The Salt of the Earth (PG-13) Nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders’ film profiles photographer Sebastião Salgado and his attempts to shoot scenes of nature in remote locations. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Cut Bank (R) Liam Hemsworth stars in this thriller as a Montana man who sees a chance to escape his small town after accidentally filming a murder. Also with Teresa Palmer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Oliver Platt, Bruce Dern, Billy Bob Thornton, and John Malkovich. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Dial a Prayer (PG-13) Brittany Snow (Pitch Perfect) stars in this drama as an operator who answers calls at a religious call center. Also with William H. Macy, Tom Lipinski, and Glenne Headly. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Freetown (PG-13) Garrett Batty’s film is about a group of Mormon missionaries seeking to escape war-torn Liberia in 1990. Starring Henry Adofo, Michael Attram, Alphonse Menyo, Bright Dodoo, Great Ejiro, Phillip Adekunle Michael, and Bill Myers. (Opens Wednesday at AMC Parks at Arlington)
An Honest Liar (NR) Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein’s documentary profile of magician and spiritual debunker James Randi a.k.a. The Amazing Randi. Also with Penn Jillette, Alice Cooper, Bill Nye, Adam Savage, Peter Popoff, and Uri Geller. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Longest Ride (PG-13) Scott Eastwood and Britt Robertson star in this latest adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks romance. Also with Alan Alda, Jack Huston, Oona Chaplin, Melissa Benoist, Gloria Reuben, and Lolita Davidovich. (Opens Friday)
Seymour: An Introduction (PG) Ethan Hawke’s documentary profile of piano teacher Seymour Bernstein. (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.
Chappie (PG-13) The tech looks amazing, but nothing makes sense in Neill Blomkamp’s futuristic science-fiction thriller about a police robot (Sharlto Copley) who is kidnapped and reprogrammed to think for itself. Blomkamp is back at home in Johannesburg and has a feel for the place’s multicultural, Wild West vibe, but neither the genius scientist (Dev Patel) nor the militaristic villain (Hugh Jackman) nor the robbers (played by Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser, a.k.a. the music group Die Antwoord) who take in the robot have the slightest bit of logic behind their motivations, and the movie loses track of all of them for long stretches of time. This prodigiously talented director needs better writers. Also with Jose Pablo Cantillo and Sigourney Weaver.
Cinderella (PG) This new Disney live-action telling of the tale is miles better than the 1950 animated movie, but I’m still not sure what it’s for. Director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz go straight-up and traditional in detailing how Ella (Lily James) is oppressed by her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) until she snares the heart of a prince (Richard Madden). Everything looks fantastic, especially Sandy Powell’s sumptuous costumes and Dante Ferretti’s production design. Branagh seems comfortable in a story that’s uncharacteristically girly for him, but he misses the more delicate magic — the pumpkin changing into a carriage incites no wonder. The movie isn’t bad, but it doesn’t accomplish anything that many other versions of this story haven’t. Also with Helena Bonham Carter, Stellan Skarsgård, Nonso Anozie, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, and Hayley Atwell.
Do You Believe? (PG-13) The sort of movie where an African-American criminal is named Kriminal. That’s an island of hilarity in this drama that’s like a Christian version of Crash and proves to be every bit as tiresome. It tells the story of 12 Chicagoans who are well on their way to burning in hell forever and ever until they accept Jesus as their lord and savior. A good dose of intolerance toward non-Christians and the disastrous casting of Ted McGinley as a pastor will put you off this piece of junk. Also with Mira Sorvino, Sean Astin, Alexa PenaVega, Delroy Lindo, Joseph Julian Soria, Brian Bosworth, Madison Pettis, Arthur Cartwright, Lee Majors, and Cybill Shepherd.
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.
Focus (R) Much-needed proof that Will Smith can still make a good movie. He stars in this caper comedy as a con artist who mentors a young woman (Margot Robbie), works a con with her in New Orleans, beds her, drops her unceremoniously, and then runs into her years later while working a job in Buenos Aires. The Argentinian setting of the second half gives this movie a different feel, and while the plotting by writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa) isn’t the best, the movie coasts on the chemistry between the rejuvenated Smith and a bright, lively Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street). Also with Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Adrian Martinez, and Gerald McRaney.
Furious 7 (PG-13) Let’s see, what is there new to report at this point? The car stunts and the fight sequences are even more spectacular and more ridiculous in this seventh installment, with the likes of Ronda Rousey and Tony Jaa playing bad guys. The movie still wallows in sentimentality about family, though Paul Walker’s untimely death last year excuses some of it. Jason Statham turns up here as the pissed-off brother of the vanquished villain from the last movie, and he makes a proper nemesis for Vin Diesel. The way this series is going, I expect a car to outrun a nuclear bomb explosion at some point in the future. Um, yeah. Also with Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Sung Kang, Elsa Pataky, Gal Gadot, Lucas Black, Djimon Hounsou, Kurt Russell, and Dwayne Johnson.
