Not Our ‘Cassadaga’

I have disappointing news for the several readers who have been contacting me about a new feature film called ”Cassadaga.”

After much planning and searching, I have seen the film, and I’ve learned one very important fact. The film is about Cassadaga, Fla., not Cassadaga, N.Y.

There is a spiritualist community there, similar to our county’s own Lily Dale, which figures significantly in the film, but Florida is a different animal, entirely.

Since we’ve put in the time to track down and watch the film, let me tell you a bit about it and a bit about Cassadaga, Fla., and then, while we’re on the subject, let me share with you some thoughts about other popular films, now in release.

CASSADAGA

The independent film was made in 2011, although until December of 2013, it had only played horror film conventions, such as ”Scream Fest.” The film was directed by Anthony Di Blasi, and was written and produced by Scott Poiley and Bruce Wood.

The film stars Kelen Coleman, and no, that isn’t a misspelling of Helen. Ms. Coleman is an actress in her 20s, and has made a career of appearing mostly in horror films, such as ”Cassadaga,” and ”Children of the Corn,” and as a guest star on episodic television shows.

The best-known name in the cast is Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher, who won her statuette for playing ”The Big Nurse,” in the film ”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Sadly, the film tends to introduce fairly interesting characters on a regular basis, such as the one played by Ms. Fletcher, then suddenly takes them out of the film, for only the flimsiest reasons.

The plot suggests that Ms. Coleman’s character – Lily Morel, is profoundly deaf, although she is gifted at reading lips, and speaks normally. Lily is gifted at painting and drawing, and teaches art as a volunteer in various community centers. She and her younger sister are orphaned when Lily is a recent high school graduate. Her sister is an academic prodigy, who has been advanced into high school, several years ahead of her normal age, with the result that her fellow students bully her and abuse her, for her physical immaturity.

Lily promises her sister that she will work as a waitress until her sister graduates from high school, and during the wait, Lily will save her earnings, so that the sisters can move to Paris, which they both want to do. That plan goes awry when the sister is struck and killed by a school bus, one day, while she is waiting in her school’s parking lot, for a ride home with Lily.

The distraught young woman seeks new directions in her life, and is soon recommended for a full scholarship to study art at Cassadaga University in Florida. The name comes from a Seneca Nation term which is translated ”Water beneath the rocks.” I did a hasty online search, and could not find any such real university, although there is a community, not far from Daytona, which was named for Chautauqua County’s Cassadaga. The Florida version of the community also has a spiritualist community, where seances are held and people believe in communicating with spirits.

Part of Lily’s scholarship is the opportunity to live and board in the home of the chairman of the university’s board of directors, a plush, Southern mansion which is home only to the board chairman, played by Fletcher, and her anti-social adult son, who stays locked in his room on the house’s third floor and wanders the house and the grounds at night, after everyone is in bed.

Lily makes friends quickly, due to her gift for painting and drawing, and to her habit of spending her time in extremely short dresses, shorts and nightwear. While volunteering at a community center, she meets a little girl who is being raised by a single father, and who yearns for a mother figure in her life.

Lily likes the girl and her handsome, young father, and they soon form a trio who go on outings and visit fun parks. So it goes, until Lily is invited to go with a carload of her college friends to the Spiritualist community. The young people are told that the community’s most respected medium will hold a seance for them, but only if they pay her a $500 fee. Suddenly Lily, who we learned earlier couldn’t attend college if it required any money on her part, volunteers to pay the medium’s fee.

The medium summons the spirit of Lily’s younger sister, but in the midst of their conversation, another, very angry spirit comes into Lily’s life and nothing the community can do can convince it to return to the other side. It turns out that the spirit belonged to a young woman who was a student at the university, and who was murdered by a serial killer, living in the community and preying upon beautiful young women. The spirit causes visions of horror and violence to appear in Lily’s mind, which in turn, causes her to suddenly change from what she was doing to odd and unusual behaviors of various kinds.

In another one of those rapid and confusing points of departure, the father of Lily’s young art student suddenly decides that his ex-wife will use Lily’s suddenly irrational behavior as a legal tool to try and take his daughter away, so he says some equivalent of ”Well…Goodbye,” and walks out of her life forever.

Eventually Lily finds the serial killer, and after a number of close calls, brings him to justice. If you like your movies to make some kind of sense, ”Cassadaga” isn’t a good choice for you, but if you just like a lot of gore, pretty scenery and good looking people, you might enjoy it.

If you want a subject with any sort of relationship with our own community, on the other hand, pick a different film, altogether.

AMERICAN HUSTLE

In 1978, the FBI was convinced by a real-life con man named Melvin Weinberg, that if they gave him a break on some difficulty he had gotten himself into with the law, he would help them to entrap a large number of government officials who were open to bribery. The sting operation which resulted was known in the press as Abscam. By the time it was completed, it had ensnared a U.S. Senator, six members of Congress, any number of New Jersey state officials, and a seemingly endless list of mayors, city councilmen, and members of government agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Commission, the Gaming Commissions of two states, and more.

The methodology of the operation was that a man posing as an Arab sheik claimed that he wanted to become a U.S. citizen, as a way to evade punishment for wrong-doing at home, in the Middle East. In 1978, Nevada was the only state which allowed legal gambling, but New Jersey was considering trying to win away some of Nevada’s riches by opening casinos and other gambling-based operations in Atlantic City.

