Reviewing the Movies of 2013, Part IV: American Hustle and Get a Horse!
This year's Oscars saw a very interesting phenomenon--David O. Russell directed his second consecutive film in as many years to be a runner-up for the Best Picture and Best Director races, and both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle also scored nods in ALL FOUR acting categories. The latter achievement is particularly notable as this had not happened since Warren Beatty's Reds, all the way back at the 1982 Oscars. What's more, Playbook and Hustle were only the 14th and 15th films EVER to score such an honor, and not since 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was followed the next year by BOTH Bonnie and Clyde and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? has it happened in consecutive years. It is also worth noting that Russell is the first director to helm two films that snagged nods in all four acting categories, and that Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (both also nominated in the previous year's sweep for Playbook) join a very select company of actors nominated more than once for such films; Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde and Reds), Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde and Network) and William Holden (Sunset Boulevard and Network) are the others so honored. Unfortunately, despite all this, and despite ten nominations overall, American Hustle joined another equally notable but less desirable group; it is the first film nominated in all four acting categories since the very first film to be so honored, 1936's six-time nominee My Man Godfrey, to go home empty-handed Oscar night, and with four more nominations it was arguably an even bigger snub than Godfrey. Luckily, I only called it for one win, though that win was--somewhat inexplicably--for Best Picture. Anyway, there is a reason for all the hype and hooplah surrounding American Hustle, and that reason is that the film is really actually quite good. The direction, costumes, music, makeup and hairstyles, production design, everything SCREAMS 1970s cinema, and indeed if one were totally ignorant of modern cinema and watched this movie with no background or explanation, one just might be convinced that the film came out not five years after 1976's Network did, and one would be forgiven for thinking that. Indeed I still think this film got snubbed by not even being NOMINATED in the Best Makeup and Hairstyling category; I almost called a win for Hustle in the Production Design category, before correctly deciding that the glitz and glamour of The Great Gatsby had Oscar written all over it. As to the much-ballyhooed acting; it is slightly over-the-top, but given the nature of the production it fits perfectly. Amy Adams does a fine job with her role, though it doesn't hold a candle to Cate Blanchett's winning performance in Blue Jasmine or Judi Dench's heartbreaking portrayal of Philomena Lee; Adams was far better in her snubbed performance in her, and frankly herself may have been part of the reason for Emma Thompson's snub for Saving Mr. Banks. Christian Bale was great as con-man Irving Rosenfeld, and would have fully deserved his nomination in a weaker year; as it was, Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) and Joaquin Phoenix (her) got snubbed, and Bale arguably passed over Robert Redford (All Is Lost) and Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), though I'd argue he deserved his nod more than Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street). As to the consecutive nominees... Jennifer Lawrence steals nearly every scene she's in as Irving's boozy, manipulative wife Rosalyn, and fully deserves recognition--on second viewing I've decided that her role is arguably substantial enough to warrant a Supporting Actress role, though her screentime is still quite limited. And Bradley Cooper is great as a slightly unhinged federal agent desperate to make a name for himself, though whether he deserved the nod is more problematic; as naive nice-guy politician Carmine Polito, Jeremy Renner went toe-to-toe with Cooper for skill, and I am genuinely shocked that he didn't get more praise--I personally cannot decide who should have gotten the nod, but there have been four films with five acting nominations, and maybe this should have joined that group (better than the somewhat undeserved nod to Jonah Hill for The Wolf of Wall Street). Also, though I was on the fence about it the first time around, after a second viewing I have to give Oscar-level props to Louis C.K. as Cooper's put-upon boss--he should have gotten more praise as well. Finally, Robert DeNiro's brief, uncredited cameo is one of the year's better arguments for Best Bit Player/ Cameo--Male (incidentally, this film is an EXCELLENT argument for the category Best Use of Music in Film).
Anyway, on with the show. Basically, American Hustle is a HIGHLY fictionalized account of the late 1970s/ early 1980s ABSCAM sting operation by the FBI, with the aid of convicted conman Melvin Weinberg, which ended up in the convictions of at least twelve officials, including six U.S. Congressmen, one U.S. Senator, and the Mayor of Camden, NJ, for charges such as bribery and conspiracy. However, it bears keeping in mind the movie's opening caption: "Some of this actually happened." The film walks a fine line between comedy and drama, occasionally rising to great heights of hilarity or dipping into pretty serious melodrama; there is also a nice caper feel present to much of the film, particularly the moment late in the film when the guy you really want to see given a comeuppance is given a particularly delicious one. The film does hit some uneasy notes; Polito is shown here to be a true "man of the people" and "family man," and you hate to see him played so maliciously, but at least he gets off lighter than might have been the case (and it is worth noting that it seems that apparently the real historical figure, Angelo Errichetti, was a far more active participant in these events). Anyway, after a brief fast-forward to a notable event from later in the film, the movie really kicks off with some self-narrated backstory by the two main characters, Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Adams); they are both scrappy con-artists who reinvented themselves to go into business as fraudulent investors called London Associates. Tagged by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), they are forced to use their not-inconsiderable skills to find other cons for the Feds. A comment by one such con, Carl Elway (Shea Whigham), gets DiMaso interested in using the efforts of Camden, New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito to rebuild Atlantic City as a platform for exposing political corruption; a VERY truculent and reluctant Rosenfeld and Prosser play along, with Rosenfeld in particular befriending Polito and becoming increasingly ambivalent about DiMaso's ambitions. I fear that saying much more would spoil much of the fun; and the movie IS fun, despite its often serious tone. It also holds up nicely on second viewing, with certain details taking on a different light once you know how the story's going to play out. Though this is not an earth-shattering film, it remains one of my top films of 2013, behind only her and The Wind Rises. Be aware that there is a lot of language, and a few scenes get rather steamy; overall, though, the film should be most enjoyable for those who don't mind such things.
