Bad Santa
Dir. Terry Zwigoff; writ. John Requa & Glenn Ficarra; feat. Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Bernie Mac, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, John Ritter (R)
Bad Santa is vile. Snot-dripping and alley-pukey, pants-pissing and rotgut-swilling vile. It does not have redeeming social merit; it will not enrich your soul or teach you the meaning of Christmas. It starts bleak and goes down from there. The premise takes the old caricature - the drunken department store Santa Claus - and makes it cartoonishly extreme, then adds a twist: This Santa (Thornton) is a safe cracker, and every year, he and his partner (a dwarf who wears an elf costume) go to work for a new store, taking pictures with kids and casing the joint for a Christmas Eve heist. But Santa has lost all interest in keeping up appearances, and instead curses at children and sodomizes shoppers in the Big and Tall department dressing rooms. In almost any other film, Santa would be shown the road to salvation, but Bad Santa would rather sit around boozing and making fun of America's two-month celebration of December 25. JD

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Alex Frost plays the lead in Gus Van Sant's Elephant (courtesy photo)

Dir. & writ. Gus Van Sant; feat. Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Kristen Hicks, Matt Malloy, Timothy Bottoms (R)
Not a dramatization of Columbine per se, Elephant imagines a very similar horror, this one also perpetrated by two male students in a typical middle-class high school, and focuses on the day leading up to it. This movie, which among other things demonstrates the horrible inadequacy of the standard "docudrama" in the face of truly shocking events, is rich enough to demand countless conversations. Rather than wring drama from history and move on, it wants to provoke us into those conversations while singing a requiem. The film director Gus Van Sant leaves behind is a haunting meditation on questions we probably can never answer. JD

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

The Human Stain
Dir. Robert Benton; writ. Philip Roth (novel), Nicholas Meyer; feat. Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Wentworth Miller, Anna Deavere Smith (R)
Coleman Silk (Hopkins), an aging classics professor, has been booted from the university he helped rejuvenate because an innocent remark was misconstrued as racism. The professor has a secret weapon against such charges - he is from an African-American family, though his light skin allows him to pass for Jewish - but he refuses to expose his past. Silk tumbles into an affair with a woman from another world: Young, uneducated, and far too sexy for a man of Silk's standing, Faunia Farely (Kidman) is a walking Viagra tablet with dark secrets and a volatile estranged husband. Like the eloquent but aging man it portrays, director Robert Benton's film alternates between grace and sluggishness, and, like its lead character, The Human Stain just has too much to conceal. JD

Intolerable Cruelty
Dir. Joel Coen; writ. Joel & Ethan Coen, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone; feat. George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Geoffrey Rush, Cedric the Entertainer, Edward Herrmann, Paul Adelstein, Billy Bob Thornton (PG-13)
George Clooney's Miles Massey is the big shark in divorce-attorney waters, a Dapper Dan able to sell the most ludicrous settlements. In the course of raking Mrs. Rexroth (Zeta-Jones) through the coals in court, he falls for her hard and proceeds to make a fool of himself. While film history suggests that the Coens will eventually make a bad movie or two, it won't be this year: Cruelty hits the nail on the head. 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

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Dir. Peter Weir; writ. Weir & John Colley, based on novels by Patrick O'Brian; feat. Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, James D'Arcy, Lee Ingleby, Max Pirkis (PG-13)
Before his death three years ago, Patrick O'Brian published 20 volumes of vivid historical fiction that, focusing on naval captain Jack Aubrey and ship's physician Stephen Maturin, recreate life on a British man-of-war during the early 19th century. Napoleonic france was the adversary, and the United states, an upstart former colony, had to be put in its place. Combining the first installment in the series, Master and Commander, with a later one, The Far Side of the World, the first cinematic adaptation of O'Brian's work is as nimble as its title is unwieldy. One of the most striking changes that Peter Weir, the Australian director who has worked in the U.S. for more than two decades, made to O'Brian's meticulously researched fiction was to have the hostile frigate be French instead of American. SGK