The fake sheik promised to provide the huge amount of money needed to build casinos, hotels, restaurants, and other facilities, to improve highways and basically to make the emergence of Atlantic City become real, together with cash to make helping the project worthwhile to people with political power. Some of the politicians were just out to make an easy buck. Some thought they were bending the rules a bit for a good cause which would bring millions of jobs and other benefits to their home communities. They all went to jail.

In 2013, director David O. Russell, who has made ”Silver Linings Playbook,” ”Three Kings,” ”I Heart Huckabees” and many other successful films, decided he would make a film which would be loosely based on Abscam. The way everyone involved seemed to alternate in a matter of moments between honesty and deception had captured his imagination.

He wrote the script, together with co-writer Eric Warren Singer. The resulting film is called ”American Hustle,” and like all of Russell’s earlier films, it hasn’t won any major awards, but it has attracted a long list of A-list actors and viewers, including critics, who think that Russell is the best talent in the business.

The film stars British actor Christian Bale, who gained a great deal of unattractive weight and subjected his thick locks to the shape of a truly disgusting comb-over, to suit his role. Playing in the film with Bale is lovely Amy Adams, who plays Bale’s mistress, complete with an obviously phoney British accent and a whole wardrobe of dresses from the late 1970s, all of which have necklines which leave her bosom more uncovered than covered.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Bale’s abandoned wife, uneducated but street-smart, who can’t decide whether she’ll stand by her man, as the song suggests, or whether she’ll expose every lie he tells and every deal he cooks up, to punish him for dumping her. The remaining central character is actor Bradley Cooper, who plays an ambitious but not overly-bright FBI agent who entraps Bale’s character and gets him to agree to expose the wrongdoings of others, in return for leniency for his own wrongdoings.

Cooper embodies well a man who has learned to bend the rules in order to work successfully undercover, and who now doesn’t know which rules, if any, still apply to him. Forced into a variety of disguises, his make up sessions and hair rollers are one of the funny themes of the film.

Russell has insisted that only the central ideas of the film are true, and that most of its content is fictional. The film begins with the announcement ”Some of these things actually happened.” That gives the script the chance to go off on ridiculous tangents, then to tease us with the possibility that the reality is even more disgusting than the fiction.

The film is entertaining, and can teach you things about our country and how it works – and doesn’t work. It isn’t always clear what is being shown, and it can leave you disappointed and embarrassed about our way of life as well. The actors are excellent. The film is still being shown in some theaters, but has been released on DVD and other home entertainment opportunities. According to the ”Rotten Tomatoes” website, 93 percent of all reviews published about the film were positive.

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET

Featuring life almost exactly one decade later than ”American Hustle,” ”The Wolf of Wall Street” is – if anything – even more stomach-churning than the earlier film.

For one thing, director Martin Scorsese is more outspoken and less subtle that David O. Russell. He has a bigger budget, and is willing to lay his plot points right out on the table, instead of suggesting and hinting at them.

The subject of the film was based upon a real person. Stockbroker Jordan Belfort is actually listed as principal screenwriter on the film.

Belfort was a stockbroker in the late 1980s, who decided that everyone who invests in stock is trying to make money he hasn’t earned, so if a broker’s bad advice and shady dealings ended up bankrupting his clients, it was their own fault, and they deserved it. Like Billy the Kid, he believes his own reputation and the degree to which he takes a situation and goes over the top with it, makes him worthy, in his own mind, of the millions upon millions of dollars which he grabs from clients and wastes on everything from yachts, to private jets, to works of art removed from famous museums.

He even drags his own father and his few personal friends, right down with him, without a hint of conscience.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the myth maker with great energy and abandon. The viewer can easily find himself hoping that DiCaprio gets away with his latest lies and tricks.

DiCaprio narrates the film in first person, as Belfort. He explains that on graduation from college, he started in a low-level job in an established stock firm. In meetings with his supervisors there, we learn that at that point of his career, he had oceans of self-confidence and greed, but at least some sense of responsibility to the people who trusted him with their money.

Within a few days of his passing of his licensing exam, to become a stockbroker, however, Belfort was thrown out of work, as one of those ”Black Monday” days comes along and his firm is driven into bankruptcy. Considering taking an actual productive job, Belfort is convinced by his wife that there are a number of stock exchanges which deal in shares of stock of very little value, which operate beneath the awareness of government regulators.

Belfort jumps into selling these ”penny shares,” and while he doesn’t improve the businesses which are owned by these stocks, the fact that he gets trusting people to spend more and more to purchase them means that they go up on the listings, and individuals who purchase, then get out, make a profit. Forbes Magazine does a profile on Belfort’s business methods, which it titles ”The Wolf of Wall Street,” but instead of driving businessmen away from him, as the article points out his fundamental dishonesty, the article makes him a hero to thousands of others who want his shameless profits and conscience-free methodology.

Rob Reiner as Belfort’s greedy father and Jonah Hill as an acolyte, completely in love with the behavior or the greedy trader, are major contributors to the film. Actor Chris Corporandy, who has played a number of roles in Western New York in recent years, has a minor role as one of the greed-inspired employees of Belfort’s firm.

It can teach you some wisdom, to watch this film, or it can inspire a blood lust and a greed at least as large as that shown on the screen. It brought to mind the scene in the film ”A Clockwork Orange,” in which do-gooders give the young thug who is the main character, a Bible, thinking to teach him decency, but we learn that the man is using the book like pornography, imagining how much he would enjoy whipping and crucifying people.

The film is released for home viewing, through rental or purchase. ”Rotten Tomatoes” gives the film a 77-percent positive rating.