Get Hard (R) This feels like it was made from a script from the 1970s that Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor rejected. Will Ferrell plays a rich white hedge-fund manager who’s sentenced to 10 years’ hard time and desperately turns to a black small-business owner (Kevin Hart) whom he mistakes for an ex-con to advise him on how to survive in prison. The stars are too funny not to score a few points, but the movie misses its opportunity to satirize clueless white privilege. Instead, it traps the stars in endless rounds of anal rape jokes that are so numerous that you get the sense that the gay panic is coming from the filmmakers rather than the characters. Somebody could conceivably make a funny movie about prison rape, but it would take far more macabre filmmakers than these. Spend your time watching Orange Is the New Black instead. Also with Alison Brie, Craig T. Nelson, Edwina Findley Dickerson, Erick Chavarria, Greg Germann, T.I., and John Mayer.
A Girl Like Her (PG-13) Wretched. Amy S. Weber writes, directs, and co-stars in this drama about a high-school girl (Lexi Ainsworth) who uses a hidden camera to document the bullying treatment she receives from her former best friend (Hunter King). The faux-documentary approach can’t disguise the movie’s simple-minded approach to the subject, its bursts of rank sentimentality, or its supposed main character being nothing more than a passive victim in all this. This wastes a nice performance by King as a bully who’s undergoing some crap of her own at home. Too bad. Also with Jimmy Bennett, Christy Engle, Stephanie Cotton, Jon W. Martin, Mark Boyd, and Gino Borri.
The Gunman (R) This movie tries to be a Taken-style “middle-aged guy kills everyone” thriller with a social conscience. It fails on both counts. Sean Penn stars as a private security contractor who carries out a political assassination in the Democratic Republic of Congo and then finds himself targeted for it years later as a result. Penn looks the part and the movie breaks some new ground in having its hero battle post-concussion syndrome, but this is still a wan action thriller blended with too much limp romance between the hero and his aid-worker girlfriend (Jasmine Trinca). A high-powered supporting cast gets wasted in this one. Also with Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance, Peter Franzén, and Idris Elba.
Home (PG) A random collection of gags with no story holding them together. On an earth where the entire human race has been forcibly relocated to Australia by an invading race of cuddly aliens, one misfit alien (voiced by Jim Parsons) has to team up with an escaped girl (voiced by Rihanna) to save the planet from a warlike alien race. Despite Rihanna’s better-than-expected job at portraying a little girl (and the savory irony of Jennifer Lopez voicing the role of her mom), the movie relies too heavily on its fish-out-of-water premise and uninspired silliness to stick in the memory for any length of time. Additional voices by Steve Martin and Matt Jones.
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.
Insurgent (PG-13) If Hollywood gave these girl blockbusters the same respect as the boys’ club at Marvel, maybe series like these would be better. This sequel to Divergent follows our heroes Tris and Four (Shailene Woodley and Theo James) as they seek refuge among society’s outcasts, whose leader (Naomi Watts) just happens to be Four’s estranged mother. Watts is dry and cagey as a revolutionary who may be even more dangerous than the genocidal dictator (Kate Winslet) that she’s trying to overthrow. Still, director Robert Schwentke is no good with dream sequences, there’s no chemistry between the two leads, and the big revelation is the same as the one at the end of The Maze Runner. This isn’t good by any stretch, but its success should help pave the way for better tentpole movies about women. Also with Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer, Maggie Q, Zoë Kravitz, Daniel Dae Kim, Ashley Judd, Janet McTeer, and Octavia Spencer.
It Follows (R) The best teen horror flick in a long time. Maika Monroe plays a college girl who has sex with the wrong guy (Jake Weary) and is pursued relentlessly by a shape-shifting demon that only she can see. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell shoots this like a 1980s horror flick (replete with a synth-heavy score by Disasterpeace) and constantly directs your gaze to the background of the picture for any person walking slowly towards our heroine. Yet his script is also a keen psychological portrait of the effects of rape, which makes the heroine into a much more layered version of the final girl we’ve seen in so many slasher flicks. The ambiguous final shot is unexpectedly moving, and helps make this into a rare thing: a horror movie that improves on a second viewing. Also with Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Olivia Luccardi, and Lili Sepe.
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.
