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

Aliens of the Deep James Cameron's latest Imax film documents deep-sea expeditions in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. (:45) Metreon Imax.

Alone in the Dark Christian Slater, Tara Reid, and Stephen Dorff lend their B-list glow to another horror video-game adaptation by House of the Dead director Uwe Boll. (1:36) Century Plaza, Century 20.

The Chorus A dedicated teacher uses the power of music to transform juvenile delinquents in this period drama, a huge hit in its native France. (1:37) Embarcadero.

*Fear X Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who has cited Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn as inspiration for his second film, Bleeder (1999), collaborated with the late novelist on the screenplay for this tense, atmospheric, and quietly involving psychological thriller. John Turturro plays Harry Caine, a Wisconsin shopping mall security guard whose obsession with his wife's unsolved murder in the mall parking lot gradually leads him beyond the parameters of a system he formerly believed in as rational and just and knowing – a system for which the entirely artificial habitat of the mall, and Harry's role in its hidden security network of surveillance and control, serves as a hauntingly mundane metaphor. Harry pursues the matter to Montana, where he meets Peter (James Remar), a local police officer whose guilty conscience sets him, like Harry, outside the boundaries of a world he once belonged in. Set against the barren whiteness of a Midwestern winter, Turturro's performance brilliantly captures a decent man caught in a psychic stupor of pain and alienation. Meanwhile, Brian Eno's ambient synthesizer score and Larry Smith's cinematography help transform a series of human settings into lifeless landscapes as the film moves to its climax in a blurring of reality and psychic turmoil. (1:31) Roxie. (Avila)

Hide and Seek A lonely little girl (Dakota Fanning) freaks out her pops (Robert De Niro) when her imaginary friend turns psycho. (1:42) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake.

A Love Song for Bobby Long See "Icon, I Can't." (1:59) Lumiere.

Notre musique Jean-Luc Godard's latest film – a rare one these days to get U.S. distribution – is a meditation on war divided into three "Kingdoms." The first, "Hell," is as simple as it is joltingly powerful: blown-up video footage of real war atrocities, vacuous media reportage, and vainglorious Hollywood dramatizations, all richly color-distorted, accompanied only by a desolate piano. Then, unfortunately, comes "Purgatory," and it is well named. No less than two easily confused jeune fille protagonists (Sarah Adler, Nade Dieu), various global literary figures, and Godard himself wander through postwar Sarajevo, purportedly drawn there by a literary conference. But mostly they stand stiltedly around in performance art-like configurations delivering quotes and quixotic statements, the level of general intellectual wankage occasionally hitting red alert. It's not that one doubts Godard's sincerity, or the rightness of his critiques. It's just that his methods are, as ever, an exasperating mix of avant-garde elitism, ham-fisted sloganeering, and the omnipresent navel gaze – with an odd brilliant patch here and there just to make the pretentious longeurs seem even longer. Which, even at a slim running time, they sure do. The final "Heaven" section cuts the jabber, but by then only diehard Godard loyalists will be feeling divinely inspired. (1:19) Act I and II, Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

*Veer-Zaara See Movie Clock. (3:12) Balboa.


Ongoing

Are We There Yet? Some movies make you appreciate family. Others make you want to commit infanticide. Or hang some screenwriters (such as the four credited on Are We There Yet?). In fact, the violence that'll stem from agonized viewers of this Ice Cube comedy will make N.W.A.'s societal message seem constructive. Nick Persons (Cube), a collectibles salesman set in his playa ways, falls for a sexy divorcee with two infuriating kids. Despite his hatred of children and warnings from his talking Satchel Paige bobble-head, Nick agrees to drive the brats from Portland, Ore., to Vancouver, British Columbia, for a New Year's celebration. Yes, they demolish his brand-new Lincoln Navigator. Yes, they pee and vomit with remarkably apt timing. Yes, they get lost on purpose and flash "Help me" signs at truck drivers, but none of it – not a single shamelessly recycled gag – resembles comedy. Cube gets a nod for flashing his signature sneer at a drugstore clerk ("It's kind of my trademark from back in the day"), but it'll take more than nostalgia to salvage this disaster. (1:40) Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Kim)

