark’s coming of age are delivered through flashbacks and dreams instead of a blatant biopic-like borefest. While this approach feels fragmented and slows down the pace, it never really hurts the story as a whole, because meanwhile we get to see how Clark slowly becomes Superman by gradually learning to understand and love the people of Earth. I personally loved, how Zack Snyder and Dave Goyer chose to deliver Superman’s mission. While Kal-El is far away from being dark and edgy, he is no longer the clumsy Clark Kent, as portrayed by the late Christopher Reeve – Henry Cavill’s Superman is no mere superhero… He is not your friendly boy scout, for he is a messiah. By the way, when Clark finally finds his roots, hones his powers and comes to terms with his mission in life, he is 33 years of age – just like Jesus… And his character is led more or less in a messianic way, with selfless choices and sacrifices he is willing to make.

But that is not the best part… The best part is that “Man of Steel” finally delivers a Superman that we needed. It’s not as if I don’t appreciate Chris Reeve’s classic Superman, but the forty years that stands between us make him look… cute and adorable… “Man of Steel” gives us a Superman that – no questions asked – is faster than a bullet and more powerful than a locomotive. Henry Cavill’s Superman is the supersonic indestructible god it ought to have been for decades now. Thanks to technical advances in special effects, Superman is no longer a levitating guy in a red cape – he is a force of nature and any sequence with Kal-El in it is quite simply jaw-dropping. Indubitably, “Man of Steel” goes to ridiculous lengths to show us how gods would fight each other. Everything about this film is ultra-fast, massive, epic and packed with adrenaline. Whilst the first act is quite slow, dreamy, or even clunky, the remainder of the film compensates for it in a way you have never seen before.

On top of all that – the action and epic sequences – we can also find some solid acting in “Man of Steel”. Henry Cavill (first non-American to portray Superman) does a fantastic job at grounding Kal-El in the world he is in, so that it feels more natural to see him emerge as a god who would give his life to save his compatriots. While Cavill’s demeanour certainly fits the expectations, he surely doesn’t feel like a run-of –the-mill Chris Reeve lookalike, but breathes new life into Kal-El’s character and contributes vastly to the impact of “Man of Steel”. Amy Adams as Lois Lane very nicely adds to the picture. I didn’t seem to understand what her game really was for a while, because Lois Lane in “Man of Steel” is not just a damsel in distress any more (well, she is once or twice), but I think she is more of an embodiment of everything Kal-El is fighting for.

And the villain… Having a believable and scary villain in a movie is almost as important as getting your protagonist right. Michael Shannon as general Zod does a fine job creating a frightening and ultimately dangerous counter-balance to Kal-El. If it hadn’t been for certain one-liners and the initial insurgence plot-line, I would have thought Shannon’s Zod was close to the level of Ledger’s Joker, but he clearly had to grow into the boots he wore on the screen. While the older scary Zod is a fine villain and I have nothing against him, the younger Zod who revolted against Jor-El was quite artificial and laughable (almost like Commodus in “Gladiator”) and I couldn’t find him scary or threatening at all. On the other hand, that might have been the plan all along as Zod’s character seems to grow scarier in time, so that by the time we hit the climax, he’s got everything he needs. A late-blooming villain, but still…

In summary, “Man of Steel” has become my personal favourite Superman movie and it definitely is the biggest summer film for me. Well, until “Pacific Rim” is out, but that we shall see… Anyway, it is an all-round powerful sci-fi that recognises Superman’s mythos and is not afraid to bring something new to the table. The special effects are delicious and perfectly crafted and one can clearly notice someone has been taking notes from J.J. Abrams “Star Trek” with the lens flares, shooting against the light and super-zooming. Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon gave bang-on performances and only Russell Crowe looked to me as if he didn’t belong there quite as much. All this was covered with a thick layer of icing in a form of a powerful and truly epic score by Hans Zimmer, who has managed to slip in some uplifting crescendos in between the lines, so that the overall messianic feel of Superman’s mission was all the more elevated in the end.

By know I realized this article has become too long to be ended with finesse, so I shall say only this: “Man of Steel” turned out to be not only a great summer movie, not only a great Superman movie, but a very good movie in general. In fact, the film was so good that – contrary to what I normally say – I can’t wait to see the sequel…