Three Academy Award-nominated features lead this week’s crop of home video releases.
3 stars (out of four)
Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand
Every year, one movie, for one reason or another, grabs more critical acclaim than it deserves. In 2013, that film was “American Hustle,” a David O. Russell dramedy that – along with “Gravity” – was the most-nominated picture in competition during the 2014 Oscars. That “Hustle” failed to turn any of its 10 nominations to gold supports my contention that the movie’s parts are more noteworthy than its whole.
“Hustle” is not a bad film. In fact, it has numerous strengths, including casting, production design and cinematography. While the successes in those areas are admirable, they do not a masterpiece make. In the case of “Hustle,” they add up to a good movie undermined by bloat.
Why then did a fundamentally flawed project receive so much acclaim? Let’s call it the bandwagon effect. Russell is a terrific filmmaker, and he became the toast of Hollywood with 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.” That movie earned eight Oscar nominations, including a best actor nod for Bradley Cooper and best actress nod for Jennifer Lawrence. The latter won. So, when Russell re-teamed with Lawrence and Cooper, then upped the ante by adding Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, the project seemed too good to be true. Never mind the fact that the storytelling is a little flat. Never mind the fact that Russell and his co-writer Eric Warren Singer needed to trim a good half hour from the 138-minute project. In Hollywood, success often leads to excess and “American Hustle” is the perfect example.
Although “Hustle” is not the masterpiece industry insiders would have us believe, it is worth seeing. Viewers should, however, adjust their expectations downward.
The story is simple. Based loosely on the FBI’s Abscam operation in the 1970s and ’80s, it focuses on Richard “Richie” DiMaso (Cooper), an ambitious agent who forces two con artists, Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Adams), to set a trap for swindlers. Unhappy with nabbing small-time crooks, Richie escalates the operation, convincing Irving and Sydney to help him topple high-profile politicians, including Carmine Polito (Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. As the plot unfolds, Russell also delves into Irving’s deteriorating relationship with his wife (Lawrence) and a love triangle that forms between Richie, Irving and Sydney.
The acting is outstanding, and Russell does a wonderful job capturing the look and feel of the 1970s and early ’80s. These elements alone make the film better than average. Unfortunately, the great moments are cheapened by dramatic sequences that stretch too long, turning what should have been a fun, sprightly con film into a self-important marathon.
Blu-ray and DVD extras include deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD, digital download and on demand
The only Oscar nomination “Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom” received was for the original song “Ordinary Love.” While the tune, written and performed by U2, is solid, it is hardly the movie’s premier attribute. Why, then, did Oscar voters mostly snub “Mandela”? One can only speculate, but the fact that 2013 was an extraordinary year for motion pictures played a role.
In a lesser awards season, “Mandela” might have been an Oscar frontrunner because of its extraordinary screenplay and terrific lead performance. Of course, one might say the same about “Saving Mr. Banks,” another solid movie that is heading to the small screen with only one Academy Award nomination.
Ultimately, the Oscar recognition (or lack thereof) should be inconsequential to everyone but the filmmakers. With or without awards, “Mandela” is a wonderful feature, and Idris Elba turns in a standout performance as the title character. Under the capable direction of Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”), Elba takes viewers through many stages of Nelson Mandela’s life, including his early days as an anti-apartheid revolutionary and his eventual election to the presidency of South Africa.
Much of the younger generation likely remembers Mandela as the stately senior citizen who served as South Africa’s chief executive from 1994 to 1999, but “Mandela” is a poignant reminder that he was just as charismatic – and perhaps even more powerful – as a strapping, young man.
Although “A Long Walk to Freedom” is clearly meant as a Mandela tribute, it recognizes the fact that the South African government viewed many of Mandela’s revolutionary acts as terrorism, and that this led to his 27 years of prison time. In other words, the man is not depicted as a saint. In fact, Chadwick takes care to note that Mandela was more devoted to revolutionary politics than to the happiness of his first wife and their children. None of this seems meant to diminish the reputation of the now-deceased civil rights leader. Rather, these moments are included for accuracy… or at least as much accuracy as one can demand from a movie biopic.
