Film Listings

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.

INDIEFEST

The 14th San Francisco Independent Film Festival runs through Feb 23 at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF. For tickets (most films $11) and schedule info, visit www.sfindie.com.

OPENING

*Chico and Rita This Spain-U.K. production is at heart a very old-fashioned musical romance lent novelty by its packaging as a feature cartoon. Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Oña) is a struggling pianist-composer in pre-Castro Havana who’s instantly smitten by the sight and sound of Rita (Limara Meneses, with Idania Valdés providing vocals), a chanteuse similarly ripe for a big break. Their stormy relationship eventually sprawls, along with their careers, to Manhattan, Hollywood, Paris, Las Vegas, and Havana again, spanning decades as well as a few large bodies of water. This perpetually hot, cold, hot, cold love story isn’t very complicated or interesting — it’s pretty much "Boy meets girl, generic complications ensue" — nor is the film’s simple graphics style (reminiscent of 1970s Ralph Bakshi, minus the sleaze) all that arresting, despite the established visual expertise of Fernando Trueba’s two co directors Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando. When a dream sequence briefly pays specific homage to the modernist animation of the ’50s-early ’60s, Chico and Rita delights the eye as it should throughout. Still, it’s pleasant enough to the eye, and considerably more than that to the ear — there’s new music in a retro mode from Bebo Valdes, and plenty of the genuine period article from Monk, Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo and more. If you’ve ever jones’d for a jazzbo’s adult Hanna Barbera feature (complete with full-frontal cartoon nudity — female only, of course), your dream has come true. (1:34) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance Nicolas Cage returns as the flaming-skull’d, motorcycle-riding anti-hero. This time in 3D! (1:36) Shattuck.

*Granito: How to Nail a Dictator Granito: How to Nail a Dictator is acclaimed documentarian Pamela Yates’ follow-up to her 1983 doc about the Guatemalan civil war, When the Mountains Tremble. "How does each of us weave our responsibilities into the fabric of history?" Yates wonders in her introspective voice-over. When a human-rights lawyer working to charge Guatemalan military leaders with genocide asks Yates for her Mountains outtakes, the filmmaker scours her archives, digging for evidence and eventually becoming deeply involved in the case. Granito is a legal thriller, but it’s also a personal journey, for Yates and, most potently, survivors still traumatized by Guatemala’s years of repression and violence. San Francisco lawyer Almudena Bernabeu, featured in the film as the lead lawyer in the 2006 genocide case when it was presented to the Spanish National Court, will be in attendance at this screening. (1:43) Balboa. (Eddy)

Love Billed as "the ultimate romantic comedy," this import — starring Shu Qi and a host of other Chinese and Taiwanese megastars — proves Valentine’s Day isn’t merely a stateside obsession. (2:07) Metreon.

Margaret Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is an Upper West Side teen living with her successful actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron, wife to writer-director Kenneth Lonergan) — dad (Lonergan) lives in Santa Monica with his new spouse — and going through normal teenage stuff. Her propensity for drama, however, is kicked into high gear when she witnesses (and inadvertently causes) the traffic death of a stranger. Initially fibbing a bit to protect both herself and the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) involved, she later has second thoughts, increasingly pursuing a path toward "justice" that variably affects others including the dead woman’s friend (Jeannie Berlin), mom’s new suitor (Jean Reno), teachers at Lisa’s private school Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick), etc. Lonergan is a fine playwright and uneven sometime scenarist who made a terrific screen directorial debut with 2000’s You Can Count On Me (which also featured Ruffalo, Broderick and Smith-Cameron). He appears to have intended Margaret as a pulse-taking of privileged Manhattanites’ comingled rage, panic, confusion, and guilt after 9-11. But if that’s the case, then this convoluted story provides a garbled metaphor at best. It might best be taken as a messy, intermittently potent study of how someone might become the kind of person who’ll spend the rest of their lives barging into other people’s affairs, creating a mess, assuming the moral high ground in a stubborn attempt to "fix" it, then making everything worse while denying any personal responsibility. Certainly that’s the person Lisa appears to be turning into, though it’s unclear whether Lonergan intends her to be seen that way. Indeed, despite some sharply written confrontations and good performances, it’s unclear what Lonergan intended here at all — and since he’s been famously fiddling with Margaret‘s (still-problematic) editing since late 2005, one might guess he never really figured that out himself. (2:30) SF Film Society Cinema. (Harvey)

Rampart Fans of Dexter and certain dark knight will empathize with this final holdout for rogue law enforcement, LAPD-style, in the waning days of the last century. And Woody Harrelson makes it easy for everyone else to summon a little sympathy for this devil in a blue uniform: he slips so completely behind the sun- and booze-burnt face of David "Date Rape" Brown, an LAPD cop who ridicules young female cops with the same scary, bullying certainty that he applies to interrogations with bad guys. The picture is complicated, however, by the constellation of women that Date Rape has sheltered himself with. Always cruising for other lonely hearts like lawyer Linda (Robin Wright), he still lives with the two sisters he once married (Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche) and their daughters, including the rebellious Helen (Brie Larson), who seems to see her father for who he is — a flawed, flailing anti-hero suffering from severe testosterone poisoning and given to acting out. Harrelson does an Oscar-worthy job of humanizing that everyday monster, as director Oren Moverman (2009’s The Messenger), who cowrote the screenplay with James Ellroy, takes his time to blur out any residual judgement with bokeh-ish points of light while Brown — a flip, legit side of Travis Bickle — just keeps driving, unable to see his way out of the darkness. (1:48) Embarcadero. (Chun)

