Opening this week

W. (PG-13)
Josh Brolin is Shrub in Oliver Stone’s latest biopic. Also stars Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, and Thandie Newton.

Sex Drive (R)
Eager to lose his virginity, a teenager heads across country. Stars Josh Zuckerman, Clark Duke, James Marsden, and Seth Green.

Max Payne (PG-13)
Markie Mark makes a movie based on the video game. Also stars Mila Kunis, Chris O’Donnell, Beau Bridges, and Ludacris.

The Secret Life of Bees (PG-13)
Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, and Alicia Keys star in this Sue Monk Kidd novel. See a sneak preview at the Terrace Theatre on Thursday.

Critical Capsules

An American Carol (PG-13)
Since my political views are exactly opposed to those of born-again conservative David Zucker’s newest spoof, An American Carol, I freely admit that I am not the target audience for this movie. But I disagree with its right-wing political message mostly because its ideas are too tangled, contradictory, and irresponsible to be the effective screed it aims for. Zucker sees the film as a satire of liberal Hollywood and, by extension, the “liberal media,” which, I assume, encompasses me. Therefore, any denigration of the film’s politics immediately dredges up the sticky wicket of biased critics — essentially making the film critic proof to its core audience. But in the end, the film is just too willfully and painfully unfunny for there to be even be a debate on its final merits as filmmaking. Put simply, it’s a mess that offers blinding revelations such as the fact that Michael Moore is overweight.
—Justin Souther

Beverly Hills Chihuahua (PG)
This is probably perfectly fine entertainment if you’re four. It also may satisfy viewers with a marked propensity to “ooh” and “ahh” whenever an animal shows up on a movie screen doing something one doesn’t expect an animal to do. For anyone else — at least anyone else who isn’t a blood relative of director Raja Gosnell, whose directorial career started with Home Alone 3 and has consistently maintained that tradition of quality — this is likely to seem like the longest 98 minutes ever spent in a theater. That there’s approximately 20 minutes of actual story plays into this. Drew Barrymore’s voice stars as Chloe, a pampered chihuhua with a working-class chihuahua admirer (with George Lopez’s voice), to whom she won’t give the time of day. This will all change when Chloe gets lost in Mexico and he proves his mettle. I spent a good deal of the movie thinking that in less enlightened times those responsible for making animals talk would have been burnt at the stake as sorcerors. In the case of Beverly Hills Chihuahua, that’s why those times were known as “the good old days.” —Ken Hanke

Blindness (R)
Adapted from the novel by Nobel winner José Saramago, Blindness is the kind of awkward, overly ambitious and not wholly successful film that only a filmmaker of some considerable vision would attempt to make. And there’s no doubt that Fernando Meirelles is a filmmaker of vision, but in this case that vision translates into a film that is so extremely unpleasant that you may not want to watch it, and yet somehow so detached and allegorical that it doesn’t really linger in the mind the way it should. If a film is going to rub your nose in excrement, it ought to have the power to haunt you afterwards. Somehow Blindness lacks this. Unflinching in portraying the levels to which humanity can descend when an inexplicable plague of blindness breaks out in an unnamed city, it’s unrelentingly grim. The film’s ultimate purpose lies less in its depiction of the vileness and more about that seed of humanity that must somehow exist at the bottom of all this — that indefinable spark that makes human beings human. The results are a noble effort that misses the greatness that’s aimed for. —Ken Hanke

Choke (R)
Clark Gregg did it. I wouldn’t recommend trying, but he did it. This is Chuck Palahniuk we’re talking about, after all. The creator of Fight Club. The nihilist. The gross-out artist. The guy who famously or infamously or anecdotally inspired multiple people to drop over in a dead faint at readings of a story about heinous masturbation-inspired mishaps. That grotesque, pathetic, twisted guy. But Clark Gregg did it. The “I know that guy from something somewhere” actor took Palahniuk’s Choke as screenwriter and director and found another vein. Buried beneath the blasphemy and the bodily fluids and the self-loathing was a story about redemption. About recovery. About love. Clark Gregg turned Chuck Palahniuk into a romantic. Or maybe he just pulled back the covers to expose the romantic that was already there. It’s certainly not easy to see at first in the tale of Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), who’s messed up in so many ways that it’s hard to know where to begin. —Scott Renshaw

The Express (PG)
Director Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury) tries to make his newest film, The Express, stick out from the crowd by making it agonizingly dull. The story, which centers around former Syracuse running back Ernie Davis (Rob Brown, Stop-Loss), has all the ingredients for this variety of cinema. Let’s see, we have racism, humble beginnings, perseverance, an aging family member, and even leukemia. The biggest issue (aside from the “been there, done that” feeling the movie constantly sweats) is that Fleder has no clue how to piece these features together. So instead of a generic sports movie, we get a generic sports movie that moves like molasses. The movie focuses primarily on Davis’ sophomore year and his struggles with the racial intolerance that eventually leads to his political awakening. Unfortunately, that’s just two-thirds of a movie topped off with an altogether too long big game and a meandering trip to tragedy that makes up the end of Davis’ life. It’s all too spread out to be very involving. —Justin Souther

