AMERICAN HUSTLE and THE PAST



I’m not sure what the biggest crime in the new, based kinda, sorta, but who knows how much on a true story movie American Hustle is: the ABSCAM scandal at the center of the plot or those awful, awful, what the hell were we thinking, fashions we use to wear at the time (some people may think that Michael Wilkinson’s designs are exaggerated for comic affect, but I tell you, they seem painfully close to the real thing to me).
I have to be honest, I did have some trouble with the film at first and for me the issue was Christian Bale in the lead as Irving Rosenfield, a con-man with a fake comb over (got symbolism?).  I have always had issues with Bale, and it’s really not his fault.  But I always felt he was trying way too hard to be Daniel Day-Lewis and he couldn’t quite carry it off.  Where Day-Lewis seems to disappear into his roles, Bale always seems to be saying, “look at me pretending to be someone not remotely like myself”.   And it’s always been a stickler to me when it came to his films.
I also don’t think it helped that the movie started with a rather loooooong introduction via voice over that just never seemed to stop.
But as the story gained traction and the supporting cast made their presences known, I forgot all about Bale’s calling attention to his talent as much as I forgot about Rosenfield’s comb over, which I think says a lot about both, actually. 
And such a supporting cast: Amy Adams as his girlfriend and partner in crime who revels in showing off her side boob as much as her rather convincing, fake English accent (well, it’s better than Irving’s hair); Bradley Cooper as an over eager government agent who, somehow, miracles of miracles, is the only one who looks good in the period clothes and hairstyles (and he’s a much better dancer here than in Silver Linings Playbook); Jennifer Lawrence, riotously hysterical as Irving’s bi-polar wife; Jeremy Renner as a corrupt, but well-meaning mayor with a pompadour that looks like it’s about to take over the world; and  in smaller roles, Louis C.K. as Richie’s long-suffering boss and Michael Pena as a fake sheik. 
If nothing else, American Hustle is one of the most deliriously entertaining movies of the year.   The screenplay by Eric Warren Singer and director David O. Russell has a fun, frantic 1930’s farcical feel to it.  It seems to revel in the amorality of it all; in the ridiculousness of the situations; and, perhaps most pleasurable of all, in the incredibly neurotic relationships of the characters until the whole thing feels like a Warner Brother’s pre-code movie starring James Cagney in the con-man lead; Carole Lombard as his partner in crime; Jean Harlow as his wife; Clark Gable as the government agent; and Warner Baxter in the cameo as the corrupt mayor.  Throw in a few character actors like Edward Everett Horton as the agent’s boss and Mischa Auer as the fake Sheik, and your back in the days of “more stars than there are in heaven”.
American Hustle also has some of the strongest and most interesting female characters in awhile.  In this, the movie also harkens back to the 1930’s in it’s portrayal of women as alpha females who attract men because they are alpha females (rather than today when alpha females are often ridiculed and put down by screenwriters) and in its portrayal of men who are as willing to make as big of emotional fools of themselves over women as the women are over the men.  And if anything, the women are far more in control of their emotions and destinies than any of the alpha males here.
It’s an attitude I feel is often missing from today’s rom coms (because no matter what else it is, American Hustle at the core is really a love story between two con artists).  Of course, Singer and Russell still had to go into the past to pull it off, but at least they didn’t have to go eighty years to do it.
And the film feels like a step forward for Russell whose last couple off films (Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter), though entertaining, felt a big tame and familiar, even formulaic.  Perhaps there’s something about the story itself and the screenplay that took over.  Whereas the earlier films felt like standard tropes and familiar arcs directed with an anarchic, chaotic style, American Hustle feels like a story that is all anarchy and chaos directed in, well, an anarchic, chaotic style.  It refuses to let itself be put in a box and Russell didn’t force it, but let it be what it needed to be. 
The Past, the new movie by writers Massoumeh Lahidji and Asghar Farhadi, who also directed (Farhadi gave us the searingly intense A Separation), feels like a table with a leg missing.  It has three dynamic and powerful performances from Bernice (The Artist) Bejo, Tahar (A Prophet) Rahim and  Ali  (who has done a lot of other things, but I’m afraid I’m not familiar with him, but his hairpiece is far more convincing than Bale’s) Mosaffa in a sort of love triangle.  And their intensity carries the film for quite awhile.  But in the end, they are let down by a story that doesn’t quite hold up.
It took me awhile to figure out where things went wrong, but it happens about a third of the way through.  In the first part, the story gains a lot of tension as Ahmad (Mosaffa) comes to France to finalize a divorce with his wife Marie (Bejo), only to find out that she’s not only living with a younger man, Samir (Rahim), she’s pregnant by him, and Ahmad’s oldest daughter is virulently against the relationship for reasons she won’t say.
And then the movie takes a completely different turn and begins to focus not on Ahmad, but on the daughter and why she’s against Marie and Samir’s upcoming nuptials, all having to do with Samir’s wife who is in a coma after trying to kill herself. 
Now at first glance, this may sound like an interesting turn of the screw.  But the problem is that this part of the story has nothing to do with Ahmad.  By the time the movie is over, you even wonder why he’s in the story at all.   In fact, almost as suddenly as he arrives, he disappears from the story for a good while as the other characters grapple with secrets being revealed.
There’s only one possible dramatic justification for Ahmad’s inclusion in the story and that is to get his daughter to confess a secret.  But that’s not really enough of a justification for him to be a part of it all, and so the structure seems wobbly and the forward momentum slows down as you’re no longer sure where the story is going.
Farhadi’s previous film, A Separation, had a similar structure.  It starts out as a family having issues and then changes course when they hire a caretaker, but she gets thrown out of the apartment by the husband, has a miscarriage and the story becomes about what really happened.  But even there, the outcome of the story affected every single character.  Everybody in the film was inextricably linked to that one incident.  Here, Ahmad is more chopped liver and has nothing to really do.
The film is titled The Past and I’m not quite sure why.  At one point, Samir talks about the need to forget what has come before in order to get on with the future.  But that’s not really what the film as a whole has been about.  And when Samir has his speech, it feels tacked on, as if the writers had suddenly remembered what they had named their story, and now suddenly felt a need to justify it.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES


The oddest people pop up here and there in the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, from Aidan Gillen (of Queer as Folk, The Wire) to Ben Mendelsohn (of Animal Kingdom) to Burn Gorman (of Torchwood, The Hour).  In fact, playing “who is that actor, I know I’ve seen him someplace before” actually became one of the greatest pleasures in watching the movie.  For the record, The Dark Knight Rises is better than The Amazing Spider-Man, but not as good as The Avengers, and kind of, sort of feels like a franchise running out of steam.  The first half is filled with a lot of talk.  A  lot of talk.  I mean, a whole lot of it. And all of the philosophical sort.  While this sort of tete a tetes between characters gave The Dark Knight a certain excitement (I can still remember the conflicts over whether the existence of a Batman was a good or bad idea and what the existence of the Joker meant in all it), here the arguments tended to fall flat, leaden down by a certain banality.  I quickly discovered that during most of it, if I looked around at the audience and studied the lighting fixtures on the ceiling, the time passed more quickly and I didn’t miss a thing when it came to plot.  As you can tell, The Dark Knight Rises didn’t really work for me.  It wasn’t a totally loss.  There were some excellent performances, especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Blake, an ambitious police officer who was an orphan like Bruce Wayne.  Anne Hathaway was tres, tres amusement as Catwoman and enlivened every scene she was in (delivering her lines with a claw like emphasis—though I do wish she would gain a few pounds).  Marion Cotillard also acquitted herself well in a role that didn’t allow her to do much for most of the movie.  But the big problem came down to the performances of Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Tom Hardy as the bad guy du jour Bane—neither of which were the actors’ fault.  The authors here (director Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer) have never been able to make Bruce Wayne nor his alter ego remotely interesting.  What the character had in money, he always seemed to severely lack in personality.  Hardy had a different problem.  He wasn’t just hampered by a mask that hid his mouth (his most endearing feature), as well as prevented him from visually sharing his emotions (and also made it difficult to understand what he was saying—well, that wasn’t the mask, that was the sound engineers, I suppose).  He also played a character whose motivation for his actions were never very convincing and never made a lot of sense for most of the movie, and, to speak the truth and shame the devil, his bad guy just didn’t come near the complexity, power and evilness of the Joker.  There are a couple of big surprises at the end, both of which are fairly obvious about half way through the film, if not sooner.  And for me, the scenes that would have interested me the most, that would have given the movie that something more, were never fully dramatized—what Manhattan would look like under a fascist dictatorship run by a group of criminals.  In fact, this whole section never really made a great deal of sense to me.  Bane has said he is going to set off a nuclear weapon on an exact day, but no one seems to act like it.  It feels like one of these brilliant ideas that was never used to its utmost advantage.  In fact, the whole movie seemed rather tame in comparison to The Dark Knight.  The violence seemed less cruel and capricious; whether it did or not, it felt as if so much of it happened off screen.  It’s supposed to feel like anarchy has taken over, but it never felt particularly anarchic.  This time round Nolan, as director, only seems to come into his own when directing the action scenes where once again, New York becomes the new Tokyo (has any plot turn become a cliché so fast).  But when it came to the rest of the movie, it all sort of fell flat. 

