Dallas Buyers Club is one of the year's best, say PEOPLE's critics, but Free Birds could make for a cheesy Thanksgiving

By Alynda Wheat and Oliver Jones
Updated November 01, 2013 01:00 PM
Anne Marie Fox

Dallas Buyers Club, Ender’s Game and Last Vegas are all solid bets for weekend fun, say PEOPLE’s writers, but Free Birds is one lame duck.

Here’s what to see and what to skip this weekend at the movies.

See This

Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey has never been funnier than he is playing Ron Woodroof, a Texas man who, in the mid-’80s, was told he had AIDS and 30 days to live. He’s also never been more committed, revealing and poignant – but that’s what one expects from a film about the early days of AIDS. Dallas Buyers Club, though, is all about defying expectations.

Ostensibly, the two-bit electrician and rodeo cowboy is supposed to accept his fate and go home and die. Instead, Ron gets busy. He finds a connection who can supply him with black-market AZT, which turns out to be more deadly than therapeutic in certain doses. He then becomes an armchair scientist, researching safer drugs and smuggling them from Mexico to deliver to desperate patients in the U.S. It would be impossible to believe it if weren’t a true story, but that is indeed how a homophobic, hard-living Texas sumbitch became one of the unlikeliest heroes of the AIDS crisis.

Woodroof doesn’t do it alone, of course. He enlists help from his new best friend and eventual business partner, Rayon (Jared Leto), a transsexual party girl he meets in the hospital. If you don’t recognize Leto at first that’s understandable, since he disappears so entirely into the role, as physically altered as the hauntingly gaunt McConaughey. Together they’re transfixing, playing off each other to deliver the best performances of their careers.

Jennifer Garner rounds out the cast as Ron and Rayon’s doctor, Eve Saks, inadvertently drawn into their pharmaceutical club. She’s a solid foil for the dramatic pair, grounding the action while they take it to new heights, often in pointedly funny ways. And by the way, thank God for those laughs. They’re as needed as they are welcome, a truer snapshot of a life well-lived than the grim slog Dallas could’ve been. As it is, the film is warm, funny, only occasionally melancholy, and full of wonderful surprises.
Alynda Wheat

See This, Too

Ender’s Game
We spent the summer in multiplexes seeing the world get blown to bits. But it’s almost winter now, and it’s time to pick up the pieces. In Ender’s Game, the really bad stuff happened a half century before our story begins, back when ant-like alien invaders killed tens of millions of people, and would have laid waste to the rest had it not been for the actions of a single, cunning soldier. Society – here represented by a grimly determined Harrison Ford – has staked its future on crafting the next savior out of a child to make sure the buggers never do it again. Enter Ender Wiggin, played with equal parts tenderness and viciousness by Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield.

There’s something both fresh and old-fashioned about Ender’s Game, which tracks our half-pint hero as he competes in various war games and navigates the social mores of life inside the high-pressure Battle School on his way to becoming a super soldier. Like Butterfield’s well-calibrated central performance, the movie never overplays its hand in examining issues that feel especially relevant today, from the moral complexity of drone warfare to the psychological toll of being raised in a society always in conflict.

For his return to space, Ford is merely okay in the gruff Obi-Wan Kenobi-esque role, but there are other strong supporting parts, from Ben Kingsley’s war hero-turned-battle mystic to Ender’s psycho Battle School tormentor, played by Hannah Montana‘s Moisés Arias. While the effects may be cutting-edge – the war games unspool like an eighth grader’s dream of zero-gravity laser tag – the film itself feels like a throwback to a time when big-budget sci-fi was a forum for examining big ideas and concepts and not simply a platform to sell Legos and spin sequels.
Oliver Jones

Skip That

Free Birds
Unless you plan to serve your kids pizza for Thanksgiving, this turkey isn’t for you. Free Birds stars Owen Wilson as Reggie, saved from the dinner table by a presidential pardon. But he’s whisked away from his sweet life of telenovelas and food delivery at Camp David by Jake (Woody Harrelson), a dim-bulb spouting nonsense about time-traveling back to the first Thanksgiving to change turkey history. Before you can say “flux capacitor,” they’re back in 17th-century New England. That’s when Free Birds heads south.

In its zeal to rewrite history, Birds recasts the turkeys as Native Americans, fighting the evil Pilgrims, led by Myles Standish (Colm Meaney). Maybe it’s meant to be PC, but replacing people with animals is just insulting. (A couple of actual Native Americans show up toward the film’s end, but they’re such obvious face-saving tokens, it’s embarrassing.)

Plus, there’s that part about teaching kids to kick the turkey habit in favor of pizza. Now, I have no problem with vegetarians or vegans, people who eat probiotic, paleo, Atkins or gluten-free. But pushing fast food on children is pure corporate cynicism, especially when you highlight a particular brand. (Hey kids, don’t eat Reggie, eat Chuck E. Cheese’s!) A few lame jokes I could live with, but evil messaging is far worse.

But Watch This

Last Vegas
Formulaic but still pretty amusing, Last Vegas is solid weekend fun for the mature moviegoer. Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman play childhood friends, the Flatbush Four, who reunite for a bachelor party in Sin City. Mary Steenburgen is the wickedly funny, sexy chanteuse they meet (and whom a few of them fall for) in an off-strip casino. Together, they spend a few days throwing back drinks, nursing grudges and chiding perma-tanned Billy (Douglas) for marrying a girl less than half his age. It may not be the most original story, but you’ll still get a chuckle out of seeing Freeman cut it up on the dance floor. And Steenburgen? What a woman!