Afghan Star (NR) Havana Marking’s documentary about the contestants who risk their lives to perform in an American Idol-style TV show in Afghanistan. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Final Destination (R) It only took them three sequels to give up on the laughable numbers after the title. This 3-D installment stars Bobby Campo as a teen who saves several people’s lives at an auto race, only to find death claiming them anyway. Also with Shantel VanSanten, Nick Zano, Haley Webb, Andrew Fiscella, Mykelti Williamson, and Krista Allen. (Opens Friday)
Haeundae (NR) Korean disaster movie depicts a tsunami hitting the city of Busan. Starring Seo Yeong-ju, Ha Ji-won, Park Joong-hoon, Eom Jeong-hwa, and Lee Min-gi. (Opens Friday at AMC Grapevine Mills)
Halloween II (R) Rob Zombie continues his reboot of the series, as Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) prepares for the return of Michael Myers (Tyler Mane) on the anniversary of his attacks. Also with Malcolm McDowell, Brad Dourif, Sheri Moon Zombie, Danielle Harris, Daniel Roebuck, Mary Birdsong, Howard Hesseman, and Margot Kidder. (Opens Friday)
Jerichow (NR) Christian Petzold’s thriller stars Benno Fürmann as a German soldier who starts an affair with a married woman (Nina Hoss). Also with Hilmi Sözer, André Hennicke, Claudia Geisler, and Marie Gruber. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Taking Woodstock (R) Ang Lee’s comedy about a young man (Demetri Martin) in 1969 who decides to use his parents’ motel in the Catskills to stage a historic music festival. Also with Emile Hirsch, Eugene Levy, Imelda Staunton, Liev Schreiber, Kelli Garner, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Mamie Gummer, Dan Fogler, Skylar Astin, and Paul Dano. (Opens Friday)
Thirst (R) Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) directs this horror movie about a Korean Catholic priest (Song Kang-ho) whose participation in a medical experiment turns him into a vampire. Also with Kim Ok-vin, Kim Hae-sook, Shin Ha-kyun, Park In-hwan, Oh Dal-su, Mercedes Cabral, and Eriq Ebouaney. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Aliens in the Attic (PG) This comedy fires off a few good jokes about family dysfunction before those damned aliens show up. Carter Jenkins stars as a teen spending July 4th with his kid sister (Ashley Boettcher) and cousins (Austin Butler and Henri and Regan Young) when their house is invaded by four aliens serving as an advance team for an invasion fleet that’ll take over the world. The kids have to battle the aliens without attracting the notice of their parents. The filmmakers’ one inventive touch is making an action heroine out of 78-year-old Doris Roberts as the kids’ grandmother. Other than that, the filmmaking is bland, and the kid actors are charmless. Also with Ashley Tisdale, Kevin Nealon, Gillian Vigman, Robert Hoffman, Andy Richter, and Tim Meadows.
Bandslam (PG) Much better than it should have been, this teen comedy stars newcomer Gaelan Connell as Will, a high-school music nerd who moves to a new school and becomes manager of a rock band. The headliners here are Aly Michalka (from Aly & AJ) as the band’s lead singer and Vanessa Hudgens, cast way against type as the cool loser chick who becomes Will’s girlfriend. The two girls don’t become enemies, which is typical of the way director/co-writer Todd Graff (Camp) plays havoc with the conventions of both high-school movies and rock ‘n’ roll movies. The film’s pitched at the post-High School Musical crowd that’s ready for more sophisticated fare, and it’s occasionally too eager to prove its indie-rock credentials. Even so, its intelligence and humor make it rewarding viewing for grown-ups as well as teens. Watch for a prominent cameo by Fort Worth band The Burning Hotels. Also with Lisa Kudrow, Ryan Donowho, Scott Porter, Charlie Saxton, Tim Jo, and David Bowie.
District 9 (R) Maybe not the best sci-fi movie of the year, but certainly the most remarkable. This South African film is built on the premise of a million space aliens being stranded and eventually ghettoized in the city of Johannesburg. Sharlto Copley stars as a bureaucrat who becomes a fugitive after an infection starts to change his body into an alien’s. Director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp smoothly integrates human actors with computer-generated aliens and faux documentary techniques with straightforward narrative to tell this story, and the imaginative action sequences are Hollywood-quality. The apartheid allegory isn’t terribly subtle, but the movie is still an impressive piece of work with a distinctive South African flavor. Also with Jason Cope, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka, Louis Minnaar, Nathalie Boltt, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, and Kenneth Nkosi.
(500) Days of Summer (PG-13) The smartest, most original romantic comedy in the last five years stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as co-workers who spend 16 months doing a dance in which he tries to pair them up and she keeps pulling away. The spiky Gordon-Levitt and the deadpan Deschanel are a terrific match, as she brings out a lightness and playfulness that we haven’t seen from him in adult roles. First-time movie director Marc Webb injects the movie with all sorts of nonrealistic storytelling devices that bring out the angst and tension in the relationship and also make for jokes that frequently score – the dance number that erupts during the guy’s triumphant walk to work is the most deliriously joyful thing in any movie this year. The comedy’s distancing techniques help it peer deeply into the human heart. Also with Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubler, Clark Gregg, Patricia Belcher, Rachel Boston, and Minka Kelly.
Funny People (R) There’s enough material in Judd Apatow’s dramedy to make two good movies, but it adds up to one muddled, overlong, fascinating, deeply flawed dramedy. Adam Sandler stars as a superstar comedian who hires a struggling stand-up comic (Seth Rogen) to write jokes for him. The first half features the comedy star dropping the bombshell that he’s terminally ill, while the second half sees him miraculously cured and trying to restart his life by pursuing his now-married ex-girlfriend (Leslie Mann, tremendous as always). The movie is great about the cutthroat professional competitiveness of comics, and Sandler is magnificent as a rotten person who’s fearful and raging at the prospect of dying alone. However, the shift in tone between halves is too abrupt, and the very last scene is a huge mistake. The film’s a mess, but it’s often funny and never boring. Also with Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Bana, Aubrey Plaza, Ken Jeong, RZA, and Aziz Ansari.
G-Force (PG) Slightly more watchable than the surprisingly similar Transformers sequel, mainly because it’s shorter. A genetic engineer (Zach Galifianakis) and his team of talking guinea pigs trained to act as spies (voiced by Sam Rockwell, Tracy Morgan, Penélope Cruz, and Nicolas Cage) try to stop a billionaire industrialist (Bill Nighy) from taking over the world. First-time director Hoyt Yeatman has a pretty good hand with the action sequences and special-effects, but never finds the right balance between the thriller elements and the silly comedy. The movie is played too straight, and it grinds to a complete halt about two-thirds of the way in. I’ll take the hamster from Bolt over any of these guinea pigs. Also with Will Arnett, Kelli Garner, and Loudon Wainwright III. Additional voices by Jon Favreau and Steve Buscemi.
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (PG-13) Not abysmal, just sloppy, stupid, and hyper like too many other Hollywood movies of this type. Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans portray two U.S. soldiers who encounter and look to join a secret multinational anti-terrorism organization. There’s too many plotlines and too much action going on in too many places for us to even get a chance to taste this thing, the wisecracks are limp, and the script’s attempts to engage us in the characters’ emotions go all wrong. The movie needed to be longer to at least gain some breathing space. If you’re looking for whiz-bang action, check out District 9 instead. Also with Sienna Miller, Rachel Nichols, Dennis Quaid, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Christopher Eccleston, Ray Park, Saïd Taghmaoui, Arnold Vosloo, Lee Byung-hun, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jonathan Pryce, and an uncredited Brendan Fraser.
The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (R) Jeremy Piven stars in this effective low-rent comedy as the leader of a sales team (Ving Rhames, Kathryn Hahn, and David Koechner) who are hired by a failing auto dealership owner (James Brolin) to boost sales over the July 4th weekend. The actors ad-lib at will and at profane length here, and they hit home often enough to keep the laughs coming, though not quite enough to paper over what sad cases their characters are. The disjoint between the comedy and the dead-end environment doesn’t work, but if all Hollywood comedies had this level of talent and gave them the freedom to improvise, our multiplexes would be better places. Also with Ed Helms, Jordana Spiro, Craig Robinson, Ken Jeong, Tony Hale, Rob Riggle, Charles Napier, Noureen DeWulf, Wendie Malick, Alan Thicke, and an uncredited Will Ferrell.
