Deep in the Heart (PG-13) Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) stars in this drama as a recovering alcoholic determined to put his kids through college. Also with Elaine Hendrix, Rheagan Wallace, James Haven, Donny Boaz, Katherine Wills, D.B. Sweeney, and Val Kilmer. (Opens Friday)
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (PG-13) “I made a lot of mistakes, but Danny is the one good thing I ever did.” “That being the case, we’d better make sure he doesn’t turn out to be the Antichrist.” Nicolas Cage returns for this sequel. Also with Violante Placido, Ciarán Hinds, Idris Elba, Johnny Whitworth, Fergus Riordan, Anthony Head, and Christopher Lambert. (Opens Friday)
Rampart (R) Woody Harrelson stars in this drama by Oren Moverman (The Messenger) as an L.A. cop with a corruption probe bearing down on him in 1999. Also with Robin Wright, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Jon Foster, Audra McDonald, Brie Larson, Ned Beatty, Ice Cube, Steve Buscemi, and Sigourney Weaver. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Thin Ice (R) Jill and Karen Sprecher (Clockwatchers) direct and co-write this thriller about a small-town Wisconsin insurance agent (Greg Kinnear) who’s drawn into a plot involving a rare violin and a blackmailing ex-con (Billy Crudup). Also with Alan Arkin, Lea Thompson, David Harbour, Michelle Arthur, and Bob Balaban. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
W.E. (R) Madonna directs and co-writes this drama about the affair between King Edward VIII of England (James D’Arcy) and Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough). Also with Abbie Cornish, Oscar Isaac, Richard Coyle, David Harbour, Judy Parfitt, Geoffrey Palmer, Natalie Dormer, and James Fox. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (G) The latest installment finds Alvin, Simon, and Theodore and their female counterparts Brittany, Jeanette, and Eleanor lost on a deserted island, after a mishap with a kite whisks them away from the vacation cruise they’ve taken with Dave (Jason Lee). The furry pop stars fend for themselves against the islands mild perils, including a crazy treasure hunter (Jenny Slate) who lives with a collection of sports balls with faces drawn on them. Dave and villainous former record exec Ian (David Cross) hop on a hang glider in pursuit and wash ashore, too. Overall, the hijinks aren’t terribly funny, but the occasional references to Lost (along with a Mark Mothersbaugh score that frequently makes appropriately dissonant nods to the show) are amusing for the grownups. Kids raised on a diet of candy and KISS FM will probably like most of it. Voices by Justin Long, Michael Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney, Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, and Amy Poehler. –– Steve Steward
The Artist (PG-13) This unexpectedly emotionally draining French silent film stars Jean Dujardin as a 1920s Hollywood silent-movie star who refuses to adjust to sound. Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius (OSS 117) does this up largely as pastiche, referencing A Star Is Born, Singin’ in the Rain, and Chaplin’s comedies, but the main character’s hubris-fueled descent into poverty gives the film its dramatic power, helped by Ludovic Bource’s emotive score and Dujardin’s performance as a charmer trying to summon his charm in the face of disaster. Instead of a simplistic ode to the olden days, Hazanavicius pays tribute to technological progress while keeping an eye on its victims. All this and a few tap dance numbers contribute to the magic of this film. Also with Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Malcolm McDowell, and John Goodman.
Big Miracle (PG) This environmental drama feels small despite its lofty ambitions. Based on the real-life events surrounding 1988’s Operation Breakthrough, this film tells the story of a large-scale effort to free three whales trapped in ice off northern Alaska from the points of view of various characters involved. The scope is impressive, but rather than immerse us in an unfamiliar world suddenly invaded by outsiders, director Ken Kwapis treats this as a sitcom episode writ large, seeking out cheap laughs and making a few woolly statements about the majesty of whales. The ensemble is too lightweight, and Drew Barrymore is painfully miscast as an angry, driven environmental crusader. If only Steven Soderbergh had been in charge. Also with John Krasinski, Ted Danson, Kristen Bell, Tim Blake Nelson, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw, James LeGros, Rob Riggle, Mark Ivanir, John Pingayak, Ahmaogak Sweeney, Stephen Root, John Michael Higgins, and Kathy Baker.
Chronicle (PG-13) Truly something we haven’t seen before: a vérité superhero flick. Josh Trank’s film stars Dane DeHaan as a high-school nerd who films his life to protect himself from his abusive dad but instead winds up documenting how he, his cousin (Alex Russell), and the BMOC (Michael B. Jordan) develop the power to move things with their minds. The cheap video look and the pricey special effects make this sci-fi story credible, give rise to some funny bits, and compensate for the last third of the film, when the movie’s storytelling turns too smooth. This may just be the same old superhero flick in a new wrapper, but the wrapper sure is eye-catching. Also with Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Bo Petersen, and Anna Wood.
