May 01, 2002


sfbg.com

 

Extra

Andrea Nemerson's
alt.sex.column

Norman Solomon's
MediaBeat

nessie's
The nessie files

Tom Tomorrow's
This Modern World


News

PG&E and the California energy crisis

Arts and Entertainment

Venue Guide

Electric Habitat
By Amanda Nowinski

Tiger on beat
By Patrick Macias

Frequencies
By Josh Kun


Calendar

Submit your listing

Culture

Techsploitation
By Annalee Newitz

Without Reservations
By Paul Reidinger

Cheap Eats
By Dan Leone

 

Our Masthead

Editorial Staff

Business Staff

Jobs & Internships


PERSONALS | MOVIE CLOCK | REP CLOCK | SEARCH

film

Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Robert Avila, Meryl Cohen, David Fear, Dina Gachman, Susan Gerhard, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Patrick Macias, and Chuck Stephens. Film intern is Summers Henderson. See Rep Clock, page 108, and Movie Clock, page 109, for theater information.

San Francisco International Film Festival


The 45th San Francisco International Film Festival runs through Thurs/2. Venues are the Kabuki 8 Theatres, 1881 Post, SF; Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; New PFA Theater, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Park Theatre, 1275 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. Tickets may be purchased at www.sffs.org or by calling (925) 275-9490. For commentary see last week's Bay Guardian. All times are pm unless otherwise noted.

Wed/1

Castro "David Francis: Mel Novikoff Award": Where Are My Children? 6:30. Delbaran 9:15.

Kabuki Face 10a. Dogtown and Z-Boys 1. China 21 3:45. The Milk of Human Kindness 4. Dance of a Dream 4:15. Cherish 4:30. On the Edge of Time: Male Domains in the Caucasus 6:15. Bastards in Paradise 6:45. My Wife Is an Actress 7. "Memory Arcade" (shorts program) 9:15. Rain 9:30. Dogtown and Z-Boys 9:45. Hell House 10.

New PFA Theater I'm Going Home 7. The Pinochet Case 9:15.

Park Truly Human 7. La spagnola 9:15.

Thurs/2

Castro Hollywood Ending 7.

Kabuki "Youth or Consequences" (shorts program) 1. Somewhere on Earth 4:45. Uncle Frank 5. One Take Only 7. The Milk of Human Kindness 7:15. My Wife Is an Actress 7:15. Rivers and Tides 7.

New PFA Theater Delbaran 7. Go 9:15.

Opening

*Dear Fidel Those unacquainted with Marita Ilona Lorenz's career may find the opening of Wilfried Huismann's documentary deceptively banal. In 1959, in Havana's harbor, newly victorious Cuban leader Fidel Castro boards the German cruise ship owned by 19-year-old Marita's father. The young woman embarks on a crush that proves lasting, as the now 61-year-old woman heads back to Cuba. Bit by bit, however, the story unravels into a retelling of the most sensational of cold war careers. Forced to abort Fidel's child six months into her pregnancy, she ends up recruited by the CIA to assassinate him – and that's only the beginning. From her childhood in a Nazi concentration camp through shifting alliances among gangsters, G-men, and strongmen in the brutally male theater of the cold war, Lorenz's life takes extraordinary turns, through the Bay of Pigs and even JFK's last ride, while her loyal heart develops an intriguingly sophisticated armor. We see her affair with exiled Venezuelan dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez, for example, as at once a lover's revenge (Fidel was furious over her "going with" that "fat monkey"), a survival strategy, and the fulfillment of a complex psychological need. Huismann's quirky film – blending surprising interviews with hokey reenactments and musical interludes – is not quite as idiosyncratic as its subject, but it's completely captivating to the end. (1:32) Roxie. (Avila)

Deuces Wild A gaggle of photogenic gangsters struggle for control of their Brooklyn hood in the summer of 1958. (1:36) Century Plaza, Jack London.

*Dogtown and Z-Boys See "Dog Days," page 49. (1:41) Shattuck.

Hollywood Ending Woody Allen's regression from significant filmmaker to the broad comic hyphenate of his early years has seen his output range from harmlessly slight to downright odious. His new film, Hollywood Ending, is so meaningless and miscalculated it manages to make even the wispiest of his latter larks seem downright mythic. Down-and-out director Val Waxman (Allen) gets tapped by his producer ex-wife (Tea Leoni) to helm the new film of her studio boss-fiancé (Treat Williams). Right before principal photography starts, Waxman suddenly goes blind ... but directs the movie sans sight anyway. Relying on fusty caricatures and stale semaphore satire (NY = neurotic, arty; LA = superficial, sunburned), this attempt at screwball Tinseltown trash talk plays like a vaudeville routine with a flat-lined pulse. The threat of creative bankruptcy and fatigue has hovered menacingly on the edges of Allen's last few efforts; wheezing toward a predictably ironic finish, Ending's stale shtick may have finally signaled the beginning of a true artistic end. (1:14) Century Plaza, Grand Lake, Oaks, Orinda. (Fear)

*The Piano Teacher See "Cold Cuts," page 50. (2:10) Castro, Rafael, Shattuck.