McFarland, USA (PG) Kevin Costner stars in this story of Jim White, a football coach with anger issues who went to a heavily Latino high school in rural Southern California and turned it into a champion cross-country running team. The characters here are very much aware that the only white teacher at the school is named “White.” So is director Niki Caro (Whale Rider), who does much work to prevent this from being just another movie where the white guy comes in and saves everyone. Seeing this man incorporate himself into a new community and see what his new neighbors go through is what gives this sports movie its power. Also with Ramiro Rodriguez, Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Michael Aguero, Morgan Saylor, and Maria Bello.
Run All Night (R) Liam Neeson’s whole “middle-aged guy who can kill everyone in the world” act needs to end now. He plays a former mob hit man who kills his boss’ bad-apple son (Boyd Holbrook) to save the life of his own son (Joel Kinnaman) and fights to keep himself and his family alive for one night. For some reason, the movie spoils its own big twist in its opening shot, and director Jaume Collet-Serra takes a lackadaisical approach to material that should be lean and tight. The action sequences are the most embarrassing thing here, because they’re obviously overcut to hide the fact that Neeson can’t do his stunts any more. The exhaustion Neeson projects is his own and not the character’s. He seems too old for this. Also with Ed Harris, Bruce McGill, Genesis Rodriguez, Lois Smith, Vincent D’Onofrio, Common, and an uncredited Nick Nolte.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (PG) Second best is unfortunately an apt description. Dev Patel reprises his role in this sequel as a retirement home operator in India who’s now looking to expand his business while managing his wedding to his girlfriend (Tina Desai). All the seniors in the home get their own plotline, and sorting through it all is quite tedious, especially with Bill Nighy and Judi Dench being made to circle each other like 14-year-olds. The movie is beautifully photographed. The material isn’t there, however, and the starry cast seems to have left their A game back in the U.K. Also with Maggie Smith, Richard Gere, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie, Diana Hardcastle, Penelope Wilton, Lillete Dubey, Tamsin Greig, Vikram Singh, and David Strathairn.
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (PG) The last SpongeBob SquarePants movie back in 2004 tried to be an episode of the TV show writ large. Instead, this film embraces the big screen as a way of changing things up. As SpongeBob (voiced by Tom Kenny) and Plankton (voiced by Douglas Lawrence Osowski, who’s billed as Mr. Lawrence) journey to the surface to recover the recipe for Krabby Patties, the movie shifts visual registers to take in a traumatizing journey into SpongeBob’s brain; a conversation with a persnickety, universe-controlling dolphin (voiced by Matt Berry); and the heroes becoming 3D superheroes on the surface. The jokes are just stupid enough to raise a laugh, and it all keeps you from boredom even if you’re neither a small child nor stoned. Additional voices by Bill Fagerbakke, Rodger Bumpass, Clancy Brown, Paul Tibbitt, Carolyn Lawrence, Riki Lindhome, and Kate Micucci. Also with Antonio Banderas.
Still Alice (PG-13) Julianne Moore won a long-overdue Oscar for what is nevertheless one of her least effective performances. In this overly cozy drama, she plays a linguistics professor in New York struggling with her mental decline after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Filmmakers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland adapt this from Lisa Genova’s novel and don’t bring any sort of insight into the mechanics of living with mental decline at such an early age. Nor do they find much meaning in their heroine’s struggle to keep hold of her faculties. Moore’s reduced to an exercise in technique as she captures the stages of her character’s decline. This movie could have been more. Also with Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Shane McRae, Hunter Parrish, and Alec Baldwin.
Woman in Gold (PG-13) Devoid of any genuine feeling or originality, this movie reduces an inspiring real-life story into hackneyed Hollywood fare. Helen Mirren plays an octogenarian Austrian émigré who hires a struggling L.A. lawyer (Ryan Reynolds) in the 1990s to help her win back Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” a family heirloom seized by the Nazis. Screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell provides us with cheap applause lines and director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) holds our hands at every turn so we’re never unsure as to how to feel, with the Austrian government reduced to cardboard villains. Buy a Klimt refrigerator magnet; it’ll be a better use of your money and a more meaningful artistic experience. Also with Katie Holmes, Daniel Brühl, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Elizabeth McGovern, Antje Traue, Frances Fisher, Moritz Bleibtreu, Allan Corduner, Justus von Dohnányi, Jonathan Pryce, and Charles Dance.
Serena (R) Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in this adaptation of Ron Rash’s novel about a married couple in 1920s North Carolina whose marriage and business empire are torn apart by a long-buried secret. Also with Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Sean Harris, and an uncredited Sam Reid.
’71 (R) Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) stars as a British soldier who becomes separated from his unit during a deadly riot in Belfast in 1971. Also with Sam Reid, Richard Dormer, and Paul Anderson.
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.