Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Fall Movie Diary: The Wolf of Wall Street

Date: December 30, 2013
Time: 6:35 pm
Place: Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline
Company: Derrick
Food:  Espresso shake, shared tomato and basil pizza with pesto and pecorino, chips and hummus
Runtime:  2 hours, 59 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Martin Scorsese

Quick Impressions:
Now I realize some people may think I’m kidding and some may think I’m crazy, but watching The Wolf of Wall Street inspired me to come up with the perfect part for Leonardo DiCaprio.  He’s always rumored to be attached to projects about famous historical figures, but most of them fall apart in development and disappear forever.  At one time he was going to be Alexander the Great, at another, Theodore Roosevelt.  But after watching the inspirational, morale boosting speech his Jordan Belfort gives to the employees at Stratton Oakmont, I now know the historical figure DiCaprio was born to play.  Don’t laugh.  I’m serious.

Adolf Hitler. 

Maybe on the surface DiCaprio seems an unlikely choice for Hitler, but I’m telling you, I think he could pull it off brilliantly and maybe finally win that Oscar.  Seriously the best Hitler I’ve ever seen was Alec Guinness in some movie I happened to catch in progress on TV when I was twelve, and that hardly seems like typecasting.  Guinness didn’t even play the part with a German accent or anything, but his intensity was so riveting that I got sucked into the movie and watched it till the end.  To play Hitler, you need to be able to pull of the charismatic speeches and affable, warm, charming personal interactions.  You also have to pull off deranged anger and limitless rage.  I’m telling you, all you producers and directors out there, if you’re ever looking for a guy to play Adolf Hitler in a biopic, Leonardo DiCaprio is your man.

Some people are saying DiCaprio’s work in The Wolf of Wall Street is his best ever, and I’ll allow that it’s pretty great.  Personally I prefer his amazing performance in The Departed, possibly my favorite performance by a lead actor ever.  I also thought he was phenomenal in his supporting role last year in Django Unchained.  Of course, he didn’t even get nominated for those two amazing performances, but hopefully he’ll get in this time.  I mean why wouldn’t he?  There are only like twenty-five actors jockeying for Best Actor nominations this year, so what could possibly go wrong for DiCaprio’s Oscar hopes?

Since I love Leonardo DiCaprio, I do think he should get an Oscar nomination for his work here.  But regardless of his chances, his performance is outstanding and basically makes the movie.  My husband and I both really enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street, and I’d recommend it to anyone who knows that it was originally rated NC-17 and over three hours long and hastily re-edited by Martin Scorsese in order to get a 2013 release date.  The movie is about excess, so if you’re put off by debauchery, or you don’t think you would enjoy a movie that was originally rated NC-17, then maybe this isn’t for you.  Don’t be too scared, though.  There’s nothing that shocking, just repeated quick cuts of orgies, a little blood, a little gore, an ongoing survey of all the naughty things Jonah Hill can do with his penis, incessant drug use, violence to women and children, an awkward conversation about dwarfs, and non-stop vulgarity.  You know, the usual hard R stuff.  There’s nothing really shocking like two women in love having sex for ten minutes like you’d see in an NC-17 movie.

The Good:
I know some people think The Wolf of Wall Street is too long.  My soon-to-be five-year-old is definitely in that camp.  While my husband and I went to see The Wolf, my parents took her to see The Hobbit for a second time.  She was stunned (and indignant) when after she watched the entire Desolation of Smaug our movie still hadn’t ended.  Honestly I went in expecting the movie to drag.  Most three hour movies do.  (The Desolation of Smaug, for instance, is fun to watch but definitely slow in places.)  I was surprised, however, to find The Wolf of Wall Street’s pacing reasonably brisk.  I felt consistently entertained the whole time and was always eager to see what was coming next. 

There’s a moment when Jordan’s father urges him to make a deal with the S.E.C. that tricked me into thinking that the film might end sooner than I had expected.  Wow, I thought, kind of stunned.  That did not seem like three hours.  That flew by.  When the movie surprised me by continuing, I was actually relieved since that ending hadn’t felt right.  I was happy, even excited, to watch more.  I never felt restless about the time or even worried about using the bathroom.  The film was engrossing, and I was glued to the screen until Matthew McConaughey finished singing his song in the credits. 

I am beginning to fall in love with Matthew McConaughey.  He’s very good in his small role in the beginning, but I was so delighted when he started singing during the credits.  In general, The Wolf of Wall Street has a phenomenal soundtrack.  It’s too bad the Academy doesn’t give an award specifically for the soundtrack.  The score of this film didn’t make an impression on me, but the use of perfect songs to help set each scene was absolutely phenomenal.

Leonardo DiCaprio carries the entire movie with the type of all important lead performance that requires both an actor and a movie star of sufficient stature.  He makes Jordan Belfort incredibly charismatic and surprisingly sympathetic.  (Even when you’re shocked or disgusted by Jordan’s behavior, it’s hard not to root for him, a bizarre impulse given what a pointedly immoral, utterly  degenerate hedonist he is.)  Going into the movie, I took for granted that Jordan Belfort would be depicted as a complete sociopath.  I mean, aren’t sociopaths the people best equipped to succeed in business without really trying?  Harming others for gain comes naturally when you have an empathy defect and high threshold for pain/pleasure.

But as played by DiCaprio, Belfort is far more complicated (which is a very good thing since sociopathy sometimes strikes me as a convenient construct for demonizing and oversimplifying complicated people, anyway).  While he definitely puts his own pleasure ahead of the welfare of strangers, Belfort actually cares deeply for both his wife and his immensely flawed friend and business partner.  Given the bizarre excesses of his character, I was genuinely surprised to realize that Belfort actually loves his wife.  (I mean his second wife played by Margot Robbie.  His first wife is a much nicer person, but she’s not really Jordan’s type.   It’s easy to imagine her moving on after the divorce by settling down with some nice, loquacious architect type and having a couple of kids who hopefully really love listening to stories so long they would make Dido weep from boredom.)

Not only does Belfort love his wife and his friends, but he also loves his company.  He may have all kinds of scams and angles designed to make him rich, but clearly for him Stratton Oakmont is more than just a half-baked scheme.  He truly believes in his company and in the people who work for (and clearly idolize) him.  As depicted in the movie, Jordan Belfort is not a sociopath at all.  He has a moral core and definite values.  They’re simply terribly askew when compared to the norm.  He worships wealth and takes hedonism to a new level.  In my mind, that’s what makes the character so interesting.  He doesn’t want money to do x, y, z.  He doesn’t want money as a means to an end.  For Belfort, money is the end.  Money is the greatest, highest good.  Money is happiness.  Money is the pinnacle of life.  Jordan Belfort’s wants are few.  All he wants, in fact, is to be rich.  So when he spends extravagantly and behaves excessively, it’s not because he’s lost sight of his goals.  Behaving that way is his goal.  

Surely DiCaprio’s Belfort is destined to become an iconic character, remembered by film historians for ages.  I’ve heard a few people complaining about this movie’s Christmas Day release, but I think in some ways it’s bizarrely fitting.  As Ebenezer Scrooge learned, Christmas is a time for contemplation, self-examination.  And Jordan Belfort provides so much food for thought.   It’s like he holds up a mirror for the rest of us (a crazy funhouse mirror, maybe, but it has our image in it, nonetheless.)  The best part about Jordan is that he’s so American.  He’s capitalism run amok, the embodiment of the American dream.  In some ways, he’s a little like the Energizer Bunny.  He just keeps going and going and going and going.  Questions of motivation hardly seem to matter.  The idea of money is more important than the money.  The idea of being rich is more important than what you do with the money.

The question worth asking is, If Jordan Belfort is so obscene, so objectionable, then why does our entire way of life make his lifestyle possible? 

Yes, maybe Jordan breaks some laws here and there, but for the most part Belfort is working within the system, not against it.  From birth, we’re primed by our society to make and spend money.  That’s what makes us good Americans.  We’re supposed to get out there and blow our entire December paycheck on Christmas because it’s good for the economy.  We’re supposed to buy all the products advertised on TV because it’s good for the economy, and it will make us happy.  Belfort basically spends his life careening over the edge of a pretty well known slippery slope.  His path of offensive excess is merely the natural end of the road we’re all told to follow as Americans. 

If we work hard, we’ll be successful.  If we’re successful, we will make lots of money.  If we make lots of money, we should spend it.  Even the sexual excesses presented in the movie—apparently distasteful to some audiences—are only the values our society introduces to us from a very young age carried to their extreme.  If you don’t think we give our young girls the message that their self-worth is tied up in their sexuality and their sexuality is their ticket to riches, then you’ve never tried to shop for clothes for a tall four-year-old who wears a size six or seven.  Just a few days ago, my sister and I were discussing the fact that the majority of clothes made for elementary school aged girls are bedazzled with messages like SEXY or I’ve Got Daddy’s Credit Card.  Little girls are so used to having commercialism rammed down their throats that they grow up expecting 1) other things to be rammed down their throats 2) monetary remuneration.

