January 29, 2003

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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.

Opening

Biker Boyz Laurence Fishburne and Derek Luke are hell-bent for leather in this Fast and the Furious-ish tale set in the world of underground motorcycle clubs. (1:51) Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London.

Final Destination 2 Death is pissed when yet another group of fresh-faced teens eludes his grasp. (1:40) Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London.

The Guru An Indian dance teacher with showbiz dreams (East Is East's Jimi Mistry) moves to New York City, where he's soon mistaken for a spiritual healer. Marisa Tomei and Heather Graham also star. (1:50) Century 20, Shattuck.

*Lost in La Mancha See Movie Clock, page 76. (1:29) Bridge, Rafael, Shattuck.

Love Liza A recent widower (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) whose wife committed suicide deals with the aftermath by huffing gas vapors. His mother-in-law (Kathy Bates) and a remote-control enthusiast (Jack Kehler) try to buffer the downward spiral, but the only way out may lie in the late spouse's final letter he refuses to open. Indie actor turned director Todd Louiso's take on grief surpasses the sentimentality, base pathos, and "special episode" trappings of the subject with an effectively numbed, shell-shocked eye. The movie's dark visual palette runs the gamut from Hopperesque isolation to a Francis Bacon hallucination, but it's the balancing act of Hoffman's performance that turns the quiet desperation into a devastating portrait of loss and survival. Whether anesthetized on unleaded or aimlessly drifting toward total shutdown, the actor's minor-key symphony of awkwardness fuels the film's fume-woozy heartbeat while fanning the embers of hope buried underneath one man's nuclear winter ash. (1:30) Lumiere. (Fear)

The Recruit Al Pacino lures Colin Farrell into the CIA. (1:55) Jack London, Oaks.

Shanghai Ghetto For German Jews desperate to escape Nazi persecution in the late 1930s, visas were nearly impossible to come by. Only the war-torn city of Shanghai did not require entrance papers, so Jewish refugees flocked there by the boatload. Amid poverty and squalor they built a small community and lived out World War II in the company of Chinese beggars and Japanese soldiers. Until now little has been publicized about their experiences, but filmmakers Dana Janklowicz-Mann (whose father, Harold, immigrated from Germany to Shanghai at age eight) and Amir Mann have constructed a deeply moving and informative depiction of life in the Shanghai ghetto. The film is overly ambitious in its scope – making it feel somewhat disorganized – and relies heavily on visually weary talking-head interviews. Nonetheless, it presents a powerful picture of Jewish perseverance, an unusual historical perspective on the war, and a testament to cross-cultural compassion and generosity that seems especially important in a time of growing global division and distrust. (1:35) Opera Plaza, Rafael, Shattuck. (Cohen)

Ongoing

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, Metreon, 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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont. (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) Kabuki. (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, Grand Lake, 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, Empire, Galaxy, Jack London, Metreon. (Harvey)

*City of God City of God is a Rio de Janeiro housing project, but rather than simply present it as a setting, director Fernando Meirelles views it as a character – perhaps the dominant one – in the film. In one vivid segment a single fixed point of view witnesses the deterioration of an apartment as it's passed down from one drug dealer to another. The stronger and younger the kingpin, the trashier his kingdom. But static points of view aren't Meirelles's specialty. Working with codirector Kátia Lund, he's stylistically giddy in the face of much adolescent and preadolescent violence, running circles around the surface linearity of the plot's chapter structure and uncorking an array of techniques: God's-eye aerial shots that suggest the almighty has a finger on the fast-forward button, freeze-frame character intros that revive blaxploitation swank, and camera movements that follow the paths of ricocheting bullets or circle around the violence with the speed of a meth-addled figure skater. (2:10) Embarcadero. (Huston)

