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.
Augustine When a 19-year-old Parisian kitchen maid (single-named French musician Soko) has a dramatic seizure during dinner service, she makes for Salpêtrière Hospital, where she becomes the superstar patient of Dr. Charcot (Vincent Lindon) — a real-life 19th century professor and neurologist who later mentored Sigmund Freud. There’s no “talking cure” at work here, though; Augustine’s medical treatment consists mostly of naked poking and prodding, as well as hypnosis-induced episodes of her increasingly sexualized “ovarian hysteria.” The tension builds as Charcot struggles against popular disdain for his methods (read aloud to him from newspapers by his coolly elegant wife), as well as his forbidden attraction to Augustine. Occupying the same moody, sensual milieu as David Cronenberg’s too-talky A Dangerous Method, first-time feature writer-director Alice Winocour approaches her tale of misunderstood madness from a point of view that’s more emotionally-driven, with some subtle feminist undercurrents. Points deducted, though, for some obvious symbolism — like costuming Augustine in a brand-new red dress right after she starts her period for the first time. (1:42) Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
A Band Called Death See “Live to Tell,” this issue. (1:36) Roxie.
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay David Mamet fans will recognize Ricky Jay from multiple appearances in the director’s work; he’s also been in films like Boogie Nights and Tomorrow Never Dies (both 1997). But Jay’s true passion is stage magic, specifically card and other sleight-of-hand tricks, performed with a skill so dazzling that it’s tempting to believe he really does have supernatural powers. He’s also a witty, self-deprecating, and sometimes “irascible” (to quote a word used in Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein’s doc) character — and has a vast, ever-expanding interest in magic history. Using first-hand interviews, TV and stage-show clips, and some wonderful vintage footage, Deceptive Practice traces Jay’s career (he was a child prodigy in the 1950s, thanks to his supportive grandfather), pausing along the way to pay tribute to the men who influenced him and, in many cases, taught him their top-secret techniques. Throughout, Jay is seen demonstrating his own mind-bending tricks — as “simple” as changing a card’s suit, as elaborate as making it sail across the room and plunge like a knife into a watermelon — although never, of course, revealing how he does it. (1:28) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)
Despicable Me 2 The laughs come quick and sweet now that Gru (Steve Carell) has abandoned his super-villainy to become a dad and “legitimate businessman” — though he still applies world-class gravitas to everyday events. (His daughter’s overproduced birthday party is a riot of medieval festoonage.) But like all the best reformed baddies, the Feds, or in this case the Anti-Villain League, recruit him to uncover the next international arch-nemesis. Now a spy, he gets a goofy but highly competent partner (Kristen Wiig) and a cupcake shop at the mall to facilitate sniffing out the criminal. This sequel surpasses the original in charm, cleverness, and general lovability, and it’s not just because they upped the number of minion-related gags, or because Wiig joined the cast; she ultimately gets the short end of the stick as the latecomer love-interest (her spy gadgets are also just so-so). However, Carell kills it as Gru 2 — his faux-Russian accent and awkward timing are more lived-in. Maybe the jokes are about more familiar stuff (like the niggling disappointments of family life) but they’re also sharper and more surprising. And though the minions seemed like one-trick ponies in the first film, those gibberish-talking jellybeans outdo themselves in the sequel’s climax. (1:38) Four Star, Presidio, Shattuck. (Vizcarrondo)
I’m So Excited I’m So Excited may be to Pedro Almodóvar what Hairspray (1988) was for director John Waters: a kind of low-intensity, high-fluff gateway drug for a filmmaker who’s otherwise an “acquired taste.” (Note: unlike Hairspray, this is not a family movie.) Almodóvar’s previous pictures were far more explicit about their obsessive thinking: mothers suffered (1999’s All About My Mother); sex was deadly (1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) and men were dishonorable (all of them). But in this drug and booze-addled flame-fest, Almodóvar takes one of his lesser themes (the joy of confinement) and transforms a flight from Madrid to Mexico into the funniest soap opera to ever feature cabaret and S&M talk. Early in the flight we learn the landing gear is shot; this means the flight’s dueling pilots have to find a place to host an emergency landing while Europe is on holiday. They anesthetize all of coach (um&ldots;metaphor, anyone?), leaving the rich to bellyache over their lost children, lost happiness, and stubborn virginity. Business class is full of drama queens so the flamboyantly gay attendants spike a cocktail with ecstasy (to make everyone get along) and an orgy ensues, complete with a seemingly victimless rape and multiple change-overs from hetero to homo. Almodóvar does have a knack for make-believe, but his biggest gift for fantasy happens in his stress-free transitions; oh, that coming out could be so liberating — but living in a Catholic country lousy with sexual disorientations, maybe the only place that can happen is at 30,000 feet. (1:35) SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)
Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain The comedian (2012’s Think Like a Man) performs in this concert film, shot at Madison Square Garden during his 2012 stand-up tour. (1:15)
The Lone Ranger See “Hi-Yo, Stinker.” (2:29) Marina.
