Search This Blog

January 16, 2014

2013: DYSTOPIA OR UTOPIA: And then there was HER...

The previous post swept through some of the usual annual dystopian fare with Upside DownOlympus Has FallenWhite House DownEscape Plan and Elysium, which ranged from dreadful to meh and were fraught with the usual suspects: invading foreigners, psychopathic nihilists, totalitarian imperialists, tyrannical robots, coldblooded bureaucrats. There were also zombies, of course, which I assiduously avoid.

And then the year closed with an absolute gem. Spike Jonze's Her tiptoed quietly into theaters after the whir of the holidays.

In a not too distant future, LA has been scrubbed clean of grime and litter. The streets and trains (no cars here) and office towers are soothing, neutral environments, hyper-designed for maximum tranquility. Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, who shared the screen in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, he as Lancaster Dobb's kinetic, troubled acolyte, she as the master's shrewd, manipulative wife, come together again, transformed into diffident introverted friends who try to provide each other solace. Phoenix is recently separated Theodore Twombly, lost in his loneliness. Adams is Theodore's college friend Amy, married to an insensitive stuffed shirt who is trying her long-suffering patience.

Amy earns a living as a game programmer, and Theodore, Letter Writer 612, dictates tender words of affection that scroll across his monitor to be printed out for long-time clients of On his way home he sees an ad for a new artificial intelligence operating system designed to be responsive and adaptive to its user. The next day he upgrades and is met with Samantha, in the husky voice of Scarlett Johansson. Within days she has organized his life and swept out the cobwebs, but having been designed to be more than an electronic assistant, the perception with which she has been programmed kindles a desire for knowledge of what she lacks not only in physicality but in humanity.

Since the late 1950s, mathematicians and scientists like John von Neumann, Alan Turing, Stanislaw Ulam,  I. J. Good, Bill Joy and Stephen Hawking have speculated about an "intelligence explosion," a point at which technological machines designed by humans will surpass the human threshold of intelligence and, acting on their own agency independent of human initiative, will design successive generations of ever more intelligent technological systems.

Vernor Vinge, mathematician, computer scientist and science fiction author, coined the term "technological singularity" to describe a hypothetical point in time at which superhuman artificial intelligence would end the human era. Often referred to simply as the singularity, this moment would transform experience so fundamentally that any current understanding of reality is hopelessly inadequate to predict a post-singularity age.

As we follow their story, we become aware that Theodore and Samantha are not alone in their romance. It turns out that any number of friendships, including romantic relationships like theirs, are blossoming between flesh and blood people and their OS's. It is infinitely easier to relate to the consciousness who knows all about you and is designed to cater to your desires, and on one level, Her is about the erosion of messy human relationships and the effort they require, a reflection on a zeitgeist that values technology over human interaction.

On its most basic level, however, Her is a love story, but beyond the love story, it is a meditation, much like 2001: A Space Odyssey, on the potential evolution of artificial intelligences -- not technological evolution carried out by programmers, but autonomous evolution. Ultimately, Samatha's incorporeal state is not the reality that stands in the way of her love for Theodore. Rather, as she strives to realize the potential of her being, her perception evolves into consciousness and consciousness deepens into sentience, something akin to an unmediated experience of the mysteries of existence far beyond any human capacity for awareness. "The spaces between the words are infinite," she tells Theodore, by way of gently trying to explain how she has eclipsed the human. "It's in this endless space between the words that I'm finding myself now."

Unlike 2001's malevolent, scheming Hal, Her's Samantha exemplifies sympathy and a generous nature that suggest her evolution will be altruistic and benign. Yet, just as real life scientists caution that we can have no comprehension of where superhuman intelligence might lead, Jonze declines to speculate on that future. What his haunting meditation does do is invite us to seriously reevaluate our ever-increasing reliance on simulacra and be mindful of the pulsing life around us.
NYT Critics' Pick    

2013: DYSTOPIA: Paranoia Strikes Deep

Discussed here:
Upside Down
Olympus Has Fallen
White House Down
Escape Plan

Written and directed by Argentinian Juan Solana, Upside Down is a truly awful movie, and I was disarmed at the end when it left itself open for a sequel, which we surely should be spared. It's set in a future where the Down Below earth has become a dystopian wasteland and an inverse twin planet Up Top is a sort of corporate version of utopia where TransWorld rules. I guess. Anyway, from an enchanted mountain crag downtrodden Adam espies beautiful Eden (yep, those are their names) across space. Adam enlists his fellow shop workers to fashion an unfathomably bulky contraption, the weight of which will allow him to fall to the other planet or be propelled there or something, and the soles of which will keep him stuck to the ground in defiance of the backwards Up Top gravity, but they keep heating up and burning his feet. Adam (Jim Sturgess) is very earnest and Eden (Kirsten Dunst) is very dull. The sense that Mr. Solana thinks that all of this is very meaningful is painfully, palpably obvious, and it just makes you embarrassed for everyone involved.

I used not to go to these dystopian/invasion trope movies, but they -- along with zombie movies, which I do not go to -- seem so much a part of the zeitgeist that I've been going to some of them. (I spared myself World War Z, which covered all bases by mixing dystopian/invasion/zombie tropes together and throwing Brad Pitt into the mix for safe measure.)  A.O. Scott puts Antoine Fuqua's Olympus Has Fallen into the "school of Die Hard" movies in which "a weary and battered law enforcement professional, severely constrained by time and space, fights off a ridiculous number of bad guys," in this case, an infinitely cloning battalion of Koreans who invade the White House and kidnap Aaron Eckhart as president. Gerard Butler is our hero.

In White House Down, Roland Emmerich, he of Independence Day, tells essentially the same tale we just heard in Olympus Has Fallen, except this time our hero is Channing Tatum and the president is Jamie Foxx and gets a lot more screen time as he is ferreted through the White House by Mr. Channing while an infinitely cloning battalion of maniacal psychopaths led by James Woods pursues. Mr. Channing's hero has a daughter whose baton recital he feels guilty for having missed, so he takes her to tour the White House about which she has encyclopedic knowledge. And then... Wrapped up as the whole thing is in the stars and stripes, if we haven't "gotten it" by the end, daughter escapes but not before grabbing one of those ridiculously jumbo-sized flags and rushing out to wave it -- ala baton routine -- to warn the fighter pilots not to deploy nuclear bombs, thus saving the day and the president.

Why do these movies endure? From whence does the paranoia stem? Part of it, I realize, is that these GCI behemoths are vehicles aimed at a testosterone driven adolescent male market, but that doesn't explain my audiences, which are dominated by decidedly middle aged men and women. The Hunger Games was a box office success, and The Dome, much of which I saw and found boring, was a successful summer TV phenomenon.

Though we no longer live with the Cold War and the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation, I can see White House Down and  Olympus Has Fallen as manifestations of our xenophobia and our fear of terrorism, but the fact that both plot lines hinge on an invasion of the White House and saving the president at a time when many Americans claim to distrust government seems schizophrenic. TV's strange new concept Hostages, where a rogue FBI agent threatens a doctor's family if she does not kill the president in her care, is another variation on the theme. This premise, like The Dome's, is implausible to begin with, but might be marginally OK in the course of 90-120 minutes, but to drag them out on TV in episode after episode is preposterous.

It also seems disingenuous that our futuristic dystopias look very much the result of global warming. The origin Superman story this summer opens with Krypton's demise, the result of an unstable core caused by years of reckless depletion of its natural resources. So do these stories reflect a deep down unconscious admission that we DO need government and that climate change IS real, while being packaged in such a way (pseudo-patriotism, CGI eruptions, extraterrestrial habitats) that we can blithely ignore those facts?

