Film listings

Pub date February 23, 2010
WriterCheryl Eddy
SectionFilm Reviews

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


Cop Out Kevin Smith directs Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis in this buddy-cop comedy. (1:50) Oaks.

The Crazies Remake alert! This time, it’s a revisiting of George A. Romero’s 1973 cult flick about a town whose residents suddenly start going insane. (1:41)

Formosa Betrayed The turbulent modern history of Taiwan is certainly deserving of increased international attention, but writer-producer Will Tao’s strategy of structuring Formosa Betrayed as a political thriller is too often at odds with imparting facts and information. Set in the early 80s, the film thrusts viewers into an unraveling government conspiracy that has FBI agent Jake Kelly (James Van Der Beek) trailing the suspected murderers of a Chicago professor to Taipei. Initially, selling Dawson’s Creek alum Van Der Beek as an FBI agent seems a strange choice, but undoubtedly his name will fill seats, and Formosa Betrayed is shooting for maximum awareness. There are some scenes of real tension, but just when you are beginning to get wrapped up in the inherent drama of conspiracy and murder, the suspense is interrupted by a long-winded bout of soapboxing. Formosa Betrayed might enlighten some audiences about Taiwan’s controversial history, but it too often does so at the expense of its own watchability. You start to wonder why Tao didn’t just make a documentary. (1:43) Shattuck. (Galvin)

*"German Gems" Berlin and Beyond film festival founder Ingrid Eggers programmed this slate of 2009 German-language releases, which range in content and tone from a quirky documentary of a female-helmed, around-the-world adventure by automobile in 1927, Miss Stimmes, to the not-quite-dark-nor-funny enough "noir comedy" about extortion, cannibalism, and revenge, The Bone Man. But it’s the two featured dramas that will likely garner the most attention: Being Mr. Kotschie, by Norbert Baumgarten, and Vision, by Margarethe von Trotta. As Jürgen Kotschie wearily anticipates his fiftieth birthday, his rather bland, suburban life begins to fracture almost imperceptibly; imperceptibly, at least, to others. But from Kotschie’s point of view, the tenuous line between reality and dreams begins to blur, and he becomes increasingly alienated from his uneventful existence. A fevered, hallucinogenic road-trip to an equally uneventful village in search of an old flame ensues, and, somewhat remarkably for a modern German film, he learns to gratefully accept the simple pleasure of being alive. Being Mr. Kotschie offers a dose of existential-crisis-lite, neurotically embodied by a thoroughly likeable lead (Stefan Kurt), whose minor resemblance to Basil Fawlty adds a sense of physical playfulness to the role. In Vision, the remarkable life of Hildegard von Bingen is given the biopic treatment by von Trotta with mixed results. On the one hand, the subject matter of a multi-talented, visionary "renaissance woman" who lived 300 years before the Renaissance even began, is truly compelling. But von Trotta can’t help but throw a little Sapphic mystery into the mix, and the powerful bond between Hildegard (Barbara Sukowa) and the spirited Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung) plays out like a not entirely convincing hot-for-teacher melodrama. Fortunately, Sukowa plays the headstrong Hildegard with just the right amount of compassion and self-importance, and Heino Ferch is rock-solid as her confidante, scribe, and confessor, Brother Volmar. Castro. (Nicole Gluckstern)

The Ghost Writer Embattled filmmaker Roman Polanski’s latest is a thriller starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, and Olivia Williams. (1:49) Embarcadero.

*"Red Riding Trilogy" There’s a "wolf" of sorts and several unfortunate little girls, but no fairy tale whimsy whatsoever in this trilogy of features originally made for U.K. broadcast. Based on David Pearce’s literary mystery quartet (the second volume goes unadapted here), it’s a complicated dive into conspiracy, cover-up, and murder in England’s North Country. Directed by Julian Jarrold (2008’s Brideshead Revisited), first installment Red Riding: 1974 centers on ambitious young journalist Eddie (Andrew Garfield), who at first sees a string of abducted, then grotesquely mutilated children as a career-making opportunity. The deeper in he gets, though, the more troubling are the case’s murky connections to police and private-sector corruption. 1980, directed by James Marsh (2008’s Man on Wire), finds a new protagonist in Hunter (Paddy Considine). Now local fears are focused on the "Yorkshire Ripper" a savage (real-life) killer of at least 13 women between 1975 and 1981 whose so-far hapless police investigation Hunter has been assigned to audit. Finally, 1983 (directed by Anand Tucker of 2005’s Shopgirl) divides its attention between Yorkshire chief detective Jobson (David Morrissey) and low-rent lawyer Piggot (Mark Addy). After the first copycat child slaying in years occurs, both become convinced a mentally challenged man (Daniel Mays) was framed for the original murders. The nearly six hours this serpentine tale takes can’t help but impress as a weighty experience (at least on your posterior), and it’s duly won some sky-high critical acclaim ("better than the Godfather trilogy", etc.) Certainly Red Riding is rich in period detail, fine characterizations, and bleak atmospherics. But the cumulative satisfaction expected of a true epic is broken up by the sole ongoing characters being supporting ones — heroes who eventually "know too much" don’t survive long. In each segment (Marsh’s Super-16-shot one being most stylistically distinctive), women deployed as romantic interests seem largely superfluous. The whole fussy, cipherous narrative points toward a heart of jet-black darkness its climactic revelations are at once too banal and implausible to deliver. So, worthwhile? Yes, if you’ve got the time to spare. A hype-justifying masterpiece? No. (1974, 1:45; 1980, 1:36; 1983, 1:44) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)


*"Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Animated" Just because it’s animation doesn’t mean it’s just for kids. Like the live-action Oscar-nominated shorts, this year’s animated selections have got range, from the traditionally child-friendly to downright vulgar. Skewing heavily towards CG fare, the shorts vary from a Looney Tunes-style chase for an elderly woman’s soul (The Lady and the Reaper) to the Wallace and Gromit BBC special, A Matter of Loaf and Death. Most entertaining by far is Logorama, an action-packed tale set in a world populated by familiar trademarked logos. Any film that casts the Michelin man as a garbage-mouthed cop on the case of a renegade Ronald McDonald deserves to win all the awards in the universe. (1:35) Lumiere, Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Galvin)

*"Academy Award-Nominated Short Films: Live Action" Aren’t you tired of wondering what all the fuss is about when the Academy awards their Oscar for Best Short? In an effort to give audiences a chance to play along, Shorts International is screening these less-seen works together. Though one or two of the five nominated films threaten to adhere to the Academy’s penchant for either heartbreaking or heartwarming, the majority are surprisingly oddball picks. Perhaps most odd of all is Denmark/U.S. submission The New Tenants. Feeling a tad forced but no less funny for it, Tenants draws on celebrities like Vincent D’Onofrio and comedian Kevin Corrigan to bring life to this surreal adaptation by Anders Thomas Jensen (2006’s After the Wedding). My pick would be Sweden’s gloriously goofy Instead of Abracadabra, which stars a stay-at-home slacker as he puts on a magic show for his father’s birthday. Obviously, some selections are going to be better than others, but hey, they’re shorts. If you don’t like one, just wait 10 minutes and you’ll find yourself somewhere completely different. (1:35) Lumiere, Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Galvin)

Avatar James Cameron’s Avatar takes place on planet Pandora, where human capitalists are prospecting for precious unobtainium, hampered only by the toxic atmosphere and a profusion of unfriendly wildlife, including the Na’vi, a nine-foot tall race of poorly disguised cliches. When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-marine, arrives on the planet, he is recruited into the "Avatar" program, which enables him to cybernetically link with a part-human, part-Na’vi body and go traipsing through Pandora’s psychedelic underbrush. Initially designed for botanical research, these avatars become the only means of diplomatic contact with the bright-blue natives, who live smack on top of all the bling. The special effects are revolutionary, but the story that ensues blends hollow "noble savage" dreck with events borrowed from Dances With Wolves (1990) and FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). When Sully falls in love with a Na’vi princess and undergoes a spirit journey so he can be inducted into the tribe and fight the evil miners, all I could think of was Kevin Bacon getting his belly sliced in The Air Up There (1994). (2:42) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Richardson)

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) Marina, Oaks. (Daniel Alvarez)

The Book of Eli The Book of Eli isn’t likely to win many prizes, but it could eventually be up for a lifetime achievement award in the "most sentimental movie to ever feature multiple decapitations by machete" category. Denzel Washington plays the titular hero, displaying scant charisma as a post-apocalyptic drifter with a beatific personality and talent for dismemberment. Eli squares off against an evil but urbane kleptocrat named Carnegie (Gary Oldman phoning in a familiar "loathsome reptile" performance). Convinced that possession of Eli’s book will place humanity’s few survivors in his thrall, Carnegie will do anything to get it, even pimping out the daughter (Mila Kunis, utterly unconvincing) of his blind girlfriend (Jennifer Beals, who should stick to playing people who can see). The two slumming lead actors chase each other down the highway, pausing for some spiritual hogwash and an exchange of gunfire before limping towards an execrable twist ending. At least there’s a Tom Waits cameo. (1:58) 1000 Van Ness. (Richardson)

Broken Embraces Pedro Almodóvar has always dabbled in the Hitchcockian tropes of uxoricide, betrayal, and double-identity, but with Broken Embraces he has attained a polyglot, if slightly mimicking, fluency with the language of Hollywood noir. A story within a story and a movie within a movie, Embraces begins in the present day with middle-aged Catalan Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter who takes time between his successful writing career to seduce and bed young women sympathetic to his disability. "Everything’s already happened to me," he explains to his manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo). "All that’s left is to enjoy life." But this life of empty pleasures is brought to a sudden halt when local business magnate Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) has died; soon after, Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), who has renamed himself Ray X, visits Caine with an unusual request. The action retreats 14 years when Caine was a young (and visually abled) director named Mateo Blanco; he encounters a breathtaking femme fatale, Lena (Penelope Cruz) — an actress-turned-prostitute named Severine, turned secretary-turned-trophy wife of Ernesto Martel — when she appears to audition for his latest movie. If all of the narrative intricacies and multiplicitous identities in Broken Embraces appear a bit intimidating at first glance, it is because this is the cinema of Almodóvar taken to a kind of generic extreme. As with all of the director’s post-’00 films, which are often referred to as Almodóvar’s "mature" pictures, there is a microscopic attention to narrative development combined with a frenzied sub-plotting of nearly soap-operatic proportions. But, in Embraces, formalism attains such prominence that one might speculate the director is simply going through the motions. The effect is a purposely loquacious and overly-dramatized performance that pleasures itself as much by setting up the plot as unraveling it. (2:08) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Morse)

Crazy Heart "Oh, I love Jeff Bridges!" is the usual response when his name comes up every few years for Best Actor consideration, usually via some underdog movie no one saw, and the realization occurs that he’s never won an Oscar. The oversight is painful because it could be argued that no leading American actor has been more versatile, consistently good, and true to that elusive concept "artistic integrity" than Bridges over the last 40 years. It’s rumored Crazy Heart was slotted for cable or DVD premiere, then thrust into late-year theater release in hopes of attracting Best Actor momentum within a crowded field. Lucky for us, this performance shouldn’t be overlooked. Bridges plays "Bad" Blake, a veteran country star reduced to playing bars with local pickup bands. His slide from grace hasn’t been helped by lingering tastes for smoke and drink, let alone five defunct marriages. He meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), freelance journalist, fan, and single mother. They spark; though burnt by prior relationships, she’s reluctant to take seriously a famous drunk twice her age. Can Bad handle even this much responsibility? Meanwhile, he gets his "comeback" break in the semi-humiliating form of opening for Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) — a contemporary country superstar who was once Bad’s backup boy. Tommy offers a belated shot at commercial redemption; Jean offers redemption of the strictly personal kind. There’s nothing too surprising about the ways in which Crazy Heart both follows and finesses formula. You’ve seen this preordained road from wreckage to redemption before. But actor turned first-time director Scott Cooper’s screenplay honors the flies in the windshield inherited from Thomas Cobb’s novel — as does Bridges, needless to say. (1:51) California, Embarcadero, Empire, Piedmont, Presidio, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Dear John As long as you know what you’re getting yourself into, Dear John is a solid effort. Not extraordinary by any means, it’s your standard Nicholas Sparks book-turned-film: boy meets girl — drama, angst, and untimely death ensue. Here, Channing Tatum stars at the titular John, a soldier on leave who falls in love with the seemingly perfect Savannah (Amanda Seyfried). Both actors are likable enough that their romance is charming, if not always believable. And Dear John‘s plot turns, while not quite surprising, are at least dynamic enough to keep the audience engaged. But at the end of the day, this is still a Nicholas Sparks movie — even with the accomplished Lasse Hallström taking over directorial responsibilities. There are still plenty of eye-roll moments and, more often than not, Dear John employs the most predictable tearjerking techniques. By the time you realize why the film is set in 2001, it’s September 11. Sad? Surely. Cheap? You betcha. (1:48) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Peitzman)

Edge of Darkness (1:57) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

*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) Opera Plaza, Presidio, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

*Fish Tank There’s been a string of movies lately pondering what Britney once called the not-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman syndrome, including 2009’s An Education and Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire. Enter Fish Tank, the gritty new drama from British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Her films (including 2006’s Red Road) are heartbreaking, but in an unforced way that never feels manipulative; her characters, often portrayed by nonactors, feel completely organic. Fish Tank‘s 15-year-old heroine, Mia (played by first-time actor Katie Jarvis), lives with her party-gal single mom and tweenage sister in a public-housing high-rise; all three enjoy drinking, swearing, and shouting. But Mia has a secret passion: hip-hop dancing, which she practices with track-suited determination. When mom’s foxy new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, from 2008’s Hunger) encourages her talent, it’s initially unclear what Connor’s intentions are. Is he trying to be a cool father figure, or something far more inappropriate? Without giving away too much, it’s hard to fear too much for a girl who headbutts a teenage rival within the film’s first few minutes — though it soon becomes apparent Mia’s hard façade masks a vulnerable core. Her desire to make human connections causes her to drop her guard when she needs it the most. In a movie about coming of age, a young girl’s bumpy emotional journey is expected turf. But Fish Tank earns its poignant moments honestly — most coming courtesy of Jarvis, who has soulfullness to spare. Whether she’s acting out in tough-girl mode or revealing a glimpse of her fragile inner life, Arnold’s camera relays it all, with unglossy matter-of-factness. (2:02) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

From Paris with Love Every so often, I walk out of a film feeling like I’ve been repeatedly buffeted by blows to the face. Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) had this effect, and it is now joined by From Paris With Love, a movie so aggressively stupid that the mistaken assumption that it was adapted from a video game could be construed as an insult to video games. John Travolta shows up chrome-domed as Charlie Wax, a loose-cannon CIA operative with a lot of transparently screenwritten machismo and an endless appetite for violence. He is joined by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, sporting a risible American accent, and the two embark on a frantic journey across the French capital that is almost as racist as it is misogynistic. I could fill an entire issue of this newspaper eviscerating this movie —suffice to say, don’t see it. (1:35) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Richardson)

The Hurt Locker When the leader of a close-knit U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad is killed in action, his subordinates have barely recovered from the shock when they’re introduced to his replacement. In contrast to his predecessor, Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) is no standard-procedure-following team player, but a cocky adrenaline junkie who puts himself and others at risk making gonzo gut-instinct decisions in the face of live bombs and insurgent gunfire. This is particularly galling to next-in-command Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). An apolitical war-in-Iraq movie that’s won considerable praise for accuracy so far from vets (scenarist Mark Boal was "embedded" with an EOD unit there for several 2004 weeks), Kathryn Bigelow’s film is arguably you-are-there purist to a fault. While we eventually get to know in the principals, The Hurt Locker is so dominated by its seven lengthy squad-mission setpieces that there’s almost no time or attention left for building character development or a narrative arc. The result is often viscerally intense, yet less impactful than it would have been if we were more emotionally invested. Assured as her technique remains, don’t expect familiar stylistic dazzle from action cult figure Bigelow (1987’s Near Dark, 1989’s Blue Steel, 1991’s Point Break) — this vidcam-era war movie very much hews to the favored current genre approach of pseudo-documentary grainy handheld shaky-cam imagery. (2:11) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus From the title to the plot to the execution, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is the kind of movie you’re told not to see sober. This is a film in which Tom Waits plays the Devil, in which characters’ faces change repeatedly, in which Austin Powers‘ Verne Troyer makes his triumphant big-screen return. The story is your basic battle between good and evil, with Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) struggling to save souls from Mr. Nick (Waits) in order to protect his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). Meanwhile, Valentina is wooed by the mysterious Tony, played by Heath Ledger in his final film role — along with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. There are plenty of big important themes to be analyzed here, but it’s honestly more fun to simply get lost in Doctor Parnassus’ Imaginarium. Director and co-writer Terry Gilliam has created a world and a mythology that probably takes more than one viewing to fully comprehend. Might as well let yourself get distracted by all the shiny colors instead. (2:02) Shattuck. (Peitzman)

Invictus Elected President of South Africa in 1995 — just five years after his release from nearly three decades’ imprisonment — Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) perceives a chance to forward his message of reconciliation and forgiveness by throwing support behind the low-ranked national rugby team. Trouble is, the Springboks are currently low-ranked, with the World Cup a very faint hope just one year away. Not to mention the fact that despite having one black member, they represent the all-too-recent Apartheid past for the country’s non-white majority. Based on John Carlin’s nonfiction tome, this latest Oscar bait by the indefatigable Clint Eastwood sports his usual plusses and minuses: An impressive scale, solid performances (Matt Damon co-stars as the team’s Afrikaaner captain), deft handling of subplots, and solid craftsmanship on the one hand. A certain dull literal-minded earnestness, lack of style and excitement on the other. Anthony Peckham’s screenplay hits the requisite inspirational notes (sometimes pretty bluntly), but even in the attenuated finals match, Eastwood’s direction is steady as she goes — no peaks, no valleys, no faults but not much inspiration, either. It doesn’t help that Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens contribute a score that’s as rousing as a warm milk bath. This is an entertaining history lesson, but it should have been an exhilarating one. (2:14) Oaks. (Harvey)

*The Last Station Most of the buzz around The Last Station has focused on Helen Mirren, who takes the lead as the Countess Sofya, wife of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Mirren is indeed impressive — when is she not? — but there’s more to the film than Sofya’s Oscar-worthy outbursts. The Last Station follows Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), hired as Tolstoy’s personal secretary at the end of the writer’s life. Valentin struggles to reconcile his faith in the anarchist Christian Tolstoyan movement with his sympathy for Sofya and his budding feelings for fellow Tolstoyan Masha (Kerry Condon). For the first hour, The Last Station is charming and very funny. Once Tolstoy and Sofya’s relationship reaches its most volatile, however, the tone shifts toward the serious — a trend that continues as Tolstoy falls ill. After all the lighthearted levity, it’s a bit jarring, but the solid script and accomplished cast pull The Last Station together. Paul Giamatti is especially good as Vladimir Chertkov, who battles against Sofya for control of Tolstoy’s will. You’ll never feel guiltier for putting off War and Peace. (1:52) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)

*Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 The dawn of the Me Decade saw the largest-ever music festival to that date —albeit one that was such a logistical, fiscal and hygenic disaster that it basically killed the development of similar events for years. This was the height of "music should be free" sentiments in the counterculture, with the result that many among the estimated six to eight hundred thousand attendees who overwhelmed this small U.K. island showed up without tickets, refused to pay, and protested in ways that included tearing down barrier walls and setting fires. It was a bummer, man. But after five days of starry acts often jeered by an antsy crowd — including everyone from Joni, Hendrix, Dylan, Sly Stone, the Who and the Doors to such odd bedfellows as Miles Davis, Tiny Tim, Voices of East Harlem, Supertramp, and Gilberto Gil — Canadian troubador Cohen appeared at 4 a.m. on a Monday to offer balm. Like director Murray Lerner’s 1995 Message to Love, about the festival as a whole, this footage has been shelved for decades, but it bounces right back from the dead — albeit soothingly. Cohen seems blissed out, pupils like black marbles, his between-song musings are as poetical as those fascinating lyrics, and his voice is suppler than the rasp it would soon become. Kris Kristofferson, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and bandmate Bob Johnson offer reflections 40 years later. But the main attraction is obviously Cohen, who is magnetic even if an hour of (almost) nothing but ballads reveals how stylistically monotone his songwriting could be. (1:04) Roxie. (Harvey)

*The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers For many, Daniel Ellsberg is a hero — a savior of American First Amendment rights and one of the most outspoken opponents of the Vietnam war. But as this documentary (recently nominated for an Academy Award) shows, it’s never an an easy decision to take on the U.S. government. Ellsberg himself narrates the film and details his sleepless nights leading up to the leak of the Pentagon Papers — the top secret government study on the Vietnam war — to the public. Though there are few new developments in understanding the particulars of the war or the impact the release of the Papers had on ending the conflict, the film allows audiences to experience the famous case from Ellsberg’s point of view, adding a fresh and poignantly human element to the events; it’s a political documentary that plays more like a character drama. Whether you were there when it happened or new to the story, there is something to be appreciated from this tale of a man who fell out of love with his country and decided to do something about it. (1:34) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Galvin)

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done "David Lynch presents a Werner Herzog film" — there’s a phrase guaranteed to titillate a certain percentage of the filmgoing public. Anyone still reeling from last year’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans may not be ready for My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, a less accessible tale imprinted with trademark quirks from both its producer and director. Loosely based on a true case of matricide in San Diego, My Son begins as Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon of 2008’s Revolutionary Road) has just used a sword to slay his mother (Grace Zabriskie). As police, led by Detective Hank Havenhurt (Willem Dafoe), gather ’round Mark’s pink, flamingo-festooned home — where he’s barricaded himself, apparently with hostages — the tale of a son’s bizarre downfall is pieced together via flashbacks courtesy of his fiancée, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny), and ascot-wearing theater director Lee (Udo Kier). The whole thing, as Brad might say, is a "cosmic melodrama" imbued with just enough surreal and off-putting stylistic choices to alienate general audiences. Ernst Reijseger’s score is haunting, often to the point of distraction. A tuxedo-wearing little person appears, maybe as a shout-out to Lynch fans. A dinner scene involving Jell-O is capped by a frozen tableau, actors motionless even as the dessert jiggles. Ostriches, only slightly more integrated into the plot than Bad Lieutenant‘s iguanas, stalk across the screen. Herzog, ever the outsider auteur, may win no new fans with My Son. One senses he’s just fine with that. (1:31) Castro. (Eddy)

*North Face You’ll never think of outerwear the same way again — and in fact you might be reaching for your fleece and shivering through the more harrowing climbing scenes of this riveting historical adventure based on a true tale. Even those who consider themselves less than avid fans of outdoor survival drama will find their eyes frozen, if you will, on the screen when it comes to this retelling/re-envisioning of this story, legendary among mountaineers, of climbers, urged on by Nazi propaganda, to tackle the last "Alpine problem." At issue: the unclimbed north face of Switzerland’s Eiger, a highly dangerous and unpredictable zone aptly nicknamed "Murder Wall." Two working-class friends, Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann of 2008’s Jerichow) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas) — here portrayed as climbing fiends driven to reach summits rather than fight for the Nazis — take the challenge. There to document their achievement, or certain death, is childhood friend and Kurz’s onetime sweetheart Luise (Johanna Wokalek, memorable in 2008’s The Baader Meinhof Complex), eager to make her name as a photojournalist while fending off the advances of an editor (Ulrich Tukur) seeking to craft a narrative that positions the contestants as model Aryans. But the climb — and the Eiger, looming like a mythical ogre — is the main attraction here. Filmmaker Philipp Stölzl brings home the sheer heart-pumping exhilaration and terror associated with the sport — and this specific, legendarily tragic climb — by shooting in the mountains with his actors and crew, and the result goes a way in redeeming an adventure long-tainted by its fascist associations. (2:01) Bridge, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

*Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief It would be easy to dismiss Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief as an unabashed Harry Potter knock-off. Trio of kids with magic powers goes on a quest to save the world in a Chris Columbus adaptation of a popular young adult series — sound familiar? But The Lightning Thief is sharp, witty, and a far cry from Columbus’ joyless adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001). Logan Lerman stars as Percy Jackson, the illegitimate son of Poseidon and Catherine Keener. Once he learns his true identity at Camp Half-Blood, he sets off on a quest with his protector, a satyr named Grover, and potential love interest Annabeth, daughter of Athena. Along the way, they bump into gods and monsters from Greek mythology — with a twist. Think Percy using his iPhone to fight Medusa (Uma Thurman), or a land of the Lotus-Eaters disguised as a Lady Gaga-blasting casino. A worthy successor to Harry Potter? Too soon to say, but The Lightning Thief is at least a well-made diversion. (1:59) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)

*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 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) Presidio, Roxie, Shattuck. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

*Sherlock Holmes There is some perfunctory ass-kicking in director Guy Ritchie’s big-ticket adaptation of the venerable franchise, but old-school Holmes fans will be pleased to learn that the fisticuffs soon give way to a more traditional detective adventure. For all his foibles, Ritchie is well-versed in the art of free-wheeling, entertaining, London-based crime capers. And though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary characters have been freshened up for a contemporary audience, the film has a comfortingly traditional feel to it. The director is lucky to have an actor as talented as Robert Downey Jr. in the title role, and the pair make good use of the American’s talents to create a Holmes resplendent in diffident, pipe-smoking, idiosyncratic glory. Though the film takes liberal creative license with the literary character’s offhand reference to martial prowess, it’s all very English, very Victorian (flying bowler hats, walking sticks, and bare-knuckle boxing), and more or less grounded in the century or so of lore that has sprung up around the world’s greatest detective. Jude Law’s John Watson is a more charismatic character this time around, defying the franchise’s tradition, and the byzantine dynamics of the pair’s close friendship are perfectly calibrated. The script, by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg, suffers a little by borrowing from other Victorian crime fictions better left untouched, but they get the title character’s inimitable "science of deduction" down pat, and the plot is rife with twists, turns, and inscrutable skullduggery. (2:20) SF Center. (Richardson)

Shutter Island Director Martin Scorsese and muse du jour Leonardo DiCaprio draw from oft-filmed novelist Dennis Lehane (2003’s Mystic River, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone) for this B-movie thriller that, sadly, offers few thrills. DiCaprio’s a 1950s U.S. marshal summoned to a misty island that houses a hospital for the criminally insane, overseen by a doctor (Ben Kingsley) who believes in humane, if experimental, therapy techniques. From the get-go we suspect something’s not right with the G-man’s own mind; as he investigates the case of a missing patient, he experiences frequent flashbacks to his World War II service (during which he helped liberate a concentration camp), and has recurring visions of his spooky dead wife (Michelle Williams). Whether or not you fall for Shutter Island‘s twisty game depends on the gullibility of your own mind. Despite high-quality performances and an effective, if overwrought, tone of certain doom, Shutter Island stumbles into a third act that exposes its inherently flawed and frustrating storytelling structure. If only David Lynch had directed Shutter Island — it could’ve been a classic of mindfuckery run amok. Instead, Scorsese’s psychological drama is sapped of any mystery whatsoever by its stubbornly literal conclusion. (2:18) California, Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

A Single Man In this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel, Colin Firth plays George, a middle-aged gay expat Brit and college professor in 1962 Los Angeles. Months after the accidental death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his lover for 16 years, George still feels worse than bereft; simply waking each morning is agony. So on this particular day he has decided to end it all, first going through a series of meticulous preparations and discreet leave-takings that include teaching one last class and having supper with the onetime paramour (Julianne Moore) turned best friend who’s still stuck on him. The main problem with fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford’s first feature is that he directs it like a fashion designer, fussing over surface style and irrelevant detail in a story whose tight focus on one hard, real-world thing — grief — cries for simplicity. Not pretentious overpackaging, which encompasses the way his camera slavers over the excessively pretty likes of Nicholas Hoult as a student and Jon Kortajarena as a hustler, as if they were models selling product rather than characters, or even actors. (In fact Kortajarena is a male supermodel; the shocker is that Hoult is not, though Hugh Grant’s erstwhile About a Boy co-star is so preening here you’d never guess.) Eventually Ford stops showing off so much, and A Single Man is effective to the precise degree it lets good work by Goode, Moore and especially the reliably excellent Firth unfold without too much of his terribly artistic interference. (1:39) Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)

*Terribly Happy The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1984) is the obvious corollary for this coolly humorous Danish import, though director/co-writer Henrik Ruben Genz’s firmly dampened-down thriller of sorts is also touched by David Lynch’s parochial surrealism and Aki Kaurismäki’s backwater puckishness. Happy isn’t quite the word for handsome, seemingly upstanding cop Jakob (Robert Hansen), reassigned from the big city of Copenhagen to a tiny village in South Jutland. There he slowly learns that the insular and self-sufficient locals are accustomed to fixing problems on their own and that cows, trucks, and other troubles have a way of conveniently disappearing into the bog. When buxom blonde Ingerlise (Lene Maria Christensen) whispers to him that her husband Jørgen (Kim Bodnia) beats her, Jakob begins to find his moral ground slipping away from him — while his own dark secrets turn out to be not so secret after all. More of a winkingly paranoid, black-hearted comedy about the quicksand nature of provincial community and small-town complicity than a genuine murder mystery, Terribly Happy wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but that doesn’t stop this attractively-shot production from amusing from start to finish, never tarrying too long to make a point that it gets mired in the bog that swallows all else. (1:42) Opera Plaza. (Chun)

Up in the Air After all the soldiers’ stories and the cannibalism canards of late, Up in the Air‘s focus on a corporate ax-man — an everyday everyman sniper in full-throttle downsizing mode — is more than timely; it’s downright eerie. But George Clooney does his best to inject likeable, if not quite soulful, humanity into Ryan Bingham, an all-pro mileage collector who prides himself in laying off employees en masse with as few tears, tantrums, and murder-suicide rages as possible. This terminator’s smooth ride from airport terminal to terminal is interrupted not only by a possible soul mate, fellow smoothie and corporate traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga), but a young tech-savvy upstart, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who threatens to take the process to new reductionist lows (layoff via Web cam) and downsize Ryan along the way. With Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman, who oversaw Thank You for Smoking (2005) as well as Juno (2007), is threatening to become the bard of office parks, Casual Fridays, khaki-clad happy hours, and fly-over zones. But Up in the Air is no Death of a Salesman, and despite some memorable moments that capture the pain of downsizing and the flatness of real life, instances of snappily screwball dialogue, and some more than solid performances by all (and in particular, Kendrick), he never manages to quite sell us on the existence of Ryan’s soul. (1:49) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Valentine’s Day Genre moviemaking loves it a gimmick — and nothing gets more greeting-card gimmicky or sell-by-date corny than the technique of linking holidays and those mandatory date nights out. You’re shocked that nobody thought of this chick flick notion sooner. Valentine’s Day is no My Bloody Valentine (1981, 2009) — it aspires to an older, more yupscale lady’s choice-crowd than the screaming teens that are ordinarily sought out by horror flicks. And its A-list-studded cast — including Oscar winners Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, and Kathy Bates as well as seemingly half of That ’70s Show‘s players — is a cut above TV tween starlets’ coming-out slasher slumber parties. It partly succeeds: bringing Valentine’s haters into the game as well as lovers is a smart ploy (although who believes that the chic-cheekbones-and-fulsome-lips crew of Jessica Biel and Jennifer Garner would be dateless on V-Day?), and the first half is obviously structured around the punchlines that punctuate each scene — a winning if contrived device. Juggling multiple storylines with such a whopping cast lends an It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) quality to the Jessica- and Taylor-heavy shenanigans. And some tales get a wee bit more weight than others (the charisma-laden scenes with Bradley Cooper and Roberts cry out for added screentime), creating a strangely lopsided effect that adds unwanted tedium to an affair that should be as here-today-gone-tomorrow as a Whitman’s Sampler. (1:57) Empire, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck. (Chun)

*The White Ribbon In Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, his first German-language film in ten years, violence descends on a small northern German village mired in an atmosphere of feudalism and protestant repression. When, over the course of a year, a spate of unaccountable tragedies strikes almost every prominent figure as well as a powerless family of tenant farmers, the village becomes a crucible for aspersion and unease. Meanwhile, a gang of preternaturally calm village children, led by the eerily intense daughter of the authoritarian pastor, keep appearing coincidentally near the sites of the mysterious crimes, lending this Teutonic morality play an unsettling Children of the Corn undertone. Only the schoolteacher, perhaps by virtue of his outsider status, seems capable of discerning the truth, but his low rank on the social pecking order prevent his suspicions from being made public. A protracted examination on the nature of evil — and the troubling moral absolutism from which it stems. (2:24) Albany, Clay. (Nicole Gluckstern)

The Wolfman Remember 2000’s Hollow Man, an update of 1933’s The Invisible Man so over-the-top that it could only have been brought to you by a post-Starship Troopers (1997) Paul Verhoeven? Fear not, Lon Chaney, Jr. fanclub members — The Wolfman sticks fairly true to its 1941 predecessor, setting its tale of a reluctant lycanthrope in Victorian England, where there are plenty of gypsies, foggy moors, silver bullets, angry villagers, and the like. Benicia Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, who’s given an American childhood backstory to explain his out-of-place stateside accent (and a Mediterranean-looking mother to make up for the fact that he’s supposed to be the son of Anthony Hopkins). Soon after returning to his estranged father’s crumbling manor, Lawrence is chomped by a you-know-what. Next full moon, Lawrence realizes what he’s become; murderous rampages and much angst ensue. (He’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk, except much hairier). Director Joe Johnston (a tech whiz who worked on the original Star Wars movies, and helmed 2001’s Jurassic Park III), doesn’t offer much innovation on the werewolf legend (or any scares, for that matter). But the effects, including transformation scenes and claw-tastic gore, are predictably top-notch. (2:05) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)


*"Darkest Americana and Elsewhere: Films, Video, and Words of James Benning" See "Siteseeing." McBean Theater, Presentation Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

*To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore See "tk feature." (1:10) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.