The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D

Also: The Bridge of San Luis Rey, High Tension, Howl's Moving Castle, Memories of Murder, and Saving Face.

The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D

Opens Fri., June 10, at Metro and others

Kids should always be encouraged to dream and use their imaginations. However, when those dreams mean that your only friends are a fish-boy, a girl with smoldering purple hair, and a giant robot with a tin-can head, you've got problems. Or at least fourth-grader Max (Cayden Boyd) has problems in this kid flick directed by Robert Rodriguez and based on the stories of his 7-year-old son.

Max's parents (Kristin Davis and David Arquette) are constantly arguing, he's the school bully's primary target, and he's always being lectured about his overactive imagination. Then two of his imaginary friends (Shark Boy and Lava Girl) come to life and ask for help saving their Planet Drool from Mr. Electric (George Lopez, one of the few saving graces for viewers over the age of 12). The younger cast members have some talent, but watching Taylor Lautner flash his pointy Shark Boy teeth while dancing like a spastic karaoke performer is downright painful. Even though little boys will be stoked about the Lava Girl looks and ass-kicking abilities of Taylor Dooley (what was it with parents naming all their kids "Taylor" during the '90s?), her screechy pleas for self- actualization soon become annoying.

On top of that, the 3-D isn't especially remarkable, and the lack of exciting sequences where danger pops out at you make the 3-D goggles seem almost pointless at times. (Remember Angelica Huston's crazy fingernails coming at you in Michael Jackson's Captain EO? Now, that's my idea of 3-D.) Kids may eat it up, as they did Rodriguez's 3-D Spy Kids movie. Parents, you'll just find it grating and predictable. But, please, could you stop naming all your kids "Taylor"? (PG) HEATHER LOGUE

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Opens Fri., June 10, at Varsity

One of God's greatest mysteries is the fact that people keep trying to make a movie out of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize– winning 1927 novel. Previously attempted in 1929 and 1944, the third time's not a charm. The story is still unadaptable, because it's all told in momentum-killing flashbacks. And instead of focusing on a character or coherent group, it's a meanderingly pointless story about five protagonists who die when a bridge across a Peruvian gorge snaps in 1714. The philosophical Franciscan missionary Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne, glummer than ever, wearing his worst haircut yet) investigates the life paths that led to death that day, in quest of an answer to the question: Could these seemingly unrelated lives be part of some larger pattern?

Alas for the movie, the answer is, "Fuck no." They're unrelated, all right, despite coincidental connections aplenty. The film is overstuffed with characters, not one of whom adds up to much individually; yet when you put them together in a plot with no point, they become still more inconsequential. A truly impressive cast rallies to this lost cause, this artless art film. Robert De Niro plays the Archbishop of Lima who prosecutes Juniper for the crime of writing his report on the lives of the five bridge fatalities. Somehow, Juniper's account offends religious doctrine, but we never learn why.

De Niro's performance is an empty recitation of poorly written lines. Harvey Keitel is barely better as the manager of a flighty diva (Pilar López de Ayala), the greatest actress of her day. (López ain't.) In roles that are still more bafflingly superfluous than the rest, Geraldine Chaplin plays a do-gooder abbess who looks after a pair of orphaned mute identical twins (Mark and Michael Polish). One of them (don't ask me which) becomes the diva's stenographer for her love letters to a handsome matador. She's also inadvisably cockteasing the powerful viceroy (F. Murray Abraham), who's jealous of the matador.

I could go on, but you would go mad. Not one plot strand makes sense on its own, let alone randomly interwoven with the rest like a ball of rubber bands. The closest thing the film has to a hero is Kathy Bates as a rich woman who writes unrequited letters to her hateful daughter who's left Lima for Spain. Her actions are all senseless, but Bates' immensely sympathetic dignity lends emotional meaning to her intellectually meaningless part.

Apparently this film was funded because Tony Blair quoted the book's line about love being a bridge between the living and the dead at a ceremony for 9/11 victims. But the film isn't a bridge. It's just dead. (PG) TIM APPELO

High Tension

Opens Fri., June 10, at Meridian and others

Most good horror movies benefit from a twist. The psycho lives with his embalmed mother and dresses in her clothing. You're only in danger when you fall asleep. The killer has a twin. "The calls are coming from inside the house!" That sort of thing.

