Friday, 31 May 2019

American Hustle (2013)

Glamour and confidence tricks in David O. Russell's flashy American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser), Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso), Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld), Jeremy Renner (Mayor Carmine Polito), Louis CK (Stoddard Thorsen), Jack Huston (Pete Musane), Michael Peña (Paco Hernandez/Sheik), Elisabeth Röhm (Dolly Polito), Shea Whigham (Carl Elway), Alessandro Nivola (Anthony Amada), Robert De Niro (Victor Tellegio)

In 2013, American Hustle was nominated for ten Oscars and won none of them. Somehow, being invited to the big party but not receiving any prizes was strangely fitting for a film about small time grifters forced into a big game way beyond their control. Russell’s film is like a celebration of his strengths and weaknesses as a director: it’s stuffed with some very good (if rather mannered) performances, offers lots of dynamic film making, but is still basically a rather cold and arch film that’s hard to really invest in – rather like a con game in itself.

In 1978, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small-time grafter, running scams with his partner and lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who uses the identity of a young English aristocrat “Lady Edith Greenslly”. Rosenfeld longs to leave his unstable, selfish wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) for Sydney, but fears he will lose all his access to his adopted son. Rosenfeld and Prosser’s career of clever investment frauds is brought to an end when Prosser is caught red-handed by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso forces the pair into his entrapment operation, targeting New Jersey politicians with offers of bribes as part of a Fake Sheik investment. Initially it targets Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), but the operation quickly expands, as the ambitious and impulsive DiMaso constantly follows every connection and the operation expands to dangerous levels, taking in the mafia. Scared, Rosenfeld and Prosser desperately try to play both ends against the middle.

American Hustle is a decent film, which pulls together the sort of capers, turmoil and antics that you would expect from a film about a long con. It throws into the melting pot the vibes of several other films, from The Sting to Goodfellas, and asks us to admire the results. Russell encourages the actors to play it with an edgy verisimilitude that pretty much works as a metaphor for con men. Each performance is an effective display of high-wire character acting work laced with arch, studied tricks. But only rarely do you get a sense of something that’s real.

That’s part of a film that wants to have a cake and eat it as well. It’s striking in the entire story that the most sympathetic character is the initial target, Jeremy Renner’s well-meaning, passionate New Jersey politician, bamboozled into taking a bribe (money he mostly uses in the local community) because he is convinced it’s a crucial part of getting Arab investment. It’s even more striking that the most honest, subdued (and deadly) character is the Mafia kingpin Victor Tellegio, played with chilling menace by an unbilled Robert DeNiro. Nearly everyone else on the side of the entrapment operation is pretty much a selfish prick or verging on the unhinged.

But then that’s part of the point of the film, which throws two people who know what they are doing (Rosenfeld and Prosser) at the mercy of people playing with fire (Roselyn and in particular DiMaso, a permed, tightly-wound powderkeg). This is one hell of a performance from Bradley Cooper – and a sign again after Silver Linings Playbook that Russell gets something out of him few other directors can. Cooper is a force of nature, a bundle of terrible impulses combined with an utter lack of shame or self-control, who is quite happy to trample over everyone to get what he wants and has no regard whatsoever for the danger he puts himself and others into. Utterly unpredictable, he never sticks to a plan, veers between rage and hysterical laughter and, worst of all, is always convinced he’s right.

It’s DiMaso who spins the operation into dangerous waters with his vaulting ambition to land yet another big fish, recklessly peddling insubstantial, unprepared lies on top of each other – to the terror and horror of practised peddlar of bullshit Rosenfeld, whose whole successful schtick is based on saying “no” and having the mark do all the desperate work. DiMaso’s approach not only puts the operation at risk, it puts lives at risk – not that DiMaso cares, preoccupied as he is with his childish one-upmanship with his boss and a teenage sexual obsession with Prosser.

What chance do the (mostly) small-fish politicians and local figures have, whose lives are placed on the altar of DiMaso’s ambition? It’s no wonder that, late in the film, our conmen heroes start to feel guilt and remorse – none more so than Irving Rosenfeld. Played by Christian Bale with the sort of tricksy, Olivier-ish disguises that he so loves (in this case increased weight, a balding comb-over and a pair of tinged glasses he obsessively fiddles with), Rosenfeld is an operator happy with the level he is working at and incredibly wary of stepping up into the dangerous big leagues. Justifiably convinced of his own professionalism at fleecing money and winning trust, Rosenfeld has no problem with taking money from the selfish but every problem in the world with destroying the life of a fundamentally honest man. Bale’s performance, for all the tricks, manages to successfully build a picture of a selfish man who believes himself in his way to be honest in a way and is just trying to make his way.

That way also involves balancing between two very different women. Amy Adams does decent work as a blowsy fake-aristocrat, sporting a series of tops with neck lines that literally plunge down to her waist, although she is perhaps a little too “nice girl next door” to really convince as the love-em-to-manipulate-them Prosser. She’s not also helped by the script giving her an ill-defined arc of self-doubt linked to pretending to be someone else. Sweet as the genuine love can be her between her and Rosenfeld – and excellent as her chemistry is between Bale and Cooper – it’s the character who remains the least knowable in the film.

