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.
Christmas with Walt Disney Specially made for the Presidio’s recently opened Walt Disney Family Museum, this nearly hour-long compilation of vintage Yuletide-themed moments from throughout the studio’s history (up to Walt’s 1966 death) is more interesting than you might expect. The engine is eldest daughter Diane Disney Miller’s narrating reminiscences, often accompanied by excerpts from an apparently voluminous library of high-quality home movies. Otherwise, the clips are drawn from a mix of short and full-length animations, live-action features (like 1960’s Swiss Family Robinson), TV shows Wonderful World of Disney and Mickey Mouse Club, plus public events like Disneyland’s annual Christmas Parade and Disney’s orchestration of the 1960 Winter Olympics’ pageantry. If anything, this documentary is a little too rushed - it certainly could have idled a little longer with some of the less familiar cartoon material. But especially for those who who grew up with Disney product only in its post-founder era, it will be striking to realize what a large figure Walt himself once cut in American culture, not just as a brand but as an on-screen personality. The film screens Nov 27-Jan 2; for additional information, visit http://disney.go.com/disneyatoz/familymuseum/index.html. (:59) Walt Disney Family Museum. (Harvey)
*Fantastic Mr. Fox "See 21st Century Fox." (1:27) Four Star, Marina.
Ninja Assassin Let’s face it: it’d be nigh impossible to live up to a title as awesome as Ninja Assassin - and this second flick from V for Vendetta (2005) director James McTeigue doesn’t quite do it. Anyone who’s seen a martial arts movie will find the tale of hero Raizo overly familiar: a student (played by the single-named Rain) breaks violently with his teacher; revenge on both sides ensues. That the art form in question is contemporary ninja-ing adds a certain amount of interest, though after a killer ninja vs. yakuza opening scene (by far the film’s best), and a flashback or two of ninja vs. political targets, the rest of the flick is concerned mostly with either ninja vs. ninja or ninja vs. military guys. (As ninjas come "from the shadows," most of these battles are presented in action-masking darkness.) There’s also an American forensic researcher (Noemie Harris) who starts poking around the ninja underground, a subplot that further saps the fun out of a movie that already takes itself way too seriously. (1:33) (Eddy)
Oh My God? See "Pray Tell." (1:38) Lumiere.
Old Dogs John Travolta and Robin Williams play lifelong friends, business partners, and happily child-free bachelors whose lives change when the latter is forced to care for the 7-year-old twins (Conner Rayburn, Ella Bleu Travolta) he didn’t know he’d sired. You know what this will be like going in, and that’s what you get: a predictable mix of the broadly comedic and maudlin, with a screenplay that feels half-baked by committee, and direction (by Walt Becker, who’s also responsible for 2007’s Wild Hogs) that tries to compensate via frantic over-editing of setpieces that end before they’ve gotten started. The coasting stars seem to be enjoying themselves, but the momentary cheering effect made by each subsidiary familiar face - including Seth Green, Bernie Mac, Matt Dillon, Ann-Margret, Amy Sedaris, Dax Shepard, Justin Long, and Luis Guzman, some in unbilled cameos - sours as you realize almost none of them will get anything worthwhile to do. (1:28) Oaks. (Harvey)
Red Cliff All Chinese directors must try their hands at a historical epic of the swords and (arrow) shafts variety, and who can blame them: the spectacle, the combat, the sheer scale of carnage. With Red Cliff, John Woo appears to top the more operatic Chen Kaige and a more camp Zhang Yimou in the especially latter department. The body count in this lavishly CGI-appointed (by the Bay Area’s Orphanage), good-looking war film is on the high end of the Commando/Rambo scale. The endless, intricately choreographed battle scenes are the primary allure of this slash-’em-up, whittled-down version of the Chinese blockbuster, which was released in Asia as a four-hour two-parter. Yet despite some notably handsome cinematography that rivals that of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in its painterliness, seething performances by players like Tony Leung and Fengyi Zhang, and recognizable Woo leitmotifs (a male bonding-attraction that’s particularly pronounced during Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro’s zither shred-fests, fluttering doves, a climactic Mexican standoff, the added jeopardy of a baby amid the battle), the labyrinthian complexity of the story and its multitude of characters threaten to lose the Western viewer - or anyone less than familiar with Chinese history - before strenuous pleasures of Woo’s action machine kick in. The completely OTT finale will either have you rolling your eyes its absurdity or laughing aloud at its contrived showmanship. Despite Woo’s lip service to the virtues of peace and harmony, is there really any other way, apart from the warrior’s, in his world? (2:28) Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Chun)
The Road After an apocalypse of unspecified origin, the U.S. - and presumably the world - is depleted of wildlife and agriculture. Social structures have collapsed. All that’s left is a grim survivalism in which father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (whimpery Kodi Smit-McPhee) try to find food sources and avoid fellow humans, since most of the latter are now cannibals. Flashbacks reveal their past with the wife and mother (Charlize Theron) who couldn’t bear soldiering on in this ruined future. Scenarist Joe Penhall (a playwright) and director John Hillcoat (2005’s The Proposition) have adapted Cormac McCarthy’s novel with painstaking fidelity. Their Road is slow, bleak, grungy and occasionally brutal. All qualities in synch with the source material - but something is lacking. One can appreciate Hillcoat and company’s efforts without feeling the deep empathy, let alone terror, that should charge this story of extreme faith and sacrifice. The film just sits there - chastening yet flat, impact unamplified by familiar faces (Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker) road-grimed past recognition. (1:53) Embarcadero, California, Piedmont. (Harvey)
Sophie’s Revenge Zhang Ziyi stars as the titular woman who seeks you-know-what after her boyfriend dumps her. (1:47) Four Star.
