featured RevieWS
2014 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee Reviews

American Hustle (2013)
Directed by David O. Russell
Starring: Christian Bale; Amy Adams; Jennifer Lawrence; Bradley Cooper


"American Hustle" is one of the best films of the year, and is a contender to be my choice for best picture of the year. The film is its own dazzling disco, but there are steps reminiscent of Oscar best pictures "The Sting" (1973) and "The Godfather Part II". David O. Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook") co-writes and directs this inspired film set in late 1970s New Jersey. Mr. Russell brings us into the world of Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) a con man of some talent thrown into a world outside of his control by his girlfriend and partner-in-crime Sidney Prosser (Amy Adams) and wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). At the beginning of the film, Sidney brings to Irving their latest mark, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who turns out to be an ambitious FBI agent. Faced with the threat of incarceration, Richie offers them a deal to let them walk if they work with the Bureau in four sting operations. What happens next is for you to experience in the theater, but Richie has much more in mind for Irving and Sidney. The audacity of the growing plan requires Christian to involve his wife Rosalyn, whose vengeance is fierce after meeting Sidney, the mistress she has loathed for many years. Personal passions, ambitions, and unpredictable characters and situations threaten to destroy Irving and Sidney as they look at the biggest con of their entire lives, where their marks are the FBI, Camden New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), U.S. Senators and Congressmembers, and an organized crime boss (played by an uncredited Oscar winning actor that will shock you). Since this film is a fictionalized version of a real FBI sting operation where real members of Congress were convicted, I was kept off-balance the entire film, because I didn't know when Mr. Russell's screenplay would stay true and when it would stray. The performances of every actor in the film are top notch. Mr. Bale (who again gives everything for his craft with a stunning physical transformation), Ms. Adams, Ms. Lawrence, and Mr. Cooper are extraordinary and each deserve Oscar nominations. Danny Elfman scores the film with '70s rock ballads that enhance every moment. The production designer Judy Becker ("Silver Linings Playbook", "Brokeback Mountain") does her best work and deserves her first Oscar nomination. Finally, the costume designer Michael Wilkinson ("Garden State", "Twilight: Breaking Dawn", "Man of Steel") deserves his first Oscar nomination as well. This film is a modern classic that will be studied by actors and film students for years. For film lovers and those looking for a non-action adventure film, I give my highest recommendation to see this film in theaters, and again when it comes out on streaming or Blu-ray.
- Dennis Chiu

Captain Phillips (2013)
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring: Tom Hanks; Barkhab Abdi


"Captain Phillips" is one of the best films of the year. Director Paul Greengrass ("United 93", "The Bourne Ultimatum") creates a near flawless film, assisted by a pitch perfect screenplay by Billy Ray ("The Hunger Games", "Breach") adapted from the book by Captain Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty. There is much to admire. I love to learn and this film provides exquisite details on cargo ship operations, Somali pirates, anti-piracy battle tactics, U.S. Naval operations along the northeastern coast of Africa, and U.S. Navy SEAL strategy and tactics. The details enhance the cinéma vérité style that has been a hallmark of Mr. Greengrass' films. Tom Hanks and Barkhab Abdi are completely in-character in the title role and role of the lead pirate, respectively. There are no dumb characters in this film, only players that are more experienced with professional training and those that are less experienced and increasingly desperate. Watching this film unfold was like watching a masterclass on moviemaking. Exposition is done intelligently. For example, the film uses a drill of a pirate attack prior to the actual attacks to educate us on the layout of the ship, ship terminology, instrumentation and the crew's training, so we better understand what happens when the attacks are underway. You may ask why not just show the audience during the actual attack. The answer is: this film isn't about what happened, but showing us how smart each of the characters behave during the chaos as standard tactics are defeated and the situation becomes increasingly dangerous and fluid. The film is cut and paced brilliantly -- lingering on small moments to let us get to know the characters and their motivations, humanizing key characters, and keeping the story moving quickly toward each thrilling sequence. The cinematography is a nice mix of wide shots, medium shots and close-ups, so the film never feels too claustrophobic or too distant. The ocean is filmed perfectly, never making me feel seasick. New characters are introduced slowly as the canvas expands from just the cargo ship (the Maersk Alabama) to include the Alabama's emergency lifeboat, the U.S.S. Bainbridge, the U.S.S. Halyburton and Navy SEAL Team 6, the same special forces unit that killed Osama Bin Laden. There was some concern that the Somali pirates would be treated as one dimensional villains, and in the hands of lesser filmmakers they might have been, but not here. We see the Somali warlords terrorizing the coastal fishing villagers for protection money. Yet we see things that could lead us to conclude that the Somali pirates are not just fishermen, but are more greed driven. The great thing is that the film never forces the audience to stereotype the Somalis as villains or simply fishermen forced to terrorize shipping lanes -- the motivations are more complicated and the film shows that respectfully. I give my highest recommendation to see "Captain Phillips" in theaters, because you are likely seeing the Oscar nominees for Best Actor (Tom Hanks), Best Supporting Actor (Barkhab Abdi), and Best Motion Picture of the Year, and a film that may end up on the top of my list of favorite films of 2013 -- I loved it.
- Dennis Chiu


Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring:  Matthew McConaughey; Jared Leto


"Dallas Buyers Club" offers a good deal. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto gift Oscar-worthy transformative performances in this blunt story on the efficacy of the drug ACT during the early part of the HIV epidemic in 1985. Mr. McConaughey portrays Robert Woodroof, a crass, cagey, homophobic, Svidrigailov, electrician, rodeo cowboy, who grows to become a crusader for enlightened medical care for HIV patients. The performances propel this film of anti-heroes, who are often unlikeable, memorable, but for whom we nevertheless root for because of their humanity. Mr. McConaughey commits his body and soul to a character that becomes emaciated due to the ravages of the disease, yet maintains a witty bravado and swagger in his ten gallon hat. Mr. Leto is stunning as the character Rayon, a tranny who befriends Woodruff in the hospital where they develop an unlikely business partnership. The screenplay written by first time screenwriter Craig Borton and third time screenwriter Melisa Wallack ("Meet Bill", "Mirror, Mirror") is a good one --they smartly decide to tell the story through the characters' eyes and biases, as opposed to a balanced approach. Director Jean-Marc Vallee imbues the film with a gritty feel and tone, and carefully selected camera positions that stay out of the way of the drama unfolding. An ochre filter acid washes every frame and adds ambiance that enhances the audacity of the performances. This film is sometimes difficult to watch because many characters are drowning in booze, sex and drugs, but then disease and heroes don't often incubate in sterile environments. I give a strong recommendation to see "Dallas Buyers Club" in theaters for those who love independent films, brilliant acting, and like to watch likely Oscar nominees. This is probably one of the best films of the year.
- Dennis Chiu


Gravity (2013)
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Sandra Bullock


