opening this week

Casino Royale (PG-13) Sony goes back to Ian Fleming’s first Bond tale to renew the franchise — along with new star Daniel Craig. After he earns his license to kill, MI6 dispatches James Bond to Madagascar to track a terrorist. The spy soon expands his search to include an entire terrorist cell, tipping off an adventure that leads him into a Montenegro casino, where his organization backs him in a marathon game against Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker to international terrorist organizations.

Fast Food Nation (R) Reviewed on page 46.

Happy Feet (PG) Madagascar meets March of the Penguins meets boy band choreography. In the world of the Emperor Penguins, who find their soul mates through song, a penguin named Mumble (Elijah Wood) is ashamed by the fact that he cannot sing. However, he can tap dance something fierce, but how does this fit into his society?

Let’s Go To Prison (R) When a career criminal’s plan for revenge is thwarted by unlikely circumstances, he puts his intended victim’s son in his place by putting him in maximum-security prison … and then joining him.

critical capsules

Babel (R) With a name like Babel you’d expect a picture about the way language and culture divides the nations of the world, causes misunderstandings, and pulls mankind apart. If there’s anything that thematically relevant buried somewhere in the movie, this reviewer couldn’t find it. The events that unfold throughout the film aren’t caused by cultural barriers as much as by sheer bureaucratic foolishness. Babel is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted; Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett head up an ensemble actor’s dream, a series of viginettes strung together in a way that maximizes their screen time. Taken individually, the movie’s short stories have a lot of depth to them. Stitched together in a single entity though, they form a film that’s, ultimately, quite shallow. —Joshua Tyler

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (R) I dare anyone to watch Sacha Baron Cohen dash naked through a hotel ballroom full of shocked conventioneers in Borat, and tell me that there is an artist anywhere more fully committed to what he does — or who yields such breathtakingly brilliant results from that commitment. With the film debut of his regular Ali G character Borat Sagdiyev, Cohen has taken guerrilla reality comedy to staggering new heights. Thanks to his willingness to push every possible boundary, Cohen and director Larry Charles have created not just the best comedy of the year, but probably the best film of any kind. Cohen has made a film that soars precisely because it hasn’t been timidly focus-grouped and scrubbed clean of anything that could possibly give offense. Like the man himself, it’s utterly fearless. —Scott Renshaw

The Departed (R) Cops-versus-killers has been done to the point of improbability, but in front of Marty Scorsese’s lens it’s a brand-new game. It’s not quite the masterpiece that some of his other recent films have been — like The Aviator and Bringing Out the Dead — but The Departed is a work of strong vision and sharp personality. For most of its massive running time, the film is an absolutely fascinating exploration, a mix of all kinds of different genres. It’s a thriller, a cop procedural, a character drama, and more, all rolled into one — exactly the sort of complexity you’d expect from a Scorsese movie. Despite the film’s last-act misstep, the movie’s worth watching just for the journey. Scorsese remains a master, and he’s working his finest magic here. —Joshua Tyler

A Good Year (PG-13) Why anyone thought it would be a good idea for Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Blade Runner) to make a romantic comedy starring Russell Crowe is surely one of the great mysteries of the universe. Stylistically, it’s pretty much a standard Ridley Scott picture, with trimmings. Its overdirected and wrong-headedly directed at nearly every turn. Scott includes all the standard trappings of the romantic comedy, but seems not to understand a single one of them, and simply tacks them on or hammers them into the ground. Crowe isn’t dreadful as a leading man, but he’s too stiff for the material. The plot — an obnoxious stockbroker learns the true meaning of life when he inherits his uncle’s French estate — is tired and predictable, and with no lightness or charm to keep it afloat, sinks like five-year-old fruitcake. —Ken Hanke

Harsh Times (R) The directorial debut from David Ayer, the writer of Training Day (the promos carefully avoid mentioning that he’s also responsible for S.W.A.T. and The Fast and the Furious), Harsh Times is basically that film’s plot mixed with a little bit of Marty Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Following the exploits of a misanthropic, violent ex-Army Ranger played by Christian Bale, the film almost works as a character study, but merely adequate direction and an unfortunately uneven performance by the veddy British Bale (he can never seem to get a firm grasp on the character or the dialogue, which consists of a lot of “dawgs” and “bros”) means this film falls a bit short. —Justin Souther

Marie Antoinette (PG-13) Sofia Coppola’s candy-colored portrait of France’s infamous teen queen is a graceful, charming, and sometimes witty confection — at least for its first hour. Largely shot on location at Versailles, the movie is purposefully hermetic. If it were a prison film, which in some ways it is, the title might be The Big Doll House. The film documents the queen’s (Kirsten Dunst) innocent boredom as she takes solace in jewels, clothes, and sweets, while navigating the snakepit of gossips that comprises the court of Louis XV (Rip Torn) and, later Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). And Coppola’s pink-and- pistachio color schemes and sugar-frosted mise-en-scéne, all heaps of haute cuisine and powdered towers of hair, are nothing if not easy on the eye. —J. Hoberman