Maniac And it came to pass that William Lustig’s trashy classic Maniac (1980) was remade, with Elijah Wood assuming the role of twisted killer Frank, a role closely associated with its originator, the late, great cult actor Joe Spinell. Lustig is credited with a producing credit on this otherwise largely French effort, directed by Franck Khalfoun and co-written by Alejandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur — who also worked together on the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Though it’s set in contemporary Los Angeles (complete with dating websites and cell phones), Maniac is shot to mimic the original film’s late-1970s New York (cabs, deserted subways, grimy streetscapes), with a synth-heavy score enhancing the retro vibe. Frank is still obsessed with mannequins, scalps, and his dead mother, with shades of both Psycho (1960) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) filtering through. When Frank meets Anna (Nora Arnezeder), a beautiful French photographer whose preferred subject is mannequins, he grows ever more confused — and more violent. The entire movie is shot from Frank’s POV (we see Wood’s face only in mirrors and photographs), an off-putting gimmick that fails to add much in the way of suspense or scares. As for the gore, there’s nothing amid the CG enhancements that matches the work of special effects genius Tom Savini, whose memorable exploding-head scene plays just as repulsively effective in 2013 as it did in 1980. If you really wanna be freaked out by a movie maniac, skip this so-so do-over and spend some quality time with Spinell instead. (1:29) Roxie. (Eddy)
The Way, Way Back Coming-of-age comedy about a 14-year-old (Liam James) who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the manager of the local water park (Sam Rockwell). (1:42)
Before Midnight Proving (again) that not all sequels are autonomic responses to a marketplace that rewards the overfamiliar, director Richard Linklater and his cowriters Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke reconnect with the characters Céline and Jesse, whom we first encountered nearly 20 years ago on a train and trailed around Vienna for a night in Before Sunrise, then met again nine years later in Before Sunset. It’s been nine more years since we left them alone in a Paris apartment, Céline adorably dancing to Nina Simone and telling Jesse he’s going to miss his plane. And it looks like he did. The third film finds the two together, yes, and vacationing in Greece’s southern Peloponnese, where the expansive, meandering pace of their interactions — the only mode we’ve ever seen them in — is presented as an unaccustomed luxury amid a span of busy years filled with complications professional and personal. Over the course of a day and an evening, alone together and among friends, the two reveal both the quotidian intimacies of a shared life and the cracks and elisions in their love story. (1:48) Piedmont, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
The Bling Ring When it was revealed that high schoolers were behind a series of robberies targeting the lavish homes of Hollywood’s famous-for-being-famous types — most notably Paris Hilton — the fallout became fodder for gossip websites like TMZ.com, plus a memorable Vanity Fair article. The latter (recently expanded into a book by author Nancy Jo Sales) is the basis for Sofia Coppola’s new film, a fictionalized take on the crimes. Bored by upper-middle-class lives that leave them with lots of free time and habitually absent parents, a posse of SoCal teens (newcomers Katie Chang and Israel Broussard, and Harry Potter‘s all-grown-up Emma Watson, lead the charge) begin creepy-crawling the homes of Hilton and others, dovetailing their celebrity obsessions with a raging hunger for expensive shit. (Was ever a crime so victimless, one wonders, than a heist perpetrated at the expense of a starlet’s handbag collection, so vast she won’t even notice a few missing Birkins?) Flashing their ill-gotten new clothes, jewelry, and wads of cash in Facebook selfies, the burglars miss the most valuable lesson of all: that the friendships they share are fleeting and meaningless — kind of like fame, kind of like blowing (stolen) money on designer clothes that will soon be out of style. Ironically, with The Bling Ring, Coppola has delivered her least-vapid film since 1999’s The Virgin Suicides; it’s both candy-colored and canny, a cautionary tale that lingers just long enough on its scenes of youthful excess to let you know it’s in on the joke. (1:27) Metreon, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
The East In Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling’s powerful second film collaboration (Batmanglij directs, and the pair co-wrote the screenplay, as in 2011’s Sound of My Voice), Marling plays Sarah, an intelligence agent working for a private firm whose client list consists mainly of havoc-wreaking multinationals. Sarah, presented as quietly ambitious and conservative, is tasked by the firm’s director (Patricia Clarkson) with infiltrating the East, an off-the-grid activist collective whose members, including Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), Izzy (Ellen Page), and Doc (Toby Kebbell), bring an eye-for-an-eye sensibility to their YouTube-publicized “jams.” Targeting an oil company responsible for a BP-style catastrophe, they engineer their own spill in the gated-community habitat of the company’s CEO, posting a video that juxtaposes grisly images of oil-coated shorebirds and the unsettling sight of gallons of crude seeping through the air-conditioning vents of a tidy McMansion. A newspaper headline offers a facile framework for understanding their activities, posing the alternatives as “Pranksters or Eco-Terrorists?” But as Sarah examines the gut-wrenching consequences of so-called white-collar crime and immerses herself in the day-to-day practices of the group, drawn in particular to the charismatic Benji, the film raises more complex questions. Much of its rhetorical force flows from Izzy, whom Page invests with a raw, anguished outrage, drawing our sympathies toward the group and its mission of laying bare what should be unbearable. (1:56) California, Piedmont. (Rapoport)
Epic (1:42) Metreon.
Fast and Furious 6 Forget the fast (that’s understood by now, anyway) — part six in this popcorny series is heavy on the “furious,” with constant near-death stunts that zoom past irrational and slam into batshit crazy. Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) lures the gang out of sunny retirement to bust a fast driver with a knack for strategy and an eye on world domination. Sure, Ludacris jokes their London locale doesn’t mean they’re in a Bond movie, but give cold-blooded Luke Evans some time and he’ll work his way up to antagonizing 007. Shaw (Evans) is smaller than our hero Toretto (Vin Diesel), but he’s convincing, throwing his King’s English at a man whose murky dialect is always delivered with a devilish baritone. If Shaw’s code is all business, Toretto’s is all family: that’s what holds together this cast, cobbled from five Fast and Furious installments shot all over the world. Hottie Gal Gadot (playing Sung Kang’s love interest) reassures Han (Kang) mid-crisis: “This is what we are.” It’s not for nothing the gang’s main weapon is a harpoon gun that, once shot, leaves an umbilicus from the shooter to whatever’s in the crosshairs. That’s Torreto for you. Meanwhile, the villain’s weapon is a car with a spatula-like front end, that flips cars like pancakes. The climactic battle on a cargo plane has to give a face time to every member of the eight-person team, so naturally they shot it on the world’s longest runway. Of course the parade features less car porn than previous editions but it’s got a wider reach now — it’s officially international intrigue, not just fun for gearheads. For my money, it’s some of the best action in theaters today. Stick around for the inevitable sequel-suggesting coda during the credits. (2:10) Metreon. (Vizcarrondo)
Fill the Void Respectfully rendered and beautifully shot in warm hues, Fill the Void admirably fills the absence on many screens of stories from what might be considered a closed world: the Orthodox Hasidic community in Israel, where a complex web of family ties, duty, and obligation entangles pretty, accordion-playing Shira (Hada Yaron). An obedient daughter, she’s about to agree to an arranged marriage to a young suitor when her much-loved sister (Renana Raz) dies in childbirth. When Shira’s mother (Irit Sheleg) learns the widower Yochay (Yiftach Klein) might marry a woman abroad and take her only grandchild far away, she starts to make noises about fixing Shira up with her son-in-law. The journey the two must take, in possibly going from in-laws to newlyweds, is one that’s simultaneously infuriating, understandable, and touching, made all the more intimate given director Rama Burshtein’s preference for searching close-ups. Her affinity for the Orthodox world is obvious with each loving shot, ultimately infusing her debut feature with a beating heart of humanity. (1:30) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)
Frances Ha Noah Baumbach isn’t exactly known for romance and bright-eyed optimism. Co-writing 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox with director Wes Anderson is maybe the closest to “whimsy” as he’s ever come; his own features (2010’s Greenberg, 2007’s Margot at the Wedding, 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, 1997’s Mr. Jealousy, and 1995’s Kicking and Screaming) tend to veer into grumpier, more intellectual realms. You might say his films are an acquired taste. But haters beware. Frances Ha — the black-and-white tale of a New York City hipster (Baumbach’s real-life squeeze, Greta Gerwig, who co-write the script with him) blundering her way into adulthood — is probably the least Baumbach-ian Baumbach movie ever. Owing stylistic debts to both vintage Woody Allen and the French New Wave, Frances Ha relies heavily on Gerwig’s adorable-disaster title character to propel its plot, which is little more than a timeline of Frances’ neverending micro-adventures: pursuing her nascent modern-dance career, bouncing from address to address, taking an impromptu trip to Paris, visiting her parents (portrayed by the Sacramento-raised Gerwig’s real-life parents), “breaking up” with her best friend. It’s so charming, poignant, and quotable (“Don’t treat me like a three-hour brunch friend!”) that even those who claim to be allergic to Baumbach just might find themselves succumbing to it. (1:26) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
