New films in theaters this weekend

Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers " if you stop to think about it, it's a wonder they've never teamed up before.

The revered writer and the acclaimed moviemakers share so much in common: A love of language, a drive to develop rich characters, an appreciation for the importance of a vivid sense of place and an innate ability to tell stories that take you in directions you'd never have expected from the outset.

"No Country for Old Men" marries their strengths in ways that are deceptively simple and profoundly moving, set against the harshly beautiful, seemingly endless landscape of West Texas.

In adapting McCarthy's 2005 novel about crime and carnage along the Rio Grande, the writing-directing Coens, Joel and Ethan, stay mostly faithful to its structure while maintaining much of its rhythmically clipped, colorful dialogue.

If you've read the book, you'll be pleased with the choices they've made; if you haven't, wait until after you've seen the film to do so. Allow yourself to be engrossed by its unpredictability. Set in 1980, the tale follows three vastly different men tied together by a big-money drug deal gone bad.

Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as the stoic Vietnam vet who stumbles upon the bloody aftermath, finds a briefcase stuffed with $2 million and impulsively makes off with it. Javier Bardem is chilling as the mysterious, murderous psychopath chasing after him to get the cash back. Tommy Lee Jones is right in his element as the sheriff tracking them both and lamenting the loss of his honorable way of life in an increasingly senseless world.

R for strong graphic violence and some language. 122 mins.


Vince Vaughn plays the same guy he always plays " the smart-alecky, fast-talking, seemingly insincere dude who ultimately turns out to be a lovable lug beneath the bravado " only this time he does it surrounded by elves and toys with jaunty Christmas music blaring in the background.

Clearly, he can do more. He proved it earlier this year in "Into the Wild." But here he's once again coasting on his well-worn persona, surrounded by esteemed, award-winning actors who are vastly overqualified and mostly look bored.

And the thing is, the central nugget of an idea behind this movie isn't bad. Vaughn stars as the bitter Fred Claus, who's spent a lifetime seething in the shadow of his loving, generous younger brother, Nicholas (Paul Giamatti), better known as Santa.

Desperate for cash to get out of jail and start a gambling venture, Fred agrees to schlep to the North Pole and earn the money by helping his brother and his mini-minions prepare for Christmas.

The comedy from director David Dobkin (who also directed Vaughn in "Wedding Crashers") veers awkwardly from shrill, slapsticky physical humor to diabolical meanness (courtesy of Kevin Spacey as an efficiency expert) to reheated, snugly sentiments about the importance of love and family.

Rachel Weisz (weirdly cast as a Chicago meter maid), Kathy Bates and Miranda Richardson co-star.

PG for mild language and some rude humor. 116 mins.


The preachy, star-driven first release of United Artists under Tom Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner's management seems to ask every question imaginable about the war on terrorism while offering not a hint of answers.

Directed by Robert Redford, whose co-stars include Cruise and Meryl Streep, the movie works here and there and is quite moving in a few places. At other times, it's a dry discourse on who, why and how we're fighting. Much of the movie plays like a civics lesson, the characters and situations manipulatively constructed to demand of viewers, "Do your duty."

The movie plays out through three interlocked scenarios involving a U.S. senator and a TV reporter in Washington, a history professor and an apathetic student in California, and two of the teacher's former prize students, who disappointed their mentor by enlisting and now find themselves in the enemy's crosshairs in Afghanistan.

Though stagy and talky, the movie is made infectiously involving at times through earnest performances and sporadically clever dialogue.

R for some war violence and language. 90 mins.


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