"Gravity" falls a bit short as a film, but mostly succeeds as an experience. This is my first film review in three weeks, and it is good to be writing again. Writer/Producer/Director Alfonso Cuaron ("Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban") delivers a simulation of what it would feel like to be a specialist on the Space Shuttle assigned to fix the Hubble Space Telescope when everything goes wrong. Mr. Cuaron chose to make "Gravity" a visceral experience as opposed to an intellectual one. The basic plot is woman versus herself, and woman versus nature, or in this case the void of nature -- space where life cannot exist. Sandra Bullock portrays Ryan Stone, a payload specialist, trained to be an astronaut, hurtled by circumstance into unimaginable danger. Some of what Ms. Bullock's character relies on is training, but most of what keeps her going is sheer will. The film's plot device to propel the "story" forward is hurtling debris. The hurtling debris act as flying daggers in space and we watch Ms. Bullock's reflexes to duck, cover and grab onto something to prevent her from tumbling off into nothingness. This sequence is repeated again and again. Mr. Cuaron's intent appears to be to present a crucible where when all of the technology that allows humans to exist in space is stripped away, survival comes down to something as simple as breathing.The film's other raison d'êtres is to look beautiful. In fact, George Clooney's character, astronaut Matt Kawalsky, remarks on how beautiful and quiet the Earth appears from orbit. Mr. Cuaron should have probably been more subtle and allowed the CG shots to speak for themselves. Respect is given to Stanley Kubrick with a shot of Ms. Bullock curled up in an air lock that is reminiscent of the fetus at the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey". Personally, I would have preferred more intellectual puzzle solving in this survival story, like in Ron Howard's "Apollo 13" where a team of scientists and engineers worked together with limited pieces to build the parts necessary to bring the astronauts home safely. For me, Mr. Cuaron leaned too much on the human survival instinct to dramatize Ms. Bullock's plight. I enjoy more a human survival story that relies on equal parts grit and intelligence. In the end, I give "Gravity" a modest recommendation to see in theaters. I saw it in 2D because everything was sold out on opening night, but I imagine that this film would be more interesting in IMAX 3D.
- Dennis Chiu


Her (2014)
Directed and Written by Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix; Amy Adams; Scarlett Johannson


"Her" is a film about life, loss and love set in future Los Angeles, where artificial intelligence has come of age. This film is original, quiet, yet surprisingly funny, bizarrely erotic, and melancholy. This is the last of 9 films nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2014 for me to review. Joaquin Phoenix ("Walk the Line"; "The Master") plays Theodore Thwombly, a sensitive man, whose job is to ghostwrite letters between everyday people and their loved ones. If you are a fan of language, this film will give you a lot to listen to, because the premise requires most love to be verbally communicated. Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johannson ("Lost in Translation"), is the first mass produced artificially intelligent operating system that selects her own name, learns, composes original music, grows, develops emotions and complex ideas and beliefs. Samantha is lightyears from the HAL9000 of Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in that she is not dangerously aggressive and falls deeply in love with Theodore, and Theodore with her. Just when you think that a human being could not become more emotionally and physically involved with a computer operating system, this film takes the relationship to greater heights. Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich") has written and directed science fiction at its most profound -- it explores humanity's capacity to love with all of its ups and downs equal to or greater than any other film. I was pre-disposed to assume that love with an operating system was an anthropomorphic exercise, but I found this on-screen relationship to be richly insightful. Amy Adams ("American Hustle"; "The Fighter") plays Amy, a human friend of Theodore whose marriage is in trouble. Her performance as Amy is real and perfectly understated. Ms. Adams has excellent taste in scripts, selecting to appear in two Academy Award Best Picture nominees this year. "Her" received five Oscar nominations. This is a great film, but in my opinion, it is only a real contender for "Original Screenplay". It's up against: "American Hustle"; "Blue Jasmine"; "Dallas Buyers Club"; and "Nebraska". If I was a member of the Academy, I'd vote for "Her" for Best Original Screenplay. This film has been out since January 10, 2014 and yet the theater on a Saturday was 70 percent full. I give "Her" a strong recommendation to those interested in Oscar nominated films, lovers of cerebral science fiction, and those who love well-written spoken English prose.
- Dennis Chiu

Nebraska (2013)
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring:  Bruce Dern


"Nebraska" is a small, subtle, and solid silver screen story of a flawed elderly man seeking redemption in a million dollar magazine sweepstakes mailer. This is the 8th of the 9 Best Picture nominees that I have seen, and I am pleased to report that it deserves all six Oscar nominations. Director Alexander Payne ("Descendants"; "Sideways"; "About Schmidt") seems to specialize in making movies that depict real life without being overly sentimental or shying away from the sadness in many relationships. Like "About Schmidt", Mr. Payne returns to a road trip story set in the mid-West, but this time to unlock the life of Woody Grant, played impeccably by Bruce Dern. Woody is in the twilight of his years and becomes obsessed with a Publisher's Clearing House-type mailer that says: You've won a million dollars. He sets out to walk from Montana to Nebraska to collect his prize. After several attempts are thwarted by his wife Kate, played memorably by June Squib, Woody's younger son David, portrayed with infinite patience and kindness by Will Forte, decides to give his mother a break, spend some time with his father, and take Woody on this wild goose chase. The journey to Nebraska transforms in to a pilgrimage into Woody's past. Stacy Keach turns in a good performance as a rotten friend who turns up in Woody's hometown. The Oscar nominated original screenplay by Bob Nelson is impressive in how it develops the characters with sparse dialogue. The film is shot in black and white with digital cameras utilizing anamorphic lenses that yields crisp vistas, rich character expressions, and magnificent images of the stark reality of mid-western small town life. As the end credits rolled, my conclusion was that I enjoyed the journey. Of all of its nominations, "Nebraska" is probably only a real contender for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Bruce Dern's acting is every bit equal to Mr. DiCaprio's ("Wolf of Wall Street"), Mr. Bale's ("American Hustle"), and Mr. McConaughey's ("Dallas Buyer's Club") performances. For lovers of independent films, black-and-white films, and Oscar movie watchers, I highly recommend "Nebraska" to see before the big night, so you will understand if Bruce Dern sneaks in past his more glamorous fellow nominees. I'm looking forward to seeing "Her" very soon to complete my viewing of all Best Picture nominees. 2013 ended up being a good year at the movies.
- Dennis Chiu

Philomna (2013)
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring:  Judi Dench; Steve Coogan


"Philomena" is a small gem. Directed by Stephen Frears ("The Queen") and screenwriters Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (writers known for British-TV) create a film based on the true story of Philomena Lee, a woman, who as a girl was forced to give up her son for adoption by nuns in 1950s Ireland. Philomena kept silent about her "sin" for 50-years until she reached a point where she was haunted by worry that her son was unwell. BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, who took a job in the Tony Blair administration and was "forcibly resigned" after his email leaked about the British government burying stories in the press during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, decides to help Philomena with her search. That's pretty much all I can write about this movie without giving away the surprises during the search. The story could easily have been a Lifetime TV-movie or something that ended up on "Masterpiece Contemporary" on PBS, but it is elevated primarily by Dame Judi Dench, who portrays the title character. Dame Dench's Philomena is a strong Irish woman who is humble, unworldly, but overflowing with common sense and dignity. Screenwriter and British comedian Steve Coogan takes the role of Martin Sixsmith, and gives Sixsmith the personality of an impish, disillusioned professional who has seen the worst sides of journalism and British politics. Dame Dench and Mr. Coogan are entertaining together in an understated study on how people from different backgrounds interact. "Philomena" is an enjoyable film with a good mystery, several pleasant scenes and a lot of heart. I'm recommending this film to see in theaters for anyone interested in independent pictures, British movies, real-life mysteries with a smidgeon of intrigue and politics. If you miss it in theaters be sure to catch it on Blu-ray or streaming. (Footnote: I completely disagree with the movie review in the "New York Post" which criticized the film as an anti-Catholic "sucker punch". The film goes out of the way to show how Philomena wrestles with her faith in an honest manner.)
- Dennis Chiu

Twelve Years A Slave (2013)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring:  Chiwetel Ejiofor; Lupita Nyong'o


