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.
Opening

*Beyond the Sea Kevin Spacey's pet project as director-star should by rights have turned out to be an embarrassing vanity exercise, but Beyond the Sea avoids that to a surprising (if incomplete) degree. Spacey plays Bobby Darin, a Bronx-born crooner who started out as a rock 'n' roll teen idol ("Splish Splash") and then became a sort of junior Rat Pack type on the charts ("Mack the Knife") and on the silver screen (an Oscar nominee for his role in the long-forgotten Captain Newman, MD). He also married and divorced the Eisenhower era's perkiest teen-girl role model, Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), before dying of congenital heart failure amid a career downslide at age 37. Using a feature length-flashback device much like the one used in De-Lovely to explain a 46-year-old star playing a character as much as nearly three decades younger, Beyond the Sea is far more comfortable as a quasi-musical than De-Lovely is. Its brash, larger-than-life approach also turns limited psychological insight, which De-Lovely foundered on, into a seemingly deliberate, wittily ironical stylistic choice. Spacey and company never convince that Darin was more than a minor, imitative talent. But the film's wonderful production design, zesty cinematic presentation, and energetic performances sweep us into a winningly retro depiction of the 1950s American dream realized. Until, that is, the movie's last half hour collapses into a puddle of schmaltz and unearned pathos. Still, even that gets partly redeemed at the eleventh hour by a final production number that's like vintage Arthur Freed-era MGM. Beyond the Sea is very flawed but often very good enough to match its own extreme chutzpah. (1:58) Century 20, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

*The Century of the Self This four-hour BBC documentary ponders the impact Freud's theories had on 20th-century culture, particularly the way "psychological" ideas muddied the distinctions between consumerism, politics, democracy, and advertising. It's a fascinating viewpoint. Part one, "Happiness Machines," centers on how Freud's nephew Edward Bernaise, seen in 1991 interview footage, played a leading role in turning the shrink's notions about the supremacy of unconscious desires into a huge tool for "manipulating the masses." (He's credited with virtually inventing the term "public relations.") Part two extends these themes into the postwar years, with particular focus on how Freud's daughter Anna upheld strict interpretation of his ideas – which largely view man as struggling against an "enemy within" of "savage barbarism." That was a nice fit for the times, but less so as "anti-Freud" Jung and 1960s and '70s counterculture became major social influences. Yet in the later milieus of Reagan, Thatcher, and beyond, Freud's filtered-down insights would prove most helpful to conservative think tank types plotting political strategy. The Century of the Self's narrow adherence to a single-minded thesis begins to wear the closer it gets to current events. Yet there's nary a dull moment between wonderful archival clips and an extraordinary interview roster that encompasses strategists Dick Morris and Philip Gould, actress Celeste Holm (who shared Marilyn Monroe's psychiatrist), est founder Werner Erhardt, Mario Cuomo, surviving relatives of Freud and Bernaise, and many others. (4:00) Roxie. (Harvey)

*Moolaadé See Movie Clock. (2:04) Lumiere, Smith Rafael.

Ongoing

*The Aviator Leonardo DiCaprio – still known in many circles as "the guy from Titanic" – is spot-on as the complex, charismatic, and occasionally ca-ca-crazy Howard Hughes. Perhaps more important, director Martin Scorsese is officially back in play – if he's awarded the Best Director Oscar in February, it'll be because of The Aviator's merits, not because people think it's about freakin' time he wins the thing (as, sorry, would have been the case if he'd taken it for Gangs of New York). Biopics, preferably about someone glamorous and male, are Hollywood's trend du jour, and The Aviator goes full-throttle in showing Hughes's many sides: Hollywood player, ladies' man (with ladies including Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner), out-on-a-limb industrialist, airplane fanatic, and obsessive-compulsive near-deaf misfit. The Aviator's strong points – including a lush palette, perfectly matched by top-notch production and costume design – are compromised some by its flashier forays into stunt casting (Jude Law, Gwen Stefani). But overall, DiCaprio and Scorsese nail it, fleshing out the complex life of a man who's unafraid to fly a brand-new airplane faster than any human has ever flown before – but becomes trapped in a public bathroom when the thought of touching an unclean doorknob proves too terrifying to overcome. (2:49) Century 20, Four Star, Grand Lake, Kabuki, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

