Film Capsules

Capsule reviews by Desson Howe unless noted. A star ({sstar}) denotes a movie recommended by our critics.

Openings

THE PIANIST (R) -- See review on Page 29.

NICHOLAS NICKLEBY (PG) -- See review on Page 29.

HIS SECRET LIFE (Unrated) -- See review on Page 30.

First Runs & Revivals

{sstar}ABOUT SCHMIDT (R, 125 minutes) -- After retirement and the death of his wife, insurance executive Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) embarks on a trip across country. His destination: Denver, where his estranged daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), is about to marry Randall (Dermot Mulroney), a water-bed salesman who promises Jeannie alife of mediocrity. Although the movie (by Alexander Payne and JimTaylor) moves as slowly and flatly as its Midwestern setting, there are powerful rumblings at work beneath the surface. And Nicholson produces the most understated but powerful performance of his career. Contains obscenity and nudity. Area theaters.

{sstar}ADAPTATION (R, 112 minutes) -- From the team (director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman) that gave you "Being John Malkovich," comes a playfully brilliant seriocomedy about the creative process. Ostensibly about the plight of a Hollywood screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) trying to adapt Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief," it's really a sort of fun-undrum that's full of stories within stories, ideas within ideas, questions within questions and metaphors within metaphors. And its near-farcicalgoose chase of a story, full of thrashing 'gators and plot twists, is almost intentionally tacky -- to prove that only the crassest of plots will make a movie hit. It's a chase-your-own-tail punch line that works beautifully, if cynically. Chris Cooper is sensational as an orchid hunter who figures in the story. Contains sexual material, nudity, obscenity, drug use and some violence. Area theaters.

{sstar}ANTWONE FISHER (PG-13, 113 minutes) -- Denzel Washington's directorial debut is an assured character drama that goes straight for the tear ducts. It pits naval psychiatrist Jerome Davenport (Washington) against patient Antwone Fisher (Derek Luke), an angry sailor haunted by an abusive past. And even though the film aims unequivocally for that "Beautiful Mind" category of filmmaking, in which difficult human complexities meet stand-up-and-cheer solutions, it's very affecting. As Antwone, newcomer Luke aches with vulnerability. But Washington is both rainmaker and marquee prince. Even as his character defers to Antwone, he's quietly in charge. Contains violence, obscenity and emotionally distressing material. Area theaters.

BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (R, 125 minutes) -- In this stream-of-consciousness riff, documentarian-provocateur Michael Moore takes us from disturbing footage of the Columbine massacre to the attacks on the World Trade Center, stopping off at the home of NRA President Charlton Heston, James Nichols's farm (brother of Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols) and several Canadian homes (to "prove" Canadians aren't paranoid). The movie raises many good points and observations. But Moore provides a rather rambling discourse of causality, which includes racism, white flight and Africanized bees, among many things. And he takes predictable aim (with not especially enlightening solutions or answers) at the NRA, the media and a right-wing conspiracy of racists, gun nuts and corporate profitmakers. Contains scenes of disturbing gun violence and some obscenity. Area theaters.

{sstar}BROWN SUGAR (PG-13, 109 minutes) -- As the star-crossed friends (and inevitable lovers) Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan (as well as a healthy round of comely co-stars, including Nicole Ari Parker) provide the allure in this savvy, African-American buppie romance. He's record company executive Dre; she's Sidney, a music journalist. They grew up in thesame neighborhood, grooving on the same hip-hop songs and, without realizing it, each other. So when Dre tells Sidney he's engaged to Reese (Parker), that oughtto be fine. But it isn't, of course. This is a fashion runway of a movie, a catwalk flick in which the secret ingredients are good genes and designers. Contains obscenity and sexual situations. Laurel Cinema.

{sstar}CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (PG-13, 140 minutes) -- Steven Spielberg's charming, diverting story is based on the life of Frank Abagnale Jr. (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a teenager who cashed more than $2 million in fraudulent checks. And under assumed names, he passed himself off as a doctor, a lawyer, a professor and, in the boldest of schemes, as an airline pilot. The movie makes this a modern Peter Pan story, in which Frank wins the day through playful mischief, much to the chagrin of FBI Special Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), a veritable Captain Hook, who's determined to arrest him. This all takes place in an age of innocence, the 1960s, when you could con your way into a Pan Am jet just because you were wearing the uniform. Contains sexual material, some violence and some obscenity. Area theaters.

