Reviews – New movies opening January 3rd 2014

We review this week’s new cinema releases, including AMERICAN HUSTLE and MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM…

Directed by David O. Russell. Starring Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner.
After bring caught running a scam, con man Irving (Christian Bale) and his partner Sydney (Amy Adams) are forced to work with FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) as he struggles to bring down politicians, and make a name for himself.
THE VERDICT: Christian Bale leads this merry band of con artists as Irving Rosenfeld. Obsessed with his thinning hair, but oddly confident, Bale allows Irving to be the conflicted and often bungling centre of the story. Bale’s performance encapsulates a man who is so clueless, he believes himself to be clever, while falling passionately in love with the women he surrounds himself with. Bradley Cooper, rocking some very tight curls, plays FBI agent DiMaso as egotistical, charming, but ever so slightly creepy. Cooper makes DiMaso a man who is often foiled by his own grand designs, and has a false sense of pride when it comes to his abilities. Louis CK carries on his run of playing sad sack men who are often put upon by those he trusts and Jeremy Renner rounds out the male cast as a gentle and warm family man, who is entirely too trusting of the people who appear in his life.
Amy Adams, as Sydney, is as much a trickster as her lover Irv, but she has the confidence and skill to run several cons at once. Sydney is ambitious and borderline sociopathic; she cares little for those around her, but becomes entirely wrapped up in the fake persona she creates for herself. Jennifer Lawrence is as messy as Adams is composed; as Rosalyn, she is a volatile mess of a woman, who relies on substances to get her through her disappointing days, and often sets fire to her home using kitchen appliances. She is over the top, tragic but wildly funny – as all of the cast are.
Screenwriters Eric Singer and David O. Russell take a fairly pedestrian story, and certainly one that feels familiar, and creates a funny, over the top and tragic tale that is more about the relationships between the characters, than the story they find themselves embroiled in. each has their moment of redemption, whether they choose to take it or not.
As director, David O. Russell allows the story to spiral, and the characters with it, but always holds onto a modicum of control. The madness bubbles under the surface of the entire film, erupting in moments of barely contained hysteria. The director coaxes wonderfully ludicrous performances from his actors, with the women coming out on top of the game, but the men not so far behind.
Hysteria and madness are the name of the game in AMERICAN HUSTLE, and this dark comedy contains some of the wildest tragedies and biggest hair we have seen on screen in a long time. Lawrence and Adams shine – as always – as they dominate a world run by men, but Bale and Cooper hold their own, even as their hair threatens to act them off the screen. The story meanders slightly, and there are times when it all becomes a little too much, but AMERICAN HUSTLE is still one of the finest con artist films we have seen in a long time.
Review by Brogen Hayes 

MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (UK, South Africa/12A/149mins)
Directed by Justin Chadwick. Starring Idris Elba, Naomie Harris.
The story of Nelson Mandela, a man who fought for an end to apartheid in South Africa, and changed the world… At great personal cost. 
THE VERDICT: There is no doubt that the story of Nelson Mandela is an inspiring one; to go from criminal to President of the country that imprisoned him was a rather short journey in the end, but a remarkable one. The fact that the film comes up for release so soon after Mandela’s death means that there may be a lot of curious movie goers who want to find out more about Mandela, but the trouble is that this may not be the film to learn from.
It is difficult to tell whether Elba is giving a strong performance, or merely imitating Mandela. As well as this Elba is given a rather poor script to work with, one that focuses on the romantic, rather than the political, leaving Elba struggling to develop Mandela as the commanding, strong and important political and humanitarian figure that he was. Naomie Harris is strong as Winnie Mandela and captures the fierceness and strength of the character, but she is given little chance to show the motivations of a woman who stays married to a man imprisoned for 27 years.
The trouble with the film comes mainly from the screenplay. Adapting the life of one man into a film is troublesome enough, but Mandela lived such a long, rich and interesting life, that the film’s running time is greatly extended. Add to this the fact that Nelson Mandela almost lived three lives – activist, prisoner and President – then the film suffers from several false endings, and the feeling that it has been both stretched and truncated to fit the running time, and many important events are glossed over. Instead of getting to know Mandela the man, who became Mandela the legend, we are treated to a thin synopsis of Mandela’s life, which is only marginally more satisfying than reading the Wikipedia page dedicated to the man.
Director Justin Chadwick appears to be more preoccupied with telling as much as he can, as fast as he can in this film, meaning that Long Walk to Freedom turns into a history lesson, rather than an examination of a man who tenaciously plugged away at what he believed to be right. There are strengths in the film, but it is mainly Mandela’s speeches that engage the audience, leaving us wondering whether this is a portrayal of a character or an imitation of a man.
MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM would have made a fantastic mini series, which would have allowed the story to spool out in a more satisfying manner. As it stands, the film glosses over the life and times of a man who truly changed the world, leaving his story surprisingly unsatisfying. Elba and Harris do the best they can, and I defy anyone not to be moved when Mandela finally walks free of prison. Mandela’s story is one that impacted the world, but it is done a major disservice with this sweeping, romanticised and thin film.
Review by Brogen Hayes

