Film Listings: December 11 – 17, 2013

Pub date December 10, 2013
SectionFilm Reviews

Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, Sam Stander, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Peter Jackson’s sequel to last year’s An Unexpected Journey continues J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic story of hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ adventures. (2:36) Presidio.

Last Days on Mars An eight-member crew of a multinational expedition to Mars are just wrapping up their six-month mission when they discover sign of life — well, “bacterial cell division,” albeit of a virulent strain that seems hellbent on turning anyone who comes in contact with it into violent un-dead. Hence the visiting humans are soon battling for survival, including Liev Schreiber (hero), Romola Garai (sorta-love interest), Olivia Williams (mean girl), and Elias Koteas. Though well crafted, this first feature by Irish director Ruairi Robinson (adapted by Clive Dawson from Sydney J. Bounds’ 1975 short story) can’t help but be a letdown as its menace turns out to be nothing more than transformed humans in pasty “monster” makeup lurching around grabbing the panicked, still-living specimens. You’ve seen all this before, in forms both scarier and cheesier, but either way often more memorably handled than here. (1:38) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Saving Mr. Banks Having promised his daughters that he would make a movie of their beloved Mary Poppins books, Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has laid polite siege to author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) for over 20 years. Now, in the early 1960s, she has finally consented to discuss the matter in Los Angeles — albeit with great reluctance, and only because royalty payments have dried up to the point where she might have to sell her London home. Bristling at being called “Pam” and everything else in this sunny SoCal and relentlessly cheery Mouse House environ, the acidic English spinster regards her creation as sacred. The least proposed changes earn her horrified dismissal, and the very notion of having Mary and company “prancing and chirping” out songs amid cartoon elements is taken as blasphemy. This clash of titans could have made for a barbed comedy with satirical elements, but god forbid this actual Disney production should get so cheeky. Instead, we get the formulaically dramatized tale of a shrew duly tamed by all-American enterprise, with flashbacks to the inevitable past traumas (involving Colin Farrell as a beloved but alcoholic ne’er-do-well father) that require healing of Travers’ wounded inner child by the magic of the Magic Kingdom. If you thought 2004’s Finding Neverland was contrived feel-good stuff, you’ll really choke on the spoons full of sugar force-fed here. (2:06) (Harvey)

Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas Writer-director-star Tyler Perry returns with his seventh Madea film. (1:45)


About Time Richard Curtis, the man behind 2003’s Love Actually, must be enjoying his days in England, rolling in large piles of money. Coinciding with the 10-year anniversary of that twee cinematic love fest comes Curtis’ latest ode to joy, About Time. The film begins in Cornwall at an idyllic stone beach house, as Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) describes his family members (Bill Nighy is dad; Richard Cordery is the crazy uncle) and their pleasures (tea on the beach, ping pong). Despite beachside bliss, Tim is lovelorn and ready to begin a career as a barrister (which feels as out of the blue as the coming first act break). Oh! And as it happens, the men in Tim’s family can travel back in time. There are no clear rules, though births and deaths are like no-trespass signs on the imaginary timeline. When he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams), he falls in love, but if he paves over his own evening by bouncing back and spending that night elsewhere, he loses the path he’s worn into the map and has to fix it. Again and again. Despite potential repetition, About Time moves smoothly, sweetly, slowly along, giving its audience time enough to feel for the characters, and then feel for the characters again, and then keep crying just because the ball’s already in motion. It’s the most nest-like catharsis any British film ever built. (2:03) SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)

