Period Piece

Film Listings: June 4 – 10, 2014

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.

DOCFEST

The 13th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival runs June 5-19 at the Brava Theater, 2781 York, SF; Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF; and Oakland School of the Arts Theater, 530 19th St, Oakl. For tickets (most shows $12) and complete schedule, visit www.sfindie.com. For commentary, see “Peculiar Thrills.”

OPENING

Edge of Tomorrow Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt star in this sci-fi thriller about an alien war being fought by soldiers caught in a seemingly endless time loop. (1:53) Four Star, Presidio.

The Fault in Our Stars Shailene Woodley stars in this based-on-a-best-seller romance about two teens who meet at a cancer support group. (2:05) Marina.

Night Moves Not to be confused with Arthur Penn’s same-named 1975 Gene Hackman thriller, Kelly Reichardt’s latest film nonetheless is also a memorably quiet, unsettling tale of conspiracy and paranoia. It takes us some time to understand what makes temporary allies of jittery Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Portland, Ore.-style alterna-chick Dena (Dakota Fanning) and genial rural recluse Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), beyond it being a mission of considerable danger and secrecy. When things don’t go exactly as planned, however, the three react very differently to the resulting fallout, becoming possibly greater threats to one another than the police or FBI personnel pursuing them. While still spare by mainstream standard, this is easily Reichardt’s most accessible work, carrying the observational strengths of 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff, 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, and 2006’s Old Joy over to a genuinely tense story that actually goes somewhere. (1:52) Metreon. (Harvey)

Rigor Mortis Spooky Chinese folklore (hopping vampires) meets J-horror (female ghouls with long black hair) in this film — directed by Juno Mak, and produced by Grudge series helmer Takashi Shimizu — inspired by Hong Kong’s long-running Mr. Vampire comedy-horror movie series. Homage takes the form of casting, with several of Vampire‘s key players in attendance, rather than tone, since the supernatural goings-on in Rigor Mortis are more somber than slapstick. Washed-up film star Chin Siu-ho (playing an exaggerated version of himself) moves into a gloomy apartment building stuffed with both living and undead tenants; his own living room was the scene of a horrific crime, and anguished spirits still linger. Neighbors include a frustrated former vampire hunter; a traumatized woman and her white-haired imp of a son; a kindly seamstress who goes full-tilt ruthless in her quest to bring her deceased husband back to life; and an ailing shaman whose spell-casting causes more harm than good. Shot in tones so monochromatic the film sometimes appears black-and-white (with splashes of blood red, natch), Rigor Mortis unfortunately favors CG theatrics over genuine scares. That said, its deadpan, world-weary tone can be amusing, as when one old ghost-chaser exclaims to another, “You’re still messing around with that black magic shit?” (1:45) Metreon. (Eddy)

Test Writer-director Chris Mason Johnson sets his film at a particular moment in the early years of the AIDS epidemic — when the first HIV blood test became publicly available, in 1985 — within a milieu, the world of professional modern dance, that rarely makes an appearance in narrative films. Test‘s protagonist, Frankie (Scott Marlowe), is a young understudy in a prestigious San Francisco company, and the camera follows him on daily rounds from a rodent-infested Castro apartment, where he lives with his closeted roommate, to the dance studio, where he marks the steps of the other performers and waits anxiously for an opportunity to get onstage. Larger anxieties are hovering, moving in. We get a rehearsal scene in which a female dancer recoils from her male partner’s embrace, lest his sweat contaminate her; conversations about the virus in changing rooms and at parties; a sexual encounter between Frankie and a stranger, after which he stares at the man as if he might be a mortal enemy; a later, aborted encounter in which the man sits up in bed, appalled and depressed, after Frankie hesitantly proffers a condom, remarking, “They say we should use these&ldots;” A neighbor watches Frankie examine himself for skin lesions. Rock Hudson dies. Frankie warily embarks on a friendship with a brash, handsome fellow dancer (Matthew Risch) who offers a counterpoint to his cerebral, watchful reserve. And throughout, the company rehearses and performs, in scenes that beautifully evoke the themes of the film, a quiet, thoughtful study of a person, and a community, trying to reorient and find footing amid a cataclysm. (1:29) Elmwood (director in person Sat/7, 7:15pm show), Presidio (director in person Fri/6, 8:30pm; Sat/7, 3:50pm; and Sun/8, 6:15pm shows). (Rapoport)

We Are the Best! Fifteen years after Show Me Love, Lukas Moodysson’s sweet tale of two girls in love in small-town Sweden, the writer-director returns to the subject of adorably poignant teen angst. Set in Stockholm in 1982, and adapted from a graphic novel by Moodysson’s wife, Coco Moodysson, We Are the Best! focuses on an even younger cohort: a trio of 13-year-old girls who form a punk band in the interest of fighting the power and irritating the crap out of their enemies. Best friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) spend their time enduring the agonies of parental embarrassment and battling with schoolmates over personal aesthetics (blond and perky versus chopped and spiked), nukes, and whether punk’s dead or not. Wreaking vengeance on a group of churlish older boys by snaking their time slot in the local rec center’s practice space, they find themselves equipped with a wealth of fan enthusiasm, but no instruments of their own and scant functional knowledge of the ones available at the rec center. Undaunted, they recruit a reserved Christian classmate named Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), whose objectionable belief system — which they vow to subvert for her own good — is offset by her prodigious musical talents. Anyone who was tormented by the indignities of high school PE class will appreciate the subject matter of the group’s first number (“Hate the Sport”). And while the film has a slightness to it and an unfinished quality, Moodysson’s heartfelt interest in the three girls’ triumphs and trials as both a band and a posse of friends suffuses the story with warmth and humor. (1:42) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Rapoport)

ONGOING

Cold in July Though he’s best-known for his cut-above indie horror flicks (2010’s Stake Land; 2013’s We Are What We Are), Jim Mickle’s most accomplished film to date explores new turf for the writer-director: small-town noir. Cold in July, a thriller ranging across East Texas, circa 1989, is adapted from the novel by Joe R. Lansdale, who — buckle up, cultists — also penned the short story which spawned 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep. That said, there are no supernatural elements afoot here; all darkness springs entirely from the coal-black hearts beating in its characters. Well, some of its characters, anyway; though Cold in July begins with a killing, the trigger hand is attached to mild-mannered Richard Dane (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall, rocking a splendid mullet). The masked man he shot was breaking into his home; Richard was just protecting his family, and the crime is breezed over by the police. Unlike Viggo Mortensen’s secret gangster in 2005’s A History of Violence, a film which begins with a similar premise, Richard has zero past aggression to draw on; dude’s got a history of mildness — with a heretoforth untapped curiosity about the wilder side of life awakened by a sudden bloody act. The good guy/bad guy dynamic is twisted, tested, and taken to extremes as the story progresses; it’s the sort of film best viewed without much knowledge of its plot twists, which are numerous and cleverly plotted. Throughout, the film expertly works its 1980s setting as both homage to and embodiment of the era’s gritty thrillers; its synth-heavy score and the casting of Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt) add to the feeling that Cold in July was crafted after much time spent in the church of St. John Carpenter. Amen to that. (1:49) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

The Dance of Reality His unique vision recently re-introduced to audiences by unmaking-of documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, cinematic fabulist Alejandro Jodorowsky is back with his first film in a quarter-century. This autobiographical fantasia shows all initial signs of being a welcome yet somewhat redundant retread of his cult-famed early work (1970’s El Topo, 1973’s The Holy Mountain), as Santa Sangre was in 1989. It starts with the filmmaker himself fulminating wisdoms about the spiritual emptiness of a money-centric world, then appearing as guardian angel to his child self (Jeremias Herskovits). Little Alejandro is raised by a bullying, hyper macho father (Brontis Jodorowsky) and warm, indulgent mother (soprano Pamela Flores, singing every line of dialogue) who naturally clash at every turn. Jodorowsky’s stunning eye for bizarre imagery (abetted by DP Jean-Marie Dreujou’s handsome compositions) hasn’t faded, so there are delights to be had even in what fans might consider an over-familiar parade of dwarfs, amputees, anti clerical burlesques (like a dress-up dog beauty contest at church), Chaplinesque circus sentimentality, and other simple if surreal illustrations of society’s eternal victims and overlords. At a certain point, however, the misdeeds of father Jaime force his self-exile. The film’s consequent picaresque allegory of epic suffering toward redemption becomes cheerfully goofy, its symbol-strewn path increasingly funny and sweet rather than burdened by import. A large part of that appeal is due to junior Jodorowsky Brontis, who demonstrates considerable farcical esprit while flashing more full-frontal nudity than Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor combined ever dreamed of obliging. Shot in the family’s native Chile on a purported crowd funded budget of $3 million — could Hollywood provide so much original spectacle for 30 times that amount?—The Dance of Reality finds its 84-year-old maker as frisky as a pony, one that provides an endearingly unpredictable ride. (2:10) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

The Grand Seduction Canadian actor-director Don McKellar (1998’s Last Night) remakes 2003 Quebecois comedy Seducing Doctor Lewis, about a depressed community searching for the town doctor they’ll need before a factory will agree to set up shop and bring much-needed jobs to the area. Canada is still the setting here, with the harbor’s name — Tickle Head — telegraphing with zero subtlety that whimsy lies ahead. A series of events involving a Tickle Head-based TSA agent, a bag of cocaine, and a harried young doctor (Taylor Kitsch) trying to avoid jail time signals hope for the hamlet, and de facto town leader Murray (Brendan Gleeson) snaps into action. The seduction of “Dr. Paul,” who agrees to one month of service not knowing the town is desperate to keep him, is part Northern Exposure culture clash, part Jenga-like stack of lies, as the townspeople pretend to love cricket (Paul’s a fanatic) and act like his favorite lamb dish is the specialty at the local café. The wonderfully wry Gleeson is the best thing about this deeply predictable tale, which errs too often on the side of cute (little old ladies at the switchboard listening in on Paul’s phone-sex with his girlfriend!) rather than clever, as when an unsightly structure in the center of town is explained away with a fake “World Heritage House” plaque. Still, the scenery is lovely, and “cute” doesn’t necessarily mean “not entertaining.” (1:52) Embarcadero. (Eddy)

Ida The bomb drops within the first ten minutes: after being gently forced to reconnect with her only living relative before taking her vows, novice nun Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) learns that her name is actually Ida, and that she’s Jewish. Her mother’s sister, Wanda (Agneta Kulesza) — a Communist Party judge haunted by a turbulent past she copes with via heavy drinking, among other vices — also crisply relays that Ida’s parents were killed during the Nazi occupation, and after some hesitation agrees to accompany the sheltered young woman to find out how they died, and where their bodies were buried. Drawing great depth from understated storytelling and gorgeous, black-and-white cinematography, Pawel Pawilowski’s well-crafted drama offers a bleak if realistic (and never melodramatic) look at 1960s Poland, with two polar-opposite characters coming to form a bond as their layers of painful loss rise to the surface. (1:20) Clay. (Eddy)

The Immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotilliard) is an orphaned Polish émigré who’s separated from her sickly sister at Ellis Island in 1921, and scheduled for deportation as an alleged “woman of low morals.” She’s rescued from that by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), though he’s not quite the agent of charity he seems — in fact, Ewa doesn’t realize she’s actually been recruited for a prostitution racket he thinly veils as a theatrical troupe. Still, she stays, believing she has no other viable path to freeing her sister from quarantine, she allows her own degradation for money’s sake. This latest collaboration between Phoenix and director-coscenarist James Gray is a handsome period piece that’s done skillfully and tastefully enough to downplay — but not quite hide — the fact that its moral melodrama might as well have been written (as well as set) nearly a century ago. Cotilliard is fine in her best English-language role to date, and Phoenix is compelling as usual; Jeremy Renner is somewhat miscast as a distant-third lead. But whether you find The Immigrant poignant or forced will depend on your tolerance for a script whose every turn is all too predictable. (2:00) Metreon. (Harvey)

Maleficent Fairytale revisionism is all the rage these days, what with the unending power of Disney princesses to latch into little girls everywhere and bring parental units (and their wallets) to their knees. Yet princesses almost seem beside the point in this villain’s-side-of-the-story tale — Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), the queen of the fairies in the magical moors, wronged by Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who saws off her wings in order to win a crown. Accompanied by her shape-shifting minion, crow Diaval (Sam Riley), Maleficent attends the christening of King Stefan’s first-born daughter, Aurora, hot on the heels of three clownish good fairies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple), and delivers a curse that will have this future Sleeping Beauty (Elle Fanning) prick her finger on a spindle and sink into a deathlike coma until her true love’s kiss. Will that critical smooch be delivered  by Prince Bieber, er, Phillip (Brenton Thwaites)? Considering the potential for Disney’s trademark, heart-tugging enchantment to get magically tangled up in girl power, it’s tough to suck up the disappointment in the ooey-gooey, gummy-faced troll-doll aesthetics of the art direction and animation, as well as first-time director Robert Stromberg’s choppy, dashed-through storytelling. Part of the problem is that there’s almost zero threat here, despite its antihero’s devilish presence — is there ever any doubt that a healthy resolution will win out, even at the expense of blood ties? Best to find dangerous pleasures where one can — namely in the vivid Jolie, cheekbones honed to a razor edge, who spits biting remarks at her accursed charge, beneath Joan Crawford-esque eyebrows and horns crying out for club-kid Halloween treatments. (1:37) Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Chun) *

 

Devil’s advocate

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM It’s taken nearly three years for Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust to get to the Bay Area. That seems apt for what was surely, in 2011, the least popular recipient of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion in decades. Jury chief Darren Aronofsky (whose own epic about God and man’s purpose and such, Noah, is stone sober by contrast) called it the kind of movie that “changes you forever after you see it.” Others — especially those who expect some resemblance to the “tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe” the film claims to be based on, perhaps its first insidious joke — registered reactions in the general realm of “WTF?”

But mostly, this Faust simply hasn’t been seen very much, an odd fate for a fairly expensive art movie that purportedly Putin himself hoped would demonstrate the glory of modern Russian culture to the world. (Even if it is a German-language period piece shot in the Czech Republic.)

One can only imagine Vladimir’s subsequent dismay, and possible avowals to never again back auteurs without the surnames Bondarchuk or Mikhalkov — men who can be counted on to grunt out macho, patriotic cine-blintzes that in proud testament to national nepotism invariably get chosen as Russia’s official Oscar contenders. (Nikita Mikhalkov’s massive 2011 bust Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel nudged out Faust for that honor, prompting international hilarity.)

What can Sokurov be counted on for? He is a weirdo. Even his popular triumphs — 1997’s rhapsodic Mother and Son; 2002’s extraordinary 300-years-of-history-in-one-traveling-shot Russian Ark — are very rarefied stuff, disinterested in conventional narrative or making their meanings too clear. In production scale, Faust is Sokurov’s biggest project, which hardly stops it also being possibly his most perverse. Whose idea was it to give this guy millions of euros in anticipation of something beautiful, accessible, or at least non-maddening? Surely a few heads rolled at the Russian Cinema Fund, Golden Lion or no.

But whatever bureaucrats’ loss is our gain … finally. Faust is compellingly, often hypnotically dreamlike and grotesque, a film not quite like any other. It rings bells redolent of certain classic 1970s Herzog features, and of course Sokurov’s own prior ones (as well as those by his late mentor Tarkovsky). But it has a stoned strangeness all its own. It’s not 140 minutes you should enter lightly, because you are going to exit it headily, drunk off the kind of questionable homebrew elixir that has a worm floating in it.

Bruno Delbonnel’s camera dives headlong from celestial clouds into a clammy mittle-Yurropeon town in which the thin margin between pissy bourgeoisie and dirty swine is none too subtly delineated when a funeral march collides with a cartful of porkers. Starving — for love, for lunch, for any sign that God isn’t just a nagging personal delusion — is Professor Faust (the marvelously plastic Johannes Zeiler), whom we meet dissecting a corpse in his filthy studio. Asked by bonkers assistant Wagner (Georg Friedrich) where the soul dwells, he shrugs “There’s only rubbish in here,” yanking out the most gratuitous onscreen innards since Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973). Impoverished and hungry, the questionably good doctor is an easy mark for Mephistophelean moneylender Mauricius Muller (physical theater specialist Anton Adasinsky), an insinuating snake who claims the soul is “no heavier than a coin,” and will happily relieve Faust of his in return for some slippery satisfactions.

Their endless day together encompasses a rowdy inn, the vaguely unsavory pursuit of dewy Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), and finally a sort of death in a volcanic landscape that’s like the setting for a creation myth — one encompassing both the religion Faust resists and the science he practices merely as “something to do to fill the void,” comparing it to his inamorata’s knitting.

There’s also the revelation of a naked Muller at the baths as some sort of a-human, asexual fleshy lump, with useless penis-tail on his backside; the unrecognizable fleeting specter of Hanna Schygulla as Frau Muller; a monkey on the moon glimpsed through telescope; poor Wagner revealing the “homunculus” he’s bred from “oils of asparagus and dandelion mixed with hyena’s liver,” a pathetic tiny monster as doomed as the Eraserhead (1977) baby.

Faust completes Sokurov’s tetralogy on power and corruption, which otherwise consisted of druggy fantasias about real historical leaders: 1999’s Moloch about Hitler, which showed once at the San Francisco International Film Festival; 2001’s Taurus (Stalin), which hardly played anywhere; and 2005’s stilted The Sun (Emperor Hirohito), which rather inexplicably played everywhere. Coming complete with the director’s trademark distortion effects (in both color tinting and image aspect), Faust has a soft, queasy, pickled feel, like a disquieting dream too fascinating to wake yourself from. Andrey Sigle’s orchestral score rolls beneath dislocating visuals, a constant wave assuring no one aboard gains their sea legs.

For all actual mention of the soul in a script devised with prior collaborators Yuri Arabov and Marina Koreneva, this is a less “spiritual” film than many Sokurov has managed before. God (or whomever) knows you are likelier to sense his very Russian mysticism as a redemptive force in Mother and Son, not to mention 2007’s Alexandra or such Soviet-era cries in the dark as Days of Eclipse (1988) or The Second Circle (1990). Faust is beautiful in its distinctive aesthetics, even if its view of human existence is philosophically, ornately ugly. It’s also antic in the semi-subterranean way you might expect from a once frequently-banned artist raised in Siberia. Nearly a decade ago he said this project would be “a very colorful, elegant picture with a lot of Strauss music and a smell of chocolate.” Always with the jokes, that Sokurov. *

FAUST opens Fri/18 at the Roxie Theater.

Film Listings: April 9 – 15, 2014

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.

OPENING

Cuban Fury Nick Frost, Rashida Jones, and Chris O’Dowd star in this comedy about competitive salsa dancing. (1:37)

Dom Hemingway We first meet English safecracker Dom (Jude Law) as he delivers an extremely verbose and flowery ode to his penis, addressing no one in particular, while he’s getting blown in prison. Whether you find this opening a knockout or painfully faux will determine how you react to the rest of Richard Shepard’s new film, because it’s all in that same overwritten, pseudo-shocking, showoff vein, Sprung after 12 years, Dom is reunited with his former henchman Dickie (Richard E. Grant), and the two go to the South of France to collect the reward owed for not ratting out crime kingpin Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir). This detour into the high life goes awry, however, sending the duo back to London, where Dom — who admits having “anger issues,” which is putting it mildly — tries to woo a new employer (Jumayn Hunter) and, offsetting his general loutishness with mawkish interludes, to re-ingratiate himself with his long-estranged daughter (Emilia Clarke). Moving into Guy Ritchie terrain with none of the deftness the same writer-director had brought to debunking James Bond territory in 2006’s similarly black-comedic crime tale The Matador, Dom Hemingway might bludgeon some viewers into sharing its air of waggish, self conscious merriment. But like Law’s performance, it labors so effortfully hard after that affect that you’re just as likely to find the whole enterprise overbearing. (1:33) Elmwood. (Harvey)

Draft Day Kevin Costner stars in this comedy-drama set behind the scenes of the NFL. (2:00) Presidio.

Finding Vivian Maier Much like In the Realms of the Unreal, the 2004 doc about Henry Darger, Finding Vivian Maier explores the lonely life of a gifted artist whose talents were discovered posthumously. In this case, however, the filmmaker — John Maloof, who co-directs with Charlie Siskel — is responsible for Maier’s rise to fame. A practiced flea-market hunter, he picked up a carton of negatives at a 2007 auction; they turned out to be striking examples of early street photography. He was so taken with the work (snapped by a woman so obscure she was un-Google-able) that he began posting images online. Unexpectedly, they became a viral sensation, and Maloof became determined to learn more about the camerawoman. Turns out Vivian Maier was a career nanny in the Chicago area, with plenty of former employers to share their memories. She was an intensely private person who some remembered as delightfully adventurous and others remembered as eccentric, mentally unstable, or even cruel; she was a hoarder who was distrustful of men, and she spoke with a maybe-fake French accent. And she was obsessed with taking photographs that she never showed to anyone; the hundreds of thousands now in Maloof’s collection (along with 8mm and 16mm films) offer the only insight into her creative mind. “She had a great eye, a sense of humor, and a sense of tragedy,” remarks acclaimed photographer Mary Ellen Mark. “But there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.” The film’s central question — why was Maier so secretive about her hobby? — may never be answered. But as the film also suggests, that mystery adds another layer of fascination to her keenly observed photos. (1:23) Clay, Shattuck. (Eddy)

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden Extensive archival footage and home movies (plus one short, narrative film) enhance this absorbing doc from San Francisco-based Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller (2005’s Ballets Russes). It tells the tale of a double murder that occurred in the early 1930s on Floreana — the most remote of the already scarcely-populated Galapagos Islands. A top-notch cast (Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Connie Nielsen, Josh Radnour) gives voice to the letters and diary entries of the players in this stranger-than-fiction story, which involved an array of Europeans who’d moved away from civilization in search of utopian simplicity — most intriguingly, a maybe-fake Baroness and her two young lovers — and realized too late that paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Goldfine and Geller add further detail to the historic drama by visiting the present-day Galapagos, speaking with residents about the lingering mystery and offering a glimpse of what life on the isolated islands is like today. (2:00) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Interior. Leather Bar. James Franco and Travis Mathews’ “docufilm” imagines and recreates footage cut from the 1980 film Cruising. (1:00) Roxie.

Joe “I know what keeps me alive is restraint,” says Nicolas Cage’s titular character, a hard-drinking, taciturn but honorable semi-loner who supervises a crew of laborers clearing undesirable trees in the Mississippi countryside. That aside, his business is mostly drinking, occasionally getting laid, and staying out of trouble — we glean he’s had more than enough of the latter in his past. Thus it’s against his better judgment that he helps out newly arrived transient teen Gary (the excellent Tye Sheridan, of 2012’s Mud and 2011’s The Tree of Life), who’s struggling to support his bedraggled mother and mute sister. Actually he takes a shine to the kid, and vice versa; the reason for caution is Gary’s father, whom he himself calls a “selfish old drunk.” And that’s a kind description of this vicious, violent, lazy, conscienceless boozehound, who has gotten his pitiful family thrown out of town many times before and no doubt will manage it once again in this new burg, where they’ve found an empty condemned house to squat in. David Gordon Green’s latest is based on a novel by the late Larry Brown, and like that writer’s prose, its considerable skill of execution manages to render serious and grimly palatable a steaming plate load of high white trash melodrama that might otherwise be undigestible. (Strip away the fine performances, staging and atmosphere, and there’s not much difference between Joe and the retro Southern grind house likes of 1969’s Shanty Tramp, 1974’s ‘Gator Bait or 1963’s Scum of the Earth.) Like Mud and 2011’s Killer Joe, this is a rural Gothic neither truly realistic or caricatured to the point of parody, but hanging between those two poles — to an effect that’s impressive and potent, though some may not enjoy wallowing in this particular depressing mire of grotesque nastiness en route to redemption. (1:57) (Harvey)

The New Black The Human Rights Watch Film Festival (April 10-27 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) kicks off with Yoruba Richen’s look at uneasy tensions between African American Christians and marriage-equality activists. Though Richen is careful to give voice to both sides, The New Black‘s most charismatic figure is Sharon Lettman-Hicks of the National Black Justice Coalition, who’s straight and a churchgoer, but is tirelessly dedicated to LGBT rights both professionally and personally — as in a scene in which a backyard barbecue at her home turns into a friendly but assertive education session for her less open-minded relatives. Elsewhere, we meet an African American church leader who’s against same-sex marriage but isn’t portrayed as a one-note villain; a group of young LGBT political volunteers, many of whom are estranged from intolerant parents; an adorable two-mom family hoping to make their partnership legal; and the gospel singer formerly known as Tonéx, whose decision to come out greatly affected his burgeoning Christian music career. Maryland’s same-sex marriage referendum, decided during the 2012 election, is the film’s focal point, but it also boldly digs into deeper issues, exploring why a community that fought so hard for its own civil rights a generation ago has such trouble supporting the LGBT cause. (1:22) Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (Eddy)

Oculus Tim (Brenton Thwaites) and Kaylie (Karen Gillan) are grown siblings with a horrible shared past: When they were children, their parents (Rory Cochrane, Katee Sankhoff) moved them all into a nice suburban house, decorating it with, among other things, a 300-year-old mirror. But that antique seemed to have an increasingly disturbing effect on dad, then mom too, to ultimately homicidal, offspring-orphaning effect. Over a decade later, Tim is released from a juvenile mental lockup, ready to live a normal life after years of therapy have cleaned him of the supernatural delusions he think landed him there in the first place. Imagine his dismay when Kaylie announces she has spent the meantime researching aforementioned “evil mirror” — which turns out to have had a very gruesome history of mysteriously connected deaths — and painstakingly re-acquiring it. She means to destroy it so it can never wreak havoc, and has set up an elaborate room of camcorders and other equipment in which to “prove” its malevolence first, with Tim her very reluctant helper. Needless to say, this experiment (which he initially goes along with only in order to debunk the whole thing for good) turns out to be a very, very bad idea. The mirror is clever — demonically clever. It can warp time and perspective so our protagonists don’t know whether what they’re experiencing is real or not. Expanding on his 2006 short film (which was made before his excellent, little-seen 2011 horror feature Absentia), Mike Flanagan’s tense, atmospheric movie isn’t quite as scary as you might wish, partly because the villain (the spirit behind the mirror) isn’t particularly well-imagined in generic look or murky motivation. But it is the rare new horror flick that is genuinely intricate and surprising plot-wise — no small thing in the current landscape of endless remakes and rehashes. (1:44) (Harvey)

Rio 2 More 3D tropical adventures with animated birds Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway) and their menagerie of pals, with additional voices by Andy Garcia, Leslie Mann, Bruno Mars, Jamie Foxx, and more. (1:41) Four Star, Presidio.

