American Hustle – Movie Review

After a fantastic 1-2 punch with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, I think it is safe to say that David O. Russell has had a great period of a renewal in his career. And after his infamous tensions he had on set during his previous directorial efforts, that is definitely an accomplishment to be proud of. So now with Russell’s latest con dramedy American Hustle, he brings the forces of both his two previous films and concludes this pseudo-trilogy of the reinvention of his career.

Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are two successful con partners that thrive in their business during the 1970’s. They both share a love for eachother, Duke Ellington, and their desires for the American dream. Their worlds get turned upside down when they are forced by FBI Agent Richie DiMasso (Bradley Cooper) to take part in his program to bribe and pull the rug under numerous politicians – particularly Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the good-hearted Mayor of Camden New Jersey. And as if everything can’t spiral even more out of control, Irving’s off-the-wall wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to wreck the entire operation that may affect everyone involved in the worst ways possible.

As expected from his previous filmography, Russell is a true actor’s director. Having directed three of his performers to Oscar wins (and also having two of them in his ensemble), he proves here that he has a knack for not only pushing his actors miles beyond their limits, but also fleshing out even the most zany, outlandish characters in such a way that you can understand their intentions during these insane situations.

Thanks to Russell, this ensemble cast all reach their A+ game. Bale is absolutely unrecognizable as Irving as he effortlessly portrays this wild, yet charismatic conman. He also surprises with how well he can handle comedy right from the opening scene which will leave the audience in shock to see how Bruce Wayne would look if he let himself go. He also shares a madly irresistible chemistry with Adams who stuns in her wonderfully sexy performance. Bradley Cooper who has been on a string of mesmerizing performances as of late shines as the unpredictable Richie DiMasso to where he flawlessly holds himself down in a calm and collected manner in one scene to which the following scene soon brings him into his ultimate rage that delves into his character’s insanity. Renner’s portrayal as the ever-so likable Mayor Polito is also ranked among his best performances, and Lawrence just right after winning her Oscar in Russell’s previous film absolutely kills it especially during her scenes to which her tensions with Bale are so convincing dramatically that it also evokes uncomfortable laughter.

And wow, right from the use of the opening credits, this film just transports you into the glamorous-groove of the 70’s. The clothes, the sets, the hair, and of course, the music just immerses the audience into the hypnotic disco-era in Russell’s beautiful marriage of the excitement of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and the gritty, suspenseful vibe of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. 

Russell reworked Eric Warren Singer’s previous script and definitely made it his own – and he has done so in an unapologetic manner. This movie screams David O. Russell and his style for his unpredictable, yet realistic characters. These people in retrospect are despicable – which you expect knowing it’s all about cons and scamming. But ultimately, these characters have valid reasons and even have plenty of good-intentions. These five main characters are all trying to survive their difficult lives and unfortunately they just have to reach that satisfaction by committing these unlawful acts. But that does not make them unlikable characters but instead makes them feel genuine. It’s ironic to say that due to the fact that they all reach their points of craziness they also manage to have that humanity within themselves that impels the audience to feel for them as they embrace them even with their scandalous natures.

Expect numerous Oscar nominations for this film, folks – and rightfully so. Peppered with an all-star ensemble that each commit to their A+ game, a director who truly knows how to bring the 70’s not only as a backdrop, but as a character itself, and a script that invigorates such memorable characters and impeccable dialogue alongside an already exciting story that takes numerous twists and turns throughout, American Hustle proves to be all-around a remarkable achievement. Definitely one of the year’s best and quite possibly the most entertaining as well. So hilarious. So sexy. So alive.

American Hustle earns a 4.5/5.

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Saving Mr. Banks – Review

For P.L. Travers, the relationship that she has with the stories she wrote were fairly protective as Mary Poppins was inspired significantly from her childhood experiences in Queensland, Australia as well as her relationship with her loving, yet alcoholic father. So after the sales of her books continuously drop, Travers reluctantly travels to California to negotiate with Walt Disney about the prospect of adapting her books that had inspired millions of children worldwide to the silver screen.

