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Plenty movie gifts — and gags — releasing at holiday time

With the holiday season at its peak, new movie releases are, too. But before you spend $10 on a film, check out our guide. (That money could be spent on, you know, gifts.)

Get to the theater ASAP!

The Wolf of Wall Street

Rated: R

Release date: Christmas Day

Nobody knows much about Wolf, except that it's about a Wall Street trader (Leonardo DiCaprio) falling from grace. A three-hour fall from grace. I wouldn't be getting too excited if I didn't know the Hollywood legend in the director's chair. Martin Scorsese is always a force to be reckoned with, and although I doubt it will generate quite the buzz expected (never go head-to-head with the Coen brothers on opening weekend), it still looks like a dense, dazzling, thought-provoking ride from a man who specializes in all three. With style.

American Hustle

Rated: R

Release date: Dec. 20

It's Bradley Cooper with a head full of ridiculous little pink curlers, Amy Adams with a fake British accent, Christian Bale with a pathetic comb-over, and David O'Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) directing. Very, very loosely based on a true late-seventies FBI operation, Hustle is the rare comedy vying for the Oscar. In O'Russell's hands — and with this cast of comedic-dramatic geniuses, rounded out with Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner — it promises to be a spectacular contender in a year that's otherwise stuffed with deserving but boring period dramas.

August: Osage County

Rated: R

Release date: Christmas Day

As a theater nerd, I'm disappointed that this one isn't getting more buzz. Up against big-name prestige pictures, this adaptation of playwright Tracey Lett's magnum opus might slip through the cracks, even with its exceptional cast portraying the story of a dysfunctional family after the father dies. (Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, and those are just the leads.) Letts is one of the best current playwrights out there, and Osage County would be masterful in the hands of circus clowns. With this bunch, it's bound to be incredible, tense, uncomfortable and claustrophobic, just as Letts intended.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Rated: R

Release date: Dec. 20

Do I need to say more about the Coen brothers? Rarely do they make a bad or even mediocre movie. Llewyn Davis is their first since 2010's True Grit, and I expected it to be no exception — even before the rave reviews started coming out, claiming that Inside was the pair's best film since Fargo. Llewyn Davis follows a week in the life of its title character, struggling to get by as a folk singer in 1960s Greenwich Village. It sounds like a fascinating story, but frankly, I'd be first in line if the brothers decided to make a movie about a talking aardvark--when it's Joel and Ethan Coen, it's a thrill to follow them, wherever they take you.

Think twice before you buy your ticket

Justin Bieber's Believe

Rated: Not yet rated

Release date: Christmas Day

It's not just a Justin Bieber movie. It's the second Justin Bieber movie. I don't think I need to waste more time justifying my opinion of this one.

Grudge Match

Rated: Not yet rated

Release date: Christmas Day

Some time ago, an executive realized that his company had Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone under contractual obligation. This brain-dead executive also realized that there hadn't been a boxing movie made in a while. At least, I'd like to imagine that's how this film was conceived, a blatant grab at Rocky-era nostalgia that's going to try for the label of "comedy."

47 Ronin

Rated: PG-13

Release date: Christmas Day

Not only does it seem racist that white guy Keanu Reeves is starring in an otherwise all-Japanese cast as a Japanese character, but also 47 is the seventh adaptation of a popular Japanese folktale — and the first Hollywood one — which has dragged through development hell for years. When a Hollywood movie very loosely based on a somewhat true story takes years to get released, you don't have to be a movie buff to have an idea where this is going.

Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas

Rated: PG-13

Release date: Dec. 13

Honesty is the best policy: I have never seen a Madea movie. I am not in a fair position to rank them. Thus, I'm basing this placement on the Rotten Tomato scores of Perry's previous efforts, as well as the general quality of its genre, the PG-13 domestic comedy. No matter what studio or demographic, most are pretty bad.

Walking with Dinosaurs

Rated: PG

Release date: Dec. 20

Walking will probably do well at the box office, the lone animated movie in theaters, released in time for everyone to have seen Frozen already. Future paleontologists will appreciate it, but judging by its trailer, other fans will be difficult to find. Not only is it more realistic than most animated jaunts — no singing snowmen here, or singing at all — its humor is flat. The preview uses an already overused cliche nearly word-for-word. If you have the time. Maybe.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Rated: PG

Release date: Christmas Day

Walter Mitty looks like an attempt at art-house for non art-house audiences. Its trailer is incomprehensible. Lonely magazine editor Ben Stiller goes on a bunch of adventures while making goo-goo eyes at Kristen Wiig, but is he dreaming? And why are people in photographs beckoning to him? Is this the real world, or is it just fantasy? All right, fine, it could be good, or even shock by being great. But this looks like a movie that belongs at the Tampa Theater, not in multiplexes, and rarely do the dominion of the two meet. (Plus, it's a remake.)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Rated: PG-13

Release Date: Dec. 13

You can read Mark Mukherjee's review on Page 12, but I'll admit that I'm not a huge Tolkien fan, and I haven't even read this book. Still, I was excited last year for the first third of The Hobbit, visually beautiful and starring nerd icons. But the first film's problems were evident even to a casual viewer — extensive padding and a lack of humor made it a long, slow drag. Although it might be different for book fans, or those who are drawn to the movie's (admittedly still stunning) visual effects, I have little faith in this installment.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Rated: PG-13

Release date: Dec. 18

I very much hope I'm wrong here. It's the return of Ron Burgundy, for pete's sake, star of one of the most funny and quotable films of the last decade. But the return of a beloved franchise can only take one so far, and the trailer looks depressingly un-funny and un-quotable. I'll give it the benefit of the doubt, but nothing will ever be able to match the power of "stay classy, San Diego" or jazz flute the first time around.

Saving Mr. Banks

Rated: PG-13

Release Date: Dec. 20

Saving Mr. Banks is the second "Disney deconstruction" movie out this year, after October's creepy indie Escape From Tomorrow. But while Escape was filmed illegally on Disney property, Saving is a Disney-approved script. It stars Tom Hanks as Walt Disney with a lung-cancer cough, trying to win the rights for Mary Poppins from author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). My main worry about this one is that Disney will still fear for its reputation, but the fact that it got made at all is a testament to the company's evolving willingness to reveal its dark side. Yes, in controlled, saccharine, fun for the family doses, but I'll take it.

Plenty movie gifts — and gags — releasing at holiday time 12/18/13 [Last modified: Thursday, December 19, 2013 3:59pm]

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