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Movie Review | December sees strong conclusion for year in film

Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 08:01

With the arrival of the first day of classes, it’s hard to believe that winter break is over and 2013 has already come and gone. While some of the films that opened over break were expected crowd pleasers like “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” the final weeks of 2013 also saw releases that helped cement the year’s reputation as one filled with smart and innovative films.

From the groundbreaking subject matter of “12 Years a Slave” to the technical achievements of “Gravity” and a slew of numerous strong performances throughout other films, this past year has led to some of the more contentious Oscar races in recent memory. With new releases including two of the season’s most anticipated films and an adaptation with a star-studded cast, the Daily has your guide to what you may have missed.


“American Hustle”

At first glance, the cast list for “American Hustle” seems like a greatest-hits style mash-up of director David O. Russell’s previous two films. Reuniting Christian Bale and Amy Adams from “The Fighter” (2010) along with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper of “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), “American Hustle” builds on Russell’s recent successes. And while “Hustle” may not reach the heights of the filmmaker’s previous offerings, the film still soars thanks to dynamite performances from an impressive cast and contagious energy.

Set in 1978, “American Hustle” begins with con man Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) in the lengthy process of arranging his comb over in a scene that introduces the themes of deception and appearance — an integral part of the film’s makeup. Irving runs a loan scam with the help of his partner Sydney Prosser (Adams), and, together, they simultaneously make a living from fraud and fall in love. The pair is eventually caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) who proposes an exchange: they can earn their freedom by assisting him with further arrests. Richie quickly sets his sights higher — he wants to take down corrupt politicians, including a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner), and enlists Irving and Sydney to set a trap for his targets.

The plot details in “American Hustle” can be difficult to follow at times, but understanding them is not required to enjoy the film. “Hustle” works best when Russell sets his characters up and leaves them alone, allowing the audience to savor watching this extremely talented cast interact. Although the main trio — Irving, Sydney and Richie — deceive each other with unique style and intention, for them deception is always a means for survival and getting ahead. With all of these opposing agendas and layers of deceit, it’s fascinating to watch “Hustle” unfold. Add in Lawrence with her hilarious and scene-stealing turn as Irving’s wife, and this is simply a fun movie to watch.  While the film does have its flaws — it takes a while to get going, and can seem sprawling at certain points — they doesn’t detract from any of the joy to be had watching Russell get the best out of his cast in “American Hustle.”


“August: Osage County”

With Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts starring in the same film, “August: Osage County” was bound to attract awards attention by merely existing. An adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and packed with an outstanding supporting cast (a few of the names include Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ewan McGregor), the film appeared to be a movie destined for the Oscars before anyone saw even a minute of footage. While “August: Osage County” may be hindered by a number of weaknesses, its powerhouse acting help make it an occasionally gripping drama.

“August” centers on Weston family matriarch Violet (Streep), an acid-tongued pill addict who has been suffering from mouth cancer and has strained relations with her three daughters. When Violet’s husband goes missing, the daughters and their respective families come back home to Oklahoma. Let the family reunion from hell begin.

Much of the drama focuses on daughter Barbara (Roberts), who has clearly tried to distance herself from her family and, in particular, her mother. Conflicts and arguments begin to crop up throughout the household, many stemming from long-standing issues that are just now rearing their ugly heads. With a multitude of plot twists and turns in the second half of “August,” the film at times feels like a Shakespearean drama and at other times like a soap opera, swinging between tones in a rather disconcerting way. The film clocks in at just under two hours — fairly short for Oscar bait pictures — and it feels like a bit more time could have been spent addressing the movie’s numerous subplots.

While the tone and aim of “August” may be unclear at times, some of the film’s scenes serve up electrifying drama simply based on the sheer strength of the acting. “August” is at its best when the actors are let loose. While sometimes the results can be a bit heavy-handed — there’s a whole lot of screaming in the Weston household — they’re gripping nonetheless. The film’s central moment comes at a family dinner, and increasing levels of histrionics and tension lead to an all-out brawl from which it is impossible to look away. Streep dives into her role with unpredictable and unrestrained venom, and the rest of the impressive cast tackle their parts with an equal vigor. While “August: Osage County” may not be at its subtlest in these moments of familial turmoil, these scenes are irresistible thanks to the cast’s skilled acting.

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