Movie Review ~ Justice League


The Facts
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Synopsis: Earth’s greatest heroes are assembled to form the Justice League, to combat a threat beyond each member’s capabilities.

Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciaran Hinds, Amber Heard

Director: Zack Snyder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: With the rousing success of Wonder Woman this summer, you had high(er) hopes for Justice League too, didn’t you?  After the gloominess of Man of Steel, the critical drubbing lobbed at Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the just plain awful debut of the Suicide Squad, the first solo outing of the Amazon princess made a huge splash with a snazzy film that signaled the floundering DC Universe might be getting back on track.   Alas, it was not meant to be because five short months later Justice League arrives with a huge thud, halting any momentum Wonder Woman had kicked off.

The problems are evident from the beginning.  It should be noted that original director Zack Snyder had to be replaced shortly after filming ended while the movie was in post-production due to a family crisis. Joss Whedon (The Avengers) was brought it to touch up the script, and handle reshoots.  Huge mistake.  Whedon did good work with his involvement in the Marvel Universe but his humor doesn’t translate to the DC world that’s far darker and leaves itself less open for flights of fancy.  His attempts to inject jokey humor crash and burn, especially seeing that they are awkwardly inserted into sequences already filmed by Snyder.

Another elephant in the room to discuss is Henry Cavill (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), or, more to the point, Cavill’s mustache.  After wrapping his scenes for Justice League, Cavill had grown a mustache to film a role in the next Mission: Impossible film and when he was called back for reshoots Paramount wouldn’t allow him to shave it.  So he filmed his new scenes with facial hair that was then digitally removed…badly.  Cavill comes off looking like a creepy puppet, with the bottom half of his face strangely not in communion with the upper.  He’s in the first shot of the movie and it’s a jarring image that sets the tone for the rest of this schizo outing.

The first half of the film is occupied by a bewildering series of episodic vignettes where we meet characters that the movie treats us as if we already know but in reality have never seen before.  We’re plopped right into the stories of Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) without much in the way of introduction or origin, almost like these were clips from a previous entry that was never released.  We’re supposed to know and care about these characters instantly, but their arrivals are treated with such little fanfare it’s hard to warm up to any of them.  Miller winds up being the most intriguing; his loner character is secretly desperate for friends and is brought into the fold by Batman (Ben Affleck, Gone Girl, checking out so much I can see why he’s trying to get excused from The Batman, a planned solo shot for the Caped Crusader) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Keeping Up with the Joneses).

What I always enjoyed about the previous incarnations of Batman and Superman was how they were up against villains that seemed somewhat plausible…at least for a comic-book foe.  From the Penguin to Lex Luthor, the heroes were battling adversaries that sought awesome power, not ones that already had other-worldly talents.  The villain in Justice League is Steppenwolf, a poorly rendered CGI baddie voiced by Ciarán Hinds (Frozen) that’s as generic as they come.  This is a bad guy that might have worked better as a Marvel rival but definitely not one the Justice League should be working to thwart.  Steppenwolf is on the hunt for three Mother Boxes that form a trinity that can, snooze, give him power over all earth.  Yawn, boring, wake me when it’s over.

Poor Wonder Woman.  That’s what I kept thinking throughout Justice League.  Gadot looks miserable having to carry this film, it’s clear the plot was tweaked at some point to give her character more to do and capitalize on the success of Wonder Woman.  Her ascension to co-lead comes at the sacrifice of a bunch of familiar faces that get sidelined.  Diane Lane (Inside Out) and Connie Nielsen  pop up in brief cameos as the mothers of Superman and Wonder Woman, J.K. Simmons (The Snowman) doesn’t even have to glue down his toupee, and Amy Adams (Her) wears multiple bad wigs but does get the most unintentionally funny line of dialogue in the film: “I’m no longer Lois Lane, dedicated reporter”.

The effects of the hand-off between Snyder and Whedon really sink the film in its last ¼, when the Justice League works together to stave off Steppenwolf before he can unite the Mother Boxes.  There are a few decent action sequences but they’re so darkly lit it all becomes a blur, especially when you add in Steppenwolf’s drone warriors that fly around in a head-spinning frenzy like wasps.  It’s a blessing the movie is as short as it is, but it still feels pretty long when the content is as forgettable as this.  You keep wanting to find something, anything to root for but no one seems interested in being memorable in any way shape or form.  It’s like everyone was forced into making this and are waiting for their final scene to be shot.

There’s a post-credit scene that does nothing to get you excited for the future, it feels like it was shot last week with the actors involved under duress.  Based on his performance here, I shudder to think about Momoa’s Aquaman film coming in 2018, wish that Wonder Woman 2 wasn’t two years away, and am intrigued at a chance to get more info on The Flash in 2020’s Flashpoint.   At this point, whatever the creative team behind these DC films are doing, it’s not working.  Not only do audiences deserve better, but so do the actors locked into contracts for future films.

The Silver Bullet ~ Justice League

Synopsis: Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy.

Release Date: November 17, 2017

Thoughts: With Wonder Woman becoming the top-earning movie at the summer box office, the producers behind the DC Comics franchise are riding a wave of positivity right now.  Let’s hope they can keep that goodwill going strong as the November release of Justice League draws near.  I didn’t mind Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice nearly as much as my colleagues did but the unrelenting darkness of this franchise has kept it from truly taking off. Wonder Woman was a nice reminder of what these films could be while director Zac Snyder deals with a family tragedy, Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon was brought in to oversee postproduction so I’m hoping Whedon can bring a little Marvel spark to the DC Universe.  This extended look at Justice League gives a few more clues for audiences to decipher and one cliffhanger that already has the internet abuzz.

The Silver Bullet ~ Arrival

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Synopsis: Taking place after alien crafts land around the world, an expert linguist is recruited by the military to determine whether they come in peace or are a threat.

Release Date: November 11, 2016

Thoughts: At first glance, Arrival looks like any other of the hundreds of like-themed films detailing alien invasion and a race against time to figure out how to communicate with them.  Dating back to the campy films of the 1950s all the way up to modern turns like Contact in 1997, this theme seems so played out…so why do I get the feeling that Arrival is going to be different?  Maybe because it’s helmed by Denis Villeneuve who, in movie after movie like Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario, impresses?  Or maybe because it’s headlined by a strong cast including Amy Adams (American Hustle), Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy), and Forrest Whitaker (Southpaw).  This one has apparently crept up under the radar for it’s fall, um, arrival, and now that we have our first look it’s ascending high on my anticipated list for this autumn.

The Silver Bullet ~ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Comic-Con Trailer)

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Synopsis: Fearing the actions of a god-like Super Hero left unchecked, Gotham City’s own formidable, forceful vigilante takes on Metropolis’ most revered, modern-day savior, while the world wrestles with what sort of hero it really needs

Release Date: March 25, 2016

Thoughts: As I mentioned in my review of the first teaser for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice I wasn’t a huge fan of Man of Steel and was pretty reticent that we needed another Batman entry so soon after Christopher Nolan’s quite satisfying trilogy wrapped up. Well, an extended trailer released at the 2015 Comic-Con convention in San Diego has got my attention and while I’m still iffy on this sequel to a sub-par Superman reboot there’s a growing kernel of anticipation for this one that I can’t totally ignore. Like the recent preview for Suicide Squad, I was a little taken aback that the trailer was so long but while it shows audiences what they can expect from the March 2016 release, thankfully not every plot development has been laid out for us. Give it a look…I think, like me, you’ll like what you see.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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Synopsis: On the heels of the worldwide success of Man of Steel director Zack Snyder is bringing together the two greatest Super Heroes of all time – Batman and Superman for the first time on the big screen.

