Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Matt Sussman. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-wrecked Yep, another one. (1:27)
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey Documentary about puppeteer Kevin Clash, currently living his lifelong dream as the man behind one of the most popular Sesame Street characters. (1:25) Opera Plaza, Shattuck.
A Dangerous Method Cool and chatty (unsurprisingly, given its subject matter and the fact that it’s based on a play and a novel), David Cronenberg’s latest begins in 1904 Zurich as a shrieking patient (Keira Knightley) is escorted into the care of psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Dr. Jung, an admirer of Sigmund Freud, tests the “talking cure” on the woman, who turns out to be the fiercely intelligent and conveniently beautiful Sabina Spielrein. An attraction, both intellectual and sexual, soon develops, no matter that Jung is Sabina’s doctor, or that he happens to be married to a prim wife whose family wealth keeps him in boats and lake houses. Meanwhile, Jung and Freud (an excellent Viggo Mortensen) begin corresponding, eventually meeting and forming a friendship that’s tested first when Sabina comes between them, and later when Jung expresses a growing interest in fringe pursuits like parapsychology. The scenes between Freud and Jung are A Dangerous Method‘s most intriguing — save those brief few involving Vincent Cassel as a doctor-turned-patient who advises Jung to “never repress anything” — but the film is mostly concerned with Jung’s various Sabina-related dramas. Pity that this is a tightly-wound Fassbender’s least dynamic performance of the year, and that Knightley, way over the top in Sabina’s hysterical scenes, telegraphs “casting mistake” from the get-go. (1:39) Embarcadero. (Eddy)
Footprints The title of this low-budget show biz fable refers to the imprints (aren’t they mostly hand prints, though?) left in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre by stars past, present, and sometimes forgotten. Daisy (Sybil Temtchine) wakes up on Doris Day’s piece of sidewalk, unsure of who she is or how she got there. A cast of Hollywood Boulevard denizens, all of whom are suspiciously friendly and non-creepy, pitch in to help the plaintive gal remember her identity: the chick who plays Catwoman for photo-snapping tourists, the Scientology recruiter (really!), the kindly old gentleman who directs her to a memorabilia shop (where yet another nice guy works), a pair of wisecracking tour guides, the helpful real-estate broker, the sweet former B-movie goddess. The only sinister presence is a stern-looking guy who appears at random to, uh, look stern; his role in this Twilight Zone-lite tale, as well as Daisy’s purpose, is cleared up by the end of the film’s slender 80 minutes. Distinguished by the attention it pays to old Hollywood landmarks that still lurk beneath the Boulevard’s newly shiny exterior — and a WTF scene where Daisy is mistaken for Mira Sorvino — Footprints is otherwise forgettable. Mulholland Drive (2001) this is not. (1:20) Roxie. (Eddy)
Paul McCartney: The Love We Make It’s easy to dismiss this fairly mundane Albert Maysles documentary following Paul McCartney as he organizes his all-star post-9/11 benefit, the Concert for New York City, in October 2001 — on one level, it comes off as a cheesy glad-hander aspiring to a kind of historic, old-school razzle-dazzle. Just how many celebs and famous faces can pass through the scene, grip and grin, then tug their forelocks in the direction of the king of all rock stars? You might want to make a drinking game of it. But if you stave off the eyeball-glazing boredom that sets in watching McCartney make the rounds at Howard Stern, 60 Minutes, etc., you might find the telling little character nuances that come out in Maysles’ edit intriguing and appreciate the weird balancing act McCartney undertakes — as both the “nice Beatle” and a musician trying put across his music — even as he’s besieged by teary-eyed aging Beatlemaniacs and crazed street folk alike. There’s an edge, a been-there, seen-it-all flicker in those wide, sloping eyes, much as there is in our own peepers, as McCartney makes baseball small talk with his driver, waits on a tardy Dan Rather, and even must listen to Bill Clinton deliver the same self-servicing wisecrack twice, in this mildly interesting glimpse into the continuing, blandly surreal journey of a rock ‘n’ roll survivor. (1:34) Roxie. (Chun)
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows The game is afoot (again) when Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) face arch nemesis Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). (2:09) Four Star, Marina.
*Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Tomas Alfredson (2008’s Let the Right One In) directs from Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s sterling adaptation of John le Carré’s classic spy vs. spy tale, with Gary Oldman making the role of George Smiley (famously embodied by Alec Guinness in the 1979 miniseries) completely his own. Your complete attention is demanded, and deserved, by this tale of a Cold War-era, recently retired MI6 agent (Oldman) pressed back into service at “the Circus” to ferret out a Soviet mole. Building off Oldman’s masterful, understated performance, Alfredson layers intrigue and an attention to weird details (a fly buzzing around a car, the sound of toast being scraped with butter) that heighten the film’s deceptively beige 1970s palette. With espionage-movie trappings galore (safe houses, code machines), a returned-to flashback to a surreal office Christmas party, and bang-on supporting performances by John Hurt, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and the suddenly ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, Tinker Tailor epitomizes rule one of filmmaking: show me, don’t tell me. A movie that assumes its audience isn’t completely brain-dead is cause for celebration and multiple viewings — not to mention a place among the year’s best. (2:07) (Eddy)
Arthur Christmas (1:37) 1000 Van Ness.
