Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Robert Avila, Kimberly Chun, Sabrina Crawford, Michelle Devereaux, Susan Gerhard, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Laurie Koh, Rachel Odes, Lynn Rapoport, and Chuck Stephens. The film intern is Ihsan Amanatullah. For show times see Rep Clock and Movie Clock.
*Down to the Bone See "Drug Is the Love." (1:41) Roxie.
The Family Stone Sarah Jessica Parker and Diane Keaton star in this Meet the Parents-esque holiday ensemble comedy. (1:42) Century 20, Presidio.
King Kong Peter Jackson goes bananas! (3:00) Century 20, Century Plaza, Grand Lake, Orinda.
*The Producers See Movie Clock. (2:12) Metreon.
*Pulse See "You've Got Hell." (1:50) Act I and II, Opera Plaza.
Aeon Flux (1:33) 1000 Van Ness, Century 20, Century Plaza, Kabuki.
Aristide and the Endless Revolution File this doc under extremely informative and extremely depressing. For anyone whose knowledge of Haiti's recent (and centuries-old) history is scant, Aristide and the Endless Revolution casts fascinating light on the country's troubled past, with particular focus on now-exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who strove to restore basic dignities to Haiti's impoverished population. Naturally, the United States eager, the film implies, to keep Haiti's cheap workforce at its disposal was involved in Aristide's downfall, putting its own greed above the fact that the president was democratically elected (twice) by a significant majority. The result? A land with no infrastructure and citizens beset by daily violence and seemingly no hope for the future (see: the second half of the film's title). Aristide supporters (including the exiled president himself) and detractors (including US assistant secretary of state Roger Noriega) supply interviews for Nicolas Rossier's doc, which is also filled with haunting footage shot on the streets of the struggling country. (1:22) Roxie. (Eddy)
The Aristocrats Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette's extended riff on a joke that's a secret handshake of sorts in the stand-up world is cast-of-hundreds inclusive. Yet it's also uncomfortably skewed: A few Whoopi bits aside, Chris Rock is about the only nonwhite performer, and he's the only one who doesn't seem to be enjoying himself in the closing-credits outtakes. The Aristocrats can be uproarious, and there are off-the-cuff high jinks aplenty, from Rip Taylor's migrating red wig to Fred Willard's Victorian dandy impersonation. But why no Mo'Nique, Wanda Sykes, or Dave Chapelle, when Carrot Top and Emo Phillips are allowed (if only for a few seconds) to stink up the screen? The absence is especially notable since Jillette repeatedly notes the joke's best renditions involve the type of improvisation mastered by John Coltrane. The title of The Aristocrats is also the punch line of an obscene joke detailing a family's showbiz act, it has its roots in vaudeville, but you could easily argue it's indebted to the Marquis de Sade, who was all about detailing the perverse proclivities of the privileged classes. Of course, de Sade isn't as funny as Gilbert Gottfried, whose version at a roast for a leathery and discomfited Hugh Hefner inspired this doc. (1:26) Roxie. (Huston)
*Ballets Russes Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine's documentary Ballet Russes is fabulously entertaining a great yarn, well spun. Though Geller and Goldfine have made a film on dance before (1988's Isadora Duncan: Movement from the Soul), Russes's hook isn't the art form but the people, most of them very old. The film untangles the complicated strands of Sergei Diaghilev's descendants. When Diaghilev, creator of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo, died in 1929, his company died with him. Out of the ashes rose two ensembles: one of the them the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the other the Original Ballet Russe. (Just to make things even more confusing, for a while in the '40s there was also a Grand Ballet de Monte Carlo.) Like members of any family with an inheritance, the two companies fiercely competed for dancers, for choreographers, and for audiences. The interviews Geller and Goldfine conducted gave them access to an extraordinary treasure trove of photos, film, programs, and flyers from a period of nonstop traveling by both companies that brought ballet to the hinterlands of America. Russes' greatest pleasure, however, is meeting so many of these dancers, most of them well into their 80s and still full of sparkle and enthusiasm, ready to do it all over again. (1:48) Albany, Opera Plaza. (Rita Felciano)
Bee Season Child actors don't get much more self-consciously adorable than Flora Cross, who plays Eliza Naumann the sleeper child in Bee Season's family of overachievers, headed up by an annoying professorial stage dad (Richard Gere) and a furtive mom with a secret (Juliette Binoche). Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel would undoubtedly love to have Cross's performance compared to those of Spanish waif Ana Torrent, whose appearances in The Spirit of the Beehive and Cria! so acutely embody the sadness and beauty, the complex shades and formative power, of childhood. But for that to happen Cross needs a better frame. The directors obviously dote on their Bay Area backdrops and do their darnedest to make the metaphysical concrete; the ineffable, literal lovingly lingering on shots of giant letters dangling via helicopter over the Bay, and relying on CGI to turn Eliza's thought process into birds and flowers. But try as they might the directors don't quite convey the spiritual transcendence immanent in the words Eliza spells so dutifully, the power of the Kabbalah, or the sublime forgiveness toward parents that fail you in both their weakness and strength espoused by Myla Goldberg, author of Bee Season's source-material novel. (1:44) Galaxy. (Chun)
*Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain's succinct pitch "the gay cowboy movie" may be accurate enough, but it's really too simple a tag to hang on Ang Lee's gorgeous film. Adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from Annie Proulx's short story, Brokeback opens in 1963 Wyoming as two men seek a summer's worth of work tending sheep on an isolated mountain. The pair garrulous Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and taciturn Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) soon settle into a routine revolving around coyotes and campfires. Without much warning, after just a few sidelong glances you might notice just because you're waiting for 'em, the friendship becomes something more something entirely unfamiliar in the world of conventional westerns. When the summer ends, it seems the romance which breaks nearly every relationship taboo under Wyoming's big, conservative sky must too. As The Notebook, and Titanic, and a bajillion other movies and stories (starting with the likes of Romeo and Juliet) have taught us, it's much more thrilling and memorable when the happiness of the fated pair is threatened by towering obstacles. Those who'd shun this beautiful movie for its gay content couldn't be missing out more. If you must stick a label on Brokeback, you can call it the year's greatest love story and hold out hope that in a few months, you'll be able to call it Best Picture. (2:14) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont. (Eddy)
*Capote Truman Capote's life resists easy summary, so it's appealing that the first Hollywood biopic on the author ignores formula and turns one agonizing chapter of his life into an opportunity for an essay. Though Capote is based on the 1988 Gerard Clarke biography, Bennett Miller's film actually has a lot more in common with Janet Malcolm's 1990 The Journalist and the Murderer (a relationship the filmmakers also acknowledge). It's not so much a story of Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as the illustration of the question Malcolm so artfully dodged: What, really, do journalists owe their subjects? In this case, what did the glittering Capote owe the two killers who lent him their life stories for his nonfiction "novel"? Hints of the hundred separate movies that could be made from Capote's life emerge in key details: The scarf he rattles like a saber in Kansas's cop HQ calls to mind the family warfare that accompanied his growing up gay in the '30s and '40s; the bottle of booze he doesn't seem to leave home without foreshadows a grim decline. This film makes a wonderful habit of entering ensemble scenes midsentence, creating a vérité feel without the sea-sickening camera, and it's hard to find fault with the casting: Catherine Keener, gently butch as the conscience of the film, Harper Lee, nails Capote's alter ego and "research assistant," hired for her ability to steward the writer into Holcomb, Kan.'s housewives' hearts. (1:50) Clay, Empire, Shattuck. (Gerhard)
Chicken Little The actual "Chicken Little" fairy tale is basically a cautionary story about causing mass hysteria. An acorn bops a hen on the head and she leads a gaggle of silly animals to their deaths in a fox's lair. Disney's version opens with the same premise. Chicken Little (a boy in this movie, voiced by Zach Braff) causes panic when he claims that something from the sky fell on his noggin. There the fairy tale stops and, after being taffy-pulled into feature-length material, the father-son movie begins. Chicken Little becomes the town loser after dad (Garry Marshall) and others don't believe him. Full of doubt, the teeny puffball decides to put the crazy episode behind him. But soon another piece of the sky falls, and Dad finally believes his son under the laser light of a full-scale alien invasion à la War of the Worlds. A supporting cast of animals provides familiar comic relief and references to our world are liberally added, including karaoke videos for kids and repeated use of the expression "Oh, snap!" Sappy Chicken Little will amuse children and overload the blood sugar of adults. (1:15) 1000 Van Ness, Century 20, Kabuki. (Koh)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Considering the strong affections and dreams of magic and power that children and adults have invested in C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series, one wishes the makers of this initial installment had more confidence in their material. The thrill of having that somewhat unimaginable imaginary world visualized and embodied by charming actors like Georgie Henley, as Lucy Pevensie, and James McAvoy, as the faun Tumnus remains, though director Andrew Adamson's vision is disappointingly tame concerning this most fanciful of stories. Despite the seduction of the narrative and the veritable menagerie of well-animated unicorns, beavers, tigers, lions, and bears darting gracefully through the film the film's scope, from the initial scenes of the Pevensie children's drab WWII-era British reality to the sunlit, modestly ecstatic backdrop of Narnia, with its evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton) and talking critters (ably voiced by thespians like Liam Neeson, as the lion Aslan), is somewhat dismayingly conservative. Let's just say Disney and Adamson haven't partaken of the truly deep magic of Buñuel, Svankmajer, or Kubrick or even Jackson, Jeunet, or Lucas. And how else to explain the blatant cribbing from Lord of the Rings and Star Wars? All the hand-wringing about the subtextual Christian content aside (which for some reason doesn't glare when treated as just another mythical communiqué to Aslan's army), the tale still enchants. Just silence the rational mind and don't try to reconcile the presence of a wookiee-like creature and Father Christmas in the same film. (2:05) Century 20, Century Plaza, Grand Lake, Kabuki. (Chun)
