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June 02, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW AND CHRIS KALTENBACH | MICHAEL SRAGOW AND CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITICS

Capsules by Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach, except where noted.

Full reviews at baltimoresun.com/movies.

Akeelah and the Bee -- follows a formula, one of the oldest in all of fiction: an underdog, struggling against the odds, seeks fame, fortune and - most importantly - self-respect. Sure, we've seen it all before, but what makes this one of the most winning movies of 2006 is its abundance of great intentions. Twelve-year-old Keke Palmer plays a girl living in a tough L.A. neighborhood who has a talent rarely celebrated in mainstream American films. She's smart. And when the school spelling bee rolls around, she's torn between competing, and possibly winning, and showing disdain for the whole process, which would certainly make her seem more cool. (C.K.) PG 112 minutes B+

Art School Confidential -- is intermittently exhilarating. Director Terry Zwigoff (Bad Santa) skewers not just the jocks who taunt the artist hero (Max Minghella) in high school, but the clueless members of his family and, most of all, the pseuds who surround him at the Strathmore Institute, a fashionably decrepit art school. When the hero falls for a smart, gorgeous art model (Sophia Myles), it becomes an unwieldy combination - bitter and semisweet. But robust, intelligent contempt is so rare that we should treasure the caustic pieces of it here. (M.S.) R 102 minutes B

Brick -- is a remarkable oddity, audacious and engaging. This film noir for the young and the feckless spills over with suburban bravado and unrelenting wit. Our antihero, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), tries to get to the bottom of a narcotics underworld that has swallowed up his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). The movie is deliriously disarming in the way it laces life-and-death heartbreak in and out of cozy-seedy circumstances. (M.S.) R 110 minutes A-

The Da Vinci Code -- issues a spray of perspiration - not from the hero (Tom Hanks) and heroine (Audrey Tautou) outrunning forces set on framing them for multiple murders, but from director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman sweating buckets of unholy water as they try (and fail) to stay on top of novelist Dan Brown's heavy, exposition-riddled plot. Howard treats Brown's book as holy writ. It's a fatal mistake for an adaptation of a novel whose sole virtue is irreverence. (M.S.) PG-13 149 minutes C

Down in the Valley -- features Edward Norton as a cowboy who ambles into the contemporary San Fernando Valley with a couple of shirts and a duffel filled with gear and creates a walking pocket of calm in the dull suburban roar of engines and air conditioners. As a Valley Girl who says she's been waiting for life to happen and doesn't know what will start it, Evan Rachel Wood ferments yearning and concupiscence into essence-of-adolescence. The balance between his courtliness and her readiness gives this film's magical first hour the unexpected sensual lilt of a lithe, spontaneous dance. The movie has a trick second half that ends up spelling out nearly all the conflicts more potently left implicit in the earlier part of the film. Still, writer-director David Jacobson and his actors do so much with the characters that they leave an ambiguous residue of blood-streaked regrets and sadness. (M.S.) R 125 minutes B+

Ice Age: The Meltdown -- offers some good news: The nut-nutty squirrel of the first Ice Age is back. Otherwise, the movie has exactly the same flaws as its predecessor. It's a glacier-paced mastodon quest, just critters on the run from extinction. The ice is melting. Manny the mammoth tries to hurry everybody along to safety before the ice walls break. It's all very Land Before Time, or the first Ice Age, without the kids-lose-their-parents pathos. (Orlando Sentinel) PG 85 minutes C-

Inside Man -- is a slick, briskly paced tale of bank robbers who think they're at least twice as smart as everybody else, and maybe are. Clive Owen is the robber determined that everyone play his game, Denzel Washington is the detective assigned to the case, and Jodie Foster is a mysterious operative working desperately to keep something inside one of the bank's safe-deposit boxes from coming out. (C.K.) R 129 minutes B+

Just My Luck -- does for Lindsay Lohan something unmatched by any of her previous films. It makes her boring. Billed in some quarters as her first grown-up movie, it's really nothing of the sort; it's just as juvenile as anything she's done previously. The only difference is that here, as a woman who unwittingly trades her fabulous luck with a guy (Chris Pine) who has no luck whatsoever, she gets to kiss a lot of guys. It isn't until the character loses her imperviousness to fate that Lohan gets a handle on the character; she's much more appealing as a klutz, pratfalling and shrieking and finding misfortune around every corner. (C.K.) PG-13 100 minutes C

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