*The Artist With the charisma-oozing agility of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way past opponents and the supreme confidence of Rudolph Valentino leaning, mid-swoon, into a maiden, French director-writer Michel Hazanavicius hits a sweet spot, or beauty mark of sorts, with his radiant new film The Artist. In a feat worthy of Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, Hazanavicius juggles a marvelously layered love story between a man and a woman, tensions between the silents and the talkies, and a movie buff’s appreciation of the power of film — embodied in particular by early Hollywood’s union of European artistry and American commerce. Dashing silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, who channels Fairbanks, Flynn, and William Powell — and won this year’s Cannes best actor prize) is at the height of his career, adorable Jack Russell by his side, until the talkies threaten to relegate him to yesterday’s news. The talent nurtured in the thick of the studio system yearns for real power, telling the newspapers, “I’m not a puppet anymore — I’m an artist,” and finances and directs his own melodrama, while his youthful protégé Peppy Miller (Bérénice Béjo) becomes a yakky flapper age’s new It Girl. Both a crowd-pleasing entertainment and a loving précis on early film history, The Artist never checks its brains at the door, remaining self-aware of its own conceit and its forebears, yet unashamed to touch the audience, without an ounce of cynicism. (1:40) Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Chun)
*The Descendants Like all of Alexander Payne’s films save 1996 debut Citizen Ruth, The Descendants is an adaptation, this time from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ excellent 2007 novel. Matt King (George Clooney) is a Honolulu lawyer burdened by various things, mostly a) being a haole (i.e. white) person nonetheless descended from Hawaiian royalty, rich in real estate most natives figure his kind stole from them; and b) being father to two children by a wife who’s been in a coma since a boating accident three weeks ago. Already having a hard time transitioning from workaholic to hands-on dad, Matt soon finds out this new role is permanent, like it or not — spouse Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie, just briefly seen animate) will not wake up. The Descendants covers the few days in which Matt has to share this news with Elizabeth’s loved ones, mostly notably Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as disparately rebellious teen and 10-year-old daughters. Plus there’s the unpleasant discovery that the glam, sporty, demanding wife he’d increasingly seemed “not enough” for had indeed been looking elsewhere. When has George Clooney suggested insecurity enough to play a man afraid he’s too small in character for a larger-than-life spouse? But dressed here in oversized shorts and Hawaiian shirts, the usually suave performer looks shrunken and paunchy; his hooded eyes convey the stung joke’s-on-me viewpoint of someone who figures acknowledging depression would be an undeserved indulgence. Payne’s film can’t translate all the book’s rueful hilarity, fit in much marital backstory, or quite get across the evolving weirdness of Miller’s Scottie — though the young actors are all fine — but the film’s reined-in observations of odd yet relatable adult and family lives are all the more satisfying for lack of grandiose ambition. (1:55) California, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
*Drive Such a lovely way to Drive, drunk on the sensual depths of a lush, saturated jewel tone palette and a dreamlike, almost luxurious pacing that gives off the steamy hothouse pop romanticism of ’80s-era Michael Mann and David Lynch — with the bracing, impactful flecks of threat and ultraviolence that might accompany a car chase, a moody noir, or both, as filtered through a first-wave music video. Drive comes dressed in the klassic komforts — from the Steve McQueen-esque stances and perfectly cut jackets of Ryan Gosling as the Driver Who Shall Remain Nameless to the foreboding lingering in the shadows and the wittily static, statuesque strippers that decorate the background. Gosling’s Driver is in line with Mann’s other upstanding working men who hew to an old-school moral code and are excellent at what they do, regardless of what side of the law they’re working: he likes to keep it clear and simple — his services as a wheelman boil down to five minutes, in and out — but matters get messy when he falls for sweet-faced neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), who lives down the hall with her small son, and her ex-con husband (Oscar Isaac) is dragged back into the game. Populated by pungent side players like Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, and Christina Hendricks, and scattered with readily embeddable moments like a life-changing elevator kiss that goes bloodily wrong-right, Drive turns into a real coming-out affair for both Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (2008’s Bronson), who rises above any crisis of influence or confluence of genre to pick up the po-mo baton that Lynch left behind, and 2011’s MVP Ryan Gosling, who gets to flex his leading-man muscles in a truly cinematic role, an anti-hero and under-the-hood psychopath looking for the real hero within. (1:40) Lumiere. (Chun)
*Eames: The Architect and the Painter Mad Men would boast considerably fewer sublime lines without the design impact of postwar masters Charles and Ray Eames. Touching on only the edges of the wide net cast by the couple and the talented designers at their Venice, Calif., studio, Eames attempts to sum up the genius behind the mid-century modern objets that brought a sophisticated new breed of beauty and glamour to an American middle class. Narrated by James Franco and chock-full of interviews with everyone from grandson Eames Demetrios to director Paul Schrader, this debut feature documentary by Jason Cohn opens on the then-married would-be architect Charles and sidetracked painter Ray meeting and swooning at the Cranbook Academy of Art in Michigan, all while working with Eero Saarinen on a prize-winning molded-wood chair for a MOMA competition. Their personal and design lives would remain intertwined forever more — through their landmark furniture designs (who doesn’t drool for that iconic Eames lounge and ottoman, one of many pieces still in production today); their whimsical, curious, and at-times-brilliant films; their exuberant propaganda for the US government and assorted corporations; and even those Mad Men-like indiscretions by the handsome Charles (Cohn drops one bombshell of an interview with a girlfriend). Throughout, in a way that faintly reflects the industrial design work at Apple today, the Eameses made selling out look good — even fun. One only wishes Cohn, who seems to get lost in the output, delved further into the specific furniture designs and films themselves (only 1968’s Powers of Ten is given adequate play), but perhaps that’s all fated to be sketched out for a sequel on the powers of two. (1:24) Balboa. (Chun)
