THE ARMSTRONG LIE (R) The Academy Award winning documentarian behind Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room tackles the one-time cycling hero and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. Having won the Tour de France a stunning record eight times, Armstrong’s star quickly fell as allegations of doping turned into truths. Director Alex Gibney was able to chronicle that swift descent while filming what was originally supposed to be a doc about Armstrong’s return to cycling.
• BAD GRANDPA (R) Much funnier and more poignant than one would expect from a production company named Dickhouse, Bad Grandpa expounds upon the “Jackass” sketch featuring Johnny Knoxville’s elderly alter ego, Irving Zisman. Like Borat, Knoxville and company (including director-cowriter Jeff Tremaine and cowriter Spike Jonze) capture people’s real reactions to the interactions of a naughty, oversexed grandfather and his eight-year-old grandson, Billy (Jackson Nicoll). Knoxville tests just how much patience people have for old people in sketches narratively connected as grandpa Irving takes his grandson to live with his father. The credits offer a glimpse into the fascinating filming. (A behind the scenes doc about Bad Grandpa’s making would be worth a watch.) Sure, it’s raunchy, but Knoxville never breaks character, even when Zisman’s all alone. As a result, he gives a transformative, Sellers-like performance. Jackass has also been shockingly effective comedy, and if one can laugh at (or simply ignore) their new flick’s sophomoric hijinks, one will find the crew’s grown up…a little.
BAGGAGE CLAIM (PG-13) This romantic comedy about a stewardess, Montana (Paula “Mrs. Robin Thicke” Patton), conducting a transcontinental search for a spouse wastes a talented cast (Patton, Derek Luke, Taye Diggs, Djimon Hounsou and Ned Beatty?) in a sub-Tyler Perry situation. Many (not all) of Perry’s movies leave something to vaguely recommend, but David E. Talbert’s adaptation of his own novel does not. Stereotypical crazy ladies (see Tia Mowry-Hardrict) and besties, both gay (Brody) and oversexed (Jill Scott). There’s little to nothing to see or like here. Don’t bother making this connection.
BAYOU MAHARAJAH This documentary is about James Booker, a legendary pianist from New Orleans. Part of UGA's Spotlight on the Arts Festival, this film is directed by UGA alum Lily Keber and produced by Nate Kohn, professor of Telecommunication Arts in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and associate director of the Peabody Awards. (Ciné)
THE BOOK THIEF (PG-13) I always intended to read Marcus Zusak’s novel before I saw the filmed adaptation. That does not look like it’s going to happen now. A tale set in Nazi Germany and narrated by Death, The Book Thief stars Monsieur Lazhar’s Sophie Nelisse as young Liesel Meminger, who steals books. “Downton Abbey” director Brian Percival’s previous feature film was A Boy Called Dad. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson star as Liesel’s foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann.
BLUE JASMINE (PG-13) Oh my god! Andrew Dice Clay in a Woody Allen movie? I’m so in. Not to mention Louis C.K., Bobby Cannavale, Sally Hawkins (so good in Happy-Go-Lucky), Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin and Peter Sarsgaard. I don’t even know that I need to know what the film’s plot. (A rich woman moves in with her down to earth sister after her cheating husband loses everything.) Apparently, Allen’s back from his European sojourn, though he hasn’t returned to New York yet; this drama is set in San Francisco. (Ciné)
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (PG-13) Paul Greengrass is Hollywood’s most effective director of tense docudramas. (Apologies to Kathryn Bigelow, but it is true.) Recounting the real life story of Captain Richard Phillips, who was kidnapped by Somali pirates and held hostage in a claustrophobic lifeboat for several days, Greengrass crafts his best film since United 93. Tom Hanks stars as Captain Phillips, and he loses his typical Hanks-ness in the dramatized reality realized by Greengrass. The lack of almost any other recognizable supporting actors (that guy, Chris Mulkey, is as familiar as it gets) helps Hanks slide deeper into a role than he has since Road to Perdition. Barkhad Abdi, who plays lead Somali pirate Muse could be one of those fun Oscar dark horses. The taut effectiveness of Billy Ray’s script certainly should not be undervalued but will be due to the incredible work done by Greengrass, whose greatest films seem like reality unfolding before our eyes. Captain Phillips should nab the British filmmaker another Oscar nod. As a word of advice, one may wish to watch Captain Phillips and Gravity on different weekends; otherwise, we are talking about the most intense double feature ever.
