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.
Art and Copy Doc maker Doug Pray (1996’s Hype!, 2001’s Scratch, 2007’s Surfwise) uses the mid-twentieth century’s revolution in advertising to background an absorbing portrait of the industry’s leading edge, with historical commentary, philosophical observations, and pop-psych self-scrutiny by some of the rebel forces and their descendants (including locals Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein). We see the ads that made a permanent dent in our consciousness over the past five decades. We hear conference-room tales of famous campaigns, like "Got Milk?" and "I Want My MTV." And during quieter interludes, stats on advertising’s global cultural presence drift on-screen to astonish and unnerve. Lofty self-comparisons to cave painters and midwives may raise eyebrows, but Pray has gathered some of the industry’s brighter, more engaging lights, and his subjects discuss their métier thoughtfully, wittily, and quite earnestly. There are elisions in the moral line some of them draw in the process, and it would have been interesting to hear, amid the exalted talk of advertising that rises to the level of art, some philosophizing on where all this packaging and selling gets us, in a branding-congested age when it’s hard to deny that breakneck consumption is having a deleterious effect on the planet. Instead the film occasionally veers in the direction of becoming an advertisement for advertising. Still, Art and Copy complicates our impressions of a vilified profession, and what it reveals about these creatives’ perceptions of their vocation (one asserts that "you can manufacture any feeling that you want to manufacture") makes it worth watching, even if you usually fast-forward through the ads. (1:30) Roxie. (Rapoport)
The Boondock Saints II: All Saint’s Day Track down 2003’s Overnight if you have any urge to see this. (1:57)
For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism Informative, nostalgic, and incredibly depressing, Gerald Peary’s For the Love of Movies traces film criticism from ye olden days (Vachel Lindsay’s appreciation of Mary Pickford) to today (Harry Knowles drooling over Michael Bay). Peary, himself a film critic, captures big-name writers working (or recently out-of-work) today, with Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, J. Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and multiple others explaining why they chose to make a career out of their love for movies, and how the gig has changed over the years. Peary clearly believes the heyday of film criticism is over, having hit peak in the 60s and 70s, when new releases by filmmakers like Scorsese and Altman were argued-about in print and on talk shows by longtime rivals Andrew Sarris (who weighs in here) and the late Pauline Kael. Of course, these days, anyone with a blog can call him or herself a film critic, and while For the Love of Movies acknowledges the importance of the internet, it also points out that when "everyone’s a critic," quality control suffers. Welcome to the future. (1:21) Roxie, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
The Maid See "Clean Freak." (1:35) Shattuck, Smith Rafael.
Pirate Radio I wanted to like Pirate Radio, a.k.a., The Boat That Rocked - really, I did. The raging, stormy sounds of the British Invasion - sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and all that rot. Pirate radio outlaw sexiness, writ large, influential, and mind-blowingly popular. This shaggy-dog of a comedy about the boat-bound, rollicking Radio Rock is based loosely on the history of Radio Caroline, which blasted transgressive rock ‘n’ roll (back when it was still subversive) and got around stuffy BBC dominance by broadcasting from a ship off British waters. Alas, despite the music and the attempts by filmmaker Richard Curtis to inject life, laughs, and girls into the mix (by way of increasingly absurd scenes of imagined listeners creaming themselves over Radio Rock’s programming), Pirate Radio will be a major disappointment for smart music fans in search of period accuracy (are we in the mid- or late ’60s or early or mid-’70s - tough to tell judging from the time-traveling getups on the DJs, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Darby, among others?) and lame writing that fails to rise above the paint-by-the-numbers narrative buttressing, irksome literalness (yes, a betrayal by a lass named Marianne is followed by "So Long, Marianne"), and easy sexist jabs at all those slutty birds. Still, there’s a reason why so many artists - from Leonard Cohen to the Stones - have lent their songs to this shaky project, and though it never quite gets its sea legs, Pirate Radio has its heart in the right place - it just lost its brains somewhere along the way down to its crotch. (2:00) Oaks, Piedmont. (Chun)
*Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire This gut-wrenching, little-engine-that-could of a film shows the struggles of Precious, an overweight, illiterate 16-year-old girl from Harlem. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe is so believably vigilant (she was only 15 at the time of filming) that her performance alone could bring together the art-house viewers as well as take the Oscars by storm. But people need to actually go and experience this film. While Precious did win Sundance’s Grand Jury and Audience Award awards this year, there is a sad possibility that filmgoers will follow the current trend of "discussing" films that they’ve actually never seen. The daring casting choices of comedian Mo’Nique (as Precious’ all-too-realistically abusive mother) and Mariah Carey (brilliantly understated as an undaunted and dedicated social counselor) are attempts to attract a wider audience, but cynics can hurdle just about anything these days. What’s most significant about this Dancer in the Dark-esque chronicle is how Damien Paul’s screenplay and director Lee Daniels have taken their time to confront the most difficult moments in Precious’ story - and if that sounds heavy-handed, so be it. Stop blahging for a moment and let this movie move you. (1:49) Shattuck. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)
2012 Smash-happy director Roland Emmerich (1996’s Independence Day; 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow) returns with yet another sapocalyptic tale. (2:40) California.
