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A star ({sstar}) denotes a movie recommended by our critics.


Aeon Flux, the underground rebel in body-hugging black, fights for freedom in dark centuries ahead. Played by Charlize Theron in leather and spike heels, our title character (pronounced EE-on) works for the "Monican" underground against the police-state society of Bregna, some 400 years from now. After an "industrial disease" wiped out 99 percent of the world's population in 2011, a leader known as Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas) and his brother Oren (Jonny Lee Miller) developed a cure. Now there are 5 million in Bregna, a city whose walls protect them (or so the State tells its people, nudge, nudge) from the blight outside. Aeon gets her marching orders from the Handler, played by Frances McDormand, to destroy the central spying hub and assassinate Trevor. Theron is appropriately slinky and gymnastic, but with the exception of a few action scenes, this movie is surprisingly draggy. As for the sexy factor, it is muted. (PG-13, 95 minutes) Contains sexual content and sequences of violence. Area theaters.

-- Desson Thomson


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. (Unrated, 87 minutes) Contains numerous foul-mouthed interpretations of a single filthy joke. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

{sstar} CAPOTE

It is a comical image: fey, mincing, piping little Truman Capote in his vicuna coat and cashmere scarf tiptoeing around the bleak wheat-field burg of Holcomb, Kan., in the wake of some horrific murders about which he admits he doesn't really care. Capote had come to Kansas to investigate the 1959 murders of a wealthy farmer named Clutter and his wife and two kids and to write what became his brilliant "nonfiction novel," "In Cold Blood." As Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman makes you believe in the man: an artist's personality, ruthless and shrewd; a hysteric's delicate grasp of his emotions; a charmer whose wiles could wear down even the wary Kansas lawmen. It's a performance, not an impersonation. The movie is astringent, almost shorn of rhetoric. It makes its points in brief scenes simply composed, without fretwork or flash. The writer and director, Dan Futterman and Bennett Miller, respectively, are extremely agile in this production, giving the movie a minimalist's purity, which feels refreshing in this age of excess. (R, 98 minutes) Contains violent language and images. Area theaters.

-- S.H.


Based on the old tale, and the image of ardent, mythological stupidity -- the chicken who thought the sky was falling when an acorn fell on its head -- this computer-animated gee-whizzer takes the story one more crank toward the literal. When the thing hits Chicken Little, it turns out, guess what, it is a piece of the sky, the sky is falling. The movie then wittily finds a way to morph into a fabulous parody of "War of the Worlds," possibly a bit intense in parts for the smallest of beings. The animators are -- you almost no longer have to say this -- fabulous and full of mischief, weaving enough ironic amusements into the story for the longer of tooth. (G, 78 minutes) Contains scenes that may be too intense for small or easily frightened children. Area theaters.

-- S.H.


This film fully lives up to its chilling title, a cinema verite journey to the heart of darkness -- not, mind you, the heart of Africa, where it transpires, but to the murkiest reaches of human apathy and despair. The documentary, which was made by Austrian filmmaker Hubert Sauper, examines a phenomenon that took root 40 years ago in Lake Victoria, in Tanzania, where, as a "little scientific experiment," the Nile perch was introduced to the thriving aquatic ecosystem. In short order, the voracious fish ate everything in its path, including other fish and the lake's plant species. It turns out that, for Sauper, the Nile perch is an apt metaphor for the First World and its rapacious exploitation of Africa's natural resources. As the filmmaker informs viewers, 2 million white people eat Nile perch every day. In a stinging irony, precisely that number of Tanzanians are starving. What gradually comes into focus is a terrifying, infuriating cycle of exploitation and corruption, with those pilots flying in weapons for Africa's myriad civil wars and flying out fish, leaving Tanzania impoverished and dying. At its most profound level this film is about the ways in which those of us on the receiving end of the supply chain routinely and unknowingly break faith with the most dispossessed and defenseless of the world. (Unrated, 107 minutes) Contains disturbing images and adult themes. Landmark's E Street Cinema.

-- Ann Hornaday


This film is fast, slick, stupid, violent fun and, despite the cynically high body count, without serious intention in this world. It is set in motion when Charlie (Clive Owen) has an affair with Lucinda (Jennifer Aniston), whom he has met on a train. She's a smart, chic woman and, like Charlie, somewhat worn down by life, oppressed by circumstances and has a mate who no longer lights her fires and she no longer lights his. So they're trysting the night away when suddenly the world goes out of whack: Feral man enters, in the form of Philippe Laroche (Vincent Cassel, who does feral beautifully). He pistol-whips Charlie, rapes Lucinda, takes money, credit cards, cell phones, dignity and any sense of the universe as rational. Lucinda insists that he not go to the police. Then Philippe calls him: He wants money. What can Charlie do? He is trapped. Eventually, the movie waltzes toward the absurd, the unbelievable, then veering back toward some sort of just-marginal believability. Your connection to it is likely to be determined by your ability to suspend disbelief. (R, 120 minutes) Contains extreme violence and sexual scenes. Area theaters.