Spider-Man Something about a kid who gets bit by a radioactive spider ... (1:51) Empire, Jack London, Orinda, Presidio.

Stolen Summer HBO's Project Greenlight comes to fruition with Pete Jones's feature directing debut; the film is about a Catholic boy and a Jewish boy who become friends. (1:30) Opera Plaza.

Very Annie Mary See Movie Clock, page 109. (1:55) Lumiere.

Vulgar A small-time clown seeks revenge in this black comedy, which features a cast plucked from the Kevin Smith universe (including Smith himself). (1:47) Lumiere.

Ongoing

*Amadeus, the Director's Cut "Special edition" releases are clogging the pipe these days, but Milos Forman's Amadeus, based on Sir Peter Shaffer's stage play and featuring 20 additional minutes in this new version, is well worth your time (even at three hours plus). The 1985 Best Picture winner – a "fantasia based on fact" – remains an engrossing, entertaining study of composer Antonio Salieri (Best Actor winner F. Murray Abraham), who is equally awed and angered when he encounters "Wolfie" Mozart (Tom Hulce), a giggly slob whose musical genius far exceeds his own. The period details – wigs, costumes, theaters – are outstanding, but Amadeus's biggest guns are its screenplay (adapted by Shaffer), which weaves humor and pathos into Mozart's and Salieri's descents into ruin; its cast, especially sympathetic villain Abraham; and, of course, Mozart's music, digitally remastered here and still stunning centuries after it was first written. (3:08) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

Amélie (1:55) Clay, Piedmont, Shattuck.

A Beautiful Mind It's a movie about smart people, but A Beautiful Mind treats its audience as anything but, oversimplifying weighty subjects like scientific discovery, romance, and mental illness to fit director Ron Howard's Hollywood formula. The film tells the semi-true life story of John Forbes Nash Jr. (Russell Crowe), a brilliant mathematician and paranoid schizophrenic who won the Nobel Prize in 1994. As in most sweeping biopics, Mind feels like five movies in one, hurrying through 47 years as if edited for television. Though Nash and his wife, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly), are supposed to be brilliant, you wouldn't know it from their often banal dialogue. When Nash asks her how he knows if he's in love, she explains that it's like knowing the universe is infinite: You can't prove it, you just believe. Sappy lines aside, Connelly is notable as Nash's strong and reasonable wife, her heroine nearly upstaging his hero. And despite the film's awkward pacing, Howard does succeed in persuading the viewer that perhaps Nash's paranoia isn't completely unfounded. (2:09) Shattuck. (Nancy Einhart)

Beauty and the Beast: The Large Format Cinema Special Edition (1:30) Metreon Imax.

Big Trouble (1:25) 1000 Van Ness.

*Blade 2 There are some serious action-horror genre thrills to be had as badazz mofo Wesley Snipes and sidekick Kris Kristofferson (now more Gabby Hayes than Billy the Kid) go to Prague, get mixed up with classical "suckheads," and go to war against a new strain of toothy, thirsty supervampires. Director Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone) brings with him atmospheric cinematography, strong production design, and an effortless ability to apply maximum impact to the proceedings. The now played-out wire fu of the first film has been replaced by the trademark brutal martial arts style of Donnie Yen (also seen in a supporting role), one based on speed, impact, and broken bones. In every way, this is a case of a sequel bettering the original. The only downsides are an atrocious female lead (Leonor Varela) and an ending that dramatically overextends itself by half. Thankfully, the rest is a wild ride by any standard, violent and gory enough to make recent films like Queen of the Damned and Resident Evil look pale and anemic by comparison. (1:48) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Macias)

*The Cat's Meow The Cat's Meow is classic Peter Bogdanovich turf, being a dramatization of a fabled Hollywood back chapter, with an ethereally gorgeous young blond (Kirsten Dunst) in the lead. Dunst plays Marion Davies, silent screen star and offscreen mistress of William Randolph Hearst. In the events fictitiously reimagined here, Davies, Hearst (Edward Herrmann), Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Eurotrash-lit sexpert Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), and gossip maven Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly) are aboard Hearst's yacht for a weekend in 1924. They're all under suspicion for the death of early industry kingpin Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) – whose birthday has provided the partying occasion and who may have been shot on board. But like another recent period piece-cum-whodunit, Gosford Park, The Cat's Meow's pulp-mystery aspect is almost incidental to its real, deeper pleasures. The movie captures a few days in the lives of the almost impossibly rich-and-famous with just the right mix of nostalgia, balloon pricking, and stupefaction. (1:47) Albany, Bridge, Piedmont. (Harvey)

