New movies

Foreign imports and American heroics: new movies!


Hollywood unfurls the latest adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s ever-popular YA fiction (the mercifully vampire-less The Host), as well as Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, the multi-hyphenate mogul’s 5628th film. (One statement in the previous sentence is false.)

Plus: check out Dennis Harvey’s dual review of a pair of refreshingly low-key foreign imports, The Silence (from Germany) and Starbuck (from Canada, set in Quebec). There’s also an American-set movie from singular French director Quentin Dupieux, Wrong, opening at the Roxie; check out my review here.

More reviews, including a surprisingly positive take on toys-gone-wild sequel GI Joe: Retaliation, after the jump.

From Up on Poppy Hill Hayao (dad, who co-wrote) and Goro (son, who directed) Miyazaki collaborate on this tale of two high-school kids — Umi, who does all the cooking at her grandmother’s boarding house, and Shun, a rabble-rouser who runs the school newspaper — in idyllic seaside Yokohama. Plans for the 1964 Olympics earmark a beloved historic clubhouse for demolition, and the budding couple unites behind the cause. The building offers a symbolic nod to Japanese history, while rehabbing it speaks to hopes for a brighter post-war future. But the past keeps interfering: conflict arises when Shun’s memories are triggered by a photo of Umi’s father, presumed lost at sea in the Korean War. There are no whimsical talking animals in this Studio Ghibli release, which investigates some darker-than-usual themes, though the animation is vivid and sparkling per usual. Hollywood types lending their voices to the English-language version include Jamie Lee Curtis, Christina Hendricks, Ron Howard, and Gilllian Anderson. (1:31) (Cheryl Eddy)

GI Joe: Retaliation The plot exists to justify the action, but any fan of badass-ness will forgive the skimpy storyline for the outlandish badassery in GI Joe: Retaliation. Inspired by action figures and tying loosely to the first flick, Retaliation starts with a game of “secure the defector,” followed by “raise the flag,” but as soon as the stakes aren’t real, the Joes outright suck. They don’t have “neutral,” which is maybe why a mission to rescue and revive the Joes as a force is the most ferocious fight that ever pit metal against plastic. The set pieces are stunning: a mostly silent sequence with Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Yung) on a mountainside will leave the audience gaping in its high speed wake, and a prison break featuring covert explosives is nonstop amazing. You’ll notice an emphasis on chain link fences and puddles (terra nostra for action figures) and set pieces conceived as if by kids who don’t have a concept of basic irrefutable truths like gravity. It’s just that kind of imagination and ardor and limitlessness that makes this Joe incredible, memorable, and a reason to crack out your toys again. (1:50) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)

Mental Toni Collette is a batshit Mary Poppins in this side-splitting comedy about one family and Australia’s identity as the world’s Island of Misfit Toys. According to Shaz (Collette), she and her pit bull Ripper (pronounced “Reippah”) came to the town of Dolphin Head to fulfill their destiny. It’s there philandering Mayor Moochmore (a brilliant Anthony LaPaglia) employs her informally as a “babysitter” (the film’s biggest plot hole). Moochmore’s a pathetic excuse for a dad but he needs someone to take care of his five daughters, since he’s finally pushed his wife into nervous-breakdown mode. Everything in Dolphin Head exists on a fulcrum: when Shaz takes the girls to climb a mountain one asks, “What’s the point of climbing to the top?”, and Shaz answers, “Not being at the bottom.” Mental is not a far cry from the director’s last big import, Muriel’s Wedding, the 1994 film that made Collette a star. Everyone’s nuts here, the message goes, but if we’re confident enough in ourselves, we can sway the rest into seeing how our insanity is better than theirs — or at least strong enough to withstand sharks, knife fights, and pit bulls. Good times, mate, good times. (1:56) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)

The Sapphires The civil rights injustices suffered by these dream girls may be unique to Aboriginal Australians, but they’ll strike a chord with viewers throughout the world — at right about the same spot stoked by the sweet soul music of Motown. Co-written by Tony Briggs, the son of a singer in a real-life Aboriginal girl group, this unrepentant feel-gooder aims to make the lessons of history go down with the good humor and up-from-the-underdog triumph of films like The Full Monty (1997) — the crucial difference in this fun if flawed comedy-romance is that it tells the story of women of color, finding their voices and discovering, yes, their groove. It’s all in the family for these would-be soul sisters, or rather country cousins, bred on Merle Haggard and folk tunes: there’s the charmless and tough Gail (Deborah Mailman), the soulful single mom Julie (Jessica Mauboy, an Australian Idol runner-up), the flirty Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and the pale-skinned Kay (Shari Sebbens), the latter passing as white after being forcibly “assimilated” by the government. Their dream is to get off the farm, even if that means entertaining the troops in Vietnam, and the person to help them realize that checkered goal is dissolute piano player Dave (Chris O’Dowd). And O’Dowd is the breakout star to watch here — he adds an loose, erratic energy to an otherwise heavily worked story arc. So when romance sparks for all Sapphires — and the racial tension simmering beneath the sequins rumbles to the surface — the easy pleasures generated by O’Dowd and the music (despite head-scratching inclusions like 1970’s “Run Through the Jungle” in this 1968-set yarn), along with the gently handled lessons in identity politics learned, obliterate any lingering questions left sucking Saigon dust as the narrative plunges forward. They keep you hanging on. (1:38) (Kimberly Chun)

The Spanish Mirth: The Comedic Films of Luis Garcia Berlanga Noted for his dexterity in outwitting the vigilant censors of Franco’s regime while getting away with subversive themes, Berlanga’s long career outlasted the despot’s by several decades. His social satires are showcased in this Pacific Film Archive retrospective of seven features that run a gamut from parodies of Spanish cultural stereotypes (as when villagers hungry for postwar economic-incentive dough try to look like the essence of tourist-friendly quaintness in 1953’s Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall!) to literal gallows humor (1964’s The Executioner) and kinky black comedy (Michel Piccoli as a mild-mannered dentist carrying on an “affair” with a realistic sex doll in Tamano Natural, a.k.a. Life Size). Once Franco finally kicked the bucket, the frequently prize-winning filmmaker let loose with 1978’s anarchic La Escopeta Nacional, a.k.a. The National Shotgun, leaving no formerly sacred cow unmilked. He remained active until a few years before his 2010 death at age 89. The PFA series (running March 29-April 17) offers archival 35mm prints of these movies that remain esteemed at home but are relatively little-known today abroad. Pacific Film Archive. (Dennis Harvey)

Magic, madness, witches, and holdin’ on to that feeeeeling: new movies!


The newly-renamed CAAMfest (the film festival formerly known as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) opens tonight with its own slice of March Madness: basketball-themed doc Linsanity. For more on that film and other CAAMfest documentaries, go here. You’ll find a rundown of films focusing on troubled family ties here.

Also this week: Park Chan-wook’s first English-language film, Stoker, opens tomorrow — it’s a creepy delight, and I spoke with Park about Hitchcock and more in this interview.

For those so inclined, Hollywood rolls out Halle Berry thriller The Call (make your own “phoning in her performance” joke here) and Steves Carell and Buscemi, plus Jim Carrey, as battling magicians in comedy The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

Read on for short takes on a new horror omnibus, a stirring tale from Romania, the Oscar-nominated War Witch, two music docs (Journey + Snoop Lion), and more.

The ABCs of Death Variety is the spice of life, yet this international omnibus with 26 directors contributing elaborate micro-shorts on various methods of death — one per alphabetical letter — is like eating dried dill or cilantro for two-plus hours. It’s pungent, but what might color a complex stew proves insufferable in this narrow one. Just why it seems narrow is anyone’s guess — this should have been a genius idea. Yet there are almost no outstanding or memorable contributions, despite the wide-open invitation to extreme content. Filmmakers include Jorge Michel Grau (2010’s We Are What We Are), Simon Rumley (of brilliant 2006 feature The Living and the Dead), Srdjan Spasojevic (2010’s A Serbian Film), cult-favorite actress Angela Bettis, and many more. Nearly all seem to have spent far more than their allotted $5000 budget. There are segments parodying exploitation cinema and video games; offering hyperbolic Terminator-style sci-fi; line-drawing and claymation segments; plus plenty of gross-out narratives. Yet it’s all surprisingly crappy (not least an episode called “Toilet”), with precious few more than halfway decent episodes. The sum impact is of a mean-spirited project that brings out the vacuously shock-value prone worst in everyone involved. (2:03) (Dennis Harvey)

Beyond the Hills Cristian Mungiu — one of the main reasons everyone’s all excited about the Romanian New Wave — follows up his Palme d’Or winner, 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, with another stark look at a troubled friendship between two women. Beyond the Hills‘ Voichita and Alina (Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, who shared the Best Actress prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival; for his part, Mungiu won Best Screenplay) were BFFs and, we slowly realize, lovers while growing up at a Romanian orphanage. When they aged out of the facility, the reserved Voichita moved to a rural monastery to become a nun, and the outburst-prone Alina pinballed around, doing a stint as a barmaid in Germany before turning up in Voichita’s village, lugging emotional baggage of the jealous, needy, possibly mentally ill, and definitely misunderstood variety. It can’t end well for anyone, as all involved — dismissive local doctors, Alina’s no-longer-accomodating foster family, the priest (Valeriu Andriuta), and the other nuns —  would rather not spend any time or energy caring for a troubled, destitute outsider. Even Voichita can only look on helplessly as an exorcism, a brutal and cruel procedure, is decided upon as Alina’s last, best hope. Based on a real 2005 incident in Moldavia, Mungiu’s unsettling film is a masterpiece of exquisitely composed shots, harsh themes, and naturalistic performances. Check out an interview with Mungiu here. (2:30) (Cheryl Eddy)

Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey The director of 2003’s Imelda returns with this portrait of a way more sympathetic Filipino celebrity: Arnel Pineda, plucked from obscurity via YouTube after Journey’s Neil Schon spotted him singing with a Manila-based cover band. Don’t Stop Believin’ follows Pineda, who openly admits past struggles with homelessness and addiction, from audition to 20,000-seat arena success as Journey’s charismatic new frontman (he faces insta-success with an endearing combination of nervousness and fanboy thrill). He’s also up-front about feeling homesick, and the pressures that come with replacing one of the most famous voices in rock (Steve Perry doesn’t appear in the film, other than in vintage footage). Especially fun to see is how Pineda invigorates the rest of Journey; as the tour progresses, all involved — even the band’s veteran members, who’ve no doubt played “Open Arms” ten million times — radiate with excitement. (1:45) (Cheryl Eddy)

A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet San Franciscan Mark Kitchell (1990’s Berkeley in the Sixties) directs this thorough, gracefully-edited history of the environmental movement, beginning with the earliest stirrings of the Audubon Society and Aldo Leopold. Pretty much every major cause and group gets the vintage-footage, contemporary-interview treatment: the Sierra Club, Earth Day, Silent Spring, Love Canal, the pursuit of alternative energy, Greenpeace, Chico Mendes and the Amazon rainforests, the greenhouse effect and climate change, the pursuit of sustainable living, and so on. But if its scope is perhaps overly broad, A Fierce Green Fire still offers a valuable overview of a movement that’s remained determined for decades, even as governments and corporations do their best to stomp it out. Celebrity narrators Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, and Meryl Streep add additional heft to the message, though the raw material condensed here would be powerful enough without them. (1:50) (Cheryl Eddy)

Reincarnated Reinvention is the name of the game for some mercurial, inventive pop artists, but for rapper Snoop Dogg, now going by the moniker Snoop Lion — you get the scoop on the name change in this doc — transformation turns out to be unexpectedly serious, earnest business. Flirting with Cheech and Chong travelogue comedy, Reincarnated ostensibly spins off the making of the hip-hop artist’s forthcoming 12th album of the same name in Jamaica, with smokin’ production help from Diplo’s Major Lazer gang. The camera is there for many standard behind-the-music moments — sessions with family and adulation in the musical-fertile Trenchtown — along with many not-quite-ready-for-prime-times spent lighting up with other musicians, growers up in the mountains, and reggae forebears like Bunny Wailer. But there’s more going on beneath the billowing smoke: providing the context for today’s high times and ultimately chronicling the rhyme-slinger’s life and times and his path to Jamaica, reggae, and Rastafari spirituality and culture, Vice Films director Andy Capper lays the foundation for Snoop’s shift from rap to Rastafari by revisiting his gangster youth, the rise and fall of Death Row Records, the passing of 2Pac and Nate Dogg, and the music that made the man’s name —and continues to give us a reason to care. The easy, sexy charisma that made Snoop a star is on full display here, and doubtless his latest experiences on reality TV have made Capp’s job that much easier when it came to digging deeper, while the clouds of herb, Cali and Jamaican alike, give viewers a taste of the fun, and possibly healing, attendant with life with the Doggfather. (1:36) (Kimberly Chun)

Upside Down This sci-fi romance from Argentine-French director Juan Solanas is one of those movies that would look brilliant as a coffee-table photo book — nearly every shot is some striking mix of production design, CGI, color grading, and whatnot. Too bad, though, that it has to open its mouth and ruin everything. Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst play star-crossed lovers who live on adjacent twin planets with their own opposing gravitational forces. Nonetheless, they somehow manage to groove on one another until the authorities — miscegenation between the prosperous residents of “Up Top” and the exploited peasants of “Down Below” being forbidden — interfere, resulting in a ten-year separation and one case of amnesia. But the course of true love cannot be stopped by evil energy conglomerates, at least in the movies. Sturgess’ breathless narration starts things off with “The universe…full of wonders!” and ends with “Our love would change the entire course of history,” so you know Solanas has absolutely no cliché-detecting skills. He does have a great eye — but after a certain point, that isn’t enough to compensate for his awful dialogue, flat pacing, and disinterest in exploring any nuances of plot or character. Dunst is stuck playing a part that might as well simply be called the Girl; Sturgess is encouraged to overact, but his ham is prosciutto beside the thick-cut slabs of thespian pigmeat offered by Timothy Spall as the designated excruciating comic relief. If the fact that our lovers are called “Adam” and “Eden” doesn’t make you groan, you just might buy this ostentatiously gorgeous but grey-matter-challenged eye candy. If you think Tarsem is a genius and 1998’s What Dreams May Come one of the great movie romances, you will love, love, love Upside Down. (1:53) (Dennis Harvey)

War Witch They should give out second-place Oscars. Like, made of silver instead of gold. In that alternate-universe scenario, Canadian writer-director Kim Nguyen’s vivid, Democratic Republic of the Congo-shot drama might’ve picked up some hardware (beyond its many film-fest accolades) to go with its Best Foreign Language Film nomination. War Witch couldn’t stop the march of Amour, but it’s deeply moving in its own way — the story of Komona (played by first-time actor Rachel Mwanza), kidnapped from her village at 12 and forced to join the rebel army that roams the forests of her unnamed African country. Her first task: machine-gunning her own parents. Her ability to see ghosts (portrayed by actors in eerie body paint) elevates her to the status of “war witch,” and she’s tasked with using her sixth sense to aid the rebel general’s attacks against the government army. But even this elevated position can’t quell the physical and spiritual unease of her situation; idyllic love with a fellow teenage soldier (Serge Kanyinda) proves all too brief, and as months pass, Komona remains haunted by her past. The end result is a brutal yet poetic film, elevated by Mwanza’s thoughtful performance. (1:30) (Cheryl Eddy)

Land of (nearly) 10,000 new movies


Literally something for everyone this week: pregnant women, environmentalists, Mumia supporters, World War II buffs, Latin American history buffs, Abbas Kiarostami fan club members, German and French-film devotees, and anyone who’s ever dreamed of going over the rainbow (in 3D). I hope you don’t sleep much because this weekend is jammed up with new flicks.