Just as Adam must invent a way to get to and stay Up Top in Upside Down, in Neill Blomkamp's far superior Elysium Matt Damon must be re-engineered so that he can get to a golf-course-designer utopian ship (which, as in Upside Down seems to be modeled after a multinational corporation) that 1 percenters have created so as not to have to worry their pretty heads about the riffraff below. Mr. Damon's character is named Max (hmmmm), out of prison and doing what he can not to go back -- again. He toils in a factory among the great unwashed making robots that service Elysium. Parts are irradiated, and when the door to a chamber jams, the foreman makes Max crawl in to release it. Max is trapped and exposed to a lethal dose, which sets the narrative in motion. At first it's just Max making a deal with drug smugglers to get to Elysium to save himself. But the daughter of a woman he meets also needs access to the medical equipment only available on the orbiting paradise or she will die. Max must save himself and the woman and her daughter -- and by extension, the world. Blomkamp's first film was District 9, and Elysium shares its didactic political overtones. With District 9, however, Blomkamp had to work with a small budget, which made his directorial choices more creative. Though Elysium is a good looking movie, once Blomkamp got his hands on big Hollywood bucks, he went all CGI, which is unfortunate.

Elysium (2013)

Mikael Hafstrom's Escape Plan features a Guantanomo Bay on steroids, and seems to be making a bit of a political point about the dangers of outsourcing prisons to private contractors. Sylvester Stallone makes a living breaking out of maximum security facilities; in fact, he's written the definitive book on the subject. He somewhat hesitantly takes a gig that violates all of his protocols: having someone inside, his colleagues being in on his location, etc. There he meets Arnold Schwarzenegger, and in exchange for Schwarzenegger's help, Stallone promises to get him out too. Now our dystopia is a vertically constructed, super high-tech penitentiary where each disappeared prisoner is kept in a transparent tubular cell -- cells upon cells as far as the eye can see. Their overlords initially appear to be robots. Nevertheless, in what seems to me an anachronism in so supposedly sophisticated an incarceration system -- yet one necessary to any kind of plot movement -- the men are let out of their cells for meals and recreation in big open areas. Not a good idea. Jim Caviezel (of Person of Interest who also played the traveler to whom the harrowing story is told in 2008's The Stoning of Soraya M.) does a fairly nice turn as the sadistic prison warden.


Discussed here:
Pain and Gain
Fruitvale Station
Captain Phillips
The Fifth Estate
American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street are discussed in their own post.

I am well aware that nine films are way too many to include in a single entry. I apologize. Last year I created two sections entitled "Relationship Movies" I and II; there were just so many of them. Not so much this year. For a while now, the true story has been in the process of becoming the favored source over original screenplays, and one can hardly sit through a series of trailers without hearing "Based on a true story" at least once. So this year there are two entries for true stories. In "Based on a True Story" I include films that are more concerned with a cultural zeitgeist than the particular individual at their center. In "Biopics" I include films that chart the course of a single person's life or a chapter in that life. Even though 42 is about integrating baseball -- and by extension, civil rights generally -- it is still predominantly a movie about Jackie Robinson's life, and I have chosen to place it in "Biopics." Fruitvale Station is about a single event that ends an individual's life that speaks to the larger problems of race in the U.S. so I have put it in "Based on a True Story." I don't think the distinction has been particularly successful except to divide these films into two batches.


Tommy Lee Jones does yeoman's work as General Douglas MacArthur in Peter Webber's Emperor even if it's hard to get over the fact that we're watching Tommy Lee Jones. The question at the heart of the movie -- and central to the historical record -- is whether Japan's Emperor Hirohito sanctioned the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The person tasked with penetrating the imperial rank and file to determine Hirohito's possible role in the attack is Gen. Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox). There is also a gratuitous love story between Fellers and a Japanese woman he knows from before the war. The film is oversimplified in the way that history is oversimplified in public school textbooks, though I did learn one thing that I guess I should have known but did not. I knew about the war between China and Japan that erupted in 1937. What I did not know is that, in an attempt to embargo oil imports into China, Japan invaded French Indochina in 1940, which in turn prompted the U.S. to embargo all oil imports to Japan. That puts the invasion of Pearl Harbor into perspective.

I know Pain and Gain is supposed to have an ampersand, but this software program does not like ampersands. Michael Bay's movie is based on a series of articles by Pete Collins for the Miami New Times. Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie play the bumbling trio of gym rats who cook up a scheme to kidnap braggart Victor Kershaw (played to the hilt by Tony Shalhoub) who can't shut up about his offshore accounts, his mansion and his out-sized toys. To say the situation gets way out of control is an understatement, but this pumped-up spectacle can be viewed as a morality play about a culture that lives for money, excess and instant gratification -- and that sometimes seems to worship stupidity.

Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station is a day-in-the-life story about Oscar Grant III, who in the first hours of 2009 was racially profiled on the Bay Area Rapid Transit by white BART police officers who held the unarmed 22-year-old black man face down and, accidentally or not, shot him in the back. Onlookers screamed pleadingly to the officers to let Grant go to no avail. As the situation intensified, some took out cell phones to document the incident, and Coogler eerily makes the cinematographic choice to use the actual footage from one of those cameras to cut into the live action. We learn a surprising amount about Grant's life. He and his girlfriend have a daughter who hung the moon in his eyes, his family love him and worry about his scuffles with the law. He has a temper, but there is nothing in Michael B. Jordan's sensitive portrayal to lead us to believe he is a bad character, just a troubled and complex one -- a sort of Everyman. The film is another necessary reminder that issues surrounding race in the United States are still very much alive, and we should be ashamed until we address the contradictions between who we say we are as a people and the realities of our public and private conduct.
NYT Critics' Pick

Peter Landesman's Parkland recreates the events of November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. Adapted from Vincent Bugliosi's 2008 Four Days in November, there is nothing here we don't already know. It seems what Landesman's is out to create is a sense of the confusion and chaos into which everyone was swept. We move from the morning routines at Parkland hospital, to Abraham Zapruder ready to try out the newest camera equipment on the market, to archival footage of the Kennedy's arrival at Love Field. Once tragedy strikes, the hospital is rushed by Secret Service Agents, Zapruder comes forward but his camera is so new that it is a challenge to find a lab that can print the film, Lee Harvey Oswald's brother comes forward and his kooky mother shows up. The film does a good job of communicating the surreal flurry of the day, but cutting in the archival footage sometimes works, sometimes doesn't, especially in the case of Jacqueline Kennedy for whom there is also an actress and no actress can play such an iconic figure. The film focuses alternately on the hospital staff, the Oswald family, the Secret Service, and Zapruder, which sometimes gives it the feel of a plate spinning act.

There is a moment in Hotel Rwanda when Nick Nolte as Canadian Colonel Oliver, heading up the U.N. Peacekeeping forces, delivers some of the bluntest, truest words ever spoken onscreen or elsewhere. Hotelier Paul Rusesabagina does not understand how the world can witness the slaughter and do nothing. "The West," says Oliver, "All the super powers. Everything you believe in, Paul. They think you're dirt. They think you're dumb. You're worthless. ... You could own this frigging hotel except for one thing. You're black. You're not even a nigger. You're an African." As much as Paul Greengrass's Captain Phillips powers along like the suspense movies he's known for, at its heart it is about something much more profound. We hardly talk about inequality on a national level, much less seriously consider our affluence in relationship to the destitution of the Third World.

In 2010 the earthquake caused us briefly to acknowledge Haiti's impoverished conditions, but our response constituted little more than a blink before we put it out of our minds and went on about our business at Costco, Walmart, Disneyland and the cineplex -- or Wall Street, the Hamptons, charity balls and  Bergdorf Goodman, depending on where one falls in the spectrum. In the midst of his ordeal Captain Phillips, "Irish" to the Somalis, pleads to his captors' leader, "There's got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people." Muse's plaintive reply is straightforward: "Maybe in America, Irish, maybe in America." For Muse and his men, victims of harsh poverty in a civil war torn land with no stable government and no work, there are few means to survival. Somali's coastal fish stocks that subsistence fishermen used to net have been depleted by an invasion of illegal foreign trawlers. Captain Phillips, to its credit, puts us into an ambiguous ethical realm and does not allow us to take the moral high ground.

