Movie Review: AMERICAN HUSTLE

Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams in "American Hustle"

Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams in “American Hustle”

Release date: December 20, 2013
Directed by: David O. RusselL
Written by: Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence
Rating: R; Running Time: 137 minutes

Think Casino meets The Grifters, shot through with a hefty dose of the off-kilter … and that’s American Hustle. Between the surprisingly wacky performances and a twisty screenplay bristling with wit, soaked to a fare-thee-well in the pop culture explosion of the late 70s, filmmaker David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter, Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster) delivers a movie that’s not to be missed.

Rather than a dry retelling of the facts, Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer used the FBI’s 1978-1980 Abscam operation as a jumping-off point, fashioning their plot around five primary characters who all believe that they’re experts in the art of deception. Except that there’s a slight wrinkle — it turns out that the deceivers all suffer from their own particular self-deceptions. Consequently, sometimes they do the hustle … other times, the hustle does them.

The Weinberg con man gets a fictional re-do as Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld, replete with an atrocious comb-over, chunky gold jewelry hanging on his hairy arms and even hairier chest, and a protuberant belly. (A stickler for authenticity, Bale gained 43 pounds for the role.) As Irving’s wife Rosalyn – a shrill, sexually-manipulative yet lovelorn Long Island housewife – Jennifer Lawrence is utterly delicious. The actual Camden mayor (Angelo Errichetti) has been reimagined as Jeremy Renner’s Carmine Polito, a well-meaning, Rat Pack-esque civil servant sporting a pompadour and sideburns that could make Elvis weep. (It seems as if the film’s outrageous panoply of hair pieces is a character unto itself.)

Two fictional characters join the fray: the eager FBI agent, Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso and the stripper turned expert con artist, Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser.

There isn’t a weak performance in this wild cast of zanies. (Reminiscent of a repertory company, four out of five of the principals are Russell alumni from his last two films). First, there’s the surprise of Jennifer Lawrence, breaking all prior expectations — à la Mia Farrow’s turn as the Brooklyn mafia widow in Woody Allen’s marvelous Broadway Danny Rose. Cooper is perfect as the overly-zealous DiMaso, his tiny pink hair curlers energetically dancing on his head as he attempts to flirt with Sydney over the phone in his mother’s greasy kitchen, his fiancé looking on in angry confusion. And Renner adds a generous amount of flavor as the mayor who juggles personal interests with the good of his city.

[For the remainder of Kimberly Gadette's review on Doddle, please check out this link: American Hustle on Doddle]

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Movie Review: THE WOLVERINE

Ninjas 2Release date: July 26, 2013
Directed by: James Mangold
Screenplay by: Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, Christopher McQuarrie
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Haruhiko Yamanouchi
Rating: PG-13; Running Time: 126 minutes

Note to the producers and filmmakers of The Wolverine: Not everyone is an X-Men aficionado. Though rabid devotees of the series know their lore from A to X, the rest of the audience may be perplexed by the film’s timeframe, or lack thereof. Or why such fascinating characters as Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber) and Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston) from 2009′s X-Men Origins: Wolverine have disappeared into the cinematic haze.

While this Logan-centric movie gives us one elaborate fight scene after another, couldn’t any of the three credited screenwriters have thrown the viewers an informative bone? Guess not – too many battles to stage, too much unnecessary 3D to layer on in post-production.

Without further ado: The film occurs several years after 2006′s X-Men: The Last Stand in which Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) had died. Think of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and this current movie as bookends to three of the four X-Men installments (X-Men, X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand). [The outlier is 2011's X-Men: First Class in which the early lives of Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) are explored.] To make things even more complicated, this koi-out-of-water story is based on a four-issue mini-series created in 1982 by writer Chris Claremont and graphic artist Frank Miller (Sin City, 300). Whew. Let the onslaught begin.

Flashing back to a virtual flash: While Nagasaki goes up in flames from the A-Bomb, Hugh Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine is hanging out at the bottom of a deep well, ultimately protecting a young Japanese soldier named Yashida from the nuclear fireball.

