“AMERICAN HUSTLE” (2013) Review

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“AMERICAN HUSTLE” (2013) Review

For the past three years, the career of David O. Russell seemed to be on a roll. During said period, he has directed, produced or both three movies that have garnered a great deal of acclaim and awards. The latest of this “Golden Trio” happened to be a period comedy drama called “AMERICAN HUSTLE”

Set mainly in 1978, “AMERICAN HUSTLE” is loosely based on the ABSCAM operation, set up by the F.B.I. as a sting operation against various government officials in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The movie begins with two con artists and lovers, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, who are caught in a loan scam by F.B.I. Special Agent Richie Di Maso. The latter proposes to release them if Irving assists him in a sting operation against Mayor Carmine Polito of Camden, New Jersey and other officials. Sydney tries to convince Irving not to agree with Richie’s proposal. But desperate to avoid prison and reluctant to leave his adopted son with his verbose and slightly unstable wife Rosalyn, Irving agrees to assist Richie and the F.B.I. The sting operation nearly starts off on the wrong foot, thanks to a clumsy tactic on Richie’s part, but Irving manages to woo back the charismatic and popular Carmine, who is seeking funds to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City. The scam seems to be going fine, despite Sydney’s growing relationship with Richie. But when Carmine introduces Irving, Sydney and Richie to the notoriously violent Mafia overlord Victor Tellegio into the plan to raise money; and Rosalyn’s jealous nature and notoriously big mouth threatens to expose the sting operation; Irving realizes he has to come up with an alternate plan to save him and Sydney from the Mob and the F.B.I.

While watching “AMERICAN HUSTLE”, it occurred to me that it is filled with some very interesting and eccentric characters. First, there are the two lovebirds – Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser – with his odd toupee and her fake British accent. Then we have Richie Di Maso is an ambitious “Mama’s Boy” with hair permed into tight curls, who is a bit too eager to prove himself with the F.B.I. Irving’s wife Rosalyn is an unhappily married woman with a big mouth and a careless and self-involved personality. And Mayor Polito is a happy-go-lucky politician with a rather large pompadour hair-style and questionable connections to the Mob. The movie is also populated with a Latino F.B.I. agent recruited by Richie to potray a wealthy Arab sheik, a charming Mob soldier who ends up falling for Rosalyn, Richie’s frustrated and wary F.B.I. supervisor, and a very sinister Mob boss that can speak Arabic. If I have to be perfectly honest, I would have to say that the movie’s array of characters struck me as being the movie’s strong point.

This should not have been a surprise. “AMERICAN HUSTLE” is also filled with some great performances. Christian Bale gave a wonderfully subtle and complex performance as the aging and stressed out con man who reluctantly finds himself involved with a scam operation set up by the F.B.I. He certainly clicked with Amy Adams, who gave one of the most subtle performances of her career as the charming, yet desperate former stripper-turned-con artist, who found herself in a state of flux over her freedom and her relationship with her partner/lover. Bradley Cooper was practically a basket of fire as the aggressive F.B.I. Agent Richie Di Maso, who become over-eager to make a name for himself within the Bureau. Mind you, there were moments when Cooper’s performance seemed to border on hamminess. I could also say the same for Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Irving’s not-so-stable wife, Rosalyn. However, I must admit that Lawrence also provided the movie with some of its best comic moments. Jeremy Renner was a joy to watch as the charismatic mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito. The latter must have been the most happy-go-lucky role he has ever done.

“AMERICAN HUSTLE” also featured some first-rate performances from the supporting cast. Louis C.K. was very effective Richie’s long suffering boss, Special Agent Stoddard Thorsen. Michael Peña provided some memorable comic moments as Special Agent Paco Hernandez, who surprised everyone with his ability to speak Arabic. Robert De Niro, who also made a surprising appearance as mobster Victor Tellegio, gave a subtle and intimidating appearance . . . especially in a scene in which he tested Agent Thorsen’s ability to speak Arabic. The movie also featured solid performances from Jack Huston as a young mobster, Alessandro Nivola as Richie and Thoren’s boss, Anthony Zerbe as a corrupt congressman, and Elisabeth Röhm as Mayor Polito’s equally happy-go-lucky wife Dolly.

I was also impressed by the production designs for “AMERICAN HUSTLE”. Judy Becker and her team did an exceptional job of bringing the late 1970s back to life. She was also assisted by Heather Loeffler’s set decorations and Jesse Rosenthal’s art direction. Michael Wilkinson’s costume designs did an excellent job of not only capturing that particular era, but also representing the major character. This was especially apparent in his costumes for the Sydney Prosser, who used low-cut dresses and gowns to distract her marks. And I mean very low cut.

