All Is Lost (PG-13) There's a remorseless sort of purity to J.C. Chandor's drama about a lone, unnamed sailor (Robert Redford) who fights to stay alive after his 40-foot yacht threatens to sink in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Chandor proves his range as a filmmaker after his debut film Margin Call, constructing some bravura technical passages when the boat capsizes and then rights itself in a storm. Redford does yeoman work, too, clambering about the boat with impressive levels of physical fitness and capturing the loneliness that has driven this man onto open water. Yet the movie may be a little too pure for its own good; Chandor insists so heavily on withholding his hero's backstory that we wind up knowing what happens to him without knowing who he is. I admire this movie greatly. I just don't like it. (Re-opens Friday)
The Broken Circle Breakdown (NR) Felix van Groeningen's musical stars Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens as singers in a Belgian bluegrass band whose young daughter (Nell Cattrysse) is stricken with cancer. Also with Geert van Rampelberg, Nils de Caster, Robbie Cleiren, and Bert Huysentruyt. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Friend 2 (NR) Kwak Kyung-taek's sequel to his 2001 film stars Kim Woo-bin as a petty crook who falls under the influence of a mysterious friend of his father's, while all three are in prison. Also with Yoo Oh-seong, Joo Jin-mo, Han Soo-ah, and Jeong Ho-bin.
The Great Beauty (NR) This comedy by Paolo Sorrentino ( Il Divo) stars Toni Servillo as a Roman writer and social butterfly who's forced to re-evaluate his life and his city when he turns 65. Also with Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte, Serena Grandi, and Fanny Ardant. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
A Madea Christmas (PG-13) Tyler Perry stars in his latest comedy, as the old grandmother visits her daughter (bulldog christmas cards Maria Horsford) in the countryside. Also with Tika Sumpter, Eric Lively, Chad Michael Murray, Alicia Witt, Lisa Whelchel, Kathy Najimy, and Larry the Cable Guy. (Opens Friday)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (PG-13) The second part of Peter Jackson's saga contains the further adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the band of dwarves. Also with Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, and uncredited cameos by Billy Connolly, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, and Hugo Weaving. (Opens Friday)
The Best Man Holiday (R) Fourteen years later, Malcolm D. Lee and all nine of the principal actors from The Best Man return for this sequel that finds NFL legend Lance (Morris Chestnut) inviting all his college friends, including hard-up writer buddy Harper (Taye Diggs) to his home for Christmas. There's a great dance number set to New Edition's "Can You Stand the Rain," and Howard steals a bunch of huge laughs as the shameless player in the group. However, the revelation midway through that one of our friends is severely ill winds up dousing the comedy in cheap sentimentality. Too bad, but these actors are fun to watch as they re-connect with one another and with these old characters. Also with Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Regina King, Harold Perrineau, John Michael Higgins, and Eddie Cibrian.
Black Nativity (PG) Frustrating, because everything seems to be in place to make a great musical. Kasi Lemmons' adaptation of Langston Hughes' stage play stars Jacob Latimore as an angry 15-year-old who's packed off by his mother (Jennifer Hudson) to spend Christmas with her estranged parents (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett) in New York. The original songs are by R&B mainstay Raphael Saadiq, who's a good composer but inexperienced with writing for characters in a story. Lemmons doesn't bring the effusive energy that a musical requires, either. Hudson sings well, and Whitaker is mesmerizing as a severe churchman hiding his private heartache, but mostly the film refuses to lift off. Also with Tyrese Gibson, Luke James, Grace Gibson, Rotimi, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Nas, and Mary J. Blige.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 (PG) Much like the 2009 original, this animated sequel is imaginative and clever in terms of visuals and utterly forgettable in terms of story. Bill Hader returns as the wacky inventor who goes to work for a fascist Steve Jobs-type tech mogul (voiced by Will Forte) and has to prevent his old food invention from overrunning the world. The movie has funny gags in the background of the frame and a whole bestiary's worth of animals made out of food that will enthrall the small kids. The bigger kids will notice that the human characters are boring and the attempts at satire off the mark. It's all yummy, empty calories. Additional voices by Anna Faris, James Caan, Andy Samberg, Benjamin Bratt, Terry Crews, Kristen Schaal, and Neil Patrick Harris.
