The Awakening (R) This period horror flick begins promisingly before collapsing into a pile of nonsense. Rebecca Hall stars as a scientific debunker of supernatural hoaxes in 1921 England. When a schoolmaster (Dominic West) calls her in to investigate a ghost terrorizing the boys in his boarding school, she finds something she can’t debunk. Hall is an alert presence, her character is given an intriguing, troubled past, and a Swahili nickname gets put to effective use. However, first-time director/co-writer Nick Murphy resorts too easily to hack horror clichés and introduces new character developments before we’ve had time to absorb the old ones. Despite some resonant details, there’s little in this movie that we haven’t seen elsewhere. Also with Imelda Staunton, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Shaun Dooley, and Joseph Mawle. (Opens Friday)
Celeste and Jesse Forever (R) Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg star in this comedy as a couple who try to remain friends while they go through their divorce. Also with Elijah Wood, Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen, Emma Roberts, Will McCormack, and Chris Pine. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Expendables 2 (R) Even more aged action movie stars join Sylvester Stallone in this sequel to his 2010 hit. Also with Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Liam Hemsworth, Charisma Carpenter, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis. (Opens Friday)
The Imposter (R) Bart Layton’s documentary about a 16-year-old French boy who convinced a grieving family in Texas that he was their son who had been missing for three years. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Possession (R) A restored print of Andrzej Zuławski’s 1981 horror film about a man (Sam Neill) whose attempts to find out why his wife (Isabelle Adjani) is divorcing him lead to the commission of a string of murders. Also with Heinz Bennent and Michael Hogben. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Searching for Sugar Man (PG-13) Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary about two South Africans and their present-day search for a mysterious 1970s American anti-apartheid rock singer known only as Rodriguez. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Sparkle (PG-13) Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom) directs this remake of a 1976 musical about three sisters (Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo, and Tika Sumpter) who form a Motown singing group only to be torn apart by success. Also with Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Omari Hardwick, Michael Beach, Cee-Lo Green, and the late Whitney Houston. (Opens Friday)
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.
The Bourne Legacy (PG-13) New director Tony Gilroy and star Jeremy Renner take over the series and turn this installment into a deeply average spy thriller. Renner portrays another agent from the same program as Bourne who teams up with a virologist (Rachel Weisz) so he can get more of the magic pills that make him a superspy. Seriously, that’s the plot. The climactic foot and motorcycle chase through the streets of Manila is well-managed, but elsewhere Gilroy mangles the spy jargon and action sequences into incoherence. Renner is too expressive for what he’s given to do here; surely he has enough money by now to take a break from doing franchise pictures. Also with Edward Norton, Scott Glenn, Stacy Keach, Donna Murphy, Oscar Isaac, Corey Stoll, Zeljko Ivanek, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Albert Finney.
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.
The Campaign (R) Will Ferrell stars in this comedy as an unprincipled, skirt-chasing Democratic congressman from North Carolina who’s challenged for re-election by an effeminate, pea-brained Republican (Zach Galifianakis) at the behest of two sinister billionaire brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) looking to line their pockets. The movie’s jabs at focus groups, negative ads, and politicians who wrap themselves in Jesus and the flag don’t land accurately. Still, Galifianakis is more than a capable match for Ferrell and takes his wholesome character to a nicely weird place. We get memorable set pieces, too, like a congressional chief of staff (Jason Sudeikis) acting out the Lord’s Prayer in charades. The political satire doesn’t cut, but the movie is funny. Also with Dylan McDermott, Sarah Baker, Katherine LaNasa, Karen Maruyama, Jack McBrayer, and Brian Cox.
The Dark Knight Rises (PG-13) A clever tying up of loose ends. Christopher Nolan’s last Batman film finds Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) coming out of retirement to battle an uprising led by a populist demagogue (Tom Hardy) with concealed motives. The steady, low drumbeat of suspense is familiar from other Nolan films but not so much is the note of delicacy and grace provided by Anne Hathaway as a cat burglar, nor the emotional beats that come as Bruce, his butler Alfred (Michael Caine), and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) are all forced to confront the lies they’ve told and the compromises they’ve made. The movie resolves plotlines that go all the way back to Batman Begins. If that’s not enough, Nolan’s action sequences are improved here, with greater clarity. It’s a hell of a way for the trilogy to go out. Also with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, Ben Mendelsohn, Burn Gorman, Cillian Murphy, and Liam Neeson.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (PG) Not as good as Moonrise Kingdom but more likely to appeal to the little ones. The third film in the series is an episodic account of summer vacation as experienced by Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), whose chief goals are to stay on his father’s good side, play video games, and win the heart of classmate Holly Hills (Peyton List). Needless to say, hijinks ensue, but things eventually work out, if not quite as Greg had imagined (and minus the video games). Steve Zahn turns in a decent but understated performance as the dad, while Rachael Harris goes under-utilized as the mother. The film won’t be especially enjoyable for adults, but it’s not terribly grating either, except for its random stereotype of a South Asian student, whose accent serves as an awkward punchline. Also with Robert Capron, Devon Bostick, Grayson Russell, Laine McNeil, and Karan Brar. — Zack Shlachter
Hope Springs (PG-13) Too few movies address intimacy issues among longtime married couples; I’m glad this one does. Meryl Streep plays an Omaha housewife who tries to rejuvenate her sexless, emotionally barren marriage by dragging her husband of 31 years (Tommy Lee Jones) to Maine for a week of intensive couples therapy with a marriage counselor and self-help author (Steve Carell). The scenes with the therapist are the weak point; Carell’s Carell-ness is tamped down, and Streep and Jones are uncharacteristically flat. The leads are much better by themselves, excelling in two realistically awkward sex scenes and capturing the vibe of a couple who have run out of things to talk about. Hollywood — or, really, anybody else — should try this subject matter more often. Also with Jean Smart, Brett Rice, Mimi Rogers, and Elisabeth Shue.
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.
The Intouchables (R) This French dramedy was a huge box-office hit that swept every award in sight in its native country, but you’ll likely find it underwhelming. Omar Sy portrays a Senegalese immigrant who lands a job as a live-in nurse to a wealthy white Parisian (François Cluzet). The two men find themselves becoming best friends, despite their differences. The lead actors have a nice rapport, but Olivier Nakadache and Éric Toledano do a sloppy job writing and directing this, giving us hijinks instead of character. The movie’s sanitized, feel-good version of race relations has struck a chord with French audiences and critics, but it also shows what a long way France has to go. Also with Anne Le Ny, Audrey Fleurot, Clotilde Mollet, Cyril Mendy, Christian Ameri, and Alba Gaïa Bellugi.
Killer Joe (NC-17) Matthew McConaughey gives one of the year’s scariest performances as a gentlemanly, sociopathic, sexually violent Dallas cop who moonlights as a killer for hire in William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play. Emile Hirsch stars as a small-time drug dealer who hires Joe to murder his mom for her insurance money and pimps out his willing sister (Juno Temple) in exchange for advance payment. Friedkin and Letts make hash out of the murder plot, but Temple’s angelic-demonic baby doll and McConaughey’s orderly, well-spoken, depraved killer will burn themselves into your memory. All those bland romantic comedies that McConaughey starred in in the past look different now. Also with Gina Gershon, Marc Macaulay, and Thomas Haden Church.
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.
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.
Nitro Circus: The Movie (PG-13) Travis Pastrana and his buddies perform stunts on motorcycles, cars, speedboats, monster trucks, and other vehicles.
Ruby Sparks (R) This fresh, funny, unexpectedly moving take on the Pygmalion story stars Paul Dano as a creatively blocked novelist who brings to life a girlfriend for himself (Zoe Kazan) by writing her as a character in his book. Kazan is also the screenwriter here, and she skates neatly around the pitfalls in this story. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) capture the ecstatic first flush of love without sprinkling pixie dust over the proceedings, but they also keep up as the script follows the conceit to its logical end. The writer’s power to change his girlfriend’s character has both hilarious and piercing results, and both the main character and the film attain a heartbreaking pitch of eloquence as he confronts all the wrong that he’s done. This magic-realist fable is a work of genius. Also with Chris Messina, Steve Coogan, Deborah Ann Woll, Alia Shawkat, Toni Trucks, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, and Elliott Gould.
Step Up Revolution (PG-13) Terrible, but the dance numbers are cooler than ever in this fourth film in the series. Lead actors Ryan Guzman and Kathryn McCormick are painfully bad, and the plot is something out of a 1980s breakdancing movie. None of that matters, though, when there’s a flash mob performance on Ocean Drive that features low-rider cars and ballerinas in glowing tutus under a blacklight. McCormick comes alive in the dance portions, especially in a number staged in the dining room of a fancy restaurant. From a pure dance perspective, this is the strongest in the series. Also with Peter Gallagher, Misha Gabriel, Cleopatra Coleman, Stephen Boss, Michael Langebeck, Mia Michaels, Mari Koda, and Adam Sevani.
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.
Total Recall (PG-13) The remake of the 1990 thriller is turned into a space thriller that’s so generic and anonymous that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered. Colin Farrell portrays a factory worker on a dystopian future Earth who learns that he was once a leader of the resistance against the evil dictator (Bryan Cranston) who rules the world. Director Len Wiseman gives us the same vision of the future that we saw in Blade Runner and a thousand bad knock-offs since. His real-life wife Kate Beckinsale plays the villain well enough, but the movie is so soulless that its only clear reason for existing is to cash in on our attachment to the original. You’ll leave here wanting to implant a better memory in your head. Also with Jessica Biel, Bokeem Woodbine, John Cho, Will Yun Lee, and Bill Nighy.
2016: Obama’s America (NR) Dinesh D’Souza’s right-wing documentary anticipates where America will be in four years if the president is re-elected.
The Watch (R) Um, yeah, so this exists. This comedy is about three frustrated white dudes (Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill) and one mysterious Indian-British guy (Richard Ayoade) who confront an alien invasion centered around the small Ohio town where they live. This shaggy affair has one badly thought out plot twist and a few small chuckles, most of them emanating from British TV star Ayoade. Still, given how much comic talent goes into this thing (the script is co-authored by Evan Ross and Seth Rogen), this should have been more than just mildly funny. Also with Rosemarie DeWitt, Will Forte, Erin Moriarty, Doug Jones, R. Lee Ermey, Nicholas Braun, Jorma Taccone, and Andy Samberg.
Farewell, My Queen (R) Benoît Jacquot (The School of Flesh) adapts Chantal Thomas’ novel about a girl (Léa Seydoux) who’s brought in to read to Queen Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) in the days shortly before the French Revolution. Also with Virginie Ledoyen, Xavier Beauvois, Noémie Lvovsky, Michel Robin, and Julie-Marie Parmentier.
Queen of Versailles (PG) Lauren Greenfield’s documentary follows Florida real estate mogul David Siegel and his wife Jackie as they prepare to build the largest mansion in America, only to see David’s fortune greatly reduced during the 2008 financial meltdown.