{sstar}CHICAGO (PG-13, 107 minutes) -- Not since "Cabaret" has there been a movie musical this stirring, intelligent and exciting. The choreography, by director Rob Marshall and Cynthia Onrubia, is inspired. And screenwriter Bill Condon ingeniously reimagines the musical as a film noir set of dreams in the mind of central character, Roxie Hart. Renee Zellweger's terrific as Roxie, the starlet who'll stop at nothing to be the talk of the town. Catherine Zeta-Jones is assured and sexy as Velma Kelly, Rocie's rival performer. Richard Gere, a musician and veritable hoofer, more than completes the marquee package as oily lawyer Billy Flynn. Maybe no movie could ever hold a candle to the great musicals of the past, the ones starring Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers and Donald O'Connor. But "Chicago" sure lights the wick. Contains sexual content, obscenity and violence. Area theaters.

{sstar}DIE ANOTHER DAY (PG-13, 132 minutes) -- It's James Bond as usual, which means good if numbingly repetitive entertainment. Director Lee Tamahori and writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade follow all the rules: the opening action scene; the girl-saturated title sequence (featuring a Madonna song); exotic locales (Cuba, Iceland,etc.); the girls (the marquee babe being Halle Berry); the gadgets; and Bond's usual meetings with M (Dame Judi Dench) and Q (John Cleese, the freshest breath of air in the whole movie). Tamahori adds some witty tributes to old Bond flicks (including Berry's swimsuit meant to evoke Ursula Andress's bikini in 1962's "Dr. No") but essentially, this is a repeat episode. Contains action violence and sexual content. Area theaters.

{sstar}DRUMLINE (PG-13, 120 minutes) -- Who'd have thunk that a movie about the cut-throat world of intercollegiate marching bands would make for engaging film entertainment? Well, it does in Charles Stone III's rousing and rollicking drama, the story of a hot-shot drummer from Harlem (Nick Cannon) who learns teamwork only after he's recruited to -- and subsequently booted off of -- a powerhouse southern college band in Atlanta. It has comedy, it has romance (in the form of the lovely Zoe Saldana) and it has intrigue (who knew that guys in funny hats could be so competitive?). But mostly it has soul . . . not to mention one big, seat-bouncing beat that takes you out of the movie theater and puts you right in the football stadium at halftime. Contains sexual references and some crude language. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar}EL CRIMEN DEL PADRE AMARO (R, 118 minutes) -- In Carlos Carrera's modernized adaptation of an 1875 novel (by Jose Maria Eca de Queiros), Padre Amaro (Gael Garcia Bernal) arrives in Los Reyes, Mexico, to lead the parish. But he falls in love with Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancon), a pious beauty who harbors some sacrilegious desires. The movie works itself into a lather of passion, anguish, profanity and tragedy, but there's more to this popular Mexican movie than straight soap opera. It's anti-clerical rather than anti-religious. And even though the movie can be morally tangled, pessimistic, lurid and foreboding, it's also humanistic. Even though everyone seems vaguely damned, they're distinctly human and vulnerable. Contains nudity, sexual scenes, medical bloodshed, obscenity and profanity. In Spanish with subtitles. Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle.

EMPIRE (R, 90 minutes) -- Directed by punctuation-challenged Franc. Reyes, "Empire" doesn't deserve the energy it takes to describe how bad it is. John Leguizamo is Vic Rosa, a Bronx drug dealer whose trade falls short of his ambition. When banker Jack (Peter Sarsgaard) offers him an investment deal, Vic sees his chance to get out of a bad life. Discarding his homies (including Anthony "Treach" Criss) and his supplier (Isabella Rossellini, who apparently seeks career destruction), Vic and his pregnant girlfriend (Delilah Cotto) go "legit" and become close with Jack and his girlfriend (Denise Richards). But in this movie's ham-fisted philosophy, there's no difference between white-collar and working-class greed when it comes to making a fast buck. Contains strong violence, pervasive obscenity, drug use and some sexual content. Area theaters.

{sstar}EVELYN (PG, 94 minutes) -- Pierce Brosnan is a quiet charm as Desmond Doyle, a drunk of an Irish dad who loses his wife and, even worse, custody of his children because of longstanding Irish laws. Through Bernadette Beattie (Julianna Margulies), a barmaid he befriends, Desmond becomes acquainted with Bernadette's brother and solicitor Michael (Stephen Rea), barrister Nick Barron (Aidan Quinn) and super-lawyer Tom Connolly (Alan Bates), who loves to take on the big boys. The story, based on a true incident, has its happy ending in plain sight from the very beginning, but it's full of good heart, and you can't help but like its unequivocal sentimentality. And it's nice to see Brosnan winning the day with an Irish (not English) accent and without James Bond gadgetry. Contains nothing objectionable except too much drinking and too little money. Area theaters.

{sstar}FAR FROM HEAVEN (PG-13, 107 minutes) -- In Todd Haynes's tribute to the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) and her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), seem like the perfect couple. But when Frank confesses to doubts about his sexual orientation, Cathy's life becomes an overwhelming crisis. And when she reaches out for emotional support to Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), her African American gardener, she incurs problems with her tightknit Connecticut community. Moore's performance is terrific as Cathy, a normal woman caught unwittingly at the forefront of a dawning social consciousness. Contains mature thematic elements, sexual content, brief violence and obscenity. Area theaters.

FRIDA (R, 118 minutes) -- The real Frida Kahlo remains a truly fascinating artist,self-empowerment icon and feminist leading light, despite the attempts of "Frida" the movie to reduce her rich, tragic and courageous life into biopic banality. In the title role, Salma Hayek remains as dedicated to her role and this movie as she is ordinary. She's a pint-size talent riding a legend, a mouse with one eyebrow atop a woolly mammoth. Director Julie Taymor's often-inspired touches -- stop motion, color tinting, black-and-white sequences and even skeletons -- suggest an intelligent desperation. She's doing her attention-getting best to save the movie from conventional doom. As Frida's tempestuous husband, Diego Rivera, Alfred Molina steals the movie. Contains nudity, obscenity, violence and emotionally intense material. Area theaters.

FRIDAY AFTER NEXT (R, 85 minutes) -- Craig Jones (Ice Cube) and his good-for-nothing cousin Day-Day (Mike Epps) are robbed on Christmas Eve by some punk dressed as Santa. And they have until the end of this Friday to pay their rent or a big guy named Damon (Terry Crews), just back from jail, will take care of them. Producer/co-star Cube's follow-up to the successful comedies "Friday" and "Next Friday" doesn't have the spark of the first two movies. Certainly Epps has his moments. And Cube's still the best thing about it. But all those jokes about "hos" and even more unmentionable subjects are lame. They seem like mere splashing around in the muck. Contains all the bad stuff:obscenity, sexism, bathroom humor, sexual scenes, nudity and violence. Cineplex Odeon Marlow and AMC Academy.

{sstar}GANGS OF NEW YORK (R, 165 minutes) -- In Martin Scorsese's brilliantly realized vision of a Civil War-era Lower Manhattan populated by murderers, whores and thieves, Daniel Day Lewis stands out as Bill "the Butcher" Cutting, a villain so villainous he makes "LOTR's" Saruman look like Ghandi. Squaring off against the mustachioed meat-cutter is Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo di Caprio), the now-grown son of a man once killed by Bill in a turf war between Bill's gang of native born Americans and a rabble of reviled Irish immigrants. The tale of a son's revenge deferred is as old as Greek mythology, but Scorsese's vision brings it to dizzying life in a blur of fact and fiction, blood, sweat and tears. Contains obscenity, nudity, implied sexuality and intense and pervasive violence. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar}HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (PG, 161 minutes) -- Something evil's lurking in the bowels of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) attends. And in this second installment in the Potter series, the young wizard and pals Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) try to find it. This movie, which marks the late Richard Harris's last appearance as headmaster Dumbledore, isn't as charming as the original. It's darker and narratively more long-winded. And the special effects seem to be competing with the "Lord of the Rings" movies. Also, many of the movie's memorable elements and characters (including Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman and Julie Walters) are rendered into near-cameo players. But nothing from J.K. Rowling's book is left to wither away. And that should please the vast reading audience that'll watch the movie. Contains some emotionally intense moments. Area theaters.

