Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.
Adventures of Serial Buddies Self-description: “the first serial killer buddy comedy.” (1:31) 1000 Van Ness.
Barbara The titular figure (Nina Hoss) looks the very picture of blonde Teutonic ice princess when she arrives — exiled from better prospects by some unspecified, politically ill-advised conduct — in at a rural 1980 East German hospital far from East Berlin’s relative glamour. She’s a pill, too, stiffly formal in dealings with curious locals and fellow staff including the disarmingly rumpled, gently amorous chief physician Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld). Yet her stern prowess as a pediatric doctor is softened by atypically protective behavior toward teen Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a frequent escapee from prison-like juvenile care facilities. Barbara has secrets, however, and her juggling personal, ethical, and Stasi-fearing priorities will force some uncomfortable choices. It is evidently the moment for German writer-director Christian Petzold to get international recognition after nearly 20 years of equally fine, terse, revealing work in both big-screen and broadcast media (much with Hoss as his prime on-screen collaborator). This intelligent, dispassionate, eventually moving character study isn’t necessarily his best. But it is a compelling introduction. (1:45) Embarcadero. (Harvey)
Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives When Ina May Gaskin had her first child, the hospital doctor used forceps (against her wishes) and her baby was sequestered for 24 hours immediately after birth. “When they brought her to me, I thought she was someone else’s,” Gaskin recalls in Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore’s documentary. Gaskin was understandably flummoxed that her first experience with the most natural act a female body can endure was as inhuman as the subject of an Eric Schlosser exposé. A few years later, she met Stephen Gaskin, a professor who became her second husband, and the man who’d go on to co-found the Farm, America’s largest intentional community, in 1971. On the Farm, women had children, and in those confines, far from the iron fist of insurance companies, Gaskin discovered midwifery as her calling. She recruited others, and dedicated herself to preserving an art that dwindles as the medical industry strives to treat women’s bodies like profit machines. Her message is intended for a larger audience than granola-eating moms-to-be: we’re losing touch with our bodies. Lamm and Wigmore bravely cram a handful of live births into the film; footage of a breech birth implies this doc could go on to be a useful teaching tool for others interested in midwifery. (1:33) Roxie. (Vizcarrondo)
Dead Man Down Noomi Rapace reunites with her Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) director, Niels Arden Oplev, for this crime thriller co-starring Colin Farrell. (1:50) Presidio.
Emperor This ponderously old-fashioned historical drama focuses on the negotiations around Japan’s surrender after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While many on the Allied side want the nation’s “Supreme Commander” Emperor Hirohito to pay for war crimes with his life, experts like bilingual Gen. Bonners Fellers (Matthew Fox) argue that the transition to peace can be achieved not by punishing but using this “living god” to wean the population off its ideological fanaticism. Fellers must ultimately sway gruff General MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) to the wisdom of this approach, while personally preoccupied with finding the onetime exchange-student love (Kaori Momoi) denied him by cultural divisions and escalating war rhetoric. Covering (albeit from the U.S. side) more or less the same events as Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2005 The Sun, Peter Webber’s movie is very different from that flawed effort, but also a lot worse. The corny Romeo and Juliet romance, the simplistic approach to explaining Japan’s “ancient warrior tradition” and anything else (via dialogue routinely as flat as “Things in Japan are not black and white!”), plus Alex Heffes’ bombastic old-school orchestral score, are all as banal as can be. Even the reliable Jones offers little more than conventional crustiness — as opposed to the inspired kind he does in Lincoln. (1:46) Embarcadero. (Harvey)
Greedy Lying Bastards Longtime activist Craig Rosebraugh (a former spokesperson for radical groups the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front) makes his directorial debut with Greedy Lying Bastards, a doc that examines the climate-change denial movement. The briskly-paced film — narrated in first person by Rosebraugh, and jam-packed with interviews — begins with stories from homeowners devastated by recent Colorado wildfires, and visits a tribal community perched on Alaska’s eroding shores. But while it touches on global warming’s causes, and the phenomenon’s inevitable outcome (see also: 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth), the film’s particular focus is lobbyists who’ve built careers off distorting the facts, leading Tea Party rallies, and chuckling condescendingly at environmentalists on Fox News — and the fat cats who’re pulling the strings: the dreaded Koch brothers, ExxonMobil execs, and others. Rosebraugh owes a hefty stylistic debt to Michael Moore — right down to his film’s attention-grabbing title — and, like Moore’s films, Greedy Lying Bastards seems destined to reach audiences who already agree with its message. Still, it’s undeniably provocative. (1:30) Grand Lake, Metreon. (Eddy)
Harvest of Empire This feature spin-off from Juan Gonzalez’s classic nonfiction tome aims to temper anti-immigration hysteria with evidence that the primarily Latino populations conservatives are so afraid of were largely invited or driven here by exploitative US policies toward Latin America. Dutifully marching through countries on a case-by-case basis, Peter Getzels and Eduardo Lopez’s documentary covers our annexing much of a neighboring country (Mexico) and using its citizens as a “reserve labor force;” encouraging mainland immigration elsewhere to strengthen a colonial bond (Puerto Rico); covertly funding overthrow of progressive governments and/or supporting repressive ones, creating floods of political asylum-seekers (Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador); and so on and so forth. Our government’s policies were often justified in the name of “fighting the spread of Communism,” but usually had a more pragmatic basis in protecting US business interests. The movie also touches on NAFTA’s disastrous trickle-up effect on local economies (especially agricultural ones), and interviews a number of high achievers from immigrant families (ACLU chief Anthony Romero, Geraldo Rivera) as well as various activists and experts, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, while sampling recent years’ inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric. There’s a lot of important information here, though one might wish it were packaged in a documentary with a less primitive, classroom-ready episodic structure and less informercial-y style. (1:30) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
Like Someone in Love A student apparently moonlighting as an escort, Akiko (Rin Takanashi) doesn’t seem to like her night job, and likes even less the fact that she’s forced into seeing a client while the doting, oblivious grandmother she’s been avoiding waits for her at the train station. But upon arriving at the apartment of the john, she finds sociology professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) courtly and distracted, uninterested in getting her in bed even when she climbs into it of her own volition. Their “date” extends into the next day, introducing him to the possessive, suspicious boyfriend she’s having problems with (Ryo Kase), who mistakes the prof for her grandfather. As with Abbas Kiorostami’s first feature to be shot outside his native Iran — the extraordinary European coproduction Certified Copy (2010) — this Japan set second lets its protagonists first play at being having different identities, then teases us with the notion that they are, in fact, those other people. It’s also another talk fest that might seem a little too nothing-happening, too idle-intellectual gamesmanship at a casual first glance, but could also grow increasingly fascinating and profound with repeat viewings. (1:49) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal Or, almost everything you ever wanted to know about the guy who inspired all those “Free Mumia” rallies, though Abu-Jamal’s status as a cause célèbre has become somewhat less urgent since his death sentence — for killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 — was commuted to life without parole in 2012. Stephen Vittoria’s doc assembles an array of heavy hitters (Alice Walker, Giancarlo Esposito, Cornel West, Angela Davis, Emory Douglas) to discuss Abu-Jamal’s life, from his childhood in Philly’s housing projects, to his teenage political awakening with the Black Panthers, to his career as a popular radio journalist — aided equally by his passion for reporting and his mellifluous voice. Now, of course, he’s best-known for the influential, eloquent books he’s penned since his 1982 incarceration, and for the worldwide activists who’re either convinced of his innocence or believe he didn’t receive a fair trial (or both). All worthy of further investigation, but Long Distance Revolutionary is overlong, fawning, and relentlessly one-sided — ultimately, a tiresome combination. Director Vittoria in person at the film’s two screenings, Fri/8 at 6:30pm and Sat/9 at 3:30pm. (2:00) New Parkway. (Eddy)
Oz the Great and Powerful Sam Raimi directs James Franco, Michelle Williams, and Rachel Weisz in this fantasy that imagines the origin story of L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City-dwelling wizard. (2:07) Balboa, Cerrito, Presidio.
