The Forgiven (R) Forest Whitaker stars in this historical drama as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, meeting a white South African killer (Eric Bana) in prison at the end of apartheid. Also with Jeff Gum, Morné Visser, Terry Norton, Rob Gough, and Debbie Sherman. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Gringo (R) This dark comedy stars David Oyelowo as a Nigerian-American businessman who is kidnapped by Mexican drug dealers while delivering a package from a legal marijuana business. Also with Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton, Amanda Seyfried, Thandie Newton, Melonie Diaz, Paris Jackson, Yul Vazquez, Alan Ruck, Kenneth Choi, and Sharlto Copley. (Opens Friday)
Hurricane Heist (PG-13) This seems like a bad idea: This action-thriller is about a group of thieves who plan to rob a U.S. Mint facility during a Category 5 hurricane. Starring Toby Kebbell, Maggie Grace, Ryan Kwanten, Ralph Ineson, Melissa Bolona, and Ben Cross. (Opens Friday)
The Strangers: Prey at Night (R) The sequel to the 2008 horror film stars Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson as the head of a family staying in a mobile home park stalked by masked killers. Also with Bailee Madison and Lewis Pullman. (Opens Friday)
Thoroughbreds (R) Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke star in this thriller as teenage friends who reunite after years apart and hatch a murderous scheme to solve the problems in their lives. Also with Francie Swift, Paul Sparks, and the late Anton Yelchin. (Opens Friday)
Aiyaary (NR) For a movie about a master of disguise, this is surprisingly flat. Siddharth Malhotra stars in this Indian thriller as a military intelligence agent who goes rogue when he realizes that his bosses are corrupt generals in bed with fat-cat defense contractors. The thriller plot gets snarled pretty quickly amid confusing flashbacks within flashbacks and characters secretly stashed across the globe, and Malhotra is a weak presence in the lead role despite costume changes ranging from doddering old man to Arab radical. The movie is too busy meditating on codes of honor to comment meaningfully on the cronyism in Indian society. Also with Manoj Bajpayee, Rakul Preet Singh, Vikram Gokhale, Pooja Chopra, Adil Hussain, Kumud Mishra, Rajesh Tailang, Anupam Kher, and Naseeruddin Shah.
Annihilation (R) This flawed but fascinating science-fiction film stars Natalie Portman as part of an all-female team of scientists who venture into an environmental disaster zone where genetics and the laws of physics change at a dizzying rate. Writer-director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) turns this into a brilliant remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, with the lush vegetation and the women venturing through a dangerous and mysterious zone seeking some cosmic redemption. Garland does great with the fast-mutating plant and animal life, and he conjures up a terrifying scene with the scientists being hunted by a giant bear-wolf-boar that cries like a human. It’s a shame that he botches the ending. Portman’s brittle intensity seems quite at home in this setting. Also with Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Sonoya Mizuno, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong, and Oscar Isaac.
Black Panther (PG-13) Not just a movie about a black superhero, but a superhero movie whose blackness is central to all its accomplishments. Chadwick Boseman stars as the king of a fictitious African nation that is secretly the richest and most technologically advanced in the world, though he faces a challenge in an African-American (Michael B. Jordan) who thinks the country has failed oppressed black people around the world. Purely from a design standpoint, this is miraculous to look at, as the architecture, production design, and costumes all reflect an Afrofuturism that we haven’t seen on such a scale. In addition, the movie has more and higher-quality female representation than all of Marvel’s other superhero movies combined, as well as the best villain, a sumptuous cast, a soundtrack curated by Kendrick Lamar, and thoughtful ideas about what a powerful country owes the rest of the world. Simply by shifting from a white male point of view, this opens up the superhero genre in radical and exhilarating new directions. Also with Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Winston Duke, John Kani, Sterling K. Brown, Denzel Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and an uncredited Sebastian Stan.
La Boda de Valentina (R) I can think of better Valentine’s Day presents than this overstuffed Mexican farce about a woman (Marimar Vega) who’s forced to hide her American fiancé (Ryan Carnes) and pretend she’s still married to her Mexican ex (Omar Chaparro) for the benefit of her scandal-ridden, politically ambitious family. The filmmakers miss some prime chances to comment on Mexican politics and celebrity culture as well as American attitudes about Mexico. Instead, they introduce plot complication after plot complication until you’re too worn out to follow along or laugh. Neither the comic material nor the cast pulls their weight, either. Also with Kate Vernon, Tony Dalton, Jesús Zavala, Christian Tappán, Álvaro Carcaño, and Sabine Moussier.
