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Song of the Sea ***½ Directed by Tomm Moore. This animated tale follows young Saoirse, the last of a magical race of beings who exist as seals in water but turn into humans on land. After she and her brother are sent to live in the city, they begin an epic quest to return to their seaside home. Differentiated not only by its rich visual design — grayer and more subdued than The Secret of Kells, yet still a marvel to behold — but also by its ethereal musical dimension, another collaboration between composer Bruno Coulais and Irish folk band Kila.
Top Five ***½ Directed by Chris Rock. Starring Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan. A comedian tries to make it as a serious actor when his reality-TV star fiancée talks him into broadcasting their wedding on her TV show. One of the most vibrant, sly romantic comedies to appear in theaters in 2014.
Low Down **½ Directed by Jeff Preiss. Starring John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close, Peter Dinklage. A look at the life of pianist Joe Albany from the perspective of his young daughter, Amy, as she watches him contend with his drug addiction during the 1960s and ‘70s jazz scene. Keeps the histrionics to a minimum, but the inertia of a good man failing to be a good father isn’t enough to sustain nearly two hours of reflection, especially when Preiss consistently suggests that telling Amy’s story from Joe’s perspective would have made for a much better film.
Penguins of Madagascar ** Directed by Eric Darnell, Simon J. Smith. Penguins Skipper, Rico, Private and Kowalski team with a covert group, the North Wind, to stage an all-or-nothing showdown with the fiendish Dr. Octavius Brine. Strives to be entertaining, but for much of its run time it is so emotionally uninvolving that even the smallest children might find themselves bored.
Exodus: Gods and Kings ** Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Christian Bale, Aaron Paul, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley. Moses rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses, setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt. Illustrates a typical contradiction of commercial entertainment: By playing it safe, the movie fails to enrich the material, and never captures the energy that has made its narrative so captivating for millennia.
Annie * Directed by Will Gluck. Starring Jamie Foxx, Quvenzhané Wallis, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Cameron Diaz. A foster kid, who lives with her mean foster mom, sees her life change when business tycoon and New York mayoral candidate Will Stacks makes a thinly-veiled campaign move and takes her in. Gluck’s glam, grim re-imagining of the Depression-era musical about the hard-hearted rich man and the little girl who melts him, is truly depressing.