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The Hollywood Hustle

Tinseltown offers gifts of Oscar bait to moviegoers for the holidays

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Saving Mr. Banks

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Saving Mr. Banks

When it came to releasing the last of 2013's Oscar-contenders and would-be blockbusters, Hollywood opted to stamp most of its cinematic gifts with the label: "Do Not Open Until Christmas."

In the remaining weeks of December, more than half the month's major releases will open on Christmas Day in Winnipeg, a release schedule that puts a lot of faith in the likelihood of moviegoers flocking to the multiplex over the holidays.

Fortunately, the Advent calendar leading up to Dec. 25 is stocked with a few goodies, including a badass dragon, the re-invention of Walt Disney and Jennifer Lawrence garbed in sleazy '70s fashion.

Mark your daybooks accordingly.

Dec. 13.

Last year's first instalment of J.R.R. Tolkein's slim book The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, got an underwhelming critical response, but its box office take passed the billion-dollar mark worldwide just as definitively as director Peter Jackson's first instalment of The Lord of the Rings in 2001. Hence the second instalment, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is pretty much a guaranteed hit as Bilbo Baggins attempts to aid a band of plucky dwarves in reclaiming their kingdom from the dragon. Fans of the terrific Brit series Sherlock may rejoice at the thespian reunion of that show's Watson -- Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins -- with Benedict Cumberbatch, who provides the voice and motion-capture menace of Smaug.

Dec. 18

Director David O. Russell follows up last year's unexpected hit The Silver Linings Playbook by recycling two of that film's stars -- Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence -- with two stars of his 2010 film The Fighter -- Christian Bale and Amy Adams. American Hustle is Russell's take on the Abscam affair, a wide-ranging federal investigation into government corruption, with Bale taking centre stage as a scam artist drawn into the con by Cooper's hair-permed federal agent.

Prepare for a shock: Will Ferrell didn't come to Winnipeg last weekend because he was interested in curling. He was doing his bit to launch Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, the sequel to the 2004 comedy hit that sees arrogant meat puppet Ron Burgundy heading for New York City to man a newfangled 24-hour cable news network. Coincidence: It's set in precisely the same late-'70s/early-'80s epoch as American Hustle.

Dec. 20

Director Alexander Payne returned to his home state for a plaintive tale of familial reconciliation. Nebraska offers a plum role to Bruce Dern as a cantankerous, somewhat befuddled patriarch who forces his son (Will Forte) to accompany him on a quixotic campaign to collect a million-dollar prize offered by a mail-order company.

Tom Hanks brings his considerable charm to the task reviving Walt Disney for Saving Mr. Banks, the more-or-less factual account of how Disney sought the rights to Mary Poppins from reluctant Australian-born novelist P.L. Travers, played by an especially prickly Emma Thompson.

Remember the 2000 Disney animated film Dinosaur? Apparently, few people do, which has left the door open for Walking With Dinosaurs, a 3D adventure in which computer-animated dinosaurs interact with live-action landscapes.

Dec. 25

Joel and Ethan Coen explore the early '60s music scene from the inside, that is Inside Llewyn Davis, a portrait of a fictional would-be troubled folk star (Oscar Isaac) in the era of up-and-comers such as Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. Justin Timberlake, of all people, shows up to provide a little pop-music veracity.

Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize-winning play of familial disintegration, August: Osage County, comes to the big screen with some serious acting talent, including Meryl Streep as destructive matriarch Violet Weston and Julia Roberts as her vengeful daughter, with additional support from Ewan McGregor, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper and Juliette Lewis.

In the past few years, mere mafiosi have been outstripped by a new class of ºber-criminal, the investment banker, which explains how Martin Scorsese turned his back on wiseguys to tell the story of a real-life swindler Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf of Wall Street.

In 1976, Sylvester Stallone was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay for Rocky, but in 1980, it was Robert De Niro who won the Oscar for playing psychopathic pugilist Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Hence, the comedy Grudge Match cannily pairs De Niro and Stallone as a pair of over-the-hill retired boxers whose long-standing enmity is exploited for a long-delayed rematch.

Adapted from Nelson Mandela's own memoir, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom stars Idris Elba as Mandela in his journey from anti-apartheid revolutionary to president of South Africa.

Ben Stiller directed and stars in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a contemporary take on the classic James Thurber story of a meek guy prone to wild fantasies. Kristen Wiig co-stars as the girl of Mitty's daydreams.

If most of the above movies are too high-falutin' for your cinematic palate, Keanu Reeves brings the eye candy-junk in 47 Ronin, a fanciful tale of leaderless samurai united against the supernatural forces of evil.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 G1

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