The Black Balloon (PG-13) Elissa Down’s drama is about an Australian teenager (Rhys Wakefield) who’s forced to take care of his autistic brother (Luke Ford) when he and his parents move to a new town. Also with Toni Collette, Erik Thomson, Gemma Ward, Lloyd Allison-Young, Nathin Butler, and Lisa Kowalski. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Dragonball: Evolution (PG) Justin Chatwin stars in this live-action adaptation of the anime series as a warrior who must find seven magical orbs to protect the world. Also with Chow Yun-Fat, Emmy Rossum, James Marsters, Jamie Chung, Randall Duk Kim, and Ernie Hudson. (Opens Wednesday)
Everlasting Moments (NR) Jan Troell’s film stars Maria Heiskanen as an early 20th-century Swedish woman who decides to become a professional photographer. Also with Jesper Christensen, Mikael Persbrandt, Ghita Nørby, Amanda Ooms, Emil Jensen, and Callin Öhrvall. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Good (NR) Viggo Mortensen stars in this adaptation of C.P. Taylor’s play as a 1930s German writer who finds that the Nazis are using his latest novel as propaganda. Also with Jason Isaacs, Jodie Whittaker, Steven Mackintosh, Mark Strong, Anastasia Hille, Ruth Gemmell, David de Keyser, and Gemma Jones. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Hannah Montana: The Movie (G) A dark and twisted journey into the soul of evil … wait, no, it’s the big-screen version of the TV show starring Miley Cyrus as a pop star whose growing fame threatens to eclipse her normal life. Also with Billy Ray Cyrus, Emily Osment, Jason Earles, Mitchel Musso, Moises Arias, Lucas Till, Margo Martindale, Melora Hardin, Barry Bostwick, and Vanessa Williams. (Opens Friday)
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (PG) Kevin Rafferty’s documentary about a thrilling football game between the two schools in 1968. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Adventureland (R) This warm and winning coming-of-age flick stars Jesse Eisenberg as a 1987 college grad forced to take a summer job at a run-down amusement park, where he falls desperately for a troubled co-worker (Kristen Stewart). Sold as a comedy, this is really a romance, with Eisenberg neatly capturing the vibe of a kid who’s smooth but not smooth enough, and Stewart showing sexiness, fear, and self-loathing like we’ve never seen from her before. Mottola shows great attention to period detail (especially with the soundtrack) but also brings out notes of melancholy and pain in this story, particularly with the climactic scene. A movie that can be treasured for years to come. Also with Ryan Reynolds, Martin Starr, Wendie Malick, Jack Gilpin, Margarita Levieva, Matt Bush, Josh Pais, Mary Birdsong, Bill Hader, and Kristen Wiig.
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 emotional 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 Dakota 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 animation 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.
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.
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 diversion 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.
Fast & Furious (PG-13) Really, are moviegoers this nostalgic for 2001? The four original lead actors return for this fourth film in the series, in which street racer Dom (Vin Diesel) and FBI agent Brian (Paul Walker) are forced to work together after the murder of Dom’s girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), which leads back to a shadowy Mexican drug smuggler who hires ace drivers to deliver his stuff across the border. The actors phone in their performances, perhaps knowing that they’re playing second fiddle to the cars. Director Justin Lin coordinates a nice opening sequence with Dom, Letty, and some cohorts stealing containers of gasoline off the back of a tanker truck. The rest of the car chases are incoherent, and the smuggling plot defies all logic. Also with Jordana Brewster, John Ortiz, Laz Alonso, Gal Gadot, Jack Conley, Liza Lapira, Shea Whigham, and Sung Kang.
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.
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.
The Haunting in Connecticut (PG-13) Based on an story that was claimed to be true but was almost certainly false, this movie depicts a family moving into a spacious Victorian mansion so that their ailing teenage son (Kyle Gallner) can be closer to the hospital where he’s being treated. The house turns out to be filled with spirits who largely manifest themselves as non-terrifying hallucinations of blood and tiny crabs – yes, you read that right. The writers and actors make an honest attempt to portray a family that’s fraying, with a recovering alcoholic dad (Martin Donovan) and a steady mom (Virginia Madsen), but the tension never ties into the scares. The plot resolutions also verge on insulting. Really, crabs? Also with Amanda Crew, Sophi Knight, Ty Wood, Erik J. Berg, and Elias Koteas.
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, Leonardo Nam, Kris Kristofferson, and an uncredited Luis Guzmán.
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.
Knowing (PG-13) A movie that falls apart more spectacularly than The Happening. Nicolas Cage plays a widowed astronomer whose young son (Chandler Canterbury) receives a kid’s drawing that’s been buried in a time capsule for 50 years. Cage finds that the numbers in the drawing correctly predicted every global disaster since 1959. Director Alex Proyas builds suspense rather deftly in the first half of the film, but the thing gets sunk by an incredibly silly climax that plays out like the Left Behind series with space aliens instead of God. The last half hour rots with sentimentality, and Marco Beltrami’s score is truly awful from beginning to end. The supporting cast, which is almost entirely Australian, includes Rose Byrne, Lara Robinson, Nadia Townsend, D.G. Maloney, Alan Hopgood, and Ben Mendelsohn.
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 contains 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 Ferlito, Sofia Vergara, and Viola Davis.
Monsters vs. Aliens (PG) An animated movie with about as much depth as a Saturday morning cartoon, though it does look quite a bit better. The heroine of the piece is Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), a woman who’s turned into a 50-foot giantess after being hit by a meteor and who teams up with the U.S. government’s captive “monsters” to defend the Earth against an alien overlord (voiced by Rainn Wilson) who tries to take over the planet. Most of the movie evaporates as soon as the closing credits roll, but it is enjoyable while it’s unspooling, and Seth Rogen steals the biggest laughs as a clueless, all-devouring gelatinous blob named Bob. All in all, this is more fun than Knowing. Additional voices by Will Arnett, Hugh Laurie, Kiefer Sutherland, Stephen Colbert, Paul Rudd, Jeffrey Tambor, Julie White, Amy Poehler, John Krasinski, and Renée Zellweger.
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.
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 Eisenmann (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.
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, Azharuddin 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 teenage 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 picture 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.
12 Rounds (PG-13) This fast-moving thriller would feel impersonal even if the lead actor were more expressive than former WWE wrestler John Cena. He plays a New Orleans cop who’s forced to complete a set of challenges set by an international arms smuggler (Aidan Gillen) who has broken out of prison and kidnapped the cop’s girlfriend (Ashley Scott). The bad guy’s impossible brilliance means that every piece of this plot fits way too neatly, and you can see every death and every explosion coming from a mile away. The script makes use of tension between the local cops and the feds, and director Renny Harlin keeps things moving, but there’s no spark of invention and no delight in this exercise. Also with Steve Harris, Brian White, Gonzalo Menendez, Taylor Cole, Kyle Clements, and Peter Navy Tuiasosopo.
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 Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Goode, Matt Frewer, and Carla Gugino.
Alien Trespass (PG) R.W. Goodwin’s spoof of 1950s sci-fi flicks stars Eric McCormack as a space alien who crash-lands on Earth and must team up with a small-town waitress (Jenni Baird) to hunt down the creature on his ship before it destroys the planet. Also with Robert Patrick, Jody Thompson, Dan Lauria, Aaron Brooks, Sarah Smyth, and Andrew Dunbar.
The Edge of Love (NR) Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller star in this biographical film as two women who simultaneously became romantically involved with the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys). Also with Cillian Murphy, Richard Clifford, Camilla Rutherford, Alastair Mackenzie, and Lisa Stansfield.
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.
The Great Buck Howard (PG) Sean McGinly’s dramedy stars Colin Hanks as a law-school dropout who takes a job as a personal assistant to a washed-up celebrity magician (John Malkovich). Also with Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn, Adam Scott, Griffin Dunne, Tom Arnold, Ricky Jay, Debra Monk, Casey Wilson, Regis Philbin, Kelly Ripa, Martha Stewart, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, and Tom Hanks.
Sin Nombre (R) Cary Fukunaga’s drama stars Paulina Gaitán as a Honduran teen making the treacherous journey through Mexico so she can reunite with her father in the U.S. Also with Edgar Flores, Kristian Ferrer, Marco Antonio Aguirre, and Tenoch Huerta.
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.