Film Capsules

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

Openings

ALMOST PEACEFUL (Unrated) -- See capsule review on Page 41.

BEING JULIA (R) -- See review on Page 33.

BIRTH (R) -- See review on Page 35.

IN THE FACE OF EVIL: REAGAN'S WAR IN WORD AND DEED (PG-13) -- See capsule review on Page 41.

THE MACHINIST (R) -- See review on Page 34.

RAY (PG-13) -- See review on Page 33.

SAW (R) -- See capsule review on Page 41.

SIDEWAYS (R) -- See review on Page 33.

UNDERTOW (R) -- See review on Page 34.

VOICES OF IRAQ (Unrated) -- See capsule review on Page 41.

First Runs & Revivals

{sstar} ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (PG-13, 91 minutes) -- This Will Ferrell comedy is wonderfully silly all the time. Its premise has irresistible mileage: Ferrell as a '70s telegenic newsman-stud named Ron Burgundy, a clueless womanizer who hobnobs with a trio of moronic colleagues, sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), news reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell). Ron's world gets a rough shakedown when he falls in love with the talented Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), who possesses actual journalistic skills, as opposed to the ability to read from a teleprompter. Written by Ferrell and director Andy McKay, "Anchorman" rests on the likable funniness of Ferrell. Contains cartoonish violence to an animal, some obscenity, sexual situations and banter. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

{sstar} THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (PG-13, 110 minutes) -- Matt Damon, reprising his role as Jason Bourne, is outwardly chilly and ruthless but passionately engaged. He has one simple mission. It needs no memorandums, no briefings, no contact with spy handlers. The former CIA assassin has to keep one step away from a ruthless assailant, and possibly more. It's great to see an action movie that takes the international dirty business seriously: agents with questionable allegiance, contract killers who can't be stopped, shady doublespeak in Langley backrooms and such evocative post-Cold War locales as Berlin and Moscow. If Bourne seems cold, that's because he's an instrument of survival. In this movie, you're a candidate to be toe-tagged if you don't pay attention. Contains obscenity and violence. University Mall Theatres.

{sstar} COLLATERAL (R, 120 minutes) -- Tom Cruise is Vincent, a slick contract killer who forces cabdriver Max (Jamie Foxx) to keep the motor running while he knocks off his targets. Both men, it turns out, are equally matched. Director Michael Mann, the riverboat captain of narrative flow, has a knack for making one moment lap into the next. The suspense turns on desperation, character and situation, as opposed to firepower, muscle and engine torque. Cruise is wonderfully bad. And Foxx is entirely believable as the reserved, silent dreamer, who realizes he's not going to take this anymore. Contains violence and obscenity. University Mall Theatres.

{sstar} FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (R, 112 minutes) -- A guided political missile aimed directly at the presidency of George W. Bush, Michael Moore's sharply ironic narrative takes us from the Florida debacle that decided the 2000 presidential election to the political nettling aftermath of war in Iraq. He also accuses the president of being so financially and personally connected to friends in high Saudi Arabian places, he was too compromised to take decisive action against Osama bin Laden. Sure, the movie skews facts to its own advantage and makes fun of the president's goofier moments. But what counts is the emotional power of Moore's persuasion. There are startling scenes during the American invasion of Iraq that include the visceral terror of a household in Baghdad as young American soldiers break in to arrest someone; and the candid testimony of U.S. troops who express their disgust at the situation there. And perhaps most persuasive is the dramatic turnaround experienced by Lila Lipscomb, a Michigan mother. She changes from patriotic support for the Bush administration to heartbroken despair after she loses a son to the war. Contains footage of war dead and wounded, including children. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

THE FORGOTTEN (PG-13, 96 minutes) -- Julianne Moore plays Telly Paretta, whose 8-year-old son is suddenly missing after embarking on a flight. But her psychiatrist (Gary Sinise) and even her husband (Anthony Edwards) insist no such son ever existed. Sound the "Twilight Zone" theme and the death knell for the movie. The scenario, which consists mostly of Telly running away from men in dark suits, gets worse and worse. It has its share of visceral surprises, slightly predictable and dumb when all is said and done. And best forgotten. Contains some violence and scary effects. Area theaters.

