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American Hustle

Don't be "Hustled" by the reviews. "American Hustle" is okay and nothing more
Despite it's stellar cast and great production creds, "American Hustle" is little more than a sinners-with-a-heart of gold story. YAWN!!! It plays like a particularly sad Woody Allen movie without the jokes. The film is definitely not a comedy, though Jennifer Lawrence provides not only the best character but most of the few laughs the film has.

Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner are particularly effective in their parts. Bradley Cooper does a solid job with the most complex character in the film. Amy Adams is fine, but not award worthy for a change.

Watch "The Grifters" if you want a devilishly clever con-film, because it is 1,000,000 times better.

Honestly, the NY Film Critics Assn. must have gotten a con-sized pay off for calling this the best film of the year. Is it awful? No. But neither is it memorable. Fun soundtrack, great costumes, hair/make-up and photography can't make up for a plot which is dull and characters who are so uninteresting.

August: Osage County

Delightful Dysfunction "August: Osage County"
Though nearly 40 minutes of Tracy Lett's Pulitzer Prize winning dramedy have been shaved for the screen version, "August: Osage County" still manages to deliver on the towering play's hearty laughs, gasp inducing shocks, and well earned tears.

While it is hardly the best adaptation of a play to a film, as much of the film still retains it's indoor, staging setting, it is boosted by some sterling performances of actors at the top of their craft. Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale are stellar, playing off each other with deft and precise timing. Julia Roberts has not had this good of a role in... ever, and she mostly delivers. Julianne Nicholson is both quiet yet fiercely determined as middle daughter Ivy. Sam Sheppard is amazing in the even more truncated role of the Weston family patriarch who goes missing, and Misty Upham is so good with so little to say as the young Indian woman, Johnna, tossed into a family in turmoil.

Of course the turmoil is led by the Medea-of-the-Midwest, Violet, played for every ounce by Meryl Streep in one of her most indelible performances ever. While viewers will surely be talking about the "infamous" post funeral dinner scene, the price of admission should be had for Streep's monologue late into the "second act," where she sits with her daughters on a swing set and discusses the worst Christmas ever: an acting class with the full gamut of emotion.

Viewers may be equally divided by spending 130 minutes with such unhappy people, but there are plenty of dark laughs in Letts' screenplay to alleviate the tension. And with actors these good interpreting the parts, "August: Osage County" is easier to swallow than some awkward family dinners we've all had to attend at some point in our lives.


"Philomena;" A triumph for Dench, Coogan and Frears
A tale of love and loss a starring 79 year old actress does not sound like a film which will set the box office on fire, but hopefully audiences around the globe will find and delight in the beautifully rendered "Philomena."

Judi Dench gives a stirring, understated performance as a woman searching for the son who was taken from her by the nuns in the convent she is forced to grow up in, and Steve Coogan matches her as the sardonic journalist who assists her in her quest. These two actors play off each other with equal parts tension and grace.

This is Stephen Frear's best film since "The Grifters;" very often the film could slide perilously into the maudlin, but he manages to steer the film clear from soggy sentiment and keep the emotion earned. And the film manages to keep its continuous revelations surprising and believable with the well wrought screenplay (with Coogan as one of the co-writers.)

Special praise for Robbie Ryan's subtle camera-work. Alexandre Desplat's score is a bit pedestrian, however.

12 Years a Slave

Acting cannot save a soulless "Slave"
Director Steve McQueen has gathered a talented cast, a compelling plot idea, and a wonderful cinematographer and then snuffed the life from them with his clinical, detached directing style that robs what should be the most affecting movie of the year and turns it into a plodding, emotionless, historical biopic.

Despite the valiant efforts of Chiwetel Ejiofor and especially newcomer Lupta Nyong'o, this drama about a musician who is duped, drugged and sold into slavery never manages to find an emotional chord.

