Red Tails (PG-13) Terrence Howard headlines this historical drama about a squad of African-American fighter pilots struggling for the chance to prove themselves in combat during World War II. Also with Cuba Gooding Jr., Bryan Cranston, Elijah Kelley, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Andre Royo, Lee Tergesen, Daniela Ruah, Nate Parker, Gerald McRaney, Ne-Yo, and Method Man. (Opens Friday)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (PG-13) This horrible piece of 9/11 kitsch stars Thomas Horn as a phobic 9-year-old boy who tries to figure out the meaning of a key left to him by his father (Tom Hanks), who was killed in the World Trade Center terrorist attack. Some of the flaws in this film come from the Jonathan Safran Foer novel that it’s based on — the mute tenant played by Max von Sydow is a deeply unfortunate cliché. However, this weepy, overheated debacle mostly springs from director Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours), who brings out the worst in both his actors and composer Alexandre Desplat and frames every shot as if to tell us, “This is really meaningful.” Save your money for a commemorative t-shirt. Also with Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Zoe Caldwell, and Jeffrey Wright. (Opens Friday)
Underworld: Awakening (R) Kate Beckinsale and her skintight one-piece leather outfit return for this fourth installment, in which the vampires and werewolves must band together to keep from being exterminated by humans. Also with Michael Ealy, Stephen Rea, Theo James, India Eisley, Sandrine Holt, and Charles Dance. (Opens Friday)
Where Soldiers Come From (NR) Heather Courtney’s documentary follows four childhood friends from Michigan over five years as they enlist and serve in the U.S. Army. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Adventures of Tintin (PG) Hergé’s comic series about an intrepid, globe-trotting reporter finds a kindred spirit in Steven Spielberg, who turns it into a fun animated movie. Jamie Bell provides the voice of the reporter, whose purchase of a model ship leads him on a search for a hidden treasure with a drunken sea captain (voiced by Andy Serkis). Spielberg’s flair for staging chase scenes is enhanced by the medium, the script is sharp and funny, and the animation by Weta Digital finds a happy middle ground between Hergé’s cartoonish art and a 3D digitized representation. Everyone gets into the spirit of this free-spirited adventure. Additional voices by Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Daniel Mays, Gad Elmaleh, Cary Elwes, and Toby Jones.
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (G) The latest installment finds Alvin, Simon, and Theodore and their female counterparts Brittany, Jeanette, and Eleanor lost on a deserted island, after a mishap with a kite whisks them away from the vacation cruise they’ve taken with Dave (Jason Lee). The furry pop stars fend for themselves against the islands mild perils, including a crazy treasure hunter (Jenny Slate) who lives with a collection of sports balls with faces drawn on them. Dave and villainous former record exec Ian (David Cross) hop on a hang glider in pursuit and wash ashore, too. Overall, the hijinks aren’t terribly funny, but the occasional references to Lost (along with a Mark Mothersbaugh score that frequently makes appropriately dissonant nods to the show) are amusing for the grownups. Kids raised on a diet of candy and KISS FM will probably like most of it. Voices by Justin Long, Michael Gray Gubler, Jesse McCartney, Christina Applegate, Anna Faris, and Amy Poehler. –– Steve Steward
Beauty and the Beast (PG) They’re going to keep regifting us these things, aren’t they? Following last year’s 3D re-release of The Lion King, Disney does a similar job on their 1991 musical version of the fairy tale about a French village girl (voiced by Paige O’Hara) who falls in love with a prince who’s been transformed into a hideous creature (voiced by Robby Benson). The 3D layering is unnecessary at best, and some aspects of the story have dated. Still, the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman songs hold up quite well and carry the story, especially as sung by O’Hara and Angela Lansbury. Clear out of the theater before Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson butcher the title song over the end credits. Additional voices by Richard White, David Ogden Stiers, Bradley Pierce, Jesse Corti, Hal Smith, and the late Jerry Orbach.
Carnage (R) Roman Polanski’s film wants to be good, trashy fun, but it never quite takes the plunge. Based on Yasmina Reza’s French-language play The God of Carnage, this film stars Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet as two sets of parents who meet after a playground scrap involving their kids and wind up spending 90 minutes playing power games with one another. Reza’s script is full of glib ironies and cheap jabs at upper-class parents, and despite the heavyweight cast (Waltz comes off best), the setting seems hermetic and artificial rather than claustrophobic. For all the energy this movie expends, it accomplishes surprisingly little.
Contraband (R) This distinctly average crime thriller stars Mark Wahlberg as a retired New Orleans smuggler who’s brought back for One Last Score after his feckless brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones) goes into debt with a vicious active hood (Giovanni Ribisi). The bad guy’s antics are as over-the-top as Ribisi’s performance, and he’s stuck in the boring Stateside half of the film while Wahlberg ships out to Panama to bring back some counterfeit U.S. currency aboard a cargo ship. Director Baltasar Kormákur does it all up professionally, though not energetically. The film is a remake of the 2008 Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam, which Kormákur starred in. Also with Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, J.K. Simmons, Lukas Haas, David O’Hara, Kevin “Lucky” Johnson, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, and Diego Luna.
The Darkest Hour (PG-13) An interesting cast and premise lift this alien-invasion flick above banality, but only just. This sci-fi flick follows two young American entrepreneurs (Emile Hirsch and Max Minghella) who are stranded in Moscow when the Earth is invaded by invisible extraterrestrials who can vaporize humans at close range. Director Chris Gorak (Right at Your Door) doesn’t contribute much to make this frightening, but the aliens’ powers and weaknesses are better-thought-out than in most such films. The actors (including Olivia Thirlby as an American tourist) almost make up for their thin characters. Also with Veronika Ozerova, Dato Bakhtadze, Joel Kinnaman, and Rachael Taylor.
The Descendants (R) Alexander Payne’s films are about unremarkable people, which makes the star wattage of George Clooney an odd fit with this story (based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel) about a wealthy Hawaii lawyer trying to raise two daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) after his wife is rendered comatose by a boating accident. The movie (an opening night selection at the recent Lone Star Film Festival) just misses masterpiece status, but there’s still much to like. The writing is sharp, the landscapes are beautiful, and even the small roles are brilliantly acted. Woodley is a real find, and Clooney is terrific even though he’s miscast. The film never achieves the exquisite balance of comedy and pathos that it’s going for, but it’s very good. Also with Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause, Beau Bridges, and Robert Forster.
The Devil Inside (R) Demonic possession is no laughing matter, unless you’re watching The Devil Inside. This fake documentary stars Fernanda Andrade as a college student en route to Vatican City to visit her mother (Susan Crowley), long-since secreted away in a Catholic sanitarium after murdering three people during an alleged exorcism when Isabella was a child. Sadly, a belief in demons is the smallest leap of faith you have to make for this movie. Never mind the ridiculousness of a student and her filmmaker buddy’s apparent unlimited access to a Vatican exorcism class and a church-sponsored sanitarium; the most unbelievable part of this stinker is that demons aren’t scary, even when they’re dislocating their hosts’ shoulders or tossing priests across the room. Add a completely unsatisfying ending, and you have a film that does a disservice to multiple genres. Also with Simon Quatermain, Evan Helmuth, Ionut Grama, and Brian Johnson. — S.S.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (R) The best film version of Stieg Larsson’s novel that we were likely to get. David Fincher’s thriller stars Daniel Craig as a disgraced Swedish journalist who becomes a serial killer’s target while investigating a decades-old disappearance. Rooney Mara portrays the series’ vengeful dark angel, Lisbeth Salander, and while she’s a disturbingly disengaged, wraithlike presence, she doesn’t bring the feral edge that Noomi Rapace brought to the role in the Swedish film version. Still, Fincher brings his typically meticulous and professional treatment to the material, covering a great deal of ground without derailing the momentum of this swift 158-minute film. If the filmmakers never transcend the book’s limitations, they do leave us primed for Salander’s further adventures. Also with Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Yorick van Wageningen, Joely Richardson, Steven Berkoff, Geraldine James, Goran Visnjic, Donald Sumpter, and Robin Wright.
Hugo (PG) Martin Scorsese’s children’s fable brings out the primitive, elemental magic of filmmaking. Based on Brian Selznick’s remarkable illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, this movie stars Asa Butterfield as a 13-year-old orphaned boy who winds the clocks in a 1930s Paris train station when he and a girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) discover that her embittered adoptive father (Ben Kingsley) is Georges Méliès, a genius of early film who’s now a neglected toy shop owner. Scorsese uses the 3D technology with unprecedented subtlety, giving depth and complexity even to throwaway shots of desk clutter. The story runs into a few wrong notes and dead spots in the early going, but the splendid segments depicting Méliès’ creations of his fantasy films are enough to give even the most jaded moviegoers a new appreciation for the power of cinema. Also with Sacha Baron Cohen, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Christopher Lee, and Jude Law.
Immortals (R) Once again, video director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) astonishes the eyes with fantastic digital backdrops and kinetic, stylized fight choreography while numbing the brain with dull characters and a simple plot that somehow manages to trip over its own feet. In this loose interpretation of Greek mythology, Mickey Rourke stars as the villainous, deicidal King Hyperion, who seeks a mythical bow that will give him the power to unleash the legendary Titans from their prison inside Mount Tartarus. Hyperion’s army of fearsome, masked marauders is opposed by Theseus (Henry Cavill), the peasant leader of the Hellenic resistance. The film is front-loaded with hasty exposition and scenes that are pretty much smashed together, which unfortunately obscures a subtext on the power of faith — albeit faith in Zeus and Athena and stuff. Tarsem sucks as a storyteller, but the scope of the guy’s imagination is breathtaking; the sweep of set pieces such as a village cut into a sheer cliff or the magnitude of a giant fortress’ wall are amazing, like Holy Mountain with 100 times the budget mixed with the metopes of the Parthenon come to life. Also with Frieda Pinto, Stephen Dorff, Luke Evans, Stephen McHattie, Isabel Lucas, and John Hurt. –– S.S.
The Iron Lady (R) Phyllida Lloyd’s biography of Margaret Thatcher tries to avoid the clichés of political bios and view the former British prime minister’s accomplishments through the prism of her dementia-riddled old age. It’s a bold gambit. It doesn’t work. Abi Morgan’s script deliberately skirts Thatcher’s politics, so we never learn how she rose through the ranks, let alone the thinking behind her strongest-held principles or her most controversial decisions. Meryl Streep does a hell of a Thatcher impression in the lead role, but without context, her performance belongs in a Saturday Night Live sketch instead of a serious political drama. Why do we care about an old woman’s loss of her mental faculties when the movie gives us only the faintest idea of who she is? Both Streep and Thatcher deserved better. Also with Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant, Olivia Colman, Alexandra Roach, Roger Allam, Michael Pennington, Anthony Head, and Iain Glen.
Joyful Noise (PG-13) Not half bad, really. Todd Graff’s musical centers on a rural Georgia church choir trying to win a national choral competition. The power struggle between the choir director (Queen Latifah) and a wealthy church benefactress (Dolly Parton) is mostly forced, but the supporting characters are interesting and layered (especially Jesse L. Martin as the director’s estranged husband), the signs of economic decline help give urgency to the group’s efforts, and the romantic plot between Keke Palmer and Jeremy Jordan is well-taken. For inoffensive family entertainment, you could do a lot worse. Also with Dexter Darden, Courtney B. Vance, Judd Lormand, Kirk Franklin, and Kris Kristofferson.
Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (PG-13) Arguably the best of the M:I movies since the first one, this fourth installment stars Tom Cruise as a secret agent who’s forced to go rogue with two colleagues (Paula Patton and Simon Pegg) and a State Department analyst (Jeremy Renner) after they’re framed for a terrorist bombing in Moscow. Director Brad Bird (Ratatouille, The Incredibles) makes his live-action debut with some splashy action set pieces, especially a sequence with Cruise dangling off the side of the Burj Khalifa tower. This action flick isn’t deep, but it’s a tasty bit of escapism. Also with Léa Seydoux, Michael Nyqvist, Anil Kapoor, Vladimir Mashkov, Josh Holloway, and uncredited cameos by Tom Wilkinson, Ving Rhames, and Michelle Monaghan.
The Muppets (PG) It’s good to have Kermit and his gang back. Much like the movies that Jim Henson’s creations made during their late ’70s-early ’80s heyday, this newest big-screen adventure features leisurely pacing, musical numbers, smartly self-referential jokes, celebrity cameos, and a big show to top everything off. Co-writer Jason Segel stars as a man who takes his girlfriend (Amy Adams) and his Muppet brother to L.A., where they must foil an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper) by rounding up Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the others to put on a show to save the Muppets’ old studio. The movie gets off to a ragged start, but Bret McKenzie’s songs are often uproarious (especially the power ballad “Man or Muppet”), and the show at the end is vintage Muppet zaniness. The movie brings the Muppets’ spirit into a new era intact. Also with Rashida Jones, Jim Parsons, Zach Galifianakis, Alan Arkin, Sarah Silverman, Kristen Schaal, Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Neil Patrick Harris, Selena Gomez, James Carville, Rico Rodriguez, Judd Hirsch, Dave Grohl, Ken Jeong, Leslie Feist, Mickey Rooney, and an uncredited Jack Black.
My Week With Marilyn (R) Michelle Williams’ performance as Marilyn Monroe is the main reason to see this diverting but largely empty exercise in nostalgia. Simon Curtis’ drama takes place on the set of the 1956 film The Prince and the Showgirl, with Monroe’s skittish behavior driving everyone nuts, including director Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). The script is based on two memoirs by Colin Clark, who shows up in the film as a boring third assistant director (played by Eddie Redmayne) in whom Marilyn confides. Williams locates Marilyn’s crippling shyness and self-destructiveness without indulging in any histrionics. Yet we don’t learn anything about Marilyn that we didn’t already know. This movie isn’t about anything. Also with Judi Dench, Toby Jones, Dougray Scott, Dominic West, Zoë Wanamaker, Julia Ormond, Derek Jacobi, and Emma Watson.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (PG-13) The great detective returns, but he’s too busy dodging bullets to make much use of his detective skills, which is partly why this sequel is so disappointing. Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role, this time trying to prevent Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) from starting a world war. The comic chemistry between Downey’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson is still here, and director Guy Ritchie comes up with two engaging twists on the device from the original in which Holmes thinks through his fight sequences before they happen. Yet Holmes’ deductive reasoning powers are reduced to sleight of hand and a series of silly disguises. If you’re not going to show off Holmes’ brains, why bother with him at all? Also with Noomi Rapace, Stephen Fry, Kelly Reilly, Paul Anderson, Eddie Marsan, and Rachel McAdams.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (R) This adaptation of John le Carré’s spy novel is better if you’ve already read the book or seen the 1979 TV miniseries, but even newcomers can appreciate the intelligence and craftsmanship at work. Gary Oldman portrays a retired British spy who’s brought back to MI6 to find a Soviet double agent at the top of the agency. Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) creates a sense of claustrophobia by photographing characters behind glass partitions or in frames within the frame, and he stylishly captures the dowdiness of cold-war Britain — you can practically feel the rising damp. Gary Oldman can’t match the hooded watchfulness that Alec Guinness brought to the role, but his quiet strength mirrors the film’s. Also with Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong, John Hurt, David Dencik, Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Konstantin Khabensky, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hardy.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part I (PG-13) The fourth film in this series has a fourth new director in Bill Condon, and the constant change of directors seems to be keeping these films from finding a consistent tone. After Edward Cullen and Bella Swan (Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart) get married, they’re both shocked to find that she’s pregnant and that the baby she’s giving birth to might not only be killing her but also might threaten the peace between the vampires and the werewolves. The plot twists are surprising if you haven’t read the books, but the director fails to generate any suspense or even block or edit scenes with any sense of rhythm. It looks like this series might end without producing a single good movie. Also with Taylor Lautner, Billy Burke, Ashley Greene, Kellan Lutz, Peter Facinelli, Jackson Rathbone, Elizabeth Reaser, Nikki Reed, Mía Maestro, Maggie Grace, MyAnna Buring, Jamie Campbell Bower, Anna Kendrick, and Michael Sheen.
