"Black Christmas" The setting is an unbelievably spruce sorority house that was the scene of a murderous rampage some 15 years earlier. A young man, Billy (newcomer Robert Mann), had taken the Christmas season as an opportunity to wreak vengeance on his family for the years of abuse that had driven him insane. Now, from the local madhouse, he contemplates his escape and a return to the scene of the crime, which just happens to have about the laxest security system conceivable. Pity the coeds. "Black Christmas" contains the requisite dose of splatters, impalements, flayings and eyeball-munching. Those who demand nothing else from an outing to the multiplex will probably feel they've gotten their money's worth. Everyone else is advised to stay home and polish off what's left of the eggnog. (R) 84 min. * Thomas Peyser
"The Good Shepherd" "Get out, before you lose your soul." So says Michael Gambon's British agent to Matt Damon's American one in "The Good Shepherd," a movie that recounts the founding of the Central Intelligence Agency. He might as well be telling it to American foreign policy in general. The time is World War II, and the way this film would have it, the event infected some of America's already festering elite with a will to secret power. Alternating between these flashbacks and the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, the film is also split between providing the events and the big picture. The better parts, the actual cloak-and-dagger stuff, are only sprinkled in between. This is a history of spying, not a spy movie, a fact we are reminded of whenever the movie skips the details of espionage in favor of the history lesson. You'll enjoy parts, but don't be surprised if you find yourself secretly spying at the time on your cell phone. (R) 167 min. ** Wayne Melton
"Little Children" Maybe you enjoy your tales of adultery scrubbed of ambiguity and treated with light humor and a heavy dose of morality. If so, there's "Little Children," the follow-up from Todd Field, as a director noted for his morose parental revenge debut "In the Bedroom." "Little Children" is much bouncier, with the trappings of a serious indie film, too, but the spirit of a romantic comedy. It even has a surprisingly likeable narrator, the kind of satiric voice you might imagine when reading a 19th-century English novel. The story, based on a popular novel by Tom Perrotta, is about an illicit affair in suburban America between two bored housewives. The twist is that one of them is a man. Perrotta's material is witty, and Field has the skill to turn it into likeable popcorn drama. But the story is too self-conscious and the conclusions are too pat. These aren't human beings we're gazing at, they're characters. They're as aware of being in a movie as we are of watching one. (R) 137 min. *** W.M.
"Notes on a Scandal" This sharp story reminds us that some of the itchiest dramas break out among the most common bodies, in the most unassuming settings. More films should turn our attention toward the quiet machinations of everyday people the mailman or the druggist or, in this case, a couple of bored high-school teachers in London. This is where Barbara (Judi Dench), an aging history teacher nearing retirement, spies and befriends the comely new art teacher, Sheba (Cate Blanchett). Here's the gist: Sheba gets a little too extracurricular with a student; Barbara catches them; all hell breaks loose. Off and on narrated by Barbara, who's keeping all the action in her diary while both falling in love with Sheba and trying to destroy her, "Notes" avoids heroes and villains in favor of honest human frailty. Real people, real troubles. And in a swift 98 minutes, it's also real juicy fun. (R) 98 min. **** W.M.
"The Pursuit of Happyness" This new Will Smith vehicle begins with the cautiously phrased announcement, "inspired by a true story." Whether inspired by one or not, "The Pursuit of Happyness," the tale of a father's desperate attempt to pull himself and his son out of poverty, is emphatically not a true story. It mostly inhabits a familiar world of wish-fulfilling make-believe, but only uncomfortably. It aspires to a grittiness it hasn't the stomach for, and so gets stuck in a narrative no-man's-land between fantasy and realism. To some extent, however, Smith's bottomless capacity for charm saves the movie from itself. (PG-13) 117 min. *** T.P.
"The Queen" Elizabeth II ascended the throne just a few weeks after Eisenhower became president, yet Stephen Frears' smart, moving and altogether engrossing "The Queen" is the first feature film about her. It's likely to remain the best. Set mostly in the week following the death of Princess Diana, "The Queen" traces the aging monarch's attempt to come to grips both with a population whose extraordinary outpouring of grief is entirely beyond her comprehension and with a new, media-savvy prime minister, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), whose political antennae vibrate in perfect sympathy with the mood swings of the masses. The result is a fascinating and telling confrontation of old-fashioned British phlegm and newfangled demands that all public figures be emotionally accessible to the people. It's the story, in other words, of how politicians and sovereigns can hold onto their positions only if they consent to become just a special kind of celebrity. (PG-13) 97 min. ***** T.P.