Holiday Movie Preview

By on November 17, 2013

As the year winds down, so do the blockbusters, making way for the higher-minded films seeking Oscar glory over the holiday season. Oh sure, there’s still the latest installment of “The Hunger Games” next weekend (“Catching Fire,” November 22), Disney’s next bid at fairy tale glory (“Frozen,” November 27) and God help us all, another Will Farrell flick (the self-explanatory “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” December 20).

But, by and large, it’s “for your consideration” time, and there’s lots of cinematic goodness to choose from. Not all of it may live up to Academy Award standards, but it should be a reasonably interesting selection nonetheless, with a little something for everyone. Let’s take a look at some of the more intriguing offerings this winter!

Thanksgiving weekend brings a surprisingly diverse lot of African-American-centric films hoping to give “Frozen” a run for its money. Perhaps the most interesting is Spike Lee’s latest, a remake of the Korean cult classic “Oldboy” (Nov. 27), starring Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen. If it’s anything like the original, this should make for some decidedly oddball post-turkey-day viewing that might make some wonder if someone slipped something more than tryptophan into their dinner.

If the remake recreates the infamous octopus scene, you might just want to bring along some antacid, lest you lose your leftovers- ditto, if the main twist is the same as in the first one. The film also features Lee regulars Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Imperioli, plus Lance Reddick (“Fringe”) and Sharlto Copley (“Elysium”). The less you know about this one going in, the better, but it should be something, even if that something is the polar opposite of “Frozen”- pun definitely intended.

Opening that same day is “Black Nativity,” based on Langston Hughes’ 1961 stage musical, updated for modern times, and starring Jennifer Hudson, so the musical part should be in the bag if nothing else. Backing her up is erstwhile Tina Turner, Angela Bassett (currently killing it, literally and figuratively, on “American Horror Story: Coven” as legendary voodoo queen Marie Laveau) and Forest Whitaker. It’s about a single mom (Hudson), who sends her son home for the holidays to stay with her estranged, super-religious parents.

Two days later, on November 29th, the latest take on the life of Nelson Mandela, “Long Walk to Freedom” opens, with Idris Elba (“The Wire”) in the lead role. This one covers his life from his student years to his time in prison, on through his ultimate role as a legendary statesman that fought apartheid, which should give it an epic sweep more like “Malcolm X” than previous takes on Mandela’s tale. Though some have decried the film being directed by a white Englishman, the presence of the superlative Elba should go a long way towards placating the film’s potential detractors, not to mention Naomie Harris (“Skyfall”) as Winnie. Count me in.

Moving into December, the 6th brings the latest from the Coen Brothers, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” This one falls into the category of their more serious-minded work, and follows a fictional folk-musician in the early Bob Dylan mold in 60’s era New York. Relative newcomer Oscar Issac (“Drive”) plays the titular role, with Coen regular John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan (“The Great Gatsby”), and Garrett Hedlund (“On the Road”) also cropping up in supporting roles.

Opening the same day is writer/director Scott Cooper’s long-awaited follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Crazy Heart,” entitled “Out of the Furnace.” The star-studded cast includes Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson (also in “Catching Fire”), Casey Affleck (“Gone Baby Gone”), Willem Dafoe (the original “Spiderman” trilogy), and Zoe Saldana (the last two “Star Trek” films). Though the plot sounds like something out of a Steven Segal or Chuck Norris flick- a man takes the law into his own hands when his brother goes missing after getting involved with some shady characters and the police don’t do enough for his tastes- I’m willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt, given that cast.

Bale turns up again in December 13th’s much-anticipated “American Hustle,” from “Silver Linings Playbook” director David O. Russell, which also reunites him with “The Fighter” co-star Amy Adams, along with the tag-team of Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence and nominee Bradley Cooper. It deals with a sting involving con-man Bale, his partner-in-crime Adams, and FBI agent Cooper, sporting some interesting permed hair! The late 70’s-early 80’s era tale revolves around the notorious real-life ABSCAM operation the FBI used to bring down key figures of the mafia at the time. The supporting cast includes Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”), Robert De Niro, and comic Louis C.K., all of whom together spell win for this crime drama. Can’t wait for this one!

