Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, Matt Sussman, and Laura Swanbeck. The film intern is Fernando F. Croce. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.
The eighth annual San Francisco Documentary Film Festival runs through Oct 29 at the Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF. Tickets ($11) are available by visiting www.sfindie.com. For commentary, see "Is the Truth Out There?" All times p.m.
"Bay Area Shorts: The People and Places of the SF Experience" (shorts program) 7. Shooting Robert King 7. Cat Ladies 9:15. Houston We Have a Problem 9:15.
Dust and Illusion 7. What’s the Matter With Kansas? 7. The Entrepreneur 9:15. Homegrown 9:15.
Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison 7. Mine 7. October Country 9:15. Speaking in Code 9:15.
Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison 2:30. Nursery University 2:30. Apology of an Economic Hitman 4:45. Youth Knows No Pain 4:45. Marina of the Zabbaleen 7. Trimpin: The Sound of Invention 7. The Philosopher Kings 9:15. Proceed and Be Bold! 9:15.
Pop Star on Ice 2:30. "Worldwide Shorts: Snapshots of Life in Five Different Countries" (shorts program) 2:30. Junior 4:45. Only When I Dance 4:45. The Great Contemporary Art Bubble 7. Rabbit Fever 7. American Artifact 9:15. Cropsey 9:15.
Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero 7. "Worldwide Shorts" 7. Proceed and Be Bold! 9:15. Youth Knows No Pain 9:15.
Junior 7. "Worldwide Shorts" 7. Marina of the Zabbaleen 9:15. Mine 9:15.
Amelia Mira Nair directs Hilary Swank in this Amelia Earhart biopic. (1:51) Albany, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki.
Antichrist See "Lars Loves Lars." (1:49) Embarcadero.
Astro Boy The popular manga and Japanese television series finally gets an animated film, featuring voice work by Freddie Highmore, Nicolas Cage, Kristen Bell, and others. (1:34) Presidio, Shattuck.
*Big Fan The Wrestler screenwriter Robert Siegel continues to trawl tri-state working class blues for his directorial debut, Big Fan, a darkened fairy tale of sports mania and the male ego. Sandpaper rough comic Patton Oswalt is Paul Aufiero, a thirtysomething New York Giants nut who lives with his mother and scripts huffy raps for his nightly 1AM "Paul from Staten Island" call to the local sports radio station. Siegel locates a revealing stage for anxious performances of masculinity in the motor-mouthed rituals of sports talk radio. Big Fan is at its best when Aufiero is locked in dubious battle with abstract foes like "Philadelphia Phil," but the film starts to slow down as soon as our anti-hero and his lone pal Sal (Kevin Corrigan) spot Giants QB Quantrell Bishop (Jonathan Hamm) at a Staten Island gas station. They tail him to a strip club in New York City, where Bishop gives Aufiero a bruising upon discovering he’s been followed, thus compromising the Giants’ playoff chances. What a tangled web we weave and all that. It’s telling of Siegel’s limited talents that the best part of the fateful trip into Manhattan is Oswalt’s grimace when faced with a nine buck Budweiser. We’re so hungry for any kind of regionalism in mainstream filmmaking that even Big Fan‘s cheapest shots (all its women characters, for instance) don’t overpower the pleasure of Oswalt’s marshy profanities and the provincial jabber of New York vs. Philadelphia and Staten Island vs. Manhattan. (1:35) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Goldberg)
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant Time to officially declare a vampire overload. (1:48) Shattuck.
