Can’t We All Get Along?

After beginning his career as an actor, Scott Cooper made the jump to hyphenate by writing, directing, and producing Crazy Heart, which won Jeff Bridges a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar. He followed it up with the hard-edged Out of the Furnace, starring Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson, and then directed and produced the bio-pic of Boston crime lord Whitey Bulger, Black Mass, with the best performance by Johnny Depp in a long time. Now Cooper’s back with all three hyphenates for his new film, Hostiles.

The screenplay is based on a manuscript by journalist and screenwriter, Donald E. Stewart. Stewart began his journalism career in the 1950s, joining the Detroit Free Press while still in his early twenties. He founded a weekly magazine based on his love of cars that eventually grew into Autoweek. In the 1960s he switched to advertising, specializing in car ads, but in his forties, he decided on a complete change and moved to Hollywood to try his hand at screenwriting. As with many starting Hollywood careers, he connected with Roger Corman. The first film he wrote, Jackson County Jail, has become a cult classic. A few years later he won the Academy Award for his screenplay for Missing, and in the 1990s he wrote the screenplays for the first trio of Tom Clancy films: Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger. Stewart died of cancer in 1999.

Cooper has created an elegiac movie on the passing of the mythic West. It’s 1892, two years after the Wounded Knee Massacre. Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) has spent decades fighting Indians, and is now assigned to Fort Berringer, New Mexico. Imprisoned at the fort is Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a long-time adversary of Blocker. Yellow Hawk is dying of cancer, and the president has ordered that the chief and his family be taken back to sacred Cheyenne ground in Montana. Blocker’s given the assignment to accompany them, after which he’s to proceed to Butte where he’ll be mustered out of the Army and go into retirement.

Blocker and Yellow Hawk have both fought savagely, and there’s no love lost between them. As soon as they’re out of sight of the fort, Blocker slaps chains on Yellow Hawk and his son, Black Hawk (Adam Beach). A short way on the party comes across a burned-out homestead. In the rubble is Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the lone survivor of her family following an attack by a Comanche raiding party. It soon becomes clear that to survive the trip, Blocker and his small contingent of soldiers must form an alliance with Yellow Hawk’s family as they move through territory that’s hostile to them all.

The film harkens back to the classic Western that took time to set its characters. One of those characters is the landscape of open spaces, gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. The location manager found pristine areas of New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado that show the timeless beauty of the country. In a way Hostiles is a spiritual stepchild of John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, focused on the end of a way of life not only for the Native Americans but also for the cavalrymen. (Thankfully, Cooper’s done culturally appropriate casting, rather than using Spanish-American actors like Sal Mineo, Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland, as Ford did.)

Bale is a commanding presence as Blocker. He’s an actor whose stillness can be more elegant and communicative than speeches from lesser actors. The scenes between him and Studi’s Yellow Hawk are taut and spare, filled with the history between the two characters. This is Studi’s best performance since Last of the Mohicans. Pike gives an emotionally raw performance, though within her character we see the chance of redemption.

The supporting cast is strong, including Rory Cochrane as Master Sergeant Metz, a man who’s served as long as Blocker but who’s now been diagnosed with melancholia – what we’d term PTSD today. Along the way they pick up Charles Wills, played by the excellent Ben Foster, a sergeant corrupted by the violence of his service. And they have Timothee Chalamet as a young trooper of French extraction. Chalamet has established himself this year with his performances in Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, for which he’s in Oscar contention.

It’s been said that sometimes you have to walk through hell in order to appreciate heaven. Hostiles is as harsh as nature can be, and it dances along the line of tragedy. Yet it also offers hope within the harshness, and a chance for reconciliation in the end. Perhaps these days a western can be a tonic for this nation, to remind us that overcoming divisions is a core strength of this country that has helped us survive hostilities throughout our history.


Not Enough Promise

There have been excellent movies that dealt with genocide. For the Holocaust, there’s Schindler’s List, Shoah, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Au Revoir Les Enfants, among many others. The Rwandan genocide had the powerful Hotel Rwanda, and for the Cambodian “Year Zero” cleansing there was The Killing Fields. Curiously, one genocide has never been the subject of a movie: The Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Turks during and after World War I. A million and a half Armenians were wiped out by the Turkish authorities, a full three/quarters of the population. Worse, the genocide became a template for the Holocaust. Part of the reason Hitler thought he could get away with his elimination of the Jews was how Turkey killed off the Armenians with little interference from other countries. To this day, the Turkish government officially denies that there was ever any genocide in spite of overwhelming evidence. Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide” in 1943 was thinking of Armenia when he did it. Later he explained, “…it happened so many times… It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians Hitler took action.”