{sstar} FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (PG-13, 110 minutes) -- Based on the acclaimed nonfiction book by H.G. Bissinger about a small, west Texas town's affection for its winning-against-the-odds high-school football team, director Peter Berg's warts-and-all examination of the Permian Panthers isn't conventional in any way. For one thing, its grainy, washed-out look and shaky-camera style make football fandom feel more like an addiction than a glorious obsession. For another, the plot, which follows the 1988 season under stoic coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton), has an unexpected trajectory, especially considering that, at least initially, the story seems to conform to the it-all-comes-down-to- one-game formula. In other words, it's more sociology than hagiography. Even if you don't generally like sports movies, you might like this one. That's because its subject isn't really the game of football, but the game of life. Contains obscenity, sexual content, underage drinking, emotionally abusive parenting, often brutal gridiron action and occasional Texans so twangy you may wish there were subtitles. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar} GARDEN STATE ( R, 102 minutes) -- New Jersey native Zach Braff wrote, directed and stars in this smart, funny story about a TV actor named Andrew (Braff), who returns to his Jersey home town. Everyone from his high school days, it seems, lives in the Twilight Zone, including Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a gravedigger who helps himself to jewelry in coffins. But then Andrew runs into Samantha (Natalie Portman), an eccentric free spirit who rejuvenates his sleeping spirit. This edgy quasi-comedy is amazingly assured for a directorial debut, even if it's a little uneven. Portman is immediately enchanting and irritating at the same time. But in concert with the morose Andrew, her Sam comes out as colorful relief. Contains obscenity, sexual scenes, and drug and alcohol use. Area theaters.

GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE (PG-13, 100 minutes) -- I didn't see the first film, but I can only hope that the 1995 "Ghost in the Shell" wasn't as pretentious as this sequel to Japanese anime director Mamoru Oshii's cult classic. With dialogue that alternates betweens such Confucianisms as "No matter how far a jackass travels, it won't come back a horse" and exclamatory technobabble like "Rebuild the logic firewall!," this stylish but stupid detective cartoon concerns a cop (voice of Akio Ohtsuka) with the soul of a human trapped inside a cyborg body who is investigating the murder of a man by his "gynoid" sex robot. It's awful talky for a sci-fi thriller, yet it doesn't even have the decency to obey its own advice, as dispensed by one character who wryly notes that, "When dialogue fails, it's time for violence." Contains violence (but not nearly enough) and some obscenity. In Japanese with subtitles. Kentlands Stadium and Loews Wheaton Plaza.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

THE GRUDGE (PG-13, 88 minutes) -- Sure, it's scary, but this lightly Americanized remake of the Japanese ghost story "Ju-on" doesn't exactly break new ground in horror. Heck, the original on which it's based -- itself merely one of four films in a series by director Takashi Shimizu, who also made the new one -- didn't even break new ground when it was new. There are lots of "boo!" moments, to be sure, as American transfer student Sarah Michelle Gellar gets spooked by the powerfully evil spirits lurking at the site of a Tokyo murder, but there are lots of cheesy ones, too, as when several of the dead people show up to reenact their untimely demises, expressly for the edification of us stupid Western audiences, for whom everything, apparently, needs to be s-p-e-l-l-e-d o-u-t. Contains disturbing, occasionally violent imagery and mild sensuality. In English and some Japanese with subtitles. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

HAIR SHOW (PG-13, 100 minutes) -- Comedienne Mo'Nique succeeds in producing a few laughs in "Hair Show," but not enough to call it a winning comedy. She plays Peaches, a hair stylist from Baltimore who visits her estranged, successful sister Angela (Kellitta Smith) when she learns she owes $50,000 to the IRS. Though the two have a tenuous relationship, Peaches hopes to escape her problems and perhaps find the money she owes by spending time with Angela, who runs an upscale hair salon in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Angela is feuding with a rival salon owner, and somehow the only way to save the salon and their sisterly relationship is to enter a hair show. Overall, the movie is slow and average. It's the kind of film you wouldn't mind renting on a night when you're brain-dead from the day's work and don't have the energy to scrutinize cinematic quality as long as you can laugh at some of the background noise. Contains sexual content, some profanity and a few offensive ethnic jokes. Area theaters.

-- Sara Gebhardt

HEAD IN THE CLOUDS (R, 121 minutes) -- The international star packaging on this movie is leadenly obvious: Put Charlize Theron in a sexy World War II-era tale with an Irishman, a Spaniard and a smattering of Germans, French and Englishmen, then watch people rent the DVD all over the globe. Not. Theron plays Gilda Besse, a free-spirited American, who becomes involved over the years (which include the Spanish Civil War and World War II) in a sort-of triangle with an Irish activist called Guy (Stuart Townsend) and Mia (Penelope Cruz), a refugee from Spain who's also an ex-dancer. But John Duigan's love-during-wartime affair is a snooze, despite all the sex and other gunplay. Contains nudity, sex scenes and violence. Some French and German with subtitles. Landmark's E Street Cinema.