The Great Gatsby Every bit as flashy and in-your-face as you’d expect the combo of “Baz Luhrmann,” “Jazz Age,” and “3D” to be, this misguided interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale is, at least, overstuffed with visual delights. For that reason only, all the fashion-mag fawning over leading lady Carey Mulligan’s gowns and diamonds, and the opulent production design that surrounds them, seems warranted. And in scenes where spectacle is appropriate — Gatsby’s legendary parties; Tom Buchanan’s wild New York romp with his mistress — Luhrmann delivers in spades. The trade-off is that the subtler aspects of Fitzgerald’s novel are either pushed to the side or shouted from the rooftops. Leonardo DiCaprio, last seen cutting loose in last year’s Django Unchained, makes for a stiff, fumbling Gatsby, laying on the “Old Sports” as thickly as his pancake make-up. There’s nothing here so startlingly memorable as the actor and director’s 1996 prior collaboration, Romeo + Juliet — a more successful (if still lavish and self-consciously audacious) take on an oft-adapted, much-beloved literary work. (2:22) Metreon. (Eddy)
The Heat First things first: I hated Bridesmaids (2011). Even the BFF love fest between Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig couldn’t wash away the bad taste of another wolf pack in girl’s clothing. Dragging and dropping women into dude-ly storylines is at best wonky and at worst degrading, but The Heat finds an alternate route. Its women are unlikable; you don’t root for them, and you’re not hoping they become princesses because such horrifying awkwardness can only be redeemed by a prince. In Bridesmaids and Heat director Paul Feig’s universe, friendship saves the day. Sandra Bullock is Murtaugh to Melissa McCarthy’s Riggs, with tidy Bullock angling for a promotion and McCarthy driving a busted hoopty through Boston like she’s in Grand Theft Auto. Circumstances conspire to bring them together on a case, in one of many elements lifted from traditional buddy-cop storylines. But! The jokes are constant, pelting, and whiz by like so much gunfire. In one running gag, a low-rung villain’s worst insult is telling the women they look old — but neither character is bothered by it. It’s refreshing to see embarrassment humor, so beloved by chick flicks, get taken down a peg by female leads who don’t particularly care what anyone thinks of them. (1:57) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)
Hey Bartender Hey, have you heard of this trendy thing called craft cocktails? Be warned, sophisticated San Francisco drinkers: Douglas Tirola’s upbeat documentary mentions our fair city in passing only a handful of times; instead, it concentrates on New York City’s relatively recent “cocktail revolution,” interviewing movers and (literal) shakers on the scene while giving a brief history of cocktails in America (again, with an emphasis on NYC). Hey Bartender‘s focal points are well-chosen studies in contrast: ex-Marine Scott — tattooed and scrupulously mustached — who’s working his way up the ranks at hipster lounge Employees Only; and middle-aged Steve, who runs a struggling blue-collar bar just outside the city and is slowly coming around to the idea of adding fancier drinks to his menu. Though dive-bar denizens may roll their eyes at some of Hey Bartender‘s more pretentious trappings (the movie doesn’t mention it, but drinks at Employees Only are in the $15-16 range), it does make the case that today’s superstar “mixologists” deserve just as much recognition as superstar restaurateurs. And the film has a point: can a Top Chef spinoff for bartenders be that far off? (1:32) Roxie. (Eddy)
The Internship The dirty little secret of the new economy continues to be the gerbil cycle of free/cheap labor labeled “internships” that propels so many companies — be they corporate or indie, digital or print media. But gee, who’s going to see an intern comedy titled The Exploitation, besides me and my local union rep? Instead, spinning off a Vince Vaughn story idea and a co-writing credit, The Internship looks at that now-mandatory time-suck for so many college students through the filter of two older, not-quite-wiser salesmen Billy (Vaughn) and Nick (Owen Wilson) hoping to make that working guy’s quantum leap from watch sales to Google’s Mountain View campus, which director Shawn Levy casts as a bright and shiny workers wonderland with its free spring rolls and lattes, bikes, and napping pods. Departing from reality: the debugging/coding/game-playing/app-making competition that forces Billy and Nick to bond with their team of castoffs (Dylan O’Brien, Tiya Sircar, Tobit Raphael), led by noob manager Lyle (Josh Brener), in