American Schemers

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(Minor spoilers ahead for The Wolf of Wall  Street and American Hustle.)

“Everyone wants to be rich,” says Jordan Belfort, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, in The Wolf of Wall Street. But Belfort isn’t speaking aspirationally; his remark is infused with contempt. He’s a predator stalking sheep, the fatter and lazier the better.

And we’re them, the suckers, the dreamers. We’re prey for the hustlers and the schemers. The twin hallmarks of the American capitalistic model is that for every person who believes he can strike it rich quickly, there’s an operator out there hungry to take full advantage of that, whether be it through can’t-miss investments, be-like-me infomercials, or even a state lottery.

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Mad Men: Truth in Advertising

 

Note: Don’t read this if you haven’t watched the entire sixth season of Mad Men.

Great television spoils us. And even worse, even as it raises our expectations for what serialized drama can be, we quickly employ our newly evolved standards against the very thing that inspired us. This is, naturally, what has happened with Mad Men. After five knockout seasons, it seemed more viewers were on patrol for a decline in quality than were actually enjoying the vicissitudes of the sixth season.

I’ll confess to occasionally being one of them. There were times when it seemed the series lacked the same tug on me that earlier seasons had—I put off watching it at times; I wasn’t sure I was missing anything. Most of the criticism stayed locked on Jon Hamm’s Don Draper. Hadn’t we indeed seen this movie before? The drunkenness, the philandering, the flashbacks and the fantasy sequences. He seemed trapped on a treadmill to nowhere. Other characters seemed to be suffering the same fate, quippy Roger, unlikeable Pete, vexed Peggy. Had the show overstayed its welcome like an articulate but ultimately exhausting party guest, someone who hours ago sounded insightful but now simply tries the patience?

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Profile in Liquid Courage: The Verdict (1982)

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Note: This review was written over a decade ago for Legal Times. But the Blu Ray of this great film was released last month, and so….

Ordinary noises, human sounds dominate The Verdict, the greatest courtroom drama ever filmed. Whether they are the bells of a pinball machine, the hiss and hum of a hospital respirator, or the clink of ice cubes in a whiskey glass, they serve a far more important function here than mere aural landscaping.

Director Sidney Lumet drapes his film in a shroud of stillness of grief, of regret. It’s dark. It’s Boston. It’s winter. There is no soundtrack in the movie to speak of — and extended sequences where no one talks. So that when we hear something as benign as the bumper of a pinball machine as the movie opens, we welcome the comfort it provides.

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What’s Love Got to Do With It? Six Romantic Comedies That Try to Get It Right

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Is love difficult for Hollywood to capture because it isn’t real?

Okay, let’s try not to be so existential. I’m not looking to be cute. Love, or at least what we think as love, we experience in various forms, to varying degrees. It assumes the shape of loyalty, attachment, desire, inspiration, lust, warmth, friendship, empathy, commonality, electricity. It lasts lifetimes. Or it atomizes in three hours. Or two weeks. Or five years.

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BP Double Feature: Silver Linings Playbook (2012)/ Elizabethtown (2005)

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We want certain things from a romantic comedy; there are requirements. Number one being, naturally, that the couple in question gets together in the end. Given that the film’s resolution is preordained, the challenge is, as it has been since the days of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, remains how to keep the journey engaging. Some movies, like Annie Hall (1977), subvert the format. Others, such as When Harry Met Sally (1989), embrace it, counting on sharp writing and distinct performances to distract viewers from the creaky plot mechanics.

Oscar-nominated The Silver Linings Playbook seems like it wants to fall within the first category, but in reality, belongs squarely in the second.

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Accessories After the Fact: Zero Dark Thirty

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In defending her masterwork, Zero Dark Thirty, at an event in Washington earlier this month, Kathryn Bigelow spoke of wanting to detail the “complexities” and “ambiguities” of the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Her screenwriter, Mark Boal, argued that the director gets grief because she operates from a “subjective” point of view, rather than an “omniscient one.”

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