Christian Bale’s American villians: ‘American Hustle’ vs. ‘American Psycho’

When you watch Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) glue and rearrange his hair on his balding head in the first scene of director David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” you get a sense of déjà vu.

We’ve seen Bale in front a mirror — surrounded by more hair and beauty products — when he played the infamous Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” (2000).

Sure, Rosenfeld is older and heavier than Bateman. Bateman isn’t plagued by high blood pressure and a manipulative know-it-all wife (played by the fantastic Jennifer Lawrence).

But they’re both American con men — practiced liars and actors whose confidence is as deadly as a siren’s song.

Bateman was the mad New York “mergers and acquisitions” man from Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. He murdered his acquaintances to the soundtracks of Huey Lewis & the News, Phil Collins and Whitney Houston.

Rosenfeld and his pretty partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) listen to Duke Ellington and John Cotrane. They run a successful Ponzi scheme in the tri-state area. Sydney would pose as Lady Edith Greensly, a rich English girl with London banking connections. They would deny it as they swindled desperate clients thinking their investment would more than double under Rosenfeld and Prosser’s fake firm, London Associates.

Or at least that’s what Rosenfeld and Prosser did until FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) caught them.

Now, their “get-out-of-jail-free” card is to help the FBI catch corruption. And boy, are DiMaso’s sights high…

If this story sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve lived through it.

“Some of this actually happened,” reads a black title screen.

Written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, “American Hustle” is loosely based on the story of “sting man” Melvin Weinberg. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Weinberg helped the FBI entrap six congressmen, a U.S. senator, a New Jersey state senator and a mayor accepting bribes in the undercover operation, Abscam.

“You set up a crook to catch a crook,” Weinberg tells “60 Minutes'” host Mike Wallace. “We put a big honeypot out there and all the flies came to us.”

Bale’s swindler is oddly sympathetic compared to Bateman. For Rosenfeld, conning is a way of survival: “We’re all con ourselves from one way or another, just to get through life,” he says.

Perhaps it’s the way Rosenfeld looks — balding with a bit of a belly. You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy as his wife berates him.

“She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate,” he says.

Or perhaps it’s just the masterful acting of Christian Bale, conning himself into our hearts as he changes his figure and assumes yet another elusive identity (After all, how much can you trust a con man?).

At least this one looks and feels human.

“American Hustle” was directed by David O. Russell and written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including best actor, best actress, best supporting actress, best supporting actor, best costume design, best directing, best film editing, best production design, best original screenplay and film of the year.


‘Dallas Buyer’s Club’: Betting against AIDS

In the first few seconds of “Dallas Buyers Club,” Ron Woodroof’s (Matthew MacConaughey) safely riding a broad at a rodeo while watching and betting on bull riders. But he might as well been riding a bull himself, or standing in front of Mother Nature’s horns.

With the way he bets and gambles, parties and engages in unprotected sex, some may think he had it coming. As any bull fighter secretly knows, “It’s not a matter of if you’ll get hurt. It’s a matter of when.”

And the when comes in the form of hard coughs that wrack his entire body. It’s accompanied by a faint high-pitched ringing that never ends.

“You’ve tested positive for HIV,” the doctor tells him when he’s knocked off his feet.

It’s 1985 in Dallas. HIV’s the gay disease: a social and physical death sentence.

Based on a true story, Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Dallas Buyer’s Club” chronicles one man’s battle against the AIDS epidemic. AZT had just been released for testing in select hospitals, but it’ll take another two years before the FDA formally approves the drug. Meanwhile, people are dying and willing to do anything to survive.

Enter Ron Woodroof, whose diagnosis takes him across the border to Mexico. There, he meets Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who’s created an non-FDA approved HIV/AIDS supplement that Woodroof smuggles into the U.S. Teaming up with the transgendered Rayon (Jared Leto), Woodroof starts the Dallas Buyers Club, which distributes the unapproved formula for $400 memberships.

Although Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack’s Oscar-nominated screenplay’s somewhat formulaic (think “Moneyball” and “The Pursuit of Happyness”), “Dallas Buyer’s Club” succeeds because of its incredibly talented and committed cast. McConaughey — the normally tan Texas-native known for banging bongos while naked — lost 47 pounds and shut himself in for months in order to appear pale and sickly. Leto stopped eating, lost 40 pounds and lived as his character, Rayon.

The transformations paid off, lending to heartbreaking performances and earning both actors a much deserved Golden Globe and place on this year’s shortlist of Oscar nominees.

McConaughey’s his charming, Southern self, calling co-star Jennifer Garner (who plays a doctor who treats HIV/AIDS patients) “Nurse Ratched” one minute and giving her a painting of wildflowers in the next.

And Leto’s playful performance as the beautiful and optimistic Rayon keeps the film from becoming too depressing.

When the two begin working together, the homophobic Ron curses and threatens Rayon if she ever calls him Ronnie or hangs Boy George posters again. This initially antagonistic relationship (and the teasing banter that accompany it) provides some humor in this otherwise elegiac story.

