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Tag Archives: American Hustle

Oscarology: 2014 Edition

It’s chocolate? Now I want one more than ever!

Here are my predictions for this year’s Academy Awards, which will be televised on Sunday night and which have provided me with a nice excuse to write about some films I haven’t yet written about elsewhere (e.g., 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, Her and Philomena). Readers should feel free to chime in with their own Oscar predictions in the comments section below. Cheers!

The front-runner: 12 Years a Slave

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I won’t go as far as the notorious contrarian critic who dubbed 12 Years a Slave “torture porn,” but I also can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something a little dubious about director Steve McQueen’s obsessive focus on physical suffering. While the film’s advocates claim that images like the one of flesh being literally torn from a slave girl’s back as she’s being whipped, Passion of the Christ-style, exemplify McQueen’s brutal honesty and uncompromising vision, I also think it’s too easy of a way for him to manipulate viewers’ emotions. Are such moments sad and disgusting and powerful to behold? Sure. The problem is that McQueen isn’t also capable of taking us into the hearts and minds of his characters. While I suppose it is progress to see a Hollywood movie tackle a quintessentially African-American story from an African-American perspective (i.e., without a white savior-character to play the role of reassuring mediator for white viewers), the protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is in a position where he’s unable to say what he’s thinking for 95% of his screen time, which ultimately makes the character little more than a cipher. Perhaps a Bresson-like voice-over for Solomon would have helped — though I imagine screenwriter John Ridley wouldn’t have had the imagination to access Solomon’s thoughts. As it is, Solomon does come across as more of a human being than, say, Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained (to which 12 Years a Slave is obviously superior), but Michael Fassbender’s villainous slave-master still ends up problematically stealing the show. Script issues and Masterpiece Theater-style direction aside, the acting is mostly excellent. The main reason why 12 Years a Slave will win the Best Picture Oscar, however, is for the same reason that Dances with Wolves did in 1991 — because of its perceived social significance.

The main contender: Gravity

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When I reviewed Gravity upon its initial release last fall I said that it was an entertaining thrill ride that was being ludicrously overpraised by critics eager to compare it to everything from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to authentic avant-garde films — and I stand by that. This is obviously a great-looking movie; but I wish director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron had the courage of his original convictions and made this as a dialogue-free film with only one character instead of pairing Sandra Bullock with George Clooney for a lot of hackneyed dialogue and unnecessary back story. In short, I wish it was the outer-space version of All is Lost. In J.C. Chandor’s gripping, lost-at-sea adventure, we watch a man actually do things. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character does a lot of hand-wringing and tells us things. Gravity is the main contender to 12 Years a Slave at the Oscars mainly because it made the most money of any of the Best Picture nominees. But I have a feeling that, in addition to the shitload of technical awards it’s destined to win, the only major prize it will reap is Best Director for Cuaron. I’ve heard some people say they are excited that he will be the first “Latin American filmmaker” to win in this category but how many know the work of Emilio Fernandez, a better Mexican director who once upon a time served as the actual model for the Oscar statue, hmmmm?

The dark horse: American Hustle

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Given the massive debts it owes to Goodfellas and Casino, this lightweight but genuinely oddball con-artist comedy seems to have polarized many critics into responses of either “It out-Scorseses Scorsese!” or “This is nothing but a cheap imitation of the master!” This is unfortunate because, while I don’t think American Hustle is nearly at the level of The Wolf of Wall Street, I also don’t see any need for hating on it. I enjoyed David O. Russell’s latest because it boasts the same modest virtues one can reliably expect to find in all of the director’s work: it features a bunch of entertaining scenes and juicy performances. And if there is a category in which Russell arguably can be said to best Scorsese, it’s in the admirable attention he shows to his female characters. Some Oscar prognosticators actually have had this as the front-runner for Best Picture but I think they’ve been fooled by its Golden Globes success, where its ghetto-ization in the Musical/Comedy category made it the winningest film of the night. When members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have to choose between this and actual dramas, I suspect they’re ticking off boxes for the latter in almost every category; David O. Russell and co-writer Eric Singer will have to content themselves with the Best Original Screenplay trophy only.