Barbara The titular figure (Nina Hoss) looks the very picture of blonde Teutonic ice princess when she arrives — exiled from better prospects by some unspecified, politically ill-advised conduct — in at a rural 1980 East German hospital far from East Berlin’s relative glamour. She’s a pill, too, stiffly formal in dealings with curious locals and fellow staff including the disarmingly rumpled, gently amorous chief physician Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld). Yet her stern prowess as a pediatric doctor is softened by atypically protective behavior toward teen Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a frequent escapee from prison-like juvenile care facilities. Barbara has secrets, however, and her juggling personal, ethical, and Stasi-fearing priorities will force some uncomfortable choices. It is evidently the moment for German writer-director Christian Petzold to get international recognition after nearly 20 years of equally fine, terse, revealing work in both big-screen and broadcast media (much with Hoss as his prime on-screen collaborator). This intelligent, dispassionate, eventually moving character study isn’t necessarily his best. But it is a compelling introduction. (1:45) (Dennis Harvey)

Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives When Ina May Gaskin had her first child, the hospital doctor used forceps (against her wishes) and her baby was sequestered for 24 hours immediately after birth. “When they brought her to me, I thought she was someone else’s,” Gaskin recalls in Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore’s documentary. Gaskin was understandably flummoxed that her first experience with the most natural act a female body can endure was as inhuman as the subject of an Eric Schlosser exposé. A few years later, she met Stephen Gaskin, a professor who became her second husband, and the man who’d go on to co-found the Farm, America’s largest intentional community, in 1971. On the Farm, women had children, and in those confines, far from the iron fist of insurance companies, Gaskin discovered midwifery as her calling. She recruited others, and dedicated herself to preserving an art that dwindles as the medical industry strives to treat women’s bodies like profit machines. Her message is intended for a larger audience than granola-eating moms-to-be: we’re losing touch with our bodies. Lamm and Wigmore bravely cram a handful of live births into the film; footage of a breech birth implies this doc could go on to be a useful teaching tool for others interested in midwifery. (1:33) Roxie. (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)

Dead Man Down Noomi Rapace reunites with her Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009) director, Niels Arden Oplev, for this crime thriller co-starring Colin Farrell. (1:50)

Emperor This ponderously old-fashioned historical drama focuses on the negotiations around Japan’s surrender after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While many on the Allied side want the nation’s “Supreme Commander” Emperor Hirohito to pay for war crimes with his life, experts like bilingual Gen. Bonners Fellers (Matthew Fox) argue that the transition to peace can be achieved not by punishing but using this “living god” to wean the population off its ideological fanaticism. Fellers must ultimately sway gruff General MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) to the wisdom of this approach, while personally preoccupied with finding the onetime exchange-student love (Kaori Momoi) denied him by cultural divisions and escalating war rhetoric. Covering (albeit from the U.S. side) more or less the same events as Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2005 The Sun, Peter Webber’s movie is very different from that flawed effort, but also a lot worse. The corny Romeo and Juliet romance, the simplistic approach to explaining Japan’s “ancient warrior tradition” and anything else (via dialogue routinely as flat as “Things in Japan are not black and white!”), plus Alex Heffes’ bombastic old-school orchestral score, are all as banal as can be. Even the reliable Jones offers little more than conventional crustiness — as opposed to the inspired kind he does in Lincoln. (1:46) (Dennis Harvey)

Greedy Lying Bastards Longtime activist Craig Rosebraugh (a former spokesperson for radical groups the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front) makes his directorial debut with Greedy Lying Bastards, a doc that examines the climate-change denial movement. The briskly-paced film — narrated in first person by Rosebraugh, and jam-packed with interviews — begins with stories from homeowners devastated by recent Colorado wildfires, and visits a tribal community perched on Alaska’s eroding shores. But while it touches on global warming’s causes, and the phenomenon’s inevitable outcome (see also: 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth), the film’s particular focus is lobbyists who’ve built careers off distorting the facts, leading Tea Party rallies, and chuckling condescendingly at environmentalists on Fox News — and the fat cats who’re pulling the strings: the dreaded Koch brothers, ExxonMobil execs, and others. Rosebraugh owes a hefty stylistic debt to Michael Moore — right down to his film’s attention-grabbing title — and, like Moore’s films, Greedy Lying Bastards seems destined to reach audiences who already agree with its message. Still, it’s undeniably provocative. (1:30) (Cheryl Eddy)

Harvest of Empire This feature spin-off from Juan Gonzalez’s classic nonfiction tome aims to temper anti-immigration hysteria with evidence that the primarily Latino populations conservatives are so afraid of were largely invited or driven here by exploitative US policies toward Latin America. Dutifully marching through countries on a case-by-case basis, Peter Getzels and Eduardo Lopez’s documentary covers our annexing much of a neighboring country (Mexico) and using its citizens as a “reserve labor force;” encouraging mainland immigration elsewhere to strengthen a colonial bond (Puerto Rico); covertly funding overthrow of progressive governments and/or supporting repressive ones, creating floods of political asylum-seekers (Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador); and so on and so forth. Our government’s policies were often justified in the name of “fighting the spread of Communism,” but usually had a more pragmatic basis in protecting US business interests. The movie also touches on NAFTA’s disastrous trickle-up effect on local economies (especially agricultural ones), and interviews a number of high achievers from immigrant families (ACLU chief Anthony Romero, Geraldo Rivera) as well as various activists and experts, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, while sampling recent years’ inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric. There’s a lot of important information here, though one might wish it were packaged in a documentary with a less primitive, classroom-ready episodic structure and less informercial-y style. (1:30) (Dennis Harvey)

Like Someone in Love A student apparently moonlighting as an escort, Akiko (Rin Takanashi) doesn’t seem to like her night job, and likes even less the fact that she’s forced into seeing a client while the doting, oblivious grandmother she’s been avoiding waits for her at the train station. But upon arriving at the apartment of the john, she finds sociology professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) courtly and distracted, uninterested in getting her in bed even when she climbs into it of her own volition. Their “date” extends into the next day, introducing him to the possessive, suspicious boyfriend she’s having problems with (Ryo Kase), who mistakes the prof for her grandfather. As with Abbas Kiarostami’s first feature to be shot outside his native Iran — the extraordinary European coproduction Certified Copy (2010) — this Japan set second lets its protagonists first play at being having different identities, then teases us with the notion that they are, in fact, those other people. It’s also another talk fest that might seem a little too nothing-happening, too idle-intellectual gamesmanship at a casual first glance, but could also grow increasingly fascinating and profound with repeat viewings. (1:49) (Dennis Harvey)

Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal Or, almost everything you ever wanted to know about the guy who inspired all those “Free Mumia” rallies, though Abu-Jamal’s status as a cause célèbre has become somewhat less urgent since his death sentence — for killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1981 — was commuted to life without parole in 2012. Stephen Vittoria’s doc assembles an array of heavy hitters (Alice Walker, Giancarlo Esposito, Cornel West, Angela Davis, Emory Douglas) to discuss Abu-Jamal’s life, from his childhood in Philly’s housing projects, to his teenage political awakening with the Black Panthers, to his career as a popular radio journalist — aided equally by his passion for reporting and his mellifluous voice. Now, of course, he’s best-known for the influential, eloquent books he’s penned since his 1982 incarceration, and for the worldwide activists who’re either convinced of his innocence or believe he didn’t receive a fair trial (or both). All worthy of further investigation, but Long Distance Revolutionary is overlong, fawning, and relentlessly one-sided — ultimately, a tiresome combination. Director Vittoria in person at the film’s two screenings, Fri/8 at 6:30pm and Sat/9 at 3:30pm. (2:00) New Parkway. (Cheryl Eddy)

Oz: The Great and Powerful Providing a backstory for the man behind the curtain, director Sam Raimi gives us a prequel of sorts to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Herein we follow the adventures of a Depression-era Kansas circus magician named Oscar (James Franco) — Oz to his friends — as he cons, philanders, bickers with his behind-the-scenes assistant Frank (Zach Braff), and eventually sails away in a twister, bound for a Technicolor land of massively proportioned flora, talking fauna, and witches ranging from dazzlingly good to treacherously wicked. From one of them, Theodora (Mila Kunis), he learns that his arrival — in Oz, just to clarify — has set in motion the fulfillment of a prophecy: that a great wizard, also named Oz, will bring about the downfall of a malevolent witch (Rachel Weisz), saving the kingdom and its cheery, goodhearted inhabitants. Unfortunately for this deserving populace, Oz spent his last pre-twister moments with the Baum Bros. Circus (the name a tribute to L. Frank Baum, writer of the Oz children’s books) demonstrating a banged-up moral compass and an undependable streak and proclaiming that he would rather be a great man than a good man. Unfortunately for the rest of us, this theme is revisited ad nauseam as Oz and the oppressively beneficent witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) — whose magic appears to consist mainly of nice soft things like bubbles and fog — stand around debating whether he’s the right man for the task. When the fog clears, though, the view is undeniably pretty. While en route to and from the Emerald City, Oz and his companions — among them a non-evil flying monkey (voiced by Braff) and a rather adorable china doll (Joey King) — wander through a deliriously arresting, Fantasia-esque landscape whose intricate, inventive construction helps distract from the plodding, saccharine rhetoric and unappealing story line. (2:07) (Lynn Rapoport)

The Oscars are over … time for some new movies!


The Oscars are over! You may now openly admit that Silver Linings Playbook offered just a slightly edgier twist on a pretty predictable rom-com, with one great lead performance (duly rewarded) and a De Niro crying scene. Time to revisit the should-have-won-everything Holy Motors (which came out on Blu-ray this week) and cheer that theaters will finally begin phasing out all the awards hopefuls and bringing in fresh new movies.

This week: Cinequest continues in San Jose, the Roxie screens both a gleefully nasty pre-Code fest (Dennis Harvey’s appreciative article here) and a Jeffrey Dahmer doc (my review here). Hollywood trots out yet another fairytale-inspired CG spectacle, Jack the Giant Slayer; a submarine drama with Ed Harris and David Duchovny, Phantom; and a PG-13 horror sequel, The Last Exorcism Part II.

More reviews, including the Oscar-nominated Chilean import No and an informative doc about hunger in America, A Place at the Table, after the jump.

Lore Set in Germany amid the violent, chaotic aftermath of World War II, Lore levels some brutally frank lessons on its young protagonist. Pretty, smart 14-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is tasked with caring for her twin brothers, sister, and infant brother when her SS officer father (Hans-Jochen Wagner) and true-believer mother (Ursina Lardi) depart. Her seemingly hopeless mission is to get what’s left of her family across a topsy-turvy countryside to her grandmother’s house, a journey that’s less a fairy tale than a kind of inverted nightmare — yet another dystopic vision — as seen by children who must beg, barter, and scrounge to survive when they aren’t singing songs in praise of the Third Reich. Enter magnetic mystery man Thomas (Kai Malina), who offers Lore life lessons about the assumed enemy. Tarrying briefly to savor the sensual pleasure of a river bath or the beauty of a spring landscape, albeit one riddled with bodies, director and co-writer Cate Shortland rarely averts her eyes from the sexual and psychological dangers of her charges’ circumstances, making us not only care for her players but also imparting the dark magic of a world destroyed then born anew. (1:48) (Kimberly Chun)

No Long before the Arab Spring, a people’s revolution went down in Chile when a 1988 referendum toppled the country’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet, thanks in part to an ad exec who dared to sell the dream to his countrymen and women — using the relentlessly upbeat, cheesy language of a Pepsi Generation. In No‘s dramatization of this true story, ad man Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) is approached by the opposition to Pinochet’s regime to help them on their campaign to encourage Chile’s people to vote “no” to eight more years under the brutal strongman. Rene’s well-aware of the horrors of the dictatorship; not only are the disappeared common knowledge, his activist ex (Antonia Zegers) has been beaten and jailed with seeming regularity. Going up against his boss (Alfredo Castro), who’s overseeing the Pinochet campaign, Rene takes the brilliant tact in the opposition’s TV programs of selling hope — sound familiar? — promising “Chile, happiness is coming!” amid corny mimes, dancers, and the like. Director-producer Pablo Larrain turns out to be just as genius, shooting with a grainy U-matic ‘80s video camera to match his footage with 1988 archival imagery, including the original TV spots, in this invigorating spiritual kin of both 2012’s Argo and 1997’s Wag the Dog. (1:50) (Kimberly Chun)

A Place at the Table Obesity gets all the concern-trolling headlines, but America’s hunger crisis is also very real — and the two are closely related to each other, as Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush’s sobering, informative documentary investigates. A Place at the Table assembles a mix of talking-head experts, celebrities (actor and longtime hunger activist Jeff Bridges; celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, who’s married to Silverbush), and (most compellingly) average folks dealing with “food insecurity:” a Philadelphia single mom who joins the Witnesses to Hunger advocacy project; a pastor in small-town Colorado who oversees his struggling community’s crucial food bank; the Mississippi elementary-school teacher who uses her own struggles with diabetes to educate her students about nutrition. The film digs into the problem’s root causes (one being a government that prefers to subsidize mega-farming corporations that produce ingredients used in processed food), and conveys its message with authentic urgency. (1:24) (Cheryl Eddy)

The Sweeney Based on the 1970s British TV series, Nick Love’s action drama is bolstered enormously by Ray Winstone’s snarling-bulldog lead performance. He plays skull-cracking cop Regan, head of an elite unit that has relied upon freely violent, rule-bending methods to bust many an in-progress armed robbery. As his worried boss (Homeland‘s Damian Lewis) warns, internal affairs has taken an interest in Regan’s activites, and the situation isn’t helped by the fact that Regan is having an affair with a comely co-worker (Hayley Atwell) who is married to IA’s prick-in-chief (Steven Mackintosh). When a Serbian assassin enters the picture and monkey-wrenches Regan’s career, love life, and tenuously calibrated moral compass, all hell predictably breaks loose. Shot in moody, London-appropriate gray and blue monochrome, and featuring bravura set pieces (a shootout in Trafalgar Square) and a supporting cast that includes Ben Drew (a.k.a. rapper Plan B) and Downtown Abbey‘s Allen Leech, The Sweeney doesn’t surprise much with its beat-by-beat plot. But it’s enjoyable — maybe not enough to travel to Antioch (its only local theatrical opening) to see it, but worth a look on its simultaneous VOD release. (1:52) (Cheryl Eddy)

SF IndieFest, and a whole lot more: new movies!


First things first: the San Francisco Independent Film Festival kicked off last night and runs through Feb. 21 at various venues (mostly the Roxie). Check out my interviews with local shorts directors here, and some top picks throughout the festival here.

Also this week: cult director Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End (my chat with Mr. Bubba Ho-Tep here), Amy Berg’s West Memphis Three doc, West of Memphis (check out Nicole Gluckstern’s review here), and the Vortex Room’s love-ly new series (Dennis Harvey’s take here).

What’s more, 1986 action classic Top Gun gets the 3D IMAX re-release treatment (because any list of things that are better when they’re bigger, louder, and more in-yo-face include Soviet MiGs, Tom Cruise’s teeth, and Kenny Loggins jams). Reviews of comedies Identity Thief and Shanghai Calling, plus Steven Soderbergh’s maybe-swan song Side Effects, below the jump.

Identity Thief America is made up of asshole winners and nice guy losers — or at least that’s the thesis of Identity Thief, a comedy about a crying-clown credit card bandit (Melissa McCarthy) and the sweet sucker (Jason Bateman) she lures into her web of chaos. Bateman plays Sandy, a typical middle-class dude with a wife, two kids, and a third on the way. He’s always struggling to break even and just when it seems like his ship’s come in, Diana (McCarthy) jacks his identity — a crime that requires just five minutes in a dark room with Sandy’s social security number. Suddenly, his good name is contaminated with her prior arrests, drug-dealer entanglements, and mounting debt; it’s like the capitalist version of VD.  But as the “kind of person who has no friends,” Diana is as tragic as she is comic, providing McCarthy an acting opportunity no one saw coming when she was dispensing romantic advice on Gilmore Girls. Director Seth Gordon (2011’s Horrible Bosses) treats this comedy like an action movie — as breakneck as slapstick gets — and he relies so heavily on discomfort humor that the film doesn’t just prompt laughs, it pokes you in the ribs until you laugh, man, LAUGH! While Identity Thief has a few complex moments about how defeating “sticking it to the man” can be (mostly because only middle men get hurt), it’s mostly as subtle as a pratfall and just as (un-)rewarding. (1:25) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)

Shanghai Calling Hotshot lawyer Sam Chao (Daniel Henney) is his NYC firm’s top choice to be their man in Shanghai — much to his chagrin, since he puts the American in Chinese American. But off to the bustling, rapidly-expanding city he goes, knowing exactly only one word of Chinese (“fart”), and a classic fish-out-of-water comedy follows. His first day on the job, he bungles a billion-dollar deal, and spends the rest of the movie trying to set things right for his prickly client (Alan Ruck) — with the help of his ambitious assistant (Zhu Zhu), a perky relocation expert (Eliza Coupe), a fried-chicken mogul who runs an American-style bar (Bill Paxton), and a reporter who goes by the improbable moniker of “Awesome Wang” (Geng Le). Along the way, of course, he does some personal soul-searching, realizing there’s more to life than fancy-restaurant reservations and a high-stakes career. Writer-director Daniel Hsia’s Shanghai Calling doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s an undeniably entertaining tale of culture clash, backed up by an appealing cast to boot. (1:40) (Cheryl Eddy)

Side Effects Though on the surface Channing Tatum appears to be his current muse, Steven Soderbergh seems to have gotten his smart, topical groove back, the one that spurred him to kick off his feature filmmaking career with the on-point Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) and went missing with the fun, featherweight Ocean’s franchise. (Alas, he’s been making claims that Side Effects will be his last feature film.) Here, trendy designer antidepressants are the draw — mixed with the heady intoxicants of a murder mystery with a nice hard twist that would have intrigued either Hitchcock or Chabrol. As Side Effects opens, the waifish Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), whose inside-trading hubby (Tatum) has just been released from prison, looks like a big-eyed little basket of nerves ready to combust — internally, it seems, when she drives her car into a wall. Therapist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who begins to treat her after her hospital stay, seems to care about her, but nevertheless reflexively prescribes the latest anti-anxiety med of the day, on the advice of her former doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Where does his responsibility for Emily’s subsequent actions begin and end? Soderbergh and his very able cast fill out the issues admirably, with the urgency that was missing from the more clinical Contagion (2011) and the, ahem, meaty intelligence that was lacking in all but the more ingenious strip scenes of last year’s Magic Mike. (1:30) (Kimberly Chun)

Stallone, Walken, zombies, Oscar shorts, and more: new movies!


Yes you can find time to see a movie this otherwise football-y weekend. The ongoing Noir City and Sketchfest still have a lot of great upcoming programming, Sly Stallone is back in evocatively-titled action flick Bullet to the Head, a zombie finds love in Warm Bodies (review below), and all the Academy Award-nominated shorts are now available for big-screen viewing, for anyone who takes winning the office Oscar pool as seriously as … the Superbowl.

And speaking of the big game, the Roxie will be hosting its annual “Men in Tights” viewing party, a benefit for the theater and the upcoming SF IndieFest. So you can have your pigskin, and eat your popcorn too. GO NINERS!

“Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013: Animated” If you caught Wreck-It Ralph, nominated in the Best Animated Feature category, you’ve already seen John Kahrs’ Paperman, about a junior Mad Men type who bumbles through his pursuit of a lovely fellow office drone he spots on his commute. Or, if you saw Ice Age: Continental Drift, you’ve seen Maggie Simpson in The Longest Daycare, starring Homer and Marge’s wee one as she grapples with the social order at the Ayn Rand School for Tots. Among the stand-alones, Minkyu Lee’s Adam and Dog features a quick appearance by Eve, too, but the star is really the scrappy canine who gallops through prehistory playing the world’s first game of fetch with his hairy master. Two minutes is all PES (nom de screen of Adam Pesapane) needs to make Fresh Guacamole — which depicts grenades, dice, and other random objects as most unusual ingredients. The only non-US entry, UK director Timothy Reckart’s Head Over Heels, is about an elderly married couple whose relationship has deteriorated to the point where they (literally) no longer see eye to eye on anything. The program is rounded out by three more non-Oscar-nominated animated shorts: Britain’s The Gruffalo’s Child, featuring the voices of Helena Bonham Carter and Robbie Coltrane; French art-thief caper Dripped; and New Zealand’s sci-fi tale Abiogenesis. (1:28) (Cheryl Eddy)

“Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013: Documentary” Selections include San Francisco filmmaker Sari Gilman’s poignant study of a Florida retirement community, Kings Point; Cynthia Wade’s Mondays at Racine, about a beauty salon that provides free services for women who have lost their hair to cancer treatments; Sean Fine and Andrea Nix’s Inocente, a profile of a young, homeless, aspiring artist; Redemption, Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s take on New York dumpster divers; and Open Heart, Keif Davidson’s look at Rwandan children who travel to Sudan for high-risk surgery. (3:29)

“Oscar Nominated Short Films 2013: Live Action” Selections include Bryan Buckley’s Asad, about a Somali boy who must choose between fishing and piracy; Sam French’s Buzkashi Boys, about two young friends coming of age in war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan; Shawn Christensen’s babysitting yarn Curfew; Tom Van Avermaet’s supernatural love story Death of a Shadow; and another (sort-of) love story, Canadian Yan England’s Henry. (1:54)

Sound City Dave Grohl adds “documentary director” to his ever-lengthening resume with this tribute to the SoCal recording studio, where the grimy, funky décor was offset by a row of platinum records lining its hallway, marking in-house triumphs by Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, Neil Young, and others (even, yep, Rick Springfield). Top acts and producers (many of whom appear in the doc to dish and reminisce) were lured in by a unique recording console, installed in the early 1970s, whose legend grew with every new hit it helped engineer. Despite its reputation as a hit factory — and the attraction of its laid-back vibe and staff — old-school Sound City began to struggle once the highly-polished sound of digital technology overtook the music industry. That is, until Grohl and Nirvana recorded Nevermind there, keeping the studio alive until the unstoppable march of Pro Tools hammered the final nails in. Or did it? Sound City‘s final third follows Grohl’s purchase of the studio’s iconic console (“A piece of rock ‘n’ roll history,” he proclaims, though he installs it in a swanky refurbished space) and the recording of an album featuring luminaries from the studio’s past … plus Paul McCartney. The resulting doc is nostalgic, sure, but insider-y enough to entertain fans of classic rock, or at least anyone who’s ever sneered at a drum machine. (1:46) Roxie. (Cheryl Eddy)

Stand Up Guys Call it oldster pop, call it geriatricore, just don’t call it late for its meds. With the oncoming boomer elder explosion, we can Depends — har-dee-har-har — on the fact that action-crime thrillers-slash-comedies like 2010’s Red, 2012’s Robot and Frank, and now Stand Up Guys are just the vanguard of an imminent barrage of grumpy old pros locking and loading, grousing about their angina, and delivering wisdom with a dose of hard-won levity. As handled by onetime teen-comedy character actor Fisher Stevens, Stand Up Guys is a warm, worthy addition to that soon-to-be-well-populated pantheon. It grows on you as you spend time with it — much like the two aging reprobates at its core, Val (Al Pacino) and Doc (Christopher Walken). Val, the proverbial stand-up guy who took the fall for the rest of his gang, has just completed a 25-year-plus stint in the pen. There to meet him is his only pal, and former partner in crime, Doc, who has been leading a humble life but has one last hit to commit for their old boss Claphands (Mark Margolis), who’s inexplicably named after a Tom Waits song. Sex, drugs, and some Viagra commercial-esque bluesy guitars are in order, but first Val and Doc must find their drive, in the form of their old driver buddy Hirsch (Alan Arkin), who they break out of a rest home, and, perhaps, their moral compass, which arrives with the discovery of a victim (Vanessa Ferlito) of baddies much less couth than themselves. The pleasure comes with following these stand-up guys as they make that leap from craven self-preservation to heroism, which might seem implausible to some. But to the cast’s, and Stevens’s, credit, they make it work — and even give the sentiment-washed finale a swashbuckling buddy-movie romanticism, the kind that a young Tarantino might dislike and an older Tarantino would be loathe to begrudge his lovable louses. (1:34) (Kimberly Chun)

Warm Bodies A decade and a half of torrid, tormented vampire-human entanglements has left us accustomed to rooting for romances involving the undead and the still-alive. Some might argue, however, that no amount of pop-cultural prepping could be sufficient to get us behind a human-zombie love story for the ages. Is guzzling human blood really measurably less gross than making a meal of someone’s brains and other body parts? Somehow, yes. Recognizing this perceptual hurdle, writer-director Jonathan Levine (2011’s 50/50, 2008’s The Wackness) secures our sympathies at the outset of Warm Bodies by situating us inside the surprisingly active brain of the film’s zombie protagonist. Zombies, it turns out, have internal monologues. R (Nicholas Hoult) can only remember the first letter of his former name, but as he shambles and shuffles and slumps his way through the terminals of a postapocalyptic airport overrun by his fellow corpses (as they’re called by the film’s human population), he fills us in as best he can on the global catastrophe that’s occurred and his own ensuing existential crisis. By the time he meets not-so-cute with Julie (Teresa Palmer), a young woman whose father (John Malkovich) is commander-in-chief of the human survivors living in a walled-off city center, we’ve learned that he collects vinyl, that he has a zombie best friend, and that he doesn’t want to be like this. We may still be flinching at the thought of his and Julie’s first kiss, but we’re also kind of rooting for him. The plot gapes in places, where a tenuous logic gets trampled and gives way, but Levine’s script, adapted from a novel by Isaac Marion, is full of funny riffs on the zombie condition, which Hoult invests with a comic sweetness as his character staggers toward the land of the living. (1:37) (Lynn Rapoport)

Arnold’s baaaack! Plus more new movies


Get to the theatah! California’s (thankfully, former) Governor returns to the multiplex to do what he does best: speak in one-liners and carry a big gun. My review of The Last Stand below the jump, along with short takes on the Mark Wahlberg-Russell Crowe crime drama Broken City, and more.

Also this week: Hellbound?, a doc about damnation at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (Dennis Harvey’s take here); the Mostly British Film Festival (my round-up here); and the Guillermo del Toro-endorsed horror flick Mama, starring Jessica “Zero Dark Oscar” Chastain. Plus, tonight, the original Django (1966) screens at the Castro! More here.

Broken City Catherine Zeta-Jones’ measured performance and killer wardrobe run away with this uneven political thriller about a made-up Manhattan with real(-ish) problems. Russell Crowe is only slightly improving his record post-Les Mis, as he plays another harried and morally confused agent “for the people.” Here, he’s Mayor Hostetler, a swaggering politico with fingers in New York’s real estate cookie jar and the sort of “get shit done” directive that results in bodies lying in NYC’s overfilled gutters. Good thing he has Mark Wahlberg in his back pocket, a cop who slipped a murder wrap and now scrapes the bottom for gigs as a private detective. Seven years ago Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) was seeking vigilante justice for the victim of a rape-murder in the city’s biggest ghetto. The victim became a household name but the killer was let off, leading to cries about the validity of NY’s justice system and to allusions to the Central Park Five. Broken City is less about a broken City and more about broken Men, and there are certain elements that seem too subtle for a story built on such bald-faced and predictable strategy. Between a script that’s struggling to demonstrate moral compromise and integrity, and direction (by Allen Hughes) that’s as sensitive to nuance as a border collie, it’s hard to find much beyond Zeta-Jones’ shoe stylings to admire. (1:49) (Sara Maria Vizcarrondo)

The Last Stand With gun control issues dominating the news, what better time to release a movie that lovingly glorifies the wonders of excessive firepower? Fortunately for star Arnold Schwarzenegger, making his return to leading-man status after that little fling with politics, The Last Stand is stupidly enjoyable enough to make any such PC-minded realizations relatively fleeing ones. When a Mexican drug lord (who also happens to be an expert race-car driver) escapes from federal custody and begins speeding home in a super-Corvette, the lead FBI agent (Forest Whitaker, slumming big-time) realizes his only hope is a teeny Arizona border town that happens to be overseen by Sheriff Schwarzenegger. (Other residents include a couple of hapless deputies; an Iraq war vet; and a gun nut played by a cartoonishly obnoxious Johnny Knoxville.) Can this ragtag crew hold off first the drug lord’s advance team (led by a swaggering Peter Stormare), and then the head baddie himself? Duh. The biggest surprise The Last Stand offers is that it’s actually pretty fun — no doubt thanks to the combo of Korean director Kim Jee-woon (2008’s eccentric The Good, The Bad, and the Weird; 2003’s spooky A Tale of Two Sisters) and the heft of Schwarzenegger’s still-potent charisma. (1:47) (Cheryl Eddy)

The Law in These Parts Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s documentary is a rather extraordinary historical record: he interviews numerous retired Israeli judges and lawyers who shaped and enforced the country’s legal positions as occupiers of Palestinian land and “temporary guardians” of a Palestinian populace living under foreign occupation. The key word there is “temporary” — in using here a different (military rather than civil) justice from the one Israeli citizens experience, Israel has been able to exert the extraordinary powers of an invading force in wartime. But what is “temporary” about an occupation that’s now lasted nearly 45 years? How can the state justify (under Geneva Convention rules, for one thing) building permanent Jewish settlements that now house about half a million Israelis on land that is as yet not legally Israel’s? By constantly changing the terms and laws of occupation, they do just that. If many policies have been perhaps necessary to control terrorist attacks, one can argue that they and other policies have created the climate in which oppositional fervor and terroristic acts were bound to flourish. That, of course, is a political-ethical judgement far beyond the public purview of the judges and others here, whose dry legalese admits no personal culpability — and indeed sometimes seems almost absurdly divorced from real-world ethics and consequence, which of course serves an increasingly rigid governmental stance just fine. Without preaching, The Law in These Parts raises a number of discomfiting questions about bending law to suit an agenda that in any other context would seem frankly unlawful. (1:40) Roxie. (Dennis Harvey)

Let Fury Have the Hour Though its message — that creative expression is a powerful, meaningful way to fight oppression — is a valuable one, Antonino D’Ambrosio’s Let Fury Have the Hour covers turf well-trod for anyone who has ever seen a documentary about punk rock and social justice. (Especially when it contains usual suspects like Ian MacKaye, Shepard Fairey, and Billy Bragg waxing nostalgic about how nonconformist they were in the 1980s.) In truth, Fury is more collage than doc, pasting together talking-head interviews (also here: Chuck D, John Sayles, Van Jones, Tom Morello, Boots Riley, and Wayne Kramer, plus a few token women, chiefly Eve Ensler) with a mish-mash of sepia-toned stock footage that more or less thematically compliments what’s being discussed at the time. A more focused examination of D’Ambrosio’s thesis might have resulted in a more effective film — like, say, an in-depth look at how Sayles’ politically-themed films (here, he reads from the script for 1987’s Matewan in a frustratingly brief segment) are echoed in works by contemporary artists and citizen journalists, particularly now that the internet has opened up a global platform for protest films. Listen: I admire what the film is trying to do. I am OK with watching yet another doc that contains the phrase “Punk rock politicized me.” But with too much lip service and precious little depth, Fury‘s fury ends up feeling a bit diluted. (1:40) Balboa. (Cheryl Eddy)

LUV Baltimore native Sheldon Candis drew from his own childhood for this coming-of-age tale, which takes place in a single day as 11-year-old “little man” Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) tags along with his uncle, Vincent (Common), recently out of jail and rapidly heading back down the criminal path. With both parents out of the picture, Woody’s been raised by his grandmother (Lonette McKee), so he idolizes Vincent even though it’s soon clear the short-tempered man is no hero. Of course, things go horribly awry, bloody lessons are learned, tears are shed, etc. Despite the story’s autobiographical origins, the passable LUV suffers greatly by inviting comparisons to The Wire — the definitive docudrama examining drug crime in Baltimore. Most blatantly, sprinkled into an all-star cast (Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton) are supporting characters played by Wire icons Michael K. “Omar” Williams (as a cop) and Anwan “Slim Charles” Glover (as a meaner Slim Charles, basically). Perhaps if you’ve never seen the show this wouldn’t be distracting — but if that’s the case, you should really be watching The Wire instead of LUV anyway. (1:34) (Cheryl Eddy)

The Rabbi’s Cat A rabbi, a Muslim musician, two Russians (a Jew and a boozy Christian), and two talking animals hop into an antique Citroën for a road trip across Africa. No, it’s not the set-up for a joke; it’s the premise for this charming animated film, adapted from Joann Sfar’s graphic novel (the author co-directs with Antoine Delesvaux). In 1930s Algiers, a rabbi’s pet cat suddenly develops the ability to talk — and read and write, by the way — and wastes no time in sharing opinions, particularly when it comes to religion (“God is just a comforting invention!”) When a crate full of Russian prayer books — and one handsome artist — arrives at the rabbi’s house, man and cat are drawn into the refugee’s search for an Ethiopian city populated by African Jews. Though it’s not suitable for younger kids (there’s kitty mating, and a few bursts of surprising violence) or diehard Tintin fans (thanks to a randomly cranky spoof of the character), The Rabbi’s Cat is a lushly illustrated, witty tale of cross-cultural clashes and connections. Rockin’ soundtrack, too. (1:29) (Cheryl Eddy)

Oscar contender ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ opens today! Plus (a few) more new movies


At last, the movie most likely to challenge Lincoln for Best Picture opens in San Francisco, with an even wider release coming next week. Check out my review of Zero Dark Thirty here. Highly recommended, and even if it doesn’t snag the top trophy, look for Jessica Chastain to win Best Actress. (More Oscar predictions here, in case you’re getting your pool in order extra-early.)

Also this week: Texas Chainsaw 3D (the first two films in this series, I’ll defend to the death … no interest in seeing this one, frankly), a re-release of Luis Buñuel’s 1970 drama Tristana, and freewheeling New Orleans doc Tchoupitoulas (reviews of the latter two after the jump).

Tristana The morality tale rarely gets as twisted as it does in Luis Buñuel’s 1970 late-in-the-day beauty Tristana. Working with Benito Perez Galdos’s novel, the filmmaker gleefully picked up a thread entwining erotic politics and S&M — explored to exquisite effect in 1967’s Belle de Jour and again offset by the immaculate bone structure of anti-heroine Catherine Deneuve — while bringing a corrosive intimacy to his black-humored disembowelment of a self-serving aristocracy, hypocritical church, and Franco-era fascism. Today it feels like one of Buñuel’s most personal and Spanish films, with the director-cowriter basing the impressionable Tristana on his sister Conchita. The starting point is an archetypal innocent “strange flower” clad in black, Tristana (Deneuve). She has been placed in the care of the aristocratic Don Lope (Buñuel regular Fernando Rey), a dissolute “senorito” (akin to Buñuel’s own father) who lives off his inheritance and espouses a kind of anti-clerical, antiauthoritarian, albeit elitist, libertine lifestyle. The patriarch can hardly deny himself anything, let alone his gorgeous ward, who is confined to the house like a prisoner and learns at Don Lope’s feet to despise the man who admits he’s her father or her husband, depending on when it suits him. Enter a dashing young artist Horacio (Franco Nero, the original Django) to spirit the increasingly embittered Tristana away from the battered, mazelike streets of Toledo, Spain. But that feat is far from easy when the “fallen” woman’s daydreams of teaching piano pale in comparison to a recurring nightmare of Don Lope’s head at the end of a rather phallic church bell clapper. What follows — photographed with disciplined, earthy beauty by cinematographer Jose Aguayo and now restored to its dusky, lustrous good looks—is a de-evolution of sorts, as both an innocent and corruptor are defiled, though Tristana’s psychosexual reverberations, which would have given both Freud and the Marquis de Sade palpitations, echo out beyond the closing montage, its tolling bell, and the repeated heavy thud of a prosthetic slamming into the floor. (1:38) (Kimberly Chun)

Tchopitoulas Three adolescent brothers enjoy a dusk-to-dawn night in the Big Easy — New Orleans, baby — in this impressionistic documentary that blurs the line between staged and sampled lyricism. Bill and Turner Ross’ film sets the trio loose in the French Quarter and beyond, where they sample the company of various drunks, buskers, oyster shuckers, painted ladies, and so forth. No laws are conspicuously broken, though a few get bent — it’s safe to say these kids probably won’t be visiting several environs again until they’re of legal drinking age. The long night is an inebriate dream of color and sound, strange but seldom menacing. Like the “city symphony” movies of the 1920s and 30s, this is less nonfiction cinema in a strict vérité vein than a poetically contrived ode to life — a life that’s sturdier than it looks, since Tchoupitoulas finds NO back to the business of partying like Katrina never happened. If you’re looking for a harder-edged portrait of the burg’s status quo, there are plenty of other documentaries to choose from; the Ross’ provide a woozy mash note rather than a sober pulse-taking. You’ll definitely want to go bar-hopping afterward. (1:20) (Dennis Harvey)

Holiday movie massacre!


FILM To paraphrase Christmas Vacation (1989), 2012 is poised to deliver the biggest late-December film glut since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny Fucking Kaye. From Wednesday, December 19 to Tuesday, December 25, no less than 12 new movies are opening in the Bay Area, doomsday be damned.

Because I would not want to steer you wrong in this most wonderful time of the year — and since the movie everyone’s buzzing about, Zero Dark Thirty, doesn’t open in San Francisco until January 4; trust me, it’s worth the wait — I’m taking a cue from the man with the bag and making a list, checking it twice, etc. Who’s naughty, and who’s nice? Read on for my rundown of this year’s holiday movies.

Top of the food chain: Er, unchained. Django Unchained (out Tue/25), that is. Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western homage features a cameo by the original Django (Franco Nero, star of the 1966 film), and solid performances by a meticulously assembled cast, including Jamie Foxx as the titular former slave who becomes a badass bounty hunter under the tutelage of Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing the evil yet befuddlingly delightful Nazi Hans Landa in Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds, is just as memorable (and here, you can feel good about liking him) as a quick-witted, quick-drawing wayward German dentist.

There are no Nazis in Django, of course, but Tarantino’s taboo du jour (slavery) more than supplies motivation for the filmmaker’s favorite theme (revenge). Once Django joins forces with Schultz, the natural-born partners hatch a scheme to rescue Django’s still-enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whose German-language skills are as unlikely as they are convenient. Along the way (and it’s a long way; the movie runs 165 minutes), they encounter a cruel plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose main passion is the offensive, shocking “sport” of “Mandingo fighting,” and his right-hand man, played by Tarantino muse Samuel L. Jackson in a transcendently scandalous performance.

