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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Hustlers, Operating Systems, and Folk Musicians

The most recent movies I've seen are hotly anticipated, critically acclaimed end-of-year movies.  While I liked them to varying degrees, they are all most certaily must-sees.  Here are my thoughts.

American Hustle

Director David O. Russell has a signature style of throwing a bunch of characters into a somewhat familiar genre (war movie in Three Kings, sports drama in The Fighter, romantic comedy in Silver Linings Playbook), letting actors improvise, and ending up with something thornier and more interesting than its plot summary would indicate.  American Hustle is loosely based on the Abscam scandal, when FBI agents used con artists to entrap dirty politicians.
American Hustle stars a quartet of great and funny actors (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence), and its a joy to watch them interact onscreen.  I liked them all, but if you put a gun to my head my favorite would be Cooper's earnest, desperate, permed, FBI agent.  The movie has its own sort of rhythm, which at times is fun and at other times feels a bit flabby.  While I loved watching the actors, I often wished scenes had been a bit tighter, the plot a bit clearer, and the stakes a bit higher.  With Oscar nominations coming out next week, American Hustle is often mentioned as one of a trio of frontrunners along with 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.  While I enjoyed it a lot, for me it doesn't even come close to the achievements of the other two films.

Grade: B


From director Spike Jonze comes Her, the story of a recently-divorced and depressed man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in deep love with his operating system "Samantha" (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).  The most remarkable thing about Her is the way they make this high-concept story into something that feels utterly believable in the not-too-distant future.  The world, with everyone entwined with their operating systems and finding new ways of connection (or faux-connection, director Jonze refuses to pick a side), feels quite close to our own and never strains probability.  The best part of the movie was its first half, as we the audience marvel at all the aspects of this brave new world, pitched somewhere between marvel and melancholy.  I also loved the philosophical questions of soul and body and consciousness that this movie effortlessly entertains.  In the second half of the movie, the tone shifts to romantic drama as the relationship is strained, and it almost doesn't matter that we're talking about a man and operating system.  I liked this part of the movie too, but it didn't quite catch me the same way.  I value tremendously all the things this movie does well, and yet a part of me remained engaged at a more intellectual than emotional level.  It's definitely one to see again.

Grade: A-

Inside Llewyn Davis

Here it is, what just might be a perfect movie.  I am a huge fan of The Coen Brothers, and here they do everything so beautifully right.  The story of Llewyn, a wandering folksinger in early-1960s New York, is a movie with the courage of its convictions as the movie  isn't afraid to present Llewyn in all his contradictions.  He's a great singer who doesn't snatch opportunity when it's in front of him.  He's a cad who can't connect with others in life, but uses music to make his points and show others his soul.  As we follow him through a week in his life, the Coens bring a deep vein of compassion to his journey.  That isn't to say this movie isn't funny.  It has many laugh-out-loud sequences, form an Upper West Side dinner party to a strange and desolate road-trip with an obnoxious jazz aficionado, played with great skill by John Goodman.  In the lead role, Oscar Isaac is astonishing, playing his emotions whether speaking or singing.  In addition, every element of the craft, from the washed-out cinematography to the impeccably rendered 1960s New York, looks perfect.  It also has one of the best endings, elliptical and haunting, that I've seen in quite some time. I've loved many a Coen Brothers movie, but this just might be my favorite.

Grade: A

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