Need a refresher of the nine Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, to be awarded Sunday, March 2? Check out this roundup of abbreviated Weekly reviews, with links to the full reviews included in each headline.
American Hustle (3 stars)
"American Hustle" loosely derives from the late-'70s, early-'80s FBI Abscam operation, so named for its employment of an "Arab," a fake sheik used to entrap politicians into accepting bribes. Director David O. Russell buys himself free rein by admitting he's cherry-picking history for juicy bits while allowing himself to design the characters and story for maximum tickling. Christian Bale plays skilled fraudster Irving Rosenfeld. Along with his mistress Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, affecting a British accent), Rosenfeld bilks investors, until one turns out to be FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a slickster in his own right who's not all he cracks himself up to be.
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence. Two hours, 18 minutes.
-- Peter Canavese (Reviewed Dec. 20, 2013)
Captain Phillips (3 stars)
The "real-life thriller" "Captain Phillips" may be obvious and it may be clumsy, but it's also at least a little bit thoughtful, and there's never a dull moment. Add in two strong central performances and the stylistic stringency of Paul Greengrass, and you get, at the very least, a fine approximation of an important Oscar-time movie. The whole enterprise is basically here to give Tom Hanks something to do, and do it he does as Captain Rich Phillips of the Maersk Alabama, a U.S.-registered cargo ship beset by pirates while on its way from Oman to Kenya in 2009. Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray ("State of Play"), working from Phillips' book "A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea," hurriedly establish victims Phillips, his wife (Catherine Keener in a blink-or-you'll-miss-'er cameo), and his crew and perps, the Somali crews sent out by a warlord padding his war chest. The pirate captain, Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), quickly draws our attention as the counterpart to Phillips. Skinny and living under a more intense duress than Phillips, Muse nevertheless deals with similar issues that put him in harm's way for capitalist goals, and into conflict with his unhappy crew.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of menace, violence with bloody images, and substance use. Two hours, 14 minutes.
-- Peter Canavese (Reviewed Oct. 11, 2013)
Dallas Buyers Club (2 1/2 stars)
Jean-Marc Vallee's film, scripted by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack, opens in 1985, as the world awoke to Rock Hudson as the sudden celebrity face of AIDS. McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, a hard-charging electrician and rodeo cowboy first seen plowing women in the shadows before bull-riding with money riding on how long he can hold on. It's a canny entree into the story: When Woodruff sprints away after losing his bets, he's been swiftly established as an all-around reckless character, his sexual recklessness a possible cause of his looming AIDS diagnosis. Faced with a doctor (Denis O'Hare) who tells him, "Frankly, we're surprised you're even alive" and a T-cell count of nine, Woodruff fiercely roots out his limited options. He gets wind of a human trial for AIDS-combating drug AZT, but he's denied access. In the process of literally saving himself (long outliving his diagnosis), Woodruff creates a drug pipeline that he winds up sharing with his new community of fellow patients.
Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use. One hour, 57 minutes.
-- Peter Canavese (Reviewed Nov. 15, 2013)
Gravity (3 and 1/2 stars)
"At 600 km. above the Earth," we're told in the new film "Gravity," "There is nothing to carry sound. No air pressure. No oxygen. Life in space is impossible." And yet, there we are. The evocation of Ridley Scott's 1979 "Alien" ("In space, no one can hear you scream") is apt: "Gravity" is a bit like "Alien" without the alien, replacing it with existential despair that's just as likely to take a fatal bite out of the heroine. Here the heroine is Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer sent via space shuttle to assist in repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope. In the film's first sequence a bravura 12-minute segment crafted to appear as a single camera shot with no cuts satellite debris shoots at the shuttle and the telescope, causing a fatal accident that threatens to strand and thereby kill Stone and shuttle commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Dwindling oxygen and thruster power threaten their survival, as does Stone's natural panic due to the circumstances and her inexperience.
Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language. One hour, 30 minutes.
