"ParaNorman" (PG, 92 minutes, Universal): This animated film comes from writer/co-director Chris Butler, a storyboard artist who honed his skills on Tim Burton's "Corpse Bride" and Henry Selick's "Coraline." Butler's own movie is a spooky, creature-infested campfire story laced with valuable lessons about teamwork, responsibility, courage and the celebration of our inner outcast. That last trait is personified by Norman, a quiet and unassuming middle-schooler who can converse with the dead. Restless spirits are far kinder to Norman than the school bullies who ostracize our hero simply because he's different.
For years, Norman's crazy uncle has kept a centuries-old curse cast by a disgruntled witch named Aggie at bay. But when his uncle mysteriously dies, it's up to Norman, his perturbed older sister and his mild-mannered best friend to quell a zombie uprising and grant Aggie her final wish. After a creaky start, "ParaNorman" comes to life once the dead rise.
"Lawless" (R, 116 minutes, The Weinstein Co./Anchor Bay): John Hillcoat's adaptation of Matt Bondurant's dramatized family history, "The Wettest County in the World," has much to recommend it. Still, an inescapable sense of "so what?" sets in early with "Lawless," almost as soon as Shia LaBeouf begins his lackluster opening narration. In 1931, in Franklin County, Va., Jack Bondurant (LaBeouf) and his big brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke) and Forrest (Tom Hardy), divide their time between running the family's general store and a lucrative moonshine operation. It's a tidy living threatened by the arrival of Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). His opposite number, a celebrity criminal named Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), hovers around the proceedings like a Tommy-gun-toting eminence grise, with young Jack Bondurant idolizing him from afar and eventually enlisting him to help earn tough-guy bona fides.
"Lawless" feels less like it's breaking new ground than going through old motions. A movie about outlaws - whether indulging or interrogating their self-styled legend - should never play it this safe.
"Step Up Revolution" (PG-13, 99 minutes, Lionsgate): Despite its title, audiences shouldn't expect anything revolutionary from the fourth chapter in the "Step Up" franchise. By proudly waving its dance-to-live flag, "Step Up" falls in lock step with a proud lineage of body-rocking dramas. Director Scott Speer transports audiences to Miami, where poor but virtuous dancers Sean (Ryan Guzman) and Eddy (Misha Gabriel) plan flash mobs around South Beach's stylish neighborhoods. They dance to express themselves - and to get their video clips on YouTube, where they're racing other Internet sensations in a contest that awards $100,000 to the first video to amass 10 million hits. Sean eventually gets distracted, though, when he falls for Emily (Kathryn McCormick). A skilled ballerina with a taste for bad boys, Emily also happens to be the daughter of a greedy real-estate entrepreneur (a typecast Peter Gallagher) who plans to bulldoze Sean and Eddy's neighborhood to make room for a sleek hotel and business park.
"The Apparition" (PG-13, 82 minutes, Warner Bros. Home Video): Heroine Kelly (Ashley Greene) seems pretty happy with her boyfriend, Ben (Sebastian Stan). But Ben has never told Kelly about Lydia, the college girlfriend who got away. She was sucked into the nameless void during a high-tech seance conducted with Ben and Lydia's pompous friend Patrick. The young actors all look like first-timers in this disjointed scare flick, and the muddled script combines horror and sci-fi with a dollop of theology. But writer-director Todd Lincoln occasionally teeters on the verge of having some fun with the threadbare premise.
To be released Friday
"Men in Black III" (PG-13, 107 minutes, Sony): There are a couple of real pleasures in the third installment of the sci-fi adventure comedy series about cops policing a shadow world of aliens living among us. The most satisfying is the setup: In a time-travel scenario, Agent J must go back to 1969 to prevent the murder of his partner, Agent K. That affords the film an opportunity to make fun of the '60s. Until Agent J "time jumps" into the past, however, the movie feels flat-footed and lazy, reprising old jokes and sight gags from the earlier films. Adding to the list of misfires is Emma Thompson as Agent O, the head of the M.I.B. agency. Seemingly intended to add spice, the actress is hopelessly wasted. Finally, there's the tone. In earlier incarnations, the "Men in Black" franchise struck a happy balance between sly humor and slimy alien action. This third outing climaxes with a dark and melodramatic twist that, while adding a layer of nuance and back story, also feels out of sync with its audience's expectations.