Maybe we've got enough stress during the holiday months that we need something on-screen that we know. Perhaps we need something familiar, or something that we can wrap our minds around for a couple hours of escape in a warm theater.
That seems to be the theme of the past several winter movie seasons. The November-to-January blockbuster stretch is largely comprised of sequels, remakes and revivals of well-known stories. Hollywood seems to leave the original stuff for the fall, as evidenced by Gravity and All is Lost making appearances before the holidays. But come this winter, we know what to expect.
The Hunger Games franchise returns with Catching Fire, the second installment in Suzanne Collins' outrageously best-selling young adult fiction trilogy. Hard-core fans know what's going to happen to Katniss and crew, but they'll flock to theaters the week before Thanksgiving regardless. Then there's the reappearance, after nearly a decade's absence, of the best mustache this side of Cannonball Run, as Anchorman 2 finally materializes on the big screen. And for all the Middle Earth fans out there, the seemingly unnecessary trilogy-ification of The Hobbit continues, as the gang of dwarves continue their journey. And it wouldn't be Christmas without another one of those Paranormal Activity flicks, right? Even Tyler Perry is getting in on the season of sequels by bringing Madea back for what looks like a disaster of a Christmas movie.
Other films hitting screens this winter aren't sequels, but feature familiar tales or source material. Black Nativity is a cinematic version of Langston Hughes' iconic musical, itself a retelling of perhaps the New Testament's most well-known story. Ben Stiller is bringing to life one of the most beloved American short stories ever written with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty — which was turned into a movie more than 60 years ago. Film die-hards have been waiting for the remake for many years, but again the source material is nothing new, regardless of how visually dazzling the Stiller-directed vehicle proves. American Hustle looks fantastic and is sure to kill at the box office, but part of that will be David O. Russell's ability to play within the confines of the mafia movie.
Some very unfamiliar films are popping up this winter at the fringe of the blockbuster crowd. Most noticeably is Alexander Payne's Nebraska, a film with a starkly original story starring Bruce Dern and shot exclusively in black and white. Award buzz will likely follow, as it will for Philomena, a British film about love and family that has already wowed the festival audiences. Other audiences are eager to see Inside Llewyn Davis, about the '60s glory days of the New York folk scene, with a soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford. It stars Justin Timberlake, which might be reason enough for some to lay down cash for a seat.
There's nothing wrong with familiarity. It keeps you warm on those long winter nights. ♦
THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY
If you recall the first Best Man movie that came out way back in 1999, well, good memory. The sequel is out now, 14 years later, with virtually the same cast. Since the closing frames of the first movie at Lance and Mia's wedding, Harper proposed, Murch broke up with Shelby, and the group has yet to see each other again. It all changes when they plan to all meet up for Christmas and learn of all the changes from years past — marriages, kids, divorces. But nothing can get between old friends, until they realize how easy it is for old romances and rivalries to reignite. (Katelyn Smith) Rated R
Remember the heartfelt, critically acclaimed 2010 Sundance hit The Kids are All Right, with Mark Ruffalo as the sperm donor father tracked down by his two biological kids, who are being raised by a lesbian couple played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore? Delivery Man is like a producer saw that movie and said, "Do that, but as a comedy starring Vince Vaughn." Vaughn is David Wozniak, an unreliable man-child — literally a delivery man for his father's business — who discovers that by some mistake at a fertility clinic where he donated sperm 20 years earlier, he is the biological father of 533 children. These kids are your typical millennials, both ambitious and bumbling, and Wozniak appoints himself their "guardian angel." It could be corny, but Vaughn plays the role well and early reviews have called it warm, funny and emotionally resonant. Chris Pratt, resident man-child on Parks and Recreation, gets laughs as the best friend and weary father of four. (Lisa Waananen) Rated PG-13
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