Under the Skin See “The Hunger.” (1:47)

ONGOING

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq Writer-director Nancy Buirski’s documentary follows the short, brilliant career of a young dancer named Tanaquil Le Clercq, who came up in the New York City ballet world of the 1940s and ’50s. Le Clercq was discovered by George Balanchine, married him (as three other dancers had done before her), sparked a paradigm shift in the ballet world regarding what was considered the quintessential dancer’s body, had numerous ballets set on her by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and then, at the peak of her career, at age 27, was stricken by polio and left paralyzed in both legs. The film takes its time moving toward this catastrophe, recounting Le Clercq’s early adult life through interviews with her contemporaries and tracking her professional progress through gorgeous archival footage of her performances. Equally moving archival material are the letters from a longtime correspondence between Le Clercq and Robbins that documented two very different periods of her life: the first, when Robbins was choreographing ballets for her, including Afternoon of a Faun, and professing his love; the second, after her paralysis, when she wrote him a series of poignant communications describing her impressions of her illness and her new, circumscribed world. The film has some trouble holding on to its center — as in life, Balanchine proves a magnetic force, and Afternoon of a Faun feels inexorably drawn to his professional and personal details. We don’t get enough of Le Clercq, which you could say is the tragedy of her story — nobody did. But the letters do provide a sense of someone resourceful and responsive to life’s richness and joys, someone who would get past this crisis and find a way to reshape her life. (1:31) Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)

Bad Words Settling a grudge score whose precise origin remains unclear until late in the game, world-class misanthrope Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is celebrating his 40th birthday by competing in a national spelling bee. Yes, spelling bees are generally for children, and so is this one. But Guy has found a legal loophole permitting his participation, and the general hate wending his way from contest staff (Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall) — let alone the tiger-mom-and-dad parents ready to form a lynch mob — is just icing on the cake where he’s concerned. What’s more, as some sort of majorly underachieving near-genius, he’s in fact well equipped to whup the bejesus out of overachieving eight-year-olds when it comes to saying the right letters out loud. The only people on his side, sorta, are the online journalist (Kathryn Hahn) reporting on his perverse quest, and the insidiously cute Indian American competitor (Rohan Chand) who wants to be besties, or perhaps just to psych him out. (Note: The tyke’s admitted favorite word is “subjugate.”) Written by Andrew Dodge, this comedy in the tradition (a little too obviously) of 2003’s Bad Santa and such provides the always enjoyable Bateman with not only a tailor-made lead role, but a directorial debut as well. He does just fine by both. Yet as nicely crafted and frequently-pretty-funny Bad Words is, at core it’s a rather petty movie — small, derivative, and cynically mean-spirited without the courage of genuine biliousness. It’s at once not-half-bad, and not half as badass as it pretends to be. (1:29) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Breathe In In Drake Doremus’s lyrical tale of a man in midlife crisis, Guy Pearce plays Keith Reynolds, a high school music teacher living in upstate New York with his wife, Megan (Amy Ryan), and teenage daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie David). Quietly harboring his discontent, Keith spends solitary moments wistfully sifting through glory-days photographs of his former band and memories of the undomesticated life he and Megan led two decades ago in New York City, which the two revisit in a low-toned call-and-response that doesn’t need to erupt into a blistering argument to clarify their incompatible positions. The melancholy calm is disrupted by the arrival of a British exchange student named Sophie (Felicity Jones, who also starred in Doremus’s 2011 film, Like Crazy). Evading a scene of loss and heartbreak at home, 18-year-old Sophie has come to spend a semester at Lauren’s high school, a juxtaposition that presents us with two wildly distinct species of teenager. Lauren is a brittle, popular party girl whom we watch making poor choices with a predatory classmate; Sophie is a soulful, reserved young woman whose prodigious talent at the piano first jars Keith out of his malaise into an uncomfortable awareness. A scene before Sophie’s arrival in which the family plays Jenga and Keith pulls out the wrong piece, toppling the tower, perhaps presses its ominous visual message too hard. Meanwhile, similarities to 2012’s Nobody Walks underscore the argument that this subject matter is an old, tired tale. But for the most part, the intimacy that develops between Keith and Sophie is constructed with delicate restraint, and Doremus and writing partner Ben York Jones have crafted a textured portrait of a man trying to repossess the past. (1:37) Metreon. (Rapoport)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Marvel’s most wholesome hero returns in this latest film in the Avengers series, and while it doesn’t deviate from the expected formula (it’s not a spoiler to say that yes, the world is saved yet again), it manages to incorporate a surprisingly timely plot about the dangers of government surveillance. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), hunkiest 95-year-old ever, is still figuring out his place in the 21st century after his post-World War II deep freeze. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has him running random rescue missions with the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), but SHIELD is working on a top-secret project that will allow it to predict crimes before they occur. It isn’t long before Cap’s distrust of the weapon — he may be old-fashioned, but he ain’t stupid — uncovers a sinister plot led by a familiar enemy, with Steve’s former BFF Bucky doing its bidding as the science-experiment-turned-assassin Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, and series regular Cobie Smulders are fine in supporting roles, and Johansson finally gets more to do than punch and pose, but the likable Evans ably carries the movie — he may not have the charisma of Robert Downey Jr., but he brings wit and depth to a role that would otherwise be defined mainly by biceps and CG-heavy fights. Oh, and you know the drill by now: superfans will want to stick around for two additional scenes tucked into the end credits. (2:16) Balboa, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Cesar Chavez “You always have a choice,” Cesar Chavez (Michael Peña) tells his bullied son when advising him to turn the other cheek. Likewise, actor-turned-director Diego Luna had a choice when it came to tackling his first English-language film; he could have selected a less complicated, sprawling story. So he gets props for that simple act — especially at a time when workers’ rights and union power have been so dramatically eroded — and for his attempts to impact some complicated nuance to Chavez’s fully evident heroism. Painting his moving pictures in dusty earth tones and burnt sunlight with the help of cinematographer Enrique Chediak, Luna vaults straight into Chavez’s work with the grape pickers that would come to join the United Farm Workers — with just a brief voiceover about Chavez’s roots as the native-born son of a farm owner turned worker, post-Depression. Uprooting wife Helen (America Ferrera) and his family and moving to Delano as a sign of activist commitment, Chavez is seemingly quickly drawn into the 1965 strike by the Mexican workers’ sometime rivals: Filipino pickers (see the recent CAAMFest short documentary Delano Manongs for some of their side of the story). From there, the focus hones in on Chavez, speaking out against violence and “chicken shit macho ideals,” hunger striking, and activating unions overseas, though Luna does give voice to cohorts like Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), growers like Bogdanovitch (John Malkovich), and the many nameless strikers — some of whom lost their lives during the astonishingly lengthy, taxing five-year strike. Luna’s win would be a blue-collar epic on par with 1979’s Norma Rae, and on some levels, he succeeds; scanning the faces of the weathered, hopeful extras in crowd scenes, you can’t help but feel the solidarity. The people have the power, as a poet once put it, and tellingly, his choice of Peña, stolidly opaque when charismatic warmth is called for, might be the key weakness here. One suspects the director or his frequent costar Gael García Bernal would make a more riveting Chavez. (1:38) Elmwood, Metreon. (Chun)

Divergent Based on the blockbuster dystopian-future YA novel by Veronica Roth (the first in a trilogy), Divergent is set in a future city-state version of Chicago in which society is divided into five character-based, color-coded factions: Erudite, Amity, Candor, Abnegation, and Dauntless. Like her peers, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), the film’s Abnegation-born teenage heroine, must choose a permanent faction — with the help of a standardized aptitude test that forgoes penciling in bubbles in favor of virtual reality psychic manipulation. When the test fails to triangulate her sole innate personality trait, she learns that she belongs to a secret, endangered sixth category: Divergent, an astonishing set of people who are not only capable of, say, acts of selflessness but can also produce intelligent thought, or manifest bravery in the face of danger. Forced to hide her aberrant nature in a society whose leaders (Kate Winslet) are prone to statements like “The future belongs to those who know where they belong,” and seemingly bored among Abnegation’s hive of gray cardigan-wearing worker bees, Beatrice chooses Dauntless, a dashing gang of black-clad, alterna-rock music video extras who jump on and off moving trains and live in a warehouse-chic compound whose dining hall recalls the patio at Zeitgeist. Fittingly, a surly, tattooed young man named Four (Theo James) leads Beatrice, now Tris, and her fellow initiates through a harsh proving regimen that, if they fail, will cast them into an impoverished underclass. Director Neil Burger (2006’s The Illusionist, 2011’s Limitless) and the behemoth marketing force behind Divergent are clearly hoping to stir up the kind of madness stoked by the Twilight and Hunger Games series, but while there are bones a-plenty to pick with those franchises, Divergent may have them beat for pure daffiness of premise and diameter of plot holes — and that’s after screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor’s major suturing of the source material’s lacunae. The daffiness doesn’t translate into imaginative world-building, and while a couple of scenes convey the visceral thrills of life in Dauntless, the tension between Tris and Four is awkwardly ratcheted up, and the film’s shift into a mode of crisis is equally jolting without generating much heat. (2:20) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Ernest & Celestine Belgian animators Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier are best known for the stop-motion shorts series (and priceless 2009 subsequent feature) A Town Called Panic, an anarchic, absurdist, and hilarious creation suitable for all ages. Their latest (co-directed with Benjamin Renner) is … not like that at all. Instead, it’s a sweet, generally guileless children’s cartoon that takes its gentle, watercolor-type visual style from late writer-illustrator Gabrielle Vincent’s same-named books. Celestine (voiced by Pauline Brunner) is an orphaned girl mouse that befriends gruff bear Ernest (the excellent Lambert Wilson), though their improbable kinship invites social disapproval and scrapes with the law. There are some clever satirical touches, but mostly this is a softhearted charmer that will primarily appeal to younger kids. Adults will find it pleasant enough — but don’t expect any Panic-style craziness. (1:20) Elmwood, Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Non-Stop You don’t want to get between Liam Neeson and his human shield duties. The Taken franchise has restyled the once-gentle acting giant into the type of weather-beaten, all-business action hero that Harrison Ford once had a lock on. Throw in a bit of the flying-while-addled antihero high jinks last seen in Flight (2012) and that pressured, packed-sardine anxiety that we all suffer during long-distance air travel, and we have a somewhat ludicrous but nonetheless entertaining hybrid that may have you believing that those salty snacks and the seat-kicking kids are the least of your troubles. Neeson’s Bill Marks signals the level of his freestyle alcoholism by giving his booze a stir with a toothbrush shortly before putting on his big-boy air marshal pants and boarding his fateful flight. Marks is soon contacted by a psycho who promises, via text, to kill one person at a time on the flight unless $150 million is deposited into a bank account that — surprise — is under the bad-good air marshal’s name. The twists and turns — and questions of who to trust, whether it’s Marks’ vaguely likeable seatmate (Julianne Moore) or his business class flight attendant (Michelle Dockery) — keep the audience on edge and busily guessing, though director Jaume Collet-Serra doesn’t quite dispel all the questions that arise as the diabolical scheme plays out and ultimately taxes believability. The fun is all in the getting there, even if the denouement on the tarmac deflates. (1:50) Four Star. (Chun)

The Grand Budapest Hotel Is this the first Wes Anderson movie to feature a shootout? It’s definitely the first Anderson flick to include a severed head. That’s not to say The Grand Budapest Hotel, “inspired by” the works of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, represents too much of a shift for the director — his intricate approach to art direction is still very much in place, as are the deadpan line deliveries and a cast stuffed with Anderson regulars. But there’s a slightly more serious vibe here, a welcome change from 2012’s tooth-achingly twee Moonrise Kingdom. Thank Ralph Fiennes’ performance as liberally perfumed concierge extraordinaire M. Gustave, which mixes a shot of melancholy into the whimsy, and newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero, his loyal lobby boy, who provides gravitas despite only being a teenager. (Being played by F. Murray Abraham as an older adult probably helps in that department.) Hotel‘s early 20th century Europe setting proves an ideal canvas for Anderson’s love of detail — the titular creation rivals Stanley Kubrick’s rendering of the Overlook Hotel — and his supporting cast, as always, looks to be enjoying the hell out of being a part of Anderson’s universe, with Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and Adrien Brody having particularly oversized fun. Is this the best Wes Anderson movie since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums? Yes. (1:40) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Eddy)

Gravity “Life in space is impossible,” begins Gravity, the latest from Alfonso Cuarón (2006’s Children of Men). Egghead Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is well aware of her precarious situation after a mangled satellite slams into her ship, then proceeds to demolition-derby everything (including the International Space Station) in its path. It’s not long before she’s utterly, terrifyingly alone, and forced to unearth near-superhuman reserves of physical and mental strength to survive. Bullock’s performance would be enough to recommend Gravity, but there’s more to praise, like the film’s tense pacing, spare-yet-layered script (Cuarón co-wrote with his son, Jonás), and spectacular 3D photography — not to mention George Clooney’s warm supporting turn as a career astronaut who loves country music almost as much as he loves telling stories about his misadventures. (1:31) Metreon. (Eddy)

The Great Beauty The latest from Paolo Sorrentino (2008’s Il Divo) arrives as a high-profile contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, already annointed a masterpiece in some quarters, and duly announcing itself as such in nearly every grandiose, aesthetically engorged moment. Yes, it seems to say, you are in the presence of this auteur’s masterpiece. But it’s somebody else’s, too. The problem isn’t just that Fellini got there first, but that there’s room for doubt whether Sorrentino’s homage actually builds on or simply imitates its model. La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963) are themselves swaying, jerry-built monuments, exhileratingly messy and debatably profound. But nothing quite like them had been seen before, and they did define a time of cultural upheaval — when traditional ways of life were being plowed under by a loud, moneyed, heedless modernity that for a while chose Rome as its global capital. Sorrentino announces his intention to out-Fellini Fellini in an opening sequence so strenuously flamboyant it’s like a never-ending pirouette performed by a prima dancer with a hernia. There’s statuary, a women’s choral ensemble, an on-screen audience applauding the director’s baffled muse Toni Servillo, standing in for Marcello Mastroianni — all this and more in manic tracking shots and frantic intercutting, as if sheer speed alone could supply contemporary relevancy. Eventually The Great Beauty calms down a bit, but still its reason for being remains vague behind the heavy curtain of “style.” (2:22) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

It Felt Like Love Set on the outer edges of Brooklyn and Queens, writer-director Eliza Hittman’s debut feature tracks the summertime wanderings and missteps of 14-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti), whose days mainly consist of trailing in the wake of her more sexually experienced and perpetually coupled-off best friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni). The camera repeatedly finds Lila in voyeur mode, as Chiara and her boyfriend, Patrick (Jesse Cordasco), negotiate their physical relationship and redefine the limits of PDA, unfazed by Lila’s silent, watchful presence. It’s clear she wants some part of this, though her motivations are a murky compound of envy, loneliness, and longing for a sense of place among her peers. A brief encounter with an older boy, Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), whom Chiara knows — more of a sighting, really — provides the tiniest of openings, and Lila forces her way through it with an awkward insistence that is uncomfortable and sometimes painful to witness. Lila lacks Chiara’s fluid verbal and physical vernacular, and her attempts at mimicry in the cause of attracting Sammy’s attention only underline how unready and out of her depth she is. As Lila pushes into his seedy, sleazy world — a typical night is spent getting wasted and watching porn with his friends — their encounters don’t look like they feel like love, though Piersanti poignantly signals her character’s physical desire in the face of Sammy’s bemused ambivalence. Hittman unflinchingly leads her hapless protagonist through scenes that hover uneasily between dark comedy and menace without ever quite landing, and this uncertainty generates an emotional force that isn’t dispelled by the drifting, episodic plot. (1:22) Roxie. (Rapoport)

Jinn (1:37) Metreon.

Jodorowsky’s Dune A Chilean émigré to Paris, Alejandro Jodorowsky had avant-garde interests that led him from theater and comic book art to film, making his feature debut with 1968’s Fando y Lis. Undaunted by its poor reception, he created El Topo (1970), a blood-soaked mix of spaghetti western, mysticism, and Buñuellian parabolic grotesquerie that became the very first “midnight movie.” After that success, he was given nearly a million dollars to “do what he wanted” with 1973’s similarly out-there The Holy Mountain, which became a big hit in Europe. French producer Michel Seydoux asked Jodorowsky what he’d like to do next. Dune, he said. In many ways it seemed a perfect match of director and material. Yet Dune would be an enormous undertaking in terms of scale, expense, and technical challenges. What moneymen in their right mind would entrust this flamboyant genius/nut job with it? They wouldn’t, as it turned out. So doc Jodorowsky’s Dune is the story of “the greatest film never made,” one that’s brain-exploding enough in description alone. But there’s more than description to go on here, since in 1975 the director and his collaborators created a beautifully detailed volume of storyboards and other preproduction minutiae they hoped would lure Hollywood studios aboard this space phantasmagoria. From this goldmine of material, as well as input from the surviving participants, Pavich is able to reconstruct not just the film’s making and unmaking, but to an extent the film itself — there are animated storyboard sequences here that offer just a partial yet still breathtaking glimpse of what might have been. (1:30) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

The Lego Movie (1:41) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

The Lunchbox Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a self-possessed housewife and a great cook, whose husband confuses her for another piece of furniture. She tries to arouse his affections with elaborate lunches she makes and sends through the city’s lunchbox delivery service. Like marriage in India, lunchbox delivery has a failure rate of zero, which is what makes aberrations seem like magical occurrences. So when widow Saajan (Irrfan Khan) receives her adoring food, he humbly receives the magical lunches like a revival of the senses. Once Ila realizes her lunchbox is feeding the wrong man she writes a note and Saajan replies — tersely, like a man who hasn’t held a conversation in a decade — and the impossible circumstances lend their exchanges a romance that challenges her emotional fidelity and his retreat from society. She confides her husband is cheating. He confides his sympathy for men of lower castes. It’s a May/December affair if it’s an affair at all — but the chemistry we expect the actors to have in the same room is what fuels our urge to see it; that’s a rare and haunting dynamic. Newcomer Kaur is perfect as Ila, a beauty unmarked by her rigorous distaff; her soft features and exhausted expression lend a richness to the troubles she can’t share with her similarly stoic mother (Lillete Dubey). Everyone is sacrificing something and poverty seeps into every crack, every life, without exception — their inner lives are their richness. (1:44) Embarcadero. (Vizcarrondo)

Mistaken for Strangers Tom Berninger, brother to the National vocalist Matt Berninger, is the maker of this doc — ostensibly about the band but a really about brotherly love, competition, and creation. It spins off a somewhat genius conceit of brother vs. brother, since the combo is composed of two sets of siblings: twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars and Scott and Bryan Devendorf on bass and drums respectively. The obvious question — what of singer Matt and his missing broheim? Turns out little bro Tom is one of those rock fans — of metal and not, it seems, the National — more interested in living the life and drinking the brewskis than making the music. So when Matt reaches out to Tom, adrift in their hometown of Cincinnati, to work as a roadie for the outfit, it’s a handout, sure, but also a way for the two to spend time together and bond. A not-quite-realized moviemaker who’s tried to make his own Z-budget scary flicks but never seems to finish much, Tom decides to document, and in the process gently poke fun at, the band (aka his authority-figures-slash-employers), which turns out to be much more interesting than gathering their deli platters and Toblerone. The National’s aesthetic isn’t quite his cup of tea: they prefer to wrap themselves in slinky black suits like Nick Cave’s pickup band, and the soft-spoken Matt tends to perpetually stroll about with a glass of white wine or bubbly in hand when he isn’t bursting into fourth-wall-busting high jinks on stage. Proud of his sib yet also intimidated by the National’s fame and not a little envious of the photo shoots, the Obama meetings, and the like, Tom is all about having fun. But it’s not a case of us vs. them, Tom vs. Matt, he discovers; it’s a matter of connecting with family and oneself. In a Michael Moore-ian sense, the sweet-tempered Mistaken for Strangers is as much, if not more so, about the filmmaker and the journey to make the movie than the supposed subject. (1:15) Roxie. (Chun)

The Monuments Men The phrase “never judge a book by its cover” goes both ways. On paper, The Monuments Men — inspired by the men who recovered art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, and directed by George Clooney, who co-wrote and stars alongside a sparkling ensemble cast (Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh “Earl of Grantham” Bonneville, and Bill Fucking Murray) — rules. Onscreen, not so much. After they’re recruited to join the cause, the characters fan out across France and Germany following various leads, a structural choice that results in the film’s number one problem: it can’t settle on a tone. Men can’t decide if it wants to be a sentimental war movie (as in an overlong sequence in which Murray’s character weeps at the sound of his daughter’s recorded voice singing “White Christmas”); a tragic war movie (some of those marquee names die, y’all); a suspenseful war movie (as the men sneak into dangerous territory with Michelangelo on their minds); or a slapstick war comedy (look out for that land mine!) The only consistent element is that the villains are all one-note — and didn’t Inglourious Basterds (2009) teach us that nothing elevates a 21st century-made World War II flick like an eccentric bad guy? There’s one perfectly executed scene, when reluctant partners Balaban and Murray discover a trove of priceless paintings hidden in plain sight. One scene, out of a two-hour movie, that really works. The rest is a stitched-together pile of earnest intentions that suggests a complete lack of coherent vision. Still love you, Clooney, but you can do better — and this incredible true story deserved way better. (1:58) Four Star. (Eddy)

Mr. Peabody and Sherman Mr. P. (voiced by Ty Burrell) is a Nobel Prize-winning genius dog, Sherman (Max Charles) his adopted human son. When the latter attends his first day of school, his extremely precocious knowledge of history attracts jealous interest from bratty classmate Penny (Ariel Winter), with the eventual result that all three end up being transported in Peabody’s WABAC time machine to various fabled moments — involving Marie Antoinette, King Tut, the Trojan Horse, etc. — where Penny invariably gets them in deep trouble. Rob Minkoff’s first all-animation feature since The Lion King 20 years ago is spun off from the same-named segments in Jay Ward’s TV Rocky and Bullwinkle Show some decades earlier. It’s a very busy (sometimes to the brink of clutter), often witty, imaginatively constructed, visually impressive, and for the most part highly enjoyable comic adventure. The only minuses are some perfunctory “It’s about family”-type sentimentality — and scenarist Craig Wright’s determination to draw from history the “lesson” that nearly all women are pains in the ass who create problems they must then be rescued from. (1:30) 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Muppets Most Wanted Building on the success of The Muppets, Jim Henson’s beloved creations return to capitalize on their revitalized (and Disney-owned) fame. This follow-up from Muppets director James Tobin — technically, it’s the seventh sequel to the original 1979 Muppet Movie, as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew points out in one of the film’s many meta moments — improves upon the 2011 film, which had its charms but suffered by concentrating too much on the Jason Segal-Amy Adams romance, not to mention annoying new kid Walter. Here, human co-stars Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and others (there are more cameos than you can count) are relegated to supporting roles, with the central conflict revolving around the Muppets’ inability to notice that Constantine, “the world’s most dangerous frog,” has infiltrated their group, sending Kermit to Siberian prison in his place. Constantine and his accomplice (Gervais, whose character’s last name is “Badguy”) use the Muppets’ world tour as a front for their jewel-heist operation; meanwhile, his infatuated warden (Fey) forces Kermit to direct the annual gulag musical. Not helping matters are a bumbling Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) and his CIA counterpart (Sam the American Eagle, natch). Really, all that’s needed is a simple plot, catchy songs, and plenty of room to let the Muppets do their thing — Miss Piggy and Animal are particularly enjoyable here; Walter’s still around, but he’s way more tolerable now that he’s gotten past his “man or muppet” angst — and the film delivers. All the knowing winks to the grown-up fans in the audience are just an appreciated bonus. (1:46) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)

Need for Speed Speed kills, in quite a different way than it might in Breaking Bad, in Aaron Paul’s big-screen Need for Speed. “Big” nonetheless signals “B” here, in this stunt-filled challenge to the Fast and the Furious franchise, though there’s no shame in that — the drive-in is paved with standouts and stinkers alike. Tobey (Paul) is an ace driver who’s in danger of losing his auto shop, also the hangout for his pals (Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez) and young sidekick Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), when archrival Dino (Dominic Cooper) arrives with a historic Mustang in need of restoration. Tragedy strikes, and Tobey must hook up with that fateful auto once more to win a mysterious winner-takes-all race, staged by eccentric, rich racing-fiend Monarch (Michael Keaton). Along for the ride are the (big) eyes and ears for the Mustang’s new owner — gearhead Julia (Imogen Poots). All beside the point, since the racing stunts, including a showy helicopter canyon save, are the real stars of Speed, while the touchstone for stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh — considering the car and the final SF and Northern California race settings — is, of course, Bullitt (1968), which is given an overt nod in the opening drive-in scene. The overall larky effect, however, tends toward Smokey and the Bandit (1977), especially with Keaton’s camp efforts at Wolfman Jack verbiage-slanging roaring in the background. And despite the efforts of the multicultural gallery of wisecracking side guys, this script-challenged popcorn-er tends to blur what little chemistry these characters have with each other, skip the residual car culture insights of the more specific, more urban Fast series, and leave character development, in particular Tobey’s, in the dust in its haste to get from point A to B. (2:10) Metreon. (Chun)

Noah Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical epic begins with a brief recap of prior Genesis events — creation is detailed a bit more in clever fashion later on — leading up to mankind’s messing up such that God wants to wipe the slate clean and start over. That means getting Noah (Russell Crowe), wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and their three sons and one adopted daughter (Emma Watson) to build an ark that can save them and two of every animal species from the imminent slate-wiping Great Flood. (The rest of humanity, having sinned too much, can just feed the fishes.) They get some help from fallen angels turned into Ray Harryhausen-type giant rock creatures voiced by Nick Nolte and others. There’s an admirable brute force and some startling imagery to this uneven, somber, Iceland-shot tale “inspired” by the Good Book (which, needless to say, has endured more than its share of revisions over the centuries). Purists may quibble over some choices, including the device of turning minor Biblical figure Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) into a royal-stowaway villain, and political conservatives have already squawked a bit over Aronofsky’s not-so-subtle message of eco-consciousness, with Noah being bade to “replenish the Earth” that man has hitherto rendered barren. But for the most part this is a respectable, forceful interpretation that should stir useful discussion amongst believers and non believers alike. Its biggest problem is that after the impressively harrowing flood itself, we’re trapped on the ark dealing with the lesser crises of a pregnancy, a discontented middle son (Logan Lerman), and that stowaway’s plotting — ponderous intrigues that might have been leavened if the director had allowed us to hang out with the animals a little, rather than sedating the whole menagerie for the entire voyage. (2:07) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Nymphomaniac: Volume I Found battered and unconscious in a back alley, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is taken in by good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), to whom she explains “It’s all my fault — I’m just a bad human being.” But he doesn’t believe there are such things. She seeks to enlighten him by narrating the story of her life so far, from carnally curious childhood to sexually voracious adulthood. Stacy Martin plays her younger self through a guided tour of excesses variously involving Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen as her parents; a buncha guys fucked on a train, on a teenage dare; Uma Thurman as one histrionically scorned woman; and Shai LaBeouf as a first love who’s a cipher either because he’s written that way, or because this particular actor can’t make sense out of him. For all its intended provocation, including some graphic but unsurprisingly (coming from this director) unerotic XXX action, von Trier’s latest is actually less offensive than much of his prior output: He’s regained his sense of humor here, and annoying as its “Look at me, I’m an unpredictable artist” crap can be (notably all the stuff about fly-fishing, cake forks, numerology, etc. that seems randomly drawn from some Great Big Book of Useless Trivia), the film’s episodic progress is divertingly colorful enough. But is Joe going to turn out to be more than a two-dimensional authorial device from a director who’s never exactly sussed women (or liked people in general)? Will Nymphomaniac arrive at some pointed whole greater than the sum of its naughty bits? The answer to both is probably “Nah.” But we won’t know for sure until the two-hour second half arrives (see review below) of a movie that, in fairness, was never really intended to be split up like this. (1:50) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Nymphomaniac, Volume II The second half of Lars von Trier’s anecdotal epic begins with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recalling the quasi-religious experience of her spontaneous first orgasm at age 12. Then she continues to tell bookish good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) — who reveals he’s an asexual 60-something virgin — the story of her sexually compulsive life to date. Despite finding domestic stability at last with Jerome (Shia LeBeouf), she proves to have no talent for motherhood, and hits a tormenting period of frigidity eventually relieved only by the brutal ministrations of sadist K (Jamie Bell, burying Billy Elliott for good). She finds a suitable professional outlet for her peculiarly antisocial personality, working as a sometimes ruthless debt collector under the tutelage of L (Willem Dafoe), and he in turn encourages her to develop her own protégé in the form of needy teenager P (Mia Goth). If Vol. I raised the question “Will all this have a point?,” Vol. II provides the answer, and it’s (as expected) “Not really.” Still, there’s no room for boredom in the filmmaker’s most playfully arbitrary, entertaining, and least misanthropic (very relatively speaking) effort since his last four-hour-plus project 20 years ago, TV miniseries The Kingdom. Never mind that von Trier (in one of many moments when he uses Joe or Seligman as his mouthpiece) protests against the tyranny of political correctitude that renders a word like “Negro” unsayable — you’re still free to feel offended when his camera spends more time ogling two African men’s variably erect dicks in one brief scene that it does all the white actors’ cocks combined. But then there’s considerably more graphic content all around in this windup, which ends on a predictable note of cheap, melodramatic irony. But that’s part of the charm of the whole enterprise: Reeling heedlessly from the pedantic to the shocking to the trivial, like a spoiled child it manages to be kinda cute even when it’s deliberately pissing you off. (2:10) Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

On My Way Not for nothing too does the title On My Way evoke Going Places (1974): director Emmanuelle Bercot is less interested in exploring Catherine Deneuve’s at-times-chilled hauteur than roughing up, grounding, and blowing fresh country air through that still intimidatingly gorgeous image. Deneuve’s Bettie lost her way long ago — the former beauty queen, who never rose beyond her Miss Brittany status, is in a state of stagnation, working at her seafood restaurant, having affairs with married men, living with her mother, and still sleeping in her girlhood room. One workday mid-lunch hour, she gets in her car and drives, ignoring all her ordinary responsibilities and disappearing down the wormhole of dive bars and back roads. She seems destined to drift until her enraged, equally lost daughter Muriel (Camille) calls in a favor: give her son Charly (Nemo Schiffman) a ride to his paternal grandfather’s. It’s chance to reconnect and correct course, even after Bettie’s money is spent, her restaurant appears doomed, and the adorable, infuriating Charly acts out. The way is clear, however: what could have been a musty, predictable affair, in the style of so many boomer tales in the movie houses these days, is given a crucial infusion of humanity and life, as Bercot keeps an affectionate eye trained on the unglamorous everyday attractions of a French backwater and Deneuve works that ineffable charm that draws all eyes to her onscreen. Her Bettie may have kicked her cigarette habit long ago, but she’s still smokin’ — in every way. (1:53) Embarcadero. (Chun)

Particle Fever “We are hearing nature talk to us,” a physicist remarks in awe near the end of Particle Fever, Mark Levinson’s intriguing doc about the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson particle. Earlier, another scientist says, “I’ve never heard of a moment like this in [science] history, where an entire field is hinging on a single event.” The event, of course, is the launch of the Large Hardon Collider, the enormous machine that enabled the discovery. Though some interest in physics is probably necessary to enjoy Particle Fever, extensive knowledge of quarks and such is not, since the film uses elegant animation to refresh the basics for anyone whose eyes glazed over during high-school science. But though he offers plenty of context, Levinson wisely focuses his film on a handful of genial eggheads who are involved in the project, either hands-on at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), or watching from afar as the mighty LHC comes to life. Their excitement brings a welcome warmth to the proceedings — and their “fever” becomes contagious. (1:39) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

The Raid 2 One need not have seen 2011’s The Raid: Redemption to appreciate this latest collaboration between Welsh director Gareth Evans and Indonesian actor, martial artist, and fight choreographer Iko Uwais — it’s recommended, of course, but the sequel stands alone on its own merits. Overstuffed with gloriously brutal, cleverly choreographed fight scenes, The Raid 2 — sometimes written with the subtitle “Berendal,” which means “thugs” — picks up immediately after the events of the first film. Quick recap of part one: a special-forces team invades an apartment tower controlled by gangsters. Among the cops is idealistic Rama (Uwais). Seemingly bulletproof and fleet of fists and feet, Rama battles his way floor-by-floor, encountering machete-toting heavies and wild-eyed maniacs; he also soon realizes he’s working for a police department that’s as corrupt as the gangster crew. The Raid‘s gritty, unadorned approach resonated with thrillseeking audiences weary of CG overload. A second Raid film was inevitable, especially since Evans — who became interested in Indonesian martial arts, or pencak silat, while working on 2007 doc The Mystic Art of Indonesia — already had its story in mind: Rama goes undercover within a criminal organization, a ploy that necessitates he do a prison stint to gain the trust of a local kingpin. Naturally, not much goes according to plan, and much blood is shed along the way, as multiple power-crazed villains set their sinister plans into motion. With expanded locations and ever-more daring (yet bone-breakingly realistic) fight scenes aplenty — including a brawl inside a moving vehicle, and a muddy, bloody prison-yard riot — The Raid 2 more than delivers. Easily the action film of the year so far, with no contenders likely to topple it in the coming months. (2:19) Metreon. (Eddy)

Rob the Mob Based on a stranger-than-fiction actual case, this rambunctious crime comedy stars Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda as Tommy and Rosie, a coupla crazy kids in early 1990s Queens — crazy in love, both before and after their strung-out robbery antics win them both a stint in the pen. When Tommy gets out 18 months later, he finds Rosie has managed to stay clean, even getting a legit job as a debt collector for positive-thinking nut and regular employer of strays Dave (a delightful Griffin Dunne). She wants Tommy to do likewise, but the high visibility trial of mob kingpin John Gotti gives him an idea: With the mafia trying to keep an especially low profile at present, why not go around sticking up the neighborhood “social clubs” where wise guys hang out, laden with gold chains and greenbacks but (it’s a rule) unarmed? Whatta they gonna do, call the police? This plan is so reckless it just might work, and indeed it does, for a while. But these endearingly stupid lovebirds can’t be counted on to stay under the radar, magnetizing attention from the press (Ray Romano as a newspaper columnist), the FBI, and of course the “organization” — particularly one “family” led by Big Al (Andy Garcia). Written by Jonathan Fernandez, this first narrative feature from director Raymond DeFitta since his terrific 2009 sleeper hit City Island is less like that screwball fare and more like a scaled down, economically downscaled American Hustle (2013), another brashly comedic period piece inspired by tabloid-worthy fact. Inspiration doesn’t fully hold up to the end, but the film has verve and style to spare, and the performances (also including notable turns from Cathy Moriarty, Frank Whaley, Burt Young, Michael Rispoli, Yul Vazquez and others) are sterling. (1:42) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

Sabotage Puzzle over the bad Photoshop job on the Sabotage poster. The hard-to-make-out Arnold Schwarzenegger in the foreground could be just about any weathered, sinewy body — telling, in gory action effort that wears its grit like a big black sleeve tattoo on its bicep and reads like an attempt at governator reinvention. Yet this blood-drenched twister, front-loaded with acting talent and directed by David Ayer (2012’s End of Watch), can’t quite make up its mind where it stands. Is it a truth-to-life cop drama about a particularly thuggy DEA team, an old-fashioned murder mystery-meets-heist-exercise, or just another crowd-pleasing Pumping Arnie flick? Schwarzenegger is Breacher, the leader of a team of undercover DEA agents who like to caper on the far reaches of bad lieutenant behavior: wild-eyed coke snorting (a scene-chomping Mireille Enos); sorry facial hair (Sam Worthington, as out of his element as the bead at the end of his goatee); unfortunate cornrows (Joe Manganiello); trash-talking (Josh Holloway); and acting like a suspiciously colorless man of color (Terrence Howard). We know these are bad apples from the start — the question is just how bad they are. Also, how fast can the vanilla homicide cops (Olivia Williams, Harold Perrineau) lock them down, as team members are handily, eh, dismembered and begin to turn on each other and Schwarzenegger gets in at least one semi-zinger concerning an opponent with 48 percent body fat? Still, the sutured-on archetypal-Arnie climax comes as a bit of a shock in its broad-stroke comic-book violence, as the superstar pulls rank, sabotages any residual pretense to realism, and dons a cowboy hat to tell his legions of shooting victims, “I’m different!” Get to the choppers, indeed. (1:49) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

300: Rise of An Empire We pick up the 300 franchise right where director Zack Snyder left off in 2006, with this prequel-sequel, which spins off an as-yet-unreleased Frank Miller graphic novel. In the hands of director Noam Murro, with Snyder still in the house as writer, 300: Rise of an Empire contorts itself, flipping back and forth in time, in an attempt to explain the making of Persian evil prince stereotype Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) —all purring androgyny, fashionable piercings, and Iran-baiting, Bush-era malevolence — before following through on avenging 300‘s romantically outnumbered, chesty Spartans. As told by the angry, mourning Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey of Game of Thrones), the whole mess apparently began during the Battle of Marathon, when Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) killed Xerxes’s royal father with a well-aimed miracle arrow. That act ushers in Xerxes’s transformation into a “God King” bent on vengeance, aided and encouraged by his equally vengeful, elegantly mega-goth naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek-hating Greek who likes to up the perversity quotient by making out with decapitated heads. In case you didn’t get it: know that vengeance is a prime mover for almost all the parties (except perhaps high-minded hottie Themistokles). Very loosely tethered to history and supplied with plenty of shirtless Greeks, taut thighs, wildly splintering ships, and even proto-suicide bombers, Rise skews toward a more naturalistic, less digitally waxy look than 300, as dust motes and fire sparks perpetually telegraph depth of field, shrieking, “See your 3D dollars hard at work!” Also working hard and making all that wrath look diabolically effortless is Green, who as the pitch-black counterpart to Gorga, turns out to be the real hero of the franchise, saving it from being yet another by-the-book sword-and-sandal war-game exercise populated by wholesome-looking, buff, blond jock-soldiers. Green’s feline line readings and languid camp attitude have a way of cutting through the sausage fest of the Greek pec-ing order, even during the Battle of, seriously, Salamis. (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

The Unknown Known After winning an Oscar for 2003’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamera, Errol Morris revisits the extended-interview documentary format with another Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. The film delves into Rumsfeld’s lengthy political career — from Congress to the Nixon, Ford, and George W. Bush administrations — drawing insights from the man himself and his extensive archive of memos (“there have to be millions”) on Vietnam, 9/11, Osama bin Laden, the “chain of command,” torture, the Iraq War, etc., as well as archival footage that suggests the glib Rumsfeld’s preferred spin on certain events is not always factually accurate (see: Saddam Hussein and WMDs). Morris participates from behind the camera, lobbing questions that we can hear and therefore gauge Rumsfeld’s immediate reaction to them. (The man is 100 percent unafraid of prolonging an awkward pause.) A gorgeous Danny Elfman score soothes some of the anger you’ll feel digesting Rumsfeld’s rhetoric, but you still may find yourself wanting to shriek at the screen. In other words, another Morris success. (1:42) Elmwood, Presidio. (Eddy)

Le Week-End Director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi first collaborated two decades ago on The Buddha of Suburbia, when the latter was still in the business of being Britain’s brashest multiculti hipster voice. But in the last 10 years they’ve made a habit of slowing down to sketching portraits of older lives — and providing great roles for the nation’s bottomless well of remarkable veteran actors. Here Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent play a pair of English academics trying to re-create their long-ago honeymoon’s magic on an anniversary weekend in Paris. They love each other, but their relationship is thorny and complicated in ways that time has done nothing to smooth over. This beautifully observed duet goes way beyond the usual adorable-old-coot terrain of such stories on screen; it has charm and humor, but these are unpredictable, fully rounded characters, not comforting caricatures. Briefly turning this into a seriocomedy three-way is Most Valuable Berserker Jeff Goldblum as an old friend encountered by chance. It’s not his story, but damned if he doesn’t just about steal the movie anyway. (1:33) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

The Wind Rises Hayao Miyazaki announced that Oscar nominee The Wind Rises would be his final film before retiring — though he later amended that declaration, as he’s fond of doing, so who knows. At any rate, it’d be a shame if this was the Japanese animation master’s final film before retirement; not only does it lack the whimsy of his signature efforts (2001’s Spirited Away, 1997’s Princess Mononoke), it’s been overshadowed by controversy — not entirely surprising, since it’s about the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed war planes (built by slave labor) in World War II-era Japan. Surprisingly, a pacifist message is established early on; as a young boy, his mother tells him, “Fighting is never justified,” and in a dream, Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni assures him “Airplanes are not tools for war.” But that statement doesn’t last long; Caproni visits Jiro in his dreams as his career takes him from Japan to Germany, where he warns the owlish young designer that “aircraft are destined to become tools for slaughter and destruction.” You don’t say. A melodramatic romantic subplot injects itself into all the plane-talk on occasion, but — despite all that political hullabaloo — The Wind Rises is more tedious than anything else. (2:06) Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy) *

 

Film Listings: April 2 – 8, 2014

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, Sam Stander, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.

OPENING

Breathe In In Drake Doremus’s lyrical tale of a man in midlife crisis, Guy Pearce plays Keith Reynolds, a high school music teacher living in upstate New York with his wife, Megan (Amy Ryan), and teenage daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie David). Quietly harboring his discontent, Keith spends solitary moments wistfully sifting through glory-days photographs of his former band and memories of the undomesticated life he and Megan led two decades ago in New York City, which the two revisit in a low-toned call-and-response that doesn’t need to erupt into a blistering argument to clarify their incompatible positions. The melancholy calm is disrupted by the arrival of a British exchange student named Sophie (Felicity Jones, who also starred in Doremus’s 2011 film, Like Crazy). Evading a scene of loss and heartbreak at home, 18-year-old Sophie has come to spend a semester at Lauren’s high school, a juxtaposition that presents us with two wildly distinct species of teenager. Lauren is a brittle, popular party girl whom we watch making poor choices with a predatory classmate; Sophie is a soulful, reserved young woman whose prodigious talent at the piano first jars Keith out of his malaise into an uncomfortable awareness. A scene before Sophie’s arrival in which the family plays Jenga and Keith pulls out the wrong piece, toppling the tower, perhaps presses its ominous visual message too hard. Meanwhile, similarities to 2012’s Nobody Walks underscore the argument that this subject matter is an old, tired tale. But for the most part, the intimacy that develops between Keith and Sophie is constructed with delicate restraint, and Doremus and writing partner Ben York Jones have crafted a textured portrait of a man trying to repossess the past. (1:37) Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Marvel’s most wholesome hero returns in this latest film in the Avengers series, and while it doesn’t deviate from the expected formula (it’s not a spoiler to say that yes, the world is saved yet again), it manages to incorporate a surprisingly timely plot about the dangers of government surveillance. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), hunkiest 95-year-old ever, is still figuring out his place in the 21st century after his post-World War II deep freeze. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has him running random rescue missions with the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), but SHIELD is working on a top-secret project that will allow it to predict crimes before they occur. It isn’t long before Cap’s distrust of the weapon — he may be old-fashioned, but he ain’t stupid — uncovers a sinister plot led by a familiar enemy, with Steve’s former BFF Bucky doing its bidding as the science-experiment-turned-assassin Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, and series regular Colbie Smulders are fine in supporting roles, and Johansson finally gets more to do than punch and pose, but the likable Evans ably carries the movie — he may not have the charisma of Robert Downey Jr., but he brings wit and depth to a role that would otherwise be defined mainly by biceps and CG-heavy fights. Oh, and you know the drill by now: superfans will want to stick around for two additional scenes tucked into the end credits. (2:16) (Eddy)

Frankie & Alice Halle Berry plays a go-go dancer with dissociative identity disorder. (1:42)

Goodbye World The end begins with a text — “Goodbye world,” sent to every cell phone. Once the computer virus-spawned anarchy really gets rolling (internet and power outages, violence and chaos), a group with nerdy-tech past connections descends on the survivalist-chic homestead of responsible James (Adrian Grenier) and “zany” Lily (Kerry Bishé): uptight Becky (Caroline Dhavernas) and unhappy Nick (Ben McKenzie); Lev (Scott Mescudi, aka musician Kid Cudi), who may have accidentally unleashed the virus; Laura (Gaby Hoffman), haunted by a recent political scandal; and ex-con Benji (Marc Webber) with his nubile tagalong (Remy Nozik). Most of these folks — even the ones married to each other — are frenemies at best, and their relationships disintegrate as civilization crumbles from afar. Physical menace enters this Big Chill-off-the-grid reunion when surly National Guardsmen emerge from the woods, but the main dramas take place ‘twixt the members of the angsty ensemble — all of whom are actually in desperate need of a fresh start. Among a cast composed mostly of TV veterans, Hoffman (last seen scene-stealing on Girls) is the standout performer, not to mention the MVP of this particular apocalypse. (1:41) Four Star. (Eddy)

Island of Lemurs: Madagascar Morgan Freeman narrates this 3D IMAX look at lemurs. (:39)

It Felt Like Love Set on the outer edges of Brooklyn and Queens, writer-director Eliza Hittman’s debut feature tracks the summertime wanderings and missteps of 14-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti), whose days mainly consist of trailing in the wake of her more sexually experienced and perpetually coupled-off best friend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni). The camera repeatedly finds Lila in voyeur mode, as Chiara and her boyfriend, Patrick (Jesse Cordasco), negotiate their physical relationship and redefine the limits of PDA, unfazed by Lila’s silent, watchful presence. It’s clear she wants some part of this, though her motivations are a murky compound of envy, loneliness, and longing for a sense of place among her peers. A brief encounter with an older boy, Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), whom Chiara knows — more of a sighting, really — provides the tiniest of openings, and Lila forces her way through it with an awkward insistence that is uncomfortable and sometimes painful to witness. Lila lacks Chiara’s fluid verbal and physical vernacular, and her attempts at mimicry in the cause of attracting Sammy’s attention only underline how unready and out of her depth she is. As Lila pushes into his seedy, sleazy world — a typical night is spent getting wasted and watching porn with his friends — their encounters don’t look like they feel like love, though Piersanti poignantly signals her character’s physical desire in the face of Sammy’s bemused ambivalence. Hittman unflinchingly leads her hapless protagonist through scenes that hover uneasily between dark comedy and menace without ever quite landing, and this uncertainty generates an emotional force that isn’t dispelled by the drifting, episodic plot. (1:22) Roxie. (Rapoport)

Jinn Horror movie based on the mythical creature from Arabic folklore. (1:37)

The Missing Picture Rithy Panh’s latest film about the homeland he fled as a teenager is atypically, directly autobiographical, and most unusually crafted. He re-creates his once comfortable Phnom Penh family’s grim fate after Pol Pot and company seized control of Cambodia in 1975 — as all fell prey to the starvation, forced labor, and other privations suffered by perceived “enemies” of the new regime — not by any conventional means but via elaborate dioramas of handmade clay figures depicted in prison camp life (and death). There’s also ample surviving propagandic footage of the Khmer Rouge trumpeting its “model society” that was in reality little more than an experiment in mass execution and torture. The result is a unique and powerful take on one of the 20th century’s worst crimes against humanity. (1:36) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Nymphomaniac, Volume II The second half of Lars von Trier’s anecdotal epic begins with Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recalling the quasi-religious experience of her spontaneous first orgasm at age 12. Then she continues to tell bookish good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) — who reveals he’s an asexual 60-something virgin — the story of her sexually compulsive life to date. Despite finding domestic stability at last with Jerome (Shia LeBeouf), she proves to have no talent for motherhood, and hits a tormenting period of frigidity eventually relieved only by the brutal ministrations of sadist K (Jamie Bell, burying Billy Elliott for good). She finds a suitable professional outlet for her peculiarly antisocial personality, working as a sometimes ruthless debt collector under the tutelage of L (Willem Dafoe), and he in turn encourages her to develop her own protégé in the form of needy teenager P (Mia Goth). If Vol. I raised the question “Will all this have a point?,” Vol. II provides the answer, and it’s (as expected) “Not really.” Still, there’s no room for boredom in the filmmaker’s most playfully arbitrary, entertaining, and least misanthropic (very relatively speaking) effort since his last four-hour-plus project 20 years ago, TV miniseries The Kingdom. Never mind that von Trier (in one of many moments when he uses Joe or Seligman as his mouthpiece) protests against the tyranny of political correctitude that renders a word like “Negro” unsayable — you’re still free to feel offended when his camera spends more time ogling two African men’s variably erect dicks in one brief scene that it does all the white actors’ cocks combined. But then there’s considerably more graphic content all around in this windup, which ends on a predictable note of cheap, melodramatic irony. But that’s part of the charm of the whole enterprise: Reeling heedlessly from the pedantic to the shocking to the trivial, like a spoiled child it manages to be kinda cute even when it’s deliberately pissing you off. (2:10) Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

On My Way Not for nothing too does the title On My Way evoke Going Places (1974): director Emmanuelle Bercot is less interested in exploring Catherine Deneuve’s at-times-chilled hauteur than roughing up, grounding, and blowing fresh country air through that still intimidatingly gorgeous image. Deneuve’s Bettie lost her way long ago — the former beauty queen, who never rose beyond her Miss Brittany status, is in a state of stagnation, working at her seafood restaurant, having affairs with married men, living with her mother, and still sleeping in her girlhood room. One workday mid-lunch hour, she gets in her car and drives, ignoring all her ordinary responsibilities and disappearing down the wormhole of dive bars and back roads. She seems destined to drift until her enraged, equally lost daughter Muriel (Camille) calls in a favor: give her son Charly (Nemo Schiffman) a ride to his paternal grandfather’s. It’s chance to reconnect and correct course, even after Bettie’s money is spent, her restaurant appears doomed, and the adorable, infuriating Charly acts out. The way is clear, however: what could have been a musty, predictable affair, in the style of so many boomer tales in the movie houses these days, is given a crucial infusion of humanity and life, as Bercot keeps an affectionate eye trained on the unglamorous everyday attractions of a French backwater and Deneuve works that ineffable charm that draws all eyes to her onscreen. Her Bettie may have kicked her cigarette habit long ago, but she’s still smokin’ — in every way. (1:53) Clay. (Chun)

The Raid 2 See “Brawl Opera.” (2:19) Metreon, Sundance Kabuki, Shattuck.

Rob the Mob Based on a stranger-than-fiction actual case, this rambunctious crime comedy stars Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda as Tommy and Rosie, a coupla crazy kids in early 1990s Queens — crazy in love, both before and after their strung-out robbery antics win them both a stint in the pen. When Tommy gets out 18 months later, he finds Rosie has managed to stay clean, even getting a legit job as a debt collector for positive-thinking nut and regular employer of strays Dave (a delightful Griffin Dunne). She wants Tommy to do likewise, but the high visibility trial of mob kingpin John Gotti gives him an idea: With the mafia trying to keep an especially low profile at present, why not go around sticking up the neighborhood “social clubs” where wise guys hang out, laden with gold chains and greenbacks but (it’s a rule) unarmed? Whatta they gonna do, call the police? This plan is so reckless it just might work, and indeed it does, for a while. But these endearingly stupid lovebirds can’t be counted on to stay under the radar, magnetizing attention from the press (Ray Romano as a newspaper columnist), the FBI, and of course the “organization” — particularly one “family” led by Big Al (Andy Garcia). Written by Jonathan Fernandez, this first narrative feature from director Raymond DeFitta since his terrific 2009 sleeper hit City Island is less like that screwball fare and more like a scaled down, economically downscaled American Hustle (2013), another brashly comedic period piece inspired by tabloid-worthy fact. Inspiration doesn’t fully hold up to the end, but the film has verve and style to spare, and the performances (also including notable turns from Cathy Moriarty, Frank Whaley, Burt Young, Michael Rispoli, Yul Vazquez and others) are sterling. (1:42) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

The Unknown Known After winning an Oscar for 2003’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamera, Errol Morris revisits the extended-interview documentary format with another Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. The film delves into Rumsfeld’s lengthy political career — from Congress to the Nixon, Ford, and George W. Bush administrations — drawing insights from the man himself and his extensive archive of memos (“there have to be millions”) on Vietnam, 9/11, Osama bin Laden, the “chain of command,” torture, the Iraq War, etc., as well as archival footage that suggests the glib Rumsfeld’s preferred spin on certain events is not always factually accurate (see: Saddam Hussein and WMDs). Morris participates from behind the camera, lobbing questions that we can hear and therefore gauge Rumsfeld’s immediate reaction to them. (The man is 100 percent unafraid of prolonging an awkward pause.) A gorgeous Danny Elfman score soothes some of the anger you’ll feel digesting Rumsfeld’s rhetoric, but you still may find yourself wanting to shriek at the screen. In other words, another Morris success. (1:42) Elmwood, Presidio. (Eddy)

ONGOING

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq Writer-director Nancy Buirski’s documentary follows the short, brilliant career of a young dancer named Tanaquil Le Clercq, who came up in the New York City ballet world of the 1940s and ’50s. Le Clercq was discovered by George Balanchine, married him (as three other dancers had done before her), sparked a paradigm shift in the ballet world regarding what was considered the quintessential dancer’s body, had numerous ballets set on her by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and then, at the peak of her career, at age 27, was stricken by polio and left paralyzed in both legs. The film takes its time moving toward this catastrophe, recounting Le Clercq’s early adult life through interviews with her contemporaries and tracking her professional progress through gorgeous archival footage of her performances. Equally moving archival material are the letters from a longtime correspondence between Le Clercq and Robbins that documented two very different periods of her life: the first, when Robbins was choreographing ballets for her, including Afternoon of a Faun, and professing his love; the second, after her paralysis, when she wrote him a series of poignant communications describing her impressions of her illness and her new, circumscribed world. The film has some trouble holding on to its center — as in life, Balanchine proves a magnetic force, and Afternoon of a Faun feels inexorably drawn to his professional and personal details. We don’t get enough of Le Clercq, which you could say is the tragedy of her story — nobody did. But the letters do provide a sense of someone resourceful and responsive to life’s richness and joys, someone who would get past this crisis and find a way to reshape her life. (1:31) Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)

American Hustle David O. Russell’s American Hustle is like a lot of things you’ve seen before — put in a blender, so the results are too smooth to feel blatantly derivative, though here and there you taste a little Boogie Nights (1997), Goodfellas (1990), or whatever. Loosely based on the Abscam FBI sting-scandal of the late 1970s and early ’80s (an opening title snarks “Some of this actually happened”), Hustle is a screwball crime caper almost entirely populated by petty schemers with big ideas almost certain to blow up in their faces. It’s love, or something, at first sight for Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who meet at a Long Island party circa 1977 and instantly fall for each other — or rather for the idealized selves they’ve both strained to concoct. He’s a none-too-classy but savvy operator who’s built up a mini-empire of variably legal businesses; she’s a nobody from nowhere who crawled upward and gave herself a bombshell makeover. The hiccup in this slightly tacky yet perfect match is Irving’s neglected, crazy wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who’s not about to let him go. She’s their main problem until they meet Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent who entraps the two while posing as a client. Their only way out of a long prison haul, he says, is to cooperate in an elaborate Atlantic City redevelopment scheme he’s concocted to bring down a slew of Mafioso and presumably corrupt politicians, hustling a beloved Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) in the process. Russell’s filmmaking is at a peak of populist confidence it would have been hard to imagine before 2010’s The Fighter, and the casting here is perfect down to the smallest roles. But beyond all clever plotting, amusing period trappings, and general high energy, the film’s ace is its four leads, who ingeniously juggle the caricatured surfaces and pathetic depths of self-identified “winners” primarily driven by profound insecurity. (2:17) Metreon. (Harvey)

Bad Words Settling a grudge score whose precise origin remains unclear until late in the game, world-class misanthrope Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is celebrating his 40th birthday by competing in a national spelling bee. Yes, spelling bees are generally for children, and so is this one. But Guy has found a legal loophole permitting his participation, and the general hate wending his way from contest staff (Allison Janney, Philip Baker Hall) — let alone the tiger-mom-and-dad parents ready to form a lynch mob — is just icing on the cake where he’s concerned. What’s more, as some sort of majorly underachieving near-genius, he’s in fact well equipped to whup the bejesus out of overachieving eight-year-olds when it comes to saying the right letters out loud. The only people on his side, sorta, are the online journalist (Kathryn Hahn) reporting on his perverse quest, and the insidiously cute Indian American competitor (Rohan Chand) who wants to be besties, or perhaps just to psych him out. (Note: The tyke’s admitted favorite word is “subjugate.”) Written by Andrew Dodge, this comedy in the tradition (a little too obviously) of 2003’s Bad Santa and such provides the always enjoyable Bateman with not only a tailor-made lead role, but a directorial debut as well. He does just fine by both. Yet as nicely crafted and frequently-pretty-funny Bad Words is, at core it’s a rather petty movie — small, derivative, and cynically mean-spirited without the courage of genuine biliousness. It’s at once not-half-bad, and not half as badass as it pretends to be. (1:29) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Boys of Abu Ghraib First-time feature director-writer Luke Moran stars as Jack, an all-American lad who signs on for an Army stint in the wake of 9/11, and finds himself posted to the titular Iraqi prison turned U.S. military detainee camp 20 miles outside Baghdad. Despite the occasional bombing, however, life is mostly underutilized tedium for he and his fellow grunts. With nothing else to do, Jack volunteers for MP duty as a guard in the cell blocks — where his initial shock at the torture and abuse of prisoners is exacerbated by his friendship with the well educated, friendly, convincingly innocent captive Ghazi (Omid Abtahi). Shot at an abandoned New Mexico penitentiary, this drama is effective as far as it goes in exploring one fictive soldier’s rocky road under the influence of stress, isolation, and boredom. But as it ultimately encompasses the real-life international Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004 — in which leaked photos revealed widespread humiliation and abuse of prisoners for no evident purpose save enlistees’ loutish amusement — Boys falls well short in illuminating just how that kind of systemic breakdown can occur amongst seemingly normal, disciplined military personnel. Moran and company do raise the issue, but it turns out to be a weightier, more disturbing issue than this modestly ambitious feature is equipped to handle. (1:42) Metreon. (Harvey)

Cesar Chavez “You always have a choice,” Cesar Chavez (Michael Peña) tells his bullied son when advising him to turn the other cheek. Likewise, actor-turned-director Diego Luna had a choice when it came to tackling his first English-language film; he could have selected a less complicated, sprawling story. So he gets props for that simple act — especially at a time when workers’ rights and union power have been so dramatically eroded — and for his attempts to impact some complicated nuance to Chavez’s fully evident heroism. Painting his moving pictures in dusty earth tones and burnt sunlight with the help of cinematographer Enrique Chediak, Luna vaults straight into Chavez’s work with the grape pickers that would come to join the United Farm Workers — with just a brief voiceover about Chavez’s roots as the native-born son of a farm owner turned worker, post-Depression. Uprooting wife Helen (America Ferrera) and his family and moving to Delano as a sign of activist commitment, Chavez is seemingly quickly drawn into the 1965 strike by the Mexican workers’ sometime rivals: Filipino pickers (see the recent CAAMFest short documentary Delano Manongs for some of their side of the story). From there, the focus hones in on Chavez, speaking out against violence and “chicken shit macho ideals,” hunger striking, and activating unions overseas, though Luna does give voice to cohorts like Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), growers like Bogdanovitch (John Malkovich), and the many nameless strikers — some of whom lost their lives during the astonishingly lengthy, taxing five-year strike. Luna’s win would be a blue-collar epic on par with 1979’s Norma Rae, and on some levels, he succeeds; scanning the faces of the weathered, hopeful extras in crowd scenes, you can’t help but feel the solidarity. The people have the power, as a poet once put it, and tellingly, his choice of Peña, stolidly opaque when charismatic warmth is called for, might be the key weakness here. One suspects the director or his frequent costar Gael García Bernal would make a more riveting Chavez. (1:38) Metreon. (Chun)

Divergent Based on the blockbuster dystopian-future YA novel by Veronica Roth (the first in a trilogy), Divergent is set in a future city-state version of Chicago in which society is divided into five character-based, color-coded factions: Erudite, Amity, Candor, Abnegation, and Dauntless. Like her peers, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), the film’s Abnegation-born teenage heroine, must choose a permanent faction — with the help of a standardized aptitude test that forgoes penciling in bubbles in favor of virtual reality psychic manipulation. When the test fails to triangulate her sole innate personality trait, she learns that she belongs to a secret, endangered sixth category: Divergent, an astonishing set of people who are not only capable of, say, acts of selflessness but can also produce intelligent thought, or manifest bravery in the face of danger. Forced to hide her aberrant nature in a society whose leaders (Kate Winslet) are prone to statements like “The future belongs to those who know where they belong,” and seemingly bored among Abnegation’s hive of gray cardigan-wearing worker bees, Beatrice chooses Dauntless, a dashing gang of black-clad, alterna-rock music video extras who jump on and off moving trains and live in a warehouse-chic compound whose dining hall recalls the patio at Zeitgeist. Fittingly, a surly, tattooed young man named Four (Theo James) leads Beatrice, now Tris, and her fellow initiates through a harsh proving regimen that, if they fail, will cast them into an impoverished underclass. Director Neil Burger (2006’s The Illusionist, 2011’s Limitless) and the behemoth marketing force behind Divergent are clearly hoping to stir up the kind of madness stoked by the Twilight and Hunger Games series, but while there are bones a-plenty to pick with those franchises, Divergent may have them beat for pure daffiness of premise and diameter of plot holes — and that’s after screenwriters Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor’s major suturing of the source material’s lacunae. The daffiness doesn’t translate into imaginative world-building, and while a couple of scenes convey the visceral thrills of life in Dauntless, the tension between Tris and Four is awkwardly ratcheted up, and the film’s shift into a mode of crisis is equally jolting without generating much heat. (2:20) Balboa, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Ernest & Celestine Belgian animators Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier are best known for the stop-motion shorts series (and priceless 2009 subsequent feature) A Town Called Panic, an anarchic, absurdist, and hilarious creation suitable for all ages. Their latest (co-directed with Benjamin Renner) is … not like that at all. Instead, it’s a sweet, generally guileless children’s cartoon that takes its gentle, watercolor-type visual style from late writer-illustrator Gabrielle Vincent’s same-named books. Celestine (voiced by Pauline Brunner) is an orphaned girl mouse that befriends gruff bear Ernest (the excellent Lambert Wilson), though their improbable kinship invites social disapproval and scrapes with the law. There are some clever satirical touches, but mostly this is a softhearted charmer that will primarily appeal to younger kids. Adults will find it pleasant enough — but don’t expect any Panic-style craziness. (1:20) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

Frozen (1:48) Metreon.

