Film Listings

Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Peter Galvin, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, and Matt Sussman. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. Due to early Best of the Bay issue deadlines, theater information was incomplete at presstime.

SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL

The 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs through August 8 at the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1119 Fourth St., San Rafael; Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California, SF; Oshman Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto; and Roda Theatre at Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison, Berk. For tickets (most shows $12) and a full schedule, visit www.sfjff.org.

OPENING

Another Earth After serving a prison sentence for a youthful drunk-driving incident that killed two passengers in another car, Rhoda (Brit Marling) emerges no longer a blithe party girl but a haunted loner who prefers working as a high school janitor. Obsessed by her crime, she starts spying on the man it had left widowed and childless, a onetime composer (William Mapother) who like her has retreated into a solitary shell of depression. She finds a way to integrate herself (without revealing her identity) into his threadbare current existence, the two of them bonding over fascination with a newly discovered planet that appears the exact duplicate of Earth — complete with the possibility of our doubles living a parallel existence there. You can take Mike Cahill’s modestly scaled U.S. indie feature (cowritten with actor Marling) as a familiar drama about grief and repentance with a novel gloss of sci-fi, or as a sci-fi story with unusual attention to character emotions and almost no need of fantasy FX. Either way, it’s earnest, well-acted and interesting if not quite memorable; as has been noted elsewhere, the material could have fit just as effectively into a half-hour Twilight Zone episode. (1:32) (Harvey)

*Attack the Block The Goonies go to a South London projects, with more gore, guts, and gumption? With good reason, writer, director, and Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg cohort Joe Cornish’s own project, Attack the Block, has been getting raves at fests for its effortless, energetic originality, discernible through its thick, glottal stop-chomping, Jafaican-draped local brogue. The question posed, ever so entertainingly: what happens when you pit the toughest kids on the block against a ferocious pack of outer-space critters — not quite out to serve man but rather sever him limb from limb? We start out seeing this gang of at-risk, risk-taking youth through the peepers of a vulnerable female mugging victim and neighbor, Sam (Jodie Whittaker)—they seem as scary as any alien invader and she wants to bring down the full force of the law on them. But the pack, led by Moses (John Boyega, who charismatically scowls like a young 50 Cent), has more pressing matters at hand: a mysterious creature has come crashing down from out of the sky, and naturally, being nasty terrors, they kill it, bringing down a intergalactic shit storm of trouble. Their favorite refuge: the top-floor weed room overseen by Ron (Pegg sidekick Nick Frost), where they attempt to suss out why they’ve become the prime prey for wolfish aliens out for blood. Throw in chills, bike chases, a resourceful use of elevators and dumpsters, and an epic, eerie dubstep theme by Basement Jaxx, and you have a very fun horror-thriller that declines to preach but manages to bring home a message reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead (1968). Consider this a whole-hearted, double-fisted antidote to the fearful vigilantism of films like 2009’s Harry Brown. (1:28) (Chun)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff See review at www.sfbg.com. (1:30) Balboa.

Cowboys and Aliens Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford star in Jon Favreau’s sci-fi Western. (runtime not available)

Crazy, Stupid, Love Keep the poster’s allusion to 1967’s The Graduate to one side: there aren’t many revelations about midlife crises in this cleverly penned yet strangely flat ensemble rom-com, awkwardly pitched at almost every demographic at the cineplex. There’s the middle-aged romance that’s withered at the vine: nice but boring family man Cal (Steve Carell) finds himself at a hopeless loss when wife and onetime teenage sweetheart Emily (Julianne Moore) tells him she wants a divorce and she’s slept with a coworker (Kevin Bacon). He ends up waxing pathetic at a slick nightclub where he catches the eye of the well-dressed, spray-tanned smoothie Jacob (Ryan Gosling), who appears to have taken his ladies man stance from the Clooney playbook. It’s manly makeover time: GQ meets Pretty Woman (1990)! Cut to Cal and Emily’s babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who is crushing out on Cal, while the separated couple’s tween Robbie (Jonah Bobo) hankers for Jessica. Somehow Josh Groban worms his way into the mix as the dullard suitor of Hannah (Emma Stone) in a hanging chad of a storyline that must somehow be resolved in this mad, mad, mad, mad — actually, the problem with Crazy Stupid Love is that it isn’t really that mad or crazy. It tries far too hard to please everybody in the theater to its detriment, reminding the viewer of a tidy, episodic TV series (albeit a quality effort) like Modern Family more than an actual film. Likewise I yearned for a way to fast-forward through the too-cute Jessica-Robbie scenes in order to get back to the sleazy-smart, punchy complexity of Gosling, playing adeptly off both Carrell and Stone. (1:58) (Chun)

Gunless Action comedy about an American cowboy flummoxed by the ways of the Canadian frontier. (1:29)

A Little Help Jenna Fischer stars as a frazzled single mom in this indie comedy. (1:48)

