Archive for May, 2015

American Hustle (2013)

Director: David O. Russell

Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence

I personally hate it when movies claim to be “based on a true story.” Starting off with an outright lie is a bad first impression to make on your audience. Then along comes “American Hustle.” While the plot does take certain inspirations from actual historical events, never is the dreaded phrase used. Instead, it is substituted by “Some of these events actually happened.” Emphasis on the word “some.” It’s one of those “names were changed” type of movies. So what if that’s technically a different way of saying the same thing? By admitting that only some of what they’re showing you should be regarded as an adaptation of fact, the filmmakers are treating you with the honesty that the main characters in the story likely never would.

It’s 1978. By this time. the United States as a country had been through some serious shit. Suffering through the horrors of the Vietnam War, the Richard Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal, is it any wonder why some of the Baby Boomer generation turned to heavy drugs, disco and questionable fashion choices? The lead character and narrator, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a talented con artist with a flabby belly and a comb-over hiding a receding hairline which Irving should have given up on a long time ago. Joining him in the game of scamming the gullible is Sydney Prosser, who adopts an English accent when posing as Lady Edith Greensly. Having fallen in love with Sydney, Irving finds himself in a bit of a pickle, because he’s also married to the unstable and accident-prone Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a bond he’d rather not break in particular because of her son, whom Irving has also adopted. He’s also not fond of the idea of Rosalyn going to the police to report his criminal activities, of which she is well aware, should he ever leave her.

But Irving and Sydney face bigger problems once they attempt to scam the wrong guy, who reveals himself to be FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Richie has in mind a scam of his own, a sting operation designed to take down corrupt New Jersey politicians. With Irving and Sydney’s cooperation in this plot, they are promised their freedom. One of his intended targets is Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) the beloved mayor of Camden, N.J. Carmine almost walks out on their meeting when Richie tries to pressure him into accepting a briefcase full of money, all so he can get the moment recorded on a hidden FBI camera. Irving persuades Carmine not to walk away, softening the man up by confessing his very real disdain for the young, impulsive federal agent. This is a decision Irving will later come to regret after developing a friendship with the Mayor.

As the story progresses, the stakes get higher with Richie’s growing ambitions. A chance meeting with notorious mobster Victor Tellegio leads to Richie forming a strategy to take him down, as well. This draws ire from Irving, and from Richie’s FBI superior (Louis C.K.). Not to mention the fact that it puts everyone, even Rosalyn and her son, in mortal jeopardy. It’s a dangerous game that only the most devious among them can win.

Now, I’m an educated man, but even I can’t understand how an entertaining movie filled with a cast of immensely talented actors can be nominated for ten Oscars… including all four acting categories… and come away from Awards night with a big fat goose egg. But that’s the fate which befell “American Hustle.” C’est la vie. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Jennifer Lawrence in particular. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is the fact that she is, for once, not the best thing about a movie she stars in. Instead, the standout performance of the film is delivered by Amy Adams. As Sydney, she often upstages Irving with her natural ability to scheme and plot. Sydney also stands out as the only character in the film with a keen fashion sense. Part of her game includes occasionally leading on the men she intends to dupe. Even as Richie is using her and Irving in his bid to achieve fame, Sydney in turn is playing on his growing infatuation with her.

For any movie to be truly memorable, you need to be able to point to certain scenes or key pieces of dialogue which stick with you long after it’s over. There are a few I could point to, such as the big reveal of the uncredited Robert De Niro as Victor Tellegio, or the moment when Sydney decides to reveal to Richie that she’s been faking the English accent the whole time. Richie’s reaction is priceless. But the part of the movie I think about most is when Carmine gives Irving a microwave oven as a token of friendship. He calls it the “science oven.” Comically, the gift doesn’t last very long. Despite being told not to, Rosalyn puts a tray wrapped in aluminum foil into the “science oven.” Oops. Sure, they can always get another one, but it wouldn’t mean as much to Irving as the one Carmine gave to him.

