“American Hustle”:—Everyone Hustles To Survive

13_2654_Sony_Form3_AdamsBanner_R9With its ensemble cast, this film has received almost unanimous accolades for the universally stunning performances, under the direction of David O. Russell. Still at the top of his game (after “I Heart Huckabees”, “The Fighter”, and “Silver Linings Playbook”).   All of Russell’s movies, intentionally or not, are the embodiment of a certain malaise, the sense that we have lost our community spirit, and everyone is on his or her own.  It is a war of all against all, or at least a cold indifference of all to all.

“American Hustle” is about the ultimate con game, of which there have been many in US history involving financial get-quick schemes.  (“Hustle” is purportedly based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970’s).  How far are people willing to go to grasp the golden ring, to try to capture the American Dream:  namely, wealth as synonymous with identity and happiness?  “American Hustle” goes even further, digging deeper into how much we lie to ourselves, in order to believe what we want to believe.

But on a more personal level, this film is also about human relationships:  who can be trusted and who can’t.  That is the nature of a con game:  building trust only to deceive and swindle.  In “Hustle” we see the main character, Irving Rosenfeld (another riveting performance by Christian Bale), a vain and insecure man obsessed with combing over his bald spot, try to build a successful business presence in New Jersey through a small dry-cleaning chain.  Enter Amy Adams, also a mover and shaker, as the beautiful Sydney Prosser,  who wants to badly leave her personal history behind and who quickly becomes Rosenfeld’s astute business partner and lover.  Irving and Sydney soon discover how a con game can connect them to greater financial opportunities. Together they meet Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper, again surprising  with a winning interpretation of human vanity, ambition, and vulnerability), a mafia kingpin (Robert DeNiro), and the Camden, New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner).  (A small part by  Louis CK as the FBI supervisor is exceptionally well-played too.)  Rosenfeld’s dealings  with these characters hinges on a masterful scheme that will scandalize and destroy all its participants.

The small part played by Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld, the wife and mother of Irving’s child, is virtuoso acting that startles at times.  Lawrence is almost unrecognizable in body, facial expressions, and voice.  When she is on screen, my eyes could rest on no one else.  Each slither and flirtatious gesture is both brassy and calculated, suggesting an intelligence beneath the bleached blond hair of a bimbo.  As Rosalyn, Lawrence eliminates the stereotypes of what intelligence should look like and be like.  Amy Adams is the perfect counterpoint:  both are exceptionally beautiful sexy women,  in love with the same man, in a zero sum game.


“American Hustle” boasts a combination of craftsmanship and delectable moviegoing pleasure set in a time period of disco, that holds a nostalgic if discomforting appeal to baby boomers.  The hustle to survive is just that:  all are wounded and no one heals.  Run to see it so you can enjoy it for its own value and then wait to see if it wins Best Picture from the Academy Awards!


The Hunger Games Revisited: Part 2– “Catching Fire”

Catching FireIn what has to be the biggest blockbuster franchise since Twilight and Harry Potter, in this sequel to the first Hunger Games film (see my April 8, 2012 review–“The Hunger Games”–Our “Harry Potter”), the post-apocalyptic Panem is still a hell on earth.   Former victors are forced to participate in a Quarter Quell, marking the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games.

Survival through fake social relationships which the victors all know will end in death is still the tense spine of the narrative.  In “Catching Fire” the means to survival grows darker and more intense. Explicit scenes of Katniss in flashback (to the murders she had to commit and to the death of the little girl Rue) are riveting, with stellar acting by Jennifer Lawrence once again, the camera steadily zooming in on  her eyes for emotional response.  All game “victors” have been radically changed:  Katniss is cynical and guilt-ridden; Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is even more of an alcoholic, and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is numb.  “Nobody ever wins the Games,” declares Haymitch and “Catching Fire”, true to Suzanne Collins’ book, underscores that sentiment in the final scenes.

All the performances are spectacular including the over-the-top Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz. Donald Sutherland’s sinister character becomes even more ominous as President Snow, the smarmy ruler who has to destroy his nemesis, Katniss Everdeen, whom we never get tired of watching.  Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright are new additions who provide dramatic surprises.

Sequels are notorious for being a disappointment but this series…so far…belongs in the same category as “Harry Potter” and “Twilight”.  It just seems to get better and better!

“Time of Death”—Not for the Faint-Hearted

Time of Death

Not since Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s “On Death and Dying” with its study of the five stages of grief or Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death”, has there been such a tour-de-force depiction of the process of dying and the way that death impacts  those who are left behind.  This groundbreaking documentary series reminds me that many of us still have forgotten how to say goodbye and how to die. But some of us have figured out how.  “Time of Death”, a six-part miniseries produced by Showtime,   follows three  men and five women ranging in age from nineteen to seventy-seven years.  In six emotionally jarring episodes we are introduced to the final weeks, days and private last moments  in a remarkably unflinching, intimate, and brutally honest  way. These remarkable people face their own mortality with as much drama as a novel.