The Assassination of Richard Nixon In 1974, would-be presidential assassin Sam Byck plotted to hijack an airplane and crash it into the White House. Byck and his elaborate scheme – previously dramatized in musical form, via Stephen Sondheim's Assassins – seemed harebrained at the time but naturally took a more sobering cast post-9/11. Inspired by this true story, Niels Mueller's resolutely downbeat The Assassination of Richard Nixon studies what might drive a person (specifically, a garden-variety sad sack who doesn't happen to be a religious fundamentalist, Manson follower, or fall-guy pawn in a political conspiracy) to such extremes. Hatred of Nixon isn't even the focus of Mueller's fictionalized Sam, here renamed Sam Bicke and embodied, with simmering frustration masked by a wimpy exterior, by Sean Penn. Socially awkward, estranged from his family, and constantly belittled by his boss, Bicke's realization that he'll never achieve "the American Dream" becomes the catalyst for his downfall. A political thriller this ain't – Penn's beautifully detailed performance aside, Assassination sometimes feels as beige as its mid-1970s color scheme. But when Bicke rehearses walking through the terminal's metal detector with a weapon strapped to his leg, fantasizing about making "a real change," uneasy stirrings of 9/11 loom large. (1:35) Balboa, Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

*Assault on Precinct 13 As far as minimalistic, tense, and occasionally hilarious thrillers go, it's hard to beat John Carpenter's 1976 original (itself an homage to Rio Bravo) – but French director Jean-François Richet actually does a (literally) bang-up job with his remake. The leadership failures of pill-poppin' Detroit cop Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke, still Training Day gaunt) have landed him a desk job at the soon-to-be-shuttered Precinct 13. A New Year's Eve blizzard reroutes a prison bus carrying a gaggle of ne'er-do-wells – including crime boss Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne, who adds appropriate dramatic heft) – to the understaffed station, where a sudden violent siege commences. As the good guys (plus a few bad guys, who've temporarily switched sides in the interest of self-preservation) hunker down inside the embattled station, trust issues become the major source of tension; multiple multigun standoffs result. Despite the untouchable 1976 version looming over its shoulder, the remade Assault remains plenty recommendable. It's savvy enough to modernize things with an acceptably amped-up conflict, but true enough to the original to retain ample B-picture values. (1:49) Century Plaza, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

*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 Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Kabuki, 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. (Harvey)

*Beautiful Boxer In the wake of Iron Ladies' success, recent Thai cinema has bent gender into ever more playful, and sometimes profound, shapes. Sayew charts the unresolved fantasies of a nerdy tomboy who writes porn for a dwindling family business. The Adventures of Iron Pussy imagines an avenging hero who is supermale or superfemale, depending on the occasion. Now Beautiful Boxer proves truth can be as wild as, and perhaps more poignant than, fiction: it's based on the story of Parinya "Nong Toom" Charoenphol, a kickboxing champion who, to paraphrase the film's concise tag line, fought like a man to become a woman. This biopic's framing device verges on being a P.R. ad for Thailand, and a pop-pulp approach dominates. Close-ups of oiled pecs and abs, check. Side plot about dying coach, check. Final showdown, check. But first-time director Ekachai Uekrongtham – as capable of finding dynamism in a makeup case as he is at capturing the aesthetic beauty of muaythai moves – faithfully visualizes Nong's life. The result is a tearjerker that kicks ass. (1:40) Lumiere. (Huston)

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, Bening 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) Embarcadero. (Goldberg)

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) Balboa. (Huston)

*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)

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) 1000 Van Ness. (Huston)

