March 12 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.

San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival

The 21st annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival runs March 6-16. Venues are the AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres, 1881 Post, S.F.; Pacific Film Archive Theater, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Camera 3 Cinemas, Second St at San Carlos, San Jose. For tickets and information, call (415) 255-4299 or go to www.naatanet.org/festival. For commentary, see last week's Bay Guardian. All times p.m.

Wed/12

Kabuki Chicken Rice War 1. Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity 7. "Hand Made: Mostly Home-Made Movies" (shorts program) 7:15. Bollywood Bound 7:30. Unknown Pleasures 9:15. Bang the Machine 9:30. "Crouching Asian, Hidden Cheese" (shorts program) 9:45.

PFA Refugee 7:30.

 

Thurs/13

Kabuki Robot Stories 7. All in the Family 7:15 p.m. TBA 7:30.

 

Fri/14

Camera 3 Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity 7. Sat/15

Camera 3 An Untold Triumph 1. The Game of Their Lives 3. "Crouching Asian, Hidden Cheese" (shorts program) 5:15. Charlotte Sometimes 7:30.



Sun/16

Camera 3 Saigon, U.S.A. 12:30. YMCA Baseball Team 2:15. Life Tastes Good 4:45. Where's the Party Yaar? 7:15. "3rd I South Asian International Shorts 2003" (shorts program) 9:30.

 

Opening


Agent Cody Banks A pint-sized CIA agent (Malcolm in the Middle's Frankie Muniz) goes undercover at a high school. (1:42) Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London.

*Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony See Movie Clock. (1:43) Lumiere.

Chihwaseon Purported pillar of Korean filmmaking Im Kwon-Taek's 95th film (!), this dramatized biography of celebrated late- 19th century painter Jang Seung-up (Choi Min-Sik) is very much in the tortures-and-triumphs-of-the-artist vein. Recognized for his precocious talent at an early age, the subject walked a reckless path from beggar boy to master's apprentice to commissions for the king – and then back to obscurity as a political and social outcast. (The date and circumstances of his death remain unknown.) In between, he drank like a fish, fucked like a rabbit, treated women like bitches 'n' hos, and dropped trou at authority ("How can I paint without an erection?!" he screams), all against the backdrop of Korea's popular upheavals and struggles against Japanese and Chinese domination. This handsome production is worth checking out, though it eventually loses steam in the face of that near-inevitable biographical dilemma: Even the most colorful real lives defy narrative structuring, instead coming off as a series of sometimes-interesting, sometimes-not incidents. (1:57) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

The Hunted In his latest chasing-down-the-bad-guy role, Tommy Lee Jones tracks rampaging assassin Benicio Del Toro. (1:34) California, Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London.

*Irréversible See "The Road to Hell," page 40. (1:39) California, Lumiere.

*Laurel Canyon See "Blithe Spirits," page 40. (1:43) Albany, Embarcadero, Empire.

Willard Crispin Glover stars as the rat-happy misfit in this remake of the 1971 horror classic. (1:35) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Jack London.

 

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) Four Star, Oaks, 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) Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Huston)

Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary makes a claim for stark visual simplicity as truth. For 90 minutes, directors André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer fix their camera's unblinking eye on Traudl Junge, the titular secretary, as she recounts her years working for Adolf Hitler and feebly tries to capture the personal toll of her role in history. Naïveté is one of Junge's principal excuses for having fallen under the spell of Hitler, a reason that is hardly novel, even in the realm of full-length documentary portraits. In Ray Müller's The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, the director of Triumph of the Will is similarly smitten with a führer father figure, though she's far more defiant in defending her own alleged innocence. (1:30) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Huston)

*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. (Gerhard)

Bringing Down the House Queen Latifah could beat the crap out of anyone, and that is her character's most fully formed trait in Bringing Down the House, directed by Adam Shankman. She plays Charlene, an innocent convict who woos a tax attorney (Steve Martin) online so she can get free legal advice. Charlene busts out of prison, takes over his house, and of course teaches uptight white people some valuable lessons. Continental race divide aside, the film has some really amusing moments including an epic fight scene between Latifah and a Tae Bo-trained gold digger. However, the film spends so much time treating her character like a badass fish out of water that you never get much back story, nor see any flaws in her heart of gold besides a propensity for violence. The film's obvious racial humor is laid on too thick to push any boundaries, but Martin and Latifah have good comic chemistry. All in all, House is an offensively funny excuse for popcorn. (1:45) California, Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Jack London, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda. (Koh)

*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, Grand Lake, 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) Act I and II, Embarcadero, Empire. (Huston)

