American Hustle: Over-Comb with Emotion

In David O. Russell’s warm-hearted and hilarious film, con-artists Sydney and Irving are lovers entrapped by an ambitious FBI agent and forced to participate in a far-reaching sting.  The action goes down in a lurid 1970s New Jersey teeming with sexual tension and Serious Hair.

 Christian Bale;Amy Adams;Bradley Cooper

In American Hustle’s opening scene, the inimitable Russell presents us with a strangely enthralling spectacle: conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale in his latest physical transformation) preparing his comb-over in a suite at New York’s Plaza Hotel.  When Irving’s partner-in-crime and lover Sydney later describes said comb-over as ‘elaborate’, she kindly understates the case: this is surely the mother of all comb-overs.

A partially bald, paunchy man in a velvet suit, Irving sports unruly back-combed rat-tails protruding from his dome in every direction to form an unsightly Medusa’s garland.   To address this unfortunate reality, he applies what appears to be a merkin to his exposed pate.  This being The Seventies in all its hideous glory, it could perhaps be a piece cut from an afro wig.  Still, it is short and curly, so draw your own conclusions.  Through a fascinating process involving glue and persistence, he achieves the seemingly impossible, ultimately resolving the hair situation admirably, even heroically.

Comedic value aside, I have the nagging feeling a key to the film is hidden amongst the characters’ uniformly over-prepared locks.  Suffice to say this movie raises the question of whether it is possible for hair to be epic, and it is nothing short of a travesty that American Hustle wasn’t nominated for best makeup and hairstyling at this year’s Academy Awards.  Throughout the film, Russell shows us characters constructing their identities with their hair, and all the inherent vulnerability this entails.

The opening sequence mercilessly exposes our romantic lead to the point where he becomes an object of ridicule.  Did I say romantic lead?  American Hustle is an exuberant, entertaining, wickedly funny con movie on the surface, but Russell has given us love story on the sly: a deeply romantic film and humane film in the guise of a caper.

As the scene continues, we introduce the Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, outstanding, in a film where the performances are excellent across the board) and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) completing the film’s first love-triangle.  The unlikely threesome are getting ready for a high-stakes meeting at the Plaza Hotel.  Blood is running high.  Tempers flare.  Comb-overs are dislodged.  Violence is a heartbeat away.  The other cheek is turned in another easily overlooked heroic act.  And we go back, back, back to the beginning.

The beginning, is… when just a whippersnapper, Irving started smashing windows around town to drum up business for his father, an honest window salesman.  ‘From the ground up’ he became a different kind of man from his father.  A sleazebag, or an unlikely hero?  A dishonest man willing to exploit people to get ahead?  Indeed.  A man taking control of his own destiny?  Certainly.  A corrupt man helping the people he cares about in the most pragmatic way?  Undoubtedly.  In particular, Irving is a man who is constantly underestimated and frequently reduced to a caricature by people who aren’t really paying attention.

The beginning, is… when Sydney and Irving meet at a suburban party in New Jersey… Bale lets it all hang out here.  He is an overweight, sweaty, badly dressed, balding man.  Yet as Sydney says, she fell for him because he was entirely himself, and entirely comfortable with himself.  Something Sydney believes she is not, though her actions show her otherwise.

She likes Irving and accepts him as he is. They bond over Duke Ellington.  Later, he takes her to his dry cleaners, where she tries on clothing and with them identities (a recurring theme in Russell’s work), for she feels she can be so much more than what she is.  They share a tender moment leading to a soulful kiss as clothing swirls around them on a seemingly infinite rack. What we have is the beginning of an extraordinary romance.  A story of survival, and kindred spirits.

As with the comb-over, necessity is the mother of invention.  Our lovers are deeply grounded in their acceptance of reality, and their relationship is real and adult.  Accepting Irving as he is means Sydney must accept Irving as a married man.  Accepting Irving as a con artist means she must reinvent herself as the charming and aristocratic Lady Edith.  She talks about choices when you come from a place with limited options.  We see her choice was to work on stage in a strip club.  Sometimes, she tells us, it felt sexy, “There’s a boldness to it.”  And bold is sexy, as the movie goes on to show.  Fashion notwithstanding, we have at least three characters with big hearts, and big cojones to match.

