See This/Skip That: From American Hustle to Hours

12/12/2013 at 03:00 PM EST

See This/Skip That: From American Hustle to Hours
From left: Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence
Francois Duhamel
Director David O. Russell – and his star-studded American Hustle cast – unleash a sexy-groovy throwback to the disco era, while the late Paul Walker delivers one of his final onscreen outings in Hours.

Here's what to see in theaters this weekend.

See This

American Hustle
At this point, it's entirely reasonable to assume that there's a nonstop party in David O. Russell's head. The director of unhinged delights like The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook returns with a take on the '70s political corruption scandal known as Abscam that is very nearly the best film of the year, and easily the coolest.

To pull off this dizzying high-wire act, Russell starts with Amy Adams and Christian Bale, two of his leads in The Fighter, as con-artist lovers Irving and Sydney, mid-level hoods fleecing desperate schnooks. Then he brings in Silver Linings stars Bradley Cooper, playing ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso, and Jennifer Lawrence as Irving's wife, Rosalyn.



Here I must interject that if you're ever in need of lessons on how to steal a movie, grab a notebook and watch Lawrence. Her Rosalyn is a grasping, delusional harpy, the likes of which I don't think we've ever seen on screen. She is a force of nature, beautiful and destructive, with no clear idea where she’s headed or what she’ll do when she gets there. As the pieces come together, with Agent DiMaso using Irving and Sydney to lure politicians into corruption traps, it's Rosalyn who'll determine how it all goes down.

But that's not to say that her costars are slouches – far from it. Cooper and Bale are hilarious as flip sides of the same coin. Both irrepressibly vain, DiMaso in his home perm and Irving perfecting his epic comb-over, they grapple for control of the sting operation while also sparring over Sydney. As for Adams, she plays Sydney as the coolest drink of water, affecting a British accent and flaunting fabulous hair and daring cleavage as she plays toys with her prey. Jeremy Renner adds a surprising pathos as a New Jersey politician ensnared by this whole ugly business, reminding us that corruption sometimes comes in shades of gray.

In case you haven't guessed, Russell is wildly in love with this bunch of nutters, with their big hair, bigger lapels and massive neuroses. But there's always a hint of danger that he won't be able to keep all the balls in the air, that American Hustle will spin out of control into a spectacular mess. Rest assured, though, that it all knits together in the end, to delightful effect. Still, there's no shaking that notion that the film is a bit messy – it's as much a rat's nest as Irvin's hair. But it's also, yes, spectacular.

And This

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
No matter which path you take through Middle-earth, there was probably no way to avoid a mid-trilogy check-in that didn't feel a bit like throat clearing. Still, for a movie that's neither here nor there, The Desolation of Smaug offers a satisfying mix of arresting effects, extended fight scenes and more of that beastly dragon than you might expect.

The action picks up largely where An Unexpected Journey left off, with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) on the march with the Dwarves to reclaim their homeland. But first, they've got to venture through an enchanted forest, fight giant spiders and survive a run-in with the decidedly unfriendly Wood-elves, whose fighters are led by the loyal and lethal Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). She's backed up by fan favorite Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who in turn is kept in check by his ruthless father, Thranduil (Lee Pace).

With a running time of roughly two hours, 20 minutes, there's more than enough room for backstories and diversions, some more necessary than others. But the saving grace is that there's also plenty of time to meet Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).

Without giving too much away, know that he's massive and sly enough to meet most fans' expectations, and may even scare smaller kids. But anyone following this trilogy knows that the real battle is yet to come, in the finale, There and Back Again, due this time next year. Here's hoping it will be an event worthy of that majestic dragon.

And This, If You're a Paul Walker Fan

Hours
In one of his final outings on screen, the late Paul Walker, of the Fast & Furious franchise, plays Nolan Hayes, a new dad facing the worst ordeal of his life. Just as his wife, Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez), goes into labor, Hurricane Katrina hits their New Orleans hospital.

Abby doesn't make it, but the baby does, surviving on a ventilator as the storm intensifies. Soon, the power is out, the hospital is empty, and there's no one but Nolan to crank the generator that keeps his daughter alive.

As if there needed to be even more of a hitch, a faulty battery means that every time he cranks, Nolan gets less and less juice. The three minutes of power he gets in the beginning will feel like a luxury after what feels like endless, sleepless days turning the handle. Hours also adds elements of horror into its intense drama, with the deserted hospital groaning with strange noises and visited by desperate, sometimes nefarious strangers.

The film gives Walker more of an opportunity to show his acting range than the Fast films, and he gives it all he had, showing a weariness and growing care than feels earned and genuine. If you're a fan, then this is a noteworthy way to remember him.

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