The Armstrong Lie “This is a story about power, not doping,” a talking head points out in Alex Gibney’s latest doc, The Armstrong Lie. Gibney, an Oscar winner for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side, set out to make something more along the lines of The Armstrong Return, shadowing Lance Armstrong as he prepped for his 2009 Tour de France comeback. He envisioned crafting a “feel-good movie,” especially when Armstrong notched an impressive third-place finish — a feat intended to silence those performance-enhancing drug rumors once and for all. In the end, it only amplified the skepticism that loomed over his accomplishments. And as the evidence against Armstrong mounted, Gibney scrapped his original concept and went in a decidedly darker direction. Armstrong’s critics, interviewed for Lie, admit they spotted the acclaimed documentarian among Armstrong’s Tour de France entourage and feared he was “buying into the bullshit.” Among these voices are Armstrong’s former US Postal Service teammate, Frankie Andreu, and his wife, Betsy, who’d been excoriated by their former good friend and his supporters for speaking out against him. A feel-good movie, this is not. And ultimately, Gibney’s film probes deeper than Armstrong’s flaws; it’s careful to point out that drug use is widespread among professional cyclists, who are surrounded by an insular, high-stakes culture that encourages it. The sports world lives and dies by the next world record or superhuman achievement. Is it any wonder that elite athletes seek out that extra competitive edge? And that Armstrong, in fully-inflated ego mode, would believe he had the power to rearrange reality to keep his victories intact? (2:03) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Art Gods: An Oral History of the Tower Records Art Department Bay Area filmmaker Strephon Taylor (2012’s The Complete Bob Wilkins Creature Features) turns his lens on Tower Records circa its 1980s heyday, when the hard-partying bros of the store’s in-house art department crafted displays for the hottest new album releases. Taylor, himself a veteran of the crew, gathers its founding members to reminisce, including original store artist Steve Pollutro, who made eye-catching magic using everyday supplies (posters, foam board, X-Acto knives, spray paint, etc.) and spawned an art style that invaded record stores worldwide. An odd length at just over an hour, Art Gods could have been trimmed of some of its superfluous anecdotes (a story about Pollutro’s failed attempts to enter the UK to help Tower set up its London branch drags on forever) and presented as a more fine-tuned shorter doc — or made more substantial by widening its interview pool beyond nostalgic former artists. (1:12) Balboa. (Eddy)

At Berkeley The latest documentary from the great Frederick Wiseman runs 244 minutes — a time commitment intimidating enough to deter any casual viewer. But viewers intrigued by Wiseman’s long tradition of filming institutions (1968’s High School; 2011’s Crazy Horse) with fly-on-the-wall curiosity will want to carve out an afternoon for At Berkeley, as will those interested in 21st century educational issues, California’s financial crisis, and the care and maintenance of UC Berkeley’s free-spirited image, among other topics. The film divides its interests between classroom scenes and meetings between administrators, none of whom are identified by name. At first, this feels disorienting; most docs strive to hook the viewer with first-act exposition, but At Berkeley simply plunges in with a woman (a teacher?) regaling (a class?) with a myth about Berkeley’s origins that leads into a broader rumination on what the school represents. “A sense of imagination, of diversity,” she says. “An ideal.” Before long, it’s obvious that we don’t need to know the back stories of everyone who appears in the film. This portrait of UC Berkeley — as a complex place, not without unrest, but also not without spontaneous a capella performances — emerges with all of its subjects sharing equal footing, their experiences and points of view presented with equal interest. Filmgoers grasping for a throughline will pick up on the financial stress that permeates every corner of the school, and indeed, the unrest percolating throughout the film culimates in coverage of a late-2011 Occupy Cal demonstration, in which the main campus library is overtaken by protestors. Tellingly, Wiseman’s camera seeks out the most interesting angle, focusing not on the students, but on the bigwigs scrambling to respond behind the scenes. (4:04) Roxie. (Eddy)

The Best Man Holiday (2:00) Metreon.

Bettie Page Reveals All Mark Mori’s affectionate Bettie Page Reveals All is narrated in the form of a rambling, chuckle-punctuated interview with the late pin-up icon herself. (We never actually see her except in archival film and images.) Even die-hards who already know the story behind the legend — a rough childhood, several unsuccessful marriages, mental-health issues — will likely learn some new tidbits. (A friend recalls watching 2005’s unauthorized biopic The Notorious Bettie Page with its subject, who hollered her opinion — “Lies! Lies!” — throughout.) Associates like Hugh Hefner and Dita Von Teese drop by to praise Page’s talents and legacy, but there’s no greater proof of lasting glamour than Page’s famous photographs, which she clearly loved posing for, and never regretted, even after embracing Christianity later in life. (1:41) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

Black Nativity You have to hand it to director-writer Kasi Lemmons (2001’s The Caveman’s Valentine) for even attempting an adaptation of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. The idea of recasting the original play’s straightforward hybrid of the nativity tale, gospel, and African folk traditions in contemporary Harlem as a spiffed-up urban street opera feels inspired, especially when the otherwise-familiar narrative is supercharged with emotion, thanks to Oakland-native music producer and co-composer Raphael Saadiq. The songs and their delivery make those moments when the cast members burst into song seem like the most natural thing in the world. The child rhapsodized about here is — wink, nudge — Langston (Jacob Latimore), who’s getting evicted along with his single mom, Naima (Jennifer Hudson). In an act of self-disgust, or grudging respect, she sends her feisty tween to stay with his estranged grandparents in NYC. Reverend Cornell (Forest Whitaker) and Aretha Cobbs (Angela Bassett) turn out to be proud pillars of their community, with deep connections to the Civil Rights movement, which Langston discovers when the stern Rev shows the boy his most prized possession: an engraved pocket watch given to him by Martin Luther King Jr. Alas, if Lemmons simply stuck to her present-day rework — and refrained from the self-consciously stagy Christmas dream sequences, which actually seem to hew closer to the original Black Nativity, break the momentum, and cue this operetta’s complete break with reality — this version would have fared much better than it does. Still, Black Nativity isn’t without its moments. Whitaker, playing against type and tasked with the heaviest acting effort, and particularly Bassett, who channels a fiery spirit via her upstanding matron to provide much-needed warmth, are mesmerizing, and though Mary J. Blige and Nas are unfortunately given little to do, Hudson pulls her weight, if not with acting, then with her sheer skill at conveying heartbreak amid the melismas. (1:33) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

