Sunday, December 29, 2013

American Hustle: A Rebuttal

It’s rare that I write a take down review of a film I’m not much enamored with. I have always told myself that I hardly have enough time to write about all the films that I love, let alone find the time to write about films I dislike. Occasionally I get inspired however to write a contrarian view, especially when the film in question seems to be garnering heaps of praise. David O. Russell’s latest film, American Hustle seems to be building a good deal of momentum as the awards season kicks into gear. It has received a 90% rating at Metacritic and 94% at Rottentomatoes, certainly highly regarded from nearly the entire critical establishment. Watching the film first hand though, is something of a let-down. What is set up as a promising farcical piece of comedy led by an outstanding cast turns out to be cinematically sloppy, and is brought down by poorly executed pacing, such that one feels nearly every one of the 129 minutes.  Many people that I love and respect greatly, have an admiration for this film. I want to say that in no way whatsoever, should anyone who likes this film, view my thoughts as any sort of condemnation of them personally. I aim simply to express my thoughts on this film and to present very detailed analysis for why I think the film fails to reach its potential and thus remains underwhelming.

As most are aware, the film is about the inner workings of the Abscam Con in 1978, set in New Jersey and regarding the lives of a few con artists and related characters, among them those in the FBI and the mayor of Camden NJ. I’m not even going to get into the fact that the film's plot and execution plays as poor-man’s Scorsese. This angle to me, is the weakest argument against a film loaded with numerous issues. What is probably an easier complaint to argue is the blatant fact that the film lacks any particular stylistic cue of its own, despite the fact that numerous critics and bloggers have celebrated the “style” of American Hustle. The St. Louis Dispatch says, "As much as anything, the wildly entertaining ’70s flashback American Hustle is a triumph of style." The Sun-Times says, "American Hustle is the best time I’ve had at the movies all year, a movie so perfectly executed, such wall-to-wall fun, so filled with the joy of expert filmmaking on every level I can’t imagine anyone who loves movies not loving THIS movie." I beg someone, literally get down on my knees and beg someone to explain to me what this particular “style” is? I saw nothing beyond the usual use 70’s tunes and costumes. Don’t we expect this? It’s not really a style so much as it is a price of market entry. One can’t possibly make a 70’s film without the 70’s look. If we’re talking about camera-work, there’s nothing distinctive there either. There are no long takes, or bravado camera movements to be found in the entire film. It is filmed in the exact same ensemble style that his previous films, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter were made in. I’m simply finding no evidence in this film of a stylistic element that is worthy of mention. I hope someone will explain to me what this brilliant style is that I’m missing. It has none of the drive and propulsion and sense of real stakes that Scorsese infuses into his works. Russell does not do himself any favors by filming in a style of another director, and then doing a weaker, less propulsive version of it.

This brings me to probably what is most problematic for me, and that is the pacing. In the first hour of the film, we spend most of our time mired in exposition, as the story our two con artists played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams is examined in totality (let’s take it from the top). I mean the story starts in the middle, and then bounces completely back to the beginning, with the point of view shifting between the two of them for roughly an entire hour. This wouldn’t be such an issue, if the film continued to examine their relationship and story-thread, but the film then spends an entire second half on a series of con-games, as the list of characters and storythreads balloons beyond the film's capacity for functionality. Jennifer Lawrence appears in exactly one scene in the first half, and then dominates key screen time in the second hour. It’s almost a reverse for Adams, who dominates the first half, and nearly disappears from the screen in the second half as attention is shifted to Lawrence. This jarring and misguided editing element proves an issue as the film continues to introduce new characters only to have them vanish, for instance the characters related to Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent, like his mother and fiancé who appear and disappear just as quickly. Or how about the cameo by Robert DeNiro, who appears in exactly one scene, a scene which builds nicely and then fizzles out without any real pizazz, wasting his presence. He never shows up again. How about Jeremy Renner? He continues to gain in screen time throughout the middle portion, and then disappears toward the end, despite the fact that the film wants us to feel sorry for his Mayor of Camden, New Jersey. All of these characters simply begin to make the film feel long, and screen time is devoted to them without intention of creating proper character arcs. All of these characters strain the focus and spread the ice very thin. As for the acting, it’s hit and miss. Christian Bale dives in completely for a role and film that is not exactly worth the effort. He is actually more deserving of better material considering his wholehearted acting. Bradley Cooper, who had begun to gain respect for his acting in Silver Linings Playbook and The Place Beyond the Pines, drops the ball here, returning to his casual, smirking jack-ass. Amy Adams does an admirable job in a role with no real pay-off or story arc as her character is given short shrift toward the end of the film. 

Perhaps the one most successful, despite what some will have you believe, is Jennifer Lawrence, who is perhaps the single most important element of the film. Lawrence plays Bale’s naïve and emotionally fraught Jersey Girl wife and mother of his adopted child. If the con-artists are the wizard, then Lawrence provides a look behind the curtain. What she represents among all the conning and goings on, is the exposing of the con-artists as delusional, and self-absorbed. When she’s onscreen, everyone around her is paranoid she will give away the scam, as if she’s some uncontrollable wrecking ball. Watching those around her attempt to control her is hilarious. In fact, she’s so naïve and in disbelief of what’s going on, she is able to emphasize the accidental “talent” of our con-artists, who are nothing but insecure losers who continue to lie to themselves. Lawrence is the one character who exposes the fraud through her own misguided sense of entitlement as if she's part of the game. The single most successful scene in the film, and probably the funniest, is the one where Bale confronts her in the bedroom over her accidental confession to the mob that she believes her husband is doing illegal acts. She is able to turn the scene around at the end such that her own ignorance is seen as a sort of grandiose turn of luck. If only more scenes utilized the balancing act that all those around her must do to keep her at bay. Russell fails to recognize the potential of the conflict though as he under-utilizes her in the entire first half. Frankly, the three best scenes in the film involve her. The one I just mentioned, the scene where she and Adams confront each other in the bathroom ending with a ludicrous kiss on the lips, and the one where she goes on about her fingernail polish at dinner. She represents a central conflict in the film, one potentially loaded with comedic opportunity, and yet Russell continues to focus on the churnings and the con-games as if they’re well written and intricate enough for us to care about these people, which actually gives Bale, Adams, and Cooper’s characters far too much credit, and allows for the film to present their pathetic stories as something worth following in and of itself. I’m sorry. I find all the conning more funny and pathetic than anything, yet Russell under-delivers the central elements of the comedic potential in favor a kitchen sink approach where he wants us to laugh and to care at the same time.

One of the biggest trends within the critical community the last few years especially, is heaping praise and year end awards upon films that are so utterly average. In 2011, it was The Artist. Last year it was Argo, and this year it is already American Hustle. What these films have in common is a complacent type of filmmaking. These films are low-hanging, cinematic fruit that are primarily aimed at the November-January cineaste and the Oscar-ites. You know the type. That guy who spends a few months out of the year catching up on a few of the “important” films so that when Academy Awards come around he can play Oscar bingo (“Look Ma, I just checked four nominees off my list with one film!”). In reality, this same guy spends the rest of the year watching super hero movies and horror flicks. Perhaps the biggest con of all, is that Russell has somehow convinced the critical masses that he’s made a masterpiece.  Last year, there was a genuine build of word of mouth over his rather sweet and romantic character study of two flawed individuals who need each other in Silver Linings Playbook. That film never aspired toward greatness, but was content with a rather focused and poignant examination of people. Those that bashed the film for it’s somehow inappropriate treatment of mental illness were missing the fact that there’s something called artistic license. What happened after that though, was that the film built buzz so that come nomination time, it hauled in several nominations, somewhat unheard of for a romantic comedy, a genre that is much maligned these days. That film I labeled as Russell’s best film to date, and one of my 10 favorites of the 2012, but certainly nowhere near best film of the year. Russell however, is wildly erratic. I liked the funny I Heart Huckabees, but loathed The Fighter’s simple-mindedness. I loved Silver Linings Playbook, but in my mind he’s overstepped himself with American Hustle.

Perhaps the most egregious and annoying element above the flawed pacing, is another example of how Russell wants to have his cake and eat it too, which is the final con in the film, whereby Adams and Bale trick Cooper and all his FBI folks into thinking they’ve finally apprehended the crooks and brought down the big guys. What’s amazing is how the veneer of the surprise ending that Russell uses disguises the fact that his cinematic approach throughout the entire film had been one of relative transparency, meaning up until the ending he had deliberately showed us the machinations and backgrounds of the cons for the entire film, except when it’s convenient for him to conceal the elements of a con that will provide the audience with a cheaply earned “surprise ending”, giving the audience a signpost that lets them know they’ve seen a good movie. Russell’s film wouldn’t need to rely on this thinly veiled inconsistent piece of cinematic hubris if his film was better written. But because he’d spread his characters and interests too thin all throughout, the ending is trite. My hope is that the critical masses will correct their errors and begin praising more worthy films, like McQueen's masterful 12 Years a Slave and Linklater's Before Midnight, two films that are challenging and progressive. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cemetery Without Crosses (1969) - Directed by Robert Hossein