-- S.H.



This horse-race drama, in which young Cale Crane (Dakota Fanning) nurses a wounded horse back to racing shape, harnesses the Rules of Cute and Fuzzy Horse Movies (temporary setbacks, underdog horses, stand-up-and-cheer moments) and rides them all the way to the Breeders' Cup. But will her formerly hobbled horse win, despite the terrible odds, when Cale has staked all her hopes and dreams into that special horse (named Dreamer)? Writer-director John Gatins and his actors also fulfill the engaging-family requirement. Fanning, an extraordinary performer, makes a wonderfully sweet and unbratty Cale. Kurt Russell matches her charm as her good-natured father; and as Pop, the grandpa whose passion for horses has been handed down three generations, Kris Kristofferson is a pleasurably gruff-voiced presence. This is a family to root for, as much as the horse. (PG, 98 minutes) Contains mild profanity and a disturbing horse injury. University Mall Theatres.

-- D.T.


This stylish, nervy, neo-noir thriller, although well received on the festival circuit this year, nearly didn't get released. It's a good thing it did, because this smart, good-looking movie deserves an audience. For starters, it boasts a cast to die for -- Campbell Scott, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard -- in a minor-key chamber piece about a Hollywood producer (Scott), his screenwriter wife (Clarkson) and an aspiring young filmmaker (Sarsgaard) who comes into their lives and changes them forever. At first, Sarsgaard's character, still in mourning for a dead lover, is all vulnerability and artistic integrity, with Scott's sharklike producer demanding a crowd-pleasing rewrite before he agrees to take on the newbie's script. But soon enough, who's zooming -- and wooing -- whom becomes deliciously ambiguous, as all sorts of sexual and political intrigues ensue. The movie is a small, self-contained gem of incisive writing, superb acting and rich, expressive visuals. Most of the action transpires at the sleek, flawlessly designed house of the Hollywood couple. But although their lives are as sunny as a David Hockney painting, there's nearly always, a serpent lying at the bottom of the sparkling pool. (R, 101 minutes) Contains strong sexual content and profanity. Landmark's E Street Cinema.

-- A.H.


This film follows five champion snowboarders as they gather in the backcountry of Alaska for some high-altitude, technically challenging freestyle boarding. Like skateboarding and surfing,the sport has its revered heroes and bright, young stars, and both generations are represented in this documentary, which features veterans Nick Perata and Shawn Farmer, world champion Terje Haakonsen and up-and-comers Shaun White and Hannah Teter. The group sets out daily in helicopters to find the most challenging mountain runs, or "lines"; filmmakers Kemp Curley and Kevin Harrison intersperse scenes of their trip with talking-head interviews about the sport's history and commercial impact. Despite some breathtaking photography and at least two genuinely gripping and poetic scenes, Curley and Harrison have created a surprisingly tedious, overblown defense of a sport that, while ushering in the era of "extreme" games, doesn't boast the cinematic potential or charismatic stars of its cousins on the asphalt and aquatic waves. Snowboarding aficionados will no doubt value this movie for the chance to see some highly accomplished athletes do their thing on the wide screen. But by and large, the half-pipe swoops, wipe-outs and 360-degree turns that characterize snowboarding begin to all look the same, and the stars aren't particularly memorable, or even likable. (PG-13, 110 minutes) Contains brief strong language and a momentary drug reference. Area theaters.

-- A.H.


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 it's really all about exercising is not the one you think, but the human heart. (R, 111 minutes) Contains raunchy sex humor, drug use, obscenity, partial nudity and glimpses of a porn film. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

-- M.O.


Rap star 50 Cent has led a storied life, a rags-to-riches yarn that has become the stuff of pop legend: Born Curtis Jackson and reared in Queens, New York, Jackson never knew his father and lost his mother, a drug dealer, when he was only 8. Later he became a dealer himself, until deciding, in the mid-'90s, to pursue a career as a rapper. His first record was about to hit the streets in 2000 when Jackson was gunned down; he survived and went on to make headlines, not only for his infectious beats and lyrics, but for his frequent brushes with the law. Good stuff and ripe for the cinematic telling, but 50 Cent's fictionalized life story in which he plays a character named Marcus, is shockingly inert. "Get Rich or Die Tryin' " ain't rich, it's just tryin'. (R, 134 minutes) Contains strong violence, pervasive profanity, drug content, sexuality and nudity. Area theaters.

-- A.H.


