THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of extended fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Stars: Martin Freeman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett
Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey (Freeman and McKellan) continue their quest to help a band of dwarves defeat a dragon and regain their homeland. Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings”) directs part two of his second Tolkien trilogy.
SAVING MR. BANKS
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including some unsettling images
Stars: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti
Walt Disney (Hanks) attempts to convince the extremely reluctant author P.L. Travers (Thompson) to let him make a movie adaptation of “Mary Poppins.” John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) directed the drama.
TYLER PERRY’S A MEDEA CHRISTMAS
Rated PG-13 for sexual references, crude humor and language
Stars: Tyler Perry, Chad Michael Murray, Tika Sumpter, Larry the Cable Guy
Tough-talking Medea (Perry) has a shocking effect on a small town when she travels there to help a friend reunite with her daughter at Christmas. Perry (“Madea’s Witness Protection”) wrote and directed the holiday comedy.
Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, drug content and brief sexuality
Stars: Jason Statham, James Franco, Winona Ryder
It’s almost worth the price of admission just to see Jason Statham in a shoulder-length wig that makes him look like the lead singer in an ’80s hair-metal band. Aside from that brief, introductory bit of coiffure craziness, though, “Homefront” is remarkably lackluster. Especially considering that screenwriter Sylvester Stallone originally considered turning the basic story into “Rambo 5.” Statham plays a single dad who retires from the DEA after a drug bust gone way wrong and moves to a small town with his young daughter. It takes a long, painfully slow time for the confusingly frenetic adrenaline-pumping finale (involving local meth manufacturer Franco and a vengeful biker gang) to kick into gear.
OUT OF THE FURNACE
Rated R for strong violence, language and drug content
Stars: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana
An unapologetically downbeat, yet reassuringly righteous tale of brotherly love in grim circumstances from writer/director Scott Cooper — who also made the Oscar-winning “Crazy Heart.” When troubled Iraq vet Affleck disappears after becoming involved in the bare-knuckle fight scene run by psycho hillbilly Harrelson, it’s up to his decent, law-abiding brother Bale to even the score. There are several familiar, verging on over-familiar, plot elements in play here, but the mood of the thing, its bone-deep, brooding melancholy, along with some excellent performances, generates considerable dramatic heat.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violent action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson
It takes a long, long time to work up its appetite for excitement, but the part two ultimately does hit the spot with a big second helping of teenage, dystopian-future, gladiatorial combat. A heartless spectacle we get to enjoy while tsk-tsking at the terrible cruelty of it, too. After surviving in the original with her love-struck friend Peeta Hutcherson), the feisty archer Katniss (the recently Oscar-validated Lawrence) is forced to participate in another fight to the death when she becomes a symbol of revolution.
Stars: Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, Sharlto Copley
Spike Lee’s remake falls a bit short of the final note of twisted perversity in Korean director Chan-wook Park’s 2003 cult-fave paean to payback, but it’s still plenty twisted and every bit as visually stylish as the original. Brolin stars as a thoroughly reprehensible sleazoid who’s abducted and imprisoned for 20 years without knowing why. Suddenly released just as mysteriously, he’s determined to become a better man and a father to the daughter he abandoned long ago. But first there’s a little matter of psychotically violent revenge to take care of.
Rated PG for thematic material, language and a menacing situation
Stars: Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Jacob Latimore
There’s plenty of soul-wrenching singing in writer/director Kasi “Eve’s Bayou” Lemmons’ musical-theater re-imagining of Langston Hughes’ 1961 Christmas oratorio, and no shortage of tormented melodrama in between, yet it mostly feels artificial and unmoving. Despite how hard everyone’s working to put some sentiment on the scoreboard. Hudson makes a welcome return to belting after a post-“Dreamgirls” hiatus as a single mom facing eviction who sends her teenage son (Latimore) spend the holidays with her estranged parents (Whitaker and Bassett) in Harlem.
Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Stars: Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Idina Menzel
“Frozen” certainly has the traditional fairy-tale spirit, as defined by Walt Disney, that is: princesses, magic and even true love’s kiss. It’s all bound up with an agreeably up-to-date attitude about female empowerment that doesn’t sacrifice girly-girl fantasy. Unfortunately, Disney’s 53rd animated feature also comes with mostly vapid Broadway-ready show tunes. Comic actress Bell plays the feisty princess Anna, who adventures into the wilderness to bring back her sister Queen Elsa (Menzel of “Glee”), who has accidentally winterized their kingdom with her icy magical powers.
