Tag Archives: David O. Russell

The Fighter (2010) 4.43/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 78.3
Genre: Drama, Sport
Duration: 116 mins
Director: David O. Russell
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams

David O. Russell’s return to directing after a six year absence is a witty and soulful sporting drama that recounts the true life efforts of two working class boxers to overcome their circumstances and banish respective demons. If it sounds like a tired premise, fret not, because The Fighter is a one of a kind film that shifts seamlessly between touching personal drama, wilful farce, exhilarating sporting action, and hysterical comedy and all the while remaining true to the rich characterisations at its core. Mark Walhberg stars as Micky Ward, the younger brother of a briefly famous Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale in sensational form), whose past exploits against Sugar Ray Robinson have become the stuff of local legend and the defining moment in the now crack addicted and failed pugilist’s career. Now Micky’s trainer, he’s quick to point out that the two brothers were very different in the ring and, as the playfully elegant documentary-like opening sequence demonstrates, they are very different outside it too. Despite their differences, there’s a deep bond that Dicky instinctively exploits along with their overbearing mother (Melissa Leo) as they mismanage Micky into one bad fight after another. That is until the younger brother’s new girlfriend (a typically strong Amy Adams) encourages him to stand up for himself.

There’s so much going on here that it’s a testament to all involved the the movie glides so cohesively forward from one differently toned scene to another. An air of sharp comedy hangs over the film through the various characters’ combustible interactions but because of its perceptive portrayal of ordinary people there is, at its core, an honesty reminiscent of the best and most insightful dramas. Furthermore, much like that most untouchable of TV shows, The Sopranos, the realness of the characters and their dialogue acts as a tangible basis that allows their extraordinary experiences to thrill all the more especially during the boxing sequences. Combined with the assured energy of Russell’s direction, the film takes on a real verve and electricity from the viscerally shot fights to the soft and graceful subjective interactions.

But while Russell gives this film its momentum, it’s the cast who gives it its substance. Being the very definition of an actor who can shine in the right role or bomb in the wrong one, Mark Walhberg is beaming here like never before. It’s not a soul scouring piece of acting like Bale’s but it’s a triumphantly weighted ‘roll with punches… until’ performance that parallels Micky’s outside and inside the ring personas in endearing manner. This is a protagonist who we care about. Bale does his not unusual piece of dramatic weight loss to play the “squirrelly” larger than life junkie but it’s his ability to expose the essence of the human being beneath in all manner of interesting and charming ways that grabs the attention here. He deservedly nabbed the Best Supporting Oscar for the turn but it’s his young De Niro-like energy that impresses most. Leo also scooped the Best Supporting gong for her fiery portrayal of the shrewd yet loving matriarch. It’s her and her motley crew of battle axe daughters that allow Russell to generate a fair bit of farcical relief and while the antics of the Ward/Eklund women can sometimes feel a little forced, they are terrifically funny when they get going. The real Dicky Eklund felt it wasn’t an accurate reflection of his mother and sisters and one suspects Leo and Co. added many more claws for comic as well as dramatic effect. If so, job done!

It all builds up to a rousing finale that like the best sporting dramas seems to add more significantly to the tone of the film rather than the plot. It’s a wonderful moment of movie holism where the sum of the film’s parts come together to give us something we were never really promised while getting there but only too delighted to receive.

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American Hustle (2013) 2.38/5 (3)


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Rating: The Good – 87.8
Genre: Crime, Gangster
Duration: 138 mins
Director: David O. Russell
Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro

As much as great scripts inspire great performances so do great directors. That we have seen fewer and fewer Stanley Kowalskis, Michael Corleones, and Jake LaMottas in the last 30 years is a testament not necessarily to the lack of great actors but perhaps the lack of great writers and directors or at least the lack of all three elements at the same time. Well fret no longer because 2013’s American Hustle represents as explosive an intersection between all three elements as we’ve witnessed probably since Goodfellas. “Seminal”, “sublime”, “iconic”, “defining” are just some of the superlatives that might swirl through your head while watching David O. Russell’s latest claim to directorial greatness. A near perfect immersion in the era and (partly fictitious) personalities of one of American history’s most infamous sting operations, the ABSCAM operation.

Christian Bale stars as the best conman in America, Irving Rosenfeld, who moves from one small time scam to another always staying off the radar. Amy Adams is the love of his life and partner in con artistry who eventually gets them in trouble when an eccentric FBI agent in the form of Bradley Cooper arrests her and forces the two experts to help him bring down a bunch of corrupt politicians and even the casino backing mobsters. What could go wrong? Well nothing – apart from Irving’s bipolar wife (a hysterical Jennifer Lawrence), a nice guy mayor (a brilliant Jeremy Renner) whom Irving is forced to double cross, and an infamous mobster who takes a dislike to Irving from the start (Robert De Niro in classic form).