order to win a full-time job. Part of the key, naturally, turns out to be a Swingers-like visit to a strip club, to release those deeply repressed nerd sexualities — nothing like a little retrograde sexism to bring a group together. Still, the moment is offset by the generally genial, upbeat attitude brought to The Internship by its lead actors: Nick and Billy may be flubs at physics and clueless when it comes to geek culture, but most working stiffs who have suffered the slings and arrows of layoffs and dream of stable employment can probably get behind the all-American ideals of self-reinvention and optimism about the future peddled in The Internship, which easily slips in alongside The Great Gatsby among this year’s Great Recession narratives. Blink too fast and you might miss the microcameo by Google co-founder Sergey Brin. (1:59) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Iron Man 3 Neither a sinister terrorist dubbed “the Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley) nor a spray-tanned mad scientist (Guy Pearce) are as formidable an enemy to Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) as Tony Stark himself, the mega-rich playboy last seen in 2012’s Avengers donning his Iron Man suit and thwarting alien destruction. It’s been rough since his big New York minute; he’s been suffering panic attacks and burying himself in his workshop, shutting out his live-in love (Gwyneth Paltrow) in favor of tinkering on an ever-expanding array of manned and un-manned supersuits. But duty, and personal growth, beckon when the above-mentioned villains start behaving very badly. With some help (but not much) from Don Cheadle’s War Machine — now known as “Iron Patriot” thanks to a much-mocked PR campaign — Stark does his saving-the-world routine again. If the plot fails to hit many fresh beats (a few delicious twists aside), the 3D special effects are suitably dazzling, the direction (by series newcomer Shane Black) is appropriately snappy, and Downey, Jr. again makes Stark one of the most charismatic superheros to ever grace the big screen. For now, at least, the continuing Avengers spin-off extravaganza seems justified. (2:06) Metreon. (Eddy)
Laurence Anyways Xavier Dolan’s latest is yet another gorgeously-designed love story; it fits perfectly alongside his extremely personal I Killed My Mother (2009) and the devastating Heartbeats (2010). Although some critics have suggested that this young director needs to hire an editor (Laurence Anyways clocks in at two hours and 48 minutes), I would argue that this epic, gender-bending love story needed to take its stylized time to achieve what most films never do: humanize a transgendered lead character. Melvil Poupaud (Raúl Ruiz’s favorite ingénue) is stunning as Laurence; as his longtime lover, Fred, Suzanne Clément performs with a guttural passion that should keep audiences glued to the screen. For those willing to accept a decade’s worth of hypnotic set and costume designs (the film spans 1989-1999); cryptic character development; a crew of campy castaways; and an electric, eclectic soundtrack (Depeche Mode, Celine Dion), Laurence Anyways is well worthy of its epic running time. Could this be the film that elevates Canada’s best-kept secret to being the leader of a post-gender film movement that’s just about to explode? (2:48) Metreon. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)
Man of Steel As beloved as he is, Superman is a tough superhero to crack — or otherwise bend into anything resembling a modern character. Director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer, working with producer Christopher Nolan on the initial story, do their best to nuance this reboot, which focuses primarily on Supe’s alien origins and takes its zoom-happy space battles from Battlestar Galactica. The story begins with Kal-El’s birth on a Krypton that’s rapidly going into the shitter: the exploited planet is about to explode and wayward General Zod (Michael Shannon) is staging a coup, killing Kal-El’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), the Kryptonians’ lead scientist, and being conveniently put on ice in order to battle yet another day. That day comes as Kal-El, now a 20-something earthling named Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) — resigned to his status as an outsider, a role dreamed up by his protective adoptive dad (Kevin Costner) — has turned into a bit of a (dharma) bum, looking like a buff Jack Kerouac, working Deadliest Catch-style rigs, and rescuing people along the way to finding himself. Spunky Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is the key to his, erm, coming-out party, necessitated by a certain special someone looking to reboot the Kryptonian race on earth. The greatest danger here lies in the fact that all the leached-of-color quasi-sepia tone action can turn into a bit of a Kryptonian-US Army demolition derby, making for a mess of rubble and tricky-to-parse fight sequences that, of course, will satisfy the fanboys and -girls, but will likely glaze the eyes of many others. Nevertheless, the effort Snyder and crew pack into this