Fans of the bestselling book-turned-movie series have been eagerly waiting for the release of Catching Fire since March 2012, when the credits rolled at the end of the trilogy's first installment. In the same category as megahit predecessors Harry Potter and Twilight, The Hunger Games started out as a young adult sci-fi/fantasy series, but a riveting plot and setting in a futuristic, dystopian world swept up readers young and old. Like its printed counterpart, the second film picks up where the first left off, as the victors of the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), begin their "Victor's Tour" of the Districts. Along the way, they sense rebellions are stirring among the people of Panem. By being the first dual winners, thus forever altering the rules of the Games, Peeta and Katniss have become symbols of hope to the masses. Readers of the series know what follows, but we won't spoil it for the rest. (Chey Scott) Rated PG-13
Since it was first performed in New York in December 1961, Langston Hughes' Black Nativity has become an annual tradition on stages across the U.S. But this is the first time the musical play — part nativity pageant, part gospel service — has been adapted as a full-length film with an all-star cast. A single mom in Baltimore (Jennifer Hudson) is forced to send her teen son, Langston, to spend Christmas in New York City with grandparents (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett) he's never met. There, among the historic brownstones, bright lights and famous churches of Harlem, Langston (played by 17-year-old R&B star Jacob Latimore in his first major film role) clashes with his strict grandfather, Reverend Cornell Cobbs, but ultimately finds his own truth about the holidays with a little divine intervention. The star-studded soundtrack mixes traditional gospel with contemporary R&B, and both Hudson and Latimore shine. (LW) Rated PG
It's billed as the first musical masterpiece from Disney since The Lion King. Those are lofty expectations, but Frozen looks cute, fun and family-friendly, and it has a talking snowman named Olaf. The computer-animated film is based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale called "The Snow Queen," so if you're one of those types who read the book before seeing the movie, there you go. Since it's Disney, there are also princesses, and Frozen features two sister princesses, Elsa and Anna (the latter voiced by Kristen Bell). But there's a slight problem: Elsa has cryokinetic powers (she can turn things to ice). But she can't figure out how to control them, dooming the picturesque town of Arendelle to a frigid fate. After she runs away in shame, it's up to heroine sister Anna, a fearless redhead, who goes on a journey with a mountain man named Kristoff and his trusty reindeer sidekick Sven. The talking snowman tags along to help. (CS) Rated PG
James Franco has done it all over the past couple of years; now he plays perhaps his most reprehensible character yet. A retired DEA agent (Jason Statham) heads to a small town, only to end up tangling with a redneck meth-head (Franco). Soon that meth-head, and his meth-dealing empire, discovers that Statham's character is a former agent and try to have him killed. Winona Ryder appears as Franco's accomplice, in what looks like one of her most solid roles in years. Fun fact: Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay, adapted from Chuck Logan's novel. (Mike Bookey) Rated R
If you've seen Park Chan-wook's riveting 2003 Korean thriller of the same name, it's easy understand why fans of the original are skeptical about Spike Lee's remake. Park's movie, heralded as one of the best foreign films of all time, has attained cult status in the U.S. and around the world, so why mess with a masterpiece? The creators of Hollywood's Oldboy promise they've honored their source material in addition to bringing something new to the work. The story line is basically the same: A businessman (in Lee's version, he's played by Josh Brolin from W. and Men in Black 3) is suddenly kidnapped and held captive for 20 years in a shoddy hotel room for no apparent reason. When he's released, he vows to exact revenge on his kidnappers and unravel the mystery of his imprisonment. If Lee's movie is anything like Park's (the trailer foretells as much), you can a expect an emotionally raw, psychologically twisted experience, full of blood, sex, plot pivots and gore, a continuously tracked fighting sequence involving a hammer and an ending that's so unsettling, you'll want a shower to cool down. (Deanna Pan) Rated R
Philomena Lee, an elderly British woman, confides in her daughter that she gave birth to a son in Ireland 50 years earlier. Unwed at the time, she was forced to give her son up for adoption, but has never gone through a single day of her life without him in mind. Martin Sixsmith, a former government adviser out of a job, is looking for a story idea to bring to his editor. At a party, he hears of Philomena. Despite his detest for human interest stories, Martin is forced to follow through with the pitch. Together, he and Philomena investigate the life of her lost son and find themselves exploring America looking for answers. Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, who also helped write the movie with Jeff Pope, and directed by Stephen Frears, the film, based on a true story, has received festival-circuit acclaim. (Kara Stermer) Rated R