John Lee Hancock’s film has garnered much attention from film aficionados and Disney fanatics as being the first film to have an actor portray Walt Disney. And for most audiences who will be heading to the cinema for Saving Mr. Banks, they more than likely expect it to prominently tell the story of Walt as well as focus on the making of his 1964 classic film. But it may come to a surprise for people when they realize that in fact, it isn’t the story of Walt and it isn’t a dramatization focusing on the making of one of the greatest family films of all-time. Instead, we are given a beautifully executed character study of P.L. Travers with only the Walt Disney Studio element serving as a background to her story which intersects throughout the film with her childhood as well as her struggle to give Walt the rights to her books.

Emma Thompson is impeccable in her portrayal as the reluctant Travers as she projects such an emotional complexity without going over-the-top. Whenever her character embodies the cranky, undesirable reluctance during her time in the film’s pre-production phase, the manner in which she plays off of balances her spiteful attitude along with an emotional center to where the audience understands of her reasons why she does not want to grant the rights – and that is showcased beautifully during Thompson’s silent moments in which through sublime subtlety, she absolutely sells it. In fact, during the film’s end credits, an audio recording of one of the actual production sessions is played and listening to the tape made me realize of Thompson’s exceptional portrayal even more than I already felt throughout the film.

As for Tom Hanks, it is safe to say that he is on a high rise this year. After a tremendous performance in Captain Phillips, Hanks takes a step into Walt Disney’s shoes as he becomes the first actor to portray him in a film. Many have been skeptical because they worry that whenever he is onscreen, all they would see is Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney. And while I would say that those notions are somewhat justified, I believe that Hanks wasn’t giving an impersonation of Walt but rather he was embodying the spirit that made Walt one of the legends of the entertainment industry.

As a life-long admirer of all things Disney, I was enthralled to see that not only Walt to be portrayed wondrously, but to also see that Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), The Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman & B.J. Novak), and a few other Disney legends have been portrayed so impeccably by their respective actors. Also, for the die-hard Disney fans out there, there are a plenty of moments throughout the film that will leave them in ecstasy whether it is during a musical session with the Sherman Brothers, or even a visit to Disneyland with Walt himself.

Saving Mr. Banks succeeds thanks to John Lee Hancock’s direction as well as Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith’s irresistibly charming screenplay. The banter given to the actors, particularly during the musical workshop scenes is a treat to see. But even with the permeating wit that encompasses this “spoonful of sugar” of a film, the heart of this entire story lies in the flashbacks to Travers’ childhood – particularly her relationship to her father who is portrayed remarkably by Colin Farrell. It is through these flashbacks that the audience understands why the character of Mr. Banks had always played a vital role not only in the Mary Poppins story, but in her own life because the true matter is that her purpose for writing the story was never centralized on characters like Jane, Michael, Bert, or even Mary. It was always about Mr. Banks, and thankfully as the film progresses and the puzzle pieces to both narratives intersect with eachother, it is all in perfect, bittersweet harmony that brings such an emotional satisfaction all the way through when we finally see the Mary Poppins world premiere.

I am pretty sure that because this film is a dramatization of the events of the making of the 1964 classic, it for sure won’t portray the film in a 100% fact basis. And while some purists and such may not buy the film for those reasons, those who are willing to ignore that prospect – particularly Disney fanatics are bound to thoroughly enjoy this irresistible charmer. I will say that if you are not a big Disney fanatic or fond of what you may feel would be too over-sentimental of a portrayal of the true events, than this movie may not be for you. But because I am a die-hard Disney fan, this cup of tea is nothing short of delightful. Saving Mr. Banks is the feel-good movie of the year and I don’t believe there has been a film to come out this year that has left such a huge smile on my face during the entire running time. I believe somewhere, Walt is looking down with an even bigger smile on his face as we speak.