*The Names of Love Arthur (Jacques Gamblin) is a 40-ish scientist being interviewed about the threat of a bird flu epidemic when his radio broadcast is interrupted by 20-something Baya (Sara Forestier), who denounces him on-air as a “fascist” for frightening the public. But then, Baya tends to use that label rather indiscriminately, applying it to anyone who might conceivably have views to the right of the dial — and Arthur is in fact a solid liberal, which means she can bed him for love. As opposed to the many, many other men she beds as a self-described “political whore,” seeking out conservative types in order to seduce them and hopefully induce an idealogical shift by whispering sweet nothings (“Not all Arabs are thieves,” etc.) as they orgasm. Raised by parents whose emotions are so tightly wound his mother won’t acknowledge her parents were Jews killed at Auschwitz, Arthur has a hard time adjusting to a relationship with a lover who is faithful emotionally but sees promiscuity as her propagandic gift to the world. Meanwhile Baya’s largely Algerian family treats garrulous political argument as the very air they breathe. This odd-couple story written by Baya Kasmi and director Michel Leclerc deals with serious issues in both humorous and respectful fashion, making for one of the more novel, delightful and depthed French romantic comedies in a long time. Added plus: lots of antic gratuitous nudity. (1:42) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

*NEDs There is bleak, and there is Scottish bleak. Weighed down by class and roundly ignored by apathetic institutions, the non-educated delinquent is the star of writer-director Peter Mullan’s wrenching but delightful NEDS (2010), a dark and curiously fanciful tale of youth in the housing estates of 1970s Glasgow. John McGill (Conor McCarron) is a bright and talented student with high hopes for a future at university until abuse by peers and teachers alike leads him down the well worn path of drinking, fighting, and gang life with the Young Car-Ds, his older brother Benny’s (Joe Szula) crew. The quiet John can’t escape the tide of history that society has set him upon and soon he’s joined the fray, abandoning his academic promise for a life of Doc Martens and concealed blades. As J. McGill so eloquently explains: “Youse want a NED? I’ll gie youse a fucking NED!” (2:03) Balboa. (Cooper Berkmoyer)

The Smurfs in 3D You’re welcome, world! Love, America. (1:43)

The Tree A dead man talks to his bereaved family through a fig tree in French director Julie Bertuccelli’s The Tree. In spite of this heavy-handed premise, the film never does what you expect it to. Amid the stark, savage countryside of Australia, Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her four kids try to live life without their husband and father. But this proves an especially thorny endeavor since the tree in question seems to be a stubborn, invasive version of him. As in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), Gainsbourg embodies the role of grieving woman in another overflowingly open performance. Thankfully for us, this time she stays away from the scissors. The sweeping cinematography by Nigel Bluck is lovely to look at, and the young Morgana Davies is inspiring as Dawn’s 8-year-old daughter, Simone. Unlike that other magical realist Tree movie this summer, Bertuccelli’s film can at least be credited for being entirely unpretentious and kind of sweet. (1:40) (Ryan Lattanzio)

*World on a Wire The words “Rainer Werner Fasbinder” and “science fiction film” are enough to get certain film buffs salivating, but the Euro-trashy interior décor is almost reason enough to see this restored print of the New German Cinema master’s cyber thriller. Originally a two-part TV miniseries, World on a Wire is set in an alternate present (then 1973) in which everything seems to be made of concrete, mirror, Lucite, or orange plastic. When the inventor of a supercomputer responsible for generating an artificial world mysteriously disappears, his handsome predecessor must fight against his corporate bosses to find out what really happened, and in the process, stumbles upon a far more shattering secret about the nature of reality itself. Riffing off the understated cool of Godard’s Alphaville (1965) while beating 1999’s The Matrix to the punch by some 25 years, World on a Wire is a stylistically singular entry in Fassbinder’s prolific filmography. (3:32) Roxie. (Sussman)

ONGOING

Bad Teacher Jake Kasdan, the once-talented director of a few Freaks and Geeks episodes and 2002’s underrated Orange County, seems hell-bent on humiliating everyone in the cast of Bad Teacher. Cameron Diaz is Elizabeth, the title’s criminally bad pedagogue who prefers the Jack Daniels method to the Socratic. Her impetus for pounding Harper Lee into her middle school students’ bug-eyed little heads is to cash in on a bonus check to fund her breast-y ambitions and woo Justin Timberlake and his baby voice. The only likable onscreen presence is Jason Segal as a sad sack gym teacher in love with Elizabeth. But he could do so much better. There’s no shortage of racist jokes and potty humor in this R-rated comedy pandering to those 17 and below. When asked if she wants to go out with her coworkers, Elizabeth ripostes, “I’d rather get shot in the face!” That scenario is likely a better alternative than suffering this steaming pile of cash cow carcass. (1:29) (Lattanzio)

Beats, Rhymes & Life Actor Michael Rapaport probably didn’t set out to make a hip-hop Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), but that’s pretty much where his portrait of A Tribe Called Quest ends up. The first half of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is predictably worshipful, slathering on low angles and slow motion to cover mediocre live shows. More effectively, Rapaport traces the Queens group’s brief incubation period and subsequent breakthroughs in what would later be called alternative or, more obnoxiously, conscious hip-hop. A slew of notable followers and contemporaries toast Tribe’s first three albums, but by the time Rapaport catches up to the group’s 2008 reunion even their longtime friends De La Soul are wishing they’d call the whole thing off. The documentary slides into the Monster zone of hurt feelings and passive aggressive behavior in accounting for the group’s split after their inappropriately named 1998 album, The Love Movement. Phife Dawg and Q-Tip are the warring egos, though perennially slighted Phife is really no match for the imperially cool Tip. DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad is the Kirk Hammett of the outfit, looking on helplessly as the two bigger personalities make a mess of things. There’s still novelty in a story about aging in hip-hop, but Rapaport’s portrait is utterly conventional. He also doesn’t pursue more interesting questions of race and politics that naturally follow the band’s crossover appeal. (1:38) (Goldberg)

