Those long, well-dressed lines wrapping around the Castro Theatre signal the advent of the annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, now in its 18th year and popular as ever. Though the fest opened last night, programming continues through the weekend; check out my take on some of the films (including one of tonight’s selections, 1928 rom-com The Patsy) here.
Elsewhere, in first-run and rep theaters, it’s a robust week for openings. There’s something for nearly every age and appetite (plus a few recommendations on what to avoid) in the short reviews below.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me The ultimate pop-rock cult band’s history is chronicled in Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s documentary. Alex Chilton sold four million copies of 1967 Box Tops single “The Letter,” recorded when he was 15 years old. After years of relentless touring, he quit that unit and returned home just as fellow Memphis native and teenage musical prodigy Chris Bell was looking to accentuate his own as-yet-unnamed band. Big Star’s 1973 debut LP #1 Record, like subsequent years’ follow-ups Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers, got great reviews — but won no commercial success whatsoever, in part due to distribution woes, record-company politics, and so forth. The troubled Bell struggled to get a toehold on a solo career, while barely-more-together Chilton changed his style drastically once invigorated by the punk invasion. At the least the latter lived long enough to see Big Star get salvaged by an ever-growing worshipful cult that includes many musicians heard from here, including Robyn Hitchcock, Matthew Sweet, and Tav Falco, plus members of the Posies, Flaming Lips, Teenage Fanclub, Yo La Tengo, R.E.M., Mitch Easter, the dB’s, and Meat Puppets. Unfortunately the spoken input from Chilton and Bell is mostly limited to audio (didn’t anyone actually film interviews back then?) Still, this semi-tragic story of musical brilliance, commercial failure, and belated “legendary” beknighting is compelling — not to mention a must for anyone interested in the annals of power pop. Now, would somebody please make documentaries about Emitt Rhodes, Game Theory, and SF’s own Oranger? (1:53) Roxie. (Dennis Harvey)
The Conjuring Irony can be so overrated. Paying tribute to those dead-serious ‘70s-era accounts of demonic possession — like 1973’s The Exorcist, which seemed all the scarier because it were based on supposedly real-life events — the sober Conjuring runs the risk of coming off as just more Catholic propaganda, as so many exorcism-is-the-cure creepers can be. But from the sound of the long-coming development of this project — producer Tony DeRosa-Grund had apparently been wanting to make the movie for more than a dozen years — 2004’s Saw and 2010’s Insidious director James Wan was merely applying the same careful dedication to this story’s unfolding as those that came before him, down to setting it in those groovy VW van-borne ‘70s that saw more families torn apart by politics and cultural change than those ever-symbolic demonic forces. This time, the narrative framework is built around the paranormal investigators, clairvoyant Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) and demonologist Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson), rather than the victims: the sprawling Perron family, which includes five daughters all ripe for possession or haunting, it seems. The tale of two families opens with the Warrens hard at work on looking into creepy dolls and violent possessions, as Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) move into a freezing old Victorian farmhouse. A very eerie basement is revealed, and hide-and-seek games become increasingly creepy, as Carolyn finds unexplained bruises on her body, one girl is tugged by the foot in the night, and another takes on a new invisible pal. The slow, scary build is the achievement here, with Wan admirably handling the flow of the scares, which go from no-budg effects and implied presences that rely on the viewer’s imagination, to turns of the screws that will have audiences jumping in their seats. Even better are the performances by The Conjuring’s dueling mothers, in the trenches of a genre that so often flirts with misogyny: each battling the specter of maternal filicide, Farmiga and Taylor infuse their parts with an empathetic warmth and wrenching intensity, turning this bewitched horror throwback into a kind of women’s story. (1:52) (Chun)
Crystal Fairy Mysteriously given a tepid reception at Sundance this year, Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva’s new film is — like his 2009 breakout The Maid — a wickedly funny portrait of repellent behavior that turns unexpectedly transcendent and emotionally generous in its last laps. Michael Cera plays a Yank youth living in Santiago for unspecified reasons, tolerated by flatmate Champa (José Miguel Silva) and his brothers even less explicably — as he’s selfish, neurotic, judgmental, hyper, hyper-annoying, and borderline-desperately in endless pursuit of mind-altering substances. At a party he meets a spacey New Age chick who calls herself Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman). The next morning he’s horrified to discover he’d invited her on a road trip whose goal is to do drugs at an isolated ocean beach, but despite their own discomfort, Champa and company insist he honor his obligation. What ensues is near-plotless, yet always lively and eventually rather wonderful. If you have an allergy to Cera, beware — he plays a shallow (if possibly redeemable) American brat all too well here. But it would be a shame to miss a movie as spontaneous and surprising as this primarily English-language one, which underlines Silva’s stature as a talent likely well worth following for the long haul. (1:40) (Dennis Harvey)
