opening this week
America: Freedom to Fascism (Not Rated) Producer/director Aaron Russo presents a hard-hitting documentary that explores the connection between income tax collection and the erosion of civil liberties in America.
The Grudge 2 (PG-13) An American woman (Amber Tamblyn) travels to Tokyo to find out what happened to her sister, a nurse who took what seemed to be a routine caretaker job in a family home. She meets a journalist (Edison Chen) with a mutual interest in the events that took place within the otherwise modest residence.
Man of the Year (PG-13) Reviewed on page 50.
The Marine (PG-13) A Marine (John Cena) looks to take out the fugitive (Robert Patrick) who kidnapped his girlfriend and left him for dead.
Sharks 3D The latest 3D IMAX film takes audiences on an underwater adventure to experience up-close encounters with the waters most fearsome predator. Ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau introduces audiences to the Great White, Hammerhead, and Whale sharks in their natural habitat and explores the reasons behind their declining numbers.
All the King's Men (PG-13) Director Steven Zaillian's film packs a cast of Oscar winners, nominees, and wannabes into an overly complicated, frightfully dense exploration of corruption and the political process. It's the latest adaptation of the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from Robert Penn Warren, which was in turn loosely based on the life of Governor Huey Long of Louisiana. Sean Penn, as Willie Stark, dominates the film; this may be the best performance of his career. Unfortunately, the actors around him just aren't up to snuff. Jude Law's performance as reporter Jack Burden is as one-note as it gets. The supporting cast of top-grade actors (Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini) fares little better. The most frustrating thing about All the King's Men is how good it could have been. —Joshua Tyler
The Black Dahlia (R) Novelist James Ellroy's world is a Hollywood where the glossy surface illusion hides all the ugliest parts of human nature. This is why there may be no worse choice to direct a James Ellroy adaptation than Brian DePalma, the uncontested master of the slick image. Here, the auteur takes on the lurid underworld of a true-life 1947 Los Angeles murder case, involving the discovery of the mutilated corpse of a beautiful woman, and turns it into a flourishy exercise in high-camp pseudo-noir. Unfortunately, nearly everything that's remotely interesting about The Black Dahlia ultimately comes from its stylized moments. —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
Employee of the Month (PG-13) Nothing more than a hodgepodge of PG-13 comedic clichés, ranging from the "college slacker" genre all the way into the romantic comedy. The film follows the story of Zack (Dane Cook), a worker at Super Club (think Sam's Club, but with shotguns and caskets for sale), and his attempts to woo new staff member Amy (Jessica Simpson) by becoming Employee of the Month. Most of the jokes fall flat and the storyline is just too contrived to ever really work. —Justin Souther
Facing the Giants (PG) I couldn't stomach all of Facing the Giants in one sitting. I did, however, go back the following day and watch the remainder. It didn't help. 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
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 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
The Illusionist (PG-13) There's magic in The Illusionist, and I don't mean merely the magic of stage conjurers, like the character this wonderfully mysterious and dreamy film turns on. Director Neil Burger creates a vision of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century that is half phantasm and half history, that plays with concepts of class distinction starting to disappear as an old world gives way to a new. Its greatest thrill may be that it finds a, well, magic middle ground where it could actually please everyone, where it's just strange enough to electrify fans of the bizarre and just effortless enough to satisfy those who merely seek a diverting entertainment. —Maryann Johanson
Jackass: Number Two (R) This open sore of a cinematic affront, in which overgrown adolescents perform dangerous and/or disgusting stunts, is a crap-fest served up with a large bottle of weasel urine (which for a small fee, any one of the cast members would probably drink). Utterly and completely worthless, either as pop-culture commentary or entertainment. —Ken Hanke
The Last Kiss (R) This angst-driven whine-fest of a movie starring Zach Braff is no Garden State — and not just because it's set in Wisconson. Braff playing a "normal guy" the same way he played his dysfunctional Garden State character is an expressionless bore, excessive of nose and bereft of chin, living an ultra-priviliged life that he and his equally privileged buddies likes to bitch and moan about, probably because they're facing their 30s and are in a movie scripted by Paul Haggis. The burning question is will he sleep with hot college girl (and potential stalker) Rachel Bilson or will he stick with pregnant girlfriend Jacinda Barrett. The real question is why anyone should care. —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
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
School for Scoundrels (PG-13) School for Scoundrels is to the art of film what processed cheese food is to fine dining. Director/cowriter Todd Phillips has cobbled together a plodding farce entirely predicated on having his stars regurgitate the things they're best known for. We're given Billy Bob Thornton in full smart-ass cynical mode (or as full as a PG-13 rating will allow) and Jon Heder in his Napoleon Dynamite hapless mouth-breather persona. The storyline — perennial loser Heder signs up for Thornton's self-assertion class and becomes the star pupil, finding himself vying with his teacher for the favors of the same girl (Jacinda Barrett) — isn't bad, but it's ineptly handled, rarely funny, pointlessly illogical, and completely devoid of surprise or style. —Ken Hanke
The Science of Sleep (R) Possibly the most wonderfully strange, most magically enchanting, most heartachingly romantic movie I've ever seen. Michel Gondry, who blew our minds with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, here goes a-musing through an ethereality somewhere between dreams and wakefulness, between insanity and reason that is as removed from the mindblowingness of Sunshine as that movie was from your standard multiplex experience. —Maryann Johanson
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, R. Lee Ermey swears a lot, there's a pretty neat "exploding" cow, and it's all in that disturbing post-Eli Roth (Hostel) mode of revelling in pain for its own sake. —Ken Hanke