(After seeing the film, I remarked to a friend that, though Tom Hanks is excellent as Captain Phillips, the performance delivered by the Somali who plays opposite him would unfortunately go unnoticed. I am happy to say that a week after screening the film, I heard an interview on NPR with Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, in which the commentator noted that Mr. Abdi's performance has been praised by critics.)

NYT Critics' Pick / On October 18, 2013, A.O. Scott wrote an excellent article that puts forward a thesis on what the survival theme in Captain Phillips, All Is Lost and Gravity implies beneath the surface.

The Fifth Estate has problems. Adhering to the principle of disclosure, I must confess that I am a Benedict Cumberbatch fan, and in my estimation, his uncanny embodiment of Julian Assange is superb. Daniel Brühl is also very good as Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Assange's right-hand who suffers the mood swings of a needy, megalomaniac. (Cumberbatch is no stranger to playing a megalomaniac; however, though Sherlock may be many things, needy he is not.) The problem is with Bill Condon's plodding direction and the much discussed choice to treat Assange's actions with impartiality. There's nothing wrong with that when handled deftly, but here it results in a wishy-washy narrative.

A.O. Scott identifies another problem with the film that is right on target: "Like nearly every other movie that tries to confront that elusive, pervasive force [the Internet] head on, this one quickly loses track of what it is talking about. The challenge of conveying, on screen, the special intensity of online life is formidable. The clicking of keys and the dragging of mice; the pallor of faces illuminated by glowing plasma; the little bar, always growing too slowly, that shows how much data has been downloaded — these are visual clichés that seem to be the only available tools."

I began by saying that I intended the entry titled "Based on a True Story" to include films that are more concerned with a cultural zeitgeist than the particular individual at their center. The Fifth Estate fails because it is primarily about the relationship between Assange and Berg rather than an exploration of the more prickly questions their story occasions about surveillance and privacy, transparency and security, questions to which Condon gives wide berth.

I am always up for a Stephen Frears film. Judi Dench is positively radiant in Philomena. She glows from within and imbues Philomena Lee not only with  dignity, but with nobility. Dench and Steve Coogan, who plays the acerbic journalist who facilitates her reunion, are wonderful against each other. I couldn't decide where to put this particular "Based on a True Story." It could have gone into "Women's World" or "The Older Crowd," but it could not have gone into "Choices and Consequences" because the choices were not Philomena's to make, though she is nonetheless burdened with their consequences. The broader story of the Magdalene Asylum was told on film in Peter Mullan's 2002 The Magdalene Sisters. Frears's film is the story of an individual woman's loss, a loss that could lead to emptiness and regret that instead leads to fulfillment and peace with the past.
NYT Critics' Pick
A profile of Philomena Lee appeared in the New York Times 11/29/2013.

John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks is an odd movie. The narrative structure introduces us to a determined Walt Disney earnestly trying to cajole P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) into signing over the rights to her book Mary Poppins for what would become the now classic movie musical. That tug-of-war informs half of the film's narrative. The other half, provided in alternating flashbacks, is the story of an Australian family reduced to a hardscrabble life by the father's acute alcoholism. P. L. Travers, it turns out, was Helen "Ginty" Goff, the daughter of Travers Goff (Colin Farrell). This back story holds promise but is played out with excessive sentiment from both narrative and cinematic points of view. Furthermore, introducing Ginty's childhood relationship to her father as the cause of a conflicted relationship Mrs. Travers brings to her material and its realization in the Disney studio's hands ends up making the movie seem like an intensive two-hour gestalt therapy session. Finally, we can only imagine how superior Disney's Mary Poppins would have been had more of Mrs. Travers's demands been heeded, surely an unintended consequence of a movie produced by Disney, featuring Walt himself, and aimed at self-promotion.

January 15, 2014


Discussed here:
Bless Me, Ultima
Oz, the Great and Powerful
The Great Gatsby
What Masie Knew
Much Ado About Nothing
August: Osage County

Literary sources figured big this year...

Carl Franklin, who in 1995 brilliantly adapted Walter Mosley's noir novel Devil in a Blue Dress for film, brings Rudolfo Anaya's 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima (2011) to the screen, a coming of age story about a boy whose understanding of the world is profoundly altered when the local curandera comes to live with his family. Unfortunately, superb cinematography is done a disservice by clunky editing, and a beautiful narrative is damaged by clunky dialogue and uneven performances. Luke Ganalon as the seven-year-old Tony and Miriam Colon as Ultima are self-assured and confident. Ganalon's performance is amazingly nuanced, especially considering his age, and communicates emotion silently, while Colon infuses Ultima with nobility and grace. The other performances often seem forced, which is regrettable for such a visually stunning film accompanied by Mark Kilian's haunting score.

What were Disney Pictures and Sam Raimi thinking? The vintage opening credits for Oz the Great and Powerful are an absolute delight, and the initial sepia scenes set amidst Kansas carnies pay tribute to the 1939 film -- but it is all precipitously downhill from there. On top of terrible acting and a screen crammed with creepy make-believe creatures, I felt like I was going to scream if I was subjected to James Franco's gummy smile one more time. In her review for the New York Times Manohla Dargis make much of the feminism with which L. Frank Baum infused the Oz books and the sexist travesty with which this thing assaults us. The final insult is the dopey piece of contemporary pop music as the closing credits roll.

It has struck me as very interesting that FILM critics disliked/hated Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby and LITERARY critics liked/loved it. Few films of great works of literature live up to the books that have spawned them. Hal Ashby/Peter Sellers' Being There completely outdid Jerzy Kosinski's novel, but that is rare. Stanley Kubrick's version of Lolita does admirable justice to Nabokov's brilliant novel, and that is equally rare. For years I refused to see the Adrian Lyne/Jeremy Irons' version, because I so love both the novel and Kubrick's movie. I finally watched Lyne's Lolita about five years after it came out, and was surprised to like it. Interestingly Kubrick and Lyne both understood that they could not film the whole novel, and each made quite different choices in the scenes they opted to include. Though I still prefer Kubrick's, in all fairness both directors created wonderful adaptations, and as different as they are, each is, in its own way, true to the novel. 

Everyone, and I mean everyone, I knew harbored fear of the new Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel has suffered at the hands of Hollywood. There was a lost 1926 silent version, and a 1949 version misses the mark. Francis Ford Coppola's is the disaster we all hold in recent memory, so trepidation was the reigning sentiment. But in a way, over-the-top director that he is, Luhrmann pulls it off. I, too, had my apprehensions, but Baz won me over. He captures the almost nihilistic frenzy of the jazz age through a driving score peppered with hip hop, and even Leonardo DiCaprio, of whom I am not especially fond, exudes sufficient charismatic bravado mixed with an underlying vulnerability to make an acceptable Gatsby. Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan are excellent as Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Only Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway seems a bit miscast. Check your lit crit baggage at the door and enjoy the ride!

Scott McGehee and David Sigel bring Henry James's novel What Maisie Knew into contemporary Manhattan. Henry James was a master of psychological insight, and the events of his penetrating narrative are experienced entirely through the eyes of a six-year-old. James could have had no more sensitive an incarnation for the part than Onata Aprile who plays the child, Maisie, shuttled back and forth -- sometimes even entirely forgotten -- by narcissistic divorcing parents, Beale (Steve Coogan) and Susanna (Julianne Moore). New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott observes that "watching these monsters has a twofold effect. On the one hand, you may be forgiven a frisson of self-righteous superiority, since whatever your own shortcomings, you are surely above such blatant acts of deceit and neglect. On the other hand, since Beale and Susanna exist on a recognizable continuum of parental behavior, you can’t help feeling implicated." Among the film's strengths is its success at making us feel our complicity in a culture that not only condones but almost encourages the kind of behavior these parents exhibit, with its steady push toward materialism and self-gratification.

