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December 17, 2013
Movie reviews: Saving Mr. Banks and American Hustle
By Carl Kozlowski *

By Carl Kozlowski *

Everyone has a dream in life. And if they’re serious about it, they’ll do almost anything to make it happen.

Two new movies follow people who use highly creative means to pull off their impossible dreams. The Disney drama “Saving Mr. Banks,” about the insane amount of hoops that the legendary Walt Disney had to jump through in order to bring the beloved children’s book “Mary Poppins” to the screen, is one of the season’s top family films despite some dark yet touching undertones involving addiction.

Meanwhile, distinctive writer-director David O. Russell (“The Fighter,” “The Silver Linings Playbook”) satirizes the 1970s U.S. government sting known as Abscam in his latest film, “American Hustle”. It features the most unpredictable ensemble acting of the year, as Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and a very big surprise cameo all come together to work a series of cons that will leave audiences’ heads spinning.

“Banks” is the more conventional of the two, as Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney opposite Emma Thompson as British author P.L. Travers, whose “Poppins” has become a favorite of the Hollywood mogul’s young daughters. As a powerful Hollywood kingpin who was accustomed to people jumping to make his visions a reality, Disney was surprised to find that Travers wasn’t eager to hand over control of her book for a film adaptation.

Travers particularly loathes Disney’s expressed wish to meld musical numbers and animation sequences into the film, and threatens to put the kibosh on ever allowing the film to get made. But Disney had promised his daughters he’d make the film in their honor, and he was determined to keep his word – a process that involves him having to peel back the layers of mystery inTravers’ life and help her come to terms with her troubled relationship with her own father (Colin Farrell in a very moving turn), a dreamer who also suffered from addiction.

 “Banks” is an impressive effort from writer-director John Lee Hancock, who follows up his Oscar-winning 2009 blockbuster “The Blind Side” with this film. From the lush early-1960s settings and costumes through a deep cast (including Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) at their charming best, this is a glossy and thoroughly winning film that provides a lot of insights into the magic of the Disney creative process. While it’s not inappropriate for younger children, it is serious enough in tone to make it likely to be enjoyed more by teens and adults.

Meanwhile, “American Hustle” is filled with fast-talking dreamers each looking to get ahead in their own desperate, yet often funny, way. It follows the story of Irving Rosenfeld (Bale), a New Jersey con artist, and his mistress/con partner Sydney (Adams) and how a highly ambitious FBI agent named Richie  DiMaso (Cooper) uses them to bust a  bunch of congressmen and Newark, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) for taking bribes in a notorious real-life U.S. government sting operation called Abscam.

The wild card in this bunch, however, is Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), who got stuck married to the shady loser at way too young an age and is constantly looking for any way to make his life miserable. As the stakes get higher in both the sting and in the personal lives of its participants, it’s the seemingly naïve yet extremely willful Rosalyn who stirs things up to dangerous levels that could bring everything down like a house of cards.

“American Hustle” is the perfect name for this movie, because each and every one of its superbly drawn and colorful characters is indeed hustling their own unique dreams: to be the best at art forgeries, to be the best federal agent, or the best mayor. Writer-director Russell shoots them all with a comically outsized swagger in their public moments, yet a haunting vulnerability in their private ones.

The cast all rise to their respective challenges, leaving viewers with an embarrassment of riches to enjoy from the year’s best ensemble of actors. The terrific late-70s period details and costumes meld with a perfect soundtrack of the era’s overly earnest pop hits to fully immerse viewers in the story’s time and place, and Russell bring it all together with fun zest that recalls “Boogie Nights.”

Yet Russell thankfully handles the proceedings with class and restraint, even despite the film’s R rating. While there is enough foul language to definitely fit that rating, it rarely feels excessive within the context of its characters and scenarios (by comparison, one of the films I reviewed for next week – “The Wolf of Wall Street” has a seemingly non-stop tapestry of F words and the like filling the movie from start to finish).

Similarly, while Amy Adams plays a stripper who climbs the socioeconomic ladder via her con artist ambitions, she’s shown just briefly onstage and wearing pasties on her breasts. Her sex scenes with Bale are extremely brief and largely implied, and when she tries to establish control over another male character by misleading him into thinking she’s wanting to have an affair, she manages to keep clothed and mostly modest, never actually engaging in any illicit activity with him.

And for that, writer-director David O. Russell deserves kudos for elevating the material to a classier level – an approach that works in this tale of desperate dreamers wanting to elevate their own lives.

Carl Kozlowski has been a professional film critic and essayist for the past five years at Pasadena Weekly, in addition to the Christian movie site Movieguide.org, the conservative pop culture site Breitbart.coms Big Hollywood, the Christian pop culture magazine Relevant and New City newspaper in Chicago. He also writes in-depth celebrity interviews for Esquire.com and The Progressive. He is owner of the podcasting site www.radiotitans.com, which was named one of the Frontier Fifty in 2013 as one of the 50 best talk-radio outlets in the nation by www.talkers.com and will be relaunching it in January 2014 after a five-month sabbatical. He lives in Los Angeles.
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