Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.
Beware of Mr. Baker This mesmerizing bio-doc about volatile, wildly talented drummer Ginger Baker (Cream, Blind Faith) begins with the 70-something musician clocking director Jay Bulger in the face. After this opening, Bulger who also wrote a deeply compelling article about Baker for Rolling Stone last year wisely pulls himself out of the narrative, instead turning to a wealth of new interviews (with Baker, his trademark red locks faded to gray, and many of his musical and personal partners, including Eric Clapton and multiple ex-Mrs. Bakers), vintage performance footage, and artful animation to weave his tale. Baker’s colorfully-lived, improbably long life has been literally all over the map; he overcame a hardscrabble British childhood to find jazz and rock stardom, and along the way jammed with Fela Kuti in Nigeria (where he picked up his fierce love of polo), broke many hearts (his own kids’ among them) and lost multiple fortunes, spent a stint in the US, and eventually landed at his current farm in South Africa. Two constants: his musical genius, and his frustratingly jerky behavior the consequence of a naturally prickly personality exacerbated by copious drug use and bitterness. A must-see for musicians and those who love them. (1:30) Roxie. (Eddy)
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton star in this fairy-tale action film directed by Tommy Wirkola (2009’s Dead Snow). (1:41) California.
In Another Country This latest bit of gamesmanship from South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo (2000’s Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors) has Isabelle Huppert playing three Frenchwomen named Anne visiting the same Korean beachside community under different circumstances in three separate but wryly overlapping stories. In the first, she’s a film director whose presence induces inapt overtures from both her married colleague-host and a strapping young lifeguard. In the more farcical second, she’s a horny spouse herself, married to an absent Korean man; in the third, a woman whose husband has run away with a Korean woman. The same actors as well as variations on the same characters and situations appear in each section, their rejiggered intersections poking fun at Koreans’ attitudes toward foreigners, among other topics. Airy and amusing, In Another Country is a playful divertissement that’s shiny as a bubble, and leaves about as much of a permanent impression. (1:39) (Harvey)
Movie 43 An A-list ensemble cast (Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Kate Winslet) and multiple directors (Peter Farrelly, James Gunn, Bob Odenkirk) combine their star power for this 12-chapter comedy film. (1:37)
Parker "Jason Statham" is pretty much a distinct genre at this point, yeah? (1:58) Shattuck.
Quartet See "Smith Happens." (1:38) Embarcadero.
Amour Arriving in local theaters atop a tidal wave of critical hosannas, Amour now seeks to tempt popular acclaim though actually liking this perfectly crafted, intensely depressing film (from Austrian director Michael Haneke) may be nigh impossible for most audience members. Eightysomething former music teachers Georges and Anne (the flawless Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) are living out their days in their spacious Paris apartment, going to classical concerts and enjoying the comfort of their relationship. Early in the film, someone tries to break into their flat and the rest of Amour unfolds with a series of invasions, with Anne’s declining health the most distressing, though there are also unwanted visits from the couple’s only daughter (an appropriately self-involved Isabelle Huppert), an inept nurse who disrespects Anne and curses out Georges, and even a rogue pigeon that wanders in more than once. As Anne fades into a hollow, twisted, babbling version of her former self, Georges also becomes hollow and twisted, taking care of her while grimly awaiting the inevitable. Of course, the movie’s called Amour, so there’s some tenderness involved. But if you seek heartwarming hope and last-act uplift, look anywhere but here. (2:07) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
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) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Broken City Catherine Zeta-Jones’ measured performance and killer wardrobe run away with this uneven political thriller about a made-up Manhattan with real(-ish) problems. Russell Crowe is only slightly improving his record post-Les Mis, as he plays another harried and morally confused agent "for the people." Here, he’s Mayor Hostetler, a swaggering politico with fingers in New York’s real estate cookie jar and the sort of "get shit done" directive that results in bodies lying in NYC’s overfilled gutters. Good thing he has Mark Wahlberg in his back pocket, a cop who slipped a murder wrap and now scrapes the bottom for gigs as a private detective. Seven years ago Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) was seeking vigilante justice for the victim of a rape-murder in the city’s biggest ghetto. The victim became a household name but the killer was let off, leading to cries about the validity of NY’s justice system and to allusions to the Central Park Five. Broken City is less about a broken City and more about broken Men, and there are certain elements that seem too subtle for a story built on such bald-faced and predictable strategy. Between a script that’s struggling to demonstrate moral compromise and integrity, and direction (by Allen Hughes) that’s as sensitive to nuance as a border collie, it’s hard to find much beyond Zeta-Jones’ shoe stylings to admire. (1:49) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)
Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (1:31) Metreon.
