Tag Archives: American Hustle

5 Movies Made Better by Supporting Performances

By D.G. McCabe

I haven’t done a list post in a while, and after watching Cold Mountain (2003) the other day, I’ve been thinking a lot about movies that are completely altered by the performance of one supporting actor.  Here are some examples that come to mind.

Cold Mountain (2003) – Renee Zellweger

Cold Mountain isn’t a great film.   The story of Jude Law’s one dimensional soldier trailing through the wilderness to return to his two dimensional sweetheart, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) is about as original as white bread and just as flavorful.  So why is it worth watching? The answer: Renee Zellweger.

Zellweger won her first, and so far only, Oscar for playing Ruby Thewes.  When Ada is having trouble surviving on her own during the Civil War, a neighbor sends Ruby to her assistance.  Ruby is tough, smart, and determined.  She turns Ada from a somewhat helpless southern belle into a tough and independent woman.  She also has a knack for pointing out the ridiculousness of the main story at the exact right moment, giving the movie a sense of humor it is otherwise lacking.

American Hustle (2013) – Jennifer Lawrence

Now that last year’s award season hype has passed, can we agree that American Hustle isn’t that great of a movie?  If we get past Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale’s physical transformations, are their performances really that groundbreaking?  I would say no. American Hustle would only have about as much depth as a decent, old Hollywood caper if we were left with only them and Amy Adams.  Thankfully, Jennifer Lawrence is in this movie.

Lawrence plays Rosalyn, the estranged wife of Bale’s character.  In a film with an overabundance of slick characters, Rosalyn is blunt and unpredictable.  She certainly wouldn’t make it as a hustler or government agent (the other characters).  This is great fun for the audience since it provides us with much needed comic relief in an otherwise joyless film.  Think of it this way – American Hustle is classified as a comedy, but without Jennifer Lawrence, how many moments of actual comedy would there be in it?

Batman Forever (1995) – Jim Carrey

The first two performances on our list changed average movies into Oscar nominees.  Jim Carrey’s performance as the Riddler in Batman Forever changed the fate of the film industry. For all intents and purposes, Batman Forever is just as bad of a film as Batman and Robin (1997).  The movie’s one saving grace is that Carrey’s Riddler is at once psychotic and hammy, but shows a dark side that would put the portrayal at home in the later Christopher Nolan adaptations.

It is probably Carrey’s performance which stood between Batman Forever being a box office smash and a disaster.  Since it was the former, the studio green-lit Batman and Robin.  If Batman Forever was a bomb, it may have been quickly written off and Hollywood would have moved on to the next, probably mediocre, Batman project.  But two weak films in a row resulted in an eight year lull, which allowed room for Nolan’s grittier interpretation of the character to set the standard for serious superhero movies.  So next time you’re enjoying 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” you should thank Jim Carrey for turning a horrible movie into merely a bad one.

Burn After Reading (2008) – Brad Pitt

Burn After Reading is sometimes ranked in the realm of the Coen Brothers’ better comedies (think The Big Lebowski (1998) and O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000)).  This critical success would have been impossible without Brad Pitt.  The movie’s plot is disjointed, its characters are unlikeable, and the resolution of its story is disappointing.  However, it’s hilarious, and Brad Pitt is the main reason why.

We’re used to seeing Brad Pitt as a quiet hero (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)), a suave hero (Ocean’s Eleven (2001)), a macho hero (Troy (2004)),  or a regular-guy hero (Moneyball (2011)).  We rarely see him as a dimwitted sidekick.  Thankfully in Burn After Reading, Pitt sells it, and I mean really sells it.  You can tell he’s having a blast as the brainless, clueless Chad Feldheimer, and by extension, so is the audience.

Animal House (1978) – John Belushi

Yes – the most iconic role in one of the most influential comedies of the 1970’s is not a leading role.  Its an ensemble cast sure, but to the extent that lead roles exist in Animal House they belong to Otter (Tim Matheson) and Boon (Peter Riegert).  John Belushi’s Blutto is never really developed as a character, and instead is just a vehicle for gags.

But what gags they are.  Belushi took Harold Ramis, Chris Miller and Doug Kenney’s script and turned it into a landmark of American comedy.  Sure the other characters have their moments, but as countless dorm-room walls around America can attest to, this movie was, is, and always will be Belushi’s.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Oscar Preview 2014 – Best Director and Best Picture

By D.G. McCabe

Here we go with the last two categories – Best Director and Best Picture.