lengthy artifact — with its chronology-scrambling flashbacks and multiple platforms for Shannon, Diane Lane, Christopher Meloni, Laurence Fishburne, and the like — pays off on the level of sheer scale, adding up to what feels like the best Superman on film or TV to date — though that bar seems pretty easy to leap over in a single bound. (2:23) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Monsters University Seven-year-old Mike Wazowski is even more adorable than grown-up, Billy-Crystal-voiced Mike Wazowski. It’s a pity, then, that one of the big lessons Monsters University teaches is that the essence of monster-identity is how scary one is. What Mike loses in frightfulness he forcefully recovers in spunk, and after a trip to the scare floor that briskly reminds us the premise of 2001’s Monsters, Inc., mini-Mike becomes the first ever career-driven Pixar character. (For this, I love him.) We all know he eventually becomes a superstar in this scare-powered retro-verse, but first he has to overcome frat boy-inflicted embarrassment and flunk out of school. The most noteworthy thing about Pixar’s first prequel is how very massively its characters fail — it’s a lovely tilt that suggest the greatness of tomorrow begins when you overcome the failures of today. The administrators of Monsters University (in particular Helen Mirren’s dragon-lady Dean) require formal perfection in the scares they grade, but in the world of actual scarers, oddness and difference actually become advantages. It’s all theory but no rulebook. And doesn’t that sound like a good lesson from the studio that once proudly said “story is king,” yet now scrambles to meet Disney’s once-a-year feature demands? Such rigidity comes at a price. (1:50) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Vizcarrondo)
Much Ado About Nothing Joss Whedon (last year’s The Avengers) shifts focus for a minute to stage an adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy, drawing his players from 15 years’ worth of awesome fantasy/horror/sci-fi TV and film projects. When the Spanish prince Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) pays a post-battle visit to the home of Leonato (Clark Gregg) with his officers Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), Claudio falls for Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese), while Benedick falls to verbal blows with Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker). Preserving the original language of the play while setting his production in the age of the iPhone and the random hookup, Whedon makes clever, inventive use of the juxtaposition, teasing out fresh sources of visual comedy as well as bringing forward the play’s oddities and darker elements. These shadows fall on Beatrice and Benedick, whose sparring — before they succumb to a playfully devious setup at the hands of their friends — has an ugly, resentful heat to it, as well as on Hero and Claudio, whose filmy romance is unsettlingly easy for their enemies, the malevolent Don John (Sean Maher) and his cohorts, to sabotage. Some of Acker and Denisof’s broader clowning doesn’t offer enough comic payoff for the hammy energy expenditure, but Nathan Fillion, heading up local law enforcement as the constable Dogberry, delivers a gleeful depiction of blundering idiocy, and the film as a whole has a warm, approachable humor while lightly exposing “all’s well that ends well”‘s wacky, dysfunctional side. (1:49) Albany, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center. (Rapoport)
Now You See Me Cheese can be a tough factor to quantify, but you get close to the levels Now You See Me strives for when you picture the hopelessly goofy, tragically coiffed Doug Henning lisping, “It’s magic!” somewhere between Bob “Happy Little Tree” Ross and a rainbow sprinkled with Care Bears. Now You See Me, however, is much less likely to be dusted off and adored by a Bronies-style cult. Four seemingly savvy street and stage magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, and Dave Franco) are brought together by tarot card invite by a mysterious host. What follows is a series of corny performances by the crew, now dubbed the Four Horseman, that are linked to a series of Robin Hood-like, or not, thefts. Nipping at their heels are a loudly flustered FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo, working an overcooked Columbo impression), a waifish Interpol detective (Mélanie Laurent, as if slouching through a Sorbonne semester), and a professional debunker (Morgan Freeman, maintaining amusement). In the course of the investigation, the Horsemen’s way-too-elaborate and far-from-apocalyptic illusions are taken apart and at least one vigorously theatrical fight scene takes place — all of which sounds more riveting than what actually transpires under the action-by-the-book watch of director Louis Leterrier, who never succeeds in making the smug, besuited puppets, I mean Horsemen, who strut around like they’re in Ocean’s Eighteen 4D, anything remotely resembling cool. Or even characters we might give a magical rabbit’s ass about. For all its seemingly knowing pokes at the truth behind the curtain, Now You See Me lacks much of the smarts and wit of loving deconstructionists like Penn and Teller —glimmers of which can only be made out in the smirk of Harrelson and the knowing twinkle of Freeman — or even the tacky machismo of Criss Angel, as well as a will to get to a truth behind the mystery. Or is the mystery behind the truth? (1:56) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)
