Buddy Games (R) Josh Duhamel makes his directing debut and co-stars in this comedy about a group of friends who reunite for a series of absurd challenges. Also with Olivia Munn, Jensen Ackles, Nick Swardson, Neal McDonough, Kevin Dillon and Dax Shepard. (Opens Friday)
The Christmas Chronicles 2 (PG) Kurt Russell reprises his role as Santa Claus in this comedy about Kris Kringle trying to head off an attempt to cancel Christmas. Also with Darby Camp, Tyrese Gibson, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Judah Lewis, Julian Dennison, and Goldie Hawn. (Opens Wednesday)
Embattled (R) This sports drama stars Darren Mann as an aspiring MMA fighter dealing with the legacy of his abusive father (Stephen Dorff). Also with Elizabeth Reaser, Saïd Taghmaoui, Karrueche Tran, Drew Starkey, and Donald Faison. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Jiu Jitsu (R) Nicolas Cage stars in this martial-arts fantasy film based on a comic book. Also with Alain Moussi, Frank Grillo, JuJu Chan, Tony Jaa, Marie Avgeropoulos, and Rick Yune. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Last Vermeer (R) Based on a true story, this historical drama stars Claes Bang as a Dutch Jewish military officer who returns to his country after World War II to investigate the case of an art forger (Guy Pearce) who sold fake masterpieces to the Nazi conquerors. Also with Vicky Krieps, August Diehl, Roland Møller, and Adrian Scarborough. (Opens Friday)
Mank (R) David Fincher’s latest film is about Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he struggles to make Citizen Kane. Also with Tom Burke, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tuppence Middleton, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Leven Rambin, and Charles Dance. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
915: Hunting Hispanics (R) Charlie Minn’s documentary is about the 2019 mass shooting at a Wal-Mart in El Paso. (Opens Friday at Premiere Cinemas Burleson)
Sound of Metal (R) Riz Ahmed stars in this drama as a heavy metal drummer who starts to lose his hearing. Also with Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Hillary Baack, and Mathieu Amalric. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
Vanguard (NR) Basically, this is a 1990s Jackie Chan thriller, only with Chan playing the guy at corporate headquarters and leaving most of the ass-kicking to younger guys. He portrays the founder of a London-based private security firm that has to protect a Chinese financier (Jackson Lou) after he becomes entangled with Arab terrorists. Greater resources mean that the film boasts locations in India, Africa, and the United Arab Emirates, but it suffers from terrible acting by all the non-Chinese actors. Most of the action workload is handled by Yang Yang and Zhu Zhengting as the company’s two main operatives, and they have neither Chan’s charisma nor the superhuman skill he had in his younger days. This is still an action-thriller directed by old hand Stanley Tong, who knows what he’s doing. Even so, I wouldn’t pay money to see this one. Also with Muqi Miya, Ai Lun, Xu Ruohan, Tomer Oz, Eyad Hourani, Michelle Kesler, Eric Heise, and Tam Khan. (Opens Friday)
Ammonite (R) Coming less than a year after Portrait of a Lady on Fire, this period lesbian romance loses the comparison on every count. Kate Winslet portrays a trailblazing paleontologist in the 1840s who strikes up a romance with a rich scientist’s depressed wife (Saoirse Ronan). The romance between these real-life people has been fabricated for the film, which would matter less if the movie offered up some vibrant drama. Instead, writer-director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) appears hamstrung by the 19th-century setting, creating a museum piece of a film that is flat, drab, and empty. The estimable lead actresses seem off their game, and there isn’t enough of a contrast between the dourness of their characters at the beginning of the film and the transformation they undergo. Lee’s refusal to resolve the romance is one more point of frustration. If you want lesbian drama this month, Happiest Season is a lot more fun. Also with Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alec Secareanu, and Fiona Shaw.
Come Away (PG) Based on both Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, this British drama is about two children (Keira Chansa and Jordan A. Nash) who try to save their parents from despair after their older brother dies. Also with Angelina Jolie, David Oyelowo, Derek Jacobi, Anna Chancellor, Clarke Peters, David Gyasi, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Michael Caine.
