Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"Hustle" to a Theater When You Get the Chance

            “Some of this actually happened” is how David O’Russell’s latest film, ”American Hustle” opens up.  Instantly, skepticism becomes the mindset for audiences as we watch the next two hours of illegal dealings and con artistry gone wild.  The ensemble piece has gained much critical acclaim, and it’s no surprised how it has racked up seven Golden Globe nominations.  Voted as the Movie of the Year by the American Film Institute, “American Hustle” is a must see, considering its immense accolades. 

            “American Hustle” is based on a true story, as it pays tribute to the FBI ABSCAM Operation.  With its opening statement, unusual yet immediately gripping, we clearly see how the public’s trust in the government has decreased, considering the Watergate Scandal that happened a few years prior.  The ABSCAM operation was based in Long Island, and it originally targeted trafficking stolen property.  However, it evolved into a public corruption investigation. 

            The political figures involved in this scheme included a US Senator, six members of the House of Representatives, a New Jersey senator, members of the Philadelphia City Council, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.  The codename “ABSCAM” is actually short for Arab Scam, or Abdul Scam, the name of its fictitious front company. 

            David O’Russell chose to take the story and fictionalize it rather than making a straight-forward adaptation.  This was an attempt to glamorize the climax of the scheming, as per usual of Hollywood’s artistic licensing.  The names have been changed, but the story is pretty close to reality. 

 In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, an FBI agent, Richard DiMasio (Bradley Cooper) coerces Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) to tee up and execute an elaborate plan to expose corrupt politicians. To get things going, Irving convinces one of his close friends to charade as an Arab Sheik looking for investments in American from politicians. 

            Irving and Sidney manage to con many powerful figures to get what they want, from transferring millions of dollars into a fake account to scamming one Irving’s close friends, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (Jeremy Renner).  The amount of hustling and smooth-talking throughout this film is wild, as the elaborate scheming intertwines with the onscreen chemistry between members of the star-studded cast. 

            It’s no mystery why Christian Bale has been nominated for yet another Golden Globe, this time for his performance in “American Hustle.”  I’m not sure which has more personality, his character Irving Rosenfeld, or the elaborate combover he styles in the film’s opening scene.  His charismatic air can sell ice to an eskimo, as I can’t imagine anyone more fit for the role.  Bale can take any role on, and thoroughly exhaust it to the point where we really forget who Christian Bale is. 

Once more, Christian Bale prepared for his well in a hard core fashion.  This time around, he gained forty pounds and got a combover.  Bale went great lengths and slouched his posture so much for his character that he herniated two of his disks in the process.   His transformation is in fact so impressive that Robert DeNiro (who makes an appearance in this film!) didn’t even recognize him after being introduced to him onset. 

Per usual, Amy Adams delivers an excellent performance.  She and Bale have returned to work together under O’Russell after appearing in his 2010 film “The Fighter.”  Their excellent performance together contributes to “American Hustle’s” box-office success.  She too has received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy. 

Bradley Cooper reunites with O’Russell as well reunites with director David O’Russell after being in his 2012 film “Silver Linings Playbook,” and has racked up yet another Golden Globe nomination under his direction.  The same goes for Jennifer Lawrence, who played Rosenfeld’s unpredictable wife Rosalyn.  Cooper really got into his role as DiMasio as he permed his hair for the occasion, and wore hair curlers in a couple of scenes.

The costuming, hair and make-up for this film are anachronism free.  It even uses the  1970's Columbia Motion Pictures logo at the film's opening.  Though outrageous at points, the clothes and styles of the time period fit in perfectly for the late1970’s.  From Adams and Cooper’s curled hair to Bale’s intense combover, we see the time period unfold before our eyes.  Even Renner fashions a pompadour that would impress Conan O’Brien.  The soundtrack was fantastic as well.  It effectively fits the mood.  Artists featured on it include Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Elton John and the Temptations.  Just to name a few of the incredible musicians featured in the film.

            Originally, “American Hustle” was titled as “American Bullshit,” and that script was written in 2010.  It was on the Hollywood Blacklist, until resurrected and rewritten.  After seeing it, I can only imagine what the original script called for, considering this one was written with so much eloquence and panache.  O’Russell had the actors and actresses that appear in this film in mind as he took on the script. 

The spontaneity of the scenes unfolding feel so real, and audiences can relate to the characters, no matter how much or how little.  For example, the argument scenes between Lawrence and Bale are improvised, as the actors were more capable to connect to the action without the limitations of a script. 

Things come very naturally to the screen, as a good portion of the dialogue is improvised.  This is no surprise, as the cast is brilliant, but the plot becomes difficult to follow at points.  Christian Bale even noted how this would effect the plot and could potentially destroy the film overall.  O’Russell responded with confidence “I hate plots.  I am all about characters, that’s it.”  This is no shock, as the characters in this film have such strong screen presence, you cannot help but to love every single one despite their tragic flaws.  They truly make up for what confusion audiences may be in. 

With the above listed Golden Globe nominations along with that of Best Director (David O’Russell), Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) and Best Screenplay (Eric Warren Singer and O’Russell), “American Hustle” is definitely worth checking out.  The styilistic aspects and execution of the story told wouldn’t have been as effective if it wasn’t for the efforts of O’Russell and everyone involved in “American Hustle.” 

Monday, December 30, 2013

An Effective Saving of Mr. Banks

                Regardless of how satisfying a Disney movie can be, they always seem to surprise me.  I really do manage to fall in love with them, whether it is upon leaving the theatre or letting them play to the last few seconds in my VCR.  “Saving Mr. Banks” is no exception.  I will never be able to watch “Mary Poppins” the same way again, as there is so much more to it than just dancing penguins and chimney sweeps.  John Lee Hancock directs this work of art, and it is no surprise why the critics are raving about Disney’s latest film. 