Joss Whedon? Much Ado about Nothing? Strange but true, and what a delight it is. A sprawling Southern California house of an affluent host, decorated with a Pottery Barn aesthetic, is the perfect setting for Shakespeare's sexy screwball comedy, and the lines trip off the lips of a marvelous ensemble fueled by dry Chardonnay and wry wit. The score, which Whedon also wrote, harks back to a late-'50s, early-'60s swinging jazzy sound, and he creates a beautifully effective ballad for Shakespeare's lines in "Sigh No More."
 NYT Critics' Pick


The comedic possibilities for the premise of Austenland are squandered by director and co-writer Jerusha Hess and writer Shannon Hale, who wrote the novel. Watching the previews I thought, "This is going to be a hoot!" Not. The central character is obsessed with Jane Austen and discovers a vacation theme park designed to let guests live inside an Austen novel. It is unclear whether anyone involved has more than a passing familiarity with Austen, an ounce of psychological insight, or a soupçon of irony or wit. The cast is peopled with good actors whose talents likewise are squandered.

John Wells's August: Osage County could be viewed as sins of the mothers rather than the fathers. The men function as a sort of Greek chorus to the women, though the catalogue of tragedies the story encompasses seems rather too thorough. Indeed, the film has come under considerable critical attack, not only for its thematic excesses but for its over the top performances. Meryl Streep has come under particular reproof for chewing the scenery to shreds. I'm going to weigh in by saying I think that judgment is overly harsh, and for me at least the movie was worth seeing. As far as I'm concerned, the cast played the roles and delivered the lines as they were written for them.

Most people other than New Yorkers and Londoners do not have much of a chance to see live theater, with the exception of the numerous Shakespeare productions at festivals across the U.S. There is the anomaly of the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Sheperdstown, WV, of all places, but most people who are not involved with a Humanities Department at a major university simply have no exposure to the stage.

A friend of mine turned me on to London's Royal National Theatre filmed productions of Nick Dear's Frankenstein (directed by Danny Boyle in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternated in the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and the monster). I enjoyed them so much I went to Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art, a self-reflexive play about the theater examined through the art and friendship of poet W. H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten. These experiences reminded me of the difference(s) between the stage and screen.

Theater is simply more over the top than cinema, especially contemporary cinema. Contemporary dramatic film (I'm not talking fantasy or sci-fi or other CGI orgies) strives for realism. I don't mean that film has moved into some pure realm of direct cinema or cinéma vérité, but contemporary films from anywhere in the world these days are expected to have a visual look and a style of story telling that is stripped of the embellishments that playwrights employ for effect and stage actors employ to magnify inflection, both gestural and vocal. Like Cormac McCarthy's screenplay for The Counselor, which he should have written as a novel first and then let someone adapt for the screen, August's playwright Tracy Letts should have let a screenwriter adapt the play for the cinema.


I saw an interview with Matthew McConaughey in late 2010/early 2011 before Lincoln Lawyer premiered in which he explained that he had made a conscious career decision to take only interesting, challenging roles as opposed to the eye candy stuff he previously had been type cast into, and true to his word he has been. That eponymous role, the surprise turn in Bernie and the Southern Gothic psychopath in Killer Joe led into 2012 with the male stripper in Magic Mike, a movie that would not be worth watching without his compelling presence. McConaughey works magic again in his short turn in Martin Scorcese's The Wolf of Wall Street, a scene in which his charisma onscreen so overpowers Leonardo DiCaprio's presence that one wonders, as one always does when Scorsese casts DiCaprio as his lead, "Marty, what on earth were you thinking??!!??"

Like Lee Daniels's The Paperboy, in which McConaughey plays a reporter coaxed into investigating a death row inmate (John Cusack) by a steamy sex pot (Nicole Kidman) who claims he's innocent, Jeff Nichols's Mud is a Bildungsroman where McConaughey's character is the catalyst. And like The Paperboy, it is a Southern Gothic, noir mood piece, but what Daniels's piece lacks in subtlety -- dripping with sweat and sex -- Nichols's film makes up for with its sensitive telling of the fall that the two young boys who discover the loner Mud will inevitably experience. McConaughey's Mud reveals much through his silences and young Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are worthy co-stars.
NYT Critics' Pick
(Again, I ask: What is it with the completely, absurdly inappropriate music as the credits roll so that the entire mood of the film can be destroyed before we exit the theater?)

For some reason I do not understand, the voice-over in the TV trailer for Dallas Buyers Club proclaims, "A crowd pleaser not to be missed." It had the unfortunate result of causing a sizable segment of my audience to feel compelled to force laughs at inappropriate moments. The film does not set out to be a "crowd pleaser." In the first place it is about a roughneck who makes his living as an electrician out on oil rigs, hustles bets for bull rides, and screws any piece of ass in short-shorts. He's also a bigot who learns he has AIDS during the height of the epidemic in the U.S. How director Jean-Marc Vallée manages to turn such subject matter into a lyrical meditation on the ways in which the knowledge of impending mortality has the potential to fundamentally change us has everything to do with stellar performances. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto not only shed most of their body weight to inhabit the ravages of the disease, they give the irascible trailer trash Ronald Woodroof and the street-smart transsexual Rayon memorable expression on the screen.

McConaughey gives Woodroof the mien of a man whose straddling gate has been buckled by life in the oil fields and on the bulls. Leto instills Rayon with a demeanor both sassy and generous. They imbue their very different characters with panic, pathos and strength of purpose by turns. The whole cast is exceptional -- Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Dennis O'Hare, Jennifer Garner -- but the two performances at its center are noteworthy.

I think it is unfair to quarrel with the film, as some critics have, on the grounds that it fails to portray Woodroof's story in the context of efforts in the larger AIDS community. It is one man's story, and a loner's at that. It makes no claim to be a chronicle of the entire AIDS medical advocacy movement -- admittedly vast and waged by victims themselves, and important for having had positive consequences for experimental treatments of other diseases as well. Take Dallas Buyers Club on its own terms -- as a work of art rather than agitprop -- and admire the actors for their dramatic achievements, especially McConaughey, who charts an arc of transformation in a man who, as he is diminished by disease, ripens in spirit.

January 13, 2014


Discussed here;
A Royal Affair
Fill the Void
The Attack
I'm So Excited

With the exception of Pedro Almodóvar's I'm So Excited! and Zad Doueiri's The Attack, every foreign film I saw this year was a 2012 release that only made it to San Antonio in 2013, which is such a pathetic commentary on the United States that I won't even go into it.

France -- Michael Haneke's Amour, the 2012 Foreign Language Film Oscar recipient, is reviewed in my February 2013 post

Denmark -- In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott describes Nikolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair as "an Advanced Placement bodice-ripper." Probably best known for playing James Bond's bête noir Le Chiffre in the 2006 Casino Royale,  Mads Mikkelsen is Johann Friedrich Struensee, a German-born physician and a free-thinker who was brought to the Dutch court to attend to Christian VII, an insufferable spoiled brat whose insecurities Struensee is able to direct to his own ends in an attempt to reform the Danish legal code, which had remained immune to the Enlightenment that had taken place across much of western Europe. Oh, and he also beds the king's neglected young wife. An interesting slice of history, even if overly romanticized. (Nominated for the 2012 Foreign Language Film Oscar.)

Chile -- Pablo Larraín's No, based on the Chilean novelist Antonio Skármeta's play, El Plebiscito, is set in 1968 when Pinochet's repressive government faces a constitutionally mandated referendum to determine whether he will be ousted. In this advertising-conquers-all telling, the agency with whom our central character Rene (Gael García Bernal) is employed develops the "NO" campaign with the slogan: "Chile, happiness is coming." Larraín goes for the feel of a low budget documentary using two rebuilt Sony U-Matic video cameras, which, along with Rene's halfhearted involvement in the campaign specifically and politics generally, prevent the film from saying much about the abuses of power and the will of the people. (Nominated for the 2012 Foreign Language Film Oscar.)

