Tuesday’s reviews: Passengers (2016)

Chris Pratt, feminism, films, fucking awful, fucking creepy, Jennifer Lawrence, morally wrong, review, sci-fi, women

I wanted to see Passengers from the moment I first saw the trailer. For one thing, Chris Pratt is looking good and I’m always happy to watch that face for an hour or two. Secondly, Michael Sheen as an android? I’m there. Especially if he really is giving up acting in favour of Welsh politics. Finally, the trailer made it out to be a super exciting suspense thriller. It seemed perfect. However, the more I saw/read about the film the more I realised that I’d definitely hate it. I still wanted to watch it though. The lure of some Pratt facetime was just too great. Although my major gripe about the film had something to do with Chris Pratt’s casting. In that I was annoyed by the significant age gap between the two stars on screen. Christ Pratt is about 37 years old whilst Jennifer Lawrence is a youthful looking 26. Now I’m not disputing that relationships occur between people with an age gap of 10 plus years but I don’t see why it had to happen. Lawrence keeps being cast in roles that should be played by an older actor despite having looking younger than her years. Is Hollywood just running out of women in their mid 30s or men in their late 20s? I know the pair make a beathtakingly beautiful couple but I just think the whole premise becomes even creepier when you consider the age gap. But maybe that’s just cynical old me?

Passengers is one of those films that looks too good to be true. It’s full of beautiful people, wearing beautiful clothes, and getting in perilous situations in beautiful locations. There had to be a catch somewhere. No film has that much emphasis on looking shiny and perfect whilst still offering up a great story. So what is the story? The film introduces us to the Avalon, a starship that is making the journey to a distant planet that is to be colonised by the 5,000 odd people on board. The journey would take 120 Earth years so everyone is in hibernation pods. Well, until an asteroid field causes damage to the ship and Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is woken up 90 years too soon. Jim, a mechanic, spends months trying to come to terms with his situation and taking as much pleasure as he can in the high-tech ship. But, it turns out, that a man can only find so much joy in basketball, competitive dance games, and robot waiters. Unable to find a way to go back into hibernation, Jim contemplates ending his life.

Well, until a twist of fate leaves him face-to-face with Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer who is still sleeping through the lengthy journey. To pass his time, Jim starts spending time reading Aurora’s writing, watching her Avalon video biography. and eating his lunch next to her hibernation pod. So naturally, he figures he’s in love with her. Clearly, whenever I see a person sleeping I automatically fall in love with them too. It’s super fucking awkward. Unable to forget his impending lonely life Jim wakes up Aurora from her pod and happily pretends that it happened by accident. It’s fucking crazy! And, because they are the only two humans around, Jim happily pursues the woman he condemned and the pair fall into the best relationship they can when it comes out of such limited options. Plus, basketball and dancing is great and all but sex is the best thing to fight the impending doom of waiting out your life on a spaceship. Until, Aurora finds out what Jim did and, naturally, decides he is not just the only other conscious person but the worst human being of all time.

It’s no fucking wonder that the trailers went so fucking far to erase this massive detail from all of the promotional stuff. This was being sold as a romantic space thriller but instead it’s just a fucking crazed stalker holding a pretty young girl hostage. It’s a weird premise that the writers clearly try to present as morally contemptible and we do see Jim spending a few seconds weighing up the ethics of the situation. Then we see Aurora dismiss him and part company from him. This is all perfectly normal behaviour. Well, until the film’s dismal final act. This is where the film falls down in so many ways. We have the inevitable heroic moment when Jim offers to lay down his life to save the 5,000 plus souls on board. And, apparently, that’s all it takes to take a woman from “your murdered me” to ‘I can’t live without you’. Fucking romantic.

I’m not saying that Passengers is a bad film simply because of this decision. Obviously, it’s the most worrying thing about it but, more than that, Passengers is simply a really bad story. It halfheartedly tries to make a point about ethics in extreme situations but them just ignores it for a shitty sentimental ending. It’s a film that looks amazing but lacks so much in premise that, were it not for the blatant sexism on show, would have made it a completely forgettable film. It’s always a bad sign when your watching a film that doesn’t get better than it’s opening 30 minutes when you’re basically watching a guy doing Groundhog Day in space. After that everything falls apart.

