American Hustle (R)
A non-blockbuster/franchise movie like American Hustle would appear to be a curious project for which to do an individual character poster campaign. However, its use serves as rather fitting support for the oft-forgotten fact reinforced by the film proper: regardless of how many movies, big and small, that its core quintet have carried as lead stars, they are at heart true character actors. While director/co-writer (with Eric Warren Singer) David O. Russell obviously has fun putting his characters in the most flamboyantly kitschy of late '70s duds and 'dos, the exteriors are but an extension of how Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper so completely commit to the colorful canvas of characters in this seriocomic con caper. Bale again physically transforms himself for Russell (in the opposite extreme this time, packing on a considerable number of pounds), but more notable is how he buries his naturally charismatic presence into that of a rather sad sack small time swindler who moves up into some bigger leagues--and bigger trouble--when he hooks up both professionally and personally with the far more skilled and ambitious Adams. As with any con artist tale, motives and schemes shift by the second, and so masterfully do the actors inhabit these parts that there is consistent suspense as to who is scamming who as the players move about the board. In addition to Adams and Bale, also in the mercurial mix are a well-loved but not entirely clean New Jersey mayor (Renner, making an impression in the film's most straightforward role) and a fed (Cooper, in a shockingly energized and rather revelatory turn) who may be a bit too excited by the prospect of something bigger and more dangerous than his humdrum day-to-day. There is one wild card of a character (in every sense), however, for whom what you see is exactly what you get, and how: Bale's brassy, trashy wife, played in minimal screen time to maximum effect by Lawrence, whose range and fearlenessness continues to astonish.
But perhaps most astonishing of all is that in a film filled such terrific performances, the prevailing personality is that of Russell. After showing he can effectively play in a more mainstream space with The Fighter and, most especially, Silver Linings Playbook, this film marks a most welcome return of Russell's once-signature quirk. If the opening text card that reads "Some of this actually happened" doesn't make it clear enough, it becomes crystal in the lengthy scene that immediately follows, detailing in all its minutiae the the step-by-step assembly of Bale's rather intricately constructed... comb-over. Moments of oddball levity such as this surface regularly, even as the story takes some dark and serious turns. But instead of undermining the drama, it adds some knowing dimension to the proceedings, in a sly way underscoring the darkly comic absurdity of how the schemes of both criminals and law enforcement grow in complication as they become increasingly entangled. Even so, Russell maintains a meticulous balance, in terms of both the events and the people. The tension and stakes grow with the building twists, and while the characters do veer into caricature in appearance and behavior, they are still allowed some emotional authenticity and respect. There is a certain earnestness to the characters' shared yearnings to live and become something greater, and the actors, while obviously relishing the chance to play the more outrageous notes, imbue genuine pathos to their plights--most especially Adams, who brings just as much as disarming vulnerability as she does deliciously ruthless cunning to her performance. Her work well sums up Russell's entire film: irresistibly devious fun, but with a deeper and lasting resonance.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (PG-13)
It's a few steps forward and another few right back with Peter Jackson's second installment of his three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved fantasy novel and The Lord of the Rings precursor The Hobbit. With the whys and wherefores of hobbit Bilbo Baggins's (Martin Freeman) journey across Middle Earth with a group of dwarves dispensed in detail in the first film, An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug wastes no time with recaps and piles on the action considerably, a move exemplified by Jackson and co-scripters Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro's integration of The Lord of the Rings trilogy's scene-stealing badass elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) back into the mix. Jackson seems energized by having one of his strongest assets back at his disposal, coming up with some inventive and exciting set pieces, and unlike the previous film's parade of returnee cameos, Legolas serves a clear purpose in the greater picture, both in aiding in Bilbo and the Fellowship-Not-of-the-Ring on his quest and further fleshing out the elf versus dwarf conflict introduced in part one. Jackson cranks the entire proceedings up to an even higher level once Bilbo and the dwarves reach their mountain destination and face the literally sleeping dragon Smaug. His slumber doesn't last long, of course, and once awakened, Smaug, like Smeagol/Gollum (who is absent this time around, though his portrayer, Andy Serkis, isn't, serving as second unit director) before him, makes for a fully realized character beyond the expectedly impressive digital work, with Benedict Cumberbatch's booming basso profundo making the threat of further desolation that much more palpably tense.
