American Hustle (2013) Review

On Friday I saw a Scorcesse double feature, but only one of the films was directed by Martin Scorcesse. The other, American Hustle, was directed by David O Russell, and boy oh boy does he want to be Scorcesse. It’s almost sad really, because maybe if he had taken a few more liberties with this movie, American Hustle could have been something truly great, not just pretty good.

American Hustle is the “true” story of a con man (Christian Bale), his mistress (Amy Adams) and their arrest by the FBI. Rather then go to jail for a long ass time they work with Special Agent Asshole (Bradley Cooper) to ensnare a few people in similar cons. Their first victim is a New Jersey Mayor (Jeremy Reiner) who take a “donation” from their fictional Sheik in order to build up Atlantic City. As their deals go on they realize that they can not only ensnare this mayor, but Congressmen and Mafia bosses too! The game is afoot Watson!

As I stated before, Russell really wants to be Scorcesse, using shots like Scorcesse, characters like Scorcesse, music like Scorcesse, and DeNiro like Scorcesse. Not a bad thing per say, but it’s really noticeable and gives a feeling of unoriginality to the movie that it really shouldn’t have. So while the directing style may be similar to Scorcesse, the story is actually more akin to Catch Me If You Can mixed with Oceans 11. That’s not a bad thing, in fact the movie is fairly well written, with plenty of emotional and intense scenes. The movie doesn’t really get going until about 30 minutes in, but it’s certainly not boring as the charisma of the actors keeps you engaged. What didn’t work for me, and this is something that bothers me about a lot of the twist-ending-con movies, is that the twist at the end isn’t preceded by any indicators whatsoever. It’s like reading a mystery book and the killer is a person we’ve never met before, meaning the audience couldn’t figure it out on their own. American Hustle‘s twist is out of nowhere and it feels like a trick, because you had no clue. It’s a fine line to walk and it’s more a pet peeve then a true criticism of the movie.

This is an Actor/Character driven movie and an effective one at that. The characters are all rather unique and by the end of the movie you’re quite attached to them. Bradley Cooper’s character in particular was rather interesting to watch as his arc led him down a darker and darker path, but not in the stereotypical way. Reiner was a joy to watch, as his mayor was honourable and corrupt all at the same time. Louis CK also has a small role as Cooper’s boss and his is great! It shows that his acting range is a little wider then just a fat comedian dad and I’m excited to see his future film projects. Bale, Adams, and Lawrence are all great of course, but the drama between them was a little eye-rollingly stupid at times and the end was a little too neatly wrapped up for my tastes.

Since this movie is up for some Oscars and that’s pretty much why I saw it I should probably address a few of the categories it’s up for. The production design is absolutely amazing and it definitely should win. It truly feels like the 70s without missing a beat. Christian Bale is pretty good as the lead, but I don’t think he should win over Leo. Amy Adams certainly holds her own in this movie, and pulls off all the emotional twists and turns her character goes through. Jennifer Lawrence was believable in the role despite her age, but her performance was just kinda… meh. It didn’t strike me as particularly oscar worthy, even if it was really good. The editing… is meh for an oscar-nominated movie. There were a few continuity flaws, so hopefully there was a better movie, but I’m just being a prick now.

American Hustle has everything going for it. The budget, the actors, the director, the soundtrack, everything. However, unlike most great films, it fails to become more then the sum of its parts. It’s no Goodfellas, or The Godfather, or even The Sting. It’s a damn good movie, don’t get me wrong and I’ll say right now that everyone should go see it, but it fails to be anything more then just good. Let me emphasize that I’m not criticizing the movie for not being perfect, I’m just stating my reasons for why it shouldn’t win Best Picture.

Enough negativity! American Hustle is a fun movie! It doesn’t take itself too serious and while it is a emotional drama, it’s also a very funny movie. The witty writing and the charismatic acting makes it hard not to enjoy the fun adventure these characters are on. The whole movie has this energy to it thats hard to ignore, and it almost makes up for a lot of the flaws in it… almost. You may not have a best picture winner awaiting you, but you certainly have a film worth the outrageous ticket prices. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Devil Times Five (1974) Review

I love the LA times quote, I'm pretty sure it's for a different movie
Five extremely disturbed, sociopathic children escape from their psychiatric transport and are taken in unwittingly by a group of adult villagers on winter vacation.

The Devil Times Five or Peopletoys as it was originally called is a low budget, very indy horror film from 1974. It stars… no one. Is directed by… no one special… and has a legacy of… being a low budget indy horror film from 1974. And sucking. Ah yes, The Devil Times Five does indeed suck, mostly due to its amateur filmmaking. Now I’ve dealt with amateur film makers before, in my video review of The Legend of Sorrow Creek, but I wasn’t as fair to it as I should have been. It was the first directing and writing job of Michael Penning, so some tolerance should be given. I was planning on giving the same fairness to this film’s director, Sean MacGregor, but then I discovered that this was his third movie as a director, and that he had done both writing and acting for quite a few years before this. And yet he some how managed to make a movie that makes Chain Letter look like fucking Citizen Kane!

