Blithe Spirit (PG-13) Adapted from Noël Coward’s comedy, this film stars Dan Stevens as a 1940s widower whose marriage to his new wife (Isla Fisher) is interrupted by the ghost of his deceased first wife (Leslie Mann). Also with Judi Dench, Julian Rhind-Tutt, and Emilia Fox. (Opens Friday in Dallas)
The Violent Heart (NR) Jovan Adepo (Fences) stars in this drama as a young man haunted by his older sister’s murder as he falls for a woman (Grace Van Patten). Also with Lukas Haas, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Raven-Symoné, Jahi D’Allo Winston, and Mary J. Blige. (Opens Friday at Movie Tavern Hulen)
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.
Judas and the Black Messiah (R) What Spike Lee’s Malcolm X did for Malcolm X, this film comes close to doing for Fred Hampton. LaKeith Stanfield portrays Bill O’Neal, the small-time criminal who is roped in by an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) in the late 1960s and forced to join the Black Panther Party for the purposes of informing on the Chicago branch’s leader, Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Awesomely named director/co-writer Shaka King makes this a necessary companion piece to Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, and if his story rings a few too many familiar bells about informants who get in too deep, the anguish on Stanfield’s face puts it across as Bill buys into the revolutionary rhetoric but still delivers Fred into his killers’ hands. He’s overshadowed, however, by Kaluuya, giving his most impressive performance to date and bringing Hampton’s charisma and presence to fiery life. Also with Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Lil Rel Howery, Khris Davis, Darrell Britt-Gibson, and Martin Sheen.
Land (PG-13) Robin Wright stars in her directorial debut as a widow who copes with her grief by moving to Wyoming to live off the grid. Also with Demián Bichir, Kim Dickens, Sarah Dawn Pledge, and Warren Christie.
The Little Things (R) Seriously, they got together three recent Oscar winners for this pile of crap? This serial killer that’s a throwback in all the wrong ways is set in 1990, with Denzel Washington as an ex-LAPD detective who comes back from exile to assist a hotshot younger detective (Rami Malek) in taking down a serial killer who butchers women and poses their naked bodies at places other than the murder scenes. Our protagonist is supposed to have Sherlock Holmes-like powers of observation, and they’re underwhelming here. Jared Leto infuses the part of the prime suspect with a welcome degree of creepy humor, but writer-director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side) butchers the climax so badly that you can’t forgive him. Also with Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Michael Hyatt, Isabel Arraiza, Glenn Morshower, and Judith Scott.
The Marksman (PG-13) The whole Liam Neeson old-man thriller bit really shows its age here. He plays a Marine sniper and Vietnam veteran-turned-Arizona rancher who gets into a shootout with a Mexican drug cartel after a boy (Jacob Perez) flees across the border and his property. The boy’s mother (Teresa Ruiz) is killed in the firefight, and he resolves to fulfill her dying wish by taking the boy to his remaining family in Chicago. The relationship between the embittered widower and the kid never chimes, and the action sequences staged by director/co-writer Robert Lorenz are boring even though the plot would seem to lend itself to a decent chase scene. Even at home, this isn’t worth your time. Also with Katheryn Winnick, Juan Pablo Raba, Alfredo Quiroz, Sean Rosales, Jose Vazquez, Antonio Leyba, and Amber Midthunder.
The Mauritanian (R) Tahar Rahim gives a tremendous performance in a thoroughly mediocre movie about Mohamedou Slahi, the North African businessman who was grabbed up by the CIA as a suspected terrorist, held without charge, and tortured before he was let go 15 years later. Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley play his American lawyers and Benedict Cumberbatch plays the military prosecutor who comes to believe that the accused man is innocent. With all that star power, you still can’t take your eyes off the Arab-French actor at the center, as the prisoner’s faith is tested by his lengthy imprisonment and the various pressures brought by a U.S. government that’s hellbent on finding him guilty. Even in a dull and unimaginative vehicle, his performance of the man’s quiet heroism shines out. Also with Zachary Levi, Corey Johnson, Andre Jacobs, Langley Kirkwood, and Alaa Safi.
Minari (PG-13) The great boom in Korean filmmaking is joined by a great movie about Korean immigrants in America. Veteran director Lee Isaac Chung draws on his own childhood for this story about a Korean farmer (Steven Yeun) who buys up 50 acres in northwest Arkansas in the 1980s to grow Asian vegetables for the other immigrants coming after him. The workload on him and his wife (Han Ye-ri) is too much to allow them to look after their kids (Noel Cho and Alan Kim), so her mother (Youn Yuh-jung) comes there from South Korea to look after the children. The hard-swearing, chain-smoking grandma is a presence as hot as gochujang, and much of the comedy comes from the unlikely friendship she forms with her 6-year-old grandson. Chung devotes a great deal of attention to the practical struggles of farming, and in so doing demonstrates how an immigrant takes root in American soil. The movie’s title comes from a parsley-like herb that the old woman plants, a symbol of the legacy she leaves in a short time. Also with Will Patton, Darryl Cox, Esther Moon, Ben Hall, and Eric Starkey.
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.
Nomadland (R) Chloé Zhao makes her second film in America, and it shows off how much at home she is in a Western. Frances McDormand stars as a widow whose company town has shut down, so she lives out of her van and travels across the American West doing odd seasonal jobs. Zhao shows us this loose community of people who live thus, where life is a series of farewells and reunions as individuals move from place to place. McDormand blends in seamlessly with a cast full of real-life nomads, and her rapport with a 75-year-old named Swankie is so easy that the whole movie could have been just them hashing out the particulars of life on the road. Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards have an eye for the natural beauties of the West but don’t overlook the privations of such a life. This Chinese filmmaker’s portrait of the margins of American society is rendered with great compassion. Also with David Strathairn, Melissa Smith, Warren Keith, and Tay Strathairn.
