Free Birds (PG) Why did they even bother? This animated movie is about a turkey named Reggie (voiced by Owen Wilson) who’s recruited into a mission by a brawny turkey named Jake (voiced by Woody Harrelson) to travel back in time and remove turkeys from the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621. That’s the plot of the last 60 minutes; the first half-hour is just so much filler, with Reggie trying to get his stupid fellow turkeys to realize that they’re about to be dinner. Both the turkeys and the humans hunting them are a dull lot, and there isn’t a single memorable joke in the entire film, despite the comic talent brought to bear here. The movie is just silly. Reserve your money and rent Chicken Run on DVD instead. Additional voices by Amy Poehler, George Takei, Colm Meaney, Dan Fogler, Jimmy Hayward, and Keith David.
Gravity (PG-13) The greatest 3D movie ever made. Alfonso Cuarón’s unremittingly intense space thriller stars Sandra Bullock as a novice astronaut who is caught outside the shuttle in a high-velocity storm of space debris and stranded in the blackness of space. The film is essentially a series of long takes, and Cuarón’s shooting of them in a simulated zero-gravity environment is an astounding technical feat. Yet the long takes also give us no chance to catch our breath; they turn this brief 90-minute film into a singularly harrowing experience, with our heroine narrowly escaping death from completely unforeseen yet logical dangers. Bullock rides over the script’s infelicities and gives this film a human center, helping to turn this movie into an exhilarating and emotionally draining ride. Also with George Clooney.
I’m in Love With a Church Girl (PG) Ja Rule stars as a retired drug kingpin whose new girlfriend (Adrienne Bailon) leads him to God. Also with Michael Madsen, Stephen Baldwin, T-Bone, Galley Molina, and Vincent Pastore.
Instructions Not Included (PG-13) Eugenio Derbez is a terrific comic actor, but his work as the director and co-writer of this soppy Spanish-language comedy yields much less happy results. He stars as an Acapulco playboy who’s forced to settle down after his American hookup (Jessica Lindsey) literally abandons their baby on his doorstep. The movie comes up with some sly satire on the movie business after our hero gets a job as a Hollywood stuntman, but when the child’s mother re-enters the picture and tries to claim custody of the now-7-year-old girl (Loreto Peralta), the proceedings become intolerably weepy. Derbez gives a fine performance despite his own self-inflicted script; he needs to stay in front of the camera. Also with Daniel Raymont, Alessandra Rosaldo, Sammy Pérez, Agustín Bernal, and Hugo Stiglitz.
Last Vegas (PG-13) This mostly pleasant comedy stars Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline as three seniors who gather in Vegas to throw a bachelor party for their buddy (Michael Douglas) before his wedding. The movie runs on the easy rapport among the four veteran actors, plus a great-looking Mary Steenburgen as a lounge singer who tags along on the guys’ misadventures. Some of the plotlines are wearisomely predictable (like Kline’s character being given a free pass by his wife to cheat while he’s in Vegas), but at least no one dies or has so much as a health scare and both Kline and Morgan Freeman score big laughs (check the scene when Freeman gets drunk on Red Bull vodkas). Also with Jerry Ferrara, Romany Malco, Roger Bart, Michael Ealy, Bre Blair, Joanna Gleason, and 50 Cent.
Man of Tai Chi (PG-13) In his directing debut, Keanu Reeves tries to show off t’ai chi into an ass-kicking fighting style. It’s not a good movie, but as a martial-arts demonstration, it’s quite persuasive. Tiger Hu Chen plays a t’ai chi disciple who’s drawn into an underground fight club by an evil business mogul (Reeves). The novice director films the fight sequences fluidly and grasps the importance of making the scenes distinct from one another. Reeves can’t do much about the woeful script, and his own performance is disastrous, though his presence was probably necessary to get the film made. The performer who comes out of here shining is the liquid, lithe Chen, who busts out astonishing moves and captures his character’s core of simmering anger. Also with Karen Mok, Qing Ye, Helene Leclerc, Yu Hai, Yoo Sung-jun, Simon Yam, and Iko Uwais.
Nosotros los Nobles (PG-13) Gonzalo Vega stars in this Spanish-language comedy as a rich man who cuts off his spoiled adult children (Juan Pablo Gil, Luis Gerardo Méndez, and Karla Souza) so they’ll get jobs. Also with Ianis Guerrero and Carlos Gascón.
