Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.
The 15th San Francisco Independent Film Festival runs Feb 7-21 at the Brava Theater, 2781 24th St, SF; the Roxie, 3117 16th St, SF; and the Vortex Room, 1082 Howard, SF. For complete schedule and tickets (most shows $12), visit www.sfindie.com. For commentary, see "Muppets, Manholes, and Mayhem" and "Short Takes."
Identity Thief When Melissa McCarthy steals Jason Bateman’s identity, this movie happens. (1:25) Four Star, Marina.
John Dies at the End See "Weird Tales." (1:40) California, Embarcadero.
Shanghai Calling Hotshot lawyer Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) is his NYC firm’s top choice to be their man in Shanghai much to his chagrin, since he puts the American in Chinese American. But off to the bustling, rapidly-expanding city he goes, knowing exactly only one word of Chinese ("fart"), and a classic fish-out-of-water comedy follows. His first day on the job, he bungles a billion-dollar deal, and spends the rest of the movie trying to set things right for his prickly client (Alan Ruck) with the help of his ambitious assistant (Zhu Zhu), a perky relocation expert (Eliza Coupe), a fried-chicken mogul who runs an American-style bar (Bill Paxton), and a reporter who goes by the improbable moniker of "Awesome Wang" (Geng Le). Along the way, of course, he does some personal soul-searching, realizing there’s more to life than fancy-restaurant reservations and a high-stakes career. Writer-director Daniel Hsia’s Shanghai Calling doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s an undeniably entertaining tale of culture clash, backed up by an appealing cast to boot. (1:40) Presidio. (Eddy)
Side Effects Though on the surface Channing Tatum appears to be his current muse, Steven Soderbergh seems to have gotten his smart, topical groove back, the one that spurred him to kick off his feature filmmaking career with the on-point Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) and went missing with the fun, featherweight Ocean’s franchise. (Alas, he’s been making claims that Side Effects will be his last feature film.) Here, trendy designer antidepressants are the draw mixed with the heady intoxicants of a murder mystery with a nice hard twist that would have intrigued either Hitchcock or Chabrol. As Side Effects opens, the waifish Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), whose inside-trading hubby (Tatum) has just been released from prison, looks like a big-eyed little basket of nerves ready to combust internally, it seems, when she drives her car into a wall. Therapist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who begins to treat her after her hospital stay, seems to care about her, but nevertheless reflexively prescribes the latest anti-anxiety med of the day, on the advice of her former doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Where does his responsibility for Emily’s subsequent actions begin and end? Soderbergh and his very able cast fill out the issues admirably, with the urgency that was missing from the more clinical Contagion (2011) and the, ahem, meaty intelligence that was lacking in all but the more ingenious strip scenes of Magic Mike. (1:30) California, Presidio. (Chun)
Top Gun 3D MAVERICK! (1:50)
West of Memphis See "West Memphis Blues." (2:26) Embarcadero.
Amour Arriving in local theaters atop a tidal wave of critical hosannas, Amour now seeks to tempt popular acclaim though actually liking this perfectly crafted, intensely depressing film (from Austrian director Michael Haneke) may be nigh impossible for most audience members. Eightysomething former music teachers Georges and Anne (the flawless Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) are living out their days in their spacious Paris apartment, going to classical concerts and enjoying the comfort of their relationship. Early in the film, someone tries to break into their flat and the rest of Amour unfolds with a series of invasions, with Anne’s declining health the most distressing, though there are also unwanted visits from the couple’s only daughter (an appropriately self-involved Isabelle Huppert), an inept nurse who disrespects Anne and curses out Georges, and even a rogue pigeon that wanders in more than once. As Anne fades into a hollow, twisted, babbling version of her former self, Georges also becomes hollow and twisted, taking care of her while grimly awaiting the inevitable. Of course, the movie’s called Amour, so there’s some tenderness involved. But if you seek heartwarming hope and last-act uplift, look anywhere but here. (2:07) Albany, Embarcadero, Clay, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Argo If you didn’t know the particulars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, you won’t be an expert after Argo, but the film does a good job of capturing America’s fearful reaction to the events that followed it particularly the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran. Argo zeroes in on the fate of six embassy staffers who managed to escape the building and flee to the home of the sympathetic Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Back in Washington, short-tempered CIA agents (including a top-notch Bryan Cranston) cast about for ways to rescue them. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs), exfil specialist and father to a youngster wrapped up in the era’s sci-fi craze. While watching 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Tony comes up with what Cranston’s character calls "the best bad idea we have:" the CIA will fund a phony Canadian movie production (corny, intergalactic, and titled Argo) and pretend the six are part of the crew, visiting Iran for a few days on a location shoot. Tony will sneak in, deliver the necessary fake-ID documents, and escort them out. Neither his superiors, nor the six in hiding, have much faith in the idea. ("Is this the part where we say, ‘It’s so crazy it just might work?’" someone asks, beating the cliché to the punch.) Argo never lets you forget that lives are at stake; every painstakingly forged form, every bluff past a checkpoint official increases the anxiety (to the point of being laid on a bit thick by the end). But though Affleck builds the needed suspense with gusto, Argo comes alive in its Hollywood scenes. As the show-biz veterans who mull over Tony’s plan with a mix of Tinseltown cynicism and patiotic duty, John Goodman and Alan Arkin practically burst with in-joke brio. I could have watched an entire movie just about those two. (2:00) Balboa, Piedmont, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Beasts of the Southern Wild A year after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d’Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn’t attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about improbably Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting. Benh Zeitlin’s film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. But not all is well: when "the storm" floods the land, the holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate. With its elements of magic, mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology, Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film’s cost and length. (1:31) New Parkway, Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
Beware of Mr. Baker This mesmerizing bio-doc about volatile, wildly talented drummer Ginger Baker (Cream, Blind Faith) begins with the 70-something musician clocking director Jay Bulger in the face. After this opening, Bulger who also wrote a deeply compelling article about Baker for Rolling Stone last year wisely pulls himself out of the narrative, instead turning to a wealth of new interviews (with Baker, his trademark red locks faded to gray, and many of his musical and personal partners, including Eric Clapton and multiple ex-Mrs. Bakers), vintage performance footage, and artful animation to weave his tale. Baker’s colorfully-lived, improbably long life has been literally all over the map; he overcame a hardscrabble British childhood to find jazz and rock stardom, and along the way jammed with Fela Kuti in Nigeria (where he picked up his fierce love of polo), broke many hearts (his own kids’ among them) and lost multiple fortunes, spent a stint in the US, and eventually landed at his current farm in South Africa. Two constants: his musical genius, and his frustratingly jerky behavior the consequence of a naturally prickly personality exacerbated by copious drug use and bitterness. A must-see for musicians and those who love them. (1:30) Roxie. (Eddy)
Bullet to the Head Not to be mistaken for the John Woo passion play, this head wound of a revenge flick instead pits a hired assassin (Sylvester Stallone) against an outsider cop (Sung Kang), the corroded action star who emerged from the thicket of ’70s Italian American iconic actors against a smooth-faced Asian American indie actor associated with the Fast and Furious franchise. Sly’s James Bonomo and his partner have been set up by a set of tepid bad guys (Oz fave Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, here sleep-raging his way through Bullet; a very unpumped Christian Slater; and Jason Momoa, who glowers like he’s still playing a warlord on Game of Thrones). So Bonomo and Kang’s Taylor Kwon the former’s got the brawn, the latter’s got the smartphone with access to criminal databases must reluctantly team up to mete out some kind of justice. Yawn. The uninspired oh-so-gritty camera effects don’t help matters when it comes to staving off the sleepies induced by this tired enterprise director Walter Hill certainly seems to have succumbed to the big snooze. The only real fun to be gleaned here is in watching your random, uh, ax fight and studying the Stallone’s weirdly crumbling yet inert rubble of face, which almost seems to scream to us about yo, not Adrian, but the ravages of age, surgery, and excess. (1:32) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Django Unchained Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western homage features a cameo by the original Django (Franco Nero, star of the 1966 film), and solid performances by a meticulously assembled cast, including Jamie Foxx as the titular former slave who becomes a badass bounty hunter under the tutelage of Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing the evil yet befuddlingly delightful Nazi Hans Landa in Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds, is just as memorable (and here, you can feel good about liking him) as a quick-witted, quick-drawing wayward German dentist. There are no Nazis in Django, of course, but Tarantino’s taboo du jour (slavery) more than supplies motivation for the filmmaker’s favorite theme (revenge). Once Django joins forces with Schultz, the natural-born partners hatch a scheme to rescue Django’s still-enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whose German-language skills are as unlikely as they are convenient. Along the way (and it’s a long way; the movie runs 165 minutes), they encounter a cruel plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose main passion is the offensive, shocking "sport" of "Mandingo fighting," and his right-hand man, played by Tarantino muse Samuel L. Jackson in a transcendently scandalous performance. And amid all the violence and racist language and Foxx vengeance-making, there are many moments of screaming hilarity, as when a character with the Old South 101 name of Big Daddy (Don Johnson) argues with the posse he’s rounded up over the proper construction of vigilante hoods. It’s a classic Tarantino moment: pausing the action so characters