Film Listings

Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Robert Avila, Kimberly Chun, Susan Gerhard, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Dave Kim, Laurie Koh, Patrick Macias, Lynn Rapoport, and Chuck Stephens. The film intern is Max Goldberg. See Rep Clock and Movie Clock for theater information.

Being Julia Above all else, Hungarian director István Szabó's backstage drama Being Julia is about its star, Annette Bening. With every emotive gasp and bubbly burst of dialogue, Benning petitions the camera for her Oscar. She stars as Julia Lambert, a brilliant English stage actress who has grown unsatisfied with matters personal and professional. Fast approaching the impasse of middle age, Julia throws herself into a reckless love affair with Tom (Shaun Evans), an American admirer many years her junior. All is well until Tom convinces Julia to accept his other, younger love interest as an understudy. The movie wholeheartedly invites the All about Eve comparison, often borrowing entire scenes from Bette Davis's tour de force. The difference between the two is that while Davis's performance feels like a very real act of resistance against a misogynistic script helmed by a man's voice-over, all of the cards fall just right for Bening: her performance is coaxed and catered to. The result is pleasant enough, but it's a distant echo of Davis's original. (1:45) Albany, Embarcadero, Empire. (Goldberg)

The Grudge Takashi Shimizu directs Sarah Michelle Gellar in the remake of his Japanese horror hit Ju-On: The Grudge. (1:36) Century Plaza, Century 20, Shattuck.

*Red Diaper Baby Writer-performer Josh Kornbluth's celebrated monologue about growing up in mid-1960s New York as the child of unrepentant communists gets a lasting if not necessarily definitive treatment in director Doug Pray's concert film. Recorded on 16mm before a live audience at the Magic Theatre, and aptly supported by Marco d'Ambrosio's wistful score, the film opens with a shot of Kornbluth casually walking off the street and into the theater, intentionally recalling Jonathan Demme's beautifully integrated concert film of Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia. Yet here, while apparently restaged to be equally film-friendly, stage and screen productions don't always mesh – projected backdrops get awkwardly cropped, and lighting effects designed for the stage cast ineffective shadows or simply make the film look dim. When they do, however, the combination is striking. And the film's shortcomings do little to detract from what is still an engaging coming-of-age story, while its power to augment certain scenes, including what has got to be one of the more ghastly, hilarious deflowering stories ever told, makes up for a lot. In short, anyone who missed Red Diaper Baby onstage will want to join Kornbluth's die-hard fans in catching it on-screen. (1:33) Roxie, Smith Rafael. (Avila)

Rick Rick isn't going to make anyone want to move to New York City. The story, penned in part by Daniel Handler (better known as children's bard Lemony Snicket), is a dizzying maze of cruelty and perversity played under the Big Apple's harshest glare. Bill Pullman stars as Rick, a ruthless and corruptible corporate executive. He's quickly established as a moral degenerate, spewing slurs at a prospective assistant and snaking his way to an exclusive voyeur club with his sleazebag boss. Mind you, this is all before we see Rick's bored and luscious daughter enter an X-rated chat room with said sleazebag boss. The grotesque corruption is wonderfully balanced by director Curtiss Clayton's cold vision of penthouse apartments and corner offices. This atmosphere carries the film until traces of sentimentality creep into its cautionary tale, like when a dusty record bin reminds Rick that he used to be the type of guy who listened to Blood on the Tracks. The sentimental turn inflates Rick's tragedy, but it also robs the potency of the film's nightmarish fable and portends a movie that won't stick. (1:48) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Goldberg)

Stella Street Celebrity parody sure has come a long way since Rich Little got by just imitating stars' vocal mannerisms and movie catchphrases. Now we have off-Broadway plays about Matt Damon's and Ben Affleck's imagined inner lives, the ongoing shocking! hubris! of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Eminem's latest video crudite, and other snarky assaults against any last vestige of public-life respect. Against that backdrop, Stella Street, a movie version of a popular BBC series, comes off as just moderately cheeky, a glorified performance-art stunt that amuses but overstays its welcome. Creators Phil Cornwell and John Sessions play both the stubbornly middle-class denizens of a southwest London hood and the roll call of Hollywood A-list types who incongruously decide to move en masse into the newly "trendy" cul-de-sac. Some of the caricatures (notably Cornwell's Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine) are really good. Others are vague, fall way short, or simply involve personalities no one gives a shit about anymore. (I do believe Joe Pesci sufficiently parodied himself to death circa 1990.) Once you grok the basic concept, the film's flimsy "conspiracy" narrative just passably sustains full-feature length. In England this likable but thin cash-in bypassed theaters, going directly to DVD. You won't be sorry if you wait for it to do likewise stateside. (1:22) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Surviving Christmas Rich guy Ben Affleck pays the family (James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Christina Applegate) who live in his childhood home to host his obnoxious self for Christmas. (1:32) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Orinda.

Testosterone See Movie Clock. (1:45) Lumiere.

