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American Hustle (2013)

amy-adams-christian-bale-american-hustle

 

One of the most celebrated films of 2013 is David O. Russell’s American Hustle, his follow-up to 2012’s critically-acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook (my review). It took me a while to catch this one in theaters just because of the business of winter break and then transitioning back into school, but I was glad to get the chance to check it out.

American Hustle introduces itself with the cheeky disclaimer “Some of this actually happened.” The movie is based on facts, yes, but how much these facts are stretched or not is unclear and are ultimately unimportant. The story focuses around Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a con artist who works with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), or, using her “business” name, Lady Edith Greensly. The two of them have a relationship together, but it is complicated by the fact that Rosenfeld is married to Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence), with whom he has a son. When Rosenfeld and Prosser are caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), they strike a deal to help DiMaso score four more arrests in exchange for their amnesty. They set up a sting operation on corrupt politicians, implicating Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. However, they soon get in with the wrong people, so they must do everything in their power to maintain their subterfuge or else the operation – and their lives – might be in danger.

The best word I can use to describe this movie is “fun.” The characters are fun, the dialogue is fun, the music is fun, the subterfuge is fun…you get the idea. The whole film is just one big ride that I was happy to go along with. Just like Silver Linings Playbook, the dialogue is king, with everything being presented fast-paced, but never too fast. My favorite two characters and the stars of the film, in my opinion, are Christian Bale as Rosenfeld and Amy Adams as Prosser. Their chemistry is believable and fun, and their abilities to cooperate together to trick people out of their money is detestable in theory but amusing to watch in action. I was surprised by the charisma of Jeremy Renner, who, up until now, has always seemed a bit grumpy or subdued in his roles. It’s not his problem – it’s just the face he has and the roles he’s been in in the past. But here he shines, with smiles abound and energy flowing out of him freely.

Unpopular opinion: I didn’t care much for either Bradley Cooper as DiMaso or Jennifer Lawrence as Mrs. Rosenfeld. Sure, they both had their moments of brilliance, but the majority of the time it seemed that they were just trying to hard…or, in Lawrence’s case, not trying hard enough. I’ve seen “JLaw” in several roles by now, and she’s outstanding in each of them…except for this one. Not to say that she’s not good, just that she didn’t blow me away for once.

Despite its energy, the movie did start to feel a little long by the time we reached the end of it. However, I loved the overall feel of the film, and the 70s soundtrack was extremely entertaining; I have a strange affinity for 70s music, so I was singing along to myself in the back of the theater for the majority of the movie. American Hustle does have its problems – listen to Episode 78 of The MovieByte Podcast to hear me discuss these more in-depth with my friends TJ and Mikey – but I had too much fun watching these characters to be too upset by any lack of quality in other aspects.

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: R – for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence


Top Ten Films of 2013

The delay in me typing this up comes from the fact that there are still a few major films from 2013 that I have yet to see – American HustleHerInside Llewyn Davis, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Wolf of Wall Street (though I’m thinking I won’t see the latter due to excessive sexual content). That being said, I wanted to go ahead and tackle what I have seen before too much of 2014 passes, so just know that, if I see these films and find them worthy of this list, I will update it and let you all know.

2013 was a pretty great year for me. I saw more films than ever before, largely due to my involvement in The MovieByte Podcast with my friend TJ. If I totaled everything correctly, I saw 40 new films this year in theaters, so this list is drawing from a pretty wide selection.

An important note: this is a list of favorite films, which may conflict with my ratings. My ratings are usually based on a combination of both quality and enjoyment, whereas this list will mostly be based on enjoyment with quality mixed in just a bit. Click on the titles to see my reviews for each film. With that said, let’s get started with number 10:

thor the dark world

Honorable Mention – Thor: The Dark World

After the mediocre first Thor film, I was hoping for a much better second film, which we thankfully got in Thor: The Dark World. Chris Hemsworth is an excellent Thor, made better by the fact that we’re not establishing an origin anymore. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki continues to impress as well, this time as an ally, bringing an interesting twist to the character and allowing for a fun and occasionally potent brother-to-brother relationship. Brian Tyler’s score is just as fun as the movie itself, and Christopher Eccleston’s villain Malekith is appropriately menacing, if a bit vague in intention.

frozen

10. Frozen

I love Disney films, especially musical ones, because they remind me of my childhood, when The Lion KingBeauty and the Beast (my review), and Aladdin were supreme. Frozen reminds me of those 1990s Disney movies, but this time with a nice twist at the end – which I won’t spoil for you. The voice cast is incredible here, namely Kristen Bell as Anna and Josh Gad as Olaf the Snowman, with Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” set to be a surefire nominee for Best Original Song at this year’s Academy Awards – and, I’ll call it now, it’ll win too. The animation is beautiful, the story is touching, and you’ll walk out whistling the songs, wanting to watch it again and again.