Coach Carter If Friday Night Lights left you wanting more in the way of high school sports, the local flavor of Coach Carter should do the trick nicely. Based on Richmond High's tumultuous 1999 basketball season, Coach Carter presents the inspirational story of a coach dedicated to reshaping his players' troubled lives. With the school holding the boys to irresponsibly low standards, Carter makes the team sign contracts that, among other things, require a 2.3 GPA. After whipping the team into shape for an impressive winning streak, Carter's tough standards come to a head when he benches the undefeated team for its lackluster academic performance. The movie is all about its hard-ass title character (played convincingly by – surprise, surprise – Samuel L. Jackson) and suffers when Carter's not on-screen; a pregnant girlfriend subplot, for example, smacks of an after-school special. Still, the story material is good enough for us to forgive these lapses as well as the film's reliance on tired genre clichés. While Coach Carter probably won't stick, it's winning enough to the pass the grade for a matinee. (2:16) Century Plaza, Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Goldberg)

Elektra Only hardcore Jennifer Garner fans will find much to like about this Daredevil spin-off, which is ostensibly about a reformed assassin named Elektra (Garner) who realizes her "soul is pure" after she rescues a scrappy teen (Kirsten Prout) and the teen's hunky pop (ER's Goran Visnjic) from the talons of an evil cabal known as the Hand. Baddies working for the Hand include a goth chick with killer breath and an inked-up dude whose tattoos (eagle, wolf, snake) can, like, ooze off his body and chase people. Elektra faces her foes with a variety of nifty skills, including rapid-fire blades and ESP. Too bad director Rob Bowman (Reign of Fire) is way more interested in Elektra's "redemption" story (and showing endless flashbacks of her troubled childhood) than allowing her to flat-out kick ass, Kill Bill-style; there's also way too much mumbo-jumbo (Terrance Stamp's character: what the what?) clogging up the works. Throughout, Garner flexes her red-leathered bod, and pouts her (ahem, suspiciously inflated) pucker. I hate to invoke Catwoman under any circumstances, but there's a certain similarity: look at the poster, and you've already seen all that's memorable about the film. (1:37) Elektra, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Fat Albert Bill Cosby grabbed more than a few headlines last 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 20. (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) Galaxy. (Eddy)

*Hotel Rwanda In 1994 Rwanda, nearly a million Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were publicly massacred, tens of thousands a day, by their own friends and neighbors. Director Terry George (Some Mother's Son) doesn't flog us with gruesome images to refresh our memories, but the effect of this personal, family-centered true story is just as, if not more, powerful. Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) is general manager at a plush hotel in Kigali, Rwanda. When the mass killings begin, the resourceful Hutu uses his contacts and cunning to save his own part-Tutsi family, hoping that help will arrive soon for everyone else. Eventually, he opens the hotel's doors, sheltering more than 1,200 Tutsis from machete-wielding extremists. Cheadle turns in the most nuanced performance of his career as Rusesabagina, whose fear and escalating frustration never stumble into the showboating traps that flag so many other unsung-hero routines. Likewise, George's execution is both unimposing and unforgiving, never accompanied by sappy soundtracks or editing tricks to bait his emotional hooks. (2:01) Century 20, Galaxy, Kabuki. (Kim)

*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) Galaxy. (Chun)

In Good Company In writer-director Paul Weitz's In Good Company, old business (friendly competition) versus new (all-evil, all the time) is a conflict as rife with familiar life lessons as the classic father-son dynamic it represents. Magazine ad sales director Dan (Dennis Quaid) has always done things the respectful way, but he and his loyal staff get reamed when a hostile takeover installs Carter (That 70's Show's Topher Grace) as his insecure boss. Quaid, in cantankerous mode, anchors the reluctant relationship between his character and smarmy, lonely Carter. Grace's TV comedy skills work well on the big screen – witness Carter's hilariously wandering speech to his underlings – but he's less convincing as Scarlett Johansson's love interest. Playing Dan's college-age daughter, Johansson stretches, oh, a millimeter, presenting a sportier, more down-to-earth version of her luscious and morose Lost in Translation character. Scored by Damien Rice and other professional heart-tuggers, In Good Company is soothing and amusingly reflective of today's global culture – though its compelling edge is lost somewhere along the road to feel-good land. (1:49) Century Plaza, Century 20, Grand Lake, Oaks, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda. (Koh)

