Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Matt Sussman. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For complete
SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL
The 30th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival runs through Sun/18 at the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; SF Film Society Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Camera 3 Cinemas, 288 S. Second St, San Jose. For tickets (most shows $12) and complete schedule, visit www.caamedia.org.
Apart You’re almost waiting for the chorus to kick in: “With a taste of your lips, I’m on a ride/You’re toxic, I’m slipping under&ldots;” In another world, that might be the theme song for this somber and straight-laced indie horror fantasy-slash-romance by first-time director and writer Aaron Rottinghaus. Josh (Josh Danziger) is trying to piece together a shattered memory — he knows he has a rare form of schizophrenia and must get in touch with Emily (Olesya Rulin), a girl he once shared a scary intense intimacy with. The two are of one delusional, or perhaps oracular, mind: what they picture somehow comes to pass — a state of folie à deux triggered by a childhood school-bus accident. While evoking ’70s psychological horror flicks such as 1978’s The Fury, Apart, said to be based on real case history, takes a much more delicate tact, casting its lot with the fatalistic young romantics who must be together, come what may, and the power of youth scorned and outcast. Frustrating as unconsummated, all-consuming true love: the murkiness at the denouement of this star-crossed romance. (1:25) Opera Plaza. (Chun)
*Boy Apparent in his 2007 film Eagle vs. Shark and his brief turns writing and directing The Flight of the Conchords, filmmaker Taika Waititi seems to embody a uniquely Polynesian sensibility, positioned at a crossroads that’s informed by his Te-Whanau-a-Apanui heritage and his background in the Raukokore area of New Zealand, as well as an affection of global pop culture and a kind of keeping-it-real, keeping-it-local, down-home indie sensibility. All of which has fed into Boy, which became the highest-grossing New Zealand film of all time when it was released in its homeland in 2010. Its popularity is completely understandable. From the lush green inlands and stunning beaches of Waihau Bay to its intimate, gritty and humorous sketch of its natives, this affectionate, big-hearted bildungsroman is a lot like its 11-year-old eponymous hero — eminently lovable and completely one of a kind. Despite the tragedies and confines of his small-town rural life, Boy has a handle on his world: it’s 1984, and his pals spend their time hanging out at the snack shop and harvesting weed for one deadbeat biker parent. Boy’s brother Rocky (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu) believes he has superpowers and is scarred by the fact that his birth was responsible for their mother’s death, and Michael Jackson has just been crowned the king of pop. Then, while his grandma’s away, Boy’s own deadbeat dad, Alamein (Waititi) appears on the scene, turning an extended family of small children on its head — and inspiring many a Thriller dance-slash-dream sequence. Waititi finds his way inside Boy’s head with Crayola-colorful animated children’s drawings, flashbacks, and the kind of dreamy fluidity that comes so naturally during long, hot Polynesian days, all while wonderfully depicting a world that far too few people have glimpsed on screen. (1:30) Bridge, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)
Casa de mi Padre See “Where There’s a Will.” (1:25) Shattuck.
Delicacy Without visible effort, Nathalie (Audrey Tautou) charms the hearts of the susceptible males in her vicinity, including François (Pio Marmaï), a young man in a café who is soon proposing marriage, and Charles (Bruno Todeschini), a company director who hires her on the spot, transfixed by her very photograph on a résumé. When François, now her husband, is killed in a car accident, grief overwhelms her and she pours her energies into her professional life — until the day she finds herself unexpectedly making advances toward a frumpy, socially awkward colleague, a Swedish expat named Markus (Belgian comedian François Damiens). Her choice confounds the expectations of coworkers (Charles calls him an “ugly, insignificant guy”) and friends (one tells Nathalie, upon meeting Markus, that she could do better), but while the pairing is rather precipitous, it’s no more difficult to swallow than anything else in a film that feels like a pencil sketch on tracing paper. Events in Delicacy are lightly threaded together, so that a relationship turns into marriage and a three-year emotional tailspin goes by without our sensing the passage of time. We hear Nathalie described as “one of those women who cancels out all others,” but — while Tautou is as lovely as ever — we don’t see this in her. We hear people tell Markus how funny he is, but — though comedy is Damiens’s stock-in-trade — he doesn’t make us laugh. The problem lies largely in the script, even clumsier than Markus; it tells us we’re watching two unlikely people fall in love but doesn’t give us much reason to care. (1:48) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Rapoport)
*Fake It So Real It would have been very easy for someone to make a film about an uber-low-budget posse of indie wrestlers and make fun of the entire enterprise. Robert Greene, whose cousin is among Fake It So Real‘s subjects, chooses a different path: his film is almost earnest in its appraisal of these Lincolnton, North Carolina good ol’ boys, who live for their Saturday-night matches under the fluorescent lights of the local Vietnam Veteran’s Center. For these men, wrestling offers an escape from otherwise glamourless lives (filled with boring jobs, heartbreak, health problems, and the like), and they take it very seriously, plotting out character arcs and sweating through training sessions. Comparisons to Mickey Rourke’s turn in The Wrestler (2008) are inevitable, but remember, Rourke’s character had once been famous. These guys’ definition of success is being approached by a group of kids in Wal-Mart for an autograph. Note for the easily offended: Fake It So Real‘s fly-on-the-wall filming style doesn’t filter out its subjects’ affection for gay jokes, clearly a deeply-enmeshed part of the small-town culture depicted here. (1:31) Roxie. (Eddy)
*The FP The town is real: east-of-Santa-Barbara, south-of-Bakersfield mountain burg Frazier Park, Calif. But this is no bucolic village; nay, the world portrayed in The FP is a dark one, a place without jobs or fashion sense that evolved beyond the 1980s. It’s a world where disputes between warring gangs are settled via Beat Beat Revelation, a video game that bears absolute resemblance to Dance Dance Revolution. A family affair (brothers Jason and Brandon Trost co-directed; Jason wrote and stars; Brandon was the cinematographer; sister Sarah — from Project Runway, season eight! — designed the costumes; and dad Ron did the special effects) and an obvious labor of love, The FP pays adoring homage to John Carpenter and Walter Hill’s classics of the dystopian-future B-movie genre. Angry loner Jtro (Jason Trost), rocking a Snake Plissken-esque eye patch, leaves the FP after the Beat Beat-related death of his older brother; with the help of friend KC/DC (Art Hsu) and mystical guru BLT (Nick Principe), he trains (via ’80s-style montages, natch) for a match with town bully L Dubba E (Lee Valmassy), all the while wooing troubled girl next door Stacey (Caitlyn Folley). Of particular note is The FP‘s riotous dialogue; this is maybe the first (and let’s hope last) film to be written entirely in what sounds like the language of the juggalos. (1:23) Roxie. (Eddy)
Jeff, Who Lives at Home The latest comedy from mumblecore man-child champions Jay and Mark Duplass stars Jason Segal as a 30-year-old still living in his parents’ basement. (1:22) California.
*Kill List “Oh jeebus,” you say. “Another movie about a hit man lured out of retirement for one last score?” Well, yes — and no. British director and co-writer Ben Wheatley (2009’s Down Terrace) manages to reinvent one of cinema’s most tired clichés by injecting a healthy amount of what-the-fuck-just-happened?-ness, as well as a palpable sense of absolute dread. Without spoiling anything, here’s how the story begins: married with a young son, surly Jay (Neil Maskell) and shrill Shel (MyAnna Buring) are struggling to maintain their wine-drinking, middle-class, Jacuzzi-in-the-backyard lifestyle. Their financial troubles are due to the fact that Jay hasn’t worked in eight months, which is to say he hasn’t offed anyone since his last job, a mysterious assignment in Kiev, went awry. When best friend and partner Gal (Michael Smiley) hears about a new, well-paying gig that involves a “kill list” of U.K.-based victims, Jay figures he might as well sign on, if only to get Shel off his back. But as the pill-popping Jay soon learns, his sinister new employer is no ordinary client, and the murders have a special significance — revealed in a twist I guarantee even seen-it-all horror buffs will neither anticipate nor fully comprehend on first viewing. Ergo: what the fuck just happened? (1:36) SF Film Society Cinema. (Eddy)
*21 Jump Street One of the more pleasant surprises on the mainstream comedy landscape has to be this, ugh, “reboot” of the late-’80s TV franchise. I wasn’t a fan of the show — or its dark-eyed, bad-boy star, Johnny Depp — back in the day, but I am of this unexpectedly funny rework overseen by apparent enthusiast, star, co-writer, and co-executive producer Jonah Hill, with a screenplay by Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) co-writer Michael Bacall. There’s more than a smidge of Bacall’s other high school fantasy, Project X, in the buddy comedy premise of nerd (Hill’s Schmidt) meets blowhard (Channing Tatum’s Jenko), but 21 Jump Street thankfully leapfrogs the former with its meta-savvy, irreverent script and har-dee-har cameo turns by actors like Ice Cube as Captain Dickson (as well as a few key uncredited players who shall remain under deep cover). High school continues to haunt former classmates Schmidt and Jenko, who have just graduated from the lowly police bike corps to a high school undercover operation — don’t get it twisted, though, Dickson hollers at them; they got this gig solely because they look young. Still, the whole drug-bust enchilada is put in jeopardy when the once-socially toxic Schmidt finds his brand of geekiness in favor with the cool kids and so-called dumb-jock Jenko discovers the pleasures of the mind with the chem lab set. Fortunately for everyone, this crew doesn’t take themselves, or the source material, too seriously. (1:49) Marina, Shattuck. (Chun)
Act of Valor (1:45) 1000 Van Ness.
*The Artist With the charisma-oozing agility of Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling his way past opponents and the supreme confidence of Rudolph Valentino leaning, mid-swoon, into a maiden, French director-writer Michel Hazanavicius hits a sweet spot, or beauty mark of sorts, with his radiant new film The Artist. In a feat worthy of Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, Hazanavicius juggles a marvelously layered love story between a man and a woman, tensions between the silents and the talkies, and a movie buff’s appreciation of the power of film — embodied in particular by early Hollywood’s union of European artistry and American commerce. Dashing silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, who channels Fairbanks, Flynn, and William Powell — and won this year’s Cannes best actor prize) is at the height of his career, adorable Jack Russell by his side, until the talkies threaten to relegate him to yesterday’s news. The talent nurtured in the thick of the studio system yearns for real power, telling the newspapers, “I’m not a puppet anymore — I’m an artist,” and finances and directs his own melodrama, while his youthful protégé Peppy Miller (Bérénice Béjo) becomes a yakky flapper age’s new It Girl. Both a crowd-pleasing entertainment and a loving précis on early film history, The Artist never checks its brains at the door, remaining self-aware of its own conceit and its forebears, yet unashamed to touch the audience, without an ounce of cynicism. (1:40) California, Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
*The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye Once dubbed “the wickedest man in the world”, shock artist and cofounder of seminal industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle Genesis Breyer P-Orridge has softened somewhat with time. Her plunge into pandrogyny, an ongoing artistic and personal process embarked upon with the late Jacqueline “Lady Jaye” Breyer P-Orridge, is an attempt to create a perfectly balanced body, incorporating the characteristics of both. As artists, the two were committed to documenting their process, but as marriage partners, much of their footage is sweetly innocuous home video footage: Genesis cooking in the kitchen decked out in a little black dress, Lady Jaye setting out napkins at a backyard bar-b-que or helping to dig through Genesis’ archives of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle “ephemera,” the two wrapped in bandages after getting matching nose jobs. “I just want to be remembered as one of the great love affairs of all time,” Jaye tells Genesis. This whimsical documentary by Marie Losier will go a long way toward making that wish a reality. (1:12) Embarcadero. (Nicole Gluckstern)
Being Flynn There’s an undeniable frisson in seeing Robert De Niro acting paranoid and abusive behind the wheel of an NYC cab again, but Paul Weitz’s drama isn’t exactly Taxi Driver 2. The actor plays Jonathan Flynn, a bellicose loner who abandoned his wife (Julianne Moore in flashbacks) and son to pursue his destiny as a great writer. Years later, the wife is deceased, the son estranged, but Jonathan remains secure in his delusions of genius — despite the publishing industry’s failure to agree. When an assault on noisy neighbors gets him thrown out of his apartment, his gradual descent into homelessness forces a paths-crossing with now-grown only child Nick (Paul Dano), who has taken a job at a shelter in an attempt to do something useful with his own unsettled life. Adapting the real Nick Flynn’s memoir, Weitz resists the temptation to make Pops a lovable old coot — he’s racist, homophobic, ill-tempered and pathetically arrogant — or to overly sentimentalize a father-son relationship that’s never going to have a happy ending. Nonetheless, this competent exercise too often feels like formulaic fiction, the material perhaps demanding a less slick, starry treatment to ring as true as it ought; the fuzzy warm blanket of a song score by Badly Drawn Boy doesn’t help. Still, intentions are good and the performances strong enough, including those by support players Lili Taylor, Wes Studi, and Olivia Thirlby. (1:42) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)
*Chico and Rita This Spain-U.K. production is at heart a very old-fashioned musical romance lent novelty by its packaging as a feature cartoon. Chico (voiced by Eman Xor Oña) is a struggling pianist-composer in pre-Castro Havana who’s instantly smitten by the sight and sound of Rita (Limara Meneses, with Idania Valdés providing vocals), a chanteuse similarly ripe for a big break. Their stormy relationship eventually sprawls, along with their careers, to Manhattan, Hollywood, Paris, Las Vegas, and Havana again, spanning decades as well as a few large bodies of water. This perpetually hot, cold, hot, cold love story isn’t very complicated or interesting — it’s pretty much “Boy meets girl, generic complications ensue” — nor is the film’s simple graphics style (reminiscent of 1970s Ralph Bakshi, minus the sleaze) all that arresting, despite the established visual expertise of Fernando Trueba’s two co directors Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando. When a dream sequence briefly pays specific homage to the modernist animation of the ’50s-early ’60s, Chico and Rita delights the eye as it should throughout. Still, it’s pleasant enough to the eye, and considerably more than that to the ear — there’s new music in a retro mode from Bebo Valdes, and plenty of the genuine period article from Monk, Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo and more. If you’ve ever jones’d for a jazzbo’s adult Hanna Barbera feature (complete with full-frontal cartoon nudity — female only, of course), your dream has come true. (1:34) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
*Chronicle A misfit (Dane DeHaan) with an abusive father and an ever-present video camera, his affable cousin (Matt Garretty), and a popular jock (Michael B. Jordan) discover a strange, glowing object in the woods; before long, the boys realize they are newly telekinetic. At first, it’s all a lark, pulling pranks and — in the movie’s most exhilarating scene — learning to fly, but the fun ends when the one with the anger problem (guess which) starts abusing the ol’ with-great-power-comes-great-responsibilities creed. Chronicle is a pleasant surprise in a time when it’s better not to expect much from films aimed at teens; it grounds the superhero story in a (mostly) believable high-school setting, gently intellectualizes the boys’ dilemma (“hubris” is discussed), and also understands how satisfying it is to see superpowers used in the service of pure silliness — like, say, pretending you just happen to be really, really, really, good at magic tricks. First-time feature director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max “son of John” Landis also find creative ways, some more successful than others, to work with the film’s “self-shot” structure. The technique (curse you, Blair Witch) is long past feeling innovative, but Chronicle amply justifies its use in telling its story. (1:23) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
*Coriolanus For his film directing debut, Ralph Fiennes has chosen some pretty strong material: a military drama that is among Shakespeare’s least popular works, not that adapting the Bard to the screen has ever been easy. (Look how many times Kenneth Branagh, an even more fabled Shakespearean Brit on stage than Ralph, has managed to fumble that task.) The titular war hero, raised to glory in battle and little else, is undone by political backstabbers and his own contempt for the “common people” when appointed to a governmental role requiring some diplomatic finesse. This turn of events puts him right back in the role he was born for: that of ruthless, furious avenger, no matter that now he aims to conquer the Rome he’d hitherto pledged to defend. The setting of a modern city in crisis (threadbare protesting masses vs. oppressive police state) works just fine, Elizabethan language and all, as does Fiennes’ choice of a gritty contemporary action feel (using cinematographer Barry Ackroyd of 2006’s United 93 and 2008’s The Hurt Locker). He’s got a strong supporting cast — particularly Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ hawkish mother Volumnia — and an excellent lead in one Ralph Fiennes, who here becomes so warped by bloodthirst he seems to mutate into Lord Voldemort before our eyes, without need of any prosthetics. His crazy eyes under a razored bald pate are a special effect quite alarmingly inhuman enough. (2:03) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
*Crazy Horse Does the documentary genre need an injection of sex appeal? Leave it to ground-breaking documentarian Frederick Wiseman to do just that, with this hilarious, keenly-observed look into Paris’s rightfully legendary Crazy Horse Paris cabaret. For 10 weeks, the filmmaker immersed himself in all aspects of preparation going into a new show, Désirs, by choreographer Philippe Decouflé, and uncovers the guts, discipline, organizational entanglements, and genuine artistry that ensues backstage to produce the at-times laugh-out-loud OTT (e.g., the many routines in which the perky, planet-like posterior is highlighted), at-times truly remarkable numbers (the girl-on-girl spaceship fantasia; the subtle, surreal number that bounces peek-a-boo body parts off a mirrored surface) onstage — moments that should inspire burlesque performers and dance aficionados alike with the sheer imaginative possibilities of dancing in the buff, with a side of brain-teasing titillation, of course. Always silently commenting on the action, Wiseman pokes quiet fun (at the dancer vigorously brushing the horse-hair tail attached to her rear, the obsessed art director, and the sound guy who’s a ringer for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Boogie Nights nebbish) while patiently paying respect to the mechanics behind the magic (Decouflé, among others, arguing with management for more time to improve the show, despite the beyond-rigorous seven-days-a-week, twice- to thrice-daily schedule). Crazy Horse provides marvelous proof that the battle of seduction begins with the brain. (2:08) Smith Rafael. (Chun)
*The Descendants Like all of Alexander Payne’s films save 1996 debut Citizen Ruth, The Descendants is an adaptation, this time from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ excellent 2007 novel. Matt King (George Clooney) is a Honolulu lawyer burdened by various things, mostly a) being a haole (i.e. white) person nonetheless descended from Hawaiian royalty, rich in real estate most natives figure his kind stole from them; and b) being father to two children by a wife who’s been in a coma since a boating accident three weeks ago. Already having a hard time transitioning from workaholic to hands-on dad, Matt soon finds out this new role is permanent, like it or not — spouse Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie, just briefly seen animate) will not wake up. The Descendants covers the few days in which Matt has to share this news with Elizabeth’s loved ones, mostly notably Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as disparately rebellious teen and 10-year-old daughters. Plus there’s the unpleasant discovery that the glam, sporty, demanding wife he’d increasingly seemed “not enough” for had indeed been looking elsewhere. When has George Clooney suggested insecurity enough to play a man afraid he’s too small in character for a larger-than-life spouse? But dressed here in oversized shorts and Hawaiian shirts, the usually suave performer looks shrunken and paunchy; his hooded eyes convey the stung joke’s-on-me viewpoint of someone who figures acknowledging depression would be an undeserved indulgence. Payne’s film can’t translate all the book’s rueful hilarity, fit in much marital backstory, or quite get across the evolving weirdness of Miller’s Scottie — though the young actors are all fine — but the film’s reined-in observations of odd yet relatable adult and family lives are all the more satisfying for lack of grandiose ambition. (1:55) Castro, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (1:26) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck.
