Film Capsules

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

Openings

THE BROTHERS GRIMM (PG-13) -- See review on Page 33.

THE CAVE (PG-13) -- See synopsis on Page 35.

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

LILA SAYS (Unrated) -- See review on Page 34.

PRETTY PERSUASION (Unrated) -- See review on Page 34.

SAVE THE GREEN PLANET! (Unrated) -- See capsule review on Page 35.

UNDISCOVERED (PG-13) -- See capsule review on Page 35.

First Runs & Revivals

{sstar} APRES VOUS (R, 110 minutes) -- In this French romantic comedy, Daniel Auteuil plays sweet, hapless Antoine, a headwaiter who can't say no to anyone. When he saves Louis (Jose Garcia) from hanging himself, he realizes he also has to solve the man's life problems. This means helping Louis get a job and reunite with Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain), the florist-girlfriend who dumped him. There isn't much to the movie, and you can see where it's going from kilometers away. But Auteuil, who has been a wonderful grace note in French cinema for decades, is delightful, with a slight aversion of the eyes here, a momentary hesitation in the voice there. And Garcia makes a nice partner, too, a comically depressed mope who steadfastly refuses to accept happiness. Contains sexual situations and some obscenity. In French with subtitles. Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

{sstar} THE ARISTOCRATS (Unrated, 87 minutes) -- The joke whose punch line lends this documentary its title isn't especially funny. Filthy, yes, but not a laugh riot, except in the way its structure lends itself to extended riffs of jazz-like improvisation on the part of the 100 or so comedians who line up to tell it. What makes us laugh is the joke's sheer excess. Far more fascinating, however, than its many tellings and retellings, is the footage of comics like Bob Saget and Sarah Silverman talking about the joke, which has been a staple of backstage banter among comedians since vaudeville. Sometimes analyzing why something's funny is enough to kill it, but here it's what makes "The Aristocrats" most interesting. Contains numerous foul-mouthed interpretations of a single filthy joke. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

ASYLUM (R, 90 minutes) -- Desperate British housewife Stella (Natasha Richardson) leaves her cold-fish husband (Hugh Bonneville) to begin a torrid affair with Edgar (Marton Csokas), an escaped mental patient who had been incarcerated in an asylum since brutally butchering his wife in a fit of jealous rage. Talk about smart women and foolish choices. This highbrow-looking drama is actually rather silly, save for a mildly interesting twist at the very end, revealing that Stella isn't the only one romantically obsessed with Edgar. Still, it hardly makes watching the heroine self-destruct any less embarrassing. Contains sex, nudity and violence. Landmark's E Street Cinema.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS (Unrated, 111 minutes) -- Sent to a rural reeducation camp during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, two city-bred teenagers (Kun Chen and Ye Liu) cope with the rigors of manual labor and the anti-literature attitudes of the village elder (Shuangbao Wang) in a drama based on director Dai Sijie's own experiences in the 1970s. When one of the teenagers befriends a pretty, illiterate seamstress (Xun Zhou), he resolves to "cure her of her ignorance," reading banned books to her that he smuggles in. In the way Dai's film reinforces the notion that stories are about remembering, not forgetting, the past, the film possesses a documentary lyricism. Contains some violence and some intense material. In Mandarin Chinese with subtitles. Cinema Arts Theatre and Avalon Theatre.

{sstar} BATMAN BEGINS (PG-13, 140 minutes) -- Director Christopher Nolan, who gave us the backward classic "Memento," and his co-writer David S. Goyer (the "Blade" creator) have taken the bubble gum out of those previous "Batman" movies and returned to the dark spirit of comic book creator Bob Kane's work. This prequel about the early days, is slow-moving in many respects, but it's more narratively entrancing than the Michael Keaton-type flicks. And Christian Bale makes a credible Bruce Wayne, who undergoes rigorous training under the tutelage of mystical warrior Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson). It's fun to watch how this Wayne creates Batman from scratch, complete with the power body armor, the bat cave and that awesome batmobile. Makes you want to see him take on the Joker next. Katie Holmes is respectable though not that memorable as the assistant district attorney who becomes fascinated with Batman. Contains intense action violence and some disturbing images. Majestic Cinema and National Amusements Fairfax Corner.

BEWITCHED (PG-13, 105 minutes) -- Nicole Kidman is engaging as a sweet-natured but very real witch who finds herself playing a fake one in a television redo of the classic TV series "Bewitched." But Kidman's power smile is just one of very few flickers in a dismal movie. The other flickers come from Kidman's co-star, Will Ferrell, who turns on the physical comedy as much as he can. But he's working it too hard. When a comedy feels that forced, it's as good as over. The plot -- which director Nora Ephron wrote with her sister Delia Ephron -- feels contrived, as though the characters are only doing things because the script forced them. And even the lightest of comedies should have some sort of serious underpinning. This movie has virtually none. Contains sex and drug language, some obscenity and partial nudity. University Mall Theatres.