This is a film created by men to appeal to men. Women will sit there watching an unsuspecting and defenceless girl being manipulated by a seemingly nice guy and eventually succumbing to Stockholm syndrome. It’s no wonder we have such a problem with men understanding boundaries when it comes to relationships and sex in this society. Everyman Chris Pratt makes a morally disgusting and selfish choice but is eventually rewarded by getting to see Jennifer Lawrence’s boobs. Yes, I know the film makes an attempt to show how bad the decision was but it is ultimately justified when Aurora makes the decision to stay with Jim instead of going back into hibernation. What does that fucking tell people? With enough persistence and limited options then any woman will chose you over the life they intended to live? Ugh, please. Any real woman would have left that creepy piece of shit and gone to Homestead II as planned. Chris Pratt or no Chris Pratt.

Tuesday’s Reviews – X-Men: Apocalypse

disappointing, films, Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, meh, Michael Fassbender, review, X-Men

Anyone who has been following this blog for long enough knows that I’ve had a long and tortured relationship with the X-Men film franchise. I’ve been a fan of your friendly neighbourhood mutants ever since the amazing 90s cartoon and X-Men Evolution back in early 2000. Then, of course, Bryan Singer brought the gang to the big screen in 2000 with X-Men and its superb sequel. Still, the films that followed never quite managed to achieve the original greatness so I wasn’t exactly loving the prospect of X-Men: Apocalypse. Especially when each of the trailers were such utter shit. Still, a guy at work saw the film when it first came out and insisted that it was worthwhile. He pretty much loves anything he watches so I wasn’t exactly convinced so it took a while to get round to it. So, will Apocalypse fall into the same traps that we saw The Last Stand did?

Before all of the action kicks off in X-Men: Apocalypse a group of teenage mutants sneak out of Professor Xavier’s mansion to watch Return of the Jedi. Upon exiting the film, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) utters the immortal phrase “everyone knows that the third movie is always the worst”. It’s a funny enough line considering the franchise’s history but the question remains about any potential self-awareness hidden underneath the humour. Were Bryan Singer and co. really calling out Brett Ratner for the disastrous The Last Stand (something they erased from the canon thanks the events of Days of Future Past) or were they preparing for the inevitable criticism of the end of their new trilogy?

I mean whatever your interpretation, it doesn’t bode well that the script is already preparing you for a shitty ending. Especially when the opening scene sets you up pretty well. The scene lifts off where the post credits scene of the last film left off. We are in Ancient Egypt and Apocalypse/En Sabah Nur is in the process of transferring his consciousness into the body of Oscar Issac. Unfortunately, before he can bring about the end of the world, the first ever mutant is betrayed by his people and ends up buried under the remains of his own pyramid.

Of course, we all know that’s not where he’ll stay and, thanks to some interference from Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrn), Apocalypse is risen from the dead and takes an instant dislike to the modern world. As the myths dictate he goes about rounding up his four horsemen to aid in his task. Storm (Alexandra Ship), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy) and, our old friend, Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Of course, Erik’s return to the world of evil causes concern for his ex-ally Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and he and his mutant students quickly find themselves embroiled in the disaster.

However, there is a lot more to the story than the above summary suggests. The action takes place 10 years after the climax of the last film so there are several old faces to reintroduce alongside all the newbies. The first hour basically consists of little vignettes detailing each character’s new storyline and it takes fucking ages. We see Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) acting as a vigilante in Berlin, Erik settling into a human life complete with wife and daughter in Poland, Alex Summers (Lucas Till) helping his younger brother Scott (Tye Sheridan) come to terms with his powers, and Jean Grey having nightmares about a coming evil. And, really, that’s not even scratching the surface. The film reintroduces us to Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult); reminds us, as if we could forget, that Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) still exists; and introduces Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Pyslocke, Angel and Jubilee (Lana Condor).

There are a lot of players in this latest instalment and, because everyone has their own share of baggage, the whole things feels stuffed to bursting. It inevitably means that character plays a secondary role here and most people get little, if any, development. Scott and Jean get some chance to make a connection with the audience but they still don’t get what they deserve considering their history with the audience. Charles, Hank and Moira really get little to do and the rest of the new cast are pretty much just set dressing. I mean what is the point of introducing a villain like Apocalypse and making him so fucking undefined? Seriously, who thought it was a good idea to overload the film so much that there is no real sense of characterisation here?

