AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (R) What a miserable two hours! Find the most dysfunctional family you know, and visit them during a time of mourning. That experience is guaranteed to be less grueling than the time spent with Oklahoma’s Westons. Matriarch Violet (Academy Award nominee Meryl Streep, chewing up scenes and spitting them out in illustrious award bait fashion) has cancer and is cancerous. Her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), disappears, bringing her three unhappy daughters—Barb (Academy Award nominee Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson, “Masters of Sex”) and Karen (Juliette Lewis)—back home. Secrets are outed. Some shock (I won’t spoil the big ones); most do not (Barb and her husband, played by Ewan McGregor, are separated). Playwright Tracy Letts (Bug, Killer Joe) adapts his play for the screen, but it’s still mostly a series of shouted monologues less than impressively handled by TV vet John Wells. The movie is so stagy, one expects an intermission. This movie is old-fashioned award porn, fashioned from an award-winning cast that includes three Oscar winners (Streep, Roberts and Chris Cooper) and three more nominees (Lewis, Shepard and Abigail Breslin). Streep’s diehard fanbase of middle aged to older women will devour this exhausting film.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB (R) Matthew McConaughey is more than all right, all right, all right in his Oscar-nominated turn as Ron Woodroof, a walking, talking Texas cliché who suffers from AIDS. In the late '80s, the oversexed electrician-cum-bullrider gamed the system for years to lengthen his life and provide needed, unapproved medications to the subscribers of his Dallas Buyers Club. The McConaughey film that truly deserved a Best Picture nomination is Mud, but the star and Jared Leto, whose beautiful performance as transgendered AIDS patient Rayon will most likely earn the former Jordan Catalano an Oscar, put this above average film on the award map. Griffin Dunne is always a welcome sight too. Dallas Buyers Club has the right mix of pathos, humor and character growth to please a rather broad swath of filmgoers from the heartland to the coastline, which assists the awards success of director Jean-Marc Vallee’s bittersweet biopic. But let’s face it; McConaughey’s renaissance is fueling DBC’s buzz. Has McConaughey overtaken Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as the foremost pretty boy romantic lead remade as a serious leading man? Only time—and maybe Oscar—will tell.
DEVIL’S DUE (R) The trailer promised a found footage update of the Rosemary’s Baby scenario—a woman is mysteriously impregnated with the antichrist—but unsurprisingly, that movie did not need to be made. A newly married couple, Zach (a way too sincere Zach Gilford, “Friday Night Lights”) and Samantha (Allison Miller), loses a night on their honeymoon in Santo Domingo. Suddenly, Sam is pregnant, and she has worse problems than morning sickness. This horrific pregnancy proceeds exactly as expected. Devil’s Due has several problems, and lack of terror tops the list. Filmmakers Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (half of V/H/S’s Radio Silence) switch filming methods too many times to keep the found footage gimmick alive. First, Zach’s the guy who wants to film every moment for posterity; then the cult sets up home surveillance a la Paranormal Activity; then some teens in the woods just happen to be filming themselves doing nothing. Found footage has a hard enough purchasing audience buy-in; switching the device so much kills the connection. Points for finally using a hands-free camera; too bad it was just for the climax. Use that nauseating trick for a whole film, and you’ve brought something fresh to found footage.
JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (PG-13) Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst turned operative has been portrayed on screen by four different actors—Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and now Chris Pine—but this latest film, based on an original script that isn't one of Clancy’s technothrillers, gives the character a mostly successful makeover into America’s answer to James Bond. Scripters Adam Cozad and David Koepp (many a blockbuster including Mission: Impossible and Jurassic Park) start their retconning in 2001, with 9/11 pushing Ryan from doctoral student at the London School of Economics to marine injured in Afghanistan. His rehab introduces the heroic soldier to future wife, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley, sporting an uncomfortable American non-accent), and CIA mentor, William Harper (Kevin Costner, as stalwart as ever). The action moves to Russia where director Kenneth Branagh gives a great audition for future Bond villainy as Victor Cherevin. This new(re)born franchise needs more giant action setpieces to compete with Bond, but the setup is strong. (No one will probably notice if they quietly change lead actresses down the road.) Branagh continues to strengthen the action blockbuster section of his resume. Maybe most importantly, he keeps the movie a svelte 105 minutes; some more experienced action helmers take note.
