opening this week
Black Christmas (R) Sorority sisters cooped up in their house during Christmas break are terrorized by a stranger's threatening phone calls.
Dreamgirls (PG-13) Reviewed at left.
The Good German (R) Not to be confused with The Good Shepherd (see below). An American journalist (George Clooney) in post-war Berlin to find his former mistress (Cate Blanchett) is lured into a mystery involving her missing husband and a soldier's washed-up body.
The Good Shepherd (R) Not to be confused with The Good German (see above). Robert De Niro directs a tale of the history and evolution of the CIA, seen through the eyes of James Wilson (Matt Damon), one of its founding officers.
The History Boys (R) Reviewed above.
Night at the Museum (PG) A dim-witted guy (Ben Stiller) gains employment at New York's Museum of Natural History as the third-shift security guard. Tipped off by a pair of day shift old-timers (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney), his first night on the job is full of surprises, as the humans and other animals on display come to life, looking for trouble.
Rocky Balboa (PG) After considering a low-profile return to the ring, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is granted a shot at the title held by heavyweight champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver).
We Are Marshall (PG) When a plane crash claims the lives of the Marshall University football team athletes and some of its fans, the team's new coach (Matthew McConaughey), his surviving players, and the school's dean (David Strathairn) try to keep the program alive.
Apocalypto (R) Mel Gibson bloody Mayan epic begins in pre-Columbian America, 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) 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
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
Charlotte's Web (G) Gary Winick's film version of E.B. White's 1952 children's book is a quiet work of some charm and wit that captures the essence of White's story with a minimum of pandering to modern tastes. The film's embellishments — apart from the requisite flatulence gags — are rarely jarring, and the all-star voice casting isn't allowed to get in the way. The vaguely period setting gives the film a timeless quality that works well. On one level, this is simply a tale of friendship and of the sacrifices we sometimes have to make for our friends. But there's more here than that. It deals with the whole life cycle -- going from birth to death to birth with time out for subtle observations about our own changes as we go through life, not to mention a bit of satire about the cult of celebrity and the power of advertising. —Ken Hanke
Eragon (PG) Visual effects wizard Stefen Fangmeier turns director and proves himself the logical successor to Uwe Boll. Not since Dr. Boll's idiot masterpiece BloodRayne have so many good actors been so humiliated in search of a paycheck. Oh, sure, the actors have only themselves to blame, and Fangmeier had the help of screenwriter Paul Buchman in putting this tripe together, but in the end the blame is Fangmeier's alone. Few directors could possibly get performances of this ... uh ... caliber out of John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons, Robert Carlyle, Rachel Weisz, and Djimon Hounsou. It's a silly affair based on a book by a 15 year old that rips off Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and grafts dragons onto them. The result is unintentially hilarious, if you can bear it. —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 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
Pursuit of Happyness (PG-13) Will Smith's latest offers for your consideration the heart-rending spectacle of a hard-working single dad named Chris Gardner in the economically ravaged early 1980s and putting him in a shelter for the homeless with his absolutely adorable five-year-old tyke (Smith's actual son, Jaden) while working an unpaid internship at a high-powered brokerage-house. Happyness is based on Gardner's true story, but enough has been changed to make Gardner's situation even more cinematically pathetic than it really was. Thankfully, screenwriter Steve Conrad and director Gabriele Muccino have taken great pains to squeeze all overt sentimentality out of the story. There's a smartness and a subtlety to Smith's performance — to the film as a whole — that becomes cleverer and more satisfying the more you think on it. —MaryAnn Johanson
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
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