Film Review: American Hustle

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There are two well-established traits to each movie in David O. Russell’s post I Heart Huckabees filmography: he places heavy emphasis on populating his films with memorable characters (which, to be fair, could be a description of his early films as well), and this focus on character tends to come at the expense of strong plotting (which wasn’t a problem with his early films). You can see it in both The Fighter, which is at its core the same sort of inspirational sports movie in the vein of Remember the Titans or The Natural that we’ve seen a million times, and Silver Linings Playbook, which boasts a nearly insufferable storybook ending that nearly undoes the strong work done earlier in the film. He works within these established genres and tropes, fills them with magnetic characters, the sort of characters we aren’t seeing in other iterations of the formula, and then has those magnetic characters fall into the same lockstep we’ve seen before. With American Hustle, Russell sets his sights on the long con film, a genre that has great potential for playing to his strengths. Coming along for the ride is a cast full of Russell veterans: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence of Silver Linings Playbook join Christian Bale and Amy Adams of The Fighter and Russell newcomer Jeremy Renner to populate this late 70’s period piece. Continue reading

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Film Review: Out of the Furnace

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I should have realized that when a film like Out of the Furnace, with the sort of high profile starry cast that it has, flew under my radar for so long, it might not have been a good sign. It’s got some impressive names on its IMDB page, from Scott Cooper, whose first film (Crazy Heart) won Jeff Bridges his Oscar, to the murderer’s row cast of Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Woody Harrleson, Zoe Saldana, Willem DaFoe and Sam Shepard. They’ve come together to tell a story of two brothers in western Pennsylvania just trying to scrape by in an unfeeling world. Christian Bale’s Russell works in a steel mill and has a bit of a drinking problem, and his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is an Iraq war veteran with PTSD who struggles to get by after he was spit out by the American war machine at the end of his fourth tour of duty. All these boys want to do is live their lives without too much interruption. Continue reading

Film Review: Nebraska

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It’s possible that Alexander Panyne films just aren’t for me anymore. There was a time this wasn’t the case. I love Election to death, and quite enjoyed both Citizen Ruth and Sideways, but both About Schmidt and (especially) The Descendants just did not interest me. They clearly were films of high quality, well-acted and well shot, but the subject matter and plot structure did not engage me in the slightest. With his newest release, Nebraska, I remained a touch concerned. The trailer ran in front of pretty much every movie I saw at my local art house cinema for about two months before opening there, and can’t say I was particularly impressed by anything other than the jaunty acoustic guitar score. The idiosyncrasies of small-town living in the Midwest are not something I can necessarily identify with on a surface level. Still, the story did seem interesting, and seeing Saturday Night Live alum and general goofball Will Forte in a dramatic role was an intriguing prospect to say the least. But did it all pull together in a satisfying way? Well, maybe? Continue reading

Film Review: Philomena

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Stephen Frears, Judi Dench and Steve Coogan have come together to bring us the true story of an older woman attempting to find her son after he was taken from her as a child.  Coogan co-wrote the script (based on The Lost Child of Philomena Lee), produces and stars as Martin Sixsmith, a journalist and former political spin doctor unceremoniously fired from the Blair administration looking to regain a foothold in his life when he is approached by the daughter of Philomena Lee (Dench) hoping to use his journalistic skills to help uncover the whereabouts of her son. Sixsmith resists initially, but comes around soon enough and takes on the story. Continue reading

Film Review: Oldboy (2013)

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Normally I do my best to not consider the source material when reviewing a film adaptation (or any adaptation, for that matter). Often it’s because I haven’t seen/read/experienced it (usually intentionally), but we should be all about determining whether the film can stand on its own merits. With a project like Spike Lee’s Oldboy, it’s tough for a few reasons. Park Chan-Wook’s Korean-language original casts a shadow over Lee’s interpretation, which tries to be its own movie while constantly visually referencing the original. Continue reading

Film Review: Frozen

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Disney Animation Studios has been on a roll for the past few years. 2010’s Tangled, last year’s Wreck-it Ralph and the just-released Frozen all have a charm that we hadn’t really seen from Disney pretty much since Pixar emerged in the 90’s as the premier purveyors of family entertainment. Tangled was the breakthrough, a proof of concept of sorts that finally established Disney’s ability to replicate their signature deeply expressive animation style in the 3D digital world. There was a noticeable technological deficiency in films like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons that reinforced their other storytelling difficulties. The animation of these films wasn’t bad or anything, but it didn’t seem to feel like the hand drawn Disney films of old. Tangled and Wreck-it Ralph fixed that, and you could tell that they had turned a corner. Frozen also marks the first Disney animated film co-directed by a woman (Jennifer Lee, who co-wrote Wreck-it Ralph), and has quite the new pedigree to live up to. Continue reading

Film Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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The second installment of the Hunger Games mega franchise traded out both its director and writers from its inconsistent but promising predecessor. This could have been a warning sign; making the move to shake up a creative team partway through a franchise is a risky move, but it turns out the director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) and writers Simon Beaufoy (a bunch of Danny Boyle films) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) have us in excellent hands. Catching Fire manages to improve on its first installment in every conceivable way. Continue reading