SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL
The 29th SFIAAFF runs through Sun/20 at the Camera 12, 201 S. Second St., San Jose; Pacific Film Archive, 2776 Bancroft, Berk.; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post; and Viz Cinema, New People, 1746 Post, SF. For tickets (most shows $12) and additional program information, visit www.caamedia.org. All times pm.
Kabuki “Futurestates” (shorts program) 4. One Voice 4:45. Made in India 6:45. Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words with “Slaying the Dragon Reloaded” 7:15. Dance Town 9:15. Affliction 9:30.
PFA M/F Remix 7. Sampaguita, National Flower 9.
Viz “Living Life Large” (shorts program) 4. Dog Sweat 6:45. Peace 9:15.
Kabuki Living in Seduced Circumstances 4:20. “Tainted Love” (shorts program) 5:15. “Silent Rituals and Hovering Proxies” (shorts program) 6:45. Surrogate Valentine 7. Bi, Don’t Be Afraid! 7:30.
PFA Dance Town 7. Nang Nak 9:20.
Viz “Life Interrupted” (shorts program) 5. “Futurestates” (shorts program) 7:30.
PFA Passion 7. The Taqwacores 8:45.
Camera Amin 12:15. Piano in a Factory 1. Saigon Electric 3:15. “Life, Interrupted” (shorts program) 3:30. Almost Perfect 6. Made in India 6. Emir 8:30. When Love Comes 9.
PFA Bend It Like Beckham 4. The Imperialists Are Still Alive! 6:10. Histeria 8.
Camera “3rd I South Asian International Shorts” noon. The Fourth Portrait 1. One Voice 2:15. Surrogate Valentine 3:30. Abraxas 4:45. Bi, Don’t Be Afraid! 6. It’s a Wonderful Afterlife 7:30. Break Up Club 8.
Certified Copy See “Looking Glass Love.” (1:46) Clay, Shattuck, Smith Rafael.
*Heartbeats See “Xavier University.” (1:35) Lumiere.
*The Human Resources Manager What happens when a nameless, faceless “human resource” begin to resolve into a palpably real being with hopes, fears, loved ones, a hometown, a past? The harried Human Resources Manager of a big Jerusalem bakery finds out when one of his employer’s foreign workers is killed in a suicide bombing. After her body remains unclaimed in a city morgue, his employer is tagged with callous indifference, and it’s up to the beleaguered HR Manager (Mark Ivanir) — already suffering from something of an existential crisis — to undertake damage control. That task turns out to be absurdly above and beyond the ordinary when he retraces his late charge’s footsteps and tracks down her family in Romania, dogged by a meddling reporter (Guri Alfi). Back in the bleak old country, “neither east nor west,” as he’s constantly reminded, the HR Manager encounters a suitably salty, strange array of characters — the earthy Consul (Rozina Cambos) and the deceased’s divorced husband (Reymond Amsalem) and her feral son (Noah Silver) — though who can actually claim the lady’s remains? The troublesome chore turns into a journey about reconnecting with the people the HR Manager stopped seeing as full-fledged, complicated beings. Working from A.B. Yehoshua’s 2006 novel, A Woman in Jerusalem, director Eran Riklis deigns to give his characters names, apart from the dead, and instead focuses on crafting a carefully balanced, altogether enjoyable and accessible black comedy, rendering it all with a delicate touch that Anton Chekhov might have approved of. (1:43) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Chun)
*Jane Eyre Do we really need another adaptation of Jane Eyre? As long as they’re all as good as Cary Fukunaga’s stirring take on the gothic romance, keep ’em coming. Mia Wasikowska stars in the titular role, with the dreamy Michael Fassbender stepping into the high pants of Edward Rochester. The cast is rounded out by familiar faces like Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, and Sally Hawkins — all of whom breathe new life into the material. It helps that Fukunaga’s sensibilities are perfectly suited to the story: he stays true to the novel while maintaining an aesthetic certain to appeal to a modern audience. Even if you know Jane Eyre’s story — Mr. Rochester’s dark secret, the fate of their romance, etc. — there are still surprises to be had. Everyone tells the classics differently, and this adaptation is a thoroughly unique experience. And here’s hoping it pushes the engaging Wasikowska further in her ascent to stardom. (2:00) Embarcadero. (Peitzman)
*Limitless An open letter to the makers of Limitless: please fire your marketing team because they are making your movie look terrible. The story of a deadbeat writer (Bradley Cooper) who acquires an unregulated drug that allows him to take advantage of 100 percent of his previously under-utilized brain, Limitless is silly, improbable and features a number of distracting comic-book-esque stylistic tics. But consumed with the comic book in mind, Limitless is also unpredictable, thrilling, and darkly funny. The aforementioned style, which includes many instances of the infinite regression effect that you get when you point two mirrors at each other, and a heavy blur to distort depth-of-field, only solidifies the film’s cartoonish intentions. Cooper learns foreign languages in hours, impresses women with his keen attention to detail, and sets his sights on Wall Street, a move that gets him noticed by businessman Carl Van Loon (Robert DeNiro in a glorified cameo) as well as some rather nasty drug dealers and hired guns looking to cash in on the drug. Limitless is regrettably titled and masquerades in TV spots as a Wall Street series spin-off, but in truth it sports the speedy pacing and tongue-in-cheek humor required of a good popcorn flick. (1:37) (Galvin)
The Lincoln Lawyer Matthew McConaughey stars as an unconventional lawyer who takes on a controversial client (Ryan Phillippe). (1:59)
