Saturday, December 28, 2013

Movie Reviews-American Hustle, Prisoners

American Hustle
directed by David O. Russell
Okay first things first. You should be prepared to see Amy Adams in a whole new light. Heh. There was a joke going around that she should win an award for least supported actress. In almost every scene Adams is braless in extremely low cut blouses, gowns or dresses. Perhaps this look will catch on. Snicker. You definitely notice her attributes, which, as she is playing a con woman, makes sense. The marks pay attention to her cleavage and not their cash. Decolletage aside this was a good film with some nice acting and writing. I'm not sure it was a great film because the film's ending third is somewhat telegraphed IF you were paying attention. It still had some interesting twists and turns, however. American Hustle is based on the ABSCAM scandal. The director uses that scandal as inspiration for his own story. American Hustle is set in the seventies but except for the music choices and tasteful use of hairstyles and vehicles this movie could pretty much take place today. Although American Hustle features four relatively young stars in Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper, it's an ensemble movie. Nobody dominates the screen. The rest of the cast all fit near seamlessly in their roles, including Robert DeNiro in a quick cameo.
I don't know if Russell was influenced by Scorsese. But the multiple voiceovers, flashbacks and captions certainly reminded me of Goodfellas. So I was inclined to like this movie from those techniques alone. It's like sitting into an comfortable old chair. You know what you're going to get. There are few completely bad guys here. Everyone is a shade of gray. The four primary characters all have positive and negative traits. This film confirmed what I already believed. I don't like the federal government's seeming ability to convert almost anything into a crime and then pick and choose which crimes it will prosecute. But that's my pet peeve. So what's this movie about?

The story is less important than the characters and their interactions. It starts with the chance Long Island pool party meeting of con man/businessman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a stripper and con woman. They bond over a shared interest in Duke Ellington. They discover that besides a similar taste in music they also share an interest in making it big. I have heard that Bale gained weight for this film. Perhaps but it didn't seem to have shown in his face much so maybe his frequently shown pregnant looking belly is a prosthetic? No matter. He's quite convincing in his role. With Sydney at his side, the put upon and one french fry away from a heart attack Irving is able to improve his fake art and fake loans scams. Nonetheless I think that if I were desperate enough to give someone $5000 as a "fee" for a loan that I never received I also might be desperate enough to return to their place of business and commit a crime upon their person. 
Anyway Irving and Sydney love each other, despite the fact that Irving is unhappily married to the shrewish Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Rosalyn is the sort of irritating individual who is never at fault no matter how stupid her actions were. Rosalyn is somewhat of a thankless role. Lawrence tries her best at making the character sympathetic. But then you remember that she's not. If Rosalyn can't manipulate Irving with the obvious she'll guilt trip him about his responsibility to their son. Irving's not too crazy about Rosalyn anymore but he does love her son, whom he's adopted. Rosalyn isn't book smart. But she is cunning and cagey. From Irving's POV she has a bad habit of knowing more about his criminal enterprises than he thought she did. For now Sydney accepts being the other woman.
This barely stable balance is disrupted when Sydney (pretending to be a British "Lady Edith") and Irving run across a too eager client. His spidey sense going off, Irving tries to abort the deal but Sydney pushes on and actually takes the check. The "client" reveals himself as FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). He arrests Sydney and promises hard times ahead. Richie knows that Sydney and Irving have a personal relationship. He manipulates Irving into agreeing to set up four other con artists in order to have charges against Sydney dropped and no charges brought against him. Richie doesn't hide his attraction to Sydney, even though he has a fiancee. Each man has his own style but hitting on a woman you just arrested seems classless. When Irving declines Sydney's post-arrest suggestion that they run away together, we see Sydney drop her indifference about being "pretend-wifey". Some serious female rage emerges. Or is this a con too?

Richie's ambition requires bigger criminal fish than just small time con men. When Richie thinks he might be able to entrap more important folks, like the Camden Mayor Carmine Polito, (Jeremy Renner in the film's best role) he pushes ahead over Irving's objections and those of his FBI supervisor (Louis C.K). This leads to multiple cons, interactions with the Mafia, and hotel meetings with corrupt or altruistic Congressmen and Senators. 
This last is really important. It's something that is embodied in the Carmine Polito character. Some people seek to do good without enriching themselves but don't use kosher methods. If you can only help the people you care about by doing questionable things, does that make you a bad person? Polito's a genuinely decent guy. He cares about bringing jobs to Camden and New Jersey, especially for Black and Latino people. He's faithful to his wife, lives in a modest middle class home, hasn't stolen public funds and is respected across racial and class lines. Is he as culpable as killers who intend to skim casino proceeds, or Congressmen looking to pad re-election funds? It's something to think about. I'm not sure this was a great film but it was a very very very good one. Other actors/actresses include Jack Huston and Shea Wigham (both from Boardwalk Empire), Michael Pena, Robert DeNiro, Elisabeth Rohm, and Paul Herman.