Now I enjoy buying Christmas presents and spending money on my daughter’s wardrobe as much as the next person.  But I do think we shouldn’t be surprised that when we tell kids repeatedly to buy all the toys, many of them will grow up into adults who use their money to buy all the toys.  Similarly, we often give little girls the message that they are the toys, toys which both can and must be bought.  But then when we see people behaving like Jordan and his colleagues—spending money for sheer love of spending, treating women like disposable objects—we’re always so horrified.

Early in the film, Jordan tosses out a pretty key premise—everybody wants to be rich.  (Then an exception gets made for those in minority religious groups who value spiritual rewards more.)  But Jordan thinks that all regular, average people want to be rich.  And let’s face it, he’s kind of right.  Now, granted, we might not spend our money the way he does, but most of us would love to have the option.

Watching the movie, I basically had one persistent thought that led to three others:

1) Why would anybody who became so rich spend the money like that?  2) Why wouldn’t anybody who became so rich spend the money like that?  3) I wish that I were so rich that I could afford to spend money like that.  4) This is so sad.

Seriously, Jordan’s behavior—the way he jumps immediately to absolute excess—is so bizarre.  But on the other hand, isn’t it also kind of bizarre the way most of us turn Christmas into an absolute orgy of buying stuff, often stuff that people really don’t need or even have room for?

As we left the theater, my husband pointed out that the film is so rich with ideas, it’s hard to know what to take away.  The Wolf of Wall Street seems to be saying so much.  I think one of its key goals is to make us wince at the ridiculous, extreme, hedonistic excess of Jordan and his friends.  Why do they behave like that?  Why?  Why?  Once we ask that question, we’re forced to think about why making money in such a way is possible, why society rewards the wealthy, why all of us are indoctrinated from childhood into the idea that making and spending money are the two best things a person can do in life.

But the movie wouldn’t work without the energetic, whole-hearted performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill who make these disgusting displays of senseless excess look fun, invigorating, vital to life.  I think Terence Winter’s screenplay also deserves Oscar consideration.  It makes us ask important questions like, Why are the honest people always poor?  Why does the FBI pointedly go after the self-made man instead of the countless others who came from money and position?

DiCaprio’s lead performance really makes the whole film work, and Jonah Hill also pulls his weight as the equally off-the-wall, over-the-top Donnie Azoff.  The supporting cast is also good, particularly Cristin Milioti, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner, Joanna Lumley, and Jean Dujardin.

Best Action Sequence:
Certainly the most riveting action sequence comes near the end when DiCaprio’s Belfort proves that while he may know how to sell stock, he’s not so great when it comes to winning a woman back.  Oddly I found Belfort extremely sympathetic in this scene, strange because for me his behavior was more downright repugnant here than in the entire rest of the movie.  Throughout the film, Jordan behaves badly exercising little self control, but we always get the idea that he loves his wife and children.  Despite his capacity rage and his justifiable frustration and anger, I did not expect him to become so physically violent and criminally reckless.

Best Scene Visually:
One of the most visually arresting sequences I’ve seen in a long time comes when the special quaaludes finally kick in, and Belfort must take a most unusual route to his car.  Several people in the theater with us found this scene hysterically funny.  While there’s definitely an element of slapstick, my husband and I agreed that it was far too sad and serious to be laugh-out-loud hilarious.  Still it’s hard not to be captivated by Jordan’s unusual trip home, followed by the even more unusual events once he gets home, followed by the reexamination of how he got home.

Funniest Scene:
One of my favorite scenes in the film is the voyage of the yacht on “choppy” waters.  Even though what’s happening is horrible, there’s such a deranged, off-kilter humor in the presentation.  The scene on the plane is similarly hilarious/disturbing.

Best Scene/Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Leonardo DiCaprio):
DiCaprio’s Oscar clip (and Hitler audition) has to be the big speech he gives to “rally the troops” at the time of his intended resignation.  He’s wonderful here.  The character really comes alive.  We understand perfectly why Jordan has found so much success.  We see why so many people believe in him.  This scene stands out because it’s a conspicuous display of positive emotion.  Ordinarily, the key scene in an Oscar baity film involves crying, screaming, or going insane.  But Jordan Belfort is just speaking…from the heart, and doing it really well.  I hope Leonardo DiCaprio gets in.  As a long time fan, I’d love to see him win, but it’s hard for me to imagine that happening.  There are so many people to beat.  In an ideal world, I’d nominate Bruce Dern, Matthew McConaughey, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Leonardo DiCaprio, and either Tom Hanks or Christian Bale.  But there are a lot of performances I still haven’t seen.

DiCaprio’s also quite good every time he’s fighting with his wife, and in his sweet little scene on the park bench with his wife’s aunt.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Jonah Hill):
Best Supporting Actor seems like such a crazy, up-in-the-air jumble this year.  Who knows who’ll end up in the category in the end.  Going in, I’d heard Jonah Hill does shocking and terrible things in this movie, and I suppose he does.  (I expected to be more shocked, but maybe I’m getting jaded.)  Hill’s character is more like an oversized kid who gets everything he ever wanted and gets used to it.  So yeah, he does some jaw-dropping things, but after a (very short) while, we start to expect him to behave that way, so we’re not exactly shocked anymore when he does.  He’s very good and totally committed to being shocking, but I’m not sure he needs an Oscar just for daring to be objectionable.  For me, the two moments that stand out most are his baffling bad behavior when he hands off the suitcase of money and his reaction when he reads the note DiCaprio’s character has written to him the last time they sit face to face.  And then there’s that moment at the party.  My husband didn’t see Jonah Hill’s penis, but I could swear that I did, after he’s already on the floor and at kind of a weird angle.  Well, anyway, I could swear I saw a penis.  It looked so conspicuously large and penisy that I wondered if it was a prosthetic of some kind.  I’ll have to look into that later.

The Negatives:
So many people are going to hate this movie.  That seems inevitable.  It’s a little frustrating, but I know that a number of people genuinely feel shocked or put off by continuous profanity and gratuitous sex.  Going into the movie knowing it had been an NC-17, I found all of its crude content pretty tame.  I mean, yeah, there are a lot of orgy/gratuitous sex scenes, but these are really more comedic (maybe tragic) than erotic.  They’re thrown in there as an example of excess, to make the audience understand, or laugh, or sometimes feel a sad, pitying sentiment.  They’re really not there to titillate.  And the camera always moves very quickly.  It’s cut like an R, not an NC-17.  There’s a huge difference between seeing twenty-five fully naked women in six seconds and two or three for six minutes.

Personally, I would have liked more background information on Belfort.  We meet his parents, but we don’t really get a good idea of what motivates him to become rich in the first place.  His idea of having wealth seems taken from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  (You know the ones where Yosemite Sam is courting the widow Granny, and they toss the money into the fireplace?)  Because we don’t know more of his background, we have to take him at his word and assume that he wants to be rich because he believes that’s what everybody wants.  So maybe the film deliberately withholds information about young Jordan because it wants us to think of him as being just another American who fulfilled the American dream of striking it rich.  But I don’t know.

Many of the characters are hard to figure out.  Jonah Hill’s character is highly mysterious.  I mean, we keep getting clues that he’s gay.  Also he’s married to his cousin.  He doesn’t seem to have any kind of moral compass, and yet he’s totally devoted to Jordan, so much so that he’s willing to give him his money (his greatest good).  I’d like a little more background on him, too.

Jordan’s second wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) is the least developed character, and it’s pretty frustrating.  Martin Scorsese movies are not really where you look for amazing female characters.  The only really strong female that I remember from one of his films is Cate Blanchett in The Aviator, and that’s only because all she has to do is remind the audience of Katharine Hepburn, and, violà, the legacy of the Katharine Hepburn does all of the work.  I found it impossible to like Naomi.  To me she seems like a shallow, opportunistic gold digger, always eager to kick her husband when he’s down.  Robbie gives a good performance, but the character is very thinly drawn.  Cristin Milioti as his first wife is less important to the story but more of a realistic, three-dimensional person.  Probably the only woman in the movie who comes across as sympathetic, intelligent, and important to Jordan is his aunt-in-law played by Joanna Lumley.

I also think the character of the F.B.I. agent, though well played by Kyle Chandler, is almost unforgivably underdeveloped. 

It’s kind of shocking that in a three hour movie, we don’t get more character development.  Then again, all of these people are focused on lives of shallow, superficial, materialistic excess, so maybe the movie deliberately emphasizes the shallow, superficial nature of everything it shows us.  I’m the type, though, who prefers to know more about characters and what makes them tick.  I’d rather they seem more like individual human beings and less like an object lesson.

