Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (PG-13) Idris Elba stars in this biopic of the late South African leader. Also with Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa, Zolani Mkiva, Simo Mogwaza, Fana Mokoena, and Terry Pheto. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
47 Ronin (PG-13) Keanu Reeves stars in this English-language retelling of the story of 47 Japanese samurai who set out to avenge their master’s death. Also with Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Kô Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Yorick van Wageningen, Gedde Watanabe, and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa. (Opens Wednesday)
Grudge Match (PG-13) Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone star in this comedy as two old boxers who are coaxed out of retirement for one last bout. Also with Kim Basinger, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin, Jon Bernthal, Anthony Anderson, and LL Cool J. (Opens Wednesday)
Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? (NR) Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) directs this animated documentary illustrating audio footage of his interview with linguist Noam Chomsky. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Justin Bieber’s Believe (PG) Jon Chu’s documentary is the latest profile of the pop star. (Opens Wednesday)
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 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.
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.
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.
Dhoom: 3 (NR) Aamir Khan stars in this Bollywood film about a circus entertainer who seeks retribution on his employers, who are responsible for his father’s death. Also with Katrina Kaif, Rani Mukherjee, Rimi Sen, Abhishek Bachchan, and Uday Chopra.
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.
Friend 2 (NR) Kwak Kyung-taek’s sequel to his 2001 film stars Kim Woo-bin as a petty crook who falls under the influence of a mysterious friend of his father’s, while all three are in prison. Also with Yoo Oh-seong, Joo Jin-mo, Han Soo-ah, and Jeong Ho-bin.
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.
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.
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.
Hours (PG-13) The late Paul Walker stars in this drama as a father trying to keep his baby daughter alive during Hurricane Katrina. Also with Genesis Rodriguez, Nancy Nave, Shane Jacobsen, Natalia Safran, and TJ Hassan.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Broken Circle Breakdown (NR) Felix van Groeningen’s musical stars Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens as singers in a Belgian bluegrass band whose young daughter (Nell Cattrysse) is stricken with cancer. Also with Geert van Rampelberg, Nils de Caster, Robbie Cleiren, and Bert Huysentruyt.
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.
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.