Dallas Buyers Club (R) Matthew McConaughey gives an uncharacteristically ferocious performance in this powerful biopic. He portrays Ron Woodroof, a homophobic electrician and rodeo cowboy who's diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and winds up smuggling disease-fighting drugs into the country from Mexico and gaining a new perspective when the gays become his customers. Director Jean-Marc Vallée ( Café de Flore) takes a no-frills approach to the story, and yet the movie still plays like a scruffy comedy as Ron dons disguises and forms a "buyers club" to get around restrictions. Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto both give terrific supporting performances, but it's a skeletal McConaughey and his naked desire to live that you'll remember, goofily grinning and agitating against government interference. Don't look for local landmarks in this movie; it was shot in New Orleans. Also with Denis O'Hare, Steve Zahn, Dallas Roberts, Michael O'Neill, and Griffin Dunne.
Delivery Man (R) Vince Vaughn finds a new comedy act in Ken Scott's American remake of his own French-Canadian comedy Starbuck about a loser who discovers that a fertility clinic's malpractice has resulted in him fathering 533 kids in the early 1990s. The early going features some promising material with the hero playing fairy godmother to his kids, intervening in their lives without revealing his identity, but Scott suffers from a low attention span and takes the plot in a lot of different and equally unfruitful directions. However, Chris Pratt turns in an electric comic performance as the best friend, and the lost look that frequently comes into Vaughn's eyes lends pathos to the character of a guy who grasps how bad he is at life. Vaughn's career as a funny man may be salvageable yet. Also with Cobie Smulders, Bobby Moynihan, Simon Delaney, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Jack Reynor, Britt Robertson, Adam Chanler-Berat, Damian Young, and Bruce Altman.
Ender's Game (PG-13) After 28 years of fruitless attempts, Orson Scott Card's classic science-fiction novel is turned into this terrific-looking but rushed and choppy film starring Asa Butterfield (with the right mix of passion and chill) as a future kid whose prowess at strategy games may save Earth from being wiped out by a hostile alien race. Writer-director Gavin Hood ( X-Men Origins: Wolverine) fumbles the early going, with Ender's home life and his relations with the other kids in combat training all given the sketchiest of treatment. He does much better with the massive combat sequences, as well as Ender's dreams (animated by computers as if they're cut scenes from a video game) and a remarkable late encounter between Ender and the alien queen. Also with Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Aramis Knight, Suraj Partha, Moises Arias, Nonso Anozie, and Ben Kingsley.
Frozen (PG) The best Disney musical in quite some time. Kristen Bell provides the voice of Anna, the orphaned younger daughter of the rulers of a fictitious Nordic kingdom who goes into the wilderness to persuade her older sister (voiced by Idina Menzel) to save their land from a curse of eternal winter. The songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez bring freshness and wit to the songs, and Bell not only finds the comedy in the socially awkward heroine but also unleashes her glorious soprano on "The First Time in Forever." The animators put the Ice Age movies to shame by doing endlessly inventive things with the ice and snow in the setting, and the script manages to create a heroine who's interested in more than just finding a handsome prince. Additional voices by Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Livvy Stubenrauch, Alan Tudyk, and Ciarán Hinds.
Gravity (PG-13) The greatest 3D movie ever made. Alfonso Cuarón's unremittingly intense space thriller stars Sandra Bullock as a novice astronaut who is caught outside the shuttle in a high-velocity storm of space debris and stranded in the blackness of space. The film is essentially a series of long takes, and Cuarón's shooting of them in a simulated zero-gravity environment is an astounding technical feat. Yet the long takes also give us no chance to catch our breath; they turn this brief 90-minute film into a singularly harrowing experience, with our heroine narrowly escaping death from completely unforeseen yet logical dangers. Bullock rides over the script's infelicities and gives this film a human center, helping to turn this movie into an exhilarating and emotionally draining ride. Also with George Clooney.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (PG-13) Everything that was ragged about the first movie has been smoothed over in this sequel containing the future adventures of Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as she has to fight to survive a special edition of the Hunger Games. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to the lead actress) takes over the series and devotes time to the action before the Games and does a better job of integrating the special effects into the story, while the writers include more layers for the supporting characters and more material from Suzanne Collins' novel. The movie is missing a spark of greatness from the filmmakers, but Jennifer Lawrence picks up the slack, playing the shell-shocked heroine like her life depended on it. If the series can gather strength the way she's doing, it'll be formidable indeed. Also with Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Donald Sutherland, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Lynn Cohen, Willow Shields, Paula Malcomson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Last Vegas (PG-13) This mostly pleasant comedy stars Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline as three seniors who gather in Vegas to throw a bachelor party for their buddy (Michael Douglas) before his wedding. The movie runs on the easy rapport among the four veteran actors, plus a great-looking Mary Steenburgen as a lounge singer who tags along on the guys' misadventures. Some of the plotlines are wearisomely predictable (like Kline's character being given a free pass by his wife to cheat while he's in Vegas), but at least no one dies or has so much as a health scare and both Kline and Morgan Freeman score big laughs (check the scene when Freeman gets drunk on Red Bull vodkas). Also with Jerry Ferrara, Romany Malco, Roger Bart, Michael Ealy, Bre Blair, Joanna Gleason, and 50 Cent.
