Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), left, and P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), right, in Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks". Courtesy photo

Our Sunday Best

Hollywood brings out the big guns for holidays

By From page A1 | December 08, 2013

Surprise, surprise.

Hollywood may have learned its lesson.

December traditionally is crammed with prestige films and plenty of Oscar bait, not to mention the “ordinary” releases hoping to catch one’s attention during the one, two or three weeks many of us have off during the month. And every December, numerous worthy entries have been lost amid the noisy, well-publicized shuffle.

This year looks a bit different.

To be sure, we’ll have plenty from which to choose. But the list definitely is shorter, and a couple of planned holiday releases — George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” and the re-booted “Jack Ryan” franchise — have been postponed until early 2014. Nothing of consequence opened this past week, and the real action doesn’t begin until Dec. 18 … with the usual crazy traffic jam starting Christmas Day.

The bright side, of course, is that the two weeks following Christmas are always quiet — no more new releases — which gives us time to catch up with things.

As usual, several high-profile films will open only in a few major markets — notably New York and Los Angeles — in order to qualify for Academy Awards consideration; we here in the sticks won’t get them for several more weeks or months.

I’m actually more concerned about several “smaller” films that are known to be opening throughout the country this month, but haven’t yet secured Sacramento-area playdates; sometimes such titles bypass us entirely, and our only option is the subsequent home video release. You’ll find a few of those at the end of this cinema calendar.

All that said, let’s dig in. Save me an aisle seat, and arm yourself with plenty of popcorn!

Opened Friday

“The Armstrong Lie” — Director Alex Gibney set out to make a loving, inspirational documentary about the Lycra-clad sports champ who rode his way into everybody’s heart with seven Tour de France victories. Unfortunately, breaking events torpedoed Gibney’s vision midway through the project, at which point he about-faced and instead delivered what reviews insist is a thoughtful and quite critical, rise-and-fall depiction of the narcissistic Lance Armstrong and the Big Lie that destroyed his career.

“Out of the Furnace” — The first entry in actor Christian Bale’s December double-header finds him playing a hard-luck, blue-collar steelworker; his brother (Casey Affleck) is an embittered U.S. soldier with too many tours under his belt. Things get ugly when both run afoul of an Appalachian bad boy (Woody Harrelson). Scott Cooper, who last helmed “Crazy Heart,” seems to be trying for modern-noir grimness here, but the result is simply dull, dreary and depressing. It’ll sink like a stone.

Dec. 13

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” — Director/co-scripter Peter Jackson’s, ah, “enhanced” version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s simple children’s tale continues with its no-doubt-equally-thrilling middle chapter, as Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and their feisty dwarf allies continue their journey to Lonely Mountain and the quest to reclaim Erebor, the ancestral dwarf homeland, from the vile dragon Smaug (voiced, we can be sure, with malevolent fury by Benedict Cumberbatch). Yes — Orlando Bloom alert! — Legolas returns, even though he’s not in the book. I’ve no doubt the film will amaze and entertain, but I sure won’t be seeing it in the high-frame-rate 3D that all but ruined the previous installment.

Dec. 18

“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” — Will Ferrell must be desperate for a hit; why else return to this decade-old franchise? Whatever the motivation, Ferrell and co-stars Paul Rudd, Steve Carell, Vince Vaughn and Christina Applegate are joined by numerous big-name guest stars, as the Channel 4 team undertakes a fresh mission: to kick off a 24-hour cable news service in the early 1980s. Yawn.

“Her” (N.Y. and L.A. only) — Iconoclastic writer/director Spike Jonze returns with another warped fantasy, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely writer who develops a highly unhealthy relationship with the female voice (Scarlett Johansson) of his computer operating system. This comes as a surprise to the various women in his orbit, played by Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara and Portia Doubleday. No doubt Jonze will play merry pranks with conventional human interaction, as he did so cleverly in 2002’s “Adaptation.”

Dec. 20

“American Hustle” — Director David O. Russell blends the stars from his recent hits — “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” — for this 1970s-era crime romp. Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a veteran con man trying to divide his time between an unpredictable wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and an even more hot-tempered mistress (Amy Adams). Things get wilder when Rosenfeld gets sucked into a madcap scheme by a lone shark FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) looking to take down the New Jersey mob. It sounds irresistible.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” — Eclectic filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen veer into yet another fresh direction, channeling early Bob Dylan with this character-driven examination of a young musician (Oscar Isaac) attempting to find fame, fortune and personal satisfaction in the Greenwich Village scene of 1961. Expect the usual assortment of off-kilter supporting characters, played by Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Justin Timberlake, among others.

“Saving Mr. Banks” — The utterly irresistible premise pulls back the curtain during 1961’s two-week meeting between author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and impresario Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), while the latter attempted to persuade her to allow an adaptation of the first of her many “Mary Poppins” novels. Travers, convinced that Disney would ruin her work, proved a very difficult sell. John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) occupies the director’s chair, and the top-drawer supporting cast includes Paul Giamatti, Colin Farrell, Jason Schwartzman and Bradley Whitford.

