On the Road (R) Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) adapts Jack Kerouac’s novel about a young writer (Sam Riley) who takes a road trip across America with his best friend (Garrett Hedlund) and his new girlfriend (Kristen Stewart). Also with Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Sturridge, Alice Braga, Danny Morgan, Elisabeth Moss, and Steve Buscemi. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
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. (Re-opens Friday in Dallas)
The Croods (PG) This fitfully inspired animated comedy is about a family of prehistoric cavepeople headed by an overprotective, risk-averse dad (voiced by Nicolas Cage) until their home is destroyed and they’re forced to journey many miles to find a new place. The movie’s fanciful prehistoric landscape is nice to see, and terrific voice work from both Cage and Emma Stone as his adventurous daughter gives the proceedings some personality. However, the movie never really hits any memorable highs or sustains any sort of momentum and is populated by bizarre creatures. Check out the graceful flock of cute, murderous little red birds. Additional voices by Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Chris Sanders, and Cloris Leachman. (Opens Friday)
Ginger & Rosa (PG-13) This autobiographical drama by Sally Potter (Orlando) stars Elle Fanning as a teenage girl growing up in 1960s London who discovers a terrible secret about her family and her best friend (Alice Englert). Also with Christina Hendricks, Alessandro Nivola, Timothy Spall, Jodhi May, Oliver Platt, and Annette Bening. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
InAPPropriate Comedy (R) Vince Offer directs, co-writes, and co-stars in this anthology comedy about a computer tablet that comes up with comedy sketches. Starring Adrien Brody, Michelle Rodriguez, Rob Schneider, and Lindsay Lohan. (Opens Friday at AMC Grapevine Mills)
New World (NR) Park Hoon-jung’s thriller stars Lee Jung-jae as an undercover cop who finds himself caught between conflicting loyalties in a gangland war of succession. Also with Choi Min-sik, Hwang Jung-min, Park Sung-woong, Song Ji-hyo, Choi Il-hwa, and Lee Kyoung-young. (Opens Friday at AMC Grapevine Mills)
Olympus Has Fallen (R) Gerard Butler stars in this thriller as a haunted-by-failure Secret Service agent who infiltrates the White House after North Korean terrorists breach the perimeter and massacre everyone who’s supposed to protect the president (Aaron Eckhart). The only thing that’s done well is the staging of a large-scale, multiplatform, paramilitary assault on the White House, executed in scarily plausible detail by director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day). Everything else here is lame, jingoistic, obvious, and casually racist. Oh, and the plot is full of holes, too. Every story beat is shamelessly cribbed from Die Hard, and not well, but that 13-minute White House sequence is worth buying a ticket to a different movie and then sneaking into this one for. Also with Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Dylan McDermott, Rick Yune, Robert Forster, Finley Jacobson, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, and Ashley Judd. (Opens Friday)
Spring Breakers (R) As an act of storytelling, this movie is a failure. As a long-form Skrillex music video, it’s a roaring success. Harmony Korine’s fascinating piece of weirdness is about four bored college girls (Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and Rachel Korine) whose spring break in Tampa turns into a lurid spree of drugs, sex, and murder. Instead of treating this as a thriller, the director films it in a dreamlike fashion and manages to more or less sustain the mood of evanescent hedonism. James Franco turns up as a blinged-out, cornrow-sporting rapper who bails the girls out of jail, and he’s funny and compulsively watchable. The movie’s wacko high point comes when he sits at his white poolside grand piano and croons Britney Spears’ “Everytime” to three AK-47-toting hot chicks in bikinis and pink ski masks. I think that was a dream I had once. Also with Heather Morris, Sidney Sewell, Thurman Sewell, and Gucci Mane. (Opens Friday)
The Call (R) Halle Berry stars in this thoroughly sadistic little thriller as a traumatized 911 operator who involves herself with the case of a teenage girl (Abigail Breslin) who is abducted by a serial killer and places a call from the trunk of his car. We learn much about how 911 operators do their jobs and how they might respond in a situation such as this. Yet the heroine’s actions make absolutely no sense in the last 15 minutes of this thing, and the movie overall is histrionic and tawdry. Director Brad Anderson used to make such great romantic comedies; What’s he doing wasting his time on something like this? Also with Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund, David Otunga, José Zúñiga, Justina Machado, Roma Maffia, and Michael Imperioli.
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.
Emperor (PG-13) For World War II buffs and Japanophiles only. This tasteful, polite, boring drama stars Matthew Fox as an American general who searches for the girl he once loved (Eriko Hatsune) while trying to carry out a politically loaded task in devastated postwar Japan. The material needed a director comfortable with procedurals, but Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring) is more interested in lyricism, romance, and pictorialism. He loses all sense of momentum and dramatic thrust. Tommy Lee Jones cuts an entertaining figure as Douglas MacArthur, capturing the man’s conscientiousness and his vanity, but he isn’t nearly enough to redeem this exercise. Also with Masayoshi Haneda, Kaori Momoi, Toshiyuki Nishida, Isao Natsuyagi, Masatoshi Nakamura, Masatô Ibu, Shôhei Hino, and Colin Moy.