Django Unchained Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western homage features a cameo by the original Django (Franco Nero, star of the 1966 film), and solid performances by a meticulously assembled cast, including Jamie Foxx as the titular former slave who becomes a badass bounty hunter under the tutelage of Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing the evil yet befuddlingly delightful Nazi Hans Landa in Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds, is just as memorable (and here, you can feel good about liking him) as a quick-witted, quick-drawing wayward German dentist. There are no Nazis in Django, of course, but Tarantino’s taboo du jour (slavery) more than supplies motivation for the filmmaker’s favorite theme (revenge). Once Django joins forces with Schultz, the natural-born partners hatch a scheme to rescue Django’s still-enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whose German-language skills are as unlikely as they are convenient. Along the way (and it’s a long way; the movie runs 165 minutes), they encounter a cruel plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose main passion is the offensive, shocking "sport" of "Mandingo fighting," and his right-hand man, played by Tarantino muse Samuel L. Jackson in a transcendently scandalous performance. And amid all the violence and racist language and Foxx vengeance-making, there are many moments of screaming hilarity, as when a character with the Old South 101 name of Big Daddy (Don Johnson) argues with the posse he’s rounded up over the proper construction of vigilante hoods. It’s a classic Tarantino moment: pausing the action so characters can blather on about something trivial before an epic scene of violence. Mr. Pink would approve. (2:45) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Gangster Squad It’s 1949, and somewhere in the Hollywood hills, a man has been tied hand and foot to a pair of automobiles with the engines running. Coyotes pace in the background like patrons queuing up for a table at Flour + Water, and when dinner is served, the presentation isn’t very pretty. We’re barely five minutes into Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad, and fair warning has been given of the bloodletting to come. None of it’s quite as visceral as the opening scene, but Fleischer (2009’s Zombieland) packs his tale of urban warfare with plenty of stylized slaughter to go along with the glamour shots of mob-run nightclubs, leggy pin-curled dames, and Ryan Gosling lounging at the bar cracking wise. At the center of all the gunplay and firebombing is what’s framed as a battle for the soul of Los Angeles, waged between transplanted Chicago mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) who wields terms like "progress" and "manifest destiny" as a rationale for a continental turf war and a police sergeant named John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), tasked with bringing down Cohen’s empire. The assignment requires working under cover so deep that only the police chief (Nick Nolte) and the handpicked members of O’Mara’s "gangster squad" ncluding Gosling, a half-jaded charmer who poaches Cohen’s arm candy (Emma Stone) know of its existence. This leaves plenty of room for improvisation, and the film pauses now and again to wonder about what happens when you pit brutal amorality against brutal morality, but it’s a rhetorical question, and no one shows much interest in it. Dragged down by talking points that someone clearly wanted wedged in (as well as by O’Mara’s ponderous voice-overs), the film does better when it abandons gravitas and refocuses on spinning its mythic tale of wilder times in the Golden State. (1:53) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)