Come Play (PG-13) Something we haven’t seen before: a horror movie about a kid with autism. Azhy Robertson plays an 8-year-old who can’t speak and relies on speech apps to communicate with his parents (Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr.). A demon named Larry tries to reach our world by communicating with the boy through a tablet. Jacob Chase adapted this from a short film and effectively uses the fact that people can’t see Larry unless they’re looking through the cameras in phones and laptops. Alas, the film falls apart definitively in the final third, with the tension in the parents’ marriage going unexplored and the boy recovering his speech at precisely the moment you’d expect. Even so, this is a necessary step that changes the outlines of the genre by placing an autistic character at the center of the story. Also with Winslow Fegley, Jayden Marine, Gavin MacIver-Wright, and Eboni Booth.
Dreamland (R) Margot Robbie’s performance lifts this Texas-set Depression Era crime thriller above its purple prose. She portrays a wounded fugitive bank robber who turns up in the barn of a teenager (Finn Cole) who yearns to escape his failing family farm and his abusive stepfather (Travis Fimmel). The offscreen narration by Lola Kirke can’t salvage the bad writing by Nicolaas Zwart or the clunkiness of the device. What’s worth watching here are the different layers to Robbie’s turn as a selective truth teller who knows that she’s doomed and is determined to give the boy some guidance before going out on her own terms. The Australian star knows how to pick her vehicles. Also with Garrett Hedlund, Darby Camp, and Kerry Condon.
The Empty Man (R) This horror film starts off promisingly, then turns into a morose exercise in brain-dead teenagers testing an urban legend. Then, it somehow becomes worse than that. James Badge Dale plays an ex-cop whose friend’s daughter (Sasha Frolova) vanishes after invoking the titular demon along with a bunch of her friends. Despite Dale’s mighty efforts, the story devolves into nonsense as the detective wades into the doings of a religious cult that believes it can transcend reality. The best part of the movie is the opening sequence with four American hikers becoming trapped in the mountains of Bhutan, which has only the most tenuous connection to the rest of the story. Writer-director David Prior adapted this from Cullen Bunn’s graphic novel, which according to all accounts is better than this. Also with Stephen Root, Joel Courtney, Marin Ireland, Samantha Logan, Aaron Poole, Evan Jonigkeit, Virginia Kull, and Ron Canada.
Fatman (R) Were you hoping for a gritty action thriller about Santa Claus? If so, who are you? This movie is that, and it’s so wildly misconceived that you really wonder what the filmmakers were going for. Mel Gibson plays Santa as a cranky, gun-toting guy living incognito in a small town in Canada. When a spoiled rich kid (Chance Hurstfield) gets a lump of coal in his stocking, he hires a hit man with his own Santa obsession (Walton Goggins) to kill Father Christmas. Truly nothing here works, not Santa contracting his elves to the U.S. military, not the killer killing postal workers to find his location, and not Gibson’s humorless performance. Did writer-directors Ian and Eshom Nelms really think that the hit man torturing little kids was going to be funny? You know things are dire when even Walton Goggins can’t inject anything interesting. Also with Robert Bockstael, Eric Woolfe, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste.
Freaky (R) Christopher Landon’s latest slasher comedy isn’t as tidy as his Happy Death Day, but it has some compensatory pleasures. Kathryn Newton plays a high-school wallflower who switches bodies with a serial killer (Vince Vaughn) after he stabs her with a magical knife. The setup means that Vaughn spends most of the film portraying a teenage girl, admittedly not my idea of a good time. Newton gets the better of the switch playing the killer, but Landon doesn’t do much as you’d hope with the gender flip of his characters. Supporting characters who know the rules of slasher movies and some good writing turn this film into a modest treat. Also with Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich, Dana Drori, Melissa Collazo, Katie Finneran, and Alan Ruck.
Hillbilly Elegy (R) Based on J.D. Vance’s memoir, Ron Howard’s drama is about a Yale law student (Gabriel Basso) who returns home and observes the deterioration of life in his hometown in the Appalachians. Also with Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Haley Bennett, Sunny Mabrey, and Freida Pinto.
Honest Thief (PG-13) Yet another Liam Neeson thriller that’s hard to distinguish from the rest. In this one, he plays a Marine veteran-turned-safecracker who tries to atone for his misdeeds, only for two crooked FBI agents (Jai Courtney and Anthony Ramos) to try to take his money for themselves. There’s some bad CGI here, but that’s not as harmful as the supporting characters taking turns being conveniently stupid so our hero can get out of all the jams that the plot sets up for him. The dramatic interludes where the protagonist reveals the truth to his new girlfriend (Kate Walsh) are soppy stuff, too. Also with Jeffrey Donovan and Robert Patrick.