The long shot: The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street is by far my favorite of the Best Picture nominees. Unfortunately, I think it is going to lose in every category in which it’s nominated: it’s too disturbing, too controversial, too culturally relevant. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his finest performance as an adult, topping his criminally underrated work in J. Edgar, as Jordan Belfort, a sleazy penny stockbroker who swindled his way to the top of a billion-dollar empire by ripping off gullible 99-percenters and not showing a shred of conscience. DiCaprio’s penchant for playing obsessive, intensely-focused characters reaches its apotheosis here: not only does he show a surprising flair for physical comedy (Jordan’s Quaalude-addled crawl towards his Lamborghini has already proven itself to be a time-capsule moment), but his delivery of Jordan’s insane pep-talks to his throngs of employees comes across as rousing as Henry V‘s “St. Crispin’s Day” speech: “This right here is the land of opportunity! This is America! This is my home! The show goes on! They’re gonna need to send in the National Guard to take me out, ’cause I ain’t going nowhere!” (I hope, now that DiCaprio has played this part, however, that he has the good sense to dial down the intensity and do as little as possible in his next role.) But DiCaprio won’t win an Oscar for this. He’ll win at some point in the future for a performance that will probably be much less interesting than this one — just as Scorsese already got his Oscar for the least interesting of his recent works (The Departed).

The “number five” slot: Her

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If there is one reason to see Her, a film built around the clever but also cloying premise of a man falling in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, it is for Joaquin Phoenix, who proves yet again that he is one of the finest actors working in American movies. Phoenix, especially since his return from what at the time seemed like a misguided, potentially career-ending hiatus, has the uncommon ability to convey the notion of a tortured soul. In The Master, The Immigrant, and now Her, he never seems to be trying too hard, never seems to be projecting, and yet the slightest inflections in his voice and the faintest glimmers of thought behind his mercurial green eyes can evoke entire worlds of emotional pain. It can’t be easy for an actor to play a man in love with a computer and yet Phoenix is always believable here. Unfortunately, 100% of the power generated from Her stems from his performance. Like every Spike Jonze film, Her is also annoying in a twee, indie-rock sort of way — a movie with a quirky and “innovative” exterior that masks a conventional and deeply sentimental core. Has no one noticed that this is essentially a remake of Lars and the Real Girl? Both feature generic rom-com plots about immature, irresponsible men who learn to become mature and responsible through the experience of having a romantic relationship with a non-human. The OS in Her and the sex doll in Lars finally serve the same function: to allow the socially inept male protagonist to become the kind of person who is ready for a “real” relationship at the end of the movie. If this film seems to be resonating with viewers, that’s probably because of its reassuring but reactionary message that one day humans will be able to become less reliant on technology. Her is not likely to win any Oscars.

The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-acclaimed-medium-budget-studio-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Nebraska

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Nebraska, a black-and-white road trip comedy from Alexander Payne, is a pleasant and affecting surprise, especially following the same director’s emotionally phony and aesthetically boring Descendants. Woody (Bruce Dern), a senile codger, and David (Will Forte), his middle-aged mediocrity of a son, bond while traveling from their home town of Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska where Woody mistakenly believes he will claim a million dollar prize following a sweepstakes letter he received in the mail. Payne, a Nebraska native, is a deft hand at small-town Midwestern portraiture, and he absolutely nails the feelings of mutual disappointment between parents and children that are so common in life yet so rarely broached in American cinema: the scene of Woody revisiting his childhood home accompanied by his own sons unexpectedly caught me by the throat. Nebraska is not likely to win any Oscars.

The we-had-to-nominate-Harvey-Weinstein-for-something-even-though-he-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Philomena

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British director Stephen Frears (The Hit, The Grifters, High Fidelity) is a good craftsman so it’s too bad he’s willing to put his talents to the service of this kind of middle-brow/Oscar-bait/Weinsten Company material: Steve Coogan, who also produced and co-wrote, plays Martin Sixsmith, a journalist covering a “human interest” story involving the title character’s decades-long search for her son after he was taken from her by a convent and sold to adoptive parents in America. Judi Dench gives a typically fine performance as Philomena (or Philo-mania as Leo DiCaprio would say) but everything else about this is earnest, stodgy, dull and, finally, predictable. It may be of marginal interest, however, as the first movie to reflect the reign of Pope Francis: it seems specifically designed to appeal to liberal Catholics — you know, the kind who pride themselves on being more tolerant than those other Catholics?

