The Cross: The Arthur Blessitt Story (PG) Matthew Crouch’s documentary about a Christian missionary who has walked 38,000 miles around the world with a 12-foot cross on his back. (Opens Friday)
Crossing Over (R) This tasteless immigration drama doesn’t encounter a single cultural stereotype that can’t be repurposed. The film’s network of crisscrossing stories is filled with innocent maidens (Alice Eve as an Aus-tralian aspiring actress), big bad wolves (Ray Liotta as a government official trading favors for sex), and world-weary knights (Harrison Ford as an angsty agent). Writer-director Wayne Kramer (The Cooler, Running Scared) continues to not like his characters very much, plunging them into filth while slathering on cheaply ironic patriotic images and even cheaper self-important melodrama. At least the movie isn’t too long. Also with Ashley Judd, Cliff Curtis, Summer Bishil, Alice Braga, Justin Chon, Jacqueline Obradors, and Jim Sturgess. (Opens Friday at AMC Grapevine Mills)
The Haunting in Connecticut (PG-13) Virginia Madsen and Martin Donovan star in this horror film as parents who move their family into a Victorian mansion where bad stuff (of the supernatural variety) once happened. Also with Kyle Gallner, Amanda Crew, Sophi Knight, Ty Wood, Erik J. Berg, and Elias Koteas. (Opens Friday)
12 Rounds (PG-13) Former WWE wrestler John Cena plays a New Orleans cop who must save his kidnapped girlfriend (Ashley Scott) by following an ex-con’s orders. Also with Aidan Gillen, Steve Harris, Brian J. White, Gonzalo Menendez, and Taylor Cole. (Opens Friday)
Confessions of a Shopaholic (PG) This loose, Americanized adaptation of Sophie Kinsella’s best-selling London-based novels stars Isla Fisher as a financial journalist who advises her readers on saving money even while she’s sinking in debt because she can’t stop buying new clothes. The main character displays many of an addict’s behaviors, yet somehow we’re supposed to take these as adorable eccentricities instead of signs of emo-tional problems. Fisher does get to display her many gifts as a clown, and provides the biggest laughs here with some of the film’s many slapstick bits (especially the salsa dance). She deserved a better vehicle than this one, which unintentionally leaves you feeling that its heroine needs some serious psychological help. Also with Hugh Dancy, Krysten Ritter, John Goodman, Joan Cusack, John Lithgow, Fred Armisen, Leslie Bibb, Lynn Redgrave, Wendie Malick, Clea Lewis, Julie Hagerty, and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Coraline (PG) The best of the new wave of 3-D flicks so far, and worth seeing even in 2-D. This animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s subtly terrifying 2002 novel is about a bored, frustrated 11-year-old girl (voiced by Da-kota Fanning) who discovers a secret world with cooler versions of her parents (voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) who turn out to be monsters who want to sew buttons over her eyes. The stop-motion anima-tion by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) is just glorious in the film’s middle section, presenting Coraline and us with a fantasy world that’s just a little bit too shiny and perfect to be believable. The film could have been scarier, but it’s still intense stuff, with bounteous amounts of imagination, wit, and beauty to go with its amazing hand-crafted technique. Additional voices by Keith David, Ian McShane, Robert Bailey Jr., Dawn French, and Jennifer Saunders.
Defiance (R) Daniel Craig stars in this drama about the Bielski brothers, the real-life Polish Jews who reacted to the Holocaust by sheltering fellow Jews in the forests of Belarus and organizing armed resistance to the Na-zis. The film provides the cathartic sight of Jews firing back at the Nazis and occasionally killing them, but director Edward Zwick (Glory) hasn’t changed his filmmaking methods since the early 1990s, and his squarely conventional approach to both the action sequences and character development makes this 137-minute epic feel stale when it should be uplifting. Also with Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell, Allan Corduner, Mark Feuerstein, Alexa Davalos, Tomas Arana, Jodhi May, Jacek Koman, and Mia Wasikowska.
Doubt (PG-13) John Patrick Shanley’s imperfect but effective film version of his own Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play stars Meryl Streep as a Catholic middle school principal who accuses a priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who teaches in her school of sexually molesting a student. Shanley fleshes out the play with a few extra scenes and a realistic setting. What his movie gains in atmosphere, though, it loses in forward momentum, and the occasionally ham-handed direction mars the work. Even so, the stars are exceptionally cast for their voices, including Amy Adams as a young nun and Viola Davis as the boy’s mother, who burns up the screen with her only five-minute scene. If we could have seen these four actors do the play on a stage someplace, it would have been unforgettable. Also with Joseph Foster II, Paulie Litt, Lloyd Clay Brown, Michael Roukis, and Mary-louise Burke.
Duplicity (PG-13) The most purely entertaining movie so far this year stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as former spies who’ve crossed over to the private sector so they can run a complicated scheme to steal millions from the warring pharmaceutical companies that they work for. Writer-director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) cuts loose with this caper flick that springs some head-spinning smaller cons within the big con, and his sense of fun infects his lead actors. It’s refreshing to see Owen in a playful mood, and the role of a con artist adds a dangerous new dimension to Roberts’ trademark charm. This isn’t a great movie, but it’s a brain-tickling diver-sion for grown-ups. Also with Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Denis O’Hare, Kathleen Chalfant, Oleg Stefan, Khan Baykal, Wayne Duvall, Ulrich Thomsen, Carrie Preston, and Tom McCarthy.
Fired Up (PG-13) Charmless and looking way too old to be in high school, Nicholas D’Agosto and Eric Christian Olsen play high-school football heroes who plan to get laid on a massive scale by joining the cheerleading squad so they can attend a camp with several other schools’ squads. There are some funny bits crawling around the margins of the script (by the awesomely named Freedom Jones), but the heroes are such creeps that there isn’t even much difference between them and the standard-issue douchebag frat-boy villain (David Walton) pitted against them. The cheer sequences aren’t even that well filmed, which is the least you’d expect. Also with Sarah Roemer, Danneel Harris, Smith Cho, Hayley Marie Norman, Margo Harshman, Adhir Kalyan, Juliette Goglia, Molly Sims, AnnaLynne McCord, John Michael Higgins, and Philip Baker Hall.
Friday the 13th (R) The supreme bit of stupidity comes late in this reboot of the series, when a pampered rich boy (Travis Van Winkle) is running through the woods and drops the gun he’s carrying in the water. As he searches for the firearm, he wonders, “Where the fuck are you, gun?” Sadly, nobody else in this movie is much more intelligent as they deal with Jason (Derek Mears), the hockey-masked killer who also proves here to be an expert archer and axe-thrower – talented fellow! He’s still boring, the women get naked, and everybody behaves like they’ve never seen a slasher flick before. Where the fuck are you, creativity? Also with Jared Padalecki, Danielle Panabaker, Amanda Righetti, Aaron Yoo, Jonathan Sadowski, Arlen Escarpeta, Ben Feldman, Ryan Hansen, and Willa Ford.
Gran Torino (R) Not a movie about auto racing. Clint Eastwood stars in and directs this drama as a nasty, racist retired Detroit auto worker and widower who finds himself warming to his Hmong neighbors when they need to be saved from a bunch of gangbangers. Barring a couple of moments, Eastwood’s mean-old-man act is surprisingly ineffective, and the first-time actors he’s surrounded himself with don’t help much, either. The story might have been a clever patch on Eastwood’s vigilante persona, but with the director’s sense of pacing and comic timing as far off as it is here, this is a gambit that doesn’t come off. Also with Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Christopher Carley, Brian Haley, Brian Howe, Geraldine Hughes, and John Carroll Lynch.
He’s Just Not That Into You (PG-13) Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo’s best-selling self-help book becomes this occasionally insightful but mostly overlong and repetitive ensemble comedy about people misreading each other’s romantic intentions, including an aspiring singer (Scarlett Johansson), a bar owner (Justin Long), an office worker (Ginnifer Goodwin), and a real estate agent (Kevin Connolly). There’s a nicely played plotline with a long-term couple (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Aniston) who haven’t gotten married yet, but the characters are too indistinct and the pairings are too random to make this stick. These people live in what must be the only all-white enclave in Baltimore, in houses that look so nice that they upstage the actors and the material. That’s a bad sign. Also with Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Connelly, Bradley Cooper, Busy Philipps, Wilson Cruz, Leo-nardo Nam, Kris Kristofferson, and an uncredited Luis Guzmán.
Hotel for Dogs (PG) Not a slasher flick about oversexed suburban teenagers, as the title would seem to indicate. Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin star in this creativity-free flick as orphaned siblings whose attempts to keep their new pet dog concealed from their foster parents result in their turning an abandoned hotel into a shelter for a bunch of strangely purebred strays. Not even the presence of Don Cheadle (yes, seriously) as a so-cial worker can distract from the laziness of the writing and direction. Does the moviegoing public have no sales resistance to movies with cute dogs? Also with Lisa Kudrow, Ajay Naidu, Troy Gentile, Kyla Pratt, Johnny Simmons, Robinne Lee, and Kevin Dillon.
I Love You, Man (R) This thoroughly charming knockoff of a Judd Apatow comedy is a more persuasive movie about male friendship than Superbad. Paul Rudd plays a real estate salesman who has no close male friends until he meets a fun-loving private investor (Jason Segel) who teaches him to cut loose. The characters are a bit thin, but the two leads have effortless chemistry together, with Segel in surprisingly self-assured form and Rudd pulling off the difficult task of being funny while portraying a character who’s not funny. (His attempt at a cool catchphrase: “Totes magotes.”) Watch for Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressly, who steal some laughs as a married couple who are continually resolving their fights through sexual bartering. Also with Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Sarah Burns, Mather Zickel, Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio, Jay Chandrasekhar, Carla Gallo, Liz Cackowski, J.K. Simmons, and Jane Curtin.
The International (R) Now’s an ideal time for a movie with bankers as villains, and this conspiracy thriller fills the bill. It’s about an Interpol agent (Clive Owen) and a Manhattan assistant D.A. (Naomi Watts) who crisscross Europe trying to bring down a Luxembourg-based bank that’s putting hits out on people. German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) takes to popcorn entertainment pretty well – the film looks good, Watts and Owen are an inspired pairing, and there’s an unlikely but highly enjoyable shootout in New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Though the movie doesn’t enlighten us on the workings of high finance, it manages to convey a sense of helplessness at the way banks have governments and businesses in a bind, which makes it seem very timely. Also with Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen, Brían F. O’Byrne, James Rebhorn, Jay Villiers, Luca Giorgio Barbareschi, and Ben Whishaw.
Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience (G) After playing support act for Miley Cyrus in her 3-D concert movie last year, Joe, Nick, and Kevin get their own show and run with it. On the minus side, we don’t learn any-thing about the Jonases offstage, the opening sequence is blatantly ripped off from A Hard Day’s Night, and the ladylike Taylor Swift inadvertently makes the brothers look 12 years old during her number (“Should’ve Said No”). On the plus side, the Jonases have real musical chops, their best songs (like the bitchy “Video Girl”) are several cuts above the standard teen-pop fare, and their performance with pint-sized Demi Lovato (“This Is Me”) is a real charmer. The brothers’ tween fanbase will eat this up regardless, but even older non-fans can find encouragement about the state of pop music here.
The Last House on the Left (R) Greek filmmaker Dennis Iliadis helms this remake of Wes Craven’s 1972 revenge flick (which was itself a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring). Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter play a married couple who extract brutal revenge on a group of stranded motorists after discovering that the travelers are actually fugitives who’ve raped their daughter (Sara Paxton) and left her for dead. The film con-tains none of Bergman’s religious overtones or Craven’s musings on the dark side of human nature, so what’s left is just squalid, even though Iliadis directs this with a fair amount of skill and tries not to sensationalize the violence. All in all, it’s a film that’ll please the fans of slasher flicks and no one else. Also with Garrett Dillahunt, Michael Bowen, Joshua Cox, Riki Lindhome, Spencer Treat Clark, and Martha MacIsaac.
Madea Goes to Jail (PG-13) Tyler Perry’s technical skills as a filmmaker continue to improve, while his peculiar view of the world doesn’t change one jot. Derek Luke plays an Atlanta prosecutor in the A-plot who tries to help a childhood friend-turned-prostitute (Keshia Knight Pulliam) off the streets, while Perry reprises his role as the irascible old lady who’s tossed in jail after running out of free passes from Atlanta’s justice system. Every character lines up neatly as good or evil, ambitious young women with careers can’t be trusted, and Madea’s forced to see an anger management counselor (Dr. Phil McGraw) who asks some sensible questions about her that she can’t answer. Fitting that a TV celebrity who’s full of crap takes down a comic creation from a filmmaker who’s full of crap. Also with David Mann, Tamela J. Mann, RonReaco Lee, Ion Overman, Vanessa Fer-lito, Sofia Vergara, and Viola Davis.
New in Town (PG) A miscast Renée Zellweger stars in this low-wattage comedy as a Miami-based food-conglomerate exec who’s sent to Minnesota to close down a plant. The script gives Zellweger more opportunities to do physical comedy than anything she’s ever done, and she takes full advantage. Yet she’s still wrong for the part of a hyper-organized Type A micromanager failing to relate to the locals – her voice is too soft and her sense of fun is too close to the surface. Just when the movie’s finished caricaturing the Minnesota natives and their broad accents, it turns around and hectors us about how these working-class folk are real people with real problems. That’s why the comedy goes cold. Also with Harry Connick Jr., Siobhan Fallon Hogan, J.K. Simmons, Ferron Guerreiro, Mike O’Brien, and Frances Conroy.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop (PG) Kevin James’ stars as a hypoglycemic police-academy washout who’s forced into action when some thugs stage an armed takeover of his mall on Black Friday. The writers (who include James himself) can’t decide whether Paul is a supercop trapped in a dead-end job or a sad-sack loser who can’t get a date. They also can’t come up with enough punchlines that hit home, though they do come up with an action plot more sophisticated than a comedy like this demands, and director Steve Carr manages the tone so that this doesn’t feel like an R-rated action flick that’s been toned down for the kids. The star’s astonishing physical dexterity helps make this a surprisingly watchable January film. Also with Jayma Mays, Bobby Cannavale, Keir O’Donnell, Raini Rodriguez, Jamal Mixon, Erick Avari, Peter Gerety, and Allen Covert.
The Pink Panther 2 (PG) This marginal improvement over its predecessor brings back Steve Martin as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, who here joins an international team of detectives to solve a string of high-profile thefts of cultural treasures. Director Harald Zwart stages one funny bit with Clouseau’s destructive antics glimpsed via silent security-camera video feeds. Still, neither the tired caper plot nor Martin’s strained slapstick nor the star-heavy supporting cast nor the rote romantic subplot between Clouseau and his assistant (Emily Mortimer) can generate anything close to entertainment value for money. Even the animated panther is off his game. Also with Jean Reno, Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Yuki Matsuzaki, John Cleese, Lily Tomlin, Johnny Hallyday, and Jeremy Irons.
Push (PG-13) An ambitious and surprisingly effective superhero flick stars Chris Evans as an American telekinetic who’s hiding out in Hong Kong when he’s approached by a clairvoyant (Dakota Fanning) to help bring down the U.S. government agency that’s hunting them both in hopes of turning them into guinea pigs for medical experiments. The performances by Evans and Camilla Belle, as a mind-bending girl also on the lam, leave much to be desired. Nevertheless, director Paul McGuigan creates an intriguing underworld of fugitive superheroes and supervillains and stages some inventive and cool-looking action sequences. By the way, the 14-year-old Fanning can play a convincing drunk scene. Is this a good thing? Also with Djimon Hounsou, Cliff Curtis, Neil Jackson, Xiao Lu Li, Maggie Siff, Nate Mooney, Ming-Na, and Joel Gretsch.
Race to Witch Mountain (PG) This big, noisy remake of the 1975 Disney movie Escape to Witch Mountain stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a Las Vegas cabdriver whose young sibling passengers (Alexander Ludwig and AnnaSophia Robb) turn out to be aliens looking to return to their spaceship so they can forestall an invasion of Earth by their fellow aliens. The Rock’s comic technique still needs refining, and the last scene is way too syrupy by half. Still, director Andy Fickman handles the action well enough to make this into watchable, if instantly forgettable, entertainment. Side note: The kid actors from the 1975 movie, Kim Richards and Ike Eis-enmann (the latter for some reason billed here as Iake Eisinmann), appear here as a waitress and a sheriff. Also with Carla Gugino, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Everett Scott, Chris Marquette, and Garry Marshall.
The Reader (R) A movie you recommend to your friends if you want them to think you’re deep. Kate Winslet plays a streetcar conductor in 1960s Germany who has an affair with a 15-year-old boy (German newcomer David Kross), only for him to discover years later that she was a Nazi concentration camp guard. The film’s based on a novelette by Bernhard Schlink that elegantly poses some knotty questions about the Holocaust, but direc-tor Stephen Daldry (The Hours) turns it into a story of a boy who spends his adult life paying for a few months of hot sex by turning into a man who can’t love anyone because of his crushing guilt. There’s so little dramatic urgency or catharsis here that even Winslet getting naked in several scenes can’t arouse any interest. Also with Ralph Fiennes, Jeanette Hain, Susanne Lothar, Karoline Herfurth, Alexandra Maria Lara, and Lena Olin.
Slumdog Millionaire (R) The most exhilarating movie of 2008, Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s novel stars Dev Patel as an 18-year-old Mumbai tea server who tells his life story to the cops just as he’s about to win the top prize on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The rioting colors and tasty grooves on the soundtrack contribute to the headlong rush of the film, and Boyle does just as well slowing down the film’s momentum for the slow-building game-show sequences. The filmmakers don’t shrink from the ugly backdrop of poverty and all its attendant vices, which earns them the right to tell their story of incredible luck. The dance number that ends the movie is only fitting, since the rest of the film will make you feel like dancing yourself. Also with Anil Kapoor, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Ankur Vikal, Tanay Chheda, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, Azha-ruddin Mohammed Ismail, Rubiana Ali, and Irrfan Khan.
