by Steve Habrat
Ever since his directorial debut in 1994, David O. Russell is a filmmaker that continues to surprise critics and audiences with the wide range of films that he produces. He’s done indie comedies (Spanking the Monkey, I Heart Huckabees), mainstream comedies (Flirting with Disaster), war thrillers (Three Kings), political comedies (Nailed), sports dramas (The Fighter), romantic comedies (Silver Linings Playbook), and now, just under a year after releasing his celebrated Silver Linings Playbook, he tackles another project that expands his intriguing body of work. Just in time for Oscar season we have American Hustle, a film that has been receiving glowing word of mouth over the past several months for its intoxicating blend of 70’s style, quirky characters, dry humor, and rich story that consistently pulls the rug out from under the viewer at every turn. With expectations at a staggering high, you start to wonder if this tale of a sleazy con man, his gorgeous partner, and a shifty FBI agent could ever live up to such praise. Yet with each passing second, American Hustle hits entertaining levels that are off the charts, and it finds Mr. Russell in full form, radiating a confidence we have yet to see from this talented filmmaker. Russell can also thank his star Christian Bale, who gives the best performance of his career, for making American Hustle such a strutting must-see.
American Hustle introduces us to Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale), a smooth-talking con man that runs a chain of Laundromats and on the side operates a seedy loan business where he takes $5,000 from desperate clients and gives them nothing in return. Life is pretty good for Irving, but it gets even better when he meets the beautiful Sydney Prosser (played by Amy Adams), who is drifting from job to job. After showing his business off to Sydney, she jumps on board and assumes the identity of Lady Edith Greensly, a British bombshell with overseas banking connections. As Irving and Sydney rob their clients blind, the two strike up a romance that is kept from Irving’s motor-mouthed housewife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who paces around their home like a caged tiger. It doesn’t take long for Irving and Sydney’s operation to be thwarted by Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper), an eager FBI agent looking to make a name for himself at the bureau. Rather than locking Irving and Sydney up in jail, Richie decides to use the con artists to help him with an operation called Abscam, which would lure Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner), the beloved Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, into taking a bribe. Irving and Sydney reluctantly agree to help Richie, but their plot to take down Politio takes a dangerous turn when several other high level politicians and ruthless mobsters get involved.
With so much style and humor to burn, American Hustle wouldn’t even need its winding and weaving script that finds all of its boldly drawn characters attempting to get over on each other. From the opening retro studio logos, Russell is gleefully smashing open a post-Vietnam and Watergate time capsule, which allows us to glimpse an America that has embraced earth tones, tacky oversized sunglasses, perms, bell bottoms, leisure suits, plunging dress necklines, and disco music. It’s all so loud, excessive, and in your face that it threatens to be cartoonish. It also guarantees that American Hustle is going to be a strong contender in the production design category, costume design category, and make-up and hairstyling category. While the meticulous attention to detail certainly makes the film entertaining, the sense of humor that Russell injects is an absolute wonder. The film opens with Bale’s Irving fussing with his comb over, hilariously gluing strips of hair down over a tuft of fake fuzz. It is guaranteed to have the theater doubled over in laughter, especially when Cooper’s DiMaso decides he is going to mess the eccentric masterpiece of a hairdo up. Also brilliant is the winking trip to a flashing disco club, where Adams and Cooper burn through the dance floor like fiends. It’s wildly hilarious and hot-under-the-collar sexy as they shimmy and shake their way to a dimly lit bathroom stall. American Hustle’s crown jewel of hilarity comes when Irving and Rosalyn have their very first fiery encounter with a microwave, which they continuously refer to as the “science oven.”
