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opening this week

King Kong (PG-13) Reviewed this week at left.

The Family Stone (PG-13) The Stone family unites in common hostile cause when their favorite son (Dermot Mulroney) brings his uptight girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) home for the Christmas holiday, with plans of proposing.

The Squid and the Whale (R) Reviewed this week on page 44.

critical capsules

Aeon Flux (PG-13) Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron) is a futuristic rebel with a cause and a wardrobe that looks like she went to Diana Rigg's yard sale and bought up all her old Avengers costumes. Aeon's one mean fighting machine, who, of course, can't be stopped by hordes of soldiers and all the high-tech booby-trappery an advanced civilization can produce. Fully as silly as it sounds, geared toward adolescent fantasies, and completely incoherent, Aeon Flux mostly suggests that Ms. Theron should have had a talk with Halle Berry before she accepted this role. At least now they can commiserate together. --Ken Hanke

Capote (R) Capote isn't really about the murders that shattered the town of Holcomb, Texas, and became the fodder for Truman Capote's legendary novel In Cold Blood. It's about -- although this only slowly becomes clear -- Capote's capacity for self-deception. Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman brilliantly skitter around the edges of the crime, and Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn't impersonate Capote so much as embody the author so intimately that there is no artifice or actorly showiness in the Capote-isms: the lisping, the dapperness. Mostly, though, we see in Capote's interactions with the people of Holcomb and with the killers what a tough son of a bitch he really is. -- MaryAnn Johanson

Chicken Little (G) Corporate mentality wins again! Deciding that no one wants hand-drawn animation any more and forgetting that their last sizable homegrown hit, Lilo and Stitch, was hand-drawn, the suits at Disney decided to make a computer-animated film of their very own. And a joyless affair it is, but that's what happens when you make things by committee. They shot for The Incredibles and didn't even manage Madagascar. Small children will like it. Adults will mostly be thankful it's only 77 minutes long -- and even at that it's outrageously padded. -- Ken Hanke

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (PG) It's hard to imagine how much more right director Andrew Adamson and his four FX houses and his perfectly perfect cast could have gotten The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. With this film, also, it becomes clear that there is nothing well-done CGI cannot convincingly re-create. It's in all the tiny details, the rock-solid reality of even the most impossible things in the magical land of Narnia, that make you not just believe but feel its solidity and substance. C.S. Lewis' classic fantasy is here warm, sweet, funny, scary, magnificent, gorgeous, expansive, and intimate, but mostly completely and utterly charming. -- MaryAnn Johansen

Derailed (R) If this would-be thriller and cautionary tale (the wages of adultery are hell -- even if you don't have a pet rabbit) didn't take itself so seriously, it might have been a trash masterpiece. As it stands, it's a slickly made fiasco that thinks it's so clever that it constantly telegraphs its "surprise" ending. Worse, it suffers from major miscasting in Jennifer Aniston. Even with two pounds of eye makeup, she still comes off as one half of the Doublemint Twins. She merely looks like she's masquerading as a femme fatale -- probably for a fancy-dress Rotarian fundraiser. More amusing than thrilling. -- KH

First Descent (PG-13) Did you know there was a snowboarding "revolution"? Could you kick yourself for missing it? "The Story of the Snowboarding Revolution," is how First Descent is subtitled, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the film is a huge put-on, the latest jape from Christopher Guest and his merry band of mockumentary tricksters. How else to explain the film's hilarious combination of self-congratulatory hyperbole and the banalest kind of banality? Kids are the only ones likely to be impressed by the adolescent philosophizing of the adolescent snowboarders, and after two hours of being snowblinded by the same old tricks, I felt like someone's mother, tired of hearing, "Mom, watch me do this!" for the hundredth time. -- MJ

Get Rich or Die Tryin' (R) The idea of presenting a gun-toting gangster as a misunderstood youth in search of a father figure is about as dubious as Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's acting. It will be argued that the story is about the fictionalized version of "50 Cent" overcoming his past through rap music. That might hold water if the songs didn't catalogue and glorify that past -- not to mention that the murderous violence continues right up to the film's final scene of Marcus walking onstage. The fact that the film has the temerity to present him there as a Christ figure only makes the message that much more suspect, despite Jim Sheridan's directorial proficiency. -- KH

Good Night, and Good Luck (PG) George Clooney's remarkable film feels like a smooth, sardonic smack in the face of today's so-called newspeople, the cinematic equivalent of a withering glare and a disdainful roll of the eyes. Yeah, it's about CBS's Edward R. Murrow and how he took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy's right-wing insanity, but what it's really about is how badly we need a Murrow now. What's most brilliant about it isn't that it ends up serving the very purpose that it suggests no one else is serving -- but that it's so damn cool. -- MJ

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (PG-13) There's a lot that's disconnected and disjointed in the muddled middle of Goblet of Fire -- this is the Harry book that prompted speculation that it might have to be broken into two films to do it justice, after all. And for all the startling and delightful bits that remain, most of the characters other than Harry suffer a bit from dramatic malnourishment. But Ralph Feinnes' Voldemort is Darth Vader and Satan in one slithery package, and he's absolutely terrifying. The finale of Goblet of Fire is unsettling, in a way that'll have you squirming in your seat. Which is as it should be. There's a level of horror operating here that raises this beyond escapist family fare and into the realm of cutting metaphor for adolescence. Which is also as it should be. -- MJ

The Ice Harvest (R) Large chunks of this neo-noir black comedy thriller don't work, but don't lay the blame on director Harold Ramis. He's done a splendid job crafting a garish Christmas nightmare where the setting is central to the film, which takes deadly aim on the season's manufactured jollity and forced good will. Despite the colored lights, giant snowmen, and candy canes, this is a film primarily set in a couple of strip joints and a brothel -- and not a single likable character in sight. There's one brilliant -- and nasty -- comic set-piece involving a hit man locked in a trunk, but it's otherwise clunky and ultimately rather depressing. -- KH