*Bad Education All about My Mother and Talk to Her are among the most U.S.-beloved foreign-language movies of the past few years. But really, do we need Pedro Almodóvar to make films about the delicate emotions of everyday people? No. We need him to keep on making movies about style, about florid melodrama, and about other movies. Which is pretty much all Bad Education is "about." This is a lurid, contrived, gratuitously sexy (especially homo-sexy) thriller with a smirk on its face and a cigarette holder sinking hot ash into the shag carpet. It's so exquisitely – and derivatively – designed that it for sure qualifies as "mature" Almodóvar, albeit a case of such I can really get behind. It's to Almodóvar's credit that this film noir-black comedy makes us perversely root for the roto-rooter in one particular sexploitative dynamic, even more so that he manages to make priestly pederasty – take a deep breath now – so funny. These outrages amuse rather than offend because the scenarist-director layers in so much irony, deadpan camp, and cineaste in-joking – and because the Chinese-box structure of flashbacks, fantasies, alternative versions of events, etc., eventually turns all notions of victimhood upside down. (1:49) Clay, Empire, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Bear Cub For those seeking a nature documentary, look elsewhere – the "bear" of this film's title refers to the gay subculture that places ruggedness at a premium. Despite having discovered the perfect balance of dentistry by day and partying by night, bear-protagonist Pedro is thrown for a loop when his hippie sister leaves her nine-year-old son, Bernardo, in his care for two weeks. Weeks turn to months when the sister is detained on drug charges, and what started as a clumsy relationship between uncle and nephew evolves into a deep bond. Lest we think everything proceeds smoothly, though, there's an embittered grandmother waiting in the wings, desperate to claim custody of Bernardo. The problem here is one of narrative scope; the story's episodic nature would probably work better as a TV miniseries than as a feature film. As is, director Miguel Albaladejo shuffles through scores of minor characters and story lines without really tying anything together beyond Pedro and Bernardo's sentimental bond. Despite some believable performances, Bear Cub doesn't seem ready for the silver screen. (1:33) Four Star, Opera Plaza. (Goldberg)

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) Opera Plaza. (Goldberg)

*Blade: Trinity It being Christmas season and all, there's no competition on the action-horror front for Blade: Trinity. But even if it were midsummer, this third entry in the R-rated (thank you) Wesley-Snipes-the-vampire-slayer series would be welcome, for all its charms: silly weapons, ludicrous bloodsucker logic, a judiciously offbeat supporting cast, and gory Snipes swordplay galore. For the uninitiated, Blade, a.k.a. "the Daywalker," is a half-man, half-vampire singularly dedicated to wiping everything with a pair of fangs off the planet. The earlier Blade films – both written by David S. Goyer, who writes and also directs Trinity – paid more attention to the character's origin story, his internal conflicts, other soul-searching matters. Now, Blade's set to take on the big D himself – Dracula, unearthed from a deep slumber to aid in the world-domination plan of the local vampire population. Assistance, and innumerable wisecracks and iPod product placement, comes in the form of "the Nightstalkers," a ragtag crew who spring Blade from police custody. Trinity aims for a lighter tone, with more jokes and over-the-top showings by supporting players, including Parker Posey. But don't tell Snipes – he's as stone-faced as ever, uttering precious few lines (though he does get a few brilliantly placed Dolemite-style exclamations: "I'll kill you myself, muthafucka!") (1:54) Century 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Callas Forever Franco Zeffirelli tried and failed to film Maria Callas as Tosca, and his movie version of La traviata attempted to transform Teresa Stratas into La Divina (whom he eulogizes at length in the best of many Callas documentaries). At the beginning of Zeffirelli's latest homage, a jet touches down on the runway to the strains of ... the Clash. "Complete Control," the title of the song Zeffirelli uses, was something Callas knew plenty about, but that incongruous choice is just the first of countless daffy ingredients here. Joe Strummer and company stand in for the sound of Bad Dreams, a band managed by Larry Kelly (ever haughty Jeremy Irons, equipped with clip-on ponytail). Greeted by Joan Plowright (as an Elsa Maxwell-type reporter), Kelly arrives in Paris in 1977 with an underlying scheme to rescue Callas (Fanny Ardant) from her self-imposed grieving exile by asking her to lip-sync those pesky real-life troubles away in film versions of her greatest recordings. The ludicrous idea that she would even consider such a project is the basis for Zeffirelli's nostalgic fantasy, which presents an Onassis-as-Scarpia comparison as revelation. Stylistically, the director doesn't need to re-create the era – he seems permanently stuck there. Ardant aptly mimics Callas's calculated wide-eyed coquettishness but scarcely hints at her fury. She's been McNally-ed and Dunaway-ed to oblivion and beyond, but Callas's talent still dwarfs those who evoke or attack her legend. (1:48) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Huston)