The movie is based in part on the FBI operation known as ABSCAM, which involved the investigation of some 31 political figures. Each of the main characters are based on participants in ABSCAM, with different names and other certain alterations for dramatic effect. Among the resulting convictions included six members of the House of Representatives and one U.S. Senator.

Director David O. Russell has really impressed the hell out of me so far. I like that he, as with most directors, has found a core group of actors he likes to work with and has stuck with them. Especially when it’s these people. The superhero fan in me can’t help but look at that movie poster and see (from left to right) Rocket Raccoon, Lois Lane, Batman, Mystique and Hawkeye. But the film enthusiast in me recognizes “American Hustle” as another work of art from the people who brought us “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook.”

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The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

Director: Ryuhei Kitamura

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Leslie Bibb, Brooke Shields, Roger Bart, Vinnie Jones

Well…. damn! I usually like to start off with something a little more coherent than that, but I wanted to demonstrate how much this movie caught me off guard. My most recent screening was some weeks ago, but it’s such a dark, dreary horror film that it took that long just to be able to get me back into the mindset I needed to be in to write about it. When it comes to horror movies, you can usually learn a lot about what you’re going to watch just by reading the name. You just have to be sure you know which “name” it is that requires your attention. With “The Midnight Meat Train,” be not fooled by the film’s title. Instead, keep in mind the name of the author responsible for penning the original source material, he being Clive Barker.

Leon Kaufman (Bradley Cooper) is a New York City amateur photographer, desperate to get his work noticed by anyone of importance. One such opportunity presents itself when he brings his portfolio to Susan Hoff (Brooke Shields). Susan is very particular about the photographers she works with, so it comes as a surprise to Leon when she sees potential in him. However, because his landscape photos aren’t likely to be a big sell, Susan suggests he come back with some nighttime shots of the subway system. When he does, he catches a gang attempting to assault a woman, whom he eventually saves. The next day, however, he discovers she went missing shortly after he watched her get on the subway train. Through some investigating, Leon begins to suspect that a butcher known only as Mahogany (Vinnie Jones) is repsonsible. He is correct.

Just to show how different our protagonist is from the killer, Leon is a vegan. This is especially irksome for the cook at the diner where Leon’s girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) works as a waitress. The cook loathes the idea of having to specially place Leon’s tofu on the grill, thinking that in some way its close proximity to the hamburgers might infect them with its bland nothingness. As Leon’s investigation into Mahogany’s activities grows ever more obsessive, Maya becomes concerned. She tries to take those concerns to the police, and is met with the same suspicion that Leon had been when he tried to share his photos as evidence. The cops are going to be no help at all, it seems.

As the scenes of carnage on board the train unfold, several questions will undoubtedly pop up. Among them: “Surely the train’s conductor must know what’s going on?” “What happens to the bodies once Mahogany’s done with them?” and “Why are the police so uncooperative?” These and other questions can and will be answered. This won’t however prepare you for the film’s ending… unless, of course, you are familiar with Clive Barker’s original short story.

What is my second favorite adaptation of one of Clive Barker’s works (other than “Hellraiser”) is not without some pretty serious flaws. Sadly, this is one of those horror movies that falls prey to the Idiot Syndrome. In order for Leon and Maya to be anywhere near the danger, they must both enter areas which no one in his or her right mind would ever dare to tread, and then act surprised when Mahogany shows up and gives chase. But my least favorite thing about this movie is saved for last. It’s not surprising for a Clive Barker story to have supernatural elements to it. It is shocking, however, when there are virtually no hints dropped until the final fifteen minutes. But that’s not my only gripe.