The Book Thief One of those novels that seems to have been categorized as “young adult” more for reasons of marketing than anything else, Markus Zusak’s international best seller gets an effective screen adaptation from director Brian Percival and scenarist Michael Petroni. Liesl (Sophie Nelisse) is an illiterate orphan — for all practical purposes, that is, given the likely fate of her left-leaning parents in a just-pre-World War II Nazi Germany — deposited by authorities on the doorstep of the middle-aged, childless Hubermanns in 1938. Rosa (Emily Watson) is a ceaseless nag and worrywart, even if her bark is worse than her bite; kindly housepainter Hans (Geoffrey Rush), who’s lost work by refusing to join “the Party,” makes a game of teacher Liesl how to read. Her subsequent fascination with books attracts the notice of the local Burgermeister’s wife (Barbara Auer), who under the nose of her stern husband lets the girl peruse tomes from her manse’s extensive library. But that secret is trivial compared to the Hubermanns’ hiding of Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), son of Jewish comrade who’d saved Hans’ life in the prior world war. When war breaks out anew, this harboring of a fugitive becomes even more dangerous, something Liesl can’t share even with her best friend Rudy (Nico Liersch). While some of the book’s subplots and secondary characters are sacrificed for the sake of expediency, the filmmakers have crafted a potent, intelligent drama whose judicious understatement extends to the subtlest (and first non-Spielberg) score John Williams has written in years. Rush, Watson, and newcomer Schnetzer are particularly good in the well-chosen cast. (2:11) Metreon, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Blue is the Warmest Color The stars (Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux) say the director was brutal. The director says he wishes the film had never been released (but he might make a sequel). The graphic novelist is uncomfortable with the explicit 10-minute sex scene. And most of the state of Idaho will have to wait to see the film on Netflix. The noise of recrimination, the lesser murmur of backpedaling, and a difficult-to-argue NC-17 rating could make it harder, as French director Abdellatif Kechiche has predicted, to find a calm, neutral zone in which to watch Blue is the Warmest Color, his Palme d’Or–winning adaptation (with co-writer Ghalya Lacroix) of Julie Maroh’s 2010 graphic novel Le Blue Est une Couleur Chaude. But once you’ve committed to the three-hour runtime, it’s not too difficult to tune out all the extra noise and focus on a film that trains its mesmerized gaze on a young woman’s transforming experience of first love. (2:59) Clay, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Rapoport)

