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American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle #1

by Steve Habrat

Ever since his directorial debut in 1994, David O. Russell is a filmmaker that continues to surprise critics and audiences with the wide range of films that he produces. He’s done indie comedies (Spanking the Monkey, I Heart Huckabees), mainstream comedies (Flirting with Disaster), war thrillers (Three Kings), political comedies (Nailed), sports dramas (The Fighter), romantic comedies (Silver Linings Playbook), and now, just under a year after releasing his celebrated Silver Linings Playbook, he tackles another project that expands his intriguing body of work. Just in time for Oscar season we have American Hustle, a film that has been receiving glowing word of mouth over the past several months for its intoxicating blend of 70’s style, quirky characters, dry humor, and rich story that consistently pulls the rug out from under the viewer at every turn. With expectations at a staggering high, you start to wonder if this tale of a sleazy con man, his gorgeous partner, and a shifty FBI agent could ever live up to such praise. Yet with each passing second, American Hustle hits entertaining levels that are off the charts, and it finds Mr. Russell in full form, radiating a confidence we have yet to see from this talented filmmaker. Russell can also thank his star Christian Bale, who gives the best performance of his career, for making American Hustle such a strutting must-see.

American Hustle introduces us to Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale), a smooth-talking con man that runs a chain of Laundromats and on the side operates a seedy loan business where he takes $5,000 from desperate clients and gives them nothing in return. Life is pretty good for Irving, but it gets even better when he meets the beautiful Sydney Prosser (played by Amy Adams), who is drifting from job to job. After showing his business off to Sydney, she jumps on board and assumes the identity of Lady Edith Greensly, a British bombshell with overseas banking connections. As Irving and Sydney rob their clients blind, the two strike up a romance that is kept from Irving’s motor-mouthed housewife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who paces around their home like a caged tiger. It doesn’t take long for Irving and Sydney’s operation to be thwarted by Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper), an eager FBI agent looking to make a name for himself at the bureau. Rather than locking Irving and Sydney up in jail, Richie decides to use the con artists to help him with an operation called Abscam, which would lure Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner), the beloved Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, into taking a bribe. Irving and Sydney reluctantly agree to help Richie, but their plot to take down Politio takes a dangerous turn when several other high level politicians and ruthless mobsters get involved.

With so much style and humor to burn, American Hustle wouldn’t even need its winding and weaving script that finds all of its boldly drawn characters attempting to get over on each other. From the opening retro studio logos, Russell is gleefully smashing open a post-Vietnam and Watergate time capsule, which allows us to glimpse an America that has embraced earth tones, tacky oversized sunglasses, perms, bell bottoms, leisure suits, plunging dress necklines, and disco music. It’s all so loud, excessive, and in your face that it threatens to be cartoonish. It also guarantees that American Hustle is going to be a strong contender in the production design category, costume design category, and make-up and hairstyling category. While the meticulous attention to detail certainly makes the film entertaining, the sense of humor that Russell injects is an absolute wonder. The film opens with Bale’s Irving fussing with his comb over, hilariously gluing strips of hair down over a tuft of fake fuzz. It is guaranteed to have the theater doubled over in laughter, especially when Cooper’s DiMaso decides he is going to mess the eccentric masterpiece of a hairdo up. Also brilliant is the winking trip to a flashing disco club, where Adams and Cooper burn through the dance floor like fiends. It’s wildly hilarious and hot-under-the-collar sexy as they shimmy and shake their way to a dimly lit bathroom stall. American Hustle’s crown jewel of hilarity comes when Irving and Rosalyn have their very first fiery encounter with a microwave, which they continuously refer to as the “science oven.”

