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December 18, 2015

Holiday Movie Guide 2015: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' & everything else you want to see

Entertainment Movies
Starwars2 Lucasfilm/Handout Art

John Boyega and Oscar Isaac star in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

For a movie that’s been marketed more shamelessly than any in recent memory — you can’t eat Chex Mix or apply lipstick in this country without the glow of a tri-saber glinting off your space-addled eyeballs — the seventh installment of "Star Wars" is proving remarkably hard to discuss. My hand-wringing began the second the press screening wrapped up earlier this week: How the hell was I going to talk about "The Force Awakens" without being air-choked by the most ravenous, spoiler-phobic fandom our galaxy has to offer?

After dismissing the urge to fabricate a bunch of facts for the sake of my own entertainment (adorable rolling droid BB-8 = totally filled with Cadbury Creme!), I decided to stop stressing. If you’re the type who wants to avoid all intel prior to full immersion, skip over this section. For the rest, don’t fret: This is the highly general, spoiler-free preview you’re looking for.

J.J. Abrams has fostered genuine goodwill within geek circles by remaining loyal to people who are never more than a step away from placing a bounty on his boyishly tousled head. With "Star Trek" and now "Star Wars," Abrams is a proven caretaker, hand-holding sensitive nerds through transitional periods with one-of-us tenderness. That regard for nostalgia shows up in spades in "The Force Awakens," and it’s a fealty that manifests itself in many ways, well beyond folding OGs like Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill back into the mix.

"The Force Awakens" introduces audiences to BB-8. (Lucasfilm/Handout Art)

Aware that a heavy hand with CGI is part of what sunk George Lucas’ maligned prequels, Abrams leans back on practical effects for his consequential tentpole, stretching his action across raked-over locations that really do look as though they’ve been broken by decades of violence. Though "The Force Awakens" is set 30 years after the events of "Return of the Jedi," it really doesn’t feel that far removed from that early-’80s trilogy capper. There’s a dusting of Lucas-style screen wipes and referential in-jokes for the old-timers, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, a big part of the original films, is back to distribute intergalactic wisecracks to any man or alien with an outstretched hand.

This deliberate dedication to the past turns out to be tricky. At times, Abrams’ deference to "A New Hope" doesn’t inform his film so much as define it. Sure, it’s what many "Star Wars" freaks want, but the safest path isn’t always the strongest. Many of the biggest plot devices in "The Force Awakens" will seem eerily familiar, and it’s up to the individual fan to decide if this classifies as a display of loyalty or an act of infringement. Such structural quibbles, however, are countered by strong introductory performances from the new faces of the franchise — John Boyega, as conflicted Stormtrooper Finn; Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, a dashing Resistance pilot; Daisy Ridley as Rey, a resourceful metal scrapper from the desert planet Jakku; and the excellent Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, a reedy, seething villain whose deepest motivations may not match the Dark Side’s. 

Coming out Christmas Day

Quentin Tarantino’s "The Hateful Eight" has yet to screen for critics here in Philly, but the 187-minute epic (complete with 12-minute intermission) will debut at five local theaters in the rare 70mm format QT intended — the AMCs in Cherry Hill, Hamilton and Neshaminy; and the United Artists cinemas in South Philly and King of Prussia.

"The Big Short," from Anchorman director (and local native) Adam McKay, has been lauded for its comedic demystification of America’s 2008 financial collapse. While I’m admittedly an idiot when it comes to money, I gleaned no knowledge about how the whole thing went down from McKay’s glib, wordy and tangential treatment. Ryan Gosling, in full-on “Funny Gosling” mode, is both a character and a fourth wall-violating narrator, leading the audience through a series of talky try-hard vignettes that feature fine acting (particularly from Christian Bale and Steve Carell) and minimal clarity. If a flirty Margot Robbie in a bubble bath can’t help me understand what collateralized debt obligation is, I’m not sure anyone can.