Instead, the studio have focused on the characters that they believe are most bankable people. That’s why it is Eirk and Mystique who once again have to battle with their inner demons just as they have been doing for the past two films. The Last Stand failed because it was so wildly different to the preceeding films. Apocalypse fails because it’s so fucking similar. We’ve had two films of Erik killing people because his family are killed and Charles trying to convince him of his hidden goodness. We didn’t need another. He’s murdered so many people by this point you’d probably just give up. Then you have Mystique who has gone so far into Katniss territory that it’s embarrassing. I get that J Law can do no wrong but that doesn’t mean I need a 2.5 hour film of her making trite, inspirational speeches. It’s another Hollywood cliche at this point.

The film makers have got Apocalypse all wrong. X-Men hasn’t succeeded on spectacle or grandeur. It works well when there is depth and emotion. It works because we get to know the characters and appreciate their struggles. This film has more in common with Zack fucking Snyder that it does with its own franchise. At its climax the film just descends into the same wanton destruction that has become such a staple of the modern superhero film. Thanks to a kickstart to his powers, Magneto finds that he can manipulate the metal deep in the Earth and pretty much destroy everything in existence. He tears down buildings and ships thousands of miles away. Masses of unnamed people must be killed in this epic finale but its all so low-key. There are no consequences, no drama, It’s all just action.

I have to admit that I didn’t hate this film as much as I thought and I think there is great potential within the new cast for some future movies. However, I think this went too far. There was so much going on that there was no room to develop the main story. The film isn’t that long when compared to many recent releases but it felt neverending. It’s difficult having to compete with films like The Avengers where so many familiar faces are pushed together and make millions in the box office. Fox clearly just pushed things too far and the film-makers couldn’t handle it. The story isn’t all that interesting when you get down to it and the villains are just pathetic. We don’t even know anything about Apocalypse. What are his powers? What motivates him? Why does he pick the mutant he does? We don’t fucking know because there was no time.

Fans applauded Singer when he retrospectively altered the timeline and got rid of everything that happened in The Last Stand. He wiped the slate clean and did what fans have been doing ever since 2006: forgetting it ever existed. It’s just a shame, then, that he went and fucked it up by doing another shit third film. It’s by no means as bad as Ratner’s contribution but there is so much that needed to be defined and tweaked by this film. There are too many dinner party guests and not enough chairs or plates. Unfortunately, it’s also the audience that is going hungry.

Tuesday’s Reviews – Joy (2015)

Bradley Cooper, film, Jennifer Lawrence, meh, review, Robert DeNiro

I still can’t work out what I feel about Jennifer Lawrence. On the one hand, she seems super cool and down-to-earth and I want to be her friend. On the other, she seems really irritating in a “trying to seem to cool and down-to-earth” kind of way. Of course that’s probably just down to how cynical and bitchy I am. Lawrence is a formidable talent and has brought great things to even the shittest productions. I’d probably be willing to watch anything if she had a key role and, it just so happens that I just have. If nothing else, Joy has been a gift to film critics. The title gives plenty of potential for witty quips about being or not being filled with joy as the credits roll. Very fucking clever guys. It means reading reviews gets kind of repetitive so I’ll try not to fall into the same old trap.

When it comes down to it, I still don’t think I’m a fan of David O. Russell’s films. There’s something about his style that I just can’t quite get on board with. I can’t say I had a great deal of praise for either American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook. As far as I could see if it hadn’t been for J Law then neither would have had an awful lot going for them. O. Russell is the kind of director who likes to make real life a bit quirkier and comic but without risking stepping into Wes Anderson territory.

Joy is based on the true story of businesswoman Joy Mangano (J Law), a single mother who found success selling her uniquely designed mop. I say based on because O. Russell has played with Annie Mumolo’s original script to make the story more interesting. The simple examination of the realities of the American Dream told from the perspective of a desperate young woman wasn’t enough for the director. He changed aspects of Mangano’s story and added the unnecessary and undeveloped framing narrative of a trashy soap opera. The soap opera is watched by Joy’s mother (Virginia Madsen) who, following her divorce, has shut herself in her room and spends her days in bed watching television. The characters on screen are supposed to mirror the people in Joy’s life but it’s a device that never really gets off the ground. It’s picked up when O. Russell an be bothered and then dropped when there’s other shit to talk about. It’s just another step too quirky.

