Holiday Movie Guide: Should You See It?

Don’t get stuck at a bummer flick on your vacation. After Dark is here for quality control.

 

We are decades deep in a vicious cycle of holiday box-office returns. It’s gone like this: Studios started releasing their prestige, Oscar-ready flicks late in the year so that those flicks would be fresh in the mind of the voters. Audiences noticed and started making plans to go to the movies around the end of the year; plenty of people are off of work, plenty of people are out shopping or dining or whatever, and plenty of people are looking for a family activity that doesn’t require anyone to actually speak.

Then, studios noticed this uptick and started not only releasing awards bait but potential blockbusters and family fare as well. The end result? This is the busiest, most-crowded time of the year at the multiplex, with a bevy of films competing for your attention.

At this point, I can reasonably forecast what the top 15 or so will be over the holiday, and I’ve seen nine of ’em. Here then: what you need to know about the flicks playing between now and New Year’s. What to seek out, what to take the family to, what to avoid. Call it a Holiday Movie Guide. Every one of these will be playing in Pittsburgh by Christmas Day.

 

 

“American Hustle”

What Is It?
A very funny crime flick loosely based on the FBI’s late-’70s ABSCAM operation, where the feds used con artists to expose public corruption. It’s getting nominated for everything, by everyone — a stellar cast with Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence especially.

Is It Any Good?
Oh yeah. The pitch-perfect blend of intrigue, humor and ’70s obsession is a lot of fun; the excellent performances propel it into territory among the year’s best films.

Who Should Go?
Recommended for just about everyone. I’d leave those who are younger than 15 at home, but that’s it.

 

 

“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”

What Is It?
Another two hours of “Anchorman.” Little is changed (but little is lost) in this sequel.

Is It Any Good?
Depends on how much you liked the original. “Anchorman 2” plays all the same notes; the law of diminishing returns is in effect, but it’ll certainly please Ron Burgundy fans. It’s certainly good enough.

Who Should Go?
Did you have a poster with Will Ferrell’s face on it in college? Go. If not, do you desperately need laughs — no matter how to cheap — to get you through the holiday season? This’ll do.

 

 

“Frozen”

What Is It?
One of Disney’s most acclaimed in-house productions in decades, “Frozen” is a significantly updated adaption of a Hans Christian Andersen story about a queen with uncontrollable, magical powers and her faithful sister.

Is It Any Good?
Yes. Many are calling it Disney’s best effort since “The Lion King”; the characters are charming, the music’s infectious and the story may be the most complex, touching and noble the Mouse House has ever produced.

Who Should Go?
Everyone. The presence of children is not required. “Frozen” is a gem.

 

 

“Grudge Match” (Out Christmas Day)

What Is It?
Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro are aging — OK, aged — boxers who opt for a rematch well into their dotage.

Is It Any Good?
Sorry, I couldn’t bring myself to make time for this one. Maybe it’s the plot blatantly borrowed from the underwhelming final “Rocky” movie.

Who Should Go?
Those tickled by the humor in 2013’s other old-guys-behaving-badly flicks, “Last Vegas” and “Stand Up Guys.”

 

 

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”

What Is It?
The second of three films in the hopelessly bloated “Hobbit” trilogy, where one relatively short book was inexplicably shredded into a trio of plodding films.

Is It Any Good?
In a word: no. There are exciting sequences and visual stimulation, but these movies are just too slow and unfocused to enjoy.

Who Should Go?
Tolkien fanatics and those desperately in need of a powerful sleep aid.

 

 

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

What Is It?
Another part two, “Catching Fire” is the second installment in the dystopian series starring Jennifer Lawrence, fighting for her life once again.

Is It Any Good?
Yes, and much better than the misdirected first film. The series has casted well and beautifully designed the futuristic nation of Panem.

Who Should Go?
Most will find something to enjoy, though those unfamiliar with the books (or at least the first film) will occasionally find themselves missing the finer details.

 

 

“Inside Llewyn Davis”

What Is It?
The latest from the Coen Brothers follows a fictional, troubled musician through the Greenwich Village folk revival and beyond.

Is It Any Good?
Of course. The Coens have hit an unbeatable stride, where everything they produce is funny, evocative and enjoyable — unless it’s dark and disturbing. “Llewyn Davis” is mostly the former; though Davis is a sad sack, the film is funny and created a vivid world.

Who Should Go?
Most any serious film fan. It may be a bit careful and distant for those unfamiliar with the Coens, but such people aren’t to be trusted anyway.

 

 

“A Madea Christmas”

What Is It?
The seventh film in Tyler Perry’s immensely popular comedy franchise, where he stars as the no-nonsense grandma.

Is It Any Good?
Perry doesn’t bother with critics or awards groups anymore — at least not for “Madea” — so I haven’t seen it.

Who Should Go?
Fans of the previous films, certainly. Beyond that, it’s at least worth noting that this is the only true Christmas picture in theaters this year, if that compels you.

 

 

“Out of the Furnace”

What Is It?
A gritty and believable drama set in Braddock starring Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson as tough men making their way through the seedier sides of the working class.

Is It Any Good?
Yes. It’s getting overlooked for awards in a crowded competition, but the story is compelling and convincing; the performances are stellar.

Who Should Go?
The film is very violent and dark, so keep that in mind; that said, I’d recommend it highly (and it’s almost required viewing for ’Burghers).

 

 

“Saving Mr. Banks”

What Is It?
The story behind the making of the Disney classic “Mary Poppins.” Author P.L. Travers was reluctant (to put it mildly) to give up the rights to her characters; Emma Thompson stars as the surly scribe, and Tom Hanks is Walt Disney.

Is It Any Good?
Eh. The subject matter is interesting, but the film spends too much time on Travers’ traumatic childhood and surly adulthood to make the film particularly enjoyable.

Who Should Go?
There are things to like about it, so if one is leading a multigenerational trip to the cinema — grandparents, grown-ups and young folks all in tow — there are worse choices. Young kids will be bored, though.

 

 

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (Out Christmas Day)

What Is It?
Borrowing the name and little else from the beloved James Thurber story, Ben Stiller stars as a mild-mannered magazine employee who embarks on a worldwide adventure.

Is It Any Good?
I haven’t seen it as of press time. Early reviews are mixed at best, and the production has been shuffled, delayed and re-figured for more than 20 years at this point.

Who Should Go?
Ever been in an argument with three or four companions in front of a box-office screen, with no one willing to budge on what movie to see? If you find yourself in that situation this week, “Walter Mitty” may well be your begrudging compromise.

 

 

“Walking With Dinosaurs”

What Is It?
It started as a BBC miniseries. Then it was some sort of live arena show. Now it’s a kid’s movie. I don’t know. Something with dinosaurs.

Is It Any Good?
Being that I’m over the age of 9, I’m unfit to judge.

Who Should Go?
Dino-obsessed children and the parents of the same — though I’d urge you to try to redirect any and all tots toward “Frozen,” if they haven’t yet seen it.

 

 

“The Wolf of Wall Street” (Out Christmas Day)

What Is It?
Martin Scorsese’s epic portrait of excess and bad behavior in the world of high finance, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey and many others.

Is It Any Good?
I’ve seen it, but technically, reviews are still embargoed — so I have to dance around the answer to this question. But it’s a Scorsese movie in the “Goodfellas” vein with an all-star cast, a great script and a can’t-miss premise. What do you think?

Who Should Go?
Know that there hasn’t been a film with more drugs, nudity, vulgarity and general debauchery in theaters all year. If that doesn’t deter (or, in fact, encourages) you, though, have at it.

 

Categories: After Dark