Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Michelle Devereaux, Peter Galvin, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, Johnny Ray Huston, Louis Peitzman, Lynn Rapoport, Ben Richardson, and Matt Sussman. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. For first-run showtimes, see Movie Guide.
SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
The 54th annual San Francisco International Film Festival runs through Thurs/5. Venues are the Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Castro, 429 Castro, SF; New People, 1746 Post, SF; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third, SF; and Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, SF. For tickets (most shows $13) and complete schedule visit www.sffs.org.
The Beaver See “The Darkness Underneath.” (1:31)
*Cave of Forgotten Dreams The latest documentary from Werner Herzog once again goes where no filmmaker — or many human beings, for that matter — has gone before: the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, a heavily-guarded cavern in Southern France containing the oldest prehistoric artwork on record. Access is highly restricted, but Herzog’s 3D study is surely the next best thing to an in-person visit. The eerie beauty of the works leads to a typically Herzog-ian quest to learn more about the primitive culture that produced the paintings; as usual, Herzog’s experts have their own quirks (like a circus performer-turned-scientist), and the director’s own wry narration is peppered with random pop culture references and existential ponderings. It’s all interwoven with footage of crude yet beautiful renderings of horses and rhinos, calcified cave-bear skulls, and other time-capsule peeks at life tens of thousands of years ago. The end result is awe-inspiring. (1:35) (Eddy)
*Incendies When tightly wound émigré Nawal (Luba Azabal) dies, she leaves behind adult twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) — and leaves them documents that only compound their feelings of grief and anger, suggesting that what little they thought they knew about their background might have been a lie. While resentful Simon at first stays home in Montreal, Jeanne travels to fictive “Fuad” (a stand-in for source-material playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s native Lebanon), playing detective to piece together decades later the truth of why their mother fled her homeland at the height of its long, brutal civil war. Alternating between present-day and flashback sequences, this latest by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (2000’s Maelstrom) achieves an urgent sweep punctuated by moments of shocking violence. Resembling The Kite Runner in some respects as a portrait of the civilian victimization excused by war, it also resembles that work in arguably piling on more traumatic incidences and revelations than one story can bear — though so much here has great impact that a sense of over-contrivance toward the very end only slightly mars the whole. (2:10) Embarcadero. (Harvey)
Jumping the Broom It’s wedding (movie) season! Angela Bassett and Paula Patton star in this one. (1:48) Shattuck.
Last Night Married for three years and together “since college,” New York City yuppies Michael (Sam Worthington) and Joanna (Keira Knightley) have a comfortable, loving relationship, though it’s unclear how much passion remains. Still, it doesn’t take much for Joanna to bristle jealously when she meets Michael’s co-worker and frequent business-trip companion, Laura (Eva Mendes). As Michael and Laura flirt their way to an overnight meeting in Philly, Joanna runs into an old flame (Guillaume Canet); before long, it becomes a cross-cutting race to see who’ll cheat first. Writer-director Massy Tadjedin isn’t spinning a new story here — and though the film offers a sleek look at contemporary marriage, Last Night takes itself a tad too seriously, purporting to showcase realistic problems and emotions amid a cast beamed directly from Planet Gorgeous Movie Star. Beautiful people: they’re just like us? (1:30) (Eddy)
*Meek’s Cutoff See “Nothing Was Delivered.” (1:44) Albany, Embarcadero.
Queen to Play From first-time feature director Caroline Bottaro comes this drama about … chess. Wait! Before your eyes glaze over, here are a few more fast facts: it’s set in idyllic Corsica and features, as an American expat, Kevin Kline in his first French-speaking role. (Side note: is there a Kline comeback afoot? First No Strings Attached, then The Conspirator, and now Queen to Play. All within a few short months.) Lovely French superstar Sandrine Bonnaire plays Héléne, a hotel maid who has more or less accepted her unremarkable life — until she happens to catch a couple (one half of which is played by Jennifer Beals, cast because Bottaro is a longtime fan of 1983’s Flashdance!) playing chess. An unlikely obsession soon follows, and she asks Kline’s character, a reclusive doctor who’s on her freelance house-cleaning route, to help her up her game. None too pleased with this new friendship are Héléne’s husband and nosy neighbors, who are both suspicious of the doctor and unsure of how to treat the formerly complacent Héléne’s newfound, chess-inspired confidence. Queen to Play can get a little corny (we’re reminded over and over that the queen is “the most powerful piece”), and chess is by nature not very cinematic (slightly more fascinating than watching someone type, say). But Bonnaire’s quietly powerful performance is worth sticking around for, even when the novelty of whiskery, cardigan-wearing, French-spouting Kline wears off. (1:36) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Something Borrowed Kate Hudson and Ginnifer Goodwin play frenemies of the highest order in this rom-com adapted from the best-selling novel. (1:53) Shattuck.
