Here's what to see and what to skip this holiday season.
See ThisSaving Mr. Banks
Whatever our religious beliefs, we should all clasp our hands together and send out a little prayer of thanks that Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson) found herself financially strapped in the early '60s. Because but for her moment of personal penury, we'd all be without the Disney adaptation of the world's favorite sugar-pushing nanny, Mary Poppins. (Listen, sometimes you need more than a song to move the job along.)
On the verge of losing her cozy London home, Travers agrees to fly to Los Angeles to work with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and his team on a film adaptation of her prized possession. Only Travers, as pinched and ornery as they come, hasn't yet signed the contract giving Disney the rights. That's her chit. She'll clench it in her fists as long as possible, but we all know how this will end.
That Thompson makes such a woman endearing and understandable is remarkable. She may flash to anger, but her aching vulnerability is always right there under the surface. When she notes that there's no one back home to miss her during her Los Angeles sojourn, we can't help but pity her. Besides, we know where all that pain comes from.
Flashbacks throughout the film show the young writer—Ginty, as her father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell), nicknames her – in her Australian childhood. It starts off an idyll, then descends into misery as Travers slides deeper into the liquor bottle, his irrepressible charm never flagging. It's him little Ginty wants to impress, him the adult P.L. is desperate to hold onto.
But Banks is more interested in getting Poppins on the big screen than it is in Travers' youth, and rightly so. The film is never more fun than when Travers spars with the musical genius Sherman brothers (BJ Novak and Jason Schwartzman) over lyrics, or with Disney, himself. Hanks lends his usual charm, but doesn't step too far outside of himself in the role. That's just fine, since this is Thompson's spotlight, and she's earned it. It'll be a brutal fight for every Best Actress nod throughout awards season, but Thompson absolutely deserves to be in the ring.
And ThisAnchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Fans of the original Anchorman could've aged a nice scotch in the nine years it's taken this sequel to appear, but my sloshy drunk friends, the wait is over. Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), that stuffed-suit exemplar of '70s sexism and helmet hair, is back—and this go around, he's actually ahead of the times.
At the dawn of the '80s we find Ron married to his co-anchor, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), and working in New York, having lost touch with his San Diego crew. For reasons that are too spoilery to get into, he gets the crew back together when a new opportunity emerges: something called 24-hour cable news. Yes, the very idea is ridiculous, but Ron, Brian (Paul Rudd), Brick (Steve Carell) and Champ (David Koechner) might just have what it takes to thrive in this nutty new world.
The set-up gives the movie plenty of room to skewer the silliness that passes for news these days, and not just on the cable channels. It also infuses the cast with new faces, from Meagan Good as Ron's hard-charging new boss, Linda Jackson, to James Marsden, as media golden boy (and therefore detestable nemesis) Jack Lime. Even Brick gets a love interest in the equally thick-headed Chani (Kristen Wiig), who's so absurd you have to laugh. But then, you'll be doing plenty of that, as the jokes hit reliably, even when they lean too heavily on nostalgia for the original. Oh, and yes, there's a bonus scene at the end, but unlike the sequel, it's not worth waiting for.
And do not miss thisHer
Ever since Spike Jonze took us inside Malkovich's head in Being John Malkovich, I've wondered what's inside his own. But as knotty and cerebral a think piece as the transcendent Her is, it might be Jonze's first film to truly reveal what's in his heart.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore, a writer for an online service called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. (In the future, we won't even write our own heartfelt missives, apparently.) Theodore is a profoundly lonely man, trying to sublimate the pain of his divorce by refusing to sign the papers. One day he gets a new phone touting a revolutionary feature: a sentient operating system. In essence, the phone is like Siri, but more, in that she can learn and laugh, and the more you interact with her (or him—hey, your phone, your preference), the more "human" she'll be.
After a bit a light interrogation, Theodore's phone decides that her name is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). She's efficient, thorough and as he points out when she reads his e-mail, "kind of nosy." She's also funny, creative and curious—so curious, in fact, that she wants to explore relationships. But can Samantha love? Can Theodore love her? Is what they have real, or just a sad, desperate attempt on his part to hold onto something in an age in which everything feels ephemeral?
These are great questions Jonze raises, and they're relevant and urgent now, not in some hazy future. But the reason they hit with such force in Her is because of the performances behind them. Phoenix takes a rare opportunity to show us a more natural, charming side than the tortured wretches into which he usually disappears, as Theodore fights his own (better?) judgment with respect to Samantha. And as Samantha, Johansson is nothing short of a revelation. Her completely unseen voice performance is earthy and grounded, playful and mournful. She packs so much longing into her line readings that you'd swear she's sitting right next to Phoenix.
I can't urge you strongly enough to rush out and see Her. It's one of the year's most spectacular films, earning its emotional payoff through impassioned love and loss, rather than easy sentiment.