Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Lone Survivor

Peter Berg was so determined to make Lone Survivor he directed Battleship for Universal Pictures in 2012 to help secure funding, and his passion for this project is evident from the opening minutes. Berg begins the film with documentary footage of real-life Navy SEALs undergoing a rigorous and intense training process, learning to withstand extreme pain and being shaped into hardened warriors. A little while later, we see one new recruit reciting a macho SEAL mantra in front of his admiring fellow soldiers: “There ain't nothin' I can't do. No sky too high, no sea too rough, no muff too tough…Never shoot a large calibre man with a small calibre bullet…” In every scene Berg reaffirms that these men are brothers and heroes, and that his film is a tribute.

Lone Survivor is the story of the disastrous Operation Red Wings incursion into Afghanistan in 2005. 19 American soldiers were killed during the course of the mission, with the lone survivor of the title being Marcus Luttrell (played here by Mark Wahlberg), whose book was adapted for the screen by Berg. Luttrell was one of four men deployed as an advance force in a mission to capture or kill the Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, but as they observed their target from a vantage point in the surrounding mountains their position was compromised by a trio of goat herders. After some debate about whether to kill, detain or release the civilians, the soldiers decided to follow the rules of engagement and let them go, retreating from the scene before the alarm was raised.

What followed was an almighty firefight, with Luttrell and his team finding themselves outnumbered and outgunned by a Taliban army. Berg recreates the battle in what feels like real time, with the volume being pumped up to an ear-splitting volume as Berg pitches us right into the crossfire. Berg is a decent director of action and he does well to maintain a sense of coherence here as the four Americans face an onslaught that comes at them from all directions, but it’s hard to admire any of the technique involved when you’re having your senses battered so comprehensively. The other three men are played by Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, but the characters they play are entirely interchangeable (in fact, it’s sometimes hard to tell which one if which). We are given no reason to care about their fate beyond one simple fact – they are American, therefore the good guys, and their assailants are the bad guys. “You can die for your country, I'm gonna live for mine” Foster growls as he lines one up in his sights.

The contrasts drawn between the two sides is stark. As we spend our time with the Americans, we see them talking to their girlfriends at home, joshing with their buddies and conducting themselves at all times with dignity and honour, while their enemy is seen terrorising villagers and beheading a man in front of his family. Each of the Taliban fighters is taken down by a single bullet to the head or chest, while our four American protagonists each suffer numerous wounds and keep on fighting. We see every bullet that tears through American flesh and feel every crunch as the soldiers hurl themselves down a rocky mountain face to escape the gunfire (in a manner that recalls Homer’s trajectory down Springfield Gorge). Berg fetishises their suffering to emphasize their courage and resolve, and when the time comes for them to die, the director ensures it is a glorious death, with each of Luttrell’s three companions exiting in slow-motion and adoring close-up.

Is this how it really happened? Perhaps, but the simplistic nature of Lone Survivor is reductive and the high-octane style Berg employs just wears the viewer down. The film will draw comparisons with Black Hawk Down – a film coincidentally based on an operation that also left 19 soldiers dead – but I found Ridley Scott’s film to be more varied and more cinematically interesting, whereas after 20 minutes of gunplay in Lone Survivor I’d had enough. What are we supposed to take from the film? The fact that war is hell and the men who fight are very brave? Peter Berg may have succeeded in his stated aim to honour these fallen soldiers, but I found little else of value in his orgy of violence. The film is relentless, dispiriting and numbing.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Grudge Match

I’m sure many producers have dreamed of pitching “It’s Rocky versus Raging Bull!” in meetings with Hollywood studios since the early 1980s, but as the decades slipped by that pitch has seemed less like an exciting proposition and more like a something depressing that we’re just going to have to get through together at some point. Sylvester Stallone’s penchant for trading on former glories and Robert De Niro’s willingness to settle for any half-baked script that comes his way meant that there was a certain inevitability – or should I say, inescapability? – about a film like Grudge Match tarnishing our memories of what these two men were in their prime.

Both actors are clearly playing variations on Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta rather than Henry “Razor” Sharp and Billy “Kid” McDonnen, the roles they are supposed to be inhabiting here. Stallone’s Razor is a sweet-natured blue-collar guy who just wants to keep his head down and do an honest day’s work, while De Niro’s Kid is an infamous womaniser whose lame cabaret act recalls the one performed by the washed-up LaMotta in Raging Bull. We are told that these two shared an intense rivalry three decades ago (images of which are created for us with some fuzzy CGI effects), but Razor walked away from the sport before they could have a third, defining bout, and the pair have kept their distance ever since, a bitter resentment simmering between them. They are brought together by an energetic low-rent promoter (Kevin Hart) who could easily be speaking for the producers of this film as he plots to unite these faded stars and trade on our nostalgia.