Best Director

1. Alfonso Cuarón – Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón takes a fairly standard plot and uses innovative shots and an extraordinary setting to create a masterpiece.  The camera work is just one aspect of the skill needed in this one, since handling fewer actors for longer periods can be more difficult than managing many actors over shorter periods.

2. Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave

While Cuarón uses innovative methods to tell a familiar survival story, McQueen uses the established conventions of European cinema to tell a groundbreaking story.  McQueen doesn’t really push the creative envelope as much as Cuarón, and that’s why he will finish a close second.

3. David O. Russell – American Hustle

Russell is quickly establishing himself as the premier actor’s director in Hollywood.  He gets great performances out of his entire cast in American Hustle and, by now, I’m sure a-listers are lining up to work with him.  The construction of the film just isn’t up there with the top two, however.

4. Alexander Payne – Nebraska

Payne is another quickly emerging Hollywood auteur, and Nebraska continues a streak of well-shot, poignant, family dramas.  A solid effort from an up and coming director just doesn’t have the juice to win this year.

5. Martin Scorsese – The Wolf of Wall Street

If Goodfellas (1990), Raging Bull (1980), Taxi Driver (1976), Gangs of New York (2002), and Mean Streets (1973) can’t get Scorsese a Best Director statue, this one certainly won’t either.

Best Picture

Here’s the top of the heap – the category that everyone is looking forward to and debating.  To be honest it’s a two horse race – but what a two horse race!

1. 12 Years a Slave

I had to separate in my mind the movie that I think is going to win from the movie that probably should win.  I don’t want to take anything away from 12 Years a Slave – it is one of the best four or five movies of the last ten years.  So is #2 on this list, however, which I felt was more innovative from a technical standpoint and therefore potentially more influential.  One has to take into consideration who is voting – a great portrayal of historical trauma is going to beat a genre thriller every time in the Academy’s mind.

2. Gravity

12 Years a Slave should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand American history – and it will win on Sunday night because of that.  Gravity is a more impressive artistic achievement.  Ultimately, both these films will be watched and re-watched for years to come, but Gravity pushes the envelope of technical achievement in the most technically difficult genre – thrillers.  It’s a shame they both can’t win, as they are easily better than many of the best picture winners from recent years.

3. American Hustle

Anyone who thinks American Hustle can win is banking on a concept that the heavyweights will knock each other out.  It has happened before in Oscar history.  Arguably Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson’s greatest performances canceled each other out in 1974, allowing Art Carney to win.  American Hustle has gotten a lot of support from the Acting Branch as its SAG victory suggests.  It won’t happen – American Hustle is a very good movie, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are great movies.  There’s a clear difference, and the Acting Branch can differentiate between great ensemble performance and great films in general.

4. Dallas Buyer’s Club

Like American Hustle, this one has strong performances.  Like 12 Years a Slave, it deals with historically traumatic social issues.  Unlike either of those movies, it feels disjointed and unfocused at times.

5. Nebraska

Rounding out our “this is all the nominees there should be” segment is Nebraska.  It is hard to argue against including it, but harder to argue that it really has that extra oomph to pull off an upset.

6. Captain Phillips

This one has a lot to commend it for, it is accurate and intense.  The Academy didn’t really like it though, as noted by Tom Hanks being left out of the Best Lead Actor race.

7. Her

This one had the potential for heavyweight status on Oscar night, but something just doesn’t feel right about it.  Great timely concept, check.  Up and coming director, check.  A-list performances, check.  Timely subject matter, check.  Resonated with audiences, meh, not so much.

8. Philomena

I can’t really comment on this film, beyond the fact that it doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy.  It may just another good film that gets nominated because the Academy likes it and we need 9 nominees for some reason.

9. The Wolf of Wall Street

Opening up the field to nine movies virtually guarantees that whatever movie Scorsese makes that year will get nominated.  The Wolf of Wall Street seems a bit too much like a remake of Casino set on Wall Street.  I haven’t seen it, so I can’t confirm that.  Based on mixed reviews and people I know who have seen it though,  I can tell you that if we had 8 nominees, it wouldn’t make the cut.

That’s it for Oscar Preview week!  Enjoy the ceremony on Sunday Night!