*Cradle 2 the Grave Director Andrzej Bartkowiak again taps the formula that served him so well in Exit Wounds and Romeo Must Die: pair up a rapper (here, DMX) with a martial arts star (Jet Li), add in some foxy females (Gabrielle Union, Kelly Hu), comic relief (Tom Arnold, Anthony Anderson), and at least one slick villain (Mark Dacascos); compile an energetic hip-hop soundtrack; and keep things moving with as many ridiculous action sequences as humanly possible. All the elements come together most enjoyably in this one; Cradle 2 the Grave ain't no towering intellectual triumph, but try having a bad time at a movie that includes a rooftop chase involving cops and four-wheelers; a mysterious, radioactive superweapon; strip club and jail cell confrontations; and most important, multiple bone-crunching fights, including one that sees Li facing down a little person in a steel cage match. What more do ya want, people? (1:40) Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Daredevil (1:36) Century 20, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Dark Blue (1:56) 1000 Van Ness.

*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, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Huston)

Frida (1:58) Balboa.

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) Galaxy, Oaks. (Harvey)

Gods and Generals (3:40) Century 20.

The Guru (1:50) Galaxy.

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) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Fear)

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, 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)

The Jungle Book 2 (1:30) Century 20, Jack London.

The Life of David Gale An investigative journalist (Kate Winslet) is summoned to interview the nation's foremost anti-death penalty activist, David Gale (Kevin Spacey), three days before he is to be executed for a murder he says he didn't commit. Thanks to a series of gratuitously stylized flashbacks, we see how this college professor went from ivory-tower intellectual to death-row inmate. Meanwhile, our hero rushes to find out the real story before Gale's time runs out. Director Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning) tackles this hot topic-headline melodrama with his usual blend of advertising aesthetics and overwrought piety, misguided enough to believe polemics can be substituted for narrative logic or dramatic tension without losing credibility. Spacey's martyred Gale is less a performance than a string of Oscar clips, while Winslet reminds us that crying on cue is a skill unto itself. Someone saw a civic lesson delivered with a kino-fist in the material; what's left writhing around onscreen, however, is simply ham-fisted nonsense. (2:10) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Fear)

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

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2:59) Century 20, Metreon.

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 coscenarist 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) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

*The Pianist Roman Polanski's The Pianist is a stunning look at one man's journey through the maze of fascism – a detailed map partly drawn from the filmmaker's own memories of his childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland. Pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is separated from his family as they are sent to Dachau, and he takes refuge in apartments that become solitary-confinement cells. When Szpilman finally wanders into the world once again, he finds a seemingly endless street of wreckage. The world has become a landfill, and only now is there a possibility of freedom within it. The same blunt paradoxes that define The Pianist's visual landscape color the film's view of human nature. In particular, the movie emphasizes that Szpilman's talent and reputation as a pianist save him from death. There's a wry incredulity to Polanski's documentation of Szpilman's survival, a quality furthered by the Brody's performance: his face is operatically sorrowful on the surface, yet it's the subtle shifts in his expressions that are truly revealing. (2:28) Albany, Clay, Orinda, Piedmont. (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, Orinda, Piedmont. (Gerhard)

*Rabbit Proof Fence (1:34) Balboa, Rafael, Shattuck.

The Recruit (1:55) Metreon.

*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) Balboa, Opera Plaza, Rafael, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*The Safety of Objects A collection of A.M. Homes short stories, from a book of the same title as the film's, is the source material for this newest take on the Short Cuts format – but director Rose Troche (Go Fish, Bedrooms and Hallways) adapts them into a surprisingly coherent narrative. Homes's ice storm melts into a variety of unhealthy scenarios: older women (Patricia Clarkson and Mary Kay Place) falling for the generations-younger lawn guy (Timothy Olyphant), who happens to have an obsessive interest in a much younger girl, whom he seems to think is a boy (Kristen Stewart), and so on. In a pretty much amazing feat, Troche has worked Homes's separate stories into a crossword puzzle whose pieces actually do fit into an original whole. Troche's true sympathy for her suburbanites gives the screenplay just a touch too much honey, but in a landscape peopled with the recent progeny of American Beauty, a little kindness surely goes a long way. (2:00) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Gerhard)

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) Balboa. (Cohen)

Shanghai Knights (1:54) Century 20, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

