opening this week

American Dreamz (PG-13) The new season of American Dreamz, the wildly popular television singing contest, has captured the country’s attention, as the competition looks to be between a young Midwestern gal (Mandy Moore) and a showtunes-loving young man from Orange County (Sam Golzari). Recently awakened President Staton (Dennis Quaid) even wants in on the craze, as he signs up for the potential explosive season finale.

Friends With Money (R) Nicole Holofcener directs the tale of four west coast, life-long friends (Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, and Joan Cusack), who have achieved a level of comfort in their lives. But as they approach “a certain age,’ unsettling things are starting to throw their comfortable lives off balance.

The Sentinel (PG-13) A disgraced special agent (Michael Douglas) works to foil a plot to assassinate the U.S. President.

Silent Hill (R) Based on the videogame of the same name, a mother (Radha Mitchell) loses her sick daughter in a deserted town that seems to be controlled by a dark force.

critical capsules

ATL (PG-13) First-time director and MTV-style filmmaker Chris Robinson brings this combination of inner-city youth melodrama, hip-hop, roller skating, and culture clash to the screen with the aid of some fresh-faced talent (mostly from the music world). The storyline is basic after-school special with trimmings. With their parents dead, 17-year-old Rashad (played by 25-year-old T.I.) and 14-year-old Anton (played by 17-year-old Evan Ross Naess) are living with their uncle (Mykelti Williamson). Rashad works to get his brother an education. Aton sees a quicker way out of their low-class neighborhood — selling drugs. One guess what the moral of the story is. Spirited and innocuous, but of little interest outside its target audience. —Ken Hanke

The Benchwarmers (PG-13) More rubbish from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions. Sandler buddy Rob Schneider is here teamed up with the equally talented David Spade and flavor-of-the-month Jon Heder (milking his one-note Napoleon Dynamite persona). Essentially it’s another take on nerd empowerment (via baseball). Naturally, The Benchwarmers spends most of its running time making fun of the very people it supposedly champions — and anyway, it’s mostly a catalog of bodily excretions and secretions. Aside from the obligatory assortment of flatulence “gags,” we’re treated to puke jokes, urine humor, nose-picking frivolity (not to mention the post-picking ingestion of the proceeds), saliva-spewing shenanigans and more scatological boredom. —KH

Deep Sea 3D (Unrated) Directed by renowned underwater cinematographer Howard Hall, Deep Sea 3D takes viewers through a pastiche of some of the ocean’s oddest creatures, many of which we’ve seen before in superior documentaries like the BBC’s Blue Planet. Still, with the underwater vistas leaping out from a five-story-tall IMAX screen, it really is remarkably like being underwater. Perhaps the best thing about the film is the music of frequent Tim Burton collaborator Danny Elfman; when a small anemone extends a series of seemingly never-ending branch-like arms accompanied by a jaunty Elfman ditty, one can’t help but wonder, just for a second, if it’s real or animation. —Sara Miller 

Failure to Launch (PG-13) This somewhat repellent romantic comedy is about a woman (Sarah Jessica Parker) who specializes in duping 30-somethings still living at home by pretending to fall in love with them — thereby making them want to strike out on their own and get a house with an attic and a cookie jar, a wife, and 2.3 children. Since this is rom-com world, we aren’t supposed to wonder what happens when she dumps them, but merely be charmed when her scheme backfires and she falls for one of her subjects (Matthew McConaughey). It’s frankly not funny, romantic, or even remotely charming. —KH

Ice Age: The Meltdown (PG) It’s the last days of the ice age, and the cold-weather animals that have for thousands of years frolicked on earth’s frozen surface are blissfully unaware of the warm-up that’s coming. It’s the end of the world as they know it, and they feel fine. Meltdown is a big step up from the original Ice Age. The story is sharper, smarter, and funnier. It helps that there’s no time wasted with cavemen in this one, allowing the film to focus entirely on its animal characters. But the script is just flat-out funnier and the animation is better, too. It’s still of considerably lower quality than the work of Pixar or DreamWorks, but Fox’s Blue Sky animation department seems content to be third best. —Joshua Tyler

Inside Man (R) Spike Lee’s new film may not be the incendiary filmmaker’s best work, but it just might be his most purely enjoyable and sophisticated. Clive Owen stars as a bank robber who holds a bank full of people hostage while he matches wits with hostage negotiation specialist Denzel Washington. At the same time, powerful forces far above them — embodied by the bank’s owner (Christopher Plummer) and a high-priced “fixer” and damage-control expert (Jodie Foster) — try to keep a secret locked away in the bank from coming to light. Stylish to a fault and very entertaining (thanks in part to a sharply sarcastic script from newcomer Russell Gerwitz), it’s the most wholly satisfying film so far of 2006. —KH