Girl Most Likely Even an above-average cast (Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon) can’t elevate this indie entry from Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini (2003’s American Splendor) above so many life-crisis comedies that have come before. Blame the script by Michelle Morgan (who also cameos), which never veers from the familiar, except when it dips into cliché. After she’s dumped by her suit-wearing boyfriend, failed playwright Imogene (Wiig) realizes her life is superficial and meaningless. Oopsies! A faux suicide attempt forces her to leave the cold sparkle of NYC for the neon glimmer of the Jersey shore, where her batty mother (Bening, in “tacky broad” mode) lives with her says-he’s-a-CIA-agent boyfriend (Dillon) and Imogene’s older brother (Christopher Fitzgerald), an Asperger’s-y sort obsessed with hermit crabs. Also in the mix — because in a movie like this, the adorably depressed lead can only heal with the help of a new romance — is Glee‘s Darren Criss; by the time you realize his character is a Backstreet Boys impersonator who also happens to be a fluent-in-French Yale grad with the patience and kindness to help a bitchy stranger work through her personal drama, you’re either gonna be OK with Girl Most Likely‘s embrace of the contrived, or you’ll have given up on it already. The takeaway is a fervent hope that the talented Wiig will write more of her own scripts in the future. (1:43) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Look of Love Though his name means little in the US, in the UK Paul Raymond was as famous as Hugh Hefner. Realizing early on that sex does indeed sell, he (played by Steve Coogan) began sticking half-naked girls in 1950s club revues, then once the Sexual Revolution arrived, helped pull down a prudish country’s censorship barriers with a variety of cheesy, nudie stage comedies, “members-only” clubs, and girly mags. En route he abandoned a first wife (Anna Friel) for a bombshell actress-model (Tamsin Egerton), all the while continuing to play the field mightily. Nothing — lawsuits, police raids, public denunciations of his smutmongering — seemed to give him pause, save the eventually tragic flailing about of a daughter (Imogen Poots) who was perhaps the only person he ever loved in more than a physical sense. This fourth collaboration between director Michael Winterbottom and actor Coogan is one of those biopics about a driven cipher; if we never quite learn what made Raymond tick, that may be because he was simply an unreflective man satisfied with a rich (he was for a time Britain’s wealthiest citizen), shallow, hedonistic life. But all that surface excess is very entertainingly brought to life in a movie that’s largely an ode to the tackiest decor, fashions, and music of a heady three-decade period. (1:41) Smith Rafael. (Dennis Harvey)
Only God Forgives Julian (Ryan Gosling) and Billy (Tom Burke) are American brothers who run a Bangkok boxing club as a front for their real business of drug dealing. When the latter kills a young prostitute for kicks, then is killed himself, this instigates a chain reaction bloodbath of retribution slayings. Their primary orchestrators: police chief Chang (Vithaya Pansingarm), who always has a samurai-type sword beneath his shirt, pressed against his spine, and incongruously sings the most saccharine songs to his cop subordinates at karaoke; and Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas, doing a sort of Kabuki Cruella de Vil), who flies in to avenge her son’s death. (When told he’d raped and slaughtered a 16-year-old girl, she shrugs “I’m sure he had his reasons.”) Notoriously loathed at Cannes, this second collaboration between director-scenarist Nicolas Winding Refn and star-producer Gosling certainly isn’t for those who found their 2011 Drive insufferably pretentious and mannered. But that movie was downright gritty realism compared to this insanely stylized action abstraction, which blares its influences from Walter Hill and Michael Mann to Suzuki and Argento. The last-named particularly resonates in Suspira-level useage of garishly extreme lighting effects, much crazy wallpaper, and a great score by Cliff Martinez that duly references Goblin (among others). The performances push iconic-toughguy (and toughmutha) minimalism toward a breaking point; the ultraviolence renders a term like “gratuitous” superfluous. But there’s a macabre wit to all this shameless cineaste self-indulgence, and even haters won’t be able to deny that virtually every shot is knockout gorgeous. Haters gonna hate in the short term, but God is guaranteed a future of fervent cult adoration. (1:30) (Dennis Harvey)
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty Terence Nance’s original, imaginative feature is a freeform cinematic essay slash unrequited-love letter. He and Namik Minter play fictionalized versions of themselves — two young, African American aspiring filmmakers in Manhattan, their relationship hovering uneasily between “just friends” and something more. To woo her toward the latter, he makes an hour-long film called How Would You Feel?, and the movie incorporates that as well as following what happens after he’s shown it to Minter. En route, there’s a great deal of animation (in many different styles), endless ruminative narration, and … not much plot. The ephemeral structure and general naval-gazing can get tiresome, but Beauty‘s risk-taking plusses outweigh its uneven qualities. (1:24) Roxie. (Dennis Harvey)
