January 15, 2003
It's funny in Kansas
Arts and Entertainment
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. See Rep Clock, and Movie Clock, for theater information.
Big Shot's Funeral Chinese director Feng Xiaogang wanted to make a film that would reveal to the outside world a new China one bustling with modernity and commerce. More important, he wanted to showcase the Chinese sense of humor. He began with a premise that presumably accomplished both: a man sets out to sell ad space and product placements for a funeral (a famous American film director's funeral, to be exact). Unfortunately, the creative genius stops there. The rest of the story seems to have been made up along the way, resulting in a jumbled and feeble narrative that draws more confusion than laughter. As a satire, its assault on marketing excesses lacks insight for those of us long accustomed to reading advertisements while using the toilet. On the bright side, veteran Donald Sutherland delivers a delightfully head-on performance as the titular big shot Don Tyler, but in the context of such a bizarre film his elegance feels suspiciously like a lucky accident. (1:48) Galaxy, Stonestown. (Cohen)
Candy Von Dewd Sex, drugs, and psychedelic sci-fi collide on the subatomic level in the latest homegrown production from director Jacques Boyreau and the Werepad pack. Sperm-deprived astronauts and their robot (named Robot) seek suitably fertile ground, only to stumble into a hellhole of latex-clad go-go gyrating alien women. While the captain (executive producer Scott Moffett, doing a five-star turn as a cannibals-ripped James T. Kirk) battles a mind-control takeover, the rest of the crew seek to summon the also-latex-clad titular heroine, who must lend her body to save the human race. Or something like that. The 'Pad's bump up to digital video brings with it some snazzy CGI effects. There's a fierce sound mix to admire, and Boyreau hits all the right exploitation notes in his own mad way. Of course, anyone expecting a proper A-to-B narrative will likely be baffled (if not outright angered), but anyone who craves Planet of the Vampires or an Ib Melchior movie after a hefty bong hit will groove accordingly. (1:35) Four Star. (Macias)
A Guy Thing Jason Lee, Selma Blair, and Julia Stiles do the love triangle thing. (1:41) Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London.
Kangaroo Jack Director David McNally, who unleashed Coyote Ugly on the world, returns with Kangaroo Jack, an '80s-style buddy-film redux: white guy (Jerry O'Connell) baits white chick (Estella Warren) while black guy (Anthony Anderson) entertains with slapstick humor. After about 20 minutes you can't help but want to kick the white guy's teeth in, and the jokes become so stale it's hard to muster a chuckle. Jack also features the requisite male bonding, plus a mobster stepfather played by Christopher Walken, who manages to keep a straight face in most of his scenes. As characters experience desert hallucinations of Starbucks frappucinos and 7-Eleven slurpees, it becomes obvious that Kangaroo Jack is just a milking cow for the capitalist tycoons who helped put it together. (1:24) Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London, Oaks. (Rachel Swan)
*Morvern Callar See "Walkman Woman." (1:49) Lumiere, Shattuck.
Naked Three couples find their long-lasting friendship threatened by petty bourgeoisie jealousy, insecurities, and a breakup in their midst. At a dinner party one of them suggests they test their relationships with an unusual parlor game: they must all strip naked and, blindfolded, attempt to identify their significant other through touch and smell alone. Naturally, disaster and long-winded bouts of "but-what-is-love, really?" introspection ensues. The latest feather-light farce from filmmaker Doris Dörrie (Men ...) was a huge box-office hit in Germany, and considering its highly photogenic cast and yuppie angst-by-numbers, one can see why it might attract crowds. But Dörrie's usual soft touch never sits well with the Albee-lite digressions, and the backstabbing bitterness feels forced. Thanks to its adherence to rather superficial thirtysomething therapy-speak, Naked seems stalled at sitcom-safe level of must-see-TV insight; throw in a laugh track, and you'd have the pilot for a Deutschland-derived sitcom entitled Schaden-Friends. (1:38) Rafael. (Fear)
National Security Martin Lawrence and Steve Zahn do the buddy cop thing. (1:30) Jack London.
Patlabor WXIII See Movie Clock. (1:40) Galaxy.
P.S. Your Cat Is Dead See "Kitty Litter" (1:44) Opera Plaza, Shattuck.
