Archive for December 2013

American Hustle

December 22, 2013

american-hustle-amy-adams-1“People believe what they want to believe,” says con artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) in American Hustle. I wanted to believe in the movie, but I couldn’t, starting with its hard sell that any of its characters are worth much. American Hustle is a loose, borderline-farcical treatment of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation of the late ’70s. The sting took down a number of politicians convicted of taking bribes, including the mayor of Camden, N.J., fictionalized here as Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a good Italian boy with an epic pompadour. The styles and attitudes of almost all the characters are ludicrous; this is another 21st-century movie that invites us to chortle fondly at the sartorial excesses of the ’70s while trying to crank us up with classic-rock needle-drops and aping the cinematic style from the era, particularly its American master, Martin Scorsese.

Oh, David O. Russell must have had a ball for himself directing the film. He gets to engage in any number of patented Scorsese tracking shots; he reunites with no fewer than four favorite actors from two of his previous movies (Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from Silver Linings Playbook). But American Hustle left me feeling much the same way Boogie Nights did. In both, dynamic camerawork and epic breadth (American Hustle runs two hours and eighteen minutes) seem to mock and belittle the bottom-dog subjects of the movies. The problem with biting from Scorsese’s style is that if you lack Scorsese’s passion and obsession — which animate his style and make it feel like the way he sees the world — you’re left with empty technique, and that’s what happens with a lot of American Hustle.

It’s a comedy, but it seems to want to be more, starting with its self-important title (the script, by Eric Warren Singer, was originally called American Bullshit). People in the movie keep justifying themselves by claiming they’re not in it for themselves. Which is a useful satirical element, except that the movie kind of buys into the justifications. Irving Rosenfeld, for instance, balances a home life with flaky young wife Rosalyn (Lawrence) and her son with his relationship/partnership with another con artist, Sydney (Adams). The FBI agent who busts Irving and Sydney, Richie DiMaso (Cooper), is almost insane with ambition to make bigger busts and a name for himself, which he passes off as duty. Carmine Polito makes well-meaning noises about doing everything for his community. Russell half makes fun of these people and half feels sorry for them. They’re just doing what they have to do. Of course, they almost all have stupid hair and funny accents (Amy Adams is the only one who escapes — the camera loves her).

Richie compels Irving and Sydney (who poses as a Brit with banking connections) to help him catch politicians on the take. They produce a Hispanic FBI agent and pass him off as a sheik looking to invest in casinos on the East Coast. Blinded by money, and believing what they want to believe, a lot of powerful men are caught on tape taking the briefcase. (In real life, one man was approached but didn’t bite — Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. Given the film’s ’70s fetish, it’s surprising Guccione, or a version of him, didn’t make it into the movie.) But the scamming scenes go by so fast we don’t get much sense of their logistics or the emotions involved. It seems that David O. Russell isn’t all that interested in the story; all he wants to do is play with the camera and indulge his actors. Sometimes this works and entertains, sometimes not: one of the worst and most pointless scenes of the year has to be Jennifer Lawrence lip-syncing the living shit out of “Live and Let Die.” Other actors’ bits, such as when a desperate Irving and a wary Carmine find common ground, and Bale and Renner perform it flawlessly, are top-shelf.

At such moments, the film’s believe-what-they-want-to-believe motif comes alive. But American Hustle, like Boogie Nights before it, vaults heedlessly between bedraggled comedy and serious-stakes scenes in which the director shuts off the fun. This sort of tonal shift only works when it feels organic, and nothing in American Hustle feels organic; everything has been exaggerated and, in the end, Hollywoodized. Everyone gets what the audience wants them to get. The cast has boisterous personality to spare, but we’re locked outside of it because the film itself has none. Are we supposed to laugh at these people or with them? Russell is part of a generation of smarty-pants filmmakers whose eyes are bleared over — they have no clear vision of what they want to do other than to make cool movies with cool actors. American Hustle is geared towards grown-ups, and that might explain some of its grateful reception among critics tired of superhero movies. But grown-ups deserve and should hold out for better.

