American Hustle

January 1, 2014 by  
Filed under Movies

David O. Russell has been one of of the best filmmakers of the 21st century and his last film, “Silver Linings Playbook”, was my favorite film of the year. In “American Hustle” he reuses many of the same actors he’s been using for his past few films, and brings another great story to the screen. There’s a caption at the beginning of the film letting us know that “some of this actually happened”. The true part of the story centers around a con set up by the FBI to nab politicians, including the mayor of Camden, NJ as part of what they called “Abscam”.

In the film, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small time crook posing as a legit businessman who embezzles money from his clients. He meets Sydney (Amy Adams) and for the first time in his life he falls in love. He is already married, and has a child, whom he tries to take care of. But his double life as a con artist keeps him from being anything close to an All American Dad. He hires Sydney to play the part of his assistant, going by the name of Edith Greensley and is busted by a potential client named Richie (Bradley Cooper) who happens to be an undercover FBI agent. Once they’re busted, Rosenfeld has one shot to stay out of prison by helping the FBI go after bigger fish in a program they call ABSCAM. Rosenfeld goes along with it, but finds himself becoming genuinely friendly with the Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). The mayor is not corrupt at all, and Rosenfeld shares a similar childhood background. Meanwhile, the FBI sets up a staged meeting with the Arab Sheikh (Michael Pena) as a potential investor to work with the mayor. But things get complicated when it’s discovered that the mayor, while being free of actual criminality, is involved with big time criminals that gives Irving some doubts as to the plan working. He also doesn’t want to sell out his now friend, something he’s never really had to confront. For the first time in his life, he has an actual moral dilemma. His wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) also becomes friends with Carmine and his wife Dolly, which complicates things as well. Rosalyn is a dangerous girl–smart, but also absent minded sometimes. But Irving really doesn’t have a choice but to go along with everything, even though he starts to see Sydney seemingly having feelings for Richie as they start to work together.

This is all pretty familiar territory as far as plot and theme goes. But with a strong cast and David O. Russell’s unique touch, it brings the film out of anything formula and turns it into a rather special film to experience. Bale’s Irving is a very conflicted person, and at times you’re not really sure what’s going on in his head. Even when he’s narrating the film. He has a heart condition, and at times stresses himself out almost to the point of having a heart attack. His demeanor never really shifts, even when his comb-over is messed up by Richie at one point.

The whole film has a comedic tone but also an underlying seriousness that keeps it credible. It doesn’t ever cross the line into obvious comedy, except a few moments including an altercation between Richie and his boss, Stoddard (well played by Louis C.K.). “American Hustle” has laughs, but also moments of poignancy that gives the film depth. It may not be as great as “Silver Linings Playbook” but it’s certainly another great addition into David O. Russell’s filmography.

My rating: :-)

J. Edgar

November 26, 2011 by  
Filed under Movies

Clint Eastwood has quite the challenge here: take one of the most unlikable persons of 20th century American history, and make a movie about him that paints him in a kind of sympathetic light. Now, we all know that J. Edgar Hoover should be credited with inventing the FBI. Mulder and Scully wouldn’t exist without him. But beyond that, in some cases Hoover used the same kind of subservice tactics to apprehend criminals that they used to be criminals in the first place. Not to mention that Hoover never seemed to ever recognize organized crime, which was rampant during his tenure as the big guy behind the desk. He also invented a lot of stories about his adventurous exploits that were total fiction. In essence, we have a very careful, paranoid, and highly insecure man at the center of this biopic.

Now, Eastwood enlists a good cast of actors to take care of things. Leonard DiCaprio, who has had an up and down career since “Titanic”; but he has still had some powerful performances (“Shutter Island” comes instantly to mind), and after acclimating yourself to the somewhat off-putting accent in the beginning moments of the film as DiCaprio narrates as an aging J. Edgar, he does wind up sewing together a very solid portrait of who J. Edgar Hoover was as a person. He really does eventually become him, in a way I haven’t seen DiCaprio do with a biographical character. He tried it in “The Aviator”, but that performance was somewhat stilted by a banal screenplay and a director who was going through the motions. He was better at it in “Catch Me If You Can”, but I still felt that as a boyish looking actor, he was miscast for someone who was consistently mistaken for being older than he was.

Here, once you get past the awkward accent and the extremely bad make-up, you really lose consciousness of DiCaprio as an actor, and see him as simply J. Edgar Hoover.

Unfortunately for the film, it doesn’t go much beyond that. Dustin Lance Black pens the screenplay, but his talents were much better suited for the superior “Milk”, a film about an overt homosexual man who was a prominent figure in civil rights for gays during his time, and made it even better by not just making it about Milk, but about adversity and insecurity of homophobic straight men. But here, Black unfortunately doesn’t have a lot of evidence to work with while building the narrative arc for J. Edgar Hoover because, unfortunately, his personal file was shredded at the time of his death. So Black does what he can, and while he does paint a very interesting story about a man conflicted, it just doesn’t transcend the bigger question: Why did J. Edgar become what he was, and why did he do the things he did? And I’m not just talking about wearing a dress. That actually is somewhat answered (and is actually one of the better scenes in the film). The men in Hoover’s life prove to be more influential to him, except for his mother (played by Judi Dench) who shapes some of his personal issues, at the same time giving him confidence about his professional endeavors. The other woman, Helen Gandy, his assistant (played by Naomi Watts), has less influence on him but is never too far from him.

Professionally, Hoover was a very questionable person. He seemed to contradict himself, and go after Communism at a Joe McCarthy level of enthusiasm–but considered McCarthy as less than his equal. He stood by the presidents he served, but he challenged the political powers that be to gain more power for himself and become his own boss. Really, by the time Nixon was president, he was his own shadow.

Except, personally–he did have a shadow, in Clyde Tolson (played wonderfully by Armie Hammer). Tolson’s older self also suffers from bad make-up–probably the worst make-up I’ve ever seen applied to someone outside of a cheap Haunted Corn Maze ride. But credit Hammer with bringing as much credibility to someone in badly applied makeup as I’ve ever seen. Tolson is someone that J. Edgar Hoover admired and trusted in; but more than that, allegedly, he may have even loved deeper than a platonic friendship. Now, there’s never been any real evidence that this was true. But Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay doesn’t necessarily try to make something out of nothing. Tolson and Hoover have a very strong professional relationship as well. And some of the ways they spend time with each other, you can’t help but wonder. There’s a climactic scene between the two of them (calm down, it’s not what you think) that really shows what both of those men really are. Tolson is more brave, more resolute, more honest. Hoover is a coward.

Maybe that’s what Eastwood wanted to show, and I guess that’s the point. But can we really sympathize with Hoover, knowing what we know professionally about him? That really isn’t exploited in the film; it deals too much with his personal inner conflicts. I think that’s a misstep. Hoover became a power monger himself, and the film spends too much time giving him credit for the Lindbergh baby incident–not enough time exposing some of the fraudulent things he did. In fact, in the scene showing his file being shredded, there’s a sort of comical tone to it as if we’re supposed to laugh it off.

Well, that really shouldn’t be shrugged off. It’s because of that that we really don’t get the whole story with Hoover. Ultimately, while all the dressing and sides are good, the meat of the meal is very thin and stringy. And even with the strong performances, the film fails at its core.

To me, Clint Eastwood is losing a little bit of his grip on some of his later films. He used to really execute with a quiet brilliance. “A Perfect World” and of course “Mystic River” come to mind. But now, he seems to be just collecting a paycheck instead of having a vision. I hope he reverts to his old self, because he’s one of the finest directors out there now. But he should be aptly criticized when he doesn’t live up to his potential.

My rating: :?