NEBRASKA (R) Alexander Payne’s newest film, a sadly sweet comedy about aging and parenting one’s parent, lacks The Descendants’ cool (i.e. George Clooney), but its lack of cool is more than made up for by sparse stylishness and Bruce Dern and June Squib, who are both newly-minted Oscar nominees. Aged, confused Woodrow Grant (wily vet Dern, whose last Oscar nom came in 1978) is convinced he’s won a million dollars via sweepstakes. His suffering wife (the unforgettable Squibb) and eldest son (Bob Odenkirk) refuse to play along, but second son David (former “Saturday Night Live” player Will Forte, who has a lot more to offer than MacGruber), agrees to drive his dad from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska. In Woody’s dying, small Nebraska hometown, the family encounters jealousy from extended family—Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray deserve much love for their turns as David’s exceptionally awful cousins—and old friends like Stacy Keach’s Ed Pegram. Hollywood bigshots walk a fine line when poking fun at the heartland and small town folk. Superior smugness is an easy trap, which Payne and first-time feature writer Bob Nelson deftly avoid to teach us that you can go home again; maybe you just shouldn’t.
RIDE ALONG (PG-13) Buddy cop action comedies can do worse than star Kevin Hart; alternately, they can do better than Ice Cube. In Ride Along, Ben Barber (Hart), a security guard with aspirations to be a cop, spends a day with his girlfriend’s super cop brother, James Payton (Cube), in hopes of impressing him and earning his blessing. First Payton punks Ben; then they run into the big gun of ATL crime, scary gang leader Omar (not that Omar; this Omar is played by Laurence Fishburne). The basic blueprint of this movie was written by Shane Black in the late 80s, and Lethal Weapon will always be better than its jokier progeny. If you cannot see the plot “twist” coming, you have not watched enough buddy cop flicks. Ride Along’s closest kin is Kevin Smith’s mostly fruitless cop-medy, Cop Out, and Ride Along beats that movie thanks solely to Hart. He’s hard to keep from being funny, and it’s hard not to root for his wannabe policeman Ben. The movie needed better than Cube, whose grimacing delivery still resembles constipation more than toughness. He even says, “Today was a good day.” That gag epitomizes Ride Along; hitting bull’s eyes with a shotgun.
12 YEARS A SLAVE (R) The very real, very powerful 12 Years a Slave recounts the devastatingly true account of Solomon Northup (Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery. Solomon’s woeful tale occurred to many other free blacks; his is just one of the few that ended happily. This film’s climax is easily the year’s most relieving. Shame director Steve McQueen certainly earned his Academy Award nomination for gracefully bringing this true life horror story to cinematic life. Despite its massively discomfiting subject, 12 Years a Slave is never anything less than compellingly watchable. So filled with tremendous performances from Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Kenneth Williams, Scoot McNairy, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Garrett Dillahunt and Brad Pitt, 12 Years a Slave is the reason ensemble acting prizes were created. Still, the Academy Award nominated turns from Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender—whose malevolent slave owner might be the new Simon Legree embodiment of slavery’s evil—and Lupita Nyong’o certainly stand out, though the star is, ultimately, this supremely well-constructed film, a work that stands above nearly all its competitors. Of last year’s films, probably only Gravity and Her impressed me more, though only microscopically.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
HER (R) Her is done little justice by loglines. People who haven’t heard of it either find it too strange or too silly. They are so misguided. The first film written by Spike Jonze alone, Her stars a really nice, mildmannered Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly. Ted writes personal letters for strangers and is struggling through a divorce. Then he meets his new Operating System and falls in love…with the OS. Samantha is voiced by Scarlett Johannson, so the concept isn’t THAT outlandish. The film is mostly Phoenix interacting with Johannson’s voice. Sometimes an unmade Amy Adams pops by to again verify her brilliance. While Phoenix and ScarJo incredibly do their thing, Jonze and his behind the scenes folk drip visual magic into audience eyes with their retro-future design. You get told so many times how awesome an award-worthy festival winner is before getting the opportunity to see it, that, frankly, many times the hype trumps the film. Her is the exception. It is unreservedly wonderful. But here we are with Gravity and Her duking it out for my and many other best film accolades.