Opening the same day is the latest installment of “The Hobbit” series, the off-puttingly-titled “The Desolation of Smaug.” Fortunately, this is the one with the showdown between Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the titular dragon (voiced by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, of “Star Trek Into Darkness”), as well as the return of the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), plus new recruit Evangeline Lilly (“Lost”), as a character not featured in the book. Though pushing this one to three films is a bit much, I’m in, if only for Lilly and the dragon. Otherwise, I’d rather be watching “Game of Thrones.”

Finally, also on December 13th is “Saving Mr. Banks,” starring Tom Hanks as no less than Walt Disney, which sounds like Oscar bait if I ever heard it. It’s about Disney’s protracted efforts to talk author P.L, Travers (Emma Thompson, another Oscar winner) into letting him adapt her classic “Mary Poppins” into a film. The trailer is wonderful, and the prospect of Hanks as Disney is near-irresistible. Needless to say, this will be a tough choice for some at the multiplex that weekend!

On December 18th, it’s the latest from cult filmmaker Spike Jonze, best known for “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” “Her” is an equally-quirky effort about our obsession with technology, with Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls into a relationship with the SIRI-like voice of his CPS. With said voice being Scarlett Johansson, this is frighteningly permissible. Hell, I even fell for her “Jersey Girl” accent in “Don Jon” earlier this year, so she can do no wrong in my eyes.

Hopefully providing some competition will be Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, and Rooney Mara, as actual humans, not just voices. Then again, it is Phoenix we’re talking about, so maybe the female population is better off. All this, plus a soundtrack by the Grammy-winning Arcade Fire. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be listening- and watching.

Another car crash of opportunity presents itself on Christmas, starting with Martin Scorsese’s temporarily-postponed (it was supposed to come out Nov. 10th) epic “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a film that looks like a more humorous look at the same subject matter as- what else?- “Wall Street.” Not sure if this is the greatest financial climate for such a film- look at what happened with Oliver Stone’s own follow-up to that film, “Money Never Sleeps”- but this being Scorsese, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

As per usual as of the director’s films of late, the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, along with Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”), actor/director Rob Reiner, and the aforementioned Spike Jonze. Relative newcomer Margot Robbie, late of the short-lived TV show “Pan Am” provides the much-needed eye candy in the male-heavy cast. Reportedly, part of the reason for the delay was the film’s near-three-hour running time, so let’s hope they’ve pared it down somewhat by Christmas.

Another Oscar hopeful is the adaptation of the play “August: Osage County” by the controversial and quirky Tracy Letts, who also wrote the insane “Killer Joe” and “Bug.” This one looks to be decidedly less button-pushing, what with the likes of Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, and, yes, Benedict Cumberbatch, who apparently never sleeps.

The play upon which it was based won a Pulitzer, and it revolves around a dysfunctional family, which makes director John Wells well-suited to the production, given the bang-up job he does as the show-runner and occasional director of TV’s “Shameless,” which revolves around the same kind of thing. Letts does the screenplay honors, as he did with his previously-adapted works, which bodes well for the quality of this one. I’ll say this of what I’ve seen of his stuff thus far: it’s not boring. Not sure if it’s Christmas-friendly either, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Those seeking more family-oriented fare would do well to check out “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” from writer/director/star Ben Stiller. It’s another adaptation of the classic James Thurber short story, here much-expanded to make it more film-friendly. The trailer is an attention-getter, as is the cast, which includes funny people like Kristen Wiig, Patton Oswalt (“King of Queens”), Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation”), and, okay, Sean Penn, who was funny once upon a time, at least (see “Fast Times at Riggemont High,” if you find that hard to believe).

Finally, there’s the epic fantasy flick “47 Ronin,” Keanu Reeves’ latest stab at action-film box-office success. This one’s been much-postponed, but the trailer is impressive, it’s in 3D and despite Reeves’ involvement, the film deserves some credit for keeping the cast mostly Asian, at least, given the source material, which is grounded in a true story of Japanese ronin samurai in the 18th Century. This take combines the real-life source material with more fantastical elements, so those who have tired of re-watching the latest “Hobbit” might want to check this out.

Well, that about does it. As you can see, there’s plenty of stuff out there for everyone’s taste- some might argue a little too much! At the very least, you’ll have plenty of things to choose from, no matter what you like. And what says happy holidays like a great movie, when you get down to it? So, warm up the Oscars, Academy, and see you at the movies!

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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