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American Hustle (2013)
An American Tragedy
American Hustle is a great movie. It's no surprise that it's nominated for Academy Awards in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, and Best Supporting Actor and Actress. It's that good. I've fallen in love with the director, David O. Russell. Christian Bale "is" his character and though he's repulsive, forty-five minutes in you've come to care about him. By the end, you feel deeply. How he inhabits this character is the definition of an academy award performance. Amy Adams is subtle, brazen and luscious. Bradley Cooper, so manic and over- the-top, he is just nuts. Jennifer Lawrence nailed her part. I mean just jaw-dropping nailed it. Mesmerizing. All of it is mesmerizing, from the costumes to the dialogue, through plot and the ploy. Oh boy.
American Hustle is a snapshot of a cultural phenomenon that occurred in the 70's in America. Sure, it's about some con artists and a sting operation paralleling Abscam. But it's much more.
In America today, people become famous by taking videos of themselves having sex and posting them on the internet. The rest of America seems to want to watch those videos. Then those new "stars" have a reality TV show. We're in an age of the cult of me where someone is famous for being nobody and their main talent is they think are somebody.
American Hustle reflects the time when the cult of me was beginning. Unless you lived in the 50's, it's impossible to imagine how conservative America was with women in girdles, shirtwaist dresses and pumps and Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best representing what Americans thought was ideal. Twin beds for married couples on TV and in movies. Many folks had left rural American and come to cities for jobs but things were still pastoral and provincial. The war was over and we were living in the American dream. But it was stultifying and stresses converged. The Vietnam War, the Birth Control Pill, lots more women in the workplace, a rise in divorce and latchkey children and much more. America started having a social fit, like a snake, it began to shake off the strictures of the 40's and 50's, up pops the 60's and real social upheaval. Sex, drugs and rock n' roll cogently says it.
Our egos were filled with the right to self expression and that was the ultimate goal, to be an individual and to be free. Of course that didn't work out exactly as envisioned. This is what American Hustle reflects. This is the understory that we see, throbbing behind the plot.
Start with personal vanity. Bale's pitifully hilarious, glued comb-over. Cooper's perm-rod acquired afro, Adam's plunging, breast-revealing necklines and Lawrence's nail obsession, capped by the fruity, rotten top coat, so Freudian. The four main characters are far away from "down home, plain, no-nonsense" America of the 40's, "decent, aren't we all innocent, hard workers" America of the 50's and even from the "peace, love, turn-on and tune-out" of the 60's. They have entered "we are all movie stars or rock gods, whether wanna-be or full tilt." This is Saturday Night Fever told about adults. This is glam rock gone wild, where even the men are obsessed with their hair.
The characters are slick and smart, the dialogue "Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf" caustic and the movie incredibly styled, successfully, from set to costume to manner. I felt transported back in time in the disco scene, reminiscent at Amy's lovely breast-teasing outfits. This was what it was really like "back in the day," though the "plot" of the con game and Abscam were not part of it for most, but certainly not so far removed either. Everything was loosened, for good or bad. It just fell where it might. That made it fascinating. That is what American Hustle so deftly depicts. Self-will run riot, damn the consequences.
I have read many reviews of the movie. Most called it a comedy. I would hardly call it that. Certainly there are comedic moments, but primarily it is a tragedy, an American tragedy that still reverberates.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
A pocketful of self-deception, expertly crafted
Blue Jasmine is as unlike Woody Allen movies as it is like them. There is the same neurotic chatter, the exploration of relationships, but Woody takes a dive inward for Blue Jasmine and we get to observe what a total lack of self reflection actually does to people. It ain't pretty. All of us do lots of lying to ourselves but this blatant exploration of self-deception at its grandest is searing and burns with an ouch.
Cate Blanchett is fabulous. She kind of lurches, half drunk and xanaxed, through her new life, desperate to stay drugged as the old trick of "Isn't everything just wonderful, pass me a diamond, darling" has ceased to work. First, no more diamonds are in the offing by her Bernie Madoffish cad of a husband, played to perfection by the ever oily Alec Baldwin. The house of cards has fallen and going from one false life of pretend happiness to another real life of true misery is more than Jasmine can bear, yet alone actually comprehend.
Is she mad? Truly mentally ill? I don't actually think she is. But I do think her character would rather disintegrate than deal with her current reality. But I left the movie thinking that she was a survivor and would eventually find a man half-way between the diplomat and the dentist who would treat her with Blanch DeBois' hoped-for kindness of strangers. For make no mistake, this is an homage to "Streetcar Named Desire," without the real brutality of Stanley. Who needs Stanley's brutality when we have Wall Street's, out in full exposure?
