Film Capsules

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

Openings

AGENT CODY BANKS (PG) -- See capsule review on Page 43.

APOLLO CINEMA PRESENTS OSCAR SHORTS (Unrated) -- See review on Page 42.

THE HUNTED (R) -- See review on Page 42.

SPIDER (R) -- See review on Page 41.

TILL HUMAN VOICES WAKE US (R) -- See capsule review on Page 43.

WILLARD (PG-13) -- See review on Page 41.

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 waterbed salesman who promises Jeannie a life of mediocrity. Although the movie (by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor) 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-farcical goose 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. Landmark Bethesda Row, Cineplex Odeon Shirlington and Loews Georgetown.

{sstar}AMANDLA! A REVOLUTION IN FOUR-PART HARMONY (PG-13, 103 minutes) -- Lee Hirsch's documentary trills, regales and harmonizes its way through the cruel, bloody history that ultimately led to the emancipation of South Africa's indigenous people. This is about the music that took them there, the glorious choral songs and anthems. They sang with cultural pride and anger. These were songs of defiance, social protest and outright war. With admirable concision, "Amandla!" takes us through some milestones of the struggle, as we listen to the songs that arose from them. What songs, what people and what a triumph that their music won in the end. Contains images of violence and minor obscenity. Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge.

BIKER BOYZ (PG-13, 111 minutes) -- Take note: The film about the conflict between a hotshot young motorcyclist (Derek Luke) and his far more senior rival in drag racing (Laurence Fishburne) is called "Biker Boyz" -- not "Biker Girlz" or "Biker Men" -- for a reason, and it's not just the fact that its central character, Kid (Luke), is an 18-year-old guy. "Biker Boyz" is a movie designed to appeal almost exclusively to, as the anthropologists say, juvenile males. It's loud, it's rude, it practically reeks of unwashed socks and the scratch-and-sniff cologne ads in Maxim magazine. And, despite a quasi-oedipal plot line and a half-hearted attempt at the theme of attaining maturity, the film is less concerned with growing up than with rasing hell. Contains dangerous cycling, fistfights, vulgar language and sexually suggestive scenes. Laurel Cinema.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

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. Foxchase and Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle.

BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE (PG-13, 107 minutes) -- This lowest common denominator comedy is exactly what it looks like: Steve Martin's white spazziness pitted against Queen Latifah's soul-sister omnipotence. Martin is the king of nerdy tics and facial contortions, and Latifah makes it her business to be the Queen of any moment she elbows her way into. It's clear the point of this movie is enjoying loose laughter without too much scrutiny. But the sitcom shtick wears thin after a while. The movie goes into a frenzy of black and white jokes, gags and situations. There's an inevitable law of diminishing returns at work here. Soon enough, the racial angle becomes the tiresome basis of almost every joke; the movie resorts to sillier and cheaper ploys to keep going. Contains risque racial humor, sexual situations and obscenity. Area theaters.

{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, 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 onto a Pan Am jet just because you were wearing the uniform. Contains sexual material, some violence and some obscenity. Annapolis Harbour and University Mall Theatres.

{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, Roxie'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}CITY OF GOD (R, 130 minutes) -- Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, co-director Katia Lund and screenwriter Braulio Mantovani have created an extraordinary film about Cidade de Deus (City of God), where drug-dealing teenagers kill one another with mesmerizing abandon. Left alone by the police and completely ignored by Brazilian society, the City of God lives by its own rules, trading on marijuana, cocaine, murder and bloody legend. Meirelles and Lund spent months casting, training and rehearsing mostly amateur teenagers who came from Cidade de Deus and other slums. The result: amazingly authentic, fluid performances, particularly from Leandro Firmino da Hora as a chilling teen gangster named Li'l Ze. Contains disturbing violence, drug content, obscene language, nudity and sexual scenes. In Portuguese with subtitles. Landmark Bethesda Row, Cinema Arts Theatre and Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle.

CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE (R, 100 minutes) -- About the only enjoyable thing here is watching Jet Li block, kick and humiliate his opponents with one hand in his pocket and a look of casual peeve. Li's casual, phoned-in manner seems highly appropriate. Why expend anything but minimal energy on a secondhand action movie that retreads all the tired staples of the 1980s and '90s: the car stunts, the cussing, the fighting, the shooting, and did I mention the car stunts? The story, in which rapper DMX needs help getting his kidnapped daughter back and Li needs to get hold of some valuable and dangerous black diamonds, is functional, throwaway business. Contains violence, killing, gore, sexual content and obscenity. Area theaters.

