"The Black Dahlia" Based on the grisly 1940s L.A. murder of would-be starlet Elizabeth Short, Brian De Palma's comeback film seems to assume that the mere sight of the vanished Hollywood of yore will set audiences swooning. There's not much else. The often bewildering plot centers not so much on the murder itself as on the tribulations of the cops on the case, Lee Blanchard (a swaggering Aaron Eckhart) and, especially, Bucky Bleichert (a soporific Josh Hartnett), who falls for Lee's girl (Scarlett Johansson). The victim herself (Mia Kirshner) appears mostly in dubious footage. Like "L.A. Confidential" (1997), "The Black Dahlia" is based on a novel by James Ellroy. Another similar film is "Chinatown." But be warned: Compared to "The Black Dahlia," both of these earlier works are easy to follow. Most viewers will probably realize in short order that it's not worth the trouble to understand this one, and they will content themselves with the exquisite tailoring and set design on display. (R) 121 min. * Thomas Peyser
"The Departed" After directing two massive historical epics ("Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator"), Martin Scorsese approaches this adaptation of a Hong Kong cinema police thriller with an exhilarating fluency that combines flawless visual compositions and informed musical cues with an unbridled sense of dark humor. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a rookie undercover cop in South Boston, where he infiltrates the Irish mob, run by Jack Nicholson, while attempting to uncover the identity of a secret mob mole (Matt Damon). This is a welcome return to the crime genre from one of our best directors. (R) 120 min. **** Cole Smithey
"Everyone's Hero" Christopher Reeve's final film project tells the simple story of a little boy who risks everything to restore order to his family's Depression-era existence. This well-tempered and heartwarming animated children's movie takes Yankee, our 10-year-old hero, on a journey from New York to Chicago, where Babe and the Yankees are playing out the 1932 World Series, to retrieve a stolen bat and save his dad's job. (G) 88 min. *** C.S.
"Flyboys" Director Tony Bill's "Flyboys" plays like a blustering CGI cousin of the far superior "Hell's Angels" from 70-plus years ago. James Franco stars as a Texas cowpoke who takes off for France to defend against the Germans during WWI. He gets a crash course as a fighter pilot with the French Air Service before becoming distracted from his military duties by a local farm girl. His flying skills improve much faster than his command of the French language, as his fellow pilots are gradually shot down during the film's interminable dog fight sequences that repeat at regular intervals. "Flyboys" is a fluffy war movie that regales a brand of civilized warfare that no longer exists. The characters, although based on real people, have been reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes. The superabundant air battles offer distraction but little reason to sit through everything else. (PG-13) 139 min. ** C.S.
"Gridiron Gang" A well-intentioned but hopelessly muddled vehicle for wrestling personality Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, this football yarn deals with the plight of inner-city kids who've landed in a grimy L.A. juvenile detention center. They've ended up there for a variety of offences: dealing drugs, knocking off liquor stores, murder. Based on a true story, the movie follows the efforts of probation officer Sean Porter (Johnson) to reform these hard-luck cases by teaching them to play football. That sounds like a sentimental cliché, and "Gridiron Gang" gives you very little reason to believe it's anything else. "Gridiron Gang" means well, but the small mountain of film clichés it deals in-the dying mom, the refractory teammate, the Big Game-turns its intended message of hope into just another bit of shtick. (PG-13) 120 min. ** T.P.
"Jackass Number Two" Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Steve-O and their crew of modern-day clowns have turned masochistic slapstick humor into a cathartic existential experience. The communal social release they provide isn't the faux-intellectual slapstick of Monty Python, or even the canny social satire of Sacha Baron Cohen ("Borat"), but rather a physical brand of humor that if it doesn't elicit a response, then you probably don't have a pulse. The schoolboy skits are shorter and greater in number than the first "Jackass" movie, but the laughs and howls they provoke are just as loud and many. (R) 92 min. *** C.S.
"The Last Kiss" Madison, Wisconsin, is the stomping ground for a group of Generation Z 20-somethings to test their underdeveloped moral codes. Michael (Zach Braff) gets caught in an emotional whirlpool when his high-maintenance live-in girlfriend announces she's 10 weeks pregnant at a dinner with Michael and her parents. Michael, in turn, allows himself to be seduced by a needy college sophomore just to ensure that his girlfriend's irrational emotional outbursts have some merit. Paul Haggis adapted the script from Gabriele Muccino's 2001 comic drama, Tony Goldwyn directs and the consequence is a distinctly white-bread romantic comedy sprinkled with brief flashes of modern-day American existentialist dread. (R) 115 min. ** C.S.
"Little Miss Sunshine" Finding this kind of quirky, charming family adventure at the summer Cineplex is like finding a diamond in a junkyard. It feels safer to just applaud its gifts and not complain too much about its faults. Everything hinges on getting pudgy, bespectacled Olive to a California beauty pageant for little girls. But the movie turns on the relationships between her dad, Richard (Greg Kinnear), a motivational speaker, his frustrated wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), her suicidal brother (Steve Carell) and his teenage nephew (Paul Dano), who hasn't spoken in nine months. "Little Miss Sunshine" is an entertaining and occasionally insightful story that just finds itself with too much to say. (R) 99 min. ***,/b> Wayne Melton
"School for Scoundrels" This remake of a 1960 British film casts Jon Heder in his "Napoleon Dynamite" goofball stereotype as Roger, an abused New York City meter maid vulnerable to fainting spells in the presence of his longed-for neighbor. A tip-off from a co-worker puts Roger in touch with a private self-esteem course for losers taught by a truly misanthropic "doc" (Billy Bob Thornton). Almost as soon as Roger parts with the $5,000 course fee, he jumps to the top of the class, ready to give the teacher a run for his money. Writer/director Todd Phillips ("Old School") relies on slapstick to compensate for his script's anemic narrative and ends up with a flat comedy occasionally punctuated with snaps of absolving vulgarity. (PG-13) 97 min. ** C.S.
"The Wicker Man" Nicolas Cage gives the worst performance of his career in this latest ill-conceived update of Anthony Shaffer's 1973 novel. Provocateur writer/director Neil LaBute imposes a theme of baffled female misogyny on the story of a California highway patrolman, haunted by a recent accident that killed a mother and daughter, who travels to a remote island to search for the daughter of a former girlfriend named Willow (Kate Beahan). It turns out that Willow has other things on her mind than finding a little girl who everyone says never existed. You'd rather look at wicker furniture. (PG-13) 102 min. * C.S.