Three Worlds A trio of lives intersect after a tragedy in French director Catherine Corsini’s drama. (1:51) Four Star.
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) Elmwood, Opera Plaza, 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) Elmwood, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Beautiful Creatures In the tiny South Carolina town of Gatlin, a teenage boy named Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) finds himself dreaming about a girl he’s never met (Alice Englert), until she shows up at school one day with an oddly behaving tattoo on her wrist and the power to disrupt local weather patterns when she loses her temper. Thus begins Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of the first installment in Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s four-book YA series the Caster Chronicles. The girl of Ethan’s dreams, Lena Duchannes, is the youngest member of a reclusive local family long suspected by the town’s inhabitants of performing witchcraft and otherwise being in league with Satan. They’re at least half right, though Lena and her relatives (among them Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, and Emmy Rossum) prefer the term caster to witch, a slur inflicted on them by mortals. As for the diabolical part, casters are, it seems, slaves to essentialism: their coming-of-age rite at age 16 entails learning whether their true nature will turn them toward the forces of darkness or light. Lena’s special birthday, as it happens, is coming up, a circumstance complicating the romance that sparks between her and Ethan. Though the altitude is lower, and the sweeping pans of coniferous forests have been replaced by claustrophobic shots of swampland and live oaks draped with Spanish moss, comparisons to the Twilight franchise are inevitable. But while we’re not unfamiliar with the arc of a human teenage protagonist who is drawn into the orbit of an alluring supernatural and finds life forever changed, Beautiful Creatures‘ young lovers are more relatable, less annoying and creepy, and smaller targets for an SNL spoof. (2:04) SF Center. (Rapoport)
Dark Skies The Barretts are a suburban family stuck together with firm-enough glue of love and habit, even if they’re suffering from some unfortunately typical current problems: architect dad (Josh Hamilton) has been out of work for some time, mom’s (Keri Russell) own job isn’t going gangbusters, they’re mortgaged to the hilt, and the fiscal prognosis is not good. These issues are stressing their marriage, and that vibe is stressing their sons, a 13-year-old (Dakota Goya) and a 6-year-old (Kadan Rockett). So initially it seems somebody might be acting out when they begin experiencing nocturnal disturbances that could be chalked up to an intruder if there were any sign of forced entry. But soon the disturbances grow inexplicable by any normal standard, and it begins to seem they might be having unwelcome “visitors” of the evil-E.T. kind. Writer-director Scott Stewart’s prior features were breathless, ludicrous, FX-cluttered fantasy action films (2010’s Legion, 2011’s Priest); this goes in the opposite direction by carefully building atmosphere, character, and credibility while withholding spectacle for as long as possible. That’s an admirable approach, and Dark Skies duly holds attention — but one wishes the basic ideas were a little more original, and the payoff a little more substantial. (1:35) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)
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) Elmwood, Metreon, New Parkway, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Escape from Planet Earth (1:35) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
56 Up The world may be going to shit, but some things can be relied upon, like Michael Apted’s beloved series that’s traced the lives of 14 disparate Brits every seven years since original BBC documentary 7 Up in 1964. More happily still, this latest installment finds nearly all the participants shuffling toward the end of middle-age in more settled and contented form than ever before. There are exceptions: Jackie is surrounded by health and financial woes; special-needs librarian Lynn has been hit hard by the economic downturn; everybody’s favorite undiagnosed mental case, the formerly homeless Neil, is never going to fully comfortable in his own skin or in too close proximity to others. But for the most part, life is good. Back after 28 years is Peter, who’d quit being filmed when his anti-Thatcher comments provoked “malicious” responses, even if he’s returned mostly to promote his successful folk trio the Good Intentions. Particularly admirable and evidently fulfilling is the path that’s been taken by Symon, the only person of color here. Raised in government care, he and his wife have by now fostered 65 children — with near-infinite love and generosity, from all appearances. If you’re new to the Up series, you’ll be best off doing a Netflix retrospective as preparation for this chapter, starting with 28 Up. (2:24) New Parkway. (Harvey)
