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Column Fri Dec 20 2013
Why are people so intent on comparing David O. Russell's American Hustle with Martin Scorsese's upcoming The Wolf of Wall Street? First off, it's not a contest. There can be two truly great ensemble dark comedies that incorporate the themes of greed and freewheeling disrespect of the law without one laying claim to being better than the other. The two films are actually remarkably dissimilar in both their execution and the filmmakers' view of their characters. While Scorsese clearly has something of an admiration for the levels of chaos reached by his antiheroes, Russell seems more intent on getting below the surface and figuring out just what makes his deeply flawed and easily manipulated characters tick. But one wonders if said ticking is the sound of a finely tuned motor keeping these people moving forward or a time bomb counting down to their inevitable destruction.
Since so much about the FBI sting operation known as ABSCAM is still confidential, writers Russell and Eric Singer have built an entire fiction around a small amount of actual hidden-camera footage of fake sheiks giving various politicians (including a U.S. senator) bribes to help out with getting U.S. citizenship applications expedited for criminal purposes. But long before we get to that, we must meet and appreciate the greatness that is Irving Rosenfeld, (Christian Bale, almost unrecognizable), he of the bad posture and even worse combover, but a guy who knows the angle and how to maneuver people to invest money with him that they'll never see again. He's got his fingers in the art world, real estate, banking, and it's all complete bullshit. But Irving knows when to apply pressure and when to pull back just enough not to appear too eager, and Bale captures his master con artist at work.
Rosenfeld also has a volatile relationship with his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and her son (whom Irving has adopted and has a genuine affection for). To put it bluntly, Rosalyn is high strung and unpredictable, but she has next to no idea what Irving does for money; she just resents the fact that he disappears for days on end, leaving her bored and eager for a little fun. She's also impulsive, tending toward knee-jerk reactions when she feels she's been slighted. Her new favorite thing is starting fires in the house "accidentally," but as the film goes on, her tendency to plot against her husband just to get him to pay attention to her becomes dangerous. And by the way, Lawrence has never been better — not surprising since Russell directed her just last year to her first Oscar win in Silver Linings Playbook.
Irving's true partner in crime is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a worldly Brit who says she has ties to the banking world in Europe, which sets up a great scam for Irving and her that earns them quite a lot of cash and kick starts a love affair that neither can deny. But eventually they get busted by the FBI and are coerced by Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) into using their con-artist ways to help the bureau set up a sting operation meant to rope in local criminal elements from New York and New Jersey. But before long, they start pulling in bigger and bigger fish, beginning with a Jersey mayor named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who isn't even aware that his new partners in building up his state are using his connections to ensnare more powerful people.
If American Hustle can be accused of anything, it's that all of the actors seem to be ramped up like their collective energy is going to launch a rocket into space. But each of the players work and bounce off of each other like charged molecules; each character has their own collection of idiosyncrasies that collide with the others, either exploding into violence or attracting each other or both. Except for Renner, the main actors in the film have all worked with Russell in recent years, either in Silver Linings Playbook or The Fighter, and I think that makes the chaos seem more controlled and deliberate. These aren't just famous faces yelling at each other like a second-rate acting class.
Watching these performers utterly lose themselves in these roles is a total blast, and it helps that the supporting case (including the likes of Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Röhm, and even Louis C.K. as DiMaso's nay-saying direct supervisor, who does misery in the workplace better than I've seen it done in ages. I should add that it's great to see Renner find himself as an actor again and just bite into a role and never let go. He hasn't really done that since The Hurt Locker (or maybe The Town), but he's an absolute pleasure to watch in American Hustle — pretty much everyone is.
The film is steeped in the late 70s-early 80s: looks, clothes, cars, interior decorating and some incredible music (including a cue for "Live and Let Die" that might even top its original usage). And the deeper the operation gets, the worse nearly everyone's life becomes. There are a few unexpected twists and turns (and a couple of surprise cameos) that keep things lively and interesting; the script is sharp and offers up some of the best confidence tricks and tricksters this side of The Sting, and the performances never cease to impress. Love affairs flash on and off, usually because someone seeks to gain from them. And as serious as all of this sounds, the resulting film is a rousing hoot.
