Dir. Jon Favreau; writ. David Berenbaum; feat. Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel, Edward Asner, Daniel Tay, Mary Steenburgen (PG)
Elf exploits Will Ferrell's most innocent childish side, one that he has elsewhere used to play just play dumb. Here, Buddy is not stupid but guileless, a human raised by Santa's helpers who travels to New York City in search of a lost father who is (Buddy is shocked to learn) on Santa's Naughty list. Buddy sets out, in pointy hat and yellow leotards, to walk from the North Pole to the Big Apple, through (as he later tells anyone who will listen, and many who won't) the Candy Cane Forest and alongside the swirling, twirling Gumdrop Sea. Ferrell proceeds with a few perfect gags to become one of Manhattan's most amusing wide-eyed newcomers: He feasts on discarded chewing gum, races through revolving doors, and is delighted to accept the advertising flyers that more savvy tourist reject as trash. As Elf goes through the motions of a standard Christmas-spirit-boosting fable, with unlikely changes of heart and spontaneous sing-alongs, it remains true to the pure heart at its center. JD

In the Cut
Dir. Jane Campion; writ. Campion, Susanna Moore; feat. Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kevin Bacon, Nick Damici, Sharrieff Pugh (R)
While not collecting found poetry, Frannie (Ryan) is busy worrying whether a killer is after her. The only person in a position to shield her could actually be the psychopath. In the Cut's subtle but deliberate clues are there not so much for us to piece together as to challenge our willingness to accept what we see. In its blend of sex and death and its ambiguity about its protagonists, the film has more in common with a '70s work like Klute than with the '90s sensationalism of Basic Instinct. Its long, quiet detours and mixed messages aren't what the marketplace seems to require these days, but they are as intellectually awake as the characters they champion. JD

Kill Bill
Dir. & writ. Quentin Tarantino; feat. Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah, Sonny Chiba, Julie Dreyfus, David Carradine (R)
The movie follows a former member of the Deadly Viper Assassin Squad who was left for dead by treacherous colleagues, and makes it her mission to eliminate each of them. It's a movie soaked in blood, picked up and wrung out, then tossed back again into the carnage; and while it is not simply one long fight, it will hold little appeal for moviegoers who can't thrill to decapitations and epic duels. The director relishes the beautifully choreographed action and the bits of style - the long, high whine of an unsheathed sword, the geyser of blood produced by a de-limbed torso - that make cinematic violence a visual feast. JD

Lost in Translation
Dir. & writ. Sofia Coppola; feat. Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovanni Ribisi, Anna Faris, Akiko Takeshita (R)
Bill Murray plays a movie star who has come to Tokyo to make a quick $2 million for endorsing a whiskey. Scarlett Johansson plays the wife of a self-absorbed commercial photographer who goes with him on a business trip and spends her days alone while he works. The two are staying in the same hotel; neither is sleeping well, and during their insomniac strolls, they cross paths enough times that they strike up a friendship. Both individuals are wrestling with their lives in ways that make them hungry for meaningful interaction. They are stranded in a country whose language and pop culture are baffling, but that's just a signpost for the alientation they suffer among those who supposedly speak their language. JD

Matrix Revolutions
Dir. & writ. Andy & Larry Wachowski; feat. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, Harold Perrineau Jr., Lambert Wilson, Mary Alice (R)
"What is the Matrix?" It can now be told: It's a war movie dressed up like mysticism. A video-game sham. A big tease with no payoff. A three-art exercise in diminishing returns. One pretty good movie with two sequels that never should have been made. Not only does the action here fail to break new ground - it doesn't even get in the vicinity of the old ground. The bulk of the action is video-game crap with people in CGI exo-skeletons shooting CGI bullets at CGI flying robots. if you get scared playing Nintendo, you might take this stuff seriously. JD

Mystic River
Dir. Clint Eastwood; writ. Brian Helgeland, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane; feat. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney (R)
Repressed memories of abuse propel the action and compel calamity in Mystic River. Never trust a stranger, according to the unspoken code that governs lusterless life beside the Mystic River, where everyone becomes a stranger. The recurrent motif of someone getting into a car driven by another is a visual reminder that danger lurks in letting go. Despite a few unnecessary digressions and a bothersome, redundant final scene, director Clint Eastwood's understated style parallels the silences that insulate, isolate, and destroy his characters. They inhabit a world in which laconic men are in control, or at least prove their masculinity by acting as if they - and not the force of Nemesis - could hold control. SGK

The Station Agent
Dir. & writ. Thomas McCarthy; feat. Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Benjamin, Raven Goodwin, Michelle Wiliams (R)
Fin McBride (Dinklage) is a dwarf, but it's hardly his most defining deviation from the norm - Fin is obsessed with trains. There is a type of film known as a "Sundance movie," where character is more important than genre, guirks are treasured, and action takes a back seat to the kinds of quiet scenes that develop a sense of place. Idiosyncratic in theory, these movies often feel as formulaic as a Hollywood blockbuster in practice. The Station Agent (which won a few awards at this year's festival) is what the average Sundance movie wants to grow up to be: engaging, charming, and witty without often falling back on the easy tricks that keep non-story stories from boring audiences. JD

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Dir. Marcus Nispel; writ. Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel (original), Scott Kosar; feat. Jessica Biel, Jonathan Tucker, Eric Balfour, R. Lee Ermey, Terrence Evans (R)
Although details have changed, the basic plot elements remain. A handful of road-tripping youngsters pick up a hitchhiker who is bad news. Shortly thereafter, they meet a family whose pride and joy enjoys attacking strangers with power tools and sewing patches of their skin together to wear over his own. Jessica Biel is so perfect for this kind of work that the female leads of other recent slasher flicks should hang their generic little heads in shame. No movie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre should be expected to have much respect for the dead. But this one has an awful lot of jump-in-your-seat fun at their expense. JD

Films reviewed by:
GB: Gregg Barrios
JD: John DeFore
LMF: Laura Fries
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
WK: Wendi Kimura
AL: Albert Lopez
JM: Jonathan Marcus
AP: Alejandro Pérez
RP: Rich Perin
JW: Joe Weiss
EW: Elaine Wolff



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