February 19, 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. Due to the President's Day holiday, theater information was incomplete at press time.

Opening

Dark Blue See "Cop Out," page 36. (1:56)

Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet "The stage is a drug," one of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers tells filmmaker Nils Tavernier in this rich and visually lush documentary. It's about as nuanced and convincing an account as you're likely to find on what it takes to get into and then survive competition, injury, and a short career in what just may be the best ballet company in the world. Tavernier pulls no punches in documenting the splendor as well as the grit in the lives of these dedicated athletes. Mixing rehearsal and interview footage, historic photographs, and just enough glimpses of actual performances to whet your appetite, Tavernier gets a remarkably frank assessment about life at the POB from dancers, students, teachers, administrators, and choreographers. From the understudy who "has gotten used to" never going onstage to dancer Elisabeth Platel's final performance (women are required to retire at age 40), these artists are single-mindedly obsessed with being ballet dancers at almost any cost. (1:40) Opera Plaza. (Rita Felciano)

A Family Affair Sadly, A Family Affair does nothing to advance the lesbian film genre. First-time filmmaker Helen Resnick multitasks (badly) as the writer, director, and star of this cardboard-flavored comedy. She plays Rachel, a self-described sarcastic New York Jew returning home to California after a bad breakup. Rachel's PFLAG-bearing mother sets her up with an affable bubble named Christine, and the two begin dating (cut to clichéd shot of U-Haul). Issues such as religious conversion and wedding jitters arise, but no hilarity ever ensues. Resnick attempts to play a lesbian Woody Allen, but misses the mark by several degrees of funny. The entire film feels like an odd '80s sitcom where the characters speak in witless puns and leave strange pauses for an absent laugh track. The film's most amusing part is a blind-dating montage, a clear sign of trouble. Maybe I'm being harsh, but will we ever see the bar for lesbian filmmaking raised higher? (1:41) Galaxy, Oaks. (Koh)

Gods and Generals Civil War buffs will be stoked on Gods and Generals, the four-hours-including-intermission prequel to Gettysburg that details the events of 1861-63, including the battles of First Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Casual viewers may not be so enraptured (reread last sentence, take note of running time). Most Gettysburg cast members return, including Jeff Daniels as Union hero Chamberlain; on the Confederate side, Robert Duvall takes on the role of Robert E. Lee, and Stephen Lang (who played a different character in Gettysburg) is the movie's focal point, Stonewall Jackson. This ambitious Ted Turner-funded extravaganza is nothing if not epic, with thousands of volunteer reenactors filling out the combat scenes. Unfortunately, director Ron Maxwell is handier at directing armed conflict than intimate moments between actors; the maudlin scenes involving Jackson and his wife are especially recommended for pee breaks. (3:40) California. (Eddy)

The Life of David Gale A journalist (Kate Winslet) fights to save the life of a death row inmate (Kevin Spacey) she suspects is innocent. (2:10)

Old School Mitch (Luke Wilson) has just found out the extent of his live-in girlfriend's secret swinger lifestyle. Beanie (Vince Vaughn) has a wife and several very young children, though those responsibilities seem to weigh on him like itchy boulders. Frank (Will Ferrell) just got married, and probably shouldn't have. As a result of these various factors the three friends find themselves yearning to revisit their carefree, bachelor collegiate days – and succeeding, more or less. They turn Mitch's just-off-campus rental house into an ersatz fraternity house, complete with barely-of-age babes wrestling topless in KY Jelly pools and Snoop Dogg as one night's "house band" (Beanie has industry connections). This second narrative feature from director Todd Phillips and his co-scenarist Scot Armstrong doesn't have half the inspiration or hilarity of their prior teen-flick classic Road Trip; there are ill-advised ventures into attempted serious drama, the opportunity to do an updated Animal House-grade farce is wasted, and Jeremy Piven's university dean makes a dull villain. Still better put together than most recent teen-slanted comedies, Old School reps a disappointment that's nonetheless fairly painless to watch. (1:30) (Harvey)

Ongoing

About Schmidt (2:04) 1000 Van Ness.

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) Four Star, 1000 Van Ness. (Huston)

Biker Boyz (1:51) Kabuki.

*Bowling for Columbine (1:59)

Cat and Mouse (1:45) Four Star.

*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) Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (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) Galaxy, 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) (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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Daredevil The comic book incarnation of Daredevil often had to work overtime to distinguish itself from the obvious inspirations (Batman and Spiderman), so it's disheartening to see a movie version that's little more than an mix of wanna-be Tim Burton angst and Sam Raimi camera tricks. Frank Miller's four-color Elektra story line is reduced to a handful of overly Matrix-esque fight scenes and an intolerable amount of dramatic dead air. You'll find yourself rooting for the bad guys, namely a hammy Colin Farrell as rolling-eye crazy assassin Bullseye, while a seemingly more-hung-over-than-blind Ben Affleck fizzles both romantically with Jennifer Garner and in his struggle against crime lord Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan). Worse still, Daredevil himself totally sucks at being a superhero and fails to do anything vaguely heroic. Which is too bad since audiences will wish someone could rescue them from the film's excessive use of clammy voice-over and alarmingly lame pop music. (1:36) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Macias)

Darkness Falls (1:16)

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) 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) (Huston)

*Final Destination 2 (1:40) Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Frida (1:58)

Gangs of New York (2:57) Four Star, Galaxy, Kabuki, Metreon.

The Guru (1:50) Metreon.

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

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not Everything is coming up roses for Angelique (Audrey Tautou), a young painter blessed with brains, beauty, and genuine talent. Better yet, she's fallen head over heels in love with a handsome doctor (Samuel Le Bihan) – sure, he's married, but he says he's leaving his wife soon, and theirs is a passion that goes beyond social stigma. But there are some obstacles that stand in true romance's path that need to be dealt with, and Angelique is not the kind of woman who gives up her man without a fight. Several "tragic accidents" later, the film rewinds itself to ground zero, allowing a more objective view of our young couple's "romance." To say any more would kill the thrill of writer-director Laetitia Colombani's twisty little strychnine valentine, although most alert viewers will undoubtedly pick up that something smells foul long before the puzzle pieces start dropping into place. Colombani's brisk pacing and ability to conceal the metaphorical maggots in the bonbon keep things moving for a while, though the narrative's reliance on a horror female archetype and gimmicky charm wears out before the coda has played its final hand. (1:42) Shattuck. (Fear)

The Hours (1:54) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

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) Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

The Jungle Book 2 (1:30) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Kangaroo Jack (1:24) Kabuki.

The Lion King IMAX (1:29) Metreon IMAX.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2:59) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

*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) (Fear)

Love Liza (1:30)

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

National Security (1:30)

*Nicholas Nickleby (2:15) Galaxy.

*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) (Huston)

Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times (1:14) Shattuck.

*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) (Gerhard)

*Rabbit Proof Fence (1:34) Rafael.

The Recruit (1:55) Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

*Russian Ark First, the more obvious distinction, the one that's likely to get curiosity seekers in the art house door: Russian Ark is a 96-minute (minus framing credits) single shot, accomplished in a single take, requiring new technology to enable a high definition video camera's seamless travel via Steadicam of some 4,265 feet through nearly three dozen rooms, up and down two floors. Its conceit is a sort of supernatural tour; the setting – the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg – a depository for millennia of archaeological finds, classical antiquities, old masters, decorations, sketches, and sculptures from Russia as well as the outlying (mostly Western) world. Our viewpoint is spiritualized – as Being John Malkovich-like joyriders in the camera's-eye mindset of a contemporary narrator (Sergei Dontsov, but surely the spirit of director Alexander Sokurov) who finds himself transported without explanation back to the future Hermitage building in its earliest, circa-1710 days. Sokurov has never worked before on so massive an organizational scale, let alone risked such international commercial viability, but Russian Ark: very good. More Sokurov: oh-so-much better. He should rule current art house dialogue the same way Bergman, Antonioni, and Fellini once did. (1:48) (Harvey)

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) Rafael. (Cohen)

Shanghai Knights (1:54) Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

*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) (Huston)

25th Hour (2:26) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Two Weeks Notice (1:40) Kabuki.

Rep picks

*Blue Velvet See Movie Clock, page 81. (2:00) Castro.