EDITORIALS

'Gambler', 'Sniper', 'Vice', 'Eyes' - 2014 Christmas Week Movie Guide

by
December 24, 2014

Christmas Week Movie Guide

"One dream can change the world." Happy Holidays folks! Continuing our annual tradition of providing new release Thanksgiving and Christmas Week Movie Guides every holiday season, our San Francisco-based contributor, Marco Cerritos, has once again put together another comprehensive guide for Christmas 2014, providing a recap and rundown of what's playing and what's worth seeing. Marco has seen almost everything out there, and while you may not always agree with him, he provides the best reviews he can to make it a bit easier for everyone to choose. There's an interesting selection of movies playing this holiday.

This is an alphabetized list containing 10 films that, as of Christmas Day, are playing in most theaters.

American Sniper
Marco's Rating: B

American SniperDirected by: Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, Invictus, J. Edgar, Jersey Boys)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes
Rated: R
Review: American Sniper is a very interesting mess of a movie however the good aspects definitely outweigh the bad. For starters, it's a war film directed by Clint Eastwood and that's the first of many surprises. Another welcome revelation comes in the form of lead actor Bradley Cooper, who transforms his body and mannerisms to fit protagonist Chris Kyle, a highly decorated Navy SEAL with a gift for accuracy behind a sniper rifle. The movie is based on Kyle's life, including his four tours of duty, and when the drama is set on the battlefield American Sniper is on fire. But when the narrative switches to Kyle's life back home the movie slows down. It's this uneven balance that keeps it from being great but still manages to fascinate with its intense battle scenes.

Big Eyes
Marco's Rating: B

Big EyesDirected by: Tim Burton (Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish, Dark Shadows)
Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston
Rated: PG-13
Review: Big Eyes is the first Tim Burton-directed movie since Big Fish to not feel like a traditional Tim Burton movie. That's a good thing given his recent output (Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland) and Big Eyes is better for it. The movie tells the true story of painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) who in the 1950's created a one-of-a-kind art craze and was later forced to give up credit by her duplicitous husband (Christoph Waltz). Adams and Waltz are both strong in Big Eyes as Margarete & Walter Keane, and are also helped by standout supporting players Terence Stamp and Jason Schwartzman. When the film switches focus from its big city setting to the courtroom it loses a bit of steam but screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski still manage to keep the wheels turning. They also wrote the screenplay to Burton's seminal work Ed Wood and while Big Eyes may not be on that level it's still a very interesting discovery.

The Gambler
Marco's Rating: B

The GamblerDirected by: Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist, Rise of the Planet of the Apes)
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, George Kennedy, Jessica Lange
Rated: R
Review: This very loose remake of the original 1974 James Caan film of the same name is innocuous entertainment. Mark Wahlberg steps in for James Caan this time around as a literary professor with a serious gambling addiction. Roulette and blackjack are his main vices but everything he seems to touch (family, friends, romance) turns sour throughout the course of the film. We witness his addiction sink him lower and lower into debt and despair, leaving him no alternative but to turn to some very shady people for a way out. John Goodman plays one of those shady characters, a mysterious enforcer, and he almost steals the whole movie. Brie Larson on the other hand is completely wasted in the role of "love interest." Finally, it may be hard to believe that the words Mark Wahlberg and literary professor go together in any incarnation but director Rupert Wyatt finds a way to sell that fantasy and that may be this film's ace in the hole.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Marco's Rating: C

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesDirected by: Peter Jackson (Dead Alive, The Frighteners, King Kong)
Starring: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Evangeline Lilly
Rated: PG-13
Review: There's already some serious Hobbit fatigue going into this movie. Two three-hour movies building up to this final chapter, all based on one very short book. In other words, a shameless cash-grab built on a lot of extra padding from director Peter Jackson. The conclusion to this super-sized Middle Earth saga starts out strong with a fiery battle but quickly turns into an obvious bore with the extra padding mentioned earlier, culminating in a big and loud CGI concussion. There is no logical reason for these movies to be so enormous, or for three movies based on one book to exist in the first place. Jackson has definitely cast cynical eyes on this franchise but he may also have tarnished the reputation of his beloved Lord of the Rings films too. Additionally, there are director's cuts for all of these movies available and it would take a serious endurance test to make me sit through all of them.

Inherent Vice
Marco's Rating: B

Inherent ViceDirected by: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, The Master)
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom, Josh Brolin
Rated: R
Review: If you buy a ticket to Inherent Vice you should know up front that trying to put the film's puzzle pieces together is a fruitless endeavor. I've seen the film twice and am still trying to figure out certain key elements. It's a dense movie based on a very dense novel so it's no accident that director Paul Thomas Anderson demands a lot of your attention going into the film. Having said that, the beauty of Inherent Vice is in the background, in letting the film wash over you instead of trying to force yourself to make sense of what doesn't make sense in the first place. Joaquin Phoenix re-teams with Anderson and leads an all-star cast as a 1970's private eye with a smile on his face and a joint in his hand. His latest job is a missing person case and as most stories like this go, the influences go straight to the top levels of power. Phoenix is strong in Inherent Vice but it's Josh Brolin who really steals the movie. He plays a hard-edged cop helping our hero along the way and his deadpan delivery and casual charm make for the best scenes in the film.

