August: Osage County (R) Meryl Streep stars in this adaptation of Tracy Letts’ acclaimed play as a dying Oklahoma matriarch who gathers her family together after the suicide of her husband (Sam Shepard). Also with Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Misty Upham, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, and Benedict Cumberbatch. (Opens Friday)
Cold Comes the Night (R) Bryan Cranston stars in this thriller as a legally blind criminal who takes a motel owner (Alice Eve) hostage to get his money back from a crooked cop. Also with Logan Marshall-Green, Ursula Parker, Leo Fitzpatrick, and Erin Cummings. (Opens Friday at AMC Grapevine Mills)
Dumbbells (NR) Jay Mohr stars in this comedy as a former basketball star trying to rehab a knee injury at a rundown gym. Also with Mircea Monroe, Jaleel White, Taylor Cole, Andy Milonakis, Tom Arnold, and Carl Reiner. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Inside Llewyn Davis (R) The Coen brothers’ latest film stars Oscar Isaac as a struggling folk singer in New York in the early 1960s. Also with Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Garrett Hedlund, Alex Karpovsky, F. Murray Abraham, and John Goodman. (Opens Friday)
The Legend of Hercules (PG-13) Kellan Lutz stars as the legendary Greek strongman. Also with Gaia Weiss, Scott Adkins, Roxanne McKee, Luke Newberry, Kenneth Cranham, Johnathon Schaech, and Rade Serbedzija. (Opens Friday)
The Saratov Approach (PG-13) Garrett Batty’s thriller stars Corbin Allred and Maclain Nelson in the true story of two Mormon missionaries kidnapped and held for ransom in Russia. Also with Alex Veadov, Nikita Bogolyubov, Shawn Carter, Rocky Myers, and Bart Johnson. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Truth About Emanuel (PG-13) Kaya Scodelario is so much better than this incredibly silly psychological thriller that she’s stuck in. The willowy British beauty portrays a mentally troubled 17-year-old girl who becomes obsessed with the single mother (Jessica Biel, deglammed to make the star look gorgeous by comparison) who moves in next door, even after the mom proves to have a giant screw loose in her head. Scodelario plays a sarcastic American teenager quite well, but the revelation about the mom’s sickness is a ghoulish development that writer-director Francesca Gregorini just wastes. This could have been so much better with a filmmaker more willing to take a plunge. Also with Alfred Molina, Jimmi Simpson, Aneurin Bernard, Sam Jaeger, and Frances O’Connor. (Opens Friday at AMC Grapevine Mills)
American Hustle (R) David O. Russell’s chaotic, marvelously entertaining caper film lurches and veers out of control and features some of the best acting you’ll see all year. Christian Bale and Amy Adams portray 1970s con artists who are busted by a smarmy, fast-talking FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) and forced to help him catch other crooks. Cooper slips easily into his character’s growing megalomania, and Jennifer Lawrence is a comic whirlwind as Bale’s volatile, angry wife, but Adams comes off the best here, lighting up the movie with her sexuality. Russell captures the desperation of these people struggling to get ahead or get out of trouble, and underneath the luscious surfaces and ridiculously awesome costumes, he gives the movie an edge of fear and paranoia. Also with Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Peña, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Röhm, Paul Herman, Saïd Taghmaoui, and an uncredited Robert De Niro.
Anchorman: The Legend Continues (PG-13) This sequel to the 2004 comedy hit can’t match the original, but it delivers lots of big laughs anyway. Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, and Steve Carell reunite as the San Diego news team in the 1980s who join a nascent 24-hour cable news network. The movie gets in some satisfying digs at slanted partisan news coverage and wealthy media moguls, and the crew (especially Carell) generate some hugely funny lines. The movie bogs down near the end when it feels the need to call back to all the original’s most famous gags. Still, the musical number alone, with Ron singing a tender ballad to a baby shark, is worth the price of admission. Also with Christina Applegate, Kristen Wiig, Dylan Baker, Meagan Good, Josh Lawson, James Marsden, Fred Willard, Greg Kinnear, and uncredited cameos by Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Liam Neeson, Kirsten Dunst, Marion Cotillard, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen, Kanye West, Vince Vaughn, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey.
