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Festive Films

by Bill Wine
Cherry Hill native and KYW film critic Bill Wine guides us through holiday season at the box office.

What would the holiday season be without a new lineup of big-screen attractions, potential blockbusters, prestigious best-selling-book adaptations, and Oscar contenders? This year’s holiday spread has arrived, bringing Hollywood’s big end-of-the-year movies with pedigree actors who grab our attention. Some will meet or exceed our expectations, some will let us down big time, and some will merely fill our time.

But all will see the light of day—and, if they’re lucky, lines of moviegoers—in December.

New Year’s Eve
Opening Dec. 9
With director Garry Marshall’s ensemble romantic comedy Valentine’s Day scoring big at the box office last year, it was inevitable that we would get a comedy about the intertwining lives of two dozen characters in a series of vignettes of romantic relationships on the last evening of the year.

The credits read like Hollywood’s phone book: Sarah Jessica Parker, Robert De Niro, Katherine Heigl, Zac Efron, Hilary Swank, Ashton Kutcher, Jessica Biel, Halle Berry, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Duhamel, Sofia Vergara, John Lithgow, Lea Michele, Ice Cube, Alyssa Milano, John Stamos, Julie Andrews, Jon Bon Jovi, Ludacris, Sienna Miller, Seth Meyers and Abigail Breslin are just some of the celebs who turn up.

Needless to say, you don’t show up at this New Year’s Eve party seeking depth of any kind. So we accept the probable shallowness going in. The real question: Will a movie with such a cluttered collection of cameos deliver the emotional goods?

If so, and with the titles Independence Day and Groundhog Day already taken, what’s next for Marshall? Columbus Day, perhaps? Maybe Thanksgiving? Flag Day? Oy.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (pictured)
Opening Dec. 16
When it was announced that Guy Ritchie would direct Sherlock Holmes in 2009, the macho-celebrating director of Snatch, Swept Away, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels seemed a mismatch with this classic cerebral mystery franchise.

But surprise, surprise: Apparently, Holmes was where his heart was. With Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law exhibiting unforced chemistry and having fun with the bromance angle between extraordinary detective Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson, the stimulating, satisfying thriller was royally entertaining.

In the sequel, the Crown Prince of Austria is found dead, and returnees Downey, Law and Rachel McAdams are joined by Noomi Rapace, the Swedish star of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Jared Harris (replacing Daniel Day-Lewis) as Holmes’ archenemy, Dr. Moriarty, and Stephen Fry as the legendary sleuth’s brother, Mycroft.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol
Opening Dec. 21
It’s been five years since Mission: Impossible III, which followed—and bested—Mission: Impossible (1996) and Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) artistically and entertainingly, but fell short commercially.

Based on the classic television series, these high-tech adventure thrillers star Tom Cruise as superagent Ethan Hunt, the leader of the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), offered as sort of the CIA within the CIA.

Installment No. 4—helmed by the fourth different director, Brad Bird, an animation boss (Ratatouille, The Incredibles) for whom this marks a live-action debut— Hunt and his fellow operatives are forced to go rogue and track the perpetrators responsible for a bombing at the Kremlin that the IMF has been framed for in order to clear the organization’s name.

With Cruise on his own mission to restore his superstardom, Bird’s mission—to resuscitate and perhaps reinvent the franchise—looks very possible indeed.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Opening Dec. 21
The original, based on Stieg Larsson’s international best-seller, was a brilliant, hard-edged thriller about a disgraced Swedish journalist and a bisexual, tattooed computer hacker who team up to find a woman who’s been missing for 40 years, and solve a conspiratorial mystery along the way.

It was violent, it was gripping, it was graphic, it was eerie, and it was terrific. But it was also in Swedish. Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network) brings the English-language version to the screen starring Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Stellan Skarsgard and Joely Richardson in an intense thriller about emotional and physical abuse. It exists at the far end of the R rating. The casting of Craig, well-known as the latest James Bond, was no shock, but Mara, most familiar from the opening scene in Fincher’s The Social Network, was a bit of a surprise, landing the role of Lisbeth Salander.