If there is one problem I have with “AMERICAN HUSTLE”, it is probably Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell’s screenplay. At first, it seemed perfectly fine to me. But eventually, there were aspects of the screenplay I found either troubling or confusing. One, I noticed that Russell tried utilize the use of multiple narrations that Martin Scorsese used in his 1995 movie, “CASINO”. At first, he used Irving and Sydney’s narration. Then he added Richie’s voice to the mix. The problem is that I can only recall Richie’s narration in one scene. Nor do I recall Sydney’s narration in the movie’s second half. Also, the first half of the movie seemed to hint that Richie’s mark in his operation was Camden’s Mayor Polito, who wanted to raise funds to revitalize Atlantic City. Why? Why would the mayor of Camden be interested in revitalizing the fortunes of another city, located in another county? And why was the F.B.I. so interested in Camden’s mayor? At first, I thought the agency was aware of his mob ties. But when Carmine introduced Irving and Richie to mobster Victor Tellegio, both the con man and the Federal agent seemed surprised by the mobster’s appearance. So, why did Richie target Carmine in the first place? To make matters even more confusing, Richie extended his sting operation to several members of Congress. There seemed to be no focus in the operation and especially in the story.

Despite the confusing screenplay, I must admit that “AMERICAN HUSTLE” was an entertaining movie. Not only did it recaptured the era of the 1970s, but also featured some superb performances from a cast led by Christian Bale and Amy Adams. I thought it was entertaining enough to overlook its flaws.

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“THOR” (2011) Review

“THOR” (2011) Review

My knowledge of European-based mythology is very sketchy. I am familiar with some figures of both the Greek and Roman mythologies. But my knowledge of Norse mythology is even less. As for the many characters from Marvel Comics, I barely knew about any of them – aside from “SPIDER-MAN”, until the past decade. One can only imagine my surprise when I learned that one of Marvel’s more successful super heroes was the Norse god, Thor. 

Based upon the Norse mythology and the Marvel Comics character, “THOR” is an origin tale about the God of Thunder (and several other things), and how he ends up on Earth and becomes affiliated with S.H.I.E.L.D. The story begins in New Mexico, when scientist Jane Foster, her assistant Darcy Lewis and mentor Dr. Erik Selvig stumble across a figure that has tumbled from a wormhole in the sky. That figure turns out to be Thor, the Norse god that was exiled by his father, Odin, king of Asgard.

Earlier, Thor had been preparing to ascend to the throne of Asgard, but his ceremony was interrupted when Frost Giants attempted to retrieve the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters, which had been taken by Odin in an earlier war. Against Odin’s order, Thor traveled to Jotunheim, the Frost Giants’ realm, to confront their leader Laufey; accompanied by his brother Loki, childhood friend Sif and the Warriors Three – Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun. A battle ensued until Odin intervened to save the Asgardians, which destroyed the fragile truce between the two races. For Thor’s arrogance, Odin stripped his son of godly power and exiled the latter to Earth, accompanied by Thor’s hammer Mjolnir — the source of his power, now protected by a spell to allow only the worthy to wield it.

No one was more surprised than me upon learning that actor/director Kenneth Branaugh had manned the helm for “THOR”. Pop culture movie franchises were nothing new to him. After all, he had appeared in 2002’s HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS”. But directing an adaptation of a comic book series? Mind you, “Thor” is a different kettle of fish incompare to . . . say “Spider-Man”“The Fantastic Four” or “Iron Man”. After all, Thor originated as a figure in Norse mythology. However, I must admit that I found it difficult to wrap my mind around the idea of a known Shakespearean actor directing a comic book hero movie.

In the end, I believe that Branaugh did a pretty good job. “THOR” turned out to be a solid tale filled with mythology, some first-rate acting, family drama, comedy and action. The best aspect of “THOR” was to me – hands down – the family drama surrounding the main hero and his relationships with his father Odin and his younger brother, Loki. This family drama originated in Thor’s arrogant nature and brother Loki’s discovery that he was an orphan that Odin had discovered in the Frost Giants realm. Despite his discovery that he was a Frost Giant instead of an Asgardian, Loki viewed Thor as an unsuitable heir to the Asgard throne and used Thor’s exile to muscle his way to the throne . . . and, uh Odin’s heart.

Another aspect of “THOR” I found interesting was the story line about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s investigation into the wormhole that delivered Thor to Earth and his hammer Mjolnir, which is stuck in the middle of the New Mexican desert like Excalibur. The first encounter between the forces of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Thor during a rainy evening also provided some interesting action. This sequence not only featured a brutal fight to the now mortal Thor and a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and a cameo appearance by future Avenger member, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye.

The New Mexico sequences provided most of the comedy featured in “THOR”. The former Norse god’s interactions with Jane Foster, Erik Selvig, Darcy Lewis and the locals of the New Mexico town where they resided. Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne’s screenplay not only provided a good deal of slapstick humor and witty one-liners for the Darcy Lewis character, but also a variation on the “fish out of water” theme.

And If there is one thing that the movie did shine was its production designs and cinematography. Bo Welch did a excellent job in recapturing the rugged setting of the small New Mexican town and the Frost Giants’ realm of Jotunheim, featured in the film. But he did a superb job in his design of Asgard, the realm of the Norse gods. Asgard possessed a sleek, colorful and over-the-top quality that reminded me of what the Art Deco style would look in the hands of Hollywood craftsmen in the 1930s and 40s. And Haris Zambarloukos’ photography did great justice to both settings, especially Welch’s designs for Asgard. Even though I found the movie’s theme somewhat conflicting, I must admit that I found Paul Rubell’s editing rather smooth and well done in both the action sequences and the jumps between Asgard and New Mexico.

