Film listings

Pub date October 13, 2009
SectionFilm Reviews

Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, Matt Sussman, and Laura Swanbeck. The film intern is Fernando F. Croce. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.


The eighth annual San Francisco Documentary Film Festival runs Oct 16-29 at the Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF. Tickets ($11) are available by visiting For commentary, see "Is the Truth Out There?" All times p.m.


The Entrepreneur 7. Shooting Robert King 7. Drums Inside Your Chest 9:15. Houston We Have a Problem 9:15.


Drums Inside Your Chest 2:30. Waiting for Hockney 2:30. Between the Folds 4:45. Finding Face 4:45. HomeGrown 7. The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia 7. Dust and Illusions 9:15. The Earth Is Young 9:15.


"Bay Area Shorts" (shorts program) 2:30. We Said, No Crying 2:30. Another Planet 4:45. I Need That Record: The Death (or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store 4:45. Cat Ladies 7. Off and Running 7. Vampiro 9:15. What’s the Matter with Kansas? 9:15.


Between the Folds 7. We Said, No Crying 7. October Country 9:15. Waiting for Hockney 9:15.


The Earth Is Young 7. I Need That Record: The Death (or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store 7. Another Planet 9:15. The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia 9:15.


The 32nd Mill Valley Film Festival runs through Sun/18 at the Century Cinema, 41 Tamal Vista, Corte Madera; CinéArts@Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton, Mill Valley; 142 Throckmorton Theatre, 142 Throckmorton, Mill Valley; and Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St, San Rafael. Tickets (most shows $12.50) available by calling 1-877-874-MVFF or visiting All times p.m. unless otherwise noted.


Rafael The Horse Boy 4:30. "5@5: America Is Not the World" (shorts program) 5. "Spotlight on Jason Reitman:" Up in the Air 6:30. White Wedding 7. Linoleum 7:15. Tapped 9. The Eclipse 9:15. Up in the Air 9:40.

Sequoia The Swimsuit Issue 4:15. "5@5: Oscillate Wildly" (shorts program) 5. Trimpin: The Sound of Invention 6:30. Surrogate 7. Elevator 8:45. Hellsinki 9.

Throck "Insight: The Cassel Touch" (interview and discussion) 8.


Rafael The Girl on the Train 4. Reach for Me 4:30. "5@5: The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get" (shorts program) 5. Icons Among Us: jazz in the present tense 6:30. Meredith Monk: Inner Voice 6:45. "Tribute to Woody Harrelson:" The Messenger 7. Hipsters 9. Barking Water 9:15.

Sequoia "5@5: Sister I’m a Poet" (shorts program) 5. Jim Thorpe: The World’s Greatest Athlete 5:15. Apron Strings 6:45. The Missing Person 7:30. This Is the Husband I Want! 9. Winnebago Man 9:30.

Throck Storm 7.


Rafael Sweet Rush 4. "5@5: The Edges Are No Longer Parallel" (shorts program) 5. Stalin Thought of You 6. "Tribute to Anna Karina:" Victoria 6:30. Zombie Girl: The Movie 7. Jermal 8:15. Trimpin: The Sound of Invention 9. Red Cliff 9:30.

Sequoia Shylock 4. Shameless 5. Tenderloin 6:45. A Thousand Suns and Mustang: Journey of Transformation 7. One Crazy Ride 8:45. Happy Tears 9:15.

Throck Troupers: 50 Years of the San Francisco Mime Troupe 7:30.


Rafael [Blank.] 11am. A Thousand Suns and Mustang: Journey of Transformation noon. Ricky Rapper 1. The Girl on the Train 1:45. Hellsinki 2. Oh My God 3. The Strength of Water 4:15. Awakening from Sorrow 4:45. The Missing Person 5:30. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg 6:45. The Swimsuit Issue 6:45. Surrogate 7:45. Tenderloin 9. Hipsters 9:15.

Sequoia The Letter for the King 10:30am. Eat the Sun noon. White Wedding 1:30. Miracle in a Box: A Piano Reborn 2:30. Dark and Stormy Night 3:45. Mine 5. A Year Ago in Winter 6:15. Reach for Me 7:15. "Hi De Ho Show" (shorts and music) 9:15. Winnebago Man 9:45.

Throck "New Movie Labs: Distribution of Specialty Film" (seminar) 12:30. Project Happiness 3. "5@5: The Edges Are No Longer Parallel" (shorts program) 5. "Cinemasports" (shorts program of films made in one day) 7:30.


Rafael Stella and the Star of the Orient noon. This Is the Husband I Want! noon. Mine 12:30. Apron Strings 2:30. Soundtrack for a Revolution 2:45. One Crazy Ride 3. Project Happiness 5. The Young Victoria 5:15. Race to Nowhere 5:45. Skin 7:30. Bomber 7:45.

