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Funny, stylish and superbly cast con caper will steal your heart

AMERICAN HUSTLE Thriller/Comedy/Drama: Starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis CK. Director: David O Russell Cert: 15A

THE tone of David O Russell's latest movie is set with a title card that states, "some of this actually happened". Playful but not untruthful, it's a lot more honest than the "inspired by true events" gloss we've become used to in recent years.

Anyway, it kicks off proceedings with a mischievous chuckle, creating a nod-and-a-wink mood which this multi-faceted and absorbing story needs. Set in New York in 1978, the first thing we see is Christian Bale's character, conman Irving Rosenfeld, applying a wig to his baldpate with almost surgical care in order to create a character for a sting on a politician.

Thus Russell sets us up for a two-hour roller coaster ride in which almost every character is conning everyone else or pretending to be someone else. And it's a gem.

Loosely based on a case where the FBI collaborated with a conman called Mel Weinberg and a couple of 'fake sheikhs' to uncover political corruption, American Hustle is incredibly stylish, impeccably shot and is very hard to pin down.

Parts of it are dramatic, parts extremely funny and other parts tense. In essence it's a caper movie shot through the stylistic and structural prism of Goodfellas with an ensemble cast totally on top of their game.

Drawing largely on the repertory company he's built up through The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, Russell gives us Bale's Rosenfeld as a scam artist and dealer in fake art who falls for the charms of Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a smalltown girl hustling in New York who hooks up with Rosenfeld for what looks like a handy racket. With Sydney putting on an English accent and posing as a member of the aristocracy "with banking connections", they run a successful low-level fraud until nabbed by slightly manic FBI man Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).


Coerced into helping him uncover politicians on the take, DiMaso is also smitten with 'Lady Edith' who proceeds to play him like a violin in order to further the best possible outcome for herself.

The first politico in the FBI's sights is a New Jersey mayor, Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner), who, ironically, may turn out to be the only truly honest person in the entire enterprise.

However, there's a seriously loose cannon lurching about the deck in the shape of Rosenfeld's young wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). Lawrence pretty much steals every scene she's in here, playing a possibly not-so-dumb blonde with a habit of setting fire to the kitchen, but who could bring the entire scheme down, particularly when the scam escalates and "gentlemen from Miami" become involved.

If all that sounds a tad convoluted, that's because it is, but in the best possible way. With every character out for something other than what they say they are, you're constantly kept on your toes wondering which way things are going to fall.

There are stings within stings within stings, the action being propelled along by some great dialogue (Rosalyn being described as "the Picasso of passive/aggressive karate" springs to mind) and performances that zing from the screen.

Bale is less flashy than usual, Cooper brings a manic intensity to his role, while Renner supplies something of a moral centre to the whole film.

The women, though, are simply excellent. Adams and Lawrence have been given roles which, in Adams' case in particular, would have graced the great films noir of the 40s and 50s. Vulnerable but dangerous at the same time, hers is a less comic and obvious part than Lawrence's, but both are essential to the success of this marvellous movie. And there's a great 70s soundtrack too. HHHHH

MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM Drama: Starring Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kygoroge, Deon Lotz, Risad Moosa. Director: Justin Chadwick Cert: 12A

THERE were always going to be dangers in trying to convey the remarkable life story of Nelson Mandela in a single film, and so it's proven to be.

Director Justin Chadwick was on a hiding to nothing from the start by taking on the full scope of Mandela's autobiography and trying to condense it for a single sitting.

Put it this way – five decades in the life of one of the great statesmen of our time gets two-and-a-half hours of screentime, while a 250-page children's book, The Hobbit, gets nine. Go figure. In fairness, Idris Elba does bring charisma to the leading role, particularly in the early days when his physique more closely resembles that of the young Mandela. And Naomie Harris shines as Winnie, a role which is more demanding as her character doesn't exactly chime with audience sympathies.

The real problem here is that the film is simply too episodic to work. We lurch from the introduction of apartheid in 1948 to the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 with almost indecent haste, rarely allowing the characters to breathe and grow in front of us, thus allowing us to rationalise why the ANC turned to armed resistance.

By spreading the narrative so thin, Chadwick never really allows us to engage thoroughly with this remarkable man, with the result being that Long Walk to Freedom, for all its undoubted good intentions, comes across as worthy and a piece of work more suited to classrooms than cinemas. HHHII

LAST VEGAS Drama: Starring Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen. Director: Jon Turteltaub Cert: 12A

OH dear God, where to start with this? The pitch was clearly "imagine The Hangover, but with old guys" – and that's what you get.

Robert De Niro continues to torch his legacy as one of four friends who head to Vegas where another of their number, Billy (Michael Douglas), is to marry a woman 30 years his junior.

What follows is a litany of "we still have it" routines mixed in with creepy interludes (Kevin Kline and a teenage girl) and no sense of comedy at all. Everyone involved in this fiasco should be ashamed of themselves. HIIII