THE HOT CHICK (PG-13, 101 minutes) -- The caliber of previews that run before a movie is usually an indication of a feature's intended audience, as the pre-show fare at a recent screening of "The Hot Chick" confirmed. Ads for Nintendo GameCube, Bionicle action figures by Lego and some dangerously fast new car from Nissan gave ample notice that boys of both the underdeveloped and overgrown variety are the film's target demo. And no wonder -- for it's a film about a 30-year-old man (Ron Schneider) and a high-school girl (Rachel McAdams) who magically wake up in each other's bodies. There are a lot of "I'll show you mine if you show me yours"-type jokes, and the film's biggest laugh-getter is a scene that shows Schneider, as a she in a he's body, trying to master the fine art of urinal hydraulics. Contains sophomoric sex and bathroom humor and slapstick violence. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar}IGBY GOES DOWN (R, 98 minutes) -- Wickedly funny, jarringly transgressive, obdurately unpigeonholeable and startlingly moving, "Igby Goes Down" lodges itself in your brain like a sticktight seed. You may not like its tale of adolescent anomie -- snotty teenagers are not, after all, everyone's cup of tea -- but you'll find the lingering aftereffects of its strange, tragicomic tale and the indelible antihero (Kieran Culkin) it introduces you to hard to shake. Little is more shocking -- or more funny -- than watching Igby Slocumb, a Holden Caulfield-esque 17-year-old recidivist high-school dropout, defy his uptight, old-money mother (Susan Sarandon), while conducting a self-destructive, but ultimately hopeful, search for happiness. Contains obscenity, sex with minors, adultery, battery, drug use and all manner of irresponsible behavior. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar}JACKASS THE MOVIE (R, 90 minutes) -- Sophomoric doesn't even begin to describe the stunts imagined by Johnny Knoxville and his reprobate crew of stunt men-frat boy delinquents; most of them are too vile, violent or just plain dangerous for MTV, the home of "Jackass." The movie begins and ends with a warning not to try any of these stunts at home, but only the stupidest fan will disregard the genuine pain and suffering captured on camera, albeit with endlessly gleeful guffaws. In a non-stop parade of bits that range from 10 seconds to several long minutes, this wrecking crew visits damage to themselves (too-close encounters with alligators, sharks, electric shockers) and to innocent property (down for the count: a rental car rigged for a crash derby, a miniature golf course, several small grocery and variety stores and the home of mad skateboarder Bam Margera, who mercilessly tortures parents who are far too understanding). Scatological pranks abound, and our relationship with Japan may never be the same after the boys visit briefly, and in the case of Chris "Party Boy" Pontius, as nakedly as possible. There are fat bits, old folks bits, two one-sided boxing matches with Butterbean (he sends Knoxville to the hospital) and a tougher-than-nails female kick boxer (who whacks Ryan Dunn until he's Undunn). There are also lots of out-of-control vehicles, from skateboards and snow boards to a giant-sized shopping cart and runaway golf carts. It's stupid, anarchic and, I hate to admit, terribly funny, though you're likely to blow your lunch almost as often as folks do on screen. Contains dangerous, sometimes extremely rude stunts, language and nudity. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

-- Richard Harrington

JONAH: A VEGGIETALES MOVIE (G, 85 minutes) -- Based on the animated TV series, this movie features talking vegetables who tell Bible stories to impart lessons to youngsters in the 3-8 age range. And you don't have to be a fan of vegetables to find this batch pretty cute. You'll hear about Jonah and the whale through a mixture of narration, dialogue and kid-friendly musical numbers. There are entertaining little anachronisms, amusing lines and enough wacky frenzy to please the young ones. The movie clearly comes from a Christian perspective, but without being overly preachy. And the movie's lesson about compassion and mercy is one that youngsters (and grown-ups too for that matter) would do well to learn. Contains nothing objectionable. University Mall Theatres.

-- Curt Fields

{sstar}THE LION KING (G, 96 minutes) -- Most moviegoers have already seen "The Lion King" at least once, making Disney's leonine feature the most successful animated film of all time, and the 10th most successful movie of any kind. So what makes seeing it on an IMAX screen any different? The pre-show announcement that the large-format presentation may cause "dizziness or motion sickness," for one thing. It seems like a no-brainer that increasing the size of any image until it's 75 feet wide and five stories high will give it added impact -- but that's doubly true when the image is, say, a Rockettes-style chorus line of high-kicking zebras. It's not simply that bigger is, well, bigger. "The Lion King" is well-suited to the large-format screen. The vastness and interconnectedness of the landscape underscores the film's central theme, which, you'll recall, involves "The Ciiiircle of Liiiife." This is a movie in which where is as important as who -- and IMAX is great at conveying wheres. When you see the film on a screen the size of an office building, it's hard to miss the details, and despite its Serengeti-scale vistas, "The Lion King's" small details are carefully rendered. Contains fratricide, predation and warthog flatulence. Maryland Science Center.

-- Nicole Arthur

{sstar}THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (PG-13, 179 minutes) -- Peter Jackson's second installment of the "Rings" trilogy doesn't just eclipse the first film. Its production design, CGI (computer-generated imagery), storytelling (with, of course, all appropriate credit to J.R.R. Tolkien) and performances form a constellation of delights. In addition to the fine cast, including Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), there are trees that talk, rise and walk with lofty majesty; an extraordinary critter-cum-satyr of a hobbit (Andy Serkis) called Gollum; and a rousing, medieval-styled battle with a castle, siege weapons and a seemingly endless outpouring of Uruk-hais. And in the nether-center of this all, you can feel not just the power and sureness of Jackson's direction, but his boyish wonder. Contains battle carnage and some scary images. Area theaters.