Making American Hustle even more irresistible is the A-list cast, who all seem like they are locked in a never-ending battle for the spotlight. While they are all fantastic, none come close to matching the work of the out-of-this-world Christian Bale. We’ve seen Bale immerse himself in his characters before, but none have been quite as charming and alive as Irving, the pudgy con man with the meanest comb over you have ever seen. In front of Sydney, his clients, and even DiMaso, Irving has a silver tongue that really works a room. His confidence practically burns a hole in the screen, but when he’s behind closed doors and facing the wrath of Rosalyn, he’s a fidgeting disaster that clutches at his heart and pops little white pills to calm his weak ticker. Adams is a spitfire as his redheaded partner, Sydney, who throws on a British accent and toys with DiMaso’s heart. Adams and Cooper share two specific moments that could practically set the screen ablaze. Cooper nails his role as the slimy DiMaso, the hotshot FBI agent who wears his perm like a crown. Lawrence is as sexy as ever as Irving’s restless wife Rosalyn, a bored and neglected housewife who threatens the whole operation. Then there is Renner as Polito, the optimistic Mayor who is determined to bring back Atlantic City any way he can. Rounding out the cast is Louis C.K. as Stoddard Thorsen, DiMaso’s perpetually peeved boss who can never seem to get control of his determined agent.
As if the style, humor, and fluid performances weren’t enough to make you fall in love with American Hustle, the film also boasts a firecracker of a script from Eric Warren Singer and Russell. Slightly based on true events, it dares to be unpredictable, sweet, intimate, touching, and intensely character driven as all of these characters that claim to do anything for survival try to play each other any way they can. It’s a thrill not knowing what direction it’s going to veer off in next. All the bickering and scheming builds to a witty final act that springs a double-cross rush that leaves you floating out of the theater. Overall, American Hustle finds Russell at the top of his game as a filmmaker. He is working with an airtight script, capturing brilliant performances that play phenomenally off each other, filling his frames with gorgeous set and costume design, and allowing his sharp sense of humor to fuel its soul. The end result is gold-plated entertainment that is guaranteed to retain its shine for years to come and reward with multiple viewings. By the end of the film, you will respect the hustle.
by Steve Habrat
Since May of 2008, Marvel has begun to hype their heavily anticipated superhero mash-up The Avengers with little Easter egg hints in the origin stories for Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. It has been a torturous journey for Marvel fans but we finally have the crown jewel of Marvel superhero offerings and I’m just going to be frank when I say that it kicks a whole bunch of ass. Clocking in at just shy of two and a half hours, The Avengers is one gigantic nerd money shot, not bogged down by any longwinded origin tale or story set-up. With The Avengers, director Joss Whedon, allows his superhero titans to let loose and show off what they are capable of. There is a whole bunch of flying, jumping, punching, shooting, smashing, destroying, hammer throwing, shield throwing, missile launching fun that will keep a smile plastered across your face and drool splattering onto your Thor t-shirt. Yet The Avengers is even more of a triumph because it is actually a really good movie. This isn’t a big empty excuse that stretched things to get all these do-gooders into the same movie, which is what I feared when I first heard about The Avengers.
The Avengers begins in a remote research facility where a powerful energy source and portal known as the Tesseract is currently being held. The Tesseract suddenly activates, allowing the exiled Norse god Loki (Played by Tom Hiddleston) to step through the portal and attack the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that are guarding it. Loki finds himself confronted by S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), who attempts to stop Loki from making off with the Tesseract. In the process, Loki declares war on planet earth and announces that he is in control of a powerful alien army that is capable of wiping earth out. Running out of options, Fury and Russian agent Natasha Romanoff/The Black Widow (Played by Scarlett Johansson) begin rounding up the exiled Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Played by Mark Ruffalo), weapons defense expert Tony Stark/Iron Man (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), Loki’s brother and fellow Norse god Thor (Played by Chris Hemsworth), the recently rediscovered super-soldier Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Played by Chris Evans), and kidnapped assassin Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Played by Jeremy Renner). The group forms a rickety alliance and begins trying to find a way to stop Loki and convince him not to attack earth but it turns out that S.H.I.E.L.D. may be hiding a few secrets about the Tesseract of their own.
Every hero that makes up The Avengers team gets a classic moment that sent the audience members of the midnight showing I attended into a frenzy of cheering, whistling, hooting, and hollering. It helped when the sequences that were filmed in Cleveland blasted their way onto the screen, which really drove my audience wild. Every hero gets the opportunity to fight the other or team up to take on Loki’s relentless army of hideous aliens. A sequence where Iron Man and Captain America gang up on Thor is an earthshaking encounter as well as an aerial battle between Black Widow, The Hulk, and Thor. The Thor/Hulk brawl exceeded awesome when Hulk tries to lob Thor’s hammer at him but is unable to lift it. It is just as glorious as you might expect. The final battle almost exceeds words, each character getting a “HOLY SHIT!” moment that you will have to see to believe. Much has been made over the 3D in The Avengers, which was added in post production, many saying that it leaves a lot to be desired but I was actually impressed with it. Arrows fly out of the screen along with ruble, sparks, and more. Next to Avatar and Hugo, this is one of the movies that if you can see it in IMAX 3D, you should.
