New Films This Holiday Season

Nov 27, 2013

Thanksgiving is the traditional start of the holiday movie season, and Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr tells Here & Now’s Robin Young that there are some good films to finish out what’s been a strong year at the movies.

“I think we’re gonna end up looking at what we’ve seen this year and be quite amazed at the depth and power and creativity of some of the films that have come out,” says Burr. He shares some of his favorites.

Five Of Ty Burr’s Film Picks

  1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  2. Dallas Buyer’s Club
  3. Nebraska
  4. Philomena
  5. Inside Llewyn Davis


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On your mark, get set, go to the movies. Yes, right up there with food, family, shopping and hopefully gratitude. This time of year marks the kickoff to the holiday movie season. Starting things off, "Catching Fire," the second installment of "The Hunger Games" series, which earned $158 million last week and the best November opening ever.

Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss Everdeen, whose victory at the Hunger Games has made her a threat to the ruling elite at the Capitol and a symbol of hope to potential rebels. In this scene, Katniss tries to persuade her childhood friend, Gale, played by Liam Hemsworth, to join her in running away.

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Katniss Everdeen) We have to go, Gale, before they kill us. They will kill us.

LIAM HEMSWORTH: (As Gale Hawthorne) What about the other families, huh? The ones who stay, what happens to them? People are looking to you, Katniss.

LAWRENCE: (As Katniss Everdeen) I don't want anyone looking to me. I can't help them.

YOUNG: I can't wait to see it. And as Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr points out, "Catching Fire" is but one of a cornucopia of good films coming out this holiday season. He joins us to talk about them. And just start with "Catching Fire." Did you like it?

TY BURR: Unexpectedly, I really did. We were just talking before we sat down about how sometimes second films in a series can end up being the best of the bunch, you know, the classic "Empire Strikes Back" rule. I thought the first "Hunger Games" was an adequate adaptation of a very good young adult novel series. But the second one is actually - is - it's - has a new director, whose name is Frank Lawrence, no relation to Jennifer Lawrence, the star. And it's a very powerful, surprisingly bleak future dystopian tale of living under this dictatorship.

I know people who were leery of the first film, who didn't see it, that tended to be parents, because they thought it glorified kids killing kids.

YOUNG: Well, there was that.

BURR: But which actually was not what the film or story is about. It's...

YOUNG: But it did happen. Yeah.

BURR: It does happen, but they're forced to. It's not - it's something that's not glorified or celebrated in the story, and even less so here. This is a very powerful, bleak, dark tale of a future dictatorship that reflects, in a surprisingly sharp way, on some of the amusements by which we divert ourselves today - reality TV and the like.

Stanley Tucci plays this sort of Ryan Seacrest character times 10 in a way that's both hilarious and rather scary.

YOUNG: Well, so happy Thanksgiving to you.

BURR: Yeah.


YOUNG: But that's just one of the movies. It's, just overall, a good holiday season?

BURR: A surprisingly good holiday season, capping off a surprisingly good year at the movies. I think we're going to end up looking at what we've seen this year and be quite amazed at the depth and power and creativity of some of the films that have come out. One of the surprises, in fact, has been the ongoing rehabilitation of Matthew McCnoughey's career. If you've been paying attention to him over the last couple of years, you know he's been moving away from chick flicks as capably as he can. And he's seemed to have been building towards something big, and "Dallas Buyers Club" is probably it.

He play Ron Woodroof, a real-life HIV patient in the late '80s who set up a buyer's club for FDA unapproved medicines that were hard to come by in this country. And in this clip from the movie, he's being interrogated by officials about his patient list.


CARL PALMER: (As FDA Customs Agent) These your patients?

MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Ron Woodroof) Yes, sir.

PALMER: (As FDA Customs Agent) They're also the names of players in the Dallas Cowboys.

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Ron Woodroof) That's a hell of a coincidence, isn't it?

PALMER: (As FDA Customs Agent) It is a little ridiculous.

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Ron Woodroof) Well, you said it.

PALMER: (As FDA Customs Agent) Can you prove these are you patients?

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Ron Woodroof) Can you prove they're not?

YOUNG: And you say?


BURR: I say, well, hell, Matthew. It's about time you showed us what you could do. I mean, on one level, this is, you know, the classic, hey, look, I'm a great actor. It could be an Oscar kind of role, where he lost 50 pounds to play the role. But he's also just gets so much into this part, and it dovetails with what we know and like about McConaughey. You know, he's a Texas boy. So is the character. He's got rough edges. So does the character. He imbues it with a very particular kind of individuality that makes you really like the character, even when he's doing stuff that's not likeable. It's a great performance.

YOUNG: OK. So we're writing that one down. What about "Nebraska"? What do you think of that one?

