opening this week
10 Items or Less (R) In Carson, California to research a potential role, a fading actor (Morgan Freeman) meets a fastidious grocery store clerk (Paz Vega). A wrinkle in his plan causes him to rely on her for a ride back to Brentwood, where their tentative bond slowly begins to resemble a new friendship.
The Nativity Story (PG) Reviewed at right.
Shut Up & Sing (Unrated) A documentary about three years with country music darlings the Dixie Chicks after the infamous anti-Bush comment made by the group’s lead singer Natalie Maines in 2003, during which they were under political attack and received death threats, while continuing to live their lives, have children, and make music.
Turistas (R) Stranded in a Brazilian beach town, a group of backpackers are first trapped by a military group, then used to carry out their mysterious agenda.
Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj (R) Taj Mahal Badalandabad (Kal Penn) leaves Coolidge College behind for the halls of Camford University, where he looks to continue his education, and teach an uptight student how to make the most out of his academic career.
Bobby (R) Emilio Estevez’s (yes, that one) Bobby is not a perfect film. It’s too ambitious with its multi-story structure, it’s a little clunky in its construction, and occasionally stilted in its dialogue. It is, however, a very good film, a deeply felt film It’s been criticized on the grounds that its multiple stories detract from the overall point, but that’s not true — each story deals with a betrayal or a disillusionment or a death of innocence — all leading to the symbolic death of idealism and hope with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. An era is ending in the film, and everything about it is points to this. Flawed, yes, but worthy all the same. —Ken Hanke
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
Casino Royale (PG-13) For the latest James Bond flick, Sony Pictures has gone back to Ian Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, the only Bond adventure not adaptated for the official series. The 1953 Bond has received a dubious updating, complete with terrorism and 9/11 references. And he’s been taken down a notch or two — he plays poker now instead of baccarat — but he still moves in a fantasy world of finely tailored clothes and beautiful, accommodating women who never wear the same gown twice. If you’re willing to buy into this slightly unwieldy mix, Casino Royale is a first-class actioner with a veneer of sophistication. In fact, this is probably the best Bond movie since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969. New Bond Daniel Craig brings a freshness to the role with a dark, brooding approach that helps overcome the excessive running time. —Ken Hanke
Deck the Halls (PG) There’s a rumor that at one point in its creation Deck the Halls contained an original idea. But the producers were so outraged by this affront to their commercial sensibilities that the idea was surgically excised and the perpetrator summarily executed. Yes, this witless drivel-fest is that bad. It’s actually worse than that bad, because Deck the Halls manages the not inconsiderable feat of making both Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick painfully unfunny in the process of spreading prefab “Christmas cheer” for 95 minutes. It’s a box of Christmas movie clichés wrapped in tired slapstick and tied up with a bow made of trite lessons about the “true meaning of Christmas,” with less depth and appeal than a holiday display at Wal-Mart. —Ken Hanke
Déjà Vu (PG-13) Any Tony Scott movie with Denzel Washington playing an ATF agent who travels back in time to save a dead woman he’s fallen in love with is going to work better if you don’t think too hard about it. The time travel aspect is, however, inventive and even makes a degree of sense — at least till the very end when the movie cheats to get itself out of a corner. Some of its more outrageous moments are highly dubious. But let’s face facts, Déjà Vu wasn’t meant for heavy thinking; it’s simply designed as an entertainment. On that level, it’s hard to fault. The level of excitement, the aforementioned cleverness, the nicely sketched-in characterizations all combine to make it work more often than it doesn’t. —Ken Hanke
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
For Your Consideration (PG-13) Christopher Guest and his merry band of pranksters are at it again, improvising a loving, teasing romp through a realm we both love and love to hate, an arena bloated with its own self-importance: Hollywood in Oscar season. Guest dumps the mockumentary format this time around in For Your Consideration, giving us a straight-up narrative that perforce offers a more oblique angle on his subject than we’re used to from him. Peeking in fly-on-the-wall style, we suddenly see the self-awareness, the hidden desperation, the happy face that falls away for a sadder one when the cameras are switched off. Who was it who said comedy isn’t pretty? That’s more the case here than it has ever been before for Guest and Co., and the upshot is that this may be their most affecting movie yet. —MaryAnn Johanson
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 Fountain (PG-13) For the better part of the decade, the director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream has been trying to get The Fountain made. After funding was pulled twice, Darren Aronofsky’s passion for the project was sorely tested by being forced to start from scratch. I’d love to believe that it was all worth the effort. The version of The Fountain that finally makes its way to screens looks exactly like what its history suggests. It’s deeply personal. It’s deeply idiosyncratic. And it’s deeply compromised. The film is a centuries-spanning narrative that dashes back and forth between three different points in history and the distant future. Aronofsky has an epic vision for The Fountain as a meditation on a quest for eternal life that has spanned eras. And it’s equally evident that he’s not able to achieve the sense of scale he truly wants. —Scott Renshaw
Happy Feet (PG) George Miller’s new film is the Moulin Rouge! of animated all-singing, all-dancing penguin movies. Like Baz Luhrmann before him, Miller takes an array of pop/rock songs -— a little Queen, a pinch of Prince, a dash of Elvis -— and uses them to create a musical tapestry of a soundtrack. As with Luhrmann’s film, there’s surprising depth and feeling to the use of the music that occasionally outdoes the originals. And Miller has crafted a visually stunning film with a simple yet subtext-rich tale of a misfit penguin, Mumbles (Elijah Wood), who, unlike others of his kind, can’t sing, but dances like Astaire (an activity denounced as a perversion by the elders of the tribe). This and an ecology-minded subplot work well, but the structure is amazingly sloppy and meandering, making the film less than it might have been. —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
Let’s Go To Prison (R ) The only thing that marginally saves this exercise in “don’t drop the soap” humor is the fact that it never enters the realm of painfully unfunny, and there is nary a joke involving defecation, which seems to be a rarity these days. However, that doesn’t change the fact that most of the gags just fall flat -— a big downside in a purported comedy. It’s a hodgepodge of clichéd prison jokes that’s surprising only in its relatively inoffensive tone (the gay relationship between Will Arnett and fellow prisoner Chi McBride is handled with a degree of taste and maturity). Bob Odenkirk’s (from HBO’s Mr. Show) direction is adequate, which is about right for the material. The normally obnoxiously manic Dax Shepard is somewhat subdued, but the movie’s too slight to be anything other than a middling time-killer. —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 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
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
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
Tenacious D in “The Pick of Destiny’ (R) The fictional story of the rise Jack Black’s real life band, Tenacious D follows Black and band mate Kyle Gass as they go in search of the mystical “Pick of Destiny,” a guitar pick made from the tooth of Satan. If you’ve heard Tenacious D before and didn’t find them funny or necessarily good, or you find Jack Black’s screen persona grating (and in the case of this movie, he’s full-on), then this movie most assuredly isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you find Tenacious D and their brand of humor uproariously hilarious, then that’s exactly what you will get — in spades. The film’s rock-opera opening, featuring Meat Loaf and Ronnie James Dio is the high point, but it relies too much on weed jokes and bodily functions to ever set itself apart from the low standards of so much modern comedy. —Justin Souther