George Clooney, who directed (as well as co-wrote), retells the classic story of crusading journalist Ed Murrow, who stood up to braying political bully Joe McCarthy. The stylizations of '50s TV drama, including black-and-white cinematography, are terrific. Clooney casts himself as Murrow's producer, Fred W. Friendly, but hardly registers. Neither do any of the other CBS minions, even though they're played by such names as Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson. Only two people register, David Strathairn as Murrow and Joe McCarthy as Joe McCarthy. (The red-baiting senator from Wisconsin is shown in archival footage, as opposed to being performed by an actor. It's effective for chronicling his charisma and recklessness.) Strathairn's Murrow dominates the movie with furious intelligence, guts, will and nobility. It's a pleasure to sit through something this brisk and mesmerizing. (PG-13, 93 minutes) Contains psychological intensity and mild profanity. Area theaters.

-- S.H.



This is probably the most engaging Potter film of the series thus far. Our central character, Hogwarts student Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is possibly more intimidated by girls than by dragons. Wizardry is hard. And there are no spells to help negotiate the terrors of adolescence. If only he had time to figure this stuff out. And there's hardly a peaceful moment at Hogwarts. For instance, Harry just got drafted, mysteriously, into the international Triwizard Tournament. As if that wasn't enough, a large skull-and-snake apparition has appeared in the skies, a signal that the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned. Readers of the J.K. Rowling novels may be disappointed that many details from the book have been altered or omitted. But as long as those readers appreciate large-scale action and smaller-scale interaction, they'll be happy. (PG-13, 160 minutes) Contains fantasy violence and frightening images. Area theaters.

-- D.T.


It's Dec. 24 in Wichita, and the Midwestern city is slipping and shivering under the chilly blast of a sudden ice storm. The timing is disastrous for Charlie Arglist (John Cusack), an unscrupulous lawyer who was planning to skip town with the $2 million he embezzled from mobster Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid). Now, Charlie and his partner-in-crime, Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), are forced to sit things out, passing nervous time in the strip clubs, dank bars, restaurants and massage parlors that are their regular domain. What to do? Charlie is doomed to get caught. Cusack is characteristically likable as Charlie, a tortured semi-loser with a glint of hope. Thornton is a sullen delight as Vic, a schemer untroubled by such things as conscience. This often macabre comedy allows us to doff such civilized traits as taste and decency. We're free to laugh at anything, and we do. Oh, the shame -- and the good time. (R, 88 minutes) Contains strong violence, nudity and profanity. Area theaters.

-- D.T.


Curtis Hanson's movie about two sisters may be one better than "chick lit," but it's about two worse than drama. In a pedestrian display of opposites, Rose (Toni Colette) has a law firm career, money and smarts but few men. Party girl Maggie (Cameron Diaz) lands the guys but always ends up drunk, penniless and miserable on Rose's sofa. When Maggie casually steals Rose's smooth-operator boss, Jim (Richard Burgi), sisterly tension becomes official breakup. The women branch off into self-discovery subplots. Maggie buses to Florida to confront (and cadge money from) estranged grandmother Ella (Shirley MacLaine). Maggie discovers herself as a fashion consultant and, a closet dyslexic, learns to read. Rose quits her job, walks dogs and realizes former co-worker Simon (Mark Feuerstein) may be Mr. Right. When the sisters meet again, it's not a harmonic convergence. It's just the end of 131 minutes. (PG-13, 131 minutes) Contains thematically disturbing material, language and some sexual content. University Mall Theatres.

-- D.T.


Hip-hop star Usher makes an inauspicious screen debut playing a Brooklyn DJ named Darrell, whose dad used to work as a bartender for a Mafioso (Chazz Palminteri). Darrell is asked to spin records at a graduation party for the mobster's daughter, Dolly (Emmanuelle Chriqui), shots are fired, Darrell takes a bullet for the Don and soon he is hired to be Dolly's bodyguard. Billed as sort of a hybrid action drama and romantic comedy, the film possesses no action, drama, romance or comedy; most inexplicably, it never has occasion to exploit the singing and dancing talents of its leading man. Still, despite being so poorly used, Usher manages to exude a warmth and modest appeal that suggest he could become a star someday. (PG-13, 95 minutes) Contains sexual content, violence and profanity. Area theaters.

-- A.H.


Set in 1991 during the first Gulf War, this movie is a kind of lightweight variation on Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," with its evocation of the institution known as the United States Marine Corps, its love of the profane poetry of sergeants and the bond felt by young men locked in a common ordeal. But it's not quite a war movie because the author of the book on which it's based, Anthony Swofford, didn't quite fight in a war. What is left is a portrait of Swofford and his band of gyrene brothers, wandering haplessly around what seems to be the world's biggest Christo project, looking for action while trying to overcome the soldier's truest enemy, ennui. Jake Gyllenhaal plays "Swoff," as he's called, and what's so good about the movie is Gyllenhaal's refusal to show off; he doesn't seem jealous of the camera's attention when it goes to others and is content, for long stretches, to serve simply as a prism though which other young men can be observed. The movie doesn't hate the corps or the war or the politicians who invented it. So it doesn't have the furious intensity of "Full Metal Jacket" or other screeds, even if it bears an anthropological resemblance. (R, 120 minutes) Contains profanity and violence. Area theaters.

