New This Week
THE LEGO MOVIE Everybody’s favorite construction toy comes to life on the big screen in this family-friendly animated comedy in which heroic LEGO minifigures band together to stop an evil tyrant. Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, and Morgan Freeman lead the voice cast for co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (the duo behind the Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs movies). (PG) 94 minutes. Starts Friday.
THE MONUMENTS MEN George Clooney co-wrote and directed this fact-based story in which he stars as the leader of an unlikely team of art professionals (curators, historians, etc.) on a mission to the front lines during World War II to rescue a treasure trove of European art masterpieces stolen by the Nazis. Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, and Cate Blanchett co-star. (PG-13) 119 minutes. Starts Friday.
VAMPIRE ACADEMY Richelle Mead’s series of best-selling YA novels inspired this potential new franchise about two rival clans of vampires living in the modern world—one peaceful, one nasty—and the teenage human/vampire girl in training to guard the good clan from the bad. Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, Sami Gayle, Cameron Monaghan, Dominic Sherwood, and Joely Richardson star for director Mark Waters (Mean Girls). (PG-13) 104 minutes. Starts Friday.
CONTINUING SERIES: MIDNIGHTS @ THE DEL MAR Eclectic movies for wild & crazy tastes plus great prizes and buckets of fun for only $6.50. This week: AMELIE This delectable French bon-bon of a film from 2001 boasts a sophisticated command of film technique, a freewheeling sense of humor and an irresistible performance by Audrey Tatou. Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet blends whimsy and surrealism, with fast, incisive, cartoon-style editing, and a visionary’s delight in the eccentric and grotesque. Shot on marvelous locations all over Paris, it’s bursting with joie de vivre. (R) (★★★ 1/2)—Lisa Jensen Fri-Sat midnight only. At the Del Mar.
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AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts command the screen in Tracy Letts’ screen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. The all-star cast—Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney—come along for the ride and offer some memorable moments to this dysfunctional family outing set in rural Oklahoma where the Weston clan has gathered after the disappearance of its family patriarch. As pill-popping, chain-smoking Violet, Streep chews the scenery like nobody else. Roberts turns in the best performance of her career. Still, there’s a tendency to feel assualted by the rolling waves of dysfunction here rather feeling enough empathy for it. True, few screen adaptations of brilliant stage works transition well onto the screen, but in Letts’ brooding theatrical setting, he allowed for the tempo to build. Director John Wells may have had too much of a hands-off approach on his actors here. Regardless, the film packs a punch and Streep, once again, proves she can disappear into any character. (R) 130 minutes. (★★★)—Greg Archer.
AMERICAN HUSTLE This film may very well win Best Picture. True, other pictures may be more deserving, but director David O. Russell’s provocative outing just has that Oscar feel to it. For one thing, he reunites with some of the actors he’s directed to Oscars (and Oscar noms for that matter) in a true-crime story set in 1970s New Jersey. Behild Christian Bale, who loses himself yet again in a role that finds him playing a slick con man who is forced to team up with an ego-driven, entirely too anxious FBI hotshot played by Bradley Cooper. The goal: to pierce the super fab world of the mob elite. Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner co-star but look for Lawrence to capture Oscar buzz. (R) 137 minutes. (★★★ 1/2)—Greg Archer
ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES Sure, escaping to the movies is fun, but it would have been nice—if not fair to the audience—to pepper this forced tour du force with a little bit of intelligence. Will Farrell returns as mustachioed San Diego TV newsman Ron Burgundy and his band of misfites are in tow: Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell, and David Koechner co-star. Christina Applegate is also on the bill for director Adam McKay. (PG-13) 119 minutes. (H1/2)—Greg Archer
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB Golden Globe-winner Matthew McConaughey scores as a brash, profane antihero in the true story of Ron Woodroof. A coke-snorting, womanizing, blue-collar Texan, diagnosed as HIV-positive in the 1980s and given 30 days to live, he defied his death his sentence for years to become a pioneer in making “unapproved” drugs from out of the country available to his local AIDS community. Jean-Marc Vallée’s film unspools as a tale of bizarre alliances and unexpected heroism as pugnacious, yet affecting as its protagonist. Jared Leto won a Supporting Actor Golden Globe as a feisty transvestite who becomes Woodroof’s business partner. (R) 117 minutes. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.