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Saving Mr. Banks

December 15, 2013

safe_imageSomeday, an enterprising film programmer will organize a festival entirely devoted to movies about writers whose work was bowdlerized by Disney. The festival could screen Dreamchild (Lewis Carroll), Finding Neverland (J.M. Barrie), and Saving Mr. Banks, which tells the story of P.L. Travers’ struggles with Walt Disney over his studio’s adaptation of her book Mary Poppins. In a great example of corporate synergy, the movie arrives just in time to be sold alongside 50th-anniversary DVDs and Blu-rays of Mary Poppins next year at your local Wal-Mart, which might also sell you stuffed versions of the animated penguins Travers loathed so much. From beyond the grave, Disney has his revenge on the recalcitrant and Magic-Kingdom-allergic Travers. She allowed no film sequels to Mary Poppins, but Saving Mr. Banks, brought to you by the Disney studio, works as a simplistic Disney-version prequel of sorts.

Travers (Emma Thompson) is on her uppers when her agent implores her to entertain the idea of selling Mary Poppins to Disney (Tom Hanks), who has been after the rights for twenty years. He made a promise to his daughters, he says, and he intends to keep it. Travers packs two tidy bags and grudgingly jets off to L.A., where she’s greeted by a hotel room filled with stuffed Disney characters. Here and there, Saving Mr. Banks is almost a whistle-clean Disney rewrite of Barton Fink, with Walt Disney as both studio head Jack Lipnick and the intrusive creative id Madman Mundt: Travers’ Disney-festooned room is about as disturbing as Barton’s room clogged with mosquitoes and wallpaper paste. But it’s also a smiley-face inverse — Travers’ demons and writerly quirks are destined to be gentled by good ol’ Walt’s intuitive understanding of what’s really bugging the old dame.

Director John Lee Hancock, no stranger to sentimental muck (he made The Blind Side), gives us copious elegiac flashbacks to Travers’ childhood and her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell), a drunken fantasist who couldn’t hold down a job. The key to Mary Poppins and to Travers, then, is Mr. Banks, who was based on her father; once the movie’s lyricists pen a song in which Mr. Banks redeems himself by fixing a kite, Travers warms up and swallows Disney’s conception, cartoon penguins and all — at least according to this film. This complex woman, a bisexual Zen Buddhist who worked for the British Ministry of Information during World War II, is reduced to a wrinkled little girl who wants her daddy. She resists and maybe resents Disney because his brand of fantasy reminds her of Father (and was far more lucrative), but in the end, Daddy/Disney comes through, even consoling a tearful Travers at Mary Poppins’ premiere.

The movie says that pinched British artistry (actually Australian by birth, though Travers made England her home in 1924) doesn’t stand a chance against vulgar, mass-appeal, glad-handing American showmanship. Judged solely on performances, Saving Mr. Banks is sometimes amusing, if you willfully forget the context; Hanks’ Disney is an amiable yarn-spinner who won’t let his staff refer to him as anything but Walt, and Thompson’s Travers has the sharp wit of the terminally disappointed. They’re playing two vastly disparate icons, though the writing doesn’t help them transcend stereotype — the affable American man who has to defrost the prickly British lady is a trope pretty much as old as cinema. Ultimately the movie, despite its focus on Travers and her sour-faced childhood issues, is a warm tribute to and embrace of the Disneyfication process.

Ol’ Walt knows exactly how to melt Travers: he tells her he can make millions of people all over the world love her father. This, of course, comes at the price of nonsensical ditties and a dance number with penguins and Dick Van Dyke uncorking the worst Cockney accent ever recorded for posterity. It also leads, years later, to a movie that depicts Travers’ daddy as a useless drunk who almost drove her mother to suicide and who finished his time spitting blood in a lonely bedroom. Travers, who died in 1996, would certainly not have cherished seeing her father’s diseased guts laid out for sentimental scrutiny this way, especially not in the service of explaining to audiences why Disney’s triumph over Travers benefited the world and her father’s memory. In real life, Travers hated what Disney did to her creation, and she would have hated what his studio has now done to her.