*Beginners There is nothing conventional about Beginners, a film that starts off with the funeral arrangements for one of its central characters. That man is Hal (Christopher Plummer), who came out to his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) at the ripe age of 75. Through flashbacks, we see the relationship play out — Oliver’s inability to commit tempered by his father’s tremendous late-stage passion for life. Hal himself is a rare character: an elderly gay man, secure in his sexuality and, by his own admission, horny. He even has a much younger boyfriend, played by the handsome Goran Visnjic. While the father-son bond is the heart of Beginners, we also see the charming development of a relationship between Oliver and French actor Anna (Mélanie Laurent). It all comes together beautifully in a film that is bittersweet but ultimately satisfying. Beginners deserves praise not only for telling a story too often left untold, but for doing so with grace and a refreshing sense of whimsy. (1:44) (Peitzman)

A Better Life (1:38)

*Bill Cunningham New York To say that Bill Cunningham, the 82-year old New York Times photographer, has made documenting how New Yorkers dress his life’s work would be an understatement. To be sure, Cunningham’s two decades-old Sunday Times columns — “On the Street,” which tracks street-fashion, and “Evening Hours,” which covers the charity gala circuit — are about the clothes. And, my, what clothes they are. But Cunningham is a sartorial anthropologist, and his pictures always tell the bigger story behind the changing hemlines, which socialite wore what designer, or the latest trend in footwear. Whether tracking the near-infinite variations of a particular hue, a sudden bumper-crop of cropped blazers, or the fanciful leaps of well-heeled pedestrians dodging February slush puddles, Cunningham’s talent lies in his ability to recognize fleeting moments of beauty, creativity, humor, and joy. That last quality courses through Bill Cunningham New York, Richard Press’ captivating and moving portrait of a man whose reticence and personal asceticism are proportional to his total devotion to documenting what Harold Koda, chief curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes in the film as “ordinary people going about their lives, dressed in fascinating ways.” (1:24) (Sussman)

Bride Flight Who doesn’t love a sweeping Dutch period piece? Ben Sombogaart’s Bride Flight is pure melodrama soup, enough to give even the most devout arthouse-goer the bloats. Emigrating from post-World War II Holland to New Zealand with two gal pals, the sweetly staid Ada (Karina Smulders) falls for smarm-ball Frank (Waldemar Torenstra, the Dutchman’s James Franco) and kind of joins the mile high club to the behest of her conscience. The women arrive with emotional baggage and carry-ons of the uterine kind. As the harem adjusts to the country mores of the Highlands, Frank tries a poke at all of them in a series of sex scenes more moldy than smoldery. This Flight, set to a plodding score and stuffy mise-en-scene, never quite leaves the runway. Not to mention the whole picture, pale as a corpse, resembles one of those old-timey photographs of your great grandma’s wedding. These kinds of pastoral romances ought to be put out to, well, pasture. (2:10) (Lattanzio)

*Bridesmaids For anyone burned out on bad romantic comedies, Bridesmaids can teach you how to love again. This film is an answer to those who have lamented the lack of strong female roles in comedy, of good vehicles for Saturday Night Live cast members, of an appropriate showcase for Melissa McCarthy. The hilarious but grounded Kristen Wiig stars as Annie, whose best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting hitched. Financially and romantically unstable, Annie tries to throw herself into her maid of honor duties — all while competing with the far more refined Helen (Rose Byrne). Bridesmaids is one of the best comedies in recent memory, treating its relatable female characters with sympathy. It’s also damn funny from start to finish, which is more than can be said for most of the comedies Hollywood continues to churn out. Here’s your choice: let Bridesmaids work its charm on you, or never allow yourself to complain about an Adam Sandler flick again. (2:04) (Peitzman)

Buck This documentary paints a portrait of horse trainer Buck Brannaman as a sort of modern-day sage, a sentimental cowboy who helps “horses with people problems.” Brannaman has transcended a background of hardship and abuse to become a happy family man who makes a difference for horses and their owners all over the country with his unconventional, humane colt-starting clinics. Though he doesn’t actually whisper to horses, he served as an advisor and inspiration for Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer (1998). Director Cindy Meehl focuses generously on her saintly subject’s bits of wisdom in and out of a horse-training setting — e.g. “Everything you do with a horse is a dance” — as well as heartfelt commentary from friends and colleagues. In the harrowing final act of the film, Brannaman deals with a particularly unruly horse and his troubled owner, highlighting the dire and disturbing consequences of improper horse rearing. (1:28) Smith Rafael. (Sam Stander)

Captain America: The First Avenger OK, Marvel. I could get behind 2008’s Iron Man (last year’s Iron Man 2, not so much), but after Thor and now Captain America, I’m starting to get cynical about this multi-year build-up to the full-on Avengers movie, due in May 2012. Can even a superhero-stuffed movie directed by Joss Whedon live up to all this hype? There’s plenty of time to ponder, and maybe worry a little, with Captain America’s backstory-explaining picture now in theaters. Chris Evans stars as the 90-pound weakling who morphs into a supersoldier, thanks to the World War II-era tinkerings of a scientist (Stanley Tucci) and an inventor (Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man’s dad). The original plan for the musclebound shield-bearer (fighting Nazis, natch) gets waylaid a bit when the newly famous Captain America becomes a PR prop for the U.S. government; it’s abandoned entirely when a worse-than-Hitler foe, in the guise of power-obsessed Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), threatens the world. Directed by Spielberg cohort Joe Johnston, Captain America is gee-whiz enjoyable enough, but it’s very nearly the same movie as Thor, which no amount of Tommy Lee Jones (as a sarcastic army colonel) wisecracks can conceal. And here’s an anti-spoiler: there’s no post-credits surprise in this one, so you can bolt as soon as they start to roll. (2:09) (Eddy)

