Herself (R) Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) directs this British drama about a young mother (Clare Dunne) who fights back against an unfair housing system after she flees an abusive marriage. Also with Molly McCann, Ruby Rose O’Hara, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Cathy Belton, and Sarah Kinlen. (Opens Friday at Grand Berry Theater)
Pieces of a Woman (R) Vanessa Kirby stars in this drama as a woman who mentally unravels after her home birth results in her losing her baby. Also with Shia LaBeouf, Iliza Shlesinger, Benny Safdie, Sarah Snook, Molly Parker, and Ellen Burstyn. (Opens Wednesday in Dallas)
Shadow in the Cloud (R) Utterly crackers, as the British would say. Chloë Grace Moretz stars in this World War II horror film as an RAF officer who catches a flight on an Allied cargo plane from New Zealand to Samoa on a mysterious mission. Much of the film is just her by herself trapped in the plane’s Sperry ball turret and listening to the airmen’s sexist remarks over the radio. If director/co-writer Roseanne Liang had stuck with that, the film might have worked, but she and co-writer Max Landis introduce a literal gremlin that tries to sabotage the plane and kill her, plus another plot twist that may be even more unbelievable. At least the story comes up with an explanation for Moretz’ dodgy British accent. This movie is crazy bad in a way that you may just find watchable. Also with Nick Robinson, Beulah Koale, Taylor John Smith, Benedict Wall, Byron Coll, Joe Witkowski, and Callan Mulvey. (Opens Friday at Cinergy Granbury)
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.
The Croods: A New Age (PG) This sequel to the 2013 animated film has a message about learning to get along with different people, but the story is way too scattershot to bring that across. Our family of cavemen are on the point of starvation when they run across another family (voiced by Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann) who claim to be better evolved, a claim backed up by their plentiful food supply. This leads to a tangled plot with a giant monster, a sisterhood of warriors, and monkeys that communicate by hitting one another, and the material achieves something by making such a distinctive cast sound so bland. The best part of this is Tenacious D’s cover version of “I Think I Love You,” which plays at different junctures of the movie. Additional voices by Emma Stone, Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Cloris Leachman, Clark Duke, and Kelly Marie Tran.
Fatale (R) This starts out as a Fatal Attraction-like erotic thriller for the first 40 minutes, then it turns into a whole other type of bad movie. Michael Ealy plays a successful sports agent who has a one-night stand in Vegas with some bachelorette (Hilary Swank) who then turns out to be the police detective investigating after an intruder breaks into his L.A. home and tries to kill him. I give director Deon Taylor and writer David Loughery credit for their ambition here, but the numerous plot twists that follow are well short of Hitchcockian cleverness. The filmmakers aren’t nearly clever enough to make their story pay off the way they want to. Poor Michael Ealy is a dynamic actor who deserves a much better showcase. Also with Mike Colter, Danny Pino, Damaris Lewis, Tyrin Turner, and Kali Hawk.
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.
Half Brothers (PG-13) Mexican comedies keep trying to bring in American audiences despite lagging behind their American counterparts. Luis Gerardo Méndez plays an uptight Mexican business magnate who hears that the father (Juan Pablo Espinosa) who abandoned him as a child is now dying in Chicago, and the old man’s last wish is to have him take a road trip through America with the doofus half-brother (Connor Del Rio) whom he never knew existed. Hollywood director Luke Greenfield (The Girl Next Door) takes charge of this comedy that’s about 60 percent in English, but this setup just leads him into soppy stuff about the importance of family. The screenwriters know that the main character holds stereotypical attitudes about fat, lazy, stupid Americans, but then they rely on those same stereotypes for humor. Unlike the country’s dramatic films, Mexican comedies haven’t proved that they can travel. Also with José Zúñiga, Vincent Spano, Bianca Marroquin, Ashley Poole, Ian Inigo, Nohelia Sosa, and Alma Sisneros.
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.
