Santa arrived early for film fans. No fewer than four big titles arrive in theaters this weekend in the Twin Cities (five if you’d rather go Walking with Dinosaurs), and each one of them probably counts as a “must see” in their own way. Here are brief reviews of all four.

Anchorman 2

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Local news teams have been assembling for well over a year now jn anticipation of the followup to arguably Will Ferrell’s only bona fide cult sensation, 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Well, I take that back. There are major pockets of love out there for Step Brothers, but that one just barely cracked $100 million, whereas somehow Anchorman never passed that mark, instead building up its legendary status in ancillary markets. Much like happened with fellow ex-SNL’er Mike Myers’ Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues frequently comes off as more of a victory lap than a meaningful continuation of the initial joke, with a number of callbacks to gags that were amusingly off-center the first time around. (It’s no major spoiler to reveal that Burgundy’s infamous jazz flute skills get another workout here.) But beyond the moments of random comic abandon, there is a cunning satirical idea at the center. In The Legend Continues, which moves the action up to 1980, Burgundy gets recruited to host the graveyard shift on a new, experimental 24-hour cable news network along with his stalwart Channel 4 cohorts. (That’s the other Channel 4, to be clear.) They decide that there’s no reason news has to be the things people should know but rather what they want to hear, and thus give birth to the sort of audience-targeted, op-ed dominated infotainment most people would argue has become our current news cycle, dominated by car chases, rampant patriotism, wall-to-wall live shots during hurricanes. (It’s sort of amusing to consider the possibility that the main reason local news outlets are so excited over this sequel is because it replaces them as the object of ridicule.) The flick is often as amusing and random as its predecessor, not to mention reasonably wry about becoming exactly what it’s skewering — dumbness attracting dumb masses seeking dumbness in the moment — but it loses so much steam as it goes on you’d swear the plot was organized according to the inverted pyramid.

American Hustle

Anointed as the best picture of the year by the New York Film Critics’ Circle, I only wish I could concur on American Hustle. But despite my heavy reservations about the whole enterprise, I’m sort of excited to catch it again. That’s because (and this will probably register a lot more strongly once everyone has a chance to compare and contrast it with The Wolf of Wall Street next week) director David O. Russell’s take on very familiar territory marks it as one of the most amusingly table-turning variations on the Scorsese template. In other words, this movie about boys and the boy games they play belongs decisively to the women. That’s right, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence absolutely push aside the likes of Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner, Bradley Cooper, Louis C.K., and Robert De Niro. And they don’t even break a sweat. The script takes a cue from ABSCAM, as small-time crooks Bale and Adams get wrapped up in the shenanigans of federal investigators bent on landing the biggest enchiladas of them all: corrupt politicians. It’s all a very familiar lap around the classic “who’s zooming who?” caper blueprint, and the script is at turns obvious and shaggy: “Get it, man? It’s like the whole system is one big combover, and we’re all just the kinky chest shavings propping up the long strands!” But the overall effect is frequently kinda fun, especially whenever Adams’ slyly intelligent machinations or J.Law’s effervescently dim broad stylings command attention. Which they always do.

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Inside Llewyn Davis

The first time I watched this ode to an unlovable loser toiling away through the Greenwich Village folk rock scene of the early ‘60s, I consigned it to the second tier of the Coen brothers’ canon. The second time I watched it (within a week of the first viewing, mind you), the beauty of its construction and the gravity of its emotional tone were obvious, and what had upon first blush seemed a less compelling variation on A Serious Man’s Book of Job antics revealed itself as an entirely different sort of victim portrait. Whereas that 2009 masterpiece, with it’s brilliantly mordant pallor (“Just look at that parking lot!”), portrayed eternal suffering as an external condition inflicted upon those who believe themselves to be blameless, Inside Llewyn Davis works from the inside out to convey the brutally cyclical nature of depression. This is no more a film about folk rock as it is a film about robot wars. What it is is a road trip through a very specific dark night of the soul … which becomes literal when Oscar Isaac’s prickly Llewyn Davis actually takes to the highway for a last-ditch audition in Chicago. Populated with a number of peripheral characters — none of whom offer any comfort to Llewyn in the slightest — and articulated through T. Bone Burnett’s pitch-perfect song score, the Coens’ latest film confirms there aren’t many other directors out there who can more convincingly lay claim to the title of “America’s best living auteurs,” and they even still appear to be on the upswing. It’s a thrilling addition to an already crowded roster of great movies.

Saving Mr. Banks

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Well this is just depressing. I was all ready to call Escape from Tomorrow the worst movie of the year connected to the Disney brand name, but then along came this self-righteous piece of shrill image maintenance. Emma Thompson stars as haughty British author P.L. Travers, who is invited (after a two-decade standoff) to come to Los Angeles and join Tom Hanks’ Uncle Walt as he attempts to bring her beloved Mary Poppins to the big screen. She is fiercely protective of her characters and gives up absolutely no ground, promising to refuse the rights to her intellectual property if Disney doesn’t adhere to her strict (well, as it turns out, impossible) series of demands — no songs, no animation, no fantasy, no nonsense. The battle of wills between the two could’ve made for a reasonably compelling series of dramatic two-handers, but the entire scenario is put right through the very same Disneyfication process Travers herself allegedly fought tooth and nail. Turns out, Travers’ creation is a thinly veiled exorcism for her own troubled past as the disenchanted child of an alcoholic father. The wobbly flashbacks connecting each crisis at Disney Studios to some embarrassment suffered by Colin Farrell’s patriarch a half-century prior are annoying enough, but what really torpedoes the film are the moments of forced whimsey inflicted upon poor Thompson’s Travers. No matter how hard she fights, even she has to learn that Disney owns everyone’s imagination.

Eric Henderson