*Vera Drake Bustling around drizzly, post-WWII London with a happy, doughy face and gleaming eyes, Vera (Imelda Staunton) works as a floor scrubber for the wealthy, humming to herself and calling everyone "dear." For Vera, no problem is ever so great that a nice cup of tea can't solve it; she often visits ailing neighbors and occasionally helps expectant girls by performing homespun abortions. When one of these patients almost dies, Vera is arrested and tried for her "crime." Writer-director Mike Leigh contrasts Vera's story with that of a well-heeled girl (Sally Hawkins) who goes through proper channels for her abortion and suffers from crushing, psychological shame. Leigh shapes the superb Vera Drake as a repressed working-class companion to his 2002 film All or Nothing, establishing a vivid place and time but offering little in the way of comfort or comment. Staunton's performance radiates with glazed, dewy shock as she teeters into the film's wrenching final scene. (2:05) Embarcadero, Empire, Shattuck. (Jeffrey M. Anderson)

Woman, Thou Art Loosed Based on the novel and play by televangelist-entrepreneur Bishop T.D. Jakes, who also plays himself in the film, Woman, Thou Art Loosed joins The Passion of the Christ in 2004's most unlikely genre: movies based on Sunday school lessons. A gutsy (if overbaked) performance by Kimberly Elise (The Manchurian Candidate) anchors the sad tale of a death row inmate sharing the details of her troubled past (childhood sex abuse, drug addiction, an unsteady relationship with her mother) with sympathetic visitor Jakes (whose charismatic way with churchgoers is demonstrated during several interludes showcasing his sermons). Facing adversity is a worthy theme, but the melodramatic Woman, Thou Art Loosed – which at times feels drawn from both the Lifetime and Trinity Broadcast Networks – will likely have little impact beyond the already converted. (1:33) Century Plaza, Century 20. (Eddy)

The World According to Bush This is the movie the Cannes Film Festival opted not to screen this year, after deciding one anti-Bush film (Fahrenheit 9/11) was plenty. After the local releases of Fahrenheit, Bush's Brain, Uncovered, Outfoxed, Unconstitutional, Unprecedented, etc., even the most ardent Bush haters might be starting to agree. But if you're not quite ready to scream "uncle," or if you have that one insane acquaintance who still thinks W. is a dandy guy, William Karel's film is worth a look. True, it touches on a lot of the same subject matter as Fahrenheit (in particular, the murky reasoning behind the Iraq war; it also covers the whole Carlyle Group-bin Laden family connection), but Karel also snags some input from folks who'd never talk to Moore (Colin Powell, Richard Perle). Also, it's hard not to enjoy a film that features Normal Mailer pegging Bush as "the worst president in America's history" in its first 30 seconds – even if on the whole it relies far too heavily on the driest of devices: endless talking heads. (1:30) Roxie. (Eddy)


Before Sunset Nine years ago Yankee backpacker Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French student Celine (Julie Delpy) met on a Eurail train, spent 14 hours walking around Vienna, talked a lot, finally did it, and went on with their separate travels, exchanging no permanencies beyond the promise that they'd meet in the same place six months later. Well, neither of them made that date, for reasons soon discussed after Celine – now an environmental activist – drops in on recently published author Jesse's Paris book reading. They're both very happy to see each other, in large part because despite professional success and fairly settled lives since, each feels they blew a potential true love back then. With Jesse due on a plane, the pair has less than 90 minutes (played in real time) to catch up, hash out acquired life philosophies, and decide if maybe this thing needs to go somewhere after all. Though some found it simply yakkety (or way too big a dose of Hawke), the 1995 Before Sunrise was nonetheless one of those movies that, if it struck you the right way, felt like the most romantic ever. With Richard Linklater back in the director's seat, this sequel (written by him and the actors) has much residual good will to drawn on. But Hawke's looks (as flashbacks bear out) aren't the only thing that have faded since Sunrise. Sweet but awfully slight, with less emotional payoff, Sunset just floats down the Seine rather than taking flight. Still, I'd be willing to find out if these characters can become compelling again in another nine years. (1:32) Balboa, Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

*Bright Leaves Sherman's March director Ross McElwee's latest autobiographical documentary scrutinizes his family's past role in the tobacco industry that remains a major presence – if a less publicly celebrated one – in his native North Carolina. What really piques his curiosity is the discovery that Bright Leaf, a big (if not very good) 1950 Hollywood production, stars Gary Cooper as what seems to be a fictionalized version of Ross's great-grandfather John Harvey McElwee. The latter was a tobacco baron who created the famous "Bull Durham" brand, later suing a former business partner for its theft. He lost the case, possibly because his nemesis pulled strings in the local courts. Even more gratingly, that foe – Washington Duke, commemorated by Duke University among other things – ended up not just an industrial titan but by far the greater figure in historical annals. McElwee's mixed feelings about this ancestor's raw deal, and the questionable value of any empire built on "cancer sticks," are played out in a complicated meditation on family, legacy, responsibility, and homeland. Though interviewees briefly include Patricia Neal (Cooper's Bright Leaf costar and offscreen lover at the time), more often McElwee looks to farmers, cancer survivors, relatives, and others in his search for some elusive truth. Like his other films, Bright Leaves is at once hilarious and poignant, its wonderful intimacy with subjects and the viewer confirming that he's the Renoir of elaborated home movies. (1:45) Roxie. (Harvey)

