Brief Encounters

BASIC

Opens Fri., March 28 at Metro and others

The day after they finished training John Travolta for this role as a buff, gruff Army-Ranger-turned-DEA-agent, the real Rangers flew off from Georgia to the Persian Gulf. There is no reality in John McTiernan's Basic, a contrived thriller about a commando training exercise in which six soldiers go into the woods and two come back alive. Travolta is just dandy as the head-tripping investigator; as his more straitlaced co-investigator, Connie Nielsen (One Hour Photo) is as artificial and lightweight as a chunk of styrofoam. Samuel L. Jackson is OK as the vanished commando commander who may or may not be bad as in evil, but he's definitely badass. It's a ho-hum mystery structured like Russian nesting dolls, but at least it's coherent. Keep your expectations low, and it'll pass the timeperhaps until the Rangers come home. (R) TIM APPELO

Nagra (left) and her best pal (Keira Knightley) in Beckham.

photo: Fox Searchlight

BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM

Opens Fri., March 28 at Guild 45

A.O. Scott stole my pun to describe this one: My Big Fat Sikh Wedding. Actually, it's the heroine's sister Pinky (Archie Panjabi) who's about to get married in full ethnic splendor. To the despair of their dad (Bollywood screen idol Anupam Kher), heroine Jess (Parminder Nagra) just wants to be a soccer star. Beckham is the star Manchester United footballer who can famously arc the ball around opposing players. That bending effect is an inspired metaphor for just what Jess must do: get around her traditional parents' expectations to score her dream, and just maybe her handsome Irish coach (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) in the bargain. There is not one surprise in Gurinder Chadha's movie (which she also co-wrote), and the filmmaking is utterly pedestrian on a technical level, but so what? You'll be on your feet rooting for Jess to reach all her goals. It's the feel-good movie of the seasonoops, did Tony also say that already, too? (PG-13) T.A.

THE CORE

Opens Fri., March 28 at Meridian and others

A $50 billion vessel must burrow to the center of the Earth to trigger a series of nuclear explosions that will restart its core's rotation, thus repairing our planet's electromagnetic field. I'm no geophysicist, but Aaron Eckhart plays one hereand if he says that's plausible, whatever. What is unforgivably implausible is that inevitable disaster-movie moment when the smart and sexy-as-hell Eckhart is finally alone with smart and sexy-as-hell navigator Hilary Swank in the cabin of the powerless, inert ship, it's 122 degrees, they're all sweaty and sticky, it Looks Like Curtains, and . . . nada. The Core's chromosomal makeup is more XX (Deep Impact) than XY (Armageddon), and global electromagnetic corruption causes plenty of cool, freaky devastation: Rome obliterated by "superstorms"; the Golden Gate Bridge melting like an ant beneath God's magnifying glass; scores of pigeons losing their radar and going all Hitchcock on London. But this movie's real casualty is inarguably uncool: the libido. (PG-13) ANDREW BONAZELLI

NOWHERE IN AFRICA

Opens Fri., March 28 at Egyptian

The Oscar-winning Nowhere takes a sidelong approach to the Holocaust in its autobiographically inspired tale of a family that escaped Hitler's Third Reich for Kenya in 1938. There, broke and homeless, the mother and father must cope with a flawed marriage, while their young daughter blossomsquickly learning Swahili and discovering the pleasure of kneading her bare toes in warm cow pies. Grim news comes by radio and mail from distant Europe, as the Redlich clan does what it must to survive. They'd be lost without their loyal cook (Sidede Onyulo, making the most charismatic screen debut this year), who teaches them all sorts of Wise Lessons. Nowhere does verge on being essentialist at times, but its heart is in the right place: Kenya is respected without the wandering Jews ever feeling truly at home there. The often gorgeous location photography serves a story that feels grounded in real, remembered detailalthough those details do drag on a bit. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

SPUN

Opens Fri., March 28 at Meridian and Neptune

Following a motley band of SoCal tweakers, Spun has all the incoherent energy and amusement you'd expect from a script co-written by a meth-head, plus a complete lack of storyas you'd also expect. All you get is a drugs-are-bad cautionary warning that's like a hipper Reagan-era D.A.R.E. video with the actors simultaneously snarking on the message. Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman plays the seeming nice guy who, in exchange for endless spoof, gets recruited to drive for a crank chef (Mickey Rourke, looking healthier than he should) and his girlfriend (Brittany Murphy, looking slutty as ever). John Leguizamo and Mena Suvari ham it up mightily as a bickering dealer couple; pointless cameos include Eric Roberts, Deborah Harry, Ron Jeremy, Rob Halford, and Billy Corgan (who did the score). It all goes stylishly downhill after the very funny first scene. "Do you shave your balls?" a stoned Schwartzman later asks Rourke. A better film would've answered the question. (NR) B.R.M.

Uneasy driver Akbari in Ten.

photo: Fox Searchlight

TEN

Runs Fri., March 28-Thurs., April 3 at Grand Illusion

A bit like HBO's Taxicab Confessions series, Ten basically consists of driving and kvetching, which is only slightly more interesting than it sounds. Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami uses two dashboard-mounted video cameras in the car of Mania Akbari to chronicle her and her passengers. The best of the lot is a jilted young bride-to-be still hoping her fiancé ·ill take her back. The worst is Akbari's horrid 7-year-old son (a compelling case for remaining childless). It's sort of like reality TV, only Kiarostami is coy about the extent to which these encounters are stage managed (whose idea was it to pick up a prostitute?), and he edits so-called reality quite selectively. Sometimes he only shows you one side of a conversation, but the withholding serves no purpose. As Akbari variously discusses love, fate, family, and the unhappy plight of Iranian women with her passengers, you're left wishing she drove a cab in N.Y.C. (NR) B.R.M.

TULLY

Opens Fri., March 28 at Varsity

Hilary Birmingham has taken Tom McNeal's prize-winning short story and made it the most satisfying indie film I've seen since You Can Count on Me, though it has the more bovine pace of the PBS film The Farmer's Wife. Tully (the aptly named Anson Mount) is the wounded, girl-nabbing son of an obdurately secretive Nebraska farmer (Bob Burrus, whose face symbolizes spiritual erosion). Tully's hunky, ambiguous face "fits into any of about six happy endings girls can pick for themselves," as his sensible, befreckled suitor Ella (Julianne Nicholson) teasingly tells him. His brother Earl (Glenn Fitzgerald, Lily Tomlin's spooky son in Flirting with Disaster) is even more wounded. With the lazy, irresistible allure of a long summer's day, Tully brings us into each of their hearts, as they confront the truth about themselves, their mysterious lost mom, and the gritty facts of farm life. (R) T.A.

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