Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.
The 11th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival runs through Nov 21 at the Brava Theater, 2781 24th St, SF; Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF; and Shattuck Cinema, 2230 Shattuck, SF. Tickets (most films $10-12) and complete schedule at www.sfindie.com.
Anna Karenina Joe Wright broke out of British TV with the 9,000th filmed Pride and Prejudice (2005), unnecessary but quite good. Too bad it immediately went to his head. His increasing showiness as director enlivened the silly teenage-superspy avenger fantasy Hanna (2011), but it started to get in the way of Atonement (2007), a fine book didn’t need camera gymnastics to make a great movie. Now it’s completely sunk a certified literary masterpiece still waiting for a worthy film adaptation. Keira Knightley plays the titular 19th century St. Petersburg aristocrat whose staid, happy-enough existence as a doting mother and dutiful wife (to deglammed Jude Law’s honorable but neglectful Karenin) is upended when she enters a mutually passionate affair with dashing military officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, miscast). Scandal and tragedy ensue. There’s nothing wrong with the screenplay, by Tom Stoppard no less. What’s wrong is Wright’s bright idea of staging the whole shebang as if it were indeed staged a theatrical production in which nearly everything (even a crucial horse race) takes place on a proscenium stage, in the auditorium, or "backstage" among riggings. Whenever we move into a "real" location, the director makes sure that transition draws attention to its own cleverness as possible. What, you might ask, is the point? That the public social mores and society Anna lives in are a sort of "acting"? Like wow. Add to that another brittle, mannered performance by Wright’s muse Knightley, and there’s no hope of involvement here, let alone empathy in love with its empty (but very prettily designed) layers of artifice, this movie ends up suffocating all emotion in gilded horseshit. The reversed-fortune romance between Levin (Domhall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander) does work quite well though since Tolstoy called his novel Anna Karenina, it’s a pretty bad sign when the subsidiary storyline ends up vastly more engaging than hers. (2:10) (Harvey)
Brooklyn Castle Geeks rock that much we all know in the science- and math-rich Bay Area. That doesn’t lessen the impact of this documentary about Brooklyn I.S. 318’s young chess players, who have won the most junior high chess championships in the country and were the first middle school team to win the US Chess Federation’s national high school championship. With 60-plus percent of the students below the federal poverty level, the players certainly aren’t rolling in privilege, especially during these budget-slashing times. Nonetheless, with the help of caring teachers and an intensive chess class, the school’s players, spanning a spectrum of skills with some surpassing even Einstein’s rating, have managed to bring home state and national championships for the school and vastly improved their prospects along the way. They range from Rochelle, the shy girl who has the chance to become the first African American female chess master; Alexis, the boy who yearns to get into a good high school and college to care for his immigrant parents; Justus, the sixth-grade chess prodigy who’s already a master and suffers intensely when he loses; and Pobo, the sweet-faced son of Nigerian émigrés who says he probably wouldn’t even be in school if not for chess. Brooklyn Castle is about chess, yes, as director Katie Dellamaggiore takes the time to spell out the rating and tournament point systems, but it’s also just as importantly about the kids, who are smart, strategic, and getting primed to play the game of life. (1:42) Opera Plaza. (Chun)
Holy Motors Holy moly. Offbeat auteur Leos Carax (1999’s Pola X) and frequent star Denis Lavant (1991’s Lovers on the Bridge) collaborate on one of the most bizarrely wonderful films of the year, or any year. Oscar (Lavant) spends every day riding around Paris in a white limo driven by Céline (Edith Scob, whose eerie role in 1960’s Eyes Without a Face is freely referenced here). After making use of the car’s full complement of wigs, theatrical make-up, and costumes, he emerges for "appointments" with unseen "clients," who apparently observe each vignette as it happens. And don’t even try to predict what’s coming next, or decipher what it all means, beyond an investigation of identity so original you won’t believe your eyes. This wickedly humorous trip through motion-capture suits, graveyard photo shoots, teen angst, back-alley gangsters, old age, and more (yep, that’s the theme from 1954’s Godzilla you hear; oh, and yep, that’s pop star Kylie Minogue) is equal parts disturbing and delightful. Movies don’t get more original or memorable than this. (1:56) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Eddy)
