Film

At It's Worst, 'American Hustle' Is a Rollicking Comedy

Scene for scene, American Hustle may be most David O. Russell's most aesthetically pleasing film.


American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis CK
Distributor: Sony
Studio: Columbia Pictures
UK Release date: 2014-04-28
US Release date: 2014-03-18

In the decade following the release of Three Kings, director-writer David O. Russell completed one feature film: the existential comedy I Heart Huckabees. Other events from Russell's career during this period included: the release and box-office failure of I Heart Huckabees; the leaking of a video from the I Heart Huckabees set, in which Russell gets into a screaming match with co-star Lily Tomlin; and the commencement and abandonment of the film Nailed, whose production was shut down repeatedly and then for good.

All of this, along with his predilection for material that has variously involved incest, dysfunctional families, and semi-absurdist existential crises, makes it all the stranger that since 2010, Russell has made three hit movies, been nominated for a Best Director Oscar three times, and formed an impromptu repertory company of actors from which he draws heavily for American Hustle, his latest and biggest hit.

If not for the nagging fact that it won none of its categories on Oscar night, American Hustle, now on Blu-ray, would be seen as a career pinnacle of sorts for Russell -- and may be seen as such, anyway. It's probably not his best film -- for my money, Three Kings still holds that title -- but it fulfills his early promise in a way that The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, good as they are, do not. Because of some aural touches like multiple narrators and a feverish use of pop music, American Hustle has been described as Russell doing Scorsese. But while Russell has probably been influenced by Scorsese, the movie is really Russell doing, well, Russell. It's an anarchic comedy of dysfunction disguised as a con-artist tale about con artists disguised as strivers. Or vice versa, or however many versas need to be viced.

Russell cherry-picks actors from his last two movies to retell real-life events of the late '70s with fictionalized, name-changed characters (as a title card diplomatically and wryly puts it: "Some of this actually happened"). In Russell's film, con man Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meets con woman Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), fleecing investors with get-rich-quick schemes while Irving's wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) paces around their Long Island home. Irving and Sydney are pinched by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who wants to use their skills to expose the corruption of Newark mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Only Polito is a mild and well-meaning sort of corrupt; Richie is a self-interested, myopic law-enforcer; and Sydney and Irving have both constructed volatile love triangles around themselves. Overlapping dialogue, overwhelming music cues, slow-mo walking, and a roving, zoomy camera turn the movie into a kind of lunatic fireworks display.

Bale, Adams, Cooper, Lawrence, and Renner are all fine to great actors, so it's not surprising (though it is gratifying) just how uniformly excellent they are here. Adams gives one of her best performances as Sydney, who spends much of her screentime assuming a British persona, reluctant to break the illusion even when she's supposedly caught. Lawrence is once again cast in a role that seems designed for an actress a solid decade or so older than she is, and once again takes ahold of it with such force that she forces it to make sense, somehow. Bale is characteristically immersed (and weight-inflated) in his part, while Cooper, playing obsessive and desperate, is funnier and edgier here than in the whole damn Hangover trilogy combined.

Even more remarkable, though, is the way Russell manages to heighten all five of the main players. The costumes (Adams' plunging necklines; Renner's ruffly suits), hair (Bale's combover; Cooper's perm), and make-up (Lawrence's darkened eyes) aren't just outlandish period garb; everyone looks vivid and iconic. "Lush" is the word Russell uses on the Blu-ray's making-of, and he's not wrong; scene for scene, this may be most Russell's most aesthetically pleasing film. Everyone in the movie dolls themselves up, makes themselves as magnetic as possible, as means of aspiration. The camera's occasional slow-motion linger works because it's an extension of both how we see these spiffed up, electric movie stars, and how the characters want to be seen in their own stories.

American Hustle dazzles on a scene-by-scene basis, which makes its slight thematic obviousness -- characters as much as say, "this movie is about survival and how we're all con artists of our own making" -- easier to take. At its worst, it's a rollicking comedy; at its best, the characters get so caught up in their own moment that they seem ready to explode into song themselves -- a condition most vividly depicted by Lawrence's housebound performance of Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die".

The Blu-ray disc contains over 20 minutes' worth of deleted and extended scenes, and some of them reveal even more musical tendencies: in one brief scene, Renner gets onstage to sing at a fundraiser, while Lawrence's karaoke-housework scene is included in full, looking even more unhinged – and then is reprised in an alternate version that has her mouthing along to Santana's "Evil Ways" in place of McCartney. These bits, along with more serious ones like Bale coaching Adams to "cry British" when she's actually upset and another tense scene between the two of them that tips into hysteria and repetition, reveal some discipline behind Russell's self-indulgence: as kitchen-sink as American Hustle might feel, it's been judiciously assembled. The reel, through its sheer volume, hints at the existence of even more footage; American Hustle starts to seem like the kind of movie that might have been four and a half hours long at some point.

These scenes actually last longer, collectively, than the disc's obligatory making-of feature, and probably say more about the film, too. The most telling moment in the making-of comes when Russell and company talk about the screenplay's transition from a procedural to a more character-centered story with a surprising amount of romance. As a fact-based crime story, American Hustle gets a little sloppy with its ins and outs. As a chorus of the kind of desperate characters David O. Russell loves, it's a delirious joy.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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