Blue Jasmine The good news about Blue Jasmine isn’t that it’s set in San Francisco, but that it’s Woody Allen’s best movie in years. Although some familiar characteristics are duly present, it’s not quite like anything he’s done before, and carries its essentially dramatic weight more effectively than he’s managed in at least a couple decades. Not long ago Jasmine (a fearless Cate Blanchett) was the quintessential Manhattan hostess, but that glittering bubble has burst — exactly how revealed in flashbacks that spring surprises up to the script’s end. She crawls to the West Coast to “start over” in the sole place available where she won’t be mortified by the pity of erstwhile society friends. That would be the SF apartment of Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a fellow adoptive sister who was always looked down on by comparison to pretty, clever Jasmine. Theirs is an uneasy alliance — but Ginger’s too big-hearted to say no. It’s somewhat disappointing that Blue Jasmine doesn’t really do much with San Francisco. Really, the film could take place anywhere — although setting it in a non-picture-postcard SF does bolster the film’s unsettled, unpredictable air. Without being an outright villain, Jasmine is one of the least likable characters to carry a major US film since Noah Baumbach’s underrated Margot at the Wedding (2007); the general plot shell, moreover, is strongly redolent of A Streetcar Named Desire. But whatever inspiration Allen took from prior works, Blue Jasmine is still distinctively his own invention. It’s frequently funny in throwaway performance bits, yet disturbing, even devastating in cumulative impact. (1:38) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Captain Phillips In 2009, Captain Richard Phillips was taken hostage by Somali pirates who’d hijacked the Kenya-bound Maersk Alabama. His subsequent rescue by Navy SEALs came after a standoff that ended in the death of three pirates; a fourth, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, surrendered and is serving a hefty term in federal prison. A year later, Phillips penned a book about his ordeal, and Hollywood pounced. Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as Phillips, an everyman who runs a tight ship but displays an admirable ability to improvise under pressure — and, once rescued, finally allows that pressure to diffuse in a scene of memorably raw catharsis. Newcomer Barkhad Abdi, cast from an open call among Minneapolis’ large Somali community, plays Muse; his character development goes deep enough to emphasize that piracy is one of few grim career options for Somali youths. But the real star here is probably director Paul Greengrass, who adds this suspenseful high-seas tale to his slate of intelligent, doc-inspired thrillers (2006’s United 93, 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum). Suffice to say fans of the reigning king of fast-paced, handheld-camera action will not be disappointed. (2:14) SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Dallas Buyers Club Dallas Buyers Club is the first all-US feature from Jean-Marc Vallée. He first made a splash in 2005 with C.R.A.Z.Y., which seemed an archetype of the flashy, coming-of-age themed debut feature. Vallée has evolved beyond flashiness, or maybe since C.R.A.Z.Y. he just hasn’t had a subject that seemed to call for it. Which is not to say Dallas is entirely sober — its characters partake from the gamut of altering substances, over-the-counter and otherwise. But this is a movie about AIDS, so the purely recreational good times must eventually crash to an end. Which they do pretty quickly. We first meet Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) in 1986, a Texas good ol’ boy endlessly chasing skirts and partying nonstop. Not feeling quite right, he visits a doctor, who informs him that he is HIV-positive. His response is “I ain’t no faggot, motherfucker” — and increased partying that he barely survives. Afterward, he pulls himself together enough to research his options, and bribes a hospital attendant into raiding its trial supply of AZT for him. But Ron also discovers the hard way what many first-generation AIDS patients did — that AZT is itself toxic. He ends up in a Mexican clinic run by a disgraced American physician (Griffin Dunne) who recommends a regime consisting mostly of vitamins and herbal treatments. Ron realizes a commercial opportunity, and finds a business partner in willowy cross-dresser Rayon (Jared Leto). When the authorities keep cracking down on their trade, savvy Ron takes a cue from gay activists in Manhattan and creates a law evading “buyers club” in which members pay monthly dues rather than paying directly for pharmaceutical goods. It’s a tale that the scenarists (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) and director steep in deep Texan atmospherics, and while it takes itself seriously when and where it ought, Dallas Buyers Club is a movie whose frequent, entertaining jauntiness is based in that most American value: get-rich-quick entrepreneurship. (1:58) California, Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Delivery Man Twenty years ago David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn) “put love in a cup” 600-plus times to finance a family trip to Italy. His mother was sick, his father couldn’t afford it, and with time running out, David embarked on a harebrained scheme to make (a lot of) “it” happen. The sperm bank that paid him $23K for his “seed” overused it, and 18 years later he has 533 kids, 143 of which are on a hunt to find their biological father, “Starbuck.” (This also the name of the 2011 Canadian comedy on which Delivery Man is based.) With a premise this quirky you’ll have a hard time finding something to hate, even if this is technically a film about runaway jizz. This heartwarming Thanksgiving release isn’t really appropriate for youngsters (unless you’re been trying to find a entrée to explain sperm banks) but the way Delivery Man deals with the seemingly limitless generosity contained in each of us is both touching and inspiring. Maybe David’s contribution to “Starbuck’s Kids” doesn’t obligate him to reveal his identity, but he’s desperately attached, and goes embarrassingly far outside his comfort zone to interact. The kids’ emotional stake in this is murky, but the way their search for identity finds a voice in tune with the current tech-confident yet socially-confused younger generation could make Delivery Man relevant to more generations than X or Y. (1:45) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)