While the special effects will blow your mind, it’s Joss Whedon’s script that really sends The Avengers to the forefront of superhero movies. He catches us up on all four of the main heroes; so if you’re worrying about seeing the other films that have led up to this, don’t worry too much. You’ll be able to figure out what is going on with no problem at all. Whedon measures out every hero and gives him or her an equal amount of screen time so they can do their superhero thing. Mark Ruffalo is the newest member to this tights party and he smoothly settles in. He ends up being the best Bruce Banner/The Hulk of all the actors who have tried to tackle the role. Ruffalo is a poor soul who adds the grittiest emotion to the role (a scene where he discusses a suicide attempt will really stick with you), oozing with loneliness and longing for acceptance. Thor, Stark, and Rodgers are not far behind, as the three of them all have to come to terms with their outsider status. Rodgers tries to settle in at a time when the world may not even need him, Thor continues to act like a strutting brute, and Stark continues to act like a self-center brat. Hiddleston’s Loki proves to be a formidable foe for the dream team, a smirking baddie who can do quite a bit of damage on his own. I feared his character would be unable to carry the weight of the villain considering he wasn’t front and center in last summer’s Thor but he rises to the challenge and knocks it out of the park. The two characters that I would have liked to have seen more of and developed a bit further was Black Widow and Hawkeye, who only get fleeting hints at their past. You’ll forgive because Whedon is clearly trying to juggle a lot and pulling it off exceedingly well.
The Avengers does become its own worst enemy in a way. I found myself getting so caught up in the idea of the film (Four legendary superhero in ONE movie!) that some of the sci-fi chatter and story development ends up being overshadowed. When the heroes would sit down with Fury and discuss all the science behind the Tesseract, my mind would wander a bit from the story and I would become antsy for the next action sequence. It was clear that the entire theater was getting restless during these scenes and craving more explosions, rescues, brawls, and more. There is a flipside to this and it works in the film’s favor. Since I have seen the film, I have been itching to get back to the theater to see it again and invest myself more into the story. This isn’t to say that The Avengers is a difficult film to follow (it certainly isn’t) but the gimmick of spectacle outweighs the story every step of the way. But hey, what do you expect from a summer blockbuster?
Despite a few minor hiccups, The Avengers is still a must-see action extravaganza that will be one of the biggest films of the summer. It has everything you could want in a superhero movie and then even more that you didn’t even know that you wanted. The Avengers is Marvel’s best film to date and I fear almost every film they do in the wake of it will pale (unless of course it is another Avengers movie). The film has a strong script with applause worthy one-liners, pristine CGI (get a load of Hulk!!), devoted performances, and a strong patriotic spirit that leaves American soil and infects everyone around the world. Kicking the summer movie season off with a nuclear explosion, The Avengers will awaken the inner fanboy or girl in each and every one of us, even if you think there isn’t one to be found in you. A top-notch crowd pleaser of the highest order.
by Steve Habrat
Despite what you may think of the Academy Awards, I think most who saw Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War film The Hurt Locker can agree that it was indeed the best film of 2009. Paranoid and frantic while taking absolutely no stance on the Iraq War, Bigelow masterfully sculpts a beast of a film, leaving us just as shaken up as one of the soldiers is after a bomb blast. It’s tough to wrap your head around the idea that a film dealing with a war that was as unpopular as the Iraq War would have no comments about the war itself. Instead, this is a boys being boys film, one where Bigelow presents three radical personalities (one timid, one by the books, and one who relentlessly lives on the edge), puts them in a bomb suit, and shakes them up violently to see what makes them tick. The film begins with the quote “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug”. The Hurt Locker turns out to be more than just a psychological study of the toll urban warfare takes on a soldier, but is also a movie about the crippling addiction of pushing the envelop and tempting death.