*The Damned United Like last year’s Frost/Nixon, The Damned United features a lush 70’s backdrop, a screenplay by Peter Morgan, and a commanding performance by Michael Sheen as an ambitious egotist. A promising young actor, Sheen puts on the sharp tongue and charismatic monomania of real-life British soccer coach Brian Clough like a familiar garment, blustering his way through a fictionalized account of Clough’s unsuccessful 44-day stint as manager of Leeds United. Though the details of high-stakes professional "football" will likely be lost on American viewers, the tale of a talented, flawed sports hero spiraling deeper into obsession needs no trans-Atlantic translation, and the film is an engrossing portrait of a captivating, quotable character. (1:38) Embarcadero. (Richardson)
*Good Hair Spurred by his little daughter’s plaintive query ("Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?"), Chris Rock gets his Michael Moore freak on and sets out to uncover the racial and cultural implications of African-American hairstyling. Visiting beauty salons, talking to specialists, and interviewing celebrities ranging from Maya Angelou to Ice-T, the comic wisecracks his way into some pretty trenchant insights about how black women’s coiffures can often reflect Caucasian-set definitions of beauty. (Leave it to Rev. Al Sharpton to voice it ingeniously: "You comb your oppression every morning!") Rock makes an affable guide in Jeff Stilson’s breezy documentary, which posits the hair industry as a global affair where relaxers work as "nap-antidotes" and locks sacrificially shorn in India end up as pricey weaves in Beverly Hills. Maybe startled by his more disquieting discoveries, Rock shifts the focus to flamboyant, crowd-pleasing shenanigans at the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show. Despite such softball detours, it’s a genial and revealing tour. (1:35) Lumiere. (Croce)
Motherhood Introducing this film at the Mill Valley Festival recently, director Katherine Dieckmann of 2000’s awkward A Good Baby and ingratiating 2006 Diggers, on whose screenplays she did and didn’t contribute, respectively said she made it because she’d never seen a movie reflecting modern motherhood "as it really is." So why does this slick indie seriocomedy feel like a baby-burpup of things we’ve seen a million times before? Perhaps because its beleaguered heroine (Uma Thurman, straining for stringy-haired, sweaty "realism") is the same comically frazzled, faux-deglamorized, supposedly endearing quirky girl sitcoms have served up for decades. She’s got a brash single-mom pal (Minnie Driver, suddenly doing Catherine Zeta-Jones), a semi-negligent husband (Anthony Edwards), aching authorial aspirations (currently expressed via an unconvincingly delightful motherhood blog), and two very young children. Taking place over a single day’s contrived mummy stressouts, Motherhood self-sabotages at nearly every turn. It renders the seldom unappealing Thurman a tiresome ditz whose potential extra-parental fulfillment arrives stupidly deus-ex-machina. No less plastic than Baby Boom (1987), this movie suffocates her, while that one at least gave Diane Keaton room to rise above condescending material. (1:30) (Harvey)
The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D The Tim Burton-produced tale returns in 3D form. (1:16) Castro, Grand Lake.
Ong Bak 2: The Beginning Important: though it does star the original’s Tony Jaa, this is not a sequel to 2003 Thai hit Ong-bak, about a pious martial-arts master who journeys to the big city to retrieve the stolen head of his village’s sacred Buddha. Rather, Ong Bak 2 travels back in time so that lethally limber star Jaa (who also directs) can portray a young man adopted by bandits after his noble parents are slaughtered by a corrupt general. Along the way, he learns multiple fighting styles; bones are crunched, elephants are charmed, and emo flashbacks abound. The cool thing about Ong-bak was that it showcased Jaa’s unique Thai fighting style in an urban environment his country-bumpkin character took down mobs of petty hoods and smugglers, and he faced an array of ridiculous foes in underground pit fights (for righteous reasons, natch). Ong Bak 2‘s historic setting feels a tad generic, even if it does provide an excuse for a crocodile-wrestling scene. Also, the tragic storyline calls for the kind of acting depth Jaa simply doesn’t have. Though he glowers with conviction, his fists and feet are the most charismatic things about him. (1:55) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Eddy)