Sequoia The Ten Lives of Titanic the Cat 12:30. Meredith Monk: Inner Voice 1. Oh My God 2:30. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg 3:15. Looking for Eric 5:15. The Strength of Water 5:45.

Throck "New Movies Lab: Active Cinema" 12:30. "A Sweeter Music: Live Concert with Sarah Cahill and John Sanborn" 3:30.


Birdwatchers War-painted natives don bows and arrows and watch from the Amazon riverbank as a boat of tourists passes by. Away from white eyes, they slip back into their modern clothes and are paid by the tour guide for a job well done. Had it sustained the evocative wryness of its opening scene throughout its running time, Marco Bechi’s film would have been more than a frequently striking culture-clash tract. As it is, there’s much to admire in this Brazil-set account of a disbanded Guarani-Kaiowà tribe struggling to hang on to their expiring heritage, from its clear-eyed view of the lingering human toll of colonialism to its uncondescending portrait of indigenous mysticism. Unfortunately, Bechi’s penchant for underlined contrasts and clumsy staging often threaten to sabotage his evocative mix of ethnography, satire, and social critique. While far from being as complacent as the titular sightseers, in the end the film is similarly content to merely skim over an ongoing cultural genocide. (1:40) Sundance Kabuki. (Croce)

*An Education See "Culture Class." (1:35) Albany, Embarcadero.

The Horse Boy Rupert Isaacson and Kristin Neff are a Texas couple struggling to raise their five-year-old autistic son Rowan. When they discover that the boy’s tantrums are soothed by contact with horses, they set out on a journey to Mongolia, where horseback riding is the preferred mode of traveling across the steppe and sacred shamans hold the promise of healing. Michael Orion Scott’s documentary is many things — lecture on autism, home video collage, family therapy session, and exotic travelogue. Above all, unfortunately, it’s a star vehicle for Isaacson, whose affecting concern for his son is constantly eclipsed by his screen-hogging concern for his own paternal image (more than once he declares that he’s a better father thanks to Rowan’s condition). The contradiction brings to mind doomed activist Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man (2005), and indeed the film could have used some of Werner Herzog’s inquisitive touch, if only to question the artistic merits of showing your son going "poopie." Twice. (1:33) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Croce)

Law Abiding Citizen "Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006) as re-imagined by the Saw franchise folks" apparently sounded like a sweet pitch to someone, because here we are, stuck with Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler playing bloody and increasingly ludicrous cat-and-mouse games. Foxx stars as a slick Philadelphia prosecutor whose deal-cutting careerist ways go easy on the scummy criminals responsible for murdering the wife and daughter of a local inventor (Butler). Cut to a decade later, and the doleful widower has become a vengeful mastermind with a yen for Hannibal Lecter-like skills, gruesome contraptions, and lines like "Lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten." Butler metes out punishment to his family’s killers as well as to the bureocratic minions who let them off the hook. But the talk of moral consequences is less a critique of a faulty judicial system than mere white noise, vainly used by director F. Gary Gray and writer Kurt Wimmer in hopes of classing up a grinding exploitation drama. (1:48) Presidio. (Croce)

*More Than a Game In the late 1990s, armed with a camera and a certain amount of tenacity, Kristopher Belman set out to capture the glory that was regularly manifesting itself on a certain Akron, Ohio basketball court. The main reason: a future superstar named LeBron James. But James’ remarkable teenage career (at least until the age of 18, when the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School grad became the number one NBA draft pick) wasn’t completely a solo act; his core group of friends, the team’s starting line-up, was so tight they were called "the Fab Five." Despite Belman’s determination to equally divide the spotlight, James was clearly a star then as he is now, slam-dunking on hapless opponents even as he grappled with his burgeoning celebrity status. I’ll never tire of the tale of how James raised eyebrows when he started driving a brand-new Hummer — only to quash whispers of misconduct when it was revealed that his mother, Gloria, was able to secure a loan for the gift based solely on the understanding (shared by all) that her son’s skills would make him a zillionaire before his next birthday. (1:45) (Eddy)

New York, I Love You A variety of filmmakers (including Fatih Akin, Shekhar Kapur, Mira Nair, and Brett Ratner) directed segments of this stateside answer to 2006’s Paris, je t’aime. (1:43) Bridge, Shattuck.

The Providence Effect Located in Chicago’s gang-infested West side, the illustrious Providence St. Mel School rises above its surroundings like a flower in a swamp. Or at least it does in Rollin Binzer’s documentary, where analysis of the institution’s great achievements at times edges into a virtual pamphlet for enrollment. Focusing mainly on affable school president Paul J. Adams III, a veteran of the civil rights movement whose "impossible dream" made Providence possible, the film chronicles the daily activities of teachers and students vying for success in the face of poverty and crime. Given the school’s notoriously unwholesome environment, it’s a bit disappointing that the film chooses to exclusively follow the trajectory of model pupils, trading grittier tales of struggle in favor of a smoother ride of feel-god buzzwords and uplifting anecdotes. The documentary isn’t free of scholarly platitudes straight out of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), but, in times when teachers get as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield, its celebration of the importance of education is valuable. (1:32) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Croce)

The Stepfather Dylan Walsh: as scary as Terry O’Quinn? Discuss. (1:41)

Where the Wild Things Are Spike Jonze directs a live-action version of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s tale. (1:48) Four Star, Grand Lake, Marina.


*Bright Star Is beauty truth; truth, beauty? John Keats, the poet famed for such works as "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and Jane Campion, the filmmaker intent on encapsuutf8g the last romance of the archetypal Romantic, would have undoubtedly bonded over a love of sensual details — and the way a certain vellum-like light can transport its viewer into elevated reverie. In truth, Campion doesn’t quite achieve the level of Keats’ verse with this somber glimpse at the tubercular writer and his final love, neighbor Fanny Brawne. But she does bottle some of their pale beauty. Less-educated than the already respected young scribe, Brawne nonetheless may have been his equal in imagination as a seamstress, judging from the petal-bonneted, ruffled-collar ensembles Campion outfits her in. As portrayed by the soulful-eyed Abbie Cornish, the otherwise-enigmatic, plucky Brawne is the singularly bright blossom ready to be wrapped in a poet’s adoration, worthy of rhapsody by Ben Whishaw’s shaggily, shabbily puppy-dog Keats, who snatches the preternaturally serene focus of a fine mind cut short by illness, with the gravitational pull of a serious indie-rock hottie. The two are drawn to each other like the butterflies flittering in Brawne’s bedroom/farm, one of the most memorable scenes in the dark yet sweetly glimmering Bright Star. Bathing her scenes in lengthy silence, shot through with far-from-flowery dialogue, Campion is at odds with this love story, so unlike her joyful 1990 ode to author Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table (Kerry Fox appears here, too, as Fanny’s mother): the filmmaker refuses to overplay it, sidestepping Austenian sprightliness. Instead she embraces the dark differences, the negative inevitability, of this death-steeped coupling, welcoming the odd glance at the era’s intellectual life, the interplay of light and shadow. (1:59) Empire, Piedmont, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

*Capitalism: A Love Story Gun control. The Bush administration. Healthcare. Over the past decade, Michael Moore has tackled some of the most contentious issues with his trademark blend of humor and liberal rage. In Capitalism: A Love Story, he sets his sights on an even grander subject. Where to begin when you’re talking about an economic system that has defined this nation? Predictably, Moore’s focus is on all those times capitalism has failed. By this point, his tactics are familiar, but he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. As with Sicko (2007), Moore proves he can restrain himself — he gets plenty of screen time, but he spends more time than ever behind the camera. This isn’t about Moore; it’s about the United States. When he steps out of the limelight, he’s ultimately more effective, crafting a film that’s bipartisan in nature, not just in name. No, he’s not likely to please all, but for every Glenn Beck, there’s a sane moderate wondering where all the money has gone. (2:07) California, Empire, Grand Lake, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (1:21) Oaks, 1000 Van Ness.

Coco Before Chanel Like her designs, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was elegant, très chic, and utterly original. Director Anne Fontaine’s French biopic traces Coco (Audrey Tautou) from her childhood as a struggling orphan to one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. You’ll be disappointed if you expect a fashionista’s up close and personal look at the House of Chanel, as Fontaine keeps her story firmly rooted in Coco’s past, including her destructive relationship with French playboy Etienne Balsar (Benoît Poelvoorde) and her ill-fated love affair with dashing Englishman Arthur "Boy" Capel (Alessandro Nivola). The film functions best in scenes that display Coco’s imagination and aesthetic magnetism, like when she dances with Capel in her now famous "little black dress" amidst a sea of stiff, white meringues. Tautou imparts a quiet courage and quick wit as the trailblazing designer, and Nivola is unmistakably charming and compassionate as Boy. Nevertheless, Fontaine rushes the ending and never truly seizes the opportunity to explore how Coco’s personal life seeped into her timeless designs that were, in the end, an extension of herself. (1:50) Albany, SF Center. (Swanbeck)