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

Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Dir. & writ. Robert Rodriguez; feat. Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Enrique Iglesias, Marco Leonardi, Cheech Marin, Rubén Blades, Willem Dafoe, Pedro Armendáriz Jr. (R)
Robert Rodriguez falls short of delivering on the promise of an epic film. Even his trademark cinematic flourishes seem reined in. Depp's Agent Sands dominates - pushing even the iconic Mariachi to the sides. As appealing as parts of the film are to a sense of cultural pride, it ultimately leaves viewers wondering whether it is entertainment as empowerment - or exploitation. AP

Runaway Jury
Dir. Gary Fleder; writ. Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland, Matthew Chapman, based on a novel by John Grisham; feat. John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz (PG-13)
The film focuses on a civil proceeding in which the widow of a stockbroker murdered by a psychopath charges Vicksburg Firearms with culpable liability. "Trials are too important to be left to juries," says Rankin Fitch (Hackman), a veteran specialist in jury management, who demands $30 million to guarantee Vicksburg immunity from legal judgment. Runaway Jury runs away from the intricacies of Second Amendment law and corporate responsibility toward a layered thriller. SGK

School of Rock
Dir. Richard Linklater; writ. Mike White; feat. Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Joey Gaydos, Maryam Hassan, Kevin Clark, Rebecca Brown, Robert Tsai, Miranda Cosgrove (PG-13)
Dumped by his bandmates and way behind on the rent, would-be rawk star Dewey Finn stumbles into a temporary gig as the substitute teacher for a class of fifth-grade overachievers. After discovering that his class harbors a few talented musicians, he plans to use them to win a battle of the bands contest for $20,000. But first he must teach them how to rock. JD

Shattered Glass
Dir. & writ. Billy Ray, based on an article by Buzz Bissinger; feat. Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard, Chloë Sevigny, Melanie Lynskey, Steve Zahn, Hank Azaria (PG-13)
The story of a talented man undone by his own hubris, Shattered Glass would be an Aristotelian tragedy, except that its protagonist is irredeemably smarmy. Forever angling to exploit an opportunity, even at the end, journalistic fraud Stephen Glass never attains the tragic recognition that would enable him to transcend his degradation. Set in Washington, D.C., in May 1998, as Glass' gaudy quilt of lies unravels, it is a horror tale about an unscrupulous monster who invades a magazine of principled opinion and almost overcomes its staff. A disaster movie, it is the specter of a self-destructing life. SGK

The Singing Detective
Dir. Keith Gordon; writ. Dennis Potter; feat. Robert Downey Jr., Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Adrien Brody, Jon Polito, Mel Gibson (R)
Disfigured and disabled by the skin and joint disease, psoriatic arthropy, stippled with pustules and crippled by his condition, Dan Dark (Downey) is a novelist who can no longer even hold a pencil, but he broods over reworking his first book - a pulp fiction about pimps, thugs, prostitutes, and murder called The Singing Detective - into a movie. Using literary criticism of Dark's own novel as the key to psychoanalysis, a psychotherapist named Gordon (Gibson) begins to free him from the forces tyrannizing his mind. The revised screenplay, used by director Keith Gordon for this film, differs not only in structure but also in its conclusion. It offers an appropriate vision for the New World nation of 300 million therapies. 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

Dir. Christine Jeffs; writ. John Brownlow; feat. Gwyneth Paltro, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, Michael Gambon, Amira Casar, Blythe Danner (R)
Sylvia - which presents hypothesis as history, notably in a final meeting between Sylvia Plath and husbant Ted Hughes that cannot be verified - will not please those who think all biography is effrontery, nor will it likely please partisans of either poet. Just as any film about Vincent van Gogh must lead up to a scene of severing the ear, audiences are from the opening frame of Sylvia prepared for her encounter with the kitchen gas. But in a cosmic cinematic joke that Plath herself might have devised, the camera turns away. SGK

Tupac Resurrection
Dir. Lauren Lazin; feat. Tupac Shakur (R)
Tupac Resurrection is a pastiche culled from Tupac's interviews, home movies, studio sessions, and recordings. Director Lauren Lazin's mainstream cautionary tale will certainly draw the curious to see what the fuss is about - but little else. As an "official" film approved and produced by Mama Shakur, Lazin avoids delving into Tupac's dark side. But in trying to chronicle Tupac's "life and not his "death," the film's upbeat tone rings false. GB

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The 2003 cast of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (courtesy photo)

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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