About Schmidt We meet Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) as he counts off the final seconds of his life-insurance job in the dead atmosphere of a generic gray office; he seems as bloodless and overcooked as the steaks at the retirement party that soon follows. Cut off from imagination and compassion and almost too fatigued to be curmudgeonly, Schmidt is a distant relative of the antihero in Five Easy Pieces, and About Schmidt's Midwestern terrain so empty, so grim evokes that film. Of course, director Alexander Payne is also returning to the Omaha zombiescapes of Citizen Ruth and Election, trading the latter film's kinetic politicized wit (which, ironically, seems to have stemmed from its MTV money) for the slack pace of a lonely retiree's Winnebago trip to Colorado. Punctuated by letters to an orphan in Tanzania, this journey back to life is essentially a series of excruciating encounters with strangers and family, who might as well be the same. Payne mockingly pits comb-over against mullet and meaningfully hollow formal speeches against Kathy Bates's rude rants as a purple lady in the process of depicting one man's clumsy attempts at reviving himself. He's rewarded by a lead performance that's more generous than this film, whose final shot is inspired by Akira Kurosawa's superior Ikiru. (2:04) California, Century 20, Grand Lake, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio. (Huston)
*Adaptation To experience the kind of writer's block that wracks the mind and wrecks the body of Adaptation's Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage, wearing the expression of someone who's habitually beaten), one need only attempt a plot synopsis. Or worse yet, a condensed version of the film's back story. Both endeavors are doomed to failure, so let's, in the spirit of the film itself, combine them. One could say Adaptation is Kaufman's made-for-the-movies rewrite of Susan Orlean's nonfiction work The Orchid Thief, but it isn't, really it's a movie about Kaufman adapting Orlean's book, a hallucinatory process that involves Kaufman's twin brother, Donald (Cage, in bright-shining dimwit mode), and screenplay guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox), two figures who wield considerably higher narrative power than the main characters in Orlean's book, John Laroche (Chris Cooper) and the author herself (Meryl Streep). Like Spike Jonze's debut, Being John Malkovich, his second movie expands the deliberate showiness of his TV-based ad work, all the while maintaining a coherence, thanks to Kaufman's faux-incoherent script, which takes small bites from two different story lines before vomiting up a Möbius strip and Hollywood genre hybrid. (1:52) Century 20, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Huston)
Antwone Fisher Moviegoers have little patience for melodrama these days, but the rules governing realistic plot lines must obviously be modified when the film in question is based on a true account. Take the story of Antwone Fisher, written by the title character about his own life. See, all those terrible things really did happen to him, one after the other, and he really did triumph over all that adversity to end up happy and accomplished. So there's no foundation for the complaint that his story is unrealistic, or sentimental, or downright sappy. Perhaps Denzel Washington chose this script to be his directorial debut because he thought audiences (and critics), disarmed of the long-cultivated cynicism they consistently carry into the theater, might simply be uplifted by an inspiring tale of survival in the face of tremendous obstacles, and of the power of human kindness. Or maybe he just has a thing for sap. (2:00) Century 20, Jack London, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Cohen)
*Bowling for Columbine In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore attempts to find out why, exactly, America is so very homicidal. What's so powerful about the film, a truly intelligent departure from the somber stranglehold of the Sept. 11 era on the topic of What's Wrong with America, is what's so powerful about all of Moore's films: his use of location, the comic mise-en-scène that one couldn't dream up in a studio setting, the "reality" of our reality that is truly too strange for words. I mean, after all this time, Who lets this guy in? The camera rolls as Moore makes pit stops that turn into filmmaking coups; by the time the interviews are over, those catch-phrase historic events that had been reduced to very singular meanings "Columbine," "Oklahoma City," "9/11" are reinvented as the truly terrible, complex situations they were. Ours is a population easily herded, a fact Moore enjoys as he revisits some of the old ghosts of media frenzy: those "Africanized killer bees" that never arrived, the razored apples poised to kill children on Halloween. Should a country this hyped up on fear be armed? That question is easy. The bigger one Why are we so afraid? is largely unanswerable. What's new for Moore is taking on a question so sticky in a time so angry in a country so thought-controlled. (1:59) Act I and II, Embarcadero, Piedmont. (Gerhard)
