A red-haired heroine leads the weekend at the movie theaters.
"Brave" is a rousing adventure from the folks at Pixar, the studio's first female-centric story. She is Merida, the teen princess of a medieval Scottish king, who bristles at her mother's attempts to groom her into a marriage-ready proper lady. An encounter with a witch lets Merida make a fate-changing wish, with surprising consequences. The story is skimpy, but the characters are strong, with the voice work of Kelly Macdonald (as Merida) and Emma Thompson (as the queen, Elinor) bringing warmth to the mother-daughter relationship (as well as giving us a "Nanny McPhee" reunion).
The history/horror mash-up "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is not nearly as fun as that title suggests. Writer Seth Grahame-Smith recasts the 16th president (Benjamin Walker) as an ax-swinging killer of the undead, trained by a veteran vampire hunter (Dominic Cooper), as the lead vampire (Rufus Sewell) makes a pact with the Confederacy -- turning the Civil War into a battle between humans and vampires. Director Timur Bekmambatov ("Wanted") stages some outlandish action sequences, but the overly serious tone kills the horror-movie thrill.
The serious-minded romantic comedy "Seeking a Friend For the End of the World" starts with the news that a giant asteroid is headed toward Earth, giving humanity three weeks to live. This causes many people to check out early, mentally or physically, and others to reassess their lives. Two of these people are the emotionally remote Dodge (Steve Carell), who seeks his high-school love after his wife abandons him, and the flighty Penny (Keira Knightley), who wants to get home to England to see her family one last time. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria nicely balances the absurdist humor with the gentle humanity of her main characters.
Even better on the romantic-comedy front -- in fact, one of the best movies so far this year -- is "Safety Not Guaranteed," a hit from this year's Sundance Film Festival. A jaded magazine writer (Jake Johnson, from "New Girl") wants to do a story on a bizarre classified ad, one seeking a partner for time travel. The writer enlists two interns, cynical Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and nerdy Arnau (Karan Soni), to track down the ad's writer, a loner named Kenneth (Mark Duplass). Darius makes a connection with Kenneth, and starts to wonder if he's not really crazy but sincere about his plans. Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly (who won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance for this script) create a quietly intense comic vibe, and genuinely sweet characters. The movie also benefits from a star-making performance by Plaza, who shows she's more than her "Parks and Recreation" character's deadpan cynicism. (Read an interview with Duplass here.)
Lastly, there's "Polisse," a police procedural from France, centering on the work and personal lives of the cops in Paris' Child Protection Unit -- who deal with everything from child kidnappings to pedophiles. Director Maïwenn, the one-named actress who also appears as a photographer allowed to observe the unit on and off duty, focuses too much on the private lives, while also giving us too many characters for us to stay connected to all of them.