mafia

December 6, 2013

Early Returns: American Hustle

SILKY

American Hustle – Silky

The name David O. Russell can evoke a lot of emotions, especially if you talk to either George Clooney or Lily Tomlin.  The man has the special talent to bring both the best, and worst, out in people.  While there is no doubt Russell can be called a total prick, there is also no doubt that the guy has been putting out quality films since “Spanking the Monkey” all the way back in 1994.  Almost 20 years later, Russell has released his most refined, and silky, film to date in “American Hustle,” starring the likes of Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Russell’s newest muse, Jennifer Lawrence.

“Hustle” is the tale of two con artists (Bale and Adams) who are forced to join forces with an FBI Agent (Bradley Cooper) who has entirely too much to prove. The unlikely trio set out to uncover corruption that involves a fake sheik, members of Congress, the Mafia, and a local mayor of Camden, New Jersey, played by Jeremy Renner.  Throw in a nagging wife, played wonderfully by Lawrence, and those are the basics of “Hustle.”

While I might have just simplified the plot for spoiler’s-sake above, the film is much more than your standard grifters-on-the-run-from-the-law story.  I’d liken “Hustle” very much to “Goodfellas” in it’s storytelling and use of the 1970s as the backdrop.  I also mention “Goodfellas” in it’s use of a very interesting cameo that I won’t mention, again, for spoiler’s-sake.

While I will commend Russell for his direction and vision, the acting really shines in “Hustle.”  I have no doubt in my mind that all four main actors, Adams, Bale, Cooper, and Lawrence, will be up for Oscars come February.  I’ll even go as far as saying that this will be Adams’ Oscar year.  Her turn as Sydney Prosser is magical, and proves that Adams is one of the best actresses in the business that still seems to be overlooked.  Lawrence steals the show in the scenes she’s in, and the same goes for Cooper.  Bale is the rock of the film however, and provides a calming cool to the insanity that seems to swirl around him.  Renner is fine in his role as Mayor Carmine Polito, but one of the best unsung performances will go to Louis C.K, who plays the brow-beaten boss of Cooper’s unhinged FBI Agent.

Like I mentioned before, this is Russell’s “Goodfellas.”  Loosely based on actual events, Russell weaves a story that has you guessing until the very end, and much like Martin Scorsese does in most of his films, music plays a major part.  Russell picks some of the best music from 70’s, and makes Duke Ellington, and his music, one of the points of attraction between Bale and Adams’ characters, and it makes sense in the scheme, no pun intended, of things.  Jazz artists like Ellington had to improve all the time, it’s the heartbeat of jazz, improvisation, and you can say the same thing for people running cons; constant improvisation.  The allegory is fantastic, if you catch it, but it’s not entirely relevant to the overall plot, just a cute little thing that Russell throws into his film.

At it’s core, “Hustle” is a caper film in the spirit of “Jackie Brown” and “Catch Me If You Can.”  It has spunk, heart, and like I said before, is silky smooth, with plenty of style to spare.  Best film of the year?  Let’s not quite go there yet, but if “Hustle” is any inclination of the films to come the rest of 2013, we should be in store for plenty of treats the rest of the month of December.  Christmas comes early with “American Hustle.”

Fun Fact:  The story of “American Hustle” is loosely based on the events of ABSCAM, in the late 1970s and 1980s.    

August 10, 2013

True Stories: The Iceman

RUSHED

The thing about reviewing films based on a true story is you’re usually limited to technical aspects of the film.  Barring some historical inaccuracy, the only fair thing to harp on is how the story is told.  Essentially because it all really happened.  You can’t complain about an ending that really happened.  You can’t complain about character choices that really happened.  You mainly hope that the way the filmmakers tell the story is compelling and that the actors give strong and truthful performances of their real life counterparts.  The Iceman, sadly, is a film that seems to fall just short of doing both of those things.

The story of The Iceman centers around the real life story of cold blooded mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski and how he keeps his murderous career a secret from his family.  Essentially, what if No Country For Old Men’s Anton Chigurh on his off days was Danny Tanner from Full House.  It is as terrific a set up and interesting a story for any film.  Just as the plot for that gets started, just as you are ready to see the rise of this hitman through the mob ranks and the elaborate lies he must concoct in order to remain the unassuming patriarch of his family, the film starts a two hour journey to RUSH past both elements clumsily.  And it doesn’t stop.  Both selling points the movie has are handled either through stunted montages or RUSHED time jumps.

One minute, Richard has just entered the world of contract killing.  The next minute, he is a seasoned pro.  All the ins and outs of being an effective hitman and rising through the ranks as the number one mob soldier are skipped over or RUSHED.  A counter to that criticism could be that the film isn’t about the contract killing.  Maybe it is about the family dynamic throughout.  Fine.  One minute Richard is a brand new father struggling to get he and his wife a better place to live.  The next minute, he has a second teenage child and they’re all living in a house in the suburbs.  All his lies to his wife and kids and all of the moments you want to see from a guy leading a dubious double life are skipped over or RUSHED.  Maybe the film isn’t supposed to be about the double life stuff either.  Maybe it is about Richard’s cold blooded nature and the horrible past that leads to the apropos title of this film.  A true character study of a sociopath.  Well, the structure of the film short circuits that by being mum about his upbringing until a sudden exposition dump in one scene.  There is a pivotal part where the normally cold blooded murderer Richard discovers a young teenager has witnessed him killing someone.  He decides to let her go.  Why?  It is alluded to later, but to that point the film had done nothing to hint at this character having a conscience.  Basically the opposite, in fact.  It hadn’t earned that moment.  My point is that if these dynamics of Richard Kuklinski’s life were focused on or fleshed out more instead of sped through, the film would have had a clearer direction.

The cast for The Iceman is of a particularly high quality but a bit misplaced.  Michael Shannon, or as I like to call him, Willem Dafoe 2.0, is the centerpiece of this film.  As much as I do like him as an actor, I am not certain of him in the part of Richard Kuklinski.  Now don’t get me wrong.  The lack of anything but intensity behind his eyes make him perfect as the murderous hitman.  He has made a career of playing people like that.  However, Shannon is somewhat unconvincing as a loving husband and father.  I mean ladies, are you really going home with THIS GUY?  This goes again to my previous dilemma of criticizing true stories.  Perhaps Kuklinski was as stoic a dad as he was in this film.  I’m not sure.  However, I can’t help but wonder how better the movie would have been served if someone like a Thomas Jane, a Josh Brolin or a Mickey Rourke was cast as Kuklinski.  Someone you can buy portraying both facets of the man’s life.   Winona Ryder plays the oblivious wife Deborah.  Ryder is fine here but her chemistry with Shannon is marginal at best.  And though the film wants to split time between home life and mob life, Deborah’s relationship with Richard still feels too short changed.  Right when we start to get a solid emotional scene between the two of them, it ends unceremoniously.  The cast is rounded out by an odd Chris Evans, an almost unrecognizable David Schwimmer, a very recognizable James Franco, Stephen Dorff, and Ray Liotta.  Liotta, a man who’s best role was in a film that had the structure I wish this film would have had.

As true stories go, The Iceman isn’t a particularly high ranking one.  The disjointed and RUSHED method the story is told really hamstrings what this film could have been.  The story of Richard Kuklinski is still best told by the man himself in the HBO documentary Confessions Of A Mafia Hitman.  However, if you happen upon the story’s one dramatization, try to keep up…look out for ice cream trucks…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.

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