Saw VI If this keeps up, ol’ Jigsaw will soon have as many movies as Godzilla. (1:30)
The Vanished Empire Pink Floyd records may become contraband once behind the Iron Curtain, but coming-of-age clichés remain the same in Karen Shakhnazarov’s seriocomic tale of adolescent ecstasies and agonies in 1973 Moscow. Lenin’s words are taught in school, though 18-year-old Sergey (Alexander Lyapin) is more interested in chasing girls, scoring pot, and savoring such illicit pop pleasures as jeans and rock music. Cool Kostya (Ivan Kupreyenko) and geeky Stepan (Yegor Baranovsky) are his contrasting cohorts, forming a trio of pubescent anxiety whose rites of passage are complicated by the arrival of Sergey’s girlfriend, Lyuda (Lidiya Milyuzina). The empire of the title is an ideological one, crumbled by a pleasure-seeking new generation who sell their grandfathers’ Marxist tomes in order to pay for Mick Jagger’s latest hit. Despite its evocative sense of time and place, however, the film’s teen nostalgia remains frustratingly amorphous, squandering the chance to find the youthful pulse of the nation’s transitory upheavals. (1:45) Sundance Kabuki. (Croce)
*Bright Star Is beauty truth; truth, beauty? John Keats, the poet famed for such works as "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and Jane Campion, the filmmaker intent on encapsuutf8g the last romance of the archetypal Romantic, would have undoubtedly bonded over a love of sensual details and the way a certain vellum-like light can transport its viewer into elevated reverie. In truth, Campion doesn’t quite achieve the level of Keats’ verse with this somber glimpse at the tubercular writer and his final love, neighbor Fanny Brawne. But she does bottle some of their pale beauty. Less-educated than the already respected young scribe, Brawne nonetheless may have been his equal in imagination as a seamstress, judging from the petal-bonneted, ruffled-collar ensembles Campion outfits her in. As portrayed by the soulful-eyed Abbie Cornish, the otherwise-enigmatic, plucky Brawne is the singularly bright blossom ready to be wrapped in a poet’s adoration, worthy of rhapsody by Ben Whishaw’s shaggily, shabbily puppy-dog Keats, who snatches the preternaturally serene focus of a fine mind cut short by illness, with the gravitational pull of a serious indie-rock hottie. The two are drawn to each other like the butterflies flittering in Brawne’s bedroom/farm, one of the most memorable scenes in the dark yet sweetly glimmering Bright Star. Bathing her scenes in lengthy silence, shot through with far-from-flowery dialogue, Campion is at odds with this love story, so unlike her joyful 1990 ode to author Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table (Kerry Fox appears here, too, as Fanny’s mother): the filmmaker refuses to overplay it, sidestepping Austenian sprightliness. Instead she embraces the dark differences, the negative inevitability, of this death-steeped coupling, welcoming the odd glance at the era’s intellectual life, the interplay of light and shadow. (1:59) Empire, Four Star, Opera Plaza, Piedmont. (Chun)
*Capitalism: A Love Story Gun control. The Bush administration. Healthcare. Over the past decade, Michael Moore has tackled some of the most contentious issues with his trademark blend of humor and liberal rage. In Capitalism: A Love Story, he sets his sights on an even grander subject. Where to begin when you’re talking about an economic system that has defined this nation? Predictably, Moore’s focus is on all those times capitalism has failed. By this point, his tactics are familiar, but he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. As with Sicko (2007), Moore proves he can restrain himself he gets plenty of screen time, but he spends more time than ever behind the camera. This isn’t about Moore; it’s about the United States. When he steps out of the limelight, he’s ultimately more effective, crafting a film that’s bipartisan in nature, not just in name. No, he’s not likely to please all, but for every Glenn Beck, there’s a sane moderate wondering where all the money has gone. (2:07) California, Empire, Grand Lake, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Peitzman)
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (1:21) Oaks, 1000 Van Ness.
