The Man Who Invented Christmas (PG) Dan Stevens overacts rather badly in this biography of Charles Dickens and the manic few weeks he spent writing A Christmas Carol. As the author writes, the characters in the story come to life in front of him, and the main reason to see this is Christopher Plummer as Ebenezer Scrooge. Other than that, this movie is a bald-faced attempt to be a Victorian version of Shakespeare in Love, carried out without half the wit and with a forced air of “we’re having fun now” giving way to hopeless cliches about writers. This movie deserves to be boiled in its own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through its heart. Also with Morfydd Clark, Justin Edwards, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Bill Paterson, Donald Sumpter, Ely Solan, and Ian McNeice. (Opens Wednesday)
Roman J. Israel, Esq. (PG-13) Denzel Washington stars in this thriller by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) as an idealistic lawyer who gradually sells out all the things he once fought for. Also with Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Amanda Warren, Lynda Gravatt, Tony Plana, and Esperanza Spalding. (Opens Wednesday)
Thelma (NR) This Norwegian horror film by Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) stars Eili Harboe as a college student who experiences terrifying supernatural occurrences when she falls in love with another girl (Kaya Wilkins). Also with Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen. (Opens Wednesday in Dallas)
American Made (R) The latest Tom Cruise movie is slickly entertaining without ever quite feeling like there’s anything at stake. He portrays Barry Seal, the real-life Louisiana pilot who started running guns for the CIA and drugs for Pablo Escobar while working as an informant for the DEA in the 1980s. Director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) does all this up with his customary verve and energy, and Cruise is far better cast as a shifty antihero than as an action hero at this point. This thing could have used better performances from the supporting cast, but it won’t make you feel like it wasted your time. Also with Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones, Lola Kirke, Jayma Mays, Alejandro Edda, Mauricio Mejia, Robert Farrior, Benito Martinez, and Mickey Sumner.
A Bad Moms Christmas (R) The comic inventiveness of Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn is still fresh here, which is good, because this sequel following 16 months on the original’s heels has pretty much the same plot, with the moms rebelling against all the work they’re expected to do for the holidays. The thesis is laid out baldly and the different plotlines all follow the same track at the same time, but we do get Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines, and Susan Sarandon as the moms’ moms. Hines gives a creeptastic performance as a mother whose clinginess hits stalker levels, and Hahn gets the funniest set piece as a spa worker waxing the genitals of a gigantically endowed male stripper (Justin Hartley). Kenny G cameos as himself and says, “It’s not a flute, bitch.” All in all, these moms make a fine holiday guest. Also with Peter Gallagher, Jesse Hernandez, Oona Laurence, Emjay Anthony, Ariana Greenblatt, Wanda Sykes, and Christina Applegate.
Blade Runner 2049 (R) Visually, a triumph. In other respects, a letdown. Denis Villeneuve helms this sequel to the 1982 science-fiction cult classic, in which a replicant (Ryan Gosling) hunting down his own kind who don’t obey orders is commanded to track down an unknown person who’s linked to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). Villeneuve reproduces the squalid, overcrowded, rain-soaked aesthetic from Ridley Scott’s old film while expand on it, showing the ruins of Las Vegas with 100-foot statues of naked women posing seductively in the desert. Unfortunately, the film falls flat attempting to expanding upon the original’s philosophical questions about being human, and portions of the film stop dead for exposition, while the relationship between the new blade runner and his hologram companion (Ana de Armas) never carries its emotional weight. Ideally, this movie should be projected on the back wall of a trendy nightclub, with the sound on mute. Also with Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis, Dave Bautista, Wood Harris, Carla Juri, Hiam Abbass, Barkhad Abdi, Edward James Olmos, and Sean Young.
Daddy’s Home 2 (PG-13) Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg return for the sequel to the 2015 comedy as a stepfather and biological father who prepare for a Christmas with their own fathers (John Lithgow and Mel Gibson). Also with Linda Cardellini, Alessandra Ambrosio, Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, and John Cena.
The Foreigner (R) Though this is set in the U.K., it plays more like a Hong Kong thriller. Jackie Chan stars as a half-Vietnamese businessman in London whose teenage daughter (Katie Leung) is killed in a terrorist bombing and targets a Northern Ireland deputy minister (Pierce Brosnan) with IRA ties. Chan looks old and slow by design here, and the movie shows his character relying more on tactics and technical expertise than straight-up fighting skills as he makes bombs, sets wilderness traps, and demonstrates other talents that were clearly wasted running a Chinese restaurant. Director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) does reasonably well sorting through the different subplots here and making this watchable. Also with Charlie Murphy, Rory Fleck Byrne, Orla Brady, Rufus Jones, Dermot Crowley, Ray Fearon, Niall McNamee, Lia Williams, and Michael McElhatton.