Russell and company couldn't care less about the politics involved in this scandal (but if they had, it probably would have been equally impressive); for the filmmakers, American Hustle is about the individuals and the way they interact, clash or otherwise get physical. Adams is highly watchable in pretty much everything she does, but she's extraordinary here, going back and forth between consummate professional scammer to seductress to jilted woman. It's a fully packed performance, and while much of the talk to date about the female performers has been about Lawrence, Adams gives us career-defining work here.
Parts of American Hustle feel vaguely familiar. I think it's safe to say Russell may have seen Goodfellas and Boogie Nights more than once in his life, but if those are your benchmarks, more power to you, especially if you have the script and actors to back it up, and he certainly does. The film is an unexpected, thoroughly enjoyable trip through space and time; be prepared to laugh and care about these characters far more than you might believe you could — except for Lawrence's Rosalyn; her you'll hate for all the right reasons. Enjoy the hell out of this one, and worry about The Wolf of Wall Street net week on its own terms and merits.
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
How do you even consider the sequel to one of the most loved and highly quoted comedies of the last decade? I suppose you look to the film to see if anyone appears to be phoning it in (they are not); you wonder if the sequel is merely a rehash of the jokes that worked best in the first film (nope, although this film hasn't exactly forgotten the first one exists); and then you look to see if the writers of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (director Adam McKay and star Will Ferrell) have built upon Anchorman, grown the characters and expanded the story. I'm happy to report that if you selected the third option, you'd be right.
Anchorman 2 picks up in the early 1980s; the end of the 70s appear to have been good for our heroes, but as the 80s kick in, not all is well in the world of Ron Burgundy (Ferrell), as he loses a shot at a network anchor job to his now-wife Veronica (Chirstina Applegate). Ron's fall from news grace is long and painful, and he ends up emceeing the dolphin show at SeaWorld (sadly a tie-in to the film Blackfish never comes), when a mysterious man (Ed Helms) representing an even more mysterious thing called "24-hour news" shows up and offers Burgundy a shot at redemption. Naturally, Ron wants to pull the old team back together after having been scattered to the wind after Ron's fall.
The jobs that the three fellow members of the team have are too ridiculous to recount here, but rest assured it doesn't take much convincing to get Champ Kind (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), and Brick Tamaland (Steve Carrell) back on board. There is something comforting about seeing the boys back together and to see how quickly they slip back into old habits. But when the reach their new New York digs, the aren't the top dogs like they were in San Diego. They are given the overnight shift, while classically handsome/pretty boy Jack Lime (James Marsden) gets the primetime slot. Ron is forced to not only get ratings to keep his job, but beat Lime's ratings thanks to a dumb bet he makes in the heat of the moment. To get the overnight viewers, Ron essentially invents all of the horrible tropes that have become commonplace on news networks desperate to fill time. He calls it giving the people what they want rather than what they need. And suddenly, full credit/blame for live car chase video, stories about animals and old people, and overtly pro-American pieces is given to Ron Burgundy. And his desperate act for ratings pays off.
And love is in the air in Anchorman 2, which I guess shows growth. Ron gets into a sexy relationship with his African-American boss, Linda Jackson (Meagan Good), which leads to all sort of race and gender humor (actually the dinner table scene you may have seen in the trailers is one of the film's funniest and goes on to seriously uncomfortable lengths). But perhaps the strangest things in a world of strange is the practically short film built around Brick's flirtation with newsroom employee Chani (Kristen Wiig), who might have just slightly less brain function than Brick. The scenes between them seem so far removed from the rest of the film that they probably could have easily been taken out, but that would have been a terrible idea, since they are among the film's strangest and most heartfelt.
Adam McKay is such a smart and strange creative force that the tangents and extended runs of joke after joke are so odd that you almost can't believe the folks who made this film got away with it. I'm not sure which had me in stitches more, the sequence in which Ron nurses a baby shark back to health or the perhaps too long chunk of the film where Ron goes blind, moves to a lighthouse, and seems to have lost all of his other senses in the process. Where the fuck did any of that come from?