The technicals in this film are a nightmare, with too many visual and audio mistakes and continuity slip-ups to count. Just the very camerawork itself screams basic film school, with different takes noticeable to a snob like me. While the average viewer won’t notice that, what they will notice is the almost constant snow on the lens whenever they’re outside! The special effects are… nonexistent, with the exception of a rather good fire stunt. The rest of the kills are fairly bland, most of which being impossibly intelligent, but unique traps. To compensate for his $0 budget, MacGregor uses different camera “tricks” to little effect. Such as putting the footage in slow motion, in order to create a “surreal effect” that will somehow convince us that the beating the victim is getting is real. However, it clearly wasn’t shot for slow motion so we get a choppy mess for wayyyy too long as the kids spend minutes wailing on this guy, who’s identity is only properly explained after he’s dead. Another kill uses a freeze frame and slow motion to get away with an axe to the back of the head, almost making you think it’s the end of a 80s sitcom. The audio work is not terrible, but it’s quality overall is fairly low, leading to you having an even harder time understanding what’s going on.

The acting is, big shocker, a fucking nightmare. The adults either over or underact, all the while being generally unlikeable. Shoutout goes out to the actor who did a good job as Lenny from Of Mice and Men, I mean the housekeeper. The kids do an occasionally good job coming across as psychotic, but the majority of the time they are just obnoxious little shits. Speaking of the child actors… they do a lot of fairly traumatizing stuff for kids that these days a filmmaker might not be able to get away with. They see someone on fire, they swear, one of them cross dresses, they hold guns, the list goes on. I know it’s a weird, but if you are dumb enough to watch this film after reading this review, imagine doing that stuff as a kid and you’ll see what I mean.

The writing is probably the second worst part of this movie, because it wouldn’t be as bad as it was if the technicals could back it up. The pacing of this movie is all over the place, with scenes going incredibly slowly or just being completely superfluous. This is usually almost immediately compensated by a huge time skip, leaving us confused as to what just happened and it takes a good while to catch up. That’s something you’ll do a lot of with this movie, catch up. It’s hard to follow, as the nonsensical dialogue teams up with the aforementioned issues to confuse the crap out of you if you stop paying attention for a few seconds. The beginning was the worst example of this. I must have missed some dialogue in the first scene, because the lack of basic exposition on the characters and their relationships, coupled with the dialogue and awkward scene transitions, had me confused for a half an hour. Even if you do pay attention to the story, there’s not much to actually derive from it. It’s a fairly simple movie, perpetuated by genius children and outright stupid adults to keep the plot going. Actually, if this movie were any complex, odds are I wouldn’t have been able to follow it at all, so maybe simplicity is for the best.

The Devil Times Five is… a movie. It’s not that much fun to watch, even for its weird premise. It’s a dull movie at its best and a confusing movie at its worst. It may or may not be nunsploitation, but it definitely is childsploitation. The credits of this movie say it all. Instead of “The End” it says “The Beginning” displaying its stupid and cheesy nature and the extremely short crew list show how lacking this movie is, not just in budget, but in skillful filmmaking. If you really want to waste your time on a cheesy low budget 70s horror film, then do yourself a favor. Skip this waste of time and go see Death Bed: The Bed That Eats instead. You may or may not thank me later. You know, if you think Death Bed sounds like an interesting watch, or you’ve seen it, then you might as well give this a watch since you’re prolly the kinda person that would like this kind of movie and appreciate it’s offbeat crappy horror style.

Wake Wood (2010) Review

The parents of a girl who was killed by a savage dog are granted the opportunity to spend three days with their deceased daughter

Sometimes the biggest detractor from a movie is not its flaws, but its lack of strengths. Wake Wood falls victim to this in the biggest of ways. This is a clearly low-budget production and it’s well made considering that, however the lackluster nature of pretty much everything in this movie prevents it from rising above what people would normally expect from a low budget horror movie.

The acting is fair, even if we don’t care much for the characters. A stand out performance is Wormtail as the leader of the Wakewood cult as well as the little girl, who while stoic, is a good child actor. The movie manages to create enough atmosphere and use odd sets and angles to occasionally get you to feel a touch uncomfortable. The effects are okay, even if there’s not much there. Again, everything technical in this movie is, to an extent, fair.

Where this movie fails is its complete failure to do… anything… to make you interested or scared. The film’s borrowed plot from Pet Semetary is barely accentuated, just replacing an unexplained force with a cult using an unexplained force. The girl has a ticking clock to evil from the beginning, so when the movie’s transition into such isn’t subtle we know exactly what’s going on. There are so many caveats to the rules that defeating this zombie should be easy, so when it comes time to climax we’re faced with a solution we say from a mile away. There are lots of little inconsistencies that perforate this movie, leading me to give even less of a shit about what’s going on. The film does have, to its credit, a lot of strangeness. Little details and twists throughout this movie that do make it unique, but not enough to be special (if that makes any sense). The strange-ass ending should be noted as it’s a wonderful homage to the 70s british horror movies this film is trying to emulate.

