ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES. Since the first Anchorman, Will Ferrell has become the biggest comedy star of his generation, maybe of all time, and his writing/producing partner Adam McKay has refined his directing skills and sense of style and nuance with slept-on classics like Stepbrothers (2008) and The Other Guys (2010). This sequel represents a happy, generally successful meeting of their early silliness and more recent refinement. It's unlikely to convert haters, but fans will find much to enjoy.
The dawn of the '80s finds Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and his wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) well established as New York daytime co-anchors. When nightly news titan Mack Harken (Harrison Ford) retires, he names Veronica his successor, summarily firing Ron. Ron issues an ultimatum: Veronica must choose the job or their marriage. She picks career, and Ron begins a scotch-fueled flameout that eventually lands him back in San Diego, drunk, jobless and alone. Enter crackpot Aussie tycoon Kench Allenby (Josh Lawson), poised to launch the world's first 24-hour, all news network. Ron reassembles his news team and takes one last shot at the brass ring.
McKay and Ferrell throw everything at this script, but mostly they make it work. The core ensemble is solid, and Steve Carell's Brick Tamland character gets more development than expected. He even finds a soul mate in Chani (Kristen Wiig), a receptionist nearly as sweetly inept as Brick himself. The plot, simplistic and ludicrous as it may be, provides ample opportunity to skewer the ethics of contemporary news-as-entertainment and non-reportage. As always, Ferrell is good for some gaspingly hilarious sequences.
I think of both Anchorman movies as second-tier McKay/Ferrell offerings, but this one stands head and shoulders above most comedies available these days. Some viewers will likely take issue with the super-saturation of celebrity cameos and escalation in the climactic fight sequence, but it's in perfect keeping with the tone of the piece. It would be disappointing if Anchorman 2 didn't go over the top. It's ridiculous, silly, a little subversive and legitimately funny. PG13. 119m.
AMERICAN HUSTLE. In the last few years, writer/director David O. Russell has hit his stride. After a dismal reception for passion project I Heart Huckabees (2004), he was quiet for a time, then stormed back with The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and now this. I'm not sure American Hustle will be remembered as one of his best, but it's an impressive, ambitious and entertaining movie.
A fictionalized interpretation of the FBI's "ABSCAM" operation, Hustle centers on businessman cum con-artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale). In New Jersey in the late 1970s, entrepreneur Irving uses his gift for the grift to build a little empire selling counterfeit and stolen art, as well as brokering phony lines of credit. Into his life sashays an unlikely accomplice: sexy, scheming Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). She brings a new dimension to Irving's conman, and together they reap the rewards. Until they're nabbed by a preening, pathologically ambitious FBI agent named Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso presses them into service bribing politicians, and soon enough it's unclear just who is hustling whom.
With its period detail, organized crime elements, flawless editing and gorgeous use of the moving camera, American Hustle is reminiscent of vintage Scorsese, particularly Goodfellas. But Russell has a distinctive way with actors and a dedication to his type of psychological realism. So while this movie may owe something to others, it is unique. The lead characters are damaged and frustrating but sympathetic — real people. Jennifer Lawrence gives a refreshing performance as Irving's bratty, volatile, exhausting wife Rosalyn. Cooper's Richie, with his tight perm and no idea when to quit, is funny and infuriating all at once. Louis CK is subtly hilarious as Richie's boss. Hustle doesn't have the air of greatness, but it succeeds in style, entertainment and the strength of its ensemble. R. 138m.
SAVING MR. BANKS. My cynical side looks at this as a Disney whitewash, a marketing scheme to soften the face of the corporation and sell Mary Poppins DVDs. Well, maybe that's just my objective side. But some other part of me is won over by it.
In 1961, after 20 years of entreaties, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) finally convinces author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to visit Los Angeles and work with him adapting Mary Poppins for the screen. But Travers is no wilting flower, and refuses to allow Hollywood to corrupt her seminal work. Banks intercuts the story of their difficult partnership with flashbacks to Travers' childhood in Australia. It becomes clear that the Poppins stories are a coping mechanism: Travers' alcoholic, responsibility-bridled, free-spirit father (Colin Farrell) was the center of her nascent universe, and she never reconciled his absence in her later life.
Hanks and Thompson, not surprisingly, inhabit their characters with customary aplomb. And thanks to Disney's deep pockets, the costumes and sets are impeccably detailed. This isn't destined to be a classic, but it is lively, earnest and affecting. PG13. 125m.
— John J. Bennett
47 RONIN. Keanu Reeves and Hiroyuki Sanada rock kimonos and wreak vengeance in a samurai-meets-Lord-of-the-Rings supernatural CG fantasy. PG13. 119m.
GRUDGE MATCH. DeNiro and Stallone as boxers of a certain age in a rematch that relights the fire in their varyingly ripped bellies. With Alan Arkin as a grumpy old trainer. PG13. 113m.
JUSTIN BIEBER'S BELIEVE. The real war on Christmas. PG. 93m.
THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY. Ben Stiller is Thurber's titular daydreamer who finally breaks out of his office for a globe-trotting adventure. With Kristen Wiig as the object of his one-sided office romance. PG. 114m.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. Greed, girls and schadenfreude with Leonardo DiCaprio as double-breasted douchebag Jordan Belfort, a self-made '80s stock tycoon who runs afoul of the Feds. R. 180m.
FROZEN. Kristen Bell voices a girl who braves the snow to save the kingdom from her sister's frosty spell. Standard Disney Princess fun with a Josh Gad as a slapsticky snowman. PG. 108m
THE DELIVERY MAN. A subdued Vince Vaughn sires 533 children and it's not a horror movie — just disappointing without his manic edge. With Chris Pratt as his doughy foil. PG13. 103m.
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. Impressive beards and exciting action as Bilbo and the dwarves go after a treasure-hoarding dragon. Director Jackson ups his game with this sequel. PG13. 161m.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. Katniss and Peeta are back in the dystopian fray. The actors are game, but with a sanitized production, the odds are not in their favor. PG13. 146m.
WALKING WITH DINOSAURS. Prehistoric CG fest about a runt in a migrating dinosaur herd. Voiced by Charlie Rowe and Karl Urban. PG. 87m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill