REVIEW: 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.

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REVIEW: 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can do little but throw her hands up in the air in exasperation at his repeated attempts to walk there (his license was revoked).

“I didn’t know the son of a bitch wanted to be a millionaire.  He should have thought of that years ago and worked for it,” she says in one of the movie’s best lines.

What makes Woody’s painful-looking shuffle resonate is not that he is aimless but that his goal is unattainable.  David eventually indulges him, embarking on a road trip that lands them, almost too conveniently, in Woody’s hometown. Hawthorne is a small Nebraskan village that seems forgotten by time.   Payne’s decision to shoot the movie in black and white only enhances this, adding a tinge of melancholy to the wide open plains and quaint, vacant streets.

Word spreads quickly about Woody’s million-dollar jackpot.  Despite David’s attempts to quell any celebration of it his father soon becomes the talk of the town, for better and worse.  He is envied and celebrated for a while, until family and old friends start to subtly bring up past debts.  Woody is oblivious to almost all of this, and Dern gives the impression that his character’s journey is so single-minded because it’s all he has the energy to focus on.

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Nebraska’s weakest link is in the way the story forces itself together.  There is no real reason why Kate and her and Woody’s oldest son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) need to join them in Hawthorne.  After Woody hits his head after a fall, Bob Nelson’s script seems determined to pin him and his family in that town for much longer than Woody would ever actually stay there.

Payne balances the somewhat sloppy story with the most emotionally delicate direction he’s done so far.  The Descendants, his previous feature, also had a contrived story, and it felt like it did.  Nebraska doesn’t.  It unfolds more spontaneously, never a slave to its central plot and much better off for it.  It’s an elegiac, bitterly funny examination of the Grants rather than a father/son bonding narrative.

The best scene happens in Hawthorne’s cemetery right after Kate arrives from Montana.  She, David and Woody are surrounded by the stumps of countless modest graves.  Kate talks blatantly about the people buried beneath them, her crass observations offset by her son’s discomfort and her husband’s weary obliviousness.

Kate’s brazen manner thankfully softens as the movie goes on, creating more than a castrating caricature.  Squibb slowly reveals the kindness inside her without failing to skillfully execute many of the script’s best comedic moments.  Her and Dern show us a couple hardened by a less-than-ideal life, but still trying to make a go at it.

Nebraska is just as funny and humane as Payne’s best movies.  He offers a view of rural America that the Coen brothers might have made if they were (just a little) less condescending.  Working with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, he has also created his most visually accomplished work to date.  In films like Sideways and About Schmidt, I remembered the terrific dialogue and the richly conceived characters, and the way Payne found a way to understand them when they seemed unreachable.  There weren’t images as memorable as what he has here, though.  It is a fairly big leap for him as a filmmaker, with all the imperfection that often comes with such risks.

Grade: B-

Short Takes: Out of the Furnace, Kill Your Darlings and Drug War

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Out of the Furnace- This unremittingly bleak drama centers on deeply flawed brothers in Pittsburgh.  Russell (Christian Bale) is a heavy drinker who kills a woman and her kid drunk driving and lands in jail while his brother (Casey Affleck) serves several tours in Iraq.  Once he is out of jail, his brother goes missing after a series of increasingly brutal organized fistfights to pay off debt.

Director Scott Cooper makes no effort to give the audience a payoff.  The (plentiful) violence is treated as deeply troubling and is never without consequences.  Although a lot of the story is absurd and simplistic, there is an honest humanity that makes it surprisingly effective. Grade: C

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Kill Your Darlings- An uneven but thrilling attempt to capture Beat writers in the act of inventing themselves.  The story centers on Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) leaving a turbulent home life for an even more turbulent time at Columbia.  He is drawn to Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), and the two form the chaotic, and ultimately tragic, core of the movie.  Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston) and William Burroughs (Ben Foster) also show up in drug-fueled flashes.

Kill Your Darlings treats the period with much affection, but director John Krokidas also injects crucial visual flare as well as modern music.  There is too much repetitive literary quoting underlining the theme over and over, but Krokidas brings an exhilaratingly reckless, chaotic vision to material that would otherwise seem stuffy and pretentious.  Grade: C+

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Drug War- One of the most intense and entertaining movies of the year.  Drug War is an action movie examination of China’s obscene drug policy.  Rather than overcrowd their prisons with drug offenders (like in America), people who possess more than a certain amount are just executed.

Johnnie To’s movie is about a meth dealer caught in between the police and those higher-up in the trade than him.  He offers to help the cops take down the others in exchange for prison time instead of a death sentence.  To creates organic, often breathtaking action sequences throughout, shaming most Hollywood releases on a fraction of the budget.  Grade: B+

REVIEW: Philomena

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Philomena
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (screenplay), Martin Sixsmith (book)
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark and Mare Winningham

Though Philomena is about a journalist writing a human interest story, it is thankfully absent the easy emotional payoff that such stories are often intended to have.  That reporter, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), hates the idea of writing a fluff piece, but he’s looking to occupy his time after being canned from a job as a government mouthpiece. (Ironically, that involves quite a bit of fluff).

Director Stephen Frears wastes little screen time before thrusting Sixsmith and the movie’s real protagonist, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), together for the article.  Philomena is a cheery old Irish Catholic woman looking to connect with a son that she had out of wedlock.  Her family dropped her off at a convent, where she was held in servitude and only allowed to see her son for one hour a day.  Then, he was sold to an American family for adoption.

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REVIEW: Dallas Buyers Club

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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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REVIEW: Blue Is the Warmest Color

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Blue Is the Warmest Color
Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche
Written by: Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalia Lacroix (screenplay), Julie Maroh (graphic novel)
Starring: Adèle Exachopoulos, Léa Seydoux, Salim Kechiouche and Benjamin Siksou

A three-hour epic of writhing limbs and ferocious love, Blue Is the Warmest Color is without a doubt one of the most unforgettable and complicated movie-going experiences of year.  The performances are so raw, the young actresses so vulnerable in their portrayal of this intense relationship, that it nearly transcends some of its director’s problematic depictions of them.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s film deeply impressed this year’s Steven Spielberg-led Cannes jury, taking home the Palme d’Or but also sparking intense debate.  Julie Maroh, the writer of the graphic novel, said that while watching the sex scenes it became clear to her that there were no lesbians on the set.  She connected the way Kechiche shot those scenes to a later conversation in the film, where a man at a dinner party discusses how sacred and mystical the female orgasm is.

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REVIEW: 12 Years a Slave

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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 nominate it for 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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