The recently-released movie The Promise was an attempt to right that oversight. The producer behind the film was legendary businessman and ethnic Armenian Kirk Kerkorian. The movie-real estate-casino mogul hired the director of Hotel Rwanda, Terry George, to work magic a second time to tell the story of how the Armenians were purged from the Ottoman Empire after having been a part of it for five hundred years. (Historic Armenia was in the eastern part of Turkey and crossed over the border into Russia’s southernmost region.) I’d love to report The Promise fulfilled the hopes of Kerkorian, who died in 2015 well before the movie was filmed. Sadly, I can’t.

The $90-million dollar production had the resources, and the locations, set decorations, and costuming are first-class. George recruited an excellent slate of performers, including Oscar Isaacs, Charlotte Le Bon (The Hundred-Foot Journey), Christian Bale, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Angela Sarafyan (“Westworld”), Jean Reno, and James Cromwell.

The problem is the events get lost under a pedestrian romantic triangle. The film offers only the vaguest explanation of why the extermination broke out. It gives no context to the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of modern Turkey, including the youthful Army officers who staged a coup d’état in 1908 to remove the Ottoman sultan and set up a constitutional monarchy instead. (They’ve forever given the name of “Young Turks” to youthful insurrectionists in business.) There’s also little illumination given to the actual massacre, which featured death marches, concentration camps, mass burnings, and poisonings.

Instead, we have Isaacs as the small-town druggist Mikael who manages to make it to medical school in Constantinople by using the dowry he received for becoming betrothed to Maral (Sarafyan). There he lives with his uncle, a wealthy merchant, and comes into contact with Ana (Le Bon), the daughter of a world-renowned musician who is teaching dance to the merchant’s children. Ana, though, is in a relationship with American newspaperman Chris Myers (Bale). It’s both romantic and professional, as Ana is a skilled artist and illustrates the stories Chris writes. Turkey enters the war in 1914 on the side of the Germans, and on April 24, 1915, the deportation of 250-plus Armenian intellectuals signals the beginning of the genocide. (George and his co-writer, Robin Swicord, completely ignore that this coincided with the attempt by the Allied naval forces to break through the Dardenelles, which led to the failed land campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula.)

The characters are simplistic and unconvincing, in particular Bale who ping pongs between the ugly American and the crusading news reporter. Bale’s character could have been a conduit for explaining the why of the events, but that chance is squandered. The movie also gives short shift to American Ambassador Henry Morganthau Sr. (Cromwell) who did much to alert the world to the genocide and organize relief for the survivors. He’s given one short scene, where his function is mostly to save Bale’s character.

The Promise is a disappointment. Hopefully someone will undertake a novel or a movie that does do justice to this horrible episode of history. The Promise missed its chance.

When Black Comedy Attacks

In 1964, at the height of the cold war, Stanley Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  The black comedy portrayed those who had control of the nuclear arsenal as delusional, insane, myopic, and/or ineffectual. Now in 2015 comes The Big Short which is one of the brightest and most energetic examples of black comedy. In this case it portrays most of the people in charge of the financial markets as delusional, insane, myopic, and/or ineffectual, though it also adds criminal frauds to the mix. There’s one big difference though between the two films: The Big Short is based on actual events.

The movie is based on the book by Michael Lewis, who also wrote “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side,” and details how a couple of fund managers figured out that the housing market was a huge bubble that was about to pop. The book was adapted by Charles Randolph, who took a deservedly jaundiced look at Big Pharma with Love and Other Drugs, and Adam McKay, who also directed. McKay seems on the surface to be an unusual choice for this project, since he’d made his name co-writing and directing Will Ferrell’s best movies (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys). Last year he did Ant-Man, which managed to blend both comedy and action/adventure in a balanced way – not an easy accomplishment. With The Big Short he’s made a quantum leap into an area usually occupied by Aaron Sorkin and Edward Zwick.

