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opening this week

Conversations With God (Unrated) For the 90 million Americans who consider themselves "spiritual," but not necessarily "religious," Unity Church of Charleston (2535 Leeds Ave.) presents a sneak preview of the controversial new film adaptation of Neale Donald Walsch's three-book series Conversations With God. Like the books, the film tells the ostensibly true story of Walsch (Henry Czerny) who, at the lowest point in his life, asks God some hard questions — and gets some surprising answers. Showtimes at 7 p.m. on Fri. and Sat. Oct. 20-21, and 2 p.m. Sun. Oct. 22. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online at

Flags of Our Fathers (PG-13) A re-enactment of the Battle of Iwo Jima; a dramatization of the life stories of the six men who raised the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi; an interpretation of how the iconic photograph of that event — Joe Rosenthal's "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" — turned soldiers into instant heroes, and how the U.S. government used it to adjust public opinion of WWII.

Flicka (PG) Young Katie (Alison Loman) claims a wild horse as her own — an effort to prove to her father (Tim McGraw) that she is capable of one day taking over the family ranch.

Half Nelson (R) An inner-city junior high school teacher (Ryan Gosling) with a drug habit forms an unlikely friendship with one of his students after she discovers his secret. (At the Terrace Theater.)

Marie Antoinette (PG-13) Reviewed at left.

The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D (PG) Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town, is bored with doing the same thing every year for Halloween. One day he stumbles into Christmas Town, and is so taken with the idea of Christmas that he tries to get the resident bats, ghouls, and goblins of Halloween town to help him put on Christmas instead of Halloween — but alas, they can't get it quite right. (At Charleston IMAX.)

The Prestige (PG-13) Reviewed on page 48.

X-Men: The Last Stand (PG-13) The City Paper's fall encore of Movies in Marion Square presents free films on the big inflatable screen in downtown's coolest park every Thursday in October, with local vendors serving food, drink, beer, and wine, with live music before each film and the crisp temperatures of autumn to keep the bugs away. This Thurs. Oct. 19, it's part three of the X-Men series, this time directed by Brett Ratner. When a cure is found to treat mutations, lines are drawn among the X-Men, led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), and the Brotherhood, a band of powerful mutants organized under Xavier's former ally, Magneto (Ian McKellen). Bring a blanket and a friend, and stop by the City Paper tent for all your booze requirements. Call 577-5304 x140 for more info.

critical capsules

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 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

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

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

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

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

The Marine (PG-13) So bad that it's very nearly sublime. The Marine is the cinematic equivalent of some guy who can't scratch his name in the dirt with a stick. That, however, is its charm — something it desperately needs with a lead actor like wrestler John Cena who plays John Triton, a.k.a. The Marine. Cena has no charm. Nor does he boast any acting ability. What he has is a lot of muscles. Discharged from the Marines for setting fire to a bunch of Al Qaeda members with a burning stick (terrorists apparently go up like gasoline-soaked kindling) without orders, Triton goes back to his expensively peroxided wife (Kelly Carlson). Said wife gets kidnapped by a gang of magnificently psychotic and marvelously inept jewel thieves as a hostage. Triton is peeved by this. Lots of over-the-top shooting, fighting and blowing things up follow. —Ken Hanke

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

Quinceañera (R) In Los Angeles' Latino Echo Park neighborhood, 15-year-old Magdalena (Emily Rios) is preparing for her quinceañera celebration, but her studious boyfriend (J.R. Cruz) gets her pregnant by ejaculating on her thigh. Be it a miracle or a medical anomaly, the whole clan is thrown into a tizzy. Don't confuse this Sundance charmer with My Big Fat Mexican Debut, for its farcical scenes of high hair and waltzes form a genial, light-comic prism for watching race, age, class, and sexuality collide in one of America's most economically and ethnically complex cities. If Crash were an independent comedy shot on high-definition video with a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors, it might look something like this. —Marrit Ingman

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

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

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