BIG MIRACLE. This 1980s true story, based on news accounts and a 1989 book, could have been a treacly, unchallenging “family film.” Instead, it’s a sharply defined, lightly comic slice of Americana for anyone 10 or older. The story is about three whales trapped under ice off the coast of Alaska, and the film drolly examines the political and philosophical fault lines of the Reagan era as different people work together to save them.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The strongest element for kids younger than 10 will be the sheer suspense about whether the whales will survive and make it to the open sea. The script contains some salty language, and adults drink. Spoiler alert: There is one whale death. We don’t see it happen, but we do see its injured snout and hear its labored breathing.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK. Based on a novel by Susan Hill, this movie is a well-made throwback — a handsome rendering of a ghost story set in Victorian England. Many high-schoolers will revel in its rich atmosphere and shriek-inducing ghostly visits. That overall spookiness may be too much for middle-schoolers. In a prologue, we see three girls jump to their deaths, seemingly hypnotized by the spirit of the title. Years later, lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe, in his post-“Harry Potter” debut) has come to the village to settle a dowager’s estate. He is determined to get to the bottom of the ghostly mystery.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The film depicts ghostly spirits, many of them children. In several scenes, children are led to their deaths by the Woman in Black. A spirit reenacts a hanging suicide, and other flashbacks show a child drowned. We see bloody sheets where Arthur’s wife died in childbirth. Characters drink.
CHRONICLE. On a whim, three high-school boys explore an unusual cave in this cleverly made sci-fi saga, and the telekinetic powers they develop after their exposure to an unearthly material there leads them first to fun and then to tragedy. A strong cast of young actors and clever visual effects created on a budget make “Chronicle” an absorbing adventure but perhaps too violent and emotionally tortured for middle-schoolers, despite its PG-13 rating.
THE BOTTOM LINE: As one of the boys grows increasingly unhappy at home, he lashes out violently, and the results are injuries and death. The violence — people thrown to their deaths, explosions, buildings wrecked — is not graphic but it is loud, fast and upsetting. One incident involves an impalement. Characters use occasional profanity, and it’s implied that teens drink beer at a party. Andrew’s dad is usually drunk, with bottles all around. His mother is on oxygen and looks very ill.
ONE FOR THE MONEY. Katherine Heigl is bumbling bounty hunter Stephanie Plum in this comedy/crime thriller. Though rated PG-13, the movie contains a lot of crudely implied sexual humor, and some rough gun violence nears R range, so it’s not for middle-schoolers. High-schoolers may find it puzzling, as it never locks onto a particular tone, beginning in a sort of offbeat Coen brothers style, then wandering into farce and back again.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The script includes a lot of midrange profanity, occasionally stronger stuff and sexual innuendo with briefly implied nudity. The gunplay gets intense in a couple of scenes. Characters drink and handle a shipment of heroin.
THE GREY. Based on a short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, who wrote the script with director Joe Carnahan, “The Grey” feels like a throwback to a Jack London adventure in which men test their mettle against whatever nature throws at them. Teens 15 and older with strong stomachs will find it mighty enthralling. Terrifically acted and handsomely made, “The Grey” is both a thriller and a dark night of the soul for a tough group of men, led by John Ottway, who protects an Alaskan oil crew from wolves. Ottway has a Captain Ahab-like obsession with the beasts. The movie isn’t for kids younger than high school age, but it’s an unusually cool piece of work.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The wolf attacks themselves are not highly graphic, but the foreboding leading up to them and the size of the animatronic and computer-animated creatures — yellow eyes, huge teeth — make the attacks feel graphic. And the views of the mutilated victims are graphic. The action includes a harrowing plane crash, gunplay and fistfights. Characters drink and use strong profanity. Themes of suicide, loss of faith and an existential sense of nothingness weave throughout.
UNDERWORLD: AWAKENING. High-schoolers who enjoy vampire sagas of a more violent strain than the “Twilight” films will have plenty to chew on in “Underworld: Awakening.” The melding of live action and special effects, subtly intensified in 3-D, works handsomely, but the violence is too gory for middle-schoolers. In a prologue, the three previous films are summarized, but this film is still tough to follow. The vampire heroine, Selene, recalls how she was captured while trying to save her human/Lycan (werewolf) lover from humans. She was frozen for 12 years and escaped from a lab. An even more deadly form of werewolf has escaped annihilation. Selene impales, beheads and chops her way to the truth of what occurred.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The violence includes beheadings, impalings, bone-splinterings and head-bashing fights. References to genocidal “cleansing” of the “nonhumans” are disturbing. One scene includes implied nudity, and there is very occasional profanity.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.