Such heroics no longer interest the moody Wolverine of today. We meet up with the mangy mutant as he sulks his way through a bleak wintry forest, preferring the company of a grizzly bear over humankind. When Logan’s Jeremiah Johnson act is interrupted by a sprightly, sword-wielding waif named Yukio (Rila Fukushima), he can’t help but acquiesce to her mysterious demand that he fly with her to Japan in order to bid farewell to someone who knew him way back when, circa Nagasaki, 1945. Natch, it’s that soldier Yashida, now a rich and powerful corporate magnate, living out his last days in a hyperactive, neon-lit Tokyo.

And Jean Grey is still dead.

It’s not that the filmmakers aren’t talented. But as reflected in this particular project, no one shines. Not director James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma), or initial screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), or ensuing writers Mark Bomback (Unstoppable) or Scott Frank (Minority Report, Out of Sight, Get Shorty). Did we really need the screenwriters to tell us not once but three times that Svetlana Khodchenkova’s Viper messed with Wolverine’s recuperative abilities?

As for Jackman, a 126-minute scowl is a poor substitute for a character. The fact that this is Jackman’s sixth tour of Logan – constituting the most times one particular actor has portrayed the same comic book hero – suggests that the actor could capitalize on Logan’s 100-plus-year story arc, ultimately delivering a performance of greater complexity and depth. Certainly not less.

Like the mutants themselves, this movie is neither fish nor fowl. It’s not an ensemble of X-Men, nor a singular X-Man. Instead we get a story centered around Wolverine with a feeble side serving of the mutant villainess Viper. Who is she? What’s her story? Anyone? And though the self-ascribed bodyguard Yukio has a mutant-like way of sensing the future, it’s a slight skill at best. If only Jean Grey weren’t so goddam dead.

[For the remainder of the review and Gadette's rating, please click here]

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Movie Review: PACIFIC RIM

PACIFIC RIM
Release date: July 12, 2013
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by: Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Rob Kazinsky, Max Martini, Ron Perlman, Clifton Collins, Jr., Burn Gorman, Diego Klattenhoff
Rating: PG-13; Running Time: 131 minutes

Let’s face it: We can’t exactly hope for something completely new in the action/adventure/sci-fi genre. Given the decades of movies portraying alien take-overs, giant monsters and apocalyptic mano-a-mano scenarios in which humans snatch Earth away from the dripping maws of invading species at the last minute, all we can hope for is a wild and riveting diversion. And as we watch, if we can’t help noticing references from such previous films as The Abyss, Alien, Avatar, Independence Day, Iron Man, Transformers, etc., well, that can be part of the fun as well.

And does Pacific Rim ultimately entertain? Particularly since the director is none other than the brilliant Guillermo del Toro who, with his 2006 Pan’s Labyrinth, introduced some of the most fantastical creatures this side of H.P. Lovecraft?

Happily, the movie does indeed offer thrilling escapist entertainment. It may have its flaws but given this summer’s cinematic elephant graveyard of Flaccid Origin Story this, and Desiccated Sequel #6 that, Pacific Rim stands twenty-five stories tall above the rest.

Speaking of twenty-five stories, this is the supposed height of the manmade robot Jaegers, the human pushback to the assault of the Kaiju (gigantic sea beasts who, due to a breach in the Pacific Ocean, are rising from their underworld empire, employing all manner of the customary smash and pillage). The filmmakers have crafted a panoply of oversized lizards, crustaceans and insects — think a smorgasbord of multi-eyed creatures in the mode of Godzilla, Kraken, Rodan and Stegosaurus – rising from the Neptunian bowels, spewing acidic blue goo out of multiple cavities. And just as monsters often do, the Kaiju have every intention of wiping out mankind and taking over the planet. In this, the first quarter of the twenty-first century, the war’s been waging for twelve years … and the good guys are losing.

