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Sunday, January 26, 2014

American Hustle - * * * *

Updated on 1/28/14

With American Hustle, writer/director David O. Russell cements his stature as one of the best filmmakers working today. Many critics and fans have commented on Hustle being Russell's third perfect film in a row, after Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter (which I still haven't seen -- I know, shame on me). But it was The Fighter that started this momentum for Russell as a director whose films started winning big awards:

  • The Fighter was nominated for seven awards, with Christian Bale winning for Best Actor and Melissa Leo for Best Supporting Actress.
  • Silver Linings Playbook received eight nominations, earning a Best Supporting Actress award for Jennifer Lawrence. (It was also Russell's first movie to break $100 million at the box office.)
  • And now, American Hustle continues Russell's streak with 10 Academy Award Nominations. I think it will most likely win a few of these awards, and has a good shot at Best Picture.

In many ways, it seems like Russell came out of nowhere, but he's actually been quietly directing films for 20 years. In Hollywood, he developed a reputation as a talented director whose methods often created chaos on the set. During production of Three Kings, Russell got into a fist fight with George Clooney. Lily Tomlin got into a expletive filled shouting match during the filming of I Heart Huckabees. And James Caan walked away from production of Nailed. An article in the New York Times chronicled some of the craziness during production of I Heart Huckabees.

And somehow, Russell emerged from this period of creative chaos. For me, Silver Linings Playbook was the film that showed that Russell was a kind of modern-day Woody Allen, who has an ability to tell serious, sometimes dark stories that also manage to be uplifting. Silver Linings Playbook's exploration of mental illness in its many forms really surprised me, as did the performances by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.


American Hustle reunites many of the players from Russell's past three films, including Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Robert De Niro. The newcomer here is Jeremy Renner. Every actor except Renner and De Niro got Oscar nods, and they all deserve the accolades they're getting.


But even with all the individual accomplishments, the real power of the film is created by the ensemble. Russell creates a kind of Woody Allen meets Martin Scorsese ensemble that gains more and more momentum as the film progresses. Everyone is amazing, but Amy Adams was perhaps the most surprising. Maybe it's because I haven't seen her in a role like this before. My money's on her for the Oscar.


From a pure filmmaking perspective, I was enthralled by how effortless Russell shows the conflicts on the screen. As the title suggests, American Hustle is about people who are trying to lie and cheat their way to a better life:

  • In the very first scene, we see Christian Bale as a bald, overweight man, who spends an inordinate amount of time creating the "look" of his hair. He glues down a wig on the top of his head, and then combs over the rest, finishing with a flourish of hairspray to keep everything in place. He transforms into the man he wants others to see, but it's an illusion.
  • Amy Adams acquires a British accent to become more believable to the people she and Bale are trying to scam. And there's a point where she continues to speak in that accent, even when you think she should have dropped it.
  • Bradley Cooper isn't content to follow the rules at the FBI. The kind of glory he's seeking requires a kind of madness and hubris. (In a nice parallel to Bale's character, Cooper uses rollers to curl his straight hair.)
  • Jennifer Lawrence's character is following a template for her life that others have set -- and it's this template that causes great unhappiness to her and everyone around her.
  • Jeremy Renner (sporting an amazing pompadour)  is a politician who believes corruption is OK if it helps his constituents. 


This is the kind of film that stays with you, because the characters are all going through heart-wrenching internal and external battles. This is what great drama looks like, and I can't wait to see Russell's next film.



posted by AndyO @ 10:14 PM   0 comments

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Holiday action movie pick: Die Hard (1988)

Die Hard is one of my favorite action films of all time. As most people know by now, Die Hard involves a group of terrorists who crash an office Christmas party on Christmas Eve. McClane is there to visit his wife (who moved to LA with the kids-- but left him behind). Fortunately for everyone at the party, he's not in the main area when the terrorists attack. He escapes onto another floor before he's discovered. It doesn't take McClane, a smart detective, long to singled-handedly start taking out the terrorists.

The Screenplay

Like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard uses the Shane Black style of action movie writing (Die Hard was written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza). Like their colleague Mr. Black, these writers create a script that is immensely readable. Here's how it begins:


Christmas tinsel on the light poles. We ARE LOOKING east past Inglewood INTO the orange grid of L.A. at night when suddenly we TILT UP TO CATCH the huge belly of a landing 747 -- the noise is deafening.