Golf in the Kingdom Golfers, apparently, worship Michael Murphy’s 1971 best-seller Golf in the Kingdom for its explorations of the sport’s more mystical qualities (for context, Murphy also co-founded Big Sur’s Esalen Institute). It’s unlikely there’ll be any new converts via director Susan Streitfeld’s low-budget attempt to translate the cult novel to the big screen — supply your own “sand trap” joke here, but this movie is a mess: murky night scenes, strange editing choices, and pretentious new age dialogue (“Keep asking questions. The best ones don’t have answers!”) that might’ve felt deep on the page, but is hilariously woo woo when spoken aloud. In fact, if you pretend Golf in the Kingdom — the tale of a young American golfer who encounters a meditating, is-it-wisdom-or-is-it-bullshit-spouting teacher during a stopover in Scotland — is a comedy, you’ll be better off. Not as well off as if you just watched Caddyshack (1980) instead, though. (1:26) Roxie, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Le Havre Aki Kaurismäki’s second French-language film (following 1992’s La Vie de Boheme) offers commentary on modern immigration issues wrapped in the gauze of a feel good fairy tale and cozy French provincialism a la Marcel Pagnol. Worried about the health of his hospitalized wife (Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen), veteran layabout and sometime shoe shiner Marcel (Andre Wilms) gets some welcome distraction in coming to the aid of Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young African illegally trying to make way to his mother in London while eluding the gendarmes. Marcel’s whole neighborhood of port-town busybodies and industrious émigrés eventually join in the cause, turning Le Havre into a sort of old-folks caper comedy with an incongruously sunny take on a rising European multiculturalism in which there are no real racist xenophobes, just grumps deserving comeuppance. Incongruous because Kaurismäki is, of course, the king of sardonically funny Finnish miserabilism — and while it’s charmed many on the festival circuit, this combination of his usual poker-faced style and feel-good storytelling formula may strike others as an oil-and-water mismatch. (1:43) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
Hugo Hugo turns on an obviously genius conceit: Martin Scorsese, working with 3D, CGI, and a host of other gimmicky effects, creates a children’s fable that ultimately concerns one of early film’s pioneering special-effects fantasists. That enthusiasm for moviemaking magic, transferred across more than a century of film history, was catching, judging from Scorsese’s fizzy, exhilarating, almost-nauseating vault through an oh-so-faux Parisian train station and his carefully layered vortex of picture planes as Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an intrepid engineering genius of an urchin, scrambles across catwalk above a buzzing station and a hotheaded station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Despite the special effects fireworks going off all around him, Hugo has it rough: after the passing of his beloved father (Jude Law), he has been stuck with an nasty drunk of a caretaker uncle (Ray Winstone), who leaves his duties of clock upkeep at a Paris train station to his charge. Hugo must steal croissants to survive and mechanical toy parts to work on the elaborate, enigmatic automaton he was repairing with his father, until he’s caught by the fierce toy seller (Ben Kingsley) with a mysterious lousy mood and a cute, bright ward, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Although the surprisingly dark-ish Hugo gives Scorsese a chance to dabble a new technological toolbox — and the chance to wax pedantically, if passionately, about the importance of film archival studies — the effort never quite despite transcends its self-conscious dazzle, lagging pacing, diffuse narrative, and simplistic screenplay by John Logan, based on Brian Selznick’s book. Even the actorly heavy lifting provided by assets like Kingsley and Moretz and the backloaded love for the fantastic proponents at the dawn of filmmaking fail to help matters. Scorsese attempts to steal a little of the latters’ zeal, but one can only imagine what those wizards would do with motion-capture animation or a blockbuster-sized server farm. (2:07) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
The Ides of March Battling it out in the Ohio primaries are two leading Democratic presidential candidates. Filling the role of idealistic upstart new to the national stage — even his poster looks like you-know-who’s Hope one — is Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), who’s running neck-and-neck in the polls with his rival thanks to veteran campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and ambitious young press secretary Steven (Ryan Gosling). The latter is so tipped for success that he’s wooed to switch teams by a rival politico’s campaign chief (Paul Giamatti). While he declines, even meeting with a representative from the opposing camp is a dangerous move for Steven, who’s already juggling complex loyalties to various folk including New York Times reporter Ida (Marisa Tomei) and campaign intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who happens to be the daughter of the Democratic National Party chairman. Adapted from Beau Willimon’s acclaimed play Farragut North, Clooney’s fourth directorial feature is assured, expertly played, and full of sharp insider dialogue. (Willimon worked on Howard Dean’s 2004 run for the White House.) It’s all thoroughly engaging — yet what evolves into a thriller of sorts involving blackmail and revenge ultimately seems rather beside the point, as it turns upon an old-school personal morals quandary rather than diving seriously into the corporate, religious, and other special interests that really determine (or at least spin) the issues in today’s political landscape. Though stuffed with up-to-the-moment references, Ides already feels curiously dated. (1:51) SF Center. (Harvey)