{sstar} BROKEN FLOWERS (R, 106 minutes) -- Bill Murray is a charm as Don Johnston, who learns from a mysterious letter that one of his liaisons, 20 years earlier, produced a son. So he takes a road trip to look up some old flames, including Laura Miller (Sharon Stone), whose teenage daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena), thinks nothing of parading around the house naked; Dora (Frances Conroy), who has married a cheesy real estate salesman; and Carmen Markowski (Jessica Lange), who communicates with animals. Murray's enigmatic expressions suggest a hangdog Mona Lisa, who's as much a mystery as his quest. What's going on in there? His deadpan is the lure. Take this trip with him and chances are, you'll find the journey increasingly funny and touching. Contains nudity, sexual situations, obscenity and some violence. Area theaters.

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (PG, 115 minutes) -- People enamored with Gene Wilder's manic, sweet performance in the 1971 "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" may be disappointed in Johnny Depp's oddball eccentricity as this Wonka. Depp's version is an unsettling amalgam of Michael Jackson, Edward Scissorhands and Lisa Kudrow's Phoebe from the TV show "Friends." But there are other watchable delights: Director Tim Burton takes us on a ride of over-the-top proportions, entertaining us while tacitly scolding our mass consumptiveness. Wonka's factory is a wonderland of chocolate lakes and candy-grass banks. There are some hilarious routines performed by the diminutive Oompa Loompas (their songs created by Burton's regular collaborator, Danny Elfman). And Freddie Highmore is a charmer as Charlie, a poor kid who wins a ticket to tour Wonka's factory. Contains offbeat humor and situations, and some mild obscenity. Area theaters.

{sstar} CINDERELLA MAN (PG-13, 144 minutes) -- Forced to work as a longshoreman to feed his family (including his wife, played by Renee Zellweger) during the Depression, down-and-out boxer Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) jumps at the chance to take on a heavyweight boxer. When he wins, he faces world champion Max Baer (Craig Bierko). In a way, "Cinderella Man," based on a true story, is "Seabiscuit" in boxing gloves. But there's more to it than that: a Runyonesque glow, thanks to director Ron Howard and scriptwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman. Crowe's burly poignancy hits you foursquare in the ribs, right above the ticker. The abstract dance between his softness and physical power is the heartbeat of the movie, and it takes you through financial hardship, terrible times and some bloody battles with special grace. Contains boxing violence. Area theaters. University Mall Theatres and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

{sstar} CRASH (R, 100 minutes) -- The aftermath of Rodney King and 9/11 seems to sear the nostrils of every Los Angeleno in Paul Haggis's white-knuckle hatefest among characters of almost every ideological, cultural or religious stripe. Asians, Latinos, whites, blacks, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian all clash in this multi-character story that features Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillippe, Jennifer Esposito and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges. If "Crash" only showed the dark side of humanity, it would barely be worth the viewing. But the movie is also about the best in people. As soon as we think we have some characters' number they turn around and do something quite astonishing. We're all so hopelessly human, and writer-director Haggis, who wrote the screenplay for "Million Dollar Baby," gives this truism a deeply lyrical dimension. Contains sexual scenes, obscenity and violence. AFI Silver Theatre, Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse and Loews Georgetown.

DEUCE BIGELOW: EUROPEAN GIGOLO (R, 77 minutes) -- Was there really that much demand for a sequel to "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo," a crude comedy about a male prostitute with a heart of gold? If there's any justice in the world, this entry in the franchise, which stoops even lower than the first film without bringing anything new to the table, ought to put an end to thoughts of a third "Gigolo" vehicle for star Rob Schneider. It's not that I don't want to see the guy get work. I actually think Scheider's kind of funny in a stupid way. Just not when his material, like some paid sex, is this tired, joyless and perfunctory. Contains obscenity, partial nudity, crude and sexual humor, drug use and comic violence. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (PG-13, 106 minutes) -- There's a lot of armchair outlaws out there who fondly remember that long-running Friday night TV show with Bo, Duke and Daisy, and that '69 orange Dodge Charger, the General Lee. This movie, starring Seann William Scott as Bo and Johnny Knoxville as Luke, is smart enough not to mess with a good thing. "Dukes" is more charmingly lowbrow than screamingly funny, and it doesn't seem the slightest bit interested in straying from the formula of screeching cars, barroom brawls and other southern cliches. Anyone going to this movie would want no less and, it seems, no more. Contains obscenity and mild sexual situations, crude and drug-related humor, and comic action violence. Area theaters.