There Be Dragons Dougray Scott and Wes Bentley star in this drama set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. (2:00)
*These Amazing Shadows If you love movies, it’ll be hard to resist These Amazing Shadows (subtitled “A story about the National Film Registry and the power of the movies”) — it’s chock full o’ clips from films that’ve been deemed worthy of inclusion in the National Film Registry’s elite ranks. This includes, of course, the likes of 1942’s Casablanca and 1939’s Gone With the Wind, but also more recent cultural touchstones like 1985’s Back to the Future and a number of experimental, short, and silent works, and even a few cult films too. Along the way film scholars and makers (including locals Barry Jenkins, Rick Prelinger, and Mick LaSalle) chime in on their favorite films and stress why preserving film is important. There’s a healthy dose of film history, as well, with mentions of groundbreaking director Lois Weber (one of early cinema’s most prolific artists, despite her gender) and a discussion of why racially questionable films like 1915’s The Birth of a Nation — a film that Boyz n the Hood (1991) director John Singleton recommended for Registry inclusion — are historically important despite their content. Dedicated film buffs won’t discover any surprises, and there’s not much discussion of queer film (unless John Waters talking about 1939’s The Wizard of Oz counts?), nor any mention of the current shift from film to digital formats (of course preserving old films is important, but will the Registry also start considering digital-only films for inclusion?) But perhaps these are topics for another film, not this nostalgia-heavy warm fuzzy that’ll affect anyone who remembers the magic of seeing a personally significant film — join the mob if it’s 1977’s Star Wars — for the first time. (1:28) Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
*Thor When it comes to superhero movies, I’m not easily impressed. Couple that with my complete disinterest in the character of Thor, and I didn’t go into his big-screen debut with any level of excitement. Turns out Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is a genre standout — the best I’ve seen since 2008’s Iron Man. For those who don’t know the mythology, the film follows Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as he’s exiled from the realm of Asgard to Earth. Once there, he must reclaim his mighty hammer — along with his powers — in order to save the world and win the heart of astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Hemsworth is perfectly cast as the titular hero: he’s adept at bringing charm to a larger-than-life god. The script is a huge help, striking the ideal balance between action, drama, and humor. That’s right, Thor is seriously funny. On top of that, the effects are sensational. Sure, the 3D is once again unnecessary, but it’s admittedly kind of fun when you’re zooming through space. (2:03) (Peitzman)
The Adjustment Bureau As far as sci-fi romantic thrillers go, The Adjustment Bureau is pretty standard. But since that’s not an altogether common genre mash-up, I guess the film deserves some points for creativity. Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, The Adjustment Bureau takes place in a world where all of our fates are predetermined. Political hotshot David Norris (Matt Damon) is destined for greatness — but not if he lets a romantic dalliance with dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) take precedence. And in order to make sure he stays on track, the titular Adjustment Bureau (including Anthony Mackie and Mad Men‘s John Slattery) are there to push him in the right direction. While the film’s concept is intriguing, the execution is sloppy. The Adjustment Bureau suffers from flaws in internal logic, allowing the story to skip over crucial plot points with heavy exposition and a deus ex machina you’ve got to see to believe. Couldn’t the screenwriter have planned ahead? (1:39) Shattuck. (Peitzman)
African Cats (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck.
*Bill Cunningham New York To say that Bill Cunningham, the 82-year old New York Times photographer, has made documenting how New Yorkers dress his life’s work would be an understatement. To be sure, Cunningham’s two decades-old Sunday Times columns — “On the Street,” which tracks street-fashion, and “Evening Hours,” which covers the charity gala circuit — are about the clothes. And, my, what clothes they are. But Cunningham is a sartorial anthropologist, and his pictures always tell the bigger story behind the changing hemlines, which socialite wore what designer, or the latest trend in footwear. Whether tracking the near-infinite variations of a particular hue, a sudden bumper-crop of cropped blazers, or the fanciful leaps of well-heeled pedestrians dodging February slush puddles, Cunningham’s talent lies in his ability to recognize fleeting moments of beauty, creativity, humor, and joy. That last quality courses through Bill Cunningham New York, Richard Press’ captivating and moving portrait of a man whose reticence and personal asceticism are proportional to his total devotion to documenting what Harold Koda, chief curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, describes in the film as “ordinary people going about their lives, dressed in fascinating ways.” (1:24) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Sussman)
Certified Copy Abbas Kiarostami’s beguiling new feature signals “relationship movie” with every cobblestone step, but it’s manifestly a film of ideas — one in which disillusionment is as much a formal concern as a dramatic one. Typical of Kiarostami’s dialogic narratives, Certified Copy is both the name of the film and an entity within the film: a book written against the ideal of originality in art by James Miller (William Shimell), an English pedant fond of dissembling. After a lecture in Tuscany, he meets an apparent admirer (Juliette Binoche) in her antique shop. We watch them talk for several minutes in an unbroken two-shot. They gauge each other’s values using her sister as a test case — a woman who, according to the Binoche character, is the living embodiment of James’ book. Do their relative opinions of this off-screen cipher constitute characterization? Or are they themselves ciphers of the film’s recursive structure? Kiarostami makes us wonder. They begin to act as if they were married midway through the film, though the switch is not so out of the blue: Kiarostami’s narrative has already turned a few figure-eights. Several critics have already deemed Certified Copy derivative of many other elliptical romances; the strongest case for an “original” comes of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1954). The real difference is that while Rossellini’s masterpiece realizes first-person feelings in a third-person approach, Kiarostami stays in the shadow of doubt to the end. (1:46) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Goldberg)
The Conspirator It may not be your standard legal drama, but The Conspirator is a lot more enjoyable when you think of it as an extended episode of Law & Order. The film chronicles the trial of Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the lone woman charged in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. It’s a fascinating story, especially for those who don’t know much of the history past John Wilkes Booth. But while the subject matter is compelling, the execution is hit-or-miss. Wright is sympathetic as Surratt, but the usually great James McAvoy is somewhat forgettable in the pivotal role of Frederick Aiken, Surratt’s conflicted lawyer. It’s hard to say what it is that’s missing from The Conspirator: the cast — which also includes Evan Rachel Wood and Tom Wilkinson — is great, and this is a story that’s long overdue to be told. Still, something is lacking. Could it be the presence of everyone’s favorite detective, the late Lennie Briscoe? (2:02) Embarcadero, Empire, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont. (Peitzman)
Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (1:47) SF Center.
Fast Five There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in Fast Five, in addition to a much demolition derby-style crunch — instances that stretch credulity and simultaneously trigger a chuckle at the OTT fantasy of the entire enterprise. Two unarmed men chained to the ceiling kick their way out of a torture cell, jump favela rooftops to freedom with nary a bullet wound in sight, and, in the movie’s smash-’em-up tour de force, use a bank vault as a hulking pair of not-so-fuzzy dice to pulverize an unsuspecting Rio de Janeiro. Not for nothing is rapper Ludacris attached to this franchise — his name says it all (why not go further than his simple closing track, director Justin Lin, now designated the keeper of Fast flame, and have him providing the rap-eratic score/running commentary throughout?) In this installment, shady hero Dominic (Vin Diesel) needs busting out of jail — check, thanks to undercover-cop-turned-pal Brian (Paul Walker) and Dominic’s sis Mia (Jordana Brewster). Time to go on the lam in Brazil and to bring bossa nova culture down to level of thieving L.A. gearheads, as the gearhead threesome assemble their dream team of thieves to undertake a last big heist that will set ’em up for life. Still, despite the predictable pseudo-twists — can’t we all see the bromance-bonding between testosteroni boys Diesel and Dwayne Johnson coming from miles of blacktop away? — there’s enough genre fun, stunt driving marvels, and action choreography here (Lin, who made his name in ambitious indies like 2002’s Better Luck Tomorrow, has developed a knack for harnessing/shooting the seeming chaos) — to please fans looking for a bigger, louder kick. (1:41) Empire, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
*Hanna The title character of Hanna falls perfectly into the lately very popular Hit-Girl mold. Add a dash of The Boys from Brazil-style genetic engineering — Hanna has the unfair advantage, you see, when it comes to squashing other kids on the soccer field or maiming thugs with her bare hands — and you have an ethereal killing/survival machine, played with impassive confidence by Atonement (2007) shit-starter Saoirse Ronan. She’s been fine-tuned by her father, Erik (Eric Bana), a spy who went out into the cold and off the grid, disappearing into the wilds of Scandinavia where he home-schooled his charge with an encyclopedia and brutal self-defense and hunting tests. Atonement director Joe Wright plays with a snowy palette associated with innocence, purity, and death — this could be any time or place, though far from the touch of modern childhood stresses: that other Hannah (Montana), consumerism, suburban blight, and academic competition. The 16-year-old Hanna, however, isn’t immune from that desire to succeed. Her game mission: go from a feral, lonely existence into the modern world, run for her life, and avenge the death of her mother by killing Erik’s CIA handler, Marissa (Cate Blanchett). The nagging doubt: was she born free, or Bourne to be a killer? Much like the illustrated Brothers Grimm storybook that she studies, Hanna is caught in an evil death trap of fairytale allegories. One wonders if the super-soldier apple didn’t fall far from the tree, since evil stepmonster Marissa oversaw the program that produced Hanna — the older woman and the young girl have the same cold-blooded talent for destruction and the same steely determination. Yet there’s hope for the young ‘un. After learning that even her beloved father hid some basic truths from her, this natural-born killer seems less likely to go along with the predetermined ending, happy or no, further along in her storybook life. (1:51) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)
Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil (1:25) 1000 Van Ness.