Contraband (R) This distinctly average crime thriller stars Mark Wahlberg as a retired New Orleans smuggler who’s brought back for One Last Score after his feckless brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) goes into debt with a vicious active hood (Giovanni Ribisi). The bad guy’s antics are as over-the-top as Ribisi’s performance, and he’s stuck in the boring Stateside half of the film while Wahlberg ships out to Panama to bring back some counterfeit U.S. currency aboard a cargo ship. Director Baltasar Kormákur does it all up professionally, though not energetically. The film is a remake of the 2008 Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam, which Kormákur starred in. Also with Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, J.K. Simmons, Lukas Haas, David O’Hara, Kevin “Lucky” Johnson, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, and Diego Luna.
The Descendants (R) Alexander Payne’s films are about unremarkable people, which makes the star wattage of George Clooney an odd fit with this story (based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel) about a wealthy Hawaii lawyer trying to raise two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) after his wife is rendered comatose by a boating accident. The movie (an opening night selection at the recent Lone Star Film Festival) just misses masterpiece status, but there’s still much to like. The writing is sharp, the landscapes are beautiful, and even the small roles are brilliantly acted. Woodley is a real find, and Clooney is terrific even though he’s miscast. The film never achieves the exquisite balance of comedy and pathos that it’s going for, but it’s very good. Also with Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause, Beau Bridges, and Robert Forster.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (PG-13) This horrible piece of 9/11 kitsch stars Thomas Horn as a phobic 9-year-old boy who tries to figure out the meaning of a key left to him by his father (Tom Hanks), who was killed in the World Trade Center terrorist attack. Some of the flaws in this film come from the Jonathan Safran Foer novel that it’s based on — the mute tenant played by Max von Sydow is a deeply unfortunate cliché. However, this weepy, overheated debacle mostly springs from director Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours), who brings out the worst in both his actors and composer Alexandre Desplat, and frames every shot as if to tell us, “This is really meaningful.” Save your money for a commemorative t-shirt. Also with Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Zoe Caldwell, and Jeffrey Wright.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (R) The best film version of Stieg Larsson’s novel that we were likely to get. David Fincher’s thriller stars Daniel Craig as a disgraced Swedish journalist who becomes a serial killer’s target while investigating a decades-old disappearance. Rooney Mara portrays the series’ vengeful dark angel, Lisbeth Salander, and while she’s a disturbingly disengaged, wraithlike presence, she doesn’t bring the feral edge that Noomi Rapace brought to the role in the Swedish film version. Still, Fincher brings his typically meticulous and professional treatment to the material, covering a great deal of ground without derailing the momentum of this swift 158-minute film. If the filmmakers never transcend the book’s limitations, they do leave us primed for Salander’s further adventures. Also with Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson, Steven Berkoff, Geraldine James, Goran Visnjic, Donald Sumpter, and Robin Wright.
The Grey (R) This Gloomy Gus of a thriller stars Liam Neeson as a suicidal Gloomy Gus of a professional wolf killer on an Alaskan oil-drilling site who takes charge of the survivors after his plane crashes in the middle of the wilderness. The characters succumb variously to cold, wolves, and the hazards of navigating the terrain, but none of them do or say anything interesting. Director Joe Carnahan mistakes moroseness for seriousness, as he too often does, and his leading man follows him right down the path. If you’re up for some pointless woe, here’s your movie. Also with Dermot Mulroney, Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, Nonso Anonzie, James Badge Dale, and Joe Anderson.
Haywire (R) The title is wrong; this is actually a tightly controlled and emotionally subdued piece of work. It’s the closest thing to a pure action-thriller that Steven Soderbergh has ever done, and he’s unsurprisingly good at it. MMA fighter Gina Carano stars as a Marine-turned-CIA contractor who’s sold out by a string of male superiors and runs for her life and kicks ass over two continents to find out who’s at the end of it. Carano’s not much of an actor, but she comes alive in the action sequences, whether it’s a life-and-death brawl with Michael Fassbender in a hotel suite or an extended chase scene through the streets and over the rooftops of Dublin. The holes in the plot are papered over by the fluidity of Soderbergh’s direction. Also with Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Angarano, Mathieu Kassovitz, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas.
Hugo (PG) Martin Scorsese’s children’s fable brings out the primitive, elemental magic of filmmaking. Based on Brian Selznick’s remarkable illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, this movie stars Asa Butterfield as a 13-year-old orphaned boy who winds the clocks in a 1930s Paris train station when he and a girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) discover that her embittered adoptive father (Ben Kingsley) is Georges Méliès, a genius of early film who’s now a neglected toy shop owner. Scorsese uses the 3D technology with unprecedented subtlety, giving depth and complexity even to throwaway shots of desk clutter. The story runs into a few wrong notes and dead spots in the early going, but the splendid segments depicting Méliès’ creations of his fantasy films are enough to give even the most jaded moviegoers a new appreciation for the power of cinema. Also with Sacha Baron Cohen, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Christopher Lee, and Jude Law.
