The Christmas-New Year period is the busiest at the cinema. With most people having time off work and school, it’s the ideal time to capture the biggest possible audience for any film, hence why there are so many films coming out in such a short space of time. What do you pick if you only have limited time and money? What about having to take your little cousins or elderly grandmother along with you? Well, this guide is here to help. Check An Online Universe’s reviews and recommendations for your holiday viewing, after the jump. We preview Anchorman 2, Drinking Buddies, Frozen, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Philomena, The Railway Man, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Short Term 12, August: Osage County and Saving Mr. Banks.
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
If you like watching grown men acting like bratty little boys, then this film is for you! Following on from 2004’s Anchorman, the film picks up in the 80s where Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) has overtaken her husband Ron Burgundy (Will Farrell) professionally, due to his complete lack of professionalism and general incompetence. Never to be down for long, Ron is recruited as an anchor at the first 24 hour news channel, and of course he can’t do it without his news team, Champ (David Koechner), Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and Brick (Steve Carrell).
Fans of Anchorman should have fun with this film, for as sequels go, its pretty faithful to the original. Unfortunately, that’s the problem. Nothing much has changed, the jokes pretty much the same, woman are still made fun of and Brick is even more disturbed than ever. I found this film incredibly lazy and long – I think I laughed half a dozen times in the 2 hours; it might have been more if most of the laughs weren’t shown in the trailer. The actors and writers involved are all capable of better performances than this. The film’s strength is it’s commentary on the birth of the 24 hours news cycle and entertainment as news. Watching the team cobble together completely unworthy news items and present them to the public, who couldn’t get enough of it, is pretty damning of some of the so-called “news” shows which now run around the clock. The film should have focused more on this and less on making sexist and racist jokes.
Sam’s rating: 2/5
Second opinion from Luke: Probably as good as it could have been. Far too long but still amusing and funny enough. Doesn’t get near the highs of the first. 3/5
Drinking Buddies (Cinema Nova, Melbourne only)
Drinking Buddies is a film which I related to immensely. I have to say this from the offset, because there’s no doubt that’s part of the reason I adored it. Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are co-workers at craft brewery Revolution Brewing, they’re both in relationships, she with Chris (Ron Livingston), and Luke with Jill (Anna Kendrick). Despite their respective relationship statuses, the two friends often flirt, pushing the boundary between playful friends and something more. When the two couples go away for a weekend together, things get altogether more complicated. Mistakes are made, things are said and many, many beers are consumed. Can Kate and Luke’s friendship survive the murky waters which they now must navigate through?
There is something incredible natural about Drinking Buddies. From the dialogue, to the setting and the characters interactions. These felt like people I knew, like conversations I have had before. I loved watching their relationships develop and change, it never felt forced and I was invested in their happiness. The film portrays the hurdles and challenges of twenties relationships so well – it’s that period between the partying, free post high school days and the reality (and beauty) of growing up. Some are far more in the former camp than the latter. This film is also hilarious. Wilde and Johnson are so good with goofy humour, and they both have the ability to infect the audience with their spirited laughter. I find it hard to explain exactly what it is about this film I love, but I know that I love it. I left the cinema with a huge grin on my face and I’ve wanted to rewatch it ever since.
Sam’s rating: 4.5/5
Frozen is set in a beautiful Scandinavian kingdom, Arendelle. The picturesque location appears perfect, but within the castle walls hides Princess Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), who has the incredible ability to turn anything she touches to ice. This ability is something her younger sister, Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) has no knowledge of. Once Elsa comes of age, she is forced to take the throne and become Queen of Arendelle. The stress of having to come out in the public sets off her powers and Elsa mistakenly throws Arendelle into an eternal winter, and flees to the mountains to protect the people from her powers.
Despite learning of Elsa’s powers with everyone else, Anna’s love for her sister does not falter. She remembers the little girl who loved her with all her heart, and believes her sister would never hurt anyone intentionally. Anna chases her sister into the mountains without thought for her own safety. While there are dashing princes and handsome men in Frozen, it is the love between sisters which propels the film, not the heroism of male characters. The beautifully animated and wonderfully bought-to-life Arendelle is a delight to explore and experience at the cinema. With Elsa and Anna, Disney have updated their princesses to be plucky, steadfast and strong.
Sam’s rating: 4/5
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
After already having braved numerous perils in the wilds of Middle-Earth, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and the company of 13 dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) continue on their quest for the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the wealth of the dwarf-kingdom of Erebor. But first, they must brave the vast, inhospitable confines of the forest of Mirkwood, all the while being hunted by the relentless pale-orc Azog (Manu Bennett). Even if they make it to the end, there is still the small matter of a certain dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) to contend with.
