Heroes come in all shapes and social strata, as this week's three top movies prove.
Kevin Costner enlists every ounce of his boyish goodwill to make what might have been a Superbowl-sized snore an enjoyable insider's look at the NFL college draft. He's a front-office guy who wants to make his team competitive while preserving his last shred of integrity; no easy task in the cutthroat world of pro sports. The rest of the appealing cast includes Jennifer Garner as his (much younger) love interest, Frank Langella as his boss, Denis Leary as his coach and Ellen Burstyn as his mom.
Following up his gritty performance in last year's Frozen Ground, Nicolas Cage rewards his patient fans with another tightly observed performance. This time he's a troubled, violence-prone woodsman who knows if he applies a well-deserved whoopin' to the abusive dad of a teenage boy he's befriended (Tye Sheridan) he'll go to jail for good. Far from feel-good fare, Joe is dark and tragic on all sorts of levels-but a shining reminder of just how good Nic Cage can be when he puts his mind to it.
The Railway Man
A searingly touching tale of war and reconciliation, this World War II drama traces the story of a British POW ( Colin Firth), who suffers first at the hands of his Japanese captors, then in the grips of post-traumatic stress disorder (back when they called it "shell shock"). With the loving encouragement of his wife (Nicole Kidman), many years later he returns to Thailand to confront his tormentors, both human and psychological.
Still Out There ...
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The good news: in this latest piece of Marvel superhero bombast, Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson are on hand. The bad news: There's not enough of them. Chris Evans is the titular hero and Scarlett Johansson is his kick-butt sidekick, but after the last bad guy has been vanquished and the final fireball has burned itself out, all we're left with is fond memories of those two veterans showing the kids how real stars don't just make movies ... they inhabit them.
Michael Pena stars as the legendary farm workers' union leader, and despite the inspiring lessons of the man's life, director Diego Luna's films is oddly dispassionate. The film falls victim to the fate that swallows too many film biographies: It's so in love with the subject that he emerges not as a human being, but as an icon whose only sin is in being too devoted to his good cause. Pena strikes a handsome figure, but he seems a bit too slight and movie star-handsome to be a former field worker who returns to Central California to bring a better life to his people. John Malkovich is sufficiently menacing as a mean grape grower; America Ferrera, as Chavez's fiery wife, Helen, too often overshadows her costar.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
No filmmaker has a more fiercer following than Wes Anderson ( The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom). But if you've been on the fence (or clear on the other side of it) regarding Anderson, this may be the film that makes a believer of you. A dazzling vision of Europe between the wars serves as the backdrop for a dizzy story about a grand hotel concierge ( Ralph Fiennes), the lobby boy he takes under his wing (Tony Revolori) and their unwitting involvement in a murder mystery. FULL REVIEW
Island of Lemurs: Madagascar
Narrator Morgan Freeman does for lemurs what he did for flightless Antarctic birds in March of the Penguins - which isn't hard, because with their huge eyes, banner-like tails and tendency to amble around on their hind legs, lemurs are cuter than penguins ever were. This IMAX adventure will have you booking the next flight to Madagascar before you can say, "Awwwww!"
A whole lot more substantial than the lighthearted ads would have you think, this small, quietly lethal film is a poignant look at a long-married couple, Nick and Meg (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan), returning to the scene of their Paris honeymoon in a bid to recapture a bit of the magic of their early years together. As the former colleague whose hospitality leads to a mine-strewn dinner party, Jeff Goldblum is very, very Jeff Goldblum-ish. FULL REVIEW
The Lego Movie
There's a lot more for grownups here than you'd expect: Packed with gags and clever toy-world references, it's the story of a nondescript Lego minifigure (voiced by Craig Berry) saving his world from an evil villain (Will Ferrell) who wants to (gasp!) glue all the blocks together, stifling creativity forever. Written and directed by a bunch of guys from TV Sitcomville ( How I Met Your Mother, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), it's fast, funny and feel-good.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman
This Dreamworks update lacks the anarchic wackiness of Jay Ward's 1960s TV series, but it does celebrate the show's delightful alternative takes on history while adding an element of warmth to the relationship between a dog and his boy. The voice work is first-rate, with Modern Family's Ty Burrell stepping in admirably as Peabody. Listen for Stanley Tucci as Leonardo da Vinci and Mel Brooks as - who else? - Albert Einstein.
