Fall movie preview: Turn your brains back on for Oscar bait season

Leonardo Di Caprio celebrates Oscar season with Martin Scorsese's dark comedy "The Wolf of Wall Street." Credit: Paramount Pictures
Leonardo Di Caprio celebrates Oscar season with Martin Scorsese’s dark comedy “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Credit: Paramount Pictures

All right, summer’s over. School’s back in session, and the parade of brainless fare that few patronized this summer has come to an end.

This is the season of cinema that competes for your admiration, if not your adoration. That’s not entirely true: The season also promises Vin Diesel reinserting weirdo contact lenses; a Metallica 3-D IMAX concert movie with a story starring the kid from “The Place Beyond the Pines”; Johnny Knoxville as a drunken geriatric; and the return of some dystopian girl with a silly name. And the “Oscar fare” includes a nifty new space film from Alfonso Cuaron and a hijacking saga made by the guy behind the two best “Bourne” movies.

September

‘Riddick’ (Sept. 6)
What: Vin Diesel wasn’t yet a star when 2000’s lean “Pitch Black” came out, and was stuck in a valley during the bloated 2004 spin-off “The Chronicles of Riddick.” Now that he’s back — or at least back in a franchise he once tried to abandon — all’s good, presumably.
Why: Series director David Twohy has long been making genre films, and as of “The Perfect Getaway” has finally gotten good at them. That this runs less than two hours is a good sign.
Why not: Sorry, but “Pitch Black” is just so-so. And headline writers have at least three ways to make puns out of the name (“Worthy of ‘Riddick’-ule” — you can have that one). This also features a character named Lord Siberius Vaako.
Will get an Oscar for: Best Animation of the Clearly Tired and Aging Vin Diesel

‘The Family’ (Sept. 13)
What: Eurotrash auteur Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element,” “Taken”) sucks up Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones (plus executive producer Martin Scorsese) into his OTT orbit. The first two play parents in a family hiding from a mob boss they snitched on.
Why: Say what you will — Besson is probably the last person with significant money making genuinely insane blockbuster product.
Why not: Besson’s movies are stupid. Sometimes this isn’t a good thing.
Will get an Oscar for: Best Robert De Niro Performance of Fall 2013 (He’s also in “Last Vegas,” “American Hustle” and “Grudge Match.”)

‘Insidious 2’ (Sept. 13)
What: The second horror film from “Saw”’s James Wan starring Patrick Wilson in two months — after “The Conjuring” — is a sequel to another Wan-Wilson hit from 2009, one concerning an evil spirit that is (get this) insidious.
Why: Wan — soon of “Fast & Furious 7,” or however it will be titled — is getting better and better at old school frights.
Why not: There are no such things as ghosts, and movies like this keep people, even smart people, thinking there are.
Will get an Oscar for: Best James Wan Film of the Quarter

‘Prisoners’ (Sept. 20)
What: Hugh Jackman plays a small town carpenter who kidnaps the creepy man (Paul Dano) he thinks kidnapped his 6-year-old daughter and her best friend.
Why: Jackman is a talented actor who excels at playing tortured brooders. There’s also Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Melissa Leo to help him.
Why not: With his Oscar nominated “Incendies,” Canadian director Denis Villeneuve sucked much of the idiosyncracy out of Wajdi Mouawad’s play “Scorched.” This seems to be a heavy, humorless and obvious portrait of obsession and false justice.
Will get an Oscar for: Least Joyful Film of 2013

‘Metallica: Through the Never’ (Sept. 27)
What: Remember “The Song Remains the Same,” the Led Zeppelin concert movie that periodically cuts to ridiculous fantasies of each band member? This one goes further: It peppers a Metallica show with a narrative featuring a young man (Dane DeHaan, “The Place Beyond the Pines”) going on a “surreal journey” that involves a deadly horseman — in 3-D IMAX! With lasers!
Why: See “What.”
Why not: See “What.”
Will get an Oscar for: Best Lasers Behind Fiftysomething Metalheads

‘Indie’ Spotlight

‘Salinger’ (Sept. 6)
Hollywood screenwriter Shane Salerno (“Avatar”) goes nonfiction with this documentary promising well-hidden new revelations about author J.D. Salinger. (Spoiler: There are new Salinger manuscripts coming.)