*Catch Me If You Can Catch Me If You Can is Steven Spielberg's least self-important movie in eons. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank W. Abagnale Jr. (whose autobiographical tome gets a somewhat loose adaptation from Jeff Nathanson), an East Coast teenager who runs away from home when his fond but troubled parents (Christopher Walken, Nathalie Baye) split. He quickly realizes a talent for "paperhanging" (staying one step ahead of falsified credit card and check transactions) and for constructing the Very Important Adult personae that help him get away with it. Thus Frankie spends years living in first-class hotels, jetting to exotic vacation spots, cashing large phony checks, bedding lots of pretty girls, and posing as an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer all before turning 21. Early on this act attracts attention from the FBI, namely humorless, semihapless agent Hanratty (Tom Hanks), but the quarry remains at large for an amazingly long, expensive run. Astutely cast, DiCaprio is very good, and Walken's low-key Willy Loman provides all the poignant underpinnings the movie needs. Too bad it must eventually resort to lines like "Sometimes it's easier living the lie," Midnight Express theatrics, and a final assurance that Abagnale is "redeemed" by becoming a federal snitch. (2:20) Century Plaza, Century 20, Empire, Grand Lake, Jack London, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda, Shattuck. (Harvey)
*Chicago This belated screen translation of Kander and Ebb's repeat Broadway success is a more qualified triumph once you get past the immediate glitter. For budgetary as well as disbelief-suspending reasons, first-time film director Rob Marshall stages all the musical numbers as mind's-eye fantasies, a tactic that rather disappointingly leaves them looking a helluva lot like they did in the 1975 show's still-running 1996 revival. Dumb-blonde failed chorine Roxie (Renée Zellweger) shoots her married lover, becoming the latest headline-grabbing "Death Row Doll" in sensation-addicted Roaring Twenties Chicago. That status deposes and rankles prior star murderess Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who's also "represented" on various fronts by showboating lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), opportunistic prison warden Big Mama (Queen Latifah), and "sob sister" reporter Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski). Benefitting from no doubt many hours of vocal and dance coaching, the leads are just OK where a cast of real Broadway types might have been dazzling. Still, the material is fun, the flashiness is bracing, and the sheer throwback novelty a big musical for Christmas was worth the effort. (1:47) Century 20, Galaxy, Jack London, Metreon. (Harvey)
*Comedian Two years after Jerry Seinfeld's sitcom went off the air, the acclaimed comedian made an unusual decision to retire every last joke in his well-worn arsenal and build a new stand-up act from scratch. Christian Charles and Gary Streiner, the producers of Seinfeld's American Express commercials, asked permission to document the process when they learned that the performer was actually terrified of taking the stage without the safety net of his old material. With two hand-held digital cameras, they followed Seinfeld around the New York City comedy club circuit, capturing the action, both onstage and off. The resulting film, initially titled Anatomy of a Joke, is a surprising and very funny behind-the-scenes look at the unique world of stand-up comedy. Featuring appearances by Colin Quinn, Chris Rock, Jay Leno, and Bill Cosby, Comedian reveals a community bonded by the daunting task of making people laugh night after night and committed to making it look easy. (1:22) Balboa. (Cohen)
El crimen del Padre Amaro Based on an 1875 novel by Portugese author José María Eça de Queiroz, though updated to present-day Veracruz by scenarist Vicente Leñero, the story tallies an almost Sadean checklist of sins, hypocrises, and abuses, mostly piled by the powerful and purportedly pious on the poor and helpless. Newly ordained young Padre Amaro (Gael García Bernal) arrives in Los Reyes, where he's introduced to its longtime chief papal representative Padre Benito (Sancho Gracia). Amaro soon learns to disdain the older priest's secret affair with café owner Sanjuanera (Angélica Aragón), not to mention Benito's money-laundering for drug kingpin Chato Aguilar (Juan Ignacio Aranda). Amaro is in no position to protest overmuch once he's commenced his own course of horizontal worship with Sanjuanera's nubile young daughter Amelia (Ana Claudia Talancón). Before things have run their course, abortion, murder, alcoholism, blackmail, and plenty of plain old fibbing have joined the story's list of confessable behaviors. How seriously you can take these two hours' histrionics will depend on your own relationship with papal authority. If, deep down, you do now or have ever believed they're somehow above ordinary human failing, then maybe El crimen del Padre Amaro's billing as "one of the most controversial films ever made" will resound as something more than hype. (1:48) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)
*Derrida On the purely physical plane, Jacques Derrida is as great a camera subject as his life work is most emphatically not. This combination conspires to both juice and dog Derrida, a new documentary by veteran nonfiction filmmakers Kirby Dick (Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist) and Amy Ziering Kofman (Taylor's Campaign). You might ask: Do I care about the father of deconstruction? Do I even get what that means, after all this time? Derrida figured you'd ask, and it has its ways of sussing out the answers, wherever and whenever they can be found. Kofman and Dick chase the seventysomething Derrida across three continents to raid his privacy and push his pointy face into his theories. Facing the progenitor of its own harshest genre inquisition, this documentary can't help being serenely bemused by the ideological contradictions the still-breathing subject affords. ("Everything about cinéma verité is false," a curmudgeonly Derrida says at one point.) Cleverly layered in terms of visual and structural gambits, the film reaches its logical apotheosis when Derrida is captured