-- S.H.


In high school, Chris (Ryan Reynolds) was perennially cast as "best friend," never "coolest guy." Thus he could not ever become romantic object to "school's coolest girl," Jamie (Amy Smart). She liked him just the way he was: fat, clumsy, funny, unthreatening. The brief, pre-credits vision of the hell that high school can be is convincing, particularly the fat suit Reynolds dons. But the movie takes place in that happier place known as "10 Years Later" as Chris, who has shed a thousand or so pounds, tries to face his past. His past, largely, is Jamie, now a bartender. What Chris seems most interested in might be called a revenge tryst: Now cool, he thinks he can sweep her off her feet and get out of town having achieved a lifelong goal. Of course he falls in love again. The movie gets surprisingly better as it progresses and Chris puts his annoying cool-dude mannerisms aside. In all, it's not too bad and it's not too long. (PG-13, 94 minutes) Contains sexual innuendo and mild violence. Area theaters.

-- S.H.


This is the first movie since 1994's "Pulp Fiction" not just to understand movie violence as a pop cultural form but to play it like a virtuoso violinist. This manic tribute to film noir stars a wackily inspired Robert Downey Jr. as two-bit burglar Harry Lockhart, whose bizarre luck takes him from a botched East Village robbery into the fear-and-loathing underbelly of Hollywood, where he's astounded to find himself a contender for an acting role. This is just the beginning of worse and better to come: Harry's caught in a double-crossing, life-threatening web of complications. The story's just a conduit, however, for lethal, black humor: This may be the only film in which someone accidentally peeing on a cadaver is hilarious. Macabre, yes, but the movie's also inventive and funny. You get a lot of smart bang-bang for your buck. (R, 103 minutes) Contains macabre humor and violence, profanity, sexual situations and nudity. Area theaters.

-- D.T.


Proudly flourishing the Z that stands for "zonked," "The Legend of Zero" -- er, "Zorro" -- is dumb like a lox. It's seven years since the original "Mask of Zorro" made Catherine Zeta-Jones a star and Hollywood royalty in the same breath, and nobody connected with this film -- including Zeta-Jones, Antonio Banderas and director Martin Campbell -- really wants to revisit the initial triumph. So they don't. They pretend to make a Zorro film, when they're really making what feels like a sequel to the dreadful big-screen version of "The Wild, Wild West." Where's Agent Jim West when you need him? Surely, it's more his part of the forest than Zorro's to stop a mega-conspiracy plot to sunder the United States into Civil War. There's just a nonsense plot, too many action sequences of no consequence all festooned on the absurd plot. What a waste of talent, time and money. And guess what else? It's also really long! (PG, 130 minutes) Contains profanity and scenes of violence. Manassas Cinemas and University Mall Theatres.

-- S.H.


The next best thing to going to the moon? Rocketing up there on the Imax screen sporting 3-D eyewear. Narrated by Tom Hanks (also a producer), this gee-wonderful, virtual visit to the arid orb uses ingenious technical sleight of hand to -- let's face it -- fake it beautifully. To create the sensation that we are bounding like gravity-free lambs on the lunar surface with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, director Mark Cowen and crew have culled authentic footage from various kinds of stock -- 16mm, 35 mm and TV Kinescope video -- and blown them up into the 70 mm Imax format. Then, using a combination of computer-generated imagery and live-action reenactments, they've created the illusion we're taking that giant leap for mankind. (Unrated, 41 minutes) Contains nothing objectionable. National Air and Space Museum.

-- D.T.

{sstar} MACHUCA

Pedro Machuca is a 13-year-old boy living in the slums of Santiago, Chile, in 1973 when he is chosen to attend a tony private boys' school, a result of the liberalized policies of the country's president, Salvador Allende. While at St. Patrick's, Pedro (Ariel Mateluna) befriends one of the rich kids, a plump, freckle-faced bookworm named Gonzalo Infante (Matias Quer). Against the backdrop of the impending military coup led by Augusto Pinochet, the two boys pursue an unlikely friendship that opens both their eyes, Pedro to the subtle luxuries of bourgeois life and Gonzalo to an underclass that had heretofore been invisible. This is that rare film that merges the personal and political without sacrificing restraint or intellectual honesty. The two lead performances are flawless, as is Aline Kuppenheim's portrayal of Gonzalo's beautiful, feckless mother and Manuela Martelli as Pedro's temperamental cousin, on whom Gonzalo develops a crush. (Unrated, 121 minutes) Contains some military violence, profanity and sexual situations. In Spanish with subtitles. Avalon.

-- A.H.