In the Mix (PG-13) Star vehicles like this are hardly new. Even Bing Crosby's earlier films are little more than attempts to cash in on the crooner's radio popularity, and it would be a kindness to pass over the bulk of Elvis' screen career. Except that In the Mix makes you long for the depth of writing and emotional complexity of It Happened at the World's Fair. At least in those movies, the stars did what they were known for -- namely, sing. Here, someone got the bright idea that Usher should just act. (Hopefully, that person's been fired.) It's a lame gangster "comedy" that would probably be offensive if it was worth thinking about. -- KH

Jarhead (R) "Welcome to the suck," indeed. Sam (American Beauty) Mendes' Gulf War I film is basically a vacuous study of unlikable people waiting for nothing to happen. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a young cipher who joins the Corps, reads Camus, jerks off, goes to Iraq, goes crazy, and gets drunk -- or perhaps vice versa. As usual, Mendes uses important stuff as material for ramming his empty pretensions to profundity and High Art up our innocent hindquarters. -- Ian Grey

Just Friends (PG-13) A leaden mix of (not very) bad taste comedy and feel-good romantic nonsense that is neither fish nor fowl -- though foul it certainly is. Ryan Reynolds (whose likable presence is wearing thin these days) plays a fat high schooler who runs away from his hometown when the girl of his dreams rejects him. He returns 10 years later as a svelte, smarmy, shallow record executive and, despite dumb complications to drag this out to feature length, whaddya know -- he's now boyfriend material. There's a message here, and it's not pretty, but then neither is the movie. -- KH

The Polar Express 3D (G) Charleston IMAX brings back its big 3D version of The Polar Express, a magical tale of the Christmas Eve re-education of a Santa-doubting adolescent teetering on the brink of disbelief. In Robert Zemeckis' computer-animated film adaptation of Chris van Allburg's illustrated book, though, there's also a bizarre, palpable sense of unease that's due to the animation style, which despite its faithful replication of Allsburg's painterly compositions, doesn't translate all that successfully to the screen. Despite being slightly creepy, the film boats a strong storyline that brims with hope, possibility, and plenty of warm and tender Christmasy moments. -- Mark Savlov

Pride & Prejudice (PG) Do we really need another Pride & Prejudice? Hot damn, we do, we really do. This new Pride & Prejudice is beautiful and luminous and sexy and rambunctious and suspenseful and passionate and visceral ... It's downright exhausting just thinking about how wonderful and even necessary this movie is. This movie is so alive you want to cry, and the feeling hits you right away and never leaves. The cast is fantastic, filling the movie with unforgettable moments of humor and pathos, but, as it must be, the success of this film rests with Knightley and MacFadyen, who are the Lizziest and the Darciest Lizzie and Darcy ever. -- MJ

Rent (R) Chris Columbus' film adaptation of Jonathan Larson's 1996 hit Broadway musical will probably become, at the very least, a cult hit, even though it's too weird (read: gay) for the red staters and probably too smarmy and overemotional for the literati. The story of a year in the life of a group of 20-something, boho, starving artist-types in New York's East Village, it's loosely based on Puccini's La Bohème. A good chunk of the "message" is the kind of trite pap you'd expect the owner of a "Hang in There!" kitten poster to take as deep philosophy. But the feeling behind the play's lyrics is anything but ersatz, and if there's a director who knows how to deftly spoon-feed sentiment, it's Columbus. -- Sara Miller

Syriana (R) While writer-director Stephen (Traffic) Gaghan is to be commended for attempting to upgrade the geo-petro-politics discourse from the present administration's hall of mirrors obfuscation plan, the fact that his movie, by any measure, isn't very good, kind of louses up its excellent timing. In trying to be a one-film introductory lesson in petro-maniacal greed, a '70s-style thriller, a character study, and a primer on assorted Middle East miseries, Syriana just packs too much information, and it's often as glib as it is incomprehensible. As is, it suffers from the odd problem of being -- at over two hours -- too short for any lasting impact. -- Ian Gray

Walk the Line (PG-13) Walk the Line is Johnny Cash's story and more. It captures his life from shortly before his first record up until his marriage to the woman he'd spend the last 35 years of his life with, June Carter. Because of that, this is both of their stories. Featuring a legendary performance from Joaquin Pheonix as the Man in Black, filled with Cash's music and full of rousing life, Walk the Line is a fantastic success. You'll clap, you'll cheer, you'll cry, and then you'll run out and buy every scrap of Johnny Cash music you can find. This is a special film, much more than a biopic: it's an emotional masterpiece, and easily one of the year's best. -- Joshua Tyler

Yours, Mine, and Ours (PG) Last time I checked, Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo were not quite in the same league as Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball, the stars of the original version of this bloodless remake. Why, then, remake it, unless you can supply stars of a similar caliber? The real reason behind this mess is a desire to cash in on the inexplicable popularity of the dumbed-down remake of Cheaper by the Dozen -- so why not dumb-down an already pretty dumb movie? After all, if a dozen kids are funny, 18 will be even funnier, right? Consider yourself warned. -- KH

Zathura (PG) Two young boys stumble across a strange board game called "Zathura" and in short order their entire home is flung into space and assaulted by burning, flying rocks. If they want to get back to Earth, they'll have to play their way through Zathura and win. Elf director Jon Favreau's flick is great fun and a visual treat, but it just misses greatness by rote of a flat, confusing narrative. Parents my leave befuddled by the sometimes careless plot and it'll never be considered the family classic that Elf already is, but Zathura will fire up their kids' imaginations. -- JT

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