Amelia Unending speculation surrounds the fate of aviator Amelia Earhart, who, with navigator Fred Noonan, disappeared in 1937 over the Pacific while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. However, Mira Nair’s biopic Amelia clarifies at least one fact: that Earhart (played by Hilary Swank) was a free-spirited freedom-loving lover of being free. We learn this through passages of her writing intoned in voice-over; during scenes with publisher and eventual husband George Putnam (Richard Gere); and via wildlife observations as she flies her Lockheed Electra over some 22,000 miles of the world. Not much could diminish the glory of Earhart’s achievements in aviation, particularly in helping open the field to other female pilots. And Swank creates the impression of a charming, intelligent, self-possessed woman who manages to sidestep many of fame’s pitfalls while remaining resolute in her lofty aims. She’s also slightly unknowable in her cheery, near-seamless virtue, and the film’s adoring depiction, with its broad, heavy strokes, at times inspires a different sort of restlessness than the kind that compels Earhart to take flight. Amelia is structured as a series of flashbacks in which the aviator, while circling the earth, retraces her life - or rather, the highlights of her career in flying, her marriage to Putnam, and her affair with Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), another champion of aviation (and the father of author Gore). And this, too, begins to feel lazily repetitive, as we return and return again to that cockpit to stare at a doomed woman as she stares emotively into the wild blue yonder. (1:51) Oaks. (Rapoport)
Antichrist Will history judge Lars von Trier as the genius he’s sure he is? Or as a humorless, slightly less cartoonish Ken Russell, whipping images and actors into contrived frenzies for ersatz art’s sake? You’re probably already on one side of the fence or the other. Notorious Cannes shocker Antichrist will only further divide the yeas and nays, though the film does offers perhaps the most formally beautiful filmmaking von Trier’s bothered with since 1984’s The Element of Crime. Grieving parents Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe retreat to a forest primeval enabling widescreen images of poetic succulence. Yet that beauty only underlines Antichrist‘s garishness. One film festival viewer purportedly barfed onto the next row and you too might recoil, particularly if unaccustomed to gore levels routinely surpassed by mainstream horror. Does Antichrist earn such viewer punishment by dint of moral, character, narrative, or artistic heft? Like slurp it does. What could be more reactionary than an opening in which our protagonists "cause" their angelic babe’s accidental death by obliviously enjoying one another? Shot in "lyrical" slow-mo black and white, it’s a shampoo commercial hard-selling Victorian sexual guilt. Later, Dafoe’s "He" clings to hollow psychiatric reason as only an embittered perennial couch case might imagine. Gainsbourg’s "She" morphs from maternal mourner to castrating shrike as only one terrified of femininity could contrive. They’re tortured by psychological and/or supernatural events existing solely to bend game actors toward a tyrant artiste’s whims. There’s no devil here just von Trier’s punitive narcissism. (1:49) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
*The Box In recent interviews, Donnie Darko (2001) director Richard Kelly has sounded like he’s outright begging to go Hollywood with The Box. But try as he might (and the horribly cheesy trailer does try to puff up this dread-imbued, downbeat thriller into the stuff of big-box blockbuster numbers), Kelly can’t stop himself from making a movie that rises above its intentions and its trashy entertainment value. Norma (Cameron Diaz) and Arthur (James Marsden) seem like a perfect, beautiful couple, until the cracks begin to quickly appear in their sporty, well-groomed facade: the victim of a girlhood accident, Norma has a startling masochistic streak, while NASA engineer and would-be astronaut Arthur is eager to channel his interest in exploring outer space toward mysteries closer to home: a box that suddenly appears, courtesy of the maimed, besuited Arlington Stewart (Frank Langella). Press the button and someone will die but the couple will receive one million dollars. Pointing to the existential parable of No Exit like a pretentious, AP-course-loaded high-schooler, The Box also touches on such memorable genre-busters as Kiss Me Deadly (1955) with its Pandora’s box conceit, but more obviously it’s boxed in and stuck in the ’70s, fascinated by the fear, loathing, and paranoia generated by conspiracy-obsessed flicks like The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). Those films reveled in a romantic fatalism and radiating all-encompassing negativity that had its roots in the conformity-fearing Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and found its amplified, arguable apotheosis in the body horror of David Cronenberg. The analog synth score by Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne and Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett also cues memories of Cronenberg, while the soft-focus shots of Cameron Diaz with Charlie’s Angels hair and well-chosen songs like "Bell Bottom Blues" conjure a mood that overcomes narrative potholes as big as the Scanners-like gap in Arlington Stewart’s face. (1:56) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck. (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. (Peitzman)
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (1:48) SF Center.