Changing Lanes British director Roger Michell has a way of exceeding expectations. As he proved with 1999's Notting Hill, clever writing and innovative editing can raise even the most clichéd story to the level of something original. So imagine what he does with an edgy and compelling script, a cowritten effort by first-timer Chap Taylor and veteran Michael Tolkin (The Player) that digs unmercifully into the moral fabric of a corporate-driven America. With the help of unconventional D.P. Salvatore Totino (Any Given Sunday), Michell deftly weaves two polar stories – those of high-powered lawyer Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) and recovering alcoholic Doyle Gibson (Samuel L. Jackson) – into an unforgiving and eye-opening whole. Though the film avoids predictability, its true Hollywood nature does eventually rear its ugly head as too many loose strings tie themselves into a neat little bow just in time for the closing credits. (1:35) Century Plaza, Empire, Jack London, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Cohen)

The Cherry Orchard Chekhov has never translated easily to the screen, and Zorba the Greek director Michael Cacoyannis's handsome but turgid and off-key attempt does nothing to raise that bar. Brought back to turn-of-the-century Russia after a long stint in Paris grieving over a drowned child, Lyubov Ranevskaya (Charlotte Rampling) arrives just in time to find her aristocratic clan's once-vast fortune gasp its last. Neither she nor equally tradition-bound, commonsense-deprived brother Gaev (Alan Bates) are capable of making decisions that might save the beloved family estate from being sold. Adapting the original text into English himself, Cacoyannis only makes the language seem more dated and cumbersome, and despite a potentially strong cast (also including Katrin Carlidge, Michael Gough, and Frances de la Tour), his control over performances and scene rhythms seems arbitrary at best. The result is a dreary Classics Illustrated endeavor that does Chekhov no favors. (2:17) Rafael. (Harvey)

Clockstoppers (1:33) Century Plaza.

Death to Smoochy Using Day-Glo visuals as a backdrop can make a comedy of human degeneracy much more hilarious and absurd to watch (remember Raising Arizona?). Director Danny DeVito and writer Adam Resnick pull it off with Death to Smoochy, an anti-G-rated movie about the wholesome Sheldon (Edward Norton), a guy with a "fetish for ethics" whose gig is dressing as Smoochy the Rhino and singing cute little ditties to kids and/or ex-smack addicts. When a major children's television network fires its main personality, Rainbow Randolph (Robin Williams), after he's busted for extortion, Sheldon is recruited to polish the network's tarnished image. Smoochy is a hit, but Randolph wants him dead, a scheming agent screws him over, a shadowy figure is angling to control his money, and the network execs (Jon Stewart and Catherine Keener) are giving him hell. Norton is especially impressive as Sheldon/Smoochy, who rivals Norton's Fight Club character for creepiness in some twisted, Teletubby sort of way. (1:49) Balboa. (Gachman)

*Frailty This thriller touches on some controversial areas (religious extremism and children committing violence) and achieves moments of genuine creepiness in its story of a small-town Texas father (Bill Paxton, making his feature directing debut) who believes he has received a life-changing vision from God. He is given a list of seemingly innocent victims, and he ropes his two young sons into the task of killing these "demons." The movie begins with a contemporary frame story in which one of the sons (Matthew McConaughey) confesses to an FBI agent that his brother is an infamous serial killer. In explanation, he narrates an extended flashback to 1979, when the two brothers have conflicting responses to the religious mania of their otherwise kind father. The young actors carry the film, with Matthew O'Leary as Fenton, who is dazed by his father's gruesome task, and Jeremy Sumpter as his younger brother, Adam, who believes in the Christian righteousness of it all. The plot gets weighed down a bit by the heavy-handed baroque imagery, and there are several predictable developments, but the story ends with a satisfying surprise twist. (1:40) Metreon. (Henderson)*Gosford Park Robert Altman's best movie in ages negotiates a middle path between his usual catch-all meandering and the scrubbed orderliness of Merchant Ivory terrain, arriving at something greater than either. An English country estate presided over by Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his much younger wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), is the destination on a 1932 autumn weekend for a large roster of relatives, in-laws, and hangers-on, most of whom have a considerable, parasitic stake in staying on the wealthy host's good side. An even larger army of servants attends them, their hierarchies and hidden agendas just as complex as those of the "masters." Midway through these 48 hours of tortured politeness, a murder occurs, and indeed, this time the butler might really have done it, though there's hardly a shortage of suspects. Tethered to an exceptionally good screenplay by Julian Fellowes, and hugely benefiting from the expertise of a remarkable cast, the film gets deeper into its archaic milieu than any Altman project since (at least) The Player – with less condescension or performance showboating to boot. (2:17) Balboa. (Harvey)

High Crimes Director Carl Franklin shepherds the re-team of Kiss the Girls co-stars Ashley Judd (as a high-powered San Francisco lawyer) and Morgan Freeman (as a motorcyclin', sometimes on-the-wagon lawyer). The dynamic duo join forces to defend Judd's hubby (Jim Caviezel) when he's accused of a war crime he says he didn't commit. Cue standard-issue popcorn thriller tropes (threatening intruders! high-up cover-ups! people who aren't what they seem!) But even numerous plot holes, an ending that won't surprise anyone, and a distracting, annoying performance by Amanda Peet (as Judd's "hippie" sister) can't overshadow the appeal of the leads: Freeman is great as always, and Judd, to her credit, lets a little vulnerability into her ass-kicking, Double Jeopardy-honed personal. (1:55) Metreon. (Eddy)