Couples Retreat You could call Couples Retreat a romantic comedy, but that would imply that it was romantic and funny instead of an insipid, overlong waste of time. This story of a group of married friends trying to bond with their spouses in an exotic island locale is a failure on every level. Romantic? The titular couples — four total — represent eight of the most obnoxious characters in recent memory. Sure, you’re rooting for them to work out their issues, but that’s only because awful people deserve one another. (And in a scene with an almost-shark attack, you’re rooting for the shark.) Funny? The jokes are, at best, juvenile (boners are silly!) and, at worse, offensive (sexism and homophobia once more reign supreme). There is an impressive array of talent here: Vince Vaugh, Jason Bateman, Kristen Bell, Jean Reno, etc. Alas, there’s no excusing the script, which puts these otherwise solid actors into exceedingly unlikable roles. Even the gorgeous island scenery — Couples Retreat was filmed on location in Bora-Bora — can’t make up for this waterlogged mess. (1:47) Grand Lake, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck. (Peitzman)

*District 9 As allegories go, District 9 is not all that subtle. This is a sci-fi action flick that’s really all about racial intolerance — and to drive the point home, they went and set it in South Africa. Here’s the set-up: 20 years ago, an alien ship arrived and got stuck, hovering above the Earth. Faster than you can say "apartheid," the alien refugees were confined to a camp — the titular District 9 — where they have remained in slum-level conditions. As science fiction, it’s creative; as a metaphor, it’s effective. What’s most surprising about District 9 is the way everything comes together. This is a big, bloody summer blockbuster with feelings: for every viscera-filled splatter, there’s a moment of poignant social commentary, and nothing ever feels forced or overdone. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp has found the perfect balance and created a film that doesn’t have to compromise. District 9 is a profoundly distressing look at the human condition. It’s also one hell of a good time. (1:52) Four Star. (Peitzman)

Eating Out 3: All You Can Eat A third entry in the low-budget gay franchise that goes mano-a-mano for crassness with mainstream teen sex comedies, this latest ages past even collegiate youth. That’s doubtless due to the expired jeune-fille status of series fave Rebekah Kochan, whose character Tiffani is a bitchy, potty-mouthed, horndoggie drag queen improbably inhabiting the person of an actual heterosexual born-female. Who operates a nail shop in West Hollywood, yet. That she bears no resemblance to credible real-world womanhood doesn’t entirely erase the line-snapping panache of Kochan herself, a gifted comedienne. If only she had better material to work with. After a truly horrific opening reel — duly tasteless but so, so unfunny — director Glenn Gaylord (is that really his name?) and scenarist Phillip J. Bartell’s sequel mercifully goes from rancid to semisweet. There’s little surprise in the Tiffani-assisted pursuit of slightly nelly dreamboat Zack (Chris Salvatore) by pseudo-nerdy, equally bodyfat-deprived new kid in town Casey (Daniel Skelton). But there is a pretty amusing climax involving a three-way (theoretically four) recalling the original’s hilarious phone-sex-coaching highlight. (1:23) Roxie. (Harvey)

Fame Note to filmmakers: throwing a bunch of talented young people together does not a good film make. And that’s putting it mildly. Fame is an overstuffed mess, a waste of teenage performers, veteran actors, and, of course, the audience’s time. Conceptually, it’s sound: it makes sense to update the 1980 classic for a new, post-High School Musical generation. But High School Musical this ain’t. Say what you will about the Disney franchise — but those films have (at the very least) some semblance of cohesion and catchy tunes. Fame is music video erratic, with characters who pop up, do a little dance, then disappear for a while. The idea that we should remember them is absurd — that we should care about their plights even stranger. It doesn’t help that said plights are leftovers from every other teen song-and-dance movie ever: unsupportive parents, tough-love teachers, doomed romance. "Fame" may mean living forever, but I give this movie two weeks. (1:45) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

(500) Days of Summer There’s a warning at the tender, bruised heart of (500) Days of Summer, kind of like an alarm on a clock-radio set to MOPEROCK-FM, going off somewhere in another room. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a student of architecture turned architect of sappy greeting card messages, opts to press snooze and remain in the dream world of "I’m the guy who can make this lovely girl believe in love." The agnostic in question is a luminous, whimsical creature named Summer (Zooey eschanel), who’s sharp enough to flirtatiously refer to Tom as "Young Werther" but soft enough to seem capable of reshaping into a true believer. Her semi-mysterious actions throughout (500) Days raise the following question, though: is a mutual affinity for Morrissey and Magritte sufficient predetermining evidence of what is and is not meant to be? Over the course of an impressionistic film that flips back and forth and back again through the title’s 500 days, mimicking the darting, perilous maneuvers of ungovernable memory, first-time feature director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber answer this and related questions in a circuitous fashion, while gently querying our tendency to edit and manufacture perceptions. (1:36) Shattuck. (Rapoport)

