Hang on to your (Santa) hats, because practically all the studio movies plowing through the multiplex pipeline until the end of the year are gargantuan, louder than life and awwww-inspiring. Sounds a lot like summer, doesn’t it? That’s not a coincidence, for the holiday film-going season (synced up with school vacations) is the second-biggest turnstile-spinner of the year. You might think it wouldn’t take all that much to prod Americans into abandoning their families and shopping lists for the movie theater -- a solid story, compelling characters -- yet Hollywood’s big brains are convinced the best approach is larger-than-life extravaganzas. Alas, as often happens with the biggest, most garishly wrapped presents, anticipation is followed by disappointment. With that cautionary note in mind, here’s a preview of the season’s big releases.
In the same way that the first summer blockbusters used to debut Memorial Day weekend and now roll out in early May, the parade of high-profile holiday movies begins before the Thanksgiving Day balloons and floats. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, the latest chapter in Jennifer Lawrence’s movie-star odyssey (and the last performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, sadly), opens Nov. 21. Of interest to non-teenagers primarily for the cunning skill with which the filmmakers and marketers have buried the series’ subversive impulses in order to peddle political rebellion as a vicarious opiate for the masses.
Far be it from me to divulge the nefarious ecological and anti-terrorist messages embedded in the animated adventure The Penguins of Madagascar (opening Nov. 26), but rest assured that Hollywood’s deviants will stop at nothing to infect your children’s minds with tales of teamwork, bravery and the triumph of good over evil. Consider yourself warned.
Once and perhaps still touted as a player in the Oscar tournament, Wild (opening Dec. 5, adapted by Nick Hornby from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir and directed by Dallas Buyers Club’s Jean-Marc Vallee) places Reese Witherspoon all alone on the Pacific Crest Trail. Out of shape and unprepared, grieving her mother and her misspent 20s, our heroine embarks on a dubious and unexpectedly boring quest (fragmented with flashbacks of her mother, wrenchingly played by Laura Dern) that never gains traction, let alone ascends any heights.
Swap your hiking boots for sandals and mosey to ancient Egypt for Ridley Scott’s 3-D Bible story, Exodus: Gods and Kings (Dec. 12). Of all the actors on the planet, Christian “Batman” Bale, widely admired for his powerful and persuasive way with a well-crafted speech, plays Moses. The timeless tale of slavery, inherited privilege and godly wrath wouldn’t be the same without a visual special effect or two, or as I like to put it, “Come for the parting of the Red Sea, stay for the Ten Plagues.”
Chris Rock provides inspired counter-programming to Scott and Bale’s solemn history lesson with Top Five (also Dec. 12), a rapid-fire and possibly autobiographical comedy about a comic who wants to be taken seriously. I predict that Rock will hit box-office pay dirt because so many lines will be drowned out by laughter that moviegoers will need to see Top Five twice.
Start clearing your calendar from here on, and I’m not talking about holiday parties and Christmas reunions. Peter Jackson, a man of hearty appetites, launches the solstice smorgasbord in earnest with yet another fantastical hunk of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Dec. 17). I’ve successfully avoided the previous installments and can offer no guidance, not that fans of the author or the filmmaker give one whit what anyone -- least of all a critic -- says.
Cuteness is an essential ingredient of the holiday season, and you’ll get your RSD (required seasonal dosage) and more from Annie (Dec. 19), starring Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Jamie Foxx. I’m curious to see just how cynically (or superficially) the filmmakers treat the fantasy of the 1% caring about those less fortunate. Annie is as close as we get to Dickens at the movies this year. “God bless us, everyone,” indeed.
I feel compelled to inform moviegoers with a lingering Ben Stiller compulsion that another Night at the Museum sequel (Secret of the Tomb) opens Dec. 19. If you are immune from that affliction, well, this film marks Robin Williams’ last screen appearance if you’d like to offer a silent prayer while walking past the marquee.
James Caan wasn’t a great actor but he gave some memorable performances. Just as Christian Bale won’t make us forget Charlton Heston, Mark Wahlberg won’t erase Caan’s agonized portrayal of a literature professor with a gambling problem in the 1974 drama The Gambler. The remake, directed by Rupert Wyatt, opens Dec. 19.
Christmas Day brings a spate of films designed especially to lure families out of their houses. The most important and hopefully worthwhile is Selma, the amazing saga of the Civil Rights Movement with rising British actor David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a strong cast of supporting actors. If we’re lucky, director Ava DuVernay will trust the innate power, glory and emotion of the historical struggle to carry her film without resorting to a sentimental, manipulative score.
I hold no such hope for the soundtrack of Angelina Jolie’s adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller Unbroken, the relentlessly inspiring saga of Olympic runner, World War II bombardier and prisoner of war Louis Zamperini. I’m not sure what is gained by continued adoration before the shrine of The Greatest Generation (tm), unless Americans’ bottomless capacity for hero worship helps us ignore our screw-ups in subsequent wars (declared and otherwise) around the world since 1945.
If it’s escapism you want, without nagging sociopolitical and petro-global echoes, Dec. 25 also brings Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical medley of Brothers Grimm fairy tales. As rendered by director Rob Marshall (Chicago), with a cast led by Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, this could be transporting and exhilarating or tediously pretentious. I am, as we say in the biz, cautiously optimistic.
A pair of portraits of artists also await our unwrapping. Mr. Turner, the latest collaboration between ace British filmmaker Mike Leigh (Topsy Turvy) and Timothy Spall (who won Best Actor at Cannes) imagines the creative prime of 19th-century painter J.M.W. Turner. The application of oil on canvas wouldn’t seem to lend itself to moving pictures -- marvelous exceptions like Vincent and Theo and La Belle Noiseuse notwithstanding -- but Mr. Turner is more concerned with the visionary role of the artist in society than with the creative process itself.
Tim Burton’s many fans will be pleased to have him home for Christmas with Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz as painters Margaret and Walter Keane. Their domestic drama may well offer a more coherent and impactful articulation of female empowerment than the aforementioned Wild, That is, if Burton can remain more focused on the characters than the production design.
If adolescent diversion is required on a trip to the family homestead, either to alleviate the tension of “quality time” or to regress with old high school buddies, Seth Rogen and James Franco have a buddy flick just for you. The Interview imagines the duo as goofy TV “journalists” pegged by the CIA to assassinate North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. The plot makes more sense under the influence of cannabis -- duh! -- which, we hear, is not against the law in some states.
If we expand our focus beyond the studio releases, several acclaimed or anticipated films open before the end of the year in New York and Los Angeles but not until January hereabouts. Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent homage to 1970s L.A., Inherent Vice, is adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel and features Joaquin Phoenix. The brilliant Dardennes Brothers’ latest socially conscious drama, Two Days, One Night, imagines Marion Cotillard as a factory worker reliant on the kindness of her co-workers. Ordinary people also propel the gripping Leviathan, in which a Russian family challenges the authority of their self-serving mayor. Corruption and integrity are likewise at the heart of A Most Violent Year, J.C. Chandor’s taut drama about a stubbornly honest businessman in New York in 1981.
Perhaps it’s a good idea to hold thoughtful, reality-based films until after the holidays. It’s hard enough as it is, after all, to embrace the notion of peace on earth, good will to men.