*Human Nature Noted Björk video director Michel Gondry makes his feature debut with Human Nature, a film starring Patricia Arquette as Lila Jute, a woman whose hormones cause her to sprout hair where hair is usually not there. Human Nature's comedic quest for embarrassment is effectively painful when love forces Lila to shave off her full-body locks, pluck and paint her face, and bury herself beneath a wig. Human Nature's screenplay is by Charlie Kaufman, and traces of Being John Malkovich have spilled from that film's portal into Kaufman's follow-up. Much like Malkovich, Human Nature is a roundelay of misfired desires in which the least cunning identity thieves can't get no satisfaction. Kaufman doesn't provide blazing insights, or even pick sides, in the battle between nature and culture. Instead he uses the conflict to expose neurotic fault lines and compose a mini-encyclopedia of insecurities. Kaufman on an off day out-I.Q.s his comic screenwriting contemporaries, and while Gondry doesn't extend the technical innovation of his videos, he still has a signature style of picture-making and motion. (1:36) Four Star. (Huston)

Ice Age The Triassic, Jurassic, and Late Cretaceous have been thoroughly picked over Spielberg and his many descendants, but the last Ice Age – which gave us the woolly mammoth, the saber-toothed tiger, and the giant ground sloth – has enough fossil left in it to fuel a whole new period in movies. This early entry into the genre opens auspiciously, with a determined squirrel setting off the entire continent-shifting chain of events by attempting to bury an acorn in hard-packed ice. Chris Wedge's cool 3-D computer animation style can compare with the latest from Pixar. But his story arc feels almost as old as the 10,000-year-old era that spawned it: a mammoth and his slothful friend (voiced by Ray Romano and John Leguizamo, respectively, in the Shrek and Donkey roles) set off to save a human child from saber-toothed tigers (including one who joins them, voiced by Denis Leary). The laughs are sitcom-ready and the outcome, history. (1:24) Century Plaza. (Gerhard)

In the Bedroom Fusing TV movie with art film, Todd Field's debut feature seems to be made with Academy Awards in mind; an ensemble of actors navigate the icy, stormy psychology of its Maine-set screenplay (adapted from a novel by Andre Dubus), which traces the effects of a murder on a select few of the characters. Married couple Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth (Sissy Spacek) Fowler are troubled their college-age son Frank (Nick Stahl of Bully, cementing his position as 2001's top cinematic sitting duck) is in a relationship with Natalie Strout (Marisa Tomei): she's older, she has kids, she hasn't gotten a divorce from abusive brewery-brat Richard Strout (William Mapother), and she's clouding Frank's vision of a wealthy future. Actually, Frank's dad takes a certain vicarious pleasure from his son's new romance; his mom, however, is unhappy that he might choose lobstering over architecture – and her concern is soon eradicated in the worst possible way. Spacek and Wilkinson are excellent, especially when the script calls on them to deliver Bergman Americana, but In the Bedroom's narrative matches ellipses with heavy-handed symbolism, and the results are too often numbing. (2:26) Four Star. (Huston)

*Iris The late novelist and philosopher Dame Iris Murdoch was regarded as one of the most brilliant women of her generation, and so it was especially tragic when Alzheimer's disease stole her capacity for expression. Richard Eyre's film seeks to depict the uncommon love between Iris and her husband, John Bayley, but it succeeds more in exposing the devastating effects of her disease. The actors who portray Iris, the enchanting Kate Winslet and legendary Judi Dench, deftly convey the vitality and wit that made her so widely loved in her prime. But as her condition worsens, we are subjected to continual cuts between past and present, which are intended to provide a backdrop for John's devotion but feel mostly like an eerie glimpse into Iris's own mental regression. Her deterioration is quite painful to watch, but Eyre does manage to reveal enough of Murdoch's unique philosophy to intrigue those unfamiliar with her work. (1:30) Four Star. (Cohen)

*Italian for Beginners An ensemble of lonely misfit adults – a pastor being badgered by his bitter predecessor, a beautician who seems to break down frequently during haircuts, a baker who can't help dropping the goods, and a few expected others – flicker around the flame of a night-school Italian class. When the teacher dies of a heart attack early on, one of the students, a brutish soccer fan-failed restaurateur happily takes over in this first Dogme movie by a woman, director Lone Scherfig. The waning movement could use the sweetness and light that this romantic comedy provides. Its cast of characters may be a little cute, but by the time they get together for a well-earned metaphorical big group hug in the form of an Italian-class field trip, you'll forget your fear of handheld camera. (1:39) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Gerhard)

*Jason X Crystal Lake's most famous son has weathered horny counselors, biker gangs, 3-D, Corey Feldman, lightning, the sewers of Manhattan, being blown to bits by the FBI, and hell, and he returns once again to conquer outer space. Within the first five minutes, a snooty doc (yep, that's David Cronenberg) and his cronies who doubt the awesome power of Voorhees are sliced and diced. But the good times don't really start to roll until Jason – who's been cryogenically frozen for 400 years – is brought aboard a space ship full of midriff-bearing students. Our hero's methods of slaughtering the young and promiscuous become ever more creative, even as he's stymied by a foxy android and some self-referential virtual reality. For sure, it's the same old song and dance we've been seeing since the '80s heyday of franchise horror, but for nostalgic Friday the 13th fans (and anyone who eagerly anticipates this summer's Halloween: Resurrection and/or the now seemingly inevitable return of Freddy Krueger), Jason X comes loaded with good old-fashioned carnage candy of the highest order. (1:33) Colma, Emery Bay, Galaxy, Jack London, Metreon, UA Berkeley.

Kissing Jessica Stein Adapted by its leading actors from their stage play, director Charles Herman-Wurmfield's feature is the WASPiest NYC Jewish romantic comedy since Crossing Delancey, and the story's gender-preference-identity-crisis gist is about as full of depth as it would be on an episode of Friends. None of which prevents this breezy movie from being a audience-pleasing experience, but those in search of something more than an indie-flick sitcom won't be among the most pleased. The title character (Jennifer Westfeldt) works at a newspaper and endures the usual parade of loser boy-men dates. Her attention is perked by a personal ad that quotes Rilke – but the problem, ahem, is that it's a woman-seeking-woman ad. She pursues anyway and winds up in a tortuously tentative relationship with art gallery assistant manager Helen (Heather Juergensen), the sticking point being Jessica's reluctance to "go" lesbian and terror of breaking the news to her friends and family. One thing that's nice about Kissing is its last-lap concession that in the Big City, changing partners, remaining friends, and shuttling about the Kinsey Scale can get to be a less than big deal. But a more conventional predictability dominates most of the progress here, with laughter and tears professionally extracted at familiar junctures. (1:47) Embarcadero, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Lantana Starting with a view of a body facedown in some dense shrubbery, this Australian drama looks set to become a murder mystery, but Andrew Bovell's sharp screenplay is more interested in the impulses toward infidelity and doubt that trouble several interconnected relationships. Police detective Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) guiltily cheats on a wife (Kerry Armstrong) who senses that the commitment's gone out of their marriage; she sees a psychiatrist (Barbara Hershey) whose own husband (Geoffrey Rush) seems to be drifting away. Several other well-defined characters figure notably in Ray Lawrence's tightly wound film, which builds considerable tension despite some implausible plot connections and a final sequence that strains a bit to deliver its closing flourish. (2:00) Balboa. (Harvey)

Life or Something Like It In this romantic comedy from director Stephen Herek (Rock Star), star Angelina Jolie adds a certain amount of excitement to what is otherwise yet another picture extolling the virtues of love, sweet love. Seattle television personality Lanie Kerrigan (Jolie) could give a rat's ass about anything in her life besides her career and her daily workouts, and last on her list is greasy cameraperson Pete (Edward Burns), with whom she argues constantly; predictably, their fighting words mask an attraction that takes a while to emerge. In the meantime, the station sends Lanie to interview a homeless fortune-teller (Tony Shalhoub), who tells her she'll die in a week. A kooky existential crisis/mental breakdown follows. Ultimately, the film rests too heavily on the conceit that the possibility of a romantic relationship requires scaling back lifelong career aspirations – though Jolie is captivating enough to give the old-fashioned Life a little spring in its step. (1:39) Jack London, Kabuki, Metreon, Orinda. (Eddy)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (3:00) Grand Lake, UA Berkeley.

Lucky Break This gentle British comedy doesn't pack the full emotional wallop of director Peter Cattaneo's previous effort, The Full Monty, but it mines similar territory, aiming to be infectiously upbeat despite some darker story undertones. Inept bank robber Jimmy Hands (James Nesbitt) plans to stage a prison break as the inmates perform Nelson: The Musical, a pet project of the institution's governor, Graham Mortimer (a batty Christopher Plummer). Falling in love with his musical costar, Annabel Sweep (Olivia Williams), head of the prison support unit, adds a complication to Hands's plans. The film is packed to the gills with strong support performances, notably by Lennie James, Timothy Spall, and Bill Nighy. Stick around as the titles roll for vignettes about the characters' futures as reggae star Prince Buster sings, "Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think." (1:49) 1000 Van Ness. (China Martens)

*Monsoon Wedding Director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!) returns to contemporary India but shifts her focus to the tribulations of upper-middle-class Punjabis. At the center of Monsoon Wedding is a multiday, traditional Indian marriage ceremony that gathers family and friends for feasting, celebration, and rituals. The film's sprawling, multicharacter story adroitly weaves together numerous intersecting lives: the bride, who is really in love with an already married man; the father, who is terrified his son is gay; the cousin, who must confront the childhood trauma of sexual abuse by her uncle; and the wedding planner, who is falling in love with the family maid. By compressing so much drama and conflict into three days, Nair treads dangerously close to soap opera, but she's saved by some intense, honest performances and a style that captures the poetry and lyricism of real life. (1:54) Albany, Embarcadero. (Henderson)