*The Constant Gardener With Ralph Fiennes as its star, rather than, say, Tom Hanks, the film version of John le Carré's 2000 novel, The Constant Gardener, isn't likely to be as popular an entertainment as it could have been. Which is everybody's loss: This is a very good movie almost any post-teenage viewer could enjoy, and within its classic framework of life-love lost and avenged, excellent points are made about how the world really works. Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, a British civil servant posted to Kenya, where he upholds the standard of international diplomacy by maintaining a polite smile, turning a blind eye, and privately wishing one could do something for these people. Storming into his quiet life with placards afire is Tessa (Rachel Weisz), the kind of borderline obnoxious but indomitable child-of-bourgeois-liberal-activist who actually does get things done. We know from very early on that she ends up raped, murdered, and burned in an ambush on a rural road, presumably for pushing her activist sleuthing. Gardener charts Justin's attempts to find out who ordered her death and why, intercutting that quest with flashbacks to their relationship. In his English-language debut, director Fernando Meirelles (City of God) creates a thoroughly accomplished work that manages old-school plot intrigue, conventional romance, globe-trotting location work, and a heavyweight cast with ease. (2:08) Galaxy, Oaks. (Harvey)
Derailed The premier offering by former Miramax honchos Bob and Harvey Weinstein's new production company, Derailed is a hedge-your-bets kind of thriller. Charles Schine (Clive Owen) and Lucinda Harris (Jennifer Aniston) are married corporate execs who meet on the commuter train to Chicago. After some cutesy flirting, the two decide to pursue the affair in a dive hotel in the city (the film revives the Reagan era's fear and loathing of all things urban). But before you can wonder what Brad thinks of Jen's big scene, an amusingly articulate thug comes upon the lovebirds for money and kicks. Upon discovering the two execs are "messing around," he begins blackmailing them, and the movie chugs along towards its inevitable plot twists and script-doctored climaxes. Derailed is an ominous name for a first business venture, and, indeed, the film lives up to the title within its first reel when we realize these characters don't make sense, and, worse yet, we don't care what happens to them; one moment Charles is an ineffectual homebody, and the next he's stabbing some hooligan. Whatever, as long as it's all over soon. (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, Kabuki. (Goldberg)
*The Dying Gaul The first directorial feature by playwright-scenarist Craig Lucas (Longtime Companion, Prelude to a Kiss) was passed on by major-league distributors; it has ended up as perhaps the starriest and slickest US feature ever captured by ever-gay-subject-matter-friendly Strand Releasing. One worries the unappetizingly titled film may still be too thorny even for most gay audiences, let alone average art-house ones. It's not exactly a feel-good movie, allowing for the fact that seeing Campbell Scott and Peter Sarsgaard naked together and screwing can indeed feel pretty good. Sarsgaard plays Robert, an NYC writer flown to La La Land by studio executive Jeffrey (Scott), who wants his screenplay one he'd written for the lover who recently died of AIDS and that Jeffrey's wife, Elaine (Patricia Clarkson), pronounces "perfect." Yet it is the way of Hollywood that perfection can always be improved on, or at least made more marketable; thus Jeffrey begins seducing Robert into creative compromises. He also seduces him in the more traditional fashion, even as oblivious cuckold Elaine takes a passionate, quasimaternal interest in the still-grieving author. When her good intentions get wire-crossed with the boys' misbehavior, this loaded triangle takes several perverse, eventually macabre turns. Adapted from his stage play, Lucas's script cuts sharp as a knife, recalling the terse psychological sadism of vintage Harold Pinter, albeit with more warmly rounded characters. (1:29) Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Going Shopping For the women of Henry Jaglom's latest talky comedy, Going Shopping, shopping is more than a habit it's a way of life. They try on attitudes, relationships, and emotional states as they would a pair of shoes; someone's always either laughing or crying but never for long. The shoestring plot revolves around Holly (Victoria Foyt), a sensitive, materialistic dame who runs her own boutique in upper-crust Los Angeles. When the store dips into the red, she finds herself needing to make ends meet while balancing delicate relationships with her mother and daughter. Jaglom punctuates the narrative with different women discussing the thrills and traumas of walking the aisle. Between the story's intergenerational babbling and the cutaway confessions, the film is as much about talking as it is shopping; at its most frantic, Going Shopping plays like a cracked-out, melodramatic version of something Woody Allen might have conceived. The whole thing feels frivolous, and while that may be the point in a film about disposable pleasure, I'm not sure I'm buying. (1:46) Opera Plaza. (Goldberg)
*Good Night, and Good Luck As Good Night, and Good Luck opens, Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) rips into an audience that has gathered to honor him at a 1958 Radio and Television News Directors Association gala. George Clooney (who also directs) and Grand Heslov's script stays true to Murrow's real-life speech, a searing indictment of television's shift toward fluffy programming, as well as the networks' increasingly close ties to advertisers. Were he alive today, Murrow would no doubt have additional thoughts about the 21st-century version of "this weapon"; in particular he'd probably take issue with the 24-hour-news culture, which favors sensational nuggets over in-depth stories. Good Night is a Murrow biopic of sorts, but it focuses on the specific events surrounding March 9, 1954, when Murrow's See It Now program dared to take on Sen. Joseph McCarthy at the height of the Red Scare. Director Clooney takes his cue from this moment in television history, using real film clips and plucking Murrow's on-air dialogue from transcripts. The result is a period-authentic, eerily resonant snapshot of a time when national security issues could trump the rights of individuals, and fear kept most Americans woefully silent. (1:30) Albany, Embarcadero. (Eddy)
*Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire I was pretty high on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is, without a doubt, the new champ. Its PG-13 rating is well earned, with sinister spookiness and kids-in-peril all but replacing whimsy and wonder (though one of Harry's first lines, after witnessing the TARDIS-like powers of a tent that looks tiny on the outside and spacious on the inside, could be a bumper sticker for the series: "I love magic!") The Hogwarts gang are teenagers now, and director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) wisely keeps author J.K. Rowling's balance of wizardry and growing pains intact. What could be scarier than facing down villain Lord Voldemort (an unrecognizable Ralph Fiennes)? Try asking your crush to the school dance a task that utterly paralyzes even the great Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). (2:37) 1000 Van Ness, Century 20, Century Plaza, Grand Lake, Kabuki, Orinda. (Eddy)
*A History of Violence Peel away an all-American facade, and you'll find a murderous gangster underneath: This message lurks throughout David Cronenberg's A History of Violence. The doc-like title of Cronenberg's latest (adapting a graphic novel of the same name) is par for a director whose vision has always been coolly antiseptic, and the first "big word" in its title is anathema to contemporary amnesia. Nonetheless, this lean and mean family tale has definite mainstream crossover appeal; Cronenberg's version of national allegory trumps Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, not least because it favors genre (Out of the Past, anyone?) and archetypes over bogus realism. From the Lynch-like diner small-talk about coffee and pie, to the foreboding, shiny black car slowly creeping into sunbathed golden settings, Americana fits the Canadian auteur like a surgical glove. The result is his best movie since Dead Ringers. There's a reason the name of History's protagonist, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), is so plain, so benign, though he's loathe to reveal it to wife Edie (Maria Bello), son Jack (Ashton Holmes), and daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Mortensen's Mt. Rushmore of a face is the film's riddle, allowing a pair of wonderfully outsize Mafia turns by a sarcastic Ed Harris and a hilarious William Hurt to effectively steal scenes, if not lives. (1:35) Four Star, Galaxy. (Huston)
Ice Harvest So what exactly is the matter with Kansas? If you're John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, it's not so much the frigid winter temperatures as it is the yuletide body count. As adorably bumbling Wichita underworld types, they've managed to steal more than two million bucks from the mob on Christmas Eve too bad for them they don't know where to safely stash the money. Too bad for us: that this movie is so relentlessly mediocre. It shouldn't be; Thornton and Cusack make a great on screen pair Billy Bob's quick-witted, sarcastic chicanery mixes nicely with Johnny Boy's laconic bemusement. And both have a proven neonoir track record (The Grifters, The Man Who Wasn't There). But Harold Ramis's direction exudes such an "aren't we naughty" aura, it's hard to be either amused by the seriousness of it all or take the funny stuff seriously, especially when the double crosses are about as twisty as a Great Plains interstate. Personally, I'd rather visit Brainerd, Minn., again. They have a Paul Bunyan statue, y'know. (1:28) 1000 Van Ness. (Devereaux)
*Jarhead "Welcome to the suck," the film's poster announces, referring not just to Operation Desert Storm (or the long, boring days of Operation Desert Shield that preceded it), but also to the Middle Eastern desert (hot, dreary, and sand choked) and military service itself, as seen through the wide eyes of a young marine named Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal). Based on Anthony Swofford's acclaimed memoir, and directed with artful composure by American Beauty's Sam Mendes, Jarhead is an incredibly timely, well-acted film that crystallizes the unglamorous, and even pointless, mechanics of modern warfare into two searing hours. Though some of the members of Swoff's unit occasionally slip into caricature, even the sporadic mixed-message moment (rifles are fetishized, while Scud missiles are not) makes sense in Jarhead's milieu of conflicts both personal and political, both of which still resonate today. "We never have to come back to this shit hole ever again!" exclaims one soldier when Desert Storm abruptly ends. If only. (1:45) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
Just Friends With a PG-13 rating, Just Friends, a kind of sanitized There's Something About Mary, is ripe for the holidays a clean getaway for packs of teens, returning college students, and anyone else fleeing the post-family-meal, sit-around-the-table-and-stare-blankly-at-each-other routine. It's based on the classic nerdy boy revenge fantasy: a dorky, overweight teen who can't pass best buds status with his pretty gal pal flees to LA and returns home to Jersey a decade later as a walking GQ cover. Or, read from the girl's view: The sweet, but thoroughly unattractive boy next door comes back a Tom Cruise lookalike who's still hung up on you (Danger! Danger! Now entering the Jerry Maguire zone). Either way, Just Friends sticks to romantic comedy clichés in a big way. Most of the punch lines, like the plot are predictable, and too safe to deliver the way Farrelly brothers films do. There are some gems, though, like star Ryan Reynolds' Saturday Night Live-style lip synchs. Amy Smart co-stars as the pretty girl, while Anna Faris (of Scary Movie fame) plays