can blather on about something trivial before an epic scene of violence. Mr. Pink would approve. (2:45) Balboa, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Gangster Squad It’s 1949, and somewhere in the Hollywood hills, a man has been tied hand and foot to a pair of automobiles with the engines running. Coyotes pace in the background like patrons queuing up for a table at Flour + Water, and when dinner is served, the presentation isn’t very pretty. We’re barely five minutes into Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad, and fair warning has been given of the bloodletting to come. None of it’s quite as visceral as the opening scene, but Fleischer (2009’s Zombieland) packs his tale of urban warfare with plenty of stylized slaughter to go along with the glamour shots of mob-run nightclubs, leggy pin-curled dames, and Ryan Gosling lounging at the bar cracking wise. At the center of all the gunplay and firebombing is what’s framed as a battle for the soul of Los Angeles, waged between transplanted Chicago mobster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) who wields terms like "progress" and "manifest destiny" as a rationale for a continental turf war and a police sergeant named John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), tasked with bringing down Cohen’s empire. The assignment requires working under cover so deep that only the police chief (Nick Nolte) and the handpicked members of O’Mara’s "gangster squad" ncluding Gosling, a half-jaded charmer who poaches Cohen’s arm candy (Emma Stone) know of its existence. This leaves plenty of room for improvisation, and the film pauses now and again to wonder about what happens when you pit brutal amorality against brutal morality, but it’s a rhetorical question, and no one shows much interest in it. Dragged down by talking points that someone clearly wanted wedged in (as well as by O’Mara’s ponderous voice-overs), the film does better when it abandons gravitas and refocuses on spinning its mythic tale of wilder times in the Golden State. (1:53) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters So here’s something you may not have been wondering: what exactly happened to Hansel and Gretel after they killed the gingerbread-house witch and made their way to freedom? Did they really live happily ever after? Did they land in the foster care system? Did they enter adulthood bearing the deep psychic wounds a person might well suffer after shoving a living creature into an oven and listening to her agonized howls as she burned alive? Or did they realize they’d discovered their life’s vocation without even having to complete the Myers-Briggs test? Shutting his eyes and pointing at random, director and screenplay cowriter Tommy Wirkola (2009’s Dead Snow) chooses the latter scenario, keeping his eyes closed to stab out some weak dialogue and half a plot for a script that leans heavily on the power of 3D technology to send eviscerated-witch guts and other biological shrapnel flying toward the eyeballs of audience members. Hansel (why, Jeremy Renner?) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) have grown up to share the intense sibling bond and wandering ways you might expect from a brother and sister abandoned at a tender age to starve and be rent limb from limb by wild animals. They’ve also taken full advantage of a niche witch-slaying market in and around the gloomy forest where they made their first kill. When they’re hired to track down a particularly loathsome practitioner of the dark arts (Famke Janssen) who’s been snatching up local children, multidimensional mayhem ensues. Arterton’s Gretel is pretty much a badass and the brains of the operation, while Renner’s Hansel is more of a strong, silent, and occasionally shit-faced type. Neither makes for a particularly memorable protagonist, but that flat look on their faces could just be disappointment or boredom with the material. (1:41) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Rapoport)
A Haunted House (1:25) Metreon.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Make no mistake: the Lord of the Rings trilogy represented an incredible filmmaking achievement, with well-deserved Oscars handed down after the third installment in 2003. If director Peter Jackson wanted to go one more round with J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved characters for a Hobbit movie, who was gonna stop him? Not so fast. This return to Middle-earth (in 3D this time) represents not one but three films which would be self-indulgent enough even if part one didn’t unspool at just under three hours, and even if Jackson hadn’t decided to shoot at 48 frames per second. (I can’t even begin to explain what that means from a technical standpoint, but suffice to say there’s a certain amount of cinematic lushness lost when everything is rendered in insanely crystal-clear hi-def.) Journey begins as Bilbo Baggins (a game, funny Martin Freeman) reluctantly joins Gandalf (a weary-seeming Ian McKellan) and a gang of dwarves on their quest to reclaim their stolen homeland and treasure, batting Orcs, goblins, Gollum (Andy Serkis), and other beasties along the way. Fan-pandering happens (with characters like Cate Blanchett’s icy Galadriel popping in to remind you how much you loved LOTR), and the story moves at a brisk enough pace, but Journey never transcends what came before or in the chronology of the story, what comes after. I’m not quite ready to declare this Jackson’s Phantom Menace (1999), but it’s not an unfair comparison to make, either. (2:50) Metreon, Shattuck. (Eddy)