De-Lovely Musicals are expensive and risky these days, so veteran producer and underwhelming director (The Net, Life as a House) Irwin Winkler deserves some credit for being the first to actually step up to the plate since Chicago supposedly resuscitated the genre. Gratitude wanes rapidly thereafter, alas. This dramatized bio of Tin Pan Alley songwriting legend Cole Porter wants to offer the warts-and-all reality famously airbrushed from Night and Day, the 1946 biopic in which Cary Grant as a very heterosexual Porter sang "You're the Top" only to beloved wifey Alexis Smith – and did not mean to imply he was the, er, bottom. Here we get Porter (Kevin Kline) as, yes, gay – sorta. Yet somehow this sophisticated portrait for a new era's openness turns into a wheezy retro plaint in which the musical genius's peccadilloes with cute younger guys (who hardly get any lines) are viewed simply as an awkward handicap to his true (if apparently platonic) love with socialite spouse Linda (Ashley Judd). She enters into marriage gamely accepting of his "other" life but soon ends up crabbing about his lack of discretion, yanking them both to a new location whenever some boy toy threatens (so she claims) his all-important work. Even he starts saying things like "I didn't know how much my happiness would hurt us." Yeesh, the whitewashed celluloid closet was better than this half-assed "tolerance." Beyond that, De-Lovely sports an awkward frame (Jay Cocks's script has Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Death prompting Porter to "re-stage" his life's greatest hits), a decent but less-than-glittering cast, plush yet kind of ugly visual design, and a soundtrack you couldn't pay me to listen to again. Such variably suitable types as Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Sheryl Crow, Natalie Cole, and Alanis Morrisette are brought on-screen to wrestle vocally with Porter standards; generally speaking, nobody wins. De-pressing. (2:01) Balboa. (Harvey)

*Dig! Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be ... neo-psychedelic singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalists. Anyone who has seen the reconstituted Brian Jonestown Massacre float gorgeous sounds through a variety of live settings this past year may know the surprise ending to Ondi Timoner's downward-spiraling rock doc. So you can leave all your Behind the Music clichés of uplift and self-reformation at the door. But just because Dig! doesn't celebrate survival in a motivational speaker-tour kind of way doesn't mean it devolves into nihilism. It actually ascends into nihilism, which may just be the point. One can feel the dread sweat in this tale of two bands – seven sordid years in the making – as it follows the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre loving and hating each other, from Potrero Hill to the Viper Room to points across the United States, Europe, and back again. BJM's Anton Newcombe lives up to his band's name, a guru in search of a cult, even as he throws off most of their members. As the Dandy Warhols happily make their way through Europe, it's Newcombe's outsize conviction that wins the day, even as he has to shout down fruit throwers with a harmonica hanging around his neck. (1:55) Four Star. (Gerhard)

A Dirty Shame The trailer for A Dirty Shame looked so great that one hoped John Waters had actually found his way back to the peak form last glimpsed in Hairspray, Polyester, and Female Trouble (depending on your degree of purism). But the trailer lied. Shame is just as much of a mess as Cecil B. Demented was, and with fewer incidental laughs. The concept, which shoots its wad pretty much in the first reel: people who get hit on the head (any old way; it doesn't seem to matter) become raving sex maniacs. That's good news for thoroughly repressed Baltimore housewife Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) – but bad news for all the "neuters," those upstanding citizens who prefer to keep their sex vanilla, infrequent, and absent from public display. In zombie-flick style, they're soon running for their lives from an epidemic of pleasure-seekers led by "sex saint" Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville). There's so much potential in this simple setup that you'll wish there was a John Waters around to do it justice ... oh, wait. What can be said? This movie's jokes are like water balloons lobbed at a barn door two feet away. (1:29) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Face Three generations of Chinese American women nurse old wounds and battle the constraints of their conservative culture in Bertha Bay Sa-Pan's Queens, N.Y.-set indie. A disastrous early marriage drives Kim (Bai Ling, in the film's standout performance) to deposit her infant daughter with her mother (Kieu Chinh) and flee; cut to 18-odd years later, and the baby has grown up to be Genie (Kristy Wu), a hip-hop-loving teen who rarely sees eye-to-eye with her fiercely traditional grandma. When Kim – now a sophisticated businesswoman – returns for the resentful Genie's graduation, the family's much needed healing doesn't exactly come easy. With a score written by a member of the Roots, and a soundtrack that mixes the Peking Opera Orchestra with Naughty by Nature (member Treach costars as Genie's boyfriend), Face is a mostly engrossing (if unevenly acted) examination of the conflicts that arise when old ideas refuse to give way to new ones – even when one's most important relationships are at stake. (1:24) Galaxy. (Eddy)

The Final Cut Somewhere between The Conversation and Strange Days lies The Final Cut, a dystopian debut by first time writer-director Omar Naïm. The sci-fi fable negotiates a world where computer chips are marketed to record first-person experiences. Chips are implanted before birth and retrieved postmortem. The artists of this business are the "cutters" who edit lives into "rememories": the ultimate in home-movie technology. If this all sounds familiar, it isn't a chip malfunction; the story wants very badly to walk the hallowed ground of Philip K. Dick's oeuvre. Unfortunately, Naïm is so busy with the premise that he plum forgets to construct a coherent story. The mishmash follows Alan Hakman (Robin Williams), a master cutter who – surprise! – has some traumatic memories of his own. Naïm's script is uniformly limp and often treads into utter incoherence. A romantic subplot, for example, makes one wonder if the projectionist is missing a reel. The visualizations of the rememories are admittedly handsome, but the device is left to flounder in contrivance. (1:44) 1000 Van Ness. (Goldberg)

The Forgotten Telly Paretta (Julianne Moore) is trapped in a nightmare version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. While she desperately clings to cherished memories of the young son she lost in a plane crash, the people around her insist the boy never existed. Never for an instant doubting her own mind – though her shrink (Gary Sinise) says she's psychotic, and all physical evidence of her son (photos, scrapbooks) has mysteriously vanished – Telly launches a desperate search for answers. What she finds is reminiscent of a mediocre X-Files episode. Though the film's murky color palette and tormented-woman theme call to mind Gothika-esque schlock, The Forgotten actually busts out a few satisfying jolts, and some not-entirely-obvious plot twists, along the way. (1:31) Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Friday Night Lights Nestled in the barren, Wal-Mart-speckled landscape of West Texas, the town of Odessa has a singular focus: high school football. Based on the real-life Permian High Panthers' 1988 season (and H.G. Bissinger's book by the same name), the gritty Friday Night Lights is a sports drama in the most dramatic sense, with blessedly little comic relief diluting the tension and heartbreak that go down on (and off) the field. Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton, who manages to be both low-key and intense) knows the importance of winning, but he also recognizes the individual struggles of his players, in particular the cocky star (Derek Luke) who suffers a devastating injury. As a former Permian player – and now one young tailback's alcoholic dad – country star Tim McGraw gets perhaps the film's most poignant moment, explaining to his son the importance of making the most of one's glory days. Director Peter Berg (The Rundown) overdoes the shaky hand-held camera, but in all likelihood, gridiron fans will be too wrapped up in the agony and ecstasy to notice. (1:57) Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

*Garden State Aspiring actor Andrew "Large" Largeman (Zach Braff) is living in Los Angeles and table-jockeying in a chic Vietnamese restaurant when the call comes that his mother has died. He reluctantly returns home for a few days of closure. Hanging out with his boyhood pal (Peter Sarsgaard) – now a full-time stoner grave digger – and a goofy young woman (Natalie Portman) he meets in a neurologist's waiting room, Large searches for the epiphany that'll ease him out of his vegetative mind-set. At first glance, Garden State may seem like just another twentysomething woe-is-me mopefest looking to ride Holden Caulfield's coattails. But thanks to writer-director-star Braff's knack for deliciously deadpan setups, the film works an alchemy of bemused charm that steamrolls over most of the story's clunks. There are a few neophyte missteps, notably in the faux-naif lines poor Portman has to pop out (still, it surely beats acting against droids) and Large's slightly stock climactic confessional with dad Ian Holm, but Braff nails the mixture of melancholia and absurdism so beautifully that it's hard not to be won over. (1:46) Bridge, Century 20, Shattuck. (David Fear)

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence Japanese animation auteur Mamoru Oshii has cashed in some of his RAM chips with Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Rumor is, the director blew a substantial portion of Innocence's $18 million budget, and some of the film's four-year production time, building up his personal doll collection. "The human is no match for a doll, in its form, its elegance in motion, in its very being," says Kim, Innocence's scheming puppet master who has transformed his body into a marionette. It's not a stretch to imagine that he's speaking on behalf of the director, who's based the killer "sexaroids" in the film on the ball-and-socket dolls of surrealist photographer Hans Bellmer. Instead of delivering visionary science fiction, this follow-up to the 1995 original is foremost an ode to Oshii's anthropomorphic obsessions. And while there are some kicks to be had – like a brief but brutal showdown between chilly protagonist Detective Batou and a punk rock, mechanically modified yakuza assassin – aspiring important-artist Oshii overstuffs Innocence with quotes from Confucius, Descartes, and other heavy hitters, which pour even from the unlikely mouths of computer hackers and lowlifes. (1:40) Balboa, Shattuck. (Macias)

*Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry Faced with an incumbent who was living Animal House rather than Platoon (let alone Berkeley in the Sixties) at the time, thanks to Daddy's connections, and a Democrat rival who is a decorated war hero, the Republicans did what? Tried to shift the focus to present-tense issues? As if. No, as we all know, they found people of dubious character and motivation to claim the recipient of two Purple Hearts and one Silver Star was somehow actually a coward, a war criminal, and an antipatriot. In the works well before these current slanderlicious tactics broke wind, George Butler's sobersided documentary offers the straight dope on Kerry as an idealistic kid who volunteered for the Navy, was an admired and brave squad leader on almost suicidally dangerous swift-boat missions, and then returned home seriously questioning our continued involvement in 'Nam. He took a leadership role once again in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, helping orchestrate its legendary 1971 Washington, D.C., protest, and speaking – eloquently if stiffly, then as now – before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If you're reading this, you probably don't need to see Going Upriver (though it can't hurt). But it would be in your best interest if you got pushy with someone, anyone, who does. (1:32) Shattuck. (Harvey)

Hero Seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Yeah, then you've pretty much seen Hero. Zhang Yimou's film, which carries with it the hipness stamp of being "presented by Quentin Tarantino," weaves the tale of an assassination plot as explained in multiple flashbacks by a nameless maybe-good-guy, maybe-bad-guy (Jet Li). Seems he's recently stymied the plans of a trio of killers (In the Mood for Love's Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, and Iron Monkey's Donnie Yen) to off China's first emperor. Or has he? As the story gets turned over and over, the art direction shifts drastically: in a particularly violent recollection, everyone's dressed in red; a more melancholy version calls for flowing robes of pale blue. The overall effect is visually stunning, and all the actors smolder magnificently. Still, a sword-fighting movie is only as good as its sword fights, and Hero's got only one really great one, a Li-versus-Yen rumble that, weirdly enough, takes place almost entirely in their characters' imaginations. (1:39) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

*Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train This inspiring documentary asks the question, So, what's keeping you from defending democracy's principles like a true citizen-activist? A shaming example is offered by Howard Zinn, famed "alternative" historian whose People's History of the United States remains the bedrock text on our country's genuine race- and class-driven back story. Born to scraping-by working-class parents who bought the avaricious-reader child a mail-order set of Dickens (still a very good formative influence, aesthetically and politically), Zinn was attracted early on to labor struggles. He pursued their study after his World War II Air Force service left him questioning the wisdom of civilian-bombing White House leadership; then it turned out labor history was pretty well omitted from the official record. Zinn's infinite "capacity for moral outrage" – which he understandably finds extraordinarily lacking in recent U.S. society overall – soon made him an academic spokesperson in key struggles where he seemed to be always at ground zero. He taught at a Southern "Negro" university as the civil rights movement launched; he was stationed at Boston University at the height of Vietnam War protests. His outspokenness cost him both jobs. Interviews from illustrious former students and a wealth of archival footage make this biographical portrait a stirring one. Zinn is glimpsed amid recent World Trade Organization and anti-Iraq war protests. If this old guy can still rabble-rouse, what's your excuse? (1:12) Red Vic, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

