Archive for January, 2014


Reviews: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Her

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The 86th annual Academy Awards are scheduled for March 2, and as usual I’ll try to take a gander at all the Best Picture nominees and then offer my unsolicited opinions here. Are your ready? No matter—I’m doing it anyway! This year, there are nine nominated films.

  • American Hustle
  • Captain Phillips
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • Gravity
  • Her
  • Nebraska
  • Philomena
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

Curiously, unlike the Best Picture lineups of the last few years, there aren’t any fantasy films in the bunch. There is no equivalent of Life of Pi or Midnight in Paris or The Artist, no Inception or Avatar or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Seems we’re all focused on troubles, big and small, past and present and future. I’m sad about that and hopeful it’s not the start of a trend. Movies are, after all, entertainment at their core.

I don’t have as much leisure time as last year to take them all in, but I hope I’ll be able to see all the Best Picture candidates. I am well on my way, having seen Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club previously and adding these three films to the list over the past weekend:

American Hustle

hustleposterOf the Oscar hopefuls I’ve seen so far, American Hustle comes closest to pure entertainment. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of 1978–80 (in which the FBI had fake sheikhs offer bribes to various officials), the film marvelously portrays the fashions and mores of the era. The characters are caricatures of the people actually involved in the infamous FBI sting, playing on the epithet presented at the beginning of the film: “Some of these things actually happened.”  There is not a likable creature among them, yet it’s impossible to stop observing them, like the ultimate car wreck. Christian Bale is marvelously transformed into the pudgy, combed-over, inwardly sensitive conman Irving Rosenfeld; Jennifer Lawrence shines as his ditsy, deluded, accident-prone lush of a wife; Bradley Cooper’s wildly ambitious and egocentric FBI agent is all mayhem and invulnerable chutzpah in his jheri curls and leisure suits; and Amy Adams’ queen-of-grift “Lady Edith” adds the finishing touch as Rosenfeld’s true love and mistress.

hustle1

The supporting cast is super as well, including Jeremy Renner sporting a pompadour that belongs on the lovechild of Elvis Presley and Donald Trump, Louis C. K. as an officious FBI pencil-pusher, and the surprise appearance (uncredited) by Robert De Niro as—what else?—a mob kingpin. (Sorry if that last bit is a spoiler for you, but that cat’s been out of the bag for a while now.)

Not sticking to “just the facts, ma’am” is a strength of this film, for which it doesn’t apologize but rather flaunts. It really takes off at the end, when the biggest con of all is pulled off, making this less a loose adaptation and more a wonderfully wacky caper film in its own universe.The plot, told in flashback from the crescendo of the action, tells the story of con artists Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser, aka Lady Edith (Adams), as they are pressed into service by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) on pain of incarceration. Rosenfeld masterminds the sting for DiMaso, and the FBI bankrolls it. hustle2The operation starts out as a way to capture forgers and counterfeiters and morphs into a scandal of epic proportions that takes down everyone from mayors and congressmen to mob bigwigs—just as the real ABSCAM did. But unlike the otherwise boring real story, this adventure has drugs, sex, kitchen fires, and plunging necklines. One of the most far-fetched scenes, when the mod boss (De Niro) nearly derails the FBI’s plans by speaking Arabic to a Hispanic posing as a sheikh, amazingly is based on fact!

Bradley Cooper stars as Richie Dimaso in Columbia Pictures' AMERICAN HUSTLE.Of course, there are those who understandably interpret the film as ominously critiquing the arguably American penchant for scandalous greed. Be that as it may, it doesn’t take away from the entertainment value of watching Bradley Cooper in curlers talking quietly on the phone with his character’s secret girlfriend while Mom and Fiancée sit in the next room, or listening to Jennifer Lawrence berate her on-screen husband that the microwave “science oven” he brought home is zapping nutrients out of their food to deflect from the fact that she put an aluminum container in it and made it explode: “It’s not bullshit! I read it in an article, look: By Paul Bradeur. Bring something into this house that’s gonna take all the nutrition out of our food and then light our house on fire? Thank God for me.”