[For the remainder of this review on doddle, and Kimberly's rating, please click here]

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Movie Review: THE LONE RANGER

Silver and Johnny Depp as Tonto, foreground; Armie Hammer as John Reid/Lone Ranger, background

Silver and Johnny Depp as Tonto, foreground; Armie Hammer as John Reid/Lone Ranger, background

Release date: July 3, 2013
Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter
Rating: PG-13; Running Time: 149 minutes

Though The Lone Ranger first debuted as a Detroit radio show 80 years ago, the program’s accompanying musical theme – Rossini’s 1829 William Tell Overture — is instantly recognizable today. Strong, clear and optimistic, trumpeting the arrival of the pure-hearted hero galloping to the rescue, the theme’s tone is unmistakable. If only this latest incarnation of the lone Texas ranger and his Comanche companion managed a similar unifying tone. Instead, the filmmakers dip into a cacophonous medley of warring notes: silly one minute, heartfelt another, wacky, tragic, rude, mystical, wicked, sophomoric and, given that this is a Jerry Bruckheimer project, rigged with enough special effects to blast the Four Corners to kingdom come. Certainly the history of the American Indian’s disenfranchisement is sobering … no, wait, it’s played for laughs by a white actor in white face (Johnny Depp) as a Pidgin English-muttering Tonto. It’s as if Gore Verbinski’s prior film, 2011′s marvelous Rango, got lost amid the Trail of Tears in a buddy comedy served up with a side of Hannibal Lecter.

Sometimes something for everyone results in nothing for no one.

Which isn’t to say that the 149 minutes of whipsaw schizophrenia isn’t at times somewhat engaging. Armie Hammer does fine as the well-intentioned lawyer John Reid turned masked lawman, though the character might have benefitted from more depth from screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (the latter two credited with the first four Pirates of the Caribbean series). Tom Wilkinson as the 1869 version of a Wall Street venture capitalist fits the bill nicely, and William Fichtner is grotesquely convincing as the outlaw cum cannibal. In an inspired bit of casting, the filmmakers employed British actress Ruth Wilson — best known to American audiences as the sexy sociopath in the BBC series Luther – to play the love interest. But Depp’s ever-growing predilection for costumes is bordering on the excessive; perhaps with big Hollywood projects turning so stale, Depp has taken to the mask to mask his own ennui.

Speaking of masks, Depp also plays a Little Big Man-esque version of himself at a 1933 fair, recounting his earlier adventures in the 1860s to a young boy (Mason Cook) who’s costumed in a Lone Ranger get-up. This storytelling device is an unnecessary schtick, interrupting the flow as the scenes frenetically bounce between 1869 and 1933. What made the dual concept work so well with, say, 1987′s The Princess Bride, was the fact that the relationship between the Grandfather/Narrator (Peter Falk) and the Grandson (Fred Savage) grew in tandem to the friendship, trust and affection unfolding within the primary adventure tale. Here, there is no relationship. Depp overacts to beat the tom-tom and Cook, a dullish boy, is tasked to utter such lines as, “Go on.” In short, the 1933 scenes are as unnecessary as the film’s fortieth train derailment.

[For the remainder of this review on Doddle and Kimberly's rating, please click here]

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Movie Review: IRON MAN 3

Iron Man suit and Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark

Iron Man suit and Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark

Release date: May 3, 2013
Directed by: Shane Black
Screenplay by: Drew Pearce & Shane Black
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale, Stephanie Szostak, Paul Bettany
Rating: PG-13; Running Time: 130 minutes

Iron Man 3 brings us a new twist on the buddy film. Here, Robert Downey Jr. teams up with his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang writer/director Shane Black … and the combo gives us quite the bang bang for the buck. With Black’s irreverent style and Downey’s breezy wit, this high-concept third chapter — with nods to The Terminator franchise, A.I. and X-Men Origins: Wolverine – shows no signs of rusting out.