The Hangover (R) It has some hazy spots, but it’s also funny enough to make your head hurt. Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ed Helms play three friends who accompany a groom-to-be (Justin Bartha) on a bachelor’s fling in Las Vegas. The prologue takes entirely too long, but the laughs eventually kick in when the friends awake with no memory of the night before and the groom MIA. Director Todd Phillips (Old School) returns to R-rated territory and retains his sense of comic timing, injecting bursts of violence and surrealism that keep us from getting too comfortable. The cast is a tad off, but the laughs scored by random jokes (like the song about the tiger and Mike Tyson’s cameo as himself) make up for it. Also with Heather Graham, Ken Jeong, Rachael Harris, Mike Epps, Rob Riggle, Cleo King, Bryan Callen, Matt Walsh, and Jeffrey Tambor.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (PG) A significant improvement on its predecessor, the sixth Potter movie re-establishes the atmosphere of Hogwarts as a shadowy place full of nooks and crannies that let people eavesdrop on others’ conversations. The movie’s air of paranoia goes well with its espionage plot involving the boy wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) cozying up to the new professor (Jim Broadbent) in an attempt to discover the secret to defeating Voldemort. Director David Yates gives breadth to the romantic subplots, but he’s even better when he’s conjuring up scary set pieces like the one in a sea cave. Any movie that works equally well as spy thriller, love story, and horror flick is pretty remarkable. Also with Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Wright, Jessie Cave, Tom Felton, Evanna Lynch, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, David Thewlis, Natalia Tena, Freddie Stroma, Warwick Davis, and Hero Fiennes-Tiffin.
The Hurt Locker (R) Kathryn Bigelow’s austere, nerve-jangling thriller is set in the thick of the Iraq war, but it’s not about Iraq or even war in general so much as it is a character study of a U.S. Army bomb technician (Jeremy Renner) who likes the thrill of his job a bit too much. The occasional ridiculousness of Bigelow’s earlier thrillers is absent from this muscular, stripped-down film, and the director gives individual character to each of the film’s many action sequences. Renner fully inhabits his fundamentally unknowable character, evoking his mix of unflappable bravado and detail-orientation that makes him good at what he does. You walk out not knowing what makes the guy tick but feeling like you’ve gotten as much of an answer as you’ll ever get. Also with Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, David Morse, Christian Camargo, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, and Evangeline Lilly.
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (PG) The third installment of the animated saga has the gang finding a secret cavern under the ice where dinosaurs still roam. Basically, it’s the same plot as Land of the Lost. Too much of the film is taken up with Manny the mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) becoming a father and his pals (voiced by Denis Leary and John Leguizamo) feeling left out of the family loop. There’s better stuff when the group meets a crazed survivalist weasel (voiced by Simon Pegg) who guides them through this unfamiliar world, but even this character – and a weird version of “Alone Again Naturally” rewritten from the point of view of an acorn – can’t lift this visually and comedically uninspired film from its doldrums. Additional voices by Queen Latifah, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck, Jane Lynch, Clea Lewis, Bill Hader, and Kristen Wiig.
Inglourious Basterds (R) Quentin Tarantino’s World War II flick is about a German movie star (Diane Kruger) who teams with an American lieutenant (Brad Pitt) and his band of corpse-scalping Jewish soldiers to kill Hitler at a movie premiere in Paris. Pitt chews on his accent with tremendous gusto, but the show is completely stolen by Christoph Waltz as a multilingual SS colonel who can break people down without raising his voice or dropping his genial, courteous demeanor. The presence of this great Tarantino villain redeems the unconvincing romantic subplot, and the movie boasts some stunning set pieces in an underground bar and in the theater at the end. Irresponsible and overlong, the movie nevertheless succeeds in scraping the thick coating of solemnity off the genre and making World War II movies fun again. Also with Mélanie Laurent, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Til Schweiger, Daniel Brühl, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, B.J. Novak, August Diehl, Martin Wuttke, Julie Dreyfus, and Mike Myers.
Julie & Julia (PG-13) Nora Ephron is the perfect choice to film this story that chronicles both Julia Child (Meryl Streep) as she lives in Paris after World War II and Julie Powell (Amy Adams) as she works through a personal crisis by cooking and blogging her way through Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Adams is low-key and grounded, and looks fetching in a pixie haircut and baggy wardrobe. It’s Streep, though, who gives the film its comic energy with her sweeping grande dame turn. The food is presented in glossy fashion, but the movie’s emphasis on the process of food preparation helps it convey the satisfaction of manual labor that makes cooking such a rewarding experience. Also with Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina, Linda Emond, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jane Lynch, Deborah Rush, and Frances Sternhagen.
