Manuscripts Don’t Burn

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DIR/WRI: Mohammad Rasoulof

Provocative, brave and compelling, Manuscripts Don’t Burn is an engrossing drama as remarkable for its critique of Iranian government oppression as its production despite it.

 

Director Mohammad Rasoulof shot the film without official permission. It’s not the first time. The Iranian authorities previously banned him from making films for 20 years and restricted his movements outside the country because he filmed without a permit. The cast and crew remain anonymous because of the film’s risky political material. Rasoulof deserves praise for his courageous defiance in telling a story inspired by true events.

 

His narrative follows a day in the life of Khosrow and Morteza, two low-level operatives carrying out thuggish tasks for unsavoury officials. The title quotes The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, who burnt a draft of his masterpiece to free his mind from the troubles visited upon him by the literary bureaucracy in Soviet Russia. In Rasoulof’s film, the Iranian authorities wish to suppress the publication of a book that details a failed government plot to eliminate 22 dissident writers and intellectuals in a staged bus crash. They engage in torture, kidnapping and murder. The subject matter seems like the stuff of a heavy-handed action thriller, but Rasoulof’s restrained direction makes for a slow-moving but gripping and fully-rounded drama.

 

Khosrow, a working-class man, anxiously keeps in touch with his wife throughout the day. She has brought their son to hospital. He needs the money from his nefarious work to support his family and make the connections needed to get ahead and get his son the attention he requires. Khosrow fears God’s retribution visited on his family. Morteza assures Khosrow that their work complies with sharia, perverting the state religion of the Islamic Republic.

 

Rasoulof exposes how oppression corrupts people in different ways. A former dissident writer now works for the state and ruthlessly seeks to advance his career. He has no qualms about killing his former friends, authors and intellectuals who struggle under constant surveillance, questioning the purpose and significance of their efforts.

 

Bleak wintry scenes set in snowy landscapes outside Tehran complement Rasoulof’s chilling condemnation of Iranian censorship while demonstrating his visual flair. He frequently positions his camera outside the rooms in which the action takes place, heightening the sense of surveillance and almost making the audience complicit in what happens.

 

An angry but assured film, Manuscripts Don’t Burn featured at the Toronto International Film Festival and the Un Certain Regard section at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, winning the FIPRESCI prize. His previous film, Goodbye, premiered at the French resort in 2011 in the same section, and won him a prize for direction. Departing from the oblique allegorical style of his earlier films, he makes an important and impressive attack on state corruption, violence and censorship in contemporary Iran.

John Moran

 

125 minutes

Manuscripts Don’t Burn is released 12th September 2014

 

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Two Days, One Night

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DIR/WRI: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne • PRO: Denis Freyd • DOP: Alain Marcoen  ED: Marie-Hélène Dozo DES: Igor Gabriel   CAST: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Pili Groyne

Marion Cotillard strives to keep working in an impressive drama from the Dardenne brothers.

A ringing telephone wakes Sandra. She receives news that she’s fired from her job at a local factory. She has been recovering from illness while trying to maintain her marriage and look after her children. Sandra can’t afford to lose her job.

Her friend Juliette calls her to let her know that the foreman threatened her co-workers and that management faced a decision between firing Sandra or not paying out their employees’ bonuses. 14 out of 16 colleagues voted to keep their bonus. Juliette convinces Sandra to fight for her job. Mr Dumont, their boss, allows for a new vote on Monday. Sandra spends the weekend approaching her colleagues to enlist their support.

At a time when austerity bites hard, unemployment remains high and employment uncertain, the Dardenne brothers present one woman’s struggle to keep her job. The scenario seems repetitive as Sandra rehearses the same arguments with each colleague in turn, facing similar responses and moving on to the next, but this adds to the film’s universality. Each worker has a family, needs a job to pay the bills or intends to use the extra to make life a little more comfortable. But each situation is different. Some have children, some don’t, some are married, some have just moved in together; some are older, some are younger; some have worked longer, some are just starting out. Sandra’s dilemma forces them to make choices: Yvon’s son violently disagrees with his father, while Anne thanks Sandra for enabling her finally to make a decision for herself and take a stand against her abusive boyfriend.

