The next stop on Director Alexander Payne’s twisted travelogue is Nebraska (A-), and it’s a corker of a film, a comic father-son road trip wrapped within a requiem for the American Dream. Veteran actor Bruce Dern sheds all vanity as a befuddled cotton swab tipped codger who believes he has won a sweepstakes. Will Forte is a revelation as the preternaturally sensitive sad sack of a son who reluctantly takes dad on a journey to collect his prize and perhaps his last shreds of dignity. Lyrically paced and perfectly cast (June Squibb is hilarious as the long suffering matriarch), the film sneaks up into some of its life lessons. Although the central performance isn’t all that showy, it’s quietly affecting. The film is a black and white mini-masterpiece that is slyly observant and quite touching.
A most genius first hour squandered a bit for its remaining two acts, writer/director Spike Jonze’s Her (B) is an ambitious dramedy analyzing the bits and bytes of relationships. Joaquin Phoenix is superb as the lonely protagonist who falls in love with a coquettish computer operating system voiced by Scarlett Johannson. Although some similar themes were plumbed in Electric Dreams (oddly in 1984), Jonze makes a flimsy premise fresh and affecting. Setting this romance in an unspecified future gives the filmmakers some poignant portals to examine human rituals from a higher plane. The film soars most when the cyber siren summons the best in our hero, challenging him to experience the world anew. But there’s a point in which the audience has likely moved on, and Jones continues to belabor his themes. Woody Allen’s theory that comedies should clock in at no longer than 90 minutes would have been aptly applied here. A series of sequences bookended by snowfall could be edited out almost entirely, leaving a leaner and more consistently entertaining movie in its wake.
Stephen Frears’s Philomena (A-) is a bittersweet bonbon about a cynical journalist (Steve Coogan) and a staunch Irish Catholic woman (Dame Judi Dench) on a journey to find the son she unwittingly put up for adoption a half century ago. The characters are lovingly drawn, and the enterprise rises above melodrama thanks to a sharp script and nuanced performances. You’ll hear more about this sleeper hit come Oscar time as voters will undoubtedly be charmed.
David O. Russell’s comedic crime caper American Hustle (B) is sometimes an undisciplined mess, and this hurly-burly quality gives the enterprise both its frustrations and its charms. The con-women, played outrageously by Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, steal the show. Other Russell repertory actors including Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and others don’t quite nail indelible characters. At its best, there were flashes of wily wit suggesting a Goodfellas/
Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club (B+) is a powerful true story about an unlikely pioneer in HIV/AIDS drug treatment as embodied by Matthew McConaughey in a role that stretches him beyond anything folks have ever seen him do. His macho, emaciated and homophobic hero, coupled with a sympathetic doctor (Jennifer Garner) and a transgendered business associate (Jared Leto), experiences stages of rage, regret and redemption. Although the film squanders some of the narrative potential this trio could have plumbed, the film is nonetheless biting, bittersweet and insightful; and McConaughey is every bit as award-worthy as you may have heard, with his sly, sinewy delivery all the more poignant as he races against time to save himself and an adopted community. He and Garner erase the ghosts of rom coms past with this melodrama that often confounds expectations. Very much in the vein of People vs. Larry Flynt and certainly recommended.
Equal parts extraordinary and exhausting, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (B+) is a cynical cautionary tale wrapped in a fetching fantasia of decadent and grotesque true-life characters. Aside from the master director stunningly realizing his vision, Leonardo DiCaprio sinks his teeth into his role with grandeur. I don’t think the actor has ever been in such command of his craft, and it may be the greatest performance he has ever given. Somewhere in the second, third, maybe fourth act, however, the storytelling teeters a bit into true-crime formula. But there are so many devilish parts to relish. The film features the most seminal sequence involving stairs since Battleship Potemkin and some of the most darkly comic moments set to film involving addiction to drugs and dollars. No detail gets missed, from an ironic playing of “Mrs. Robinson” to fake get-rich-quick commercials. There are prolonged vignettes so good they needed to remain fully intact, but there are just too many of them. Scorsese wields a three-hour sledgehammer when subtler tools could have made a bigger statement. All in all, this is Leo’s tour de force and quite possibly the ultimate indictment of corporate corruption gone amuck.
Director Paul Greengrass takes a real-life news story about the cargo ship captain who saves his crew from an attack by Somali pirates and makes it surprisingly fresh and intense in Captain Phillips (B+). Tom Hanks gives a grizzled, commanding performance in the titular role; and newcomer Barkhad Abdi is a revelation as the armed leader of the shipboard trespassers. Greengrass gives the proceedings a documentary-style you-are-there intensity, unexpectedly crafting one of the year’s great human adventures.
A technical tour de force and a wonder to behold, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (B) is nonetheless weighed down by an oppressive storyline, stock characters and a script marred with a touch of self-importance. Both Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are bit characters eclipsed by incredible outer space floating effects. It’s highly recommended as a showcase for 3D and efficient as a thriller with some nail-biting moments, but it’s also far-fetched and ultimately orbits a black hole of melodrama. Clooney basically plays Buzz Lightyear. Bullock’s CGI face and tears seem like they’re emoting pretty well, but in space, no one can see you act. Gravity barely gave its characters the acumen to operate an Easy Bake Oven, while a simultaneous release Captain Phillips depicted complete technical mastery amidst the maritime brinkmanship.