The usual moment just after landing when you let out that sigh of relief that you've made it in one piece. As the plane TAXIS to its gate, they stir, gather personal belongings.


mid-thirties, good-looking, athletic and tired from his trip. He sits by the window. His relief on landing is subtle, but we NOTICE.


Details and characters

I've always thought what makes Die Hard better than the typical action movie are its details and characters. For example, McClane is told by a fellow passenger on the airplane:

SALESMAN (smiling) Ya wanna know the secret of successful air travel? After you get where you're going, ya take off your shoes and socks. Then ya walk around on the rug barefoot and make fists with your toes.

Later, McClane takes his advice:


TILT UP FROM McClane's BARE FEET. He is clenching and unclenching his toes.

MCCLANE (surprised, actually feeling tension decline) Son-of-a-bitch. It works.

But this is also the reason he doesn't have his shoes on when the terrorists attack. Later in the film, this becomes his Achilles heel.

And then there's Alan Rickman's portrayal of the uber-terrorist Hans Gruber. He's charming, erudite, brilliant, and also just happens to be a psychopath. The scene when he meets McClane face to face for the first time is a classic reversal:



A moment. And then Hans turns, looks up. The transformation in his expression and bearing are mind-boggling. Hands shaking, eyes filled with fear, he swallows, looks up at McClane and in a perfect American accent says:

HANS --ohGodplease -- don't kill me -- don't kill me -- you're one of them, I know it --

MCCLANE (thrown, unsure) Whoa, whoa, easy man. I won't hurt you. Who are you? What are you looking for?

The supporting characters that inhabit this film seem genuine and three-dimensional, but also become larger than life (like what you see in Tarantino movies now):

- Powell - The policeman whom McClane befriends on the radio and helps him out. He also loves Twinkies, as we see in this exchange:

MCCLANE Yeah, just trying to handle some year old twinkies. Yucck. What do they put in these things?

POWELL (reciting) 'Sugar, enriched flour, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, polysorbate 60 and yellow dye #5.' 

- Argyle - The limo driver who gets stuck in the building after the terrorists take over, but also ends up helping McClane.

- Ellis - A fast-talking VP of sales who has his eye on McClane's wife and thinks he can negotiate with Hans:

ELLIS Hey, business is business. You use a gun, I use a fountain pen, what's the difference? To put it in my terms, you're here on a hostile takeover and you grab us for some greenmail but you didn't expect a poison pill was gonna be running around the building. (smiling) Hans, baby...I'm your white knight.

- The two FBI agents who arrive to take over the operation from the police. One is black, the other white, and they're both named "Johnson." Here's how they introduce themselves:

BIG JOHNSON (showing badge) I'm Special Agent Johnson of the FBI. This is Agent Johnson...no relation.

- Richard Thornburg, the TV journalist in search of his big story (and willing to do anything to get it).

Reflecting on Bruce Willis' career

Die Hard is what propelled Bruce Willis into the top level of 80s action stars, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. But what I find interesting is how Willis has been able to continue his career some 25 years after Die Hard. He still falls back on his "action movie" persona (16 Blocks, The Expendables, GI Joe: Retaliation, and even more Die Hard films), but he also takes on films that are unique -- or at least more risky (Pulp Fiction, Red, Looper, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Fifth Element).

Many actors -- including his 80s action star colleagues -- haven't been able to escape typecasting (let alone a front-page tabloid marriage and divorce). Whether you like him or not, you have to give him props for carving out a long career and helping to make a lot of great films.

Bonus: AndyO's favorite Bruce Willis films

My list of favorite Bruce Willis films:

  1. Die Hard
  2. Pulp Fiction
  3. The Sixth Sense
  4. Looper
  5. Die Hard 2
  6. Surrogates
  7. Red
  8. Look Who's Talking
  9. The Fifth Element
  10. Twelve Monkeys
  11. The Last Boy Scout
  12. Die Hard With a Vengeance
  13. Beavis and Butthead Do America (voice, animated)
  14. Ocean's Twelve (as himself)
  15. Over the Hedge (voice, animated)
  16. Live Free or Die Hard
  17. The Siege

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Holiday action movie pick: Lethal Weapon (1987)

The first time they meet in a police station, Murtaugh (Danny Glover) tries to tackle Riggs (Mel Gibson) after he spots him pulling out his gun. After Riggs takes Murtaugh to the ground with some jujitsu moves, another detective tells Murtaugh he's just met his new partner. And thus begins the first of four Lethal Weapon films.