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)
*Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Consider that ridiculous title. Though its poster and imdb entry eliminate the initial article, it appears onscreen as The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. That’s the bad lieutenant, not to be confused with Abel Ferrara’s 1992 Bad Lieutenant. The bad lieutenant has a name: Terence McDonagh, and he’s a police officer of similarly wobbly moral fiber. McDonagh’s tale inspired by Ferrara and scripted by William Finkelstein, but perhaps more important, filmed by Werner Herzog and interpreted by Nicolas Cage opens with a snake slithering through a post-Hurricane Katrina flood. A prisoner has been forgotten in a basement jail. McDonagh and fellow cop Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) taunt the man, taking bets on how long it’ll take him to drown in the rising waters. An act of cruelty seems all but certain until McDonagh, who’s quickly been established as a righteous asshole, suddenly dives in for the rescue. Unpredictability, and quite a bit of instability, reigns thereafter. Every scene holds the possibility of careening to heights both campy and terrifying, and Cage proves an inspired casting choice. At this point in his career, he has nothing to lose, and his take on Lt. McDonagh is as haywire as it gets. McDonagh snorts coke before reporting to a crime scene; he threatens the elderly; he hauls his star teenage witness along when he confronts a john who’s mistreated his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes); he cackles like a maniac; he lurches around like a hunchback on crack. Not knowing what McDonagh will do next is as entertaining as knowing it’ll likely be completely insane. (2:01) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
The Blind Side When the New York Times Magazine published Michael Lewis’ article "The Ballad of Big Mike" which he expanded into the 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game nobody could have predicated the cultural windfall it would spawn. Lewis told the incredible story of Michael Oher a 6’4, 350-pound 16-year-old, who grew up functionally parentless, splitting time between friends’ couches and the streets of one of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods. As a Sophomore with a 0.4 GPA, Oher serendipitously hitched a ride with a friend’s father to a ritzy private school across town and embarked on an unbelievable journey that led him into a upper-class, white family; the Dean’s List at Ole Miss; and, finally, the NFL. The film itself effectively focuses on Oher’s indomitable spirit and big heart, and the fearless devotion of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the matriarch of the family who adopted him (masterfully played by Sandra Bullock). While the movie will delight and touch moviegoers, its greatest success is that it will likely spur its viewers on to read Lewis’ brilliant book. (2:06) Cerrito, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Daniel Alvarez)
*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) Red Vic, Roxie. (Peitzman)
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) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Swanbeck)
Defamation When you begin to perceive all criticism as persecutorial, you might forget it’s possible to be wrong. That’s the worry driving Yoav Shamir’s Defamation, opening theatrically following a stormy reception at July’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The documentarian (2003’s Checkpoint) says that as an Israeli Jew he’s never actually experienced anti-Semitism. So he sets out to explore that prejudice’s status quo or so he claims, somewhat disingenuously. Because Defamation‘s real agenda is positing anti-Semitism as a distorted, exploited, propagandic bludgeon used to taint any critique of Israeli government policies or the foreign lobbies supporting them. This is a theory bound to inflame angry emotions, not least the "self-hating Jew" accusation. It must be said that Shamir lays himself at risk à la Michael Moore of selectively gathering only evidence that supports his agenda. Anti-Semitism certainly does exist today, in many different forms, around the world. And if Defamation‘s deliberate omissions and occasional snarky tone hamper its case, Shamir nonetheless makes legitimately troubling points. His most controversial interviewee is Norman Finklestein, whose book The Holocaust Industry got him pilloried as a Holocaust denier (untrue) and quite likely cost him his teaching position. The son of Shoah survivors, he thinks "the Nazi Holocaust is now the main ideological weapon for launching wars of aggression" and that "pathological narcissism" desensitizes many American Jews to other people’s sufferings. The author can be persuasively reasonable. To Defamation‘s credit, however, it doesn’t yell "Cut!" when Finklestein whips himself into a crank-case frenzy that masochistically self-destructs his credibility. Absolute righteousness ain’t pretty, anywhere on the political spectrum. (1:33) Roxie. (Harvey)
Disney’s A Christmas Carol (1:36) 1000 Van Ness.