CARRIE (R) Stephen King’s Carrie returns, and the results are much better than many feared. Though not as stylish as Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic, the new adaptation from Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce may be more affecting as a tale of abuse and bullying (a pretty relevant topic for today’s teens). All the memorable set pieces are recreated, from the bloody gym shower to the fiery, bloody Prom. Peirce smartly does not attempt a shot-for-shot remake (hopefully, everyone learned that lesson from Gus Van Sant’s Psycho), especially considering De Palma’s extraordinary use of split screens/diopters. The new Carrie may lack the original’s defining style, but it has a stellar lead in Chloe Grace Moretz, who nails everything but Sissy Spacek’s natural mousiness. Julianne Moore makes a terrifying mother to the telekinetic teen, and Judy Greer is a believable, funny Ms. Desjardin. The other teen actors are blandly pretty CW fodder (though the film’s Tommy Ross, Ansel Elgort, has some big pics on the way). It’s doubtful anyone will choose to watch the new Carrie over the original in thirty plus years, but I hope it sparks a renaissance for King remakes. Bring on a new Firestarter!
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2 (PG) The animated family comedy, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, wasn’t quite one for which a sequel seemed necessary. Inventor Flint Lockwood (v. Bill Hader) is working for The Live Corp Company when he must leave his job to investigate claims that his machine is creating food-animal hybrids. Joining Hader for voicework are Anna Faris, James Caan, Will Forte, Andy Samberg, Benjamin Bratt, Neil Patrick Harris and Terry Crews. This flick sounds like it barely escaped a direct to DVD launch.
• THE COUNSELOR (R) Is it fair to go ahead and call The Counselor the year’s most disappointing film? Ridley Scott directs a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy (his first!) with a cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt. All that and filmgoers are definitely left wanting by this tale of a young lawyer (Fassbender) getting involved in some shady drug trafficking. At least that’s what I think happened. McCarthy has a way with words; his dialogue shines brightly. It’s his narrative that’s far too murky. The movie simply does not tell its story clearly enough to be an entertaining film nor does it provide the pieces to be a challenging work to reconstruct post-viewing. Paced like a snail (it’s only two hours long but it feels like three), The Counselor fails on so many levels, but it’s still worth watching for the McCarthy connection. One wonders if his screenplay reads better than it watches. Bardem, with his spiky Brian Grazer hair, gives the film’s sole standout performance. Fassbender is too coolly detached, and Pitt’s Westray would be better suited for Matthew McConaughey. Ultimately a failure, The Counselor begs to be watched.
DON JON (R) So actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt can do little wrong in my opinion, and his feature writing/directing debut absolutely succeeds despite its strange late film tonal shift. Jersey boy Jon (Gordon-Levitt) loves the ladies, his pad, his car, his family, his boys, his church and his porn. But when he meets Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), Jon learns he might have to give up his favorite pastime. Jon makes further discoveries when he meets a sad, community college classmate, Esther (Julianne Moore). JG-L proves a technically superb filmmaker in his rookie outing. Don Jon is excellently, stylishly composed and edited without being over-directed. This awfully adult dramedy might make some viewers uncomfortable with its rather frank sexuality, especially regarding Jon’s porn watching habits. But mature audiences will enjoy an all too topical discussion of how the Internet has potentially changed young people’s sexual expectations with its easy access pornography. Plus, the movie’s funny. Just witness a few of Jon’s weekly shouting matches-cum-dinners with his parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) and always silently texting sister (Brie Larson, The Spectacular Now). Don Jon will be remembered as one of 2013’s more unsung cinematic heroes.
• ENDER’S GAME (PG-13) The filmed adaptation of Ender’s Game, written and directed by X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s Gavin Hood, is not an adequate replacement for reading Orson Scott Card’s modern science fiction classic. (I would feel remiss if I completely ignored Card’s intolerance. While I don’t condone it and wholly disagree with it, I enjoyed his work of fiction and highly recommend it.) Young Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) is handpicked by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) to be the potential savior of humanity, which is being threatened by an alien race, and must complete against a school of young starship troopers (including True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld) on a simulated battlefield in order to fulfill Graff’s prophetic belief. The look of Ender’s Game is strong, as are the bulk of the performances (Ford remains a commanding sci-fi presence). Hood struggles to adapt Card’s more complex ideas, but he wisely chooses to jettison his brother’s Earthbound shenanigans. He also fails to adequately portray Ender’s grueling exhaustion in the Command School finale, which seems much more like a middle school graduation play than a warm-up for the potential end of humanity. Maybe that’s the movie’s biggest problem; it fails to realize that it’s more than a game.
