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.

Race for the Oscars 2012: Reevaluation of My Screenplay Nominations



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For my final reevaluation of my Oscar noms (until my next set of reevaluations), I will end with Best Screenplay, Original and Adapted
I will begin with the Best Original Screenplay category.  My original choices were:  
Mark Boal for Zero Dark Thirty to win
Michael  Hanake for Amour
Romain Coppola and Wes Anderson for Moonrise Kingdom
Quintin Tarantino for Django Unchained
Martin McDonagh for Seven Psychopaths
Other possiblities:  Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master; Woody Allen for To Rome With Love;  John Gatins for Flight; Rian Johnson for Looper;  Jacques Audiar, Thomas Bidegain and Craig Davidson for Rust and Bone
No pundit seems to be thinking that Seven Psychopaths will make it, which is a shame.  But I will be removing it for now.  I’m also not sure about The Master (I can’t get a real read on how the various voters are feeling toward it) or Moonrise Kingdom, which many voters may just have forgotten. 
Of course, To Rome with Love is out, as is Flight and Rust and Bone.  Looper is the big fly in the ointment.  It’s getting quite a lot of attention.  So I am going to predict:
Mark Boal for Zero Dark Thirty to win
Michael  Hanake for Amour
Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master
Quintin Tarantino for Django Unchained
Rian Johnson for Looper
Adapted screenplay:
David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook to win
Tony Kushner for Lincoln
Chris Terrio for Argo
Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar for Beasts of the Southern Wild
William Nicholson for Les Miserables
Other possibilities:  Stephen Chobosky for The Perks of Being a Wallflower; David Magee for Life of Pi; Ben Lewin for The Sessions; Tim Burton and Leonard Ripps for Frankenweenie; John J. McLaughlin for Hitchcock
I think that the only one right now that could be pushed out is Les Miserables.  But I’m going to stick with my choices here and not change anything.
That is that until I reevaluate it again.

OSCAR RACE 2012–BEST DIRECTOR



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Continuing my Oscar predictions, the next category is Director.  In certain ways, picking the director nominees used to be fairly easy.  You selected which five films you thought would be nominated for best picture and then try and decide which one wouldn’t correspond with a director (there often was one difference).  But now that it is possible for there to be up to ten picture nominees, this sort of throws a monkey wrench into the system.
In many ways, you still make your guesses using the same principle.  You decide which five movies you suspect would have been the nominees if the rules of up to ten weren’t in existence and you take that as your cue for your basic list of for the director’s category.
Like all the other categories, the top five seem to be slowly rising to the top.  So to the list:
Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty to win.  It’s not just the double whammy so far of winning the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review awards.  There’s no guarantee that that translates into an Oscar win, though at the same time, it don’t hurt.  Part of what is helping here is that Argo, which had the lead, peaked and was being overshadowed by Spielberg and Lincoln (which was more successful than was originally thought) and is now being overshadowed by Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty as well.  Will she win?  Right now it’s all buzz, but the buzz is deaf impairing, so unless the movie opens and then crashes and burns, it seems she’s got it (the first female director to win twice; the first to be even nominated twice).
Steven Spielberg for Lincoln.  This seems like a done deal, not just because it’s Lincoln directed by Spielberg, but also because it did much better than anyone expected (which is important since people expected it to do well as it was).
Ben Affleck for Argo.  Once the front runner for winning, but has now been eclipsed.  But his nomination still seems like it’s in with the in crowd.
Tom Hooper for Les Miserables.  My only hesitation here is that the movie hasn’t opened and I’m a little loathe to make a prediction for a musical (I still remember Nine), but it looks like a sure thing.
David O. Russell for Silver Linings Playbook.  It’s a serious comedy and that doesn’t hurt and people just seem to love it to death. 
Now there are definitely other possibilities, but here is where things get tricky.  If you think that another director is going to get in there, you’re going to have to decide who won’t make it.   Right now, I think only Tom Hooper and David O. Russell have a chance of being unseated and replaced by: Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master (the issue here is that the critics loved it, but the public, which includes the voters, didn’t); Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild (deserving, and the strongest possibility for an upset as far as I’m concerned); Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained (the movie is too unknown a quantity and it may open too late to really excite people); Peter Jackson for The Hobbit (he’s already got it for The Lord of the Rings, I can’t see them doing it again and some people haven’t been happy with some of his directorial choices; it may also be opening too late for people to care); Michael Haneke for Amour (probably deserving, but he’s probably going to get shut out; and since it’s going to win Best Foreign Language Film, they’ll probably nominate it for screenplay and forget the direction); Wes Anderson for Moonrise Kingdom (forget about it, it will be Zeitlin before Anderson). 

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK



Before the start of Silver Linings Playbook (which I and my friends saw at the wonderful Vista Theatre), my friend leaned over to me and said, “I can’t wait.  One more Django Unchained preview and we’ve got the whole set”.
Silver Linings Playbook, writer/director David O. Russell’s new upbeat film about downbeat subject matter (an appropriately bipolar approach to the thematic elements here perhaps), was probably not best served by its previews which advertised a movie that came across as a lighthearted romp of a rom com filled with stock characters and a formulaic plot (I almost became as depressed as some of the characters on screen at the thought of having to watch it).  Even the title conjures up nightmares of Shirley Temple, Pollyanna and Little Orphan Annie.   Though I can’t say the actual movie manages to completely avoid these issues, at the same time, for a rom com, it’s not really that lighthearted or even that funny with scenes that cut a bit too close to reality to entice laughter; the characters are far more complex that you might think; and the formula, well, yes, that’s a harder one to defend, though it must be said that Russell does some clever stuff here to make the medicine go down.   
SLP (as it’s acronymically known) starts out a bit wobbly.   I think for me that was due to Bradley Cooper (in the lead role of bi-polar and deeply, emotionally unstable Pat) being the first actor thrust upon us.  Cooper acquits himself well enough in the role.  He’s definitely not bad and at times rather good.  At the same time, his matinee idol looks and a somewhat bland, slightly monotone reading of his lines was not a good sign.  And when he acts opposite other superior thespians in the film, this flaw got magnified just a tiny bit.  At the same time, as the story goes on, Cooper’s performance does grow on you, as does his character.  He becomes more and more like Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward and even Joan Crawford, actors who substituted natural talent with hard work to such a degree that at times one couldn’t really tell the difference.
The real standout here is Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany (as fragile as that glass, perhaps?), a remarkable actress who came to real prominence in her Oscar nominated role in Winter’s Bone (and then proved not only could she act, she could also make a ton of money in the soon to be franchise The Hunger Games).  She has something that most actors would die for, a pair of the most expressive eyes anyone could ever want, eyes that with a slight (very slight) flickering change of expression can careen from impudence, to pain, to fury, to wonderful comic timing (for some reason, this thought makes me think of the lines from Rebecca: “Most girls would give their eyes to see Monte!” “Wouldn’t that rather defeat the purpose?”).   And she has palpable chemistry with Cooper, which don’t hurt.
She’s backed by a well cast supporting set of players.  First, what is it about Boardwalk Empire anyway which seems to be the go to place now as the best television series to find the most talented fillers for smaller rolls (this time round Shea Whigham as Pat’s older brother).  But more to the point, Robert De Niro as Pat’s father (it’s been awhile since he’s had a role this worthy of his talents) scores as a man with his own pain, as well as OCD and anger management issues, while Jacki Weaver (the monstrous “And you’ve done some bad things sweetie, haven’t you?” matron in Animal Kingdom) uses a kewpie doll voice to match a face constantly filled with worry in the role of Pat’s mother.   In many ways, I think this is Russell’s real triumph here, the very accurate portrayal of people caught in the whirlwind of someone who is bi-polar, people who simply don’t know what to do, especially when the person who desperately needs help won’t help himself and even claims that he is fine and doesn’t need any help (and a sledgehammer wouldn’t convince him), people who can change from despair to euphoria and vice versa on the turn of a single line. 
The script does falter a bit after the half way point as Russell has to set up various plot points to force the ending.   This is where the formula charge has a certain validity.  The way everything works out, as well as how all the various plot points come together, is rather familiar and predictable with few surprises.  At the same time, Russell pulls some cleverness out of his hat here, especially in a scene in which everybody sets up a parlay bet, a scene so hysterically funny, so preposterous and ridiculous, you forget it’s covering up a formulaic turn in the plot and that in certain ways, it’s really not very believable.   
I also have a few other regrets here.  I strongly, and very pompously, suggest it would have been better if one of the best scenes, a montage of Tiffany and Pat dancing while in the background the haunting Girl From North County played in juxtaposition, probably came too early and would have worked a bit better closer to the finale.  And the final dance number is a bit disappointing since it was choreographed more by the editor than by dancer Mandy Moore (this is one of the downsides to the fall of the studio system—up until the 1950’s or ‘60’s, Lawrence and Cooper would have been rehearsing this scene for ages before the actual shooting so that it could done with only a few cuts—the difference in effect is a bit of a letdown). 
But at the same time Russell has created a deeply moving and often powerful movie here (one that, based on YouTube sensations staring the aforesaid director, makes one wonder whether part of the sensitivity here is due to some autobiographical element—but, of course, I really have no idea and would never venture to suggest such a possibility).  One can’t deny the effect the ending has on the audience.  It’s doubtful that few will leave disappointed.