And amid all the violence and racist language and Foxx vengeance-making, there are many moments of screaming hilarity, as when a character with the Old South 101 name of Big Daddy (Don Johnson) argues with the posse he’s rounded up over the proper construction of vigilante hoods. It’s a classic Tarantino moment: pausing the action so characters can blather on about something trivial before an epic scene of violence. Mr. Pink would approve.

A disaster movie to make you rethink your tropical vacation: Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (2007’s The Orphanage) directs The Impossible (Fri/21), a relatively modestly-budgeted take on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, based on the real story of a Spanish family who experienced the disaster. Here, the family (Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, three young sons) is British, on a Christmas vacation from dad’s high-stress job in Japan.

Beachy bliss is soon ruined by that terrible series of waves; they hit early in the film, and Bayona offers a devastatingly realistic depiction of what being caught in a tsunami must feel like: roaring, debris-filled water threatening death by drowning, impalement, or skull-crushing. And then, the anguish of surfacing, alive but injured, stranded, and miles from the nearest doctor, not knowing if your family members have perished.

Without giving anything away (no more than the film’s suggestive title, anyway), once the survivors are established (and the film’s strongest performer, Watts, is relegated to hospital-bed scenes) The Impossible finds its way inevitably to melodrama, and triumph-of-the-human-spirit theatrics. As the family’s oldest son, 16-year-old Tom Holland is effective as a kid who reacts exactly right to crisis, morphing from sulky teen to thoughtful hero — but the film is too narrowly focused on its tourist characters, with native Thais mostly relegated to background action. It’s a disconnect that’s not quite offensive, but is still off-putting.

A disastrous movie to make you rethink procreation: A spin-off of sorts from 2007’s Knocked Up, Judd Apatow’s This is 40 (Fri/21) continues the story of two characters nobody cared about from that earlier film: Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife) and Pete (Paul Rudd), plus their two kids (played by Mann and Apatow’s kids). Pete and Debbie have accumulated all the trappings of comfortable Los Angeles livin’: luxury cars, a huge house, a private personal trainer, the means to throw catered parties and take weekend trips to fancy hotels (and to whimsically decide to go gluten-free), and more Apple products than have ever before been shoehorned into a single film.

But! This was crap they got used to having before Pete’s record label went into the shitter, and Debbie’s dress-shop employee (Charlene Yi, another Knocked Up returnee who is one of two people of color in the film; the other is an Indian doctor who exists so Pete can mock his accent) started stealing thousands from the register. How will this couple and their whiny offspring deal with their financial reality? By arguing! About bullshit! In every scene! For nearly two and a half hours! By the time Melissa McCarthy, as a fellow parent, shows up to command the film’s only satisfying scene — ripping Pete and Debbie a new one, which they sorely deserve — you’re torn between cheering for her and wishing she’d never appeared. Seeing McCarthy go at it is a reminder that most comedies don’t make you feel like stabbing yourself in the face. I’m honestly perplexed as to who this movie’s audience is supposed to be. Self-loathing yuppies? Masochists? Apatow’s immediate family, most of whom are already in the film?

For theater geeks only: By contrast, the audience Les Misérables (Tue/25) hopes to reel in is abundantly clear. There is a not-insignificant portion of the population who already knows all the words to all the songs of this musical-theater warhorse, around since the 1980s and honored here with a lavish production by Tom Hooper (2010’s The King’s Speech).

As other reviews have pointed out, this version only tangentially concerns Victor Hugo’s French Revolution tale; its true raison d’être is swooning over the sight of its big-name cast crooning those famous tunes. Vocals were recorded live on-set, with microphones digitally removed in post-production — but despite this technical achievement, there’s a certain inorganic quality to the proceedings. Like The King’s Speech, the whole affair feels spliced together in the Oscar-creation lab. The hardworking Hugh Jackman deserves the nomination he’ll inevitably get; jury’s still out on Anne Hathaway’s blubbery, “I cut my hair for real, I am so brave!” performance.

For Marion Cotillard fans disappointed by The Dark Knight Rises: Hathaway’s Dark Knight co-star also has a new movie out this week. Unlike Hathaway, Rust and Bone (Fri/21) star Marion Cotillard never seems like she’s trying too hard to be sexy, or edgy, or whatever (plus, she already has an Oscar, so the pressure’s off). Here, she’s a whale trainer at a SeaWorld-type park who loses her legs in an accident, which complicates (but ultimately strengthens) her relationship with Ali (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, so tremendous in 2011’s Bullhead), a single dad trying to make a name for himself as a boxer.

Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to 2009’s A Prophet gets a bit overwrought by its last act, but there’s an emotional authenticity in the performances that makes even a ridiculous twist (like, the kind that’ll make you exclaim “Are you fucking kidding me?”) feel almost well-earned.

For those who are more Black Christmas (1974) than The Christmas Story (1983): Yes, Virginia, even smaller genre flicks get Christmas release dates. Irish import Citadel (Fri/21 at the Roxie) begins with terror: a young pregnant woman, on the verge of moving out of her soon-to-be-condemned high-rise, is attacked — while her husband, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard), looks on helplessly — by a pack of hoodie-wearing youths who inject her with a mysterious substance.

Though the baby lives, the woman dies, and Tommy becomes a haunted, paranoid husk of a man. Not that you can really blame him; the housing project he lives in is nearly deserted, and those hoodie-wearing gangs seem to be increasing (and are increasingly interested in his infant daughter). After an ominous build-up, the darkly disturbing Citadel can’t quite keep the momentum going, though James Cosmo (Game of Thrones fans will recognize him even out of his Night’s Watch blacks) offers an amusingly over-the-top performance as a foul-mouthed priest.

Thriller Deadfall (Fri/21), set amid a howling blizzard, has an all-star cast: Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde play a creepy-close brother-sister team who crash their getaway car after a successful casino heist; Sons of Anarchy‘s Charlie Hunnam plays a vengeful boxer just out of the slammer (with nervous parents played by Kris Kristofferson and Sissy Spacek); and Treat Williams and Kate Mara are an antagonistic father-daughter team of cops chasing after most of the above. Bana’s glowering performance is the high point of this noir-Western, though if the snowy landscape were a character, it’d be the most important part of the ensemble.

And the rest: Tom Cruise plays Lee Child’s taciturn ex-military investigator in action thriller Jack Reacher (Fri/21) — featuring a villainous Werner Herzog; Sulley and company return in Pixar’s enhanced re-release of its 2001 animated hit, Monsters, Inc. 3D (Wed/19); more 3D in acrobatic fantasy Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (Fri/21); a son (Seth Rogen) and mother (Barbra Streisand) drive cross-country in comedy The Guilt Trip (Wed/19); and Billy Crystal plays a harried grandpa on babysitting duty in Parental Guidance (Tue/25).


Heroic shorties return! “The Hobbit” and more new movies


One more week until Hollywood unleashes a mighty flood of new films, in honor of noted multiplex fan Baby Jesus. This week’s only big release is Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which at two hours and 46 minutes is definitely a pee-before, bring-snacks-to-eat-during experience. My review below the jump, along with takes on the Alan Cumming showcase Any Day Now and Israeli coming-of-age drama The Matchmaker.

Also worth the popcorn calories: documentarian Ken Burns’ provocative look at one of New York City’s most infamous crimes, The Central Park Five; less so is the FDR dramedy Hyde Park on Hudson, which does star Bill Murray, so at least it has that goin’ for it, which is nice. I review both films here.

Any Day Now In 1970s West Hollywood, flamboyant drag queen Rudy (Alan Cumming) and closeted, newly divorced lawyer Paul (Garret Dillahunt) meet and become an unlikely but loving couple. Their opposites-attract bond strengthens when they become de facto parents to Marco (Isaac Leyva), a teen with Down syndrome left adrift when his party-girl mother (Jamie Anne Allman) is arrested. Domestic bliss — school for Marco with a caring special-education teacher (Kelli Williams); a fledgling singing career for Rudy (so: lots of crooning, for Cumming superfans) — is threatened by rampant homophobia, so Rudy and Paul must conceal their true relationship from Paul’s overbearing boss and the other parents at Marco’s school. When the secret gets out, the fact that Marco is being well cared-for matters not to the law; he’s immediately shunted into a foster home while Paul and Rudy battle the court for custody. Actor-turned-director and co-writer Travis Fine (2010’s The Space Between) guides a veteran cast through this based-on-true-events tale, with sensitive performances and realistic characterizations balancing out the story’s broader strokes. (1:43) (Cheryl Eddy)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Make no mistake: the Lord of the Rings trilogy represented an incredible filmmaking achievement, with well-deserved Oscars handed down after the third installment in 2003. If director Peter Jackson wanted to go one more round with J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved characters for a Hobbit movie, who was gonna stop him? Not so fast. This return to Middle-earth (in 3D this time) represents not one but three films — which would be self-indulgent enough even if part one didn’t unspool at just under three hours, and even if Jackson hadn’t decided to shoot at 48 frames per second. (I can’t even begin to explain what that means from a technical standpoint, but suffice to say there’s a certain amount of cinematic lushness lost when everything is rendered in insanely crystal-clear hi-def.) Journey begins as Bilbo Baggins (a game, funny Martin Freeman) reluctantly joins Gandalf (a weary-seeming Ian McKellan) and a gang of dwarves on their quest to reclaim their stolen homeland and treasure, batting Orcs, goblins, Gollum (Andy Serkis), and other beasties along the way. Fan-pandering happens (with characters like Cate Blanchett’s icy Galadriel popping in to remind you how much you loved LOTR), and the story moves at a brisk enough pace, but Journey never transcends what came before — or in the chronology of the story, what comes after. I’m not quite ready to declare this Jackson’s Phantom Menace (1999), but it’s not an completely unfair comparison to make, either. (2:50) (Cheryl Eddy)

The Matchmaker In 2006, amid ongoing conflict with Lebanon, an Israeli novelist learns he’s received an unexpected inheritance from a man he knew in 1968, the summer before he turned 16. Most of Avi Nesher’s The Matchmaker takes place during those golden months in Haifa, when young Arik (Tuval Shafir) — lover of Dashiell Hammett, son of Holocaust survivors — takes a job working for a charismatic but vaguely shady matchmaker (comedian Adir Miller, who won the Israeli equivalent of a Best Actor Oscar), following potential clients to assure their quest for love is on the level. His exciting new gig whisks the budding writer out of middle-class monotony and introduces him to a wealth of colorful “Low Rent district” types; he also nurses a raging crush on his best friend’s free-spirited American cousin. Mostly a gently nostalgic tale, The Matchmaker also offers an unusual take on the Holocaust, viewing it from two decades later and using its looming memory to shape the characters who experienced it firsthand — as well as members of the younger generation, like Arik, who pages through The House of Dolls to learn more, even as he refers to the concentration camp where his father was held as simply “there.” (1:52) (Cheryl Eddy)

‘Holy Motors’ and everything else: new movies


This week: Keira Knightley takes on a classic, but Jennifer Lawrence proves more worthy of leading-lady praise in a decidedly contemporary tale. Also, The Twilight Saga takes its fangs and goes home (at last), and HOLY MOTORS HOLY MOTORS HOLY MOTORS.

Anna Karenina Joe Wright broke out of British TV with the 9,000th filmed Pride and Prejudice (2005), unnecessary but quite good. Too bad it immediately went to his head. His increasing showiness as director enlivened the silly teenage-superspy avenger fantasy Hanna (2011), but it started to get in the way of Atonement (2007), a fine book didn’t need camera gymnastics to make a great movie. Now it’s completely sunk a certified literary masterpiece still waiting for a worthy film adaptation. Keira Knightley plays the titular 19th century St. Petersburg aristocrat whose staid, happy-enough existence as a doting mother and dutiful wife (to deglammed Jude Law’s honorable but neglectful Karenin) is upended when she enters a mutually passionate affair with dashing military officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, miscast). Scandal and tragedy ensue.

There’s nothing wrong with the screenplay, by Tom Stoppard no less. What’s wrong is Wright’s bright idea of staging the whole shebang as if it were indeed staged — a theatrical production in which nearly everything (even a crucial horse race) takes place on a procenium stage, in the auditorium, or “backstage” among riggings. Whenever we move into a “real” location, the director makes sure that transition draws attention to its own cleverness as possible. What, you might ask, is the point? That the public social mores and society Anna lives in are a sort of “acting”? Like wow. Add to that another brittle, mannered performance by Wright’s muse Knightley, and there’s no hope of involvement here, let alone empathy — in love with its empty (but very prettily designed) layers of artifice, this movie ends up suffocating all emotion in gilded horseshit. The reversed-fortune romance between Levin (Domhall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander) does work quite well — though since Tolstoy called his novel Anna Karenina, it’s a pretty bad sign when the subsidiary storyline ends up vastly more engaging than hers. (2:10) (Dennis Harvey)

Brooklyn Castle Geeks rock — that much we all know in the science- and math-rich Bay Area. That doesn’t lessen the impact of this documentary about Brooklyn I.S. 318’s young chess players, who have won the most junior high chess championships in the country and were the first middle school team to win the US Chess Federation’s national high school championship. With 60-plus percent of the students below the federal poverty level, the players certainly aren’t rolling in privilege, especially during these budget-slashing times. Nonetheless, with the help of caring teachers and an intensive chess class, the school’s players, spanning a spectrum of skills with some surpassing even Einstein’s rating, have managed to bring home state and national championships for the school — and vastly improved their prospects along the way. They range from Rochelle, the shy girl who has the chance to become the first African American female chess master; Alexis, the boy who yearns to get into a good high school and college to care for his immigrant parents; Justus, the sixth-grade chess prodigy who’s already a master and suffers intensely when he loses; and Pobo, the sweet-faced son of Nigerian émigrés who says he probably wouldn’t even be in school if not for chess. Brooklyn Castle is about chess, yes, as director Katie Dellamaggiore takes the time to spell out the rating and tournament point systems, but it’s also just as importantly about the kids, who are smart, strategic, and getting primed to play the game of life. (1:42) (Kimberly Chun)

Holy Motors Holy moly. Offbeat auteur Leos Carax (1999’s Pola X) and frequent star Denis Lavant (1991’s Lovers on the Bridge) collaborate on one of the most bizarrely wonderful films of the year, or any year. Oscar (Lavant) spends every day riding around Paris in a white limo driven by Céline (Edith Scob, whose eerie role in 1960’s Eyes Without a Face is freely referenced here). After making use of the car’s full complement of wigs, theatrical make-up, and costumes, he emerges for “appointments” with unseen “clients,” who apparently observe each vignette as it happens. And don’t even try to predict what’s coming next, or decipher what it all means, beyond an investigation of identity so original you won’t believe your eyes. This wickedly humorous trip through motion-capture suits, graveyard photo shoots, teen angst, back-alley gangsters, old age, and more (yep, that’s the theme from 1954’s Godzilla you hear; oh, and yep, that’s pop star Kylie Minogue) is equal parts disturbing and delightful. Movies don’t get more original or memorable than this. (1:56) (Cheryl Eddy)

A Royal Affair At age 15 in 1766, British princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) travels abroad to a new life — as queen to the new ruler of Denmark, her cousin. Attractive and accomplished, she is judged a great success by everyone but her husband. King Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is just a teenager himself, albeit one whose mental illness makes him behave alternately like a debauched libertine, a rude two year-old, a sulky-rebellious adolescent, and a plain old abusive spouse. Once her principal official duty is fulfilled — bearing a male heir — the two do their best to avoid each other. But on a tour of Europe Christian meets German doctor Johann Friedrich Struenesse (Mads Mikkelsen), a true man of the Enlightenment who not only has advanced notions about calming the monarch’s “eccentricities,” but proves a tolerant and agreeable royal companion. Lured back to Denmark as the King’s personal physician, he soon infects the cultured Queen with the fervor of his progressive ideas, while the two find themselves mutually attracted on less intellectual levels as well. When they start manipulating their unstable but malleable ruler to push much-needed public reforms through in the still basically feudal nation, they begin acquiring powerful enemies. This very handsome-looking history lesson highlights a chapter relatively little-known here, and finds in it an interesting juncture in the eternal battle between masters and servants, the piously self-interested and the secular humanists. At the same time, Nikolaj Arcel’s impressively mounted and acted film is also somewhat pedestrian and overlong. It’s a quality costume drama, but not a great one. (2:17) (Dennis Harvey)

Silver Linings Playbook After guiding two actors to Best Supporting Oscars in 2010’s The Fighter, director David O. Russell returns (adapting his script from Matthew Quick’s novel) with another darkly comedic film about a complicated family that will probably earn some gold of its own. Though he’s obviously not ready to face the outside world, Pat (Bradley Cooper) checks out of the state institution he’s been court-ordered to spend eight months in after displaying some serious anger-management issues. He moves home with his football-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and worrywart mother (Jacki Weaver of 2010’s Animal Kingdom), where he plunges into a plan to win back his estranged wife. Cooper plays Pat as a man vibrating with troubled energy — always in danger of flying into a rage, even as he pursues his forced-upbeat “silver linings” philosophy. But the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, who proves the chops she showcased (pre-Hunger Games megafame) in 2010’s Winter’s Bone were no fluke. As the damaged-but-determined Tiffany, she’s the left-field element that jolts Pat out of his crazytown funk; she’s also the only reason Playbook‘s dance-competition subplot doesn’t feel eye-rollingly clichéd. The film’s not perfect, but Lawrence’s layered performance — emotional, demanding, bitchy, tough-yet-secretly-tender — damn near is. (2:01) (Cheryl Eddy)

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 The final installment of the Twilight franchise picks up shortly after the medical-emergency vampirization of last year’s Breaking Dawn – Part 1, giving newly undead Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) just enough time to freshen up after nearly being torn asunder during labor by her hybrid spawn, Renesmee. In a just world, Bella and soul mate Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) would get more of a honeymoon period, given how badly Part 1’s actual honeymoon turned out. Alas, there’s just enough time for some soft-focus vampire-on-vampire action (a letdown after all the talk of rowdy undead sex), some catamount hunting, some werewolf posturing, a reunion with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), and a few seconds of Cullen family bonding, and then those creepy Volturi are back, convinced that the Cullens have committed a vampire capital crime and ready to exact penance. Director Bill Condon (1998’s Gods and Monsters, 2004’s Kinsey) knows what the Twi-hards want and methodically doles it out, but the overall effect is less sweeping action and shivery romance and more “I have bugs crawling on me — and yet I’m bored.” Some of that isn’t his fault — he bears no responsibility for naming Renesmee, for instance, to say nothing of a January-May subplot that we’re asked to wrap our brains around. But the film maintains such a loose emotional grip, shifting clumsily and robotically from comic interludes to unintentionally comic interludes to soaring-music love scenes to attempted pathos to a snowy battlefield where the only moment of any dramatic value occurs. Weighed down by the responsibility of bringing The Twilight Saga to a close, it limps weakly to its anticlimax, leaving one almost — but not quite — wishing for one more installment, a chance for a more stirring farewell. (1:55) (Lynn Rapoport)

Presidents, secret agents, and true stories galore: new movies!