The Impossible Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (2007’s The Orphanage) directs The Impossible, a relatively modestly-budgeted take on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, based on the real story of a Spanish family who experienced the disaster. Here, the family (Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, three young sons) is British, on a Christmas vacation from dad’s high-stress job in Japan. Beachy bliss is soon ruined by that terrible series of waves; they hit early in the film, and Bayona offers a devastatingly realistic depiction of what being caught in a tsunami must feel like: roaring, debris-filled water threatening death by drowning, impalement, or skull-crushing. And then, the anguish of surfacing, alive but injured, stranded, and miles from the nearest doctor, not knowing if your family members have perished. Without giving anything away (no more than the film’s suggestive title, anyway), once the survivors are established (and the film’s strongest performer, Watts, is relegated to hospital-bed scenes) The Impossible finds its way inevitably to melodrama, and triumph-of-the-human-spirit theatrics. As the family’s oldest son, 16-year-old Tom Holland is effective as a kid who reacts exactly right to crisis, morphing from sulky teen to thoughtful hero but the film is too narrowly focused on its tourist characters, with native Thais mostly relegated to background action. It’s a disconnect that’s not quite offensive, but is still off-putting. (1:54) Metreon, Presidio, Shattuck. (Eddy)
Jack Reacher (2:10) Metreon.
The Last Stand With gun control issues dominating the news, what better time to release a movie that lovingly glorifies the wonders of excessive firepower? Fortunately for star Arnold Schwarzenegger, making his return to leading-man status after that little fling with politics, The Last Stand is stupidly enjoyable enough to make any such PC-minded realizations relatively fleeing ones. When a Mexican drug lord (who also happens to be an expert race-car driver) escapes from federal custody and begins speeding home in a super-Corvette, the lead FBI agent (Forest Whitaker, slumming big-time) realizes his only hope is a teeny Arizona border town that happens to be overseen by Sheriff Schwarzenegger. (Other residents include a couple of hapless deputies; an Iraq war vet; and a gun nut played by a cartoonishly obnoxious Johnny Knoxville.) Can this ragtag crew hold off first the drug lord’s advance team (led by a swaggering Peter Stormare), and then the head baddie himself? Duh. The biggest surprise The Last Stand offers is that it’s actually pretty fun no doubt thanks to the combo of Korean director Kim Jee-woon (2008’s eccentric The Good, The Bad, and the Weird; 2003’s spooky A Tale of Two Sisters) and the heft of Schwarzenegger’s still-potent charisma. (1:47) Metreon. (Eddy)
Life of Pi Several filmmakers including Alfonso Cuarón, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and M. Night Shyamalan had a crack at Yann Martel’s "unfilmable" novel over the last decade, without success. That turns out to have been a very good thing, since Ang Lee and scenarist David Magee have made probably the best movie possible from the material arguably even an improvement on it. Framed as the adult protagonist’s (Irrfan Khan) lengthy reminiscence to an interested writer (Rafe Spall) it chronicles his youthful experience accompanying his family and animals from their just shuttered zoo on a cargo ship voyage from India to Canada. But a storm capsizes the vessel, stranding teenaged Pi (Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with a mini menagerie albeit one swiftly reduced by the food chain in action to one Richard Parker, a whimsically named Bengal tiger. This uneasy forced cohabitation between Hindu vegetarian and instinctual carnivore is an object lesson in survival as well as a fable about the existence of God, among other things. Shot in 3D, the movie has plenty of enchanted, original imagery, though its outstanding technical accomplishment may lie more in the application of CGI (rather than stereoscopic photography) to something reasonably intelligent for a change. First-time actor Sharma is a natural, while his costar gives the most remarkable performance by a wild animal this side of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a charmed, lovely experience. (2:00) 1000 Van Ness, New Parkway, SF Center. (Harvey)
Lincoln Distinguished subject matter and an A+ production team (Steven Spielberg directing, Daniel Day-Lewis starring, Tony Kushner adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Williams scoring every emotion juuust so) mean Lincoln delivers about what you’d expect: a compelling (if verbose), emotionally resonant (and somehow suspenseful) dramatization of President Lincoln’s push to get the 13th amendment passed before the start of his second term. America’s neck-deep in the Civil War, and Congress, though now without Southern representation, is profoundly divided on the issue of abolition. Spielberg recreates 1865 Washington as a vibrant, exciting place, albeit one filled with so many recognizable stars it’s almost distracting wondering who’ll pop up in the next scene: Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant! Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln! Lena Dunham’s shirtless boyfriend on Girls (Adam Driver) as a soldier! Most notable among the huge cast are John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a daffy James Spader as a trio of lobbyists; Sally Field as the troubled First Lady; and likely Oscar contenders Tommy Lee Jones (as winningly cranky Rep. Thaddeus Stevens) and Day-Lewis, who does a reliably great job of disappearing into his iconic role. (2:30) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