The Gatekeepers Coming hard on the heels of The Law in These Parts, which gave a dispassionate forum to the lawmakers who’ve shaped — some might say in pretzel form — the military legal system that’s been applied by Israelis to Palestinians for decades, Dror Moreh’s documentary provides another key insiders’ viewpoint on that endless occupation. His interviewees are six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service. Their top-secret decisions shaped the nation’s attempts to control terrorist sects and attacks, as seen in a nearly half-century parade of news clips showing violence and negotiation on both sides. Unlike the subjects of Law, who spoke a cool, often evasive legalese to avoid any awkward ethical issues, these men are at times frankly — and surprisingly — doubtful about the wisdom of some individual decisions, let alone about the seemingly ever-receding prospect of a diplomatic peace. They even advocate for a two-state solution, an idea the government they served no longer seems seriously interested in advancing. The Gatekeepers is an important document that offers recent history examined head-on by the hitherto generally close-mouthed people who were in a prime position to direct its course. (1:37) Embarcadero. (Harvey)
A Good Day to Die Hard A Good Day to Die Hard did me wrong. How did I miss the signs? Badass daddy rescues son. Perps cover up ’80s era misdeeds. They’re in Russia&ldots;Die Hard has become Taken. All it needs is someone to kidnap Bonnie Bedelia or deflower Jai Courtney and the transformation will be complete. What’s more, A Good Day is so obviously made for export it’s almost not trying to court the American audience for which the franchise is a staple. In a desperate reach for brand loyalty director John Moore (2001’s Behind Enemy Lines) has loaded the film with slight allusions to McClane’s past adventures. The McClanes shoot the ceiling and litter the floor with glass. John escapes a helicopter by leaping into a skyscraper window from the outside. John’s ringtone plays “Ode to Joy.” The glib rejoinders are all there but they’re smeared by crap direction and odd pacing that gives ample time to military vehicles tumbling down the highway but absolutely no time for Bruce’s declarations of “I’m on VACATION!” Which may be just as well — it’s no “Yipee kay yay, motherfucker.” When Willis says that in A Good Day, all the love’s gone out of it. I guess every romance has to end. (1:37) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga The ever-intrepid Werner Herzog, with co-director Dmitry Vasyukov, pursues his fascination with extreme landscapes by chronicling a year deep within the Siberian Taiga. True to form, he doesn’t spend much time in the 300-inhabitant town nestled amid “endless wilderness,” accessible only by helicopter or boat (and only during the warmer seasons); instead, he seeks the most isolated environment possible, venturing into the frozen forest with fur trappers who augment their passed-down-over-generations job skills with the occasional modern assist (chainsaws and snowmobiles are key). Gorgeous cinematography and a curious, respectful tone elevate Happy People from mere ethnographic-film status, though that’s essentially what it is, as it records the men carving canoes, bear-proofing their cabins, interacting with their dogs, and generally being incredibly self-reliant amid some of the most rugged conditions imaginable. And since it’s Herzog, you know there’ll be a few gently bizarre moments, as when a politician’s summer campaign cruise brings a musical revue to town, or the director himself refers to “vodka — vicious as jet fuel” in his trademark droll voice over. (1:34) Magick Lantern, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Identity Thief America is made up of asshole winners and nice guy losers — or at least that’s the thesis of Identity Thief, a comedy about a crying-clown credit card bandit (Melissa McCarthy) and the sweet sucker (Jason Bateman) she lures into her web of chaos. Bateman plays Sandy, a typical middle-class dude with a wife, two kids, and a third on the way. He’s always struggling to break even and just when it seems like his ship’s come in, Diana (McCarthy) jacks his identity — a crime that requires just five minutes in a dark room with Sandy’s social security number. Suddenly, his good name is contaminated with her prior arrests, drug-dealer entanglements, and mounting debt; it’s like the capitalist version of VD. But as the “kind of person who has no friends,” Diana is as tragic as she is comic, providing McCarthy an acting opportunity no one saw coming when she was dispensing romantic advice on The Gilmore Girls. Director Seth Gordon (2011’s Horrible Bosses) treats this comedy like an action movie — as breakneck as slapstick gets — and he relies so heavily on discomfort humor that the film doesn’t just prompt laughs, it pokes you in the ribs until you laugh, man, LAUGH! While Identity Thief has a few complex moments about how defeating “sticking it to the man” can be (mostly because only middle men get hurt), it’s mostly as subtle as a pratfall and just as (un-)rewarding. (1:25) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)
