American Hustle

The main cast of American Hustle

“Did you ever have to find a way to survive, and you knew your choices were bad—but you had to survive?”

Most films go heavy on plot and light on characters, but I have to admit, I’m a sucker for strong characters even when the plot is not stellar. American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, I Heart Huckabees) and featuring an amazing all-star cast including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, has amazing characters and performances, even if the plot meanders a bit more than it should. It’s also a ton of fun and a great slice of authentic 70s goodness, even though it came out in 2013. Every character, from the con man to his distant wife of convenience to his brilliant mistress and partner in crime to the overzealous FBI agent, has more vices than virtues, but they’re so complex and fleshed-out that I found myself mesmerized by the characters interacting on screen. If you want a complex and brilliant plot, go watch Chinatown; but if you want a fun film with great characters and style, look no further than American Hustle.

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Carol

Therese and Carol meet in Carol (2015)

“I always spend New Year’s alone. In crowds. I’m not alone this year.”

In film, lesbians have almost always gotten the short end of the stick. On the one hand, you have the stereotypical butch lesbians, who exist as jokes; on the other hand, you have the stereotypical sexy lesbians, which exist mainly for the entertainment of men. Very rarely do you see a lesbian character in film that’s neither a joke nor a set piece, and when you do see a smartly-written lesbian character, she’s usually a background character with little bearing on the plot. That’s why the 2015 film Carol is so important. Directed by one of the pioneers of the New Queer Cinema, Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) and starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, this is a smart romance between two women in the 1950s—a time that was not accepting of two women falling in love, but also a time that didn’t really accept the livelihood of women without men. The hardships they face are as big a part of the plot as the romance itself, and this is a touching but also heartbreaking tale of two women trying to find love.

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Her

Theodore installs Samantha in Her (2013)

“I’m becoming much more than they programmed. I’m excited!”

A man falls in love with his computer’s operating system. That’s the premise of Her, a film by Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation) starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson, and Amy Adams. I’ll admit, the premise sounded so dumb to me that I put off watching this film for a long time. Well, now that I’ve watched it, I’m sad that I did—this is a brilliant film that hits hard in the feelings department too. I don’t think it’s meant to be viewed literally, like most sci-fi films; instead, it’s more like a metaphor or allegory, commenting on what it means to be human and have human relationships by showing us the relationship that develops between a lonely human and this artificial intelligence. In fact, there are some noticeable holes in the science behind this film, so I’d be hesitant to call it a science fiction film at all. It’s a solid drama and romance, though, with some important philosophical things to say about human nature, human relationships, and, of course, love.

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Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth talk over drinks in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“It’s official, old buddy. I’m a has-been.”

Every filmmaker was inspired by something. Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) has stated that his favorite film is the 60s spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, by iconic director Sergio Leone, and Leone’s influence can be seen in many of Tarantino’s films. In the 60s, Leone’s new style of Italian Westerns were a departure from the classic American Westerns Tarantino had grown up with, and in many ways signaled a change in filmmaking overall, away from the wholesome images of the 50s and the first part of the 60s, getting ready for the gritty realism of the 70s. Tarantino’s newest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood touches on that while also being a love letter to the Hollywood from Tarantino’s formative years. Tarantino has said that this is his most personal film, and you can see the care who poured into this project. I personally loved the film and think it’s a great addition to his repertoire of work.

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Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette playfully tastes cake frosting off of her fingertip in the 2006 film

“Letting everyone down would be my greatest unhappiness.”

Marie Antoinette, the person, is someone I didn’t know a whole lot about, aside from the fact that France beheaded her and she allegedly told peasants to eat cake when they had no bread. Marie Antoinette, the 2006 film by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides), takes that vague historical figure and brings her to life, making her more human than a lot of fictional characters I see in film. Starring Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman, the humanity of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI really is the focus of this film. Antoinette especially is made relatable to viewers today, even if the film is not 100% historically accurate—a very conscious decision on Coppola’s part. This is a film that I didn’t fully appreciate until my second viewing, as the true depth of the film evaded me on my first viewing because I was expecting something very different. The film has some great things to say about gender norms and societal expectations that elevate this from a breezy biopic into intelligent social commentary that’s surprisingly relatable.

