Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, and Lynn Rapoport. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.
MILL VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL
The 35th Mill Valley Film Festival runs Oct. 4-14 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St, San Rafael; Cinéarts@Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton, Mill Valley; and 142 Throckmorton Theatre, Mill Valley. For additional venues, full schedule, and tickets (most shows $13.50), visit www.mvff.com. For commentary, see Film.
Bitter Seeds Just what we all needed: more incontrovertible evidence of the bald-faced evil of Monsanto. This documentary on destitute Indian cotton farmers follows an 18-year-old girl named Manjusha, a budding journalist who investigates the vast numbers of farmer suicides since the introduction (and market stranglehold) of "BT" cotton which uses the corporation’s proprietary GMO technology in the region of Vidarbha. Before BT took over in 2004, these cotton farmers relied on cheap heritage seed fertilized only by cow dung, but the largely illiterate population fell prey to Monsanto’s marketing blitz and false claims, purchasing biotech seed that resulted in pesticide reliance, failing crops, and spiraling debt. It’s a truly heartbreaking and infuriating story, but much of the action feels stagy and false. Should Indian formality be blamed? Considering the same fate befell Micha X. Peled’s 2005 documentary China Blue, probably not. Still, eff Monsanto. (1:28) Roxie. (Michelle Devereaux)
Butter Jennifer Garner, Olivia Wilde, and Hugh Jackman star in this Iowa-set satirical comedy about competitive butter carving. (1:32)
Frankenweenie Wee Victor Frankenstein brings his dog back from the dead in Tim Burton’s black-and-white, 3D animated tale. (1:27) Presidio.
The Mystical Laws As The Master gathers Oscar buzz for its Scientology-inspired tale, another movie based on the teachings of a similarly-named religion, Japanese fringe sect Happy Science, opens this weekend. But that analogy is incorrect, for The Mystical Laws way more resembles 2000’s Battlefield Earth, demonstrating and preaching its source material’s tenants rather than questioning them. Visit Happy Science’s website and you’ll find a New Age mix of Christianity and Buddhism, with woo-woo about truth and love. Its founder, Ryuho Okawa, claims to the reincarnation of "El Cantare," sort of an über-god who controls all spiritual activity on Earth. Anyway, now there’s an anime flick based on one of Okawa’s hundreds of books; it’s about an evil overlord with planet-ruling aspirations who gets smacked down by the powerful combo of aliens, a guy who realizes he’s humanity’s "light of hope" (basically a Jesus-Buddha combo, with psychic powers to boot), and an eight-headed flying dragon. There is Nazi iconography; there are Star Wars-inspired plot points. At one point, the hero preaches directly to the camera. It’s all very heavy-handed. A far more amusing use of your time would be to go to Happy Science’s website and click the tab marked "Astonishing Facts" to learn the spiritual fates of historical figures: "Currently Beethoven lives in the lower area of the Bodhisattva Realm of the 7th dimension in the Spirit world, and aims to transcend the sadness evident in parts of his music and become an expert in the music of joy," while proponent o’ evolution Darwin "is now serving a penance in Abysmal Hell." Hey, wait a minute! Isn’t science supposed to be "happy?" (2:00) New People, 1746 Post, SF; www.newpeopleworld.com. (Eddy)
The Oranges In director Julian Farino’s tale of two families, the Wallings and the Ostroffs are neighbors and close friends living in the affluent New Jersey township of West Orange. We meet David Walling (Hugh Laurie), his wife Paige (Catherine Keener), his best friend Terry Ostroff (Oliver Platt), and Terry’s wife, Carol (Allison Janney), during a period of domestic malaise for both couples four unhappy people who enjoy spending time together that is destined to be exponentially magnified over the Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities. We learn much of this in voice-over courtesy of stalled-out 24-year-old design school grad Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), a second-generation Walling whose narrative subjectivity the film makes plain. No one will fault Vanessa for editorializing, however, when her Ostroff counterpart, onetime BFF and present-day nemesis Nina (Leighton Meester), returns home after a five-year absence and, amid maternal pressure to date Vanessa’s visiting brother, Toby (Adam Brody), instead embarks on an affair with their father. The ick factor is large, particularly because it takes a while to keep straight all the spouses, offspring, and houses they belong in. But Farino works to convince us that the romantic spark between David and Nina should be judged on its merits rather than with a gut-level revulsion, a reaction we can leave to the film’s principals. To the extent that this is possible, it’s possible to enjoy The Oranges‘ intelligent writing and fine cast, whose sympathetic characters (perhaps excluding Nina, whose heedlessness regarding the feelings of others verges on sociopathic) we wish the best of luck in surviving the holidays. (1:30) Albany, Clay. (Rapoport)
The Paperboy Lee Daniels scored big with Precious (2009), but this follow-up is so off-kilter in tone and story it will likely polarize critics and confuse audiences, despite its A-list cast. I happened to enjoy the hell out of this tacky, sweat-drenched, gator-gutting, and generally overwrought adaptation of Peter Dexter’s novel (Dexter and Daniels co-wrote the screenplay); it’s kind of a Wild Things-The Help-A Time to Kill mash-up, with the ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey starring as Ward Jansen, a Florida newspaper reporter investigating what he thinks is the wrongful murder conviction of Hillary Van Wetter (a repulsively greasy John Cusack). But the movie’s not really about that. Set in 1969 and narrated by Macy Gray, who plays the veteran housekeeper for the Jansens a clan that also includes college dropout Jack (Zac Efron) The Paperboy is neither mystery nor thriller. It’s more of a swamp cocktail, with some odd directorial choices (random split-screen here, random zoom there) that maybe seem like exploitation movie homages. As a Southern floozy turned on by "prison cock" (but not, to his chagrin, by the oft-shirtless Jack), Nicole Kidman turns in her trashiest performance since 1995’s To Die For. (1:46) Embarcadero. (Eddy)
V/H/S See "Gruesome Discovery." (1:55) Bridge, Shattuck.