Inside Llewyn Davis

December 8, 2013

Inside-Llewyn-Davis“Talented” is death, a waffle-word to describe the never-was, the artist distinguished enough to get on stage and not stink up the joint, but not exceptional enough to soar and to take the audience with him. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), the folk singer at the center of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, is talented. Llewyn used to be someone, part of a folk duo called Timlin and Davis, until Timlin jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Now Llewyn drifts from gig to gig and couch to couch. The movie definitely takes the romance out of living in Greenwich Village in the old days; it’s set in 1961, not even a decade after the events of Paul Mazursky’s wistful memoir Next Stop, Greenwich Village, but the winter air is thick with the desperation of the “talented” to break out. Llewyn is decidedly not Larry Lapinsky, munching on an apple strudel at the end of Next Stop and thinking about where he’s been and where he’s going.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a plotless, week-in-the-life character study, following Llewyn from New York to Chicago and back, often in the company of a cat who seems as restless as he is. The musical backdrop works here the way it worked in the Coens’ 2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the songs of Americana born of strife and poverty yet transcending despair by the purity of their sound. “If you’re singing,” the songs seem to say, “you’re alive.” The saturnine Llewyn doesn’t transcend anything; he’s down, and he seems to want to take the audience down with him. He’s a bummer, and Oscar Isaac plays him that way, but with an angry edge; Isaac is uningratiating but compelling. Llewyn is a dick who knows life is passing him by, and knowing it makes him more of a dick. He doesn’t even have the redeeming musical grace that Sean Penn’s even more loathsome guitarist had in Sweet and Lowdown.

As always, the Coens get the external details precisely right. I don’t know how much it cost to reproduce the Greenwich Village of 1961, complete with period cars that are only seen glancingly enough to identify them as period cars (maybe those were done with CGI), but it was worth it. And as always, the filmmaking is gorgeously controlled, no mess, nothing extraneous. The lead character is heavy but the movie isn’t; it’s full of lively, immediately readable people, except for Llewyn himself. The title (also the name of Llewyn’s solo album) is ironic: we never really do get inside Llewyn Davis.

We know so little about him; he doesn’t say much about himself, and we don’t know whether he mourns Mike Timlin or just mourns the fact that his own career hit the water along with Timlin. The only people who seem to like Llewyn are a sociologist (Ethan Phillips) and his wife (Robin Bartlett), and Llewyn repays them by losing their cat and then insulting them. Yet Inside Llewyn Davis wouldn’t work if it were about a kind-hearted go-getter who doesn’t make it. It would be too depressing. It plays as a deadpan comedy in which a has-been or perhaps never-was tries to be as objectionable and as annoyingly unyielding as, say, Bob Dylan (seen briefly here at the end, as if showing Llewyn how it’s done) without having Dylan’s genius. Yet when he tries to sell out, as when he gigs as a session musician on an inane novelty ditty called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” he can’t even sell out right — he opts to take a fast paycheck instead of waiting for his agent to approve it, thus cheating himself out of the song’s royalties.

So the Coens surround their central blank with more enjoyable company, like John Goodman as a heroin-addicted jazz player, or F. Murray Abraham as a Chicago club owner, or Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as a husband-and-wife folk duo, half of whom Llewyn may have impregnated. I also appreciated Stark Sands as a soldier/folk singer who speaks fluent Coen-ese. They all have enough life to sustain their own films, but we stay stubbornly with Llewyn as he mopes and schleps the cat around and tries to scrounge money or couch space. Why make a movie about Llewyn (or Barton Fink, or Larry Gopnik, the mathematician non-hero of A Serious Man)? Why not, especially since American cinema tends to want to dismiss or forget any protagonist who isn’t dynamic and aggressive and, well, American, particularly now in the era of the superhero blockbuster? In a world of iron men and supermen and Norse gods, Llewyn is actually an exciting novelty.