Alec Baldwin and Will Smith in "Concussion." (Columbia Pictures/Handout Art)

You know you’ve struck a nerve when you get a Philadelphia audience to gasp — even when they’re gasping at something involving football. Peter Landesman’s "Concussion" accomplished just that. The subject matter is shocking, but there’s something off about the tone of this adaptation of Jeanne Marie Laskas’ book on Dr. Bennet Omalu, the plucky Nigerian-American pathologist who took on the NFL for its pathetic handling of head injuries among athletes. Will Smith, nominated for a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the good doctor, knocks out a resolute performance; the rest of it doesn’t quite keep up, but the medical details are altogether unnerving.

Jennifer Lawrence in "Joy." (20th Century Fox/Handout Art)

Speaking of nervy performances — Jennifer Lawrence has a hell of a showing in "Joy," but that’s pretty much all there is to it. The David O. Russell-fied story of Joy Mangano, the prolific household inventor who blossomed in the early days of QVC, has that all-American sheen to it. Mangano, a downtrodden single mom with the tumultuous family troubles to match her rocky professional life, is incredibly fun to root for, and J. Law wastes no opportunity to steel herself against the forces pushing down on her consummate blue-collar underdog. But everything else in the film, from the supporting cast to the trumped-up conflicts that are resolved as rapidly as they appear, is flimsy by comparison. It can’t help but come off like an excuse for Russell to work with all his favorite actors, with little attention paid to whether or not we actually want to watch.

Currently in theaters

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in "Sisters." (Universal Pictures/Handout Art)

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler fans are going to freak over "Sisters," which features both comedians at peak power level. Fey is Kate, a screw-up beautician who can’t hold down a job; Poehler is younger sibling Maura, a divorced nurse whose rigid Type A tendencies foster predictable friction. When their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest, both awesome) announce they plan to sell their childhood home in Florida, the girls decide to throw one last bash on the premises, inviting a slew of repressed fortysomething friends to recapture their carefree youth. The humor is the opposite of high-brow, but it works thanks to Fey and Poehler’s natural chemistry and dedication to seeing jokes through.

the night before
Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "The Night Before." (Sony Pictures/Handout Art)

Despite its incredible cast, "Krampus" was far from the New Christmas Classic I desperately hoped it would be. The story of the sadistic Germanic demon who focuses his energy on the naughty side of the naughty-or-nice list is simply not silly, campy or bloody enough to make a lasting impact. The clear winner in the holiday movie category this year: "The Night Before," starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie and Seth Rogen as lifelong friends who embark upon a debauched Dec. 24. If you are a generally functioning thirtysomething who occasionally does weird drugs, it’ll totally speak to you. Michael Shannon sleighs slays as Mr. Green, a mystical weed dealer who stands in for all those Christmas Ghosts.

Eddie Redmayne really, really wants another Oscar, if his ambitious performance in "The Danish Girl" is any indication. Tom Hooper’s movie, inspired by the fictionalized history of real-life transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, gives the English actor every opportunity to show off the versatility and physicality that won him a statue for "The Theory of Everything." The film itself, unfortunately, is a bit of a gloss-over, a little too concerned with aesthetics to allow Alicia Vikander and Matthias Schoenaerts to breathe in supporting roles.

If you are a fan of seafaring adventures, Chris Hemsworth and/or cannibalism, see "In the Heart of the Sea," and see it in IMAX. Though the Aussie needs to put in some serious work before another attempt at a Nantucket accent, he’s kinetic as the first mate of the whaling ship Essex, whose real-life plight inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. Ron Howard puts together some truly exhilarating maritime sequences, but most are buttressed by long periods of indecision and inaction.

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in "Macbeth." (Studio Canal/Handout Art)

Stuck taking your pretentious English major cousin to the movies over the holidays? Consider Justin Kurzel’s "Macbeth," a stylized take on The Scottish Play that’s remarkably true to Billy Shakes’ seminal tragedy. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, whom Kurzel also directs in the upcoming video-game adaptation "Assassin’s Creed," are the mad king and his conniving wife, so fixated on gaining and maintaining power that they’ll murder anyone who obstructs their rise. There’s a touch of artery-spurty "Games of Thrones"-style combat breaking up the Olde English proceedings — which can be super-hard to follow at times. (Ask your cousin to translate.)

Have you seen "Creed" or "Spotlight" yet? See "Creed" and "Spotlight."