Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford | R |

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DRAMA

Rodney Dangerfield had an old joke about going to a fight and seeing a hockey game break out. Watching Lions for Lambs is a little like that—you go to the multiplex and wind up watching a debate. As characters sound off for and against American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, this all-talk, little-action drama becomes a civics lesson masquerading as a movie. The point? Director Redford clearly is pleading with the nation's youth—not to mention the rest of us—to get involved and take a stand.

Three story threads that eventually intersect are used to make the case: An ambitious Republican senator (Cruise) in Washington, D.C., feeds a skeptical reporter (Streep) a scoop about a risky new military strategy about to be undertaken in Afghanistan; a college professor (Redford) in California tries to persuade a cynical student (newcomer Andrew Garfield) to shake off his lethargy; and two U.S. soldiers (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) in Afghanistan head out on a dangerous and possibly suicidal mission as part of the new strategy.

The scenes between Cruise and Streep, both giving savvy performances, strike the liveliest sparks and feature the sharpest exchanges. But it's still yak, yak, yak. All that's missing is Tim Russert of TV's Meet the Press serving as moderator.

Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin | R |

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CRITIC'S CHOICE

CRIME

Hallelujah! Men is so good it takes your breath away, even when you're not holding it during the scary parts. Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy and masterfully codirected by Ethan and Joel Coen (Fargo), this suspenseful thriller follows a regular Joe (Brolin) who finds $2 million in drug money, a killer (Bardem, absolutely terrifying) relentlessly hunting him down and a sheriff (Jones) seeking both of them. Men's superb acting, tight plot, sneaky humor and complex themes make it a must-see.

Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Rachel Weisz, Kevin Spacey | PG |

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COMEDY

Sorry to be a Scrooge, but there's no holiday cheer to be found in the Christmas-themed Fred Claus. Add it to the long list of garish, over-produced, would-be Noel treats—remember Jingle Bells, Santa Claus: The Movie, Deck the Halls and Surviving Christmas?—that tend to show up as Dec. 25 draws near.

Vaughn rants his way through his role as Fred Claus, Santa's jealous older brother. It is only when Nicholas (Giamatti) is in danger of getting fired by a crabby efficiency expert (Spacey) that Fred pitches in and comes to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas. The film does pick up during its gooey final third, but it's already too late.

Director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) lets Vaughn launch into one angry screed after another, resulting in a one-note performance. On the plus side: The movie does boast one hilarious scene in which Fred attends a 12-step meeting populated entirely by kvetching, overshadowed brothers, including Frank Stallone and Roger Clinton.



FIRST LOOK!

Director Anne Fletcher was thrilled when Katherine Heigl signed on to her comedy 27 Dresses (due out Jan. 11)—about a perpetual bridesmaid and her menagerie of tacky wedding gowns—save for one problem. "Katie's got a beautiful body," says Fletcher. "So you put this god-awful thing on her and she makes it look good! It was like, 'What can we do to really make that ugly?'" So she asked Cat Thomas, the film's costume designer, to "find the ugliest thing in every palette." Thanks to Heigl, the job "was a costumer's dream," says Thomas. "She was such a trouper, she would put anything on." Thomas dished on the most memorable dresses, and their on-set nicknames, to PEOPLE's Lesley Messer.

'Weddings are women's biggest fantasy moments, and it's important to have fun with it!' —CAT THOMAS

To see all 27 of Katherine's dresses, go to PEOPLE.COM/27DRESSES• After winning an Oscar for The Queen, Helen Mirren wanted a tougher challenge. So the actress, 62, did her own stunts in the action sequel National Treasure: Book of Secrets, out Dec. 21. Playing Nicolas Cage's mom, "I get half-drowned, jump across an abyss and fly," she says. "I loved every minute of it." Especially going airborne: "Getting attached to wires and flying was the most glorious feeling. It's a lot easier than acting!"