                “Banks” is a live-action picture, which is the story behind the creative process and struggle to create “Mary Poppins,” the 1964 Disney movie about a nanny who reunites the broken Banks family.  P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson), the author of the children’s book “Mary Poppins” has been entreated by the Disney Studios since 1938 for the rights.  After much effort to keep her book from being transformed into another “silly cartoon” of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his studio, she finally agrees to meet him in California and will sign over the rights, provided she oversees the entire creative process.

                As she dives into the minutiae of “Mary Poppins,” Travers reflects on her childhood in Australia, especially on her relationship with her father.  He was the inspiration for the patriarch of “Poppins,” Mr. Banks.  His poor temper yet loving disposition played a major role in her childhood, and his battle with alcoholism didn’t make things easy.  Travers’ relationship with her father weighed a lot on her writing later on in life, especially when determining how Mr. Banks really should be portrayed.  Working with Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the Sherman Brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak) was a long and grueling process.  However, once she realized the importance of bringing “Mary Poppins” to the silver screen, she makes the bold move of signing the rights over.  “Saving Mr. Banks” is an excellent interpretation of how difficult it can be making a film, from the storyboards and script to the music and costuming.   

                Thompson plays an anxiety stricken woman, whose proper nature and desperate need for a spoonful of sugar will make you love her, even though she is utterly disgusted by Disneyland.     She thoroughly prepared for her role as the uptight author.  Thompson styled her own hair similar to that of Travers.  She also listened to the tapes recorded from the scriptwriting process in which Travers dictated her many concerns of what Disney’s team dreamed up.  Overall, she is absolutely in this film (as expected) and it is no wonder why she has received a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Travers. 

                She wasn’t the only actor who did their homework for “Saving Mr. Banks.”  Tom Hanks grew his mustache out, causing the make-up and costuming team style it just like Disney’s.  He also listened to old recordings of Disney and practiced his Midwestern inflection while reading the newspaper.  Jason Schwartzman and B. J. Novak also had the pleasure of working closely with Richard Sherman, which was very beneficial throughout rehearsals and the actual filming. 

                This film will effectively transport you to Los Angeles in the 1960’s.  Disneyland, even though is much different from what it is now, is still enchanting.  The scenery will make you fall in love.  Costuming and the stylistic aspects of the film were approached in a most favorable manner.  Everything from the bag Emma Thompson carried around to Tom Hanks’ mustache was finely placed, avoiding any anachronistic nature.  Nuances everywhere made all the difference, as there was an authenticity to the film that is less common now than before. 

                “Saving Mr. Banks” was as heartwarming as it was heartbreaking.  Audiences get to see the struggle that comes along with creating a movie, along with the delights that make the frustration worth it in the end.  As soon as I got home, I put “Mary Poppins” on to get a better feel for what really is going on throughout the film.  The tribute it plays is respectable and appropriate.  For the story it tells, I couldn’t imagine a better interpretation.   

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Let "Frozen" Warm Your Heart

This Thanksgiving, Walt Disney Animated Studios has done it again.  In the past, they have pulled your heartstrings to follow along the paths of lovers.  They have made you laugh so hard you’re choking for breath.  They manage to break your heart and slip in tear jerking moments.  In the end, they (usually) satisfy with a feel-good ending that can make anyone forget their woes and become a kid at heart again.  Usually, a few of the above aspects are achieved in a film, but it is hard to achieve all. 

“Frozen” is able to do everything, and beyond that.  It leaves all audiences smiling and begging for more, even though the film is practically perfect as is.  Its ticket was the best  $12 I spent in too long. 

“Frozen” is a must-see this holiday season.  It may not be a film revolving around a holiday, as we would look for in seasonal animated features, but its winter wonderland to a fault is the perfect pull-in.  It is loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale, “The Snow Queen.”  Ambitious princess Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell---who sings too!) embarks on a journey to rescue her estranged sister, Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) from herself.  Wow, Disney has hit everything on a deeper level.  Not only is this film wonderful in all its typical fashion for an animated feature, but now it has become more personal and psychological. 

Other voice talents in this film include Josh Gad as the dopey snowman Olaf, Jonathan Groff as the ice salesman Kristoff, who accompanies Anna on her journey, and Santino Fontana as the seemingly enchanting Prince Hans.  The film follows their journey trying to restore order in the kingdom, and it is as fun as it is intense.  It’s also filled with more music than your average Disney film.  Or any film for that matter. 

The score?  Fantastic.  The soundtrack? Even better.  It may be a drive-by musical, with characters bursting into song to express themselves every five minutes.  However, you cannot help but wish you knew the words going into the theatre to sing along with them.  Its upbeat and catchy music is wonderfully composed by Christophe Beck.  In fact, I made a Spotify playlist of the soundtrack as soon as I got home. 

Don’t bother with seeing it in 3D.  Save yourself the few dollars for a cup of Starbucks, along with the headache from the overwhelming and excessive effects coming at your face.  This film was so crisp in its normal definition that you don’t need anything else decorating the screen to enchant.  The special effects were impressive.  The snow onscreen looked so real you could almost feel the powdery whiteness sprinkling over you. 

Many critiques consider it the best movie musical Disney has released since their renaissance era, and it already has a rating of 8.1 stars on IMDb.  If you had liked “Tangled” (2011) and are looking for something to completely lose yourself in the semi-comfort of a movie theatre, then “Frozen” is the film to see.  Despite its icy cold title, its warm nature can and will melt anyone’s heart this winter.  It could potentially get the Oscar for animated picture of the year too, God willing.  Either way, go see “Frozen.”  Now.