American Underdog (PG) This has much better acting than your typical Christian football film, and better production values, with real NFL teams lending their stadiums and logos. These things make a difference, just not enough of one. Zachary Levi portrays Kurt Warner, an undrafted quarterback out of Northern Iowa University who stocks shelves at a local supermarket before catching on with the Arena League and then leading the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title. I would have liked more on what made the Rams’ offense so revolutionary and what it was like for Warner as a QB with a scant resumé to step in and lead a group of pros who had scant knowledge of who he was. The second half has too many inspirational speeches strung together. Still, Levi and Anna Paquin (as Warner’s wife Brenda) make this go down much more easily than other movies about faith. Also with Hayden Zaller, Ser’Darius Blain, Chance Kelly, Bruce McGill, Simeon Castille, Adam Baldwin, Steven Chester Prince, and Dennis Quaid. (Opens Saturday)
‘83 (NR) This Indian sports drama re-tells the story of the team that won the country’s first-ever Cricket World Cup title in 1983. Starring Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone, Tahir Raj Bhasin, Jiiva, Saqib Saleem, Jatin Sarna, Chirag Patil, Nishant Dahiya, Pankaj Tripathi, Boman Irani, and Simon Balfour. (Opens Wednesday)
A Journal for Jordan (PG-13) Denzel Washington makes pure pablum out of this real-life inspirational story based on journalist Dana Canedy’s account of her marriage to a soldier and subsequent bereavement. Michael B. Jordan portrays the soldier who writes a diary to his son whose birth he’ll never live to see, and Chanté Adams plays his New York Times reporter wife, who has to raise their son (Jalon Christian) by herself. As director, Washington unfurls this story with all the urgency of a Hallmark movie, and our protagonists are so bereft of any interesting qualities that there’s nothing to catch our attention. The main character is killed in the Iraq War, and the movie is so bent on making something comforting out of that that it has no impact. Also with Tamara Tunie, Robert Wisdom, Susan Pourfar, Vanessa Aspillaga, Johnny M. Wu, Samuel Caleb Walker, and Joey Brooks. (Opens Saturday)
The King’s Man (R) Matthew Vaughn tries to go all somber with this origin story, which is a huge mistake. The spy agency’s roots are shown to take place in the 1910s, when a pacifist English lord (Ralph Fiennes) tries to prevent war by setting up his own intelligence agency and conducting backdoor diplomacy. The director of Kick-Ass as well as the two preceding Kingsmen films aims for the seriousness of 1917 when World War I breaks out and the lord’s son (Harris Dickinson) enlists in the army. Vaughn can’t balance this with the parts of the movie that are supposed to be entertaining. The historical fiction has been painstakingly researched so that the filmmakers can throw in an evil cabal that controls both Lenin and Hitler. The resulting movie can’t decide what it wants to be. Vaughn’s irreverent sense of humor has taken a powder at the worst possible time. Also with Gemma Arterton, Djimon Hounsou, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Daniel Brühl, Alexandra Maria Lara, Tom Hollander, Ron Cook, August Diehl, David Kross, Charles Dance, and Stanley Tucci. (Opens Wednesday)
Shyam Singha Roy (NR) This Telugu-language romance stars Nani, Sai Pallavi, Madonna Sebastian, Krithi Shetty, Jisshu Sengupta, Murali Sharma, and Rahul Ravindran. (Opens Friday)
Sing 2 (PG) An improvement on the original, in the sense that drilling a hole in a tooth is an improvement on a root canal. Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) takes the gang to the big-time, playing the biggest theater in the entertainment capital of this animal world that we’re in. Only problem is, he promises to coax a bitter, reclusive former music star (voiced by Bono) out of retirement for the show without knowing whether it’s possible. The characters from the original all have their own subplots, and the sequel introduces a thuggish entertainment mogul (voiced by Bobby Cannavale) and his spoiled daughter (voiced by Halsey) who horns her way into the show. These have potential, but they all play out in disappointing ways, and there aren’t any memorable musical performances like the first movie had. Additional voices by Scarlett Johansson, Reese Witherspoon, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly, Nick Kroll, Garth Jennings, Jennifer Saunders, Chelsea Peretti, Nick Offerman, Eric André, Letitia Wright, Pharrell Williams, Edgar Wright, and Wes Anderson. (Opens Wednesday)
