David’ O’Russell’s American Hustle (2013) is a testament to sincere filmmaking. The charm and affection he displays through his affable characters is recognizable in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), but has never been as fully realized as in this energetic, self-assured portrayal of an American scandal. O’Russell’s sensitivity is today quite unparalleled in Hollywood filmmaking; his unique visual style illustrates a great sensibility for character exposition. While the story itself—though well written—is nothing to write home about, O’Russell’s characters, their relations and interactions amongst one another, and how they present themselves to the world before them set a precedent of earnest filmmaking amongst the 21st century studio system.
The Coen brothers have a real skill for surprise, zigging when everyone expects them to zag. Take their run of films from the mid to late 2000’s. After the underwhelming one-two punch of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, they rebounded by winning their first and only Best Picture Oscar in 2007 with No Country for Old Men. The next year saw them making Burn After Reading, which completely befuddled critics on its release; initially dismissed as fun but light fare, the film has over time gained a cult following. Two years later they made True Grit, their greatest commercial success and as close to a “crowd pleaser” as the idiosyncratic brothers have ever made. Nestled between these two came A Serious Man, a small budget film (by Coen standards - it cost $7 million to No Country’s $25 and Burn’s $37) released without much fanfare. It differs largely in tone from the films which surround it, having neither the dourness of No Country or the lighter touch of Burn or True Grit. Of all the brother’s films it probably has the most in common with 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, minus that film’s noir trappings, but in reality it stands as a singular creation. At once small in scale and breathtakingly ambitious, the film finds the Coens in top form as writers and directors. Many will disagree, but for my money A Serious Man is not only the most Coeny Coen brothers film, it’s also the best, and one of the best American films in decades.
“Greed is good,” someone somewhere once said. I can’t remember who. By the time you’re done watching The Wolf of Wall Street, you won’t remember either. Because greed is awful. Just awful.
But oh is it tempting. Temptation really is the theme of this movie, the latest from Martin Scorsese, one of the last American masters still in the business. Working with one of the finest casts he’s ever assembled, from a merciless true-story screenplay by Boardwalk Empire boss Terence Winter, Scorsese draws you into a world of bacchanalian excess and grotesquery, and invites you to excuse all the illegal activity that funds it because… well… damn it looks fun!
Joel and Ethan Coen are masters at creating characters. Their genius lies in how they drive those characters by making them frolic randomly across the screen. The Big Lebowski was made during a really confusing time in history. The Cold War had long thawed out and the real impact of mass communications (the internet) was a palpable topic with the dawn of the Y2K threat. Disenfranchisement was less punk and turned to different expressions through grunge and the loser aesthetic. While the world searched for a new identifier (Who’s the new unifiying threat? We must create the new “in” thing!”), the idea of just going with the flow seemed more appealing than stressing it all out. Anxiety was for the doers, the makers, the innovators, and the corporations. Real life was sitting outside the convenience store, the beach, or by the television watching the world go by. Place The Big Lebowski outside of that mindset though and it still holds up.
Any discussion of American Hustle has to be dense, for there is so much going on in the film that any tertiary discussion would be, frankly, as shallow as some of the early pundits pegged the film itself to be. David O. Russell, a filmmaker who used to make passion projects with several years in between but who now appears to be one of the Academy’s favorite sons, churning out fresh new Oscar bait every year, is actually one of the more ambitious American filmmakers in the biz. Evidence to that statement is abundant in American Hustle, which is surely designed as an Oscar vehicle for literally everyone involved, but vibrates with intense passion – for willfully messy filmmaking, for reverence of the great messy filmmaking of all-time, for every member of this deep all-star cast, and for the pure joy of making art.
Despicable Me 2 was rumoured as a character focused film on the previous films’ iconic minions. What arrived came out as a sequel with different narrative scope and a keen sense of continuing the hilarity of the original. Inspiring the adventure and creative imaginations in us all, the secret labs and the wonderful weaponry of the first feature are expanded in Despicable Me 2. Everything that was charming and exciting about the strange science and the impossibility of such things as fart guns and robot cookies returns with the same level of wacky inventiveness.
A fedora blows into a wooded crossroads, surrounded by a bed of delicate flora and grass that sways in the wind like wisps of baby’s hair in the afternoon sun. A sudden gust of wind carries the fedora into the air and down the road, beckoning us to watch the story of Miller’s Crossing, a oft-brutal gangsters’ tale with film-noir roots that paradoxically unfolds with the casual familiar comfort of a warm afternoon breeze as it chooses to retell the old stories in the distinct voice of the Coens instead of forging new cinematic ideas. We see the glint of green depression glass filled with bootleg liquor poured into crystal glasses of two-faced liars and brutal gangsters as they lament that the fix has been “fixed”, as there is neither honor nor a sense of irony among thieves who have been robbed of their perfectly stolen money. The loud-mouthed, crass Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) demands satisfaction but is only offered a cold thousand-yard stare by Leo (Albert Finney) and the beguiling deceit behind the eyes of his enforcer, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a man of many secrets with enough cunning and gumption to seem trustworthy. Leo and Tom speak with the familiarity and affection of father and son, but the hearts of gangsters are as black as midnight and Tom has many unpaid debts and unanswered sins.
The Coen Brothers’ second feature, Raising Arizona, is probably their most outwardly zany film. It seems everything is a little bit crazy, from Nicolas Cage’s constant dumbfounded looks to the demon bounty hunter to the out-of-control wandering camera. Though nothing they have done since matches the frenzied pitch and overt lunacy of Raising Arizona, it sets the tone of their humor that remains consistent throughout their films. It was also quite a huge departure from their first film, Blood Simple (1984), which was a pitch black neo-noir with little to no humor at all.
After the success of Crazy Heart, the Academy Award-winning (for Jeff Bridges Best Actor award) country drama, writer-director Scott Cooper could have made practically any film (within financial reason, of course), but rather than taking a work-for-hire assignment and a safe, mainstream film, Cooper decided to use up that goodwill on Out of the Furnace, a grim, downbeat, backwoods/Rust Belt crime-drama. Cooper filled out his cast with two Academy Award winners, Christian Bale and Forest Whitaker, and several nominees, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Shepard. Not surprisingly, the cast, including non-nominee Zoe Saldana, give strong, layered performances, but unfortunately, their performances are in a service of a dull, faux-profound screenplay Cooper co-wrote with Brad Ingelsby.
The phrase “three on a match” refers to a wartime superstition in which the glow of a match lit long enough for three soldiers would alert the enemy and spell doom for one of the trio; the film Three on a Match introduces then playfully undercuts such hokum, explaining that match manufacturer Ivar Keuger invented and exploited the belief to sell more matches. Such juggling of tones, shifting from melodrama to lightheartedness and back again, exemplifies director Mervyn LeRoy’s and writer Lucien Hubbard’s breakneck tale of three schoolgirl friends (played in childhood by Anne Shirley, Betty Carse, and Virginia Davis) who take very different paths to adulthood and finally reunite by chance in the then-contemporary New York of 1932.