Saturday, December 28, 2013

American Hustle (2013) ****

Make no mistake about it.  The two biggest stars of “American Hustle” are Amy Adams’s breasts.  They appear in almost every scene of the film, practically naked in the plunging ‘70s necklines, and there is simply no way not to notice them.  It’s a testament, therefore, to Adams’s qualities as an actress that it is possible, in the midst of all that side-boob, to notice what a tremendous performance she gives.  The same kudos apply to her co-stars, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, and even Louis CK.  It’s an all-star cast, and everyone brings their A-game, including Amy’s breasts.
Bradley Cooper plays Richie, an ambitious FBI agent who busts con-artists Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Adams).  In exchange for leniency, Irving and Sydney agree to help Richie entrap several other con-men, but the operation quickly spirals out of control.  Richie’s ambition knows no bounds, and the team winds up giving bribes to first a well-meaning mayor (Jeremy Renner), then U.S. Congressmen, then going after the Mafia.  Other reviews I have read give the impression that this is some kind of heroic operation, but the truth is, it’s all based on entrapment.  Richie practically shoves the money into these guys’ hands.  You can’t help feeling bad for Jeremy Renner’s mayor Carmine Polito, who really only accepts the bribe as an incidental part of securing what he thinks is an investor to help revitalize his community.
As Richie’s hubris casts the net wider and wider, Irving grows more and more uncomfortable with the operation, as well as with how much time his girlfriend Sydney is spending with Richie.  Meanwhile, he has to keep his unstable wife (Jennifer Lawrence) from blowing the lid off the whole scam.
American Hustle is supposedly loosely based on a real corruption investigation from the 1970’s called ABSCAM, which was a pretty fascinating operation.  As in the film, the FBI employed a con artist, Melvin Weinberg, to help them offer bribes to politicians.  The operation led to the convictions of a U.S. Senator, six members of the House of Representatives, and several other officials.  One Congressman, John Murtha, was not indicted, as the U.S. Attorney determined that his involvement with the agents had been largely aimed at enticing economic investment in his district, and I suspect that the movie character Carmine is based somewhat on him.  Another Congressman, Senator Larry Pressler, outright refused the offered bribe and reported the incident to the FBI.  When he was later referred to as a hero, his response was, “…what have we come to if turning down a bribe is ‘heroic’?”
ABSCAM was, in truth, controversial.  Those convicted claimed they had been entrapped, although those defenses were ultimately rejected by the courts.  Many in Congress, however, claimed that the operation was just revenge for an earlier Congressional investigation into FBI abuses.  That investigation was very embarrassing for the FBI, and so ABSCAM, rather than simply being an anti-corruption operation, may have been a form of political retribution against Congress.
There are no clear heroes in “American Hustle,” either.  Agent Richie is clearly a jerk and a bully.  Sydney and Irving are rather sympathetic, but they are, after all, crooks.  Even Mayor Carmine Polito, who is portrayed as a very decent guy, accepts a bribe and does business with the Mob out of necessity.  “American Hustle” makes a point about the pervasive nature of corruption; how once it exists in a system it becomes difficult for even otherwise good people to avoid it.  As Irving points out, “Some of these were okay guys just doing what they thought was business as usual.”  When “business as usual” comes to mean bribes and special favors, it can be impossible to do business otherwise.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Killing Them Softly (2012) ***½

My wife opted not to watch this one with me, and man, did she make the right call.  It’s not that “Killing Them Softly” is a bad movie; it’s that it is very much a guy’s movie.  This 70’s-style crime story is full of killing and brutality, and the only female in the entire movie is a prostitute who appears in one scene.
Brad Pitt plays Jackie, a hit-man called in to deal out some Mafia-style justice after a couple of low-lifes rob a Mob-run poker parlor.  That’s pretty much the story.  These dirt bags rip off some other dirt bags, then run their mouths about it and wind up with a killer on their tails.  It isn’t the plot of “Killing Them Softly” that makes it such a good specimen of the crime genre, it’s the way the story is told.  The movie is paced with patience, allowing for lots of funny or poignant conversations that will remind viewers of a Tarantino movie, although in truth this style of film predates him.  In fact, with its amoral viewpoint, gritty urban setting, flatly portrayed violence, and realistic conversations between un-glamorized shady characters, this film reminds me of a 1973 movie called “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”  (On further research, I learn that both films are based on 1970’s crime novels by author George V. Higgins.)
“Killing Them Softly” also tries to have something to say about America and the financial crisis of 2008.  News and political images from that time are interspersed through the film, and the motivations of the characters and even the Mob bosses are influenced by the effects of the recession.  The retro look of the film, in which the characters often wear 70’s-style clothes and drive 70’s cars is reminiscent of how the bust seemed to throw us all back into a financial stone-age, also of 1970’s vintage.
Really, the film could be viewed as a microcosm of the financial crisis. In the story, the gambling parlor, which gets robbed by a couple of unemployed guys, turns out to have previously been robbed by the guy running the parlor, a mobster named Mickey.  The fact that Mickey was allowed to get away with his betrayal (“They gave him a pass.“) and continue running the parlor is disgustingly similar to Wall Street speculators getting bonuses after their banks had to be bailed out by the government.  A major question for the hit-men in the film is whether the Mafia will order the same punishment for Mickey as for the low-lifes, and why that is necessary to restore confidence in the system.
“Killing Them Softly” is a deeply layered movie that lends itself to reflection.  The slow pace and the brutal violence mean that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though.  This is a guy’s movie, specifically a movie for the kind of guy who likes Richard Stark, Quentin Tarantino, and Steve McQueen.

