Monday, 27 January 2014

Filmdog Weekly #3 (American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave)

Hello Filmdoggers! Put on your animal masks because it's time for us to go Filmdogging once more. In this week's edition we take in 70's caper American Hustle before drinking a few too many glasses of poisoned wine and waking up shackled to Chiwetel Ejiofor in the gripping 12 Years a Slave...

American Hustle (O2 Greenwich)
As the credits rolled on the enjoyable Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell's 2012 film about troubled Pennsylvanians, I turned off the TV, took out my phone and began to check cinema listings. A swift car ride to the O2 in Greenwich and 20 minutes later I settled down to watch American Hustle, a story of small-time confidence artists who are caught in an FBI sting and blackmailed into taking down some corrupt politicians.

Christian Bale is by far the best thing in this. As usual he's excellent, playing Irving Rosenfeld, a middle aged 'Del Boy' type, always looking to make a buck even if it means prospering at the expense of others. He has a strong sense a family, ingrained in him by his tough upbringing and despite his shortfalls as a human being you sense he is still firmly aware of which direction his moral compass is pointing. He ends up in a situation way beyond his comfort zone after he and his partner/lover Sydney Potter (Amy Adams) are busted in a banking scam. They are given 2 options; work for the FBI or go to jail. He's in way above his head and you sense the stress levels even without the obvious reminder of him constantly popping heart pills once things get out of control. 

Jennifer Lawrence is extremely watchable as Irving's long-suffering wife Rosalyn. She's fragile, neglected and desperate to get her man's attention. It's only a minor role so she gets a lot less screen time than the rest of the main cast but she steals every scenes she's in.

Amy Adams won the Best Actress Awards at this year's Golden Globe's for her turn as Sydney (including her alter ego for much of the film as British toff Lady Elizabeth Greensly) but I'll be very surprised if she walks away with an Oscar in the same category on 2nd March. I get the impression her GG was as much for her accent as it was for any significant acting she does in the film but even Lady Elizabeth's 'mummy-I-want-a-pony' brogue is wobblier than Gwyneth Paltrow's lip during an Oscar speech.

Bradley Cooper lands an unfortunate role as dick-headed Richie DiMaso. Unlikeable and numb-of-skull, he dives headfirst into situations he's neither thought through nor has the ability to handle. Maybe it's because I only watched him an hour earlier as hot-headed Pat in Silver Linings Playbook but I think he's just a bit too likable to play the guy you have no empathy for. I'm not saying he must stick to nice-guy roles; his turn as morally ambiguous Avery in The Place Beyond The Pines shows he's got plenty of strings to his bow, but Richie DiMaso is devoid of any redeeming qualities and it's just a shame to see such a good actor playing it almost cartoonish in places.

I was very disappointed with American Hustle. What could have been a great caper crawls slowly to an unsatisfying conclusion. It's a stellar cast but the story has too many holes and not enough intrigue. Maybe in the hands of Martin Scorsese we could have got another Goodfellas but alas we've ended up with a poor cousin to The Sting. Bale comes away with a lot of credit but if Amy Adams wins the Oscar for Best Actress then perhaps that will have been the biggest con of all.

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12 Years a Slave (O2 Greenwich)
The hype has been huge for this film. I'd read several articles and reviews over the past 6 months touting this as a dead cert for Best Picture at the Oscars. Now it's finally released I'm very glad to report that it's a masterpiece.

The film is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American from New York. An accomplished violinist, Solomon is invited to play in Washington by a couple of entertainers. After finishing three weeks of shows his employers drug him and sell him into slavery. He wakes up shackled and unable to comprehend what's going on. He soon realises that any attempt to plead his liberty will not only fall on deaf ear but earn him a savage beating. We follow Solomon's plight as he's transported south to Louisiana and subjected to brutal evils of slavery. 

Solomon is passed through a number of 'masters', from the sympathetic Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the tyrannical Edwin Epps (the brilliant Michael Fassbender), a religious zealot , antagonised by his wife over his lust for young slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) and who's acts of drunken madness grow increasingly dangerous for his slaves.

It's beautifully shot by director Steve McQueen, regularly framing his scenes by shooting something beautiful against the abject misery of the subject matter. There is one particular scene, when Solomon is taken by a lynch mob and strung up to a tree in which we're left hanging (literally) on a single continuous shot for minutes. It's one of the most uncomfortable things I've ever seen in a film. It's wonderfully juxtaposed against what's going on in the background; other slaves quietly going about their work, accustomed to the horrific sight of another person hanging from a tree, children playing and laughing, all the while Solomon is desperately hanging, barely making the ground with his tiptoes. 

Wowzers this was great. Brutal and gut-wrenching at times but a masterful piece of cinema. Chiwetel Ejiofor is astonishing and the supporting cast are terrific, Michael Fassbender continuing to shine in anything he's in. I can't recommend this highly enough.

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