A Haunted House (1:25) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Make no mistake: the Lord of the Rings trilogy represented an incredible filmmaking achievement, with well-deserved Oscars handed down after the third installment in 2003. If director Peter Jackson wanted to go one more round with J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved characters for a Hobbit movie, who was gonna stop him? Not so fast. This return to Middle-earth (in 3D this time) represents not one but three films which would be self-indulgent enough even if part one didn’t unspool at just under three hours, and even if Jackson hadn’t decided to shoot at 48 frames per second. (I can’t even begin to explain what that means from a technical standpoint, but suffice to say there’s a certain amount of cinematic lushness lost when everything is rendered in insanely crystal-clear hi-def.) Journey begins as Bilbo Baggins (a game, funny Martin Freeman) reluctantly joins Gandalf (a weary-seeming Ian McKellan) and a gang of dwarves on their quest to reclaim their stolen homeland and treasure, batting Orcs, goblins, Gollum (Andy Serkis), and other beasties along the way. Fan-pandering happens (with characters like Cate Blanchett’s icy Galadriel popping in to remind you how much you loved LOTR), and the story moves at a brisk enough pace, but Journey never transcends what came before or in the chronology of the story, what comes after. I’m not quite ready to declare this Jackson’s Phantom Menace (1999), but it’s not an unfair comparison to make, either. (2:50) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
How to Survive a Plague David France’s documentary chronicles the unprecedented impact political activism had on the course of AIDS in the U.S. drastically curtailing its death toll within a few years despite considerable institutional indifference and downright hostility. As the epidemic here first surfaced in, and decimated, the gay male community, much of Reagan America (particularly in religious quarters) figured the death sentence was deserved. The President himself infamously refrained from even saying the word "AIDS" publicly until his final year of office, after thousands had died. Both terrified and outraged, the gay community took it upon themselves to demand treatment, education, and research. Most of this urgent 1980s overview is concerned with the rise of ACT-UP, whose angry young men successfully lobbied and shamed corporate, academic, medical, and pharmaceutical bodies into action, with the result that by the mid-90s new drugs existed that made this dreaded diagnosis no longer a necessarily terminal one. France is a journalist who’s been covering AIDS practically since day one, and his first feature (made with the help of numerous first-rate collaborators) is authoritative and engrossing. Just don’t expect much (or really any) attention paid to the contributions made by S.F. or other activist hotspots like many a gay documentary, this one hardly notices there’s a world (or gay community) outside Manhattan. (1:49) Roxie. (Harvey)
The Impossible Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (2007’s The Orphanage) directs The Impossible, a relatively modestly-budgeted take on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, based on the real story of a Spanish family who experienced the disaster. Here, the family (Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, three young sons) is British, on a Christmas vacation from dad’s high-stress job in Japan. Beachy bliss is soon ruined by that terrible series of waves; they hit early in the film, and Bayona offers a devastatingly realistic depiction of what being caught in a tsunami must feel like: roaring, debris-filled water threatening death by drowning, impalement, or skull-crushing. And then, the anguish of surfacing, alive but injured, stranded, and miles from the nearest doctor, not knowing if your family members have perished. Without giving anything away (no more than the film’s suggestive title, anyway), once the survivors are established (and the film’s strongest performer, Watts, is relegated to hospital-bed scenes) The Impossible finds its way inevitably to melodrama, and triumph-of-the-human-spirit theatrics. As the family’s oldest son, 16-year-old Tom Holland is effective as a kid who reacts exactly right to crisis, morphing from sulky teen to thoughtful hero but the film is too narrowly focused on its tourist characters, with native Thais mostly relegated to background action. It’s a disconnect that’s not quite offensive, but is still off-putting. (1:54) SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Jack Reacher (2:10) Metreon.