Two Days, One Night is yet another humanist drama from the Belgian Dardennes filmed in their typical naturalist style. Realism serves a socially conscious purpose, addressing issues that affect working-class people, focusing on the emotional experiences connected with the anxiety of losing one’s job and how that horrible uncertainty affects our relationships with our colleagues, friends, family members and ourselves.

Marion Cotillard’s appearance as Sandra marks a departure from the typically lesser-known non-professional casts the Dardenne brothers usually employ. Cotillard gives the film broader commercial appeal. She makes Sandra’s dilemma all the more urgent. Her tired, careworn face beautifully conveys Sandra’s anxiety, but it’s not a scenery-chomping star turn. The Dardennes frequently shoot Cotillard from behind or in profile so that we feel the weight of the world pressing down on Cotillard’s slim frame. Subtle, such as a smile momentarily lighting up her face when chatting to her daughter on the phone, Cotillard’s performance as a vulnerable woman finding an inner strength is superb work.

Cleverly conceived and excellently executed, Two Days, One Night featured in competition in Cannes last May and stands out as one of the year’s seriously good films.

John Moran

95 mins

Two Days, One Night is released on 22nd August 2014

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Goltzius and the Pelican Company

Goltzius-the-Pelican-Company

DIR/WRI: Peter Greenaway  PRO: Kees Kasander  DOP: Reinier van Brummelen  ED: Elmer Leupen   DES: Ben Zuydwijk  CAST: F. Murray Abraham, Giulio Berruti, Vincent Riotta, Halina Reijn

Hendrik Goltzius, a leading engraver of the Dutch baroque era, visits a margrave’s court in Colmar (now in France). He hopes to secure funding for a printing press and a commission for a collection of illustrated biblical tales. He strikes a deal in which his cohort of actors, writers and artists, the Pelican Company, in return for money, will re-enact six sexually charged sins in tableaux vivants for the margrave’s pleasure.

Though critics still hold in high regard efforts such as The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), the films of Peter Greenaway are cinematic Marmite.  Viewers tend to either love or hate them. He mixes esoteric subjects with a style that employs multilayered imagery and emphasises artificiality, making his work “inaccessible” or “difficult”, i.e. box office poison. Goltzius and the Pelican Company proves to be no exception.

The film bears the hallmarks of Greenaway’s style: ornate period settings and music, dense, carefully composed imagery, and floating text. Ben Zuydwijk’s impressive production design juxtaposes different influences, drawing on Dutch painting and more contemporary Ikea-style designs.Greenaway’s typical anachronisms also appear. A huge empty industrial warehouse serves as the setting. Goltzius recounts his story directly to the audience, telling of events earlier in his life. The tableaux vivants thus become sets within a giant set, stories within a story, complementing the film’s general theatricality.

Goltzius’ company re-enacts six biblical stories to explore a theme: Adam and Eve (voyeurism); Lot and his daughters (incest); David and Bathsheba (adultery); Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (seduction of the innocent); Samson and Delilah (prostitution); and the New Testament tale of John the Baptist and Salome, with its particularly gruesome ending (necrophilia). The margrave’s court becomes the scene of debates about morality, freedom of speech and the influence of the new humanism, while his courtiers and Goltzius’ associates become involved in sexual liaisons. How will the margrave deal with his own lust and desires?

F Murray Abraham, the Oscar-winning star of Amadeus and more recently featuring in Inside Llewyn DavisThe Grand Budapest Hotel and TV’s Homeland, plays the Margrave of Alsace. The rest of the European cast speaks English with thick accents, mostly Dutch, but this benefits the film in two ways. First, it gives an authenticity to a period film where American accents can jar (à laAmadeus). Second, the accents emphasise the film’s artificiality, adding to the film’s staginess. It also leads to some humorous effects, such as Ramsey Nasr, as Goltzius, pronouncing “Genesis” so that it sounds like “anuses”.

Though Goltzius and the Pelican Company marks Greenaway’s second in a series of films concerning Dutch masters (Nightwatching, 2007, centred on Rembrandt), it might more interestingly belong to the strand of art house cinema exploring sexual explicitness. “Every visual technology, sooner or later, gets into bed with lechery,” remarks Goltzius, and Greenaway’s film comments on the ways ancient cultures, both biblical and baroque, used tales of immorality and indecent imagery to elaborate moral debates, tracing a tradition perhaps continued in recent films such as NymphomaniacBlue Is the Warmest Colour and Interior. Leather Bar.

