I just don’t have much to say about American Hustle. Not for lack of trying, but the film hasn’t given me much to think about since I saw it a week ago. It’s a perfectly okay movie built on a mildly interesting true story that has a few things to say about the follies of greed, and includes a pair of knockout performances. But more than all that, and first, it’s a film that reminds you how utterly flaky Academy voters can be.
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The plot of Help! is absurd and absurdly simple: An eastern cult can’t perform its sacrificial rite without a gaudy ring that, as it turns out, was sent to Ringo and is now stuck on his finger. Led by a screw-eyed Swami named Clang (Leo McKern), the cult hunts the Beatles and the ring around the globe — whenever possible, tomfoolery abounds. It’s a story made for a 20-minute cartoon, yet Director Richard Lester, in his second outing with the boys, somehow found a way to stretch it into a full 92-minute feature.
Steve McQueen probably hated Django Unchained. Where Tarantino’s Django Unchained toyed with history’s facts to make the horrors of slavery a plot point, 12 Years a Slave is a film about a torture perpetrated on millions of black men, women and children. McQueen’s third feature isn’t interested in the audience’s comfort or catharsis, and tells a story full of vicious, hard violence and fractured souls. McQueen brings you as close as he possibly can to the horrors of antebellum slavery, not shying from bloody truths, and ultimately reminds us that far, far too often, history’s mad men and their ugly horrors go unpunished and unredressed.
Let me get this out of the way: Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony is not a well-made documentary. The assembly is a mess, the storytelling is irritatingly self-indulgent, and the film is cut with a series of animated, expository songs that look and sound a bit too much like commercials for the overpriced merch available on the documentary’s website. This is almost surely thanks to actor and Bronies chief architect John de Lancie, previously known best for his turn as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s villainous Q, and now a Brony A-lister thanks to his voicing of Discord, a My Little Pony baddie. De Lancie is omnipresent in the film as a kind of Brony guide and grand seigneur, and, despite his priggishness, is adored by the Bronies — a testament to how eager these fans are to share their joy with pretty much anybody. Still, get past the washed-up egomaniac and the lousy filmmaking, and it turns out there’s something to the Bronies.
Superficially, Her is striking because it’s entirely plausible. From the Apple-tinted future tech to the subtle revisions to fashion to the utter solitude found in a crowd, the film has a great deal to say about the near future, and the world we’re in the process of creating. And yet, Her isn’t about the science fiction. It’s not about predicting the future or scaring us straight. It is, simply, a love story in a different time than ours, with a different set of rules and the same expectations. Had he wanted to, Writer/Director Spike Jonze could have explored the futurist angle — there’s ample evidence that he designed his world far past what was necessary for the story he’s telling — but that’s not where his interests as a storyteller lie. They lie with people, and the connections between people, and the unexplored places to which these connections can take us.
There are a lot of compelling ideas in Only God Forgives — not enough to make it a good film, but certainly enough to make it interesting. When you put it next to Drive, Only God Forgives becomes an opiated chapter in Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Machismo Fables, with Ryan Gosling’s maddeningly stoic anti-hero (known here as Julian; in Drive as simply Driver) at the center. As with his other films, Refn considers the power of violence, and like Drive he explores the lengths to which a man will go for a woman — even a hellish virago of a mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. In general, these subtexts seem relevant more for their cultural antiquity than their place in modern culture, and I suppose there’s something to be said for the tenacity of Refn’s thematic exploration, but the utter torpor found in so much of Only God Forgives makes its 89 minutes feel interminable. There’s a viciously sharp performance by Vithaya Pansringarm as the film’s chilling Chang, and certainly Refn’s films always deliver stylistically — this is the most beautifully shot film I’ve watched in months — but his lack of balance is quickly relegating him to a style-over-substance storyteller.
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This is what success looks like now: 24-hour cocaine use, stripper parades, helicopters on yachts, quaaludes quaaludes quaaludes, tiers of high-priced prostitutes, European families flying your millions in their carry-ons to stash in Swiss banks, and other general excesses. Or more accurately, these are the accoutrement of a successful person. And the mantra of success is simple: “I deserve everything and I go first.” Jordan Belfort (played with contagious glee by Leonardo DiCaprio) articulated this in his autobiographical The Wolf of Wall Street, and Martin Scorsese has verified it in his three-hour epic of the same name.
Is there anything more fundamental than the quest for companionship? How many choices in life have you made because they kept you closer to a person you loved? Having a partner is a beautiful thing, ultimately, but it can also be a hard, confusing, terrible thing, and that’s what Frances Ha is about most of the time; the hard stuff often borne in a partnership (or lack thereof) that, if you can bear it long enough, will raise you up and make you better.
Two weeks ago, three teens shot a 22-year-old man in the back and killed him. They said they did it because they were bored. One week ago, a pair of teens beat an 88-year-old war veteran to death for the money in his pockets, of which there was, presumably, not much. There are good people and there are bad people, and often age has little to do with where each of us falls on that spectrum. Yet there is something especially disturbing about a young person committing atrocities. It’s important to us that youth equate to innocence or naiveté, that young people stay young, and nothing evaporates innocence like taking a life. Harmony Korine understands this relationship our community has with its young people, and plays with it liberally in Spring Breakers.
“You’re a good man, Ellis.”
This approbation comes near the end of Jeff Nichols’ Mud, and serves as crucial validation for the film’s 14-year-old hero. Much of Mud finds Nichols exploring the lengths to which a boy will go to be treated as an equal by a man he respects. Through selfless labor and violence and love, Ellis tenaciously builds up the ground beneath him in a grasp for equal footing, and every last action rings of utter truth. Because Jeff Nichols understands that most of us are still boys, falling over ourselves to prove that we’re not.