Bathtubs Over Broadway (PG-13) Dava Whisenant’s documentary profiles comedy writer Steve Young and his discovery of a rare cache of vintage recordings of Broadway musical-style shows about major corporations. Also with David Letterman, Martin Short, Chita Rivera, Susan Stroman, Jello Biafra, and Florence Henderson. (Opens January 4)
Escape Room (PG-13) This thriller is about a group of people who must solve a series of puzzles and riddles to escape from the lethal traps in their room. Starring Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell, Tyler Labine, Logan Miller, Nik Dodani, Jay Ellis, and Yorick van Wageningen. (Opens January 4)
Kill Mobile (NR) Yu Miao’s Chinese drama is about a group of friends who discover unpleasant truths about one another when they spend one night sharing all their incoming emails, texts, and phone calls. (Opens Friday at AMC Grapevine Mills)
Mojin: The Worm Valley (NR) A sequel to Mojin: The Lost Legend, this Chinese thriller stars Cai Heng as an archeologist braving mythical monsters to find a lost treasure. Also with Gu Xuan, Yu Heng, Chen Yusi, Ma Yuke, and Chen Taisheng. (Opens January 4 at AMC Grapevine Mills)
Simmba (NR) Ranveer Singh stars in this Indian comedy as a corrupt cop who’s forced to go straight after a series of life-changing events. Also with Ajay Devgn, Sara Ali Khan, Abdul Quadir Amin, Sonu Sood, and Amrit Pal Singh. (Opens Friday at AMC Grapevine Mills)
The Vanishing (R) Gerard Butler stars in this thriller as a lighthouse keeper whose discovery of buried treasure leads to disaster. Also with Peter Mullan, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Søren Malling, and Gary Lewis. (Opens January 4 in Dallas)
Aquaman (PG-13) James Wan does great with the action and bad with everything else in this comic-book adaptation. Flashing a nice deadpan sense of humor, Jason Momoa plays the half-human, water-breathing superhero who visits Atlantis, the undersea kingdom of his ancestors, to prevent them from waging war against the unsuspecting land dwellers who have polluted the oceans. The director manages two nice one-take shots, one of Atlantis’ queen (Nicole Kidman) fighting off a strike team single-handedly and the other of Aquaman and an Atlantean princess (Amber Heard) being chased over the rooftops of Sicily. However, Wan also mishandles all the emotional beats in this story, and every time two characters stop to have a quiet conversation, they’re interrupted by an explosion. Wonder and beauty are beyond Wan’s capabilities. He’s been miscast as a horror director, and he should stick to action. Also with Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Michael Beach, Randall Park, Graham McTavish, and Dolph Lundgren. Voices by Djimon Hounsou, John Rhys-Davies, and Julie Andrews.
Ben Is Back (R) Peter Hedges makes this addiction drama not as a showcase for his son Lucas Hedges, but rather for Julia Roberts. She plays a twice-married mother of three who’s surprised when her opioid-addicted teenage son (Lucas Hedges) suddenly returns home from his rehab clinic for Christmas. This is better than the season’s other addiction drama Beautiful Boy because it adopts a linear timeline and keeps its frame over a bad overnight odyssey through her town’s drug scene as she tries to track him down, not knowing whether he’s settling past accounts or getting high again. Roberts owns the show here, switching from wild-eyed optimism to tough love to sharp-eyed bargaining to screaming meltdown without going over the top. It’s been too long since Roberts has had a vehicle like this to showcase her chops. Also with Courtney B. Vance, Kathryn Newton, David Zaldivar, Rachel Bay Jones, and Tim Guinee.
Bohemian Rhapsody (PG-13) That PG-13 rating is the first sign that something is wrong with this Queen biopic. Rami Malek stars as Freddie Mercury, who rebels against his Parsi family by embracing rock and roll. The story has all the continuity of a playlist on shuffle, as success seems to come out of nowhere for the band and hit follows hit with little insight into the odd creative process that the band went through. The project appeals to none of the strengths of X-Men director Bryan Singer. This bad movie is almost redeemed by a blazing performance by Malek, who plays the piano and struts around on the stage with Mercury’s particular swagger that’s manly and queeny at the same time. This actor deserves to headline better movies than this one. Also with Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Joseph Mazzello, Ben Hardy, Allen Leech, Aidan Gillen, Aaron McCusker, Tom Hollander, and Mike Myers.