The Tender Bar (R) More of a vibe than a movie, George Clooney’s adaptation of J.R. Moehringer’s memoir portrays the author (Daniel Ranieri as a boy and Tye Sheridan as a young man) growing up on Long Island and getting sage advice on life and literature from his well-read bartender uncle (Ben Affleck) and the bar’s regular customers. The movie’s vision of male bonding as nurturing rather than toxic is something good to have, and Affleck’s performance will make you wish you had an uncle like that in your life. Even so, the movie’s structure borders on shapelessness and the main character, despite his erratic upbringing, emerges as fatally boring. There are worse coming-of-age stories out there, but there are better ones coming out this week. Also with Lily Rabe, Max Martini, Rhenzy Feliz, Briana Middleton, Max Casella, Sondra James, and Christopher Lloyd. (Opens Wednesday)
Being the Ricardos (R) Overstuffed and unsatisfying at the same time. Aaron Sorkin’s film takes in a week during the filming of I Love Lucy in 1952, as Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) is publicly accused of being a communist and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) makes the then-radical decision for her character to be pregnant on the show at the same time that she is in real life. Kidman does an uncanny impression of Ball’s mannerisms, Bardem is scarcely less great as a savvy entertainer enjoying his time in the spotlight, and this could have been great if Sorkin had focused. Unfortunately, he throws in all manner of sidebars about Lucy and Desi’s relationship, their respective pasts, anti-communist hysteria, and more. He can’t make us share his love of the inner workings of show business. This is the third film he has directed, and he isn’t getting any better. Also with J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jake Lacy, Clark Gregg, Christopher Denham, John Rubinstein, Ronny Cox, and Linda Lavin.
Christmas With the Chosen: The Messengers (NR) This concert documentary features various artists performing Christmas songs from the set of the TV series The Chosen.
Don’t Look Up (R) Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star in this comedy as astronomers who try to alert people that a comet is about to destroy the Earth. Also with Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet, Jonah Hill, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Ron Perlman, Michael Chiklis, Himesh Patel, Rob Morgan, Paul Guilfoyle, Kid Cudi, and Ariana Grande.
Dune (PG-13) This second attempt at adapting Frank Herbert’s mammoth science fiction epic offers a much smoother storytelling experience than David Lynch’s 1984 film. Timothée Chalamet stars as the young prince who’s forced to flee into the desert on an alien planet after his father (Oscar Isaac) is overthrown as the installed governor there. Director/co-writer Denis Villeneuve ends the story well short of the end of the book, which makes the film’s alien cultures and worlds feel more lived-in, but also keeps it from being a satisfying stand-alone film. Villeneuve gives you buckets full of spectacular vistas, and at its best, the film is sublime in the old sense of making you feel small. Too bad he overdoes it, feeling the need to underscore the epic quality of every scene. Whatever intimacy he doesn’t beat out of the story, Hans Zimmer’s music takes care of. Ultimately, this is like a beautifully presented and cleverly conceived restaurant meal that leaves you wanting to hit the nearest McDonald’s afterwards. Also with Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Momoa, Josh Brolin, Zendaya, Stellan Skarsgård, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Chang Chen, Dave Bautista, David Dastmalchian, Golda Rosheuvel, Roger Yuan, Charlotte Rampling, and Javier Bardem.
Encanto (PG) One of Disney’s better musical efforts, this animated film is about a refugee family in the Colombian mountains who all possess magical powers except for one granddaughter (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), who turns out to be vital to saving her sisters’ and cousins’ powers after they start fritzing. The cast is solid rather than containing any spectacular performances, and the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda are consistently clever while lacking a genuine showstopper. The Colombian setting gives the animators chances to draw all manner of flora, fauna, and food that we don’t often see at the multiplex, while the script makes references to South American magical realist literature. The tasty family drama that has almost everyone hiding something makes for a family film to savor. Additional voices by María Cecilia Botero, John Leguizamo, Jessica Darrow, Diane Guerrero, Angie Cepeda, Mauro Castillo, Carolina Gaitán, Rhenzy Feliz, Adassa, Maluma, and Wilmer Valderrama.
