With Christmas comes the big holiday movie weekend, and this year six awards contenders hit theaters. They include December 25 wide openers from Scorsese (the raucous comedy "The Wolf of Wall Street") Ben Stiller (the family fantasy adventure "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty") and Peter Berg (the men-at-war drama "Lone Survivor"), while director Ralph Fiennes' uncomfortable sophomore effort "The Invisible Woman" arrives in select cities.
On Friday in limited release come two late arrivals from TIFF and Telluride, respectively: John Wells and Tracy Letts' screen adaptation of his acerbic Broadway play "August: Osage County," and Jason Reitman's melodrama "Labor Day." While "August" could pick up an Oscar acting nod or two, for Meryl Streep as a hard-swilling, pill-popping matriarch and Julia Roberts as her bitter oldest daughter, late-in-the-game "Labor Day" seems lost in the pack amid a crowded year.
"The Wolf of Wall Street," Martin Scorsese's grotesque portrait of the life of sybaritic stockbroker Jordan Belfort, is no cautionary tale. Instead it's a bacchanal display of excess, drugs, misogyny and bad behavior -- with Scorsese's camera in full-on shark mode -- with no moralism to direct our feelings about this modern-day, real-life Gordon Gekko on quaaludes. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill make a brilliant comic duo. But clocking in at a lengthy three hours, the overindulgent film doesn't hit as hard and fast as Scorsese classics "Goodfellas" and "Casino," to which "Wolf" has been compared.
Loosely inspired by James Thurber's iconic short story, director Ben Stiller's PG-rated fantasy crowdpleaser "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" centers on a daydreamer (Stiller) skirting the line between reality and delusion while striking up a romance with a coworker played by Kristen Wiig. The film will play better for holiday audiences looking for escapist popcorn fare than it did for critics at the New York Film Festival. But in spite of the feel-good contrivances, we went along for the ride.
Starring Mark Wahlberg as Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, Peter Berg's tough, unremitting, authentic, and intimate Afghan war film "Lone Survivor" also opened Christmas Day. The filmmakers deserve serious kudos all around. Will Oscar voters agree? It's a competitive year. The directing, photography, editing and stunts are tops, as is Berg's rigorous and lean screenplay. He went to Iraq to observe up close before finishing the script. Critics should help turn this into a must-see.
One of the biggest disappointments out of Telluride and Toronto was Ralph Fiennes' stiff period costume drama "The Invisible Woman," which earned some praise for Felicity Jones as the young muse of older-man Charles Dickens (Fiennes). The broad age gap in this May-December romance feels icky, but Sony Pictures Classics is still pushing the arch prestige picture which, like Fiennes' more sure-handed directorial debut "Coriolanus"(2011), likely won't find a significant audience.
Opening Friday in NY/LA for an Oscar-qualifying run, Jason Reitman's Joyce Maynard adaptation "Labor Day" intercuts several plots and narrators in different time frames--it starts in 1987-- to reveal the back stories behind depressed Adele (Kate Winslet) living in New England solitude with her 12-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who tries to fill the void left by his departed father (Clark Gregg). On an outing to the store, the mother and son are commandeered by a threatening escaped prisoner (Josh Brolin). Reitman takes us on a ride that never flags and often surprises with real emotion, and Winslet gives a delicately sensual performance. Clearly, this relationship drama plays better for women than men.
Also out Friday in limited release after TWC pushed back the film's Christmas opening is John Wells' hysterical-in-every-sense-of-the-word "August: Osage County," a dysfunctional family Southern gothic up for Golden Globe and SAG awards for Streep and Roberts. When the drunken Weston patriarch (Sam Shepard) disappears, leaving behind drug-addled, cancer-ridden wife Violet (Streep), the prodigal kin show up to their tattered Oklahoma home to pay respects and get their mess of a mother under control. Histrionics and acid-tongued dinner table scenes abound, and while the film can be a tough sit, it can be quite moving, and audiences should take pleasure in watching Streep and Roberts duke it out.
The Wolf of Wall Street Dir. Martin Scorsese, USA | Paramount | Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Rob Reiner, Jean Dujardin, Margot Robbie | 81% Fresh | Variety: "A big, unruly bacchanal of a movie that huffs and puffs and nearly blows its own house down, but holds together by sheer virtue of its furious filmmaking energy and a Leonardo DiCaprio star turn so electric it could wake the dead." | Our TOH! review and roundup
The Invisible Woman Dir. Ralph Fiennes, UK | Sony Pictures Classics | Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas | 70% Fresh | Indiewire: "As a filmmaker, Fiennes maintains a subdued tone that's alternately too restrained to make the drama fluidly engaging and impressively studied in its depiction of the couple's ups and downs." | Our review and NYFF coverage
Lone Survivor Dir. Peter Berg, USA | Universal | Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, Eric Bana | 62% Fresh | AV Club: "For all his directorial shortcomings, Berg has a knack for capturing men at work; his depiction of special-ops maneuvering... is as compelling as the chaotic violence he orchestrates later." | Our review, roundup and Q & A video
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Dir. Ben Stiller, USA | Fox | Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Kathryn Hahn, Adam Scott | 45% Fresh | Time Out New York: "You're going to find it all either enormously empowering or deeply calculated: an Arcade Fire-scored TV commercial for instant spirituality." | Our review and NYFF coverage, and Stiller interview.
August: Osage County Dir. John Wells, USA | The Weinstein Company | Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Chris Cooper, Margot Martindale, Ewan McGregor | 78% Fresh | Hollywood Reporter: "An entertaining adaptation, delivering flavorful rewards in some sharp supporting turns that flank the central mother-daughter adversaries." | Our review and TIFF coverage
Labor Day Dir. Jason Reitman, USA | Paramount | Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Tobey Maguire, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg | 60% Fresh | The Wrap: "If 'Labor Day' teaches us anything, it's that the line between a prestige-soaked year-end awards bait movie and a Lifetime original with a title like My Captor! My Lover! is blurry at best." | Our Telluride review