a bratty pop diva who bears an uncanny resemblance to Britney Spears. (1:34) 1000 Van Ness, Century 20. (Crawford)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang The first directorial feature from Shane Black once the highly paid writer of action-comedy schlock, including the genre's Rosetta stone, Lethal Weapon is presumably the more "personal" and "character-driven" project he really wanted to do all along. The pilot snarkster here is Robert Downey Jr., whose protagonist, Harry Lockhart, starts freezing frames and cutely covering Black's ass ("I apologize. That was a terrible scene") in voice-over narration from the very first moment. He's a thief who haplessly flees from a crime scene into an audition, ending up in LA as a possible Next Big Thing. Harry's "detective lessons" for his prospective big-break part pair him with a PI known as Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) because he's gay. (Like that trait would be so distinguishing in LA.) On a routine stakeout, they witness a crime whose further investigation develops into a convoluted pileup of female corpses, hired killers (who make up most of the film's ethnic-minority casting), tail-chasing (narrative and otherwise), chases, shootings, and muchas whatnotas. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang even the title is derivative, coined for an obscure '60s Italian exploitation film and then borrowed by Pauline Kael for her first review collection is so glossy its $15 million "indie" shine almost hurts. The movie primarily means to be witty, but when it stoops, it limbo-dances about as low as you can go. (1:43) Galaxy. (Harvey)
*Memoirs of a Geisha If you can get over the first stopper a blue-eyed non-hapa star geisha Sayuri with otherwise archetypally Asian coloring played by Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang chances are you might enjoy the old-fashioned Hollywood moviemaking propelling Memoirs of a Geisha. Sayuri is sold by her impoverished, crumbling peasant family into the servitude of an okiya, or geisha house. If she's lucky she'll be trained to be a maiko, or apprentice, then a geisha who, the script takes pains to point out (though dropping mixed messages), is an artist and entertainer, rather than a prostitute. When Hatsumono, the house's gorgeous money-making geisha (Gong Li, digging into her role like a spitting, tigerlike silent film icon), scuttles Sayuri's career, the girl finds hope in kind eyes of the Chairman (Ken Watanabe), a local captain of industry, and under the wing of Hatsumoto's rival geisha, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh). Considering Japan's longtime racial homogeneity and the fact that the casting reflects Western stereotypes about Asians "all looking alike," the dominance of Chinese actresses amid their Japanese male counterparts like Watanabe and Kiyoshi Kurosawa favorite Koji Yakusho (like Gong, dropping naturalism for operatic gestures) is puzzling, apart from predictable US box-office concerns. Still, Memoirs' Cinderella story should be comfortingly familiar for Western audiences, though the art-house success of Crouching Tiger and genre chops of Jet Li and company should allay any fears of middle America buying a major studio picture set in Japan after the box office seppuku committed by The Last Samurai. (2:07) Metreon. (Chun)
*Naked in Ashes Even in a nation of 1 billion, 13 million is a pretty respectable minority and that is the estimated number of yogis currently traveling a 5,000-year-old spiritual path in India. Paula Fouce's documentary trains its somewhat loose yet engaging focus on about twenty individuals around the nation. Some practice "austerites" that are downright carnivalesque: There's a guy who1s been standing upright 24/7 for 12 years, and another who attracts attention by pulling a fully loaded jeep with his, er, third arm. (As he helpfully advises, "This penis control trick is not for everyone.") There are also yogis who take regular pilgrimages high into the Himalayas, walking naked in snow, risking death from exposure. But Ashes isn't the Mondo Cane of Hinduism. Its benevolent outlook makes such bizarre behaviors understandable as one person's path of liberation from our current dark age of empty materialism. More often, this diverse survey of yogic gurus and disciples conveys the serenity gained by renunciation of earthly desires via prayer, meditation, charitable works, yoga, and so forth. To Fouce's credit, she's made an entertaining (as well as illuminating) movie about people with no use for "entertainment" whatsoever. (1:58) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
One: The Movie One morning in 2002, Ward M. Powers, middle-aged trial lawyer and suburban dad, suddenly came up with the idea of making a film on the meaning of life and how we are all really one. So he rounded up his cousin and best friend, and the three novices roamed the country, encountering people on the street and famous spiritual authorities (including Deepak Chopra, Father Thomas Keating, Ram Dass, Barbara Marx Hubbard, and Robert Thurman (the first American-born Buddhist monk and, more important, Uma's daddy), all of whom were asked a list of 20 questions, such as: What happens to you after you die? What is heaven? Powers's approach isn't much of an advance beyond the cabbie who had Bertrand Russell in the back and inquired, "So, Bertie ... you're a philosopher what's it all about?" One is a perfectly ghastly example of New Age flapdoodle: True profundity rarely arrives in sound bites, and expressing Big Ideas through talking-head parades and short-attention-span editing guarantees shallow talk. Though it pretends to be a spiritual smorgasbord, One is really a monster fortune cookie, stuffed with platitudes, flimflam, and the bloody obvious. (1:19) Act I and II, Lumiere. (Amanatullah)