*Friends With Kids Jennifer Westfeldt scans Hollywood’s romantic comedy landscape for signs of intelligent life and, finding it to be a barren place possibly recovering from a nuclear holocaust, writes, directs, and stars in this follow-up to 2001’s Kissing Jessica Stein, which she co-wrote and starred in. Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) are upper-thirtysomething New Yorkers with two decades of friendship behind them. He calls her “doll.” They have whispered phone conversations at four in the morning while their insignificant others lie slumbering beside them on the verge of getting dumped. And after a night spent witnessing the tragic toll that procreation has taken on the marriages of their four closest friends — Bridesmaids (2011) reunion party Leslie (Maya Rudolph), Alex (Chris O’Dowd), Missy (Kristen Wiig), and Ben (Jon Hamm), the latter two, surprisingly and less surprisingly, providing some of the film’s darkest moments — Jason proposes that they raise a child together platonically, thereby giving any external romantic relationships a fighting chance of survival. In no time, they’ve worked out the kinks to their satisfaction, insulted and horrified their friends, and awkwardly made a bouncing baby boy. The arrival of significant others (Edward Burns and Megan Fox) signals the second phase of the experiment. Some viewers will be invested in latent sparks of romance between the central pair, others in the success of an alternative family arrangement; one of these demographics is destined for disappointment. Until then, however, both groups and any viewers unwilling to submit to this reductive binary will be treated to a funny, witty, well crafted depiction of two people’s attempts to preserve life as they know it while redrawing the parameters of parenthood. (1:40) California, Piedmont, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (1:36) SF Center.
Hugo Hugo turns on an obviously genius conceit: Martin Scorsese, working with 3D, CGI, and a host of other gimmicky effects, creates a children’s fable that ultimately concerns one of early film’s pioneering special-effects fantasists. That enthusiasm for moviemaking magic, transferred across more than a century of film history, was catching, judging from Scorsese’s fizzy, exhilarating, almost-nauseating vault through an oh-so-faux Parisian train station and his carefully layered vortex of picture planes as Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an intrepid engineering genius of an urchin, scrambles across catwalk above a buzzing station and a hotheaded station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). Despite the special effects fireworks going off all around him, Hugo has it rough: after the passing of his beloved father (Jude Law), he has been stuck with an nasty drunk of a caretaker uncle (Ray Winstone), who leaves his duties of clock upkeep at a Paris train station to his charge. Hugo must steal croissants to survive and mechanical toy parts to work on the elaborate, enigmatic automaton he was repairing with his father, until he’s caught by the fierce toy seller (Ben Kingsley) with a mysterious lousy mood and a cute, bright ward, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Although the surprisingly dark-ish Hugo gives Scorsese a chance to dabble a new technological toolbox — and the chance to wax pedantically, if passionately, about the importance of film archival studies — the effort never quite despite transcends its self-conscious dazzle, lagging pacing, diffuse narrative, and simplistic screenplay by John Logan, based on Brian Selznick’s book. Even the actorly heavy lifting provided by assets like Kingsley and Moretz and the backloaded love for the fantastic proponents at the dawn of filmmaking fail to help matters. Scorsese attempts to steal a little of the latters’ zeal, but one can only imagine what those wizards would do with motion-capture animation or a blockbuster-sized server farm. (2:07) Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
*In Darkness Agnieszka Holland is that kind of filmmaker who can become a well known, respectable veteran without anyone being quite sure what those decades have added up to. Her mentor was Andrzej Wadja, the last half-century’s leading Polish director (among those who never left). He helped shape a penchant for heavy historical drama and a sometimes clunky style not far from his own. She commenced her international career with 1985’s Angry Harvest, about the amorous relationship between a Polish man and the Austrian, a Jewish woman, he hides during Nazi occupation. Her one indispensable feature is 1990’s Europa, Europa, an ideal vehicle for her favored mix of the grotesque, sober, and factual — following a Jewish boy who passed as Aryan German. The new In Darkness is her best since then, and it can’t be chance that this too dramatizes a notably bizarre case of real-life peril and survival under the Nazis. Its protagonist is Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), an ordinary family man in Lvov (Poland then, Ukraine now) who’s not above exploiting the disarray of occupation and war to make ends meet. A sewer inspector, he uses his knowledge of underground tunnels to hide Jews who can pay enough when even the fenced-off ghetto is no longer safe. For such a long, oppressive, and literally dark film, this one passes quickly, maintaining tension as well as a palpable physical discomfort that doubtlessly suggests just a fraction what the refugees actually suffered. In Darkness isn’t quite a great movie, but it’s a powerful experience. At the end it’s impossible to be unmoved, not least because the director’s resistance toward Spielbergian exaltation insists on the banal and everyday, even in human triumph. (2:25) Clay. (Harvey)
The Iron Lady Curiously like Clint Eastwood’s 2011 J. Edgar, this biopic from director Phyllida Lloyd and scenarist Abi Morgan takes on a political life of length, breadth and controversy — yet it mostly skims over the politics in favor of a generally admiring take on a famous narrow-minded megalomaniac’s “gumption” as an underdog who drove herself to the top. Looking back on her career from a senile old age spent in the illusory company of dead spouse Denis (Jim Broadbent), Meryl Streep’s ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher steamrolls past hurdles of class and gender while ironically re-enforcing the fustiest Tory values. She’s essentially a spluttering Lord in skirts, absolutist in her belief that money and power rule because they ought to, and any protesting rabble don’t represent the “real England.” That’s a mindset that might well have been explored more fruitfully via less flatly literal-minded portraiture, though Lloyd does make a few late, lame efforts at sub-Ken Russell hallucinatory style. Likely to satisfy no one — anywhere on the ideological scale — seriously interested in the motivations and consequences of a major political life, this skin-deep Lady will mostly appeal to those who just want to see another bravura impersonation added to La Streep’s gallery. Yes, it’s a technically impressive performance, but unlikely to be remembered as one of her more depthed ones, let alone among her better vehicles. (1:45) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)