12-years-a-slave

9. 12 Years a Slave

This film is difficult to rank because, while it’s certainly a 5-star film, it’s also difficult to watch. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Solomon Northup, a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery for twelve long years. The film covers his incredibly painful time spent on a plantation in Louisiana, where he meets good people, bad people, and fellow slaves who are also struggling for their lives. Director Steve McQueen doesn’t shy away from the harsh truths of slavery and how brutal the slave owners often were, making this film exceptionally powerful and a must-watch – if you can stomach it.

Enders-Game

8. Ender’s Game

I read Orson Scott Card’s classic book in anticipation of this film, so it was fresh on my mind when I walked into the theater. As expected, the book is much better and much of the content in the film is watered down, but that doesn’t stop the film from being pretty excellent on its own. For the most part, it keeps the themes of morality and unnecessary violence intact, and Asa Butterfield as the eponymous Ender does a fantastic job of capturing the character, from his calm control in stressful situations to his intense emotional outbursts upon the realizations of what has happened to him. The visuals in this movie are gorgeous, with scenes from the book, such as the armies in the Battle Room, flying right off the page in a great way.

book-thief

7. The Book Thief

I also read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief before seeing the film based on it, and many of my criticisms are the same as for Ender’s Game in regards to the watering down of content and such, but that doesn’t stop this film from being an emotional punch to the gut. Sophie Nélisse is outstanding as Liesel Meminger, as are her parents, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. The period setting of the film is well-done, and John Williams delivers as intimate and beautiful a score as ever. Bring a box of tissues for this one…maybe two.

Tom Hanks

6. Captain Phillips

In this film, Tom Hanks has the best performance of his life…for, what, the fifth time now? Man, he continues to prove that he’s one of the best actors out there. Captain Phillips tells the true story of how Somalian pirates attacked the Maersk Alabama but were thwarted by Captain Richard Phillips, who not only protected everyone on board with his actions but also offered himself as hostage to continue that protection. Barkhad Abdi plays the lead pirate, who isn’t portrayed as a bad guy but rather as a guy forced to do bad things due to unfortunate social circumstances. There isn’t a bad guy here, not really – at least, that’s not how the film portrays the pirates – but there is simply reality and suspense that rises from it. The long run-time never feels too long as you are caught up in the action from start to finish, and if Tom Hanks doesn’t win the Academy Award for Best Actor, it’ll only be because he lost it to Chiwetel Ejiofor.

SAVING MR. BANKS

5. Saving Mr. Banks

Emma Thompson shines in this historical film about the making of the 1964 Disney film, Mary Poppins, based on the book series by P. L. Travers. Thompson’s portrayal of the stubborn author is both quirky and humorous, but it’s also heartbreaking in her remembrance of moments in her childhood that inspired her books. Colin Farrell plays her father in these flashbacks, juxtaposing a happy-go-lucky father with a down-on-his-luck drunkard, giving us insight into Mary Poppins and the Banks family that I was not previously familiar with. Tom Hanks plays an admirable Walt Disney, even if his performance doesn’t convince me enough that I am watching Walt himself rather than Hanks playing him. Still, the charm of the movie as a whole as well as Thompson’s performance knock this film out of the park. (You should probably bring tissues to this one as well.)

oblivionstarringtomcruise

4. Oblivion

I had a self-imposed boycott on Tom Cruise’s films for quite a long time, but since lifting it for 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (my review) he has quickly become one of my favorite actors. His performance here is great, as is Andrea Riseborough’s performance as his partner, but it’s the themes and questions raised by the film that bring Oblivion so far to the top of my list. Themes of asking questions, seeking answers, and the thirst for knowledge vs. the fear of knowledge are brought to the forefront, and, for some reason, it really resonated with me. The script is smart, Tom Cruise is as great as ever, and the score by M83 is energetic and fun, in the same vein as Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy (my review), which was directed by the same man, Joseph Kosinski. This film not only shows off Tom Cruise’s continuing capabilities as an action star, but his talents as a dramatic actor as well.

the hunger games catching fire

3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

As far as book-to-film adaptations go, 2012’s The Hunger Games (my review) was one of the best I’d seen, but it still had problems. Director Gary Ross’ replacement by Francis Lawrence for the second film seemed worrying at first, but it seemed to pay off. Not only is Catching Fire a better film than the first one, but it’s also a better adaptation of its book counterpart, which is hard to believe. In fact, if I may be so bold, I think that I enjoyed the film more than the book, at least as far as the opening scenes involving the Victory Tour go, which I know is probably blasphemy. Jennifer Lawrence is surely one of the best actresses out there today as evidenced by her continued terrific performance as Katniss Everdeen. The stakes of this film are higher than in the first, and the character development is even better than the already-good character development of the first film. The shaky-cam is gone in favor of better choreographed action scenes, and, in fact, nearly every aspect of the first film is improved upon this time around. This is an excellent film whether you’ve read the books or not.

