The Armstrong Lie (R) The latest documentary from the prolific Alex Gibney (Client 9, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) details Lance Armstrong’s rise to fame and fall from grace. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Book Thief (PG-13) Adapted from Markus Zusak’s acclaimed novel, this drama stars Sophie Nélisse as an illiterate 11-year-old girl who’s sent to live with her uncle and aunt (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) in Nazi Germany. Also with Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, Oliver Stokowski, Levin Liam, and Hildegard Schroedter. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Christmas Candle (PG) The latest feature from EchoLight Studios is this film set in an English village in 1890 where the new preacher (Hans Matheson) runs up against a local belief that every 25 years, an angel bestows a miracle on whoever receives a blessed candle. This is quite a bit better than most Christian films, partly because of the quality of the British cast and partly because the script (based on Max Lucado’s novel) wrestles honestly with questions of holding onto traditions while adapting to a changing world. The big climactic riddle is a big dud, but for Christian entertainment, you could do much worse. Also with Samantha Barks, Lesley Manville, James Hannah, Sylvester McCoy, James Cosmo, Barbara Flynn, and Susan Boyle. (Opens Friday)
Nebraska (R) The latest film by Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways) stars Bruce Dern as an elderly Montana man who takes a road trip to Nebraska with his son (Will Forte), believing that he has won a sweepstakes. Also with June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, and Stacy Keach. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
About Time (R) Richard Curtis used to be funny before he started telling us the meaning of life. Domhnall Gleeson (gawky and charming in his first lead role) stars in this science-fiction comedy as a young man who discovers that the men in his family can travel through time within the confines of their lives. Curtis (Love Actually) gets some good mileage out of the premise when the hero uses his gift to get himself out of awkward social situations. But then he falls in love with an American girl (Rachel McAdams) — it’s always an American girl in Curtis’ films — and the movie turns to mush. The movie winds up telling us to live each day as if it’s our last. Seriously, that’s the big insight. This premise was put to much better use in Groundhog Day. Also with Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, Richard Cordery, Joshua McGuire, Margot Robbie, and Tom Hollander.
All Is Lost (PG-13) There’s a remorseless sort of purity to J.C. Chandor’s drama about a lone, unnamed sailor (Robert Redford) who fights to stay alive after his 40-foot yacht threatens to sink in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Chandor proves his range as a filmmaker after his debut film Margin Call, constructing some bravura technical passages when the boat capsizes and then rights itself in a storm. Redford does yeoman work, too, clambering about the boat with impressive levels of physical fitness and capturing the loneliness that has driven this man onto open water. Yet the movie may be a little too pure for its own good; Chandor insists so heavily on withholding his hero’s backstory that we wind up knowing what happens to him without knowing who he is. I admire this movie greatly. I just don’t like it.
Bad Grandpa (R) Total waste of time if you have an hour and a half to waste. A womanizing 86-year-old Irving Zisman (Johnny Knoxville) finds himself playing the role of “daddy” after his crack-loving daughter (Georgina Cates) unexpectedly unloads his grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll) on him. Desperate to return to his single glory days (his wife mercifully passes away in the opening scene), Grandpa decides to return the boy to his estranged, pot-smoking dad. An awkward road trip ensues as he shamelessly attempts to sleep with any female he comes in contact with, often employing the unwitting kid in his ploys. The two somehow bond over the course of the movie despite any substantive interaction. Bad Grandpa expands a popular MTV Jackass character into a feature length film. The only problem is that it doesn’t expand anything else in the process. Beware: humorous moments occur about as frequently as gas stations on Route 66. Also with Spike Jonze. — Edward Brown
The Best Man Holiday (R) Fourteen years later, Malcolm D. Lee and all nine of the principal actors from The Best Man return for this sequel that finds NFL legend Lance (Morris Chestnut) inviting all his college friends, including hard-up writer buddy Harper (Taye Diggs) to his home for Christmas. There’s a great dance number set to New Edition’s “Can You Stand the Rain,” and Howard steals a bunch of huge laughs as the shameless player in the group. However, the revelation midway through that one of our friends is severely ill winds up dousing the comedy in cheap sentimentality. Too bad, but these actors are fun to watch as they re-connect with one another and with these old characters. Also with Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Regina King, Harold Perrineau, John Michael Higgins, and Eddie Cibrian.
