American Hustle


The 70s - the sexy decade.

The 70s – the sexy decade.

(2013) Drama (Columbia) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elizabeth Rohm, Robert De Niro, Paul Herman, Said Taghmaoui, Adrian Martinez, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Camp, Steve Gagliastro, Christy Scott Cashman, Becki Dennis. Directed by David O. Russell

Ah, the 70s. The Disco decade; home to the bellbottoms generation in which fashion and hair were so hideous that even the 80s looks more reasonable. The era in which the music scene was so stodgy that punk had to be invented to kick start rock and roll from a moribund existence (although to be honest I’ve always thought the accusation a bit unfair). In movies it was the time of the anti-hero when Travis Bickle, Dirty Harry and Billy Jack roamed the silver screen. Rodney Dangerfield might have said that the 70s don’t get no respect.

It was also the time of ABSCAM, an FBI sting operation that netted corrupt politicians amid accusations of entrapment. The latest from Oscar-nominated director David O. Russell is loosely based on that affair. Here, manic FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) has small time con man and dry cleaner Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) by the shorties. Irv has been selling fake loans to desperate businessmen and pocketing the fees. He is aided by his sexy girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Adams) who affects an English accent although she’s from Albuquerque.

DiMaso has Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) in his crosshairs and thinks that Irv and Sydney can sweet talk the mayor into accepting money from an Arab sheikh to help rebuild Atlantic City and erect the casinos that he knows can turn the city around. While the FBI doesn’t have any sheikhs sitting around headquarters with nothing to do, Irv knows where to get one and it looks like he might just get out of this thing okay.

But things quickly start spiraling out of control. Irv’s wife – yes he has a wife too – Rosalyn (Lawrence) gets wind of what’s going on and knows enough to really throw a monkey wrench in the works. Carmine also brings in a mobster (De Niro) from Miami who is no fool and doesn’t play nice if he thinks that things are snarky and brother, nothing is more snarky than what’s going down in this hustle. To make matters worse, Carmine turns out to be a pretty decent guy who only wants to help the people of Atlantic City; he’s just willing to take an inadvisable shortcut to do it and Irv starts to get second thoughts about nailing him.

The story is more parable than plot having to do with control and power and how it corrupts, but that’s really not what the movie’s about. What the movie is really about is the characters and Russell may well be the best ensemble director in Hollywood right now. He has collected an impressive group of actors, some of the best working today.

Nobody throws themselves into  a role as physically as Bale. He gained some 50 pounds for this role and affected a slouch (which led to him being treated for two herniated discs) as well as a hideous combover which all became affectations of the character which helped sum up Irv in just a glance. Irv is wary about the world and doesn’t trust anyone and with good cause. He’s smart, smart enough to know that while he’s smarter than most people he’s not as smart as everyone and that the best strategy for any good con is to have a way out. Bale makes this character who might easily have become just another lowlife loser in lesser hands into a sympathetic almost-a-hero.

In fact, all of the characters wind up gaining a certain amount of sympathy from the audience which is quite a feat, even the somewhat loathsome DiMaso. Cooper understands that Richie is desperate to become somebody and lives in fear that he will be forever a non-entity. That fear drives him, makes him take unrealistic chances and to leap when he should look. It also creates a rage within him, a rage that he takes out on his hapless boss (C.K.).

Lawrence has become one of the most capable actresses in Hollywood over the last few years and while her role here is clearly a supporting one, she has one scene that is absolutely breathtaking. Just listen for the strains of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” and you’ll understand. Rosalyn is a Jersey princess who comes off as plenty dumb but is a lot smarter in the end than anyone might think. She also rocks the lame dress you see in the poster.

Me though I thought the performance of the film belonged to Amy Adams. Dressed in sultry low-cut dresses she’s always threatening to fall out of, this is a strong brassy character but inside she is a frightened little girl holding off the cruelty of life with an English accent. When that vulnerability shows through as it does on a few occasions, Adams just rips it up. I don’t know that she’ll get an Oscar nomination for this one but she not only richly deserves one, I think she might just have put together a performance that beats out Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity. It’s neck and neck in my book for best actress of the year.

With all that going for it, you’d think I’d have loved the movie but curiously I didn’t love it. I liked it a lot, respected it a great deal but I just didn’t fall in love with the movie. It didn’t connect with me somehow; maybe it’s the length which seems to drag on a bit. Maybe it’s just that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it – there are elements of black comedy here as well as a scam movie. I admire that Russell stayed true not only to the setting but the way movies were made in that era. From a strictly craft point of view this is excellent filmmaking.

So take my lack of enthusiasm for what it’s worth. Sometimes you see a movie you admire but you just don’t connect with it for whatever reason. It happens. I get the sense my wife loved the movie more than I did but I don’t think she was all that enthusiastic in her love either. In any case from my point of view this is a movie that inspires respect and admiration more than devotion. Take from that what you will.

REASONS TO GO: High level performances all around.

REASONS TO STAY: Too long. For whatever reason I couldn’t connect with it.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a ton of swearing, some brief violence and some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming in Boston was delayed because of the Boston Marathon bombing; afterwards Adams, Cooper, Bale and Renner all visited victims of the attack in area hospitals.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iceman

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Apocalypto

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Star Trek: Insurrection


Data has a bad day.

Data has a bad day.

(1998) Science Fiction (Paramount) Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, Levar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, F. Murray Abraham, Donna Murphy, Anthony Zerbe, Gregg Henry, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Michael Welch, Mark Deakins, Stephanie Niznik, Michael Horton, Bruce French, Tom Morello, Jennifer Tung. Directed by Jonathan Frakes

I sometimes like to characterize myself as a Trekker with both eyes wide open. In other words, I love the world that Gene Roddenberry created, but I don’t love it blindly.

“Insurrection,” the ninth movie in Paramount’s cash-cow franchise, posits a race (the Baku) who are being studied in secret by the Federation and their new allies, the Son’a. When Data (Spiner), a member of the study team and as all good Trekkers know, an integral part of the crew of the Enterprise-D goes berserk. Captain Picard (Stewart) abruptly leaves a diplomatic mission to go and see what’s goin’ on, to quote Marvin Gaye.

What’s going on is that a smarmy Starfleet admiral (Zerbe) has put the Federation in bed with the nasty Son’a (you know they’re nasty because they use subspace weapons and even the Borg don’t stoop to that), with the intention of forcing the peaceful Baku to another world. It seems that particles in the rings of the Baku planet give off an energy that, properly processed, can reverse the aging process … indefinitely. In short, a kind of stellar Fountain of Youth.

Picard objects strenuously, but because of the planet’s location in a remote corner of the quadrant, communication with the Powers That Be in the Federation is impossible. Picard must rely on his own code of ethics to guide him. The title should tell you which direction he leans toward.

Producer Rick Berman may have been too overloaded when making this movie, with two television series and the feature film to contend with, along with the opening of a then-new attraction in Las Vegas. Insurrection is unable to break the curse of the odd-numbered Trek movies – the worst films in the franchise to this point are all odd numbered. Insurrection isn’t as bad as The Final Frontier, but it doesn’t really distinguish itself, either.

The trouble with the Trek movies is that too many of them have a perspective too influenced by the television screen. They don’t really fill up the big screen all that well, unless Nicholas Meyer is directing them. But then, unlike many of the Trek directors, Meyer already had a couple of feature films under his belt before tackling Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that Paramount has often had to offer the directing reins to actors in order to get them to play ball. This leads to the odd situation of having some of the studio’s most valuable properties in the hands of inexperienced directors.

It’s not that director Jonathan Frakes (who also plays First Officer Riker) is incompetent, it’s just that I’d wanted to see more cinematic sweep to a Star Trek movie than heretofore had been shown. For example, Insurrection alludes to a Federation that is desperate for allies after being decimated by the Borg and is involved with a life-or-death struggle with the Dominion. Against that background, you’d think you could get a better plot than one that basically says that forced relocation is a bad thing. I think most of us have already figured that one out.

In a situation like the one described above, you’d also think that the Federation’s premier starship would be on the front lines instead of making diplomatic contact with second-rate species, but that’s just a minor point. The problem here is that once again it seems to be the Picard-Data-Worf (Dorn) show, as LaForge (Burton), Dr. Crusher (McFadden) and Counselor Troi (Sirtis) are given almost nothing to do. Riker is kind of involved but for the most part, it’s all platitudes and posturing and not enough gee whiz.

At the time this was made, I really wanted to see Star Trek movies become more like Major Events with storylines that directly influenced the television shows without forcing the audience to be immersed in the show (as the X-Files movie did). That, sadly, never came to pass which might be just as well; the last two Star Trek movies which have rebooted the cinematic franchise have become Event Films. Part of the problem with Insurrection was the miserly budget which in many ways was justified – up to that point the cinematic Star Trek wasn’t pulling in enough box office for the most part to justify nine figure budgets. The reality was that Trekkers were getting more than their fix of the franchise on TV and the TV version was in many ways superior to what was going up on the big screen. Why pay to see something you can see for free at home, and it’s hard to blame audiences for that. Still, seeing what Marvel is doing with their franchise tells me that it could have been done. Ah well, I suppose in this case I was slightly ahead of my time – or overreaching the grasp of my beloved franchise.