LUV Baltimore native Sheldon Candis drew from his own childhood for this coming-of-age tale, which takes place in a single day as 11-year-old "little man" Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) tags along with his uncle, Vincent (Common), recently out of jail and rapidly heading back down the criminal path. With both parents out of the picture, Woody’s been raised by his grandmother (Lonette McKee), so he idolizes Vincent even though it’s soon clear the short-tempered man is no hero. Of course, things go horribly awry, bloody lessons are learned, tears are shed, etc. Despite the story’s autobiographical origins, the passable LUV suffers greatly by inviting comparisons to The Wire the definitive docudrama examining drug crime in Baltimore. Most blatantly, sprinkled into an all-star cast (Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton) are supporting characters played by Wire icons Michael K. "Omar" Williams (as a cop) and Anwan "Slim Charles" Glover (as a meaner Slim Charles, basically). Perhaps if you’ve never seen the show this wouldn’t be distracting but if that’s the case, you should really be watching The Wire instead of LUV anyway. (1:34) New Parkway. (Eddy)
Mama From bin Laden to wild babes in woods, Jessica Chastain can’t seem to grab a break. Equipped with just the bare outlines of a character, however, she’s one of the few pleasures in this missed-opportunity of a grim, ghostly fairy tale. Expanding his short of the same name, director Andres Muschietti kicks off his yarn on a sadly familiar note in these days of seemingly escalating gun violence: little sisters Victoria and Lily have disappeared from their home, shortly after their desperate father (Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) has gone on a shooting spree. They repair to an abandoned cabin scattered with mid-century modern furniture. Five years on, the girls’ scruffy artist uncle Lucas (also Coster-Waldau) is still searching for them, supported by his punk rock girlfriend Annabel (Chastain). The little girls lost are finally found by trackers and they appear to be hopelessly feral, with the angelic-looking Victoria (Megan Charpentier), acting as the ringleader and the younger, bedraggled Lily (Maya Dawe) given to sleeping under beds and eating on all fours next to the dog bowl. The arty couple take them in and move into a "test house" provided by the sisters’ enthralled therapist (Daniel Kash), obviously psyched to study not one but two Kaspar Hausers. The traumatized kids are clearly haunted by their experience in more ways than one as inexplicable bumps go off, night and day, and Misfits t-shirt-clad Annabel discovers the real meaning of goth while getting in touch with her seemingly deeply buried maternal urges. Unfortunately, despite possessing the raw material for a truly scary outing that plunges to the core of our primal instincts (what’s scarier than an unsocialized kid that’s capable of anything?) and showing off Muschietti’s occasional instances of cinematic flair (as when multiple rooms are shown using split-screens), Mama ends up running away from the filmmaker and is finally simply spoiled by its mawkishly sentimental finale. It doesn’t help that the inadequate script sports logic holes that a mama could drive a truck though. (1:40) California, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Les Misérables There is a not-insignificant portion of the population who already knows all the words to all the songs of this musical-theater warhorse, around since the 1980s and honored here with a lavish production by Tom Hooper (2010’s The King’s Speech). As other reviews have pointed out, this version only tangentially concerns Victor Hugo’s French Revolution tale; its true raison d’être is swooning over the sight of its big-name cast crooning those famous tunes. Vocals were recorded live on-set, with microphones digitally removed in post-production but despite this technical achievement, there’s a certain inorganic quality to the proceedings. Like The King’s Speech, the whole affair feels spliced together in the Oscar-creation lab. The hardworking Hugh Jackman deserves the nomination he’ll inevitably get; jury’s still out on Anne Hathaway’s blubbery, "I cut my hair for real, I am so brave!" performance. (2:37) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Movie 43 (1:37) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter’s stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock’n’roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) New Parkway. (Chun)
"Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013: Animated" If you caught Wreck-It Ralph, nominated in the Best Animated Feature category, you’ve already seen John Kahrs’ Paperman, about a junior Mad Men type who bumbles through his pursuit of a lovely fellow office drone he spots on his commute. Or, if you saw Ice Age: Continental Drift, you’ve seen Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare, starring Homer and Marge’s wee one as she grapples with the social order at the Ayn Rand School for Tots. Among the stand-alones, Minkyu Lee’s Adam and Dog features a quick appearance by Eve, too, but the star is really the scrappy canine who gallops through prehistory playing the world’s first game of fetch with his hairy master. Two minutes is all PES (nom de screen of Adam Pesapane) needs to make Fresh Guacamole which depicts grenades, dice, and other random objects as most unusual ingredients. The only non-US entry, UK director Timothy Reckart’s Head Over Heels, is about an elderly married couple whose relationship has deteriorated to the point where they (literally) no longer see eye to eye on anything. The program is rounded out by three more non-Oscar-nominated animated shorts: Britain’s The Gruffalo’s Child, featuring the voices of Helena Bonham Carter and Robbie Coltrane; French art-thief caper Dripped; and New Zealand’s sci-fi tale Abiogenesis. (1:28) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Eddy)
"Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013: Documentary" (3:29) Opera Plaza.
"Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013: Live Action" (1:54) Embarcadero, Shattuck.
Parker (1:58) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck.
Quartet Every year there’s at least one: the adorable-old-cootfest, usually British, that proves harmless and reassuring and lightly tear/laughter producing enough to convince a certain demographic that it’s safe to go to the movies again. The last months have seen two, both starring Maggie Smith (who’s also queen of that audience’s home viewing via Downton Abbey). Last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which Smith played a bitchy old spinster appalled to find herself in India, has already filled the slot. It was formulaic, cute, and sentimental, yes, but it also practiced more restraint than one expected. Now here’s Quartet, which is basically the same flower arrangement with quite a bit more dust on it. Smith plays a bitchy old spinster appalled to find herself forced into spending her twilight years at a home for the elderly. It’s not just any such home, however, but Beecham House, whose residents are retired professional musicians. Gingerly peeking out from her room after a few days’ retreat from public gaze, Smith’s Jean Horton a famed English soprano spies a roomful of codgers rolling their hips to Afropop in a dance class. "This is not a retirement home this is a madhouse!" she pronounces. Oh, the shitty lines that lazy writers have long depended on Smith to make sparkle. Quartet is full of such bunk, adapted with loving fidelity, no doubt, from his own 1999 play by Ronald Harwood, who as a scenarist has done some good adaptations of other people’s work (2002’s The Pianist). But as a generator of original material for about a half-century, he’s mostly proven that it is possible to prosper that long while being in entirely the wrong half-century. Making his directorial debut: 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman, which ought to have yielded a more interesting final product. But with its workmanlike gloss and head-on take on the script’s very predictable beats, Quartet could as well have been directed by any BBC veteran of no particular distinction. (1:38) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
The Rabbi’s Cat A rabbi, a Muslim musician, two Russians (a Jew and a boozy Christian), and two talking animals hop into an antique Citroën for a road trip across Africa. No, it’s not the set-up for a joke; it’s the premise for this charming animated film, adapted from Joann Sfar’s graphic novel (the author co-directs with Antoine Delesvaux). In 1930s Algiers, a rabbi’s pet cat suddenly develops the ability to talk and read and write, by the way and wastes no time in sharing opinions, particularly when it comes to religion ("God is just a comforting invention!") When a crate full of Russian prayer books and one handsome artist arrives at the rabbi’s house, man and cat are drawn into the refugee’s search for an Ethiopian city populated by African Jews. Though it’s not suitable for younger kids (there’s kitty mating, and a few bursts of surprising violence) or diehard Tintin fans (thanks to a randomly cranky spoof of the character), The Rabbi’s Cat is a lushly illustrated, witty tale of cross-cultural clashes and connections. Rockin’ soundtrack, too. (1:29) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Rust and Bone Unlike her Dark Knight Rises co-star Anne Hathaway, Rust and Bone star Marion Cotillard never seems like she’s trying too hard to be sexy, or edgy, or whatever (plus, she already has an Oscar, so the pressure’s off). Here, she’s a whale trainer at a SeaWorld-type park who loses her legs in an accident, which complicates (but ultimately strengthens) her relationship with Ali (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, so tremendous in 2011’s Bullhead), a single dad trying to make a name for himself as a boxer. Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to 2009’s A Prophet gets a bit overwrought by its last act, but there’s an emotional authenticity in the performances that makes even a ridiculous twist (like, the kind that’ll make you exclaim "Are you fucking kidding me?") feel almost well-earned. (2:00) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)
The Sessions Polio has long since paralyzed the body of Berkeley poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) from the neck down. Of course his mind is free to roam but it often roams south of the personal equator, where he hasn’t had the same opportunities as able-bodied people. Thus he enlists the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate, to lose his virginity at last. Based on the real-life figures’ experiences, this drama by Australian polio survivor Ben Lewin was a big hit at Sundance this year (then titled The Surrogate), and it’s not hard to see why: this is one of those rare inspirational feel-good stories that doesn’t pander and earns its tears with honest emotional toil. Hawkes is always arresting, but Hunt hasn’t been this good in a long time, and William H. Macy is pure pleasure as a sympathetic priest put in numerous awkward positions with the Lord by Mark’s very down-to-earth questions and confessions. (1:35) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
