Butter (R) Jennifer Garner stars in this political satire as an Iowa woman who expects to finally win her local butter-sculpting competition, only to see her supremacy challenged by a little girl (Yara Shahidi) with preternatural talent. Also with Hugh Jackman, Olivia Wilde, Ashley Greene, Ty Burrell, Kristen Schaal, Rob Corddry, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Alicia Silverstone. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Doctored (NR) Bobby Sheehan’s documentary about the demonization of chiropractors by the AMA. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
How to Survive a Plague (NR) David France’s documentary tells the stories of the founding of ACT UP and TAG and their attempts to turn AIDS from a fatal disease into a manageable one. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Oranges (R) Leighton Meester stars as a recent divorcée who causes waves when she begins an affair with her father’s best friend (Hugh Laurie). Also with Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Tim Guinee, Alia Shawkat, and Adam Brody. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Revisionaries (NR) Scott Thurman’s documentary about Don McLeroy’s attempt to impose creationism and right-wing ideology on school students by taking over the Texas State Board of Education. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Taken 2 (PG-13) Liam Neeson returns to kill lots of bad guys while talking in a low, calm voice as a retired CIA agent who’s targeted by the vengeful relatives of the men he killed in the original film. Also with Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, D.B. Sweeney, and Rade Serbedzija. (Opens Friday)
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.
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.
Dredd (R) Faint praise: This is better than the 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie that also tried to bring John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s character to the big screen. Karl Urban takes over as the heavily armored judge, jury, and executioner who administers justice in a dystopian future society. He and a recruit in training (Olivia Thirlby, sadly miscast as a tough action heroine) are trapped in a 200-story apartment tower controlled by a drug lord (Lena Headey) and her murderous minions. It’s not unwatchable, and there are some surreally beautiful shots depicting the influence of a narcotic that slows down reality. You’d have to say, though, that The Raid: Redemption handled this whole premise better. Also with Wood Harris, Rakie Ayola, Deobia Oparei, Langley Kirkwood, and Domhnall Gleeson.
End of Watch (R) The chemistry between Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña is the best thing in this buddy-cop thriller that thinks it’s more groundbreaking than it is. They portray L.A. beat cops who film themselves as they patrol the city’s meanest streets. Writer-director David Ayer adopts a found-footage look that’s little more than a gimmick, although it does encourage freer and more spontaneous performances from the actors. Gyllenhaal and Peña have an effortless rapport as best friends, and their relaxed banter in the squad car (about coffee, women, and the differences between the social lives of Anglos and Latinos) is even more compelling than the movie’s shootouts and chase scenes. Also with Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, David Harbour, Frank Grillo, Maurice Compte, Yahira Garcia, Cody Horn, and America Ferrera.
The Expendables 2 (R) Even more aged action movie stars join Sylvester Stallone in this marginally better sequel to his 2010 hit. This time, Stallone takes his crew to Eastern Europe to thwart a warlord (Jean-Claude Van Damme) who has enslaved the locals so he can steal Soviet plutonium reserves. The script is too heavy on in-jokes, the action sequences are routine, and the picture looks crappy. On the other hand, there are some funny bits about Dolph Lundgren’s real-life background as a chemist, a well-managed cameo by Chuck Norris, and the sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis riding to the rescue in a SmartCar. Just like the original, this is pretty much what it appears to be. Also with Jason Statham, Yu Nan, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Liam Hemsworth, Charisma Carpenter, and Jet Li.
Finding Nemo (G) Nine years after opening in theaters, Pixar’s film is re-released in 3D. This exhilarating, exhausting film is about a clownfish (voiced by Albert Brooks) who searches the ocean after his young son (voiced by Alexander Gould) is scooped up by a scuba diver. The movie’s delirious comic highs exist alongside ingenious action sequences that place the characters in constant jeopardy, and the hectic pace swirls it all together into one big, disorienting vortex. The cast, led by the inspired pairing of Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres as his bubble-brained sidekick, is skilled comically but plays the material as seriously as needed. This fable about the importance of letting kids grow up strays into dark territory, but it’s the brightest thing out there. Additional voices by Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, Brad Garrett, Vicki Lewis, Austin Pendleton, Stephen Root, Barry Humphries, Andrew Stanton, Elizabeth Perkins, Eric Bana, Bruce Spence, John Ratzenberger, and Geoffrey Rush.