Overall:
After a conversation with my soon-to-be five-year-old, I can safely say that if you’re disappointed when you find out that The Wolf of Wall Street does not feature a protagonist cursed with lycanthropy, then you’re too young to see this movie.  Scorsese and DiCaprio’s latest collaboration is always entertaining, winningly engaging, and at moments even brilliant.  At three hours, it is pretty long, but it’s fast-paced, and honestly since the movie is a celebration (and perhaps condemnation) of excess, I certainly wouldn’t know what to cut.

Leonardo DiCaprio does some of the finest work of his career and deserves an Oscar nomination.  Jonah Hill is also fantastic and totally committed to his increasingly outrageous role.  As long as you’re not put off by nudity, profanity, vulgarity, violence, and drug use, then why not give The Wolf of Wall Street a try?  Seriously, it’s worth going just to hear a howling Matthew McConaughey perform a longer version of his awesome wolf song during the credits.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Fall Movie Diary: Saving Mr. Banks

Date: December 22, 2013
Time: 7:00 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick, Penelope, Grandpa, Grandma, Matt, Merry
Food:  popcorn, Mr. Pibb, Whoppers
Runtime:  2 hours, 5 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director: John Lee Hancock

Quick Impressions:
I love Disneyland.  I grew up there.

Maybe that sounds crazy, but I went to thirteen different schools.  We moved just about every year.  If we ever spent over a year in just one place, we made up for it the next year by living in two or three different locations.  (Lest you think I am exaggerating, in 1992 alone I lived in 1) Corpus Christi, 2) Chattanooga, and 3) Dallas.)

Anyway about as often as we moved, we also went to Disneyland.  (This wasn’t a reward for moving, just a happy coincidence.) 

So while I totally understand when some people roll their eyes at Disneyland and dismiss it as an overpriced tourist trap, a gaudy, borderline obscene celebration of materialist excess and juvenile debauchery, for me, it’s a wonderful, magical place full of happy memories of time spent with my family. 

Every time I go there, I remember all the times I’ve been before (with all the various members of my far-flung family).  When I take my kids to Disneyland, I’m also there with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins (many of them now deceased, others living so far away I hardly ever see them).

Maybe like me, you love Disneyland.  Maybe like others, you find it a disgusting nightmare of consumerism and spoiled children and commercialism run amok, and you’d rather die than ever set foot there.  It’s been my experience that most people in the United States today fall firmly into one camp or the other.  What’s brilliant about Saving Mr. Banks is that (to a degree) it validates both viewpoints and offers magical entertainment for both the misty-eyed Walt Disneyes and the maudlin Mrs. Traverses among us.

All the TV spots showing scenes set in Disneyland definitely coaxed me to take my entire family (including my sister and her boyfriend) to see Saving Mr. Banks this weekend.  I would have gone, anyway, of course, because I’m obsessed with the Academy Awards, but when I saw Disneyland in the previews, I knew the entire family would be on board.

Going in, I’d heard a lot of rave reviews of the central performances.  There’s copious Oscar buzz for Emma Thompson and quite a bit for Tom Hanks.  So even though director John Lee Hancock’s previous film The Blind Side walks a very fine line between moving and manipulative (and sometimes slips a bit), I thought Saving Mr. Banks would probably be an excellent family film.

But nothing prepared me for all the crying.  Drink a lot of water before this seeing this movie.  Trust me.  You’re going to need it to stay hydrated.

Seriously, it’s starting to feel like déjà vu all over again!  I go to the movies.  I spend two hours crying.  I leave with a swelling heart, thinking to myself, Well,s/he’s a lock for an Oscar nomination! 

How often am I going to repeat this experience?  Good thing the year’s almost over!  If 2013 went on any longer, they’d have to settle the Academy Awards Hunger Games style.

This fall has given us some of most delicious tear-jerkers ever.  Off the top of my head, I think of Nebraska, The Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, and now Saving Mr. Banks.  (And I’m not even counting the movies that only made me cry sometimes.)  Honestly, my reactions are getting progressively more intense.  I remember walking out of Philomena thinking, Good grief!  I’ve never cried so long and so hard in my entire life! 

Well now I’ve done it twice!  It’s impossible to watch Saving Mr. Banks without tearing up at some point.  None of us could manage it for sure.  And the best part is, the movie doesn’t really feel manipulative.  The longer it goes on, the better and better it gets thanks to fantastic performances by Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, and the entire supporting cast.

The Good:
One fantastic thing about the movie you wouldn’t necessarily guess from its previews is its rich and fantastic supporting cast.  Yes Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks deserve Oscar nominations, but they’re not the only ones doing wonderful work here. 

Paul Giamatti gives what is probably my favorite performance of his career.  I’m sure at this point lots of people are raving, “What are you talking about?  Paul Giamatti is a fantastic actor, and he’s great in everything.”  You’ll get no arguments from me there, but often I find the types of characters he tends to play off-putting or hard to love.  This is neither his largest role nor his most difficult, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s wonderful as Ralph, a funny, kind, bright genuine character I wasn’t even expecting.  While Tom Hanks is the screen partner most likely to get a supporting actor nomination, the scenes Thompson with Giamatti touched me deeply and were among my favorites in the film.  What makes them good is the spark of human connection between the characters.  With the wrong actors playing the roles, this wouldn’t come across at all, and their moving scenes would become instead syrupy and awful.   

B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman also stand out.  I was about to say that I particularly liked Schwartzman, and then to add that I also particularly liked Novak.  Then I realized that you can’t single out one over the other if you’re planning to do that for both.  Still both actors are superb as the Sherman brothers whether they’re performing in concert or taking a moment to light up the screen individually.  It helps, of course, that the real life Sherman brothers wrote such delightful music.  Watching them at work behind the piano made me want to come home and pop in the DVD of Mary Poppins (or at least play the soundtrack). 

Rounding out the Hollywood cast, Bradley Whitford, Kathy Baker, and especially Melanie Paxson are good in their roles as well.

But the real standouts of the supporting cast are the actors playing the Goff family in all of Travers’s tormented flashbacks.  Playing Ginty, young Annie Rose Buckley has a captivating screen presence and brings a winning and innocent intensity to the role.  Ruth Wilson doesn’t get too many lines as Margaret, but she certainly makes something of the part.  Her “lake” scene is absolutely riveting, and I’m also fond of her reaction to her husband’s big speech.  Meanwhile in a less crowded year, Colin Farrell might well find himself nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his fascinating, nuanced portrayal of the author’s charming but tormented father, Travers Goff.  It will never happen this year, but that doesn’t change the fact that Farrell gives a fantastic performance.

Another of the movie’s strengths is the music.  Not only does it benefit from Thomas Newman’s lovely score, but it also uses the previous work of the Sherman brothers to its greatest advantage.  Mary Poppins has wonderful music.  Besides the great honor of being one of my husband’s favorite songs, “Chim Chim Chiree” won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1964, and I love the almost eerie way Saving Mr. Banks incorporates it.

The movie also looks good with top-notch cinematography and set design, costuming, and make-up that don’t go overboard.  Instead of trying to create a Stepford Hanks (“Like those robots in Disneyland!!!!!”) by giving the actor an animatronic face, they mostly just encourage him to find his inner Walt.  And I think Thompson’s costuming and make-up is perfect.  Most of us aren’t well acquainted with the appearance of P.L. Travers, and of course, this helps.  But the look that she adopts fits the character perfectly. 

On the way home, my mother remarked, “Emma Thompson certainly did look older than in Love Actually.”

“Well, we’ve all gotten older since Love Actually,” I said.  “And besides, she’s playing an older character.  I’m not sure if they have her made up to look older or not.”  I think the austerity of her hairstyle, dress, and manner does most of the work.  “Besides,” I said, “Emma Thompson has aged like everyone else.  By now she must be about…”

“Seventy,” my dad chimed in.

“Seventy!” I cried in shock.  “I was going to say fifty!”  Thinking back to Henry V, I sort of guestimated, “Don’t you think she must be about fifty-five?”

“Oh no,” Dad replied, entirely serious.  “She’s definitely in her early seventies.”

After that I looked it up.  She’s 54.  (And despite what my parents will tell you, even in her primly dressed P.L. Travers garb, she looks 54—not 70!  Good grief, going by appearance, I would have believed late forties!)

The movie’s also got a great script.  As is always the case with sentimental material, it at times hovers perilously close to the precipice, poised to fall down into sugar-coated, emotionally manipulative, feel good nonsense.  But thankfully, that never really happens.

Best Scene:
Probably the most perfect scene in the entire movie is the cathartic rush (from the characters and the audience) that accompanies the dance to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”  The whole movie has been building to this spectacularly invigorating moment of release, and when it comes, even the audience can’t help but get swept up in the moment.

Funniest Scene:
My daughter (about to turn five) laughed out loud the whole time Travers was first exploring her hotel room.  At the end of the scene—after, literally, giggling non-stop through its entirety—she sighed, “Good grief!  She doesn’t even have any kids with her!  What is he thinking?”  After that, any time Emma Thompson widened her eyes in outrage, my daughter took it as a cue to giggle.  (For the most part, she correctly identified humorous moments this way, though once near the end she laughed at a fairly serious moment.)

