Sneak Peek – American Hustle

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The 1927 New York Yankees were dubbed Murderers’ Row because of their spectacularly stacked batting lineup. The first six batters in particular – Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri – were so good and effective at the plate that they could kill any pitcher that was unfortunate to throw them the wrong pitch. Anyone of them could get you; if you were lucky enough to strike out Keonig, you still had to face Ruth and Gehrig. That team was blessed with an inordinate amount of talent and could do some devastating damage at the plate.

I bring this up not because I am a Yankees fan, but because David O. Russell’s new film American Hustle reminds me of the 1927 Yankees. Russell has taken the great actors that the worked with in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook and has brought them all together to create the acting equivalent of Murderers’ Row: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner. No director should be so lucky to have all these amazing actors to play with; this acting lineup is so good that you have Louis CK and Robert DeNiro in this film “batting” sixth and seventh. I honestly didn’t even know either of them was in the film before I went to a preview earlier this month. American Hustle is like my dream cast assembled.

Of course, you can have all the acting talent in the world in your movie and it doesn’t mean a hill of beans if you don’t know how to properly use it. American Hustle had a lot of potential, but could it live up to the caliber of actor that had been amassed. The answer is a resounding yes; American Hustle is the most fun that I’ve had at the theater in a very, very long time. Though I saw this film in the beginning of December, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It was so good that I may have to go see it again when it is finally released this weekend. For once, there is a movie that lives up to the hype.

If you have seen the previews for American Hustle, you know that this film takes place in the 70s – that much is evident from the clothing, hair and music that are used. What you may not know is that the film takes place against the backdrop of the Abscam scandal, though the film is very upfront about the fact that it is playing fast and loose with the facts. This film isn’t Argo; it gets the decade right but everything else is questionable. Irving (Bale) and Sydney (Adams) are small con artists that are partners in love and hustling. When their scheme is uncovered by ambitious FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), they are forced into working with him to bring down larger targets to earn their freedom. One such target is Carmine Polito, the mayor of Camden, NJ who is willing to make some questionable deals to bring back his city. They are all thrown down the rabbit hole of Jersey politics and Mafia connections and it isn’t clear who is being loyal to whom. The real wildcard in their elaborate con is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Lawrence), who is so unpredictable and volatile that she could easily destroy everything.

Every actor in this film is absolutely tremendous; they are like kids in a candy store and go for broke in each and every scene. It is so clear that they are having fun with the juicy material and they work incredibly well with one another. Bale is almost unrecognizable with his balding hair and paunch, but he is so charming and smart that you understand why both Adams and Lawrence fell in love with him. This film is a good reminder that Bale is capable of way more than being The Dark Knight; it’s the best I’ve seen him in a while. I have always adored Amy Adams and she is at the top of her game in American Hustle. Sydney brings her own baggage to the table and of all the characters in the ensemble she is the one whose motives are the hardest to determine. She’s just great and looks amazing doing it. Cooper is so good as DiMaso; though he’s made a name for himself lately as a more dramatic actor, American Hustle shows that he can knock it out of the part when he’s given a well written comedy. DiMaso’s ambition makes him reckless and Cooper’s increasingly erratic behavior and inflated sense of importance are a fascinating transformation to watch. He really becomes unhinged. Renner’s previous roles tend to require him to be hard and scowling, so it is nice change of pace to see him smile as much as he does during American Hustle. He artfully demonstrates Polito’s heart and love of community, making the character more nuanced than the typical target of a scam. His Frankie Valli pompadour is really a sight to behold.

And then there is Jennifer Lawrence, who even among this beautiful and talented cast is able to pretty much steal ever scene that she is in. This woman has no right being as good at her craft at such a young age, but she nails every scene that she is in. She is so very funny and so ridiculous that the movie kicks into a different gear every time she appears on screen. She just continues to be amazing in everything that she does and Russell brings out the absolute best in her.

The story has so many twists and turns and shifting allegiances that I really had no idea who was playing whom at any given time or how the film was going to resolve itself. It’s a real rollercoaster ride and the film zigs when you expect it to zag. Between the mesmerizing performances and the dazzling camera work, the audience never knows what is going to happen. It’s just whole lot of fun and outrageously entertaining.

