Tag: Ed Begley Jnr

Amsterdam (2022)

Amsterdam (2022)

Lots of quirk, whimsy and smugness, not a lot of interest or dynamism in this satirical mis-fire

Director: David O. Russell

Cast: Christian Bale (Burt Berendsen), Margot Robbie (Valerie Voze), John David Washington (Harold Woodsman), Robert De Niro (General Gil Dillenbeck), Chris Rock (Milton King), Rami Malek (Tom Voze), Anya Taylor-Joy (Libby Voze), Zoe Saldana (Irma St Clair), Mike Myers (Paul Canterbury), Michael Shannon (Henry Norcross), Timothy Olyphant (Tarim Milfax), Andrea Riseborough (Beatrice Vandenheuvel), Taylor Swift (Elizabeth Meekins), Matthias Schoenaerts (Detective Lem Getwiller), Alessandro Nivola (Detective Hiltz), Ed Begley Jnr (General Bill Meekins)

David O Russell’s has made a niche for himself with his ensemble awards-bait films, filled with touches of quirk and offering rich opportunities for eccentric, showy performances from actors. Some of these have walked a fine line between charm and smugness: Amsterdam tips too far over that line. Like American Hustle it’s a twist on a real-life event (opening with a pleased with itself “A lot of this really happened” caption) but, unlike that film, it fails to insert any compelling storyline, settling for a whimsical shaggy-dog story that frequently grinds to a halt for infodumps or lectures.

Set in 1933, just as Roosevelt has taken office, it follows three friends who formed a friendship for life in post-war Amsterdam. They are: wounded veterans doctor Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and lawyer Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) and socialite-artist-turned-nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). Berendsen and Woodsman lost touch with Valerie in the 1920s, but now they are all bought together after the murder of their respected former commander as part of a plot from various nefarious types to overthrow the government in a fascist-inspired coup.

Sounds gripping right? Well, Amsterdam fails to find any urgency in this. In fact, details of this plot and the political context it’s happening in are sprinkled around the film as if Russell kept forgetting what the film was supposed to be about. It’s almost as if he stumbled on an unknown piece of American history – a rumoured coup attempt, thwarted by being denounced by the ex-Marine General approached to lead it (here represented by De Niro’s ramrod straight General Dillenbeck) – but got more and more bored with it the longer he spent on it.

Instead, his real interest is in the faint overtones of Jules et Jim style thruple between Berendsen, Woodsman and Voze (though this is American not French, so any trace of homoeroticism is dispatched, despite the obvious bond between the two men). The most engaging part of the film is the Act two flashback to these three healing, dancing and bonding in post-war Amsterdam, in a “our troubles are behind us” bliss. Even if it’s self-satisfied in its bohemianism.

To be honest, even then, they have an air of smugness behind them. They pass the time singing improvised nonsense songs based on words pulled out of a hat and playfully posing in Valerie’s modernist artwork. Valerie is played with almost enough charm by Robbie for you to overlook she is a standard Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, the sort of babe who pulls shrapnel from bodies to turn it into artistic tea-sets as a commentary on the madness of war. She and Woodsman form a relationship (with the married Berendsen as a sort of – well I’m not sure what, but definitely not a sexual third wheel) and these blissful Amsterdam days are the times of their life. Russell is so keen for us to know it, that all three pop up in short cutaways at key moments to whisper “Amsterdam” direct to the camera, an affectation that fails to deliver the spiritual impact its straining for.

It’s better than the shaggy dog story around the conspiracy that fills the 1930s part of the storyline. This remains so poorly defined, that Bale has to narrate a concluding slideshow of clips and fake newsreel and newspaper coverage to explain what on earth has just happened. The lack of clarity about the stakes – and the general lack of seriousness or urgency anyone treats them with –fails to provide any narrative oomph. Instead, it drifts along from casual meeting to casual meeting, every scene populated with a big-name actor showboating.

There is a lot of showboating in this film. Bale, an actor with an increasingly worrying tendency for funny voices and tics, fully embraces the facially scarred, glass-eye wearing Berendsen, perpetually stooped with a war wound and prone to fainting from pain-killer overuse. It’s a showy, actorly performance with a licence to go OTT. Bale does manage to invest it with an emotional depth and vulnerability, but there’s more than an air of indulgence here.