Today Lethal Weapon might seem like a cliche, but when it first came out it was something we hadn't quite seen before. Part of it had to do with Gibson's manic performance, but there was definitely something unique in the screenplay, written by Shane Black. This screenplay would go on to inspire thousands of other screenwriters and wanna-be screenwriters (myself included). While a screenplay isn't the finished film, it does provide a blueprint for everyone who makes the film. And Black made screenplay writing look like fun. Here's how it begins (in one of the drafts, anyway):


lies spread out beneath us in all its splendor, like a bargain basement Promised Land.

CAMERA SOARS, DIPS, WINDS its way SLOWLY DOWN, DOWN, bringing us IN OVER the city as we:


TITLES END, as we --

SPIRAL DOWN TOWARD a lush, high-rise apartment complex. The moon reflected in glass.

The magic of Lethal Weapon lies in how these opposite characters relate to each other: Murtaugh is an older, stable family man on the edge of retirement; Riggs is young, alone, and suicidal. Riggs' mental state becomes apparent in a few early scenes, including when he busts some drug dealers who are working at a Christmas tree lot, and later when he tries to talk a man off a ledge, but then ends up jumping with him. It's both funny and sad -- but mostly funny.

Then there's the scene with the two partners on the police firing range. Murtaugh blasts a perfect shot and thinks he's just schooled his younger partner. But then Riggs goes to work, emptying his clip. When he brings the target back, we see that he's shot out a "Smiley Face." Murtaugh is both amazed and frightened.

This tension, that Riggs is both suicidal but also a "lethal weapon," drives the movie forward. He can kill people with his bare hands or even shoot at targets miles away. He's like a one-man army. In one scene, after the villain Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey) escapes in a car, Riggs takes off after him on foot. We realize this is the kind of guy we want on our side.

The film is directed by Richard Donner, who somehow balances all the elements, including the music (which included performances by Eric Clapton [Riggs' guitar theme] and David Sanborn [Murtaugh's saxophone theme]). 

In the end, this isn't really a holiday film. But it's the perfect backdrop to amplify Riggs' depression, bringing him closer to the edge, and making him more dangerous for the bad guys.

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posted by AndyO @ 7:47 PM   0 comments

Friday, December 20, 2013

Holiday movie pick: Fred Claus (2007)

I've always been a fan of Vince Vaughn's -- ever since I saw him in Swingers. He seems to have the gift to create empathy for the characters he plays -- even the ones who aren't so nice. In Fred Claus, he plays Fred -- Santa Claus's brother. Early in life -- before his little brother became known as St. Nick -- Fred grew tired of trying to compete with his little brother's kindness and goodness. "Why can't you be more like your little brother?" Fred's parents ask him. Most of us can understand Fred's bitterness after that kind of upbringing.


So Fred becomes a bad kid, who, as an adult, becomes a fast-talking con-artist, who repos TVs and other items from people who can't pay for them anymore (and then stashes them in his own apartment). When Fred calls Nicholas to bail him out of jail, he's not content with the $5000 his brother is willing to pay; he tells him he actually needs $50,000. This sets up the second act, where Nicholas tells him he has to come to the North Pole to get the money.

What I like about this setup is we've never seen it before -- at least in a holiday movie. Paul Giamatti, with his neurotic, almost pained portrayal of Santa, helps us understand how difficult it would be to carry the world on your shoulders. He's also contending with an efficiency expert played by Kevin Spacey (who's name is Clyde Northcutt) who wants to take down the North Pole.

But probably my favorite scene takes place at "Siblings Anonymous," where we see brothers of famous people commiserating together, including Roger Clinton (Bill's half-brother) and Stephen Baldwin (Alec's brother).

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posted by AndyO @ 7:27 PM   0 comments

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Frozen (2013) - In Theaters

Rating - 4 out of 4 stars

Frozen marries the best of Disney's past musicals with state-of-the-art animation and storytelling. And even though it's aimed squarely at children, I enjoyed it as much as anything I've seen recently.