John Moran

18
128 mins

Goltzius and the Pelican Company is released 11th July 2014

 

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The Fault in Our Stars

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John Moran takes another look at The Fault in Our Stars.

A beautiful tearjerker, The Fault in Our Stars benefits greatly from Shailene Woodley’s compelling performance. She plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenage girl suffering from cancer who meets the charming Augustus “Gus” Waters (Ansel Elgort) at a support group.  They fall in love, and the inevitable occurs.

 

“The only thing that bites worse than having cancer is having a kid with cancer.” Hazel dislikes the sugar-coating of so-called “cancer genre” stories and assures us hers will be truthful. She refuses to see depression as a side effect of cancer, as the books, pamphlets and doctors say it is; instead, she sees it as a side effect of dying, and she’s determined to make the most of living. She refuses to wallow in self-pity, and displays a remarkably mature strength of spirit.

 

Shailene Woodley, nominated for a Golden Globe for her supporting role in The Descendants, makes the most of an opportunity to take centre stage. Her character’s illness necessitates the wearing of plastic oxygen tubes almost in every scene, but she displays exceptional talent in an unselfconscious performance that gives Hazel such credibility as a character.

 

Ansel Elgort’s work matches Woodley’s, ably carrying off Gus’s cockiness without making him seem arrogant. The conviction and chemistry in their playing, as well as their good looks, gives the young couple an adorable cuteness that adds to the film’s likeability.

 

(500) Days of Summer permitted writers Scott Neustadter and Michael G Weber to play with the generic conventions of romantic comedy. Adapting a bestselling novel by John Green, they bring to The Fault in Our Stars a similar awareness to the “cancer genre”, but without being overly self-reflexive. Their script emphasises emotion.  “Pain demands to be felt”, a phrase from Hazel’s favourite book, An Imperial Affliction, becomes a refrain. Aware of the story’s predictable elements, the writers know that its viewers are probably more interested in sympathizing and getting out the tissues to cry.

 

Their concern with pushing the right emotional buttons marks a drawback. Any scenes of anger or lashing out are channelled into comedy through Augustus’s friend Isaac (Nat Wolff), whose illness leaves him blind and whose girlfriend breaks up with him. Augustus encourages him to smash some of his basketball trophies, but neither Hazel nor Augusts engage in such an outburst. Death of a Superhero (2011), a recent Irish film in which Andy Serkis counselled Thomas Brodie-Sangster, took as its theme outrage at the cancer’s cutting short young lives. Both Hazel and Augustus remain almost stoic to a fault.

 

Still, the acting carries it. Woodley and Elgort make their sympathetic characters most appealable, while Laura Dern, as Hazel’s mother, and Willem Dafoe, as the cantankerous writer of Hazel’s favourite, have impressive, if slight, turns.

 

The Fault in Our Stars will please its intended audience. Bring tissues.

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Cinema Review: The Sea

Ciarán Hinds in a still from The Sea

DIR: Stephen Brown  • WRI: John Banville  PRO: David Collins, Michael Robinson, Luc Roeg • DOP: John Conroy • ED: Stephen O’Connell • MUS: Andrew Hewitt • DES: Derek Wallace • CAST: Bonnie Wright, Ciarán Hinds, Natascha McElhone, Rufus Sewell

Max Morden, grieving the loss of his wife Anna, returns to an Irish seaside village where he spent summers as a child. He struggles to finish a book about the painter Pierre Bonnard, but the village provokes memories of the summer when he met the Grace family, the children Myles and Chloe, their parents Connie and Carlo, and Rose, the children’s young governess. Anna’s slow death from cancer continues to haunt Max.

 

John Banville adapts his 2005 Man Booker prizewinning novel. Some of the book’s more literate pleasures, such as Banville’s playful punning and concern with the meaning of words, gives the dialogue a pretentious feel, Anna’s musings on the word “patient” and the recurrence of “stranded” being two obvious examples. While the screen provides an excellent medium for flitting back and forth through time, Banville’s adaptation fails to capture the uncertainty and unreliability of Max’s meditations that pervade the book. The filmmakers try to capture something like this with characters speaking their lines off-screen while their on-screen mouths don’t move, presumably reflecting that it’s Max’s memory we’re seeing and hearing. It’s a challenging task to bring such fiction to the screen; this adaptation has lost the structural complexity of its source but remains faithful to its emotional core.

