The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
(Warner Bros.)
If “An Unexpected Journey” felt like nearly three hours’ worth of throat clearing and beard stroking, the saga gets fully under way at last in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the similarly massive but far more purposeful second chapter in Peter Jackson’s latest Tolkien enterprise. Actually shorter than the first film by nine minutes, this robust, action-packed adventure benefits from a headier sense of forward momentum and a steady stream of 3D-enhanced thrills — culminating in a lengthy confrontation with a fire-breathing, scenery-chewing dragon — even as our heroes’ quest splits into three strands that are left dangling in classic middle-film fashion. Jackson’s gargantuan undertaking can still feel like completist overkill at times, but that won’t keep the Middle-earth enthusiasts who pushed the first “Hobbit” film past the $1 billion mark worldwide from doing the same with this Dec. 13 release, which should see Warners’ and MGM’s coffers overflow like Erebor’s.
— Justin Chang
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“In terms of my own work, if you get a feeling from something, it’s probably working. You stay away from cerebral, and when you experience it, if it feels like something, then it’s probably working in the way that you intended. You don’t want to be thinking about what this storyteller is doing, or what these cuts are doing.”

American Hustle
You’ve seen smoother, more elegant con movies than “American Hustle,” but probably none quite so big-hearted or so rudely, insistently entertaining. As directed by that master of modern farce, David O. Russell, this sprawling fictionalized account of the notoriousAbscam case is less a dramatic FBI procedural than a human comedy writ large, ringing a series of screwball variations on themes of duplicity and paranoia against a dazzling ’70s backdrop. Deliriously funny and brilliantly acted by a cast of Russell returnees, the film is also overlong, undisciplined and absent the sort of emotional payoff that made “Silver Linings Playbook” so satisfying, which could affect its otherwise solid theatrical prospects. Still, this star-studded Sony prestige release is a near-continual pleasure to spend 135 minutes with, repeatedly hitting that comic sweet spot where corruption and buffoonery collide.
— Justin Chang
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<p>Oscar voters aren’t immune to the pleasures of tales that extoll the virtues and/or magic of the movies, as recent best pic winners “Argo” and “The Artist” loudly attest. Which means John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks” starts its place in the race with that money in the bank. On one level a celebration of Walt Disney’s genius for turning wonderful family entertainments into universal blockbusters with lots of ancillary rights, the real gold here is Emma Thompson’s turn as novelist P.L. Travers, whose heart-wrenching memories of the loving but doomed father inspired the pic’s titular character and gave emotional weight to her timeless classic, “Mary Poppins.” Screenplay consideration for Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith will be significant. — Steven Gaydos</p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
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Saving Mr. Banks
Somewhere, Uncle Walt is smiling. The Mouse House impresario’s protracted courtship of novelist P.L. Travers to secure the film rights to her “Mary Poppins” has all the makings of an irresistible backstage tale, and it’s been brought to the screen with a surplus of old-fashioned Disney showmanship in “Saving Mr. Banks.” Thick with affection for Hollywood’s most literal “dream factory” and wry in its depiction of the studio filmmaking process, director John Lee Hancock’s “Sunset Blvd.” lite (which opens Dec. 13 after London and AFI festival berths) should earn far more than tuppence from holiday audiences — and from awards voters who can scarcely resist this sort of mash note to the magic of movies (e.g., “Argo,” “The Artist”).
— Scott Foundas
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The Crash Reel
(Phase 4 Films)
By turns pulse-quickening and contemplative, “The Crash Reel” is a thoroughly winning docu portrait of former pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce, whose 2009 accident while training for the Winter Olympics left him with a traumatic brain injury — and a feverish desire to return to the slopes ASAP. Aided by excellent footage of half-pipe action and the intimate participation of Pearce’s protective family, director Lucy Walker (“Waste Land”) pulls off a spectacular feat of her own, balancing the needs of extreme sports vid and cautionary tale.

— Rob Nelson
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(Pantelion Films)
An ingeniously simple setup is cunningly exploited for maximum suspense in “Hours,” a slow-building, consistently engrossing drama set during and immediately after the devastation wrought on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Making a most impressive debut as feature helmer, scripter Eric Heisserer graduates from savvy genre fare (“Final Destination 5”) to more mainstream moviemaking with this intense tale of a father’s desperate efforts to keep his prematurely born daughter alive in a hospital abandoned after power is knocked out by flooding. This indie pic could perform profitably in theatrical runs before storming into homescreen platforms.
—  Joe Leydon
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Here Comes the Devil
(Magnet Releasing)
Intriguing if ultimately less than satisfying, horror-meller “Here Comes the Devil” takes a low-key, low-graphic-content approach to demonic possession. Tale of a middle-class couple whose two children start acting very strangely after a family trip promises much in an ominously atmospheric package that nods to 1970s genre stylings. But the payoff is on the meh side; this is one of those all-buildup stories in which it feels like the really interesting things will happen after the final fade. Writer-director Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s fan following will bring offshore ancillary sales, with theatrical exposure unlikely beyond Spanish-speaking markets.— Dennis Harvey
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