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.
Hotel Transylvania (PG) One of the all-time top five Adam Sandler movies, this animated film has him voicing Dracula as an overprotective dad and hotel owner who operates a resort for his fellow monsters that protects them and his own hundred-plus-year-old daughter, a mere teenager in vampire years (voiced by Selena Gomez), from the world of humans. Everything he holds dear is threatened when a chilled-out American backpacker (voiced by Andy Samberg) finds his way through the hotel’s front door. The movie loses its way near the end, wandering into some soggy family melodrama, but Samberg gives the movie a shot of friendly energy, and director Genndy Tartakovsky finds all manner of funny details in life at the hotel. You can take your kids to this one without hating yourself too much. Extra points for a well-placed Twilight joke. Additional voices by Kevin James, Steve Buscemi, Fran Drescher, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Jon Lovitz, Chris Parnell, and Cee-Lo Green.
House at the End of the Street (PG-13) It’s the old familiar story: girl meets boy, girl loves boy, girl discovers that boy is keeping his raving maniac sister who murdered his parents locked up in his basement. Jennifer Lawrence plays the new-girl-in-town here, and Max Thieriot is the ostracized boy whose sweet, sensitive nature beguiles the girl. Director Mark Tonderai does a fair job of balancing the romance of the earlier scenes and the action of the later scenes, but he can’t disguise the way the plot falls apart near the end. It’s only Lawrence’s presence that gives focus and depth to this otherwise rampagingly mediocre thriller. Also with Elisabeth Shue, Eva Link, Nolan Gerard Funk, Allie MacDonald, Jordan Hayes, and Gil Bellows.
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.
Last Ounce of Courage (PG) Boo hoo hoo! We’re Christians and the whole world hates us! That’s the message of this waterlogged, whiny-as-hell melodrama about a grandfather (Marshall Teague) and grandson (Hunter Gomez) who band together to help their small town celebrate the holidays. Apparently this movie takes place in some alternate reality where mean, fun-hating atheists — led by an African-American politician, what are the odds? — are trying to kill Christmas. No wonder Bill O’Reilly shows up in this thing. If the movie’s right-wing paranoia doesn’t put you off, the bad acting and writing will. Also with Jennifer O’Neill, Jenna Boyd, Rusty Joiner, Darrel Campbell, and Fred Williamson.
Lawless (R) Based on Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World, this Prohibition-era thriller stars Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, and Jason Clarke as three brothers in backwoods Virginia who go to war with a crooked Chicago deputy (Guy Pearce) who wants to take over their moonshine business. Director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave do justice to the extreme levels of violence here and prevent the momentum from flagging, but they mishandle some dull romantic subplots and stack the deck against a cardboard bad guy. Better stuff comes from the actors, especially Hardy, playing a laconic guy whose grunts express a whole rainbow of emotions. Also with Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Dane DeHaan, Bill Camp, Noah Taylor, and Gary Oldman.
Looper (R) In his first big-budget Hollywood effort, Rian Johnson lays down a marker. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in this science-fiction thriller as a contract killer in 2044 who disposes of people sent back in time by his mobster bosses in the future. When his aged future self (Bruce Willis) is zapped back to him, it kicks off a complicated plot that’s laid out remarkably well. Johnson’s liberal, expert use of comic relief punctuates the air of gathering dread that he builds up. Even better, the movie doesn’t lose focus in the second half, when the action slows down as the hero hides out at a farm owned by a single mom (Emily Blunt). Johnson’s attempts at emotional catharsis are the tiniest bit off, but that scarcely matters given the scene where an assassin (Garret Dillahunt) dispatched to the farm meets a wholly unexpected end. Like the rest of the movie, it’s breathtaking in its horror and ingenuity. Also with Jeff Daniels, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Pierce Gagnon, Summer Qing, Tracie Thoms, Frank Brennan, and Piper Perabo.