Saving Mr. Banks earns a 4.5/5.

“Thor 2” hammers down in action, but loses a bit of thunder.

When 2011’s Thor released, I was surprised to see that after a slew of lackluster trailers, it actually ended up being a very entertaining blockbuster. It made a seemingly uninteresting hero like the God of Thunder worth rooting for and also introduced us to one of the best cinematic comic book villains with Loki. Not to mention of course helping with adding onto the excitement to the assembling of The Avengers. 

As someone who considers himself a huge fanboy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), I was pretty excited by what I was seeing from Thor: The Dark World, mainly because of my enjoyment of its predecessor, and of course, seeing more of Asgard. I really enjoyed Iron Man 3 and because of my excitement for seeing another expansion to where the MCU will be headed in Phase 2, I got more and more enticed to see it. And while I definitely found this entry to be a fun watch, I still left the theater feeling somewhat let down by the finished product.

Before delving into my problems, I would like to mention the obvious: Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston both kill it. Hemsworth has now proven to have a great amount of charisma as an actor, and as our God of Thunder, he absolutely sells it. And as for Hiddleston, he expectedly steals the movie. And for me, the film’s best moments were when it was just those two bantering with eachother, which is irresistibly entertaining to see.  Following the aftermath of the battle in New York as seen in The Avengers, I was really curious to see where these two characters would be taken and I gotta say that I felt satisfied to see where they went, which is definitely a credit to the two actors. Thor 2 also has a creatively entertaining climax that definitely got me hyped up with excitement and gave me the type of action that I have wanted to see more of from its predecessor. Not to mention the film also has a genius cameo that might be the best in all of the MCU films to date.

But unfortunately, while I did enjoy my time in the theater, Thor 2 wasn’t without its handful of missteps. Interestingly enough, besides the one major element that I felt truly dropped the ball, there’s nothing else within the film that I would constitute as anything necessarily bad. But what I will say is that I feel that director Alan Taylor and the screenwriters played their cards a little too safe. As a film that should be expanding the MCU and putting more stakes with the characters and stories, I feel that the crew definitely dropped the ball a handful of times throughout the BTS process.

And as much as I give praise to both Hemsworth and Hiddleston, I feel as if the rest of the cast did competent enough, but not necessarily were given the most interesting characters. As much as I love Natalie Portman and believe she did fine here, I didn’t find her character to be that interesting to follow. Kat Dennings returns as the ever-annoying Darcy, who proves again to be the obligatory comic-relief and yet is anything but funny. Stellan Skarsgard whom I expected to have a bigger role this time around is cast down in a wasted opportunity to give him more character and instead belittled down to some forced humor that felt lacking.

A few transitions from Asgard to Earth that lacked fluidity round up the minor problems I have with this film. But the one major problem with Thor 2 that leave it at just an entertaining, but standard flick lies within our villain Malekith. Talk about a major step down from Loki. If you were to ask me anything memorable about this villain, all I can say to you is somewhere along the lines of praising the makeup crew for doing a pretty good job. Otherwise, you have quite possibly the most bland villain in the entire MCU. 

But with those flaws aside, I still believe that Thor 2 is worth watching in the theater. It has enough action sequences that are worth catching on the big screen and Thor and Loki are both still great to witness, but it all unfortunately equates to being just good and not great. Probably my pick besides Iron Man 2 as the safest film of this universe. It’s enjoyable, but I don’t think I’d buy it on Blu-Ray.

But seriously… We’re already halfway through Phase 2. Before you know it, Age of Ultron is here…

Thor: The Dark World earns a 3.5/5.

“Ender’s Game” Movie Review

As someone who has not read the original source material by Orson Scott Card, after my first viewing of the trailer for Ender’s Game, an interest grew within me even if I felt like the only one who thought it could be good while everyone else thought it looked awful. It wasn’t necessarily part of my most anticipated for 2013, but I was still intrigued.