BURR: That's another one with some surprising performances in it. It's from Alexander Payne, the director who gave us "Sideways" and "About Schmidt." And in a way, it's reminiscent of "About Schmidt" in that it's about an older character - played by Bruce Dern, a very wonderful Bruce Dern - who goes on a road trip with his son - played by Will Forte, the former "Saturday Night Live" comedian, who gives a really effective, dramatic performance.


WILL FORTE: (As David Grant) Did you ever talk about having kids and how many you wanted and stuff like that?

BRUCE DERN: (As Woody Grant) Nope.

FORTE: (As David Grant) Then why did you have us?

DERN: (As Woody Grant) Because I like to screw, and your mother's a Catholic. So you figure it out.

FORTE: (As David Grant) So you and mom never actually talked about whether you wanted kids or not?

DERN: (As Woody Grant) Well, we figured if we kept on screwing, we'd end up with a couple of you.


BURR: Typical Alexander Payne: very salty and against the grain, but also very human and very funny.

YOUNG: OK. So we got two there, "Nebraska," "Dallas Buyers Club" and, of course, "Catching Fire." Another road trip film, though, is "Philomena," in a way.

BURR: Oh, yeah. And big surprise, Judi Dench is in it, and also gives a great performance. But we've come to expect that of her.

YOUNG: Well, I would go see her, you know, as they say, open an envelope. This is Dame Judi Dench as Philomena, who goes on a search for the son she was forced to give up for adoption decades ago. So, again, a potentially powerful topic there. Steve Coogan wrote the screenplay. He co-stars as a journalist who accompanies her on this road trip, this journey to find the child she's given up for adoption. A little oil and water here, so to speak. Let's listen.


STEVE COOGAN: (As Martin Sixsmith) So, Philomena, how are you?

JUDI DENCH: (As Philomena) I'm all right. I had a hip replacement last year, Martin.

COOGAN: (As Martin Sixsmith) Right.

DENCH: (As Philomena) It's much better than the old one I had before. And it's titanium, so it won't rust.

COOGAN: (As Martin Sixsmith) Oh, it's a good job. Otherwise, I'd have to oil you, like the Tin Man.

DENCH: (As Philomena) Is that right?

COOGAN: (As Martin Sixsmith) No, I mean, you know, like the "Wizard of Oz."

ANNA MAXWELL MARTIN: (As Jane) He's just joking, Mom.

YOUNG: So, again, we love her. But did you love the movie?

BURR: I really like the movie. The twin surprises of "Philomena" are, A, that Steve Coogan, who co-produced, gives a very effective, dramatic performance as kind of a snob journalist who comes off his pedestal a bit. We're used to seeing him as a comedian. But the interesting thing is that Judi Dench - we're used to seeing her play these larger-than-life figures who are damaged in operatic ways, or just make huge entrances. And here, she's playing a normal person and, in fact, a reticent woman who's not exactly as intellectual as the Steve Coogan character, but, in many ways, is more honest about her own feelings and is more true to herself. It's a tremendously touching performance in a movie that you keep expecting to turn sentimental and gooey on you, and yet it always manages to tack at the right time and be tremendously affecting.

YOUNG: OK. So "Philomena," definitely on my list. It's on Ty Burr's. And another movie that's on a lot of people's lists already, because the soundtrack is getting buzz, is "Inside Llewyn Davis." This is starring Oscar Isaac as a would-be folk singer. It's directed by the Coen brothers. T-Bone Burnett produces this terrific music, this - it's a look at the folk world. Ty, your thoughts.

BURR: Well, in a way, this is sort of a fusion of a couple of the Coen brothers' enduring concerns. It has T-Bone Burnett providing this impeccable soundtrack that samples a particular time and place, in this case, the folk boom of the early 1960s that gave us Bob Dylan, among many another people. The movie itself is the Coens giving us yet another kind of unlikeable, modern-day Job. He's rather self-obsessed in ways that the Coens delight in visiting comeuppance upon.

And there are some very good and surprising actors who sort of bounce off Isaac in the film, including Justin Timberlake as a squeaky clean folkie, Carey Mulligan as a woman in Isaac's life, and John Goodman, who seems to be in every Coen brothers movie, and is as delightful as ever.

YOUNG: Well, again, that's all some people need to hear: John Goodman, movie. I'm going. Ty Burr, we'll leave everyone with a little of the music from "Inside Llewyn Davis," Oscar Isaac performing "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me." Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr, thanks as always.

BURR: Thank you, Robin.


OSCAR ISAAC: (Singing) Hang me, oh, hang me, and I'll be dead and gone. I wouldn't mind the hangin', but the layin' in the grave so long. Poor boy, been all around this world.


Robin, you just gave me an idea when you mentioned John Goodman. I think it's time for a watch of "The Big Lebowski" this weekend.


YOUNG: Yes. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.