*The Secret World of Arrietty It’s been far too long between 2008’s Ponyo, the last offering from Studio Ghibli, and this feature-length adaptation of Mary Norton’s children’s classic, The Borrowers, but sheer beauty of the studio’s hand-drawn animation and the effortless wonder of its tale more than make up for the wait. This U.S. release, under the very apropos auspices of Walt Disney Pictures, comes with an American voice cast (in contrast with the U.K. version), and the transition appears to be seamless — though, of course, the background is subtly emblazoned with kanji, details like the dinnertime chopsticks, and the speech rhythms, down to the "sou ka" affirmative that peppers all Japanese dialogue. Here in this down-low, hybridized realm, the fearless, four-inches-tall Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) has grown up imaginative yet lonely, believing her petite family is the last of their kind: they’re Borrowers, a race of tiny people who live beneath the floorboards of full-sized human’s dwellings and take what they need to survive. Despite the worries of her mother Homily (Amy Poehler), Arrietty begins to embark on borrowing expeditions with her father Pod (Will Arnett) — there are crimps in her plans, however: their house’s new resident, a sickly boy named Shawn (David Henrie), catches a glimpse of Arrietty in the garden, and caretaker Hara (Carol Burnett) has a bit of an ulterior motive when it comes to rooting out the wee folk. Arrietty might not be for everyone — some kids might churn in their seats with ADD-style impatience at this graceful, gentle throwback to a pre-digital animation age — but in the care of first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Ghibli mastermind Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote co-wrote the screenplay, Arrietty will transfix other youngsters (and animation fans of all ages) with the glorious detail of its natural world, all beautifully amplified and suffused with everyday magic when viewed through the eyes of a pocket-sized adventurer. (1:35) California, Presidio. (Chun)

Thin Ice One of Greg Kinnear’s specialties is the lovable loser — the guy who’s clearly an absolute scoundrel, but you can’t outright hate him, because you sense that he used to be a decent fellow once upon a time. In Thin Ice, his insurance-agent character, Mickey, is very much in this vein: visibly weary, yet still handsome; not entirely soulless, but also not above exploiting an old man for financial gain. In some ways, Thin Ice recalls last year’s Win Win in its suggestion that crime is an increasingly tempting path out of sagging middle-class desperation. One suspects that Thin Ice director and co-writer Jill Sprecher also wouldn’t mind comparisons to 1996’s Fargo, another quirky noir set in the snowy Midwest. But Thin Ice is no Fargo, or even as good as Win Win, despite showy supporting turns by Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, and Billy Crudup. Its undoing is an abrupt final act that thinks it’s far more clever than it actually is. (1:54) Shattuck. (Eddy)

This Means War McG (both Charlie’s Angels movies, 2009’s Terminator Salvation) stretches our understanding of the term "romantic comedy" in this tale of two grounded CIA agents (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) who use their downtime to compete for the love of a perky, workaholic consumer-products tester (Reese Witherspoon). Broadening the usage of "comedy" are scenes in which best bros and partners FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) spend large portions of their agency’s budget on covert surveillance ops targeting the joint object of their affection, Lauren (Witherspoon). Expanding our notions of the romantic impulse, This Means War jettisons chocolate, roses, final-act sprints through airports, and other such trite gestures in favor of B&E, micro-camera installations, and wiretapping — the PATRIOT Act–style violation of privacy as feverish expression of amour. Without letting slip any spoilers about the eventual lucky winner of the competition, let it simply be said that at no point is the prize afforded the opportunity to comment on the two men’s überstalkery style of courtship, though the movie has to end rather abruptly to accomplish that feat. But hey, in the afterglow of Valentine’s Day, who’s feeling nitpicky? And besides, the real relationship at stake in this unabashedly bromantic film is the love that dare not speak its name, existing as it does between two secret agents. Chelsea Handler supplies the raunch and, as Lauren’s closest (only?) friend, manages to drag her through the dirt a few times. Being played by Witherspoon, however, she climbs out looking like she’s been sprayed down and scrubbed with one of her focus-grouped all-purpose cleansers. (2:00) Presidio. (Rapoport)