Ender’s Game Those entering Ender’s Game in search of homophobic threads or politically unsavory themes will likely be frustrated. After all, Orson Scott Card — once a board member of the National Organization for Marriage, and here serving as a producer intent on preserving the 1985 novel that netted him acclaim — has revisited what was initially a short story multiple times over the years, tweaking it to reflect a new political climate, to ready it for new expedient uses. Who knows — the times are a-changin’ fast enough, with the outcry of LGBT activists and the growing acceptance of gay military members, to hope that a gay character might enter the mix someday. Of course, sexuality of all sorts is kept firmly in check in the Ender‘s world. Earth has been invaded by an insect-like species called the Formics, and the planet unifies to serve up its best and brightest (and, it’s implied, most ruthless) young minds, sharpened on first-person-shooters and tactical games, to the cause of defeating the alien “other.” Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is the knowing hybrid of his sociopath brother Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and compassionate sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin) — of the trinity, he’s “the One,” as Han Solo, I mean, Harrison Ford, cadet talent-spotter and trainer Colonel Graff, puts it. Ender impresses the leather off the hardened old war horse, though the Colonel’s psychologically more equipped cohort Major Anderson (Viola Davis) suspects there’s more going on within their chosen leader. Director-screenwriter Gavin Hood demonstrates his allegiance to Card’s vision, valorizing the discipline and teamwork instilled by military school with the grim purpose and dead serious pleasure one might take in studying a well-oiled machine, while Ender is sharpened and employed as a stunningly effective tool in a war he never truly conceived of. This game has a bit more in common with the recent Wii-meets-Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Godzillas of Pacific Rim than the winking, acidic satire of Starship Troopers (1997), echoing a drone-driven War on Terror that has a way of detaching even the most evolved fighter from the consequences of his or her actions. The question is how to undo, or rewrite, the damage done. (1:54) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)

Frozen (1:48) Four Star, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck, Vogue.

Gravity “Life in space is impossible,” begins Gravity, the latest from Alfonso Cuarón (2006’s Children of Men). Egghead Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is well aware of her precarious situation after a mangled satellite slams into her ship, then proceeds to demolition-derby everything (including the International Space Station) in its path. It’s not long before she’s utterly, terrifyingly alone, and forced to unearth near-superhuman reserves of physical and mental strength to survive. Bullock’s performance would be enough to recommend Gravity, but there’s more to praise, like the film’s tense pacing, spare-yet-layered script (Cuarón co-wrote with his son, Jonás), and spectacular 3D photography — not to mention George Clooney’s warm supporting turn as a career astronaut who loves country music almost as much as he loves telling stories about his misadventures. (1:31) Castro, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

The Great Beauty The latest from Paolo Sorrentino (2008’s Il Divo) arrives as a high-profile contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, already annointed a masterpiece in some quarters, and duly announcing itself as such in nearly every grandiose, aesthetically engorged moment. Yes, it seems to say, you are in the presence of this auteur’s masterpiece. But it’s somebody else’s, too. The problem isn’t just that Fellini got there first, but that there’s room for doubt whether Sorrentino’s homage actually builds on or simply imitates its model. La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963) are themselves swaying, jerry-built monuments, exhileratingly messy and debatably profound. But nothing quite like them had been seen before, and they did define a time of cultural upheaval — when traditional ways of life were being plowed under by a loud, moneyed, heedless modernity that for a while chose Rome as its global capital. Sorrentino announces his intention to out-Fellini Fellini in an opening sequence so strenuously flamboyant it’s like a never-ending pirouette performed by a prima dancer with a hernia. There’s statuary, a women’s choral ensemble, an on-screen audience applauding the director’s baffled muse Toni Servillo, standing in for Marcello Mastroianni — all this and more in manic tracking shots and frantic intercutting, as if sheer speed alone could supply contemporary relevancy. Eventually The Great Beauty calms down a bit, but still its reason for being remains vague behind the heavy curtain of “style.” (2:22) Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Homefront It’s not clear if Jason Statham’s undercover DEA agent is retired, but after a major meth bust he loses his scraggly mop of hair and put-on accent to enter seclusion in a town “not far from Appalachia.” He’s taught his daughter well, but when she defends herself against a school bully, the family incurs the wrath of the local tweaker-tiger mom (Kate Bosworth). Tiger Mom’s brother is the local meth lord, Gator (James Franco). He’s in cahoots with the Sheriff (Clancy Brown) and aspires to the heights of the biker badass Agent Statham put away, so he causes trouble for Statham’s family. Winona Ryder, looking more like Cher’s kid than she did in 1990’s Mermaids, is the “meth-whore” who starts a bustling lab with her business-savvy BF, and while she’s hardly out-performing any of the cast, she’s definitely the film’s best character. This mess of wonky editing and absurd send-ups totally delivers on gags and explosions, and when Franco sees his future he looks at it like a CEO applying at Starbucks. His face says “What the hell happened?” but his mouth yells, regrettably, “Are you retarded?” (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Before succumbing to the hot and heavy action inside the arena (intensely directed by Francis Lawrence) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire force-feeds you a world of heinous concept fashions that’d make Lady Gaga laugh. But that’s ok, because the second film about one girl’s epic struggle to change the world of Panem may be even more exciting than the first. Suzanne Collins’ YA novel The Hunger Games was an over-literal metaphor for junior high social survival and the glory of Catching Fire is that it depicts what comes after you reach the cool kids’ table. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) inspired so much hope among the 12 districts she now faces pressures from President Snow (a portentous Donald Sutherland) and the fanatical press of Capital City (Stanley Tucci with big teeth and Toby Jones with big hair). After she’s forced to fake a romance with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the two watch with horror as they’re faced with a new Hunger Game: for returning victors, many of whom are too old to run. Amanda Plummer and Jeffrey Wright are fun as brainy wackjobs and Jena Malone is hilariously Amazonian as a serial axe grinder still screaming like an eighth grader. Inside the arena, alliances and rivalries shift but the winner’s circle could survive to see another revolution; to save this city, they may have to burn it down. (2:26) Balboa, California, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)