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (PG) When it comes to the 3D effects, this is miles better than the 2008 original. As far as the story goes, it’s still crap. The only holdover left from the original, Josh Hutcherson, stars as a teenager who receives a radio transmission from a lost island and goes off with his stepdad (Dwayne Johnson) to find the place. This chintzy amusement park ride of a film is so obsessed with special effects that the characters make no sense. No wonder the actors all look lost. The lack of magic here is depressing. Also with Vanessa Hudgens, Luis Guzmán, and Michael Caine.
Joyful Noise (PG-13) Not half bad, really. Todd Graff’s musical centers on a rural Georgia church choir trying to win a national choral competition. The power struggle between the choir director (Queen Latifah) and a wealthy church benefactress (Dolly Parton) is mostly forced, but the supporting characters are interesting and layered (especially Jesse L. Martin as the director’s estranged husband), the signs of economic decline help give urgency to the group’s efforts, and the romantic plot between Keke Palmer and Jeremy Jordan is well-taken. For inoffensive family entertainment, you could do a lot worse. Also with Dexter Darden, Courtney B. Vance, Judd Lormand, Kirk Franklin, and Kris Kristofferson.
Man on a Ledge (PG-13) After a promising start, this thriller falls off a … I’m not even going through with the metaphor. Fumbling his American accent at every turn, Sam Worthington plays an ex-New York City cop and escaped convict who threatens to jump to his death from a Manhattan hotel, but it’s all a diversion so that his brother (Jamie Bell) can clear his name through an extralegal investigation. How these characters acquired the skills of high-end bank robbers is never explained, nor are the increasing contrivances piled on top of this slim plot. Elizabeth Banks cuts through her share of the B.S. as a police negotiator with a troubled past who tries to talk the guy off the ledge, but she’s fighting a losing effort. Also with Ed Harris, Genesis Rodriguez, Anthony Mackie, Edward Burns, Titus Welliver, J. Smith-Cameron, and Kyra Sedgwick.
Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (PG-13) Arguably the best of the M:I movies since the first one, this fourth installment stars Tom Cruise as a secret agent who’s forced to go rogue with two colleagues (Paula Patton and Simon Pegg) and a State Department analyst (Jeremy Renner) after they’re framed for a terrorist bombing in Moscow. Director Brad Bird (Ratatouille, The Incredibles) makes his live-action debut with some splashy action set pieces, especially a sequence with Cruise dangling off the side of the Burj Khalifa tower. This action flick isn’t deep, but it’s a tasty bit of escapism. Also with Léa Seydoux, Michael Nyqvist, Anil Kapoor, Vladimir Mashkov, Josh Holloway, and uncredited cameos by Tom Wilkinson, Ving Rhames, and Michelle Monaghan.
One for the Money (PG-13) The first of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels becomes this surprisingly watchable comic thriller starring Katherine Heigl as the tough-talking Jersey girl who responds to a dire financial situation by taking up bounty hunting. The movie goes a bit far depicting Stephanie making rookie mistakes in her new job, and her romance with an ex she’s supposed to bring in (Jason O’Mara) is tepid. Still, director Julie Anne Robinson manages a sprawling plot pretty well and Heigl is much more likable when she’s not trying so damn hard. A sequel with Stephanie’s further adventures wouldn’t be the worst thing. Also with John Leguizamo, Daniel Sunjata, Sherri Shepherd, Debra Monk, Ana Reeder, Leonardo Nam, Fisher Stevens, and Debbie Reynolds.
Red Tails (PG-13) A bunch of The Wire alumni get together for this sprawling historical epic based on John B. Holway’s account of the Tuskegee Airmen and their fight to be accepted as fighter pilots during World War II. There’s a totally unnecessary romantic subplot and too many stock characters populating this war movie — the hard-drinking squad leader (Nate Parker), the reckless daredevil (David Oyelowo), the God-fearing Christian (Marcus T. Paulk), the fresh-faced youngster (Tristan Wilds). Still, the story is eminently worth telling on the big screen, and the impressive roster of talent (headlined by Terrence Howard as the unit’s commander) makes it watchable. Also with Cuba Gooding Jr., Elijah Kelley, Andre Royo, Michael B. Jordan, Daniela Ruah, Gerald McRaney, Bryan Cranston, Ne-Yo, and Method Man.
