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Review: 'Amsterdam'

David O. Russell first caught my attention with Three Kings back in 1999. His talent was unmistakable. You knew that some really great movies would follow.

And they did.

The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), American Hustle (2013) and Joy (2015).

Major stars lined up to work with David O. Russell, always a good sign of success in the Hollywood community.

And now comes Amsterdam with an all-star cast, including: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Timothy Olyphant, Zoe Saldana, and Rami Malek. And did I mention Taylor Swift and Robert DeNiro?

The writer/director and cast sold me on this movie as soon as I saw the first trailer.

I’m happy to report that the movie lives up to all the hype and expectations.

Had I been on the Academy Awards nominating committee, I would have been recommending Amsterdam for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Actress, Cinematography, Editing, and Art Direction.

Needless to say, I was pretty impressed.

It’s a modern-day film noire, set in that period between the World Wars, when World War I was known as The Great War, and no one could imagine that this colossally ugly chapter of history could possibly repeat itself.

Amsterdam takes its cue from a couple of other movies with single word titles—Casablanca (1942) and Chinatown (1974) come to mind. The story revolves around three main characters who find themselves being drawn into a world of darkness that only becomes more and more frightening at every turn. It is deliciously dark.

Hitchcock’s theme of being wrongfully accused of a crime is at work here.

Christian Bale’s character Burt Berendsen and John David Washington’s character Harold Woodman are accused of murder shortly after they have embarked on a mission to investigate the suspicious death of their former army commander who brought the two men together during The Great War, forming a life-long friendship.

Berendsen and Woodman fought together, were both wounded and sent to an army hospital in Amsterdam where they met a beautiful and mysterious woman named Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). It’s a blissful moment in their lives, an escape from war and suffering and maddness.

They vow to somehow remain together but, as is always the case in stories like this, fate and circumstances tear them apart.

Years later, they are reunited, initially to solve what they believe was the murder of a general, but later, as events unfold, they find themselves confronting a much greater evil beginning to slowly spread throughout the world.

There is a lot going on in the movie Amsterdam. It’s a murder mystery, it’s a romance, it’s a tale of war and the veterans who returned from the war. It’s a story about racial inequality. It’s a story about politics and power and greed. And, above all, it is a movie for the times, holding a mirror up to the ugliest side of human nature and reminding us that evil is always lurking in the shadows waiting to rise up again.

The deep dive into darkness and evil is what Amsterdam shares with Chinatown. Both are stories that begin with what appears to be a case of one man’s murder but descend, by degrees, into something truly monstrous and shockingly disturbing.

David O. Russell navigates the spiraling, ever-expanding narrative with perfect control, scene by scene and shot by shot. He proves, once again, that he is a master storyteller. Hitchcock would have been proud.

What’s remarkable here is that the story has some basis in truth which is mentioned in the opening credits and then substantiated with some actual newsreel footage at the end.

Amsterdam is a cautionary tale, a movie for what’s possibly happening right now in this country.

It may fall short of being a perfect movie. Small, hand-held 16mm cameras back then were not capable of recording sound the way the one in this movie does. A minor technical point.

The casting of Rami Malek was probably not the best choice for his character, following his appearance in last year’s No Time To Die.

But these are minor criticisms. Overall, Amsterdam is a masterful piece of filmmaking on just about every level.

It’s one of those rare movies that entertains you for a couple of hours and leaves you with a lot to think about on the way home. And maybe forever.


Amsterdam is in theaters now.


Photos courtesy 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

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