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Cover Story - 2014 Holiday Movie Preview

From Selma to Middle-Earth, 15 films to get you through polar vortex season


Many doctors use a graphic called a “Pain Scale” so patients can indicate the severity of what ails them. Frequently, the graph features a range of little faces, with cheerful smiles on one side, concerned looks in the middle, and agonized grimaces at the other end.

Holiday movies should come with a similar ranking to indicate which will go down easy and which promise deep hurting. Where summer movies consist almost exclusively of commercially intended entertainments, the period from Thanksgiving into the new year mixes potential breezy blockbusters with more would-be-important fare to garner attention and accolades at awards time. We survey the season’s upcoming films to gauge what they’ll offer in both fun and seriousness. The most ambitious films sometimes taste like medicine in their attempts to edify, but some come with spoonfuls of sugar.


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? ? The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1??The Penguins of Madagascar??
Horrible Bosses 2??Exodus: Gods and Kings
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Top Five??Wild??
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies??Annie??
Foxcatcher??Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb??
Big Eyes??The Imitation Game??
Into the Woods
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The Interview??
Unbroken??Selma??
Inherent Vice??American Sniper?
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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (now in theaters)

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The third of the four Hunger Games movies takes up where Catching Fire left off, with stalwart archer Katniss Everdeen (America's sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence) finding sanctuary in subterranean District 13, where she reluctantly becomes the face of the rebellion against the evil Capitol. While the plot switches from lethal competition to guerilla warfare, the theme of Katniss using her persona to shape public opinion remains intact. Unlike the final book, the film is split in two parts, with the second half to open next Thanksgiving. The two films mark the final screen performance of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

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How fun is it? Young adult dystopian stories like Hunger Games present teenagers in revolt against grown-up societies, often with crazy weapons, so there's a lot to cheer.

How serious is it? Katniss apparently spends a lot of time being sad in gray, underground settings.

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The Penguins of Madagascar (Nov. 26)

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DreamWorks' Madagascar films have routinely been stolen by the titular penguins, whose gung-ho, military-style attitude give them a penchant for gizmos, explosions, and crazy heists. This inevitable prequel shows how the flippered foursome — Skipper, Rico, Kowalski, and Private — first met, then shows them recruited by a spymaster wolf (Benedict Cumberbatch) to take on a nefarious octopus (John Malkovich).

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How fun will it be? Tom McGrath's amusingly cocky voice work as Skipper is always good for a giggle, but the overall gag could wear thin fast.

How serious will it be? Not at all, unless it makes a big deal out of the melting polar ice caps.

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Horrible Bosses 2 (Nov. 26)

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In a sequel neither unwelcome nor exactly in demand, former tormented drudges Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day attempt to launch their own business following their 2011 brush with murder. Circumstance leads them to kidnapping the privileged son of a savvy investor (new additions Chris Pine and Christoph Waltz, respectively), with Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey reprising their earlier roles.

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How fun will it be? It depends on how fun you find the slapstick dark comedy of The Hangover movies.

How serious will it be? If That's My Boy director Sean Anders doesn't strike the right balance of sex, violence, and laughs, it could be serious in all the wrong ways.

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Exodus: Gods and Kings (Dec. 12)

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With a name like an Old Testament-inspired console game, this sleek-looking Bible epic directed by Ridley Scott stars Christian Bale as Egyptian Prince Moses, who learns of his Jewish heritage and leads a slave revolt against his adopted brother Rhamses (Joel Edgerton). The trailer features lots of chariot action of dubious Biblical accuracy, so it looks like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur rolled into one.

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How fun will it be? It seems to be avoiding both the kitsch of old Hollywood Bible movies and the weirdness of that Russell Crowe Noah film earlier this year.

How serious will it be? Its attempts at importance may be undercut by criticism over casting white actors in the major Egyptian and Middle Eastern roles.

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Top Five (Dec. 12)

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Chris Rock writes, directs, and stars in a film about a hugely successful comedian named Andre Allen at a personal crossroads: Can he reinvent himself as a dramatic actor? Will he go through with his marriage to a reality star (Gabrielle Union) or fall for the grounded reporter (Rosario Dawson) doing a story on him? Rock's third feature film as a director (following Head of State and I Think I Love My Wife) contemplates the price of fame while featuring a cast of such reliably hilarious supporting players as Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, Cedric the Entertainer, and J.B. Smoove.