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe

Oscar Preview 2014 – Best Actor/Actress

By D.G. McCabe

More acting Oscar fun!  It looks at first glance like a fairly competitive year, until you take a look at the results of award season so far that is…

Best Actor

1. Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyer’s Club

Who thought that McConaughey would be winning every award in sight, well, ever?  If you saw Dallas Buyer’s Club you’d know why.  His portrayal of Ron Woodruff, the AIDS afflicted roughneck and businessman, is at once heart-wrenching and funny.  Barring a major upset, he’s probably a shoe-in.

2. Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave

It’s a kind of a shame that McConaughey is the clear favorite, because in any other year, Ejiofor would win for his role as Solomon Northrup in 12 Years a Slave.  Still, despite McConaughey’s great performance, great performances alone don’t make legendary films.  We’ll be watching Ejiofor for many years for this one, and I don’t know if I can say the same for McConaughey.

3. Christian Bale – American Hustle

If there were an Oscar for miraculous transformations, Bale would win by a touchdown for his turn as Irving Rosenfeld.  Oh wait, there is an Oscar for that, Best Hair and Makeup, and American Hustle wasn’t nominated.  Way to go Academy, way to go.

4. Bruce Dern – Nebraska

I haven’t seen Nebraska, but Dern has been around forever and has a filmography longer than most screenplays.  I’m sure his performance as Woody Grant is great, but there’s just too much competition here to justify the occasional “lifetime achievement Best Actor Oscar” for Dern.

5. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street

Haven’t seen this one, but it’s a Scorsese movie so I’ll check it out eventually.  Unfortunately Leo’s about to go 0-5, meaning he may have one of those “lifetime achievement Best Actor Oscars” in his future.  To be clear, this is what they gave Al Pacino for “Scent of a Woman” (1992).

Best Actress

1. Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine

Strange how the lead actor categories mirror each other this year.  Cate Blanchett has been winning everything in sight for her role as Jasmine, will probably win the Oscar.  However, Blue Jasmine does not appear to be in the highest pantheon of Woody Allen films based on the reviews I’ve seen.  Odds are will be seeing #2 a lot more in the future.

2. Sandra Bullock – Gravity

I haven’t seen Blue Jasmine, so I don’t understand how Bullock could not win for Gravity.   I guess the actors branch (SAG Awards) are the experts, but her performance as Dr. Ryan Stone is incredible, with an added degree of difficulty.  She was, after all, the only actor on screen most of the movie.

3. Meryl Streep – August: Osage County

I didn’t get a chance to check this one out.  I would never count Streep out, and I hope she gets one more Oscar before she retires (to tie Katherine Hepburn).  But this probably won’t be that year.

4. Judi Dench – Philomena

This is another one I didn’t get a chance to see, but I’ll repeat my above comment.  I hope Dench gets another Oscar, since she certainly deserves one, but once again, not this year.

5. Amy Adams – American Hustle

This nomination surprised me.  Of the ensemble in American Hustle, I found Adams’ performance to be the weakest.  She’s a great actor, that’s a given, but this one just didn’t connect with me as a great lead performance.

More preview tomorrow!

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Oscar Preview 2014 – Best Supporting Actor/Actress

By D.G. McCabe

Oh the acting categories.  Generally speaking these are considered to be the “glamor” categories, since this is what gives all the glamorous people an excuse to dress so glamorously.  Full disclosure – I haven’t seen all of these movies.  I’ll indicate which movies I’ve seen and which I haven’t.

Best Supporting Actor

1. Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club

Saw this one. Jared Leto has been winning everything in sight this awards season, and with good reason.  Television badboy, above average rockstar, guy who is apparently obsessed with Japanese culture – none of this descriptors seem to indicate that Leto could succeed in the role of the tough drag queen, drug addict, and AIDS patient Rayon.  He nails it though, and if he wins on Sunday night, it will be well earned.

2. Michael Fassbinder – 12 Years a Slave

Saw this one.  Fassbinder hasn’t been winning much for this role – a villainous slave master and sexual predator.  In any other year I think he’d be a favorite, as his portrayal of Edwin Epps is monstrous and terrifying, but avoids the kind of mustache twirling that would tempt a lesser actor.

3. Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips

Didn’t see this one.  I can’t comment on Abdi’s performance, since I didn’t see his portrayal of Somali pirate Abduwali Muse.  Academy members love a rags to riches story though, and Abdi is a Somali immigrant from the upper midwest who was working as a limo driver before he was cast as a central character in a Tom Hanks vehicle.  Pretty compelling if you go in for that sort of thing.