Call Me by Your Name (R) Intoxicatingly beautiful. Luca Guadagnino’s superb adaptation of André Aciman’s novel is both a triumph of mood and more than that. Timothée Chalamet stars as a 17-year-old boy spending a summer in northern Italy with his Franco-American parents and an archeology graduate student (Armie Hammer) who turns out to be the love of his life. The Sicilian director (A Bigger Splash) finds great poetry in the surfaces here: the countryside outside Bergamo, Hammer’s naked body, the sun-kissed village that makes you want to sit at a table in the piazza with a limoncello and today’s Corriere della Sera. The mood of languid eroticism and endless summer afternoons is well captured, but the movie doesn’t reach greatness until the boys’ love affair comes to a piercing end. The way this film deals with fleeting desires and how they shape our lives makes it a masterpiece. Also with Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, and Victoire du Bois.
Coco (PG) Pixar finds new life in its first musical. This Mexican-set animated film is about a 12-year-old boy (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) who becomes trapped in the land of the dead on Día de los Muertos and has to get a blessing from a great musician ancestor (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) to return to the world of the living. Like 2014’s The Book of Life, this movie depicts the afterlife as a lit-up version of Mexico City, with the houses stacked on the steep sides of the surrounding mountains, but this film expands on the earlier work with some breathtaking visuals, including a bridge to the afterlife that’s a giant structure made of glowing marigold petals. The adult actors, not known as singers, make a good fist of the music, but Gonzalez steals away the show with his renditions of “The World Es Mi Familia” and “Proud Corazón.” Immersed in the culture of Mexico, this is a unique Pixar triumph. Additional voices by Gael García Bernal, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil, Alfonso Arau, Alanna Ubach, Cheech Marin, Edward James Olmos, Gabriel Iglesias, and John Ratzenberger.
Darkest Hour (PG-13) Faint praise: This is the best movie about Winston Churchill ever made. I’m afraid this World War II drama doesn’t deserve any more than that. Gary Oldman plays the British politician, a brilliant failure until he’s handed the prime minister’s office at a time when other people don’t want the job. He then has to decide whether to have Britain fight on alone against the Nazis or salvage an army trapped at Dunkirk by suing for peace. Oldman is being widely touted for the Oscar here, and while his depiction of Churchill’s grave self-doubts is good enough, he isn’t surprising in any way. Neither is the typically dull direction by Joe Wright (Atonement), and there’s a fabricated scene with Churchill on a train that’s so fake it would take down a much better movie than this. Also with Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Samuel West, David Bamber, and David Strathairn.
Death Wish (R) A faithful remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson vehicle, which means it’s bad. Bruce Willis takes up the mantel as a rich, white surgeon who can’t believe that his family is the victim of a violent crime, so he buys a gun and goes out to hunt down the bad guys in Chicago’s low-rent district. I would call this movie fascist, but it hates cops, too, so perhaps libertarian anarchist is more the label it deserves. Whatever it is, this is the sort of movie that an AR-15-carrying NRA member would love, and nobody else. Also with Elisabeth Shue, Camila Morrone, Dean Norris, Beau Knapp, Kimberly Elise, Len Cariou, and Vincent D’Onofrio.
Den of Thieves (R) Writer and first-time director Christian Gudegast came up with a fantastic twist for the end of this heist movie. Too bad he forgot to write everything that would make that twist make sense. Gerard Butler plays a loose-cannon detective for the L.A. County sheriff’s office squeezing a hapless bartender (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) who’s tied into a gang of high-end armed robbers who are planning to steal from the Federal Reserve Building. Gudegast could have made this into a nifty 90-minute film, but instead he pads it out to 140 minutes with boring bits of characterization on the major players, like he’s Michael Mann or something. Also, cops who put unarmed black guys in chokeholds to get information aren’t nearly as endearing as they used to be. Also with Pablo Schreiber, Meadow Williams, Dawn Olivieri, Evan Jones, Jordan Bridges, Brian Van Holt, Maurice Compte, and 50 Cent.
