American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell (2014)

This brilliantly acted sleazy and greasy 1970s caper crackles with sexual tension like a cheap nylon suit.

The stellar cast consisting of three Oscar winners (Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert DeNiro) and three nominees (Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams) is on excellent form in this slick, funny and dynamic crime comedy.

The fine performances combine with aggressive camera work, expert editing, a brilliant soundtrack and freaky 1970’s fashions to amp up an electric atmosphere ever higher.

Bale has rarely had so much fun with a role. He plays the balding, bearded, paunchy Irving Rosenfeld, a conman way out of his depth trapped between the mob and the FBI.

Rosenfeld and his mistress and partner in crime Sydney Prosser (Adams) are arrested by FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) and compelled to assist him in cleaning up corruption in the new Atlantic City casino development.

The investigation expands to include expensive hotel suites, video surveillance, $2million in a suitcase and a Mexican who is posing as a fake sheikh.

The operation is threatened by Rosenfeld’s loose-lipped, loose-cannon of a wife Rosalyn – a dynamite performance by Lawrence.

They target passionate Carmine Polito (Renner), a corrupt mayor who is plagued by divided loyalties.

Russell even manages to squeeze a decent performance out of Robert DeNiro – something we haven’t seen for while.

Every character is forced to manipulate, lie, cheat and re-invent themselves as allegiances shift and con is built upon con but it’s not really interested in the plot as much as enjoying throwing the characters together and twisting the audience around it’s finger.

Deep down it’s also a critique of the film industry and of society’s cynical surrender to the power of capitalism – but don’t let that stop your enjoying the relentless ride as the toe-curling tension increases.

The scam continues to the very last line of the film.

Serena

Director: Susanne Bier (2014)

Love, madness and corruption collide with catastrophic results in this compelling Depression-era drama.

Based on the novel by Ron Rash, it brings together Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper as on-screen lovers for the second time in an exquisite exploration of the pernicious power of passion.

George Pemberton (Cooper) is a logging company owner in North Carolina. In the wake of the Wall St. crash he’s struggling to finance an ambitious business project in Brazil.

Meanwhile as he tries to fend off central government plans for a National Park on his land, the local sheriff McDowell (Toby Jones) is investigating his firm for corruption.

At a society party George is smitten by the beautiful, strong-minded Serena (Lawrence). Following an impetuous romance, he whisks her off to the Smoky Mountains where she wins over a sceptical workforce with her knowledge and attitude.

With his leading man looks decked out in stubble, leather jacket and wide brimmed hat, Cooper is solidly convincing as the panther-hunting entrepreneur. Lawrence has yet to deliver a poor performance and doesn’t disappoint here. There is an easy comparison to be made between the characters of Serena and Lady McBeth – but Cleopatra may be a better fit.

Talented and handsome, the leading couple share a resonant chemistry. They nicely underplay a ripe script which helps to navigate some unsteady plotting littered with symbolism and told at a measured pace.

The Swedish director is fascinated with cultural context, mixing superstition and religion with labour disputes and a keenly observed social hierarchy. It’s a shame the many interesting minor characters are too often pushed into the background.

Electricity, the railroads and mechanisation are changing a landscape filled with bears, eagles, snakes and horses; the impressive attention to period detail and epic landscapes are captured by the rich cinematography of Morten Søborg.

Gradually George’s devotion to his bride begins to cloud his judgement and she exploits every opportunity to encourage his independence away from his business partner Buchanan (David Dencik). An accident sees a hunting guide called Galloway (Rhys Ifans) declare his loyalty to her.

When Serena is unable to provide George with the healthy heir they crave; deceit, jealousy and murder follow.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Director: James Gunn (2014)

The strangest group of heroes Marvel comics ever created blast off into space in this visually sensational sci-fi action adventure.

They’re a mismatched motley alien crew consisting of an Earthling called Peter (Chris Pratt), a beautiful green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a genetically-engineered raccoon called Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and tree-like humanoid Groot (Vin Diesel).

It is a fun-filled knockabout romp with stellar design, tremendous special effects and CGI characters blending seamlessly with the real actors.