“Time of Death” also focuses on the caregivers—family, friends, hospice and other medical personnel—who understand and give of their hearts. At the end of this series many viewers will wish that they could have these supportive, brave friends and family at their deathbed.  To have them be there to give a needed hug. While some viewers may be too depressed to watch the inevitability of death, and the finite nature of our lives, to me it was a hopeful and insightful portrait of the natural as well as the inevitable process of the end of life. Some of the dying are sweet and eccentric, others closed and struggling to come to terms with their end.   Nicolle, a 19-year-old dying of melanoma, perhaps is the most gut-wrenching: a teenager who cannot believe—like anyone so young—that she is at the end of an all-too-brief life.  Her parents and little sisters, especially the six-year old, are heroic in their understanding of what Nicolle is going through.

The series, most of all,  reveals how aware children and teens can be when it comes to death.  Witnessing these vulnerable moments, we watch as the dying learn to keep on loving when they are afraid, to keep on making it through another day,  to forgive themselves and others as they surrender to the inevitable, and to let go.  The miniseries is compelling and haunting, even harrowing at times,  especially since we know each of these eight people’s lives are coming to an end.  Yet “Time of Death”  is also surprising.  It made me feel like a privileged guest with something to learn from each scene.  A gift.


[“Time of Death” will be available soon on Netflix and is downloadable from the Showtime website.]


Engrenages (“Spiral”)–A Vortex of Thrills

Internet streaming and cable/satellite TV have opened the door to some superb international films and television series formerly nearly unknown to the average American viewer.  Think “Borgen”.  It’s not just Denmark, however.  “Spiral” (the English translation of the  French crime series) has been a blockbuster hit not only in France but also throughout Europe (resulting in BBC co-producing for the international market.) As of last month “Spiral” has now found a devout American following through distribution by Netflix, which offers all forty episodes in four seasons (starting production date 2005) .  Season Five will be available in January 2014 and season Six is under contract.  In addition, an English adaptation of “Engrenages” is in development.

“Spiral” is “The Wire” on steroids, with “Homeland” thrown into the mix in Season Four. This police drama centers on the competing strategies of a policewoman and her two lieutenants, as well as a primary judge, a prosecutor and a lawyer. But “Law and Order” this is not.  A sometimes over-the-top violent depiction of the crime (far different from “American” style depiction of corpses), with very little forensic CSI-style technology, “Spiral” captures what real-life criminal police work must be like in Paris.  Similar in this respect to “The Wire”, the gritty, incompetent but far-too-human police officers pursue the culprit, resisted at every turn by  political corruption.  Each season follows the characters as they investigate a central murder case and unveil malfeasance at the highest levels.

Like “The Killing” (also an American adaptation of a foreign television series), the maniacally dedicated heroine, homicide detective Laure Berthaud (the magnificent stage actress Caroline Proust), has no social life and almost no social skills. There is no glamour to the job and Lieutenant Berthaud is far from glamorous.  Her main antagonist, however, is: the beautiful attorney Josephine Karlsson (played superbly by Audrey Fleurot), who seems to embody evil, but in an extremely complex way. You simply cannot take your eyes off her because she is  hypnotically sinister, cynical,  and coldblooded. She is also vulnerable. The investigating magistrate, Judge Roban (played by Philippe Duclos), the brilliant and highly principled outsider, sometimes dominates the story and  mesmerizes as we watch him choose between two equally devastating  decisions, almost inevitably intensifying the personal dilemma for himself. 

The main investigating prosecutor (Gregory Fitoussi) is a handsome lawyer who often seems exasperatingly clueless but is essential to the story’s forward movement.  In addition, a cast of  riveting supporting characters who comprise the  police force, judicial office, and local government as well as the highly original portrayals of psychopaths  are no less spellbinding with their unexpected tactics.

What is so remarkable about this series is the extraordinary storytelling: vivid narrative arcs surprising the viewer at every turn.  Overlaid upon a superb story, full of suspense with a labyrinth of clues, are both the unfamiliar French judicial system and the cultural differences in the depiction of physical combat and sexuality.  This contrast in cultures contributed to my fascination with “Spiral”.

The subtext appears to be  all rules exist to be broken, or at least bent, and so the wheels of justice spiral in a highly charged vortex where the outcome is never predictable.  “Spiral”, available only on Netflix, is a must-see!