on digital video, critiquing his performance on a previously shot digital video. (1:25) Opera Plaza, Rafael, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Die Another Day James Bond should not surf. Ever. But hit the waves he does in Die Another Day, not once but twice, heralding a distinct downturn in quality for the 40th anniversary of a once vaguely dignified franchise. In a mishmash of License to Kill and Diamonds Are Forever, a disgraced Bond (Pierce Brosnan) follows a trail of precious stones across North Korea, Cuba, the U.K., and Iceland, pausing to romance a paltry two Bond girls (Halle Berry and Rosamund Pike what, no Miss France runner-up?) along the way. The script overdoes the sci-fi trappings, and the results at best recall the excesses of Moonraker, and at worst, the ice planet episode of Battlestar Galactica. Director Lee Tamahori goes for a mix of MTV-style cuts and leaden pacing that will please neither series purists nor casual thrill-seekers. But his greatest crime lies in using shoddy digital effects in lieu of actual stunts. If James Bond is going to surf, then at least let someone risk death doing it. (2:12) Century 20, Kabuki, Metreon. (Macias)
*Drumline With locker room beat-boxing, choreographed stepshows, and a wall-to-wall soundtrack that includes everything from "Flight of the Bumblebee" to Trick Daddy, Charles Stone III's Drumline appropriates the formula of Spike Lee's School Daze and cranks it up and, to quote the main character Devon (Nick Cannon), this flick's "tighter than Spandex." Devon, a talented drummer from Harlem, lands a scholarship at a Southern university and expects to lead its marching band's drumline. Yet Devon's ambitions are hampered by a band director (Orlando Jones) with a baton up his ass who runs a tight ship and doesn't allow for any showboatin'. Throughout, the enjoyable Drumline is packed with show-style school band razzle dazzle, the type that makes a whole stadium get crunk. (1:59) Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Swan)
*8 Mile Eminem's stab at big-screen stardom may hew closer to Purple Rain than any of his jokey, off-color videos, but it's hard not to get caught up in Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile, the tale of Rabbit, a scrappy guy from the wrong side of the tracks whose extraordinary rhyme skills are, clearly, his only ticket out of trailer-park hell. The obstacles a crummy job, a crappy car, stage fright, hostile rivals, a dismal home life, the all-consuming Detroit dreariness pile up, but even though you know Eminem is eventually going to rock the shit out of the mic, his performance as a quietly determined but often defeated dreamer is enough to make you worry a little bit. And the payoff delivered in the film's final rap battle is so immense that 8 Mile's faults (a few too many one-sided characters, particularly the female ones) are easily swept away by the triumph of the moment. (1:51) Four Star. (Eddy)
Evelyn (1:34) Four Star.
*Far from Heaven Set in suburban Connecticut circa 1958, Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven primarily pays homage to Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, but Far from Heaven is more than a semiotic Hallmark card to melodrama it's an unashamedly florid expression of movie love. Within the meticulous architecture of Haynes's movie, Frank (Dennis Quaid), who reveals he is gay, and wife Cathy (Julianne Moore), who falls in love with an African American gardener (Dennis Haysbert), pass through revolving doors to meet betrayal and take elevator rides always going down toward a floor marked divorce. It has been argued that Haynes shows women have the least autonomy of Far from Heaven's triad of '50s outsiders or minorities, but the film isn't interested in weighing injustices so much as revealing how societal structures work to reinforce them. Cathy's and Frank's and Raymond's individual attempts at finding happiness collide, and one character's freedom becomes another's punishing trap. (1:47) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Huston)
Frida (1:58) Lumiere, Shattuck.
Gangs of New York Gangs of New York is a disaster not even of the colorful kind that might reflect some idiosyncratic glory back on its maker, but a thwarted-epic mediocrity that suggests creative waffling and executive interference from shooting-day one. The first reel manages to overestablish every ham-fisted motif, betray Martin Scorsese's fatally desperate willingness to please, and build a lunatic air the subsequent two-and-a-half hours can never quite live down all in one awful 20-minute prologue. A scrappy group of mostly Irish immigrants led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) makes its final stand against the bullying "natives" of crime boss Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) in the working-class Five Points district of 1846 New York City. They're horribly crushed, with Vallon's only child witnessing his father's death by the knife of the Butcher himself. A moment later Priest's now grown-up son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), is sprung from 15 intervening years in juvie, determined to get revenge. Gangs wants to be so much: critique of this land-of-immigrants' xenophobia, paean to NYC's street-fighting roots, American class-struggle primer, heterosexual love story, father-son love story, buddy pic, bloody goosing of costume drama. Yet it all shows up on screen as awful composite cliché, when anything past faint intention registers at all. (2:57) Century Plaza, Century 20, Four Star, Kabuki, Metreon, Oaks, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda. (Harvey)
*Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2:41) Century 20, Metreon.