But it’s gratingly pleased with itself but nowhere near as funny or as smart as it believes itself to be.

It takes far too much juvenile pleasure in rude words and drowning scenes with 1970’s pop tunes quickly wears thin – an unusually needy and heavy-handed attempt at cross-audience, all quadrant appeal by the mighty Marvel studio.

The self styled Star-lord and deluded scoundrel Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was abducted from Earth as a kid and raised by intergalactic thieves known as the Ravagers.

He hasn’t a lot of experience fighting or leading or coming up with plans. Or having ideas in general. In fact, he’s not all that smart. Plus, generally unskilled.

Nevertheless he manages to steal an orb of mysterious power which is also wanted by the psychotic Ronan (Lee Pace) who secretly works for the powerful Thanos (Josh Brolin). who wants the orb to wage war on his enemies.

Quill is thrown into a space-prison called The Kyln where he meets a warrior called Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who has sworn vengeance on Ronan.

In a fantastic action sequence they break out alongside Gamora, Rocket, Groot and a spare leg but the script shoots itself in the foot in a space-walk sequence which drains the rest of the film of tension.

When Quill discovers the true danger of the orb he discovers the hero inside himself and cajoles the squabbling misfits to fight a desperate and spectacular battle to guard the galaxy against destruction.

Much like the Hulk in Avengers Assemble, Groot steals every scene he’s in, despite only being able to say the words ‘I am Groot’ – which to be fair, is as much as the Hulk ever managed.

British actress and former Dr Who star Karen Gillan is impressively agile and deliciously villainous and shares a history and a terrific fight scene with Gamora.

Pratt is less endearing than the film supposes and his reprising of a peril-inspired song and dance routine similar to which he performed in The Lego Movie wears thin here.

Guardians of the Galaxy is entertaining enough though not Marvel’s finest hour; after The Winter Soldier it’s not even Marvel’s best film of 2014.

And the joke at the end of the film’s credits isn’t worth hanging around for.

☆☆

American Sniper

Director: Clint Eastwood (2015)

Astonishingly nominated for six Oscars and almost comical in feverish flag-waving patriotism, this celebration of a real-life cold-blooded killer is way off target.

Set during the Iraq war, it’s action scenes are directed by Eastwood at his most gun-lovingly, gung ho.

Rodeo-rider Kyle is a dim and unquestioning believer in the need to protect god, country and family.

In the backwoods as a boy his father taught him to shoot deer and be independent; to be a sheepdog not a wolf or a sheep.

As Kyle, the most successful sniper in US history, Bradley Cooper hides his charisma under a bushy beard and a beefed up physique. These are dog-whistles for nominations at the Academy during the awards season.

After the atrocity of 9/11 Kyle signs up for the navy SEALs. After a brief romance and some basic training (or possibly some basic romance and brief training) he’s off to Iraq where he kills women, children and other anonymous Iraqis while equally anonymous comrades fall.

Four lethal tours rush past in a cloud of dust and bullets. Kyle becomes a celebrity and is nick-named the ‘Legend’, though humbly, mumbly dismisses any uncomfortable hoopla.

Sienna Miller as home-alone wife Taya does her best in a role than demands she only be sexy, nagging or pregnant. Their long-distance phone calls are unpardonably ill-timed and unconvincing.

Two neither particularly interesting or formidable bad guys contribute to a ragged script structure with Kyle’s sights split between them.

One’s a driller-killer leather-clad maniac called The Butcher and the other a sniper called Mustafa.

He and Kyle engage in a long distance duel during which Kyle chooses to put his entire squad in danger. Though considering Kyle’s loose cannon approach and the amazing levels of military mis-management, it’s not much of a surprise.

Eastwood directs in his usual pared-down style, at 84 years old it’s doubtful he’ll be trying new tricks any time soon.

Working with a familiar crew, the editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach are multiple Oscar nominees – mostly for Eastwood pictures – and their work brings a solid dynamism.

We see Kyle suffer a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder and the film ends abruptly, just like the life of all the people he shot from a mile away.

If even the mafia’s Sonny Corleone (James Caan) questions the validity of your approach to killing, a little self-awareness might go a long way.

★★☆☆☆