AMERICAN HUSTLE (R) Since 2004’s disappointing I Heart Huckabees, from which his on-set meltdown went viral, David O. Russell has been on fire. Could his latest film be his greatest yet? Yes; it’s certainly possible. A fictional account of the real life ABSCAM investigation that sent several members of federal, state and local government to prison, American Hustle, already nominated for seven Golden Globes, is set to rake in more nominations. Conman Irving Rosenfeld (a near unrecognizable Christian Bale) and his not exactly British girlfriend, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), are forced by an unstable FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (a sweetly permed Bradley Cooper), into conning the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), and some of the scariest mobsters still living (enjoy the uncredited surprise guest!). Torn between his love and his beautiful, crazy, young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and son, Irving has to come up with his master plan to escape jail and death. Russell has proven an uncanny ability to take a great cast and make them greater. American Hustle is a film made for ensemble cast awards; picking one standout nears impossible, though the film takes a hit during most of Bale’s absences. Go. See it.
ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES (PG-13) Much has changed since last we heard from San Diego’s top newsman, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell). He married co-anchor, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), and moved to New York City. But professional disappointment relegates Ron back to San Diego until he is offered the chance to front a 24-hour news network, the first of its kind. Ron returns to the Big Apple with his old news team behind him: features-stud Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), sports-guy Champ Kind (David Koechner) and weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell). But they face new challenges from rival anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden) and Veronica’s new lover Gary (Greg Kinnear). The jokes might not fly as fast or as quotable as those of the original, but the narrative and characters are better. Carell’s newfound stardom after the first movie means more Brick, and surprisingly, that’s a good thing. A late detour into staged melodrama falls a bit flat, adding unnecessary length, and the expected climactic battle gets too cameo-heavy with little comic payoff. Happily, the legend of Ron Burgundy is not tarnished by his return; only time will tell whether the sequel retains (or surpasses?) its predecessor’s rewatchability.
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.
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.
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.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (R) Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto have been hogging a lot of the recent buzz for their performances in The Young Victoria director Jean-Marc Vallee’s '80s AIDS drama. After being diagnosed with the deadly disease, a hard living electrician Ron Woodruff (McConaughey) overcomes his homophobia and attempts to beat the system while getting necessary medications for himself and others struggling to survive the burgeoning epidemic. With Jennifer Garner, David O’Hare (“American Horror Story”) and Steve Zahn. (Ciné)
DESPICABLE ME 2 (PG) As far as animated sequels go, Despicable Me 2 has more creative life in it than might first be thought. Gru (v. Steve Carell) may no longer be a master criminal, utilizing his freeze rays and other diabolical inventions to raise his three adopted daughters—Margo (v. Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (v. Dana Geier) and Agnes (v. Elsie Fisher). When a new super villain steals a dangerous, experimental serum, the Anti Villain League – represented by sweet potential love interest Lucy (v. Kristen Wiig) – enlist Gru’s assistance. Watching this enjoyable kiddie flick with a kid definitely increases the appeal of the little yellow Minions, whose roles have been enlarged with their own spinoff in the works for 2014. Carell’s Boris Badunov accent still entertains and warms the heart, as does little Agnes. A little long, even at 98 minutes (remember when Disney cartoons clocked in under 80?), Despicable Me 2 has no shot at surpassing expectations like its underdog predecessor, and its appeal to anyone over ten probably depends on one’s tolerance for the Minions. Still, it’s a funny movie for kids and parents.
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.
47 RONIN (R) It’s hard to imagine this long-delayed action flick (an original release was scheduled for late 2012) will make much of a dent at the box office. Keanu Reeves stars as a samurai (WTF?!) looking, along with a few other roaming warriors, to avenge the death of their master. Confidence is not boosted with the knowledge that this movie is Carl Rinsch’s directorial debut. Oddly, the script was written by Oscar nominee Hossein Amini and Fast and Furious’ Chris Morgan.
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, 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.