In this 1975 film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, which is being rereleased in the version Antonioni liked best, a lithe, just-balding Jack Nicholson plays David Locke, a television journalist covering a vaguely drawn civil conflict in an unnamed African country. But his character is also a passenger -- a passive, disaffected accomplice in his own life. Like most of Antonioni's work, this film is about the psyche of one man and an erotically charged, if verbally challenged, relationship with a beautiful woman. The latter is portrayed here by Maria Schneider (fresh from "Last Tango in Paris"), whom Antonioni revealingly calls "the Girl." That says it all about a film that, while pictorially stunning looks today like a museum piece of quintessentially male heroic filmmaking. (PG-13, 119 minutes) Contains violence, nudity and profanity. Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema.

-- A.H.


This version of Jane Austen's fabled story, in which Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy begin as fiery opponents and end up as married lovers, is not quite the taming of a shrew, because in Austen's worldview, leading ladies of beauty and wit weren't shrews and never had to be tamed, but merely loved and respected, and good things would follow. That's the main trajectory of this film, starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and Matthew Macfadyen as the initially dour, snotty Mr. Darcy. Knightley takes control of a scene, radiating power and personality unto the rafters. It's a great performance. (PG, 128 minutes) Contains mildly adult themes. Area theaters.

-- S.H.

{sstar} PRIME

This romance, starring Meryl Streep, Uma Thurman and Bryan Greenberg, follows a familiar boy-meets-girl scenario, but filmmaker Ben Younger turns the routine into combustible fun. That's why, for instance, the two lovers in our story are the thirty-something Rafi (Thurman), who can hear the baby clock ticking, and the 23-year-old David (Greenberg), whose idea of a good time is playing Nintendo. It's also why -- in the movie's central complication -- Rafi talks openly about her romantic issues with a therapist, Lisa (Streep), who happens to be David's very devout Jewish mom and would disapprove of this union with an older shiksa. Neither woman makes the David connection for a while, and that's uncomfortably amusing enough. But when Lisa finds out and insists on continuing the sessions (while Rafi remains in the dark), the movie really becomes "Prime." (PG-13, 105 minutes) Contains sexual scenes and profanity. Cineplex Odeon Shirlington and AMC Mazza Gallerie.

-- D.T.


Musicals are not for the literal-minded, and that probably should have ruled out Chris Columbus ("Adventures in Babysitting," "Mrs. Doubtfire") as the man to bring Broadway's long-running hit to the screen. He labors mightily to make the movie look and feel like something that genuinely bubbled up from the mean streets of Alphabet City at the height of AIDS angst. The emphasis is misplaced, but at least Columbus does it with the utmost respect. He also deserves full marks for bringing back nearly all the actors who created the roles in 1996. The thing that made the stage version a hit, and has kept it running, was Jonathan Larson's arresting score. Columbus preserves it, but he doesn't work with it. He just stands in slack-jawed awe and rolls camera. It would have been better by far to stay cocooned within the propulsive music and its parallel universe of inflated emotions. ( PG-13, 135 minutes) Contains sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Area theaters.

-- Nelson Pressley


When it comes to Sarah Silverman, the best thing to do is simply sit back and listen. She is woman, hear her roar. No, actually, hear yourself roar. The fact that she shouldn't be saying those things and you shouldn't be laughing at them makes it even more deliciously painful. She is so funny she should come with a seven-day waiting period. There are song parodies, trips backstage, but it's all just filler to stretch 40 golden minutes of inspired stand-up to 72 minutes. Silverman radiates the self-confidence of clueless beauty, playing the stereotypical Jewish American Princess, with an emphasis on self-absorption, moral superiority based on the freakish genetic gift of beauty, amused intolerance for, ick, the many lesser others, and the quiet confidence that only really white, straight teeth can give. You sit there thinking, good lord, does she mean it? She can't mean it! Can she say that? Can we laugh? We shouldn't laugh. It's not nice to laugh at . . . (R, 72 minutes) Contains extreme profanity and sexual imagery and innuendo. Cinema Arts Theatre and Landmark's E Street Cinema.

-- S.H.


We have eight folks trapped inside a grim house, all raging at one another as if this is some reality TV show gone criminally insane. The would-be must negotiate their way through deadly booby traps to get out -- all this before they succumb to the noxious gas flowing through the vents. Their only escape clues come from prerecorded tapes made by the bass-voiced Jigsaw, who gamely suggests they collaborate. Their only hope from the outside comes from detective Eric Mason (Donnie Wahlberg), whose teen son (Erik Knudsen) is among the captured. Mason eventually catches Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and tries to beat the truth out of him. Not a good idea. Fans of the first "Saw" can look forward to involuntary incineration, wrist and throat slashing, bullets through brains and the bashing of someone's head with a nail-festooned club. The most horrifying moment is when you realize things have been set up for another sequel. (R, 91 minutes) Contains grisly violence and gore, terror, language and drug references. Area theaters.

-- D.T.