Eternals (PG-13) This is like the Marvel Comics movies’ version of The Tree of Life, and it should be much worse than it is. The main characters are 10 ageless beings who came to the Earth 7,000 years ago to assist in developing human civilization. In the present day, they find out they’re meant to assist in humanity’s extinction, and some of them decide to prevent it instead. Fresh off her Oscar win for Nomadland, Chloé Zhao brings all of Disney’s resources to re-creating Babylon in the 6th century B.C. and the Aztec empire. This is amazing to look at, and she films a Bollywood dance number like it’s something she’s always wanted to do, but her transition from her previous films to the maximalism of this one has its rough patches. Even so, the movie has its moments of inspiration when its characters dwell on the human race’s accomplishments over time. Messy as the film is, it’s hard not to admire the crazy ambition of this effort by the world’s reigning movie franchise. Starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Lia McHugh, Barry Keoghan, Lauren Ridloff, Don Lee, Kit Harington, Harish Patel, Bill Skarsgård, Haaz Sleiman, Patton Oswalt, and Harry Styles.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife (PG-13) This movie gives the fans everything they want. And it sucks! It sucks ectoplasm. It doesn’t start out so bad, to be fair, as Egon Spengler’s bankrupt and estranged daughter (Carrie Coon) receives news of his death and moves her teenage children (Finn Wolfhard and Mckenna Grace) to his badly kept farm in rural Oklahoma, where the kids discover who their grandfather used to be. Jason Reitman is the son of Ivan Reitman, who directed the movies in the 1980s. The younger Reitman is too good not to come up with some good lines as the family tries to put down roots, but he’s the wrong filmmaker for this project. He’s good at finding humor in ordinary everyday life, not at combining jokes with supernatural horror. They had 36 years to think of a different storyline, and instead they played back the exact same one as the original movie. That’s the sign of a filmmaker who’s too afraid of the fans to move. Also with Paul Rudd, Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor, Bokeem Woodbine, J.K. Simmons, Annie Potts, Ernie Hudson, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Sigourney Weaver.
House of Gucci (R) Ridley Scott takes an irresistibly soapy subject and films it like High Art, and the result is as lifeless as a department store mannequin. Lady Gaga portrays Patrizia Reggiani, who marries fashion heir Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) in the 1980s and then has him murdered in the 1990s when he tries to divorce her. The star has better instincts about what this film should be than the guy who’s been directing movies for 45 years. She’s the only actor in this cast stuffed with Oscar laureates who brings any sense of fun to the enterprise, as she dances with Maurizio’s cousin (Jared Leto) to gain his support and swears “Father, Son, and House of Gucci.” Scott has forgotten that movies are supposed to be entertaining and chisels a monument out of stone. The movie is too serious to take pleasure in its fashions or anything else, and so there’s little pleasure to take from it. Also with Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Jack Huston, Camille Cottin, Reeve Carney, and Salma Hayek.
Julia (PG-13) The documentary team of Julie Cohen and Betsy West previously did RBG about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and now they return with this profile of Julia Child that is the most attractively photographed documentary of the year. The film contains audio footage from its subject’s interviews that hasn’t been heard before, but even so, you won’t learn much new about the great TV chef if you’ve followed her career, or even if you watched Julie & Julia. See the film for Nanda Fernandez Brédillard and Claudia Raschke’s cinematography, with its loving closeups of dishes as they’re prepared by chefs in the French style that Child devoted her life to. Also with Marcus Samuelsson, José Andrés, Jacques Pepin, Ruth Reichl, Ina Garten, and Charles Gibson.