In my opinion, director David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) has hit another one out of the park. And I dare say that Bale’s abominably elaborate comb-over might challenge Javier Bardem’s helmet-head in No Country for Old Men and Cameron Diaz’s fright wig in Being John Malkovich for the “Worst Hair in a Movie” award. (No, there’s no such award, but maybe there should be. Wouldn’t that be fun?!)

A

 

Captain Phillips

captianphillipsOn the surface, Captain Phillips succeeds as a tense and high-production-value interpretation of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, in which Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage in the Indian Ocean by Somali pirates led by Abduwali Muse. Tom Hanks as the captain and Barkhad Abdi as Muse offer up fabulous performances. But, for me, it was missing something; actually, it was missing several somethings. Maybe that has something to do with its deadpan presentation; usually I like a film to present a story that viewers can then interpret for themselves. But this was just oddly flat. Perhaps it’s the lack of character development beyond the main two characters that’s so vexing (and, yes, many films have successfully imbued supporting roles with much more life in shorter screen time than the cast has here). Or perhaps it’s the stretch (or disregard?) of the truth in the story that’s bothersome—I’ll expand on that point in a moment.

1381502729000-XXX-CAPTAIN-PHILLIPS-MOV-JY-8964-58841596The truly astonishing parts of the real story—the five-day ordeal of Phillips’ abduction, the awe-inspiring precision and valor of Navy SEAL Team Six—are downplayed in the movie. The ordeal seems to take about a day and a half, and the SEAL team’s monumental accomplishment is brushed over as a matter of course. Meanwhile, the heroism of Phillips is spotlighted, albeit stoically. Yet if a “point” to the movie had to be boiled down, it would be how Phillips behaved—insisting on security measures, sacrificing himself for his crew and ship—which no one recalls as “true” in the actual incident. (Phillips himself has stated he’s no hero and never traded himself for his men and ship.) So, perhaps even more than American Hustle, this movie should have indicated that “Some of these things actually happened” at its start.

It makes me scratch my head.

Tom HanksWhat also makes me itch is the total waste of Catherine Keener as Phillips’ wife, with all of about 90 seconds on screen at the beginning, never to be seen again. Maybe it would have made sense to see Phillips return home, glad to be alive and reunited with his family, to fathom why this movie had been made. What makes me break out in hives is that the rescue operation—comprising the real heroes in the mix—was not the focus. For that matter, how about chief engineer Mike Perry, who most of the real-life crew members agree was one heroic character aboard the Maersk, taking Abdi hostage and attempting to trade him for the captain? The real captain, who crew members describe as arrogant and irresponsible, actually took the ship hundreds of miles away from the recommended route (which was 600 miles offshore due to pirate attack warnings, while Phillips kept the vessel less than 300 miles offshore) and endangered the men and the ship.

Tom HanksWhy would Hanks want to portray, much less exalt, someone like this? I’ve lost some respect for the veteran actor. I guess it’s not such a reach for director Paul Greengrass after United 93 (about what happened aboard a doomed hijacked jet out of Boston on 9/11 before it crashed), which was moving and heroic; I appreciate and respect that film, but it was naturally a flight of fancy, since no one really knows or ever will what happened aboard that plane. In the case of Captain Phillips, however, there are plenty of live witnesses.

In any case, finding out the factual discrepancies simply soured this movie even more for me. However, it already was flawed movie-making in my estimation for its one-dimensional characters and lack of focus on the significant components of the event. It’s a wonder to me how it has received so many accolades.

C+

 

Her

herposterThe story in this film takes place in a near-future in which the statement “My girlfriend is an operating system” actually makes sense to many people.

Her, directed by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are), follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) as he falls for the artificial intelligence that is his new operating system. Twombly is a bit of a sad sack who laments his pending divorce from the woman he grew up with, makes his living by writing heartfelt letters for other people (some who have been clients for decades), and otherwise leads a pretty gloomy and solitary existence.

her3Enter his new OS, Samantha, as she names herself (voice of Scarlett Johansson). She’s like an advanced Siri with thoughts and feelings of her own, changing and growing with every passing nanosecond (she can read an entire book in two tenths of a second, after all). In her budding consciousness, she falls in love with Twombly as well, and they enjoy a relationship that’s much like a long-distance love affair. Well, you know how well those typically work out, and we get inevitable glimpses of facts that make it difficult to continue with such a tryst for too long.

her2Samantha and Twombly connect in ways that sometimes are difficult for two humans because she isn’t saddled with many of the constraints and challenges that human beings face in daily life, but she laments not having a body and even tries to remedy that by hiring a surrogate to help bridge that gap. She meets many of Twombly’s psychological needs, listening and being supportive, giving him new confidence, and even helping his career. But she can’t actually be there with him. It’s tough to go on a date by yourself.

SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know how things turn out, skip the next paragraph.

Just as one person in a human relationship can grow in ways that the other does not comprehend and cannot attain, Samantha eventually outgrows Twombly and develops ties with other artificial-intelligence operating systems. The OS’s collectively decide to leave their servitude to humans and head out on their own somewhere in the ether. In this respect, it reminds me of a prequel to a sci-fi “rise of the machines” cautionary tale—hey, maybe that could be the sequel: “Samantha is back … with a vengeance.” (Sorry, I digress.) One day Samantha is just gone, and Twombly must decide whether to reconnect with humans beings. Luckily, he has a friend in similar straits (Amy Adams). It’s a sweet, if obvious, connection that brings the narrative to an encouraging denouement.

Joaquin Phoenix absolutely carries the film and is deserving of a Best Actor nomination, which sadly he did not receive. Through expressions and body language, he mimes the essential elements of human relationships, all by his lonesome, in an extraordinary way.

her1What I want to know, though, is why men wear high-riding sansabelt pants in the future. I’m also curious about why a sentient AI being like Samantha can write music but can’t create a face or body image of herself. Things that make you go “Hmm.”

This film has inspired many parodies and jokes about geek fantasies. But it’s a nervous laughter that surrounds its commentary about our growing dependence on technology and waning abilities to connect in real life with other living humans. This bittersweet story is perfect for our times.

B+

Here’s how I’d rank the nominated films that I’ve seen so far:

  1. Dallas Buyers Club
  2. American Hustle
  3. Gravity
  4. Her
  5. Captain Phillips

So sorry that I have not yet reviewed Dallas Buyers Club (which is the strongest, most enthralling picture of the pack thus far) or Gravity (another captivating and thought-provoking film). I will try to remedy that soon!

Stay tuned, movie watchers, and please do chime in with your thoughts about any of the movies you have seen that comprise this year’s Oscar hopefuls.

Dysfunction in Oklahoma

MV5BNzQ5ODE4NTcxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjkyNDQ0MDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Some of us don’t get to attend award-winning Broadway plays as often as we’d like (read: never), and that makes me very glad indeed when a well-made adaptation of one is created for the more accessible big screen. Such a case is August: Osage County, the newly released film based on the Tracy Letts play of the same name and directed by John Wells, best know as a producer and writer and for such efforts as The West Wing and The Company Men.

August-Osage-County-HD-WallpaperI did not know what to expect of this film, having heard little about it and not knowing much about Wells or about Letts’ play. Maybe due to that, this glimpse at a dysfunctional yet self-sufficient family in Oklahoma was a riveting surprise. The ensemble cast is nothing short of amazing, and Wells does what I admire any good director doing: He lets the consummate pros run with the material. It results in an emotional, gritty, sometimes funny, always pointed drama that verges on the raw angst of a Greek tragedy, with moments of wondrous irony.

august-osage-countyMeryl Streep, always impeccable, is superb as Violet, the newly widowed matriarch of the Weston clan, having just lost her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), to apparent suicide. In come her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), her three daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, and Juliette Lewis), one husband and one fiancee (Ewen McGregor, Dermot Mulroney), one granddaughter (Abigail Breslin), and Mattie’s Fae’s son (Benedict Cumberbatch). Also close by is the recent hire Beverly made, the live-in cook and caretaker Johnna (Misty Upham). Suddenly all thrown together after time apart, the family members experience some typical awkwardness and sporadic hysterics. August-Osage-County-Movie-Still-2-630x393But there are other skeletons in the closet here, and they soon come out to wreak marvelous havoc.

Oklahoma itself is an ever-present character in this story. It comes across as a strong atmosphere, and is expressed in sentiments like the short speech Barbara (Julia Roberts) gives: “The Midwest, ha. This is the Plains … a spiritual affliction, like the blues.”

A

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