Silver Linings Playbook After guiding two actors to Best Supporting Oscars in 2010’s The Fighter, director David O. Russell returns (adapting his script from Matthew Quick’s novel) with another darkly comedic film about a complicated family that will probably earn some gold of its own. Though he’s obviously not ready to face the outside world, Pat (Bradley Cooper) checks out of the state institution he’s been court-ordered to spend eight months in after displaying some serious anger-management issues. He moves home with his football-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and worrywart mother (Jacki Weaver of 2010’s Animal Kingdom), where he plunges into a plan to win back his estranged wife. Cooper plays Pat as a man vibrating with troubled energy always in danger of flying into a rage, even as he pursues his forced-upbeat "silver linings" philosophy. But the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, who proves the chops she showcased (pre-Hunger Games megafame) in 2010’s Winter’s Bone were no fluke. As the damaged-but-determined Tiffany, she’s the left-field element that jolts Pat out of his crazytown funk; she’s also the only reason Playbook‘s dance-competition subplot doesn’t feel eye-rollingly clichéd. The film’s not perfect, but Lawrence’s layered performance emotional, demanding, bitchy, tough-yet-secretly-tender damn near is. (2:01) Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Eddy)
Skyfall Top marks to Adele, who delivers a magnificent title song to cap off Skyfall‘s thrilling pre-credits chase scene. Unfortunate, then, that the film that follows squanders its initial promise. After a bomb attack on MI6, the clock is running out for Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench), accused of Cold War irrelevancy in a 21st century full of malevolent, stateless computer hackers. The audience, too, will yearn for a return to simpler times; dialogue about "firewalls" and "obfuscated code" never fails to sound faintly ridiculous, despite the efforts Ben Whishaw as the youthful new head of Q branch. Javier Bardem is creative and creepy as keyboard-tapping villain Raoul Silva, but would have done better with a megalomaniac scheme to take over the world. Instead, a small-potatoes revenge plot limps to a dull conclusion in the middle of nowhere. Skyfall never decides whether it prefers action, bon mots, and in-jokes to ponderous mythologizing and ripped-from-the-headlines speechifying the result is a unsatisfying, uneven mixture. (2:23) Metreon. (Ben Richardson)
Sound City Dave Grohl adds "documentary director" to his ever-lengthening resume with this tribute to the SoCal recording studio, where the grimy, funky décor was offset by a row of platinum records lining its hallway, marking in-house triumphs by Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, Neil Young, and others (even, yep, Rick Springfield). Top acts and producers (many of whom appear in the doc to dish and reminisce) were lured in by a unique recording console, installed in the early 1970s, whose legend grew with every new hit it helped engineer. Despite its reputation as a hit factory and the attraction of its laid-back vibe and staff old-school Sound City began to struggle once the highly-polished sound of digital technology overtook the music industry. That is, until Grohl and Nirvana recorded Nevermind there, keeping the studio alive until the unstoppable march of Pro Tools hammered the final nails in. Or did it? Sound City‘s final third follows Grohl’s purchase of the studio’s iconic console ("A piece of rock ‘n’ roll history," he proclaims, though he installs it in a swanky refurbished space) and the recording of an album featuring luminaries from the studio’s past … plus Paul McCartney. The resulting doc is nostalgic, sure, but insider-y enough to entertain fans of classic rock, or at least anyone who’s ever sneered at a drum machine. (1:46) Roxie. (Eddy)
Stand Up Guys Call it oldster pop, call it geriatricore, just don’t call it late for its meds. With the oncoming boomer elder explosion, we can Depends har-dee-har-har on the fact that action-crime thrillers-slash-comedies like 2010’s Red, 2012’s Robot and Frank, and now Stand Up Guys are just the vanguard of an imminent barrage of grumpy old pros locking and loading, grousing about their angina, and delivering wisdom with a dose of hard-won levity. As handled by onetime teen-comedy character actor Fisher Stevens, Stand Up Guys is a warm, worthy addition to that soon-to-be-well-populated pantheon. It grows on you as you spend time with it much like the two aging reprobates at its core, Val (Al Pacino) and Doc (Christopher Walken). Val, the proverbial stand-up guy who took the fall for the rest of his gang, has just completed a 25-year-plus stint in the pen. There to meet him is his only pal, and former partner in crime, Doc, who has been