‘Mother of George’ (Sept. 13)
This quiet drama immerses viewers in the cloistered world of African emigres in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, among them a new bride whose husband (Isaach de Bankole) appears to be barren yet demands a child. More important, it again proves that cinematographer Bradford Young (“Pariah,” “Middle of Nowhere,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) does some of the best dim lighting in history.

‘After Tiller’ (Sept. 20)
Oh, the debates that will rage once this documentary, about the four remaining doctors who perform late-term abortions in the wake of the murder of George Tiller, arrives.

‘As I Lay Dying’ (Sept. 27)
James Franco’s 17th directed film is an adaptation of an unadaptable novel by the unadaptable William Faulkner. Also, James Franco has directed 17 films.

‘Don Jon’ (Sept. 27)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes his feature-length directorial debut with this bouncy portrait of an oily Jersey boy sex addict with bad hair (himself) who gets schooled by a hotcha Jersey girl (Scarlett Johansson). Everyone does a great Tony Danza impersonation, which is fitting as Danza plays Gordon-Levitt’s dad.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney go to space in Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney go to space in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.”
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

October

‘Gravity’ (Oct. 4)
What: Alfonso Cuaron finally follows up 2006’s “Children of Men” with this 3-D extravaganza, concerning the plight of two astronauts (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) dancing around outside Earth’s orbit — and literally no one else.
Why: Cuaron (and superstar cinematographer) Emmanuel Lubezki are visual wizzes who will no doubt do loads with the technology and sensory aspects.
Why not: Sandra Bullock is very talented but not a great straight dramatic actress. Even her Oscar-winning “The Blind Side” role is largely a comic turn. That said, she could bring the light eccentricity to this that it needs.
Will get an Oscar for: Actual Good Use of 3-D

‘Runner Runner’ (Oct. 4)
What: Justin Timberlake plays a student who loses all his money on online poker and decides to double down on stupidity by confronting the guy who runs it (Ben Affleck).
Why: Cast and pedigree (“Solitary Man”’s Brian Koppelman and David Levien wrote the script, and “The Lincoln Lawyer”’s Brad Furman directed) should push this over into a rare fun fall film.
Why not: With silly thrillers like this, it’s always a flip of the coin, or some other gambling metaphor.
Will get an Oscar for: Wait, there’s an unpretentious genre film in mid-October?

‘Captain Phillips’ (Oct. 11)
What: Earlier this year, adventurous audiences got the Danish “A Hijacking,” concerning a ship overtaken by Somali pirates. Here’s the big-budgeted American edition (albeit not a remake), starring Tom Hanks as real-life abductee Richard Phillips.
Why: Director Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) is a master at capturing the now with whiplash handheld mega-cutting that’s regularly misdiagnosed as being chaotic and unfollowable.
Why not: Greengrass also made “Green Zone,” which he struggled in vain to make into more than a groaning history lesson told with 20/20 vision. Luckily this seems more like an in-the-moment docudrama.
Will get an Oscar for: The Most Oscars

‘Machete Kills’ (Oct. 11)
What: The first “Machete” — with Danny Trejo as an ex-Federali vigilante slicing up racists — wasn’t such a hit. But after “Kick-Ass,” why let limp box office halt a sequel, particularly one with Lady Gaga and offscreen racist Mel Gibson?
Why: The films of Robert Rodriguez have an on-the-fly charm.
Why not: The exception to that rule is about half of the films of Robert Rodriguez, including a moderate chunk of “Machete.”
Will get an Oscar for: Best Racist Homophobe