MAID IN MANHATTAN (PG-13, 103 minutes) -- Jennifer Lopez plays Latina Cinderella to Ralph Fiennes's WASP prince in this formulaic and deeply implausible romantic comedy about a hotel maid who falls in love with one of the guests, an upper-crusty politician who mistakes her for his social equal when he catches her trying on an expensive suit. Despite the far-fetched premise -- he's a moneybags Republican, she's a populist from the projects -- J. Lo acquits herself well, and Ralph's British accent is pretty well hidden beneath the honeyed cooings of the perpetual candidate. Wayne Wang directs with his usual steady hand, but the film is little more than a retread of the knight-in- shining-armor-and-downtrodden- damsel scenario, tricked up with a little social-justice hooey. Contains sexual references. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar}MOSTLY MARTHA (PG, 107 minutes) -- Sweet without being saccharine, and funny without being forced, this charming romantic comedy pairs a tightly wrapped German chef with her freewheeling Italian assistant. When a tragic accident forces three-star cook Martha Klein (Martina Gedeck) to take in her 8-year-old niece (Maxime Foerste), her well-ordered life begins to unravel, made worse by the appearance of a lovable but sloppy sous-chef (Sergio Castellitto) in her spotless kitchen. What elevates "Martha" above the familiar opposites-attract and singleton-with-child formulas are the nuanced performances writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck coaxes from her trio of actors and the simple yet persuasive message that food, no matter how delicious, is no substitute for love. Contains material related to the death of a parent and an untranslated German vulgarity. In German with subtitles. P & G Old Greenbelt.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar}MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING (PG, 95 minutes) -- Clearly, comedian-filmmaker Nia Vardalos (full name: Antonia Eugenia Vardalos) not only grew up Greek, she took notes. In this amusing comedy, she celebrates and has fun with the Greek culture. She's Toula Portokalos, an unmarried woman forced (by her parents) to find a man. But when she does meet Mr. Right (John Corbett), well, he's not Greek. Imagine the calamity. The movie draws much material from Vardalos's one-woman show and has a little bit of everything: savvy narration, laugh-out-loud sight gags and such wry observations as this one, from Toula's mother, "The man is the head [of the household], but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head anywhere she wants." Contains some obscenity and a mild sexual situation. Area theaters.

PINOCCHIO (G, 110 minutes) -- Robert Benigni in pink shoes, stockings, a pink pair of jammies and a hat made out of bread acting like he's 6! That's the whole movie. There's almost nothing else. Sure, there's a wan attempt to re-create the plot of the classic Carlo Collodi story about Geppetto's puppet and his inability to mature, which wreaks havoc on himself and his dad. For his troubles he gets turned into a donkey, then gets eaten by a whale, inside which his poor father already languishes. But the movie never begins to create the illusion of a world beyond an Italian sound stage and a number of unrecognizable Italian character actors in extremely third-rate makeup as the Fox and the Cat and the Blue Fairy (Nicoletta Braschi). One of the most ludicrous things is Jiminy Cricket, who is envisioned here as a short fat bald guy in spats with two aerials sticking out of his head. Is he from Mars? Contains nothing objectionable. Area theaters.

-- Stephen Hunter

{sstar}PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (R, 95 minutes) -- Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who made the inspired "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," makes another gem. It's a movie of extraordinary subtlety, power and even hokey romanticism. And Adam Sandler proves he can act in grown-up films. Barry Egan (Sandler) is a loner with emotional problems. He had a traumatic past with taunting sisters. And he's just plain odd. But his soul is unequivocally pure. When he meets fellow-oddbird Lena (Emily Watson), it's obvious he's met his soul-mate. But he has to get rid of his demons, and a gang of bad guys who are targeting his bank account. Is Barry ready for romantic prime time? Thanks to Anderson's assured picture, a symphony of cinematic textures, that disarmingly simple question becomes incredibly compelling. Contains sexual situations, violence and obscenity. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

RABBIT-PROOF FENCE (PG, 95 minutes) -- Phillip Noyce's film, based on the historical ill-treatment of indigenous Australians in the 1930s, has a powerful moral tone. But its dramatic delivery isn't quite as effective. Three girls of mixed heritage, 14-year-old Molly Craig (Everlyn Sampi) and her younger cousins, Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Monaghan), come to the attention of Mr. Neville (Kenneth Branagh), a government racial inspector whose job is to train them as domestics for white society. After they're abducted and taken to a training camp 1,500 miles away, Molly plots her escape with her cousins, using a continental-wide fence as a guiding post to find their way home. The movie, based on a book by Molly's daughter, Doris Pilkington, makes Branagh's character too one-dimensional. And our desire to see Molly's return isn't as compelling as it ought to be. Contains emotionally intense material. Landmark Bethesda Row and Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle.