directed by Dennis Villeneuve
Such disparate films as The Tortured, Unthinkable and Zero Dark Thirty have investigated the efficacy and morality of torture. Some famed civil libertarians as Professor Alan Dershowitz have even argued that the government should be able to seek torture warrants in certain situations. Most of us probably wouldn't agree with torture. But we're faced with the ugly fact that evil, for lack of a better word, often works. Evil can get things done where good can be impotent. If you live in the United States you're living on land soaked in the blood of Indians. If you live in the Western World period you're living in societies built on conquest and domination since 1492. Just about every group on this planet has done some dirty deeds. It is what it is. Some situations can't be undone even if we deplore the methods used. Even if you're a vegan Jain doing his or her best to avoid killing, it's still a fact that your very existence requires the death of other living things. 
Being a devout Catholic, the author J.R.R. Tolkien argued, especially in Morgoth's Ring, that the world is marred by the Evil One, so our choices are often bad ones. It can be hard to discover the good. Most would agree that the good, whatever it might be, does not include the harming of children. But how far would you go to prevent the harming of a child. If you're Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) you might do whatever it takes and worry about morality and consequences later. We can understand and accept this and yet realize that there absolutely must be consequences for such behavior. That's where Prisoners differs from such films as Zero Dark Thirty.

In Pennsylvania Keller Dover and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) are middle class folks on a tight budget. They go with their children to visit their friends the Birches, Franklin (Terence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) and their kids for Thanksgiving dinner. The younger daughters want to walk around the neighborhood but are only allowed to do so with their older siblings tagging along. An unrecognized RV is seen. Everyone comes back but in the post dinner sluggishness both the Dovers' and Birches' youngest daughters go missing. And the RV is gone. It is scary that just that quickly someone's life can change forever.
An APB is put out. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds the RV and its driver Alex Jones(Paul Dano). Dano is mentally slow, uncommunicative and down right spacey. He claims ignorance and just wants to go home to his aunt (a totally unrecognizable Melissa Leo). Despite being pushed in ways both hard and soft by Loki, he sticks to his story. There's no physical evidence that either girl was ever in the RV. Despite Keller's impassioned and vitriolic pleas, the police brass order the release of Alex. Keller gets wind of this and runs down to the event to beat up and/or beg Alex for information. Alex tells him "They didn't cry until I left them". Unfortunately no one else hears him whisper this to Keller.
But Keller knows what he has to do, even though it's wrong. He shortly afterwards kidnaps Alex and starts to torture him in increasingly vicious and inventive ways to get information about the girls' location. Remember, Alex is developmentally disabled. Keller gets reluctant help from Franklin (does Howard ever play men who don't whine or cry) and later Nancy. Nancy wears the pants in that marriage and has punked Franklin into letting her know what he and Keller are up to at nights. Grace is out of it. She spends most of the movie in a drugged daze.
Meanwhile, deprived of who he thinks might have been a witness, if not a perpetrator, Detective Loki continues to work the case, looking for links between past kidnappings and known sex offenders. Loki has a reputation for never letting a case go unsolved. Though he hides his sympathy from Keller, in part because he's starting to have suspicions about Keller and in part because Keller's not a cop, within the boundaries of the police department people think that Loki's lost his professional distance (and his mind) and has gotten too close to the case. Although it's very slow going both Keller and Loki think they start to make progress. Or maybe they don't.

This was a very dark intense thriller. I probably wouldn't want to upset Keller Dover. And neither would you. If love, especially of the parental kind, is essentially self-sacrificial, you might argue that this is at its core a love story. What would you do to save a family member? How much of your moral or religious core would you throw away to see them again? Jackman really brings it in this movie. But Prisoners never ever ever lets you forget that no matter how justified Keller feels, he is deliberately inflicting pain on someone who may lack the capacity to understand why. There are no easy choices here. Prisoners will excite you and may even make you cheer at times. It can also drain you. Just when you think things couldn't get more tense, the director ratchets up the suspense. Good stuff but sobering.
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