I can dig horror movies which take you to dark places and then leave you there. Except in the case of slasher films (which this one initially looks like but isn’t), what I don’t love quite so much are horror movies that arrive at an illogical conclusion. Because the film changes the character of Leon from a down-and-out loner to a motivated photographer with a beautiful girlfriend, having his story arc arrive at exactly the same destination feels less fluent than it does arbitrary, even if it does leave us with the movie’s most lasting image.

In spite of the strikes against it, “The Midnight Meat Train,” up until those final fifteen minutes, is one of the best horror films of the 2000’s. It gives us a great villain in the silent killer Mahogany, performed with menacing excellence by Vinnie Jones. In the years since, you’ll find some references to “The Midnight Meat Train” in other films. In “Silver Linings Playbook,” also starring Bradley Cooper, it’s the movie playing at the theater where he and Jennifer Lawrence are standing outside arguing in one key scene. The director, Ryuhei Kitamura, is also responsible for some outstanding Japanese titles, such as “Godzilla: Final Wars” and especially the zombie action film “Versus.” Horror/comedy enthusiasts (and anyone else looking to have a good time) are encouraged to seek out “Versus” as soon as you’re done with this one to lift up your spirits from the dark dimension of horror that “The Midnight Meat Train” drives you toward.

Boyhood (2014)

Director: Richard Linklater

Starring: Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke

Without even thinking hard, I can safely say that the years of my life which played the biggest role in shaping who I am today were ages 6 through 18. Much of my fondest memories (amid a few not-so fond ones) come out of that twelve-year period. I’ve never taken greater vacations, never formed more long-lasting friendships, nor have I as yet learned quite as much about who I am supposed to be in this world than during those years. I also recognize how incredibly blessed I was during this time, as not everyone is afforded the same opportunities, nor fortunate enough to live in a stable household. Some may say this is good/bad luck, while others may come to refer to it as “character-building.” I call it “life.”

In “Boyhood,” we are invited into the life of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). When we first meet him in 2002, Mason is six years old and lives with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha in Houston, Texas. I’m a little fuzzy on exactly how long Olivia and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) had been divorced up to this point. What is clear is that Mason’s mother is struggling to make ends meet. Determined to see things change, Olivia returns to school at the University of Houston to get her degree. Unfortunately, while there, she makes the mistake of falling in love with and marrying her professor, named Bill.

While he’s good for her at first, as the years pass it becomes clear that Bill is excessively strict, both with his own children from a previous marriage and with Mason Jr. and Samantha. Bill is also an abusive alcoholic. Fearing for her own life and the well-being of her children, Olivia grabs what she can and gets herself, Mason and Samantha to safety. Despite her kids’ aversion to the idea of having to start over in a new town, it was clearly the only choice Olivia could have made. Now, you’d think that a lesson would have been learned there, but no. In time, Olivia (who has become a college teacher) eventually becomes involved with Jim, an Iraqi War veteran, who is no less fond of the booze, no less strict than Bill was. However, the fact that Mason and Samantha are both older by this time means that Jim is unable to impose his will as effectively. Regardless, Olivia still ends up leaving him just as quickly.

What of Mason Sr., you ask? As the odd man out in this family, he only gets sporadic visitation rights, which he hadn’t been taking advantage of as of 2002, due to his being away in Alaska. But by 2004, he is pledging his son and daughter that he will spend more time with them. This includes fun at the bowling alley, baseball games, and camping trips. From then on, for every time that Mason Jr. is finding it hard to deal with life such as it is, his bonding sessions with his father help to see him through each of these hardships. As his son grows into a man, Mason Sr. himself evolves from an out-of-work slob into a man of responsibility, remarrying and having another son.

For the times when his father is not able to be there to help him out, Mason Jr. experiments with sex, drugs and alcohol, but he also finds his passion in photography. His teacher wants him to capture images of things like football games, citing this kind of work as the sort that will allow him to turn his craft into a career. Mason finds his artistic shots more meaningful, and as a result more personally satisfying. Mason enters into a relationship with a girl named Sheena, and the next two years they spend together have a profound affect upon him, which makes their ugly breakup (Is there really any other kind?!) all the more painful for him. Once again, his dad is there to brighten his spirits and offer advice. Signifying that the passage of time has snuck up on everyone, Mason Jr.’s graduation from high school catches everyone by surprise, especially his mother, who thought herself prepared for this moment yet had always believed there would be more time.