Release Date:  March 25, 2016

Thoughts:  I still think 1979’s Superman: The Movie is one of the best all around “comic-book” origin movies to be made and I was more than willing to give director Zack Snyder’s reboot a fair chance.  After all, look what Christopher Nolan did with his reinvention of Batman in three films about the caped crusader.  Sadly, Superman’s return in 2013 was a glum bummer, and a movie that took way too long to come out (how can a new Star Wars movie be filmed and come out in a little over a year but Snyder takes almost three years for his meal to cook?).  Disappointments aside, the film made good on its franchise starter nature at the box office yet it’s a little surprising that Warner Brothers decided that the sequel should merge its flying superhero with The Dark Knight – the poor guy was enjoying a well-deserved retirement.  Feeling the heat from Marvel’s unstoppable films, I’m sure that DC Comics was more than happy to bring their Justice League dreams to light…why else would this Superman sequel feature not only the Man of Steel and Batman but Wonder Woman and Aquaman as well?  I hope the film isn’t merely a bridge to a bigger idea, but from the looks of this impressive teaser Snyder may be borrowing a page from Nolan and going ultra-dark.

Movie Review ~ Big Eyes

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A drama about the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.

Stars: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Krysten Ritter

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: When I was young I was always frightened of these two paintings in my grandmother’s house.  They were tall, slim paintings each of a ballerina with large eyes and I made it a point to skirt by them without making eye contact with their black orbs.  Now, I’m not sure if these were paintings by Margaret Keane or entries from the numerous knock-offs that came about after the phenomenal success of the Keane Big Eyes movement; but seeing Tim Burton’s film on the life of the woman behind the eyes brought back these memories in full force.

It’s nice to see Tim Burton (Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie) make a film featuring not one actor he’s worked with before (thanks for sitting this one out, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter) based on a subject that has some curio cultural significance.  However, the film feels de-Burton-ized so much that it’s hard to pick out much of anything that indicates the man behind Batman, Beetlejuice, or his much better biopic Ed Wood was running the show here.

Early buzz indicated that Amy Adams (American Hustle, Her) would land another Oscar nomination and win for her role as painter Margaret Keane and she just may have stood a fighting chance had the script from Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski not presented Keane as such a wet noodle.  As the picture opens she’s leaving her husband and taking her young daughter hundreds of miles away to San Francisco with no real prospects.  In that time that would have been considered a fairly gutsy move so it’s odd that no sooner has she set up a home, a job, and a weekend painting gig in a local park that she’d succumb to the charms of the first man that comes calling.  Adams is a bright presence on screen but comes off rather dull here.

Margaret’s relationship with Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained…more on him later) may have been a saving grace for the young mother but when he starts to indicate to the outside world that he is responsible for the big eyed waif paintings she’s created it’s an amazement that it takes her over a decade to break free of his slimy grip and even longer to lay claim to her work.  Keane herself acknowledges that she was fairly complicit in the charade but the film always makes it seem like she was under duress (literally being locked in an attic with a paintbrush and easel) and helpless.

If anything really puts a pin in the underwhelming nature of it all it’s Waltz’s bizarre performance as the duplicitous Walter.  The usually reliable Waltz is totally on a raft out to sea here, barely hiding his German accent (Walter was born in Nebraska) and devouring every bit of scenery and several of Colleen Atwood’s (Into the Woods) striking costumes.  By the time we get to a courtroom denouement Waltz is in full Joan Crawford mode, acting the hell out of a cross-examination of himself as he’s acting as his own attorney.

Burton’s penchant for CGI effects is thankfully kept on a tight leash here and the picture is lovely to look at, but it’s an overall shallow affair that finds Adams gamely treading water through a Waltz storm of melodramatic acting.

The Silver Bullet ~ Big Eyes

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Synopsis: A drama centered on the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.

Release Date:  December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Tim Burton (Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie) is a director that I’ve admired for quite some time.  Bouncing from the lunacy of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice to the dramas of Big Fish and Ed Wood, I’ve always been more drawn to his work that doesn’t involve (or rely) on special effects and it’s nice to see the director taking a break from his collaborations with Johnny Depp.  That’s why Big Eyes looks so promising to me; not only does it sport two honest-to-goodness A-listers as leads but the true life tale of artist Margaret Keane is one that seems right up Burton’s alley.  Those early Oscar hounds are saying this might be the movie that Amy Adams (Her) takes home an Oscar for and, wrong or not, the role seems tailor-made for the actress.  Joined by two time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), I’d be on the lookout for this one if I were you.