*Monster's Ball Marc Forster's Monster's Ball is a small-town melodrama sobered by a pervasive pall of meaning; it communicates so much thorny pain around such genuinely discomfiting issues that the hard-won modest uplift at the end feels utterly genuine. In a contemporary Southern state where racial power divisions haven't changed much at all, death row guard Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) crosses paths with the Leticia (Halle Berry, the widow of a former prisoner. Both Hank and Leticia are in desperate straits, each bottomlessly needy without the faintest idea of how or where to start getting help. The impulse toward mutual kindness is so unexpected and foreign, particularly as it stretches over near-impassable racial-economic lines, that neither one really knows what to do with the other for some time. The movie's eventual narrative gist is rife with tabloid TV-movie contrivance (Racist Prison Guard Gets Nice by Going Steady with Dead Inmate's Old Lady). But it works because the script and direction are so painfully attuned to the hurdles that inarticulate people driven (or frozen) by clenched rage must overcome before a happy ending is even remotely possible. (1:48) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Murder by Numbers In Barbet Schroeder's latest, the mysterious slaying of a local woman adds wrinkles to the highly controlled life of homicide cop Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock), especially when she becomes convinced the guilty are a pair of high schoolers: rich, handsome Richard (Ryan Gosling of The Believer) and rich, brilliant Justin (Michael Pitt of Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Of course, we know they did it, since we've been privy to their scheme all along – although the actual mechanics of the crime, and who did what exactly, remain cloudy until the end. Bullock is fine in this atypically dramatic turn, but Murder by Numbers belongs to Gosling and Pitt, whose scenes together have a riveting urgency that adds depth to a fairly standard crime-scene thriller. (2:01) Grand Lake, Metreon. (Eddy)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding A shrinking wallflower raised amid over-the-top extroverts, Toula Portokalos (Nia Vardalos) awakens from her 30-year funk after one look at lanky hunk Ian (John Corbett). She gives herself a makeover and a new career and duly snares Mr. Right. Trouble is, his family is as WASPy as they come, while hers – well, suffice it to say that parents Gus (Michael Constantine) and Maria (Lainie Kazan) are so ethnocentric that their suburban house is outfitted to look like the Parthenon. Wacky culture-clashing ensues. Adapting Vardalos's autobiographical stage monologue for the screen, director Joel Zwick (a TV veteran all the way back to Laverne and Shirley) doesn't do much to elevate the material above elongated-sitcom status – though if the howling response from a largely Greek American audience at a preview screening is any indication, this agreeable, predictable comedy has at least one demographic in its pocket. (2:01) Jack London, Metreon, Shattuck. (Harvey)

National Lampoon's Van Wilder (1:35) 1000 Van Ness.

*Nine Queens Argentina's most successful homegrown feature in years is this clever and accomplished caper movie, which writer-director Fabián Bielinsky pulls off like a less cold-blooded David Mamet or Claude Chabrol. Always looking to milk others for whatever they've got, veteran con artist Marcos (Ricardo Darín of Son of the Bride, also currently in theaters) saves younger, petty swindler Juan (Gastón Pauls) from potential arrest, in return inviting the kid to participate in some larger-stakes schemes. The tentative partnership proves useful when a huge prize falls into their laps: the chance to sell a forged set of extremely rare stamps. As matters proceed, Juan turns out to be not quite as green as he looks, unscrupulous Marcos rather less Teflon-shelled, and the latter's straight-arrow sister Valeria (Leticia Brédice) a not-unwilling collaborator given the right circumstances. Shot in a sleek Buenos Aires of high-end hotels and corporate headquarters, this wryly tricksome tale of power reversals, betrayals, and dangerous bluffs comes complete with the requisite last-lap, 180-degree plot twist. (1:54) Act I and II, Embarcadero. (Harvey)

Panic Room In this techno-thriller from Fight Club director David Fincher, recent divorcée Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter (Kristen Stewart) move into a new house equipped with a secret chamber-fortress. Wouldn't you just know that on the Altmans' very first night in the town house, three variously malevolent burglars (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakam) break in. Panicked, mom and daughter bunker down. Unfortunately, the unwelcome guests know about the room – and what they're after is located guess where. Ever so impressively designed and shot, Panic Room gives a good ride – but there's a popcorn triviality to this material that even Fincher, a gifted filmmaker, can't overcome. (1:52) Century Plaza, Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Pauline and Paulette Pauline (Dora van der Groen) is a childlike 66-year-old woman who worships flowers, floral wallpaper, and her sister Paulette (Ann Petersen), a fabric seller and opera singer. When her caretaker passes away, Pauline is shuffled between the irritated Paulette and their upwardly mobile sister Cecile (Rosemarie Bergmans), neither of whom want the burden of parenting their unsophisticated sibling. Guess who ends up developing an unlikely bond (see title)? Belgian writer-director Lieven Debrauwer initially lays on the kitsch, giving Pauline's flights of ingenuous fancy amid Blue Danube waltzes and gaudy LaChapellian pastels an interesting, truffle-like lushness. The script, however, is strictly store-bought bonbon material, and even as Groen's noteworthy take on the confused heroine blooms among the schmaltz, Pauline and Paulette's inclination to simply settle into the mellow groove of stock estrangement and reconciliation lends it a blandly, deadly familiar air. (1:28) Shattuck. (Fear)*Queen of the Damned Midnight show with audience participation and live cast. (1:41) Four Star.

