‘The Hobbit,’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ ‘American Hustle’: A brief retrospective of year-end releases

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By Benjamin Lucas

Last week, capping off the past few months of Oscar-hopeful year-end releases, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences finally announced nominations for the 86th Annual Academy Awards Ceremony, which airs Sunday, March 2 and will be hosted by Ellen DeGeneres. Obviously, these nominations are far from comprehensive coverage of 2013’s filmography, and as such, here are a few notable releases from December that may or may not walk away with a golden statue or two (or 11).

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson has always been a rather bombastic visionary. Even his early days of homemade prosthetics and backyard sets featured at least one elaborate set piece (in his debut effort, Bad Taste, for example, he has a rickety house launch into space).

With every new film Jackson makes, he uses the current cinematic technology to test the limits of movie magic — in the case of his latest Middle Earth movie, he made the controversial decision to shoot this installment at 48 frames per second in addition to utilizing 3D and IMAX formats.

While it is nice to see someone dream big visually, perhaps a bit of restraint in the writers’ room would have benefitted the Hobbit trilogy, particularly this latest installment. The source material lacked the endless scope of the Lord of the Rings trilogy — it was, rather, a brisk, ditzy adventure that kept the proceedings light for a younger audience. Consequently, Jackson has included material from whatever was left of Tolkien’s writing that had yet to be put to screen, creating a Frankenstein’s monster of a plotline that spans roughly the length of a season of Game of Thrones.

While Desolation of Smaug suffers from many of the first movie’s problems — the new material feels clumsily shoved in, the tone wavers in and out of camp and there is a fair amount of padding — I was surprised at how much its sequel managed to accomplish despite these obvious flaws. It is much leaner and darker, and it adds a sense of urgency missing amongst the general bloat of An Unexpected Journey.

The best scenes in this film feature Bilbo’s attempts to outsmart the villainous Smaug, thunderously voiced by Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who brings a playful malice to the gargantuan and unstoppable beast.

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen brothers’ latest movie, has secured Oscar nominations for Achievement in Sound Mixing and Achievement in Cinematography. While I would certainly heap praise on the film’s impressive sound mixing, it wasn’t exactly the first thing that came to my mind when the credits rolled.

For a duo of filmmakers that specialize in melancholia, Inside Llewyn Davis may be the Coens’ bleakest work to date, but that does not make it a thoroughly morose affair — in fact, it is often bitterly funny. The latest victim of the Coens’ tendency to pummel their protagonists with misfortune is the titular Llewyn Davis, a misanthropic folk musician who finds his passion running on fumes amidst a snowy, 1960s-era Big Apple. He takes his solo act to the same stuffy pub and flies into a rage whenever anyone mentions his ex-partner. The film spans a single week, over the course of which he crashes on his friends’ couches, lugs a slippery orange tabby onto a subway and goes on a hilariously depressing road trip.

Inside Llewyn Davis may be the Coens’ most masterful film in years. It is about the stubbornness and desperation of one man following his dreams and what happens when those dreams consistently end in humiliating failure. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Academy refused to give the Coens a screenplay nod for Inside Llewyn Davis this year — the whole “pursuit of fame ending in misery for yourself and everyone around you” message doesn’t particularly jive with the overall vanity of the Oscars, does it?

American Hustle

The most hyped film in the Oscar running, American Hustle is practically drowning in nominations, scoring ten in total (including Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Director and acting nods for almost the entire leading cast).

Renowned director David O. Russell reunites his favorite regulars here: last year’s Silver Linings Playbook stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (who earned back-to-back acting nods under Russell’s direction) and The Fighter’s Christian Bale (Bale won Best Supporting Actor for this film three years ago) and Amy Adams. Additionally Jeremy Renner and Louis C.K. feature in American Hustle in intermittently supporting roles.

Part of the film’s success comes from Russell’s ability to generate electricity from his performers — everyone gets a little moment to bring something of his or her own to the table, breathing life into a script that would have been strong on its own, but works twice as well with each character’s individual quirks.

With its twisty, character-driven plotting, American Hustle is a real crowd-pleaser. It follows Irving Rosenfeld’s (Bale) progression from small-time swindler to full-blown con man, with his mistress Sydney Prosser (Adams) more than along for the ride. Eventually, he gets snatched up by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), who pitches a loony scheme to wrangle in a few corrupt political leaders. Of course, everyone has an ulterior motive, and things get more complicated once Irving’s fiery wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), gets involved.

Similar to last year’s Argo, which took home the final prize of the evening for Best Picture, American Hustle has earned its prestige in the Academy through sheer enjoyability.

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