The Hurt Locker begins in 2004, just shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. After the grisly death of Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Played by Guy Pearce), the reckless and testy Sergeant First Class William James (Played by Jeremy Renner) comes in to take his place as a bomb diffuser. James joins Sergeant JT Sanborn (Played by Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Played by Brian Geraghty) and the group sets out on a string of missions including suicide bombers, car bombs, roadside bombs, etc. Sanborn and Eldridge try to keep their small group together and guarded where anything and anyone can become a threat. As James relentlessly tests the patience of Sanborn and Eldridge with his irresponsible behavior, Sanborn and Eldridge begin to fear for their own safety as well as begin to entertain ideas of finding a way to get rid of James. James, on the other hand, gets a thrill out of tempting death and his addiction to the “rush of battle” has caused him to become an outsider when playing the role of civilian.
Bigelow shies away from using familiar faces in her film, allowing the soldiers to seem like actual soldiers serving a tour of duty rather than a bunch of pampered actors sipping bottled Fiji water. This approach gives The Hurt Locker a heavy does of realism and randomness that can’t be matched by many other war films. Her fidgety camera that will unexpectedly zoom in on possible threats adds another layer of anxiety to the experience. Anyone can die at any second and Bigelow doesn’t want you to escape that nail biting dread. Pearce was the only recognizable actor in The Hurt Locker and he is knocked off in the first ten minutes of the film. Hell, if Pearce can get it, than any of these soldiers can bite the dust at any time! The Hurt Locker posses a documentary feeling throughout the course of its runtime, sometimes making you forget that you’re watching a movie. When snipers open fire on the group in one particular scene, you are practically ducking behind your coach and hugging the ground for dear life. Every battle doesn’t descend into quick cut gunfights, but rather embraces drawn out tension mixed with anticipatory trepidation of where the threat will come from next. Can you trust that man holding that cell phone? Is that car loaded with explosives? Are the citizens watching from their windows carrying a detonator or gun?
The Hurt Lockers presents three radical forms of the soldier. Eldridge represents the skittish soldier who fears death above all else, where every day could be his last. Sanborn is the by the books man who views his duty as just another day on the job. James is the one addicted to the “rush of battle” and views war as a drug. He can’t escape the thrill of it. Each performance is heavy and the relationship between the three main characters is never firing on all cylinders. Very rarely do they all click and work hand-in-hand, when they do they are alarmingly efficient. The most complexity lies in James, who cares more about the corpse of a boy who is currently having his guts ripped out and having them replaced with explosives over his own child back on American shores. Rarely does he talk about his wife, only when he is probed and had a little to drink. He struts towards bombs with his chin and helmet held high, loving every step he takes towards possible death. When he finds a bomb that could wipe out a large area, he rips off his bomb suit and goes about disarming the bomb comfortably. If it blows up, the suit won’t save him. But you have to wonder if he would really care if it did blow up. James also symbolically serves as the bottle that Eldridge and Sanborn are dropped into. When a rush shakes up James, the worst and the weakest points emerge from Sanborn and Eldrige
There is never a down moment in The Hurt Locker, one that doesn’t enthrall and hold your eyes to the screen. From the directing all the way to the script, the film is absolutely perfect, an atypical accomplishment for any film that makes its way out of Hollywood. The film opened the eyes of mainstream audiences to the talents of Jeremy Renner, who is finally becoming a household name. I firmly believe that The Hurt Locker is an instant classic, a film that will join the ranks of classics like Apocalypse Now and Platoon. In fact, the movie stills impacts me every time I see it, leaving a crater in stomach. It is a film I will never forget seeing in theaters for the first time and walking out of absolutely silent, verbally paralyzed by the sheer intensity of it. If you have never seen The Hurt Locker before, it may be wise to experience it with someone who already did just so they can have 911 ready. Why? Because you may pass out from holding your breath.