He’s aided by a sterling cast. You have the first person to discover the bubble, Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale. Burry is a one-eyed doctor who changed careers to become a fund manager. He’s painfully awkward interacting with people, but he’s completely comfortable with numbers and analysis. The next person to catch wind of it and recognize the implications is Jared Vennett, who’s played by Ryan Gosling with swarthy makeup and dyed hair. Gosling also provides narration for the story. Later, two Young Turk investors from Colorado discover the bubble. Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) decide to go all in, betting against the housing market, but they don’t have the capital to get a place at the big boy table. However, they have an ace in the hole: Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former investment banker who turned his back on that world out of disgust.

However, the person through whom the audience comes to truly understand the crisis is Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Baum has a large reservoir of righteous indignation for companies that screw over their customers, and expects the worse in banks. But even he has trouble believing the scope of what has happened and the cupidity of the banks and the bond traders.

If you think that a movie about banks and the financial crisis would be about as enjoyable as a root canal done without anesthesia, you would be completely wrong. McKay uses three cameo appearances to explain the workings of the bond market. They feature Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, Anthony Bourdain cooking in a kitchen, and Selena Gomez at a blackjack table. When Vennett makes his initial presentation to Baum about the coming crisis, he illustrates his points with a Jenga game.

McKay also breaks the fourth wall multiple times in the course of the movie and has the actors address the audience directly. It happens most with Gosling, since he is also narrating the story, but others do it as well. Sometimes it’s to explain that what’s shown on the screen isn’t what actually happened, but even more often it’s to say that some plot points that seem completely unrealistic are in fact exactly what took place. The device is as old as Greek theater, and recently it’s been used in both the English and American version of “House of Cards.” There’s a danger that it can be self-indulgent, but here it works beautifully to illuminate and expand the story.

McKay gets powerful performances from his cast, in particular Carell. Several excellent actors fill roles that have only one or two scenes, including Marisa Tomei, Karen Gillian, and Melissa Leo. The film has received 5 Oscar nods – a well-deserved nomination for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Bale, Best Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay (so McKay is up for two), and finally Best Film Editing.

With black comedy, horrible things can sneak up on you while you’re laughing and deliver a sucker punch to your solar plexis. Think of the end of Dr. Strangelove where the world blows up to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again Some Sunny Day.” There’s a similar explosiveness to the end of The Big Short, but this is a true story. Everyone should watch this movie, if for no other reason than to prevent the country being manipulated again by the delusional, insane, myopic, ineffectual people who are also criminal frauds. Remember, fool us twice – shame on us.

10 Remakes that Blow Away the Originals*

Love is lovelier the second time around, as Frank Sinatra used to sing, and sometimes that goes for movies as well. Remakes are the rage in Hollywood these days. While they can make money, the new movies are often pale imitations of the originals. However, there have been a few that have bucked the trend, and here are the ten best of that bunch. For this list, I’ve eliminated English-language versions of foreign-language films since it’s subjective to compare the two. For instance, the Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In and its American version Let Me In are both exceptionally creepy horror films. That the one in English might be seen as more accessible does not necessarily make it better. Instead I’ve stuck with films where both versions were in English.

(*Note: with a couple the newer movies the wind is just a mile or two stronger than the original)

Ocean’s Eleven (Original 1960; Remake 2001)

It’s appropriate, considering the lyric quoted above, to start with one of Ol’ Blue Eyes movies. Also, the inspiration to write this post was the passing of Jerry Weintraub, the producer of the remake. The 1960 original was basically the Rat Pack having a fun time together paid for by Warner Brothers. The caper itself was laughably unrealistic, though the movie did do well at the box office. Warner Brothers, though, had the last laugh. The only parts of the original that screenwriter Ted Griffin kept were some character names, that the gang had eleven members, and the heist is set in Las Vegas. Director Steven Soderburgh created one of the most stylish caper movies ever, and populated it with a dream cast. It wasn’t just having Clooney, Pitt, Roberts, and Damon in the same film, but also Don Cheadle, Elliot Gould, Carl Reiner and the rest of the crew that made this a worldwide hit. Unfortunately, the sequels followed the rule of diminishing returns.

Casino Royale (Original 1967: Remake 2006)

This is a case of comparing rotten apples with prized oranges. Albert “Cubby” Broccoli locked up the rights to all the Ian Fleming Bond books except for the first one, which was actually produced on TV in 1954 with Barry Nelson as American spy James Bond. After the Bond movies became hits, Columbia decided to make Casino Royale as a spoof. It was a classic case of Hollywood excess. There were five directors, including John Huston, three screenwriters, seven uncredited contributors to the dialogue including Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, Ben Hecht and novelist Joseph Heller, and an all-star cast including Allen, David Niven, and Peter Sellers. The only success it had was for Herb Albert, who recorded the Burt Bacharach/Hal David theme song. In 2006, for the launch of Daniel Craig as Bond, Cubby’s daughter Barbara finally had the rights and went back to the original story, while giving it an overdose of adrenalin. It gave the over-40-year-old series its biggest hit with a $600 million worldwide box office and cemented Craig as this century’s Bond.