Coco Before Chanel Like her designs, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was elegant, très chic, and utterly original. Director Anne Fontaine’s French biopic traces Coco (Audrey Tautou) from her childhood as a struggling orphan to one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. You’ll be disappointed if you expect a fashionista’s up close and personal look at the House of Chanel, as Fontaine keeps her story firmly rooted in Coco’s past, including her destructive relationship with French playboy Etienne Balsar (Benoît Poelvoorde) and her ill-fated love affair with dashing Englishman Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola). The film functions best in scenes that display Coco’s imagination and aesthetic magnetism, like when she dances with Capel in her now famous "little black dress" amidst a sea of stiff, white meringues. Tautou imparts a quiet courage and quick wit as the trailblazing designer, and Nivola is unmistakably charming and compassionate as Boy. Nevertheless, Fontaine rushes the ending and never truly seizes the opportunity to explore how Coco’s personal life seeped into her timeless designs that were, in the end, an extension of herself. (1:50) Albany, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Swanbeck)
Couples Retreat You could call Couples Retreat a romantic comedy, but that would imply that it was romantic and funny instead of an insipid, overlong waste of time. This story of a group of married friends trying to bond with their spouses in an exotic island locale is a failure on every level. Romantic? The titular couples four total represent eight of the most obnoxious characters in recent memory. Sure, you’re rooting for them to work out their issues, but that’s only because awful people deserve one another. (And in a scene with an almost-shark attack, you’re rooting for the shark.) Funny? The jokes are, at best, juvenile (boners are silly!) and, at worse, offensive (sexism and homophobia once more reign supreme). There is an impressive array of talent here: Vince Vaugh, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Jean Reno, etc. Alas, there’s no excusing the script, which puts these otherwise solid actors into exceedingly unlikable roles. Even the gorgeous island scenery Couples Retreat was filmed on location in Bora-Bora can’t make up for this waterlogged mess. (1:47) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck. (Peitzman)
*District 9 As allegories go, District 9 is not all that subtle. This is a sci-fi action flick that’s really all about racial intolerance and to drive the point home, they went and set it in South Africa. Here’s the set-up: 20 years ago, an alien ship arrived and got stuck, hovering above the Earth. Faster than you can say "apartheid," the alien refugees were confined to a camp the titular District 9 where they have remained in slum-level conditions. As science fiction, it’s creative; as a metaphor, it’s effective. What’s most surprising about District 9 is the way everything comes together. This is a big, bloody summer blockbuster with feelings: for every viscera-filled splatter, there’s a moment of poignant social commentary, and nothing ever feels forced or overdone. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp has found the perfect balance and created a film that doesn’t have to compromise. District 9 is a profoundly distressing look at the human condition. It’s also one hell of a good time. (1:52) Castro. (Peitzman)
*An Education The pursuit of knowledge both carnal and cultural are at the tender core of this end-of-innocence valentine by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (who first made her well-tempered voice heard with her 2000 Dogme entry, Italian for Beginners), based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir. Screenwriter Nick Hornby breaks further with his Peter Pan protagonists with this adaptation: no man-boy mopers or misfits here. Rather, 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a good girl and ace student. It’s 1961, and England is only starting to stir from its somber, all-too-sober post-war slumber. The carefully cloistered Jenny is on track for Oxford, though swinging London and its high-style freedoms beckon just around the corner. Ushering in those freedoms a new, more class-free world disorder is the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), stopping to give Jenny and her cello a ride in the rain and soon proffering concerts and late-night suppers in the city. He’s a sweet-faced, feline outsider: cultured, Jewish, and given to playing fast and loose in the margins of society. David can see Jenny for the gem she is and appreciate her innocence with the knowing pleasure of a decadent playing all the angles. The stakes are believably high, thanks to An Education‘s careful attention to time and place and its gently glamored performances. Scherfig revels in the smart, easy-on-eye curb appeal of David and his friends while giving a nod to the college-educated empowerment Jenny risks by skipping class to jet to Paris. And Mulligan lends it all credence by letting all those seduced, abandoned, conflicted, rebellious feelings flicker unbridled across her face. (1:35) Albany, Embarcadero, Empire, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
The Horse Boy Rupert Isaacson and Kristin Neff are a Texas couple struggling to raise their five-year-old autistic son Rowan. When they discover that the boy’s tantrums are soothed by contact with horses, they set out on a journey to Mongolia, where horseback riding is the preferred mode of traveling across the steppe and sacred shamans hold the promise of healing. Michael Orion Scott’s documentary is many things lecture on autism, home video collage, family therapy session, and exotic travelogue. Above all, unfortunately, it’s a star vehicle for Isaacson, whose affecting concern for his son is constantly eclipsed by his screen-hogging concern for his own paternal image (more than once he declares that he’s a better father thanks to Rowan’s condition). The contradiction brings to mind doomed activist Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man (2005), and indeed the film could have used some of Werner Herzog’s inquisitive touch, if only to question the artistic merits of showing your son going "poopie." Twice. (1:33) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Croce)
