Film, Times & Events: Week of Dec. 19

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New This Week

AMERICAN HUSTLE David O. Russell reunites with some of the actors he’s directed to Oscars (and Oscar nominations) in recent years for this true-crime drama set in 1970s New Jersey. Christian Bale stars as a slick con man coerced into teaming up with loose-cannon FBI agent Bradley Cooper to infiltrate the glamorous world of the mob elite. Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner co-star. (R) 137 minutes. Starts Friday.

47 RONIN 18th Century Japan is the setting for this latest retelling of a classic samurai story (Japan’s national folk epic) about a blood feud between rival clans that leas to a meticulously planned act of revenge. Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Tadanobu Asano star for director Carl Rinsch. (PG-13) 119 minutes. Starts Wednesday (December 25).

GRUDGE MATCH It’s Raging Bull vs. The Italian Stallion when Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone team up to star as two rival prize fighters coaxed out of retirement 30 years later for one more bout. It’s a comedy, directed by Peter Segal (50 First Dates; Anger Management.) Kim Basinger and Alan Arkin co-star. (PG-13) 113 minutes. Starts Wednesday (December 25).

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Reviewed this issue. (R) 105 minutes. (★★★)

Film Events

SPECIAL EVENT THIS WEEK: THE WIZARD OF OZ —IN 3D! A tornado whisks teenage Judy Garland over the rainbow and into movie immortality in this timeless 1939 musical fantasy based on the classic L. Frank Baum children’s’ book. Delightful vaudeville hoofers Ray Bolger and Jack Haley, and comic Bert Lahr bring showbizzy panache to the roles of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, Margaret Hamilton is unforgettable as the Wicked Witch, and there’s nothing like seeing them all in Technicolor on the big screen—and in 3D, in this special holiday engagement. (PG) 101 minutes. (★★★★)—Lisa Jensen. Tonight only (Thursday, Dec 19), 7:30 p.m., at the Del Mar.

CONTINUING EVENT: LET’S TALK ABOUT THE MOVIES This informal movie discussion group meets at the Del Mar mezzanine in downtown Santa Cruz. Movie junkies are invited to join in on Wednesday nights to pursue the elusive and ineffable meanings of cinema. Discussion begins at 7 pm and admission is free.

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Now Playing

ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES Will Ferrell returns as fiercely mustachioed San Diego TV newsman Ron Burgundy in this second installment of the comedy franchise. As the ’70s close, Ron and his team relocate to New York City for new jobs at the nation’s first 24-hour news cannel. Paul Rudd, Christina Applegate, Steve Carrell, and David Koechner co-star for director Adam McKay. (And look for a passel of comedy and movie stars in cameos.) (PG-13) 119 minutes.

THE BOOK THIEF You need not have read Markus Zusak’s bestselling YA novel to be drawn to Brian Percival’s warm and moving adaptation. There’s a lot more going on in Zusak’s 500-plus-page novel than ever makes it to the screen, but the essence of the story about a girl whose love of books helps her survive devastating times—the rise of the Nazis in a World War II-era German town—retains its power. It’s a stately looking film that concentrates on personal dynamics, while the horrors of the war are kept mostly offstage. And it finally succeeds on an ensemble of absolutely lovely performances: Geoffrey Rush as the girl’s warm-hearted foster father, Emily Watson as his crusty-seeming wife, and beguiling 13-year-old French-Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse in the title role. (PG-13) 131 minutes. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB 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 is terrific as a feisty transvestite who becomes Woodroof’s business partner. (R) 117 minutes. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.

DELIVERY MAN Vince Vaughn stars in this comedy about a maturity-challenged delivery truck driver whose discovery that he has fathered 533 children from sperm bank donations years ago sets him on an unexpected course of newfound responsibility. Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders and Jack Reynor co-star for director Ken Scott, who is remaking his 2011 French-Canadian comedy, Starbuck. (PG-13) 103 minutes.

ENDER’S GAME Asa Butterfield (last seen as Hugo) stars in this sci-fi adventure as a brilliant youth recruited by the military and trained in battle simulations to help defend Earth against an alien invasion. Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin, and Ben Kingsley, co-star in this adaptation of the Orson Scott Card novel. Gavin Hood directs. (PG-13) 114 minutes.

