70s, Ben Stiller, Jason Bateman, Owen Wilson, TBT, television, Will Ferrell

TBT – Starsky & Hutch (2004)

My sister’s wedding is getting ever closer so I’m not exactly focused on the blog this week. There’s a lot of sorting, cleaning and final mad panic buys going on round here that I’ve been a bit lazy with my selections this week. High-Rise was something I’ve had on my list for ages and I watched it when I had a spare evening. My pick for today had even less thought behind it. Netflix suggested it to me last weekend and, as it’s been such a fucking age since I saw it, didn’t hesitate. Now, every week I try and get my Tuesday and Thursday posts to match up in some way: that might be by actor, genre or director but, as is usually the case, it’s based on whatever flimsy connection I can create. This weeks connection is the 1970s. Both of this week’s films are set in the 70s and that was enough of a connection to prevent me madly searching for a film set in a tower block or just watching the 90s adaptation of Crash. Neither of those things fit into my schedule or filled me with a massive amount of desire. So here we have it. A random film that you’ll probably all have watched many many times. It almost doesn’t seem worth bothering but when have I ever been known to listen to common sense?

Hollywood in the late 90s and early 2000s was definitely going through the time of Frat Pack: the name given to the group of comedy actors like Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrell. The guys placed into this group by the media would turn up together in films in any number of combinations and were constantly churning out films that are, at least now, beloved by fans. Starsky & Hutch came after a string of films like Old School, Zoolander and Meet the Parents and attempted to reboot the popular 70s TV show using the lure of the Frat Pack stars. With added Snoop Dogg oviously. Ben Stiller takes on the role of David Starsky from Paul Michael Glaser whilst his Zoolander co-star Owen Wilson stepped into David Sole’s shows as Ken Hutchinson.

The film’s plot is hardly anything to write home about but it was never really going to be. We see the two Detectives form an unlikely partnership as they attempt to bust a drug baron, Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn), as he attempts to pull off the biggest drug deal ever seen. Along the way, they are given assistance from dodgy “businessman” and Hutch’s acquaintance Huggy Bear (Snoop Dogg) and a dragon obsessed convict (Will Ferrell). Obviously, things aren’t easy for the pair and their eventually have to go behind their captain’s back when they are inevitably suspended. It’s all very by the books for a buddy cop but fleshed out with a few in-jokes concerning the original series.

Still, that’s not to say the film isn’t funny. Yes, it doesn’t do anything to blow the genre wide open but it gives the performers enough room to work their comedy. Stiller and Wilson have just enough chemistry on screen to sell their characters and the hit-and-miss script. Their relationship is the same kind of thing that has kept them in business for years. Stiller plays the tightly wound and by-the-book Starsky whilst Wilson plays the cool and loose-moraled Hutch. It’s also the thing buddy cop movies have been know for: pair up two opposites and watch as they eventually work out their differences and capture the bad guy. It’s nothing too out of the ordinary but the pair work so well together now that it doesn’t matter.

Most surprisingly, of course, is the revelation that is Snoop Dogg as Huggy Bear. Nobody would ever have described Snoop as a great actor but he does pretty well in the role. Yes, some of his stuff is a bit wooden but he offers some genuinely funny moments. Although, for my personal tastes, it is Will Ferrell’s Big Earl who offers the most memorable moment. The two cops go and visist Earl in prison and, in order to get him to talk, pretend to be sexy dragons to get him off. It’s a moment that absolutely killed me when I first saw the film and is something I reference far too regularly. Ferrell may be a tiny part of the film but, as is so often the case, he is definitely the greatest.

When it comes down to it, Starsky and Hutch isn’t really that inspiring a film but, thanks to the cast and a fairly charming script, it manages to update the tired television show into a modern film. The narrative is so flimsy it could break in a slight breeze but there can be no denying that the gags keep coming. Not all of them land as successfully as they’d like but you can’t fault it on sheer numbers. This is a quantity rather than quality kind of situation and, in spite of everything, it works. It’s not the greatest Frat Pack movie ever made but it’s still up there. I may not have watched it with as much regularity as Zoolander but it’s memorably enough to make me go back every now and then.