Overall Wake Wood is worth your time if a) You’re a fan of 70s british horror b) You’re okay with low budget movies and c) You’ve never seen Pet Semetary. Other then that I’m afraid that this movie just doesn’t due enough to justify the time, even if it’s not an all out bad movie.

The Conjuring (2013) review

“The Conjuring” is the 2013 supernatural horror movie from director James Wan and is based on the real-life investigation by Ed and Lorraine Warren. The film is yet another haunted house movie, but its 70s style, strong leads and brilliant directing put this film far above its contemporaries. For those who don’t know the film’s fairly basic plot, here it is. A family of seven move into an old farmhouse and soon are faced with sinister paranormal phenomena. They call in Ed and Lorraine Warren to investigate and (along with their assistant and a skeptical cop) the two unveil the goings-on of the house even at the risk of their own family.

The characters of the Ed and Lorraine stand out in the movie compared to the rest of the fairly bland characters. This is mostly due to the authenticity of the performances in portraying the real-life people, but also because they are unique characters in modern day horror movies. You can connect to them the same way you can the family, because they are people too. However they are above the average victim in that they know what’s going on and they can deal with it. It’s a fine line between hero and average joe that I’ve never really seen in a horror film before. Are they perfect? Of course not. The conflict between them over Lorraine’s safety feels quite forced after a while, but it doesn’t detract from the movie at all and frankly, I would be happy to see these characters again in a sequel.

The rest of the characters are all fairly bland, but have enough characteristics to them that they don’t feel like cardboard cutouts. Rather it feels like we just don’t know them well enough. The performances all around are fair, but nothing outstanding. The kids do a good job for being child actors, with the exception of a few spotty scenes. The father under-acts, often times feeling a touch too stoic and the mother is actually fairly good, especially when comparing the two sides of her performance. The cop and the assistant make good comic relief, but also serve their purpose and don’t feel shoved in (a mistake many other movies make).

In fact, everything in this movie, at least on an initial viewing, seems to have a purpose. The exposition is given fairly well, told through a brilliant opening sequence as well as college lectures. College lectures are a commonplace tool for exposition, foreshadowing, or laying the groundwork for symbolism, but the difference here is that it doesn’t feel forced when watching it. The lectures play into the plot, as well as give insight into character backgrounds and this helps them fit seamlessly into the movie. The character interactions and paranormal trickery all play on older ones to either push the plot along or provide a sense of dread. For example, a line of dialogue from the middle of the movie may provide a crucial plot point later in the movie, and a ghostly sighting in a bedroom will give you inordinate amounts of dread the next time the characters wander in there. In this way the movie feels almost too neat, like it tricked you into thinking it was developing characters when really it was just servicing the plot. But of course, you are so in awe of how all the pieces fit together that you forgive this misgiving.

Even with the strong writing and acting, what really makes this movie something special is the directing. Wan’s work almost seems to have been building up to this point, with him learning different techniques and mastering different styles of storytelling. The ‘70s flair of this movie is hard to ignore, with camera angles, zooms and lighting all screaming “Halloween” and “The Legend of Hell House.” This combined with the very accurate costuming and production design creates a vibe that is only a few steps behind Ti West’s ‘70s homage “House of the devil.” This film differs, however, from “House of the Devil in that its scares don’t come from just the third act.

“The Conjuring” is scary throughout, using the classic technique of ramping up the fear at night and giving relief during the day, all the while escalating at a very brisk pace towards its climax. The majority of the scares do come from jump scares, but it does not use scary music and loud noises to get you to jump. It instead uses the aforementioned dread and tension to get you all tense, then snaps that suspense in the most unexpected ways. It should be noted that this movie avoids the obvious jump scares almost constantly (with a few exceptions) and that is partly why it’s so effective. We expect Action A to happen, but instead it’s glazed over, building the tension more as our minds race to where the scare could come from. Sometimes the scares don’t come at all, like in the opening sequence where there’s not a single jump scare and instead it concentrates on setting the tone of creepiness for of the movie. When the scares do happen they are, above all else, clever. The games the spirits, and by default Wan, play are sometimes disturbingly pleasing. It’s that same joy that someone can derive from a bad guy’s clever plot, or a unique Saw trap. The doll named Annabelle and the innocent game of Hide and Clap are bound to become internet memes thanks to this movie.

This movie, above all else defies expectations. People who hate horror movies are going to hate this movie no matter what, but people who think jump scares are cheap or are just tired of paranormal clichés should walk into this movie with an open mind, because you may be surprised in more ways then one. Above all else I must emphasize that this movie should not be seen by children. This is a movie that even if you don’t find scary, contains all the elements to scar a child. It’s a blend of realism, familiarity, and bat-shit insanity and it’s sure to please for decades to come and it most certainly is going in my collection. James Wan’s career has been building up to this movie, and I feel that he still has a little ways to go. So if studios can keep a hands-off approach with his projects, we are sure to get some movies that every horror fan will be proud to call scary.