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, Sundance Kabuki. (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) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Peitzman)
Disney’s A Christmas Carol (1:36) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki.
*An Education The pursuit of knowledge both carnal and cultural are at the tender core of this end-of-innocence valentine by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (who first made her well-tempered voice heard with her 2000 Dogme entry, Italian for Beginners), based on journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir. Screenwriter Nick Hornby breaks further with his Peter Pan protagonists with this adaptation: no man-boy mopers or misfits here. Rather, 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a good girl and ace student. It’s 1961, and England is only starting to stir from its somber, all-too-sober post-war slumber. The carefully cloistered Jenny is on track for Oxford, though swinging London and its high-style freedoms beckon just around the corner. Ushering in those freedoms a new, more class-free world disorder is the charming David (Peter Sarsgaard), stopping to give Jenny and her cello a ride in the rain and soon proffering concerts and late-night suppers in the city. He’s a sweet-faced, feline outsider: cultured, Jewish, and given to playing fast and loose in the margins of society. David can see Jenny for the gem she is and appreciate her innocence with the knowing pleasure of a decadent playing all the angles. The stakes are believably high, thanks to An Education‘s careful attention to time and place and its gently glamored performances. Scherfig revels in the smart, easy-on-eye curb appeal of David and his friends while giving a nod to the college-educated empowerment Jenny risks by skipping class to jet to Paris. And Mulligan lends it all credence by letting all those seduced, abandoned, conflicted, rebellious feelings flicker unbridled across her face. (1:35) Albany, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
The Fourth Kind (1:38) 1000 Van Ness.
*Gentlemen Broncos One of the sweet (and pleasantly sour) surprises to come out of the otherwise deadly serious fall movie season, Gentlemen Broncos is both a jab in the gut and loving wink to freaks and geeks of the homeschooled, sci-fi/fantasy-loving variety. Napoleon Dynamite (2004) director Jared Hess is apparently their chief champion and tormenter by the looks of Gentlemen Broncos, which wallows in the quirk of high-waisted, acid-washed mom jeans; mullets and outta-hand facial hair; and the clumsily airbrushed, outsider fantasies that accompany them. Perpetually put-upon, home-schooled Benjamin (Michael Angarano) has a healthy fantasy life, which he jots down in the form of thinly veiled and highly sexualized sci-fi stories collected in collaged binders when he isn’t helping his mother Judith (Jennifer Coolidge) sell her "country balls" and prim nighties. The latest starring redneck space-cowboy figure Bronco (Sam Rockwell) who bears an uncanny resemblance to Benjamin’s dead father and a lost yeti member of Lynyrd Skynyrd — makes its way to a writing workshop and into the hands of pompous sci-fi author Dr. Chevalier (Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords). Benjamin must cope with a Hollywood screenwriter’s fate as his work is (hilariously) mangled by friends and would-be indie filmmakers Tabatha (Halley Feiffer) and Lonnie (Hector Jimenez) and mooched by the plagiarizing Chevalier. Much snake poo and many ardent would-be Wondercon attendees later, Benjamin learns how to fight for his vision and we learn that Hess is the Mormon nerd bard, its latest latter-day cinematic saint. (1:51) Embarcadero. (Chun)
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) Oaks. (Harvey)
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) 1000 Van Ness. (Croce)
