American Hustle (2013)

Rated PG. Running time: 2 hour 18 min.

Our Advisories Violence 3; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

  The getting of treasures by a lying tongue
is a fleeting vapor and a snare of death.

  Proverbs 21:6

 A scoundrel and a villain
goes around with crooked speech,
winking the eyes, shuffling the feet,
pointing the fingers,
with perverted mind devising evil,
continually sowing discord;
on such a one calamity will descend suddenly;
in a moment, damage beyond repair.

Proverbs 6:12-15


Irving, Sydney, and Richie, from opposite sides of the law,
work out a scheme to ensnare corrupt politicians.
(2013 Columbia Picturess

The film is loosely based on the Abscam scandal back in the late 70s, an elaborate FBI sting operation using a fake Arab sheik that brought down numerous politicians and mobsters. Employing a bit more fiction than usual, director/co-writer (with Eric Singer) David O. Russell places at the very beginning of the film a title card “Some of this actually happened,” probably more accurate than the usual “Based on a true story.” The director of last year’s delightful Silver Linings Playbook, has given us perhaps the best con artist film since 1973’s king of the genre The Sting­—and there have been some very good ones since then—see The Grifters; Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; House of Games; Catch Me If You Can: and the Broadway musical beloved by many, The Music Man.

Like most con artist films, the plot is complicated, in this case starting with and coming back several times to a scene in which two guys and a woman are in a hotel room with what we later learn is the Mayor of Camden, NJ, who angrily gets up and walks out of the room when one of the men pushes a briefcase toward him. The two men, surprised that the politician didn’t rise to the bait, argue, and then one of them reluctantly chases after their quarry. Catching up with the Mayor, our man is able to patch up the relationship for the project they had been considering.

In a series of flashbacks we see con artists Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Christian Bale and Amy Adams), caught in a scam by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). He forces them to work with him in a sting operation to bring down Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and a number of bribe-taking US Representatives and Senators. Either work with me, or spend a lot of years in prison. What choice do they have?

Irving and Sydney had met at a pool party. Even though he is married and has a stepson whom he adores, Irving is attracted to Sydney, especially when they discover that they both are passionate about the music of Duke Ellington. Sydney, working as a grifter, had adopted a faux-British accent, calling herself  ”Lady Edith Greensly,” a Londoner allegedly on familiar terms with bankers. Irving’s ambition had been more than owning his several dry cleaning stores, so he had embarked on conning people out of their money for a “sure thing” investment, plus, on the side, selling forged art works (one that we see in his shabby gallery looks like a Rembrandt).

We soon discover that the FBI agent himself has become a con artist, so obsessed is he in getting the bad guys–he employs the same methods as the scammers in entrapping his prey. Richie is so driven by his plan, one that is extremely expensive, that when his superior refuses some of his requests, he beats the man up. Only the intervention of a higher authority saves DiMaso’s career and his project. In contrast, we see Irving beginning to have qualms about the scheme because he is developing a liking for Mayor Polito. The latter really does care for his constituents. He takes no bribes, lives in a comfortable old house and not a mansion, and enjoys moving among and helping his people. He wants to bring back to life the once vibrant Atlantic City casinos so that jobs will be created for his people. The money for the project is to come from the sheik that Irving and Sydney introduce him to—actually the phony Arab is a Mexican. The money promised by Irving and Sydney is to be passed on to the US Senators and Representatives that Polito knows, who in turn will see that the “sheik” can jump the line and become a U.S. citizen. Hidden FBI cameras will record every transaction.

There is also a subplot involving Irving and his off-the-wall, chain-smoking wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), so unpredictable that an off camera Irving says of her, “She was the Picasso of passive-aggressive karate.” Of course, when Irving partners with Sydney, Rosalyn is upset, and—well, you will have to see for yourself this actress’s wonderful versatility that has impressed so many critics and viewers. If she ever gets tired of her athletic roles in such films as The Hunger Games and X-Men, Jennifer Lawrence can make it big in comedies as well.

And before closing I want to mention too that seeing Robert De Niro for his 10-minute scene of a Florida mobster attracted by Richie’s elaborate scheme is another of the great treats this film offers. Funny, suspenseful, and conducive to the discussion of issues ethics and trust, the film contains some of the best performances of the year. How everything works out in the end involves an even bigger scam, but this one we probably can applaud with few or no qualms of conscience.

 The full review with discussion questions will be included in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables, scheduled for posting early that month. To subscribe to the publication go to the Store. A year’s subscription will gain you access not just to this issue (which has far more features in it than just film reviews and guides), but also to issues as far back as Summer 2006.