*Paradise Now When independent filmmakers in the United States started out, their aim was to show an America that Hollywood never put onscreen: ordinary people, speaking how they really speak, shot in towns and cities far from back-lot facades. Today Palestinian filmmakers are often driven by a parallel mandate: to show the world the shape of Palestinian lives far from exploding bombs and breaking-news broadcasts. Amsterdam-based Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad is intent on capturing the inanities and insanities of life in occupied territory. Paradise Now, his latest film (after Ford Transit and Rana's Wedding, among others), is a seriocomic thriller with a dose of romance. Shot in 35mm under virtually battlefront conditions, it resolutely keeps its lens and our eyes, minds, and hearts on the script. The result is far more engrossing, and ultimately far more deadly, when a pair of slacker friends are tapped for a fatal honor: to be their town's next suicide bombers in a mission targeting Tel Aviv. Paradise Now is as much about its characters' mind-sets as ours. In a way, Abu-Assad is building a bridge of subjectivity in the form of a madcap thriller. (1:30) Shattuck. (B. Ruby Rich)
*Pride and Prejudice Like the 12-bar blues and the facts of life, we all know how it goes, but precisely how do the particulars compare to our own internal Pride and Prejudices as well as, admit it, the definitive BBC miniseries with the wet-shirted Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy? Here, the crucial roles are fairly well filled: As Elizabeth, the bruised-eyed Keira Knightley is impish, girlish, and toothy, yet twinkly smart. Ape-draped MI-5 actor Matthew Macfadyen plays Darcy so low-down and subtle that he runs the risk of resembling a dot-mouthed cartoon, but when the time comes to confess his most ardent affections, he steps up and fills Firth's pantaloons, even if he has to channel Laurence Olivier's Heathcliff and stomp through the moors in what looks to be a bathrobe. Other roles are beautifully filled out by Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland, Tom Hollander, Judi Dench, and Jena Malone. Director Joe Wright favors a muddy, frizzy-haired, minimal-makeup naturalism, reminiscent of '60s-era reworkings of Penguin Classics, complete with zooming camera, an emphasis on daylight, pigs' testicles, and odd moments of modern-day randiness. Did Elizabeth really check out Wickham's ass in the book? (2:08) Bridge, Century 20, Empire, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Chun)
Prime I think I saw this episode of Sex and the City; it's the one about mid-30s women dating twentysomething guys. Actually, Prime is a much longer, more tortuous take on the topic, without the catchy theme song and gratuitous fashion. Thirty-seven-year-old Rafi (Uma Thurman) has just finalized her divorce and is starting over with the encouragement of her therapist, Lisa (Meryl Streep, whose perky hair and loud outfits do their own acting). Meanwhile, a young guy named Dave (Bryan Greenberg) charms the pants off Rafi. Dave is 23 years old, Jewish, and an artist in that order, those are the character's only, constantly referenced traits. The couple pursues an Ashton-Demi romance, hindered by a mother that disapproves of Ben dating outside his religion. There's also some other endless stuff about being at different points in their lives (the dialogue in an excruciating scene of almost-impregnation made me feel vomity). One plot twist adds a little juice, but otherwise Thurman and Streep are stuck in writer-director Ben Younger's uninformed fantasy of what a woman wants. (1:39) Galaxy. (Koh)
Rent The Broadway-cinema continuum, which runs both ways (see: Chicago, Hairspray, and the hall of mirrors that is The Producers), has proved to be a highly lucrative alliance. So why does Chris Columbus's big-screen version of Rent a slickly directed, energetically acted operation feel kind of unnecessary right about now? For one thing, it's dated. The play's vision of Manhattan, circa 1990, no longer exists. The cast made up almost entirely of the stars of the 1996 Tony-winning stage production is also dated, if well-preserved. Had creator Jonathan Larson lived to see Rent flourish, it's possible the big-screen version might have been a little different, a little more innovative; as is, it's an exceptionally faithful interpretation. It doesn't do what Chicago did, reimagining and stylizing the source material for the big screen; neither does it offer the excitement of seeing genuine movie stars (the biggest name here is non-original-cast-member Rosario Dawson) singin' and dancin'. However, there's an upside to Rent keeping it real, beyond just pleasing "Rentheads" near and far. Unlike, say, last year's Phantom of the Opera, Rent's adherence to the Broadway cast insures that Larson's songs will be interpreted with faithful, I-wuz-there-at-the-beginning passion making for some genuinely emotional moments. (2:08) 1000 Van Ness, Century 20, Four Star, Kabuki, Oaks. (Eddy)
*Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic Is Sarah Silverman as racist as she is thin? Why do I like Volvic while she loves Fiji? And what would Margaret Cho make of unapologetic Jesus-killer Silverman and her tiff with Guy Aoki? Perhaps it doesn't matter Silverman's new movie consistently shoots sharper than Cho's last effort, partly because Cho is reeling off concert films at a frightening rate. To be sure, Jesus Is Magic owes a huge mirror-gazing debt to Sandra Bernhard's Without You I'm Nothing, though its star may be closer to Dory Previn, partly because her dance with a black audience isn't so smart. Whatever: There are plenty of ROTFLMAO moments here. Faves include her "Can I steal you for a minute?" shtick, Holocaust body count one-liner (and love of "small" Nazis), and just about every parody of piety that she launches. One of the framing devices that pushes this film over the hour mark a look at show biz competition and vanity, featuring Silverman's sis is funny. The other a series of music sequences is not. But most of the time, Silverman is successful at "getting into the psychology" of an audience, making them laugh and then spanking them for it. (1:12) Lumiere, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Huston)