Cars 2 You pretty much can’t say a bad thing about a Pixar film. Cars 2 is by no means Ratatouille (2007) or Wall-E (2008), but the sequel to the 2006 hit Cars offers plenty of sleek visuals and one-note gags under its hollow hood. If nothing else, Pixar seems to have overcome the dingy, dark glaze that plagues 3-D films. Directors John Lasseter and Joe Ranft return to beloved autos Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and the “extremely American” Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). This time around, secret agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) come along for the ride while working to expose sabotage in the alternative fuel industry. Compelling chase sequences, explosions and more than a few jabs at cultural stereotypes follow suit. This is the lightest, silliest Pixar film to date, but you probably don’t have any business seeing it unless you’ve got a kid in tow. (1:52) (Lattanzio)

*Cave of Forgotten Dreams The latest documentary from Werner Herzog once again goes where no filmmaker — or many human beings, for that matter — has gone before: the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, a heavily-guarded cavern in Southern France containing the oldest prehistoric artwork on record. Access is highly restricted, but Herzog’s 3D study is surely the next best thing to an in-person visit. The eerie beauty of the works leads to a typically Herzog-ian quest to learn more about the primitive culture that produced the paintings; as usual, Herzog’s experts have their own quirks (like a circus performer-turned-scientist), and the director’s own wry narration is peppered with random pop culture references and existential ponderings. It’s all interwoven with footage of crude yet beautiful renderings of horses and rhinos, calcified cave-bear skulls, and other time-capsule peeks at life tens of thousands of years ago. The end result is awe-inspiring. (1:35) (Eddy)

Empire of Silver Love, not money, is at the core of Empire of Silver — that’s the M.O. of a Shanxi banking family’s libertine third son, or “Third Master” (Aaron Kwok) in this epic tug-of-war between Confucian duty and free will. The Third Master pines for his true love, his stepmother (Hao Lei), yet change is going off all around the star-crossed couple in China at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, and the youthful scion ends up pouring his passion into the family business, attempting to tread his own path, apart from his Machiavellian father (Tielin Zhang). Much like her protagonist, however, director (and Stanford alum) Christina Yao seems more besotted with romance than finance, bathing those scenes with the love light and sensual hues reminiscent of Zhang Yimou’s early movies. Though Yao handles the widescreen crowd scenes with aplomb, her chosen focus on money, rather than honey, leaches the action of its emotional charge. It doesn’t help that, on the heels of the Great Recession, it’s unlikely that anyone buys the idea of a financial industry with ironclad integrity — or gives a flying yuan about the lives of bankers. (1:52) (Chun)

*Friends With Benefits If you see only one romantic comedy this summer about a sex-sans-pair-bonding pact between a girl and a guy saddled with intimacy issues — well, chances are, if you tend to see movies with premises like this, you probably already saw No Strings Attached. In which case, poor unlucky Friends with Benefits may be filed away in your brain as that other movie about fuckbuddies, the one in which Ashton Kutcher is played by Justin Timberlake and Natalie Portman (in a slightly eerie cosmic echo of last year’s Black Swan) is played by Mila Kunis. But if you see two such movies this summer, and admit it, you probably might, you’ll likely agree that FWB kicks NSA‘s booty call, particularly in the areas of scriptwriting ingenuity, pacing, and the casting subcategory of basic chemistry between romantic leads, with points possibly taken off for shark-jumping use of flash mobs and the fact that the maddeningly sticky song “Closing Time” will now be with you from closing credits ’til doomsday. This is not a searing, psychologically nuanced portrayal of two young people’s struggles to grapple with modern-day sexual mores and their own crippling pathologies — rather, the pair’s emotional baggage mostly seems to be stuffed with packing peanuts, and scenes in which they catalog their sexual proclivities in a humorously businesslike, gently raunchy fashion reveal them to be hearteningly adept at the art of communication. But such moments keep us entertained as the film, salted with light jabs at the genre’s worn-down touchstones yet utterly complicit, depicts the inevitable stages of a non-relationship relationship. (1:44) (Rapoport)

The Hangover Part II What do you do with a problematic mess like Hangover Part II? I was a fan of The Hangover (2009), as well as director-cowriter Todd Phillips’ 1994 GG Allin doc, Hated, so I was rooting for II, this time set in the East’s Sin City of Bangkok, while simultaneously dreading the inevitable Asian/”ching-chang-chong” jokes. Would this would-be hit sequel be funnier if they packed in more of those? Doubtful. The problem is that most of II‘s so-called humor, Asian or no, falls completely flat — and any gross-out yuks regarding wicked, wicked Bangkok are fairly old hat at this point, long after Shocking Asia (1976) and innumerable episodes of No Reservations and other extreme travel offerings. This Hangover around, mild-ish dentist Stu (Ed Helms) is heading to the altar with Lauren (The Real World: San Diego‘s Jamie Chung), with buds Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha) in tow. Alan (Zach Galifianakis) has completely broken with reality — he’s the pity invite who somehow ropes in the gangster wild-card Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong). Blackouts, natch, and not-very-funny high jinks ensue, with Jeong, surprisingly, pulling small sections of II out of the crapper. Phillips obviously specializes in men-behaving-badly, but II‘s most recent character tweaks, turning Phil into an arrogant, delusional creep and Alan into an arrogant, delusional kook, seem beside the point. Because almost none of the jokes work, and that includes the tired jabs at tranny strippers because we all know how supposedly straight white guys get hella grossed out by brown chicks with dicks. Lame. (1:42) (Chun)

*Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Chances are you aren’t going to jump into the Harry Potter series with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. So while the movie is probably the best Harry Potter film yet, it’s more a fitting conclusion than a standalone film. For fans of the books, there are no real surprises — this is a close adaptation. And for those Harry Potter movie fans who haven’t read the books, shame on you, and kudos if you managed to not get spoiled. It’s hard for me to offer a serious critical analysis of Part 2, because it represents the end of a long and very emotional journey. (Everyone in that audience was crying. Everyone.) I will say that, as was the case in the book, there are a few overdone, schmaltzy moments that aren’t really necessary. But in the context of the series, they’re forgivable — this may not be the great cinematic event of our generation, but Harry Potter as a whole is sure to be one of our most enduring cultural icons. (2:10) (Peitzman)

Horrible Bosses Lead by a clearly talented ensemble of comic actors, Horrible Bosses is yet another example of a big-budget summer comedy with a promising conceit (see Bad Teacher) that fails to deliver anything but crude alms to the lowest common denominator. Seth Gordon directs Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day as three pals fed up with their evil employers (Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston, respectively) so they hatch a plan to have them killed. Because the answer to their problem obviously lies in a dive bar in the “bad part of town,” Jamie Foxx plays Motherfucker Jones, their murder consultant and the film’s most likable character-stereotype. In the tradition of The Hangover (2009) and its ilk of beer-guzzling, frat-boy cousins, Horrible Bosses is a disastrous pile-up of idiocy that’s more vapid than vulgar despite a few amusing performances. See it for no other reason than Michael Bluth and Charlie Kelly on coke. (1:33) (Lattanzio)

Larry Crowne While Transformers: Dark of the Moon may be getting all the attention for being the most terrible summer movie, I’d like to propose Larry Crowne as the bigger offender. No, it doesn’t have the abrasive effects of a Michael Bay blockbuster, but it’s surely just as incompetent. And coming from an actor as talented as Tom Hanks — who co-wrote, directed, produced, and stars in the film —Larry Crowne is insulting. The plot, insofar as there is one, centers around the titular Larry (Hanks), a man who goes to community college, joins a scooter gang led by Wilmer Valderrama, and ends up falling for his cranky, alcoholic teacher Mercedes (Julia Roberts). The scenes are thrown together hapharzadly, with no real sense of character development or continuity. Larry Crowne doesn’t even feel like a romantic comedy until a drunk Mercedes begins kissing and dry humping her student. But hey, who can resist a shot of Larry’s middle-aged bottom as he tries to wriggle into jeans that are just too small? (1:39) (Peitzman)

Life, Above All It’s tough enough to simply grow up, let alone care for a parent with AIDS and deal with the suspicions and fears of the no-nothing adults all around you. Rising above easy preaching and hand-wringing didacticism, Life, Above All takes as its blueprint the 2004 best-seller by Allan Stratton, Chandra’s Secrets, and makes compelling work of the story of 12-year-old Chandra (Khomotso Manyaka) and her unfortunate family, unable to get effective help amid the thicket of ignorance regarding AIDS in Africa. After her newborn sister dies, Chandra finds her loyalty torn between her bright-eyed best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), who’s rumored to hooking among the truck drivers in their dusty, sun-scorched rural South African hometown, and her mother (Lerato Mvelase), who listens far too closely to her bourgie friend Mrs. Tafa (an OTT Harriet Manamela), for her own good. Cape Town native director Oliver Schmitz sticks close to the action playing across his actors’ faces, and he’s rewarded, particularly by the graceful Manyaka, in this life-affirmer about little girls forced to shoulder heart-breaking responsibility far too soon. (1:46) (Chun)

Midnight in Paris Owen Wilson plays Gil, a self-confessed “Hollywood hack” visiting the City of Light with his conservative future in-laws and crassly materialistic fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). A romantic obviously at odds with their selfish pragmatism (somehow he hasn’t realized that yet), he’s in love with Paris and particularly its fabled artistic past. Walking back to his hotel alone one night, he’s beckoned into an antique vehicle and finds himself transported to the 1920s, at every turn meeting the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Dali (Adrien Brody), etc. He also meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a woman alluring enough to be fought over by Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Picasso (Marcial di Fonzo Bo) — though she fancies aspiring literary novelist Gil. Woody Allen’s latest is a pleasant trifle, no more, no less. Its toying with a form of magical escapism from the dreary present recalls The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), albeit without that film’s greater structural ingeniousness and considerable heart. None of the actors are at their best, though Cotillard is indeed beguiling and Wilson dithers charmingly as usual. Still — it’s pleasant. (1:34) (Harvey)

