Cinema: American Hustle, 47 Ronin, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Last Vegas, The Missing Picture
Any film that opens on Christian Bale buttoning a polyester shirt over a generous gut before constructing an elaborate fake hair/combover combo has potential.
And it's a potential that is fulfilled in this sort of school reunion from director David O Russell, who's worked with Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to such effect in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook.
Set in 1978 and to an opening advisement that "Some of this actually happened" (it's based on the Abscam bribery case) the film, co-written by Russell and Eric Singer, opens on Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) preparing to set up a politician, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Although they're working together there are clearly tensions between Irv and his co-conspirators, Lady Edith Greenlee (Adams) and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper in tight curls).
This is the middle of the story and soon we are taken back to when Irv and Edith meet, how they developed a scam business and how they were busted by FBI agent Richie who promised them leniency if they helped him fry bigger fish. All to a vibrant '70s soundtrack and glorious '70s outfits, Edith has a brilliant mind but her selection of plunging necklines is very much part of the play too.
Richie DiMasois plain nasty, Cooper portrays that very well, and his flash ambition is backed up by the ambitious, young DA -- who overlooks Di Maso's bullying of his boss (Louis CK, played by Stoddard Thorsen) and very possible drug addiction.
The murky waters in which they fish are complicated by a love triangle, or two, and the fact that Irv also has a wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence) -- "the Picasso of passive aggressive karate".
Russell creates characters rather than characterisations or caricatures and it's lovely to see actors get chances to be great, and take them. Russell probably still has to learn that less can be more but overall this really works well. There's more than a whiff of Scorsese here, without the violence, and there's a great synergy that makes the occasionally woolly plot almost irrelevant.
- Opens January 3
While based on a real 18th-Century incident, Hollywood has decided the best thing to do with feudal Japan is what it does to every land beyond its borders -- turn the era into a theme park to be sound-tracked by popcorn guzzling.
First-time director Carl Rinsch sits behind the lens as Keanu Reeves plays Kai, a half-cast orphan found by Lord Asano's hunting party. He is taken in and reared as one of their own. All grown up, but living as an underling on the lord's estate, Kai is, naturally, now a master fighter and adored by Asano's daughter Mika (Kou Shibasaki). When witchcraft and treachery at a royal tournament lead to Lord Asano having to take his own life, his loyal samurai, led by Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) flee to become masterless and therefore disgraced "ronin". Now filling Asano's place (by order of the surly Shogun) is smarmy baddie Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano) who takes Mika as his wife. Kai, meanwhile, is sold to Dutch merchants for fighting sport.
Freeing Mika, avenging her father's death and restoring order are all on the cards as far as Oishi is concerned and his first action is to track down Kai and free him so that his outsider magic and sword skills can assist. Strange beasts are grappled with, mutant monks and witches cast their trickery and you can practically hear the code-writers building the video game adaptation in the background.
The production, costumes and CGI rendering can't be faulted, and the finale is well-executed. Reeves' "confuddled and blinking" shtick is oddly apt here but his woodenness can be hard to pick out during forest scenes. Hiroyuki is better, but he can't save 47 Ronin from cringey dialogue and a drab screenplay.
- Now showing
MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM
Premiering the night of his passing, Mandela: Long Road To Freedom is arguably at an immediate disadvantage as it debuts in the afterglow of a media maelstrom. After seveeral weeks of mourning and analysis, we're perhaps a tad too Mandela-d out to take a two-hour sojourn through his entire life.
We may have been kinder to Justin Chadwick's film had it surfaced later when the world had turned and Mandela was due revision. That aside, Mandela ... is just not up to the task of biographing its subject, stymied by zero-to-hero cliches, preposterous make-up out of the J Edgar chest of horrors and an inability to communicate the frailty of the Robben Island inmate or his effect on South African society.
Instead we get beefcake Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther) strutting around as the young lawyer and gargling away in an accent that takes getting used to.
Afrikaners scowl while man, woman and child of his own ethnicity fall in love with his can-do tones.
