SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
The 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 21-Aug 8 at the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1119 Fourth St., San Rafael; Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California, SF; Oshman Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto; and Roda Theatre at Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison, Berk. For tickets (most shows $12) and a full schedule, visit www.sfjff.org.
Captain America: The First Avenger Chris Evans trades in his Human Torch togs to play the patriotic Marvel superhero. (2:09) Marina, Shattuck.
*Enforcing the Silence With a taut running time of 59 minutes, Tony Nguyen’s debut doc delves into the mysterious 1981 murder of Lam Duong, a Vietnamese journalist and social activist who lived and worked in the Tenderloin. He’d come to Oberlin, Ohio in the early 1970s as part of a high school exchange program, and ended up staying for college and beyond as war raged in his homeland. Though the program Duong founded after moving to San Francisco, the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, was an asset to the community (providing a place for kids to hang out after school, assisting non-English speakers with complicated social-services forms, etc.), his political views made him a polarizing figure, and may have cost him his life. Was being seen as pro-communist (and speaking out about it, per his first amendment rights) the motive for Duong’s murder? What about the other Vietnamese American journalists also killed in the early 80s? The crimes remain unsolved, but as Nguyen’s film finds through interviews with investigators and people who knew Duong during his short life, the controversy lingers. Enforcing the Silence has its local debut Thurs/21 at 7 p.m., the 30th anniversary of Duong’s murder; half of the proceeds (tickets $5-25) will go to the VYDC. (:59) Roxie. (Eddy)
Friends With Benefits Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake star in an apparent remake of the Natalie Portman-Ashton Kutcher rom-com No Strings Attached. (1:44) Four Star, Presidio.
Life, Above All It’s tough enough to simply grow up, let alone care for a parent with AIDS and deal with the suspicions and fears of the no-nothing adults all around you. Rising above easy preaching and hand-wringing didacticism, Life, Above All takes as its blueprint the 2004 best-seller by Allan Stratton, Chandra’s Secrets, and makes compelling work of the story of 12-year-old Chandra (Khomotso Manyaka) and her unfortunate family, unable to get effective help amid the thicket of ignorance regarding AIDS in Africa. After her newborn sister dies, Chandra finds her loyalty torn between her bright-eyed best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), who’s rumored to hooking among the truck drivers in their dusty, sun-scorched rural South African hometown, and her mother (Lerato Mvelase), who listens far too closely to her bourgie friend Mrs. Tafa (an OTT Harriet Manamela), for her own good. Cape Town native director Oliver Schmitz sticks close to the action playing across his actors’ faces, and he’s rewarded, particularly by the graceful Manyaka, in this life-affirmer about little girls forced to shoulder heart-breaking responsibility far too soon. (1:46) Embarcadero. (Chun)
*Rapt Colder than cool — and pokerfaced in its perusal of all the angles — this hostage thriller takes as its starting point the real-life 1978 kidnapping of Belgian aristo Baron Edouard-Jean Empain. Slick industrialist Stanislas Graff (Yvan Attal) is smoothly going through the motions of life — preparing for a sojourn to China alongside heads of state, swinging through his gambling den, indulging in an afternoon tryst with a mistress, then heading home to make fatherly noises for the family. Graff’s seamless, impressively precise kidnapping effectively cock-blocks the routine. Fifty million euros is the ransom, and the kidnappers quickly, brutally demonstrate that they mean bidness. Filmmaker Lucas Belvaux tests the tension at home, in the boardroom, among law enforcement, while the ugly details of Graff’s day-to-day life are laid bare by the French tabloids, much like dismembered body parts — and giving off a whiff of the hypocrisies surrounding ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. More often behind the camera than before it, Attal offers what might be his best performance as the entitled scion reduced to a cowering bag of bones and scar tissue. He’s well-matched by Anne Consigny as his shell-shocked spouse and Alex Descas as his lawyer, as Belvaux efficiently delivers his core query with almost zero melodrama: who’s the more brutal player in this high-stakes game — the so-called terrorists or the cutthroat captains of industry? (2:05) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Chun)
*Road to Nowhere See “To Hellman and Back.” (2:02) Roxie, Smith Rafael.