Oscar Predictions 2014

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Hello!

Well, though I always find it difficult to nail down my Oscar selections pre-nomination day because I feel like I’m somehow cosmically jinxing  potential favorites, I’m taking part in The 2014 Oscar Contest over at Film Actually because…well…it’s just the right thing to do 🙂

This being a contest and all I threw in a few dark horse candidates and left out some bigger names just to keep it interesting.  I don’t necessarily think there will be 10 nominees for Best Picture but ultimately I couldn’t make up my mind on which ones to remove from my list…

I hope there are a few surprises tomorrow morning, though….even if it means I lose a few points in the contest 🙂

Below are my predictions for who will go to bed tomorrow night an Oscar nominee…

BEST PICTURE
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
Saving Mr. Banks
The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Spike Jonze, Her
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle

BEST ACTOR
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford, All is Lost

BEST ACTRESS
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Daniel Brühl, Rush
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
June Squibb, Nebraska
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

BEST EDITING
Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, American Hustle
Joe Walker, 12 Years a Slave
Christopher Rouse, Captain Phillips
Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger, Gravity
Jeff Buchanan, Eric Zumbrunnen, Her

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
David O. Russell and Eric Singer, American Hustle
Joel & Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Spike Jonze, Her
Bob Nelson, Nebraska

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Tracy Letts, August: Osage County
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, Before Midnight
Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, Philomena
Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium
The Hunt, Denmark
The Grandmaster, Hong Kong
The Great Beauty, Italy
The Notebook, Hungary

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Sean Bobbitt, 12 Years a Slave
Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska
Roger Deakins, Prisoners

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Adam Stochausen & Alice Baker, 12 Years a Slave
Judy Becker & Heather Loeffler, American Hustle
Catherine Martin & Beverly Dunn, The Great Gatsby
Jess Gonchor & Susan Bode, Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael Corenblith & Susan Benjamin, Saving Mr. Banks

BEST SOUND MIXING
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor
Rush

BEST SOUND EDITING
All is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Lone Survivor
Rush

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby
Patricia Norris, 12 Years a Slave
Daniel Orlandi, Saving Mr. Banks
Michael Wilkinson, American Hustle
Mary Zophres, Inside Llewyn Davis

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Alex Ebert, All is Lost
Thomas Newman, Saving Mr. Banks
Steven Price, Gravity
John Williams, The Book Thief
Hans Zimmer, 12 Years a Slave

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
20 Feet from Stardom
The Act of Killing
The Crash Reel
Stories We Tell

The Square

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Croods
Despicable Me 2

Frozen
Monsters University
The Wind Rises

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
Pacific Rim
Star Trek: Into Darkness

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
American Hustle
Dallas Buyers Club
The Lone Ranger


BEST ORIGINAL SONG
“Amen”, All is Lost
“Let It Go”, Frozen
“The Moon Song”, Her
“Ordinary Love”, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
“Young & Beautiful”, The Great Gatsby

Movie Review ~ Her

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that’s designed to meet his every need.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt

Director: Spike Jonze

Rated: R

Running Length: 126 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: At first glance I wasn’t sure what to make of Her.  After all, a Spike Jonze written/directed film starring the unpredictable Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) about a man that falls in love with a computer program could, without question, have gone either way.  Even looking over the rest of the cast from Rooney Mara to Amy Adams to Olivia Wilde and especially Scarlett Johansson, (all actresses I like but don’t love) I couldn’t tell if this would wind up being another awards buzz movie I’d be forced to slog through and defend my overall opinion to hoity-toity critics or a new twist in the romance genre.

It was with a certain delight, then, that I emerged from Her so totally refreshed by its unconventional romance and stimulated by its two unlikely leads.  Too often critics are eager to toss out the term “modern romance” when describing a film that portrays a love story without large flights of fancy but what Jonze has created here is a futuristic romance without a lot of extra bells and whistles or spaceships to Mars.