{sstar} HEARTS AND MINDS (Unrated, 112 minutes) -- Peter Davis's 1974 documentary about Vietnam is a superb film about the thoughts and feelings of the era, the whole festering, spirited animus of it. And with the Iraq war, America's most globally divisive foreign-policy decision in a generation, the parallels are clear. Once again, there is a war, a counterculture, hawks and doves, and even this: a questionable premise. The film also enshrined the now-household images of the naked Vietnamese girl, also made famous by Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, running from a napalm attack, her body a patchwork of burns. It's also the film (and a famous photograph by Eddie Adams) that shows the point-blank execution of a Viet Cong captive by a South Vietnamese police officer. The result of these indelible images, stunning juxtapositions and passionate testimony is a film that sears into the conscience, especially today. Contains graphic war carnage and violence, obscenity, nudity, drug use and disturbing thematic material. American Film Institute's Silver Theatre through Thursday.

{sstar} HERO ( PG-13, 99 minutes) -- Zhang Yimou, the Chinese filmmaker who gave us such classics as "Red Sorghum" and "Ju Dou," has created a breathtaking, 3rd century B.C. epic about almost supernatural martial artists who walk on water, hang in the air, and slice and dice their opponent into a thousand slivers with breathtaking elegance. This wuxia (martial arts) film, in which an unnamed warrior (Jet Li) remembers (or misremembers, that's the intriguing mystery), his battles with the likes of Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Sky (Donnie Yen) is a graceful, stunning dream. Siu-Tung Ching's choreography is amazing. And you can feel the movie's sensibility and its powerful emotions in every aching image. You're so caught up in these ancient times, you're loath to return to present-day normalcy. Contains stylized martial arts violence and a scene of sensuality. In Chinese with subtitles. Majestic Cinema, Reeegal Ballston Common and Regal Gallery Place.

I {heart} HUCKABEES (R, 104 minutes) -- In David O. Russell's too-precious-for-its-own-good comedy, Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) recruits "existential" detectives Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) to help him solve the strange coincidences and troubles of his life. They uncover all kinds of things, including environmentalist Albert's tussle with a sleazy Huckabees store chain executive Brad Stand (Jude Law), who wants to build more stores. The convoluted story, which includes Huckabees spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts); Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a firefighter who has become radicalized by the world's consumerism and dependence on oil ever since "the big September thing"; and French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert), who sees randomness where the Jaffes see connectedness, is all pie-in-the-sky conceit but not quite funny enough. Contains nudity, sex scenes and obscenity. Area theaters.

JU-ON (R, 92 minutes) -- Horror aficionados may want to check out this Japanese original before watching "The Grudge," a new, mostly English-language remake of "Ju-on" by the same director, Takashi Shimizu. What they'll notice is that both movies, about a Tokyo house haunted by the ghosts of its dead former occupants, are scary and silly in almost equal measure. What they may be surprised to discover is that, despite all its cheesiness, "Ju-on" at least had the courage to leave more of the back-story unexplained than its overly explicit offshoot. It's an okay little Halloween movie that, unlike a night of trick-or-treat bingeing on sugar, won't leave you with any lasting negative side effects. Contains pervasive creepiness, some blood and suggested violence. In Japanese with English subtitles. Landmark's E Street Cinema.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

LADDER 49 (PG-13, 115 minutes) -- A tribute to firefighters disguised as a drama, this movie shows bravery in the visual Esperanto of Budweiser commercials and Hollywood action films, using the five-alarm star power of John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix. We meet Jack Morrison (Phoenix), who has it in mind to be a hero all along and who just can't wait to start saving people. His genial captain (Travolta) becomes his Obi-Wan Kenobi, who follows his meteoric career. Although "Ladder" tries to show firefighters as vulnerable and human, it mostly turns them into salt-of-the-earth heroes who know how to party hard and save lives. It's adulatory rather than realistic, and it doesn't engage you deeper than its heart-on-the-sleeve emotions. Contains burn injuries, overall emotional intensity and mild profanity. Area theaters.

{sstar} THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (R, 130 minutes) -- Director Jonathan Demme and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris clearly pored over John Frankenheimer's original 1962 Cold War thriller and retrofitted everything. Now it's a post-Gulf War Halliburton-dunit, a movie about corporate evil, mind control and political maneuvering. It's an intriguing transmogrification which, ultimately, becomes too torturously labored to believe. But the performers are a hoot: Denzel Washington as the heroic Maj. Bennett Marco; Liev Schreiber as the disturbingly chilly loose cannon, Raymond Shaw; and Meryl Streep (reprising the role made legendary by Angela Lansbury) as a disconcerting ambition machine who'll stop at nothing to reach the White House. With characters like these squaring off, and a climactic finale set on the main stage of a political convention, you can't help thinking: Bring it on. Contains violence and obscenity. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