Gravity (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

Our Content Adviserories (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star Rating (1-5): 4.5


Astronauts Dr. Ryan Jones and Mission Commander Mat Kowalski are stranded in space when debris destroys their space shuttle.
(c) 2013 Warner brothers

 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

            Psalm 31:2-5

We see no evidence in this suspenseful space film that Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a believer, but if she were, the above words of the psalmist might well have been her prayer. A medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, she is space suited up and teamed with another astronaut repairing a device on the Hubble telescope’s extended arm while the mission commander, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), is enjoying using a thruster pack to propel himself around. This being his last mission, he regrets that he will fall short by a few hours of beating the space walk record of a Russian cosmonaut. The three are chatting with each other and Mission Control (voice of Ed Harris, a delightful bit of voice casting because he was one of the stars of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13), Matt repeating an old astronaut joke, “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” A few minutes later this turns out to be prophetic when Houston sends an emergency warning that a Russian station has blown up, the debris hurtling their way at 55,000 mph.  When Ryan is slow to respond to Matt’s command to stop her work and reboard their station, he yells at her to get moving. By then jagged bits and pieces of the remains of the Russian station are flying by them.

Thus, after a marvelous single shot scene lasting about 13 minutes, the roller coaster sequence begins in which the two struggle in zero gravity, first to connect with each other, and then to decide what to do when their station is destroyed, killing all aboard. The third astronaut out working with them also is killed. Ryan, already struggling with the nausea of motion sickness, has trouble when the long cargo arm of the station breaks loose, swinging her wildly around and around and around. When she extricates herself from it, she keeps spinning out of control. Thanks to the calmness of Matt, she overcomes her momentary panic, and at last he is able to connect with her. They are running low on oxygen, so he decides they must head for the Russian International Space Station which should have a shuttle to transport them safely back to earth. There follows a series of mini-disasters that could be regarded as confirmation of Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Their contact with Mission Control is severed, so they are completely on their own.

This is one film that truly deserves that overworked expletive “Awesome!” Director Alfonso Cuarón, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, as well as his co-script writer son Jonas, has produced a variation of the old survival film worthy of placing alongside of Cast Away and Life of Pi. And not since t he latter film and Avatar has 3-D photography been used so effectively—and is so essential to fully experiencing the film. For once 3-D is not a financial rip off to increase a film’s profits.

Thus Gravity is not a film to wait for until it comes out on DVD in order to save a few bucks. You owe it to yourself to see it on a large screen, with the 3-D really bringing you into the action. When Matt reaches out for a special wrench or nut that is floating toward you, you have to stifle the urge to dodge the gloved hand. There are spectacular, glorious shots of the earth and stars, but equally effective are the close ups of Sandra Bullock’s face, which might remind film buffs of the almost exclusive use of such close ups in Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. Ms. Bullock is fully up to the challenge of conveying through her facial expressions the gamut of emotions, ranging from nausea, fear, and near panic to relief and determination to survive. The camera at times seamlessly moves from the external or third person POV into her helmet so that we see her in extreme close up, and then it swivels so that we are sharing her perspective on her predicament. She also achieves the almost ballet-like motions of a dancer in the sequence in which, shedding her bulky space suit, she floats her way through a long corridor of a space shuttle. With the least amount of dialogue of any of her films, it is through her facial expressions and the movements—or lack of them when during her period of despair she assumes a fetal position –that she reveals what a consummate actress she is. If you appreciated Tom Hank’s solo feat in Castaway, you are sure to love her performance in this masterful film.

We are reminded at the beginning of the film that nothing can be heard in space, where there is no atmosphere to convey the sound. This makes the sound of Ryan’s labored breathing all the more effective, reminding us that her oxygen is in short supply. Her struggle to reach the ISS, and from there the even more distant Chinese space station, becomes an epic journey of the mind and spirit as well as of the body, a testament of human pluck and perseverance. Steven Price’s musical soundtrack stops at just the right moments so that the silence of space is emphasized all the more.

From one standpoint the coldness and indifference of space might lead to an atheistic outlook—what difference does it make if these two humans live or die out there almost four hundred miles from home? On the other hand, for those who believe, to quote from William Cowper’s hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform,” Ryan’s moment of hallucination might be the modern equivalent of Joseph’s life saving dreams early on in the Gospel of Matthew. Filled with despair at one point in the Chinese station so that she is resigned to death, Ryan turns down the oxygen to hasten the inevitable. But her hallucination awakens her to the clue for the possibility of survival that she had not thought of before, and she springs into action. Scriptures in many places suggest that dreams or hallucinations at times have an external, as well as an internal, source. Of course, there is no way to prove this, but then isn’t that what faith is all about? As Hebrews 11:1 puts it, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Again, I urge you not to put off seeing this film, one that will no doubt be up for multiple awards, from Best Actress to all of the technical awards that the Motion Picture Academy offers. “Awesome!” really does sum up this film.

 The full version of this review, including a set of 9 discussion questions, will be in the November 2013 issue of the journal Visual Parables, available to subscribers near the end of October.