I Heart Huckabees Even before it darts through gray office mazes not far from Being John Malkovich's portal, David O. Russell's fourth film charts Charlie Kaufman territory – there's more than a hint of Adaptation to an introductory scene that places audiences squarely within the self-critical mind of disgruntled eco-activist Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman). A plot synopsis of I Heart Huckabees is a mug's game: ultimately, Schwartzman's character is the Matt Gonzalez, and Jude Law's white-collared climber is the Gavin Newsom, of this meta-story, which races through philosophy at a Preston Sturges pace and engineers more than one too-polite head-on collision at the intersection of politics and economics. The fact that Schwartzman's character looks an awful lot like Russell would seem to hint at where the director's sympathies lie, yet the stargazing Law – along with Mark Wahlberg and Naomi Watts – excels in this antic terrain. (Old pro Lily Tomlin fares best, though she isn't on-screen enough.) Russell went into this picture batting three-for-three, but I Heart Huckabees, while fitfully funny, isn't quite a splendiferous charm. (1:45) California, Galaxy, Orinda. (Huston)

Ladder 49 Chock full of classic setups and predictably poignant outcomes, Ladder 49 is one of those sparkplug flicks that flare up in theaters – then fizzle out immediately into Netflix obscurity. After years of practice, Hollywood is still pumping out that flawless moneymaker: a film that covers every narrative and thematic base, feeds the action junkies, and powers through opening weekend on positive reviews and feel-good sentiment. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Jack Morrison, an all-American firefighter who's trapped inside a quickly burning skyscraper. As he fades in and out of consciousness, pieces of his epic career flash before his eyes (and ours), while his colleagues and fire chief Mike Kennedy (John Travolta) work desperately to get him out. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this film, except that there isn't a single original concept in its 115 minutes. Every piece fits into place: domestic conflicts smooth out the action, and wholesome male bonding lightens up tearjerker scenes. But Ladder 49 almost feels a little too balanced, as if all of its generic elements were working to cancel each other out. (1:45) Century Plaza, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Kim)

*Maria Full of Grace Seventeen-year-old Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) thinks she could do better than her boring boyfriend, boring job de-thorning roses at a flower factory, and boring home life as meal ticket for a demanding mother, whiny sister, and the latter's wailing baby. The trouble is, Maria lives in a nowhere town outside Bogota, Colombia, where options are few. Restlessness, anger, and willpower alone aren't enough to reroute Maria's dead-end life trajectory, especially after she discovers she's unhappily pregnant. So she seizes on one extremely risky road to material success: working as an international drug mule, smuggling heroin into the United States via umpteen ingested jumbo capsules that are horse tranquilizer-size and fulla horse, period. A hefty financial reward awaits if she and several other nervous young women survive the gauntlet of suspicious customs officials, possible capsule leakage (which would be fatal), nausea, cramps, and any unforeseen additional disasters. Writer-director Joshua Marston's drama may lack the emotionally grueling force of some prior, more floridly cautionary works on this subject (most famously Midnight Express), but its documentary-style directness still offers a powerful microcosm of one woman's attempt to share in the "free trade" bounty that pretty much flows just one way – out – from disadvantaged countries. (1:53) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*The Motorcycle Diaries Walter Salles's The Motorcycle Diaries feels very much like a throwback to early-'70s road movies, but with an important improvement: its road-tripping protagonists get enlightened upward, gaining strength, purpose, and profundity from confronting injustice. The Motorcycle Diaries cannily exploits Che Guevara as icon by finding a quite legitimate context in which to ignore all the problematic aspects of his later life: early 1952 sees a 23-year-old Ernesto Guevara de la Serna (Gael García Bernal) dropping out of med school one semester short of graduation to travel the South American continent with 29-year-old Alberto Granada (Rodrigo de la Serna – no relation to the above) on a 1939 Norton 500 hog dubbed "the Mighty One." Their ultimate destination is a leper colony where both volunteer; the resulting route charts a learning curve. The Motorcycle Diaries has plenty of dents, but they're fairly minor quibbles given the film's appealing assurance, which remains faithful to the pleasures, pains, and insights the protagonists derive from their journey. (2:08) Albany, Clay, Empire, Piedmont. (Harvey)

*Napoleon Dynamite In this first feature by director and co-scenarist (with wife Jerusha) Jared Hess, Napoleon (Jon Heder) is the geekiest high schooler in Idaho, if not the western hemisphere. He lives with Grandma (Sandy Martin), sexually ambiguous bro Kip (Aaron Ruell), and vainglorious Uncle Rio (Jon Gries). The latter comes to live with the "boys" when Gram suffers a dune-buggy accident. Napoleon's only friend is new kid Pedro (Efren Ramirez), who seems to be on major laxatives. Pedro enters the student body president election, running against the most corn-fed popular blond (Haylie Duff) in a cheerleader suit. Can he triumph over her odds? Can Napoleon get with girl-of-his-dreams Trisha (Emily Kennard), girl-who-maybe-even-likes-him Deb (Tina Majorino), or indeed any girl actually born a girl? (Actually, boy-born girls would likely decline him too.) Can he get horrible Uncle Rio the hell out of the house? Can he survive the climactic school talent competition without complete humiliation? This often excruciatingly funny exercise is like Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) meeting the Harmony Korine of Gummo (not his other crap). In other words, it's deadpan-surreal teen-flick absurdism absolutely loaded with possibly empty but hella filling entertainment carbs. Scarf it up, puppies! (1:26) Grand Lake, Lumiere. (Harvey)