DAREDEVIL (PG-13, 103 minutes) -- When people describe "Daredevil," the film based on the blind Marvel Comics character who fights crime by utilizing his four other heightened senses, as "dark," chances are they're not just refering to the moral ambiguity of a self-doubting superhero lawyer (Ben Affleck) who enacts vigilante justice with a lethal, multipurpose cane. They may also be talking about the action sequences, most of which seem to take place in the dark and/or rain, making it rather hard to see whose rear is getting kicked. While the premise is good, and a psychologically tormented hero is always a nice touch, the physical stunts are often lost in on-screen murk, except for the one fight that takes place in broad daylight between our hero and, of all people, his lady love (Jennifer Garner). Contains violent combat and sensuality. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar}DARK BLUE (R, 118 minutes) -- Kurt Russell gives a stirring performance as a corrupt, third-generation cop in Ron Shelton's bleak look at the dysfunctional culture of coverups and secrecy that, at least in this film's overwhelmingly pessimistic view, pervade the Los Angeles Police Department. Superficially the story of the investigation of a quadruple homicide by a cynical Special Investigations Squad officer (Russell) and his idealistic rookie partner (Scott Sweetman), "Dark Blue" is also a zeitgeist film, set against the mood of cautious mistrust that bubbled over into open rage during the riots immediately after the verdict in the first Rodney King police brutality trial. "Dark Blue" is a compelling but dispiriting film with a lose-lose ending that serves as a warning that each of us is the only salvation from the hell we have created. Contains violence, obscenity, sex talk, a strip-club scene and raw, racist language. Muvico Egyptian Theatres.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

DELIVER US FROM EVA (R, 105 minutes) -- This hip-hop version of "The Taming of the Shrew" is about the super-nasty Eva (Gabrielle Union), who lords it over her three sisters (Essence Atkins, Robinne Lee and Meagan Good) and their men (Mel Jackson, Dartanyan Edmonds and Duane Martin). When the guys recruit ladies man Ray (LL Cool J) to seduce Eva and keep her out of everyone's life, the plan backfires. They fall in love. Of course. Writer-director Gary ("The Brothers") Hardwick clearly wants to make this more than another romantic comedy, but that desire evaporates in the face of loopy storytelling (including a nutty kidnapping plot), one-dimensional archetypes, too much predictability and not enough humor. Contains obscene language and sexual situations. 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. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

{sstar}DONNIE DARKO (R, 122 minutes) -- Detached, disaffected Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is hostile toward his parents (Mary McDonnell and Holmes Osborne) and is always in trouble. He also believes that a six-foot-plus rabbit is ordering him to perform evil deeds. His only allies are a new student named Gretchen (Jena Malone) with a shadowy home life, a couple of sensitive teachers (Drew Barrymore and Noah Wyle) and a mysterious former schoolteacher, nicknamed Grandma Death (Joan M. Blair), who has written a book about time travel. Is this science-fiction noir? A twisted coming of age story? Or a liberal vision of the Reagan era, in that this 1988-set story observes the scarier side of suburbia, book-burning parents and me-first consumption? The movie, written and directed by Richard Kelly, flutters, like a mischievous butterfly, above the despairing hands of easy description. And that's what's so good about it. Contains drug use, obscenity and some violence. Visions Cinema/Bistro/Lounge.

{sstar}8 MILE (R, 118 minutes) -- Eminem's debut role is about the rise of a pop star, plain and simple. In Curtis Hanson's film, he's a down-and-out Detroit rapper, nicknamed Rabbit, who dreams of making it. Simple story, yes. But Eminem's a screen presence, shrouded in his hood. The real deal -- and the movie's greatest fun -- is in the rap contests at clubs. They are extraordinary displays of verbal agility, with frenzied applause for poetics. And there's no question, by these hip-hop standards, Eminem has the mustard. He raps with the best of them. Contains obscenity, violence and drug use. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

{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. Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle and Foxchase.

{sstar}FINAL DESTINATION 2 (R, 100 minutes) -- Kimberley (A.J. Cook) has a premonition of a horrifying chain-reaction freeway crash just as she's about to leave the entrance ramp. She saves the day with a stalled SUV. But Death comes back to claim the people she saved, just as it did in the original "Final" movie. Everyone bands together in an effort to cheat Death, which nonetheless comes up with ingenious, intricately staged methods of execution. Some deaths are a bit mundane, tending to provoke titters and discomforted laughs, but the others achieve their intended, scary effect. Contains strong violence/gruesome accidents, language, drug content and brief nudity. Area theaters.

-- Richard Harrington

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.

{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 DiCaprio), the now-grown son of a man 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. Annapolis Harbour, AMC Courthouse and Loews Georgetown.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

GODS AND GENERALS (PG-13, 220 minutes) -- Ronald F. Maxwell's nearly four-hour epic based on the Civil War battles of First Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, a prequel to his fairly well-received 1993 film "Gettysburg," is meticulously accurate in period detail, a quality that is insufficient to save the bloated, mawkish beast from itself. Characterized by the kind of arched-eyebrow and clenched-jaw acting one finds on soap operas, "G&G" is less a movie -- complete with character development and real drama -- than an expensive reenactment of battles in which everyone already knows the results. Its central, pat irony, that Johnny Reb and Billy Yank were brothers beneath the blue and gray, will sit with most viewers as itchily as the damp, wool underwear worn by the soldiers about whose deaths -- but not lives -- this film attempts to make us care. Contains extensive but largely bloodless battlefield violence. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

THE GURU (R, 94 minutes) -- Starry-eyed dance instructor Ramu Gupta (Jimi Mistry) leaves his Delhi home to chase fame and fortune in the Big Apple. When an audition mix-up lands naive Ramu on a porn set, nerves render him unable to (ahem) perform. His would-be co-star, Sharrona (Heather Graham), offers some advice to (ahem) get him over the hump, but to no avail. Her amateur Dr. Ruth-isms come in handy, however, when Ramu plays last-minute stand-in for a drunken guru at a Manhattan birthday party. Director Daisy von Scherler Mayer ably mines the comedic potential of her culture-clash premise without resorting to the crass stereotyping that undercuts some ethnic-themed comedies. She also stages a couple of fizzy Bollywood-style musical numbers guaranteed to leave you grinning. Still, a precipitous comedic falloff in the third quarter earns the film a qualified recommendation at best. Contains nudity, frank sexual language and yet another game second-banana performance by Marisa Tomei. Area theaters.

-- Dan Via

{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. Laurel Cinema, Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse and University Mall Theatres.

{sstar}THE HOURS (PG-13, 114 minutes) -- The death of the haunted, brilliant British author Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) starts a fatalistic ripple. Decades later, two women (Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep) will feel the sad, anxious rhythms of Woolf's life and death. The movie, based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is deeply moving, but not merely for three stories of agony, bravery and inspiration. With its deft intercutting of place and time, the film creates a powerful sense of mysticism and fate. And the performances are top-notch. You don't just love the movie for its structure but for the haunted people in it, making each other miserable, but forcing each other to face who they are. Contains mature thematic elements, some disturbing images and some obscenity. Area theaters.

HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS (PG-13, 112 minutes) -- It's not as lame as it sounds, but this film about a magazine columnist (Kate Hudson) who tries to sabotage a relationship with a guy (Matthew McConaughey) just so she can write about it isn't as clever as it could be, either. The wacky misunderstandings are straight out of the romantic comedy rule book, and the targets of some of the jokes (Kathie Lee Gifford and Celine Dion, to name a couple of the supposedly "girlie" things that drive men insane) are, let's face it, sitting ducks. Still, the stars have a nice, unforced chemistry and even I, professional curmudgeon, have to admit I lost track of how many times I laughed. Contains sexual humor and situations, a single punch in the eye and repeated use of a vulgarity for excrement. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

THE JUNGLE BOOK 2 (G, 72 minutes) -- I would say that "The Jungle Book 2" is just a slightly reworked reprise of the Disney classic, minus the great music of the original, except that the sequel is shameless enough to include encores of several of the 1967 film's songs, in addition to a couple of unmemorable ones of its own. The story line, in which a lovable oaf of a bear (voice of John Goodman) and a kindly panther (Bob Joles) help wild child Mowgli (Haley Joel Osment) avoid becoming a tiger's (Tony Jay) next meal, is basically the same as the first movie, with the addition of two new characters, a pair of village children whom Mowgli has met. Although the fright factor has been upped a little bit, it's hard to disguise heated-up leftovers. Contains a scary tiger. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