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.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (PG-13) Steve Carell stars in this less-than-incredible comedy as a Las Vegas stage magician who falls from grace because of his complacency and who has lost his audience to a loathsome hack (Jim Carrey). Amid predictable jokes about guys who wear eyeliner and sequins professionally, the movie does find an essential truth about performing, as Burt has to rediscover his love for his craft. Yet despite a number of gags that score, the movie never finds a groove or delivers on any of its set pieces, and Carell is too nice a guy to play the lecherous, diva-like Burt. This act needed polishing before it hit the big stage. Also with Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, Jay Mohr, Michael Herbig, Brad Garrett, Gillian Jacobs, and James Gandolfini.
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, a mix of 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.
The Last Exorcism Part II (PG-13) Interesting thing about this sequel: The filmmakers here completely abandon the found-footage look of the 2010 original, filming this like a much more conventional horror movie. It doesn’t work. Ashley Bell reprises her role as the demonically possessed girl as she flees her backwoods community and lands in a halfway house for at-risk girls in New Orleans. The angular, soft-voiced Bell remains the best thing, convincing as both the sheltered naïf and the evil demon. Yet the movie squanders both her and its potentially fruitful premise in favor of boring scares and some casually racist stuff about black people possessing otherworldly juju. The lead actress deserved better. Also with Julia Garner, Spencer Treat Clark, David Jensen, Tarra Riggs, Louis Herthum, and Muse Watson.
Les Misérables (PG-13) The best big-screen version of the bombastic Broadway musical that we were ever likely to get. Tom Hooper records the actors singing live on the set, and his approach yields mostly good results from Hugh Jackman as an anguished Jean Valjean, Samantha Barks outsinging her more famous castmates as Éponine, and Anne Hathaway going hellbent for leather as Fantine. Hooper can’t do much with Russell Crowe’s wobbly baritone (which seems to be emanating from inside a half-crushed beer can), nor can he do anything with the music bogging the show down in the second half as the boring characters of Marius and Cosette (Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried) take center stage. Still, the cast’s singing and some un-stagey direction save the movie. Also with Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, Isabelle Allen, and Colm Wilkinson.
Mindless Behavior: All Around the World (G) Steven Goldfried’s documentary follows the R&B/hip-hop boy band on their world tour.
Oz the Great and Powerful (PG) A good-looking mess. Sam Raimi directs this movie that stars James Franco as a circus illusionist who is transported to the magical land of Oz, where he meets three magically empowered sisters (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams) and becomes the wizard. Raimi and cinematographer Peter Deming render Oz and its creatures in eye-popping color, but the movie is tone deaf, lurching from slapstick comedy to lyricism to action thriller at will. It misses badly, whether it’s aiming for pathos or cuteness — the talking monkey voiced by Zach Braff is a big mistake. The only cast member who looks comfortable is Williams, finding the balance of funny and ethereal that the rest of the movie lacks. Also with Bill Cobbs, Tony Cox, Abigail Spencer, Joey King, and Bruce Campbell.
The Power of Few (R) Leone Marucci’s thriller views the same 20 minutes of a smuggling operation and a religious conspiracy through the viewpoints of different characters. Starring Christopher Walken, Christian Slater, Q’orianka Kilcher, Jesse Bradford, Moon Bloodgood, Nicky Whelan, Tione Johnson, and Anthony Anderson.
Quartet (PG-13) Featured at the Lone Star Film Festival, Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut isn’t a deathless piece of art, but it’s a pleasant diversion. Maggie Smith stars as an aging opera star who goes to live at a retirement home for musicians. Hoffman clearly loves the vibe of this setting, a place filled with performing artists who play for one another to keep their skills sharp and for the sheer love of it, and the camaraderie among these aged performers is where the movie gets its charm. The thin wisp of a plot doesn’t offer much in the way of dramatic payoff, but Hoffman directs in an appropriately smooth and unhurried manner. Also with Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Trevor Peacock, Andrew Ryall, and Dame Gwyneth Jones.
Safe Haven (PG-13) The latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation is more of the same. This narcotizing weeper stars Julianne Hough as a woman who flees a violent incident in Boston for an idyllic Carolina coastal town (there is no other kind of coastal town in Sparks’ novels) and tries to put her past behind her. Sparks’ decorous brand of melodrama brings out the worst in director Lasse Hallström, and while Hough can be an asset in a musical, she’s overtaxed trying to play a paranoid battered wife. Movies of Sparks novels tend to be watery, but this one evaporates right off the screen. Also with Josh Duhamel, David Lyons, Noah Lomax, Mimi Kirkland, Red West, and Cobie Smulders.