Heaven Can Wait (Original “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” 1941, Remake 1978)

This time it’s a close call. Here Comes Mr. Jordan starred Robert Montgomery as Joe Pendleton, a pugilist who dies too soon, and Claude Rains as the titular Mr. Jordan, a head angel who tries to repair the mistake by placing Joe’s consciousness into the body of a banker who’s just been murdered by his wife and his personal secretary. It was based on a play entitled “Heaven Can Wait,” and the film was a hit. In 1978, Warren Beatty and Buck Henry decided to remake the story under the original title. They changed Joe’s character from a fighter to the quarterback of the L.A. Rams, with Beatty playing Joe, James Mason as Mr. Jordan, and Julie Christie as Joe’s love interest. Also in the cast were Dyan Cannon, Charles Grodin, Jack Warden, as well as Henry as the angel who grabs Joe too fast. They did keep that Joe had a lucky saxophone, though they changed it from an alto sax to a soprano. The soundtrack was done by jazz great Dave Grusin. The film was number five at the box office in 1978 (behind Grease, Superman, Animal House, and Every Which Way but Loose) and was nominated for 9 Oscars including Best Picture, though this was the year that The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dominated the major awards. Note: Just to be confusing, there is a 1943 Don Ameche film entitled Heaven Can Wait, but it’s a completely different story.

3:10 to Yuma  (Original 1957; Remake 2007)

Based on a story by Elmore Leonard, the original 3:10 starred Glenn Ford as the outlaw and Van Heflin as the farmer who must get him on the titular train to collect a reward. It focused more on the battle of wits and will between Ford and Heflin, and it was one of the better westerns during a time when dozens of them were made every year. The remake was done in a much different atmosphere, when westerns are a rarity, and this time it expands the story so the outlaw’s capture and the journey to the town to meet the train takes up 2/3rds of the movie. The story also makes the farmer’s son a major character. Having Russell Crowe and Christian Bale as the main characters ups the intensity all by itself, though the show is almost stolen by Ben Foster as Crowe’s second-in-command, a role played by Richard Jaeckel in the original.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Original 1934; Remake 1956)

The only person who can safely remake Alfred Hitchcock is Alfred Hitchcock (see – or rather don’t see – 1998’s remake of Psycho, and you can already discount Michael Bay’s upcoming remake of The Birds). Hitchcock’s original was partly inspired by an actual event in England, the Sidney Street Siege in 1911when Home Secretary Winston Churchill sent in the Scots Guards to clear out an anarchist gang, turning Sidney Street into a battleground. In both movies, a family vacation is interrupted by a dying man giving the husband and wife information about a pending assassination. For 1956, Hitchcock completely eliminated the Sidney Street reference and created a wonderfully suspenseful story that starred Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day.

Cape Fear (Original 1962; Remake 1991)

Once again, this is a close call. Based on a John D. MacDonald story, the original had Gregory Peck as lawyer Sam Bowden and Robert Mitchum as Max Cady, the criminal that Bowden helped convict 8 years earlier and who has now come back for revenge. It’s a good thriller, but then Martin Scorsese decided to remake it with Nick Nolte as Bowden and Robert De Niro as Cady. The new version is much darker and deeper: instead of testifying against Cady, Bowden was Cady’s lawyer and threw the defense to get Cady off the streets. De Niro’s Cady is mesmerizing, and the film benefits from an exceptionally strong supporting cast with Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis (an amazing performance), and Joe Don Baker. Scorsese also gives honor to the original by having both Peck and Mitchum take supporting roles, and reusing Bernard Herrmann’s iconic original score.

