Holiday Movie Reviews

With our minds released from the grip of exams – and plenty of free time as we start to realize maybe we don’t miss some of our high-school classmates – winter break is a perfect time to go to the movies. With time to kill and an abundance of free movie coupons, I thought it would be fun to watch a movie a day in order to celebrate my favorite time of the year: Christmas Oscar season.

Instead of writing seven lengthy reviews, I will instead keep it fairly short and assign a rating and what I, in my limited experience watching the Oscars, perceive as potential nominations for the awards this year. These movies are in the order I saw them and are all currently in theaters.

Day 1

Title: “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”

Directed by: Adam McKay

Starring: Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate

Review:

How often is it that comedy sequels are actually good? I tried to keep expectations low through the crazy marketing push of “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” and I am happy to say that I shouldn’t have worried: “Anchorman 2” is a very funny, albeit safe, sequel. Even better than the original’s premise of The Golden Age of News, “Anchorman 2” has Ron and the Channel 4 news team become part of the world’s first 24-hour news network. As expected, the movie produces jokes about everyone’s naivety toward the promise of such a network, and as a result Anchorman 2 has an element of social commentary that the original lacked (although not to it’s detriment).

The main cast does a good job here – I even thought that Champ (David Koechner) was funnier in this movie – and Kristen Wiig’s character is a nice addition as a love interest for Brick (Steve Carell). I wasn’t sure if I wanted them to revisit some of the predecessor’s more famous scenes, and without any spoilers, the few they did revisit were handled properly. Also, this was one of the first comedies where I wasn’t awaiting the end, and I couldn’t even say that about the first “Anchorman” (admit it, the fall of Burgundy dragged a bit). Even if it wasn’t as groundbreaking or quotable as the first “Anchorman,” it was pretty darn close to being just as funny, and that’s more than I could have hoped for from a sequel to one of the most popular comedies of all time.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

Oscar Potential: Zero. Comedies in general rarely perform well at the Oscars, especially raunchy ones. The only categories movies such as “Anchorman” have a chance of winning are Acting and Screenwriting, both of which “Bridesmaids” received nominations in 2012 but did not win. The most obvious problem with “Anchorman” is that it is essentially an ensemble comedy that happens to revolve around John Burgundy. Just like Burgundy, Will Ferrell is nothing without his news team.

Day 2

Title: “American Hustle”

Directed by: David O. Russell

Starring: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence

Review: 

With “American Hustle,” it seems like director David O. Russell wanted to take a crack at a Scorsese-style period piece. It shares the entertaining confidence of “Goodfellas,” but ends with the realization that there isn’t much of a point, or story for that matter, to be found in this movie. Instead, “American Hustle” relies on the strength of it’s characters as Russell succeeds in getting the gang back together with returners Bale, Adams, Lawrence, and Cooper.

Irving (Bale) and Sydney (Adams) are two con artists in lust who get caught by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) and are used to bring down the corrupt mayor Carmine Polito (Renner). I am generally overly sympathetic toward fictional characters to a fault – I was on Walter White’s Side to the end – but in a testament to Russell and his cast I couldn’t stand any of the characters in this movie – who are actually based on real people. The exception is Renner’s character, who is ironically extremely likable, in contrast to the bland character he typically plays in other movies. Bale is simultaneously sly, pathetic and funny; both he and his ridiculous comb-over both deserve Oscar wins. Jennifer Lawrence has received a lot of praise for her role as Irving’s wife, but honestly doesn’t have the screen time or the ability to maintain an accent well enough to deserve it. “American Hustle” is a movie I need to see again, but my impression coming out of it was that it was a fun yet messy movie that suffers from a weak final 30 minutes. Is it one of the top 15 movies of the year? Yes. Is it O. Russell’s best or this year’s Best Picture? Probably not.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

Oscar Potential: Like “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle” will be present in most major award categories. Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bale, hopefully), Best Actress (Adams, hopefully not), Best Supporting Actor (Cooper), Best Supporting Actress (Lawrence, what a joke), Best Original Screenplay.