Closer The quartet of sinners encased in Closer's dramatic bubble face many more moments of comeuppance than instances of pleasure. Mike Nichols's latest, an adaptation of Patrick Marber's play, works over the same masochistic impulses targeted by perfume commercials, and at times seems just as superficial. At best – usually when Marber's screenplay cuts through the visual adornments – it motors along like a cold, mechanized update of the director's past fearsome foursomes. In chilly London, journalist Dan (Jude Law) falls for stripper-turned-barrista Alice (Natalie Portman); one sequence and a year or two later, Dan and successful portrait photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) meet not-cute in her studio, alternately flirting with and insulting each other. If Anna didn't also have an other half, Marber's streamlined paradoxes wouldn't play out fully – and a dermatologist named Larry (Clive Owen, stagier yet livelier than the rest) wouldn't get to deliver the big line of deep truth about romantic corruption, lecturing Law's naive writer about the bloody, fistlike qualities of the human heart. (1:38) Balboa, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Huston)

Darkness (1:41) Century Plaza, Century 20, Oaks, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio.

Fat Albert Bill Cosby grabbed more than a few headlines earlier this year after airing his controversial opinions about contemporary African American culture, taking to task everything from bad parenting to bad grammar. So it's no surprise that the film based on his popular 1970s cartoon – itself based on Cosby's own childhood pals – has a detectable undercurrent of agenda-pushing. Sure, there's a game lead performance by Saturday Night Live's Kenan Thompson, who utters Fat Albert's trademark "Hey, hey, hey!" (and rocks a fat suit) with convincing optimism; as well, the real-life versions of the other Cosby Kids (Mushmouth, Dumb Donald, Rudy, et al) are well cast. The plot – Fat Albert and company emerge from their cartoon world via a forlorn young girl's TV set – aims to be about problem-solving, but it's really about good-old-days innocence (jump-roping) clashing with 21st-century cynicism (dirty rap lyrics). Some chuckle-worthy scenes aside, fans of the original show will wish the film contained more of what made the cartoon so enduring, including the good-natured, put-down-laden exchanges that flew freely (and hilariously) between Fat Albert and his pals. (1:30) Century Plaza, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Finding Neverland This latest from Monster's Ball director Marc Forster is less a biopic and more a gentle examination of creativity and inspiration – which, for struggling playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), blooms after a chance encounter with a beautiful widow (Kate Winslet) and her four boisterous sons. Though he's already hitched to a snooty social climber (Radha Mitchell), childlike Barrie quickly forms a close bond with his new "family." Finding Neverland's magical moments come when the line between reality and fantasy blurs in Barrie's mind's eye and familiar Peter Pan-isms emerge for the first time (Captain Hook is particularly cleverly introduced). The theme of boys growing up – or never growing up, as the case may be – is also stressed, though a quick scene or two makes sure the audience knows the pure-hearted Barrie was no Wacko Jacko. Overall, the cast – including pros Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman in supporting roles – is excellent and the cinematography dreamy. But alas, there's no happy ending for this fairy tale: Finding Neverland's last few reels crumble into manipulative mush. (1:41) California, Century Plaza, Galaxy, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio. (Eddy)

Flight of the Phoenix With Hollywood schlock coming hard and heavy for the holiday season, one can't help but appreciate director John Moore's decision to stand by tried-and-true genre conventions in his remake of Robert Aldrich's The Flight of the Phoenix. With a platoon-size group sharing cigarettes, digging each other's graves, and looking for veiled enemies over the dunes, there's no doubt that we're in the parched world of the desert combat film. Sure, the movie is a few scenes too long, tries to incorporate too many plot elements, and can be downright silly, but it's hard not to fall in line with the story's main thrust: a dozen plane-crash survivors seek refuge from the menacing (sandstorms, lightning, and smugglers – oh my!) Gobi Desert. Will they successfully reconstruct the plane? Will they bicker over water? And, most important, will there be a "Hey Ya" dance party? If it's searing emotionalism or austere film style you want, look elsewhere, but if some Sahara-style tomfoolery sounds like the ticket for a rainy afternoon, Flight of the Phoenix is a good bet. (1:52) Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Goldberg)