The Grand Budapest Hotel Is this the first Wes Anderson movie to feature a shootout? It’s definitely the first Anderson flick to include a severed head. That’s not to say The Grand Budapest Hotel, “inspired by” the works of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, represents too much of a shift for the director — his intricate approach to art direction is still very much in place, as are the deadpan line deliveries and a cast stuffed with Anderson regulars. But there’s a slightly more serious vibe here, a welcome change from 2012’s tooth-achingly twee Moonrise Kingdom. Thank Ralph Fiennes’ performance as liberally perfumed concierge extraordinaire M. Gustave, which mixes a shot of melancholy into the whimsy, and newcomer Tony Revolori as Zero, his loyal lobby boy, who provides gravitas despite only being a teenager. (Being played by F. Murray Abraham as an older adult probably helps in that department.) Hotel‘s early 20th century Europe setting proves an ideal canvas for Anderson’s love of detail — the titular creation rivals Stanley Kubrick’s rendering of the Overlook Hotel — and his supporting cast, as always, looks to be enjoying the hell out of being a part of Anderson’s universe, with Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, and Adrien Brody having particularly oversized fun. Is this the best Wes Anderson movie since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums? Yes. (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Eddy)

Gravity “Life in space is impossible,” begins Gravity, the latest from Alfonso Cuarón (2006’s Children of Men). Egghead Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is well aware of her precarious situation after a mangled satellite slams into her ship, then proceeds to demolition-derby everything (including the International Space Station) in its path. It’s not long before she’s utterly, terrifyingly alone, and forced to unearth near-superhuman reserves of physical and mental strength to survive. Bullock’s performance would be enough to recommend Gravity, but there’s more to praise, like the film’s tense pacing, spare-yet-layered script (Cuarón co-wrote with his son, Jonás), and spectacular 3D photography — not to mention George Clooney’s warm supporting turn as a career astronaut who loves country music almost as much as he loves telling stories about his misadventures. (1:31) Metreon. (Eddy)

The Great Beauty The latest from Paolo Sorrentino (2008’s Il Divo) arrives as a high-profile contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, already annointed a masterpiece in some quarters, and duly announcing itself as such in nearly every grandiose, aesthetically engorged moment. Yes, it seems to say, you are in the presence of this auteur’s masterpiece. But it’s somebody else’s, too. The problem isn’t just that Fellini got there first, but that there’s room for doubt whether Sorrentino’s homage actually builds on or simply imitates its model. La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963) are themselves swaying, jerry-built monuments, exhileratingly messy and debatably profound. But nothing quite like them had been seen before, and they did define a time of cultural upheaval — when traditional ways of life were being plowed under by a loud, moneyed, heedless modernity that for a while chose Rome as its global capital. Sorrentino announces his intention to out-Fellini Fellini in an opening sequence so strenuously flamboyant it’s like a never-ending pirouette performed by a prima dancer with a hernia. There’s statuary, a women’s choral ensemble, an on-screen audience applauding the director’s baffled muse Toni Servillo, standing in for Marcello Mastroianni — all this and more in manic tracking shots and frantic intercutting, as if sheer speed alone could supply contemporary relevancy. Eventually The Great Beauty calms down a bit, but still its reason for being remains vague behind the heavy curtain of “style.” (2:22) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Jodorowsky’s Dune A Chilean émigré to Paris, Alejandro Jodorowsky had avant-garde interests that led him from theater and comic book art to film, making his feature debut with 1968’s Fando y Lis. Undaunted by its poor reception, he created El Topo (1970), a blood-soaked mix of spaghetti western, mysticism, and Buñuellian parabolic grotesquerie that became the very first “midnight movie.” After that success, he was given nearly a million dollars to “do what he wanted” with 1973’s similarly out-there The Holy Mountain, which became a big hit in Europe. French producer Michel Seydoux asked Jodorowsky what he’d like to do next. Dune, he said. In many ways it seemed a perfect match of director and material. Yet Dune would be an enormous undertaking in terms of scale, expense, and technical challenges. What moneymen in their right mind would entrust this flamboyant genius/nut job with it? They wouldn’t, as it turned out. So doc Jodorowsky’s Dune is the story of “the greatest film never made,” one that’s brain-exploding enough in description alone. But there’s more than description to go on here, since in 1975 the director and his collaborators created a beautifully detailed volume of storyboards and other preproduction minutiae they hoped would lure Hollywood studios aboard this space phantasmagoria. From this goldmine of material, as well as input from the surviving participants, Pavich is able to reconstruct not just the film’s making and unmaking, but to an extent the film itself — there are animated storyboard sequences here that offer just a partial yet still breathtaking glimpse of what might have been. (1:30) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

The Lego Movie (1:41) Metroen, 1000 Van Ness.

The Lunchbox Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a self-possessed housewife and a great cook, whose husband confuses her for another piece of furniture. She tries to arouse his affections with elaborate lunches she makes and sends through the city’s lunchbox delivery service. Like marriage in India, lunchbox delivery has a failure rate of zero, which is what makes aberrations seem like magical occurrences. So when widow Saajan (Irrfan Khan) receives her adoring food, he humbly receives the magical lunches like a revival of the senses. Once Ila realizes her lunchbox is feeding the wrong man she writes a note and Saajan replies — tersely, like a man who hasn’t held a conversation in a decade — and the impossible circumstances lend their exchanges a romance that challenges her emotional fidelity and his retreat from society. She confides her husband is cheating. He confides his sympathy for men of lower castes. It’s a May/December affair if it’s an affair at all — but the chemistry we expect the actors to have in the same room is what fuels our urge to see it; that’s a rare and haunting dynamic. Newcomer Kaur is perfect as Ila, a beauty unmarked by her rigorous distaff; her soft features and exhausted expression lend a richness to the troubles she can’t share with her similarly stoic mother (Lillete Dubey). Everyone is sacrificing something and poverty seeps into every crack, every life, without exception — their inner lives are their richness. (1:44) Embarcadero. (Vizcarrondo)

Mistaken for Strangers Tom Berninger, brother to the National vocalist Matt Berninger, is the maker of this doc — ostensibly about the band but a really about brotherly love, competition, and creation. It spins off a somewhat genius conceit of brother vs. brother, since the combo is composed of two sets of siblings: twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner on guitars and Scott and Bryan Devendorf on bass and drums respectively. The obvious question — what of singer Matt and his missing broheim? Turns out little bro Tom is one of those rock fans — of metal and not, it seems, the National — more interested in living the life and drinking the brewskis than making the music. So when Matt reaches out to Tom, adrift in their hometown of Cincinnati, to work as a roadie for the outfit, it’s a handout, sure, but also a way for the two to spend time together and bond. A not-quite-realized moviemaker who’s tried to make his own Z-budget scary flicks but never seems to finish much, Tom decides to document, and in the process gently poke fun at, the band (aka his authority-figures-slash-employers), which turns out to be much more interesting than gathering their deli platters and Toblerone. The National’s aesthetic isn’t quite his cup of tea: they prefer to wrap themselves in slinky black suits like Nick Cave’s pickup band, and the soft-spoken Matt tends to perpetually stroll about with a glass of white wine or bubbly in hand when he isn’t bursting into fourth-wall-busting high jinks on stage. Proud of his sib yet also intimidated by the National’s fame and not a little envious of the photo shoots, the Obama meetings, and the like, Tom is all about having fun. But it’s not a case of us vs. them, Tom vs. Matt, he discovers; it’s a matter of connecting with family and oneself. In a Michael Moore-ian sense, the sweet-tempered Mistaken for Strangers is as much, if not more so, about the filmmaker and the journey to make the movie than the supposed subject. (1:15) Roxie. (Chun)

Mr. Peabody and Sherman Mr. P. (voiced by Ty Burrell) is a Nobel Prize-winning genius dog, Sherman (Max Charles) his adopted human son. When the latter attends his first day of school, his extremely precocious knowledge of history attracts jealous interest from bratty classmate Penny (Ariel Winter), with the eventual result that all three end up being transported in Peabody’s WABAC time machine to various fabled moments — involving Marie Antoinette, King Tut, the Trojan Horse, etc. — where Penny invariably gets them in deep trouble. Rob Minkoff’s first all-animation feature since The Lion King 20 years ago is spun off from the same-named segments in Jay Ward’s TV Rocky and Bullwinkle Show some decades earlier. It’s a very busy (sometimes to the brink of clutter), often witty, imaginatively constructed, visually impressive, and for the most part highly enjoyable comic adventure. The only minuses are some perfunctory “It’s about family”-type sentimentality — and scenarist Craig Wright’s determination to draw from history the “lesson” that nearly all women are pains in the ass who create problems they must then be rescued from. (1:30) 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Muppets Most Wanted Building on the success of The Muppets, Jim Henson’s beloved creations return to capitalize on their revitalized (and Disney-owned) fame. This follow-up from Muppets director James Tobin — technically, it’s the seventh sequel to the original 1979 Muppet Movie, as Dr. Bunsen Honeydew points out in one of the film’s many meta moments — improves upon the 2011 film, which had its charms but suffered by concentrating too much on the Jason Segal-Amy Adams romance, not to mention annoying new kid Walter. Here, human co-stars Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, and others (there are more cameos than you can count) are relegated to supporting roles, with the central conflict revolving around the Muppets’ inability to notice that Constantine, “the world’s most dangerous frog,” has infiltrated their group, sending Kermit to Siberian prison in his place. Constantine and his accomplice (Gervais, whose character’s last name is “Badguy”) use the Muppets’ world tour as a front for their jewel-heist operation; meanwhile, his infatuated warden (Fey) forces Kermit to direct the annual gulag musical. Not helping matters are a bumbling Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) and his CIA counterpart (Sam the American Eagle, natch). Really, all that’s needed is a simple plot, catchy songs, and plenty of room to let the Muppets do their thing — Miss Piggy and Animal are particularly enjoyable here; Walter’s still around, but he’s way more tolerable now that he’s gotten past his “man or muppet” angst — and the film delivers. All the knowing winks to the grown-up fans in the audience are just an appreciated bonus. (1:46) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)

Need for Speed Speed kills, in quite a different way than it might in Breaking Bad, in Aaron Paul’s big-screen Need for Speed. “Big” nonetheless signals “B” here, in this stunt-filled challenge to the Fast and the Furious franchise, though there’s no shame in that — the drive-in is paved with standouts and stinkers alike. Tobey (Paul) is an ace driver who’s in danger of losing his auto shop, also the hangout for his pals (Scott Mescudi, Rami Malek, Ramon Rodriguez) and young sidekick Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), when archrival Dino (Dominic Cooper) arrives with a historic Mustang in need of restoration. Tragedy strikes, and Tobey must hook up with that fateful auto once more to win a mysterious winner-takes-all race, staged by eccentric, rich racing-fiend Monarch (Michael Keaton). Along for the ride are the (big) eyes and ears for the Mustang’s new owner — gearhead Julia (Imogen Poots). All beside the point, since the racing stunts, including a showy helicopter canyon save, are the real stars of Speed, while the touchstone for stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh — considering the car and the final SF and Northern California race settings — is, of course, Bullitt (1968), which is given an overt nod in the opening drive-in scene. The overall larky effect, however, tends toward Smokey and the Bandit (1977), especially with Keaton’s camp efforts at Wolfman Jack verbiage-slanging roaring in the background. And despite the efforts of the multicultural gallery of wisecracking side guys, this script-challenged popcorn-er tends to blur what little chemistry these characters have with each other, skip the residual car culture insights of the more specific, more urban Fast series, and leave character development, in particular Tobey’s, in the dust in its haste to get from point A to B. (2:10) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Noah Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical epic begins with a brief recap of prior Genesis events — creation is detailed a bit more in clever fashion later on — leading up to mankind’s messing up such that God wants to wipe the slate clean and start over. That means getting Noah (Russell Crowe), wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and their three sons and one adopted daughter (Emma Watson) to build an ark that can save them and two of every animal species from the imminent slate-wiping Great Flood. (The rest of humanity, having sinned too much, can just feed the fishes.) They get some help from fallen angels turned into Ray Harryhausen-type giant rock creatures voiced by Nick Nolte and others. There’s an admirable brute force and some startling imagery to this uneven, somber, Iceland-shot tale “inspired” by the Good Book (which, needless to say, has endured more than its share of revisions over the centuries). Purists may quibble over some choices, including the device of turning minor Biblical figure Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) into a royal-stowaway villain, and political conservatives have already squawked a bit over Aronofsky’s not-so-subtle message of eco-consciousness, with Noah being bade to “replenish the Earth” that man has hitherto rendered barren. But for the most part this is a respectable, forceful interpretation that should stir useful discussion amongst believers and non believers alike. Its biggest problem is that after the impressively harrowing flood itself, we’re trapped on the ark dealing with the lesser crises of a pregnancy, a discontented middle son (Logan Lerman), and that stowaway’s plotting — ponderous intrigues that might have been leavened if the director had allowed us to hang out with the animals a little, rather than sedating the whole menagerie for the entire voyage. (2:07) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Non-Stop You don’t want to get between Liam Neeson and his human shield duties. The Taken franchise has restyled the once-gentle acting giant into the type of weather-beaten, all-business action hero that Harrison Ford once had a lock on. Throw in a bit of the flying-while-addled antihero high jinks last seen in Flight (2012) and that pressured, packed-sardine anxiety that we all suffer during long-distance air travel, and we have a somewhat ludicrous but nonetheless entertaining hybrid that may have you believing that those salty snacks and the seat-kicking kids are the least of your troubles. Neeson’s Bill Marks signals the level of his freestyle alcoholism by giving his booze a stir with a toothbrush shortly before putting on his big-boy air marshal pants and boarding his fateful flight. Marks is soon contacted by a psycho who promises, via text, to kill one person at a time on the flight unless $150 million is deposited into a bank account that — surprise — is under the bad-good air marshal’s name. The twists and turns — and questions of who to trust, whether it’s Marks’ vaguely likeable seatmate (Julianne Moore) or his business class flight attendant (Michelle Dockery) — keep the audience on edge and busily guessing, though director Jaume Collet-Serra doesn’t quite dispel all the questions that arise as the diabolical scheme plays out and ultimately taxes believability. The fun is all in the getting there, even if the denouement on the tarmac deflates. (1:50) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Nymphomaniac: Volume I Found battered and unconscious in a back alley, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is taken in by good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard), to whom she explains “It’s all my fault — I’m just a bad human being.” But he doesn’t believe there are such things. She seeks to enlighten him by narrating the story of her life so far, from carnally curious childhood to sexually voracious adulthood. Stacy Martin plays her younger self through a guided tour of excesses variously involving Christian Slater and Connie Nielsen as her parents; a buncha guys fucked on a train, on a teenage dare; Uma Thurman as one histrionically scorned woman; and Shai LaBeouf as a first love who’s a cipher either because he’s written that way, or because this particular actor can’t make sense out of him. For all its intended provocation, including some graphic but unsurprisingly (coming from this director) unerotic XXX action, von Trier’s latest is actually less offensive than much of his prior output: He’s regained his sense of humor here, and annoying as its “Look at me, I’m an unpredictable artist” crap can be (notably all the stuff about fly-fishing, cake forks, numerology, etc. that seems randomly drawn from some Great Big Book of Useless Trivia), the film’s episodic progress is divertingly colorful enough. But is Joe going to turn out to be more than a two-dimensional authorial device from a director who’s never exactly sussed women (or liked people in general)? Will Nymphomaniac arrive at some pointed whole greater than the sum of its naughty bits? The answer to both is probably “Nah.” But we won’t know for sure until the two-hour second half arrives (April 4) of a movie that, in fairness, was never really intended to be split up like this. (1:50) Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Particle Fever “We are hearing nature talk to us,” a physicist remarks in awe near the end of Particle Fever, Mark Levinson’s intriguing doc about the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson particle. Earlier, another scientist says, “I’ve never heard of a moment like this in [science] history, where an entire field is hinging on a single event.” The event, of course, is the launch of the Large Hardon Collider, the enormous machine that enabled the discovery. Though some interest in physics is probably necessary to enjoy Particle Fever, extensive knowledge of quarks and such is not, since the film uses elegant animation to refresh the basics for anyone whose eyes glazed over during high-school science. But though he offers plenty of context, Levinson wisely focuses his film on a handful of genial eggheads who are involved in the project, either hands-on at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), or watching from afar as the mighty LHC comes to life. Their excitement brings a welcome warmth to the proceedings — and their “fever” becomes contagious. (1:39) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

RoboCop Truly, there was no need to remake 1987’s RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven’s smart, biting sci-fi classic that deploys heaps of stealth satire beneath its ultraviolent imagery. But the inevitable do-over is here, and while it doesn’t improve on what came before, it’s not a total lost cause, either. Thank Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, whose thrilling Elite Squad films touch on similar themes of corruption (within police, political, and media realms), and some inspired casting, including Samuel L. Jackson as the uber-conservative host of a futuristic talk show. Though the suit that restores life to fallen Detroit cop Alex Murphy is, naturally, a CG wonder, the guy inside the armor — played by The Killing‘s Joel Kinnaman — is less dynamic. In fact, none of the characters, even those portrayed by actors far more lively than Kinnaman (Michael Keaton, Gary Oldman, Jackie Earle Haley), are developed beyond the bare minimum required to serve RoboCop‘s plot, a mixed-message glob of dirty cops, money-grubbing corporations, the military-industrial complex, and a few too many “Is he a man…or a machine?” moments. But in its favor: Though it’s PG-13 (boo), it’s also shot in 2D (yay). (1:50) Metreon. (Eddy)

Sabotage Puzzle over the bad Photoshop job on the Sabotage poster. The hard-to-make-out Arnold Schwarzenegger in the foreground could be just about any weathered, sinewy body — telling, in gory action effort that wears its grit like a big black sleeve tattoo on its bicep and reads like an attempt at governator reinvention. Yet this blood-drenched twister, front-loaded with acting talent and directed by David Ayer (2012’s End of Watch), can’t quite make up its mind where it stands. Is it a truth-to-life cop drama about a particularly thuggy DEA team, an old-fashioned murder mystery-meets-heist-exercise, or just another crowd-pleasing Pumping Arnie flick? Schwarzenegger is Breacher, the leader of a team of undercover DEA agents who like to caper on the far reaches of bad lieutenant behavior: wild-eyed coke snorting (a scene-chomping Mireille Enos); sorry facial hair (Sam Worthington, as out of his element as the bead at the end of his goatee); unfortunate cornrows (Joe Manganiello); trash-talking (Josh Holloway); and acting like a suspiciously colorless man of color (Terrence Howard). We know these are bad apples from the start — the question is just how bad they are. Also, how fast can the vanilla homicide cops (Olivia Williams, Harold Perrineau) lock them down, as team members are handily, eh, dismembered and begin to turn on each other and Schwarzenegger gets in at least one semi-zinger concerning an opponent with 48 percent body fat? Still, the sutured-on archetypal-Arnie climax comes as a bit of a shock in its broad-stroke comic-book violence, as the superstar pulls rank, sabotages any residual pretense to realism, and dons a cowboy hat to tell his legions of shooting victims, “I’m different!” Get to the choppers, indeed. (1:49) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

300: Rise of An Empire We pick up the 300 franchise right where director Zack Snyder left off in 2006, with this prequel-sequel, which spins off an as-yet-unreleased Frank Miller graphic novel. In the hands of director Noam Murro, with Snyder still in the house as writer, 300: Rise of an Empire contorts itself, flipping back and forth in time, in an attempt to explain the making of Persian evil prince stereotype Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) —all purring androgyny, fashionable piercings, and Iran-baiting, Bush-era malevolence — before following through on avenging 300‘s romantically outnumbered, chesty Spartans. As told by the angry, mourning Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey of Game of Thrones), the whole mess apparently began during the Battle of Marathon, when Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) killed Xerxes’s royal father with a well-aimed miracle arrow. That act ushers in Xerxes’s transformation into a “God King” bent on vengeance, aided and encouraged by his equally vengeful, elegantly mega-goth naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek-hating Greek who likes to up the perversity quotient by making out with decapitated heads. In case you didn’t get it: know that vengeance is a prime mover for almost all the parties (except perhaps high-minded hottie Themistokles). Very loosely tethered to history and supplied with plenty of shirtless Greeks, taut thighs, wildly splintering ships, and even proto-suicide bombers, Rise skews toward a more naturalistic, less digitally waxy look than 300, as dust motes and fire sparks perpetually telegraph depth of field, shrieking, “See your 3D dollars hard at work!” Also working hard and making all that wrath look diabolically effortless is Green, who as the pitch-black counterpart to Gorga, turns out to be the real hero of the franchise, saving it from being yet another by-the-book sword-and-sandal war-game exercise populated by wholesome-looking, buff, blond jock-soldiers. Green’s feline line readings and languid camp attitude have a way of cutting through the sausage fest of the Greek pec-ing order, even during the Battle of, seriously, Salamis. (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Veronica Mars Since the cult fave TV show Veronica Mars went off the air in 2007, fans of the series, about a smart, cynical teenager who solves mysteries and battles her high school’s 1 percenters — a sort of adolescent noir minus the ex nihilo patois of Rian Johnson’s 2005 Brick — have had their hopes raised and dashed several times regarding the possibility of a big-screen coda. While that sort of scenario usually involves a few of the five stages of grief, this one has a twist happy ending: a full-length film, directed by show creator Rob Thomas and cowritten by Thomas and show producer-writer Diane Ruggiero (with a budget aided by a crowdfunding campaign), that doesn’t suck. It’s been a decade since graduation, and Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) has put a continent between herself and her creepy, class war–torn hometown of Neptune, Calif. — leaving behind her P.I. vocation and a track record of exposing lies, corruption, and the dark side of the human soul in favor of a Columbia law degree and a career of covering up same. But when Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), her brooding, troubled ex, gets charged with the murder of his pop star girlfriend and asks Veronica for help, she can’t resist the pull of what she admits is a pathological impulse. Plus, it’s her 10-year reunion. And indeed, pretty much anyone who had a character arc during the show’s three seasons makes an appearance — plus (naturally) James Franco, Dax Shepard (Bell’s husband), and (oddly) Ira Glass. It could have been a cameo fusillade, but the writing here is as smart, tight, funny, and involving as it was on the TV series, and Thomas and Ruggiero for the most part manage to thread everyone in, taking pressure off a murder mystery that falls a little flat, updating the story to reflect current states of web surveillance and pop cultural mayhem, and keeping the focus on the joy of seeing Veronica back where she belongs. (1:43) Metreon. (Rapoport)

Le Week-End Director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi first collaborated two decades ago on The Buddha of Suburbia, when the latter was still in the business of being Britain’s brashest multiculti hipster voice. But in the last 10 years they’ve made a habit of slowing down to sketching portraits of older lives — and providing great roles for the nation’s bottomless well of remarkable veteran actors. Here Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent play a pair of English academics trying to re-create their long-ago honeymoon’s magic on an anniversary weekend in Paris. They love each other, but their relationship is thorny and complicated in ways that time has done nothing to smooth over. This beautifully observed duet goes way beyond the usual adorable-old-coot terrain of such stories on screen; it has charm and humor, but these are unpredictable, fully rounded characters, not comforting caricatures. Briefly turning this into a seriocomedy three-way is Most Valuable Berserker Jeff Goldblum as an old friend encountered by chance. It’s not his story, but damned if he doesn’t just about steal the movie anyway. (1:33) Embarcadero, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

The Wind Rises Hayao Miyazaki announced that Oscar nominee The Wind Rises would be his final film before retiring — though he later amended that declaration, as he’s fond of doing, so who knows. At any rate, it’d be a shame if this was the Japanese animation master’s final film before retirement; not only does it lack the whimsy of his signature efforts (2001’s Spirited Away, 1997’s Princess Mononoke), it’s been overshadowed by controversy — not entirely surprising, since it’s about the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who designed war planes (built by slave labor) in World War II-era Japan. Surprisingly, a pacifist message is established early on; as a young boy, his mother tells him, “Fighting is never justified,” and in a dream, Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni assures him “Airplanes are not tools for war.” But that statement doesn’t last long; Caproni visits Jiro in his dreams as his career takes him from Japan to Germany, where he warns the owlish young designer that “aircraft are destined to become tools for slaughter and destruction.” You don’t say. A melodramatic romantic subplot injects itself into all the plane-talk on occasion, but — despite all that political hullabaloo — The Wind Rises is more tedious than anything else. (2:06) Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy) *

 

Ficks’ picks

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1. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada/France/Portugal/Italy) During the five times I watched this brilliantly slow-burning, transcendental flick, I saw dozens of audience members fall asleep, walk out early, and complain all the way down the corridor of the Embarcadero Center Cinema hallways. I had to watch it that many times (plus read the book and have countless late-night discussions) just to try and wrap my brain around this era-defining exploration of what it means to be a (hu)man in the Y2Ks. Robert Pattinson proved he’s a truly spectacular actor, Paul Giamatti has never been better, and David Cronenberg is only getting better as he gets older.

2. In the Family  (Patrick Wang, US, 2011) Self-distributed due to its length (169 minutes), this is a stunningly haunting and devastating work. Viewers with the patience to stick with it are rewarded with a genuinely achieved emotional volcano that I can only relate to John Cassavetes’ greatest films. A truly landmark film, in both style and content.

3. The Master  (Paul Thomas Anderson, US) Of all the films that Anderson has boldly attempted, audaciously experimented with, and (perhaps most importantly) been critically embraced for, The Master is a balanced period piece that combines both poetic and historical elements with a couple of truly profound performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. This is not a film only about Scientology, or about just one master. This is a film that asks many questions, but supplies few answers.

4. The Comedy (Rick Alverson, US) Perhaps containing the most mean-spirited characters of the decade, this harrowingly insightful satire of the hipster generation’s compulsion to heap irony upon irony inspired many an audience member to exit mid-film. But the many who dared to remain (including fans of the film’s lead actor, Tim Heidecker, from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) may have found themselves forced to question their own heartless (and even sociopath) tendencies.

Director Rick Alverson’s perceptive use of a contemporary antihero is quite comparable to the counterculture characters of the 1970s: Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976), Peter Falk in Husbands (1970), and Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970). And since The Comedy was not necessarily made to be enjoyed, it will probably, sadly, take 20 years for people to recognize that there is no finer film to define this generation.

5. Florentina Hubaldo CTE (Lav Diaz, Philippines) With this six-hour film, Lav Diaz has created yet another minimalist masterpiece that few will even attempt to watch — 20 people started out in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ screening, and only 10 finished it. Diaz has a monumental goal in mind for his character, and his film’s length is a major part of achieving it. I am not sure if there will ever be a time when six-hour character studies will be all the rage, but until then, Diaz is paving an uncharted road for others to follow.

6. Shanghai (Dibakar Banerjee, India) This Hindi remake of Costa-Gavras’ monumental political thriller Z (1969) may not have French New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard behind the camera, but Shanghai‘s director of photography Nikos Andritsakis adds his own brand of raw intensity. For his part, writer-director Banerjee creates an even more complicated look at the state of politics in the age of the modern terrorist. Seemingly inspired by fellow director Ram Gopal Varma’s career of gritty political dramas, Banerjee is an international director to watch.

7. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France) The perfect companion to David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, this film contains a tour de force performance by the almighty Denis Lavant (of Claire Denis’ 1999 Beau Travail), with Michel Piccoli, Eva Mendes, Édith Scob, and Kylie Minogue in supporting roles. Unique, surreal, and completely inspired, this day-in-the-life journey will make you want to watch it again as soon as it ends.

8. The Grey  (Joe Carnahan, US) The best existential “animal attacking human” flick since David Mamet’s 1997 cult classic The Edge. It’s a film that showcases Liam Neeson as he tapes glass to his fists to battle a pack of giant wolves — and manages to be emotionally stirring at the same time. Make sure to keep watching all the way through the credits.

9a. Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton, US, 2011) Lynn Shelton’s follow-up to her genre-defining bromance Humpday (2009) is a pitch-perfect indie that attempts to dig deep within its dark and confused characters. Depressed and confused thirtysomething Jack (played by Mark Duplass, master of casual awkwardness) heads off to a remote island to figure out his life. The only trouble: his best friend (a mesmerizing Emily Blunt) also has a lesbian sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is already there doing her own soul searching. With this contemplative, honest, and hilarious film, Shelton is turning out to be quite a splendid voice for our current generation of progressive pitfallers.

9b. Jeff, Who Lives At Home (Jay Duplass and Mark Dupass, US) They’ve done it again! With Jeff, the mumblecore masters (2005’s The Puffy Chair; 2010’s Cyrus) construct a stoner comedy-existential trip for the man-child generation. While inspiring outstanding performances from Jason Segal and Ed Helms (both the best they’ve ever been), playing brothers, a poignantly performance by Susan Sarandon as their mother raises this wonderfully earned sentimental indie flick to the ranks of family dramas like Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays (1995) and her most recent overlooked gem, The Beaver (2011).

10. Lotus Community Workshop (Harmony Korine, US) His next film, Spring Breakers (due out next year), is poised to become Harmony Korine’s most accessible film to date; it’s a T&A-filled exploitation film, led by James Franco as a grimy, gold-grilled-grinning, dreadlocked drug dealer who lives to prey on bikini-clad young girls. But 30-minute meta-masterpiece Lotus Community Workshop, which played the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year (as part of omnibus film The Fourth Dimension), is maybe Korine’s greatest film to date. The almighty Val Kilmer plays a dirt bike-riding, fanny-pack wearing, roller-rink guru named Val Kilmer — and yep, it’s as mind-blowing as it sounds.

11. ParaNorman  (Chris Butler and Sam Fell, US) This stop-motion animated film surprised parents who felt its PG rating should have been PG-13 — and it inspired gasps and even yells (from adults!) in every screening I attended. Daringly shot on a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR Camera and released in a fully utilized 3D, this ode to midnight movies is a kids’ film that will stand the test of time and should rank right alongside Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Army of Darkness (1992): horror parodies that transcended their own self-awareness and become classics themselves.

12-14 [tie]. A Simple Life (Ann Hui, Hong Kong, 2011), Amour (Michael Haneke, Austria/France/Germany), The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary/France/Germany/Switzerland/US, 2011) Ann Hui’s simple, straightforward tale of a woman’s choice to check herself into a retirement home after suffering a stroke will probably get overshadowed by Michael Haneke’s wonderfully minimalist approach to an elderly couple’s decline after one of them experiences the same ailment. Meanwhile, Béla Tarr’s final film is for acquired tastes only; it’s a cyclical journey with a rural couple, who eat potatoes, are isolated in a stormy darkness, and care for their horse. All three films lay out a terrifyingly realistic blueprint of old age.

15. Compliance  (Craig Zobel, US) No film at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival encountered as much controversy as Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with one audience member yelling “Sundance can do better!” You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Every screening that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at the fest. And it doesn’t disappoint: Zobel unleashes an uncomfortable psychological mindfuck on the viewer all the way through to the stunning final 15 minutes, which are even more shocking than all the twists and turns that came before.

16. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy, 2011) Can these Belgian brothers make a bad film? Seriously? Like their Palme D’Or winners Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and L’enfant (2005), Kid is yet another hypnotic, neo-realist portrait of modern-day youth. Every character makes unexpected yet inevitable decisions. No moment is false. The Dardennes create movies that make life feel more real.

17. Beasts of the Southern Wild ( Benh Zeitlin, US) Fantastical special effects created by 31 students at San Francisco’s own Academy of Art University (yes, I am biased), plus star Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, a precocious six-year-old searching to understand a world post-Katrina, post-race, and more importantly post-childhood. Combining David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2001), Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (2008) and perhaps even Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), Zeitlin has created a haunting enigma for modern audiences that deserves multiple viewings. But even though it won multiple prizes at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, will it get the Oscar attention it deserves?

18. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (John Hyams, US) When Jean-Claude Van Damme started this franchise back in 1992, it was a nice little combo of First Blood (1982), The Terminator (1984) and Robocop (1987). Twenty years later, the series’ fourth entry is co-written, co-edited, and directed by John Hyams, the son of Peter Hyams, who directed JCVD classics Timecop (1994) and Sudden Death (1995) — and man oh man does he deliver a tough and gritty little action sci-fi film. Van Damme takes on an even darker role than his scene-stealing turn in Expendables 2; with a cleverly subversive script, eloquently choreographed fight scenes (one of which gives Dolph Lundgren some pretty priceless moments), and a denouement that has to be seen to be believed, you may be rooting for this VOD released genre film as much as I am — not to mention Indiewire, which called it “One of the Best Action Movies of the Year!”

