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American Hustle

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director:  David O. Russell

Stars: Allessandro Nivola, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale,Elisabeth Rohm, Jack Huston, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Pena, Robert DeNiro, Shea Whigham

Released: 20th December 2013 (UK)

From its inception a lot was expected of American Hustle, or “American Bullshit” as it was once called, director David O. Russell’s follow up to his Oscar-nominated Silver Linings Playbook that put an actor in every major category and was even able to take one of those home. The key element of Russell’s films since re-certifying himself as a force to be reckoned with was the frenetic energy with which they carried themselves and while his latest is no different this time around it feels like there was nowhere specific to focus this energy and so it gets sprawled across a multitude of characters and a convoluted plot that concerns itself with con artists, IRS agents, mobsters and politicians. It seems unfair that with the good will Russell garnered not only with Silver Linings, but also with The Fighter that he immediately be expected to deliver more great cinema simply because he is working in the same time period and has recruited the same group of actors from each film to make up a stellar cast because it almost seems it would be impossible to deliver. The problem is, expectations were set so high that critics and cinephiles automatically assumed it was going to be quality movie-going and so they have seemingly lapped up this picture to be what they wanted it to be rather than taking it for what it actually is: a solid piece of Scorsese tribute with a cast that transcends the messy script. It is hard to say whether this would have come off as a better film without the expectation or if the expectation indeed helps it appear more impressive considering that is what we expected. Either way, I was never particularly excited about the film as I wasn’t familiar with the events that inspired it, but more I was excited to see what Russell would do with his impressive cast and his old school setting. I really enjoyed Silver Linings and I absolutely adored The Fighterfor being able to take a stock story and make it more than that, with performances that never failed and lifted the material above the standard and maybe I, too, was hoping for that to happen here. I simply found it hard to really dig into the film as it never pulled me in and kept me there the way those last two efforts have. And that may be a problem as well, both that we expected American Hustle to be of the same quality and to do many of the same things to our senses that those two films elicited, but this is a different film altogether and to take it on those terms alone would be to realize by no means is this a bad film, it also isn’t one of the best things I’ve seen this year.

Some of this actually happened. That statement opens up the film and from there we are introduced to both Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) two people just looking to get ahead in the world. Irving is a con man, a guy who saw his father get taken in life and made the type of promises to himself that would never allow the same thing to happen to him. While he takes over his father’s glass business he also opens a few laundry mats and on the side begins making a few extra bucks by conning the desperate out of their money and conning art dealers into by forged copies of famous paintings. Sydney comes from the barren land of New Mexico and desires nothing more than to make something out of herself and have a life where she wears extravagant clothes and is exposed to the luxurious lifestyle she always desired. The two of them make a wonderful team, they both know it, the only problem is Irving is married with a child and Irving loves the boy but his crazy wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), won’t grant him a divorce because she won’t be the first woman in her family to not have a successful marriage. Still, Irving and Sydney know how much they love one another and continue to see each other without any real guilt because they believe in the actualities of the situation rather than what convention dictates. In fact, they are so enticed with one another that their roll gets the better of them when Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) traps them in the act of providing him a loan for an up-front, non-refundable fee of course. Cooper’s DiMaso is a young and energetic federal agent who is keen on trapping the bad guys, but his big head (and permed hair) begin to get the better of him too when rather than simply putting Irving and Sydney away he enlists their help and their expertise to con bigger fish that might prove better for headlines and for his career. Enter Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) the genuinely loved mayor of New Jersey who has the city’s best interests at heart and will do whatever it takes to get the economy back up and moving in 1978. With an extravagant plan to entrap the mayor into taking a loan from a random sheik that wants to invest in the promising gambling business of Atlantic City they are able to both pin Polito in the middle of all the action while accidentally stepping into much bigger waters when serious mob players get involved.