The Last Stand With gun control issues dominating the news, what better time to release a movie that lovingly glorifies the wonders of excessive firepower? Fortunately for star Arnold Schwarzenegger, making his return to leading-man status after that little fling with politics, The Last Stand is stupidly enjoyable enough to make any such PC-minded realizations relatively fleeing ones. When a Mexican drug lord (who also happens to be an expert race-car driver) escapes from federal custody and begins speeding home in a super-Corvette, the lead FBI agent (Forest Whitaker, slumming big-time) realizes his only hope is a teeny Arizona border town that happens to be overseen by Sheriff Schwarzenegger. (Other residents include a couple of hapless deputies; an Iraq war vet; and a gun nut played by a cartoonishly obnoxious Johnny Knoxville.) Can this ragtag crew hold off first the drug lord’s advance team (led by a swaggering Peter Stormare), and then the head baddie himself? Duh. The biggest surprise The Last Stand offers is that it’s actually pretty fun no doubt thanks to the combo of Korean director Kim Jee-woon (2008’s eccentric The Good, The Bad, and the Weird; 2003’s spooky A Tale of Two Sisters) and the heft of Schwarzenegger’s still-potent charisma. (1:47) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
The Law in These Parts Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s documentary is a rather extraordinary historical record: he interviews numerous retired Israeli judges and lawyers who shaped and enforced the country’s legal positions as occupiers of Palestinian land and "temporary guardians" of a Palestinian populace living under foreign occupation. The key word there is "temporary" in using here a different (military rather than civil) justice from the one Israeli citizens experience, Israel has been able to exert the extraordinary powers of an invading force in wartime. But what is "temporary" about an occupation that’s now lasted nearly 45 years? How can the state justify (under Geneva Convention rules, for one thing) building permanent Jewish settlements that now house about half a million Israelis on land that is as yet not legally Israel’s? By constantly changing the terms and laws of occupation, they do just that. If many policies have been perhaps necessary to control terrorist attacks, one can argue that they and other policies have created the climate in which oppositional fervor and terroristic acts were bound to flourish. That, of course, is a political-ethical judgement far beyond the public purview of the judges and others here, whose dry legalese admits no personal culpability and indeed sometimes seems almost absurdly divorced from real-world ethics and consequence, which of course serves an increasingly rigid governmental stance just fine. Without preaching, The Law in These Parts raises a number of discomfiting questions about bending law to suit an agenda that in any other context would seem frankly unlawful. (1:40) Roxie. (Harvey)
Let Fury Have the Hour Though its message that creative expression is a powerful, meaningful way to fight oppression is a valuable one, Antonino D’Ambrosio’s Let Fury Have the Hour covers turf well-trod for anyone who has ever seen a documentary about punk rock and social justice. (Especially when it contains usual suspects like Ian MacKaye, Shepard Fairey, and Billy Bragg waxing nostalgic about how nonconformist they were in the 1980s.) In truth, Fury is more collage than doc, pasting together talking-head interviews (also here: Chuck D, John Sayles, Van Jones, Tom Morello, Boots Riley, and Wayne Kramer, plus a few token women, chiefly Eve Ensler) with a mish-mash of sepia-toned stock footage that more or less thematically compliments what’s being discussed at the time. A more focused examination of D’Ambrosio’s thesis might have resulted in a more effective film like, say, an in-depth look at how Sayles’ politically-themed films (here, he reads from the script for 1987’s Matewan in a frustratingly brief segment) are echoed in works by contemporary artists and citizen journalists, particularly now that the internet has opened up a global platform for protest films. Listen: I admire what the film is trying to do. I am OK with watching yet another doc that contains the phrase "Punk rock politicized me." But with too much lip service and precious little depth, Fury‘s fury ends up feeling a bit diluted. (1:40) Balboa. (Eddy)
Life of Pi Several filmmakers including Alfonso Cuarón, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and M. Night Shyamalan had a crack at Yann Martel’s "unfilmable" novel over the last decade, without success. That turns out to have been a very good thing, since Ang Lee and scenarist David Magee have made probably the best movie possible from the material arguably even an improvement on it. Framed as the adult protagonist’s (Irrfan Khan) lengthy reminiscence to an interested writer (Rafe Spall) it chronicles his youthful experience accompanying his family and animals from their just shuttered zoo on a cargo ship voyage from India to Canada. But a storm capsizes the vessel, stranding teenaged Pi (Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with a mini menagerie albeit one swiftly reduced by the food chain in action to one Richard Parker, a whimsically named Bengal tiger. This uneasy forced cohabitation between Hindu vegetarian and instinctual carnivore is an object lesson in survival as well as a fable about the existence of God, among other things. Shot in 3D, the movie has plenty of enchanted, original imagery, though its outstanding technical accomplishment may lie more in the application of CGI (rather than stereoscopic photography) to something reasonably intelligent for a change. First-time actor Sharma is a natural, while his costar gives the most remarkable performance by a wild animal this side of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a charmed, lovely experience. (2:00) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)