Lucky Number Slevin (R) The biggest of several problems with this would-be ultra-cool, postmodern, con-artist black comedy is that it’s too concerned with being clever. The constant barrage of pop-culture references are all surface, and the end result feels like a bloated episode of Remington Steele gone bad. The impossibly arch dialogue is entertaining in its own right, but it’s like nothing ever uttered by human beings in real life. Still, there’s a fair degree of fun to be had with Lucky Number Slevin, mostly based on the performances, which are not wanting in terms of liveliness. And it’s fun watching the movie twist and turn to get to its surprise conclusion. Someone should tell the filmmakers that it’s unwise to evoke Cary Grant when your star is Josh Hartnett. —KH

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (Unrated) Simple-minded but sweet, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is an old-age tribute that doesn’t press as hard on your gag reflex as The World’s Fastest Indian. It’s a romantic fantasy for seniors in which the grand prize isn’t a world land-speed record or enough easily obtained sex to push a pacemaker to its limits, but a final chance to enjoy a real and satisfying friendship with a younger person. Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend acknowledge their similarity to Harold and Maude, then thankfully bypass the funny business to explore a platonic relationship that finds its currency in impromptu serenades and tales of the good old days. — Steve Schneider

Neil Young: Heart of Gold (PG) Jonathan Demme’s concert film of another new group of new songs from old Neil is not going to win over any converts. Demme’s close-up captures the essence of the aging rock star in near-pornographic detail, right down to his saggy Adam’s apple, rippling like a rubbery flag of no surrender. But for those of us who are willing to guzzle the Kool-Aid, this is a fantastic portrait of a true iconoclast, a man who’s been an unclean needle on the beach of pop culture since the late ’60s. Demme has a way of making his cinematic portraits as visceral and kinetic as they are streamlined and visually striking. What he did for Talking Heads with Stop Making Sense, New Order with The Kiss, he does here: giving viewers an unflinching look at his subject. He captures the outsized persona, while simultaneously revealing the intimate quirks and flittering private reactions that makes him human. —David Wildman

Phat Girlz (PG-13) Ultra low-budget (shot on hi-def video) comedy that attempts to turn Mo’nique into a movie star a la Queen Latifah. It doesn’t work. First of all, Mo’nique is no Queen Latifah. Instead of being amusingly outspoken, she’s mostly just abrasive. Worse, this clunky story of plus-size female empowerment is hypocritical to its very core. Mo’nique’s character bemoans the fact that women of her proportions have trouble landing a man, because of society’s emphasis on rail-thin model types. Fair enough — but when she does find a man who wants her, he is the embodiment of what society dictates is a hot guy. Can you say “double-standard”? —KH

Roving Mars (Unrated) Director George Butler, whose previous IMAX outing took him to Antarctica, delivers an eye-popping mix of people and machine, of genuine images and computer-assisted animations based on real pictures from NASA’s two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity — all of it accompanied by a magnificently ethereal score from composer Philip Glass. This is space-geek nirvana. I didn’t think it was possible for me to be any more in love with the idea of Mars — of going there, of exploring the planet, of seeing the Martian sights. But after seeing Roving Mars, I am. —MaryAnn Johansen

Scary Movie 4 (PG-13) More disposable than a two-week-old Good News razor, David Zucker’s Scary Movie 4 is strictly a movie for the moment. As with Zucker’s first outing in the series, it’s entirely reliant on the supposition that the viewer has seen (in this case) Saw, The Grudge, War of the Worlds, The Village, Million Dollar Baby, and Brokeback Mountain. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but in a couple of years this film will be about as relevant as a 1962 Bob Hope Oscar monologue. But it’s harmless, it’s often pretty funny, and it manages to weave something like an almost coherent plot out of its sources: a fair achievement. —KH

She’s the Man (PG-13) Oh ho and oh hum, this teen comedy is, to put it bluntly, kind of a drag. Someone somewhere thought it would be a hoot to borrow a little — a very little — Shakespeare (in this case, Twelfth Night) and a lot more Just One of the Guys and have Amanda Bynes (What Every Girl Wants) masquerade as a boy at a prep school. The results were supposed to be the next Mean Girls. They aren’t. It turns into lame farce with cardboard characters — and Bynes with her chipmunk cheeks looks about as much like a boy as Mae West did. Maybe less so. —KH

