Kushi (NR) This Indian romantic comedy stars Vijay Deverakonda, Samantha, Jayaram, Sachin Khedekar, Murali Sharma, and Vennela Kishore. (Opens Friday at Cinépolis Euless)
Avatar: The Way of Water (PG-13) I’m not impressed. Picking up some 15 years after the previous film, the story has Jake Sully and Neytiri (Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña) the father of four kids on Pandora when the humans return and force them to take shelter with another clan of Na’vi who have evolved to live in the sea. The visuals are surprisingly not that good, reminiscent of a top-end video game with both human and alien characters moving in unnatural manners and even some motion-smoothing. The Na’vi go from representing Native Americans to Polynesians, and the villains from the original film are resurrected so that they can be evil again. (They’re left alive for that reason and no other, too.) James Cameron’s movies aren’t just dumb, they’re preachy, too. That’s a bad combination. Also with Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Brendan Cowell, Jemaine Clement, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Jack Champion, Dileep Rao, Giovanni Ribisi, Edie Falco, and Sigourney Weaver.
Babylon (R) Damien Chazelle’s three-hour epic is never boring, but it still bites off more than it can chew. Set in Hollywood during the 1920s and ’30s, it’s about a fading movie star (Brad Pitt), an actress (Margot Robbie) whose rise is thwarted by the advent of sound movies, and a day laborer (Diego Calva) who becomes an executive. After the discipline of La La Land and First Man, Chazelle truly lets rip here, capturing the madness of early Tinseltown with the rhythms of a Keystone Kops short. Some of the set pieces here are astounding. The problem is, amid all this length and all the orgiastic excess, he loses the characters’ tragic arcs and never really earns his movie’s status as a paean to the magic of cinema. Also with Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Lukas Haas, Li Jun Li, Eric Roberts, Olivia Hamilton, Samara Weaving, Max Minghella, Joe Dallessandro, P.J. Byrne, Jeff Garlin, Chloe Fineman, Damon Gupton, Ethan Suplee, Spike Jonze, Katherine Waterston, Flea, Olivia Wilde, and Tobey Maguire.
Black Adam (PG-13) The old, boring DC Comics movies are back with this grim exercise. A completely miscast Dwayne Johnson plays the titular 5,000-year-old slave who’s reborn with god-like powers and a lust for revenge in the present day. The Middle Eastern country full of oppressed people who hate the Justice League and greet Black Adam as a liberator is an interesting setting, but director Jaume Collet-Serra (Jungle Cruise) is too busy imitating Zack Snyder’s heroic shots to do much with it. The humorous bits don’t work, and out of the new batch of superheroes sent to subdue Black Adam, only Quintessa Swindell registers as a human cyclone. Casting Johnson as a guy who’s seeking to avenge his son’s death ignores all the qualities that made him a star in the first place. Also with Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Shahi, Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo, Bodhi Sabongui, Marwan Kenzari, Mohammed Amer, Djimon Hounsou, Henry Winkler, and uncredited cameos by Viola Davis and Henry Cavill.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (PG-13) Burdened with the difficult double objective of mourning Chadwick Boseman and providing the thrills of a Marvel superhero movie, this imperfect sequel manages better than we could reasonably expect. In the wake of King T’Challa’s death, Wakanda fends off threats to its vibranium supply from an awakened underwater kingdom led by a flying Mayan serpent god (Tenoch Huerta). While Ramonda (Angela Bassett) assumes the throne, Shuri (Letitia Wright) deals with grief in unexpected ways. The film does lag a bit when introducing us to a pre-Columbian ocean city, and the sympathetic villain isn’t quite as resonant as the one in the first movie. Even so, the movie gives us some solid nuggets of action and comedy, and the post-credit sequence does great work at bringing some closure to the story. Also with Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, Dominique Thorne, Martin Freeman, Michaela Coel, Florence Kasumba, Richard Schiff, Lake Bell, Robert John Burke, Mabel Cadena, Alex Livinalli, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Trevor Noah, and an uncredited Michael B. Jordan.