Geostorm (PG-13) They threw all the weather-related disaster movies into a blender — with a space movie, for good measure — and the results are somehow worse than you would expect. Gerard Butler plays the inventor of a network of weather-controlling satellites who has to go up to fix his invention before it sets off a chain of storms that engulf the entire world. The acting is terrible from everybody here, which isn’t surprising given how many gobs of expositional dialogue they have to recite while stuff is freezing or burning or flooding around them. They spent so much money on CGI effects for this, and yet everything feels like it’s been thrown together at the last minute. Also with Abbie Cornish, Jim Sturgess, Mare Winningham, Talitha Bateman, Richard Schiff, Alexandra Maria Lara, Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Wu, Amr Waked, Adepero Oduye, Ed Harris, and Andy Garcia.
Happy Death Day (PG-13) Awfully clever. This comic horror film stars Jessica Rothe as a college student who gets caught in a time loop and is forced to repeatedly relive the day of her murder, which also happens to be her birthday, until she figures out her killer’s identity. Applying the Groundhog Day conceit to a slasher flick is a stroke of conceptual genius, allowing the protagonist to be the slutty first victim and the brave final girl at the same time. The tiny Rothe (La La Land) seizes the opportunity to be funny and show emotional depth, things that slasher movie heroines never get to do. A few dead ends in the plot nag at you, but this is still the best horror flick of the season. Also with Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, Rob Mello, Rachel Matthews, Blaine Kern III, Phi Vu, and Jason Bayle.
Howard Lovecraft & The Undersea Kingdom (NR) This animated film is about a small boy (voiced by Kiefer O’Reilly) who must free his captured family and prevent the rise of Cthulhu. Additional voices by Mark Hamill, Ron Perlman, Jeffrey Combs, Doug Bradley, and Christopher Plummer.
It (R) A horror movie that’s everything you’d want, except scary. Based on Stephen King’s novel, this movie is about a group of kids in Maine (where else?) in the 1980s who band together against the scary clown (Bill Skarsgård) who has been murdering kids in their small town for decades. Argentinian director Andrés Muschietti (Mama) pulls off some sequences with great flair and gets some terrific performances from Jaeden Lieberher as the ringleader with a speech impediment and Sophia Lillis as the lone girl in the group. He also elicits commendable cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon and music by Benjamin Wallfisch, and the comic relief here is actually funny. Still, the clown’s antics don’t crawl under your skin like they should, and the whole affair lapses into regrettable sentimentality near the end. Also with Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Rae Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, and Finn Wolfhard.
Ittefaq (NR) A remake of a 1969 Indian film by the same name, this crime thriller stars Sidharth Malhotra as a famous British novelist and Sonakshi Sinha as an Indian neighbor whose respective spouses are murdered on the same day and who tell a homicide detective (Akshaye Khanna) equally unbelievable stories absolving themselves and incriminating the other. With the exception of the detective, the cops are depicted as so incompetent that you wonder how any crimes get solved in Mumbai. There’s some interesting material here, but director/co-writer Abhay Chopra too often goes for soap-opera lather when this relatively short film needs more concision. Also with Bharat Jha, Himanshu Kohli, Pavail Gulati, and Kimberley Louisa McBeath.
Jigsaw (R) Between this and the new Madea film, I’d say 2004 has made an unwelcome return to our multiplexes. Once again a bunch of luckless victims are trapped on a set that looks like it cost $32 at Home Depot and is filled with death traps that take unnecessarily long to chop off their victims’ limbs, while a bunch of cops and medical examiners try to race against time to find them as well as Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), whom everyone thought was dead. Why bring back the series at all if they’re just going to do the same stuff as in the last 74 movies? The Spierig brothers are missing their trademark sense of humor here, and the acting is really bad here. Also with Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Hannah Emily Anderson, Clé Bennett, Paul Braunstein, Mandela van Peebles, Brittany Allen, and Laura Vandervoort.