Personally I absolutely adore the moment when Travers realizes that Walt wants to take her to Disneyland.  The expression of absolute horror that crosses her face as she understands where the conversation is headed is absolutely priceless.  I haven’t seen a look of such pure horror since Tippi Hedron opened the attic door in The Birds.  Thompson should get an Oscar nomination for that alone.

Best Scene Visually: 
What Disney fan can resist the image of Walt himself welcoming his guest into the Magic Kingdom with open arms?  As someone who has always been utterly enchanted with Disneyland, I enjoyed seeing all the scenes shot there, particularly the sequence on the carousel.  That was my daughter’s favorite ride the first time she went.  By all appearances, they are actually filming on location.  I watched carefully to see how the film would handle the changes in Fantasyland, and apparently the favored method was to show as little background scenery as possible.  We see the carousel from basically one angle.  Behind it, we focus on Snow White’s Scary Adventures, one of the park’s original attractions.  The tree near the entrance of the ride is so large that I assume they’re filming the scene in the park today and making minimal cosmetic changes.  The whole Disneyland sequence is tons of fun to watch.

Another visually rewarding experience is charting the development of Travers's relationship with Mickey Mouse.

Best Action Sequence:
About ten minutes into the film, one question started to nag me.  “What on earth makes this movie rated PG-13?”  Surely it’s not the shock of hearing a much abused Walt Disney sigh in befuddlement, “Damn!”  But there wasn’t much other swearing, and I couldn’t imagine a graphic sex scene or a machine gun battle going on behind the scenes of Mary Poppins.

Then a little over halfway through, Ruth Wilson popped into her daughter’s bedroom for a late night chat, and I suddenly got my answer.  “Aha!” I thought as I watched the moment unfold.  “There it is.  Remember, parents, you were strongly cautioned.” 

Now I’m sure the cumulative effect of the distress of Travers Goff also contributes to the film’s rating, but I don’t think you could put a Virginia Woolfy scene like this in a family movie and expect a rating any milder than PG-13.  Even though the scene doesn’t become as dark as its initial potential suggests, the idea of what could happen is still more than enough to disturb children (or at any rate to disturb parents who will be more attuned to what’s actually happening than most children and always worry about their children).  This is also one of the most powerful moments in the film.  Both Ruth Wilson and young Annie Rose Buckley play the scene with an eerie brilliance.  For me, it resonated even more than the later scene with the pears (maybe because we can see that one coming from a mile away, but it’s impossible to know how this one will end).

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Emma Thompson):
Emma Thompson definitely deserves a Best Actress nomination for her work in Saving Mr. Banks, and I can’t imagine that she won’t get it.

She’s phenomenal in all of her scenes, often serving up delicious comedy to the audience through a character who experiences these amusing moments as an intensely personal tragedy.  That’s difficult work, but she nails this tricky role from her first scene, and as someone (whose name I can’t recall) once said, “Well begun is half done.”

Thompson has so many fantastic, emotionally resonant moments throughout the film.  If forced to pick just one, I’d say her strongest scene is when she throws a fit about why they’ve made Mr. Banks so cruel.  (This is clearly revelatory for the other characters and leads to a lovely moment with her driver that I like even better.)

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Tom Hanks):
The obvious Oscar clip for Hanks is Disney’s final face-to-face heart-to-heart with Travers over a pot of doctored tea.  I won’t spoil the scene, but it would make a brilliant Oscar clip for her, too.  Both are equally good in the scene, and that’s why it’s getting all the Oscar buzz, I’m sure.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Colin Farrell):
Don’t think I’m an idiot.  I know Colin Farrell won’t get an Oscar nomination for this.  There’s absolutely no way.  There’s too much competition (even internal competition).  But I think Farrell is a talented actor whose fine work often gets overlooked when it comes to giving out awards.  I’ve always liked him.  He’s very good at evoking an emotional response from the audience.  (For example, as I watched Oliver Stone’s Alexander in the theater, I thought, Oh no, poor Colin Farrell.  His career was going so well till now!  Of course, I felt just as much pity rest of the talented cast forced to appear in such a trainwreck.  And yet here I am plugging both Farrell and Jared Leto for Supporting Actor nominations this year, so no harm done, I guess.)

More than any one scene, the cumulative effect of the flashbacks of Travers Goff’s touching and troubling relationship with his daughter shows what compelling pathos Farrell brings to the role.  The most stunning aspects of his performance are revealed through juxtaposition of his scenes.  One minute, he’s manically cheerful, the next, he’s a broken, despairing mess.  I’m particularly fond of the scene of Binty laying eggs and the moment in the bank with his boss.  Young Annie Rose Buckley is very talented, too.

The Negatives:
Slow is not the right word for this, but it gets better as it goes.  You have to watch the whole thing to be fully taken in, and I get the feeling that some people will be a harder sell than others.  If Disney in general rubs you the wrong way, then you’ll have to overcome your own skepticism to find this magical.  I have faith that as you listen to the songs of the Sherman brothers and contemplate the tragedy of the flashback sequences, you will be won over.  (I mean, it worked for P.L. Travers.)  That’s the brilliant thing about the film, really.  Even if you can’t embrace the magic of Disney, you can scoff at it right along with the witty Travers.  (She may be prickly, but she’s certainly not the first person to find Hollywood fake, Americans wasteful, and Disney gaudy.)

Still some people might not like this kind of movie.  The thing is, if you’re not swept away by the magic, then it’s pretty hard not to notice that Disney has capitalized on this same material twice.  I mean, even I noticed that.  P.L. Travers signed away the rights, and Disney’s gotten two trips to the Oscars out of it.  (I mean, do you know how often live action Disney movies get Oscar attention?  Let me put it this way.  Have you seen any live action Disney movies?  That should give you a rough idea.  I’m not bashing them.  Hayley Mills did win a special Oscar for Pollyanna and thoroughly deserved it, and while certainly not Oscar bait, any movie starring Dean Jones possesses a wholesome, infinitely rewatchable charm.  I’m also a huge fan of the original Freaky Friday.  But usually, it’s animation that gets Disney awards attention, and there’s never anybody asking, “Why were Christina Ricci and Doug E. Doug snubbed for that amazing remake of That Darn Cat?”)

Julie Andrews won Best Actress for Mary Poppins in 1964 (probably at least partially because Marni Nixon was singing Julie Andrews’s part for Audrey Hepburn, but certainly also because she gave a magnificent, star-making performance).  And now in 2013, Emma Thompson is almost certainly going to get a Best Actress nomination for Saving Mr. Banks.  Disney has done pretty well for itself with P.L. Travers’s legacy.  (Of course, from a less cynical point of view, the studio has now made doubly good on the promise Walt makes Travers near the end of the movie.)

Overall:
P.L. Travers may be prickly and difficult, but as a novelist who sees a lot of movies, I find myself watching and thinking, Hmm.  More authors should fight for creative control of the film adaptations of their books.  I mean Mary Poppins is not sweet.  She’s a little creepy and certainly no nonsense.  That’s part of what makes the character special.  If she were just a jabbering, sugary wish fulfiller whisking children away from the horrors of a one-dimensional tyrant father, then Mary Poppins would not pack the emotional punch that it does.  Authors like P.L. Travers and J.K. Rowling have the right idea.  Do not let people who don’t understand your book and only care about money ruin your work on the screen.  (Suzanne Collins has made good choices in this regard, as well.)

Saving Mr. Banks is a charming, emotionally resonant movie that will make you cry.  Let me repeat, it will make you cry, and once you start crying, you’re not going to be able to stop until the credits roll.  (Stay for the credits, by the way, because you get to hear an actual voice recording of Travers critiquing the creative team.) 

Emma Thompson will definitely get a Best Actress nomination.  (It will be a shocking injustice if she doesn’t.)  And honestly Tom Hanks deserves to be a double nominee for this and Captain Phillips.  Going in, I was quite skeptical of his ability to play Walt Disney, but he won me over.  Take the entire family and go see this movie in theaters.  Sadly, the popcorn is more than tuppence a bag, and by paying for admission to a Disney film, you’re hardly giving your money to charity.  Still, the movie is worth seeing.  Our family certainly enjoyed it.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Fall Movie Diary: American Hustle

American Hustle
Date: December 20, 2013
Time: 7:55 pm
Place: Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline
Company: Derrick
Food:  Espresso shake, tomato and basil pizza with pesto and pecorino
Runtime:  2 hours, 9 minutes
Rating: R
Director: David O. Russell

Quick Impressions:
Christian Bale deserves an Oscar nomination for his role in American Hustle, and that’s a problem because at this point like twenty-five other guys also deserve one, and there are only five to go around.  I feel like Bale is probably going to get shafted because they know he can do it again…kind of like Bank of America cut my credit card limit in half several years ago because I responsibly paid off the balance every month.  (Maybe that’s not exactly the same thing, but I’ll never forgive Bank of America, so I mention that injustice whenever I can.)