Irving and Sydney choose to steal from desperate people.  The film doesn’t address the moral questions this raises except Sydney’s suggestion that these are not good people and consequently don’t have good karma.  Karma must be immediate for Irving, who rips off acquaintances in his own neighborhood.  But even closer to home, he is an honest man, with a generous heart which has seen him adopt the son of former single mother and wife Rosalyn.

Rosalyn is a woman entirely different from Sydney – divorced from reality, ungenerous – but like agent DiMaso, though she may not have a big heart, she is endowed with balls of steel.   This is a woman who uses her child as leverage over Irving, whom she feels infinitely superior to.  This despite the fact he is constantly putting himself on the line to provide for their family, whereas Rosalyn contributes next to nothing, and is so careless she is always one step away from burning the house down.

Rosalyn believes she is smarter than she is, and acts in the most harmful way, feeling – sometimes understandably – that she has the moral right.   A deeply toxic woman, yet warm, appealing, sexy, and charming, as played in an inspired performance by Jenifer Lawrence.  She makes Rosalyn a great comedic character, vivid and vital and clumsy.  Whether obsessing about the smell of nail lacquer topcoats, or seething in an encounter with Sydney, she is never less than compelling.  Eventually, there is redemption and a fresh start for Rosalyn.

But, back once more to the beginning, which is… when Sydney and Irving are entrapped by an ambitious FBI agent, and he gives them a choice.  A very limited choice, as the other option is jail, but a choice nonetheless.  Enter stage left: the fake sheik.   Agent Di Maso recruits the couple to work undercover in a sting operation that eventually draws in all sorts of powerful players, from prominent politicians to mobsters, and most notably another flawed hero, a ‘corrupt’ mayor fighting passionately for his constituency in the most pragmatic way.  Mayor Carmen Polito eventually becomes the moral center of the movie, and Irving’s chickens come home to roost when he must face up to his betrayal of this kindred spirit.

When they first meet, Sydney feels an initial attraction to DiMaso, but we are left guessing as to her true motivations as the film progresses.  I think Sydney gives us enough information.  While he manages to use extreme stress techniques to drive something of a wedge between Sydney and Irving, hell and high water are surely nothing new to her.  Sydney is comfortable using her sex appeal to get what she wants – it’s a simple trap for suckers, and deeply pragmatic Sydney is never above using it.  In fact, Sydney’s uniquely seductive wardrobe forms a hilarious running joke throughout American Hustle.

It is interesting to note the original title was ‘American Bullshit’.  That would never do justice to the sincerity of the characters, liars one and all, in this unique and entertaining film.  More than just a con, Hustle was the dance of 1970s America, the strut of Saturday Night Fever, the hot move of a generation of people trying to become something bigger.  But despite all the brazen hustle and bustle, and the nod and a wink at Scorcese, it is authenticity which wins through.

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Prometheus: Has Scott Lost the Plot?

Creation of Adam, hands in detail

Creation of Adam, hands in detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marketed as something of a prequel to Alien, Ridley Scott’s visually stunning new film, Prometheus, offers some unforgettable scenes but ultimately has the recycled,  deja-vu feel of a second-grade spin off.  While it is in another class to Alien v Predator, it never comes close to the brilliance of Scott’s 1979 space-horror masterpiece.

Prometheus presents itself as a deep and searching exploration of Questions that Matter, about the origin and meaning of human life, and the nature of The Creator.  This gives the characters something to talk about, in dialogue that is generally on-the-nose, but there is nothing for the audience to engage with here.  Essentially what we have is a futuristic action-adventure.

Where Alien was a horror film at heart, set in a sci-fi world, Prometheus is less about suspense and rising action and more about constant peril, especially in the dragging third act.  It does have a slower-paced and intriguing setup, and could have made a compelling science fiction but falls far short of best of the genre.

Where Alien was based a coherent set of ideas, and premise involving well-established rules, Prometheus is a hodge-podge.   Yes it involves aliens and spaceships, but offers none of the social or human commentary of films like District 9, or Minority Report, and fits more comfortably into the typically sloppy fantasy genre, where pyramids and aliens and gods and monsters collide – think Stargate or Vin Diesel actioner Pitch Black.

Prometheus opens in prehistory, as a lone, humanoid creature, swathed in druid-like robes, walks upon an apparently barren earth and sacrifices himself to seed life.  This sequence is alone worth the price of admission, establishing an unusually discreet and effective use of 3-d which is sustained throughout.

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Moving on to the future, scientists study cave paintings and discover a pattern.  Millennia and continents apart, there is a story of a man pointing towards a distant constellation.  A corporation finances a trillion-dollar mission to explore a planet in a distant galaxy that seems to match this constellation, and search for extra-terrestrial answers to the mystery of the origins of life on earth.  They dispatch a rag-tag crew of scientists and so on to check it out.

The beginning is intriguing, and by far the best segment of the movie.  As the crew sleep in cryo-stasis, a lone man studies every known language in a successful effort to attain universal fluency.  We later discover he is an android, but this is not much of a spoiler.  He models himself on Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.  His character is perhaps the most interesting in the film, but sadly underdeveloped.

Once the ship arrives at its destination, we transition into an episodic movie lacking coherent narrative development, as plot-lines are raised and then abandoned.  Where Alien established a real space crew with real concerns (contractual obligations etc.) real routines and real relationships, the ensemble of characters in Prometheus are fairly uninteresting and lack dimension.

In any film bases its story on characters in peril, it is essential we root for the characters, and watching smart characters make smart decisions is the way to make these films compelling.  In other words, screen logic, which boils down to respect for the audience.  The trouble with Prometheus is that the mission is a gung-ho shambles, lacking scientific reasoning or any kind of protocols.  It is difficult to believe a mega-corporation would send these people so far at such expense without any kind of plan, and allow emotions and impulses to entirely take over.  Upon arrival, the corporate CEO drops a bomb, saying the boyfriend / girlfriend ‘scientists’ are in charge – not his on board corporate rep, an ice-cold Charlize Theron.  Here the ground is laid for a tremendous power struggle which never happens.

The crew enter the atmosphere of a moon which may be inhabited, or at least may once have been.  They have no survey of this moon.  For all they know there are cities, functioning or relics, all over the place.  Yet they stop and land at the first structure they see without conducting any further exploration.

At this location they make amazing discoveries which will forever change the understanding of the origins of human life.  Yet they sulk in disappointment because they cannot talk to these life forms – these are archeologists who devoted their life to studying cave paintings, and these relics should speak volumes to them.  They should be fascinated, delighted and see these things as sacred.  Yet their every move is characterized by recklessness.

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Soon after arrival, they discover perfectly preserved head of an authentic alien life form (perhaps the most beautifully rendered vision in the film).  This alone is worth the trillion dollar cost of the mission.  Do they make efforts to preserve it?  Hell no – they blow it to smithereens.   After risking their lives to retrieve it they stick electrodes in it and randomly experiment with pumping up the juice, in the hopes it will be ‘tricked into thinking it is still alive’ and speak with them.

Especially incoherent is the handling of alien life forms, with a life cycle as muddy as the black goop that pervades this film.  The goop seems to be DNA related, sometimes to the aliens and at other times to the humanoid Creators.   In Alien, an egg hatched a face hugger which attached to a host, implanting the seed of an alien which developed inside the body eventually bursting through the chest.

In Prometheus we have black goop that can be consumed in a drink form, either causing the drinker to explode and seed DNA, or transforming a human into one of these humanoid creatures.  When someone has drunk this goop and has sexual intercourse with a woman, she becomes pregnant with an Alien-like creature in her womb.  Snake like creatures also arise from this goop and extend phalluses down human throats, as does the womb-born alien which looks entirely different.  What is going on here?

All this nonsense at least provides an intense and harrowing ‘abortion’ scene where Noomi Rapace uses automatic surgery to extract the alien from her womb before it kills her.  It seems odd that, having escaped this fate, she never sees fit to inform the crew of the presence of this sinister creature which surely needs to be dealt with.

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Alien was exceptional in that it was a film about female strength, ultimately culminating in a fight between two women which the sequel more playfully cast at moments as a bitch fight.  Here refreshingly unglamorous Rapace is meant to stand in for female power, and she is brave and seemingly indestructible, but never as believable as Sigourney who was tough from the outset.  Interestingly the Creators are by all outwards appearances exclusively male, though this is never commented on or questioned by the crew.

Clearly, someone saw a great opportunity to create a money-spinner here.  In an excruciatingly dull final act beset with unnecessary and random peril (oh no, they’ve shot down the space ship but now it’s going to roll on top of them!) we are primed for a sequel which may perhaps serve to better explain some things about this film.

Prometheus offers more than the average blockbuster – audiences will find much to enjoy in the visuals, intriguing conceptions of future technologies, and some genuinely edge of the seat moments.  But in inviting inevitable comparison with Alien it is promising so much more than it even attempts to deliver.  This makes it a  frustrating and disappointing film, and although there is clearly some passion that has gone into its making I can’t help feeling Scott has lost the plot.

Lost in the Jungle of Mortality: Tree of Life by Terence Malick

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                Requesting tickets to Tree of Life, I was offered the following caveat – ‘I just want you to know, before you buy the tickets, this movie doesn’t really have any kind of story, it’s very slow and arty, more or less abstract really, so if you’re looking for entertainment or a plot you might want to pick a different movie’.  The last time I experienced anything like this was on the DVD for Tidelands, when beleaguered and evidently paranoid director Terry Gilliam introduced his work by way of an unwarranted 10-minute apology.

‘Wow, you really know how to sell it’, I said, ‘I’ll take three please, before my friends change their minds.  Do your movies always come with a disclaimer?’

‘It’s just that so many people have asked for their money back’, explained the teenage clerk, ‘I wanted you to know what to expect.’

Apparently people had been demanding refunds all week, on the shaky grounds that they didn’t like the movie.  I’d have been less surprised if I’d been at the mall, but I was at the Nickelodeon, known for showing independent movies and as close to an arthouse cinema as anything the mid-Cape has to offer.  In theory, this is where people go to seek out filmmakers of uncompromising vision.  Yet they found it appropriate and necessary to preface Malick’s latest film with a lame pseudo-apology.

In my world, a new movie by Terence Malick is a major event.  Considered by some a master of cinema, he is a bold visual filmmaker with a rare ability to capture the tiniest ephemera that form the tapestry of life, and the vast forces capable of tearing it apart. Malick made two films in the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, taking an extraordinary 20 year hiatus before returning with 1998’s The Thin Red Line.  Notoriously private, a certain mystique has evolved around his career and personal life.  I was already excited to hear that Tree of Life was on release, and determined to catch it on the big screen it was made for.  I was now desperately curious to see it.

*****

As the story begins – yes, there is a story – we are introduced to the O’Brien family through a moment of great personal loss, the death of one of three brothers shattering their world through a familiar, almost clichéd, telegram scenario.  We are shown moments of drama, already presented as something of a montage: the father, struggling to hear the news above the din of plane propellers, and the look on his face when he finally comprehends; the efforts of neighbors to console the inconsolable mother or stoic father; the young sons climbing the tree in their back yard.  These are religious people in the age of the traditional Nuclear Family, when a man was a provider and disciplinarian and a woman was a wife and mother, and in this case a source of ethereal beauty.