{sstar}REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES (PG-13, 90 minutes) -- It may be one of the oldest stories ever told: American immigrants trying to keep their children steeped in old-country tradition. But it feels like one of the freshest, thanks to America Ferrera, who makes one cheeky, tough and adorable daughter. She's Ana Garcia, an 18-year-old Mexican American whose desire to attend college clashes with the plans of her old-school mother, Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros), who wants Ana to help in the family's dress-making sweatshop. The movie, which George LaVoo and Josefina Lopez adapted from Lopez's play, is a dyed-in-the-womb female empowerment movie. But the performers are so deeply authentic, the movie's cliches and obvious agenda attain a certain recycled glow. Contains obscenity and sexual situations. Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle, Eastport Cinemas and Landmark Bethesda Row.

RED DRAGON (R, 120 MINUTES) -- This prequel to It All (I mean "Silence of the Lambs" and "Hannibal"), directed by Brett Ratner, makes a hollow encore. Anthony Hopkins is in fine form as that silver-tongued, human-eating prince of darkness, Hannibal the Cannibal. So is Edward Norton, who plays Will Graham, a dogged, highly intelligent FBI investigator on the track of a brutal serial killer, and who needs Hannibal's help. But although the movie follows much of the novel, there's something hackneyed about the whole thing. Screenwriter Ted Tally replays the classical elements of "Silence of the Lambs" and that's the trouble. In the end, what we respond to in "Red Dragon" is merely the distant echoes of what we liked about "Lambs." As for the sudden appearance of Emily Watson and Ralph Fiennes about halfway through the story, the less said the better. And I don't just mean because it'll give things away. Contains disturbing violence, grisly images, language, some nudity and sexuality. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

THE RING (PG-13, 115 minutes) -- Although writer-director Gore Verbinski exercises smart restraint (in terms of depicting blatant horror and gore), this supernatural movie (based on the Japanese flick "Ringu") trades on a tiresomely familiar conceit: death by videotape. Seattle reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts) discovers that a number of people (including her niece) have died after watching a videotape. After anyone watches the spooky content -- featuring a scary woman in black and white -- a phone call tells the victim he or she is dead in a week. Rachel, who watches the video and gets the phone call, traces the source of this evil to the usual deserted locales. The finale, involving a well, has its creepy moments, but also its cliches. Contains adult themes, disturbing images and some obscenity. University Mall Theatres.

THE SANTA CLAUSE 2 (G, 98 minutes) -- In this sequel to 1994's charming "The Santa Clause," Scott Calvin/Santa (Tim Allen) needs a wife or he'll lose his blessed status (that's the clause in this title). Can he get a wife, save Christmas, and also help his son (Eric Lloyd) who just turned up on Santa's Naughty List? From the amazingly unappealing child actors (including Spencer Breslin and David Krumholtz) who play Santa's little helpers, to the absurd plot about a cloned, substitute Santa who turns evil, the story has all the charm of coal in a stocking. Contains dating scenes between adults, which is, of course, totally gross. And that fake Santa may be too scary for some children. Area theaters.

STAR TREK: NEMESIS (PG-13, 117 minutes) -- There's plenty here for trekkies to like: cheese-ball humor, low-tech special effects, cameos by beloved stars (Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan). But the plot, in which Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) encounters an evil clone of himself (Tom Hardy) and Data (Brent Spiner) an android prototype that looks exactly like him, reeks of old hat. And just how much shpew-shpew-shpew of phasers can even a die-hard fan take before crying "uncle"? Yes, the Enterprise is a belovedly creaky vehicle (emphasis on the creaky), but despite a cool scene or two, like the one in which crewmembers commandeer an enemy shuttle and fly around on the inside of a Romulan warbird, this "Nemesis" is the undoing of the "Next Generation" franchise. Contains sci-fi violence and a sexual encounter. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

STAR WARS: EPISODE II -- ATTACK OF THE CLONES (PG, 142 minutes) -- Ten years after the events of "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace," Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padawan apprentice, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are assigned to protect Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) from assassins. Obi-Wan uncovers a bigger picture that includes a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), who's assembling a clone army, and the rogue Jedi, Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who's amassing a coalition of separatists against the Republic. In the tortured syntax of Yoda: Great movie not is "Attack of the Clones." And as the budding Darth Vader, Christensen is resoundingly disappointing. George Lucas's prequel is surprisingly dismal. And the romance between Anakin and Padme is a frigid zero. And when you've seen one scene of mass-generated clones marching in symmetrical fashion, you've seen them all. Contains sustained sci-fi action and violence. Johnson IMAX Theater at the National Museum of Natural History.