*House of Flying Daggers No one can accuse Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou of lacking a certain Taoist agility, of failing to swing with the slings, arrows, and flying cutlery of history, like a surefooted wuxia master capering across the feathery leaves of a bamboo forest. So who can blame the auteur for diving into the most crowd-pleasing field of martial arts movies, with 2002's visually sumptuous but far too cold, stiff, and proper Hero? Zhang learned to direct action in front of the camera with that blockbuster, and it shows in his latest bout with the genres from down south. House of Flying Daggers boasts one of the more punk rock titles since 1977's The Fatal Flying Guillotines, and at least a few well-paced, up-to-par fight sequences, including the made-to-be-memorable "echo game," a splinter-inducing battle in a bamboo grove, and a forest tumble with horses. Ludicrous story line and plot holes aside – hey, quick-and-dirty storytelling that favors originality and sensation over overvalued logic and cohesion is a tradition – Zhang cuts the genre through with his trademark sensuality and love of human drama, making sure there's something for everybody in the world marketplace, including a pan-Asian cast comprising part-Japanese and part-Taiwanese heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro, veteran Hong Kong star Andy Lau, and Beijing ingenue Zhang Ziyi. (1:59) Act I and II, Century 20, Empire, Galaxy, Kabuki, Piedmont. (Chun)

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) Four Star, Galaxy. (Huston)

*In the Realms of the Unreal Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me have grabbed all the ink, but the year's best documentary just might be In the Realms of the Unreal, Jessica Yu's fascinating portrait of outsider artist Henry Darger. When Darger, a reculsive Chicago janitor, passed away in 1973, his landlords were shocked to discover the huge volume of work he'd left behind: double-sided paintings that stretched to more than 10 feet long, a 15,000-page novel, piles and piles of drawings, and old phone books pasted full of the cartoons and pictures he obsessively collected. His brilliantly colored artwork – a self-taught combination of collage, tracing, overlapping, and overlay – illustrates his elaborate fantasy world, where a child slave rebellion leads to an apocalyptic battle between two fictional lands. Yu uses subtle animation, music, and sound effects to bring the products of his odd imagination to life. In addition to (often conflicting) anecdotes shared by Darger's acquaintances, actor Larry Pine provides voice-over as the artist, reading from his journals and stories, while child star Dakota Fanning, a dead ringer for one of the hero princesses in Darger's epic, provides pitch-perfect narration. (1:25) Castro, Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

*The Incredibles In a movie market glutted with films that attempt to reach across demographics by playing to the lowest common denominator, Pixar productions are a welcome rarity. Films like Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Finding Nemo have established the company as a reliable source of well-crafted entertainment: the real deal in "fun for the whole family." Its newest computer-animated wonder is The Incredibles. While there's no shortage of recent superhero movies, writer-director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) offers a clever turn in playing the "it's hard being a superhero" plotline off a Leave It to Beaver-type nuclear family. The Incredibles delivers the wit, visual splendor, colorful cast, and enthralling action sequences we've come to expect from Pixar but never quite coalesces the way its predecessors did. This is largely a matter of story; the narrative lacks the cohesion and resonance that made Finding Nemo so unique. Still, The Incredibles is consistently imaginative, and as such, it's an exemplary blockbuster. (1:55) Balboa, Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Goldberg)

Kinsey This is your Beautiful Mind on sex. Boy, talk about wasted potential, when one begins fantasizing about this movie in the hands of Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, or at least Fellini, and the possibility of a truly weird, near-psychedelic exploration of the man who woke a stodgy, straight-laced 1940s-era United States from its lightly dozing dream of Puritanism and dragged it kicking, screaming, and exquisitely scandalized – all in the name of science, of course – into a sexual revolution. Still, we do get some veiled allusions to Liam Neeson's fabled, rumored endowments (and I don't mean funding from the Rockefeller Foundation); a relatively light hand with the narrative, thanks to writer-director Bill Condon; and swell performances by all-American fresh faces like Laura Linney and, particularly, Peter Sarsgaard as a seductively feline prof assistant who seems to have stepped out of some missing cinematic link between American Graffiti and Teorema. (1:58) Albany, Embarcadero. (Chun)

*Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events Many, many unfortunate events occur in Brad Silberling's film, based on the first three Lemony Snicket books (The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window) – but for moviegoers, this wonderfully dark and funny tale is fortunate indeed. After losing their parents in a mysterious fire, a trio of young siblings – inventive Violet (Emily Browning), bookworm Klaus (Liam Aiken), and baby Sunny (Kara Hoffman and Shelby Hoffman) – face repeated showdowns with the comically sinister Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), who's got his greedy eyes trained on the orphans' inheritance. Edward Gorey-esque set design and a tone that carefully balances grotesque with goofy are matched by a standup cast; since the kid actors are perfectly deadpan, the grown-ups can afford to go big without being too ridiculous (including Meryl Streep as nervous Aunt Josephine). Smaller children may find certain elements too intense, but young 'uns worth their Harry Potter will dig this sly adventure. (1:30) Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

