SABOTAGE. I greet new David Ayer movies with probably inappropriate enthusiasm. Like it or not, he has made a career out of stories in which those who've sworn to serve and to protect occasionally serve themselves first. I return to his criminally under-acknowledged End of Watch (2012) several times a year, and it makes me cry every time. The seething, drunk, confused SoCal guero he helped Christian Bale create in Harsh Times (2005) is as distinct and troubling a protagonist as you'll find in a mainstream movie. Ayer is a writer-director with a singular voice, style and frame of reference, which makes him a unique animal in this era of movie by committee. And my contrarian side likes the idea of putting Ayer alongside the anointed Wes Anderson or Darren Aronofsky (more on them later).
Unfortunately, for every End of Watch, there is a Sabotage. This looked like a sure thing. Arnold Schwarzenegger as "Breacher" Wharton, the god-like DEA special operations team leader? A heist gone bad? A vengeful cartel pulling the card of one team member after another? Sign me up; I feel like I'm going back in time!
But instead of embracing an opportunity for simple '80s fun, Ayer and co-writer Skip Woods force the movie onto unstable ground with half-measure realism. The violence skews needlessly gory, the cast doesn't have adequate material for psychological nuance, and the shoot-outs, though occasionally exciting, never achieve set-piece status. R. 109m.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. After Moonrise Kingdom (2012), I wasn't sure where my relationship with Wes Anderson was headed. I appreciated its craft and crystallized emotion as much as I felt distanced from it. While I disagree with the camp calling Anderson's movies hermetic, I wonder if his sandbox has gotten too big. Have the resources to indulge his insular imagination weakened the drive of his storytelling? Is it more about the charm and beauty of the creation than it is about the story at its heart? Bottlerocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998) were invigorating partly because they represented a gorgeous, meticulously assembled take on events that were happening in some weird corner of the real world. Admittedly, The Life Aquatic (2004) — perhaps my favorite of the bunch — turns that notion on its ear. But it still had a handmade quality to it, a clever DIY aesthetic that downplayed the scale of its conceit.
Before anybody has a panic attack, I still think Wes Anderson is one of the true visionary directors working in movies. He has an uncompromising sense of story and an unassailable eye for detail. I will see anything he makes, and I really like The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Shifting gradually back from the present day to 1985, 1968 and eventually to 1932, it describes the adventures of concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his lobby boy Zero Moustafa (played with equal aplomb by Tony Revolori and F. Murray Abraham). Gustave has a talent for making wealthy European widows fall in love with him. When one dies suspiciously after willing him a valuable painting, her offspring make his life difficult.
The action bounces around the interior of the grand accommodation, then out into the snowy expanse of Anderson's imagined Old World. It's unremittingly fun and funny, particularly Fiennes' delightful turn in the lead. The usual suspects, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and relative newcomer Harvey Keitel all step in for brief cameos. While Budapest is the most self-contained, completely manufactured Anderson movie yet, the writing is funnier, grittier and more robust than ever. And despite my initial reservations, I find it immensely satisfying. PG13. 138m.
NOAH. And then there's this. Darren Aronofsky's catalog has always been a prickly thing to parse. Pi (1998) made his name, but I found it more morbidly fascinating than enjoyable. Requiem for a Dream (2000) is deeply disturbing, sure, but it is also one of the most exquisitely shot and assembled movies of its decade. And so it has gone ever since, with the writer-director, to his credit, refusing to rest or be pigeonholed. He's made a ballet thriller about insanity, a wrestling picture and a time-travel space romance. And now, one of the largest-scale Bible stories ever. I'm not sure what to make of it.
We all know the story, at least the broad strokes. But expect the unexpected. In Aronofsky's hands, the story of the great flood becomes a horror movie about commitment, sacrifice and hubris. And he manages to find a place for fallen angels encrusted in rock. This is not the Sunday school version of events. It confounded and compelled me in almost equal measure, often to frustrating effect. PG13. 138m.
BAD WORDS. Sore spelling bee loser Jason Bateman comes back to dunk on kiddie competitors as a grown (but not grown-up) man. R. 89m.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. Chris Evans returns as the Avenger next door, Captain America, this time battling the robo-armed Winter Soldier. With Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson. PG13. 136m.
GOD'S NOT DEAD. A devout college student debates his philosophy classmates and professor to prove God exists. It's harder to convince us Kevin Sorbo is a professor. PG. 113m.
3 DAYS TO KILL. A bored Kevin Costner as a CIA tough guy on one final assignment to save his own life and spend quality time with his daughter. Not the Luc Besson action movie you hoped for. PG13. 113m.
300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE. Xerxes returns in his golden booty shorts to battle a legion of Greek abs. The convoluted 300 sequel has a few good action sequences, but the comic writing is tragic. R. 102m.
DIVERGENT. Veronica Roth's Myers-Briggs dystopia — in which extraordinary teens are targets of state oppression — gets the Hunger Games franchise marketing treatment. PG13. 139m.
MONUMENTS MEN. Clooney's squad of artists and curators liberate art from the Nazis. A rousing and impressive detective story. PG13. 118m.
MR. PEABODY AND SHERMAN. Charming and fun animated adventure about a brainy cartoon pooch named Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell), his adopted human son and a time rift. PG. 92m.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED. The Muppets hit Europe and encounter doppelgangers, jewel heists and celebrity cameos. Swell turns by Ty Burrell and Tina Fey, both trying to ensnare Kermit one way or another. PG. 112m.
NEED FOR SPEED. Framed street racer Aaron Paul is out of jail and out for vengeance via stunts and chases that make up for a forgettable plot. Cue explosion. PG13. 130m.
NON-STOP. Neeson on a plane! Fine performances from Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson take action/suspense to higher altitudes for a smart, entertaining movie. PG13. 106m.
WIND RISES. Hayao Miyazaki's newest animated feature imagines the life of a WWII fighter plane engineer. PG13. 113m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill