What We Do in the Shadows (NR) Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi co-write, co-direct, and co-star in this mockumentary comedy as vampires who get on each other’s nerves when they’re forced to share an apartment. Also with Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham, and Rhys Darby. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Focus (R) Will Smith stars in this caper comedy as a con artist whose latest scheme goes awry when his ex-girlfriend and colleague (Margot Robbie) shows up. Also with Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Adrian Martinez, and Gerald McRaney. (Opens Friday)
Human Capital (NR) Paolo Virzi’s drama tracks the effects of a road accident on two Italian families. Starring Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Matilde Gioli, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Guglielmo Pinelli, Fabrizio Gifuni, Giovanni Anzaldo, and Valeria Golino. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Lazarus Effect (PG-13) Olivia Wilde and Mark Duplass star in this horror film as a team of researchers who figure out how to reverse death. Also with Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters, Amy Aquino, and Donald Glover. (Opens Friday)
Red Army (PG) Gabe Polsky’s documentary about the great Soviet hockey teams of the 1970s and ’80s and the players’ struggle to play in the NHL. Starring Vyacheslav Fetisov, Anatoly Karpov, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladislav Tretiak, Vladimir Pozner, and Scotty Bowman. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Timbuktu (PG-13) Nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, Abderrahmane Sissako’s dark comedy is about a group of bumbling jihadis taking over the ancient city in Mali. Starring Ibrahim Ahmed, Abdel Jafri, Toulou Kiki, Layla Walet Mohamed, Mehdi Mohamed, and Hicham Yacoubi. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
American Sniper (R) Overrated. Bradley Cooper stars in Clint Eastwood’s biography of Chris Kyle, a sniper who recorded 160 confirmed kills in four tours in Iraq. Cooper is magnificent playing Chris when he gets home and tries to come to terms with his war experience, and everything the movie does to treat PTSD feels honest and true. The same can’t be said for the rest of the movie, which ignores both the context of the Iraq war and the false claims that Kyle made in his autobiography. Instead of addressing these, Eastwood and screenwriter include a lot of low-grade soap opera between Chris and his wife (Sienna Miller). This could have been a great war movie, but it’s undermined by the egregiousness of its omissions. Also with Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Kyle Gallner, Keir O’Donnell, and Navid Negahban.
Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (R) A hell of a ride. Michael Keaton stars in this theatrical satire as a washed-up Hollywood action star who risks the last of his fortune to mount a Broadway play that will get him taken seriously as an actor. This is easily the best work by director/co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu, who finally gets in touch with his sense of humor and stops trying to tell us about the state of the world in favor of telling us a story about a somewhat deluded showbiz guy. The long takes and cleverly disguised cuts create a hurtling sense of momentum that replicates its main character’s disintegrating sense of self. It also keeps the actors on their toes, with Keaton, Edward Norton (as a Method diva of a fellow actor), and Emma Stone (as the hero’s drug-addicted daughter) all delivering career-best performances. The movie’s ideas are undercooked, but at least González Iñárritu has discovered a sense of joy to go with his technical gifts. Also with Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Lindsay Duncan, Jeremy Shamos, and Amy Ryan.
Black or White (PG-13) An unsubtle title for an unsubtle movie. Kevin Costner stars as a widowed grandfather who’s drawn into a custody battle over his mixed-race granddaughter (Jillian Estell) with the girl’s grandmother (Octavia Spencer). These are delicate issues that the movie is dealing with, and writer-director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger) bungles every single one of them, as various characters spell out each other’s shortcomings with unfailing accuracy — he drinks too much, she has too much faith in her no-account son (André Holland) — while maintaining blind spots on their own. The little girl is one of those precocious movie kids, too. The film fails every time it tries to be serious and every time it tries to be funny. Other than that, it’s a great success. Also with Anthony Mackie, Jennifer Ehle, Bill Burr, Mpho Koaho, Paula Newsome, and Gillian Jacobs.
The Boy Next Door (R) If you cheat on your cheating husband with a hot 20-year-old high-school student, you deserve to be violently murdered. This is the message of this shoddily made and sexually retrograde thriller starring Jennifer Lopez as a woman who has a disastrous affair with the kid living next door (Ryan Guzman). The boy turns into a monster as soon as they have sex, which takes all the suspense right out of this exercise. There’s an outrageous gaffe early on, when he presents her with a “first edition” of The Iliad. Given that Homer wrote it in the 8th century B.C., the book is in remarkably good shape. Also with John Corbett, Bailey Chase, Hill Harper, and Kristin Chenoweth.
The DUFF (PG-13) This teen comedy barely scrapes by on the charm of Mae Whitman as a high-school senior who vows to upend the social order at her school after discovering that her proximity to hotter friends has earned her a nickname that stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend,” even though she’s neither ugly nor fat. The romance between her and a football-playing childhood friend (Robbie Amell) fails to come off because the guy’s too dumb, and while the movie never gathers much momentum, it occasionally comes up with inspiration, like the principal (Romany Malco) who intervenes on our heroine’s behalf and only makes things worse for her. Whitman’s intelligence and some decent support from the adult actors make this watchable. Also with Bella Thorne, Skylar Samuels, Bianca Santos, Nick Eversman, Ken Jeong, and Allison Janney.
Fifty Shades of Grey (R) Not as terrible as you might fear (or hope for) but still well short of being much good. The movie version of E.L. James’ wildly popular novel stars Dakota Johnson as a grad student who falls into a relationship with a young billionaire (Jamie Dornan) with a taste for S&M. This adaptation has a sense of humor that the book does not, but the actors have no chemistry, and Dornan fails to capture the weirdness and intensity that’s supposed to be in his character. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson tries to inject character developments in the endless, repetitive sex scenes, but they don’t take. Secretary was a much better film about BDSM sex. Also with Luke Grimes, Jennifer Ehle, Eloise Mumford, Max Martini, Victor Rasuk, Callum Keith Rennie, Rita Ora, and Marcia Gay Harden.
Foxcatcher (R) Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) turns the bizarre 1989 murder of Olympic champion wrestler Dave Schultz by billionaire John du Pont into this starchy critique of American masculinity. Startlingly transformed by gray hair and discolored teeth, Steve Carell plays du Pont while Channing Tatum plays Dave’s brother Mark Schultz, who’s the first to get roped in by the rich man with a shiny, state-of-the-art gym on his estate. Riffing on his pet theme of male inarticulateness, Miller makes this movie spin on the dynamic between John, driven by homosexual urges he can’t acknowledge, and Mark, who dimly recognizes how he’s being used. The movie evokes a poisonous brew of machismo, patriotism, and worship of material success that feels particularly American. Also with Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice, and Vanessa Redgrave.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (PG-13) Not bad, necessarily, but all it made me feel was, “Oof, that’s over.” The last chapter involves the slaying of the dragon, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) going insane with greed, and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) trying to avert an all-out slaughter over the dragon’s treasure hoard. This is the most action-packed of the installments, and the fight sequences are performed ably by the actors here. Still, none of the characters’ relationships rings true, and the villains remain one-dimensional. J.R.R. Tolkien’s book gained focus from being brief, but Peter Jackson has blown this up into a 474-minute saga because that’s all he knows how to do now. Also with Ian McKellen, Evangeline Lilly, Aidan Turner, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Stephen Fry, Manu Bennett, Billy Connolly, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, and Ian Holm.
Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (R) Don’t go in here. You don’t know what you’ll catch. John Cusack smartly jumped ship and avoided this sequel featuring the original movie’s other heroes (Rob Corddry, Clark Duke, and Craig Robinson) jumping forward in time to solve a murder of one of their own. The original was deeply silly, but it had its terrifically funny moments. No such luck here, with sophomoric hijinks and female nudity running rampant instead of decent jokes. The biggest laugh comes from Lisa Loeb in a cameo as an alternate-universe version of herself after one of the heroes steals “Stay (I Missed You)”. That’s not a good sign. Also with Adam Scott, Gillian Jacobs, Thomas Lennon, Bianca Haase, Collette Wolfe, and Chevy Chase.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (PG-13) The latest installment does a perfectly fine job of setting us up for the series’ end. Newly installed as the face of the anti-government rebellion, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) leverages her position to get the rebels to rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and the other captured former Hunger Games winners. Director Francis Lawrence botches the climactic scene and runs into trouble with pacing early on, but the filmmakers keep adding telling details to Suzanne Collins’ novels that deepen our understanding of her fantasy world, and Julianne Moore is a nice addition as the rebels’ leader. Bring on the big finale. Also with Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Natalie Dormer, Mahershala Ali, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Jena Malone, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
The Imitation Game (PG-13) Like The Social Network with British accents and Nazis, this biography of Alan Turing posits its hero as a computer genius who’s driven by memories of lost love. Brooding like Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing, who was persecuted by the British government for his homosexuality. His awkwardness and self-contained fury are the best reasons to see this movie. The rest of it isn’t nearly as substantive, despite Keira Knightley’s strong turn as Turing’s fiancée who knows about his orientation. Also with Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Mark Strong, and Charles Dance.
Into the Woods (PG) Stephen Sondheim’s musical is unforgiving on inadequate performers, so it’s good that the singing actors come through splendidly here. James Corden and Emily Blunt play a baker and his wife who try to lift a witch’s curse by getting things from Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack. Director Rob Marshall can’t make the forest setting look enchanted and seems uneasy adapting a show without much dance. Still, Blunt is an unexpectedly fine singer, Meryl Streep is both powerful and achingly vulnerable as the witch, and Anna Kendrick does a crushing version of “No One Is Alone.” With even the tiny roles so well cast, it’s hard to complain. Also with Chris Pine, Mackenzie Mauzy, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford, Billy Magnussen, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Simon Russell Beale, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, and Johnny Depp.
Jupiter Ascending (PG-13) Like Guardians of the Galaxy with much worse jokes. Mila Kunis stars as a Chicago cleaning lady who discovers that she’s actually an alien princess being targeted in an intergalactic war, from which a disgraced flying former soldier (Channing Tatum) has to save her. The Wachowski siblings still have a great flair for eye-catching costumes and action set pieces (like the spaceship battle over the Chicago skyline), but their characters drone on about the workings of their societies without ever coming to a point. I’d say it’s time for the Wachowskis to do smaller, less ambitious movies, but that time was really about 10 years ago. Also with Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, James D’Arcy, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Bae Doo-na, Christina Cole, Kick Gurry, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Terry Gilliam.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (R) Puerile entertainment done with great skill and verve, though a bit more conscientiousness would have helped. Welsh newcomer Taron Egerton stars as a London street hooligan who gets recruited by his dead father’s friend (Colin Firth) into a secret international spy agency. Not associated with action-thrillers, Firth nevertheless makes a lean, efficient fighter in the movie’s plentiful hand-to-hand combat sequences, and the movie savvily casts him, Michael Caine as the agency’s head, and Samuel L. Jackson as a billionaire supervillain. Adapting Mark Millar’s comic book, director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn lets his twisted sense of humor come out to play, though he fumbles the tone of the piece at the end, and all the heroes are white while all the people of color are villains. For better and for worse, this is a throwback to the unserious spy thrillers of old. Also with Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Mark Strong, Michelle Womack, Jack Davenport, and Mark Hamill.
A Most Violent Year (R) Evoking the feeling of a man sinking in quicksand, this drama stars Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) as a corrupt businessman in 1981 New York during a make-or-break period in his heating-oil business. Filmmaker J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost) gives this austere, superbly controlled direction, especially in an action sequence when the hero chases down two thieves driving away in one of his stolen trucks. Accompanying the technical skill is Chandor’s customary attention to character and performances, with Isaac conveying the unslakable ambition and increasing desperation behind his smoothed-out exterior. He stakes his claim to be cinema’s next great Latino leading man. Also with Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott, Jerry Adler, and Albert Brooks.
Old Fashioned (PG-13) Rik Swartzwelder stars in his own romantic comedy as a man who tries to pursue a 19th century-style courtship with a woman (Elizabeth Roberts) who drifts into his rural Ohio town. Also with LeJon Woods, Tyler Hollinger, Nini Hadjis, Maryanne Nagel, and Dorothy Silver.
Paddington (PG) Michael Bond’s beloved children’s stories are adapted into this harmless live-action movie. The talking, marmalade-loving, unfailingly polite but accident-prone bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) makes his way from Peru to move in with a London family. The comic hijinks are entirely predictable except for a few throwaway lines, and watching a sterling cast go through them is like watching bodybuilders lift toothpicks. Still, director/co-writer Paul King makes a few pointed and entirely appropriate parallels between Paddington’s situation and those of other immigrants in the U.K. This movie probably means more if you’re British. Watch for Bond’s cameo as a loiterer in Paddington Station. Also with Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Matt Lucas, Samuel Joslin, and Madeleine Harris. Additional voices by Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon.
Project Almanac (PG-13) Yet another teen movie that uses the found-footage style as a mere gimmick, though a more conventional treatment probably wouldn’t have helped this soppy sci-fi romance. Jonny Weston plays an engineering student who figures out how to build a time machine and unintentionally wreaks havoc on world events when he uses it to visit Lollapalooza and buy winning lottery tickets with his friends. The thing is made so indifferently, you wonder if anybody involved with the movie actually gave a crap. Also with Sofia Black-D’Elia, Amy Landecker, Virginia Gardner, Katie Garfield, Adam Evangelista, and Sam Lerner.