{sstar} SERENITY

When Joss Whedon's imaginative sci-fi series, "Firefly," was canceled, fans went into deep mourning. But thanks to their enthusiastic snapping up of the show's DVDs, Universal ponied up $40 million for "Serenity," a movie version that brings back Capt. Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his lovable, outer-space mercenaries. In the retelling, writer-director Whedon has boiled off a lot of the complexity and introduced a new character, the ruthless Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an agent for the evil Alliance, the Big-Brotherish federal government that runs Mal's galaxy. The result is a sort of amphetamine-fueled reprise, designed to give fans their sentimental jolt but also drum up new devotees. It's entertaining, especially because of Mal's colorful followers and Whedon's snappy, witty and often poignant pen. (PG-13, 119 minutes) Contains sci-fi violence, sexual situations and profanity. Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

-- D.T.


Deft but slight, the new Steve Martin film is a case of precise observation of nothing. From his own screenplay, based on his own novella and directed by Anand Tucker, the movie watches listlessly as old rich guy Ray Porter (Martin) begins a pointless, clearly doomed affair with shopgirl Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes), who sells gloves at Saks in Beverly Hills. Slight age diff: He's fifty-something, she's twenty-something. Is this harmless or a species of child abuse? On this issue, as on many others, the movie is silent. It's a film concerned with cool surfaces, with getting things right, particularly clothes and fashion accoutrements. It's hip, it's now, it's happening, it's dull. The movie never explains the nature of this relationship: Why does he become obsessed (in a polite way) with her; why in turn does she let a man older than her father, even if he's well preserved, caress her body? No answers. (R, 105 minutes) Contains nudity and sexual suggestion. Area theaters.

-- S.H.


Set in Brooklyn 1986, this movie is piercing and forthright. When Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney) Berkman inform their children, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline), they're getting a divorce, it's the beginning of an emotional whirlwind for four very different people. Bernard shacks up with a student (Anna Paquin). Joan dates an eccentric tennis instructor (William Baldwin). The children have their share of issues, too: Walt passes off a Pink Floyd song as his own for a music competition. And Frank has discovered sexual self-gratification, which he feels compelled to share a little too publicly. The movie is so brutally honest at times, you can almost sense the real Baumbachs squirming, twitching, tut-tutting and maybe even nodding their heads. Whatever their reaction -- and, goodness, what a spectacle that would be -- this story doesn't just belong to them anymore. This richly observed, sometimes heartbreaking movie has become ours, too. (R, 81 minutes) Contains strong sexual content and graphic profanity. Landmark's Bethesda Row, Cinema Arts Theatre and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington.

-- D.T.


The Corpse Bride is indeed dead. Sure, she's cute, but she has a wayward eye that pops out at inopportune moments, thanks to the talking maggot renting space in its socket. Not exactly marriage material, as Victor, voiced by Johnny Depp, discovers when he's dragged from the Land of the Living by the Corpse Bride (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter). Will true love -- with a living lass (voiced by Emily Watson) -- prevail over the Corpse Bride's ferocious determination? The movie is breathtaking viewing, shot in sumptuous shades of blacks, whites and grays, using not computerized means but older-school stop-motion animation. The film is tongue-in-cheek and wry, with kitschy musical numbers. But we can't quite figure out whom the film is intended for: Animated talking maggots does not a kiddie movie make. (PG, 76 minutes) Contains scary images. University Mall Theatres and Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

-- Teresa Wiltz

{sstar} USHPIZIN

Ushpizin is Hebrew for "visitors," specifically friends and strangers who may need shelter and sustenance during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. That week-long autumn festival is the setting for this comic drama, about an Orthodox rabbi named Moshe (Shuli Rand) who lives with his wife, Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand), in Jerusalem. The couple is just scraping by while they pray for a son. By twists of fate and faith, their prayers are answered -- sort of -- in the form of two unexpected visitors. As cozy and inviting as the small booth that Moshe and Malli build to celebrate the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, the film offers a warm, intimate glimpse of Orthodox Jewish life. Most revelatory here is Malli, who defies the stereotype of subservience and emerges as a woman of self-possession and substance. As a profession of faith, "Ushpizin" ends on a somewhat troubling proselytizing note, but as a portrayal of an invisible culture, it's an important cinematic milestone. (PG, 90 minutes) Contains mild thematic elements. In Hebrew with subtitles. Landmark's Bethesda Row.

-- A.H.


This movie gets off to a promising start, sure to raise goose bumps, at the gates of Folsom Prison in 1968. The camera makes its way slowly into the jail, and finally, after an excruciating, exhilarating eternity, we see Johnny Cash -- played, in an uncanny performance, by Joaquin Phoenix -- as he drinks a glass of water and contemplates a buzz saw. We're hooked, and he hasn't sung a note. Unfortunately, for all its good music and admirable vocal impersonations, the movie slides -- very, very slowly -- downhill from there. Yes, Phoenix does an impressive job of embodying Cash, nailing the singing voice, and Reese Witherspoon as June Carter proves to have a surprisingly strong and sweet voice, but when the film takes viewers through the paces of Cash's biography, it's a more plodding affair. (PG-13, 136 minutes) Contains profanity, thematic material and depiction of drug dependency. Area theaters.