Rated PG-13 for some language
Stars: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench
It’s hard to think of an odder couple than the aloof, atheistic journalist and the chattily devout, grandmotherly, long-suffering lady who gradually warm to each other in the marvelous “Philomena.” Directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen”),“Philomena” tells the story of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench in another brilliant performance), searching for the child taken from her in the 1950s by nuns in a home for unwed mothers and essentially sold to rich American adoptive parents. But its true subject is the relationship between Philomena and unemployed BBC newsman Martin Sixsmith (Coogan, also very good) who reluctantly helps her, with their surprising, rewarding and often very funny discussions about love, sex, religion and life in general.
Rated: R for some language
Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach
Somber, poignant “Nebraska” has a lot to say about misspent lives, disconnected fathers and sons — and love in spite of everything. After receiving a magazine-subscription come-on declaring he has won a million dollars, infirm, near-senile old boozehound Woody (Dern, who won the Best Actor prize at Cannes) is determined to dodder all the way to Lincoln, Neb., to pick up his prize. So his sad-faced, soft-hearted younger son (Forte) decides to drive him, hoping to get a little closer in the time he has left. If you’re expecting this to be a setup for old wounds to be healed, forget it. The script is far too prickly for that, and director Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”) understands that Woody wouldn’t care about that sort of thing anyway.
Rated:PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, some drug material, brief violence and language
Stars: Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders
Think twice if you find yourself getting really diligent about something. Especially if it’s artificial insemination for profit. You could discover late in life that you’ve sired 533 children and that 142 are suing to learn your identity, like middle-aged man-child David (Vaughn), who was just getting used to the idea of having one kid with his pregnant police-officer girlfriend (Smulders). Co-writer/director Ken Scott (who also directed the better French Canadian original, a.k.a. “Starbuck” six months ago) pretty much copies himself scene for scene, tugging on the heartstrings whenever possible as David secretly becomes involved in the lives of his many, many offspring. That strategy was nicely offset in “Starbuck” by a certain sort of edgy comic feistiness from Canadian star Patrick Huard. Not so much from Vaughn, though. With him, it’s perplexed puppy-dog eyes all the way.
THE BOOK THIEF
Rated: PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material
Stars: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nélisse, Roger Allam
A Child’s Garden of the Holocaust? Not quite. Yet, this low-impact adaptation of the mega-selling young-adult novel “The Book Thief” takes such a kid-safe approach to the terrible events it dramatizes seem strangely rosy and cozy. Newcomer Nélisse is quite good as young Liesel, embraced by adoptive parents (Rush and Watson, supplying much-needed emotional ballast) in World War II Germany, and soon involved in hiding a young Jewish refugee (Ben Schnetzer). As soft-spoken, philosophical Death (Allam), doing double duty as narrator, looks on with approval. Awful events are featured, but it’s hard to get worked up about them because, even in the worst extreme, everything is managed in a way that’s perfectly peaceful and pleasant.
THE BEST MAN HOLIDAY
Rated R for language, sexual content and brief nudity
Stars: Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs, Nia Long
It might not quite be able to settle on whether it wants to scandalize you or sanctify you, or make you laugh or make you sob, but “The Best Man Holiday” does a lively job of bouncing back and forth from one to the other. The over-achieving gang from Malcolm D. Lee’s 1999 hit “The Best Man” (everyone’s a novelist, a network exec, a TV star or some such) returns for more raunchy sex, old-time religion and full-on melodrama, assembling at the mansion of NFL superstar Chestnut — a proponent of “God, family and football” in that order. At least you’re not likely to be bored. There’s way too much going on here for that.
Rated R for some brutal violence, language throughout, sexuality/nudity, and drug use
Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Evan Rachel Wood, Mads Mikkelsen
A young man (LaBeouf) whose dead mother appeared to him in a vision and told him to go to Bucharest, falls in love there with a woman (Wood) being pursued by a vicious gangster. Fredrik Bond makes his feature debut with the crime drama.
WHEN COMEDY WENT TO SCHOOL
Rated: No MPAA rating
Stars: Robert Klein, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Larry King
It was a heck of a place to be a busboy, the old Catskills resorts, if you were an aspiring comedian. Jerry Lewis, Buddy Hackett, Lenny Bruce, Sid Caesar, narrator Robert Klein and Larry King (Larry King?) — they all got started that way during the golden age of the Jewish resort area outside of New York. This mostly entertaining documentary works hard, sometimes too hard, to explain how and why the Catskills came to be, why it had a huge effect on American culture and how it fit into the history of Jewish humor in general — too often meandering away from its real drawing card, reminiscences and performance clips from the likes of the above plus Alan King, Dick Shawn, Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, Woody Allen and Jackie Mason. There’s no denying you’ll hear some good jokes, though.
