February 12, 2003

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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. See Rep Clock and Movie Clock, for theater information.

San Francisco Independent Film Festival

The fifth San Francisco Independent Film Festival runs through Sun/16. Venues are the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, S.F.; Digital Movie House, 1306 Mission, S.F.; UA Galaxy, Sutter at Van Ness, S.F.; and Expression Center, 6601 Shellmound, Emeryville. Tickets (most shows $6-8.50) and additional information at www.sfindie.com. All times p.m.

Wed/12

Roxie Heart of America: Homeroom 12:30. Soft for Digging 2:45. Expecting 5. Nothing So Strange 7:15. Headspace 9:30.

Digital Movie House Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping 2:45. Bike like U Mean It 5. American Magus 7:15. Hell's Highway 9:30. Thurs/13

Roxie Missing Persons 5. "Salinger's Sort" (shorts program) 7:15. Heart of America: Homeroom 9:30.

Digital Movie House Easy Listening 2:45. "Fuel for the Quirky Alone" (shorts program) 5. Monday Night at the Rock 'N Bowl 7:15. Nothing So Strange 9:30.

Fri/14

Roxie Hell's Highway 5. Soft for Digging 7. Brain Dead 9:15. Visitor Q 11:30.

Expression Center Missing Persons 4:45. Snowflake Crusade 7. Nothing So Strange 9:15.

Sat/15

Roxie Noon Blue Apples noon. Horror 2:15. Death Bed 4:30. Alive 7. Lucky 9:30. The Beast 11:30.

Expression Center This Is Nowhere 6. American Magus 8. "Sex Rated" (shorts program) 10.

Galaxy House of the Dead 7.

Sun/16

Roxie Nitwit noon. Sleeping with the Dead 2:15. Kidnapped (Rabid Dogs) 4:30. Bubba Ho-Tep 7. Riky-Oh: The Story of Ricky 9:15.

Expression Center Bike like U Mean It 12:30. "DIY and DOC" (shorts program) 2:30. Monday Night at the Rock 'N Bowl 4:45. Stuck 7. Headspace 9:15.

Opening

Cat and Mouse Andy Lau, Cecilia Cheung, and Anthony Wong star in this Chinese New Year costume comedy. (1:45) Four Star.

Daredevil Ben Affleck stars as a blind superhero, with Jennifer Garner, Michael Clark Duncan, Jon Favreau, and Colin Farrell appearing as sundry villains and allies. (1:36) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Jack London.

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not See Movie Clock. (1:42) Lumiere.

The Jungle Book 2 At the end of the original Jungle Book, man-cub Mowgli spots a human girl and is seduced by her siren song to leave his happy-go-vagrant jungle pals for yet greater excitements of civilization. We can only assume that just minutes after he entered the village, he was sucked into cryogenic storage, because, 35 years later, he has, in fact become a few days younger and a little slow on the uptake. He age-appropriately spurns his could-be girlfriend and rightly decides to move back to the jungle, where the music has degenerated from scat-enhanced freestyles to cold prefabrication; yet, he doesn't seem to care! Subbing in a tone-deaf John Goodman for Phil Harris won't do, and the spirit of Louis Prima is sorely missed in this by-the-numbers sequel. But it has the one element that all children's movies in the 21st century apparently need: an encore by Smashmouth. Beware. (1:30) Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London, Shattuck. (Gerhard)

*Russian Ark See "To Russia with Love," page 42. (1:48) Opera Plaza, Rafael, Shattuck.

Southern Comfort Southern Comfort is a portrait of Robert Eads, an FTM who bravely lived in the heart of Bubbaland, rural Georgia, where he was once asked to join a KKK-like group. Director Kate Davis's straightforward narrative approach divides the last year of Eads's life (in a cruel irony, he died of ovarian cancer) into four seasons. Eads's wry personality and the character of his chosen family – shy transgendered lover Lola Cola and two fellow FTMs – emerge, complete with occasional spells of pettiness. Smoking like chimneys (my favorite shot: Eads up to his neck in a hot tub, a cigarette drooping from his mouth), they're a smart, mostly lovable bunch, but Davis allows them to play to the camera too often. (1:30) Red Vic. (Huston)

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, Empire, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (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) 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) Galaxy. (Cohen)

Biker Boyz Frankly, this one looked like it had some serious potential: Laurence Fishburne as the head of an underground motorcycle club? Hell yes. Too bad Biker Boyz actually kind of sucks. Fishburne (as the supernaturally speedy Smoke) and Antwone Fisher's Derek Luke (as Kid, an ambitious, and often reckless, young racer) lead an enormous ensemble (including Larenz Tate, Brendan Fehr, Orlando Jones, Lisa Bonet, Djimon Honsou, and Kid Rock) of stunt-happy speed demons. You'd think, or at least hope, Biker Boyz would be packed with the kind of insane two-wheeled thrills Evel Knievel'd shit himself over. Nope. The action scenes are far from creatively staged, and director Reggie Rock Bythewood devotes way too much time to the tedious, past-imperfect relationship between Smoke and Kid, proving once and for all that cheese and burning rubber don't mix. (1:51) Century 20, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