Ram Dass: Fierce Grace (1:33) Rafael.

The Rookie The Rookie tells the true story of unlikely hero Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid), a baseball pitcher who was injured before he made it to the big leagues. Coach Morris makes a deal with his small-town West Texas high school team: if they become district champs, he'll try out again. To everyone's surprise, Morris pitches better than ever and once again has the chance to get called up. This heartwarming drama is just the sort of story G.W. Bush would love, especially since it associates professional baseball with all that's right with America. Still, it's hard to dislike this film, in which the earnest Quaid comes across as a genuinely decent family man who's finally pursuing his dream. Incredibly, The Rookie gets around the usual fault of movies like this by not indulging in sappiness. At its best it gives the feel of real life in contemporary America. At worst, it's a pleasant fantasy that avoids exposing our most embarrassing faults. (2:09) Century Plaza, Oaks, 1000 Van Ness. (Henderson)

*The Royal Tenenbaums (2:25) Balboa.

The Salton Sea This overly dark and brooding thriller seeks to revise the drugs-and-crime genre but instead falls flat on its face. Val Kilmer plays Danny Parker, a tattoo-covered crystal meth addict living in the seediest of worlds. But wait – actually, he's Tom Van Allen, accomplished trumpet player, whose beautiful wife was murdered by masked gunmen. The story drags out some suspense over why Tom has become Danny, but it winds up being the most predictable exercise in masculine heroism. Director D.J. Caruso shows flashes of Guy Ritchie-inspired visual tricks, but these are incongruous with the otherwise lame material. The screenplay is littered with offensive racial stereotypes and even worse Hollywood narrative clichés, and while Vincent D'Onofrio is frighteningly unrecognizable as a crazed meth dealer, he contributes nothing to the film's search for a deeper theme about identity and trauma. The only insight of lasting interest in the film is the peek into the criminal world of crystal addicts, but does the world really need an exploitative film about tweakers and crankheads? (1:43) Century Plaza, Grand Lake, Metreon, Shattuck. (Henderson)

The Scorpion King It's hard not to like a movie in which a fabulously campy Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson fights fire ants with his teeth and rides a camel he refers to as "smart." As the future Scorpion King, Johnson muscles his way through a world filled with cartoonish villains like Memnon (Steven Brand), ruler of Gomorrah, and his mostly naked sorceress sidekick, Cassandra (Kelly Hu). Scorp is a superspecially trained mercenary hired by a coalition of local tribal leaders to kill Cassandra and bring down Memnon's empire. Of course, he soon learns that conscience rules over cash, and he decides to fight for "the people" against Memnon's ruthless armies. Writer Jonathan Hales has penned several "young Indiana Jones" straight-to-vids (as well as doing a little work on upcoming Star Wars flicks), and it shows. The Scorpion King has enough fire, arrows, swords, and armor to rouse – and please – the adolescent boy who lurks deep within us all. Chuck Russell (Eraser) knows how to direct action, and there are several genuinely great, body-hurled-through-window fight scenes in this flick. Maybe Johnson won't be the next Jackie Chan, but I hope this wacky Samoan will steal moviegoers' affections away from tired old Arnie the Aryan. (1:32) Century Plaza, Grand Lake, 1000 Van Ness. (Annalee Newitz)

Space Station 3D This occasionally thrilling spectacle with stupendous, up-close views of the International Space Station is presented by those paragons of the art of cinema, Lockheed Martin. OK, so it's really a blatant attempt to convince taxpayers to support government contracts with defense technology corporations. Of course, the focus here is not on combat missiles but the humanitarian space mission: narrator Tom Cruise promises us that the astronauts' experiments will someday help cure unnamed diseases or benefit the environment. Cruise overarticulates his words, almost spitting them out, as he tells us about this incredible undertaking. The international crew of astronauts are convincingly portrayed as real-life heroes, though the filmmakers' attempts to manufacture drama over a particularly tough mission or personal trials of separation from family are largely futile. What's really impressive is the depiction of life in zero-g, including a simple shot of a cosmonaut eating a globule of water. The 3-D gimmick is not convincingly realistic, but it gives a cartoonish vitality to some incredible images. (:47) Metreon Imax. (Henderson)