Detective Chinatown 2 (NR) One of the big releases for Chinese New Year is this sequel to Chen Sicheng’s action-comedy hit, in which Liu Haoran and Wang Baoqiang reprise their roles as a shy Chinese police trainee and his player-wannabe uncle, who go to New York when a mob boss invites them and a bunch of other high-level players of a crime-solving video game to solve the real-life murder of his son. The hijinks are about as broad as can be, and the high-voiced Wang is particularly annoying opposite the practically invisible Liu. The murder mystery isn’t engaging, and America comes off like a nation of racist yahoos in the background. Also with Kenneth Tsang, Shang Yuxian, Brett Azar, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Yang Xiao, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Bai Ling, and Michael Pitt.
Detective K: Secret of the Living Dead (NR) Though this is the third film in the Korean action-comedy series, Kim Myung-min has lost none of his snap playing an 18th-century detective who acts tough and unflappable even though he’s a greedy, petty, arrogant weenie. He takes a job trying to solve a series of murders that appear to be the work of vampires. The story is nonsense, but the hijinks are worth it, as the detective interrogates a suspect while wearing a giant paper cone over his neck while his sidekick (Oh Dal-su) imagines being a martial-arts hero as a prelude to getting the crap beaten out of him by armed thugs. It’s all enjoyable, expensively costumed fluff. Also with Kim Ji-won, Lee Min-ki, Kim Beom, Kim Jung-hwa, Park Geun-hyung, and Nam Sung-jin.
Dunkirk (PG-13) Not a masterpiece, but it gets the job done. Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic tells the story of British civilians rescuing more than 300,000 soldiers from the French beach where they were trapped by the Nazis. Nolan tells the story in three overlapping timelines, from the viewpoints of an RAF pilot (Tom Hardy), a private (Fionn Whitehead), a boat owner (Mark Rylance), and others. Nolan probably should have gone with a more straightforward approach; the temporal dislocation doesn’t increase the chaos of the battle or the story’s forward drive. Luckily, this movie does much better at the small-picture level, conveying the analog nature of aerial combat back then and the private’s series of brushes with death as he tries to flee. This movie may not have the emotional impact that it’s looking for, but it succeeds thanks to Nolan’s assiduous application of his craft. Also with Cillian Murphy, Jack Lowden, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Tom Nolan, Harry Styles, and Kenneth Branagh.
Early Man (PG) Some way below the standard we expect from Nick Park’s animated films, this one is about a caveman (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) who tries to save his home by challenging an evil French-accented Bronze Age overlord (voiced by Tom Hiddleston) to a soccer match. Some of the jokes here do land, but we don’t get the same extravagant level of visual invention that we saw in Chicken Run or the Wallace & Gromit movies, and we get too many groan-worthy soccer puns and not enough emotional counterweight. Maybe Park should stay in modern-day rural England to do his best work. Additional voices by Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Richard Ayoade, Miriam Margolyes, Rob Brydon, and Nick Park.
Every Day (PG-13) A high-concept film that’s makes little out of a premise that’s dubious to start with. Adapted from David Levithan’s novel, this teen film is about a disembodied spirit who wakes up each day in the body of a different teenager, and in one of those guises falls in love with a girl (Angourie Rice from The Nice Guys). The author’s wordplay gets lost, and his study in gender fluidity is thoroughly defanged in Jessie Andrews’ adaptation. The various actors who portray the spirit also fluctuate wildly in the level of their performances. This has nothing to do with the similar body-switching movie The Beauty Inside. Also with Justice Smith, Jeni Ross, Lucas Jade Zumann, Jacob Batalon, Katie Douglas, Ian Alexander, Colin Ford, and Owen Teague.
The 15:17 to Paris (PG-13) If you didn’t know this was a Clint Eastwood film, you’d swear this was some avant-garde exercise, so cavalier is the director’s attitude towards the story. The movie tells the story of the 2015 Thalys train attack on board a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris that was foiled by two off-duty American soldiers (Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone) and their civilian friend (Anthony Sadler). Eastwood casts the men as themselves, and while they’re undeniably heroes, they don’t have much screen presence. The movie around them is filled with the starry-eyed militarism and hero worship that has characterized all of Eastwood’s recent films, and it got old some time ago. Also with Jenna Fischer, Judy Greer, Thomas Lennon, Tony Hale, and Jaleel White.