Immortals Arrow time (comin’ at ya, in 3D), blood lust, fascinating fascinators, and endless seemingly-CGI-chiseled chests mark this rework of the Theseus myth. Tarsem Singh flattens out the original tale of crazy-busy hero who founded Athens yet seems determined to outdo the Lord of the Rings series with his striking art direction (so chic that at times you feel like you’re in a perfume ad rather than King Hyperion’s torture chamber). As you might expect from the man who made the dreamy, horse-slicing Cell (2000), Immortals is all sensation rather than sense. The proto-superhero here is a peasant (Henry Cavill), trained in secret by Zeus (John Hurt and Luke Evans) and toting a titanic chip on his shoulder when he runs into the power-mad Cretan King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, struggling to gnash the sleek scenery beneath fleshy bulk and Red Lobster headgear). Hyperion aims to obtain the Epirus Bow — a bit like a magical, preindustrial rocket launcher — to free the Titans, set off a war between the gods, and destroy humanity (contrary to mythology, Hyperion is not a Titan — just another heavyweight grudge holder). To capture the bow, he must find the virgin oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto), massacring his way through Theseus’ village and setting his worst weapon, the Beast, a.k.a. the Minotaur, on the hero. Saving graces amid the gory bluster, which still pays clear tribute to 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, is the vein-bulging passion that Singh invests in the ordinarily perfunctory kill scenes, the avant-garde headdresses and costumes by Eiko Ishioka, and the occasional edits that turn on visual rhymes, such as the moment when the intricate mask of a felled minion melts into a seagoing vessel, which are liable to make the audience gasp, or laugh, out loud. (1:50) 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
In Time Justin Timberlake moves from romantic comedy to social commentary to play Will Salas, a young man from the ghetto living one day at a time. Many 12-steppers may make this claim, but Salas literally is, because in his world, time actually is money and people pay, say, four minutes for a cup of coffee, a couple hours for a bus ride home from work, and years to travel into a time zone where people don’t run from place to place to stay ahead of death. In writer-director Andrew Niccol’s latest piece of speculative cinema, humans are born with a digitized timepiece installed in their forearm and a default sell-by date of 25 years, with one to grow on — though most end up selling theirs off fairly quickly while struggling to pay rent and put food on the table. Time zones have replaced area codes in defining social stature and signaling material wealth, alongside those pesky devices that give the phrase “internal clock” an ominous literality. Niccol also wrote and directed Gattaca (1997) and wrote The Truman Show (1998), two other films in which technological advances have facilitated a merciless, menacing brand of social engineering. In all three, what is most alarming is the through line between a dystopian society and our own, and what is most hopeful is the embattled protagonist’s promises that we don’t have to go down that road. Amanda Seyfried proves convincible as a bored heiress to eons, her father (Vincent Kartheiser) less amenable to Robin Hood-style time banditry. (1:55) Four Star. (Rapoport)
*Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life How remarkable is it that, some 50-plus features along, filmmaker Werner Herzog would become the closest thing to a cinema’s conscience? This time the abyss is much closer to home than the Amazon rainforest or the Kuwaiti oil fields — it lies in the heart of Rick Perry country. What begins as an examination of capital punishment, introduced with an interview with Reverend Richard Lopez, who has accompanied Texas death row inmates to their end, becomes a seeming labyrinth of human tragedy. Coming into focus is the execution of Michael Perry, convicted as a teenager of the murder of a Conroe, Tex., woman, her son, and his friend — all for sake of a red Camaro. Herzog obtains an insightful interview with the inmate, just days before his execution, as well as his cohort Jason Burkett, police, an executioner, and the victims’ family members, in this haunting examination of crime, punishment, and a small town in Texas where so many appear to have gone wrong. So wrong that one might see Into the Abyss as more related to 1977’s Stroszek and its critical albeit compassionate take on American life, than Herzog’s last tone poem about the mysterious artists of 2010’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (and it’s also obviously directly connected to next year’s TV documentary, Death Row). The layered tragedies and the strata of destroyed lives stays with you, as do the documentary’s difficult questions, Herzog’s gentle humanity as an interviewer, and the fascinating characters that don’t quite fit into a more traditional narrative — the Conroe bystander once stabbed with a screwdriver who learned to read in prison, and the dreamy woman impregnated by a killer whose entire doomed family appears to be incarcerated. (1:46) Opera Plaza. (Chun)
J. Edgar The usual polished, sober understatement of Clint Eastwood’s directing style and the highlights-compiling CliffsNotes nature of Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay turn out to be interestingly wrong choices for this biopic about one of the last American century’s most divisive figures. Interesting in that they’re perhaps among the very few who would now dare viewing the late, longtime FBI chief with so much admiration tempered by awareness of his faults — rather than the other way around. After all, Hoover (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) strengthened his bureau in ways that, yes, often protected citizens and state, but at what cost? The D.C. native eventually took to frequently “bending” the law, witch-hunting dubious national enemies (he thought the Civil Rights movement our worst threat since the bomb-planting Bolshevik anarchists of half a century earlier), blackmailing personal ones, weakening individual rights against surveillance, hoarding power (he resented the White House’s superior authority), lying publicly, and doing just about anything to heighten his own fame. A movie that internalized and communicated his rising paranoid megalomania (ironically Hoover died during the presidency of Nixon, his equal in that regard) might have stood some chance of making us understand this contradiction-riddled cipher. But J. Edgar is doggedly neutral, almost colorless (literally so, in near-monochrome visual presentation), its weird appreciation of the subject’s perfectionism and stick-to-it-iveness shutting out almost any penetrating insight. (Plus there’s Eastwood’s own by-now-de rigueur soundtrack of quasi-jazz noodling to make what is vivid here seem more dull and polite.) The love that dare not speak its name — or, evidently, risk more than a rare peck on the cheek — between Hoover and right-hand-man/life companion Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, very good if poorly served by his old-age makeup) becomes both the most compelling and borderline-silly thing here, fueled by a nervous discretion that seems equal parts Black’s interest and Eastwood’s discomfort. While you might think the directors polar opposites in many ways, the movie J. Edgar ultimately recalls most is Oliver Stone’s 1995 Nixon: both ambitiously, rather sympathetically grapple with still-warm dead gorgons and lose, filmmaker and lead performance alike laboring admirably to intelligent yet curiously stilted effect. (2:17) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