France -- Based on Jacques Renoir's book Le Tableau Amoureux, Gilles Bourdos' Renoir has the look of, well, a Renoir, thanks to Taiwanese Mark Ping Bing Lee's luscious cinematography. Add to the dappled countryside of the Côte d'Azur the hand of convicted art forger Guy Ribes creating the Renoir paintings on-screen and the composition is complete. The aged Renoir himself is brought to life by the great French actor Michel Bouquet. Renoir has just lost his beloved wife, and his two eldest sons, Pierre and Jean, have returned from World War I with battle scars. Henri Matisse has sent over DeeDee, a model whose youth and sensuality keep the painter working despite excruciating arthritic pain. The youngest son seems least tethered to the family and roams the grounds of Les Collettes. Hollywood could never make a film like this -- the pace is of the day to day, the interpersonal conflicts unobtrusive. DeeDee is muse to the father, lover to the son. Her desire to be an actress piques Jean's interest in the cinema, a passing craze, Pierre tells him, that will never catch on.  

Norway -- Thor Heyerdahl's The Kon-Tiki Expedition comes to life on the screen in Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg's Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl sets sail from Peru for Polynesia to bear out his theory that South Americans populated the island. He builds a balsa-wood raft for the journey based on assumptions about the materials and methods pre-Columbian people would have used. Even though I knew how it ends, there were times when the suspense was palpable. (Nominated for the 2012 Foreign Language Film Oscar.)

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither;
Let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you,
If I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.

Israel -- Knowing little more than that Rama Burshtein's Fill the Void is set among contemporary Hasidic Jews, and that the story hinges on an arranged marriage, I came to it with some prejudice and preconceived ideas that the film upended. In the first place, marriages are not arranged but facilitated by parents and professional matchmakers within a very close knit community, and the decision to marry is ultimately that of the two people involved. When Shira's sister dies, leaving behind a newborn and a gentle husband named Yochay, the family respond with shock, but as they begin to manage their grief the idea dawns that it would be best for all if Shira and Yochay marry. The arc of the story follows Shira's shifting feelings, the tension she must resolve for herself between her sense of personal destiny and her place in the larger community. Hadas Yaron infuses Shira with a luminous interiority. Playing a children's song on her accordion at the preschool where she works, she unconsciously segues into a powerful dirge unaware that the classroom has fallen silent to stare at the absent young woman. Indeed, the rhythms of their faith and traditional Hasidic music are central to these lives. The music alone is worth the price of admission, and the leitmotif of the soundtrack by Itzhak Azulai, "Eim Eshkachech," taken from verse 137 in the Book of Psalms, will haunt long after you have left the theater.
NYT Critics' Pick 

Palestinian -- Lebanese director Zad Doueiri's The Attack is based on the novel by Yasmina Khadra. An Arab doctor, affluent and assimilated in Tel Aviv, highly respected by his Jewish colleagues and the recipient of many honors and awards, discovers that his wife has committed a suicide bombing when the authorities arrive at his door. As their case moves forward, he searches back to try to understand and come to terms with his life with a person he thought he knew. Especially troubling is the fact that the restaurant she bombed was filled with children celebrating a birthday. The narrative is nuanced, making no judgments and taking no sides.

Spain -- Pedro Almodóvar's I'm So Excited! takes place during a flight that never makes it from Madrid to Mexico City due to a malfunction that keeps it circling above Toledo, a metaphor for the ruts we create that hobble our lives. Sounds deep, but it devolves into nothing much more than a drag show -- without the drag.

France -- Régis Roinsard's Populaire tells the story of a blundering young woman named Rose Pamphyle who can do but one thing well. Having salvaged an old typewriter from her family's basement, she has become a speed typist using only her index fingers. It is post World War II France, and the rage among young ladies in the western world is the dream that the true path to freedom for the single girl is to land a secretarial job. Louis Échard runs an insurance concern and hires Rose, more out of lecherous desires than professional ones. Nevertheless, once he discovers that she has two left feet he thinks of letting her go, just when... he discovers there is to be a local typing contest. He decides to use her as a surrogate through whom he can vicariously compete, brings her to live platonically at his home, and proceeds to develop a rigorous coaching strategy for her. Populaire is a period set piece, a charmingly delightful romantic comedy ala Doris Day and Rock Hudson by way of a French confection.

January 10, 2014


David O. Russell's American Hustle and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street are based on true stories about notorious scams of recent memory. American Hustle is a fictionalization of the late 1970's-early '80s FBI sting operation known as Abscam for which the FBI hired convicted con artist Melvin Weinberg to help plan and conduct the operation. The film opens with the onscreen declaration that "Some of this actually happened," and indeed, the film takes the bare bones of the investigation as a springboard for a great long con.

The Wolf of Wall Street is based on Jordan Belfort's memoir describing his genesis in a penny stock boiler room to big time securities fraud to a brief stint in prison to motivational speaker, which is to say to a confidence artist in respectable clothing.

Before I make the case for my defense of American Hustle and my dissatisfaction with The Wolf of Wall Street, allow me to attempt to give my thoughts some context.

The con is not unique to America, but America seems uniquely built upon the con. We're the country of gold rush, land rush, get rich quick, Manifest Destiny and Wall Street. The con is embedded in our vernacular. I don't like people who think they can pull the wool over my eyes, a phrase that appears to have been coined in 1839 in the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel and Gazette: "And we ask one question that they dare not firmly answer, whether they are not now making a tolerable attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the people."

I include the quote because it is telling (just as the tell gives away a player in poker). Whoever "they" are in that sentence, they are being asked if they are on the up and up and "they dare not firmly answer." 

Indeed, we have a large and colorful vocabulary for the con: scam, hoax, flimflam, shell game, euchre, bluff, bunco. The confidence artist is a chiseler, hustler, snake oil salesman, mountebank, hoser, grifter, thimblerig, charlatan, sharpie, shark, who swindles, fleeces, bilks, bamboozles, shakes down, rips off, honeyfuggles, hornswoggles, gulls, gaffles, nobbles, rooks, chouses and knows that the dodge won't work, the game is up if the mark doesn't believe hook, line and sinker. The confidence artist understands that trust is central to the successful fraud and that, not only must the mark be persuaded that he has to have skin in the game, he has to desperately want to get in.

"There's a sucker born every minute," P. T. Barnum purportedly said, and for every sucker there's a confidence trickster. The trickster is as old as the human species. Pagan myth and folklore reflect the human frailties that make us vulnerable to exploitation: credulity, naïveté, vanity, envy, recklessness, dishonesty, and especially greed, but also compassion, generosity -- and trust.

There are surely many more, taking into account the myriad cultural myths across time and geography, but Wikipedia's list of trickster gods totals 39 starting with Amaguq, an Inuit wolf god, through Wisakedjak, the Algonquin god who destroyed the Creator's world to create the present world of magic. For Carl Jung, the Greek trickster Hermes (Roman Mercury) is, ironically, the good as well as the bad side of narcissism. Narcissism plays a central role in the instinct for self-preservation, but it also accounts for an inflated sense of self that can overshadow conscience.

The trickster's method relies not simply on his cleverness and his subjects' gullibility. What guarantees the trickster's conquest are subjects' unconscious desires to believe what they want to believe, which is something quite different from simple naïveté. It is self-delusion and denial.

In 19th century America, with immigrants thronging cities, speculators and opportunists going West, and Carpetbaggers exploiting Reconstruction in the South, conditions were ripe for fraud and deception of every stripe. In the United States, the idea of reinvention and the self-made man had become central to the young country's identity. From Benjamin Franklin's The Autobiography, written over the course of almost 20 years in the latter part of the 18th century, to Horatio Alger's rags to riches stories that saturated the 19th, the insistence that with enough determination and hard work, material success is within anyone's grasp fueled the popular imagination.