While the first Anchorman poked a bit of fun at how local news stations might turn a small event into a headline news story, Anchorman 2 dares to dig at the banality of what the news has become with a few sharper tools. By now, you may have already heard about the film's climactic mega-rumble sequence, but what that moment is actually about is how niche and divided reporting the news has become. Plus, you're guaranteed to groan when you see how Ron and the team come up with some of their big ratings-grabbing ideas. It's funny, but it's also a little too on the mark, and it's this element that separates the new film from the original.
As with any Judd Apatow-produced film, Anchorman 2 feels a little long (running at two hours precisely), especially in its second half, but for the most part, it's a tightly edited, twisted bit of fun that should make the fans giddy that their wishes have been answered — not for a new Anchorman movie, but for one that doesn't suck. In fact, some might say this 10-years-in-the-making sequel is pretty damn great.
Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Anchorman 2 director and co-writer Adam McKay.
Inside Llewyn Davis
I've read a lot of writers ideas about what the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen is "really" about, and the truth is, they're all right and they're all wrong. One of the many reasons the Coens are so good and a true sign of their talent is that with most of their recent works, they paint in such broad strokes that an audience member (or smarty-pants critic) will likely be able to find a piece of their own life to place gently atop some element of the film and find points where they line up. Nothing makes a person like a film more than seeing a bit of themselves in a character or situation. And while so much of what the Coens do is include very specific visual and written cues, they also leave room for a little piece of us in their tales. I almost feel like we owe them a debt of gratitude for doing this.
So who is Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac, a seriously talented singer in addition to being a soulful actor) and what is he doing to screw up his life and/or career as a struggling folk singer in the early 1960s? Covering about a week in Davis' life — possibly the last week of his career, or just another typical week — the film doesn't have much by way of plot. It instead is interested in showing what an odyssey any given week in his life might be like — trying to find places to play to earn money, looking for couches or spare bedrooms to crash on, jumping in on one-off recording sessions, and trying to re-ignite what little interest there might have been in him as a recording artist. We eventually discover that he enjoyed a modicum of success as part of duo, until his partner killed himself, leaving Llewyn rattled, but still able to produce a single solo album not long after that sold well into the double digits.
What Inside Llewyn Davis has to say about talent versus fame is nothing new, but it's clear that timing is not working in Davis' favor. He's a gifted singer and guitar player, just beginning to make a name for himself as an interpreter of other people's songs at a time when the singer-songwriter was coming into fashion, thanks in large part to the poetry of Bob Dylan, whose career was just getting off the ground at the time. But the film isn't just about the music business of the early 1960s; it's about a journey that Llewyn makes in the span of a week that builds a more or less complete portrait of his life.
There are people that truly loathe him, like Jean (Carey Mulligan, Isaac's co-star in Drive), who slept with Davis a few weeks back and has found out she's pregnant. She's living with her singing partner Jim (Justin Timberlake), a sweetheart of a guy, who might also be the father, but Jean is so against the remotest possibility that the baby might be Llewyn's that she insists on getting an abortion. Jim also happens to be Llewyn's best friend, and he manages to pull him into a recording session of a protest song about then-President Kennedy's space program. It's the funniest sequence in the film, thanks in large part to Adam Driver's vocal punctuations throughout the track.
Llewyn also has his admirers, including a well-to-do, middle-aged married couple who let him stay with them from time to time. When Llewyn accidentally lets their cat out of the house, another interesting aspect to Llewyn's personality emerges. Forced to take possession of the cat until he can make it back to the apartment, we realize that Davis feels more of a connection to this animal than he does to just about any human being in the film. He is capable of caring about others, as long as they don't talk back, I suppose.
