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David O. Russell is one our best storytellers. Period.
Take the message that begins his latest film, "American Hustle": "Some of This Actually Happened."
Score! We have a film about a con that doesn't con the audience about this being "based on a true story" or "actual events." How refreshing.
Loosely based on the FBI's late 1970s ABSCAM government corruption sting, a nearly unrecognizable and consistently fantastic Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld. A lifelong con man, scamming comes easy to Irving - so easy, he was able to earn enough money to start a legitimate dry-cleaning businesses. But he can't leave well enough alone, so he also sells fake art and runs a phony financing scam in which he gets chumps to give him thousands of dollars, guaranteeing thousands more in return. He never delivers the thousands more.
Business really picks up when Irving meets his soul mate, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a stripper from Albuquerque who knows how to put on an impressive British accent. Two peas in a pod, they partner up and off they go. But there's a bit of a problem: Irving's wife, Rosalyn. Played by Jennifer Lawrence, Rosalyn is a klutzy, spoiled spitfire who's just full of surprises, and while Irving has little interest in her, he's devoted to their adopted 6-year-old son.
Enter Bradley Cooper's hot-headed FBI Agent Rich DiMaso, a man who perms his hair and is desperate to make a name for himself at the Bureau. How's he going to do that? By busting Irving and Sydney and recruiting them to, in essence, entrap politicians into taking bribes.
The way Bale, Cooper and Adams play off one another is one of this year's biggest treats at the movies. Another treat: Jennifer Lawrence. Her coquettish, layered performance jumps off the screen, stealing every scene she's in.
Jeremy Renner can't get enough credit for playing the kind-hearted mayor of Camden, N.J., Carmine Polito. Even though he's now been nominated for two Oscars - for "The Hurt Locker" and "The Town" - when it comes to publicity, Renner tends to be overshadowed by names like Bale, Cooper, Lawrence and Adams. His performance in "American Hustle" is just as noteworthy as theirs.
Director and co-writer David O. Russell deserves all the credit in the world for creating a story, characters and environment in which his actors could truly get lost. Bale, Adams, Cooper and Lawrence, all of whom have worked with Russell before to great success in the films "The Fighter" and "Silver Linings Playbook," have incredible chemistry with their director, making one hope they continue to work together for as long as they're able.
"American Hustle" shows us that while we all strive for something better, that something better is often rooted in love. This is an outstanding piece of filmmaking that should not be missed.
Five out of five stars.
'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug'
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is a vastly different movie than its predecessor, last year's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," which at times was unexpectedly boring and laborious.
From the outset of this film, an extremely brief cameo by director Peter Jackson, followed by a meeting between Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) in a seedy Middle-Earth pub, immediately injects the humor and color the first movie lacked. It is a proper taste of things to come.
The scene itself takes place a year before "An Unexpected Journey" and chronicles the first meeting between Gandalf and Thorin, who wasn't expecting the wizard. But Gandalf knew exactly where the dwarf king would be, and it is here that the plan germinates to destroy the dragon Smaug, reclaim the ancient dwarf kingdom, and take back the Arkenstone.
Cut to a year later. Gandalf, the dwarves and their hobbit buddy, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) are trying to make their way to the Lonely Mountain and Smaug. This time, it's not just the orcs who are after the dwarf platoon - they get ensnared by some magnificently horrifying spiders, which requires Bilbo to summon up some of his newly discovered courage. It also leads to their capture by the wood elves.
This is where Orlando Bloom returns to reprise his role as the elven warrior Legolas, ten years after the final "Lord of the Rings" film. However, here he's some 50 years younger than when we first met him. He's also joined by Evangeline Lilly of "Lost" as Tauriel, a fierce elf and one of the best embodiments of a strong female warrior you will ever see. These two help "The Desolation of Smaug" jump off the screen in all of its 3-D, 48 frames-per-second glory.
Though they don't appear in the book "The Hobbit," these two are the coolest characters in this film, possessing a quiet confidence that's both deadly and endearing. Lilly, who should be in more movies, has great chemistry with Aidan Turner, who plays the dwarf Kili. The sexual tension between them is one of the many devices used by Jackson and company to make "The Desolation of Smaug" truly an unexpected, unpredictable and delightful journey.
My only complaint is that it takes so long to get to Smaug, the dragon, that I began to feel a bit desolate myself. But that slight cinematic transgression can be interpreted as an artistic choice, in order to allow us to feel the long and treacherous journey our heroes had to endure to get there. And besides, the payoff is fantastic.
Smaug, voiced by the suddenly ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch (Khan in "Star Trek Into Darkness"), is spectacular. His give-and-take with Bilbo (Cumberbatch and Freeman are also Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, respectively, in the hit British TV show "Sherlock") is terrifying yet - forgive me - precious.
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" isn't just better than "An Unexpected Journey," it accomplishes something the latter did not: it feels as if it belongs with "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It's infused with that kind of originality and excitement that will not only get you pumped for the third movie, it will make you want to see this one again.
Four-and-a-half out of five stars.