 

A notable cast brings Banville’s fascinating characters to life. Ciarán Hinds, with his craggy face, impresses as the dilettante, worn by his experiences and troubled by his memories. Charlotte Rampling gives Miss Vavasour appropriate mysteriousness, while Sinéad Cusack ably takes some of the more memorable lines as the dying Anna. Rufus Swell’s swaggering turn as Carlo Grace brings an enjoyable roguery, enlivening the film’s grim mood. Unfortunately, the younger cast lacks experience and conviction to give meaning to the subtext of their scenes.

 

The title, of course, means there are frequent shots to the beautiful briny, and water recurs as a motif, as in Anna’s bath and bleak rain on a window. DOP John Conroy’s lighting patterns give Max’s childhood memories a warmer glow than the dark blue and grey hues of scenes set in the present. The camera moves frequently when static shots or long takes might have given the viewer time and space to meditate and interpret such Max’s memories, as we might do when trying to assimilate Max’s ruminations in the book.

 

At one point, Max chides his daughter for being of the generation who believe that “everything’s explained, everything’s accounted for”. References to Pierre Bonnard, the painter, make more sense if you know that his later works reflected his desolation following the death of his wife. The character Blunden has an uncertain past. He says he’s retired from the army but he have been active in Belfast. Anna’s past relationship with Serge troubles Max. The young Rose’s relationship with Connie Grace plays out on the sidelines in much the same way as many different possibilities and strands running through the film emerge and recede, just like water washing up on the seashore. It’s difficult to make a success out of the ephemeral in a medium that makes things visible, but director Stephen Brown, in his feature-length debut, makes an adequate, if not entirely successful, attempt.

John Moran

12A (See IFCO for details)
86 mins

The Sea is released on 18th April 2014

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mS3o0Rq9Zk8

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Cinema Review: Labor Day

DIR/WRI: Jason Reitman  • PRO: Helen Estabrook. Lianne Halfon, Jason Reitman, Russell Smith, Nicole C. Taylor • DOP: Eric Steelberg • ED: Dana E. Glauberman • DES: Steve Saklad • CAST: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Tobey Maguire, Brooke Smith

With Labor Day, Jason Reitman writes and directs an adaptation of a novel by Joyce Maynard, continuing his shift from comedies to more serious fare. It’s a labour of love, but not entirely successful.

 

In 1987, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), convicted for murder, escapes prison and shacks up with Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffin). Fugitive Frank may be just the father figure that Henry needs. His manly presence may also help Adele recover from her long depression.

 

Adele has become a broken woman through the absence of her husband Gerald (Clark Gregg), the father of her son. Her hands shake, and she relies too much on her young Henry, who starts a coupon book as he plays her “husband for a day”. Adele explains that “there is another kind of hunger, a hunger for human touch, desire”. Clearly, Henry cannot provide that.

 

Frank’s arrival presents an opportunity to fill the void. Though he’s a convicted killer on the run, he maintains that he didn’t intend to hurt anyone. He ties Adele up, but it’s only for appearance. Brolin, who dominates the film, is a menacing presence in his early scenes, but it turns out he just wants a family too. He starts taking on the chores not done in a man’s absence: repairing the car and the furnace, fixing that squeaky door, cleaning gutters and changing tyres. He sees that the guy selling firewood has taken advantage of Adele, leaving her short. He teaches Henry as he goes about this work and trains him in batting for baseball. It becomes clear that Frank should satisfy Adele’s hunger. He has come to save her.

 

Labor Day feels like it should be a thriller, but it descends into a dull romance with conservative conceptions of gender roles. It features an elaborate sequence in which the newly-formed family bakes a peach tart. As they put the pastry on the top of the filling, Frank asks Adele to help him to “put a roof on this house”, an unsubtle metaphor.

 

Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman (director of Ghostbusters), made his mark with the witty Thank You for Smoking before making an even bigger impression with a series of tart comedy/dramas, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult. Labor Day is a beautifully crafted film, nicely shot, with Rolfe Kent’s atmospheric score giving the film an edge that complement’s Brolin’s work.

