Christmas break reviews: The good, the bad and the vintage

By Karsten Burgstahler

Christmas break did not mean a break from moviegoing; in fact, some of the year’s best films come out in late December, looking for Oscar recognition. A summary of what Hollywood had to offer while you were away:

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 

Peter Jackson’s original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, while suffering from protracted endings (especially “Return of the King,” the series closer), was a wonder to watch on the big screen. It really felt like there was something big at stake. Jackson’s new “Hobbit” trilogy is not blessed with that storyline, and while “The Desolation of Smaug” is certainly more entertaining than “An Unexpected Journey,” it slogs along without actually going anywhere. The film is occasionally exciting and the climactic battle with Smaug is a highlight. Too bad the movie feels like the cash grab it is.


Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues 

Will Ferrell and Co. had nearly a decade to develop the sequel to the cult favorite, and surprisingly they made a movie just as relevant to the media today as it is funny. Sure, “Anchorman 2” is not nearly as quotable as the original, but at least it does not suffer “The Hangover” problem of nearly repeating the same plot. None of the new cast members leave much of a mark; Kristen Wiig is underused in her role as Steve Carrell’s love interest. But the movie is elevated by its commentary on schlocky news outlets and how the real story is buried behind entertainment, something one may not expect to find here. 

Saving Mr. Banks 

Both of the leads, Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, fit their roles perfectly. In fact, most everything here is top notch, although Travers backstory and relationship with her father, played by Colin Farrell, is more interesting and heartbreaking than the film surface story, which concerns the adaptation of Mary Poppins into a Disney film. The shakiest issue with “Saving Mr. Banks” is the way history has been rewritten to provide for a happy ending. The ending need not be spoiled, but audiences who choose to view need to do some research. Disney does not always cast itself in the best light here, but it’s right to be suspect once one reads the truth.

The Wolf of Wall Street 

Recently “The Wolf of Wall Street” was declared one of the most profane movies ever made, checking in at more than 500 f words. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the movie’s excesses, a film which drowns in sex and drugs. Martin Scorsese’s biopic about Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who made millions ripping his clients off using penny stocks, was making so much money he had no idea what to do with it, turning his life into a circus. The fact that Belfort survived is, frankly, a miracle. Scorsese goes for broke, and while the audience probably won’t identify with Belfort and his cohorts, it is a larger-than-life true story that manages to stay gripping for its 3-hour runtime. That’s an accomplishment.



Director Spike Jonze has only made four films in his career, but he’s made a statement with each one of them. In fact, “Being John Malkovich” is perhaps the quirkiest, most ingenious film of the ‘90s. In “Her,” Jonze focuses in on the way technology supposedly brings us closer but has started to fill in the growing gap of communication between humans. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man who falls in love with an operating system named Samantha, clearly a replacement for Apple’s Siri. As their relationship continues, Phoenix discovers that he cannot create the perfect relationship, no matter how hard he tries. “Her” is both humorous and heart-wrenching, and it is nice to see Phoenix take on a slightly more upbeat role. “Her” is a movie audiences will talk about for days after viewing it, perhaps dragging them away from their cell phones for a while.

Inside Llewyn Davis 

The Coen Brother’s latest film follows Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in ‘60s Brooklyn struggling to make ends meet and moving from sofa to sofa. As with most Coen films, it’s a parable in which unfortunate things befall regular guys. “Davis” does have a wonderful soundtrack, something that elevates it above their previous work, but the Coens are at their best when they are dealing with plots laden in sinister undertones, as with films like “No Country for Old Men” and “Fargo.” “Davis” plays more erratically than those films, perhaps to match Davis’ erratic lifestyle, but that makes for a movie with a more abstract point. This is the Coens at their strangest, and it takes a dedicated fan to love it.

American Hustle 

David O. Russell once again proves his storytelling prowess and his ability to lead an all-star ensemble in this ‘70s mob film, something many critics noted might have been more at home under Martin Scorsese’s direction. But Russell does for the genre what he did for the dramadey with “Silver Linings Playbook:” let the characters mingle and allow their dialogue to push the movie forward, and it is always a delight to see what he can cook up and deliver through a cast sporting heavy northeastern accents. Everyone’s good here, but Christian Bale as con man Irving Rosenfeld, and Jennifer Lawrence as his wife Rosalyn are the MVPs. Lawrence steals every scene she’s in.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty 

“Walter Mitty” is a genuine surprise. A semi-remake of the 1947 film starring Danny Kaye, itself a shaky adaptation of James Thurber’s short story, the movie stars Ben Stiller as a photo manager at Life magazine as the storied publication prepares its final issue. He discovers a negative is missing and steps outside of his comfort zone to find it out in the wild, where the photographer is chasing stories. Critics panned the movie as more of a travelogue with forced emotions; it’s true that “Walter Mitty” does try to shove its motto about living life down audiences’ throats in the first half. But the movie does eventually find its footing and is a truly beautiful film in every aspect.