{sstar} MARIA FULL OF GRACE (R, 101 minutes) -- As the title character, Catalina Sandino Moreno is a Colombian Mona Lisa, a delicate, 17-year-old soul who agrees to become a drug "mule." This means ingesting multiple capsules of rubber-sealed heroin and smuggling the stash into the United States. Writer-director Joshua Marston has made a powerful modern allegory that holds us tightly in its grip. This is a cold-fever ordeal, not only for Maria but us, as pressures worsen. We can almost feel the cold, clammy skin. We hear the heavy breathing of fear. It's a gripping drama, and many of its climactic scenes will rip holes through your heart. But it's a stunner of a film. And if there's anyone to help us go through this white-knuckle trip, it's Maria. Contains overall intensity, obscenity and bloodshed. In Spanish and English with subtitles. Foxchase.

{sstar} THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (R, 126 minutes) -- A good-hearted young Argentine from Cordoba named Ernesto (Gael Garcia Bernal) decides it is time to put aside his medical school education, get on a motorbike with his pal Alberto Granados (Rodrigo de la Serna) and hit the road. He wants to discover South America. This man will grow up to be Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a Marxist revolutionary in the Cuban revolution. But Walter Salles's movie, adapted from Guevara's memoir, "The Motorcycle Diaries," and Granados's "Traveling With Che Guevara," isn't about the politics. It's a lyrical, warmhearted road movie about two men coming of age. Bernal, the star of "Y Tu Mama Tambien," is the movie's guiding star. He beams brightly, charming men and women, rich and poor, healthy and leprous, wherever he goes. Contains obscenity. In Spanish with subtitles. Area theaters.

{sstar} NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (PG, 86 minutes) -- In Jared Hess's deadpan-funny indie comedy, Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a scrawny nerd from Preston, Idaho, whose eyes are lost behind the semi-opaque haze of his glasses and who packs some wicked comments for his tormentors. As he weathers his oppressive worlds at home and school, he seems to exist in a live-action version of Mike Judge's TV cartoons ("Beavis and Butt-head," "King of the Hill") or Todd Solondz's suburban geek epic "Welcome to the Dollhouse." Jon Gries is hilariously out-there as Napoleon's incredibly narcissistic Uncle Rico. So is Aaron Ruell as his reclusive, thirty-something brother, Kip. And as Napoleon's withdrawn friend Pedro, Efren Ramirez is almost too odd to chuckle at. Contains some sexual innuendo. Regal Ballston Common, Regal Countryside Stadium and Regal Fairfax Town Center.

PRIMER (PG-13, 82 minutes) -- Don't believe the hype. Despite winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Alfred P. Sloan Prize for advancing science and technology in film at Sundance -- and, really, how hard can that last one be? -- this time-travel thriller is less brain tickler than migraine producer. Written and directed by engineer- turned-auteur Shane Carruth, who also stars, "Primer" is at first equally fascinating and maddening in the way it tells its tale of two engineers (Carruth and David Sullivan) and the time machine that comes between them. Sounding like it was written by David Mamet's computer-geek cousin, the movie increasingly becomes all maddening as it steadfastly resists comprehension in favor of a dense and off-putting brainiac-hipster cache that masks its ultimate emptiness. Contains some obscenity. Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenu.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

THE PRINCESS DIARIES 2: ROYAL ENGAGEMENT (G, 115 minutes) -- Luckily, "Princess Diaries 2" doesn't promote the stereotype still prevalent in popular culture that a princess (read: woman) is weak or somehow broken without a male counterpart. Though it banks its plot on the quest of its main character, Mia (Anne Hathaway), to find a man within 30 days or risk giving up her throne, the film focuses on Mia's reluctance to do so and her grandmother's challenging of an old law that states princesses must be married before becoming queen. Sometimes charming, sometimes a tad too silly and all the time predictable, the film gives you what you'd expect and doesn't take many chances besides allowing for the possibility that a princess might be okay without a husband. But even giving a belated nod to women's lib might just be a sneaky way to open doors for movie No. 3. Contains kissing and mild sensuality. University Mall Theatres.

