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Monday, March 3, 2014

American Hustle and Winter's Tale

Just two movies left to finish off this week. Well, three technically but I have no earthly idea what The Perfect Wave is supposed to be.

American Hustle. Following hot on the heels of his last film, the quite terrific Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle finds director/co-writer David O Russell on rather different ground. Moving from the character-driven intimacy of Silver Lining Playbook to a plot-and-style-driven crime caper that plays like a more flippant, less intense Goodfellas, it is, if nothing else, impressive how easily O Russell shifts gears from one genre to the next. American Hustle is a sprightly and attractive slice of pure entertainment that has what to say about identity verses appearance but somehow still feels slightly hollow for it. It may have garnered as many nominations as its predecessor and it's just as handsomely made, but it never quite manages to match the heart or the depth of Silver Linings Playbook.

American Hustle tells the largely true story of the 1970s Abscam scandal where a small-time con artist is forced by an ambitious FBI agent to help him bring down a New Jersey Mayor, a number of state congressmen and a powerful crime family. Things, needless to say, never quite go according to plan and it's a wonderfully twisty story that manages to grip even at its most indulgent, rambling moments.

The cast is lead - albeit just about - by a brilliant, often comic performance by Christian Bale who, with the most elaborate comb-over I've ever seen, has given up some of his usual intensity for a sense of fun that actually suits him rather well. He is matched easily by a brilliantly dickish performance from Bradley Cooper and an intentionally-fake-English-accented turn from the always great Amy Adams, but the actors and the characters that won me over most were actually those with much smaller roles.

I've never been the biggest champion of Jeremy Renner but his beautifully layered work here as a conflicted mayor who, even at his worst, is still genuinely trying to build a better life for his constituents, may well make a fan of me yet. It's rather unusual for a politician to be the most sympathetic and likable character in a movie but that's exactly what we have hear. On a similarly likable and sympathetic - if significantly more pathetic - note we have Louis CK, who is hilarious as the Bureau chief who fails repeatedly and increasingly hopelessly to control Bradley Cooper's character. It's a brilliant piece of casting that makes the use of what could easily have been a throwaway role. And, oh yes, there is also a very short but memorable appearance by Robert Deniro who once again does some of his best recent work under the direction of David O Russell.    

To the surprise of absolutely no one at all, however, by far the most memorable and interesting character here is the one played by Jennifer Lawrence. Her actually rather small role as Bale's characters neurotic wife could easily have been one-note but she is, by a country mile, the best character in the film. Some have complained about her being too young to play Christian Bale's wife but such nitpicks only serve to overlook how she mixes perfect - and I mean perfect - comic timing with a subtle dramatic touch that makes her character such a fascinating, but wildly funny, enigma.

This wellspring of brilliant performances (again, all four of the film's major stars were nominated for Oscars) O. Russel again proves to be the master of directing actors and he certainly spins a really good yarn, but he does stumble slightly here with the film's uneven pacing and his incredible attention to detail of the period's aesthetic peculiarities has largely come at the expense of American Hustle's emotional core. It isn't quite as intellectually and thematically shallow as some have suggested as it does take a good stab at the idea of how we allow our appearances to define us but it does ring somewhat emotionally hollow as only the minor characters - especially the two on the right of the above poster - ever really evoke much in the way of sympathy from the audience.  

Still, even if the past awards season has produced notably better films, American Hustle is a thoroughly enjoyable film with great performances and great, crazy-bad hair.

Winter's Tale (or A New York Winter's Tale in some areas). Ah, poor Winter's Tale. It never really stood a chance, did it? This tale of miracles, enduring love and spirit horses who are really spirit dogs is just way too dopey, way too much of a wide-eyed fairy tale to ever work for today's more cynical audiences. It has gotten a thrashing by the vast majority of critics and has largely been ignored by general audiences.

And, to be fair, much of the criticism is well earned. It's not particularly well thought out, often makes little sense and it is precious in a way that only the most earnest of love stories and fairy tales can be. The beloved novel on which the film is based is apparently a bit of a monster in terms of word-count so it's unsurprising that the massively condensed version of the story to be found in the film is disjointed, even nonsensical but does that really explain how a 110 year old woman could still be editor of a major New York newspaper or how Colin Farrell's early 1900s haircut looks like a reject from a 1990s boyband? And have I ever, in my whole entire life, concentrated on hairstyles as much as I have with this week's movies?

Winter's Tale is balderdash, basically, but I was actually kind of charmed by it. And not just because it has Will Smith hamming it up as, of all things, Lucifer himself. While most people are put off by the film's obvious wide-eyed earnestness, I actually thought it was quite refreshing to see a film that is this uncynical in its willingness to wear its silliness on its sleeve and, for that matter, this unabashedly romantic. Besides, Colin Farrell is a good leading man, Russell Crowe is (crappy Irish accent and all) a terrifically enjoyable baddie and Jessica Brown Findlay is pretty much the definition of enchanting.

So, yes, it's basically total garbage, it's certainly not going to help the shaky reputation of its writer/ director, Akiva Goldsman and I'm sure that it doesn't hold a candle to the novel on which it was based, but there's still something... nice about Winter's Tale. I can't really recommend anything this fatally flawed but if you're willing to indulge the innocence of your very young inner child for a couple of hours then the hokey sweetness of Winter's Tale may be just what you're looking for.


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