At the Movies: American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, Saving Mr. Banks

Thought I’d been slacking off lately, didn’t you? Well, now you know why I’ve not been posting much these past few weeks. The end-of-year movie crush is here. And I didn’t even get to see the dinosaur movie yet. The dinosaur movie! And I haven’t seen it yet! Hopefully I’ll get to it over the weekend.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of other things to talk about.

American Hustle

I vaguely remember the ABSCAM scandal of the 1970s but not in any great detail.   Don’t come in to “American Hustle” expecting much illumination on the topic. While the movie fails as a documentary, it’s an engaging character study with a terrific cast, embarrassing costuming and hair (hey, it was the ’70s) and a swingin’ soundtrack.

american_hustle_ver6_xlgChristian Bale and Amy Adams star as Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, two expert con artists who hook up at a party and form a lucrative partnership. All goes well until they are caught by FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  DiMaso decides to use the couple to catch bigger fish, starting with Camden, New Jersey, Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).

But going after powerful politicians leads to entanglements with the mob. Irving knows they’re in too deep and it’s up to him to figure out a way out. Further complicating matters is his troublemaking wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), the changing relationship between DiMaso and Prosser, and his growing friendship with Polito.

Directed by David O. Russell, “American Hustle” is one of the year’s best movies. It expertly captures the look, feel and sound of the late ’70s/early ’80s. The story is smart and cleverly laid out.

The film is long but doesn’t feel long. There’s just the right mix of humor and drama. The ensemble is great and the five leads all deliver impressive performances. I especially enjoyed Bale’s, Adams’ and Lawrence’s work but everyone involved did a great job.

Inside Llewyn Davis

When I learned the Coen brothers next movie would be about a folk singer in 1960s New York, I was excited. I love many of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen and I love folk music.

As a bonus, they were once again teaming up with T-Bone Burnett for the music, the man who gave us the soundtrack to one of my favorite Coen films, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

PHn2kIbiOA8Iqs_1_mThe result? Well, the soundtrack is fabulous. The film, not so much. Oh, it’s a good film, it just didn’t live up to my expectations of greatness. Kinda like the fictional folksinger’s career.

Oscar Isaac stars as Llewyn Davis, formerly one-half of a folksinging duo, now off on his own. His debut album isn’t going anywhere and his agent isn’t being helpful. The film chronicles a week in the singer’s life when he reaches a crossroads as to whether to continue to pursue a career in music or go back to his previous life as a merchant marine.

Part of the problem with “Inside Llewyn Davis” is Llewyn Davis. He’s a freeloader  going from couch to couch; he has a gift for causing unwanted pregnancies; and he thinks he’s better than every other musician he meets. And yet everyone else is getting record contracts, not him.

Davis isn’t evil enough that you’re rooting for bad things to happen to him, but he’s not sympathetic enough that you feel bad for the things that happen to him. He pretty much gets what he deserves, and it doesn’t make for a particularly compelling story.

Furthermore, the film lacks the sharp dialogue and wit of great Coen brothers’ movies. Even the great John Goodman doesn’t do much with the odd cameo he’s given.

Still, Isaac holds your attention throughout the film and he’s a fine singer. The music is the real star. That and the cat.

Saving Mr. Banks

Finally, we come to the charming story of how Walt Disney was able to make a movie classic despite the demands of the central character’s creator.

Saving-Mr.-Banks-PosterIn 1961 Disney (Tom Hanks) entered into negotiations with P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), author of “Mary Poppins,” to turn the popular book into a movie. Disney was hoping to obtain the film rights in part to keep a promise he made to his children.

The story unfolds on two tracks. One takes place in Australia and details Travers’ childhood and her relationship with her father (Colin Farrell). The second takes place in California where the adult Travers deals with Disney and the men working to bring her novel to life.

Travers’ father was a loving and doting parent but he had a drinking problem which lead to employment problems which lead to problems with his wife (Ruth Wilson). She worked out many of her issues through her writing and did not want to see Mary Poppins turned into a singing nanny, especially one with cartoon friends.

Director John Lee Hancock deftly weaves the drama of the author’s childhood with the humor of her dealings with the filmmaker and his staff. Some may find it corny and it wears its sentimentality on its sleeve, but “Saving Mr. Banks” is charming without crossing the line into sappy.

Hanks is charming as Walt — don’t call him Mr. Disney — while Thompson is delightful as P.T. — don’t call her Pamela — Travers. The supporting cast is also flawless.

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