Also not helping is the fact that Jennifer Lawrence burns through the film as Rosalyn, the sort of electric, larger-than-life but still very real performance of arrogance, selfishness, dangerous stupidity and greed that marked her out as a major actress. Whether inadvertently putting Rosenfeld’s life at risk through blabbing details she’s half-overheard and half-understood, cleaning the kitchen while singing an aggressive rendition of Live and Let Die or nearly burning the house down because she won’t believe metal can’t go in “the science oven” (aka microwave), Lawrence is the film’s MVP.

Russell’s film showcases all these actors brilliantly, but his overall story remains a little cold and not as clever as it thinks. With a film about conmen you expect a final rugpull – and this film sort of manages one – but the story telling to take us there isn’t quite as articulate and clever as it needs to be in order to be really satisfying. Perhaps it’s the film’s ragged, hip, indie style of telling – or the air that the actors are making a lot of this stuff up as they go with edgy, semi-improvised performances – but the film never really engrosses or engages. For all that we see the inner worlds of Rosenfeld and Prosser, I can’t say I really, truly cared what happened to them. 

Instead Russell focuses on the marshalling of his resources, and cool, slick film-making. He uses expert camera work and editing, mixed with a superbly chosen soundtrack, overlaid with voiceover, sudden transitions, some narrative jumps and a vibrant sense of cool to make a story that finally feels a little too much like a style-over-substance trick – in fact a con game all of its very own, as enjoyable and entertaining as the rest of the film, but when it finishes you realise your pockets are empty.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

The Reckless Moment (1949)

James Mason and Joan Bennett feel Reckless Moment pulls them toward temptation

Director: Max Ophüls
Cast: James Mason (Martin Donnelly), Joan Bennett (Lucia Harper), Geraldine Brooks (Bea Harper), Henry O’Neill (Tom Harper), Shepperd Strudwick (Ted Darby), David Bair (David Harper), Roy Roberts (Nagel), Frances E Williams (Sybil)

It’s a situation anyone could find themselves in: your daughter is infatuated with someone totally unsuitable, and despite all your efforts you can’t get her to shake him off. What’s perhaps more unusual is when the man turns up dead after an accident – but in such a way it looks like your daughter has bumped him off. What lengths will you go to, to save her from prison? That’s the problem faced by Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) – and it’s made even more complex by the fact that the truth is out there and she’s being blackmailed by surprisingly sensitive small-time crook Martin Donnelly (James Mason), who finds himself developing feelings for Lucia.

Max Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment is an enjoyable enough noir-thriller, that mixes a wonderful sense of its locations with a perverted romanticism that first expresses itself through the daughter’s infatuation with a pathetic bent art dealer and then through the love blackmailer Martin Donnelly feels for his victim (and she for him). But it’s also a film about women, and how alone they can be when dealing with problems. Lucia’s husband is a never-seen presence on the end of a phone (busy building a bridge in Germany), her father-in-law is charming but useless and the two other men are criminals intruding into her life.

In fact this is quite ahead of its time with its thinking around women. Far from the usual tropes of a femme fatale, instead Mason takes on that role, while the mother turns out to be practical, brave and dedicated to keeping her family safe – while still more than a little open to illicit feelings of attraction. Lucia still has to balance all this with putting up a front of domestic business-as-usual with her family, not letting them see even a trace of the problems (including her daughter who is blissfully unaware of the situation she has landed her mother in). 

Ophüls’ directs this with a moody intensity, with a wonderful use of the LA backgrounds, particularly of the boat landing where much of the crucial action takes place. His camera placement is impeccable, and he finds a number of interesting and striking angles to throw events into a sharp relief. It’s a beautifully shot film, with wonderful use of black and white, and hints of Ophüls’ background in German expressionist cinema. His camera constantly manages to put us in the shoes of Lucia with tracking shots (another Ophüls’ trademark) loyally following her actions and placing the viewers into her perspective of events to help build out bonds with her. 

It’s a bond that obviously Donnelly ends up feeling very strongly tied to. James Mason enters the picture surprisingly late, and the film’s short length (less than 80 minutes) means many of the developments around the blackmail end up feeling rather rushed. Perhaps the plot didn’t even need the blackmail angle – there could have been more than enough tension of Lucia dodging the police case that surely should have built around her. Instead, the blackmail plot often feels rather forced, not least due to the build of a romantic subplot between the two characters.

It’s a romance that never quite rings true, partly because we never get the time for it to breathe. It seems forced and bolted onto the film because it is expected, rather than something that grows organically. It leads to sudden plot leaps, with Donnelly moving swiftly from business like to buying gifts and even offering to pay part of the blackmail for her to his shady boss. I’m not sure that the film ever earns this leap with its rushed runtime. It never pulls together into a romance that we can really believe in – and Lucia is such a carefully restrained and standoffish character that we don’t always get a sense of the emotions that she is carrying below the surface. 

