December movie gifts: high tension in outer space, supernatural samurai, and more

Movies & TV - December 6th, 2013

It seems some of the biggest and best films of the year have been saved until last as a great selection of movies are being released on the run up to Christmas. While there’s a noticeable lack of Santa at the cinemas there’s more than enough samurai, socialites and spacemen to keep you entertained.

By Christopher O’Keeffe

47 Ronin—Out Dec. 6

Keanu Reeves in "47 Ronin"

Keanu Reeves in 47 Ronin

The story of the 47 Ronin, a group of samurai warriors in the 18th century who avenged the death of their master by killing the man responsible before committing suicide themselves, is known throughout Japan. The tale has been repeated in books, plays and movies for generations as a distinctly Japanese example of persistence and loyalty. This is the first non-Japanese dramatization and, in time-honored Hollywood tradition, it’s taking more than a few liberties with the source material. A group of samurai are left stranded after their master is killed by an evil warlord, so they seek Kai, a halfbreed and their potential savior. Keanu Reeves plays Kai, a role which shouldn’t be too unfamiliar: it’s got more than a whiff of Neo about it. Where the film really differs from previous versions is its inclusion of fantasy elements, as the warriors battle across the land against hordes of monstrous beasts and deadly sorcery. Its mix of mutants, monsters and martial arts is a blend not far removed from Grecian gore fest 300. 47 Ronin includes a fine cast of Japanese talent including Rinko Kikuchi, last seen on our screens during this summer’s Pacific Rim, as a shapeshifting sorceress and Hiroyuki Sanada, who played The Wolverine’s villainous Shingen. Interestingly, while both of these films were heavily inspired by Japanese culture they both failed to set the Japanese box office alight. Perhaps this one can buck the trend.

The Bling Ring—Out Dec. 14

Emma Watson in "The Bling Ring"

Emma Watson in The Bling Ring

Thanks to her 2003 breakthrough hit Lost in Translation Sofia Coppola will forever have a link to Japan, and the director is currently in favor with the country’s fashion-conscious youth due to her stylish films and chic style. After earning an Academy Award nomination for her previous film Somewhere, Coppola has returned to tell the story of a group of teenagers who rob the homes of celebrities. Based on actual events, The Bling Ring stars young up-and-comers Israel Broussard and Katie Chang as Marc and Rebecca. Marc is the new kid in town who finds a friend in Rebecca. With a little help from the internet, the two of them discover that they can walk into the houses of absent celebrities and take what they want. Emma Watson delivers a star turn as the bad girl of the group, Nicki.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire—Out Dec. 27

Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the follow-up to last year’s The Hunger Games and is the second part of a trilogy. Based on the books by American author Suzanne Collins, the series tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, a young girl living in a future society where, like in Japan’s own Battle Royale, young people are chosen by lottery to compete in a televised death match. The last film ended with Katniss, played by this year’s Academy Award Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence, having survived the competition. Now she must embark on a victory tour but trouble is brewing as protests are breaking out in opposition to the tyrannical ruling powers. The film also stars Woody Harrelson as mentor Haymitch, and Donald Sutherland as President Snow.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs—Out Dec. 27

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

It’s a good time for animation with Pixar having set the template for exciting, funny, and often moving movies that appeal to adults as much as the youngsters. Other companies have been mimicking the Pixar formula with mixed success and one film that really stood out from the rest was the wacky and inventive Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. When inventor Flint makes a machine that causes food to rain from the sky it’s not long before disaster strikes and a huge food storm approaches. Flint weathered the storm and now he’s back for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. This time the machine is making living food beasts—think Tacodiles, Shrimapanzees and Mosquitoast—and Flint and his friends must get back into action to save the day.

Gravity—Out Dec. 13

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón first came to attention with the road movie Y tu mamá también before cementing his reputation with a stab at a major franchise on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the excellent science fiction drama Children of Men. With his latest, Gravity, the director has moved into the upper tier of best working directors in the world. The film is an incredible cinematic experience, which has to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, an astronaut on her first mission accompanied by veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). While making repairs outside their craft the pair are hit by a cloud of space debris, leaving Ryan floating helplessly through space. The doctor must make her way back to safety in the face of insurmountable odds in an unforgiving environment where any mistake will result in death. The action is heart-stoppingly intense but the film never loses sight of the very human protagonist in this extraordinary work. A must see.

Blancanieves—Out Dec. 7

Inma Cuesta in Blancanieves

Inma Cuesta in Blancanieves

A few years ago the idea of going to see a black-and-white silent film would have been unthinkable for many cinemagoers; however, the surprise Academy Award success of 2011’s The Artist changed all that. Audiences found an appreciation for the classic cinema style and it broadened many people’s ideas about what can constitute an entertaining film. Blancanieves is a silent movie that takes the story of Snow White and places it in 1920s Spain and the world of the bullfighter. After the rich and famous Antonio Villalta is paralyzed during a performance and his wife dies during childbirth, the baby is sent away and the broken Antonio marries his nurse. The baby, young Carmen, is soon forced to return and the new stepmother, wickedly portrayed by Pan’s Labyrinth’s Maribel Verdú, turns out to be terribly cruel. Young Carmen finds peace for a time with a traveling group of bullfighting dwarfs before confronting her past. Spanish director Pablo Berger’s film has already found success abroad with its emotional and humorous mix of fantasy and drama.