However, I have yet to encounter a movie that I would consider perfect. And “THOR” was far from perfect. The film’s main problem was that it seemed to have a conflicting quality about it. Because the movie’s setting constantly moved from Asgard to New Mexico and back, it ended up striking me as a mixture of “CLASH OF THE TITANS” and “STARMAN”. And this conflicting style did not seem to balance very well. I could have settled for “THOR” beginning its story in Asgard and remaining in New Mexico until the last scene. Unfortunately, most of the movie’s more important action occurred in Asgard, leaving the New Mexico sequences to bear the brunt of most of the comedy. By the time the movie’s last scene ended, I could not tell whether this was a movie about mythological gods or a comic book hero. “THOR” was a pretty good movie, but it did not exactly rock my boat. I found the story a bit mediocre and conventional. And the problem, if I must be honest, rested with Marvel Comics’ decision to create a comic series about a well-established mythological figure, instead of a new and original character.

Also, there were a few performances that failed to impress me. I realize that the three actors and one actress that portrayed Thor’s Asgardian friends – Sif and the Warriors Three – were very popular with moviegoers. Unfortunately, not only did they fail to impress me, I found them rather uninteresting. Poor Rene Russo. Within a decade she went from leading lady to a minor character actress, stuck in the thankless and nothing role of Thor’s stepmother, Frigga. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye was really wasted in this film. In fact, he did nothing at all, except pose with a bow and arrow. I realize that he will appear as one of the Avengers in the upcoming 2012 film, but he was never allowed to strut his stuff like Scarlett Johanssen in “IRON MAN 2”.

Aside from the performances I had earlier mentioned, “THOR” seemed blessed with a first-rate cast. I was surprised to learn that Chris Hemsworth had portrayed James T. Kirk’s doomed father in the 2009 movie, “STAR TREK”. His George Kirk had been so dull. Fortunately, portraying Thor gave him the opportunity to shine in a complex role that developed from an arrogant and over-privileged prince with an aggressive sense of self to a more compassionate and wiser man who had fallen in love. For an actor with only eight or nine years of acting experience – most of them on television – Hemsworth more than held his own against the likes of Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins. And those scenes that featured Thor’s encounters with Jane’s van conveyed Hemsworth’s talent for physical slapstick humor. As an on-screen fighter, he struck me as a bit crude, but I am certain that he will improve with time. Natalie Portman gave a charming and humorous portrayal of Dr. Jane Foster, the astrophysicist who is not only obsessed with her work, but eventually finds love with Thor. Mind you, I did not find her character particularly exceptional. But I am glad to say that Portman tried all she could to make Jane an interesting personality. But one of the two best performances came from Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki, Thor’s resentful and conniving younger brother. Loki was definitely the movie’s main villain. The joke he had played (luring three Frost Giants to the chamber that held the Casket of Ancient Winters) on Thor’s ascension ceremony not only led him to the discovery that he was an abandoned Frost Giant infant taken by Odin, but also gave him the opportunity to discredit Thor and take the latter’s position as Odin’s more cherished son. Mind you, I cannot say that Hiddleston conveyed Loki’s mischievous sense of humor effectively. But he did handle Loki’s conniving nature, jealousy toward Thor and outrage over the story behind his true nature with great skill and subtlety.

Other outstanding performances came from Idris Elba, who portrayed Asgard’s gatekeeper, Hemidall; Kat Dennings as Jane’s sardonic assistant Darcy Lewis; Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson; and Colm Feore as Laufey, King of the Frost Giants (and Loki’s real father). I was amazed at how Elba managed to convey all of Hemidall’s emotions and intelligence with very limited movement. No wonder he became very popular with many of the film’s characters. And Colm Feore managed to do something quite similar. He conveyed all of Laufey’s malice and secrecy behind a ton of body makeup. Aside from Hemsworth’s foray into slapstick, the New Mexico sequences featured a deliciously sly and humorous performance by Kat Dennings, who portrayed Darcy. And it was great to see Clark Gregg reprise the role of Phil Coulson for the third time (he made two earlier performances in the two IRON MAN movies). Thankfully, the movie’s script allowed him to be more complex and increasingly sardonic, allowing Gregg to really show his acting chops. Finally, the movie benefited from solid performances by Anthony Hopkins’ majestic portrayal of Odin, Thor’s father, Stellan Skarsgård as Jane’s dependable and practical mentor, Dr. Eric Selvig and Samuel L. Jackson as S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury in the movie’s post-credits sequence.

In conclusion, “THOR” proved to be an entertaining movie and another step toward “THE AVENGERS”, the big Marvel Comics saga for 2012. The movie provided solid direction from Kenneth Branaugh and excellent performances from most of the cast. But the movie’s conflicting genre(s) and somewhat mediocre story led me to realize that I would never consider it to be one of the outstanding releases from Marvel Studios.