Flash of Genius (PG-13)
After hearing the premise behind Marc Abraham’s Flash of Genius — to paraphrase John Goodman in the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink — I could already feel my butt getting sore just from the prospect of sitting through it. Maybe it’s a defect in my character, but a film about the creation of the intermittent windshield wiper just isn’t going to get me in a tizzy. And after watching the film, the concept remains the major defect in this good-natured, yet insubstantial, little movie. The center of the story is, of course, less the invention of the wiper than the lawsuit against Ford for stealing the idea, which transforms the film into a standard David-and-Goliath yarn. Unfortunately, this isn’t all that interesting either and is compounded by the fact that the main character, Bob Kearns (Greg Kinnear), isn’t very likable, resulting in a difficulty to care much about the outcome. —Justin Souther

Ghost Town (PG-13)
Unfortunately, David Koepp’s Ghost Town seems to be a film few people are interested in seeing — in part, I suspect, due to that God-awful generic title. Is Ghost Town really the best Koepp and co-writer John Kamps could come up with? The film deserves better. The story — involving a nasty-tempered dentist (Ricky Gervais), who briefly dies during a colonoscopy and afterwards can see and talk with ghosts no one else can see — may be nothing more than Topper by way of The Sixth Sense, but what the film and performers do with this material is pretty special. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Ghost Town is the savviness with which it balances comedy and romance, and the fact that its comedy is almost always rather kind and character-based. The blend of humor and humanity is just right. In some ways, it’s a throwback to an earlier time. It’s just possible, however, that these are its true strengths — the very things that give it something all too often lacking in mainstream movies these days: an identity. —Ken Hanke

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (R)
This is such a sweet-natured little movie with so many clever touches and such winning performances from Simon Pegg and Kirsten Dunst that I really wish I could like it more than I do. Unfortunately, I can’t work up the enthusiasm, because the sum of the movie’s parts is somehow much less than its individual components. The film traces the amazingly inelegant rise of a bumptious, boorish, British journalist, Sidney Young (Simon Pegg), who gets tapped by a glossy U.S. celebrity magazine. Sidney arrives in New York full of bravado and bad ideas — and totally oblivious to the fact that the man who hired him, Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges), did so in a passing fit of nostalgia for his own over-the-top youthful arrogance. Naturally, things don’t go well for Sidney. It’s lightly amusing as a knock-off of The Devil Wears Prada, and Pegg and Dunst have surprising chemistry, but it’s so trifling that you’re apt to forget you even saw it an hour later. —Ken Hanke

The Lucky Ones (R)
Although I enjoyed this Neil Burger film, I freely confess two things — I don’t think it’s actually a very good movie, and I’m left with no clue as to exactly what the point of the film is. In essence, Burger has crafted a story about three Iraq War vets — Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins, and Michael Peña — coming home and has dropped them into a situation that turns their return into a road movie. The set-up works OK in terms of character study, albeit a very contrived one, but the whole thing meanders, and you’re left with a feeling that Lucky Ones wants to make an Iraq war statement, but is afraid to. The characters are likable, the performances are good — especially McAdams, who is excellent — but there’s ultimately not that much there. —Ken Hanke

Miracle at St. Anna (R)
Savaged by most critics, Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna is admittedly too long and somewhat flawed. At the same time, it’s one of the most intensely personal and daring works to hit theaters in far too long. Lee’s film is much more than just a look at the black Buffalo Soldiers of World War II. It’s a surprisingly fanciful and yet deeply-felt drama on the nature of faith. In many ways, the film it most resembles is Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, but don’t take that comparison too far, because this is every inch a Spike Lee film. It bears his stamp on nearly every scene, clearly what works and what doesn’t both come down to Lee himself. The results is a weirdly religious message that may baffle and annoy — a situation that might be exacerbated by an even stranger and endlessly interpretable ending. —Ken Hanke

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (PG-13)
Nick (Michael Cera) is a sensitive guy still mooning over being dumped by his ex Tris (Alexis Dziena) when he’s not playing bass as the token straight boy in a queercore band. Norah (Kat Dennings) is Tris’ private school classmate who knows of Nick from the killer mix CDs Tris dumps in the school trash, and loathes Tris’s queen-bee pity. So when all three of them find themselves at the same nightclub, Norah pleads with “random stranger” Nick to pretend to be her boyfriend — only later realizing that this is “Tris’ Nick.” A meet-cute rarely rings hollow if the chemistry ends up working, and there’s clearly a zing between these two sarcastic puppy-dogs. Cera — and I’d like it on the record that this writer was noting his vintage Cusack-ian quality long before all the similar comments you’ll see relating to this movie — brings both instant likeability and a sly intelligence to Nick, while Dennings matches him in both categories. This clearly isn’t a case of opposites attracting; they’re two perfect-for-each-other kids simply trying to navigate through life. —Scott Renshaw

Religulous (R)
Bill Maher’s selling the idea that there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know,” but he compounds this by insisting that neither does anyone else. But since the movie’s intent is to be confrontational and provoke controversy, is that a failing? That’s a call you can make for yourself. If a movie that functions on that basis is going to offend you, it’s simple enough to stay away, though the fact that Religulous was the surprise hit of last weekend — coming in at No. 10 in a mere 502 theaters — indicates a lot of folks aren’t staying away. The whole thing is irreverent, very funny, occasionaly insightful, and possibly offensive. —Ken Hanke

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