CAPSULE REVIEWS: The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Her


January is traditionally a dumping ground for the lesser-anticipated (bad) movies, a month when studios and distributors know their releases aren’t eligible for the upcoming Oscars ceremony. At the same time, awards season is raging for the movies that came out in the "prestige" autumn months. So I often see January as a catch-up month, a chance to see as many of the major films I missed, before the nominations start rolling in.

For this series of capsule reviews, I’m covering three of the bigger releases that I finally got around to seeing: The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle and Her. As usual, I’ve assigned each one a score out of four stars, but if you’ve seen any of these films, be sure to leave your reaction in the comments below.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in 'The Wolf of Wall Street'

The Wolf of Wall Street  -  Three and a Half Stars

Based on a memoir by Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker, fraudster and man of an unbelievable number of vices, this film is the latest powerhouse work by Martin Scorsese. The director brings all of his great skill behind the camera to bear on this three-hour epic, meant to analyse the immense greed and ultimate downfall of its main character.

As Belfort, DiCaprio throws himself bodily into the role, which several critics are calling the best performance of his career. While I’m never keen to make sweeping judgements of an actor’s career in real time, there’s something to be said for how DiCaprio captures the paradox of Belfort: a man we simultaneously envy and pity.

The other hot-button topic in this film is its depiction of the debauchery witnessed in Belfort’s life, particularly the drugs, the booze, the sex and the crime. The despicable imagery reaches almost implausible levels at points, and due to the film’s runtime, it eventually becomes excessive. After about two hours, we’ve gotten the point. “Too much of a good thing” is a timeworn phrase, but it’s still useful in cases like The Wolf of Wall Street. Perhaps what Scorsese is really asking is, “How much can you take?” Three and a half stars out of four.

Adams, Cooper, Renner, Bale and Lawrence star in 'American Hustle'

American Hustle  -  Three Stars

Some writers have pointed out that 2013 may have been the year of survival movies. Consider all-out, fight-for-your-life stories like All is Lost and Gravity, or look at subtler treatments of the theme in The Wolf of Wall Street. You can add American Hustle to the list as well – in fact, the characters in David O. Russell’s new film speak about it several times, and in a way, the story that unfolds is a more poignant take on the idea than Scorsese’s film.

In Hustle, the context is a madcap sting operation orchestrated by the FBI and run by a pair of con artists. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are roped into a plot by an off-kilter agent played by Bradley Cooper to nab some crooked Congressmen, all while the spectre of the Mob hangs over the operation. Alliances are made and broken, and there’s a question of how much was achieved, but the movie never ceases to entertain, without ever pushing the violence or the jokes too far.

As an ensemble movie that also stars Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K., Hustle is a brilliant showcase for current talent, so don’t be surprised when it competes with Wolf for highest number of Oscar nods. What’s more, the soundtrack (packed with 70s gems) gives the film plenty of excuses for multiple viewings – which is always a mark of quality in my book. Three stars out of four.

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore in 'Her'

Her  -  Four Stars

Admittedly, it’s a bit strange to include a quirky sci-fi romance by Spike Jonze alongside two of the biggest Academy Award contenders. Even so, the film made such an instant impression on me that I can’t help but write about it. And the more closely you look, you can make a case for how Her seems to share the theme of survival tackled in the films discussed above – only this time, it’s applied to modern relationships and the evolution of human interaction.

The story involves a lonely, thoughtful guy named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), whose marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara) has failed. He slips into a sad routine of sleeping, working and moping, until he buys a new, artificially-intelligent operating system (OS) for his computer. Samantha the OS is voiced by Scarlett Johansson (shut up – it’d be a plus for me), and Theodore soon realizes that her programmers have achieved the impossible. They’ve created a computer that thinks, dreams and learns – and he falls in love.

I agree with The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane: rarely do films come along that manage to charm you with their sweetness one moment, and thoroughly disturb you the next. It’s hard to decide just how accepting we would be if a friend fell for a computer like Samantha. Making our decision harder is the dreamy, richly coloured future world that Theodore lives in: the cinematography of Her is as much of a treat as the beautifully weird story it conveys. Four stars out of four.


What do you think? Will DiCaprio get his fourth nod for Wolf? Is Jennifer Lawrence a contender for Best Supporting Actress for Hustle? Is Her too offbeat for awards recognition? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked these reviews, share them with your friends and followers!