A Miracle in Spanish Harlem (PG) Luis Antonio Ramos stars in this Christmas film as a widower with a failing business who finds himself in need of a miracle. Also with Kate del Castillo, Adrian Martinez, Andre Royo, Priscilla Lopez, and Tony Plana. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Narco Cultura (R) Shaul Schwartz’ documentary takes a potentially interesting subject (the phenomenon of narcocorrido music glorifying Mexican drug lords) and turns it into a needlessly depressing slog. The film switches back and forth between Richi Soto, an CSI investigator in Juárez who’s overwhelmed by the city’s thousands of murders, and Edgar Quintero, the clueless lead singer for the Los Angeles-based band BuKnas de Culiacán who wants to go to Mexico to soak up the atmosphere. The film is woefully incomplete, missing any meaningful comparison of this music to gangsta rap and failing to mention the musicians who’ve been murdered as part of the drug wars. Worse than that, it misses the myriad opportunities for gallows humor and satire that this subject presents. There’s a better movie to be made from this. (Opens Friday at Cinema Latino de Fort Worth)
Night Train to Lisbon (R) Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) adapts Pascal Mercier’s novel about a Swiss professor (Jeremy Irons) who impulsively quits his job to travel to Portugal and discover the fate of an author and social activist. Also with Mélanie Laurent, Jack Huston, Martina Gedeck, Tom Courtenay, August Diehl, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin, Charlotte Rampling, and Christopher Lee. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Out of the Furnace (R) Christian Bale stars in this tiresome, pointless thriller as a Pennsylvania steelworker who vows to take revenge on local drug lord Woody Harrelson for sucking his war veteran brother (Casey Affleck) into the world of underground fighting. Taking an unrelentingly serious approach to the material, director/co-writer Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) confuses wallowing in a gritty industrial/backwoods setting for profound drama. He thinks he’s making Winter’s Bone. He is wrong, so very wrong. Also with Forest Whitaker, Zoë Saldana, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Shepard. (Opens Friday)
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.
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.
Black Nativity (PG) Frustrating, because everything seems to be in place to make a great musical. Kasi Lemmons’ adaptation of Langston Hughes’ stage play stars Jacob Latimore as an angry 15-year-old who’s packed off by his mother (Jennifer Hudson) to spend Christmas with her estranged parents (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett) in New York. The original songs are by R&B mainstay Raphael Saadiq, who’s a good composer but inexperienced with writing for characters in a story. Lemmons doesn’t bring the effusive energy that a musical requires, either. Hudson sings well, and Whitaker is mesmerizing as a severe churchman hiding his private heartache, but mostly the film refuses to lift off. Also with Tyrese Gibson, Luke James, Grace Gibson, Rotimi, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Nas, and Mary J. Blige.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Delivery Man (R) Vince Vaughn finds a new comedy act in Ken Scott’s American remake of his own French-Canadian comedy Starbuck about a loser who discovers that a fertility clinic’s malpractice has resulted in him fathering 533 kids in the early 1990s. The early going features some promising material with the hero playing fairy godmother to his kids, intervening in their lives without revealing his identity, but Scott suffers from a low attention span and takes the plot in a lot of different and equally unfruitful directions. However, Chris Pratt turns in an electric comic performance as the best friend, and the lost look that frequently comes into Vaughn’s eyes lends pathos to the character of a guy who grasps how bad he is at life. Vaughn’s career as a funny man may be salvageable yet. Also with Cobie Smulders, Bobby Moynihan, Simon Delaney, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Jack Reynor, Britt Robertson, Adam Chanler-Berat, Damian Young, and Bruce Altman.
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.
Homefront (R) If you love TV’s Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy, keep watching those shows and stay away from this lame thriller that rips off all their least important elements. Jason Statham stars as an ex-DEA agent who tries to lay low in a backwater Louisiana town with his young daughter (Izabela Vidovic), only to fall foul of the local meth dealer and wannabe kingpin (James Franco). This should be delightful pulp — the villain’s name is Gator Bodine — but director Gary Fleder and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone take a deadly serious approach and wring all the fun out of it. Franco brings more sharpness and wit to the bad guy role than it deserves, but he can’t defeat the air of dreariness that settles over this thing. Also with Winona Ryder, Kate Bosworth, Clancy Brown, Omar Benson Miller, Frank Grillo, and Rachelle Lefevre.
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.
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.
Nebraska (R) Who knew Alexander Payne secretly wanted to be Wes Anderson? This black-and-white comedy set in the director’s home state stars Bruce Dern as an elderly man from Billings, Mont., who is deceived by a gimmick letter into thinking that he has won $1 million and determines to go to Lincoln to collect his winnings. His younger son (Will Forte) learns a great deal about his taciturn father while driving him there and taking a side trip to the old man’s hometown. The film doesn’t have the ambition or scope of Payne’s other films (Sideways, The Descendants), but it frequently finds big laughs amid these deadpan Midwesterners. Dern and Forte are both excellent, but June Squibb steals the show as the old man’s nagging wife. The scene where she stands up to his greedy relatives will make you cheer. Also with June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Louise Wilson, Rance Howard, and Stacy Keach.
Oldboy (R) For once, Spike Lee is unwilling to push the envelope, and that dooms his American remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2005 Korean thriller. Josh Brolin portrays a bad man who’s out to find and pay back the mysterious people who imprisoned him for 20 years in a fleabag motel room. In contrast with Park’s high style, Lee films this in a middle style that mutes the raw emotions in the story and possibly results in Brolin’s stolid, muted performance. Sharlto Copley makes a nicely grotesque villain and Elizabeth Olsen an alert and troubled sidekick and romantic interest, but this film doesn’t have the original’s streak of madness. Also with Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, James Ransone, Max Casella, Linda Emond, Lance Reddick, and Hannah Simone.
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.; here, he does well 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.
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.
Dear Mr. Watterson (NR) Joel Allen Schroeder’s documentary interviews prominent cartoonists and graphic novelists who cite Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson as an influence on their work.