Red 2 Sequel to the 2010 action hit starring Bruce Willis about a squad of “retired, extremely dangerous” secret agents. (1:56)
R.I.P.D. Expect to see many reviews of R.I.P.D. calling the film “D.O.A.” — with good reason. This flatly unfunny buddy-cop movie hijacks elements from Ghost (1990), Ghostbusters (1984), and the Men in Black series, but even 2012’s lackluster third entry in the MIB franchise had more zest and originality than this sad piece of work. Ryan Reynolds plays Boston police officer Nick, recruited into the afterlife’s “Rest In Peace Department” after he’s gunned down by his crooked partner (Kevin Bacon). His new partner is Wild West casualty Roy, embodied by a scenery-chomping Jeff Bridges in an apparent parody of both his own turn in 2010’s True Grit and Sam Elliott’s in 1998’s The Big Lebowski. Tasked with preventing ghosts who appear to be human (known as “deados”) from assembling an ancient artifact that’ll empower a deado takeover, Nick and Roy zoom around town cloaked by new physical identities that only living humans can see. In a joke that gets old fast, Roy’s earthly form resembles a Victoria’s Secret supermodel, while Nick is stuck with “Chinese grandpa.” That the latter’s avatar is portrayed by James Hong — deliciously villainous as Lo Pan in 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China, a vastly superior supernatural action comedy — is one bright spot in what’s otherwise the cinematic equivalent of a shoulder shrug. (1:36) (Cheryl Eddy)
Still Mine Canadian production Still Mine is based on the true story of Craig Morrison (James Cromwell), an elderly man whose decision to build a new house on his own land — using materials he’d harvested himself, and techniques taught to him by his shipwright father — doesn’t go over well with local bureaucrats, who point out he’s violating nearly every building code on the books. But Craig has a higher purpose than just challenging the system; he’s crafting the home for the comfort of his physically and mentally ailing wife of 61 years (Geneviève Bujold). It’s pretty clear from the opening courtroom scene how Still Mine will end; though it’s well-crafted — and boasts moving turns by Cromwell and Bujold — it ultimately can’t overcome its sentimental, TV-movie vibe. A heartfelt tale, nonetheless. (1:43) (Cheryl Eddy)
Turbo It’s unclear whether the irony of coupling racing — long the purview of white southern NASCAR lovers — with an animated leap into “urban” South Central LA is lost on the makers of Turbo, but even if it is, they’re probably too busy dreaming of getting caught in the drift of Fast and Furious box office success to care much. After all, director David Soren, who came up with the original idea, digs into the main challenge — how does one make a snail’s life, before and after a certain magical makeover, at all visually compelling? — with a gusto that presumes that he’s fully aware of the delicious conundrums he’s set up for himself. Here, Theo (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) is your ordinary garden snail with big, big dreams — he wants to be a race car driver like ace Guy Gagne (Bill Hader). Those reveries threaten to distract him dangerously from his work at the plant, otherwise known as the tomato plant, in the garden where he and brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) live and toil. One day, however, Theo makes his way out of the garden and falls into the guts of a souped-up vehicle in the midst of a street race, gobbles a dose of nitrous oxide, and becomes a miraculous mini version of a high-powered race car. It takes a meeting with another dreamer, taco truck driver Tito (Michael Pena), for Theo, a.k.a. Turbo, to meet up with a crew of streetwise racing snails who overcome their physical limitations to get where they want to go (Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Michael Bell). One viral video, several Snoop tracks, and one “Eye of the Tiger” remix later, the Indianapolis 500 is, amazingly, in Turbo’s headlights — though will Chet ever overcome his doubts and fears to get behind his bro? The hip-hop soundtrack, scrappy strip-mall setting, and voice cast go a long way to revving up and selling this Cinderella tall/small tale about the bottommost feeder in the food chain who dared to go big, and fast; chances are Turbo will cross over in more ways than one. (1:36) (Kimberly Chun)
V/H/S/2 This surprisingly terrific sequel to last year’s just-OK indie horror omnibus rachets up the tension and energy in each of its four segments, again connected by a thread involving creepy “home videos” found in a seemingly abandoned house. Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s Phase 1 Clinical Trials is a straightforwardly scary tale in which the former stars as a wealthy slacker who finds himself victim to predatory ghosts after surgery changes his physiological makeup. Reunited Blair Witch Project (1999) alumni Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale’s A Ride in the Park reinvigorates zombie clichés with gleefully funny bad taste. The most ambitious narrative, Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw’s Safe Haven, wades into a Jonestown type cult and takes it a few steps beyond mere mass suicide. Finally, Hobo With a Shotgun (2011) auteur Jason Eisener’s Slumber Party Alien Abduction delivers on that title and then some, as hearty-partying teens and their spying little brothers face something a whole lot more malevolent than each others’ payback pranks. The found-footage conceit never gets old in this diverse and imaginative feature. Plus, kudos to any horror sequel that actually improves upon the original. V/H/S/3? Bring it on. (1:36) Clay. (Dennis Harvey)