Jack the Giant Slayer (1:55) Balboa, Cerrito, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files Chris James Thompson’s The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, a documentary with narrative re-enactments, is savvy to the fact that lurid outrageousness never gets old. It also plays off the contrast between Dahmer’s gruesome crimes and his seemingly mild-mannered personality; as real-life Dahmer neighbor Pamela Bass recalls here, the Jeff she knew (“kinda friendly, but introverted,” Bass says) hardly seemed like a murdering cannibal. Though homicide detective Pat Kennedy and medical examiner Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen both share compelling details about the case, Bass’ participation is key. Not only did she have to deal with the revelation that she’d been living next to a killer (“I remember a stench, an odor”), she found herself surrounded by a media circus, harassed by gawkers, and blamed by strangers for “not doing anything.” Even after she’d moved, the stigma of having been Dahmer’s neighbor lingered — lending a different meaning to the phrase “serial-killer victim.” Essental viewing for true-crime fiends. (1:16) Roxie. (Eddy)
The Last Exorcism Part II When last we saw home-schooled rural Louisiana teen Nell (Ashley Bell), she had just given birth to a demon baby in an al fresco Satanic ritual that also saw the violent demise of her father and brother, not to mention the visiting preacher and film crew who’d hoped to debunk exorcisms by recording a fake one. (They were mistaken on many levels.) We meet her again now … about five minutes later, as a traumatized survivor placed in a New Orleans halfway house for girls in need of a “fresh start.” Encouraged to view her recent past as the handywork of cult fanatics rather than supernatural forces, she’s soon adjusting surprisingly well to independence, secular humanism, and life in the big city. But of course malevolent spirit “Abalam” isn’t done with her yet. This sequel eschews the original’s found-footage conceit, stoking up a goodly fire of more traditional atmospherics and scares, albeit at the cost of simplified character and plot arcs. As PG-13 horror goes, it’s quite creepy — even if the finale paints this series into a corner from which it will require considerable future writing ingenuity to avoid pure silliness. (1:28) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)
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) Elmwood, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (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) Metreon, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Lore Set in Germany amid the violent, chaotic aftermath of World War II, Lore levels some brutally frank lessons on its young protagonist. Pretty, smart 14-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is tasked with caring for her twin brothers, sister, and infant brother when her SS officer father (Hans-Jochen Wagner) and true-believer mother (Ursina Lardi) depart. Her seemingly hopeless mission is to get what’s left of her family across a topsy-turvy countryside to her grandmother’s house, a journey that’s less a fairy tale than a kind of inverted nightmare — yet another dystopic vision — as seen by children who must beg, barter, and scrounge to survive when they aren’t singing songs in praise of the Third Reich. Enter magnetic mystery man Thomas (Kai Malina), who offers Lore life lessons about the assumed enemy. Tarrying briefly to savor the sensual pleasure of a river bath or the beauty of a spring landscape, albeit one riddled with bodies, director and co-writer Cate Shortland rarely averts her eyes from the sexual and psychological dangers of her charges’ circumstances, making us not only care for her players but also imparting the dark magic of a world destroyed then born anew. (1:48) Embarcadero. (Chun)
No Long before the Arab Spring, a people’s revolution went down in Chile when a 1988 referendum toppled the country’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet, thanks in part to an ad exec who dared to sell the dream to his countrymen and women — using the relentlessly upbeat, cheesy language of a Pepsi Generation. In No‘s dramatization of this true story, ad man Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) is approached by the opposition to Pinochet’s regime to help them on their campaign to encourage Chile’s people to vote “no” to eight more years under the brutal strongman. Rene’s well-aware of the horrors of the dictatorship; not only are the disappeared common knowledge, his activist ex (Antonia Zegers) has been beaten and jailed with seeming regularity. Going up against his boss (Alfredo Castro), who’s overseeing the Pinochet campaign, Rene takes the brilliant tact in the opposition’s TV programs of selling hope — sound familiar? — promising “Chile, happiness is coming!” amid corny mimes, dancers, and the like. Director-producer Pablo Larrain turns out to be just as genius, shooting with a grainy U-matic ’80s video camera to match his footage with 1988 archival imagery, including the original TV spots, in this invigorating spiritual kin of both 2012’s Argo and 1997’s Wag the Dog. (1:50) Embarcadero. (Chun)
Phantom (1:37) 1000 Van Ness.