Everyone’s raving about Jennifer Lawrence (and don’t get me wrong, they should be!  In my expert opinion, it is never wrong to rave about Jennifer Lawrence.  We should give her a national holiday—why not Columbus Day?  Nobody likes him anymore, anyway—and put her face on a stamp that interacts with you like one of those pictures at Hogwarts). 

Lawrence is great.  Honestly at this point, I could see her winning Best Supporting Actress.  (She’d have to overcome superb performances by contenders like Lupita Nyong’o and Oprah Winfrey, but Lawrence is so charming that she can make anecdotes about butt plugs seem like standard girl-next-door fare, so I like her chances.)

Nevertheless, I think that Bale actually gives the best performance in the film (which seems fitting since he is the lead).  Amy Adams is also fantastic.  When is she ever going to win an Oscar?  She’s been nominated four times, so you can’t exactly call her overlooked, but I don’t see how she can possibly pull off a win this year with so much competition.  I’ll be stunned if she even gets nominated.  She deserves to be.  The trouble is, I can personally confirm that Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Sandra Bullock, and even Adèle Exarchopoulos also deserve nominations.  And while I haven’t yet seen Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson, it’s pretty hard to believe they don’t deserve it.  (I mean, let’s be real.  Streep always deserves it.  I keep wanting to leave her out this year for the sake of variety, but I’m sure that impulse will die the moment I see her performance.) 

The good news for Adams is that she goes one step further toward proving to the world that she does have range, so even if she misses out this year, her superb performance here helps build the case for a future Oscar win.

Bradley Cooper’s pretty fantastic here, too, just a ball of energy playing an increasingly berserk character.  Apart from Lawrence (let’s face it, she’s getting that nomination), I think Cooper has the best chance of Oscar recognition simply because Supporting Actor could go so many ways at this point, and Cooper seems like he’s going every which way at once.  There may well be room for him in there somewhere.

But forget Oscar nominations for a minute.  A more important question might be, Is American Hustle a good movie?  Yes, yes it is.  It’s quite entertaining, start to finish.

The Good:
I think this film also deserves nominations for screenplay, picture, and director.  I particularly like the screenplay (as it unfolds onscreen, anyway.  I haven’t read it).

Normally I find voice over narration forced and lazy (although I make so many exceptions to this rule anymore that I feel like a liar as I say it).  But I really loved the narration by Christian Bale and Amy Adams in the early scenes of the film.

Watching it, I thought, This all feels so true, so real.  That’s exactly what it was like when my husband and I fell in love—except we weren’t con-artists (though the first time my husband pulled up and stepped out of the Crown Victoria he then drove, my father assumed he was in the Mafia—because why else would a man be coming to the front door?  I can imagine my dad weighing the options.  Is someone more likely to take out a hit on my daughter or ask her on a date?  Yep, this guy is definitely in the Mafia.)

I think this early bit of narration really makes you root for Bale and Adams.  How else could we ever trust con-artists?  To believe them even for a moment, we have to hear them open up their hearts to us in an apparently candid soliloquy.

I was also impressed with how quickly I fell in love with these characters.  Right away the film makes us sympathize with the criminals, and throughout the film that really doesn’t change.  Early on, Bale has a great line about most things in life occurring in the shades of gray, and the movie stays committed to this idea, delivering schemers, crooked politicians, and mob bosses of great integrity alongside law enforcement officials who are arbitrarily, ego-maniacal, and self-serving.

I always love David O. Russell’s films, but this one is quite different in feel from his two most recent movies, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter.  In certain aspects, it more closely resembles I Heart Huckabees.  There are so many characters, each with his or her own agenda, all plotting overlapping storylines.  And the characters are extremely complex, layered, almost all concealing some sort of secret identity (sometimes from themselves).  Watching I got the feeling that if we spent more time exclusively with any one of the characters we would come away with a totally different (and enriched) understanding of the person.  (The one exception here may be Jeremy Renner’s Carmine Polito.  With him, what you see seems to be what you get.  Renner gives a pretty great performance, too.  In a weaker year, he might have a shot at a supporting nomination, but that will never happen this year.)

(Apparently at one point during production, Bale thought he couldn’t do the film, so Cooper was going to play Bale’s role, and Renner was going to play Cooper’s role.  In that scheme I don’t know who was set to play Carmine Polito.  I wish Russell would remake the film with this casting, plug Christian Bale into the Polito role, and have Adams and Lawrence switch parts.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love the movie as is.  Bale, Cooper, and Renner are all perfect in their parts.  I’d just get a kick out of seeing it the other way, too.)

American Hustle is not at all what it seems like from the previews.  The plot is very complicated, full of twists and turns and surprises (including uncredited cameos) that I’ll do my best not to spoil.  Its greatest strength is always its performances, but I love the lines they say, too.  It’s rather odd because as the movie is happening, what's coming next is never clear, but somehow we get to the end and think, Oh yes, that’s just what I expected.  How did I ever doubt that it would turn out this way?  At least, that was my experience.

The soundtrack and over-the-top period costumes (and hair) are lots of fun, too, and I also liked the score.  We also get all kinds of delightful surprises in the supporting cast—John Huston’s increasingly popular grandson Jack, Colleen Camp (still funny even all these years after playing Yvette in Clue), Louis C.K. (newly talented at being cast in Oscar baity films), Michael Peña (who always turns up in everything good).  And there’s also one surprise addition to the cast who’s definitely very welcome.

Funniest Scene:
If we’re talking most meticulously planned joke (the joke that’s set up as carefully as any con), then definitely the film’s opening scene featuring Christian Bale’s character’s elaborate grooming ritual should take first prize.  Bale puts in a lot of work, and when the time is right, Bradley Cooper gets the movie’s first big laugh (well, second if you count the amusing written disclaimer before the opening scene).

In terms of actual sustained hilarity, though, it’s hard to beat Jennifer Lawrence’s theatrical fiasco with the “science oven.”  Lawrence gets many of the movie’s biggest laughs.

Best Scene Visually:
I like the scene in the club with the strobe light because it’s so disorienting.  Strobe lights always freak me out.  They remind me of when I was a kid and my teen cousin would turn on the strobe light in his darkened bedroom, then jump out to scare me by saying in a spooky voice, “I am the Night Stalker.”  (Incidentally he did that to be fun, not to terrorize me.  I remember it fondly.  I was fascinated by the strobe light and why it was so powerfully visually disturbing.)

The next bit when Amy Adams looks up from the toilet is also almost viscerally disturbing (and mesmerizing).

Best Scene:
As I’ve said, I really fell in love with the film’s early flashback, the story of how Rosenfeld and Prosser met and fell in love.  There’s something so odd and yet so authentic about this element of the story.  Adams and Bale create compelling, enchanting characters, and much of what they have to say about one another fascinates me. 

Best Action Sequence:
When DiMaso and Edith decide to take things to the next level in her apartment, things escalate so quickly.  The next thing you know, Louis C.K. becomes the world’s most legitimately aggrieved boss.  (Throughout the movie, his rapport with Cooper is superb.  Maybe one day there will be a sequel and we’ll finally hear the resolution of the ice fishing story.)

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Christian Bale):
All of Bale’s scenes with Jeremy Renner made me want to cry.  Renner makes Polito very likable, quite admirable, in a weird way a tragic hero (a doomed champion of the people like Robin Hood or something but more doomed).  Bale meanwhile conveys his genuine anguish and frustration so well. 

Every time the two of them talked, I found myself thinking, How can this possibly end well?  How can this situation ever work out?  I found myself really wanting it to even as I knew it couldn’t.  (Incidentally, this is one of the strengths of the screenplay—it stirs up in us the same emotions it describes to us.  The more it convinces us something won’t work, the more and more desperately we want it to work.)

Bale couldn’t be better in his scenes with Renner.  He’s great with Adams, too, and with Lawrence.  Basically he’s phenomenal in all his scenes. 

As far as his most effective scene—it’s a toss-up between his last big conversation at Polito’s house and his tense encounter with someone whose appearance in the film took me by surprise.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Amy Adams):
At the very beginning of the movie, Adams and Bale have a fight that seems to end their relationship, but then they suddenly make up.  I think Adams is amazing in that moment.  In general, the way she slips in and out of her English accent is terribly endearing and adds a lot to the character.  Normally a here-then-gone accent is a bad thing, but in this case, the at-some-times-more-English-than-others accent enhances our sense of Sidney’s inner turmoil.  It also keeps us on our toes in terms of the superficially twisty plot.