Rebels with a Cause The huge string of parklands that have made Marin County a jewel of preserved California coastline might easily have become wall-to-wall development — just like the Peninsula — if not for the stubborn conservationists whose efforts are profiled in Nancy Kelly’s documentary. From Congressman Clem Miller — who died in a plane crash just after his Point Reyes National Seashore bill became a reality — to housewife Amy Meyer, who began championing the Golden Gate National Recreation Area because she “needed a project” to keep busy once her kids entered school, they’re testaments to the ability of citizen activism to arrest the seemingly unstoppable forces of money, power and political influence. Theirs is a hidden history of the Bay Area, and of what didn’t come to pass — numerous marinas, subdivisions, and other developments that would have made San Francisco and its surrounds into another Los Angeles. (1:12) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Somm First-time filmmaker Jason Wise follows four wine-obsessed men (including three from the Bay Area) on their quest to become Master Sommeliers. Their genial rivalry — the stuffiest member of the quartet is nicknamed “Dad” — somewhat offsets the immense pressure they’re under, though every guy turns into Rain Man when he starts ID-ing each unmarked glass, detecting subtle yet highly specific aromas like “sage, truffle, wet forest floor, decaying dried red rose petals,” “a freshly opened can of tennis balls,” and (in the weirdest example) “grandma’s closet.” It’s an insular, elite world, but Wise’s camera gets right to the front lines as the candidates prep for the grueling, multi-day test, interviewing the long-suffering spouses of the candidates (one of whom ruminates on the grossness of “spit buckets” left behind after late-night tasting marathons). As the day of reckoning looms, the tension mounts along with the piles of flash cards — but the friendships and good humor remain, even after the results are revealed. (1:33) Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Star Trek Into Darkness Do you remember 1982? There are more than a few echoes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in J. J. Abrams’ second film retooling the classic sci-fi property’s characters and adventures. Darkness retains the 2009 cast, including standouts Zachary Quinto as Spock and Simon Pegg as comic-relief Scotty, and brings in Benedict “Sherlock” Cumberbatch to play the villain (I think you can guess which one). The plot mostly pinballs between revenge and preventing/circumventing the destruction of the USS Enterprise, with added post-9/11, post-Dark Knight (2008) terrorism connotations that are de rigueur for all superhero or fantasy-type blockbusters these days. But Darkness isn’t totally, uh, dark: there’s quite a bit of fan service at work here (speak Klingon? You’re in luck). Abrams knows what audiences want, and he’s more than happy to give it to ’em, sometimes opening up massive plot holes in the process — but never veering from his own Prime Directive: providing an enjoyable ride. (2:07) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
This Is the End It’s a typical day in Los Angeles for Seth Rogen as This Is the End begins. Playing a version of himself, the comedian picks up pal and frequent co-star Jay Baruchel at the airport. Since Jay hates LA, Seth welcomes him with weed and candy, but all good vibes fizzle when Rogen suggests hitting up a party at James Franco’s new mansion. Wait, ugh, Franco? And Jonah Hill will be there? Nooo! Jay ain’t happy, but the revelry — chockablock with every Judd Apatow-blessed star in Hollywood, plus a few random inclusions (Rihanna?) — is great fun for the audience. And likewise for the actors: world, meet Michael Cera, naughty coke fiend. But stranger things are afoot in This Is the End. First, there’s a giant earthquake and a strange blue light that sucks passers-by into the sky. Then a fiery pit yawns in front of Casa Franco, gobbling up just about everyone in the cast who isn’t on the poster. Dudes! Is this the worst party ever — or the apocalypse? The film — co-written and directed by Rogen and longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg — relies heavily on Christian imagery to illustrate the endtimes; the fact that both men and much of their cast is Jewish, and therefore marked as doomed by Bible-thumpers, is part of the joke. But of course, This Is the End has a lot more to it than religious commentary; there’s also copious drug use, masturbation gags, urine-drinking, bromance, insult comedy, and all of the uber-meta in-jokes fans of its stars will appreciate. (1:46) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck. (Eddy)