John Carter More or less an adaptation of Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 sci-fi classic A Princess of Mars, John Carter is yet another film that lavishes special effects (festooned with CG and 3D) on a rote story filled with characters the viewer couldn’t give two craps about. Angry Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, more muscleman than thespian) mysteriously zips to Mars, a planet not only populated by multiple members of the cast of HBO’s Rome (Ciarán Hinds, James Purefoy, and the voice of Polly Walker), but also quite a bit of Red Planet unrest. Against his better judgment, and with the encouragement of a comely princess (tragic spray-tan victim Lynn Collins), Carter joins the fight, as red people battle blue people, green four-armed creatures pitch in when needed, and sinister silver people (led by Mark Strong) use zap-tastic powers to manipulate the action for their amusement. If you’re expecting John Carter to be a step up from Conan the Barbarian (2011), Prince of Persia (2010), etc., because it’s directed by Andrew Stanton (the Pixar superstar who helmed 2008’s Finding Nemo and 2010’s WALL*E), eh, think again. There’s nothing memorable or fun about this would-be adventure; despite its extravagant 3D, it’s flatter than a pancake. (2:17) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
Let the Bullets Fly A huge blockbuster in China, the latest from director Jiang Wan (1998’s Devils on the Doorstep) has received high praise for the zippy wordplay in its script — not such great news for us non-Mandarin speakers stuck reading the not-especially-zippy English subtitles. What’s left is an overlong tale of a notorious bandit (Jiang) who stumbles upon an opportunity to fake his way into a governorship after a train robbery goes awry. He and his henchmen (who wear masks styled after mahjong tiles) have no sooner arrived in town when it’s made clear that wealth and power will not come easy, since the entire burg is controlled by a gold-toothed gangster (a braying, over-the-top Chow Yun-Fat) who doesn’t like to share. Let the bullets fly, indeed, and let the games begin, with occasionally thrilling but often cartoonish results. Tip: if it’s a red-hot, nerve-jangling, balls-to-the-wall Asian action import you seek, wait a few weeks for Indonesia’s The Raid: Redemption. Yowza. (2:12) Four Star. (Eddy)
*Lou Harrison: A World of Music Doing the late Aptos, Calif. composer justice with its depth and breadth, Lou Harrison: A World of Music is the fortunate product of filmmaker Eva Soltes’s relationship with the underappreciated musical genius. Over the course of two decades, she gathered footage of the visionary experimentalist who freely roved the realms of contemporary music and dance, Asian musical traditions, and instrument-making. Her work has borne fruit — here, you get the full, rich scope of Harrison’s achievements — from his time in the woods with partner and instrument-making cohort William Colvig to his toils alongside choreographer Mark Morris to his struggles to stage Young Caesar, his opera on a Roman ruler’s same-sex revels. What Soltes doesn’t get on camera, she manages to trace through still images and interviews with contemporaries and cohorts such as Merce Cunningham, Judith Malina, and Michael Tilson Thomas, filling out Harrison’s beginnings at Mills College, mentored by Henry Cowell and collaborating with John Cage; encapsulating his success as a composer, critic, and arranger in NYC; and touching on his breakdown and retreat to his mountain cabin where he sought to write music in peace, yet nevertheless continued to lend his teeming creativity to points close to home, à la the Cabrillo Music Festival, and abroad. (1:30) Roxie. (Chun)
My Week With Marilyn Statuette-clutching odds are high for Michelle Williams, as her impersonation of a famous dead celebrity is “well-rounded” in the sense that we get to see her drunk, disorderly, depressed, and so forth. Her Marilyn Monroe is a conscientious performance. But when the movie isn’t rolling in the expected pathos, it’s having other characters point out how instinctive and “magical” Monroe is onscreen — and Williams doesn’t have that in her. Who could? Williams is remarkable playing figures so ordinary you might look right through them on the street, in Wendy and Lucy (2008), Blue Valentine (2010), etc. But as Monroe, all she can do is play the little-lost girl behind the sizzle. Without the sizzle. Which is, admittedly, exactly what My Week — based on a dubious true story — asks of her. It is true that in 1956 the Hollywood icon traveled to England to co-star with director Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) in a fluff romance, The Prince and the Showgirl; and that she drove him crazy with her tardiness, mood swings, and crises. It’s debatable whether she really got so chummy with young production gofer Colin Clark, our wistful guide down memory lane. He’s played with simpering wide-eyed adoration by Eddie Redmayne, and his suitably same-aged secondary romantic interest (Emma Watson) is even duller. This conceit could have made for a sly semi-factual comedy of egos, neurosis, and miscommunication. But in a rare big-screen foray, U.K. TV staples director Simon Curtis and scenarist Adrian Hodges play it all with formulaic earnestness — Marilyn is the wounded angel who turns a starstruck boy into a brokenhearted but wiser man as the inevitable atrocious score orders our eyes to mist over. (1:36) Lumiere. (Harvey)
*Pina Watching Pina Bausch’s choreography on film should not have been as absorbing and deeply affecting of an experience as it was. Dance on film tends to disappoint — the camera flattens the body and distorts perspective, and you either see too many or not enough details. However, improved 3D technology gave Wim Wenders (1999’s Buena Vista Social Club; 1987’s Wings of Desire) the additional tools he needed to accomplish what he and fellow German Bausch had talked about for 20 years: collaborating on a documentary about her work. Instead of making a film about the rebel dance maker, Wenders made it for Bausch, who died in June 2009, two days before the start of filming. Pina is an eloquent tribute to a tiny, soft-spoken, mousy-looking artist who turned the conventions of theatrical dance upside down. She was a great artist and true innovator. Wenders’ biggest accomplishment in this beautifully paced and edited document is its ability to elucidate Bausch’s work in a way that words probably cannot. While it’s good to see dance’s physicality and its multi dimensionality on screen, it’s even better that the camera goes inside the dances to touch tiny details and essential qualities in the performers’ every gesture. No proscenium theater can offer that kind of intimacy. Appropriately, intimacy (the eternal desire for it) and loneliness (an existential state of being) were the two contradictory forces that Bausch kept exploring over and over. And by taking fragments of the dances into the environment — both natural and artificial — of Wuppertal, Germany, Wenders places them inside the emotional lives of ordinary people, subjects of all of Bausch’s work. (1:43) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Rita Felciano)
Project X Frat boys nostalgic for Girls Gone Wild — and those who continue to have the sneaking suspicion that much better parties are going on wherever they’re not —appear to be the target audiences for Project X (not be confused with the 1987 film starring Matthew Broderick, star of this movie’s tamer ’80s variant, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). It’s tough to figure out who else would enjoy this otherwise-standard teen party-movie exercise, given a small shot of energy from its handheld/DIY video conceit. Here, mild-mannered teen Thomas (Thomas Mann) is celebrating his 17th birthday: his parents have left town, and his obnoxious pal Costa (Oliver Cooper) is itching to throw a memorable rager for him and even-geekier chum J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown). Multiple text and email blasts, a Craigslist ad, and one viral gossip scene reminiscent of Easy A (2010) later, several thousand party animals are at Thomas’s Pasadena house going nuts, getting nekkid in the pool, gobbling E, doing ollies off the roof, swinging from chandeliers, ad nauseam. The problem is — who cares? The lack of smart writing or even the marginal efforts toward character development makes Ferris Bueller look like outright genius — and this movie about as compelling as your standard-issue party jam clip. Unfortunately it also goes on about 85 minutes longer than the average music video. The blowback the kids experience when they go too far almost inspires you to root for the cops — not the effect first-time feature filmmaker Nima Nourizadeh was going for, I suspect. (1:28) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Chun)
Rampart Fans of Dexter and a certain dark knight will empathize with this final holdout for rogue law enforcement, LAPD-style, in the waning days of the last century. And Woody Harrelson makes it easy for everyone else to summon a little sympathy for this devil in a blue uniform: he slips so completely behind the sun- and booze-burnt face of David “Date Rape” Brown, an LAPD cop who ridicules young female cops with the same scary, bullying certainty that he applies to interrogations with bad guys. The picture is complicated, however, by the constellation of women that Date Rape has sheltered himself with. Always cruising for other lonely hearts like lawyer Linda (Robin Wright), he still lives with the two sisters he once married (Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche) and their daughters, including the rebellious Helen (Brie Larson), who seems to see her father for who he is — a flawed, flailing anti-hero suffering from severe testosterone poisoning and given to acting out. Harrelson does an Oscar-worthy job of humanizing that everyday monster, as director Oren Moverman (2009’s The Messenger), who cowrote the screenplay with James Ellroy, takes his time to blur out any residual judgement with bokeh-ish points of light while Brown — a flip, legit side of Travis Bickle — just keeps driving, unable to see his way out of the darkness. (1:48) Lumiere. (Chun)
Safe House Frankly, Denzel Washington watchers are starved for another movie in which he’s playing the smartest guy in the room. Despite being hampered by a determinedly murky opening, Safe House should mostly satisfy. Washington’s Tobin Frost is well-used to dwelling into a grayed-out borderland of black ops and flipped alliances — a onetime CIA star, he now trades secrets while perpetually on the run. Fleeing from killers of indeterminate origin, Tobin collides headlong with eager young agent Matt (Ryan Reynolds), who’s stuck maintaining a safe house in Cape Town, South Africa. Tasked with holding onto Tobin’s high-level player by his boss (Brendan Gleeson) and his boss’s boss (Sam Shepard), Matt is determined to prove himself, retain and by extension protect Tobin (even when the ex-superspy is throttling him from behind amid a full-speed car chase), and resist the magnetic pull of those many hazardous gray zones. Surrounded by an array of actorly heavies, including Vera Farmiga, who collectively ratchet up and invest this possibly not-very-interesting narrative — “Bourne” there; done that — with heart-pumping intensity, Washington is magnetic and utterly convincing as the jaded mouse-then-cat-then-mouse toying with and playing off Reynolds go-getter innocent. Safe House‘s narrative doesn’t quite fill in the gaps in Tobin Frost’s whys and wherefores, and the occasional ludicrous breakthroughs aren’t always convincing, but the film’s overall, familiar effect should fly, even when it’s playing it safe (or overly upstanding, especially when it comes to one crucial, climactic scrap of dialogue from “bad guy” Washington, which rings extremely politically incorrect and tone-deaf). (2:00) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)
*Salmon Fishing in the Yemen In Lasse Hallström’s latest film, a sheikh named Muhammed (Amr Waked) with a large castle in Scotland, an ardent love of fly-fishing, and unlimited funds envisions turning a dry riverbed in the Yemeni desert into an aquifer-fed salmon-run site and the surrounding lands into an agricultural cornucopia. Tasked with realizing this dream are London marketing consultant Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) and government fisheries scientist Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor), a reluctant participant who refers to the project as “doolally” and signs on under professional duress. Despite numerous feasibility issues (habitat discrepancies, the necessity for a mass exodus of British salmon, two million irate British anglers), Muhammed’s vision is borne forward on a rising swell of cynicism generated within the office of the British prime minister’s press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas), whose lackeys have been scouring the wires for a shred of U.K.-related good news out of the Middle East. Ecology-minded killjoys may question whether this qualifies. But putting aside, if one can, the possible inadvisability of relocating 10,000 nonnative salmon to a wadi in Yemen — which is to say, putting aside the basic premise — it’s easy and pleasant enough to go with the flow of the film, infected by Jones’s growing enthusiasm for both the project and Ms. Chetwode-Talbot. Adapted from Paul Torday’s novel by Simon Beaufoy (2009’s Slumdog Millionaire), Salmon Fishing is a sweet and funny movie, and while it suffers from the familiar flurried third-act knotting together of loose ends, its storytelling stratagems are entertaining and its characters compellingly textured, and the cast makes the most of the well-polished material. (1:52) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
*A Separation Iran’s first movie to win Berlin’s Golden Bear (as well as all its acting awards), this domestic drama reflecting a larger socio-political backdrop is subtly well-crafted on all levels, but most of all demonstrates the unbeatable virtue of having an intricately balanced, reality-grounded screenplay — director Asghar Farhadi’s own — as bedrock. A sort of confrontational impartiality is introduced immediately, as our protagonists Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) face the camera — or rather the court magistrate — to plead their separate cases in her filing for divorce, which he opposes. We gradually learn that their 14-year wedlock isn’t really irreparable, the feelings between them not entirely hostile. The roadblock is that Simin has finally gotten permission to move abroad, a chance she thinks she must seize for the sake of their daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). But Nader doesn’t want to leave the country, and is not about to let his only child go without him. Farhadi worked in theater before moving into films a decade ago. His close attention to character and performance (developed over several weeks’ pre-production rehearsal) has the acuity sported by contemporary playwrights like Kenneth Lonergan and Theresa Rebeck, fitted to a distinctly cinematic urgency of pace and image. There are moments that risk pushing plot mechanizations too far, by A Separation pulls off something very intricate with deceptive simplicity, offering a sort of integrated Rashomon (1950) in which every participant’s viewpoint as the wronged party is right — yet in conflict with every other. (2:03) Albany, Embarcadero. (Harvey)