Adams more than holds up her end of some fabulous, intense scenes with both Bale and Cooper.  Another moment of hers that I love comes when she reacts to the terrifying spectacle of Jennifer Lawrence at the party.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Bradley Cooper):
Bradley Cooper gives a great performance in the movie, but his character is really something else.  In fact, the DiMaso character is so weird that I found myself wondering if perhaps there were one more wrinkle in the plot.  (I kept whispering to my husband, "Is this guy really what he says?  What if he’s acting under duress, too?")  In story terms, I think Cooper’s character is the weakest in the film, but I find no fault with his portrayal of this coked up weirdo who seems misleadingly ordinary the first time we meet him but keeps getting stranger and more frantic until he seems sure to go flying off into the aether.  I think his strongest scenes are the ones with Louis C.K.  They escalate.  They build.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Jennifer Lawrence):
I like the way Lawrence plays her final one-on-one conversation with Bale in their bedroom, but she has so many great moments.  Her surprise kiss in the ladies room is also interesting, an equally strong moment for Amy Adams.

The Negatives:
Bradley Cooper turns in a perfectly respectable (even Oscar nomination worthy) supporting performance as Richie DiMaso, but I think the character he’s playing is the weakest element of American Hustle.  In some ways, DiMaso is the Lady Macbeth of American Hustle.  It feels like we’re missing some key transitional scenes of his development.  At first he seems perfectly normal, almost nice.  Then he comes across as capable and feisty, even if a bit monomaniacal.  But then five minutes later he starts snorting cocaine and attacking people right and left and sideways and upside down and just going off every which way and then basically coming apart at the seams.  (Maybe you don’t need many transitional scenes if you include a scene of snorting cocaine.  Maybe the cocaine snorting itself is transition enough.)

When I was in college, our drama department put on a production of Macbeth, and the professor in charge cast the same actress as Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff.  Though a number of frustrated actresses found this choice exasperating, he suggested that in Shakespeare’s day, the same actor played both roles so that the audience wasn’t as shocked by Lady Macbeth’s stark transformation because it saw the same performer making that emotional transition while playing another character.  I was thinking along those lines as I watched this movie.  There’s so much doubling and mirroring going on, so many foils, and just as many red herrings.  (Bale basically has two wives.  Adams has two identities.  Renner used to play Cooper’s part.  DiMaso feels like he’s a thousand people crammed into one, and none of them has a remotely stable or accurate self-concept.)  The script places a lot of emphasis on what’s counterfeit and what’s real, the importance of a good copy, the authenticity of adoption, the fine art of forgery.

I think DiMaso is a hugely important character as a foil for all the other characters, but I feel like his own self-concept gets lost in the jumble somewhere.  It’s like he’s never fully developed.  Now granted, part of this is intentional because I think we’re meant to view the criminals as noble people who circumvent unjust, ineffective laws to do what is needed (whether for their own survival or the good of the community).  I think the randomness of DiMaso’s attempted self-aggrandizing heroism is intended to make a strong impression on us.

But I still think the character feels a bit half-baked, or maybe it’s more accurate to call him overdone.  (What’s going on with his mother and his fiancée?  What’s his backstory?  What are his precise motivations?)  We know so many weird details about this guy, and yet, at the end of the day, who is he?

Now I know American Hustle is loosely based on true events (and I love the way it tells us up front that it’s a work of fiction first).  I know, too, that Amy Adams has this great line early on saying that all she knows for sure is that she wants to be anyone else other than who she is.  I think DiMaso’s character is intentionally written as a big coked up crazy train of confusion.  But I do a lot of things intentionally that don’t work out to my greatest advantage. 

Honestly I think Bradley Cooper has clearly spent more time seriously thinking about who DiMaso is than DiMaso ever did, and while that works out well for Cooper, it’s ultimately quite confusing for the audience.

Of course the movie does thrive on creating confusion for the audience.  If it didn’t try so hard to keep us confused, the story would become a bit dull. 

As a heist movie, this isn’t really as sharp and delicious and rewarding as something like Ocean’s Eleven.  Of course, I don’t think American Hustle is trying to be a heist comedy like Ocean’s Eleven, but some people are bound to think that, and they’re probably going to be disappointed.  Like all of Russell’s films (that I’ve seen, anyway), American Hustle is really a serious character study, a drama about human relationships disguised as an off-beat comedy about a bunch of unhinged people living on the edge.  Given how hard the film works to disorient us continually, I’d say that the line about life being in the “shades of gray” is one we’re meant to take away with us.  The movie imitates life.  We never know exactly what’s going on or what’s in another person’s heart.  Sometimes we’re not even sure of our own intentions.  So we just have to muddle through it all the best we can until we get to a moment that resonates emotionally and feels true.

My husband found the beginning of the movie a bit slow, and while I agree (especially that the pacing picks up once Jennifer Lawrence makes an appearance), the love story between Bale and Adams was actually my favorite part of the film.  So yes, the beginning is slow, but I still adored every second of it.

The narrative structure of American Hustle makes it feel different from most films that came out in 2013.  I’ve seen a lot of movies this year.  None of them was told quite like this.  (It reminds me a little of Burn After Reading and a little of Seven Psychopaths, though it’s really only like those in that all are equally unlike other films.) 

In terms of events, American Hustle tells a very simple story but complicates it infinitely by shifting point of view and exploring the mysteries of the human heart.  What I mean is, there would be no mystery or suspense to the plot if only we (and the characters) knew whom we could trust when and with what.  But that crucial information is precisely what nobody ever knows for sure (in the film or in the audience).  Taken on its own terms, the film works, but people looking for something more formulaic might find its cluttered, deliberately confusing method of storytelling off-putting.

My only other slight complaint is that Adams gets much better lines in the first half of the film than in the second (when she has to make do instead with poignant looks).  She gives a great performance, but Lawrence is a lot flashier, and I worry that what Adams is given won’t be enough to get her the Oscar nomination that she probably deserves.

Overall:
David O. Russell has become one of my favorite directors working today.  Last year he directed all four principals of Silver Linings Playbook to acting nominations at the Oscars.  I’m not sure that he’ll be able to repeat that trick this year in such an unusually crowded field, but I will say that Bale, Adams, Cooper, and Lawrence all deserve nominations.  The acting in American Hustle is phenomenal, the hair is exciting, and the story is both thought-provoking and (at moments) hilarious.  Given all the phenomenal supporting work out there this year, Jennifer Lawrence probably should not win a second Academy Award.  But I have the feeling that the Best Supporting Actress Oscar might be American Hustle’s ultimate heist. 

So you’d better see the movie now because you know if you wait until next year when it comes to Netflix, Jennifer Lawrence will already be getting buzz for Oscar number three.  Trust me, the Oscar buzz will never end.  You don’t want to be playing catch up for the rest of your life.  Go see American Hustle today. 

Christian Bale and Amy Adams are pretty amazing, too, and Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner aren’t half bad.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Penelope Says

November 22

Overheard from the bathroom where Penelope and Grandma are cleaning...
Penelope: We have to make this place shine up good and tidy!
12:19 pm

Penelope: (who fell asleep during the previews, to Derrick as the credits roll) It's a funny thing. All I remember about that movie is the credits.
10:13 pm

Penelope: Oh no! Don't tell me! Not more raining again. When we get out, all this water will damage my shoes!
10:16 pm

November 23

Penelope (singing as she holds her glow wand): I am the queen of the kings! I am the queen of the kings!
Me: That sounds important. What do you do?
Penelope: I'm just the queen. Of all the kings.
Gray: You're cray cray.
1:07 pm

Grayson: Daddy is cooler than Octodad.
Penelope: No! Octodad is cool!
Grayson: Octodad is cool, but he's not as cool as this dad. Daddy is the coolest dad of daddies.
Penelope: But Octodad...
Grayson: This dad is cooler than Octodad.
Penelope: NO! Daddy and and Octodad are both the coolest. They are the same height of cool!
Grayson: You can't change my mind. It's my mind.
Derrick: She could change your mind if she were a mad scientist.
Grayson: No, not even then.
Penelope: But what if I scientist my own brain out of my brain and put it in your brain?
Gray and Derrick: Well...
Penelope: (giggling, admits) Well, I don't know how to be a mad scientist.
Gray: Well, you're mad every day, so all you have to do is be a scientist.
1:53 pm

Penelope: This is going to take all of my strength and all of my skill because I have to beat Bubby in a hand fight.
Gray: There's no way you can beat me.
Penelope: No, seriously! I can wrestle down a pig!
1:54 pm

She says, "That's funny, but I wasn't actually wrestling a pig. I was just wrestling Bubby." I asked her, "But how do you know you could wrestle a pig?" She scoffed, "Because I'm stronger than a pig--obviously."
1:55 pm

Penelope: (being forced to give her controller to Derrick after Gray beat her at Soul Calibur) No, please! PLEASE!!!! PLEASE!!!! Come ON!!!!!
Derrick: No, come on, sweetie, you've already played twice.
Penelope: No I haven't! I've only played two times!
11:34 pm

November 24

Penelope: (playing Soul Calibur) Hey, take some of this if you want some of that. Die! Die! All you are is dead meat, anyway!
12:08 am