THE ARMSTRONG LIE
Critic’s rating: Three and a half stars
Rated R for language
Stars: Lance Armstrong, Michele Ferrari, Frankie Andreu, Betsy Andreu
He’s been stripped of his Tour de France wins, of course, but Lance Armstrong is still a world-class champion when it comes to lying. It’s one thing to know and understand that Armstrong lied about using steroids and the like during his phenomenal cycling career. But it’s quite another to watch, in this exhaustively detailed documentary from Oscar-winner Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), as this inspirational figure, a hero to millions, looks straight into the camera during interviews and starkly, shamelessly denies the truth. Countless times. Year after year after year. As a showcase for pure, unadulterated hubris, you’d have to look to ancient Greek tragedy to top it.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
Rated NC-17 for explicit sexual content
Stars: Léa Seydoux, Adele Exarchopoulos, Salim Kechiouche
Somewhere within its three-hour running time, there’s a really wonderful two-hour movie here charting the mysteries, ecstasies and lurking agonies of overwhelmingly passionate romance. And doing so in a way that should ring true to anyone who’s ever fallen helplessly in love, regardless of gender preference, but with lots of very French tedium on the side. Seydoux and newcomer Exarchopoulos are excellent (so excellent they shared director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palm d’Or award at Cannes) as a lesbian artist and a young aspiring teacher who are smitten by love at first sight and then subjected to the usual torments over the next 10 years. The emotions are intense and the sex scenes are as graphic as advertised, but there are also long dull stretches of seemingly purposefully wearisome everyday life interspersed by discussions of the mystical properties of female orgasm, etc. C’est la vie.
Rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz
It might seem hard to believe that any film produced by so such a glittering aggregation of top-tier talent could be such a dull thud, but such things happen, sadly. Featuring the first original screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy, this frequently enervating crime drama from director Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner,” “Alien,” etc.) features Fassbender as a slick El Paso criminal attorney who makes a very big mistake by getting in on a mega drug deal with a couple of his clients (Pitt, Bardem). It’s not fair to say nothing happens in “The Counselor,” because it features double-crosses, murders and sexy-time galore. It just feels that way because there’s little attempt to cultivate suspense or even to make it clear who’s doing what to whom and why. You are hereby advised to give “The Counselor” a miss.
Rated R for language and some sexual content
Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Tom Hollander
The typically charming “About Time” is the best of screenwriter Richard “Four Weddings and a Funeral” Curtis’s attempts to direct his own work, after “Love Actually” and “Pirate Radio,” and it’s likely to leave fans satisfactorily amused, teary and uplifted — though perhaps a bit too overtly manipulated. When nervously likeable young Tim (Gleeson) learns from his dad (Nighy at his best) that he has inherited the gift of time travel, he uses it to aggressively woo his perfect soulmate (McAdams, an experienced hand after “The Time Traveler’s Wife”) — correcting whatever bumbling errors he makes along the way. All is delightful until around the halfway point, when “About Time” shifts into family-melodrama overdrive.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB
Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, nudity and drug use
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner
A fascinating story of survival through pure orneriness, “Dallas Buyers Club” is also well worth seeing for the performances of two almost sure-fire Oscar nominees. McConaughey (definitively proving there’s more to him than looking good shirtless) is borderline repellent at times in the role of lowlife redneck homophobic hell-raiser Ron Woodroof, who was quite dismayed to learn in 1985 that he had the AIDS virus and was expected to die in 30 days. And Leto, who like McConaughey lost 40 pounds for the role, is simply great as the tragic yet tough and feisty transsexual Rayon — Woodroof’s customer liaison, with whom he develops an uneasy, increasingly personal relationship.
THOR: THE DARK WORLD
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some suggestive content
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston
The Norse god of thunder (Hemsworth) must face a seemingly unbeatable foe to save the Earth — and the woman he loves (Portman). Alan Taylor (“Game of Thrones”) directed the fantasy adventure.
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material
Stars: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld
There’s a lot to admire about this surprisingly substantial sci-fi spectacular, but the best thing is its radical assumption that kids might respond to a story driven by weighty moral issues. After barely surviving an attack by the ant-like Formic race, the Earth has decided its brightest children, including a soulful-eyed prodigy named Ender (Butterfield, almost as good here as he was in “Hugo”), are best suited for the high-tech, computer-driven war of the future. But after proving himself in training, the new commander of Earth’s armies is conflicted by the order to extinguish the enemy with a massive preemptive strike.