*The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou "Sail-ors! Fighting in the dance halls!" David Bowie yelps in the first mega-soundtrack blast of Wes Anderson's painstaking, pain-writ comedy The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a howl encapsulating the traumatized trip to come. No dance halls here, actually, but a roiling, elliptical comic ship of souls at ebb tide. Jump to a bit later: "It's very lifelike," Ned (Owen Wilson) says, regarding a crude, impressionistic oil rendering of a man who may be his father. The could-be pater is Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), pop oceanographer and maker of documentaries on undersea life. As Life Aquatic commences, Steve's latest work, which depicts his best friend being eaten by an unseen "jaguar shark," is badly received. At the post-screening Q&A, Steve vows revenge. Ned emerges from the murky past to claim something, feeling out a bond that's thus far consisted of two letters and numerous distant denials. Before long, he joins Steve and his crew – among them a tender German second hand (an uproarious Willem Dafoe), an Australian radarman (Noah Taylor), and a Brazilian safety expert (Seu Jorge) who plays Bowie tunes in Portuguese – on their blackout-prone ship, Belafonte. Many critics, or at least some of the arch jargon-slingers, think Anderson has finally gone too far into his own whizzing head. Don't believe it. Seemingly spiky and assured at first, Anderson's meanings multiply and shift, some hiding in plain sight, and the whole film tends to change emotional speeds on subsequent viewings. (1:58) California, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda, Shattuck. (Edward E. Crouse)*The Machinist After a respectable but unexciting start as yet another Amerindie director of "quirky" comedies (The Darien Gap, Next Stop Wonderland, Happy Accidents), Brad Anderson got a lot more interesting with the 2001 quasi-supernatural thriller Session 9, which too few people saw. The accomplished Machinist throws several more curveballs in the same direction, transcending rote comparisons to Memento and other gimmicky memory puzzles by conjuring up a bleak, tense, grotesquely funny, even poignant atmosphere equally indebted to Kafka, Dostoyevsky, and Hitchcock. Christian Bale – an actor whose health-hazardous devotion to physical role requirements worries me rather more than Renée Zellweger's –shrinks down to nada as cadaverous machine-shop worker Trevor Reznik. Trevor hasn't slept and has barely eaten in a year; he begins to encounter a menacing fellow employee no one else sees, then is involved in a serious on-the-job accident. It's that old chestnut: is he losing his mind, or is there some, uh, vast conspiracy going on here? Sympathetic shoulders and/or further cause for paranoia are offered by Jennifer Jason Leigh as a very nice prostitute and Aitana Sanchez-Gijon as a ditto waitress. In certain respects it's pretty clear where all this is headed early on, but – thanks in large part to Bale's harrowing yet gentle turn – the payoff packs real emotional punch. Color palette bled to silver-gray, potentially mannered grimness leavened by the slyly retro tenor (complete with theremin!) of Roque Banos's Herrmann-like orchestral score, The Machinist is an exercise in style that has some actual substance stowed up its sleeve. (1:42) Four Star. (Harvey)

Meet the Fockers Meet the Fockers is what it is – a one-note gag machine that surprisingly doesn't tank. Ben Stiller returns as Greg – né Gaylord Focker – a neurotic (no, really?) male nurse saddled with a terrible moniker and a worse future father-in-law. Via the stick up his arse, Jack (Robert De Niro) leads his clan plus Greg to Miami in an armored tanker of an R.V. in order to check out Greg's own warped family tree. Predictably, the parents mix like latke oil and Puritan water amid plenty of Stiller-brand gross-out humor. Meet the Parents focused on Stiller's character's unbelievable bad luck, then a flimsy acceptance lesson at the end. This time acceptance is the main course, and rigid Jack is the one floundering about as his wife (Blythe Danner) embraces the freewheeling, kinda dirty Fockers. With big hair, yoga pants, and a sense of humor, Barbra Streisand is unexpectedly silly and at ease as Stiller's sex-therapist mother who "Fockerizes" people – her character's term for sexual healing. (1:55) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck. (Koh)

*Million Dollar Baby After all the hype that surrounded last year's Mystic River, Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort is practically sneaking in under the radar. Funny thing is, Million Dollar Baby is among the best things he's ever done, as an actor or a director. Ex-fighter Scrap (Morgan Freeman) supplies the Shawshank Redemption-style narration in this tale of Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a crabby boxing manager who reluctantly agrees to take on spunky Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, proving Boys Don't Cry was no fluke), though not before growling more than once, "I don't train girls!" Twin lonely souls Frankie (who's lost contact with his own daughter) and Maggie (who still mourns the loss of her beloved father) forge a deep bond as her winning streak extends – turns out, she's a real contender. Yes, there's a training montage, but Baby is no rah-rah Rocky; a weirdly melodramatic tragedy two-thirds through adds deeply felt layers to the film's various nuggets of sports wisdom, especially Frankie's main piece of advice to Maggie: "Always protect yourself." (2:14) Metreon. (Eddy)