The Book Thief (PG-13) Markus Zusak’s Holocaust novel deserved a film adaptation in keeping with its weird, unorthodox, postmodern spirit instead of this hopelessly square and unimaginative drama. Sophie Nélisse stars as an illiterate 11-year-old girl who’s sent to live with foster parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) in Stuttgart during World War II and passes the time by stealing books in hopes of learning to read. The supporting cast is only fair, and the French-Canadian Nélisse (Monsieur Lazhar) is stretched beyond her capabilities. Still, it’s director Brian Percival (TV’s Downton Abbey) and his relentlessly conventional treatment who deserves the most blame for this film failing its source so definitively. Also with Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, Oliver Stokowski, Levin Liam, and Hildegard Schroedter.
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.
47 Ronin (PG-13) The story here is part of Japanese folk tradition and has been subject of countless epic poems, novels, movies, TV shows, and manga comics, but possibly none of them are as silly as this one. Keanu Reeves stars as a half-Japanese exile who joins a group of masterless samurai bent on avenging their master’s death. The cast is mostly Japanese, but they’re all performing in English, and they look none too comfortable as a result. Then again, the special effects here are so cheesy, and the movie is so poorly plotted and paced, that it would probably fail even if they were performing in their own language. Also with Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Kô Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Yorick van Wageningen, Gedde Watanabe, and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa.
Frozen (PG) The best Disney musical in quite some time. Kristen Bell provides the voice of Anna, the orphaned younger daughter of the rulers of a fictitious Nordic kingdom who goes into the wilderness to persuade her older sister (voiced by Idina Menzel) to save their land from a curse of eternal winter. The songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez bring freshness and wit to the songs, and Bell not only finds the comedy in the socially awkward heroine but also unleashes her glorious soprano on “The First Time in Forever.” The animators put the Ice Age movies to shame by doing endlessly inventive things with the ice and snow in the setting, and the script manages to create a heroine who’s interested in more than just finding a handsome prince. Additional voices by Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Livvy Stubenrauch, Alan Tudyk, and Ciarán Hinds.
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.
Grudge Match (PG-13) Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone star in this comedy as two rivals, former champion boxers from Pittsburgh, who are coaxed out of retirement 30 years after their previous bout. It’s about as depressing as you might imagine, though not as depressing as this would be if it happened in real life. Kevin Hart (who plays the fight’s promoter) works hard to try to squeeze some laughs out of this thing, but he’s hopelessly overmatched by the dull material. The cameo at the end by Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson is the only thing remotely surprising here. Also with Kim Basinger, Alan Arkin, Jon Bernthal, Camden Gray, Barry Primus, Oscar Gale, Anthony Anderson, and LL Cool J.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (PG-13) A distinct improvement on the first Hobbit movie though not enough to actually make it good. Martin Freeman returns as the plucky Bilbo as the hobbit and his band of dwarves make their way toward the final showdown. Peter Jackson engineers a couple of fantastic action set pieces, Richard Armitage continues to make an inspiring dwarf leader, and Evangeline Lilly is a nice addition as an elven warrior. Yet the plot goes off in several different directions in the last hour, and Jackson mishandles this pretty disastrously. This will be worth renting on DVD, where you can fast-forward to the good parts. Also with Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Ken Stott, Aidan Turner, Mikael Persbrandt, Stephen Fry, and Cate Blanchett.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (PG-13) Everything that was ragged about the first movie has been smoothed over in this sequel containing the future adventures of Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as she has to fight to survive a special edition of the Hunger Games. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to the lead actress) takes over the series and devotes time to the action before the Games and does a better job of integrating the special effects into the story, while the writers include more layers for the supporting characters and more material from Suzanne Collins’ novel. The movie is missing a spark of greatness from the filmmakers, but Jennifer Lawrence picks up the slack, playing the shell-shocked heroine like her life depended on it. If the series can gather strength the way she’s doing, it’ll be formidable indeed. Also with Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Donald Sutherland, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Lynn Cohen, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Justin Bieber’s Believe (PG) Jon Chu’s documentary is the latest profile of the pop star.