The Master (R) Like most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, this one resists easy analysis even as it impresses the hell out of you. Joaquin Phoenix plays an alcoholic World War II veteran who drifts under the spell of a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in 1950. The story’s surface resemblances to the history of Scientology are merely a jumping-off point for pondering the appeal of cults. Even though the film is meticulously composed, it never feels overly put together because of its core of boiling anger. Phoenix, Hoffman, and Amy Adams (as the cult leader’s wife and ideological enforcer) are all in fantastic form here, and they contribute heavily to the film’s bravura set pieces, like a full-roar exchange in adjoining prison cells midway through. This frequently enigmatic spiritual quest comes to an end that makes this small-scale story feel large. Also with Rami Malek, Jesse Plemons, Madisen Beaty, Lena Endre, Kevin J. O’Connor, Christopher Evan Welch, and Laura Dern.
Masquerade (NR) Choo Chang-min’s foursquare but gorgeously photographed Korean epic stars Lee Byung-hun as both a historical 17th-century king and a bordello entertainer who’s hired to act as the king’s double in the face of assassination plots. The film does well with the story’s farcical elements, especially in a scene with the double finding out how the king goes to the bathroom. The later scenes, when the double has to take over for a temporarily incapacitated king and discovers the responsibilities of ruling, aren’t as much fun. Still, the film is handsomely appointed, and the director makes sure the proceedings don’t flag. Also with Ryu Seung-ryong, Han Hyo-joo, Kim Myung-gon, Kim In-kwon, Shim Eun-kyung, and Jang Gwang.
The Odd Life of Timothy Green (PG) When two parents who can’t have children (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) deal with their heartache by describing the child they want on paper and burying the paper in the backyard, a little boy (CJ Adams) springs fully formed from the ground. Timothy is supposed to be a catalyst for all sorts of good things, but writer-director Peter Hedges doesn’t handle the boy’s existence with much imagination. The movie takes flight only near the end, as it conveys its theme about the miraculous nature of every human soul. Its excellence is fleeting, but that seems in keeping with the theme that life itself is fleeting. On balance, this is no better than an average film, but it reaches exalted territory in a few patches. Also with Odeya Rush, Dianne Wiest, Rosemarie DeWitt, M. Emmet Walsh, David Morse, Ron Livingston, James Rebhorn, Common, and Shohreh Aghdashloo.
Pitch Perfect (PG-13) A total blast. Anna Kendrick stars in this musical comedy as a college freshman who joins an all-female a cappella singing group at her school and sets about dethroning the national champions, an obnoxious all-male group that’s also at her school. Kay Cannon’s script is full of quotable lines, and the punchlines come from all corners, including Hana Mae Lee as a chorister who can’t speak above a whisper and Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as a pair of cranky TV commentators. Kendrick’s singing makes up for her sluggish performance, as she leads the group in a rousing cover of “No Diggity” and does a YouTube-inspired solo on “Cups (You’re Gonna Miss Me),” while Rebel Wilson steals all manner of laughs and takes lead on “Turn the Beat Around.” It’s all enough to send you out of the theater singing. Also with Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Adam DeVine, Alexis Knapp, Ester Dean, Joe Lo Truglio, Donald Faison, Har Mar Superstar, John Benjamin Hickey, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse.
The Possession (PG-13) Only the second Jewish exorcism movie I can recall, this one is better than 2009’s The Unborn, though that’s not saying much. Jeffrey Dean Morgan stars as a divorced dad whose younger daughter (Natasha Calis) becomes possessed by a dybbuk after buying a mysterious lidless box with Hebrew inscriptions carved into the side. Norwegian director Ole Bornedal spends the first hour or so throwing moths in our face trying to scare us, and the domestic drama is crudely handled. Things improve near the end, when reggae singer Matisyahu comes on as a Hasidic exorcist who confronts the demon with his lovely singing voice. It’s a nice payoff, though better buildup would have served it better. Also with Kyra Sedgwick, Madison Davenport, Jay Brazeau, and Grant Show.