Most of the rest follow his lead. Malek and Taylor-Joy sink their teeth into a snobby socialite married couple. Rock essentially turns his role as a veteran into a less sweary extension of his stand-up act. Myers and Shannon seize with relish roles as ornithologist spies (is this meant to be a joke about the origins of the James Bond name from the author of a bird-spotting guidebook?) Poor John David Washington ends up feeling flat with his decision to underplay (like he’s in a different movie) and only De Niro really manages to feel like anything other than an actor on holiday.

Russell wants to make a point about the continual corruption of the rich and how their hunger for more power will never be sated. There are some half-hearted attempts at attacking racism, with the ill treatment of black veterans, but it lacks bite or edge. His attempts to draw parallels with Trump are all too clear, but the film largely fails to integrate these ideas into the film. In fact, it ends up relying on voiceover lectures from Bale about dangers to democracy. It ends up like being hectored by an angry socialist after a student revue night.

The film is shot with a series of low angle shots and medium and close ups that eventually made me feel like I was watching it from the bottom of a well. A vague sepia-ish tone is given by Emmanuel Lubezki, but the film looks flat and visually uninteresting (so much so I was stunned to see $80million had somehow been blown on it, despite most of the cast working for scale). It drifts towards a conclusion, without giving us anything human to invest in (as Russell managed so well in Silver Linings Playbook or The Fighter) or providing the sort of caper enjoyment he delivered in American Hustle. Instead, it’s oscillates between smug and dull.

Blue Collar (1978)

Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor are working joes who want to stick it to the man in Blue Collar

Director: Paul Schrader

Cast: Richard Pryor (Zeke Brown), Harvey Keitel (Jerry Bartowski), Yaphet Kotto (Smokey James), Ed Begley Jnr (Bobby Joe), Harry Bellaver (Eddie Johnson), George Memmoli (Jenkins), Lane Smith (Calrence Hill), Cliff DeYoung (John Burrows), Lucy Saroyan (Arlene Bartowski), Chip Fields (Caroline Brown)

America doesn’t really have a director like Ken Loach. It’s one of the points raised on Indicator’s excellent (and essential) blu-ray release of Paul Schrader’s near Marxist drama about blue-collar car workers in Detriot. There aren’t many (or indeed nearly any) American films I can think of that take the stance of the working man like this one – or as angry, pissed off, furious and, in the end, as lacking in hope as this one. Which makes it sound like the sort of film you’d run a mile from actually seeing. Well you’d be wrong: this is a blistering, intelligent, witty drama crammed with brilliant scenes and great performances. On so many levels it’s something really quite special. It’s a shame no one saw it (I blame the publicity campaign – I mean look at that rubbish poster that basically suggests you are in for Pryor stand up routine).

In a car factory in Detriot, our heroes work in varying jobs on the production line. All of them are unhappy with their lot and feel they get precious little support (or concern) from the union that runs the shop floor. Zeke (Richard Pryor) is furious at the lack of equality and opportunity, as well as defrauding the inland revenue with a (literally) childish scheme to try and make ends meet. Jerry (Harvey Keitel) is drifting through his life, unable to afford the dentistry bills to give his daughter the braces she needs. “Smokey” (Yaphet Kotto) is an angry proto-anarchist who just wants to stick it to the man. When the three of them realise there is a safe (probably) full of cash in the union office, they decide to steal it. However, rather than cash, they find the safe full of accountancy records of the union’s dodgy money laundering arrangements with organised crime. The men decide to offer to sell it back to the union – and open up for themselves a world of trouble…

Blue Collar is a hard to categorise film. It’s a brilliant hotch-potch of several genres. It opens like a workers film, crammed with an angry wit (the opening half hour is very funny) with several scenes that acutely skewer the petty clashes of working life as well as the corner-cutting financial desperation of men trying to make ends meet. The opening scenes have the edge of a raw black comedy to them, mixed with observational realism. Then the film subtly changes over, becoming first through near-caper (the hilariously bungled attempt to steal the safe), into politics as the union and the men begin to shift alliances, into a straight classic 1970s conspiracy thriller (complete with late car chase and an outre death for one of the characters) before finally wheeling back round into a tub-thumbing condemnation of the “divide and conquer” plans of the ruling classes. 