In the future as imagined by Jonze (and not that far off the mark, I believe) we’re all even more interconnected to the world with our activity on the web downloadable and programmable leaving little to the imagination.  Fashion wise, I’m sorry to say that Jonze (who also had a hand in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa) believes we’ll all be wearing high waisted wool pants, too…frightening.

Employed to write letters from loved ones that don’t have the time to do it themselves, Phoenix finds just the right words to make his clients and their addressees happy.  In his own personal life, however, he’s not so lucky in love.  Recently divorced and not yet ready to go back on the market he’s intrigued by the latest in tech must-haves…an advanced operating system that’s tailored to cater to him specifically.  After a brief set-up filtered through a typical Jonze-ian questionnaire, Phoenix is introduced to the one woman that will truly change his life…Samantha.

Scarlet Johansson (Don Jon) wasn’t the original actress cast to be the voice of Samantha…that would be Samantha Morton who was on the set every day with Phoenix to film his scenes.  When the film was completed, Jonze discovered that Morton’s voice didn’t fit exactly with the rest of the film and Morton being the pro she was agreed.  Johansson was brought in to redub Morton’s work without ever going through the live on-set emotion Morton and Phoenix shared.

Knowing this, it’s remarkable at how in tune Johansson and Phoenix are in the film and the buzz surrounding Johansson being the first actress to be nominated for an Oscar for voice-only work isn’t that unwarranted.  Her take on Samantha is grounded, curious, playful, and understanding…never resorting to breathy cooing or attempts at seduction…as a computer program, she’s not designed for that…so the eventual feelings she starts to develop for Phoenix are lovely and genuine.

Phoenix too grapples with the knowledge that he’s falling for his operating system.  Knowing that she’ll never be a real person and recognizing that she may be the best thing to ever happen to him he walks a fine line between a fantasy that can never be and the reality of his burgeoning love for her.  It’s a high-wire relationship that Jonze, Phoenix, and Johansson handle with the greatest of care.

Aside from Phoenix, the rest of the cast is filled out primarily with females.  Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Side Effects) plays Phoenix’s ex-wife and their frigid lunch meeting counters nicely with Phoenix’s flashback memories of their loving earlier life together.  Popping up in a brief cameo is Wilde (Rush) as a first date for Phoenix that goes south pretty quickly…I’ll say it again that Hollywood hasn’t yet found the right way to use Wilde.  Though she has less than a quarter of the screen time than she does in American Hustle, Amy Adams has a much greater impact here as a residential acquaintance and former flame of Phoenix that understands his current situation more than he/we think.

Make no mistake, though, that the movie belongs to Phoenix and Johansson.  After a while, I forgot that Samantha was just a voice and we never actually “see” her in the film.  The way that Jonze has filmed the movie and the way that Phoenix and Johansson run with the material make for a classic romance with its peaks and valleys of joy and heartache.

Her easily made my list for Best of 2013.  In a future world perhaps years away from our own when it’s hard to make a live connection with someone, Phoenix finds a love that can never be returned but finds himself thrilled and reenergized.  You’ll thrill right along with him.

Got something you think I should see?
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Movie Review ~ American Hustle

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A con man and his seductive British partner are forced to work for a wild FBI agent who pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.

Stars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Peña, Louis C.K., Robert DeNiro

Director: David O. Russell

Rated: R

Running Length: 138 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Maybe it’s because I saw American Hustle so close in time to seeing Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street that I can’t help thinking that Hustle was really just Scorsese-lite.   All the elements that make-up a classic Scorsese film are present and accounted for here.  You have the West Coast setting of wheelers and dealers all looking for a break no matter how small time it may be.  The familial and familiar relationship that law enforcement has with these crooked folk is grist for the mill of the scheme that screenwriters Russell and Eric Warren Singer lay out.  And you have all the loyalty-testing double crosses (both real and imaginary) that have populated many a Scorsese crime drama for the last four decades.