*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 reclusive 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) Smith Rafael. (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) Century 20, Kabuki, Oaks. (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) Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (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 20, Kabuki. (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) 1000 Van Ness. (Edward E. Crouse)

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, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (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) Century 20, Empire, Grand Lake, 1000 Van Ness, Orinda. (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. (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 20, 1000 Van Ness. (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) Century 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Racing Stripes A scrappy zebra dreams of being a racehorse in this predictable comedy, which relies heavily on the hilarious device of using CG technology to give live-action animals sassy facial expressions. Granted, the jockey-riding-a-zebra thing is pretty novel, but overall Racing Stripes is hardly original: it basically draws on the most familiar elements of The Black Stallion (underdog kid and underdog trainer teach underdog animal the wonders of being a speed demon) and Babe (chatty barnyard dwellers), with a little Fast and the Furious tossed in for good measure. Celebrities picking up checks for their vocal talents include Frankie Muniz, Mandy Moore, Dustin Hoffman, and Whoopi Goldberg; most of Racing Stripes's scattered chuckles come courtesy of Steve Harvey and David Spade, who're oddly endearing as a pair of poop-loving horse flies. (1:30) Century Plaza, Century 20, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

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. (Huston)

Shortcut to Nirvana: Kumbh 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) Roxie, 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, Orinda. (Huston)

*A Talking Picture When a work of cinema or literature manages to acknowledge a reality beyond its own, it's said to have subtext. While such depth is often an indicator of worthwhile art, rarely is subtext as caustic as in Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira's new film, A Talking Picture. A devastating rumination on modern cultural woes in the guise of a Mediterranean travelogue, de Oliveira's film follows a young history professor and her inquisitive daughter as they tour the "cradle of civilization," surveying the triumphs and woes of cultural cornerstones like Marseilles, Pompeii, Athens, and Istanbul. As mother spins the relevant history and daughter poses simplistic questions with great resonance ("Which Middle Ages are we in now?"), the troubling state of the world remains unspoken but omnipresent, thickening the film's atmosphere until a jolting ending – at once unexpected and entirely appropriate – sends the audience back out into the real world. That de Oliveira is 96 only makes the sharpness of his picture all the more remarkable. (1:36) Roxie. (Goldberg)

Travellers and Magicians Travellers and Magicians is the first feature film to be shot entirely in the kingdom of Bhutan, and, truth be told, the mountain-bound locale is probably reason enough to see the movie. Dondup is a Bhutanese university graduate with an enviable officer position in a bucolic village. He's smitten with America, though, and longs to travel to the land of the free in search of prosperity and city life. After receiving a letter promising him a visa, the curmudgeonly protagonist begins to hitchhike toward his dream, meeting up with a monk and a papermaker's charming daughter, among others. During their travels the sly monk recites a lengthy story regarding a country boy's descent into seduction and suspicion. The heavy-handed cuts between the main plot and the monk's fable render the latter an overobvious mirror of Dondup's plight. In this regard, writer-director Khyentse Norbu doesn't have enough faith in his audience but rather accents moments of insight with a patronizing degree of zeal. One can see how Dondup's journey might have worked as a sort of Jim Jarmusch wandering cine-poem, but, as is, Travellers and Magicians is a simplistic tale offset by splendorous scenery. (1:48) Balboa, Smith Rafael. (Goldberg)

*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) 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) Embarcadero. (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) Oaks. (Nickie Huang)

White Noise After his beloved wife dies in a mysterious car accident, architect Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) abandons his comfy, gated house in favor of a cold, steel-and-glass loft apartment. And that's about as subtle as White Noise gets. As soon as the grieving Jonathan learns of "electronic voice phenomenon" – which the audience already knows all about, thanks to the definition that pops up before the movie's opening credits (but, er, after the Thomas Edison quote) – he's fiddling with staticy TVs and radios 24-7, trying to make contact with his wife on "the other side." Anyone who's watched a fair amount of MSNBC Investigates has probably caught at least one ghost-hunting episode involving real-life clairvoyant types attempting to record communications with the dead; it's an intriguing idea, with decent spooky-movie potential. Unfortunately, White Noise is devoted mostly to shots of Keaton hunched over a fuzzy TV screen (it worked in Poltergeist, but it gets tedious here), followed by a last-act mystery twist that feels extremely, laughably, ridiculously shoehorned in. (1:41) Century 20, Kabuki, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