*In the Loop A typically fumbling remark by U.K. Minister of International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) ignites a media firestorm, since it seems to suggest war is imminent even though Brit and U.S. governments are downplaying the likelihood of the Iraq invasion they’re simultaneously preparing for. Suddenly cast as an important arbiter of global affairs — a role he’s perhaps less suited for than playing the Easter Bunny — Simon becomes one chess piece in a cutthroat game whose participants on both sides of the Atlantic include his own subordinates, the prime minister’s rageaholic communications chief, major Pentagon and State Department honchos, crazy constituents, and more. Writer-director Armando Iannucci’s frenetic comedy of behind-the-scenes backstabbing and its direct influence on the highest-level diplomatic and military policies is scabrously funny in the best tradition of English television, which is (naturally) just where its creators hail from. (1:49) Shattuck. (Harvey)

Inglourious Basterds With Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino pulls off something that seemed not only impossible, but undesirable, and surely unnecessary: making yet another of his in-jokey movies about other movies, albeit one that also happens to be kinda about the Holocaust — or at least Jews getting their own back on the Nazis during World War II — and (the kicker) is not inherently repulsive. As Rube Goldbergian achievements go, this is up there. Nonetheless, Basterds is more fun, with less guilt, than it has any right to be. The "basterds" are Tennessee moonshiner Pvt. Brad Pitt’s unit of Jewish soldiers committed to infuriating Der Fuhrer by literally scalping all the uniformed Nazis they can bag. Meanwhile a survivor (Mélanie Laurent) of one of insidious SS "Jew Hunter" Christoph Waltz’s raids, now passing as racially "pure" and operating a Paris cinema (imagine the cineaste name-dropping possibilities!) finds her venue hosting a Third Reich hoedown that provides an opportunity to nuke Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, and Goering in one swoop. Tactically, Tarantino’s movies have always been about the ventriloquizing of that yadadada-yadadada whose self-consciousness is bearable because the cleverness is actual; brief eruptions of lasciviously enjoyed violence aside, Basterds too almost entirely consists of lengthy dialogues or near-monologues in which characters pitch and receive tasty palaver amid lethal danger. Still, even if he’s practically writing theatre now, Tarantino does understand the language of cinema. There isn’t a pin-sharp edit, actor’s raised eyebrow, artful design excess, or musical incongruity here that isn’t just the business. (2:30) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*The Informant! The best satire makes you uncomfortable, but nothing will make you squirm in your seat like a true story that feels like satire. Director Steven Soderbergh introduces the exploits of real-life agribusiness whistleblower Mark Whitacre with whimsical fonts and campy music — just enough to get the audience’s guard down. As the pitch-perfect Matt Damon — laden with 30 extra pounds and a fright-wig toupee — gee-whizzes his way through an increasingly complicated role, Soderbergh doles out subtle doses of torturous reality, peeling back the curtain to reveal a different, unexpected curtain behind it. Informant!’s tale of board-room malfeasance is filled with mis-directing cameos, jokes, and devices, and its ingenious, layered narrative will provoke both anti-capitalist outrage and a more chimerical feeling of satisfied frustration. Above all, it’s disquietingly great. (1:48) Empire, Four Star, Oaks, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Richardson)

The Invention of Lying Great concept. Great cast. All The Invention of Lying needed was a great script editor and it might have reached classic comedy territory. As it stands, it’s dragged down to mediocrity by a weak third act. This is the story of a world where no one can lie — and we’re not just talking about big lies either. The Invention of Lying presents a vision of no sarcasm, no white lies, no — gasp —creative fiction. All that changes when Mark Bellison (Ricky Gervais) realizes he can bend the truth. And because no one else can, everything Mark makes up becomes fact to the rubes around him. If you guessed that hilarity ensues, you’re right on the money! Watching Mark use his powers for evil (robbing the bank! seducing women!) makes for a very funny first hour. Then things take a turn for the heavy when Mark becomes a prophet by letting slip his vision of the afterlife. Faster than you can say "Jesus beard," he’s rocking a God complex and the audience is longing for the simpler laughs, like Jennifer Garner admitting to some pre-date masturbation. (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Peitzman)

Julie and Julia As Julie Powell, disillusioned secretary by day and culinary novice by night, Amy Adams stars as a woman who decides to cook and blog her way through 524 of Julia Child’s recipes in 365 days. Nora Ephron oscillates between Julie’s drab existence in modern-day New York and the exciting life of culinary icon and expatriate, Julia Child (Meryl Streep), in 1950s Paris. As Julia gains confidence in the kitchen by besting all the men at the Cordon Bleu, Julie follows suit, despite strains on both her marriage and job. While Streep’s Julia borders on caricature at first, her performance eventually becomes more nuanced as the character’s insecurities about cooking, infertility, and getting published slowly emerge. Although a feast for the eyes and a rare portrait of a female over 40, Ephron’s cinematic concoction leaves you longing for less Julie with her predictable empowerment storyline and more of Julia and Streep’s exuberance and infectious joie de vivre. (2:03) Oaks, Sundance Kabuki. (Swanbeck)