The election is over and, thank Zeus, good defeated evil. So you can stop making snarky Romney gifs and turn your attentions to more important matters — like seeing Lincoln (yeah, he was a Republican, but as Spielberg’s movie makes abundantly clear, Democrats were actually the bigger assholes back in the day). Or, you could see what ol’ James Bond is up to in his 4785th film, Skyfall (just kidding — it’s his 23rd, so Godzilla still has him beat). Reviews for both below the jump.

Elsewhere, DocFest opens tonight and runs through Nov. 21; check out my take on this year’s programming (spoiler alert: lots o’ good stuff) here; and read Dennis Harvey’s review of a very strange movie starring a very strangely coiffed Sean Penn, This Must Be the Place.

And … as if that would be everything going on in San Francisco’s film scene this week? Are you new in town? There’s also the San Francisco Film Society’s local showcase Cinema By the Bay (my overview here) and New Italian Cinema programs; the always-popular (and now 10th annual!) San Francisco Transgender Film Festival; and Marc Huestis’ multi-film tribute to the late, great Natalie Wood at the Castro.

PLUS more short takes, including the good word on Ursula Meier’s acclaimed Sister, below.

Dangerous Liaisons John Malkovich and Sarah Michelle Gellar may have already starred in pop culture’s favorite adaptations of this classic French novel, but since pretty people scheming never gets old, here’s a Chinese take on Les Liaisons dangereuses, complete with big-name cast and all the visual allure of 1930s Shanghai. “You are such a cad!” a woman shrieks at Xie Yifan (Jang Dong-gun) in the first scene, and indeed he is — though his heart belongs to “Miss Mo” (Cecilia Cheung). The malicious wager (if you seduce her and then horribly dump her, I’ll let you sleep with me … plus: incidental affairs along the way) is struck and things proceed on schedule, until Yifan finds himself actually falling for virtuous widow Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi). You know how it ends. Gorgeous costumes and mise-en-scène add visual interest to the familiar story, which also adds a little political flair in the form of Chinese students protesting the early days of Japanese occupation. (1:45) (Cheryl Eddy)

The Details One of the hardest hurdles to clear in watching Jacob Aaron Estes’s The Details might be the sight of Tobey Maguire, erstwhile boy-man and Spider-Man, inelegantly proposing to Elizabeth Banks (playing his character’s wife) that they put their small child to bed and F-U-C-K. On paper, or perhaps under the right mood lighting, that could work, but it’s not a sexy sight here, and it’s almost a relief when she turns him down. Far less appetizing intimacies lie ahead, though, as Maguire’s gynecologist and family man Jeffrey Lang triggers a sticky, unsalutary domino effect involving marauding raccoons, marital infidelity, enabling friends (Kerry Washington), unstable neighbors (Laura Linney), planning codes, pesticides, and kidney disease. Like Estes’s 2004 film Mean Creek, which he also wrote and directed, The Details shows us what can happen when baser human impulses meet unforeseen circumstances. There, it was children making painfully bad decisions. Here, we squeamishly watch Lang get caught, but the drama has a glossy, dark-comedy finish to it that prevents us from suffering too much as we witness his domestic life imploding. Dennis Haysbert plays a pickup basketball buddy/better human being drawn inexorably into the mess our protagonist has made; Ray Liotta, a husband made irate by Lang’s misjudgments. (1:31) (Lynn Rapoport)

Lincoln Distinguished subject matter and an A+ production team (Steven Spielberg directing, Daniel Day-Lewis starring, Tony Kushner adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Williams scoring every emotion juuust so) mean Lincoln delivers about what you’d expect: a compelling (if verbose), emotionally resonant (and somehow suspenseful) dramatization of President Lincoln’s push to get the 13th amendment passed before the start of his second term. America’s neck-deep in the Civil War, and Congress, though now without Southern representation, is profoundly divided on the issue of abolition. Spielberg recreates 1865 Washington as a vibrant, exciting place, albeit one filled with so many recognizable stars it’s almost distracting wondering who’ll pop up in the next scene: Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant! Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln! Lena Dunham’s shirtless boyfriend on Girls (Adam Driver) as a soldier! Most notable among the huge cast are John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a daffy James Spader as a trio of lobbyists; Sally Field as the troubled First Lady; and likely Oscar contenders Tommy Lee Jones (as winningly cranky Rep. Thaddeus Stevens) and Day-Lewis, who does a reliably great job of disappearing into his iconic role. (2:30) (Cheryl Eddy)

Sister Twelve-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) looks like any other kid vacationing with a family on the slopes of a Swiss ski resort. That’s a big plus, because he’s not one of them — he’s a local living “downhill” in an anonymous high-rise apartment block, sustaining himself and his pretty but irresponsible older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) by stealing expensive sports equipment and clothes from the oblivious guests. He has no guilt about what he does, but then why should he? Those people are rich, he’s not, and sis’ short attention span toward jobs and boyfriends isn’t going to pay the rent. Ursula Meier’s French-language second feature isn’t heavily plot-driven, though it doesn’t feel like a second is wasted. The casual, somewhat furtive relationships that develop between Simon and stray adults who glean enough to worry about him — a seasonal restaurant worker (Martin Compston), a maternal resort guest (Gillian Anderson), Louise’s better-than-usual new beau (Yann Tregouet) — come and go but are toeholds on stability for him. It’s the contrast between Simon’s aggressively take-charge premature adulthood and his unaddressed needs as a child that ultimately make Sister rather devastating. It’s been aptly compared to the Dardenne Brothers’ similar dramas, but Meier lets her film’s heart beat a little more in open empathy with its protagonist while aping those Belgians’ brisk surface objectivity. (1:37) (Dennis Harvey)

Skyfall Top marks to Adele, who delivers a magnificent title song to cap off Skyfall‘s thrilling pre-credits chase scene. Unfortunate, then, that the film that follows squanders its initial promise. After a bomb attack on MI6, the clock is running out for Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench), accused of Cold War irrelevancy in a 21st century full of malevolent, stateless computer hackers. The audience, too, will yearn for a return to simpler times; dialogue about “firewalls” and “obfuscated code” never fails to sound faintly ridiculous, despite the efforts Ben Whishaw as the youthful new head of Q branch. Javier Bardem is creative and creepy as keyboard-tapping villain Raoul Silva, but would have done better with a megalomaniac scheme to take over the world. Instead, a small-potatoes revenge plot limps to a dull conclusion in the middle of nowhere. Skyfall never decides whether it prefers action, bon mots, and in-jokes to ponderous mythologizing and ripped-from-the-headlines speechifying – the result is a unsatisfying, uneven mixture. (2:23) (Ben Richardson)

‘Cloud Atlas’ and more new movies, plus one new-old movie (‘Wake in Fright’)


A couple of potential Oscar contenders open this week: The Sessions, which could earn a nomination for John Hawkes’ portrayal of a paralyzed man seeking to (finally) lose his virginity; and Cloud Atlas, an sprawling, interesting-yet-flawed epic from Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski that might win some technical notices, though probably won’t earn any acting nods (however, the Many Faces of Tom Hanks could sneak in there). Short reviews of both films below.

In this week’s Guardian, read up on unsettling 1971 Australian film Wake in Fright, finally hitting US theaters this week, and the San Francisco Film Society’s “French Cinema Now” series, including a film starring Jane Fonda as an American expat in France (speaking flawless French, and looking pretty flawless, too).

Other new movies this week: Gerard Butler battles big (Bay Area!) waves in Chasing Mavericks; a teen (Nickolodean starlet Victoria Justice) chases her rascally little brother from one end of Halloween night to the other in Fun Size; a king (Korean dreamboat Byung-hun Lee) hires a lookalike actor to body-double him in Korean hit Masquerade; and people … uh, run shrieking from spooky stuff in video-game sequel Silent Hill: Revelation 3D.

Cloud Atlas Cramming the six busy storylines of David Mitchell’s wildly ambitious novel into just three hours — the average reader might have thought at least 12 would be required — this impressive adaptation directed (in separate parts) by Tom Twyker (1998’s Run Lola Run) and Matrix siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski has a whole lot of narrative to get through, stretching around the globe and over centuries. In the mid 19th century, Jim Sturgess’ sickly American notory endures a long sea voyage as reluctant protector of a runaway-slave stowaway from the Chatham Islands (David Gyasi). In 1931 Belgium, a talented but criminally minded British musician (Ben Whishaw) wheedles his way into the household of a famous but long-inactive composer (Jim Broadbent). A chance encounter sets 1970s San Francisco journalist Luisa (Halle Berry) on the path of a massive cover-up conspiracy, swiftly putting her life in danger. Circa now, a reprobate London publisher’s (Broadbent) huge windfall turns into bad luck that gets even worse when he seeks help from his brother (Hugh Grant). In the not-so-distant future, a disposable “fabricant” server to the “consumer” classes (Doona Bae) finds herself plucked from her cog-like life for a rebellious higher purpose. Finally, in an indeterminately distant future after “the Fall,” an island tribesman (Tom Hanks) forms a highly ambivalent relationship toward a visitor (Berry) from a more advanced but dying civilization. Mitchell’s book was divided into huge novella-sized blocks, with each thread split in two; the film wastes very little time establishing its individual stories before beginning to rapidly intercut between them. That may result in a sense of information (and eventually action) overload, particularly for non-readers, even as it clarifies the connective tissues running throughout. Compression robs some episodes of the cumulative impact they had on the page; the starry multicasting (which in addition to the above mentioned finds many uses for Hugo Weaving, Keith David, James D’Arcy, and Susan Sarandon) can be a distraction; and there’s too much uplift forced on the six tales’ summation. Simply put, not everything here works; like the very different Watchmen, this is a rather brilliant “impossible adaptation” screenplay (by the directors) than nonetheless can’t help but be a bit too much. But so much does work — in alternating currents of satire, melodrama, pulp thriller, dystopian sci-fi, adventure, and so on — that Cloud Atlas must be forgiven for being imperfect. If it were perfect, it couldn’t possibly sprawl as imaginatively and challengingly as it does, and as mainstream movies very seldom do. (2:52) (Dennis Harvey)

Nobody Walks In Ry Russo-Young’s LA-set film, from a screenplay co-written with Lena Dunham, an alluring young woman named Martine (Olivia Thirlby) is welcomed into the Silver Lake home of psychotherapist Julie (Rosemarie DeWitt) and sound engineer Peter (John Krasinski), who has agreed to help Martine with the soundtrack for her film, destined for a gallery installation back in New York. While Martine’s film constructs a fiction around the fevered activities of the insect world, Russo-Young’s drifts quietly through the lives of its human household, offering glimpses of the romantic preoccupations of a teenage daughter (India Ennenga) and Julie’s interactions with one of her patients (Justin Kirk), and revealing a series of relationships hovering tensely on the border of unsanctioned behavior. The uncomfortable centerpiece is the intimacy that develops between Peter and Martine; tracking their progress through the family’s sprawling home as the two collect sounds for her project, the camera zooms in toward the sources, making the spaces the pair inhabit seem ominously small. Their eventual collision is unsurprising, but Peter hardly comes across as a besieged, frustrated family man. He tells Martine that “marriage is complicated,” but against the warm, appealing backdrop of his and Julie’s home life, it sounds like a pretty flimsy excuse for kissing a pretty, proximal 23-year-old. As for Martine, she seems not to need any rationale. But even factoring out the callousness of youth (or at least the genre of youth presented here), the film offhandedly suggests that the tipping point away from domestic happiness is depressingly easy to reach. (1:22) (Lynn Rapoport)

Pusher A pusher has been pushed to the limit — this time around in a charm-free, deal-driven London. This remake of the Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 Danish hit was given the seal of approval by the Drive (2011) auteur, who took a role here as an executive producer, with Luis Prieto in the director’s seat. Prieto does his best to keep the pressure on at all moments, as small-time heroin dealer Frank (Richard Coyle, resembling Dominic West in urban-hustler safari mode) undergoes the worst week of his life. He appears to have a tidy little existence with goofy, floppy-haired cohort Tony (Bronson Webb) by his side and delicately beautiful stripper Flo (Agyness Deyn) providing sexual healing and safe harbor for his dough. He has just hooked up drug mule Danaka (Daisy Lewis) to bring back a batch from Amsterdam when acquaintance Marlon (Neil Maskell) hits him up for a large order. Frank goes to his supplier Milo (Zlatko Buric, reprising his role in the original), an avuncular sort who pushes baklava in space sprinkled with wedding-cake-like gowns. Frank already owe him money and can’t cover the heroin’s cost, but this is a business built on trust, as fragile as it is, and Milo likes him, so he goes along, provided Frank returns the money immediately. Those tenuous ties of understanding are tested when cops bust Frank and Marlon and the former must dump the dope in a park pond. He refuses to give up his connections to the cops but finds that the loyalty of others is being tested when it comes to threats, cash, and even love. Prieto is a more self-consciously lyrical moviemaker than Refn, choosing to a vaguely Trainspotting-style cocktail of lite surrealism and slightly cheesy low-budg effects like vapor-trail headlights to replicate the highs and lows of Frank’s joyless clubland hustle. Still, he makes us feel Frank’s stress, amid the fatalistic undertow of the narrative, and his sense of betrayal when Pusher’s players turn, despite a smalltime pusher’s workman efforts to shore up against the odds. (1:29) (Kimberly Chun)

Question One Question One goes behind the scenes of the 2009 campaign concerning the referendum which reversed legislature granting same-sex couples the right to marry in Maine. The film investigates both sides of the story, including marriage dreams of queer families and confessions of regret from the appointed leader for the Yes on One Campaign, Marc Mutty. Though listening to preachers and activists devalue love between two men or two women might make you cringe, the inclusion of these moments creates an emotionally tense experience that will remind you how important it is to bounce back from defeat. It shows that the next step will have to be more than just rallying voters, it will require a change in ideology — an understanding that gays who wish to marry deserve equal rights, not religious salvation. As Darlene Huntress, the director of field operations for the No on One Campaign says, “I want to sit down and break bread with these people. I want to sit down and say get to know me — open your mind up enough to get to know me.” (1:53) (Molly Champlin)

The Sessions Polio has long since paralyzed the body of Berkeley poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) from the neck down. Of course his mind is free to roam — but it often roams south of the personal equator, where he hasn’t had the same opportunities as able-bodied people. Thus he enlists the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate, to lose his virginity at last. Based on the real-life figures’ experiences, this drama by Australian polio survivor Ben Lewin was a big hit at Sundance this year (then titled The Surrogate), and it’s not hard to see why: this is one of those rare inspirational feel-good stories that doesn’t pander and earns its tears with honest emotional toil. Hawkes is always arresting, but Hunt hasn’t been this good in a long time, and William H. Macy is pure pleasure as a sympathetic priest put in numerous awkward positions with the Lord by Mark’s very down-to-earth questions and confessions. (1:35) (Dennis Harvey)

Zombie dogs! Neeson! Southern-fried jail tales! And more, in this week’s new movies


It’s finally Halloweentime! (Though Walgreens would have you believe that season started in August.) Hollywood prepares appropriately with a few spookier picks (for kids, Frankenweenie, reviewed below; for older crowds, found-footage anthology V/H/S, discussed in my interview with some of the filmmakers here.) For good measure, you can check out my interview with Dee Wallace, star of some horror classics but making the press rounds for the 30th anniversary Blu-ray release of E.T. The Extraterrestrial.

Of local interest, the Mill Valley Film Festival is up and running, with some stellar picks noted here (HOLY MOTORS!) and an interview with indie pioneer Allison Anders, who debuts her new Strutter at the fest, here.

And, as always, there’s more. Read on for takes on films like The Paperboy and Taken 2, which each define “trashy entertainment” in their own special ways.