Taken 2 It’s kidnapping season again, and Liam Neeson is pissed. (1:31) Marina.
Arbitrage As Arbitrage opens, its slick protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), is trying to close the sale of his life, on his 60th birthday: the purchase of his company by a banking goliath. The trick is completing the deal before his fraud, involving hundreds of millions of dollars, is uncovered, though the whip-smart daughter who works for him (Brit Marling) might soon be onto him. Meanwhile, Miller’s gaming his personal affairs as well, juggling time between a model wife (Susan Sarandon) and a Gallic gallerist mistress (Laetitia Casta), when sudden-death circumstances threaten to destroy everything, and the power broker’s livelihood and very existence ends up in the hands of a young man (Nate Parker) with ambitions of his own. It’s a realm that filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki is all too familiar with. Though like brothers Andrew (2003’s Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene (2005’s Why We Fight), Jarecki’s first love is documentaries (his first film, 2006’s The Outsider, covered auteur James Toback), his family is steeped in the business world. Both his parents were commodities traders, and Jarecki once owned his own web development firm and internet access provider, among other ventures. When he started writing Arbitrage‘s script in 2008, he drew some inspiration from Bernard Madoff but ultimately, the film is about a good man who became corrupted along the way, to the point of believing in his own invincibility. (1:40) Metreon, Presidio, Smith Rafael, Shattuck. (Chun)
Backwards Athletic disappointment is not a new feeling for Abi (Sarah Megan Thomas, who also wrote the script), who has just learned she’s been named the alternate for the Olympic crew team a bench warming role she was also relegated to in the last Olympics. But after she quits the team in a huff and moves home, it’s not long before she realizes that her life off the water is pretty depressing, too. Enter former boyfriend Geoff (James Van Der Beek), now the athletic director at the high school where Abi honed her rowing talents, who gives her a job coaching the talented but undisciplined girls who make up the current team. Will this new venture help Abi finally grow up and regain her self-confidence? Will she re-ignite her spark with Geoff? Will there be a last-act conflict involving yet another chance at the Olympics? Will there be multiple training montages? As directed by Ben Hickernell, Backwards hits all of the expected themes about following one’s heart and Doing the Right Thing. Thomas, a former rower herself, has an ordinary-girl appeal, but even Backwards’ attention to authenticity can’t elevate what’s essentially a very predictable sports drama. (1:29) Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Beasts of the Southern Wild Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d’Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn’t attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about improbably Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting. Benh Zeitlin’s film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. But not all is well: when "the storm" floods the land, the holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate. With its elements of magic, mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology, Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film’s cost and length. (1:31) Four Star, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Beauty is Embarrassing You may not recognize the name Wayne White offhand, but you will know his work: he designed and operated many of the puppets on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, including Randy (the blockheaded bully) and Dirty Dog (the canine jazzbo). Neil Berkeley’s Beauty Is Embarrassing named for a mural White painted on the side of a Miami building for Art Basel 2009 charts the life of an artist whose motto is both "I want to try everything I can!" and "Fuck you!" The Southern-born oddball, who came of age in the early-1980s East Village scene, is currently styling himself as a visual artist (his métier: painting non-sequitur phrases into landscapes bought from thrift stores), but Beauty offers a complex portrait of creativity balanced between the need to be subversive and the desire to entertain. (1:27) Roxie. (Eddy)
The Bourne Legacy Settle down, Matt Damon fans the original Bourne appears in The Bourne Legacy only in dialogue ("Jason Bourne is in New York!") and photograph form. Stepping in as lead badass is Jeremy Renner, whose twin powers of strength and intelligence come courtesy of an experimental-drug program overseen by sinister government types (including Edward Norton in an utterly generic role) and administered by lab workers doing it "for the science!," according to Dr. Rachel Weisz. Legacy‘s timeline roughly matches up with the last Damon film, The Bourne Ultimatum, which came out five years ago and is referenced here like we’re supposed to be on a first-name basis with its long-forgotten plot twists. Anyway, thanks to ol’ Jason and a few other factors involving Albert Finney and YouTube, the drug program is shut down, and all guinea-pig agents and high-security-clearance doctors are offed. Except guess which two, who manage to flee across the globe to get more WMDs for Renner’s DNA. Essentially one long chase scene, The Bourne Legacy spends way too much of its time either in Norton’s "crisis suite," watching characters bark orders and stare at computer screens, or trying to explain the genetic tinkering that’s made Renner a super-duper-superspy. Remember when Damon killed that guy with a rolled-up magazine in 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy? Absolutely nothing so rad in this imagination-free enterprise. (2:15) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)
The Campaign (1:25) 1000 Van Ness.
Celeste and Jesse Forever Married your best friend, realized you love but can’t be in love with each other, and don’t want to let all those great in-jokes wither away? Such is the premise of Celeste and Jesse Forever, the latest in what a recent wave of meaty, girl-centric comedies penned by actresses here Rashida Jones working with real-life ex Will McCormack; there, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Zoe Lister Jones (Lola Versus), and Lena Dunham (Girls) who have gone the DIY route and whipped up their own juicy roles. There’s no mistaking theirs for your average big-screen rom-com: they dare to wallow harder, skew smarter, and in the case of Celeste, tackle the thorny, tough-to-resolve relationship dilemma that stubbornly refuses to conform to your copy-and-paste story arc. Nor do their female protagonists come off as uniformly likable: in this case, Celeste (Jones) is a bit of an aspiring LA powerbitch. Her Achilles heel is artist Jesse (Andy Samberg), the slacker high school sweetheart she wed and separated from because he doesn’t share her goals (e.g., he doesn’t have a car or a job). Yet the two continue to spend all their waking hours together and share an undeniable rapport, extending from Jesse’s encampment in her backyard apartment to their jokey simulated coitus featuring phallic-shaped lip balm. Throwing a wrench in the works: the fact that they’re still kind of in love with each other, which all their pals, like Jesse’s pot-dealer bud Skillz (McCormack), can clearly see. It’s an shaggy, everyday breakup yarn, writ glamorous by its appealing leads, that we too rarely witness, and barring the at-times nausea-inducing shaky-cam under the direction of Lee Toland Krieger, it’s rendered compelling and at times very funny there’s no neat and tidy way to say good-bye, and Jones and McCormack do their best to capture but not encapsulate the severance and inevitable healing process. It also helps that the chemistry practically vibrates between the boyish if somewhat one-note Samberg and the soulful Jones, who fully, intelligently rises to the occasion, bringing on the heartbreak. (1:31) Shattuck. (Chun)
The Dark Knight Rises Early reviews that called out The Dark Knight Rises‘ flaws were greeted with the kind of vicious rage that only anonymous internet commentators can dish out. And maybe this is yet another critic-proof movie, albeit not one based on a best-selling YA book series. Of course, it is based on a comic book, though Christopher Nolan’s sophisticated filmmaking and Christian Bale’s tortured lead performance tend to make that easy to forget. In this third and "final" installment in Nolan’s trilogy, Bruce Wayne has gone into seclusion, skulking around his mansion and bemoaning his broken body and shattered reputation. He’s lured back into the Batcave after a series of unfortunate events, during which The Dark Knight Rises takes some jabs at contemporary class warfare (with problematic mixed results), introduces a villain with pecs of steel and an at-times distractingly muffled voice (Tom Hardy), and unveils a potentially dangerous device that produces sustainable energy (paging Tony Stark). Make no mistake: this is an exciting, appropriately moody conclusion to a superior superhero series, with some nice turns by supporting players Gary Oldman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But in trying to cram in so many characters and plot threads and themes (so many prisons in this thing, literal and figural), The Dark Knight Rises is ultimately done in by its sprawl. Without a focal point like Heath Ledger’s menacing, iconic Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight the stakes aren’t as high, and the end result feels more like a superior summer blockbuster than one for the ages. (2:44) Metreon. (Eddy)
Detropia Those of us from Detroit, once-glamorous capital of American manufacturing and symbol of the triumph of capitalism, often feel like we were born with the history of the city in our bones. Another common feeling is that of dread upon hearing that yet another arty documentary (or brow-furrowing article, or glossy photo book) is coming down the pipe. The narrative arc of such things is usually this: remember Motown? Cars were amazing. Then there were scary riots, probably out of thin air. Then the jobs left. Isn’t Detroit sad now? Look how spooky this abandoned train station from the 1930s is! America is over. Wait! Some hipsters are starting a farm downtown! There may be hope after all. But who knows? Detropia, directed by Heidi Ewing, who grew up near Detroit, and Rachel Grady, doesn’t exactly deconstruct that crusty storyline (non-spoiler alert: the hipster-farmers become performance artists). But this important and beautiful film shows how much more of the Detroit tale takes on meaning and shape when told through the voices of people who actually live there, with a cinematic eye that doesn’t shy away from reality, even as it bends it to narrative ends. (1:30) Elmwood, Roxie, Smith Rafael. (Marke B.)