The Sweetest Thing From the pen of South Park vet Nancy M. Pimental comes this chick-powered flick (directed by a guy, though: Cruel Intentions helmer Roger Kumble) that lands someplace between Sex and the City and Girls Gone Wild. After sassy man magnet Christina (Cameron Diaz, working her best hair since The Mask) briefly meets – and lets escape from her clutches – a guy (Thomas Jane) who just might be the One, best pals Courtney (Christina Applegate) and Jane (Selma Blair, the target of more than her share of the film's gross-out jokes) convince her to track him down. The story is featherlight, the tasteless humor so 1999, but this breakneck-paced flick manages to get by on Diaz's famous grin, the inside jokesy rapport between Diaz and Applegate, and Applegate herself, a scene-stealing second banana who gets many of the film's biggest laughs. (1:27) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

World Traveler A distinct improvement over Bart Freundlich's pretentious debut feature, The Myth of Fingerprints, this road-tripping drama has a lot of striking individual elements – wide-screen imagery, surprise plot twists, and strong performance moments – even if it ultimately doesn't seem to have a destination in mind. Billy Crudup plays Cal, a successful architect, husband, and father who suddenly panics and leaves all that behind on the brink of his son's third birthday. This delayed but severe attack of commitment phobia sends Cal hither and yon, picking up stray jobs and transient relationships while his conscience slowly burns a hole through his brain. There are some very well written and played sequences in which Cal haplessly draws out the darkest impulses in those who cross his path, including characters played by Cleavant Derricks, Julianne Moore, James LeGros, and David Keith – his own near-sociopathic irresponsibility and charm act as a lightning rod for other people's secret impulses. But like many such anecdotal soul-searching tales, World Traveler is better at looking than finding. Cal's final turnabout falls into that trap where magic realism is deployed to fuzz over a catharsis more convenient than psychologically justified. Still, this is a notably ambitious and offbeat indie flick whose roadside attractions are arresting enough to excuse an unsatisfying endpoint. (1:46) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

*Y tu mamá también Alfonso Cuarón, the latest director to owe a stylistic debt to Godard, is less concerned with praising love per se than its physical manifestation, be it in onanistic, coupled, or ménage à trois variations. Handheld camera work shakes and snakes around corners à la Raoul Coutard. Sound drops out occasionally so a narrator can digress into characters' past, present, and future. People sprout manifestos full of dogmatic statements like "Truth is cool but unattainable" and "Pop beats poetry." Of course, one of those statements is "Whacking off rules!," which I can't remember ever hearing in any of Godard's films. Welcome to someone else's glorious masterpiece. Tenoch (Diego Luna) and his best friend, Julio (Amores perros's Gael García Bernal) have the bond of being raging hormone collections trapped in the form of teenage boys on the hunt. Spotting a beautiful Spanish woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú) at a lavish wedding reception, the two would-be Lotharios invite her on a road trip to the beach. The trio hits the road in search of paradise. What they get instead is a series of sexual rocket blasts, some painful doses of maturity, and Mexico in all its permutations. (1:45) Act I and II, Embarcadero, Piedmont. (Fear)

Rep picks

*Fat Girl Catherine Breillat (Romance) punctuates her career with a surprise ending and double-underlining of that career's polemical through-line: the libido is a terrible thing to waste. Under the duress of bourgeois boredom, two sisters seek out trouble. It's mostly skinny Elena, played with haughty, sultry self-consciousness by Roxane Mesquida, initiating the adventures. She has to drag along, as cover, her heavy sister, Anaïs (a difficult role carried off with amazing transparency by 13-year-old Anaïs Reboux). The girls meet Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), and while Elena begins making out with him in a matter of seconds, Anaïs digs into a banana split. It's up to Anaïs to be the voice of reason, and she watches the doomed romance as if it were a tragic melodrama she didn't want to pay to see. Together the sisters are headed for the land of Little Red Riding Hood, but as anyone who's seen a Breillat film can testify, it's the wolf who'dbetter watch his back. (1:23) New PFA Theater. (Gerhard)*'Films by Peter Sempel' See Critic's Choice. Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes.*'Kung Fu Kult Classics and Saturday Midnites for Maniacs' This week's Kult Klassics double feature is Tsui Hark's 1991 action classic Once upon a Time in China 2, starring Jet Li, and the Jackie Chan-starring (in his first major role, circa 1972) Master with Cracked Fingers. The Saturday midnight show is Johnnie To's excellent gangster flick The Mission. Four Star.

*Waking Life Dazed and confused and reveling in it, Richard Linklater's animated Waking Life is both a return to form and an intense break from it – a movie filmed entirely in live-action is transformed into animation. Shattering the naturalistic facade of his well-structured Slacker of a decade ago, the filmmaker revisits his Austin roots but drops his wandering souls into a stylized, artist-sketched reverie. An ode to college towns and the ideas that swelter inside them, the story follows lucid dreamer Wiley Wiggins as he drifts through random conversations about the meaning and future of life on this planet and others. An ensemble cast of around 50, including the director's daughter, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Caveh Zahedi, and what appear to be real Austin college-town crazies, made up a quarter of the script themselves and rewrote another quarter of Linklater's words before the film was turned into jittery, inspired visual art. (1:37) Red Vic. (Gerhard)