 

But Reitman maintains Henry’s first-person narration from Maynard’s novel, with Tobey Maguire providing Henry’s adult voice, and he develops Frank’s back-story with wordless flashbacks. Adele later recounts her history to Frank, but Reitman’s structure diffuses his focus across three main characters, and it takes so long for Adele’s voice to come through that Henry and Frank dominate, and Adele’s character lacks development. Winslet has little to do, and when Adele has her chance to make more of an impression, her character becomes even more defined by how motherhood contributes to female identity.

 

It could have added up to a nicely judged psychosexual drama, but Labor Day finishes pregnant with possibility and fails to deliver.

 

John Moran

12A (See IFCO for details)
110 mins

Labor Day is released on 21st March 2014

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Cinema Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

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Dir/Wri: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen  • Pro: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Terence Winter • DOP: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen  ED: Thelma Schoonmaker • DES: Jess Gonchor • CAST: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund

The Coen brothers are undoubtedly among contemporary cinema’s master storytellers, and Inside Llewyn Davis joins the ranks of their best work.

Set in the folk scene of New York in the early 1960s, their story focuses on Llewyn Davis, a musician. The death of his partner, Mike Timlin, leaves him to pursue a solo career, but it’s not easy to make a living and keep one’s artistic integrity. So, Llewyn trudges through wintry New York, looking for a place to keep his stuff, rest his head, and get some money. He even takes care of a cat.

Joel Coen admits that the film doesn’t really have a plot. The Coens take their simple premise and imbue it with the usual pleasures of their impressive oeuvre: great characters, brilliant dialogue, stylish shooting and good music.

Inside Llewyn Davis rests on the acclaimed filmmaking duo’s skills as writers. Their clever and frequent use of repetition in their writing makes even an elevator attendant  — “I have to run the elevators” —  a memorable character. They consider every speaking part capable of offering some pleasure, and each of their films benefits from an array of unique characters.

Here, these include John Goodman playing talkative jazz musician Roland Turner, who ambles about with two canes, and whose ramblings conceal a rather menacing character. Jerry Greyson plays Mel Novikoff, who struggles to manage Legacy, a record label. Max Casella plays Pappi Corsicato, who runs the Gasoline Café, where Llewyn performs. He’s not sure about folk music’s appeal, but he’s happy to take sexual favours from female musicians in return for arranging performances at the café.

Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan play Jim and Jean, an act that performs at Pappi’s place, and they also help out their friend Llewyn. Timberlake provides one of the film’s highlights with his rendition of the ridiculously catchy “Please Mr Kennedy”. Jean’s abrasive attitude to Llewyn stems from their complicated history together. This conflict really drives the film before Llewyn leaves New York for Chicago.

Oscar Isaacs, as Llewyn Davis, is on-screen for almost the full length of the film. It’s a difficult role, as Llewyn remains aloof, cut off from his friends, and difficult to get on with. He takes his music seriously and wants others to take him seriously as a musician. On paper, Llewyn’s character doesn’t seem appealable, but Isaacs makes him likeable. It’s a great performance, matched by the excellent supporting cast.

The album cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in which Don Hunstein photographed Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend, clinging to Dylan as they walk through New York’s wintry West Village, inspired the film’s distinctive look. DOP Bruno Delbonnel employs a colour palette consisting mostly of a range of greys, emphasising the bleak atmosphere in which Llewyn lives.

T-Bone Burnett scored a major hit in assembling bluegrass musicians for O Brother, Where Art Thou? Here, Burnett and the Coen brothers turn to the American folk revival. The film strips the music of its associations with left-wing politics. The songs sound wonderful, but their lyrical content is questionable. One wonders what the songs mean. “You might have heard it before. It’s not new and it never gets old and it’s a folk song,” says Llewyn. He sings well, he sings passionately, but, really, what is the point of depoliticized folk music? Dylan went electric, and folk music faded from pop culture.

Folk music provides an apt area for the Coen brothers to tell their story. Folk songs, as a medium, seem lost in 1960s New York. A rendition of “The Auld Triangle” by four men clad in Aran sweaters in the Gasoline Café highlights this. Their appearance is comic. Their apparel and their music are out of sync with the broader social changes hinted at in the film. Producer Bud Grossman (F Murray Abraham) “sees very little money” in what Llewyn has to offer as a musician.