ENOUGH SAID (PG-13) This comedy from writer-director Nicole Holofcener (I really enjoyed her last two features, the wonderful Please Give and Friends with Money) seems like a wonderful way to say an all too early goodbye to James Gandolfini. He costars with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays Eva, a masseuse dating Gandolfini’s character, Albert. Unfortunately, her newest client (Catherine Keener) is Albert’s ex-wife, and she has nothing but bad things to say about him. The trailer left me smiling. With Toni Collette and Ben Falcone. (Ciné)
ESCAPE PLAN (R) If you are feeling nostalgic for the action movies of the '80s/'90s, Escape Plan is for you. Structural security specialist Ray Breslin (Sylvestor Stallone) has spent most of his life breaking out of prison. His latest job incarcerates him in a secret, secure prison for really, really bad guys, where he meets Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The chemistry between these two aging action stars is the main draw of Escape Plan, and Schwarzenegger makes the most of it. After easing back into action movies with small roles in Stallone’s Expendables franchise and the underrated The Last Stand, the former Terminator seems to be having a lot more fun than Stallone. The movie is entertainingly forgettable, but it would benefit from a little more creativity in the casting. As the evil warden, Jim Caviezel tries for a mad quirkiness, but this role would have been better handled by Vincent D’Onofrio, who is wasted outside the prison walls. All the best supporting actors—Amy Ryan, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson—are squandered outside the prison. Why not cast Arnie as the warden and Stallone as the old turnkey that assists 50 Cent’s escape? Nonetheless, watching Arnold and Sly work together is incentive enough.
• FREE BIRDS (PG) More an oddity than a cute family movie, Free Birds features the voices of Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson as two turkeys, Jake and Reggie, that travel back in time to stop turkey from making the Thanksgiving Day menu. Released a few weeks too early (no one’s ready for Thanksgiving the day after Halloween), this kiddie cartoon seemed to get more laughs from the adults in the audience. Harrelson’s militaristic idiot is much more entertaining than Wilson’s too talky turkey. Wilson is not only outdone by this co-lead, supporting voices Amy Poehler, George Takei, Keith David and Dan Fogler are all more entertaining. The strange Free Birds will not become a new holiday viewing tradition, but it’s pleasant enough to be watched once, if one has no other choice.
GRACE UNPLUGGED (PG) Grace Trey is a Christian singer/songwriter and daughter of one-hit-wonder Johnny Trey. Seeking stardom, Grace leaves her small, church-centered town for Los Angeles.
GRAVITY (PG-13) Yes. Children of Men filmmaker Alfonse Cuaron’s latest film is as great as you have heard. An astronaut (George Clooney) and a doctor (Sandra Bullock) must work together to survive an accident in the cold, silent confines of space. Gravity is an acting tour de force by Bullock (this movie is essentially her Cast Away) and the most incredible special effects driven film I have ever seen. See it in 3D/IMAX if you can, as the film reminded me of Six Flags’ Chevy Show. You feel like you are in space, which is simultaneously awe-inspiringly beautiful and coldly dangerous. Though a science fiction film, Gravity is the most harrowing cinematic experience I can remember. It’s often more terrifying than any recent horror film. Cuaron has cured me of any lingering desires to travel into space. He has also proven himself to be the single most intriguing major filmmaker working today. Taking two mega-stars and placing them in a straight up disaster movie that is heavily reliant on special effects takes so much vision and control to keep the spectacle from overwhelming the humanity. Gravity is heavyweight genre filmmaking that never lets up. It is intense, but you cannot miss it.
HOW I LIVE NOW (R) Kevin McDonald, who won an Oscar for the documentary, One Day in September, and went on to direct a decent filmography (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play and The Eagle), tackles YA lit with this adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s popular novel. A young American teen, Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), goes to live in England right before the country comes under violent attack. This flick seems like the rare YA that lacks romantic vampires or sci-fi dystopias. The Impossible standout Tom Holland also stars.
• LAST VEGAS (PG-13) What can one say about Last Vegas? The comedy is funnier than expected, and the drama is worse than one can imagine. Four old friends—Paddy (Robert De Niro), Billy (Michael Douglas), Archie (Morgan Freeman) and Sam (Kevin Kline)—head to Vegas for Billy’s bachelor party. Hilarity ensues as horndog Sam hits on all the ladies, Paddy gripes and grimaces, Archie drinks and gambles, and engaged Billy romances an older woman, lounge singer Diana (Mary Steenburgen). Astonishingly, the gags that ensue from the aforementioned clichés are funny. The forced melodrama between Billy and Paddy, who have been fighting over girls since they were little boys, drags the entire movie down, as does the unenlightened view of old people and young people, wholly represented by hot young women and “Entourage”’s Turtle (Jerry Ferrara). Director Jon Turteltaub smartly lets his four strong leads do their thing, and they are an appealing quartet. They work well together, no matter how unimaginative the script. However, the comedy will naturally play better to older audiences; cinematically uneducated youngsters will just be left wondering who all these old fogies are.