Monster Hunter (PG-13) When it comes to movies about giant burrowing sand monsters, this isn’t as good as Tremors, and I hope the upcoming Dune remake is better. Milla Jovovich plays the leader of a group of U.N. soldiers who are transported to another planet where they have to fight massive beetle/rhinoceros/snake/dragon creatures that are impervious to gunfire. Soon enough, she’s the lone survivor who has to cooperate with a surviving human (Tony Jaa) from a previous mission, even though neither speaks the other’s language. This setup overtaxes Jovovich’s limited acting abilities, and writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson (who is married to Jovovich and worked with her on the Resident Evil movies) doesn’t have the action chops to do a performer like Jaa justice. One thing hasn’t changed about movies in 2020: Adaptations of popular video games still suck. Also with Ron Perlman, Meagan Good, Diego Boneta, Jin Au-yeung, and T.I.
News of the World (PG-13) Paul Greengrass tries to be John Ford. It doesn’t work. The director of The Bourne Ultimatum adapts Paulette Jiles’ Western novel about a Civil War veteran (Tom Hanks) who makes a living as an itinerant newsreader in Texas who finds an orphaned German girl (Helena Zengel) whose Kiowa family has been slaughtered and resolves to take her from Wichita Falls to Castroville to her last remaining biological relatives. Greengrass knows how to stage a shootout when our protagonist has to defend the girl against a band of pedophiles in the open country, but little of interest comes from the journey taken by two people who don’t speak the other’s language. Without the heart of the story, this Western is as arid as the Texas air. Also with Elizabeth Marvel, Michael Angelo Covino, Ray McKinnon, Fred Hechinger, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Camp, and Mare Winningham.
Pinocchio (PG-13) One of the oddest films of this year probably gets its weirdness from sticking closer to Carlo Collodi’s novel. Roberto Benigni (who starred in an earlier, much worse film of this story) plays Geppetto, who carves a boy (Federico Ielapi) out of a block of wood and sees him come to life. This Italian movie is presented dubbed into English, which is how the Italians tend to prefer things. Director/co-writer Matteo Garrone brings some superb production values to this and shoots the film in parts of Tuscany, Lazio, and Puglia that create a blasted, cold, gray background for the fairy tale. Your tolerance for this, however, may depend on your tolerance for the exaggerated commedia dell’arte stylings of the actors, many of whom are dressed as animals. The look of this film makes it worth a watch, and nobody sings “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Also with Rocco Papaleo, Massimo Ceccherini, Gigi Proletti, Davide Marotta, Alessio di Domenicantonio, Alida Baldari Calabria, Maria Pia Timo, and Marine Vacth.
Promising Young Woman (R) This movie is evil, and also so very, very good. Emerald Fennell’s candy-colored, lethally sharp thriller stars Carey Mulligan as a woman who sets a master plan in motion when her medical school classmate and her dead friend’s unpunished date rapist (Chris Lowell) is back in town to get married. The main character is a compelling antiheroine with a powerful intellect, the willingness to put herself in harm’s way, and the hellish vindictive drive of Nicolas Cage in the back half of Mandy, and Mulligan plays her with a calm reasonability that’s all the more terrifying. The British actress-writer Fennell makes a sparkling debut as a director here, with on-point observations about rape culture and shows how her protagonist’s lust for revenge has drained her life of any joy or other meaning. This feels like the first of a wave of rape revenge films, and the filmmakers who follow this will have some work to do to surpass this movie’s achievements and fun. Also with Bo Burnham, Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown, Laverne Cox, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton, and an uncredited Alfred Molina.
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.
Wonder Woman 1984 (PG-13) Patty Jenkins makes this sequel as much like a 1980s film as possible, and it gives her a hook that she didn’t have for the original film. Our heroine (Gal Gadot) is keeping a low profile at the Smithsonian during the Me Decade when a magic artifact surfaces that grants people their wishes, which includes Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) being brought back to life and Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) turning into the Cheetah. The film does a better job at incorporating comic relief into the proceedings than the original and Gadot looks more comfortable here than at any previous point in the DC Comics movies. The early action sequences also have a nice retro feel to them, but the last half hour of the film is a near-total disaster drowned in CGI and sentimentality. Even with its flaws, the film works better as entertainment than any of the Justice League movies before it. Also with Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Amr Waked, Kristoffer Polaha, Stuart Milligan, Doutzen Kroes, Lilly Aspell, and Lynda Carter.
The Dissident (PG-13) This film by Oscar-winning documentarian Bryan Fogel (Icarus) investigates the murder of Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its subsequent cover-up by the Saudi government and Donald Trump.