20 Feet From Stardom Singing the praises of those otherwise neglected backup vocalists who put the soul into that Wall of Sound, brought heft to “Young Americans,” and lent real fury to “Gimme Shelter,” 20 Feet From Stardom is doing the rock ‘n’ roll true believer’s good work. Director Morgan Neville follows a handful of mainly female, mostly African American backing vocal legends, charts their skewed career trajectories as they rake in major credits and keep working long after one-hit wonders are forgotten (the Waters family) but fail to make their name known to the public (Merry Clayton), grasp Grammy approval yet somehow fail to follow through (Lisa Fischer), and keep narrowly missing the prize (Judith Hill) as label recording budgets shrivel and the tastes, technology, and the industry shift. Neville gives these industry pros and soulful survivors in a rocked-out, sample-heavy, DIY world their due on many levels, covering the low-coverage minis, Concert for Bangladesh high points, gossipy rumors, and sheer love for the blend that those intertwined voices achieve. One wishes the director had done more than simply touch in the backup successes out there, like Luther Vandross, and dug deeper to break down the reasons Fischer succumbed to the sophomore slump. But one can’t deny the passion in the voices he’s chosen to follow — and the righteous belief the Neville clearly has in his subjects, especially when, like Hill, they are ready to pick themselves up and carry on after being told they’re not “the Voice.” (1:30) Metreon, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)
Unfinished Song (1:36) Albany.
White House Down Ah, the mid-1990s: a time when two big-budget movies on the same subject were regularly released within months of each other (1997’s Volcano and Dante’s Peak; 1998’s Armageddon and Deep Impact). When a director named Roland Emmerich ascended into the blockbuster pantheon with Independence Day (1996), a film that’s best-remembered for that iconic shot of the White House exploding under alien death rays. The intervening years have seen Emmerich plunge ever-deeper into various flavors of disaster, and White House Down — which reignites that ’90s copycat-rivalry thing by riding the fumes of March’s Olympus Has Fallen — finds its boogeyman in domestic terrorism. It beings on a triumphant day for President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), who has just ordered all US troops removed from the Middle East — angering some high-up men in his administration, as well as some ex-military goons with axes of their own to grind. When the White House is compromised, a wannabe Secret Service agent (Channing Tatum), at the Prez’s house for a tour with his precocious daughter, shoulders one-man-army duties. Rockets are launched; there’s a high-speed limo chase across the White House lawn; we learn the truth about Marilyn and JFK; and thanks to evil genius Skip Tyler (Jimmi Simpson), “the greatest hack the world has ever seen” is about to unleash World War III. Yep, that’s right: 17 years after ID4‘s Jeff Goldblum broke into the alien mainframe, thereby saving the White House-less planet, Emmerich has decided that hackers are actually bad guys. It goes with White House Down‘s warning that the enemy is no longer an external threat, but something lurking right under your nose. Better start working out, America — and working on your one-liners. (2:17) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
World War Z Or, Brad Pitt saves the world from undead beings with rotted brains but super-sharp hearing. Somehow, Max Brooks’ innovative multi-character book — written in the form of interviews with survivors of a recent zombie outbreak — becomes by-the-numbers action horror in the hands of director Marc Forster (2008’s Quantum of Solace, a.k.a. that Bond movie nobody remembers), complete with credit sequence filled with real news reports of environmental disasters, global unrest, and even a little shout-out to that guy who ate another guy’s face off last year in Florida. No bath-salt jokes here, though; instead, we have Pitt playing a verrrry serious former UN investigator — former, because he quit to spend more time with his family, a promise he actually considers keeping even when the survival of the world hinges, apparently, on his very specific expertise. He jets around the world (South Korea! Israel! Wales?) in search of a cure, but it’s obvious from the beginning — when he escapes immediate death in the initial rampage with his picture-perfect wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters — that he’ll eventually suss out a planet-saving solution. (Sorry, but if that’s a spoiler you’ve never seen a movie before.) A few nifty setpieces can’t save World War Z from more or less embodying the descriptor “meh,” with its undynamic 3D, uninspiring CG, and cobbled-together script, complete with reassuring final voice-over. And one more thing: for the love of flesh-ripping gore, can we please make this the last PG-13 zombie movie? (1:56) California, Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy) *