*The Viral Factor Dreamy Taiwanese megastar Jay Chou — last seen playing second banana (as if) to Seth Rogen in 2011’s The Green Hornet — reclaims center stage in Hong Kong director Dante Lam’s latest blockbuster action flick. Chou plays Jon, a supercop tasked with protecting a scientist in possession of a new and deadly smallpox strain, highly sought-after by villains who lust after its possibilities as a chemical weapon. Unbeknownst to Jon, his long-lost older brother, Yeung (dreamy HK megastar Nicholas Tse) is up to his neck on the wrong side of the law; when clean-cut bro meets hipster-mullet-and-tattoo’d bro, screeching car chases and epic fist- and gunfights soon melt away in favor of begrudging family bonding. That doesn’t mean all of the other bad guys (corrupt cops, Jon’s evil ex-partner, an arms dealer, etc.) go soft, of course — The Viral Factor very seldom stops for a breath during its chockablock two hours, what with all the bullets, grenades, and rocket launchers busting up half the globe (Kuala Lumpur gets the worst of it). The fact that Jon has one of those only-in-the-movies ticking-clock head injuries (two weeks to live! Better make it count!) ups The Viral Factor‘s already sky-high stakes; big-name salaries aside, it’s pretty clear most of the film’s $200 million budget went into special effects of the go-boom variety. Can’t argue with that. After a brief SF run a few weeks back, the film returns as a double-feature with Donnie Yen, Louis Koo, Sandra Ng, Kelly Chen, and Raymond Wong ensemble rom-com All’s Well, Ends Well 2012. (2:00) Four Star. (Eddy)

ONGOING

Albert Nobbs The titular character in Rodrigo Garcia’s film is a butler of ideal bone-stiff propriety and subservience in a Dublin hotel whose well-to-do clients expect no less from the hired help. Even his fellow workers know almost nothing about middle aged Albert, and he’s so dully harmless they don’t even notice that lack. Yet Albert has a big secret: he is a she, played by Glenn Close, having decided this cross dressing disguise was the only way out of a Victorian pauper’s life many years ago. Chance crosses Albert’s path with housepainter Hubert (Janet McTeer), who turns out to be harboring precisely the same secret, albeit more merrily — "he" has even found happy domesticity with an understanding wife. Albert dreams of finding the same with a comely young housemaid (Mia Wasikowska), though she’s already lost her silly head over a loutish but handsome handyman (Aaron Johnson) much closer to her age. This period piece is more interesting in concept rather than in execution, as the characters stay all too true to mostly one-dimensional types, and the story of minor intrigues and muffled tragedies springs very few surprises. It’s an honorable but not especially rewarding affair that clearly exists mostly as a setting for Close’s impeccable performance — and she knows it, having written the screenplay and produced; she’s also played this part on stage before. Yet even that accomplishment has an airless feel; you never forget you’re watching an actor "transform," and for all his luckless pathos, Albert is actually a pretty tedious fellow. (1:53) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*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) California, Embarcadero, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Big Miracle Three gray whales trapped beneath the Beaufort Sea ice near the tiny town of Barrow, Alaska become an international cause célèbre through the uneasily combined efforts of an Anchorage reporter (John Krasinski), a Greenpeace activist (Drew Barrymore), a group of chainsaw-toting Inupiaq fishermen, a Greenpeace-hating oilman (Ted Danson), a Reagan-administration aide (Vinessa Shaw), a U.S. Army colonel (Dermot Mulroney), a pair of Minnesotan entrepreneurs (James LeGros and Rob Riggle) with a homemade deicing machine, and the crew of a Soviet icebreaking ship. The magical pixie dust of Hollywood has been sprinkled liberally over events that did indeed take place in 1988, but the media frenzy that blossoms out of one little local newscast is entirely believable. Everyone loves a good whale story, and this one is a tearjerker — though the kind that parents can bring their kids to without worrying overly much about subsequent weeks of deep-sea-set nightmares and having to explain terms like "critically endangered Western North Pacific gray whale" if they don’t want to. The film makes clear that the weak-on-the-environment Reagan administration and Danson’s oilman stand to gain some powerfully good PR from this feat, with potentially devastating ecological results down the line, and Barrymore’s character gets to recite a quick litany of impending oceanic catastrophes. But this kind of talk is characterized as less useful than a nice, quick, visceral pull on the heartstrings, and while offering us the pleasurable sight of whales breaching in open water, the film avoids panning out too much farther, which may be why the miracle looks so big. (2:03) 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)

Carnage Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) have arrived in the apartment of Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) to discuss proper follow-up to a playground incident in which one of their children went ballistic on another. But this grownup discussion about conduct between children quickly degenerates into a four-way living room sandbox melee, as the couples reveal snobbish disdain toward one another’s presumed values and the cracks in each marriage are duly bared. Roman Polanski’s unnecessary screen translation of Yasmina Reza’s play remains awkwardly rooted to the stage, where its contrivances would have seemed less obvious, or at least apt for the medium. There’s some fun to be had watching these actors play variously self-involved, accusatory Manhattanites who enact a very lite Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? amid way too much single-malt Scotch ingestion. But the text gets crudely farcical after a while, and its critiques of the characters’ shallow materialism, bad parenting, knee-jerk liberal empathy, privileged class indifference, etc. would resonate more if those faults weren’t so cartoonishly drawn. In the end, Carnage‘s high-profile talent obliterates rather than illuminates the material — it’s like aiming a bazooka at a napkin. (1:20) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