SWEET HOME ALABAMA (PG-13, 109 minutes) -- Is apple-pie-cheeked Melanie (Reese Witherspoon) really headed for marriage with rich heartthrob Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), the JFK-like son of the New York mayor, or will our aspiring fashion designer come to her senses when she revisits her hometown in 'Bama? She'll have to patch up differences with her folks (Fred Ward and Mary Kay Place) and finally clear things up with estranged husband Jake (Josh Lucas). But that shouldn't be too difficult. Down home is, after all, the real deal in any romantic comedy like this, where predictability grows like kudzu. But Witherspoon is a charming candidate for America's Sweetheart. Contains some obscenity and heavy drinking. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse and University Mall Theatres.

{sstar}TALK TO HER (R, 113 minutes) -- In Pedro Almodavor's deeply touching film, male nurse Benigno (Javier Camara) takes obsessive (or romantically devoted) care of Alicia (Leonor Watling), a ballet dancer rendered comatose. By talking to her, he believes their souls communicate and that he may just coax her out of the darkness. Almodovar, long thought of as art cinema's impish prince, has evolved into something more mature. The movie has many of the Almodovarian twists and turns, in which the comedic, the tragic and the poetic are hand in hand. But this time around, things are profoundly humanistic and sincere. And Camara's performance is sublime. Contains sexual scenes, nudity and obscenity. In Spanish with subtitles. Area theaters.

{sstar}TREASURE PLANET (PG, 95 minutes) -- Walt Disney's animated feature is a canny modernizing of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic, "Treasure Planet." It's set in outer space, where the ships are jet-powered galleons. In this story, Jim (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) embarks on a voyage to find a planet laden with treasure. His companions include Silver (Brian Murray) a part cyborg, whose shape-shifting blob of a partner, Morph, is a clever twist on Stevenson's parrot, and (Martin Short) a robot named B.E.N. (which stands for Bio-Electronic-Navigator) who's missing some brain circuitry. The visuals, including the monstrous pull of a black hole, are some of Disney's best. And Short's amusing as B.E.N, who's unable to follow a single train of thought. Contains adventure action and peril. Area theaters.

TWO WEEKS NOTICE (PG-13, 100 minutes) -- Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant phone in two more of their copyrighted, trademarked and patented performances as a perky nerdette and the boyishly handsome cad she loves despite herself. In this laughless outing, Grant stammers and bats his baby blues through the role of a sleazy, Trump-like developer who hires leftist lawyer Bullock as his bunny-cute corporate counsel. In the real world, the pair would probably end up killing each other before having a romance, but, as we all know, opposites attract. It says so right here in "Screenwriting for Dummies," right after the chapter that explains why jokes about explosive diarrhea are funny. What was star and -- mirabile dictu -- producer Bullock thinking? Contains, according to the MPAA, "sex-related humor," which is true, except for the humor part. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar}THE WILD THORNBERRYS MOVIE (PG, 79 minutes) -- In this movie version of the children's TV series, the Thornberrys, a family who travels the globe to film and observe wildlife, have a run-in with dastardly poachers. And Eliza (voiced by Lacey Chabert), Nigel's 12-year-old daughter who can secretly speak with wild animals, must save some captured cheetahs. Of course, she's assisted by her chimp friend Darwin (Tom Kane), who, for reasons that escape me, speaks very posh English. The film's slight, but pleasant enough. Its ecological, pro-wildlife sentiments are certainly welcome. And Tim Curry's veddy veddy British accent as wildlife documentarian and family patriarch Nigel Thornberry, is amusing. Contains some dramatic peril. Area theaters.

Repertory

AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM -- At the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater: "Space Station 3D," daily at 11:05, 1:05 and 3:05 and Mondays-Thursdays at 5:45. "To Fly!," daily at 10:25 and Mondays-Thursdays at 5:05. "Straight Up: Helicopters in Action," daily at 12:10, 2:10 and 4:10. "Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience," Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 5. At the Albert Einstein Planetarium: "Infinity Express," daily at 10:30, 11, 11:30, 12:30, 1, 1:30, 2, 2:30, 3, 3:30, 4, 4:30 and 5; "The Stars Tonight," daily at noon. Seventh and Independence SW. 202-357-1686.