*Page One: Inside the New York Times When Andrew Rossi’s documentary premiered at Sundance this January, word of mouth on it was respectable but qualified, with nearly everyone opining that it was good … just not what they’d been led to expect. What they expected was (in line with the original subtitle A Year Inside the New York Times) a top-to-bottom overview of how the nation’s most respected — and in some circles resented — arbiter of news, “style,” and culture is created on a day-to-day as well as longer term basis. That’s something that would doubtless fascinate anyone still interested in print media, or even that realm of web media not catering to the ADD nation. But that big picture and the wealth of minute cogs within isn’t Page One‘s subject. Instead, Rossi focuses on the Gray Lady’s wrestling with admittedly fast-changing times in which newspapers and any other information source on paper seem to constitute an endangered species. This particular Times, however, is such a special case that that crisis might better have been explored by training a camera on a less fabled publication, perhaps one of the many that have succumbed to a once unthinkable, market-shrunk mortality in recent years. The film finds its colorful protagonist in David Carr, an ex-crack addict turned media columnist who retains his cranky, nonconformist edge even as he defends the Times itself from the same out-with-the-old cheerleaders who 15 years ago were inflating the dot-com boom till it burst. Facing one particularly smug champion of the blogosphere at a forum, Carr notes that without a few remaining outlets — like the Times — doing the hard work of serious research and reportage, the web would have nothing to purloin or offer but its own unending trivia and gossip. Page One does what it does entertainingly well, but if you’re looking for insight toward this not-dead-yet U.S. institution as a whole, you’d be better off simply picking up this week’s Sunday edition and reading every last word. (1:28) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides The last time we saw rascally Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), he was fighting his most formidable enemy yet: the potentially franchise-ending Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007). The first Pirates movie (2003) was a surprise critical success, earning Depp his first-ever Oscar nomination; subsequent entries, though no less moneymaking, suffered from a detectable case of sequel-itis. Overseeing this reboot of sorts is director Rob Marshall (2002’s Chicago), who keeps the World’s End notion of sending Jack to find the Fountain of Youth, but adds in a raft of new faces, including Deadwood‘s Ian McShane (as Blackbeard) and lady pirate Penélope Cruz. The story is predictably over-the-top, with the expected supernatural elements mingling with sparring both sword-driven and verbal — as well as an underlying theme about faith that’s nowhere near as fun as the film’s lesser motifs (revenge, for one). It’s basically a big swirl of silly swashbuckling, nothing more or less. And speaking of Depp, the fact that the oft-ridiculous Sparrow is still an amusing character can only be chalked up to the actor’s own brand of untouchable cool. If it was anyone else, Sparrow’d be in Austin Powers territory by now. (2:05) (Eddy)

*Project Nim This is the story of an individual plucked from their native culture even before birth, separated from parents shortly after, handed over to a chaotic if loving urban foster family, yanked from them to a lavish, isolated country estate, then shipped off to a medical experimentation lab, “rescued” only to be placed in prison like solitary confinement, and … well, things finally get a little better, but isn’t this enough abuse for several lifetimes? Before you call Child Services or the ACLU, be informed that this is not the saga of a human being, but one Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee born in U.S. captivity, then set on a highly unusual life course as the subject of a study in animal language acquisition by Columbia University linguist Herbert S. Terrace. Nim did indeed prove remarkably adept at learning sign language to communicate with his teachers/minders — even if Terrace finally belittled that as no more than imitation performed to beg food and other favor. Nim was a prodigy, and for a while a media sensation. He was also a temperamental, physically powerful wild beast who could (and sometimes did) cause considerable harm to those around him. Regardless, both his adaptation to human habitats and animal instincts should have been deal with a great deal more care and consistency — there was no overall plan for his well-being beyond serving (or being abandoned by) whoever his keepers were at any given moment. This latest documentary by James Marsh (2008’s Man on Wire, 1999’s Wisconsin Death Trip) is an involving story whose latter-day interviewees — tumbling rather easily into hero and villain categories, with Prof. Terrance not in the first camp — annotate an enormous amount of archival footage shot throughout Nim’s life. (1:33) (Harvey)

*Rapt Colder than cool — and pokerfaced in its perusal of all the angles — this hostage thriller takes as its starting point the real-life 1978 kidnapping of Belgian aristo Baron Edouard-Jean Empain. Slick industrialist Stanislas Graff (Yvan Attal) is smoothly going through the motions of life — preparing for a sojourn to China alongside heads of state, swinging through his gambling den, indulging in an afternoon tryst with a mistress, then heading home to make fatherly noises for the family. Graff’s seamless, impressively precise kidnapping effectively cock-blocks the routine. Fifty million euros is the ransom, and the kidnappers quickly, brutally demonstrate that they mean bidness. Filmmaker Lucas Belvaux tests the tension at home, in the boardroom, among law enforcement, while the ugly details of Graff’s day-to-day life are laid bare by the French tabloids, much like dismembered body parts — and giving off a whiff of the hypocrisies surrounding ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. More often behind the camera than before it, Attal offers what might be his best performance as the entitled scion reduced to a cowering bag of bones and scar tissue. He’s well-matched by Anne Consigny as his shell-shocked spouse and Alex Descas as his lawyer, as Belvaux efficiently delivers his core query with almost zero melodrama: who’s the more brutal player in this high-stakes game — the so-called terrorists or the cutthroat captains of industry? (2:05) (Chun)