-- Sara Gebhardt

SHALL WE DANCE? (PG-13, 106 minutes) -- No one needs a session at Arthur Murray to keep up with the moves in "Shall We Dance?" In this Hollywoodized version of the 1996 Japanese film of the same name, Richard Gere plays a repressed lawyer and family man who, captivated by the sight of a mysterious woman's face gazing out of a dance studio window, signs up for ballroom dance lessons. To his surprise (but not the audience's), he discovers the thrill of dance, all the while forming a friendship with the elusive instructor Paulina (Jennifer Lopez). Meanwhile, his wife (Susan Sarandon) hires a private investigator to find out whether an extramarital affair is what's keeping hubby away from home. While Gere brings a salt-and-pepper- haired sexiness to his role, he and Lopez fail to generate any sparks. Most of the high points come from supporting players such as Stanley Tucci, who brings his usual energy to his part as a balding lawyer and gifted dancer who dons a Fabio-esque wig whenever he hits the floor. What's most disappointing about "Shall We Dance?" isn't its predictability or cliche dialogue. It's the lack of a knock-'em-dead dance scene, clearly a violation of Rule No. 1 in the Dance Movie Handbook. We get a few lovely waltzes but nothing that razzle-dazzles. For a film that stars "Chicago's" Billy Flynn and a former "In Living Color" Fly Girl dancer, that's not only a violation, it's a sin. Contains some sexual references and brief obscenity.

-- Jen Chaney

SHARK TALE (PG, 92 minutes) -- Through a comedy of errors, the jive-talking fish called Oscar (Will Smith) gets credited for the killing of a mean shark. This puts him in real hot water with the shark's father, a mafioso fish named Don Lino (Robert De Niro). Oscar's only hope is his newfound friend, Don's nicer, pacifist son Lenny (Jack Black). The movie probably won't register as anything but fun to most kids. But that vapor of mediocrity might penetrate more discerning nostrils. Many of us have grown accustomed to extremely high quality in the computer-animated genre, thanks to such great films as "Toy Story" and "Shrek." This movie just doesn't match its predecessors, and those inevitable comparisons to Pixar's "Finding Nemo" will leave "Shark Tale" foundering. Contains mild obscenity and crude humor. Area theaters.

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (PG, 107 minutes) -- Less about the world of tomorrow than the world of yesterday, this technically innovative film (shot with live actors against an empty blue screen, with antique-looking, pulp-fiction-style details filled in later by computer animators) will be of less interest to fans of cutting-edge science fiction than to old-movie buffs. Set in the 1930s, the in-jokey story of crack reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) and mercenary flying ace Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), who are investigating a series of attacks by flying robots, is neat-o, in a film-geek kind of way. Still, first-time director Kerry Conran, who convinced Hollywood to let him make "Sky Captain" by shopping around a six-minute demo he made on his home laptop, isn't so much in love with dusty old black-and-white serials as he is with his own film, and that cold self-satisfaction shows. Contains some sci-fi/action violence. Regal Rockville Center, Majestic Cinema and AMC Hoffman Center.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar} SPIDER-MAN 2 (PG-13, 120 minutes) -- This follow-up film to "Spider-Man" is as fine a repeat experience as our foolish, creativity-challenged tradition of sequelizing allows. You can't ask for more than that. The movie, directed with precision and an appreciation for (relatively) rich character texture by Sam Raimi, remembers all the fine elements of the original film (and the comic book story), including wonderfully choreographed, skyscraper-hanging fights and that achy-breaky relationship between Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). It also reprises the charmingly hokey affection between Peter and his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) and introduces a memorable villain: Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), a scientist who is fused with the evil he has wrought, a man caught and forever connected to four metallic pincered arms. The film's touching, fun and alert. Contains comic book violence. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse and University Mall Theatres.

STAGE BEAUTY (R, 105 minutes) -- This story about a male stage actor (Billy Crudup) who performs Shakespearean female roles and a female ingenue (Claire Danes) who dreams of playing a woman as a woman is clearly meant to draw the same audiences who responded to "Shakespeare in Love." Director Richard Eyre and writer Jeffrey Hatcher (adapting his stage play "Compleat Female Stage Beauty") don't produce the brightness and luster of the 1998 "Shakespeare." This time around, the pretty faces, fine costumes, period-movie jokes and visits from a reigning monarch (in this case, a broad-as-a-barn Rupert Everett) feel imitative and secondhand. As Ned Kynaston, the talk of London with his portrayals of such well-known Shakespearean roles as Desdemona and Ophelia, Crudup is delicate, slim and graceful, but he never gets us to warm to him. Contains sexual content, some nudity and obscenity. Cineplex Odeon Shirlington and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

SURVIVING CHRISTMAS (PG-13, 92 minutes) -- In this Christmas turkey, a lonely rich yuppie (Ben Affleck) who has no family and no friends, pays a family living in his old childhood home to spend Christmas with him. A family, that is, of one-dimensional archetypes, including James Gandolfini as a bearded grump with a heart of gold, his frumpy, frustrated wife (Catherine O'Hara), and a teenager (Josh Zuckerman) who watches porn on his computer. Our yuppie boy is also torn between two women: the rich, empty chick (Jennifer Morrison) and the grumpy, serious but ultimately genuine Alicia (Christina Applegate). It seems Affleck is trying to beat out Pauly Shore and Cuba Gooding Jr. for worst movie posterboy of all time. Contains sexual content, obscenity, a drug reference and Affleck. Area theaters.