Like last year's Oscar-bait, "Les Miserables," the film is often told in long, steady pan shots or a continuous array of distracting close-ups of actors filled with angst or anger. And the film finds no rhythm in its editing to make these extremes work. Even the most harrowing scenes in "12 Years," and there a plenty of them to choose from, lack dramatic tension. One may as well be watching an accident filmed on a surveillance camera on the local news, because that's how detached McQueen's film style is (which also killed his over-praised "Shame," for me as well.)

Some have likened "12 Years a Slave" to "Schindler's List," but for emotional wallop, there is no comparison. "Schindler's List" is in every way, from script to score, the vastly superior movie: not only shocking but truly emotional and with actual drama.

John Ridley's screenplay has a few fine dynamics, but quite frankly in the end all the characters in the film end up being (literally) too black or white. Even the few characters (like Benedict Cumberbatch's Ford or Garrett Dillahunt's Armsby) who seem to have shades of gray, of course turn out to be turn-coats. Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson get two roles that feature them being evil incarnate, to the point you expect Fassbender to twirl his mustache at times. But again, any kind of shading the actors may have tried to play gets lost with McQueen's endless habit of sticking the camera repeatedly into the actor's faces.

"12 Years" is by no means an awful movie, but I think hype surrounding it in the press will lead to disappointment in movie goers who are expecting an amazing visceral tale, and are deceived into getting a stagnant and clinical examination of some of the darkest days of American history. Members of the audience I saw the movie with began talking half-way through and some people were overheard saying, "How can they make this subject so dull?" as they headed for the exit.

Blue Jasmine

Not enough "blue" in "Blue Jasmine"
Although this Woody Allen drama is impeccably acted, it is essentially a neutered version of "A Streetcar Named Desire." Without the sexual tension, the film has virtually nowhere to take it's lead character, who arrives in the beginning of the film a hapless mess of her own creation and ends exactly the same way. This works against the ever reliable Cate Blanchett, whose Jasmine is more haunted than haunting.

Additionally, the story is fleshed out with multiple unlikable characters, which makes it even harder to have much empathy with the anti-hero at it's core.

The costuming, art direction, cinematography, and overall direction are (as always)quite wonderful in an Allen film, but the script is the let- down.

For a far superior Allen drama, check out the amazing "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I've seen this before... except it was 30 seconds long
I am pretty sure we've all seen those air freshener commercials where people are blindfolded and sit around in garbage but think they are someplace palatial because they don't know any better. Well that is basically "Beasts of the Southern Wild," except the characters are not blindfolded, it lasts an interminable 95 minutes, and there are some laughably bad fantastical elements thrown into the mix.

If only the character Hushpuppy lived in this meta-spiritual world the film might have worked. Unfortunately the downfall of the film is that everyone in the "Bathtub" seems equally out-of touch.

If Hollywood finds this mess Oscar worthy, I guess Honey Boo Boo should start prepping for the Emmy red carpet.


Stong performances can't hide films flaws
If you want to know how filmmaker Steve McQueen feels about his protagonist, look no further than the title of this film.

Michael Fassbender gives an interesting, strong performance as a sexual addict. He has an equally damaged sister, played by Carey Mulligan. And that is the extent of what you learn about the principals in "Shame." And while anti-heroes can make intriguing leads, there needs to be some character development to make you want to watch these people for two hours. What's shocking about the climax of "Shame" isn't the characters actions, but the fact that as audience members we've long since given up caring about them.

Director McQueen uses virtually no dialogue, instead relying on visuals and sound. So despite the subject matter, abundant nudity, occasional violence, it's all very clinical and detached. Viewers are to make their own minds up about the characters and if, in the end, Fassbender is starting to make a recovery. However, the film is shot is such a dystopian fashion, it's pretty clear how the filmmakers feel about him. Perhaps if the film was a documentary this lack of empathy and detachment would be powerful. However, as a pretense to be serious drama this film is like a bad hook-up, leaving you wondering why you wasted your time.

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