Orphan (PG-13) After Kate (Vera Farminga) miscarries, she and husband John (Peter Sarsgaard) decide to adopt Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman). At first the young girl gets along well with the couple’s deaf daughter Maxine (Aryana Engineer) but clashes with older son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett). But then “accidents” start happening around Esther, and soon it’s dun dun dun-dun! time. Despites some cheap jump-scares and somewhat predictable plot, this is a solid entry in the “evil children” horror subgenre, with a good build-up, devious mind games, just the right amount of gore, and an appropriately evil kid. It’s no Bad Seed, but bad, it ain’t. — Cole Williams
A Perfect Getaway (R) Clever, clever. Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich play a couple hiking in the far reaches of Hawaii on their honeymoon when they’re stalked by two serial killers who prey on newlyweds. They spend much of the movie trying to figure out whether the killers are the couple they’ve met on the trail (Timothy Olyphant and Kiele Sanchez) or the hitchhikers whom they refused to pick up (Chris Hemsworth and Marley Shelton), but writer-director David Twohy (Pitch Black) packs an ingenious twist into this character-driven thriller, and though it requires a fair bit of backtracking to explain, it does work. This unheralded B picture is good entertainment value for money. Also with Anthony Ruivivar.
Ponyo (G) Take a dip in the surreal beauty and ineffable weirdness of Hayao Miyazaki’s universe, with this eye-popping animated film about a magical goldfish (voiced by Noah Cyrus) who washes up near a Japanese coastal town and wants to become human after falling in love with a five-year-old boy (voiced by Frankie Jonas). As always with Miyazaki’s films, the drawing and Joe Hisaishi’s musical score are gorgeous and colorful, and the story has environmental concerns sprinkled throughout. Animated movies for girls tend to be Disneyfied stories about princesses. This is a refreshing alternative. Listen for a tremendous performance by Tina Fey as the boy’s frazzled mother. Additional voices by Liam Neeson, Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin, Betty White, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett.
Post Grad (PG-13) A perfectly ordinary comedy that’s livened up by two or three huge laughs, this stars Alexis Bledel as a college graduate who’s forced to move back in with her parents after failing to find a job. The romantic subplots are boilerplate, as is the lead performance and the main character’s life crisis. The funny moments tend to revolve around Jane Lynch as her flaky mom and Carol Burnett as her pill-popping grandma, and there’s a great silent bit with a bunch of Latin gangbangers at a traffic light. Other than that, uh, the movie doesn’t drag too much. Also with Michael Keaton, Zach Gilford, Bobby Coleman, Rodrigo Santoro, J.K. Simmons, Craig Robinson, and Fred Armisen.
The Proposal (PG-13) Sandra Bullock stars in this romantic comedy as a high-powered Canadian-born book editor who avoids deportation from the United States by blackmailing her put-upon personal assistant (Ryan Reynolds) into agreeing to a sham marriage. The film gets off to a good start, with Bullock relishing the chance to play a cold person forced to pretend to be warm and sweet, and Reynolds getting some rewarding stuff about his difficult relationship with his family. Still, after the couple visits his relatives in Alaska, the slapstick grows labored and the heroine’s romantic dilemma doesn’t provide enough suspense. Despite the two leads’ best efforts, the film dies about halfway through. Also with Craig T. Nelson, Mary Steenburgen, Denis O’Hare, Malin Akerman, Oscar Nuñez, and Aasif Mandvi.
Shorts (PG) On a scale of Robert Rodriguez kids’ movies, this isn’t as good as Spy Kids, but it’s definitely better than The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl. Jimmy Bennett stars as a 12-year-old kid who narrates a series of short films having to do with a space rock that grants people’s wishes. The movie has its share of dead spots, and its cartoonish tone can wear on you when the jokes aren’t firing. However, Rodriguez comes up with all sorts of ingenious ways for the rock’s wish-granting to go awry, and the jokes come stuffed in the corners of the frame (nice running gag with two siblings engaged in a movie-long staring contest). It’s enough to make this movie enjoyable in fits and starts. Also with Jake Short, Trevor Gagnon, Devon Gearhart, Jolie Vanier, Kat Dennings, William H. Macy, Jon Cryer, James Spader, and Leslie Mann.