Bad Teacher Jake Kasdan, the once-talented director of a few Freaks and Geeks episodes and 2002’s underrated Orange County, seems hell-bent on humiliating everyone in the cast of Bad Teacher. Cameron Diaz is Elizabeth, the title’s criminally bad pedagogue who prefers the Jack Daniels method to the Socratic. Her impetus for pounding Harper Lee into her middle school students’ bug-eyed little heads is to cash in on a bonus check to fund her breast-y ambitions and woo Justin Timberlake and his baby voice. The only likable onscreen presence is Jason Segal as a sad sack gym teacher in love with Elizabeth. But he could do so much better. There’s no shortage of racist jokes and potty humor in this R-rated comedy pandering to those 17 and below. When asked if she wants to go out with her coworkers, Elizabeth ripostes, “I’d rather get shot in the face!” That scenario is likely a better alternative than suffering this steaming pile of cash cow carcass. (1:29) SF Center, Shattuck. (Lattanzio)
Beats, Rhymes & Life Actor Michael Rapaport probably didn’t set out to make a hip-hop Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), but that’s pretty much where his portrait of A Tribe Called Quest ends up. The first half of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is predictably worshipful, slathering on low angles and slow motion to cover mediocre live shows. More effectively, Rapaport traces the Queens group’s brief incubation period and subsequent breakthroughs in what would later be called alternative or, more obnoxiously, conscious hip-hop. A slew of notable followers and contemporaries toast Tribe’s first three albums, but by the time Rapaport catches up to the group’s 2008 reunion even their longtime friends De La Soul are wishing they’d call the whole thing off. The documentary slides into the Monster zone of hurt feelings and passive aggressive behavior in accounting for the group’s split after their inappropriately named 1998 album, The Love Movement. Phife Dawg and Q-Tip are the warring egos, though perennially slighted Phife is really no match for the imperially cool Tip. DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad is the Kirk Hammett of the outfit, looking on helplessly as the two bigger personalities make a mess of things. There’s still novelty in a story about aging in hip-hop, but Rapaport’s portrait is utterly conventional. He also doesn’t pursue more interesting questions of race and politics that naturally follow the band’s crossover appeal. (1:38) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Goldberg)
*Beginners There is nothing conventional about Beginners, a film that starts off with the funeral arrangements for one of its central characters. That man is Hal (Christopher Plummer), who came out to his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) at the ripe age of 75. Through flashbacks, we see the relationship play out — Oliver’s inability to commit tempered by his father’s tremendous late-stage passion for life. Hal himself is a rare character: an elderly gay man, secure in his sexuality and, by his own admission, horny. He even has a much younger boyfriend, played by the handsome Goran Visnjic. While the father-son bond is the heart of Beginners, we also see the charming development of a relationship between Oliver and French actor Anna (Mélanie Laurent). It all comes together beautifully in a film that is bittersweet but ultimately satisfying. Beginners deserves praise not only for telling a story too often left untold, but for doing so with grace and a refreshing sense of whimsy. (1:44) Embarcadero, Piedmont. (Peitzman)
A Better Life (1:38) Opera Plaza, Shattuck.
*Bill Cunningham New York To say that Bill Cunningham, the 82-year old New York Times photographer, has made documenting how New Yorkers dress his life’s work would be an understatement. To be sure, Cunningham’s two decades-old Sunday Times columns — “On the Street,” which tracks street-fashion, and “Evening Hours,” which covers the charity gala circuit — are about the clothes. And, my, what clothes they are. But Cunningham is a sartorial anthropologist, and his pictures always tell the bigger story behind the changing hemlines, which socialite wore what designer, or the latest trend in footwear. Whether tracking the near-infinite variations of a particular hue, a sudden bumper-crop of cropped blazers, or the fanciful leaps of well-heeled pedestrians dodging February slush puddles, Cunningham’s talent lies in his ability to recognize fleeting moments of beauty, creativity, humor, and joy. That last quality courses through Bill Cunningham New York, Richard Press’ captivating and moving portrait of a man whose reticence and personal asceticism are proportional to his total devotion to documenting what Harold Koda, chief curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes in the film as “ordinary people going about their lives, dressed in fascinating ways.” (1:24) Opera Plaza. (Sussman)
Bride Flight Who doesn’t love a sweeping Dutch period piece? Ben Sombogaart’s Bride Flight is pure melodrama soup, enough to give even the most devout arthouse-goer the bloats. Emigrating from post-World War II Holland to New Zealand with two gal pals, the sweetly staid Ada (Karina Smulders) falls for smarm-ball Frank (Waldemar Torenstra, the Dutchman’s James Franco) and kind of joins the mile high club to the behest of her conscience. The women arrive with emotional baggage and carry-ons of the uterine kind. As the harem adjusts to the country mores of the Highlands, Frank tries a poke at all of them in a series of sex scenes more moldy than smoldery. This Flight, set to a plodding score and stuffy mise-en-scene, never quite leaves the runway. Not to mention the whole picture, pale as a corpse, resembles one of those old-timey photographs of your great grandma’s wedding. These kinds of pastoral romances ought to be put out to, well, pasture. (2:10) Opera Plaza. (Lattanzio)
*Bridesmaids For anyone burned out on bad romantic comedies, Bridesmaids can teach you how to love again. This film is an answer to those who have lamented the lack of strong female roles in comedy, of good vehicles for Saturday Night Live cast members, of an appropriate showcase for Melissa McCarthy. The hilarious but grounded Kristen Wiig stars as Annie, whose best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting hitched. Financially and romantically unstable, Annie tries to throw herself into her maid of honor duties — all while competing with the far more refined Helen (Rose Byrne). Bridesmaids is one of the best comedies in recent memory, treating its relatable female characters with sympathy. It’s also damn funny from start to finish, which is more than can be said for most of the comedies Hollywood continues to churn out. Here’s your choice: let Bridesmaids work its charm on you, or never allow yourself to complain about an Adam Sandler flick again. (2:04) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)
Buck This documentary paints a portrait of horse trainer Buck Brannaman as a sort of modern-day sage, a sentimental cowboy who helps “horses with people problems.” Brannaman has transcended a background of hardship and abuse to become a happy family man who makes a difference for horses and their owners all over the country with his unconventional, humane colt-starting clinics. Though he doesn’t actually whisper to horses, he served as an advisor and inspiration for Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer (1998). Director Cindy Meehl focuses generously on her saintly subject’s bits of wisdom in and out of a horse-training setting — e.g. “Everything you do with a horse is a dance” — as well as heartfelt commentary from friends and colleagues. In the harrowing final act of the film, Brannaman deals with a particularly unruly horse and his troubled owner, highlighting the dire and disturbing consequences of improper horse rearing. (1:28) Lumiere, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Sam Stander)
Cars 2 You pretty much can’t say a bad thing about a Pixar film. Cars 2 is by no means Ratatouille (2007) or Wall-E (2008), but the sequel to the 2006 hit Cars offers plenty of sleek visuals and one-note gags under its hollow hood. If nothing else, Pixar seems to have overcome the dingy, dark glaze that plagues 3-D films. Directors John Lasseter and Joe Ranft return to beloved autos Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and the “extremely American” Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). This time around, secret agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) come along for the ride while working to expose sabotage in the alternative fuel industry. Compelling chase sequences, explosions and more than a few jabs at cultural stereotypes follow suit. This is the lightest, silliest Pixar film to date, but you probably don’t have any business seeing it unless you’ve got a kid in tow. (1:52) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck. (Lattanzio)
*Cave of Forgotten Dreams The latest documentary from Werner Herzog once again goes where no filmmaker — or many human beings, for that matter — has gone before: the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, a heavily-guarded cavern in Southern France containing the oldest prehistoric artwork on record. Access is highly restricted, but Herzog’s 3D study is surely the next best thing to an in-person visit. The eerie beauty of the works leads to a typically Herzog-ian quest to learn more about the primitive culture that produced the paintings; as usual, Herzog’s experts have their own quirks (like a circus performer-turned-scientist), and the director’s own wry narration is peppered with random pop culture references and existential ponderings. It’s all interwoven with footage of crude yet beautiful renderings of horses and rhinos, calcified cave-bear skulls, and other time-capsule peeks at life tens of thousands of years ago. The end result is awe-inspiring. (1:35) SF Center, Shattuck. (Eddy)
Empire of Silver Love, not money, is at the core of Empire of Silver — that’s the M.O. of a Shanxi banking family’s libertine third son, or “Third Master” (Aaron Kwok) in this epic tug-of-war between Confucian duty and free will. The Third Master pines for his true love, his stepmother (Hao Lei), yet change is going off all around the star-crossed couple in China at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, and the youthful scion ends up pouring his passion into the family business, attempting to tread his own path, apart from his Machiavellian father (Tielin Zhang). Much like her protagonist, however, director (and Stanford alum) Christina Yao seems more besotted with romance than finance, bathing those scenes with the love light and sensual hues reminiscent of Zhang Yimou’s early movies. Though Yao handles the widescreen crowd scenes with aplomb, her chosen focus on money, rather than honey, leaches the action of its emotional charge. It doesn’t help that, on the heels of the Great Recession, it’s unlikely that anyone buys the idea of a financial industry with ironclad integrity — or gives a flying yuan about the lives of bankers. (1:52) Four Star. (Chun)
The Hangover Part II What do you do with a problematic mess like Hangover Part II? I was a fan of The Hangover (2009), as well as director-cowriter Todd Phillips’ 1994 GG Allin doc, Hated, so I was rooting for II, this time set in the East’s Sin City of Bangkok, while simultaneously dreading the inevitable Asian/”ching-chang-chong” jokes. Would this would-be hit sequel be funnier if they packed in more of those? Doubtful. The problem is that most of II‘s so-called humor, Asian or no, falls completely flat — and any gross-out yuks regarding wicked, wicked Bangkok are fairly old hat at this point, long after Shocking Asia (1976) and innumerable episodes of No Reservations and other extreme travel offerings. This Hangover around, mild-ish dentist Stu (Ed Helms) is heading to the altar with Lauren (The Real World: San Diego‘s Jamie Chung), with buds Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Doug (Justin Bartha) in tow. Alan (Zach Galifianakis) has completely broken with reality — he’s the pity invite who somehow ropes in the gangster wild-card Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong). Blackouts, natch, and not-very-funny high jinks ensue, with Jeong, surprisingly, pulling small sections of II out of the crapper. Phillips obviously specializes in men-behaving-badly, but II‘s most recent character tweaks, turning Phil into an arrogant, delusional creep and Alan into an arrogant, delusional kook, seem beside the point. Because almost none of the jokes work, and that includes the tired jabs at tranny strippers because we all know how supposedly straight white guys get hella grossed out by brown chicks with dicks. Lame. (1:42) SF Center. (Chun)
*Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 Chances are you aren’t going to jump into the Harry Potter series with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. So while the movie is probably the best Harry Potter film yet, it’s more a fitting conclusion than a standalone film. For fans of the books, there are no real surprises — this is a close adaptation. And for those Harry Potter movie fans who haven’t read the books, shame on you, and kudos if you managed to not get spoiled. It’s hard for me to offer a serious critical analysis of Part 2, because it represents the end of a long and very emotional journey. (Everyone in that audience was crying. Everyone.) I will say that, as was the case in the book, there are a few overdone, schmaltzy moments that aren’t really necessary. But in the context of the series, they’re forgivable — this may not be the great cinematic event of our generation, but Harry Potter as a whole is sure to be one of our most enduring cultural icons. (2:10) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Peitzman)
Horrible Bosses Lead by a clearly talented ensemble of comic actors, Horrible Bosses is yet another example of a big-budget summer comedy with a promising conceit (see Bad Teacher) that fails to deliver anything but crude alms to the lowest common denominator. Seth Gordon directs Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day as three pals fed up with their evil employers (Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston, respectively) so they hatch a plan to have them killed. Because the answer to their problem obviously lies in a dive bar in the “bad part of town,” Jamie Foxx plays Motherfucker Jones, their murder consultant and the film’s most likable character-stereotype. In the tradition of The Hangover (2009) and its ilk of beer-guzzling, frat-boy cousins, Horrible Bosses is a disastrous pile-up of idiocy that’s more vapid than vulgar despite a few amusing performances. See it for no other reason than Michael Bluth and Charlie Kelly on coke. (1:33) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Lattanzio)
Larry Crowne While Transformers: Dark of the Moon may be getting all the attention for being the most terrible summer movie, I’d like to propose Larry Crowne as the bigger offender. No, it doesn’t have the abrasive effects of a Michael Bay blockbuster, but it’s surely just as incompetent. And coming from an actor as talented as Tom Hanks — who co-wrote, directed, produced, and stars in the film —Larry Crowne is insulting. The plot, insofar as there is one, centers around the titular Larry (Hanks), a man who goes to community college, joins a scooter gang led by Wilmer Valderrama, and ends up falling for his cranky, alcoholic teacher Mercedes (Julia Roberts). The scenes are thrown together hapharzadly, with no real sense of character development or continuity. Larry Crowne doesn’t even feel like a romantic comedy until a drunk Mercedes begins kissing and dry humping her student. But hey, who can resist a shot of Larry’s middle-aged bottom as he tries to wriggle into jeans that are just too small? (1:39) Presidio, SF Center. (Peitzman)
Midnight in Paris Owen Wilson plays Gil, a self-confessed “Hollywood hack” visiting the City of Light with his conservative future in-laws and crassly materialistic fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). A romantic obviously at odds with their selfish pragmatism (somehow he hasn’t realized that yet), he’s in love with Paris and particularly its fabled artistic past. Walking back to his hotel alone one night, he’s beckoned into an antique vehicle and finds himself transported to the 1920s, at every turn meeting the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Dali (Adrien Brody), etc. He also meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a woman alluring enough to be fought over by Hemingway (Corey Stoll) and Picasso (Marcial di Fonzo Bo) — though she fancies aspiring literary novelist Gil. Woody Allen’s latest is a pleasant trifle, no more, no less. Its toying with a form of magical escapism from the dreary present recalls The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), albeit without that film’s greater structural ingeniousness and considerable heart. None of the actors are at their best, though Cotillard is indeed beguiling and Wilson dithers charmingly as usual. Still — it’s pleasant. (1:34) Albany, Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
*Page One: Inside the New York Times When Andrew Rossi’s documentary premiered at Sundance this January, word of mouth on it was respectable but qualified, with nearly everyone opining that it was good … just not what they’d been led to expect. What they expected was (in line with the original subtitle A Year Inside the New York Times) a top-to-bottom overview of how the nation’s most respected — and in some circles resented — arbiter of news, “style,” and culture is created on a day-to-day as well as longer term basis. That’s something that would doubtless fascinate anyone still interested in print media, or even that realm of web media not catering to the ADD nation. But that big picture and the wealth of minute cogs within isn’t Page One‘s subject. Instead, Rossi focuses on the Gray Lady’s wrestling with admittedly fast-changing times in which newspapers and any other information source on paper seem to constitute an endangered species. This particular Times, however, is such a special case that that crisis might better have been explored by training a camera on a less fabled publication, perhaps one of the many that have succumbed to a once unthinkable, market-shrunk mortality in recent years. The film finds its colorful protagonist in David Carr, an ex-crack addict turned media columnist who retains his cranky, nonconformist edge even as he defends the Times itself from the same out-with-the-old cheerleaders who 15 years ago were inflating the dot-com boom till it burst. Facing one particularly smug champion of the blogosphere at a forum, Carr notes that without a few remaining outlets — like the Times — doing the hard work of serious research and reportage, the web would have nothing to purloin or offer but its own unending trivia and gossip. Page One does what it does entertainingly well, but if you’re looking for insight toward this not-dead-yet U.S. institution as a whole, you’d be better off simply picking up this week’s Sunday edition and reading every last word. (1:28) Lumiere, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides The last time we saw rascally Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), he was fighting his most formidable enemy yet: the potentially franchise-ending Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007). The first Pirates movie (2003) was a surprise critical success, earning Depp his first-ever Oscar nomination; subsequent entries, though no less moneymaking, suffered from a detectable case of sequel-itis. Overseeing this reboot of sorts is director Rob Marshall (2002’s Chicago), who keeps the World’s End notion of sending Jack to find the Fountain of Youth, but adds in a raft of new faces, including Deadwood‘s Ian McShane (as Blackbeard) and lady pirate Penélope Cruz. The story is predictably over-the-top, with the expected supernatural elements mingling with sparring both sword-driven and verbal — as well as an underlying theme about faith that’s nowhere near as fun as the film’s lesser motifs (revenge, for one). It’s basically a big swirl of silly swashbuckling, nothing more or less. And speaking of Depp, the fact that the oft-ridiculous Sparrow is still an amusing character can only be chalked up to the actor’s own brand of untouchable cool. If it was anyone else, Sparrow’d be in Austin Powers territory by now. (2:05) SF Center. (Eddy)
*Project Nim This is the story of an individual plucked from their native culture even before birth, separated from parents shortly after, handed over to a chaotic if loving urban foster family, yanked from them to a lavish, isolated country estate, then shipped off to a medical experimentation lab, “rescued” only to be placed in prison like solitary confinement, and … well, things finally get a little better, but isn’t this enough abuse for several lifetimes? Before you call Child Services or the ACLU, be informed that this is not the saga of a human being, but one Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee born in U.S. captivity, then set on a highly unusual life course as the subject of a study in animal language acquisition by Columbia University linguist Herbert S. Terrace. Nim did indeed prove remarkably adept at learning sign language to communicate with his teachers/minders — even if Terrace finally belittled that as no more than imitation performed to beg food and other favor. Nim was a prodigy, and for a while a media sensation. He was also a temperamental, physically powerful wild beast who could (and sometimes did) cause considerable harm to those around him. Regardless, both his adaptation to human habitats and animal instincts should have been deal with a great deal more care and consistency — there was no overall plan for his well-being beyond serving (or being abandoned by) whoever his keepers were at any given moment. This latest documentary by James Marsh (2008’s Man on Wire, 1999’s Wisconsin Death Trip) is an involving story whose latter-day interviewees — tumbling rather easily into hero and villain categories, with Prof. Terrance not in the first camp — annotate an enormous amount of archival footage shot throughout Nim’s life. (1:33) SF Center. (Harvey)
*Snow Flower and the Secret Fan Working with Lisa See’s novel, director Wayne Wang returns to the crowd-pleasing territory of his wildly popular Joy Luck Club (1993) — fortunately it’s also material that feels intensely personal, even transposed in 21st century China (one of those modern Chinese women, Rupert Murdoch’s wife Wendi bought the rights to the book and provides a financial boost here). Modern-day Nina (Bingbing Li) is about to leave her native Shanghai for NYC and certain success in the banking world when she learns that her best friend, her laotong or sworn sister, Sophia (Gianna Jun), is in a coma. She must piece together the mystery of her friend’s life since they last parted, studying the book written about her 19th century forbearer Snow Flower (also Jun) and her own laotong Lily (Li). An uncredited turn by Hugh Jackman as a caddish boyfriend is beside the point here; Wang’s take on the bond of friendship that ties two women together, beyond the pain of foot-binding, marriage, class, and adversity is tremulously sentimental, in way that will have many would-be Joy Luck Club-ers happily identifying with these sisters from other mothers — and leave everyone else sobbing in the darkness. (1:40) Albany, Piedmont, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