Infidel (R) Jim Caviezel stars in this thriller as an American journalist kidnapped by Iranian extremists during a trip to Cairo. Also with Claudia Karvan, Hal Ozsan, Aly Kassem, Bijan Daneshmand, Isabelle Adriani, Stelio Savante, and J.R. Cacia.
Let Him Go (R) Based on Larry Watson’s novel, this Western regrettably doesn’t measure up to other recent examples of the genre. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane play a retired couple in Montana who, three years after their adult son is killed in an accident, head to North Dakota to rescue their grandson from the clutches of an abusive family of criminals. The best part of this is Lesley Manville, the British actress who too seldom graces American films, playing the matriarch of the crime family as a compelling, blowsy, alcohol-soaked, vicious monster. However, writer-director Thomas Bezucha (The Family Stone) is miscast as the filmmaker for a slow-burn Western. The characterization is indistinct and the movie doesn’t build up effectively to its climactic shootout. The talent here deserved better. Also with Jeffrey Donovan, Kayli Carter, Will Brittain, and Booboo Stewart.
Love and Monsters (PG-13) An unexpectedly nimble comic performance from Dylan O’Brien is the main distinguishing feature of this horror-comedy that owes too great a debt to Zombieland. The Maze Runner star plays a cowardly sad sack in a postapocalyptic world where genetically mutated monsters have killed 95 percent of the human population. The only single person in an underground bunker full of survivalists, he leaves the safety of the place to make an 85-mile trek to the bunker where his girlfriend (Jessica Henwick) is holed up. Some nice-looking creature effects don’t make up for the lack of memorable comic set pieces by director/co-writer Michael Matthews. Even so, O’Brien shows loads more personality here than in his action films, and he needs to do more comedy. Also with Michael Rooker, Dan Ewing, Ellen Holman, Melanie Zanetti, and Arianna Greenblatt.
The New Mutants (PG-13) It really exists! It’s also the gayest X-Men film ever, which is saying something. Even so, it’s still kinda meh. Blu Hunt plays a teen of Cheyenne extraction whose discovery of her powers destroys her reservation. She’s brought to a facility for other mutant kids controlled by a sinister doctor (Alice Braga), where she falls for a gay Scottish girl (Maisie Williams). Director/co-writer Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars) tries to play this for horror, but neither the hallucinations that the kids have nor the discovery that our protagonist is causing them manages to raise the hair on the back of one’s neck. The romance gets lost amid all the substandard CGI, and the finale with a demon bear is too dopey to work. Anya Taylor-Joy walks off with the acting honors as a Russian mean girl who bullies the new arrival. Also with Charlie Heaton, Henry Zaga, and Adam Beach.
Spell (R) Omari Hardwick stars in this horror film as an airplane pilot who crash-lands in rural Appalachia and falls into the clutches of a Hoodoo practitioner (Loretta Devine). Also with Lorraine Burroughs, Andre Jacobs, Tumisho Masha, and John Beasley.
Synchronic (R) A better time travel movie than either Tenet or the last Bill & Ted film. Anthony Mackie plays a drug-addicted New Orleans paramedic who investigates a new designer drug that can transport people through time, to which his partner’s teenage daughter (Ally Ioannides) apparently falls victim. The filmmaking team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (The Endless) make thoughtful, intelligent science-fiction with good-looking special effects despite the low budgets they work with, and they’re savvy enough to know that a Black man traveling through time is going to find places where he’s not welcome. The drug trips are well-executed, but it’s Benson and Moorhead’s skill at delineating character that distinguishes them from the herd. Mackie seizes a rare showcase role and expresses the filmmakers’ wonder at our existence on this planet. Also with Jamie Dornan, Ramiz Monsef, and Katie Aselton.
Tenet (PG-13) Either Christopher Nolan has gone up his own ass, or he’s made an avant-garde masterpiece too intelligent and sophisticated for my puny little brain to comprehend. John David Washington stars as a nameless CIA agent who is assigned to trace objects moving backwards through time to their source before they cause a time crunch that destroys the universe. This movie exists in the future perfect tense; everywhere our protagonist and his investigating partner (Robert Pattinson) look, they find evidence of things that will have happened. The film is structured as a palindrome, with the hero going through the looking glass and moving backwards through the story he just experienced. This leads to some cool action sequences, but there are a suspicious number of loose ends hanging, and the actors are swallowed up by the conceit except for a terrifying Kenneth Branagh as a wife-beating Russian arms dealer. Without the element of human emotion, this thing just sows confusion. Also with Elizabeth Debicki, Himesh Patel, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Dimple Kapadia, Martin Donovan, and Michael Caine.