*Like Crazy Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) meet near the end of college; after a magical date, they’re ferociously hooked on each other. Trouble is, she’s in Los Angeles on a soon-to-expire student visa — and when she impulsively overstays, then jets home to London for a visit months later, her re-entry to America is stopped cold at LAX. (True love’s no match for homeland security.) An on-and-off long-distance romance ensues, and becomes increasingly strained, even as their respective careers (he makes furniture, she’s a magazine staffer) flourish. Director and co-writer Drake Doremus (2010’s Douchebag) achieves a rare midpoint between gritty mumblecore and shiny Hollywood romance; the characters feel very real and the script ably captures the frustration that settles in when idealized fantasies give way to the messy workings of everyday life. There are some contrivances here — Anna’s love-token gift from Jacob, a bracelet engraved “Patience,” breaks when she’s with another guy — but for the most part, Like Crazy offers an honest portrait of heartbreak. (1:29) Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
*Love Crime Early this year came the announcement that Brian De Palma was hot to do an English remake of Alain Corneau’s Love Crime. The results, should they come to fruition, may well prove a landmark in the annals of lurid guilty-pleasure trash. But with the original Love Crime finally making it to local theaters, it’s an opportune moment to be appalled in advance about what sleazy things could potentially be done to this neat, dry, fully clothed model of a modern Hitchcockian thriller. No doubt in France Love Crime looks pretty mainstream. But here its soon-to be-despoiled virtues of narrative intricacy and restraint are upscale pleasures. Ludivine Sagnier plays assistant to high-powered corporate executive Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas). The boss enjoys molding protégée Isabelle to her own image, making them a double team of carefully planned guile unafraid to use sex appeal as a business strategy. But Isabelle is expected to know her place — even when that place robs her of credit for her own ideas — and when she stages a small rebellion, Christine’s revenge is cruelly out of scale, a high-heeled boot brought down to squash an ant. Halfway through an act of vengeance occurs that is shocking and satisfying, even if it leaves the remainder of Corneau and Nathalie Carter’s clever screenplay deprived of the very thing that had made it such a sardonic delight so far. Though it’s no masterpiece, Love Crime closes the book on his Corneau’s career Corneau (he died at age 67 last August) not with a bang but with a crisp, satisfying snap. (1:46) Four Star. (Harvey)
*Margin Call Think of Margin Call as a Mamet-like, fictitious insider jab at the financial crisis, a novelistic rejoinder to Oscar-winning doc Inside Job (2010). First-time feature director and writer J.C. Chandor shows a deft hand with complex, writerly material, creating a darting dance of smart dialogue and well-etched characters as he sidesteps the hazards of overtheatricality, a.k.a. the crushing, overbearing proscenium. The film opens on a familiar Great Recession scene: lay-off day at an investment bank, marked by HR functionaries calling workers one by one into fishbowl conference rooms. The first victim is the most critical — Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk-management staffer who has stumbled on an investment miscalculation that could potentially trigger a Wall Street collapse. On his way out, he passes a drive with his findings to one of his young protégés, Peter (Zachary Quinto), setting off a flash storm over the next 24 hours that will entangle his boss Sam (Kevin Spacey), who’s agonizing over his dying dog while putting up a go-big-or-go-home front; cynical trading manager Will (Paul Bettany); and the firm’s intimidating head (Jeremy Irons), who gets to utter the lines, “Explain to me as you would to a child. Or a Golden Retriever.” Such top-notch players get to really flex their skills here, equipped with Chandor’s spot-on script, which manages to convey the big issues, infuse the numbers with drama and the money managers with humanity, and never talk down to the audience. (1:45) Four Star, Presidio. (Chun)
*Melancholia Lars von Trier is a filmmaker so fond of courting controversy it’s like he does it in spite of himself — his rambling comments about Hitler (“I’m a Nazi”) were enough to get him banned from the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, where Melancholia had its debut (and star Kirsten Dunst won Best Actress). Oops. Maybe after the (here’s that word again) controversy that accompanied 2009’s Antichrist, von Trier felt like he needed a shocking context for his more mellow latest. Pity that, for Melancholia is one of his strongest, most thoughtful works to date. Split into two parts, the film follows first the opulent, disastrous, never-ending wedding reception of Justine (Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), held at a lavish estate owned by John (Kiefer Sutherland), the tweedy husband of Justine’s sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Amid the turmoil of arguments (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling as Justine and Claire’s divorced parents), pushy guests (Stellan Skarsgard as Justine’s boss), livid wedding planner (Udo Kier, amazing), and hurt feelings (Michael is the least-wanted groom since Kris Humphries), it’s clear that something is wrong with Justine beyond just marital jitters. The film’s second half begins an unspecified amount of time later, as Claire talks her severely depressed, near-catatonic sister into moving into John’s mansion. As Justine mopes, it’s revealed that a small planet, Melancholia — glimpsed in Melancholia‘s Wagner-scored opening overture — is set to pass perilously close to Earth. John, an amateur astronomer, is thrilled; Claire, fearful for her young son’s future and goaded into high anxiety by internet doomsayers, is convinced the planets will collide, no matter what John says. Since Justine (apparently von Trier’s stand-in for himself) is convinced that the world’s an irredeemably evil place, she takes the news with a shrug. Von Trier’s vision of the apocalypse is somber and surprisingly poetic; Dunst and Gainsbourg do outstanding work as polar-opposite sisters whose very different reactions to impending disaster are equally extreme. (2:15) Albany, Bridge. (Eddy)
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) Opera Plaza, SF Center, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Moneyball As fun as it is to watch Brad Pitt listen to the radio, work out, hang out with his cute kid, and drive down I-80 over and over again, it doesn’t quite translate into compelling cinema for the casual baseball fan. A wholesale buy-in to the cult of personality — be it A’s manager Billy Beane or the actor who plays him — is at the center of Moneyball‘s issues. Beane (Pitt) is facing the sad, inevitable fate of having to replace his star players, Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, once they command the cash from the more-moneyed teams. He’s gotta think outside of the corporate box, and he finds a few key answers in Peter Brand (a.k.a. Paul DePodesta, played by Jonah Hill), who’s working with the sabermetric ideas of Bill James: scout the undervalued players that get on base to work against better-funded big-hitters. Similarly, against popular thought, Moneyball works best when director Bennett Miller (2005’s Capote) strays from the slightly flattening sunniness of its lead actor and plunges into the number crunching — attempting to visualize the abstract and tapping into the David Fincher network, as it were (in a related note, Aaron Sorkin co-wrote Moneyball‘s screenplay) — though the funny anti-chemistry between Pitt and Hill is at times capable of pulling Moneyball out of its slump. (2:13) SF Center. (Chun)
The Muppets Of course The Muppets is a movie appropriate for small fry, with a furry cast (supplemented by human co-stars Jason Segel and Amy Adams) cracking wise and conveying broad themes about the importance of friendship, self-confidence, and keeping dreams alive despite sabotage attempts by sleazy oil tycoons (Chris Cooper, comically evil in the grand Muppet-villain tradition). But the true target seems to be adults who grew up watching The Muppet Show and the earliest Muppet movies (1999’s Muppets from Space doesn’t count); the “getting the gang back together” sequence takes up much of the film’s first half, followed by a familiar rendition of “let’s put on a show” in the second. Interwoven are constant reminders of how the Muppets’ brand of humor — including Fozzie Bear’s corny stand-up bits — is a comforting throwback to simpler times, even with a barrage of celeb cameos and contemporary gags (chickens clucking a Cee-Lo Green tune — I think you can guess which one). Co-writer Segal pays appropriate homage to the late Jim Henson’s merry creations, but it remains to be seen if The Muppets will usher in a new generation of fans, or simply serve as nostalgia fodder for grown-ups like, uh, me, who may or may not totally still own a copy of Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life. (1:38) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio. (Eddy)
My Week With Marilyn Statuette-clutching odds are high for Michelle Williams, as her impersonation of a famous dead celebrity is “well-rounded” in the sense that we get to see her drunk, disorderly, depressed, and so forth. Her Marilyn Monroe is a conscientious performance. But when the movie isn’t rolling in the expected pathos, it’s having other characters point out how instinctive and “magical” Monroe is onscreen — and Williams doesn’t have that in her. Who could? Williams is remarkable playing figures so ordinary you might look right through them on the street, in Wendy and Lucy (2008), Blue Valentine (2010), etc. But as Monroe, all she can do is play the little-lost girl behind the sizzle. Without the sizzle. Which is, admittedly, exactly what My Week — based on a dubious true story — asks of her. It is true that in 1956 the Hollywood icon traveled to England to co-star with director Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) in a fluff romance, The Prince and the Showgirl; and that she drove him crazy with her tardiness, mood swings, and crises. It’s debatable whether she really got so chummy with young production gofer Colin Clark, our wistful guide down memory lane. He’s played with simpering wide-eyed adoration by Eddie Redmayne, and his suitably same-aged secondary romantic interest (Emma Watson) is even duller. This conceit could have made for a sly semi-factual comedy of egos, neurosis, and miscommunication. But in a rare big-screen foray, U.K. TV staples director Simon Curtis and scenarist Adrian Hodges play it all with formulaic earnestness — Marilyn is the wounded angel who turns a starstruck boy into a brokenhearted but wiser man as the inevitable atrocious score orders our eyes to mist over. (1:36) Albany, Clay, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont. (Harvey)
New Year’s Eve (1:58) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki.
*Outrage The title definitely works: not only is this the most violent Takeshi Kitano film in a stretch, but the shameless, strangely off-key caricatures, especially that of a corrupt African diplomat, veer into offensiveness. Then again, what isn’t offensive, broadly sketched-out, and nasty about this yakuza crime drama-cum-jet-black comedy concerning a particularly code-less, amoral band of modern-day ronin? Chaos reigns, sucking even the beautiful and the charismatic into its quicksand. Kitano here is stony-faced Otomo, the chief bully for boss Kato (Miura Tomokazu) and underboss Ikemoto (Kunimura Jun). Kato is being screwed with by his own godfather, and must distance himself from ex-con brethren, or “brother,” Murase (Renji Ishibashi), then offend him, and finally do much worse. Otomo and his own crew of tough guys, headed up by the wickedly handsome Mizuno (Kippei Shiina) are charged with enacting the twisted plan, which is nihilistically comical in its Byzantine politics and back-stabbing switchbacks — the U.S. Congress will see much that’s familiar in Outrage‘s gaming of an already-decaying system. The shameless caricature of the mob’s African gambling cohort, which succeeds in making him the only vaguely sympathetic character of the lot, only demonstrates how irredeemable and decadent the so-called system — one filled with criminals obsessed with hierarchy and equally preoccupied with wrecking disorder within a very rotten order — has become, especially in the context of the interracial crime-brethren bonding of Kitano’s Brother (2000), the director’s last yakuza flick. Using Japan’s mafia as a cruel funhouse mirror through which to peer at his culture, Kitano finds much wanting with this, his 15th film, and much like Takashi Miike and his recent 13 Assassins, the filmmaker questions the core Japanese notions of duty, conformity, and loyalty and finds that, much like trickle-down economics, power corrupts from the top down. (1:49) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Chun)
Puss in Boots (1:45) 1000 Van Ness.
