opening this week

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (R) Reviewed at left.

Flushed Away (PG) Dreamworks Animation cooks up an unheard of premise for a new animated feature: talking animals! A tony rat (Hugh Jackman) is flushed down the toilet of his penthouse apartment and winds up in the sewers of London, where he has to learn a whole new way of life. Also with a truckload of British who’s whos: Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, etc.

House of Sand (“Casa de Areia”) (R) Reviewed on page 52.

The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (G) Santa (Tim Allen), a.k.a. Scott Calvin, is faced with double duty: how to keep his new family happy, and how to stop Jack Frost (Martin Short) from taking over Christmas.

critical capsules

Catch a Fire (R) This true tale of torture and oppression, of radicalization and rebellion from a regime both malevolent and pathological, plays like an object lesson for us today here in the United States. In 1980 Apartheid-riven South Africa, Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke) is arrested after a bombing at the coal mine where he’s a supervisor. He had nothing to do with it, but he’s black, so he’s arrested and tortured by the white South African police, in particular antiterrorism specialist Nic Vos (Tim Robbins). As a result, Chamusso joins the African National Congress — freedom fighters to some, terrorists to others — and becomes precisely what Vos had feared he was. A quarter of a century from now, someone’s going to make a movie about the American occupation of Iraq, and it’s going to look like Catch a Fire. And it’s going to be enraging. —Maryann Johanson

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

Facing the Giants (PG) 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. —Ken Hanke

Flags of Our Fathers (PG-13) A classic case of the importance of the subject matter being mistaken for the importance of the film about it, Clint Eastwood’s latest Oscar-bait is an uneven collection of mixed messages and sledgehammer simplifications. The film purports to deconstruct the myth of heroism as a concept, using the story of the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in WWII and the famous photo taken of the event. The problem is that the film has one single point to make — that the three surviors of that photo had heroism thrust upon them by a government desperate to turn them into a patriotic symbol in order to raise money on a war bond tour. Eastwood establishes this almost immediately — and then repeats the concept over and over for two-plus hours. The three lead actors can’t take up the slack; they have neither the acting ability nor the charisma. No doubt well-intentioned, it’s simply a movie that only works because of historical association, not its own merits. —Ken Hanke

Flicka (PG) A supposed adaptation of Mary O’Hara’s children’s book My Friend Flicka and a re-make of the 1943 film of the same name (starring a young Roddy McDowall), Flicka eschews much of the original’s plot. Instead of a young boy being taught responsibility by being given a horse, we get a rebellious teenage girl who wants to tame a wild mustang. Ultimately harmless and inoffensive family entertainment, the movie never surpasses that, and the story seems like it would be better suited as a television movie of the week. —Justin Souther

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

The Grudge 2 (PG-13) Slapdash, more silly than scary, and almost completely incoherent, but still more appealing than its predecessor. The Grudge 2 does have a handful of truly eerie moments, and there’s something to be said for director Takashi Shimizu’s apparent lack of concern for anything remotely resembling traditional narrative. The ill-tempered Japanese hair ghost of the original is no longer confined to the haunted house, so the grudge-bearing spectre is all over the place, shedding her long hair in shower stalls various and sundry, and clogging drains on a global level. You do get to see Jennifer Beals pour hot bacon grease over someone’s head before whacking him with the frying pan, which will undoubtedly appeal to some microcosm of the public. —Ken Hanke

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

Half Nelson (R) Half Nelson threatens never to emerge from the indie cookie-cutter mold it was created in. It’s lousy with grainy footage, perfunctory lighting, hand-held camerawork, and one of those ghastly indie soundtracks that drones along in a meandering fashion. Thankfully, this is a case where the quality of the material and the acting — especially the two central performances — are so high that they simply blow away the film’s shortcomings. Ryan Gosling and newcomer Shareeka Epps are brilliant in this tale of a cocaine/crack addicted teacher and the young girl who befriends him when she learns his secret. The screenplay by director Ryan Fleck and co-producer Anna Boden manages to leaven the grim material with humor that makes the film much more realistic. Grim, but not without hope and humanity, it’s a small film that really deserves a look. —Ken Hanke

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. —Maryann Johanson

Man of the Year (PG-13) Writer/director Barry Levinson’s Man of the Year can’t decide if it’s a hilarious political satire or if it’s a fact-finding thriller in the vein of The Pelican Brief. Rather than picking a direction and running with it, the film tries to be both. The result is a mess. Levinson’s script tells the story of Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams), a Jon Stewart-styled television host running for — and winning — the presidency of the United States of America. But rather than focus on how he gets elected or the way he shakes up the political process, the plot turns instead on a strange voter-fraud, election cover-up plot that involves corporate America taking over the election process. With a little more of Williams’ Dobbs on the attack, Levinson might have had a memorable comedy with a big satirical bite. Instead we get a milquetoasty thriller with political leanings that never quite fit into place. —Joshua Tyler

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. Where Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation were dreamy, Marie Antoinette is more like marvy. 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. Basically a small story in a gilded frame, with relatively little dialogue to distract from the spectacle, the film documents the queen’s (Kristen 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

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. —Ken Hanke

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

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

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

Sharks 3-D (Unrated) The toothy creatures in Jean-Michel Cousteau’s IMAX film are not all scary, but they are often five stories high and coming right at you. In a mix of ferocity (at one point the cameras capture a gray reef shark feeding frenzy) and placidity (sea lions playfully circling a great white,) Cousteau effectively conveys an entertaining message of conservation, co-featuring fish, turtles, and rays to evidence sharks’ role in the food chain. Schooling sardines show off nature’s psychedelic equivalent of a Pink Floyd laser light show, and the kitschy 3-D glasses give the feel of an old-time scream flick when a school of scalloped hammerheads turn your way. —Stratton Lawrence

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (R) This latest entry in the psychotic inbred hillbilly sub-genre earns a point for making a vague attempt at returning the Chainsaw Massacre franchise to the kind of socio-political underpinnings of Tobe Hooper’s first two Chainsaw Massacre films. But it’s too little and it’s too late to keep Jonathan Liebesman’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning from being just another teenage meat-on-the-hoof saga. The hook (pun intended) is the idea that the film will deliver the origins of the chainsaw clan. This amounts to revealing that Leatherface has a skin condition and the family deciding that eating hapless motorists is easier than finding a job. Carnage and cannibalism ensue. —Ken Hanke