The Thing (Original “The Thing From Another World” 1951; Remake 1982)

Producer Howard Hawks’ original The Thing From Another World is one of the classic 1950s sci-fi films. It benefited from the paranoia about the Soviet Union at that time, with its final warning to “Watch the skies.” In 1982, another time of worry about the Soviet Union, John Carpenter took the story and wrenched up the paranoia. Instead of just doing battle with an alien (played by James Arness in the original film), Carpenter went back to the original novella by John W. Campbell where the alien is able to absorb the image and memories of anyone it consumes.  The body count is much higher, and Carpenter eschews the upbeat ending of the novella and the original movie for a much darker one. Long-time Carpenter collaborator Kurt Russell is excellent as MacReady, the helicopter pilot who leads the fight against the alien.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Original 1956; Remake 1978)

Don Siegel’s original is a great sci-fi film, and can also be viewed as a commentary on McCarthyism with normal people being replaced by emotionless aliens. The final sequence of Kevin McCarthy (no relation to Joe) running down the highway yelling at drivers “You’re next!” rightly freaked out the 1950s movie goer. Philip Kaufman’s remake turns a black-and-white thriller into a richly-colored work of art. The special effects are exceptional, and the cast is excellent (Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy). Kaufman also included a scene with Kevin McCarthy that echoed the end of the first film, and had Don Siegel make a cameo as a taxi driver.

True Grit (Original 1969; Remake 2010)

While the original had John Wayne and Robert Duvall as bad guy Ned Pepper, the Coen Brothers remake stuck closer to the original Charles Portis novel. The Duke may have gotten the Oscar for his role as Rooster Cogburn, but Jeff Bridges out-acted him in the remake and Hailee Steinfeld was more believable as Mattie Ross, in addition to being closer to Mattie’s age in the book. The Coens give the film a more rustic and rough feeling while the scene in the snake pit is the stuff of nightmares. While the 1969 movie had to have an upbeat ending with Wayne triumphant, the Coen’s gave the viewer a more satisfying and poignant one.

The Maltese Falcon (Original 1931; Remake 1941)

This had to be a remake, because there was no other way that Jack Warner would give untried writer/director John Huston a new movie. The 1931 original is entirely forgettable, with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and Bebe Daniels as Ruth. Warner wanted a B movie, and had cast George Raft as Spade. Raft though considered the production beneath him and pulled out, opening the way for Bogart. Huston did something almost unheard of in the movie industry – his script followed the book almost exactly. Huston had accidentally sent a copy of the completed script to Warner, but he was pleasantly surprised when Warner loved the script and gave him the green light to shoot. The cast was fantastic. Bogie, Sydney Greenstreet (in his first film role), Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Elisha Cook Jr., Barton MacLane, and Ward Bond were perfect for Hammett’s hard-boiled classic. It made the finished film the stuff that dreams are made of. Interesting note: three of the black bird statuettes from the film still exist, and are the most valuable props in the world, each valued at a cool million. That means each of them could pay for the production of the original film – three times over.

Honorable Mentions: King Kong, Scarface, The Parent Trap, No Way Out

Breaking the Stone

In 2000, Ridley Scott proved a Sword and Sandal movie could be popular again with Gladiator. Thanks to an intelligent script, a stellar cast, and Russell Crowe’s best performance, it breathed life into a genre that had died in the 1960s. Now, with Exodus: Gods and Kings, he’s set his sights on a genre that’s pretty much been gone for 55 years – the Biblical Epic. (I’ll ignore Darren Aronofsky’s Noah; if you’re wise, you’ll ignore it, too.) While it has its problems and doesn’t come close to Gladiator in power, Exodus: Gods and Kings does in the end manage to be a thrilling experience.

Scott has an uphill battle from the start simply because of the familiarity of the story. Gladiator dealt with a time and characters with which only history buffs were familiar, but the story of Moses and the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is familiar to millions of people. It’s also been filmed multiple times, most famously by the man whose name is synonymous with biblical epics, Cecil B. DeMille. For a couple of generations, The Ten Commandments set in their brains how God interacts with people: the finger of flame writing the commandments while a voice solemnly intones them, the plagues of the Egyptians, and of course Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea. You could say that after that film, the images were engraved in stone.

Scott and the four screenwriters who worked on the script (Adam Cooper & Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steve Zaillian) do their best to shatter those images. They start the film with Moses (Christian Bale) already an adult and serving as a captain to his cousin Ramses (Joel Edgerton). The current pharaoh, Seti (John Turturro), sends them into battle against the Hittites, though before they leave the High Priestess (Indira Varma) prophesizes that the one who leads will be saved by another, and that other with then lead. Sure enough, in the course of the battle Moses saves Ramses, though they decide to keep it a secret from Seti.