P.S. While writer-director Dylan Kidd's Roger Dodger examined the fragility and menace of the male ego, his P.S. centers on a thirtysomething woman's slow self-discovery. Louise Harrington (Laura Linney) is coasting through life as a divorcée working for Columbia University's admissions office. Her facade of fulfillment is shaken by the appearance of F. Scott Feinstadt (Topher Grace), a young applicant who is eerily reminiscent of Louise's first and truest love. As their tender and unsettling romance develops, Louise is thrust headlong into a major self-reckoning. Much like Roger Dodger, the film probes the ways in which we sabotage our own emotional growth. Unfortunately, P.S. often feels as stunted as its protagonist. As the movie unfolds, messy plot holes and unconvincing supporting roles quickly accumulate. The film's final sequences feel forced and are starkly revealing of an unfocused narrative construction. Still, there's more than enough charisma here to maintain interest in Kidd's rising star. (1:45) Embarcadero. (Goldberg)

Primer Sooner or later we're going to have to come to terms with Groundhog Day's hold on modern cinema. Filmmakers can't seem to get enough of its circular narrative; time-bending scene repetitions have undeniably entered the vernacular. The technique has been applied admirably in fare like Donnie Darko and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but alas, there's nothing inherently inventive in circularity. Witness Primer: a film that's nearly as confused as it's confusing. The plot centers on Abe and Aaron, two corporate engineers who have unlocked the secret of time travel in their spare time. Technological and moral complications ensue – you know the drill from Back to the Future. Primer marks Shane Carruth's debut as writer, director, and star. That's a lot to bite off at once, and while one can't help but admire the newbie's ambition, the film suffers from his obvious inexperience. Carruth is clearly enamored with moviemaking, but he consistently forgets one key element: the audience. (1:22) Four Star, Opera Plaza. (Goldberg)

Raise Your Voice Our little girl is growing up. Playing a once-sparkly teen traumatized by the death of her brother (Jason Ritter) and hampered by her conservative dad (David Keith), Hilary Duff gets a dose of depth, along with adversity, in Raise Your Voice. Will she overcome stage fright? Will she hit that high note? Is Oliver James (What a Girl Wants) the best faux-hawked boyfriend a girl could have, ever? Less the pop-star escapist fantasy of The Lizzie McGuire Story than a more down-to-earth look at a small-town girl overcoming tragedy and expanding her horizons in a gritty big-city music school's summer program, Raise Your Voice is likable Afterschool Special-style fare with some solid acting support by oldsters like John Corbett as her grunge but oh-so-twinkly music teacher. Of course, the not-so-secret weapon is Duff: though perfectly imperfect, she couldn't be any less of a cute bomb here. She's as wholesomely sexy, giggly, and sugary sweet as a lipgloss-slicked Popsicle – and almost refreshing in a field cluttered with pop sirens. (1:43) Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Remember Me, My Love In the tasteful, upper-middle-class apartment of an average-seeming (if ridiculously good-looking) Italian family, everything is quietly falling apart. After a chance encounter with his old sweetheart (Monica Bellucci), Carlo Ristuccia (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) has taken to skipping work and isolating himself from his nagging wife, Giulia (Laura Morante). A former actress, Giulia – who's suffering what could kindly be called a crisis of confidence – is suddenly offered a terrifying yet tempting chance to return to the stage. Suffering no lack of confidence is teen queen Valentina (Nicoletta Romanoff), who's so vain she falls asleep staring at her reflection; meanwhile, sad-sack Paolo (Silvio Muccino) gazes into the mirror only when he needs a self-pep talk (which is often). As various conflicts reach boiling points, a melodramatic, overly convenient tragedy brings the family together again. Despite this trite plot twist, writer-director Gabriele Muccino's study of domestic turmoil is, for the most part, well acted and engaging. (2:05) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Resident Evil: Apocalypse This mostly disappointing sequel ably demonstrates the limitations of basing a movie on a video game, with characters, action, and setting coming across as rather imagination-deprived. Picking up exactly where the first Resident Evil left off, Apocalypse follows the newly superpowered Alice (Milla Jovovich) as she battles the undead masses, who've lurched from the first film's below-ground laboratory into the streets of nearby Raccoon City. Since the metropolis is controlled by the same huge corporation that inadvertently created the zombies, damage control takes the form of a lockdown that seals everyone and everything within the city's walls. Along with a ragtag group of survivors (is there any other kind?) and the help of a scientist on the outside (Jared Harris), Alice shoots, slices, and punches her way to freedom. Memo to director Alexander Witt: arming a single comic-relief character with unfunny jokes isn't the way to lighten up an inherently silly film that takes itself way too seriously. (1:33) Century 20. (Eddy)