Trolls World Tour (PG) Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake return to this animated sequel, as they try to save the other troll kingdoms from being taken over by a hard-rock troll (voiced by Rachel Bloom). Additional voices by James Corden, Ron Funches, Kelly Clarkson, Anderson .paak, Kenan Thompson, Mary J. Blige, Ester Dean, Jamie Dornan, Ozzy Osbourne, Anthony Ramos, Karan Soni, Charlyne Yi, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Zooey Deschanel, and Sam Rockwell.
2 Hearts (PG-13) Lance Hool directs this romantic drama about two couples in different places and times whose fates are mysteriously tied together. Starring Jacob Elordi, Radha Mitchell, Tiera Skovbye, Adan Canto, Tahmoh Penikett, and Kari Matchett.
True to the Game 2 (R) The sequel to the 2017 film stars Erica Peeples as a journalist who finds her violent past following her as she moves across the country. Also with Vivica A. Fox, Andra Fuller, Rotimi, Jeremy Meeks, Darius McClary, Faith Evans, and Columbus Short.
Unhinged (R) Russell Crowe is really fat in this movie, and it’s hard to tell how much of it is padding, weight he gained for the role, or just the way his body is now. The extra pounds work to make him menacing as a murderous motorist who targets a divorcing mother (Caren Pistorius) after an altercation at an intersection. In a better version of this thriller, this would be terrific, but this one can’t overcome the weak performance by Pistorius or the uninventive direction by Derrick Borte (The Joneses). Don’t risk your health for this C-level trash. Also with Gabriel Bateman, Anne Leighton, Austin P. Mackenzie, and Jimmi Simpson.
The War With Grandpa (PG) This kids’ comedy is so toothless that it could have been made 30 years ago. I wish it had been; then I would have forgotten it by now. Oakes Fegley (from the recent Pete’s Dragon remake) plays a borderline sociopath of a boy who initiates a war of practical jokes when his grandfather (Robert De Niro) moves into his parents’ house and forces him out of his bedroom. The parents (Uma Thurman and Rob Riggle) look brain-damaged for not noticing all the broken furniture and wild animals suddenly appearing in their house. Haven’t the adult cast members done enough paycheck films among them to not have to participate in these fourth-rate hijinks? This is adapted from Robert Kimmel Smith’s children’s book, which I can only hope is better than the movie. Also with Christopher Walken, Laura Marano, Juliocesar Chavez, T.J. McGibbon, Isaac Kragten, Cheech Marin, and Jane Seymour.
Chick Fight (R) Malin Akerman stars in this comedy as a woman who discovers her personal connection to an underground all-female fight club. Also with Bella Thorne, Julie Michaels, Kevin Connolly, Kevin Nash, Fortune Feimster, and Alec Baldwin.
Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man (NR) Allen Farst’s documentary profiles the legendary rock keyboardist. Also with Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, John Mayer, Miranda Lambert, Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts, Bruce Hornsby, Paul Shaffer, and Billy Bob Thornton.
The Dark and the Wicked (NR) Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. star in this horror film by Bryan Bertino (The Strangers) as siblings who sense evil taking over their secluded family farm when they visit for their father’s death. Also with Xander Berkeley, Lynn Andrews, Julie Oliver-Touchstone, and Tom Nowicki.
Echo Boomers (R) Based on a true story, Seth Savoy’s thriller is about a group of recent college graduates who steal from rich people to pay off their debt. Starring Patrick Schwarzenegger, Alex Pettyfer, Gilles Geary, Oliver Cooper, Lesley Ann Warren, and Michael Shannon.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Story (PG) This animated film is about a legendary toymaker (voiced by Forest Whitaker) who must rely on his granddaughter (voiced by Madalen Mills) to re-awaken his magic. Additional voices by Keegan-Michael Key, Phylicia Rashad, Hugh Bonneville, Anika Noni Rose, and Ricky Martin.
Stealing Chaplin (R) Based on a true story, this comedy stars Doug and Simon Phillips as brothers who plot to steal the corpse of Charlie Chaplin and hold it for ransom. Also with Al Sapienza, Peter Woodward, Brent Barrett, Anne-Carolyne Binette, and Wayne Newton.