The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-blockbuster-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Captain Phillips

The we-expanded-the-nominations-beyond-five-so-that-we-could-include-this-indie-film-that-has-no-chance-of-winning slot: Dallas Buyer’s Club

Here are my final predictions:
Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Director: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Original Screenplay: David O. Russell and Eric Singer (American Hustle)
Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Actor: Matthew McConnaughey (Dallas Buyer’s Club)
Actress: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Supporting Actress: Lupia Nyongo (12 Years a Slave)

Here are my personal numerical ratings for the Best Picture Oscar contenders:

The Wolf of Wall Street: 8.8
Nebraska: 7.8
American Hustle: 7.7
Gravity: 6.9
Her: 6.4
12 Years a Slave: 6.3
Philomena: 5.9

I have no interest in seeing Captain Phillips or Dallas Buyer’s Club. Peace out.

streaker

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Now Playing: Inside Llewyn Davis, The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle

Inside Llewyn Davis
dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013, USA

Rating: 8.9

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The Wolf of Wall Street
dir. Martin Scorsese, 2013, USA

Rating: 8.8

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American Hustle
dir. David O. Russell, 2013, USA

Rating: 7.7

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper The bottom line: “No more fake shit!”

Now playing in wide release are three ambitious American comedies, each of which takes place in the northeastern United States during a different era in the late 20th century: the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (early 1960s), David O. Russell’s American Hustle (late 1970s) and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (late 1980s through late 1990s). Although none of these made my list of my 10 favorite new films to first play Chicago in 2013, I nonetheless think all three are well worth seeing on the big screen. In the middle of a busy “awards season,” when the overrated prestige-picture 12 Years a Slave and the overrated thrill-ride Gravity seem to be duking it out for most of the top prizes, it’s encouraging to see such a relatively deep field of auteur-driven cinema currently being exhibited in American multiplexes. There are also some significant parallels between these new comedies from the Coens, Scorsese and Russell: all might be said to be uniquely American in their focus on the intertwined themes of what it means to be “authentic” and the ruthless drive for success. One of the key lines of dialogue in American Hustle, spoken by Amy Adams, is “No more fake shit!” — a line that could have just as easily popped up in either of the other two movies. The fact that the line is spoken by Adams as a con artist using a fake-English accent (reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck as the title fraud in The Lady Eve) underscores the idea, presented in each film with varying degrees of cynicism, that getting ahead in America often entails pretending to be something one is not. These movies can also be seen as belonging to a wider trend in 2013 of what a friend on twitter referred to as “poppy critiques of capitalism,” a subgenre diverse enough to include Pain and Gain, Spring Breakers, The Great Gatsby and The Bling Ring. If Inside Llewyn Davis is my favorite of the bunch, that’s probably because it’s the only one that doesn’t feature either a ludicrously happy ending or a familiar narrative trajectory about the “rise and fall” of immoral characters. Instead, it’s a daringly anti-showbiz-success story that offers a rare, empathetic look at a genuine loser.

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A musician friend recently complained that Inside Llewyn Davis has “no plot” and is “about nothing.” While I agree with the former statement, I certainly don’t see that as a flaw. Rather than being story-driven like most of their other efforts, the Coen brothers’ latest is more of a slice-of-life/character study that uses the title protagonist’s relationship with a cat as an unlikely but brilliant structuring device. Evocatively set in Greenwich Village during the early Sixties “folk revival,” the film is certainly “about” many things — including such substantial subjects as artistic integrity and the elusive nature of commercial success. This is nowhere more apparent than in the best scene: Davis (the excellent Oscar Isaac) auditions for folk club owner/manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) by performing the traditional song “The Death of Queen Jane.” Grossman’s response to the heartrending performance — “I don’t see a lot of money here” — is a devastating moment that succinctly illustrates how Davis’ music lacks the polish and accessibility that will soon make superstars of the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary. (It is also easy to imagine the Coens hearing similar complaints from studio executives in the early years of their own career.) The audition scene is mirrored by the film’s other best sequence: Davis serenading his nursing home-ridden father with a gorgeous rendition of Ewan MacColl’s “The Shoals of Herring.” Equally devastating is his father’s lack of a response, indicating perhaps that Davis has spent a lifetime “auditioning” for — and failing to win — the old man’s approval. As any description of these moments indicates, Inside Llewyin Davis contains a pungent core of sadness, but it is also, as more than a few critics have noted, probably the Coen brothers’ warmest movie since The Big Lebowski. Their patented smart-ass humor has been replaced by (or has perhaps deepened into) something more emotional and affectionate, a lot of the credit for which should be given to Isaac and soundtrack supervisor T-Bone Burnett. But Inside Llewyn Davis is also more gratifyingly low-key and less aggressively stylized than the Coens’ other films from a production design standpoint, eschewing their sometimes annoyingly cartoonish fetishizing of props, sets and costumes. What they present instead is a relatively realistic and somber-hued comic valentine to an era, a musical genre and a couch-surfing way of life.