*Spider Spider is David Cronenberg's first great movie since 1988's Dead Ringers. Like that investigation of extreme identical-twin identity confusion, it relies brilliantly on an introverted British actor (Jeremy Irons then, Ralph Fiennes now) and offers horrors that are seldom physical, but rather in the realm of psychological dread and confusion as a way of life – madness being in some ways the ultimate horror. The original 1990 novel by Patrick McGrath offers a madman's-eye view that's disconcertingly chatty and cheery. Dennis "Spider" Cleg narrates from his perspective as a new resident in a London halfway house, occasionally dropping in bits and pieces of his childhood, lived in the East End streets nearby. McGrath's screenplay offers an almost complete tactical reversal. Here, we are told almost nothing, while what we see on-screen is a puzzle to be solved by sussing out schizophrenic Spider's particular delusions. If the novel's matey-sounding protagonist still exists, he's buried too deep for recognition in Fiennes's tremulously physical creation – a shambling, incoherently mumbling, paranoiac wreck that's as good as anything he's done. (1:38) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*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) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Huston)

Tears of the Sun A taciturn Navy SEAL (Bruce Willis) is assigned to lead a rescue mission that'll airlift an Italian American doctor (Monica Bellucci) from war-torn Nigeria. Trouble is, the good doc doesn't want to leave behind the helpless villagers she's grown to love; a treacherous, mass trek to safety in neighboring Cameroon is the only solution. Training Day director Antoine Fuqua has good intentions, but Tears of the Sun is overlong and often boring (many, many shots of people ... walking). Also, something doesn't sit right with the (completely fictitious) story, which aims to show heroism at its finest but comes across as generic and uninvolving, with way too many "meaningful" moments punctuated by Hans Zimmer's pseudo-African score. (2:01) Century Plaza, Century 20, Jack London, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

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

 

Rep picks


*Daughter from Danang The first war to be fought in America's living-room TV sets is still being dissected there, where archival footage is showing one era's proudest moments to be another era's sickest jokes. Mining the libraries of the major networks, Bay Area filmmakers Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco came up with the goods, evidence of American imperialistic hubris at work, through footage of "Operation Babylift," Gerald Ford's 1975 P.R. move to put a happy face on the sinister end of the Vietnam War. Orphaned Vietnamese children were supposedly being "rescued" by this effort, but many of the children weren't orphans: their parents had been coerced into sending them away. Dolgin and Franco's surprising doc intercuts old newscasts with the present-time story of one of those children – Heidi Bub, now a fully assimilated American living in the South with her military husband – going on a trip to reunite with her birth mom. The journey across cultures and through time turns out to be studded with land mines, leaving viewers knee-deep in emotional wreckage. (1:21) Roxie. (Gerhard)

*'Dirty Poole: The Films of Wakefield Poole' See "In the Dark," page 42. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

'Hans Grüsel's "Sounds for Silents"' See 8 Days a Week, page 52. Artists' Television Access.

*'Ladies and Boys and Touching' Astria Suparak, the prolific young curator from New York, presents a collection of selections from her recent programs in "Ladies and Boys and Touching," originally created for the Chicago Cultural Center. The title is perhaps the best way to describe this collection of self-conscious performances. Ladies, boys, and tactile movement run through these works, which celebrate the artifice of art, relationships, and actions: a man savagely cuts down a public rose garden then stomps on every pile of dog shit he can see; another rhapsodizes about Reagan as he chops wood; a woman discusses death with phone psychics. The program, which includes audio works by Miranda July, also features Jennifer Sullivan's "Dancing Girls," an electronica tribute to girls in '80s talent shows. Those who saw Suparak's summer program at Ladyfest Bay Area will recognize Karen Yasinsky's stop-motion "Fear" and Jaqueline Gross's "Digit and Dian." (1:16) Artists' Television Access. (Koh)

*The Trials of Henry Kissinger History goes easy on winners – at least longer than it does with the losers. However, there may be an expiration date approaching for all the ass-kissing accorded Kissinger, who was regarded as the genius element in several Republican presidencies. This BBC-produced documentary suggests that Kissinger's public persona may well have been sculpted only to distract attention from his lust for power on the international stage at whatever cost, via often secret meetings and negotiations. The film's indictment includes evidence of chicanery in the '68 presidential election; a guiding hand in needlessly prolonging the Vietnam War; urging covert bombing, then the 1970 invasion of Cambodia; orchestrating the overthrow of Chile's democratically elected, anti-U.S.-capitalist Allende and installing Pinochet's dictatorship; and still later turning a blind eye to Indonesia's brutalities in East Timor. Called "brilliant, manipulative, and secretive" even by some ostensible allies, Kissinger has been running scared since elderly Pinochet's arrest-dodging media inquiries, refusing to comment on specific allegations in journalist Christopher Hitchens's exposé book (on which Trials is based). Still, the existing paper trail is already damning enough. Is Kissinger a war criminal? No matter how you've felt about him in the past, your view of this 1973 Nobel Peace Prize winner is sure to be shaken by these terse 80 minutes' scrutiny. (1:20) Red Vic; also plays Sat/15-Sun/16, March 20, 26 on the Sundance Channel (www.sundancechannel.com). (Harvey)