Taken (PG-13) Liam Neeson stars in this French-flavored revenge flick that starts out well but goes all rancid in the second half. He plays a retired American secret agent who’s forced to call on his old skills when his teen-age daughter (Maggie Grace) is kidnapped in Paris by Albanian mobsters hoping to sell her into sex slavery. French director Pierre Morel (District B13) contributes a couple of good chase sequences early on, but the pic-ture indulges in turgid family melodrama and shameless race-baiting (with its Slavic and Arab bad guys), and the hero does some truly reprehensible stuff in the latter stages that we’re supposed to forgive. Pas de chance. Also with Olivier Rabourdin, Leland Orser, Xander Berkeley, Jon Gries, David Warshofsky, Gérard Watkins, Arben Bajraktaraj, Katie Cassidy, Holly Valance, and Famke Janssen.
Watchmen (R) Alan Moore and Davd Gibbons’ comic series broke all kinds of new ground when it came out in 1985, but after so many other superhero sagas have plumbed the same territory, the long-awaited film version has little new to say. Taking place in an alternate version of 1985, the story concerns the efforts of retired superheroes to find out who’s targeting them after one of their own (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered. Director Zack Snyder makes every shot pregnant with meaning, imitates the look of 1970s paranoid thrillers, and delivers a great set piece for the opening credits. However, the story’s momentum frequently stops dead, and though Snyder’s a first-rate visual stylist, he can’t deal with the intense emotions in Moore’s material. Accomplished as this is, it feels less like a great movie and more like a marble monument. Also with Jackie Earle Ha-ley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Goode, Matt Frewer, and Carla Gugino.
The Wrestler (R) Powerfully sad. Mickey Rourke is magnificent as a washed-up former pro wrestler who has lost himself pursuing his youthful glory, and the part brings out an anguished, tormented side of him. Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) directs with a new unvarnished realism as he shows us the wrestler’s life in rich detail: the athleticism it takes to execute the moves, the tacky venues, the sparsely attended autograph signings. The script makes no excuses for its protagonist’s self-destructive lifestyle, but Rourke underplays so cannily that you can’t disengage from the character’s attempts to break free of his emotional desolation even as he contemplates returning to wrestling despite suffering a heart attack. The tragic tale of a performer who lives only for applause will leave you out of breath. Also with Marisa Tomei, Mark Margolis, Judah Friedlander, Ernest Miller, Dylan Summers, and Evan Rachel Wood.
Gomorrah (R) The title is a play on words. Matteo Garrone’s Italian gangster film is about a 13-year-old wannabe (Salvatore Abruzzese), a toxic waste executive (Toni Servillo), and a dressmaker (Salvatore Cantalupo) all trying to cut separate deals with the Neapolitan crime syndicate or camorra. Also with Ciro Petrone, Marco Macor, Carmine Paternoster, and Gianfelice Imparato.
Phoebe in Wonderland (PG-13) Daniel Barnz’ drama stars Elle Fanning as a girl with OCD and Tourette’s syndrome who bonds with her drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson). Also with Felicity Huffman, Bill Pullman, Ian Col-letti, Caitlin Sanchez, Peter Gerety, Maddie Corman, and Campbell Scott.
The Secrets (R) Not to be confused with last year’s French film A Secret. Avi Nesher’s drama is about an Israeli Orthodox rabbi’s daughter (Ania Bukstein) who falls in love with a free-spirited girl at her seminary (Michal Shtamler). Also with Fanny Ardant, Adir Miller, Guri Alfi, Tiki Dayan, and Dana Ivgy.
Sunshine Cleaning (R) The opening night selection of last year’s Lone Star Film Festival. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt star in this comedy as sisters who start their own business of cleaning up crime scenes after the police are finished with them. Also with Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn, Clifton Collins Jr., Jason Spevack, Eric Christian Olsen, and Mary Lynn Rajskub.
Two Lovers (R) Joaquin Phoenix stars in this drama by James Gray (We Own the Night) as a man who’s romantically torn between the young woman his parents want for him (Vinessa Shaw) and his beautiful new neighbor (Gwyneth Paltrow). Also with Isabella Rossellini, Moni Monoshov, John Ortiz, and Elias Koteas.