Robert Hossein’s only entry into the spaghetti western genre was this beautiful and fatally romantic masterpiece. His unique perspective and sense of subtlety allows the spaghetti western here to retain an interesting sense of restraint and pacing. As far as influences go, perhaps the film is more inspired by the likes of Visconti's impassioned melodramas than Leone or Corbucci. But by using the conventions of the traditional spaghetti western on the surface, he’s able to comment and build upon them through his emphasis on different aspects. He takes a tale filled with revenge, and the lone, hired gunman, but he’s able to delve into the psychological state of this character, among others, due to his insistence upon the emotional FEELING of the situation, which in its own way, is as exhilarating as any shootout that occurs in the film. There isn’t nearly as much overt violence though, as in The Great Silence, but the characterizations are passionate, moody, sexy and filled with a sensuality rare in this genre.

This film is a bit difficult to track down, but it is well worth seeking out if you can find a copy or can watch it on YouTube. Hossein makes his mark by infusing the plot of this film with a culpable sense of emotion, compassion, and sympathy. This level of intense psychology and humanism is what elevates this film above others in the genre. Cemetery Without Crosses concerns several elements we’ve seen in other films, but as I mentioned, the emphasis is shifted. A man named Ben is hanged by the rival ranching family, the Rogers, for a theft dispute, right in front of Ben’s house and in front of Ben’s wife Maria (a beautiful Michele Mercier). Maria seeks out Ben’s friend Manuel (Robert Hossein), a gunman, to exact retribution upon the rival family and there is a back and forth of revenge tactics, with Maria cold-heartedly seeking retribution. Despite Manuel’s apprehension of the situation, he can't help but become involved because of his pining love for her, which he’s unable to fully express. The film ends with a significant remorse for the cycle of revenge that is never able to be stopped. This fatalistic, gloomy tone is operatic to the extreme.

What I particularly love in this film is the way that the Maria character is fully responsible for the progression of the plot. It is her desires and her wishes that propel the cycle of violence as see seeks out retribution and this focus on the female experience is an important thing to note. Clearly Manuel is in love with her, and this is a significant reason for why he wants to please her, even though it goes against his own better judgement as he wants to express his love for her in this way. Michele Mercier is terrific in her role, contributing much through her dark eyes, as does Hossein as the melancholy and lovelorn gunfighter. A significant sense of mood is contributed by the soundtrack, which is a blending of 50’s style western pop music and also an overtly romantic Spanish flamenco guitar piece, apparently written by Hossein’s father Andre, which is lush, vibrant and often played while people are traveling over the desert landscape. Hossein blends all of these operatic and melodramatic elements with the typical gunplay, infusing the film with a fatalistic and romantic tone.

I think my favorite moment in the film though, is the final showdown between Manuel and the Rogers family in the middle of the street. In the terrific draw scene, one of my favorites in any western, we see Hossein facing, not 1, but 4 men…….and as quick as you can imagine, he blows each of them away before any one of them can get to him. But even this sequence is reserved in the way that the editing is put together, as the visual and sound almost occurs so fast, you just see the outcome of the dead men falling instead of the hand reaching into the holster and the full moment captured via the camera. In Hossein’s world, though, there’s always one more retribution around the corner and you can never run away from revenge. No one escapes from death once they've entered that cycle of doom. Cemetery Without Crosses is probably the most elegant and refined spaghetti western that I’ve seen, and proof that elegance is not mutually exclusive from the genre, it just takes the right approach to make it work. Hossein thus created a work that stands apart from the rest.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Life is Sweet (1990) - Directed by Mike Leigh

Some of my favorite comedies of the modern era are ones which examine a sort of sad-sack loser or melancholic group and which add a touch of warmth and whimsy which cuts through the dry, deadpan atmosphere. Films by Wes Anderson, or Aki Kaurismaki and Jim Jarmusch fall into this category where the sadness and disappointment of daily life are viewed with a slight chagrin. Thus there is tragedy in the comedy and comedy in the tragedy. I'm not sure why I like this kind of comedy so much. Perhaps the self deprecating tone is the sarcastic selling point. Mike Leigh’s 1990 masterpiece, Life is Sweet (even the title is brutally sarcastic), is one of the greatest films of this type that I know of. Coupling his understanding of how to incorporate a seemingly "improvised" feel to real-life situations with an absurd hilarity of human nature, Leigh created a beautiful document of a family who loves each other through thick and thin and captures the beauty and pain of life.  