Bitter Seeds Just what we all needed: more incontrovertible evidence of the bald-faced evil of Monsanto. This documentary on destitute Indian cotton farmers follows an 18-year-old girl named Manjusha, a budding journalist who investigates the vast numbers of farmer suicides since the introduction (and market stranglehold) of “BT” cotton — which uses the corporation’s proprietary GMO technology — in the region of Vidarbha. Before BT took over in 2004, these cotton farmers relied on cheap heritage seed fertilized only by cow dung, but the largely illiterate population fell prey to Monsanto’s marketing blitz and false claims, purchasing biotech seed that resulted in pesticide reliance, failing crops, and spiraling debt. It’s a truly heartbreaking and infuriating story, but much of the action feels stagy and false. Should Indian formality be blamed? Considering the same fate befell Micha X. Peled’s 2005 documentary China Blue, probably not. Still, eff Monsanto. (1:28) Roxie. (Michelle Devereaux)

Frankenweenie Tim Burton’s feature-length Frankenweenie expands his 1984 short of the same name (canned by Disney back in the day for being too scary), and is the first black and white film to receive the 3D IMAX treatment. A stop-motion homage to every monster movie Burton ever loved, Frankenweenie is also a revival of the Frankenstein story cute-ified for kids; it takes the showy elements of Mary Shelley’s novel and morphs them to fit Burton’s hyperbolic aesthetic. Elementary-school science wiz Victor takes his disinterred dog from bull terrier to gentle abomination (when the thirsty Sparky drinks, he shoots water out of the seams holding his body parts together). Victor’s competitor in the school science fair, Edgar E. Gore, finds out about Sparky and ropes in classmates to scrape up their dead pets from the town’s eerily utilized pet cemetery and harness the town’s lightning surplus. The film’s answer to Boris Karloff (lisp intact) resurrects a mummified hamster, while a surrogate for Japanese Godzilla maker Ishiro Honda, revives his pet turtle Shelley (get it?) into Gamera. As these experiments aren’t borne of love, they don’t go as well at Victor’s. If you love Burton, Frankenweenie feels like the at-last presentation of a story he’s been dying to tell for years. If you don’t love him, you might wonder why it took him so long to get it out. When Victor’s science teacher leaves the school, he tells Victor an experiment conducted without love is different from one conducted with it: love, he implies, is a variable. If that’s the variable that separates 2003’s Big Fish (heartbreaking) from 2010’s Alice In Wonderland (atrocious), it’s a large one indeed. The love was there for 29 minutes in 1984, but I can’t say it endures when stretched to 87 minutes 22 years later. (1:27) Presidio. (Sara Vizcarrondo)

The Mystical Laws As The Master gathers Oscar buzz for its Scientology-inspired tale, another movie based on the teachings of a similarly-named religion, Japanese fringe sect Happy Science, opens this weekend. But that analogy is incorrect, for The Mystical Laws way more resembles 2000’s Battlefield Earth, demonstrating and preaching its source material’s tenants rather than questioning them. Visit Happy Science’s website and you’ll find a New Age mix of Christianity and Buddhism, with woo-woo about truth and love. Its founder, Ryuho Okawa, claims to the reincarnation of “El Cantare,” sort of an über-god who controls all spiritual activity on Earth. Anyway, now there’s an anime flick based on one of Okawa’s hundreds of books; it’s about an evil overlord with planet-ruling aspirations who gets smacked down by the powerful combo of aliens, a guy who realizes he’s humanity’s “light of hope” (basically a Jesus-Buddha combo, with psychic powers to boot), and an eight-headed flying dragon. There is Nazi iconography; there are Star Wars-inspired plot points. At one point, the hero preaches directly to the camera. It’s all very heavy-handed. A far more amusing use of your time would be to go to Happy Science’s website and click the tab marked “Astonishing Facts” to learn the spiritual fates of historical figures: “Currently Beethoven lives in the lower area of the Bodhisattva Realm of the 7th dimension in the Spirit world, and aims to transcend the sadness evident in parts of his music and become an expert in the music of joy,” while proponent o’ evolution Darwin “is now serving a penance in Abysmal Hell.” Hey, wait a minute! Isn’t science supposed to be “happy?” (2:00) New People, 1746 Post, SF; (Cheryl Eddy)

The Oranges In director Julian Farino’s tale of two families, the Wallings and the Ostroffs are neighbors and close friends living in the affluent New Jersey township of West Orange. We meet David Walling (Hugh Laurie), his wife Paige (Catherine Keener), his best friend Terry Ostroff (Oliver Platt), and Terry’s wife, Carol (Allison Janney), during a period of domestic malaise for both couples — four unhappy people who enjoy spending time together — that is destined to be exponentially magnified over the Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities. We learn much of this in voice-over courtesy of stalled-out 24-year-old design school grad Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), a second-generation Walling whose narrative subjectivity the film makes plain. No one will fault Vanessa for editorializing, however, when her Ostroff counterpart, onetime BFF and present-day nemesis Nina (Leighton Meester), returns home after a five-year absence and, amid maternal pressure to date Vanessa’s visiting brother, Toby (Adam Brody), instead embarks on an affair with their father. The ick factor is large, particularly because it takes a while to keep straight all the spouses, offspring, and houses they belong in. But Farino works to convince us that the romantic spark between David and Nina should be judged on its merits rather than with a gut-level revulsion, a reaction we can leave to the film’s principals. To the extent that this is possible, it’s possible to enjoy The Oranges’ intelligent writing and fine cast, whose sympathetic characters (perhaps excluding Nina, whose heedlessness regarding the feelings of others verges on sociopathic) we wish the best of luck in surviving the holidays. (1:30) (Lynn Rapoport)

The Paperboy Lee Daniels scored big with Precious (2009), but this follow-up is so off-kilter in tone and story it will likely polarize critics and confuse audiences, despite its A-list cast. I happened to enjoy the hell out of this tacky, sweat-drenched, gator-gutting, and generally overwrought adaptation of Peter Dexter’s novel (Dexter and Daniels co-wrote the screenplay); it’s kind of a Wild ThingsThe HelpA Time to Kill mash-up, with the ubiquitous Matthew McConaughey starring as Ward Jansen, a Florida newspaper reporter investigating what he thinks is the wrongful murder conviction of Hillary Van Wetter (a repulsively greasy John Cusack). But the movie’s not really about that. Set in 1969 and narrated by Macy Gray, who plays the veteran housekeeper for the Jansens — a clan that also includes college dropout Jack (Zac Efron) — The Paperboy is neither mystery nor thriller. It’s more of a swamp cocktail, with some odd directorial choices (random split-screen here, random zoom there) that maybe seem like exploitation movie homages. As a Southern floozy turned on by “prison cock” (but not, to his chagrin, by the oft-shirtless Jack), Nicole Kidman turns in her trashiest performance since 1995’s To Die For. (1:46) (Cheryl Eddy)

Taken 2 Surprise hit Taken (2008) was a soap opera produced by French action master Luc Besson and designed for export. The divorced-dad-saves-daughter-from-sex-slavery plot may have nagged at some universal parenting anxieties, but it was a Movie of the Week melodrama made on a major movie budget. Taken 2 begins immediately after the last, with sweet teen Kim (Maggie Grace) talking about normalizing after she was drugged and bought for booty. Papa Neeson sees Kim’s mom (Famke Janssen) losing her grip on husband number two and invites them both to holiday in Istanbul following one of his high-stakes security gigs. When the assistant with the money slinks him a fat envelope, Neeson chuckles at his haul. This is the point when women in the audience choose which Neeson they’re watching: the understated super-provider or the warrior-dad whose sense of duty can meet no match. For family men, this is the breeziest bit of vicarious living available; Neeson’s character is a tireless daddy duelist, a man as diligent as he is organized. (This is guy who screams “Victory loves preparation!”) As head-splitting, disorienting, and generally exhausting as the action direction is, Neeson saves his ex-wife and the show in a stream of unclear shootouts. Taken 2 is best suited for the small screen, but whatever the size, no one can stop an international slave trade (or wolves, or Batman) like 21st century Liam. Swoon. (1:31) (Sara Vizcarrondo)

‘LOOPER’ IS HERE! Plus: a boatload of other new movies


Wait, what are you doing reading this? Why aren’t you watching Looper, the best time-travel movie to come out of Hollywood in ages? Check out Lynn Rapoport’s review below, go see the damn thing (it’s gonna be huge, like Inception huge), and start planning your “Gat Man” Halloween costume this instant.

In this week’s film column, I check out the Northern California Action/Sports Film Festival (a new venture from SF IndieFest, which, by the way: just another month or so until DocFest!), let’s-talk-about-our-feelings indie Liberal Arts, and docs Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel and Peter Ford: A Little Prince

Marke B. takes on another doc, Detropia, and dubs this look at his hometown “important and beautiful;” full review here.

Two more from H-wood open this week (3D animated monster comedy Hotel Transylvania and YA young-angst tale The Perks of Being a Wallflower), as yet unreviewed — but there’s a bunch more short reviews, including Dennis Harvey’s take on the Vortex Room’s “Aerobicide” triple feature, after the jump.

“Aerobicide Sunday: A Marathon of Murder in Tights” Two things that made the 1980s taste great, slasher movies and aerobic exercise, were each too crassly, promiscuously commercial not to hook up a few times — even if the sub-sub-genre they created together is even less well remembered than the Lambada musical. Sun/30, however, it shall reign as king at the Vortex, where a triple bill of exer-psycho obscurities will really make you feel the burn. First up is 1987’s Aerobicide a.k.a. Killer Workout, in which the fitness emporium owned by Rhonda (Marcia Karrof of 1984’s Savage Streets) — as sour a grape as you’ll find in pastel spandex and pouf-shouldered Valley Girl dresses — experiences a rash of hard bodies being reduced to bloody pulp by an unknown killer wielding a large killer safety pin. Totally gross! We get many close-ups of overexposed thighs and over assisted cleavage gyrating to heinous dance tracks with inexplicable lyrics like “Hey baby! I’ve got your number! Red and juicy, warm and sweet” — plus some feathered-hair beefcake too — before the culprit turns out to be exactly who you think it is.

This was but an early effort among 32 features to date by writer-director David A. Prior, and based on the evidence present there’s a reason why you’ve never heard of any of them. Slightly slicker was 1990’s Death Spa (a.k.a. Witch Bitch), in which a computer automated gym goes all HAL-slash-The Shining, to the mortal danger of its highly toned staff and clientele. We’re talking death by blender, sauna paneling, and reanimated frozen fish products. The facility’s bitchy programmer is played by Merrick Butrick, who’d portrayed Captain Kirk’s son and a Square Peg earlier in the decade, and died of AIDS before this movie was released. Directed by Austrian Michael Fischa, it’s comparatively glossy but definitely senseless nonsense with a Eurotrash-genre feel. Lastly, in the same vein, and even slicker, there’s 1984’s Murder Rock: Dancing Death a.k.a. Giallo a Disco a.k.a. Slashdance (one of, incredibly, no less than three movies with that third name), a lesser exercise by that occasionally great horror director Lucio Fulci. Rather than a health club, the setting here is a dance school where choreography seems less indebted to Balanchine and Martha Graham than Jane Fonda and Shabba Doo. For that crime the punishment is, of course … death by hatpin? Whatever. If you survive this evening, you will be sore, winded, and desperate to sweat the toxins out of your system. Vortex Room. (Dennis Harvey)

Backwards Athletic disappointment is not a new feeling for Abi (Sarah Megan Thomas, who also wrote the script), who has just learned she’s been named the alternate for the Olympic crew team — a bench warming role she was also relegated to in the last Olympics. But after she quits the team in a huff and moves home, it’s not long before she realizes that her life off the water is pretty depressing, too. Enter former boyfriend Geoff (James Van Der Beek), now the athletic director at the high school where Abi honed her rowing talents, who gives her a job coaching the talented but undisciplined girls who make up the current team. Will this new venture help Abi finally grow up and regain her self-confidence? Will she re-ignite her spark with Geoff? Will there be a last-act conflict involving yet another chance at the Olympics? Will there be multiple training montages? As directed by Ben Hickernell, Backwards hits all of the expected themes about following one’s heart and Doing the Right Thing. Thomas, a former rower herself, has an ordinary-girl appeal, but even Backwards‘ attention to authenticity can’t elevate what’s essentially a very predictable sports drama. (1:29) Sundance Kabuki. (Cheryl Eddy)

Looper It’s 2044 and, thanks to a lengthy bout of exposition by our protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), here’s what we know: time travel, an invention 30 years away, will be used by criminals to transport their soon-to-be homicide victims backward, where a class of gunmen called loopers, Joe among them, are employed to “do the necessaries.” More deftly revealed in Brick (2005) writer-director Rian Johnson’s new film is the joylessness of the world in which Joe amorally makes his way, where gangsters from the future control the present (under the supervision of Jeff Daniels), their hit men live large but badly (Joe is addicted to some eyeball-administered narcotic), and the remainder of the urban populace suffers below-subsistence-level poverty. The latest downside for guys like Joe is that a new crime boss has begun sending back a steady stream of aging loopers for termination, or “closing the loop”; soon enough, Joe is staring down a gun barrel at himself plus 30 years.

Being played by Bruce Willis, old Joe is not one to peaceably abide by a death warrant, and young Joe must set off in search of himself so that — with the help of a woman named Sara (Emily Blunt) and her creepy-cute son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) — he can blow his own (future) head off. Having seen the evocatively horrific fate of another escaped looper, we can’t totally blame him. Parsing the daft mechanics of time travel as envisioned here is rough going, but the film’s brisk pacing and talented cast distract, and as one Joe tersely explains to another, if they start talking about it, “we’re gonna be here all day making diagrams with straws” — in other words, some loops just weren’t meant to be closed. (1:58) (Lynn Rapoport)

Pitch Perfect As an all-female college a cappella group known as the Barden Bellas launches into Ace of Base’s “The Sign” during the prologue of Pitch Perfect, you can hear the Glee-meets-Bring It On elevator pitch. Which is fine, since Bring It On-meets-anything is clearly worth a shot. In this attempt, Anna Kendrick stars as withdrawn and disaffected college freshman Beca, who dreams of producing music in L.A. but is begrudgingly getting a free ride at Barden University via her comp lit professor father. Clearly his goal is not making sure she receives a liberal arts education, as Barden’s academic jungle extends to the edges of the campus’s competitive a cappella scene, and the closest thing to an intellectual challenge occurs during a “riff-off” between a cappella gangs at the bottom of a mysteriously drained swimming pool. When Beca reluctantly joins the Bellas, she finds herself caring enough about the group’s fate to push for an Ace of Base moratorium and radical steps like performing mashups. Much as 2000’s Bring It On coined terms like “cheerocracy” and “having cheer-sex,” Pitch Perfect gives us the infinitely applicable prefix “a ca-” and descriptives like “getting Treble-boned,” a reference to forbidden sexual relations with the Bellas’ cocky rivals, the Treblemakers. The gags get funnier, dirtier, and weirder, arguably reaching their climax in projectile-vomit snow angels, with Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as grin-panning competition commentators offering a string of loopily inappropriate observations. (1:52) (Lynn Rapoport)

Solomon Kane Conceived by Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, this 16th-century hero is cut from the same sword-and-sorcery cloth, being a brawny brute of slippery but generally sorta-kinda upright morals. Solomon (James Purefoy) is slaughtering his way to a North African treasure trove when demons swallow up his likewise greedy, conscience-free cohorts and damn his soul for a lifetime of bad deeds. Suddenly committed to the greater good, he returns homeward to cold gray England, where Jason Flemyng’s evil sorcerer soon imperils both our protagonist and the Puritan family (complete with love interest) he’s befriended. This movie has been around a while — since 2009, to be exact, yet barely beating director Michael J. Bassett’s new Silent Hill: Revelation 3D to U.S. theaters — and is a good illustration of what can happen when you make a fairly expensive ($45 million) fantasy-action adventure without major stars nor any marketable novelty. Which is to say: not much. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the good-looking, watchable but generic-feeling Solomon Kane, save that nothing about it feels remotely original or inspired. It’s the perfectly okay, like-a-thousand-others mall flick you’ll forget you saw by Thanksgiving, despite being peopled with such normally interesting actors as Max Von Sydow, Alice Krige, and the late Pete Postlethwaite. (1:54) (Dennis Harvey)

“Stars In Shorts” Outside of the festival circuit, it’s an uncommon feat for shorts to make it to the big screen, so it can’t hurt to make name recognition a prerequisite for selection. In writer-director Rupert Friend’s Steve, Keira Knightley plays an embattled Londoner under siege by her lonely, pathologically odd neighbor (Colin Firth). Written by Neil LaBute, Jacob Chase’s After School Special sets up a semi-flirtation between two strangers (Sarah Paulson and Wes Bentley) at a playground, only to deliver the kind of gut-level punch you might expect from the writer-director of 1998’s Your Friends and Neighbors. LaBute’s own Sexting is an entertaining exercise in stream-of-consciousness monologuing by Julia Stiles. As with most shorts programs, “Stars” is a mixed bag. Robert Festinger’s The Procession, in which Lily Tomlin and Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson play reluctant participants in a funeral procession, sounds promising, but the conversation palls during the 10-plus minutes we’re stuck in the car with them. Benjamin Grayson’s sci-fi thriller Prodigal, starring Kenneth Branagh, reaches its predictable crisis points several minutes after the viewer has arrived. More successful are Jay Kamen’s musical comedy Not Your Time, starring Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander as an old Hollywood hand whose writing career has stalled out, and Chris Foggin’s Friend Request Pending, which treats viewers to the sight of Dame Judi Dench gamely wading into the social network in search of a date. (1:53) (Lynn Rapoport)

Won’t Back Down If talk of introducing charter schools into the public education mix tends to give you collective-bargaining-related hives, Daniel Barnz’s Won’t Back Down is unlikely to appeal, unless perhaps as the object of a boycott or a picket line. Two embattled mothers, Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Nona Alberts (Viola Davis), both with children at a failing Pittsburgh elementary school and the latter a teacher there, join forces to change the institutional culture by leading a parent-teacher takeover, with the goal of creating a charter school. As the bureaucratic process for doing so is described by a school district employee, it should take them three to five years to discover that they’ve been hurling themselves at a brick wall; Jamie, an efficient combination of fireball and pit bull, is determined to pulverize the wall in about two months.

Watching her and Nona try to secure more than a third-rate, treading-water education for their kids, it’s hard not to root for the possibility of a transformation, and even an upper-level teachers’ union staffer played by Holly Hunter finds herself climbing the fence. The details of what lies on the other side (and inside Jamie and Nona’s 400-page proposal) stay fairly fuzzy, though. And while Barnz lets his warring factions — desperate mothers and educators, a union boss (Ned Eisenberg) watching the deterioration of the labor movement, a pro-union teacher (Oscar Isaac) ambivalently engaged in the chartering project — impassionedly debate their way through the film, a little more wonkiness might have clarified the arguments of those done waiting for Superman. (2:00) (Lynn Rapoport)

Toads! Conniving one-percenters! And giant sharks! New movies


This week, check out the offerings at Cine+Mas, the San Francisco Latino Film Festival, plus reviews of quirky docs Beauty is Embarrassing and Cane Toads: The Conquest, in my overview here. Also, Los Angeles-based underground superstar Damon Packard visits Other Cinema Sat/15 with his latest, Foxfur; he chats about it here.

A pair of interview-reviews, as well: Dennis Harvey talks to Ira Sachs about dark relationship drama Keep the Lights On, and Kimberly Chun talks to Nicholas Jarecki about financial-world thriller Arbitrage. Harvey also writes up doc Girl Model, a devastating look at the global modeling industry.