Bumblebee (PG-13) The playful retro approach here is what the whole Transformers series should have taken from the start. Hailee Steinfeld plays a teenager in 1987 who comes across a giant alien robot disguised as a Volkswagen Beetle. Director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) and writer Christina Hodson smartly keep the movie’s focus narrow and turn the whole movie into a cute riff on E.T. The 1980s references are on point and the movie’s humor hits home more often than not, with John Cena chipping in as a bumbling federal agent trying to keep tabs on the robots invading the Earth. This series was in dire need of the restart that this movie gives it. Also with Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, and Len Cariou. Voices by Dylan O’Brien, Justin Theroux, Peter Cullen, and Angela Bassett.
Creed II (PG-13) Everything in this sequel is tick-tock predictable, and yet the movie comes out as honest instead of insulting or pandering. Michael B. Jordan reprises his role as Adonis Creed, who wins the heavyweight championship of the world just in time to be challenged to a fight by Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of the Russian boxer (Dolph Lundgren) who killed his dad. New director Steven Caple Jr. doesn’t do anything wildly creative, but all the principal actors remain dialed in to their characters. The movie also avoids staleness by throwing in some wrinkles with Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and her progressive hearing loss, as well as the events from the 1980s that still haunt Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and the Dragos. Also with Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby, Phylicia Rashad, Milo Ventimiglia, and Brigitte Nielsen.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (PG-13) I really wish this had been a novel. Eddie Redmayne (now more settled into his role) plays the socially inept Newt Scamander tracking the fugitive Credence (Ezra Miller) into Paris in the 1920s on the orders of a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). We have Zoë Kravitz doing an English accent and a hinted-at youthful romance between Dumbledore and fascist wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), but they’re not worth sitting through 134 minutes of clunky flashbacks and people standing around while declaiming expositional dialogue. J.K. Rowling does not have the same natural flair for screenwriting that she does for writing books. She needs a collaborator to iron stuff out for the big screen. Also with Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Carmen Ejogo, Claudia Kim, Callum Turner, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, William Nadylan, Kevin Guthrie, and Jamie Campbell Bower.
The Favourite (R) A delectable English trifle with enough liquor to knock you down. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne of England as a paranoid, gout-ridden, vain, emotionally unstable monarch having a lesbian affair with a duchess (Rachel Weisz) before a fallen aristocrat’s daughter (Emma Stone) starts dangling herself in front of her. Many of the crazy historical details here are true, but wacky Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos throws in his own absurdist touches anyway, like the court dance with some defiantly 20th-century moves. The actors here make delicious stuff out of the catty script — Stone is revelatory as a conniving character, and Colman gives a performance that’s as close as you’ll see to a woman playing King Lear. This cold-eyed study of royalpolitik at a time when women wield unusual power also doubles as a lesbian sex farce full of sinister slapstick. Also with Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, James Smith, and Mark Gatiss.
Green Book (PG-13) Peter Farrelly takes an inspiring real-life story and turns it into a white version of Driving Miss Daisy. I didn’t need that in my life. Viggo Mortensen plays an Italian-American nightclub bouncer who takes a job driving an African-American classical pianist (Mahershala Ali) on a concert tour of the Deep South in 1962. And they both learn something from each other. There are some honest observations about the differences between racial experiences, but these are drowned out amid the canned morality and simplistic contrasts between the characters. Mortensen manages some funny moments but his performance is like the rest of the movie, about as authentic as a supermarket jar of spaghetti sauce. Also with Linda Cardellini, Don Stark, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jenna Laurenzo, Dimiter Marinov, Mike Hatton, and Iqbal Theba.