Justice League (PG-13) Joss Whedon got brought in for rewrites and reshoots on this superhero omnibus film, which bears an all-too-close and unflattering resemblance to his The Avengers. Batman and Wonder Woman (Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot) team up and recruit some new superheroes to battle an impending alien invasion by a frightfully dull supervillain named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). Whedon injects a welcome sense of humor that particularly benefits Ezra Miller as an endearingly gawky The Flash, but it jars with the somber seriousness of director Zack Snyder. Characters are given unrewarding subplots and an A-list supporting cast gets wasted in a way that Marvel films would never stand for. Without a radical rethink, DC Comics’ movies are doomed to be second-best. Also with Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Amber Heard, Joe Morton, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, and an uncredited Billy Crudup.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle (R) Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is back from the dead, which seems to encapsulate everything that’s wrong with this sequel. Taron Egerton returns as the British secret agent who must team up with his American colleagues after a drug lord (Julianne Moore) kills most of his fellow Kingsmen. Director Matthew Vaughn has lost none of his flair for an action sequence, Egerton holds the center effortlessly, and Moore is a delight playing the supervillain as a demure Betty Crocker housewife with a 1950s fetish and legitimate points about the War on Drugs. Yet these too often get lost amid the movie’s myriad plotlines. This overstuffed, overlong affair shamefully wastes Jeff Bridges and Channing Tatum as American agents. The parts where Eggsy tries to get the amnesiac Harry to remember his old self are the weakest, and the movie would have been better off letting Harry stay dead. Also with Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Hanna Alström, Pedro Pascal, Edward Holcroft, Emily Watson, Bruce Greenwood, Sophie Cookson, Poppy Delevingne, Michael Gambon, and Elton John.
The Lego Ninjago Movie (PG) The series finally stretches itself too thin with this entry about a high-school reject (voiced by Dave Franco) who is secretly a ninja along with his fellow rejects, fighting to take down an evil overlord (voiced by Justin Theroux) who just happens to be his estranged dad. The movie does manage to make the hero’s daddy issues funny, and there’s an inspired bit where the weapon of mass destruction turns out to be a flesh-and-blood cat that knocks over the Lego skyscrapers. However, you may be lost if you aren’t already familiar with the Ninjago mythology, and even if you are familiar, the visual and verbal wit of the previous two films is largely missing here. Pump the brakes on this series before we get to The Lego Architecture Movie. Additional voices by Jackie Chan, Olivia Munn, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, Ali Wong, Randall Park, Charlyne Yi, and Constance Wu.
Let There Be Light (PG-13) Kevin Sorbo directs and stars in his own drama as an atheist who converts to Christianity after a serious car wreck. Also with Sam Sorbo, Daniel Roebuck, Donielle Artese, Travis Tritt, and Dionne Warwick.
Marshall (PG-13) The best legal thriller this year stars Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall in a story taken from the future Supreme Court justice’s early career, when he defended a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) against a rape charge by his employer (Kate Hudson). Of all the square biopics that he’s headlined, this one is the best showcase for Boseman. Even though the story robs him of the chance for florid courtroom theatrics, the star projects his subject’s quiet, relentless determination nevertheless. The direction by Reginald Hudlin (House Party) is old-fashioned but mostly solid, and Boseman is supported by nice turns from Josh Gad as a white lawyer whose internal crusader for racial justice is awakened and Dan Stevens as an entitled prosecutor. Also with James Cromwell, Keesha Sharp, Roger Guenveur Smith, John Magaro, Ahna O’Reilly, and Jussie Smollett.
Murder on the Orient Express (PG-13) Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded adaptation of Agatha Christie’s mystery novel starts like gangbusters before fading. The director portrays the great detective, trying to solve the murder of a passenger (Johnny Depp) in a luxury train that’s stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere. Branagh dexterously plays the detective’s borderline anal retentiveness and love of dainty French pastries for comedy, but the movie still misses the fussy, unshowy Poirot from Christie’s novels, and it botches the ending, too. Still, the director comes up with some good flourishes, Michael Green’s script neatly turns around some of the book’s offensive racial stereotyping, and the acting honors get stolen away by Michelle Pfeiffer as a randy American widow hiding some iron determination underneath. Also with Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Sergei Polunin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Josh Gad, Olivia Colman, Marwan Kenzari, Derek Jacobi, and Penélope Cruz.
My Little Pony: The Movie (PG) The voice talent in the cast of this musical animated movie might lead you to believe that this might be good. Don’t be fooled, though, because this is every bit as slapdash and dumb as you’d expect a movie based on a beloved line of toys to be. When a fallen unicorn (voiced by Emily Blunt) invades the ponies’ homeland and takes it over for an overlord (voiced by Liev Schreiber), the kingdom’s remaining princess (voiced by Tara Strong) has to lead a small party to save the kingdom. If you’re new to the whole Pony universe, you’ll be hopelessly lost as to which pony is which. Even if you’re not, the songs by Daniel Ingram and Michael Vogel evaporate instantly from your mind while they’re being sung. For all the time that’s been put into this, it feels like a cynical cash-in, and not a terribly smart one at that. Additional voices by Ashleigh Ball, Andrea Libman, Tabitha St. Germain, Taye Diggs, Uzo Aduba, Kristin Chenoweth, Michael Peña, Zoe Saldana, and Sia.