*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) Embarcadero, Piedmont, Shattuck. (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 20, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, 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). Benefiting 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 Plaza, Century 20, Empire, Galaxy, Jack London, Metreon, Presidio. (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 20, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, 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, Century 20, Jack London, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Deliver Us from Eva The Dandridge sisters always answer to big sister Eva (Gabrielle Union), much to the dismay of the men in their lives. Eva doesn't think very highly of the opposite sex – that is, until her brothers-in-law hire a world-class player (LL Cool J) to, um, loosen her up. Essentially a knock-off of The Taming of the Shrew, this second effort from The Brothers director Gary Hardwick is a far cry from Shakespeare. Contrived, overacted, and rife with painful stereotypes (two of which, the whoring big-mouth and the effeminate gay guy, provide the film's only true comic relief), Deliver Us from Eva would have you believe that the shrew and the player will tame each other. An unlikely story, but not nearly as unlikely as what ensues thereafter. As a rule, reviewers try not to ruin a film's ending for the reader, and in this case, rest assured, you don't want to know. (1:45) Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Cohen)

*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, Orinda, Shattuck. (Huston)

*Final Destination 2 Plot? Character development? Award-winning performances? Fuck 'em! Like its predecessor, which it copies exactly in structure, Final Destination 2 is about one thing only, folks: carnage candy. A premonition of the most god-awful gory highway accident ever causes a spring break-bound gal (A.J. Cook) to block the on-ramp with her car, much to the annoyance of the drivers behind her. After her vision comes to pass, the motley crew of motorists "saved" by her action begin to meet untimely ends, cause, like, Death's design has been screwed up, or something. Who cares? The entire point of Final Destination 2 is waiting for the next character to eat it in a succession of elaborate setups, false scares, and gleefully graphic payoffs. Splatstick fans and guilty pleasure-seekers can't go wrong here. (1:40) Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

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) Four Star, Galaxy, Kabuki, Metreon, Oaks. (Harvey)

The Guru An Indian dance instructor (East Is East's Jimi Mistry) comes to America to become a movie star. Instead, thanks to the spiritual mentorship of a porn star (Heather Graham) and an eccentric rich brat (Marisa Tomei), he inadvertently becomes a sexual guru to New York's elite. From the first shot of this sophomore effort from director Daisy von Scherler Mayer (Party Girl) – an Indian child sneaks out of a Bollywood extravaganza to boogie along to Grease! – it's tempting to think the movie is out to become a blend of pop multicultural cheese. Instead, this runny fondue is simply something old (Tomei's ditzy heiress is a screwball staple), and many things borrowed (laughless send-ups of blue movie clichés) – but virtually nothing new. Propagating stale ethnic stereotypes even while it attempts to deflate them, this comedy treats its cursory Eastern flavorings as a mere curio and any message as an afterthought. All that's left is a typical domestic dud sprinkled with curry powder but curiously bereft of spice. (1:50) Century 20, Metreon, Shattuck. (Fear)

*Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2:41) Century Plaza.

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, Empire, Jack London, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Harvey)

How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days Poor, poor, beautiful blond Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson). Her cushy job (we know it's cushy because she whiffs around New York in perfectly fitted Marc Jacobs ensembles) as the "How-To" advice columnist at a frothy women's rag simply isn't fulfilling her intellectual needs. "I want to write about things that matter," she whines. In the meantime, she plots her latest column (see title of movie). Her mark is ad agency hotshot Ben (Matthew McConaughey), who has just accepted a bet from his conniving coworkers: he's got to make a woman of their choosing (guess who?) fall in love with him in 10 days. An over-the-top, antagonistic relationship ensues, as Andie spreads teddy bears around Ben's bachelor pad and leaves Vagisil in his medicine cabinet, while Ben sucks it up in the name of career advancement. Newly minted leading lady Hudson gives it her all, but this unremarkable would-be Valentine's treat from director Donald Petrie (Miss Congeniality) ain't one for the ages. (1:58) Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London, Kabuki, 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, Kabuki, Orinda. (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 20, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Macias)