“Been looking for you, Lonestar,” Rayon teases Ron in another scene.

“You know I could have killed ya,” Ron answers.

Rayon’s levity is refreshing in a film about AIDS.

Because deep down you know it’s not a matter of if they’ll die. It’s when.

“Dallas Buyer’s Club” was directed by Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack. McConaughey and Leto won best actor and best supporting actor at the 2014 Golden Globes. The film was also nominated for best actor, best supporting actor, best original screenplay, best achievement in film editing, best makeup and best picture of the year in the 2014 Academy Awards. 

‘Nebraska’ gold rush

Woody Grant’s (Bruce Dern) days are numbered — each one drawing him closer to that plot of land next to his parents and siblings’ graves in the Hawthorne, Neb., cemetery. His adult sons, Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and Davey (Will Forte), are spending the better part of their days tracking him down, searching for his misplaced possessions and bailing him out of jail.

His wife, Kate (June Squibb), says she’ll put him in a nursing home.

It’s hard to tell if she’s serious.

Woody Grant’s the latest somber Everyman to star in one of director Alexander Payne’s movies. Other characters included retired Warren Schmidt of “About Schmidt” (2002), divorced best man Miles of “Sideways” (2004) and about-to-be-widowed parent Matt King of “Descendants” (2011).

Like Payne’s award-winning canon, “Nebraska” shows you the tenderness tucked beneath a stubborn and aging drunk, absent for most of his children’s lives.

It takes a letter that says he’d been awarded a million dollars in a magazine sweepstakes to wake him up.

Armed with a piece of paper, Woody’s determined to walk 850 miles from his home in Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Neb. — just to collect his winnings.

“I’m running out of time,” he says.

That may be true, but faced with his own mortality, Woody hides under his wide, owlish eyes and childlike naivety. “What?” seems to be his go-to response.

We’ve all seen those scams, designed to target the elderly. His wife and sons warn him.

But Woody’s trusting and gullible. So David reluctantly drives his old man across the Midwest, for a fortune that may not exist.

Bob Nelson’s script succeeds in holding a mirror against our humanity, showing us the role reversals as we age.

“Hey, wake up,” Woody pleads like an impatient child, leaning over his son and shaking him awake. “Are we going to Lincoln today?”

His son enunciates his words slowing, repeating them often as if talking to a child (or an animal). But like us, Davey’s also leaning closer, listening closely and looking for some profound nugget of wisdom (or history). Old men are supposed to be wise, aren’t they?

As we ride along the dusty roads, touring Mount Rushmore, aging mid-American towns once filled with children, and Memory Lane, we’re reminded of better times — like when a million dollars was worth more than a day in the hospital or the living expenses of a nursing home.

Filmed in black and white, “Nebraska” could have taken place in the past, future or the day after yesterday. It’s a timeless story — like those of the migrant workers, chasing after California gold in 1848. It’s a trip full of disappointment, but every once in a while, the streets still sparkle with gold.

“Nebraska” was directed by Nebraska native Alexander Payne and written by Bob Nelson.

Fractured fairy tales ‘Frozen’ in time

In case you’ve lived under a rock (or were locked in tower like “Tangled’s” frying pan-wielding, Tarzan-swinging Rapunzel) for the past three years, you might have noticed Disney’s re-branding — touting virtuous and brave princesses. Nowadays, their animated damsel in distresses resemble the three-dimensional, bow-and-arrow-wielding Meridas from Pixar’s “Brave.”

“Frozen” tries to be the franchise’s latest progressive, self-aware princess movie, featuring 3D technology and challenging its own tropes.

“Hang on, you mean to tell me you got engaged to someone you just met that day?” says Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) — the huntsman to Princess Anna’s Snow White — dismissing the Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty stories of another era.

“Foot size doesn’t matter,” responds Princess Anna (a zinger perhaps directed at Disney’s “Cinderella” and her man, Prince Charming).

But as much as Disney’s evolved over the years, the same fairy tale tropes are central to the formulaic “happily ever after” storyline — written by Chris Buck, Shane Morris and “Wreck It Ralph’s” Jennifer Lee.

Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) of Arendelle is another sheltered princess with big blue eyes and red hair, eager to be part of another world and dreaming of a love’s true kiss. “What if I meet the one?” she sings in “The First Time in Forever.”

Bubbling with optimism at the prospect of love, Anna resembles Amy Adams’ Giselle from “Enchanted,” Fiona from “Shrek,” and Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” (and like Ariel in the iconic “Kiss the Girl” scene, Anna also falls into a boat with a handsome prince).

Her counterpoint lies in her older sister, Elsa, a poised blond-haired, blue-eyed witch concealing volatile powers like Jack Frost’s. Voiced by Idina Menzel, known for her role as another misunderstood witch (Elphaba in the musical “Wicked”), Elsa’s like Jo Rowling, entertaining her younger sister with magic. In Rowling’s case, she created stories; Elsa animated goofy snowmen like Olaf (Josh Gad).