*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) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)

National Treasure Whether National Treasure turns out to be a hit or a dud, the alleged high-concept hybrid here – sorta Uncle Sam goes Indiana Jones – is sure to prove a blueprint for mediocrities yet unpitched. It's like The Da Vinci Code for dummies. Nicolas Cage's character, Benjamin Franklin Gates (really), is convinced the founding fathers did something really important: they hid lots of expensive stuff. As in gold and priceless art looted – oops – preserved from civilizations lost over the course of four millennia. The government scoffs when Gates warns it that ruthless former partner Ian Howe (Sean Bean; a Brit, natch) is going to steal the Declaration of Independence to access the secret map in invisible ink on its back. Aided by Comedy-Relief Sidekick (Justin Bartha) and the Girl (Diane Kruger, the face that launched a thousand shrugs in Troy), Gates must thus steal the document first, before those bad guys do. American History 101 errata, as well as conspiracy nuggets involving those trendy Masons and Knights Templar, are sprinkled amid routine chases that invariably take place in and around national monuments. Somehow all this scrambling for historic bling is painted in flag-waving good citizenship terms. But more concrete values are detectable in the sweet new wheels and tony new digs the good guys flaunt at the fade. (2:05) Balboa, Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, Oaks, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Ocean's 12 To paraphrase This Is Spinal Tap, "It goes to 11," and director Steven Soderbergh should have listened. Instead, he cranks his cast number up another ineffectual notch to 12. Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his crew of stylin' bandits are settling into boring retirement when Benedict (Andy Garcia), the casino heavy they ripped off in Ocean's 11, demands his $160 million back. The devilish boys reunite and tangle abroad with a Europol detective (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and playboy rival thief (Vincent Cassel) as they try to raise the money. The film's a piece of gin-soaked cake for Soderbergh and company, with zing aplenty in the atmosphere. But the overburdened plot is about as compelling as the cast's several nondescript benchwarmers. In Ocean's 11, each character is conveniently introduced to the audience when Danny and Rusty (Brad Pitt) recruit for the gang. The sequel has no such handy reminder, and most of the non-superstars fade into the background without even getting to use their signature thieving skills. (2:10) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda. (Koh)

*The Phantom of the Opera It's easy to imagine projects Joel Schumacher would be wrong, wrong, wrong for –including several he's directed. But he turns out to be an ideal fit for this elaborate, faithful screen translation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's schlock operetta. As someone who truly hated the play's occasionally sugary-sweet but mostly bombastic score, pedestrian libretto, and overall pandering kitsch, I was steeled to abhor it all over again. Yet the rococo style that seemed horribly overwrought in ex-window dresser Schumacher's Batman flicks is perfect here: he was born to be the new Zeffirelli cum Minnelli for CGI-era movie musicals. Jennifer Beals ringer Emmy Rossum plays the innocent young protégée to a mysterious "angel of music" who demands she sing the lead in his original opera – or else the Phantom (stiff Gerard Butler) will rain grief upon an ornate late-19th-century Parisian venue's artists, patrons, and owners. The dashing suitor (Patrick Wilson), the indignant diva (Minnie Driver, with singing dubbed), and the woman with the key to our masked antihero's tortured past (Miranda Richardson) are among those who explicate or exacerbate the classic tale's march toward tragedy. Some cuts would have been nice, but Webber bankrolled this lavish indie production, so no such luck. That aside – plus the score, which I'd still gladly replace with a Walkman blaring anything else – this film enlarges upon Harold Prince's original theatrical staging to create a snow-globe environment of swooning antique melodrama filtered through the sexy goth sensibilities of Anne Rice, Cher, and Harlequin romances. It's as gorgeous as it is empty-caloric. But so is eggnog, another guilty seasonal pleasure to be enjoyed precisely because it's sooo decadent. (2:14) California, Century 20, Grand Lake, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda. (Harvey)

The Polar Express Cleverly adapted, choreographed, and stunningly executed, Robert Zemeckis's animated feature will have critics asking: what's the point of animation, if it's emulating realism down to its subtlest nuances? The latest benchmark in motion-capture technology, "performance capture," is put to work here, recording actors' body movements with unprecedented 3-D detail. Befitting the magic of the story, the system's gorgeous product is a visual step above real life more than an attempt to simulate it. Tom Hanks stars as a young boy who's having doubts about Santa's existence. On Christmas Eve, he boards an enchanted train with a surly and slightly fascist conductor (also played by Hanks) headed for the North Pole. With any luck, the train will make it before midnight and allow the boy to meet Santa, along with about a million funny-looking elves (look for Steven Tyler). Though it boasts remarkably cinematic angles, tracking shots, and a fantastic POV sequence involving a lost ticket, The Polar Express does have trouble capturing key facial expressions. But it'll keep the wool over youngsters' eyes for another year of mall Santas and wish lists. (1:33) Century Plaza, Century 20, Oaks. (Kim)

