Neil Young Journeys (PG) Jonathan Demme’s concert film of the rock star’s return to Toronto in May 2011. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Amazing Spider-Man (PG-13) The series goes back to its origins with this well-made blockbuster that’s neither transcendent nor in any way terrible. Andrew Garfield takes over the role of Peter Parker, whose search for the fate of his murdered parents intensifies when he’s bitten by that radioactive spider. The various plot strains are brought together gracefully by new director Marc Webb and his writers. The biggest difference between this movie and its predecessors is Garfield, who turns in a refreshingly uncomplicated performance as a scruffy kid bursting with emotions. This is a supremely competent and effective movie rather than a great one, and it makes an intriguing starting point for a new series. Also with Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Sally Field, Martin Sheen, Irrfan Khan, C. Thomas Howell, Embeth Davidtz, and Campbell Scott.
The Avengers (PG-13) A payoff worth waiting four years and sitting through five movies for. Marvel Comics superheroes Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor (Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth) team up with two new assassins (Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner) to battle a fallen Norse god (Tom Hiddleston) with plans to invade the Earth. Writer-director Joss Whedon manages to give everyone enough to do, fill in intriguing character details, and pull off a couple of mind-bogglingly complex action sequences without any strain and without making the movie feel overstuffed. A few bobbles along the way notwithstanding, this surpasses all the other Marvel films while somehow making them all seem worthier in retrospect. Also with Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, Alexis Denisof, Jerzy Skolimowski, Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, Harry Dean Stanton, and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Bernie (PG-13) Jack Black’s quietly mesmerizing performance as a gentle, gay, God-fearing, emotionally needy East Texas man anchors this drama based on a real life murder case. He portrays a mortician involved with a wealthy old widow (Shirley MacLaine) who becomes so mean and possessive of him that he snaps. So great is Black, you wish director/co-writer Richard Linklater would stop distracting you with fake interview footage of townspeople (portrayed by actors) testifying to Bernie’s character. Still, the movie draws an absorbing portrait of a man whose niceness and burning desire for friends proves to be both his downfall and his salvation. Watch for the diner customer giving a hilarious explanation of Texas’ cultural geography. Also with Matthew McConaughey, Brady Coleman, Richard Robichaux, Merrilee McCommas, Brandon Smith, Matthew Greer, and the late Rick Dial.
Brave (PG) Pixar’s first real disappointment. Set in medieval Scotland, the story is about a tomboy princess (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) whose clashes with her mum (voiced by Emma Thompson) lead her to buy a magic spell that will change her fate. The heroine is basically a petulant teenager who isn’t nearly as moving a figure as previous Pixar characters, and the relationship with her mother is poorly sketched. The characters are conveniently unintelligent, and the plot developments can be seen coming yards away. Even much of the humor falls flat after the spell takes effect. The movie still looks good, but this marks a descent into mediocrity for the proud studio. Additional voices by Billy Connolly, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd, Peigi Barker, and John Ratzenberger.
Ice Age: Continental Drift (PG) The well is long dry for this fourth installment, as Manny the mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) gets separated from his family and once again relies on the help of his buddies (voiced by John Leguizamo and Denis Leary) to reunite with them. The domestic drama fails to generate any emotional heat or make us invest in the main characters, and the addition of a villainous orangutan pirate (voiced by Peter Dinklage) and some hefty vocal talent in the cast accomplishes nothing. The wordless four-minute Simpsons short that accompanies the feature is a better piece of filmmaking than this. Additional voices by Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah, Keke Palmer, Wanda Sykes, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck, Josh Gad, Aziz Ansari, Nick Frost, Rebel Wilson, Alan Tudyk, Joy Behar, Patrick Stewart, Heather Morris, Nicki Minaj, and Drake.
Katy Perry: Part of Me (PG) The best of the recent 3D concert films, and it’s not because of the music. It’s because Katy Perry is an interesting person and because the documentary catches her at an interesting time. Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz’ film includes footage of the pop music star during her pre-teen Christian rock years and her early career as a coffeehouse busker. It also follows her yearlong worldwide 2011 concert tour, during which her marriage to Russell Brand breaks up. We could use more insight about that, but we do get a few startlingly candid moments like Perry backstage before a concert, crying and clutching her wedding ring. Elsewhere, the kooky joy that she brings to her performances and her relationship with her fans (“Thank you so much for believing in my weirdness!”) makes her sympathetic presence at the center of this.
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (PG) This noisy and inconsequential third installment has our animal heroes (voiced by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, and David Schwimmer) becoming stranded in Europe, pursued by a fanatical Monaco animal control officer (voiced by Frances McDormand), and forced to take refuge amid a multinational troupe of circus animals. The movie doesn’t have any dead spots, and the plot isn’t as scattered as Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa’s, but the jokes are largely forgettable and the new characters don’t add much, aside from McDormand singing a credible “Non, je ne regrette rien.” It’s all professionally made, but it’s empty. Additional voices by Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Bryan Cranston, Martin Short, Paz Vega, and Jessica Chastain.
Madea’s Witness Protection (PG-13) If you need an introduction to Tyler Perry’s universe, this is as good as any. Which isn’t to say that it’s a good movie. Eugene Levy plays a clueless corporate executive who is forced, along with his wife (Denise Richards), mother (Doris Roberts), and kids to go into the witness protection program after he testifies to his company running a Ponzi scheme and laundering money for the mob. Where does the federal prosecutor (Perry) decide to hide them? Why, at his Aunt Madea’s house, of course! As usual, Perry writes and directs in the broadest strokes imaginable, and while a few lines earn some chuckles, most of the humor flops. The film is mired in unfunny black and white stereotypes, and Perry’s theater-based direction drags the talents of Levy and Roberts down to the level of a bad church play. Even a wooden actress like Denise Richards has performed better. Also with Romeo, Danielle Campbell, John Amos, Marla Gibbs, and Tom Arnold. — Steve Steward
Magic Mike (R) Even if you have minimal interest in watching hot guys take their clothes off, Steven Soderbergh’s drama is still an enjoyable yarn. Channing Tatum portrays a stripper who introduces a teenager (Alex Pettyfer) to the business and falls for his protégé’s protective sister (Cody Horn). Tatum is much better as a goofy but sexy Everydude than as anything else. The story falls apart somewhat in the second half with some contrived stuff about drug dealers. Still, the comic vignettes about stripping are funny, and the tale of a slab of beefcake who tries to prove he’s more than that is a decent hook. Also with Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, Kevin Nash, Gabriel Iglesias, Riley Keough, Olivia Munn, and Matthew McConaughey.
Moonrise Kingdom (PG-13) This luminescent children’s fable from Wes Anderson is about 12-year-old kids in love (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) who run off together to live in the woods, launching a massive childhunt on the New England island where they live. The director’s scrupulously composed visuals keeps things from becoming too syrupy. The kids take their wilderness adventure matter-of-factly, but their deeper emotions come out in oblique ways, such as a great montage with the openings of their letters to each other over the hellish moments of their lives. Anderson’s style is at its most scrupulous and typically Anderson, but it’s secondary to the delicate love story he crafts about two children carving out a space in the world where they can be themselves. The paradise they create is bewitching. Also with Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban, Tilda Swinton, and Harvey Keitel.
The Obama Effect (PG-13) The title may fool you into thinking that it’s some right-wing documentary, but instead it’s a terrible dramedy starring Charles S. Dutton as a California insurance salesman who responds to a health scare in 2008 by throwing himself into Obama’s presidential campaign to the point where he neglects his health and the people around him. There’s all sorts of extraneous subplots here and the comic material lands with a thud. While Dutton can be a powerful actor, he’s disastrous at directing himself, giving himself carte blanche to mug his way through scenes. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, you should vote “no” on this. Also with Katt Williams, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Zab Judah, Jenny Gago, Emilio Rivera, Jeremy Ray Valdez, John Diehl, Glynn Turman, Reggie Brown, and Meagan Good.
People Like Us (PG-13) Fantastic lead performances redeem an otherwise rote melodrama. First-time director Alex Kurtzman (who co-wrote Star Trek and the Transformers movies) bases the story on an incident from his own life: Chris Pine portrays a man who discovers shortly after his father’s death that he has an illegitimate half-sister (Elizabeth Banks) who’s a recovering alcoholic and single mom. There are too many useless subplots, and Michelle Pfeiffer is largely wasted as the dead man’s resentful widow. The movie is worth watching for its actors: Banks is wild and compelling as a woman hanging on by a thread, and Pine expertly times each hesitation and pause to play a guy who habitually checks out of uncomfortable conversations. The bond that develops between these two messed-up siblings is this movie’s one real achievement. Also with Michael Hall D’Addario, Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Philip Baker Hall, and Jon Favreau.