Shopgirl Steve Martin's novella gets the big-screen treatment courtesy of director Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie), and the result is a mixed-bag look at modern i.e., highly complicated romance. Saks Fifth Avenue clerk Mirabelle (Claire Danes) drifts through her lonely Los Angeles life, filling her spare hours with charcoal drawings and vintage-clothes shopping (the latter is never shown in the film, but her budget wardrobe is 1950s-cool all the way). Very nearly simultaneously, she meets age-appropriate slacker Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) and older, wealthy commitment-phobe Ray (Martin). Ray takes her to swanky restaurants; Jeremy drags her to Universal CityWalk and asks socially inept questions: "Can I kiss you or what?" As the love triangle shifts and changes, Mirabelle is let down by her own expectations again and again (none-too-subtly telegraphed by Shopgirl's intrusive, often shrill score). This is probably Danes's strongest work since My So-Called Life let's just forget about Terminator 3, shall we? but even her performance can't overcome the inherent ickiness of the Mirabelle-Ray pairing. (1:44) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Eddy)
*The Squid and the Whale 'You'd like Kafka one of my predecessors," onetime literary prodigy Bernard (Jeff Daniels) informs eldest son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg), the perfect reflecting-mirror parrot for all Dad's pretensions. It's Park Slope, Brooklyn, 1986. Joan (Laura Linney) has finally realized that being Bernard's wife his third is hard labor no one should have to endure in a free society. Still, their separation hits 16-year-old Walt and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) hard, with joint custody splitting loyalties as well as the week. Frank wisely chooses Mom as a more reliable port in a storm, while Walt, as usual, seeks shelter 'neath professorial Dad's enormous ego; both kids deal with the home-front crisis in variably alcoholic, masturbatory, and plagiarizing ways. Noah Baumbach (Mr. Jealousy) won awards for both writing and directing at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, and his film is X-Acto-knife-sharply observed and acted. Yet one leaves the theater as if leaving a cocktail party where dinner was mistakenly expected. The conversation is brilliant; the hors d'oeuvres are superb. But a slightly dazzled inebriation wears off too soon, leaving the viewer sober and unsated. (1:28) Lumiere, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
*Syriana Inspired by Robert Baer's See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism, Syriana is a genuinely political thriller. It's an elaborate fiction very much in the mode of Traffic, writer-director Stephen Gaghan's last screenplay, but better, with a more self-effacing directorial style and less distracting star personalities. A paunched-out, credibly weary George Clooney plays CIA agent Bob, who facilitates speedy deaths for inconvenient people in the oil-rich Near East. His promised final assignment before desk-job retirement is to eliminate Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), an emir's idealistic heir apparent who dares to give new drilling rights to the highest bidder a Chinese concern rather than to a Texas conglomerate. Meanwhile, Washington, DC, attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is expected to provide the Justice Department with enough evidence of corruption to punish the Texas corporation for some past dealings but not enough to disrupt business as usual. American energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) becomes a close ally of the prince after a tragic accident pushes them together. And way down the economic totem pole, abruptly fired young energy-field grunt workers Wasim (Mazhar Munir) and Farooq (Sonnell Dadral) find moral enlightenment and some dangerous ideological zeal under a fundamentalist recruiter's wing. Apart from an occasional overblown speech, Syriana is engrossing, intelligent, well acted, and relevant enough to be the thinking lefty's movie of choice this holiday season. (2:06) 1000 Van Ness, Century 20, Empire, Grand Lake, Kabuki, Orinda, Presidio, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Three of Hearts Boy meets Boy, then Boy meets Girl, then Boy and Boy and Girl live happily ever after. Or not. Susan Kaplan's documentary follows the nine-year rise and fall of a Manhattan threesome between three singularly self-absorbed people who thought they were in it for love. After Sam Cagnina and Steve Margolin settled into couplehood, Cagnina got Margolin's consent to bring Samantha Singh into the relationship, and she went on to bear their children as all three achieved financial success and social acceptance. Did the same banal fault lines that sunder "normal" marriages work their magic here? Let's just say that Three of Hearts is broken-backed, the product of three people deciding to triumphantly, even smugly, document their new, path-breaking "trinogomous" lifestyle, only to call back the cameras when things got ugly, giving us an entirely different motivation for watching. There's a sharp U-turn from the superficially applauding first section into the investigation and bitter deflation in the second, and the spine connecting these disparate chunks can't take it. (1:37) Castro. (Amanatullah)
