American Hustle (US - BD RA)
Gabe isn't as enamored with this former Oscar favourite as everyone else...
Brilliant con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his equally cunning and seductive British partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are forced to work for a wild FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia. Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), is a passionate, volatile, New Jersey political operator caught between the con artists and Feds. Irving's unpredictable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) could be the one to pull the thread that brings the entire world crashing down. (From Sony’s official synopsis)
David O. Russell was once among the most interesting American filmmakers. His work was characteristically uneven and rarely innovative, but even when he was aiming for mainstream acceptance, specifically with Three Kings, his work was subversive and original. Following the critical success of I Heart Huckabees, Russell’s career was halted by the financial collapse of Nailed in 2005 (during this time he also dabbled in early pre-production on an unproduced Silver Surfer movie) and, despite acting as producer on a few other movies, he took a break from filmmaking. When he returned with 2010’s The Fighter, Russell had changed. Unlike his earlier films, The Fighter was a ready-made awards magnet from the outset – it was based on a true story, littered with Oscar-hungry actors, and owed a sizable debt to other boxing dramas, like Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and John G. Avildsen’s Rocky. His next film, Silver Linings Playbook, was similarly award-hungry and made light of a serious mental health condition in order to deliver another feel good message to Academy voters, who ate it right up. Both films collected a pile of shiny golden statues, leading a greedy Russell to make yet another, even more terminally positive, incredibly likeably fluff piece – American Hustle.
Like The Fighter, American Hustle is far from a ‘bad’ movie. It is entertaining, attractive, and features a cadre of amiable actors giving occasionally moving performances. It has the infectiously poppy tone of similar ‘70s throwbacks (in particular Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights) and this, along with the similarly buoyant performances, helps disguise the screenplays messy storytelling weaknesses. If memory serves, Sony originally touted the film’s ‘based on a true story’ status, probably because true stories are the ultimate Oscar bait (former basketball superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote brilliantly on the subject for Esquire.com), but ended up downplaying the angle in advertising campaigns, possibly due to the relative lack of historical elements. The events of Russell and Eric Warren Singer’s screenplay bear very little resemblance to the events of the FBI’s ABSCAM operation and don’t add up to much outside the influence of film’s wall of style and sentimentality. It is respectful that Russell make the story his own by avoiding the clarity of the espionage in favour of human interactions, but the lack of substance is disappointing, especially in comparison to Three Kings, where he took a traditional wartime heist story (in the vein of The Dirty Dozen) and subverted it with deeply personal political themes. American Hustle is, ultimately, a pretty shallow and largely formless exercise.
Also like The Fighter (and Boogie Nights, actually…), American Hustle owes a debt to the works of Martin Scorsese; though where the former took vague inspiration, the latter features direct lifts of Scorsese’s favourite motifs and director’s trademarks. Russell shifts beyond homage into blatant rip-off territory at times, including not only the director’s choice of camera movement, musical interludes, and editing, but into the performances, specifically Christian Bale, whose impression of a Robert De Niro impression is next-level weird stuff. When he and De Niro actually meet face-to-face at the onset of the third act, it threatens to tear a hole in the space/time continuum of referential movie moments. Upon a second viewing, the shiny veneer is dulled, the script issues are compounded, and, saddest of all, the award-nominated performances begin to feel more like extensions of the Scorsese gimmick. Bale and Bradley Cooper are broad enough to fulfill the pure entertainment factor, but I’m sort of flabbergasted by the praise for Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner’s pleasant but otherwise ordinary performances. Of the leads, only Jennifer Lawrence continues to impress on a revisit, though she’s also chewing through scenery on a powerfully hammy scale (she’s effectively every major female character from The Fighter crammed into one person). Louis C.K. manages to steal every scene he’s in with a mere morsel of effort – he didn’t gain or lose any weight and his only ‘prop’ is a pair of glasses.
Russell and cinematographer Linus Sandgren take care to recreate the typical filmic look of the 1970s, a process that includes shooting on traditional film. This 2.35:1, 1080p transfer appears generally film-like – there’s some grain peppered throughout the production that ebbs and flows depending on lighting/location/camera speed/etc. and the softer edges have slight posterization effects. Details and textures are tight, assuming the focus isn’t too shallow, and the softer background edges don’t have any issues with compression noise. Russell and Sandgren haven’t entirely resisted the lure of digital grading, because the consistent orange, red, and blue hues don’t look particularly natural (the skin tones are almost identical throughout the entire movie). The film grain keeps the gradations from being eerily plush, like the ones that appear on a lot of digital HD features, but are still plenty complex, without any notable macro-blocking effects. The hues bleed into each other pretty often, but this always appears to be an intentional over-saturation, especially where the more lurid reds are concerned. The fact that the teal costumes and props remain unmolested is further proof that the chroma saturation is intentional. This look does become a bit of a stylistic problem during the yellow-coated interiors, where highlights are washed out, forcing the blacks to create depth, shape, and detail.
This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is crisp and clear, but not particularly aggressive, outside if musical influences. The dialogue, both the bits spoken onscreen and the louder narration, is natural and consistent in terms of center channel placement and overall volume. The incidental effects are just as clear and pitched up enough to stand out against the stark silence of a number of sequences. There aren’t many excuses for aggressively stylized directional movement, so the sound designers find more creative excuses to fill-out the channels with incidental noise, like street, office, and club noise. These additions very effectively wrap the speakers in subtly immersive, warm sound. Danny Elfman continues his spiral into mediocrity with this positively undistinguished score. There are some punchy pop rhythms and throbbing funk bass lines, but these disappear like whispers into the aural ether. Thankfully, the original score is kind of incidental – the bigger musical moments are created using period and mood appropriate pop, rock, and jazz tunes.
The brief extras begin with The Making of American Hustle (16:40, HD), a mix of raw behind-the-scenes footage and fluffy, press-tour-style interviews with the cast and crew. There are some interesting factoids to be gleaned, but this is more of an EPK than a substantial featurette. Besides some Sony release trailers, the only other extras on the set are 11 deleted and extended scenes (22:30, HD). These are largely character moments, not plot points.
[I]American Hustle is an entertaining, occasionally hilarious movie, but has none of the quirk, originality, or emotional strength of writer/director David O. Russell’s earlier movies. It also has very little rewatch value, unless you’re particularly fond of the performances, which I really wasn’t. Sony’s Blu-ray looks and sounds very good, however, and any of the disc’s A/V limitations are a part of the film’s design. The extras are pretty weak, though the deleted/extended scenes are a nice addition.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 18th March 2014
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: The Making of American Hustle, Deleted/Extended Scenes, Trailers, DVD Copy, UltraViolet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence
Genre: Comedy, Crime and Drama
Length: 138 minutes
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