*The Secret World of Arrietty It’s been far too long between 2008’s Ponyo, the last offering from Studio Ghibli, and this feature-length adaptation of Mary Norton’s children’s classic, The Borrowers, but the sheer beauty of the studio’s hand-drawn animation and the effortless wonder of its tale more than make up for the wait. This U.S. release, under the very apropos auspices of Walt Disney Pictures, comes with an American voice cast (in contrast with the U.K. version), and the transition appears to be seamless — though, of course, the background is subtly emblazoned with kanji, there are details like the dinnertime chopsticks, and the characters’ speech rhythms, down to the “sou ka” affirmative that peppers all Japanese dialogue. Here in this down-low, hybridized realm, the fearless, four-inches-tall Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) has grown up imaginative yet lonely, believing her petite family is the last of their kind: they’re Borrowers, a race of tiny people who live beneath the floorboards of full-sized human’s dwellings and take what they need to survive. Despite the worries of her mother Homily (Amy Poehler), Arrietty begins to embark on borrowing expeditions with her father Pod (Will Arnett) — there are crimps in her plans, however: their house’s new resident, a sickly boy named Shawn (David Henrie), catches a glimpse of Arrietty in the garden, and caretaker Hara (Carol Burnett) has a bit of an ulterior motive when it comes to rooting out the wee folk. Arrietty might not be for everyone — some kids might churn in their seats with ADD-style impatience at this graceful, gentle throwback to a pre-digital animation age — but in the care of first-time director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Ghibli mastermind Hayao Miyazaki, who wrote co-wrote the screenplay, Arrietty will transfix other youngsters (and animation fans of all ages) with the glorious detail of its natural world, all beautifully amplified and suffused with everyday magic when viewed through the eyes of a pocket-sized adventurer. (1:35) Shattuck. (Chun)
*Shame It’s been a big 2011 for Michael Fassbender, with Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, Shame, and A Dangerous Method raising his profile from art-house standout to legit movie star (of the “movie stars who can also act” variety). Shame may only reach one-zillionth of X-Men‘s audience due to its NC-17 rating, but this re-teaming with Hunger (2008) director Steve McQueen is Fassbender’s highest achievement to date. He plays Brandon, a New Yorker whose life is tightly calibrated to enable a raging sex addiction within an otherwise sterile existence, including an undefined corporate job and a spartan (yet expensive-looking) apartment. When brash, needy, messy younger sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan, speaking of actors having banner years) shows up, yakking her life all over his, chaos results. Shame is a movie that unfolds in subtle details and oversized actions, with artful direction despite its oft-salacious content. If scattered moments seem forced (loopy Cissy’s sudden transformation, for one scene, into a classy jazz singer), the emotions — particularly the titular one — never feel less than real and raw. (1:39) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)
*Silent House Yep, it’s another remake of a foreign horror movie — but Uruguay’s La casa muda is obscure enough that Silent House, which recycles its plot and filming style, feels like a brand-new experience. Co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, last seen bobbing in shark-infested waves for 2003’s similarly bare-bones Open Water, apply another technical gimmick here: Silent House appears to be shot in one continuous take. Though it’s not actually made this way, each shot is extraordinarily long — way longer than you’d expect in a horror film, since the genre often relies on quick edits to build tension. Instead, the film’s aim is “real fear captured in real time” (per its tag line), and there’s no denying this is one shriek-filled experience. The dwelling in question is an isolated, rambling lake house being fixed up to sell by Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), her father (Adam Trese), and uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens). The lights don’t work, the windows are boarded up, most doors are padlocked shut, and there are strange noises coming from rooms that should be empty. Much of the film follows Sarah as she descends into deeper and deeper terror, scrabbling from floor to floor trying to hide from whoever (or whatever) is lurking, while at the same time trying to bust her way out. Though the last-act exposition explosion is a little hard to take, the film’s slow-burn beginning and frantic middle section offer bona fide chills. For an interview with Silent House co-director and writer Lau, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (1:28) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
*Straight Outta Hunters Point 2 In 2001, filmmaker Kevin Epps turned a camera on his own neighborhood: Bayview-Hunters Point, the southeastern San Francisco community best-known by outsiders for Candlestick Park, toxic pollution, and gang violence. Straight Outta Hunters Point was an eye-opener not just locally but internationally, as its runaway success opened doors for Epps to travel with the film and establish his career. These days, Epps is no longer an emerging talent — he’s a full-time independent filmmaker with multiple credits (including The Black Rock, a documentary about Alcatraz’s African American inmates, and hip-hop film Rap Dreams), collaborations (with Current TV and others), and an artist fellowship at the de Young Museum under his belt. For his newest project, he returns to the scene of his first work. He no longer resides in Bayview-Hunters Point, but he still lives close by, and he’s never lost touch with the community that inspired the first film and encouraged him to make its follow-up. Described by Epps as a “continuation of the conversation” launched by the first film, SOHP 2 investigates the community as it stands today, with both external (redevelopment) and internal (violence) pressures shaping the lives of those who live there. It’s a raw, real story that unspools with urgency and the unvarnished perspective of an embedded eyewitness. (1:20) Roxie. (Eddy)
This Means War McG (both Charlie’s Angels movies, 2009’s Terminator Salvation) stretches our understanding of the term “romantic comedy” in this tale of two grounded CIA agents (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) who use their downtime to compete for the love of a perky, workaholic consumer-products tester (Reese Witherspoon). Broadening the usage of “comedy” are scenes in which best bros and partners FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) spend large portions of their agency’s budget on covert surveillance ops targeting the joint object of their affection, Lauren (Witherspoon). Expanding our notions of the romantic impulse, This Means War jettisons chocolate, roses, final-act sprints through airports, and other such trite gestures in favor of B&E, micro-camera installations, and wiretapping — the PATRIOT Act–style violation of privacy as feverish expression of amour. Without letting slip any spoilers about the eventual lucky winner of the competition, let it simply be said that at no point is the prize afforded the opportunity to comment on the two men’s überstalkery style of courtship, though the movie has to end rather abruptly to accomplish that feat. But hey, in the afterglow of Valentine’s Day, who’s feeling nitpicky? And besides, the real relationship at stake in this unabashedly bromantic film is the love that dare not speak its name, existing as it does between two secret agents. Chelsea Handler supplies the raunch and, as Lauren’s closest (only?) friend, manages to drag her through the dirt a few times. Being played by Witherspoon, however, she climbs out looking like she’s been sprayed down and scrubbed with one of her focus-grouped all-purpose cleansers. (2:00) 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)
A Thousand Words (1:31) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck.
*Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Tomas Alfredson (2008’s Let the Right One In) directs from Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s sterling adaptation of John le Carré’s classic spy vs. spy tale, with Gary Oldman making the role of George Smiley (famously embodied by Alec Guinness in the 1979 miniseries) completely his own. Your complete attention is demanded, and deserved, by this tale of a Cold War-era, recently retired MI6 agent (Oldman) pressed back into service at “the Circus” to ferret out a Soviet mole. Building off Oldman’s masterful, understated performance, Alfredson layers intrigue and an attention to weird details (a fly buzzing around a car, the sound of toast being scraped with butter) that heighten the film’s deceptively beige 1970s palette. With espionage-movie trappings galore (safe houses, code machines), a returned-to flashback to a surreal office Christmas party, and bang-on supporting performances by John Hurt, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and the suddenly ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, Tinker Tailor epitomizes rule one of filmmaking: show me, don’t tell me. A movie that assumes its audience isn’t completely brain-dead is cause for celebration and multiple viewings — not to mention a place among the year’s best. (2:07) Castro, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
“2011 Oscar-Nominated Short Films, Live Action and Animated” Smith Rafael.
Undefeated Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, who previously teamed up on a 2008 doc about beer pong, have a more serious subject for their latest tale: the unlikely heroics of an inner-city Memphis, Tenn. high school football team. The title refers more to the collective spirit rather than the (still pretty damn good) record of the Manassas Tigers, a team comprised of youths challenged by less-than-ideal home lives and anti-authority attitude problems that stem from troubles running deeper than typical teenage rebellion. Into an environment seemingly tailored to assure the kids’ failure steps coach Bill Courtney. He’s white, they’re all African American; he’s fairly well-off, while most of them live below the poverty line. Still, he’s able to instill confidence in them, both on and off the field, with focus on three players in particular: the athletically-gifted, academically-challenged O.C., who gets a Blind Side-style boost from one of Courtney’s assistant coaches; sensitive brain Money, sidelined by a devastating injury; and hot-tempered wild card Chavis, who eventually learns the importance of teamwork. With the heavy-hitting endorsement of celebrity exec producer Sean Combs, Undefeated is a high-quality entry into the “inspiring sports doc” genre: it offers an undeniably uplifting story and sleek production values. But it’s a little too familiar to be called the best documentary of the year, despite its recent anointing at the Oscars. If it was gonna be a sports flick, why not the superior, far more complex (yet not even nominated) Senna? (1:53) SF Center. (Eddy)
The Vow A rear-ender on a snowy Chicago night tests the nuptial declarations of a recently and blissfully married couple, recording studio owner Leo (Channing Tatum) and accomplished sculptor Paige (Rachel McAdams). When the latter wakes up from a medically induced coma, she has no memory of her husband, their friends, their life together, or anything else from the important developmental stage in which she dropped out of law school, became estranged from her regressively WASP-y family, stopped frosting her hair and wearing sweater sets, and broke off her engagement to preppy power-douchebag Jeremy (Scott Speedman). Watching Paige malign her own wardrobe and “weird” hair and rediscover the healing powers of a high-end shopping spree is disturbing; she reenters her old life nearly seamlessly, and the warm spark of her attraction to Leo, which we witness in a series of gooey flashbacks, feels utterly extinguished. And, despite the slurry monotone of Tatum’s line delivery, one can empathize with a sense of loss that’s not mortal but feels like a kind of death — as when Paige gazes at Leo with an expression blending perplexity, anxiety, irritation, and noninvestment. But The Vow wants to pluck on our heartstrings and inspire a glowing, love-story-for-the-ages sort of mood, and the film struggles to make good on the latter promise. Its vague evocations of romantic destiny mostly spark a sense of inevitability, and Leo’s endeavors to walk his wife through retakes of scenes from their courtship are a little more creepy and a little less Notebook-y than you might imagine. (1:44) SF Center. (Rapoport)
*Wanderlust When committed Manhattanites George (Paul Rudd) and Linda (Jennifer Aniston) find themselves in over their heads after George loses his job, the two set off to regroup in Atlanta, with the reluctantly accepted help of George’s repellent brother Rick (Ken Marino). Along the way, they stumble upon Elysium, a patchouli-clouded commune out in the Georgia backcountry whose members include original communard Carvin (Alan Alda), a nudist novelist-winemaker named Wayne (Joe Lo Truglio), a glowingly pregnant hippie chick named Almond (Lauren Ambrose), and smarmy, sanctimonious, charismatic leader Seth (Justin Theroux). After a short, violent struggle to adapt to life under Rick’s roof, the couple find themselves returning to Elysium to give life in an intentional community a shot, a decision that George starts rethinking when Seth makes a play for his wife. Blissed-out alfresco yoga practice, revelatory ayahuasca tea-induced hallucinations, and lectures about the liberating effects of polyamory notwithstanding, the road to enlightenment proves to be paved with sexual jealousy, alienation, placenta-soup-eating rituals, and group bowel movements. Writer-director David Wain (2001’s Wet Hot American Summer, 2008’s Role Models) — who shares writing credits with Marino — embraces the hybrid genre of horror comedy in which audience laughter is laced with agonized embarrassment, and his cast gamely partake in the group hug, particularly Theroux and Rudd, who tackles a terrifyingly lengthy scene of personal debasement with admirable gusto. (1:38) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Rapoport)
*We Need to Talk About Kevin It’s inevitable — whenever a seemingly preventable tragedy occurs, there’s public outcry to the tune of “How could this happen?” But after the school shooting in We Need to Talk About Kevin, the more apt question is “How could this not happen?” Lynne Ramsay (2002’s Morvern Callar) — directing from the script she co-adapted from Lionel Shriver’s novel — uses near-subliminal techniques to stir up atmospheric unease from the very start, with layered sound design and a significant, symbolic use of the color red. While other Columbine-inspired films, including Elephant and Zero Day (both 2003), have focused on their adolescent characters, Kevin revolves almost entirely around Eva Khatchadourian (a potent Tilda Swinton) — grief-stricken, guilt-riddled mother of a very bad seed. The film slides back and forth in time, allowing the tension to build even though we know how the story will end, since it’s where the movie starts: with Eva, alone in a crappy little house, working a crappy little job, moving through life with the knowledge that just about everyone in the world hates her guts. Kevin is very nearly a full-blown horror movie, and the demon-seed stuff does get a bit excessive. But it’s hard to determine if those scenes are “real life” or simply the way Eva remembers them, since Kevin is so tightly aligned with Eva’s point of view. Though she’s miserable in the flashbacks, the post-tragedy scenes are even thicker with terror; the film’s most unsettling sequence unfolds on Halloween, horror’s favorite holiday; Eva drives past a mob of costumed trick-or-treaters as Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” (one of several inspired music choices) chimes on the soundtrack. Masked faces are turn to stare — accusingly? Coincidentally? Do they even know she’s Kevin’s mother? — with nightmarish intensity heightened by slow motion. And indeed, “Everyday” Eva deals with accepting her fate; the film is sympathetic to her even while suggesting that she may actually be responsible. For a longer review of this film, and an interview with director Ramsay, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (1:52) SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)