The Interview
Marco's Rating: B+

The InterviewDirected by: Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen (This Is the End)
Starring: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park
Rated: R
Review: All of its controversy aside, The Interview is a very funny movie. I was fortunate enough to see the film prior to all of the current madness surrounding it, making it easier to distance myself and judge the film on its own. Others will obviously not have the same luxury but it will be interesting to see how audiences react to the film now compared to several years down the line when the unfortunate buzz has died down. Will we still see The Interview as the hysterical movie that almost started a war or as the pretty funny movie that got a lot of attention but was overrated? For now I can say that this fictional satire of a tabloid journalist (James Franco) and his burned-out producer (Seth Rogen) flying to North Korea to kill Kim Jong-Un on behalf of the CIA is very effective. Celebrity cameos and Randall Park who plays Kim Jong-Un get most of the big laughs but for the most part it's a well-paced comedy. Rogen and his co-director Evan Goldberg also made last year's This is the End and while The Interview is not on that level, it's still a great watch.

Into The Woods
Marco's Rating: C

Into The WoodsDirected by: Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Nine)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp
Rated: PG
Review: The impressive on-and-off-screen talent surrounding this incarnation of Stephen Sondheim's musical isn't enough to save it from mediocrity. What starts out strong ends with a whimper and that's unfortunate given the tools director Rob Marshall (Chicago) has to work with. The idea of blending classic Grimm fables together and constructing a new story has the makings of a home-run but the film makes the fatal flaw of casting professional actors and not professional singers in crucial parts that in lesser hands weigh the film down. Another problem is the film's odd choice of tone between musical numbers, it never makes smooth transitions leaving the audience in a confused state for most of the movie. A long and tedious third act also overstays its welcome and could have been cut out of this film version entirely but Marshall's insistence on being faithful to the source material doesn't work in the film's favor.

Selma
Marco's Rating: A

SelmaDirected by: Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere, I Will Follow, This Is the Life)
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson
Rated: R
Review: Selma has had a quiet marketing rollout leading up to its platform release but this powerful film is the one worth seeking out the most this holiday weekend. It tells the true story of Martin Luther King and his seminal civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. Character actor David Oyelowo (Interstellar, Jack Reacher) steps into the central performance of Dr. King and he is electric in the very demanding role. Prior versions of the film's script had Lee Daniels in the director's chair and Dr. King as a supporting character with former President Lyndon B. Johnson taking center stage. Instead of succumbing to the cliché of African-American stories told from a Caucasian point of view (The Hurricane, Ghosts of Mississippi, Glory), new director Ava DuVernay retooled the script to put King front-and-center and Selma as a film works much better as a result.

Top Five
Marco's Rating: A-

Top FiveDirected by: Chris Rock (I Think I Love My Wife, Head of State)
Starring: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, J.B. Smoove, Gabrielle Union
Rated: R
Review: Chris Rock is getting stronger behind the director's chair and this is only his third attempt. His directorial debut Head of State in 2003 had a funny premise but too much studio interference while his follow-up I Think I Love My Wife showed the promise that is paid off in this film. Early reviews out of the Toronto Film Festival were comparing Top Five to Annie Hall and while that connection may be a little premature, the movie is a hysterical indictment of celebrity life and its many trappings. Rock has grown to trust himself more behind the camera and his secret weapon in Top Five is not monopolizing the spotlight and surrounding himself with equally talented supporting players. Rosario Dawson stands out the most among the already accomplished crew as a reporter writing a story on Rock's character, flaws and all. Her chemistry with Rock is effortless and has been sorely overlooked in most reviews of the film. Here's hoping Chris Rock continues to take chances with his film work since Top Five is one of the year's boldest and funniest comedies.

Unbroken
Marco's Rating: B

UnbrokenDirected by: Angelina Jolie (In the Land of Blood and Honey)
Starring: Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Takamasa Ishihara
Rated: PG-13
Review: The true story of Olympian Louis Zamperini is something so harsh and unbelievable that it almost demands to be immortalized on the big screen. As it stands, director Angelina Jolie and her lead actor Jack O'Connell (Starred Up) have done a serviceable job, hitting all the right story beats but leaving out all of the emotion that should come with it. It's a hard balance to master and Jolie tries her best to get it right but the transition from story to screen hints at greatness but settles at average. On the plus side, the talent behind the scenes help elevate the A-B-C storytelling, most notably fellow filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen working on the script, composer Alexandre Desplat on the score and cinematographer Roger Deakins. They all do exemplary work bringing Jolie's sophomore directing effort to the big screen.

Thanks for reading our latest Movie Guide! Check my my 2014 Thanksgiving Movie Guide here. Continue to follow our end of the year coverage and Looking Back posts reviewing 2014's films. Have fun at the movies.

Have you seen any of these movies yet? What are you planning to see this week, if anything?

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  • DAVIDPD
    Good. List. Shame that so many got an average rating from Marco. I am looking forward to seeing many of these films myself over the course of the year.

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