FROZEN This Nordic entry in the animated “Disney Princess” franchise (very 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 often surprising scenario cooked by scriptwriter Jennifer Lee and her co-director Buck Jones. When her uncontrollable freezing powers trap the kingdom in eternal winter, an outcast princess builds herself a magnificent crystal ice palace in the mountains to live in splendid isolation—until her loyal sister arrives, determined to end her loneliness and save the kingdom. The emphasis is on sisterhood, humor, entertaining songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and cleverly subverting what we think we know about romcom conventions. (Especially the notion of “true love.”) Other highlights include a goofy snowman (voice of Josh Gad), a reindeer pal who’s sort of a Wookie with antlers, and some lovely Norse-sounding medieval chorale chanting throughout from composer Christophe Beck. (PG) 108 minutes.  (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.

GRAVITY A couple of astronauts on a routine mission outside their spacecraft suddenly find themselves adrift in space, tethered to each other, and no longer in contact with mission control. Where can they go? What can they possibly do? The variety of answers may surprise you in this smart, lean, 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. Awesome on so many levels, it will put you in orbit. (PG-1). 90 minutes. (★★★★)—Lisa Jensen.

THE GREAT BEAUTY (LA GRANDE BELLEZZA) “Felliniesque” is the word being applied to this Italian extravaganza in which a jaded Roman journalist and gadfly (Toni Servillo)—who once wrote a popular novel that placed him permanently in the stratosphere of Rome’s glitterati—re-examines his personal la dolce vita of nightclubs, parties, and cafes when a shock from the past complicates his 65th birthday celebration. Paolo Sorrentino directs. (Not rated) 142 minutes. In Italian with English subtitles.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s relatively small fantasy novel continues. Martin Freeman returns as intrepid Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, off on the second leg of his journey with the wizard, Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and a party of noble warrior Dwarves on a quest to reclaim the Dwarf Kingdom from evil forces—including shapeshifters, giant spiders, and the fearsome dragon, Smaug. Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, and Luke Evans co-star, along with Orlando Bloom (as elf archer Legolas), and the mighty Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice (and motion-capture movements) of Smaug. (PG-13) 161 minutes.

HOMEFRONT Jason Statham stars as a widowed ex-DEA agent whose move to a small town to raise his little daughter turns into an escalating battle with local drug lord, James Franco. Winona Ryder and Kate Bosworth co-star. Sylvester Stallone wrote the script for director Gary Fleder, based on the Chuck Logan novel. (R) 100 minutes.

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE They’re back. Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth go for another round in this robust offering, the  second screen installment of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling futuristic YA trilogy. Bold and dynamic, fans should appreciate the amped-up action as Hunger Games survivors Katniss and Peeta now have to tour the 12 districts. Donald Sutherland is also back. Woody Harrelson, Willow Shields, and Elizabeth Banks return as well. As for Lawrence, she’s in top form. Francis Lawrence (Water For Elephants) directs. (PG-13) 146 minutes. (★★★)—Greg Archer

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

OUT OF THE FURNACE Christian Bale stars in this dark urban thriller as a rough-hewn steelworker searching for his missing brother (Casey Affleck), an Iraq War veteran who’s been sucked into the dangerous underworld of a Northeast crime syndicate. Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoë Saldana and Sam Shepard co-star for filmmaker Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart). (R) 116 minutes.

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. A good thing. And Dench—the woman can do no wrong. Charming, uplifting and worthy of your attention. (PG-13) 98 minutes. (★★★) —Greg Archer

12 YEARS A SLAVE The mighty Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a haunting, nuanced, electrifying performance in filmmaker Steve McQueen’s blistering, unexpurgated 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. A film of rare courage that educates and mesmerizes. (R) 134 minutes. (★★★1/2)—Lisa Jensen.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD What elevates Alan Taylor’s sequel above dozens of other noisy, overproduced comic book movies with Doomsday scenarios? For one thing, the script rises above mere jokiness to achieve a refreshing degree of humor and wit as it goes along. Chris Hemsworth’s charismatic thunder god, Thor, delivers the eye candy, and Tom Hiddleston’s utterly delicious performance as Thor’s ne’er-do-well brother, the trickster god, Loki, seals the deal. PG-13. 112 minutes. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.

TYLER PERRY’S A MADEA CHRISTMAS Tyler Perry suits up in a red velvet dress, wig, and Santa hat as his comedy alter-ego, formidable Madea, agrees to spend Christmas in the country with her friend’s family—many of whom are sure to need some feisty grandmotherly advice. Anna Maria Horsford, Tika Sumpter, Eric Lively, Cad Michael Murray, and Larry the Cable Guy co-star for writer-director Perry. (PG-13) 105 minutes.

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