*In the Loop A typically fumbling remark by U.K. Minister of International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) ignites a media firestorm, since it seems to suggest war is imminent even though Brit and U.S. governments are downplaying the likelihood of the Iraq invasion they’re simultaneously preparing for. Suddenly cast as an important arbiter of global affairs a role he’s perhaps less suited for than playing the Easter Bunny Simon becomes one chess piece in a cutthroat game whose participants on both sides of the Atlantic include his own subordinates, the prime minister’s rageaholic communications chief, major Pentagon and State Department honchos, crazy constituents, and more. Writer-director Armando Iannucci’s frenetic comedy of behind-the-scenes backstabbing and its direct influence on the highest-level diplomatic and military policies is scabrously funny in the best tradition of English television, which is (naturally) just where its creators hail from. (1:49) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
Inglourious Basterds With Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino pulls off something that seemed not only impossible, but undesirable, and surely unnecessary: making yet another of his in-jokey movies about other movies, albeit one that also happens to be kinda about the Holocaust or at least Jews getting their own back on the Nazis during World War II and (the kicker) is not inherently repulsive. As Rube Goldbergian achievements go, this is up there. Nonetheless, Basterds is more fun, with less guilt, than it has any right to be. The "basterds" are Tennessee moonshiner Pvt. Brad Pitt’s unit of Jewish soldiers committed to infuriating Der Fuhrer by literally scalping all the uniformed Nazis they can bag. Meanwhile a survivor (Mélanie Laurent) of one of insidious SS "Jew Hunter" Christoph Waltz’s raids, now passing as racially "pure" and operating a Paris cinema (imagine the cineaste name-dropping possibilities!) finds her venue hosting a Third Reich hoedown that provides an opportunity to nuke Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, and Goering in one swoop. Tactically, Tarantino’s movies have always been about the ventriloquizing of that yadadada-yadadada whose self-consciousness is bearable because the cleverness is actual; brief eruptions of lasciviously enjoyed violence aside, Basterds too almost entirely consists of lengthy dialogues or near-monologues in which characters pitch and receive tasty palaver amid lethal danger. Still, even if he’s practically writing theatre now, Tarantino does understand the language of cinema. There isn’t a pin-sharp edit, actor’s raised eyebrow, artful design excess, or musical incongruity here that isn’t just the business. (2:30) Oaks, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)
*The Informant! The best satire makes you uncomfortable, but nothing will make you squirm in your seat like a true story that feels like satire. Director Steven Soderbergh introduces the exploits of real-life agribusiness whistleblower Mark Whitacre with whimsical fonts and campy music just enough to get the audience’s guard down. As the pitch-perfect Matt Damon laden with 30 extra pounds and a fright-wig toupee gee-whizzes his way through an increasingly complicated role, Soderbergh doles out subtle doses of torturous reality, peeling back the curtain to reveal a different, unexpected curtain behind it. Informant!’s tale of board-room malfeasance is filled with mis-directing cameos, jokes, and devices, and its ingenious, layered narrative will provoke both anti-capitalist outrage and a more chimerical feeling of satisfied frustration. Above all, it’s disquietingly great. (1:48) Oaks, Opera Plaza, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Richardson)
The Invention of Lying Great concept. Great cast. All The Invention of Lying needed was a great script editor and it might have reached classic comedy territory. As it stands, it’s dragged down to mediocrity by a weak third act. This is the story of a world where no one can lie and we’re not just talking about big lies either. The Invention of Lying presents a vision of no sarcasm, no white lies, no gasp creative fiction. All that changes when Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) realizes he can bend the truth. And because no one else can, everything Mark makes up becomes fact to the rubes around him. If you guessed that hilarity ensues, you’re right on the money! Watching Mark use his powers for evil (robbing the bank! seducing women!) makes for a very funny first hour. Then things take a turn for the heavy when Mark becomes a prophet by letting slip his vision of the afterlife. Faster than you can say "Jesus beard," he’s rocking a God complex and the audience is longing for the simpler laughs, like Jennifer Garner admitting to some pre-date masturbation. (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Peitzman)
Law Abiding Citizen "Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006) as re-imagined by the Saw franchise folks" apparently sounded like a sweet pitch to someone, because here we are, stuck with Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler playing bloody and increasingly ludicrous cat-and-mouse games. Foxx stars as a slick Philadelphia prosecutor whose deal-cutting careerist ways go easy on the scummy criminals responsible for murdering the wife and daughter of a local inventor (Butler). Cut to a decade later, and the doleful widower has become a vengeful mastermind with a yen for Hannibal Lecter-like skills, gruesome contraptions, and lines like "Lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten." Butler metes out punishment to his family’s killers as well as to the bureocratic minions who let them off the hook. But the talk of moral consequences is less a critique of a faulty judicial system than mere white noise, vainly used by director F. Gary Gray and writer Kurt Wimmer in hopes of classing up a grinding exploitation drama. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio. (Croce)
My One and Only (1:48) Opera Plaza.