Silver Linings Playbook (R) Bradley Cooper stars in this volatile, terribly funny comedy as a bipolar former schoolteacher and die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan who leaves a mental institution to move back in with his parents. Adapting a novel by Matthew Quick, writer-director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings) captures the rage and instability inside his characters by filming ordinary domestic scenes with a whirling fury. His approach spreads to his actors, including Robert De Niro, bringing more energy than he’s brought in 20 years to the role of the hero’s combative dad, and Jennifer Lawrence, deploying her fierceness for comic effect as a cop’s widow with her own mentally troubled history. This is Russell’s warmest and most likable film, a tribute to the unconditional love that binds you to your family and your football team. Also with Jacki Weaver, Julia Stiles, Anupam Kher, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Paul Herman, Dash Mihok, and Chris Tucker.
Snitch (PG-13) Dwayne Johnson plays a construction firm owner who infiltrates a drug cartel in order to reduce the 10-year prison sentence on his teenage son (Rafi Gavron) for dealing drugs. Johnson is ill-suited to this sort of heavy drama, though his underacting is still preferable to the overacting by various actresses in this movie’s one-dimensional suffering wife parts. Look past that, though, and you’ll find a plausible and surprisingly gripping thriller about how an ordinary guy might get into a drug kingpin’s inner circle. Also with Jon Bernthal, Barry Pepper, Melina Kanakaredes, Nadine Velazquez, Michael K. Williams, Harold Perrineau, Lela Loren, David Harbour, Benjamin Bratt, and Susan Sarandon.
21 and Over (R) The obvious comparison: The Hangover. The more useful comparison: Weekend at Bernie’s. Neither comparison flatters this lame comedy starring Skylar Astin and Miles Teller as two friends who visit their buddy (Justin Chon) in college on his 21st birthday, get him drunk and passed out, and then spend a frantic night trying to take him home in time for his medical-school interview the next morning. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (the writers of The Hangover, here making their directing debut) don’t do too badly with pacing and mechanics, but the hijinks are second-rate and the movie seems to be madly trying to convince us that we’re having a good time. You’re much better off going to a real party. Also with Sarah Wright, Jonathan Keltz, François Chau, and Russell Hodgkinson.
Warm Bodies (PG-13) This movie wants to be scary, funny, and romantic all at once, and while it succeeds fitfully at those things, it mostly proves that the combination is tough to pull off. Set in a world largely overrun by zombies, the movie stars Nicholas Hoult as a zombie who falls in love with a human girl (Teresa Palmer) and finds that the experience cures him of his zombiehood. Writer-director Jonathan Levine (50/50) scores with the zombie’s neurotic interior monologue and some warm romantic flashbacks, but the material needed a wackier, more satirical comic sensibility. Even though Hoult does some remarkable work in a difficult role, the actors here largely seem lost, even as experienced a comic actor like Rob Corddry. Charming though this movie is, it’s a well-intentioned misfire. Also with Analeigh Tipton, Dave Franco, Cory Hardrict, and John Malkovich.
Zero Dark Thirty (PG-13) Pro-torture without meaning to be, which is actually worse than being purposefully pro-torture. Jessica Chastain portrays a brilliant but obsessive CIA analyst who spends 10 years tracking down Osama bin Laden, and she doesn’t quite manage to integrate this difficult and fundamentally unknowable character. Director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) lays out the detective work well enough and expectedly delivers some great action set pieces, including a slow-burning meeting with an informant midway through and the operation at the end. Still, she’s fatally fuzzy about the role of torture in obtaining the information that takes down the terrorist mastermind, and pays scant attention to its repercussions. It’s one thing to take in a morally complex situation and let the audience draw its own conclusions. This movie is just unclear. Also with Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, Édgar Ramírez, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Reda Kateb, Fares Fares, Homayoun Ershadi, Harold Perrineau, Stephen Dillane, Mark Duplass, and James Gandolfini.
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.
Lore (NR) Cate Shortland (Somersault) adapts Rachel Seiffert’s novel about a 14-year-old girl (Saskia Rosendahl) who must lead her three younger siblings on a 500-mile trek to safety across war-torn Germany in the last days of World War II. Also with Nele Trebs, André Frid, Mika Seidel, Kai Malina, and Nick Holaschke.
No (R) Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, the latest film by Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero) stars Gael García Bernal as an advertising executive who’s brought in to work on a political campaign to defeat the dictator Augusto Pinochet during Chile’s 1988 elections. Also with Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco, Néstor Cantillana, Antonia Zegers, Marcial Tagle, Pascal Montero, and Jaime Vadell.
Upside Down (PG-13) Juan Solanas’ science-fiction romance stars Jim Sturgess as a man who vows to win back his former love (Kirsten Dunst) who lives on an alternate world with its own gravity that hangs above his world. Also with Timothy Spall, Vincent Messina, Nicholas Rose, and Jesse Sherman.