Ray I'd love to say Ray does justice to the genius of Ray Charles and that Jamie Foxx's performance is, say, a greater contribution to pop culture than his hilarious if Pryor-derived stand-up routines. But Foxx's enshrinement as an A-lister, and all the critical respect that comes with it, stems from the "seriousness" of what he does here, and little else. His performance is impressive as a collection of mannerisms, but it doesn't dig into or expose an artist's soul – you'd be better off renting the Foxx concert performance I Need Security, or better yet, listening to Charles's records and reading David Ritz's biography. Ray's best moments aim to convey the hair-raising electricity of "Drown in My Own Tears" and other breakthroughs, and this movie – unlike, say, What's Love Got to Do With It? – is at least interested in conveying the experiences, inspirations, and stories behind its music. But director Taylor Hackford's predictable reliance on color-saturated childhood flashbacks leaves a bored mind to dream about what a director like Charles Burnett might have done with this subject matter, this budget, and this type of bottom-line studio support. Of course, that's another story, one that proves Hollywood isn't as evolved as it would like to pretend. (2:32) Galaxy, Shattuck. (Huston)

*The Sea Inside Motivating dramatic conflict with a divisive political issue is tricky business. In The Sea Inside, director Alejandro Amenábar (The Others) explores a sharp-witted quadriplegic's struggle for the right to die with great restraint and balance, never allowing political rhetoric to overwhelm his characters' humanity. The story is based on true events, but Amenábar steers clear of documenting Ramón Sampedro's legal struggles, instead aiming for a meditative character study. Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls) plays the lead role with great nuance, often summoning gargantuan bursts of emotion with the raise of an eyebrow. The narrative unfurls slowly, pausing on Sampedro's fantasies and minor interactions with the family, friends, and lawyers who crowd his bed. The film does suffer for its wandering when Amenábar awkwardly fumbles to neatly pull the story together, but by this point the emotional impact is already in the bag. Indeed, The Sea Inside's muted colors and hushed voices are deeply affecting and sure to make a mark in the upcoming award season. (2:05) Smith Rafael. (Goldberg)

Shortcut to Nirvana: Khumb Mela Virtually unheard of in the West, the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage is quite possibly the best-attended organized gathering the world over. Millions of devotees set up camp on the shores of India's most sacred waterways every 12th year in search of spiritual restoration. One would expect this transient metropolis to yield some of the best footage this side of Woodstock, but while Shortcut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela does house some remarkable images, the sum total feels flat. This is largely due to the film's clumsy frame; we experience the event through three young journeyers, two of whom are way-deep New Yorkers. Codirectors Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day never really commit to these characters yet inexplicably feel the need to include various confessional cutaways à la The Real World. The result is a hazed view of the massive event that falls well short of the enlightenment professed by the documentary's subjects. (1:25) Act I and II, Lumiere, Smith Rafael. (Goldberg)

*Sideways You can count on Alexander Payne to bring the pain to his characters: his new film, Sideways, dives into that reliably self-involved, potentially lamest of periods – middle age – with Olympian skill. But this time Payne uncovers the sentiment beneath his corrosive satire, and the risk pays off. Sideways' pitch – a couple of buddies hit wine country – might seem ho-hum, but Payne's fourth go-round rivals Election as a career highlight, largely because he allows actors to breathe life into roles. The leisurely paced story, based on a just-published novel by Rex Pickett, follows depressive wine connoisseur Miles (Paul Giamatti) and second-rate actor but first-rate womanizer Jack (Thomas Haden Church) as they rove through Santa Barbara County's wineries and recovery spots. Though this odd couple think they're going on vacation, their holiday winds up teaching them a hard lesson or two, with wake-up calls coming from Maya (an excellent Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), the pair's respective romantic interests. In interviews, Payne has been up-front about the influence of pre-Jaws '70s American cinema on his sensibility, and Sideways is a film for adults, albeit one with uproarious streaks – largely and at least once literally supplied by Church – of juvenile comedy. (2:04) Bridge, Shattuck. (Huston)