Frozen was executive produced by John Lasseter, the wizard of Pixar Studios. But ever since Disney purchased Pixar in 2006, he's been the chief creative officer of both Pixar and Disney. During this time (and even before Pixar was acquired), Lasseter was the executive producer of these non-Pixar Disney films (the scores in parenthesis are the average Metacritic score):

  • Wreck-It Ralph (2012) (72/100)
  • Winnie the Pooh (2011) (74/1000
  • Tangled (2010) (71/100)
  • The Princess and the Frog (2009) (73/100)
  • Ponyo (English) (2008) (86/100)
  • Meet the Robinsons (2007) (61/100)
  • Howl's Moving Castle (2004) (80/100)
  • Spirited Away (English) (2001) (94/100)

Anyone who thinks getting these kinds of consistent scores is easy should take a look at some other studios' releases. (Check out this Metacritic article that compares Pixar and Dreamworks animation studios.) But what's really telling to me are these two things:

  • Lasseter released several Hayao Miyazaki films with Disney (Ponyo, Howl's Moving Castle, and Spirited Away). The Miyazaki films are not typical Disney fare, but they are realized on a level that very few animation films ever achieve. Clearly, Lasseter knows talent when he sees it.
  • Of the original films he helped produce, many of them are musicals, starting with The Princess and the Frog

Which brings us to Frozen. The story is about two princess sisters, Elsa (who has magical powers to create ice and snow), and Anna. After almost killing Anna during a late-night snowfest in the castle, Elsa is shuttered away in her room. Years pass. The two sisters never talk and are lonely. But she can't stay hidden forever. When Princess Anna's powers are revealed at her coronation, locking her kingdom in an eternal winter, she leaves to avoid hurting anyone else. But Anna pursues her, helped by many great characters, including a reindeer and snowman.


Like many of the Disney films from recent past, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, Frozen is a musical. And like those films, the songs are great (and mostly move the story forward), the characters are memorable, the story engaging. Like 1989's The Little Mermaid, Frozen is based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale (this time The Ice Queen). The design and animation are superb and, at times, breathtaking. (I didn't see it in 3D, but something tells me this would be a good one.) And the dialog, like a lot of Pixar films, is smart and witty. It even creeps into the songs in unusual ways -- but never through crude jokes aimed above kids' heads.


I really didn't expect to like this film as much as I did, and I think it's a testament to John Lasseter's leadership with Disney animation. He clearly understands how to bridge the old Disney magic with a modern approach.

Here's a great review from Rotoscopers that has more info about the movie.

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posted by AndyO @ 8:00 AM   0 comments

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Holiday movie pick: A Christmas Story (1983)

This film is one that people either love or hate. My wife doesn't really like it. I like it, but it always makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I think this is because the film somehow digs at childhood memories that are often painful to relive -- even in a fictional setting.

The main plot centers around Ralphie, who's trying to convince everyone that he needs a Red Ryder B.B. gun for Christmas. But there's so much more going on. For example: Ralphie and his brother have to contend with bullies on their walk home from school (one of the pains of childhood for many kids).


Then there are the comedic scenes -- all seen through the lens of memory in the 1940s. Some of my favorites include Ralphie's parents, played by Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillion. The one about the lamp shaped as a woman's leg is priceless.

But I also liked McGavin's battles with the pack of roving wild dogs who eventually ruin Thanksgiving dinner.

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posted by AndyO @ 8:00 AM   0 comments

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Holiday movie pick: Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins is a Christmas horror comedy film (if there is such a thing). After getting a Mogwai as a Christmas present, Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) breaks all the rules that came delivered with his new pet: No water or food after midnight. Well, it turns out after you break those rules, that cute little Mogwai (named Gizmo) breeds evil green creatures that practically destroy the town of Kingston Falls. 

Directed by creature feature aficionado Joe Dante and produced by Steven Spielberg, Gremlins is one of the more unique holiday films. And even though it wasn't directed by Spielberg, Gremlins has the stamp of his 80s "innocent" style that hasn't aged well. (Other films directed or produced by Spielberg that also have this style include E.T., Twilight Zone: The Movie, The Goonies, Young Sherlock Holmes, Back to the Future, and Innerspace.) Still, when do we get to see green monsters in a Christmas movie?

One interesting connection (at least from a holiday movie perspective) is Gremlins was written by Chris Columbus, who would go on to direct Home Alone.  

Best scene: There are many in this film, but I like when the Gremlins sing Christmas carols and then launch Mrs. Deagle on her elevator chair.

And I've always thought the scene where Phoebe Cates tells the story about probably the worst Christmas of all time, was especially macabre:

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posted by AndyO @ 8:31 AM   0 comments