*In a Better World Winner of this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, this latest from Danish director Susanne Bier (2004’s Brothers, 2006’s After the Wedding) and her usual co-scenarist Anders Thomas Jensen (2005’s Adam’s Apples, 2003’s The Green Butchers) is a typically engrossing, complex drama that deals with the kind of rage for “personal justice” that can lead to school and workplace shootings, among other things (like terrorism). Shy, nervous ten-year-old Elias (Markus Rygaard) needs a confidence boost, but things are worrying both at home and elsewhere. His parents are estranged, and his doting father (Mikael Persbrandt) is mostly away as a field hospital in Kenya tending victims of local militias. At school, he’s an easy mark for bullies, a fact which gets the attention of charismatic, self-assured new kid Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), who appoints himself Elias’ new (and only) friend — then when his slightly awed pal is picked on again, intervenes with such alarming intensity that the police are called. Christian appears a little too prone to violence and harsh judgment in teaching “lessons” to those he considers in the wrong; his own domestic situation is another source of anger, as he simplistically blames his earnest, distracted executive father (Ulrich Thomsen) for his mother’s recent cancer death. Is Christian a budding little psychopath, or just a kid haplessly channeling his profound loss? Regardless, when an adult bully (Kim Bodnia as a loutish mechanic) humiliates Elias’ father in front of the two boys, Christian pulls his reluctant friend into a pursuit of vengeance that surely isn’t going to end well. With their nuanced yet head-on treatment of hot button social and ethical issues, Bier and Jensen’s work can sometimes border on overly-schematic melodrama, meting out its own secular-humanist justice a bit too handily, like 21st-century cinematic Dickenses. But like Dickens, they also have a true mastery of the creating striking characters and intricately propulsive plotlines that illustrate the points at hand in riveting, hugely satisfying fashion. This isn’t their best. But it’s still pretty excellent, and one of those universally accessible movies you can safely recommend even to people who think they don’t like foreign or art house films. (1:53) Lumiere. (Harvey)
Insidious (1:42) California.
*Jane Eyre Do we really need another adaptation of Jane Eyre? As long as they’re all as good as Cary Fukunaga’s stirring take on the gothic romance, keep ’em coming. Mia Wasikowska stars in the titular role, with the dreamy Michael Fassbender stepping into the high pants of Edward Rochester. The cast is rounded out by familiar faces like Judi Dench, Jamie Bell, and Sally Hawkins — all of whom breathe new life into the material. It helps that Fukunaga’s sensibilities are perfectly suited to the story: he stays true to the novel while maintaining an aesthetic certain to appeal to a modern audience. Even if you know Jane Eyre’s story — Mr. Rochester’s dark secret, the fate of their romance, etc. — there are still surprises to be had. Everyone tells the classics differently, and this adaptation is a thoroughly unique experience. And here’s hoping it pushes the engaging Wasikowska further in her ascent to stardom. (2:00) Albany, Lumiere, Piedmont. (Peitzman)
Kill the Irishman If you enjoy 1970s-set Mafia movies featuring characters with luxurious facial hair zooming around in Cadillacs, flossing leather blazers, and outwitting cops and each other — you could do a lot worse than Kill the Irishman, which busts no genre boundaries but delivers enjoyable retro-gangsta cool nonetheless. Adapted from the acclaimed true crime book by a former Cleveland police lieutenant, the film details the rise and fall of Danny Greene, a colorful and notorious Irish-American mobster who both served and ran afoul of the big bosses in his Ohio hometown. During one particularly conflict-ridden period, the city weathered nearly 40 bombings — buildings, mailboxes, and mostly cars, to the point where the number of automobiles going sky-high is almost comical (you’d think these guys would’ve considered taking the bus). The director of the 2004 Punisher, Jonathan Hensleigh, teams up with the star of 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, Ray Stevenson, who turns in a magnetic performance as Greene; it’s easy to see how his combination of book- and street smarts (with a healthy dash of ruthlessness) buoyed him nearly to the top of the underworld. The rest of the cast is equally impressive, with Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Christopher Walken, and Linda Cardellini turning in supporting roles, plus a host of dudes who look freshly defrosted from post-Sopranos storage. (1:46) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (1:46) Four Star.