KANGAROO JACK (PG, 84 minutes) -- In this a front-end collision of a family comedy, two goofy pals -- Charlie (Jerry O'Connell) and Louis (Anthony Anderson) -- are sent to Australia to give a mysterious package to a hit man. But the package, containing $50,000, is lost when a kangaroo makes off with Louis's jacket, which contains the money. There are two distinctive features to the movie: the mind-numbingly banal plot as one chases another who chases another, and all the offensive material. The film, produced by Jerry "Mr. Subtle" Bruckheimer, includes camels with flatulence (yes, camels in Australia), jokes about testicles shrinking and sexually provocative material that's completely inappropriate for a PG-rated movie. Avoid this like the plague. Contains obscenity, crude humor, violence and salacious sexual material. Area theaters.

THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE (R, 130 minutes) -- Philosophy professor and convicted murderer David Gale (Kevin Spacey) begs investigative reporter Elizabeth "Bitsey" Bloom (Kate Winslet) to write about his claim of innocence. Turns out he's an activist for a nonprofit group that lobbies heavily against the death penalty. The victim is Constance (Laura Linney), David's fellow activist. What goes on here? It takes Spacey's considerable talent to make his scenes even the slightest bit believable. But he can't save us from the rest of the movie, an anti-death penalty screed disguised as a thriller. It doesn't matter what your politics are -- this is too heavy-handed for any point of view. Contains graphic sexuality, nudity, violence and obscenity. Area theaters.

{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-style 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.

{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. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

{sstar}NARC (R, 105 minutes) -- In this cop drama, Ray Liotta is one scary proposition as Lt. Henry Oak, a Detroit cop bent on avenging the death of a partner. Jason Patric plays Nick Tellis, an undercover narcotics cop assigned to be his new partner. Writer-director Joe Carnahan sows a well-sustained allegory-cum-cop drama. But there isn't a stylistic, thematic or story detail that hasn't already been drummed and redrummed into our moviegoing and televiewing subconsciousness. What "Narc" does is put it all together in a well-stuffed body bag of intensity. But you have to like relentless intensity. Contains disturbing violence, drug content and pervasive obscenity. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

{sstar}OLD SCHOOL (R, 91 minutes) -- In Todd Phillips's funny and, of course, socially unredeemable comedy, Frank (Will Ferrell), Mitch (Luke Wilson) and Beanie (Vince Vaughn), whose college days are a distant memory, decide to turn Mitch's off-campus house into a frat for everyone. The plot's nothing much: prolonged war between the underhanded college dean (Jeremy Piven) and the all-ages fraternity (including an 89-year-old geezer named Blue); a growing romance between Mitch and Nicole (Ellen Pompeo); and Frank's spiraling funk as he awaits forgiveness from his estranged wife. But in terms of sheer belly-laugh count, this one's in the same plentiful company as "There's Something About Mary" and Phillips's "Road Trip." The movie belongs to Ferrell, whose Frank is a hilarious and sometimes even adorable party animal. Contains strong sexual content, nudity and obscenity. Area theaters.

{sstar}OPEN HEARTS (R, 114 minutes) -- Director Susanne Bier made this Danish film under the auspices of Zentropa, the company formed by Lars Von Trier, whose Dogme 95 regimen requires movies be set within a short time frame and made with hand-held cameras and no artificial lighting or music score. It's about Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Cecilie (Sonja Richter) whose upcoming nuptials are beset by tragedy. After a car accident, Joachim becomes a prisoner of his bed, paralyzed from the neck down. Cecilie is so devastated, she becomes heavily dependent on a friendly doctor, Niels (Mads Mikkelsen), for emotional comfort. This is Dogme 95 at its best: open-ended and exciting, with a grand sense of experimentation. And the performers exude documentary-style believability. Contains intense subject matter, nudity, sexual scenes and obscenity. In Danish with subtitles. Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

{sstar}THE PIANIST (R, 148 minutes) -- Roman Polanski's wrenching drama, winner of last year's Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, follows the strange destiny of Wladyslaw Szpilman (a pitch-perfect Adrien Brody), a young pianist from Warsaw who miraculously survives the Nazi invasion of his hometown. But survival is cruel: He hides in buildings while the Nazis destroy his people. The movie, a sonata of human suffering and tragedy, takes assured and firm grasp of your senses. Polanski, himself a survivor of Nazi-occupied Poland, has created a near-masterpiece. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman's darkly powerful images and production designer Allan Starski's stunning re-creations of a shattered Europe are unforgettable. Contains disturbing violence and emotionally affecting material. Some German with subtitles. Area theaters.