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70s, books, review, Steven Spielberg, trash

Tuesday’s Reviews – Jaws by Peter Benchley

Everyone knows the story of Jaws right? Well, I thought I did. Of course, not being too up-to-date with popular fiction of the 1970s, was only really aware of the story thanks to the film. I knew that Steven Spielberg changed much of Peter Benchley’s book but had never thought to read it. Until I found a copy with the most amazing cover I’d ever seen. No matter how many times I get burned by ignoring the well-known idiom, I always judge a book by its cover. Still, I at least knew that Benchley’s book was a much trashier affair than Spielberg’s film so it seemed like perfect reading during the recent run of good weather. Even ex-literature students love a bit of trash every now and then. Maybe one day I’ll tell you all about The Second Lady by Irving Wallace. Now that’s some fucking great trash. So it was with a piqued interest that I sat down to read the book that became a surprise best-seller after its release in 1974. 

Peter Benchley’s novel has the same basic premise of the Steven Spielberg adaptation that was released a year after the book first came out. A small seaside town is terrorised by an underwater beast and comes close to financial ruin when the tourists they rely on stay away. That’s kind of where the helpful comparisons come to an end. Benchley padded out his narrative with subplots of adultery, political corruption, mobsters and class divides. The characters that litter his novel are almost unrecognisable to those we are so used to seeing on screen. In stark contrast to the titular fish, they are all terrible and immoral people. It’s difficult to read the novel and not want the shark to win in the end. 
It’s difficult when discussing Benchley’s novel because, in so many ways, it can never compete with the superior work. The two recently celebrated their 40th anniversaries and, whilst the film was obviously lauded for its greatness, the books birthday passed in a much quieter manner. After reading it I can see why the novel hasn’t remained the huge success it was in the mid 70s. In fact, it is kind of shocking that it remained on the best-sellers list for as long as it did. It was Benchley’s first novel and it is hardly the greatest example of writing the world had ever seen. The story is massively cliched, the dialogue is stilted and the subplots are fairly bland and pointless. 
There are moments of greatness within the novel but Benchley just throws too much at it. It’s like the kind of Christmas trees you decorated as a child: there’s a solid base there but you’ve just chucked too many shiny things on top of it. The sections of the novel that really stand out are the ones with the shark. Taken from its point of view, we see the attacks on the human victims through the eyes of a predator and it’s weirdly captivating. Benchley’s writing is factual and solemn in these sections and they’re just brilliant. From these few sections you can see why people considered it an exciting thriller. The scenes with the shark have a level of intensity that the rest of the book just can’t match. The fault within the novel doesn’t lie with our fishy protagonists but with the human ones. 
One of the main criticisms of the novel, and one taken up by Spielberg himself, is that the human characters are just too unlikeable. I can see where they’re coming from but I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. In fact, Ellen Brody, despite being an offensively written and whiny housewife, has way more depth than she ever did on screen. I don’t necessarily find the awful nature of the human characters to be a problem but I do object to it being done for no real reason. Martin Brody, for example, has a massive chip on his shoulder but it never goes anywhere beyond his petty jealousy of Matt Hooper. The human sections within the shark tale are just about entertainment and adds nothing from a literary point. 
Although, you could argue, the real focus is and should be on the shark. This is a murder mystery set under the sea and the fish should be what you remember. However, Benchley also takes this a bit too far with his allusions to Moby Dick. Quint is much the same as you remember from the film but his relationship with the shark goes much deeper into Captain Ahab territory. The final battle sequence is. I guess, quite exhilarating but it pushes the whole plot to a new level of insanity and revenge. As soon as Quint enters the scene we leave reality and enter a much more fantastical world. A weird thing to say considering Benchley’s ending is much more sedate and sombre than the film. No massive explosion here just a beast that can’t stop fighting anymore. It may not be the Hollywood spectacle that Spielberg wanted but the timid ending of this novel is, in it’s own way, incredibly meaningful in regards to natural order. Maybe it does hold up to its visual brother after all. 
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70s, action, history, Ireland, politics, review

’71 (2014)

It was a busy Saturday afternoon at work when my friend suddenly decided I was a suitable back-up plan for her evening. I was spared an evening of bowling failures (spared… geddit?) thanks to her raging hormones. We’d seen the trailer for ’71when we went to see TheRiot Club although our reactions to it were pretty different. Whilst I’d seen a historically and aesthetically interesting thriller, she saw an opportunity to stare at Jack O’Donnell for nearly 2 hours. Never mind, eh? I can think of worse reasons to sit in a dark room on a Saturday night. Plus, she’s been threatening to drag me to endless Zac Efron films for the last few years so I’m just too grateful when our interests overlap to really care why.