A Place at the Table Obesity gets all the concern-trolling headlines, but America’s hunger crisis is also very real — and the two are closely related to each other, as Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush’s sobering, informative documentary investigates. A Place at the Table assembles a mix of talking-head experts, celebrities (actor and longtime hunger activist Jeff Bridges; celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, who’s married to Silverbush), and (most compellingly) average folks dealing with “food insecurity:” a Philadelphia single mom who joins the Witnesses to Hunger advocacy project; a pastor in small-town Colorado who oversees his struggling community’s crucial food bank; the Mississippi elementary-school teacher who uses her own struggles with diabetes to educate her students about nutrition. The film digs into the problem’s root causes (one being a government that prefers to subsidize mega-farming corporations that produce ingredients used in processed food), and conveys its message with authentic urgency. (1:24) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)
Quartet Every year there’s at least one: the adorable-old-cootfest, usually British, that proves harmless and reassuring and lightly tear/laughter producing enough to convince a certain demographic that it’s safe to go to the movies again. The last months have seen two, both starring Maggie Smith (who’s also queen of that audience’s home viewing via Downton Abbey). Last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which Smith played a bitchy old spinster appalled to find herself in India, has already filled the slot. It was formulaic, cute, and sentimental, yes, but it also practiced more restraint than one expected. Now here’s Quartet, which is basically the same flower arrangement with quite a bit more dust on it. Smith plays a bitchy old spinster appalled to find herself forced into spending her twilight years at a home for the elderly. It’s not just any such home, however, but Beecham House, whose residents are retired professional musicians. Gingerly peeking out from her room after a few days’ retreat from public gaze, Smith’s Jean Horton — a famed English soprano — spies a roomful of codgers rolling their hips to Afropop in a dance class. “This is not a retirement home — this is a madhouse!” she pronounces. Oh, the shitty lines that lazy writers have long depended on Smith to make sparkle. Quartet is full of such bunk, adapted with loving fidelity, no doubt, from his own 1999 play by Ronald Harwood, who as a scenarist has done some good adaptations of other people’s work (2002’s The Pianist). But as a generator of original material for about a half-century, he’s mostly proven that it is possible to prosper that long while being in entirely the wrong half-century. Making his directorial debut: 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman, which ought to have yielded a more interesting final product. But with its workmanlike gloss and head-on take on the script’s very predictable beats, Quartet could as well have been directed by any BBC veteran of no particular distinction. (1:38) Clay, Marina, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Safe Haven Over a decade and a half, as one Nicholas Sparks novel after another has hit the shelves and inexorably been adapted for the big screen, we’ve come to expect a certain kind of end product: a romantic drama that manages, in its treacly messaging and relentless arc toward emotional resonance, to give us second thoughts about the redemptive power of love. The latest, Safe Haven, directed by Lasse Hallström (2011’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), follows the formula fairly dutifully. Julianne Hough (2012’s Rock of Ages) plays Katie, a Boston woman on the run from the kind of terrifying event that causes a person to dye their hair platinum blond and board a Greyhound in the middle of the night, a trauma whose details are doled out to us in a series of flashbacks. Winding up in a small coastal town in North Carolina, she meets handsome widower and father of two Alex (Josh Duhamel), who runs the local general store and takes a shine to the unfriendly new girl. Viewers of last year’s Sparks adaptation The Lucky One will find some familiar elements (the healing balm of a good man’s love, cloying usage of the paranormal), as will viewers of 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy, another film that presents the fantasy of a fresh start in Smalltown, U.S.A. (1:55) SF Center. (Rapoport)