{sstar}THE QUIET AMERICAN (R, 100 MINUTES) -- In this adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, Michael Caine is Thomas Fowler, a British journalist caught in colonial Indochina in the 1950s. It's a strange world, where communists, French, Americans and a tyrannical leader named General The (Quang Hai) are vying for power. The main story, though, is about Fowler's attempts to stop his young girlfriend Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) from falling for Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a bumbling American aid worker given to baseball caps and goofy sincerity. Caine's imperial world weariness gives the movie a vital potency. Without the actor, "The Quiet American" would be a respectable foreign-hellhole drama, something along the lines of "The Year of Living Dangerously." But thanks to his subtly nuanced performance, there's a deeper dimension to everything. He's snappily ironic at times, sometimes amazingly delicate, always engaging. Contains wartime violence, gruesome injuries, some obscenity and sexual situations. Area theaters.

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. P&G Montgomery Mall and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

{sstar}THE RECRUIT (PG-13, 115 minutes) -- This is throwaway Hollywood stuff but it's still fun, particularly for the stud-versus-silverback battles of will between Colin Farrell and Al Pacino, who play CIA greenhorn and recruiter, respectively. Directed by Roger Donaldson, this seems like a reprise of "No Way Out." Once again, a talented greenhorn joins a powerful institution and falls in love with a woman who may or may not be trouble. There's talk of a mole. And there's a powerful master of ceremonies (Pacino) who knows everything and who may or may not be a good guy. Still, you could do worse than sit and enjoy this. I know you could. I've seen those movies. Contains violence, sexuality and obscenity. Area theaters.

{sstar}RUSSIAN ARK (Unrated, 97 minutes) -- The first feature-length movie ever to contain its entire story in one, uninterrupted shot (87 minutes in duration), this film pays tribute to Russia's great state museum, the Hermitage, and by extension the nation, its cultural treasures and history. With breathtakingly detailed choreography, Russian director Alexander Sokurov leads you through 33 rooms of the museum (Peter the Great's former Winter Palace) and several centuries of artistic and cultural magnificence. During this unblinking inner journey, we meet all manner of characters, both historic and modern. "Ark" is more than a showcase nod to Russian history, or an elaborate technical exercise. It's an extraordinary dramatic experience, a blissful waltz through time. Contains nothing objectionable. Landmark Bethesda Row.

THE SAFETY OF OBJECTS (R, 121 minutes) -- Rose Troche's film follows four families undergoing modern-day calamity. The characters include Paul Gold (Joshua Jackson), a young man in his twenties who's comatose thanks to a car accident, and Esther (Close), his mother, who decides to enter a radio-sponsored endurance marathon to win an SUV. Troche's film recedes immediately into the middle pack of such suburban-angst movies as "Short Cuts" and "The Ice Storm." Although it has moments of charm and poignancy -- this is one of Glenn Close's best hours -- the scheme and scope of the movie are just too darned cliched: That life in the suburbs is hell on just about everyone. Contains sexual scenes, obscenity. Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

SHANGHAI KNIGHTS (PG-13, 107 minutes) -- This insipid sequel to "Shanghai Noon" brings back Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson as, respectively, Chon Wang and Roy O'Bannon. The odd couple heads to England in the late 1890s, where Chon's sister, Lin (Fann Wong), is hunting for their father's killer. All three get caught up in a ridiculous plot in which the dastardly Rathbone (Aiden Gillen) plans to deep-six the royals for his own power-driven ends. Wilson has his surfer-dude moments of humor, but he's doing his best with creatively dead material. Chan, whose age seems to have made him less willing to go stunt-crazy, performs tamer showcase fighting sequences that are more slapstick than stirring. But there is one nice piece of choreography, a fight scene that's an inspired parody of the umbrella-twirling song and dance number in "Singin' in the Rain." It's too bad his imagination and delicacy were wasted in this movie. Contains cartoonish violence and sexual shenanigans. Area theaters.