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How fun will it be? Clips from Rock's character, Andre, and his hit film series Hammy the Bear look pretty amusing

How serious will it be? The trailer hinges on whether Andre is still funny, which could give the film license to pivot away from jokes.

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Wild (Dec. 12)

Reese Witherspoon stars in the screen version of the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which topped the New York Times best-seller list. As Cheryl Strayed, Witherspoon plays a woman who hikes the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail alone as a way to deal with her divorce, the death of her mother, and years of self-destructive behavior.

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How fun will it be? Witty novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) wrote the script and could give it a light touch.

How serious will it be? It'll be an account of a modern woman on a journey of self-discovery, only instead of Eat Pray Love, it'll be more like Walk Walk Walk.

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Dec. 17)

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The third and final installment of Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit will make the book's last 60 or so pages stretch to well over two hours, including a reportedly 45-minute battle scene. Will Gandalf (Ian McKellan) escape the clutches of Sauron? Will dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) have a tragic downfall? Will Bilbo (Martin Freeman) spend long stretches on the margins despite being the title character? Better open up your schedule to find out.

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How fun will it be? Assuming it's not an endless slog, it'll be packed with wild, CGI-heavy sword-and-sorcery battles and monster fights.

How serious will it be? Compared to Jackson's critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbit films are surprisingly unimportant, barely registering as blips on the cultural radar.

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Annie (Dec. 19)

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Quvenzhané Wallis of Beasts of the Southern Wild plays the titular role in the enduringly popular musical version of the classic comic strip Little Orphan Annie. The Daddy Warbucks character, here a bachelor tycoon (Jamie Foxx), takes in Annie as a publicity stunt for his New York mayoral campaign, but the upbeat girl starts to melt his icy exterior. Expect Cameron Diaz to ham it up in the villain role as the head of Annie's foster home.

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How fun will it be? Director Will Gluck seems to crank the good cheer up to 11.

How serious will it be? The nontraditional casting of African-Americans in the leading roles could be an opportunity for social commentary, but the "It's the Hard-Knock Life" probably won't be all that hard.

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Foxcatcher (Dec. 19)

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This ominous true-crime tale explores the intense relationship between Olympic wrestling champ Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his millionaire coach John du Pont (Steve Carell). Intriguingly, Moneyball director Bennett Miller follows his previous film's celebration of baseball with a much darker portrayal of competition and obsession in American sports. Early reviews suggest that Tatum and Carell, with support from Mark Ruffalo, give transformative performances that could redefine their careers — you know, in a good way.

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How fun will it be? Despite Tatum's apelike body language and Carell's weird make-up and vocal affectations, not much fun at all.

How serious will it be? Its strong showing at the Cannes Film Festival (a Palm d'Or nod and Best Director win) makes it a major Oscar contender and one of 2014's most acclaimed films.

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Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (Dec. 19)

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If you're looking for family fare that involves neither brutal battles nor musical numbers, you may have to settle for the third fantasy-comedy about museum exhibits coming to life. The series' latest film finds Ben Stiller's security guard going to the London Museum to restore the magic spell that animates his historic buddies. In addition to such regulars as Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, and Ricky Gervais, this installment includes Rebel Wilson as an English guard, Dan Stevens as Lancelot, and Ben Kingsley as a pharaoh (which is ironic, because he plays a Hebrew in the Exodus film).

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How fun is it? The trailer's big gag involves a urinating monkey, which should convey the level they're going for.

How serious is will it be? It's Mickey Rooney's final film and one of the last for Robin Williams, returning as Teddy Roosevelt, so it could be a downer for grown-up movie buffs.

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Big Eyes (Dec. 25)

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Artist biopics usually depict such geniuses as Jackson Pollock or Pablo Picasso. Tim Burton's new film focuses on Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) claimed credit for her popular paintings of huge-eyed children. Big Eyes reunites Burton with Ed Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, whose previous work (including The People vs. Larry Flynt) shows an affinity for quirky personalities.

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How fun will it be? Keane's paintings have an undeniable kitsch factor, but the film doesn't seem particularly jokey.

How serious will it be? Amy Adams is reportedly a Best Actress Oscar contender for her role as an artist who fights for her rights against male domination.