*Limitless An open letter to the makers of Limitless: please fire your marketing team because they are making your movie look terrible. The story of a deadbeat writer (Bradley Cooper) who acquires an unregulated drug that allows him to take advantage of 100 percent of his previously under-utilized brain, Limitless is silly, improbable and features a number of distracting comic-book-esque stylistic tics. But consumed with the comic book in mind, Limitless is also unpredictable, thrilling, and darkly funny. The aforementioned style, which includes many instances of the infinite regression effect that you get when you point two mirrors at each other, and a heavy blur to distort depth-of-field, only solidifies the film’s cartoonish intentions. Cooper learns foreign languages in hours, impresses women with his keen attention to detail, and sets his sights on Wall Street, a move that gets him noticed by businessman Carl Van Loon (Robert DeNiro in a glorified cameo) as well as some rather nasty drug dealers and hired guns looking to cash in on the drug. Limitless is regrettably titled and masquerades in TV spots as a Wall Street series spin-off, but in truth it sports the speedy pacing and tongue-in-cheek humor required of a good popcorn flick. (1:37) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Galvin)
*The Lincoln Lawyer Outfitted with gym’d-tanned-and-laundered manly blonde bombshells like Matthew McConaughey, Josh Lucas, and Ryan Phillippe, this adaptation of Michael Connelly’s LA crime novel almost cries out for an appearance by the Limitless Bradley Cooper — only then will our cabal of flaxen-haired bros-from-other-‘hos be complete. That said, Lincoln Lawyer‘s blast of morally challenged golden boys nearly detracts from the pleasingly gritty mise-en-scène and the snappy, almost-screwball dialogue that makes this movie a genre pleasure akin to a solid Elmore Leonard read. McConaughey’s criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller is accustomed to working all the angles — hence the title, a reference to a client who’s working off his debt by chauffeuring Haller around in his de-facto office: a Lincoln Town Car. Haller’s playa gets truly played when he becomes entangled with Louis Roulet (Phillippe), a pretty-boy old-money realtor accused of brutally attacking a call girl. Loved ones such as Haller’s ex Maggie (Marisa Tomei) and his investigator Frank (William H. Macy) are in jeopardy — and in danger of turning in some delightfully textured cameos — in this enjoyable walk on the sleazy side of the law, the contemporary courtroom counterpart to quick-witted potboilers like Sweet Smell of Success (1957). (1:59) 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
*My Perestroika Robin Hessman’s very engaging documentary takes one very relatable look at how changes since glasnost have affected some average Russians. The subjects here are five thirtysomethings who, growing up in Moscow in the 70s and 80s, were the last generation to experience full-on Communist Party indoctrination. But just as they reached adulthood, the whole system dissolved, confusing long-held beliefs and variably impacting their futures. Andrei has ridden the capitalist choo-choo to considerable enrichment as the proprietor of luxury Western menswear shops. But single mother Olga, unlucky in love, just scrapes by, while married schoolteachers Lyuba and Boris are lucky to have inherited an apartment (cramped as it is) they could otherwise ill afford. Meanwhile Ruslan, once member of a famous punk band (which he abandoned on principal because it was getting “too commercial”), both disdains and resents the new order just as he did the old one. Home movies and old footage of pageantry celebrating Soviet socialist glory make a whole ‘nother era come to life in this intimate, unexpectedly charming portrait of its long-term aftermath. (1:27) Balboa. (Harvey)
*The Princess of Montpensier Marie (Mélanie Thierry), the titular figure in French director Bertrand Tavernier’s latest, is a young 16th century noblewoman married off to a Prince (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) of great wealth and property. But they’ve barely met when he’s called off to war — leaving her alone on his enormous estate, vulnerable to myriad suitors who seem to be forever throwing themselves at her nubile, neglected body. Lambert Wilson (2010’s Of Gods and Men) is touching as the older soldier appointed her protector; he comes to love her, yet is the one man upstanding enough to resist compromising her. If you’ve been jonesing for the kind of lush arthouse period epic that feels like a big fat classic novel, this engrossing saga from a 70-year-old Gallic cinema veteran in top form will scratch that itch for nearly two and a half satisfyingly tragic-romantic hours. (2:19) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
*Of Gods and Men It’s the mid-1990s, and we’re in Tibhirine, a small Algerian village based around a Trappist monastery. There, eight French-born monks pray and work alongside their Muslim neighbors, tending to the sick and tilling the land. An emboldened Islamist rebel movement threatens this delicate peace, and the monks must decide whether to risk the danger of becoming pawns in the Algerian Civil War. On paper, Of Gods and Men sounds like the sort of high-minded exploitation picture the Academy swoons over: based on a true story, with high marks for timeliness and authenticity. What a pleasant surprise then that Xavier Beauvois’s Cannes Grand Prix winner turns out to be such a tightly focused moral drama. Significantly, the film is more concerned with the power vacuum left by colonialism than a “clash of civilizations.” When Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) turns away an Islamist commander by appealing to their overlapping scriptures, it’s at the cost of the Algerian army’s suspicion. Etienne Comar’s perceptive script does not rush to assign meaning to the monks’ decision to stay in Tibhirine, but rather works to imagine the foundation and struggle for their eventual consensus. Beauvois occasionally lapses into telegraphing the monks’ grave dilemma — there are far too many shots of Christian looking up to the heavens — but at other points he’s brilliant in staging the living complexity of Tibrihine’s collective structure of responsibility. The actors do a fine job too: it’s primarily thanks to them that by the end of the film each of the monks seems a sharply defined conscience. (2:00) California, Opera Plaza. (Goldberg)
*Poetry Sixtysomething Mija (legendary South Korean actor Yun Jung-hee) impulsively crashes a poetry class, a welcome shake-up in a life shaped by unfulfilling routines. In order to write compelling verse, her instructor says, it is important to open up and really see the world. But Mija’s world holds little beauty beyond her cheerful outfits and beloved flowers; most pressingly, her teenage grandson, a mouth-breathing lump who lives with her, is completely remorseless about his participation in a hideous crime. In addition, she’s just been disgnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and the elderly stroke victim she housekeeps for has started making inappropriate advances. Somehow writer-director Lee Chang-dong (2007’s Secret Sunshine) manages not to deliver a totally depressing film with all this loaded material; it’s worth noting Poetry won the Best Screenplay Award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Yun is unforgettable as a woman trying to find herself after a lifetime of obeying the wishes of everyone around her. Though Poetry is completely different in tone than 2009’s Mother, it shares certain elements — including the impression that South Korean filmmakers have recognized the considerable rewards of showcasing aging (yet still formidable) female performers. (2:19) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold Don’t even think about shortening the title: Morgan Spurlock’s new documentary POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Story Ever Sold is ingenious, bitingly funny, and made possible by corporate sponsorship. POM paid good money to earn a spot about the title, so damned if I’m going to leave them out. Instead of keeping product placement subliminal — or at least trying — Spurlock shows exactly what goes into the popular marketing practice. His film isn’t so much critical as it is honest: he doesn’t fight product placement, but rather embraces it to his own advantage. It’s win-win. Spurlock gets to make his movie without losing any cash, and the audience gets a hilarious insider look into a mostly hidden facet of advertising. As he says, it’s about transparency, and no one can claim Spurlock is trying to go behind our backs. And what of the advertising that pops up throughout the film? I can only speak to my own experience, but yes, I’m drinking POM as I write this. (1:26) SF Center, Shattuck. (Peitzman)
Potiche When we first meet Catherine Deneuve’s Suzanne — the titular trophy wife (or potiche) of Francois Ozon’s new airspun comedy — she is on her morning jog, barely breaking a sweat as she huffs and puffs in her maroon Adidas tracksuit, her hair still in curlers. It’s 1977 and Suzanne’s life as a bourgeois homemaker in a small provincial French town has played out as smoothly as one of her many poly-blend skirt suits: a devoted mother to two grown children and loving wife who turns a blind eye to the philandering of husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini), Suzanne is on the fast track to comfortable irrelevance. All that changes when the workers at Robert’s umbrella factory strike and take him hostage. Suzanne, with the help of union leader and old flame Babin (Gerard Depardieu, as big as a house), negotiates a peace, and soon turns around the company’s fortunes with her new-found confidence and business savvy. But when Robert wrests back control with the help of a duped Babin, Suzanne does an Elle Woods and takes them both on in a surprise run for political office. True to the film’s light théâtre de boulevard source material, Ozon keeps things brisk and cheeky (Suzanne sings with as much ease as she spouts off Women’s Lib boilerplate) to the point where his cast’s hammy performances start blending into the cheery production design. Satire needs an edge that Potiche, for all its charm, never provides. (1:43) Clay, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Sussman)
Prom (1:44) 1000 Van Ness.
Rio (1:32) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.
The Robber (1:37) Lumiere, Shattuck.