Penelope: (to Derrick) You're the funnest, and Mommy's the funniest.
Me: That's what she says. But according to Gray, you're the funnest and the funniest.
Penelope: Well Gray is incorrect. You're the funnest, and Mommy is the funniest.
Me: That's what she says. But I don't think she's laughing with me.
(Penelope chuckles wickedly.)
2:46 pm

After a twenty minute and counting loop, I'm beginning to get the idea that Nellie lives for the applause.
10:52 pm

November 25

Penelope (shaking her head as a music video from Frozen plays on the Disney Channel): They shouldn't show all these scenes from the movie. A movie should be surprising. This just ruins it.
10:55 pm

Penelope: (watching a commercial, suspiciously) I always thought it was Las Vegas.
Me: It is Las Vegas, but that name of that movie is Last Vegas because it's about their last trip to Vegas. Las Vegas is the name of the city, but they just added a "T".
Penelope: I thought it was Loss not Lass.
Me: It's Las. It's a Spanish word for "the." The Vegas. (frowning) But I'm not really sure what Vegas means. The Somethings. I really feel like I should know. I'll have to look it up.
Penelope: (helpfully) If I had to guess, it sounds like it means fake ass.
11:37 pm

November 26

Penelope: When it my birthday coming?
Me: Your birthday is January 2.
Penelope: Ohhhhhh! But that is SO far away! It's like the faraway blue sky of heaven!
12:08 am

In our living room...
Derrick: (noticing a suspicious squirm) Nellie, do you have to go potty?
Penelope: No, I can hold it.
Derrick: But why should you hold it if you can go now? If you have to go...
Penelope: But I don't have to go THAT BAD.
Gray (making fun of her): Why should I have to go potty today? I just went yesterday!
8:49 pm

Me (dropping a pill): What?! Not again! Oh good! (explaining to Dad) The other day, I dropped a pill down the couch, and when I lifted up the cushion to get it, it slipped into some crack that shouldn't exist and now it's stuck between the bottom of the couch and the liner. So it's just in the couch now. I can never get it back.
Derrick: But I have noticed that couch has been much more stable lately.
9:04 pm

November 28

Apple pie! Made with blood, sweat, toil, and tears (literally, Gray and I both cut ourselves). There was also lots of giggling involved!
12:01 am

Penelope: I'm ready to pull that wishbone.
Grandma: Oh, well there wasn't a wishbone in this turkey because I just got a breast.
Penelope: Ohhh.
Me: (thinking fast) But you and Bubby can pull this paper towel.
(Gray gets the bigger half)
Grayson: Hey!
Me: Grayson got the bigger half.
Penelope: (face falling) Ohhh.
Me: But you get a wish, too.
Grayson: She does?!
Me (quickly, emphatically, clearly pulling a fast one): Yes. (thinking fast again) Because you got the smaller half, you get to make a little wish. So just think of a little wish.
Penelope: But how can I think of a little wish when I have a big imagination?
5:11 pm

Watching Lady Gaga perform with the Muppets...

Gray: (trying to figure out her latest headpiece) Does she have any hair?
Penelope: Does she have on any pants is my question.
11:43 pm

November 29

Penelope: (singing a long song she is making up) What, what is a butt? It crawls through your door. It slaughters you and kills you. What what? Hear it roar! (Tells us) I just made that up.
Grandpa: You did? I thought you got it from a book of famous songs.
3:08 pm

November 30

Penelope: Grandma, would you do me the honor to get me Fruit Loops?
6:06 pm

December 1

Penelope: I'm driving a boat. It's going to take us to Padre Island.
Me: Wouldn't it be wonderful to be on Padre Island right now! What would you do if you were there?
Penelope: Maybe when I grow up, you and I could be scientists, and we could build a time machine to take us there in the future. Our time machine could turn us back into our young selves, and we could go there, and it would be wonderful.
10:32 pm

December 2

Me (singing the song through for the second time): If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do...
Penelope: (grabs my hand and makes me spank myself interrupting loudly and with gusto) IF YOU DON'T GOT A HAY PENNY--SHAME! ON! YOU! (collapses into giggles) That's my version. I like it much better!
12:53 am

December 4

Penelope: What is up with Jesus?
Me: What do you mean?
Penelope: What is God doing all over the place? How is He in so many things? I mean He's a baby, He's a child, He's God, He's dead, He's alive, He's a grown up!
Me: Well, God exists outside of time...
Penelope: Oh because He created time!
Me: Yes, He created everything.
Penelope: But why did He decide to create women when He had no idea what they might want?
2:18 am

Penelope: (who has just fallen into her wooden blocks and left a body shaped hole): Oh dear. This is ominous.
Me: What is it?
Penelope: My imagination spoke to me. It told me, "If your own form appears in the blocks, you will surely die!"
Later. . .
Penelope: Can I take my imagination to bed with me?
Me: Are you sure you want it knowing where you sleep?
2:25 am

Penelope: (watching Miracle in 34th Street) What is she saying?
Grandma: I don't know. She's speaking Dutch. I don't know any Dutch.
Penelope: Well, you lived in Omaha! You must know some languages!
8:46 pm

The Milkshake (About the Lumps in my Milkshake)
by Edward Penelope [her pen name]

Once I saw pillows in the river.
But then they all floated away—
“I stir, and it’s light.
I stir, it’s clear white.”
That’s what I heard the river say.
--December 4, 2013
10:41 pm

Me: You did a good job writing those words. Your penmanship is getting very nice.
Penelope: Actually, it was pencilmanship.
10:44 pm

December 5

Okay, Mom, since you were asking why Penelope never wrote you a poem, she has now written you one:

The Weasels Pop Up and Down
by Penelope

The weasels all pop in my head.
They all jump up and down.
They pop up in my brain,
Hop up in my brain,
They eat my brain.
They’re terrible, terrible, oh!
So that’s where my memories go!
12:05 am

Penelope (who is supposed to be sleeping, wandering over): So how is your book going? I notice you're doing a lot of good work there.
Me: Thank you, but you need to get in bed.
Penelope: Maybe I will be a writer, too.
Me: I started writing my first book when I was four, and I've wanted to write books ever since then.
Penelope: The trouble is, I want to do so many things.
Me: Well you have a long life ahead of you.
Penelope: My plan was to use my stories to create video games. Then just now I was thinking maybe I could study some more Japanese words and sell my game ideas to the Japanese. That way, a lot more people could play them.

She doesn't seem to need career advice from me.
1:43 am

In the car...
Me (singing along with the Frozen soundtrack): Tell the guards to open up the gates!
Penelope: (belting out) DA GAAAAAAAAAATES!!!! (sighs, gasps) Wow, this kind of singing really takes all the breath out of me!
8:47 pm

December 6

Reading our library book about the heart...

Me: Open and close your hand.
Penelope: Okay.
Me: Is your hand getting tired?
Penelope: Nope! (several minutes later) It is still going!
Me: But it's probably getting tired.
Penelope: It's not! It's going faster and faster!
Me: Hmm. Well, anyway, your heart never gets tired.
Penelope: Neither does my hand.
Me: Okay, well, I think you're thwarting this experiment. Clearly your hands do not work the way the author of this book expected.
Penelope: (still opening and closing her hand) And this amazing property comes from maaaaagical Greece where I got my name!
3:25 pm

Penelope: (skeptically at me as I attempt to fit a tip on a pastry bag) So you think you know how to use this, eh funny guy?
9:39 pm

So we're watching Christmas Vacation while our meringue mushrooms bake in the oven. Suddenly the smoke alarm starts going off. I check the oven. None of us can figure out why it's going off. The kitchen had not even a whiff of steam in the air. We were like, "Crazy smoke alarm! Why are you going off?" Oh, yeah, because the upstairs bathroom is on fire!

It was very exciting. I saw flames, smoke, smelled burning plastic, and heard Mom yelling to Dad, "Are you on fire???????"

I had the kids run outside. But the fire is out now, and everything is okay except for the bathroom floor and possibly Dad's sock.
11:31 pm

[Answering a question] I think my dad lit a candle, and then he threw away the match, and apparently it wasn't out all the way--which they didn't realize until the smoke detector started going off. The thing is, there's no smoke detector in the bathroom, and Dad had the door closed. He points out that he did take care of the bathroom stinking problem, just more dramatically than he intended.
11:34 pm

Derrick adds, “Who says you need to go on vacation to make memories?”
11:44 pm

When the fire alarm went off, there was no smoke down here, so I headed upstairs to see what was going on. As I headed up the stairs, I suddenly smelled smoke. The next thing I know, I get into the landing, and black smoke is billowing out of the bathroom, and I see flame, and I hear my mom yell to my dad (who is jumping around the bathroom), "Are you on fire???????"

So I ran downstairs yelling, "THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE!!!!!!!!!"

I flung open the front door and told Penelope to get outside.

Derrick made fun of me retelling all of this, but then pointed out, "Grayson, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen."

He was already out on the lawn, way off in the darkness. Derrick said, "So if the house burns down, we know Grayson will make it out okay. But if Grayson finds out about the fire first, then the rest of us will all be dead!"