If American audiences respond, look for remakes of the two sequels, as well—The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn
Opening Dec. 21
Tintin is an ambitious, globetrotting young reporter whose exploits were written and drawn by Belgian author and illustrator Herge (real name: Georges Remi), and wildly popular just about everywhere but the United States.

Now, director Steven Spielberg plans to change all that with this performance-capture, CG-animated feature in 3D.

The script is an amalgam of three books from the series (“The Crab with the Golden Claws,” “The Secret of the Unicorn,” and “Red Rackham’s Treasure”); The plot involves a seaman’s search for a long-lost family treasure on a sunken ship as part of a treasure hunt, and the motion-capture cast includes Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Toby Jones.

We Bought a Zoo
Opening Dec. 23
Following the death of his wife to cancer, a single-dad newspaper columnist, played by headliner Matt Damon, moves his family to the countryside in an attempt to reconnect with his children. What he doesn’t realize is that the house comes with an entire private zoo.

So they renovate and reopen the dilapidated wildlife park.

This heartwarming, based-on-a-true-story dramedy, writer-director Cameron Crowe’s first feature since 2005’s Elizabethtown, also features Scarlett Johannson, Elle Fanning and Thomas Haden Church. Crowe has transplanted the story from London to California, and Damon continues to demonstrate his leading-man versatility.

But Hollywood wags wonder whether recent tragic events involving euthanized exotic zoo animals in Ohio, and PETA’s insistence that Crowe attach warning notices to the film about what it actually takes to run a zoo, will dampen audiences’ enthusiasm for the subject going in.

War Horse
Opening Dec. 25
This family adventure, set against the sweeping vista of rural England and Europe, is about a horse named Joey. It began as a 1982 young-adult novel by Michael Morpurgo and then became a hit London play.

The movie version from director Steven Spielberg—yep, a double dose of end-of-the-year, competing-with-himself Spielberg films for moviegoing families this December—tells the harrowing survival story of Joey, who’s sent onto the nightmarish battlefields of World War I after being sold to the British army by the father (Peter Mullan) of Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the farmboy who tamed and trained his beloved Joey as his pet and workhorse. So Albert enlists and heads off to save him.

Whereas the international theatrical phenomenon used life-size puppets to portray the animals, Spielberg employs real horses, and the director has gone on public record with his frustration that real horses were not nearly as compliant or expressive as those puppets.

The Iron Lady
Opening Jan. 13
Meryl Streep: Those two words alone make any movie intriguing and special going in. In this biographical drama, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who collaborated with Streep in 2008 on Mamma Mia!, arguably the world’s best screen actress gets to play former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, with Jim Broadbent as her husband, Dennis. The script spans seven decades, but the focus is on the 1980s, when conservative Thatcher was at the peak of her power, and on the price that she paid to gain that power. There’s been some flak from across the pond for the casting of an American in the plum role, but, given which accomplished American it is, we won’t rush to judgment.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Opening Jan. 20
Two of our most popular big-screen stars, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, co-star in the movie version of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 9/11-themed best-seller about a precocious 11-year-old in New York City, played by newcomer (and former Jeopardy Kids’ Week champion) Thomas Horn.

He’s on a journey throughout Manhattan as part of a mission to find a final message from his father: the lock that fits the mysterious key his dad, played by Hanks, left behind when he died in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center a decade ago. Bullock plays the boy’s mother.

The boy is an amateur inventor, a jewelry designer, an astrophysicist, a tambourine player, and—oh, yes—a pacifist.

The supporting cast sparkles in British director Stephen Daldry’s heartbreaking drama, which includes John Goodman, James Gandolfini, Max Von Sydow, Jeffrey Wright and Viola Davis. With Oscar-caliber leads Hanks and Bullock on board, this coming-of-age drama is extremely ambitious and incredibly accomplished.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 9 (December, 2011).
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