Safety Not Guaranteed (R) Aubrey Plaza is splendid in this science-fiction comedy as a magazine intern who chases a story about a grocery store clerk (Mark Duplass) who advertises for a time-traveling companion. Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly make assured debuts, but the show belongs to Plaza, who displays colors we haven’t seen from her, as she gradually drops her air of disaffected sarcasm, becomes fired with a sense of purpose, and slowly begins to believe that the clerk might be for real. A sunnier lead actress would have sabotaged the movie, but Plaza’s hard-shelled presence makes it uniquely powerful. For all the failed movies about jaded cynics who need to open their hearts and have faith in something, this is a wondrous success. Also with Jake Johnson, Karan Soni, Jenica Bergere, Lynn Shelton, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Kristen Bell, and Jeff Garlin.
Savages (R) Once you get past the terrible dialogue, macho posturing crap, and generally self-impressed attitude that comes standard with Oliver Stone movies, this isn’t too bad a thriller. Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch portray best friend pot dealers in Laguna Beach whose shared girlfriend (Blake Lively) is kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel after a business deal goes bad. The three protagonists are pretty boring, so it’s no wonder that the show is stolen by the supporting players: Salma Hayek as a ruthless drug queenpin, Benicio Del Toro as a sadistic hit man, and John Travolta as a crooked DEA agent. The movie could have been 20 minutes shorter, but the machinations of these naughty people are still moderately diverting to follow. Also with Demián Bichir, Sandra Echevarría, Antonio Jaramillo, and Emile Hirsch.
Snow White and the Huntsman (PG-13) First-time director Rupert Sanders turns the old fable into a big, dull swords-and-shields epic livened by some really cool visual touches. Charlize Theron (overacting with all her might) is the evil queen, Kristen Stewart is the imprisoned princess who escapes her clutches into an enchanted forest, and Chris Hemsworth is the hunter who’s sent into the forest to bring her back. Sanders gives us an anthropomorphic mirror, warriors who turn themselves into flying shards of black glass, some beautifully rendered fairies, and a breathtaking interlude with the spirit of the forest. Yet the dialogue is witless and the momentum dies way too often. Good-looking though this is, it goes in the loss column. Also with Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Sam Claflin, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, and Toby Jones.
Ted (R) Seth MacFarlane makes a brilliant big-screen debut with this comedy about a man (Mark Wahlberg) who wished his teddy bear to life as a boy but now finds that the bear (voiced by MacFarlane) has aged into a horny bachelor whose hard-partying ways are jeopardizing his relationship with his girlfriend (Mila Kunis). The actors react to the bear no differently than they would to a human, and Wahlberg’s underrated comedic skills finally get the showcase they deserve. Some of the jokes misfire, but for each one of those there’s at least one that hits, like the conversation about white-trash girl names and especially the fistfight between the man and his teddy bear. Also with Giovanni Ribisi, Joel McHale, Patrick Warburton, Matt Walsh, Jessica Barth, Aedin Mincks, Sam J. Jones, Norah Jones, and an uncredited Ryan Reynolds.
To Rome With Love (PG-13) Even more ragged than Woody Allen’s usual efforts, this Italian lark still has a few things to recommend it. Allen’s logy farce ruins the plot with Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi as newlyweds who become separated in Rome. Some good gags and gorgeous singing come from a plot in which Allen portrays an opera director who discovers an unrecognized opera talent in his future in-law (real-life opera star Fabio Armiliato). Roberto Benigni stars in the most surreal plot, as an ordinary man who suddenly becomes famous for no reason. Overall, this tossed-off exercise captures the feel of sitting in a piazza and breezily observing the foibles of passersby. Also with Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg, Penélope Cruz, Greta Gerwig, Alison Pill, Judy Davis, Antonio Albanese, Lino Guanciale, Flavio Parenti, Ornella Muti, and Alec Baldwin.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (PG-13) The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and multiple prizes at Cannes, Benh Zeitlin’s fantasy stars Quvenzhané Wallis as a six-year-old girl in the Mississippi delta who leaves her home to search for her mother. Also with Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly, Lowell Landes, Pamela Harper, Gina Montana, and Amber Henry.
The Intouchables (R) This award-winning French dramedy stars François Cluzet as a quadriplegic French billionaire who hires an ex-convict (Omar Sy) as his live-in nurse. Also with Anne Le Ny, Audrey Fleurot, Clotilde Mollet, Cyril Mendy, Christian Ameri, and Alba Gaïa Bellugi.
Take This Waltz (R) Michelle Williams stars in Sarah Polley’s drama as a happily married woman who falls in love with a handsome artist (Luke Kirby) who lives across the street. Also with Seth Rogen, Jennifer Podemski, and Sarah Silverman.