Shall We Dance? Submitted for your approval in the current Twilight Zone-populated by Hollywood remakes of crowd pleasers made in Japan: Richard Gere as the bourgie wet dream of a well-heeled, unhappy hubby, in midlife crisis mode; Stanley Tucci as a footloose Latin-dance firebrand in an ill wig; and Jennifer Lopez as the pinched, prudish, and untouchable babe of an ice queen, her Danskins cinched a few sizes too tight. Director Peter Chelsom translates this remake of the 1996 hit by Masayuki Suo into an appealing middle-aged woman's romance by staying true to the original narrative of a bored desk jockey (Gere) searching for passion (and emotional expression) in the over-the-top world of ballroom dancing – while playing up the Grey Foxy Gigolo's time-tested, Pretty Woman-forged Prince Charming qualities. The story thankfully doesn't hinge on J.Lo – despite the subtextual snipes (her last partner just wasn't right for her!) and a surprise cameo by guess who. If this version of Shall We Dance? is a tad self-consciously cute with its assortment of artificially sweetened, zany dance-studio "characters" and its equal-time take on the spurned spouse (Susan Sarandon) – she's gotta dance too! – there's also certainly wholesome charm here. Ah, the supposedly secret life of men – how can Oprah, or any straight woman, resist? (1:46) Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Shark Tale Admit it, you've been crossing your fingers for an animated kids' movie to jump on the hip-hop bandwagon. And now, thanks to the tragically hip eggheads at Dreamworks, you can finally enjoy Finding Nemo in the Hood. Little fish in a big pond Oscar (Will Smith) dreams of leaving his gig at da Whale Wash, so he can become somebody and live on top of the reef. Meanwhile, Lenny (Jack Black), a friendly (and suspiciously San Franciscan) shark who can't connect with his bloodthirsty mob family, wishes he could just be himself in front of his pop (Robert De Niro). A freak accident and a little truth-stretching make Oscar into an immediate hero, but he soon ends up seeking Lenny's help to maintain his celebrity status. Hip-hop-isms and a few mob movie allusions, some of which teeter on questionable taste, offer some hearty laughs for the grown-ups. But everything else is fairly routine, including high-speed shark chases and a being-different-is-OK message for the kids. (1:31) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Kabuki, Oaks, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda. (Kim)

*Shaun of the Dead A ne'er-do-well who's about to turn 30 but is still living like a college-age slacker, Shaun (Simon Pegg) is in such a rut that he doesn't notice the strangeness afoot in his London hood: a girl collapses, a homeless guy takes a bite out of a pigeon, and ambulances and military trucks squeal by with alarming frequency. He's far more concerned with the sorry state of his life, including the fact that his girlfriend's just dumped him. Over a pint at local hangout the Winchester, Shaun's best pal Ed (Nick Frost) consoles his bud: "It's not the end of the world!" The chuckle is, of course, that it is the end of the world, or damn near close, and the coming zombie invasion is apparent to absolutely everyone (audience included) except Shaun and Ed. Already a Brit blockbuster, Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead is jam-packed with similar instances of comedic foreshadowing ("Next time I see you, you're dead!" Shaun scolds the bratty kid next door), not to mention sight gags, pop culture references, double entendres, and running jokes galore. Sure, some of Shaun of the Dead's nuances may be lost on us American types – coscripters Wright and Pegg previously collaborated on the U.K. sitcom Spaced, which is freely referenced in Shaun – but the film's good-natured splatstick hardly gets lost in translation. (1:39) California, Century 20, Four Star, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow The big boasting point of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is writer-director Kerry Conran's filmmaking technique: first capturing the actors against a blue screen, then using his computer skillz to create the necessary sets, backgrounds, explosions, aerial stunts, dinosaurs, and so on. Sadly, the most gorgeous scenery in the world can't make up for a less-than-inspiring story. Sky Captain is modeled after old-school adventure serials, with dashes of film noir, comic books, and 1940s-style excitement about a "future" that just might include robot armies, ray guns, zeppelins docking at the Empire State Building, and airplanes with underwater flight capabilities. When top scientists begin vanishing, the heroic Sky Captain (Jude Law) investigates with the sometimes less-than-helpful help of his former flame, ace reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow, stuck playing the most annoying movie character in recent memory). The bickering pair race across the globe to unearth the shadowy figure behind not only the missing eggheads but also the aforementioned robot armies; curiously enough, though, the crucial dilemma becomes the fact that Polly's camera is nearly out of film. (1:47) Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Stage Beauty Period pictures are usually associated with the stuffiness of obvious prestige; costumes and mannered speech don't traditionally make for sexy filmmaking. Director Richard Eyre's Stage Beauty is the latest of an influx of period films going against the grain, though, trading grandiosity for unabashed naughtiness. The backdrop for all the folly is the upending of English theater that comes with King Charles' proclamation that female parts must be played by actresses. Ned Kynaston (played by Billy Crudup with Ziggy Stardust flair) is the last great actor of female roles who finds his identity cast into confusion by the king's decision. As if this isn't bad enough, his former dressing assistant, Maria (Claire Danes), totally pulls an All About Eve, catapulting to stardom using Ned's trademark moves. The film is largely filled out by Ned and Maria grappling with all things gender – Maria pretty much says it all when she wonders, "Am I the man or the woman?" during one especially steamy exchange. Such is the stuff that eventually sinks Stage Beauty. In the end, the film's attractiveness cannot hope to compete with its frivolity. (1:45) Embarcadero, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Goldberg)