Yann Demange offers up a fantastic debut with ’71, a film set just before the most brutal year of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Taking place in the year preceding Bloody Sunday, it’s safe to say the tension is rife: there are rifts between the British and Irish; the Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Loyalists; and between the different factions on each side.

Unfortunately for Private Gary Hook, he’s about to be thrown in at the deep end. Hook (Jack O’Connell) is a young man who joined the army in an attempt to escape his fairly dismal upbringing. However, rather than finding an easy path to honour in Germany, Hook is deployed to Belfast to get a handle on the increasingly shitty situation that’s unfolding.
Through a series of military oversights, Hook’s unit find themselves in one of the most dangerous areas in the city without adequate protection. The group are tasked with assisting the Royal Ulster Constabulary to carry out raids in Catholic residences. The situation soon gets out of hand and Hook is cut off from his fellow soldiers with pretty much everyone baying for his blood. He has to find his way home in an unfamiliar environment and weave his way through all of the double-crossing going on around him.
Gregory Burke ends up juggling a large number of balls throughout his screenplay, as he introduces people from all sides of the conflict, all of whom have their own agenda. Unfortunately, this means that there is little in the way of real character development and a certain amount of ambiguity clouding each of the plot-strands. At times the leap of faith required to accept that Hook would naturally fall into each camp at significant points is a bit much but Burke, building on the success of his stage show Black Watch, seems to have good enough ball-control to create a workable plot.
Of course, this could be helped by his decision not to bog down the film with any pesky socio-political context. For all the significance of the Troubles in ’71’s setting, the film doesn’t pretend to be any kind of historical document. Ignoring the documentary style of works like Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday, ’71 is more like an action-horror film set in a specific context. The hows and whys are never discussed and Burke doesn’t attempt to make any judgements about the conflict as a whole. Instead, he tries, and for the most part succeeds, in painting a realistic yet vague portrait of the various attitudes in Ireland at the time.
This isn’t a film about the Irish Troubles but something that concerns itself with the reaction of an innocent outsider. Hook finds himself caught in the middle of a conflict he doesn’t have a hope of understanding. Demange doesn’t set out to teach us about such an important time in recent history but to put this young man in one of the shittest environments of recent years and see if he can survive.
What he managed to create led to one of the most tense cinema experiences I’ve ever had. Having just come off a hectic Saturday shift I wasn’t exactly in the right frame of mind for this survival thriller. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so fucking stressed out by a film. Of course, this is the definitive mark that it’s doing its job properly. The story unfolds at break-neck speed and Demange has worked hard to ensure that every detail of this film helps to ramp up the tension. With production design turning modern day Liverpool into an almost alien version of 1970s Belfast, there is a real sense that Hook has wandered into the kind of post-apocalyptic nightmarish future that litters the FPS offerings in the games market these days.
There is never a moment for you to relax as Hook moves ever closer to the IRA stronghold that provides the setting for a dramatic final set piece. It is cinematographer Tat Radcliffe’s decision to switch between 16mm for the sequences that take place during the day and digital once the sun goes down that really help reflect Hook’s increasing vulnerability.
Of course, none of this tension would mean a damn thing if it weren’t for a noteworthy performance from leading man Jack O’Connell. Proving once again that he’s someone to watch out for, O’Connell brings charisma and strength to the young soldier that is perfectly offset by an underlying vulnerability that constantly reminds us that, underneath the uniform, he’s just a lost young man looking for a way home.
It’s just a crying shame that O’Connell isn’t given more to work with. Gary is, despite being on-screen for the nearly the entire 100 minute runtime, one of the most vague characters imaginable. With only a brief glimpse into his early life, you never get a sense of what Gary is about which means, after all the drama, you never get any kind of emotional or dramatic resolution. However, despite all of this frustrating ambiguity, ’71is a mesmerising film that goes to show it’s leading man, director and screenwriter all have great futures ahead of them.
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70s, 80s, adaptation, Bradley Cooper, comedy, comic book, Marvel, review, sci-fi, Zoe Saldana