*Confessions of a Dangerous Mind It may be hard to believe now, given the likes of Temptation Island and American Idol, but Chuck Barris was once considered public enemy number one in the perceived decline of American civilization. His network shows The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game introduced sexual innuendo to a form that lacked titillation. His Gong Show introduced the idea of humiliating ordinary, if clueless, citizens for national broadcast fun. George Clooney (yes, that George Clooney) has made a remarkable film from Barris's ambiguously autobiographical memoir, with the hitherto undervalued Sam Rockwell as the game show guru/cold war assassin. Barris's original tome is demented, incoherent, and enjoyable. Being John Malkovich scribe Charlie Kaufman does an even more impressive translative job here than he did with the semiforced Adaptation, hewing the book's raw material into an antic, surreal, yet never condescending portrait of pop mentalism from the inside out. But it's Clooney's ability to sew that conceptual patchwork into a Magic Finger-ous cinematic quilt that's most startling here. (1:54) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Darkness Falls In the conveniently named town of Darkness Falls, any kid who sneaks a glance at the ghostly, ghastly Tooth Fairy when she comes to collect his or her last baby tooth is marked for death – though (sudden blackout alert!) she can only strike in the dark. The sole surviving peeper grows up to be a flashlight-toting, Vegas-dwelling pill-popper (Cheney Kley) who reluctantly returns home when his former girlfriend (Emma Caulfield) asks him to help protect her little brother (Lee Cormie) from the dental menace. There are plenty of jumpy scares to be had here, and the Stan Winston-created monster is suitably gruesome. But not everything comes together: an elaborate historical back story is introduced, and instantly discarded, and a tone shift midway through (while the film's first half is played dead straight, the second half suddenly has characters tossing off lines like, "All this for a tooth?") are examples of annoyances that render Darkness Falls not entirely recommendable. (1:16) Alexandria, California, Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

*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 Director Julie Taymor (Titus) suffers from Tim Burton-itis: in her films the sumptuous art direction tends to overshadow everything else onscreen. Frida comes to life when Kahlo's colorful, sorrowful paintings are the focus, but the rest of the film – mostly concerned with the rocky relationship between Kahlo (Salma Hayek, who also produced) and husband Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) – is bogged down in melodrama and distracting cameos (Antonio Banderas, Saffron Burrows, Edward Norton) by Hayek's show biz pals. In her most high-profile role to date, Hayek – dutifully sporting the unibrow – looks gorgeous in Kahlo's elaborate costumes and hairdos. The pleasures of eye candy aside, however, it's too bad a biopic about such a passionate artist comes off feeling like too much decoration, not much soul. (1:58) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Eddy)

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 20, Kabuki, Metreon, Oaks, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

A Guy Thing At his bachelor party, Seattle yuppie Paul (Jason Lee) has too much to drink, wakes up the next morning with "tiki girl" Becky (Julia Stiles), then has to keep this info from his prim fiancée Karen (Selma Blair) – especially after finding out that the two women are cousins. (Don't worry – Paul and Becky are both so nice they didn't actually have sex!) Adding to the subsequent wacky funfest is Becky's jealous ex-boyfriend, 'roid-raging rogue cop Ray (Lochlyn Munro). OK, you're not expecting much, so how bad can it be? Well, not bad. Which is part of the problem: Badness would actually distinguish this utterly vanilla-without-sprinkles romantic comedy. It's the whitest shade of bland currently occupying multiplex space, however briefly. Please, please, do not tell me you have nothing better to do with your time. That would just be soooooooo sad. (1:41) Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

*Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Happily free from the burden of exposition (see last year's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which spent way too much time grappling with that tiresome-but-necessary task) Chamber of Secrets, again directed by Chris Columbus, is a fast-paced adventure from start to finish. Young wizards Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, all spot-on) make like Hogwarts' own Bloodhound Gang, using smarts and spells to unravel a mystery so dangerous it's even got the school's unflappable teaching staff (including Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and the late Richard Harris) on edge. New faces in Chamber of Secrets include Jason Isaacs as the sinister Lucius Malfoy and the particularly hilarious Kenneth Branagh as the smug, self-obsessed Professor Lockhart. A few scary scenes (including one involving giant, hungry spiders) may make younger kids a little nervous, but the film's magical elements, in the forms of a flying car, a hair-raising Quidditch match, chatty ghosts, screaming letters, clumsy owls, and much more – not to mention an underlying message about friendship and loyalty – are what lingers after the lights come up. (2:41) Century Plaza. (Eddy)