-- Peter Canavese (Reviewed Oct. 4, 2013)
Her (4 stars)
All people in romantic relationships want to know their love is real. But when half of the intelligence involved is artificial, can love be real? That's the question at the center of "Her," a futuristic science-fiction dramedy with clear implications about how we live today. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, whose job writing other people's letters for "Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com" represents the mixed-up nature of modern truth amongst and between people. Amidst a divorce from wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore tries phone sex, then an in-person blind date with a once-bitten, twice-shy woman (Olivia Wilde). Both attempts end badly, but when a curious Theodore ponies up for a new OS for his phone, he finds in it a personal assistant, life coach and best buddy who, with curious inevitability, becomes his girlfriend. Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, offscreen but vital) has incredible processing power, of course, but also convincing "personality" that quickly takes the forms of affection and desire for her prone owner.
Rated R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity. Two hours, six minutes.
-- Peter Canavese (Reviewed Dec. 27, 2013)
Nebraska (3 stars)
It's never too late to play a few grace notes. With Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," this proves true for two septuagenarians: addled heartland grump Woodrow "Woody" Grant and the Hollywood royal who plays him, Bruce Dern. Nebraska native Payne usually co-writes his films, and though here he directs a script by Bob Nelson, you wouldn't know it if not for the credits. "Nebraska" is right in Payne's wheelhouse of American quirk. It's a relatively simple story of how Woody has gotten it into his head that he's won a million-dollar sweepstakes and, though his son David (Will Forte, late of "Saturday Night Live") knows his father is a victim of junk-mail marketing, he's also attentive enough to realize "The guy just needs something to live for." And so Woody and David hit the road from Billings, Mont., to Omaha, Neb.
Rated R for some language. One hour, 55 minutes.
-- Peter Canavese (Reviewed Nov. 29, 2013)
Philomena (3 stars)
In 1952, Hollywood star Jane Russell adopted an Irish-born baby, prompting controversy and headlines like "1,000 CHILDREN DISAPPEAR FROM IRELAND." Money had talked, and shady officials had issued dubious passports condoning the export and sale of Irish infants. That story died down, but thousands of Irish children were indeed spirited away. Now the film "Philomena" takes the perspective of a wronged Irish mother coerced, in 1952, into giving her baby away. In investigating his expose "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," journalist Martin Sixsmith cracked a longstanding mystery by exploring a remarkable case study. Co-producer and co-screenwriter Steve Coogan stars as Sixsmith, recently sacked as an adviser to the Labour party. Lacking direction, he's open to a lead about Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), the baby she birthed out of wedlock, and her 50-year distress after her baby was adopted against her wishes.
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references. One hour, 38 minutes.
-- Peter Canavese (Reviewed Nov. 29, 2013)
12 Years a Slave (3 and 1/2 stars
It can be hard to see the tree for the forest when it comes to films about culturally loaded topics, none more so than American slavery. It's useful to keep in mind that "12 Years a Slave" is the story of a man: a tale of physical and emotional survival that, unlike "All is Lost" and "Gravity," derives from a true story. The man is Solomon Northup, who endured the titular torture before penning his autobiography of the same name (as told to white lawyer David Wilson). Director Steve McQueen's cinematic adaptation, scripted by John Ridley, begins in 1841, where free New York resident Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a husband and father, entertains an offer to play the violin on tour with a circus. The offer turns out to be a ruse, and Northup is kidnapped, transported by a domestic slave ship to New Orleans, and sold into slavery. Above all, "12 Years a Slave" explores one man's terrifying realization of the fragility of his existence and, accordingly, his sense of self.
Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. Two hours, 13 minutes.
-- Peter Canavese (Reviewed Nov. 1, 2013)
The Wolf of Wall Street (3 and 1/2 stars)
"The Wolf of Wall Street" charges out of the gate with immediate evidence of Scorsese's skill, abetted by Terence Winter's whip-crack screenplay and Thelma Schoonmaker's brilliant editing. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) introduces himself as "a former member of the middle class" who, the year he turned 26, made $49 million ("which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week"). The brattiest imaginable "master of the universe," Belfort proudly presides over a three-ring circus of conspicuous consumption: hookers, blow and the American dream once broadcast as "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
Rated R for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence. Three hours.
-- Peter Canavese (Reviewed Dec. 27, 2013)