But wait, while everyone likes to center their views of this film on Jasmine's character, everyone in the movie is self-deluded. Her sister uses her charms to snag whatever she can bag and pretend to herself she is happy, yet she dumps the guy quick as she can when something more promising comes alone.
Her sister's boyfriend is equally desperate. In fact, everyone in this movie is desperate to be loved and in love, but only to the end that they never really have to be alone or spend any time with themselves. Nobody is home. There is no self in the self, just a shell of desperate fear. This is a tough movie because it is a true portrait of so many of us at our worst.
I did not find it the least bit funny. But it bites you in the ass and gets your attention for all the right reasons. Truly, the unexamined life is not worth living.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Very mixed bag but great ending
Nolan is a fabulous director. But I felt like I was watching Batman/Bruce Wayne having a boring pity party and then pit against The Humungous Amongst Us from Mad Max, another orphanish pity party but his all insane rage that made absolutely no sense, even to the plot, even to the ending. And all a bit too darn cliché. And both Batman and Bain from the League of whatever? And Marion Cotillard, always gorgeous and competent. But I don't care whatsoever about that League and Liam Neeson and all of it. Total nonsense. So I would say I thought the plot/script quite weak while the acting was quite good.
Anne Hathaway is excellent and brings sophistication, beauty and much needed humor. I loved her take on Catwoman best because she is a woman, not a woman turned into a lunatic Catwoman.
I love Christian Bale. I just kept thinking, "I bet he wishes he was cast as Bain and had a juicy role." This is a role he can neither sink his teeth into nor save and it must kill him.
That being said, it is very difficult to wear a mask and have an altered voice, as Bain does, and be anything other than a big hunk of talking meat. I found him very boring. I mean come on, Heath Ledger as The Joker was entrancing. Who cares about the Wrestling TV Big Masked Freak?
Joseph Gordon Levitt was solid. Michael Caine wonderful. Morgan Freeman always great. Gary Oldman is good, having little to do.
I thought the gadgets were pretty cool. I thought the police being set up to be massacred over and over was just ridiculous. Please. Are we morons?
Okay - so I've gretched.
The last 40 minutes gets really good. From Batman in the prison on is great. The ending is a huge surprise and excellent. Worth it just to see it.
A must see. Subdued masterpiece of violence.
I think most directors are afraid of losing an audience's attention, as "sound-bite" as the world has become. I award bravery married to timing, tone and that rare commodity, allowing actors faces to nuance a role. This is a paced movie that stays slow and builds at the same time. Something more common in a horror film. Tension. Kudos to director Nicolas Refn.
Drive is a surprise. I didn't realize Ryan Gosling acted this well. Perfectly cast because of his look of innocent boyishness, not too handsome but nice to look at, he could be anybody you've known who's a pleasant guy.
In this movie he is, you assume, an introverted and lonely man, completely wedded to all things cars. He is a master craftsman of driving, be it stunts or race tracks, chases or get aways.
We don't really know what is going on inside him as we watch his character respond to a very odd set of circumstances put before him. He steps outside of his comfort zone and he falls for a neighbor, Carey Mulligan, whose husband is in prison. She has a son he also adores. But it is restrained. They barely speak. They look at each other. Volumes of desire.
Loser husband gets out and owes big money to bad people who beat him up and give him one chance to get their money. He has to rob a pawn shop for them. Gosling offers to help as the getaway driver, doing the only thing he knows how to do in order to ensure the wife's safety.
Things go bad. It's a set up. At this point, we realize that in every scene, things get deeper and deeper, more out of the element of this man who drives. He carries no gun. He isn't a "wise guy." He is gentle. Restrained. Careful. Cautious. Yet he rises seamlessly to each situation. We notice how aware he is of every person, every car, and we realize he has had some experience of which we know nothing and we begin to wonder what he did before he showed up five years ago to become a grease monkey, get-away car driver, wanna be race car driver. But I didn't think about it too much, the movie was too engrossing.
All of this is played softly, subdued. Gosling probably only says 15 sentences. Maybe 20 tops. Mulligan, reminding me a lot of Michelle Williams, probably says about the same. The plot is interesting but not of major importance.
A man of few words, he is an action person. All of a sudden, we have swung over into The Man With No Name territory. But it's so low key the only action is violence. Major stomp your head into a rotten tomato violence. Whoa. Where did that come from?
Albert Brooks is a cheap hood who has become a nice guy but is actually a professional killer and a cheap hood. Ron Pearlman is his partner who knows he's a cheap hood. They're a nice foil. Brooks probably has the most lines, as is apropos.
But everything comes to a head, of course. And you are left wondering . . . who is this driver guy? It is a beautiful movie and you should see it.