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel The life of legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland is colorfully recounted in Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, a doc directed by her granddaughter-in-law, Lisa Immordino Vreeland. The family connection meant seemingly unlimited access to material featuring the unconventionally glamorous (and highly quotable) Vreeland herself, plus the striking images that remain from her work at Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Narrated" from interview transcripts by an actor approximating the late Vreeland’s husky, posh tones, the film allows for some criticism (her employees often trembled at the sight of her; her sons felt neglected; her grasp of historical accuracy while working at the museum was sometimes lacking) among the praise, which is lavish and delivered by A-listers like Anjelica Huston, who remembers "She had a taste for the extraordinary and the extreme," and Manolo Blahnik, who squeals, "She had the vision!" (1:26) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Eddy)
Dredd 3D Cartoonishly, gleefully gruesome violence abounds in Dredd 3D, a pretty enjoyable comic-book adaptation thanks to star Karl Urban’s deadpan zingers. This is not a remake of the 1995 Sly Stallone flop Judge Dredd, by the way, though it might as well be a remake of 2011 Indonesian import The Raid: Redemption. The stories are identical. Like, lawsuit material-identical: supercop infiltrates (and then becomes trapped in, and must battle his way out of) a high-rise apartment tower run by a ruthless crime boss. Key difference is that Dredd has futuristic weapons, and The Raid had badass martial arts. Also Dredd‘s villain is played by Lena "Cersei Lannister" Headey, so there’s that. (1:38) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
End of Watch Buddy cop movies tend to go one of two ways: the action-comedy route (see: the Rush Hour series) or the action-drama route. End of Watch is firmly in the latter camp, despite some witty shit-talking between partners Taylor (a chrome-domed Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña from 2004’s Crash) as they patrol the mean streets of Los Angeles. Writer-director David Ayer, who wrote 2001’s Training Day, aims for authenticity by piecing together much of (but, incongruously, not all of) the story through dashboard cameras, surveillance footage, and Officer Taylor’s own ever-present camera, which he claims to be carrying for a school project, though we never once see him attending classes or mentioning school otherwise. Gyllenhaal and Peña have an appealing rapport, but End of Watch‘s adrenaline-seeking plot stretches credulity at times, with the duo stumbling across the same group of gangsters multiple times in a city of three million people. Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick do what they can in underwritten cop-wife roles, but End of Watch is ultimately too familiar (but not lawsuit-material familiar) to leave any lasting impression. Case in point: in the year 2012, do we really need yet another love scene set to Mazzy Star’s "Fade Into You"? (1:49) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)
Finding Nemo 3D (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.
For a Good Time, Call&ldots; Suffering the modern-day dilemmas of elapsed rent control and boyfriend douchebaggery, sworn enemies Katie (Ari Graynor) and Lauren (Lauren Miller) find themselves shacking up in Katie’s highly covetable Manhattan apartment, brought together on a stale cloud of resentment by mutual bestie Jesse (Justin Long, gamely delivering a believable version of your standard-issue young hipster NYC gay boy). The domestic glacier begins to melt somewhere around the time that Lauren discovers Katie is working a phone-sex hotline from her bedroom; equipped with a good head for business, she offers to help her go freelance for a cut of the proceeds. Major profitability ensues, as does a friendship evoking the pair bonding at the center of your garden-variety romantic comedy, as Katie trains Lauren to be a phone-sex operator and the two share everything from pinkie swears and matching pink touch-tone phones to intimate secrets and the occasional hotline threesome. Directed by Jamie Travis and adapted from a screenplay by Miller and Katie Anne Naylon, the film is a welcome response to the bromance genre, and with any luck it may also introduce linguistic felicities like "phone-banging" and "let’s get this fuckshow started" into the larger culture. The raunchy telephonic interludes include cameos by Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen (Miller’s husband) as customers calling from such unfurtive locations as a public bathroom stall and the front seat of a taxicab. But the two roomies supply plenty of dirty as Katie, an abashed wearer of velour and denim pantsuits, helps the more restrained Lauren discover the joys of setting free her inner potty mouth. (1:25) SF Center. (Rapoport)
Hotel Transylvania (1:32) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck.
House At the End of the Street Tight T-shirts, a creepy cul-de-sac, couples in cars on lonely lanes, and the cute but weird loner kid all the stuff of classic drive-in horror fare, revisited in this ambitious tribute of sorts. Don’t mistake House at the End of the Street for genre-reviving efforts by super fans like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie; Mark Tonderai’s mash up of Psycho (1960) and Last House on the Left (1972) lacks the rock ‘n’ roll brio and jet-black humor of, say, Cabin Fever (2002) or The Devil’s Rejects (2005). Instead House reads like an earnest effort to add a thin veneer of psychological realism and even girl power sincerity to a blood-spattered back catalog. Teenage musician Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) and her overwhelmed mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) have found themselves quite a deal of a new rental home a bit too good, since their next door neighbors were both brutally killed by their brain-damaged offspring who was obviously afflicted with the same greasy hair issues as the ghoulish gal in The Ring. Ryan (Bay Area native Max Thieriot), the boy who continues to live in the house where his parents were murdered, is ostracized, attractive, and much like his home, a fixer making him mighty attractive to Elissa. A hearty, artistic soul who likes to venture where others fear to tread, she’s drawn to him despite the fact that she feels like she’s being watched from the woods that separate their homes. Switching back and forth between various perspectives like that of a sputtering, spasmodically edited psychopath-cam and the steady, thoughtful gaze of a rebellious yet empathetic girl House manages to effectively throw a few curveballs your way, while toying with genre conventions and upsetting your expectations. Shoring up its efforts is a talented cast, headed up by Lawrence’s feisty heroine and Shue’s sad-eyed struggling mom. (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Lawless Lawless has got to be the most pretentiously humorless movie ever made about moonshiners a criminal subset whose adventures onscreen have almost always been rambunctious and breezy, even when violent. Not here, bub. Adapting Matt Bondurant’s fact-inspired novel The Wettest County in the World about his family’s very colorful times a couple generations back, director John Hillcoat and scenarist (as well as, natch, composer) Nick Cave have made one of those films in which the characters are presented to you as if already immortalized on Mount Rushmore monumental, legendary, a bit stony. They’ve got a crackling story about war between hillbilly booze suppliers and corrupt lawmen during Prohibition, and while the results aren’t dull (they’re too bloody for that, anyway), they’d be a whole lot better if the entire enterprise didn’t take itself so gosh darned seriously. The Bondurant brothers of Franklin County, Va. are considered "legends" when we meet them in 1931, having defied all and sundry as well as survived a few bullets: mack-truck-built Forrest (Tom Hardy); eldest Howard (Jason Clarke), who tipples and smiles a lot; and "runt of the litter" Jack (Shia LeBeouf), who has a chip on his shoulder. The local law looks the other way so long as their palms are greased, but the Feds send sneering Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), it’s an eye for an eye for an eye, etc. The revenge-laden action in Lawless is engaging, but the filmmakers are trying so hard to make it all resonant and folkloric and meta-cinematic, any fun you have is in spite of their efforts. (1:55) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)
Liberal Arts Against his better judgment, 35-year-old Jesse (How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor, who also wrote and directed) falls for 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a student at the leafy Ohio university he graduated from years before (never named, but filmed at Kenyon College, Radnor’s own alma matter). The two meet when Jesse, now a jaded Brooklynite, visits to celebrate the retirement of Professor Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). Letter-writing, classical-music appreciation, a supremely awkward follow-up visit, and much white-boy angst follows. Liberal Arts is at its best when delineating a specific type of collegiate experience as safe, privileged bubble where, as Jesse explains, you can announce "I’m a poet!" without anyone punching you in the face. It can also be an oppressive space, as illustrated by a cranky prof who feels trapped by academia (a razor-sharp Lucinda Janney), and a morose classmate of Zibby’s who identifies a little too closely with David Foster Wallace. And it’s stuff like the Wallace references (again, never named just identified via heavily dropped hints, for all the cool viewers to pick up on) that’re ultimately Liberal Arts‘ undoing. Radnor explores some interesting themes, but the film is full of indie-comedy tropes the friendly stoner (Zac Efron) who randomly appears to dispense life lessons; an anti-Twilight rant that’s a bit too pleased with itself; the unusually attractive character who appears in the first act and is obviously destined for inclusion in the inevitable happy ending. (1:37) Shattuck. (Eddy)
Looper It’s 2044 and, thanks to a lengthy bout of exposition by our protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), here’s what we know: Time travel, an invention 30 years away, will be used by criminals to transport their soon-to-be homicide victims backward, where a class of gunmen called loopers, Joe among them, are employed to "do the necessaries." More deftly revealed in Brick writer-director Rian Johnson’s new film is the joylessness of the world in which Joe amorally makes his way, where gangsters from the future control the present (under the supervision of Jeff Daniels), their hit men live large but badly (Joe is addicted to some eyeball-administered narcotic), and the remainder of the urban populace suffers below-subsistence-level poverty. The latest downside for guys like Joe is that a new crime boss has begun sending back a steady stream of aging loopers for termination, or "closing the loop"; soon enough, Joe is staring down a gun barrel at himself plus 30 years. Being played by Bruce Willis, old Joe is not one to peaceably abide by a death warrant, and young Joe must set off in search of himself so thatwith the help of a woman named Sara (Emily Blunt) and her creepy-cute son Cid (Pierce Gagnon)he can blow his own (future) head off. Having seen the evocatively horrific fate of another escaped looper, we can’t totally blame him. Parsing the daft mechanics of time travel as envisioned here is rough going, but the film’s brisk pacing and talented cast distract, and as one Joe tersely explains to another, if they start talking about it, "we’re gonna be here all day making diagrams with straws" in other words, some loops just weren’t meant to be closed. (1:58) Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
The Master Paul Thomas Anderson’s much-hyped likely Best Picture contender lives up: it’s easily the best film of 2012 so far. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dodd, the L. Ron Hubbard-ish head of a Scientology-esque movement. "The Cause" attracts Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, in a welcome return from the faux-deep end), less for its pseudo-religious psychobabble and bizarre personal-growth exercises, and more because it supplies the aimless, alcoholic veteran a drifter in every sense of the word with a sense of community he yearns for, yet resists submitting to. As with There Will Be Blood (2007), Anderson focuses on the tension between the two main characters: an older, established figure and his upstart challenger. But there’s less cut-and-dried antagonism here; while their relationship is complex, and it does lead to dark, troubled places, there are also moments of levity and weird hilarity which might have something to do with Freddie’s paint-thinner moonshine. (2:17) Albany, Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Moonrise Kingdom Does Wes Anderson’s new film mark a live-action return to form after 2007’s disappointingly wan Darjeeling Limited? More or less. Does it tick all the Andersonian style and content boxes? Indubitably. In the most obvious deviation Anderson has taken with Moonrise, he gives us his first period piece, a romance set in 1965 on a fictional island off the New England coast. After a chance encounter at a church play, pre-teen Khaki Scout Sam (newcomer Jared Gilman) instantly falls for the raven-suited, sable-haired Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, ditto). The two become pen pals, and quickly bond over the shared misery of being misunderstood by both authority figures and fellow kids. The bespectacled Sam is an orphan, ostracized by his foster parents and scout troop (much to the dismay of its straight-arrow leader Edward Norton). Suzy despises her clueless attorney parents, played with gusto by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand in some of the film’s funniest and best scenes. When the two kids run off together, the whole thing begins to resemble a kind of tween version of Godard’s 1965 lovers-on the-lam fantasia Pierrot le Fou. But like most of Anderson’s stuff, it has a gauzy sentimentality more akin to Truffaut than Godard. Imagine if the sequence in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums where Margot and Richie run away to the Museum of Natural History had been given the feature treatment: it’s a simple yet inspired idea, and it becomes a charming little tale of the perils of growing up and selling out the fantasy. But it doesn’t feel remotely risky. It’s simply too damn tame. (1:37) Shattuck. (Michelle Devereaux)
ParaNorman (1:32) Metreon.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower Move over, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series there’s a new shrinking-violet social outcast in town. These days, life might not suck quite so hard for 90-pound weaklings in every age category, what with so many films and TV shows exposing, and sometimes even celebrating, the many miseries of childhood and adolescence for all to see. In this case, Perks author Stephen Chbosky takes on the directorial duties both a good and bad thing, much like the teen years. Smart, shy Charlie is starting high school with a host of issues: he’s painfully awkward and very alone in the brutal throng, his only friend just committed suicide, and his only simpatico family member was killed in a car accident. Charlie’s English teacher Mr. Andersen (Paul Rudd) appears to be his only connection, until the freshman strikes up a conversation with feline, charismatic, shop-class jester Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his magnetic, music- and fun-loving stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). Who needs the popular kids? The witty duo head up their gang of coolly uncool outcasts their own, the Wallflowers (not to be confused with the deeply uncool Jakob Dylan combo), and with them, Charlie appears to have found his tribe. Only a few small secrets put a damper on matters: Patrick happens to be gay and involved with football player Brad (Johnny Simmons), who’s saddled with a violently conservative father, and Charlie is in love with the already-hooked-up Sam and is frightened that his fragile equilibrium will be destroyed when his new besties graduate and slip out of his life. Displaying empathy and a devotion to emotional truth, Chbosky takes good care of his characters, preserving the complexity and ungainly quirks of their not-so-cartoonish suburbia, though his limitations as a director come to the fore in the murkiness and choppily handled climax that reveals how damaged Charlie truly is. (1:43) Albany, California, Embarcadero, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Pitch Perfect As an all-female college a cappella group known as the Barden Bellas launches into Ace of Base’s "The Sign" during the prologue of Pitch Perfect, you can hear the Glee-meets-Bring It On elevator pitch. Which is fine, since Bring It On-meets-anything is clearly worth a shot. In this attempt, Anna Kendrick stars as withdrawn and disaffected college freshman Beca, who dreams of producing music in L.A. but is begrudgingly getting a free ride at Barden University via her comp lit professor father. Clearly his goal is not making sure she receives a liberal arts education, as Barden’s academic jungle extends to the edges of the campus’s competitive a cappella scene, and the closest thing to an intellectual challenge occurs during a "riff-off" between a cappella gangs at the bottom of a mysteriously drained swimming pool. When Beca reluctantly joins the Bellas, she finds herself caring enough about the group’s fate to push for an Ace of Base moratorium and radical steps like performing mashups. Much as 2000’s Bring It On coined terms like "cheerocracy" and "having cheer-sex," Pitch Perfect gives us the infinitely applicable prefix "a ca-" and descriptives like "getting Treble-boned," a reference to forbidden sexual relations with the Bellas’ cocky rivals, the Treblemakers. The gags get funnier, dirtier, and weirder, arguably reaching their climax in projectile-vomit snow angels, with Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as grin-panning competition commentators offering a string of loopily inappropriate observations. (1:52) Metreon. (Rapoport)
The Possession (1:31) Metreon.