Most assuredly, Llewyn's journey sees him plays cafes in Greenwich Village, dinner parties (which ends quite badly), and even taking a couple of days to hitch a ride (with John Goodman and his brooding driver, played by Garrett Hedlund) to frigid Chicago to audition for a potential new manager (F. Murray Abraham). Perhaps the most haunting performance in the film happens when Llewyn plays a tune for his non-responsive father in an old-age home; his father's non-verbal reaction to the performance sums up Llewyn's life pretty succinctly.
In the end, it's the music that pulls you in. We hear from several actors performing their own material, as well as seasoned vets like Timberlake (who adjusts to the folky vibes quite nicely), Marcus Mumford, and Punch Brothers, all of whom work under the producing ear of Oscar-winner T-Bone Burnett, who also helmed the music of the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou?
What impressed me so much about Inside Llewyn Davis is how each scene flows seamlessly into the next, effortlessly, as if they were fated to do so. The atmosphere and visual style of the film is muted greys. Other than the orange cat, color doesn't exist in large quantities in this period piece. It feels otherworldly, while also maintaining a very grounded presence. The trademark dark humor that exists in nearly all of Coen Brothers movies is alive and well here. Goodman, Driver and a few others push things almost into pure comedy at points, but it still feels entirely appropriate for the material. I laughed especially hard at a couple of scenes in which Llewyn visits his sister and nephew at their home and swears up a storm, much to the young boy's delight and sister's disgust.
The movie manages to be rough around the edges, yet poignantly elegant. Many audience members may not be familiar with Isaac's work: he's been around for a few years in supporting roles. But he rises to the importance of this role, in a way that Davis himself probably never could have. The parallels between the character and the person playing him are not lost, but one is rising to the occasion while the other is frequently buckling under pressure. Inside Llewyn Davis is easily one of the best films you'll see this year, but it may be difficult to pinpoint why. So don't try — just let the music, the humor, the look and feel of it all wash over you and take you to a place that feels like another world.
Visit Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac.
Walking with Dinosaurs 3D
If you have the overwhelming urge to watch a film that hates children as much as it hates them learning, then please spend your hard-earned money on an over-priced ticket for Walking with Dinosaurs 3D, a mixed live-action/CG nightmare of low-brow filmmaking from directors Barry Cook (Mulan, Arthur Christmas) and Neil Nightingale, a producer on many nature docs and television specials. This is one of those films whose makers think that making a film for kids means you have to overload it with scatological humor, dumb jokes, goofy voices, talking animals, and one-dimensional characters in a 3D environment.
The film opens with paleontologist Uncle Zack (Karl Urban) hanging out with his niece and nephew Jade and Ricky (Angourie Rice and Charlie Rowe) and taking them to one of his most recent digs where he found a cool dinosaur tooth. Jade seems interested in joining him on his search for more cool fossils, while Ricky just wants to pull his hood up over his mop of hair (the sure sign of a rebellious teen) and tune out the world with earbuds and videogames. But that's when a digitally created bird named Alex (John Leguizamo) swoops in and tells him the story of Patchi (voiced by Justin Long), the runt of his herd of herbivores, who has something of a bully older brother. I don't even think it's spoiling anything to say that naturally Patchi is destined to be the hero of this piece, but the road to get there is littered with amateur-hour humor or educational lessons about dinosaurs that literally stop the film to make their point.
If my eyes aren't deceiving me, the backdrops for Walking with Dinosaurs are real, with the fairly realistic-looking creatures placed upon them. Whenever a new dinosaur is introduced, the film stops, the dinosaurs common and scientific name are displayed, and we're talk if they are meat or plant eaters, basically as a way to let us know if the animals are dangerous or not. It's also bizarre to watch the animals who communicate with each other — its seems whether or not an animals can talk is based solely on whether the script needs them to. Plus, their mouthes don't even move when they talk, which sometimes makes it touch to figure out who's talking if two or three characters are on the screen at once.
Because the movie isn't crammed with enough cliches, Patchi is given a potential love interest in the form of Juniper (Tiya Sircar), who seems to like Patchi until his brother Scowler (Skyler Stone) is made leader of the herd, then she doesn't have a choice but to be with him. What the hell are we teaching our kids with that little lesson? And poor Luguizamo is forced to resort to entry-level Spanglish jokes (because he's a fairly exotic bird) that Paul Rodriguez would have turned down because it was demeaning.