Exciting is a word that applies rather well to Desolation. The film moves along with a riveting sense of purpose and urgency that was entirely missing from An Unexpected Journey, shifting from one amazing spectacle to another without sacrificing the smaller beats necessary for making us believe in this fantastic word and the characters that inhabit it. The Desolation of Smaug manages the impossible: it improves drastically from its predecessor and impresses with its action-filled sequences. It isn’t afraid to expand its canvas, often to breathtaking effect. Though it suffers from a lack of a real conclusion, for the first time I actually have hope that the next Hobbit movie can aspire to match the grandeur that was The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Johnson’s rating: 4/5
Second opinion from Sam: This film is fun. It has a great energy and moves from scene to scene with far more vigour than anything in An Unexpected Journey. While there is still some unnecessary padding, particularly the time with the Elves, the journey in this film pays off in spades when we finally meet Smaug. 3.5/5
Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith, Philomena tells the story of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) and Philomena Lee’s (Judi Dench) search for Philomena’s 50-year old son, who was taken from here by the nuns and adopted out when he was just a toddler. After 50 years of keeping his existence a secret, Philomena wants to find out what happened to her son, and Martin who has recently lost his job, is convinced to help her on her quest so he can publish their journey and findings as a human interest story. The first obstacle is the nuns, who claim not to have knowledge of her son. Martin knows they are concealing information, but Philomena’s faith and strong religious upbringing make it hard for her to question them or any ulterior motives they may have.
Philomena’s story is a heart-breaking one, and the pair’s journey digs up some extraordinary findings. It’s all the more sad when you realise Philomena’s story is not uncommon and that many young, unmarried Irish girls had their babies taken from them in similar circumstances. Dench is as good as ever as the elderly Irish lady, although I wonder if she played up the dottery-ness of the character more than needed. I enjoyed Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, he was kind without overplaying it and you felt his frustration with Philomena and their findings. I can’t put my finger on why this film didn’t do more for me, but I can’t say I loved it. The story is interesting and the performances are good, but it all felt a little flat, a little by-books. As heartless as it sounds, we’ve heard these types of stories before, and this one doesn’t really stand out from those in any way. The film also contains a rare misfire from composer Alexandre Desplat, with the score more befitting of a 90s BBC thriller, and not a heart-felt drama.
Sam’s rating: 3/5
The Railway Man
This is the only of of the Boxing Day releases which none of the team at An Online Universe have seen. The official synopsis of the film is as follows:
Eric Lomax was one of thousands of Allied prisoners of war forced to work on the construction of the Thai/Burma railway during WW2. His experiences, after the secret radio he built to bring news and hope to his colleagues was discovered, left him traumatised and shut off from the world. Years later, he met Patti, a beautiful woman, on a train and fell in love. Patti was determined to rid Eric of his demons. Discovering that the young Japanese officer who haunted her husband was still alive, she faced a terrible decision. Should Eric be given a chance to confront his tormentor? Would she stand by him, whatever he did? Based on Eric Lomax’s best-selling memoir, The Railway Man is an extraordinary and inspiring true story of heroism, humanity and the redeeming power of love.
You can read Michelle Orange’s 3.5 star review over at SBS
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Walter Mitty (Stiller) works for Life Magazine as a negative processor, one who processes film stock, which then in turn results in photos being developed. Life magazine’s next and possibly last issue is dependent on the final cover, an image the magazines greatest asset, photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), insists is one of the greatest photos he’s ever taken. Of course, Walter can’t find said image, so what ensues is an adventure to find him and the remaining frame missing from his stock. For Walter Mitty, nothing of his subdued existence will remain once he makes the leap to explore the world that teases him day-to-day.
Ben Stiller is renowned as an actor and comedian, sure. His track record as an actor is more than inconsistent in terms of quality, but Stiller, despite being incredibly funny, has his greatest ability lie in feature film directing. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty just may be his very best directorial effort yet. It looks incredibly lavish and beyond expensive, the heartfelt tale of one’s quest to find their true self, some would argue, shouldn’t look so incredibly pristine and grandiose. Herein lies Stiller’s gift, for Walter Mitty goes to prove that, yes, in some circumstances, it can.
The character of Mitty works for Life magazine, one dedicated to capturing the most grandiose and lavish aspects of well, life that one would not normally encounter outside their very window. He also processes film, which, although digital being as advanced as it is now, is still not as precise, meticulous and elaborate with an image as film is. Life in the eyes of Mitty is elaborate and vivid. If his adventures weren’t equally as such, then the lesson and revelation which requires far less spectacle wouldn’t resonate as well as it does for our shy yes determined protagonist. Stiller has shot Mitty on 35mm film, making each moment more beautiful than the last. Yet, not a single, grand event in the film is missing a smile and a heartbeat. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of the sweetest films of the year, almost every frame is exciting as it is quiet and ultimately genuine.
Chris’s rating: 4.5/5
Second opinion from Sam: There’s a lovely whimsical quality to this film which is easy to get swept up into. Walter is such a sympathetic character and throughout the film you’re really cheering for him to achieve the impossible. However, I did find that at times the film asked an awful lot of its audience. To really enjoy Walter Mitty you have to suspend disbelief and completely run with it, something that I was only able to do to a point. 3/5
Short Term 12
We meet Grace (Brie Larson) at the start of her workday as a supervisor at the short-term juvenile housing facility called Short Term 12. Grace has a no-nonsense approach and has gained the kid’s respect through her unwavering application of the rules, and her genuine care for them. Grace always takes the time to listen and while she’s not a parent, she tries to be that temporary stable adult figure that they need. Working alongside her is a group of other twenty-somethings, including her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr), a giant goofball with a heart of gold. The two may seem like an odd fit, but they love between them is very evident, despite their efforts to hide it at work. They both come from backgrounds where they can relate to the kids in their care, and Mason makes Grace feel safe, which for her is the most important thing of all.
Writer-director Destin Cretton’s screenplay comes from a place of understanding, one that doesn’t sugar-coat the reality of the situations, but it also doesn’t lay it on too thick. With the dark, delicate subjects which are broached in Short Term 12, it could have been easy to over-dramatise events and emotionally manipulate the audience, but Cretton avoids this. Brie Larson gives an incredible, measured performance in Short Term 12, and thoroughly deserves the praise and awards she is receiving. I was also particularly impressed by Keith Stanfield who played Marcus, a character with an extremely tough exterior but a fragile core. This film is truly remarkable.
Sam’s rating: 5/5
August: Osage County
Former poet and alcoholic Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) can no longer cope with the demands of his drug addicted and cancer-riddled wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), so (much to the disgust of Violet) he hires a live-in maid, Johnna (Misty Upham) to help him out. Not long after hiring Johnna, Beverly disappears. When news of Beverly reaches the extended family, they descend on the homestead, travelling from across the country to help Violet. With the family together for the first time in many years, the proverbial shit hits the fan. Violet’s drug-addiction is out of control and as a result her mood is erratic and her lips are loose. The dust is unsettled from several secrets and the family members turn on each other. All families have secrets and issues, but this family appears to be inherently broken.
August: Osage County is a phenomenal display of acting talent, with impressive performances given from the largely fantastic ensemble cast. Meryl Streep has been talked about as a potential Oscar nominee, and after viewing this film it’s easy to see why. The three-time Academy Award winner is a powerhouse here – equal parts terrifying and heartbreaking. The only real disappointment in the cast was Julia Roberts, who took the stern, curtness to extreme levels, rarely showing any emotion other than annoyance.
Tracy Letts has adapted his own play for the screen here, and while having not see the play I can’t compare the film to its source material, I can say that this is a very dialogue-driven film. The plot and sparse story development feel like a secondary concern to the monologues and conversations between characters. The film lacks strong direction, wandering from one dialogue-heavy scene to the next, never really getting too far. For a long time the film feels like it is simply about how much these characters can hurt each other, each revelation or secret, trumping the one before it. I can image this would work wonderfully on the stage, but it feels as if director John Wells has missed an opportunity to make this story more inherently like a film, and less like a play.
Sam’s rating: 3/5
Saving Mr. Banks
P.L Travers (Emma Thompson), a stern yet passionate woman is also the author of Mary Poppins and has been endlessly approached by Walt Disney to hand over the rights to her story so they can adapt it into a film for all to see. The problem with his being that Disney and his crew want to make a family film that embraces joy and wonder, but Travers, does not believe this to be the story she has written. Being in a desperate financial bind, Travers, despite all reluctance, finally agrees to meet with Disney and come to some sort of agreement regarding the adaptation of her beloved work.
Director John Lee Hancock and writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith emphasize the character of Travers above all else, it’s her story, it’s her predicament we’ve been introduced to, the perception created by those who meet her at Disney is a misunderstood one, she seems uptight, rude, unfriendly, but being introduced to her early on in the film, we know it’s merely a result of circumstance. Perceptions of America and its bombastic nature are challenged and ultimately disproven, a great, great quality the film obtains, very few adaptations of this story would think to include it. Essentially, we believe it all and the maturity that’s evident throughout results in a sweet and concise film that achieves far more than many films of its ilk ever could.
Hollywood is not always the disingenuous beast many claim it to be, wonderful stories and even greater executions have come from Hollywood films. Saving Mr Banks, I am so happy to say, is quite a fine example of such an anomaly. Like all that was listed above, we believe the characters, the story, we believe every sweet intention that goes behind every decision in the film. P.L Travers, is not a horrible person, the film goes out of its way to assure us of this, which might be the film’s greatest attribute.
Chris’s rating: 4/5