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

It was back in 2010 that Marvel started making public suggestions about a Guardians of the Galaxy film. I have to admit that I didn’t really pay any attention to it. My limited knowledge of the comic book world had let me down again so I had very little knowledge of this part of the Marvel universe. With every new piece of information my eyes rolled with increasing exaggeration: chubby yet adorable Chris Pratt as a Hans Solo type? Karen Gillan? Bradley Cooper? Vin Diesel? Certainly nothing that really left me inspired enough to pick up a comic book. That was until the first teaser trailer was released… and I was fucking hooked. I bought some of the comics, found out as much as possible and made weird high-pitched noises whenever I saw new pictures of the newly buff Pratt.

Before Marvel film started the ball rolling, I think it’s fair to say that Guardians of the Galaxy was fairly unknown outside of the comic book community. They certainly didn’t have the same cultural reach that Marvel’s other major players had. However, in an age of increasingly dark Nolan-wannabe films, these lovable, slightly pathetic weirdos are exactly who cinema audiences were waiting for.


Although it may not initially seem that way, as Guardians opens in a completely un-Marvel way: a young Peter Quill listens to his walkman whilst waiting outside a hospital room to say his final goodbye to his sick mother. It’s an unexpectedly deep and emotional start to a film about space-adventurers. It is an unexpected moment in a world where comic book movies are normally brash, CGI-filled displays of non-stop action. Of course, anyone out there worried that they’ll miss the brash, CGI-filled displays have nothing to worry about as, only seconds after a distraught Peter runs from the hospital, he is picked up by a fucking huge spaceship.

Cut to twenty odd years later and Quill (Chris Pratt) is now an intergalactic scavenger hired out to find exciting trinkets: think Indiana Jones meets Hans Solo. To say the general reaction to the news that Pratt would play the great Star-Lord was one of confusion, the actor excels in the role. Despite his new slim-line look, his adorable, everyman charm that made him such a hit as Andy Dwyer remains. Unlike a lot of comic book heroes, you walk out of Guardians still being able to tell yourself that, under different circumstances, you could be Star-Lord.

It is his seemingly simple mission to retrieve a mysterious metal orb that sets Quill’s crazy space-adventure in motion. The fact that it turns out to be nothing more than your run-of-the-mill space MacGuffin fails to put a dampener on proceedings mainly because it’s the perfect way to introduce Quill to his future pals. They include fluffy bounty-hunter Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper); his bodyguard Groot (Vin Diesel), a tree of very few words; Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a tattooed warrior looking for revenge; and the beautiful assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana).

I have to say, the casting is fucking perfect. It is nice to see Saldana actually given the kind of role she deserves and not having to endure any gratuitous shots of her in tight leather. To the shock of pretty much everyone, Diesel is one of the major stand-outs and manages to bring a great deal of emotion and humour to his potentially wooden performance. In an equally shocking moment for me, Cooper successfully pulls-off the sassy fuzzball (with more than a little help from Sean Gunn who provided the motion-cap performance) and has a whale of a time verbally abusing those who underestimate Rocket. However, is ex-wrestler Bautista that provides some of the most memorable and hilarious moments as the unfortunately literal Drax. He is a joy to watch and Bautista has more than made up for the disappointment of Khal Drogo turning down the role.

This is a team that possesses all of the Avengers-style banter with their own touch of fucking badassery and teamwork. The moments when director James Gunn and Nicole Periman’s script really flies are in these early moments when the team is slowly coming together. Their initial escape plan from a supposedly secure prison is a mesmerising and enjoyably sequence. After the sedate opening, Gunn and Periman ramp up the tempo and keep everything moving: perhaps even too fast sometimes.

We are in new territory and there is a lot of information to get across in a short space of time. You’ll hear names, planets and concepts bandied around without really finding out about them. We are introduced to the Nova Corps, Xandar and Kree without every really knowing anything about them. It’s a fucking bombardment of new info and you’re always close to getting lost in the confusion.

The script itself is clever, witty and more self-aware than I’d have expected Marvel to be comfortable with. Guardians is well aware of what kind of film it is and makes sure that we never forget it. It has all the silliness of a Saturday morning cartoon, the style of those post-Star Wars B-movies and the budget of a Marvel Summer Blockbuster.