*Chronicle A misfit (Dane DeHaan) with an abusive father and an ever-present video camera, his affable cousin (Matt Garretty), and a popular jock (Michael B. Jordan) discover a strange, glowing object in the woods; before long, the boys realize they are newly telekinetic. At first, it’s all a lark, pulling pranks and — in the movie’s most exhilarating scene — learning to fly, but the fun ends when the one with the anger problem (guess which) starts abusing the ol’ with-great-power-comes-great-responsibilities creed. Chronicle is a pleasant surprise in a time when it’s better not to expect much from films aimed at teens; it grounds the superhero story in a (mostly) believable high-school setting, gently intellectualizes the boys’ dilemma ("hubris" is discussed), and also understands how satisfying it is to see superpowers used in the service of pure silliness — like, say, pretending you just happen to be really, really, really, good at magic tricks. First-time feature director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max "son of John" Landis also find creative ways, some more successful than others, to work with the film’s "self-shot" structure. The technique (curse you, Blair Witch) is long past feeling innovative, but Chronicle amply justifies its use in telling its story. (1:23) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

*Coriolanus For his film directing debut, Ralph Fiennes has chosen some pretty strong material: a military drama that is among Shakespeare’s least popular works, not that adapting the Bard to the screen has ever been easy. (Look how many times Kenneth Branagh, an even more fabled Shakespearean Brit on stage than Ralph, has managed to fumble that task.) The titular war hero, raised to glory in battle and little else, is undone by political backstabbers and his own contempt for the "common people" when appointed to a governmental role requiring some diplomatic finesse. This turn of events puts him right back in the role he was born for: that of ruthless, furious avenger, no matter that now he aims to conquer the Rome he’d hitherto pledged to defend. The setting of a modern city in crisis (threadbare protesting masses vs. oppressive police state) works just fine, Elizabethan language and all, as does Fiennes’ choice of a gritty contemporary action feel (using cinematographer Barry Ackroyd of 2006’s United 93 and 2008’s The Hurt Locker). He’s got a strong supporting cast — particularly Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ hawkish mother Volumnia — and an excellent lead in one Ralph Fiennes, who here becomes so warped by bloodthirst he seems to mutate into Lord Voldemort before our eyes, without need of any prosthetics. His crazy eyes under a razored bald pate are a special effect quite alarmingly inhuman enough. (2:03) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

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) Lumiere. (Eddy)

*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, Piedmont, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

*The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo The meeting of Stieg Larsson’s first "Millennium" book and David Fincher promised fireworks, as he’s a director who can be equally vivid and exacting with just the elements key to the series: procedural detail, obsession, violence, tweaked genre conventions, mind games, haunted protagonists, and expansive story arcs. But perhaps because this possible franchise launch had to be rushed into production to ride the Larsson wave, what should have been a terrific matchup turns out to be just a good one — superior in some stylistic departments (notably Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ pulsing score), but overall neither an improvement nor a disappointment in comparison to the uninspired but effective 2009 Swedish film version. Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, the muckraking Stockholm journalist whose public disgrace after a failed expose of a suspect corporate tycoon makes him the perfect candidate for an unexpected assignment: staying sequestered in the wealthy, warring Vanger clan’s island home to secretly investigate a teenage girl’s disappearance and presumed murder 40 years ago. His testy helpmate is the singular Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), antisocial hacker, researcher, and ex-mental patient par excellence. Nearly three hours long, the compressed, slightly altered (get over it) storyline nonetheless feels rushed at times; Fincher manages the rare feat of making mostly internet research exciting in filmic terms, yet oddly the book’s more shocking episodes of sex and/or mayhem don’t have the memorable impact one might expect from him. The leads are fine, as is the big support cast of recognizable faces (Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Robin Wright, etc.) But the knockout suspense, atmosphere, and urgency one hoped for isn’t present in this intelligent, not entirely satisfying treatment. On the other hand, maybe those who’ve already read the books and seen the prior films have already had so much exposure to this material that a revelatory experience is no longer possible. (2:38) Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

The Grey Suicidally depressed after losing his spouse, Ottway (Liam Neeson) has to get pro-active about living in a hurry when his plane crashes en route to a oil company site in remotest Alaska. One of a handful of survivors, Ottway is the only one with an idea of the survival skills needed to survive in this subzero wilderness, including knowledge of wolf behavior — which is fortunate, given that the (rapidly dwindling) group of eight men has landed smack in the middle of a pack’s den. Less fortunate is that these hairy, humongous predators are pretty fearless about attacking perceived intruders on their chosen terrain. Director and co-writer Joe Carnahan (2010’s The A-Team, 2006’s Smokin’ Aces) labors to give this thriller some depth via quiet character-based scenes for Neeson and the other actors (including Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts and Dermot Mulroney) in addition to the expected bloodshed. The intended gravitas doesn’t quite take, leaving The Grey and its imposing widescreen scenery (actually British Columbia) in a competent but unmemorable middle ground between serious, primal, life-or-death drama and a monster movie in wolf’s clothing. (1:57) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)