Oh, and Hollywood? They’re banking on you wanting to go under the sea (again) with Finding Nemo 3D. Shaaaaaark!

Late-summer new movies: whole lotta eh (but T minus one month ’till ‘The Master’ opens!)


A pair of new Asian films about demons, real and figural, open today: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai and Painted Skin: The Resurrection. Dual review here. The San Francisco Film Society screens 1953 Italian omnibus Love in the City; review here.

Hollywood urges you to spend your dollah dollah bills on creaky action heroes (The Expendables 2); mystical, twee garden-children (The Odd Life of Timothy Green); stop-motion kids who see dead people (ParaNorman); and girl-group melodrama (Sparkle; review and trailer below). A few more options, too, after the jump.

The Awakening In 1921 England Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall) is a best-selling author who specializes in exposing the legions of phony spiritualists exploiting a nation still grieving for its World War I dead. She’s rather rudely summoned to a country boys’ boarding school by gruff instructor Robert (Dominic West), who would be delighted if she could disprove the presence of a ghost there — preferably before it frightens more of his young charges to death. Borrowing tropes from the playbooks of recent Spanish and Japanese horror flicks, Nick Murphy’s period thriller is handsome and atmospheric, but disappointing in a familiar way — the buildup is effective enough, but it all unravels in pat logic and rote “Boo!” scares when the anticlimactic payoff finally arrives. The one interesting fillip is Florence’s elaborate, antiquated, meticulously detailed arsenal of equipment and ruses designed to measure (or debunk) possibly supernatural phenomena. (1:47) (Dennis Harvey)

Beloved There is a touch of Busby Berkeley to the first five or so minutes of Christophe Honoré’s Beloved — a fetishy, mid-’60s-set montage in which a series of enviably dressed Parisian women stride purposefully in and out of a shoe shop, trying on an endless array of covetable pumps. As for the rest, it’s a less delightful tale of two women, a mother and a daughter, and the unfathomable yet oft-repeated choices they make in their affairs of the heart. It helps very little that the mother is played by Ludivine Sagnier and then Catherine Deneuve — whose handsome Czech lover (Rasha Bukvic) is somewhat unkindly but perhaps deservedly transformed by the years into Milos Forman — or that the daughter, as an adult, is played by Deneuve’s real-life daughter, Chiara Mastroianni. And it helps even less that the film is a musical, wherein one character or another occasionally takes the opportunity, during a moment of inexplicable emotional duress, to burst into song and let poorly written pop lyrics muddy the waters even further. The men are sexist cads, or children, or both, and if they’re none of those, they’re gay. The women find these attributes to be charming and irresistible. None of it feels like a romance for the ages, but nonetheless the movie arcs through four interminable decades. When tragedy strikes, it’s almost a relief, until we realize that life goes on and so will the film. (2:15) (Lynn Rapoport)

Sparkle What started as a vehicle for American Idol‘s Jordin Sparks will now forever be known as Whitney Houston’s Last Movie, with the fallen superstar playing a mother of three embittered by her experiences in the music biz. Her voice is hoarse, her face is puffy, and her big singing moment (“His Eye Is on the Sparrow” in a church scene) is poorly lip-synced — but dammit, she’s Whitney Houston, and she has more soul than everything else in Sparkle combined and squared. The tale of an aspiring girl group in late-60s Detroit, Sparkle’s other notable points include flawless period outfits, hair, and make-up (especially the eyeliner), but the rest of the film is a pretty blah mix of melodrama and clichés: the sexpot older sister (Carmen Ejogo) marries the abusive guy and immediately starts snorting coke; the squeaky-clean youngest (Sparks, sweet but boring) is one of those only-in-the-movie songwriters who crafts intricate pop masterpieces from her diary scribblings. As far as Idol success stories go, Dreamgirls (2006) this ain’t; Houston fans would do better to revisit The Bodyguard (1992) and remember the diva in her prime. (1:56) (Cheryl Eddy)

2 Days in New York Messy, attention-hungry, random, sweet, pathetic, and even adorable — such is the latest dispatch from Julie Delpy, here with her follow-up to 2007’s 2 Days in Paris. It’s also further proof that the rom-com as a genre can yet be saved by women who start with the autobiographical and spin off from there. Now separated from 2 Days in Paris’s Jake and raising their son, artist Marion is happily cohabiting with boyfriend Mingus (Chris Rock), a radio host and sometime colleague at the Village Voice, and his daughter, while juggling her big, bouncing bundle of neuroses. Exacerbating her issues: a visit by her father Jeannot (Delpy’s real father Albert Delpy), who eschews baths and tries to smuggle an unseemly selection of sausages and cheeses into the country; her provocative sister Rose (Alexia Landeau), who’s given to nipple slips in yoga class and Marion and Mingus’ apartment; and Rose’s boyfriend Manu (Alexandre Nahon), who’s trouble all around. The gang’s in NYC for Marion’s one-woman show, in which she hopes to auction off her soul to the highest, and hopefully most benevolent, bidder. Rock, of course, brings the wisecracks to this charming, shambolic urban chamber comedy, as well as, surprisingly, a dose of gravitas, as Marion’s aggrieved squeeze — he’s uncertain whether these home invaders are intentionally racist, cultural clueless, or simply bonkers but he’s far too polite to blurt out those familiar Rock truths. The key, however, is Delpy — part Woody Allen, if the Woodman were a maturing, ever-metamorphosing French beauty — and part unique creature of her own making, given to questioning her identity, ideas of life and death, and the existence of the soul. 2 Days in New York is just a sliver of life, but buoyed by Delpy’s thoughtful, lightly madcap spirit. You’re drawn in, wanting to see what happens next after the days are done. (1:31) (Kimberly Chun)  

The trouble with demons


FILM Suspended between the deluge of superhero flicks and awards-show fodder (speaking of, check back next week for the Guardian’s fall movie preview), mid-to-late August is an outstanding time to go to your local art house, rep theater, underground cinema, or movie night in the park.

You could also seek out a pair of new movies from Asia, both opening Friday, which offer viewing experiences only similar in that they’re entirely different than anything else out there right now — or ever, in the case of Painted Skin: The Resurrection, a sort-of sequel to 2008’s Painted Skin (which one need not have seen to enjoy Resurrection).

Starring two of China’s most glamorous leading ladies, Resurrection is a lavish fantasy following the adventures of fox demon Xiaowei (Xun Zhou), who can become human only if someone voluntarily offers up his or her heart (as in, the actual blood-pumping muscle). Though she’s been rampaging cross-country trying to find a suitable man-donor, she spots a likelier candidate in Princess Jing (Vicki Zhao), who wears a delicate gold mask to conceal her scarred face. Jing has fled her royal duties to confront her true love, General Huo (Chen Kun), who is a generally nice guy and most excellent archer, but not a huge fan of the messed-up face. But wait! Supernaturally pretty Xiaowei has just the solution, and it definitely involves swapping bodies (and all-important internal organs).

But Huo is secondary here. Less a love story than the tale of a toxic friendship, Resurrection adds levity with a subplot about a demon hunter (William Feng) who falls for Xiaowei’s bird-demon sidekick (Mini Yang), and has plenty of over-the-top flair, with abundantly obvious CG and Kris Phillips’ campy performance as an evil wizard. It was a huge hit in China but will probably only reach a small audience here, so don’t miss your chance.

A different type of demon — the mental, fucks-with-your-emotions kind — infiltrates Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, the latest from prolific director Takashi Miike. The speed of his output is nearly as dizzying as the array of genres represented in his filmography, though for Hara-Kiri, he sticks with the samurai milieu of his hit 2010 epic, 13 Assassins. That said, despite its equally suggestive-of-gore title, Hara-Kiri — which takes place some 250 years earlier than Assassins — is no limb-lopping extravaganza. Rather, it’s a surprisingly somber drama, with violence used judiciously (albeit gruesomely).

Solemn samurai Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa, an acclaimed kabuki theater actor) appears before a feudal lord, humbly asking permission to commit ritual suicide in the man’s courtyard. But in this house, skepticism reigns over honor, thanks to a recent rash of “suicide bluffs” — it’s not death these downtrodden men seek, but sympathy in the form of handouts or job offers. In fact, there was a suicide bluff recently, right there in the courtyard. A young man named Motome. It ended badly.

It’s soon clear that Hanshiro and Motome are connected, and the circumstances that motivate their extreme behavior are indeed tragic and deeply felt. Miike takes his time getting there, though, and fans seeking breakneck mayhem may be disappointed. Side note: for whatever reason, Miike filmed Hara-Kiri in 3D, but it’ll be screening in old-school 2D during its local run at the Four Star.



“Bourne” again and other new movies!


Big news this week out of the San Francisco Film Society: the Executive Director post, empty since the January passing of Bingham Ray (himself a replacement for the late Graham Leggat), has been filled. According to the organization’s official press release:

“Ted Hope, one of the film industry’s most respected and prolific figures, has been named executive director of the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS), effective September 1, 2012. In a surprise move, the veteran film producer and one of the most influential individuals in independent film will embark upon a new chapter in his professional life, leaving New York City, where he produced independent films through his companies Good Machine, This is that corporation and Double Hope Films, to lead the Film Society into the future.”

This happy announcement comes on the heels of two pretty depressing ones: longtime SFFS publicity head Hilary Hart, one of the most beloved film PR figures in San Francisco (or any film community, I’d wager), was let go; and the organization opted not to renew its SF Film Society Cinema lease at Japantown’s New People. However, “We’ll still have plenty of one-off screenings and events at various locations, and our Fall Season festival programming is completely unaffected,” says publicity manager Bill Proctor. (Speaking of, hot tip: killer-kid classic Battle Royale is up at SF Film Society Cinema through August 16.)

New movies? We got ’em. One more oldie-but-oh-so-goodie recommendation, plus, yeah, The Bourne Legacy and the rest, after the jump.

The Vortex Room: we love what they do ’cause they do it so well. A new series of Pop-art pictures is underway; check out Dennis Harvey’s take on the series (and some old-school porn posters, for good measure, here.) The unstoppable Mr. Harvey also reviews The Moth Diaries (another SF Film Society Cinema selection) and new French drama Unforgiveable.

Also new: The Campaign, about a smug incumbent (Will Ferrell) and a naïve newcomer (Zach Galifianakis) who battle over a North Carolina congressional seat; Celeste and Jesse Forever, an indie dramedy about a couple (Andy Samberg and co-writer Rashida Jones) who try to stay friends despite their impending divorce; and Nitro Circus the Movie 3D, starring the daredevil antics of the “action sports collective.”

But wait … THERE’S MORE!

The Bourne Legacy Settle down, Matt Damon fans — the original Bourne appears in The Bourne Legacy only in dialogue (“Jason Bourne is in New York!”) and photograph form. Stepping in as lead badass is Jeremy Renner, whose twin powers of strength and intelligence come courtesy of an experimental-drug program overseen by sinister government types (including Edward Norton in an utterly generic role) and administered by lab workers doing it “for the science!,” according to Dr. Rachel Weisz. Legacy’s timeline roughly matches up with the last Damon film, The Bourne Ultimatum, which came out five years ago and is referenced here like we’re supposed to be on a first-name basis with its long-forgotten plot twists. Anyway, thanks to ol’  Jason and a few other factors involving Albert Finney and YouTube, the drug program is shut down, and all guinea-pig agents and high-security-clearance doctors are offed. Except guess which two, who manage to flee across the globe to get more WMDs for Renner’s DNA. Essentially one long chase scene, The Bourne Legacy spends way too much of its time either in Norton’s “crisis suite,” watching characters bark orders and stare at computer screens, or trying to explain the genetic tinkering that’s made Renner a super-duper-superspy. Remember when Damon killed that guy with a rolled-up magazine in 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy? Absolutely nothing so rad in this imagination-free enterprise. (2:15) (Cheryl Eddy)

Easy Money A title like that is bound to disprove itself, and it doesn’t take long to figure out that the only payday the lead characters are going to get in this hit 2010 Swedish thriller (from Jens Lapidus’ novel) is the kind measured in bloody catastrophe. Chilean Jorge (Matias Padin Varela), just escaped from prison, returns to Stockholm seeking one last big drug deal before he splits for good; JW (Joel Kinnaman from AMC series The Killing) is a economics student-slash-cabbie desperate for the serious cash needed to support his double life as a pseudo-swell running with the city’s rich young turks. At first reluctantly thrown together, they become friends working for JW’s taxi boss — or to be more specific, for that boss’ cocaine smuggling side business. Their competitors are a Serbian gang whose veteran enforcer Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) is put in the awkward position of caring for his eight-year-old daughter (by a drug addicted ex-wife) just as “war” heats up between the two factions. But then everyone here has loved ones they want to protect from an escalating cycle of attacks and reprisals from which none are immune. Duly presented here by Martin Scorsese, Daniel Espinosa’s film has the hurtling pace, engrossing characters and complicated (sometimes confusing) plot mechanics of some good movies by that guy, like Casino (1995) or The Departed (2006). Wildly original it’s not, but this crackling good genre entertainment that make you cautiously look forward to its sequel — which is just about to open in Sweden. (1:59) (Dennis Harvey)

Hope Springs Heading into her 32nd year of matrimony with aggressively oblivious Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), desperate housewife Kay (Meryl Streep) sets aside her entrenched passivity in a last-ditch effort to put flesh back on the skeleton of a marriage. Stumbling upon the guidance of one Dr. Bernard Feld (Steve Carell) in the self-help section of a bookstore, Kay (barely) convinces Arnold to accompany her to a weeklong session at Feld’s Center for Intensive Couples Counseling, in Hope Springs, Maine. The scenes from a marriage leading up to their departure, as well as the incremental advances and crippling setbacks of their therapeutic sojourn, are poignant and distressing and possibly familiar. Some slow drift, long ago set in motion, though we don’t know by what, has settled them in concrete in their separate routines — and bedrooms. It’s the kind of thing that, if it were happening in real life — say, to you — might make you weep. But somehow, through the magic of cinema and the uncomfortable power of witnessing frankly depicted failures of intimacy, we laugh. This is by no means a wackiness-ensues sort of sexual comedy, though. Director David Frankel (2006’s The Devil Wears Prada and, unfortunately, 2008’s Marley & Me) and Jones and Streep, through the finely detailed particularities of their performances, won’t let it be, while Carell resists playing the therapeutic scenes for more than the gentlest pulses of humor. More often, his empathetic silences and carefully timed queries provide a place for these two unhappy, inarticulate, isolated people to fall and fumble and eventually make contact. (1:40) (Lynn Rapoport)

Nuit #1 Montreal director-writer Anne Émond bares more than her actor’s beautiful bodies: she’s eager to uncover their tenderized souls: hurt, unsavory, vulnerable, terrified, nihilistic, compulsive, and desperate. Nikolai (Dimitri Stroroge) and Clara (Catherine de Lean) are just two kids on the crowded dance floor, jumping up and down in slow motion to the tune of a torch song; before long, they’re in Nikolai’s shabby apartment, tearing off their clothes and making love as if their lives depended on it. But when Nikolai, laid out on his mattress on the floor like a grunge Jesus with a bad haircut, catches Clara sneaking out without saying good-bye, he sits her down for an earful of his reality. She returns the favor, revealing an unexpected double life, and the two embark on a psycho-tango that takes all night. It can seem like a long one to those impatient with the young, beautiful, and possibly damned’s doubts and self-flagellation, though Émond’s artful, coolly empathetic eye takes the proceedings to a higher level. She’s attempting to craft a simultaneously romantic and raw-boned song of self for a generation. (1:31) (Kimberly Chun)

360 A massive ensemble sprinkled with big-name stars, a sprawling yet interconnected story, and locations as far-flung as Phoenix and Bratislava: 360 is not achieving anything new with its structure (see also: 2011’s Contagion, 2006’s Babel, and so on). And some pieces of its sectioned-off narrative are less successful than others, as with the exploits of a posh, unfaithful duo played by Rachel Weisz (re-teaming with her Constant Gardener director Fernando Meirelles) and Jude Law. Fortunately, screenwriter Peter Morgan (2006’s The Queen) finds some drama (and a lot of melancholy) in less-familiar relationship scenarios. An airport interlude that interweaves a grieving father (Anthony Hopkins), a newly single Brazilian (Maria Flor), and a maybe-rehabilitated sex offender (Ben Foster) is riveting, as are the unexpectedly sweet and sour endpoints of tales spiraling off a Russian couple (Dinara Drukarova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov) who’ve drifted apart. (1:51) (Cheryl Eddy)

You, too, can win a gold medal in popcorn eating: new movies!


This weekend, it’s all about the Women’s Marathon at the London Olympics! If my calculations are correct, I will have to basically stay up all night Saturday to catch the race (11am London time is uggghhhh our time), or descend into a spoiler-free cave where no NBC-borne spoilers can find me before the highlight reel.

Anyone needing a break from gorging on Olympic track and field coverage, however, has an array of options at the movie theater, including two standout docs about mystery men (The Imposter and Searching for Sugar Man) and William Friedkin’s rip-roaring (and NC-17) latest, Killer Joe. Plus, Lovecraft!

Hollywood’s big money is on the Total Recall remake, which stars an agreeable Colin Farrell and is directed with reasonable amounts of style by Len Wiseman (of Underworld series fame; naturally, wife Kate Beckinsale has a juicy part). But if you really want to see Total Recall, stick with the 1990 Verhoeven-Schwarzenegger version. The do-over adds nothing and contains zero quotable lines on par with “Get your AHH-SS to Mars!”

Short takes on other notable releases this week (including a Bresson revival, ooh la la) after the jump.