*Road to Nowhere “Legendary” is a term often applied to artists distinguished by either ubiquity or scarcity. Monte Hellman (1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop) definitely falls in the second camp — nearly 80, he’s just made his first feature in 22 years, causing a flurry of interest in the sparse 10 he made during the prior three decades he was, relatively speaking, active — movies hardly anyone saw when they came out since none were more than a blip on the commercial radar. Hellman’s career has largely been off the map — as a director and editor for hire, often fixing problems (like directors who die mid-production) without screen credit. Whether Road to Nowhere qualifies as summary statement or aberration has already divided viewers since its Venice premiere last fall. It’s a hall of mirrors in which a hotshot filmmaker (Tygh Runyan) making a movie about a woman’s apparent real-life murder casts an alluring non-actress (Shannyn Sossamon) whom an insurance investigator (Waylon Payne) and reporter (Dominique Swain) come to suspect might be playing herself — having faked her own death and adopted a new identity. The mix of noir, reality-illusion puzzle, industry in-jokes, film history name-dropping (as well as archival clips), uneven performances, sometimes stilted dialogue, brief startling violence, and handsome compositions (shot without permits on a hand-held digital camera) can be taken as two hours of delicious gamesmanship or exasperating self-indulgence. But no one can argue that by now Hellman hasn’t earned his right to be difficult. (2:02) Roxie, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

*Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Working with Lisa See’s novel, director Wayne Wang returns to the crowd-pleasing territory of his wildly popular Joy Luck Club (1993) — fortunately it’s also material that feels intensely personal, even transposed in 21st century China (one of those modern Chinese women, Rupert Murdoch’s wife Wendi bought the rights to the book and provides a financial boost here). Modern-day Nina (Bingbing Li) is about to leave her native Shanghai for NYC and certain success in the banking world when she learns that her best friend, her laotong or sworn sister, Sophia (Gianna Jun), is in a coma. She must piece together the mystery of her friend’s life since they last parted, studying the book written about her 19th century forbearer Snow Flower (also Jun) and her own laotong Lily (Li). An uncredited turn by Hugh Jackman as a caddish boyfriend is beside the point here; Wang’s take on the bond of friendship that ties two women together, beyond the pain of foot-binding, marriage, class, and adversity is tremulously sentimental, in way that will have many would-be Joy Luck Club-ers happily identifying with these sisters from other mothers — and leave everyone else sobbing in the darkness. (1:40) (Chun)

*Super 8 The latest from J.J. Abrams is very conspicuously produced by Steven Spielberg; it evokes 1982’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as well as 1985’s The Goonies and 1982’s Poltergeist (so Spielbergian in nature you’d be forgiven for assuming he directed, rather than simply produced, the pair). But having Grandpa Stevie blessing your flick is surely a good thing, especially when you’re already as capable as Abrams. Super 8 is set in 1979, high time for its titular medium, used by a group of horror movie-loving kids to film their backyard zombie epic; later in the film, old-school celluloid reveals the mystery behind exactly what escaped following a spectacular train wreck on the edge of their small Ohio town. The PG-13 Super 8 aims to frighten, albeit gently; there’s a lot of nostalgia afoot, and things do veer into sappiness at the end (that, plus the band of kids at its center, evoke the trademarks of another Grandpa Stevie: Stephen King). But the kid actors (especially the much-vaunted Elle Fanning) are great, and there’s palpable imagination and atmosphere afoot, rare qualities in blockbusters today. Super 8 tries, and mostly succeeds, in progressing the fears and themes addressed by E.T. (divorce, loneliness, growing up) into century 21, making the unknowns darker and the consequences more dire. (1:52) (Eddy)

*Tabloid Taking a break from loftier subjects, Errol Morris’ latest documentary simply finds a whopper of a story and lets the principal participant tell her side of it — one we gradually realize may be very far from the real truth. In 1978 former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney flew to England, where the Mormon boy she’d grown infatuated with had been posted for missionary work by his church. What ensued became a U.K. tabloid sensation, as the glamorous, not at all publicity-shy Yankee attracted accusations of kidnapping, imprisonment, attempted rape and more. Her victim of love, one Kirk Anderson, is not heard from here — presumably he’s been trying to live down an embarrassing life chapter ever since. But we do hear from others who shed considerable light on the now middle-aged McKinney’s continued protestations that it was all just one big misunderstanding. Most importantly, we hear from the lady herself — and she is colorful, unflappable, unapologetic, and quite possibly stone-cold nuts. (1:28) (Harvey)

*Terri What happens when the camera stops on the quiet, shy and heavy 15-year-old in the corner of the classroom? Terri might be his story — if he cut class regularly to avoid being teased about his man-breasts, wore PJs to school, and befriended an affable, straight-talking Shrek of a teacher. Painfully awkward Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is ignored or mocked by most, left to feed the mice he catches in traps to passing raptors, care for his ailing uncle, and avoid the school bullies as best he can. But assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who has a habit of nurturing the school’s misfits, recognizes Terri’s tender heart and takes him under his wing. It’s catching, apparently, as Terri first befriends the hair-pulling Chad (Bridger Zadina) and then Heather, the girl who allows herself be fingered in home ec (Olivia Crocicchia). What transpires among these school outcasts, shaped by director-writer Azazel Jacobs, subtly subverts your conventional teen identity story arc —Terri isn’t the only one here that’s good-hearted. (1:45) (Chun)