-- A.H.


Directed by animators Nick Park and Steve Box, the feature film debut of Wallace and Gromit opens with the dotty English inventor and his quietly superior dog working at yet another ingenious business called Anti-Pesto, which humanely removes four-legged creatures from their town's vegetable gardens. The stakes are unusually high, as the villagers -- including canine Gromit -- are lovingly preparing their produce to compete in the annual vegetable growing contest. Things are just swell until one of Wallace's schemes -- involving a gizmo that "extracts unlovely thoughts and desires" -- goes awry, and the gardens are soon being vandalized by the King Kong of rabbits. Yes, the clay duo have gone a bit high-tech -- Park and Box reportedly used hundreds of computerized effects in this film -- but they're still the same old W&G, right down to the barely discernable thumbprints on their faces. Gromit, who might be the most expressive silent movie star since Buster Keaton, is pure magic. (G, 85 minutes) Contains nothing objectionable. University Mall Theatres and Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse.

-- A.H.


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. (R, 119 minutes) Contains nudity, sexual scenes, obscenity and slapstick violence. Area theaters.

-- D.T.


Untrue to its name, this Imax tour of some of the most beautiful parks and game preserves in South Africa is pretty tame, harmless but surprisingly thrill-free. It takes viewers on a photographic hunt for Africa's "Big Five." And filmmaker Ben Stassen bags his elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos and cape buffalo, along with a few zebras, giraffes and sundry antelopes thrown in for good measure. Still, the 3D that "Wild Safari" was filmed in proves to be more of a distraction than a benefit in a movie that, while photographed with the same amazing detail and intimacy that has made "March of the Penguins" such a hit, never reaches out to grab viewers, literally or figuratively. (Unrated, 45 minutes) Contains a very brief shot of animals doing what comes natural and brief carcass eating. National Museum of Natural History.

-- A.H.


By all appearances, this is a wholesome PG comedy. But the truth is, the film has been entirely purged of PP, or People Presence. Dennis Quaid plays Frank Beardsley, a Coast Guard officer, widower and loving father of eight. At a high school reunion, he meets and falls back in love with former sweetheart Helen North (Rene Russo), who has 10 children and, like Frank, is widowed. When Frank and Helen impulsively get married, parenting systems collide: Frank must tolerate a family that regularly employs the group hug; Helen has to contend with inspection parades. The children are the unhappiest, eventually conspiring to undermine both parents with underhanded sabotage. Of course, the children learn to collaborate and find they're really not so unhappy after all. The storyline is so familiar ("Cheaper by the Dozen," et al), the audience can practically call out scenes ahead of time. (PG, 88 minutes) Contains mild crude humor. Area theaters.

-- D.T.

{sstar} ZATHURA

Based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg, this movie introduces us to 6-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo) and 10-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson). One day when his father is at work, Danny discovers Zathura, an old-

fashioned board game with a windup key, a "Go" button and a miniature spaceship that whirs along the game board. That little spaceship springs to life and -- ding! -- up pops a card with a message: "Meteor Shower -- Take Evasive Action." Moments later,

the house is bombarded with real meteors. The brothers realize their home has been propelled into outer space. The movie has an almost antique charm, which recalls the 1950s sci-fi movies in which actors in silver suits pretended to be aliens. This gives "Zathura" an appealing, childlike sense of wonder, an element too often forgotten in movies with many times the budget and technological resources.

(PG, 102 minutes) Contains mild profanity, and those Zorgons might be too scary for young children. Area theaters.

-- D.T.


AFI SILVER THEATRE "The Two of Us" and "Le Poulet," Friday at 4:30, 6:40 and 8:50; Saturday at 12:50, 4:25, 6:40 and 8:50; Sunday at 12:15, 2:20, 4:25, 6:40 and 8:50; Monday-Thursday at 6:40 and 8:50. "Elf," Saturday at 10 a.m. (free). "Metallic Blues, Saturday at 9. "A Muppet Christmas Carol," Monday-Thursday at 4:50. 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 301-495-6720.

AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM/DOWNTOWN At the Lockheed Martin Imax Theater: "Fighter Pilot," daily at 11:25, 1:45 and 3:35. "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon (3D)," daily at 10:25, 12:15, 2:45 and 4:35. "To Fly!," daily at 1:05. At the Albert Einstein Planetarium: "Infinity Express," Friday, Sunday, Monday and Wednesday at 10:30, 11, 11:30, 12, 12:30, 1, 1:30, 2, 2:30, 3, 3:30, 4, 4:30 and 5; Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday at 10:30, 11, 11:30, 12, 12:30, 1, 1:30, 2, 2:30, 3, 3:30, 4 and 4:30. "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 and 4. "Space Station (3D)," daily at noon, 3 and 5. "To Fly!," daily at 2. 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly. 202-357-2700.