Rated PG for some action/peril and rude humor
Stars: Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson, Amy Poehler
Turkeys and militant vegetarians might appreciate the revolutionary sentiments at the heart of this mediocre-at-best animated comedy, but otherwise it’s probably best left strictly to the kids. Kids who are either very young or very easily entertained, to be more precise. After receiving a presidential pardon on Thanksgiving, a skinny, blue-headed, uncommonly intelligent young bird named Reggie (Wilson) reluctantly hijacks a government time machine with a maniacally macho action hero turkey named Jake (Harrelson) and travels back to Plymouth Colony to keep their brethren off the first Thanksgiving menu.
Rated PG-13 on appeal for sexual content and language
Stars: Morgan Freeman, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas
“Last Vegas” isn’t a complete loss, mixing roughly equal amounts of what you’d hope for in a premise like this and what you’d most dread. On the other hand, considering that it teams up five Oscar winners for the first time, it’s not that special, either. Freeman, De Niro, Kline and Douglas are lifelong 70-something buddies congregating in Vegas to de-bachelorize Douglas, who’s finally getting married — to a woman less than half his age. Screenwriter Dan Fogelman (“The Guilt Trip”) has generated enough snappy one-liners to keep the banter mildly amusing while pumping up the melodrama with festering resentment between slick, successful Douglas and grief-stricken widower De Niro. Steenburgen, welcome as always, provides the romantic interest.
ALL IS LOST
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language
Stars: Robert Redford
At least there’s no Bengal tiger. That’s about the only break the unnamed hero gets, however, in this deeply affecting survival-at-sea drama. The 77-year-old Redford gives one of his best performances as the yachtsman struggling to keep his ship afloat after a crippling accident in the Indian Ocean, with ever-diminishing hopes for rescue. With one actor, one location, almost zero dialogue and minimal, old-school special effects, writer/director J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) turns the man’s long ordeal into compelling drama as he keeps struggling through disaster after disaster. It’s the struggle that counts, “All Is Lost” seems to be saying, and that’s a very personal matter.
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content throughout, language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use
Stars: Johnny Knoxville, Jackson Nicoll, Spike Jonze, Georgina Cates
If you have any tolerance at all for the sort of outrageous, epic-scale, vulgar bad behavior on display in “Bad Grandpa,” you’re likely to laugh out loud at least once while watching it. Maybe even several times. Out of shock if nothing else. That is, unless copulation with a soda machine, entering an 8-year-old drag queen in a junior beauty pageant, and explosive diarrhea are automatic disqualifiers. In which case, stay far away. A sexually obsessed 86-year-old (“Jackass” star Knoxville) is forced to drop his young grandson (Nicoll, great) off to live with his sleazy dad. And the resultant road trip turns into a long series of wildly crude hidden-camera pranks and stunts performed for unsuspecting citizens.
12 YEARS A SLAVE
Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch
An almost unimaginably harrowing depiction of slavery in the United States, “12 Years a Slave” is also an inspiring story of a man who refused to give in to despair despite extreme physical, emotional and spiritual suffering. In a profoundly affecting performance, a certain Best Actor contender, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped from Saratoga, N.Y. in 1841 and sold into slavery. “12 Years” is a showcase for a parade of white actors behaving abominably (especially Fassbender as a religious maniac plantation owner), but it’s the genuineness of Ejiofor’s performance, with its innumerable shadings of acute anguish, that gives the film its devastating emotional impact. That and the terrible realism with which director Steve McQueen (“Shame”) presents the story’s nonstop cruelties.
Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use.
Stars: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman
Until now, it’s always been easy to say that the best film of British director Paul Greengrass was his devastating 9/11 recreation “United 93.” It still has the edge, because of the historical enormity of its subject matter, but this modern piracy drama is every bit as much worth seeing. Hanks is at his best (including a final scene that’s simply stunning) as the cargo ship captain whose ship is hijacked by four Somali pirates. And he’s ably matched by the unknown Somali actor Barkhad Abdi (a likely Best Supporting Actor nominee) as the pirate leader. What follows is a battle of wits and wills between those two that’s staged by Greengrass with utter realism and ever-mounting tension, with just the right amount of dramatic overlay about the grim realities of life facing the pirates.
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