The Hot Chick (1:41) Century 20, Metreon.
The Hours Like fellow leading British theater director Sam Mendes's American Beauty follow-up, The Road to Perdition, Stephen Daldry's sophomore screen effort (after Billy Elliot) arrives so convinced of its masterly import that each pearly moment seems to hand itself an individual Oscar. Which is not to say this adaptation by David Hare, no less of Michael Cunningham's ingenious novel is nearly as ponderous or hollow as Perdition. Rather, its genuinely prestigious material is intelligently handled, but top-heavy with more conspicuous "talent" than any self-supporting story should have to bear. Three narrative strands are interwoven, tracing vaguely similar arcs amongst women ill-at-ease with their particular era's definitions of gender, social status, and creative usefulness: nose-blunted Nicole Kidman plays the real-life British novelist Virginia Woolf, battling madness and overprotected domesticity two decades before her 1941 suicide. Julianne Moore is Laura Brown, a less stable version of her "perfect" post-World War II suburban wife and mother in Far from Heaven. Meryl Streep is Clarissa Vaughan, a contemporary, lesbian-partnered Mrs. Dalloway whose privileged New York life provides little satisfaction, especially as her longtime best friend (Ed Harris) lies dying of AIDS. The book's graceful, gently echoing swings between one strand and another are replaced somewhat necessarily, but still by overemphatic crosscuts that hammer home each one-size-fits-all motif. (1:54) Century 20, Jack London, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Just Married A mismatched couple artsy rich girl Sarah (Brittany Murphy) and sports-obsessed schlub Tom (Ashton Kutcher) face what seems like the end of their young marriage after a disastrous European honeymoon. Told almost entirely in flashback, this predictable comedy actually has some funny moments, though most are spoiled by the fact that they appear in the film's inescapable previews. Still, there's genuine chemistry between real-life face-suckers Kutcher (Dude, Where's My Car?) and Murphy (Don't Say a Word), both of whom seem as delighted with the film's never-ending barrage of broad humor and pratfalls as they do with each other. (1:35) Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
The Lion King IMAX (1:29) Metreon IMAX.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Last year's Fellowship of the Ring seemed to have done everything right, thus pleasing mass audiences and millions of J.R.R. Tolkien armchair historians. With the follow-up, The Two Towers, director Peter Jackson and his collaborators again hit the bull's-eye when they adhere to the original source material. The melodious sound of dialogue ripped verbatim from the page is unmistakable, especially when contrasted to new cringe-worthy "comic relief" lines supplied to Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies). But the quest becomes perilous whenever the filmmakers stray from Tolkien's path (the main blame falls on a time-wasting love triangle between king-to-be Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), his elvish paramour Arwen (Liv Tyler), and newcomer Lady Éowyn (Miranda Otto); also, Tolkien's own double whammy climax is absent). Still, the cast continues to carry all of this potentially Monty Python and the Holy Grail material with enormous dignity. The CGI-created Gollum mines emotional depths where no pixel has gone before. The production design continues to be utterly mind-blowing in its conception and realization. And Towers' heroic depiction of the battle of Helm's Deep and the subsequent flooding of Isengard make for outrageously orgasmic fantasy-movie moments. (2:59) Century Plaza, Century 20, Empire, Grand Lake, Jack London, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda. (Macias)
Maid in Manhattan (1:43) Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2:01) Balboa, Galaxy, Shattuck.