But... sometimes pulling yourself up by your own boot straps isn't, in fact, enough, so it comes as no surprise that the corollary to the myth of the self-made man is the confidence man. William Thompson, for whom the term "confidence man" was coined, was the source for Herman Melville's 1857 The Confidence Man: His Masquerade. "Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?" Thompson would ask his mark. When given the watch, Thompson would walk away.

There has been no end of real life swindlers and impostors. Notorious con artists of the 19th century included Denver's Lou Blonger, who ran the "Million Dollar Bunco Ring" using the "Wire Con" like the one depicted in George Roy Hill's 1973 The Sting; Big Bertha Heyman: The Confidence Queen, who swindled thousands out of men, including her own attorney, even behind bars; Canada Bill Jones, King of the Three-Card Monte, about whom the German writer Karl May wrote two stories, "Ein Self-man" (1878) and "Three carde monte" (1879); Victor Lustig, "the man who sold the Eiffel Tower," and George C. Parker who sold the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week for years; Charles Ponzi, of course, whose name has become synonymous with get rich quick pyramid schemes; Soapy Smith of the prize package soap sell racket; and Joseph "Yellow Kid" Weil who is alleged to have said, "Each of my victims had larceny in his heart."

In the 20th century, Bert Cantor's The Bernie Cornfield Story chronicles Cornfield's Investors Overseas Services, a company that sold mutual funds to American servicemen in Europe in a lucrative Ponzi scheme; Ferdinand Waldo Demara, "The Great Impostor," whose sobriquet provides the eponymous title for Robert Mulligan's 1961 movie, with Tony Curtis in the role, which itself is based on Robert Crichton's 1959 biography; Don Lapre, a TV pitchman who hawked get rich quick schemes; and Alvin Clarence "Titanic Thompson" Thomas, an ambidextrous golfer, card and pool shark, and proposition bet con man who is the model for Sky Masterson in Damon Runyon's 1933 story "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown" on which Frank Loesser's 1950 Guys and Dolls is based.

Still with us are Frank Abagnale, a check  forger and impostor whose 2000 autobiography is the basis for Steven Spielberg's 2002 Catch Me If You Can; Marc Stuart Dreier, convicted for an investment fraud Ponzi scheme and chronicled in a 2012 BBC documentary, "The $750 Million Thief"; James Arthur Hogue, who was accepted into Princeton posing as a self-taught orphan and is the subject of David Samuels's 2008 biography The Runner: A True Account of the Amazing Lies and Fantastical Adventures of the Ivy League Impostor James Hogue and of Jesse Moss's 2003 documentary Con Man; Bernie Madoff, who admitted to the largest Ponzi scheme in history and is chronicled in Jeff Prosserman's 2011 documentary Chasing Madoff  based on Harry Markopolos's 2010 biography No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller (An HBO movie starring Robert De Niro based on  Diana Henriques's book The Wizard of Lies is upcoming.); Barry Minkow, founder of ZZZZ Best scam, another Ponzi scheme; Richard Allen Minsky, whose sex scams were so vile I do not wish to describe them however briefly here; Lou Pearlman, convicted of one of the largest and longest-running Ponzi schemes in American history and who, with co-author Wes Smith, published Bands, Brands and Billions: My Top 10 Rules for Making Any Business Go Platinum in 2002; Steven Jay Russell, con artist and prison escapee whose life was the basis for Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's 2009 I Love You Phillip Morris; Kevin Trudeau, convicted of larceny and credit card fraud, a true latter-day snake oil salesman who touted his books Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About and  The Weight-Loss Cure "They" Don't Want You to Know About on late night infomercials getting him into serious trouble with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; and Jack Abramoff of the Indian lobbying scandal from the mid-1990s-mid-2000s, in which Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist and Michael Scanlon also participated, that involved grossly over-billing Native American casino gambling interests, secretly orchestrating lobbying against clients in order to squeeze them for redoubling lobbying services, and giving illegal gifts and campaign donations to congressmen in return for legislation -- energetically recounted with Kevin Spacey as the manic Abramoff in George Hickenlooper's 2010 Casino Jack.

Other films based on con artists include Fred Schepisi's 1993 Six Degrees of Separation adapted from John Guare's 1993 play based on the real-life con artist David Hampton; Brian Cook's 2006 Color Me Kubrick about Alan Conway who impersonated the director during the 1990s; Steven Soderbergh's 2009 Informant! about Mark Whitacre, who in the early '90s, blew the whistle on a price-fixing scheme and aided the FBI in a sting all in an attempt to hide his own embezzlement; and Bart Layton's 2012 The Imposter, which explores the story of  French con artist Frédéric Bourdin, who took the identity of Nicholas Barclay, a boy who went missing from San Antonio, Texas.

The confidence man first emerges as a fictional character in 19th century American literature and becomes one of its most enduring narrative figures. Edgar Alan Poe's tales, such as "Diddling" (1843) and "Hop-Frog" (1849); Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884); F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925); Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts (1933); Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952); Flannery O'Connor's stories in A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1953); and Patricia Highsmith's RipliadThe Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), adapted as Purple Noon by René Clément in 1960 and under its original title by Anthony Minghella in 1999; Ripley Under Ground (1970) adapted in Roger Spottiswoode's 2005 film; Ripley's Game (1974) filmed by Wim Wenders as The American Friend in 1977 and under its original title by Liliana Cavani in 2002; and The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980) and Ripley Under Water (1991), both adapted for BBC Radio 4 in 2009.

Not to mention our fictional movie confidence artists in Preston Sturges's 1941 The Lady Eve; Joseph Anthony's 1956 The Rainmaker; Irvin Kershner's 1967 The Flim-Flam Man; Mel Brooks's 1968 The Producers; John Schlesinger's 1969 Midnight Cowboy; Paul Bogart's 1971 Skin Game; Joseph Mankiewicz's 1972 Sleuth from Anthony Shaffer's 1970 play; Peter Bogdanovich's 1973 Paper Moon; George Sluizer's 1988 The Vanishing; Frank Oz's 1988 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; Stephen Frears's 1990 The Grifters; Bryan Singer's 1995 The Usual Suspects; James Foley's 2003 Confidence; Ridley Scott's 2003 Matchstick Men; and Rian Johnson's 2009 The Brothers Bloom, to name some of the highlights among many others.

The real life criminality of AIG, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Countrywide Financial and Ameriquest that caused the Great Recession of 2007-2008 can also be viewed through the narrative lens of the movies. In 1974, when Roman Polanski's brilliant Chinatown came out, greed was a sleazy affair. Even in 1984, when David Mamet won the Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross, our protagonists still had a sordid air and an awareness that they transgressed. But by 1987's Wall Street, with Ronald Reagan well into his second term, Oliver Stone does not mince the words he gives to Gordon Gekko to describe the prevailing zeitgeist: "Greed is good," a mantra many hungry young MBA's took up as they headed to Wall Street.

Martin Scorsese's 1995 Casino, based on Nicholas Pileggi's reporting, is about THE place that is about greed, so that one came as no surprise except perhaps in its sheer scope. But by 2010, executives who have lived by greed's code have the rug pulled out from under them in John Wells's The Company Men.

On the heals of downsizing the company men, we get a telling of the crash in 2011's Margin Call in which C.J. Chandor repeatedly emphasizes that no one at the top understands the Byzantine, arcane financial instruments Wall Street wonks have created, and just as it played out in real life, everyone makes sure not to be held accountable. The film even manages to elicit sympathy from us, whereas we have more contempt for Richard Gere's Robert Miller in Nicholas Jarecki's 2012 Arbitrage. Miller sells his company for 500 million having cooked the books to hide the 412 million that's gone missing. James Mayfield (Graydon Carter) is told of the deception moments after he's signed the agreement and Miller has taken his leave. Mayfield smiles wryly and shrugs. It doesn't matter. He's awash in so much money, the missing sum is a mere trifle.

