Twas the week of Christmas, and new movies were in town. Films about conmen, newsmen, and old men who frown. Dinosaurs roaming the earth, taking charge. A boy vs. criminals at large. A movie about a movie about a woman who flies, and a Hobbit vs. a dragon for a prize. With options in front of you, I offer the public a gift: this weekly column to help you sift.
NEW IN THEATERS
American Hustle (Savoy 16 and Carmike 13): This new David O. Russell film tells the story of two con artists who are working with the FBI to entrap crooked politicians.
Why to Watch: This film is fantastic. Every actor in this film makes the film better. Most people want to see this film because Jennifer Lawrence is in it. Yes, folks, Lawrence is a scene stealer in this film; but the reason American Hustle and its many plot threads are so intriguing is because of the relationship between Irving and Sydney (played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams). The two con artists have been pulling cons so long that throughout the film people will wonder if they are inadvertently conning themselves as human beings. Great cameos also abound in this film from some actors you would expect and others you’ll never see coming. American Hustle is a thrill a minute, and I guarantee that once you leave the theater you’ll be smiling from all the fun you’ve had.
Nebraska (The Art Theater Co-Op): Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) was told he won a sweepstakes and has to go from Montana to Nebraska to collect his winnings. Woody’s son (Will Forte) agrees to drive his aging father to collect the winnings even though he expects there isn’t money to receive.
Why to Watch: Nebraska is a film that is funny in an awkward way. Characters in this Alexander Payne feature feel very natural. The relationship between a father who made mistakes in the past and his son who is desperately trying not to repeat them is some of the most heartwarming filmmaking writing I have witnessed this year. Dern’s Woody is a marvel. Not only is he a cantankerous old coot who only wants things to go his way, but he’s also a man with a lot of regrets and pain. The regrets and pain he experienced are clarified as the film moves along on its deliberately slow pace. I found myself completely engrossed in the lives of these people. I love the melancholy nature of this film. The film isn’t about how relationships define a person’s life; it’s about building a relationship where it hadn’t existed in someone’s life.
Home Alone (The Art Theater Co-Op): You know the story well if you’ve had a Christmas at age eight or later. Just in case, here’s a refresher… Kevin McCallister sleeps in on the morning of his family’s vacation to Paris. Because there are so many extended relatives involved, he is left home alone. He also has to defend himself against two idiotic robbers attempting to break into his house with hilarious results.
Why to Watch: This film is a Christmas classic. I think the reason behind why the film is so beloved has a bit to do with the film’s star (Macauley Culkin) but not as much as you might think. A lot of the film’s initial success has to do with the script written by 80s’ iconic screenwriter John Hughes and future Harry Potter director Chris Columbus. There’s no doubt in my mind that this movie will be hilarious for the whole family, but there are specific things I love that make the film memorable for me. First and foremost, the score by Star Wars and Harry Potter composer John Williams. This musician has such a good knowledge of what music would be tonally right for a scene that it’s astounding to hear the musical transitions and songs he produced. Secondly, the relationship that Kevin’s family have with him is beyond anything I could ever imagine. The idea that John Hughes sat down and gave every member of Kevin’s Family a distinct and non-hokey yet identifiable personality trait baffles me. Lastly, Kevin is living out every kid’s biggest fantasy and worse nightmare and showing those emotions in such an honest way; this is something that makes this film repeat Christmas viewing year after year. Please see it while it’s on the big screen.
Walking With Dinosaurs (Savoy 16 and Carmike 13): A story about how a weak dinosaur becomes strong with the help of friends.
Why to Watch: If The Land Before Time had been reimagined as a 3D experience, then Walking With Dinosaurs would probably become the children’s equivalent of that late 80s classic. Justin Long, John Leguizamo, and Karl Urban provide voices for the film’s dinosaurs. Should be an entertaining movie to take the kids to and help them learn what it means to be a friend to someone.
Anchorman 2 The Legend Continues (Savoy 16 and Carmike 13): The character that gave Will Ferrell a whole new popularity triumphantly returns to the big screen with a story about Ron Burgundy being hired at 24 hour news station. God help those employees.
Why to Watch: All joking aside, the first Anchorman is considered a classic by most who enjoyed the film. The second film takes the comedy forward to the 24 hour news cycle and has some pretty funny things to say about why its existence is necessary in the 70s and what it means to those people who report the news. Expect a lot of jokes that will have you gasping for air. Is this a first rate sequel? No. But it’s a solid comedy when audiences are in desperate need of one. Go see it. Also, the appearance by Kanye West is phenomenal.
Saving Mr. Banks (Savoy 16 and Carmike 13): The story of the tug-of-war between famed author P.L. Travers and Walt Disney in regards to Disney adapting Mary Poppins for the big screen.
