Here's a look at the new movies I saw this week.
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, and Quvenzhané Wallis
Synopsis: By now most everyone is familiar with the story of “Annie.” Various versions of the story of Little Orphan Annie have been offered at theaters since 1932, and that doesn’t even account for the number of times it’s been performed on the stage and in schools. The story remains largely the same — a precocious orphan finds a family in an unlikely place thanks to her pluck and the joy she inspires in a wealthy loner. Throw in a little “Hard Knock Life” and “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow,” and you’re golden. This latest update on “Annie” follows largely the same formula. Sure, it flips the ethnicity of the players, updates the setting and adds a few original songs, but at its heart it remains true to the iconic classic. Since this is such a familiar story, retold time and again, there aren’t a lot of surprises as to how this will go. In order to make a telling of “Annie” a success you don’t need surprises, you need good performances and the classic songs. In the past Annie has been played by a little red-headed child. That’s not the case here, and right at the outset director and co-writer Will Gluck plays with those expectations. Then Wallis bursts onto the screen and it’s clear she was a great choice to play the part. Wallis already has an Academy Award nomination — for her work in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” — and she shows here that she has great range and has a bright future. It’s no surprise she got a Golden Globe nomination for her work in “Annie.” She’s a ray of sunshine that helps make the movie a lot of fun. Wallis is surrounded with a great cast here. Diaz might not be the first person to come to mind when thinking about a movie musical, but she does a great job in this role. So, too, do Byrne and Foxx. It’s a fun cast that makes the most of a fun, family story. “Annie” isn’t a great film, but it’s the right kind of film for the holiday season. It’s a great choice for the whole family, it hits all the familiar notes and delivers the songs people want to hear. It’s a light, fun and well-executed story.
Rating: PG for some mild language and rude humor.
Verdict: Three stars out of four.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Starring: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, and Ben Kingsley
Synopsis: This is another famous story, one that most know from the Biblical epic or the classic Charleton Heston film that plays each Easter. Here director Ridley Scott tackles the story and tries to make a modern epic. This is a film that tries to leave room for God while offering a scientific explanation for everything that's happened in the classic story. And it doesn't really work. Scott's focus seems to be on Moses and Ramses, and their brother dynamic. Bale and Edgerton are good actors, but much of the movie drags. The best part is arguably the first act, when Moses is a general in the Egyptian Army and helping Ramses fight wars. Then they have a falling out and Moses hears the call of God to free his people. The film hits all the familiar notes but it meanders too much. Scott has created something that's visually epic, but feels quite empty. The performances are fine but nothing really stands out. Bale spends much of the second half of the movie seemingly stomping around and arguing with God. It gets to a point where — late in the movie when one of the Israelites questions why they should follow Moses — it's easy to wonder the same thing. This has been a big year for Bible epics, but not a good one. While this movie feels a step above "Noah" it doesn't live up to the potential given the cast and director.
Rating: PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images.
Verdict: Two stars out of four
Starring: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo
Synopsis: "Foxcatcher" tells the true life story of billionaire John du Pont and his relationship with Olympic champion wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz. It picks up in the run up to the 1988 Olympics, when du Pont (Carell) convinced the brothers to join his Team Foxcatcher. He was a fan of wrestling, a fan of the brothers, and fancied himself a great coach and motivator. He wasn't. The partnership ended in disaster for both brothers, though in radically different ways. Much of the focus is on Mark (Tatum), who saw his career spiral downward because of his soured relationship with du Pont. His brother Dave (Ruffalo) also suffered a grim fate, one the movie touches on and you can find out more about with a little Internet research. The film though seems mostly focused on the personalities involved and the disturbing events that transpired. It's not an easy film to watch. Director Bennet Miller ("Capote") tries to stay as true to the facts as possible, which at times makes this a cold and awkward film. What helps here are the great performances from all three of the focal actors. Carell sticks out most as du Pont, capturing the creepy, leering aspect of the man. He has been nominated for a Golden Globe as a lead actor, and is a front-runner in that category for the Academy Awards, though I'd argue it's more of a supporting part. Ruffalo, who's also quite good, has been nominated as a supporting actor, too. Perhaps one of the most fascinating performances is that of Tatum, who's character Mark serves as the focal point into the world. It's a very different part for Tatum, and one he handles well. This isn't a movie that is fun to watch, but it's fascinating to see these deep performances in a very odd story.
Rating: R for some drug use and a scene of violence
Verdict: Three stars out of four