Resident Evil: Retribution (1:35) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
Samsara Samsara is the latest sumptuous, wordless offering from director Ron Fricke, who helped develop this style of dialogue- and context-free travelogue with Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Baraka (1992). Spanning five years and shooting on 70mm film to capture glimmers of life in 25 countries on five continents, Samsara, which spins off the Sanskrit word for the "ever-turning wheel of life," is nothing if not good-looking, aspiring to be a kind of visual symphony boosted by music by the Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and composers Michael Stearns and Marcello De Francisci. Images of natural beauty, baptisms, and an African woman and her babe give way to the madness of modern civilization from jam-packed subways to the horrors of mechanized factory farming to a bizarre montage of go-go dancers, sex dolls, trash, toxic discarded technology, guns, and at least one gun-shaped coffin. After such dread, the opening and closing scenes of Buddhist spirituality seem almost like afterthoughts. The unmistakable overriding message is: humanity, you dazzle in all your glorious and inglorious dimensions even at your most inhumane. Sullying this hand wringing, selective meditation is Fricke’s reliance on easy stereotypes: the predictable connections the filmmaker makes between Africa and an innocent, earthy naturalism, and Asia and a vaguely threatening, mechanistic efficiency, come off as facile and naive, while his sonic overlay of robot sounds over, for instance, an Asian woman blinking her eyes comes off as simply offensive. At such points, Fricke’s global leap-frogging begins to eclipse the beauty of his images and foregrounds his own biases. (1:39) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Chun)
Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter’s stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock’n’roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) Opera Plaza. (Chun)
Sleepwalk with Me Every year lots of movies get made by actors and comedians who want to showcase themselves, usually writing and often directing in addition to starring. Most of these are pretty bad, and after a couple of festival appearances disappear, unremembered by anyone save the credit card companies that vastly benefited from its creation. Mike Birbiglia’s first feature is an exception maybe not an entirely surprising one (since it’s based on his highly praised Off-Broadway solo show and best-seller), but still odds-bucking. Particularly as it’s an autobiographical feeling story about an aspiring stand-up comic (Mike as Matt) who unfortunately doesn’t seem to have much natural talent in that direction, but nonetheless obsessively perseveres. This pursuit of seemingly fore destined failure might be causing his sleep disorder, or it might be a means of avoiding taking the martial next step with long-term girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose, making something special out of a conventional reactive role) everyone else agrees is the best thing in his life. Yep, it’s another commitment-phobic man-boy/funny guy who regularly talks to the camera, trying to find himself while quirky friends and family stand around like trampoline spotters watching a determined clod. If all of these sounds derivative and indulgent, well, it ought to. But Sleepwalk turns a host of familiar, hardly foolproof ideas into astute, deftly performed, consistently amusing comedy with just enough seriousness for ballast. Additional points for "I zinged him" being the unlikely most gut-busting line here. (1:30) Opera Plaza, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Solomon Kane Conceived by Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, this 16th-century hero is cut from the same sword-and-sorcery cloth, being a brawny brute of slippery but generally sorta-kinda upright morals. Solomon (James Purefoy) is slaughtering his way to a North African treasure trove when demons swallow up his likewise greedy, conscience-free cohorts and damn his soul for a lifetime of bad deeds. Suddenly committed to the greater good, he returns homeward to cold gray England, where Jason Flemyng’s evil sorcerer soon imperils both our protagonist and the Puritan family (complete with love interest) he’s befriended. This movie has been around a while since 2009, to be exact, yet barely beating director Michael J. Bassett’s new Silent Hill: Revelation 3D to U.S. theaters and is a good illustration of what can happen when you make a fairly expensive ($45 million) fantasy-action adventure without major stars nor any marketable novelty. Which is to say: not much. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the good-looking, watchable but generic-feeling Solomon Kane, save that nothing about it feels remotely original or inspired. It’s the perfectly okay, like-a-thousand-others mall flick you’ll forget you saw by Thanksgiving, despite being peopled with such normally interesting actors as Max Von Sydow, Alice Krige, and the late Pete Postlethwaite. (1:54) Metreon. (Harvey)
Somewhere Between Five years ago, when filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton adopted a baby girl from China, she was inspired to make Somewhere Between, a doc about the experiences of other Chinese adoptees. The film profiles four teenage girls, including Berkeley resident Fang "Jenni" Lee, whose American lives couldn’t be more different (one girl has two moms and attends a fancy prep school; another, raised by devout Christians, dreams of playing her violin at the Grand Ole Opry) but who share similar feelings about their respective adoptions. The film follows the girls on trips to London (as part of an organized meeting of fellow adoptees), Spain (to chat with people interested in adopting Chinese babies, and where the question "What does it feel like to be abandoned?" is handled with astonishing composure), and China (including one teen’s determined quest to track down her birth family). Highly emotional at times, Somewhere Between benefits from its remarkably mature and articulate subjects, all of whom have much to say about identity and personal history. (1:28) Shattuck. (Eddy)