*Super 8 The latest from J.J. Abrams is very conspicuously produced by Steven Spielberg; it evokes 1982’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as well as 1985’s The Goonies and 1982’s Poltergeist (so Spielbergian in nature you’d be forgiven for assuming he directed, rather than simply produced, the pair). But having Grandpa Stevie blessing your flick is surely a good thing, especially when you’re already as capable as Abrams. Super 8 is set in 1979, high time for its titular medium, used by a group of horror movie-loving kids to film their backyard zombie epic; later in the film, old-school celluloid reveals the mystery behind exactly what escaped following a spectacular train wreck on the edge of their small Ohio town. The PG-13 Super 8 aims to frighten, albeit gently; there’s a lot of nostalgia afoot, and things do veer into sappiness at the end (that, plus the band of kids at its center, evoke the trademarks of another Grandpa Stevie: Stephen King). But the kid actors (especially the much-vaunted Elle Fanning) are great, and there’s palpable imagination and atmosphere afoot, rare qualities in blockbusters today. Super 8 tries, and mostly succeeds, in progressing the fears and themes addressed by E.T. (divorce, loneliness, growing up) into century 21, making the unknowns darker and the consequences more dire. (1:52) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Eddy)
*Tabloid Taking a break from loftier subjects, Errol Morris’ latest documentary simply finds a whopper of a story and lets the principal participant tell her side of it — one we gradually realize may be very far from the real truth. In 1978 former Miss Wyoming Joyce McKinney flew to England, where the Mormon boy she’d grown infatuated with had been posted for missionary work by his church. What ensued became a U.K. tabloid sensation, as the glamorous, not at all publicity-shy Yankee attracted accusations of kidnapping, imprisonment, attempted rape and more. Her victim of love, one Kirk Anderson, is not heard from here — presumably he’s been trying to live down an embarrassing life chapter ever since. But we do hear from others who shed considerable light on the now middle-aged McKinney’s continued protestations that it was all just one big misunderstanding. Most importantly, we hear from the lady herself — and she is colorful, unflappable, unapologetic, and quite possibly stone-cold nuts. (1:28) California, Embarcadero. (Harvey)
*Terri What happens when the camera stops on the quiet, shy and heavy 15-year-old in the corner of the classroom? Terri might be his story — if he cut class regularly to avoid being teased about his man-breasts, wore PJs to school, and befriended an affable, straight-talking Shrek of a teacher. Painfully awkward Terri (Jacob Wysocki) is ignored or mocked by most, left to feed the mice he catches in traps to passing raptors, care for his ailing uncle, and avoid the school bullies as best he can. But assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), who has a habit of nurturing the school’s misfits, recognizes Terri’s tender heart and takes him under his wing. It’s catching, apparently, as Terri first befriends the hair-pulling Chad (Bridger Zadina) and then Heather, the girl who allows herself be fingered in home ec (Olivia Crocicchia). What transpires among these school outcasts, shaped by director-writer Azazel Jacobs, subtly subverts your conventional teen identity story arc —Terri isn’t the only one here that’s good-hearted. (1:45) Bridge, California. (Chun)
*13 Assassins 13 Assassins is clearly destined to be prolific director Takashi Miike’s greatest success outside Japan yet. It’s another departure for the multi-genre-conquering Miike, doubtless one of the most conventional movies he’s made in theme and execution. That’s key to its appeal — rigorously traditional, taking its sweet time getting to samurai action that is pointedly not heightened by wire work or CGI, it arrives at the kind of slam-dunk prolonged battle climax that only a measured buildup can let you properly appreciate. In the 1840s, samurai are in decline but feudalism is still hale. It’s a time of peace, though not for the unfortunates who live under regional tyrant Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), a li’l Nippon Caligula who taxes and oppresses his people to the point of starvation. Alas, the current Shogun is his sibling, and plans to make little bro his chief adviser — so a concerned Shogun official secretly hires veteran samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to assassinate the Lord. Fully an hour is spent on our hero doing “assembling the team” stuff, recruiting other unemployed, retired, or wannabe samurai. When the protagonists finally commence their mission, their target is already aware he’s being pursued, and he’s surrounded by some 200 soldiers by the time Miike arrives at the film’s sustained, spectacular climax: a small village which Shinzaemon and co. have turned into a giant boobytrap so that 13 men can divide and destroy an ogre-guarding army. A major reason why mainstream Hollywood fantasy and straight action movies have gotten so depressingly interchangeable is that digital FX and stunt work can (and does) visualize any stupid idea — heroes who get thrown 200 feet into walls by monsters then getting up to fight some more, etc. 13 Assassins is thrilling because its action, while sporting against-the-odds ingeniousness and sheer luck by our heroes as in any trad genre film, is still vividly, bloodily, credibly physical. (2:06) Four Star, Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