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, Emery Bay, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

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, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Rachel Swan)

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, Grand Lake, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Macias)

Max A German artist named Max Rothman (a miscast John Cusack) returns home after World War I disillusioned, bitter, and missing an arm. He pours his energy into an art gallery, attracting another artist who hopes to hawk his work, and a tentative friendship begins to develop between the disabled Max and the antisocial young man named ... Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). The directorial debut of screenwriter Menno Meyjes boasts an intriguing "what if" premise and an incredible turn from Taylor as the future madman. It's not that he portrays a kinder, gentler Hitler (as many protesting the controversial film sight unseen have contended) – he simply doesn't play him as an inhuman caricature. Juggling self-loathing, longing, inarticulate frustration, and a hatred for the lure of megalomania even while embracing it, Taylor's performance finds emotional currents in the personification of evil without ever making history's butcher the least bit sympathetic. (1:48) Lumiere. (Fear)

*Morvern Callar Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton), a young Scottish woman, responds to her boyfriend's suicide by chopping up and burying his body, attaching her name to his writing, and using his funeral money to go on a vacation in Spain. These actions don't make for a sympathetic character, yet Morton's performance creates one; her Morvern is escaping a bad situation in a nowhere town, by any means necessary. Visually, Morvern Callar is like a photo monograph that attains motion through slow or rapid turning of pages. What saves this film from being a mere exercise in style-as-substance is Ramsay's take on Morvern's story. She's replaced the not entirely convincing motormouth narrator of Alan Warner's book – praised in the U.K. as a standout modern novel along the lines of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting – with a woman whose thoughts are partially accessible through music. This is the closest any director's come to capturing a modern experience: navigating the world with speakers plugged into one's ears. (1:49) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2:01) Galaxy.

*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 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Gerhard)

National Security Et tu, Steve Zahn? It's bad enough to see Owen Wilson slip into questionable roles, but to witness fellow Deadpan Alley hall-of-famer Zahn in such a witless sidekick part is enough to crush an already wary spirit. Zahn is a Los Angeles police officer who sees his partner murdered and, through a series of "comic" misunderstandings, ends up employed as a lowly security guard. Teamed with a fellow guard (Martin "He So Crazy" Lawrence), he sets out to discover who killed his pal. Naturally, crooked cops and a valuable titanium alloy (?) are involved; anyone thinking there isn't slo-mo airborne cop car shenanigans or street-smart sass-talk on the horizon must have slept through Interracial Buddy Cop Movie 101. The unfunny shtick can't hold a candle to the hilarity that is rent-a-villain Eric Roberts as a platinum blond, but the real pain lies in watching Zahn's timing and talent get pissed away one exasperated reaction shot at a time. (1:30) Jack London, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Fear)

*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) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Patlabor WXIII Tokyo Bay is beset by a series of gruesome murders and maulings that has the local police baffled. Homicide detective Kusumi and his young partner Hata pursue several leads that suggest the perpetrator may not be human; soon enough, the trail of suspicion starts winding its way through labor-robot manufacturers, military-industrial conglomerates, and even Hata's new girlfriend, a cancer researcher with a secret past. This third film in a series based on the video-only Patlabor anime ("WXIII" refers to "Waste 13," the code for a biological experiment gone awry) has only a third-act cameo of the robot-suit cops from the popular previous outings. More of a detour than a new franchise chapter, this film plays like a day-trip through fan-favorite genres. What saves Patlabor WXIII from drowning in derivativeness is director Fumihiko Takayama's mastery of dimensional space, cinematic-lighting re-creation, and thriller grammar. (1:40) Galaxy. (Fear)

*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, Orinda. (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 (1:25) Opera Plaza.

