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Newcomer's performance is star-making

White Oleander (PG-13)

Here's what I want to know about Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), the beautiful, tough-talking mom in Peter Kosminsky's adaptation of the Janet Fitch novel: If she, convicted of murdering her lover, really knew how to properly channel her steely inner resolve, how did she wind up behind bars? Do her powers work when used only for sinister purposes?

Pfeiffer's performance, meant to frighten and shock, inadvertently borders on camp; she often looks as if she had been asked to supply as stony a facial expression as possible. So it's probably good that the primary responsibility for moving this overwrought drama forward falls on the capable shoulders of Alison Lohman.

Lohman, who beat out hundreds of other actors for the role, gets it right as young Astrid, so desperate to escape her manipulative mother's influence that she casually shifts her emotional/psychological shape to suit her surroundings.

Astrid, troubled and confused, finds her way into several foster homes, variously headed by a fundamentalist former stripper (Robin Wright Penn) possessed of some distinctively non-Christian values; a shallow, struggling actor (Renee Zellweger) in Malibu; and a Russian-born clothes merchant (Svetlana Efremova). The young woman also stays at a tough reform school, where she bonds with kindred spirit and aspiring comic-book artist Paul (Patrick Fugit of Almost Famous).

Kosminsky, a television director making his first feature film, doesn't explain why Astrid would continue the awful struggle to please her mom. Lohman nevertheless survived the experience: The episodic, less than satisfying movie marked her emergence as a young talent to watch. This year she'll be seen in Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men and Tim Burton's Big Fish.

Rent it if you enjoy: Uneven coming-of-age sagas.

DVD extras: Commentary with Kosminsky, producer John Wells and Fitch; two making-of-the-moving features.

Moonlight Mile (PG-13)

Brad Silberling, director of the 1998 treacle fest City of Angels, offers the Big Empty Feeling and a happy ending, too, in this partially successful meditation on grief, a mixture of drama, romance and a little comedy.

Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon turn in reasonably compelling performances as grieving parents in small-town New England circa 1970s. Jake Gyllenhaal (The Good Girl) offers quiet, subtly shaded work as a man whose fiancee was killed in a restaurant. The story behind the movie has resonance, too: Silberling's screenplay was inspired by his personal experiences surrounding the 1989 death of his girlfriend, television actor Rebecca Schaeffer (My Sister Sam).

Warm, fuzzy feelings gradually replace the movie's sad moodiness as Joe (Gyllenhaal) meets sweet-faced Bertie (Ellen Pompeo of Daredevil and Old School), a mail worker and owner of a favorite bar. Baby boomers may appreciate the soundtrack, with tunes by the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Sly Stone, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Jefferson Airplane and others.

Rent it if you enjoy: Movies about grief, several shades lighter than In the Bedroom and The Son's Room.

DVD extras: Commentary with Silberling; commentary with Hoffman, Gyllenhaal and Silberling; deleted scenes; behind-the-scenes feature.

I Spy (PG-13)

A good cast isn't able to save this turkey, another Eddie Murphy misfire. Murphy (also needing forgiveness for The Adventures of Pluto Nash) goes the action-comedy route with Owen Wilson (Shanghai Knights), doing the secret-agent routine in Eastern Europe. Director Betty Thomas, who turned TV's The Brady Bunch into a quirky big-screen romp in 1995, offers little to nothing inspired by the 1960s TV series I Spy. The other suckers: Malcolm McDowell and Famke Janssen. Dead on arrival.

Rent it if you enjoy: Bad adaptations of beloved vintage television shows. Can you say The Avengers?

DVD extras: Commentary by Thomas and four others (the actors wisely begged off); four making-of-the-movie documentaries; widescreen and full-screen formats.

Swimfan (PG-13)

A star swimmer (Jesse Bradford, Clockstoppers) has a sexual liaison with a new student (Erika Christensen, The Banger Sisters), and she promptly turns into a world-class stalker. Shiri Appleby, of TV's Roswell, stars as the hurt girlfriend, and the blame for all this nonsense properly goes to Australian director John Polson (an actor in Mission: Impossible 2). The cast also includes Jason Ritter (son of John) and Dan Hedaya. Swimfan is accidentally funny, if not quite bad enough to be good.

Rent it if you enjoy: Fatal Attraction, Body of Evidence, Basic Instinct and other silly movies about the downside of illicit sex.

DVD extras: Commentary by Polson; commentary by Bradford and Christensen; deleted scenes; behind-the-scenes documentary; widescreen and full-screen formats.

DVD Classic

Lasse Hallstrom's sad and funny My Life as a Dog (1985), made in Sweden before the director of The Shipping News and Chocolat went Hollywood, is back in a deluxe Criterion Collection edition. The story, about a troubled 12-year-old (feral-looking Anton Glanzelius, not seen much since) and his comic misadventures in a country village, is as bittersweet and moving as it was the first time around.

The high-definition transfer is accompanied by multiple bonus features, including a new interview with Hallstrom, his 52-minute 1973 film Shall We Go to My or Your Place or Each Go Home Alone? and a booklet with essays by novelist Kurt Vonnegut and Village Voice film critic Michael Atkinson. The Oscar-nominated movie, a Golden Globe winner for best foreign language film, is in Swedish with English subtitles.

Straight to Video

Fans of French Stewart (TV's Third Rock From the Sun) and the very young may be entertained by Inspector Gadget 2, a sequel to the amusing 1999 action-comedy about the misadventures of a klutzy half-man, half-robot detective. Stewart mugs and overacts his way through the title role, replacing the first movie's Matthew Broderick, in a story that has the inspector facing off with and then falling in love with a rival female robocop (Elaine Hendrix of The Parent Trap). The two, with the help of his niece, Penny (Caitlin Wachs, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) help foil the evil plans of Claw. None of the original's cast members returned for this one.

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