That’s not to say that Joy fails on all counts. O. Russell’s decision to compare Joy’s position as matriarch to that of a mob boss is an interesting concept and the parallels work well on screen. However, this, as with a lot of O. Russell’s directorial decisions, adds very little to the narrative and are clumsily linked together. There are a number of subplots that just sort of happen whilst the main narrative is going on: adding nothing more than what feels like days to the running time. The main story should have been enough for O. Russell to work with: Joy, a young mother, is left fighting to keep her family afloat. Growing up as a creative child, she had to put her desires on hold to care for her divorced parents and the ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) who is living in her basement. After a fairly ordinary accident Joy comes up with her idea for a self-wringing mop and immediately starts drawing up crude plans in crayon. Thanks to a contact of her ex, Joy in introduced to QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) and is able to sell her product on the growing network.

Of course, things are never straight forward and Joy has to deal with several bumps in the road before she finally manages to find the success she so desires. Still, it gives Jennifer Lawrence a lot to work with and it’s easy to see why she’s making a name for herself this awards season. Lawrence is a fucking great actress and is by far and away the best thing about the film. It’s also the greatest of Lawrence’s O. Russell performances to date. She plays worn-down Joy with an overall dignity, sense of hope and determination that fights against the chaos that is ensuing around her.

Those surrounding her are a hit-and-miss bunch of supporting characters. Robert DeNiro is back with O. Russell and co to play another intense father though DeNiro is happily more nuanced here than he was in Silver Linings Playbook. The actor proves he still has a great deal to offer if he were offered something worth his talents. Bradley Cooper likewise returns and, whilst I’m still not convince he’s much more than a pretty face, shows that he can do calm and business like as Walker. Although, given that he isn’t actually given a lot to do, it’s not the kind of evidence that would hold up to much scrutiny. The rest of the cast all add something to the narrative but have fuck all chances to develop. Any attempt to flesh these characters out is forgotten once the story starts to pick up pace. This might be in-keeping with O. Russell’s plan to mirror the people of the fictional soap opera but it never quite lands. Instead we have a bunch of random people who just flounder on screen whilst J Law is kicking ass.

Joy is by no means a terrible film. I probably disliked it less than Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. However, it could have been a great deal better than it was. It’s certainly elevated by Jennifer Lawrence’s performance but more work was needed to really give do this story justice. O. Russell once again gets distracted playing with genre and manufacturing moments of dark comedy to really give a shit about the American Dream. It’s not a streamlined affair and there were moments when I was willing the inevitable ending to arrive. So I guess you could say I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy… oh fuck.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

fucking awesome, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, review, sequel, time travel, Wolverine, X-Men

 (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. 

American Hustle (2013)

Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, con, Jennifer Lawrence

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.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Bradley Cooper, dancing, Jennifer Lawrence, mental illness, review, Robert DeNiro

To quote Kate Winslet in the third episode of Ricky Gervais’ popular sitcom Extras, “you’re guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental.” Bizarrely, in the case of Bradley Cooper in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, that could very well be correct. For this isn’t your usual romantic-comedy. It’s about crazies so it’s got depth… supposedly.  For this film has been eaten up by critics and the Oscar voters alike as a refreshing and exciting new direction for the now incredibly stale genre. It is certainly the type of film that was bound to get plenty of attention during award season. I think we all have to be thankful that Russell’s follow-up to his Oscar nominated The Fighter wasn’t also set during World War 2 otherwise Cooper would be a certainty for the Academy Award for Best Actor. So it was in the midst of all this hype that audiences flocked to see two of Hollywood’s most bankable stars step into the quirky and thought-provoking world of mentally ill romantic-comedy. But could it live up to it?

Silver Linings Playbook follows the story of former teacher Pat who suffers a breakdown after he discovers his wife partaking in some afternoon delight with a colleague. We meet him after an eight month stint in psychiatric hospital where he was attempting to come to terms with bipolar disorder. Being removed from the facilities against the wishes of his doctors, he finds himself back in his childhood home with his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro). He is keen to return to his old life and prove that he can stick to his new, positive outlook: to prove that he can find his ‘silver lining’.