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) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
LUV Baltimore native Sheldon Candis drew from his own childhood for this coming-of-age tale, which takes place in a single day as 11-year-old "little man" Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) tags along with his uncle, Vincent (Common), recently out of jail and rapidly heading back down the criminal path. With both parents out of the picture, Woody’s been raised by his grandmother (Lonette McKee), so he idolizes Vincent even though it’s soon clear the short-tempered man is no hero. Of course, things go horribly awry, bloody lessons are learned, tears are shed, etc. Despite the story’s autobiographical origins, the passable LUV suffers greatly by inviting comparisons to The Wire the definitive docudrama examining drug crime in Baltimore. Most blatantly, sprinkled into an all-star cast (Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton) are supporting characters played by Wire icons Michael K. "Omar" Williams (as a cop) and Anwan "Slim Charles" Glover (as a meaner Slim Charles, basically). Perhaps if you’ve never seen the show this wouldn’t be distracting but if that’s the case, you should really be watching The Wire instead of LUV anyway. (1:34) Metreon. (Eddy)
Mama From bin Laden to wild babes in woods, Jessica Chastain can’t seem to grab a break. Equipped with just the bare outlines of a character, however, she’s one of the few pleasures in this missed-opportunity of a grim, ghostly fairy tale. Expanding his short of the same name, director Andres Muschietti kicks off his yarn on a sadly familiar note in these days of seemingly escalating gun violence: little sisters Victoria and Lily have disappeared from their home, shortly after their desperate father (Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has gone on a shooting spree. They repair to an abandoned cabin scattered with mid-century modern furniture. Five years on, the girls’ scruffy artist uncle Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) is still searching for them, supported by his punk rock girlfriend Annabel (Chastain). The little girls lost are finally found by trackers and they appear to be hopelessly feral, with the angelic-looking Victoria (Megan Charpentier), acting as the ringleader and the younger, bedraggled Lily (Maya Dawe) given to sleeping under beds and eating on all fours next to the dog bowl. The arty couple take them in and move into a "test house" provided by the sisters’ enthralled therapist (Daniel Kash), obviously psyched to study not one but two Kaspar Hausers. The traumatized kids are clearly haunted by their experience in more ways than one as inexplicable bumps go off, night and day, and Misfits t-shirt-clad Annabel discovers the real meaning of goth while getting in touch with her seemingly deeply buried maternal urges. Unfortunately, despite possessing the raw material for a truly scary outing that plunges to the core of our primal instincts (what’s scarier than an unsocialized kid that’s capable of anything?) and showing off Muschietti’s occasional instances of cinematic flair (as when multiple rooms are shown using split-screens), Mama ends up running away from the filmmaker and is finally simply spoiled by its mawkishly sentimental finale. It doesn’t help that the inadequate script sports logic holes that a mama could drive a truck though. (1:40) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Les Misérables There is a not-insignificant portion of the population who already knows all the words to all the songs of this musical-theater warhorse, around since the 1980s and honored here with a lavish production by Tom Hooper (2010’s The King’s Speech). As other reviews have pointed out, this version only tangentially concerns Victor Hugo’s French Revolution tale; its true raison d’être is swooning over the sight of its big-name cast crooning those famous tunes. Vocals were recorded live on-set, with microphones digitally removed in post-production but despite this technical achievement, there’s a certain inorganic quality to the proceedings. Like The King’s Speech, the whole affair feels spliced together in the Oscar-creation lab. The hardworking Hugh Jackman deserves the nomination he’ll inevitably get; jury’s still out on Anne Hathaway’s blubbery, "I cut my hair for real, I am so brave!" performance. (2:37) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
My Worst Nightmare First seen locally in the San Francisco Film Society’s 2012 "French Cinema Now" series, My Worst Nightmare follows icy art curator Agathe (Isabelle Huppert) as her airless, tightly-controlled world begins to crumble thanks in no small part to an exuberantly uncouth, down-on-his-luck Belgian contractor named Patrick (Benoît Poelvoorde). (His obnoxious, freewheeling presence in Agathe’s precision-mapped orbit gives rise to the film’s title.) Director and co-writer Anne Fontaine (2009’s Coco Before Chanel) injects plenty of offbeat, occasionally raunchy humor into what could’ve been a predictable personal-liberation tale the sight of classy dame Huppert driving through a bikini car wash, for instance. (1:43) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Parental Guidance (1:36) Metreon.