The one knock that I’ll put on American Hustle is that I’m not sure how much the story actually holds up under close scrutiny. Because the audience is so disoriented and overstimulated from all that is going on, it is quite possible that we are getting hustled as well. I was enjoying the ride so much that I didn’t have time to analyze what I was actually seeing (unlike The Desolation of Smaug, where I had plenty of downtime to think about plot holes and weaknesses). Ultimately, I don’t really care if this film is actually just a dressed up trifle; it was such a sharp and exciting film that I was completely satisfied with the finished product.

Some other thoughts:

  • I have a weird fascination with the 70s, so I totally ate up all the fashion and the music in the film. I think half the reason I was so excited to see American Hustle was their use of Led Zeppelin in the original trailer.
  • It is worth plunking down your hard-earned cash just to see Bradley Cooper in curlers. That perm deserves its own Academy Award.
  • Russell also knows how to get the best out of Robert DeNiro; his role is small, but he’s great as well. And Louis CK is just perfect as Cooper’s exasperated supervisor.
  • The microwave over scene in the film absolutely KILLED at my screening. That may have been the hardest that people laughed in the entire movie. Have I said Jennifer Lawrence is the best?
  • If you enjoy seeing Bradley Cooper dancing – and who doesn’t – you won’t be disappointed.
  • There is a definite Goodfellas vibe to the film, which is probably the highest compliment I could give it. Russell channels his inner Scorsese in more than a few shots.

I just straight up loved this movie – between the performances and the camera work and the awesome retro costumes it was an exhilarating ride. I can’t say that it is the best film of the year, but I can say that it is probably my favorite (sorry Mud – you had a really good run). It isn’t a serious film, but it was a really pleasurable movie going experience. The sign of a good movie is that as soon as I see it I want to talk about it; with American Hustle, I was barely out of the theater before I was texting people to make sure that they saw this movie when it came out. David O. Russell makes the most of his dream team cast and delivers a spectacular film.

 

American Hustle opens nationwide on Friday December 20th.

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Sneak Peek – This is The End

When the end of the world comes, people like to think that they would rise to the occasion. They would be their better selves and find the strength that they needed to act heroically and keep their loved ones safe. They would be brave and band together with others to survive, helping each other out along the way as best they could. This noble impression is reinforced in countless apocalyptic movies and television shows.

In reality, people would freak the hell out and get into petty squabbles over who ate the last Milky Way while holed up in their home. The new Seth Rogen movie This is The End recognizes this and embraces it. This certainly isn’t the best film of 2013, but I’m willing to bet it may be the funniest. It’s silly and profane, but it is also spectacularly amusing. Once the film started, I didn’t stop laughing until the credits started rolling and even then I still had some residual giggles from what I had just watched.

In This is The End, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride and Jay Baruchel play fictionalized (one would hope) versions of themselves. Jay is in town visiting his pal Seth, though their relationship is a bit strained as they have started to grow apart. Jay isn’t particularly fond of Seth’s new posse of friends and reluctantly accompanies him to a house warming party at James Franco’s house. The party is in full swing when the unthinkable happens: the world comes to an end. The ground opens up, the mountains are on fire and chaos rules the night as some people are beamed up into the night sky. The six friends take shelter in Franco’s mansion and do their best to hunker down and make sense of the situation. They are ill-prepared for this sort of situation and soon cabin fever and fear begin to reveal how they really feel about each other.

Written by Rogen and Evan Goldberg – the same pair that wrote Superbad and Pineapple Express (and to be fair, last year’s dreadful The Watch) – This is The End will not be confused for sophisticated or highbrow humor. There are lots of jokes about masturbation, drug use and the like. If that kind of humor offends you or isn’t your thing, than save your cash and go see something else. But if you don’t mind jokes that dip into the crude and inappropriate, This is The End is an amazingly fun ride. Not every joke lands with perfect precision, but the jokes are so rapid fire that you don’t even have time to dwell on the few that don’t work as well. There were probably some jokes that missed that I didn’t even hear because I was laughing so hard at the joke that preceded it and the one that followed it. When the jokes do hit their target, which the majority does, it is some of the funniest stuff I’ve seen on the big screen in quite some time. And as with most Rogen films, it isn’t all poop jokes and related nonsense; underneath all the sophomoric hijinks there is some sweetness and heart.