Scre4m Back in 1996, Wes Craven’s Scream revitalized the slasher genre with a script (by Kevin Williamson) that poked fun at horror clichés while still delivering genuine scares. The sequels offered diminishing returns on this once-clever formula; Scream 4 arrives 11 years past Scream 3, presumably hoping to work that old self-referential yet gory magic on a new crop of filmgoers. But Craven and Williamson’s hall-of-mirrors creation (more self-satisfied than self-referential, scrambling to anticipate a cynical audience member’s every second-guess) is barely more than than a continuation of something that was already tired in 2000, albeit with iPhone and web cam gags pasted in for currency’s sake. Eternal Ghostface target Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to her hometown to promote what’s apparently a woo-woo self-help book (Mad Men‘s Alison Brie, as Sidney’s bitchy-perky publicist, steals every scene she’s in); still haunting Woodsboro are Dewey (David Arquette), now the sheriff, and Gale (Courteney Cox), a crime author with writer’s block. When the Munch-faced one starts offing high school kids, local movie nerds (Rory Culkin, Hayden Panettiere) and nubile types (Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere) react by screening all seven Stab films, inspired by the “real-life” Woodsboro murders, and spouting off about the rules, or lack thereof in the 21st century, of horror sequels. If that sounds mega-meta exhausting, it is. And, truth be told, not very scary. (1:51) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
I Am File in the dusty back drawer of An Inconvenient Truth (2006) wannabes. The cringe-inducing, pretentious title is a giveaway — though the good intentions are in full effect — in this documentary by and about director Tom Shadyac’s search for answers to life’s big questions. After a catastrophic bike accident, the filmmaker finds his lavish lifestyle as a successful Hollywood director of such opuses as Bruce Almighty (2003) somewhat wanting. Thinkers and spiritual leaders such as Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, and scientist David Suzuki provide some thought-provoking answers, although Shadyac’s thinking behind seeking out this specific collection of academics, writers, and activists remains somewhat unclear. I Am‘s shambling structure and perpetual return to its true subject — Shadyac, who resembles a wide-eyed Weird Al Yankovic — doesn’t help matters, leaving a viewer with mixed feelings, less about whether one man can work out his quest for meaning on film, than whether Shadyac complements his subjects and their ideas by framing them in such a random, if well-meaning, manner. And sorry, this film doesn’t make up for Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994). (1:16) Shattuck. (Chun)
*Source Code A post-9/11 Groundhog Day (1993) with explosions, Inception (2010) with a heart, or Avatar (2009) taken down a notch or dozen in Chicago —whatever you choose to call it, Source Code manages to stand up on its own wobbly Philip K. Dick-inspired legs, damn the science, and take off on the wings of wish fulfillment. ‘Cause who hasn’t yearned for a do-over — and then a do-over of that do-over, etc. We could all be as lucky — or as cursed — as soldier Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), who gets to tumble down that time-space rabbit hole again and again, his consciousness hitching a ride in another man’s body, while in search of the bomber of a Chicago commuter train. On the upside, he gets to meet the girl of his dreams (Michelle Monaghan) — and see her getting blown to smithereens again and again, all in the service of his country, his commander-cum-link to the outside world (Vera Farmiga), and the scientist masterminding this secret military project (Jeffrey Wright). On the downside, well, he gets to do it over and over again, like a good little test bunny in pinball purgatory. Fortunately, director Duncan Jones (2009’s Moon) makes compelling work out of the potentially ludicrous material, while his cast lends the tale a glossed yet likable humanity, the kind that was all too absent in Inception. (1:33) 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Stake Land Not gonna lie — the reason I wanted to review this one was because of the film still in the San Francisco International Film Festival catalogue. Rotten-faced vampire with a stake through its neck? Yes, please! But while Jim Mickle’s apocalyptic road movie does offer plenty of gore, it’s more introspective than one might expect, following an orphaned teenage boy, Martin (Connor Paolo, Serena’s little bro on Gossip Girl), and his gruff mentor, Mister (Snake Plissken-ish Nick Damici), on their travels through a ravaged America. As books, films, and comics have taught us, whenever a big chunk of the human race is wiped out (thanks to zombies, vampires, an unknown cataclysm, etc.), the remaining population will either be good (heroic, like Mister and Martin, or helpless, like the stragglers they rescue, including a nun played by Kelly McGillis), or evil — cannibals, rapists, religious nuts, militant survivalists, etc. Stake Land doesn’t throw many curveballs into its end-times narrative, but it’s beautifully shot and doesn’t hold back on the brutality. Larry Fessenden (director of 2006’s The Last Winter) produced and has a brief cameo as a helpful bartender. (1:38) Roxie. (Eddy)
Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family (2:00) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck.