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.
I, FRANKENSTEIN (PG-13) I have not really enjoyed any of the Underworld movies (the last, Awakening, was probably the one I liked the most?), and I, Frankenstein, adapted from the vamp-meets-lycan franchise scribe Kevin Grevioux’s graphic novel and starring series fixture Bill Nighy, looks exactly like an additional trip to that blue-lit world. Aaron Eckhart stars as the titular monster, who is caught up in a centuries-long war between other immortal creatures. I think I’d like the idea more if it were actually introducing Frank to the Vamp-Lycan conflict.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (R) So the Coen Brothers deliver one of their most rewarding films yet, even if it does feature yet another self-destructive protagonist. Yet folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a charmer as he hops from couch to couch during the cold New York winter of 1961; Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake are the two most recognizable providers of said couches. Isaac has been an award show fixture, and his performance certainly fits the bill for breakout. He’s in every scene and, besides some unsurprising scene stealing from John Goodman as a jazz-hole, no one competes with Isaac. The Coens have given the young actor a heck of a gift. What a witty way the Coens use space in these tiny New York hallways, and music, obviously, plays the biggest role in a Coen film since O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with whom this film shares music guru T-Bone Burnett. It has a bit of a head scratching conclusion, but everything preceding it bittersweetly tickles the heart and the quirky bone, much like we’ve come to expect from the Brothers Coen. They forsake the showy genre gamesmanship of No Country and True Grit for something more real and more emotionally effective.
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.
LONE SURVIVOR (R) The spoiler-ishly titled Lone Survivor does not hide from what it is, which amounts to injury porn in the second act (the characters’ two falls are brutal). While on Operation Red Wings, four Navy SEALs—team leader Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Axe (Ben Foster), Danny (Emile Hirsch, who more and more resembles a tiny version of Jack Black) and Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), upon whose book this film is based—battle an army of Taliban fighters. The cinematic account of this true story is written and directed by Peter Berg, whose The Kingdom was severely underrated (and superior to his latest), like Friday Night Lights with soldiers. Even the incredible Explosions in the Sky provides the score. Nothing about Lone Survivor is particularly unsuccessful, though which member of the bearded quartet is which can be hard to distinguish during the hectic firefight. Berg shoots action with a visceral viciousness, taking some visual cues from first person shooters like Call of Duty (a videogame movie Berg will probably one day helm). Lone Survivor will please the action-heads out there, but it takes the home movies before the end credits to remind audiences these soldiers were actual husbands and fathers.
THE NUT JOB (PG) The latest animated feature (it seems as if there are so many nowadays) pits a curmudgeonly squirrel named (a bit on the nose) Surly (v. Will Arnett) against the city. When he finds Maury’s Nut Store, he may just have found the way to alleviate his and the rest of his park community’s winter worries. Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson and Katherine Heigl are the next three biggest names in the voice cast. Will this movie capture its family audience without a big name like Disney or DreamWorks behind it?
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.
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 WISHING RING 1914. The rediscovered silent classic from director Maurice Tourneur (The Last of the Mohicans and The Poor Little Rich Girl) celebrates its 100th anniversary. In The Wishing Ring: An Idyll of Old England, a young man uses a “magic” gypsy ring to prove his worth to his father and the pretty young woman he meets while exiled. The silent feature will be accompanied by a live original piano piece by Mauro Ronca. Thomas Kenyon, a friend of star Vivian Martin, will participate in a post film Q&A.
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.