Review Roundup - The Sting

AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

While something like Rush played down the 70s hair and fashion a little and had a digital sheen about it, David O. Russel's latest is a period caper which goes full on with the hair pieces and shirts, and has a cigarette stained, desaturated look to the visuals. In a story about scams, loan sharks and political corruption, it's fitting that style, and also dressing up is at the forefront. In an opening scene we see Christian Bale's Irving slowly put together a complex toupee and it's this meticulous approach which continues throughout the movie. The level of pure swagger and attitude makes the ridiculous mix of hairspray and eye watering shirt designs come together. In spite of all these pieces seeming laughable at first, once things get moving the film draws you in much like the victims of the government sting at it's centre. Are they putting the confidence in con man? It may be a ridiculous thing to say, but because of that perhaps it's a perfectly suitable opening line.


Beginning with a Goofellas-esque narration, the story starts with a fairly standard rags to riches approach as Irving goes through childhood antics, small business ownership and later into stolen art and loan cons. It's here he teams up with Sydney (Amy Adams) who has a similar story of a past she wants to escape. Through his business front and her shaky British accent they grow to become something more which leads them to fall into an FBI fraud investigation. It's here the bulk of the story spirals from as they are coerced into doing their work for the benefit of others. The most interesting part of all this is how the crime is approached without ever being black and white. These are not thinly drawn characters but people with a variety of issues - all of them are faking it or putting on a show. Even Bradley Cooper's federal agent isn't quite the big man he hopes to be, and as it progresses the veneer of their egos begins to crack. Irving begins to doubt his choices once he's in the bureau's pocket and befriends their target Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) a politician who seems genuinely interested in the greater good rather than the corrupt bribe taker that was expected. This mix of torment and conflicting loyalties is where the best elements of the film come together as Irving balances more than one plan against domestic issues with his reclusive yet unpredictable wife (Jennifer Lawrence). But whether the pieces hold together strongly during the lengthy 138 minute running time is another question.

The story does feel it's length despite all of the parts being played by some great talent. Detractors have noted that the over improvised style of the performances is a little grating, and while some scenes could have been more tightly constructed I found the naturalistic dialogue to be a strength. The same cannot be said of the scheme underpinning this material though, and as things spiral out of control and the targets grow in size I didn't feel that this side of the story has as cohesive as it could have been. That being said this is still a fun and entertaining drama with some great moments. The blend of sweeping camera work and period music is done very well, and there are even some genuinely tense moments as the plan attracts some bigger fish than perhaps anyone was expecting. Under further scrutiny it may not all tie together perfectly, but it's enjoyable to see them try.

4/5


BONUS REVIEW
THE LEGO MOVIE (2014)


In a surprising move, the film all about children's building blocks isn't a big money grab and offers a layer of biting satire on top of the eye-popping, multicoloured adventure. I am disappointed that there isn't more to the story though, and while it's great to see fun being poked at people with no imagination and those in favour of homogenised corporate brands, there isn't much else going on here. The big threat is something which is the opposite of creativity, and that's great - but they ride this single joke for far too long and reveal it way too early. It has to be said that this is entertaining and I appreciate how good it looks (the detail and realistic look of the plastic is very impressive) but I'd have liked stronger sense of humour beyond the obvious. It's hard to be cynical with this kind of message but I'd prefer if it was a little less simplistic.

3/5

Review Roundup - Digital Love

HER (2013)

I guess it's rare these days to see visions of the future that are not down beat dystopias. The popular worn out aesthetic from Brazil and Blade Runner is used a lot, and all these worlds are created where technology is everywhere yet has it never been cleaned and nobody owns anything that looks new. You can use flying cars but no-one seems to own a decent light-bulb. Outside of thematic reasons and storylines, the idea of the high tech meeting low living standards serves a strict purpose; those run down apartments some how feel realistic despite it being an unlikely outcome for people that always want the latest thing. So with Spike Jonze's latest offering it's unusual to see a different type of grounded reality - the glimpses of new technology are background details and subtle changes in fashion. It's hardly Star Trek, but unless you consider the idea of sentient iPhones and motion controls in videogames being normality disturbing it's not really a bleak outlook. While this is a world where bright colours, high pants and mustaches are in fashion, at the heart it's simply a story about the distance between people in a time where social media does anything but bring us closer. And yes, it's a romance involving a guy and a computer. 


Joaquin Phoenix is social outcast Theodore. This isn't because of some deep rooted cliché problem, but that he is going through a divorce - he's losing what he feels is important, and struggles to get involved with existing friends. Instead he's absorbed in his work - in the most on the nose aspect of the story he works for a company that writes letters for people. They may use wireless, voice activated cell phones and flashy computers but now they talk to each other even less. Someone else composes their romantic letters, and their personal family matters are now in the hands of a writer. Things have become hands free and hands off - so when an operating system that features a new intelligence arrives on the market, it seems perfectly plausible that these consumers will become hooked and develop friendships with them. I think only one person in the whole story even blinks an eye at his newly formed romance; his ex wife who feels that Theodore is unwilling to deal with real people. In a way she's right of course, but it questions the idea of what is real as the computer systems advance and mature so rapidly. It challenges this idea as the human half of the couple begins to seem selfish and the artificial personality grows beyond it's physical restraints.

