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by The Inlander & r & A Good Year


Peter Mayle's slight novel about a London workaholic who inherits a vineyard and home in Provence gets an excellent trim and tune-up in Ridley Scott's adaptation. Russell Crowe stars and shows off his soft side as Max, a cad who's probably a nice guy and might just take to this new life. Complications arise when a young American woman (Abbie Cornish) arrives claiming to be the heiress. Romance is in the air when Max meets French firebrand Fanny (Marion Cotillard). Totally charming stuff. (ES) Rated PG-13





Babel


Director Alejandro Gonz & aacute;lez I & ntilde; & aacute;rritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga make beautiful, joyless films. The third and likely final collaboration between the two concludes a really good trilogy (also including Amores Perros and 21 Grams) about guilt, blame and loss with a just OK meditation on the similar way people grieve and blame all over the globe. From sexually reactive Japanese teens to an affluent, unhappy American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, both very good), this film proves we're all connected and we're all sad. Good call. (LB) Rated R





BORAT


The funniest film of the year (of the decade?) is also the most politically incorrect. And that's what makes it so funny. Sacha Baron Cohen brings his Kazakhstani TV journalist character, Borat, to the screen in a faux documentary road trip across America. The shtick is that Borat never comes out of character, and meets up with a lot of unsuspecting Americans who aren't brought in on the joke. He's an imbecilic, racist misogynist who has no idea he's doing anything wrong. A special nude sequence will leave you howling. (ES) Rated R





BUGS


Real-life footage of bugs (mainly a praying mantis and a caterpillar) tells the story of their life in the rain forest. The IMAX screen closes in on the insects with a childlike intensity, but the directors have spiced things up with occasional effects -- such as Mantis Vision. Judi Dench, the film's narrator, brings a Shakespearean relish to discussions of what it feels like to eat your opponent's head. The music is over the top, lending the short film the feel of a live cartoon. The ending is schmaltzy, but redeems the bugs with a treatment that transcends simplistic "circle of life" stuff. (MD) Imax, Not Rated








THE DEPARTED


Martin Scorsese returns to form in this gritty remake of a 2002 Hong Kong film. Set in contemporary Boston, the story's premise is that the cops have a rat (Leonardo DiCaprio) in mobster Jack Nicholson's Irish gang, and Nicholson has one (Matt Damon) infiltrating the cops. Suspicions within both camps run rampant, and raw violence is never very far from center-screen. Solid acting from all, tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, and an eclectic rock soundtrack. (ES) Rated R








FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS


The photo of six Marines planting an American flag on Iwo Jima became iconic from the moment it ran on the covers of newspapers across the States. Clint Eastwood's film of the book looks at the troubled lives of three of those men during and after the days when they were labeled heroes and forced by the military to shill for war bonds. Horrific war scenes mix with introspective emotional sequences, resulting in a story that's both patriotic and damning. This is a major triumph for Eastwood, one of America's best filmmakers. (ES) Rated R





FLICKA


The book (My Friend Flicka) is about a boy and a horse, but this film remake of the adaptation goes the girly route. On a ranch -- one that needs saving, like so many -- a girl (Alison Lohman) wants to prove herself capable of taking over the family business by riding a wild horse. Tim McGraw as Daddy means this will be a coming-of-age in the saddle story for proto-agricultural feminists. Rated PG





Flushed Away


Nick Park had no hand in this film, meaning it's missing the spear point of Aardman Studio's three Oscar wins (two for Wallace & amp; Gromit shorts, one for last year's W & amp;G feature debut, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit). As you might expect, then, the comic irreverence of Aardman's best work is blunted here and dulled, but not entirely worn down. Despite that, and a plot and main character so purile as to be almost unwatchable initially, Flushed Away works if you sit tight. Make it past the first 15 minutes, and you'll find yourself laughing through the final 70. (LB) Rated PG