*Narc Writer-director Joe Carnahan (Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane) has taken the oldest story in the book and made it old again. And I mean that as a compliment. Jason Patric's Nick Tellis is the "good" cop, and Ray Liotta's Henry Oak is the "other" cop (let's not give too much away here). Tellis, pulled out of his uncomfortable life off-duty (he was suspended for a botched assignment), partners with Oak to find a cop killer. Oak is ready to bust heads and he gets to, when he meets up with suspect Beery (Busta Rhymes). Look for the minority report all you want, but the plot isn't really what matters most here; it's Carnahan's stylish shot choices, evocative palette, and sense of timing that bring this genre story to creepy just-off-the-cryogenics-shelf life. (1:47) Century Plaza, Century 20, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Gerhard)
*Nicholas Nickleby The strongest example of Masterpiece Theatre-style cinema in some time, Doug McGrath's new version of the Dickens tale has the good sense to emphasize comedy, let pathos take care of itself, make production handsomeness a plus without becoming the point, and give a great cast plenty of maneuvering room (but not a license to chew its scenery). The slightly simpersome Charlie Hunnam plays titular Nicholas, who along with his sister and mother are left at the mercy of less upright personalities when their beloved patriarch's death leaves them penniless. Purists may object to the drastic pruning of Dickens's typically epic, intricate tale but there's also something to be said for putting him through the "less is more" process, since god knows the themes and archetypes are blunt enough to endure paring-down. And there's no question that this confident, wide-screen interpretation is generous with its humor, intrigue, thespian flamboyance, and kidney-pie entertainment heartiness. (2:15) Bridge, Shattuck. (Harvey)
*Personal Velocity The stories in Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity hurtle along at the speed of thought, despite the occasional abrupt backtracking and pauses spent examining details. The half-hour tales have an omniscient narrator (The Sopranos' John Ventimiglia) who's alternately cool, detached, sarcastic, and judgmental all with a very literary, authorial tone. Yet despite these devices and mediators (or maybe because they all combine into something oddly like spontaneity), we enter the three central female characters (played by Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, and Fairuza Balk) from the inside out examining the world from their temporarily less-than-clear gaze, as they grope toward some inconclusive (but improving) insight, a process that seems both messily organic and razor-sharp. Shot like a wandering mind's eye by Ellen Kuras and brilliantly edited and acted, Personal Velocity reminds you that U.S. indie cinema is supposed to be about original voices, not the chorus of imitators struggling to mimic what was popular at Sundance seasons ago. (1:26) Balboa, Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
*The Pianist Roman Polanski's The Pianist is a stunning look at one man's journey through the maze of fascism a detailed map partly drawn from the filmmaker's own memories of his childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland. Pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is separated from his family as they are sent to Dachau, and he takes refuge in apartments that become solitary-confinement cells. When Szpilman finally wanders into the world once again, he finds a seemingly endless street of wreckage. The world has become a landfill, and only now is there a possibility of freedom within it. The same blunt paradoxes that define The Pianist's visual landscape color the film's view of human nature. In particular, the movie emphasizes that Szpilman's talent and reputation as a pianist save him from death. There's a wry incredulity to Polanski's documentation of Szpilman's survival, a quality furthered by the Brody's performance: his face is operatically sorrowful on the surface, yet it's the subtle shifts in his expressions that are truly revealing. (2:28) Albany, Clay. (Huston)
*Rabbit-Proof Fence As part of Australian policy in 1931, all half-white, half-Aborigine children were removed from their families by the government and sent to a teaching facility where they were trained as domestic servants. Rabbit-Proof Fence follows three Aboriginal girls as they escape from their school and walk 1,500 miles home by following the "rabbit-proof fence" that cuts through the Gibson Desert. While it deals with political themes, the film is not just a political movie it's also an exceptionally crafted human drama, with moments of genuine elation, chilling tension, and heart-wrenching sadness. Director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games) and his cinematographer Chris Doyle let the camera soak in the gorgeous Australian landscapes, capturing the vast desert stretches in both their unflinching beauty and devastating treachery, as the young girls trudge their way through a remarkable journey. (1:34) Albany, Embarcadero, Rafael. (Adam Wadenius)
*Real Women Have Curves If 18-year-old Ana (America Ferrera) had gone to work in her sister's East L.A. garment factory 25 years ago, she and the other workers would be eyeballing the dresses and complaining they'd never be able to afford them. Ana would have given up plans for college and joined the movement, fighting for social and economic justice. But in Real Women Have Curves, set in the present day, the women are concerned about not fitting into the gowns, and Ana's contribution is to let them know their full-figured frames are fine just they way they are. You know from the beginning Ana's going to college despite familial pressure, but it's what happens along the way that matters. Director Patricia Cardoso offers East L.A. as a kaleidoscope of color, sound, and energy, and Ferrara's infectious Ana is impossible to resist. If feel-good flicks bother you, pass this up. But if you're looking for something to smile at that's going around these days here's something a little different to make you do just that. (1:25) Balboa, Opera Plaza. (J.H. Tompkins)
*Rivers and Tides Building elaborate installation pieces out of Mother Nature's flotsam and jetsam in its own "natural" habitat (open fields, seashores, riverbanks), artist Andy Goldsworthy spends hours altering the landscape or working his elemental materials into man-made paths and patterns of harmonious grace. A finished work can last for as long as a few days or as short as a minute before a light breeze or an eddying tide picks it apart like carrion; in Goldsworthy's art, deconstruction is as much a part of his vision as construction. German documentarian Thomas Riedelshiemer's affectionate, awestruck look at the man and his mission to tap into a frequency of symmetrical order in terra firma's chaos is as hypnotically dazzling as his subject's abstract expressionist products. Fluently gliding around Goldsworthy's struggle to complete a fragile twig leitmotiv before it collapses under its own weight or pulling far back to reveal a sidewinder pattern snaking around a forest glen, Riedelshiemer's camera becomes the subject's partner, capturing the artist's attempts to channel the ebb and flow of organic life for posterity in a gorgeous, wide-screen, 35mm time capsule. (1:30) Rafael. (Fear)
Sordid Lives (1:51) Balboa.