When complaints arise about the viceroy in charge of the stone quarries and brick-making operations for the constant construction projects, Seti orders Ramses to investigate, but Moses offers to go instead. There he finds Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn) living like a king while brutalizing the Israelite slaves. Moses meets both Nun (Ben Kingsley) and his son Joshua (Aaron Paul) and, in a secret meeting, is told the story of his birth.

A weakness of the film is that Scott has assembled an incredible cast, but then doesn’t give them much to do. Along with those previously named, you have Sigourney Weaver as Ramses’ mother, but she only gets one short scene. Paul’s introduction gives Joshua a slightly psychotic bent, but it’s not paid off. Better served is Maria Valverde as Zipporah, Moses’ wife, and her scenes with Bale sparkle.

Christian Bale is an intense actor, and he imbues Moses with dynamic power. He’s hamstrung, though, by the greatest weakness of the film, which is the character of Ramses. Edgerton is physically imposing, but overall the character comes off as mushy. The fireworks that exploded between Heston and Yul Brynner in DeMille’s film are lacking here, and it comes close to being a fatal flaw in the film.

Strangely enough, what saves the film is imagery. The personification of God in the film is fascinating, and gives Bale a strong character to play against in place of Ramses. Some may object to the depiction of the plagues as not being miraculous enough, though they are shown on a much more epic scale than in The Ten Commandments. However, the final plague is chilling in how it’s shown on the screen.

And then there’s the crossing of the Red Sea, the climax of the film. Scott gives it a rational explanation, though it doesn’t lessen the miraculous nature of the scene. The ending of the sequence makes Cecil B. DeMille’s work seem quaint and staid, though one aspect of it does strain belief to the breaking point.

Many reviews of Exodus: Gods and Kings have been brutal. Scott has been raked over the coals for his casting choices, especially a Welshman and an Aussie for the two main roles. In response, Scott has correctly pointed out he needed star power to get investors to pony up the 9-figure budget of the movie. For myself, I went into the theater anticipating I’d be disappointed, a leftover from having sat through Noah. I can’t say I’m enthusiastic about the film, but I give it credit for portraying the story in a realistic way rather than the stained glass sanctimony of The Ten Commandments

Pros At Cons

The Abscam scandal of the late 1970s has been pretty much forgotten these days. It didn’t have the drama of Watergate or the explosive revelations of the Church Committee’s investigation of the CIA. Some think that the public corruption sting operation, which eventually led to the indictment of 6 US Representatives and a Senator, was payback by the FBI for Congress exposing its excesses under Hoover. What it does provide is an excellent true-life base for a fictionalized movie, and that’s how David O. Russell uses it in American Hustle. The movie boasts one of the most honest disclaimers in movie history: rather than saying it’s a true story or it’s based on a true story, it simply says “Some of this actually happened.”

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small-time businessman in New York City who operates a string of dry cleaners and a glass company, but his vocation is being a con artist who promises to get loans for poor-risk businessmen for a fee and then never delivers the loans. We first meet him as he creates a comb-over to cover his bald spot that’s so elaborate it puts Donald Trump to shame. At a party he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a former stripper who’s reinvented herself as an assistant at Cosmopolitan. They immediately bond over a love of Duke Ellington. When Irving confesses to Sydney how he cons people, she joins him in the game, reinventing herself again as Lady Edith Greensly, Irving’s contact with European bankers. Irving is in love with Sydney, but he’s also married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and has adopted Rosalyn’s son Danny from an earlier relationship. Rosalyn is a train-wreck of a person with manic-depressive tendencies and sex appeal enough to share, but Irving loves Danny and is committed to him, so he sticks with Rosalyn.

Irving and Sydney’s con runs smoothly until they’re caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). Rather than prosecuting them, Richie wants Irv and Sydney to help him catch other con artists. The play goes to a whole new level, though, when it leads to politicians who are willing to be bribed, including the popular mayor of Trenton, NJ, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

David O. Russell has been on a roll recently with a string of box office and critical successes, and for Hustle he brings back actors who have worked well with him on those previous movies. Bale won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and Adams was nominated for Best Actress for Russell’s 2010 movie The Fighter, while Lawrence won Best Actress and Cooper was nominated for Best Actor for 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. Russell, who co-wrote the screenplay with Eric Singer (The International), creates real, flawed people in challenging situations and assists the actors in their embodiments of these characters.

