Tuesday, December 31, 2013

From Director David O. Russell: American Hustle

In David O. Russell's American Hustle, a recreation of the Abscam scandal: an F.B.I. sting operation that led to the arrest of several members of Congress, the American Dream has transformed into the more complex Great American Con Game, and everybody seems to be in on the act. Set in the 1970s, a decade of wild excess, marked by big hair, superfluous jewelry, and the apotheosis of Rock, we are in the world of the grift where a Mexican-American from Tucson can successfully impersonate a Sheik from Abu Dhabi, and an American stripper can pass off as a British aristocrat.

Christian Bale, fifty pounds overweight and with a horrible comb-over, plays con-man Irving Rosenfeld who befriends ex-stripper, Cosmopolitan magazine employee Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Soon they become romantically entangled despite the fact that Irving is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), and the couple has a son. Into this unsettling triangle comes undercover F.B.I. agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who catches Irving and Sydney in a scam, and since he is attracted to Sydney, promises to set them both free if the couple helps him take down four other scam artists. Soon the plan develops into a complex, dangerous scheme involving the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), plans to bring gambling to Atlantic City, and the participation of Miami mafiosi headed by Meyer Lanski's under-boss Victor Tellegio (an uncredited Robert De Niro).

With its underworld characters and noirish ambiance, right from the initial scene, as we watch Christian Bale's Irving attempt to hide his baldness with a miserable-looking rug, the film successfully descends into a world of fabrication and counterfeit, setting the tone for the double and triple-crosses that are to follow. The performances by the principle actors are quite excellent, although Mr. Bale has revealed that most of his lines were improvised. The entire film, with its complex script by the director and Eric Warren Singer aims high when it comes to Oscar potential, although in interviews, director Russell also confessed to rewriting Mr. Singer's script extensively, and admitted that he was more interested in the performances and characterizations than in the plot.

American Hustle is a very entertaining film, with brilliant performances, some of which promise to be big winners in the upcoming award ceremonies.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street

In "Show Biz Bugs," a 1957 Warner Brothers cartoon directed by Friz Freleng, Daffy Duck is furious that Bugs Bunny has gotten top billing at their vaudeville theater, and he is determined to prove, once and for all, that he is the biggest star. Failing to impress the audience time after time, Daffy performs the ultimate act: he drinks combustible liquids and then swallows a lighted match. He achieves utter success with the audience by exploding himself: a stunt that unfortunately he can only do once.

This is how I feel about Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in Martin Scorsese's hyper-kinetic new film The Wolf of Wall Street. The actor has been led to the very heights of Oscar begging, with director Scorsese carefully crafting a ton of scenes, both poignant and comic, to show the actor's range, and to impress audiences, especially those members of the Academy. Actually, the entire three hour movie (written with a frantic sweep by Terence Winter) is geared towards the gold for DiCaprio. The thing is, that he is really good in it! The best, the most believable, and the most impressive he has been since he became Mr. Scorsese's muse. He had to resort to pulling a Daffy Duck, but he's still alive.  He's exploded and he's hit the heights with this one. It's Oscar time, or else!

The structure of the film is the rags to riches story of Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker in Wall Street who loses his job on Black Friday, but inspired by the life and business lessons of his mentor, senior stockbroker Mark Hanna (a memorable cameo by Matthew McConaughey), he re-invents himself, rapidly becoming the head-honcho of a small company on Long Island selling penny stocks to unsuspecting investors and receiving 50 percent commission. It doesn't take long for Jordan to break out on his own, along with neighbor Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), and form a new enterprise that rapidly becomes a billion-dollar company: a giant on Wall Street called Stratton Oakmont, complete with a hungry lion for a logo. Soon, the excesses of big money rear their ugly heads, and Jordan and his associates descend into a maelstrom of drug-fueled lavish parties and orgies, while their questionable business practices raise a red flag with the ever-watchful FBI.

More or less, this is the rags to riches story found in Mr. Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990), and The Wolf of Wall Street arrives complete with many of the same stylistic touches found in the earlier film, including voice-over narration by the leading character, and the creation of a milieu of a life of crime where the participants are scum, but lovable, or at least interesting. In many ways, it is the same film, this time bigger, louder, longer, slicker, but morally empty, lacking the Catholic guilt harbored in the ethnic memories of the old neighborhood.

Aside from Mr. Hill and Mr. McConaughey, both of whom are sure to be nominated for the big awards for their fine performances, there is a very likable Jean Dujardin as a slick but sleazy Swiss banker, and newcomer Australian actress Margot Robbie as Naomi, the bombshell Jordan meets at his house in the Hamptons, and soon weds.

The Wolf of Wall Street may not be the most original Scorsese movie, but it does add the most interesting chapter in the on-going collaboration between director and leading man.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

McKellen & Stewart in Pinter's No Man's Land

No Man's Land is Harold Pinter's 1975 play, first produced at the National Theatre of Great Britain, with a stellar cast featuring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. The play is pure Pinter in its use of calculated silences, enigmatic characters, a lack of any real plot, and a frightening sense of danger lurking inside the psyche of every one of these damaged characters; a situation which can resort to violence at any time. Structurally, the flow of the two acts is reminiscent of the great post-war "Theatre of the Absurd" plays of Eugene Ionesco, early Edward Albee, and Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot is playing in repertory with this production of Pinter's drama. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are taking the lead roles, and Tony Award winners Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley complete the casts.