Like I said in the opening paragraph it is the performances that transcend the material here though as each of the four main characters are driven with performances that clearly understand the people they are playing while Lawrence gets a few scenes sprinkled throughout that really play up just how good of an actress the girl really is. It is easy to forget how young Lawrence is because she is able to play such a wide state of mind so effortlessly, but while appearing the young, dense wife of Irving she also is able to portray a jaded sense of life gone by. She is off her rocker, that is clear and she doesn’t have the slightest clue of what is actually going on around her, but to a certain extent we find her endearing not because of her attitude which would probably push anyone to a divorce, but because of the lost lamb vibes with which her character operates in this world of con artists and self-serving personalities. She has been married to Bale’s Irving for quite some time and while Bale’s character is probably the most despicable person out of the core group represented here he also comes to be the most sane one under the circumstances. Despite his “elaborate comb over” which is made a point of much reference in the film and his belly that protrudes over his belt line, Irving is confident in himself to a fault and he has every reason to be. This isn’t the greatest Bale has ever been (I prefer his performance inOut of the Furnace earlier this month to be honest), but Bale is never not good and he continues to prove that here not only with his physical commitment, but in his understanding of what drives Irving and the ability to allow the audience to not only see the real Irving, the person he is struggling with internally, but who he is to those around him and we see each of those layers. In the midst of the conflict between Bale and Lawrence Adams provides the final nail in the coffin and her performance, though she’s served as part of plenty of good to great films, was probably the most surprising for me. As Sydney she plays a woman who splits up her personalities to get the better of the folks her and Irving con, to make them seem more prestigious, more legit but it also seems she begins to get lost in herself somehow wanting this alter ego to be who she actually is as she is able to play up that fantasy with Cooper’s DiMaso. Still, Adams is able to allow her character the ability to handle her ambition and skill with a fair balance for a considerable amount of the running time. It is Cooper who stole the show for me though and despite the fact Renner’s character is downplayed and that it is his Mayor and subtle performance that relays the crux of what the reason for telling this story is, it is Cooper’s performance that will bowl you over and having you realize Silver Linings Playbook was no fluke.

In terms of style, direction, and story this is where the film varies more so than it does in the performance area. Russell keeps his signature style in check with a loose camera that quickly moves around its sets and actors while clearly having a specific agenda in terms of shot selection at specific moments. If there is one thing to be said for Russell’s direction it is that the shot selection is impeccable and one hundred percent re-enforces what the actors are doing and aids in revealing the layers of their performances. Going back to a line near the end of the last paragraph though I mention a justification for even bringing this story to the screen and I know Russell asked himself that same question when first beginning work on it. If he’s going to devote time and energy (and a lot of energy given the timeline he had) than he would need to find the reason audiences might be interested in seeing these events brought back to life. For me, that was the theme of bullshit. As it was going to be a word included in the title it is safe to assume this is one of the main themes Russell plays with in the script he co-wrote with Eric Singer. There is a tragedy aspect to the story, for the people who were involved and sacrificed purely for the personal gain or prominence of someone else. It is something that happens often in films and everyday life, but the film is able to convey this strong sense of wrong-doing not only through Irving’s moral code, but through the consistent discussions concerning how the world is or is not black and white in its wrongs and rights. Yes, the justice system says someone has to pay, but if it isn’t so black and white does everyone involved serve the penance or do we leave it pinned on one person to take the fall, willing or unwilling, guilty or innocent? It is a poignant question when brought up at the conclusion of the film and paired with the events that we’ve just seen unfold is the most powerful thing about the film.

What I’m surprised by though is that I was able to indeed take that understanding away from the film for despite the superior performances the actual story being told is so full of twists and turns and random people floating in and out that it was also hard to really dig into the film. I loved Cooper’s performance here, he played up the eager and overly-ambitious DiMaso to a fault and is hilarious in doing so throughout, but we aren’t truly introduced to him for about twenty minutes and it is in those twenty minutes as the film profiles Irving and Sydney that it stalls and is never really able to find its footing of pacing until maybe that last half hour when plans are put into action and we can see the outcome on the horizon. There are one too many musical montages over characters conversations that don’t allow the external relations to breathe and come off more as shortcuts than stylistic choices. Other compensations seem apparent as the speed with which production and editing took place poke through. Yet despite these missteps that fail to really get the audience involved in the events taking place it is hard to say the filmmakers didn’t have the same attitude as their characters; they clearly were dreaming big, they built this impressive film from the outside looking in and they didn’t give up, but like DiMaso their ambition may have got the best of them and that eagerness to be seen as an exemplary force to be reckoned with has overshadowed thinking through the project which has ultimately resulted in something less than they imagined.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

DVD/Blu-ray

God’s Own Country (DVD/Blu-Ray Review)

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Released: 29th January 2018

Directed By: Francis Lee

Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu

Reviewed By: Barry Levitt

Last year may have been unbearable in many facets, but for queer cinema, 2017 was a landmark year. Starting the year with Moonlight winning Best Picture, a number of LGBT films were released around the world including the critically acclaimed Call Me By Your Name, A Fantastic Woman and Princess Cyd. But perhaps the finest of them all was Francis Lee’s debut feature God’s Own Country, a story of a young farmer in Yorkshire whose way of living is permanently altered when a Romanian worker comes to work at the farm for lambing season. The film is out via Picturehouse Entertainment on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD on the 29th January.