War Horse (PG-13) Steven Spielberg’s uneven, overlong adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book was inspired by the recent stage version but in no way mimics it. Instead, Spielberg films this story (about a rambunctious horse that survives World War I after passing through the hands of various owners on both sides) in an earnest, unironically epic manner. The film sports good performances and one remarkable scene between a British soldier and a German soldier working together in no man’s land to free the horse from barbed wire. Yet these bits don’t come often enough to build up any momentum. Both Spielberg and other filmmakers have been to this territory before, and they’ve done it better. Starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, Geoff Bell, David Kross, Rainer Bock, Robert Emms, Hinnerk Schönemann, and Eddie Marsan.
We Bought a Zoo (PG) By the standards of PG-rated movies about animals, this is sharply written and engages some unexpectedly thorny issues in a grown-up way. By the standards of Cameron Crowe movies, this falls flat. Adapted from Benjamin Mee’s memoir, this dramedy stars Matt Damon as a widowed journalist who moves his two kids into a house attached to a run-down zoo. The movie’s treatment of bereavement isn’t nearly as good as The Descendants’ and a couple of forceful scenes near the end (one involving Scarlett Johansson as a zookeeper arguing that an aged lion needs to be put down) only show what the rest of the movie is lacking. Crowe is still flailing for direction. Also with Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Angus Macfadyen, Patrick Fugit, John Michael Higgins, J.B. Smoove, Carla Gallo, Peter Riegert, Stephanie Szostak, and Elle Fanning.
Young Adult (R) This comedy won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you’ve overdosed on holiday cheer, the sour goodness here is just the tonic you need. Charlize Theron portrays a 37-year-old author named Mavis who returns to the tiny Minnesota hometown she loathes so she can steal her high-school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) away from his wife. Theron, director Jason Reitman, and screenwriter Diablo Cody all seem out to prove that they’ve been unfairly typecast, and they spur one another to greater heights as they relentlessly detail Mavis’ ferocious unpleasantness. It culminates in a sad, riveting scene when Mavis loses her grip at a gathering. The film’s critique of Mavis isn’t free of holes, but it does the difficult task of building a compelling and funny comedy around a messy and unlikable antiheroine. Also with Patton Oswalt, Elizabeth Reaser, Collette Wolfe, Jill Eikenberry, and Mary Beth Hurt.
A Dangerous Method (R) David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play about Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his sexual relationship with a disturbed Russian patient (Keira Knightley). Also with Viggo Mortensen, Sarah Gadon, and Vincent Cassel.
In the Land of Blood and Honey (R) Angelina Jolie’s first film as writer-director is this English-language war film about a Serbian soldier (Goran Kostic) and a Muslim artist (Zara Marjanovic) whose romance is transformed when ethnic violence overtakes Bosnia in the 1990s. Also with Rade Šerbedžija, Vanesa Glodjo, Nikola Djuricko, Branko Djuric, Fedja Stukan, Alma Terzic, and Jelena Jovanova.
Pariah (R) Dee Rees’ drama stars Adepero Oduye as an African-American teen trying to reconcile her homosexuality with her traditional upbringing. Also with Pernell Walker, Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell, Aasha Davis, Sahra Mellesse, and Kim Sykes.
Shame (NC-17) Michael Fassbender stars in Steve McQueen’s drama about a New Yorker whose struggles with sex addiction come to a head when his sister (Carey Mulligan) visits him. Also with James Badge Dale and Nicole Beharie.