Initially I was a little disappointed that this wasn't in the vein of Jonze's oddball drama Being John Malkovich. It does have a sly sense of humour but isn't in line with that strange world with all the weird characters and fantasy elements. This is more of a companion to his sad robot short I'm Here - a melancholy, romantic character piece. Phoenix is very good as someone having to act in reaction to a bodiless voice and the supporting cast includes Chris Pratt and Amy Adams as his surprisingly relaxed friends as they too learn about this new girlfriend and the operating system itself as it becomes more widespread. Of course equal credit has to go to Scarlett Johansson as the voice of Samantha. They pull of the idea of a real relationship really well as things go through the expected ups and downs as well as the problems of a character without a physical form; ultimately build to a conclusion which is the most sci-fi part of the story. This is also a great looking film with a lot of striking design work and a handful of small futuristic elements that are downplayed. But this sums the story up, a drama that is pretty on the outside but has a lot of food for thought under the surface.

4/5

BONUS REVIEW
JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2011)


One of the few real life documentaries that I have seen in a long time, this surprising movie is something I happened across online just recently (shout out to Scott C's Great Showdowns). The subject matter is really interesting, as master of sushi Jiro Ono and his life are explored. This includes his dreams of course, and yes the title is correct; but they also take time to discuss his ideals and the standards of perfection he is still committed to furthering. The food all looks amazing thanks to some neat photography techniques, even for those without a taste for raw tuna and wasabi it's worth a look. A dry sense of humour and a few somber moments of reflection on life choices and career building help it have a varied tone that is always fascinating.

4/5

Review Roundup - Dollhouse

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

Wes Anderson seems to be someone who can rub people the wrong way. However this isn't because of any common complaints - he doesn't make over produced blockbusters, badly written teen melodramas or sleazy, immature popcorn cinema. Here it's a fairly specific issue in that the direction is seen as... pretentious. I don't personally agree but there is sometimes a feeling that with a little nudge in the wrong direction things could veer off into the territory of style over substance. But I do like the style. There's something that appeals to me about all the stage like framing, the weird and neurotic characters, and the off beat, awkward semi seriousness of the acting. So, in a film brimming with intentionally obvious miniatures, gaudy colour schemes and even more odd personalities than usual, does it all fall nicely into place or is all the madness a bit too much for it to manage?


A few new things have been introduced that set this apart from the previous releases by the makers of The Life Aquatic and Moonrise Kingdom. Immediately there is a strange framing narrative, that goes back in time to not one but two settings, where the narration is done by an author who changes in age before it then moves to another character entirely. However the most obvious addition to the style of the film is the use of aspect ratios that are historically accurate in a film that is in no way an attempt at retelling history. Since most of the story takes place in a pre widescreen era, there's a squared off 4:3 visual for much of the plot which can be a little distracting - though many classic films of the period are now available in home release like this. Along with the usual on screen lettering and camera angles, this adds another layer of artificiality to the whole thing. Adding that to the storybook effects shots and intricate dolls house sets mean that it feels a bit too... mechanical. The humanity of those earlier movies is rarely shown as the plot rushes between humour, murder, and stolen painting caper. This isn't to say there is no sense of depth or that it lacks any touches of melancholy along the way, but those moments are rather fleeting.

Fortunately it does have a lot of charm and the characters, while not particularly fleshed out in that broken, depressive Anderson way, are all memorable and entertaining in some degree. The big credit goes to Ralph Fiennes who drops the sneering Voldemort act to become the hotel concierge M. Gustave; a very particular, over perfumed man who's love of his older guests spurs the story on, and a figure who can be surprisingly foul mouthed despite his fussy personality. It's a dry, humorous performance which carries the movie. While Tony Revolori does a fine job as his protegé Zero, at times it seems as though he has become lost amongst the excessive amount of supporting cast members, particularly at the parts in the story in which they become separated. There are a vast number of bit parts and cameos and the movie is full of the usual suspects like Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson. It's an impressive list, but perhaps something that detracts from the central duo at the core. Ultimately like the titular hotel this is a fun, colourful but over elaborate piece of work that goes a little too far in the way of intricate setups at the cost of serious drama. But it has to be said it's still a lot of fun and there are many aspects to admire during the adventure. Perhaps it's fitting there are so many moments about cake decoration.

3/5

BONUS REVIEW
ALL IS LOST (2013)


"....Fuck" ~ Robert Redford



In sharp contrast to the overflowing list of cast members seen in 'Grand Budapest...' this is a one man show. A lean, engaging survival story of one man versus the sea. In a way it's almost a version of Life of Pi that has been stripped of excess fat, or a film that could be seen as an antithesis to Gravity - there is almost no dialogue in comparison to Sandra Bullock's chatty space farer, and it certainly has none of the over played sentimental moments. Without any kind of inessential context or back story, you're left with just a nearly mute protagonist and his immediately problematic situation. Redford's grizzled performance allows for many great moments as you follow his efforts to stay alive as he discovers the limits of his sailing knowledge, and the film has lot of great photography, particularly the beautiful underwater moments amongst all the harrowing disaster. A simple story that is effectively told, what more can you ask for.

4/5

Score Card


JUNE

T2: Judgement Day ☆☆☆☆☆
Tokyo Godfathers ☆☆☆☆☆
Amadeus ☆☆☆☆
The Abyss ☆☆☆☆
The Bourne trilogy ☆☆☆☆
Jurassic Park ☆☆☆☆
Letters From Iwo Jima ☆☆☆☆
Master and Commander ☆☆☆☆
Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust ☆☆☆☆
Dallas Buyers Club ☆☆☆☆
Enter the Dragon ☆☆☆☆
Hunger Games Catching Fire ☆☆☆
Rush ☆☆☆
Blue Jasmine ☆☆☆
Redline ☆☆☆
Angel's Egg ☆☆
Origin Spirits of the Past ☆☆
Postman Fights Back ☆☆
Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit ☆☆
Robocop 2014 ☆