AMERICAN CITY DINER "Tootsie," Friday at 8. "North by Northwest," Saturday at 8. "Annie Hall," Sunday at 8. "A Fistful of Dollars," Monday at 8. "One Eyed Jacks," Tuesday at 8. "An Affair to Remember," Wednesday at 8.

"High Noon," Thursday at 8.

5532 Connecticut Ave. NW.


ARLINGTON CINEMA 'N' DRAFTHOUSE "It's a Wonderful Life," Thursday at 7:15, in a benefit for Children's Hospital. 2903 Columbia Pike, Arlington. 703-486-2345

CINEMA ART BETHESDA "The Great Water," Sunday at 10 a.m. Landmark's Bethesda Row Theatre, 7235 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda. 301-365-3679.

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.

FILMS ON THE HILL "The Devil's Brother (Fra Diavolo)," Friday

at 7. "The Last Performance" and "Eternal Love," Wednesday at 7.

Capitol Hill Arts Workshop,

545 Seventh St. SE. 202-547-6839.

FREER "Night Cyclo Trip" and "King of Rubbish Dumps," Sunday at 2. Free, but tickets required. Meyer Auditorium, 12th Street and Jefferson Drive SW. 202-633-1000.

GOETHE INSTITUT "En Route," Monday at 6:30. 812 Seventh St. NW. 202-289-1200.

HIRSHHORN Animated shorts from Norway, Wednesday at 7. Ring Auditorium. Seventh and Independence SW. 202-633-4674.

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS Experimental Cinema: "Ghosts Before Breakfast," "Rhythmus 21, "Fugue in D Minor" and "Akran," Friday at 7. "Soul to Soul," Monday at 7. "Bad Sister" and "The Golden Arror," Tuesday at 6:30. "Now, Voyager," "Screen Snapshots, Series 22 No. 5" and Bette Davis trailers, Thursday at 6:30. Free. Mary Pickford Theater, 101 Independence Ave. SE. 202-707-5677.

MARYLAND SCIENCE CENTER At the Imax Theater: "Santa vs. Snowman," Friday and Tuesday-Thursday at 12:10 and 4:20; Saturday-Sunday at 11, 1:10, 3:20 and 6:40. "Ocean Wonderland 3D," Friday at 3:15, Saturday-Sunday at 2:15. "Cirque du Soleil," Friday and Tuesday-Thursday at 2:10; Saturday-Sunday at 5:30. "Fighter Pilot" and "Hubble," Saturday-Sunday at noon and 4:20, Tuesday-Thursday at 3:15. At the Davis Planetarium: "Entertaining Einstein," Friday and Tuesday-Thursday at 1 and 4; Saturday-Sunday at 2 and 4. "Live From the Sun," Saturday at noon. "The Sky: Live!" Friday at 3; Saturday at 3 and 5; Sunday at noon and 3; Tuesday-Thursday at 3. "The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," Saturday-Sunday at 1. 601 Light St., Baltimore. 410-685-5225.

NATIONAL ARCHIVES "The Phantom of the Operator," Friday at 7, followed by a discussion with director Caroline Martel. Free; reservations recommended. William G. McGowan Theater, Constitution Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets NW. 202-501-5000.

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART "Winslow Homer: The Nature of the Artist," Friday and Sunday at 12:30. "Phantom India," parts 4 and 5, Friday at 2. "Vanya on 42nd Street," Saturday at 2. "The Borderland (La Frontera)," Saturday at 4:30. "Amnesia" and "Chile Obstinate Memory," Sunday at 4. "Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time," Wednesday and Thursday at 12:30. Free. East Building, Fourth and Constitution NW. 202-737-4215.


Eskimo-Indian Olympics," Saturday

at noon. Free. Rasmuson Theater,

Fourth Street and Independence

Avenue SW. 202-633-1000.

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY Johnson Imax Theater: "Into the Deep (3D)," daily at 10:20, 12:10, 2 and 3:50. "Wild Safari: A South African Adventure (3D)," daily at 11:10, 1 and 2:50. "The Polar Express (3D)," daily at 5 and 7. 10th and Constitution NW. 202-633-7400.


Dr. Dremo's Taphouse, 2001 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington.

202-736-1732 or 202-707-2540.

WASHINGTON JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL At the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center (Goldman Theater, 1529 16th St. NW): "Local Call," Friday at 1. "Checking Out," Saturday at 6. "The First Time I Was Twenty," Saturday at 8:30. "Short Films Big Concepts," Saturday at 10:30.

At the AFI Silver Theatre (8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring): "The Two of Us," Saturday at 7. "Metallic Blues," Saturday at 9:15.

Charlize Theron is a deadly underground rebel in the futuristic "Aeon Flux."Triple world champion Terje Haakonsen blazes a trail in "First Descent."Helen (Rene Russo, left) and Frank (Dennis Quaid) combine their large families in the comedy "Yours, Mine & Ours."