"Stars In Shorts" Outside of the festival circuit, it’s an uncommon feat for shorts to make it to the big screen, so it can’t hurt to make name recognition a prerequisite for selection. In writer-director Rupert Friend’s Steve, Keira Knightley plays an embattled Londoner under siege by her lonely, pathologically odd neighbor (Colin Firth). Written by Neil LaBute, Jacob Chase’s After School Special sets up a semi-flirtation between two strangers (Sarah Paulson and Wes Bentley) at a playground, only to deliver the kind of gut-level punch you might expect from the writer-director of 1998’s Your Friends and Neighbors. LaBute’s own Sexting is an entertaining exercise in stream-of-consciousness monologuing by Julia Stiles. As with most shorts programs, "Stars" is a mixed bag. Robert Festinger’s The Procession, in which Lily Tomlin and Modern Family‘s Jesse Tyler Ferguson play reluctant participants in a funeral procession, sounds promising, but the conversation palls during the 10-plus minutes we’re stuck in the car with them. Benjamin Grayson’s sci-fi thriller Prodigal, starring Kenneth Branagh, reaches its predictable crisis points several minutes after the viewer has arrived. More successful are Jay Kamen’s musical comedy Not Your Time, starring Seinfeld‘s Jason Alexander as an old Hollywood hand whose writing career has stalled out, and Chris Foggin’s Friend Request Pending, which treats viewers to the sight of Dame Judi Dench gamely wading into the social network in search of a date. (1:53) Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)
Trouble with the Curve Baseball scout Gus (Clint Eastwood) relies on his senses to sign players to the Atlanta Braves, and his roster of greats is highly regarded by everyone save a sniveling climber named Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), who insists his score-keeping software can replace any scout. Gus’ skill in his field are preternatural, but with his senses dwindling, his longtime-friend Pete (a brilliant John Goodman) begs Gus’ daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to go with him to see how bad the situation is and maybe drive him around. Ultimately, the film’s about the rift between career woman Mickey, and distant dad Gus, with some small intrusions from Justin Timberlake as Mickey’s romantic interest. Trouble with the Curve is a phrase used to describe batters who can’t hit a breaking ball and it’s a nuance if an incontrovertible one unobservable to the untrained eye. While Mickey and Gus stumble messily toward a better relationship (with a reasonable amount of compromise), Curve begins to look a bit like The Blind Side (2009), trading the church and charity for therapy and baggage. But what it offers is sweet and worthwhile, if you’re tolerant of the sanitized psychology and personality-free aesthetics. But it’s a movie about love and compromise and if you love baseball you won’t have trouble forgiving some triteness, especially when Timberlake, the erstwhile Boo-Boo, gets to make a Yogi Berra joke. (1:51) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Sara Vizcarrondo)
Vulgaria (1:32) Metreon.
Won’t Back Down If talk of introducing charter schools into the public education mix tends to give you collective-bargaining-related hives, Daniel Barnz’s Won’t Back Down is unlikely to appeal, unless perhaps as the object of a boycott or a picket line. Two embattled mothers, Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), both with children at a failing Pittsburgh elementary school and the latter a teacher there, join forces to change the institutional culture by leading a parent-teacher takeover, with the goal of creating a charter school. As the bureaucratic process for doing so is described by a school district employee, it should take them three to five years to discover that they’ve been hurling themselves at a brick wall; Jamie, an efficient combination of fireball and pit bull, is determined to pulverize the wall in about two months. Watching her and Nona try to secure more than a third-rate, treading-water education for their kids, it’s hard not to root for the possibility of a transformation, and even an upper-level teachers’ union staffer played by Holly Hunter finds herself climbing the fence. The details of what lies on the other side (and inside Jamie and Nona’s 400-page proposal) stay fairly fuzzy, though. And while Barnz lets his warring factionsdesperate mothers and educators, a union boss (Ned Eisenberg) watching the deterioration of the labor movement, a pro-union teacher (Oscar Isaac) ambivalently engaged in the chartering projectimpassionedly debate their way through the film, a little more wonkiness might have clarified the arguments of those done waiting for Superman. (2:00) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
The Words We meet novelist Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) as he’s making his way from a posh building to a cab in the rain; it’s important the shot obscures his generally shiny exterior, because we’re meant to believe this guy’s a sincere and struggling novelist. Jeremy Irons, aged with flappy eye makeup, watches him vengefully. Seems Rory fell upon the unpublished novel Irons’ character wrote in sadness and loss and feeling himself incapable of penning such prose, transcribed the whole thing. When his lady friend (Zoe Saldana) encourages him to sell it, he becomes the next great American writer. He’s living the dream on another man’s sweat. But that’s not the tragedy, exactly, because The Words isn’t so concerned with the work of being a writer it’s concerned with the look and insecurity of it. Bradley and Irons aren’t "real," they’re characters in a story read by Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) while the opportunistic, suggestive Daniella (Olivia Wilde) comes onto him. She can tell you everything about Clay, yet she hasn’t read the book that’s made him the toast of the town The Words, which is all about a young plagiarist and the elderly writer he steals from. "I don’t know how things happen!", the slimy, cowering writers each exclaim. So, how do you sell a book? Publish a book? Make a living from a book? How much wine does it take to bed Olivia Wilde? Sure, they don’t know how things happen; they only know what it looks like to finish reading Hemingway at a café or watch the sun rise over a typewriter. Rarely has a movie done such a trite job of depicting the process of what it’s like to be a writer though if you found nothing suspect about, say, Owen Wilson casually re-editing his 400-page book in one afternoon in last year’s Midnight in Paris, perhaps you won’t be so offended by The Words, either. (1:36) SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)