The fire is out now, thankfully. And the good news is that the one linoleum floor in our house will now become a tile floor like the entire rest of the house. (Seriously, it's so weird that the only linoleum is in that one tiny bathroom and everything else is tile!)
11:46 pm


On the bright side, our meringue mushrooms came out looking fabulous!
12:22 am


December 7

Derrick (settling a dispute between the kids): First we will watch Home Alone 2, and then afterwards we will watch Arthur Christmas.
Dad: And if I don't like it, I'll just go set the trash can on fire!
Me: You'll smoke us out!
6:33 pm

Watching Home Alone 2 with Penelope is pretty fun. She is so amused by the ending. She's never seen this one before. She keeps going, "Oh dear," and then giggling. She just said, "I never knew this one would be funnier than the other one. Oh, something bad is happening for him. If this was a cartoon, he would be the Coyote." She's narrating everything that happens.
8:17 pm

Penelope (watching Home Alone 2): Oh yeah, Kevin! You're my kind of man!
8:20 pm

"Is there a list of children that don't matter? Is it true that children aren't real, just antimatter?" I love Arthur Christmas!
9:58 pm


December 8

We just made our (first ever!) Buche de Noel! (I have been wanting to do one of these with my family since we made them in French club in college!
12:47 am

Penelope: MOM!!!! Come ON! Don't sit down! We've got to finish hanging these ornaments together.
Me: Sweetie, we have got all night to finish the tree! I just need to check something for a second.
Penelope: (in outrage, scoffs) A SECOND!!!!!

She sounds exactly like a miser in a Christmas special!
5:52 pm

Nellie and I are still decorating the tree. A minute ago I was up on the ladder clipping up these little cardinals I found in Mom's mysterious box o'stuff. Meanwhile, the two of us were making up our own lyrics to Deck the Halls while we worked.

Derrick said, "Be careful on that ladder." Then he jumped in, "Falalalala lalala--AAHHHHHHHHHH!" Penelope burst out laughing, and he decided, "That's how Mommy's songs always end." Meanwhile those little clip on birds left a bizarre red stain all over my hands. My fingertips look like they're doing a W.C. Fields impression!
8:29 pm

I am taking a break, but my elf never rests.
8:31 pm

My mom and dad need their own Christmas special. Merry sent us skel-a-mingos for Halloween, and we've left them up thinking it would be fun to decorate them for Christmas. This morning, Dad got them all wrapped up when Mom suddenly realized that the lights on the stairs need to be on the tree, and the lights on the skel-a-mingos needed to be on the stairs. But then she found some other lights. So when Dad finally finished unwrapping the skel-a-mingos, she asked, "What lights are these?" and then had him go put them back on the skel-a-mingos. But then later, some lights were burned out, and she decided she did need those skel-a-mingo lights after all. Seriously Dad has now wrapped/unwrapped those skel-a-mingos at least five times. Meanwhile, Mom is searching all over the house and garage because she can't find her Martha Stewart Snowmen.
9:36 pm

Penelope (finding a Santa Claus ornament, to me): Come on, let's get this bad boy on the tree.
9:38 pm

Penelope got tired of waiting for us to do the tinsel and is doing it herself with interesting results. Meanwhile I just heard a big crash from the garage, hopefully the sound of Mom finding her snowmen.
9:46 pm

Penelope wanted to turn off all the lights (and TV) downstairs to look at the tree. Now she doesn't want them on again. Currently, she's sitting at the foot of the tree in the dark, staring up at the lights, and making up her own verses to "The Twelve Days of Christmas" which is so sweet...unless you listen to the lyrics to closely.

"On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me, three hearts and kidneys..."
10:43 pm

December 10
Penelope: I think I understand Lucy on Charlie Brown. I think I've figured out why she behaves the way she does.
Me: You mean why she's so crabby to people?
Penelope: Yes. I think in her heart she is lonely. And she needs to find a way to let people know, but she never says the true way. All she can do is seem angry at people. She doesn't know how to let her friends know how she feels the true way.
Me: That's very insightful of you.
11:08 pm

December 11

Penelope: Mommy, just so you know, there's this medicine you can take that makes you unfat. But...but--this is the surprising thing--the thing that makes you unfat IS fat!!!!!!!!! (gasps, shrugs and throws out her arms theatrically)
Me: Where did you hear about that?
Penelope: On TV. Everyone's talking about it.
1:38 am

Penelope: Listen to all these leaves crunching under our feet. It almost makes you think it's fall again instead of Christmas.
Me: Well actually until the winter solstice, it is still fall.
Penelope: Hmm. Well Christmas is the term I prefer for this season. Of course everyone has their own way of keeping the seasons, but those older terms aren't really what I'm comfortable using.
5:31 pm

Penelope (on our walk, inspired by her archaeology book, trying to excavate a partially buried golf ball as gently as possible using twigs and a cat-tail like plant as a brush): Did they play golf in the Archaic Era?
6:49 pm

December 12

Me: (singing, after about twenty minutes of making up stuff, at a loss) And if that medicine tastes too gross, Mama's gonna buy you... (to Penelope) I'm sorry. I'm drawing a blank. All I can think of is Glenn Close.
Penelope: What's a glennclose?
Me: Glenn Close is an actress.
Penelope: Ah, what's she in?
Me: Have you seen the 101 Dalmatians that's not animated, the one with real people and real puppies?
Penelope: Yes, it's been a while, but I think I remember that one.
Me: She's Cruella DeVil in that.
Penelope: The one who says, "Woof woof!"?
Me: Yes, that's her. But I don't think Mama's going to buy the baby Glenn Close for Christmas!
Penelope: (helpfully) She could buy her a Glenn Close sippy cup!
Me: A Glenn Close sippy cup?
Penelope: (wisely) Yes everybody who's famous from Disney movies also comes on a sippy cup!

You heard it here first. Get your kids the hottest new holiday gift, the Glenn Close sippy cup!
12:10 am

Penelope: Look!! You will be amazed! My cheese looks just like Texas!
9:42 pm

Penelope: Well if I ever get to travel, I have always dreamed of going to Mexico.
Me: Oh, really? Well that might be possible.
Penelope: Yes, I'd like to see if Mexico is really the way I imagine it because I've heard that lots of Native Americans used to live there, and I'm wondering what clues they left behind for us to find. Maybe there would even be pyramids or old ruins!
Me: Well, you know, Native Americans used to live here. Some still do.
Penelope: Really?! That is so fascinating to me!
9:47 pm

Nellie (with her play doh): Mom! Watch this! This is going to blow. your. mind.
10:44 pm

December 13

Me: There. We'll just use that messed up one to make you scrambled eggs.
Penelope: But I don't want any scrambled eggs.
Me: Well, that's unfortunate. Oh no! I got eggs all over the cream of tartar spoon!
Penelope: (cheerfully) Well, but you also got eggs all over everything else, so! (Shrugs happily)
Me: (washing my hands, singing) Ohhh noooo!
Penelope (sings) Ohhhh there are eggs all over the cream of tartar, but maybe it's water. We can never know for sure!!!!
2:42 pm

December 14

Somehow when I was putting away my buche, I ended up on my hands and knees holding sour cream, and then somehow I shut my head in the refrigerator door.
Me: Owwwww! How did I shut my head in the refrigerator door?
Penelope (singing in delight): You were born that way, you were born that way!
Me: I was born with my head stuck in the refrigerator door?
Penelope (delighted): That's how you got so fat.
Me: Thanks a lot.
Penelope (reassuring): No, no, I just mean your butt!
2:40 am

Penelope now tells us that she is "a psychic who can see the past" and she "summoned a bad soul who got hit in the heart with an arrow in Egypt" and now haunts a Play-Doh accessory. Grayson refuses to believe this and it has been a source of bickering all evening.
2:44 am

We're listening to "Radioactive" at the moment, first in silence, and then suddenly all of us chimed in, "the Apocalypse."
Derrick: We know that word!
Penelope: I was like, "Oooh! I like this."
8:01 pm

Penelope: (as we take 1431 to Marble Falls): Everything out here looks like a silhouette.
8:03 pm

You've never lived until you've experienced Derrick perform Icona Pop's "I Love It" while taking curves on 1431 at night! He’s pretty good doing Lady Gaga’s “Donatella” too!
10:13 pm

December 15

Penelope: Mom, after the football game, can we watch The Hobbit?
Me: Well, it will be too late after the football game, but we can watch it tomorrow.
Penelope: Ohhhhh.
Me: Well, we can watch some of The Hobbit.
Penelope: Oh good. Oh, Mom! This will amaze you! Did you know that the guy who plays Sherlock Holmes...
Me: Is the voice of Smaug?
Penelope: Yeah, and that blonde boy--you know the one who is always hanging around with Sherlock talking to him?
Me: Dr. Watson?
Penelope: Yeah! That's Bilbo! Isn't that crazy?
8:28 pm