The Box (PG-13) Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) adapts Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button” about a financially strapped couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) offered a chance at $1 million in exchange for agreeing to let a stranger be murdered. Also with Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Gillian Jacobs, Celia Weston, and Deborah Rush. (Opens Friday)
A Christmas Carol (PG) Robert Zemeckis’ 3-D animated version of Charles Dickens’ story stars Jim Carrey as the voice of Scrooge and all the ghosts who haunt him. Additional voices by Gary Oldman, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins, Daryl Sabara, Cary Elwes, Lesley Manville, Fionnula Flanagan, and Colin Firth. (Opens Friday)
Crude (NR) The latest documentary by Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) is about a group of Ecuadorian citizens bringing a class-action lawsuit against Chevron for contaminating the Amazon. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Men Who Stare at Goats (R) Ewan McGregor stars in this satiric comedy as a reporter in Iraq who meets a man (George Clooney) claiming to be part of a U.S. military unit using psychic abilities to fight the war. Also with Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang, Robert Patrick, Waleed Zuaiter, and Stephen Root. (Opens Friday)
Skin (PG-13) Sophie Okonedo stars in this biography of Sandra Laing, a South African black woman born to two white parents (who turned out to have some black ancestry) in the 1950s. Also with Sam Neill, Alice Krige, Tony Kgoroge, and Ella Ramangwane. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
(Untitled) (R) Jonathan Parker (Bartleby) directs and co-writes this satire about a Chelsea art gallery owner (Marley Shelton) who falls for a brooding composer (Adam Goldberg). Also with Vinnie Jones, Lucy Punch, Eion Bailey, Zak Orth, and Ptolemy Slocum. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Amelia (PG) We’d rather have Amy Adams in the Night at the Museum sequel. Mira Nair’s pretty and pretty dull biography turns the pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart into a pontificating wax figure played by Hilary Swank. The movie’s highly picturesque visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh) and period sense are hitched to a script full of woolly sentiments about womanhood and aviation, and Gabriel Yared’s music heavily underscores every emotional beat in a film that’s hardly subtle to begin with. This squarely conventional biopic turns into a droning history lesson. Also with Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Joe Anderson, Mia Wasikowska, and Cherry Jones.
Astro Boy (PG) What should be a breezy, enjoyable family adventure instead becomes a series of toothless gags and lackluster visuals in this yawn-worthy animated film about a scientist (voiced by Nicolas Cage) who engineers a robot boy (voiced by Freddie Highmore) to replace his lost son. Both the characters onscreen and the filmmakers seem strangely blasé about Astro Boy’s superpowers, and the plot – based on Osamu Tezuka’s legendary manga comic – is weepy stuff about how robots have feelings, too. Your watch will be the only piece of technology that’ll interest you as you sit through this. Additional voices by Kristen Bell, Donald Sutherland, Nathan Lane, Moises Arias, Bill Nighy, Eugene Levy, Samuel L. Jackson, and Charlize Theron. — Steve Steward
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (PG-13) Three novels in Darren Shan’s series are turned into this intriguing but slapdash film about a teenager (Chris Massoglia) who becomes a half-vampire and goes on the road with a carnival of freaks. John C. Reilly makes a terrific vampire as the kid’s mentor, and Patrick Fugit steals a few laughs as a reptile boy. However, director/co-writer Paul Weitz can’t find the right balance of scary and funny here, and the plot is overstuffed with poorly developed supporting characters played by high-wattage character actors. This would have been better turned into a TV show; as it is, it plays like a bad episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Also with Josh Hutcherson, Michael Cerveris, Jessica Carlson, Orlando Jones, Frankie Faison, Ken Watanabe, Willem Dafoe, Jane Krakowski, and Salma Hayek.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (PG) Judi and Ron Barrett’s whimsical kids’ book is rendered unrecognizable in this squarely conventional though not unenjoyable animated film about a young inventor (voiced by Bill Hader) who rejuvenates his small town by making food fall from the sky. The movie has a completely different drawing style from the book’s and a good message for kids: It’s bad to eat whatever you want. Still, this would be a dull and ordinary fantasy adventure if the filmmakers didn’t have so much fun inventing whole landscapes out of food – the gentle snowfall of ice cream is a genuinely beautiful moment. The food jokes sneaking in the corners of the frame keep this thing moving. Additional voices by Anna Faris, Mr. T, James Caan, Andy Samberg, Bruce Campbell, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Will Forte, Benjamin Bratt, Lauren Graham, and Neil Patrick Harris.
Couples Retreat (PG-13) A depressing comedy, because it ends with four couples together but leaves you feeling that two or three of them would have been better off apart. Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau co-write and co-star as part of a party of eight roped by their married friends (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell) into taking part in a retreat where they work on their issues at an island resort. Much stale business ensues about New Age therapy, midlife crises, seven-year itches, and overworked professionals. Vaughn and Favreau have better chemistry with each other than any of the actors who play couples do, but the Swingers guys can’t save this mirthless exercise. Also with Kristin Davis, Malin Akerman, Faizon Love, Kali Hawk, Tasha Smith, Peter Serafinowicz, Carlos Ponce, Jean Reno, John Michael Higgins, and Ken Jeong.
Fame (PG) This update of the 1980 film is still set in a performing arts high school in New York City, though the students and teachers are all new. Some of the performers show some intriguing musical talent (Naturi Naughton as a classical pianist who wants to sing R&B/hip-hop and Kherington Payne as a modern dance student), and first-time director Kevin Tancharoen does a fair job with the numbers. Fatally, though, none of the kids is given interesting storylines or personalities. Bringing back the TV show version of Fame would probably have been a better move than bringing back the movie. Also with Kay Panabaker, Asher Book, Walter Perez, Collins Pennie, Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, Paul Iacono, Paul McGill, Megan Mullally, Charles S. Dutton, Bebe Neuwirth, Kelsey Grammer, and Debbie Allen.
Good Hair (R) African-American women and their relationship to their hair is the subject of this not overly deep but highly entertaining documentary by Jeff Stilson, with Chris Rock as a writer and onscreen guide. Rock interviews the contestants at the Bronner Brothers Hair Show in Atlanta, visits a plant that makes chemical relaxer, travels to India to trace the process of making hair weaves, and talks to a string of celebrities from Maya Angelou to T-Pain. Rock and Stilson could have used a bit more of Michael Moore’s confrontational spirit in looking at the beauty-industrial complex, but they uncover telling insights, whether Rock’s talking to famous actresses or high-school girls. The comedian is an engaging guide to this world that non-black moviegoers might be unfamiliar with.
The Informant! (R) Wacky-but-true story stars Matt Damon as the Archer Daniels Midland executive who alerted the FBI to his company’s illegal business practices and then proceeded to almost wreck the investigation with his own lies and criminal misdeeds. Director Steven Soderbergh plays the corporate shenanigans for high comedy, and Damon (sporting glasses, a bad hairpiece, 30 extra pounds, and a wussy mustache) provides the gleeful spark in a cast full of comedians. The script ruthlessly dissects the character of a compulsive liar by letting us in on the guy’s deepest thoughts, which turn out to be quite shallow. As is often the case, the most ridiculous parts of this movie are the ones that really happened. Also with Scott Bakula, Melanie Lynskey, Joel McHale, Tony Hale, Tom Papa, Ann Cusack, Patton Oswalt, Clancy Brown, Tom Smothers, and Dick Smothers.
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.
The Invention of Lying (PG-13) Wow, this premise sucks. Ricky Gervais stars in this comedy (which he also co-writes and co-directs) as the only man who’s capable of lying in a world where everyone always tells the truth. Gervais remains a funny guy, and he’s surprisingly affecting in the middle section when he invents the concept of religion to comfort his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan). However, the movie’s depiction of an entirely truthful world is too depressing to raise too many laughs, and the last third bogs down in the hero’s attempts to woo a beautiful woman (Jennifer Garner). A sumptuous supporting cast is wasted in this dreary exercise. Also with Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., Jeffrey Tambor, Nate Corddry, Martin Starr, Christopher Guest, Jason Bateman, Edward Norton, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
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.
Law Abiding Citizen (R) Gerard Butler’s acting is getting worse and worse. He hams his way amateurishly through this sadistic thriller as a government spymaster who turns his fury on the justice system – one assistant D.A. in particular (Jamie Foxx) – after a plea bargain sets his family’s killers free. The bad guy’s hypercompetency isn’t fully explained by the big revelation near the end, and F. Gary Gray directs this like the latest installment of Saw when he should be keeping things light and witty. His lugubrious manner just exposes the rottenness at the heart of this exercise and lets the bad taste build up. Also with Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb, Regina Hall, Michael Irby, Emerald-Angel Young, Annie Corley, and Viola Davis.
9 (PG-13) Astounding visuals hold this flimsy animated film together, but only briefly. The setup is pretty cool: The title character (voiced by Elijah Wood) is a ragdoll brought to life in a postapocalyptic world to help take down the machines that destroyed humanity. Unfortunately, 9 and his fellow dolls don’t reveal too many facets of personality through their spare dialogue, and the stellar voice actors don’t add much, either. The evil robots and the desolate cityscape give you lots to watch, but after about 20 minutes, you’re left to consider the movie’s considerable failings. Additional voices by John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Martin Landau, Crispin Glover, Fred Tatasciore, and Christopher Plummer.
Paranormal Activity (R) I shook off this vérité horror flick when I first saw it and then found I had trouble sleeping later that same night. Oren Peli’s instant cult film is a fake documentary about a day trader (Micah Sloat) who buys a video camera to record the demonic happenings that his new live-in girlfriend (Katie Featherston) claims are going on around her. The script goes through too many contortions to keep the characters inside their house and filming, but Peli stages some spooky stuff when the couple are sleeping at night with the camera running, making excellent use of a low-frequency rumble on the soundtrack to indicate the demon’s presence. The film was reportedly made for $11,000. The results are dazzling. Also with Mark Fredrichs.
Passport to Love (PG-13) Victor Vu’s comedy stars Binh Minh and Huy Khanh as two Vietnamese students whose lives are complicated by romance while studying in America. Also with Kathy Uyen, Ngoc Diep, Tang Bao Quyen, and Phuc Van Nguyen.
Saw VI (R) Please God, let him die. Tobin Bell returns one more time as a game-playing serial killer. Also with Costas Mandylor, Shawnee Smith, Mark Rolston, Betsy Russell, Samantha Lemole, and Peter Outerbridge.
The Stepfather (PG-13) Penn Badgley stars in this dull remake of the 1987 thriller as a troubled kid who comes home from boarding school and finds his mother (Sela Ward) newly engaged to a man (Dylan Walsh) who might well be a killer. The good news is that the bad guy is made to be clever; the bad news is that everybody else is made to be extremely stupid, which effectively kills any suspense here. The performances by a cast full of TV actors are indifferent, but given the film’s unforgivably slapdash treatment of its characters, maybe that’s understandable. Also with Amber Heard, Jon Tenney, Paige Turco, Jessalyn Gilsig, and Sherry Stringfield.
This Is It (PG) There’s no hint that this documentary was shot in the final days of Michael Jackson’s life. Instead, with its extensive rehearsal footage, it’s intended to take the place of the concert tour that the pop star was working on in the days leading up to his death. Jackson clearly still has all his dance moves, even as he moves at half-speed through the routines. Aside from a vocals-only rendition of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” with Judith Hill, the performances (mostly of Jackson’s old hits) are too sketched-in to replace the ones on record and video. However, director Kenny Ortega (the director of the stage show as well) shows Jackson interacting with his fellow performers as a fanatically precise though generous taskmaster. This film could have been an exploitive cash-in. Instead, it’s fashioned into a valuable look at the pop star’s creative process.
Where the Wild Things Are (PG) Spike Jonze and scriptwriter Dave Eggers strip down Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book to its emotional essence and then gracefully expand it into a series of adventures about a kid (Max Records) discovering that he’s not the center of the universe. Sendak’s mythical beasts are rendered beautifully by Jim Henson’s workshop and given extraordinary expressive range, and the fake-documentary filmmaking style gives the movie an unnerving tinge of reality. The result is a sweet, bleak fantasy full of blunt truths about families that traces a goofy, scary, and poignant arc. Also with Catherine Keener and Mark Ruffalo. Voices by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, Lauren Ambrose, and Chris Cooper. — Jimmy Fowler
Whip It (PG-13) A ragged but charming directorial debut by Drew Barrymore, this lo-fi indie-style comedy stars Ellen Page as a small-town Texas girl who finds her calling when she joins a roller derby league in Austin. The director is hamstrung by a thoroughly conventional script (adapted by Shauna Cross from her own novel Derby Girl), and sometimes she doesn’t know when to get on with the action. However, Barrymore draws excellent performances from a cool supporting cast (in which she has a small role) and displays good command of atmosphere and tone, turning this into a much more lyrical film than you’d expect. Let’s see what she can do with better material. Also with Kristen Wiig, Marcia Gay Harden, Andrew Wilson, Alia Shawkat, Eve, Ari Graynor, Zoë Bell, Daniel Stern, Landon Pigg, Juliette Lewis, and Jimmy Fallon.
Zombieland (R) Terrifically funny postapocalyptic movie stars Jesse Eisenberg as a paranoid shut-in who teams up with a redneck (Woody Harrelson) and two sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) to survive after most of the world’s population is turned into zombies. Director Ruben Fleischer and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick manufacture tons of gags centered on rules to live by in a zombie world and creative ways to kill zombies. Encouragingly, the jokes don’t stop during the movie’s few zombie-free stretches, and the actors know how to play this tricky material. (Eisenberg’s beta-male neuroses are much more amusing in this context than in The Squid and the Whale.) A fiercely original and funny debut for these brilliant comic filmmakers. Also with Mike White, Amber Heard, and Bill Murray.
Coco Before Chanel (PG-13) Audrey Tautou stars in this biography of the French fashion giant, written and directed by Anne Fontaine (The Girl From Monaco). Also with Alessandro Nivola, Emmanuelle Devos, Benoît Poelvoorde, Marie Gillain, and Régis Royer.
An Education (PG-13) Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) adapts Lynn Barber’s memoir about an English schoolgirl (Carey Mulligan) in the 1960s who falls in love with an older man (Peter Sarsgaard). Also with Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, Cara Seymour, Sally Hawkins, and Emma Thompson.
A Serious Man (R) The Coen brothers’ latest film stars Michael Stuhlbarg as a physics professor in 1960s Minnesota whose life suddenly falls apart. Also with Richard Kind, Sari Lennick, Fred Melamed, Aaron Wolff, Adam Arkin, Jessica McManus, Peter Breitmayer, David Kang, Amy Landecker, George Wyner, Michael Lerner, and Fyvush Finkel.