Oz the Great and Powerful (PG) Sam Raimi directs this adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel, starring James Franco as the man from Kansas who is destined to be the Wizard of Oz. Also with Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, and Abigail Spencer. Voices by Zach Braff, Joey King, and Bruce Campbell. (Opens Friday)
The ABCs of Death (NR) This anthology film is made up of 26 short films, each depicting death and using one letter of the alphabet as a theme. Segments directed by Angela Bettis, Ernesto Díaz Espinoza, Xavier Gens, Noboru Iguchi, Anders Morgenthaler, Banjong Pisanthanakun, Srdjan Spasojevic, Ti West, Ben Wheatley, and Adam Wingard. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Dead Man Down (R) If you think about it, where else would he be? Noomi Rapace and her The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo director Niels Arden Oplev reunite for this thriller about a woman who blackmails a hit man (Colin Farrell) into killing his drug lord boss (Terrence Howard), who raped and disfigured her. Also with Dominic Cooper, Luis da Silva Jr., Franky G, Stu Bennett, and Isabelle Huppert. (Opens Friday)
The Gatekeepers (PG-13) Nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary, Dror Moreh’s film interviews all six men who have served as head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Greedy Lying Bastards (PG-13) Craig Scott Rosebraugh’s documentary examines the political forces thwarting efforts to halt climate change. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Argo (R) Ben Affleck stars in and directs this expertly crafted, personality-light thriller. He portrays a real-life CIA exfiltration specialist who in 1980 spirited six Americans who had escaped from the U.S. embassy out of Iran by having them pose as a film crew for a nonexistent movie. The director superbly handles the latter half of the film when it comes to slowly tightening the grip of suspense. However, Chris Terrio’s script barely sketches in the characters, and Affleck’s performance in the lead role as a sad sack with a rocky marriage is undistinguished. The scenes that take place in Hollywood feel lifted from another film, but it’s the only part of the movie that lets the actors (notably Alan Arkin and John Goodman as movie-industry types) have fun. Also with Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, Sheila Vand, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Titus Welliver, Kyle Chandler, Bob Gunton, Richard Kind, and an uncredited Philip Baker Hall.
Beautiful Creatures (PG-13) Adapted freely from the first in Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s popular series of teen fantasy novels, this movie has considerable upside and downside. Alden Ehrenreich stars as a high-school jock in a small South Carolina town who falls for the social-outcast new girl in town (Alice Englert) only to discover that she and her family are witches caught up in an epic struggle between good and evil. Appealing newcomer Ehrenreich plays a thoughtful jock quite well, and writer-director Richard LaGravenese makes the first half of this movie very funny. Unfortunately, he has no sense of the supernatural and mishandles the time element badly. The most interesting character is swallowed up by the fantasy world instead of serving as a guide, and the movie takes a nosedive in the second half. Too bad, but its first half is promising. Also with Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Kyle Gallner, and Emma Thompson.
The Berlin File (NR) About half the dialogue is in English in this excellent German-filmed South Korean spy thriller starring Ha Jung-woo as a North Korean agent attached to his country’s embassy in Berlin. When he and his pregnant wife (Gianna Jun) are double-crossed, they must flee from their own countrymen and myriad others trying to kill them. Writer-director Ryoo Seung-wan botches some of the action sequences but engineers a convincing, complicated plot involving Mossad agents, CIA guys, Arab terrorists, Russian arms dealers, and one especially implacable South Korean Communist-hunter (Han Suk-kyu). Ha and Han make good action-movie adversaries, which bodes well for the sequel that this movie’s downbeat ending sets up. Also with Ryoo Seung-beom, Lee Kyeong-yeong, Bae Jung-nam, Werner Daehn, Numan Açar, and John Keogh.
Dark Skies (PG-13) After the bombastery of big-budget horror flicks Priest and Legion, director Scott Stewart gets knocked down to a lower budget and does strangely well with it. Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton (not the former Texas Rangers player) star as suburban parents who are menaced by inexplicable supernatural events. The scares get more ham-fisted as the movie starts to show its cards, but its depiction of a family that’s already under financial and marital strain is unusually well done, and Russell goes well beyond the call of duty playing a mother who suspects something is badly wrong with her youngest boy. For a run-of-the-mill horror flick, this isn’t half bad. Also with Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, L.J. Benet, Annie Thurman, and J.K. Simmons.
