Three blasts from the past and one wry look at our not-too-distant-future make this a particularly rich grownup movie weekend.
The New Stuff:
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 in the 1980s Abscam scandal. "Some of this actually happened," the title card reads, but we have a feeling writer/director David O. Russell ( Silver Linings Playbook) made up all the more hilarious stuff.
Director Adam McCay and star Will Ferrell swore that the sequel to their 2004 comedy wouldn't recycle any old gags; the only problem with that is the two films' premise IS the gag. Pompous idiot/news anchor Ron Burgundy is the same old blowhard, and his sidekicks are the same old lovable-as-they-are-clueless posse. Go, have fun, but understand this is just a very welcome addendum to the original.
What happens if you love your technology just a tad too much? Joaquin Phoenix finds out when he falls hard for the seductive female voice (Scarlett Johansson) in his computer operating system. Writer/director Spike Jonze creates a compelling portrait of a near future when people would rather interact with their machines than each other, and if that sounds too way-out for you, the next time you go out to eat, just take a look at the families sitting around you.
Saving Mr. Banks
Tom Hanks is Walt Disney and Emma Thompson is Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers in this magical (and allegedly true) story of how Uncle Walt convinced P.L. to let him bring her creation to the screen. If Thompson lays the prim-and-proper schtick on a bit thick, and if Hanks plays Disney as something of a homespun cartoon of the real mogul, it only adds to the film's mythical quality. They provide just the right dose of sugar to help the historical medicine go down.
Still Out There . . .
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
We'd watch the delightfully quirky Bill Nighy ( The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) if he were handing out food samples at Costco. Here he has to tell his son (Domhnall Gleeson)that the men in the family can travel through time. With Nighy on board, what starts out as a silly rom-com blossoms into a tall tale with some very grownup lessons. FULL REVIEW
All Is Lost
Robert Redford has been a movie star for so long it's easy to forget he's also a great screen actor. Here it's all Redford, all the time, wordlessly battling the elements as a lone sailor on an endless sea. He may well win his first acting Oscar for this one. FULL REVIEW
The Book Thief
Geoffrey Rush ( The King's Speech) and Emilly Watson ( War Horse) play the foster parents of a spunky young girl (Sophie Nelisse) who develops a passionate love for books during the dark days of Nazi Germany. The era's oppressive atmosphere fills the screen like smoke. But it is Rush, in perhaps the most tender performance of his career as the kind-hearted housepainter, who gives this movie its soul. FULL REVIEW
Tom Hanks gives his best performance in years as the captain of a cargo ship overrun by Somali pirates-but the real revelation is Somali actor Barkhad Abdi. He stands toe-to-toe with Oscar-winner Hanks, who generously allows his unknown costar to unfold a complex, surprisingly vulnerable character. FULL REVIEW
Dallas Buyers Club
At the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic, a tough heterosexual Texas electrician (Matthew McConaughey) gets the dread 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, may nab his first Oscar nomination for his compelling performance.
Dear Mr. Watterson
It's been nearly 20 years since Bill Watterson stopped drawing Calvin and Hobbes, and although the reclusive cartoonist is nowhere to be seen in this documentary, his presence is felt in the passion of the fans-readers and fellow artists alike-who remain devoted to his work.
We'll never forget the late James Gandolfini as the conflicted mobster of The Sopranos, but in this romantic comedy he's positively cuddly. Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a woman who discovers that the man of her dreams (Gandolfini) is the ex-hubby of her new close friend.
By now the animation wizards at Disney have this spunky-young-woman-defeats-evil thing down pat, but the real reason to duck into this film is the cartoon short that precedes it. Get a Horse! is a hand-drawn Mickey Mouse cartoon done in the early Disney style circa Steamboat Willie. Director Dorothy McKim even uses archival recordings of Walt Disney himself providing the voice of the world's favorite rodent.
Stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are fine and the film's visual re-creation of a space voyage is breathtaking (especially in 3-D), but cowriter/director Alfonso Cuaron should have launched with a decent script. FULL REVIEW
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Part two in the series based on a kidlit classic. If you're not a fan of the book series, you might enjoy Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci (with purple hair!), Donald Sutherland, and Toby Jones as assorted good guys and villains.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen's most balanced movie ever is a fond look at the early 1960s Greenwich Villlage folk music scene-a moment or two before Bob Dylan turned up and changed everything with his blend of folk and rock. Oscar Isaac is irresistibly mopey as the title character, a struggling folkie for whom suffering is an end to itself. But the real treat comes about halfway through, when Llewlyn hitches a ride to Chicago with a blustery, bloated blues musician played with great aplomb by John Goodman. FULL REVIEW
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
In any other year, Idris Elba's towering performance as Nelson Mandela would land him on anyone's Best Actor Oscar shortlist. Alas, the dance card is probably already full this time around, but that's no reason to miss Elba tracing the life of the South African legend from young adulthood through his 27-year imprisonment. Naomie Harris is at times chillingly intense as his wife Winnie, and director Justin Chadwick ( The First Grader) continues his love affair with inspiring, true African stories.
In a career-defining performance, Bruce Dern is a slightly befuddled fellow who's convinced he's won $1 million in a sweepstakes. Will Forte is the good son who offers to drive him from Montana to Nebraska to claim the dubious prize. Amazing performances all around, directed by Alexander Payne ( The Descendants, About Schmidt). FULL REVIEW
Josh Brolin stars as a businessman who was kidnapped and held in solitary confinement for 20 years...and is suddenly freed. Part of the mystery is, of course, who abducted him. More intriguing: Why did they let him go? Director Spike Lee provides answers aplenty in 104 blood-soaked minutes. Based on a 2003 Korean action flick.
Out of the Furnace
Christian Bale and Casey Affleck duke it out for acting Oscar nominations in this flint-edged story of two brothers raised in a Pennsylvania steel mill town. When a stab at backwoods boxing goes horribly wrong for one of them, the other stumbles to the rescue, encountering along the way a truly scary hillbilly, played with restrained sociopathic finesse by Woody Harrelson.
In a season of extraordinary acting accomplishments, Judi Dench gives the performance of a lifetime as the title character, a woman seeking the son she gave up as a child. Steve Coogan, who also wrote the film's moving and disarmingly funny script, costars as the investigative reporter who helps unravel the tangle of deceit and corruption that very nearly choked off the truth behind Philomena's quest. Based on a true story. FULL REVIEW