The impressionistic opening doesn’t stray too far from the conventions of cinema, but I didn’t have to wait long before it became apparent where Malick loses a chunk of his audience.  And it is exactly this passage where the film enters the realms of the extraordinary and spectacular, or for some, the grandiose and pretentious:

Out of blackness emerges a shifting, luminous shape, a nebula cloud perhaps, which could equally represent the creator.   In a sequence reminiscent of Olaf Stapleton’s novel Starmaker, we have time to absorb and contemplate each successive image as we move through a bold sequence lasting 12 minutes, which uses pure montage and lush abstracted imagery in an attempt to show us nothing less than God, the cosmos, the creation of Earth, and the evolution of life.  Though similar conceptual ground was covered in a sequence in Adaptation for one, the ambition and scale is entirely different here, as is the role of the viewer.

It is not just the length of the montage which proves initially disconcerting, but the time we are ‘abandoned’ to contemplation of each individual image.   Watching the abstract requires entering a different mindstate, both meditative & receptive, and the effect is almost Brechtian as we realize this is no short segment but a major chapter of the film.  If you can make this perceptual shift and allow the visuals to wash over you, the imagery is entirely successful.  There has perhaps been nothing like it since the Stargate sequence in 2001, which to my mind it far exceeds in beauty & coherence.

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I’ve worked in abstract filmmaking and found it easy to appreciate the fantastic richness and composition of the images, especially the way the production manages to preserve an organic appearance almost throughout.  I was interested to see that my two friends – one forever in search of the unique and challenging and one whose tastes tend more to the mainstream – were each able to appreciate and enjoy these passages.

In many ways, Tree of Life is a companion piece to The Thin Red Line, sharing various stylistic techniques and thematic preoccupations.  Often heralded as a masterpiece in its own right, The Thin Red Line deals with the beauty of life and the incomprehensible horrors of war, and may even have been something of a warm-up piece for Tree of Life (in his 20-year career ‘break’, Malick reportedly had been developing a project known as Q which in time became Tree of Life).  In both films, Malick is attempting to communicate a sense of awe with nature and creation, and mortal humans’ eternal search for meaning in the face of overwhelming and seemingly impartial forces.  While both are successful in terms of the imagery, Tree of Life is especially stunning in its scope.

Where the extravagant visuals offer pure cinematic pleasure, and the music is at least adequate, what is less successful is the use of voice-over, which plays like a weak rehash of the The Thin Red Line.  When I first saw that film I cringed through the voice over, which felt like a cheesy device masquerading as something far deeper, though I’ve warmed to it a little in subsequent viewings.  In Tree Of Life, the voice-over takes on a similar role – lost, sad voices, asking big, generalistic questions directed seemingly at God, if indeed God is in residence: “Lord, why?”  “Where are you?” etc…  While it gets the point across, it is by way of an over-earnest sledgehammer, and though I hate to say it, lazy filmmaking.  I’m not sure what else he could have done, but I wish he’d come up with a different solution.

This open vagueness is at least in keeping with his thematic interests both as a filmmaker and in this film in particular – of the universal vs. the specific, the fleeting vs. the eternal, in essence the big vs. the small.  While the specific is present in every unfolding detail of the family’s life, it emerges in this sequence only through the potentially distracting dinosaurs which are given two very odd ‘cameos’.

In one a large dinosaur encounters a smaller dinosaur, possibly injured and apparently hiding, and steps on his head in an almost comical fashion.   Apparently capable of crushing the smaller dinosaur, he (a relevant gender assumption) does this again and again, asserting his alpha-dominance over the vulnerable other in an encounter which is tense yet ultimately tender in the alpha’s care not to cause real damage.  This scene parallels the interaction between the brothers and also the father as it develops later.

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In another odd vignette a dinosaur stands fatally injured on the shore, bleeding red into the water in the aftermath of an attack.  The dinosaur’s reaction seems to be one of confusion, as the hapless creature attempts to lick or even eat the flesh about the cavernous wound.  In a sense this is a dino-equivalent of so many moments in The Thin Red Line where characters meet their unexpected demise with a bewilderment that is somehow touching.