{sstar} THE EDUKATORS (R, 126 minutes) -- Young roommates Jan (Daniel Bruehl) and Peter (Stipe Erceg) break into rich homes, rearrange the furniture and leave threatening graffiti -- all this to protest capitalism's excesses. But when Jan becomes attracted to Peter's waitress-girlfriend, Jule (Julia Jentsch), the trouble starts. In short order, all three find themselves holding a wealthy businessman (Burghart Klaussner) hostage, with no idea what to do. Director Hans Weingartner has created a deft, entertaining story that mixes menace with charm and satire with seriousness, while he purposefully leads his characters, and the audience, into a full-circle dialogue with themselves. Contains sexual scenes, obscenity and some drug use. In German with English subtitles. Landmark's E Street Cinema.

FANTASTIC FOUR (PG-13, 105 minutes) -- This movie version of the comic book series, which stars Jessica Alba (as Susan Storm), Michael Chiklis (the Thing) and others, feels like a rote adaptation. We go through the opening history and learn how four astronaut-scientists were caught in a wave of radioactivity and became the Fantastic Four team of superfreaks. But the movie lacks oomph. Despite some nice moments of computer-generated imagery, which includes a human fireball and a well-done scene on a Manhattan bridge in which the Thing uses his brute strength to stop a fire engine from plunging into the water, this "Four" ain't so "Fantastic." And the less said about the dialogue the better. The Fantastic Four never topped my personal short list, as far as comic book heroes went. And this so-so movie doesn't do much to change that feeling. Contains intense action and some sexual suggestiveness. Area theaters.

{sstar}THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN (R, 111 minutes) -- Filthy, funny and sweet in equal measure, the feature directorial debut of "Freaks and Geeks" writer-producer Judd Apatow (who co-wrote the script with star Steve Carell) is a Rob Schneider movie with the soul of a chick flick. Wait. That's not actually fair. While it's true that the comedy -- revolving around the efforts of three friends (Paul Rudd, Romany Malco and Seth Rogen) to get their geeky nice-guy co-worker (Carell) deflowered -- has a lot of smutty humor, it's also pretty smart. In the end, the organ its really all about exercising is not the one you think, but the human heart. Contains raunchy sex humor, drug use, obscenity, partial nudity and glimpses of a porn film. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

FOUR BROTHERS (R, 108 minutes) -- Director John Singleton's Detroit-based Western-without-

cowboy-hats pits four thuggish adopted brothers (Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, Garrett Hedlund and Andre Benjamin of the musical duo OutKast) against the gangsters who had their saintly mother killed. It's a diverting enough thriller, but one that ultimately doesn't expect -- or even want -- its audience to participate in it, except as a passenger. It would be twice as engaging if it spent half as much energy making us care about the vengeance-seeking siblings as it does making us not care about their victims. Contains obscenity, sexual content and violence. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

THE GREAT RAID (R, 132 minutes) -- Based on one of modern history's boldest and most inspiring rescue missions, the story of how 500 POWs were freed from captivity by the Japanese in a remote corner of the Philippines during World War II is unnecessarily long, with lame dialogue, un-fleshed-out relationships between central characters and a formulaic romance between prisoner Joseph Fiennes and nurse Connie Nielsen. The film's epilogue, in which we see actual footage of the participants after the rescue, is touching in ways this dramatization just can't muster. Contains obscenity, war violence and atrocities. Area theaters.

{sstar} GRIZZLY MAN (R, 103 minutes) -- Filmmaker Werner Herzog has a knack for turning his films -- whether fictional or documentary -- into intense visions of new worlds, literal or spiritual. "Grizzly Man" is no exception, in the way it takes us into both the heart of Alaska and the soul of author, wildlife activist, surfer and failed TV actor Timothy Treadwell, who in 2003 was killed and eaten by one of the grizzly bears whose preservation he championed (and among whom he lived for long stretches). It's an extraordinarily moving portrait of a strange man, but by gazing at the seemingly distant horizon that is Treadwell's life, we are brought disconcertingly closer to our own. Contains disturbing, macabre material and obscenity. Area theaters.