So why isn’t American Hustle better?  That’s the question I kept asking myself as the movie slogged along for nearly two and a half hours and it’s a question that was left unanswered by the time the credits rolled.  With a talented director who scored so well with 2012’s surprise hit Silver Linings Playbook, a starry and award ready cast gnashing their way through the material, and a mostly true story to pull from this should have been a much more entertaining film.  But it’s not and that’s just the cold hard truth.

There’s enough fault to go around so we’ll go through it step by step.

First off, though Russell has assembled a cast culled largely from his previous projects there’s something to be said about working with your friends because they are right for the roles and simply working with them to have them around for a few months of shooting.  Two of the actors present have won Oscars for working with Russell and another three have been nominated so it’s easy to see why they’d eagerly sign up for another round with Russell.

In the case of Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises), Russell has made the right choice with the actor once again falling whole hog into the character.  With his bloated stomach and comically nutso comb over system, Bale’s puffy Bronx-born hustler Irving is truly a sight to behold.  Though married with an adopted son, he becomes enamored with kindred spirit Sydney (Amy Adams, The Master, Man of Steel) and soon they’re partnered up in the bedroom and in a loan scam that makes them comfortable if not rich.  Bale was better in Out of the Furnace but this performance is nothing to shake a stick at, either.

Adams is a strong actress that seems to appear in no less than four films each year and while I salute her work ethic I’m wondering if she’s not spread perhaps a bit too thin.  The vixeny femme fatale doesn’t sit quite right with her and no amount of plunging necklines can change that.  Side note, Adams wears so many dresses day and night with a neckline that plunges past her navel that if her character needed to go into the witness protection program she’d only have to put on a turtleneck and she’d be incognito.  Her performance winds up feeling governed by great costumes, perfect hair, and a justifiably awful English lilt.  She’s much more effective in her supporting turn in Her, coming out in early January.

I had high hopes for Bradley Cooper after his dynamite turn in Silver Linings Playbook but he dashed those tidings with summer’s grotesque The Hangover Part III and doesn’t quite regain his footing here either.  There’s a lot of showboating going on and you can just feel Cooper’s desire to Brando-ize every single scene he’s in.  The acting reeks out of him, to borrow an oft-repeated phrase from the movie, ‘from the feet up.’

If the movie has a secret weapon it’s most certainly Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) as Bale’s immature wife.   Fresh off her Best Actress win for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence is way too young for the role but otherwise takes the movie by the balls whenever she’s onscreen which isn’t often enough.  Her wise acre grimace and towering head of hair ignites the film in ways that no one else is capable of doing.  Though the buzz is growing on her for an upset win for Best Supporting Actress, it doesn’t make the kind of lasting impression that she did last year but should earn her a place on the shortlist for a nomination.

Rounding out the cast is Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy, Marvel’s The Avengers) as the mayor of New Jersey who unwittingly gets sucked into the abscam scheme Cooper’s federal agent cooks up to catch crooked politicians.  Renner is fine in the role but I can’t for the life of me figure out why Russell casts his children with actors that look at least a decade older than Renner and his wife.  Louis C.K. (Blue Jasmine) is totally out of place as Cooper’s beleaguered superior, Michael Peña (End of Watch) turns up ever so briefly as a Mexican impersonating an Arabian sheik, and if Alessandro Nivola wasn’t doing a Christopher Walken impression in his role then I’ll eat my shoe.

The central plot scheme of the movie is your standard compilation of betrayal and criss-crossing double crosses.  Only in the final fifteen minutes or so does the movie start to resemble something of interest and by that time I was nearly slumped over in my seat.  Though the film has an admirable production design that deftly recreates New York in the late 70’s without being obnoxious and a soundtrack of era favorites, there’s a dullness that really overtakes everything.

This film has been greatly lauded and I just can’t see why.  As a fan of nearly everyone involved I wanted to like this and desperately tried to latch on to something, anything, that would allow me to recommend it to others.  It lands with a thud, though, and for that I have to suggest you temper your expectations if you choose to take it in theatrically.