To declare “Boyhood” a unique viewing experience is to state the obvious. Because the movie is filmed over the course of twelve years, and no attempt was made to hire different actors to play the same characters at different ages, you are literally watching Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) grow up right before your eyes. The project was begun without a completed script, and actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke were able to make contributions by drawing from their own personal histories. There is something of Arquette in Olivia, and something of Hawke in Mason Sr. Some of my favorite moments of the film occur during the scenes of bonding between Mason Sr. and his children, such as the time when, upon Mason Jr.’s 15th birthday, his father presents him with a 3-disc mix CD of ex-Beatles’ solo tunes, arranged together to resemble another Beatles record. Mason Sr. calls this “The Black Album.” Also amusing is Mason Sr.’s observation that there can’t be any new “Star Wars” movies that take place after “Return of the Jedi,” because there’s no story left to tell. Not so fast, Mason Sr.! “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” is due in theaters this Christmas.

At 165 minutes, I can see where some might make the mistake of considering “Boyhood” a tedious film. I have two answers to that: 1) Time is relative. 2) Speaking from experience, and keeping answer #1 in mind, it seems to me that the period of ages 6 to 18 sees time moving by the slowest. That is why it is essential that “Boyhood” be as long as it needs to be. The narrative is non-traditional as well. Instead of one, long flowing story arc, “Boyhood” plays out like a collected series of happenings. Such is the nature of life itself.

Avengers Age of Ultron (2015)

Director: Joss Whedon

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård

Watching the trailers attached to this movie, the one which struck me as being particularly relevant was the one for “Terminator: Genisys” (I truly wish it were a typo). Both the “Terminator” franchise and “Age of Ultron” deal with an artificial intelligence designed as a peace-keeping force which, almost immediately upon its activation, selects the entire human race for extinction. Both Ultron and SkyNet find ways to evolve their original programming in order to make things that much more difficult for us. Because they begin their plot of mass genocide in their respective early stages of existence, the two A.I.’s can each be accused of behaving like children: erratic, insolent, illogical and, most of all, emotional. The one thing they fear the most is their own death. Had the Terminators come up against the likes of the Avengers, I doubt there would have been room for three sequels and a reboot. Thankfully, there’s a lot more going on here than just the story of Man endangering his future by trying to save it.

As the movie begins, we join our heroes mid-mission, in a very James Bond-like opening that sees them storming the fortress of Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. Of course, Strucker is hardly a match for Earth’s mightiest. He knows this, which is why the HYDRA agent has been running experiments designed to create super-powered beings. To achieve this, he uses Loki’s scepter, left behind in the rubble at the Battle of New York. Of his test subjects, only the Maximoff twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), who volunteered for the procedure have actually survived. Wanda has the power of telekinesis/mind-manipulation and can generate powerful bursts of energy to hurl at enemies, whereas Pietro runs at speeds faster than the blink of an eye. They’re not interested in Strucker’s plans, as they have their own score to settle with one Avenger in particular. It seems the Maximoff home in the Eastern European country of Sokovia was destroyed some years ago by weapons designed by Stark Industries, making orphans of the Twins. Although the Avengers retrieve the scepter, Wanda plants the seeds of their potential doom inside Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.)’s head.