Slither (R) James Gunn gained some horror cred with the screenplay for the classy ’04 remake of Dawn of the Dead and has now parlayed it into this engaging directorial debut about a parasitic alien that turns the entire town of Wheelsy, S.C. (played by British Columbia, natch) into a mass of mutants and shambling zombies. The film is gleefully filled with R-rated splatter, but is blessedly free of the repellent sadism and torture that’s increasingly mistaken for “horror” these days. This is partly due to the fact that the film is intentionally funny — rarely attempting anything that’s actually intended to work on an actual fright level. It might gross out the squeamish, but for genre fans it’s a treat to be savored. —KH

Take the Lead (PG-13) Yes, it’s the umpteenth installation in the “teacher who made a difference” genre, designed to uplift the viewer and leave her with a smile, a tear, a song in her hearts and, in this case, rhythm in her feet. It also has a screenplay that bites off far more than it can chew. Moreover, it’s typical in that it takes a “true life” story and fictionalizes it out of all resemblance to reality. (The real Pierre Dulaine brought ballroom dancing to 11-year-olds in the NY school system, not troubled teens.) But there’s something appealing and satisfying about Take the Lead that nearly cancels the negatives. Antonio Banderas carries the film with smooth charm. Alfre Woodard props it up with world-weary sarcasm. And first-time director Liz Friedlander evidences an assured sense of style and creativity. Great? No, but it’s awfully enjoyable. —KH

Thank You for Smoking (R) Written and directed by Jason Reitman, son of veteran Hollywood funny filmmaker Ivan Reitman, Thank You for Smoking is pretty much what you’d expect from a born-to-the-Malibu Mansion post-liberal. Depending entirely on a craven assumption of its audience’s cynicism to cover up its corrupt, pro-whorish heart, it offers a message for our troubled times: In a world where everyone seems to be a crook, the only truly admirable man is he who admits to and revels in his corruption. Of course, in a comedy, a panoply of sins can be forgiven if your film is, you know, funny. But as with conservative humor in general — already a contradiction in terms — all Thank You can manage is a series of smirks. —IG

The Wild (G) Pleasantly unappalling. For all its problems — ranging from lack of originality to uneven animation to indifferent writing — it’s a darn sight better than such recent movie misfortunes as Doogal and Hoodwinked!, not to mention Disney’s own filmic flotsam like The Jungle Book 2 and Pooh’s Heffalump Movie. Yes, it’s pretty much a cross of Madagascar and Finding Nemo, but it’s not unwatchable. Some of the animation is effective, especially the opening, but might be too scary for the smaller kids. The characters are largely forgettable, though William Shatner does his best as the voice of the evil wildebeest with a a penchant for choreogaphy and a desire to turn carnivore. Still, it’s pretty tepid stuff. —KH

Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion (PG-13) For anyone still unfamiliar with Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise, there’s one important thing to keep in mind: Madea may be a big momma, but she’s no Big Momma. What a surprise, then, to find genuine humor in Madea’s Family Reunion, the sequel to Perry’s 2005 hit, Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Considering the inoffensive lightweight sermonizing that runs through the whole of Perry’s film, it would seem the perfect antidote to harried parents in need of some quality cinema time with their own offspring. But, of course, there’re the flatulence and sex jokes to bring Perry’s ultimately noble attempt down to a more pedestrian level. That’s too bad. —MS

V for Vendetta (R) The Wachowski brothers’ adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel — about a dystopian future U.K. crushed under a faith-based totalitarian government — and James McTeigue’s treatment of it, is fearless. It never shirks from the gleefully obvious (a fat, pill-popping asshole talk radio host) the utterly horrific (a Dachau-like government atrocity leading to hundreds of lime-coated bodies dumped into a pit) or Goon Show-style absurdity. While certainly not perfect, V for Vendetta is a feast of ideas, a furious Molotov cocktail of a tale, a valentine to the idea that art and information can change things, and the first genuinely relevant film of this bad new century. —IG

Wild Safari 3D: A South African Adventure (Unrated) The Charleston IMAX reaches back to 2005 for a kid-friendly 3D tour through South Africa’s national parks in search of the world’s top five big game animals: the elephant, the Cape buffalo, the rhinoceros, the leopard, and the lion. It’s mostly a film for the 12-and-under set, as the pacing moves at Teletubby speed. The film rolls as if the audience is seated in the back of a topless Range Rover; it’s supposed to make one feel in the middle of the action, but the only action you’re likely to feel is car sickness. As with most IMAX films, the entertainment quotient is at least matched by the fun-fact-and-educational quotient. But for those not toting tots, consider passing on this one and taking in the remarkable Roving Mars instead. —Kinsey Labberton

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