TAXI (PG-13, 97 minutes ) -- I liked Jimmy Fallon on "Saturday Night Live." The ex-"Weekend Update" co-anchor always came across like one of those genial, smart-alecky Everydudes who live to crack up their friends in the group house next door. But the ability to make light of such celebs as Bobby Brown at a desk week after week does not a movie star make, and "Taxi" -- a buddy flick in which Fallon's bumbling New York cop teams up with Queen Latifah's speed-demon cabbie to pursue Brazilian supermodel bank robbers -- is proof of that. Even the closing-credit outtakes, in which Fallon is seen making himself and his castmates laugh, are way funnier than anything scripted in this stalled comedic vehicle. Contains violence and obscenity. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar} TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (R, 98 minutes) -- This puppet comedy, by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of "South Park," is wickedly funny and devilishly subversive. It's riddled with obscenity and extremely low-rent humor that will curl almost anyone's hair. When one puppet gets sick from a night of partying, he pukes. And pukes. And pukes. And as for the movie's flashpoint scene -- a lovemaking session between two marionettes that had to be trimmed to avoid an NC-17 rating -- well, I didn't know puppets could do that. If it's raunchy the movie is also some sort of low-rent satire that targets plain old couch-potato us and our perception of the post-9/11 world, informed by a composite prism of fear, cultural ignorance and government spin. Contains puppet sex, puppet violence and extremely graphic language. Oh yeah, and major pukeage. Area theaters.

VANITY FAIR (PG-13, 100 minutes) -- It's quite possible that Reese Witherspoon, who brilliantly plays social-climbing heroine Becky Sharp in director Mira Nair's version of the William Makepeace Thackeray's novel, is too brilliant. That's because Witherspoon's Becky, more so even than the character in the book, is hugely likable, which leads us to hope for a redemption for the character that ultimately never comes on the page or on the screen. Yes, she schemes her way from poverty into high society, breaking hearts and ignoring her family in the process, but Witherspoon's charisma makes us yearn for some lesson to be learned, for a reward tempered by a kind of comeuppance. That's not the fault of Thackeray, but of the actress, who raises expectations that the film only dashes. Contains brief partial nudity, a mild boudoir scene, scuffling and images of war dead. Foxchase.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar} VERA DRAKE (R, 120 minutes) -- In postwar England, young women who find themselves in "a spot of trouble" would do well to be rich. Daughters of the leisured classes can solve such problems with a discreet visit to a doctor. But poorer girls, they can only hope for someone as gentle and safe as Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton). She's a devoted wife, mother and neighbor who seems to find time for everybody. And she is about to learn that no good deed goes unpunished, especially in the working classes. Written and directed by Mike Leigh, the British filmmaker who made "Secrets & Lies" and "Topsy-Turvy," "Vera Drake" is a carefully calibrated parable that quietly sneaks into your heart and prods it sharply. Staunton is the heart and guts of this drama. And you cannot accompany her on this journey without feeling the intense highs and lows of her oddly fated life. Contains intense thematic material. Area theaters.

WHAT THE #$*! DO WE KNOW!? (Unrated, minutes) -- It's hard to believe it took three directors (Mark Vicente, William Arntz and Batty Chasse) to make this mish-mash of a movie about the nature of consciousness, time, matter, psychiatry, emotions and religion. I guess the trio must have divided up the work, which includes documentary-style talking-head footage by a parade of New Age experts unidentified until the end; a fictional narrative starring Marlee Matlin as a depressive photographer; and CGI animations of the human sex drive that look like Mr. Potato Head crossed with flubber. What the #$*! do they know? Not much, apparently, about making movies. Contains obscenity and sexual content. Landmark's Bethesda Row, Alexandria Old Town Theater and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

WOMAN THOU ART LOOSED (R, 99 minutes) -- This grim tale, adapted from a novel by Bishop T.D. Jakes, is about the troubled life of Michelle (Kimberly Elise), who was raped at age 12 by her mother's boyfriend, Reggie (Clifton Powell). Michelle's mother, Cassie (Loretta Devine), refuses to believe what happened because she doesn't want to lose a man; and Michelle grows up bitter and angry. Michael Schultz's movie hinges almost diagrammatically on that act of child abuse, like a made-for-TV melodrama. Despite some strong performances, particularly from Elise, and all manner of stylistic flourishes by Schultz and screenwriter Stan Foster, the movie feels stagelike and a little too self-conscious. There are good scenes and less-assured moments, rich characters and cliched ones. Ultimately, the movie's too uneven to be totally satisfying. Contains obscenity, rape and other violence. Area theaters.