Johnny (Josh O’Connor) spends his evenings drinking and searching for casual sex with other men in an effort to escape his own mundane existence. He lives and works with his father and grandmother on a quiet Yorkshire farm, though due to his father’s ailing health, Johnny is forced to take care of the day to day operations. As lambing season approaches, the farm is in need of extra help as Johnny’s drinking has prevented him from doing the work necessary to keep the farm afloat. Johnny’s father Martin (Ian Hart) hires a Romanian worker named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) during the busy lambing season to help keep the farm going.

God’s Own Country has been often described as a British Brokeback Mountain, and while the film’s similarities are worth noting, they are remarkably different in approach. The main romance in question in Francis Lee’s film is warmly embraced. The sex scenes in particular are dealt with beautifully: free of mystery and shame, the scenes are explicit without being pornographic, and bursting with passion. Sure, the resistance is there – Johnny is deeply frustrated sexually, and his sexuality is kept secret from almost everyone, and he does not exactly instantly warm to Gheorghe’s presence. The film’s power comes from Lee’s excellent script and calm, patient direction. As a viewer, Johnny’s loneliness is almost palpable, making his motivations clear and as a result it is easy to empathise with him.

Lee also does a tremendous job bringing the Yorkshire farmlands to life. His camera evokes an almost tactile response, and it is as if you could feel the grass and the mud; this film is simply full of raw and unflinching moments. There is a particularly touching sequence which Gheorghe tends to a newborn lamb that wonderfully evokes everything that God’s Own Country represents, things that seem broken can be reborn and renewed with tender love and care.

The film’s beauty also comes down to tremendous performances from the principal cast. O’Connor and Secareanu bring a wonderful vulnerability that is vital to the film’s beating heart. Ian Hart and Gemma Jones, who plays Johnny’s grandmother, are both utterly exceptional. God’s Own Country is a tender, quiet and moving meditation on love and loneliness, and wouldn’t be half as powerful without these great performances.

The home entertainment release of God’s Own Country comes with a series of deleted and extended scenes. Though it is easy to see why they were cut down or removed entirely, there is some interesting stuff here that fleshes out some of their characters. The film looks and sounds great, but it is a shame that such an excellent film wasn’t given more bonus material. Still, for fans of the film and for those who have yet to see it, one of the best films of 2017 absolutely deserves a home in your collection.

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The Small World Of Sammy Lee – DVD Review

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Reviewer:  Freda Cooper

Director:  Ken Hughes

Stars:  Anthony Newley, Julia Foster, Robert Stephens, Wilfrid Brambell, Warren Mitchell, Roy Kinnear

Certificate: 12

Released 14th November 2016

 

In 1958, Ken Hughes’ half hour play, ‘Sammy’ appeared on British television.  It attracted huge acclaim and turned its solidary actor, Anthony Newley, into a star.  Several years later, he returned to the same part, this time in the much-expanded ‘The Small World Of Sammy Lee’, written and directed by Hughes and released in cinemas in 1963.  The response wasn’t so warm.

Now described by some as a lost gem of British cinema, it returned to the big screen in a newly restored version at the London Film Festival and is released on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.  Time for a re-assessment.

The Sammy Lee of the title (Newley) is the compere at a Soho strip joint and a fast talking chancer.  He’s also up to his neck in debt with the local bookie and has just five hours to raise the cash that will prevent paying up in a more painful way.  It’s a race against the clock for him to find the money, through all manner of dodgy deals.  At the same time, he has to cope with a major complication in his life, the young Patsy (Julia Foster) who fell for his showy offer of a job and has left home to pursue him. 

Right from the opening shot, this is a period piece and a large chunk of nostalgia for anybody familiar with the London of the 60s, Soho especially.  The early moments show streets that are empty, except for the bin men collecting the remains of the night before.  Them aside, there’s hardly anybody around, but all that changes as the day progresses.  You find yourself picking out street names and locations – Berwick Street market for one – while the black and white photography introduces the inherent seediness of the area, such as the strip club interior both back stage and front of house, the snooker halls, the pokey bed-sits.  It extends to the characters as well, from Sammy with his stock of hackneyed, vaguely smutty gags straight out of the Archie Rice joke book to the pathetic Harry (Wilfrid Brambell) who runs his errands and, inevitably, falls down on the job.

