Friday, August 8, 2014

American Motormouths

American Hustle: written by David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer; directed by David O. Russell; starring Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser), Jeremy Renner (Camden Mayor Carmine Polito), Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld), Louis C.K. (Stoddard Thorsen) and Elisabeth Rohm (Dolly Polito) (2013): Writer-director David O. Russell has said on numerous occasions that plot bores him. Thankfully, the actors and the dialogue in his movies -- some of that dialogue improvised -- can make one forget that the proceedings are a bit shaggy at times. For whatever reason, he's also the one director who can get a great performance out of Bradley Cooper.

American Hustle, loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the 1970's, gives all of its actors something to do and, more importantly, something to say. The performances are all top-notch, especially an almost unrecognizable Christian Bale as an overweight con-man with his own code of ethics and Amy Adams as his partner in crime. The plot sags a bit in the middle under the weight of all those conversations, but regains its jauntiness as the end draws near. Someone should sign Russell and company up for a remake of The Front Page/His Girl Friday, stat. He's one of a few modern directors who could successfully replicate the rat-a-tat dialogue direction of Howard Hawks. Highly recommended.


High Anxiety: written by Mel Brooks, Ron Clark, Rudy De Luca, and Barry Levinson; directed by Mel Brooks; starring Mel Brooks (Richard H. Thorndyke), Madeline Kahn (Victoria Brisbane), Cloris Leachman (Nurse Diesel), Harvey Korman (Dr. Charles Montague), Ron Carey (Brophy), Dick Van Patten (Dr. Wentworth), and Howard Morris (Professor Lilloman) (1977): Mel Brooks is all over the place figuratively and literally in this parody of the films of Alfred Hitchcock. He sings. He dances. He stars. He directs. He co-writes. It's probably no accident that Brooks' films became decreasingly popular as his ego moved him from supporting roles in his own films to lead roles -- this is his second turn as the lead, and the rot has begun to set in, lightly but inevitably.

Still, there are some killer sequences parodying both the specific and the general in Hitchcock's films, from some complicated camerawork under a glass coffee table to a ridiculous riff on Janet Leigh's driving problems in Psycho. And there are killer performances, none moreso than Cloris Leachman as a nurse/dominatrix with truly peculiar line-readings and physical mannerisms. Recommended.


The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: adapted by John Huston from the novel by B. Traven; starring Humphrey Bogart (Dobbs), Walter Huston (Howard), Tim Holt (Curtin), Bruce Bennett (Cody), and Robert Blake (Lottery Seller) (1948): One of the all-time great adventure films gives us Humphrey Bogart at his grimiest and Walter Huston at a chameleonic peak that earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Gold-hunting in Mexico in the 1920's leads Bogart, Huston, and Tim Holt up a mountain and then down into the depths of human behaviour.

Great lines, great acting, fine direction from Walter Huston's son John, and the crazed jig forever after known as the Walter Huston dance. And the badges line, often misquoted. And a wild, realistic barroom brawl. One of the first big-budget Hollywood movies to be filmed almost entirely on location. If there are essential movies, this is one of them. Highly recommended.

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