Fifty Shades Freed (R) Everyone else is making sex-related jokes about how bad this movie is, but I can’t even get it up for that. Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) is now married to Christian (Jamie Dornan), which only sets off her violent stalker (Eric Johnson) on a spree of computer hacking, kidnapping, blackmail, and assault. Christian gets way more screen time, which means he’s much creepier than the stalker, and yet also somehow less interesting. And for all the hot naked bodies on display here, no visuals are as pornographic as the plush interiors of Christian’s houses, cars, and planes. At least this series has taken its last lash, and I have, too. Also with Kim Basinger, Arielle Kebbel, Marcia Gay Harden, Tyler Hoechlin, Max Martini, Luke Grimes, Callum Keith Rennie, and Bruce Altman.
Forever My Girl (PG) This dish of bland Louisiana gumbo stars Alex Roe as a country music superstar who returns to his hometown and discovers that he has an 8-year-old daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) by his high-school sweetheart (Jessica Rothe). British leading man Roe (The 5th Wave, Rings) is a far better singer than he is an actor, so it’s puzzling why writer-director Bethany Ashton Wolf doesn’t focus on the music rather than the antics of that unbearably precocious girl or the cliche-ridden dramatics of the famous dude finding his way back to God and his first love. The songs by Jackson Odell and Brett Boyett aren’t half bad, especially the tear-in-my-beer ballad “Smokin’ and Cryin’”. Also with John Benjamin Hickey, Tyler Riggs, Peter Cambor, and Gillian Vigman.
Game Night (R) An amusing patch on David Fincher’s The Game. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play a hypercompetitive married couple famous for their neighborhood game nights until his richer, cooler older brother (Kyle Chandler) comes to town and holds his own game night where he tells everyone he’ll stage his own kidnapping and invites them to solve it. The trouble is, real kidnappers get hold of him while his guests think the game is still going on. Co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Vacation) execute a nifty one-take chase sequence involving a Fabergé egg, but this soars on its comic acting here. McAdams, in particular, has never been funnier, and Jesse Plemons contributes a scene-stealing turn as a creepy neighbor who never smiles or takes off his police uniform. Also with Lamorne Morris, Sharon Horgan, Chelsea Peretti, Billy Magnussen, Kylie Bunbury, Michael C. Hall, and Danny Huston.
Get Out (R) An early candidate for one of the best movies of 2017, this darkly funny horror film stars Daniel Kaluuya (Sicario) as a young African-American man who travels with his white girlfriend (Allison Williams) to meet her parents, only to find that black people never seem to leave the family’s gated community. In his directing debut, comedian Jordan Peele scores direct hits on white liberal racism in the Northeastern enclave where the movie’s set, and he knows how to scare us through the accretion of creepy detail. He’s aided by terrific performances from his cast, and fans of TV’s Girls will definitely see Williams in a new light. Horror movies haven’t historically been a haven for black filmmakers. Here’s one good enough to start a tradition. Also with Keith Stanfield, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Caleb Landry Jones, Lil Rel Howery, Betty Gabriel, Marcus Henderson, Erika Alexander, and Stephen Root.
The Greatest Showman (PG) Much like its subject, a thoroughgoing fraud. Hugh Jackman stars in this musical biography of P.T. Barnum as he founds a circus in Manhattan. The film relentlessly whitewashes Barnum, presenting him as an enlightened soul who puts performers of color on stage and wants to transport his audiences to a better world for a while. In reality, the historical Barnum was a crook who paraded his racial “grotesques” for white audiences to gawk at. Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) don’t come up with a single good song, and first-time director Michael Gracey strains mightily but can’t get any of these musical numbers to take flight. It’s a particularly bad time to glorify a big-talking con artist willing to racially exploit his performers for his customers’ money. Also with Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seeley, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Rebecca Ferguson.
I, Tonya (R) The best figure-skating movie ever made features a hellacious performance by Margot Robbie as disgraced Olympian Tonya Harding. Director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers play Harding’s story of lifelong abuse from her mother (Allison Janney) and husband (Sebastian Stan) for grotesque comic opera and lean into the unreliability of this narrative based on interviews with the real-life principals; Tonya fires a shotgun at her husband’s head, then turns to the camera and says, “This is bullshit! I never did this!” Robbie will likely get an Oscar nomination for the intense physical work she put into this performance, but she gets the soul of this battered woman who’s determined to hold her head up after she’s been reviled around the world. No movie before this has ever captured the allure and theatrical glamour of the sport. This is the closest we’ve ever had to a female version of Raging Bull. Also with Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson, Bojana Novakovic, Caitlin Carver, Mckenna Grace, and Bobby Cannavale.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (PG-13) For better and worse, this feels like it was made in 1993. The sequel to the 24-year-old adventure film finds that the titular board game has morphed into a video game, which is then found in the present day by four bored teenagers who promptly get transformed into their game avatars (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan) and sucked into the game’s world. The action sequences are fair and the movie only becomes unwatchable once it stops for these characters to work out their high-school issues. The little kids will be reasonably diverted for a couple of hours, but the main audience for this figures to be their parents nostalgic for the ’90s. Now when do we get the remake of Zathura? Also with Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Rhys Darby, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, and an uncredited Colin Hanks.