All four main actors have been nominated for Golden Globes, and if there’s justice in the world they’ll also get Oscar nods later this month. Bale is an actor without inhibitions or vanity who physically transforms himself into a pudgy, balding middle-aged 70’s swinger. He’s the antithesis of a leading man, yet you’re compelled to watch him. Sensuality flows from Adams in her role as Sydney, a departure from her previous movies, and the performance is as daring as the plunging necklines on her outfits. Cooper builds on his work in Playbook, creating an FBI agent who becomes obsessed with bringing down those he views as corrupt. It’s a more controlled role than in Playbook, and just as watchable. Lawrence demonstrates again why she’s one of the best actresses in the business. As with Bale, she isn’t afraid to play against her beauty.

This is Renner’s first time working with Russell, and hopefully just a precursor of future collaborations. Carmine Polito is the most honorable person in the movie, a politician who will do whatever he can to help his constituents, and Renner pulls off the role beautifully. There are two delightful surprises in the film. One is the performance of comedian Louis C.K. as Richie’s long-suffering FBI supervisor. In effect he’s the straight man to all the craziness that Richie embraces, but in the end he’s the one with the last laugh. The second is a cameo role by Robert DeNiro as a leading Mafioso. (DeNiro re-energized his acting playing the father in Silver Linings Playbook, garnering his first Oscar nomination in a long time.) It’s just one scene, but in it he recaptures the lethal menace he projected in his early work with Scorsese.

The movie revels in its setting in the ‘70s, with period costumes that make you feel like you’ve stepped through a time warp. Special kudos also go to Music Supervisor Susan Jacobs for a score that features an excellent selection of ‘70s music that supports the story. Having a scene of attempted bribery play out over Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” is absolute perfection.

It’s interesting two have two movies about con artists out at the same time – the other being Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. There are sharp contrasts between the two, the most notable being that Hustle plays beautifully while you feel like you’re slogging through Wolf. Both are long movies – 140 minutes for Hustle, 3 hours for Wolf – but where Wolf is like running a marathon, Hustle flies by and leaves you perfectly satisfied. Wolf includes a great deal of nudity and simulated sex, while Hustle has almost no actual nudity. However, Hustle is the more sensual of the two. Wolf’s screenplay revels in profanity – it set a record for use of the F-word; over 500 times in 180 minutes – while you hardly notice profanity in Hustle. Instead, the characters actually talk to each other. Both films use the voice-over conceit, but in Wolf it’s like a Greek chorus alluding to what’s to come, while in Hustle it’s the character’s thoughts at the time.

As a film, American Hustle is the stuff dreams are made of, even as the movie itself  shows that dreams turn into nightmares when they’re mixed with obsession. A friend of mine gave this movie 5 thumbs-up in a post on Facebook. I wouldn’t argue with that.

A Trilogy Rises in the End

The third movie in a trilogy often becomes an embarrassing mush.  Along with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 and Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, think of Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III.  The only good that came out of that movie was that Sophia Coppola moved behind the camera, and has become a fine director.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy was an exception, because of its strong source material and Peter Jackson’s filming it as one huge movie.

The good news is that The Dark Knight Rises is another exception to the “3rd Times the Harm” rule.  It is a fitting conclusion for the series.

The movie begins with an action sequence even more thrilling than the bank robbery in The Dark Knight.  A CIA agent (Aiden Gillen) and his crew of paramilitary operatives take custody from a local warlord of a rogue nuclear physicist, Dr. Pavel (Alon Aboutboul) as well as three hooded men who supposedly work with a terrorist named Bane (Tom Hardy).  While in flight, the CIA’s plane is literally hi-jacked by Bane’s operatives in order to get Dr. Pavel, for whom Bane has plans.

In Gotham City, it has been 8 years since Batman rode off into the dark after taking the blame for the crimes that Harvey “Two-Face” Dent committed.  In that time Gotham has been freed from much of the crime that had plagued it, thanks to draconian laws passed in Dent’s name that have filled the city’s jail.  Every year the anniversary of Dent’s death is a time for celebrating the DA’s supposed sacrifice, including a gala garden party held on the grounds of the rebuilt Wayne manor (after it was destroyed in Batman Begins by Ra’s al-Ghul and the League of Shadows).