“Walking with Dinosaurs” — This BBC co-production is the season’s high-tone animated entry: a “realistic” depiction of a young pachyrhinosaurus who struggles to survive in a prehistoric world that we’ll one day know as Alaska. John Leguizamo toplines the voice talent, but I can’t help feeling — the public’s love for dinosaurs notwithstanding — that this one will wind up in the tar pit of December’s also-rans.

Dec. 25

“August: Osage County” — Oscar-bait alert: Tracy Letts adapts his own Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play for director John Wells, who goes for the dysfunctional family throat in this tempestuous study of a few days in the lives of the scattered Weston family, re-united by crisis in the Oklahoma home where they grew up. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts strike the hottest sparks as warring mother and daughter, and the amazing cast also includes Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch and Margo Martindale. Expect plenty of raised voices.

“47 Ronin” — Keanu Reeves exercises his martial-arts muscles anew, this time in 18th century Japan, when he joins a samurai band determined to avenge the death and dishonor of their master. This marks the big-screen debut for newbie director Carl Rinsch, who allies Reeves with Rinko Kikuchi and Kiroyuki Sanada in their blood feud against the despicable Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano). Unless it can deliver the ’tude that helped make “The Matrix” so memorable, this seems an unlikely December champion.

“Grudge Match” — Call this “The Sunshine Boys” in a boxing ring. Retired rival fighters Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone are coaxed into a “television event” 30 years after their last match: one final bout, strictly for publicity purposes. Naturally, it becomes personal. I can’t see this being much more than caustic one-liners and winks toward the camera.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” — Hollywood vanity projects don’t come much more cynical than this one, with director/star Ben Stiller likely to ruin the gentle James Thurber story on which this no-doubt-witless comedy is based. (Anybody remember the debacle of Stiller’s “remake” of TV’s “Starsky & Hutch”?) Stiller’s day-dreaming Walter Mitty finds that he must take action in the real world, in order to save his job and that of the woman (Kristen Wiig) he admires from afar.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” — More Oscar bait: Director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio team anew for this fact-based saga of fraudulent stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who roared through the 1990s on a wave of hedonistic excess financed by his extremely shady deals. Call this the Wall Street equivalent of “Goodfellas,” with Belfort’s rise followed by an inevitable fall. Terence Winter’s screenplay is based on Belfort’s eyebrow-lifting book, and the supporting cast includes Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill and Rob Reiner.

Dec. 27

“Lone Survivor” — Frankly, writer/director Peter Berg never should be allowed near a camera again, given a string of bombastic turkeys such as “Hancock,” “The Kingdom” and the laughably awful “Battleship.” Yet here he is again, trying for serious dramatic cred by mounting a fact-based account of “Operation Red Wings,” the June 2005 SEAL mission that went disastrously awry when its members were assigned to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shahd. Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster and Eric Bana topline what is certain to be a testosterone-fueled descent into movie hell.

Opening … when?

“The Invisible Woman” — Ralph Fiennes returns to the director’s chair in order to helm this intriguing glimpse of author Charles Dickens (also Fiennes), who, at the height of his career, embarked on a clandestine relationship with a much younger woman (Felicity Jones) who became his secret lover until his death. Abi Morgan’s script is based on Claire Tomalin’s book, and — as is typical of British productions — the cast includes top-notch supporting players.

“Labor Day” — Scheduled to be released in major markets just briefly enough to qualify for Oscar consideration, this drama finds filmmaker Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up in the Air”) adapting Joyce Maynard’s novel about a depressed single mother (Kate Winslet) who, during a routine car trip with her young son, unwisely offers a ride to an escaped convict (Josh Brolin). As the police manhunt intensifies, close proximity ignites the already combustible dynamic between these two lost souls.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” — Star Idris Elba has been earning high praise for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela in director Justin Chadwick’s biopic, which also drew considerable praise at numerous film festivals during the past several months. William Nicholson’s screenplay traces the great man’s journey from a rural childhood to his inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected president. Naomie Harris co-stars as the tempestuous Winnie Madikizela.

“One Chance” — James Corden stars in this fact-based saga of Britain’s Paul Potts, a bullied misfit who grew up being mercilessly teased for his fondness for opera, and who, as an adult, went public with his “hobby” by singing in amateur talent contests, much to his ongoing humiliation. Then, on the verge of giving up and settling for his boring life as a shop assistant, he seized an opportunity to try out for a new TV series titled “Britain’s Got Talent.”

“The Past” — Director Asghar Farhadi’s domestic drama stars Bérénice Bejo (“The Artist”) as the French wife of an Iranian man who deserts her and their two children, in order to return to his homeland. She eventually finds happiness in a new relationship, but the past comes back to haunt her when she files for divorce, forcing her estranged husband’s return. Farhadi helmed “A Separation” two years ago, which granted Iran its first-ever Academy Award; this new film, as well, is Iran’s entry in the Foreign Film category, having already won two awards at Cannes.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com

Derrick Bang

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