CINEMA ART BETHESDA -- "Son of the Bride," Sunday at 10 a.m. Landmark Bethesda Row Theatre, 7235 Woodmont Avenue, Bethesda. 301-365-3679.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS -- "Second Chorus," Tuesday at 7. "The Wrecking Crew," Thursday at 7. Free, but reservations required. Mary Pickford Theater, 101 Independence Ave. SE 202-707-5677.

MARYLAND SCIENCE CENTER -- "The Lion King," Friday-Sunday at 11, 1, 3, 5 and 7, Monday-Thursday at 11,1,3 and 4:45. "Space Station (3D)," Friday-Saturday at 9. 601 Light St., Baltimore. 410-685-5225.

MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY -- "Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West," daily at 11:10, 2, and 3:50; "T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (3D)," daily at 12:05, 1:05, 2:55, and 4:45; "Galapagos (3D)," daily at 10:20;"Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones," Friday-Saturday at 6 and 8:15, daily at 6. Samuel C. Johnson Theater, Tenth and Constitution NW. 202-633-7400.

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART -- "De Kooning on De Kooning," Friday-Saturday at 12:30 and Sunday at noon. "The Gleaners and I," Saturday at 3. "Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh," Sunday at 4. Free. East Building, Fourth and Constitution NW. 202-737-4215.

PSYCHOTRONIC FILM SOCIETY -- "The Eye," Tuesday at 8. Dr. Dremo's Taphouse, 2001 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington. 202-736-1732 or 202-707-2540.

New on Video

These movies arrive on video store shelves this week.

BARBERSHOP

(PG-13, 2002, 104 MINUTES, MGM)

This ensemble comedy revolves around Calvin (actor-rapper Ice Cube), the proprietor of a barbershop beset by financial woes that threaten to shut down what is clearly a cornerstone of the community. The shop is crowded with an oddball aggregation of haircutters, including Cedric the Entertainer as an elder barber with endless barbs, Sean Patrick Thomas as an ambitious but self-righteous college student and Michael Ealy as a reformed con trying desperately to avoid a third-strike call. Buzzing with cuts both literal and verbal, the film underscores notions of blue-collar camaraderie with humor and pathos. While Ice Cube manages likable warmth, "Barbershop" just misses being lovable. Contains obscene language, sexual content and brief drug references.

-- Desson Howe

BLOOD WORK

(R, 2002, 108 MINUTES, WARNER BROS.)

Clint Eastwood directs and stars as FBI profiler Terry McCaleb in a film based on the novel by Michael Connelly. After a heart transplant, McCaleb comes out of retirement to track down the killer who murdered the woman whose ticker he now has. While the connection is readily apparent to the audience, it only dawns on McCaleb slowly that the psychopath may be offing people for the express purpose of keeping McCaleb alive. Although aficionados of the thriller genre will probably have guessed who the bad guy is by the halfway point, Eastwood keeps the action plugging ahead with well-paced storytelling behind the camera and a performance that is both tough and vulnerable. Contains gunplay and execution-style slayings captured on surveillance video, implied sexuality, obscenity and some sex talk.

-- D.H.

HEY ARNOLD! THE MOVIE

(PG, 2002, 76 MINUTES, PARAMOUNT)

This humorless anti-gentrification screed based on the animated Nickelodeon TV show pits a weird little boy with a lemon-shaped head against the forces of urban renewal. When progress comes to Arnold's (voiced by Spencer Klein) blighted inner city neighborhood in the form of evil developer Scheck (Paul Sorvino channeling Ronald Reagan), Arnold and his best friend Gerald (Jamil Walker Smith) resort to breaking and entering to locate the document that will stop the bulldozers. As the plot plods forward, Arnold's grandpa decides to take matters into his own hands by wiring the street with a couple of hundred pounds of dynamite. Let's destroy the neighborhood in order to save it! Now that makes sense. Contains violence and emotional intensity.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

XXX

(PG-13, 2002, 124 MINUTES, COLUMBIA PICTURES)

An expensive, obnoxious and smug campaign to force Vin Diesel down our throats as the new Arnold. The saga of Xander Cage, a thrill-seeking bad boy who's into big toys and big stunts and who gets recruited by the National Security Agency on a top-secret mission, "XXX" is essentially a dumb guy's day in Heaven, replete with high-octane stunts, fights, explosions, drugs, babes and cars, but not much else that you haven't already seen in any James Bond movie. Contains violence, sexual situations, drug content and obscenity.

-- D.H.

Dermot Mulroney, left, Hope Davis and Jack Nicholson star in "About Schmidt," which is earning raves from critics.

Richard Gere, left, stars in "Chicago," which received eight Golden Globes nominations.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in "Catch Me if You Can."