The Men Who Stare at Goats No! The Men Who Stare at Goats was such an awesome book (by British journalist Jon Ronson) and the movie boasts such a terrific cast (George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor). How in the hell did it turn out to be such a lame, unfunny movie? Clooney gives it his all as Lyn Cassady, a retired "supersolider" who peers through his third eye and realizes the naïve reporter (McGregor) he meets in Kuwait is destined to accompany him on a cross-Iraq journey of self-discovery; said journey is filled with flashbacks to the reporter’s failed marriage (irrelevant) and Cassady’s training with a hippie military leader (Bridges) hellbent on integrating New Age thinking into combat situations. Had I the psychic powers of a supersoldier, I’d use some kind of mind-control technique to convince everyone within my brain-wave radius to skip this movie at all costs. Since I’m merely human, I’ll just say this: seriously, read the book instead. (1:28) Cerrito, Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
*Michael Jackson’s This Is It Time - and a tragic early death - has a way of coloring perception, so little surprise that these thought pops into one’s head throughout This Is It: when did Michael Jackson transform himself into such an elegant, haute-pop sylph? Such a pixie-nosed, lacy-haired petit four of music-making delicacy? And where can I get his to-die-for, pointy-shouldered, rhinestone-lapeled Alexander McQueen-ish jacket? Something a bit bewitching this way comes as Michael Jackson - now that he’s gone, seemingly less freakish than an outright phenomenon - gracefully flits across the screen in this final (really?) document of his last hurrah, the rehearsals for his sold-out shows at O2 Arena in London. This Is It is far from perfect: this grainy video scratchpad of a film obviously wasn’t designed by the perfectionist MJ to be his final testament to pop. Director Kenny Ortega does his best to cobble together what looks like several rehearsal performances with teary testimonials from dancers (instilled with the intriguing idea that they are extensions of the surgery-friendly Jackson’s body onstage), interviews with musicians, minimal archival footage, and glimpses of Jacko protesting about being encouraged to "sing through" certain songs when he’s trying to preserve his voice, urging the band to play it "like the record," and still moving, dancing, and gesticuutf8g with such grace that you’re left with more than a tinge of regret that "This Is It," the tour, never came to pass. It’s a pure, albeit adulterated, pleasure to watch the man do the do, even with the gaps in the flow, even with the footage filtered by a family intent on propping up the franchise. Amid the artistry and kitsch, critics, pop academics, and superfans will find plenty to chew over - from Jackson’s curiously timed physical complaints as the Jackson 5 segment kicks in, to the surreally CGI-ed, golden-age-of-Hollywood mash-up sequence. (1:52) Cerrito , Empire, Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
New York, I Love You A dreamy mash note to the city that never sleeps, New York, I Love You is the latest installment in a series of omnibus odes to world metropolises and the denizens that live and love within the city limits. Less successful than the Paris, je t’aime (2006) anthology which roped in such disparate international directors as Gus Van Sant and Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron and Olivier Assayas New York welcomes a more minor-key host of directors to the project with enjoyable if light-weight results. Surely any bite of the Big Apple would be considerably sexier. Bradley Cooper and Drea de Matteo tease out a one-night stand with legs, and Ethan Hawke and Maggie Q generate a wee bit of verbal fire over street-side cigs, yet there’s surprisingly little heat in this take on a few of the 8 million stories in the archetypal naked city. Most memorable are the strangest couplings, such as that of Natalie Portman, a Hasidic bride who flirtatiously haggles with Irrfan Khan, a Jain diamond merchant, in a tale directed by Mira Nair. Despite the pleasure of witnessing Julie Christie, Eli Wallach, and Cloris Leachman in action, many of these pieces written by the late Anthony Minghella, Israel Horovitz, and Portman, among others feel a mite too slight to nail down the attention of all but the most desperate romantics. (1:43) Shattuck. (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, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Saw VI (1:30) 1000 Van Ness.