A Royal Affair At age 15 in 1766, British princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) travels abroad to a new life as queen to the new ruler of Denmark, her cousin. Attractive and accomplished, she is judged a great success by everyone but her husband. King Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is just a teenager himself, albeit one whose mental illness makes him behave alternately like a debauched libertine, a rude two year-old, a sulky-rebellious adolescent, and a plain old abusive spouse. Once her principal official duty is fulfilled bearing a male heir the two do their best to avoid each other. But on a tour of Europe Christian meets German doctor Johann Friedrich Struenesse (Mads Mikkelsen), a true man of the Enlightenment who not only has advanced notions about calming the monarch’s "eccentricities," but proves a tolerant and agreeable royal companion. Lured back to Denmark as the King’s personal physician, he soon infects the cultured Queen with the fervor of his progressive ideas, while the two find themselves mutually attracted on less intellectual levels as well. When they start manipulating their unstable but malleable ruler to push much-needed public reforms through in the still basically feudal nation, they begin acquiring powerful enemies. This very handsome-looking history lesson highlights a chapter relatively little-known here, and finds in it an interesting juncture in the eternal battle between masters and servants, the piously self-interested and the secular humanists. At the same time, Nikolaj Arcel’s impressively mounted and acted film is also somewhat pedestrian and overlong. It’s a quality costume drama, but not a great one.(2:17) California, Clay, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Silver Linings Playbook David O. Russell follows up 2010’s The Fighter with this dark comedy about a troubled man (Bradley Cooper) attempting to piece his life back together. Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro co-star. (2:01)
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 The Twilight series ends. BUT IT WILL NEVER DIE. (1:55)
Argo If you didn’t know the particulars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, you won’t be an expert after Argo, but the film does a good job of capturing America’s fearful reaction to the events that followed it particularly the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran. Argo zeroes in on the fate of six embassy staffers who managed to escape the building and flee to the home of the sympathetic Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Back in Washington, short-tempered CIA agents (including a top-notch Bryan Cranston) cast about for ways to rescue them. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs), exfil specialist and father to a youngster wrapped up in the era’s sci-fi craze. While watching 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Tony comes up with what Cranston’s character calls "the best bad idea we have:" the CIA will fund a phony Canadian movie production (corny, intergalactic, and titled Argo) and pretend the six are part of the crew, visiting Iran for a few days on a location shoot. Tony will sneak in, deliver the necessary fake-ID documents, and escort them out. Neither his superiors, nor the six in hiding, have much faith in the idea. ("Is this the part where we say, ‘It’s so crazy it just might work?’" someone asks, beating the cliché to the punch.) Argo never lets you forget that lives are at stake; every painstakingly forged form, every bluff past a checkpoint official increases the anxiety (to the point of being laid on a bit thick by the end). But though Affleck builds the needed suspense with gusto, Argo comes alive in its Hollywood scenes. As the show-biz veterans who mull over Tony’s plan with a mix of Tinseltown cynicism and patiotic duty, John Goodman and Alan Arkin practically burst with in-joke brio. I could have watched an entire movie just about those two. (2:00) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Cloud Atlas Cramming the six busy storylines of David Mitchell’s wildly ambitious novel into just three hours the average reader might have thought at least 12 would be required this impressive adaptation directed (in separate parts) by Tom Twyker (1998’s Run Lola Run) and Matrix siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski has a whole lot of narrative to get