3.5 stars out of 5

Monday, December 09, 2013

I Am Legend (2007) ***

“I Am Legend” is one of those films that I liked better while watching it than I did immediately afterwards, sort of like eating a fast-food meal.  The action kept me on the edge of my seat, but once my heart rate came down it was hard not to focus on some of the holes in the story.
Will Smith plays Lt. Colonel Robert Neville, the last living human being on Manhattan Island, and possibly in the world for all he knows.  A gene therapy designed to treat cancer has mutated into a rabies-like virus that turns humans and animals into  insanely aggressive, hairless, sunlight-fearing monsters.  As a military scientist, Robert had struggled, and failed, to contain the epidemic.  Robert is part of the tiny percentage of humans who are immune to the virus.  For 3 years he has struggled to survive in New York with no human contact, working in his basement lab to find a cure, barricading himself inside his house each night to avoid the notice of the swarming Darkseekers.  He is making some progress in his experiments, but it’s a race against time, as his mind is also slowly unraveling from the pervasive social isolation.
The best part of the film is the dog, Robert’s German shepherd, Sam.  She’s a good canine actor with a lot of personality.  The bond between Sam and Robert, and the extent to which the relationship keeps Robert sane, is touching.  Will Smith’s performance is less even.  At times, his efforts to portray Robert’s complicated mental state fall prey to his glib, frantic “Will Smith” persona.  This is particularly confusing in a scene where Robert is caught in a trap similar to ones he uses to trap the Darkseekers.  His behavior is erratic either way, but it’s impossible to tell whether he is dementedly falling into one of his own traps, or if the Darkseekers have copied his trap design in order to trap him.
“I Am Legend” is based on the 1954 Richard Matheson novel of the same name, which was adapted previously into 1964’s “The Last Man On Earth” and 1971’s “The Omega Man.”  Interestingly, reviews suggest that the novel and those earlier films all portray the infected humans as much more vampire-like, while the “I Am Legend” film paints them more like fast zombies who can’t stand light.  In fact, the story it most reminds me of is the zombie-plague thriller “28 Days Later.”  “28 Days Later” has become a classic, while “I Am Legend” doesn’t quite reach that level, largely due to plot problems that become untenable in the second half of the film.  Nonetheless, it’s a decent action flick, especially for those who enjoy the zombie genre.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Midnight in Paris (2011) ****

For those of us who spend a lot of time inside our own heads, a common perception is that we would be better suited to living in an earlier era, a time when our talents and sensibilities would fit in better with the zeitgeist.  In Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Owen Wilson plays such a character.  Gil is in love with Paris, and with 1920’s Paris in particular.  On a trip to modern-day Paris with his shrew of a fiancĂ© Inez (Rachel McAdams), he muses on how today’s vulgar world has led him to ignore his dreams of writing novels in favor of making big money as a Hollywood screenwriter.  Inez is troubled by Gil’s talk of giving up his lucrative career to move to Paris and write, so she distracts herself by spending time with Paul (Michael Sheen), a pedantic, intellectual bore she knows from college.  
       On a solitary, midnight walk Gil becomes lost and is invited to party with a joyous group in an antique car.  He is taken to a party where he meets F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and slowly Gil realizes that he has stepped into 1920’s Paris.  He meets Earnest Hemingway, who offers to show Gil’s novel to Gertrude Stein if he will bring it around the next night.  Thus, Gil embarks on a series of midnight walks, visiting his dream era and meeting his artistic heroes.  In this 1920’s world he also meets a beautiful girl, Adrianna (Marion Cotillard), and the two hit it off, partly because Adrianna also dreams of living in an earlier, better era, which for her is the turn of the century.  Ultimately, Gil gets the opportunity with Adrianna to pursue HER dream and step into a turn-of-the-century bar, where they meet artists like Toulouse Latrec, some of whom express a wish that they had lived during the Renaissance.  Through all of them, Gil sees the folly of this constant wishing after a Golden Age, and they help him figure out what is important to him in his real world.
I’m sure there is room for debate on this, but I think “Midnight in Paris” is one of Woody Allen’s finest films.  His playful ability to blend fantasy and reality to explore the way our consciousness works is fully on display.  The characterizations of the Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill), Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) are delightful.  Rachel McAdams is wonderful as the cheating, materialistic fiancĂ©, reminding me of how good she can be when she’s bad (see “Mean Girls”), and Owen Wilson more than holds his own against this stellar supporting cast.
For creating a masterpiece like this is his 70’s, Woody Allen is an example of how to remain vital and productive into old age.  Allen was born in 1935, but unlike some of the characters in “Midnight in Paris,” he isn’t looking back to some Golden Age.  He is fully living in, and engaged with, the  present, which is the only time anyone ever gets to live.

4 stars out of 5