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

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 can probably 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

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

The Last Samurai
Dir. Edward Zwick; writ. John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz, Zwick; feat. Ken Watanabe, Tom Cruise, Masato Harada, Timothy Spall, Shin Koyamada, Koyuki, Tony Goldwyn (R)
A veteran of the Civil War and the Indian campaigns, Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) is hired to turn raw Japanese conscripts into an efficient fighting force adept in using the latest battlefield equipment. But in the first skirmish, against a band of rebel samurai, Algren's pupils are routed, and he is taken prisoner. Forced to winter with the insurgents in a picturesque mountain village, Algren goes native. Within a few months, he is fluent in Japanese and fluid in his use of traditional swords, knives, and sticks. By springtime, he is fighting beside Katsumoto (Watanabe), the charismatic leader of the samurai, in violent confrontation with regiments that by now have leaned to use their bayonets and howitzers. Katsumoto and his allies, including Algren, apply their admirable ideals of discipline and concentration to the business of butchery. They behead their captured enemies and, when defeated, disembowel themselves. These last samurai, who follow orders without question, are the ancestors of kamikaze pilots and Aum Shinrikyo terrorists. The Last Samurai is an elegantly realized epic, but it is also a training film for Hamas and Al Qaeda. SGK

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

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

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 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. Richard Donner; writ. Jeff Maguire, George Nolfi, based on a novel by Michael Crichton; feat. Paul Walker, Frances O'Connor, Gerard Butler, Billy Connolly, Ethan Embry, Anna Friel (PG-13)
When technologists at a secretive American corporation happen on a chronological wormhole connecting the present with 1357, they dispatch an archaeology professor to excavate the past before it becomes the past. But something goes wrong, and he is marooned. Attempting to retrieve the professor, three of his research assistants, as well as his love-smitten son, get caught in a violent confrontation between French and English warriors. The tourists from the 21st century prove remarkably adept with bows, axes, and horses. Nor is preparation in the local language a problem, since everyone somehow speaks modern French or modern English. Boos to studio executives who trap unwary audiences in witless films that waste their time. SGK

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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