- This Week: Dec 09
- The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Dec 13)
- American Hustle (Dec 13)
- Next Week: Dec 16
- Anchorman 2 (Dec 20)
- Her (Dec 20)
- Saving Mr. Banks (Dec 20)
- Week of: Dec 23
- 47 Ronin (Dec 25)
- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Dec 25)
- Grudge Match (Dec 25)
- Labor Day (Dec 25)
- The Wolf of Wall Street (Dec 25)
This Week: Dec 09
The Hobbit: The Desolation of SmaugOpens Dec 13, 2013
Even rote fantasy blockbusters can and usually do feature the showdown of good and evil. To conjure true darkness, however, is a trickier feat. Early on in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), having proved his mettle as a budding thief and honorary comrade to Thorin's band of dwarves, finds himself at the top of a tree in the forest of Mirkwood, where he spies an idyllic vista of autumn leaves. Then he drops into a huge, sticky web, and a pack of giant spiders attempt to eat him alive. These monster arachnids have a fearful presence, like something out of a nightmare devised by Ray Harryhausen.
A year ago, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey got the job done, but it was too bright and busy and noisy, with creatures that kept popping up as if out of a jack-in-the-box. The Desolation of Smaug is a more grandly somber movie, and also a much better one, with forces of boldly intense and unified malevolence. J.R.R. Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937, on the eve of World War II, and his book is suffused with a sense of evil looming up in the world. This time Jackson nails that tone: the feeling that Bilbo, who's been recruited to steal back a wondrous gem called the Arkenstone from the dragon Smaug, is up against a cosmic storm of black forces. The dragon has ravaged the land, the angry, hulking orcs are on a power trip, and the elves led by the imperious Thranduil (Lee Pace) are isolationists who trap the dwarves in a dungeon, setting up a great escape via wine barrels on white rapids.
The dwarves, thirsting to return to their homeland (they could almost be pre-WWII Zionists), are portrayed with a crusty urgency that takes them up dizzying stone peaks and pits them against one another. Does The Desolation of Smaug meander? Of course it does it's a hobbit movie! Yet Jackson's direction is spiky and majestic, and the risky move of inventing his own Tolkien character the elf guard Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) as a love interest for Legolas (Orlando Bloom) pays off. These two bring some badly needed heat to the woodlands. Speaking of heat, the dragon is, quite simply, a marvel: gargantuan yet balletic, hoarding his mountain of gold with a razor-toothed smile, breathing not just flame but an inferno, and voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch with the most delicious, insidious knowledge. Bilbo, as played by Freeman, suggests a sly-dog Dana Carvey without irony, and he is certainly overmatched, but that doesn't mean he's outplayed. Desolation is now his business. A-
American HustleOpens Dec 13, 2013
David O. Russell has been directing movies for two decades, but it was only last year, in Silver Linings Playbook, that he broke through with his full, true filmmaking voice: madcap but grounded, working at a fever pitch of skewed passion. American Hustle, Russell's brilliant, swirling amphetamine high of a movie about deep-dish chicanery in the late 1970s, makes good on Silver Linings' promise. It's a film of jaw-dropping virtuosity and pleasure, one that leaves you revved, enthralled, tickled, moved, and amazed. It's as if the Scorsese of GoodFellas had been revived, full-throttle, only with a new subject: the hucksterism hiding in the shadows of middle-class America.
The central characters are a pair of con artists who are indefensible, and also irresistible. In the opening scene, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) plasters on his complex comb-over, and if we chuckle at the lowly kitschiness of his appearance, it also lets us know that Irving is a walking fraud. He's a pinky-ring-wearing shyster from the Bronx who owns a chain of dry cleaners but specializes in fleecing people; he operates a loan business that takes $5,000 down payments and gives nothing back. At a Long Island pool party, Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a hot number who falls for him when they bond over their shared passion for Duke Ellington. It's only later, though, when Sydney learns that Irving is a con man, that we see what kindred spirits they are. She puts on a faux-British accent and turns herself into ''Lady Edith Greensly,'' a posh Londoner with banking connections.
They're small-time operators, but it's their karma to be nabbed by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a beady-eyed scrounger of an FBI agent. It's the post-Watergate era, and Richie, rabid for a big corruption bust, coerces the two into joining a sting operation that's just about as slovenly as their petty scams. It's called Abscam, and it involves shady congressmen, a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) who wants to rebuild Atlantic City, actors pretending to be wealthy Arab sheikhs, and, of course, the Mob. American Hustle is based on a true story or as a droll opening title puts it, ''Some of this actually happened.'' There really was an Abscam, down to the fake sheikhs and a con man used to entrap congressmen (his name was Mel Weinberg). The thrill of American Hustle is that it takes the tacky desperation of this scheme and of the whole Carter era and fuses it with the spirit of our own madly scrambling moment, when the system once again seems rigged and people, increasingly, do whatever it takes to get by.
Watching American Hustle, you never know what's coming next, and you can hardly wait to see it happen. The movie is a caper in which everyone is conning everyone, and the deepest cons are personal: As ''insurance,'' Sydney pretends to fall for Richie, and we, along with Irving, are left wondering if she has. The movie's exhilaration is in how Russell's filmmaking fever lights up everything it touches. His pop-music cues come close to out-Scorsese-ing Scorsese, from the use of Steely Dan's ''Dirty Work'' to accompany Irving, Sydney, and Richie walking with a briefcase full of cash to a mash-up of Todd Rundgren and Donna Summer that enticingly evokes the rapture of disco clubbing. And if Russell's perky camera zooms are a little too Marty, his knowledge of women is something else: He gets astounding performances from Adams, who is hell on wheels, and Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Irving's manipulative wife with a crazy-sexy fury that dares to be toxic. As for Bale, he's fantastic as a lying sleaze with a hidden heart. It's one of the film's rippling ironies that the FBI agent violates every code of decency to entrap crooks, and his prime target (that Jersey mayor) is the most honorable person on screen. In American Hustle, down is up, right is wrong, the con is the truth, and David O. Russell has become the most exciting filmmaker in America. A