That is, until the trailer literally started playing in front of every single film I went to go see since it debuted. And since then, every preceding viewing of the trailer progressively made my interest wane. Thankfully, Gavin Hood and the cast proved me wrong, because this film definitely surprised me out how invested I was throughout.

The main cast all do a solid job. Asa Butterfield of Hugo gives a remarkable performance as our titular character, in which he emotes a wonderful balance of strength and vulnerability. Harrison Ford is expectedly terrific giving a surprisingly subtle performance that doesn’t reach the “angry Harrison Ford” kind of performance that he could’ve easily given. Octavia Spencer and Ben Kingsley also give wonderful performances as does Hailee Steinfeld. As for the rest of the young child-actors, while all of them do a commendable job, they don’t seem to carry themselves as well as Butterfield and Steinfeld do, but thankfully, the weren’t the forefront of the story and didn’t have the responsibility of playing the main protagonist.

Gavin Hood directed the film in a way that surprisingly kept my interest the entire time. Unlike most films similar to it, Ender’s Game clocks in at just under 2 hours, and thankfully, besides an average opening 20 minutes, the preceding acts hold the film together as a solid investment, which is credit to Hood’s direction and script.

The film explores numerous ethics such as moral codes, taking on responsibilities, and taking in the pride and humility needed when taking an important task to accomplish. And while I did feel that the film for the most part reached those heights, there were instances where I felt as if it bit off more than it could chew.

Also, I know that the filmmakers cannot take every single element of a book and bring into screen due to length and translation, but there were moments in the movie where I felt it was brushing over a few chapters as well as some motivations within the characters that I felt could have been earned given the film had a longer running time. This is one of the few occasions where I would have actually liked the film to have gone on longer than it already is, because I think the film could’ve upgraded from pretty good, to great had it been given more time to develop and explore the characters and ideas it had portrayed.

But nonetheless, Ender’s Game is still one of the bigger surprises of 2013, and as someone who at first was hesitant after growing exhausted by that trailer, I’m satisfied with this film. So much so that I’m now inspired to read the book. Definitely not a perfect film, but one worth checking out on the big screen.

Ender’s Game earns a 3.5/5

Hanks and Greengrass have nothing but smooth sailing with “Captain Phillips”

Whether or not the events depicted in this film are portrayed accurately, or if the actual Captain Richard Phillips is even close to the heroic mantra that Hanks effortlessly portrays him as, it should be known that as a Hollywood semi-biopic, it is a given that liberties will be taken for better cinematic effect. And thankfully, Greengrass fantastically gives us that with Captain Phillips.

It helps that after directing the last two Bourne films in the original trilogy and the incredible 9/11 drama, United 93,Greengrass manages to blend in the best elements of those films and putting them into one thrilling package. Captain Phillips in its essence is a drama with remotely nonstop tension throughout, much akin to United 93 whereas it also applies the incredible action spirit that Greengrass’ Bourne films have.

And the other force that helps bind this film together is Tom Hanks, who is a revelation in this film by not only giving the best performance of his career since Robert Zemeckis’ “Cast Away,” but by perfecting the ideal “normal man” who has been put into a life-or-death situation. And whether or not the real Captain Phillips was anything like what Hanks portrayed, there is no doubt in the audiences’ mind that Hanks projects so many emotional layers that are especially evident within the film’s closing 15 minutes.

It helps that besides the stellar Hanks, we have a complete cast of unknowns, which help add to the film’s realistic feel. Whether it is within Phillips’ crew, or the intense Somalian pirates that invade, there was never a single moment where I felt like I was watching a dramatization, but rather that I was right there on that ship. And the greatness of those unknown Somalian actors deserve much praise, particularly Barkhad Abdi, who portrays our antagonist that does not evoke a generic villain personality, but thanks to the script, has many emotional layers to him that makes one interested in his backstory.

I find it interesting that this film was released so close to Cuaron’s Gravity because while they are both within completely different settings, while Gravity explored agoraphobia, Captain Phillips explored the idea of claustrophobia. And the claustrophobic feel is especially given the spotlight once the film’s second half initiates.