Featuring his wife at the time Alison Steadman in the lead role, Mike Leigh’s film concerns a particular family who is not so much dysfunctional as actually rather normal. I mean what family isn’t somewhat dysfunctional? Steadman stars as Wendy and Jim Broadbent is Andy, parents of twin, twenty-something daughters named Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks), who both still live at home. Wendy leads dance classes among other odd jobs and Andy is a gullible man, who has a steady cook’s job, but who continues to get conned into random investments by his friend and drinking buddy, Patsy (Stephen Rea). In this particular instance, Patsy gets him to buy a broken down lunch trailer, which gets parked in their driveway. The twins are quite something. Natalie, the tomboy, is the more “together” one, holding a steady plumbing job and dreaming of traveling to America. Nicola is the bulimic and depressed one, constantly fuming about people being “fascist” or “racist” or “sexist” or some other “ist”. Thrown into the mix is the family friend and overly ambitious Aubrey (an absolutely hilarious Timothy Spall), who has plans to open a new gourmet restaurant.  All of these characters intertwine in random situations and the vignette-like nature of the film takes on the flavor of life, each day bringing its own challenges, laughs, and tears.

One of Leigh's major achievements is his brilliant casting in the film. There is not a miscast role here. Broadbent is perfect as the rather henpecked husband/father who never seems to be able to finish any project he starts. Claire Skinner and especially Jane Horrocks play off each other brilliantly as sisters who pick on each other, yet who bury their love and care for the other just under the surface. As I mentioned, Timothy Spall’s fat and sexually desperate Aubrey is so hilariously droll and unawares, that I have a hard time keeping it together when he’s onscreen, with his awful hat and jacket choices, as well as his pathetic 80’s looking suit that he wears on the opening night of his restaurant when he’s getting totally wasted and attempting to make love to Wendy, who volunteers to be his hostess for the evening. The most brilliant performance in the film, is in fact Alison Steadman’s Wendy, a perpetually positive woman, trying to encourage her family to follow their dreams, whilst wanting everyone to be happy. I love the way she seems to laugh through everything she says in the film. It’s rather engaging and hilarious to watch her work her way through interactions, particularly with her husband as they tease and cajole each other and clearly love each other. It’s one of the more humorous and touching husband/wife relationships I’ve seen on film. Her performance is warm and feminine engaging….one of the best performances in any film I’ve watched in some time.

Leigh’s script is built upon each of these personalities, giving them things to say that feels real and unforced. His brevity of pacing doesn’t leave any dull moment in the film. Each scene builds off of a comedy-of-life situation. Adding most of the tragicomic elements is the character of Nicola, played with bracing sadness and combativeness by Jane Horrocks, whose depression and health issues cause great concern to her family, particularly her mother. A scene near the end of the film where Wendy confronts Nicola regarding her problems, stating that she just wants her to be happy is the most heartfelt moment in the film. Seemingly inspired by American sitcoms, the film has a lived-in vibe that is hard to achieve in a feature-length film. Usually this depth of character understanding and deft interaction has to be built over the length of a television series, as the audience begins to understand quirks of the characters. Leigh seems to be able to throw a character like Patsy and Aubrey into the mix and we don’t need to know why or how they came to be friends of the family; they just seem to fit and we acknowledge we’ve known people like this who just pop over for a chat. They’re sort of like the furniture….always there. This film is probably the prime example of Leigh's comedic ability, and is as funny as any film I’ve seen in years. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) - Directed by William Wellman

As one of the first examples of the anti-western, and perhaps the best, William Wellman’s magnificent The Ox-Bow Incident is a perfect film, a dark and cynical tale of old-west justice gone bad. It's probably even Wellman’s best film....period, and it also contains one of Henry Fonda’s best performances…..although his list of BEST performances is pretty lengthy to begin with. Wellman holds a stake as part of the group of directors who added lasting impact to the western genre in particular. His best work occurs when he takes a clear-eyed, unadorned look at things, and weaves a deft, emotional weight throughout that reflects a certain human understanding like here in this film, or in Yellow Sky, or Westward the Women. There is a reality-based element on display in these works that de-mythologizes the west, particularly in this film, which is filled with a certain nasty sort of basic human instinct gone unchecked.

