This weekend movie-goers can take their pick from a shrewd documentary about Lance Armstrong's fall from grace ("The Armstrong Lie"), an enjoyable turn-your-brain-off Marvel entry about a hot guy with a hammer ("Thor: The Dark World"), or an animated drama from one of the greats of the medium, Hayao Miyazaki ("The Wind Rises").
Also opening is documentary legend Frederick Wiseman's "At Berkeley," a four-hour meditation on the California university. That film is the critical winner of the weekend, sitting with the strongest reviews.
Alex Gibney's "The Armstrong Lie" takes us from the Tour de France titan's comeback year in 2009 to the doping scandal that ended his career and stripped him of his medals. Gibney, originally brought on to make a more uplifting film about the comeback, has made a documentary that intelligently looks at the many facets of Armstrong's personality before and after the scandal -- his determination, his ruthlessness, his brilliant ability for storytelling and self-branding, his charity work, his bullying of opponents -- without succumbing to easy answers.
"Thor: The Dark World" lags in its first half, with needless Asgard backstory and unfunny earth-bound comic relief, but starts humming and hammering along in its second half, thanks to well-choreographed action sequences (one involving universe jumping) and the outsized charms of stars Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston.
Studio Ghibli's "The Wind Rises," an historical true story of the brilliant designer behind the Zero fighter plane that wrecked havoc in World War II, is possibly the last film from Hayao Miyazaki, the Walt Disney of Japan, who won the animated Oscar for "Spirited Away." A must-see for animation buffs and Miyazaki fans, this film is far more adult than most of Miyazaki's family-friendly features.
Fox's Oscar hopeful "The Book Thief" is sitting with modestly positive if not spectacular reviews. The film, starring Geoffrey Rush, Sophie Nelisse and Emily Watson, is adapted from the novel of the same title and set in a small town in Nazi Germany, where a young girl pushes back against the powers-that-be by spiriting away books meant to be burned. Her foster family meanwhile harbors a Jewish hideaway.
At Berkeley Dir. Frederick Wiseman, USA | Zipporah Films | 100% Fresh | Hollywood Reporter: "At times fascinating, at times not, its in-depth look at the administration, campus, students and faculty offers an insider's view into the way American academia functions."
The Armstrong Lie Dir. Alex Gibney, USA | Sony Pictures Classics | Cast: Lance Armstrong, David Walsh, Frankie Andreu, Michele Ferrari | 89% Fresh | Variety: "Director Alex Gibney delivers not just a detailed, full-access account of his subject, in all his defiance, hubris and tentative self-reckoning, but also a layered inquiry into the culture of competitiveness, celebrity, moral relativism and hypocrisy that helped enable and sustain his deception." | Our TOH! interview with Gibney | Our TOH! behind-the-scenes look at Gibney's Jigsaw Productions
The Wind Rises Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan | Disney | 79% Fresh | Indiewire: "The grim subtext of The Wind Rises goes largely unacknowledged, leading to a gaping hole in this otherwise beautifully realized narrative that celebrates the power of curiosity as a motivating force."
Thor: The Dark World Dir. Alan Taylor, USA | Marvel | Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Stellen Skarsgard, Kat Dennings | 70% Fresh | Time Out London: "This is a deeply silly, extremely noisy and sometimes impenetrable action movie that’s drowning in CGI, wild overacting and mullets. And it’s enormously entertaining."
The Book Thief Dir. Brian Percival, UK | Fox | Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Sophie Nelisse | 69% Fresh | Film.com: "An embarrassing gut-punch of unfiltered schmaltz, but its sympathy for the devil-style humanism is well-meaning." | Our TOH! review and backstory.