Made in France and partially dubbed into English (often to unintentionally comic effect), High Tension would not have been imported were it a routine horror flick, though it initially appears to be just that. College students Marie (Cécile de France) and Alexia (Maïwenn) are visiting the latter's family in the countryside. Once everyone save Marie is asleep, a van-driving stranger knocks on the door. (He's played by Philippe Nahon, the "Butcher" from I Stand Alone, so we know trouble's in store.) The farmhouse soon becomes a slaughterhouse, and it's up to Marie to save Alexia from abduction, torture, and dismemberment. Pretty standard stuff.

Marie hides beneath a bed, in a closet (peering through the louvered doors), and in a row of bathroom stalls at a truck stop while eluding the nameless Van Man. These are scenes we've seen before, and the gore isn't particularly novel, either. To compensate, director Alexandre Aja amps up the sound effects—lots of buzzing, chirping, and thrumming, perhaps emanating from the local power lines. Or maybe they suggest a different kind of short circuit. As Marie, de France cowers and scrambles to safety in Jamie Lee Curtis mode, yet without being particularly sympathetic or resourceful. More problematic is Alexia, who's dubbed with a ditzy American accent—as if we're supposed to feel more concerned about her kidnapping by the mysterious Van Man because she's a fellow Yank. Frankly, I'd care more if she spoke better French.

But High Tension ultimately asks you to forgive all these shortcomings after a U-turn in the story, as if to say, "See, there was a reason for the lame and predictable setup." Well, yes and no. If the reversal provides a logical explanation for the preceding bloodbath, fine. The main effect of this twist, however, is to make one ask—Can we bring back the Van Man? (R) BRIAN MILLER

Howl's Moving Castle

Opens Fri., June 10, at Metro and others

Word on the fan sites has it that Hayao Miyazaki meant it when he said that Spirited Away was his last anime; that he only took over direction of Howl after concluding from preproduction work that the director he'd hired to do it wasn't up to Studio Ghibli standards. This wouldn't matter at all if the resulting movie didn't make a curiously detached, cool impression. The film is based on a young-adult novel by the prolific British fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, which may account for some of the feeling of detachment, because Miyazaki has worked through most of his career on material of his own invention. Howl is good animated fun, with many sequences of ineffable beauty that only Miyazaki could have conceived, but it still feels like a job of work, not a necessary unity.

Enough carping. Howl takes place in a world powered by steam but magic-laced: a Dutch-decorous townscape surrounded by witch-haunted wastelands, prowled by, among others, the mysterious Howl, the shape-shifting master of a lurching assemblage of rusty hardware that moves through the mountain mists on chicken feet, powered by a hearth demon (rather overshowily voiced in the dubbed version by Billy Crystal).

The film is not really Howl's story, however. The central character is another in the long line of sweet-natured but tough young women from Nausicaä to Mie. Through no fault of her own, seamstress-milliner Sophie attracts the ill attention of the Witch of the Waste (a phenomenal voicing job by Lauren Bacall) and spends the rest of the movie coping with beings and forces she doesn't understand by being understanding and sympathetic and—when all else fails—by getting out the mop and bucket and cleaning up.

Despite the magical episodes, I suspect the film will be a little draggy for subteen children. There's a lot of chat, and not all of it is interesting. But it's still essential viewing for lovers of Miyazaki. Motifs from his earlier films recur almost half-consciously, making the movie feel a bit Tempest-like, a summing up of a long career as a magician, and a half-welcoming, half-reluctant farewell to the role of enchanter.

Ticket buyers at the Metro will have their choice of the subtitled Japanese-language version (for purists) or the dubbed print with Bacall, Crystal, Christian Bale, and others. (PG) ROGER DOWNEY

Memories of Murder

Runs Fri., June 10–Thurs., June 16, at Northwest Film Forum

The political subtext to this superior 2003 South Korean cop flick—based on a real serial-killer investigation—will not be obvious to most viewers. It's mostly set in 1986, when students were regularly protesting against the corrupt, military-backed Chun government. Those violent clashes are only glimpsed here on TV and obliquely referenced around a small-town station house where detective Park (Song Kang-ho) has stumbled onto a crime spree. Women are being ambushed, raped, bound, and killed, their bodies left in muddy fields. Park and his thuggish assistant, Jo, are living in a world long before CSI; they have minimal experience gathering forensic evidence, but plenty of talent for beating confessions out of innocent suspects. More to the point, however, they haven't got any resources. When a reserved and much-resented Seoul cop, Suh (Kim Sang-kyung), is brought in to help with his big-city training, he asks for a manhunt on a rainy night when he thinks the killer will strike. Impossible, he's told—the entire police force is being deployed at a student demonstration. Naturally, another body results.