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER (PG-13) I wonder if Lee Daniels now wished he’d followed up Precious with this crowd-pleasing slice of historical nostalgia, chronicling the major events of the second half of the 20th century through the eyes of White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker). Were this film released later in the year, I’m sure Whitaker would be in the awards hunt; however, this August release date didn’t hurt The Help. With its exceptional cast—Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack and Alan Rickman appear as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Reagan, plus there’s Oprah, Terrence Howard, Mariah Carey, Melissa Leo, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave—The Butler overcomes the natural tendency of such films to drift into sentimental nostalgia. Daniels never sugarcoats the Civil Rights Movement, especially impressive for its PG-13 rating. The Butler’s anecdotal narrative inevitably draws comparisons to Forrest Gump, but Daniels’ film is more complicated. Too bad the scenes of Gaines’ home life, dominated by Oprah as his unhappy wife, lack the strength of those set in the White House and the Deep South. (Note: The title was changed to Lee Daniels’ The Butler for reasons of copyright, not ego.)
MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (G) So let’s call it a slump. Cars 2 was a clunker; Brave was good verging on really good but not close to great; and Monsters University lacks the Pixar pop of their undeniably great features (Up, Wall-E, Toy Story 3). In this prequel to Monsters, Inc., we learn how Mike (v. Billy Crystal) and Sully (v. John Goodman) met. Apparently, the two scarers didn’t start as best buds. First, they were scaring rivals at Monsters University. This Revenge of the Monster Nerds doesn’t creatively bend college life for monsters as one would expect from Pixar. The life lesson is trite—don’t let others define your limits or some similar sentiment—and is taught as cleverly as an inferior animation studio’s Monsters, Inc. knockoff. Fortunately, the animation, especially the creature design, is as lush and lifelike as ever, and the voicework from Pixar newcomers like Nathan Fillion and Charlie Day saves the comic day. Kids will love the silly, low scare fun, and parents will be happy it’s not Cars 3. (Just wait, that’s coming in August in the form of Planes.)
THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES (PG-13) I am so over romantic-tinged, supernatural fantasies aimed at teens. The first movie in what the makers hope to be the new Twilight et al. contains every single YA genre trope. When her mother (Lena Headey) disappears, a seemingly normal girl, Clary Fray (Lily “Daughter of Phil” Collins), discovers her significance in a shadow world of demons, vampires, werewolves and witches. Apparently, Clary is the only one able to find The Cup, one of the Mortal Instruments, which was hidden by her mother. With bad people played by the likes of Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Kevin Duran after the Cup, it’s a good thing Clary can count on a punkishly cute, part-Angel, part-human Shadowhunter named Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower). Maybe this sort of Junior “True Blood” seemed original a few years ago, but all it is in 2013 is boring. Don’t expect new Karate Kid director Harald Zwart to liven up the proceedings, and the cast is terribly underwhelming. God love Jared Harris, but Lane Price certainly cannot do this alone. At least Beautiful Creatures had Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson and Viola Davis to gleefully camp it up. The Mortal Instruments is desperately frumpy and achingly serious in comparison.
MUSCLE SHOALS This documentary by Greg 'Freddy' Camalier illuminates the role FAME Studios and producer Rick Hall played in creating the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, music scene. Music legends like Aretha Franklin, Greg Allman, Bono, Mick Jagger, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Wilson Pickett and Keith Richards attempt to explain the musical magic—that “Muscle Shoals Sound”—that emanated from a small town on the Tennessee River. This tuneful doc was an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival. (Ciné)
PLANES (PG) What with its Cars pedigree and Dane Cook voicework, Planes could have been a lot worse. It’s no more disagreeable than Turbo, a kiddie flick with which it shares some central DNA. A cropduster named Dusty Crophopper (v. Cook) longs to race across the skies. Unfortunately, he’s afraid of heights. With the help of his friends—including a Mater stand-in named Chug (v. Brad Garrett)—and mentor, Skipper (v. Stacy Keach), Dusty conquers his fears and the skies. It’s cute, sweet, and maybe a smidge direct-to-DVD; the voice cast—Teri Hatcher, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, John Cleese, Cedric the Entertainer, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer and Sinbad (?!)—is a step below the usual Pixar crop (though John Ratzenberger does pop by for his obligatory vocal cameo). Kids that love Cars will not care and will most likely fall for Planes. What’s next? Ships?