In those 8 years, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a Howard Hughes’ figure, a hermit locked away in his mansion, mourning his lost love, Rachel Dawes.  Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has paid a price as well; his family deserted him as a consequence of his covering up of Dent’s crimes.  He’s asked to give a speech at the garden party about the real Harvey Dent.  Gordon pulls out notes which tell the truth, but thinks better of it.  A business colleague of Wayne’s, Miranda Tate (Marion Cottilard), tries to meet with him during the party, but Alfred (Michael Caine) rebuffs her efforts.

Inside Wayne Manor, Alfred directs one of the catering staff to take a food tray to a locked wing of the mansion, unaware that she’s Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a burglar known as the Cat-woman.  Wayne interrupts her as she’s taking an heirloom necklace from the safe.  His previous adventures have taken a toll on his body, and Selena is able to escape, picking up a congressman on her way out.  Afterward, Wayne finds fingerprint dust on the safe.  Apart from the necklace, Selina has stolen his prints.

When the body of a youth is washed out of a storm drain, policeman John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) recognizes the boy as a former resident of the orphanage where Blake was raised.  After talking with Blake by the smashed Batman signal on the roof of police headquarters, Gordon promotes Blake to his assistant.  Selina meets her contacts to give him Wayne’s fingerprints in exchange for her fee, but she finds she’s being double-crossed.  She pulls her own double-cross and brings Gordon and the police racing to the scene.  The hoods escape into the sewers.  While following them, Gordon is captured by Bane, who’s living beneath the city with his gang.  Gordon manages to escape, but is shot in the process.  Blake has figured out Batman’s identity, and he barges in on Wayne, forcing Wayne to return to the world of the living.

Christopher Nolan had always viewed his Batman movies as a trilogy, and that vision has paid off in a final chapter that is not only strong in itself but also wraps up themes and pays off moments from the first movie.  The screenplay by Nolan and his brother Jonathan (based on a story developed by Nolan and Batman Begins co-writer David Goyer) expands on The Dark Knight to create a fully-rendered world.  Nolan had decided, after the death of Heath Ledger, to not mention The Joker in this movie.  Rises is so full on its own that you won’t even notice the omission.

As with the previous movies, the acting is sterling.  Bale, Oldman and Caine layer onto their characters the regrets and pain accrued in the previous two movies.  The new characters, and the actors playing them, blend seamlessly into the Batman world.  It helps that Hardy, Cottilard, and Gordon-Levitt worked with Nolan on the twisty, fascinating Inception.  Hardy embraces the anarchy of Bane, an erudite ‘roid rager extraordinaire.  Gordon-Levitt has the thankless task of playing a straight arrow, but he pulls it off beautifully and believably.  Cottilard offers a possible salvation for Bale’s Wayne, both on a business level as well as emotionally.

The opposite side of Cottilard’s coin is Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle.  Catwoman has been both fascinating and frustrating in previous incarnations.  You have the campy purr-formances of Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt in the 1960’s Batman series and movie (Julie Newmar originated the role, and was the best of the three).  In 1992’s Batman Returns, Michelle Pfieffer was mesmerizing.  2004’s Catwoman expanded on the character’s backstory from Batman Returns, but the film was an embarrassing mess.  Now Nolan has raised the bar for the character, just as he did with Batman in Batman Begins.  There’s a depth we’ve not seen before, and Hathaway embodies it beautifully.  (She has said she’d be interested in doing a spin-off for the character, if Nolan would be involved; here’s hoping that will happen.)

The movie runs 12 minutes longer than The Dark Knight, but if anything you’ll be sad to see it end.


I’ve kept any mention of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado until now because I don’t want to give any greater place to the madman who perpetrated that horrible crime.  Christian Bale showed a grace beyond what we often see when he and his wife quietly visited with the victims, first responders, doctors and nurses a few days after the shootings.  My prayers are with the many that were injured, and the families of those who lost loved ones.  But I choose to end by remembering three men: Jon Blunk was a security guard who’d served 8 years in the Navy, and was in the process of re-enlisting, hoping to become a SEAL.  He was 25 years old.  Alex Teves, 24, had served as a mentor at the University of Arizona near his hometown of Phoenix as well as at the University of Colorado.  Matt McQuinn, 27, had just moved to Colorado from Ohio with his girlfriend.  All three men gave their lives to save others, using their bodies as shields.  The Dark Knight Rises extols the virtue of heroes taking a stand to protect others from evil.  Jon, Alex, and Matt showed the reality of such heroism in their sacrificial act.

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”                                                                                                                             John 15:13