gravity

2. Gravity

If you didn’t catch this film in theaters, I’m sorry. You missed out. Maybe they’ll bring it back for a few extra showings before the Academy Awards, in which case you should buy a ticket as soon as they’re available. Though this film is great all-around, from the performance of Sandra Bullock to the music by Steven Price to the brilliant visuals of space, the real thrill comes from the thrill of total immersion. You seem to experience everything that Bullock’s character experiences, from spinning around in the vacuum of space to the rush of being trapped in a shower of incoming deadly space debris. The theater experience makes an already-great film even better by involving the audience fully in the action and atmosphere – or lack thereof – of space.

The Way Way Back

1. The Way, Way Back

I love, love, love this film. Love it. I caught an early screening about a month before it reached theaters and subsequently paid to see it twice more. I purchased it on Blu-Ray the day it became available and have watched it three times more since then, and I have yet to tire of it. The Way, Way Back is a coming-of-age film about Duncan, played by Liam James, who is the most perfectly, believably awkward person I’ve ever seen onscreen, which is exactly how his character should be. The growth of his character throughout the film is equally fun and touching, contrasted by Steve Carell’s portrayal of Duncan’s awful stepfather, a role refreshingly atypical of Carell’s usual fare. However, the standout performance in this film is that of Sam Rockwell as Owen, a local waterpark owner who befriends Duncan and helps him to make his summer one of the best of his life. Rockwell brings many laugh-out-loud moments, but he also brings the most poignant moments of the film. The moral is great, and the ride is a great one. I don’t think I could possibly over-recommend this movie.

Well, there you have it. Do you agree or disagree with my list? What were your favorite films of 2013? Sound off in the comments – I’d love to hear your opinions.

Here’s to 2014 – another great year for movies!

-Chad


A Few Good Men (1992)

A-Few-Good-Men

I had never seen A Few Good Men until recently, and, even though I knew the film’s famous quote (“You can’t handle the truth!”), I did not know that it belonged to this film. When my good friend TJ, Editor-in-Chief of MovieByte.com and head host of the site’s podcast, The MovieByte Podcast, on which I am his co-host, suggested that we review this film together, I said, “why not?,” and set out to watch it – and I had a great time talking about it with TJ on Episode 69 of The MovieByte Podcast!

A Few Good Men, directed by Rob Reiner (The Princess BrideThis is Spinal Tap) and with a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin (The West WingThe Social NetworkMoneyball), is based on Sorkin’s 1989 play of the same name. When two US Marines are court-martialed for killing a fellow Marine, the young, inexperienced Navy lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) is assigned to the case. After striking a deal with the prosecution, Captain Jack Ross (Kevin Bacon), Kaffee learns from the defendants that their actions were the result of an order given by Lt. Jonathan James Kendrick (Kiefer Sutherland), Kaffee drops the deal and takes the case to court. With help from Lt. Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) and Lt. Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore), Kaffee sets out to prove that the two Marines were merely acting on orders, bringing him against Kendrick and his superior, hardball Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson).

Courtroom dramas are just fun, with the prime example being the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, based on Harper Lee’s book of the same name and starring Gregory Peck. Tom Cruise is no Atticus Finch, but his inherent on-screen likability works well for him here as he works to convince the jury of his clients’ innocence. For me, it was interesting seeing Cruise outside of an action role, and I certainly wish he did more of them because he’s excellent here. Demi Moore does a decent job of showing uncertainty from a character who is usually so sure of herself, and most of the other characters do a fine job as well, though they’re nothing to speak of. Jack Nicholson, however, is obviously the shining star of the film, despite his limited screen time, which can be compared to Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, in which he was onscreen for only 12 minutes but still won the Academy Award. Though Jack Nicholson didn’t win the Academy Award for his performance here, he still does a fantastic job of portraying such a stubborn character, and his delivery of the classic line doesn’t at all feel forced or cliched. In fact, I think that that is Nicholson’s greatest strength as an actor: he is able to play crazy/angry/etc. so believably without it seeming forced.

The star behind the scenes here is Aaron Sorkin, who wrote both the screenplay and the original play that it is based on. His dialogue is sharp, and his storytelling is strong, and the relationships between characters develop nicely and provide several nice moments throughout the film. Most of the humor he writes into the script is good as well, though I must admit that there were a few jokes that seemed forced, being there simply for the purpose of being jokes rather than being a byproduct of something that actually advances the story.

