January 30, 2014 · Posted in Uncategorized  

American Hustle, director David O. Russell’s tale of con artists and corruption in the disco era, has a first-class cast, gorgeous production values and directorial ambition to burn. Since its premiere earlier this month, it’s attracted favorable critical attention, increasing awards buzz and healthy returns at the box office.

If it only had a brain.

Russell scored a knockout last year with Silver Linings Playbook, a quirky romance that artfully skated the tricky area between importance and triviality, thanks in large part to a talented collection of actors unafraid to embrace the script’s whimsically mannered characterizations. With American Hustle he’s attempting the same trick, but this time he’s missed the mark. Though the new film’s actors have characters to play that are at least equally vivid, there’s just nothing of importance to the film they inhabit.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams star as a pair of swindlers who are pressured by an overeager FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) into conducting an ambitious sting loosely based on the real-life Abscam operation of the late ‘70s. Originally aimed at entrapping politicians into being caught taking bribes, the scheme becomes increasingly complex and dangerous as murderous underworld figures are drawn into the con. It’s a classic noir set-up, with our grifting protagonists trapped between the law and the mob…but Russell is too busy straining for cheap laughs and creating flashy set pieces to make us care about what happens next.

In retrospect, there’s a strong enough structure to it all, but, curiously, while it’s unspooling it seems to be a disjointed mess. So much attention is directed to the garish period costumes, hairstyles and what comes to feel like a relentless parade of songs from the ‘70s and earlier, that the story seems constantly pushed to the background and its characters rendered inconsequential.

It doesn’t help that Bale’s and Adams’ characters have been written in a minor key; they’re professional con artists, but they’re strictly petty crooks pulling off tacky crimes – and Bale’s performance in particular is so understated and colorless that he brings little of his usual charisma to any of his scenes. Adams is given little more to work with, but she does manage to add a hint of mystery to her underwritten character. Of all the other main cast members, only Jeremy Renner as the New Jersey mayor who’s the target of the federal sting delivers a recognizably human and relatable performance. Everyone else is a caricature of one kind or another, talented actors trapped in a series of scenes with little more art or depth than a Saturday Night Live sketch.

It would be easier to simply shrug and accept the film as a lavishly produced misfire if it weren’t so full of itself. It’s hard to escape the sense that Russell is bending over backwards to out-Scorcese Scorcese, trying hard to channel the look and ambience of works like Casino and Goodfellas…a comparison that proves not only unflattering but quickly annoying. In a movie so shallow that it draws its biggest laughs from two separate moments of poking fun at its leading mens’ hair, there’s little room for such pretension.

In recent years, the loudmouth New Jerseyite has replaced the Southern redneck as the stock comic stereotype du jour, and Russell’s film is filled with them. Of all the cast members, Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s loose-cannon wife most successfully makes the characterization work, though it’s at the cost of transforming herself into a cartoon character. Everyone else seems to fall short of the mark; the self-conscious dialogue falls so uncomfortably from their lips that they seem less Scorcese-like – or even Russell-like – than  members of a road show production of Guys and Dolls.

Like many films about con artists, there are occasional moments here with little twists intended to make the audience wonder how they couldn’t have seen it coming. Your mileage may vary as to how successful those are, but don’t expect anything as clever as such gold-standard examples as The Sting or The Grifters. The biggest con pulled off by American Hustle is the one it’s pulling on anyone who buys a ticket expecting anything special, let alone anything they haven’t seen done better before.

December 28, 2013 · Posted in Uncategorized  

That pesky two-fisted offline world has delayed posting of our latest look at Dick Tracy Returns. Normal services will resume in a few days.

Yes, it’s another cliffhanger…

September 25, 2012 · Posted in Uncategorized  

…and our ongoing coverage of the serial Dick Tracy Returns is going to be delayed a few days. Check back soon for Chapters 6 & 7.

(Why,  it’s a cliffhanger; how ironic…)

September 2, 2012 · Posted in Uncategorized  

Bloggers, reviewers and other online writers about movies were on a roll in February, giving us a collection of first-rate pieces that were heavy on film history and high in reader interest.

TCM “morlock” David Kalat began an absorbing and entertaining serialized think piece on silent film comedy that avoided a lot of the usual suspects – part one here, offering a sharp take on the roots of classic silent slapstick gags, part two here, with a well-written rumination on the flaws in the way we look back on those classic films, and part three here, with an appreciative eye for the accomplishments of Charlie Chaplin’s unjustly forgotten brother Syd.

Starting in January, the “Myfilmviews” blog kicked off an ongoing feature detailing the history of Hollywood studio logos. The February Warner Brothers entry included a handy set of links to the entire series, each of which is well worth a look.

New York Post writer Lou Lumenick recapped the long deterioration and triumphal restoration of Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front in his review of that classic film’s new Blu-Ray release.

In a guest post on the always-interesting “Edward Copeland on Film” blog, Ivan G. Shreve celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Anthony Mann-James Stewart “adult Western” Bend of the River.

Bilge Ebiri discussed the take-no-prisoners world view of director Hideo Gosha, as exemplified in his impressive debut film Three Outlaw Samurai, via the “Criterion Collection” site.

Uni-monickered “Mark” of the “Where Danger Lives” blog offered one of the month’s most effective pieces with a beautifully written appreciation of Hollywood tough guy Alan Ladd.

Cinch up your chaps and high-tail it over to these entertaining links.

February 28, 2012 · Posted in Uncategorized  

The Shadow Cabaret was flattered recently by a request for permission to reprint our 2010 multi-part opus on the Three Mesquiteers movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

That reprint has just appeared on the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention’s site, a bright and entertaining slice of the Net which you can check out here.

Click the “Articles” heading to see what a nice job the Mid-Atlantic folks did with our sagebrush saga – then poke around a bit and enjoy the other stories and celebrity profiles. It’s a smart site and a good-looking one, too, and new material is added frequently.

February 24, 2012 · Posted in Uncategorized  

Welcome back. Our technical sabbatical’s over, and we’re opening up the lobby doors again. Missing a few of the customary bells and whistles at the side of the screen? Don’t fret – the Cabaret’s intrepid webmaster is on the job and will soon have everything else up and running and, in some cases, better than ever.

Stand by; that promised fresh material is coming right up…

April 26, 2011 · Posted in Uncategorized  

There was too much going on backstage at the Cabaret in February for any posting, but there’s more fresh content on the way.

Give us another look in about a week, and we’ll be back in the game.

March 8, 2011 · Posted in Uncategorized  

Jeff Bridges’ rambling and joyously heartfelt tribute to his parents was the highlight of the 2010 Academy Awards, a slick (if nonetheless 3 ½-hour) broadcast that provided few surprises but plenty of glitz and good will for some talented practitioners. Read more

March 8, 2010 · Posted in Uncategorized