Comparing the 1975 cast to the present one, in the role of Spooner, John Gielgud was a foppish character of Chaplinesque pathos. Ian McKellen turns him into a literary but raggedy scarecrow that has been left too long out in a field. Hirst was an over-the-top, aristocratic drunk, awash in memories and dementia: perfect for the unique theatrical persona embodied by the talented Ralph Richardson. Patrick Stewart, lacking the physical presence and demented bravura of Sir Ralph, plays the role with a certain amount of frailty, even sitting down stiffly and uncomfortably in his big chair. Since Mr. Stewart is remarkably fit and looks quite young for his years, it is a testament to his acting abilities that he carries off the part with so much conviction.

Mr. Crudup and Mr. Hensley bring a real sense of menace to their respective roles of Foster and Briggs (all four characters are named after famous Cricket players). In typical Pinter fashion, it is unclear what their roles are in this household.  Is the young Foster merely Hirst's amanuensis? Is the brutish Briggs just a servant and bodyguard? Are the pair conspiring to lead Hirst to oblivion with alcohol? Do they sense that Spooner might be a danger to their plan? Are they lovers? In typical Pinter fashion, the playwright refuses to provide concrete answers.

As in Beckett's work, these four characters are stuck in a no man's land each one has built for himself. It is a place, which according to Spooner, "never moves...never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever icy and silent." If the play is about the reaction of a dysfunctional household to an intruder, and the possibility that this person might awaken the other from his lethargic, alcohol-soaked existence, then the play strikes a chord of genuine theatrical discovery, and the trip to this icy, silent no man's land is quite gratifying.

Monday, December 23, 2013

NY Film Festival: Inside Llewyn Davis

A 1960s Greenwich Village folk singer: a modern-day Ulysses on a circular odyssey that goes nowhere is the premise of Joel and Ethan Coen's brilliant, latest film Inside Llewyn Davis. Based loosely on the early career of folksinger Dave Van Ronk, and his classic album Inside Dave Van Ronk (which features the singer at the threshold of a door, with a cat peering outside), the film recreates Camelot in the Village: a time when college students sported button down shirts, browline glasses, and short hair, and the Gaslight Cafe inside a basement of MacDougal Street, was the gathering place for the booming folk scene. In a matter of years it would all come to a halt when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and the British invasion rocked America.

The look of the film is prodigious. Shot on film by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, it has a palette of desaturated hues reminiscent of old Eastmancolor. The iconography of the film owes its look to yet another record cover: "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," which features the singer, arm in arm, with his then girlfriend Suze Rotolo, walking in the middle of the street at the corner of Jones and West 4th on a sad, snowy day. This famous album features eleven original songs (including Blowin' in the Wind, Masters of War, and A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall), an achievement that proved to be another death knell to the myriad of singers in the Village that were performing traditional songs. Singers like the unfortunate, mythical Llewyn Davis.

It's not just the fact that Llewyn, played with wondrous pathos by sad-eyed, newcomer Oscar Isaac, is not able to create new material that is a fatal drawback, but it is also the way he deals with his friends that closes many doors for him, and will eventually doom his career.  His friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) accuses him of making her pregnant, even though she's not sure if the child is his or her husband's Jim (Justin Timberlake).  Just the same, she demands that he pay for the abortion so that Jim never finds out. In one of the more poignant scenes Jim, Jean and their friend Troy (Stark Sands), a private in the Army on his way to Fort Dix and presumably Vietnam, sing Hedy West's great folk song "Five Hundred Miles" leaving Llewyn Davis in the audience, a mere spectator, divorced from being part of a great performance.

Later on, Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago with Roland Turner (John Goodman), an actor turned Jazz musician, and his taciturn driver Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund). Mr. Goodman, in a phenomenal, minimalist performance serves as a combination Cyclops and Lotus Eater in Llewyn's misbegotten journey, which ends in disappointment when Chicago club promoter Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) decides, after hearing him play, that there's no money to be had in Llewyn's brand of folk.

Llewyn hitchhikes back to New York, tired and broken: his aspirations rapidly disappearing. In an unexpected, but brilliant turn, the structure of the film comes back to its beginning once again. Llewyn performs "Hang me, oh Hang Me" at the Gaslight, and gets beaten up outside the club by a mysterious stranger, as he did in the initial moments of the movie. Llewyn's life and career, seem to be spinning in circles, out of control, and going nowhere fast.

In turning their amazing talents to a down-and-out character from another decade, the Coen brothers have touched a nerve with our very own time of marginalized, unemployed millions in an unstable economy. The story of Llewyn Davis, homeless but filled with dreams of better things to come, speaks to our time, as it lovingly recreates a page of history largely forgotten today.