Safe House (R) This effective anti-recruitment video for the CIA would have you believe that a) the agency’s bosses are willing to kill their underlings and colleagues and sell out their country to protect themselves and b) in South Africa, you can shoot up public places and kill civilians and cops without any consequences. Ryan Reynolds plays an agent in charge of a safe house in Cape Town who’s called upon to protect a notorious traitor (Denzel Washington) after the house is attacked. Daniel Espinosa’s direction is appropriately grimy, but he worsens the ham-handed and predictable turns in the script. The result is really loud and dull. Also with Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Rubén Blades, Robert Patrick, Nora Arnezeder, Fares Fares, Liam Cunningham, Joel Kinnaman, and Sam Shepard.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (PG-13) The great detective returns, but he’s too busy dodging bullets to make much use of his detective skills, which is partly why this sequel is so disappointing. Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role, this time trying to prevent Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) from starting a world war. The comic chemistry between Downey’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson is still here, and director Guy Ritchie comes up with two engaging twists on the device from the original in which Holmes thinks through his fight sequences before they happen. Yet Holmes’ deductive reasoning powers are reduced to sleight of hand and a series of silly disguises. If you’re not going to show off Holmes’ brains, why bother with him at all? Also with Noomi Rapace, Stephen Fry, Kelly Reilly, Paul Anderson, Eddie Marsan, and Rachel McAdams.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (PG) The first in a planned series of three Star Wars prequels is abundantly stuffed with visual splendors, exciting action sequences and state-of-the-art special effects. Obviously, George Lucas has tried to give his loyal audience maximum bang for their box-office bucks. As a storyteller, however, he has grown rusty. During long stretches of The Phantom Menace, he permits the pace to slacken while key scenes dawdle aimlessly, then end abruptly. The continuity is spotty, the acting is wildly uneven, and integration of live actors with computer-generated co-stars isn’t always totally convincing. By turns simplistic and confusing, the movie trips over itself while trying to cover too many bases, and plays too obviously like an opening chapter rather than a self-contained narrative. — Joe Leydon
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (R) This adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel is better if you’ve already read the book or seen the 1979 TV miniseries, but even newcomers can appreciate the intelligence and craftsmanship at work. Gary Oldman portrays a retired British spy who’s brought back to MI6 to find a Soviet double agent at the top of the agency. Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) creates a sense of claustrophobia by photographing characters behind glass partitions or in frames within the frame, and he stylishly captures the dowdiness of cold-war Britain — you can practically feel the rising damp. Gary Oldman can’t match the hooded watchfulness that Alec Guinness brought to the role, but his quiet strength mirrors the film’s. Also with Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong, John Hurt, David Dencik, Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Konstantin Khabensky, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hardy.
Underworld: Awakening (R) Even the return of Kate Beckinsale and her one-piece leather outfit can’t jolt this fourth installment to life. Nor can the plot, which involves the vampire warrior being roused from a 12-year enforced slumber and discovering that she has a daughter (India Eisley) with some powers of her own. Directors Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein find a pretty 3D visual effect with an anti-werewolf grenade that releases silver particles into the air. Unfortunately, they fall down on the numerous action sequences and make the mistake of thinking we care about the events in the previous three films. We don’t, and we don’t care about this one either. Also with Michael Ealy, Stephen Rea, Theo James, Sandrine Holt, Kris Holden-Ried, Charles Dance, and an uncredited Wes Bentley.
The Vow (PG-13) It’s like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, except that it sucks. Channing Tatum plays a man who must woo his wife (Rachel McAdams) again after she loses her memory in a car accident. What follows is a relentlessly prettified story where he fights for her against her snobby rich parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange) who see a chance to get her to give up her artistic career and go back to law school. It all plays out exactly as you’d think, and McAdams’ overacting makes it annoying. When Channing Tatum is the best thing in your movie, that’s not good. Also with Wendy Crewson, Jessica McNamee, and Scott Speedman.
The Woman in Black (PG-13) Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t embarrass himself in his first post-Harry Potter role, but neither does he do much except look gloomy. He stars in this Gothic horror flick as a young lawyer in the 1910s who’s terrorized by visions of a black-clad woman while working at a secluded estate on the northeast coast of England. Director James Watkins (Eden Lake) makes sure everything looks good, but his staging lacks wit, invention, and a feel for atmosphere. The whole affair takes too long to get going, and the woman in black is less scary than Janet McTeer, who injects massive energy and is on screen too briefly as the lawyer’s unhinged hostess. Handsome though this is, it’s disappointing. Also with Ciarán Hinds, Misha Handley, Jessica Raine, Liz White, and Roger Allam.
Pina (PG) Wim Wenders (The Buena Vista Social Club, Wings of Desire) directs this 3D documentary tribute to the late modern dance pioneer Pina Bausch.
A Separation (PG-13) An Oscar nominee for both Best Foreign Film and Best Original Screenplay, Asghar Farhadi’s drama stars Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami as an Iranian married couple whose attempts to resolve their differences result in tragedy. Also with Sareh Bayat, Shahab Hosseini, Sarina Farhadi, Kimia Hosseini, and Babak Karimi.