After all, Guardians is, underneath its unkempt exterior, is a typical Marvel output. We have the usual roster of big baddies who are set to get their hands on what the good guys have. Of course, in true Marvel style, these characters are hastily written and, frankly, absolute crap: think the dark elves in Thor 2 and the big twist in Iron Man 3. Seriously, Marvel villains ain’t what they used to be.

In Guardians we have the deadly Ronan (Lee Pace) who harbours a deep resentment for the people of the planet Xandar for some reason we never really find out about. Ronan the Accuser certainly looks the part and does get the luxury of a few scenes to showcase his villainy but, considering he is the Guardians’ main nemesis, he is incredibly thinly drawn. In an age where Loki is one of Marvel’s most popular characters, audiences have started to demand greater things from their evildoers.

Although, he is given far more consideration than Nebula (Karen Gillan). Now I’m not a fan of Karen Gillan and, based entirely on her work on Dr Who I should point out, think she is fairly shit. However, even the greatest actor would struggle to make anything of Nebula. The adopted sister of Gamora has unfathomable motivations and has an incredibly confusing relationship with both her sister and their father. Guardians didn’t need another mediocre villain when they could have spent more time fleshing out Ronan. Although, I have to say she looked fucking awesome.

With villains as lame as these it is only natural that the ultimate showdown is a bit of a letdown. The humour and relaxed attitude remains to the ends thanks to Star-Lord’s unique methods of distraction but, once again, it’s just very effects heavy and uninspiring. Anyone wanting to play Marvel film bingo would have an absolute field day. Despite all of the refreshing storytelling that preceded it, this is paint by numbers scriptwriting. Seriously Marvel, you don’t need to end every film with a massive ship falling to Earth: there are other ways to create drama.

Despite this, Guardians is still one of the best Marvel films out there. I’m not confident enough to say with any certainty that I think it’s better than The Avengers but, considering some of the material that the studio has released lately, it’s the fucking Citizen Kane of the comic book films. It possesses an unavoidable charm, humour, nostalgia and energy that is just missing from the more established franchises. It’s no wonder it’s a hit with audiences and, if it’s handled right, will prove to be one of their most successful franchises.

If the Guardians themselves aren’t the Marvel heroes we are used to then the film itself stands out from the crowd. Despite the massive budget and visual aesthetic that goes with it, Guardians has the suggestion of much artier projects. It goes to show that, with a bit more encouragement, the studio might still be willing to experiment with their material.
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70s, fucking awesome, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, review, sequel, time travel, Wolverine, X-Men

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

 (Sorry it’s another long one.)

As I’ve already spent time on here trying to prove that we owe a lot to Bryan Singer and his early adaptations of Marvels’ mutant heroes. Without the well-made and still brilliant X-Menback in 2000 we quite probably wouldn’t have been treated to such cinematic delights as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night trilogy, Joss Whedon’s Avengers and the revamped Amazing Spider-Man. Singer was the guy who, after the heartbreak from Joel Schumacher’s reign of terror, reminded us that comic book films could be great. The moment he stepped away from the franchise was when it all started to go wrong. So I have been on tenterhooks ever since it was announced that Bryan Singer would be back to direct this sequel to 2011’s acclaimed X-Men FirstClass. Add to that the fact that it would be an adaptation of the brilliant ‘Days of Future Past’ storyline and we have a painstaking wait for the release date on our hands. I watched the trailers so many times that I was acting them out in private doing my best P. Stew impression.

Singer’s film takes inspiration from the 80s storyline that saw Kitty Pryde’s consciousness being sent back to her past self in order to prevent a horrific dystopian future. However, with the dismal Last Stand showing Kitty (Ellen Page) to be only about 20, there was always going to be a problem creating a sequel to First Class that centred on her character. Step forward everyone’s favourite magnetic Canadian and we have a guaranteed hit with film audiences.