HEIGHTS (R, 93 minutes) -- If there's anything good to be said about this film, it's Glenn Close's strutty, booming performance as Diana, a veteran actress who lords it over her stage and acting students, while she casts a controlling, lascivious eye over a promising new actor (Jesse Bradford). Unfortunately in this Merchant-Ivory production (which marks the second to last film of Ismail Merchant), Diana is about the only character of interest. The others, though played by estimable performers, including Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden and Matt Davis, feel like cardboard-cutout New Yorkers. The movie trades on a secondhand conceit about New York City as the storied citadel of countless artistic dreams. And George Segal, Isabella Rossellini, Rufus Wainwright and Eric Bogosian are thrown into the cast, as if their mutual presence will lend the project a weightier New York mystique. Contains strong language, brief sexuality and nudity. Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

HERBIE: FULLY LOADED (G, 101 minutes) -- A reconditioned lemon by any other name is still a lemon, and this sequel to the "Love Bug" movies of the 1960s and 1970s, about a magical VW Beetle that thinks it's a race car, is still a clunker under the hood. That's even despite the souped-up star power of Lindsay Lohan, who brings a modicum of pick-up, but not much mileage, to the story about a young woman who finds a new friend (and success on the racing circuit) when she rescues a beat-up car from the junkyard. Oh, the film runs all right, but only over the same territory that's been worn into a dusty dirt track by its predecessors -- not to mention countless other underdog sports films. Contains the barest smidgen of mildly crude humor. University Mall Theatres.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar} HUSTLE & FLOW (R, 114 minutes) -- In Craig Brewer's charming, gritty hip-hop fairy tale, DJay (Terrence Howard) is a Memphis pimp heading nowhere slow, who dreams of making the music big time. He's always had a way with rhymes, and he has an idea for a song. With the help of an old buddy and sound engineer (Anthony Anderson), and a scrawny white musician (DJ Qualls), DJay makes his new song, "Whup That Trick," take foot-stomping shape. He even gets his hookers, bottle-blonde Nola (Taryn Manning) and Shug (Taraji P. Henson), involved and liberates them in the process. Writer-director Brewer doesn't go light on the obscenity, which is part and parcel of the language of the characters. But his story is so affecting, it threatens to make crossover audiences sing out: "You know, it's hard out here for a pimp." Contains sexual scenes, drug content, pervasive obscenity and violence. Area theaters.

{sstar} THE ISLAND (PG-13, 127 minutes) -- Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, buffed and dressed in sparkling white, play harvested beings, or replicants -- to borrow a term from "Blade Runner," which Michael Bay's movie has ransacked. McGregor is a cloned human called Lincoln Six Echo, and Johansson, named Jordan Two Delta, is also a copy of someone else. When they realize they are spare parts for their original molds, they make a run for it. Cue the helicopters and a paramilitary troubleshooter named Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou) who gives chase. As pretty, very human stars, McGregor and Johansson put the main sizzle into "The Island," since we've seen this plotline, and this Brave New World, in better sci-fi films. Thanks to their performances, it's still fun to watch. Contains action violence, some sexuality and obscenity. University Mall Theatres.

{sstar} LADIES IN LAVENDER (PG-13, 104 minutes) -- Maggie Smith and Judi Dench give outstanding performances as lonely sisters who nurse an injured young man (Daniel Bruehl) back to health after he washes up on the shore of their Cornish village in this restrained British melodrama about love and letting go. Directed with a sure hand by actor Charles Dance, who clearly knows that the best way to play a scene is often to underplay it, the film never strays into mawkishness, even as it makes palpable the sisters' pain at the memories of love the stranger's presence dredges up and the dignity with which they must ultimately accept what they cannot have. Contains brief crude language. In English, German, Polish and French with some subtitles. Avalon.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

MADAGASCAR (PG, 86 minutes) -- The latest offering from DreamWorks Animation SKG, a tale of citified zoo animals who escape to the wilds of Madagascar from the Central Park Zoo, is high in antic energy but low in charm. Voiced with mostly perfunctory delivery by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith, the quartet of, respectively, Alex the lion, Marty the zebra, Melman the giraffe and Gloria the hippo experience a rude awakening when Alex's carnivorous nature puts their friendships at stake. But the story, which attempts to laugh its way out the fact that some animals eat one another, never really resolves its central conflict, which arises from the inescapable fact that it's a dog-eat-dog world. Contains cartoon violence, some humor centered on excretory functions, a bit of mild vulgar language and thematic material related to the fact that animals eat one another. Majestic Cinema, AMC Hoffman Center and University Mall Theatres.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar} MAD HOT BALLROOM (PG, 95 minutes) -- Marilyn Agrelo's at times stirring documentary follows groups of young participants in American Ballroom Theater's "Dancing Classrooms" program as they prepare for a climactic dance-off with student ballroom dancers from New York City public schools. It's a lot like "Spellbound," the spelling bee documentary, in that it has as much to say about the contestants -- their lives and aspirations -- as it does about the contest. In the end, it isn't only about the dancing (though there's plenty of that, and it's pretty darn good) as it is about living and growing up. Contains some mild references to sex and violence. Landmark's Bethesda Row and AMC Courthouse.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar} MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (G, 80 minutes) -- In this charmfest of a movie, narrator Morgan Freeman tells us about the habits and tremendous resilience of the emperor penguins, whose procreation quest takes them on an incredible journey on the frozen continent, where on a good day, the temperature is 58 degrees below zero. We're talking journeys of about 70 miles to the most frigid chunk of land on Earth. The film is full of wonderful moments and spectacles, including thousands of penguins huddled en masse, nursing their eggs. The wind moans (sometimes those gusts are 100 mph) and peppers them with snow. But they hold on to those eggs, which would crack and kill the baby inside if they touch the ground. But when those fluffies are born, you understand why the parents go to all that trouble. Contains penguin slapstick. Area theaters.

