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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Three Films

I’m finally returning to a more regular blogging schedule after taking it a little easier during the holidays. Rather than write longer reviews of the movies I’ve seen recently, I’ve put together shorter takes. Here they are.

American Hustle — I’m a big fan of director David O. Russell, and I was really looking forward to “American Hustle,” his follow-up “Silver Linings Playbook.”

“American Hustle” is a caper film, where the audience is always scrambling to figure out who’s conning who, based on a real sting operation: Abscam, which brought down the mayor of Camden, N.J., and a number of other high-ranking New Jersey politicians. Anyway, Russell makes it clear that his film is loosely based on the real story, opening “American Hustle” with a cheeky statement: “Some of this actually happened.”

I liked “American Hustle,” but I didn’t love it, and it kills me that people are mentioning it in the same breath as “Goodfellas” and “Boogie Nights.” It’s not nearly as good as those films. Part of this stems from the fact that Russell doesn’t want to make a film where anybody suffers — if “American Hustle” reminded me of anything, it was Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean 11” films. Like the “Ocean 11” films, “American Hustle” is a (mostly) light-hearted romp filled with famous actors looking beautiful and clearly having a great time. Crimes are committed, but the consequences are not particularly great, and in the end, almost everybody ends up better off than they were before. But because “American Hustle” is a David O. Russell film, the characters are neurotic and mentally unhinged, and an interesting undercurrent of sadness and desperation occasionally bubbles to the surface.

What elevates “American Hustle” is the cast. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence are both knockouts, and I think it’s high time that Russell direct a film with a woman as his lead, rather than the wacky partner of a troubled man. But I think the accolades for Adams and Lawrence has overshadowed the actor who is really the heart of the film: Christian Bale. After watching him play a brooding superhero in the Batman films, it was a pleasure to watch him play a clever, somewhat ugly but weirdly sexy con man struggling to keep both his wife and his mistress happy. I’m not sure “American Hustle” gave me all that much to think about, but its characters (and their amazing clothes and hairstyles) will stay with me for quite some time.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug — As one of the few fans of the first installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, I was really looking forward to “The Desolation of Smaug,” which everybody seemed to think was an even better film.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was really disappointed by “Smaug.” For a film that runs nearly three hours, it feels unnecessarily hectic and busy, with poorly coordinated action sequences and few standout scenes or images. Smaug himself looks pretty cool, but his confrontation with Bilbo and the dwarves is so drawn-out and loud that I lost interest in it. Martin Freeman still makes for a good Bilbo, and I greatly enjoyed the female elf played by Evangeline Lilly, while wishing her character (who isn’t in the original novel) could star in a film of her own.

After some reflection, I realized that what made me a fan of the first “Hobbit” film was the riddle sequences between Bilbo and Gollum, which is a truly wondrous piece of filmmaking and more than makes up for some of that film’s slow, ponderous sections. What makes “The Desolation of Smaug” tougher to take is Gollum’s absence. Smaug has the potential to be compelling, but Jackson misuses him (as well as Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice), and none of the other characters are capable of filling the void. Oh, well. Maybe the third (and final) installment will be better.

Philomena — This lovely, small-scale drama was a lovely surprise: A heartwarming tearjerker that earns its tears honestly and contains a surprisingly nuanced take on forgiveness, redemption and family ties. “Philomena” tells the true story of a journalist (played by Steve Coogan) who helps an elderly woman (Judi Dench) track down the son who was taken from her by Irish nuns and given to an American family to adopt. (For an angrier take on this unfortunate chapter in Ireland’s history, check out the 2002 film “The Magdalene Sisters.”) What happens next isn’t necessarily what you’d expect.

Coogan and Dench make for a delightful odd couple. Coogan is acerbic and smug and worldly, while Dench is trusting, sincere and has lived a more modest life. Unsurprisingly, she teaches Coogan a thing or two about how to be a better person, while benefiting greatly from Coogan’s growing belief that her story needs to be told. It goes without saying that Dench is fantastic — she always is. But Coogan, who wrote the screenplay, is also quite good, and deserves some credit. Known mainly for his work as a comedian, he shows some serious dramatic chops while also providing a welcome note of wry humor.

“Philomena” is likely to be overshadowed by 2013’s more exciting and innovative releases, but it shouldn’t be. This is a fine film that tells a compelling story, and people should see it.

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