*Haywire Female empowerment gets its kung-fu-grip thighs around the beet-red throat of all the old action-heroes. Despite a deflated second half — and director Steven Soderbergh’s determinedly cool-headed yet ultimately exciting-quelling approach to Bourne-free action scenes — Haywire is fully capable of seizing and demanding everyone’s attention, particularly that of the feminists in the darkened theater who have given up looking for an action star that might best Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft. Former pro mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, who plays it as studiedly intense and charismatic as crossover grapplers Lee, Norris, and Seagal before her, is that woman, with convincingly formidable neck and shoulder muscles to distract from her curves. Her Mallory Kane is one of the few women in Haywire‘s pared-down, stylized mise-en-scene — the lone female in a world of men out to get her, starting with the opening diner scene of a watchful Mallory confronted by a man (Channing Tatum) playing at being her boyfriend, fed up with her shit, and preparing to pack her into the car — a scenario that doubtless many rebel girls can relate to until it explodes into an ultraviolent, floor-thrashing fight scene. Turns out Mallory is an ex-Marine and Blackwater-style mercenary, ready to get out of the firm and out of a relationship with her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), when she learns, the bruising way, that she’s been set up. The diner scene sets the tone for rest of Haywire, an otherwise straightforward (albeit flashback-loaded) feminist whodunit of sorts, limned with subtextual currents of sexualized violence and unfolding over a series of encounters with men who could be suitors — or killers. (1:45) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Chun)

The Help It’s tough to stitch ‘n’ bitch ‘n’ moan in the face of such heart-felt female bonding, even after you brush away the tears away and wonder why the so-called help’s stories needed to be cobbled with those of the creamy-skinned daughters of privilege that employed them. The Help purports to be the tale of the 1960s African American maids hired by a bourgie segment of Southern womanhood — resourceful hard-workers like Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer) raise their employers’ daughters, filling them with pride and strength if they do their job well, while missing out on their own kids’ childhood. Then those daughters turn around and hurt their caretakers, often treating them little better than the slaves their families once owned. Hinging on a self-hatred that devalues the nurturing, housekeeping skills that were considered women’s birthright, this unending ugly, heartbreaking story of the everyday injustices spells separate-and-unequal bathrooms for the family and their help when it comes to certain sniping queen bees like Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). But the times they are a-changing, and the help get an assist from ugly duckling of a writer Skeeter (Emma Stone, playing against type, sort of, with fizzy hair), who risks social ostracism to get the housekeepers’ experiences down on paper, amid the Junior League gossip girls and the seismic shifts coming in the civil rights-era South. Based on the best-seller by Kathryn Stockett, The Help hitches the fortunes of two forces together — the African American women who are trying to survive and find respect, and the white women who have to define themselves as more than dependent breeders — under the banner of a feel-good weepie, though not without its guilty shadings, from the way the pale-faced ladies already have a jump, in so many ways, on their African American sisters to the Keane-eyed meekness of Davis’ Aibileen to The Help‘s most memorable performances, which are also tellingly throwback (Howard’s stinging hornet of a Southern belle and Jessica Chastain’s white-trash bimbo-with-a-heart-of-gold). (2:17) Opera Plaza. (Chun)

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) Four Star, Shattuck. (Chun)

*I Am Bruce Lee Not to be confused with Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey (2000), this Spike TV co-production is nonetheless a similarly praise-filled portrait of the groundbreaking, charismatic action star. Warrior’s Journey‘s main coup was revealing long-thought-lost footage from 1978’s The Game of Death, one of only five feature films starring Lee (two of which were posthumous, including 1973 smash Enter the Dragon). I Am Bruce Lee tilts more toward exploring Lee’s lasting legacy — an extended debate over whether or not he invented what we now call "mixed martial arts" definitely plays to the doc’s Spike TV interests — but also contains the expected biography, with an emphasis on Lee’s unique approaches to martial arts and philosophy, as well as input from suspects usual (Lee’s widow and daughter, top Lee student Dan Inosanto, etc.), understandable (boxer Manny Pacquiao, martial arts champ Cung Lee), and fanboy (Mickey Rourke, Ed O’Neill). Screening in a very limited run, I Am Bruce Lee is a flashy, entertaining primer for beginning students of Lee (lesson one: he was basically the coolest guy who ever lived); longtime fans may not learn anything new, but will no doubt find much to enjoy anyway. (1:34) Four Star. (Eddy)

The Iron Lady Curiously like Clint Eastwood’s 2011 J. Edgar, this biopic from director Phyllida Lloyd and scenarist Abi Morgan takes on a political life of length, breadth and controversy — yet it mostly skims over the politics in favor of a generally admiring take on a famous narrow-minded megalomaniac’s "gumption" as an underdog who drove herself to the top. Looking back on her career from a senile old age spent in the illusory company of dead spouse Denis (Jim Broadbent), Meryl Streep’s ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher steamrolls past hurdles of class and gender while ironically re-enforcing the fustiest Tory values. She’s essentially a spluttering Lord in skirts, absolutist in her belief that money and power rule because they ought to, and any protesting rabble don’t represent the "real England." That’s a mindset that might well have been explored more fruitfully via less flatly literal-minded portraiture, though Lloyd does make a few late, lame efforts at sub-Ken Russell hallucinatory style. Likely to satisfy no one — anywhere on the ideological scale — seriously interested in the motivations and consequences of a major political life, this skin-deep Lady will mostly appeal to those who just want to see another bravura impersonation added to La Streep’s gallery. Yes, it’s a technically impressive performance, but unlikely to be remembered as one of her more depthed ones, let alone among her better vehicles. (1:45) Albany, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (1:34) 1000 Van Ness.