*Tarnation Jonathan Caouette's movie-screen memoir is the story of a mother and a son – but it's also a hell of a lot more than any one linear story. When the narrative flow is violently interrupted by passages reflecting his and his mother's detached or unhinged states of mind, the results are sometimes visionary. Ironically, all the splintered stories in Tarnation threaten to be eclipsed by the story behind it: Caouette's first feature has acquired a reputation as "the $218.32 movie," in reference to how much the initial finished cost to make. Caouette first picked up a video camera at the age of 11; thus began his obsessive devotion to filming and audio – and videotaping himself and his family. Tarnation's 20 years of raw material were assembled with the free iMovie software included with a computer Caouette received as a gift from his boyfriend's aunt. Now the autobiographical project is finally complete. Or is it? Right up until the last month before its official release, Tarnation was undergoing changes. Will these tiny changes, or Tarnation's increasingly big picture, haunt Caouette – and can any telling of a life story be definitive? (1:28) Act I and II, Castro, Lumiere, Smith Rafael. (Huston)

Taxi A few films back, Queen Latifah finally reached a critical point in her career: she can be typecast as herself. In Taxi, she plays Belle, another version of that kind-hearted, street-smart, patient-with-the-white-guy character that is the Queen Latifah role. Belle, a star bike messenger, finally earns her taxi license, which combined with her tricked-out vehicle, ostensibly brings her closer to her dream of NASCAR racing. When the speed demon picks up Washburn (Jimmy Fallon), a screw-up cop whose license was revoked, she's forced to help him pursue a band of Brazilian supermodel bank robbers led by Gisele Bündchen (hotter than she has the right to be). Saturday Night Live alum Fallon looks uncomfortable in his first starring role, despite playing an immature ass (familiar SNL territory). Belle, full of whupass and wisdom, functions mainly to instruct and calm the overzealous Washburn. A good portion of this film's humor is rooted in racial stereotypes, but at least most of the laughs are because Washburn is incompetent, not because he's a white dude. (1:37) Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Koh)

*Team America: World Police Seekers of sophisticated satire, and anyone who is easily offended, look elsewhere. Please. If, however, you can see the humor in a movie that skewers Hollywood blockbusters and self-righteous celebrities, casts the United States as a big bully, and drags out a puking scene to operatic lengths, settle in for Team America: World Police. It's easily the funniest (and most tasteless) movie of the year, brought to lifelikeness by a cast of wooden puppets. Given its title, which pretty much sums up the premise, Team America is surprisingly all over the political map, spraying barbs left and right and impaling targets both obvious (over-the-top patriotism) and seemingly random (Matt Damon). Just about the only topic creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (a.k.a. the South Park guys) leave untouched is the presidential race, with George W. Bush glimpsed only in a brief cameo. Still, Team America makes its point about the United States' well-deserved bad reputation of late – with interludes of graphic puppet sex thrown in along the way, for good measure. (1:43) Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Unconstitutional: The War on Civil Liberties; Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election The Robert Greenwald train rolls back into the Roxie, carrying a pair of docs – directed by other agitprop-ers – devoted to subjects that Michael Moore only touches on in Fahrenheit 9/11. The livelier (relatively speaking) of the pair, Unprecedented places narration by Danny Glover over an oft-frightening investigation of the special type of Florida-flavored fraud that should have resulted in Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush being convicted as felons (and thus prevented from ever voting again in the state). In case you had any doubts, the result of the 2000 presidential election is revealed to be an utter sham – and with states such as Georgia embracing electronic voting, the future doesn't look good. The impressionist (again, relatively speaking) Unconstitutional focuses on minor absurdities and major horrors caused by the USA PATRIOT Act, a subject also explored by at least one other recent movie – Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse's Persons of Interest – that should have had an S.F. run by now. Next to the visual style of these docs, PBS seems as flashy as Wayne Newton. But both Unconstitutional and Unprecedented are packed with truth and insight you won't find on television. (2:05) Roxie. (Huston)

Vanity Fair It's not quite as bad as Demi Moore's Scarlet Letter, but this similar attempt to sex up a presumably too-stodgy-for-modern-audiences lit classic represents a serious miscalculation for director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) and star Reese Witherspoon, who plays Becky Sharp, a penniless orphan who uses her beauty and infinite ambition to crash English high society in the early 19th century. The original William Makepeace Thackeray novel is primarily social satire and indictment revolving around a heroine with the morals of a sociopath. In Nair and collaborators' Thackeray for Dummies treatment, however, Becky is plucky, loyal, saucy, witty (or so she thinks – the banter here seldom backs her up), kind, upright, sensuous, progressive-minded, and, oh yes, occasionally a tad misguided. Gaudy, heavy-handed, mawkish at odd junctures, and increasingly ridiculous as it grows more serious, Vanity Fair is infused with Nair's galumphing reminders that this is a colonialist (dig those sitar sounds!), multiethnic (huh?), class-divided society. (2:17) Act I and II. (Harvey)

What the #$*! Do We Know? What's the purpose of life? Do we experience multiple realities? What exactly is the nature of space and time? What the #$*! Do We Know? attempts to answer life's real toughies with a host of appropriately mad scientists and experts in the field. The quasi-conclusive information is then supplemented by a sequence starring Marlee Matlin, whose character overcomes a jilted marriage and anger floating from her past and is freed by deeper knowledge of what's truly important. This film has the potential to stun with animation sequences of the body's nervous system and internal organs and maybe even teach us a thing or two, but instead it resorts to dumbed-down language and downright embarrassing sequences of cells dancing, speaking, and doing things they have no business in doing. For an after-school philosophy special for junior high students, fine, but as a feature-length film, What the #$*! Do We Know falls flat on its pseudo-metaphysical face. (1:51) Galaxy, Piedmont. (Nickie Huang)

Rep picks

Just Say It: A Revolution in the Making See 8 Days a Week. (:35) New College Theater.

Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior See 8 Days a Week. (1:45) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

'Tribute to James Wong Howe' See "Deep Focus". Castro.