The Music Never Stopped Based on a Dr. Oliver Sacks case history, this neurological wild-ride focuses on the generation gap in extremis: after a ’60s teenage son rebels against his parents, staying incommunicado in the interim, he resurfaces over two decades later as a disoriented, possibly homeless patient they’re called to identify at a hospital. He’s had a benign brain tumor removed — yet it had grown so large before surgery that it damaged gray-matter areas including those handling recent memory. As a result, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) relates to Mr. (J.K. Simmons) and Mrs. Sawyer (a terrific but underutilized Cara Seymour) as if they were still his upstate NY domestic keepers. A radiant Julia Ormond plays the music therapist who convinces them Gabe might respond to music, which had helped serially glue and sever the father-son bond decades earlier. This is an inherently fascinating psychological study. But director Jim Kohlberg and his scenarists render it placidly inspirational, with too little character nuance, scant period atmosphere (somewhat due to budgetary limitations), and weak homage to the Grateful Dead (ditto) rendering an unusual narrative oddly formulaic. (1:45) Shattuck. (Harvey)
Paul Across the aisle from the alien-shoot-em-up Battle: Los Angeles is its amiable, nerdy opposite: Paul, with its sweet geeks Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost), off on a post-Comic-Con pilgrimage to all the US sites of alien visitation. Naturally the buddies get a close encounter of their very own, with a very down-to-earth every-dude of a schwa named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), given to scratching his balls, spreading galactic wisdom, utilizing Christ-like healing powers, and cracking wise when the situation calls for it (as when fear of anal probes escalates). Despite a Pegg-and-Frost-penned script riddled with allusions to Hollywood’s biggest extraterrestrial flicks and much 12-year-old-level humor concerning testicles and farts, the humor onslaught usually attached to the two lead actors — considered Lewis and Martin for pop-smart Anglophiles — seems to have lost some of its steam, and teeth, with the absence of former director and co-writer Edgar Wright (who took last year’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to the next level instead). Call it a “soft R” for language and an alien sans pants. (1:44) California. (Chun)
*Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune When Phil Ochs was at his peak, he was one of the finest polemical folksingers to come out of the ’60s, and when he tumbled from those heights, the fall was terrible: he lost more than friends and fame — he appeared to completely lose himself, to substance abuse and mental illness. Director Kenneth Bowser does the singer-songwriter justice with this documentary, threading to-the-ramparts tunes like “Hazard, Kentucky,” questioning numbers a la “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” and achingly beautiful songs such as “Jim Dean of Indiana” throughout political events of the day, scenes from a protest movement that were inextricably entangled with Ochs’ oeuvre. Along with the many clips of Ochs in performance are interviews with the artist’s many friends, cohorts, and fans including Van Dyke Parks (who is becoming a Thurston Moore-like go-to for a generation’s damaged voices), brother (and music archivist) Michael Ochs, Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Peter Yarrow, Billy Bragg, daughter Meegan Ochs, and Ed Sanders. Expect an education in Ochs’ art, but also, perhaps more importantly (to the singer-songwriter), a glimpse into a time and place that both fed, fueled and bestowed meaning on his songs. Bowser succeeds in paints the portrait of a performer that was both idealistic and careerist, driven to fight injustice yet also propelled to explore new creative avenues (like recording with local musicians in Africa). Did Ochs fall — by way of drink, drugs, and mental illness — or was he pushed, as the artist claimed when he accused CIA thugs of destroying his vocal chords? The filmmaker steps back respectfully, allowing us to draw our own conclusion about this life lived fully. (1:38) Smith Rafael. (Chun)
You Won’t Miss Me Look at this fucking hipster: dour, aimless Shelly (Stella Schnabel, daughter of Julian) has her own New York City apartment (plus access to a country home, the ability to travel to Atlantic City on a whim, etc.) despite having no apparent source of income. Shelly drifts, going on auditions to further her as-yet unsuccessful acting career; leaving monotone voice mails for her mother; visiting her therapist; hooking up with assorted unwashed dudes; and hanging out with her insipid friends, one of whom helps our hapless 21st century protagonist set up her very first email account. That Shelly is depressed is a given; why anyone would choose to watch this drag of a film is a mystery. Director Ry Russo-Young aims to break up the angst by deploying an array of formats — from Super 8 to Flip — but no amount of artsy quirks (or cameos recognizable only to mumblecore enthusiasts) can make up for You Won’t Miss Me‘s uninvolving plot and unsympathetic characters. For a less painful (though by no means pain-free) experience, seek out last year’s similar Tiny Furniture instead. (1:21) Roxie. (Eddy)
The Adjustment Bureau As far as sci-fi romantic thrillers go, The Adjustment Bureau is pretty standard. But since that’s not an altogether common genre mash-up, I guess the film deserves some points for creativity. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, The Adjustment Bureau takes place in a world where all of our fates are predetermined. Political hotshot David Norris (Matt Damon) is destined for greatness — but not if he lets a romantic dalliance with dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) take precedence. And in order to make sure he stays on track, the titular Adjustment Bureau (including Anthony Mackie and Mad Men‘s John Slattery) are there to push him in the right direction. While the film’s concept is intriguing, the execution is sloppy. The Adjustment Bureau suffers from flaws in internal logic, allowing the story to skip over crucial plot points with heavy exposition and a deus ex machina you’ve got to see to believe. Couldn’t the screenwriter have planned ahead? (1:39) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)
*Battle: Los Angeles Michael Bay is likely writhing with envy over Battle: Los Angeles; his Transformers flicks take a more, erm, nuanced view of alien-on-human violence. But they’re not all such bad guys after all; these days, as District 9 (2009) demonstrated, alien invasions are more hazardous to the brothers and sisters from another planet than those trigger-happy humanoids ready to defend terra firma. So Battle arrives like an anomaly — a war-is-good action movie aimed at faceless space invaders who resemble the Alien (1979) mother more than the wide-eyed lost souls of District 9. Still reeling from his last tour of duty, Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) is ready to retire, until he’s pulled back in by a world invasion, staged by thirsty aliens. In approximating D-Day off the beach of Santa Monica, director Jonathan Liebesman manages to combine the visceral force of Saving Private Ryan (1998) with the what-the-fuck hand-held verite rush of Cloverfield (2008) while crafting tiny portraits of all his Marines, including Michelle Rodriguez, Ne-Yo, and True Blood‘s Jim Parrack. A few moments of requisite flag-waving are your only distractions from the almost nonstop white-knuckle tension fueling Battle: Los Angeles. (1:57) California, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Beastly The problem with a title like Beastly is that it’s difficult to avoid the obvious line: the movie lives up to its name. But indeed, this modernized take on the Beauty and the Beast tale is wretched on all fronts — a laughable script, endless plot holes, and the kind of wooden acting that makes you long for the glory days of Twilight (2008). New “It Boy” Alex Pettyfer stars as Kyle, a vapid popular kid who is cursed to look like a slightly less attractive version of himself by a vengeful witch (Mary-Kate Olsen). Only the love of kind-hearted Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens) can cure him of his fate. There is so much wrong with Beastly, it’s hard to zone in on its individual faults: this is a film in which the opening scene has Kyle telling his ugly classmates to “embrace the suck”—and then getting elected to student government anyway. Embrace Beastly‘s suck if you can’t live without Pettyfer’s washboard abs, but you’re far better off rewatching the Disney or Cocteau versions. (1:35) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)
Biutiful Uxbal (Javier Bardem) has problems. To name but a few: he is raising two young children alone in a poor, crime-beset Barcelona hood. He is making occasional attempts to rope back in their bipolar, substance-abusive mother (Maricel Álvarez), a mission without much hope. He is trying to stay afloat by various not-quite legal means while hopefully doing the right thing by the illegals — African street drug dealers and Chinese sweatshop workers — he acts as middleman to, standing between them and much less sympathetically-inclined bossmen. He’s got a ne’er-do-well brother (Eduard Fernandez) to cope with. Needless to say, with all this going on (and more), he isn’t getting much rest. But when he wearily checks in with a doc, the proverbial last straw is stacked on his camelback: surprise, you have terminal cancer. With umpteen odds already stacked against him in everyday life, Uxbal must now put all affairs in order before he is no longer part of the equation. This is Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first feature since an acrimonious creative split with scenarist Guillermo Arriaga. Their films together (2006’s Babel, 2003’s 21 Grams, 2000’s Amores Perros) have been criticized for arbitrarily slamming together separate baleful storylines in an attempt at universal profundity. But they worked better than Biutiful, which takes the opposite tact of trying to fit several stand-alone stories’ worth of hardship into one continuous narrative — worse, onto the bowed shoulders of one character. Bardem is excellent as usual, but for all their assured craftsmanship and intense moments, these two and a half hours collapse from the weight of so much contrived suffering. Rather than making a universal statement about humanity in crisis, Iñárritu has made a high-end soap opera teetering on the verge of empathy porn. (2:18) Shattuck. (Harvey)
*Black Swan “Lose yourself,” ballet company head Thomas (Vincent Cassel) whispers to his leading lady, Nina (Natalie Portman), moments before she takes the stage. But Nina is already consumed with trying to find herself, and rarely has a journey of self-discovery been so unsettling. Set in New York City’s catty, competitive ballet world, Black Swan samples from earlier dance films (notably 1948’s The Red Shoes, but also 1977’s Suspiria, with a smidgen of 1995’s Showgirls), though director Darren Aronofsky is nothing if not his own visionary. Black Swan resembles his 2008 The Wrestler somewhat thematically, with its focus on the anguish of an athlete under ten tons of pressure, but it’s a stylistic 180. Gone is the gritty, stripped-down aesthetic used to depict a sad-sack strongman. Like Dario Argento’s 1977 horror fantasy, the gory, elegantly choreographed Black Swan is set in a hyper-constructed world, with stabbingly obvious color palettes (literally, white = good; black = evil) and dozens of mirrors emphasizing (over and over again) the film’s doppelgänger obsession. As Nina, Portman gives her most dynamic performance to date. In addition to the thespian fireworks required while playing a goin’-batshit character, she also nails the role’s considerable athletic demands. (1:50) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
*Cedar Rapids What if The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) got so Parks and Rec‘d at The Office party that he ended up with a killer Hangover (2009)? Just maybe the morning-after baby would be Cedar Rapids. Director Miguel Arteta (2009’s Youth in Revolt) wrings sweet-natured chuckles from his banal, intensely beige wall-to-wall convention center biosphere, spurring such ponderings as, should John C. Reilly snatch comedy’s real-guy MVP tiara away from Seth Rogen? Consider Tim Lippe (Ed Helms of The Hangover), the polar opposite of George Clooney’s ultracompetent, complacent ax-wielder in Up in the Air (2009). He’s the naive manchild-cum-corporate wannabe who never quite graduated from Timmyville into adulthood. But it’s up to Lippe to hold onto his firm’s coveted two-star rating at an annual convention in Cedar Rapids. Life conspires against him, however, and despite his heartfelt belief in insurance as a heroic profession, Lippe immediately gets sucked into the oh-so-distracting drama, stirred up by the dangerously subversive “Deanzie” Ziegler (John C. Reilly), whom our naif is warned against as a no-good poacher. Temptations lie around every PowerPoint and potato skin; as Deanzie warns Lippe’s Candide, “I’ve got tiger scratches all over my back. If you want to survive in this business, you gotta daaance with the tiger.” How do you do that? Cue lewd, boozy undulations — a potbelly lightly bouncing in the air-conditioned breeze. “You’ve got to show him a little teat.” Fortunately Arteta shows us plenty of that, equipped with a script by Wisconsin native Phil Johnston, written for Helms — and the latter does not disappoint. (1:26) California, Empire, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Even the Rain It feels wrong to criticize an “issues movie” — particularly when the issues addressed are long overdue for discussion. Even the Rain takes on the privatization of water in Bolivia, but it does so in such an obvious, artless way that the ultimate message is muddled. The film follows a crew shooting an on-location movie about Christopher Columbus. The film-within-a-film is a less-than-flattering portrait of the explorer: if you’ve guessed that the exploitation of the native people will play a role in both narratives, you’d be right. The problem here is that Even the Rain rests on our collective outrage, doing little to explain the situation or even develop the characters. Case in point: Sebastian (Gael García Bernal), who shifts allegiances at will throughout the film. There’s an interesting link to be made between the time of Columbus and current injustice, but it’s not properly drawn here, and in the end, the few poignant moments get lost in the shuffle. (1:44) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Peitzman)
The Fighter Once enough of a contenda to have fought Sugar Ray Leonard — and won, though there are lingering questions about that verdict’s justice — Dicky (Christian Bale) is now a washed-up, crack-addicted mess whose hopes for a comeback seem just another expression of empty braggadocio. Ergo it has fallen to the younger brother he’s supposedly “training,” Micky (Mark Wahlberg), to endure the “managerial” expertise of their smothering-bullying ma (Melissa Leo) and float their large girl gang family of trigger-tempered sisters. That’s made even worse by the fact that they’ve gotten him nothing but chump fights in which he’s matched someone above his weight and skill class in order to boost the other boxer’s ranking. When Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), an ambitious type despite her current job as a bartender, this hardboiled new girlfriend insists the only way he can really get ahead is by ditching bad influences — meaning mom and Dicky, who take this shutout as a declaration of war. The fact-based script and David O. Russell’s direction do a good job lending grit and humor to what’s essentially a 1930s Warner Brothers melodrama — the kind that might have had Pat O’Brien as the “good” brother and James Cagney as the ne’er-do-well one who redeems himself by fadeout. Even if things do get increasingly formulaic (less 1980’s Raging Bull and more 1976’s Rocky), the memorable performances by Bale (going skeletal once again), Wahlberg (a limited actor ideally cast) and Leo (excellent as usual in an atypically brassy role) make this more than worthwhile. As for Adams, she’s just fine — but by now it’s hard to forget the too many cutesy parts she’s been typecast in since 2005’s Junebug. (1:54) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)
Gnomeo and Juliet If you willingly see a movie titled Gnomeo and Juliet, you probably have a keen sense of what you’re in for. And as long as that’s the case, it’s hard not to get sucked into the film’s 3D gnome-infested world. Believe it or not, this is actually a serviceable adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic — minus the whole double-suicide downer ending. But at least the movie is conscious of its source material, throwing in several references to other Shakespeare plays and even having the Bard himself (or, OK, a bronze statue) comment on the proceedings. It helps that the cast is populated by actors who could hold their own in a more traditional Shakespearean context: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Maggie Smith, and Michael Caine. But Gnomeo and Juliet isn’t perfect — not because of its outlandish concept, but due to a serious overabundance of Elton John. The film’s songwriter and producer couldn’t resist inserting himself into every other scene. Aside from the final “Crocodile Rock” dance number, it’s actually pretty distracting. (1:24) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)
Hall Pass There are some constants when it comes to a Farrelly Brothers movie: lewd humor, full-frontal male nudity, and at least one shot of explosive diarrhea. Hall Pass does not disappoint on the gross-out front, but it’s a letdown in almost every other way. Rick (Owen Wilson) and Fred (Jason Sudeikis) are married men obsessed with the idea of reliving their glory days. Lucky for them, wives Maggie (Jenna Fischer) and Grace (Christina Applegate) decide to give them a week-long “hall pass” from marriage. Of course, once Rick and Fred are able to go out and snag any women they want, they realize most women aren’t interested in being snagged by dopey fortysomethings. On paper, Hall Pass has the potential to be a sharp, anti-bro comedy. Instead, it wallows in recycled toilet humor that’s no longer edgy enough to make us squirm. At least there are still moments of misogyny to provide that familiar feeling of discomfort. (1:38) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)
Happythankyoumoreplease Director, writer, and star Josh Radnor gets the prize for most unwieldy, hard-to-remember title in a while — and a tiny gold star for revealing the most heart within one so-called hipster. In this indie feel-gooder, writer Sam (Radnor) is lost at sea, completely adrift at the close of his twenties and unable to sell his novel. The aimlessness is beginning to seem less than cute to the random ladies that pass in the night and chums like Annie (Malin Akerman), who happens to have Alopecia and whose merry outlook is battling with her lack of self-confidence, and Mary Catherine (Zoe Kazan), who is puzzling whether to follow her boyfriend Charlie (Pablo Schreiber) to LA or to retain her life as a an artist in NYC. It takes a lost little boy, Rasheen (Michael Algieri), to bring out the selfless nurturer in Sam’s self-conscious man-child, giving him the courage to approach the local hottie-slash-waitress-slash-cabaret-singer Mississippi (Kate Mara). Radnor — who resembles a likable, every-guy Ben Affleck, though he’s hindered with an expressiveness that ranges from bemused to bemused — himself points to the similarities between Woody Allen’s hymns to Manhattan intelligentsia-bohemia and his own aria to NYC singles on the brink of hooking up with adulthood. Waxing cute rather than critical, Happythankyoumoreplease lacks Allen’s early bite, but its guileless sweetness just might do the trick and satisfy some. (1:40) Lumiere. (Chun)
I Am File in the dusty back drawer of An Inconvenient Truth (2006) wannabes. The cringe-inducing, pretentious title is a giveaway — though the good intentions are in full effect — in this documentary by and about director Tom Shadyac’s search for answers to life’s big questions. After a catastrophic bike accident, the filmmaker finds his lavish lifestyle as a successful Hollywood director of such opuses as Bruce Almighty (2003) somewhat wanting. Thinkers and spiritual leaders such as Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, and scientist David Suzuki provide some thought-provoking answers, although Shadyac’s thinking behind seeking out this specific collection of academics, writers, and activists remains somewhat unclear. I Am‘s shambling structure and perpetual return to its true subject — Shadyac, who resembles a wide-eyed Weird Al Yankovic — doesn’t help matters, leaving a viewer with mixed feelings, less about whether one man can work out his quest for meaning on film, than whether Shadyac complements his subjects and their ideas by framing them in such a random, if well-meaning, manner. And sorry, this film doesn’t make up for Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994). (1:16) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Chun)
I Am Number Four Do you like Twilight? Do you think aliens are just as sexy — if not sexier! — than vampires? I Am Number Four isn’t a rip-off of Stephenie Meyer’s supernatural saga, but the YA novel turned film is similar enough to draw in that coveted tween audience. John (Alex Pettyfer) is a teenage alien with extraordinary powers who falls in love with a human girl Sarah (Dianna Agron). But they’re from two different worlds! To be fair, star-crossed romance isn’t the issue here: the real problem is I Am Number Four‘s “first in a series” status. Rather than working to establish itself as a film in its own right, the movie sets the stage for what’s to come next, a bold presumption for something this mediocre. It lazily drops some exposition, then launches into big, loud battles without pausing to catch its breath. I Am Number Four only really works if it gets a sequel, and we all know how well that turned out for The Golden Compass (2007). (1:44) 1000 Van Ness. (Peitzman)
I Saw the Devil This latest by South Korean wunderkind Kim Ji-woon (2008’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird; 2003’s A Tale of Two Sisters) aims to push serial-killer thriller conventions to new extremes in intensity, violent set-piece bravado, and sheer length. Intelligence agent Joo-yeong (Lee Byung-hun) is inconsolably horrified when his fiancée — a police chief’s daughter — is abducted, tortured and murdered by giddily remorseless Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik). The latter is a rural schoolbus driver who stalks his prey on and off the job, hauling them to a rigged-up shack where he enjoys their protracted final writhings. Once our hero tracks down this grotesque villain, he demonstrates a perverse, obsessive side by letting the “devil” loose again — each time after serious physical punishment — so that he can live in terror of his avenger. The trouble with that concept is that our upright, fanatical hero thus allows remorseless Kyung-chul to abuse new victims every time he’s let loose, which simply doesn’t make psychological sense. I Saw the Devil has some dazzling action set-pieces and outre content. But the dependency on slasher genre-style harm toward pretty young women sounds a sour, conventional note. And while it reserves a delicious irony or two for the end, this glorified horror flick simply goes on way too long. (2:21) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
*The Illusionist Now you see Jacques Tati and now you don’t. With The Illusionist, aficionados yearning for another gem from Tati will get a sweet, satisfying taste of the maestro’s sensibility, inextricably blended with the distinctively hand-drawn animation of Sylvain Chomet (2004’s The Triplets of Belleville). Tati wrote the script between 1956 and 1959 — a loving sendoff from a father to a daughter heading toward selfhood — and after reading it in 2003 Chomet decided to adapt it, bringing the essentially silent film to life with 2D animation that’s as old school as Tati’s ambivalent longing for bygone days. The title character should be familiar to fans of Monsieur Hulot: the illusionist is a bemused artifact of another age, soon to be phased out with the rise of rock ‘n’ rollers. He drags his ornery rabbit and worn bag of tricks from one ragged hall to another, each more far-flung than the last, until he meets a little cleaning girl on a remote Scottish island. Enthralled by his tricks and grateful for his kindness, she follows him to Edinburgh and keeps house while the magician works the local theater and takes on odd jobs in an attempt to keep her in pretty clothes, until she discovers life beyond their small circle of fading vaudevillians. Chomet hews closely to bittersweet tone of Tati’s films — and though some controversy has dogged the production (Tati’s illegitimate, estranged daughter Helga Marie-Jeanne Schiel claimed to be the true inspiration for The Illusionist, rather than daughter and cinematic collaborator Sophie Tatischeff) and Chomet neglects to fully detail a few plot turns, the dialogue-free script does add an intriguing ambiguity to the illusionist and his charge’s relationship — are they playing at being father and daughter or husband and wife? — and an otherwise straightforward, albeit poignant tale. (1:20) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Chun)
Inside Job Inside Job is director Charles Ferguson’s second investigative documentary after his 2007 analysis of the Iraq War, No End in Sight, but it feels more like the follow-up to Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005). Keeping with the law of sequels, more shit blows up the second time around. As with No End in Sight, Ferguson adeptly packages a broad overview of complex events in two hours, respecting the audience’s intelligence while making sure to explain securities exchanges, derivatives, and leveraging laws in clear English (doubly important when so many Wall Street executives hide behind the intricacy of markets). The revolving door between banks, government, and academia is the key to Inside Job‘s account of financial deregulation. At times borrowing heist-film conventions (it is called Inside Job, after all), Ferguson keeps the primary players in view throughout his history so that the eventual meltdown seems anything but an accident. The filmmaker’s relentless focus on the insiders isn’t foolproof; tarring Ben Bernanke, Henry Paulson, and Timothy Geithner as “made” guys, for example, isn’t a substitute for evaluating their varied performances over the last two years. Inside Job makes it seem that the entire crisis was caused by the financial sector’s bad behavior, and this too is reductive. Furthermore, Ferguson does not come to terms with the politicized nature of the economic fallout. In Inside Job, there are only two kinds of people: those who get it and those who refuse to. The political reality is considerably more contentious. (2:00) Bridge. (Goldberg)
The King’s Speech Films like The King’s Speech have filled a certain notion of “prestige” cinema since the 1910s: historical themes, fully-clothed romance, high dramatics, star turns, a little political intrigue, sumptuous dress, and a vicarious taste of how the fabulously rich, famous, and powerful once lived. At its best, this so-called Masterpiece Theatre moviemaking can transcend formula — at its less-than-best, however, these movies sell complacency, in both style and content. In The King’s Speech, Colin Firth plays King George VI, forced onto the throne his favored older brother Edward abandoned. This was especially traumatic because George’s severe stammer made public address tortuous. Enter matey Australian émigré Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, mercifully controlled), a speech therapist whose unconventional methods include insisting his royal client treat him as an equal. This ultimately frees not only the king’s tongue, but his heart — you see, he’s never had anyone before to confide in that daddy (Michael Gambon as George V) didn’t love him enough. Aww. David Seidler’s conventionally inspirational script and BBC miniseries veteran Tom Hooper’s direction deliver the expected goods — dignity on wry, wee orgasms of aesthetic tastefulness, much stiff-upper-lippage — at a stately promenade pace. Firth, so good in the uneven A Single Man last year, is perfect in this rock-steadier vehicle. Yet he never surprises us; role, actor, and movie are on a leash tight enough to limit airflow. (1:58) Albany, Embarcadero, Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
*Last Lions It’s hard being a single mom. Particularly when you are a lioness in the Botswana wetlands, your territory invaded and mate killed by an invading pride forced out of their own by encroaching humanity. Add buffalo herds (tasty yes, but with sharp horns they’re not afraid to use) and crocodiles (no upside there), and our heroine is hard-pressed to keep herself alive, let alone her three small cubs. Derek Joubert’s spectacular nature documentary, narrated by Jeremy Irons (in plummiest Lion King vocal form) manages a mind-boggling intimacy observing all these predators. Shot over several years, while seeming to depict just a few weeks or months’ events, it no doubt fudges facts a bit to achieve a stronger narrative, but you’ll be too gripped to care. Warning: those kitties sure are cute, but this sometimes harsh depiction of life (and death) in the wild is not suitable for younger children. (1:28) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Mars Needs Moms (1:28) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.