Man on a Ledge Sam Worthington plays escaped convict Nick Cassidy, a former cop wrongly accused of stealing a very big diamond from a ruthless real estate mogul (Ed Harris) against the backdrop of 2008’s financial disasters. Having cleared the penitentiary walls, many a man might have headed for the nearest border, but Nick’s fervent desire to prove his innocence leads him to climb out the window of a 21st-floor Manhattan hotel room and spend most of the rest of the movie pacing a tiny strip of concrete and chatting with hung over NYPD crisis negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), who’s also nursing some PTSD after a suicide negotiation gone bad. After a while, the establishing shots panning up 21 floors or across the city grid to Nick’s exterior perch begin to feel extraneous — we know there’s a man on a ledge; it says so on our ticket stub. More involving is the balancing act Nick performs while he’s up there — keeping the eyes of the city glued on him while guiding the suspensefully amateur efforts of his brother (Jamie Bell) and his brother’s girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez) to pull off an unidentified caper in a nearby high-rise. Ed Burns, Anthony Mackie, and Kyra Sedgwick costar. (1:42) 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)

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. (Harvey)

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol No world landmark (the Kremlin, the Burj Khalifia) is too iconic and/or freaking tall for uber-adrenalized Impossible Missions Force agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team (Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon "Comic Relief" Pegg) to infiltrate, climb, assume false identities in, use as a home base for unleashing futuristic spy technology that seems almost plausible (with the help of lots of iPads), race a BMW through, etc. One kind of gets the sense that Cruise and company sat down with a piece of paper and were like, "What stunts haven’t we done before, and how many of them can I do with my shirt off?" Celebrated animation director Brad Bird (2004’s The Incredibles) is right at home with Ghost Protocol as his first live-action effort — the film’s plot (set in the present day, it involves a positively vintage blend of Russians and nukes) and even its unmemorable villain take a back seat to Cruise’s secret-agent shenanigans, most of which take the form of a crazy plan that must be altered at the last minute, resulting in an even crazier plan, which must be implemented despite the sudden appearance of yet another ludicrously daunting obstacle, like, say, a howling sandstorm. For maximum big dumb fun, make sure you catch the IMAX version. A warning, though: any time the movie screeches to a halt to explore emotions or attempt characterization … zzz. (2:13) 1000 Van Ness. (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) Clay, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Norwegian Wood Haruki Murakami’s global best-seller — a melancholic, late-1960s love story — hits the big screen thanks to Tran Anh Hung (1993’s The Scent of the Green Papaya). Kenichi Matsuyama (2011’s Gantz, 2005’s Linda Linda Linda) and Rinko Kikuchi (2006’s Babel) play Watanabe and Naoko, a young couple who reconnect in Tokyo after the suicide of his best friend, who was also her childhood sweetheart. There’s love between them, but Naoko is mentally fragile; she flees town suddenly after they sleep together for the first time. Meanwhile, Watanabe meets the vivacious Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) — who is also already involved, though not quite so deeply as he — and they spark, though he’s devoted to Naoko, and visits her at the rural hospital where she’s (sort of) working through her emotional issues. Tran is an elegant filmmaker, and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood contributes an appropriately moody score. But amid all the breathless encounters, the uber-emo Norwegian Wood drags a bit at over two hours, and the film never quite crystallizes what it was about Murakami’s book that inspired such international rapture. (2:13) Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s deconstructed Turkish police procedural offers little action but plenty of atmosphere. The search for a corpse by a group of men — a prosecutor, a commissar, a doctor, and their two main suspects— through the desolate, wind-scoured hills of rural Anatolia, is in fact something of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. Ceylan’s real investigation is philosophical, zeroing in on the way in which each of these men constructs his own truth out of the re-telling and mis-telling of past events. And the drudgery of this protracted investigation, much of it depicted in real-time, provides plenty of opportunities for all of the players to tell their stories or to simply ruminate, often bitterly, about their own lives. There is palpable loneliness that courses through all the chatter, formally mirrored by Ceylan’s penchant long-takes of isolated figures swallowed by the countryside or the darkness of night. But despite the endless landscape that surrounds them, there is no exit for these small men. (2:37) SF Film Society Cinema. (Sussman)