19. John Carter (Andrew Stanton, US) With a budget of $250 million, this epic based on Edgar Rice Burroughs stories brought the Walt Disney company to its knees by only making $73 million back. If you saw the film in 3D, you might be confused as to why no one bothered to see it. In my opinion (having watched it twice), John Carter achieves everything James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) did, as far as sci-fi extravaganzas go, but it also has an inspired story and a charming cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, and Willem Dafoe. This is possibly this generation’s Ishtar (1987), and like Elaine May’s infamous still-unavailable bomb, John Carter is actually enjoyable; it’ll need a decade or two for audiences to find it as one of the most enjoyable CGI spectacles in recent years.

20. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, US) [SPOILER ALERT!] I found The Dark Knight Rises hard to dismiss as just another money-making super-hero adaptation. After multiple viewings, I’ve come to think of the conclusion to the trilogy as the finest of the three. I’ve also had time to puzzle over the film’s intricate plot.

While many fellow critics seemed to find the film’s political handlings of Bane’s Occupy/French Revolution movement to be flimsy and even irresponsible, I would argue that the film works in a more complicated way toward politics. If Bane’s misguided revolution fell flat, then it would be important to look at Catwoman’s anarchist ways. And about that — did she put her selfishness aside to start over with a broke Bruce Wayne, or is the closing sequence just Alfred’s fantasy? (And if the latter is true, did Batman actually blow himself up in the end?)

And then there’s Blake, who bests the pathetic Deputy Commissioner, then turns his back on the well-meaning yet lying-to-the-people Commissioner Gordon. Though Blake knows he has to quit the police force amid such corruption, he can’t dismiss his urge to help the helpless and downtrodden — after all, he’s an orphan from the streets — and Robin is born. He’s alone (no butlers down in that cave anymore …), and will need to figure out what to do in Gotham City — a town that’s always wild at heart and weird on top.

(Note: list compiled prior to viewing Zero Dark Thirty or Les Misérables.)

Best Actor of 2012
Matthew McConaughey for Bernie (Richard Linklater, US, 2011), Killer Joe (William Friedkin, US, 2011), Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, US, 2011), and The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, US)

Best Unreleased Films of 2012

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonymous, Denmark/Norway/UK)

Black Rock (Katie Aselton, USA)

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK)

Pilgrim Song (Martha Stephens, US)

The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, US)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks programs the Midnites for Maniacs series, which emphasizes dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films. He is the Film History Coordinator at Academy of Art University.

Run over by a reindeer

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culture@sfbg.com

EVENTS

Union Square ice-skating rink Union Square, SF. www.unionsquareicerink.com. Through Jan. 16, 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m. except for when closed for private parties, $10 for 90-minute session. Sweetheart, the rink is open, grab my hand and try not to twist an ankle as we glide in circles around downtown’s living room.

Westin St. Francis sugar castle Westin St. Francis, Landmark Lobby, 335 Powell, SF. www.westinstfrancis.com. Through Jan. 24, on view 24 hours/day. Don’t lick it. For although this ever-growing sweet behemoth which each holiday season occupies the lobby of downtown’s classic luxury digs with its 1,300 pounds, 20 towers, 30 rooms, and sugar replicas of 2012’s movers and shakers has a hold on our heart, its original dimensions were sugar-spun back in 2005. Incredibly made, undeniably festive, but altogether inappropriate for dietary purposes.

Jack London Square holiday tree lighting Jack London Square, Oakl. www.jacklondonsquare.com. Nov. 30, 4:30-7pm, free. Performances by Disney-approved pop stars! Reindeer petting zoo! Miss California 2012 and a kids dress-up station with costumes from the Oakland Ballet! You’ll be hard-pressed not to find some holiday cheer at this annual lighting of Jack London’s fir tree for the masses.

Oakland-Alameda Estuary Lighted Yacht Parade Visible from Jack London Square, Oakl. www.lightedyachtparade.com. Dec. 1, 5:30pm, free. Let those cheeks get rosy, it’s boat-watching time. This yearly tradition sees the yacht owners of the East Bay putting their aquatic rides on display, stringing bulbs galore across decks and sails.

Festival of lights Union between Van Ness and Steiner, Fillmore between Union and Lombard, SF. www.sresproductions.com. Dec. 1, 3-7pm, free. Wiggle your nose at Santa at this explosion of twinkly tinsel and Cow Hollow reindeer — today Union Street puts on the holiday glitz and lays out the welcome mat. Cudworth Mansion (2040 Union) will be hosting a cupcake-decorating session from 3:30-5:30pm, at which Old St. Nick himself will make an appearance out front.

Golden Gate Park holiday tree lighting McLaren Lodge, 501 Stanyan, SF. www.sfrecpark.org. Dec. 6, 5pm, free. A tradition started by Golden Gate Park grandfather and San Francisco’s first park superintendent John McLaren in 1929, the lighting of the tree returns to Fell Street for the 83rd year in a row. Accompanying fanfare includes live performances, carnival rides, and a visit from Saint Nick.

Great Dickens Christmas Fair Cow Palace, 2600 Geneva, SF. www.dickensfair.com. Fri/23 and Sat.-Sun. Sat/24-Dec. 23, 10am-7pm, $21-25. For an ace weekend drunk this holiday season, toodle over to the Cow Palace. Once ensconced in the warm period embrace of the Dickens Fair, you will have the run of five bars (absinthe!), a multitude of meat pie shoppes, hilarious accents, near-constant stage shows, and the company of “famous Victorians,” including Charles Dickens and Her Majesty, the queen herself.

Family holiday crafts day Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, SF. (415) 554-9600, www.randallmuseum.org. Dec. 1, 10am-3pm, free admission, activities fees vary. Bring the kiddos to the always-free-admission Randall Museum so they can spend the morning making holiday decorations and gifts. Cap off the morning with a performance by Asian American performance troupe Eth-Noh-Tec and its fusion of ancient and contemporary movement.

Community Hanukkah candle lighting Jewish Community Center, 3200 California, SF. (415) 292-1200, www.jccsf.org. Dec. 8-14, 4:30pm, free. Join up with your neighbors for the Jewish Community Center’s daily lighting of the menorah in the building’s atrium. Attend the Shabbat celebration on Dec. 14 for a family storytelling session, grape juice, hallah, and Hanukkah gelt.

Bill Graham Menorah Day Union Square, SF. www.chabadsf.org. Dec. 9, festivities start at 3pm, menorah lighting at 5pm, free. Each day from December 8-15, a candle will be ceremoniously lit on the Bill Graham mahogany menorah, a gift from the famous San Francisco promoter to his city. But on the 9th, Bill Graham Menorah Day festivities will occupy Union Square, a beautiful beginning to the Festival of Lights in the city.

Public library winter celebration Bernal Heights Library, 500 Cortland, SF. www.sfpl.org. Dec. 12, 6:30-8:30pm, free. The library’s got all kinds of free holiday programming this year, from cupcake-decorating and card-making to a magic show with a winter wonderland theme. Today’s no exception: join the Bernal Heights community for a kid-friendly celebration featuring the Bernal Jazz Quintet, refreshments, and children’s movies.

Frosting the Conservatory Conservatory of Flowers, 100 John F. Kennedy, SF. (415) 831-2090, www.conservatoryofflowers.org. Dec. 15, 11am-3pm, $10. Make your own ginger-greenhouse at this event amid the hothouse blooms of the Conservatory of Flowers. This events gets our thumbs-up for guaranteed toastiness, because being warm and cozy is a pre-req for Christmas cheer.

Jewish Christmas with Broke Ass Stuart The Make-Out Room, 3225 22nd St., SF. www.makeoutroom.com. Dec. 25, 5-11pm, $10. Strip dreidel set to the tune of streaming Woody Allen, Larry David, and Sascha Baron Cohen footage sounds like our kind of Christmas. Such was the vision of DJ Matt Haze and host Broke Ass Stuart, who designed this kitschy extravaganza for all of you (Chosen and Left Behind alike) who can’t stomach staying in on a perfectly good day off. Did we mention there will be a Chinese food buffet?

Kwanzaa celebration Bay Area Discovery Museum, 557 McReynolds, Sausalito. www.baykidsmuseum.org. Dec. 26, 9am-5pm, free. A traditional Kwanzaa altar will greet you upon arriving at the kids museum’s celebration of African-American culture, featuring two performance (at 11am and 1pm) by African Roots of Jazz.

PERFORMANCE

The Christmas Ballet Various times and Bay Area locations. www.smuinballet.org. Nov. 23 — Dec. 23, $25-65. Back by popular demand, the Smuin Ballet Company returns with this annual production, split this year into two acts: “Classical Christmas” and “Cool Christmas.” Both promise eye-opening, energetic entertainment set to eclectic tunes from Elvis to klezmer.

A Christmas Carol American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary, SF. (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org. Nov. 30-Dec. 24, various times, $20–$160. Stressful election year and rumors of apocalypse tightened those purse strings? Exorcise your inner Scrooge at this classic stage production of Charles Dickens’ terrifying ode to generosity and kindness towards diminutive children.

The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., SF. www.victoriatheatre.org. Dec. 6-30, Thu.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 7pm, $30. Our cover girl Cookie Dough co-stars as Sophia Petrillo in this now-traditional SF holiday stage production of the classic sitcom that employs more shoulder pads, even, than the original TV show. You’ll never know a catty elderly network television star until you’ve seen her re-enacted by a drag queen. Buy tickets pronto, the shows usually sell out.

California Revels Oakland Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside, Oakl. (510) 452-8800, www.californiarevels.org. Dec. 7-9, 13-15. Fridays 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays 1 and 5pm, $20-55. Feast and family are cornerstones of this annual interactive period piece performance celebrating the winter solstice. Hoist your mead and turkey leg and sway to the music, friends, good times will be upon ye here.

The Nutcracker Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon, SF. www.cityballetschool.org. Dec. 8, 2pm & 7pm; Dec. 9, 2pm, $20. Yes, everyone does The Nutcracker. At this point, it’s like the Rocky Horror Picture Show of ballet. (Would that ballet patrons donned Rat King costumes to attend!) Embrace the tradition, and check out the City Ballet School’s production of a classic.

Charles Phoenix Retro Holiday Show Empress of China Ballroom, 838 Grant, SF. www.charlesphoenix.com. Dec. 12, 8pm, $25. The creator of the Cherpumple, a pie-stuffed cake concoction that rises to the dizzying heights of kitsch, humorist Charles Phoenix celebrates the retro in every occasion. Tonight, he regales the crowd with tales of his favorite SF landmarks, road trips, and yes, feats of food fantasy.

Holiday youth mariachi concert Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, 2868 Mission, SF. www.missionculturalcenter.org. Dec. 14, 7:30-9pm, $15. Three mariachi troupes made of young people join forces for this exciting holiday program. The hat-dropping, guitar plucking action will be highlighted by Zenon Barron’s Mexican youth folk dance class.

The Snowman Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness, SF. (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org. Dec. 22, 11am, $13.50-57. Even the smallest budding season ticket holder will find this film-symphony presentation of Joe Nesbø’s classic children’s book a welcome boost to their holiday cheer. The animated version of this story of a youg’n’ whose bud is a Frosty-like chap will soar when paired with the world-class musicians of the SF Symphony.

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific, SF. www.koshercomedy.com. Dec. 22-25, various times, $44-64. There’s nothing like having dinner on Christmas to up your alterna (or simply, not pan-Christian) cred. Add stand up comedy and you have a winning formula, which is obvious from the longevity of Lisa Gedulig’s annual show. This year features yucks from Judy Gold, Mike Capozzola, and Adrianne Tolsch.

Clairdee’s Christmas Yoshi’s San Francisco, 1330 Fillmore, SF. (415) 655-5600, www.yoshis.com. Dec. 24, 8pm, $20. Everything could use a little soul in lives and the holidays are no exception. Come hear the sounds of soul-jazz vocalist Clairdee, and soak in her ensemble’s rhythmic takes on Christmas standards.

“Holiday Memories” double feature A rare 16mm showing of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales will be accompanied by a screening of The Sweater, a tale of a young hockey player’s passion for the sport, and the dangers that come of wearing the wrong jumper. Dec. 22, 2pm, Exploratorium, 3601 Lyon, SF. (415) 563-7337, www.exploratorium.edu

PEACE ON EARTH

Darkness and Light: A Hanukkah Meditation Retreat Jewish Community Center, 3200 California, SF. (415) 292-1200, www.jccsf.org. Dec. 9, 10am-5pm, $50-60. No prior experience is needed for this day-long workshop on finding the light within during the Hanukkah season. Sitting and walking meditation will be covered — the perfect primer for a month that can try the patience of even the most festive reveler.

Winter solstice ceremony San Francisco Zen Center, 300 Page, SF. (415) 863-3136, www.sfzc.org. Dec. 21, 6:15pm, free. Recharge on the longest night of the year in the peaceful confines of the SF Zen Center. The crowd here promises to be made of meditation newbies, Zen Center students, and all those in-between. It will also be your best bet to avoid jingles and tinsel, if that’s what your body is craving at this point.

Reclaiming’s Sing Up The Sun ritual Inspiration Point parking lot, Tilden Park, Berk. www.reclaiming.org. Dec. 21, 6:30am, free. Wake up before the sun does to greet it on this, the day of the year when it spends the least time out of its bed. A pagan celebration, you’re welcome to bring musical instruments and a warm Thermos of liquid to the community gathering.

GIFTS

Celebration of Craftswomen Herbst Pavilion, Fort Mason Center, SF. (650) 615-6838, www.celebrationofcraftswomen.org. Nov. 24-25, Dec. 1-2, 10am-5pm, $9 or $12 two-day pass. The first edition of this alternative holiday fair took place 34 years ago at the now-defunct Old Wives’ Tales Bookstore on Valencia Street with 22 female makers-of-things. Today, the event fills the Herbst Pavilion, features 150 juried artists and a mini-film festival. It’s still the best place for feminist shopping, some things don’t change.

Holiday Design Bazaar Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission, No. 109, SF. www.artsedmatters.org. Nov. 30, 5-8pm; Dec. 1, noon-6pm, free. An arts fair with 25 local creators, plus live music and refreshments that may well make a difference in our kids’ art education. The event is a benefit for Arts Ed Matters, a group that is looking to build community support for art in schools.

Creativity Explored holiday art sale Creativity Explored, 3245 16th St., SF. www.creativityexplored.org. Dec. 1-2, noon-5pm, free. Shop at this studio for developmentally-disabled artists and half of your bill will go straight into their pocket — standard practice for Creativity Explored, which has been the real-deal spot for outsider art in San Francisco since 1983.

Paxton Gate holiday party Dec. 1, 3-6pm at Paxton Gate’s Curiosities for Kids, 766 Valencia; 8-10pm at Paxton Gate, 824 Valencia, SF. (415) 824-1872, www.paxtongate.com. One of the city’s most beloved families of taxidermy/kid’s toys/nursery shops, Paxton Gate is turning two decades of age this weekend. What better time to shop there? And what better to get your face painted “Victorian-style” (?!), check out stilt walkers and an accordionist-ballerina duo, and eat snacks during the day at its kids location — then walk two doors down later that night for more circus freakery, door prizes and a Hendrick’s gin open bar at 826 Valencia’s pirate shop?

Palestinian Craft Fair Middle East Children’s Alliance office, 1101 Eighth St., Berk. www.mecaforpeace.org. Dec. 1-2, 10am-5pm, free. Sip Arabic coffee while you paw through painted ceramics from Gaza, children’s book, scarves, West Bank olive oil, and more at this chance to support a nonprofit benefiting craftspeople living in Palestine — a particularly salient cause in this year of war and turmoil.

Bazaar Bizarre Concourse Exhibition Center, East Hall, 620 Seventh St., SF. www.bazaarbizarre.org. Dec. 1-2, 11am-6pm, free. This traveling indie craft fair stocks all the twee and yippee you need to get your gift recipients in your pocket. New in 2012: a mini-version of Forage SF’s Underground market, for all your small biz-sourced holiday edible needs.

Muir Beach Quilters Holiday Arts Fair Muir Beach Community Center, 19 Seascape, Muir Beach. www.muirbeach.com/quiltersfair. Dec. 1, 10am-5pm, Dec. 2 10am-4pm, free. Make a blustery beach journey that has time to spare for handicraft browsing. This annual gift fair stocks locally-made knickknacks by local groups (Muir Beach Garden Club included), and has more than retail opportunities. Hands-on crafts bars will stoke the creative fire of kids and big person shoppers alike.

La Cocina Gift Bazaar Crocker Galleria, 50 Post, SF. www.giftbazaarsf.com. Dec. 7, 1-7pm, free. You’re not going to have problems finding foodie-friendly presents at this fair — but getting them safely to their intended destination sans bite marks might be a problem. La Cocina business incubator program graduates Clairesquares, Onigilly, Love & Hummus Co., Chiefo’s Kitchen, and more will all have their wares for sale.

East Bay Alternative Book and Zine Fest Berkeley City College, 2050 Center, Berk. Dec. 8, 10am-5pm, donations suggested. www.eastbayalternativebookandzinefest.com. For the indie comic nerds on your list, you’ll want to check out this expo of all things zine. Talks by New Yorker illustrator Erik Drooker and Go the Fuck to Sleep author Adam Mansbach spice up the fair’s schedule and there’s rumor of a dance party to take place at day’s end.

KPFA Crafts Fair Concourse Exhibition Center, 635 Eighth St., SF. www.kpfa.org/craftsfair. Dec. 8-9, 10am-6pm, $10. Our public radio station hosts 220 artists and their wares for this no-brainer shopping weekend. Pick up unique wrapables from leather fashion to gourmet snacks to lotions and creams to pamper your loved ones.

Mercado de Cambio/The Po’ Sto’ market and knowledge exchange 2940 16th St., SF. www.poormagazine.org. Dec. 15, 3-7pm, donations suggested. We can pretty much guarantee you that there is no other gift fair that will have better hip-hop music. The Mercado de Cambio organized by POOR Magazine aims to counterbalance the corporatization of our holiday season. Go here for aforementioned live beats, indigenous crafts, Occupy gear, and POOR-published literature.

Renegade Craft Fair holiday market Concourse Exhibition Center, 635 Eighth St., SF. www.renegadecraft.com. Dec. 15-16, 11am-6pm, free. A DIY gift wrap station is one of the attractions at this one stop for cute gift shopping, which makes one of its two yearly appearances in the Bay Area for the holiday season. The Oakland Museum of California will truck out its mobile “we/customize” exhibit, and of course, there will be crafters: over 250 will have booths hawking clothes, accessories, home stuff, kid stuff — most handmade, and most awesome.

 

Film Listings

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, and Lynn Rapoport. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.

MILL VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL

The 35th Mill Valley Film Festival runs Oct. 4-14 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St, San Rafael; Cinéarts@Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton, Mill Valley; and 142 Throckmorton Theatre, Mill Valley. For additional venues, full schedule, and tickets (most shows $13.50), visit www.mvff.com. For commentary, see Film.

OPENING

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)

Butter Jennifer Garner, Olivia Wilde, and Hugh Jackman star in this Iowa-set satirical comedy about competitive butter carving. (1:32)

Frankenweenie Wee Victor Frankenstein brings his dog back from the dead in Tim Burton’s black-and-white, 3D animated tale. (1:27) Presidio.

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; www.newpeopleworld.com. (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) Albany, Clay. (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 Things-The Help-A 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) Embarcadero. (Eddy)

V/H/S See "Gruesome Discovery." (1:55) Bridge, Shattuck.

Taken 2 It’s kidnapping season again, and Liam Neeson is pissed. (1:31) Marina.

ONGOING

Arbitrage As Arbitrage opens, its slick protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), is trying to close the sale of his life, on his 60th birthday: the purchase of his company by a banking goliath. The trick is completing the deal before his fraud, involving hundreds of millions of dollars, is uncovered, though the whip-smart daughter who works for him (Brit Marling) might soon be onto him. Meanwhile, Miller’s gaming his personal affairs as well, juggling time between a model wife (Susan Sarandon) and a Gallic gallerist mistress (Laetitia Casta), when sudden-death circumstances threaten to destroy everything, and the power broker’s livelihood — and very existence — ends up in the hands of a young man (Nate Parker) with ambitions of his own. It’s a realm that filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki is all too familiar with. Though like brothers Andrew (2003’s Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene (2005’s Why We Fight), Jarecki’s first love is documentaries (his first film, 2006’s The Outsider, covered auteur James Toback), his family is steeped in the business world. Both his parents were commodities traders, and Jarecki once owned his own web development firm and internet access provider, among other ventures. When he started writing Arbitrage‘s script in 2008, he drew some inspiration from Bernard Madoff — but ultimately, the film is about a good man who became corrupted along the way, to the point of believing in his own invincibility. (1:40) Metreon, Presidio, Smith Rafael, Shattuck. (Chun)

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. (Eddy)

Beasts of the Southern Wild Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d’Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn’t attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about — improbably — Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting. Benh Zeitlin’s film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. But not all is well: when "the storm" floods the land, the holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate. With its elements of magic, mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology, Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film’s cost and length. (1:31) Four Star, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Beauty is Embarrassing You may not recognize the name Wayne White offhand, but you will know his work: he designed and operated many of the puppets on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, including Randy (the blockheaded bully) and Dirty Dog (the canine jazzbo). Neil Berkeley’s Beauty Is Embarrassing — named for a mural White painted on the side of a Miami building for Art Basel 2009 — charts the life of an artist whose motto is both "I want to try everything I can!" and "Fuck you!" The Southern-born oddball, who came of age in the early-1980s East Village scene, is currently styling himself as a visual artist (his métier: painting non-sequitur phrases into landscapes bought from thrift stores), but Beauty offers a complex portrait of creativity balanced between the need to be subversive and the desire to entertain. (1:27) Roxie. (Eddy)

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) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)

The Campaign (1:25) 1000 Van Ness.

Celeste and Jesse Forever Married your best friend, realized you love but can’t be in love with each other, and don’t want to let all those great in-jokes wither away? Such is the premise of Celeste and Jesse Forever, the latest in what a recent wave of meaty, girl-centric comedies penned by actresses — here Rashida Jones working with real-life ex Will McCormack; there, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Zoe Lister Jones (Lola Versus), and Lena Dunham (Girls) — who have gone the DIY route and whipped up their own juicy roles. There’s no mistaking theirs for your average big-screen rom-com: they dare to wallow harder, skew smarter, and in the case of Celeste, tackle the thorny, tough-to-resolve relationship dilemma that stubbornly refuses to conform to your copy-and-paste story arc. Nor do their female protagonists come off as uniformly likable: in this case, Celeste (Jones) is a bit of an aspiring LA powerbitch. Her Achilles heel is artist Jesse (Andy Samberg), the slacker high school sweetheart she wed and separated from because he doesn’t share her goals (e.g., he doesn’t have a car or a job). Yet the two continue to spend all their waking hours together and share an undeniable rapport, extending from Jesse’s encampment in her backyard apartment to their jokey simulated coitus featuring phallic-shaped lip balm. Throwing a wrench in the works: the fact that they’re still kind of in love with each other, which all their pals, like Jesse’s pot-dealer bud Skillz (McCormack), can clearly see. It’s an shaggy, everyday breakup yarn, writ glamorous by its appealing leads, that we too rarely witness, and barring the at-times nausea-inducing shaky-cam under the direction of Lee Toland Krieger, it’s rendered compelling and at times very funny — there’s no neat and tidy way to say good-bye, and Jones and McCormack do their best to capture but not encapsulate the severance and inevitable healing process. It also helps that the chemistry practically vibrates between the boyish if somewhat one-note Samberg and the soulful Jones, who fully, intelligently rises to the occasion, bringing on the heartbreak. (1:31) Shattuck. (Chun)

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) Metreon. (Eddy)

Detropia Those of us from Detroit, once-glamorous capital of American manufacturing and symbol of the triumph of capitalism, often feel like we were born with the history of the city in our bones. Another common feeling is that of dread upon hearing that yet another arty documentary (or brow-furrowing article, or glossy photo book) is coming down the pipe. The narrative arc of such things is usually this: remember Motown? Cars were amazing. Then there were scary riots, probably out of thin air. Then the jobs left. Isn’t Detroit sad now? Look how spooky this abandoned train station from the 1930s is! America is over. Wait! Some hipsters are starting a farm downtown! There may be hope after all. But who knows? Detropia, directed by Heidi Ewing, who grew up near Detroit, and Rachel Grady, doesn’t exactly deconstruct that crusty storyline (non-spoiler alert: the hipster-farmers become performance artists). But this important and beautiful film shows how much more of the Detroit tale takes on meaning and shape when told through the voices of people who actually live there, with a cinematic eye that doesn’t shy away from reality, even as it bends it to narrative ends. (1:30) Elmwood, Roxie, Smith Rafael. (Marke B.)

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel The life of legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland is colorfully recounted in Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, a doc directed by her granddaughter-in-law, Lisa Immordino Vreeland. The family connection meant seemingly unlimited access to material featuring the unconventionally glamorous (and highly quotable) Vreeland herself, plus the striking images that remain from her work at Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Narrated" from interview transcripts by an actor approximating the late Vreeland’s husky, posh tones, the film allows for some criticism (her employees often trembled at the sight of her; her sons felt neglected; her grasp of historical accuracy while working at the museum was sometimes lacking) among the praise, which is lavish and delivered by A-listers like Anjelica Huston, who remembers "She had a taste for the extraordinary and the extreme," and Manolo Blahnik, who squeals, "She had the vision!" (1:26) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Dredd 3D Cartoonishly, gleefully gruesome violence abounds in Dredd 3D, a pretty enjoyable comic-book adaptation thanks to star Karl Urban’s deadpan zingers. This is not a remake of the 1995 Sly Stallone flop Judge Dredd, by the way, though it might as well be a remake of 2011 Indonesian import The Raid: Redemption. The stories are identical. Like, lawsuit material-identical: supercop infiltrates (and then becomes trapped in, and must battle his way out of) a high-rise apartment tower run by a ruthless crime boss. Key difference is that Dredd has futuristic weapons, and The Raid had badass martial arts. Also Dredd‘s villain is played by Lena "Cersei Lannister" Headey, so there’s that. (1:38) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

End of Watch Buddy cop movies tend to go one of two ways: the action-comedy route (see: the Rush Hour series) or the action-drama route. End of Watch is firmly in the latter camp, despite some witty shit-talking between partners Taylor (a chrome-domed Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña from 2004’s Crash) as they patrol the mean streets of Los Angeles. Writer-director David Ayer, who wrote 2001’s Training Day, aims for authenticity by piecing together much of (but, incongruously, not all of) the story through dashboard cameras, surveillance footage, and Officer Taylor’s own ever-present camera, which he claims to be carrying for a school project, though we never once see him attending classes or mentioning school otherwise. Gyllenhaal and Peña have an appealing rapport, but End of Watch‘s adrenaline-seeking plot stretches credulity at times, with the duo stumbling across the same group of gangsters multiple times in a city of three million people. Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick do what they can in underwritten cop-wife roles, but End of Watch is ultimately too familiar (but not lawsuit-material familiar) to leave any lasting impression. Case in point: in the year 2012, do we really need yet another love scene set to Mazzy Star’s "Fade Into You"? (1:49) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)

Finding Nemo 3D (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

For a Good Time, Call&ldots; Suffering the modern-day dilemmas of elapsed rent control and boyfriend douchebaggery, sworn enemies Katie (Ari Graynor) and Lauren (Lauren Miller) find themselves shacking up in Katie’s highly covetable Manhattan apartment, brought together on a stale cloud of resentment by mutual bestie Jesse (Justin Long, gamely delivering a believable version of your standard-issue young hipster NYC gay boy). The domestic glacier begins to melt somewhere around the time that Lauren discovers Katie is working a phone-sex hotline from her bedroom; equipped with a good head for business, she offers to help her go freelance for a cut of the proceeds. Major profitability ensues, as does a friendship evoking the pair bonding at the center of your garden-variety romantic comedy, as Katie trains Lauren to be a phone-sex operator and the two share everything from pinkie swears and matching pink touch-tone phones to intimate secrets and the occasional hotline threesome. Directed by Jamie Travis and adapted from a screenplay by Miller and Katie Anne Naylon, the film is a welcome response to the bromance genre, and with any luck it may also introduce linguistic felicities like "phone-banging" and "let’s get this fuckshow started" into the larger culture. The raunchy telephonic interludes include cameos by Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen (Miller’s husband) as customers calling from such unfurtive locations as a public bathroom stall and the front seat of a taxicab. But the two roomies supply plenty of dirty as Katie, an abashed wearer of velour and denim pantsuits, helps the more restrained Lauren discover the joys of setting free her inner potty mouth. (1:25) SF Center. (Rapoport)

Hotel Transylvania (1:32) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck.

House At the End of the Street Tight T-shirts, a creepy cul-de-sac, couples in cars on lonely lanes, and the cute but weird loner kid — all the stuff of classic drive-in horror fare, revisited in this ambitious tribute of sorts. Don’t mistake House at the End of the Street for genre-reviving efforts by super fans like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie; Mark Tonderai’s mash up of Psycho (1960) and Last House on the Left (1972) lacks the rock ‘n’ roll brio and jet-black humor of, say, Cabin Fever (2002) or The Devil’s Rejects (2005). Instead House reads like an earnest effort to add a thin veneer of psychological realism and even girl power sincerity to a blood-spattered back catalog. Teenage musician Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) and her overwhelmed mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) have found themselves quite a deal of a new rental home — a bit too good, since their next door neighbors were both brutally killed by their brain-damaged offspring who was obviously afflicted with the same greasy hair issues as the ghoulish gal in The Ring. Ryan (Bay Area native Max Thieriot), the boy who continues to live in the house where his parents were murdered, is ostracized, attractive, and much like his home, a fixer — making him mighty attractive to Elissa. A hearty, artistic soul who likes to venture where others fear to tread, she’s drawn to him despite the fact that she feels like she’s being watched from the woods that separate their homes. Switching back and forth between various perspectives — like that of a sputtering, spasmodically edited psychopath-cam and the steady, thoughtful gaze of a rebellious yet empathetic girl — House manages to effectively throw a few curveballs your way, while toying with genre conventions and upsetting your expectations. Shoring up its efforts is a talented cast, headed up by Lawrence’s feisty heroine and Shue’s sad-eyed struggling mom. (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Lawless Lawless has got to be the most pretentiously humorless movie ever made about moonshiners — a criminal subset whose adventures onscreen have almost always been rambunctious and breezy, even when violent. Not here, bub. Adapting Matt Bondurant’s fact-inspired novel The Wettest County in the World about his family’s very colorful times a couple generations back, director John Hillcoat and scenarist (as well as, natch, composer) Nick Cave have made one of those films in which the characters are presented to you as if already immortalized on Mount Rushmore — monumental, legendary, a bit stony. They’ve got a crackling story about war between hillbilly booze suppliers and corrupt lawmen during Prohibition, and while the results aren’t dull (they’re too bloody for that, anyway), they’d be a whole lot better if the entire enterprise didn’t take itself so gosh darned seriously. The Bondurant brothers of Franklin County, Va. are considered "legends" when we meet them in 1931, having defied all and sundry as well as survived a few bullets: mack-truck-built Forrest (Tom Hardy); eldest Howard (Jason Clarke), who tipples and smiles a lot; and "runt of the litter" Jack (Shia LeBeouf), who has a chip on his shoulder. The local law looks the other way so long as their palms are greased, but the Feds send sneering Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), it’s an eye for an eye for an eye, etc. The revenge-laden action in Lawless is engaging, but the filmmakers are trying so hard to make it all resonant and folkloric and meta-cinematic, any fun you have is in spite of their efforts. (1:55) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)

Liberal Arts Against his better judgment, 35-year-old Jesse (How I Met Your Mother‘s Josh Radnor, who also wrote and directed) falls for 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a student at the leafy Ohio university he graduated from years before (never named, but filmed at Kenyon College, Radnor’s own alma matter). The two meet when Jesse, now a jaded Brooklynite, visits to celebrate the retirement of Professor Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). Letter-writing, classical-music appreciation, a supremely awkward follow-up visit, and much white-boy angst follows. Liberal Arts is at its best when delineating a specific type of collegiate experience — as safe, privileged bubble where, as Jesse explains, you can announce "I’m a poet!" without anyone punching you in the face. It can also be an oppressive space, as illustrated by a cranky prof who feels trapped by academia (a razor-sharp Lucinda Janney), and a morose classmate of Zibby’s who identifies a little too closely with David Foster Wallace. And it’s stuff like the Wallace references (again, never named — just identified via heavily dropped hints, for all the cool viewers to pick up on) that’re ultimately Liberal Arts‘ undoing. Radnor explores some interesting themes, but the film is full of indie-comedy tropes — the friendly stoner (Zac Efron) who randomly appears to dispense life lessons; an anti-Twilight rant that’s a bit too pleased with itself; the unusually attractive character who appears in the first act and is obviously destined for inclusion in the inevitable happy ending. (1:37) Shattuck. (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 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) Four Star, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

The Master Paul Thomas Anderson’s much-hyped likely Best Picture contender lives up: it’s easily the best film of 2012 so far. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dodd, the L. Ron Hubbard-ish head of a Scientology-esque movement. "The Cause" attracts Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, in a welcome return from the faux-deep end), less for its pseudo-religious psychobabble and bizarre personal-growth exercises, and more because it supplies the aimless, alcoholic veteran — a drifter in every sense of the word — with a sense of community he yearns for, yet resists submitting to. As with There Will Be Blood (2007), Anderson focuses on the tension between the two main characters: an older, established figure and his upstart challenger. But there’s less cut-and-dried antagonism here; while their relationship is complex, and it does lead to dark, troubled places, there are also moments of levity and weird hilarity — which might have something to do with Freddie’s paint-thinner moonshine. (2:17) Albany, Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Moonrise Kingdom Does Wes Anderson’s new film mark a live-action return to form after 2007’s disappointingly wan Darjeeling Limited? More or less. Does it tick all the Andersonian style and content boxes? Indubitably. In the most obvious deviation Anderson has taken with Moonrise, he gives us his first period piece, a romance set in 1965 on a fictional island off the New England coast. After a chance encounter at a church play, pre-teen Khaki Scout Sam (newcomer Jared Gilman) instantly falls for the raven-suited, sable-haired Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, ditto). The two become pen pals, and quickly bond over the shared misery of being misunderstood by both authority figures and fellow kids. The bespectacled Sam is an orphan, ostracized by his foster parents and scout troop (much to the dismay of its straight-arrow leader Edward Norton). Suzy despises her clueless attorney parents, played with gusto by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand in some of the film’s funniest and best scenes. When the two kids run off together, the whole thing begins to resemble a kind of tween version of Godard’s 1965 lovers-on the-lam fantasia Pierrot le Fou. But like most of Anderson’s stuff, it has a gauzy sentimentality more akin to Truffaut than Godard. Imagine if the sequence in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums where Margot and Richie run away to the Museum of Natural History had been given the feature treatment: it’s a simple yet inspired idea, and it becomes a charming little tale of the perils of growing up and selling out the fantasy. But it doesn’t feel remotely risky. It’s simply too damn tame. (1:37) Shattuck. (Michelle Devereaux)

ParaNorman (1:32) Metreon.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Move over, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series — there’s a new shrinking-violet social outcast in town. These days, life might not suck quite so hard for 90-pound weaklings in every age category, what with so many films and TV shows exposing, and sometimes even celebrating, the many miseries of childhood and adolescence for all to see. In this case, Perks author Stephen Chbosky takes on the directorial duties — both a good and bad thing, much like the teen years. Smart, shy Charlie is starting high school with a host of issues: he’s painfully awkward and very alone in the brutal throng, his only friend just committed suicide, and his only simpatico family member was killed in a car accident. Charlie’s English teacher Mr. Andersen (Paul Rudd) appears to be his only connection, until the freshman strikes up a conversation with feline, charismatic, shop-class jester Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his magnetic, music- and fun-loving stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). Who needs the popular kids? The witty duo head up their gang of coolly uncool outcasts their own, the Wallflowers (not to be confused with the deeply uncool Jakob Dylan combo), and with them, Charlie appears to have found his tribe. Only a few small secrets put a damper on matters: Patrick happens to be gay and involved with football player Brad (Johnny Simmons), who’s saddled with a violently conservative father, and Charlie is in love with the already-hooked-up Sam and is frightened that his fragile equilibrium will be destroyed when his new besties graduate and slip out of his life. Displaying empathy and a devotion to emotional truth, Chbosky takes good care of his characters, preserving the complexity and ungainly quirks of their not-so-cartoonish suburbia, though his limitations as a director come to the fore in the murkiness and choppily handled climax that reveals how damaged Charlie truly is. (1:43) Albany, California, Embarcadero, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

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) Metreon. (Rapoport)

The Possession (1:31) Metreon.

Resident Evil: Retribution (1:35) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Samsara Samsara is the latest sumptuous, wordless offering from director Ron Fricke, who helped develop this style of dialogue- and context-free travelogue with Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Baraka (1992). Spanning five years and shooting on 70mm film to capture glimmers of life in 25 countries on five continents, Samsara, which spins off the Sanskrit word for the "ever-turning wheel of life," is nothing if not good-looking, aspiring to be a kind of visual symphony boosted by music by the Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and composers Michael Stearns and Marcello De Francisci. Images of natural beauty, baptisms, and an African woman and her babe give way to the madness of modern civilization — from jam-packed subways to the horrors of mechanized factory farming to a bizarre montage of go-go dancers, sex dolls, trash, toxic discarded technology, guns, and at least one gun-shaped coffin. After such dread, the opening and closing scenes of Buddhist spirituality seem almost like afterthoughts. The unmistakable overriding message is: humanity, you dazzle in all your glorious and inglorious dimensions — even at your most inhumane. Sullying this hand wringing, selective meditation is Fricke’s reliance on easy stereotypes: the predictable connections the filmmaker makes between Africa and an innocent, earthy naturalism, and Asia and a vaguely threatening, mechanistic efficiency, come off as facile and naive, while his sonic overlay of robot sounds over, for instance, an Asian woman blinking her eyes comes off as simply offensive. At such points, Fricke’s global leap-frogging begins to eclipse the beauty of his images and foregrounds his own biases. (1:39) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Chun)

Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter’s stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock’n’roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician — long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) Opera Plaza. (Chun)

Sleepwalk with Me Every year lots of movies get made by actors and comedians who want to showcase themselves, usually writing and often directing in addition to starring. Most of these are pretty bad, and after a couple of festival appearances disappear, unremembered by anyone save the credit card companies that vastly benefited from its creation. Mike Birbiglia’s first feature is an exception — maybe not an entirely surprising one (since it’s based on his highly praised Off-Broadway solo show and best-seller), but still odds-bucking. Particularly as it’s an autobiographical feeling story about an aspiring stand-up comic (Mike as Matt) who unfortunately doesn’t seem to have much natural talent in that direction, but nonetheless obsessively perseveres. This pursuit of seemingly fore destined failure might be causing his sleep disorder, or it might be a means of avoiding taking the martial next step with long-term girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose, making something special out of a conventional reactive role) everyone else agrees is the best thing in his life. Yep, it’s another commitment-phobic man-boy/funny guy who regularly talks to the camera, trying to find himself while quirky friends and family stand around like trampoline spotters watching a determined clod. If all of these sounds derivative and indulgent, well, it ought to. But Sleepwalk turns a host of familiar, hardly foolproof ideas into astute, deftly performed, consistently amusing comedy with just enough seriousness for ballast. Additional points for "I zinged him" being the unlikely most gut-busting line here. (1:30) Opera Plaza, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)

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) Metreon. (Harvey)

Somewhere Between Five years ago, when filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton adopted a baby girl from China, she was inspired to make Somewhere Between, a doc about the experiences of other Chinese adoptees. The film profiles four teenage girls, including Berkeley resident Fang "Jenni" Lee, whose American lives couldn’t be more different (one girl has two moms and attends a fancy prep school; another, raised by devout Christians, dreams of playing her violin at the Grand Ole Opry) but who share similar feelings about their respective adoptions. The film follows the girls on trips to London (as part of an organized meeting of fellow adoptees), Spain (to chat with people interested in adopting Chinese babies, and where the question "What does it feel like to be abandoned?" is handled with astonishing composure), and China (including one teen’s determined quest to track down her birth family). Highly emotional at times, Somewhere Between benefits from its remarkably mature and articulate subjects, all of whom have much to say about identity and personal history. (1:28) Shattuck. (Eddy)

"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) Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)

Trouble with the Curve Baseball scout Gus (Clint Eastwood) relies on his senses to sign players to the Atlanta Braves, and his roster of greats is highly regarded by everyone — save a sniveling climber named Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), who insists his score-keeping software can replace any scout. Gus’ skill in his field are preternatural, but with his senses dwindling, his longtime-friend Pete (a brilliant John Goodman) begs Gus’ daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to go with him — to see how bad the situation is and maybe drive him around. Ultimately, the film’s about the rift between career woman Mickey, and distant dad Gus, with some small intrusions from Justin Timberlake as Mickey’s romantic interest. Trouble with the Curve is a phrase used to describe batters who can’t hit a breaking ball and it’s a nuance — if an incontrovertible one — unobservable to the untrained eye. While Mickey and Gus stumble messily toward a better relationship (with a reasonable amount of compromise), Curve begins to look a bit like The Blind Side (2009), trading the church and charity for therapy and baggage. But what it offers is sweet and worthwhile, if you’re tolerant of the sanitized psychology and personality-free aesthetics. But it’s a movie about love and compromise — and if you love baseball you won’t have trouble forgiving some triteness, especially when Timberlake, the erstwhile Boo-Boo, gets to make a Yogi Berra joke. (1:51) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Sara Vizcarrondo)

Vulgaria (1:32) Metreon.

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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

The Words We meet novelist Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) as he’s making his way from a posh building to a cab in the rain; it’s important the shot obscures his generally shiny exterior, because we’re meant to believe this guy’s a sincere and struggling novelist. Jeremy Irons, aged with flappy eye makeup, watches him vengefully. Seems Rory fell upon the unpublished novel Irons’ character wrote in sadness and loss — and feeling himself incapable of penning such prose, transcribed the whole thing. When his lady friend (Zoe Saldana) encourages him to sell it, he becomes the next great American writer. He’s living the dream on another man’s sweat. But that’s not the tragedy, exactly, because The Words isn’t so concerned with the work of being a writer — it’s concerned with the look and insecurity of it. Bradley and Irons aren’t "real," they’re characters in a story read by Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) while the opportunistic, suggestive Daniella (Olivia Wilde) comes onto him. She can tell you everything about Clay, yet she hasn’t read the book that’s made him the toast of the town — The Words, which is all about a young plagiarist and the elderly writer he steals from. "I don’t know how things happen!", the slimy, cowering writers each exclaim. So, how do you sell a book? Publish a book? Make a living from a book? How much wine does it take to bed Olivia Wilde? Sure, they don’t know how things happen; they only know what it looks like to finish reading Hemingway at a café or watch the sun rise over a typewriter. Rarely has a movie done such a trite job of depicting the process of what it’s like to be a writer — though if you found nothing suspect about, say, Owen Wilson casually re-editing his 400-page book in one afternoon in last year’s Midnight in Paris, perhaps you won’t be so offended by The Words, either. (1:36) SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)

Film Listings

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OPENING

“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. (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. (Eddy)

Detropia See “We Were Here.” (1:30) Elmwood, Roxie, Smith Rafael.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel See “Chronic Youth.” (1:26) Embarcadero.

Hotel Transylvania Genndy Tartakovsky (TV’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars) directs this 3D animated comedy about a resort run by Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler) for Frankenstein (Kevin James) and other monsters. (1:32) Shattuck.

 

Liberal Arts See “Chronic Youth.” (1:37) Bridge, Shattuck.

Looper Writer-director Rian Johnson reunites with Brick (2005) star Joseph Gordon-Levitt for this sci-fi thriller about time-traveling assassins. (1:58) Four Star, Piedmont, Presidio.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky wrote and directed this adaptation of his best-selling YA novel, about a high-school misfit (Logan Lerman) comes out of his shell when he befriends a brother-sister duo (Ezra Miller, Emma Watson). (1:43) California, Embarcadero.

Peter Ford: A Little Prince See “Chronic Youth.” (:40) Delancey Street.

Pitch Perfect Anna Kendrick stars in this musical comedy set within the cutthroat world of competitive college a capella groups. (1:52)

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) (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) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Rapoport)

Vulgaria Raunchy HK import about a film producer who convinces a gangster to finance his porn epic. (1:32) Metreon.

Won’t Back Down Determined mothers (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis) become education activists in this based-on-true-events drama. (2:00)

ONGOING

Arbitrage As Arbitrage opens, its slick protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), is trying to close the sale of his life, on his 60th birthday: the purchase of his company by a banking goliath. The trick is completing the deal before his fraud, involving hundreds of millions of dollars, is uncovered, though the whip-smart daughter who works for him (Brit Marling) might soon be onto him. Meanwhile, Miller’s gaming his personal affairs as well, juggling time between a model wife (Susan Sarandon) and a Gallic gallerist mistress (Laetitia Casta), when sudden-death circumstances threaten to destroy everything, and the power broker’s livelihood — and very existence — ends up in the hands of a young man (Nate Parker) with ambitions of his own. It’s a realm that filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki is all too familiar with. Though like brothers Andrew (2003’s Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene (2005’s Why We Fight), Jarecki’s first love is documentaries (his first film, 2006’s The Outsider, covered auteur James Toback), his family is steeped in the business world. Both his parents were commodities traders, and Jarecki once owned his own web development firm and internet access provider, among other ventures. When he started writing Arbitrage‘s script in 2008, he drew some inspiration from Bernard Madoff — but ultimately, the film is about a good man who became corrupted along the way, to the point of believing in his own invincibility. (1:40) Metreon, Presidio, Smith Rafael, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Beasts of the Southern Wild Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d’Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn’t attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about — improbably — Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting. Benh Zeitlin’s film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. But not all is well: when “the storm” floods the land, the holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate. With its elements of magic, mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology, Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film’s cost and length. (1:31) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Beauty is Embarrassing You may not recognize the name Wayne White offhand, but you will know his work: he designed and operated many of the puppets on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, including Randy (the blockheaded bully) and Dirty Dog (the canine jazzbo). Neil Berkeley’s Beauty Is Embarrassing — named for a mural White painted on the side of a Miami building for Art Basel 2009 — charts the life of an artist whose motto is both “I want to try everything I can!” and “Fuck you!” The Southern-born oddball, who came of age in the early-1980s East Village scene, is currently styling himself as a visual artist (his métier: painting non-sequitur phrases into landscapes bought from thrift stores), but Beauty offers a complex portrait of creativity balanced between the need to be subversive and the desire to entertain. (1:27) Roxie. (Eddy)

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) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)

The Campaign (1:25) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

Celeste and Jesse Forever Married your best friend, realized you love but can’t be in love with each other, and don’t want to let all those great in-jokes wither away? Such is the premise of Celeste and Jesse Forever, the latest in what a recent wave of meaty, girl-centric comedies penned by actresses — here Rashida Jones working with real-life ex Will McCormack; there, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Zoe Lister Jones (Lola Versus), and Lena Dunham (Girls) — who have gone the DIY route and whipped up their own juicy roles. There’s no mistaking theirs for your average big-screen rom-com: they dare to wallow harder, skew smarter, and in the case of Celeste, tackle the thorny, tough-to-resolve relationship dilemma that stubbornly refuses to conform to your copy-and-paste story arc. Nor do their female protagonists come off as uniformly likable: in this case, Celeste (Jones) is a bit of an aspiring LA powerbitch. Her Achilles heel is artist Jesse (Andy Samberg), the slacker high school sweetheart she wed and separated from because he doesn’t share her goals (e.g., he doesn’t have a car or a job). Yet the two continue to spend all their waking hours together and share an undeniable rapport, extending from Jesse’s encampment in her backyard apartment to their jokey simulated coitus featuring phallic-shaped lip balm. Throwing a wrench in the works: the fact that they’re still kind of in love with each other, which all their pals, like Jesse’s pot-dealer bud Skillz (McCormack), can clearly see. It’s an shaggy, everyday breakup yarn, writ glamorous by its appealing leads, that we too rarely witness, and barring the at-times nausea-inducing shaky-cam under the direction of Lee Toland Krieger, it’s rendered compelling and at times very funny — there’s no neat and tidy way to say good-bye, and Jones and McCormack do their best to capture but not encapsulate the severance and inevitable healing process. It also helps that the chemistry practically vibrates between the boyish if somewhat one-note Samberg and the soulful Jones, who fully, intelligently rises to the occasion, bringing on the heartbreak. (1:31) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

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) Metreon. (Eddy)

Dredd 3D Cartoonishly, gleefully gruesome violence abounds in Dredd 3D, a pretty enjoyable comic-book adaptation thanks to star Karl Urban’s deadpan zingers. This is not a remake of the 1995 Sly Stallone flop Judge Dredd, by the way, though it might as well be a remake of 2011 Indonesian import The Raid: Redemption. The stories are identical. Like, lawsuit material-identical: supercop infiltrates (and then becomes trapped in, and must battle his way out of) a high-rise apartment tower run by a ruthless crime boss. Key difference is that Dredd has futuristic weapons, and The Raid had badass martial arts. Also Dredd‘s villain is played by Lena “Cersei Lannister” Headey, so there’s that. (1:38) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

End of Watch Buddy cop movies tend to go one of two ways: the action-comedy route (see: the Rush Hour series) or the action-drama route. End of Watch is firmly in the latter camp, despite some witty shit-talking between partners Taylor (a chrome-domed Jake Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Michael Peña from 2004’s Crash) as they patrol the mean streets of Los Angeles. Writer-director David Ayer, who wrote 2001’s Training Day, aims for authenticity by piecing together much of (but, incongruously, not all of) the story through dashboard cameras, surveillance footage, and Officer Taylor’s own ever-present camera, which he claims to be carrying for a school project, though we never once see him attending classes or mentioning school otherwise. Gyllenhaal and Peña have an appealing rapport, but End of Watch‘s adrenaline-seeking plot stretches credulity at times, with the duo stumbling across the same group of gangsters multiple times in a city of three million people. Natalie Martinez and Anna Kendrick do what they can in underwritten cop-wife roles, but End of Watch is ultimately too familiar (but not lawsuit-material familiar) to leave any lasting impression. Case in point: in the year 2012, do we really need yet another love scene set to Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”? (1:49) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy)

The Expendables 2 (1:43) Metreon.

Finding Nemo 3D (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki.

For a Good Time, Call&ldots; Suffering the modern-day dilemmas of elapsed rent control and boyfriend douchebaggery, sworn enemies Katie (Ari Graynor) and Lauren (Lauren Miller) find themselves shacking up in Katie’s highly covetable Manhattan apartment, brought together on a stale cloud of resentment by mutual bestie Jesse (Justin Long, gamely delivering a believable version of your standard-issue young hipster NYC gay boy). The domestic glacier begins to melt somewhere around the time that Lauren discovers Katie is working a phone-sex hotline from her bedroom; equipped with a good head for business, she offers to help her go freelance for a cut of the proceeds. Major profitability ensues, as does a friendship evoking the pair bonding at the center of your garden-variety romantic comedy, as Katie trains Lauren to be a phone-sex operator and the two share everything from pinkie swears and matching pink touch-tone phones to intimate secrets and the occasional hotline threesome. Directed by Jamie Travis and adapted from a screenplay by Miller and Katie Anne Naylon, the film is a welcome response to the bromance genre, and with any luck it may also introduce linguistic felicities like “phone-banging” and “let’s get this fuckshow started” into the larger culture. The raunchy telephonic interludes include cameos by Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen (Miller’s husband) as customers calling from such unfurtive locations as a public bathroom stall and the front seat of a taxicab. But the two roomies supply plenty of dirty as Katie, an abashed wearer of velour and denim pantsuits, helps the more restrained Lauren discover the joys of setting free her inner potty mouth. (1:25) SF Center. (Rapoport)

Hello I Must Be Going Blindsided by her recent divorce, 35-year-old Amy (Melanie Lynskey) flees New York City for quaint Westport, Conn., where she nurses her wounds, mostly by sleeping and watching Marx Brothers movies. Amy’s protracted moping rankles her perfectionist mother (Blythe Danner, bringing nuance to what could have been a clichéd character) and concerns her workaholic father (John Rubenstein). Dad’s trying to land a big client so he can “make back some of the money we lost in the market” — a subtle aside in Sarah Koskoff’s script that suggests Amy’s parents aren’t as well-heeled as they used to be, despite the ongoing renovations to their swanky home, catered dinners, and expensive art purchases. Money woes are just one of Amy’s many concerns, though, and when a distraction presents itself in the form of 19-year-old Jeremy (Girls’ Christopher Abbott), she finds herself sneaking out at night, making out in her mom’s car, smoking weed, and basically behaving like a teenager herself. As directed by indie actor turned director Todd Louiso (2002’s Love Liza), Hello I Must Be Going is a nicely contained, relatable (self-loathing: we’ve all been there) character study — and props for casting the endearing Lynskey, so often seen in supporting roles, as the film’s messy, complex lead. (1:35) SF Center. (Eddy)

House At the End of the Street Tight T-shirts, a creepy cul-de-sac, couples in cars on lonely lanes, and the cute but weird loner kid — all the stuff of classic drive-in horror fare, revisited in this ambitious tribute of sorts. Don’t mistake House at the End of the Street for genre-reviving efforts by super fans like Eli Roth and Rob Zombie; Mark Tonderai’s mash up of Psycho (1960) and Last House on the Left (1972) lacks the rock ‘n’ roll brio and jet-black humor of, say, Cabin Fever (2002) or The Devil’s Rejects (2005). Instead House reads like an earnest effort to add a thin veneer of psychological realism and even girl power sincerity to a blood-spattered back catalog. Teenage musician Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) and her overwhelmed mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) have found themselves quite a deal of a new rental home — a bit too good, since their next door neighbors were both brutally killed by their brain-damaged offspring who was obviously afflicted with the same greasy hair issues as the ghoulish gal in The Ring. Ryan (Bay Area native Max Thieriot), the boy who continues to live in the house where his parents were murdered, is ostracized, attractive, and much like his home, a fixer — making him mighty attractive to Elissa. A hearty, artistic soul who likes to venture where others fear to tread, she’s drawn to him despite the fact that she feels like she’s being watched from the woods that separate their homes. Switching back and forth between various perspectives — like that of a sputtering, spasmodically edited psychopath-cam and the steady, thoughtful gaze of a rebellious yet empathetic girl — House manages to effectively throw a few curveballs your way, while toying with genre conventions and upsetting your expectations. Shoring up its efforts is a talented cast, headed up by Lawrence’s feisty heroine and Shue’s sad-eyed struggling mom. (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

How to Survive a Plague David France’s documentary chronicles the unprecedented impact political activism had on the course of AIDS in the U.S. — drastically curtailing its death toll within a few years despite considerable institutional indifference and downright hostility. As the epidemic here first surfaced in, and decimated, the gay male community, much of Reagan America (particularly in religious quarters) figured the death sentence was deserved. The President himself infamously refrained from even saying the word “AIDS” publicly until his final year of office, after thousands had died. Both terrified and outraged, the gay community took it upon themselves to demand treatment, education, and research. Most of this urgent 1980s overview is concerned with the rise of ACT-UP, whose angry young men successfully lobbied and shamed corporate, academic, medical, and pharmaceutical bodies into action, with the result that by the mid-90s new drugs existed that made this dreaded diagnosis no longer a necessarily terminal one. France is a journalist who’s been covering AIDS practically since day one, and his first feature (made with the help of numerous first-rate collaborators) is authoritative and engrossing. Just don’t expect much (or really any) attention paid to the contributions made by S.F. or other activist hotspots — like many a gay documentary, this one hardly notices there’s a world (or gay community) outside Manhattan. (1:49) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Lawless Lawless has got to be the most pretentiously humorless movie ever made about moonshiners — a criminal subset whose adventures onscreen have almost always been rambunctious and breezy, even when violent. Not here, bub. Adapting Matt Bondurant’s fact-inspired novel The Wettest County in the World about his family’s very colorful times a couple generations back, director John Hillcoat and scenarist (as well as, natch, composer) Nick Cave have made one of those films in which the characters are presented to you as if already immortalized on Mount Rushmore — monumental, legendary, a bit stony. They’ve got a crackling story about war between hillbilly booze suppliers and corrupt lawmen during Prohibition, and while the results aren’t dull (they’re too bloody for that, anyway), they’d be a whole lot better if the entire enterprise didn’t take itself so gosh darned seriously. The Bondurant brothers of Franklin County, Va. are considered “legends” when we meet them in 1931, having defied all and sundry as well as survived a few bullets: mack-truck-built Forrest (Tom Hardy); eldest Howard (Jason Clarke), who tipples and smiles a lot; and “runt of the litter” Jack (Shia LeBeouf), who has a chip on his shoulder. The local law looks the other way so long as their palms are greased, but the Feds send sneering Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), it’s an eye for an eye for an eye, etc. The revenge-laden action in Lawless is engaging, but the filmmakers are trying so hard to make it all resonant and folkloric and meta-cinematic, any fun you have is in spite of their efforts. (1:55) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)

The Master Paul Thomas Anderson’s much-hyped likely Best Picture contender lives up: it’s easily the best film of 2012 so far. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dodd, the L. Ron Hubbard-ish head of a Scientology-esque movement. “The Cause” attracts Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, in a welcome return from the faux-deep end), less for its pseudo-religious psychobabble and bizarre personal-growth exercises, and more because it supplies the aimless, alcoholic veteran — a drifter in every sense of the word — with a sense of community he yearns for, yet resists submitting to. As with There Will Be Blood (2007), Anderson focuses on the tension between the two main characters: an older, established figure and his upstart challenger. But there’s less cut-and-dried antagonism here; while their relationship is complex, and it does lead to dark, troubled places, there are also moments of levity and weird hilarity — which might have something to do with Freddie’s paint-thinner moonshine. (2:17) Albany, Balboa, Embarcadero, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Moonrise Kingdom Does Wes Anderson’s new film mark a live-action return to form after 2007’s disappointingly wan Darjeeling Limited? More or less. Does it tick all the Andersonian style and content boxes? Indubitably. In the most obvious deviation Anderson has taken with Moonrise, he gives us his first period piece, a romance set in 1965 on a fictional island off the New England coast. After a chance encounter at a church play, pre-teen Khaki Scout Sam (newcomer Jared Gilman) instantly falls for the raven-suited, sable-haired Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, ditto). The two become pen pals, and quickly bond over the shared misery of being misunderstood by both authority figures and fellow kids. The bespectacled Sam is an orphan, ostracized by his foster parents and scout troop (much to the dismay of its straight-arrow leader Edward Norton). Suzy despises her clueless attorney parents, played with gusto by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand in some of the film’s funniest and best scenes. When the two kids run off together, the whole thing begins to resemble a kind of tween version of Godard’s 1965 lovers-on the-lam fantasia Pierrot le Fou. But like most of Anderson’s stuff, it has a gauzy sentimentality more akin to Truffaut than Godard. Imagine if the sequence in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums where Margot and Richie run away to the Museum of Natural History had been given the feature treatment: it’s a simple yet inspired idea, and it becomes a charming little tale of the perils of growing up and selling out the fantasy. But it doesn’t feel remotely risky. It’s simply too damn tame. (1:37) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Michelle Devereaux)

ParaNorman (1:32) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

The Possession (1:31) Metreon.

