opening this week

Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker (PG) After his uncle dies and his secret life as a spy is exposed, young Alex Rider (Alex Pettyfer) is enlisted by MI6, Britain’s secret intelligence organization, to pick up where his uncle left off. The newly trained super-spy investigates a businessman’s planned donation of one of his supercomputers to every school in the country.

The Departed (R) Reviewed on page 43.

Employee of the Month (PG-13) Two slacker co-workers (Dax Shepard and Dane Cook), upon hearing the store hottie (Jessica Simpson) will date the employee of the month, square off to earn the honor.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (R) On one last road trip before they’re sent to serve in Vietnam, two dudes and their girlfriends get into an accident that calls their local sheriff to the scene. Thus begins a terrifying experience where the teens are taken to a secluded house of horrors, where a young, would-be killer is being nurtured.

critical capsules

All the King’s Men (PG-13) Director Steven Zaillian’s film packs a cast of Oscar winners, nominees, and wannabes into a overly complicated, frightfully dense exploration of corruption and the political process. It’s the latest adaptation of the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from Robert Penn Warren, which was in turn loosely based on the life of Governor Huey Long of Louisiana. Sean Penn, as Willie Stark, dominates the film; this may be the best performance of his career. Unfortunately, the actors around him just aren’t up to snuff. Jude Law’s performance as reporter Jack Burden is as one-note as it gets. The supporting cast of top-grade actors (Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini) fares little better. The most frustrating thing about All the King’s Men is how good it could have been. —Joshua Tyler

The Black Dahlia (R) Novelist James Ellroy’s world is a Hollywood where the glossy surface illusion hides all the ugliest parts of human nature. This is why there may be no worse choice to direct a James Ellroy adaptation than Brian DePalma, the uncontested master of the slick image. Here, the auteur takes on the lurid underworld of a true-life 1947 Los Angeles murder case, involving the discovery of the mutilated corpse of a beautiful woman, and turns it into a flourishy exercise in high-camp pseudo-noir. Unfortunately, nearly everything that’s remotely interesting about The Black Dahlia ultimately comes from its stylized moments. —Scott Renshaw

Facing the Giants (PG) I couldn’t stomach all of Facing the Giants in one sitting. I did, however, go back the following day and watch the remainder. It didn’t help. This proselytizing sports drama, which combines Christianity and football from co-writer-director-star-editor-composer Alex Kendrick (who, as an actor has anti-charisma), is clearly a case of preaching to the choir. That’s not too surprising, since it was funded by the Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. While its intentions may be honorable (depending on whether or not the viewer subscribes to its theological views), it’s an abysmally inept movie on nearly every level and feels more like a ham-fisted, force-fed sermon than a film. —Ken Hanke

Fearless (PG-13) Is this really Jet Li’s farewell to the martial arts film, or is it a gimmick to get viewers to go see a film that is otherwise largely unremarkable? The story’s premise — that beating people to death isn’t the path to enlightenment — requires Li to portray an utter jackass for nearly two-thirds of the film, at which point his egotistical butt-kicking comes home to roost, plunging him into near-suicidal despair. Salvation comes via a blind girl (Betty Sun) and a stint on a rice farm (doesn’t it always?), whereupon Li returns to the world with his new belief in less drastic competition. Fine, but let’s face it, the storyline about the cocky youth with the swollen head who learns his lesson and reforms had whiskers on it long before the movies learned to talk. —KH

Flyboys (PG-13) Flyboys does not squander what instant drama it is handed in its premise: the short careers of the world’s first fighter pilots in the skies over WWI France. By keeping just this side of the line, director Tony Bill invokes that old-fashioned Hollywood magic, the kind that sweeps you up and away. (Perhaps not surprising, since among the handful of screenwriters is David S. Ward, who wrote The Milagro Beanfield War and The Sting.) The cast of mostly unknowns (excepting the brilliant James Franco) bring a sense of character and importance that far too many of the young actors onscreen today can’t. Flyboys is the kind of film that, when Hollywood gets it right, it does best — a grand yarn of adventure and catastrophe, of optimistic dreams settling into shattered certainty. —Maryann Johanson

Gridiron Gang (PG) Almost exactly what you think it is: The Rock (aka: Dwayne Johnson) teaches a bunch of delinquents Self Respect and the meaning of Teamwork by turning them into a football team while they’re in juvenile prison. In other words, it’s another “true story” inspirational sports movie, and you pretty much know whether or not it’s your brand of jock-strap from that fact alone. The only difference between this and other films of its type is that it stars The Rock. All the underdog-coming-from-behind moments are alive and intact, and so are the usual array of “feelgood” moments and hokey inspirational speeches. —KH