{sstar}TALK TO HER (R, 113 minutes) -- In Pedro Almodovar'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. Landmark Bethesda Row, Cineplex Odeon Shirlington and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

TEARS OF THE SUN (R, 121 minutes) -- Bruce Willis is a Navy SEAL who flies into war-torn Nigeria to save two nuns, one priest and an impossibly chiseled and beautiful surgeon (Monica Bellucci). The movie's an Uncle Sam's Fighting Men infomercial, in which our upstanding American warriors descend godlike from the heavens into the darkest continent -- not just to save four white souls but also to save the Africans from themselves. The deeper we get into this movie, the more horrible the carnage, and the weirder, more wanton and cheesier the script. Contains horrifying wartime atrocity, including rape, execution and mutilation; also contains obscenity and nudity. Area theaters.

{sstar}25TH HOUR (R, 135 minutes) -- In Spike Lee's movie, drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is having his last night out before he goes into the slammer for seven years. So he spends quality time with significant people, including his Irish firefighter father (Brian Cox), longtime buddies (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper) and his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson). The movie's uneven but wildly pleasurable -- the usual undisciplined, overextended Spike symphony. The performances are strong. Norton is intense, edgy and appealingly intelligent. Hoffman is a theatrical pleasure as he affects those Mamet-style mannerisms, pauses and unexpected inflections. Contains obscenity, violence and implied violence to animals. Loews Georgetown.

{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. University Mall Theatres.

Repertory

AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM -- At the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater: "Space Station 3D," daily at 11:05, 1:05 and 3:05 and 5:45. "To Fly!," daily at 10:25 and 5:05. "Straight Up: Helicopters in Action," daily at 12:10, 2:10 and 4:10. 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.

CHARLES THEATRE -- "The Killing," Saturday at noon. 1711 N. Charles St., Baltimore. 410-727-3456.

CINEMA ART BETHESDA -- "Maryam," Sunday at 10 a.m. Landmark Bethesda Row Theatre, 7235 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, MD. 301-365-3679.

DCJCC -- "Blue Vinyl," Tuesday at 7. 1529 16th St. NW. 202-777-3248.

FILMS ON THE HILL -- "Down to the Sea in Ships," Friday at 7. Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh Street SE. 202-547-6839.

HIRSHHORN MUSEUM -- "Green Themes (Part 2)," Friday at 8. "Art 21," Thursday at noon. "Black Maria Film Festival 2003 (Part 1)," Thursday at 8. Independence Ave. at Seventh St. SW. 202-357-2700.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS -- "Bedlam" and "The Leopard Man," Friday at 6:30. "Animals Are Beautiful People," Monday at 7. "The Living Desert" and "Perri," Thursday at 6:30. Free, but reservations required. Mary Pickford Theater, 101 Independence Ave. SE 202-707-5677.

MARYLAND SCIENCE CENTER -- "The Lion King," Saturday-Sunday at 10, 2 and 5:55; Monday-Friday at 11 and 3. "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure," Saturday-Sunday at 11:55, 12:55, 3:50, 4:50 and 7:45; Monday-Friday at 1, 2, and 4:55; Thursday-Friday at 7. "Space Station (3D)," Thursday-Friday at 8; Saturday at 8:45. 601 Light St., Baltimore. 410-685-5225.

MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY -- "Bugs! (3-D)," daily at 10:20, 12:05, 2 and 3:50; Friday-Saturday at 6, 7, and 8; Friday at 9. "T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (3D)," daily at 12:05, 1:05, 2:55, and 4:45. Samuel C. Johnson Theater, Tenth and Constitution NW. 202-633-7400.

Monday at noon: 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD. Free. 202-501-5000.

NATIONAL ARCHIVES -- "Elanor Roosevelt (Part 2)," Friday at noon: Room 105, National Archives Building, Pennsylvania Ave. NW between Seventh and Ninth streets. "Elanor Roosevelt (Part 2)," Monday at noon: 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD. Free. 202-501-5000.