Premium Rush “Fixed gear. Steel frame. No brakes. Can’t stop … don’t want to.” Thus goes the gear breakdown and personal philosophy of New York City bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an aggro rider who uses his law school-refined brain to make split-second decisions regarding which way to dart through Midtown traffic. Though bike messengers had a pop culture moment in the 1990s, Premium Rush is set in the present day, with one of Wilee’s numerous voice-overs explaining the job’s continued importance even in the digital era. One such example: a certain envelope he’s tasked with ferrying across the city, given to him by the troubled roommate (Jamie Chung) of the pretty fellow messenger (Dania Ramirez) he’s romantically pursuing. The contents of the envelope, and the teeth-gnashingly evil-cop-with-a-gambling-problem (Michael Shannon, adding some weird flair to what’s essentially a stock villain) who would dearly love to get his mitts on it, are less crucial to Premium Rush than the film’s many, many chase scenes featuring Wilee outwitting all comers with his two-wheeled Frogger moves. Silly fun from director David Koepp (2008’s Ghost Town), but not essential unless you’re a fixie fanatic or a JGL completist. (1:31) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Resident Evil: Retribution (1:35) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Robot and Frank Imagine the all-too-placid deadpan of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) coming out of a home-healthcare worker, and you get just part of the appeal of this very likable comedy debut with a nonrobotic pulse directed by Jake Schreier. Sometime in the indeterminate near future, former jewel thief and second-story man Frank (Frank Langella) can be found quietly deteriorating in his isolated home, increasingly forgettable and unable to care for himself and assemble a decent bowl of Cap’n Crunch (though he can still steal fancy soaps from the village boutique). In an effort to cover his own busy rear, Frank’s distracted son (James Marsden) buys him a highly efficient robotic stand-in (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), much to his father’s grim resistance (“That thing is going to murder me in my sleep”) and the dismay of crunchy sibling Madison (Liv Tyler). The robot, however, is smarter than it looks, as it bargains with Frank to eat better, get healthier, and generally reanimate: it’s willing to learn to pick locks, participate in a robbery, and even plan a jewel heist, provided, say, Frank agrees to a low-sodium diet. Frank flourishes, like the garden the robot nurtures in a vain attempt to interest his human charge, and even goes on a date with his librarian crush (Susan Sarandon), though can the self-indulgent idyll last forever? A tale about aging as much as it is about rediscovery, Robot tells an old story, but one that’s wise beyond its years and willing to dress itself up in some of the smooth, sleek surfaces of an iGeneration. (1:30) Piedmont, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Samsara Samsara is the latest sumptuous, wordless offering from director Ron Fricke, who helped develop this style of dialogue- and context-free travelogue with Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Baraka (1992). Spanning five years and shooting on 70mm film to capture glimmers of life in 25 countries on five continents, Samsara, which spins off the Sanskrit word for the “ever-turning wheel of life,” is nothing if not good-looking, aspiring to be a kind of visual symphony boosted by music by the Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and composers Michael Stearns and Marcello De Francisci. Images of natural beauty, baptisms, and an African woman and her babe give way to the madness of modern civilization — from jam-packed subways to the horrors of mechanized factory farming to a bizarre montage of go-go dancers, sex dolls, trash, toxic discarded technology, guns, and at least one gun-shaped coffin. After such dread, the opening and closing scenes of Buddhist spirituality seem almost like afterthoughts. The unmistakable overriding message is: humanity, you dazzle in all your glorious and inglorious dimensions — even at your most inhumane. Sullying this hand wringing, selective meditation is Fricke’s reliance on easy stereotypes: the predictable connections the filmmaker makes between Africa and an innocent, earthy naturalism, and Asia and a vaguely threatening, mechanistic efficiency, come off as facile and naive, while his sonic overlay of robot sounds over, for instance, an Asian woman blinking her eyes comes off as simply offensive. At such points, Fricke’s global leap-frogging begins to eclipse the beauty of his images and foregrounds his own biases. (1:39) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Chun)

Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter’s stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock’n’roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician — long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) Clay. (Chun)

Sleepwalk with Me Every year lots of movies get made by actors and comedians who want to showcase themselves, usually writing and often directing in addition to starring. Most of these are pretty bad, and after a couple of festival appearances disappear, unremembered by anyone save the credit card companies that vastly benefited from its creation. Mike Birbiglia’s first feature is an exception — maybe not an entirely surprising one (since it’s based on his highly praised Off-Broadway solo show and best-seller), but still odds-bucking. Particularly as it’s an autobiographical feeling story about an aspiring stand-up comic (Mike as Matt) who unfortunately doesn’t seem to have much natural talent in that direction, but nonetheless obsessively perseveres. This pursuit of seemingly fore destined failure might be causing his sleep disorder, or it might be a means of avoiding taking the martial next step with long-term girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose, making something special out of a conventional reactive role) everyone else agrees is the best thing in his life. Yep, it’s another commitment-phobic man-boy/funny guy who regularly talks to the camera, trying to find himself while quirky friends and family stand around like trampoline spotters watching a determined clod. If all of these sounds derivative and indulgent, well, it ought to. But Sleepwalk turns a host of familiar, hardly foolproof ideas into astute, deftly performed, consistently amusing comedy with just enough seriousness for ballast. Additional points for “I zinged him” being the unlikely most gut-busting line here. (1:30) Balboa, Opera Plaza, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Somewhere Between Five years ago, when filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton adopted a baby girl from China, she was inspired to make Somewhere Between, a doc about the experiences of other Chinese adoptees. The film profiles four teenage girls, including Berkeley resident Fang “Jenni” Lee, whose American lives couldn’t be more different (one girl has two moms and attends a fancy prep school; another, raised by devout Christians, dreams of playing her violin at the Grand Ole Opry) but who share similar feelings about their respective adoptions. The film follows the girls on trips to London (as part of an organized meeting of fellow adoptees), Spain (to chat with people interested in adopting Chinese babies, and where the question “What does it feel like to be abandoned?” is handled with astonishing composure), and China (including one teen’s determined quest to track down her birth family). Highly emotional at times, Somewhere Between benefits from its remarkably mature and articulate subjects, all of whom have much to say about identity and personal history. Lee and filmmaker Goldstein Knowlton will appear in person at select opening shows; visit www.landmarktheatres.com for more information. (1:28) Shattuck. (Eddy)

Ted Ah, boys and their toys — and the imaginary friends that mirror back a forever-after land of perpetual Peter Pans. That’s the crux of the surprisingly smart, hilarious Ted, aimed at an audience comprising a wide range of classes, races, and cultures with its mix of South Park go-there yuks and rom-commie coming-of-age sentiment. Look at Ted as a pop-culture-obsessed nerd tweak on dream critter-spirit animal buddy efforts from Harvey (1950) to Donnie Darko (2001) to TV’s Wilfred. Of course, we all know that the really untamable creature here wobbles around on two legs, laden with big-time baggage about growing up and moving on from childhood loves. Young John doesn’t have many friends but he is fortunate enough to have his Christmas wish come true: his beloved new teddy bear, Ted (voice by director-writer Seth MacFarlane), begins to talk back and comes to life. With that miracle, too, comes Ted’s marginal existence as a D-list celebrity curiosity — still, he’s the loyal “Thunder Buddy” that’s always there for the now-grown John (Mark Wahlberg), ready with a bong and a broheim-y breed of empathy that involves too much TV, an obsession with bad B-movies, and mock fisticuffs, just the thing when storms move in and mundane reality rolls through. With his tendency to spew whatever profanity-laced thought comes into his head and his talents are a ladies’ bear, Ted is the id of a best friend that enables all of John’s most memorable, un-PC, Hangover-style shenanigans. Alas, John’s cool girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) threatens that tidy fantasy setup with her perfectly reasonable relationship demands. Juggling scary emotions and material that seems so specific that it can’t help but charm — you’ve got to love a shot-by-shot re-creation of a key Flash Gordon scene — MacFarlane sails over any resistance you, Lori, or your superego might harbor about this scenario with the ease of a man fully in touch with his inner Ted. (1:46) Metreon. (Chun)

10 Years (1:50) Metreon.

Total Recall Already the source material for Paul Verhoeven’s campy, quotable 1990 film (starring the campy, quotable Arnold Schwarzenegger), Philip K. Dick’s short story gets a Hollywood do-over, with meh results. The story, anyway, is a fine nugget of sci-fi paranoia: to escape his unsatisfying life, Quaid (Colin Farrell) visits a company capable of implanting exciting memories into his brain. When he chooses the “secret agent” option, it’s soon revealed he actually does have secret agent-type memories, suppressed via brain-fuckery by sinister government forces (led by Bryan Cranston) keeping him in the dark about his true identity. Shit immediately gets crazy, with high-flying chases and secret codes and fight scenes all over the place. The woman Quaid thinks is his wife (Kate Beckinsale) is actually a slithery killer; the woman he’s been seeing in his dreams (Jessica Biel) turns out to be his comrade in a secret rebel movement. Len Wiseman (writer and sometimes director of the Underworld films) lenses futuristic urban grime with a certain sleek panache, and Farrell is appealing enough to make highly generic hero Quaid someone worth rooting for — until the movie ends, and the entire enterprise (save perhaps the tri-boobed hooker, a holdover from the original) becomes instantly forgettable, no amnesia trickery required. (1:58) Metreon. (Eddy)

Trouble with the Curve Baseball scout Gus (Clint Eastwood) relies on his senses to sign players to the Atlanta Braves, and his roster of greats is highly regarded by everyone — save a sniveling climber named Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), who insists his score-keeping software can replace any scout. Gus’ skill in his field are preternatural, but with his senses dwindling, his longtime-friend Pete (a brilliant John Goodman) begs Gus’ daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to go with him — to see how bad the situation is and maybe drive him around. Ultimately, the film’s about the rift between career woman Mickey, and distant dad Gus, with some small intrusions from Justin Timberlake as Mickey’s romantic interest. Trouble with the Curve is a phrase used to describe batters who can’t hit a breaking ball and it’s a nuance — if an incontrovertible one — unobservable to the untrained eye. While Mickey and Gus stumble messily toward a better relationship (with a reasonable amount of compromise), Curve begins to look a bit like The Blind Side (2009), trading the church and charity for therapy and baggage. But what it offers is sweet and worthwhile, if you’re tolerant of the sanitized psychology and personality-free aesthetics. But it’s a movie about love and compromise — and if you love baseball you won’t have trouble forgiving some triteness, especially when Timberlake, the erstwhile Boo-Boo, gets to make a Yogi Berra joke. (1:51) Four Star, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Sara Vizcarrondo)

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) Smith Rafael. (Chun)

The Words We meet novelist Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) as he’s making his way from a posh building to a cab in the rain; it’s important the shot obscures his generally shiny exterior, because we’re meant to believe this guy’s a sincere and struggling novelist. Jeremy Irons, aged with flappy eye makeup, watches him vengefully. Seems Rory fell upon the unpublished novel Irons’ character wrote in sadness and loss — and feeling himself incapable of penning such prose, transcribed the whole thing. When his lady friend (Zoe Saldana) encourages him to sell it, he becomes the next great American writer. He’s living the dream on another man’s sweat. But that’s not the tragedy, exactly, because The Words isn’t so concerned with the work of being a writer — it’s concerned with the look and insecurity of it. Bradley and Irons aren’t “real,” they’re characters in a story read by Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) while the opportunistic, suggestive Daniella (Olivia Wilde) comes onto him. She can tell you everything about Clay, yet she hasn’t read the book that’s made him the toast of the town — The Words, which is all about a young plagiarist and the elderly writer he steals from. “I don’t know how things happen!”, the slimy, cowering writers each exclaim. So, how do you sell a book? Publish a book? Make a living from a book? How much wine does it take to bed Olivia Wilde? Sure, they don’t know how things happen; they only know what it looks like to finish reading Hemingway at a café or watch the sun rise over a typewriter. Rarely has a movie done such a trite job of depicting the process of what it’s like to be a writer — though if you found nothing suspect about, say, Owen Wilson casually re-editing his 400-page book in one afternoon in last year’s Midnight in Paris, perhaps you won’t be so offended by The Words, either. (1:36) SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)

Film Listings

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, and Lynn Rapoport. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.

3RD I

The San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival runs Sept. 19-30 at various Bay Area venues. Tickets and schedule at thirdi.org/festival. For commentary, see "Cinetology."

OPENING

About Cherry See "Sex Things We Love." (1:42) Castro.

Dredd 3D See "Cinetology." (1:38)

End of Watch See "Cinetology." (1:49) Marina.

Hello I Must Be Going Blindsided by her recent divorce, 35-year-old Amy (Melanie Lynskey) flees New York City for quaint Westport, Conn., where she nurses her wounds, mostly by sleeping and watching Marx Brothers movies. Amy’s protracted moping rankles her perfectionist mother (Blythe Danner, bringing nuance to what could have been a clichéd character) and concerns her workaholic father (John Rubenstein). Dad’s trying to land a big client so he can "make back some of the money we lost in the market" — a subtle aside in Sarah Koskoff’s script that suggests Amy’s parents aren’t as well-heeled as they used to be, despite the ongoing renovations to their swanky home, catered dinners, and expensive art purchases. Money woes are just one of Amy’s many concerns, though, and when a distraction presents itself in the form of 19-year-old Jeremy (Girls’ Christopher Abbott), she finds herself sneaking out at night, making out in her mom’s car, smoking weed, and basically behaving like a teenager herself. As directed by indie actor turned director Todd Louiso (2002’s Love Liza), Hello I Must Be Going is a nicely contained, relatable (self-loathing: we’ve all been there) character study — and props for casting the endearing Lynskey, so often seen in supporting roles, as the film’s messy, complex lead. (1:35) SF Center. (Eddy)

House At the End of the Street Oh, Jennifer Lawrence, don’t you know better than to poke around in that creepy house where all those murders happened? (1:43)

How to Survive a Plague David France’s documentary chronicles the unprecedented impact political activism had on the course of AIDS in the U.S. — drastically curtailing its death toll within a few years despite considerable institutional indifference and downright hostility. As the epidemic here first surfaced in, and decimated, the gay male community, much of Reagan America (particularly in religious quarters) figured the death sentence was deserved. The President himself infamously refrained from even saying the word "AIDS" publicly until his final year of office, after thousands had died. Both terrified and outraged, the gay community took it upon themselves to demand treatment, education, and research. Most of this urgent 1980s overview is concerned with the rise of ACT-UP, whose angry young men successfully lobbied and shamed corporate, academic, medical, and pharmaceutical bodies into action, with the result that by the mid-90s new drugs existed that made this dreaded diagnosis no longer a necessarily terminal one. France is a journalist who’s been covering AIDS practically since day one, and his first feature (made with the help of numerous first-rate collaborators) is authoritative and engrossing. Just don’t expect much (or really any) attention paid to the contributions made by S.F. or other activist hotspots — like many a gay documentary, this one hardly notices there’s a world (or gay community) outside Manhattan. (1:49) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

The Master See "Cinetology." (2:17) Embarcadero, Presidio.

Somewhere Between Five years ago, when filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton adopted a baby girl from China, she was inspired to make Somewhere Between, a doc about the experiences of other Chinese adoptees. The film profiles four teenage girls, including Berkeley resident Fang "Jenni" Lee, whose American lives couldn’t be more different (one girl has two moms and attends a fancy prep school; another, raised by devout Christians, dreams of playing her violin at the Grand Ole Opry) but who share similar feelings about their respective adoptions. The film follows the girls on trips to London (as part of an organized meeting of fellow adoptees), Spain (to chat with people interested in adopting Chinese babies, and where the question "What does it feel like to be abandoned?" is handled with astonishing composure), and China (including one teen’s determined quest to track down her birth family). Highly emotional at times, Somewhere Between benefits from its remarkably mature and articulate subjects, all of whom have much to say about identity and personal history. Lee and filmmaker Goldstein Knowlton will appear in person at select opening shows; visit www.landmarktheatres.com for more information. (1:28) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

10 Years Channing Tatum and Rosario Dawson star in this high-school reunion comedy. Which one of them invented Post-its, again? (1:50)

Trouble with the Curve Baseball scout Gus (Clint Eastwood) relies on his senses to sign players to the Atlanta Braves, and his roster of greats is highly regarded by everyone — save a sniveling climber named Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), who insists his score-keeping software can replace any scout. Gus’ skill in his field are preternatural, but with his senses dwindling, his longtime-friend Pete (a brilliant John Goodman) begs Gus’ daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to go with him — to see how bad the situation is and maybe drive him around. Ultimately, the film’s about the rift between career woman Mickey, and distant dad Gus, with some small intrusions from Justin Timberlake as Mickey’s romantic interest. Trouble with the Curve is a phrase used to describe batters who can’t hit a breaking ball and it’s a nuance — if an incontrovertible one — unobservable to the untrained eye. While Mickey and Gus stumble messily toward a better relationship (with a reasonable amount of compromise), Curve begins to look a bit like The Blind Side (2009), trading the church and charity for therapy and baggage. But what it offers is sweet and worthwhile, if you’re tolerant of the sanitized psychology and personality-free aesthetics. But it’s a movie about love and compromise — and if you love baseball you won’t have trouble forgiving some triteness, especially when Timberlake, the erstwhile Boo-Boo, gets to make a Yogi Berra joke. (1:51) Four Star, Marina. (Sara Vizcarrondo)

ONGOING

Arbitrage As Arbitrage opens, its slick protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), is trying to close the sale of his life, on his 60th birthday: the purchase of his company by a banking goliath. The trick is completing the deal before his fraud, involving hundreds of millions of dollars, is uncovered, though the whip-smart daughter who works for him (Brit Marling) might soon be onto him. Meanwhile, Miller’s gaming his personal affairs as well, juggling time between a model wife (Susan Sarandon) and a Gallic gallerist mistress (Laetitia Casta), when sudden-death circumstances threaten to destroy everything, and the power broker’s livelihood — and very existence — ends up in the hands of a young man (Nate Parker) with ambitions of his own. It’s a realm that filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki is all too familiar with. Though like brothers Andrew (2003’s Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene (2005’s Why We Fight), Jarecki’s first love is documentaries (his first film, 2006’s The Outsider, covered auteur James Toback), his family is steeped in the business world. Both his parents were commodities traders, and Jarecki once owned his own web development firm and internet access provider, among other ventures. When he started writing Arbitrage‘s script in 2008, he drew some inspiration from Bernard Madoff — but ultimately, the film is about a good man who became corrupted along the way, to the point of believing in his own invincibility. (1:40) Metreon, Smith Rafael, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Bachelorette A movie called Bachelorette is inevitably going to be accused of riding Bridesmaids‘ coattails, even if — as it happens — Bachelorette‘s source-material play was written years before the 2011 comedy hit theaters. (That said, there are inevitable similarities, what with the shared wedding themes and all.) Playwright turned scriptwriter-director Leslye Headland does a good job of portraying women who are repulsive in realistic ways: a decade ago, Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Gena (Lizzy Caplan), Katie (Isla Fisher) were the popular "B-Faces" at their high school and haven’t matured much since. Competitive Regan is a Type A blonde; Gena’s the queen of one-night stands; and Katie’s a self-destructive party girl. All of them are pushing 30, and though Regan’s the most functional among them, she’s the hardest-hit when she learns that Becky (Bridesmaids‘ Rebel Wilson), always treated as a second-tier B-Face by virtue of being plus-sized, is engaged. "I was supposed to be first," Regan wails via three-way cell call to Gena and Katie, who’re sympathetic to this sense of entitlement. The wedding is a fancy New York City affair, so the B-Faces reunite for what they think will be a bachelorette party for the ages. Most of the film takes place during that single night, a madcap, coke-fueled, mean-spirited spiral into chaos. It’s raunchy and funny, but every character is utterly unlikable, which becomes more of a problem and less of an amusement as the movie trundles onward toward the expected happy ending. Bachelorette would’ve been better served by sticking with its rallying cry — "Fuck everyone!" — to the bitter end. (1:34) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Beasts of the Southern Wild Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d’Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn’t attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about — improbably — Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting. Benh Zeitlin’s film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. But not all is well: when "the storm" floods the land, the holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate. With its elements of magic, mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology, Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film’s cost and length. (1:31) Four Star, Lumiere, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Beauty is Embarrassing You may not recognize the name Wayne White offhand, but you will know his work: he designed and operated many of the puppets on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, including Randy (the blockheaded bully) and Dirty Dog (the canine jazzbo). Neil Berkeley’s Beauty Is Embarrassing — named for a mural White painted on the side of a Miami building for Art Basel 2009 — charts the life of an artist whose motto is both "I want to try everything I can!" and "Fuck you!" The Southern-born oddball, who came of age in the early-1980s East Village scene, is currently styling himself as a visual artist (his métier: painting non-sequitur phrases into landscapes bought from thrift stores), but Beauty offers a complex portrait of creativity balanced between the need to be subversive and the desire to entertain. (1:27) Roxie. (Eddy)

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) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Branded (1:46) SF Center.

The Bullet Vanishes Veteran Hong Kong actor Lau Ching-wan stars as a Sherlock Holmes type in 1930s Shanghai, bumped up from prison-guard detail to homicide detective by top brass impressed with his talent, if not his unusual methods. Good timing, since there’s been a series of killings at the local munitions factory, an operation run by a Scooby Doo-ish villain — in cahoots with corrupt cops — who’s prone to snappy hats and checkered overcoats. Adding to the mystery: a tragic back story involving Russian roulette and blood-written graffiti promising "The phantom bullets will kill you all!" Helping solve the crimes is Nicholas Tse as "the fastest gun in Tiancheng," no slouch of an investigator himself; together, the sleuths compile evidence and recreate scenes of murders, including one that seemingly transpired in a locked room with only one exit. The Bullet Vanishes contains more plot twists, slightly fewer steampunk flourishes, and way less slo-mo fist action than Guy Ritchie’s recent attempts at Holmes; though it’s no masterpiece, it’s a fun enough whodunit, with a reliably great and quirky performance from Lau. (2:00) Metreon. (Eddy)

The Campaign (1:25) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

Cane Toads: The Conquest They’re baaack — and in 3D. Director Mark Lewis returns to the subject that made him famous, or notorious, in Cane Toads: The Conquest. Lewis’ 1988 short doc Cane Toads: An Unnatural History — about the warty critters’ population explosion after being imported to Australia as part of an unsuccessful pest-control experiment, after which they became pests themselves — is by now a cult hit, thanks to its droll tone, quirky interview subjects, and toad’s-eye-view P.O.V. shots. These days, Australia’s toad situation has, predictably, gotten worse — and weirder, thanks in part to the popularity of the first film, as Lewis chats up a mix of scientists, government officials, and everyday folk on the subject. High points: a man whose "traveling toad show" includes dioramas of costumed, taxidermied toads (there’s a wrestling match, a nightclub scene, a highway accident, and an Aussie rules football game); advanced production values, which render our bulging-eyed buddies in lush detail; and fun 3D flourishes, as when a squeezed poison gland splatters the lens. (1:25) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Celeste and Jesse Forever Married your best friend, realized you love but can’t be in love with each other, and don’t want to let all those great in-jokes wither away? Such is the premise of Celeste and Jesse Forever, the latest in what a recent wave of meaty, girl-centric comedies penned by actresses — here Rashida Jones working with real-life ex Will McCormack; there, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Zoe Lister Jones (Lola Versus), and Lena Dunham (Girls) — who have gone the DIY route and whipped up their own juicy roles. There’s no mistaking theirs for your average big-screen rom-com: they dare to wallow harder, skew smarter, and in the case of Celeste, tackle the thorny, tough-to-resolve relationship dilemma that stubbornly refuses to conform to your copy-and-paste story arc. Nor do their female protagonists come off as uniformly likable: in this case, Celeste (Jones) is a bit of an aspiring LA powerbitch. Her Achilles heel is artist Jesse (Andy Samberg), the slacker high school sweetheart she wed and separated from because he doesn’t share her goals (e.g., he doesn’t have a car or a job). Yet the two continue to spend all their waking hours together and share an undeniable rapport, extending from Jesse’s encampment in her backyard apartment to their jokey simulated coitus featuring phallic-shaped lip balm. Throwing a wrench in the works: the fact that they’re still kind of in love with each other, which all their pals, like Jesse’s pot-dealer bud Skillz (McCormack), can clearly see. It’s an shaggy, everyday breakup yarn, writ glamorous by its appealing leads, that we too rarely witness, and barring the at-times nausea-inducing shaky-cam under the direction of Lee Toland Krieger, it’s rendered compelling and at times very funny — there’s no neat and tidy way to say good-bye, and Jones and McCormack do their best to capture but not encapsulate the severance and inevitable healing process. It also helps that the chemistry practically vibrates between the boyish if somewhat one-note Samberg and the soulful Jones, who fully, intelligently rises to the occasion, bringing on the heartbreak. (1:31) Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Chicken With Plums Steeped in whimsy — and a longing for love, beauty, and home — this latest effort from brilliant Persian-French cartoonist-filmmaker Marjane Satrapi and director Vincent Paronnaud flaunts the odd contours of its eccentric narrative, enchants with its imaginative tangents, sprawls like an unincapsulated life, and then takes off on aching, campy romantic reverie—a magical realistic vision of one Iranian artist’s doomed trajectory. Master violinist Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) is seeking the ineffable — a replacement for his destroyed instrument — and otherwise he’s determined to die. We trace the mystery of his passing, backward, with wanders through the life of his family and loved one along the way in this playful, bittersweet feast. Despite Amalric’s glazed-eyed mugging, which almost spoils the dish, Satrapi’s wonderfully arch yet lyrical visual sensibility and resonant characters — embodied by Maria de Medeiros, Jamel Debbouze, Golshifteh Farahani, and Isabella Rossellini, among others — satisfy, serving up so much more than chicken with plums. (1:31) (Chun)

The Cold Light of Day (1:33) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

Compliance No film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival encountered as much controversy as Craig Zobel’s Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with an audience member yelling "Sundance can do better!" You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Every screening that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at Sundance, and the film did not disappoint. (Beware: every review I have happened upon has unnecessarily spoiled major plots in the film, which is based on true events.) What is so impressive about Zobel’s film is how it builds up a sense of ever-impending terror. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the film steps into Psycho (1960) terrain, as it boldly aims to confront a society filled with people who are trained to follow rules without questioning them. Magnolia Pictures, which previously collaborated with Zobel on his debut film Great World of Sound (which premiered at Sundance in 2007), picked up the film for theatrical release; if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized as well as intellectualized. You’ll be screaming about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that’s exactly why the film is so brilliant. For an interview with Zobel, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (1:30) (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

Cosmopolis With end times nigh and the 99 percent battering the gates of the establishment, it’s little wonder David Cronenberg’s rendition of the Don DeLillo novel might rotate, with the stately rhythm of a royal funeral and deliciously tongue-in-cheek humor, around one of the most famed vampire heartthrobs at the cineplex. Sadly, a recent paparazzi scandal threatens to eclipse this latest, enjoyably blighted installment in the NYC urban nightmare genre. Robert Pattinson’s billionaire asset manager Eric Packer takes meetings with his new wife Elise (Sarah Gadon) and staffers like his monetary theorist Vija (Samantha Morton) in his moving office: a white, leather-bound stretch limo that materializes like a sleek, imposing extension of his pale frame. Seriously disassociated from reality on multiple levels, Eric is a 28-year-old boy in a bubble, speaking of himself in third person and willing to spend all day making his way across town to get a haircut at his father’s old barbershop, even though his head of security (Kevin Durand) warns him that at least one "credible threat" has designs on his life. The passing of his favorite Sufi rapper (K’Naan), a possible Rothko for sale, a mad pie-thrower, and an asymmetrical prostate all threaten to capsize those, as it turns out, not-so-humble plans. Warning: the brainier members of Team Edward might plan on finding their minds blown by this thoughtful and mordantly humorous meditation on this country’s cult of money, while Cronenberg watchers will be gratified to pluck out his recurring themes, here dealt with a lighter hand than usual. At this date, rather than telegraphing how one might feel about a scene by way of, say, music, the director is increasingly comfortable with the ambiguity — and the uneasy, pleasing mix of sneaking repulsion and gimlet-eyed humor, of these scenes and their language. Thus the autoerotic-car fetishism of Crash (1996) and hallucinatory culture grazing of Naked Lunch (1991) — and that fascination with how a body intersects sexually or otherwise with a machine or "other" — seems completely natural here. Or perhaps it’s a measure of how much Cronenberg’s preoccupations and cinematic language have made themselves at home in the vernacular. (1:49) (Chun)

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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

The Expendables 2 (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Farewell, My Queen (Benoît Jacquot, France, 2012) Opening early on the morning of July 14, 1789, Farewell, My Queen depicts four days at the Palace of Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution, as witnessed by a young woman named Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) who serves as reader to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Sidonie displays a singular and romantic devotion to the queen, while the latter’s loyalties are split between a heedless amour propre and her grand passion for the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). These domestic matters and other regal whims loom large in the tiny galaxy of the queen’s retinue, so that while elsewhere in the palace, in shadowy, candle-lit corridors, courtiers and their servants mingle to exchange news, rumor, panicky theories, and evacuation plans, in the queen’s quarters the task of embroidering a dahlia for a projected gown at times overshadows the storming of the Bastille and the much larger catastrophe on the horizon. (1:39) Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)

Finding Nemo 3D (1:40) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki.