Repertory

AFI SILVER THEATRE -- "Journey to Lasta," Friday at 9. 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 202-885-5950.

AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM/DOWNTOWN -- At the Lockheed Martin Imax Theater: "Space Station (3D)," daily at 10:30, 11:30, 1, 2 and 4. "To Fly!," daily at 12:30 and 5. "Straight Up: Helicopters in Action," daily at 3. "Sole Survivor," film and discussion, Thursday at 7. 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.

AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM/DULLES -- "Straight Up: Helicopters in Action," daily at 11:30, 2:30 and 5:30. "Adrenaline Rush: The Science of Risk," daily at 12:30 and 3:30. "Magic of Flight," daily at 1:30 and 4:30. 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly. 202-357-2700.

AMERICAN CITY DINER -- "Picnic," Friday at 8. "Young Frankenstein," Saturday at 8. "Psycho," Sunday at 8. "Play It Again, Sam," Monday at 8. "Key Largo," Tuesday at 8. "Gentleman's Agreement," Wednesday at 8. "Spellbound," Thursday at 8. 5532 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-244-1949.

AMERICAN UNIVERSITY -- "Persepolis Recreated," Saturday at 6. Ward 2 Auditorium, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Free. 202-777-2240.

FILMS ON THE HILL -- "The Mark of the Vampire" and "Night of Terror," Friday at 7. Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. 202-547-6839.

FREER -- "Festival," Friday at 7. "Green Fish," Sunday at 2. Free, but tickets required. Meyer Auditorium, 12th Street and Jefferson Drive SW. 202-633-1000.

GRIOT CINEMA -- "Crazy as Hell," Sunday at 3:15. City Museum, 801 K St. NW. 202-232-3400.

HIRSHHORN -- "Ana Mendieta: Fuego de Tierra," Thursday at noon. "Superstar in a Housedress: Jackie Curtis: Meet the Director," Thursday at 8. Free. Ring Auditorium, Seventh and Independence SW. 202-633-4674.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS -- "Bluebeard," Friday at 7. "Soul" Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan," Monday at 7. "The Search for America: the Southern Negro" and "CBS Reports: Who Speaks for the South?" Tuesday at 7. "Prisoner Number 13," Wednesday at 7. "Human Desire," Thursday at 7. Free, but reservations required. Mary Pickford Theater, 101 Independence Ave. SE. 202-707-5677.

LINCOLN THEATER -- "Journey to Lasta," Sunday at 4. 1215 U St. NW. 202-328-6000.

MARYLAND SCIENCE CENTER -- Imax Theater: "Journey Into Amazing Caves," Friday-Saturday at 12:10 and 7:40, Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday at 12:10. "To the Limit," Friday-Sunday at 2:10 and 5:30; Tuesday-Thursday at 2:10. "Space Station 3D," Friday and Tuesday-Thursday at 3:10; Saturday-Sunday at 11 and 3:10. "Sacred Planet" and "Hubble: Galaxies Across Space & Time," Friday-Sunday at 4:20 and 6:30; Tuesday-Thursday at 4:20. "Dolphins," Saturday-Sunday at 1:10. Davis Planetarium: "Ring World," Friday and Tuesday-Thursday at 1, Saturday at 2 and 5, Sunday at 2. "The Sky: Live!" Friday-Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday at 3. "Hubble Heritage: Poetic Pictures," Friday-Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday at 4. "Live From the Sun," Saturday at noon. "The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," Saturday and Sunday at 1. 601 Light St., Baltimore. 410-685-5225.

MICA AND MARYLAND FILM FESTIVAL -- "The War Room," Monday at 7:30. Maryland Institute College of Art's Falvey Hall, 1301 Mount Royal Ave., Baltimore. 410-752-8083.

MIDNIGHTS BENEATH BETHESDA -- "The Shining," Friday and Saturday at midnight. 7235 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda. 301-652-7273.

MIDNIGHTS ON E -- "Nightmare Before Christmas," Friday and Saturday at midnight. Landmark's E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW. 202-452-7672.

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART -- "Journey Into the Night," Saturday at 1. "The Haunted Castle," Saturday at 3:30. "Lands of Abraham: Distant," Sunday at 4:30. "The English Garden, Parts 1 and 2," Wednesday and Thursday at 12:30. Free. East Building, Fourth and Constitution NW. 202-737-4215.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY -- International short films, Friday at 7. "Soldiers of the Rock," Friday at 9. Animated short films, Saturday at 11. Latin American short films, Saturday at 1. "Ancestors, Elders and Land" film shorts, Saturday at 4. Australian short films, Saturday at 7. World music videos, Saturday at 9. Grosvenor Auditorium, 1600 M St. NW. 202-857-7700.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART -- Lecture Hall: "Karmen Gei," Sunday at 2. Free. Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW. 202-357-4600 (TDD: 202-357-4814).