leading a humble life but has one last hit to commit for their old boss Claphands (Mark Margolis), who’s inexplicably named after a Tom Waits song. Sex, drugs, and some Viagra commercial-esque bluesy guitars are in order, but first Val and Doc must find their drive, in the form of their old driver buddy Hirsch (Alan Arkin), who they break out of a rest home, and, perhaps, their moral compass, which arrives with the discovery of a victim (Vanessa Ferlito) of baddies much less couth than themselves. The pleasure comes with following these stand-up guys as they make that leap from craven self-preservation to heroism, which might seem implausible to some. But to the cast’s, and Stevens’s, credit, they make it work and even give the sentiment-washed finale a swashbuckling buddy-movie romanticism, the kind that a young Tarantino might dislike and an older Tarantino would be loathe to begrudge his lovable louses. (1:34) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Warm Bodies A decade and a half of torrid, tormented vampire-human entanglements has left us accustomed to rooting for romances involving the undead and the still-alive. Some might argue, however, that no amount of pop-cultural prepping could be sufficient to get us behind a human-zombie love story for the ages. Is guzzling human blood really measurably less gross than making a meal of someone’s brains and other body parts? Somehow, yes. Recognizing this perceptual hurdle, writer-director Jonathan Levine (2011’s 50/50, 2008’s The Wackness) secures our sympathies at the outset of Warm Bodies by situating us inside the surprisingly active brain of the film’s zombie protagonist. Zombies, it turns out, have internal monologues. R (Nicholas Hoult) can only remember the first letter of his former name, but as he shambles and shuffles and slumps his way through the terminals of a postapocalyptic airport overrun by his fellow corpses (as they’re called by the film’s human population), he fills us in as best he can on the global catastrophe that’s occurred and his own ensuing existential crisis. By the time he meets not-so-cute with Julie (Teresa Palmer), a young woman whose father (John Malkovich) is commander-in-chief of the human survivors living in a walled-off city center, we’ve learned that he collects vinyl, that he has a zombie best friend, and that he doesn’t want to be like this. We may still be flinching at the thought of his and Julie’s first kiss, but we’re also kind of rooting for him. The plot gapes in places, where a tenuous logic gets trampled and gives way, but Levine’s script, adapted from a novel by Isaac Marion, is full of funny riffs on the zombie condition, which Hoult invests with a comic sweetness as his character staggers toward the land of the living. (1:37) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
Zero Dark Thirty The extent to which torture was actually used in the hunt for Osama Bin Ladin may never be known, though popular opinion will surely be shaped by this film, as it’s produced with the same kind of "realness" that made Kathryn Bigelow’s previous film, the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008), so potent. Zero Dark Thirty incorporates torture early in its chronology which begins in 2003, after a brief opening that captures the terror of September 11, 2001 using only 911 phone calls but the practice is discarded after 2008, a sea-change year marked by the sight of Obama on TV insisting that "America does not torture." (The "any more" goes unspoken.) Most of Zero Dark Thirty is set in Pakistan and/or "CIA black sites" in undisclosed locations; it’s a suspenseful procedural that manages to make well-documented events (the July 2005 London bombings; the September 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing) seem shocking and unexpected. Even the raid on Bin Ladin’s HQ is nail-bitingly intense. The film immerses the viewer in the clandestine world, tossing out abbreviations ("KSM" for al-Qaeda bigwig Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and jargon ("tradecraft") without pausing for a breath. It is thrilling, emotional, engrossing the smartest, most tightly-constructed action film of the year. At the center of it all: a character allegedly based on a real person whose actual identity is kept top-secret by necessity. She’s interpreted here in the form of a steely CIA operative named Maya, played to likely Oscar-winning perfection by Jessica Chastain. No matter the film’s divisive subject matter, there’s no denying that this is a powerful performance. "Washington says she’s a killer," a character remarks after meeting this seemingly delicate creature, and he’s proven right long before Bin Ladin goes down. Some critics have argued that character is underdeveloped, but anyone who says that isn’t watching closely enough. Maya may not be given a traditional backstory, but there’s plenty of interior life there, and it comes through in quick, vulnerable flashes leading up to the payoff of the film’s devastating final shot. (2:39) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)