Nora’s Will There’s certainly something to be said for the uniqueness of Nora’s Will: I can’t think of any other Mexican-Jewish movies that cover suicide, Passover, and cooking with equal attention. But while it sounds like the film is overloaded, Nora’s Will is actually too subtle for its own good. It meanders along, telling the story of the depressed Nora, her conflicted ex-husband, and the family she left behind. When the movie focuses on the clash between Judaism and Mexican culture, the results are dynamic, but more often that not, it simply crawls along. It’s not that Nora’s Will is boring: it’s just easily forgettable, which is surprising given its subject matter. Meanwhile, it walks that fine line between comedy and drama, never bringing the laughs or the emotional catharsis it wants to offer. The only real reaction it inspires is hunger, particularly if the idea of a Mexican-Jewish feast sounds appealing. Turns out “gefilte fish” is the same in every language. (1:32) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Peitzman)
*Of Gods and Men It’s the mid-1990s, and we’re in Tibhirine, a small Algerian village based around a Trappist monastery. There, eight French-born monks pray and work alongside their Muslim neighbors, tending to the sick and tilling the land. An emboldened Islamist rebel movement threatens this delicate peace, and the monks must decide whether to risk the danger of becoming pawns in the Algerian Civil War. On paper, Of Gods and Men sounds like the sort of high-minded exploitation picture the Academy swoons over: based on a true story, with high marks for timeliness and authenticity. What a pleasant surprise then that Xavier Beauvois’s Cannes Grand Prix winner turns out to be such a tightly focused moral drama. Significantly, the film is more concerned with the power vacuum left by colonialism than a “clash of civilizations.” When Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) turns away an Islamist commander by appealing to their overlapping scriptures, it’s at the cost of the Algerian army’s suspicion. Etienne Comar’s perceptive script does not rush to assign meaning to the monks’ decision to stay in Tibhirine, but rather works to imagine the foundation and struggle for their eventual consensus. Beauvois occasionally lapses into telegraphing the monks’ grave dilemma — there are far too many shots of Christian looking up to the heavens — but at other points he’s brilliant in staging the living complexity of Tibrihine’s collective structure of responsibility. The actors do a fine job too: it’s primarily thanks to them that by the end of the film each of the monks seems a sharply defined conscience. (2:00) Albany, Embarcadero. (Goldberg)
Rango (1:47) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki.
Red Riding Hood In order to appreciate a movie like Red Riding Hood, you have to be familiar with the teen supernatural romance genre. Catherine Hardwicke’s sexy reinterpretation of the fairy tale is not high art: the script is often laughable, the acting flat, and the werewolf CGI embarrassing. But there’s something undeniably enjoyable about Red Riding Hood, especially in the wake of the duller, more sexually repressed Twilight series. Amanda Seyfried stars as Valerie, a young woman living in a village of werewolf cannon fodder. She’s torn between love and duty — or, more accurately, Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) and Henry (Max Irons). Meanwhile, a vicious werewolf hunter (Gary Oldman) has arrived to overact his way into killing the beast. It’s a silly story with plenty of hamfisted references to the original fairy tale, but if you can embrace the camp factor and the striking visuals, Red Riding Hood is actually quite fun. Though, to be fair, it might help if you suffer through Beastly first. (1:38) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, SF Center. (Peitzman)
Take Me Home Tonight Just because lame teen comedies existed in the ’80s doesn’t mean that they need to be updated for the ’10s. Nary an Eddie Money song disgraces the soundtrack of this unselfconscious puerile, pining sex farce — the type one assumes moviemakers have grown out of with the advent of smarty-pants a la Apatow and Farrell. Take Me Home Tonight would rather find its feeble kicks in major hair, big bags of coke, polo shirts with upturned collars, and “greed is good” affluenza. Matt (Topher Grace) is an MIT grad who’s refused to embrace the engineer within and is instead biding his time as a clerk at the local Suncoast video store when he stumbles on his old high school crush Tori (Teresa Palmer), a budding banker. In an effort to impress, he tells her he works for Goldman Sachs and trails after her to the rip-roaring last-hooray-before adulthood bash. Pal Barry (Dan Fogler) gets to play the Belushi-like buffoon when he swipes a Mercedes from the dealership he just got fired from, and ends up with a face full of powder in the arms of a kinky ex-supermodel (Angie Everhart). Despite cameos by comedians like Demetri Martin and a trailer and poster that make it all seem a bit cooler than it really is, Take Me Home Tonight doesn’t really touch the coattails of Jonathan Demme or even Cameron Crowe — in the hands of director Michael Dowse, it feels nowhere near as heartfelt, rock ‘n’ roll, or at the very least, cinematically competent. (1:37) 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
*True Grit Jeff Bridges fans, resist the urge to see your Dude in computer-trippy 3D and make True Grit your holiday movie of choice. Directors Ethan and Joel Coen revisit (with characteristic oddball touches) the 1968 Charles Portis novel that already spawned a now-classic 1969 film, which earned John Wayne an Oscar for his turn as gruff U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn. (The all-star cast also included Dennis Hopper, Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall, and Strother Martin.) Into Wayne’s ten-gallon shoes steps an exceptionally crusty Bridges, whose banter with rival bounty hunter La Boeuf (a spot-on Matt Damon) and relationship with young Mattie Ross (poised newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) — who hires him to find the man who killed her father — likely won’t win the recently Oscar’d actor another statuette, but that doesn’t mean True Grit isn’t thoroughly entertaining. Josh Brolin and a barely-recognizable Barry Pepper round out a cast that’s fully committed to honoring two timeless American genres: Western and Coen. (1:50) SF Center. (Eddy)
“2011 Academy Award-Nominated Short Films, Live-Action and Animated” (Live-action, 1:50; animated, 1:25) Red Vic.