New York, I Love You A dreamy mash note to the city that never sleeps, New York, I Love You is the latest installment in a series of omnibus odes to world metropolises and the denizens that live and love within the city limits. Less successful than the Paris, je t’aime (2006) anthology which roped in such disparate international directors as Gus Van Sant and Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron and Olivier Assayas New York welcomes a more minor-key host of directors to the project with enjoyable if light-weight results. Surely any bite of the Big Apple would be considerably sexier. Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo tease out a one-night stand with legs, and Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q generate a wee bit of verbal fire over street-side cigs, yet there’s surprisingly little heat in this take on a few of the 8 million stories in the archetypal naked city. Most memorable are the strangest couplings, such as that of Natalie Portman, a Hasidic bride who flirtatiously haggles with Irrfan Khan, a Jain diamond merchant, in a tale directed by Mira Nair. Despite the pleasure of witnessing Julie Christie, Eli Wallach, and Cloris Leachman in action, many of these pieces written by the late Anthony Minghella, Israel Horovitz, and Portman, among others feel a mite too slight to nail down the attention of all but the most desperate romantics. (1:43) Bridge, Shattuck. (Chun)
*Paranormal Activity In this ostensible found-footage exercise, Katie (Katie Featherson) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are a young San Diego couple whose first home together has a problem: someone, or something, is making things go bump in the night. In fact, Katie has sporadically suffered these disturbances since childhood, when an amorphous, not-at-reassuring entity would appear at the foot of her bed. Skeptical technophile Micah’s solution is to record everything on his primo new video camera, including a setup to shoot their bedroom while they sleep surveillance footage sequences that grow steadily more terrifying as incidents grow more and more invasive. Like 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, Oren Peli’s no-budget first feature may underwhelm mainstream genre fans who only like their horror slick and slasher-gory. But everybody else should appreciate how convincingly the film’s very ordinary, at times annoying protagonists (you’ll eventually want to throttle Micah, whose efforts are clearly making things worse) fall prey to a hostile presence that manifests itself in increments no less alarming for being (at first) very small. When this hits DVD, you’ll get to see the original, more low-key ending (the film has also been tightened up since its festival debut two years ago). But don’t wait Paranormal‘s subtler effects will be lost on the small screen. Not to mention that it’s a great collective screaming-audience experience. (1:39) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
*Paris Cédric Klapisch’s latest offers a series of interconnected stories with Paris as the backdrop, designed if you’ll pardon the cliché as a love letter to the city. On the surface, the plot of Paris sounds an awful lot like Paris, je t’aime (2006). But while the latter was composed entirely of vignettes, Paris has an actual, overarching plot. Perhaps that’s why it’s so much more effective. Juliette Binoche stars as Élise, whose brother Pierre (Romain Duris) is in dire need of a heart transplant. A dancer by trade, Pierre is also a world-class people watcher, and it’s his fascination with those around him that serves as Paris‘ wraparound device. He sees snippets of these people’s lives, but we get the full picture or at least, something close to it. The strength of Paris is in the depth of its characters: every one we meet is more complex than you’d guess at first glance. The more they play off one another, the more we understand. Of course, the siblings remain at the film’s heart: sympathetic but not pitiable, moving but not maudlin. Both Binoche and Duris turn in strong performances, aided by a supporting cast of French actors who impress in even the smallest of roles. (2:04) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Peitzman)