*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, Embarcadero, Piedmont. (Chun)
*Good Hair Spurred by his little daughter’s plaintive query ("Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?"), Chris Rock gets his Michael Moore freak on and sets out to uncover the racial and cultural implications of African-American hairstyling. Visiting beauty salons, talking to specialists, and interviewing celebrities ranging from Maya Angelou to Ice-T, the comic wisecracks his way into some pretty trenchant insights about how black women’s coiffures can often reflect Caucasian-set definitions of beauty. (Leave it to Rev. Al Sharpton to voice it ingeniously: "You comb your oppression every morning!") Rock makes an affable guide in Jeff Stilson’s breezy documentary, which posits the hair industry as a global affair where relaxers work as "nap-antidotes" and locks sacrificially shorn in India end up as pricey weaves in Beverly Hills. Maybe startled by his more disquieting discoveries, Rock shifts the focus to flamboyant, crowd-pleasing shenanigans at the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show. Despite such softball detours, it’s a genial and revealing tour. (1:35) Opera Plaza. (Croce)
*The House of the Devil Ti West’s The House of the Devil is a retro thrillfest quite happy to sacrifice the babysitter to the Dark Lord. "Based on true unexplained events" (uh-huh), the buzzed-about indie horror has fanboy casting both old school (Dee Wallace, Mary Woronov, Tom Noonan all performing seriously rather than campily) and new (AJ Bowen of 2007’s The Signal and mumblecore regular Greta Gerwig). Its heroine (Jocelin Donahue), a 1980 East Coast collegiate sophomore desperate for rent cash so she can escape her dorm roomie’s loud nightly promiscuity, signs on for a baby- (actually, grandma-) sitting gig advertised on telephone poles. For tonight. During a lunar eclipse. Bad move. Devil takes its time, springing nothing lethal until nearly halfway through. Its period setting allows for ultratight jeans, feathered hair, rotary dialing, a synth-New Wavey score, and other potentially campy elements the film manages to render respectfully appreciative rather than silly. Ultimately, it isn’t significantly better than various fine indie horrors of recent vintage and various nationality that went direct to DVD. (Quality, let alone originality, aren’t necessarily a commercial pluses in this genre.) But it is dang good, and that cuts it above most current theatrical horror releases. (1:33) Lumiere. (Harvey)
The Maid In an upper-middle class subdivision of Santiago, 40-year-old maid Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), perpetually stony and indignant, operates a rigorous dawn-to-dusk routine for the Valdez family. Although Raquel rarely behaves as an intimate of her longtime hosts, she remains convinced that love, not labor, bonds them. (Whether the family shares Raquel’s feelings of devotion is highly dubious.) When a rotating cast of interlopers is hired to assist her, she stoops to machinations most vile to scare them away until the arrival of Lucy (Mariana Loyola), whose unpredictable influence over Raquel sets the narrative of The Maid on a very different psychological trajectory, from moody chamber piece to eccentric slice-of-life. If writer-director Sebastián Silva’s film taunts the viewer with the possibility of a horrific climax, either as a result of its titular counterpart Jean Genet’s 1946 stage drama The Maids, about two servants’ homicidal revenge or from the unnerving "mugshot" of Saavedra on the movie poster, it is neither self-destructive nor Grand Guignol. Rather, it it is much more prosaic in execution. Sergio Armstrong’s fidgety hand-held camera captures Raquel’s claustrophobic routine as it accentuates her Sisyphean conundrum: although she completely rules the inner workings of the house, she remains forever a guest. But her character’s motivations often evoke as much confusion as wonder. In the absence of some much needed exposition, The Maid’s heavy-handed silences, plaintive gazes, and inexplicable eruptions of laughter feel oddly sterile, and a contrived preciousness begins to creep over the film like an effluvial whitewash. Its abundance makes you aware there is a shabbiness hiding beneath the dramatic facade the various stains and holes of an unrealized third act. (1:35) Clay, Shattuck. (Erik Morse)
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) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
*The Messenger Ben Foster cut his teeth playing unhinged villains in Alpha Dog (2006) and 3:10 to Yuma (2007), but he cements his reputation as a promising young actor with a moving, sympathetic performance in director Oren Moverman’s The Messenger. Moverman (who also co-authored the script) is a four-year veteran of the Israeli army, and he draws on his military experience to create an intermittently harrowing portrayal of two soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army’s Casualty Notification Service. Will Montgomery (Foster) is still recovering from the physical and psychological trauma of combat when he is paired with Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a by-the-book Captain whose gruff demeanor and good-old-boy gallows humor belie the complicated soul inside. Gut-wrenching encounters with the families of dead soldiers combine with stark, honest scenes that capture two men trying to come to grips with the mundane horrors of their world, and Samantha Morton completes a trio of fine acting turns as a serene Army widow. (1:45) Albany, Smith Rafael. (Richardson)
*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) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck. (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) Lumiere, 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. (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) Opera Plaza. (Peitzman)
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) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Planet 51 (1:31) Oaks, 1000 Van Ness.