Water for Elephants A young man named Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) turns his back on catastrophe and runs off to join the circus. It sounds like a fantasy, but this was never Jacob’s dream, and the circus world of Water for Elephants isn’t all death-defying feats and pretty women on horses. Or rather, the pretty woman also rides an elephant named Rosie and the casualties tend to occur outside the big top, after the rubes have gone home. Stumbling onto a train and into this world by chance, Jacob manages to charm the sadistic sociopath who runs the show, August (Christophe Waltz), and is charmed in turn by August’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), a star performer and the object of August’s abusive, obsessive affections. Director Francis Lawrence’s film, an adaptation of Sarah Gruen’s 2006 novel, depicts a harsh Depression-era landscape in which troupes founder in small towns across America, waiting to be scavenged for parts — performers and animals — by other circuses passing through. Waltz’s August is a frightening man who defines a layoff as throwing workers off a moving train, and the anxiety of anticipating his moods and moves supplies most of the movie’s dramatic tension; Jacob and Marlena’s pallid love story feeds off it rather than adding its own. The film also suffers from a frame tale that feels awkward and forced, though Hal Holbrook makes heroic efforts as the elderly Jacob, surfacing on the grounds of — what else? — a modern-day circus to recount his tale of tragedy and romance. (2:00) Empire, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Rapoport)
*Win Win Is Tom McCarthy the most versatile guy in Hollywood? He’s a successful character actor (in big-budget movies like 2009’s 2012; smaller-scale pictures like 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck; and the final season of The Wire). He’s an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (2009’s Up). And he’s the writer-director of two highly acclaimed indie dramas, The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2007). Clearly, McCarthy must not sleep much. His latest, Win Win, is a comedy set in his hometown of New Providence, N.J. Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a lawyer who’s feeling the economic pinch. Betraying his own basic good-guy-ness, he takes advantage of a senile client, Leo (Burt Young), when he spots the opportunity to pull in some badly-needed extra cash. Matters complicate with the appearance of Leo’s grandson, Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), a runaway from Ohio. Though Mike’s wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), is suspicious of the taciturn teen, she allows Kyle to crash with the Flaherty family. As luck would have it, Kyle is a superstar wrestler — and Mike happens to coach the local high school team. Things are going well until Kyle’s greedy mother (Melanie Lynskey) turns up and starts sniffing around her father’s finances. Lessons are learned, sure, and there are no big plot twists beyond typical indie-comedy turf. But the script delivers more genuine laughs than you’d expect from a movie that’s essentially about the recession. (1:46) Bridge, California, Piedmont. (Eddy)
*A Place in the Sun A poor relation to wealthy manufacturers, George Eastman (31-year-old Montgomery Clift) accepts his uncle’s offer of a job, starting at the bottom but proving a quick study. As he rises up the ladder, he acquires an altatross — an atypically demure Shelley Winters as factory girl Alice — that becomes a serious liability as his stature rises enough to attract socialite goddess Angela (17 year-old Elizabeth Taylor). This kickoff to the Mechanics Institute’s month-long Taylor tribute was a sensation in 1951. Taylor had been a juvenile star (1944’s National Velvet), then a teenage ingenue, but this film established her as the most beautiful movie star of her generation — matched with dreamily vague Clift, a newcomer who’d created a sensation himself in 1948’s Red River and 1949s The Heiress. George Stevens — smack amidst his journey from being a lively iconoclast (Astaire and Rogers, Tracy and Hepburn, 1939’s Gunga Din) to the decreasingly prolific maker of solemn Oscar-bait epics — filmed the two of them in swooning, gigantic close ups that were the most star-makingly heated since Garbo met John Gilbert. In 1951, nobody read Clift’s aching sensitivity as gay; women wanted to clutch his bony, Brylcreemed body to their bosoms. Despite the actor’s tragic history — guarantee of his continued mythologizing — he’s a remote screen presence, as opposed to Taylor’s superficial ease. (She became an interesting actress later, when permitted to play harpies and hysterics.) But he’s very poignant in a monologue where George confesses all — well, nearly all — his vulnerable points to a potential future father-in-law. This adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 An American Tragedy — an actual Great American Novel, published the same year as yea greater The Great Gatsby — is fairly frank for its era about unwedded pregnancies, the inaccessibility of abortion, and unbridgeable class divides. But it’s also aged unevenly, with awkward use of back-projection and a crucial softening of the novel’s most intense narrative turning point. The climatic courtroom drama is graceless; later progress more Christian-inspirational than Dreiser envisioned; nor does the fabled romance chemistry register as it once did. Still, this is a moment in film history: not one of Elizabeth Taylor’s best performances, but the one that secured her status as upmarket bombshell for a generation. Plus it won six Oscars, including Best Director. (2:02) Mechanics’ Institute. (Harvey)