Thursday, January 23, 2014

American Hustle (2013)

Few directors, even great ones, enjoy the kind of prolific creative resurgence that David O’Russell is currently enjoying.  After a six year hiatus, he has bounced back and how! In four years, he has made three films. All three have received critical acclaim. Two have received Oscars, and American Hustle, his third and most recent feature seems destined to go down the same path. Each film is very different from the other and yet very similar, in that they depend greatly on individual characters and performances than on the plot itself.

American Hustle is set in the 70s, in the background of disco, swag, garish styling and the resurgence of Atlantic City. Irving Rosenfield (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams) are in love. They are also the Bonnie & Clyde of New York, swindling people for money on the promise of imaginary arranging for loans. This goes on until Richie DiMaso (Cooper) catches them in the act (so to speak) and cuts a deal. They must help him nab other white collar criminals in exchange for escaping prison time. What starts out as a game to catch smaller fish, soon lands them on the doorstep of the mayor of New Jersey (Renner) who is seeking to revive the economy by legalising gambling and getting investment to rebuild Atlantic City. Soon Congressmen, senators and the mob get involved and the situation threatens to get out of control. Add to this mix Irving’s unpredictable, depressed wife Roselyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and you have a powder keg ready to go up in flames, taking everyone with it.

The film transports you in the sweaty, grimy, seedy, greedy world of 1970s New York. The production design, costumes, music and cinematography is spot on. The story is good and the script sharp. However, they aren’t particularly exciting. Apart from one or two surprises, the writing is fairly straightforward and suffers on account of its predictability. Much like Silver Linings Playbook, it isn’t the writing that sets the film apart from the rest of its ilk. It is O’Russell’s confident direction and his uncanny ability to infuse humour in unexpected places and extract wonderful performances from his cast.

As an ensemble, you don’t get better performances than here. All five of the principle cast members are given meaty characters and they waste no time in sinking in their teeth. Bale shines throughout, grotesque pot belly and all. Cooper shows some serious acting chops as the eager, ambitious, power tripping cop, who is under the illusion of having everything under control. Renner is great as the mayor who sees corruption as a means to an end.

Despite all this, the men are outshone by the women here. Amy Adams has been convincing in many roles in her career. However, one wouldn’t consider her as an obvious choice to play a manipulative, sexy seductress. Yet here, she is exactly that and excellent at it. When the veneer of sensuality cracks, she brings out the vulnerability and survival instincts of Sydney rather brilliantly. At the same time, there is Jennifer Lawrence, who is undoubtedly the most talented actor of her generation and fast on her to entering the annals of time as one of the greats. She displays dexterity that is well beyond her years and a brazen attitude that is just devastatingly sexy.

Overall, this is a good film made great fun by some fantastic performances. Expect a master class in acting but not a masterpiece and you’ll have a great evening out.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Before Midnight (2013)

We first met Jesse and Celine on a train to Vienna when they were in their early twenties. They were young, beautiful and vibrant, eager to leap without thinking and take a chance on each other. In the process, we received arguably the best modern cinematic romance. As they left with the promise of seeing each other in six months, we thought to ourselves, will they? Won't they?

In 2003, we caught up with them once more, this time in Paris. They were older, wiser, more jaded and cynical. Yet, over the course of 90 minutes, they reminded each other of how things were, enticed each other by ruminating on how things could have been and reconnected giving us one of the best surprise endings ever.

Now, in 2013, we see them in their forties. The romanticism that brief encounters inspired is long gone. These are now two people who have chosen to grow old together, committed and invested, with children and other encumbrances. The question for them and us is, can a love story sustain its charm over two plus decades? I dont want to speak for them, but for us, Before Midnight answers that question with a resounding yes.