Muppets Most Wanted
The Muppets were born smack dab in the middle of the 1950s, and their fellow boomers have grown to know exactly what to expect from the felt-skinned crew: Smart send-ups of pop culture, outrageous wordplay, and a safe sort of anarchism that lands somewhere between Monty Python and the Marx Brothers. Their current adventure - a silly story about Kermit the Frog being kidnapped and replaced by a master criminal who happens to be a dead ringer for our favorite amphibian - gives Muppet fans precisely what they pay to see, plus funny big-star cameos and Ricky Gervais and Tina Fey as the heavies.
Russell Crowe gives one of his strongest performances and cowriter/director Darren Aronofsky provides a thoughtful, challenging script in a movie that's full of surprises - and mostly good ones. The faithful will quibble with the film's flights of extra- Biblical fancy; skeptics will scoff at its overall respect for the Book of Genesis story - and that means everyone leaves the theater with something to talk about. Anyone who's ever sat in a Sunday school class and seriously considered the consequences of a worldwide flood has found themself, along with Crowe's conflicted hero, asking the same difficult questions.
Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and 2
Lars Von Trier ( Melancholia) is one of Europe's most respected directors, so we guess it's OK to mention this sexually explicit tale of a fortysomething woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who tells her sordid life story to a man (Stellan Skarsgard) after he rescues her from a street beating. Shia LeBourf, Christian Slater and Uma Thurman play folks she's, uh, encountered along the way.
Rob the Mob
Andy Garcia is a mob boss and Ray Romano is a New York reporter out to nail him in a true-story crime flick that focuses on a young couple (Michael Pitt and Aida Turturro) who pull off a string of daring hold-ups of Mafia social clubs.
Hey, Arnold Schwarzenegger's back (again), this time as the tough-as-nails leader of a take-no-prisoners DEA squad. Fans of thoughtful parlor dramas will stay away anyway; for devotees of the Governator, Sabotage is a solid entry in Schwarzenegger's career renaissance.
New to Home Video (DVD and Video on Demand)
12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery, leads a powerful cast. Movies from Roots to Django Unchained have shown us the evils of slavery; 12 Years a Slave makes us feel the lash. FULL REVIEW
You won't have more fun at the movies than you'll find here with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Louis C.K. and Jennifer Lawrence as assorted con artists and Feds conspiring to bring down crooked politicians. Though the film is based on the 1980s Abscam scandal, but we have a feeling that writer/director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) made up the more hilarious stuff. FULL REVIEW
Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga are charming in this warmhearted grownup love story. They play two strangers who meet on the day they bring their respective children to a college tour - and fall into love at first sight. It takes real screen chemistry to draw viewers into such a headlong romance with any sense of believability, and the stars pull it off, almost magically.
Dallas Buyers Club
At the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic, a tough heterosexual Texas electrician (Matthew McConaughey) gets the dreaded diagnosis - then sets up a lucrative business smuggling alternative anti-AIDS drugs into the state. McConaughey, who has been rising from beefcake idol to accomplished actor, won his first Oscar for his compelling performance.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
It would be tough to find a movie thriller in the past 60 years that does not owe a debt to this, one of the most eerily exhilarating films ever made. The great actor Charles Laughton directed (his one and only trip behind the camera) the story of two young children who are terrorized by the darkly charismatic minister who marries their widowed mother (Shelley Winters). The awful reviews that greeted this masterpiece call into question the whole notion of film criticism. Wait ... what?
Snake & Mongoose
Jesse Williams ( Grey's Anatomy) plays Don "The Snake" Prudhomme and Richard Blake is Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen in this tire-squealing flick about two real-life legends of drag racing (yes, there is such an animal). Even if you never got into dragsters, most boomers will love the part where the pair enlist Mattel toys to create Hot Wheels versions of their cars.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Teaming for the fifth time with Leonardo DiCaprio, director Martin Scorsese lets loose a cannonade of sex, drugs and no-holds-barred avarice in telling the mostly true story of a New York stockbroker who made an outrageous fortune by swindling investors in the 1980s and '90s. Like his central character, Scorsese once again proves that nothing succeeds like excess. FULL REVIEW