*9 American animation rarely gets as dark and dystopian as the PG-13-rated 9, the first feature by Shane Acker, who dreamed up the original short. The end of the world has arrived, the cities are wastelands of rubble, and the machines — robots that once functioned as the War of the Worlds-like weapons of an evil dictator — have triumphed. Humans have been eradicated — or maybe not. Some other, more vulnerable, sock-puppet-like machines, concocted with a combination of alchemy and engineering, have been created to counter their scary toaster brethren, like 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), who stumbles off his worktable like a miniature Pinocchio, a so-called stitch-punk. He’s big-eyed, bumbling, and vulnerable in his soft knitted skin and deprived of his guiding Geppetto. But he quickly encounters 2 (Martin Landau), who helps him jump start his nerves and fine-tune his voice box before a nasty, spidery ‘bot snatches his new friend up, as well a mysterious object 9 found at his creator’s lab. Too much knowledge in this ugly new world is something to be feared, as he learns from the other surviving models. The crotchety would-be leader 1 (Christopher Plummer), the one-eyed timid 5 (John C. Reilly), and the brave 7 (Jennifer Connelly) have very mixed feelings about stirring up more trouble. Who can blame them? People — and machines and even little dolls with the spark of life in their innocent, round eyes — die. Still, 9 manages to sidestep easy consolation and simple answers — delivering the always instructive lesson that argument and dialogue is just as vital and human as blowing stuff up real good — while offering heroic, relatively complicated thrills. And yes, our heros do get to run for their little AI-enhanced lives from a massive fireball. (1:19) SF Center. (Chun)

*Paranormal Activity In this ostensible found-footage exercise, Katie (Katie Featherson) and Micah (Micah Sloat) are a young San Diego couple whose first home together has a problem: someone, or something, is making things go bump in the night. In fact, Katie has sporadically suffered these disturbances since childhood, when an amorphous, not-at-reassuring entity would appear at the foot of her bed. Skeptical technophile Micah’s solution is to record everything on his primo new video camera, including a setup to shoot their bedroom while they sleep — surveillance footage sequences that grow steadily more terrifying as incidents grow more and more invasive. Like 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, Oren Peli’s no-budget first feature may underwhelm mainstream genre fans who only like their horror slick and slasher-gory. But everybody else should appreciate how convincingly the film’s very ordinary, at times annoying protagonists (you’ll eventually want to throttle Micah, whose efforts are clearly making things worse) fall prey to a hostile presence that manifests itself in increments no less alarming for being (at first) very small. When this hits DVD, you’ll get to see the original, more low-key ending (the film has also been tightened up since its festival debut two years ago). But don’t wait — Paranormal‘s subtler effects will be lost on the small screen. Not to mention that it’s a great collective screaming-audience experience. (1:39) Metreon. (Harvey)

*Paris Cédric Klapisch’s latest offers a series of interconnected stories with Paris as the backdrop, designed — if you’ll pardon the cliché — as a love letter to the city. On the surface, the plot of Paris sounds an awful lot like Paris, je t’aime (2006). But while the latter was composed entirely of vignettes, Paris has an actual, overarching plot. Perhaps that’s why it’s so much more effective. Juliette Binoche stars as Élise, whose brother Pierre (Romain Duris) is in dire need of a heart transplant. A dancer by trade, Pierre is also a world-class people watcher, and it’s his fascination with those around him that serves as Paris‘ wraparound device. He sees snippets of these people’s lives, but we get the full picture — or at least, something close to it. The strength of Paris is in the depth of its characters: every one we meet is more complex than you’d guess at first glance. The more they play off one another, the more we understand. Of course, the siblings remain at the film’s heart: sympathetic but not pitiable, moving but not maudlin. Both Binoche and Duris turn in strong performances, aided by a supporting cast of French actors who impress in even the smallest of roles. (2:04) Shattuck. (Peitzman)

*The September Issue The Lioness D’Wintour, the Devil Who Wears Prada, or the High Priestess of Condé Nasty — it doesn’t matter what you choose to call Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. If you’re in the fashion industry, you will call her — or at least be amused by the power she wields as the overseer of style’s luxury bible, then 700-plus pages strong for its legendary September fall fashion issue back in the heady days of ’07, pre-Great Recession. But you don’t have to be a publishing insider to be fascinated by director R.J. Cutler’s frisky, sharp-eyed look at the making of fashion’s fave editorial doorstop. Wintour’s laser-gazed facade is humanized, as Cutler opens with footage of a sparkling-eyed editor breaking down fashion’s fluffy reputation. He then follows her as she assumes the warrior pose in, say, the studio of Yves St. Laurent, where she has designer Stefano Pilati fluttering over his morose color choices, and in the offices of the magazine, where she slices, dices, and kills photo shoots like a sartorial samurai. Many of the other characters at Vogue (like OTT columnist André Leon Talley) are given mere cameos, but Wintour finds a worthy adversary-compatriot in creative director Grace Coddington, another Englishwoman and ex-model — the red-tressed, pale-as-a-wraith Pre-Raphaelite dreamer to Wintour’s well-armored knight. The two keep each other honest and craftily ingenious, and both the magazine and this doc benefit. (1:28) Presidio, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