4. Bradley Cooper – American Hustle

Saw this one.   Cooper should buy David O. Russell an expensive automobile, because if it weren’t for this and last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” I’m pretty sure he’d be relegated to rom-com/gross out comedy purgatory.   His turn as as the repugnant Richie DeMaso is quite a departure from his usual roles so far in his career.

5. Jonah Hill – The Wolf of Wall Street

Didn’t see this one.  It seems that Hill snuck in right under the wire for an Oscar nomination here.  I haven’t seen The Wolf of Wall Street, and knowing Scorsese’s history as a great manager of actors (maybe the best ever), I’m sure his take as Donnie Azoff is a worthy performance.  My prediction is that we’ll be wishing him better luck next time.

Best Supporting Actress

1. Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle

Saw this one. I know that the Screen Actors Guild disagrees with me, but American Hustle would be an above average period piece if it weren’t for Jennifer Lawrence.  As the dim witted Rosalyn Rosenfeld she adds humor to what could easily have been a fairly humorless and routine tale of deception and the death of the American dream.  I don’t think there have been many actors or actresses her age that could carry a film like that from a supporting role.

2. Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave

Saw this one.  I’ll admit that it’s a bit of a battle royale this category between Lawrence and Nyong’o.  Nyong’o if phenomenal as the abused slave Patsey, and draws the audience into her character’s tortuous life.  12 Years a Slave is a terrifying, night terror of a film, and Nyong’o’s performance is a big part of that.  It really depends on the taste of the Academy members for drama or comedy for this one.

3. Julia Roberts – August: Osage County

Didn’t see this one. Was this an excuse for the Academy to get Julia Roberts to come to their little awards ceremony and sit in the front row?  Maybe, but all the reviews I’ve seen indicate that she nails it as Barbara Weston-Fordham.  There are few actresses that can measure up to Roberts when she’s at the top of her game.

4. June Squibb – Nebraska

Didn’t see this one. Nebraska got some great reviews and seems to be a classic ensemble piece.  June Squibb plays Kate Grant, the wife/mother of the two main characters.  Squibb has had a long career, most of which is on stage.  Given that the Academy’s membership skews older and more classically trained, she could surprise some people.

5. Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine

Didn’t see this one.  The Academy likes performances from independent films – to a point that is.  Woody Allen’s films have been a notable exception – traditionally Oscar gold for actors and actresses of all ages.  I haven’t seen Blue Jasmine, but Sally Hawkins performance as Ginger is the latest in a long line of Allen nominees, including this year’s best Actress favorite, Cate Blanchett.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle

Directed by David O. Russell, U.S., 2013

It is a rare actor who can make or break a movie while only appearing on screen for ten or twenty minutes.  Jennifer Lawrence is such an actor.  In a perfect world, her commanding performance of the dangerously stupid, kitchen destroying, neglectful wife and mother Rosalyn would win her a second consecutive Oscar.  We’ll see what happens.

That’s not to say that the rest of the cast isn’t phenomenal.  Like last year’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” Russell brings together a great cast and gets fantastic performances out of all of them.  Christian Bale gained considerable weight for the lead role of Irving Rosenfeld, which in itself isn’t much of an accomplishment, but the physical transformation helps Bale completely disappear into the role.  There will be no confusing Mr. Rosenfeld with Bruce Wayne or Jack Kelly.  Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., and Boardwalk Empire’s Jack Huston and Shea Whigham round out the rest of the cast.

At this point, we expect fantastic performances in a David O. Russell film.  What sets American Hustle apart from his previous, character heavy efforts is the storytelling.  Russell’s shot selection, pacing, and  sleight of hand (it is a movie about con artists after all) bring into focus what could easily have been a confusing and bizarre story in the hands of a lesser director.  Even when Russell hoodwinks the audience along the way, he does so because he makes the deception believable and simple.

That isn’t to say American Hustle is a perfect film.  It takes some time to get going before anything actually happens, and Amy Adams doesn’t do a very good English accent at times (although it’s good enough for the most part).

If it weren’t for Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years a Slave,” Russell would be a shoe-in for best director.  He still might win, even if American Hustle doesn’t win best picture.  With The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and American Hustle, he’s on quite a roll, and next year he has a movie about the Kennedy assassination in the works.

You might like American Hustle if: You enjoy Silver Linings Playbook, heist movies, dark comedies, or anything with Jennifer Lawrence in it.

You might not like American Hustle if: The idea of a chubby, balding Christian Bale gives you the creeps.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe