Christmas. That means presents, decorations, feasts and the general mass consumption we're best known for. Of course, it also means movies, as Hollywood saves the best— and sometimes not so best—for last. There are three high-profile films opening in San Diego this week, and they are very diverse.
Christmas Day brings a gift for Tarantino fans: Django Unchained, the filmmaker's take on the western. Set a few years before the Civil War, the film is about Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave freed by dentist turned-bounty-hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for his work in Tarantino's last movie, Inglourious Basterds). The two pair up to try to free Django's wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from Candieland, the plantation owned by Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie, where slaves are pitted in fights to the death.
The movie never shies away from the horrors of slavery, but Tarantino also manages to make things hysterically funny. It's long, but it's also beautifully shot and, as always, smartly written.
Also opening on Christmas is Tom Hooper's adaptation of Les Miserables, which stars Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, the former convict who's hunted for decades by Javert (Russell Crowe) after skipping out on his parole. Hooper earned a Best Director Oscar for The King's Speech, and the folks who loved that movie will dig this one, too.
Jackman can really sing, but it's Anne Hathaway who steals the movie as Fantine, whose daughter Cosette ends up in Valjean's care. Hathaway's big number, "I Dreamed a Dream," is the film's one moment of truly transcending the stage musical from whence it came. Fans of the play will take a lot away from the film, but I found the numerous close-ups distracting, and it felt as if Crowe was in an entirely different movie than everyone else.
Then there's Promised Land, the new film from Gus Van Sant, which stars screenwriters Matt Damon and John Krasinski and opens on Friday, Dec. 28. This is a terrific idea, and for most of the film, it delivers on a nuanced concept.
Damon plays Steve Butler, an energy-company employee sent to rural Pennsylvania to lease land from residents for natural gas extraction—aka fracking. Steve is a good guy, and he truly believes in his mission; the film shows the economic upside to the environmentally unfriendly technology, in the form of poverty-stricken residents who finally have a source of income. Damon's great in the movie, playing a guy trying to come to terms with the possible problems his livelihood creates, and showing both sides of the fracking debate lends the film a great deal of credibility.
The problem is the ending— there's a twist that I won't reveal here, but I felt it undercut the movie's ability to be fair and balanced. Still, it gives Damon a nice Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment and allows the film to gracefully offer a happy-enough ending.
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North Sea Texas: Belgian film about a teenage boy whose search for love leads him next door—to the other boy who lives there.
Parental Guidance: Billy Crystal and Bette Midler agree to look after their grandchildren. Hilarity for a certain demographic ensues.
One Time Only
Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Macauley Culkin's parents forget about him at Christmas. Twice. Someone call Child Protective Services. Starts at around 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 26, at Sea Rocket Bistro in North Park.
A Christmas Story: Just when you thought Christmas was over, more Christmas movies. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 26, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.
Legend of Aahhh's: Don't be confused by the title: This is an extreme skiing movie, not a porno. Screens at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 27, at UltraStar Mission Valley.
Arbitrage: Richard Gere is a 1-percenter who gets caught up in lies and murder, trying to keep his fortune from the other 99 percent. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 2, at the Central Library, Downtown. Free.
Weekend at Bernie's: Ring in the new year with two clowns and their dead boss. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 2, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma.
Any Day Now: Alan Cumming and Garrett Dillahunt play a gay couple trying to adopt a teenager with Down Syndrome in the 1970s.
California Solo: Robert Carlyle plays a former British pop star turned California agriculture worker who faces deportation when he's caught driving drunk.
Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away: Those Canadian clowns enter a new dimension. As in, 3-D filmmaking.
The Guilt Trip: Seth Rogen takes an unexpected road trip with his mom, played by Barbra Streisand.
Jack Reacher: Tom Cruise takes on the title role in a movie based on the bestselling series of books, obviously looking for another Mission: Impossible sort of franchise.
Monsters, Inc. 3D: Sulley, Mike and Boo are coming at you, literally.
Rust and Bone: Marion Cotillard plays an orca trainer whose relationship with young Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts from last year's Oscar-nominated Bullhead) takes on a new dimension when she suffers a serious accident at work.
This is 40: Judd Apatow returns to Knocked Up territory, though this sort-of sequel focuses on Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), who were supporting players in the earlier film.
Hyde Park on Hudson: Bill Murray plays FDR in the days leading up to WWII, and Laura Linney is the distant cousin with whom he enjoys a special relationship.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Peter Jackson returns to Middle-earth in the first of three films based on the book that came before Lord of the Rings.
Playing for Keeps: Gerard Butler is a washed-up soccer star who starts coaching his son's team. Which keeps the soccer moms happy.
The Collections: A guy escapes the clutches of a horror-movie-type serial killer, only to be cajoled into rescuing a cute girl from a booby-trapped warehouse.
Hitchcock: Anthony Hopkins plays the famed director, and Helen Mirren his wife, during the time Hitchcock was shooting Psycho.
Killing Them Softly: Brad Pitt shows why he's a movie star, effortlessly exuding cool as a mob enforcer in Andrew Dominik's arthouse take on a gangster flick.
Red Dawn: The updated edition of the 1984 Cold War-paranoia pic stars Josh Hutcherson and Chris Hemsworth, who signed on and shot the movie years ago, before they were rich and famous.
Anna Karenina: Director Joe Wright teams up again with his Pride & Prejudice star Keira Knightley to take on another period drama.
Life of Pi: Ang Lee's adaptation of the Booker Prize-winning novel about a boy, a tiger and a lifeboat is this year's movie that you simply must see on a big screen and in 3-D. Really.
Rise of the Guardians: The Immortal Guardians—aka the Easter Bunny, Santa, etc.—team up to kick evil-spirit ass.
Let it Snow: The IMAX theater at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park gets animated and kid-friendly just in time for the holidays.
Silver Linings Playbook: Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a bipolar guy from Philly who's just out of the mental hospital, having lost his job, his home and his wife. He moves in with his parents (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro) in hopes of regaining his marriage, but things are thrown askew by Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who has problems of her own.
Lincoln: It might as well have been called The 13th Amendment. Despite another spellbinding performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln's biopic is really about getting legislation through Congress.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2: The long national nightmare is over.
Skyfall: Daniel Craig's third outing as 007 is thankfully closer to Casino Royale than Quantum of Solace. This time, he's going up against Javier Bardem, who has some history with MI-6.
The Other Son: An Israeli and a Palestinian discover they were switched at birth.
Tales of the Maya Skies: This IMAX movie explores the rich history of the Mayan people, just in time for the end of the world. At the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park.
The Man With the Iron Fists: The Wu-Tang Clan's RZA co-wrote (with Eli Roth), directed and stars in this ultraviolent martial-arts epic, which also features Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu. They're all on the trail of a fortune in gold.
The Sessions: John Hawkes is great as Mark O'Brien, a writer and poet paralyzed by polio who turns to a sexual surrogate (Helen Hunt) in order to lose his virginity at age 38.
Wreck-It Ralph: The latest animated film from Disney stars John C. Reilly as Ralph, the bad guy in an old-school video game who desperately wants to be liked.
Chasing Mavericks: A surfing movie, surprisingly co-directed by Michael Apted and Curtis Hanson, about a teen who turns to crusty surfing legend Gerard Butler to help him survive a massive wave.
Cloud Atlas: This epic production is almost three hours long and stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent and Hugo Weaving in multiple roles. It consists of six stories that span different time periods, with a running storyline about reincarnation and the effects of our actions on future generations.
Fun Size: A teenage girl loses track of her little brother while attending a Halloween party thrown by a really cute boy.
Argo: Ben Affleck directs and stars in this take on the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, and believe it or not, it's gonna be a Best Picture contender.
Flight of the Butterflies: It turns out Monarch butterflies are much like SDSU students—every year, thousands of them head to Mexico. This IMAX film captures their beautiful trip. The butterflies, that is.
Frankenweenie: Tim Burton hasn't made a film that's been an original idea in years, so it sort of makes sense that he'd remake one of his own movies.
Taken 2: Remember all those dudes Liam Neeson killed in the thoroughly violent Taken? At least one of them has a family member out for a little payback.
Looper: Director Rian Johnson (Brick, Brothers Bloom) teams once again with Joseph Gordon-Levitt for this time-twister; JGL is a hit man whose future self (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to be rubbed out.
Ice Age: Continental Drift: So cold.
Flying Monsters 3D: No, it's not a crappy studio blockbuster—this one is all about dinosaurs and was written and directed by Richard Attenborough, using Avatar-like technology, and plays the San Diego Natural History Museum in Balboa Park.
To the Arctic 3-D: Cute-animal-movie alert No. 2. Meryl Streep narrates this new IMAX movie about a mama polar bear and her two cubs.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: The camp classic continues its ongoing run, Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas.