The Ghost Writer (PG-13) Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ novel stars Ewan McGregor as a writer who learns some dangerous information while working with a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) on his memoirs. Also with Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Timothy Hutton, Tom Wilkinson, Eli Wallach, and Jim Belushi. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Cop Out (R) The original title of this was A Couple of Dicks. Kevin Smith’s latest comedy stars Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan as NYPD detectives investigating a murder tied to some stolen baseball memorabilia. Also with Ana de la Reguera, Adam Brody, Jason Lee, Michelle Trachtenberg, Kevin Pollak, Rashida Jones, Susie Essman, and Seann William Scott. (Opens Friday)
The Crazies (R) Breck Eisner (Sahara) remakes George A. Romero’s 1973 film about a small Iowa town whose poisoned inhabitants suddenly turn into homicidal psychopaths. Starring Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell, Joe Anderson, Danielle Panabaker, Christie Lynn Smith, Brett Rickaby, John Aylward, and Glenn Morshower. (Opens Friday)
Fish Tank (NR) Andrea Arnold’s drama stars Katie Jarvis as a 15-year-old English girl who is seduced by her mother’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender). Also with Kierston Wareing, Rebecca Griffiths, and Harry Treadaway. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Saint John of Las Vegas (R) Based on a story by Dante, Hue Rhodes’ film stars Steve Buscemi as an insurance investigator who fears he will suffer a relapse of his gambling addiction when a case takes him close to Vegas. Also with Sarah Silverman, Romany Malco, Tim Blake Nelson, Emmanuelle Chriqui, John Cho, and Peter Dinklage. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (PG) The squeakquel turns out to be an episode of Glee with much worse writing and even more use of Auto-Tune. When good old Dave Seville (Jason Lee) is severely injured on a European tour, the Chips (voiced by Justin Long, Jesse McCartney, and Matthew Gray Gubler) have to go to high school, live with Dave’s video game-addict nephew (Zachary Levi), contend with a rival group of female counterparts (voiced by Anna Faris, Amy Poehler, and Christina Applegate), and deal with dissension within the group. All this excess of plot is met with lame slapstick and groan-worthy puns, and the novelty of falsetto versions of “Single Ladies” and “Hot N Cold” wears off quick. Also with David Cross, Anjelah Johnson, and Wendie Malick.
Avatar (PG-13) James Cameron’s first film in 12 years displays all his strengths and his flaws. Set in the 22nd century on a distant planet, the film stars Sam Worthington as a paraplegic Marine who hooks up his brain to the engineered body of a native to infiltrate the locals and learn about their culture. The first hour or so is dazzling stuff indeed, with the alien planet presented as a fully imagined world with gloriously realized flora and fauna – this movie is a cryptozoologist’s dream come true. Yet the romance is bland and riddled with bad dialogue, and both the Earthling villains and the nature-worshipping natives are simplistic caricatures. The film uses the latest in special-effects technology, but the stale story makes it feel like a relic of a bygone era. Also with Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Dileep Rao, and Sigourney Weaver.
The Blind Side (PG-13) A Hollywood movie where most of the heroes are dyed-in-the-wool Southern Republicans, though that’s the only non-cliché worth mentioning in this otherwise rote football drama based on the true story of Michael Oher, the homeless African-American teen taken in by a rich white family in Memphis and turned into an NFL-caliber left tackle. Sandra Bullock nicely underplays the role of family matriarch, which could easily have been overdone. Newcomer Quinton Aaron, though, isn’t up to scratch as Oher, and writer-director John Lee Hancock leaves out too many details from Michael Lewis’ book, turning an amazing story into a bland Hollywood product, without any of the uplift that he’s aiming for. Also with Tim McGraw, Lily Collins, Jae Head, Ray McKinnon, Kim Dickens, and Kathy Bates.
Blood Done Sign My Name (PG-13) Timothy Tyson’s memoir about growing up in a North Carolina town that became a battleground in the civil rights movement turns into this drama that switches viewpoints between Tyson’s Methodist preacher dad (Rick Schroder) and an educated African-American (Nate Parker) who’s radicalized by the murder of a black Army veteran and subsequent miscarriages of justice by the white-dominated justice system. Writer-director Jeb Stuart tries to avoid having the black characters be too passive, but his inexperience makes this into a disjointed viewing experience. This indifferently paced movie misses the scathing anger of Tyson’s book and becomes an all too well-mannered historical piece. Also with Michael Rooker, Nick Searcy, Omar Benson Miller, Gattlin Griffith, Afemo Omilami, and Lela Rochon.
The Book of Eli (R) More entertaining than The Road, this thriller stars Denzel Washington as a lone wayfarer/badass killer traveling on foot through a post-apocalyptic America, trying to carry the only existing copy of the Bible to a safe place. Standing in his way is a gangster demagogue (Gary Oldman, chewing the scenery as only he can) who wants to use the book to bend people to his will. This is the first film in eight years by Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society), and though there are problems in the execution and Mila Kunis is overmatched as the girl who joins Eli in his road trip, the originality of the conceit and the nifty twists that the story takes are enough to make this a popcorn flick with more on its mind than most. Also with Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Michael Gambon, Frances de la Tour, Tom Waits, and Malcolm McDowell.
Crazy Heart (R) Jeff Bridges wears drunken dissipation like an old, tattered, comfy shirt in this drama about a country music legend who’s forced to sort out his life. This debut film by Scott Cooper doesn’t wallow in its main character’s hard-drinking life, and Bridges gives a deservedly Oscar-nominated performance. The film features a bunch of newly minted songs, many written by Fort Worth natives T-Bone Burnett and the late Stephen Bruton, and all of them are good, from the rowdy honkytonk number “Somebody Else” to the sparse, haunting “Brand New Angel.” The rest of the film is pretty slight, and you could argue that without Bridges and the music there wouldn’t be much left. Ah, but they are here. Also with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Tom Bower, Ryan Bingham, and Robert Duvall.
Dear John (PG-13) Chalk up yet another soggy, lame Nicholas Sparks adaptation. Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried star as a soldier on leave and a college student who fall in love over spring break and keep up an old-fashioned correspondence after he’s posted overseas and extends his tour during the Iraq war. Director Lasse Hallström drowns this in thick, sugary syrup and makes sure that even the 9/11 terrorist attacks don’t disturb the placid surface of this piece of pablum. There’s one moving bit with Richard Jenkins (as the soldier’s autistic dad) in a hospital corridor, but otherwise the movie fails to engage any emotion except boredom. As for the acting, Hollywood needs to stop trying to make the Channing Tatum thing happen. It’s simply not going to work. Also with Henry Thomas, Braeden Reed, Luke Benward, and Scott Porter.
Edge of Darkness (R) Everything that’s right and wrong with this thriller stems from the fact that it’s adapted from a British TV miniseries. Mel Gibson stars as a Boston homicide cop who launches a one-man crusade for the truth after his nuclear-scientist daughter (Bojana Novakovic) is killed. The movie retains the intelligence and social consciousness of the original, but the need to compress a six-hour series into a two-hour film means the film is littered with an absurd amount of action and the emotions become as overwrought as Gibson’s Boston accent. This should have been remade for American TV, not the big screen. Also with Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Shawn Roberts, Jay O. Sanders, David Aaron Baker, Damian Young, Caterina Scorsone, and Denis O’Hare.
From Paris With Love (R) This hopelessly uncool thriller stars Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as a U.S. embassy employee and spy-in-training who’s forced to stop a terrorist plot by teaming with an operative (a shaven-headed, scenery-chomping John Travolta) whose preferred m.o. is to shoot a bunch of people and then see how other people react. The story makes absolutely no sense, and while the anti-French sentiment is amusing because the filmmakers are all French, director Pierre Morel (Taken) stages the action scenes without any coherence or sense of fun. Also with Kasia Smutniak, Richard Durden, Yin Bing, Eric Gordon, and Amber Rose Revah.
Le Grand Chef 2: Kimchi Battle (NR) I haven’t seen the original, I must admit. Adapted from a comic book series, this movie is about an internationally renowned Korean chef (Kim Jeong-eun) who enters a nationwide kimchi cooking contest to win herself publicity and her adopted brother (Jim Ku) who also enters to save their parents’ restaurant. There are too many other plotlines about the siblings’ respective families and a totally unresolved bit involving a criminal on the run (Sung Ji-ru). What should have been a fun food film/sports flick turns into a weepy drama. This soggy kimchi has been pickled for too long. Also with Wang Ji-hye, Choi Jong-won, Lee Bo-hee, Lee Byung-jun, and Park Kil-soo.
It’s Complicated (R) This movie’s trailers give away all its best jokes – why do they do that? Nancy Meyers’ latest romantic comedy is about a divorcée (Meryl Streep) who has an affair with her remarried ex-husband (Alec Baldwin). The ratio of jokes to sentimental crap is better than it was in Meyers’ previous films (Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday), and there are nice turns by Baldwin and by John Krasinski as a family member who finds out what’s going on. On the downside, Streep’s fussy performance is too much for such a normal role, and Steve Martin (as an architect who’s a better romantic option for her) is hamstrung by his nerdy character except for one scene when he gets stoned. Overall, this is a touch better than mediocre and no more. Also with Lake Bell, Zoe Kazan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Hunter Parrish, Mary Kay Place, Alexandra Wentworth, and Rita Wilson.