Day 3

Title: “Frozen”

Directed by: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana

Review: Don’t let Disney’s questionable marketing of the movie fool you, “Frozen” is actually one of their best musicals since the our childhood days. Based on the fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” “Frozen” is a story about two princess sisters who, because of the older sister Elsa’s (Idina Menzel) ice magic, have been separated after a horrible accident when they were young. The younger sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), spends the majority of the movie hunting down Elsa, who has run away because she is unable to control her power. There are men around, but they play supportive roles to a movie that attempts to twist the typical role of Disney princesses all the way to it’s finale. The movie gets off to a slow start; the stage-musical nature of “Frozen” leads to some awkwardness with the opening songs and the pace doesn’t pick up until about 20 minutes in. I also couldn’t help but wish the movie was animated in traditional 2D instead of the style that most children’s movies have taken in the last few years . (Didn’t “The Princess and the Frog” prove how good 2D can look?) But when it is all said and done, Frozen is a sweet, entertaining and surprisingly funny movie that everyone can enjoy. Just tough it out through “Do You Want to Build a Snowman.”

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

Oscar Potential: In both categories that “Frozen” will be in, it faces only one true competitor. That is Best Original Song (for Frozen it will be “Let it Go,” its competition is “Young and Beautiful” by Lana Del Rey for “The Great Gatsby.”‘ and Best Animated Feature (vs. Miyazaki’s last film “The Wind Rises”). Unfortunately for “Frozen,” I think it shouldn’t win in either categories.

Day 4

Title: “Philomena”

Directed by: Stephen Frears

Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan

Review: In the showing of “Philomena” (and later in “Nebraska”), I was the youngest person in the audience by at least 40 years. While I understand that a movie starring elderly Brits might not seem like a good investment to a college student with limited funds, against all odds I think “Philomena” may be my favorite movie from the week. Based on a true story, it is a comedy-drama film about journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) who reluctantly signs up for a human interest story. His assignment is an Irish-Catholic woman named Philomena (Dench) who as a child was forced by her convent to give up a child she had out of wedlock. As part of his article, Sixsmith attempts to track down Philomena’s son Anthony with no help from the seemingly evil nuns at the convent. It is a English film after all.

Introduced to Dench through her role as M in the later James Bond films, I was initially put off by her transition from intelligent and harsh in those movies to her simpler and oblivious role in “Philomena,” but as Sixsmith slowly warms up to her, so do we. The movie is equal parts funny as it is heart-breaking – “I’d like to know if Anthony thought of me; I’ve thought of him everyday.” Thankfully the movie doesn’t end with the resolution of Anthony’s whereabouts, and as a result transforms the movie from a safe adaptation – that would probably would have still been well-liked ending there – to a story of forgiveness and the Catholic church’s potential for stubbornness.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars.

Oscar Potential: “Philomena” could earn one of the bottom spots in the Best Picture race. It will also be up for Best Actress (Judi Dench) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Day 5

Title: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

Directed by: Ben Stiller

Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig

Review: The lowest-reviewed of the bunch, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has an unnecessary flashiness and all too convenient story that is redeemed by it’s sweet message and beautiful cinematography. Walter Mitty (Stiller) is an employee at Life magazine who is always daydreaming of a better and more exciting life for himself. When Life is sold to a new owner, a large number of employees are laid off and Walter’s prospects are not looking good. His chance for redemption lies in finding a negative of a picture sent by Walter’s long time photography partner Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn). The negative didn’t come with the rest of the roll O’Connell sent, so Walter finally goes on a real adventure across the globe to track him down, partially aided by his crush Cheryl (Wiig). While most of the scenes are visually impressive, after a few seconds you realize the daydreams are indeed fake, and the sequences that fall in the “wishful thinking” category are no longer all that interesting.

The comedic daydreams were always enjoyable though and comprised some of the few laughs to be found in this surprisingly melancholy movie. I liked the tone of both the movie and Walter Mitty himself, whose character is unusual for this kind of picture in a way that I don’t have the space to talk about. The real flaw is the story, which allows Walter to go to beautiful locations for some special scenes but isn’t very believable in the process. The movie also feels a little too preachy at times with its indie rock songs and tired-and-true message, but I think Stiller’s attempt is earnest enough. If I had more time maybe I could figure out why I was able to forgive the substance of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” for its style, but for now all I can say is it’s probably the easiest movie to see on this list, and there’s something to be said about a movie that has you leaving the theater feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

Oscar Potential: My most far-fetched prediction, but I would really like to see this movie nominated for Best Cinematography.