Attempting to view this film through the eyes of a pre-teen, I can image that seeing all of these massive dinosaurs on screen in lackluster 3D might border on fun, but I saw so many kids glaze over at the terrible banter between Long and Leguizamo, which goes on and on sometimes to the point where you wonder if the editor had actually signed off on this mess. Even the film's idea of what bullying is makes no sense. No bullies are as dumb as the ones in Walking with Dinosaurs. Odds are, kids don't want to spend their holidays getting further education, so more than likely they won't be begging you to see this one. But if it comes up between now and the end of the year, just throw them a toy with lights and buzzers; I'm sure they'll forget all about, and so should you.
Some Velvet Morning
There have been some truly great films about the changing trends in relationships in 2013 — from the cutting back-and-forth between a married couple in Richard Linklater's Before Midnight to a man falling in love with disembodied voice in his computer that is paying more attention to him than his wife ever did in Spike Jonze's Her (out next week). But none of these films from writer-directors was made by notorious playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, The Shape of Things), a man who has traditionally made nasty little movies about the ways men and women get along horribly, to the point where they often end up ruining each other in small ways. His latest piece is something a little different, but no less disturbing at times.
Some Velvet Morning is story with only two characters, although it's based on an original LaBute screenplay (and not a play) about a woman named Velvet (Alice Eve, in by far the best performance she's ever given) and Fred (Stanley Tucci, deciding to act once again and not just drop in to play a goofy character for a couple of scenes in a big movie). Fred shows up on Velvet's doorstep unannounced with luggage in hand and the presumption that she'll let him stay there for a time after having just left his wife to be with this stunning, much younger woman. Initially and hesitantly, she seems okay with the idea, but we never really buy it. And what happens from that point on is a game of revealing details one at a time until we have something resembling a clearer picture of what they once were to each other and exactly what their current relationship consists of.
We are reminded with this film that LaBute is a master storyteller when he wants to be, and he's wonderfully adept at giving us conversational dialogue that goes from small talk to vicious name calling in a matter of seconds. Velvet's body language speak volumes, even when her words seem nothing more than conversational. She lives in a tall, thin building with narrow hallways and staircases, and the claustrophobia sets in early as Fred follows her from room to room talking about her job and her friends (especially her male friends). Most of the time we can't tell if Fred is actually jealous or wants Velvet to think he is because maybe she'll be flattered by it. But the tension and creepy vibe escalates ever so slowly to the point where anytime Fred touches Velvet, even casually, your skin crawls until he breaks contact.
This is the zone in which LaBute thrives, and things build to a final 10 minutes or so that you almost need to watch twice to even believe what you've just witnessed. Again, this is the type of story that LaBute does so well. He sets up a scenario, lets us get comfortable in it so that we think we know what's going on, and then he lobs a grenade in the middle of everything and dares us to try and pick up the pieces. But the difference with Some Velvet Morning is that the grenade is launched at the audience, which is not to say that the characters escape unscathed. This is a film that almost demands you watch it at least twice to catch all of the subtleties and perfect examples of misdirection.
I'm so certain that about 50 percent of the people who see this movie are going to be angered by it, but that doesn't ultimately mean they won't appreciate the storytelling going on. Eve and Tucci dance around and with each other like pros — at times they are stepping on each other's toes, sure, but eventually they get back in the swing. Some Velvet Morning speaks to one variety of the many ways that men and women have learned to appropriate each other as physical beings, and it's not always pretty, and it will likely make you very uncomfortable at some point. But stick with it, because the payoff is something special that will leave you forgetting to breathe momentarily, as many great films do. See it and ask yourself if this type of relationship is any more or less viable or acceptable than dating or marriage. You may be shocked at your answer. The film is opens today for a weeklong engagement in Chicago at Facets Cinémathèque.
To read my exclusive interview with Some Velvet Morning writer-director Neil LaBute, go to Ain't It Cool News.