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The Wolf of Wall Street is the 23rd fiction feature by Martin Scorsese, now 71-years-old, and perhaps the highest compliment I can pay it is to say that it radiates a propulsive, infectious energy that makes it feel like the work of an exciting young filmmaker. Consciously designed as a companion piece to Scorsese’s beloved Goodfellas, it tells the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), an ambitious young “penny stockbroker” who swindled investors and became, in the span of a few short years, the head of a billion-dollar Wall Street empire. Scorsese wisely decided to paint this particular portrait as a grotesque — and occasionally surreal — black comedy, simultaneously ridiculing Belfort for embodying the most asshole-ish aspects of the 1% (his existence is seen as a non-stop party of sex, drugs and the kind of debauchery that only “stupid money” can buy), while also sticking uncomfortably close to Belfort’s subjective state of near-constant euphoria. The result is arguably the funniest movie Scorsese has ever made: it’s like the Three Stooges but with Quaaludes and hookers. While some critics have objected to Scorsese making a film that “glorifies” white-collar crime, I would argue that the film is rendered not so much hypocritical as infinitely and unnervingly complex by the way that it presents Belfort’s story as exhilarating entertainment. True, Scorsese doesn’t show us Belfort’s victims but why should he? 99% of viewers are already victims of Belfort or “wolves” just like him. And if a lot of young men watch this movie and are dumb enough to want to emulate its hero, then that’s probably an indication of how effective it is as satire. A movie any more obviously critical of its protagonist would be heavy handed and ineffective. Having said that, I wouldn’t personally rank this as one of Scorsese’s very best latter-day achievements (No Direction Home and Shutter Island are, for me, the twin peaks of his 21st century output), in part because I don’t find white-collar criminals as compelling — as personalities — as the working-class mooks of Scorsese’s best-known work. But as a piece of storytelling, this is undeniably masterful stuff, with a three-hour running time that is not only justified but that fairly flies by. Seeing The Wolf of Wall Street is the cinematic equivalent of taking a high-speed ride in a Lamborghini — albeit by one whose driver is not on Quaaludes.

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Speaking of Scorsese . . . even if you haven’t yet seen American Hustle you’ve probably heard, or deduced from the trailers, that it has taken a page from the master’s playbook in terms of visual style (Paramount Pictures should really consider paraphrasing the old Bob Dylan ads by advertising The Wolf of Wall Street with the tagline “Nobody does Scorsese like Scorsese”). In telling a fictionalized version of the “Abscam scandal” that rocked New Jersey politics in the late 1970s, Russell has borrowed from Scorsese the use of witty voice-overs, music-video style period-music cues, exuberant tracking shots, freeze frames, and even Robert DeNiro in wise-guy mode; but he’s also clearly studied the work of Scorsese acolytes such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson and, in a gratuitous car-trunk P.O.V shot, Quentin Tarantino. While this cinematic razzle-dazzle is undoubtedly exciting to behold, it also doesn’t always feel justified by what’s happening on the level of story or character. The question arises: can one speak of David O. Russell as even having a distinctive visual style of his own? American Hustle is as formally expressive as his last film, Silver Linings Playbook, was pedestrian but one feels that Russell is merely “trying on” Scorsese like one tries on a suit of clothes, and that nothing of this style will probably remain when the next David O. Russell film turns up in theaters. Russell’s real strengths — here, as ever — are his interest in female characters (Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence have never been better) and his feel for neo-screwball dialogue: just thinking about the scene where Lawrence lectures Christian Bale about “the power of intention” cracks me up. Like Robert Altman, Russell apparently gives his actors free reign to help create their characters, which can admittedly lead to dead-end scenes and an overall sense of looseness but also moments of inspired nuttiness evident even in the hairstyles of the actors — e.g., combover (Bale), perm (Bradley Cooper) and pompadour (Jeremy Renner). So, no, it’s not the best film of the year by a long shot, but watching world-class actors riotously tearing it up for two hours and 18 minutes certainly ain’t nothing. And as far as light comedy/thrillers about government agents pulling off undercover sting operations go, this is a thousand times better than Argo.


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