*A Serious Man You don’t have to be Jewish to like A Serious Man — or to identify with beleaguered physics professor Larry Gopnik (the grandly aggrieved Michael Stuhlbarg), the well-meaning nebbishly center unable to hold onto a world quickly falling apart and looking for spiritual answers. It’s a coming of age for father and son, spurred by the small loss of a radio and a 20-dollar bill. Larry’s about-to-be-bar-mitzvahed son is listening to Jefferson Airplane instead of his Hebrew school teachers and beginning to chafe against authority. His daughter has commandeered the family bathroom for epic hair-washing sessions. His wife is leaving him for a silkily presumptuous family friend and has exiled Larry to the Jolly Roger Motel. His failure-to-launch brother is a closeted mathematical genius and has set up housekeeping on his couch. Larry’s chances of tenure could be spoiled by either an anonymous poison-pen writer or a disgruntled student intent on bribing him into a passing grade. One gun-toting neighbor vaguely menaces the borders of his property; the other sultry nude sunbather tempts with "new freedoms" and high times. What’s a mild-mannered prof to do, except envy Schrodinger’s Cat and approach three rungs of rabbis in his quest for answers to life’s most befuddling proofs? Reaching for a heightened, touched-by-advertising style that recalls Mad Men in look and Barton Fink (1991) in narrative — and stooping for the subtle jokes as well as the ones branded "wide load" — the Coen Brothers seem to be turning over, examining, and flirting with personally meaningful, serious narrative, though their Looney Tunes sense of humor can’t help but throw a surrealistic wrench into the works. (1:45) California, Piedmont. (Chun)

*Still Walking Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 After Life stepped into a bureaucratic beyond. His 2001 Distance probed the aftermath of a religious cult’s mass suicide. Likewise loosely inspired by fact, Nobody Knows (2004) charted the survival of an abandoning mother’s practically feral children in a Tokyo apartment. 2006’s Hana was a splashy samurai story — albeit one atypically resistant to conventional action. Despite their shared character nuance, these prior features don’t quite prepare one for the very ordinary milieu and domestic dramatics of Still Walking. Kore-eda’s latest recalls no less than Ozu in its seemingly casual yet meticulous dissection of a broken family still awkwardly bound — if just for one last visit — by the onerous traditions and institution of "family" itself. There’s no conceptually hooky lure here. Yet Walking is arguably both Kore-eda’s finest hour so far, and as emotionally rich a movie experience as 2009 has yet afforded. One day every summer the entire Yokohama clan assembles to commemorate an eldest son’s accidental death 15 years earlier. This duty calls, even if art restorer Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) chafes at retired M.D. dad’s (Yoshio Harada) obvious disappointment over his career choice, at the insensitivity of his chatterbox mum (Kiri Kirin), and at being eternally compared to a retroactively sainted sibling. Not subject to such evaluative harshness, simply because she’s a girl, is many-foibled sole Yokohama daughter Chinami (Nobody Knows‘ oblivious, helium-voiced mum You). Small crises, subtle tensions, the routines of food preparation, and other minutae ghost-drive a narrative whose warm, familiar, pained, touching, and sometimes hilarious progress seldom leaves the small-town parental home interior — yet never feels claustrophobic in the least. (1:54) Roxie. (Harvey)

Surrogates In a world where cops don’t even leave the house to eat doughnuts, Bruce Willis plays a police detective wrestling with life’s big questions while wearing a very disconcerting blond wig. For example, does it count as living if you’re holed up in your room in the dark 24/7 wearing a VR helmet while a younger, svelter, pore-free, kind of creepy-looking version of yourself handles — with the help of a motherboard — the daily tasks of walking, talking, working, and playing? James Cromwell reprises his I, Robot (2004) I-may-have-created-a-monster role (in this case, a society in which human "operators" live vicariously through so-called surrogates from the safe, hygienic confines of their homes). Willis, with and sans wig, and with the help of his partner (Radha Mitchell), attempts to track down the unfriendly individual who’s running around town frying the circuits of surrogates and operators alike. (While he’s at it, perhaps he could also answer this question: how is it that all these people lying in the dark twitching their eyeballs haven’t turned into bed-sore-ridden piles of atrophied-muscle mush?) Director Jonathan Mostow (2003’s Terminator 3) takes viewers through the twists and turns at cynically high velocity, hoping we won’t notice the unsatisfying story line or when things stop making very much sense. (1:44) 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)

Toy Story and Toy Story 2 Castro, Grand Lake, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki.