FROZEN (PG) Disney returns with a newfangled computer animated feature that feels very old school. A young princess, Anna (v. Kristen Bell), must venture into the frozen wilds to save her sister, recently crowned Queen Elsa (v. Idina Menzel), who has lost control over her icy powers. Anna is assisted in her search by ice salesman Kristoff (v. Jonathan Groff, “Glee”), his reindeer, Sven, and a goofy, talking snowman named Olaf (v. Josh Gad). The narrative, adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” by Wreck-It Ralph scripter Jennifer Lee (who co-directed), is as Disney formulaic as they come, and the animation shines without standing out. Nonetheless, the characters, especially Gad’s silly snowman, are winning. The songs are catchy, as is their diegetic musical inclusion. Little kids will love Frozen, and parents who grew up on Disney classics will not feel left out in the cold.
THE GREAT BEAUTY 2013. Journalist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, Gomorrah and Il Divo) celebrates his 65th birthday and finally looks beyond the parties and nightclubs of Rome thanks to a surprise from his past. This Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Language Film was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and won the European Film Award for Best Film. You may have seen writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s previous films, This Must Be the Place and Il Divo. (Ciné)
• GRUDGE MATCH (PG-13) Pairing the Raging Bull with Rocky seems like a cinematic bout made in heaven, but in the hands of director Peter Segal (his best picture is…ummm…Get Smart?) and a gaggle of unimpressive writers (but let’s chiefly blame “Entourage” creator Doug Ellin), the only knockout is of the viewer. Boxers Henry “Razor” Sharp (Sylvester Stallone) and Billy “The Kid” McDonnan (Robert De Niro) finally get their third rematch—they split the first two—thirty years later (too late?). Stallone is given the better (i.e. more sympathetic) role, as De Niro is mostly an aging ass, and Stallone benefits from the lower expectations. Kevin Hart and Alan Arkin provide comic relief to appeal to two disparate demographics, but even these two are done no service by a script that’s dominated by weak one-liners. If you think the lines in the trailer are stinkers, don’t expect much more from the ones kept for the movie. The golden oldies from Last Vegas had more strength left in their punches than these two paunch-drunk prizefighters.
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (PG-13) Peter Jackson’s first return to Middle-earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, did not disappoint, even if it failed to excite like The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The second Hobbit feature still feels hobbled by a feeling of déjà vu. Armies of orcs marching to war or battles against giant killer spiders are nothing new. But when Jackson takes us to new locales like Lake Town at the foot of the Lonely Mountain, where mammoth dragon Smaug (v. Benedict Cumberbatch) resides, the epic fantasy film reaches toward those heights of its predecessor. The return of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) does not hurt nor does the first appearance of the lovely elven warrior, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, best known as Kate from “Lost”). The river barrel ride that acts as the film’s highlight action set piece is spectacular, except for moments of poor FX so uncharacteristic of Jackson or the Weta digital effects house. Smaug, though, is a wonder, a massive work of CGI art. The climactic, fiery escape from the Lonely Mountain leaves the audience breathless, eager for the final installment, There and Back Again, due next December.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (PG-13) The Hunger Games returns, and its sequel, while more a formality setting up the series’ final, revolutionary entry, improves upon an original that was more of a visual book report than an exciting cinematic adaptation. (Original director Gary Ross’ absence was addition by subtraction.) After surviving the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are the Capitol’s newest celebrities. But all is not well in the Districts, and creepy President Snow (Donald Sutherland, who I’ve only just noticed resembles Sid Haig) lets Katniss know it by putting her back in the next year’s Games. New director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) paces the film better once we escape District 12 (every scene in it is so drab and boring), and the Quarter Quell is excitingly envisioned with deadly fog, killer monkeys and fun new faces like Finnick (a key new role well played by Sam Claflin) and Johanna (Jena Malone). Largely dismissed as repetitive upon the novel’s release, the underrated Catching Fire successfully adds more wrinkles to the Suzanne Collins’ formula than its more straightforward predecessor. However, it’s about time Katniss take more charge of her situation, a flaw hopefully remedied by the franchise finale, Mockingjay.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (R) The Coen Bros return with their depiction of Greenwich Village circa 1961. Spend a week with young folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he navigates the music biz and New York City in the wintertime. Naturally, this film is poised for multiple Oscar nominations, and its cast (Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund and Justin Timberlake) is as strong as one would expect from the Coens. Come on. You know you’re more than a little bit excited. (Ciné)
JUSTIN BEIBER'S BELIEVE (PG) Director of Beiber: Never Say Never Jon M. Chu brings you a second Beiber documentary featuring an on-stage and off-stage look at the young pop star and his fandom.
