The Emperor’s Club Directed by Michael Hoffman (Universal, opens November 22)
The liberal arts live in Michael Hoffman’s gauzy, economical take on Ethan Canin’s gauzy, economical novella; the title shift, from The Palace Thief to The Emperor’s Club, positions the film even more explicitly as a carefully antiquated annex to Dead Poets Society. Boarding-school lifer William Hundert (a buttoned-down Kevin Kline) instructs his charges in ancient and classical civ, sometimes with togas on. When senator’s son Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch, apparently picking up where This Boy’s Life Leonardo left off) barges in midway through term, he opens a Pandora’s box of pubertal anarchy—sass in the classroom, Dylan and Bardot posters on his wall, Oui in his steamer trunk. His Hundert-engineered turnaround culminates in his appearance at the school’s equivalent of a homecoming game—a core-curriculum trivia contest, for which he blithely employs a crib sheet. In typical Caninite form, the flaw follows him through life, but the story has a double compromise: The virtue-touting Hundert fudges the qualifying scores to favor Bell over a superior candidate. Though the prep-school visual cues need revamping—a scull cutting the water, a blaze of red blazers coloring the quad—Club‘s inability to moralize saves it from kitsch. —Ed Park
Half Past Dead Directed by Don Michael Paul (Screen Gems)
In this corny, nonsensical buddy flick, a band of commandos dressed like Matrix extras break into a high-tech prison to force a death row inmate to reveal the location of stolen gold. Ja Rule teaches fellow jailbird (and undercover FBI agent) Steven Seagal ebonics while attempting to stop the invaders. Along for the ride are rapper Kurupt, unfunny as a prisoner with an itchy trigger finger, and Tony Plana, playing a warden who keeps saying “homeboy” in a vain attempt at street cred. Morris Chestnut, known for his Best Man-style nice-guy roles, is surprisingly effective against type as the evil commando leader, but he’s handcuffed by a script that never adequately explains his motivations. It’s also unclear why the inmates would be willing to fight for the same system that has imprisoned them. —Walter Dawkins
Better Housekeeping Directed by Frank Novak (Modernica/Menemsha, at the Pioneer)
Too stupid to be satire, too obviously hateful to be classified otherwise, Frank Novak’s irritating slice of lumpen life is as reliably soul-killing as its title is nearly meaningless. (Good Housekeeping magazine’s legal muscle forced a last-minute change.) The union of Don and Donatella (Bob Mills and Petra Westen, both quickly unwatchable) is in its death throes, all over but the shouting, not to mention a rocket launcher. Gun-brandishing, Skynyrd-listening, apparently unemployed Don collects rare Hellraiser tchotchkes and berates everyone around him; his estranged wife, hardly less abrasive, has taken a well-to-do lesbian lover. Smugly grotesque, with a steady current of misogyny (and homophobia) that shouldn’t be excused, Better Housekeeping doubtless wishes to be seen as a paragon of bad taste, but even that questionable goal proves a delusion of grandeur. —E.P.
Friday After Next Directed by Marcus Raboy (New Line, opens November 22).
If Next Friday approximated smoking the same old shit, FAN is a manically generous Christmas vaudeville. Gleeful and anarchic, it splits time between a grim apartment complex and a surreal strip mall, where Ice Cube and Mike Epps are Laurel and Hardy-ish gunless guards. First-time director Marcus Raboy’s breathless pace lends the less-funny bits (a poor old woman backhanded to the slogan “Biscuits so good you wanna slap yo’ mama”) at least an endearing strangeness. Most scenes are generously given over to the terrific character actors: A gladhanding Arab entrepreneur (Maz Jobrani), a salty papa (a seriously whacked, spluttering John Witherspoon), and a pneumatic prison-yard queen (Terry Crews) outweigh the dead spots, nonsense about a shrill, razor-wielding leprechaun pimp, and a stinginess toward women in general. —Edward Crouse