Steve Martin, Queen Latifah, Eugene Levy, Jean Smart

Steve Martin excels at fluster. Put his character in a situation beyond his control, and Martin's face will crumple, his limbs will twitch, and his voice will rise, all to potent comic effect. He frequently is flustered in Bringing Down the House, a rowdy but only occasionally sharp comedy that plays the race card for laughs.

Martin is a buttoned-down corporate lawyer in L.A. whose life is turned upside down when a woman he flirts with online shows up at his door. It's only then that he learns that his cyber honey (Latifah) is an escaped jailbird seeking his help in overturning her armed robbery conviction.

"You're not a blonde," he sputters.

"Can't get nothing past you," she replies tartly.

The culture clash between the uptight WASP and strutting sista is the movie's main comic fuel. Martin and the likable Latifah play off each other with brio, but there's something disquietingly unhip about House's desperation to be hip about race relations today. One wonders if this film, directed by Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner), won't look as well-intentioned but fundamentally embarrassing in a few decades as 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner does now. That said, House offers plenty of chuckles and a hilarious turn by Levy as a lawyer who can sling the slang. (PG-13)

BOTTOM LINE: House of laughs, but the foundation's shaky

Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci

As Willis, green camouflage paint covering his face and shaved skull and with a glint in his eye, broods deep in a remote African jungle, he looks briefly like Marlon Brando at his maddest as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Oh, that Tears of the Sun, a contrived combat thriller, were even one-quarter the picture that Apocalypse is.

In this fictional drama directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), Navy SEAL Lt. A.K. Waters (Willis) lands with his men in war-torn Nigeria to rescue an American doctor (Bellucci). She insists that Waters also save dozens of villagers. Soon, like the von Trapps, this ragtag group is climbing every mountain, all the while being pursued by hostile troops.

Without even getting into Sun's questionable political correctness ("We will never forget you," a refugee tells her white rescuers), the main problem is a plot piled with disingenuous twists. The acting, a glum Willis included, rarely rises above able. And where is Bellucci's escaping doc finding time to reapply her lipstick? (R)

BOTTOM LINE: Nothing new under this Sun

Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassel

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Right up front, here's a warning: this French drama (with English subtitles) is not for everyone. It is as hard to sit through as any movie in memory and inspired tumultuous critical debate after it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year. I started off hating Irreversible but ended up respecting it and admiring the audacity of director-writer Gaspar Noe (I Stand Alone). The movie haunts and disturbs me still.

Like 200l's Memento, Irreversible tells its tragic story in reverse order. The central, most controversial scene—it's almost impossible to watch—is a brutal, extended rape in which a woman (Bellucci) is assaulted and battered by a thug (Jo Prestia) in a deserted Paris underpass. The first half of the film shows the rape's aftermath, as her beau (Cassel) seeks revenge. The second half shows us who she was and what was going on in her life before the rape, to heartbreaking effect. The point? As a character says in the movie's first scene, "Time destroys all things." (Not rated)

BOTTOM LINE: Tough to view, but worth it—maybe

Frances McDormand, Kate Beckinsale, Christian Bale

With the ever likable and amusing McDormand, even dissipation seems a sensible lifestyle. She swaggers through Laurel Canyon, a sharply observed comic drama by writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (High Art), as Jane, a woman of a certain age who happily smokes a bong, bunks with an attentive boy toy (Alesandro Nivola), sleeps half the day away and parties late into the night poolside at her house in L.A. In between, she produces hit songs for rockers at her in-home recording studio.

Watching all this with disapproval are her straitlaced doctor son (Bale) and, at least initially, his fiancée (Beckinsale), who are staying at Mom's place temporarily. The delicate dance these three do on their way toward understanding and tolerance makes for a film that's, if not compelling, at least diverting. (R)

BOTTOM LINE: Viva la Frances

Glenn Close, Patricia Clarkson, Dermot Mulroney, Moira Kelly

The edges on this movie have all been sanded to such a fine finish that the final product doesn't have enough texture to make much of an impression. An ensemble drama, The Safety of Objects boasts a talented cast playing suburban neighbors. There's a mother (Close) tending to her comatose son (Joshua Jackson); a single mom (Clarkson) trying to get over her husband's leaving her; and a lawyer (Mulroney) who has been passed over for partner at his firm. All must learn to let go of what they have lost. Easier said than turned into a film that grabs you. (R)

BOTTOM LINE: Objectively, we're underwhelmed

Many of this year's Academy Award-nominated films have already made their way to home video. These worthy contenders deserve a look before you complete your Oscar pool ballot.

Road to Perdition (DreamWorks, $19.95)

Paul Newman grabbed a Supporting Actor nomination—and deservedly so—for this Tom Hanks gangster drama. Director Sam Mendes's clinical commentary is short on cast anecdotes, but the disc's deleted scenes provide a final glimpse at the stunning work of cinematographer Conrad Hall, who was nominated posthumously. (R)

Unfaithful (Fox, $27.98) Best Actress nominee Diane Lane (see story, page 65) plays Richard Gere's straying wife. The DVD's 11 deleted scenes include an alternate ending that disappointingly resolves the film's ambiguous conclusion, but Lane, Gere and director Adrian Lyne shine in a spirited Charlie Rose interview. (R)

About a Boy (Universal, $26.98) Adolescent-minded Hugh Grant befriends a 12-year-old loner in this witty comedy, a nominee for adapted screenplay. The disc's extras are just as fun, with amusing deleted scenes and self-deprecating commentary from directors Paul and Chris Weitz. (PG-13)

Y Tu Mamá También (MGM, $26.98) This Mexican road comedy about two teens and an older woman picked up a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. The film and most of the DVD features (including a documentary that good-naturedly pokes fun at the cast and crew) are subtitled; the cast commentary, frustratingly, is not. (Unrated and R)

8 Mile (Universal, $26.98) Eminem nails his first lead role, as a Detroit rapper looking for his voice. The disc features outtakes of thrilling, and unscripted, rap battles between Eminem and some extras, as well as a crude new music video for the rapper's song "Superman." Oddly, the video for his Best Song contender, "Lose Yourself," is nowhere to be found. (R)—Jason Lynch