There are some films that have no reason to be made. They have neither the financial success to warrant a sequel nor a story arc that needs completing. Before Sunset and Before Midnight are both excellent examples of these. While the first film still left us with a burning question worth answering, the second completed that void, leaving us to happily think of ever afters. It is, therefore, tempting to dismiss the third chapter as an unnecessary one. Yet, as if just the pleasure of watching Jesse and Celine talk about any and all things wasn't enough, Before Midnight reminds us that life goes on, people evolve and happily ever afters in fiction as in life, are false assumptions.

Before Midnight is as different from Sunset as Sunset was from Sunrise. Hawke, Delpy and Linklater return to act, co-write and direct the sequel. Unlike the first two films, there is no plot or story here. There is nothing at stake here. The structure is minimal, simply to allow for conversations between Jesse, Celine and their friends. In fact, the entire film consists of four long scenes involving conversations in a car, over lunch, in the evening walking around a Greek island and in the night in a hotel room. In an age when films are more about flash bang explosions and contrived romances, the film is a love letter to the forgotten art of fine conversation. The long, lingering takes provide an intimacy and sense of realism that is rare in cinema today.

There are a few delightful quirks here and there. There are meditations on the ideas of love, ageing and long term commitment. Unlike the peachy happily ever afters we would love to imagine, there are regrets, frustrations and deep seated issues that make you think, can love really bear the baggage of all that over several years?

Ultimately, Before Midnight is another wonderful encounter with Jesse and Celine. Hawke and Delpy inhabit these characters like second skin. They may have the privilege of growing old with and as Jesse and Celine. But we have the greater privilege of watching them do so. It'll probably take a decade, but I sure could use another encounter.

Rating: 5/5

12 Years A Slave (2013)

There is a moment in the film when a slave dies of exhaustion. His body is buried. The slaves congregate around the grave and start singing a farewell song. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who is kidnapped, sold into slavery and forced to take on the name of Platt and life as a plantation worker, stands with the slaves but does not join in song. As the song goes on, we see him crumble and give in, slowly at first and then with full fervour. For a brief moment, it is as if the transformation is complete. Northup has died to give way to Platt.

12 Years A Slave is a difficult film to watch. McQueen's uncompromising vision demands some serious emotional heavy lifting from its viewers. Even for someone like me, who doesn't flinch at the sight of violence easily, the lashes, brutalities and scarring do take their toll. More than anything, it is the helplessness of Solomon, Eliza and Patsie that linger with you for a long time after. At the end, there were sobs and sniffles echoing throughout the cinema hall, and the sources included grown men and women alike. Without a doubt though, the effort is not only worth it, but almost essential.

It is difficult not to see some parallels between McQueen's 12 Years A Slave and Polanski's The Pianist or for that matter, the fate of Jews in concentration camps and that of African Americans in slavery. Both Northup and Spillman are forced to forgo their lives in light of rapidly changing circumstances. Spillman gives up his music. Northup gives up his identity. Any mention of true identity would mean certain death. The moment when Northup is finally able to breathe a word of it is little different from the moment when Spillman pretends to play the piano in his apartment, reminding him of who he is.

12 Years A Slave is stunningly filmed, effortlessly contrasting the undeniable natural beauty of the South with the grotesque treatment of slaves. In scenes of torture, the camera shifts focus from the torturer to the tortured, from the tyrant master to his cruel wife, capturing the most complete experience of the moment possible.

It also features an excellent ensemble, with particularly noteworthy performances from Michael Fassbender and Paul Dano. However, in the end, the film rests on the broad shoulders of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who delivers a masterful, layered performance as Solomon. Through his silence, he conveys the agony, anguish and determination of his character exceedingly well. Just as Solomon becomes Platt, Ejiofor transforms into Solomon and delivers an arresting, unforgettable performance. Lupita Nyong'o is unbelievable as Patsy. It is difficult to believe that this is her first film. In pivotal moments, she outshines the likes of Fassbender and even Ejiofor and leaves an indelible impact.

Ultimately, 12 Years A Slave is not an easy watch, but it is an important one, shedding light in dark places of American history. Masterfully crafted and acted, it is an exquisite work of art that reminds us what human beings are capable of, at their best and worst.

Rating: 4/5