Lady Bird (PG) Saoirse Ronan blows through this teen flick with gale force as a fiercely independent Catholic school girl who nicknames herself “Lady Bird.” In her solo filmmaking debut, Greta Gerwig creates a great character and observes well the details of Catholic school and the pressures of growing up in a financially strapped family. The film probably could have used a somewhat stronger story, as the difficult relationship between Lady Bird and her well-intentioned but mystified mom (Laurie Metcalf) doesn’t come to enough of a point. Still, it’s worth it just to see Ronan react to a breakup by tearfully singing along to “Crash Into Me,” or running down the street after her first kiss and screaming with joy. This may not be among the greatest teen films, but Ronan makes it enthralling at all times. Also with Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Tracy Letts, Odeya Rush, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Lois Smith.
The Lullaby (NR) This notable South African childbirth horror film stars Reine Swart as a teenager who moves back in with her mother (Thandi Puren) after giving birth, only to suffer terrifying hallucinations once she gets there. It’s hard to say who’s more terrifying, the teen mother with the flat affect who dreams about mutilating her baby, or her mother who alternates between smothering affection and telling her daughter that she ruins everybody’s life. The performances are good, and the callbacks to the country’s racist colonial past are worked in effectively. At its frequent best, this plays like a South African version of The Babadook. The lullaby sung to the baby goes: “Break his neck and throw him in a ditch. / Step on his head, make sure he’s dead.” Also with Brandon Auret and Deànré Reiners.
Maze Runner: The Death Cure (PG-13) The cure is worse than the disease in this movie’s case. The trilogy comes to an excruciatingly boring 142-minute end, as Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) leads a rescue effort for a captured friend (Ki Hong Lee) which might lead the human race to an antidote to the zombie plague. The lethargic action sequences give way to conversations that are mere exchanges of plot points. It’s really incredible that through three films, not one of these characters has developed an identifiable character trait. Well before the end, you’ll be rooting for the plague, since the infected are so much more fun to hang out with than this group of people. Also with Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Rosa Salazar, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Walton Goggins, Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper, Giancarlo Esposito, and Patricia Clarkson.
Operation Red Sea (NR) Dante Lam’s action thriller is about a group of Chinese soldiers trying to rescue citizens from a terrorist attack in northern Africa. Starring Zhang Yi, Johnny Huang, Qing Hai, Du Jiang, Jiang Luxia, Yin Fang, Wang Yutian, Guo Jiahao, and Sanaa Alaoui.
Padmaavat (NR) This Indian film comes shrouded in controversy, with threats of decapitation against director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and lead actress Deepika Padukone and a ruling from India’s supreme court declaring the film to be not defamatory. The story takes place in 13th-century India, where a queen of the Mewar region (Padukone) is lusted after by the murderous, rapacious sultan of Delhi (Ranveer Singh), who wages a bloody war just to possess her. The Muslim villain and his homoerotic attraction to a slave (Jim Sarbh) is the reason why the film wasn’t shown in four Indian states for fear of rioting. Bhansali does it all up in his trademark opulent, operatic style, though he can’t squeeze any emotion out of the queen’s ultimate self-immolation to avoid being raped. You may be surprised when the bad guy is shot with arrows in the middle of his big musical number. All in all, this thing is just okay. Also with Shahid Kapoor, Anupriya Goenka, Aditi Rao Hydari, Manjit Singh, Raza Murad, and Padmavati Rao.
