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Holiday films mix fresh with familiar
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Martin Freeman appears in a scene from "The Hobbit The Battle of the Five Armies."

With the work week shortened by one day for two consecutive weeks, many residents may find time to hit the local cinema to see movies gearing up for Oscar nods or blockbuster status.

Movie reviewer Jeff Marker shares his thoughts about the smattering of films out this month.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Opened Dec. 17: Peter Jackson’s bloated trilogy has taken us there (and there and there and there) and finally back again. Like each of the previous Hobbit movies, “Five Armies” has some great individual scenes, the opening showdown with Smaug among them. But alas, the film fulfills the prophecy spoken years ago, that dividing a young adult novel of modest length into three extremely long movies would one day become a bad idea.

Jackson’s source material is one of the most widely, passionately loved young adult novels in history, and he had already built Tolkien into a behemoth cinematic brand with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Yet here at the end, only the die-hards still care.

Meanwhile, an unevenly written series about a girl with a bow is rewriting box office records and redefining the image of a blockbuster movie hero.

The faithful will likely enjoy “Five Armies,” but it will go down as one of the great squandered opportunities in film history.

Foxcatcher

Dec. 19: Months before anyone had seen Bennett Miller’s low-key drama, Steve Carell and Channing Tatum became awards favorites based on publicity stills alone. Each actor transforms himself physically and takes on a stunningly unexpected character type. Carell and Tatum do merit consideration for awards, as does Mark Ruffalo, whose crucial, perfect performance seems to be going overlooked.

The film as a whole, however, manages to drain most of the pathos out of a deeply tragic true story. Miller’s understated, deliberate style worked in “Capote” and “Moneyball,” but here, when the conflict is highly personal, it makes for a cold, unengaging film.

Annie

Dec. 19: Sony’s “Annie” remake/adaptation appears destined to occupy a particular place in movie history. It will likely perform respectably at the box office, given the healthy but not feverish anticipation among moviegoers. It should become the topic of academic discourse at least for a while, since culture critics are already teasing meaning out of Quvenzhané Wallis’ hair and the movie’s class messages. And it will forever be mentioned as one of the victims of the Big Sony Hack.

Initial reviews, though, have been extremely unkind. It might end up a movie that’s talked about more than enjoyed.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

Dec. 19: The “Night at the Museum” franchise limps to what is hopefully the finish with “Secret of the Tomb,” a movie that offers almost none of the charm and joy of the first two films. The gags aren’t nearly as funny, and there is no sense of discovery, even though the story takes us to a new museum.

Filmmakers use the entire film as one long goodbye to characters they clearly love. If your children feel any attachment toward Larry (Ben Stiller) and his museum friends, I strongly recommend you bring tissues. And prepare yourselves for a few scenes featuring Robin Williams in what will be one of his final roles. That might be the only reason to recommend “Secret of the Tomb,” for the chance to say our own goodbyes. But this is a somber trip to the movies, which is totally uncharacteristic of the franchise.

Selma

Dec. 25: “Selma” is far and away the best film being released around the holidays and one of the best films of the entire year. In fact, its distributor has so much confidence in the film it moved up the release schedule. “Selma” wasn’t supposed to widen to Atlanta and many other cities until January, but Paramount Pictures is pitting it against the Christmas movie crowd because they know what a special film director Ava Duvernay and her cast and crew have delivered.

The film is primarily a biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and at times focuses on intimate moments between Dr. King and his wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), exploring the difficulties of trying to maintain a marriage during the peak years of the civil rights movement. But Duvernay wisely chose to narrow the scope of the story to only the events leading up to and during the march from Selma to Montgomery, while giving nearly equal significance to some of the other major figures of the movement.

“Selma” is an impeccable drama, a history lesson that never feels like a history lesson and an inspiring call to activism.

Like all great period pieces, it’s also as relevant to the time that produced it as the time in which it is set. In 2014, we have endured numerous tragic reminders that racial inequality and hatred still deny many Americans their basic human rights, and witnessed well-intentioned protests devolve into violence. “Selma” reminds us of the sacrifices made to achieve past progress and of the power of peaceful activism to change the future.

Into the Woods

Dec. 25: I guess on a technical level, Walt Disney Pictures’ “Into the Woods” is a success. The music, which can be purchased in soundtrack distributed by Walt Disney Records, is performed well in this Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release.

“Into the Woods” will probably increase interest in “Once Upon A Time,” broadcast on ABC, a subsidiary of the Disney-ABC Television Group, and all other Disney fairy tale content across Walt Disney Company’s many media platforms.

Disney. That’s all I have to say about this one.

The Gambler

Dec. 25: Mark Wahlberg plays Jim, a disillusioned author and literature professor. Jim is also a spoiled rich kid distraught over the death of his grandfather, who seems to be the only family member who genuinely loved him. Jim is also a degenerate gambler.

If that sounds like a confusing character profile, rest assured it is. “The Gambler” definitely has its thrilling, dramatically engaging moments, but it suffers from trying to be too many things. Meanwhile, I just wanted to see more scenes with supporting actors John Goodman and Michael Kenneth Williams.

This one is an enjoyable watch, but go in expecting a temporary diversion rather than a meaningful film.

Unbroken

Dec. 25: Angelina Jolie has said on many occasions that she plans to retire from acting soon. If “Unbroken” is any indication, though, she will continue to impact the film world as a director for many years to come.

This biopic about Olympic runner and World War II prisoner-of-war Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) deftly blends Zamperini’s small-town upbringing, thrilling combat scenes and harrowing prison camp sequences. It hits all of the right notes and avoids jingoism while not shying away from patriotism.

“Unbroken” is difficult in the ways it should be, given its story and real human subjects, and lacks a sense of mystery or suspense, since the film’s own title pretty much gives away the main point. But it is an impressively crafted, daringly acted, inspirational moviegoing experience.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia.

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