*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)

*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) Rafael. (Fear)

*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 20, Kabuki. (Eddy)

Rep picks

*American Mullet Jennifer Arnold's doc about America's most controversial hairstyle points out that "people love to talk about the mullet – but who is talking to people with the mullet?" Highlighted are members of widely diverse groups (lesbians, rock n' roll fans, soccer players, bikers, Native Americans, Mexicans, a physician, a Billy Ray Cyrus impersonator), all of whom sport the coif with fierce pride. Though the making-fun-of-mullets pasttime is addressed (one mullet-themed website is depicted as somewhat mean-spirited), the unfailingly optimistic American Mullet debunks the stereotypes associated with the cut (i.e., stupidity, redneck-ness) and puts a positive spin on something one hockey-hair'd individual admits, with a grin, is "not fashionable." (:52) Red Vic. (Eddy)

*Last Exit to Brooklyn Hubert Selby Jr.'s cacophonic novel of borough-bred druggies, drag queens, and dead-end kids circa 1952 gets the big-screen treatment in German director Uli Edel's 1989 film – and nothing, least of all the audience, is spared. Fourteen years after its release, Edel's adaptation still feels like a hard right to the ribs, matching Selby's coarse beat nightmare involving a repressed homosexual union leader (Stephen Lang), an abusive father (Burt Young), a rough-trade thug (Peter Dobson), and his hooker-with-a-heart-of-marble girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with a beat-down aesthetic that never lets up. Leigh's black-hole portrayal of Tralala, the prostitute who's equal parts neediness and seediness, eclipses almost everything else in the movie thanks to its way-past-Method flourishes, and critics were quick to pounce on the performance like moths to a flame. Look past the bruises and cigarette-burnt surfaces, however, and you'll find the film's strength is less its hard-nosed showstoppers than the core of frailty that makes the no-way-out narrative truly heartrending. (1:42) Roxie. (Fear)

*'A Wild Night with Ray Dennis Steckler' and 'Happy Birthday Ray Dennis Steckler' A gangling actor, cinematographer, producer, scenarist, and director, Steckler has now racked up more than four decades in a movie "industry" pretty much of his own making – it sure doesn't have much to do with that other one in Hollywood. Perhaps best known for the lurid 1963 color "monster musical" The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, he's directed many other titles that are hardly known at all. The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire? The Sexorcist? Do these films even exist, or are they just a born prankster's inventions? You can never be quite sure with Vegas-based Steckler, who's always treated exploitation cinema as more of a lark than a serious business. He'll spin anecdotes and sell merch (posters, rare videos, etc.) in a two-day East Bay visit sponsored by Thrillville. Wed/29 at "A Wild Night with Ray Dennis Steckler" at Fine Arts Cinema, he'll introduce his earliest features: 1962's Wild Guitar, starring psychotronic fave Arch Hall Jr. (of Eegah! and The Sadist) as a pompadoured rockster on the disillusioning road to teen-idoldom, and 1961's Wild Ones on Wheels, an extremely obscure hot-rod flick starring Francine York, future leader of The Doll Squad. Thurs/30, the program "Happy Birthday Ray Dennis Stecker" at the Parkway will feature his highly eccentric, shoestring "family" flicks on one bill. Rat Pfink a Boo Boo is a 1967 superhero spoof that throws coherence to the wind. The same year's featurette Lemon Grove Kids Go Hollywood (also known as The Lemon Grove Kids Meet the Green Grasshopper and the Vampire Lady from Outer Space, if you must know) strings together three crazy shorts starring Steckler (as "Cash Flagg," one of his many pseudonyms) in quasi-Bowery Boy adventures. Alternately slick, silly, home movie-ish, and just plain odd, Steckler's movies must be seen to be believed – and even then, you might ask someone to pinch you, just to be sure. "Wild Night," Fine Arts; "Happy Birthday," Parkway. (Harvey)