*Pariah A teenage girl stands stock-still in a dark nightclub, gazing with desire and fear at the half-naked female dancers on the stage. Later, riding home on the bus, she slowly removes the layers of butch that held her together in the club, stripping down to some version of the person her parents need to see when she walks in the door. Nearly wordlessly, the opening scenes of Dee Rees’s Pariah poignantly depict the embattled internal life of Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old African American girl living in Brooklyn with her family and struggling both to be seen as she is and to determine what that might look like. The battles are being waged externally, too, between Alike’s adoring father (Charles Parnell), living in willful ignorance, and angry, rigid mother (Kim Wayans), desperately enforcing a feminine dress code and steering Alike away from openly butch friend Laura (Pernell Walker). Rees’ script beautifully conveys a household of landmines and chasms, which widen as husband and wife and daughter struggle and fail to communicate, asking the wrong questions, fearfully skirting the truth about Alike’s sexuality and her parents’ crumbling marriage. And the world outside proves full of romantic pitfalls and the tensions of longtime friendship and peer pressure. The poems in which the talented Alike takes solace and makes her way toward a more truthful existence are beautiful, but at a certain point the lyricism overtakes the film, forcing an ending that is tidy but less than satisfying. (1:26) Lumiere. (Rapoport)

*Pina Watching Pina Bausch’s choreography on film should not have been as absorbing and deeply affecting of an experience as it was. Dance on film tends to disappoint — the camera flattens the body and distorts perspective, and you either see too many or not enough details. However, improved 3D technology gave Wim Wenders (1999’s Buena Vista Social Club; 1987’s Wings of Desire) the additional tools he needed to accomplish what he and fellow German Bausch had talked about for 20 years: collaborating on a documentary about her work. Instead of making a film about the rebel dance maker, Wenders made it for Bausch, who died in June 2009, two days before the start of filming. Pina is an eloquent tribute to a tiny, soft-spoken, mousy-looking artist who turned the conventions of theatrical dance upside down. She was a great artist and true innovator. Wenders’ biggest accomplishment in this beautifully paced and edited document is its ability to elucidate Bausch’s work in a way that words probably cannot. While it’s good to see dance’s physicality and its multi dimensionality on screen, it’s even better that the camera goes inside the dances to touch tiny details and essential qualities in the performers’ every gesture. No proscenium theater can offer that kind of intimacy. Appropriately, intimacy (the eternal desire for it) and loneliness (an existential state of being) were the two contradictory forces that Bausch kept exploring over and over. And by taking fragments of the dances into the environment — both natural and artificial — of Wuppertal, Germany, Wenders places them inside the emotional lives of ordinary people, subjects of all of Bausch’s work. (1:43) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Rita Felciano)

Safe House Frankly, Denzel Washington watchers are starved for another movie in which he’s playing the smartest guy in the room. Despite being hampered by a determinedly murky opening, Safe House should mostly satisfy. Washington’s Tobin Frost is well-used to dwelling into a grayed-out borderland of black ops and flipped alliances — a onetime CIA star, he now trades secrets while perpetually on the run. Fleeing from killers of indeterminate origin, Tobin collides headlong with eager young agent Matt (Ryan Reynolds), who’s stuck maintaining a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. Tasked with holding onto Tobin’s high-level player by his boss (Brendan Gleeson) and his boss’s boss (Sam Shepard), Matt is determined to prove himself, retain and by extension protect Tobin (even when the ex-superspy is throttling him from behind amid a full-speed car chase), and resist the magnetic pull of those many hazardous gray zones. Surrounded by an array of actorly heavies, including Vera Farmiga, who collectively ratchet up and invest this possibly not-very-interesting narrative — "Bourne" there; done that — with heart-pumping intensity, Washington is magnetic and utterly convincing as the jaded mouse-then-cat-then-mouse toying with and playing off Reynolds go-getter innocent. Safe House‘s narrative doesn’t quite fill in the gaps in Tobin Frost’s whys and wherefores, and the occasional ludicrous breakthroughs aren’t always convincing, but the film’s overall, familiar effect should fly, even when it’s playing it safe (or overly upstanding, especially when it comes to one crucial, climactic scrap of dialogue from "bad guy" Washington, which rings extremely politically incorrect and tone-deaf). (2:00) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Chun)

*A Separation Iran’s first movie to win Berlin’s Golden Bear (as well as all its acting awards), this domestic drama reflecting a larger socio-political backdrop is subtly well-crafted on all levels, but most of all demonstrates the unbeatable virtue of having an intricately balanced, reality-grounded screenplay — director Asghar Farhadi’s own — as bedrock. A sort of confrontational impartiality is introduced immediately, as our protagonists Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) face the camera — or rather the court magistrate — to plead their separate cases in her filing for divorce, which he opposes. We gradually learn that their 14-year wedlock isn’t really irreparable, the feelings between them not entirely hostile. The roadblock is that Simin has finally gotten permission to move abroad, a chance she thinks she must seize for the sake of their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). But Nader doesn’t want to leave the country, and is not about to let his only child go without him. Farhadi worked in theater before moving into films a decade ago. His close attention to character and performance (developed over several weeks’ pre-production rehearsal) has the acuity sported by contemporary playwrights like Kenneth Lonergan and Theresa Rebeck, fitted to a distinctly cinematic urgency of pace and image. There are moments that risk pushing plot mechanizations too far, by A Separation pulls off something very intricate with deceptive simplicity, offering a sort of integrated Rashomon (1950) in which every participant’s viewpoint as the wronged party is right — yet in conflict with every other. (2:03) Albany, Embarcadero. (Harvey)

*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) Lumiere. (Eddy)

Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 3D (2:16) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki.