Beyond the initial casting hook, not a lot of thought appears to have been expended on the construction of Grudge Match, with Razor and Kid going through the motions of comical training montages and undignified publicity stunts, as you’d expect, and each having to deal with some personal issue as well as focusing on the fight. In Razor’s case, it’s a rekindled relationship with Sally (a distractingly drowsy Kim Basinger), the woman who came between him and Kid in the ‘80s, while Kid tries to come to terms with the fact that he has a son (a well-cast Jon Bernthal) and grandson in his life now. Each man faces a moment of crisis that threatens to derail everything just before the fight, and the film generally hits every beat that you would expect a film of this nature to land on.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily. It would be foolish to go into a Peter Segal-directed comedy sports movie anticipating surprises. The laziness inherent in its writing is disappointing, but the bigger issue here is that it simply isn’t funny enough to mitigate that laziness. The jokes are older than the two stars (“Gutsy move, going without a bra!” “It don't look like you're missing any meals!”) and there’s a whiff of desperation over the attempts to eke humour from Bernthal’s character being named BJ. Comic relief is ostensibly provided by Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart, but both actors wear out their welcome almost as soon as they appear on screen. Arkin's performance as an old man who shouts inappropriate things is one that he has given before, with much more energy than he provides here, while Hart’s endless stream of shrieked pop culture references and “white people are crazy” gags makes him come across as nothing more than a pound shop version of Chris Tucker.

But of course, the only reason anyone is going to see Grudge Match is for the leading men. I won’t reveal the outcome of the climactic fight, but Stallone emerges as the victor in the acting stakes here. He is able to settle into this kind of broad, self-deprecating fare with more ease than De Niro, who always looks uncomfortable and often seems to be wishing he was somewhere else. “A great performer knows when to leave the stage” Kid is told at one point, and watching De Niro sleepwalk his way through films that are so far beneath him remains one of cinema’s most dispiriting spectacles. When I watch Robert De Niro these days, I can’t help thinking of the line Samuel L. Jacksondelivers to him in Jackie Brown: “What the fuck happened to you, man? Shit…your ass used to be beautiful.”

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

"The year I turned 26 I made $49 million, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week." The bragging voiceover sets the tone. The Wolf of Wall Street is a tale told by a man revelling in his escapades, proudly showing off the spoils of his criminal activity. As Jordan Belfort, Leonard DiCaprio turns to address the audience directly in the middle of a scene and begins explaining the mechanics behind his IPO swindle, but then he breaks off: "You know what? You’re probably not following what I’m saying. The question is, “Was it legal?” Absolutely not." He knows that we're not here to gain an insight into the financial workings of Wall Street in the early 1990s, but to be entertained by the debauched, hedonistic lifestyles of Belfort and his band of thieves.

In many ways, The Wolf of Wall Street feels like the completion of the loose thematic trilogy that Scorsese began with Goodfellas in 1990 and continued with Casino in 1995. In these films we see the rise and establishment of a criminal operation, before watching it finally crumble, leaving our protagonists with nowhere to go but back to living their lives "like a schnook." The difference with The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is played explicitly for laughs  - being the closest thing Scorsese has made to a pure comedy since After Hours 30 years ago – but the broad hilarity is frequently undercut by grotesque, horrific scenes. Within the first 15 minutes, as a wild celebration rages in the offices of Belfort's Stratton Oakmont firm, we see a young woman volunteer to have her head shaved by the baying mob around her for $10,000. Scorsese presents this environment as a Bacchanal, with Belfort as the young emperor indulging his every whim.

This wealth of outrageous material seems to have brought the best out of both Scorsese and DiCaprio. Scorsese's camera thrusts and soars through Belfort's glittering but sordid world, mimicking the drug and testosterone-fuelled energy of the film's characters and maintaining a relentless pace throughout the film's three hours. Scorsese is now in his 70s, but The Wolf of Wall Street doesn't feel like the product of a filmmaker in his dotage, with the audacity and verve of this picture matching his most dynamic work from across the past forty years. His fifth collaboration with DiCaprio also marks the point at which he has unlocked something within the actor – DiCaprio is a consistently bold and intelligent performer who has given many fine performances, but he has never popped off the screen in the way he does here. This is a magnificent display of movie star charisma, which seduces us even as we are repelled by Belfort's behaviour. He comes to life when taking the microphone and addressing his acolytes, empowering them to greater acts of greed and basking in their adoration as he leads them in a chest-thumping tribal chant. This is the same man we see crawling and drooling on the floor later on, reduced to an infant state by the drugs he has ingested – DiCaprio makes Belfort a figure both chilling and ridiculous.

Can you stand three hours in such loathsome company? The Wolf of Wall Street is an excessive film about excess, with Scorsese continually pushing his actors to fresh moral lows and comedic highs, but it's all to a clear point. Against the boys' club at the centre of the film, Scorsese places supporting actors who lend some perspective; Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie as Belfort's two canny wives, Joanna Lumley's delicious "seen it all, darling" cameo and, most potently, Kyle Chandler as the FBI agent trying to bring him to justice. Chandler represents the ordinary working-class guy who can occasionally gaze with envy at the lifestyles of the rich and famous but who ultimately has to get back to the mundane business of trying to maintain law and order. And what is his reward for taking down this swaggering crook? The juxtaposition of Belfort relaxing in a jail that resembles a holiday resort while Chandler sits disconsolately on the same subway he takes every day hammers the point home.

Scenes like that make the very idea that The Wolf of Wall Street somehow endorses or glorifies Belfort's lifestyle seem absurd to me. I found much of the movie exhilarating and hilarious, but with a troubling undertone that became more prominent as the film progressed, as he turned on his family and escaped any serious censure for his crimes. Some have attacked the film for failing to deliver a morally satisfying conclusion by making Belfort face the consequences of his actions, but it's hardly Martin Scorsese's place to impose such punishment if society as a whole has failed to do so. Scorsese simply shows us everything that Jordan Belfort is, and everything he represents, and then leaves it to us to make our own moral judgment on what we have witnessed. The final shot poses a lingering question – what are we to do about people like Jordan Belfort? Do we take action, or do we simply sit and gaze slack-jawed at their destructive antics, wondering what it would be like to be that guy?

Monday, January 13, 2014

American Hustle

Everyone seems to be having a lot of fun in American Hustle. The actors – almost all of whom have worked with David O. Russell in the past – have been given extravagant roles that stretch them in surprising ways, and Russell gives them all license to take these characters and run with them. The film is loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s, although I got the sense while watching the picture that Russell's interest in this story is only intermittent. American Hustle exists as a meditation on role-playing, an affectionate homage to an era and – above all – a showcase for a group of actors whom the director clearly adores. That devotion to his cast enables Russell to yield some terrific moments, but to the detriment of his film's overall effect.

The actors all come in disguise. As Irving Rosenfeld, a low-rent confidence trickster who's happy to stay small-time, Christian Bale wears a carefully tended comb-over/toupee combination and a heavy gut. His girlfriend and partner in crime is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who sometimes plays with a strained English accent and brings a teasing sexuality to her performance that we haven't seen before from this actress. Their banking scam brings them into contact with FBI man Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious agent with a dodgy perm who gets lost in the possibilities of the ever-expanding sting operation he masterminds. All of these characters are trying to change, to take on a new persona, and American Hustle keeps pushing them into different directions as its series of elaborate con-jobs plays out.

With twist-laden conman stories such as this, I often find that momentum is key. The narrative needs to lock the viewer in and keep us hooked with every plot turn; it needs to fit together like clockwork. Russell disregards that notion as he keeps digressing from the main scam to indulge in some bit of comic or dramatic business with his actors, which gives American Hustle a weird stop-start rhythm and a sense that nobody is sure quite what type of film it is meant to be. The level of detail in Bale and Adams' characterisation casts a harsh light on Jennifer Lawrence, who is badly miscast as Irving's neglected wife and can do nothing with a character so poorly conceived at a script level. Russell likes to pitch scenes at a manic screwball intensity but the pacing is off throughout – particularly in the desperately sluggish opening hour – and the film feels like it could easily lose at least twenty minutes of extraneous material.

Of course, American Hustle isn't really aspiring to be anything more than a fun time at the movies. The coy opening title card ("Some of this actually happened) and the outlandish '70s period detail should quickly clue you in to the fact that it's something of a romp. But my disappointment stemmed from the fact that I didn't have anywhere near as much fun as I felt I should be having – my enjoyment continually being disrupted by the film's choppy construction – and that I could see moments of unrealised potential here. Russell's style can generate real electricity but he too often appears happy to coast ahead with montages set to classic '70s tunes, lacking the discipline to stop his film from feeling bloated and allowing the plot tho drift away towards the end. There has been much talk of American Hustle being little more than a Martin Scorsese pastiche, but I don't see it that way at all. This is very much a David O. Russell film, and the only work that it feels like a pale imitation of is his own.