Resident Evil: Retribution (PG-13) The cinematic equivalent of a greatest-hits compilation by a band that was never that good, this fifth installment in the series brings back a number of actors from the first four films. Milla Jovovich stars once again as a warrior whose battle against an evil corporation and the zombies they created brings her into contact with clones of people she’s met before. Paul W.S. Anderson continues to slowly improve as an action director, but neither his visual style nor the flimsy excuse for a story can hold our interest for long. This series is a zombie, continuing to run around and cause damage long after it has died. Also with Michelle Rodriguez, Aryana Engineer, Sienna Guillory, Li Bingbing, Boris Kodjoe, Johann Urb, Kevin Durand, Iain Glen, Thomas Kretschmann, Oded Fehr, James Purefoy, Wentworth Miller, and Ali Larter.
Trouble With the Curve (PG-13) The curve isn’t the only thing troubling this flat, rhythmless, mawkish, badly written baseball drama. Clint Eastwood stars as an aging scout with failing eyesight who tries to repair his strained relationship with his attorney daughter (Amy Adams) while she helps him scout one last prospect. The flaws in this script could have been papered over, but first-time director Robert Lorenz (a longtime assistant director under Eastwood) has no idea how to build momentum within a scene or get to the next one. As a former player-turned-rival scout who falls for the daughter, Justin Timberlake isn’t the most convincing ex-jock, but he snags all the best laugh lines and walks home with the movie. Also with John Goodman, Matthew Lillard, Joe Massingill, Bob Gunton, Ed Lauter, Jack Gilpin, Jay Galloway, and Robert Patrick.
Won’t Back Down (PG) It’s like Waiting for “Superman”, only much dumber. This wearyingly self-righteous drama stars Viola Davis as a disenchanted schoolteacher and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a dyslexic single mom who battle the teachers’ union to take over their failing Pittsburgh middle school. Even before director/co-writer Daniel Barnz (Beastly) takes a left turn into two subplots’ worth of weepy domestic drama, his cardboard villains and ham-fisted theatrics insult your intelligence at every opportunity. A quietly seething Davis and an unquietly raging Gyllenhaal turn in stellar performances, but this ramshackle vehicle isn’t remotely worthy of them. Also with Oscar Isaac, Rosie Perez, Ving Rhames, Bill Nunn, Ned Eisenberg, Emily Alyn Lind, Dante Brown, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and Holly Hunter.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day (NR) Don Hertzfeldt’s animated film about a man trying to put his shattered psyche back together.
Liberal Arts (NR) Josh Radnor (TV’s How I Met Your Mother) writes, directs, and stars in this comedy as a 35-year-old divorced guy who revisits his college and begins an affair with a student (Elizabeth Olsen). Also with Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Kate Burton, John Magaro, and Zac Efron.
Samsara (PG-13) Ron Fricke follows up his 1992 documentary Baraka with this non-narrative non-fiction film with footage from sacred sites, disaster zones, and natural wonders from all over the world.
Sleepwalk With Me (NR) Mike Birbiglia co-directs and stars in this autobiographical film as a stand-up comedian who begins to sleepwalk while going through a personal crisis. Also with Lauren Ambrose, Carol Kane, Marc Maron, James Rebhorn, Kristen Schaal, Alex Karpovsky, David Wain, Ira Glass, and Loudon Wainwright III.
10 Years (PG-13) Screenwriter Jamie Linden (Dear John) makes his directing debut with this comedy about a bunch of high-school friends who gather for their 10th reunion. Starring Channing Tatum, Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Justin Long, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Chris Pratt, Ari Graynor, Scott Porter, Brian Geraghty, Anthony Mackie, Kate Mara, Aaron Yoo, Lynn Collins, Aubrey Plaza, Ron Livingston, and Rosario Dawson.