The Providence Effect Located in Chicago’s gang-infested West side, the illustrious Providence St. Mel School rises above its surroundings like a flower in a swamp. Or at least it does in Rollin Binzer’s documentary, where analysis of the institution’s great achievements at times edges into a virtual pamphlet for enrollment. Focusing mainly on affable school president Paul J. Adams III, a veteran of the civil rights movement whose "impossible dream" made Providence possible, the film chronicles the daily activities of teachers and students vying for success in the face of poverty and crime. Given the school’s notoriously unwholesome environment, it’s a bit disappointing that the film chooses to exclusively follow the trajectory of model pupils, trading grittier tales of struggle in favor of a smoother ride of feel-god buzzwords and uplifting anecdotes. The documentary isn’t free of scholarly platitudes straight out of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), but, in times when teachers get as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield, its celebration of the importance of education is valuable. (1:32) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Croce)
*The September Issue The Lioness D’Wintour, the Devil Who Wears Prada, or the High Priestess of Condé Nasty it doesn’t matter what you choose to call Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. If you’re in the fashion industry, you will call her or at least be amused by the power she wields as the overseer of style’s luxury bible, then 700-plus pages strong for its legendary September fall fashion issue back in the heady days of ’07, pre-Great Recession. But you don’t have to be a publishing insider to be fascinated by director R.J. Cutler’s frisky, sharp-eyed look at the making of fashion’s fave editorial doorstop. Wintour’s laser-gazed facade is humanized, as Cutler opens with footage of a sparkling-eyed editor breaking down fashion’s fluffy reputation. He then follows her as she assumes the warrior pose in, say, the studio of Yves St. Laurent, where she has designer Stefano Pilati fluttering over his morose color choices, and in the offices of the magazine, where she slices, dices, and kills photo shoots like a sartorial samurai. Many of the other characters at Vogue (like OTT columnist André Leon Talley) are given mere cameos, but Wintour finds a worthy adversary-compatriot in creative director Grace Coddington, another Englishwoman and ex-model the red-tressed, pale-as-a-wraith Pre-Raphaelite dreamer to Wintour’s well-armored knight. The two keep each other honest and craftily ingenious, and both the magazine and this doc benefit. (1:28) Presidio. (Chun)
*A Serious Man You don’t have to be Jewish to like A Serious Man or to identify with beleaguered physics professor Larry Gopnik (the grandly aggrieved Michael Stuhlbarg), the well-meaning nebbishly center unable to hold onto a world quickly falling apart and looking for spiritual answers. It’s a coming of age for father and son, spurred by the small loss of a radio and a 20-dollar bill. Larry’s about-to-be-bar-mitzvahed son is listening to Jefferson Airplane instead of his Hebrew school teachers and beginning to chafe against authority. His daughter has commandeered the family bathroom for epic hair-washing sessions. His wife is leaving him for a silkily presumptuous family friend and has exiled Larry to the Jolly Roger Motel. His failure-to-launch brother is a closeted mathematical genius and has set up housekeeping on his couch. Larry’s chances of tenure could be spoiled by either an anonymous poison-pen writer or a disgruntled student intent on bribing him into a passing grade. One gun-toting neighbor vaguely menaces the borders of his property; the other sultry nude sunbather tempts with "new freedoms" and high times. What’s a mild-mannered prof to do, except envy Schrodinger’s Cat and approach three rungs of rabbis in his quest for answers to life’s most befuddling proofs? Reaching for a heightened, touched-by-advertising style that recalls Mad Men in look and Barton Fink (1991) in narrative and stooping for the subtle jokes as well as the ones branded "wide load" the Coen Brothers seem to be turning over, examining, and flirting with personally meaningful, serious narrative, though their Looney Tunes sense of humor can’t help but throw a surrealistic wrench into the works. (1:45) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
The Stepfather (1:41) 1000 Van Ness.
Toy Story and Toy Story 2 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.