THE ARMSTRONG LIE
Few athletes have accomplished the sort of career faceplant performed by Lance Armstrong over the course of the past decade. The Texan went from winning seven consecutive Tour de Frances, convincing most of America to wear yellow rubber bracelets for a cause they didn't necessarily understand, to essentially becoming Voldemort on a bicycle. Director Alex Gibney (he won an Oscar for his documentary Taxi to the Darkside and a nomination for the revolutionary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) began following Armstrong in 2008 when he was mounting a comeback and got rare access. Along the way, Armstrong tells lie after lie about his performance-enhancing drug use, fooling a public that — as Gibney points out — may have wanted to be fooled all along. (MB) Rated R
LAST DAYS ON MARS
We need to be a little more optimistic about our space travel if we're ever going to put a human on another planet. Judging from recent films, it looks like we're destined to get ourselves killed. If you saw Ridley Scott's Prometheus, you know the drill. In Last Days on Mars, we have a crew that's been on Mars for six months and is awaiting a ride home, which is quickly approaching. But the scientists have made headway into discovering life on the planet, and a pair of researchers head out on an unauthorized expedition and discover what they believe to be a massive life form. One little problem, though. It looks like whatever is under Mars' red soil turns humans into zombie-like beings capable of killing everyone in their crew. The film is getting a limited release, but you can check it out now on video on demand. (MB) Rated PG-13
Remember those Publishers Clearing House envelopes you'd find in the mail? The ones that, in bold lettering, exclaimed that you had just won a million bucks? You know there was always some poor soul out there who saw that mailer and figured, "Holy shit, I'm a millionaire!" without reading the fine print. Woody Grant is one of those poor souls in Alexander Payne's much-hyped latest, Nebraska. Played with Oscar buzz by 77-year-old Bruce Dern, Woody, a reckless, lonely boozer, heads out from Montana to Nebraska to claim his fortune. He takes along his skeptical son (a post-SNL Will Forte), who's humoring him, as Woody tells everyone he knows that he's become a millionaire, gathering clingy new money-hungry friends along the way. Payne (Sideways, The Descendants, Election) shot the film in black and white, adding its already present sense of despair. (MB) Rated R
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Ahead of its release, much of the buzz around the Coen Brothers' newest project has been about the soundtrack. Produced by T Bone Burnett (remember the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack?) and Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons), the record is worth playing on repeat as you wait for December. It's also a reason to be even more excited for the movie itself. The most haunting, stick-with-you songs come from actor Oscar Isaac, who plays our struggling folk singer hero. Looking for success in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, Llewyn Davis is talented, but watches from the sidelines as his fellow artists, Justin Timberlake's character "Jim" among them, find success. Throughout, Davis struggles to prove himself, uses proper contraception when sleeping with his friend's lady and travels the subway with a cat. (Heidi Groover) Rated R
OUT OF THE FURNACE
After the years of playing Batman on the big screen, Christian Bale is back in a new American thriller. Out of the Furnace follows the story of Russell and Rodney, two brothers living in an economically depressed town in the Rust Belt. They dream of getting out and finding a better life somewhere else, until a cruel twist of fate lands Russell in prison. During his incarceration, Rodney gets mixed up in a crime ring — one of the Northeast's most violent and ruthless. He mysteriously disappears, and when Russell gets out of prison, he takes seeking justice for his brother into his own hands. Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, and Woody Harrelson also star in this tense thriller. (K. Smith) Rated R
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