Why to Watch: The story of why author P.L. Travers wouldn’t let Walt Disney adapt her book is a heartbreaking. I loved watching the relationship between Disney and Travers evolve as the film progressed. I think the film is aided by having Colin Ferrell provide one of the best performances of his career. It is incredibly moving to watch Travers experience flashbacks of her father and their time together. Tom Hanks does a serviceable job as Walt Disney, though I still believe he looks nothing like the icon people celebrate. I have no such photographic memory for P.L. Travers, but I will say Emma Thompson gives a brilliant performance that I sadly believe the Academy will neglect. I love the film nonetheless and think this film is just my spoon full of sugar.
The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug (Savoy 16 and Carmike 13): Bilbo and Thorin’s company of dwarves continue on their adventure to reclaim their home from the evil dragon Smaug.
Why to Watch: It is true that The Lord of the Rings trilogy has a certain built in fan base. The reason I am so keen to see this film has nothing to do with my feelings about the first Hobbit film or the original trilogy based on Tolkien’s books. I want to see Desolation of Smaug for the atmosphere. When I watch these Hobbit films, I know for certain that whether I like the film or not, I will always be taken somewhere in the environments where my mind can be engaged and make me curious about the world Tolkien created for readers years ago. The performances by Martin Freeman as Bilbo and Richard Armitage as Thorin will keep me engaged throughout the film, but I’m more interested in watching Bilbo’s courage develop and how deep and dark his selfishness is once he spends too much time wearing the ring. Go see this film not just to go on an adventure but to honor the themes Tolkien wrote in his literature and watch them come to life.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Savoy 16 and Carmike 13): After surviving the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Malark are still reeling from the death that occurred in competition. How Katniss deals with her PTSD and being placed in an all-star version of The Hunger Games is when the stage is set.
Why to Watch: The first film, directed by Gary Ross, suffered from two major problems. The first problem was that I don’t think audiences were given enough time to invest in the other tributes involved in the games. The second issue was that the games involved far too much shaky cam. I personally couldn’t process the action going on around me when Katniss was inside the Games. Thankfully, both major problems have been addressed. Francis Lawrence directed the second film in this quadrology, and he shows a much steadier hand with the action scenes, which heightens the tension of every moment on screen. Jennifer Lawrence again gives an incredibly strong performance as Katniss, and the parallels between the expectations Katniss is supposed to live up to and the ones faced by Lawrence in her daily life seem to be emotionally present on Lawrence throughout the film. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is great as the new architect of the all-star Hunger Games. See this film for Lawrence’s dynamic performance, strong story, and better use of stillness throughout the film.
Frozen (Savoy 16 and Carmike 13): Based on Hans Christen Anderson tale, the story involves a woman who is chosen to be queen but is ostracized because she has the power to freeze things. Her sister is the only one capable of breaking the spell that froze the entire kingdom indefinitely.
Why to Watch: Frozen is the second feature by Disney to be a mixture between hand drawn animation and CGI (the first being Tangled). This new approach worked well for Disney, and it succeeds again here but only because the film has such a strong story to tell. Kristen Bell voices the heroine, Anna, who is out to rescue her sister, Elsa (voiced by Tony winner Idina Menzel). This film again harkens back to the 90s’ Disney feature catalog and reminds us why we love those movies so much. For me, it’s the fact that the characters stand for something and seem like people who could learn from if they existed in reality. Most of the film’s comedic moments are provided by a snowman named Olaf voiced by Josh Gad. Olaf is a Disney supporting character treasure and I’d be more than happy to see this film multiple times just for his antics. See this film with the whole family. You’ll have a great time.
Lone Survivor: Based on the bestselling memoir, this is the story of a June 2005 mission that tasked SEALS with capturing or killing terrorist Amhad Shahd. This film will be brilliant because it showcases the bravery of our armed forces in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative. Anoter plus is director Peter Berg, who directed the underrated The Kindgom. And who knows? Maybe Mark Whalberg will never be known as Marky Mark after this film debuts.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: A guy who works for Life Magazine and has been invisible throughout his career takes a risk by going on an adventure that will bring him out of his shell. Ben Stiller stars in and directs this film. I’m excited for it because, while this film is meant to be comedic, it’s the first serious role I’ve seen Stiller take in over a decade. That excites me.
The Wolf of Wall Street: Martin Scorsese’s three-hour film about the life of Jordan Belfort charts his rise in the financial circuit, his fall due to corruption, and being caught by the federal government. Watch for incredibly strong supporting performances by Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, and a score of others. Scorsese can’t have too many films left in him, so I’m savoring every moment of his latest feature. Also, this film might give DiCaprio the recognition he has long deserved.