I saw a line a mile long of little girls with hair in the style of Quevenzhane Wallis — the winning star of this update of “Annie.” Set in modern-day New York, Annie makes the best of her life with the conniving Cameron Diaz, somewhat miscast as Miss Hannigan, who takes in little girls for the foster child payments. Charismatic Jamie Foxx, a Donald Trump style candidate for mayor, snatches Annie from the path of a speeding truck and the press goes wild. His PR people talk him into letting the kid move in for and you can guess the rest. The songs many know and love from the original musical show up every now and then, some of them updated or rewritten with a contemporary hip hop style vibe. Sometimes the updated music works but not always. Little girls looking for something to watch over the holidays won’t care. Their parents will remember the much better original. Maybe everyone will go home happy. Does it deliver what it promises? Urban remake of “Annie’. Is it Entertaining? Quevenzhane Wallis is very appealing. Is it worth the price of admission? For families.
Peter Jackson’s final installment of his “Hobbit” series will most likely satisfy fans, while leaving the average moviegoer a little worn out. “The Battle of the Five Armies” begins with a fight to the death between the giant talking dragon Smaug — equipped with Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice on steroids — and Luke Evans as Bard, the series most recent hero. This finale includes a greatest hits parade of beloved characters from the past including Ian McKellon (funny, I thought he died in the last movie) and Cate Blanchett as well as Christopher Lee. Bilbo Baggins weaves his way through this episode in which competing armies battle for a pile of treasure and maybe a magic ring as well. “Battle of the Five Armies” lays on the special effects and values action above all. The result doesn’t quite make itself available to casual viewers. But ardent fans will love it, and you know who you are. Does it deliver what it promises? Fan finale. Is it entertaining? For fans. Is it worth the price of admission? I think we’ve gone over this already
Chris Rock gets his mojo back in “Top Five.” In a story that sounds like a cross between Rock’s real life and the plot of “Birdman” he plays a successful stand up turned movie star not quite satisfied with the result. We hear his various concerns as he walks and talks through New York with the delightful Rosario Dawson, in the role of a New York Times interviewer. “Top Five” arrives with comparisons to Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall.” It shares the same structure. Rock talks about something and suddenly we see it on-screen to our mostly shocked and outraged delight. The walking talking segments allow Rock to get real and deliver his take on race, class and the crassness of our times. A couple of segments push the envelope pretty hard, specifically Dawson’s explanation of her problems with her boyfriend, and Rock’s recounting of a drunken weekend in Houston. Gabriel Union has a juicy turn as an overly ambitious reality star whose marriage to Rock’s character takes place more for the cameras then for love or relationship. Nobody rants better than Chris Rock. Nobody shocks better than Chris Rock. “Top Five” entertains and leaves fans with the promise of great things to come. Just notice the “R” rating which could easily have been NC-17. Does it deliver what it promises? Chris Rock comedy for real. Is it entertaining? Funny and shocking. Is it worth the price of admission? For Chris Rock fans who want to stay Chris Rock fans.
Benedict Cumberbatch knows how to play hard to get along with geniuses. In the “Imitation Game” he recreates Alan Turing–a British mathematician who leads the group who breaks Germany’s enigma code during World War Two. Turing’s proposal for a machine that can sort the millions of equations Germany used and changed daily leads to the invention of computer. Turing’s work remained a state secret for almost half a century. This break through contrasts with his life after the war, which included prosecution under the 1950′s anti-homosexuality laws. Keira Knightley adds a touch of class as the only female member of the enigma team. Allen Leech of “Downton Abbey” adds to the prestige as yet another team member with a secret. I’ve admired Benedict Cumberbatch since discovering his modern-day Sherlock Holmes on public television. He’s the perfect lead in an award contending movie. Does it deliver what it promises? Period drama for the Masterpiece Theater set. Is it entertaining? A really good story told by a great cast. Is it worth the price of admission? You’ll hear about “The Imitation Game” between now and Oscar time.
Reece Witherspoon hopes to join the best actress competition as a troubled young woman on a 1200 mile hike in “Wild.” Based on the autobiography of Cheryl Strayed, Witherspoon begins this endurance test in order to get past the bad choices, disappointments and grief of her life. The movie mixes these events with the adventure and sometimes danger of her trek. “Wild” reminds me of several other movies about people finding themselves in nature. I think “Wild” sets itself apart with an optimistic ending that seems to justify what we’ve watched. Does it deliver what it promises? Young woman improves her life through physical endurance. Is it entertaining? Well, I won’t call it entertaining. Is it worth the price of admission. A journey some might appreciate.