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Das Boot

Three German soldiers standing in front of a u-boat salute the camera

“They made us all train for this day. ‘To be fearless and proud and alone. To need no one, just sacrifice. All for the Fatherland.’ Oh God, all just empty words. It’s not the way they said it was, is it? I just want someone to be with. The only thing I feel is afraid.”

War movies often comment on the nature of war, showing how horrible it can be, but there are always things that undermine or prevent a truly negative comment, such as patriotism and exciting depictions of war. Even films that showed us true horrors, such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, also gave us heroes and camaraderie. Das Boot is different. For one, it’s a German movie about World War II—a time that Germany fully admits was a terrible time in their history, so there is no patriotism or need to give us heroes. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One, The Neverending Story) and starring an all-German cast, this film gives us horror on top of nihilism, with some characters even making negative comments on the propaganda the German government was pumping into young men’s heads at the time. This is also probably the most tense war film I’ve ever seen, which is saying a lot considering how hard-hitting other war films have been. But even in a genre full of powerful movies, Das Boot hits hard and shows us, perhaps more than any other film, that war is hell.

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Once Upon a Time in America

Four poor Jewish kids in 1920

This film has been featured on my podcast, Peculiar Picture Show. You can listen to the podcast episode here.

“I’d have put everything I ever had on you.”

The Godfather (parts 1 and 2) may be the top pick for the epic crime genre, but Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America deserves a mention both for its detailed look at its characters and the enormous scope of the film, covering 48 years of the lives of a few characters. Written and directed by Italian director Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), who had originally been approached to direct The Godfather but turned it down and regretted it for the rest of his life, this was his attempt to recapture some of the greatness that he had passed up earlier in life. The Godfather was a thoughtful film about a crime family, but Once Upon a Time in America has a lot more heart and really shows us the deep connections that formed in the Jewish ghetto of New York City in 1920 and lasted nearly 50 years. This film is not perfect—some of the dialogue is clumsy, the time jumps can be confusing, and the characters are certainly not likable—but this film captures the humanity of getting into, and out of, a life a crime more than any other I’ve seen.

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Dances with Wolves

John Dunbar sits in a field with Two Socks the wolf in a promotional photo for Dances with Wolves

“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”

Dances with Wolves was a huge film in its time, although it’s not flawless. The drama at times borders on melodrama, and the length of the film can cause it to drag in some places. But despite its flaws, this is a film that just works, and it was a major milestone in the Western genre. It was also a major milestone in portrayals of Native Americans in film—a group that has historically had little voice on screen. The Sioux tribe made director and star Kevin Costner an honorary member for his respectful depiction of their culture. I myself am a member of the Tlingit tribe, so this movie is very dear to me as well. The film won seven Oscars, including best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay, so it caused quite a stir in the film industry as well—which is especially impressive considering the hurdles it had to jump over to be made in the first place. Even with its flaws, this is an epic Western masterpiece that should be watched by everyone.

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Django Unchained

Calvin Candie wags a cigar in Django's face in Django Unchained

“Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”

Revenge stories can be gratifying to watch, but director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) frequently makes them even more so. Taking a page from his 2009 historical revenge tale, Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino turns his eyes to a dark time in American history: slavery in the American South. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio, this story pulls no punches in its portrayal of how brutal and dehumanizing slavery was, and its portrayal of an escaped slave taking righteous revenge on vicious slavers fits well with the stylized violence and witty dialogue Tarantino is known for. The raw brutality, though necessary to tell this story of slavery, can be hard to watch, but the pay-off at the end is completely worth it.

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The Sting

Johnny Hooker and Henry Gondorff put their hands up in The Sting

“What was I supposed to do—call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”

I love a good con. Most modern con movies are so obsessed with being intricate and overly complicated that they lose their touch with reality, with mythical characters with superhuman abilities, unrealistic technological devices that are closer to magic than reality, and eleven, twelve, or sometimes thirteen people essential to the plan. In 1973, The Sting brought the con back to its early cinema roots in the 1930s, and it’s everything I wanted to see in a con movie: cleverness, real danger, and humor. Directed by George Roy Hill (Slap Shot, Slaughterhouse Five) and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford—reuniting the three of them for the first time since the hit comedy-Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969—this movie was a huge hit in its time, winning the Oscar for best picture as well as several others for cast and crew, and it holds up very well today. It’s intriguing, it’s well-constructed, and it’s fun—what more could you ask for in a con movie?

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