Sounds Sacred The transformative abilities of spiritual music are explored in this documentary by Barbara Rick. Not surprisingly, the conclusion is that no matter what religion one follows, creating sound (be it Buddhist chanting, gospel singing, sacred music from Iraq, Native American flute, and so on) plays an integral part in helping worshipers attain a stronger connection with their higher power. Though the presence of frequent talking-head Deepak Chopra tugs Sounds Sacred deep into New Age territory at times, some of the performance footage is quite enrapturing, including the commanding presence of San Francisco's own Glide Memorial Church choir. Also, keep an eye on those chanting Benedictine nuns: one of them is Mother Dolores Hart, a late 1950s/early 1960s starlet who was featured in two Elvis movies before taking her vows. (:53) Red Vic. (Eddy)
Spirited Away (2:04) California.*Standing in the Shadows of Motown They played on more number-one hits than Elvis and the Beatles combined, providing the instrumentation for such milestones as "My Girl," "What's Going On," and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" the soul music soundtrack for untold numbers of sweat-drenched backseat conceptions. Yet the names of the house musicians that graced Motown's legendary Studio A have been relegated to footnotes in rock history, obscured by the well-known artists and groups they backed. That's about to change with filmmaker Paul Justman's tributary documentary of the Funk Brothers, Studio A's collective of skin beaters, brass blowers, and ivory ticklers, which puts names and faces to the sounds. The film mixes oral histories of the aging musicians (call them the Motor City Social Club), and of the social climate they provided the score for, with reunion concert footage and event "re-creations." Standing falls just shy of rote as a documentary, but as a musical homage to forgotten heroes, it may be the most infectious, joyous restoration job to grace a Dolby system. (1:48) Four Star, Rafael. (Fear)
Star Trek: Nemesis The tenth Star Trek big-screen adventure, Nemesis, adds little to the franchise's time-tested mix of rubber forehead appliances, technobabble, and high school ethics class dramatics. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Data (Brent Spiner) meet their mysterious doppelgängers against the backdrop of a coup d'etat in the Romulan senate, and the threat of yet another one of those ultimate weapons. Along with a dune buggy chase destined to reside in the hallowed halls of bad Trek moments, there are massive plot holes to navigate, most of them revolving around comic book-strength villain Shinzon (Tom Hardy, doing an irony-free Dr. Evil impression). But there are some nice character notes, fierce third-act fireworks invoking The Wrath of Khan, and a disarmingly old-school look and feel throughout (note Bob Ringwood's Dune hand-me-down costumes). At best, Nemesis offers a break from wire-fu and pro-wrestler guest stars and a tragicomic glimpse of a sci-fi universe still boldly going in circles. (1:57) Kabuki, Metreon. (Macias)
*Talk to Her A more accurate, lively title for this film would be Girlfriend in a Coma, but Douglas Coupland has already stolen from Morrissey with diminished returns. Like the classic Smiths song, Pedro Almodóvar's new film literalizes metaphor in order to ponder communication's role within a relationship. It twins the conceit, though: comatose girls Alicia (Leonor Watling) and Lydia (Rosario Flores) are cared for by spurned lovers Marco (Darío Grandinetti) and Benigno (Javier Cámara), respectively, with radically different results. The restraint of Almodóvar's recent work is magnified here by its male lead characters and relatively muted color schemes. The flourishes come from two Pina Bausch dances (so-so), one Caetano Veloso song (excellent), and a short silent film sequence (brilliant) that speaks the truth. Once again, rape is a dramatic turning point, but in this case its occurrence is offscreen and ambiguous an approach that won't attract the attacks that Almodóvar's underrated and misunderstood Kika was subjected to, though it's just as mischievous. (1:52) Act I and II, Embarcadero, Piedmont. (Huston)
25th Hour Even an incredible cast can't elevate Spike Lee's latest "joint" out of sappy, rambling melodrama. Convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) has one last day of freedom with his girl (Rosario Dawson) and his childhood pals (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper) before he's locked up for seven years. Lee chooses to throw in a few too many visual odes to New York City (Korean store owners holding out grapefruit to the camera, African American guys all in a row smiling at the camera) and uses so many clichéd tributes to Sept. 11, 2001 (waving flags, Bruce Springsteen songs), you almost forget you're watching a gritty film about a heroin dealer and the Russian mob. Lee's imprint lingers in almost every frame, but his signature shots feel forced, and his inability to pace his story better by sacrificing a few lame scenes (namely a manly heart-to-heart with ground zero as the backdrop) taints any chance that the talents of the cast could surpass his direction. (2:26) California, Century 20, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Gachman)