That’s a lot for any one film to try and squeeze into a less-than-two-hour runtime, but Schrader manages it with aplomb, juggling this mix of styles and genres with such effective skill that you almost don’t even notice as the film grows increasingly darker and more dangerous as it progresses. The eye it has for the rhythms of factory life seems perfectly judged, and the mixture of hacks, place men, agitators and uncaring union men feels absolutely perfect. It also brilliantly captures, in his dialogue, the natural force (and crudeness!) of working men’s conversation, with a brilliant ear for the semi-articulate astuteness and poetry it can reveal. 

Schrader builds the pressures up in the film subtly and brilliantly, so that it seems both sudden and perfectly natural as the three men begin to buckle and turn on each other. This is where the Marxist message of the film starts to come in: even when working men have the whip-hand, their superiors will find a way to make them turn on each other, to make them unable to throw off the shackles that bind them as they are unable to work together. On top of this Schrader throws in a brilliant analysis of everyday racism and racial tension (all the union reps and their foremen are of course white), and there is an unspoken edge of racial divide in every conversation – indeed racism is just one of many weapons, the film argues, used to turn working men against each other. This really comes out in the film’s final scene, where two characters who had only warmth and affection for each other at the start are driven to turn on each other with an onslaught of racist fury.

Of course that clash probably carries a lot of its force from the fact that the three leads couldn’t stand each other on set. Pryor, Keitel and Kotto were each told that they were effectively playing the lead in the film and were unaware until signing on of the presence of the other actors. This billing tension was fuelled by their incompatible working methods: in particular Keitel, a theatre trained actor, preferred multiple rehearsals before takes while Pryor, a stand up comedian, preferred minimal or no rehearsal – and usually peaked on the second or third take. Throw in the drugs (that Pryor certainly was indulging in) on set and the three actors reached the point where they could barely stand to be in the same room together (one of the film’s best sequences, a single shot where they sit on the sofa for a long take and plan their next move, was only filmed because the three actors arrived separately, didn’t speak until the camera rolled, and then immediately left).

Did this edgy fury boil over into their performances and give them an extra fire? Certainly I don’t think any of them were better than they were here. Kotto has such an electric, bubbling fury to him, an anarchist’s delight at danger, that he feels like a force of nature. Keitel hadn’t been so gentle, reserved and bemused by the world for years, as an oppressed everyman. But the real electricity comes from Richard Pryor is a goddamn revelation as Zeke. What Schrader did so brilliantly here was to capture all the fire, energy and angry of a typical Pryor stand-up performance and channel it into a dramatic structure. An early Zeke rant against the unions is essentially a Pryor stand-up performance, and Pryor’s whole performance buzzes with an improvisational energy.

Zeke is the film’s key character. At first he seems the weakest and most desperate of the three men, the one most likely to fall into the role of victim. But as the events take hold of the three men, his character deepens and develops to reveal a shrewdness, a realism and even a coldness that the other men don’t possess. Unlike them, he sees events not as a chance to make a quick buck but as a genuine moment to change his life for the long term. And, underneath this, an understanding that as a black man opportunities for him are going to be few and far between. An electric confrontation between him and Jerry late in the film on Zeke’s porch hums with his fury driven realpolitik, Zeke’s understanding that opportunities are there to be seized and that sometimes the price paid is high.

Blue Collar gave Schrader a break-down when he made it. But its’ a masterpiece of political cinema, largely because it never really feels like a political film. Instead it feels above all like a domestic drama of friendship marred that explodes into a thriller., But it’s the understanding of the social situation of these men, of the reasons behind their actions and the intelligent analysis behind it, that makes it really work. It also gives you characters who feel real and in whom you invest, blessed as well (for all their clashes) with three career-best performances from the leads. It’s a brilliant film and in a just world should be seen as a landmark piece of film making.