Chadwick deserves credit for the depth “A Long Walk to Freedom” possesses. The director hits on all the key moments in Mandela’s life and political career, making his feature accessible both to avid Mandela followers and those who are just beginning to explore his legacy.
Saving Mr. Banks
3 stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and digital download
Walt Disney may not have had the political clout of Nelson Mandela, but he still left a profound mark on the world. As the architect of classic movies ranging from “Snow White” to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” Disney created a motion picture company synonymous with family entertainment, and he did so with an unyielding search for first-rate material.
In “Saving Mr. Banks,” director John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “The Rookie”), focuses on Walt’s quest to obtain the movie rights to novelist P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins.” Behind-the-scenes business maneuvers aren’t very cinematic, but Hancock and screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith take an interesting approach to the material, introducing viewers both to Walt’s lobbying and Travers’ creative process.
It helps that Marcel and Smith fictionalized the material at will, making dramatic arcs easy. Because of this, one shouldn’t watch “Mr. Banks” in lieu of a history lesson, but it works fine as an entertainment.
Walt Disney is portrayed likably by Tom Hanks, and Emma Thompson plays Travers. Although the latter is a fine actress, viewers may hate Travers because Thompson and Hancock make her insufferable. The scathing portrayal stems from the movie’s assertion that Travers based “Mary Poppins” on her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell) and that she had a particularly deep connection with the material. Therefore, she was reluctant to have anyone tamper with it.
In telling the story, Hancock moves back and forth in time, showing sequences of the film’s development alongside bits about Travers’ childhood. Annie Rose Buckley plays the young Travers admirably, and the material is often charming.
Hanks and Thompson deliver the expected fireworks when they are on screen together, particularly when Walt and Travers are at odds. Sadly, the remarkably harsh portrayal of Travers undermines the movie’s sentimental ending.
Had Travers been depicted as just slightly more likable, viewers could have better identified with her, allowing them to invest in her point of view. As is, the movie is a nice acting showcase for Hanks and an appealing homage to “Mary Poppins.” It is not, however, as masterful as it could have been.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
“Kill Your Darlings”: Daniel Radcliffe continues his post-Harry Potter career by playing Allen Ginsberg in this historical drama about the poet’s time at Columbia and his relationship with other key figures in the Beat Generation. The film pays particular attention to Ginsberg’s relationship with Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a fellow student who was tried for the murder of David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall). The movie also stars Jack Huston as Jack Kerouac and Ben Foster as William Burroughs. Directed and co-written by John Krokidas.
“Reasonable Doubt”: Limited-release thriller starring Dominic Cooper as a district attorney who is involved in a hit-and-run accident that results in the arrest of another man (Samuel L. Jackson). Directed by Peter P. Croudins.
“The Hidden Fortress”: The Criterion Collection delivers a new, 2K restoration of director Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 classic about a defeated general (Toshirô Mifune) attempting to escort his princess (Misa Uehara) to safety in feudal Japan. Two bumbling peasants, who may or may not be friendly, accompany them. The film is well known as a classic of Japanese cinema and as one of George Lucas’ primary inspirations for the “Star Wars” saga. Presented in Japanese with English subtitles.
“Here Comes the Devil”: Horror film about parents who think their children may have been exposed to a supernatural presence after being lost overnight in the Mexican countryside. Written and directed by Adrián García Bogliano.
“The Patience Stone”: Persian drama about a young woman who communicates with her comatose husband in a way she never would have while he was healthy. Through this act, her life changes in extraordinary ways. Presented in Persian with English subtitles.
“Flashpoint” – The Final Season: Last 13 episodes of the police drama about an elite tactical response team operating in a major Canadian city. Enrico Colantoni, Hugh Dillon, David Paetkau and Amy Jo Johnson star.
“A Brief History of Time”: Criterion Collection release of director Errol Morris’ 1991 documentary about acclaimed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. The film looks at Hawking’s work and his ability to push scientific boundaries despite suffering from near-total paralysis. The movie won the grand jury prize for documentaries at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival.
— Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at email@example.com.