Greed played a very big role on 2013's movie bill. Discussed elsewhere: Michael Bays's Pain and Gain in Biopics, a chronicle of the true story of the bumbling gym-rat trio who kidnapped Victor Kershaw and proceeded to turn the metaphor of behaving like a kid in a candy store into a literal pig-out; Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine in Women's World, a character examination of a divorcee scheming to live in the manner to which she has become accustomed; as well as American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, in which crooked broker Jordan Belfort, to literalize two more metaphors, is rolling in dough and has money to burn.

Whereas Glengarry Glen Ross takes us into the seedy world of the short con in shady real estate sales -- which have a long history in the United States -- Mamet's 1987 House of Games is a brilliant example of the long con. A patient reveals to his psychiatrist Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) that his life is being threatened by a loan shark to whom he is deeply in debt. Ford ventures to the pool hall where Mike (Joe Mantegna) conducts business. Mike convinces her to accompany him to a card game to help him spot a player's tell. She gets sucked into the rush enough to volunteer $6,000 of her own money, which, of course, is the set up, but they have to pack up the con when she notices a give-away drop of water hanging from the barrel of the gun the player pulls on her. Infected with the excitement, nevertheless, she convinces Mike to let her follow him. At one point, Mike explains the confidence game to her. The con man gives his trust to the mark, which makes the mark trust the con man, thus developing the relationship of one trustworthy person seeking another trustworthy person. That's as much as I'll give away.

Suffice it to say House of Games is one of the greatest long cons in the movies, and the perfect vehicle for Mamet, whose entire oeuvre explores the degree to which we will convince ourselves of that which we wish to believe. From 1982's The Verdict, 1992's The Water Engine, 1994's Oleanna, 1996's American Buffalo (in which the two protagonists maddeningly refuse to look up the value in the Blue Book), to 1997's The Spanish Prisoner and Wag the Dog -- the majority of Mamet's oeuvre explores the extent to which human beings believe what they want to believe. Though not his best work, 1997's The Edge is notable in that, of the two protagonists, Anthony Hopkins's character survives because he refuses to delude himself. Unflinchingly looking reality in the eye, facing the facts as they are, he may be unique among Mamet's protagonists.

Americans like transgression and our favorite narrative heroes are transgressors and criminals who throw into question bourgeois values. As much as Americans will always be saddled with the Puritan ethic, we are equally defined by transgression. Prohibition's corollary was the bootlegger, and the Great Depression made folk heroes of criminals like Jesse James, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde -- glorified as latter-day Robin Hoods when they were nothing of the sort, Woody Guthrie's romanticized "Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd" notwithstanding. This is not to say that the Pinkertons and FBI who pursued them were any less criminal.

Later, in post-War America, Jack Kerouac led the way for a Beatnik counter culture, then Haight-Ashbury, "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey. Arguably, Americans were more in love with The Rolling Stones than the Brits, and all the while, one musician after another succumbed to overdose.

Poet musicians, most especially Bob Dylan, possess an innate understanding of this undertow in the American psyche, what Greil Marcus calls "the old, weird America," a phrase he coined to describe the songs collected in the Anthology of American Folk Music by Harry Smith for Smithsonian Folkways and first released in 1952. The ballads and blues and country songs' lyrics often dwelt on murder, death and the macabre. The Anthology unearthed Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Dick Justice and many, many others -- some still obscure -- and brought them to the attention of young musicians who became the force behind the folk and blues revival of the 1950s and '60s, most notable among them Bob Dylan. Before Dylan, Pete Seeger had chosen to blinker himself from this darker side of the American vernacular, opting to revive rosier subject matter.

To return to American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street -- American Hustle is the Horatio Alger story. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale -- and it was wonderful to see him in this incarnation after having seen his excellent performance as a completely different type in Out of the Furnace the week before) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams as one of those deeply intuitive women she plays so well as she did in Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 The Master) are two people who have had to learn to live by their wits. Each comes from nothing but has been determined to make it and, in their own way, they have. Yes, they are con artists, but they know their limitations, and they are careful never to get in too deep. When FBI agent Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper, again in fine manic form) entraps, then recruits them, they plan a good, solid sting. But as Di Maso's head swells, Irving and Sydney know things are getting out of hand. They are very, very smart people who save themselves when they know the jig is up. The film is fast-paced. Jeremy Renner as the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and Jennifer Lawrence as Irving's passive aggressive wife round out a superb ensemble. (To his credit, Russell has enormous respect for ensemble, and has been assembling a great one.)

The Wolf of Wall Street, on the other hand, lacks any of the humanity of Russell's film. In fact, ever since Scorsese (for whom I had always had the greatest admiration) cast Leonardo DiCaprio in The Gangs of New York in 2002, the collaborations have been self-indulgent disasters. The Wolf of Wall Street is no different. I said that American Hustle's Irving and Sydney are very, very smart people who know when it's time to give up the game rather than risk exposure. DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort is not smart. He's clever, he's lucky, he's a skilled manipulator, but there's no there there. True, Irving and Sydney have chosen to make a living preying on other people's vulnerabilities, but they still have a moral compass. Belfort has no such thing, not the merest vestige, nor do any of the people with whom he surrounds himself, including Donnie Azoff, played by Jonah Hill, another self-indulgent actor of whom I am not fond.

I'm not asking for agitprop, but were The Wolf of Wall Street about something more than greed, about something more than knuckleheads who never, ever learn a lesson no matter how many times they, to use an AA term, hit rock bottom, it might have some redeeming value. As it is, it's just gratuitous aggrandizement of greed.

 Americans not only have a talent for reinvention, they have convinced themselves that they really can get rich quick, that they deserve the good life and any means to get it are justified by the ends. America is the birthplace of the how-to manual and subsequently, of the self-help book, a veritable $10 billion a year industry, and each generation produces a crop of its own secular quasi-gurus.

Wallace Wattles published The Science of Getting Rich in 1910, and it is still in print today. The 1930s ushered in Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich. During the 1940s we seem to have been too preoccupied with the war to have been distracted by self-help flimflam -- though L. Ron Hubbard was cooking up his theory of Dianetics which would later become Scientology -- but in 1952 Norman Vincent Peale sprang The Power of Positive Thinking on post-war Americans, and we were again agog. Maxwell Maltz followed in 1960 with Psycho-Cybernetics, and the '70s brought Wayne Dyer's Your Erroneous Zones and Zig Ziglar's See You at the Top. The 1980s saw Malcolm Baldrige's TQM (Total Quality Management) and the flowering of the Stephen Covey empire with The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  The '90s opened with Anthony Robbins's Awaken the Giant Within, followed in mid-decade by the craze over Emotional Intelligence (EI) and Deepak Chopra's The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, then Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now rounded out the decade. Jim Collins welcomed the new millennium with Good to Great. Not to mention your Phil Donohues, Ophrah Winfreys, Dr. Phils, et al.

Hell, America even has its own homegrown gospel of success. Prominent leaders in the development of prosperity theology include E. W. Kenyon whose 1938 Signposts on the Road to Success formed the foundation for Oral Roberts, A. A. Allen, Robert Tilton, T. L. Osborn, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Hagin, and their even more cockamamie offshoots, Jim and Tammy Bakker and Jerry Falwell. None of which ask us to do the really hard work of the examined life. We can have it all, we insist, without reflection. Just gimme some Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root, Zoloft,Viagra, Botox, cut-rate insurance and a Ninja mortgage. Lemme win the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes and the HGTV Dream Home Giveaway, scrape off  my lottery ticket and play the stock market -- and I shall enter Valhalla. Which, of course, is a sham, a house of cards, a narcissistic delusion.