FROZEN This Nordic entry in the animated “Disney Princess” franchise (loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen) delivers two princesses, one handsome prince, and a roguish, wisecracking commoner. How these couples do (or do not) match up is part of the fun in this surprising scenario cooked by scriptwriter Jennifer Lee and her co-director Buck Jones. (PG) 108 minutes. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.
GRAVITY A couple of astronauts on a routine mission outside their spacecraft suddenly find themselves adrift in space in this smart, elegantly composed and utterly gripping edge-of-your-seat thriller from filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. Neither sci-fi nor space opera—and far more than simply a star vehicle for appealing headliners Sandra Bullock and George Clooney—it’s more like a space procedural in which ordinary people pit their own human ingenuity against ever more incredible and daunting odds. (PG-13) 90 minutes. (★★★★)—Lisa Jensen.
HER Set in the near future, Joaquin Phoenix upgrades his personally stylized OS (Operating System), voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and, over time, the two develop an intimacy that neither saw coming. The Os is even given a name—Samantha. Watch how well director Spike Jonze, who also penned the tale, paces this film and allows for some of the deeper, rich and complex issues of “relationship” to play themselves out. Amy Adams, who just nabbed a Golden Globe for American Hustle, co-stars. But it’s Phoenix who stands out. 126 minutes. (★★★ 1/2)—Greg Archer.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE Round Two in this popular franchise takes a while to pack a punch—emotional and otherwise—but when it does, it’s downright invigorating. (★★★)—Greg Archer.
I, FRANKENSTEIN Aaron Eckhart stars as Frankenstein’s creature, still alive in the modern world and caught in the crossfire in a war between two immortal, supernatural clans. Based on the graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, who also wrote the story that launched the Underworld movie franchise. Bill Nighy and Miranda Otto co-star for screenwriter-turned-director Stuart Beattie, who co-wrote the script with Grevioux. (PG-13) 93 minutes.
THE INVISIBLE WOMAN Ralph Fiennes directs this tale which is, perhaps, one of the most compelling period pieces on Victorian novelist Charles Dickens (with Fiennes in the role). But the biographical period drama centers more on the character of Nelly Ternan, a young English stage actress who met Dickens in the height of his career. Terman eventually became Dickens’ secret mistress for the rest of his life. Watch how well Felicity Jones (Like Crazy; The Tempest) handles her role as the naive and often emotionally destaught Nelly. She’s a gem to witness on screen and elevates this film into one of the more memorable outings of the season. Kristin Scott Thomas and Tom Hollander (as Wilkie Collins) co-star. (R) 111 minutes. Starts Friday. (★★★ 1/2)—Greg Archer
JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT This origin story borrows elements from Tom Clancy’s well-known Jack Ryan canon, but updates and reassembles them for the modern world. CIA analyst-turned-op Ryan gets a face-lift (or should I say youth potion) in Chris Pine, who plays the role with a nifty balance of humor and intensity. Director Kenneth Branagh makes a sleek, efficient thriller out of the material, and co-stars as a sinister Russian spy with a Napoleon complex. Kevin Costner is good as Ryan’s CIA recruiter, an Branagh’s epic sense of drama and full-bore theatricality keeps the story percolating along. (PG-13) 105 minutes. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.
LABOR DAY Kate Winslet earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in this contemporary thriller from director Jason Reitman (Juno; Up In the Air). As a reclusive mother out on a back-to-school shopping trip with her 13-year-old son, she has a close encounter with a wounded, yet intimidating stranger (Josh Brolin), who persuades them to take him into their home—a decision that has intense repercussions as the long weekend plays out. Tobey Maguire and James Van Der Beek co-star. (PG-13) 111 minutes.
