I, Frankenstein (PG-13) Aaron Eckhart stars in this supernatural thriller as the mad scientist’s creation who has survived into the modern age to take part in a war between gargoyles and demons. Also with Yvonne Strahovski, Miranda Otto, Jai Courtney, Aden Young, Kevin Grevioux, and Bill Nighy. (Opens Friday)
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.
August: Osage County (R) A slapdash but effective showpiece for its actors, this adaptation of Tracy Letts’ much-acclaimed stage play stars Meryl Streep as a dying Oklahoma matriarch who gathers her family together after her husband (Sam Shepard) disappears, though she’s more interested in verbally abusing everyone who comes within reach. Hailing from a TV background, director John Wells fulfills the stereotype of a visually unimaginative TV director, doing reasonably well with individual scenes but failing to string them together. The best performances come from the supporting players as they orient themselves around a Streep in full dragon-lady mode. Julia Roberts smartly underplays as the eldest daughter, while Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, and Julianne Nicholson all distinguish themselves. Also with Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Misty Upham, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
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.
Devil’s Due (R) This could have been an ickier, more immediate, more horrifying version of Rosemary’s Baby. Instead, this found-footage horror movie is just another dull version of the same Satan’s spawn horror flick we’ve seen a million times. Zach Gilford and Allison Miller star as a couple who are documenting their honeymoon and her subsequent surprise pregnancy. This movie should play like a baby video gone horribly wrong, but directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett can’t generate any scares, and writer Lindsay Devlin doesn’t tap into any of our fears surrounding having children. What a huge missed opportunity. Also with Sam Anderson, Roger Payano, Vanessa Ray, and Donna Duplantier.
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.
Her (R) Spike Jonze’s greatest film yet stars Joaquin Phoenix as a near-future divorced guy who falls in love with his smartphone’s operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who’s equipped with an artificial intelligence personality that evolves from her experiences. What could have been a glib satire on our dependence on technology instead becomes a surpassingly beautiful and serious-minded (though still quite funny) disquisition on the transformative powers of love and how people change during the course of a relationship. It’s anchored by tremendous performances by Phoenix, bringing sweetness and humor that we haven’t seen from him, and Johansson, who makes the OS’s insecurities palpable despite not appearing on the screen. The movie’s DIY feel gives this vision of the near future great texture, and its loneliness make it haunting. Also with Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, Portia Doubleday, and Matt Letscher. Additional voices by Spike Jonze, Brian Cox, Bill Hader, and Kristen Wiig.
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.