Opening with scenes of an apocalyptic future where a small band of mutants, some very familiar, are going to great efforts to avoid the deadly and now adaptable Sentinels. They are soon discovered by ex-headmaster Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and ex-villain Magneto (Ian McKellan) who have a plan to prevent the moment that started this horrific chain of events. Using Kitty’s newly discovered power to send people’s minds back in time, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back to his 70s body to gather the younger Charles (James McAvoy) and Eric  (Michael Fassbender) together to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) fucking everything up by shooting the creator of the aforementioned Sentinels.
Queue plenty of 70s paraphernalia, including lava lamps, flairs and questionable hair styles. I read a review that suggested Days of Future Past didn’t have as much fun with recreating its chosen era as First Class did. Having seen the film twice I can only assume that the critic responsible missed the previous films historically accurate but fucking ridiculous misogyny and objectification of women. Singer does everything he has to do to show that Wolverine is back in time without needing to continually force his female cast to strip off unnecessarily.
Instead, Singer focuses on plot and has gone to great lengths to ensure that the potentially confusing time-travel narrative doesn’t get out of control. The two timeframes are handled beautifully and come together perfectly. The film’s climax, where the action jumps between past and future, is expertly conducted and provides the first time in 15 years that Storm (Halle Berry) becomes as awesome as she is in the comics. He has great control of the special effects and, unlike plenty of these films, doesn’t get bogged down with gratuitous action sequences. Under Singer’s firm hand, everything happens to help the narrative move forward. Of course there is the usual check-list of things X-Men clichés and there is something of a bloat of in-jokes to keep the hardcore fans happy. However, there are also so many fantastic things: the introduction of Blink, whose power is used fantastically in the future battle sequences; terrifying Sentinels; a sharp script and exciting cameos.

Without a doubt, the film’s stand out sequence is the scene in which the newly introduced Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is shown diffusing a tense situation in bullet time set to Jim Croce’s ‘Time in a Bottle’. It’s a fucking beautiful scene and is incredibly funny. Had someone told me prior to my first viewing that Evan Peters would have the standout performance in this film I’d have slapped them for being so absurd. However, the brief moments that Quicksilver is on screen show that the character has great potential in future films. So much so that I’m terrified of the way Marvel will handle the character in Avengers 2.  Peters made the character his own and I was genuinely sad when Xavier sent him on his way early on.
Since, despite having a cast of great names, of both the acting and comic book worlds, this film is all about James McAvoy. McAvoy made a fine start in First Class but was outshone by his more prominent co-stars. Here we see Charles Xavier as we have never seen him before: both physically and emotionally broken and without his powers. He rejects his purpose and is willing to turn his back on his future. McAvoy is mesmerising as he struggles to reconnect with the two people who turned their back on him. Even alongside the physically intimidating and much loved Wolverine, McAvoy comes out as one of the standout stars.
An even more impressive task considering the legendary Patrick Stewart, the name that will forever be synonymous with Xavier’s, is back along with his partner in crime Ian McKellan. Ever since the post-credits scene after The Wolverine (after which I felt compelled to applaud) I have been impatient to see their return. I have always appreciated the fact that these two classically trained actors have never approached this material in anything but a professional manner. Having Stewart and McKellen on screen in these roles is a fucking joy to watch and, during the films climactic moments, nearly had me in tears. It’s always great seeing amazing actors in roles that they clearly enjoy.
A quality that you can always appreciate about Hugh Jackman: no matter how terrifying his continually pumped body gets (seriously it’s beginning to worry me. Look how veiny he is in this film. Step away from the weights Hugh) he always has fun with the character. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get a great deal to do here. Wolverine is left to take his shirt off and act as little more than the facilitator to the younger generation. This could have been worked with anyone being in his place but I guess it’s always nice to see the ole bone claws every now and then.
Wolverine goes back to prevent Mystique from assassinating Trask and causing the government to take greater action against the mutants. One would assume this would be good news for all J Law fans but I have to say I was utterly disappointed with the way she was used. Despite a few awesome fight sequences, Mystique had very little to work with. There is little explanation for her sudden descent into super villainy and no real attempt to further flesh out the character from the first film. There are hints at a relationship with Magneto and a tiny reference to her history with Hank but nothing to excite. J Law is really just going through the motions here.
This is something of a problem with the film as it has such a large cast to work with that many end up getting swept under the carpet. You know you’ve got too many characters when you introduce someone as fucking cool as Bishop only to have him do nothing. It’s fucking criminal. I mean Peter Dinklange is one of the greatest actors working at the moment and his casting as Boliver Trask, designer of the mutant killing robots that haunted all of our childhood dreams, seemed like pure genius. For some unknown reason Dinklage turns up for the odd political meeting where he spouts on about mutants and robots and then just stands around. I don’t understand what these people were thinking. Great actors deserve great roles even in the fantasy world of mutants, robots and time travel.
Likewise Michael Fassbender is once again unable to really get to grips with the supposedly evil Magneto and is only given one sequence of slight conflict. This is Fassbender’s second time playing with the mental manipulator and he has failed to come close to greatness he briefly displayed in the opening moments of First Class. This wasn’t Magneto’s film, I know, but there still doesn’t feel like there is any connection between Fass and McKellen’s truly villainous version besides their name and power. With an actor of Fassbender’s calibre you could create a fucking gruesome nemesis (I mean this is the man who appalled us in 12 Years a Slave after all) if only you gave him something to do besides making a football stadium float.