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 Reckoning (NR) Neil Marshall (The Descent) directs this horror film about a medieval widow (Charlotte Kirk) accused of witchcraft after refusing her landlord’s sexual advances. Also with Joe Anderson, Sean Pertwee, Steven Waddington, Emma Holzer, Cal MacAnich, and Ian Whyte.
Supernova (R) Just one great scene gives you a reason to see this film, without necessarily making it into a good movie. Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play a longtime gay couple taking a road trip through England’s Lake District in the wake of one of them suffering from early-onset dementia. Writer-director Harry MacQueen gives us some beautiful shots of the countryside, but too much of the film is taken up with the banal banter of a couple long used to each other’s quirks, and the characters’ interest in astronomy proves to be a weak metaphor in the script. Only during a climactic confrontation over a dinner table about the prospect of assisted suicide gives us the fireworks that we would expect from these two actors, and the raw honesty of this scene jolts the whole film. Also with Pippa Haywood, Peter MacQueen, Nina Martin, and Ian Drysdale.
Uppena (NR) This Indian romance is about a couple (Panja Vaisshnav Tej and Krithi Shetty) whose love across class lines inspires her family to try to murder her to protect their honor. Also with Vijay Sethupathi, Rajsekhar Aningi, and Brahmaji.
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.
Willy’s Wonderland (NR) Nicolas Cage stars in this horror film as a janitor at an abandoned amusement park where the animatronic creatures come to life. Also with Beth Grant, Caylee Cowan, Emily Tosta, Terayle Hill, and Grant Cramer.
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 World to Come (R) Too close to its source. Katherine Waterston plays a woman in 19th-century western New York state who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a farmer (Casey Affleck) when she falls in love with the beautiful farmer’s wife (Vanessa Kirby) who moves in nearby. The film is based on a short story by Jim Shepard, and for every two lines that sound like they were written in the 1860s, there’s one that falls with a clunk onto the floor. The real problem, though, is that not enough happens, and the main character is a droning voice as she narrates the events through her diary entries. It’s hard to fault the cast, but director Mona Fastvold doesn’t supply enough visual invention to make this lesbian romance feel alive. Also with Christopher Abbott.
A Writer’s Odyssey (NR) Another Chinese blockbuster where the special effects overwhelm the story, although the story doesn’t go down without a fight. In the present day, a tech billionaire offers to help a father (Lei Jiayin) find his missing daughter in exchange for murdering a fantasy adventure novelist (Dong Zijian) whose current book seems to be ruining the billionaire’s health. The fictional world created by the writer then proceeds to invade the real world, with real people finding themselves with counterparts in the adventure plot. All the plot strands get tangled up very quickly, and director Lu Yang can’t unravel them in any sort of coherent way. Lei’s anguished performance as a man obsessively searching for his child can’t salvage this confusing mess. Also with Guo Jingfei, Yang Mi, Yu Hewei, and Tong Liya.
Adverse (R) Thomas Ian Nicholas stars in this thriller as a rideshare driver who discovers that his sister is in debt to the mob. Also with Mickey Rourke, Sean Astin, Lou Diamond Phillips, Andrew Keegan, and Penelope Ann Miller.
Fear of Rain (PG-13) This psychological thriller stars Madison Iseman as a schizophrenic girl who comes to believe that her neighbor (Katherine Heigl) has kidnapped a child. Also with Harry Connick Jr., Enuka Okuma, Eugenie Bondurant, and Israel Broussard.
Little Fish (NR) Jack O’Connell and Olivia Cooke star in this film about a couple trying to hold their relationship together during a pandemic that causes people to lose their memory. Also with Soko, Raúl Castillo, and David Lennon.
Music (PG-13) The controversy-dogged drama directed by pop singer Sia stars Kate Hudson as a recovering alcoholic who is suddenly made guardian of her autistic half-sister (Maddie Ziegler). Also with Leslie Odom Jr., Juliette Lewis, Kathy Najimy, Hector Elizondo, Tig Notaro, and Lena Dunham.
No Strings (NR) Rebecca Ugo’s drama is about a girl (Racheal Ihim) who struggles with her relationships after being rescued from child sex traffickers. Also with Daniel Lopez, Malik Julien, Javier Rodriguez, Jason Gutierrez, Anthony Foreman, and Laila Burton.
Saint Maud (R) This horror film stars Morfydd Clark as a devout Christian hospice nurse who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of a dying patient (Jennifer Ehle). Also with Lily Knight, Lily Frazer, Turlough Convery, and Rosie Sansom.
Son of the South (PG-13) Based on Bob Zellner’s autobiography, this drama stars Lucas Till as a 1960s Southerner who rejects his family’s deep history with the Ku Klux Klan to join the civil rights movement. Also with Lucy Hale, Sienna Guillory, Julia Ormond, Jake Abel, Cedric the Entertainer, and Brian Dennehy.
Weekenders (NR) Erik Bloomquist directs and co-stars in this comedy about four young people who are double-booked at an Airbnb. Also with Peyton Michelle Edwards, Ehad Berisha, and Maggie McMeans.
Young Hearts (NR) This teen romance stars Anjini Taneja Azhar as a high-school freshman who starts a relationship with an older boy (Quinn Liebling) and finds the social impact to be different for them. Also with Alex Jarmon, Ayla Carda, Kelly Grace Richardson, and Eric Martin Reid.