through, stretching around the globe and over centuries. In the mid 19th century, Jim Sturgess’ sickly American notory endures a long sea voyage as reluctant protector of a runaway-slave stowaway from the Chatham Islands (David Gyasi). In 1931 Belgium, a talented but criminally minded British musician (Ben Whishaw) wheedles his way into the household of a famous but long-inactive composer (Jim Broadbent). A chance encounter sets 1970s San Francisco journalist Luisa (Halle Berry) on the path of a massive cover-up conspiracy, swiftly putting her life in danger. Circa now, a reprobate London publisher’s (Broadbent) huge windfall turns into bad luck that gets even worse when he seeks help from his brother (Hugh Grant). In the not-so-distant future, a disposable "fabricant" server to the "consumer" classes (Doona Bae) finds herself plucked from her cog-like life for a rebellious higher purpose. Finally, in an indeterminately distant future after "the Fall," an island tribesman (Tom Hanks) forms a highly ambivalent relationship toward a visitor (Berry) from a more advanced but dying civilization. Mitchell’s book was divided into huge novella-sized blocks, with each thread split in two; the film wastes very little time establishing its individual stories before beginning to rapidly intercut between them. That may result in a sense of information (and eventually action) overload, particularly for non-readers, even as it clarifies the connective tissues running throughout. Compression robs some episodes of the cumulative impact they had on the page; the starry multicasting (which in addition to the above mentioned finds many uses for Hugo Weaving, Keith David, James D’Arcy, and Susan Sarandon) can be a distraction; and there’s too much uplift forced on the six tales’ summation. Simply put, not everything here works; like the very different Watchmen, this is a rather brilliant "impossible adaptation" screenplay (by the directors) than nonetheless can’t help but be a bit too much. But so much does work in alternating currents of satire, melodrama, pulp thriller, dystopian sci-fi, adventure, and so on that Cloud Atlas must be forgiven for being imperfect. If it were perfect, it couldn’t possibly sprawl as imaginatively and challengingly as it does, and as mainstream movies very seldom do. (2:52) California, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Dangerous Liaisons John Malkovich and Sarah Michelle Gellar may have already starred in pop culture’s favorite adaptations of this classic French novel, but since pretty people scheming never gets old, here’s a Chinese take on Les Liaisons dangereuses, complete with big-name cast and all the visual allure of 1930s Shanghai. "You are such a cad!" a woman shrieks at Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun) in the first scene, and indeed he is though his heart belongs to "Miss Mo" (Cecilia Cheung). The malicious wager (if you seduce her and then horribly dump her, I’ll let you sleep with me … plus: incidental affairs along the way) is struck and things proceed on schedule, until Yifan finds himself actually falling for virtuous widow Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi). You know how it ends. Gorgeous costumes and mise-en-scène add visual interest to the familiar story, which also adds a little political flair in the form of Chinese students protesting the early days of Japanese occupation. (1:45) Metreon. (Eddy)
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) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)
The Flat Arnon Goldfinger’s The Flat begins as the filmmaker’s family descends upon the Tel Aviv apartment of his recently-deceased grandmother, "a bit of a hoarder" who lived to 95 and seemingly never got rid of anything. This includes, as Goldfinger discovers, copies of the Joseph Goebbels-founded newspaper Der Angriff, containing articles about "the Nazi who visited Palestine." The Nazi was Leopold von Mildenstein, an SS officer with an interest in Zionism. Turns out he made the journey in 1933 with his wife and a Jewish couple named Kurt and Gerda Tuchler Goldfinger’s grandparents. Understandably intrigued and more than a little baffled, Goldfinger investigates, finding letters and diary entries that reveal the unlikely traveling companions were close friends, even after World War II. His mother, the Tuchler’s daughter, prefers to "keep the past out," but curiosity (and the pursuit of a good documentary) presses Goldfinger forward; he visits von Mildenstein’s elderly daughter in Germany, digs through German archives, and unearths even more suprises about his family tree. Broader themes about guilt and denial emerge post-traumatic coping mechanisms that echo through generations.
(1:37) Albany, Opera Plaza. (Eddy)
Flight To twist the words of one troubled balladeer, he believes he can fly, he believes he can touch the sky. Unfortunately for Denzel Washington’s Whip Whitaker, another less savory connotation applies: his semi-sketchy airline captain is sailing on the overconfidence that comes with billowing clouds of blow. Beware the quickie TV spot and Washington’s heroic stance in the poster that plays this as a quasi-action flick: Flight is really about a man’s efforts to escape responsibility and his flight from facing his own addiction. It also sees Washington once again doing what he does so well: wrestling with the demons of a charismatic yet deeply flawed protagonist. We come upon Whip as he’s rousing himself from yet another bender, balancing himself out with a couple lines with a gorgeous, enabling flight attendant by his side. It’s a checks-and-balances routine we’re led to believe is business as usual, as he slides confidently into the cockpit, gives the passengers a good scare by charging through turbulence, and proceeds to doze off. The plane, however, goes into fail mode and forces the pilot to improvise brilliantly and kick into hero mode, though he can’t fly from his cover, which is slowly blown despite the ministrations of kindred addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and dealer Harling (John Goodman at his most ebullient) and the defensive moves of his pilots union cohort (Bruce Greenwood) and the airline’s lawyer (Don Cheadle). How can Whip fly out of the particular jam called his life? Working with what he’s given, Washington summons reserves of humanity, though he’s ultimately failed by John Gatins’ sanctimonious, recovery-by-the-numbers script and the tendency of seasoned director Robert Zemeckis to blithely skip over the personal history and background details that would have more completely filled out our picture of Whip. We’re left grasping for the highs, waiting for the instances that Harling sails into view and Whip tumbles off the wagon. (2:18) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Hotel Transylvania (1:32) Metreon.
A Late Quartet Philip Seymour Hoffman is fed up playing second fiddle literally. He stars in this grown-up soap opera about the internal dramas of a world-class string quartet. While the group is preparing for its 25th season, the eldest member (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s. As he’s the base note in the quartet, his retirement challenges the group’s future, not just his own. Hoffman’s second violinist sees the transition as an opportunity to challenge the first violin (Mark Ivanir) for an occasional Alpha role. When his wife, the quartet’s viola player (Catherine Keener), disagrees, it’s a slight ("You think I’m not good enough?") and a betrayal because prior to their marriage, viola and first violin would "duet" if you get my meaning. This becomes a grody aside when Hoffman and Keener’s violin prodigy daughter (Imogen Poots) falls for her mother’s old beau and Hoffman challenges their marriage with a flamenco dancer. These quiet people finds ways to use some loud instruments (a flamenco dancer, really?) and the music as well as the views of Manhattan create a deeply settled feeling of comfort in the cold insulation can be a dangerous thing. When we see (real world) cellist Nina Lee play, and her full body interacts with a drama as big as vaudeville, we see what tension was left out of the playing and forced into the incestuous "family" conflicts. In A Late Quartet, pleasures are great and atmosphere, heavy. You couldn’t find a better advertisement for this symphonic season; I wanted to buy tickets immediately. And also vowed to stay away from musicians. (1:45) Albany, Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Vizcarrondo)
A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman Blessed with recordings made by Monty Python member Graham Chapman (King Arthur in 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Brian in 1979’s Life of Brian) before his death in 1989 from cancer, filmmakers Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, and Ben Timlett recruited 14 different animation studios to piece together Chapman’s darkly humorous (and often just plain dark) life story. He was gay, he was an alcoholic, he co-wrote (with John Cleese) the legendary "Dead Parrot Sketch." A Liar’s Autobiography starts slowly even with fellow Monty Python members Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and Michael Palin lending their voices, much of the bone-dry humor falls disappointingly flat. "This is not a Monty Python film," the filmmakers insist, and viewers hoping for such will be disappointed. Stick with it, though, and the film eventually finds its footing as an offbeat biopic, with the pick-a-mix animation gimmick at its most effective when illustrating Chapman’s booze-fueled hallucinations. (1:22) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Lincoln Distinguished subject matter and an A+ production team (Steven Spielberg directing, Daniel Day-Lewis starring, Tony Kushner adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Williams scoring every emotion juuust so) mean Lincoln delivers about what you’d expect: a compelling (if verbose), emotionally resonant (and somehow suspenseful) dramatization of President Lincoln’s push to get the 13th amendment passed before the start of his second term. America’s neck-deep in the Civil War, and Congress, though now without Southern representation, is profoundly divided on the issue of abolition. Spielberg recreates 1865 Washington as a vibrant, exciting place, albeit one filled with so many recognizable stars it’s almost distracting wondering who’ll pop up in the next scene: Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant! Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln! Lena Dunham’s shirtless boyfriend on Girls (Adam Driver) as a soldier! Most notable among the huge cast are John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a daffy James Spader as a trio of lobbyists; Sally Field as the troubled First Lady; and likely Oscar contenders Tommy Lee Jones (as winningly cranky Rep. Thaddeus Stevens) and Day-Lewis, who does a reliably great job of disappearing into his iconic role. (2:30) Presidio, SF Center, 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) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
The Man With The Iron Fists (1:36) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.