To be fair though the floating stadium is a pretty amazing visual. It’s the closest Singer gets to unnecessary but it stands for everything this film is about. Days of Future Past flirts with darkness in the opening sequence (we see death, destruction and a glimpse of mutant prison camps) but it is all about fun. It’s the film that comes closest to the feeling and tone of the original comics whilst remaining sophisticated and well-crafted. 

It’s been just over a week since Days of Future Past was released in the UK and I’ve already had to fit in a double viewing. It’s safe to say that Bryan Singer has more than made amends for the disappointing Super Man Returns and returned to near enough his comic book best. Unfortunately, Days of Future Pastis, undeniably, a flawed film: it ignores some of its better cast members and characters and sometimes gets a little too self-indulgent. However, it’s exactly what it should be: an unashamedly joyous, exciting and well-made superhero movie. You finally get the sense that, after 15 years of trying to avoid it, Bryan Singer is finally comfortably with the idea of making a comic book movie and it’s entertaining as fuck. 
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70s, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, con, Jennifer Lawrence

American Hustle (2013)

I’m not entirely sure whether or not I like David O. Russell. The celebrated writer and director has garnered quite a reputation for himself over the past four years thanks to his award-winning films The Fighter(2010) and Silver Lining’s Playbook(2012). Regular readers will know that I wasn’t exactly wowed by Russell’s supposed reinvention of the rom-com but I couldn’t deny it was of a much greater calibre than the usual Nicholas Sparks adaptation. However, with the still questionable talents of Bradley Cooper in the lead role I could never completely get on board with it. Regardless, the cast list and costume department had got me suitably interested in American Hustle for me to get over my apprehension.

The phrase “some of this actually happened” flashes up on a pre-movie title card before David O. Russell’s, mostly fictitious, account of the FBI’s Abscam sting of the 70s and 80s really gets into gear. It is a desperate and fleeting attempt from the director to place his shaggy dog tale into some semblance of reality. Although some of the salient facts are there for us to see behind all of the wigs and cleavage: an FBI agent bringing a conman on board to investigate corrupt politicians using a fake Arab sheik and some dodgy deals.
After that pinch of truth has been sprinkled over the narrative Russell abandons this recipe for something a bit more experimental and goes off-kilter with his hustle movie. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a petty con artist and the owner of a chain of dry cleaners, is forced by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent keen to make a name for himself, to use his skills to assist in entrapping some big names; starting with the Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito, (a very Elvis looking Jeremy Renner) who gets caught up in the mess whilst trying to reinvigorate New Jersey.
Richie sets up his operation after catching Irving in mid hustle whilst he and his partner, in both business and pleasure, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) attempt to con the undercover agent out of $5000. Sydney, an ex-stripper who has taken on the identity of a British aristocrat with banking connections, helps Irving dupe the desperate out of their money in return for imaginary loans. Irving is left to decide between helping the FBI and leaving his lover to face jail time. The couple must try and overcome this problem as well as the pesky issue of Irving’s unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and adopted son. Rosalyn threatens to not only ruin the pair’s happiness but also the careful planning of Richie’s operation.
If this all seems like a lot to take in then it’s because the story is ultimately secondary to Russell’s rag-tag bunch of characters. At a running time of 129 minutes, the film is about half an hour too long. There are entire scenes and plot-lines that add nothing but the opportunity for the actors to really ramp up the drama and emotion. There is a spectacular scene towards the end of the film when Lawrence spends a good few minutes cleaning her house whilst angrily joining in with ‘Live and Let Die’. It is a scene that critics the world over have highlighted, quite correctly, as evidence of her increasing skill but ultimately the whole scene just feels out of place.