Bones and All (R) Luca Guadagnino’s career continues to take fascinating turns, the latest being this teen romance similar to Call Me by Your Name that looks like a cheap 1980s horror flick. Taylor Russell plays a teenage girl who discovers that she’s a cannibal. When her father (André Holland) abandons her and leaves her with information about the circumstances of her birth, she finds an itinerant existence on the road encountering others like herself, some of whom are very bad people while one other (Timothée Chalamet) falls in love with her. This beautifully photographed film based on Camille DeAngelis’ novel doesn’t really work on the level of a horror movie, but it is a gently moving piece about two broken young people who find romance, and there is a hair-raising moment when the girl tracks down her mother (Chloë Sevigny) and it goes very bad. Also with Mark Rylance, David Gordon Green, Jessica Harper, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
Cirkus (NR) This Indian adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors stars Ranveer Singh, Pooja Hegde, Jacqueline Fernandez, Johnny Lever, Sanjay Mishra, Varun Sharma, Murali Sharma, Ajay Devgn, and Deepika Padukone.
Devotion (PG-13) The real-life Black U.S. Navy pilot and war hero deserved better than this square and badly photographed war drama. Jonathan Majors stars as Jesse L. Brown, who starts flying combat missions when the Korean War breaks out, becoming the only African-American pilot in his squad as well as best friends with his devoted wingman (Glen Powell). There’s a glimmer of an interesting bit when we see our man psych himself up for flights by shouting racial slurs at his reflection in a mirror, and there’s a cool one-take shot with the camera mounted on the wing of the plane as the wingman intentionally crashes his fighter. Beyond that, the movie doesn’t move beyond the template of stories about war heroes. Between the history and the battle sequences, this movie had more than enough to be interesting, but director JD Dillard can’t pull it off. Also with Joe Jonas, Thomas Sadoski, Christina Jackson, Daren Kagasoff, Spencer Neville, Nick Hargrove, Joseph Cross, and Serinda Swan.
Dhamaka (NR) Ravi Teja stars in this Indian action-comedy as both an unemployed man and a CEO who fight a business magnate (Jayaram) who tries to take over the latter’s company. Also with Sree Leela, Sachin Khedekar, Tanikella Bharani, Rao Ramesh, and Chirag Jani
18 Pages (NR) Nikhil Siddhartha and Anupama Parameswaran star in this romantic comedy. Also with Dinesh Tej, Ajay, Posani Krishna Murali, Brahmaji, and Sarayu Roy.
The Fabelmans (PG-13) Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical film is highly likable, if not exactly ground-breaking. His fictional alter ego (played by Mateo Zoryan as a small boy and Gabriel LaBelle as a teenager) is captured by the magic of cinema at a young age and seeks to become a filmmaker while growing up in New Jersey, Arizona, and northern California. Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner draw a complicated portrait of the former’s childhood, with his father (Paul Dano) not understanding the ways of arts while his mother (Michelle Williams) is the fun parent, but emotionally unstable. The loose, baggy structure allows for some great set pieces ranging from a monologue by an old Jewish great-uncle (Judd Hirsch) to a sex scene with a Christian girl (Chloe East) who has pictures of Jesus on every surface of her bedroom. Also with Seth Rogen, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters, Sophia Kopera, Robin Bartlett, Jeannie Berlin, and David Lynch.
Hijo Aja Ka Kura (NR) Santosh Pant directs and stars in this Nepalese comedy. Also with Rama Thapaliya, Keki Adhikari, Reecha Sharma, Divya Dev Pant, Sakar Pant, Rima Bishwokarma, and Jayananda Lama.
I Heard the Bells (NR) This Christian film stars Stephen Atherholt as the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who writes “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Also with Rachel Day Hughes and Jonathan Baird.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody (PG-13) The overabundance of material defeats a terrific director, Kasi Lemmons, in this biography of Whitney Houston. British newcomer Naomie Ackie acts as hard as she can as the legendary singer while lip-syncing to recordings made by the real Houston. The movie covers much of the ground that Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Whitney covered, with the addition of some good material about Houston’s complicated relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams). However, the 150-minute runtime is too much, the filmmakers don’t adopt a compelling angle on Houston’s life or her music, and the whitewashing done on the character of Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) — the real Davis is a producer on this film — is borderline disgraceful. Despite a few powerful moments, there’s not much point to all this. Also with Ashton Sanders, Clarke Peters, Tamara Tunie, Bria Danielle Singleton, and Dave Heard.