Where the Wild Things Are From the richly delineated illustrations and sparse text of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, director Spike Jonze and cowriter (with Jones) Dave Eggers have constructed a full-length film about the passions, travails, and interior/exterior wanderings of Sendak’s energetic young antihero, Max. Equally prone to feats of world-building and fits of overpowering, destructive rage, Max (Max Records) stampedes off into the night during one of the latter and journeys to the island where the Wild Things (voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, and Michael Berry Jr.) live and bicker and tantrum and give in to existential despair and no longer all sleep together in a big pile. The place has possibilities, though, and Max, once crowned king, tries his best to realize them. What its inhabitants need, however, is not so much a visionary king as a good family therapist these are some gripey, defensive, passive-aggressive Wild Things, and Max, aged somewhere around 10, can’t fix their interpersonal problems. Jonze and Eggers do well at depicting Max’s temporary kingdom, its forests and deserts, its creatures and their half-finished creations from a past golden era, as well as subtly reminding us now and again that all of this the island, the arguments, the sadness is streaming from the mind of a fierce, wildly imaginative young child with familial troubles of his own, equally beyond his power to resolve. They’ve also invested the film with a slow, grim depressive mood that can make for unsettling viewing, particularly when pondering the Maxes in the audience, digesting an oft-disheartening tale about family conflict and relationship repair. (1:48) Four Star, Grand Lake, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
Whip It What’s a girl to do? Stuck in small town hell, Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), the gawky teen heroine of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, faces a pressing dilemma conform to the standards of stifling beauty pageantry to appease her mother or rebel and enter the rough-and tumble world of roller derby. Shockingly enough, Bliss chooses to escape to Austin and join the Hurl Scouts, a rowdy band of misfits led by the maternal Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig) and the accident-prone Smashley Simpson (Barrymore). Making a bid for grrrl empowerment, Bliss dawns a pair of skates, assumes the moniker Babe Ruthless, and is suddenly throwing her weight around not only in the rink, but also in school where she’s bullied. Painfully predictable, the action comes to a head when, lo and behold, the dates for the Bluebonnet Pageant and the roller derby championship coincide. At times funny and charming with understated performances by Page and Alia Shawcat as Bliss’ best friend, Whip It can’t overcome its paper-thin characters, plot contrivances, and requisite scenery chewing by Jimmy Fallon as a cheesy announcer and Juliette Lewis as a cutthroat competitor. (1:51) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Swanbeck)
*Zombieland First things first: it’s clever, but it ain’t no Shaun of the Dead (2004). That said, Zombieland is an outstanding zombie comedy, largely thanks to Woody Harrelson’s performance as Tallahassee, a tough guy whose passion for offing the undead is rivaled only by his raging Twinkie jones. Set in a world where zombies have already taken over (the beginning stages of the outbreak are glimpsed only in flashback), Zombieland presents the creatures as yet another annoyance for Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg, who’s nearly finished morphing into Michael Cera), a onetime antisocial shut-in who has survived only by sticking to a strict set of rules (the "double tap," or always shooting each zombie twice, etc.) This odd couple meets a sister team (Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin), who eventually lay off their grifting ways so that Columbus can have a love interest (in Stone) and Tallahassee, still smarting from losing a loved one to zombies, can soften up a scoch by schooling the erstwhile Little Miss Sunshine in target practice. Sure, it’s a little heavy on the nerd-boy voiceover, but Zombieland has just enough goofiness and gushing guts to counteract all them brrraiiinss. (1:23) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
*Sorry, Thanks Though part of San Francisco Film Society’s week-long "Cinema by the Bay" program and featuring plenty of choice views of the Mission district, Dia Sokol’s feature debut is really set in the mythical land of Mumblecoria, where conversations are only half heard and fuzzy twentysomethings looking for self-discovery make up most of the population. We meet Kira (Kenya Miles) and Max (Wiley Wiggins) in the awkward aftermath of a one-night stand, hoping to not run into each other as they go their separate paths. Naturally, the opposite happens and the two develop a tentatively flirtatious relationship, complicated by Kira’s recent romantic woes and Max’s sweet-natured girlfriend (Ia Hernandez). Brimming with alternately whimsical and irritating mumblecore staples (complete with an appearance by mumble-auteur Andrew Bujalski as Max’s crabby pal), Sorry, Thanks is a modest but often affecting deadpan comedy that, due to Sokol’s deft sense of crisscrossing emotions and winning performances by Miles and Wiggins (who still has the softness he showed in 1993’s Dazed and Confused), ends up more "thanks" than "sorry." (1:33) Clay. (Croce)