A Miracle in Spanish Harlem (PG) Luis Antonio Ramos stars in this Christmas film as a widower with a failing business who finds himself in need of a miracle. Also with Kate del Castillo, Adrian Martinez, Andre Royo, Priscilla Lopez, and Tony Plana.
Narco Cultura (R) Shaul Schwartz' documentary takes a potentially interesting subject (the phenomenon of narcocorrido music glorifying Mexican drug lords) and turns it into a needlessly depressing slog. The film switches back and forth between Richi Soto, an CSI investigator in Juárez who's overwhelmed by the city's thousands of murders, and Edgar Quintero, the clueless lead singer for the Los Angeles-based band BuKnas de Culiacán who wants to go to Mexico to soak up the atmosphere. The film is woefully incomplete, missing any meaningful comparison of this music to gangsta rap and failing to mention the musicians who've been murdered as part of the drug wars. Worse than that, it misses the myriad opportunities for gallows humor and satire that this subject presents. There's a better movie to be made from this.
Oldboy (R) For once, Spike Lee is unwilling to push the envelope, and that dooms his American remake of Park Chan-wook's 2005 Korean thriller. Josh Brolin portrays a bad man who's out to find and pay back the mysterious people who imprisoned him for 20 years in a fleabag motel room. In contrast with Park's high style, Lee films this in a middle style that mutes the raw emotions in the story and possibly results in Brolin's stolid, muted performance. Sharlto Copley makes a nicely grotesque villain and Elizabeth Olsen an alert and troubled sidekick and romantic interest, but this film doesn't have the original's streak of madness. Also with Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Imperioli, Pom Klementieff, James Ransone, Max Casella, Linda Emond, Lance Reddick, and Hannah Simone.
Philomena (PG-13) Based on a real-life story, this dramedy stars Judi Dench with an unsteady Irish accent as a woman who teams up with a down-on-his-luck English journalist (Steve Coogan) to travel to America to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption decades ago. Coogan's a well-known comedian in the U.K.; here, he does well in a more serious piece. He also wrote the script, and while he and director Stephen Frears make an effort to balance the humor with the more serious parts, it doesn't always come off. Still, the thing opens a window onto an ugly part of Irish history and does it with skill and a minimum amount of weepiness. Also with Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare Winningham, Barbara Jefford, Anna Maxwell Martin, and Michelle Fairley.
Thor: The Dark World (PG-13) A bit of a bore, I'm afraid. Chris Hemsworth reprises his role as the Norse god who has to save the entire universe from being cast into darkness by a bunch of elves. Natalie Portman is dead weight in the romantic plotline, and the only dramatic juice in this movie comes from the machinations between Thor and his disgraced brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), whom he frees from prison to help defeat the elves. Director Alan Taylor (TV's Game of Thrones) conjures up a few clever bits, but mostly this superhero saga is lumbering and graceless. Also with Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jaimie Alexander, Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård, Alice Krige, Chris O'Dowd, and uncredited cameos by Benicio del Toro and Chris Evans.
12 Years a Slave (R) Even more significant than Schindler's List. Steve McQueen's epic tells the story of Solomon Northup, a real-life free black New Yorker who was abducted in 1841 and forced to work as a slave on a Louisiana plantation. McQueen directs this with his typical austerity and rigor and pulls off an extraordinarily powerful long take in which Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is strung up from a tree branch and suspended on his tiptoes while the other slaves go about their work, afraid to offer help. Screenwriter John Ridley draws a vivid, panoramic view of all the twisted human specimens that the slave economy produces, and McQueen and his actors flesh them out beautifully, with a terrifying Michael Fassbender as a sadistic slavemaster and Ejiofor giving the performance of his career. This wrenching film is crucial to understanding America's heritage. Also with Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Adepero Oduye, Garret Dillahunt, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, and Quvenzhané Wallis.
Night Train to Lisbon (R) Bille August ( Pelle the Conqueror) adapts Pascal Mercier's novel about a Swiss professor (Jeremy Irons) who impulsively quits his job to travel to Portugal and discover the fate of an author and social activist. Also with Mélanie Laurent, Jack Huston, Martina Gedeck, Tom Courtenay, August Diehl, Bruno Ganz, Lena Olin, Charlotte Rampling, and Christopher Lee.