On the whole, my complaints are minimal, and I was entertained throughout. A Few Good Men is a well-deserved classic that has withstood the test of time; I think that I was destined to like this film. With the combination of so many amazing talents – Rob Reiner, who directed one of my favorite films (The Princess Bride; (my review)), Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay for another of my favorite films (The Social Network), Tom Cruise, who I have only recently discovered and enjoyed in films such as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (my review) and Oblivion (my review), and Jack Nicholson, one of my favorite actors (The ShiningOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) – what’s not to love?

-Chad

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

MPAA: R – for language


The Way Way Back (2013)

Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 11 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. I also talked about it with my friend TJ on Episode 61 of The MovieByte Podcast

The Way Way Back

Comedy films aren’t my thing, mainly because I don’t typically find them funny. In fact, I generally try to avoid them, but when you’re a film critic with an opportunity to see an early screening of a film for free, you hop on it, and hop on it I did! With The Way, Way Back, I figured that I at least had Steve Carell to look forward to, an actor whose humor I appreciated on the US version of The Office. I walked into the theater knowing nothing other than who was on the cast list – no trailers, no reviews, no brief synopses – and was pleasantly surprised.

The title of the film refers to the “way, way back” seat of a station wagon, which is where we are first introduced to the main character, Duncan (Liam James). Duncan is a boy trying to fight all of the forces set against him: he’s incredibly socially awkward, his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), is forcing him to spend the summer at her boyfriend Trent’s (Steve Carell) summer beach house with his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin), who openly hates Duncan, and his father doesn’t want him around. He’s having a miserable time until he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), an eccentric man who manages a local water park. Duncan soon starts working at the water park, making friends with the other staff members and patrons, but his life at home with his mother and Trent is as miserable as ever as Duncan tries to find his place in the world.

This is one of the only Steve Carell roles I’ve witnessed that actually isn’t funny; his character is rude, selfish, and obnoxious. He fakes his affection for Duncan by “affectionately” (and repetitively) calling him “buddy,” a gesture that at first seems heartfelt but eventually proves itself to be artificial. In fact, Carell’s character as a whole seems to undergo a transformation the further the film progresses. His speech to Duncan at the start of the film seems genuine, but he becomes more and more of the “bad guy” the farther into the film we get. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Sam Rockwell as Owen is side-splittingly funny…he makes it seem so effortless! His jokes are often inappropriate for Duncan’s 14-year-old ears, but it’s his honesty and tendency to not talk down to those younger than him that makes him such a genuine character. Owen isn’t only funny, though; he has a few serious moments, with the most poignant one taking place at the end of the film as he stands up for Duncan. Speaking of Duncan, Liam James, an actor who I’ve never heard of before, does a fantastic job. He is inherently likable despite his social awkwardness, and his growth over the course of the film makes you want to celebrate with him. Other cast members, including co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash as two employees at the water park, Maya Rudolph as another water park employee, Allison Janney as Trent’s kooky next-door neighbor Betty, and AnnaSophia Robb as her daughter, Susannah, all do a great job of playing likable characters who bring the film both humor and depth.

The film is about Duncan and his coming-of-age, but the moral hits a wider mark: don’t let others change your opinion of yourself or who you want to be. Another lesson that runs parallel with this is to accept others for what and who they are. Owen becomes a mentor and father figure to Duncan, not because he forces his opinions on him or because he pressures him into doing what he doesn’t want to do, but because he treats him as a fellow human being who deserves to be heard. AnnaSophia Robb’s character treats Duncan similarly; though she may seem a little critical of Duncan at first, she realizes that he is who he is, leading to her interacting with him more and the pair becoming friends. Even Duncan’s mother eventually comes around to Duncan’s side, bringing the film to a wonderfully circular end (you’ll understand what I mean when you see the film). Originally a character who sits alone in the “way, way back” of the car, Duncan ends the film as a character with plenty of others on his side, with his position in the “way, way back” of the car carrying a positive connotation rather than the negative one it carried at the start of the film.

This movie is funny throughout, but it seems to me to be more of a drama with comedy splashed in appropriately than a straight-up comedy, which is why I think I liked it so much. All of the characters in the film (well, aside from the “bad guys”) grew on me quite a bit as I watched, with characters whose actions seemed false or forced at the start feeling very natural by the end, making me really care about them. Standout performances from Liam James and especially Sam Rockwell make the movie both amusing and emotional, with Steve Carell bringing a new kind of character (for him) to the table. Overall, The Way, Way Back is an excellent film with admirable morals, and it’s sure to entertain moviegoers of all kinds.

-Chad

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material