*We Live in Public Documentarian Ondi Timoner (2004’s DiG!) turns her camera on a longtime acquaintance, internet pioneer Josh Harris, as talented and maddening a subject as DiG! trainwreck Anton Newcombe. From the internet’s infancy, Harris exhibited a creative and forward-thinking outlook that seized upon the medium’s ability to allow people to interact virtually (via chat rooms) and also to broadcast themselves (via one of the internet’s first "television" stations). Though he had an off-putting personality — which sometimes manifested itself in his clown character, "Luvvy" (drawn from the TV-obsessed Harris’ love for Gilligan’s Island) — he racked up $80 million. Some of those new-media bucks went into his art project, "Quiet," an underground bunker stuffed full of eccentrics who allowed themselves to be filmed 24/7. Later, he and his girlfriend moved into a Big Brother-style apartment that was outfitted with dozens of cameras; unsurprisingly, the relationship crumbled under such constant surveillance. His path since then has been just as bizarre, though decidedly more low-tech (and far less well-funded). Though I’m not entirely sold on Timoner’s thesis that Harris’ experiments predicted the current social-networking obsession, her latest film is fascinating, and crafted with footage that only someone who was watching events unfurl first-hand could have captured. (1:30) Roxie. (Eddy)

The Wedding Song Continuing the examination of Muslim-Jewish tensions and female sexuality that she started in La Petit Jerusalem (2005), writer-director Karin Albou’s sophomore feature places the already volatile elements in the literally explosive terrain of World War II. Set in Tunis in 1942, it charts the relationship between Nour (Olympe Borval), a young Arab woman engaged to her handsome cousin, and Myriam (Lizzie Brocheré), the outspoken Jew she’s known since childhood. Bombs rain down from the sky and toxic Nazi propaganda fills the air, but to Albou the most trenchant conflict lies between the two heroines, who bond over their place in an oppressive society while secretly pining for each other’s lives and loves. Jettisoning much of the didacticism that weighted down her previous film, Albou surveys the mores, rituals, and connections informing the thorny politics of female identity with an assured eye worthy of veteran feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta (1986’s Rosa Luxemburg). (1:40) Sundance Kabuki. (Croce)

Whip It What’s a girl to do? Stuck in small town hell, Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page), the gawky teen heroine of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, faces a pressing dilemma — conform to the standards of stifling beauty pageantry to appease her mother or rebel and enter the rough-and tumble world of roller derby. Shockingly enough, Bliss chooses to escape to Austin and join the Hurl Scouts, a rowdy band of misfits led by the maternal Maggie Mayhem (Kristin Wiig) and the accident-prone Smashley Simpson (Barrymore). Making a bid for grrrl empowerment, Bliss dawns a pair of skates, assumes the moniker Babe Ruthless, and is suddenly throwing her weight around not only in the rink, but also in school where she’s bullied. Painfully predictable, the action comes to a head when, lo and behold, the dates for the Bluebonnet Pageant and the roller derby championship coincide. At times funny and charming with understated performances by Page and Alia Shawcat as Bliss’ best friend, Whip It can’t overcome its paper-thin characters, plot contrivances, and requisite scenery chewing by Jimmy Fallon as a cheesy announcer and Juliette Lewis as a cutthroat competitor. (1:51) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Swanbeck)

*Zombieland First things first: it’s clever, but it ain’t no Shaun of the Dead (2004). That said, Zombieland is an outstanding zombie comedy, largely thanks to Woody Harrelson’s performance as Tallahassee, a tough guy whose passion for offing the undead is rivaled only by his raging Twinkie jones. Set in a world where zombies have already taken over (the beginning stages of the outbreak are glimpsed only in flashback), Zombieland presents the creatures as yet another annoyance for Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg, who’s nearly finished morphing into Michael Cera), a onetime antisocial shut-in who has survived only by sticking to a strict set of rules (the "double tap," or always shooting each zombie twice, etc.) This odd couple meets a sister team (Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin), who eventually lay off their grifting ways so that Columbus can have a love interest (in Stone) and Tallahassee, still smarting from losing a loved one to zombies, can soften up a scoch by schooling the erstwhile Little Miss Sunshine in target practice. Sure, it’s a little heavy on the nerd-boy voiceover, but Zombieland has just enough goofiness and gushing guts to counteract all them brrraiiinss. (1:23) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)


*"Robert Beavers: My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure" See "Camera Lucida." Pacific Film Archive.