"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
"Borat" The full name of Borat's new movie is the wonderfully awkward "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." Borat, a Kazakh journalist, is off to visit America, where he preys on the hapless citizenry, and chases the dream of marrying Pamela Anderson. "Borat" might be a faker, but the people who fall for him aren't. Cohen and his con-team swoop in for an interview with a stack of contracts the mark doesn't have the time or inclination to read. The result is usually a disaster for the interviewee and comedic gold for Borat. Cohen's character is one of the funniest mainstream satirists in pop culture today. (He would be the funniest without those DVD box sets of "The Simpsons.") He's leagues above the funny race car driver, news anchor and other characters created by Will Ferrell. Ferrell, after seeing "Borat," is reputed to have lamented he'd never top it. That's likely true. (R) 82 min. ***** Wayne Melton
"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. ** 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. S