The Grinch (PG) And still no one has made a good full-length movie out of Dr. Seuss’ children’s books. Illumination Entertainment, which previously did The Lorax, tries to tackle this animated adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch voicing the green Christmas-hating being who tries to ruin the holiday for Whoville. Nobody seems to grasp that Seuss’ rhyming books don’t have enough story material for a 90-minute feature film, so they keep trying to pad out the running time. This movie has Cindy Lou Who (voiced by Cameron Seely) trying to trap Santa Claus while the Grinch is given a backstory explaining why he hates Christmas. None of it comes out interesting, enlightening, or more than mildly amusing. I actually miss Jim Carrey. Additional voices by Rashida Jones, Kenan Thompson, and Angela Lansbury. Narration by Pharrell Williams.
Holmes & Watson (PG-13) This scattershot comedy stars Will Ferrell, playing Sherlock Holmes as a narcissistic, fame-addicted Victorian celebrity and John C. Reilly playing Watson as a perennially unappreciated sidekick who wants to be an equal partner. Sometimes the film stumbles, as when it parodies Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes or tries to be relevant to the moment, Other times, it scores, as when a young bullied Sherlock (Hector Bateman-Harden) sucks a tear back into his face or when it takes in Lauren Lapkus’ silent performance as a woman raised by feral cats whom the great detective inexplicably falls for. The filmmakers’ underlying affection for the Holmes stories helps keep this from curdling. Also with Rebecca Hall, Ralph Fiennes, Kelly Macdonald, Hugh Laurie, Noah Jupe, Pam Ferris, Rob Brydon, and Steve Coogan.
Instant Family (PG-13) Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne star in this comedy based on a true story as a couple who adopt three siblings at once. Also with Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz, Juliana Gamiz, Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro, Margo Martindale, Julie Hagerty, and Joan Cusack.
Mary Poppins Returns (PG) About as much fun as having someone throw glitter in your face and say, “Oooh, magical!” Emily Blunt stars in this sequel set 20-odd years after the events of the original Mary Poppins, as she comes to minister to a grown-up Jane and Michael (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw) as they’re about to lose the house on 17 Cherry Tree Lane. Not a single moment in this loud, boisterous, overbearing musical feels like it’s spontaneous or unforced, and director Rob Marshall can’t seem to do anything without a giant swell from the orchestra. Songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are below their best, and the script hews so closely to the first movie that you wonder why they bothered with a sequel. An excellent cast is drowned out by the production design of this white elephant. Also with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, and Dick Van Dyke.
Mary Queen of Scots (R) Otherwise known as the movie about British royalty that’s not as much fun as The Favourite, this historical epic stars Saoirse Ronan as the doomed 16th-century Scottish queen who’s outflanked by treacherous men in her court and forced into a war against England. The marketing campaign around the film is selling it as a showdown between Mary and Queen Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie), but the movie itself stacks the deck against petty, jealous, pockmarked Elizabeth from the start. Robbie does rise to the occasion in the climactic conversation between the queens, but it’s Ronan who walks off with this picture tucked under her arm, fleshing out an underwritten heroine with intelligence, hubris, and royal bearing. Also with Guy Pearce, Jack Lowden, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Adrian Lester, Gemma Chan, Joe Alwyn, Martin Compston, Ian Hart, and David Tennant.
Mortal Engines (PG-13) A triumph of production design over actual filmmaking. Based on Philip Reeve’s novel, this science-fiction dystopian epic is set in a future world where major cities are mounted on wheels and go around eating up smaller cities. Hera Hilmar is a facially scarred orphan girl determined to revenge herself on London’s chief engineer (Hugo Weaving), who killed her mother, may also be her father, and is developing a weapon that will destroy the world. The film is out of Peter Jackson’s shop, and while its steampunk evocation of London is truly impressive, the indistinct acting and plot developments cadged from a dozen more interesting YA series help take this thing down. Also with Robert Sheehan, Leila George, Jihae, Caren Pistorius, Colin Salmon, Patrick Malahide, and Stephen Lang.
The Mule (R) People are talking this up as some sort of career resurgence for Clint Eastwood, but don’t believe the hype. The director stars in his own movie based on the true story of a 90-year-old man who went to work as a drug mule for the Sinaloa drug cartel, ferrying shipments of drugs across America and taking advantage of the fact that cops weren’t looking for an old white man. Eastwood does manage some nice self-critique by casting himself as that old dude in a world where Mexican drug lords and younger guys who are more technologically savvy have all the power, but he still gives us clunky staging and bad dialogue and the other faults that have plagued the worse movies he has made over the last decade. You’re better off seeing The Old Man & the Gun. Also with Bradley Cooper, Taissa Farmiga, Michael Peña, Alison Eastwood, Clifton Collins Jr., Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne, and Dianne Wiest.