*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) SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)
*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. (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, Embarcadero, Empire, Piedmont. (Chun)
2012 I don’t need to give you reasons to see this movie. You don’t care about the clumsy, hastily dished-out pseudo scientific hoo-ha that explains this whole mess. You don’t care about John Cusack or Woody Harrelson or whoever else signed on for this embarrassing notch in their IMDB entry. You don’t care about Mayan mysteries, how hard it is for single dads, and that Danny Glover and Chiwetel Ejiofor jointly stand in for Obama (always so on the zeitgeist, that Roland Emmerich). You already know what you’re in store for: the most jaw-dropping depictions of humankind’s near-complete destruction that director Emmerich - who has a flair for such things - has ever come up with. All the time, creative energy, and money James Cameron has spent perfecting the CGI pores of his characters in Avatar is so much hokum compared to what Emmerich and his Spartan army of computer animators dish out: the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy emerging through a cloud of toxic dust like some Mary Celeste of the military-industrial complex, born aloft on a massive tidal wave that pulverizes the White House; the dome of St. Paul’s flattening the opium-doped masses like a steamroller; Hawaii returned to its original volcanic state; and oodles more scenes in which we are allowed to register terror, but not horror, at the gorgeous destruction that is unfurled before us as the world ends (again) but no one really dies. Get this man a bigger budget. (2:40) California, Empire, Marina, 1000 Van Ness. (Sussman)
The Twilight Saga: New Moon Oh my God, you guys, it’s that time of the year: another Twilight chapter hits theaters. New Moon reunites useless cipher Bella (Kristen Steward) and Edward (Robert Pattinson), everyone’s favorite sparkly creature of darkness. Because this is a teen wangstfest, the course of true love is kind of bumpy. This time around, there’s a heavy Romeo and Juliet subplot and some interference from perpetually shirtless werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Chances are you know this already, as you’ve either devoured Stephenie Meyer’s book series or you were one of the record-breaking numbers in attendance for the film’s opening weekend. And for those non-Twilight fanatics is there any reason to see New Moon? Yes and no. Like the 2008’s Twilight, New Moon is reasonably entertaining, with plenty of underage sexual tension, supernatural slugfests, and laughable line readings. But there’s something off this time around: New Moon is fun but flat. For diehard fans, it’s another excuse to shriek at the screen. For anyone else, it’s a soulless diversion. (2:10) Cerrito, Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Peitzman)
(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) Bridge, 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)
*William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe A middle-class suburban lawyer radicalized by the Civil Rights era, Kunstler became a hero of the left for his fiery defenses of the draft-card-burning Catonsville Nine, the Black Panthers, the Chicago Twelve, and the Attica prisoners rioting for improved conditions, and Native American protestors at Wounded Knee in 1973. But after these "glory days," Kunstler’s judgment seemed to cloud while his thirst for "judicial theatre" and the media spotlight. Later clients included terrorists, organized-crime figures, a cop-killing drug dealer, and a suspect in the notorious Central Park "wilding" gang rape of a female jogger - unpopular causes, to say the least. "Dad’s clients gave us nightmares. He told us that everyone deserves a lawyer, but sometimes we didn’t understand why that lawyer had to be our father" says Emily Kunstler, who along with sister Sarah directed this engrossing documentary about their late father. Growing up under the shadow of this larger-than-life "self-hating Jew" and "hypocrite" - as he was called by those frequently picketing their house - wasn’t easy. Confronting this sometimes bewildering behemoth in the family, Disturbing the Universe considers his legacy to be a brave crusader’s one overall - even if the superhero in question occasionally made all Gotham City and beyond cringe at his latest antics. (1:30) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)