The Lady of Heaven (R) Proof that Muslim religious movies can be as inept as Christian ones. In accordance with Islamic scripture, Eli King’s film about Mohammed’s daughter Fatima uses CGI and dubbed voices so that no single actor portrays any of the holy personages of the Qu’ran. There’s probably a way to make this work as drama, but the filmmakers here haven’t found it. King resorts to myriad shots of brilliant sunshine streaming through windows that obscures people’s faces, and at one point there’s sunlight streaming through windows on opposite sides of a room, which is cosmologically impossible. The ancient story is intertwined with one set in 2014 about an Iraqi boy (Lucas Bond) who becomes a refugee after his mother is killed by ISIS, and that doesn’t work any better. Also with Denise Black, Ray Fearon, Chris Jarman, Gabriel Cartade, Albane Courtois, and Sami Kharim.
National Champions (R) There are problems with the plotting, but the dialogue and acting keep this football drama on track. Stephan James plays a Heisman-winning quarterback who announces a players’ strike six days before he’s scheduled to play in the national championship game and induces a whole bunch of his teammates and opponents to walk out with him. Based on Adam Mervis’ 2019 stage play, the movie updates its references to include the COVID pandemic and NIL rights. The underrated James carries this movie without strain, and there are stellar turns by J.K. Simmons as a coach begging his players to come back and Uzo Aduba as a ruthless NCAA fixer. The low budget means the movie has no football scenes, and you do miss them, but the drama is still worth your time. Also with Kristin Chenoweth, Timothy Olyphant, Alexander Ludwig, Jeffrey Donovan, Lil Rel Howery, David Koechner, and Tim Blake Nelson.
Nightmare Alley (R) The original 1947 film is really good, and so is Guillermo del Toro’s remake, in a lusher and different vein. Adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, this stars Bradley Cooper as a con artist who joins a traveling carnival in 1939, learns the tricks of appearing to read minds, strikes out on his own as an entertainer, and becomes entangled with Buffalo’s power elite. This may look too good in the sequences set among the marginal types in the carnival, but Del Toro’s willingness to go in for gore saves his movie from being overly tasteful. The psychological depth here is impressive, with Cooper’s charisma in fearsome form as an abused kid who’s applying his skills at reading people. This tragedy about a man who doesn’t know when to stop builds to a ruthless conclusion that the old film-noir masters would have admired. Also with Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, Mark Povinelli, Peter MacNeill, Holt McCallany, Jim Beaver, Clifton Collins Jr., and Tim Blake Nelson.
Pushpa: The Rise (NR) The first of a planned set of two films, this Telugu-language thriller stars Allu Arjun as a low-level truck driver in Andhra Pradesh who begins smuggling rare red sandalwood logs to a crime syndicate that ships them to China and Japan. Some of the action sequences are good, like the one where Pushpa and his fellow lumberjacks throw several tons’ worth of logs into a river to avoid being caught by police. The opening rap number in the forest, “Daakko Daakko Meka,” is actually rather badass, too. Still, the plotting is bog-standard, the romantic plot with a beautiful woman (Rashmika Mandanna) is pretty nasty, and the hero is yet another swarthy Indian superman who’s tougher than any human could possibly be. Also with Fahadh Faasil, Dhananjay, Sunil, Anasuya Bharadwaj, Shatru, Ajay Ghosh, Rao Ramesh, and Samantha Ruth Prabhu.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (R) This movie is set in 1998 so that the filmmakers can make a ‘90s-style horror film, use music from the era, and set up the backstory for the zombie series. It fails at all three. Kaya Scodelario stars as an orphan child who fled the company town rather than be subjected to medical experiments. She returns as an adult just in time for the first zombie outbreak and the pharmaceutical company’s decision to bomb the place and its inhabitants into oblivion. This is a movie where a helicopter crashes into a house and police officers searching a different part of the house somehow remain unaware of it. The inept scares and action sequences only underscore how cynically the studio is trying to extend this series. Never thought I’d be yearning for the presence of Milla Jovovich, but here we are. Also with Robbie Amell, Hannah John-Kamen, Neal McDonough, Avan Jogia, Chad Rook, Tom Hopper, Lily Gao, and Donal Logue.