Murder works as an above-average police procedural in which Park's footwork and Suh's brainwork are bound to clash. (In their first meeting, Park mistakes the stranger as a suspect and greets him with a flying kick.) Gruesome crime scenes alternate with slice-of-life antics among the cops. It's not a mismatched Tango & Cash buddy film, nor a Police Academy romp—although the chief inspector does toss folding metal chairs to keep his men from fighting in the squad room. Park isn't an idiot, and Suh doesn't have all the answers. In its emphasis on their everyday failings and foibles, Murder builds to a rather disturbing and inconclusive coda that no American serial-killer flick would dare. These ordinary policemen are outmatched, and their prospects for catching the killer grow ever more unlikely. Read a little more broadly, the film is saying that the entire system, not just the police force, is broken and in need of reform.

Better known as a comic actor, Song makes his hotheaded, karaoke-singing Park something of a clown, but also a weary soul who contemplates quitting to marry his nurse girlfriend. He returns as a salesman clutching a cell phone in a 2003 postscript; Korea is now democratic and prosperous, yet he's still thinking about the case. Who was the culprit? Rather than a lone killer, Murder suggests, the whole nation may have been to blame. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

Saving Face

Opens Fri., June 10, at Harvard Exit

When a beautiful unmarried woman in the conservative Chinese enclave of Flushing, Queens, becomes pregnant and won't name the father, the face that must be saved isn't hers but her fuming, patriarchal father's. No matter that the daughter (Joan Chen, called only "Ma") is 48 years old and a widow for 20 years; out she goes—until a suitable husband can be found.

It's natural that she heads straight to the Manhattan apartment of her daughter, 28-year-old "Wil" (Michelle Krusiec), more properly, Dr. Wilhelmina Pang, a rising young surgeon. Natural, perhaps, but far from convenient. Wil is not only wildly busy, she's in the early stages of a serious love affair with a New York City Center ballet dancer, Vivian (Lynn Chen), and her gayness has been a closely guarded secret. Her mother once found out, but she's in full-scale denial. To help her mother save face, for years Wil has endured community mixers back home in Flushing, where gimlet-eyed Chinese mothers haul their "suitable" offspring to be "suitably" introduced to potential spouses.

In this unsurprising but acutely observed comedy-drama, with two generations holding tight to their secrets, debuting writer-director Alice Wu not only knows her characters, she obviously loves them, in the wry, clear-eyed way that children can have for their immigrant parents. Among these tradition-bound elders, the mavericks get special attention. Hardly scandalized by Wil's wearing pants, her grandmother admires them: "I had a pair just like them during the Revolution," she says stoutly. Wu knows the old-country practices as well: the packets from the herbalist, Old Yu, faithfully handed Wil at her subway station "to improve your fortitude for marriage," via Little Yu, his tall, handsome subway-worker son; and later, as her mother's news spreads over teacups and cell phones, "herbs for morning sickness."

While Vivian demands Wil come out of the closet (before she jets off to Paris to join a modern dance company instead of remaining a classical "bun head"), the deepest conflict—and clearly the one whose resolution is most meaningful to the filmmaker—is between Wil and her mother. Holed up in Wil's apartment, their mutual affection—marvelously played by both actresses— almost overrides Ma's unwillingness to acknowledge the truth about her daughter. Yet Ma can't even appreciate the irony that by using shame as a weapon with Wil (she must have been a bad mother to have a gay child), she's doing to her daughter exactly what her own rigid father is doing to her.

Saving Face ends broadly and perhaps too patly, with enough third-act surprises for a Shakespearean comedy. Still, Wu's strong sense of character and nuance mark her as a talent to be watched. (R) SHEILA BENSON

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