*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) Piedmont, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

"2011 Oscar-Nominated Short Films, Live Action and Animated" Lumiere, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Smith Rafael.

The Vow A rear-ender on a snowy Chicago night tests the nuptial declarations of a recently and blissfully married couple, recording studio owner Leo (Channing Tatum) and accomplished sculptor Paige (Rachel McAdams). When the latter wakes up from a medically induced coma, she has no memory of her husband, their friends, their life together, or anything else from the important developmental stage in which she dropped out of law school, became estranged from her regressively WASP-y family, stopped frosting her hair and wearing sweater sets, and broke off her engagement to preppy power-douchebag Jeremy (Scott Speedman). Watching Paige malign her own wardrobe and "weird" hair and rediscover the healing powers of a high-end shopping spree is disturbing; she reenters her old life nearly seamlessly, and the warm spark of her attraction to Leo, which we witness in a series of gooey flashbacks, feels utterly extinguished. And, despite the slurry monotone of Tatum’s line delivery, one can empathize with a sense of loss that’s not mortal but feels like a kind of death — as when Paige gazes at Leo with an expression blending perplexity, anxiety, irritation, and noninvestment. But The Vow wants to pluck on our heartstrings and inspire a glowing, love-story-for-the-ages sort of mood, and the film struggles to make good on the latter promise. Its vague evocations of romantic destiny mostly spark a sense of inevitability, and Leo’s endeavors to walk his wife through retakes of scenes from their courtship are a little more creepy and a little less Notebook-y than you might imagine. (1:44) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Rapoport)

W.E. Madonna’s first directorial feature, 2008’s Filth and Wisdom, was so atrocious, and the early word on this second effort so vitriolic, that there’s a temptation to give W.E. too much credit simply for not being a disgrace. Co-written by Madge and Alek Keshishian, it’s about two women in gilded cages. One is Wallis Simpson (the impressive Andrea Riseborough), a married American socialite who scandalized the world by divorcing her husband and running about with Edward, Prince of Wales (James D’Arcy), who had to abdicate the English throne in order to marry her in 1936. The other is fictive Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a childless Manhattan socialite in the late 1990s who’s neglected by her probably-unfaithful husband (Richard Coyle). Over-eagerly intertwined despite their trite-at-best overlaps (the main one being Wally’s obsession with Wallis), these two strands hold attention for a while. But eventually they grow turgid. We’re presumably meant to be carried away by their True Love, but the film doesn’t succeed in making Wallis and Edward seem more than two petulant, shallow snobs who were fortunate to find each other, but didn’t necessarily make one another better or more interesting people. (It also alternately denies and glosses over the couple’s fascist-friendly politics, which became an embarrassment as England fought Germany in World War II.) Meanwhile, Wally is a mopey blank too easily belittled by her spouse, and too handily rescued by a Prince Charming, or rather "Russian intellectual slumming as a security guard" (Oscar Isaac) working at Sotheby’s during an auction of the late royal couple’s estate. As is so often the case with Madonna, she seems to be saying something here, but precisely what is murky and probably not worth sussing
out. Likewise, the attention to showy surface aesthetics — in particular Arianne Phillips’ justifiably Oscar-nominated costumes — is fastidious, revealing, and to an extent satisfying in itself. Somewhat ambitious and in several ways quite well crafted, the handsomely appointed W.E. isn’t bad (surely it wouldn’t have attracted such hostility if directed by anyone else), but the flaws that finally suffocate it reach right down to its conceptual gist. There is, however, one lovely moment toward the end: Riseborough’s Wallis, a well-preserved septuagenarian, dancing an incongruous yet supremely self-assured twist on request for her bedridden husband. (1:59) Bridge. (Harvey)

The Woman in Black Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) plays a grieving young widower in an old-fashioned ghost story, set in the era of spirit hands and other visitations from beyond the veil. But while Victorian séances were generally aimed at the dearly departed, the titular visitant (Liz White), who haunts the isolated estate of Eel Marsh House and its environs, is a vindictive, mean-spirited creature, avenging the long-ago loss of her child by wreaking havoc and heartbreak among the families of the nearby village, among them a local landowner (Ciarán Hinds) and his wife (Janet McTeer). Radcliffe’s character, a lawyer named Arthur Kipps, has been tasked with settling the affairs of the mansion’s recently deceased owner, an assignment that requires sifting through mounds of dusty, crumpled ephemera in one of the creakiest, squeakiest buildings ever constructed. Set at the end of a narrow spit of land that disappears into the surrounding wetlands when the tide is high, Eel Marsh House is a charming place to be marooned after dark. But no amount of horrified screams from the audience will keep Kipps from his duties, though it’s hard to make much headway amid the unrelenting creepiness. Nearly every moment brings a fresh inexplicable thumping noise from an upper floor; a new room full of dead-eyed dolls that Kipps has no business wandering into; another freakishly screaming face next to his as he gazes out the window. The house is a richly textured set piece; the horror is of the sort that makes you jump and then laugh, both at the filmmakers, for springing the same tricks on you over and over, and at yourself, for falling prey to them every time. (1:36) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Rapoport)