THE GUARDIAN


Kevin Costner plays an aging Coast Guard rescue instructor, Ashton Kutcher is his feistiest student, there is much clashing between them as training progresses (till the script, not very cleverly, gets them drinking beers together). Both guys are pretty good in the parts, but the film plops clich & eacute; upon clich & eacute; and features what could be the highest-number of slow-motion shots ever seen onscreen. (ES) Rated PG-13





Harsh Times


Seemingly three movies at once, Jim Davis (Christian Bale) is an ex-Army Ranger trying to get hired on as a Fed. Though white, he also seems to have been raised in a predominately Latino section of L.A, meaning he speaks with a very particular street affectation. He's also bat shit insane, looking for trouble and, when he finds it, killing indiscriminately. Looks like a schizophrenic ghetto fable. Rated R





MAN OF THE YEAR


Writer-director Barry Levinson has figured out a way to get Robin Williams to strut his stuff while still keeping it entertaining and not overbearing. Williams plays a TV talk show host who makes a presidential run. He's wild and raucous, but he makes lots of sense on the campaign trail. But then the film takes a strange turn when it looks into faulty voting machines, becoming a tense thriller. Lots of good stuff, but the two moods don't mix. (ES) Rated PG-13





Marie Antoinette


Beginning with her marriage and ending before her beheading, Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette takes solace in the tradition she's been born into, electing to stay with the husband she didn't choose and whose sexual timidity and dysfunction caused her a decade of distress. That's not a cloyingly Hollywood ending, but neither does the character's lack of development have the ultimate resonance we might have hoped for. It's incredibly difficult to process, deep in the escapism of the cineplex, a film that says, simply, some lives neither succeed beautifully nor fail catastrophically. Some lives -- even those lived without want or reflection -- just are. For that transgression, Marie Antoinette will be both loved and reviled. (LB) Rated PG-13





THE PRESTIGE


Fans of The Illusionist need not worry that this is just more early 20th-century magician business. This one gives you two magicians for the price of one, and fierce competition between them gets very much out of control. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale star as the master performers, with gadget builder Michael Caine and a surprisingly restrained Scarlett Johansson as a love interest. Twists and turns galore, under the twisting, turning direction of Christopher Nolan (Memento), are accompanied by a quiet, mannered performance by David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. (ES) Rated PG-13





The Queen


Helen Mirren stars as Elizabeth II in a dramedy about the beloved figurehead and her less than beloved family. Does British tabloids one better by coupling snark, satire and general salaciousness with considerable Oscar buzz. Rated PG-13





The Return


All right, kiddies, ready for an analogy that won't be on your SATs? Sarah Michelle Gellar is to PG-13 horror schlock as curry is to Indian food: ubiquitous and, in the wrong doses, upsetting to the ol' stomach. Surprise, she's at it again in The Return, playing a Midwestern sales rep whose door-to-dooring is interrupted by supernatural dreams and visions. These dreams and visions, as you might expect, are evil, and lead her down a prairie dog hole of mystery and jump-cut thrills. Rated PG-13.





SANTA CLAUSE 3


There's more fine print in Tim Allen's little Santa contract, and this one says ... well, we're not sure what it says. It certainly doesn't make any sense. Somehow, "the escape clause" means Santa and his (never before seen) nemesis Jack Frost (Martin Short) get to go back in time or something. Rated G





Saw III


We've always believed that the first Saw was built out of a love for David Fincher's Se7en and an idea for a punny tag line ("See Saw" nearly made us puke). So what direction does the third installment take when the first was essentially directionless? More blood; more wanky, carpe-diem pseudo-philosophy; and a prot & eacute;g & eacute;. Yeah, a prot & eacute;g & eacute;. Rated R.





Stranger Than Fiction


A good, fun premise (novelist is writing a story about a character who happens to be real, and decides she ought to kill him off), some great acting (Will Ferrell's best) and very good direction from Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, the crappy but visually gorgeous Stay) ultimately devolves into a pedantic, quasi-philosophical think piece whose climax hinges on an ethical no-brainer that is nonetheless given 20 minutes of sappy hand-wringing to arrive at an obvious conclusion. Give it an "A" for effort, but this bad boy needed way more work at the screenwriting stage. (LB) Rated PG-13.

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