opening this week

Eragon (PG) In his homeland of Alagaesia, a farm boy happens upon a dragon’s egg — a discovery that leads him on a predestined journey where he realized he’s the one person who can defend his home against an evil king.

Charlotte’s Web (G) Wilbur the pig (voiced by Dominic Scott Kay), fearful he’ll end up the family dinner instead of the family pet, hatches a plan with resourceful spider Charlotte (Julia Roberts) to save his bacon. Based on the acclaimed childrens’ novel by E.B. White.

Copying Beethoven (PG-13) Reviewed at left.

Pursuit of Happyness (PG-13) Reviewed on page 44.

critical capsules

Apocalypto (R) If Mel Gibson were not such a polarizing figure, we probably wouldn’t be paying much attention to a subtitled drama without a single familiar actor, which happens to be set in the Yucatan peninsula 500 years ago. But Apocalypto turned out to be a purely, primally effective piece of filmmaking. In pre-Columbian America, the film begins with a village and a young hunter named Jaguar Paw, who’s taken captive when his peaceful village is raided by Holcane warriors, and marched to a Mayan city to become a sacrifice. Apocalypto is the kind of clear and stripped-down adventure that any kind of moviegoer could find gripping — because the people on the screen ultimately matter more than the guy behind the camera. You may not understand the language of Yucatec, but it’s hard not to understand Gibson’s language of pure visual cinema. —Scott Renshaw

Blood Diamond (R) Blood Diamond proves that good intentions and passion really can transcend limited skill sets. Director Edward Zwick — last employed stage managing Tom Cruise’s vanity in The Last Samurai — uses his workmanlike abilities to Blood Diamond‘s advantage, neutering any trace of the maudlin in his 90’s-set Africa horror story. It’s like the atrocities infecting modern Africa, whether the microcosm of the diamond trade referenced in the film’s title and the neo-imperialist opportunism of which such crimes are a symptom, were constantly nipping at their heels, provoking both to avoid the usual gaffes of the “issue film.” It’s not a truly great movie, but perhaps more importantly, it’s essential. —Ian Grey

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 first novel, Casino Royale, the only Bond adventure not done as a “serious” adaptation in 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

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

The Holiday (PG-13) Nancy Meyers’ The Holiday is the best of the year’s Christmas movies to date, but that’s not saying much. It slavishly emulates films like Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually, and it doesn’t come close. The elements are in place -— a smart cast headed by Cameron Diaz, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Jack Black -— and the mood is right, but Meyers beats every gag over the head, worries every plot point to death, and indulges her cast’s “specialties” to the hilt. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, all of it could stand pruning. Nothing about The Holiday merits 138 minutes of screentime, and what could have been a mildly pleasant movie becomes an endurance test. —Ken Hanke

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 Nativity Story (PG) It seems that in an effort not to offend people to whom Jesus Christ is, well, everything, normally provocative director Catherine Hardwicke delivers a movie that will appeal only to them. Slavishly reverent, The Nativity Story is accidentally hilarious in its earnestness — and in its sincere attempts at a touch of humor. (Here, the Three Wise Men have been turned into something close to the Three Stooges.) And so we get a movie with all the drama — and the humor — of an elementary school Christmas pageant. You may want to give milk and cookies to everyone involved for their effort, but it’s still not going to thrill anyone not heavily invested in the story to begin with. —MaryAnn Johanson

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

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

Turistas (R) Having spent more time underwater than Esther Williams — helming 2002’s Blue Crush and last year’s Into the Blue — director John Stockwell seems to be suffering from water on the brain. I can think of no other explanation for the stunning ineptitude on display in Turistas, a movie that aims to do for Brazilian tourism what the similarly themed Hostel did for Slovakia. Of course, he has help from the screenplay by first-time perpetrator Michael Arlen. This is strictly “Teenagers as Meat on the Hoof 101” stuff, only more idiotic than usual. The premise — mad medico harvesting organs from obnoxious tourists — might have worked as “torture porn,” but there’s not much of even that. Heed the ad campaign and “Go home.” —Ken Hanke

Unaccompanied Minors (PG) Born as a story on NPR’s This American Life, Unaccompanied Minors has been turned into a basic ‘tween adventure comedy. Where a group of kids are snowed in at an airport during a blizzard, and hijinks ensue as they escape into the terminal and attempt to avoid airport security and the man in charge of the airport, Oliver (Lewis Black), who, of course, hates Christmas (but will see the error of his ways in time. It’s essentially Home Alone meets The Breakfast Club — with a few nods to cult culture via appearances of some former Kids in the Hall. Kids will probably enjoy it, while adults can find solace in the fact that it’s only mildly painful. There are certainly worse holiday movies out there right now. Justin Souther