*13 Assassins 13 Assassins is clearly destined to be prolific director Takashi Miike’s greatest success outside Japan yet. It’s another departure for the multi-genre-conquering Miike, doubtless one of the most conventional movies he’s made in theme and execution. That’s key to its appeal — rigorously traditional, taking its sweet time getting to samurai action that is pointedly not heightened by wire work or CGI, it arrives at the kind of slam-dunk prolonged battle climax that only a measured buildup can let you properly appreciate. In the 1840s, samurai are in decline but feudalism is still hale. It’s a time of peace, though not for the unfortunates who live under regional tyrant Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), a li’l Nippon Caligula who taxes and oppresses his people to the point of starvation. Alas, the current Shogun is his sibling, and plans to make little bro his chief adviser — so a concerned Shogun official secretly hires veteran samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to assassinate the Lord. Fully an hour is spent on our hero doing “assembling the team” stuff, recruiting other unemployed, retired, or wannabe samurai. When the protagonists finally commence their mission, their target is already aware he’s being pursued, and he’s surrounded by some 200 soldiers by the time Miike arrives at the film’s sustained, spectacular climax: a small village which Shinzaemon and co. have turned into a giant boobytrap so that 13 men can divide and destroy an ogre-guarding army. A major reason why mainstream Hollywood fantasy and straight action movies have gotten so depressingly interchangeable is that digital FX and stunt work can (and does) visualize any stupid idea — heroes who get thrown 200 feet into walls by monsters then getting up to fight some more, etc. 13 Assassins is thrilling because its action, while sporting against-the-odds ingeniousness and sheer luck by our heroes as in any trad genre film, is still vividly, bloodily, credibly physical. (2:06) (Harvey)

Transformers: Dark of the Moon I’ll never understand the wisdom behind epic-length children’s movies. What child — or adult, for that matter — wants to sit through 154 minutes of assaultive popcorn entertainment? It’s an especially confounding decision for this third installment in the Transformers franchise because there’s a fantastic 90-minute movie in there, undone at every turn by some of the worst jokes, most pointless characters, and most hateful cultural politics you’re likely to see this summer. But when I say a fantastic movie, I mean a fantastic movie. It took two very expensive earlier attempts before director Michael Bay figured out that big things require a big canvas. Every shot of Dark of the Moon‘s predecessors seemed designed to hide their effects by crowding the screen. Finally we get the full view — the scale is now rightly calibrated to operatic and ridiculous. The marquee set pieces are inspired and terrifying, eliciting a sense of vertigo that’s earned for once, not imposed by the editing. The human hijinks are less consistent but ingratiatingly batshit, and without resorting to preening self-awareness and elaborately contrived mea culpas. But unfortunately Bay is too unapologetic even to walk back the ethnic buffoonery that not only upsets hippies like me but also seems defiantly disharmonious with the movie he’s trying to make. Bay is like that guy at the party who thinks amping up the racism will prove he’s not a racist. It’s that kind of garbage (plus, I guess, some universal primal hatred of Shia LaBeouf that I don’t really get) that makes people dismiss these movies wholesale. This time it’s just not deserved. I wouldn’t want to meet the asshole who made this thing, but credit where credit is due. It’s a visual marvel with perfectly integrated, utterly tactile, brilliantly choreographed CG robotics — a point that’ll no doubt be conceded in passing as if it’s not the very reason the movie exists. As if it’s not a feat of mastery to make a megaton changeling truck look graceful. (2:34) (Jason Shamai)

The Tree of Life Mainstream American films are so rarely adventuresome that overreactive gratitude frequently greets those rare, self-conscious, usually Oscar-baiting stabs at profundity. Terrence Malick has made those gestures so sparingly over four decades that his scarcity is widely taken for genius. Now there’s The Tree of Life, at once astonishingly ambitious — insofar as general addressing the origin/meaning of life goes — and a small domestic narrative artificially inflated to a maximally pretentious pressure-point. The thesis here is a conflict between “nature” (the way of striving, dissatisfied, angry humanity) and “grace” (the way of love, femininity, and God). After a while Tree settles into a fairly conventional narrative groove, dissecting — albeit in meandering fashion — the travails of a middle-class Texas household whose patriarch (a solid Brad Pitt) is sternly demanding of his three young sons. As a modern-day survivor of that household, Malick’s career-reviving ally Sean Penn has little to do but look angst-ridden while wandering about various alien landscapes. Set in Waco but also shot in Rome, at Versailles, and in Saturn’s orbit (trust me), The Tree of Life is so astonishingly self-important while so undernourished on some basic levels that it would be easy to dismiss as lofty bullshit. Its Cannes premiere audience booed and cheered — both factions right, to an extent. (2:18) Smith Rafael (Harvey)

*The Trip Eclectic British director Michael Winterbottom rebounds from sexually humiliating Jessica Alba in last year’s flop The Killer Inside Me to humiliating Steve Coogan in all number of ways (this time to positive effect) in this largely improvised comic romp through England’s Lake District. Well, romp might be the wrong descriptive — dubbed a “foodie Sideways” but more plaintive and less formulaic than that sun-dappled California affair, this TV-to-film adaptation displays a characteristic English glumness to surprisingly keen emotional effect. Playing himself, Coogan displays all the carefree joie de vivre of a colonoscopy patient with hemorrhoids as he sloshes through the gray northern landscape trying to get cell reception when not dining on haute cuisine or being wracked with self-doubt over his stalled movie career and love life. Throw in a happily married, happy-go-lucky frenemy (comic actor Rob Brydon) and Coogan (TV’s I’m Alan Partridge), can’t help but seem like a pathetic middle-aged prick in a puffy coat. Somehow, though, his confused narcissism is a perverse panacea. Come for the dueling Michael Caine impressions and snot martinis, stay for the scallops and Brydon’s “small man in a box” routine. (1:52) Smith Rafael. (Devereaux)

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