Peter Rabbit (PG) A fresh layer of fertilizer on Beatrix Potter’s grave. Her charming children’s book has been turned into a graceless, thuddingly unimaginative contemporary movie, in which a CGI rabbit (voiced by James Corden) takes up arms against Farmer McGregor’s nephew (Domhnall Gleeson), who moves into his late uncle’s house and is hellbent on killing all the cuddly bunny rabbits. Director/co-writer Will Gluck’s idea of kid humor is to have the bad guy step on a bunch of rakes in his bedroom, and he turns Peter into a reckless jerk who’s willing to risk his fellow rabbits’ lives over a personal vendetta. A few stray lines hit home, but not nearly enough to justify the waste of a sumptuous cast. Somebody stop Gluck before he gets to The Wind in the Willows. Also with Rose Byrne, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and Sam Neill. Additional voices by Elizabeth Debicki, Sia, Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward, David Wenham, Daisy Ridley, and Margot Robbie.
The Post (PG-13) Steven Spielberg makes great entertainment out of a potentially ponderous story in this dramatization of the Washington Post’s struggle to publish the Pentagon Papers under executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher and owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). Rather than try to make this into a thriller like All the President’s Men, Spielberg imitates the brightness and dizzying pace of 1930s newspaper comedies, dotting the cast with comic actors and making the movie play more like an ensemble piece rather than a vehicle for two big stars. Hanks gets the best speech here, but Streep has the better role as a woman steeped in the sexism of her era who asserts her leadership of the paper at a turbulent time. Spielberg weaves together all the different strands of this story with marvelous skill and finds heroes of democracy in the reporters of a barely solvent newspaper. Also with Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Jesse Plemons, Zach Woods, Carrie Coon, Stark Sands, and Alison Brie.
Red Sparrow (R) Kinda refreshing to see a Hollywood movie hate on Russia again, even if it’s this overlong spy thriller. Jennifer Lawrence plays a Russian spy who’s been educated against her will at an academy teaching spies to use sex to get information out of people, so no wonder she wants to betray her country and work for the CIA. Director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe (adapting this from Jason Matthews’ novel) seem to want to get their heroine from a place where she has no agency to becoming her own person, but they have little idea how to do that. There are a couple of set pieces that strike a properly cold and unerotic tone, and Mary-Louise Parker contributes some looseness as an alcoholic gay American traitor, but this movie is a steel trap that takes entirely too long to close. Also with Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ciarán Hinds, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Thekla Reuten, Douglas Hodge, Sebastian Hülk, Charlotte Rampling, and Jeremy Irons.
Samson (PG-13) That PG-13 rating tells you what’s wrong off the bat. One of the Bible’s sexiest stories is completely denatured in this hopelessly square, crappy-looking, woodenly acted epic. Taylor James plays the strongman whose every facial expression gets lost underneath his hair. You can’t imagine either him or Delilah (Caitlin Leahy) being carried away by their passions, or by anything else, for that matter. His feats of strength come out as unremarkable, too. Pretty much the only entertainment value here is watching the men wander around without stepping on their own beards. Also with Jackson Rathbone, Billy Zane, Lindsay Wagner, and Rutger Hauer.
The Shape of Water (R) Not one of Guillermo Del Toro’s best, this science-fiction fable nevertheless deserves to be on the same shelf. Sally Hawkins stars as a mute but not deaf janitor who falls in love with an Amazon River god (Doug Jones) being held captive at the secret government facility where she works. This film is set in America but feels oddly French thanks to Del Toro’s whimsical mood and Alexandre Desplat’s music. There’s an interspecies sex scene here and, even more exotically, a dance number, and the film is as besotted with old movies as it is with fairy tale romances. The exceptionally plain-faced Hawkins more than merits a showcase like this, and she vibrates with grace and loneliness that’s lit up by unexpected love. This tender love story suffers from a one-dimensional villain (Michael Shannon, who’s very scary anyway), but you’d be churlish not to recognize this film’s immense craft and surpassing beauty. Also with Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nick Searcy, David Hewlett, Nigel Bennett, Morgan Kelly, and Richard Jenkins.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (PG-13) Rian Johnson (Looper) picks up the saga with Finn (John Boyega) teaming up with a mechanic (Kelly Marie Tran) on a stealth mission to keep the Resistance alive while Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to coax an embittered Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) back to the fight. As screenwriter, Johnson stuffs this thing with plot developments and can’t always manage them all gracefully as the director. However, there are salutary touches everywhere, including deeper characterization of the conflicted villain (Adam Driver), some welcome dopey humor, and a purple-haired Laura Dern displaying a different and extremely feminine style of leadership without losing anything in authority. There’s also some neat extraterrestrial flora and fauna and a climactic battle sequence on a salt planet that manages to be beautiful as well as dramatic. It’s enough to keep even the non-fans on board for the ninth chapter. Also with Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Benicio Del Toro, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz, Justin Theroux, Billie Lourd, and the late Carrie Fisher.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (R) The great movie that Martin McDonagh seemed to have in him the whole time. The acclaimed playwright has often written about small towns in his native Ireland, but in his third film, he puts that talent to use drawing an American small town that’s ripped apart when a murder victim’s mother (Frances McDormand, giving a master class in slow-burning rage) rents out three billboards to criticize the police department and the dying police chief (Woody Harrelson). McDonagh provides well for a large ensemble cast and turns the screws of escalating violence quite well, especially in regards to a racist cop (Sam Rockwell) who earns a half-measure of redemption in an unlikely yet plausible way. The most piercing thing is the three suicide notes that the chief leaves behind, which reach a heartbreaking pitch of eloquence. Also with Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Zeljko Ivanek, Clarke Peters, Samara Weaving, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage.