Frozen

December 1, 2013

Frozen-2013-Movie-Image-650x271In Disney’s latest feature Frozen, the true love that saves the day turns out not to be between the prince and the princess but between sisters. This deserves some applause. It also doesn’t end with everyone married off — Elsa the Snow Queen (Idina Menzel) will apparently govern the land of Arendelle without a king. Not that she needs a king, or anyone else, to protect her; Elsa has extreme, almost apocalyptic powers over ice and snow, and in Disney’s more simplistic days she would’ve been the villain of the piece. Instead, fearing that she’ll hurt people — a fear instilled in her when she accidentally almost killed her younger sister Anna — Elsa goes into self-imposed exile, where she creates her own magic queendom of ice and sings heartily that she can finally be herself. Meanwhile, though, Arendelle suffers through year-round winter.

What makes Frozen interesting is the way it humanizes the standard Disney villain so that she isn’t a villain at all, but also weighs the consequences her powers have. Elsa pushes people away for their own good, but her dramatic exit from her land leaves it barren. She keeps her door locked against Anna, who grows up not knowing why. The movie spends a great deal of time on Anna (Kristen Bell) trying to reach Elsa; it’s as if Anna were the standard Disney hero trying to rescue the princess, except that she’s trying to rescue Elsa from herself. Anna represents unconditional love (she wants to jump into marriage with a guy she’s just met); Elsa represents fear, which is, I think, what the movie’s showstopping tune “Let It Go” really refers to.

The emotional throughline is all about trying to bring Elsa back into the mainstream of society, a society that’s quick to reject her as a “monster” when she first “comes out” as magically gifted. To see it through a nerdish superhero prism, Professor X of the X-Men would try to help Elsa harness her powers for the greater good, while Magneto would encourage her to stay in her ice castle, perhaps build many brothers to the hulking snow beast she makes to scare Anna away, and crush the human peons. Essentially, Elsa is a mutant, and is handled with post-X-Men compassion, but Anna the normal is the real focus and hero. Anna’s big number is “For the First Time in Forever,” which details her longing for contact with her sister and with people in general. Elsa is offscreen a lot, but the movie fixates on her normalization — though, like I said, unlike Anna (who pairs off with a hunky ice merchant who helps her), but like many evil Disney queens, Elsa has no male companion. Given her similarity to the mutants of X-Men, and given that the earlier X-Men films equated mutants with gay people, is Elsa Disney’s first gay (and pro-gay) character?

Beyond all this, Frozen is a beautifully crafted fable, with snowscapes and ice convincing enough to make a viewer shiver (maybe they should’ve released this in July). The songs are by and large forgettable, though that could just be me — the only Disney song in the last 25 years of which I have any memory is “Under the Sea.” Kristen Bell brings charming awkwardness to Anna (the movie may set a record for the number of uses of “Wait, what?”), and Idina Menzel, familiar with playing misunderstood sorceresses after her Tony-winning turn as Wicked’s Elphaba on Broadway, infuses Elsa with gravitas and regret. Elsa definitely knows that with great power comes great responsibility, but instead of outing herself and doing some good, she chooses to hide. That’s the other thing about Frozen — choice. The women have agency. Elsa makes mostly bad choices, Anna makes mostly good choices (other than her initial taste in men), but they each own them and exist with them. And instead of demonizing Elsa for her choices, the movie shows endless concern for her well-being.

I can’t say it’s a coincidence, then, that Frozen was written and co-directed by a woman (Jennifer Lee) — this is, in fact, the first animated feature under the Disney banner with a woman so credited. Lee (whose partner was Wreck It Ralph’s Chris Buck, who handled the animation side of things) has made a casually feminist, no-big-deal entertainment — it certainly passes the Bechdel test — in which a man can assist in saving the day, but it’s really up to the sisters. Only female hearts in unison can melt the ice that entraps a kingdom. The lesson is administered with no small amount of humor (thankfully no fart humor, though we do get a booger joke) and good nature; the heavy moments aren’t lingered on, and the narrative is a fast straight arrow aimed at the simple goal of reuniting two sisters who used to love to build snowmen together.