*William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice While Al Pacino doing Shakespeare seems like a recipe for lots of shouting, Il postino director Michael Radford's new version of The Merchant of Venice is marked by a tasteful sense of restraint all too rare in cinematic translations of the Bard's work. The parts are performed in Shakespearean language, but Radford's direction gives the actors plenty of room to breathe; the cast doesn't seem like it's performing so much as conversing. While youthful Joseph Fiennes and Lynn Collins sometimes stumble through Bassanio and Portia's love scenes, the cast's elders turn in something special: Jeremy Irons is a dead ringer for slight and superior Antonio, and Pacino seethes as Shylock with eyes a-bulging. To be certain, though, it's 16th-century Venice that often steals the show. The bygone city is rendered with a sleazy panache that provides an inspired stage for Shakespeare's venerable revenge tale. (2:18) Embarcadero, Empire. (Goldberg)

*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) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)


Rep picks

The Barbecue People A surprise winner at several international film festivals, David Ofek and Joseph Madmony's The Barbecue People is an ambitious work, attempting to weave together history and narrative with scope and nuance. The Israeli writer-director team has constructed a dense overlapping story touching on the lives of a multigenerational Jewish family. Originally from Iraq, the family has settled into life as Israelis. The screenplay circles around several key events, approaching repeated scenes from multiple perspectives; as we fall back in time to follow the course of any one family member, the events we've already witnessed deepen with our broadened knowledge. This sort of narrative tour-de-force has worked well in the past, but one can't help but feel that The Barbecue People is simply wound too tight. We remain engaged throughout but feel as though the film is beyond us, perfectly unfolding without an audience's participation. Still, the movie's lofty attempts to elicit difficult truths regarding the state of Israel from one wayward family is certainly something to talk about. (1:42) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (Goldberg)

G4M3RS: Clans, Mods, and a Cultural Revolution Director-editor-producer Kiyash Monsef documents the subculture and personalities surrounding Counter-Strike, the most popular kill-em-all game in the history of multiplayer video games. For his film (included in the Pacific Film Archive's "Games People Play" series), Monsef interviews industry geeks and players alike as they recount, with almost mythological reverence, the game that has them locked in its spell. The most intriguing thing about G4M3RS is the unintentional picture of addiction it paints of Counter-Strike's fans; one devotee admits his life would be complete if he could just find a way to manage 60 to 80 hours of game playing each week – without detracting from his relationship with his wife and child, of course. At times, G4M3RS itself appears to be the very manifestation of this craze, as many of Monsef's basic production interests (editing in particular) appear to have taken a backseat to the obsessive nature of his subject. Not for the uninitiated, G4M3RS is better left to those who already have an interest in the first-person computer game subculture – or, as the case may be, way of life. (1:10) PFA. (Lake)

*Heart of the Congo: Does International Aid Help? In Heart of the Congo, Berkeley filmmaker Tom Weidlinger takes on the rather overwhelming task of documenting the dissemination of aid in the war-ravaged Congo. The director wisely narrows the unwieldy subject by focusing on the work done by a few European aid workers and their Congolese counterparts. In a land in the shadow of a brutal dictatorship, uprisings, and general poverty, a determined few set about helping small villages to dig a well for clean water and establish facilities for sanitary medical work. Wedlinger's work verges on being a publicity film for the aid organizations until he takes an unexpected turn, questioning both his own role and that of the European workers in a postcolonization master-slave dynamic. It's a difficult issue – how good intentions can be colored by implicit power structures – and Weidlinger doesn't offer easy answers. Regardless of what one wishes to read into the open-ended conclusions offered by this particular story, Heart of the Congo captures some of the central difficulties of aid work so relevant to the chaos following December's devastating tsunamis. (1:00) Herbst Theatre. (Goldberg)