{sstar} MR. & MRS. SMITH (PG-13, 112 minutes) -- The premise is admittedly slight: Husband-and-wife hit men (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) are hired to kill each other as bullets and romantic sparks fly. Nevertheless, Pitt and Jolie's monumental charisma, coupled with director Doug Liman's stylishly jaundiced staging, makes this allegory of modern love and marriage a summer diversion that's fast-paced, fun and sexy enough for the multiplex crowd and blackhearted enough for those with a taste for something more acidic. It's a grown-up popcorn movie. Contains obscenity, violence and sexual content. National Amusements Fairfax Corner.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar} MURDERBALL (R, 86 minutes) -- This isn't just the best smash-mouth rugby documentary featuring muscular dudes in wheelchairs ever made. It's also a powerful movie by any standard. Actually, the sport, played on basketball courts, is "quad rugby." Four players per team, most of whom suffered injuries to the spine or neck, roll around in "Road Warrior"-style chariots and throw a ball around. We watch likable Mark Zupan and his national teammates take on the world's best, including Canada -- coached by arch rival Joe Soares, who was so miffed at being cut from the American team, the forty-something behemoth became the Canadian coach. Though the movie follows the American-Canadian rivalry in big clashes at the 2002 World Championship in Sweden and the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, "Murderball" isn't just about sports. It's an emotional visit with some determined young men (and one middle-aged guy in major denial) who refuse to accept limitations in every aspect of their lives. Contains sexual content and frank discussion, sports violence and obscenity. AMC Courthouse and Landmark's E Street Cinema.

MUST LOVE DOGS (PG-13, 88 minutes) -- This listless, cliche-ridden tale of two divorcees who meet through an online dating service stands as yet another example of how easy it is for filmmakers to fail at romantic comedy. The usually radiant Diane Lane loses some of her luster as Sarah Nolan, a preschool teacher who ventures into the world of online dating after her sister posts her profile on perfectmatch.com. ("Must Love Dogs" may not succeed as a movie, but as product placement for a Web site, it gets two thumbs way up.) Eventually Sarah must choose between a quirky boat builder (John Cusack) and the flirtatious father of one of her students (Dermot Mulroney), but many viewers will lose interest long before she makes that decision. Like most modern romantic comedies -- perhaps Hollywood's most consistently mishandled genre -- "Must Love Dogs" is so busy copying from better films that it forgets to present anything approximating real life. Contains sexual content.

-- Jen Chaney

{sstar} RED EYE (PG-13, 85 minutes) -- Filmmaker Wes Craven's airplane-set thriller -- about a traveler (Rachel McAdams) held hostage by a smooth-talking criminal (Cillian Murphy) -- is taut and supple entertainment, especially when it has nowhere to go but inside the characters' heads. Although it doesn't exactly fall apart in the film's final reel, when the action leaves the plane's cabin for the larger world, it does lose some of the pressure-cooker intensity of the film's first hour. Still, like a venti coffee from the airport Starbucks, the movie's caffeinated enough to keep you awake and on the edge of your seat for pretty much the entire flight. Contains obscenity and violence. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar} SAVING FACE (R, 97 minutes) -- Ambitious doctor Wilhelmina Pang (Michelle Krusiec) and dancer Vivian Shing (Lynn Chen) meet cute but awkward in writer-director Alice Wu's affecting tale of overcoming love's obstacles. Set in the Chinese immigrant community of Flushing, Queens, where Wil, as she's known, faces quiet parental disapproval for her lesbianism -- even as her divorced mother (Joan Chen) is ostracized for getting pregnant by a mystery man -- "Saving Face" isn't really about saving face at all. At heart, what this romantic comedy is really about is showing face, or, in other words, about being who you really are. Contains sexual content, partial nudity and brief obscenity. Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