Underscored with hefty acting chops (Downey, the amazing Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce and, big surprise, even Gwyneth Paltrow’s prim Pepper Potts gets to rage against the machine), Iron Man 3 boomerangs us right back to the thrill ride of 2008′s seminal film.

Opening with a flashback to 1999 that sets certain plot elements in motion, the movie delivers a present-day Tony Stark who ultimately wrestles with multiple demons: Those he recklessly created due to his overweening ego; those thrashing through his mind in the guise of frequent anxiety attacks due to his brush with alien invaders in last year’s The Avengers; and those go-to maniacal villains bent on the destruction of the U.S. In this last instance, it’s Ben Kingsley as the Osama Bin Laden-like Mandarin who threatens American soil, zeroing in on the President as well as Iron Man.

As in the first film, Tony again finds himself isolated in unfamiliar surroundings, removed from his supercharged toys, tools and robots, forced to rely solely on his brains as well as strangers who he must quickly mold into able assistants. Enter Ty Simpkins as the kid who Tony befriends out of necessity in a small backwoods town in Tennessee. Simpkins is a surprisingly good foil, sidestepping those deadly movie tropes of the precocious and the pink-cheeked cute. And playing off a scrappy child introduces a new dynamic for Iron Man, further enriching his character.

Filmmaker Black (who made his first splash as sole screenwriter for 1987′s Lethal Weapon) and co-writer Drew Pearce nod to the concept of well-intentioned innovators losing their way, with Tony stating, “We create our own demons.” This idea telescopes outward, expanding on the flawed hubris of the individual into a global construct, looking at how a self-righteous America — enflamed by its own sense of moral imperative – continues to trip itself up as it inadvertently engenders legions of enemies throughout the world. This isn’t exactly a new idea, but as it darts in and around the storyline of a struggling albeit brilliant superhero, surrounded in full by state-of-the-art CGI, the concept carries effective heft.

The kinetic quipfest is well constructed, even down to the opening voice over. [Note: Wait for the bookended cinematic button after the final credits.] But there are a few false notes, such as when a particular villain indulges in a theatrical monologue in which he claims full credit for the mayhem … a fact that we’d previously gleaned quite a few scenes earlier. Another surprising oops: although Tony discovers a scientific flaw in the madman’s invention, that flaw isn’t exploited as we’d been cued to expect.

But Downey’s Tony relentlessly carries the day. With his urbane humor and sparkling intelligence, calling to mind an American James Bond crossbred with a card-carrying member of Mensa, Downey continues to infuse his Tony Stark with charismatic ease. While the idea of making our hero face struggle with emotional fracture is a good one, the choice of New York and wormholes is a bit farfetched. Sure, devotees of The Avengers will recognize that plot point, but it might be too “inside baseball” for others. Couldn’t Tony experience an iron deficiency in a more effective manner? Such as, say, a sudden allergy to ferrous oxide? Or catching Pepper Potts in flagrante delicto with a younger, iron-jawed superhero?

Speaking of age, there’s something to be said for the crime fighting protagonist who is most decidedly middle-aged. Rather than playing on a tired Schwarzenegger-like schtick, Iron Man 3 quietly notes that while such characters as Tony and Don Cheadle’s sidekick Rhodey are far past their twentysomething prime, they can still kick ass with the best of them. For that alone, any viewer standing on the other side of twenty-five can appreciate the fact that brains and brawn are not solely the purview of the young. No wonder Tony Stark is so darn popular.

[A friendly warning: Since the movie has previously been released in other countries, this reviewer suggests that avid Iron Man filmgoers avoid perusing multiple articles about the film prior to viewing. Spoilers are piling higher than the Eiffel Tower! Look away if you can!]

As compared to the overwrought, too-many-irons-in-the-fire second installment of this franchise, Iron Man 3 proves its metal, oops, mettle, once again.
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Rating on a scale of 5 tin gods: 4

[as published on doddle, May 2, 2013: review of 
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