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Movies: 'American Hustle,' 'Saving Mr. Banks' & 'The Hobbit'

Published 2:57 pm, Friday, December 20, 2013

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  • "American Hustle," a movie loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the late-1970s, is playing in area theaters. Photo: Contributed Photo / Westport News contributed
    "American Hustle," a movie loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the late-1970s, is playing in area theaters. Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Following are Susan Granger's reviews of the latest movies in area theaters:

"AMERICAN HUSTLE"

"Some of this actually happened," reads the intro to David O. Russell's demented, audaciously amoral homage to hustlers, grifters and con artists.

Loosely inspired by the FBI's Abscam sting in the late 1970s, it revolves around Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale) and his brazen partner/girlfriend, Sydney (Amy Adams), who are reluctantly coerced into going undercover by ambitious agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), who has anger issues.

Their assignment is to take down charming-yet-corruptible Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) by tempting him with a $2 million investment from an Arab sheik (actually a Mexican/American FBI agent played by Michael Pena) that will supposedly revive Atlantic City's resort casinos.

But what they haven't banked on is how easily Rosenfield's bitter, dim-witted wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), could botch the entire entrapment operation, particularly when Polito's Mafia pal, Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro), gets suspicious.

Wily director Russell ("Silver Linings Playbook") fills the screen with colorful, psycho-comic complexity. Co-writing with Eric Warren Singer ("The International"), Russell has devised a cleverly comedic, character-driven thriller, augmented in great measure by Judy Becker's dazzling production design and Danny Elfman's sound track with music supervisor Susan Jacobs.

For those looking for authenticity, the Abscam scheme actually led to the bribery convictions of seven congressmen and various government officials in 1981.

Almost unrecognizable with a pot belly and combed-over toupee, Bale embodies the sleazy dry cleaner/loan shark, a minor-league manipulator who runs an art-forgery scam on the side. As seductive Sydney, who is as fraudulent as her British Lady Edith identity, Adams epitomizes eccentricity, confidently strutting in a series of cleavage-challenging costumes designed by Michael Wilkinson.

And, as passive/aggressive Rosalyn, Lawrence proves that -- in addition to her other acting attributes -- she's a terrific screwball comedienne.

FYI: If Lawrence scores an Oscar win, she will pull off a unique coup -- winning Best Actress one year and Best Supporting Actress the following year.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "American Hustle" is a tantalizing 10. It's an unexpectedly zany crowd-pleaser that's relentlessly entertaining.

SAVING MR. BANKS"

For those who wonder how movies get made, this is the untold backstory of Walt Disney's 20-year struggle to convince prim-and-proper novelist P.L. Travers to allow him to produce "Mary Poppins."

No fan of films, particularly "silly" Disney cartoons, prickly Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) has adamantly refused even to consider allowing Mr. Disney access to her beloved magical nanny.

But finances are running short, and she has a London home to maintain. So in 1961, she reluctantly agrees to go to Los Angeles for two weeks to discuss plans for a screen adaptation.

A culture clash commences as soon as the solicitous studio chauffeur (Paul Giamatti) meets brusque Mrs. Travers at the airport and delivers her to the posh Beverly Hills Hotel, where she's appalled to discover a Disney toy menagerie waiting in her suite. Things go from bad to worse during spoonful-of-sugar meetings with Walt (Tom Hanks), screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak) with irritable Travers growing more defiantly stubborn until, eventually, persuasive Walt figures out what the real problems are.

Screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith were inspired by true events, so director John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side," "The Rookie") inter-cuts revelatory scenes from Travers' (a.k.a. Helen Goff) formative childhood in rural Australia. It's an astute structural device that reveals young Helen's (Annie Rose) poignant devotion to her charismatic, wildly imaginative, alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), an erstwhile banker who doted on her and her sisters.

Adroit production designer Michael Corenblith not only re-creates the 1906 Outback but also Burbank's Disney Studios in the 1960s.

Exuding charm, Hanks captures folksy Walt's shrewd devotion to syrupy storytelling.

Thompson does a flat-out fabulous job, tossing off wry zingers like Bette Davis. Her timing is wonderful, her expressions priceless. And the supporting cast is terrific.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Saving Mr. Banks" is an irresistibly enchanting, high-spirited 9 -- with whimsical glimpses of the joyous 1964 classic, for which Julie Andrews won an Oscar.

"THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG"

Peter Jackson begins this second installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's massive fantasy as resourceful Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continues his journey with the Wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and the Thirteen Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), on their quest to steal a magical gem, the Arkenstone which will enable them to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and their lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor. Problem is: it's guarded by the fearsome, fire-breathing Dragon Smaug (sonorously voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).

En route, they're attacked by Azog's vicious Orcs, befriended by shape-shifting Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) and captured by a swarm of giant Spiders in toxic Mirkwood forest. That's all in Tolkien's text.

But screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson introduce a new character/subplot to enhance the narrative: Tauriel (Evengeline Lilly), a spunky Elf archer who flirts with hunky, handsome Dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), igniting jealousy in Legolas (Orlando Bloom).

Middle Earth purists point out that Legolas never appeared in "The Hobbit," but his presence here is captivating, while Evangeline Lilly (familiar from TV's "Lost") bears a startling resemblance to Liv Tyler's Arwen.

Undoubtedly, the most exciting chase sequence occurs when the Dwarves escape from imprisonment by the isolationist Elves and are swept down river in barrels, battling more malicious Orcs, until they're assisted by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans), who smuggles them into Laketown, ruled by the venal Master (Stephen Fry), before they can confront Smaug in his cavern. Meanwhile, Gandalf confers with fellow wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) and Bilbo begins to realize the potential power of his gold Ring.

Biggest downside: There's little emotional involvement in this adventure, compared with "The Lord of the Rings." Heightened by 3D, Weta's CGI maintains visual continuity, highlighting Dan Hannah's dazzling production design and amplified by Howard Shore's score. Although Andy Serkis's iconic Gollum is absent, Serkis is again credited as second-unit director.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is an intense, action-packed 8, predictably concluding with an exciting cliffhanger.