Amy Adams;Jennifer Lawrence

Making American Hustle even more irresistible is the A-list cast, who all seem like they are locked in a never-ending battle for the spotlight. While they are all fantastic, none come close to matching the work of the out-of-this-world Christian Bale. We’ve seen Bale immerse himself in his characters before, but none have been quite as charming and alive as Irving, the pudgy con man with the meanest comb over you have ever seen. In front of Sydney, his clients, and even DiMaso, Irving has a silver tongue that really works a room. His confidence practically burns a hole in the screen, but when he’s behind closed doors and facing the wrath of Rosalyn, he’s a fidgeting disaster that clutches at his heart and pops little white pills to calm his weak ticker. Adams is a spitfire as his redheaded partner, Sydney, who throws on a British accent and toys with DiMaso’s heart. Adams and Cooper share two specific moments that could practically set the screen ablaze. Cooper nails his role as the slimy DiMaso, the hotshot FBI agent who wears his perm like a crown. Lawrence is as sexy as ever as Irving’s restless wife Rosalyn, a bored and neglected housewife who threatens the whole operation. Then there is Renner as Polito, the optimistic Mayor who is determined to bring back Atlantic City any way he can. Rounding out the cast is Louis C.K. as Stoddard Thorsen, DiMaso’s perpetually peeved boss who can never seem to get control of his determined agent.

As if the style, humor, and fluid performances weren’t enough to make you fall in love with American Hustle, the film also boasts a firecracker of a script from Eric Warren Singer and Russell. Slightly based on true events, it dares to be unpredictable, sweet, intimate, touching, and intensely character driven as all of these characters that claim to do anything for survival try to play each other any way they can. It’s a thrill not knowing what direction it’s going to veer off in next. All the bickering and scheming builds to a witty final act that springs a double-cross rush that leaves you floating out of the theater. Overall, American Hustle finds Russell at the top of his game as a filmmaker. He is working with an airtight script, capturing brilliant performances that play phenomenally off each other, filling his frames with gorgeous set and costume design, and allowing his sharp sense of humor to fuel its soul. The end result is gold-plated entertainment that is guaranteed to retain its shine for years to come and reward with multiple viewings. By the end of the film, you will respect the hustle.

Grade: A

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Blue Jasmine #1

by Steve Habrat

Since 2007’s unremarkable crime drama Cassandra’s Dream and 2008’s sultry love triangle Vicky Christina Barcelona, Woody Allen has reverted back to making cutesier dramedies like Whatever Works, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, the superb Midnight in Paris, and To Rome with Love. Now well into his seventies, Allen continues to make one movie a year to keep busy. In 2012, he snagged an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on the enchanting Midnight in Paris, a win that you’d think he would have ended his career on, but he continues to push forward. I’ll be honest, I really worried that Midnight in Paris might be the last great film of Allen’s career, but I’m so pleased to say that the persistent writer-director blindsided me with Blue Jasmine, a stinging art-house portrait of a woman who had everything and ended up with nothing. With most of the comedy dropped, Allen builds to a climax that is sure to freeze you in your seat for a solid few minutes. Blue Jasmine is already a sobering slap, but it is made all the more captivating by a devastating Cate Blanchett, who will certainly have her name in the Best Actress category at the Oscars.

Blue Jasmine begins with Jasmine (played by Cate Blanchett) arriving in San Francisco in the wake of a nasty divorce and a financial scandal that led to her wealthy husband, Hal (played by Alec Baldwin), committing suicide. Broke, angry, and alone, Jasmine shacks up with her blue-collar sister, Ginger (played by Sally Hawkins), with whom she shares a rocky relationship. In the past, Hal let Ginger and her ex-husband, Augie (played by Andrew Dice Clay), in on a faulty investment deal that left the couple broke. As Jasmine tries to compose herself and restart her life, she meets a wealthy California Congressman Dwight Westlake (played by Peter Sarsgaard) at a party. The two quickly fall in love and plan to marry, but Jasmine’s dark past comes back to haunt her. Meanwhile, Ginger, who is set to marry the big-hearted grease monkey Chili (played by Bobby Cannavale), strikes up a romance with seemingly nice-guy Al (played by Louis C.K.), who has a secret of his own.