"12 Years a Slave" flays the facade off of the romantic South during slavery. For 143 excruciating minutes, Director Steve McQueen bludgeons the audience with the sadism of white slave owners and the sound of black souls dying. There is nothing hopeful or artistic about "12 Years a Slave"; it is a raw picture of the personal truth of free man Soloman Northrup, portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Inside Man", "Love Actually"), kidnapped and transmuted into a slave in the deep South. This is one of the most difficult films I have ever had to watch and not walk out of. Mr. McQueen chooses claustrophobic tight shots so that no detail is easily missed. Wide shots are used to emphasize the vast expanse of hell in which Northrop exists. Whips crack and shred skin. Blood flows from wounds inflicted with little mercy. This film is absolutely humorless, and possibly necessarily so. There are many things that Mr. McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley ("Three Kings") could have done to ennoble Northrup and other slave characters, but it would have betrayed their desperation and survival. When Steven Spielberg tackled the Holocaust in "Schindler's List", he chose a story that possessed hope in the midst despair, and shot in black and white which allowed unspeakable evil to be watched through a filter. No such comfort was granted in "12 Years a Slave". Mr. McQueen and Mr. Ridley sought to show slaves screaming in vivid color. The entire cast played their roles competently and seriously in service to this depiction of historical depravity. The debut of Lupita Nyong'o who played "Patsey", a slave, raped and tortured by plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), deserves special recognition. Ms. Nyong'o suffers like no other character on screen. A special mention needs to be made of Benedict Cumberbatch's small supporting role as Ford -- Mr. Cumberbatch is mesmerizing on screen. This is one of the most difficult reviews I've ever written because while I respect its unflinching view of slavery, most of this film is unwatchable. It's what I imagine it would feel like to watch a death row inmate put to death. This film is jarring, the first of its kind, important as a revision to films like "Gone With the Wind", but gruesome. My recommendation is that if you watch "12 Years a Slave" in theaters or on Blu-ray, see it with a friend, who will talk with you when the credits roll, and an empty stomach, because it may make you nauseous. I don't know if this is one of the best films of the year. All I know is that I will never see this film again, nor will I forget it.
- Dennis Chiu

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Directed by Martin Scorcese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio


"The Wolf of Wall Street" is a piece of modern art where the colors on canvas are green from hundred dollar bills, white from cocaine, flesh tones from bodies entwined in sex, and overflowing with off-color language. Many years ago, the best advice I received on understanding abstract art was: ask yourself how the piece makes you feel. That's when I began to love modern art. If you go see "The Wolf of Wall Street" and ask yourself how the film makes you feel, and don't concentrate on the abundance of drugs, nudity and profanity, you'll feel that Martin Scorcese created a masterpiece. None of the sex, drugs and fowl language is exploitive. Together they create a painting of raw excess during the mid-1980s on Wall Street that could not be achieved otherwise. What results is a stunning cautionary tale from true life. Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street stock trader and possibly the best salesman you've ever seen. The film starts off with Belfort's first days on the job and continues through Black Monday (October 19, 1987), the rise and proliferation of penny stock trading, the IPO of Steve Madden shoes, which Belfort handled, to SEC and FBI investigations. Mr. DiCaprio is mesmerizing, delivering speech after speech that inspires throngs of traders to follow him and dupes large and small investors to buy junk. Terrence Winter ("Boardwalk Empire") pens a screenplay, adapted from Belfort's book, that takes no prisoners -- it is hubris and decadence writ large in profane poetry. Jonah Hill turns in a solid performance as Belfort's odd protege, but this is Mr. DiCaprio's movie. When you walk into a Scorcese film, there is little doubt that the filmmaking will be expert, and for this film, he ensures that cinematography, editing, set design, and costumes create a perfect setting for great acting. "The Wolf of Wall Street" deserves an Oscar nomination for best film of the year, but in my opinion, not a win. And, in my opinion, Leonardo DiCaprio deserves his fourth nomination, and his first win for Best Actor in a Leading Role. This film is 2 hours and 59 minutes so set aside an entire evening or afternoon to see it. I give my highest recommendation to see "The Wolf of Wall Street" in theaters, and if you miss it, catch it streaming or on Blu-ray.
- Dennis Chiu

FILM
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 NERD

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  dennis ChiU



Green light means "Go: this is a must-see movie".


Yellow light means "Caution: I re- commend this film with reservations".


Red light means "Stop: don't waste your time".