Despite this Joan Bennett does a decent job as the heroine, an intriguing and rather admirable character who gets caught up in wild and crazy events but never lets them overwhelm her. Indeed, Ophüls’ stresses her calmness and practicality at several points, never shaken by demands of events and responding with ingenuity and calm to a range of circumstances. Bennett might not be the most charismatic actress, but she does a very good job here. James Mason struggles slightly with his slightly incoherent character arc, but as a reluctant heavy he does a marvellous job here, while mastering the sense of ruffled, shabby charm Donnelly has. It does help believe that he might contribute to a reckless moment of attraction from Lucia.

The Reckless Moment is a well-made B movie, that Ophüls’ adds a great deal to with his empathy for Lucia and stylishly smooth film-making. It makes for a very polished film, which on its actual character and plot beats doesn’t really always make a great deal of sense – rushing us into relationships and feelings that it doesn’t always feel the film justifies. But despite that there is just enough style here, even if this is always a film destined for the second tier of classics.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Reach for the Sky (1956)

Kenneth More fights disabilities and the Gerries in Reach for the Sky

Director: Lewis Gilbert
Cast: Kenneth More (Douglas Bader), Muriel Pavlow (Thelma Bader), Lyndon Brook (Johnny Sanderson), Lee Patterson (Stan Turner), Alexander Knox (Dr Leonard Joyce), Dorothy Alison (Nurse Brace), Michael Warre (Harry Day), Sydney Tafler (Robert Desoutter)

There are few stories of the Battle of Britain that captured the public imagination than Douglas Bader, fighter pilot ace whose exploits in the battle – and later in Nazi captivity – were all the more extraordinary because he had no legs. It’s one of the best examples around of good old fashioned British pluck helping overcome something – and Bader is without doubt a stirring hero, whose inspiration was so great he still frequently pops up in longlists of Greatest Ever Brits.

At least part of that continued inspiration is probably connected to this film. In fact Bader himself said his own public persona had been almost completely consumed in the public perception by Kenneth More’s performance of him. Needless to say Bader’s foul mouthed real personality (which left the briefing room littered with f-bombs) and abrasive difficultness (he refused to watch the film for almost ten years after a trivial dispute during its making about whether he would be allowed to double for More in long shots) was largely forgotten.

Indeed, the real Bader is washed away in Reach for the Sky by Kenneth More at his most charming, rogeuish and light. More (by his own admission) was not the actor with the greatest range in the world, but he was perfect for the sort of maverick, plucky, never-say-die Brit Bader was presented as in the film. Reach for the Sky ticks all the boxes of the events in Bader’s life as you might expect. From initial accident, to learning to walk again, to getting back in the sky, More plays it all with a brash bonhomie and British character that makes Bader charming and engaging – rather than the difficult egotist he reportedly was in real life. So much so that you kind of forget that Bader’s initial accident is largely caused by his own arrogance and stupidity attempting a dangerous manoeuvre to show off to a range of new pilots. 

But then that’s because Bader’s ruthless determination to get back in the sky is inspiring. Reach for the Sky isn’t the film that’s going to make you question anything to do with the war or the dangers or costs of the work we do. Putting it simply, this is practically an advert for the British war effort made ten years after the war finished. It actually feels a bit odd that this film hit the cinemas and because a smash hit in the same year as Suez showed Brits that all the Empire-first, Britannia rules the wavesness the film celebrates was a pile of outdated guff. 

But that isn’t to say that what that this film tries to do, it does badly. It lacks the sense of narrative adventure as stuff like, say, The Dam Busters or the importance of working together like Ice Cold in Alex or the bitter cost of war like The Cruel Sea. But as a portrait of a maverick doing his own thing and keeping the British end up its pretty much bang on. There isn’t really room for any other characters in the film’s narrative. It’s nominally narrated by a training colleague of Bader, but he’s barely a presence – the film zeroes in on Bader alone.

It makes for some decent scenes and there is a fair bit of inspirational feeling from watching Bader persevere – while never losing his temper – with walking again or taking up golf with a bullish determination. More’s Bader never shows a flash of anger or bitterness at things that have happened to him, instead carrying on with a jolly “Britain can take it” matey-ness. It makes him an entertaining person to follow around, even if the film itself isn’t particularly dramatic and offers a fairly safe version of an age-old “overcoming all odds” plot. Certainly enough to explain the films continued popularity and lifespan on Sunday afternoon TV. 

And it touches a nerve because, even if he was a fully paid up member of the awkward squad in real-life, what Bader did – and the force of personality required to do it – were extraordinary, the sort of thing only 1 in a hundred could even consider doing. To not only walk again having lost both legs, but to fly – and to become a decorated war hero – is way beyond (thankfully!) the imagining of almost everyone watching the film. And, for all the weaknesses of the film, you can’t ignore or disregard the fact that Bader is an inspiration. More is excellent in a lead role tailored completely to his strengths, and the film has a charming boys-own adventure feel to it. It’s not a smart film, but it’s a crowd pleaser and nothing wrong with that.