American Hustle

American Hustle is one of those films. You know them, the ones where you’re never sure who is lying to whom and who really is being taken for a ride until the final showdown. Well, almost. Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a conman who has a flourishing (fake) business with his mistress Sydney (Amy Adams) until they get busted by the FBI. In exchange for their freedom, they must help agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) bait and take down a few other frauds. But DiMaso is too eager to prove himself and the con escalates from loan frauds to politicians and soon they are all in way over their heads.

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The characters are well written; there are no good guys and bad guys, just guys who are trying to do what they deem right and each of them is funny, scary and a little pathetic in their own right. Cooper’s cop starts out as the eager fed who thinks out of the box to mount an ambitious operation but as the con progresses he is more like a gambler unable to stop upping the stakes, while Irving is only trying to get the job done to return safely to his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and their little boy. Can we talk about how 23-year-old Jennifer Lawrence is already trusted with wife, widow and mother roles when most of her peers only get to play teenagers? The trust is deserved a hundred times over though. She’s been given an intense (if unstable) character with a temper and no restraints and she makes the most of it. Her performance has already landed her a Golden Globe award and BAFTA and Oscar nominations, so Hollywood isn’t letting go of her anytime soon.

The whole film has awards written all over it. Bale certainly uglied-up enough to get one. But it’s a common thing in American Hustle: the men look ridiculous and the women fabulous. Bale makes himself disappear behind Irving, partly thanks to the costume and hair and make-up but also by his skill – the familiar face is forgotten as are his previous parts as big and caped they may be. The same is true for Jeremy Renner as a bribe-happy corrupt politician that you still can’t manage to hate.

It’s good to watch a film where you don’t have to be rooting for anyone but just coming along for the ride. And people do. When I saw it, the audience was laughing – not chuckling, laughing for real, and there was even a collective “Oooow” of which all I will say is that Robert de Niro is involved. You’ll “ow” it when you see it.

American Hustle was released in UK cinemas on 7 January.

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Cuban Fury: let’s salsa!

Former salsa champion turned chubby engineer Bruce Garrett (Nick Frost) has no doubt his new boss Julia (Rashida Jones) is way out of his league, “like a butterfly to a parsnip”. But when he finds out Julia is also a salsa enthusiast, he digs out his dancing shoes and decides to return to the passion he was bullied out of.

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If the first thing that pops into your mind when I say salsa is Nick Frost, you are lying. He’s white. He’s fat. But dancing is not about shape and after a 6-month training he delivers really cool dance sequences, spinning around the dancefloor with Rashida Jones and Olivia Colman in Cuban Fury. The whole salsa atmosphere is very festive and the music and bright sparkly costumes are most welcome at this gloomy time of year: Cuban Fury is definitely the feel-good film to brighten up a rainy day. The enjoyment Bruce gets out of dancing is obvious; this is what he’s passionate about and in that respect the film is much more about blossoming into a sport he loves rather than getting the girl.

Actually, the romance arc is rather corny and unsurprising; boy awkwardly meets girl, there’s a cooler guy around who’s also a douche on the inside and takes credit for boy’s adorable attempts at wooing girl, etc. But the writers and director James Griffiths know how to make the most of the situations and characters to deliver an hour and a half of laughs from funny one-liners to crazy over-the-top comedic scenes like the dance-off/fight between Bruce and his nemesis Drew (Chris O’Dowd).

Kayvan Novak stands out as Bejan, one of Bruce’s friends from salsa class. Bejan is probably the funniest character in the film because he is crazy, random, and has the best (read, worst) catchphrases. The guy makes still Fanta. On purpose. Nick Frost told me that a potential sequel could revolve around Bruce and Bejan trying to open a dance club in Teheran and yes, maybe he made that up on the spot but on the off-chance that it’s true, let’s make Cuban Fury a hit.

In short: Cuban Fury is an effective feel-good comedy that will make you laugh and want to hop onto the dancefloor.

Cuban Fury is released in UK cinemas on 14 February

Teenage

Teenage is a documentary that follows the evolution of youth culture and the establishment of the teenage years as a separate stage of life, from the first movements against child labour – back when you’d start your factory job at 13 –to the “Teen-age bill of rights” in 1945, when the word entered our vocabulary for good. Don’t be deterred by my dreary introduction, for this is really fun and immersive: most of the film is compiled from archive footage, and what isn’t is made to blend in with it. This way, you are not watching teenagers; you are with them, one of them. The film offers the unique perspective of walking you through history – including two World Wars no less – not through a character or even a country but through an age.

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It is in a way a bit strange, because you know that the individuals you see and hear grow up and away yet four unchanging narrators speak for youth as a group, telling every decade and event from the same teenage perspective. The narrators represent teenagers from different parts of the world and you may recognise the voices of Jena Malone (Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Ben Whishaw (Skyfall) as the American and British teen, respectively. The voiceover storyline is a testimony mostly compiled from and inspired by teenager diaries; this is clever and highlights that once upon a time, there were different ways to be young and different cultural norms, before the wars and the development of travel and communication spread the American culture, looks, music and thinking, until the American teenager became the poster child for youth everywhere. The archive footage is at times very grainy which is quite uncomfortable on a big screen. Yet, knowing the authenticity of the images definitely serves the filmmakers’ aim to have the audience identify with the characters rather than be outsiders looking in.

Teenage is a perfect companion to Marten Persiel’s This Ain’t California, a chronicle of young skateboarding culture in post-WWII East Germany, precisely where Teenage doesn’t reach and when its story ends. The young protagonists in both films share the same ideals of freedom of choice: choice in their hobbies, in their friends, their opinions. The right and will to criticise the establishment and take their lives into their own hands. As someone who teenaged through the 00’s, I feel like this is still very much the case today.

Teenage was released in the UK on 24 january; check teenagefilm.com for screenings around the world.