Christmas isn’t until next week (!!), but Hollywood is already giving out the presents — in the form of some big movies hitting theaters or going wide this weekend.
Because time is tight, given the shorter holiday season, I’m wrapping my own gift for you here: Six reviews in one blog post.
That’s right … six. Read on for my reviews of American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, Anchorman 2, and Saving Mr. Banks, plus two others as a bonus.
Can’t Knock the Hustle
The ’70s are alive and well in David O. Russell’s latest awards contender, American Hustle, a sprawling, fictionalized version of Abscam, the infamous 1978 FBI sting operation that resulted in the convictions of six members of the U.S. House of Representatives; a U.S. senator; the mayor of Camden, New Jersey; city councilors of Philadelphia; and an Immigration and Naturalization Service official. But this is no fact-based procedural drama. In fact, as the amusing opening title card reads, only “some of this actually happened.” What Russell has delivered instead is a farce about duplicity, a comedic showcase for a repertory company of players from his two most recent films (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook), and a giant homage to the disco era complete with tacky wardrobes and an awesome soundtrack. (Seriously, the hair and outfits alone are worth the price of admission.)
Christian Bale, bloated and balding, is Irving Rosenfeld, a Long Island con man who falls for Amy Adams’ Sydney Prosser even though he has a wife back home who looks just like Jennifer Lawrence. Adams wears low-cut dresses with plunging necklines down to here, while Lawrence is just plain crazy. Can you blame him? Anyway, so Irving and Sydney get coerced by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent with tight curls, to join in his sting operation, and suffice it to say, the film turns into a game of “Who’s conning who?”
Russell ups his game significantly after the overrated Playbook. Sure, the movie is indulgent, excessive, a tad overlong, and a bit derivative (with its frequent zooms and soundtrack cues, you’d think the director was trying to con audiences into thinking they’re watching a Scorsese movie). It’s also wildly entertaining, a film that delivers a boatload of laughs and a very good time. Acting across the board is great, though it’s worth noting that I drank about a case of the Lawrence Kool-Aid. Just wait till you see her singing along to “Live and Let Die” while cleaning house. She’s fantastic.
Hustle provides one of the best times I had at the movies all year. This is no con: the movie’s the real deal. I give it an A–.
Folk Singer with a Cat
The title character of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, comes from a long line of losers who just can’t catch a break (see also Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man and Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, among other characters). He’s a terminally earnest New York folk singer in 1961, just before Bob Dylan hit the coffeehouse scene, who crashes on one couch after another, still smarting from the suicide of his singing partner, and seething with jealousy for how much more easily those around him seem to get work. Llewyn wants to get paid for his music without selling out, and over the course of one week, we watch as he makes what may be his last attempt at a singing career.
Gorgeously filmed, with spot-on period detail, an authenticity that makes the whole thing feel lived in, and another top-notch soundtrack courtesy of T. Bone Burnett, Llewyn Davis is an instant-classic from two of my favorite filmmakers. Llewyn might be more successful if he’d just get out of his own way. Of course, in a Coen brothers movie, that’s easier said than done. In a star-making performance as Llewyn, Oscar Isaac makes good on the promise he showed in films like 10 Years and Drive, making you love and hate the guy, sometimes in the same scene. And just when you think the movie’s painted him into an impossible corner, Isaac picks up his guitar and sings, and the movie hits another high point. You’ll have the album on repeat for months to come, and will be singing along with songs like the protest novelty “Please Mr. Kennedy.”
Early on, Llewyn informs his audience that a folk song “was never new, and it never gets old.” Likewise, this is a movie that feels as comfortable as one of those old tunes. I can’t wait to see it again. I’m giving Llewyn an A–.
Not Such a Big Deal
I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but it’s important that you know I’m not the world’s biggest Anchorman fan. Like the first Hangover movie, I think it’s funny, but a bit overrated. So suffice it to say, I was looking forward to Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues with only muted excitement. And that was before Will Ferrell pulled a Sacha Baron Cohen, promoting the movie everywhere and anywhere he could, in character, thus wearing out his welcome before anyone even had the chance to pay their $10 to see the movie itself. Talk about raising expectations. The film was bound to be a disappointment.
In this sequel, it’s the early ’80s and Ron Burgandy and his news team (Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, and David Koechner) have reassembled in New York City to help launch the world’s first 24-hour news channel. The setup gives Ferrell and director/cowriter Adam McKay plenty of ammunition to satirize some of the biggest news stories of the past couple decades, including the O.J. Simpson car chase, which gets the most play of all. Many of the jokes, then, are predictable and redundant, not to mention awfully similar to ones in the original. Oh, and Kristen Wiig shows up as a love interest for Carell’s Brick Tamland, but that entire subplot could have been excised without losing anything.
There are, of course, some great lines that all your friends will be quoting for years (“Who the hell is Julius Caesar? You know I don’t follow basketball” is one of my favorites) and some cool cameos. I laughed a lot. But suffice it to say, a little Ron Burgandy goes a long way. The character is a much better gag when he’s acting like a pompous, overinflated boob on a local TV show than when he’s a legit big deal, as he is here on a national TV network.
Blame the hype if you will, but Anchorman 2 wasn’t worth the wait. It gets a B– from me.
Lighten Up, Mrs. Travers
Earlier this year, in Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks gave one of his best performances, displaying a rare vulnerability and in the process reminding us why he is one of our best actors. But in Saving Mr. Banks, he’s returned to what he’s well known for: Charming our socks off with little effort. It can’t help but feel like a more subpar performance. Here, as Uncle Walt Disney, his mission is to buy the rights to Mary Poppins from its author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). The Poppins movie, of course, is one of the most joyful cinematic experiences of all time. But Travers was a tough cookie who had no interest in giving her beloved character to Mr. Disney just so he could turn it into some silly animated musical.
If only Banks had a bit more of the charm that Hanks (and Poppins) has. Travers is portrayed here as such a dour stick in the mud that on multiple occasions, you just want to grab her by the arms and tell her to lighten up. Many of her fits are meant to be comical, such as her resistance to the made-up words Bob and Dick Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) come up with as song lyrics, but nearly all of it is unfunny. It’s not that I wanted a more conventional film showing how Disney melts Travers’ cold heart. It’s just that while Banks makes you want to run home and pop in the Poppins DVD, it doesn’t exactly make you feel much sympathy or respect for her creator.
I’m giving this one a C+.
The first is a quirky film about a man (Bruce Dern, excellent) who thinks he’s won a million dollars from a Publishers Clearing House–type company, and the son (Will Forte) who begrudgingly goes with him to collect the winnings, even though he knows his dad didn’t win squat. Life lessons are learned along the way, insults are slung (mostly by the hysterical June Squibb), and it’s all captured in gorgeous black and white photography. The role is a career-capper for Dern, who’s assured of an Oscar nomination; don’t be surprised if MacGruber gets one too.
The second is the true story of a homophobic Texan (Matthew McConaughey, never better) who is diagnosed as H.I.V.-positive and begins to sell illegal drugs to fellow patients, including a transsexual named Rayon (Jared Leto). See this one for the performances as well. Jordan Catalano will break your heart.
There are plenty of movies to see right now, so consider this blog post your guide for the next week until the next round of big releases his theaters.
What movies are you looking forward to this holiday season? Share your answer in the comments section below.