All of which makes the more law-abiding characters stand out.  There’s a one-scene portrait of Sammy’s family, his hard working brother Lou (Warren Mitchell) who runs a Whitechapel delicatessen and wife Milly (Miriam Karlin), dripping in costume jewellery and lacking any sympathy for Sammy when he arrives on the scrounge.  So much so, that you suspect there may have been something between the two before she settled for his brother.  And there’s the naïve Patsy who sees him for what he is but still adores him and finds promotion from waitress to “dancer” in the club upsetting and humiliating.

The scenes in the club give away the film’s 30 minute original, there’s one too many scene of Sammy running through the Soho streets and the Patsy love interest feels like padding, but why should a film with so much in the way of character and location fall so flat when it was released?  One reason could be timing.  It didn’t fit with the move towards “kitchen sink dramas” – it came out in the same year as ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ and ‘This Sporting Life’, while ‘A Kind Of Loving’ had been released in 1962.  Sammy’s story isn’t a thriller either and doesn’t make the most of the dramatic potential of his limited time for raising that money.  Nor is it a comment on society.

But, despite its shortcomings, there is much to enjoy, particularly among the performances.  Newley is suitably nervy to the point of hyper as Sammy, while the oil positively drips off Robert Stephens’ club owner.  And it’s littered with cameos from other familiar faces, like Derek Nimmo, Roy Kinnear and even Linda Baron (Nurse Gladys Emmanuel from ‘Open All Hours’).  The street scenes in Soho are so evocative you can almost smell the garbage and the club interior is always viewed through a fug of cigarette smoke.

It adds up to a film rich in curiosity value for today’s audience, something of a love letter to the Soho of the 60s, but one that misses the dramatic target by a whisker.  Second time round, it seems destined to appeal to a limited audience all over again, one that treasures older, unsung British films.

 

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One Million Years BC – DVD Review

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Reviewer:  Freda Cooper

Director:  Don Chaffey

Stars:  Raquel Welch, John Richardson, Martine Beswick

Certificate: PG

Released: 24th October 2016

 

Cinema history may be littered with bikini moments, but only a few have achieved true iconic status.  Ursula Andress in ‘Dr No’ (1962) for one, followed by numerous other Bond girls who tried to re-create the moment, most notably Halle Berry in ‘Die Another Day’ (2002).  And there was Bo Derek in ‘10’ (1979).  But only one actress had the dubious honour of sporting a fur bikini.  She was the almost-unknown Raquel Welch in ‘One Million Years BC’ (1966) and the garment, with its remarkable adhesive properties, made her an international star. 

The film makes its return in a newly restored version on DVD to mark its 50th anniversary.  And, while Welch in her bikini is easily its best known image, it also overshadows the film’s other achievement.  Not only was it the most successful film ever to come out of Hammer Studios, it was also the big screen’s most famous dinosaur epic until the arrival of ‘Jurassic Park’ some 26 years later.  And much of that was down to the creations of the legendary Ray Harryhausen.  While some of them aren’t up to his usual standard – little more than enlarged versions of a lizard and a turtle – there’s a great dinosaur battle which shows the maestro at his best.

The audiences queuing to see the film in ’66 certainly didn’t go along for the plot.  It’s pretty basic stuff, all about two tribes.  The Stone People are a vicious lot, living in the mountains and regularly knocking seven bells out of each other.  They kick out Tumak (John Richardson), one of their leader’s sons, and he finds his way to the coast where he discovers the Shell People, who show him a different, more peaceful way of life.  It’s not long before the two tribes come into conflict, but then they eventually have to come together in a battle for survival.

Unsurprisingly, the dialogue isn’t up to much – the occasional word and a few grunts – so the demands on the cast are more physical than anything.  And, once director Don Chaffey has exhausted the appeal of Harryhausen’s dinosaurs, he throws the kitchen sink at the film in the shape of the final sequence, a volcanic eruption and earthquake, all of which is pretty spectacular for its day.

The restoration has certainly sharpened up the look of the film and the DVD comes complete with a variety of extras, including interviews with Welch and her co-star, Martine Beswick.  But comparisons with today’s special effects are inevitable and, while Harryhausen’s monsters are seriously impressive for their day, both they and the film are more of a period piece, laden with nostalgia for fans of the 60s.

 

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