Bradley Cooper cannot be described as the most subtle of actors but he brings a certain frenzied energy to some of Pat’s more manic episodes. All in all though his performance is pretty one-note. Pat is completely motivated by his delusional belief that he is cured and that proof of this will get his wife back. He is not the easiest character to root for and Cooper’s frantic, wide-eyed portrayal of a volatile man coming to terms with bipolar often becomes tedious and far too intense. It gets to the point when it almost doesn’t feel as if Pat’s bipolar is actually that big a deal. It just seems like it’s one of those silly little quirks that people have. Rather than being ill Pat simply has strong feelings about certain songs, is quick to anger and has an obsessive desire to look on the bright side. He doesn’t provide any real drama here and you can’t help but feel that he’d fit better in a Wes Anderson film than he does here.
Thankfully, to offset this, Pat and the audience are offered a certain amount of respite with the introduction of troubled widow Tiffany. Still coming to terms with the death of her husband, the young woman becomes fixated on Pat Jr. and orchestrates her way into get closer to him. She proposes a deal in which she gets messages to and from Pat’s wife (bypassing that pesky restraining) if he helps her take part in a charity dance competition. This premise all sounds rather silly and it often feels like Russell is trying a bit too hard to seem quirky and unusual. However, Jennifer Lawrence does remarkably well to bring us another incredible performance. She brings a depth and emotion to Tiffany that we never see anywhere in Cooper’s Pat. She may be close to him in terms of craziness but she definitely outclasses him on the sympathetic scale. You want Tiffany to succeed much more than you ever want Pat to. Lawrence also does a great job when interacting with the other cast and there are several moments, during which Tiffany attempts to out-crazy the two Pats, which are simply splendid. In fact, the big showdown between DeNiro and Lawrence is one of the stand-out moments of the whole show.
As with so many films of this type the best moments occur in the first 30 minutes or so. This is thanks to the comic potential garnered from Pat’s transition from hospital to the big wide world. There is a great deal of glee to be had in his ruthless honesty and the discomfort it creates for everyone else. Even Cooper’s bull-in-a-china-shop style performance provides some great moments, such as his sudden insistence that he must work his way through his estranged wife’s literature syllabus before deeming it to be full of damaging messages about life. However, the narrative quickly changes pace when Tiffany is introduced and it becomes painfully clear what is about to happen. We move into obvious and stereotypical romantic-comedy territory with everyone’s future happiness becoming linked to the outcome of a football game and the dance competition. The unusual premise that had a great deal of potential quickly descends into something quite forgettable and frustratingly usual. This film doesn’t reinvent the genre, as so many critics would have you believe, it simply adds some mentally unstable characters into a narrative that even the laziest rom-com writers would reject.
Anyway, being surrounded by this many neurotic and eccentric characters, even Pat and Tiffany don’t really seem that outrageous. The supporting cast itself is fairly hit and miss with both DeNiro and Weaver doing the best they can with the material that is being offered to them. DeNiro in particular does a fine job considering he flits between an emotional father trying to reconnect with his son and a farcical version of a man suffering from OCD and a dependency on sporting superstition. The more sentimental moments between the two Pats show that DeNiro still has a great deal to offer but Pat Sr.’s more exaggerated moments played out for comic gain become fairly tiresome. Another brief shining light comes in the form of Chris Tucker’s (I know it confused me too) Danny, Pat’s friend from the hospital. Danny isn’t really important to the plot so he is simply played for comic effect.
I can’t say that I didn’t like this film but, like Black Sawn, it credits itself with more intelligence than it actually possesses. It offers a great deal that it simply never lives up to. You cannot create a new and interesting perspective on this genre by just adding characters suffering from different mental illnesses into a completely bland situation. If these characters had no psychiatric problems this film would have been brushed off as a pathetic affair but, as it stands, all Hollywood needs is a bit of bipolar and OCD to create a masterpiece. We are being lead to believe this is One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest meets When Harry Met Sally but the actual results is as corny, contrived and over-sentimental as even the worst Jennifer Aniston rom-com. If it wins any of the many awards it has been nominated for it just goes to show Hollywood is as shallow and predictable as Ricky Gervais accuses it of being.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

comic book, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Marvel, Matthew Vaughn, Michael Fassbender, reboot, review, X-Men

It is undeniable that comic book movies have come a long way since their early days. Tim Burton’s Batman(1989) gave us a dark tale starring the Dark Knight that was stylistically very similar to the original comics. His two Batman movies introduced us to a gothic world and gave us just enough danger, humour and excitement to make it ok to be a bit of a geek. Bryan Singer’s original X-Men (2000) showed us that superhero movies could be all round good films and Spider-Man (2002) made them smash hits with cinemagoers. Lastly, with Batman Begins and more recently The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan gave us an intelligent, grown-up and very dark look into the world of costumed crusaders. Comic book movies were no longer just for fans of the original source material. They became hits with movie fans as a whole. Gone are the days of the simplistic and silly Batman of the 1960s, audiences want something clever, exciting and just a little bit terrifying.