A Madea Christmas (PG-13) Tyler Perry stars in his latest comedy, as the old grandmother visits her daughter (Anna Maria Horsford) in the countryside. Also with Tika Sumpter, Eric Lively, Chad Michael Murray, Alicia Witt, Lisa Whelchel, Kathy Najimy, and Larry the Cable Guy.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (PG-13) It’s really long, too: 152 minutes, and it feels about 10 times that. Idris Elba stars in this boring, old-fashioned, deeply conventional biopic tracking the South African leader’s exploits from his birth to 2013. (The movie was finished before Mandela’s recent death.) Director Justin Chadwick goes at this material with so much reverence that he turns the movie into a hagiography. Elba can’t find a way into the saintly version of Mandela who occupies the center of this movie, and he’s upstaged by Naomie Harris’ sharp turn as Winnie Mandela. The great historical figure deserved a better movie than this. Also with Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Simo Mogwaza, Fana Mokoena, and Terry Pheto.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (R) Andrew Jacobs stars in the fifth installment of the found-footage horror series. Also with Molly Ephraim, Richard Cabral, Chloe Csengery, Jessica Tyler Brown, Jorge Diaz, Micah Sloat, and Katie Featherston.
Philomena (PG-13) Based on a real-life story, this dramedy stars Judi Dench with an unsteady Irish accent as a woman who teams up with a down-on-his-luck English journalist (Steve Coogan) to travel to America to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption decades ago. Coogan’s a well-known comedian in the U.K. who does well acting in a more serious piece. He also wrote the script, and while he and director Stephen Frears make an effort to balance the humor with the more serious parts, it doesn’t always come off. Still, the thing opens a window onto an ugly part of Irish history, and does it with skill and a minimum amount of weepiness. Also with Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Anna Maxwell Martin, and Michelle Fairley.
Saving Mr. Banks (PG-13) Oh, go fly a kite! Disney’s latest movie is an aggressive attempt to whitewash its own history, telling the story of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) convinced Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to reluctantly sign over the rights to her novel in 1961. The real-life Travers detested the finished film, and instead the movie shows her being moved to tears of joy at it. Moreover, it depicts the author as an old grump who needs to stop fighting for her book’s integrity and listen to the wise advice given by the guy with all the money. Even if this dull movie were far more entertaining, it would still be sunk by the straight-up propaganda it’s serving up. Also with Colin Farrell, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Giamatti, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Kathy Baker, and Rachel Griffiths.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (PG) A highly likable movie that falls short of its aims, this adaptation of James Thurber’s short story stars Ben Stiller as a compulsive daydreamer whose fear for his job as a photo editor impels him to chase an itinerant photographer (Sean Penn) across the globe. Stiller also directs this film, and he stages heroic fantasy sequences that don’t go with the rest of the movie. The story’s grand philosophical aims don’t fit with the director’s small-scale approach, but you can still appreciate the breathtaking visuals (scenes were filmed in Iceland and Central Asia) and the delicate, understated comedy in Stiller’s interactions with the various people he encounters. It’s the movie’s smaller pleasures that you remember. Also with Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Adrian Martinez, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Patton Oswalt, and Shirley MacLaine.
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.
Walking With Dinosaurs (PG) The computer animation looks fantastic in this prehistoric film, and yet every time the dinosaurs start talking amongst themselves like they’re bros hanging out at the mall, the spell is broken. The lame story concerns an undersized but plucky pachyrhinosaurus (voiced by Justin Long) who must find the qualities within himself to take over his herd in a time of crisis. The movie is broken up by title cards giving the scientific names of each dinosaur species we see, and the subplots and supporting characters are right out of a screenwriting handbook. With all the care that’s obviously been given to the way this movie looks, you’d think more would have been given to the story. Save your money for a museum visit. Additional voices by John Leguizamo, Tiya Sircar, and Skyler Stone. Also with Karl Urban, Charlie Rowe, and Angourie Rice.
The Wolf of Wall Street (R) Not Martin Scorsese’s best film, but definitely his funniest. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jordan Belfort, the real-life fraudster whose firm made more than $1 billion in the 1990s manipulating penny stocks. The movie is structured too much like Goodfellas, with its high-living band of outlaws wielding phones instead of guns. Still, after playing a string of intense, tormented heroes, DiCaprio is revelatory in his first out-and-out comic performance, blending well with a cast full of experienced comedians (including Jonah Hill as his nebbishy right-hand man) and executing a great piece of slapstick involving Quaaludes and a car. Scorsese may be repeating himself, but his story hasn’t lost much in the re-telling. Also with Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Milioti, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, P.J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee, Jean Dujardin, Matthew McConaughey, and an uncredited Spike Jonze.
The Great Beauty (NR) This comedy by Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo) stars Toni Servillo as a Roman writer and social butterfly who’s forced to re-evaluate his life and his city when he turns 65. Also with Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte, Serena Grandi, and Fanny Ardant.