The Other Son The plot of ABC Family’s Switched at Birth gets a politically-minded makeover in Lorraine Lévy’s The Other Son, in which the mixed-up teens represent both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. When mop-topped wannabe rocker Joseph (Jules Sitruk) dutifully signs up for Israeli military duty, the required blood test reveals he’s not the biological son of his parents. Understandably freaked out, his French-Israeli mother (Emmanuelle Devos) finds out that a hospital error during a Gulf War-era evacuation meant she and husband Alon (Pascal Elbé) went home with the wrong infant and their child, aspiring doctor Yacine (Medhi Dehbi), was raised instead by a Palestinian couple (Areen Omari, Khalifia Natour). It’s a highly-charged situation on many levels ("Am I still Jewish?", a tearful Joseph asks; "Have fun with the occupying forces?", Yacine’s bitter brother inquires after his family visits Joseph in Tel Aviv), and potential for melodrama is sky-high. Fortunately, director and co-writer Levy handles the subject with admirable sensitivity, and the film is further buoyed by strong performances. (1:53) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Paranormal Activity 4 (1:21) 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) Bridge, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Shattuck, 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)
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)
The Sessions Polio has long since paralyzed the body of Berkeley poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) from the neck down. Of course his mind is free to roam but it often roams south of the personal equator, where he hasn’t had the same opportunities as able-bodied people. Thus he enlists the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate, to lose his virginity at last. Based on the real-life figures’ experiences, this drama by Australian polio survivor Ben Lewin was a big hit at Sundance this year (then titled The Surrogate), and it’s not hard to see why: this is one of those rare inspirational feel-good stories that doesn’t pander and earns its tears with honest emotional toil. Hawkes is always arresting, but Hunt hasn’t been this good in a long time, and William H. Macy is pure pleasure as a sympathetic priest put in numerous awkward positions with the Lord by Mark’s very down-to-earth questions and confessions. (1:35) Embarcadero, Piedmont, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Seven Psychopaths Those nostalgic for 1990s-style chatty assassins will find much to love in the broadly sketched Seven Psychopaths. Director-writer Martin McDonough already dipped a pen into Tarantino’s blood-splattered ink well with his 2008 debut feature, In Bruges, and Seven Psychopaths reads as larkier and more off-the-cuff, as the award-winning Irish playwright continues to try to find his own discomfiting, teasing balance between goofy Grand Guignol yuks and meta-minded storytelling. Structured, sort of, with the certified lucidity of a thrill killer, Seven Psychopaths opens on Boardwalk Empire heavies Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg bantering about the terrors of getting shot in the eyeball, while waiting to "kill a chick." The talky twosome don’t seem capable of harming a fat hen, in the face of the Jack of Spades serial killer, who happens to be Psychopath No. One and a serial destroyer of hired guns. The key to the rest of the psychopathic gang is locked in the noggin of screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell), who’s grappling with a major block and attempting the seeming impossible task of creating a peace-loving, Buddhist killer. Looking on are his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) and actor best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who has a lucrative side gig as a dog kidnapper and reward snatcher with the dapper Hans (Christopher Walken). A teensy bit too enthusiastic about Marty’s screenplay, Billy displays a talent for stumbling over psychos, reeling in Zachariah (Tom Waits) and, on his doggie-grabbing adventures, Shih Tzu-loving gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Unrest