THE SKELETON KEY (PG-13, 104 minutes) -- As voodoo-themed thrillers go, "The Skeleton Key" delivers on all formulaic counts, except one: It never serves up any truly nightmare-inspiring scares. Still, even though it elicits as many giggles as gasps, "Key" isn't such a bad little movie. Kate Hudson bravely allows her mascara to repeatedly run in her role as Caroline Ellis, a live-in caretaker to stroke victim Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), who happens to live in a creepy mansion in the swampy outskirts of New Orleans with his overprotective wife Violet (Gena Rowlands). Immediately, Caroline senses something weird about the place. To paraphrase the lyrics of Carlos Santana, it appears the Devereauxs have got a black magic attic. Like almost every psychological horror flick spawned from Hollywood these days -- from "The Forgotten" to 2001's exceptional "The Others" -- "The Skeleton Key" creates a mood of general foreboding, sprinkles in a few spine-straightening jolts, then caps it all off with a twist ending that, in this case, viewers may not see coming. It's all ultimately made watchable by the exceptional cast, which also includes the compelling Peter Sarsgaard, and a story that, despite some unsavory racial undertones, holds the audience's interest even when it veers toward the downright silly. Contains violence, disturbing images and partial nudity. Area theaters.

-- Jen Chaney

SKY HIGH (PG, 99 minutes) -- "Sky High" is a slight but sure-footed, live-action comic fantasy from Disney. Director Mike Mitchell deftly blends two genres -- the high school romance and the special-effects-laden superhero comic book adaptation -- and manages to spoof yet salute both with a refreshing lack of pretension. Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), son of Captain Stronghold (former Disney kid star Kurt Russell in blustering, eye-crinkling form) and Josie Jetstream (Kelly Preston), knows his parents expect him to follow in their world-saving path. Will arrives at Sky High, a school for superheroes' kids, without powers, but that begins to change. The younger actors all avoid ham-acting, and their more seasoned colleagues have fun with the witty material.

-- Jane Horwitz

STAR WARS: EPISODE III -- REVENGE OF THE SITH (PG-13, 140 minutes) -- In this final installment of the "Star Wars" mega-ology, we learn about the circumstances that led to the creation of Darth Vader. But this most potentially compelling episode of all is marred by the disappointingly ordinary Hayden Christensen, whose evolution from Anakin Skywalker to the baddest, heavy-breathing villain in sci-fi popular culture, amounts to a sort of tizzy fit. It seems he just can't get invited to the inner circle of Jedi knights, run by Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and all, so he joins forces with Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who doubles as the hissable Sith Vicious, uh, Darth Sidious. There are some enjoyable spectacles involving lightsaber battles between Obi-Wan and Anakin. But the whole subplot between Anakin and his wife, Padme (Natalie Portman), is dramatically flat, and the story shows us nothing that we didn't expect. Contains sci-fi violence. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse and National Amusements Fairfax Corner.

SUPERCROSS: THE MOVIE (PG-13, 80 minutes) -- This poor man's "Lords of Dogtown" substitutes hard-core motorcycle racing for extreme skateboarding and features a young cast of TV-bred actors: Mike Vogel of "Grounded for Life" and Steve Howey of "Reba" as "chopper trash" brothers Trip and K.C., along with Sophia Bush of "One Tree Hill" and Cameron Richardson of "Point Pleasant" as their girlfriends. But the movie's not about romance, except with bikes flying incessantly through the air. Essentially, it's little more than an Imax-style promotion for the sport of motorcycling (the result of a partnership with Clear Channel Entertainment's motor sports division). Contains profanity and some sexuality. Area theaters.

-- Richard Harrington

{sstar} THE TUNNEL (Unrated, 160 minutes) -- An old-fashioned thriller along the lines of "The Great Escape," German filmmaker Roland Suso Richter's fact-based drama tells the story of champion East German swimmer Harry Melchior (Heino Ferch) who escapes to the West just before the building of the Berlin Wall, only to tunnel back under it to rescue the family he left behind. If certain details are overlooked -- such as how the dig was financed and where all the dirt went -- the suspense is nevertheless masterfully handled, with a fine ensemble cast making the desperation of Harry's fellow diggers, and the friends they left behind, utterly believable. Contains obscenity, a sex scene and some violence. In German with subtitles. Avalon.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