The Hurt Locker is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
When is the last time you saw an honest to goodness awesome action film that got your heart pounding and your palms sweating? Can’t truly recall one that actually did its job? For me, it was Inception, but director Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is the most recent to really get me chewing my nails down. Truth be told, most action films rely too heavily on CGI deception, layering giant battling robots duking it out in a familiar American metropolis, rubbery superheroes darting around skylines saving tumbling airplanes, cramming as much busy aerial action into a wide shot as humanly possible, or something to that overblown extent. Sure it’s thrilling to look at and we admire how pretty the picture looks, how real the effects are getting, etcetera, but we never actually sweat bullets over the conflict because we know our CGI superhero will save the day no matter what. They are larger than life, so our answer is eradicating the life and you have an unstoppable man made creation. Don’t get me wrong, I adore superhero films and I love to see what the computer wizards in Hollywood will digitally dream up next, but they are never as invigorating as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Most action films, sadly, are not.
Here’s the mission, if you choose to except: Acrobatic IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Played, for a fourth time, by Tom Cruise) and his brainy band of sidekick agents find themselves being blamed for an explosion at the Kremlin. In the explosion, a terrorist named Hendricks (Played by Michael Nyqvist) makes off with launch codes for nuclear missiles. The slippery Hendricks is hellbent on igniting nuclear war throughout the world. Russia blames the United States for the explosion and in response, the president issues “Ghost Protocol”, wiping out the IMF and leaving Hunt and his team to take the heat. Hunt turns to the newly appointed field agent Benji (Played by a superbly hilarious Simion Pegg), the curvy and vengeance seeking Jane (Played by Paula Patton), and the mysterious Brandt (Played by Jeremy Renner) to help him track down Hendricks, prevent a nuclear holocaust, and clear their names. Hunt also finds himself the target of a persistent Russian security force agent named Sidirov (Played by Vladimir Mashkov). To reject taking on this mission would be an absolute mistake.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol does have its fair share of eye candy effects moments. A massive sandstorm bears down on Hunt as he scales the massive Burj Khalifa in Dubi with nothing but high tech gloves that produce an adhesive, allowing him to stick to the side of the building. Wait until one of the gloves begins shorting out. That’s only the start of what is sure to be a classic sequence. Cars go somersaulting at Ethan, a massive explosion levels part of the Kremlin, and more. What turns up the adrenaline in this film is the fact that Cruise, who is one of the biggest and most recognizable stars on the planet, puts himself right in the center of the action. He takes more than a few tumbles in this film and at times, Bird’s camera seems to catch accurate spot-on reactions. At one point, I even turned to my friend that accompanied me and said, “Man, did you see his face? THAT looked pretty real and THAT was a look of pain on his face!” Cruise is the heart and soul of this franchise and, more importantly, keeping this film from veering off onto throwaway blockbuster territory. And yes, the film projects an epic scope but the action is tight and controlled, never appearing showy.
Credit should certainly go to director Brad Bird, who makes his first live action feature film. We knew he could make some heartwarming family friendly films (He is the man responsible for The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille), but the man works well with flesh and blood actors too. His cast has impeccable chemistry, gracefully playing off each other, delivering a whole slew of memorable one-liners, and actually working hand-in-hand in every situation they find themselves in. His camera floats along with Cruise as he inches along the Burj Khalifa, tossing his camera down the side of the building, giving us a sense of how high up Cruise actually is. He stages an intimate confession up close and personal and he lands jokes deviously, sometimes taking a second to for the laugh to squeak out of the viewers mouth. Wait until you see Benji and Hunt creeping around the Kremlin. There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke that is adroitly landed. Bird holds tense moments extra long, making we the viewers feel the pressure that Hunt and his team are under. Bird certainly has a future in action.
Everything in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is top notch. Everything from the action, the chases, the acting, the CGI, the editing, the staging, the pacing, the feel, and the final showdown just connect and work together until the very last frame. The MVP here is without question Cruise, showing vast dedication to the project and risking life and limb for his art. The film packs the fireworks we all want from the Mission Impossible franchise but they never feel like they are there is a diversion from meager storytelling. The threat is truly there is this one is down to the wire. It’s a shame it wasn’t released during the summer movie season because it would have clobbered the competition, body slamming duds like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Green Lantern, and Cowboys and Aliens. Once you’ve had action this real and fun, you’ll never want to go back to the kind simulated on a computer.