*Shame It’s been a big 2011 for Michael Fassbender, with Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, Shame, and A Dangerous Method raising his profile from art-house standout to legit movie star (of the “movie stars who can also act” variety). Shame may only reach one-zillionth of X-Men‘s audience due to its NC-17 rating, but this re-teaming with Hunger (2008) director Steve McQueen is Fassbender’s highest achievement to date. He plays Brandon, a New Yorker whose life is tightly calibrated to enable a raging sex addiction within an otherwise sterile existence, including an undefined corporate job and a spartan (yet expensive-looking) apartment. When brash, needy, messy younger sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan, speaking of actors having banner years) shows up, yakking her life all over his, chaos results. Shame is a movie that unfolds in subtle details and oversized actions, with artful direction despite its oft-salacious content. If scattered moments seem forced (loopy Cissy’s sudden transformation, for one scene, into a classy jazz singer), the emotions — particularly the titular one — never feel less than real and raw. (1:39) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
The Sitter Which lovable schlub do you identify with more — Zach Galifianakis or Jonah Hill? Galiafiankias was already a full-blown standup-of-sorts talent before he broke into the cineplexes, but Hill — son of Richard Feldstein, account to rockers such as Metallica — seems like a natural talent of the kind that wasn’t buffed and bruised onstage, but embodies a kind of Apatow-like organic funniness untied to one-liners and conventional shtick. In a way that musicians like his father’s clients might appreciate, he riffs well, and that talent serves him pretty well in The Sitter, which the actor has described as a mash-up of Adventures in Babysitting (1987) and After Hours (1985), only more punk rock. It’s actually more hip-hop pop, as filtered through a hapless but smartypants college drop-out and pitched to his 20-something peer group rather than the rug rats, but who’s sweatin’? As our tale opens, Noah (Hill) is not-so-busy failing to launch, living with his lovelorn mom, when he gets roped into sitting her pal’s kids as a good deed. The little monsters (Max Records, Landry Bender, and Kevin Hernandez) need a dose of harsh reality, and surprise, Noah is prepared to give it to them, when he goes on a drug run for his bad girlfriend (Ari Graynor). Hill does well with what he’s got to work with, as do such sketched-out figures like Sam Rockwell’s oddball gay dealer, who seems clearly derived from Alfred Molina’s character in Boogie Nights (1997), and though this effort never quite transcends its obvious sound-bite inspirations (and makes sure everyone feels far too good at the end), it delivers some cute-crass pleasure for just a brief sitting. (1:21) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Chun)
The Skin I Live In I’d like to think that Pedro Almodóvar is too far along in his frequently-celebrated career to be having a midlife crisis, but all the classic signs are on display in his flashy, disjointed new thriller. Still mourning the death of his burn victim wife and removed from his psychologically disturbed daughter, brilliant-but-ethically compromised plastic surgeon Robert (played with smoldering creepiness by former Almodóvar heartthrob Antonio Banderas) throws himself into developing a new injury-resistant form of prosthetic skin, testing it on his mysterious live-in guinea pig, Vera (the gorgeous Elena Anaya, whose every curve is on view thanks to an après-ski-ready body suit). Eventually, all hell breaks loose, as does Vera, whose back story, as we find out, owes equally to 1960’s Eyes Without a Face and perhaps one of the Saw films. And that’s not even the half of it — to fully recount every sharp turn, digression and MacGuffin thrown at us would take the entirety of this review. That’s not news for Almodóvar, though. Much like Rainer Werner Fassbinder before him, Almodóvar’s métier is melodrama, as refracted through a gay cinephile’s recuperative affections. His strength as a filmmaker is to keep us emotionally tethered to the story he’s telling, amidst all the allusions, sex changes and plot twists torn straight from a telenovela. The real shame of The Skin I Live In is that so much happens that you don’t actually have time to care much about any of it. Although its many surfaces are beautiful to behold (thanks largely to cinematographer José Luis Alcaine), The Skin I Live In ultimately lacks a key muscle: a heart. (1:57) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Sussman)
*Sutro’s: The Palace at Land’s End Filmmaker Tom Wyrsch (2008’s Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong and 2009’s Remembering Playland) explores the unique and fascinating history behind San Francisco’s Sutro Baths in his latest project, an enjoyable documentary that covers the stories behind Adolph Sutro, the construction of his swimming pools, and the amazingly diverse, and somewhat strange collection of other attractions that entertained generations of locals that came to Land’s End for amusement. Told through interviews with local historians and residents, the narrative is illustrated with a host of rarely-seen historic photographs, archival film footage, contemporary video, and images of old documents, advertisements and newspapers. The film should appeal not only to older viewers who fondly remember going to Sutro’s as children, and sadly recall it burning down in 1966, but also younger audiences who have wandered through the ruins below the Cliff House and wondered what once stood there. (1:24) Balboa. (Sean McCourt)
*Tomboy In her second feature, French filmmaker Céline Sciamma (2007’s Water Lilies) depicts the brave and possibly perilous gender experimentations of a 10-year-old girl. Laure (Zoé Héran) moves with her family to a new town, falls in with the neighborhood gang during the summer vacation, and takes the stranger-comes-to-town opportunity to adopt a new, male persona, Mikael, a leap of faith we see her consider for a moment before jumping, eyes open. Watching Mikael quietly observe and then pick up the rough mannerisms and posturing of his new peers, while negotiating a shy romance with Lisa (Jeanne Disson), the sole female member of the gang, is to shift from amazement to amusement to anxiety and back again. As the children play games in the woods and roughhouse on a raft in the water and use a round of Truth or Dare to inspect their relationships to one another, all far from the eyes of the adults on the film’s periphery, Mikael takes greater and greater risks to inhabit an identity that he is constructing as he goes, and that is doomed to be demolished sooner, via accidental discovery, or later, when fall comes and the children march off to school together. All of this is superbly handled by Sciamma, who gently guides her largely nonprofessional young cast through the material without forcing them into a single precocious situation or speech. The result is a sweet, delicate story with a steady undercurrent of dread, as we wait for summer’s end and hope for the best and imagine the worst. (1:22) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Rapoport)