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile (PG) The idea of adapting Bernard Waber’s children’s books into a partially animated musical film is fantastic. The execution? Boo, hiss! Shawn Mendes does the voice of the CGI-generated crocodile who is adopted by a down-and-out stage magician (Javier Bardem) and then abandoned before making friends with a boy (Winslow Fegley) who moves into the Manhattan brownstone where he lives. Bardem looks somewhat manic when he bursts into song and dance, but he isn’t the problem. The animation of both Lyle and the neighbor’s cat looks terrible, and the directing team of Josh Gordon and Will Speck (Blades of Glory, Office Christmas Party) has no natural flair for musical numbers. Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (The Greatest Showman, Dear Evan Hansen) have seen better days as well. The charm of the original is lost here. Also with Constance Wu, Scoot McNairy, Brett Gelman, Lyric Hurd, and an uncredited Jack Black.
The Menu (R) This art satire uses haute cuisine as its metaphor to become a tasty amuse-bouche. Anya Taylor-Joy plays a woman whose boyfriend (Nicholas Hoult) takes her to a super-exclusive Noma-meets-El Bulli restaurant on a rocky island only to find that the guests and employees are being killed one by one as the evening progresses. If making fun of molecular gastronomy is so 2005, the movie has better stuff in the characterization of the 10 other dinner guests, and it is funny when the main character survives an attack by hitting the restaurant hostess with a Pacojet. The writers and director here all come from TV’s Succession, and their lines are made better by Taylor-Joy’s pinpoint comic delivery. This falls short of being a great satire, but it works as a joke that pays off. Also with Ralph Fiennes, John Leguizamo, Hong Chau, Paul Adelstein, Reed Birney, Judith Light, Aimee Carrero, Rob Yang, Mark St. Cyr, Arturo Castro, and Janet McTeer.
Prey for the Devil (PG-13) Pretty terrible. Jacqueline Byers stars in this horror film as a Catholic nun who receives exorcism lessons after the same demon that possessed her abusive mother then does the same to a little girl (Posy Taylor). The gender flip of a woman fighting the church to perform the ritual really should generate more than it does here. The plot turns on an outrageous coincidence, and for all the filmmakers’ desire to portray the darker history of the church, the commentary is pretty toothless. Also, the movie isn’t scary, so there’s that. This movie has too many ideas in its head and doesn’t have the chops to see them through. Also with Virginia Madsen, Colin Salmon, Nicholas Ralph, Christian Navarro, Cora Kirk, Debora Zhecheva, Koyna Ruseva, and Ben Cross.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (PG) This better-than-you-might-expect sequel has the Spanish-accented cat (voiced by Antonio Banderas) losing the eighth of his nine lives and facing the end of his adventure-hero career. A quest for a star that grants wishes brings him up against obese crime boss Jack Horner (voiced by John Mulaney) and a wolf (voiced by Wagner Moura) who is Death incarnate. The stereotypes are unfortunate, especially when Puss’ retirement home is run by a crazy cat lady (voiced by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), but his climactic swordfight against the wolf is boss, and Florence Pugh has a great time voicing Goldilocks with a trashy London accent. The studio makes an effort to make the movie look different from the Shrek films, and Puss’ confrontation with his mortality gives the character new dimensions. Additional voices by Salma Hayek Pinault, Harvey Guillén, Anthony Mendez, Kevin McCann, Samson Kayo, Ray Winstone, and Olivia Colman.
Spirited (PG-13) In this agreeable modern-day musical version of A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell) tries to redeem a marketing guru (Ryan Reynolds) who spreads disinformation on social media. The songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are better than the ones they wrote for Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, and both Reynolds and Octavia Spencer as the marketing guy’s Number 2 executive look surprisingly comfortable singing and dancing. Even better, director/co-writer Sean Anders (Instant Family) recognizes that turning a bad person good is a more complicated task than Charles Dickens made it appear. The filming might not be the most creative, but the charm of the three leads carries this holiday musical. Also with Tracy Morgan, Sunita Mani, Andrea Anders, Marlow Barkley, Patrick Page, Rose Byrne, and Judi Dench.