Some may not be in for the film’s pacing and running time, especially during the film’s second half, but when I originally believed that it went a bit too long during that time, I feel that it somehow added to the overall experience that Phillips probably had during his time inside that lifeboat. Thus, elevating the film to a height that I never expected- a height in which it revealed itself as a truly fascinating character-study of an everyday man put in one of the situations that no sane person would want to endure. 

 

 

 

Captain Phillips earns a 4.5/5

Edgar Wright wins the Summer with “The World’s End”

Well, the Summer is finally coming to a close and as I reflect back onto 2013’s season, we definitely had a couple terrific films along the way and while I did enjoy them quite a bit, there hasn’t really been that one movie within the terms of “fun” entertainment that had really got me completely floored. But look who came to rescue for the 2013 Summer season! No, it’s not a superhero. It’s none other than Edgar Wright, the genius behind the television show Spaced, and the films Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. And not only is this the definitive conclusion to this Summer, but it’s also the ideal conclusion for his famed Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. 

We love to reminisce about the good ol’ glory days don’t we? Well no one loves to go back to those times more than our hero, Gary King (Simon Pegg). Back in high school, he was, in fact “The King.” And with his gang of Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and Pete (Eddie Marsan) they went on a quest to past through the coveted Golden Mile: a pub crawl for consisting of 12 pubs from The First Post pub all the way to The World’s End. Gary and company never made it all the way through that crawl and as we fast-forward years later, we find Gary in need to reunite with his friends to go back to Newton Haven to finally finish the Golden Mile all the way through. But as they make it back, they realize that something strange has happened to the town since they’ve left it years ago and as things get even more stranger, it is up to them to not only finish the Golden Mile, but to also fight for their own lives, albeit while being drunk.

The first two films in this Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy are both masterpieces of comedy, paying homage to the genres they are satirizing while also giving them a hug. With Shaun of the Dead being an awesome rom-zom-com and Hot Fuzz being “a no-holds-barred, adrenaline-fueled thrill ride” of a comedy. Those films’ rewatchability is almost unparalleled and they both are among the list of the best comedies of the century. And it gives me such great pleasure to say that Wright has given us the perfect way to close this trilogy out.

Simon Pegg gives quite possibly his most entertaining and versatile performance of his career as Gary, being the slacker man-child that you grow to love and root for as he goes through the Golden Mile. And in a role-reversal from the previous two films, Nick Frost leaves the audience in stitches in his portrayal as the straight-man type character that we never really seen him play before and as the film continues on, he becomes one of the most epic geek-worthy characters of the year. Rounding up the cast is Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine, and Rosamund Pike, who all give terrific performances across the board evoking countless belly-laughs all the way through.

It’s become a cliche to say that Edgar Wright’s direction is great, but yeah. It’s great. With his impeccable skill of frenetic direction, Wright’s work flies flawlessly right from the straightforward first act where our heroes are going through the crawl, and of course when the film takes a dramatic turning point as we realize that Newton Haven is no longer the same, pulling in an ingenious sci-fi element that brings out laugh upon laugh upon laugh. Pegg and Wright’s screenplay is also the most entertaining and witty screenplay of the year with tremendous dialogue as well as memorable three-dimensional characters that you are engaged with the entire time.

The World’s End is definitely the most character-driven of the trilogy and surprisingly relies not as much on the genre riffs and tributes for comedic effect as much as the previous two films do. But that doesn’t necessarily bring the film down out all. And that is because of the well fleshed out characters and surprisingly heartfelt message that elevates the film and its humor to such glorious effect. Within all the laughs and surprising emotional weight, we are reminded that there comes a time where we need to embrace the future, and while remembering the glory days is fine, wallowing too much in the past may prevent us from an even better life in the future.