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.)
THE LEGEND OF HERCULES (PG-13) The style of Zack Snyder’s 300 has lived on in Tarsem’s Immortals and The Clash of the Titans remake. Now comes a new Hercules flick starring Kellan Lutz, better known as Twilight’s Emmett Cullen. (Incidentally, it’s the first of two Herc-flicks being released in 2014; the second one stars the Rock under the direction of Brett Ratner.) Renny Harlin, former '80s action darling and former Mr. Geena Davis, can still earn a gig.
LIFE THE GRIOT The USA imprisons more citizens than any other nation in the world, and many of them are young African American males incarcerated for non-violent crimes. Life the Griot, nee Lemuel LaRoche, is trying to flip the script. I’ve seen Life speak at a local high school, and he speaks with a rare energy and power. Thanks to Watkinsville’s Sunnybank Films, more people will meet Life. Five dollars will get you a ticket, popcorn and soda. All proceeds will benefit Chess & Community Conference. (Ciné)
MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (PG-13) The Other Boleyn Girl director Justin Chadwick gives you a history of the life of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Idris Elba (Luther and The Wire) plays Mandela and has already been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture.
MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS The acclaimed band, The National, get their own rockumentary courtesy of lead singer Matt Berninger’s brother, Tom, and Ciné has an advance screening of the doc just for you, Athens. This screening is sponsored by Amanda Martin of Balance Pilates and Underground Dance Society. It will be followed by a reception catered by the restaurant that shares its name with the band (hint, it’s next door to Ciné) and a live performance by Easter Island. (Ciné)
ONE CHANCE (PG-13) So, apparently, this movie is based on a true story. Paul Potts (James Corden, who was on “Doctor Who” once or twice) is bullied by day and sings opera at night. Eventually, he is selected for and wins “Britain’s Got Talent.” Once upon a time, director David Frankel helmed the above average The Devil Wears Prada. Taylor Swift was nominated for a Golden Globe for her original song, “Sweeter than Fiction.” With Julie Walters and Colm Meaney.
• PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES (R) Don’t give up on the Paranormal Activity franchise just yet. This series of haunted found footage recovers nicely from its fourth and worst entry. Deviating from the central gimmick of stationary cameras as part of a home surveillance setup, PA: TMO has recent high school graduate, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs), and his pals, Hector (Jorge Diaz) and Marisol (Gabriel Walsh). After Jesse’s neighbor, thought to be a witch by everyone, is murdered by one of Jesse’s classmates, the activity gets a bit paranormal. It never gets as scary as any of the first three movies, but a few jumpy jolts exist. Dropping the stationary cameras turns this Paranormal Activity into a more conventional found footage flick. On the other hand, having an ethnic cast is a refreshing change for such a whitewashed franchise. Christopher “Son of Michael” Landon has written Paranormal Activity 2, 3 and 4; he peppers his first stab at directing a PA with lots of little Easter eggs referencing its predecessors. Landon also divisively deepens the mythology, which leads to a slightly confusing conclusion. PA: TMO isn’t the best PA flick, but it gets the franchise back on track before this fall’s sixth film.
PHILOMENA (PG-13) Journalist Martin Sixsmith (co-writer Steve Coogan) picks up the story of the title character (Dame Judi Dench) who gave up her son years ago after she was forced to live in a convent. Often, the work of two-time Oscar nominated director Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things and The Queen) finds itself well-received by critics. The vastly talented Coogan can be an acquired taste. Nominated for three Golden Globes—Best Motion Picture, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. (Ciné)
SAVING MR. BANKS (PG-13) P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) meets with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) himself during the negotiations for and the filming of her classic Mary Poppins. Apparently, the whole story was about her difficult Australian childhood and her own dad, who served as the inspiration for Mr. Banks. Director John Lee Hancock last helmed The Blind Side. It looks like he’s got another crowd pleasing hit on his hands. With Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak and Bradley Whitford.
• THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (PG) Director-star Ben Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s classic short story is an odd duck. Take Thurber’s simple literary seed and fertilize it with writer Steve Conrad’s brand of The Weather Man/The Pursuit of Happyness pablum. The resulting film pleases on its own and disappoints as a version of Thurber. Daydreamer Walter Mitty (Stiller) works at “Life” Magazine, which is about to go completely digital, and he has lost the negative of the final cover photo, provided by a legendary photog (Sean Penn). Having never done anything, Walter goes on an impromptu adventure to Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan, mostly to get the attention of a comely coworker (a cute, pleasantly normal Kristen Wiig). Stiller’s humor never quite gels with Conrad’s insipid sincerity. Stiller’s direction shines, though he seems to be channeling a sterile, mass market Wes Anderson. Still, it’s laudable and creative; everything that the script is not. Unnecessarily overplotted and overly coincidental, it glosses over the complexities of Walter’s adventure. It should never have been called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but I still felt overtly amiable towards the film when it was over. Though what’s the deal with Adam Scott’s beard?
TYLER PERRY’S A MADEA CHRISTMAS (PG-13) The biggest Madea misfire since Meet the Browns, A Madea Christmas gives off the whiff of expired made-for-TV eggnog. Perry’s merrily mischievous matron travels to Alabama with the worst character Perry has yet created, Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford of “Amen”). Eileen’s daughter, Lacey (Tika Sumpter), is hiding her new marriage to Conner (Eric Lively), who is white, and her mother’s interactions with his likable redneck parents, Buddy and Kim (Larry the Cable Guy and Kathy Najimy), are offensively rude. A Madea Christmas is simply an ugly movie that would look weak even against The Hallmark Channel original holiday fare. Perry’s second worst character also resides in this small town, Chad Michael Murray’s Tanner. Unprofessional acting (check out the horrendous accents) and weak writing marked by outdated jokes about the small town South offend and disappoint. Perry has shown to be better than this gag gift of a holiday movie. So few Madea moments land that Larry the Cable Guy is the funniest fellow in the picture. Boy, that’s not a good thing. Have you ever seen a bad, local church’s Christmas play or that awful War on Christmas movie, Last Ounce of Courage? Then you’ve seen A Madea Christmas.
WALKING WITH DINOSAURS 3D (PG) Seventy million years ago during the Cretaceous period, three Pachyrhinosaurus pals—Patchi (v. Justin Long), Scowler (v. Skyler Stone) and Juniper (v. Tiya Sircar)—grow up together and struggle to survive. The film resembles a live action, computer generated hybrid version of the classic kiddie cartoon, The Land Before Time. John Leguizamo lends his voice to narrator Alex, an Alexornis bird symbiotically bonded with the dino protagonists. Named for the 1999 BBC TV documentary series.
• THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (R) Director Martin Scorsese is 71 and has more cinematic vim and vigor than any younger filmmaker to whom you wish to compare him. Just see The Wolf of Wall Street for proof. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jordan Belfort, who ruled the Bulls and the Bears before the age of 30. Hopped up on Quaaludes and cocaine, Belfort and his crew at Stratton Oakmont (best represented on screen by Jonah Hill) peddled penny stocks and defrauded investors so badly, he ended up in prison for 22 months. Scorsese captures every debauched moment—hookers, drugs and dwarf tossing—of Belfort’s life. DiCaprio will be an Oscar frontrunner if voters can get beyond the vileness of Belfort enough to celebrate the actor’s most physical performance. At three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is far from too long, though some individual scenes linger too long. Hill proves his Moneyball turn was no fluke with another career-redefining turn. How awesome is it to see Scorsese churning out still relevant work with a new muse while his old muse, Robert De Niro, is mired in crummy comedies like Grudge Match. This Wolf is one to watch.