What matters in folk music, it seems, is not so much the meaning of the lyrics and the origins of the songs, but the quality of the performance, the singing and the musicianship. In this way, folk music provides an apt analogy to the success of the Coen brothers, whose movies are frequently self-referential in setting out the import of the story they tell. They usually send up their stories as being just for the sake of telling an amusing story. The Big Lebowski features The Stranger telling a tale about the Dude. In Burn after Reading, the CIA are quite unsure what to take from the events reported to them. Inside Llewyn Davis features Ulysses, a cat that escapes from an apartment in which Llewyn stays. The cat’s reappearance links certain scenes and events, but one probably shouldn’t read too much into it.

Circular and serendipitous, Inside Llewyn Davis is a gentler, yet no less accomplished, addition to the Coen brothers’ body of work, which continues to evoke admiration.

John Moran

15A (See IFCO for details)
104  mins
Inside Llewyn Davis is released on 24th January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis – Official Website

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Cinema Review: American Hustle

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper

Dir: David O’Russell Wri: Eric Singer, David O. Russell Pro: Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon,Charles Roven, Richard Suckle  DOP: Linus Sandgren  ED: Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers DES: Judy Becker • MUS: Danny Elfman • CAST: Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper

American Hustle, David O Russell’s most entertaining film to date, joins cinema’s complement of classic con movies. It’s a tour de force that delivers on all levels.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams play two con artists who become embroiled in the attempts of FBI agent Bradley Cooper, in late 1970s post-Watergate America, to catch  bigger fish. A rollicking tale unfolds as Cooper sets his sights ever higher.

The pleasures are principally in the playing. Since Flirting with Disaster (1996), Russell has proved himself a master of ensemble movies. Here he brings together some of Hollywood’s hottest stars.

Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) won an Oscar in Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, and here, playing Bale’s wife, she somehow manages to steal the film from its glittering cast. She sizzles with sexiness and garners some of the film’s biggest laughs, while conveying a vulnerability and desperation that make her Rosalyn a most memorable character.

Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) takes on a less complex role than he had opposite Lawrence in Silver Linings, but is no less impressive for it. His fast-talking fed becomes increasingly obsessed with his elaborate project, and Cooper convinces.

Christian Bale lost much weight in his Oscar-winning turn in Russell’s The Fighter.  In American Hustle, his balding grifter sports a beer belly and ’70s beard and moustache. His comb-over provides the film’s opening gags, while his fastidious grooming prefigures his character’s attention to detail in the art of the con, in making people believe what they want to believe.

Amy Adams, also Oscar-nominated for The Fighter, holds her own against Bale and Cooper, as her character’s affections appear to move from one to the other. Her character’s journey proves the most emotionally complex as she constantly hides her true feelings. It’s the kind of role that Adams excels in.

David O Russell may rank as one of the leading talents working in contemporary American cinema. American Hustle boasts an attractive cast and, as a caper, it should draw bigger audiences than his more serious recent efforts, tackling mental illness in Silver Linings Playbook and drug addiction in The Fighter. His approach resembles that of Alexander Payne, more literate than cinematic, relying on excellent writing and brilliant performances.

American Hustle features cracking dialogue, an enjoyable plot and great acting, but Russell’s handling is highly derivative. The film’s structure, with its use of voiceover narration and flashbacks, resembles that of GoodFellas, and Russell’s camerawork and jump cutting are also Scorsesian. Robert DeNiro has an effective cameo as Victor Tellegio, a mafioso, and even Jeremy Renner channels Joe Pesci’s hairstyle from GoodFellas. Francis Ford Coppola said his father used to have a good slogan, “Steal from the best,” and Russell appears to be following such advice in adopting a style that’s not his own.

Still, American Hustle ranks as one of the great con movies. The introduction – “some of this actually happened” – recalls the opening of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969):  “Not that it matters, but most of what follows is true.” Its director, George Roy Hill, later made The Sting (1973), which had a roguish charm that cheerily conned its audiences.  Martin Scorsese co-produced The Grifters (1990), with Anjelica Huston and John Cusack, in which Huston played an older female con artist who rethinks her life when her son suffers an injury in a small-scale scam. American Hustle successfully blends the darker elements of the later film with the eagerness to please and entertain that made the earlier film an Oscar success and a box office-smash, descriptions that Russell’s film may also steal.

American Hustle is a first class caper, but don’t let it con you into thinking that Russell has discovered his own original style.

John Moran

15A (See IFCO for details)

137  mins

American Hustle is released on 3rd January 2014

American Hustle – Official Website

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