Strange World (PG) Disney’s latest animated film takes a pre-emptive shot at the Avatar sequel by conjuring some fantastical creatures of its own. Set on an alien planet where the people have maglev transportation and vinyl records, the movie is about a farmer (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) who has discovered electricity-producing plants but is caught between his manly-man explorer dad (voiced by Dennis Quaid) who abandoned him and his teenage son (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White) who takes after the old man when he resurfaces in his life. Props to this movie that the grandson is both mixed-race and gay. The ingredients are in place for a male version of Frozen, but the filmmakers become too caught up in the mechanics of the story and resolve everything too quickly. The film still looks great, but it misses its chance to be great. Additional voices by Gabrielle Union, Alan Tudyk, and Lucy Liu. (Opens Wednesday)
Ticket to Paradise (PG-13) The best stuff in this curiously inert romantic comedy comes around the edges of the action. George Clooney and Julia Roberts play a bitterly divorced couple who team up when their law-school graduate daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) falls for a hot Indonesian guy (Maxime Bouttier) and throws over her legal career to marry him and farm seaweed in Bali. The bickering between the older couple is written lamely, and their attempts to sabotage the wedding aren’t funny. There’s one amusing set piece where everybody plays beer pong with arak instead of beer, and Billie Lourd cadges a few funny bits as the daughter’s best friend. Mostly, the stars seem to be going at half speed in this tropical setting. Also with Cintya Dharmayanti, Geneviève Lemon, Dorian Djoudi, and Lucas Bravo.
Violent Night (R) A few years ago, David Harbour starred in a Saturday Night Live sketch that was a gritty version of Sesame Street. This movie feels like a more or less direct spinoff of that idea. He plays a drunk and jaded Santa Claus who’s sick of his job until he delivers presents to a wealthy family’s home at the same time a group of armed robbers stages a home invasion. He has to kill the bad guys, who all happen to be on his naughty list. The film runs out of momentum about halfway through, but Harbour gives the performance as much attention as a straight dramatic role and Santa kills the main bad guy in a particularly gruesome and funny way. Not bad as an entry for those burned out on holiday cheer. Also with John Leguizamo, Cam Gigandet, Leah Brady, Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder, Alexander Elliot, Edi Patterson, Mitra Suri, André Eriksen, Brendan Fletcher, Mike Dopud, and Beverly D’Angelo.
The Whale (R) Torturous, like the best Darren Aronofsky movies. This adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s play stars Brendan Fraser as a 600-pound gay man who tries to reconcile with the daughter he abandoned (Sadie Sink) by saving her from failing high school. If you’re wondering whether this is just so much fatsploitation, you’d better believe it is. When the main character first gets up from his sofa, it’s shot like a horror movie, and too often the movie revels in creating disgust for the guy who’s trying to eat himself to death. The flaws in the play have been exacerbated here, but Fraser’s performance is one for the ages, as his initial play-it-cool demeanor with his child gives way to desperation to make things right with her before he dies. Also with Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, and Samantha Morton.
The Honeymoon (R) Maria Bakalova and Pico Alexander star in this comedy as a couple whose honeymoon in Venice is ruined by his best friend. Also with Asim Chaudhry, Flynn Allen, Kai Portman, and Lucas Bravo.
Loudmouth (NR) Josh Alexander’s documentary profiles the Rev. Al Sharpton.
The Pale Blue Eye (R) Adapted from Louis Bayard’s novel, this thriller stars Christian Bale as a 19th-century homicide detective trying to solve a murder at West Point along with a cadet named Edgar Allan Poe (Harry Melling). Also with Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Charlie Tahan, Simon McBurney, Timothy Spall, and Robert Duvall.
2nd Chance (NR) Ramin Bahrani’s documentary profiles Richard Davis, the man who shot himself 196 times to demonstrate his bulletproof vests.
To the End (R) Rachel Lears’ documentary is about four politicians aiming to solve the global climate crisis.