*Lost in La Mancha Lost in La Mancha chronicles Terry Gilliam's ambitious take on Miguel de Cervantes' classic book via The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, his longtime pet project about a modern-day ad executive (Johnny Depp) who somehow ends up alongside Cervantes' erstwhile knight lancing buildings. The promising preproduction, fueled by the giddiness of a director whose vision was becoming a reality, suggested magic on the horizon. Then, production starts: lead actor Jean Rochefort suddenly has health problems, a shooting day's light drizzle turns into a torrential mud slide, and quicker than you can say "Munchausen syndrome," the project falls apart. Documentarians Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe had set out to record the making of a would-be masterpiece, but came back instead with a candid portrait of how filmmaking and the fates battle it out over one man's impossible dream. (1:29) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Fear)

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) California, Opera Plaza. (Fear)

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) Galaxy. (Harvey)

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, Metreon. (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)

*The Quiet American Whether or not you think the world needs one, The Quiet American is the boldest cinematic antiwar statement of the year. Both Graham Greene's novel and Phillip Noyce's film open with an ending, and an intrigue: a dead American, who used to be a "quiet American," an apparent oxymoron in a landscape of U.S. operatives bragging and drinking their way through a Vietnamese landscape corrupted by colonialism. Pre-Vietnam War, America is just beginning to meddle in "regime change" in the area, and one of its key schemers is American "aid" worker Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), who dangerously falls for Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), the girlfriend of British journalist Fowler (Michael Caine). Pyle plans to create a "third force" in Vietnam to give people something besides colonialism and communism to choose from – using explosives that kill civilians to do it. The jaded Fowler, who doesn't want to take sides, has to migrate to one corner of the triangle by the film's end. But what Greene and the filmmakers give us is not an ideological treatise on which side is right, but a view of the terrible journey a person of conscience makes when taking sides. (1:52) Act I and II, Bridge. (Gerhard)

*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)

The Recruit Hot-to-trot MIT graduate Jack Clayton (Colin Farrell) catches the eye of top CIA recruiter Walter Burke (Al Pacino). Clayton ends up alongside a comely fellow recruit (Bridget Moynahan) on "the Farm," the training ground where would-be spooks learn the trade under the devilish Burke's tutelage. But, as characters seem compelled to remind us every five minutes, "nothing here is what it seems." Director Roger Donaldson tries to capture the same bottled lightning of his earlier thriller extraordinaire No Way Out, laying on enough steamy sex and implausible quadruple-crosses to make people forget they've seen this warhorse plot a million times before. Ferrell's rogue charm gets the star treatment here, but it's only Pacino's lion-in-winter bombast, less a performance than a parody, that comes close to stealing the show. It's just a pity there's no show to steal; made up of little more than bells and whistles, this attempt at suspense is less a whodunit than a rather tepid whycareaboutit. (1:55) Jack London, Kabuki, Metreon, Oaks, 1000 Van Ness. (Fear)

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. (Cohen)

Shanghai Knights Taking the time-travel, continent-hopping of its parent picture to its logical next stage, Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan find themselves in ... England. Or maybe someone just really, really wanted to make a joke about bad teeth in the time-tested Austin Powers tradition. In any case, much as you have to enjoy Wilson's anachronistic sensitive-man cowboy hustler conquering the wild, wild East with a Jackie Chan who dazzles even as he ages, the comic thread in this film quickly stretches itself too thin. I recommend repeat viewings of either/any/all of Chan's or Wilson's previous triumphs rather than submitting yourself to this particular franchise-enhancement. (1:54) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Jack London, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda. (Gerhard)

*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 (2:26) California, Century 20, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

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. (Eddy)

Rep picks

The Lady and the Monster and Dark Waters See 8 Days a Week, page 52. Roxie.

*Quai des orfèvres Originally given a brief U.S. release under the title Jenny Lamour, this noirish 1947 French drama preceded the movies that made director Henri-Georges Clouzot an international arthouse name – Wages of Fear and Diabolique – but is in many respects equally worthy of classic status. Suzy Delair plays a chanteuse whose rising fame, ambition, and natural flirtatiousness rub raw the nerves of dour husband Bernard Blier. She really does love him; he just can't understand that her suggestive public manner is pure showmanship. Suspecting her of giving careerist carnal "favors" to a dirty-old-man movie producer, Blier visits the rich fart's mansion with gun in hand – only to find someone has already offed him. This sinister setup is perhaps the movie's most compelling segment. The remainder is a police procedural kept fascinating by the droll presence of Louis Jouvet as an idiosyncratic homicide detective, unusually detailed glimpses (not very flattering ones) of investigation techniques, and a large cast of unpredictable characters. As moodily lit as any of Hollywood's film noirs, the B&W Quai des orfèvres looks spectacular in this new Studio Canal restoration print. (1:42) Castro. (Harvey)

ĦTierra Sí! ĦAviones No! and Atenco: The Machete Rebellion! See 8 Days a Week, page 52. Artists' Television Access.

*'Valentine's Double-D Double Feature' See Critic's Choice. Parkway.