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The Imitation Game (Dec. 25)

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Benedict Cumberbatch continues his specialty as socially awkward geniuses in this biopic of Alan Turing, who developed one of the world's first computers to break the Nazis' Enigma code during World War II, yet faced postwar persecution in his native England for being gay. Incidentally, Cumberbatch, nicknamed "the Internet's boyfriend," has found sharp Best Actor Oscar competition from The Theory of Everything star Eddie Redmayne, who plays another troubled English genius, famed physicist Stephen Hawking.

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How fun will it be? The trailer plays down social politics in favor of wartime skullduggery.

How serious will it be? Attacking midcentury England's criminalization of homosexuality, The Imitation Game engages a hot-button issue while remaining insulated from contemporary controversies.

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Into the Woods (Dec. 25)

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You'd be hard-pressed to find a modern musical more beloved than Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, which recounts classic fairy tales and then explores what happens post-"happily ever after." The long-developed film version, directed by the Oscar-winning Chicago's Rob Marshall, features a stellar cast, including Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Meryl Streep, and, as the Big Bad Wolf, Johnny Depp (who headlined an earlier Sondheim musical film, Sweeney Todd).

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How fun will it be? The stage show finds some laughs in its mature mash-up of storybook plotlines, but don't expect Shrek levels of silliness.

How serious will it be? Sondheim's insightful, bittersweet numbers on childhood and maturity can be achingly profound, and if the film does justice to its source material, it could be highly affecting.

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The Interview (Dec. 25)

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James Franco and Seth Rogen — comedy pals since their "Freaks and Geeks" days 15 years ago — reunite as a shallow TMZ-style news host and his producer, respectively. They're thrilled to land an interview with young North Korean president Kim Jong-un, until the CIA instructs the duo to assassinate him. It'll be interesting to see whether The Interview unfolds as a raunchy romp about North Korea-U.S. foreign relations and celebrity culture, or if the satire has teeth.

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How fun will it be? Rogen co-directed the film with Evan Goldberg, his writing partner on Superbad, Pineapple Express, and This Is the End, so they have a very strong comedic track record.

How serious will it be? North Korea's state-run agency has requested the U.S. government halt the film's release, suggesting that The Interview has greater real-world ramifications than most Oscar nominees.

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Unbroken (Dec. 25)

Oscar winner Angelina Jolie goes behind the camera to direct this epic biography set primarily during World War II. Based on the book by Seabiscuit author Laura Hillebrand, the film follows Louis "Louie" Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), a former Olympic runner who survives a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean, and spends 47 days on a raft and two years in a Japanese prison camp — yet his spirit remains, well, you know what.

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How fun will it be? It should be a more positive presentation of Olympic athletes than Foxcatcher, at least.

How serious will it be? Not only is it an apparently straight-faced "triumph of the human spirit" kind of story, but the real Zamperini died in July, so expect plenty of "Greatest Generation" tributes.

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Selma (Jan. 9)

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British actor David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King Jr. in a sprawling docudrama about 1965's Alabama voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery. The supporting cast includes Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King and, in smaller roles, André Holland as Andrew Young, and Stephan James as John Lewis.

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How fun will it be? The trailer suggests that the civil rights advocates (including Wendell Pierce from "The Wire" as Hosea Williams) maintain a low-key sense of humor amid tense situations.

How serious will it be? Given the presence of Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey, as well as similar Civil Rights-era subject matter, it'll be this year's equivalent to Lee Daniels' The Butler.

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Inherent Vice (Jan. 9)" rel="">?
Inherent Vice (Jan. 9)
One of America's most esteemed filmmakers takes on our most enigmatic novelist in director Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Inherent Vice. In 1970s Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix plays a scruffy, pothead detective investigating the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend's boyfriend and encountering eccentrics played by Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, and Jena Malone.

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How fun will it be? It looks like a hilarious, silly goof on mystery conventions like The Big Lebowski.

How important will it be? It looks like the kind of deceptively clever work the depths and subtleties of which emerge over time — also like The Big Lebowski.

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American Sniper (Jan. 16)

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Movie icon Clint Eastwood adapts the best-selling memoir of Chris Kyle, touted as "the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history." Starring Bradley Cooper as Kyle, American Sniper juxtaposes Kyle's harrowing tours of duty in Iraq with his difficulties coping to life stateside (with Sienna Miller playing his wife).

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How fun will it be? You're really asking that question?

How serious will it be? It may hurt even more than The Hurt Locker.





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