Rock of Ages (2012)
Awful movie but Cruise is actually fabulous and worth a look.
I love musicals. Truly, I just adore them. But this was actually so trite, predictable, nothing original whatsoever, including the music. About 20 minutes into it I was ready to leave. Swear. Just going to book.
But, wait a minute, didn't I want to see if Tom Cruise could pull off being a combo of Bret Michaels and Axl Rose (at least that's how Poison's lead singer described Cruise.) So I sat still, okay maybe I squirmed, and waited.
And I was amazed. If you saw Collateral and were mesmerized by the absolutely intensity of purpose that Cruise put into the professional hit man character, you will get to see that same intensity transformed into his cunning take on the "every rock-n-roller over-the-hill" idol.
He saves the movie because he manages to create one character that we actually have some empathy for, a wasted rockaholic swallowed by his persona and lost into the caricature of the rock god. I actually gave some "head time" to his character, thinking how pathetic and hard the life is, thinking about Axl Rose and Curt Cobain, just kinda meditating on all the lost souls of extraordinary talent and crushing fame. He could have been funny but I found his character so universal and sad. Funny it was not. Not even with the baboon. Just more ridiculous head- tripped detachment sadness.
His voice is fabulous. I actually thought, "just what can't Cruise do?" And I am one of those typical people who love to hate Tom Cruise. I always say I can't stand him and every movie I see him in, he just knocks me out. He is always great. Think of Tropic Thunder, I didn't even know it was him, swear to God, until someone 2/3rds through when I recognized his voice!
So, it is an awful movie. But Cruise's performance is worth the ticket.
And what is up with Journey? They must be on the everlasting high from Glee to Rock of Ages - everyone is singing "just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit, he took the midnight train going anywhere." Great song but what is the deal? Is it the song to personify today or something?
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
Visionary and deeply stirring. Breathtaking.
Hollywood rarely attempts to create a serious quest tale, usually opting for lots of silliness stuck in the middle of serious. Snow White is a dark tale - a wicked queen wants the death of a young girl. Disney made this a palatable and precious movie.
Snow White and the Huntsman honors the archetypal and presents us with the age-old elements. A seemingly powerless orphan called upon to save a kingdom. A band of "less than heroic" helpers. An overwhelmingly powerful villain who has been wounded and is filled with pride and self- pity. And a touch of magic as an ally. Notice we now have the basic plot of: Harry Potter, King Arthur, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, pretty much all quest tales.
The screenwriter, director and cinematographer honored the concept and expanded it to create a world of incredible beauty. They deepened the tale itself so that it explored all the quest concepts, they choose talented actors who filled the roles, and they dazzled us visually. And surprised me.
When we arrived in sanctuary, I was enchanted. As Snow White is called by "him," I thought omg, is it going to be the Stag? Is it going to be Arthur in his magical form? I could not believe they took the tale this deep.
Few movies have stirred me like this. A fabulous tale with stunning visuals. Avatar. The English Patient. Pan's Labyrinth. The Fall. Mighty heady company to keep.
Lennon Naked (2010)
Contemporary tragedy beautifully done yet terribly painful to watch.
This sort of biopic is the best example of "we bring who we are to a film." I'm surprised at the few reviews I've read as they seem to think John Lennon was an adult. I thought the film daunting because it so obviously was exploring Lennon's psychological state and it was spot on. He was a man-child who did not mature. I can think of few films I've seen where we know we are watching someone who just can't get past their childhood pain. We are shown why Lennon is hurt. His mind swirls constantly around this pain. His reaction to his pain is barely veiled fury, a rage to hurt as many others as he can and an obvious self- loathing that cut to the quick. Lennon is absolutely crippled interpersonally. He sees "them" as all the people external to his self and then there is "me," who he knows is acerbic and difficult and he is stuck in this horribly vicious cycle. It is terribly sad and disturbing because, I suppose, Lennon is iconic.
Along comes Yoko Ono and by some completely mystifying chance, he hooks up with someone who allows that injured child to come out and play and feel some freedom of expression. Does this cure him? No. Does it help him? Maybe. You do feel he is a bit happier, though still desperate. He glues himself at the hip to Yoko and never lets go.
The film does not explore his creativity at all. In this I can't say the film is just as I don't know. But I did not think Lennon original, merely clever at being reactionary to anything that touched him. He refined "acting out" to an art form and melded this with Yoko's performance art. He lived his life asleep, his unconscious in total reign and it was a vindictive and hateful shadow that ruled him.
I wonder how this man wrote "Imagine." I now think it was as much a personal plea to his inner self as it was a plea to the world.
Eat Pray Love (2010)
Shallow but faithful attempt but in the end, a disappointment.
First, I should say I am no longer a fan of Julia Roberts as I have found through the years her choice in movie roles to primarily be strident and brittle. Eat, Pray, Love is a fabulous book as it allows the reader to experience the gradual spiritual growth and attendant self-confidence of Elizabeth Gilbert, the author. It is about sensuality and spirituality as they combine for self-discovery.
I thought, going to see the movie, that at least the visuals would be stunning because Italy, India, Bali - how can we lose? But that wasn't so. The director did not take advantage of any of his locations to stun us with the beauty. Especially Italy and India - two extraordinary places - pretty. The ashram Roberts' character attended and her final experience of being truly touched by the indwelling spirit - this wasn't even attempted.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the movie, didn't mind sitting there, was going along with it and thinking, "okay" this will "do," and we get to Bali and enter Javier Bardem. In one minute my feelings went from "ho hum and this is okay" to "now this is a man and he can act."
Notwithstanding Julia Robert's magnificent and undeniable gift of the world's most gorgeous smile, she can't act. She is impossible to care about. She is stiff, rigid, protected. She made a few movies when young - Pretty Woman and Steel Magnolia's come to mind - in which she allowed herself to be vulnerable. But I've not seen her be vulnerable in at least 10 years. An actor must be vulnerable and I do not know why she no longer allows herself to feel a role but it is a huge disappointment in her movies. Now and then I re-watch Pretty Woman and always wonder at how lovely and naive she is in this darling film. Where did this side of her go?
In terrible and painful contrast, Javier Bardem is so open and full of passion, compassion, joy, pain, sexuality, hesitancy, regret, pain - feeling after feeling that his role calls for - each flowing across his beautiful and broken face. The pain the movie touched inside me came from Bardem's revelations of his past.
There is one tender and vital scene of wistful remembrances of Robert's marriage through a flashback dance scene. She isn't acting in it. Yet it is tremendously evocative and beautifully captures the common trap of being unable to forgive ones self for failed love and the sad result of remaining protected from being open to love again.
By the end, Bardem's immense screen passion, juxtaposed to Robert's woodenness, kept me wondering, "why does he care about her?" In fact, I wondered why any of the three men who loved her in the movie cared about her at all.
So - I believe Roberts is a failure in the movie.
A privilege to watch.
At the movies' end, as the credits rolled, what came to mind was, "A privilege to watch such beauty." I don't know what a person who doesn't love fantasy and sci fi will bring to or take away from Cameron's masterpiece. I've loved both genre's all my life and read most major works and seen all major television and film with fantasy and sci fi themes.
Avatar is as good as it gets. It is stunning. Thrilling. It is not original as really nothing can be anymore. But instead, Cameron has distilled fascinating themes and recreated them through his own vision.
There's much reminiscent of so many things there's no point in even speaking of them. But in the end, Avatar speaks for itself directly to the viewer's heart. It is an emotional film, filled with tender nuance and exquisite visual beauty, as well as wildly-rolling excitement, violence and turmoil.
It packs a big punch to the synapses on a number of levels, be it racial dna memory or merely guilt at what we do to one another and then segues over to the deep, mystical longing for the Mother as the mystery of Earth and Unity and our loss of touch to her.
I kept wondering why it was named Avatar. That is such a wonderful invention of Cameron's.
Enough of that - let's get to flying on dragons. OMG it is glorious.
A gorgeous surprise, you will love this film unless you're dead.
True Blood (2008)
Squiky, unpredictable and over-the-top great entertainment.
Just finished watching the first season's 12 episodes. Need to say that I watch little TV. I find most of it boring and wholly predictable. I was devoted to Twin Peaks and the X Files and now I've FINALLY found another series that is totally off-the-wall. Trueblood is fabulous. It's nuts, the characters are mostly dumb whack-jobs and often disgustingly wonderful. Any given 5 characters don't have one brain between them, ("Jason Stackhouse, you're as dumb as a box of hair," - one of my favorite lines) It is raw and violent, practically soft-porn, yet so camp that I am able to endure how grim it is. And it is really grim. This is the worst - absolute worst - stereotype of the south and rednecks. Trueblood is fresh, completely unpredictable and with that same feeling as the aforementioned series' - Trueblood seems to be made up as it goes. There doesn't seem to be any destination, just a meandering through the bogs of human foibles, with the delicious twist of vampires who have "come out," and are mainstreaming - sort of and not. The parallels between "V" - vampire blood, and psychedelic drugs combined with addictive drugs is actually quite interesting. The only rule in this show seems to be, "trust no one." The acting is superb. Truly. And I love to sit there after each episode and say, "what on earth did that mean? Who was that character? Is that/did that/does that/could that/who that?" Meaning - I am fascinated and hooked!