assured, leitmotifs from McDonough plays like a preoccupation with fiction-making (The Pillowman) and the coupling of pet-loving sentimentality and primal violence (The Lieutenant of Inishmore) crop up in Seven Psychopaths, though in rougher, less refined form, and sprinkled with a nervous, bromantic anxiety that barely skirts homophobia. Best to bask in the cute, dumb pleasures of a saucer-eyed lap dog and the considerably more mental joys of this cast, headed up by dear dog hunter Walken, who can still stir terror with just a withering gaze and a voice that can peel the finish off a watch. (1:45) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Silent Hill: Revelation 3D The husband and adopted daughter of Rosa (Radha Mitchell, star of the 2006 first film and seen briefly here), Harry (Sean Bean) and Heather (Adelaide Clemens) have been on the run from both police and ghouls since mom vanished into the titular nether land some years ago. When dad is abducted, Heather must follow him to you-know-where, accompanied by cute-boy-with-a-secret Vincent (Kit Harington). There she runs screaming from the usual faceless knife-wielding nuns and other nightmare nemeses while attempting to rescue Pa and puzzle out her place in resolving the curse placed on the ghost town. The original 2006 film adaptation of the video game was a mixed bag but, like the game, had splendid visuals; this cut rate sequel lacks even that, despite the addition of 3D (if you’re willing to pay for a premium ticket). It’s pure cheese with no real scares, much-diminished atmosphere, and laughable stretches of mythological mumbo-jumbo recited by embarrassed good actors (Martin Donovan, Deborah Kara Unger, Carrie-Anne Moss, a punishingly hammy Malcolm McDowell). There is one cool monster a many-faced "tarantula" assembled from mannequin parts but its couple minutes aren’t worth ponying up for the rest of a movie that severely disappoints already low expectations. (1:34) Metreon. (Harvey)
Sinister True-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn’t had a successful book in a decade. So he uproots wife (Juliet Rylance) and kids (Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley) for yet another research project, not telling them that they’re actually moving into the recent scene of a ghastly unsolved murder in which an entire family save one still-missing child was hanged from a backyard tree. He finds a box in the attic that somehow escaped police attention, its contents being several reels of Super 8 home movies stretching back decades all of families similarly wiped out in one cruel act. Smelling best-sellerdom, Ellison keeps this evidence of a serial slayer to himself. It’s disturbing when his son re-commences sleepwalking night terrors. It’s really disturbing when dad begins to spy a demonic looking figure lurking in the background of the films. It’s really, really disturbing when the projector starts turning itself on, in the middle of the night, in his locked office. A considerable bounce-back from his bloated 2008 Day the Earth Stood Still remake, Scott Derrickson’s film takes the opposite tact it’s very small in both physical scope and narrative focus, almost never leaving the Oswalt’s modest house in fact. He takes the time to let pure creepiness build rather than feeling the need to goose our nads with a false scare or goresplat every five minutes. As a result, Sinister is definitely one of the year’s better horrors, even if (perhaps inevitably) the denouement can’t fully meet the expectations raised by that very long, unsettling buildup. (1:50) Metreon. (Harvey)
Skyfall Top marks to Adele, who delivers a magnificent title song to cap off Skyfall‘s thrilling pre-credits chase scene. Unfortunate, then, that the film that follows squanders its initial promise. After a bomb attack on MI6, the clock is running out for Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench), accused of Cold War irrelevancy in a 21st century full of malevolent, stateless computer hackers. The audience, too, will yearn for a return to simpler times; dialogue about "firewalls" and "obfuscated code" never fails to sound faintly ridiculous, despite the efforts Ben Whishaw as the youthful new head of Q branch. Javier Bardem is creative and creepy as keyboard-tapping villain Raoul Silva, but would have done better with a megalomaniac scheme to take over the world. Instead, a small-potatoes revenge plot limps to a dull conclusion in the middle of nowhere. Skyfall never decides whether it prefers action, bons mots, and in-jokes to ponderous mythologizing and ripped-from-the-headlines speechifying the result is a unsatisfying, uneven mixture. (2:23) California, Four Star, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Ben Richardson)
