BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: American Hustle

Christian Bale;Jeremy Renner;Bradley Cooper

American Hustle
Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: Eric Singer & David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence

Two cartoonishly ’70s-looking men stand in an art gallery gazing at a Rembrandt painting, or at least what one of them thinks is a Rembrandt painting.  The other guy, a con man played by Christian Bale, explains with his thick Brooklyn accent that it’s a fake.

“The guy who made this was so good, that it’s real to everybody.  Now, who’s the master: the painter or the forger?” he asks.

It’s as if director David O. Russell is speaking through Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) at this moment, pondering the question a little too sincerely.  American Hustle, his sleek and contagiously energetic latest endeavor, is also somewhat of a forgery. It’s being released nationwide the week before The Wolf of Wall Street, and I’m curious to see which one is more widely praised, the original Scorsese or this loving knockoff.

The frantic voice-over, the constant bombardment of tracking shots mixed with sporadic cutting, the amazing use of rock music- all of the staples from Scorsese’s signature crime films are here.  With his previous two features, The Fighter and last year’s Silver Linings Playbook, Russell tackled two very different genres (boxing movie and romantic comedy) in his own consistently thrilling and fresh way.  Although American Hustle is a much more complicated and sleek film, it feels like a step backward of sorts simply because its stylistic influence is blatant and overused.

It even plays rough and rowdy with history and the time period the same way that Scorsese does in movies like Goodfellas. Turning the Abscam corruption sting case from the late ’70s and early ’80s into such a wildly funny and drugged-out con job makes it decidedly less self-serious then a true life government operation movie like, say, Argo.  It barely shows the congressmen caught up in the mob corruption, but rather the push and pull of the government agents and the criminals they enlist (entrap) to help them.

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Everyone in this movie is stupid in their own way, except maybe Amy Adams’ character, who is just unlucky.  She is the one who takes the fraudulent money from an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), which in turn pulls Rosenfeld, her lover, in to help fry bigger fish.

Rosenfeld is a repulsive slob in the beginning of the movie, and is only sympathetic when it becomes clear to him that everyone is just as crooked as him.  The government “good guys” are basically running a post-Watergate publicity stunt and one of the “bad guys,” Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), has a dimwitted, illegal way of trying to jump-start a sluggish economy.  As it becomes clear that everyone in the movie is, in their way, conning someone, Rosenfeld starts to feel the burn as the net they are casting continues to widen and involve much bigger fish.

He is matched blow for blow in hairdo grotesqueness by Cooper’s agent Richie DiMaso, a perversely ambitious hothead and drug addict.  Both of these performances feel slimy, and both actors capture the disingenuous core of each of the men.  Russell has a way of bottling a unique kind of lightning from this very diverse group of performers, which in addition to Adams and Renner also includes an explosive turn by Jennifer Lawrence.  As Rosenfeld’s wife, she reveals herself to be the biggest manipulator of the bunch even though she has no initial involvement in the caper.

That is the point Russell seems to be getting at.  Tacking a grandiose and vague title like American Hustle onto the story means he’s showing us that all Americans are hustlers, whether they’re in front of the camera, behind it or watching the final product in a theater.  The movie is almost aggressively sloppy, diluting this simple theme well past two hours.  Even when it’s redundant it’s never dull, though as far as self-conscious Scorsese knockoffs go, I’m still partial to Boogie Nights.

Grade: C

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: 12 Years a Slave

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE

12 Years a Slave
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (memoir)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofer, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulson

Connecting 12 Years a Slave immediately to its Oscar buzz because of when a studio chose to release it would be a disservice to it.  To put it simply, this is the most powerful film about American slavery that I’ve ever seen, and diminishing that accomplishment by asking if the white male establishment of the Academy can handle it enough to award it with anything is at the bottom of my list.

Steve McQueen’s previous two features, Hunger and Shame, were visually brilliant, but at times lacking a crucial human element.  This was especially true of Shame, whose miserabalism was supposed to be its own profound reward but ultimately registered as empty.  There is obviously a great deal of suffering in 12 Years a Slave, but also an intense humanity.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Gravity

gravity

Gravity
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a supreme technical achievement and a standard, if mostly engaging, story.  When I saw it for the first time, in IMAX and in 3D, I was astounded at the craftsmanship of some scenes but had an underlying “meh” about everything else.  After returning to the movie in theaters again, this time in a standard theater with the standard two dimensions, the flaws only became larger.

As Richard Brody aptly put it in The New Yorker:

Cuarón has done a formidable job of piecing together a plausibly coherent material world of space, of conveying the appearance of that setting and the sensations of the characters who inhabit it. But he has created those sensations generically, with no difference between the subjectivity of his characters and the ostensible appearance to a camera of those phenomena. He offers point-of-view images that are imbued with no actual point of view.