Well, I’ll admit it: I laughed. But I also felt my jaw dropping to the floor a couple of times as Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day riffed their way through some of the coarsest dialogue in a movie this year. If you saw the original, you remember that the threesome vowed vengeance on their terrible bosses including Kevin Spacey (who makes a cameo from prison this time) and Jennifer Aniston – a sex addict who won’t take no from happily married Charlie Day. Now they return with an idea to start their own business, only to have it stolen from them by greedy industrialist Chrisoph Waltz and his playboy son Chris Pine. Thus proving a new revenge plot. Jamie Foxx returns to make fun of the boys and the help in the nick of time. I could go on but why bother. “Horrible Bosses 2″ hopes to make a lot of money on the back of the funnier original. If you need an easy laugh maybe this will suffice. Does it deliver what it promises? More”Horrible Bosses.” Is it entertaining? I laughed sometimes. Is it worth the price of admission? Easy laughs but don’t expect anything great or new or creative.
“The Hunger Games” series turned Jennifer Lawrence into a superstar. The first two were thrilling to watch, as children compete in a match to the death and Jennifer as Katniss Everdeen outwits the system. The second installment leads to a surprise revolt and that brings us to “Mockingjay Part 1.” This installment lacks the games and without them lacks the passion and energy of the first two films. Katniss’ drab new world takes places in shades of black and gray. The revolution president played by a chilly Julianne Moore hopes to use Katniss as the mass media face of revolt. The filmmaker chose to divide the last installment into two movies–the better to up the profits of course–and unfortunately this installment suffers. Not much happens. Many of the familiar character talk at too much length. The revolution takes place mostly without Katniss. And the surprise twist comes as not much of a surprise. It feels to me that fans of the series could skip this installment and still enjoy the grand finale, which can only improve on this tease. Does it deliver what it promises? Advance on the story of Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games.” Is it entertaining? lacks the energy of the first two. Is it worth the price of admission? For those most ardent.
The coming attractions trailer for “Foxcatcher” knocked me out with an especially chilling scene of a creepy Steve Carell as a wrestling coach holding a gun and calling Channing Tatum over for a chat. “Foxcatcher” is based on the true crime story of eccentric billionaire John du Pont who turned his thoroughbred horse farm into a training facility for some members of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team in the 1980′s. Tatum plays Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz and Mark Ruffalo plays Schultz’ older brother Dave, who actually coached the players while letting du Pont hijack the title “Coach.” Early on Carell lets you know something’s off with this guy Clearly du Pont’s wants to buy respectability and friendship from the athletes. I won’t reveal where this story goes but I will say it fulfills its unhappy promise. “Foxcatcher” recreates these strange events but doesn’t do a very good job of letting us know why they happened. Carell hits one note with du Pont and stays with it. The movie plays slow in order to amps up the tension. But it doesn’t particularly pay off. There’s plenty of awards talk for Carell and it’s great to see him play against type. But Carell makes du Pont so creepy I left wondering why any of the athletes stayed at that farm. Does it deliver what it promises? True crime story. Is it entertaining? Lots of tension but slow. Is it worth the price of admission? As an award contender this one’s a disappointment.
“The Homesman” has no intention to glorify the old West. Tommy Lee Jones’ vision captures the dark loneliness and hard life of a community of people trying to settle the Nebraska territory. Hilary Swank plays a homesteader hanging on to her optimism of a life on the frontier that will include marriage, music, and a good living. Gradually we see those dreams fade. Three other wives in the territory give in to depression and madness. The town minister finds a church in the more settled Iowa willing to get the women help. Someone must transport them. The duty falls to Swank. In typical movie style she comes upon Tommy Lee Jones hanging from a rope waiting for his horse to move forward breaking his neck. She saves Jones and enrolls him in her mission. “The Homesman” could have turned into another version of “The African Queen” or any other mismatched buddy movie. Instead, it sticks with the loneliness and harshness of life in the old West. It also serves up a shocking twist to back up that theme. Jones and Swank have a spark that makes this surprisingly touching. Does it deliver what it promises? Mismatched buddy adventure. Is it entertaining? Fascinating to watch. Is it worth the price of admission? A small gem.
Awards season gets a strong contender in “The Theory of Everything” based on the marriage of Jane and Steven Hawking just as Hawking discovers he has a debilitating neurological disease. Eddie Redmayne portrays Hawking first as a brilliant college student and over the course of the movie as a man struggling with the loss of a functioning body, even as his brain spins out brilliant ideas and theories. Felicity Jones earns equal admiration as Hawking’s long suffering wife. In fact “The Theory of Everything” is as much or even more her story than his. So rather than the expected brilliant man overcomes physical limitations, “The theory of Everything” shines a light on marriage and partnership and the rocky road those things often take. I came away as impressed with Felicity Jones as with Redmayne. You can expected him to lead this year’s awards season. I hope the same for her. Does it deliver what it promises? Extraordinary performances in an unusual story. Is it entertaining? You know you’re watching something award worthy. Is it worth the price of admission? One of the year’s best.