opening this week

A Good Year (PG-13) Englishman Max Skinner (Russell Crowe) inherits Le Griffon, a crumbling Provençal vineyard owned by his Uncle Henry (Albert Finney). Settling into the property, Max’s prospects are shaken up by the arrival of Henry’s long-lost daughter, a wine brat from California with a surprise or two tucked away.

Babel (R) Reviewed on page 46.

Harsh Times (R) When he’s turned down for a job with the LAPD, Gulf War vet Jim Davis (Christian Bale) recruits his childhood pal (Freddy Rodriguez) for a joyride through the city. The two old friends drink, get high, and court danger as they plan their futures together — until Jim’s delusions reshape each man’s fate.

The In Between (Unrated) Local filmmakers Carl Janes and Andrew Barranca offer a preview of their 45-minute surrealistic snapshot of existential Charleston angst on Nov. 10 (7 p.m. and 9 p.m.) and Nov. 11 (2 p.m. and 4 p.m.) at the American Theater. Tickets ($10 on Fri., $5 on Sat.) can be purchased at 52.5 Records, 561 King St., 722-3525. See feature at left.

The Queen (PG-13) Director Stephen Frears presents an intimate behind-the-scenes glimpse at the struggle between Her Majesty Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, and the effort reach a compromise between what was a private tragedy for the Royal family and the public’s demand for an overt display of mourning.

The Return (PG-13) A young businesswoman’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) complicated personal life is further troubled by her vivid nightmares about a murder of a woman she’s never met. The dreams propel her to investigate the crime, and what she discovers begins to threaten her own life.

Stranger than Fiction (PG-13) Reviewed at left.

critical capsules

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

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

Flushed Away (PG) The first venture into computer animation for Aardman Animations (the makers of the Wallace and Gromit series and Chicken Run), Flushed Away manages to maintain the charm and wit of its predecessors, making it the best animated film to come out this year. Roddy (Hugh Jackman), a high-class pet mouse, accidentally gets flushed down the toilet into the busy sewer city of Ratropolis. He then meets up with Rita (Kate Winslet), a scavenger who’s on the run from The Toad (Ian McKellen). It’s all standard “stranger in a strange land/journey home” fare, but handled with wit and style rather than descending to the non-stop wisecracking animals of much domestic fare. — Ken Hanke

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

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

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

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