Last Vegas This buddy film may look like a Bucket List-Hangover hybrid, but it’s got a lot more Spring Breakers in it than you expect — who beats Vegas for most bikinis per capita? Four old friends reunite for a wedding in Vegas, where they drink, gamble, and are confused for legendary men. Morgan Freeman sneaks out of his son’s house to go. Kevin Kline’s wife gave him a hall pass to regain his lost sense of fun. Kline and Freeman trick Robert De Niro into going — he’s got a grudge against Michael Douglas, so why celebrate that jerk’s nuptials to a 30-year-old? The conflicts are mostly safe and insubstantial, but the in-joke here is that all of these acting legends are confused for legends by their accidentally obtained VIP host (Romany Malco). These guys have earned their stature, so what gives? When De Niro flings fists you shudder inside remembering Jake LaMotta. Kline’s velvety comic delivery is just as swaggery as it was during his 80s era collaborations with Lawrence Kasdan. Douglas is “not as charming as he thinks he is,” yet again, and voice-of-God Freeman faces a conflict specific to paternal protective urges. Yes, Last Vegas jokes about the ravages of age and prescribes tenacity for all that ails us, but I want a cast this great celebrated at least as obviously as The Expendables films. Confuse these guys for better? Show me who. (1:44) Metreon. (Vizcarrondo)

Nebraska Alexander Payne may be unique at this point in that he’s in a position of being able to make nothing but small, human, and humorous films with major-studio money on his own terms. It’s hazardous to make too much of a movie like Nebraska, because it is small — despite the wide Great Plains landscapes shot in a wide screen format — and shouldn’t be entered into with overinflated or otherwise wrong-headed expectations. Still, a certain gratitude is called for. Nebraska marks the first time Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor weren’t involved in the script, and the first one since their 1996 Citizen Ruth that isn’t based on someone else’s novel. (Hitherto little-known Bob Nelson’s original screenplay apparently first came to Payne’s notice a decade ago, but getting put off in favor of other projects.) It could easily have been a novel, though, as the things it does very well (internal thought, sense of place, character nuance) and the things it doesn’t much bother with (plot, action, dialogue) are more in line with literary fiction than commercial cinema. Elderly Woody T. Grant (Bruce Dern) keeps being found grimly trudging through snow and whatnot on the outskirts of Billings, Mont., bound for Lincoln, Neb. Brain fuzzed by age and booze, he’s convinced he’s won a million dollars and needs to collect it him there, though eventually it’s clear that something bigger than reality — or senility, even — is compelling him to make this trek. Long-suffering younger son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him in order to simply put the matter to rest. This fool’s mission acquires a whole extended family-full of other fools when father and son detour to the former’s podunk farming hometown. Nebraska has no moments so funny or dramatic they’d look outstanding in excerpt; low-key as they were, 2009’s Sideways and 2011’s The Descendants had bigger set pieces and narrative stakes. But like those movies, this one just ambles along until you realize you’re completely hooked, all positive emotional responses on full alert. (1:55) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Presidio. (Harvey)

Oldboy In 2003, South Korean director Park Chan-wook released a modern masterpiece of harsh, misanthropic revenge cinema with Oldboy, a twisty and visually stylish adaptation of a Japanese manga. Ten years later, Spike Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich have delivered a recombinatory remake of the Korean film. It’s neither satisfying nor particularly infuriating — it plays with the elements of Park’s intensely memorable movie, alluding to scenes and images without always exactly reproducing them, and it makes a valiant effort to restore suspense to a story whose gut-wrenching twist has been slightly softened by a decade. But it’s much less visually engaging, replacing Park’s sinister playfulness with a blander, more direct action palette. Josh Brolin’s Joe Doucett is brooding and brutal, but not as sickly compelling as Choi Min-sik’s wild-eyed Oh Dae-su; Elizabeth Olsen is emotionally powerful as his helper and lover; and Sharlto Copley offers a bizarre, rather gross caricature as the scheming antagonist. (2:00) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Stander)