Once Upon a Deadpool (PG-13) Ryan Reynolds stars in this more family-friendly edit of Deadpool 2, with new jokes and a cameo by Fred Savage. (Opens Friday)
Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG) A veritable orgy of product placement, and also quite a lot of fun. This sequel to Wreck-It Ralph has our lovable video-game villain (voiced by John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) going into the internet to find a missing part for her game. The movie fires off some funny shots at the experience of being online, and it’s a better field for Easter egg hunting than Ready Player One. Still, two scenes demand to be seen: one in which Vanellope wanders into a dressing room with all 14 Disney princesses (voiced by the likes of Kristen Bell, Auli’i Cravalho, Mandy Moore, Idina Menzel, Irene Bedard, Kelly Macdonald, Ming-Na Wen, Paige O’Hara, and Jodi Benson), and another one in which she stars in her own musical number in a Grand Theft Auto-like video game that’s paradise for her. Additional voices by Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Alan Tudyk, Ed O’Neill, Alfred Molina, Ali Wong, Jason Mantzoukas, Tim Allen, Brad Garrett, Vin Diesel, Anthony Daniels, and June Squibb.
Second Act (PG-13) No different from any other Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy in the last 15 years. She plays a big-box retail worker who is passed over for promotion for lack of a college degree but then snags a high-end marketing job when her computer-geek teenage godson (Dalton Harrod) invents an online history for her that includes a Harvard MBA and a Peace Corps stint. None of what happens is actively terrible, but it all proceeds without any meaningful deviations from the formula or insights into the modern workplace. Nothing that happens here is particularly funny, and even the big plot twist in the middle is a damp squib. It all just makes Lopez’ movie stardom look ever more passé. Also with Vanessa Hudgens, Leah Remini, Milo Ventimiglia, Freddie Stroma, Charlyne Yi, Dan Bucatinsky, Dave Foley, Larry Miller, and Treat Williams.
A Star Is Born (R) There’s stuff in this remake that the previous versions of this story don’t have. Bradley Cooper stars in this show-business tragedy as a country-rock star on his way down who falls in love with and marries a pop star (Lady Gaga) on her way up. Making his filmmaking debut, Cooper directs this with more competence than flair, but he’s quite good with atmosphere (whether he’s in a cramped drag bar or on a dusty ranch in Arizona) and he sings well enough to be credible as a music star who fills up arenas. The movie misses a chance to comment on how stardom is different now than in previous years, but Lady Gaga turns out to be a trump card. Casting a first-time movie actor as a character much like herself is no guarantee of a good performance, but she delivers both on the humor and the tragedy of the role here, as well as the character’s musical chops. Also with Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Ron Rifkin, Eddie Griffin, and Dave Chappelle.
Swing Kids (NR) Better than Green Book. This Korean film is based on a stage musical set at an American prison camp during the Korean war, where a troublemaking North Korean soldier (Do Kyung-soo) learns how to tap dance from an African-American serviceman (Jared Grimes) who’s been tasked with putting together a talent show with the P.O.Ws. The story is fascinating for the various kinds of racism at work here among the white American soldiers, the Koreans reluctant to take instruction from a black man, and one Chinese P.O.W. (Kim Min-ho) occupying a complicated position in the troupe. The actors here have some dance moves worth considering, though director Kang Hyeong-cheol could use some seasoning when it comes to filming them. Also with Park Hye-su, Oh Jung-se, Park Jin-joo, and A.J. Simmons.
2.0 (NR) This Indian science-fiction film stars Rajinikanth as a scientist trying to solve a global crisis. Also with Akshay Kumar, Amy Jackson, Sudhanshu Pandey, and Adil Hussain.