Captain Phillips (PG-13) Tom Hanks’ shining performance as the captain of a real-life cargo ship that’s hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009 is the best thing about this thriller. Director Paul Greengrass is an expert at turning real-life incidents into taut, socially conscious thrillers (Bloody Sunday, United 93), but his documentary-style techniques have become repetitive and impersonal. The film scrupulously observes the pirates at work as closely as it does the captain and his crew, which is laudable but not as enlightening as you’d hope. Hanks blends in seamlessly with the deglamorized setting, never indulging in actorly flourishes even as the standoff’s end leaves him an incoherent wreck. His willingness to recede into this character’s ordinariness shows another dimension to this actor’s greatness. Also with Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat Ali, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, and Catherine Keener.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 (PG) Much like the 2009 original, this animated sequel is imaginative and clever in terms of visuals and utterly forgettable in terms of story. Bill Hader returns as the wacky inventor who goes to work for a fascist Steve Jobs-type tech mogul (voiced by Will Forte) and has to prevent his old food invention from overrunning the world. The movie has funny gags in the background of the frame and a whole bestiary’s worth of animals made out of food that will enthrall the small kids. The bigger kids will notice that the human characters are boring and the attempts at satire off the mark. It’s all yummy, empty calories. Additional voices by Anna Faris, James Caan, Andy Samberg, Benjamin Bratt, Terry Crews, Kristen Schaal, and Neil Patrick Harris.
The Counselor (R) “The truth has no temperature.” Cormac McCarthy makes his screenwriting debut with this thriller, and it’s like he set out to parody his own worst writing. Michael Fassbender plays an El Paso lawyer who turns to high-level drug trafficking as a way out of financial difficulties. Director Ridley Scott drenches everything in sex, drugs, and blood to distract us from the script’s lack of meaningful insight into the U.S.-Mexico drug trade. McCarthy’s self-indulgent dialogue drowns all the actors except for Javier Bardem as a flamboyant, spiky-haired drug kingpin and Brad Pitt as a sleazy, cautious middleman. Very little actually happens in this movie. The atmospherics aren’t worth your time. Also with Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Édgar Ramírez, Toby Kebbell, Goran Visnjic, Natalie Dormer, Rubén Blades, and an uncredited John Leguizamo.
Dallas Buyers Club (R) Matthew McConaughey gives an uncharacteristically ferocious performance in this powerful biopic. He portrays Ron Woodroof, a homophobic electrician and rodeo cowboy who’s diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and winds up smuggling disease-fighting drugs into the country from Mexico and gaining a new perspective when the gays become his customers. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (Café de Flore) takes a no-frills approach to the story, and yet the movie still plays like a scruffy comedy as Ron dons disguises and forms a “buyers club” to get around restrictions. Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto both give terrific supporting performances, but it’s a skeletal McConaughey and his naked desire to live that you’ll remember, goofily grinning and agitating against government interference. Don’t look for local landmarks in this movie; it was shot in New Orleans. Also with Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts, Michael O’Neill, and Griffin Dunne.
Ender’s Game (PG-13) After 28 years of fruitless attempts, Orson Scott Card’s classic science-fiction novel is turned into this terrific-looking but rushed and choppy film starring Asa Butterfield (with the right mix of passion and chill) as a future kid whose prowess at strategy games may save Earth from being wiped out by a hostile alien race. Writer-director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) fumbles the early going, with Ender’s home life and his relations with the other kids in combat training all given the sketchiest of treatment. He does much better with the massive combat sequences, as well as Ender’s dreams (animated by computers as if they’re cut scenes from a video game) and a remarkable late encounter between Ender and the alien queen. Also with Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Moises Arias, Nonso Anozie, and Ben Kingsley.
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.
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.
Thor: The Dark World (PG-13) A bit of a bore, I’m afraid. Chris Hemsworth reprises his role as the Norse god who has to save the entire universe from being cast into darkness by a bunch of elves. Natalie Portman is dead weight in the romantic plotline, and the only dramatic juice in this movie comes from the machinations between Thor and his disgraced brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), whom he frees from prison to help defeat the elves. Director Alan Taylor (TV’s Game of Thrones) conjures up a few clever bits, but mostly this superhero saga is lumbering and graceless. Also with Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jaimie Alexander, Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård, Alice Krige, Chris O’Dowd, and uncredited cameos by Benicio del Toro and Chris Evans.
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.
Kill Your Darlings (R) Daniel Radcliffe stars in this biopic as a teenage Allen Ginsberg, who falls in love with a fellow Columbia student (Dane DeHaan) and is swept up in a murder case. Also with Ben Foster, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, David Cross, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Elizabeth Olsen.