Django Unchained (R) Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti Western/revenge thriller is surprisingly good at confronting the evils of slavery. Jamie Foxx plays a freed slave who helps a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) kill his targets in exchange for rescuing his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a Mississippi slaveowner (Leonardo DiCaprio). The film may just be Tarantino’s funniest to date, aided by a hugely entertaining Waltz. Yet Tarantino does not stint on the brutality visited upon slaves, and paints a couple of unforgettable villains produced by the slave economy, played by DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. The shootouts, the in-jokes, and the triumphant ending are here to make the movie’s portrayal of slavery bearable, but they do more than that. They make the movie great fun. Also with Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Laura Cayouette, Ato Essandoh, Sammi Rotibi, James Russo, Bruce Dern, Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, and Franco Nero.
Escape From Planet Earth (PG) This terrible animated film set among a race of blue aliens is about a hypercautious engineer (voiced by Rob Corddry) who must rescue his reckless, lunkheaded astronaut brother (voiced by Brendan Fraser) after the astronaut travels to Earth and gets captured by an overzealous general (voiced by William Shatner). The animation is visually uninteresting, the characters are downright unlikable, and the jokes are lame pop culture riffs. If you pay the 3D upcharge, you’ll really hate yourself. Additional voices by Sarah Jessica Parker, Jonathan Morgan Heit, Craig Robinson, George Lopez, Jane Lynch, Steve Zahn, Chris Parnell, Jessica Alba, Sofia Vergara, and Ricky Gervais.
A Good Day to Die Hard (R) The latest adventure of indestructible super-cop John McClane once again puts Bruce Willis in an unlikely off-the-job situation, this time rescuing his CIA field agent son (Jai Courtney) from double-crossing Russian oligarchs who were secretly responsible for the Chernobyl disaster. While a car chase through Moscow is so-over the top it’s totally captivating, the whole movie is basically just a bunch of shooting and crashing through things, broken up by repeated catchphrases like “I’m on vacation!” leading to the inevitable “Yippee-ki-yay” moment. Long gone is the tension and wit that made the original a classic. In their wake remain empty CGI destruction and lazy exposition in between bullet storms. It’s like a Tom and Jerry cartoon with cusswords and helicopter gunships. Also with Sebastian Koch, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Yuliya Snigir, Radivoje Bukvic, Sergei Kolesnikov, Amaury Nolasco, and Cole Hauser. — Steve Steward
Identity Thief (R) Just about everything in this comedy is spectacularly miscalculated. Jason Bateman plays a responsible, repressed milquetoast-y finance guy in Denver who travels to Florida to capture the con artist (Melissa McCarthy) who has stolen his identity. The list of this movie’s failures is long: the depiction of the con artist as an overweight, oversexed caricature; the subsequent attempt to turn her back into a real person; the movie’s left turn into an action flick when one of her victims turns out to be a crime lord who sends his thugs (Tip “T.I.” Harris and Genesis Rodriguez) after her. Bateman and McCarthy struggle valiantly to mine laughs from the material, but it’s all for little effect. Also with Jon Favreau, Amanda Peet, Morris Chestnut, John Cho, Robert Patrick, Ben Falcone, and Eric Stonestreet.
Jack the Giant Slayer (PG-13) Better than any of the other recent films based on children’s fairy tales, this entirely bizarre take on the story of Jack and the beanstalk is an encouraging sign that Bryan Singer’s talent hasn’t entirely gone away. Nicholas Hoult plays the orphaned farmboy who volunteers to accompany a bunch of royal soldiers to rescue a princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) who’s trapped in his house after the beanstalk carries it up to the sky. The CGI giants are filthy, repellent, and somehow fascinating to look at, but Singer doesn’t let the effects overwhelm his actors. Hoult comes off best, alternately swashbuckling and scared out of his mind by the mythical creatures. Though it’s too violent for younger kids, the movie deserves an audience. Also with Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, and Ian McShane.