Spanglish If someone had leaned over to me during the umpteenth sex scene in Julio Medem's Sex and Lucia and told me that starlet Paz Vega would be cooing "mi amor" to Adam Sandler in three years' time, I probably would have scoffed. Enter Spanglish. Vega plays Flor, a proud mother who flees Mexico with her daughter for the sort of prosperity that being a Bel Air maid affords. She finds work with the Clasky clan, a sitcom-ish cavalcade starring a gracious patriarch, neurotic wife, alcoholic grandmother, insecure teenage girl, and cutesy kid brother. As the film's title suggests, writer-director James L. Brooks is after a lighthearted exploration of culture clash. What he gets is a whole lot of not-in-a-good-way awkwardness. The Claskys don't know how to handle Flor, and neither does Brooks – his unfortunate decision to frame the story with Flor's daughter's college admissions essay is emblematic of the discomfort. Sandler's performance is the only thing that keeps the film buoyant in a sea of bourgeoisie guilt. The actor updates his Punch Drunk Love sensitive-to-a-fault character beautifully, channeling the deepest uncertainties of being a father and husband into a zany babble of words and gestures. (2:11) Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Goldberg)

*The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie Super-absorbent hero SpongeBob (voiced by Tom Kenny) and his dim starfish pal, Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), must embark on an epic journey after evil Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) succeeds in stealing the Krabby Patty recipe, framing Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) for stealing the crown of King Neptune (Jeffrey Tambor), and generally enslaving all Bikini Bottom. En route to the dread Shell City, our hapless duo must confront various near death experiences, with only dumb luck, the Goofy Goobers song, and (eventually) deus ex machina David Hasselhoff on their side. This feature version of the beloved Nickelodeon cartoon is exactly what such expansions should be: bigger, brighter, better animated, and more giddily nonsensical than ever. While the big guest-star voices (Scarlett Johansson, Alec Baldwin) don't add a whole lot, and at nearly 90 minutes, it's maybe a little overextended, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is still one of the year's best comedies – and no, you don't have to be under 10 to agree. (1:30) Century 20. (Harvey)

*A Tale of Two Sisters The Dickens-inspired title leads into a mostly worst-of-times exploration of what happens when an indifferent dad, a wicked stepmother, and two wide-eyed teen sisters are isolated together in a country house. Though the pace occasionally reaches a slow-motion crawl and some familiar turf is trod (the freaky girl with long black hair and one glaring eye is, of course, present and accounted for), director Kim Jee-woon ups the ante with gorgeous photography: dead birds, pools of blood, and supernaturally induced seizures have seldom looked so stunning. Patient viewers will be rewarded by a mind-warping conclusion featuring some of the most hysterically piercing screams ever recorded in the history of cinema. (1:55) Four Star, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

*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) Roxie. (Huston)

*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) Four Star, Opera Plaza. (Jeffrey M. Anderson)

A Very Long Engagement French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and star Audrey Tautou reprise their Amélie collaboration in this fable of love and war. Tautou plays Mathilde, a limping young beauty living with her aunt and uncle in a perfectly charming house by the sea that will send Francophiles' heads spinning. Her fiancé, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), has shipped off to the brutal battlefields of the First World War, leaving Mathilde to wait. When she learns that her beloved was court-martialed and left to die in no-man's-land, she embarks on a spirited search for the circumstances of his service, desperately hoping for evidence of his survival. A Very Long Engagement has the visual sparkle, narrative quirk, and flooring production design we've come to expect from Jeunet's films, but his directorial spunk feels a little weighed down by such standard melodrama. Granted, this take on war obstructing love is leagues more nervy and energetic than, say, Cold Mountain, but it still seems like an oddly laborious choice for the director-actress team that made Amélie such an effortless delight. (2:13) Albany, California, Embarcadero, Empire. (Goldberg)

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) Act I and II, Galaxy. (Nickie Huang)

*The Woodsman So often a buoyant, physically exuberant actor, Kevin Bacon withdraws and shrinks to fit the skin of Walter, the protagonist in director-coscenarist Nicole Kassell's first feature, adapted from a play by Stephen Fechter. Walter has just been released after 12 years in prison and returns to his native Philadelphia. But there's no family or community left that's willing to embrace him. Even life among strangers bristles with the threat of rejection, or worse – since Walter is now a registered child molester. The Woodsman has its share of contrived elements, but the credibly glum lower-class Philly milieu, Bacon's half-dead eyed conviction, and a couple of complexly harrowing man-child scenes make this bizarre Christmas Day release powerful in its quietude. Without pushing, it suggests that in the paranoid child-endangerment climate of recent years, even nonviolent offenders of this type face almost impossible odds in terms of reforming and acclimatizing to mainstream society and not reverting to their past ways. (1:27) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Rep Picks

Good-bye Hungaria See 8 Days a Week. (:56) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.