The cast is outstanding in this movie; it’s a real who’s who of the young comedians working today. The six main actors alone are a Murder’s Row of comedy; any film would be lucky to get two or three of these guys in a movie. Having all of them work together somehow just doesn’t seem fair. This is the most I’ve enjoyed a James Franco performance in quite some time. If he had been this loose and funny at the Academy Awards it would have been a totally different show. It helps that all of these guys are friends or have worked together previously. The chemistry is palpable and they are clearly having so much fun doing this that it is contagious. They don’t take themselves too seriously and are more than willing to have jokes at their own expense, whether it is a reference to Rogen’s “distinctive” laugh to lingering questions about Frano’s sexuality. They just go for it and appear to be having the time of their lives in the process. Add that it is just plain funny to boot and this movie is really firing on all cylinders.

While the leads are stellar, what really takes this movie to the next level are the fantastic cameos throughout the film. I have a sneaking suspicion that Rogen just opened up his rolodex and called a bunch of his famous pals to be a part of this and the film is the better for it. All sorts of funny people pop up and I’m sure that I’ll catch some more people upon repeat viewings. The real scene stealer of them all is Michael Cera. I don’t want to spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that I was glad that I had watched all the new Arrested Development episodes before the screening of This is The End as I’m not sure that I’ll look at him the same way again. There is another standout cameo that is also spectacular, but to say any more would ruin the surprise. Let’s just say that you’ll know it when you see it. It’s outstanding.

Some other thoughts:

  • Any movie that reunites all the male Freaks from Freaks and Geeks automatically gets a B+ in my book.
  • I have no idea what Rihanna is doing in this movie. She’s the only casting choice that didn’t feel organic and stood out.
  • I have no idea why, but “sinkhole de mayo” still cracks me up.
  • The idea that Rogen pitches for Pineapple Express 2? I would totally watch that.
  • Rolling Stone did an interview with 4 of the stars (no Robinson or Baruchel) and to say that Hill isn’t portrayed well is putting it mildly. That dude needs a publicist and to remove the stick from his bum.
  • Ha! The ending is wacky, but if you know me (and I’d like to think at this point you kind of do) you will appreciate why it make me smile despite its lunacy.
  • Unless they changed this after the advanced screenings, no need to stay after the credits. We waited around to see if they would give us another morsel, but sadly there was no additional material.

This is The End is a rollicking summer comedy that exceeded my expectations. The theater rocked with laughter at my screening; it was a diverse crowd but everyone seemed to really enjoy themselves. If you are looking for a silly and ridiculously funny movie, look no further. I’m not saying I’m rooting for the rapture, but if it was coming This is The End wouldn’t be the worst note to end it on.

This is The End opens nationwide Wednesday June 12th.

Sneak Peek – Gangster Squad

Fact: When you put Ryan Gosling in 1940s clothing, a movie can’t be terrible.

The long delayed Gangster Squad will finally hit theaters this weekend and while it was not as sophisticated a film as I had anticipated, the stellar cast and interesting story almost make up for what the film is lacking in depth. We walked out of Gangster Squad entertained, which can’t be discounted. However, Gangster Squad was ultimately disappointing; it held the promise to be a much greater movie, but the film seems to be content with just being average.

The film is loosely based on the real life gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a Jewish man who used his skill in boxing to earn respect and work his way up the ladder of organized crime. He is slowly taking over Los Angeles, a fact that doesn’t seem to upset many in law enforcement as many of them are on Mickey’s payroll. The Police Chief (Nick Nolte), however, isn’t on the take and assembles a secret team of police officers (Ryan Gosling, Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick) under the leadership of Sgt. O’Mara (Josh Brolin), who has proven he isn’t afraid to go up against Mickey. Their mission is to eradicate Mickey’s syndicate by any means necessary. They aren’t charged with making arrests; they are charged with going to war with Cohen’s gang. If that means that they have to kill a few people and work outside the law, so be it. The situation is further complicated when Gosling falls for Cohen’s arm candy, Grace (Emma Stone).