‘12 Years a Slave’ (Oct. 18)
What: Avant-garde artist Steve McQueen (as opposed to the late superstar) goes big with this adaptation of the memoir of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freed slave sold back into slavery.
Why: McQueen is a minimalist who thinks like a maximalist, and both “Hunger” and “Shame” — which, like “Slave,” features Michael Fassbender, and sometimes his penis — feature scores of isolated stunners.
Why not: Both those films faltered to varying degrees when actually addressing the major issues (the Troubles, sex addiction) they ostensibly tackled. Then again, don’t expect McQueen to simply offer a mere slavery-is-bad message.
Will get an Oscar for: Best Non-Use of Michael Fassbender’s Unclothed Member

‘Carrie’ (Oct. 18)
What: The Stephen King classic, already immortalized by Brian De Palma in 1976, gets yet another update, this time with Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore as her crazy religious mom.
Why: Moretz was born to play an aggrieved teen who kills with her mind, and hiring “Boys Don’t Cry”’s Kimberly Peirce to direct is out-of-the-box thinking.
Why not: Is the De Palma version broken? It would be hard to top that one’s delirious split-screen mayhem, while this almost certainly omits lurid segments like the opening locker room menstruation brouhaha and John Travolta getting coerced via fellatio.
Will get an Oscar for: Best Remake of a Film That Never Needed Remaking

‘All is Lost’ (Oct. 18)
What: First comes the two-person “Gravity,” then a movie starring only Robert Redford not speaking while he tries to survive while lost at sea.
Why: Somewhat unexpectedly, this was a major find at this year’s Cannes, where it unfortunately played out of competition. And after the noble but sleepy “The Company You Keep,” it will be great to see the septuagenarian Redford try something really difficult.
Why not: “Margin Call,” the last film by director J.C. Chandor, wasn’t exactly a visual feast, but that’s reportedly just because the material didn’t give him the chance to truly show his stuff.
Will get an Oscar for: Best Actor, probably

‘Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa’ (Oct. 25)
What: Johnny Knoxville plays a bad grandpa in a loose plot that strings together “Jackass”-y gross-out stunts.
Why: Sue us: “Jackass” is hilarious. And it’s nice to see that Spike Jonze (also represented this season with the more contemplative “Her”) has a screenwriting credit.
Why not: It’s not in 3-D.
Will get an Oscar for: Best Actor, probably

‘The Counselor’ (Oct. 25)
What: Ridley Scott tackles “It” novelist Cormac McCarthy, who adapted his own novel about a lawyer (Michael Fassbender) who gets embroiled in the drug trade.
Why: McCarthy’s work brings a welcome misery to the multiplex, and the rest of the cast (Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt) is, you know, fine.
Why not: Scott is an incessantly spotty filmmaker, although if “Prometheus” is any indication he’s properly juiced when working with Fassbender.
Will get an Oscar for: The Least Michael Fassbender Penis

Indie Spotlight:

‘I Used to Be Darker’ (Oct. 4)
Terrific experimental low budget filmmaker Matthew Porterfield (“Putty Hill”) returns with a slightly more conventional (but still not at all) look at recent divorcee musicians in Baltimore.

‘A Touch of Sin’ (Oct. 4)
Typically the maker of avant-garde documentaries that tear apart his native China (which then refuses their local release), Jiz Zhangke goes full (or at least mostly) narrative with this bleak crime saga, which trails four stories that lead to unimaginably graphic violence.

‘Escape From Tomorrow’ (Oct. 11)
Insanely, Disney did not suppress and is allowing to be released this innovative Sundance craze, furtively shot with cameras sneaked into Disneyworld and then pounded into a fantasy-horror about a man having a breakdown, with visions that look somewhat familiar…

‘Camille Claudel, 1915’ (Oct. 16)
Belgian miserablist Bruno Dumont (“Humanite,” “Outside Satan”) chills out a touch with this take on the mad sculptress, played by no less than Juliette Binoche.

‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ (Oct. 25)
This year’s Palme d’Or winner is luckily being shipped out to American theaters with no cuts — a biggie considering it features a handful of incredibly graphic sex scenes between a teenager (Adele Exarchopoulos) and her blue-haired twentysomething girlfriend (Lea Seydoux). There’s also a blistering, epic look at the life of their relationship, so get your mind out of the gutter.

Harrison Ford creeps out Asa Butterfield in "Ender's Game." Credit: Summit Entertainment
Harrison Ford creeps out Asa Butterfield in “Ender’s Game.”
Credit: Summit Entertainment

November

‘Ender’s Game’ (Nov. 1)
What: Orson Scott Card’s classic 1985 novel about kids (Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld) trained for military battle against aliens finally gets the big budget adaptation for which its author likely always pined.
Why: The novel is one of sci-fi’s brainiest, and hey, there’s Harrison Ford presumably grumbling up a storm as one of the elders.
Why not: In case you haven’t heard, Card is a gigantic homophobe who called for revolution if gay marriage was ever implemented and now thinks people who hate him are being intolerant. But this isn’t the first — or gazillionth — time a legitimately awful human being has produced good art.
Will get an Oscar for: Most Talented Dedicated Homophobe

‘Dallas Buyers Club’ (Nov. 1)
What: Matthew McConaughey plays the real-life Ron Woodruff, a homophobe who in 1986 was diagnosed with HIV and started smuggling cheap, illegal drugs to stay alive.
Why: McConaughey is evidently still on the Great Comeback Tour that began last year with “Bernie,” “Magic Mike” and “Killer Joe,” and is continuing with “Mud” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Good.
Why not: This could be self-important. But it sounds crazy enough that it might just work!
Will get an Oscar for: Best Matthew McConaughey Performance of 2013

‘Free Birds’ (Nov. 1)
What: Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson voice time-traveling turkeys.
Why: Need we say more?
Why not: It’s probably terrible. We just like time-traveling turkeys voiced by weed advocates.
Will get an Oscar for: Best Use of Time Travel

‘About Time’ (Nov. 1)
What: British rom-com artist Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”) long ago became a genre unto himself, but lately he’s been trying to wiggle his way out. “Pirate Radio” wasn’t romantic at all, and his latest, like “Free Birds,” concerns time travel: A young man (Domhnall Gleeson) tries to change his love life with magic and — whaddaya know? — gets Rachel McAdams.
Why: The most annoying thing about Curtis is that, insufferable though his films regularly are, they tend to have various degrees of charm.
Why not: He still made “Love Actually.”
Will get an Oscar for: Best Attempt to Shake Up a Desiccating Career With a Sci-fi Gimmick

‘Thor: The Dark World’ (Nov. 8)
What: Everyone’s favorite hammer-wielding Norse god who’s the source of fish-out-of-water jokes (Chris Hemsworth) goes solo again. This time he battles totally different superpowerful beings.
Why: The first was moderately amusing, though presumably this time our square-jawed brickhouse of a hero knows better than to request a horse at a pet shop.
Why not: In other words, what’s left to show?
Will get an Oscar for: Best Use of a Hemsworth Brother

‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (Nov. 15)
What: Martin Scorsese returns to keyed-up, gleefully amoral “Goodfellas” mode, only this time about even worse people: stockbrokers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill).
Why: If this isn’t ridiculously entertaining and hugely quotable, then there’s no god.
Why not: There’s probably no god anyway. But seriously, there’s zero chance this isn’t a blast. Have we mentioned Matthew McConaughey, currently waist-deep in career repairman mode, is in it?
Will get an Oscar for: Best Movie Ever

‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ (Nov. 22)
What: Some girl with a weird name that rhymes with “cat piss” (Jennifer Lawrence) continues her adventures outsmarting a dystopian future society with her archery skills while choosing which nice boy to be with.
Why: The books (or at least the first one) are some of the easiest reads in memory. And by easiest, we mean they’re stupid and poorly written without being distractingly so, a la the works of Dan Brown.
Why not: The “Battle Royale” films (even the somewhat underrated sequel) do this better, and give you R-rated carnage to boot. But do they feature “futuristic” names like Haymitch Abernathy and Caesar Flickerman?
Will get an Oscar for: Best Terrible Names

‘Oldboy’ (Nov. 27)
What: Boo! Hollywood remade a South Korean genre classic! Yea! They got Spike Lee to direct it! The filmmaker puts his signature on the story of a man (Josh Brolin) mysteriously imprisoned in a room for 20 years, then released under even more mysterious circumstances. He also has a hammer.
Why: Spike Lee hasn’t made a studio film since 2008’s bomb “Miracle at St. Anna.” (Ridley Scott has since made two duds and has never stopped working.) From the trailers, he looks energized — and more importantly, doesn’t seem to be copying the original. Even the shocking final twist looks like it’s different.
Why not: “Oldboy” still has been done already. And honestly, it’s not the greatest film ever made, or close to it, as its fans tend to insist.
Will get an Oscar for: Best Remake That’s Better Than the Original (maybe)

Indie Spotlight

‘How I Live Now’ (Nov. 8)
The ever-ubiquitous Saoirse Ronan once again plays a young girl in duress, this time stuck on her lonesome in the countryside as the third world war breaks out. Kevin Macdonald (“Last King of Scotland” director, not the Kids in the Hall member) directs.

‘The Armstrong Lie’ (Nov. 8)
You think Tyler Perry makes too many movies? (See December for the requisite Madea release.) This look at Lance Armstrong is Alex Gibney’s second high profile documentary in the last six months, after the disappointingly reductive Julian Assange hit job “WikiLeaks: We Steal Secrets.”

‘Nebraska’ (Nov. 22)
Alexander Payne follows up “The Descendants” with this more simplified drama, shot in black-and-white and following a road trip taken by a man (Will Forte) and his grumbling father (Bruce Dern). Also playing serious for a change is Forte’s occasional cohort, Bob Odenkirk.

‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom’ (Nov. 29)
Of the season’s many high profile biopics (see also: “Diana” with Naomi Watts and “Grace of Monaca” with Nicole Kidman), the most noble seems to be the one on the presently ailing former South African president. Idris Elba plays the leader and revolutionary in his younger years.

Oscar Isaac plays a pissy '60s folk singer who likes cats in the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis." Credit: Alison Rosa
Oscar Isaac plays a pissy ’60s folk singer who likes cats in the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Credit: Alison Rosa

December

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ (Dec. 6 limited, everywhere Dec. 20)
What: The Coen brothers return again to music and the 1960s, this time focusing on a pissy folk singer (Oscar Isaac) and his adventures making everyone he meets (particularly Carey Mulligan) angry with him.
Why: Three years have elapsed since “True Grit,” which is far too long without any Coens action. Pretty much everyone at Cannes flipped over its coal black sense of humor, which keeps heaping horrors upon its unhappy lead.
Why not: Some Coen brothers movies are less wonderful than others. Is that an issue?
Will get an Oscar for: Best Character Name We Can Never Remember How to Spell

‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ (Dec. 13)
What: The second attempt to finish a third of a 300-page book aimed at young kids in just under three hours comes at you, once again in absolutely terrible high frame rate that makes everything that moves look incompetent.
Why: Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth is charming — yes, even when everyone’s wasting everyone’s time with endless songs. Also, we’ll finally get to see, not just hear, the Benedict Cumberbatch-voiced dragon.
Why not: Jackson appears to have lost it somewhere during his intermittently engaging (and intermittently aggravating) “King Kong.” There will probably be another 20-minute section devoted to the resuscitation of a hedgehog.
Will get an Oscar for: Best Case Against Specific Awful Technological Advances