Legion (R) Legion is the name of the demon that met Jesus, and it’s also the name of this bombastic, laughable religious thriller that stars Paul Bettany as the Archangel Michael, who descends from Heaven to protect a group of people in a roadside diner from the apocalypse that God unleashes on the human race. The special effects here are pretty decent, but the dialogue is godawful, and while we’re told that the characters hold the key to the future of humanity, both the characters themselves and the filmmakers seem oddly incurious about how that might be. Overheated, slapdash, and sluggish, this is too sloppy to be much fun. Also with Dennis Quaid, Charles S. Dutton, Tyrese Gibson, Lucas Black, Adrianne Palicki, Doug Jones, Willa Holland, Jon Tenney, and Kate Walsh.
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (PG) Chris Columbus, who directed the first two Harry Potter movies, brings the same leaden, derivative touch to this adaptation of Rick Riordan’s best-selling fantasy-adventure novel. Logan Lerman plays a teenager who discovers that he’s the son of a Greek god and must use his superpowers to forestall a war among the gods that would destroy the Earth. The movie remains resolutely unmagical despite the liberal use of CGI effects. In a star-studded supporting cast, the only actor who makes any impact is Steve Coogan, playing Hades like a burned-out heavy metal rocker. The lame, uninventive script reduces this would-be epic to an overstuffed mess. Also with Alexandra Daddario, Brandon T. Jackson, Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman, Sean Bean, Kevin McKidd, Jake Abel, Rosario Dawson, Melina Kanakaredes, Joe Pantoliano, and Catherine Keener.
The Princess and the Frog (PG) Much has been made of this being the first Disney film with an African-American heroine, but really this is no different from the animated musicals that the studio put out in the 1990s. Therein lies the problem. The main character (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) is a waitress in 1920s New Orleans who’s transformed into a frog after kissing a similarly froggified prince (voiced by Bruno Campos). The story is filled out by predictable slapstick and supporting characters, plus a batch of Randy Newman songs that imitate jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and zydeco to undistinguished effect. Some bright voice acting can’t disguise the lack of imagination here. Additional voices by Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings, Jenifer Lewis, Terrence Howard, John Goodman, and Oprah Winfrey.
Sherlock Holmes (PG-13) Most of the fun in this loud, busy, moderately diverting thriller comes from the comic bickering between Robert Downey Jr. (playing Holmes as a rumpled but swashbuckling action hero) and Jude Law (a smarter, fitter Watson who’s less tolerant of Holmes’ personality quirks). The great detective goes up against a lord (Mark Strong) who claims to possess supernatural powers in this latest adventure, which is not to be found in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. The plotting is ramshackle, and director Guy Ritchie isn’t comfortable with the period setting. But making Holmes and Watson more equal partners is a terrific idea, and the rapport between the languorous, scruffy Downey and the light, smooth Law bodes well for this duo’s further adventures. Also with Rachel McAdams, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, Geraldine James, Hans Matheson, Robert Maillet, and James Fox.
Shutter Island (R) Martin Scorsese turns Dennis Lehane’s novel into this surprisingly generic Gothic potboiler. Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo star as U.S. marshals sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate from an asylum for the criminally insane. The director’s shock tactics don’t work any more in our time, and one gets the feeling that the movie would have been better if Scorsese had done either less or more with the material. On the other hand, the plot twists go down smoothly, and the supporting actors (especially Michelle Williams, Ted Levine, Emily Mortimer, and Patricia Clarkson) do some terrific work as the various crazy people populating the scenery. Disposable rather than shattering, this is still a fair puzzle of a movie. Also with Ben Kingsley, Jackie Earle Haley, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, and Max von Sydow.
A Single Man (R) Colin Firth wins a deserved Oscar nomination for the finest performance of his career in this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel about a 1960s English widower in Southern California who contemplates suicide after the death of his gay partner. Renowned fashion designer Tom Ford makes his cinematic debut as director/co-writer, and he occasionally lingers too much and takes too much trouble to make everything look good. However, he also has a fine instinct for handling his actors (Julianne Moore makes a big splash as a hot drunken mess of a best friend), and Firth’s sad resignation is beautiful and moving, as his character looks back on the joys and sorrows of his life. Also with Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult, Lee Pace, Jon Kortajarena, and Ginnifer Goodwin.
To Save a Life (PG-13) This Christian-themed high-school drama takes an appealing soft-pedal approach, but dear Lord, is it ever dull. Randy Wayne plays a star athlete who turns to God after his former best friend (Robert Bailey Jr.) kills himself. Some of the comic relief is actually funny, and the film exhorts its viewers to be more welcoming and less judgmental toward non-believers. Unfortunately, the pacing is sluggish, too much domestic drama is piled on the main character, and the pregnancy subplot is terribly mishandled. Aside from that, the filmmakers have a good attitude. They just don’t have the skills. Also with Deja Kreutzberg, Joshua Weigel, Steven Crowder, D. David Morin, Sean Michael, Kim Hidalgo, and Bubba Lewis.