Unknown Everything is blue skies as Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) flies to Germany for a biotech conference, accompanied by lovely wife Elizabeth (January Jones in full Betty Draper mode). Landing in Berlin things quickly become grey, as he’s separated from his wife and ends up in a coma. Waking in a hospital room, Harris experiences memory loss, but like Harrison Ford he’s getting frantic with an urgent need to find his wife. Luckily she’s at the hotel. Unluckily, so is another man, who she and everyone else claims is the real Dr. Harris. What follows is a by-the-numbers thriller, with car chases and fist fights, that manages to entertain as long as the existential question is unanswered. Once it’s revealed to be a knock-off of a successful franchise, the details of Unknown‘s dated Cold War plot don’t quite make sense. On the heels of 2008’s Taken, Neeson again proves capable in action-star mode. Bruno Ganz amuses briefly as an ex-Stasi detective, but the vacant parsing by bad actress Jones, appropriate for her role on Mad Men, only frustrates here. (1:49) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Ryan Prendiville)
*William S. Burroughs: A Man Within William S. Burroughs, as director John Waters puts it in this long-overdue documentary, became famous before any of his peers, “for all the things you were supposed to hide: he was gay; he was a junkie; he shot his wife.” Of course, that isn’t the entire story. Examining the cultural forces and tragic biographical events that shaped The Naked Lunch author, director Yony Lesler attempts with varying degrees of success to separate the intensely private man from the countercultural raconteur in the gray flannel suit Burroughs would become later in his life. Combining interviews with a who’s who of famous associates, friends, and admirers, rare and never-before seen archival footage, and clips from Burroughs’ own experimental films and later home movies, Lesler makes a convincing case for Burroughs as a perennial outsider, even to himself. His Harvard education and wealthy pedigree set him apart from his crunchier Beat compatriots and he openly disdained the label of “gay revolutionary” even as his writing boldly envisioned same-sex desire as something truly queer. And although his dour mien and conservative dress would later become personal trademarks, he in fact privately mourned the death of his wife, Joan Vollmer, who he shot in Mexico playing a drunken round of William Tell (he was never tried), and his estranged son, Bill Burroughs Jr., who died attempting to approximate his father’s former junkie lifestyle. The film’s talking heads variously credit Burroughs with everything from punk rock to performance art, but the sad, all-too-human story behind the hagiography is what’s most compelling here. (1:38) Roxie. (Sussman)
*In the Dust of the Stars This goofy 1976 science-fiction opus would certainly have some cult cache in the West if it hadn’t been an East Germany-Romania coproduction whose exposure was pretty well limited to nations behind the Iron Curtain. A spaceship from planet Cynro captained by Akala (Jana Brejchova) arrives on Tem 4, having answered a call asking for help. It is disconcerting when the Temians try to make them crash during landing, then incongruously welcome them with open arms and cocktails — well, actually, flavored inhalers — while claiming no distress signal was sent. When our protagonists remain skeptical, they are further plied with a lavish party involving much interpretive dancing, snakes slithering among the smorgasbord (which no one seems to mind, or notice), screaming women bouncing on circus nets, and a game in which men and women alike catch little balls with their cleavage. The guests are brainwashed by these vaguely orgiastic goings-on, but one who’d stayed behind on the ship suspects something amiss, soon discovering Tem 4’s big secret: its ruling class are invaders who have enslaved the actual natives, who toil in the mines or serve as frequently slapped waiters. Its supreme leader, apparently named “Boss,” likes to get his hair painted different colors and wear a bathrobe at all times. Things bog down at times as we wait for the proletariat to achieve nonviolent revolutionary overthrow of their capitalist oppressors, but how can you dislike any movie in which people wear futuristic pastel disco track suits and red leather jumpsuits? Let alone one that alternately recalls everything from 1930s Flash Gordon and 1950s mega-kitsch like Queen of Outer Space (1958) to Barbarella (1968) and Space: 1999. This is part of Goethe Institut’s “From the Wild West to Outer Space: East German Genre Films” series, which concludes March 31 with the 1968 youth pop musical Hot Summer. (1:35) Thurs/17, 7 p.m., $7, Goethe-Institut, 530 Bush, SF; www.goethe.de. (Harvey)
Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Peter Galvin, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, and Matt Sussman. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.