*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) Marina. (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, Empire, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
*Skin This is one of those movies that works in large part because you know it’s a true story - its truth is almost too strange to be credible as fiction. In 1955 the Laings, a white Afrikaner couple (played by the blond and blue-eyed likes of Sam Neill and Alice Krige) gave birth to a second child quite unlike their first, or themselves. Indeed, Sandra (Ella Ramangwane) was, by all appearances, black. Mrs. Laing insisted she hadn’t been unfaithful - further, the couple were firm believers in the apartheid system - and it was eventually determined Sandra’s looks were the result of a rare but not-unheard-of flashback to some "colored" genes no doubt well-buried far in their colonialist ancestry. Living in rural isolation, the well-intentioned Laings were able to keep Sandra oblivious to her being at all "different." But when time came to send her off to boarding school, she got a rude awakening in matters of race and class, resulting in court battles and myriad humiliations. Sophie Okonedo (2004’s Hotel Rwanda) plays the rebellious adult Sandra, who must reject her upbringing to find an identity she can live with - as opposed to the wishful-thinking one her parents insist upon. Based on the real protagonist’s memoir, Anthony Fabian’s first feature observes the institutional cruelty and eventual fall of apartheid from the uniquely vivid perspective of someone yanked from privilege to prejudice. It’s a sprawling, involving story that affords excellent opportunities for its very good lead actors (also including Tony Kgoroge as Sandra’s abusive eventual husband). (1:47) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
(Untitled) The sometimes absurd pretensions of the modern art world have - for many decades - been so easily, condescendingly ridiculed that its intelligently knowing satire is hard to come by. (How much harder still would it be for a fictive film to convey the genius of, say Anselm Kiefer? Even Ed Harris’ 2000 Pollock less vividly captured the art or its creation - better done by Francis Ford Coppola and Nick Nolte in their 1989 New York Stories segment - than the usual tortured-artist histrionics.) Bay Arean Jonathan Parker attempts to correct that with this perhaps overly low-key witticism. Erstwhile Hebrew Hammer Adam Goldberg plays a composer of painfully retro, plink-plunk 1950s avant-gardism. (His favorite instrument is the tin bucket.) His lack of success is inevitable yet chafes nonetheless, because he’s a) humorlessly self-important, and b) sibling to a painter (Eion Bailey) whose pleasant, unchallenging abstracts are hot properties amongst corporate-art buyers. But not hot enough for his gorgeous agent (Marley Shelton), who puts off showing him at her Chelsea gallery in favor of cartoonishly "edgy" artists - like soccer hooligan Vinnie Jones as a proponent of lurid taxidermy sculpture - and takes a contrary (if unlikely) fancy to Goldberg. (How could her educated like not know his music is even less cutting-edge than the brother’s canvases?) (Untitled) holds interest, but it’s at once too glib and modest - exaggerative sans panache. This is equivalently if differently problematic from Parker’s 2005 Henry James-goes-Marin County The Californians. It can’t compare to his 2001 feature debut, the excellent Crispin Glover-starring translation of Melville’s Bartleby to Rhinoceros-like modern office culture. (1:30) Shattuck. (Harvey)
Where the Wild Things Are From the richly delineated illustrations and sparse text of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book, director Spike Jonze and cowriter (with Jones) Dave Eggers have constructed a full-length film about the passions, travails, and interior/exterior wanderings of Sendak’s energetic young antihero, Max. Equally prone to feats of world-building and fits of overpowering, destructive rage, Max (Max Records) stampedes off into the night during one of the latter and journeys to the island where the Wild Things (voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano, and Michael Berry Jr.) live and bicker and tantrum and give in to existential despair and no longer all sleep together in a big pile. The place has possibilities, though, and Max, once crowned king, tries his best to realize them. What its inhabitants need, however, is not so much a visionary king as a good family therapist these are some gripey, defensive, passive-aggressive Wild Things, and Max, aged somewhere around 10, can’t fix their interpersonal problems. Jonze and Eggers do well at depicting Max’s temporary kingdom, its forests and deserts, its creatures and their half-finished creations from a past golden era, as well as subtly reminding us now and again that all of this the island, the arguments, the sadness is streaming from the mind of a fierce, wildly imaginative young child with familial troubles of his own, equally beyond his power to resolve. They’ve also invested the film with a slow, grim depressive mood that can make for unsettling viewing, particularly when pondering the Maxes in the audience, digesting an oft-disheartening tale about family conflict and relationship repair. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
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) SF Center. (Swanbeck)
*The Yes Men Fix the World Can you prank shame, if not sense, into the Powers That Be? Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonnano, the jesters-activists who punked right-wing big-business in the documentary The Yes Men (2003), continue to play Groucho Marx to capitalism’s mortified Margaret Dumont in this gleeful sequel. Decked in sharp suits and packing fake websites and catchphrases, the duo bluffs its way into conferences and proceeds to give corporate giants the Borat treatment. The stunts are often inspired and, in their visions of fantasy justice, poignant: Bichlbaum and Bonnano pose as Dow envoys and announce the company’s plans to send billions to treat victims of the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster, and later appear as HUD representatives offering a corrective to the shameful neglect of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Yes Men may not fix the world, but their ruses once more prove the awareness-raising potential of comedy. (1:30) Roxie, Smith Rafael. (Croce)
*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. (Eddy)