The Time Traveler’s Wife (PG-13) Not as good as The Lake House. This sleep-inducing weeper stars Rachel McAdams as a woman whose husband (Eric Bana) appears to her at odd times throughout her life because he travels through time without meaning to. Adapted from Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, the film fails to make anything meaningful out of the time-travel conceit, and director Robert Schwentke adopts a wearisome tone that never varies from its tasteful placidity. Unless you can time travel, you’ll never get the 105 minutes of your life back. Also with Ron Livingston, Arliss Howard, Jane McLean, Brooklyn Proulx, Hailey McCann, and Stephen Tobolowsky.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (PG-13) Michael Bay directs this sequel like a 15-year-old boy fumbling with a bra strap. The film actually doesn’t start out too badly, with Shia LaBeouf holding the center of a mysterious plot that revolves around more evil robots arriving on Earth. After one good action sequence early on, however, the plot stops dead, and the sequences become more incoherent. It’s a watchable summer blockbuster, but it could have been so much better. Also with Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, Spencer Garrett, and Rainn Wilson. Voices by Peter Cullen, Hugo Weaving, Frank Welker, Charles Adler, Tony Todd, Grey DeLisle, and Michael York.
The Ugly Truth (R) Some movie titles are self-fulfilling. Katherine Heigl stars in this depressing comedy as a local TV producer who’s forced to work with an insulting, misogynistic self-styled relationship guru (Gerard Butler, channeling both Dr. Phil and Jim Cramer) after he’s given a daytime show at her station. The filmmakers can’t make anything about the TV host ring true, not his antics, not his advice, not his popularity, and certainly not Butler’s shaky American accent. That’s bad enough, but the farce gets hopelessly twisted when the lonely and sexually frigid producer seeks his advice while dating a cute neighbor (Eric Winter). The gender politics here are capable of offending women and men, and the movie isn’t funny enough to make it worth sitting through. Also with John Michael Higgins, Cheryl Hines, Bree Turner, Nick Searcy, Bonnie Somerville, and Nate Corddry.
Up (PG) The latest Pixar animated film features an absurd yet somehow logical plot about a 78-year-old retired balloon vendor (voiced by Ed Asner) who attaches enough balloons to his house to sail away to South America, accompanied by an 8-year-old kid (voiced by Jordan Nagai) who’s marooned on his porch. The best part of the film is a deeply moving wordless montage early on, depicting the early married life of its elderly hero. The rest of the movie is a Pixar adventure that’s more lightweight than usual, though no less enjoyable for that. The warmth and simplicity at the heart of this fable are enough to win you over. The film doesn’t even need 3-D to work. Additional voices by Christopher Plummer, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, Jerome Ranft, and John Ratzenberger.
Cold Souls (PG-13) Paul Giamatti stars in Sophie Barthes’ black comedy as a tormented actor who pays to have his soul removed from his body and placed in cryogenic storage while he performs in a Chekhov play. Also with Dina Korzun, Emily Watson, David Strathairn, Katheryn Winnick, and Lauren Ambrose.
In the Loop (NR) The movie version of the British TV show The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci’s political satire stars Peter Capaldi and Tom Hollander as a sharp-tongued British prime minister’s aide and a hapless cabinet minister as they travel to America on a diplomatic mission. Also with James Gandolfini, Gina McKee, Mimi Kennedy, Anna Chlumsky, David Rasche, Chris Addison, Enzo Cilenti, and Steve Coogan.
$9.99 (R) Tatia Rosenthal’s animated film based on Etgar Keret’s short stories is about an unemployed 28-year-old slacker (voiced by Samuel Johnson) who answers a magazine ad for a book promising the meaning of life. Additional voices by Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush, Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, and Barry Otto.
Paper Heart (PG-13) Nicholas Jasenovec’s film combines documentary footage of comedian Charlyne Yi asking couples about their relationships with staged dramatic footage of Yi and her real-life boyfriend, Michael Cera. Also with Seth Rogen, Demetri Martin, Paul Rust, and Martin Starr.
Spread (R) Ashton Kutcher stars as a Hollywood kept man whose cushy lifestyle is jeopardized when he falls in love. Also with Anne Heche, Margarita Levieva, Sebastian Stan, Rachel Blanchard, Sonia Rockwell, Hart Bochner, and Maria Conchita Alonso.
Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love (PG) Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary portrait of the Senegalese music star.