Day 6 (Christmas Day)

Title: “The Wolf of Wall Street”

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio

Review: I have seen a lot of movies that I would consider a hard R, but none of them are as questionable in their rating as “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The story of “The Wolf of Wall Street” is adapted from the memoir of the Wolf himself, Jordan Belfort, and is largely accurate to real life events, assuming Belfort is telling the truth. This includes, to name some of the tamer antics of the movie’s early moments, the stoned landing of a helicopter in front of his mansion and the employment of prostitutes to parade around his firm, Stratton Oakmont. The pacing is fast and full of laughs and clever camera work, or rather at least in the first half of this three hour movie. It’s the ramifications of their wild lifestyle for ancillary characters that seems the least necessary; cutting some of it in the second half might have lead to a more manageable and consistent film. Even if it has flaws, you could almost feel the movie’s genius came easier for Scorsese than it did to his competition David O. Russell – while we are making comparisons Margot Robbie plays a very similar role to Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle” and does it a hell of a lot better – as “The Wolf Of Wall Street” is one of the most confident movies I have seen in a while. It’s clear that one of the best directors of all time has still got it, even at 71.

And if Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Belfort, doesn’t win his first Oscar for this role, then I am going to be angrier than a Wall Street broker high on Quaaludes racing his Lamborghini Countach home.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

Oscar Potential: Best Picture, probably Best Actor (Leo), Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill), Best Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing

Day 7

Title: “Nebraska”

Directed by: Alexander Payne

Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk

Review: What initially seems bleak becomes emotionally satisfying in the last movie I saw, Nebraska. This is partly due to the film’s beautiful use of black and white, but also because of the acting of Academy-Award nominee Bruce Dern and former SNL star Will Forte. Playing Woody and David Grant respectively, the two embark on a road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska after Woody is convinced he won a million dollars in what his wife and children believe to be a scam. At first the slowest movie I have ever seen, eventually “Nebraska” picks up when Ross (Bob Odenkirk) and Woody’s hilarious wife Kate (June Squibb) meet  Woody and David at their family’s house, whose loved ones are now hungry for some of that prize money. One interesting aspect of “Nebraska” is that it takes two comedians and casts them as the most serious members of the main cast. I have always believed that real comedians have the ability to play dramatic roles, and Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk pull it off in this film.

Without spoiling what happens when they get there, two moments following the movie’s climax were stand-outs for me. The first is a reflective car ride through Woody’s home town, but the second is a little more subtle. All the way to Lincoln, Dern emptily gazes out the car window, but on the way home he turns his head and watches his son for the first time. Woody is a man of few words, and Dern’s acting in this scene, among others, shows that he doesn’t need a lot of dialogue to earn another Academy Award nomination.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars.

Oscar Potential: The second big winner on the list. You should be hearing “Nebraska,” “American Hustle,” “12 Years a Slave,” and either “Gravity” or “Captain Phillips” (ugh) called a lot the night of the ceremony. For “Nebraska,” expect Best Picture, Best Actor (Dern), Supporting Actress (Julia Squibb), Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography.

 Conclusion

In the end, you can’t go wrong with seeing any of these movies. There is something for everyone here; you’ve got a light-hearted animated movie (“Frozen”), two very different comedies (“Anchorman 2” and “Philomena”), two Scorsese films (“Hustle” and “Wall Street”), and the artsy “Nebraska.” I will admit, there is a reason that I liked most of these movies: I made sure that none of them were completely awful beforehand. If I wanted to review a bad movie, I could have gone to see “Walking With Dinosaurs 3D.” Take advantage of the easy month of classes to see them before the Oscars arrive March 2.

Also be on the lookout for “Her” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” – two movies that are coming out in the next week or two that I cannot wait to see.

Tickets to Anchorman 2, American Hustle, Frozen, and The Wolf of Wall Street were provided to me by the Cinebarre theater in Mt. Pleasant. The tickets to the rest of the movies I purchased myself.

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