The movie works as well as it does because of the audience’s built-in history with Sandra Bullock, who plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a woman who is having a really bad day trying to get back to Earth after a space station accident.  Bullock carries the movie quite well, and is aided in parts by the effortless charm of George Clooney’s on-screen persona.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Her

her

Her
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams and Rooney Mara

Her is a beautifully realized and often moving story of an impossible relationship.  It’s not just about a man who falls in love with his operating system, but instead uses that premise to springboard into a vast array of heady topics.  Spike Jonze dares to imagine an absurd romance with sincerity and depth of feeling, and in doing so makes the physical world of the future seem like a limited if beautiful place.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) at first seems like a typical protagonist in a modern male-centered romance like (500) Days of Summer or Garden State.  He is a sensitive writer whose skills with women demand a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to set things right. His new fully aware OS Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) seems to be that “girl” but instead becomes a sly critique of the archetype.

Samantha’s worldview transforms so thoroughly beyond Theodore’s comprehension by the end that her “human” traits and relationships are a miniscule part of what she is.  At first he is her window into the world, as he carries her around in his dress shirt pocket and lovingly answers her every question.  She is not a real woman, though, just like the women in those other previously mentioned movies.  However, Samantha is intangible not because of the male flimmaker’s narrow vision but because her intelligence is very nearly limitless and far surpasses the limitations of humanity.

A fully-functioning and feeling AI is right at home in the movie’s glossy take on future Los Angeles.  This is a place where computers can effortlessly copy penmanship and every interior looks like a modern art museum.  It’s also a world where relationships, conventional or not, don’t work.  Theodore buys the OS seemingly out of the blue.  He’s going through a divorce, and when his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) finds out about Samantha, she doesn’t hesitate to stick the knife in.

“You always wanted a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real, I’m glad that you found someone” she says through her teeth.

Her movie

And yet, for all its gentle lecturing, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is more emotionally and sexually charged than in most movies where you see both parties.  Many on-screen romances, largely because of the audience-friendly PG-13 rating, rarely bother with actual sex.  Her is rated R, because even though the sex scene is told from Samantha’s point of view (black screen), you can hear everything.

It’s impossible not to see Scarlett Johansson when she’s talking as Samantha.  It’s a sly joke to cast the woman who is so often used as eye candy (ahem, The Avengers) as a sexy Siri.  Her voiceover, which she nails, is so crucial to the movie’s success, as is the chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix, who gives an off-kilter, emotionally rich performance in the lead.  Amy Adams is also excellent as Theodore’s supportive friend.

Jonze starts to tread water with the premise in the last third of the movie, and though the theme “only humans can be human” is beaten to death in science fiction, it doesn’t feel stale in such a funny, moving film like this.  The future he and his crew have created is also far and away one of the most optimistic I’ve ever seen in a movie, a far and welcome cry from the generic dystopian nightmares that seem to be released every weekend.

Several changes of scenery don’t completely save the monologue-heavy screenplay, though.  I have a feeling if Jonze had again collaborated with Charlie Kaufman and have him run away with this idea, it would have been a masterpiece. That’s not to say what’s here is even remotely close to bad, though.  This is a perceptive, engaging and completely sincere romance, a rarity in American movies before you add on its amazingly realized near-future L.A.

Grade: B

BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Nebraska

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Nebraska
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Bob Nelson
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb and Bob Odenkirk

The most endearing image of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is of an old man stubbornly trudging along the highways and sidewalks of rural America.  The camera is placed a patient distance in front of him, not sighing at his pace but simply waiting for him to catch up.  That distance is indicative of the relationship that that man, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), has with the rest of the world.  He’s quietly stubborn, wearing a look of defeat as his default expression.  His son David (Will Forte) sees that and pities him.

Pity is the main engine that drives Nebraska’s sparse story, which Payne makes incidental to character and landscape.  Woody is walking from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to cash in a $1 million slip he got from a sham marketing company.  His wife Kate (June Squibb) can do little but throw her hands up in the air in exasperation at his repeated attempts to walk there (his license was revoked).

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Terrence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie and Kyle Chandler

One of the biggest bright spots in this year’s Oscar nominations is the amount of prestige bestowed on a three-hour spectacle of almost non-stop vulgarity.  I have a pretty good feeling that Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is nominated simply because of the pedigree of talent involved.  It is almost as polarizing (and misunderstood) as Shutter Island, which probably would have been nominated had it been released during awards season.

Scorsese, whether or not he likes it, is an Oscar mainstay now, and would likely have to tank in an almost unfathomable way to not get attention from the voters.  The Wolf of Wall Street looks kind of like an Oscar film on the surface, but it’s also everything that they typically dislike:

It’s a comedy.  It’s a black comedy.  It’s not self-serious.  It’s three hours and not about World War II or ancient history.

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BEST PICTURE NOMINEE: Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas-buyers-club

Dallas Buyers Club
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner and Denis O’Hare

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto play polar opposites brought together by the horrors of AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club, an unsettling message movie that doesn’t want to admit it’s a message movie.

As the unsparing homophobe Ron Woodroof, McConaughey takes his natural on-screen charm to a demented new register here.  First seen at the center of a sweaty threesome at a rodeo, it’s not long before he’s slinging the word “faggot” in a locker room with his pals.  It’s also only a matter of minutes before he’s sitting in a hospital, being told that his T-cell count is so low he has 30 days to live.  When his doctor asks him if he’s had gay sex, he goes into a fit of rage.

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