Then we have the clutter of side-characters that have little effect on the plot and distract from the main points. Louis C.K. turns up as Richie’s disapproving boss but, after showing a great deal of promise, is completely wasted and sidelined. There is a moment when, in a fit of anger, Richie attacks his superior with a phone but this, like pretty much every complication that arises, ends up having no real consequences. There is a moment of confrontation but the incident of violence is shrugged off and forgotten about. You get the idea that, once the basic Abscam story was written down, Russel and co-writer Eric Warren Singer just stopped caring too much about what happened.

 American Hustle is a somewhat confused film that can’t quite decide what it’s trying to be. It is part con movie, part mob thriller, and part romantic-comedy, with lashings of Scorsese and hints of Boogie Nights and GoodFellas. Of course, this melting pot of genres would work well if any of the individual elements were well-crafted in their own right. As it happens, the con aspect spreads pretty thin over the whole, the mob threat ends up being fairly underwhelming, and the comedy mainly comes from a focus on crazy hair and even crazier characters.
For Russell, American Hustle is about the ensemble having fun in the era of 70s disco excess. An ensemble fronted, of course by, the larger than life Irving; a character who offers Christian Bale the chance to further remove himself from the role of Batman by digging his teeth into the unappealing conman. Bale embraces the character and does an incredible job slowly getting to the heart of the ruthless conman caught up in a world where appearance is everything. An idea only highlighter by the opening scene when Irving, with an impressive paunch, glues, combs and sprays bits of wig and hair into an incredibly intricate comb-over. We are dealing with a man, and a film, who is concerned not just with professional disguises but personal ones too.
Something his hustling partner turned lover Sydney knows all about. Amy Adams spends the majority of the film keeping up her faux British accent for Sydney’s alter ego Lady Edith. With every film role Adams continues to prove that she is one of the most accomplished and important actresses working at the moment. She brings a vulnerability to the tough exterior of the overwhelmed Sydney and she certainly pulls off the ridiculous costumes and hair of the time of disco. She is by far and away the stand-out character and performer in the entire film and continually outclasses the less accomplished members of the ensemble.
Unfortunately, one of those cast members happens to be the usually faultless Jennifer Lawrence who sort of loses her way as Irving’s unhinged young wife. It’s not that Lawrence is awful here but she has lost a great deal of the subtlety and care that made some of her best performances so great. After winning an academy award for the psychologically scarred Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence amps up the crazy to almost unstoppable proportions. Perhaps, like the characters being portrayed, gets confused by the excesses of 1970s New York. Lawrence gives this her all and gives the same dramatic performance that has littered her fantastic career but there can be no denying that she is fairly far from her greatest performance. Of course, it doesn’t help that she is continually outclasses by the superb Adams.
Still there can be no denying that I am a massive fan of Lawrence no matter what she does and she definitely fared better than her Silver Linings Playbook co-star Bradley Cooper. Cooper isn’t exactly a subtle actor and is it pretty telling that the only two nominations he has received have come from him playing larger than life and mentally unstable characters. He charges into this operation in a desperate attempt to prove his worth and spends his time violently overreacting or suppressing exclamations of glee to be included in such an accomplished cast. He is distracting and horribly sticks out alongside his co-stars. I’m still yet to be convinced that Cooper can add anything to a film other than a face most people seem to enjoy.
American Hustle is hardly a terrible film but it certainly ends up delivering a lot less than it promises. Like its leading man, American Hustle is far too concerned with the outer appearance to really worry about what’s going on underneath. Perhaps a little less time sorting out its toupee and more time working on the narrative and Russell would have had an undeniable example of perfection. This film almost makes up for its flaws thanks to its unfailing energy, dazzling aesthetics and up-for-anything cast but the narrative is too undefined, meandering and fairly repetitive. The script is not as funny as it should be and the plot lacks the detailed focus that is required of a truly great conman film. No matter what I think of Russell as a whole, there can be no denying that this isn’t the high calibre that he is capable of when he is at his best.
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