Out of the Furnace Scott Cooper is best-known for directing Jeff Bridges to a long-overdue Oscar in 2009 country-music yarn Crazy Heart. Perhaps that’s why his follow-up contains so many stars: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard, Zoe Saldana, and Woody Harrelson. That cast is the main draw for Out of the Furnace, a glum fable of dying American dreams co-written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby. Furnace retains Crazy Heart‘s melodramatic tendencies and good ol’ boy milieu, though this time we’re deep in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt, which manages to be even more depressing than Crazy Horse‘s honky-tonks. Cue gray skies, repeated shots of train tracks and smoke stacks, an emo banjo score, and dialogue that casually mentions that “the mill,” the only source of income for miles around, is about to close. Probably the nicest guy in town is Bale’s character, arrested early on for causing a fatal car accident thanks to his inability to turn down a drink offered by the town heavy (Dafoe). Post-prison, he discovers that his girlfriend (Saldana) has taken up with another man, and that his money-troubled Iraq-vet brother (Affleck) has been entering high-stakes pit fights. Really, this can’t end well for anyone. Adding to Out of the Furnace‘s bleak take on modern masculinity is Harrelson, stealing all his scenes with ease as a psychotically violent redneck. Mickey Knox lives! (1:56) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Philomena Judi Dench gives this twist on a real-life scandal heart, soul, and a nuanced, everyday heft. Her ideal, ironic foil is Steve Coogan, playing an upper-crusty irreverent snob of an investigative journalist. Judging by her tidy exterior, Dench’s title character is a perfectly ordinary Irish working-class senior, but she’s haunted by the past, which comes tumbling out one day to her daughter: As an unwed teenager, she gave birth to a son at a convent. She was forced to work there, unpaid; as supposed penance, the baby was essentially sold to a rich American couple against her consent. Her yarn reaches disgraced reporter Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), who initially turns his nose up at the tale’s piddling “human interest” angle, but slowly gets drawn in by the unexpected twists and turns of the story — and likely the possibility of taking down some evil nuns — as well as seemingly naive Philomena herself, with her delight in trash culture, frank talk about sex, and simple desire to see her son and know that he thought, once in a while, of her. It turns out Philomena’s own sad narrative has as many improbable turnarounds as one of the cheesy romance novels she favors, and though this unexpected twosome’s quest for the truth is strenuously reworked to conform to the contours of buddy movie-road trip arc that we’re all too familiar with, director Stephen Frears’ warm, light-handed take on the gentle class struggles going on between the writer and his subject about who’s in control of the story makes up for Philomena‘s determined quest for mass appeal. (1:35) Albany, Embarcadero, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

The Punk Singer It was strange when Kathleen Hanna — riot grrrl activist, iconic Bikini Kill battle cry leader, electro-popping Le Tigre singer — went silent. Beat down by a mysterious illness, she seemingly tumbled into hardcore self-preservation mode, contributing her personal files of zines, show flyers, and lyrics to the “Riot Grrrl Collection” at New York University’s Fales Library. This archival material would prove key to Sini Anderson’s new documentary about Hanna, The Punk Singer. The film includes many lesser-seen clips from the early days of Bikini Kill, the band’s tours through Europe, and early moments with Hanna’s husband, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, and it uses archival footage and present-day interviews to color in Hanna’s childhood, the beginning of the riot grrrl movement, Le Tigre, and her post-Bikini Kill solo project, the Julie Ruin. The bulk of filming was done over the course of a year — and it was a momentous one: Halfway through, Hanna was diagnosed with late-stage neurological Lyme disease. The revelation spurred Anderson (who also has Lyme disease) to focus on the strength in Hanna’s vulnerability, and to depict how her subject chose to view her illness as motivation to return to music. Anderson’s interviews with Hanna are intimate and enlightening; the film also features commentary from Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail, Billy Karren, and Kathi Wilcox (now of the Julie Ruin); Kim Gordon; Joan Jett; Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker; and teenage Rookie Magazine editor Tavi Gevinson. (1:56) Roxie. (Emily Savage)

