The Bag Man (R) John Cusack stars in this thriller as a gangster who’s summoned to a remote motel by a crime lord (Robert De Niro) and instructed to wait. Also with Rebecca Da Costa, Dominic Purcell, Sticky Fingaz, Martin Klebba, and Crispin Glover. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Awful Nice (R) James Pumphrey and Alex Rennie star in this comedy as two estranged brothers who are forced to travel together to Branson, Mo., to sell the family’s vacation home after their father dies. Also with Christopher Meloni, Keeley Hazell, Laura Ramsey, Brett Gelman, Henry Zebrowski, and D.C. Pierson. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (NR) Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary profile of the 87-year-old Broadway legend. Also with Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, Harold Prince, John Turturro, George C. Wolfe, and the late James Gandolfini. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Mr. Peabody & Sherman (PG) The intellectual, bad pun-spewing cartoon dog (voiced by Ty Burrell) gets his own animated movie, as he and Sherman (voiced by Max Charles) try to repair a rift in the time-space continuum. Additional voices by Allison Janney, Stephen Colbert, Dennis Haysbert, Stephen Tobolowsky, Leslie Mann, Stanley Tucci, Lake Bell, Patrick Warburton, and Mel Brooks. (Opens Friday)
Visitors (NR) The latest film by Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi) about human beings’ relationship with technology. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
About Last Night (R) This remake of the similarly titled 1986 comedy rings surprisingly little improvement on the mediocre original. While one couple (Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant) recovering from painful previous relationships try to work out their newfound attraction to each other, their respective best friends (Kevin Hart and Regina Hall) engage in a weird, dysfunctional romance of their own. The lead couple is blandly written and played, and the entire movie would be downright dreary if it weren’t for Hart, who strikes all manner of comic sparks off both Ealy and Hall and once again squeezes laughs out of unpromising material. Somebody get Hart a vehicle worthy of his talents. Also with Christopher McDonald, Adam Rodriguez, Joe Lo Truglio, Bryan Callen, and Paula Patton.
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.
The Attorney (NR) Kind of like a Korean Erin Brockovich. Song Kang-ho stars in this courtroom drama about a real life tax lawyer who stumbles onto evidence of corruption, police brutality, and torture by South Korea’s military dictatorship in the early 1980s. Yang Woo-seok’s movie has its fair share of bald-faced manipulations, like a good many Korean films, but the great Song carries this vehicle as a money-grubbing attorney who becomes a vocal crusader for justice. His authoritative performance is worth the price of admission here. Also with Kim Young-ae, Oh Dal-su, Kwak Do-won, Yim Si-wan, Lee Hang-na, Jo Min-ki, Sim Hee-seop, and Song Young-chang.
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.
Endless Love (PG-13) Almost none of the principal actors are Americans in this American-set romance, a fact which is far more interesting than anything that happens in this soft-boiled and soft-headed remake of the 1981 movie. Alex Pettyfer plays a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who falls for a sheltered rich girl (Gabriella Wilde) with an overprotective dad (Bruce Greenwood). The largely British cast isn’t nearly incisive enough to cut through the soppy script by director Shana Feste (Country Strong), which ticks off a string of romantic clichés without doing anything inventive with them. At least this remake has better music on the soundtrack. Also with Joely Richardson, Rhys Wakefield, Emma Rigby, Anna Enger, Dayo Okeniyi, and Robert Patrick.
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.
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.
In Secret (R) In this adaptation of Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, Elizabeth Olsen acts up a storm as a sexually frustrated 19th-century Frenchwoman who seeks to murder her way out of her loveless arranged marriage to her sickly cousin (Tom Felton) with the help of her lover (Oscar Isaac). The two men are also excellent, but they pale next to Olsen, who seems painfully attuned to every nuance in this character: Thérèse’s awakening lust, her desperation to escape her marriage, the guilt and fear that tear at her. This is her best performance to date, and it’s worth the price of admission. Also with Jessica Lange, John Kavanagh, Mackenzie Crook, Matt Lucas, and Shirley Henderson.