‘Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas’ (Dec. 13)
What: Madea gets a Christmas movie, based on the Christmas play she got in 2011.
Why: Perry is often excoriated in the press, but he’s a legitimate original whose barndoor broad summations of our times and of current African American life will look fascinating in the future — or even now.
Why not: We want to like Perry, but then he casts Larry the Cable Guy.
Will get an Oscar for: Best and Only Specifically Christmas-y Movie of 2013

‘The Monuments Men’ (Dec. 18)
What: George Clooney gets the band back together — or you know, just Matt Damon, plus Bill Murray, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett — for this romp about the attempt by the Allies to thwart the Rape of Europa, or the destruction and theft of European art by the Nazis.
Why: Even when the material’s heavy handed, Clooney’s directorial work is playful and loose. Nothing will bring that side out like a good old fashioned treasure hunt — with Nazis.
Why not: If Clooney goes too far into whimsy, we will get a redux of the weirdly leaden “Leatherheads,” which really ought to have been the best film of 2008 and is instead justly forgotten.
Will get an Oscar for: Best Use of Bill Murray Fighting Nazis

‘Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues’ (Dec. 20)
What: Will Ferrell exhumes his longest-lasting creation: onanistic news reader Ron Burgundy, who is lured into the 24-hour news trend in its infancy.
Why: The original is a real grower, and Adam McKay has a sensibility that’s both comic and atypically visual.
Why not: The original has also been liked to death by the type of people who say “I’m kind of a big deal” and actually mean it.
Will get an Oscar for: Best Non-Sequitur That Will Be Driven Into the Ground by Stupid T-shirts

‘Her’ (Dec. 18)
What: When not busy co-writing “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,” Spike Jonze found time to direct his fourth feature, concerning a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls for a computer operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
Why: This is actually a job for Jonze’s old cohort, Charlie Kaufman. But with Kaufman in production hell, Jonze (and Phoenix) will do.
Why not: Jonze needs a collaborator, specifically a good one, and specifically Kaufman. (Sorry, world, but the Dave Eggers-scripted “Where the Wild Things Are” is maddeningly twee.) Then again, he’s never written something by himself. So let’s be positive!
Will get an Oscar for: Best Case for Human-Cyborg Marriage

Christmas Day Movie Avalanche

‘American Hustle’: David O. Russell rounds up friends old (Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Robert De Niro) and new (Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K.) for this surely chaotic look at conmen. Meanwhile “Nailed,” which Russell made in 2008, still languishes in purgatory.

‘August: Osage County’: While William Friedkin directed adaptations of playwright Tracy Letts’ “Bug” and “Killer Joe,” his most esteemed work gets handled by “The Company Men”’s John Wells. That should say it all. Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor and many more star in this portrait of a combustible family.

’47 Ronin’: The classic samurai revenge tale, which was already filmed by the great Kenji Mizoguchi in 1941, gets Keanu Reeves at the helm, because some execs were unaware that the Tom Cruise-starring “The Last Samurai” was a living joke.

‘Grudge Match’: One of many films this season to star Robert De Niro and/or Sylvester Stallone, this one stars the heavyweights as aging boxers who agree to one last bout, even though it was already pushing it seven years ago when the latter resurrected Rocky Balboa. Sly’s name is “Razor.”

‘Jack Ryan’: Chris Pine takes over the role of Tom Clancy’s Cold War-era do-gooder in a movie that should feel hilariously dated. Maybe the Russians are the baddies! (Spoiler: They are.)

‘Labor Day’: Opening a good three months after the holiday it depicts, the latest from Jason Reitman stars Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin as parents who accidentally come to the aid of a wanted man (Tobey Maguire).

‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’: If the trailer — which looks like a “Tropic Thunder” outtake — is any indication, Ben Stiller’s take on James Thurber’s short story about a daydreaming nobody will be an overly emo desecration of more nimble material. Then again, it co-stars Kristen Wiig.



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