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 EVIL THAT MEN DO: Reviews of The White Ribbon and A Prophet


Near the end of The White Ribbon, the great Austrian director Michael (Code: Unknown, Cache) Haneke’s most recent film, a schoolteacher tells a group of children, “There’s something you’re not telling me”. As much as I admire Haneke, in the end I wanted to say the same thing to him. The film, I’m afraid, went over my head, and I felt as if there was something that Haneke just wasn’t letting me in on. It takes place just before the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and the beginning of WWI. Over the course of a year, some odd things happen in a small German town. It begins when someone strings a wire across two trees so that it will trip a doctor returning home on his horse; serious injuries occur. Over the course of a year, a woman dies accidentally; the very young son of the local Baron is abducted and beaten; a baby almost dies because a window is left open; someone commits suicide; a retarded little boy is then abducted and tortured; etc., etc. You know there’s something wrong from the first moment when you see the children of the local pastor and they all look like the cold, blond children from Village of the Damned. The origin of the evil is unclear. On one side is the pastor who is severely strict with his children and sexually repressive; on the other is the Doctor, who though not portrayed as an atheist, does not seem to attend church—he sexually abuses his daughter and sexually humiliates his mistress. In spite of what seems like a lot of awful things happening, they happen over such a long course of time and sometimes seem to have no relation to each other, that I found little tension to the story. A narrator suggests that things are festering in the village and have been for some time; I’m glad he told me, because I don’t think I would have known otherwise. The plot ends without an explanation as to who did some of what happened; this would have been fine if that had been the intent of Haneke, to say that the origin of evil is something we don’t understand. But I’m not convinced that that’s what he was trying to say. It seems to come closer to an idea that sexual repression and sexual hypocrisy is what causes evil, but I have a hard time taking seriously the idea that just because someone is forbidden to masturbate, Europe goes to war. It does look great, though. The bleak and striking black and white photography, greatly celebrated, is by Christian Berger.


A Prophet, the thrilling new film from Jacques Audiard (who also gave us The Beat That My Heart Skipped), has been compared by some to the Godfather. I think a more apt comparison is to Scarface since A Prophet is the story of a teenager sent to an adult jail, a man of Muslim and Middle Eastern background, and then climbs the ranks of the Corsican Mob and becomes head honcho. It’s not a particularly happy movie. The lead character of Malik, in a magnificent performance by Tahar Rahim, has little control over his life once he enters this prison for six years. The Corsican mob, headed by Cesar (an equally compelling performance by Niels Arestrup), needs a Middle Eastern prisoner, a witness in a trial, killed, so he forces Malik to do it or die himself. After that, Malik becomes Cesar’s lapdog, but he slowly gets an education and because he can stride both sides of the narrow world due to his Muslim background and his connections to the Corsicans, he learns how to play one against the other until he betrays Cesar and takes over Rome (the scene of Malik’s final triumph over Cesar in the prison yard is a powerful moment). Malik’s journey is an exciting one. The screenplay, by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain form an original screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit, has a Shakespearian structure out of something like Richard III or King John and could almost be a how to manual for climbing the French Mafia ladder. One could question whether someone who can’t even read could suddenly have an epiphany and educate himself enough to do what Malik does here, but the story is too fascinating to make one care. The world the authors paint is bleak and the indictment of the French penal system is just as dark as Kafka’s. The prison is not run by the guards and warden, it’s run by the mob, and all programs set up to help reform the prisoners (like giving them a basic education or work leave) are just ways to help criminals become better at what they do (I don’t think we’re in Oz anymore, Dorothy). It’s a very nihilistic view of the world; evil runs everything, and if we are untouched by it, we are merely lucky. At the same time, there’s something a little contradictory here. If evil is so controlling, then it may be unclear how the head of the Corsican mob ended up in jail probably to die there.