Bill W. Even longtime AA members are unlikely to know half the organizational history revealed in this straightforward, chronological, fast-moving portrait of its late founder. Bill Wilson was a bright, personable aspiring businessman whose career was nonetheless perpetually upset by addiction to the alcohol that eased his social awkwardness but brought its own worse troubles. During one mid-1930s sanitarium visit, attempting to dry out, he experienced a spiritual awakening. From that moment slowly grew the idea of Alcoholics Anonymous, which he shaped with the help of several other recovering drunks, and saw become a national movement after a 1941 Saturday Evening Post article introduced it to the general public. Wilson had always hoped the “leaderless” organization would soon find its own feet and leave him to build a separate, sober new career. But gaining that distance was difficult; attempts to find other “cures” for his recurrent depression (including LSD therapy) laid him open to internal AA criticism; and he was never comfortable on the pedestal that grateful members insisted he stay on as the organization’s founder. Admittedly, he appointed himself its primary public spokesman, which rendered his own hopes for privacy somewhat self-canceling — though fortunately it also provides this documentary with plenty of extant lecture and interview material. He was a complicated man whose complicated life often butted against the role of savior, despite his endless dedication and generosity toward others in need. That thread of conflict makes for a movie that’s compelling beyond the light it sheds on an institution as impactful on individual lives and society as any other to emerge from 20th-century America. (1:43) Elmwood, Roxie. (Dennis Harvey)

Crazy and Thief Former S.F. resident Cory McAbee of the Billy Nayer Show, as well as cult film faves The American Astronaut (2001) and Stingray Sam (2009), returns for one night only in this multimedia event under the umbrella of his new enterprise “Captain Ahab’s Motorcycle Club.” The Vogue Theatre event will offer music and conversation after a screening of McAbee’s latest. Crazy and Thief stars his children, two-year-old Johnny and slightly senior Willa, in a 52-minute adventure that has them following a “star map” all by themselves around Brooklyn, then journeying out to the country via train. En route they improvise nonsense songs, cross paths with strange adults suspicious and helpful, ride a Mickey Mouse hobby horse, and so forth. A color effort that’s sort of an elaborate home movie compared to the director’s fancifully comic, black and white prior films, it nonetheless gets pretty far on the cuteness of toddlers and a soundtrack of original songs that find McAbee rocking like a five-year-old might — something that’s also pretty cute. (:52) Vogue. (Dennis Harvey)

The Devil, Probably This seldom-revived 1977 feature from late French master Robert Bresson was his penultimate as well as most explicitly political work. Newspaper clips at the start betray where these 95 minutes will be heading: they introduce Parisian Charles (Antoine Monnier) as a casualty, a suicide at age 20. The reasons for that act are probed in the succeeding flashback, as we observe his last days drifting between friends and lovers, quitting student activist groups, and generally expressing his disillusionment with everything from politics to religion to human interaction. Then 70, Bresson expresses his own disenchantment in solidarity with the youthful characters by including documentary shots of pollution, clubbed baby seals, A-bomb explosions, and other dire signs of “an Earth that is ever more populated and ever less habitable.” That essential message makes The Devil, Probably more relevant than ever, but unfortunately it’s also one of the filmmaker’s driest, most didactic exercises. There are a few odd, almost farcical moments (as when the constant pondering of man’s fate extends to a spontaneous philosophical debate between passengers on a public bus), but the characters are too obviously mouthpieces with no inner lives of their own. In particular, Charles remains an unengaging blank in Monnier’s performance, which is all too faithful to the director’s usual call for “automatic,” uninflected line readings from his nonprofessional cast. Nothing Bresson did is without interest, but here his detached technique drains nearly all emotional impact from a film ostensibly about profound despair. (1:35) SF Film Society Cinema. (Dennis Harvey)

Girlfriend Boyfriend The onscreen title of this Taiwanese import is Gf*Bf, but don’t let the text-speak fool you: the bulk of the film is set in the 1980s and 90s, long before smart phones were around to complicate relationships. And the trio at the heart of Girlfriend Boyfriend is complicated enough as it is: sassy Mabel (Gwei Lun-Mei) openly pines for brooding Liam (Joseph Chang), who secretly pines for rebellious Aaron (Rhydian Vaughan), who chases Mabel until she gives in; as things often go in stories like this, nobody gets the happy ending they desire. Set against the backdrop of Taiwan’s student movement, this vibrant drama believably tracks its leads as they mature from impulsive youths to bitter adults who never let go of their deep bond — despite all the misery it causes, and a last-act turn into melodrama that’s hinted at by the film’s frame story featuring an older Liam and a pair of, um, sassy and rebellious twin girls he’s been raising as his own. (1:45) Metreon. (Cheryl Eddy)

Klown A spinoff from a long-running Danish TV show, with the same director (Mikkel Nørgaard) and co-writer/stars, this bad-taste comedy might duly prove hard to beat as “the funniest movie of the year” (a claim its advertising already boasts). Socially hapless Frank (Frank Hvam) discovers his live-in girlfriend Mia (Mia Lyhne) is pregnant, but she quite reasonably worries “you don’t have enough potential as a father.” To prove otherwise, he basically kidnaps 12-year-old nephew Bo (Marcuz Jess Petersen) and drags him along on a canoe trip with best friend Casper (Casper Christensen). Trouble is, Casper has already proclaimed this trip will be a “Tour de Pussy,” in which they — or at least he — will seize any and every opportunity to cheat on their unknowing spouses. Ergo, there’s an almost immediate clash between awkward attempts at quasi-parental bonding and activities most unsuited for juvenile eyes. Accusations of rape and pedophilia, some bad advice involving “pearl necklaces,” an upscale one-night-only bordello, reckless child endangerment, encouragement of teenage drinking, the consequences of tactical “man flirting,” and much more ensue. Make no mistake, Klown one-ups the Judd Apatow school of raunch (at least for the moment), but it’s good-natured enough to avoid any aura of crass Adam Sandler-type bottom-feeding. It’s also frequently, blissfully, very, very funny. (1:28) Roxie. (Dennis Harvey)

Batman and beyond: new movies


Yep. It’s here.

But THERE IS MORE TO LIFE THAN THE LATEST BATMAN MOVIE, PEOPLE! (Especially when this entry ain’t even the best in the series. See my review below. And to those who would jump all over a critic for being a critic … why so serious?)

First of all, the very excellent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival begins tonight. Check out our takes here (docs) and here (music docs).

Todd Solondz has a new one. Dennis Harvey reviews Dark Horse right herrre.

And the Lumiere is screening a digitally-remastered Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), complete with all the lines you love to quote and featuring a new 12-minute short, Terry Gilliam’s Lost Animations.

Oh yeah, and this…

The Dark Knight Rises Early reviews that called out The Dark Knight Rises’ flaws were greeted with the kind of vicious rage that only anonymous internet commentators can dish out. And maybe this is yet another critic-proof movie, albeit not one based on a best-selling YA book series. Of course, it is based on a comic book, though Christopher Nolan’s sophisticated filmmaking and Christian Bale’s tortured lead performance tend to make that easy to forget. In this third and “final” installment in Nolan’s trilogy, Bruce Wayne has gone into seclusion, skulking around his mansion and bemoaning his broken body and shattered reputation. He’s lured back into the Batcave after a series of unfortunate events, during which The Dark Knight Rises takes some jabs at contemporary class warfare (with problematic mixed results), introduces a villain with pecs of steel and an at-times distractingly muffled voice (Tom Hardy), and unveils a potentially dangerous device that produces sustainable energy (paging Tony Stark). Make no mistake: this is an exciting, appropriately moody conclusion to a superior superhero series, with some nice turns by supporting players Gary Oldman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But in trying to cram in so many characters and plot threads and themes (so many prisons in this thing, literal and figural), The Dark Knight Rises is ultimately done in by its sprawl. Without a focal point — like Heath Ledger’s menacing, iconic Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight — the stakes aren’t as high, and the end result feels more like a superior summer blockbuster than one for the ages. (2:44) (Cheryl Eddy)

Romantics Anonymous An awkward, bumbling Parisian chocolatier named Jean-Rene (Benoît Poelvoorde) falls for his gorgeous, equally awkward sales rep, Angélique (Isabelle Carré), while never missing an opportunity to say the wrong thing, surrender to shyness, or panic under pressure. It’s crucial for films involving such protracted awkwardness to give the audience something to cling to emotionally, but instead we’re handed a limp, formulaic story, sorely underdeveloped characters, and lazy writing in which the protagonists act uncharacteristically stupid/gullible/oblivious for the sake of plot-expedience. Amélie (2001) mined similar thematic territory, but its success lay in the depth of its characters; Romantics Anonymous is about little more than the idea of two hopeless romantics, and that’s simply not enough to hold interest. It’s beautifully scored, lovingly shot, and steeped in vintage French atmosphere — but that doesn’t compensate for sketchy characterization and weak, predictable storytelling. (1:20) Roxie. (Taylor Kaplan)

30 Beats A sweltering summer day or two in the city ushers in a series of youthful good-lookers, unencumbered and less than dressed, together in kind of NYC-based mini-La Ronde that I’m surprised Woody Allen hasn’t yet attempted. Fresh young thing Julie (Condola Rashad) is off to pop her cherry with lady’s man Adam (Justin Kirk of Weeds), who’s more accustomed to chasing than being chased. Unsettled, he consults with sorceress Erika (Jennifer Tilly), who plies him with sexual magic and then finds herself chasing down her booty-call bud, bike messenger Diego (Jason Day), who’s besotted with the physically and emotionally scarred Laura (Paz de la Huerta). What goes around comes around in director-writer Alexis Lloyd’s debut feature, but alas, not till it’s contorted and triangulated itself in at least one ridiculously solemn BDSM scene. Matters get trickier when romance begins to creep into these urban one-offs. Nonetheless, those with short attention spans who like their people-watching with a healthy splash of big-city hookups, might find this adult indie as refreshing as a romp with a beautiful stranger they’ve briefly locked eyes with. (1:28) (Kimberly Chun)

Trishna Ever difficult to pin down, director Michael Winterbottom continues his restless flipping between the light (2010’s The Trip), artily experimental (2004’s 9 Songs), pulpy (2010’s The Killer Inside Me), and the dead serious (2007’s A Mighty Heart). Trishna, loosely based on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and set in small-town and big-city modern-day India, lines up neatly on the bookshelf alongside Winterbottom’s other Hardy bodice-ripper, 1996’s Jude. By chance beautiful village girl Trishna (Freida Pinto) falls in with the handsome, thoroughly Westernized Jay (Riz Ahmed) and his laddish pals on holiday. A truck accident leaves her father unable to provide for their family, so she goes to work at the luxury hotel owned by Jay’s father and overseen by his privileged son. There she gently gives him language tips, accepts his offer to educate her in travel industry management, and enjoys his growing attentions, until one day when he rescues her from roving thugs only to seduce her. Though she flees to her family home and eventually has an abortion, Trishna still proves to be an innocent and consents to live in Mumbai with Jay, who is flirting with the film industry and increasingly effaces his trusting girlfriend as their sexual game-playing becomes increasingly complicated. The shadows of both Hardy and Bollywood flit around Trishna, and this cultural transplant nearly works — the hothouse erotic entanglement between its two principals almost but not quite convinces one that Trishna would be driven to desperate ends. Still, even as Trishna, like Tess, infuriates with her passivity, her story occasionally enthralls — the fruit of Pinto’s surprisingly brave, transparent performance. (1:53) (Kimberly Chun)

Abs! Abs! Abs! And a few other new movies…


As a nation reacts with faux-surprise to the news of TomKat’s demise, one question remains: what movie to see this weekend to ease the faux-pain? You could ogle Magic Mike‘s ludicrously luscious abs (review below); guffaw in spite of yourself at Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s big-screen leap, Ted; or suffer through Woody Allen’s latest, To Rome With Love (a big reason I won’t be seeing it: Dennis Harvey’s review).

You could get in line for The Amazing Spider-Man, which I have seen but am not allowed to whisper a word about until its opening Tuesday, July 3. Ahem.

Or, you could hit up the Roxie, which is opening both a strange nugget of sci-fi-ish weirdness and a Beat-gen classic (and while you’re there, pick up tickets for the theater’s July 6 kung-fu double feature). Also of note: Canadian Léa Pool’s eye-opening documentary about “breast cancer culture.” Reviews below.

OR, you could get a jump start on the holiday by watching the most patriotic movie of all time, probably screening on a basic cable channel as you read this. Welcome to Earth!

Magic Mike With conservatives continuing to hammer away at the reproductive rights that we all took for granted, just so they can reset the time machine for the Eisenhower age, it speaks volumes that red-blooded American women are so excited about this movie. Their desire-slash-gaze continues to be marginalized, while throwback pinups and chesty manscapers continue to shoot come-hither looks to the dudes, both straight and gay. That might be why director Steven Soderbergh harks directly to the then-new freedoms of the ‘70s with the opening shot of his male stripper opus: the boxy old Warner Bros. logo, which evokes the gritty, sexualized days of Burt Reynolds, Raquel Welch, and Joe Namath posing in pantyhose. Was that really the last time women, en masse, were welcome to ogle to their heart’s content, pre-AIDS, pre-teen abstinence? That might be the case considering the outburst of applause when a nude Channing Tatum rises after a hard night in a threesome, in Magic Mike’s first five minutes.

Ever the savvy film historian, Soderbergh toys with the conventions of the era, from the grimy quasi-redneck realism of Reynolds’ ‘70s movies to the hidebound framework of the period’s gay porn, almost for his own amusement, though the viewer might be initially confused about exactly what year they’re in. Veteran star stripper Mike (Tatum) is working construction, stripping to the approval of many raucous ladies and their stuffable dollar bills, and jumping in the sack with psych student Joanna (Olivia Munn). He decides to take college-dropout blank-slate hottie Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing and ropes him into the strip club, owned by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey, whose formidable abs look waxily preserved) and show him the ropes of stripping and having a good time, much to the disapproval of Adam’s more straight-laced sister Brooke (Cody Horn, daughter of Warner Bros. president Alan Horn). Really, though, all Mike wants to do is become a furniture designer.

Boasting Foreigner’s “Feels like the First Time” as its theme of sorts and spot-on, hot choreography by Alison Faulk (who’s worked with Madonna and Britney Spears), Magic Mike takes off and can’t help but please the crowd when it turns to the stage, with Tatum and McConaughey filling out the none-too-challenging narrative and their sparsely sketched characters where they can. Unfortunately the dour, chemistry-free budding romance between Mike and Brooke sucks the air out of the proceedings every time it comes into view, which is way too often. The ladies in the audience will also be frustrated that this wasn’t, say, a male version of Frederick Wiseman’s, ahem, penetrating 2011 Crazy Horse and certainly less of the thrill ride they might have been promised. (1:50) (Kimberly Chun)

Beyond the Black Rainbow Sci-fi in feel and striking look even though it’s set in the past (1983, with a flashback to 1966), Canadian writer-director Cosmatos’ first feature defies any precise categorization — let alone attempts to make sense of its plot (such as there is). Arboria is a corporate “commune”-slash laboratory where customers are promised what everyone wants — happiness — even as “the world is in chaos.” Just how that is achieved, via chemicals or whatnot, goes unexplained. In any case, the process certainly doesn’t seem to be working on Elena (Eva Allan), a near-catatonic young woman who seems to be the prisoner as much as the patient of sinister Dr. Nyle (Michael Rogers). The barely-there narrative is so enigmatic at Arboria that when the film finally breaks out into the external world and briefly becomes a slasher flick, you can only shrug — if it had suddenly become a musical, that would have been just as (il-)logical. Black Rainbow is sure to frustrate some viewers, but it is visually arresting, and some with a taste for ambiguous, metaphysical inner-space sci-fi à la Solaris (1972) have found it mesmerizing and profound. As they are wont to remind us, half of its original audience found 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey boring, pointless and walk out-worthy, too. (1:50) Roxie. (Dennis Harvey)

The Connection The first re-release in a project to restore all of quintessential 1960s American independent director Shirley Clarke‘s features, this 1961 vérité-style drama was adapted from a controversial off-Broadway play by Jack Gelber. Set exclusively in a dingy Greenwich Village crash pad, it captures a little time in the lives of several junkies there — many off-duty jazz musicians — listlessly waiting for the return of their dealer, Cowboy. To mimic the stage version’s breaking of the fourth wall between actors and spectators, Clarke added the device of two fictive filmmakers who are trying to record this “shocking” junkie scene, yet grow frustrated at their subjects’ levels of cooperation and resistance. With actors often speaking directly to the camera, and all polished stage language and acting preserved, The Connection offers a curious, artificial realm that is nonetheless finally quite effective and striking. A prize-winner at Cannes, it nonetheless had a very hard time getting around the censors and into theaters back home. Hard-won achievement followed by frustration would be a frequent occurrence for the late Clarke, who would only complete one more feature (a documentary about Ornette Coleman) after 1964’s Cool World and 1967’s Portrait of Jason, before her 1997 demise. She was a pioneering female indie director — and her difficulty finding projects unfortunately also set a mold for many talented women to come. (1:50) Roxie. (Dennis Harvey)

Pink Ribbons, Inc. This enraging yet very entertaining documentary by Canadian Léa Pool, who’s better known for her fiction features (1986’s Anne Trister, etc.), takes an excoriating look at “breast cancer culture” — in particular the huge industry of charitable events whose funds raised often do very little to fight the cease, and whose corporate sponsors in more than a few cases actually manufacture carcinogenic products. It’s called “cause marketing,” the tactic of using alleged do gooderism to sell products to consumers who then feel good about themselves purchasing them. Even if said product and manufacturer is frequently doing less than jack-all to “fight for the cure.” The entertainment value here is in seeing the ludicrous range to which this hucksterism has been applied, selling everything from lingerie and makeup to wine and guns; meanwhile the march, walk, and “fun run” for breast cancer has extended to activities as extreme (and pricey) as sky-diving. Pool lets her experts and survivors critique misleading the official language of cancer, the vast sums raised that wind up funding very little prevention or cure research (as opposed to, say, lucrative new pharmaceuticals with only slight benefits), and the products shilled that themselves may well cause cancer. It’s a shocking picture of the dirt hidden behind “pink-washing,” whose siren call nonetheless continues to draw thousands and thousands of exuberant women to events each year. They’re always so happy to be doing something for the sisterhood’s good — although you might be doing something better (if a little painful) by dragging friends inclined toward such deeds to see this film, and in the future question more closely just whether the charity they sweat for is actually all that charitable, or is instead selling “comforting lies.” (1:38) (Dennis Harvey)