VALIANT (G, 76 minutes) -- This World War II-set animated adventure about a plucky carrier pigeon (voice of Ewan McGregor) is proof that it isn't easy to make movies that appeal both to kids and their parents. Too reliant on a knowledge of Nazi history for children, and too short and tepid for the grown-ups who will get the references to old war movies, the movie makes a valiant attempt to be a double agent, but ultimately hasn't figured out who it really wants to work for. Contains some slapstick violence, avian predation and war themes. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar} WAR OF THE WORLDS (PG-13, 118 minutes) -- As he did with "Saving Private Ryan," director Steven Spielberg bursts out of the starting gate in the first half-hour of his adaptation of H.G. Wells's 1898 science-fiction adventure about Earth under attack by aliens. Starring Tom Cruise as a divorced father trying to protect his children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) from annihilation by ruthless visitors from outer space, this "War of the Worlds" spends a considerable amount of time exploring the interior life of a man and the kids he seems to have just discovered he has, but not at the expense of the film's profound, sustained thrills. It's a rip-roaring popcorn flick with heart. Contains violence and obscenity. Area theaters.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar} WEDDING CRASHERS (R, 119 minutes) -- Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) and John (Owen Wilson) are scoundrels who crash weddings so they can score with women in this often-funny caper. But when they attend a big-time Washington wedding party for the daughter of Secretary of the Treasury William Cleary (Christopher Walken), things change. John falls a little too sincerely for Claire (Rachel McAdams), one of the secretary's daughters. And Jeremy gets in a little over his head with another Cleary daughter, Gloria (Isla Fisher), who soon declares her undying, bunny-boilingly permanent love for Jeremy. Vaughn is definitely the best man in this wedding comedy. As Jeremy, he's a cad and a half who can motormouth like a machine gun, spraying men, women and children with manic, rat-a-tat outbursts of toxic insincerity. It's often dirty, yes. But it's also manic and inspired. Contains nudity, sexual scenes, obscenity and slapstick violence. Area theaters.

Repertory

AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM/DOWNTOWN -- At the Lockheed Martin Imax Theater: "Fighter Pilot," daily at 11:25, 1:25, 4 and 6. "Space Station (3D)," daily at 10:25, 12:25, 3 and 5. "To Fly!" daily at 2:25. At the Albert Einstein Planetarium: "Infinity Express," daily at 10:30, 11, 11:30, 12, 12:30, 1, 1:30, 2, 2:30, 3, 3:30, 4 and 4:30; Friday, Sunday, Monday and Wednesday at 5. "The Stars Tonight," Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday at 5. Seventh and Independence SW. 202-357-1686.

AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM/DULLES -- "Fighter Pilot," daily at 11, 1, 3 and 5. "Adrenaline Rush: The Science of Risk," daily at 12 and 4. "To Fly!,"

daily at 2. 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly. 202-357-2700.

AMERICAN CITY DINER -- "Them," Friday at 8:30. "Anatomy of a Murder," Saturday at 8:30. "From Here to Eternity," Sunday at 8:30. "Carlito's Way," Monday at 8:30. "The Postman Always Rings Twice," Tuesday at 8:30. "Donnie Brasco," Wednesday at 8:30. "The Maltese Falcon," Thursday at 8:30. 5532 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-244-1949.

CHARLES THEATRE -- "Sullivan's Travels," Saturday at noon, Monday at 7 and Thursday at 9. 1711 N. Charles St., Baltimore. 410-727-3456.

DC ANIME CLUB -- "Black Heaven," "Samurai Deeper Kyo" and "Full Metal Panic," Saturday at 1. Martin Luther King Library, Room A9, 901 G St. NW. 202-582-2492.

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

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS -- "Hellzapoppin'," Friday at 7. "Chimes at Midnight = Falstaff," Tuesday at 7. "The Last Angry Man," Thursday at 7. Free. Mary Pickford Theater, 101 Independence Ave. SE. 202-707-5677.

MARYLAND SCIENCE CENTER -- Imax Theater: "Fighter Pilot," daily at 10:30, 12:40, 3:55 and 7:10. "Bugs! (3D)," daily at 11:35, 1:45 and 5. "Titanica" and "Hubble: Galaxies Across Space & Time," daily at 2:55 and 6:05. Davis Planetarium: "The Sky: Live!" Friday and Monday-Thursday at noon, 3 and 5; Saturday-Sunday at 3 and 5. "The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," daily at 1. "Entertaining Einstein," Friday, Saturday and Thursday at 2, 4 and 6; Sunday-Wednesday at 2 and 4. "Live From the Sun," Saturday-Sunday at noon. 601 Light St., Baltimore. 410-685-5225.

MAGIC LANTERN FILM FESTIVAL -- "On the Waterfront," Saturday at 8:30. Off Indian Alley behind Grace Lutheran Church, 38 W. Boscawen St., Winchester. 540-678-0963.

NATIONAL ARCHIVES -- "The Constitution: That Delicate Balance," Thursday at noon. Free. William G. McGowan Theater, Constitution Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets NW. 202-501-5000.

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART -- "The Italian Cruiser Libia Visits San Francisco, November 6-29, 1921" and "Fultah Fisher's Boarding House," Saturday at 2:30. "Paid," Sunday at 4:30. Free. East Building, Fourth and Constitution NW. 202-737-4215.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART -- Lecture Hall: "Recalling the Future," Sunday at 2. Free. Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW. 202-357-4600.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY -- Johnson Imax Theater: "Into the Deep (3D)," daily at 10:20, 12:10, 2, 2:50, 4:40, 5:30 and 7:20. "T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous (3D)," daily at 11:10, 1, 3:40 and 6:20. 10th and Constitution NW. 202-633-7400.