The Tooth Fairy (PG) Who thought this would be a good idea? Dwayne Johnson stars as a minor-league hockey player who’s forced to spend one week working as a tooth fairy, complete with wings that sprout up when he’s on call. Unbelievably, the execution is even worse than the idea. The lame comedy set pieces are bad enough to sit through, but the movie ladles on a bunch of sanctimonious platitudes about the importance of believing in tooth fairies, and the ending is astonishingly bad. Feel sorry for everyone here, especially Julie Andrews as the fairy in chief. Also with Ashley Judd, Stephen Merchant, Seth MacFarlane, Brandon T. Jackson, Ryan Sheckler, and an uncredited Billy Crystal.
Up in the Air (R) This breezy comedy catches the nation’s recessionary mood, but it’d be a great film regardless of the economic climate. George Clooney plays a corporate executive who specializes in firing workers at large companies and loves to travel. Jason Reitman directs this movie slickly and writes dialogue (with co-writer Sheldon Turner) that’s good enough to eat. The relationships between the hero and a fellow traveler whom he hooks up with (Vera Farmiga) and a junior executive (Anna Kendrick) are carefully shaded. A late interlude at a wedding almost tips the movie over into sentimentality, but Reitman steers it away from a conventional romantic ending toward something much more interesting. This story of a loner made to confront his solitary lifestyle is told in brilliant and highly entertaining style. Also with Jason Bateman, Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride, Amy Morton, Sam Elliott, J.K. Simmons, and Zach Galifianakis.
Valentine’s Day (PG-13) This star-laden romantic comedy has at least 10 intersecting plotlines, only three or four of which are worth the trouble. Julia Roberts has the best storyline as an Army officer flying home to see her loved one, while Jennifer Garner has the best character as a teacher who finds out her boyfriend is married. Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift score a few slapstick laughs as a high-school couple running track with disastrous results. Other less memorable storylines and roles are assigned to Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, Jamie Foxx, Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, and Shirley MacLaine. It all adds up to a slight, mostly forgettable viewing experience. With all the talent on display here, it should have been more. Also with Bradley Cooper, Patrick Dempsey, Eric Dane, George Lopez, Topher Grace, Hector Elizondo, Emma Roberts, Carter Jenkins, Bryce Robinson, Kathy Bates, and Queen Latifah.
When in Rome (PG-13) An idiotic premise undermines what might have been a likable romantic comedy. Kristen Bell plays a work-obsessed New Yorker who magically finds lots of men falling in love with her after she takes some coins from an enchanted fountain in Italy. The lively Bell has some decent chemistry with leading man Josh Duhamel, and there are some amusing set pieces like a satire on trendy restaurants and a choreographed dance number over the end credits. However, the magic stuff is played dead seriously when it should have been part of the fun, and a parade of funny supporting actors (Will Arnett, Dax Shepard, Jon Heder, Danny DeVito) as the male suitors is wasted. Shopworn romantic thinking and stereotyped Italian characters help make this missable. Also with Anjelica Huston, Alexis Dziena, Don Johnson, Bobby Moynihan, Peggy Lipton, Lee Pace, Ghostface Killah, and an uncredited Efren Ramirez.
The Wolfman (R) This staggeringly inept remake of the 1941 film stars Benicio del Toro as a 19th-century American actor who’s bitten by a werewolf when he goes back to England to discover the fate of his missing brother. The movie isn’t scary and, with the exception of Antony Sher’s cameo as a smug Freudian psychotherapist, it isn’t funny either. Director Joe Johnston loses track of even basic stuff like when exactly the people turn into wolves and the timeline of the plot. For all the star power and expense put into this horror flick, it’s much worse than many other lower-budget entries in the genre. Also with Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, and Geraldine Chaplin.
Creation (PG-13) Paul Bettany stars in this biography of Charles Darwin and his struggles to reconcile his evolutionary theory with his religious beliefs. Also with Jennifer Connelly, Jeremy Northam, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Jim Carter.
Happy Tears (R) Demi Moore and Parker Posey star in Mitchell Lichtenstein’s drama as two sisters returning home to take care of their deteriorating father (Rip Torn). Also with Ellen Barkin, Christian Camargo, Roger Rees, Billy Magnussen, Celia Weston, and Patti D’Arbanville.
The White Ribbon (R) Michael Haneke’s latest film is about a village schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) who discovers a series of sinister events connected to a group of children in Germany shortly before World War I. Also with Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Burghart Klaussner, Susanne Lothar, Birgit Minichmayr, Ursina Lardi, and Josef Bierbichler.