PRISONERS (R) Don’t head into Prisoners if you’re in the mood for some lighthearted escapism. On a rainy Thanksgiving, two young girls go missing. The parents, Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, look everywhere but eventually turn to the police, represented by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). An obvious prime suspect, the mentally challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano), appears, but no further clues can be found. A dark morality play from Contraband scripter Aaron Guzikowski, the two and a half hour Prisoners lasts a while. Jackman will probably land on the Academy’s shortlist for his turn as survivalist Dover, who won’t give up on his daughter; he also goes further to find her than the law allows. As Jackman’s co-lead, Gyllenhaal furthers separates himself from his pretty peers, though Guzikowski could have opened up Loki a bit more for the audience. He remains more a determined cipher than a complete character as his dogged drive is never examined. No one in the well-known cast underperforms in Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to his Academy Award nominated Incendies. Villeneuve’s Prisoners feels like home-grown Haneke; it’s a tough, mature box office hit.
RUSH (R) You will never know you are watching a Ron Howard film during this recreation of the 1976 Formula One battle between James Hunt (Chris “Thor” Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl). The rivalry merely heats up after Lauda suffers life-threatening burns during a midseason race. Howard recreates the sensational racing more realistically than any racing movie I have ever seen, and the script by Academy Award nominee Peter Morgan (his The Queen remains one of my favorite films of the last decade) fashions realistic people from these larger than life race car drivers. Hemsworth is terrific at being likably arrogant, but we all knew that from Thor and The Avengers. It is Bruhl, best known to American audiences from Inglourious Basterds, who captivates. His level-headed, unpleasantly disciplined Lauda overcomes the odds to stand out as the film’s champion, no matter who wins on the racetrack. Whether or not you like racing (stock car or formula) or Ron Howard films, Rush is that rare adult action drama that never loses speed on or off the track.
THOR: THE DARK WORLD (PG-13) Thor remains one of Marvel’s most surprisingly entertaining flicks, especially considering it was about Thor. The sequel, helmed by regular “Game of Thrones” director Alan Taylor, looks intriguing. I do hope Chris Hemsworth’s Asgardian god gets to be a lot more godlike this go-round, as he tackles a foe that not even papa Odin (Anthony Hopkins) could defeat. The excellent Tom Hiddleston returns as Loki, as do Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard and, most importantly, Idris Elba.
TRASHED Part of the EcoFocus Film Festival, Trashed is a documentary focusing on the extent and effects of global waste. Featuring Jeremy Irons. (Ciné)
THE UNITED STATES OF AUTISM This documentary follows one man as he travels across the country to meet families and individuals who are affected by autism. (Ciné)
WADJDA (PG) Wow! Wadjda is certainly a film to celebrate. This film is the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, where cinemas are banned, and was also written and directed by a woman, Haifaa Al Mansour, who is not allowed to drive or vote in her native country. This award-winning film details an eleven-year-old girl’s struggle to buy a bicycle. Of course, in Saudi Arabia, bicycles are thought to endanger a woman’s virtue. Wadjda sounds like a film worth supporting. (Ciné)
WE’RE THE MILLERS (R) We’re the Millers doesn’t break any laugh records, but after a few laughless weeks at the cinema, it more than accomplishes its goal. Its silliest problem is its star, the hilarious Jason Sudeikis, who comes off far too smug far too easily. (One wonders how this movie would have played with a more sympathetic David Clark, played by Jason Bateman or Jason Segel, etc.) After running afoul of his drug kingpin pal (Ed Helms), Dave (Sudeikis) must smuggle a smidge that turns out to be a lot more than a smidge of marijuana across the border. Dave hatches a brilliant plan to fake a family with stripper Rose (Jennifer Aniston, who is getting hotter with age), runaway teen Casey (Emma Roberts) and virginal Kenny (Will Poulter, Son of Rambow). Everything works out great until he runs into a swell DEA agent and his wife (Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn) and the big-time Mexican drug lord to whom the weed really belongs to catches up with them. We’re the Millers will probably gain popularity once it starts airing non-stop on FX. Still, it’s a funny afternoon diversion, thanks mostly to its clever cast, not its familiarly sitcom-ish script.