Looking for a way to both keep the world safe and to allow for he and his friends to retire, Tony is about to take the next technological leap. Describing it as an “iron suit around the world,” Tony enlists the aid of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in designing the ultimate peace-keeping force, Ultron (James Spader). Making use of Loki’s scepter, they do this without consultation from the other four Avengers. It’s the age-old tale of doing something without stopping to consider whether or not you should. At a party in the Avengers Tower, following an amusing moment where all of the mortal men in the group try their best to lift Thor’s hammer, Ultron first makes his presence felt, disabling the J.A.R.V.I.S. program (which he perceives as a personal threat) and declaring himself free of his puppet strings.

Making off with Loki’s scepter, Ultron gathers supplies, stopping at Strucker’s base in Sokovia to make upgrades to his armor and at an African shipyard where he can obtain the Earth’s rarest metal, vibranium, which will play a part in his endgame. Ultron and the Twins are confronted by the Avengers, but Wanda’s mind tricks affect each member of the team on a deep and personal level. Bruce Banner is so affected that he turns into the Hulk and levels an entire town. Tony uses a special suit of armor designed for just such a contingency to subdue the Hulk, but the damage has been done. News of the Hulk’s warpath has gone global, and the Avengers avoid the resulting backlash by going into hiding at the family home of team member Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), a married father of two with one more on the way.

Once at the Barton farm, the nature of the relationships of the various team members becomes evident. In particular, the clashing ideologies of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) are pushed even further into the light (and serve as a set-up for the next “Captain America” movie), while Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner acknowledge a growing attraction between them. Natasha sees in Bruce the same fractured soul that lies within her. Each of them has been spending a great deal of time trying to repair damage done to them in their respective pasts. They are both “monsters” in their own way. They talk of leaving together after Ultron is defeated.

A turning point occurs when Ultron is in the early stages of uploading himself into his intended final body. Realizing that the A.I.’s deadly goals extend beyond the mere extinguishing of the Avengers, Wanda and Pietro abandon Ultron and side with their former foes. Acquiring the android body which Ultron meant for himself, Tony uploads the once-believed destroyed J.A.R.V.I.S. program into it, while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) lends a jolt of electricity to help bring the android to life. It appears that, all along, Loki’s scepter had been powered by one of the six Infinity Stones (four of which we’ve seen up to this point), which is now fitted on the brow of the newly birthed Vision (Paul Bettany), a creature whose temperment and philosophy run in stark contrast to that of Ultron. The Vision is so incorruptible in fact that he can lift Thor’s hammer, a feat once thought possible only for the God of Thunder himself. Along with the Vision and the Maximoffs, the Avengers (minus Natasha, who is in Ultron’s clutches) gather together for one final confrontation with Ultron in Sokovia, where they mean to save the entire planet.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Avengers movie if there weren’t someone or something that needed avenging. The movie is not casualty-free, but that does not keep it from having many lighthearted, laugh-out-loud moments. There are several running gags. One of these involves the group taking every opportunity they can to poke fun at their leader, Captain America, for having earlier objected to Tony’s use of foul language. Moments like this are vintage Joss Whedon, who also brilliantly wrote/directed the first “Avengers.” The six actors who made the first film so much fun are all back and in top form. Some who got a little short-changed last time (Jeremy Renner!) are thankfully given more to do in “Age of Ultron.” Of course, Robert Downey Jr. is still the man! Among the newly added characters, my favorite is undoubtedly Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff, although I also look forward to more from Paul Bettany’s Vision. Special kudos also goes to James Spader, always great at what he does, proving it once again as the menacing machine-gone-wrong, Ultron. Some of Marvel’s villains have been weak, but Spader isn’t one of them.

For right now, I’m still more fond of the first “Avengers,” though that could be due to the fact that I’ve seen it several times in the last three years. Like many of the previous Marvel Comics Universe films, I expect that “Avengers: Age of Ultron” will play better on the small screen, when I’m not distracted by fellow audience members and can better focus on the action. There’s so much happening that you’re bound to miss something just by staring at the wrong part of the screen. Nonetheless, I found myself very entertained. The best of intentions sometimes results in disaster, but thankfully this is not true in the case of “Age of Ultron.”