Talking of the 60s, X-Men First Class takes us back to this most swinging of eras and puts us in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Called upon by the FBI, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) must bring together a group of young mutants to help stop former Nazi scientist, Sebastian Shaw, (a familiarly terrible Kevin Bacon) from bringing about World War Three. Whilst I liked the idea of giving the mutants a non-superhero threat, I think this was the wrong film to introduce us to the idea. There was far too much going on and, in the long run, many plot lines feel rushed and never quite reach their mark.
This film needed a simpler plot in order to ensure the mutants themselves were the major focus. Instead, we have to contend with new faces; the tension between America and Russia; Nazi Germany and the subsequent revenge plot; problems in the CIA; Kevin Bacon’s gang; and an unnecessary and frustrating romance between Charles and Rose Byrne’s CIA agent. This romantic plot only goes to suggest that it is impossible to make a film that doesn’t rely on love to keep the audience engrossed. Well bollocks. I can see no real benefit for it; well, aside from the infamous line “Gentlemen, this is why the CIA is no place for a woman.” A statement which, during both of my in-cinema viewings, caused the people around me to gasp in disgust (to be honest, as soon as Moira mentioned being part of the CIA I was sceptical about the historical accuracy of this plot point).
However, the scenes where Charles trains his new recruits were enjoyable to watch. James McAvoy is a great talent and is able to bring us a fresh perspective to a role that will always truly belong to Patrick Stewart. On top of this, it gives us the unintentionally hilarious moment of bromance between McAvoy and Fassbender when the two shed a manly tear over Magneto’s long forgotten memory. It’s a beautiful moment I’m sure you’ll agree. Although, for the most part, the chemistry between these two great actors is awesome. The films finest moments are the ones where these two are free to explore their characters and the relationship they once shared. Unfortunately, these key moments are over much too quickly and each new mutant is given an unjustly small amount of time to find their inner strength.
Magneto is the only character to get an considerable back-story and, because of this, it is his storyline that leads to one of the most interesting aspects of the film. After seeing snippets of his childhood, we return to his life story once the young Erik has grown up into Michael Fassbender and he’s really, really pissed off. What follows is a revenge plot that sees Erik get all Quantum of Solace on us and torture and kill everyone who gets in his way. Yes, he’s like an angry James Bond with the ability to manipulate metal running through Russia to seek vengeance. Why the fuck wasn’t that the entire film?
Obviously there was a great pressure to release this for a certain point and the film ends up feeling as though it is lacking cohesion. The film relies heavily on special effects but, whilst they were much better than those on show in The Green Lantern (released around the same time), it is nowhere near as impressive as it could have been. I mean what the fuck happened with Beast? We live in an age of great possibilities when it comes to computer graphics so I have to ask who decided to make Beast look like a cheap university student’s fancy-dress outfit?
Most frustrating of all is Fassbender’s accent throughout the entire film. If someone decided to start a drinking game where you have to take a shot every time he slips into his Irish brogue it would have descended into utter mayhem halfway through the 2 hour running time. I have to question the decision to forgo ADR just to ensure the film was released that little bit quicker. The whole film ends up looking quite amateurish and messy, which is an utter shame.
Although, I have to admit that the script is, for the most part, well-written and entertaining. Vaughan brings a fresh feeling to this seemingly washed-out franchise. His film is action packed, fun and thoughtful: he manages to breath new life into familiar characters and helps the lesser known cast members to flourish. Especially the rising star Jennifer Lawrence who makes a decent job of trying to recreate the character of Mystique. She even managed to bring conviction to the disappointingly flat underlying message about remaining true to yourself. (‘Mutant and Proud’ never quite seems to get off it’s feet and the film seems a little self-conscious about what it is trying to teach its audience.)

As we saw from Kick Ass, Vaughan knows how to put together a good fight sequence and the large action sequences are pretty spectacular. Unlike Singer’s films, Vaughan has created an X-Men film that is not afraid to show itself to be a comic book movie. It may have been far from perfect but we are so much closer to the level that Bryan Singer introduced us to back in 2000. There is certainly enough on show here to keep both fans of the comics and newer audiences alike satisfied. Thankfully, it leaves us with the impression that a sequel, if given the deserved amount of time and care, will be a wonderful addition to this newly awoken franchise.