Tag Archives: FBI

Do the Hustle…

The cast of American Hustle
American Hustle….

I thought I’d start the new year by trying to get to the cinema more, partly because there’s a lot of good stuff around (12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, Anchorman 2, Monument Men) and partly because I live five minutes walk from an independent cinema here in Stratford, so there’s really no excuse. I chose David O’Russell’s new ensemble picture about (in the loosest of terms) about a corruption scandal in New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s. Pedantry check: while it does bear a passing resemblance, in reality it’s only framed around events, the names are changed (to protect the not very innocent).

That out of the way, it’s a hugely enjoyable film. The cast is superb, working very much as an ensemble, even though you’d argue (like The Fighter) the star of the show, while pitched behind Bale’s crack addict (in The Fighter) brother or overweight con-man here, is Amy Adams. She’s proven serious acting chops once again, the driving force behind the men, and the story, and a world away from Disney fare of the last decade. But part of the joy is just how great the film looks, and, more importantly, feels. Yes, there’s been a lot of talk about style over substance, but that’s a lazy criticism. This isn’t Anchorman, it’s pitched fantastically into the late 70s, and there’s little flamboyance above what’s needed to tell the story.

As for the plot, it skirts a little close to pastiche at times, in terms of the Goodfellas-style focus pulls and bar scenes, but it’s all about the characters, staying much in close-up, to get us close to the action, which works especially well in the scenes with De Niro, which crackle with menace (and imminent collapse), and in the second half of the film, as things slowly unravel. There’s no great payoff, even though the ‘real events’ are given a veneer by Russell, reminding us that this is life, and there’s never a happy ending (cue “some of the actually happened” at the start).

Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper in American Hustle.
Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper in American Hustle.

Bale is in superb, shape-shifted form as Irving. Compare this to The Machinist, and you have to wonder if he’s the actor most willing to destroy his form to inhabit the role. He’s not afraid of walking around, gut out. He also gets the fine line between crafty con artist and flawed human perfect, in fact all the characters interweave really well, whether it’s Adams’ ballsy and strong fellow con, Cooper’s curly-haired and increasingly wayward FBI agent, Penner’s Elvis-haired mayor, and Lawrence’s agoraphobic wife. You can sense how much they’re enjoying themselves in every scene, even when it’s all going to pieces. Despite the fact this is a criminal caper, you still feel sympathy, even though most of the characters are pretty unlikable.

The music is superb – think Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Live And Let Die, A Horse With No Name, I Feel Love, Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone – and adds to the experience greatly, (and as an aside, it’s so great to see attention to a good soundtrack when the film’s so clearly lodged in its time) and it’s one of the many reasons why I barely looked at my watch for the two hours-plus running time.

It’s a classic tale of American life, of crime, corruption, politics (in passing) but more than anything about people. And it could’ve come across as a lazy pastiche, but it was a hugely enjoyable trip, at times almost a romp, that’s carried by its stars and its director. It could’ve been overacted, but actually, there’s a nice understatement it much of it, even when the scenes are being laid on thick (the toilet scene in the casino with Adams and Lawrence for starters). Even O Russell, whose career reached something of a crossroads at the divisive I Heart Huckabees (I thought it was self-indulgent nonsense), where his behind-the-camera antics were both cringeworthy and aggressive, (and widely reported) seems to have righted the ship, and reigned in much of his difficulties (though not all), and since then he’s put out three award-worthy films in The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. This has already picked up nominations for the four main actors, director and screenplay in the Golden Globes.

So forget the criticisms, and just enjoy what’s a beautifully acted, superbly shot, dryly funny film that captures the world-weary transition from the 1970s in New Jersey in all its glory.

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Closure at last, and a significant event, but the end is still a long way away

Bin Laden's reign at the head of Al-Qaeda is at an end.
Osama bin Laden

Waking up to the news of Osama Bin Laden’s capture, and ultimate death gave a sense of relief, but also a sense that this significant landmark is only a mark in the long path to defeat terrorism. We can only wonder and hope that there is some closure now for those that have lost loved ones, friends, colleagues and family in the atrocities before, on, and after September 11th 2001, but it won’t be the end of this story. Bin Laden was a figurehead, the head of an organisation that had, for the last 15 years, been at the hub of multilateral actions against the West, and, as is often overlooked, many Muslims around the world. Seeing the events and reaction unfold today brought a rush of the blood, but not excitement. While the man behind so many deaths is now gone, it gives me no pleasure to rejoice the death of another human being.

Scenes in America have been more colourful than in the UK. It’s understandable when their operation resulted in the killing – with, tellingly, no direct assistance or involvement from the Pakistan government – and their country was so horrifically affected. I can’t imagine how those friends and relatives of those lost in the Trade Centres must have felt over the last nine years as bin Landen evaded the clutches of the allied forces, and countless American soldiers and intelligence, prolonging the agony and seeing the man responsible taunting the West with videos, messages and more attacks. Dancing and cheering in the streets – from a mostly young and sometimes well-oiled crowds – didn’t sit too comfortably with me, as I can’t bring myself to celebrate a death, however repugnant the person may be. But the US has invested so much emotionally, financially and ideologically into finding and killing Al-Qaeda’s leader that the reaction was always going to be different on the other side of the pond. Watching some of the reactions today of the bereaved to the news, and how they conducted themselves with such dignity was very moving. For them, the victory, however hollow, must bring an end in part to a harrowing period.

For Britain, it’s also a landmark. We’ve been – justifiably or not – invested into this battle ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the United States since its beginning, and we’ve been directly affected by the spectre of Al-Qaeda, its operations and figurehead looming over the last decade. For teenagers and younger adults, they’ll struggle to remember a time before this was so. Having attended a funeral after 7/7 – something I hope I never have to go through again, let alone seeing the pain it caused to the family – it’s a relief to be at this point. But the reality is that little will change. In fact, we may see things escalate if revenge attacks are orchestrated. London will be a more tense place for a while. But we can only hope that this is the beginning of a new chapter, and that, with all the change that’s now afoot in the middle east, that Al-Qaeda’s lustre is reduced, and that their dominance ebbs in the coming years.

And predictably, even as the news surfaced, there were naysayers already debunking the news. However low governments and the military may stoop – whatever we may say, we left thousands dead in Afghanistan and Iraq – it’s hard to believe that this would be an untruth. It would be one that would dwarf the spin that so ashamedly took us to war in Iraq. The US and its allies have invested way too much time, money, resources and emotion in this claim otherwise, and there have been none of the usual denials from the terror groups that form the cabal involved. I’m a skeptic, but this is one thing that I am taking on face value. And cheeringly, Obama will have a grandstand moment to validate his presidency, giving him a boost that even grudging Republicans can’t deny him. The States are united for a short time, and great that is too.

We will be talking about this day for many years, and the main hope is that it can be a positive landmark, that we will look back at this as a turning point. But to think that cutting the head from one of the snakes in Medusa’s hair renders the rest of the beast incapacitated would be short-sighted. But at least for many, this will hopefully be some sort of closure, and draw a line under the terrible events in New York and London. It’s the least that the bereaved deserve.