THE MISSING PICTURE (Cambodia, France/TBC/92mins)
Directed by Rith Panh. Starring Randal Douc.
For many years, filmmaker Rithy Panh had been looking for a picture taken during the Khymer Rouge rule over Cambodia in the 1970s. When his search proved fruitless, Panh did the only thing he could do; recreate the image. Using clay figurines, Panh tells his story of Pol Pot’s time as Brother No. 1 and the effect this has had throughout his entire life. 
THE VERDICT: Throughout the film Panh talks about his childhood at the hands of the Khymer Rouge, and the fact that the memories of his youth still haunt him. This is mirrored in the method Panh uses to tell his story; instead of recreating the images of his youth using actors or models, Panh creates scenes from clay figurines, giving the entire film a feel of childlikeness mixed with adult knowledge and horror. In using these figurines, Panh also allows the audience to distance themselves from the revulsion of the image on screen and instead take in the commentary, which explains just how strong the emotional and physical effect of this time had on the filmmaker.
Panh takes in the historical facts of the time, but quickly moves the film toward the personal; the story of his family and their fight to survive the oppressive and cruel Khymer Rouge regime. It is often the microcosm that helps us to understand the bigger picture, and that is certainly the case here. By bringing the film down to the story of one family, the audience can suddenly understand the time, without the need for graphic torture scenes, explosions or violence. In fact, it is the perceived calmness of the scenes that makes the film so unsettling, and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer, in particular the sequence that deals with the death of Panh’s father.
As well as this, Panh’s style of filmmaking also highlights the fact that any footage shot of Cambodia between 1975-1979 was propaganda film for the Khymer Rouge. By inserting his clay figures into the images, Panh calls the historical accuracy of the images into question, while giving the film a slightly playful feel, rather similar to the world being viewed through the eyes of a child.
Panh’s approach to filmmaking and telling the story of his experiences in Cambodia under Pol Pot is as moving as it is surprising. Panh uses the medium of film to it’s fullest effect to tell his story, while allowing the audience to take an emotional step back from the images of screen. Panh may have been searching for an image that haunted him, when he set out to make THE MISSING PICTURE, and in turn, he has created a film that will haunt and engage audiences.
Review by Brogen Hayes 

LAST VEGAS (USA/12A/105mins)
Directed by Jon Turteltaub. Starring Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Robert DeNiro, Mary Steenburgen.
 Four sixty something friends reunite for a stag weekend in Vegas, to celebrate the wedding of their last remaining single friend.
THE VERDICT: The cast is made up of Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline and Robert DeNiro, each playing a caricature of a stereotype. Douglas, as Billy, is the last of the four friends to get married, but of course he is marrying a woman way younger than he is, as he goes through another life crisis. Freeman as Archie is a man who has suffered some ill health and is desperate to get away from his controlling son, Kline as Sam is the most likeable of the bunch, even if he is desperate to sleep with anyone who is not his wife. Finally, DeNiro is a cantankerous old bastard who refuses to accept life without his wife, until he gets to Vegas, that is. The love interest for all four men comes in the form of Mary Steenburgen who has the most fleshed out role of the lot, as lounge singer Diana, but has very little chemistry with any of the men she shares the screen with.
Writer Dan Fogelman has a career that is as odd as his most recent film; not only did he pen the spectacularly disappointing CARS and CARS 2 for Pixar, but he also created the surprisingly great TANGLED for Disney, as well as CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE and FRED CLAUS. Sadly, it seems that Fogelman has slipped back into his clichéd and disappointing ways with LAST VEGAS, as none of the characters is particularly well formed, and the narrative arc is spectacularly predictable. Oh, and no matter how hard the cast tries, LAST VEGAS is simply not funny,
Director Jon Turteltaub did well in the 90s with COOL RUNNINGS and WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, but since then, has gone from disappointment to disappointment with the NATIONAL TREASURE movies, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In Last Vegas, the director tries to make these men interesting, but only manages to make them self centred, and any attempt at delineation is lost in a sea of bad jokes and borderline offensive quips.
LAST VEGAS is an insult to the Vegas party movie, and the movies that celebrate the lives of the older generation. Kline comes off best in a sea of mediocrity, but even that is not enough to save the film from being a ridiculous, over the top, badly made mess that should be avoided as much as a Vegas hangover.
Review by Brogen Hayes