Two Weeks Notice Like all romantic comedies, Two Weeks Notice is formulaic and cliched from the opposites-attract dynamic of the couple (Sandra Bullock as Lucy, a no-nonsense, liberal lawyer, and Hugh Grant as George, her rich, superficial client) right on down to the New York City location. And that old familiar feeling doesn't stop there: aside from the fact that Lucy's an attorney, not an FBI agent, Bullock is playing essentially the same role she played in Miss Congeniality; Grant offers little variation on his standard stammering ladies' man act. Still, though you may feel some serious déjà vu while watching this one, there's a certain pleasure to be had here; both actors enthusiastically attack a mostly clever script by writer-director Marc Lawrence (he also wrote Miss Congeniality, surprise, surprise), and if you must see a New York-set romantic comedy this season, Two Weeks Notice is certainly a way better choice than Maid in Manhattan. (1:40) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
The Wild Thornberrys Movie Eliza Thornberry is one lucky little girl. Instead of doing chores or homework, she spends her days gallivanting around the jungles of Africa with her nature-loving parents, who host and direct a wildlife show. The Wild Thornberrys Movie, an extension of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon by the same name, follows Eliza and her unconventional family (skydiving grandparents, gibberish-speaking Tarzan-like brother, etc.) on a haphazard crusade to stop a highly elusive gang of poachers. Despite the slightly clichéd plot, this is not your average kids' movie. It's packed with politically correct messages (be kind to animals, tread lightly in nature, try to learn from other cultures) but never preachy or condescending to its young audience. With voices by Tim Curry, Brenda Blethyn, Rupert Everett, Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers), and others, and an eclectic soundtrack featuring Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and P. Diddy, The Wild Thornberrys Movie is a refreshing reprieve from the sappy holiday fare traditionally made for tykes. (1:19) Century Plaza, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Cohen)
*Come and See Director Elem Klimov's 1985 Come and See is perhaps the single-most brutal and traumatic cinematic depiction of war ever filmed. Dreaming of guns and glory during the Nazi occupation of Byelorussia, a young boy named Florya (Alexei Kravchenko) joins the partisan army. His innocence is quickly demolished in an apocalyptic landscape where dead family members are piled up like firewood, swampy refugee camps are crowded with starving huddled masses, and temporary moments of respite are interrupted by land mines, tracer fire, and carpet bombing. Grim incidents and haunting surrealism lead to the film's dark heart: a real-time Nazi bacchanal in which an entire village is rounded up in a wooden church and burned to the ground (intertitles tell us this happened 628 times during World War II in the republic of Byelorussia alone). The expected horror and absurdity, depicted in numerous other war movies, is amplified here to stark-raving horror and blood-boiling insanity. Klimov is not content to merely lay out atrocities for us to gaze on. His impassioned poetic direction, bolstered by an atonal soundtrack and imaginative sound design, results in a multilayered experience that engages the senses even as it sears the mind. (2:22) Roxie. (Macias)
'Dark City: San Francisco Film Noir Festival' See 8 Days a Week. Castro.
*Solaris Also known as Solyaris, now forever to be known as "the original," Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 take on Stanislaw Lem's sci-fi novel is recommendable, even if the recent Steven Soderbergh version annoyed the crap out of you. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky's Solaris falls into that category of slow-moving, dialogue-sparse, space-set movies with ambiguous endings. While other movies about strange galactic goings-on bring in outside menaces (drooling aliens, asteroids, Sith Lords, etc.), the nearly FX-free Solaris' mysterious planet torments/comforts its characters notably reluctant cosmonaut Kris Kelvin, glamorously Clooney-fied (and renamed "Chris") in the remake but here played by sad-faced Donatas Benionis, who, incidentally, does not show his butt with their own memories. While the new Solaris concentrates more on the Earthbound back story of the relationship between Chris and his tragic wife, Tarkovsky steers his film away from being a straightforward love story and more along the path of an uneasy, at-times inscrutable psychological journey. If you have nearly three hours to spare and don't mind a challenge, this Solaris is well worth the time. (2:42) Rafael. (Eddy)