Promised Land Gus Van Sant’s fracking fable co-written by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, from a story by Dave Eggers offers a didactic lesson in environmental politics, capped off by the earth-shattering revelation that billion-dollar corporations are sleazy and evil. You don’t say! Formulated like a Capra movie, Promised Land follows company man Steve Butler (Matt Damon) as he and sales partner Sue (Frances McDormand) travel to a small Pennsylvania town to convince its (they hope) gullible residents to allow drilling on their land. But things don’t go as smoothly as hoped, when the pair faces opposition from a science teacher with a brainiac past (Hal Holbrook), and an irritatingly upbeat green activist (Krasinski) breezes into town to further monkey-wrench their scheme. That Damon is such a likeable actor actually works against him here; his character arc from soulless salesman to emotional-creature-with-a-conscience couldn’t be more predictable or obvious. McDormand’s wonderfully biting supporting performance is the best (and only) reason to see this ponderous, faux-folksy tale, which targets an audience that likely already shares its point of view. (1:46) SF Center. (Eddy)
The Rabbi’s Cat A rabbi, a Muslim musician, two Russians (a Jew and a boozy Christian), and two talking animals hop into an antique Citroën for a road trip across Africa. No, it’s not the set-up for a joke; it’s the premise for this charming animated film, adapted from Joann Sfar’s graphic novel (the author co-directs with Antoine Delesvaux). In 1930s Algiers, a rabbi’s pet cat suddenly develops the ability to talk and read and write, by the way and wastes no time in sharing opinions, particularly when it comes to religion ("God is just a comforting invention!") When a crate full of Russian prayer books and one handsome artist arrives at the rabbi’s house, man and cat are drawn into the refugee’s search for an Ethiopian city populated by African Jews. Though it’s not suitable for younger kids (there’s kitty mating, and a few bursts of surprising violence) or diehard Tintin fans (thanks to a randomly cranky spoof of the character), The Rabbi’s Cat is a lushly illustrated, witty tale of cross-cultural clashes and connections. Rockin’ soundtrack, too. (1:29) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Silver Linings Playbook After guiding two actors to Best Supporting Oscars in 2010’s The Fighter, director David O. Russell returns (adapting his script from Matthew Quick’s novel) with another darkly comedic film about a complicated family that will probably earn some gold of its own. Though he’s obviously not ready to face the outside world, Pat (Bradley Cooper) checks out of the state institution he’s been court-ordered to spend eight months in after displaying some serious anger-management issues. He moves home with his football-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and worrywart mother (Jacki Weaver of 2010’s Animal Kingdom), where he plunges into a plan to win back his estranged wife. Cooper plays Pat as a man vibrating with troubled energy always in danger of flying into a rage, even as he pursues his forced-upbeat "silver linings" philosophy. But the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, who proves the chops she showcased (pre-Hunger Games megafame) in 2010’s Winter’s Bone were no fluke. As the damaged-but-determined Tiffany, she’s the left-field element that jolts Pat out of his crazytown funk; she’s also the only reason Playbook‘s dance-competition subplot doesn’t feel eye-rollingly clichéd. The film’s not perfect, but Lawrence’s layered performance emotional, demanding, bitchy, tough-yet-secretly-tender damn near is. (2:01) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Eddy)
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, bon mots, and in-jokes to ponderous mythologizing and ripped-from-the-headlines speechifying the result is a unsatisfying, uneven mixture. (2:23) Metreon, Sundance Kabuki. (Ben Richardson)
Texas Chainsaw 3D (1:32) Metreon.