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN -- "Politically Indian: Current Issues in Native America," Wednesday at 6:30. Free. Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW. 202-633-1000.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY -- Johnson Imax Theater: "Dolphins," Friday and Saturday at 10:20, 12:10, 2, 4 and 7; Sunday-Thursday at 10:20, 12:10, 2 and 4. "T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (3D)," daily at 11:15, 1:05, 3 and 5. "Cirque du Soleil: Journey of Man (3D)," Friday and Saturday at 6 and 8. 10th and Constitution NW. 202-633-7400.

NORTHEAST ANIME CLUB -- "GTO," "The Slayers" and "Ranma 1/2," Saturday at 2. Northeast Neighborhood Library, 330 Seventh St. NE. 202-698-3320.

REEL MOMS/Gaithersburg -- "Ray," Saturday at 10 and Tuesday at 11. Loews Rio, 9811 Washingtonian Center, Gaithersburg. 301-948-6673.

REEL MOMS/Georgetown -- "Ray," Tuesday at 11. Loews Georgetown, 3111 K St. NW. 202-342-6033.

REEL MOMS/Largo -- "Ray," Tuesday at 11. Magic Johnson Capital Center, 800 Shoppers Way, Largo. 301-324-4220

REEL MOMS/Vienna -- "Ray," Tuesday at 11. Loews Fairfax Square, 8065 Leesburg Pike, Vienna. 703-506-9857.

SHEPHERDSTOWN FILM SOCIETY -- "Cyrano de Bergerac," Friday at 7. Shepherdstown University's Reynolds Hall, King Street, Shepherdstown, WVa. 304-876-1837.

WEINBERG CENTER -- "The Phantom of the Opera," with live Wurlitzer accompaniment by Ray Brubacher, and "Night of the Living Dead," Friday at 8. 20 W. Patrick St., Frederick. 301-228-2828.

New on Video

{sstar} CONTROL ROOM

(NOT RATED, 2004, 84 MINUTES, MAGNOLIA PICTURES)

The cultural and religious fault lines between Western and Eastern news coverage of the Iraq invasion are made all too clear in Jehane Noujaim's enlightening, if structurally wandering documentary. The Egyptian American filmmaker attended news briefings by Centcom (the abbreviation for the American military's U.S. Central Command), witnessed candid conversations between foreign journalists and Centcom press officer Lt. Josh Rushing, and spent virtually unlimited time in the al-Jazeera newsroom. She also conducted many interviews with, and followed around, al-Jazeera journalists. The documentary covers the main highlights of the war's media coverage, including al-Jazeera's highly controversial decision to show footage of captured American troops, and the eventual fall of Baghdad. It shows a resistance to truth on both sides of the ideological news divide. Many members of the American media may have been embedded prisoners of the Pentagon's propaganda machine, but al-Jazeera has its own agenda, too, using hyperbole and slanted coverage to show the U.S. forces in as poor a light as possible. Contains disturbing carnage of soldiers and civilians, including children.

-- Desson Thomson

{sstar} DAWN OF THE DEAD

(R, 2004, 100 MINUTES, UNIVERSAL PICTURES)

This excellent re-imagining of the 1978 horror classic wastes no time cutting to the chase -- literally. Within minutes, it's us vs. them, with them being hordes upon hordes of cannibalistic zombies and us being a small band of tasty survivors holed up in a shopping mall. Led by the wonderful Sarah Polley, the group must also contend with lots of catty infighting among themselves, which always livens up a good survivor saga. As any aficionado of the genre knows, though, the real payoff in any zombie flick is its mix of edgy humor and raw terror, which this film combines to beautiful, operatic effect. Contains obscenity, sensuality, pervasive violence and, to put it mildly, lots and lots of blood.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

WHITE CHICKS

(PG-13, 2004, 109 MINUTES, SONY PICTURES)

In this banshee-howlingly awful caper, tiresomely drawn from a few dozen other bad cross-dressing films of the past, Marlon and Shawn Wayans (the untalented end of the family) are two disgraced FBI agents. Determined to show they have the right stuff, they volunteer to pose as doubles for two white, pampered heiresses, Brittany and Tiffany (Maitland Ward and Anne Dudek), who are in danger of being kidnapped. Cue the latex breasts, the blond wigs and both Wayans speaking in "knee-slapping" mall-princess falsetto. Laugh? I thought I'd never start. Contains crude and sexual humor, obscenity and drug use.

-- D.T.