THE PLOT COAGULATES: The National Board of Review Awards and the Oscars 2010


The National Board of Review Awards came out, which means that the race for the Oscar has officially begun (the NBR is the New Hampshire of the Academy). This also means I’ll postpone my column on the Best Actress race just a tad to analyze what the NBR awards mean.

Actually, they don’t mean an awful lot. The NBR and the Oscars sometimes agree (No Country for Old Men; Slumdog Millionare) and sometimes don’t (The Hurt Locker when NBR chose Up in the Air). The NBR is actually seen as a bit more mainstream, being conservative in their awards (like the Republican center right), which makes it surprising they chose The Social Network over The King’s Speech. That could suggest some sort of zeitgeist change in what people who give awards look for in movies, but it just as probably doesn’t.

I still think The King’s Speech will win Best Picture and Colin Firth Actor (over NBR’s choice of Jessi Eisenberg for The Social Network), if for no other reason than that the Weinsteins don’t mean a hoot to the NBR. Actress should still go to Annette Bening (over NBR’s Leslie Manville for Another Year). At the same time, the honors here for Manville and Eisenberg do help them gain a firm foundation for a nomination, so it is significant in that way. This also supports David Fincher being one of the five directing nominees that will have to be culled from the top ten titles come Academy Award voting time.

However, there are two awards that, gremlin like, could be throwing a monkey wrench into the proceedings. Best Supporting Actor went to Christian Bale for The Fighter. Bale is considered Geoffrey Rush’s main rival for the win and this will only keep Bale (a popular actor within the industry, even if he has a reputation for being difficult) in the mind’s eye. Best Supporting Actress is totally up in the air right now; NBR gave it (possibly very deservedly) to Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom. I don’t think this will move Taylor any closer to winning; it just keeps the Supporting Actress waters very muddy.

Also significant is that The Social Network won best Adapted Screenplay. I wasn’t sure whether Aaron Sorkin’s script was considered original or adapted. Since it’s adapted, David Seidler, who wrote The King’s Speech, can start rehearsing what he’s going to say Oscar night when he wins for Original Screenplay since Sorkin was his main, if only, rival. The award for Original Screenplay went to Chris Sparling for Buried, which may help jump start his campaign for a nom, but I can’t see it winning over The King’s Speech.

Best Foreign Language film went to Of Gods and Men from France. The winner of this award for the Oscars can often be determined solely by the subject matter of the film. Of Gods and Men is about conflict between a Catholic Order and Fundamentalists: sounds like a winner to me.

The Town got an award for Best Ensemble which could help Jeremy Renner’s chances for a Supporting Actor nom. Jennifer Lawrence got the Breakthrough Performance award which should help cement her nom for Best Actress.

And, of course, what’s very interesting here is what didn’t make the top ten lists. The Black Swan, 127 Hours and The Kids Are All Right, all considered shoe ins for nominations, were conspicuous by their absence.

Isn’t this fun.

TALKING TURKEY TWO: Predictions on the 2010 Oscars, Actor and Supporting Actor


The winner for Best Actor has generally been considered a shoe in: Colin Firth. This way the Academy can apologize for not giving it to him last year for A Single Man, when instead the voters gave a career award to Jeff Bridges (with irony attached—Jeff Bridges is supposed to be up against Firth again this year). However, now that the movie has opened, it also helps that it’s an excellent performance in the movie that is probably going to win best picture. Actually, though, Firth’s win was considered a shoe in a few months ago when the movie was just a gleam in its daddy’s eyes and nobody had seen it yet. This is sometimes called the Bette Davis or Jimmy Stewart award (Bette Davis won for Dangerous after not even getting an initial nomination for Of Human Bondage—though she did get enough write in votes to eventually put her in the top five; and Jimmy Stewart won for The Philadelphia Story to make up for not giving it to him for Mr. Smith Goes To Washington).