The Guardian (PG-13) Other than the fact that it’s about the Coast Guard and its elite team of rescue swimmers, there’s absolutely nothing that sets The Guardian apart from the dozens of other rescue/military/mentor movies that have ever been made. Everything about it screams generic and forgettable, from its plot, to its stars, to its title, to the heart-tugging climax, which doesn’t quite come off because leads Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher are completely unable to make any emotional connection with their characters. One night years from now you’ll stumble across it on TBS, and think to yourself, “Oh, hey, it’s that Coast Guard movie!” And then you’ll change the channel. —Justin Souther

The Illusionist (PG-13) There’s magic in The Illusionist, and I don’t mean merely the magic of stage conjurers, like the character this wonderfully mysterious and dreamy film turns on. Director Neil Burger creates a vision of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century that is half phantasm and half history, that plays with concepts of class distinction starting to disappear as an old world gives way to a new. Its greatest thrill may be that it finds a, well, magic middle ground where it could actually please everyone, where it’s just strange enough to electrify fans of the bizarre and just effortless enough to satisfy those who merely seek a diverting entertainment. —MJ

Jackass: Number Two (R) This open sore of a cinematic affront, in which overgrown adolescents perform dangerous and/or disgusting stunts, is a crap-fest served up with a large bottle of weasel urine (which for a small fee, any one of the cast members would probably drink). Utterly and completely worthless, either as pop-culture commentary or entertainment. —KH

The Last Kiss (R) This angst-driven whine-fest of a movie starring Zach Braff is no Garden State — and not just because it’s set in Wisconson. Braff playing a “normal guy” the same way he played his dysfunctional Garden State character is an expressionless bore, excessive of nose and bereft of chin, living an ultra-priviliged life that he and his equally privileged buddies likes to bitch and moan about, probably because they’re facing their 30s and are in a movie scripted by Paul Haggis. The burning question is will he sleep with hot college girl (and potential stalker) Rachel Bilson or will he stick with pregnant girlfriend Jacinda Barrett. The real question is why anyone should care. —KH

Little Miss Sunshine (R) Hilarious and heartrending. A family of dysfuctional poster-people, in constant battle with one another over absolutely everything, climb into into a VW van for a drive of hundreds of miles in order to get young Olive (Abigail Breslin) to the Little Miss Sunshine competition, to which she has been invited at the last minute. What’s more, they have to not kill one another in spite of the many disasters they encounter. Little Miss Sunshine is my favorite movie of the year for all the little touches along the literal and figurative road it takes to get there. Any absurdity — and there’s plenty — is more than trumped by raw emotional power. —MJ

Open Season (PG) Not painfully bad, but also not much more than what threatens to become Computer Animated Movie of the Week. The animation is a mix of the astonishingly good and the barely adequate. The storyline is no great shakes — tame grizzly bear Boog (Martin Lawrence) is led astray by jive-talking deer Elliot (Ashton Kutcher) and is returned to the wild by owner Beth (Debra Messing). The antics are courtesy of the domesticated Boog’s inability to cope with the wild (he spends a good deal of the movie in search of a toilet, giving the lie to the saying about what a bear does in the woods). In almost every respect, it’s just another Shrek knockoff. —KH

School for Scoundrels (PG-13) School for Scoundrels is to the art of film what processed cheese food is to fine dining. Director/cowriter Todd Phillips has cobbled together a plodding farce entirely predicated on having his stars regurgitate the things they’re best known for. We’re given Billy Bob Thornton in full smart-ass cynical mode (or as full as a PG-13 rating will allow) and Jon Heder in his Napoleon Dynamite hapless mouth-breather persona. The storyline — perennial loser Heder signs up for Thornton’s self-assertion class and becomes the star pupil, finding himself vying with his teacher for the favors of the same girl (Jacinda Barrett) — isn’t bad, but it’s ineptly handled, rarely funny, pointlessly illogical, and completely devoid of surprise or style. —KH

The Science of Sleep (R) Possibly the most wonderfully strange, most magically enchanting, most heartachingly romantic movie I’ve ever seen. Michel Gondry, who blew our minds with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, here goes a-musing through an ethereality somewhere between dreams and wakefulness, between insanity and reason that is as removed from the mindblowingness of Sunshine as that movie was from your standard multiplex experience. —MJ

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