A Touch of Spice Like so many other cinematic historians, filmmaker Tassos Boulmetis traces a sweeping narrative through the lens of a boy's coming-of-age in his semiautobiographical A Touch of Spice. The protagonist here is Fanis (Georges Corraface), a Greek boy who grows up in his grandfather's spice shop before his immediate family is deported from Istanbul. Fanis grows up an outsider, spurned from his country of origin and looked on with suspicious eyes in Greece. In these difficult circumstances he finds himself by channeling his grandfather's folksy culinary philosophies into his own instinctual cooking style. The history here is certainly underreported, but the narrative feels overplotted to the point of contrivance between the flashbacks and chapters (the film is divided into three parts: "appetizers," "main course," and "desserts"), the film's excessive segmentation is a sure sign of an overstuffed story. As is always the case with these sentimental histories, the past is draped with cloying lyricism and nostalgia. The food looks great, but A Touch of Spice needs a bit more kick to be swallowed. (1:48) Smith Rafael. (Goldberg)
Ushpizin A sweet, if somewhat slight, look at life in an insulated Jewish Orthodox neighborhood in Israel, Ushpizin is being billed as a breakthrough for its access to the normally guarded community. Written by and starring an Orthodox Jew (Shuli Rand) and directed by a secular one (Gidi Dar), Ushpizin has a folksy, parabolic narrative shape common to much Yiddish drama. During the Succoth holiday when Jews dwell in a makeshift shelter for a week to mark the Exodus from Egypt holy husband and wife Moshe (Shuli Rand) and Malli (Michal Bat Sheva Rand) struggle with a pair of unexpected guests. The two men are fresh from prison and ready to take advantage of the Succoth obligation to welcome ushpizin (guests). As the men cause headache after headache, and Moshe's pre-Orthodox life on the lam comes to light, much consternation (usually in the form of shouting at God) ensues. The narrative throws plenty of obstacles at Moshe and Malli but always indulges their faith; by the end, a narrative's resolution is cut from divine intervention's cloth. (1:30) Shattuck. (Goldberg)
*Walk the Line It's worth mentioning right up front that Walk the Line doesn't really shake up the template set down by Ray, the recent Elvis miniseries, and any number of other true musical tales: Start with a significant childhood event (preferably traumatic) to set the tone, then let that sucker echo throughout the performer's life. Coscripted by director James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted) and Gill Dennis and based on two Cash autobiographies, Walk the Line leans a bit heavily on Cash's guilt 'n' grief complex. It also relies on lurching transitions that map Cash's creativity in the most literal way possible. There's no doubting Mangold's reverence for Cash though, seriously, everyone loves Johnny Cash but thankfully the filmmaker is, at times, able to nudge past hero worship and point out that the man had some gnarly flaws. Cash's legend, especially when packed into the biopic mold, may be a familiar one, but Walk the Line still springs a few surprises. The lead actors are outstanding; both Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon do their own singing and strumming. With shiny black pompadour lacquered into place, natural born brooder Phoenix eerily mimics Cash's wounded snarl and gravelly voice, while Witherspoon Walk the Line's stealth weapon turns in a thoughtful, passionate performance. (2:16) 1000 Van Ness, Century 20, Century Plaza, Four Star, Kabuki, Presidio. (Eddy)
Yours, Mine, and Ours This might be what you'd expect when Nickelodeon reworks an inoffensive 1968 family comedy in other words, it doesn't amount to much. Even with 18 child actors as the supporting cast behind Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo, this effort doesn't have much charm to spare. Helen (Russo) and Frank (Quaid) are recently single and middle-aged-yet-still-attractive, reunited after one marriage each and a long hiatus lasting from high school graduation to their 20-year high school reunion. It takes only one painfully awkward slow dance-induced smooch to rekindle the flames of desire for cohabitation, but both are forced to reveal some baggage: Quaid has 8 kids, and Russo has managed to chalk up 10. This doesn't stop them from Brady Bunch-izing the whole affair, moving all the kids into one giant house and hoping the preppies and hippies can all get along. Kids might appreciate the endless physical comedy, but there isn't much else to save the lackluster story and predictable morality play here. (1:30) Century 20, Century Plaza. (Odes)
*Metal Storm: The Scandinavian Black Metal Wars Scandinavia's infamous black metal world, memorably chronicled in the 1998 book Lords of Chaos, gets the documentary treatment in Metal Storm: The Scandinavian Black Metal Wars. Technically speaking, Metal Storm is unpolished; it stitches together a Norwegian doc, Satan Rides the Media, with background info and narration provided by Kier-la Janisse (founder of Vancouver, BC's, CineMuerte Film Festival). Some of the footage is quite rough; most of the live performances and music videos look like third-generation copies. Still, there's no way a film about this real-life Satanic soap opera could be anything but fascinating. After a quick history lesson, Metal Storm jumps ahead to the early 1990s, when bands like Darkthrone and Mayhem dominated. Nobody could accuse these guys of not walking the talk; aside from producing growly, angry music, many wore "corpsepaint" (think KISS, but scarier) and participated in church burnings, outraging the public and inflaming the press. The frenzy exploded when a prominent member of the scene, Varg Vikernes, was charged with murdering Mayhem guitarist Euronymous. Already notorious for his arson exploits, the charismatic Vikernes (name-checked in screaming headlines as "the Count," his self-given moniker) soon became a media superstar. Cited as the film's text source, the far more detailed Lords of Chaos remains the definitive document of this strange saga. Still, Metal Storm's juicier moments including jailhouse interviews with Vikernes, still blasé about his crimes offer the best kind of supplemental material. (1:20) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (Eddy)
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians See 8 Days a Week. (1:21) Brainwash Café.