Vice (R) I like Adam McKay better when he’s making comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers. Not that this scabrous biography of Dick Cheney doesn’t have some laugh-out-loud funny moments, but McKay too often tips over into angry polemic and chastising his audience for watching reality TV while the world burns. Christian Bale gives a fairly miraculous performance as Cheney, disappearing underneath a ton of extra weight (both gained and prosthetic) and capturing both the man’s droning speaking voice and his insatiable lust for power, but it’s too bad that the movie gives us scene after scene of this heartless bastard shanking people around him, including members of his own family. The casting is remarkable; Steve Carell is so well-cast as Donald Rumsfeld that you just want to cry. Also with Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, Alison Pill, Bill Camp, LisaGay Hamilton, Don McManus, Lily Rabe, Shea Whigham, Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Tyler Perry.
Welcome to Marwen (PG-13) A wild misfire. Steve Carell stars in this biography of Mark Hogancamp, the artist who was brutally beaten in a hate crime and responded by creating a giant replica of a miniature Belgian World War II village and populating it with dolls. Director Robert Zemeckis has a nice idea bringing the dolls to life to re-enact the stories Mark creates in this fantasy world, but he overlays this whole story with a layer of saccharine fakeness. This winds up being a feel-good movie about being beaten almost to death by neo-Nazis. Watch Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 documentary Marwencol instead. Also with Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Diane Kruger, Gwendoline Christie, Merritt Wever, Leslie Zemeckis, Neil Jackson, and Matt O’Leary.
Zero (NR) This fairly intolerable Indian comedy stars a CGI-diminished Shah Rukh Khan as a dwarf with outsized confidence to compensate for his lack of height who has to choose between his infatuation with a Bollywood movie star (Katrina Kaif) and his more solid relationship with a rocket scientist with cerebral palsy (Anushka Sharma). The film’s treatment of the characters’ conditions might fly with Indian audiences, but Western moviegoers will cringe at this movie’s slapstick humor and saccharine sentimentalism. That keeps up even in the film’s second half, when the hero leaves his small town behind for astronaut training, and the plot spins out of control without the filmmakers’ intent or even knowledge. Also with Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Abhay Deol, Brijendra Kala, and Sridevi.
American Renegades (PG-13) J.K. Simmons headlines this thriller about a team of U.S. Navy SEALs who find a treasure sunken in a lake in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Also with Sullivan Stapleton, Charlie Bewley, Sylvia Hoeks, Joshua Henry, Diarmid Murtagh, Dimitri Leonidas, and Ewen Bremner.
Between Worlds (R) Nicolas Cage stars in this supernatural thriller as a man whose dying daughter (Penelope Mitchell) becomes possessed by a spirit from the next world. Also with Franka Potente, Garrett Clayton, Lydia Hearst, Brit Shaw, and David Lee Smith.
Head Full of Honey (PG-13) German actor Til Schweiger directs and co-stars in this drama about an Alzheimer’s patient (Nick Nolte) who takes one final road trip with his granddaughter (Sophie Lane Nolte). Also with Emily Mortimer, Matt Dillon, Claire Forlani, Greta Scacchi, Jacqueline Bisset, and Eric Roberts.
If Beale Street Could Talk (R) Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) adapts James Baldwin’s novel about a young woman (KiKi Layne) in 1970s Harlem trying to clear her husband (Stephan James) of a crime he didn’t commit. Also with Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis, Brian Tyree Henry, Finn Wittrock, Ed Skrein, Pedro Pascal, and Diego Luna.
On the Basis of Sex (PG-13) This biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg stars Felicity Jones and concentrates on the first case she ever argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Also with Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Cailee Spaeny, Jack Reynor, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey, Kathy Bates, and Sam Waterston.
Roma (R) The latest film by Alfonso Cuarón chronicles one year in the life of a middle-class Mexican family in the 1970s. Starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Diego Cortina Autrey, Carlos Peralta, Marco Graf, Daniela Demesa, and Nancy García García.
Shoplifters (R) The latest film by Hirokazu Kore-eda (After the Storm) is about a group of small-time Japanese criminals who take in an abused girl (Miyu Sasaki) while living on the street. Also with Lily Franky, Sakura Andô, Mayu Matsuoka, and Jyo Kairi.