Taken 2 Surprise hit Taken (2008) was a soap opera produced by French action master Luc Besson and designed for export. The divorced-dad-saves-daughter-from-sex-slavery plot may have nagged at some universal parenting anxieties, but it was a Movie of the Week melodrama made on a major movie budget. Taken 2 begins immediately after the last, with sweet teen Kim (Maggie Grace) talking about normalizing after she was drugged and bought for booty. Papa Neeson sees Kim’s mom (Famke Janssen) losing her grip on husband number two and invites them both to holiday in Istanbul following one of his high-stakes security gigs. When the assistant with the money slinks him a fat envelope, Neeson chuckles at his haul. This is the point when women in the audience choose which Neeson they’re watching: the understated super-provider or the warrior-dad whose sense of duty can meet no match. For family men, this is the breeziest bit of vicarious living available; Neeson’s character is a tireless daddy duelist, a man as diligent as he is organized. (This is guy who screams "Victory loves preparation!") As head-splitting, disorienting, and generally exhausting as the action direction is, Neeson saves his ex-wife and the show in a stream of unclear shootouts. Taken 2 is best suited for the small screen, but whatever the size, no one can stop an international slave trade (or wolves, or Batman) like 21st century Liam. Swoon. (1:31) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Vizcarrondo)
The Waiting Room Twenty-four hours in the uneasy limbo of an ER waiting room sounds like a grueling, maddening experience, and that’s certainly a theme in this day-in-the-life film. But local documentarian Peter Nicks has crafted an absorbing portrait of emergency public health care, as experienced by patients and their families at Oakland’s Highland Hospital and as practiced by the staff there. Other themes: no insurance, no primary care physician, and an emergency room being used as a medical facility of first, last, and only resort. Nicks has found a rich array of subjects to tell this complicated story: An anxious, unemployed father sits at his little girl’s bedside. Staffers stare at a computer screen, tracking a flood of admissions and the scarce commodity of available beds. A doctor contemplates the ethics of discharging a homeless addict for the sake of freeing up one of them. And a humorous, ultra-competent triage nurse fields an endless queue of arrivals with humanity and steady nerves. (1:21) Shattuck. (Rapoport)
Wreck-It Ralph Wreck-It Ralph cribs directly from the Toy Story series: when the lights go off in the arcade, video game characters gather to eat, drink, and endure existential crises. John C. Reilly is likable and idiosyncratic as Ralph, the hulking, ham-fisted villain of a game called Fix-It-Felix. Fed up with being the bad guy, Ralph sneaks into gritty combat sim Hero’s Duty under the nose of Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a blond space marine who mixes Mass Effect‘s Commander Shepard with a PG-rated R. Lee Ermey. Things go quickly awry, and soon Ralph is marooned in cart-racing candyland Sugar Rush, helping Vanellope Von Schweetz (a manic Sarah Silverman), with Calhoun and opposite number Felix (Jack McBrayer) hot on his heels. Though often aggressively childish, the humor will amuse kids, parents, and occasionally gamers, and the Disney-approved message about acceptance is moving without being maudlin. The animation, limber enough to portray 30 years of changing video game graphics, deserves special praise. (1:34) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Ben Richardson)