Wellman’s film was written by Lamar Trotti, based upon a novel by the same name by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. It stars Henry Fonda as an aimless drifter named Gil Carter, who with his friend Art Croft (Harry Morgan), ride into Bridger’s Wells, Nevada and stop at the saloon. Talk of cattle rustling and suspected criminals talked about. In no time, Art and Gil begin to be suspected by others at the saloon. Later that afternoon in town, it is announced that a local rancher, named Larry Kinkaid has been murdered, and the town assembles a make-shift posse to pursue the villains.  This posse is warned by the local judge to bring the men back to trial in town if they are found, and not to lynch them on the spot. It’s clear though, that the town wants quick justice and determines to go on a majority vote to lynch or not, once the perpetrators are found. A man who has just come down from the mountains tells the posse he has seen three men heading up that way with a bunch of cattle bearing Kinkaid’s brand. The posse then heads to find the men, with Art and Gil joining to avoid any sorts of suspicion from the local, blood-thirsty crowd. After traveling up the mountains through the night, the posse happens upon three men sleeping. They hold up these men at gunpoint, and convinced that they are guilty, the posse begins to use their interrogations and accusations to serve their own need for quick justice. Those accused are a farmer named Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), a young Mexican Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn), and an older gentleman named Alva Hardwicke (Francis Ford). The cattle Martin has is indeed Kinkaid’s, but Martin claims he paid for it and that he and his men had nothing to do with the crime. The ugly nature of human instinct is on full display in the second half of the film, as the three men plead their innocence, while most of the posse are determined to lynch them, despite the fact that none of the evidence suggests that the men are guilty. Pleas from some of the posse who disagree with the proposed lynching go mainly unheard. 

This scenario in this film previews Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, and even contains the continuity of Henry Fonda (whom Lumet must have seen in The Ox-Bow Incident), but there are some key differences. In 12 Angry Men, there is a modern safety-net of the jury and due process. In The Ox-Bow Incident, the lynch mob mentality is on full display, and even the actions and intentions of the so-called “good” people, really can have very little impact once the lynch-mob finds it’s target. In this way, it’s almost like the opposite of 12 Angry Men……this is what happens when we let the actions of a few headstrong, vengeful people play jury, as opposed to the lone hold-out in 12 Angry Men who can impact the outcome all by himself. What The Ox-Bow Incident does is basically present to us the anti-western concept….there are no heroes, the good people can do nothing to impact the final outcome, and the pleading cries of the innocent are drawn out, reminding us continually that this is unjust, making the viewer cringe with sympathy and realize that the “wild west” wasn’t called “wild” for no reason. When watching many westerns, we forget to reflect upon the certain level of fear that one may have had to live with in an era when frontier justice was still ruled with a gun. One of the best elements of the plot structure is the fact that we as the audience are kept at a parallel understanding with the accusers regarding the suspected criminals and their guilt or innocence. We do not know any more or less than anyone else in the film knows, providing an element of suspense to the script which positions us as needing to decide for ourselves what we would do if we were put into this same sort of situation. At least that’s how I think about it. I must admit that it’s a tremendously moving script, especially once we get to know that Martin has a wife and kids and is just getting his start in the local area. This becomes even more pronounced when we learn Martin wants to write a parting letter to his wife. In the film's final 30 minutes on the mountain pass, we witness a series of confrontations, debates, and propositions, in one of the most memorable scenes in any western ever made.

Henry Fonda is cold, and stand-offish as the lonely drifter, but also clearly has a good heart. Fonda’s able to present both of these elements in his performance and it’s extremely nuanced. There are few actors better than Fonda was in the western genre, as he was able to do everything from the hero, to the villain and all shades of gray in between. His range is probably the best of any actor in the genre, including John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. But the entire cast here is effective, including Dana Andrews as the falsely accused Martin, and a young Anthony Quinn, as the headstrong Mexican. Wellman’s direction is lean, mean and distinct, displaying his typical brand of dark humor throughout the realist action (mostly courtesy of Jane Darwell’s cackling laugh as Jenny Grier, the lone woman among the posse). Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography contains some remarkable framing (he was a 2-time Oscar winner for The Song of Bernadette and How Green Was My Valley), using the old Academy ratio. Of particular note is his ability to frame multiple faces in one shot, and for making the frame seem to hold more information than we normally see in this ratio, as his camera pans across the faces of the posse and the faces of the accused, often with the ropes and nooses in view behind them, creating a visual gallery of roguish fear. All told, the film is a sobering and depressing look at the west and a film that gets better with each viewing.