WHY RENT THIS: You’re a Trekker completist. Holds up well among the Next Generation movies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks cinematic scope, playing as an extended TV episode. Tame action scenes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sci-fi violence, a few mildly bad words and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The first Star Trek movie in which all of the outer space shots were computer generated. Among the firms providing CGI and software support were Blue Sky Studios and Pixar, both of which would go on to be major CGI animation studios.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2-disc DVD Collector’s edition includes a look at Alien women in the Star Trek universe and fairly detailed looks at how some of the special effects were created. The Blu-Ray edition (available as part of a collection of Star Trek: Next Generation films) adds a Trek Roundtable in which fans and experts discuss the film with an eye to its place in the overall Star Trek universe and a Star Trek Academy feature which is set up as an Academy lecture on the origins of the conflict between the Baku and the Son’a.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.6M on a $58M production budget; the movie pretty much broke even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit-Proof Fence

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Good Neighbours

The Matrix Reloaded


The Matrix Reloaded

Definitely not “Singing in the Rain.”

(2003) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Monica Bellucci, Daniel Bernhardt, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Anthony Zerbe, Harold Perrineau, Collin Chou, Gloria Foster, Lambert Wilson, Harry Lennix, Randall Duk Kim. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

 

Movies like this create a lot controversy by their very nature. A messianic figure, cutting-edge special effects and an overall hipper-than-thou feel. All of this and being the most eagerly-anticipated movie of the year, sure to be a box-office bonanza. No pressure here.

Those who saw the “Animatrix” episode that played before the theatrical version of Dreamcatcher (or downloaded it off the internet) know what is revealed early on in the picture. Some time has passed since the events of the first Matrix movie, and changes are coming to both the computer-generated world of the Matrix, as well as the bleak world of reality. Neo (Reeves) is responsible for the “awakening” of an unprecedented number of humans, swelling the population of Zion. However, one of the hoverships has discovered that the machines are drilling — directly above Zion — and hundreds of thousands of Sentinels follow the drills. Should the drills arrive at Zion, millions will die. Possibly the entire human race will be wiped out.

The Oracle (Foster in her final role; she died in 2001) has urgent information for Neo, but Agent Smith (Weaving) is close on Neo’s tail, and Smith has become a rogue program in the Matrix (a virus, maybe?), out of control and self-replicating, leading to a spectacular sequence in which Neo takes on hundreds of annoyed-looking Agent Smiths.

There are others who don’t want those questions answered, but Neo knows that the only way to save humankind is to access the machine world’s mainframe, source of the Matrix, and take it on. In order to do that he will have to rescue the Keymaker (Kim) and get a specific key from him. However, he must find the Keymaker first to do that and he’ll have to take on the Merovingian (Wilson) to get there. Once he finds the key, what’s behind the door it unlocks calls into question everything we knew, or thought we knew about the world of the Matrix.

The movie ends on a cliffhanger note, which leaves the viewer vaguely unsatisfied. Still, there’s a lot to digest, a very complex storyline and some of the most amazing visuals imaginable. As action movies go, this one may be the one that takes the cake – at least in terms of the first part of the decade.  The freeway chase scene which features lots of leaping onto and from moving vehicles is one of the most thrilling ever filled and is worth the price of buying the DVD or Blu-Ray all by it’s lonesome.

On the minus side, Reeves continues to be one of the most wooden actors ever. He’s unconvincing as a messiah, and his relationship with Trinity (Moss) generates no chemistry. Thankfully, the other players – Morpheus (Fishburne), Link (Perrineau), Niobe (Smith), Persephone (Bellucci), Seraph (Chou), the Twins (Neil and Adrian Rayment), Commander Lock (Harry Lennix), the Merovingian (Wilson) and Counselor Hamann (Zerbe) – more than make up for Reeve’s lack of emotions.

This is a great action movie that set the standard for that genre circa 2003. That said, it isn’t perfect, and go in knowing there are some fairly major flaws. However, after seeing it in theaters back in the day I was left anticipating the final chapter – The Matrix Revolutions – which came out later that same year and therefore the movie accomplished mostly what it needed to.

WHY RENT THIS: Incredible action sequences. Some great supporting performances. Visionary and unique.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t live up to the first film. Relationship between Neo and Trinity lacks heat. Reeves still curiously flat as Neo.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s plenty of violence and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Aaliyah was originally cast in the movie to play Zee but she died in a plane crash before filming began. Nona Gaye was cast in her place.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a 22-minute featurette on the making of the freeway chase scene, one of the best in history. There’s a making-of featurette on two promo commercials for product tie-ins (yes, really) and a parody skit from the opening of the 2004 MTV Movie Awards. The Blu-Ray edition includes a music video from P.O.D. and a look at the making of Enter the Matrix, the videogame that served as a compliment to the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMNCE: $742.1M on a $150M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Lightkeepers