This is 40 A spin-off of sorts from 2007’s Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s This is 40 continues the story of two characters nobody cared about from that earlier film: Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife) and Pete (Paul Rudd), plus their two kids (played by Mann and Apatow’s kids). Pete and Debbie have accumulated all the trappings of comfortable Los Angeles livin’: luxury cars, a huge house, a private personal trainer, the means to throw catered parties and take weekend trips to fancy hotels (and to whimsically decide to go gluten-free), and more Apple products than have ever before been shoehorned into a single film. But! This was crap they got used to having before Pete’s record label went into the shitter, and Debbie’s dress-shop employee (Charlene Yi, another Knocked Up returnee who is one of two people of color in the film; the other is an Indian doctor who exists so Pete can mock his accent) started stealing thousands from the register. How will this couple and their whiny offspring deal with their financial reality? By arguing! About bullshit! In every scene! For nearly two and a half hours! By the time Melissa McCarthy, as a fellow parent, shows up to command the film’s only satisfying scene ripping Pete and Debbie a new one, which they sorely deserve you’re torn between cheering for her and wishing she’d never appeared. Seeing McCarthy go at it is a reminder that most comedies don’t make you feel like stabbing yourself in the face. I’m honestly perplexed as to who this movie’s audience is supposed to be. Self-loathing yuppies? Masochists? Apatow’s immediate family, most of whom are already in the film? (2:14) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
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. (Ben Richardson)
Zero Dark Thirty The extent to which torture was actually used in the hunt for Osama Bin Ladin may never be known, though popular opinion will surely be shaped by this film, as it’s produced with the same kind of "realness" that made Kathryn Bigelow’s previous film, the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008), so potent. Zero Dark Thirty incorporates torture early in its chronology which begins in 2003, after a brief opening that captures the terror of September 11, 2001 using only 911 phone calls but the practice is discarded after 2008, a sea-change year marked by the sight of Obama on TV insisting that "America does not torture." (The "any more" goes unspoken.) Most of Zero Dark Thirty is set in Pakistan and/or "CIA black sites" in undisclosed locations; it’s a suspenseful procedural that manages to make well-documented events (the July 2005 London bombings; the September 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing) seem shocking and unexpected. Even the raid on Bin Ladin’s HQ is nail-bitingly intense. The film immerses the viewer in the clandestine world, tossing out abbreviations ("KSM" for al-Qaeda bigwig Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and jargon ("tradecraft") without pausing for a breath. It is thrilling, emotional, engrossing the smartest, most tightly-constructed action film of the year. At the center of it all: a character allegedly based on a real person whose actual identity is kept top-secret by necessity. She’s interpreted here in the form of a steely CIA operative named Maya, played to likely Oscar-winning perfection by Jessica Chastain. No matter the film’s divisive subject matter, there’s no denying that this is a powerful performance. "Washington says she’s a killer," a character remarks after meeting this seemingly delicate creature, and he’s proven right long before Bin Ladin goes down. Some critics have argued that character is underdeveloped, but anyone who says that isn’t watching closely enough. Maya may not be given a traditional backstory, but there’s plenty of interior life there, and it comes through in quick, vulnerable flashes leading up to the payoff of the film’s devastating final shot. (2:39) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)