PSYCHOTRONIC FILM SOCIETY -- "Monster Kid Home Movies" and "Ghoul A-Go-Go," Tuesday at 8. Dr. Dremo's Taphouse, 2001 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington. 202-736-1732 or 202-707-2540.

New on Video

BEAUTY SHOP

(PG-13, 2005, 105 MINUTES, MGM)

In this lackluster spinoff from Ice Cube's "Barbershop," Queen Latifah holds court over a dish-talking circle of female hairdressers (including Alfre Woodward and Keshia Knight Pulliam) for whom no subject is taboo. No fan of salty-tongued banter, head to-and-fro'ing encounters or Queen Latifah should be disappointed. But everyone else will. "Beauty Shop" is a life-affirming yet lifeless sitcom-movie that spends too much time being superficially convivial and not enough time looking for real comedy. And the less said about Kevin Bacon as a snooty Austrian hairdresser, the better. Contains sexual situations, obscenity and some drug references.

-- Desson Thomson

{sstar} LAYER CAKE

(R, 2004, 104 MINUTES, SONY PICTURES CLASSICS)

Smooth businessman X (Daniel Craig) from London thinks he's got the perfect scheme. A rental agent by day and a cocaine and ecstasy manufacturer by night, he believes he can make the illegal drug trade work for him and not the other way around. But he's underestimated the will and orneriness of the gangsters around him. Debuting director, Matthew Vaughn, who produced such Guy Ritchie movies as "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," has made a coolly detached, classic gangster saga about the clashing of rival empires, where the only thing worse than the killer before you is the killer waiting behind him. There's no escape in this world, only moments of personal courage, grace and luck. Ultimately, X realizes, luck is the most precious element of all. As X, Craig is a compelling presence, a brilliant, slick opportunist who is rapidly learning that drug dealing, murder, treachery and blackmail are simply occupational hazards in this world. The principal sin is yuppie arrogance. And he's going to be a very lucky man indeed to get out of this thing alive. Contains graphic violence, obscenity and sexual scenes.

-- D.T.

A LOT LIKE LOVE

(PG-13, 2005, 97 minutes, Buena Vista Pictures)

Oliver (Ashton Kutcher) and Emily (Amanda Peet) meet cute, but it takes them seven years to get around to realizing that they're meant for each other in this overly familiar romantic comedy. Actually, their meeting isn't that cute, taking place, as it does, during anonymous sex in an airplane bathroom. And Emily, hot though she may be, isn't exactly God's gift to men, seeing as she's cruel, narcissistic, distant, manipulative, a smoker and a drunk. Okay, so she gets nicer as the years (and the pages of the screenplay) fly by. Still, the film's biggest question isn't whether they will live happily ever after, but what exactly Oliver ever saw in her in the first place. Contains mild obscenity, moonlit nudity and sexual references.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar} OLDBOY

(R, 2003, 120 MINUTES, TARTAN USA)

When he's mysteriously captured and held for 15 years, businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-Sik) makes it his obsessive mission to find who was behind it. The movie, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, tantalizes and tortures you as it lures you into its mysterious vortex. It's very bloody, and it takes looking beyond the violence to realize the power of Choi's performance. He takes us through an often excruciating journey with an arsenal of emotions, including half-insane glee, unmitigating grief and fury. There is a conclusion to all this, an existential punch line that explains everything in a climactic pileup of melodramatic detail. But whatever you make of that, you will surely leave this movie shocked, shaken and surprisingly moved. Contains disturbing violence and scenes of torture, sexual content and much obscenity.

-- D.T.

THE RING TWO

(PG-13, 2005, 111 MINUTES, DREAMWORKS)

This sequel to 2002's "The Ring," doesn't have the oomph of the original but it's not without its creepy qualities, thanks to direction from Hideo Nakata. (He made "Ringu," the original Japanese ghost/horror film on which both American films were based.) Naomi Watts reprises her role as the journalist who is trying to keep one step away from a videotape that kills whoever watches it, and the clutches of vengeful Samara, the ghost of a girl who was murdered and is very, very angry. This is a campy scream-a-thon in which you can alternate between freaking and outright laughter at some of the

sillier moments. Contains violence and terror, disturbing images, obscenity and a lot of rug water damage.

-- D.T.

Nice guy Andy (Steve Carell) -- the title character in the comedy "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" -- gets close to single mom Trish (Catherine Keener). Go West: East Germans Harry (Heino Ferch), Fred (Felix Eitner) and Matthis (Sabastian Koch) escape in "The Tunnel."