Yet while an improvement over the first installment, this isn't the quantum leap that Jackson made between The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. Some problems from the first linger, such as how, with the main exception of leader Thorin (Richard Armitage), Bilbo's dwarf cohorts still largely blend into an indistinguishable mass of hair and prosthetics. One issue actually worsens: the blatant stretching of Tolkien's source material to fill multiple movies. An Unexpected Journey was already more or less cut together before the decision was made to cut an already padded-out two movie adaptation into three, and the additional shooting done to extend the material from what was meant to be only one more film is all too apparent. Case in point, while the addition of female elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who was created by Jackson and the writers expressly for the films, does do her job in both breaking up the sausage fest and also upping the action factor, a love triangle with her, Legolas, and dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) plays as half-heartedly tacked on as it is. The cliffhanging conclusion was also rather obviously never meant to be an endpoint; unlike what Jackson did in the firsttwoLord of the Rings films and the first Hobbit, while certain threads were left dangling, there still was a certain level of resolution since they were designed from the scripting stage to serve as individual chapters. That all said, whatever hiccups there are, Freeman's portrayal of Bilbo continues to be note-perfect in its humor and affable charm, and Jackson does deliver on the action and builds a great deal of momentum in the final stretch--thus maintaining interest in seeing how everything wraps up next December.
Watching Paul Walker's rather revelatory performance in Eric Heisserer's gritty thriller lends even greater tragedy to his untimely passing. In what is the fourth of the odd 2013 cinematic trend of stories about lone people fighting for survival (after Gravity, All Is Lost, and the upcoming Lone Survivor), Walker plays a man hit with an onslaught of tragedies: first, he loses his wife (Genesis Rodriguez) in childbirth; second, Hurricane Katrina hits; third, he is left alone to keep himself and above all his newborn daughter, who is in a ventilator, alive in a hospital abandoned in the wake of the literal storm. Writer-director Heisserer's first notable accomplishment is using the Katrina tragedy in a nonexploitative way that works as a fueling backdrop for the real story here, which is Walker's realistically complex relationship with his new daughter; while there is a natural paternal instinct, there is still some resentment over how her birth caused him to lose the love of his life. It's a difficult tightrope to walk for an actor, even more so when also being the only person seen on screen for the majority of the film, which leads to Heisserer's second notable accomplishment: trusting Walker to have the capability to pull off the task, which he does in one of his most impressive, if not downright revelatory, turns. For once, the quality of Walker's performance matches his undeniable presence, and in their brief flashback scenes together, he has a sterling rapport with Rodriguez, who makes every second of her scant screen time count. Had he lived to see this film's release, it really could've marked a turning point in his career to more interesting and demanding projects post-age-40; that we'll never know just adds to the poignance of this already affecting drama.
One Chance (PG-13) Paul Potts may not be close to a household name away from the UK shores, but he became one of those classically overnight celebrity stories there after winning the first series of Britain's Got Talent with his mix of a decidedly everyman appearance with a soaring operatic tenor; in more ways than one, he was a bit of a male proto-Susan Boyle. Some viewers of One Chance, based on Potts's life story, may be disappointed that his stint on the reality TV competition is reduced his to his YouTube-viral first audition, but then that was the right call by writer Justin Zackham and director David Frankel. Any more time devoted to the show would then have turned the film into something far different than what it is and supposed to be, a truly inspiring seriocomic retelling of Potts's journey through hard times and often even harder luck as he pursues his unlikely dream of following in the footsteps of his idol, Luciano Pavarotti. The beats are far from new--stifling day job at a mobile phone store; disapproving dad (Colm Meaney, at his cranky best) who'd rather he follow the family tradition of steel working; a sweet romance that proves to be his anchor through it all--but driving the entire film with supreme confidence and effortless presence is a parallel star-is-born story: the performance by James Corden as Potts. Funny, charming, vulnerable, and a hero as intensely rootable as he is unlikely--even if his ending is preordained--Corden's performance lends the film such emotional investment and thus suspense. The icing on the cake is his thoroughly winning chemistry with the luminous Alexandra Roach as his girlfriend Julie. Using the term "delightful" to describe a film always feels a bit corny, but sometimes the tag just fits--and this film, in its unsurprising but completely undeniable charms, earn that label.