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"School for Scoundrels"

Billy Bob Thornton does a watered-down version of his belligerent "Bad Santa" character, and Jon Heder does an even nerdier version of the role that made him famous in "Napoleon Dynamite." The clash of those two opposing forces provides a few laughs for a little while. But then director Todd Phillips, following up his gleefully juvenile "Old School," can't decide what he wants his movie to be. Thornton teaches a class for insecure men, encouraging them (with the help of a relentlessly abusive Michael Clarke Duncan) to be a lion, to take what's theirs. Heder plays one of his students, a milquetoast meter maid. That's a clever comic idea. But then the film veers into oppressively mean territory, then it drags with repetitive one-upmanship, then it turns into a typically cheesy romantic comedy. And after several false endings, "School for Scoundrels" feels as if it will never let out. Australian actress Jacinda Barrett ("The Last Kiss") doesn't get much to do as the blandly sweet object of Heder's affection. The ubiquitous Ben Stiller is mildly amusing as one of Thornton's scarred former students. PG-13 for language, crude and sexual content, and some violence. 101 min. One and a half stars out of four.

- Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

"Open Season"

It's too bad that "Open Season" is coming out now, at the end of a year that saw a flock of animated flicks about smart-alecky talking animals. It has the obligatory all-star vocal cast (Martin Lawrence, Ashton Kutcher, Debra Messing) and a healthy sprinkling of pop culture references (Lawrence, as a domesticated grizzly bear, watches "Wheel of Fortune"). But unlike "The Wild," "The Ant Bully" or "Over the Hedge," which it most closely resembles, it's not insufferably obnoxious. This debut offering from Sony Pictures Animation has a giddy energy about it and a gleeful sense of its own weirdness, as evidenced by the casting of Billy Connolly as the furry-eyebrowed McSquizzy, the leader of an organized, angry band of squirrels. Lawrence's character, Boog, gets sent back to the woods after being wrongly accused of attacking a deer, the one-antlered Elliot, voiced by Kutcher. He longs to return to the home he shares with forest ranger Beth (Messing) but learns to survive and even thrive amid his fellow creatures along the way. It's appropriate for most kids, though the confrontations with an overzealous hunter (Gary Sinise) could be a bit scary for little ones. PG for some rude humor, mild action and brief language. 87 min. Two and a half stars out of four.

- Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

"The Guardian"

Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher's Coast Guard adventure drags on like a slow boat ride to Anchorage, its standard-issue heroics and flavorless dialogue gone stale long before the movie arrives at the big, valorous finish. Director Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive") crafts hearty action sequences of men hurling themselves into peril to save others in Alaska's churning waters. But the drama and emotion behind the action is so frosty, you could die of exposure by the time the movie lumbers to its climax after well over two hours. Costner plays a legendary Coast Guard rescue swimmer who takes on a temporary assignment training recruits, with Kutcher as his arrogant but promising protege. The cast includes Sela Ward, Melissa Sagemiller, Neal McDonough, Clancy Brown and Bonnie Bramlett. PG-13 for intense sequences of action/peril, brief strong language and some sensuality. 139 min. Two stars out of four.

- David Germain, AP Movie Writer

"The Black Dahlia"

Brian De Palma's fictionalized tale of two Los Angeles detectives assigned to the gruesome 1940s murder of a real-life wannabe starlet begins as a slow but intriguing character study that gradually unravels into a turgid mess. Like so many De Palma pictures, the convoluted story gets choked amid the flash and flourishes of the filmmaker's visual excess, and characters who start out promisingly idiosyncratic become caricatures by the end. Adapted from James Ellroy's noir mystery thriller, the movie stars Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart as cops hunting for the psycho who killed and mutilated a young actress (Mia Kirshner) then cut her in half in a notorious unsolved Hollywood homicide. Hilary Swank plays a femme fatale and Scarlett Johansson co-stars as a woman involved with both cops. R for strong violence, some grisly images, sexual content and language. 121 minutes. Two stars out of four.

- David Germain, AP Movie Writer

"Invincible"

It's a great story. And it has the added benefit of being (mostly) true. In 1976, at the start of his first year as the Philadelphia Eagles' head coach, Dick Vermeil issued an open call to anyone who wanted to try out for the team. Hundreds showed up. One guy made it: Vince Papale, a lifelong Eagles fan who happened to be at a crossroads at age 30, but who also happened to possess explosive athletic abilities and even greater heart. The aptly titled "Invincible" is his story - or rather, it's "inspired by" his story. (The filmmakers took a few liberties, but they're acceptable.) And, like its predecessors "The Rookie" and "Miracle," it's remarkably un-Disneyfied for a Disney movie. Longtime cinematographer Ericson Core ("The Fast and the Furious"), who directs for the first time and shot the film, and screenwriter Brad Gann take a stripped-down look at Papale's unlikely pro football career and at the economic hardships Papale and his friends endured in working-class South Philly in the 1970s. And in Mark Wahlberg, himself a product of a poor upbringing in South Boston, Core has the ideal star. Greg Kinnear plays the young Vermeil, with the increasingly versatile Elizabeth Banks costarring as Papale's future wife. PG for sports action and some mild language. 108 min. Three stars out of four.

- Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

"The Illusionist"

This period piece about the power of magic lacks just that. The magic of romance, drama, longing and faith generally is missing in director Neil Burger's tale of a love triangle involving a magician, a noblewoman and the heir to the Austrian throne. Burger crafts a movie with a sumptuous visual palette but little heart, the characters detached and cold-blooded. It's no surprise that an inscrutable poker-face such as Edward Norton plays the title role as such a closed-book. It's quite a sleight of hand, though, for a film to thoroughly constrain a co-star as expressive as Paul Giamatti into a character so aloof he barely registers emotionally. Norton plays a magician in 1900 Vienna at odds with the crown prince (Rufus Sewell) and the police inspector (Giamatti) charged with debunking the prestidigitator's amazing illusions. Jessica Biel co-stars as the magician's childhood flame, now the jealous prince's fiance. PG-13 for some sexuality and violence. 109 min. Two stars out of four.

- David Germain, AP Movie Writer

"Flyboys"

The title sounds cute and maybe even a little flippant, but this is as earnest a war picture as you could possibly find. Inspired by the Lafayette Escadrille, young Americans who volunteered to fly for the French military before the United States entered World War I, the movie combines traditional themes and events with high-tech imagery. James Franco stars as a rebellious Texan who signs up after losing his family's ranch. Jean Reno is perfectly cast as the squadron's no-nonsense captain, with Jennifer Decker making a lovely debut as the young Frenchwoman with whom Franco's character begins a chaste romance. You'll find little here that's new or different - if "Flyboys" had come out 50 years ago, it might have starred Henry Fonda or Montgomery Clift - but there's a nice, comfortable camaraderie among the men, the dogfights are thunderous and the rescues are thrilling. PG-13 for war action and some sexual content. 139 min. Two and a half stars out of four.

- Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

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