Prisoners (R) The pieces fit together just a little too neatly in this war-on-terror allegory that stars Hugh Jackman as a dad who reacts to the disappearance of his daughter and another girl by kidnapping and torturing the neighborhood’s creepy mentally retarded guy (Paul Dano), convinced that he knows where the girls are. Director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) is scrupulous about the ethical questions raised, and the cast is very good, including Jake Gyllenhaal as seemingly the only cop in this mid-sized Pennsylvania city. Yet there isn’t enough background on the Jackman character, and Villeneuve can’t quite disguise the whiff of exploitation about this project. Also with Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, David Dastmalchian, Wayne Duvall, and Len Cariou.
Runner Runner (R) Justin Timberlake’s slick, unmemorable performance headlines this slick, unmemorable thriller about a Princeton math grad student who takes a job with a shady online poker mogul (Ben Affleck) in Costa Rica. Screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Rounders) know their stuff when it comes to gambling, but the story is boilerplate and Affleck seems to be the only actor having any fun. Timberlake flashes his charisma in a scene at a casino table when he goads an obnoxious dice shooter into crapping out, but that’s only once and only for a few minutes. Mostly, this movie’s a bore. Also with Gemma Arterton, Anthony Mackie, Oliver Cooper, Michael Esper, Christian George, Yul Vazquez, Sam Palladio, Bob Gunton, and John Heard.
Rush (R) Ron Howard’s blazing film dramatizes the real-life 1970s Formula One rivalry between the flamboyant, hard-living, thrill-seeking Englishman James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and the brusque, sour-faced, businesslike Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl). The two actors do terrific work as enemies who gradually gain respect for each other, with Hemsworth showing the burning ambition behind Hunt’s playboy façade and Brühl making Lauda’s humorless arrogance into something entertaining. The movie features crackling dialogue by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) and a uniquely thrilling scene at the Italian Grand Prix when fans swarm the track to hail Lauda’s courage in coming back from crippling injuries. This intelligent piece of adult fare just happens to be an exhilarating sports movie, too. Also with Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Pierfrancesco Favino, David Calder, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Alistair Petrie, and Natalie Dormer.
Seasons of Gray (PG-13) The first feature put out by Rick Santorum’s EchoLight Studios is this modest drama with much to be modest about. A modern-day update of the biblical story of Joseph and his coat of many colors, this stars Andrew Cheney as a man who’s forced off his family ranch by his brothers, starts his life fresh in Dallas, and is framed for a crime that he’s innocent of. The hero’s fortunes zigzag wildly, but somehow that never translates to any energy in the hands of director Paul Stehlik and his screenwriter and wife Sarah Stehlik. The movie’s message of Christian forgiveness winds up buried in the featurelessness of the drama. Also with Akron Watson, Megan Parker, Jonathan Brooks, Mark Walters, Spencer Harlan, Sean Brison, Al Garrett, Roderick Lang, Marcus Estell, and Kirk Sisco.
12 Years a Slave (R) Even more significant than Schindler’s List. Steve McQueen’s epic tells the story of Solomon Northup, a real-life free black New Yorker who was abducted in 1841 and forced to work as a slave on a Louisiana plantation. McQueen directs this with his typical austerity and rigor and pulls off an extraordinarily powerful long take in which Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is strung up from a tree branch and suspended on his tiptoes while the other slaves go about their work, afraid to offer help. Screenwriter John Ridley draws a vivid, panoramic view of all the twisted human specimens that the slave economy produces, and McQueen and his actors flesh them out beautifully, with a terrifying Michael Fassbender as a sadistic slavemaster and Ejiofor giving the performance of his career. This wrenching film is crucial to understanding America’s heritage. Also with Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Adepero Oduye, Garret Dillahunt, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, and Quvenzhané Wallis.
Blue Is the Warmest Color (NC-17) The controversial top-prize winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival is Abdellatif Kechiche’s film about a 15-year-old French girl (Adèle Exarchopoulos) who has a torrid affair with an older woman (Léa Seydoux). Also with Salim Kechiouche, Aurélien Recoing, Catherine Salée, and Alma Jodorowsky.
Capital (R) This French corporate thriller directed by Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing) stars Gad Elmaleh as a new CEO who tries to prevent his investment bank from being taken over by an American firm. Also with Gabriel Byrne, Natacha Régnier, Liya Kebede, Céline Sallette, and Hippolyte Girardot.
Diana (PG-13) Naomi Watts stars in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s biography of Princess Diana, as the former royal turns toward human rights activism. Also with Naveen Andrews, Douglas Hodge, Geraldine James, Cas Anvar, Art Malik, and Juliet Stevenson.
Parkland (PG-13) Peter Landesman writes and directs this drama set at Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital in the immediate aftermath of president John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Starring Zac Efron, Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton, Marcia Gay Harden, James Badge Dale, Tom Welling, Colin Hanks, Jackie Earle Haley, Ron Livingston, Rory Cochrane, Bitsie Tulloch, Gil Bellows, David Harbour, and Jacki Weaver.