The Sharpeville Massacre finds him getting his hands dirty in ANC guerrilla tactics when diplomacy is no longer an option.
Up to this point, it's an African re-shoot of Michael Collins, but things improve with his incarceration and how that eroded his marriage to the increasingly hardline Winnie (Naomi Harris). Then we dawdle in and out of house arrest and meetings with de Klerk before waving goodbye just as presidency is achieved.
Elba does his best in a role that offers no wriggle room for interpretation and the actual walk of freedom scene is nailed. But Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom overstretches itself by covering boyhood to presidency when anchoring itself to one period in his life and featuring flashbacks might have worked better.
- Released on January 3
Well, they do say boys will be boys. On the evidence of the likeable if lazy new Jon Turteltaub-directed comedy, Last Vegas, never more so than when they're old men. Their fountain of youth might have slowed to a trickle, but the four Hollywood legends that feature in this Rat Pack-style reboot are in the business of showing us that you're never too old to rock and ro... well, disco actually.
So let's meet the Flatbush Four. A short prologue informs us they were as thick as thieves back as kids in Brooklyn during the 1950s but it's a different scenario roughly 60 years on. Archie's (Morgan Freeman) ticker is showing signs of throwing in the towel, widower Paddy (Robert De Niro) is in a terminal funk after recently losing the love of his life, while retirement in Florida has left Sam (Kevin Kline) concerned about the state of his flatlining soul.
Of the quartet, time, together with the surgeon's knife has been kindest to Billy (Michael Douglas). He's got the trophy home, the Peter Pan personality and if his Vegas marriage plans come together, the imminent addition of a trophy wife half his age. But is he happy?
Answers come thick and fast as these four amigos converge on Vegas for a date with decadence-fuelled destiny. Faster than you can say I can't believe it's not The Hangover, booze is on board, bikini babes are being ogled, and, you guessed it, life lessons are being learned.
The script is light on levity and in terms of dramatic depth, disposable to the point of being biodegradable, but maintain realistic expectation levels and you might just be pleasantly surprised. The performances are uniformly excellent and while there is the occasional sense of the bottom of a barrel getting scraped, all concerned acquit themselves admirably. Somewhat worryingly, the ending allows for the possibility of a sequel but the team should really quit while ahead. The last Last Vegas? Let's hope so.
- Release Date January 3
THE MISSING PICTURE
CERT: NO CERT
So much for that maxim that tells us history is written by the victors. Cambodian film-maker Rithy Panh's stunning documentary, The Missing Picture, leaves you wondering whether history is actually written by the Left.
Watching this harrowing account of the ideologically inspired horrors inflicted on the Cambodian people by the Paris-educated Pol Pot back in the Seventies, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that somewhere along the line, truth has been the first casualty, and today's mouthpieces of Leftist ideology aren't half as discredited as they ought to be.
Not that this documentary has a political message. What makes this absorbing work so affecting is that it's not so much a look back in anger as a look back in bewilderment. Panh has personal connection with the source material in that he was a child living a charmed existence in Phnom Penh when Pol Pot's Communist killers, the Khymer Rouge, arrived in Cambodia's capital in May 1975. Pol Pot's aim was a peasant utopia that didn't include cities so Phnom Penh was immediately emptied and its population coerced into agrarian servitude.
Panh and his family were forcibly relocated to a rural workcamp where unspeakable terrors were perpetrated on the people in the name of Communism. Starvation and executions were an everyday occurrence while the nights were given over to indoctrination and re-education. They became known as The Killing Fields and it's estimated that close to two million people were exterminated during this four-year-long reign of terror.
The archive footage that remains is mostly regime propaganda, but Panh fills in the blanks with scene recreations featuring exquisitely crafted clay figures. Merged with the involving timbre of Panh's narration, they work brilliantly in delivering the type of emotional impact that endures long after the credits have run.
Winner of Un Certain Regard at Cannes this powerful and poignant piece represents the ultimate must-see for students of history and the human condition alike. Lest we forget what happens when western Lefties and liberals are listened to and the world looks away.
- IFI on January 3