Last year's first installment of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit was too long. But it felt good to once more experience the magnificence and horrors of Middle Earth (aka New Zealand) after a decade away. Working from Tolkien's children's book The Hobbit, along with text from the Lord of the Rings Appendices, Jackson and his team have managed to split the 300-page novel into three films (to the delight of New Line Cinema, no doubt). The Desolation of Smaug continues the journey of Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and their dwarf compatriots as they traverse mysterious terrain in order to take back the dwarves' rightful home, the Lonely Mountain, from the evil dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Based on past trilogies (LOTR, the first Star Wars), this second movie can only be better than the first one, and probably will be the series' highlight. (Laura Johnson) Rated PG-13
TYLER PERRY'S A MADEA CHRISTMAS
Tyler Perry does it all — writing, directing, acting — playing Madea as she takes on the Christmas spirit in a slew of one-liners and sass. Madea is asked by her niece Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford) to spend Christmas in her daughter Lacey's small town. (And by asked, I mean "bribed.") Lacey (Tika Sumpter) is afraid that her mother will resent her decision to secretly marry a white boy (Eric Connor), and instead of confessing the marriage, tells her that Connor is just a simple farmhand. When the farmhand's folks come to visit, comedic misunderstandings follow, as Madea attempts to clear things up with advice and threats of violence and advice. After all, nothing says "Christmas" like falling into cow poop and threatening to strangle someone repeatedly. (Emera Riley) Rated PG-13
Coming off the splendid Silver Linings Playbook, director David O. Russell is back, bringing the stars of that film, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, along. This time, the subject matter is a little more intense: he takes us back to the glittery 1970s for a crime drama about a group of corrupt politicians living the high life in New Jersey. Soon most of the cast is tangled in the web of the mafia as some become FBI informants. As if Cooper and Lawrence weren't sufficient, the cast also includes Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner. It sounds like a lot of other mafia flicks, but take a look at the fabulous costume designs and the fact that Cooper sports a perm, and you've got something special here. (MB) Rated R
ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES
In his trenchant 2004 masterpiece Anchorman, Adam McKay captivated audiences and critics with his uncompromising cinéma vérité profile of legendary San Diego anchorman Ron Burgundy. He brought his lens to bear not just on the cutthroat atmosphere of internal and external news rivalries, but on the entire 1970s zeitgeist — gender equality, male ego, animal cruelty, and even, through a simple but wise weathercaster, mental illness. In a fashion reminiscent of Before Sunset and Michael Apted's 7 Up sequels, Anchorman 2 leaps forward into the next decade, where an older, presumably wiser Burgundy must reckon with the dialectical tensions inherent to class, race, sexual ethics, and death itself. Also, scotchy scotch scotch. (Daniel Walters) Not yet rated.
WALKING WITH DINOSAURS
More advanced than the animation in Land Before Time but just as heartwarming, Walking with Dinosaurs, set in the Late Cretaceous period more than 70 million years ago, follows three dinos — Patchi, Scowler, and Juniper — as they transition out of childhood into adulthood and lead their herd in migrating. Based on the BBC series of the same name, the film is produced by BBC Earth, responsible for the wildly successful Planet Earth. Directors Neil Nightingale and Barry Cook feature more than 10 different types of computer-animated dinosaurs in live-action settings similar to the conditions the creatures were exposed to during the period, giving viewers an accurate sense of what the world would have looked like during the time of dinosaurs. Filmed throughout Alaska and on an island off of New Zealand, the movie, set to be released in 3D right before Christmas, is incredibly visually appealing and spectacularly produced. (Kara Stermer) Unrated
"Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl," Justin Bieber, the defining voice of his generation, wrote at the Anne Frank house about the young Holocaust victim back in April. "Hopefully she would have been a Belieber." Now with the tour documentary "Believe," Justin Bieber invites all of us, like Anne Frank, to become Beliebers ourselves. "Produced by Scooter Braun," the trailer says, referring both to the movie and Bieber's adolescent, teenage, and young adult years. Believe looks past all the vandalism, drugs, sagging pants and mop-bucket urination, and lets Bieber explain how he stays humble and level-headed amid all the adulation. Then it's back to the high-pitched cooing, from both fans and singer. This time in 3D. (DW) Rated PG.
