No one can question the continued visual majesty of Pixar's animated films. As for its stories, well, that's another matter. "Brave," which is the company's first to feature a female protagonist, concerns Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a Scottish teen princess far more interested in archery than settling down in an arranged marriage that would please her traditional mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). But Merida's rebellious streak throws the kingdom into peril when she meets a kooky witch (voiced by Julie Walters) who agrees to put a spell on her mother -- but not quite the spell Merida had in mind. Reveling in its rich storybook look, "Brave" is the closest that Pixar has come to producing a throwback to the Disney fairy tales of yore. Unfortunately, a creaky comedic sense and some spotty plotting in the second half keep the film from achieving the air of a timeless classic. With a voice cast that includes Billy Connolly, Craig Ferguson, and Robbie Coltrane, "Brave" serves as a laudable feminist rewrite of the typical damsel-in-distress storyline -- too bad Pixar's best efforts don't lead to a happily ever after.
A happy ending would seem unlikely for a film titled "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," and yet one of the strengths of this precisely pitched comedy-drama is its willingness to embrace hope in the face of oblivion. The film stars Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as New York neighbors who become friends in the wake of a global realization that an unstoppable giant asteroid will obliterate Earth in about three weeks. Deciding to take a road trip so that Carell can track down his one true love, these two mismatched souls don't debate the great mysteries of existence but, instead, try to make the best of the time they have left. Wry and quietly moving, "Seeking a Friend" is largely a triumph of tone, with both actors committing to underplaying their roles in a way that brings the humor and pathos into sharper relief.
"Sharp" isn't the word you'd use to describe writer-director Woody Allen's latest European bauble, "To Rome With Love," but the film does have its breezy charms. Set in the Italian capital, this comedy features several separate storylines, the best of which involves wealthy architect Alec Baldwin revisiting his old neighborhood and encountering Jesse Eisenberg, an aspiring architect involved in a romantic triangle with Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page that eerily reminds the older man of a similar predicament from his youth. Penélope Cruz is wasted as a no-nonsense streetwalker who has to pose as the wife of an uptight businessman (Alessandro Tiberi), but surprisingly effective is Roberto Benigni playing an ordinary man who inexplicably finds himself a celebrity, even though he hasn't done anything to warrant the attention. Allen appears on camera for the first time since 2006's "Scoop," but the real highlight of "To Rome" is how it uses a glossy, silly veneer to disguise some intriguing questions about second chances and chronic dissatisfaction.
If you don't mind your action sequences utterly preposterous, then you might have a fine time giggling away at the almost-camp overkill of "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." Benjamin Walker plays Lincoln, a man haunted by the death of his mother at the hands of the evil vampire Adam (Rufus Sewell). Trained by his confidante Henry (Dominic Cooper) in the ways of vampire killing, Lincoln slays all the bloodsuckers in his path, knowing that a showdown with Adam is imminent. It's best to accept "Vampire Hunter" for the unapologetically violent popcorn flick it aims to be and focus on Walker's winning performance as the soft-spoken, surprisingly lethal president. Also delicious is Cooper, essentially doing a variation on his oily Uday Hussein from "The Devil's Double." It's very easy to roll your eyes at how ridiculous a lot of this action-horror movie is, but you'll have more fun if you just roll with its goofy flow.
Longtime actor Martin Sheen comfortably transitioned into beloved-industry-veteran status with his long run on TV's "The West Wing," but his film work of late has mostly been in supporting roles. He's given a real opportunity to flex his gravitas in "Stella Days," a heartfelt, modest drama that does all it can with familiar story elements. Inspired by Michael Doorley's memoir of the same name, the film is set in a small Irish town in 1956 where Catholic priest Daniel Barry (Sheen) tries to reinvigorate his disenfranchised, economically depressed community by starting a movie theater -- despite some residents' protests that films are immoral. The battle between secularism and religion plays out as one would expect, but Sheen is appealing as a thoughtful, conflicted man of the cloth who only now is fully questioning why he entered the priesthood in the first place. Unfortunately, "Stella Days" too often settles for trite storytelling and cardboard characterizations, an affliction personified by the usually fine Stephen Rea as the town's clichéd conservative watchdog.
The documentary "The Invisible War" makes for uncomfortable viewing, which is only appropriate considering that its subject is one that most would rather ignore. Director Kirby Dick ("This Film Is Not Yet Rated") examines the alarmingly high rates of rape that occur within the U.S. military -- and how little justice the victims receive after they come forward. Focusing largely (but not entirely) on female soldiers, "The Invisible War" offers a depressing litany of interviews from those who have been sexually assaulted while serving their country, exposing a bureaucratic system that tends to bury such reports rather than investigate them. "The Invisible War" isn't quite definitive (the film would have benefited from more exploration of what happens to those in the military who try to stand up for these victims), but it's endlessly alarming and sobering nonetheless.