Elsa accidentally harms her sister during a bit of roughhousing; her parents order her to hide her powers from everyone, especially her sister. Her parents die (like all fairy tale parents do). But as much as Elsa’s a good girl, she can’t contain her magic forever. During her highly attended coronation years later, Elsa accidentally unleashes her magic, freezing Arendelle and becoming both the evil queen and the persecuted beast.

While “Frozen” bills itself as the “best film since ‘The Lion King,'” the movie’s appeal lies in the retelling of universal stories — a formula Disney has mastered. The beloved “Lion King” is, after all, an animated (pun intended) retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” “Frozen’s” inspired from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

Buck, Morris and Lee drew from the Disney canon, amalgamating half a dozen fairy tale classics; composer Christophe Beck re-writes the musical medleys of yesteryear into ‘wicked’ soundtracks. (Menzel’s voice is chilling, isn’t it?)

The result is as expected: another satisfying crowd-pleaser guaranteed to melt any frozen heart.

“Frozen” was directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, and written by Lee, Buck and Shane Morris. It’s based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

‘Orange is the New Black’: addictive women’s prison drama for the middle class

“You’re a first-time offender with a short sentence, and you’re white,” says Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Feiner), the warden in “Orange is the New Black.”

She’s talking about Piper Chapman (Taylor Schiling), a white, middle-class, college-educated, recently engaged 30-something-year-old — which is also the prescribed audience binge-watching the new 13-episode Netflix original television drama.

But while Piper may be an anomaly in prison, she’s someone viewers can relate to — the type of person who watches “Mad Men,” listens to NPR’s “This American Life,” reads “The New York Times,” and  tries the Master Cleanse, a 10-day lemonade and pepper diet designed to flush out your system.

That’s the lens creator Jenji Kohan give us to view her fascinating and addictive prison drama, “Orange is the New Black.”

Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” the show follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who’s engaged to her journalist boyfriend Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs). Chapman lands in Litchfield Correctional Facilities for 15 months after her connection in her ex’s drug operation becomes revealed almost a decade later.

Her ex happens to be Alex Vause (Laura Prepon, who played Donna from “That ’70s Show”), a lesbian heroin dealer who Chapman had a relationship with during her experimental post-college phase. And Alex Vause happens to be sentenced to the same female prison Chapman’s stuck at for the next 15 months.

For the liberal, college-educated middle-class audience following Piper’s journey, watching “Orange is the New Black” is like reading Nellie Bly’s New York World exposé, “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” The appeal is that we’re voyeurs to the sensationalism: getting starved for insulting the chef’s food, getting feet fungus from showers, being made someone’s prison wife and almost being killed. Oh, the horror!

Only Kohan’s pilot 13-episode season chronicles more than 10 days. It takes us through weeks and months, Thanksgivings and Christmases, births and deaths. All the while, time stays still. A day in solitary confinement can last nine months to a year. The lights never turn off; there’s no way of recording the passage of time.

No human contact or touch can make anyone crazy.

And if you’re crazy enough, you’re sent to the psych ward — where they strap you down and administer sedatives until you lose whatever sanity you may have left. No one get’s out of the psych ward.

Prison, Kohan’s drama narrates, is about survival. And surviving in Litchfield is like surviving “Girl World” and the high school drama and pettiness in “Mean Girls.”

And in “Girl World,” there are rules: everyone uses last names; you clean everything with maxi pads; you don’t eat the pudding; and the second you’re perceived as weak, you already are.

Chlamydia talks are replaced by suicide watches. The lessons are the same though: don’t do it.

Then there are cliques — your whites, blacks, Hispanics, Golden Girls and others: Red (Kate Mulgrew), the Russian honcho of the kitchen; Miss. Claudette (Michelle Hurst), who’s rumored to have murdered people and to have run a sex trade; Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning), a religious fanatic who thinks she’s performing the work of the Lord Jesus Christ; and “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba), who’s the only one to survive the psych ward and come back.

An eccentric, excitable and memorable ensemble cast of characters walks the halls of Litchfield. And through a series of flashbacks, Kohan has fleshed out their stories.

Women can be cruel, but there’s no Nurse Ratched in “Orange is the New Black,” which at times, resembles Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” more than Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over A Cuckoo’s Nest.” As intimidating as these bands of inmates are, the oppressive jailors are still a bunch of incompetent, racist and misogynistic pigs.

Counselor Sam Healy (Michael Harney) may act like a sweet old grandpa with a Russian mail-order bride, but he’s got a vendetta against gays. Meanwhile, Officer Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) perpetuates drug trafficking in prison, bartering pills for blowjobs while condoning rape.

Kohan makes sure you remember that humans live behind these bars. They, too, want love and laughter, chasing after parole like that elusive great white whale. And while life’s a cruel mistress, shuffling you from cell to cell, assignment to assignment, you can’t help but hope. One day, you’ll settle your debts. You’ll travel the globe. You’ll fly across that barb-wired fence. You’ll get out of prison. And somehow, tomorrow will be better. Now if you can only get through today… and the next 15 months.