Sylvester Stallone, of course, was Rocky Balboa and Robert De Niro played Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. So they both know the world of fictitious boxing fairly well. So why not make a movie that features both? That's essentially the thinking beyond this bizarrely conceived film about two former boxing rivals who come together 30 years after their most recent fight to go at each other one more time. The conceit is ridiculous, but Stallone and De Niro might have the comedic chops to liven it up. They get help from Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin and Kim Basinger in a solid cast that might save this clumsy concept. (MB) Rated PG-13
THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY
Based on 2,000 words written in 1939, this story (also made into a 1947 movie) is the tale of a man who escapes his daily reality to fantasy lands where he's the hero he can't seem to be in real life. In this modern version, directed by and starring Ben Stiller, Mitty is on the photo staff of Life magazine as it prepares to publish its final issue. When a photo negative goes missing and the female coworker (Kristen Wiig) that Mitty can't find the courage to ask out offers to help him find it, the film's make-believe and real adventures collide. The trailers alone are mesmerizing, promising a beautiful, vibrant comedy punctuated with melancholy. In the end, the story's staying power comes with tackling that feeling we can all relate to: that we haven't done enough or seen enough, and that maybe it's time to start living some of our daydreams. (HG) Rated PG
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
It's a world where Leonardo DiCaprio's skin is dyed bright orange (but still looks outrageously sexy), Jonah Hill's veneers overtake his mouth, Matthew McConaughey beats his chest monkey-style to emphasize his conversations, midgets are flung at bull's-eyes for sport and ladies get wads of Benjamins taped to their bodies, just because. Welcome to the realm of The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie based on the illustrious career of stock trader Jordan Belfort, who, before going to jail for 22 months in the '90s for illegal brokerage practices, partied harder than Lindsay Lohan could dream of. Directed by Martin Scorsese, teaming here with DiCaprio for the fifth time, this over-the-top material could turn severely annoying in the hands of a lesser talent, but with Scorsese will be one of this year's highlights. The Wolf of Wall Street is exactly the pretentious film about pretentious assholes that we need at Christmastime. (LJ) Rated R
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES
Hinted at in Paranormal Activity Four, this spin-off stars Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), who during a party checks out the mysterious apartment downstairs and discovers what seems to be evidence of black magic. When he wakes up with a bite on his arm, at first he writes it off as nothing but a wild night. Losing time, pulling black, goopy things out of his eyeballs, and running into a pair of creepy, chanting sisters convinces his friends as well as Jesse that the bite is a mark, and he's been invaded by dark forces. Written and directed by Christopher Landon, this horror film is shown in traditional Paranormal fashion, as Jesse's descent is portrayed with shaky camera movements and crappy lighting. (ER) Not yet rated
This is a story of boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl falls in love with boy. The twist? Girl is a self-aware computer operating system that yearns, wonders and emotes like a human being. Imagine a Siri that laughs at your jokes, goes on dinner dates, and finally starts getting your voice-to-text messages right. Spike Jonze's films stars Joaquin Phoenix as disheveled, sensitive writer Theodore Twombly and Scarlett Johansson's raspy, seductive contralto as Samantha, Twombly's sentient digital personal assistant, living in an L.A. in the not-quite-so-distant future. But Her isn't a satirical take on our increasingly close and dependent relationships with technology. Raise your hand if you sleep with your smartphone! As Jonze told The New York Times, the film "really was about the way we relate to each other and long to connect: our inabilities to connect, fears of intimacy, all the stuff you bring up with any other human being." (DP) Rated R ♦