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FRED CLAUS (PG) Vince Vaughan stars as the black sheep brother of none other than jolly old St. Nick himself (Paul Giamatti) in this kid-friendly comedy of sibling rivalry and holiday cheer. Also stars Miranda Richardson, Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins. Opens Nov. 9 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

P2 (R) Minimalist stalk-and-slash horror directed by first-timer Franck Khalfoun and produced by Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension and The Hills Have Eyes remake), that plays like a stripped-down, somewhat less compelling version of Aja's own work. Virtually the entire movie takes place in a deserted parking garage lorded over by a psychotic attendant who kidnaps a young businesswoman for a long and progressively deadly evening of cat and mouse. Wes Bentley (Ghost Rider) is a bit too bland as the heavy, and Angela Nichols isn't required to do much beyond communicating various degrees of hysteria as the victim, but the film still manages to generate a consistently creepy atmosphere, making good use of its claustrophobic setting through some imaginative camera placement and choreography. The final effect is a bit too much like a well-crafted made-for-TV movie but still worth a look, particularly for fans of the genre. Also stars Simon Reynolds. Opens Nov. 9 at local theaters. 3 stars

RECENT RELEASES

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (PG-13) The new film from stylist extraordinaire Julie Taymor (Titus, Frida) promises a lushly visual approach and wall-to-wall Beatles music bolstering a basic boy-meets-girl scenario set against the groovy, tumultuous 1960s. The characters all have Beatlesque names like Lucy, Jude, Sadie and Jo-Jo, and psychedelicized imagery inspired by the Fab's tunes reportedly abounds — but the $10 million the studio ponied up for the rights to the music apparently didn't even buy them the original versions, so Across the Universe's 133-minute running time may become tough going what with the nonmusician actors themselves being the ones doing the warbling here. We'll have to wait to see how it all turns out, since the film was screened too late for review. tars Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs and Martin Luthor McCoy. (Not Reviewed)

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (R) A languorous art-western in the fabled mold of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Heaven's Gate and Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, Andrew Dominik's two-hour-and-40-minute The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Some will see it as a pretentious slog, others as sheer poetry, but one thing's for sure: They don't make 'em like this anymore. The film presents Jesse James (Brad Pitt) as an early contender in the Cult of Personality — he and Mark Twain were the only Americans known in Europe in the late 19th century — and much is made here of the urge to bask in the outlaw's celebrity, of people wanting to hang around him, even to be him. Meandering back and forth through time, the movie lays out its elliptical story assisted by a melancholy, matter-of-fact voice-over that gives up its details as methodically as Robert Bresson making his case in The Trial of Joan of Arc. The movie throws out much of the James legend, meditating upon its anti-hero as he goes through wild mood swings, alternately depressed, buoyant and unhinged, and ultimately even takes on a weirdly Christ-like aspect, wondering which of his squabbling gang members is going to betray him. James' Judas turns out to be Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a confused hanger-on whose obsession borders on the homoerotic and whose titular act of violence briefly makes him even more famous than the celebrity killer he kills. An appreciation of The Assassination of Jesse James hinges less on suspension of disbelief than on suspension of our reliance on snappy pace and linear plotting, but those who do give themselves over to the film's demanding poetry may find themselves well rewarded. Also stars Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt, Mary-Louise Parker and Michael Parks. 4.5 stars

BEE MOVIE (PG) Jerry Seinfeld returns from the stand-up comedy wilderness with this CGI-animated offering about a spunky little bee who wants more (as apparently do all animated creatures these days). The voice cast alone might be reason enough to investigate: Besides Seinfeld, Renee Zelwegger, Matthew Broderick and John Goodman, there's an eclectic ensemble including Rip Torn, Sting, Oprah Winfrey and Larry King. (Not Reviewed)

BELLA (PG-13) A huge crowd pleaser on the festival circuit (it snagged the Audience Award winner at the Toronto Film Festival), Bella offers sincerity, romance and emotional uplift for miles. As far as subtlety or originality go, the movie doesn't fare nearly so well. Eduardo Verastegui stars as Jose, a once-promising soccer player who succumbs to some terrible tragedy (nameless for most of the film but easy to decipher) and winds up a mournful, bushy-bearded cook in his brother's restaurant. Enter Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a spunky, pregnant waitress who seems to be the only one capable of lifting Jose out of the dumps. Director Alejandro Monteverde follows the couple on a daylong outing as they bond over lunch, hang at the beach and bask in the warm and fuzzy glow of Jose's immigrant family. It won't be giving away much to reveal that everybody goes home happy. Also stars Manny Perez, Angelica Aragon and Jaime Tirelli. 2.5 stars

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