Based upon Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Blue Jasmine initially comes on like a typical Allen film. Blanchett’s character is presented as a nervy and neurotic mess looking for any ear that will listen to her spew her tragic life story. She flies first-class even though she doesn’t have a penny to her name and she constantly reminds her modest sister that Uncle Sam took everything from her, even her precious furs. When she lays eyes on where she will be staying, she fights back vomiting and musters the thinnest compliment imaginable. When her angst becomes too overwhelming, she rushes for a bottle of vodka, pops a Xanax, and starts mumbling to herself about her lavish past with a philandering millionaire who showered her with expensive gifts to blind her to his unfaithfulness. She makes the viewer cringe as she scoffs at Chili, who she views as a loose cannon deadbeat who will never be able to provide for Ginger, even though Chili desperately tries to be as warm to Jasmine as he can. At times, you almost get the sense that Allen is concealing the really brutal stuff behind a romantic comedy/midlife crisis mask, but we are never entirely sure how vicious this is going to get. Even though she is highly unlikeable and about as self-absorbed and pretentious as you can get, we still oddly root for Jasmine to get her life back together and find love. It’s hard to find a scene in Blue Jasmine that doesn’t have Jasmine herself a red-faced, withering mess fighting off the creepy advancements of a dentist and Chili’s buddies and throwing a pity party.

Blue Jasmine #2

The true power of Blue Jasmine rests on the slender shoulders of Cate Blanchett, who gives the performance of her career as the equally pathetic and detestable Jasmine. Watching her try to go from swanky socialite to receptionist with absolutely no skills to get by is gripping every step of the way. You hate her when Allen flashes back and shows her blowing off the beaming Ginger and Augie as they pop by New York for a visit and you stand behind her hope as she lingers by the telephone waiting for the dashing Dwight to call her up. There is something admirable in her attempt to finish school and learn how to use a computer, but this drive is done in by the shallow possibly of returning to the life of luxury with Dwight. Hawkins gives a big-hearted performance as Ginger, Jasmine’s sister who is constantly being berated by Jasmine over her job, living conditions, and choice of men. You really have to pat Ginger on the back for her kindness, especially when it is revealed that Jasmine barely acknowledged her existence when she was living high in New York. Bobby Cannavale is a delight as Chili, Ginger’s rough-around-the-edges fiancé who tries to kid with Jasmine, but always ends up in a war of words with the fallen queen. Louis C.K. turns up as a lovable stereo installer who just can’t seem to get enough of the bubbly Ginger. Peter Sarsgaard’s Dwight is a nice upper-class gentleman with big dreams, but even his soft personality isn’t immune to the lies that Jasmine is spinning. Explicit comedian Andrew Dice Clay gives a dramatic performance as Ginger’s ruined ex-husband, Augie, who fell into some money and was then taken for a ride by Hal. Recent Allen regular Alec Baldwin gives a soft-spoken performance as the crooked philistine businessman Hal who is seen running around on Jasmine mostly in flashbacks.

With such a serious story, Allen tries to lighten the mood early on with some of his trademark dry wit. But by the last fifteen minutes of Blue Jasmine, he drops any attempt to cushion his blows and dishes out a one-two punch that sends Jasmine to the brink of madness. I must say, Allen unleashes a series of plot twists that catapult Blue Jasmine to the forefront of Allen’s massive body of work. I was left speechless, paralyzed, and most of all, I was thrilled to see Allen shrewdly serve up an ice-cold plate of reality to a character that just kept trying to turn a blind eye to it. Allen is ever careful in the way he allows these prickly twists to reveal themselves, a testament to his skills as a writer. Overall, in years past, Allen has said that he loathes reality and that he prefers the fantasy realm. With Blue Jasmine, Allen seems to have hardened and embraced the idea that there are some seriously crushing realities in the world and they can have some serious consequences. Blue Jasmine is a masterpiece from a man in the twilight of his career and one of the best films I have seen in 2013 so far.

Grade: A