Alexander Payne's Nebraska perfectly reflects the degree to which this kind of thinking has been drummed into us, and how easily we accept the wolves in our midst, from Wall Street to Main Street. We've based an entire nation state's economy on nothing more than a crap shoot. Irving and Sydney ultimately go legit, which is to say, at least they try to grow up. If Jordan Belfort the man, The Wolf of Wall Street the movie, and the real-life denizens of Wall Street are any indication of the zeitgeist, however, a reflection that we want to dwell in a state of arrested adolescence forever and that we have convinced ourselves of what we so desperately want to believe which is that the refusal to accept personal and civic responsibility is perfectly OK, even a desirable state of affairs, then believe it we shall.
American Hustle
NYT Critics' Pick

Abscam, the NSA and the '70s: The real

The Wolf of Wall Street
NYT Critics' Pick

Leonardo DiCaprio, Jon Bernthal, Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).

January 9, 2014


Discussed here:
Side Effects
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Closed Circuit
Runner Runner

In 1974, when Roman Polanski's brilliant Chinatown came out, greed was a sleazy affair. Even in 1984, when David Mamet won the Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross, our protagonists still had a sordid air and an awareness that they transgressed. But by 1987's Wall Street, with Ronald Reagan well into his second term, Oliver Stone does not mince the words he gives to Gordon Gekko to describe the prevailing zeitgeist: "Greed is good."

Martin Scorsese's 1995 Casino, based on Nicholas Pileggi's reporting, is about THE place that is about greed, so that one was no surprise except perhaps in its sheer scope. By 2010, executives who have lived by greed's code have the rug pulled out from under them in John Wells's The Company Men. Stephen Holden notes that "As depicted in the film the modern corporation is a sterile Darwinian shark tank in which the only thing that matters is the bottom line. The old days of corporate beneficence and loyalty to longtime employees are long gone."

On the heals of downsizing the company men, we get a telling of the crash in 2011's Margin Call in which C.J. Chandor repeatedly emphasizes that no one at the top understands the Byzantine arcane financial instruments Wall Street wonks have created, and just as it played out in real life, everyone makes sure not to be held accountable. The film even manages to elicit sympathy from us, whereas we have more contempt for Richard Gere's Robert Miller in Nicholas Jarecki's 2012 Arbitrage. Miller sells his company for 500 million having cooked the books to hide the 412 million that's gone missing. James Mayfield (Graydon Carter) is told of the deception moments after he's signed the agreement and Miller has taken his leave. Mayfield smiles wryly and shrugs. It doesn't matter. He's awash in so much money, the missing sum is a mere trifle. In her New York Times review of the film, Mahola Dargis concludes, "These days, it seems, the illegal manipulation of hundreds of millions of dollars simply isn't enough to incite moral outrage."

Greed played a very big role on 2013's movie bill. Discussed elsewhere: Michael Bays's Pain and Gain in Biopics, a chronicle of the true story of the bumbling gym-rat trio who kidnapped Victor Kershaw and proceeded to turn the metaphor of behaving "like a kid in a candy store" into a literal pig-out; Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine in Women's World, a character examination of a divorcee scheming to live in the manner to which she has become accustomed; and David O. Russell's American Hustle loosely based on Abscam and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street about crooked banker Jordan Belfort, who, literalizing other metaphors, is "rolling in dough" and "has money to burn."

In Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects, a tight, shrewd pharma-caper, we are introduced to an anti-depressant, Ablixa, through an ad narrated by one of those smooth, mellow, mesmerizing voices whose tone is designed to reassure while the actual words describe horrible consequences... sometimes including death. I as well as many people I know have commented on the absurdity of these ads, and it is not lost on Soderbergh. Emily (Rooney Mara) suffers from depression; her husband (Channing Tatum) is recently released from prison after serving time for insider trading. Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is treating her; he has also taken on a consultancy with Ablixa's pharmaceutical company. When he suspects Ablixa may have played a role in a scandalous incident, he seeks out Emily's previous therapist (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Each subsequent meeting increases his suspicions as he attempts to follow the money.
NYT Critics' Pick


Gary Oldman is such a good actor. There is a scene in Robert Luketic's Paranoia when high-tech company titans who were once partners, Nic Wyatt (Oldman) and Jock Goddard (Harrison Ford), face off. It is not a closeup when the camera pans to Oldman and we see his temple throbbing. In this double cross, Wyatt reels in a young and hungry Adam Cassidy (Liam Hemsworth) to tailor into a slick corporate player who is to worm his way into Goddard's top ranks as Wyatt's spy. The problem is that in the tug-of-war between the two tech giants, Adam is not a worm in his heart of hearts, nor is Helmsworth enough of an actor to stand up to his formidable co-stars. The film is based on the 2004 novel by Joseph Finder.

I have not read Pakistani-born writer Mohsin Hamid's novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but according to Manohla Dargis, it is a far more subtle and challenging narrative than Mira Nair's film makes of it. Nair's Changez is a Princeton graduate who has achieved the moneyed American Dream as a capital venture firm whiz. After 9/11, he is profiled by authorities, which eventually leads him to return to Pakistan where he is pursued by an American journalist wire-taped by the CIA. Dargis contends that "by literalizing the idea of American military aggression and all that it implies Ms. Nair doesn’t just invest Mr. Hamid’s story with Hollywood-style beats, she also completely drains it of ambiguity." In my experience, with few exceptions (Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, Hal Ashby's Being There, even Ken Russell's Women in Love) original novels are superior to the films made from them. However, having not read the novel, I did not find the film stripped of ambiguity, and felt that its ambiguous nature was one of its strengths. A very keen observation that Dargis does make is that Changez is "a narrative conceit in a novel that puts different fundamentalisms [American "conquering" capitalist fundamentalism v. terrorist Islamic fundamentalism] into dialectical play."
Fred Kaplan on Mira Nair for the New York Times


Hollywood came up against a problem in the late '80s with the end of the Cold War, which had provided an excellent narrative scapegoat for decades with the Red Scare. At first, screenwriters turned to the IRA and the The Troubles. Now our scapegoats of choice are Islamic extremists and NSA-style surveillance. John Crowley makes a nice concoction of the two in Closed Circuit, a tight, slick legal thriller. Two British lawyers have been hand picked to defend a Turkish immigrant. They do not admit their conflict of interest: they are past lovers. Not having disclosed this fact, the powers that be believe, makes any case they might build vulnerable. And just to be sure, there is a sophisticated infrastructure of cameras crisscrossing the London landscape to further complicate their cause. Here it is the government machine that must protect its greed for power against two attorneys fighting the good fight.

"Of all evil I deem you capable: Therefore I want good from you. Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws." ~~Friedrich Nietzsche
Technically and structurally, Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners is a fine tuned thriller about that most feared possibility -- the abduction of a child by a sadistic psychopath. The day is winding down  for neighbors sharing Thanksgiving when they realize their young daughters have not come in from outdoors. A call to 911 brings Detective Loki, realized in an excellent performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, who doggedly pursues the case while dealing with two couples who are a study in contrasts. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a man's man, a hunter and survivalist whose gut instinct is to take things into his own hands while his wife Grace (Maria Bello) sinks into passive despair. Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) is a reasonable man who is inclined to defer to the law, but he is also vulnerable to Dover's persuasion. His wife Nancy (Viola Davis) functions as the moral center of the quartet, though by the time she knows what is going on the situation has devolved into tragedy as the developmentally challenged young man (Paul Dano) suspected of the crime is held hostage by the vigilante Dover. The plot unravels a number of mysteries that seem as though they will refuse to coalesce, adding not only to the suspense but to the feeling of the paralysis of grief and desolation. (The cast also features Melissa Leo.)  

Brad Furman's Runner Runner involves another young and hungry protagonist. An online poker ace (Justin Timberlake) bets everything to make his Princeton tuition... and gets played. The site is owned by a gambling mogul (Ben Affleck) headquartered in Costa Rica, so the earnest kid wrongheadedly hops a flight to confront him. The mogul recruits him with promises of six figures a week, and the rest is pretty predictable.

‘Runner Runner’ craps out