Side Effects Though on the surface Channing Tatum appears to be his current muse, Steven Soderbergh seems to have gotten his smart, topical groove back, the one that spurred him to kick off his feature filmmaking career with the on-point Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) and went missing with the fun, featherweight Ocean’s franchise. (Alas, he’s been making claims that Side Effects will be his last feature film.) Here, trendy designer antidepressants are the draw — mixed with the heady intoxicants of a murder mystery with a nice hard twist that would have intrigued either Hitchcock or Chabrol. As Side Effects opens, the waifish Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), whose inside-trading hubby (Tatum) has just been released from prison, looks like a big-eyed little basket of nerves ready to combust — internally, it seems, when she drives her car into a wall. Therapist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who begins to treat her after her hospital stay, seems to care about her, but nevertheless reflexively prescribes the latest anti-anxiety med of the day, on the advice of her former doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Where does his responsibility for Emily’s subsequent actions begin and end? Soderbergh and his very able cast fill out the issues admirably, with the urgency that was missing from the more clinical Contagion (2011) and the, ahem, meaty intelligence that was lacking in all but the more ingenious strip scenes of last year’s Magic Mike. (1:30) Four Star, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
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) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Snitch (1:35) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
The Sweeney Based on the 1970s British TV series, Nick Love’s action drama is bolstered enormously by Ray Winstone’s snarling-bulldog lead performance. He plays skull-cracking cop Regan, head of an elite unit that has relied upon freely violent, rule-bending methods to bust many an in-progress armed robbery. As his worried boss (Homeland‘s Damian Lewis) warns, internal affairs has taken an interest in Regan’s activites, and the situation isn’t helped by the fact that Regan is having an affair with a comely co-worker (Hayley Atwell) who is married to IA’s prick-in-chief (Steven Mackintosh). When a Serbian assassin enters the picture and monkey-wrenches Regan’s career, love life, and tenuously calibrated moral compass, all hell predictably breaks loose. Shot in moody, London-appropriate gray and blue monochrome, and featuring bravura set pieces (a shootout in Trafalgar Square) and a supporting cast that includes rapper Ben Drew (a.k.a. Plan B) and Downtown Abbey‘s Allen Leech, The Sweeney doesn’t surprise much with its beat-by-beat plot. But it’s enjoyable — maybe not enough to travel to Antioch (its only local theatrical opening) to see it, but worth a look on its simultaneous VOD release. (1:52) AMC Deer Valley. (Eddy)
21 and Over (1:33) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
Warm Bodies A decade and a half of torrid, tormented vampire-human entanglements has left us accustomed to rooting for romances involving the undead and the still-alive. Some might argue, however, that no amount of pop-cultural prepping could be sufficient to get us behind a human-zombie love story for the ages. Is guzzling human blood really measurably less gross than making a meal of someone’s brains and other body parts? Somehow, yes. Recognizing this perceptual hurdle, writer-director Jonathan Levine (2011’s 50/50, 2008’s The Wackness) secures our sympathies at the outset of Warm Bodies by situating us inside the surprisingly active brain of the film’s zombie protagonist. Zombies, it turns out, have internal monologues. R (Nicholas Hoult) can only remember the first letter of his former name, but as he shambles and shuffles and slumps his way through the terminals of a postapocalyptic airport overrun by his fellow corpses (as they’re called by the film’s human population), he fills us in as best he can on the global catastrophe that’s occurred and his own ensuing existential crisis. By the time he meets not-so-cute with Julie (Teresa Palmer), a young woman whose father (John Malkovich) is commander-in-chief of the human survivors living in a walled-off city center, we’ve learned that he collects vinyl, that he has a zombie best friend, and that he doesn’t want to be like this. We may still be flinching at the thought of his and Julie’s first kiss, but we’re also kind of rooting for him. The plot gapes in places, where a tenuous logic gets trampled and gives way, but Levine’s script, adapted from a novel by Isaac Marion, is full of funny riffs on the zombie condition, which Hoult invests with a comic sweetness as his character staggers toward the land of the living. (1:37) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Rapoport)
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, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)