Sweet Dreams When the all-female drum troupe at the center of Sweet Dreams performs — and we hear some of the players’ stories about their battles to emerge from the enormity of the Rwandan genocide — we fully understand why Oscar-winning editor Lisa Fruchtman and her brother, documentary director Rob Fruchtman, gravitated toward this story. Ingoma Nshya is rooted in a tradition that was once reserved for men, and is composed of the orphans, widows, wives, and offspring of both the victims and perpetrators of the genocide. Music seems to be one of the sole sources of creative expression and healing for them, until founder and theater director Kiki Katese convinces the hipster owners of Brooklyn’s Blue Marble Ice Cream to start a collective with the women to open the country’s first ice cream shop. The Fruchtmans touch on the horrors of the past but devote most of the drama to the quietly emotional as well as physically tangible issues of opening the store and actually going about making its soft-serve treats. With that focus, Sweet Dreams sometimes seems to overlook the obvious — the ever-lingering specter of violence and trauma, the unanswered questions of justice, and the women’s daily struggle to coexist — and those with a journalistic, or even musically ethnographic, mindset, will be frustrated by some of the absences, like the lack of information about the performances and music itself. That’s not to say Sweet Dreams‘ story isn’t worth telling — or relishing. (1:23) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Chun)

Thor: The Dark World Since any tentacle of Marvel’s Avengers universe now comes equipped with its own money-printing factory, it’s likely we’ll keep seeing sequels and spin-offs for approximately the next 100 years. With its by-the-numbers plot and “Yeah, seen that before” 3D effects, Thor: The Dark World is forced to rely heavily on the charisma of its leads — Chris Hemsworth as the titular hammer-swinger; Tom Hiddleston as his brooding brother Loki — to hold audience interest. Fortunately, these two (along with Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Idris Elba, and the rest of the supporting cast, most of whom return from the first film) appear to be having a blast under the direction of Alan Taylor, a TV veteran whose credits include multiple Game of Thrones eps. Not that any Avengers flick carries much heft, but especially here, jokey asides far outweigh any moments of actual drama (the plot, about an alien race led by Christopher Eccleston in “dark elf” drag intent on capturing an ancient weapon with the power to destroy all the realms, etc. etc., matters very little). Fanboys and -girls, this one’s for you … and only you. (2:00) Metreon. (Eddy)

12 Years a Slave Pop culture’s engagement with slavery has always been uneasy. Landmark 1977 miniseries Roots set ratings records, but the prestigious production capped off a decade that had seen some more questionable endeavors, including 1975 exploitation flick Mandingo — often cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorite films; it was a clear influence on his 2012 revenge fantasy Django Unchained, which approached its subject matter in a manner that paid homage to the Westerns it riffed on: with guns blazing. By contrast, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is nuanced and steeped in realism. Though it does contain scenes of violence (deliberately captured in long takes by regular McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt, whose cinematography is one of the film’s many stylistic achievements), the film emphasizes the horrors of “the peculiar institution” by repeatedly showing how accepted and ingrained it was. Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, an African American man who was sold into slavery in 1841 and survived to pen a wrenching account of his experiences. He’s portrayed here by the powerful Chiwetel Ejiofor. Other standout performances come courtesy of McQueen favorite Michael Fassbender (as Epps, a plantation owner who exacerbates what’s clearly an unwell mind with copious amounts of booze) and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, as a slave who attracts Epps’ cruel attentions. (2:14) California, Embarcadero, Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago How dramatic can a walk be? Very, according to this documentary by Lydia B. Smith, which explores the centuries-old Camino de Santiago and follows a handful of travelers as they embark on the 500-mile journey on foot. Blisters and tendonitis, sparkling sun and heavy rain, weighty packs and roaring snorers, easy friendship and out-of-the-blue romance all occur on this well-traveled pilgrim’s path from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago’s Santiago de Compostela, where St. James is said to be entombed. But the final destination plays only a small part in these travelers’ expedition, as they traverse astonishingly beautiful countryside and medieval villages, as well as the camino within, as one monk puts it. Director-producer Smith, who walked the life-changing route herself, follows, among others, American Annie, whose physical issues threaten to halt her pilgrimage; Portuguese Tomas, who initially picked the camino over kite surfing as a purely secular endurance activity; French Tatiana, who is devoutly Catholic and journeying with a young son and childlike, agnostic brother; and Brazilian Sam, who is trying to make her way toward healing after her job and relationship went south. At times, Smith seems too reverent when it comes to pushing her pilgrims — she’s clearly a booster of the process and the path — and though the dark nights of the soul are captured, she never attempts to penetrate the core of doubt or learn about those who strayed and gave up. Nature has a way of overcoming those reservations. But against the beauty of Northern Spain, the stories of those she follows are so inspiring, even skeptics will find it hard not to be drawn in. (1:24) Balboa, Smith Rafael. (Chun) *