Only the Brave (PG-13) A boilerplate drama about the heroics of white working-class trained professionals, this watchable film nevertheless is a useful primer on the work that wildlife firefighters do to protect cities and towns. This is based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, all but one of whom lost their lives in 2013 fighting a wildfire close to their hometown of Prescott, Ariz. Miles Teller plays a drug addict who joins the unit, while Josh Brolin plays his tough but fair boss with an addiction in his own background, as the unit works to be certified to engage with fires directly. The acting and characterizations are barely sketched in, but director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) does best when he’s focusing on the job’s procedures and hazards, and the script thankfully doesn’t dumb down the jargon for us. Also with Andie MacDowell, James Badge Dale, Geoff Stults, Alex Russell, and Jennifer Connelly.
Same Kind of Different As Me (PG-13) All these Oscar winners and nominees in the cast, you’d think the filmmakers could afford some decent lighting for them. This long-delayed adaptation of Ron Hall and Denver Moore’s co-authored memoir details how Dallas-based art dealer Hall (Greg Kinnear) befriended the homeless Moore (Djimon Hounsou) while working at a church soup kitchen and eventually got Moore to take over the ministry after Hall’s wife (Renée Zellweger) became gravely ill. The storytelling by first-time director and TCU graduate Michael Carney doesn’t offer much in the way of excitement, but the real obstacle here is Hounsou’s sorely misguided attempt at a Louisiana accent. That torpedoes any chance this unremarkable film might have had. Also with Dana Gourrier, Lara Grice, Olivia Holt, and Jon Voight.
Secret Superstar (NR) This 150-minute Indian film could have easily been cut down, but there’s a worthy story at the heart of this. Zaira Wasim stars as a 15-year-old Muslim girl in Gujarat who dreams of becoming a singing star but has to keep her ambition secret from her abusive dad (Raj Arjun), so she posts YouTube videos of herself wearing a burqa while strumming a guitar and singing. There’s too much melodrama, and the father is a one-dimensional troll, but Aamir Khan delivers a funny performance as a Simon Cowell-like music mogul who helps her achieve her dream. Wasim has one hell of a voice, too, and her early song “Main Kaun Hoon” (“Who Am I?”) is quite catchy. Also with Meher Vij, Tirth Sharma, Farrukh Jaffer, Mona Ambegaonkar, Kabir Shaikh, and Monali Thakur.
The Star (PG) This animated film is about a donkey (voiced by Steven Yeun) in Biblical times who has to save the first Christmas. Additional voices by Oprah Winfrey, Kristin Chenoweth, Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan, Zachary Levi, Gina Rodriguez, Ving Rhames, Patricia Heaton, Kris Kristofferson, Anthony Anderson, Gabriel Iglesias, Aidy Bryant, Keegan-Michael Key, Mariah Carey, and Christopher Plummer.
Thank You for Your Service (R) The second half of a double dip of Miles Teller playing working-class heroes, this is better than Only the Brave. He plays Sgt. Adam Schumann, a decorated Iraq veteran who returned from service only to find PTSD plaguing him and his buddies once they tried to reintegrate into civilian life. Writer-director Jason Hall previously wrote the script for American Sniper, and this film goes even deeper into the troubles that veterans with post-traumatic stress face when they come back home, as well as the bureaucratic hurdles involved in getting help and the pressures from military brass not to seem weak by seeking counseling. The first-time director Hall could use some seasoning, but this is still one of the best movies to date on its subject. Also with Haley Bennett, Beulah Koale, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Joe Cole, Kate Lyn Sheil, Erin Darke, Scott Haze, Brad Beyer, and Amy Schumer.
Thor: Ragnarok (PG-13) A grand comic showcase for Oceania’s funniest filmmaker. Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) takes over the Marvel comics series and concocts a story that strands Thor (Chris Hemsworth) on an alien planet, enslaved as a gladiator, and needing to get back to Asgard to prevent the destruction of his world by his disowned elder sister (Cate Blanchett). Hemsworth carries this comedy exceptionally well, playing well of his plethora of supporting actors and no longer having to serve as a fish out of water on Earth. Waititi’s playful mood loosens up the entire cast and turns the alien planet into a funny dystopia, and the director also shows up as an alien warrior whose fearsome appearance belies his bashful temperament. The least interesting of Marvel’s series explodes joyously to life with this shaggy and enormously likable film. Also with Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Rachel House, Zachary Levi, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Hemsworth, Sam Neill, and an uncredited Matt Damon.