12 Strong (R) The real-life story of 12 Special Forces soldiers who helped Afghans take the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks deserved better than this dully competent film. Chris Hemsworth plays the captain who leaves a desk job to lead the men into combat. He does much to mitigate the script’s sentimental excesses, as does Michael Shannon as the unit’s warlord and Navid Negahban as the Afghan warlord whom the soldiers are embedded with. Still, director Nicolai Fuglsig makes all the film’s many, many combat sequences look and feel the same, without any imagination or suggestion of the hellfire that the troops are going through. A halfway decent video game could have done better. Also with Michael Peña, Elsa Pataky, William Fichtner, Austin Stowell, Geoff Stults, Rob Riggle, Trevante Rhodes, and Taylor Sheridan.
The Vanishing of Sidney Hall (R) This pretentious literary bore stars Logan Lerman as an author who writes a Catcher in the Rye-like generational novel and then vanishes just like Salinger. The film looks beautiful, and Kyle Chandler does a nice little turn as the investigator who looks for the writer years later, but director Shawn Christensen and co-writer Jason Hall pile misery upon misery on top of their poor protagonist and seem to think they’re being deep because of it. Lerman’s 2012 vehicle The Perks of Being a Wallflower was a much better film along the same lines. The movie played at last fall’s Lone Star Film Festival under the title of Sidney Hall. Also with Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, Blake Jenner, Margaret Qualley, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Tim Blake Nelson, Alex Karpovsky, and Nathan Lane. (Opens Friday at AMC Grapevine Mills)
Winchester (PG-13) Guns don’t kill people, ghosts of people killed by guns do. That’s the bizarre and unique premise behind this period horror flick starring Helen Mirren as the real-life firearms heiress who actually built a huge house near San Jose in the late 19th century with weird architectural features, though that was probably from unrepaired earthquake damage rather than to trap ghosts of gunshot victims, as this movie suggests. The production department has a blast building staircases that lead nowhere and corridors with absurdly low ceilings. Still, neither this movie’s mild “guns are bad” rhetoric nor the presence of Mirren and other serious actors can disguise the fact that this is just another crappy genre exercise with boogeymen jumping from outside the frame. Potentially, there could be a great Get Out-style horror flick about America’s love of guns. This just deserves a bullet. Also with Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Angus Sampson, Eamon Farren, Laura Brent, and Tyler Coppin.
A Fantastic Woman (R) The winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar, this Chilean film stars Daniela Vegas as a transgender woman who is in mourning for the death of her boyfriend. Also with Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim, Nicolás Saavedra, Amparo Noguera, Trinidad González, and Néstor Cantillana.
Have a Nice Day (NR) Liu Jian’s Chinese animated film is a violent thriller centering around a bag full of cash. Voices by Zhu Changlong, Cao Kai, Liu Jian, Yang Siming, Shi Haitao, and Ma Xiaofang.
Loveless (R) Nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s thriller is about a divorcing Russian couple (Alexei Rozin and Maryana Spivak) who discover during a bitter custody fight that their 12-year-old son (Matvey Novikov) has disappeared. Also with Marina Vasilieva, Andris Keiss, Alexei Fateev, Varvara Shmykova, Natalya Potapova, and Sergei Borisov.
The Party (R) Sally Potter’s comedy stars Kristin Scott Thomas as a British politician whose friends derail her plans to celebrate her recent promotion. Also with Timothy Spall, Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, and Cillian Murphy.