Firth’s main competition as of now is, contrastingly (yes, that is a word, or at least it doesn’t come up on my spellcheck) enough, James Franco for 127 Hours. I have to be honest; I don’t see Franco winning and I think this is more a case of wishful thinking on those who loved the movie. 127 Hours has only just opened and as the awards in fighting goes forward, I believe Franco’s possibility of capturing the gold plating will fade. Franco has worked incredibly hard to become a serious actor the last few years and though he has made great strides in that direction, I think the Academy hasn’t quite been convinced yet and would rather wait and see, rather than give him an award now. And besides, Firth has the Weinsteins behind him (can you say Gwyneth Paltrow).

The other nominees as of now will be Jeff Bridges for True Grit (with that irony thingy attached) and Javier Bardem for Biutiful, though neither have opened yet, so no one can be sure. But the buzz is very buzzy for them. The last position I’m giving to Jessie Eisenberg, who will be carried along by the support for the Social Network. There is talk of Michael Douglas, but rumor has it they are going to try to push him for Supporting Actor. Robert Duvall has years of reputation behind him for Get Low, but it’s a picture that’s come and gone and it’s hard to believe that his supporters will be able to renew excitement in it. Aaron Eckhardt has the least interesting role in The Rabbit Hole, which can’t help, and Ryan Gosling is one of our finest actors, but it looks like Blue Valentine is going to get lost in the holiday shuffle.

Supporting Actor again seems a shoe in for Geoffrey Rush, for a few reasons: It’s actually a lead; it’s been a pet project of his for some time (and the Academy likes to pet pet projects); and can you say Weinstein. He’s also great in it. His main rival seems to be Christian Bale for The Fighter. The movie has yet to open, but again, the buzz is very buzzy. But the winners in the supporting actor category tend to be a bit older (as opposed to the Supporting Actress category). The next two almost guaranteed a position are Mark Ruffalo for The Kids Are All Right (a well respected actor the Academy has always wanted to nominate, but for some reason the stars have never aligned in quite the right manner to do so yet) and Andrew Garfield for The Social Network, a rising star from England (and the next Spidey Man, so he better get a nomination now before Hollywood destroys all his credibility as a serious actor).

The last position is a knock down drag out fight among Michael Douglas (if they push him for Wall Street II); Matt “True Grit” Damon (another of those well respected actors who the Academy just hasn’t been able to nominate, at least since Good Will Hunting); and Jeremy Renner (who probably deserves it for The Town). There’s some support for Sam Rockwell, but the movie’s come and gone. Other actors have been mentioned; in fact, a large number of actors have been mentioned (Aaron Eckhardt, Vincent Cassel, Justin Timberlake, Sean Penn, Jim Broadbent, Bill Murray), basically meaning that this last position is really up in the air. In the end, it all depends here on how those damn stars align.

Next Actresses.

BAD BOYS, BAD BOYS, WATCHA GONNA DO WHEN THEY COME FOR YOU: REVIEW OF PUBLIC ENEMIES


I spent more than two hours with John Dillinger in Public Enemies and after all was said and done, I still felt like I didn’t know a damn thing about him. According to what everybody says (including the screenwriters Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann—who also directed—and Ann Biderman), he was popular with the people, though it was never clear why (his bank robberies, carried out in beautiful cathedral like buildings, were horrendously brutal and he would take terrified hostages with him, scaring the living bejesus out of them; maybe things were different in the 1930’s, but in today’s society, it’s doubtful this Dillinger would have been voted most popular in high school). Dillinger tells his girlfriend Billie (played well enough by French flavor of the month Marion Cotillard) that he believes in living for now, which is great, except that you never really see him living at all. Johnny Depp is perfectly fine as Dillinger, though he doesn’t have much of a character to play. Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis has absolutely no character to play and proceeds not to play it (the titles at the end inform the audience that he killed himself as if that meant something, though it’s unclear what). There are some fine performances in supporting roles like Stephen Graham who is pure loony tunes as Baby Face Nelson and Patrick Zielinski in a blink or you’ll miss him scene as a doctor. But perhaps the best performance is Billy Cruddup who is absolute brilliance as a tense and wound up J. Edgar Hoover, full of repressed fury. Unfortunately, one of my favorite character actors, Lily Taylor, is on hand in a misogynistic joke about women sheriffs (what do these screenwriters have against women). The set and art direction is quite impressive. But after it was all over, I still wasn’t quite sure why anybody wanted to make this movie.