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART -- "Eouard Vuillard," Friday, Tuesday and Thursday at 11:30 ; Tuesday-Wednesday at 2. "Russian Ark," Friday at 2:30 and Sunday at 5. "Mother and Son" and "Dolce," Saturday at 1. "Oriental Elegy" and "Humble Life," Saturday at 3:30. "Alexei and the Spring," Thursday at 12:30. East Building, Fourth and Constitution NW. 202-737-4215.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART -- "Fishers of Dar" and "Diamonds and Rust," Friday at 7. Ripley Center, Level 3. 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW. 202-357-4600 (TDD: 202-357-4814).

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

VISIONS CINEMA/BISTRO/LOUNGE -- "Donnie Darko," Friday-Saturday at midnight. 1927 Florida Ave. NW. 202-667-0090.

New on Video

These movies arrive on video store shelves this week.

{sstar}BELOW

(R, 2002, 105 MINUTES, DIMENSION FILMS)

Somewhere in the Atlantic, during World War II, a U.S. submarine picks up three survivors (including Olivia Williams). Not long after that, things get spooky for the crew (including Bruce Greenwood and Matthew Davis). People start dying. And everyone's war is no longer about evading depth charges. This collaboration between co-writer/director David N. ("Pitch Black") Twohy and co-writer/producer Darren Aronofsky, who made "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream," is an enjoyable, if occasionally flawed, experiment. It's an impressive homage to all those great postwar B-movies about subs. And although the plot begins to founder, the movie's got too much mood and emotional intensity to dismiss. Contains violence and some bad language.

-- Desson Howe

I SPY

(PG-13, 2002, 96 MINUTES, COLUMBIA PICTURES)

Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson, playing an arrogant boxer and a slightly inept spy looking for a shadowy arms dealer (Malcolm McDowell), can't compete with the effortless chemistry shared by Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in the original TV show. The Betty Thomas-directed action film moves at a glacial pace, despite a comic chase scene souped up with all manner of gizmos and gadgets. Murphy and Wilson may be funny from time to time but, for the most part, the movie's a reprise of every mixed-race odd-couple movie ever made in the last 15 years, from "Lethal Weapon" to "Shanghai Noon." Contains violence, sexual content and a smattering of bad language.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar}MOONLIGHT MILE

(PG-13, 2002, 112 MINUTES, BUENA VISTA PICTURES)

In writer-director Brad Silberling's character drama, set in the '70s, Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal) has fallen into a peculiar trap. Mourning the death of his fiancee, he's obliged to bond with her parents (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon); they have reached out to Joe as her spiritual surrogate. Gyllenhaal is good at conveying inarticulate guilt. And although Hoffman and Sarandon occasionally let their familiar tics and shticks show, they fully embrace their roles. If the movie's occasionally guilty of Magic Markerism (in which the poignant, subtle moments are underlined), it's a satisfying combination of good story, nice moments and appealing texture. And it's great to hear the Rolling Stones' "Moonlight Mile" finally get on a movie soundtrack. Contains sexual situations and obscenity.

-- Desson Howe

SWIMFAN

(PG-13, 2002, 84 MINUTES, 20TH CENTURY FOX)

"Fatal Attraction" for the benzoyl peroxide crowd, "Swimfan" is a competent if familiar thriller about a teenage swimmer (Jesse Bradford) seduced from a steady relationship with his high-school sweetheart (Shiri Appleby) by an unbalanced blond vixen (Erika Christensen) who becomes obsessed with him after a one-night stand. Christensen is so good at playing psycho, it's a little hard to imagine what swimboy ever saw in her to begin with. Contains mild obscenity, discreet swimming-pool sex and underage drinking.

-- Desson Howe

WHITE OLEANDER

(PG-13, 2002, 110 MINUTES, WARNER BROS.)

In this darkly observed drama, California teenager Astrid (Alison Lohman) weathers a hard life of foster homes and bizarre foster parents after her mother Ingrid (Pfeiffer) is sent to prison for murder. In an elliptical string of highlights from the novel, Astrid lives, variously, with Starr Thomas (Robin Wright Penn), a onetime gun-toting stripper with a passion for Jesus; the emotionally delicate Claire Richards (Renee Zellweger), who suffers under the lovelessness of her husband (Cole Hauser); and Rena Grushenka (Svetlana Efremova), a Russian woman with a rather laissez-faire form of parenting. Attempting to get a little bit of everything from Janet Fitch's edgy novel, screenwriter Mary Agnes Donoghue rations out too little to each episode. We never have strong emotional ties to the story. Contains violence,obscenity, suicide and sexual situations.

-- Desson Howe