Victoria and Abdul (PG-13) Stephen Frears’ drama details the real-life friendship between an elderly Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and a young Indian clerk (Ali Fazal). Also with Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, and Michael Gambon.
Wonder (PG) R.J. Palacio’s children’s book gets a soft-boiled movie adaptation starring Jacob Tremblay (Room) as a boy with a deformed face who must cope with going to middle school with a general population of kids. The movie is told from both the boy’s perspective and those of his overshadowed older sister (Izabela Vidovic) and a fellow student (Noah Jupe). Director/co-writer Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) puts in a nifty sequence when two of the boys bond over their love of Minecraft, but he and his fellow writers can’t resist softening up any character who might seem in any way unsympathetic, and none of the cast (including Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts as the protagonist’s parents) seems to bring their best. This isn’t as good as Wonderstruck, or Wonder Woman, for that matter. Also with Mandy Patinkin, Millie Davis, Bryce Gheisar, Daveed Diggs, and Sonia Braga.
Wonderstruck (PG) A remarkable film, for deaf audiences and hearing ones. Todd Haynes (Carol) adapts Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel about a deaf girl in 1927 (Millicent Simmonds) and a boy who becomes mostly deaf 50 years later (Oakes Fegley) whose lives wind up intersecting in New York at the American Museum of Natural History. Haynes keeps a looser grip on the steering wheel than in his other films, perhaps because Selznick’s book is so chockablock with coincidences, which Haynes makes seem like a mystical confluence of events. Despite the Oscar laureates in the supporting cast, the load falls mainly on these two child actors, and both Fegley (from Pete’s Dragon) and Simmonds (a newcomer who’s deaf in real life) bear up well, and the director does great work evoking the city and the museum in distinct eras, especially a climactic sequence at the Queens Museum. Also with Julianne Moore, Jaden Michael, Cory Michael Smith, James Urbaniak, Morgan Turner, Amy Hargreaves, Tom Noonan, and Michelle Williams.
Almost Friends (NR) Freddie Highmore stars in this dramedy as an unmotivated slacker who falls for a woman (Odeya Rush) despite the fact that she’s already in a relationship. Also with Haley Joel Osment, Christopher Meloni, Jake Abel, Rita Volk, and Marg Helgenberger.
Angelica (NR) This horror film by Mitchell Lichtenstein (Teeth) stars Jena Malone and Ed Stoppard as a Victorian couple who experience supernatural occurrences after their first child is born. Also with Janet McTeer, Glynis O’Connor, and Tovah Feldshuh.
Cook Off! (R) Cathryn Michon and Guy Shalem’s comedy is about a group of amateur chefs vying to win a nationwide cooking contest. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Stephen Root, Ben Falcone, Phil LaMarr, Diedrich Bader, Mo Collins, Gavin MacLeod, Niecy Nash, and Louie Anderson.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (R) Colin Farrell re-teams with director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) in this thriller about a surgeon whose life starts to disintegrate after he takes in a sinister young teenager (Barry Keoghan). Also with Nicole Kidman, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp, and Raffey Cassidy.
Last Flag Flying (R) Richard Linklater’s newest film is this adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s novel about three Vietnam War veterans (Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne) who take a road trip to bury one of their sons, a Marine killed in the Iraq invasion. Also with J. Quinton Johnson, Deanna Reed-Foster, Yul Vazquez, Graham Wolfe, and Cicely Tyson.
Loving Vincent (PG-13) Animated entirely with oil paintings, this film takes the viewpoint of various characters who knew Vincent van Gogh in life. Voices by Saoirse Ronan, Chris O’Dowd, John Sessions, Helen McCrory, Eleanor Tomlinson, and Douglas Booth.
Novitiate (R) Margaret Qualley stars in this drama as a young woman who resolves on becoming a Catholic nun during the social and doctrinal upheaval of the early 1960s. Also with Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Liana Liberato, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Ashley Bell, and Denis O’Hare.
The Square (R) The first English-language film by Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure) is this satire about a Danish art museum director (Claes Bang) who engages in ethically questionable behavior while promoting a controversial new exhibit. Also with Elisabeth Moss, Terry Notary, Christopher Læssø, Annica Liljeblad, and Dominic West.