The first thing to strike you about this film is its authenticity. Linus Sandgram’s cinematography, Judy Becker’s production design, and Michael Wilkinson’s costume design help largely in setting the era under the auspices of Russell’s urbane vision. Along with the (thankfully) less obvious and excellent source music, Russell channels his sterling cast’s performances through this visual aesthetic and wraps the whole thing up in several quietly impressive innovations in camera angles, editing, and overall narrative construction. The performances are universally meritorious with the five leads rating as exquisite but in different ways to each other. Cooper and Lawrence are wired to the moon with the former doing particularly well in bedding his character’s temperament in a believable personality. It’s a gleefully incendiary turn with a fair dose of humanity to make you feel for him. Lawrence’s character is more extreme in her mania and wasn’t required to play it as close to the ground as Cooper did. She has less screen time than Bale, Cooper, and Adams too but her few scenes are a riot of alcohol-fuelled insecurity-bridging mayhem.

Bale, Adams, and Renner have most of the straight acting to do. Adams is genuinely terrific in imbuing her character with a difficult conflict while Renner shows a charming level of humanity in his clever turn. Bale, on the other hand, does nothing short of deliver the best performance in a gangster movie since De Niro’s Jimmy Conway. From his barely noticeable hunch, his biting attitude, his touching concerns, to the intonations in his Bronx accent, he is simply sublime. The plot hinges on his quality and while Russell arguably spreads the story too thin by spending too little time on him, Bale ties it all together with his understated acting manoeuvres. The only other thing as exciting as watching him work is De Niro’s single scene in which he tantalises us with a powerfully intimidating piece of work that recalls the menace of his very best gangster roles.

At the feet of these acting masterclasses is Russell and Eric Warren Singer’s pitch, tone, and cadence perfect script which from very early on binds us to the principals. Picking up where Pileggi and Scorsese left off, it streams the narrative around not two but three cast narrations. The intimately autobiographical tone of Henry and Karen Hill is very much present but even more tapped in that regard as conversational like pauses become emotional lacunae in which Russell paints a far more intricate picture of personhood. It’s an immensely effective narrative adaptation and it sets the bar for the remainder of the film’s direction.

Intricacy is the key here as themes of friendship, rivalry, passion, fear, and above all, duplicity are brought together in unprecedented manner. It’s dramatic, it’s tense, it’s gripping, and thanks to that searing script, there are some impeccable moments of black humour littered throughout. There’s not much action compared to other gangster classics and both the heartbreak and payoff is more emotional and cerebral than we are used to seeing but the manner in which Russell weaves his tapestry is at times spellbinding. Yes, the story is large in scope and it feels like Bale’s Irving should’ve featured even more centrally than he did and yes, his seems like a persona we are not used to rooting for but, at all times, Russell looks to have an ace up his sleeve. Whether you believe he played it too late or not might be disputed but his timing undisputedly has one hell of an effect. And isn’t that what storytelling is all about?

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Three Kings (1999)


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Rating: The Good – 80.5
Genre: War
Duration: 114 mins
Director: David O. Russell
Stars: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube

David O. Russell is a very special film-maker, there’s no doubt. To take a heist movie that is essentially an allegory about the greedy motivations of modern superpowers, root it in a story that is equally touching and funny, litter it with hard-edged action, and then infuse the whole thing with more visual and auditory verve than practically any other movie of the 90’s…is no small feat. Set during the first Gulf War, George Clooney fronts an interesting cast as a special forces Major who leads three enlisted soldiers into enemy territory to nab for themselves some of the gold that Saddam stole from Kuwait.

Heist movie, war movie, comedy, or drama, Three Kings works effectively on all levels. There’s a burning originality to Russell’s approach as both director and writer. Images of bleached desertscapes contrasted with brilliant blue skies are pictorially enhanced due to combination of transparent film and silver halide to create vibrant colours and true blacks while, on the writing front, his adaptation of John Ridley’s story sews thoughtful but accessible dialogue with hysterically funny turns of phrase to produce a script of real elegance. The result is a cogent balancing of surreal moments of war with slick action drama, a madcap roller-coaster of sleek satirical mayhem.

All this is burnished by an understated intersection of character and plot that at all times does justice to the political sentiments of the overall project. And it’s here that the cracking cast makes their contribution as Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Walhberg, and Spike Jonze are individually assured but collectively superb. Clooney’s Major Archie Gates has an edged charisma that is well suited to his role of the beleaguered special forces operative and, with it, he plays off the more homely charm of Mark Walberg who is undoubtedly at his best here. At the time of release, Ice Cube was a bit of a revelation as the spiritual yet burly chief while Jonze just about steals the show as the slightly unhinged but well meaning yokel.

The politics of the film bleed out bit by bit as these characters interact but through its easy humour, charm, and excitement, it never feels preachy. In fact, in these more cynical and manipulative times, Three Kings is exactly what a war film needs to be:- intelligent, bold, and with a necessary sense of humour.

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