As the film concluded, a sense of finality within the trilogy overtook me as I walked out of the theater, excited with such glee as the near-permanent smile on my face during the 109 minute runtime was still plastered. Wright has concluded the trilogy so fittingly and as we finish our last Cornetto with him, Nira Park, Pegg, Frost, and the others, we must also reminisce about the great comedic memories that they all have given us together.

Now, only two years away from Ant-Man…

The World’s End earns a 5/5.

Elysium – Movie Review

It is 2154. There are two places you can be living in at this point in time: you can either live on Elysium, a space-station for the wealthy or you can live with the rest of the population on a ruined Earth. Max (Matt Damon) has always dreamed of getting a ticket to go “up there” to Elysium in the hopes of having a shot at a better life. But after being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, Max has to find a way to make it “up there” in the hopes to survive past his diagnosed last 5 days. Max not only fights for his own survival, but for the equality of the entire human race that is divided between these polarized worlds.

Four years ago, Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi masterpiece, District 9 introduced a newer kind of science fiction. It had this incredibly dirty and gritty feel that was never seen before. It also was a riveting sci-fi drama with a great protagonist in Sharlto Copley, incredible visual effects, and even a deep social-commentary on many worldly controversial issues that never felt forced in the slightest. And to think, it was at a budget of $30 million.

Now, Blomkamp brings us Elysium. With triple the budget of his previous film, Blomkamp is faced with the task of proving whether or not he’s a one-hit wonder. Expectations were naturally high thanks to his Oscar-nominated film and as more trailers were released, excitement had only gotten higher. And thankfully, Blomkamp truly shines as he proves that he’s one of the most original filmmakers today, giving us a solid sci-fi action film.

Damon’s portrayal of our main protagonist Max is terrific giving us a great sense of subtle emotion throughout, especially when he is experiencing painful situations and of course, during the heart-pounding action set-pieces. But out of everyone in the cast, Sharlto Copley without a doubt steals the entire film with his performance as Agent C.M. Kruger. Copley’s performance is so menacing and malicious that I developed a genuine feel of hatred towards him. Never in the longest time have I truly despised a villain in quite a long time, and Copley proves here that not only he can play a great villain, but should be acting in more movies because there is so much talent exuding from him.

Blomkamp paints a great vision of a dystopian future through his direction as well as through his effortlessly seamless visual effects that help elevate the story rather than overshadow it. The action sequences are also edge-of-your-seat engaging and also brutal making the audience feel Max’s pain as he fights for his life. Everything felt so real throughout that I felt as if I wasn’t watching a film but rather I was witnessing documented footage sent from the future because of the surprising amount of hyper-realism presented within a very sci-fi setting.

Elysium does have its share of flaws unfortunately. Jodie Foster’s performance felt a little too hammed-up and while I don’t feel like she’s necessarily awful like many other critics out there do, I think that it’s mainly her character that I just didn’t care to follow because of the lack of development on that character’s part. Also, just like in District 9, Blomkamp manages to present social-commentary in Elysium tackling such current issues like immigration, health care, and the 99% vs the 1%, and where District 9 effortlessly pulled off its statement on the issues it tackled, I felt that Blomkamp handled this commentary in a way that just didn’t feel as deep as I wished it did. When asked about what he feels about what the message the film conveys, Blomkamp replied, “No, no, no. This isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now,” and while I genuinely respect his ambitions on tackling such issues, the overall execution of such just fizzled in comparison to his heights on the technical side of the filmmaking process.

Elysium may not be as intelligent or deep like District 9, but it is still smarter than most other blockbusters out there. Aside from its flubs within Foster’s character and a not-so-stellar social-commentary, on a creativity standpoint in filmmaking, it’s an entertaining blockbuster and a nice way to close off this Summer thanks to terrific performances from Damon and Copley and incredible action sequences thanks to Blomkamp’s skillful direction. This film should not be judged from the expectations from wanting a sequel to District 9, but rather its overall execution, and in that, it’s a great time at the movies.

 

Elysium earns a 4/5