Tower Heist The mildest of mysteries drift around the edges of Tower Heist — like, how plausible is Ben Stiller as the blue-collar manager of a tony uptown NYC residence? How is that Eddie Murphy’s face has grown smoother and more seamless with age? And how much heavy lifting goes into an audience member’s suspension of disbelief concerning a certain key theft, dangling umpteen floors above Thanksgiving parade, in the finale? Yet those questions might not to deter those eager to escape into this determinedly undemanding, faintly entertaining Robin Hood-style comedy-thriller. Josh Kovacs (Stiller) is the wildly competent manager of an upscale residence — toadying smoothly and making life run perfectly for his entitled employers — till Bernie Madoff-like penthouse dweller Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda) is arrested for big-time financial fraud, catching the pension fund of Josh’s staffers in his vortex. After a showy standoff gets the upstanding Josh fired, he assembles a crew of ex-employees Enrique (Michael Peña) and Charlie (Casey Affleck), maid Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe), and foreclosed former resident Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), as well as childhood friend, neighbor, and thief Slide (Murphy). Murphy gets to slink effortlessly through supposed comeback role — is he vital here? Not really. Nevertheless, a few twists and a good-hearted feel for the working-class 99 percent who got screwed by the financial sector make this likely the most likable movie Brett Ratner has made since 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand — provided you can get over those dangles over the yawning gaps in logic. (1:45) 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
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) Balboa. (Harvey)
Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part One Some may have found Robert Pattinson’s stalker-suitor Edward Cullen sufficiently creepy (fits of overprotective rage, flirtatious comments about his new girlfriend’s lip-smackingly narcotic blood) in 2008’s first installment of the Twilight franchise. And nothing much in 2009’s New Moon (suicide attempt) or 2010’s Eclipse (jealous fits, poor communication) strongly suggested he was LTR material, to say nothing of marriage for all eternity. But Twilight 3.5 is where things in the land of near-constant cloud cover and perpetually shirtless adolescent werewolves go seriously off the rails — starting with the post-graduation teen nuptials of bloodsucker Edward and his tasty-smelling human bride, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), and ramping up considerably when it turns out that Edward’s undead sperm are, inexplicably, still viable for baby-making. One of the film’s only sensible lines is uttered at the wedding by high school frenemy Jessica (Anna Kendrick), who snidely wonders whether Bella is starting to show. Of course not, in this Mormon-made tale, directed by Bill Condon (1998’s Gods and Monsters, 2004’s Kinsey). And while Bella’s dad, Charlie (Billy Burke), seems slightly more disgruntled than usual, no one other than lovesick werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) seems to question the wisdom of this shotgun-free leap from high school to honeymoon. The latter, however, after a few awkward allusions to rough sex, is soon over, and Bella does indeed start showing. Suffice it to say, it’s not one of those pregnancies that make your skin glow and your hair more lustrous. What follows is like a PSA warning against vampire-bleeder cohabitation, and one wonders if even the staunchest members of Team Edward will flinch, or adjust their stance of dewy-eyed appreciation. (1:57) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
*Young Adult We first meet Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) passed out next to last night’s bar pickup, whose name she won’t remember upon waking. You get the feeling this scenario happens a lot to Mavis — she’s the aging Manhattan model who seems like a trophy until the guy realizes she’s an even bigger asshole than he is. Plus, she’s in Minneapolis, on a house-grade scotch budget, where the denizens of the Midwestern home town she’s long abandoned assume she’s living a relatively glittering existence as swinging single and published author (albeit ghost author, of a petering-out tween fiction franchise). But no, her life is empty. Save your sympathy, however — Mavis might feel she’s missing something, but her consumerist values and incredible selfishness aren’t going to be sacrificed in finding it. After getting a courtesy baby announcement from old boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson), she makes a determination as arbitrary as it is adamant: they were always meant to be together, and she needs to reclaim him so they can re-live their glory as King Jock and Queen Bitch of high school. Never mind that Buddy is quite happy where he is — let alone that new baby, and a wife (Elizabeth Reaser) less glam but cooler than Mavis will ever be. Acting as her confidant on this kamikaze mission is ex-classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt), who wants to reverse time about two decades for very different reasons. This reunion for the Juno (2007) duo of director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody puts the latter’s facile wit to more complex, mature, organic use — though this ruthless yet quiet black character comedy is no uptempo crowd-pleaser. Rather, it’s an insidious, incisive commentary on such entertainments, as well as on juvie fiction like Sweet Valley High, whose adaptation is what Cody was developing before this tangent trumped it. It’s a surprisingly nervy movie, more like a 20-years-later sequel to Heathers (1988) than to Juno. (1:34) California, Metreon. (Harvey)