Category: Random

Reviews: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Her


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.


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?!)



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.




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.


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.

It’s … Friday the 13th!

[Cue scary background music.]

Do you suffer from friggatriskaidekaphobia?

Frigg spinning

(Frigg—sometimes anglicized to Frigga—is the powerful Norse goddess for whom “Friday” is named, and triskaidekaphobia means fear of the number thirteen.)

How did we come to be superstitious about Friday the 13th?

It’s All Norse to Me

Friday was actually considered lucky in pre-Christian times. But since then, it has taken on sinister connections: it’s supposedly the day Eve gave Adam the apple, the day the great flood started, the day the Temple of Solomon was destroyed … and of course the day Christ died on the cross.

It makes sense that the superstitious associations started when Christianity moved in, mainly to discredit and lessen Frigg worship.

The number 13 has inspired trepidation for centuries.

The death of Baldr

In numerology, 12 is the number of completeness: 12 apostles, 12 months in the year, 12 hours in the day, and so on.

The number 13 has been held as “unlucky” for various reasons for centuries: the code of Hammurabi omits number 13, tall buildings have no 13th floor, cities have no 13th street.

In Norse myth, the 12 gods were dining in Valhalla and were joined by a 13th uninvited guest—Loki—who perpetrated a ruse that resulted in the death of Baldr, killed by his own blind brother Hodr, and threw the earth into darkness.

The Marriage of Unlucky Friday and Unlucky 13

Knights Templar

The amalgamation of superstitions about the day and the number has much-contested origins. Some say it started with the publication in 1907 of Thomas Lawson’s book Friday, the Thirteenth. That’s pretty recent.

My favorite explanation for the dread cast on this day is the legendary mass arrest of the remaining Knights Templar in France by King Philip of France on Friday, October 13, 1307. Amid turmoil over power, money, and fealty, they were tortured, discredited, and eventually executed.  I’d call that pretty unlucky.

These days, for some of us, Friday the 13th is a great excuse to watch horror movies!

What’s your take on this superstition-inspiring day?

Here comes Jason

Refueling the Engine

Taking my own advice is not one of my strong suits. But I hope that by dishing it out, I’ll better be able to pick it up and run with it. Or in this case, take a nap with it.

I’m talking about rest and recuperation. Our bodies thrive on the work-rest cycle. So do our minds.  But that doesn’t stop most of us from abusing the heck out of ourselves.

Celebrate Accomplishment

I just finished a big, brain-challenging project. Hooray for me!  I crossed the finish line — on my birthday, no less. And instead of breathing, smelling the roses, and sipping some iced tea on the deck, I started a list of things I need to accomplish over the next week. Well, OK, I did take myself to see a movie the next day, but I made myself promise to work over the weekend to make up for that. *sigh*

Working hard is not a bad thing. I’m not advocating total chaos and loss of control. But there is something wrong with this picture. There is no downtime worked into the deal. There needs to be.

If you just keep going and going for too long, parts of you start to give out. If you don’t shut down for a time in a planned and voluntary way, you might shut down at some point in a very unplanned and involuntary way.  I’ve seen this happen to people (some very close to me), and I hope that one of these days it’ll sink in enough to teach me to really do as I preach.  I’m getting there. Baby steps.

Power Down to Power Up

At the end of a long day, we go to sleep.  At the end of a long project, we should get a spa day. It scares the heck out of me, and I’m not sure I can do it, but I’m going to try to have an at-home spa day.  Well, maybe a half-day. I think that’s as far as my fevered “gotta get stuff done” self can stretch at this point.

Planning it out will help. So, here goes:

  1. I’ll light some candles and play soft, soothing music.
  2. I’ll apply a facial mask while the tub fills with aromatic, bubbly suds.
  3. Luxuriating in the bath, I will allow myself to daydream about something other than “the next project.”
  4. When I climb out of the tub, I’ll wrap my hair in a towel and my self in a warm terry robe, and I’ll lie down on the bed to rest. If I fall asleep, great.  No stress. Maybe I’ll even put some cucumber slices on my eyes.  Nah — waste of food.  Baby steps.

Will I really do this?  Can I?  We’ll see.  I’ll let you know.  In the meantime, do as I say!  Take a break. Plan it out and execute your plan. You can feel a sense of accomplishment about that too!

Another Snow Day in Atlanta

Global warming. Hmm.

Last year, I built the first snowman since my days growing up in Wisconsin. And I built it in the deep south, in a suburb of Atlanta.

A week and a half ago, I got stuck an extra day in Arizona (not a bad place to be stuck, mind you) because snow had shut down the busiest airport in the world, Atlanta Hartsfield International.

And here we are again with a few inches on the ground and freezing rain and sleet expected throughout the day, so that we all may miss a couple of days of work. This is nothing to the northerners who are adept at traversing winter streets. But here, we have no snow tires, we possess a total of eight (yes, eight) sand and salt trucks for the entire city, and we simply … shut down with a few flakes.

Ah, well.  Enjoy the snow day.