The acting is really the strength of this film. They have assembled a great team of actors headed up by Penn and Brolin, who really seem to embrace the roles that they are playing. Mickey Cohen is the showier of the roles and Penn really does a great job of bringing Mickey to life. Cohen is a terrifying man whose moods can turn on a dime; one moment he will be joking and bantering with reporters, but if one of them asks a question he doesn’t like, he immediately becomes violent and bullying. Penn’s weathered visage only adds to the intimidation factor. Brolin’s character is less defined, but he does well at playing the no-nonsense O’Mara. Brolin has a presence and makes more of O’Mara than was probably in the script. Actually, I suspect that all of the actors made more of their characters than they were written.  Gosling and Stone are their usual fantastic selves and they have the same great chemistry that they had in Crazy, Stupid, Love. I do wish that Stone had been given more to do – she’s a great actress, but here her main responsibility is to slink in and out of the room (which she does very well, but there is more to her than that). The rest of the supporting cast is strong as well. It seems clear that the actors are all having a lot of fun.

The film also looks beautiful and relishes in its vintage sets. I happen to have an affinity for the style of the 1940s and all the costumes are lush and the various locations, specifically Slapsy Maxie’s Nightclub, have the look and feel of the time period. It’s all very pretty to look at and the film is peppered with some of the great music of the era.

Unfortunately, the screenplay for Gangster Squad leaves a lot of be desired. While the story of police going to war with a gangster should be a pretty meaty source for the film, the screenplay just isn’t very developed. It felt very paint by numbers to me. The story doesn’t move forward in an organic way; things happen because they have to happen. I’m paraphrasing, but this is pretty much the entirety of the conversation that the Police Chief and O’Hara have about setting up the “gangster squad (keeping in mind, they have no previous relationship):

Nolte: “I want to set up a secret team of cops to go to war with Cohen. Destroy his entire operation. Make no arrests.”

Brolin: “OK.”

That’s it. No real discussion. No hesitation. Just “I’m in.” The entire story moves forward the same way. It all so very predictable. There are also tonal inconsistencies – people are being set on fire in one scene, but a few moments later there is some light hearted comedy. It’s like Gangster Squad couldn’t decide what kind of film it wanted to be. The characters are basically reduced to one characteristic: Brolin (tough), Golsing (ladies’ man), Ribisi (smart), Patrick (good shot), Pena and Mackie (not white). It’s the actors that give them life, nothing else; in the hands of lesser actors, these roles would have been exposed for how flimsy they were written.

Some other thoughts:

  • Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are so good together that I really wish that they were a real life couple (sorry Andrew Garfield). He’s so pretty, she’s so pretty – I like to imagine them off being pretty together.
  • This movie has absolutely no idea what to do with its minority characters.
  • This movie is violent; it’s not in the Django Unchained realm, but there is plenty of brutality. I don’t know that it is excessive – it is, after all, at its heart a gangster movie, but some people may be unprepared for it.
  • Josh Brolin should have never played a young Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black 3; that is now all I see when I look at him.
  • Late in the film, Ribisi raises an interesting point – by using their take no prisoners methods, are they really any better than the gangsters? It is a valid question that a more thoughtful movie would have at least addressed. But in this movie, it was dropped almost immediately. I really don’t know why they bothered to even bring it up.
  • After many relatively well behaved audiences, I’m disappointed to report that the first screening of 2013 saw the return of bad behavior. The women who were sitting next to us did not shut up through the entire movie. They would quiet down for a few minutes, but then it was right back to chatting away. That behavior just baffles me. They talked the entire time we were waiting in line, the entire time we were in the theater and they were STILL talking when we passed them on our way out. If I hadn’t have been with someone, I probably would have said something. The worst was that they laughed way too loud at things AND giggled like school girls when Gosling did basically anything (these were women probably in their late twenties).  It was infuriating.

The pieces were mostly there for this to be a much better movie. It’s a testament to the actors that I found this film as entertaining as I did. The screenplay felt more like an outline for the screenplay than the final draft and it ultimately dragged the movie down. Gangster Squad was still mildly entertaining, but I also have a tremendous amount of goodwill for the actors involved. I left the film more troubled by what could have been rather than what was. The actors deserved better and with a different screenwriter, I think this film would have been much more sophisticated and nuanced. I was really looking forward to Gangster Squad, but it wasn’t worth my anticipation.

Gangster Squad opens nationwide January 11th.