The Prestige (PG-13) In turn-of-the-century England, Arthur Borden (Christian Bale) is on trial for his life. He stands accused of murdering rival stage illusionist Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), with motives that become evident only in flashback. To the credit of director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Batman Returns) and his brother Jonathan, they pull off some pretty amazing tricks with their screenplay adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel. Their achievement might have been worthy of unconditional applause, if not for a few horribly misguided decisions — mostly third-act problems, issues with how they choose to reveal the story’s secrets, and with the ultimate consequences of the characters’ actions. As a result, instead of resonance, we end up with the surface pleasures of a studio film worried about wasting the casting of Batman vs. Wolverine. —Scott Renshaw

The Queen (PG-13) In an early scene, Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) stares regally at the camera as the she poses for a portrait. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan aim to take Her Royal Majesty down from the wall, but in a surprisingly sympathetic way. Exploring the days following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the filmmakers observe Elizabeth and new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) responding to the public grief, both of them struggling to understand the role of the monarchy in the modern world. An extended hunters-equals-paparazzi metaphor extends a touch too far, but the impressive performances — Sheen is nearly as terrific as the already much-lauded Mirren — contribute to a compelling, compassionate character study. —Scott Renshaw

The Return (PG-13) The reviews are scathing and The Return is being written off as a box-office disaster. I can’t say that I think The Return is exactly a good film, but neither do I think it’s without merit. Setting aside the fact that it was mis-marketed as being like The Grudge and the fact that it seriously glams-down star Sarah Michelle Gellar, the film’s central weakness lies in newcomer Adam Sussman’s screenplay. It’s simply not very good — and, on occasion, stunningly awkward and sloppy. The story is essentially a shaggy dog affair with a supernatural twist. However, the direction by Asif Kapadia raises the film to a higher level. His handling of the often threadbare material is stylish and creative. His inverted use of color (the past is garishly bright, while the present is drab almost to the point of monochrome) and his ability to conjure mood almost makes it worthwhile. Almost. —Ken Hanke

Running with Scissors (R) It’s hard to figure out what’s wrong with Running with Scissors, director Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ coming-of-age memoir. It revels in its quirky humor, it celebrates the unconventional, it refuses to play nice, either with its characters or its narrative. But the whole never becomes more than the sum of its very good parts, and the whole is neither just bizarre enough to have to be true nor constructed in such a way as to make you imagine it’s a really twisted fantasy. It wants to be an intermarriage between the Addams family and the Royal Tenenbaums, but nobody here is really quite so extraordinary as to be invented nor quite so tragicomic as to be genuine. You wonder if maybe the whole movie is purpose-built around moments that feel odd merely for oddness’s sake; or else it’s purpose-built around the groovy ’70s soundtrack. —Maryann Johanson

The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (G) Here we go again. Once more we’re subjected to the unconvincing spectacle of 10-year-olds in elf drag, unfunny comedy on scrupulously unreal sets, and that faint wave of nausea that passes for a tug at the heartstrings in corporate filmmaking. The Powers That Be at Disney have upped the annoyance factor this time by tossing Martin Short into the mix as Jack Frost — and we move from bad to worse to nigh on intolerable. Some compensation exists in the presence of Alan Arkin and the luminous Ann Margret, but all in all it’s strictly for kids — young, indiscriminating kids. —Ken Hanke

Saw III (R) The third installment in the Saw franchise is a singularly repellent film that seeks to up the ante on the sadistic cinema of “torture porn.” It’s a dreary, mean-spirited, utterly joyless movie made to appeal to masochists and lowlifes. As before, we follow the antics of a killer called Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), a disgruntled cancer patient bent on making folks who aren’t dying of brain tumors appreciate that fact by subjecting them to “tests” that will almost certainly involve killing another person and/or leave the subject maimed. B-list actors by the bushel are mutilated and murdered in “creative” ways, while Jigsaw waxes philosophical about his self-designed mission. If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing someone drowning in a vat of rancid puree of pig, I can’t recommend it too highly. —Ken Hanke

Stranger than Fiction (PG-13) In Marc Forster’s (Finding Neverland) new film, mild-mannered IRS agent Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) comes to realize that he is a literal literary hero when he begins to hear a woman’s (Emma Thompson) voice narrating his life as if he were a character in a book. The result is a wonderfully unapologetic fantasy: Fiction offers no explanation for its deliciously bizarre premise, it just has a whole lot of thinky fun with its ramifications. When Crick hears his narrator announce that “little does he know” his own tragic death is imminent, the layers of complicated metaphysics get enchantingly confused. How does that knowledge change what we do, and what we don’t do? The blending of the intellectual and the emotional that Stranger Than Fiction achieves is so rare, and so rarely done this well. —MaryAnn Johanson

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