Snow in the Air

by Raymond A. Foss

Snow in the air
long before the first flakes
started their long fall from the heavens
snow in the feel, the smell,
the texture of the air
feeling the falling barometer
the shift in the weather
Falling lightly at first, while
I stood at the sink,
mesmerized, watching
their dance downward
Go upstairs, roust the girls,
hear the excitement, the joy
at the first real snowfall
Accumulating white, flake by flake
on the ground, the cars,
still quiet snow, light and airy
a film of white, cell by cell
cleaning the world
in white

Happy New Year!

I’ve been reading other people’s pending resolutions, and a few 2010 retrospectives, for a couple of weeks now. I’ve mainly enjoyed the short and sweet plans for the new year — like “I will exercise more, I will read more, and I will write more.” (I like that one; maybe I’ll steal it!)

As a seasoned “wait and see” adopter, I’m chiming in just now, on the second day of this new year, with some observations and a few glimpses forward.

The Year That Was

2010 was an interesting year. It was a difficult one for many people. Personally, I don’t know that many people who lost jobs in 2010, but I do know several who lost their homes, a few who had other financial setbacks, some who went through the grief of loved ones passing, and others who had a variety of tough challenges.

My own life has been fairly stable, filled with small speed bumps but mostly a straight and comfortable road, and I am overwhelmingly grateful for that. I’m not one to handle bona fide adversity well, and I’m glad I didn’t have any major issues that would then become a hurtful burden on anyone I know and love.

My biggest challenge is rooted in my lifelong battle with time management.  I’ve been quite busy with work from all angles, which is an extremely fortunate state of affairs, but one that does not afford me the time to do enough of my own writing or to eat right and exercise properly. Yeah, I know — boo hoo.  I feel like a whiner even mentioning any of it. But it’s my challenge, and I own it.  I will continue endeavoring to tackle my scheduling challenge and to lead a more balanced life in which I can take care of myself so that I can take care of business!

As I look back, I mostly feel an immense amount of gratitude. These are a few of things that stand out from 2010:

1. I’m infinitely grateful for my life, my family, my friends, and the fact that world has not yet imploded.  I expect it to do so at any moment whenever I watch the news or listen to “visionaries” talking about the state of the universe.  So I do not do much of that. I often feel like the proverbial ostrich, but I’m convinced that a bit of ignorance (or at least distance) is bliss.

2. Reading was a big part of my life, as it always has been, but I stepped it up a bit, becoming ensconced in the Goodreads community, enjoying the company and discussions of my book club, and discovering many new books and authors.

3. My mom and I spent three weeks in Europe, a trip many years in the making. It was wonderful to reconnect with family in the Czech Republic and with longtime friends. I also managed to take some marvelous photos that will be a lasting reminder of our walks through old Prague and other places.

4. I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for the first time … and WON!  Winning means achieving the 50,000 word goal (or any goal above that which you set for yourself).  It motivated me to take a short story I’d written and turn it into a book.  It’s mostly drafted now, and as soon as there is a break in the client-project action, I plan to finish it and get out there.  My goal?  Get it done at least before the next NaNoWriMo in November 2011 — because I want to do it again!

5. This year, I felt a personal sense of accomplishment as a kind of settling-in to my skills set, built over a lifetime. It’s allowed me to feel truly comfortable in the major facets of my work — producing the materials clients need, offering advice about things I truly know something about, writing and editing for a living, and sharing some of the knowledge that can only be gained through long-term experience and a passion for one’s work. With my terrific little team, I produced a boatload for the education publishing company I work for, and I managed to become a sought-after conference speaker. I sold a few copies of my movie book, and volume two seems to be in demand.  I’ve had more client projects than I can shake a stick at.  It’s all good … really good!

What’s Up Next

I’m starting out 2011 with a new eating and exercise plan, a new haircut, and a lovely day spent with friends yesterday.  I’m already grateful and looking forward to a tremendous year.

The only thing that has gone (terribly, devastatingly) wrong so far in 2011 is that the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t win the Winter Classic.  BOO!

I don’t make resolutions. Instead, I just want to be able to accomplish a few things, and it really doesn’t matter when that accomplishing begins.  But it’s a time of inspiration for new beginnings, so here’s the list:

1. I will lose weight and get in better shape.  I’m doing it!

2. I’ll keep working on fitting everything I need and want to do into 24/7/365.  I may not get to exactly where I want to be (again), but I’ll keep working it.

3. I will read joyfully, watch movies with abandon, and spend quality fun time with friends and family!  Trips are already planned for my brother’s birthday bash in Vegas in February and a fun trip in June with mom to the beautifully rebuilt Opryland Resort.

4. I’ll work on my own writing at least once a month. One novel and volume two of the movie book will bear 2011 copyrights.

Really, that’s about it.  The goals are simple.  But they are important to me.  And they will take some doing to accomplish.  They are not earth-shattering, but they are mine, and I’ll be proud and contented to accomplish them all.

I wish you all a year filled with good cheer, balance, health, love, and your own accomplishments!

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