One of my friends who adored the film felt the dinosaurs were the worst part, as one of the few places that calls attention to the digital effects, yet the strangeness of their interaction made them more realistic than others we’ve seen and serves to link the common experience of life and death throughout all evolved species – ultimately suggesting that the question asked of ‘God’ was being asked wordlessly and without any concept of god, since the beginning of intelligent consciousness.

Malick goes on to present us with a smorgasbord of intimate family moments as bubbles in the ocean of time.  Each is unique yet speaks of universal human experience, and the environment figures as a major character throughout.  The family home and surrounding neighborhood, a lovingly rendered 1950s idyll, throws into sharp relief adult Jack’s overwhelming sterile cathedral of a work place, and modernist home.  My friend who grew up in the 1950s says it reminded him of the ‘golden age’, though I imagine Malick chose this era not because it represented some lost American ideal but because it captures the world of his own childhood.

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As the film progresses, the flaws in paradise are revealed.  As the children literally frolic in DDT, we see clearly how the defined gender roles of the time provide stability and closeness on the one hand, yet limit the possibilities for freedom and authentic spiritual relationships.  While underpinned by love the relationship between the parents is somewhat sterile, and their relationships with the children are troubled as they grow increasingly alienated, the father eventually approaching the status of tyrant.

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There is solid acting and insightful examination of gender-based interactions: brother-father, brother-brother, mother-son and husband-wife. Yet one thing is lacking in a film that attempts so honest an exploration of human relationships, and that is the sex.  Where is it?  Is it not part of the tree of life?  I’m not suggesting we see the main characters or indeed the dinosaurs getting it on, but it’s a strangely sexless world inhabited here.  Traces we see are limited to the Mother as archetype, the sexual evidence provided by babies and a walk-on girlfriend, a certain discomfort between the parents and the children that seems related to sexuality, and the boys approaching puberty and the ensuing oedipal confusion.  Somehow leaving us to fill in all the blanks doesn’t seem in keeping with the approach of the film.

This is a film replete with riddles.  Events occur in the family’s life that are sometimes ambiguous, and we float freely (as does the camera) between memories, dreams, and the subconscious world.  Surviving brother Jack (Sean Penn) seems to be the main character, but it is unclear who’s mind, if any, we are in at any given point.  Most troubling is a beach scene that plays as The Afterlife but looks like a family gathering for the shell-shocked or Valium-popping, as characters mill about gormlessly.   Here Jack seems to be the dreamer or newly-dead, because everyone else is aged as though drawn from some moment lodged in his memory.  Yet the importance of his perspective in the narrative seems arbitrary.

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Whether this scene is meant to be symbolic or literally transport events onto a spiritual plane is one of many questions posed about religion.  The film takes a Christian perspective because this family happen to be Christian, but does it go deeper than that?  It is left for the audience to take what they will, but in the opening we hear Mrs O’Brien discussing two ways, the way of Nature and the way of Grace.  According to her, the way of nature is the lower, and the way of grace, of imposition of human will onto nature, represents the higher path.  But contrasting the inherent magnificence of nature with the petty property borders imposed by Mr O’Brien on the family’s yard, we have to question this.  As Mrs. O’Brien helpfully informs us, unless you love, your life will flash by.   And love, be it grace or nature, shines through here as the great animating force.

Magnificent?  Pretentious?  Awe-Inspiring? Grandiose?  Ground-breaking?  Facile?  Success or failure, one word defines this work: risky.  It is only in the voice-over that Malick attempts to create a safety net and arguably compromises his vision.  One can look for similar ambition in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyanisquattsi, or the work of Tarkovsky or Herzog.  Whatever we feel about their films, we need filmmakers like these because they are unafraid try to capture the awesome beauty of this world on film, however presumptuous that may be.