Get a Horse!
Last night, I had the tremendous pleasure to finally see, in theatres, two of my favorite 2013 releases, Frozen and American Hustle (what a combo that was). To my surprise and delight, I also got to see an Oscar-nominated short film as well; playing before Frozen was an interesting release from the Walt Disney Company called Get a Horse! I had actually not seen any of this year's short film nominees (and managed somehow to call all three of them incorrectly, as opposed to only two gaffes in the feature categories); it was a nice treat to get at least one knocked out. I have to say, though, that they did TOO GOOD a job making this short a throwback to the old days of Disney. To explain: if you go back and look at old cartoons from Disney and Warner Bros., they were VIOLENT; the abuses heaped on Peg-Leg Pete in this film (however warranted by his clear intentions against Minnie Mouse) were so harsh that I was surprised that Disney was still marketing such cartoons to children. Not that I am personally offended by such things; I am merely surprised, as well as offended that Disney has such INCREDIBLY inconsistent standards on these things. Though the fact that The Lone Ranger BOMBED at theatres, Disney's parting of the ways with producer Jerry Bruckheimer was already bound to happen, since they have been distancing themselves from his brand of action-adventure films for a couple years now (despite how lucrative the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has been); strangely, they SEEM to have fully embraced the Marvel Comics brand of action/ adventure, which is no more "inappropriate" to the "Disney Image" than Bruckheimer. The worst offense is when they will keep things locked up in the vault to protect their image; Disney owns American distribution rights to all Studio Ghibli films, and they are notorious money-milkers, and yet despite the fact that they could sell off the the rights to distribute Isao Takahata's brilliant classic Omoide Poro Poro (Only Yesterday) and the lovely TV special Umi ga Kikoeru (Ocean Waves) and make a tidy little profit, they have instead decided to keep them locked in the vault, where they will do nothing more than piss off American anime fans. I am also disappointed that they've essentially disowned Song of the South; though the film is supposedly one of the more racist films ever released, it is a notable piece of history for both Disney and cinema as a whole, and I once again feel that Disney is cheating film students everywhere with their lack of testicular fortitude. And then they turn around and tag the family-friendly Frozen with an incredibly violent, sexually suggestive short film. Go figure. Anyway, enough ranting about Disney's shortcomings; let's look at what they're doing right. Get a Horse! IS an incredibly creative little short, in which the filmmakers took great pains to recreate the "Steamboat Willy"--era shorts that helped put Walt Disney on the map in the first place. They even spliced together archival voice recordings of old Walt to create Mickey Mouse's dialog, and similarly used original recordings of Marcellite Garner (Minnie) and Billy Bletcher (Pete), though the latter two also had new dialog recorded (by Russi Taylor and Will Ryan, respectively). The film starts off in the visual style of the old shorts, in grainy black-and-white with exaggerated movements and flimsy artistic control, until Pete eventually ejects Mickey from the film; once breaking through the canvas, Mickey finds himself to be in both color and three dimensions, on a stage that is so animated--from this point on the projection screen becomes an active part of the film, as Mickey and various other characters attempt to rescue Minnie while Pete attempts to keep them out of the film. It really is a tremendously creative little short, and very interesting; I'd say it did deserve its Oscar nomination, I just wish Disney would be more honest with themselves and their audiences when it comes to what they consider to be family-appropriate, and whether they really care.
American Hustle: 9/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Picture, Director (David O. Russell), Actor (Christian Bale), Actress (Amy Adams), Supporting Actor (Bradley Cooper), Supporting Actor (Jeremy Renner), Supporting Actor (Louis C.K.), Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Original Screenplay (Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell), Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup, Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Sound Effects Editing; nominated for Best Picture, Director (David O. Russell), Actor (Christian Bale), Actress (Amy Adams), Supporting Actor (Bradley Cooper), Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Original Screenplay (Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell), Production Design, Costume Design and Film Editing--no wins.
Get a Horse!: 8/10 Oscar-worthy for Best Short Film, Animated; nominated for Best Short Film, Animated--no wins.
All in all, these two films (a feature and a short) were both surprisingly good at evoking a certain time and place, due to a remarkable attention to period detail. They both also are interesting and entertaining. If you can take the sex and language of Hustle, and don't mind violent cartoons like Horse!, you should find these both well worth your while. As per usual, I welcome your own comments and opinions. Happy viewing!