Spider-Man: No Way Home (PG-13) Fanservice done more or less right, this movie has Peter Parker (Tom Holland) trying to reverse time and instead creating portals to parallel universes where villains from other Spider-Man movies (Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, Thomas Haden Church, Rhys Ifans, and Jamie Foxx) line up to fight him before realizing that he’s not the same Spider-Man that they faced earlier. The real reason they’re all brought together is so that all these great actors can get in the same room and bitch at each other, which they do to great comic effect. Peter does indeed pay a heavy price for messing with the time-space continuum, and if the storytelling only occasionally reaches the heights of Into the Spider-Verse, it does retcon some fixes for the previous movies about the web-slinger. Not a bad trick to make its predecessors seem worthier in retrospect. Also with Marisa Tomei, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Tony Revolori, Hannibal Buress, J.B. Smoove, Martin Starr, Angourie Rice, Benedict Wong, Charlie Cox, J.K. Simmons, Andrew Garfield, Tobey Maguire, and an uncredited Tom Hardy.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage (PG-13) The series continues to be a useful odd entry in the world of superhero comic adaptations. Tom Hardy returns as Eddie Brock, San Francisco reporter with an alien symbiote inside him that eats people. When an imprisoned serial killer (Woody Harrelson) bites his hand, the being reproduces itself inside him, allowing him to massacre everyone who attends his execution. Andy Serkis takes over as director and has a tough time balancing between the action and the elements of dark humor, as the protagonist tries to keep the murderous thing inside him from coming out. There’s a funny interlude when Venom separates from Eddie, hits a costume party, and finds kinship among the out-and-proud gays there. The script also has a firmer grasp on the fact that Eddie is an idiot and a bad journalist. If only the series could find greater consistency in the non-Venom parts of these movies, they’d be awesome. Also with Michelle Williams, Naomie Harris, Stephen Graham, Reid Scott, and Peggy Lu.
West Side Story (PG-13) The 1961 film of the musical won the Best Picture Oscar, but Steven Spielberg’s version is better, not least because it makes plenty of changes. Screenwriter Tony Kushner considerably fleshes out the supporting characters, and the propulsive force of Leonard Bernstein’s music forces the director to keep things moving. The fatal rumble takes place in a warehouse amid giant piles of salt, and “Cool” is staged (by choreographer Justin Peck) as Tony (Ansel Elgort) trying to keep a gun away from the other Jets. Elgort’s dancing makes Tony seem like a special guy in this neighborhood, Rachel Zegler (as Maria) displays operatic range, Ariana DeBose (as Anita) almost steals the film away, and Mike Faist (as Riff) makes the character into something hard and unforgettable. This classic is made new for our sensibilities. Also with David Alvarez, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Iris Menas, Josh Andrés Rivera, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Mike Iveson, and Rita Moreno.
American Sicario (R) This gangster film stars Philippe A. Haddad as a Mexican gangster whose rise to power makes enemies both outside and within his crime family. Also with Danny Trejo, Maya Stojan, Maurice Compte, Johnny Rey Diaz, Jaylen Moore, Margo Quinn, and Dionysio Basco.
The Hating Game (R) Lucy Hale and Austin Stowell star in this romantic comedy as professional rivals who are attracted to each other. Also with Corbin Bernsen, Sakina Jaffrey, Brock Yurich, Yasha Jackson, and Sean Cullen. n.
Last Words (NR) This science-fiction film stars Kalipha Touray as an astronaut in the 2080s who journeys to find the last remains of the human race. Alos with Nick Nolte, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgård, Alba Rohrwacher, Jun Ichikawa, Maryam d’Abo, and Valeria Golino.
The Novice (R) Isabelle Fuhrman stars in this drama as a college freshman who joins the rowing team and becomes unhealthily obsessed with improving her performance. Also with Amy Forsyth, Dilone, Jonathan Cherry, and Kate Drummond.
Schemes in Antiques (NR) This Chinese film tells a series of stories all revolving around a mysterious Buddha head. Starring Lei Jiayin, Wang Qingxiang, Xin Zhilei, Rock Ji, Qin Yan, Ge You, and Alan Aruna.
Swan Song (R) Mahershala Ali stars in this science-fiction drama as a terminally ill man in 2040 presented with the chance to have an exact copy of himself manufactured to replace him with his family. Also with Naomie Harris, Awkwafina, Adam Beach, Lee Shorten, and Glenn Close.