LONE SURVIVOR Mark Wahlberg stars in this military action thriller about four Navy SEALS whose covert mission against the Taliban goes awry when they are ambushed in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, and Eric Bana co-star for director Peter Berg. (R)
NEBRASKA A marvelous turn for Bruce Dern, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his role as a cranky gent who forces his son (Will Forte in surprisingly good role) along on a road trip to claim a million-dollar prize the he insists he’s won from Publishers’ Clearinghouse. Watch how wonderfully Dern disappears into this role, which assures him an Oscar nod. And relish how well Dern and Forte play off of each other. Shot in shot in black-and-white by Alexander Payne (The Descendants; Sideways) it stands out as one of the year’s best. (R) 115 minutes. (★★★ 1/2)—Greg Archer
THE NUT JOB A squirrel ousted from his park habitat and forced to survive on his own in the city rallies his buddies in a plot to rob a nut shop in this animated 3D family comedy. Will Arnett and Katherine Heigl head the voice cast. Pete Lepeniotis directs. (PG) 86 minutes.
OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS, 2014 Where are the next generation of filmmakers and animators coming from? Find out in these two complete, separate programs of this year’s Oscar-nominated short films from around the world (five live-action and five animated), offered for theatrical release in advance of the Academy Awards on March 2. Highlights of the Animation program are the deliriously steampunk Mr. Hublot from France, and the larky British stop-motion storybook tale Room on the Broom. Live-action standouts include the hilarious The Voorman Problem, about a prison inmate who thinks he’s God, and the tender Danish fable Helium. Astound your friends with your knowledge of these categories at your Oscar parties! Not rated. Animated Program: 110 minutes. (HHH1/2) Live Action Program: 113 minutes. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.
PHILOMENA Steve Coogan plays a jaded, unemployed journalist opposite the divine Judi Dench in a story based on the real-life events of a British woan searching for the son she was forced to give up when she was very young. The duo create some wonderful chemistry here in a tale that also manages to offer enough surprises to keep you both invested in the journey and each of the characters’ emotional evolution. There’s a lovely bit of serendipity in the real-life tale and director Stephen Frears does a nice job weaving those elements in without provoking a major roll of the eyes. And Dench can do no wrong. (PG-13) 98 minutes. (★★★)—Greg Archer
RIDE ALONG It’s Training Day with laughs with Kevin Hart as a security guard-turned police recruit spending 24 hours in the passenger seat with tough cop Ice Cube, patrolling the streets of Atlanta, to prove that he’s worthy to marry the veteran cop’s sister (Tika Sumpter). John Leguizamo and Laurence Fishburne co-star. Tim Story (Think Like A Man) directs. (PG-13)
12 YEARS A SLAVE The mighty Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a haunting, nuanced, electrifying performance in filmmaker Steve McQueen’s blistering portrait of what slavery was like in the pre-Civil War American South. Based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black New Yorker abducted and sold into slavery in 1841, the film shows with heartbreaking precision how the loss of common humanity, even more than chains and beatings, is the true cost of slavery. McQueen has an unerring eye for the indelible image, both horrific and poetic, and the excellent supporting cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch as a relatively benign but ineffectual slave owner, Michael Fassbender in a bravura, willies-inducing turn as a belligerent psycho of a plantation owner, and the compelling Lupita Nyong’o as the unfortunate object of his desire. (R) 134 minutes. (★★★ 1/2)—Lisa Jensen.
THAT AWKWARD MOMENT Zac Efron, Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan star in Tom Gormican’s modern comedy about three best buds trying to figure out where their respective dating relationships are headed. Imogene Poots and Mackenzie Davis co-star. (R) 94 minutes.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET Leonardo DiCaprio teams up with director Martin Scorsese in this tale, based on real-life endeavors. DiCaprio plays hotshot stockbroker Jordan Belfort, whose unlikely success on Wall Street in the mid-1990s comes crashing down when the Feds expose his securities scheme as a fraud. Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, and Jean Dujardin come along for the ride. The bad news? It’s just hard to warm up to this tale of excess. It’s even more challenging to care much about the outcome for DiCaprio’s character. That said, it seems that director, star and screenwriter Terence Winter are asking quite a bit from their audience. True, not all stories that emerge out of Hollywood are feel-good tales, but there must have been a way to tweak this outing just enough to evoke something positive or thought-provoking. What we’re left with, really, is how to best measure acting talent and direction. Those two elements seem to save the film from completely plummeting like a bad stock market share..(R) 179 minutes. (★★) —Greg Archer