Transformers: Dark of the Moon I’ll never understand the wisdom behind epic-length children’s movies. What child — or adult, for that matter — wants to sit through 154 minutes of assaultive popcorn entertainment? It’s an especially confounding decision for this third installment in the Transformers franchise because there’s a fantastic 90-minute movie in there, undone at every turn by some of the worst jokes, most pointless characters, and most hateful cultural politics you’re likely to see this summer. But when I say a fantastic movie, I mean a fantastic movie. It took two very expensive earlier attempts before director Michael Bay figured out that big things require a big canvas. Every shot of Dark of the Moon‘s predecessors seemed designed to hide their effects by crowding the screen. Finally we get the full view — the scale is now rightly calibrated to operatic and ridiculous. The marquee set pieces are inspired and terrifying, eliciting a sense of vertigo that’s earned for once, not imposed by the editing. The human hijinks are less consistent but ingratiatingly batshit, and without resorting to preening self-awareness and elaborately contrived mea culpas. But unfortunately Bay is too unapologetic even to walk back the ethnic buffoonery that not only upsets hippies like me but also seems defiantly disharmonious with the movie he’s trying to make. Bay is like that guy at the party who thinks amping up the racism will prove he’s not a racist. It’s that kind of garbage (plus, I guess, some universal primal hatred of Shia LaBeouf that I don’t really get) that makes people dismiss these movies wholesale. This time it’s just not deserved. I wouldn’t want to meet the asshole who made this thing, but credit where credit is due. It’s a visual marvel with perfectly integrated, utterly tactile, brilliantly choreographed CG robotics — a point that’ll no doubt be conceded in passing as if it’s not the very reason the movie exists. As if it’s not a feat of mastery to make a megaton changeling truck look graceful. (2:34) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Jason Shamai)
The Tree of Life Mainstream American films are so rarely adventuresome that overreactive gratitude frequently greets those rare, self-conscious, usually Oscar-baiting stabs at profundity. Terrence Malick has made those gestures so sparingly over four decades that his scarcity is widely taken for genius. Now there’s The Tree of Life, at once astonishingly ambitious — insofar as general addressing the origin/meaning of life goes — and a small domestic narrative artificially inflated to a maximally pretentious pressure-point. The thesis here is a conflict between “nature” (the way of striving, dissatisfied, angry humanity) and “grace” (the way of love, femininity, and God). After a while Tree settles into a fairly conventional narrative groove, dissecting — albeit in meandering fashion — the travails of a middle-class Texas household whose patriarch (a solid Brad Pitt) is sternly demanding of his three young sons. As a modern-day survivor of that household, Malick’s career-reviving ally Sean Penn has little to do but look angst-ridden while wandering about various alien landscapes. Set in Waco but also shot in Rome, at Versailles, and in Saturn’s orbit (trust me), The Tree of Life is so astonishingly self-important while so undernourished on some basic levels that it would be easy to dismiss as lofty bullshit. Its Cannes premiere audience booed and cheered — both factions right, to an extent. (2:18) California, Embarcadero, Empire, Smith Rafael, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
*The Trip Eclectic British director Michael Winterbottom rebounds from sexually humiliating Jessica Alba in last year’s flop The Killer Inside Me to humiliating Steve Coogan in all number of ways (this time to positive effect) in this largely improvised comic romp through England’s Lake District. Well, romp might be the wrong descriptive — dubbed a “foodie Sideways” but more plaintive and less formulaic than that sun-dappled California affair, this TV-to-film adaptation displays a characteristic English glumness to surprisingly keen emotional effect. Playing himself, Coogan displays all the carefree joie de vivre of a colonoscopy patient with hemorrhoids as he sloshes through the gray northern landscape trying to get cell reception when not dining on haute cuisine or being wracked with self-doubt over his stalled movie career and love life. Throw in a happily married, happy-go-lucky frenemy (comic actor Rob Brydon) and Coogan (TV’s I’m Alan Partridge), can’t help but seem like a pathetic middle-aged prick in a puffy coat. Somehow, though, his confused narcissism is a perverse panacea. Come for the dueling Michael Caine impressions and snot martinis, stay for the scallops and Brydon’s “small man in a box” routine. (1:52) Clay, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Devereaux)
Winnie the Pooh (1:09) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio.
Zookeeper (1:42) 1000 Van Ness.
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.