For a Good Time, Call&ldots; Suffering the modern-day dilemmas of elapsed rent control and boyfriend douchebaggery, sworn enemies Katie (Ari Graynor) and Lauren (Lauren Miller) find themselves shacking up in Katie’s highly covetable Manhattan apartment, brought together on a stale cloud of resentment by mutual bestie Jesse (Justin Long, gamely delivering a believable version of your standard-issue young hipster NYC gay boy). The domestic glacier begins to melt somewhere around the time that Lauren discovers Katie is working a phone-sex hotline from her bedroom; equipped with a good head for business, she offers to help her go freelance for a cut of the proceeds. Major profitability ensues, as does a friendship evoking the pair bonding at the center of your garden-variety romantic comedy, as Katie trains Lauren to be a phone-sex operator and the two share everything from pinkie swears and matching pink touch-tone phones to intimate secrets and the occasional hotline threesome. Directed by Jamie Travis and adapted from a screenplay by Miller and Katie Anne Naylon, the film is a welcome response to the bromance genre, and with any luck it may also introduce linguistic felicities like "phone-banging" and "let’s get this fuckshow started" into the larger culture. The raunchy telephonic interludes include cameos by Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen (Miller’s husband) as customers calling from such unfurtive locations as a public bathroom stall and the front seat of a taxicab. But the two roomies supply plenty of dirty as Katie, an abashed wearer of velour and denim pantsuits, helps the more restrained Lauren discover the joys of setting free her inner potty mouth. (1:25) SF Center. (Rapoport)

Girl Model Everyone wants to be special — though of course that only works if other people aren’t. The disturbingly instructive new documentary Girl Model makes a good case for not encouraging such desires in your child, because the likelihood is that someone will come along to exploit that desire, convincingly promise them fame, then leave them worse off than before. "The first secret to a successful modeling career is to start modeling at five or ten years old," says an emcee at a cattle-call showcase early on in David Redmond and Ashley Sabin’s film. It’s Russia, where the relatively new capitalism trickles down even less than here, so the families are even more eager to turn little Svetlana into a moneymaker. But that way lies madness, or at least deceit and disappointment. Plucked from a couple hundred pretty, rail-thin girls, 13-year-old wide-eyed blonde Nadya Vall is yanked from her rural Siberian village and mother and sent to Japan, where she fits a general type sought there. The younger the better, as talent scout Ashley Arbaugh tells us, qualifying that it’s not her taste, but she’s learned to see through the clients’ eyes. An ex-model herself, Ashley gives off disillusioned, compromised vibes. (It takes a while for us to realize that she’s a user and a hypocrite — not a buffer between the girls and harsh reality but a key part of the problem herself.) Needless to say, Nadya ends up owing rather than making money. Meanwhile Ashley lounges around the immaculate, expansive, coldly all-white house her job as middleman has earned; at the end of the film, she’s telling a new group of parents "Every model has success in Japan, unlike other markets where they might go into debt. They never do in Japan." For a longer version of this review, visit sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (1:17) (Harvey)

The Imposter A family tragedy, an international thriller, a Southern-fried mystery, and a true story: The Imposter is all of these things. This unique documentary reveals the tale of Frédéric Bourdin, dubbed "the Chameleon" for his epic false-identity habit. His ballsiest accomplishment was also his most heinous con: in 1997, he claimed to be Nicholas Barclay, a San Antonio teen missing since 1994. Amazingly, the impersonation worked for a time, though Bourdin (early 20s, brown-eyed, speaks English with a French accent) hardly resembled Nicholas (who would have been 16, and had blue eyes). Using interviews — with Nicholas’ shell-shocked family, government types who unwittingly aided the charade, and Bourdin himself — and ingenious re-enactments that borrow more from crime dramas than America’s Most Wanted, director Bart Layton weaves a multi-layered chronicle of one man’s unbelievable deception. (1:39) (Eddy)

The Inbetweeners The bro-bacchanal never stops being funny in some circles, and those acolytes might want to attempt to penetrate the thick, juicy UK accents in this writ-large version of the English sitcom of the same name. The deliciously awkward teenage boy gang’s all here — with an added dose of ultragross-out humor that one-ups the American Pie gang. Brainy Will (Simon Bird), aggressively gelled Simon (Joe Thomas), super-horndog Jay (James Buckley), and lanky oddity Neil (Blake Harrison) are off on summer break before "uni" on a booze- and sex-swathed Greek isle. The goal: to get soundly laid and eradicate Simon’s heartbreak over recently departed girlfriend Carli (Emily Head). As luck would have it, the bunch even stumble over some nubile, nice cuties — including doll-faced blonde Allison (Laura Haddock) and far-too-accommodating brunette Lucy (Tamla Kari) — in their quest for "fit" slatterns. In between them and a very certain happy ending, in more ways than one, are plenty of excess, barf, poo, blackouts on ant hills — what’s not to love, provided you can overlook the very un-PC rumblings from this dude-a-rama? A self-fellatio interlude even takes on the Jackass posse on their own physically challenging turf. (1:37) Metreon. (Chun)

The Intouchables Cries of "racism" seem a bit out of hand when it comes to this likable albeit far-from-challenging French comedy loosely based on a real-life relationship between a wealthy white quadriplegic and his caretaker of color. The term "cliché" is more accurate. And where were these critics when 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy and 2011’s The Help — movies that seem designed to make nostalgic honkies feel good about those fraught relationships skewed to their advantage—were coming down the pike? (It also might be more interesting to look at how these films about race always hinge on economies in which whites must pay blacks to interact with/educate/enlighten them.) In any case, Omar Sy, portraying Senegalese immigrant Driss, threatens to upset all those pundits’ apple carts with his sheer life force, even when he’s shaking solo on the dance floor to sounds as effortlessly unprovocative, and old-school, as Earth, Wind, and Fire. In fact, everything about The Intouchables is as old school as 1982’s 48 Hrs., spinning off the still laugh-grabbing humor that comes with juxtaposing a hipper, more streetwise black guy with a hapless, moneyed chalky. The wheelchair-bound Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is more vulnerable than most, and he has a hard time getting along with any of his nurses, until he meets Driss, who only wants his signature for his social services papers. It’s not long before the cultured, classical music-loving Philippe’s defenses are broken down by Driss’ flip, somewhat honest take on the follies and pretensions of high culture — a bigger deal in France than in the new world, no doubt. Director-writer Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano aren’t trying to innovate —they seem more set on crafting an effervescent blockbuster that out-blockbusters Hollywood — and the biggest compliment might be that the stateside remake is already rumored to be in the works. (1:52) Lumiere. (Chun)

Keep The Lights On In Ira Sachs’ intensely discomfiting Keep the Lights On, Erik (Thure Lindhardt) is a Danish documentarian in late-1990s New York City, prodding his career along, spending time with friends, having casual sex with strangers. One of the latter is Paul (Zachary Booth), a publishing-house lawyer who first tells him "I have a girlfriend, so don’t get your hopes up." Yet some time later they’ve become a tentative couple, then a live-in one. Erik is patient and easygoing, but Paul has secrets and problems all the more difficult to deal with because he denies, hides, or lies about them. He disappears for days at a time, then turns up wrecked. Crack is just the addiction we see; there are evidently others. Erik tries everything — group interventions, rehab, endless attempts at frank conversation that invariably turn into Paul accusing him of being unreasonable — but nothing sticks. It takes Erik a decade to come to terms with, and extricate himself from, a relationship in which all his best efforts only bring torment, grief, and exasperation. Keep the Lights On is the kind of excellent movie a lot of people don’t like: it’s not just depressing in the sense of having downbeat, difficult subject matter, it actually sets out to be unpleasant and succeeds. There is a point to that. Leaping forward a couple years at a time, leaving us to figure out how things have shifted in the interim, Sachs’ script (co-written with Mauricio Zacharias) induces in the viewer the disoriented helplessness of dealing with a loved one who can’t or won’t tell the full truth — it’s his best defense. (1:42) Lumiere. (Harvey)

Kumaré Just as there was a certain bullying pride of snark that made Bill Maher and Larry Charles’ Religulous (2008) more mean-spirited than necessary, Kumaré leaves a sour, smug aftertaste. Raised in New Jersey by a first-generation immigrant family of Hindus, Vikram Gandhi proclaims himself a skeptic who started out wanting to make a documentary about the opportunistic charlatans one can find passing as spiritually enlightened gurus in both India and around the booming US yoga industry. "I wanted to prove to others looking for answers that no one is more spiritual than anyone, that spiritual leaders are just illusions," he tells us. A noble impulse. Yet somehow this took the form of growing his hair and beard out, wearing saffron robes, and posing as Sri Kumaré, a fresh-off-the-boat guru who arrives in Phoenix, Ariz. to open up shop as a one-stop spiritual guide for the gullible. He asks "Could people find the same peace in a made-up religion that they would in a real one?" But too often the real question here seems to be "How silly can I make these chumps look while starring in my very own nonfiction version of The Love Guru?" The comedy Kumaré has been primarily compared to is 2006’s Borat, another Larry Charles joint. As unhappy as their portraiture in Borat made its duped participants, it was hard to feel sorry for them — given enough rope they gladly hung themselves expressing racism, homophobia, sexism, and sheer Ugly Americanism. But those who fall under Kumaré‘s farcical spell don’t deserve to be exposed and ridiculed; they’re just people with real-world issues — financial struggles, low self-esteem, empty-nest loneliness, etc. — looking for somebody to tell them what to do. (1:24) Roxie. (Harvey)

Lawless Lawless has got to be the most pretentiously humorless movie ever made about moonshiners — a criminal subset whose adventures onscreen have almost always been rambunctious and breezy, even when violent. Not here, bub. Adapting Matt Bondurant’s fact-inspired novel The Wettest County in the World about his family’s very colorful times a couple generations back, director John Hillcoat and scenarist (as well as, natch, composer) Nick Cave have made one of those films in which the characters are presented to you as if already immortalized on Mount Rushmore — monumental, legendary, a bit stony. They’ve got a crackling story about war between hillbilly booze suppliers and corrupt lawmen during Prohibition, and while the results aren’t dull (they’re too bloody for that, anyway), they’d be a whole lot better if the entire enterprise didn’t take itself so gosh darned seriously. The Bondurant brothers of Franklin County, Va. are considered "legends" when we meet them in 1931, having defied all and sundry as well as survived a few bullets: mack-truck-built Forrest (Tom Hardy); eldest Howard (Jason Clarke), who tipples and smiles a lot; and "runt of the litter" Jack (Shia LeBeouf), who has a chip on his shoulder. The local law looks the other way so long as their palms are greased, but the Feds send sneering Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), it’s an eye for an eye for an eye, etc. The revenge-laden action in Lawless is engaging, but the filmmakers are trying so hard to make it all resonant and folkloric and meta-cinematic, any fun you have is in spite of their efforts. (1:55) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Little White Lies In the wake of a serious accident that puts magnetic Ludo (Jean Dujardin, just briefly seen) in the hospital, his circle of closest friends go without him on their annual vacation at a beachfront summer home, courtesy of well-off restaurateur Max (Francois Cluzet) and wife Vero (Valerie Bonneton). But this year they’ve all got a lot of drama going on. Marie (Marion Cotillard) is suffering the uncomfortable consequences of all the lovers (male and female) she’s run out on when "commitment" reared its head. Similarly, the roving eye of actor Eric (Gilles Lellouche) threatens the stable relationship he’s finally sorta settled on. Hapless boy-man Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) obsesses over the longtime girlfriend who’s dumping him. And Vincent (Benoit Magimel) endangers his marriage to Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot) by privately proclaiming more-than-platonic love for best friend Max — whose discomfort manifests itself in hostile behaviors that threaten to ruin everyone’s stay. Actor Guillaume Canet’s third film as writer-director (following the 2006 hit thriller Tell No One) has been compared, even by himself, to 1983’s The Big Chill. But while that slick, somewhat glib seriocomedy’s characters had 1960s activist pasts and faded ideals to square with encroaching midlife, this slicker, glibber ensemble piece is about people who’ve never shared much more than good times and mutual self-absorption. Though Canet has worked with most of these actors before, and developed Lies in collaboration with them, the thinly amusing, often contrived results hardly tax anyone’s resources. (Nor are they equal-opportunity: star attraction Cotillard aside, he barely seems interested in the women here.) It takes two and a half hours for this overblown fluff to arrive at a group-hug freeze frame (ugh), aiming for emotional heft it still hasn’t earned. (2:34) (Harvey)

Moonrise Kingdom Does Wes Anderson’s new film mark a live-action return to form after 2007’s disappointingly wan Darjeeling Limited? More or less. Does it tick all the Andersonian style and content boxes? Indubitably. In the most obvious deviation Anderson has taken with Moonrise, he gives us his first period piece, a romance set in 1965 on a fictional island off the New England coast. After a chance encounter at a church play, pre-teen Khaki Scout Sam (newcomer Jared Gilman) instantly falls for the raven-suited, sable-haired Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, ditto). The two become pen pals, and quickly bond over the shared misery of being misunderstood by both authority figures and fellow kids. The bespectacled Sam is an orphan, ostracized by his foster parents and scout troop (much to the dismay of its straight-arrow leader Edward Norton). Suzy despises her clueless attorney parents, played with gusto by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand in some of the film’s funniest and best scenes. When the two kids run off together, the whole thing begins to resemble a kind of tween version of Godard’s 1965 lovers-on the-lam fantasia Pierrot le Fou. But like most of Anderson’s stuff, it has a gauzy sentimentality more akin to Truffaut than Godard. Imagine if the sequence in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums where Margot and Richie run away to the Museum of Natural History had been given the feature treatment: it’s a simple yet inspired idea, and it becomes a charming little tale of the perils of growing up and selling out the fantasy. But it doesn’t feel remotely risky. It’s simply too damn tame. (1:37) Four Star, Sundance Kabuki. (Michelle Devereaux)

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2:05) SF Center.

ParaNorman (1:32) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

The Possession (1:31) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Premium Rush "Fixed gear. Steel frame. No brakes. Can’t stop … don’t want to." Thus goes the gear breakdown and personal philosophy of New York City bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an aggro rider who uses his law school-refined brain to make split-second decisions regarding which way to dart through Midtown traffic. Though bike messengers had a pop culture moment in the 1990s, Premium Rush is set in the present day, with one of Wilee’s numerous voice-overs explaining the job’s continued importance even in the digital era. One such example: a certain envelope he’s tasked with ferrying across the city, given to him by the troubled roommate (Jamie Chung) of the pretty fellow messenger (Dania Ramirez) he’s romantically pursuing. The contents of the envelope, and the teeth-gnashingly evil-cop-with-a-gambling-problem (Michael Shannon, adding some weird flair to what’s essentially a stock villain) who would dearly love to get his mitts on it, are less crucial to Premium Rush than the film’s many, many chase scenes featuring Wilee outwitting all comers with his two-wheeled Frogger moves. Silly fun from director David Koepp (2008’s Ghost Town), but not essential unless you’re a fixie fanatic or a JGL completist. (1:31) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

The Queen of Versailles Lauren Greenfield’s obscenely entertaining The Queen of Versailles takes a long, turbulent look at the lifestyles lived by David and Jackie Siegel. He is the 70-something undisputed king of timeshares; she is his 40-something (third) wife, a former beauty queen with the requisite blonde locks and major rack, both probably not entirely Mother Nature-made. He’s so compulsive that he’s never saved, instead plowing every buck back into the business. When the recession hits, that means this billionaire is — in ready-cash as opposed to paper terms — suddenly sorta kinda broke, just as an enormous Las Vegas project is opening and the family’s stupefyingly large new "home" (yep, modeled after Versailles) is mid-construction. Plugs must be pulled, corners cut. Never having had to, the Siegels discover (once most of the servants have been let go) they have no idea how to run a household. Worse, they discover that in adversity they have a very hard time pulling together — in particular, David is revealed as a remote, cold, obsessively all-business person who has no use for getting or giving "emotional support;" not even for being a husband or father, much. What ultimately makes Queen poignantly more than a reality-TV style peek at the garishly wealthy is that Jackie, despite her incredibly vulgar veneer (she’s like a Jennifer Coolidge character, forever squeezed into loud animal prints), is at heart just a nice girl from hicksville who really, really wants to make this family work. (1:40) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Red Hook Summer It seems like lifetimes ago that Michelle and Barack found each other beneath the flicker of filmmaker Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), so the director-cowriter’s cameo in his now-graying, still-pizza-delivering Mookie guise, in this hot, bothered return to Brooklyn, reverberates with meaning. Less polemical and now complicated by an acute, confused love and loathing for certain places and faces, Red Hook Summer takes a different tact — the Red Hook projects rather than the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant — and narrows its focus on Flik Royale (Jules Brown), the reluctant young visitor to the humble home of his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters from Treme and The Wire). A true child of his time and place, the introverted, rebellious Atlanta kid would rather hide behind his favorite screen, a.k.a. the iPad that he’s using to document his world, than engage with reality, even when it’s raging in his face by way of his grandfather’s fiery sermons or threats from the glowering rapper Box (Nate Parker). Only a charismatic girl his age, Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith), seems to get through, despite the Bishop’s passionate efforts to bond with the boy. Alas, Lee himself doesn’t seem to quite get his youthful protagonist — one who’s predisposed to turn inward rather than turn a politicized lens outward — and instead casts about restlessly to the detriment of this supposed coming-of-age narrative. No shock that somehow Red Hook Summer gets caught in the undertow of the magnetic Peters, who will turn heads with his take on a tormented believer, eager to forgive and equally hopeful for forgiveness. (2:01) Roxie. (Chun)

Resident Evil: Retribution (1:35) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Robot and Frank Imagine the all-too-placid deadpan of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) coming out of a home-healthcare worker, and you get just part of the appeal of this very likable comedy debut with a nonrobotic pulse directed by Jake Schreier. Sometime in the indeterminate near future, former jewel thief and second-story man Frank (Frank Langella) can be found quietly deteriorating in his isolated home, increasingly forgettable and unable to care for himself and assemble a decent bowl of Cap’n Crunch (though he can still steal fancy soaps from the village boutique). In an effort to cover his own busy rear, Frank’s distracted son (James Marsden) buys him a highly efficient robotic stand-in (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), much to his father’s grim resistance ("That thing is going to murder me in my sleep") and the dismay of crunchy sibling Madison (Liv Tyler). The robot, however, is smarter than it looks, as it bargains with Frank to eat better, get healthier, and generally reanimate: it’s willing to learn to pick locks, participate in a robbery, and even plan a jewel heist, provided, say, Frank agrees to a low-sodium diet. Frank flourishes, like the garden the robot nurtures in a vain attempt to interest his human charge, and even goes on a date with his librarian crush (Susan Sarandon), though can the self-indulgent idyll last forever? A tale about aging as much as it is about rediscovery, Robot tells an old story, but one that’s wise beyond its years and willing to dress itself up in some of the smooth, sleek surfaces of an iGeneration. (1:30) Opera Plaza, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Samsara Samsara is the latest sumptuous, wordless offering from director Ron Fricke, who helped develop this style of dialogue- and context-free travelogue with Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Baraka (1992). Spanning five years and shooting on 70mm film to capture glimmers of life in 25 countries on five continents, Samsara, which spins off the Sanskrit word for the "ever-turning wheel of life," is nothing if not good-looking, aspiring to be a kind of visual symphony boosted by music by the Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and composers Michael Stearns and Marcello De Francisci. Images of natural beauty, baptisms, and an African woman and her babe give way to the madness of modern civilization — from jam-packed subways to the horrors of mechanized factory farming to a bizarre montage of go-go dancers, sex dolls, trash, toxic discarded technology, guns, and at least one gun-shaped coffin. After such dread, the opening and closing scenes of Buddhist spirituality seem almost like afterthoughts. The unmistakable overriding message is: humanity, you dazzle in all your glorious and inglorious dimensions — even at your most inhumane. Sullying this hand wringing, selective meditation is Fricke’s reliance on easy stereotypes: the predictable connections the filmmaker makes between Africa and an innocent, earthy naturalism, and Asia and a vaguely threatening, mechanistic efficiency, come off as facile and naive, while his sonic overlay of robot sounds over, for instance, an Asian woman blinking her eyes comes off as simply offensive. At such points, Fricke’s global leap-frogging begins to eclipse the beauty of his images and foregrounds his own biases. (1:39) Embarcadero. (Chun)

Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter’s stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock’n’roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician — long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) Clay. (Chun)

Sleepwalk with Me Every year lots of movies get made by actors and comedians who want to showcase themselves, usually writing and often directing in addition to starring. Most of these are pretty bad, and after a couple of festival appearances disappear, unremembered by anyone save the credit card companies that vastly benefited from its creation. Mike Birbiglia’s first feature is an exception — maybe not an entirely surprising one (since it’s based on his highly praised Off-Broadway solo show and best-seller), but still odds-bucking. Particularly as it’s an autobiographical feeling story about an aspiring stand-up comic (Mike as Matt) who unfortunately doesn’t seem to have much natural talent in that direction, but nonetheless obsessively perseveres. This pursuit of seemingly fore destined failure might be causing his sleep disorder, or it might be a means of avoiding taking the martial next step with long-term girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose, making something special out of a conventional reactive role) everyone else agrees is the best thing in his life. Yep, it’s another commitment-phobic man-boy/funny guy who regularly talks to the camera, trying to find himself while quirky friends and family stand around like trampoline spotters watching a determined clod. If all of these sounds derivative and indulgent, well, it ought to. But Sleepwalk turns a host of familiar, hardly foolproof ideas into astute, deftly performed, consistently amusing comedy with just enough seriousness for ballast. Additional points for "I zinged him" being the unlikely most gut-busting line here. (1:30) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

Ted Ah, boys and their toys — and the imaginary friends that mirror back a forever-after land of perpetual Peter Pans. That’s the crux of the surprisingly smart, hilarious Ted, aimed at an audience comprising a wide range of classes, races, and cultures with its mix of South Park go-there yuks and rom-commie coming-of-age sentiment. Look at Ted as a pop-culture-obsessed nerd tweak on dream critter-spirit animal buddy efforts from Harvey (1950) to Donnie Darko (2001) to TV’s Wilfred. Of course, we all know that the really untamable creature here wobbles around on two legs, laden with big-time baggage about growing up and moving on from childhood loves. Young John doesn’t have many friends but he is fortunate enough to have his Christmas wish come true: his beloved new teddy bear, Ted (voice by director-writer Seth MacFarlane), begins to talk back and comes to life. With that miracle, too, comes Ted’s marginal existence as a D-list celebrity curiosity — still, he’s the loyal "Thunder Buddy" that’s always there for the now-grown John (Mark Wahlberg), ready with a bong and a broheim-y breed of empathy that involves too much TV, an obsession with bad B-movies, and mock fisticuffs, just the thing when storms move in and mundane reality rolls through. With his tendency to spew whatever profanity-laced thought comes into his head and his talents are a ladies’ bear, Ted is the id of a best friend that enables all of John’s most memorable, un-PC, Hangover-style shenanigans. Alas, John’s cool girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) threatens that tidy fantasy setup with her perfectly reasonable relationship demands. Juggling scary emotions and material that seems so specific that it can’t help but charm — you’ve got to love a shot-by-shot re-creation of a key Flash Gordon scene — MacFarlane sails over any resistance you, Lori, or your superego might harbor about this scenario with the ease of a man fully in touch with his inner Ted. (1:46) Metreon. (Chun)

To Rome with Love Woody Allen’s film legacy is not like anybody else’s. At present, however, he suffers from a sense that he’s been too prolific for too long. It’s been nearly two decades since a new Woody Allen was any kind of "event," and the 19 features since Bullets Over Broadway (1994) have been hit and-miss. Still, there’s the hope that Allen is still capable of really surprising us — or that his audience might, as they did by somewhat inexplicably going nuts for 2011’s Midnight in Paris. It was Allen’s most popular film in eons, if not ever, probably helped by the fact that he wasn’t in it. Unfortunately, he’s up there again in the new To Rome With Love, familiar mannerisms not hiding the fact that Woody Allen the Nebbish has become just another Grumpy Old Man. There’s a doddering quality that isn’t intended, and is no longer within his control. But then To Rome With Love is a doddering picture — a postcard-pretty set of pictures with little more than "Have a nice day" scribbled on the back in script terms. Viewers expecting more of the travelogue pleasantness of Midnight in Paris may be forgiving, especially since it looks like a vacation, with Darius Khondji’s photography laying on the golden Italian light and making all the other colors confectionary as well. But if Paris at least had the kernel of a good idea, Rome has only several inexplicably bad ones; it’s a quartet of interwoven stories that have no substance, point, credibility, or even endearing wackiness. The shiny package can only distract so much from the fact that there’s absolutely nothing inside. (1:52) (Harvey)

Total Recall Already the source material for Paul Verhoeven’s campy, quotable 1990 film (starring the campy, quotable Arnold Schwarzenegger), Philip K. Dick’s short story gets a Hollywood do-over, with meh results. The story, anyway, is a fine nugget of sci-fi paranoia: to escape his unsatisfying life, Quaid (Colin Farrell) visits a company capable of implanting exciting memories into his brain. When he chooses the "secret agent" option, it’s soon revealed he actually does have secret agent-type memories, suppressed via brain-fuckery by sinister government forces (led by Bryan Cranston) keeping him in the dark about his true identity. Shit immediately gets crazy, with high-flying chases and secret codes and fight scenes all over the place. The woman Quaid thinks is his wife (Kate Beckinsale) is actually a slithery killer; the woman he’s been seeing in his dreams (Jessica Biel) turns out to be his comrade in a secret rebel movement. Len Wiseman (writer and sometimes director of the Underworld films) lenses futuristic urban grime with a certain sleek panache, and Farrell is appealing enough to make highly generic hero Quaid someone worth rooting for — until the movie ends, and the entire enterprise (save perhaps the tri-boobed hooker, a holdover from the original) becomes instantly forgettable, no amnesia trickery required. (1:58) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (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) Bridge, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

The Words We meet novelist Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) as he’s making his way from a posh building to a cab in the rain; it’s important the shot obscures his generally shiny exterior, because we’re meant to believe this guy’s a sincere and struggling novelist. Jeremy Irons, aged with flappy eye makeup, watches him vengefully. Seems Rory fell upon the unpublished novel Irons’ character wrote in sadness and loss — and feeling himself incapable of penning such prose, transcribed the whole thing. When his lady friend (Zoe Saldana) encourages him to sell it, he becomes the next great American writer. He’s living the dream on another man’s sweat. But that’s not the tragedy, exactly, because The Words isn’t so concerned with the work of being a writer — it’s concerned with the look and insecurity of it. Bradley and Irons aren’t "real," they’re characters in a story read by Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) while the opportunistic, suggestive Daniella (Olivia Wilde) comes onto him. She can tell you everything about Clay, yet she hasn’t read the book that’s made him the toast of the town — The Words, which is all about a young plagiarist and the elderly writer he steals from. "I don’t know how things happen!", the slimy, cowering writers each exclaim. So, how do you sell a book? Publish a book? Make a living from a book? How much wine does it take to bed Olivia Wilde? Sure, they don’t know how things happen; they only know what it looks like to finish reading Hemingway at a café or watch the sun rise over a typewriter. Rarely has a movie done such a trite job of depicting the process of what it’s like to be a writer — though if you found nothing suspect about, say, Owen Wilson casually re-editing his 400-page book in one afternoon in last year’s Midnight in Paris, perhaps you won’t be so offended by The Words, either. (1:36) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)

Film Listings

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, and Lynn Rapoport. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. Due to the Labor Day holiday, theater information was incomplete at presstime.

CINE+MAS

The San Francisco Latino Film Festival runs Sept. 13-28 at various Bay Area venues. For tickets (most shows $12) and schedule, visit www.sflatinofilmfestival.com. For commentary, see "Got Movie Fever?"

OPENING

Arbitrage See "All in the Game." (1:40) Shattuck, Smith Rafael.

Bangkok Revenge After witnessing the murder of his parents as a child (and suffering an injury that renders him incapable of feeling emotions), a man (Jon Foo) grows up with one thing on his mind: payback. First he gets insanely good at martial arts, though. (1:20) Metreon.

Beauty is Embarrassing See "Got Movie Fever?" (1:27) Roxie.

Cane Toads: The Conquest See "See Got Movie Fever?" (1:25) Smith Rafael.

Finding Nemo 3D Pixar’s Oscar-winning undersea tale returns, spiffed-up from its 2003 version with 3D. (1:40) Presidio, Shattuck.

Girl Model Everyone wants to be special — though of course that only works if other people aren’t. The disturbingly instructive new documentary Girl Model makes a good case for not encouraging such desires in your child, because the likelihood is that someone will come along to exploit that desire, convincingly promise them fame, then leave them worse off than before. "The first secret to a successful modeling career is to start modeling at five or ten years old," says an emcee at a cattle-call showcase early on in David Redmond and Ashley Sabin’s film. It’s Russia, where the relatively new capitalism trickles down even less than here, so the families are even more eager to turn little Svetlana into a moneymaker. But that way lies madness, or at least deceit and disappointment. Plucked from a couple hundred pretty, rail-thin girls, 13-year-old wide-eyed blonde Nadya Vall is yanked from her rural Siberian village and mother and sent to Japan, where she fits a general type sought there. The younger the better, as talent scout Ashley Arbaugh tells us, qualifying that it’s not her taste, but she’s learned to see through the clients’ eyes. An ex-model herself, Ashley gives off disillusioned, compromised vibes. (It takes a while for us to realize that she’s a user and a hypocrite — not a buffer between the girls and harsh reality but a key part of the problem herself.) Needless to say, Nadya ends up owing rather than making money. Meanwhile Ashley lounges around the immaculate, expansive, coldly all-white house her job as middleman has earned; at the end of the film, she’s telling a new group of parents "Every model has success in Japan, unlike other markets where they might go into debt. They never do in Japan." For a longer version of this review, visit sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (1:17) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Keep The Lights On See "Dark and Stormy." (1:42) Embarcadero, Shattuck.

ONGOING

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry Unstoppable force meets immovable object — and indeed gets stopped — in Alison Klayman’s documentary about China’s most famous contemporary artist. A larger than life figure, Ai Weiwei’s bohemian rebel persona was honed during a long (1981-93) stint in the U.S., where he fit right into Manhattan’s avant-garde and gallery scenes. Returning to China when his father’s health went south, he continued to push the envelope with projects in various media, including architecture — he’s best known today for the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ "Bird’s Nest" stadium design. But despite the official approval implicit in such high-profile gigs, his incessant, obdurate criticism of China’s political repressive politics and censorship — a massive installation exposing the government-suppressed names of children killed by collapsing, poorly-built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake being one prominent example — has tread dangerous ground. This scattershot but nonetheless absorbing portrait stretches its view to encompass the point at which the subject’s luck ran out: when the film was already in post-production, he was arrested, then held for two months without official charge before he was accused of alleged tax evasion. (He is now free, albeit barred from leaving China, and "suspected" of additional crimes including pornography and bigamy.) (1:31) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

The Apparition Does this horror flick stand a ghost of a chance against its predecessors? So many bodies, so many mysteriously slammed doors, so many girl ghouls — they all surface in this obviously low-budget cash-in on the coattails of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Look to the signs: the slow build of zero-CGI/bucks tension-building devices like flung-open doors that are supposed to be locked, scarily grainy, nausea-inducing handheld video footage and spastic editing, and screams in pitch blackness—with a dash of everything from 1979’s Phantasm to Fulci to J-Horror. Prefaced by the story of psychics’ attempts to rouse a spirit, then a flashback to a group of college students’ try at recreating the séance by magnifying their brainwaves, The Apparition opens on the cute, perfectly made-up, and way-too-glamorous-for-suburbia Kelly (Ashley Greene) and her boyfriend Ben (Sebastian Stan), who have just moved into a new faceless development in the middle of nowhere, into a house her family has bought as an investment. Turns out they aren’t the only ones playing house, as the building’s alarm is continually bypassed, mysterious mold appears, and the neighbor’s adorable pup whimpers at thin air and obligingly dies in their laundry room. Matters go from bad to worst, as some invisible force does in Kelly’s cactus, messes up her closet, and blows the lights — all of which also sounds like the antics of a lousy roommate. Add in choppy, continuity-destroying editing; throwaway dialogue; music that sounds like it came from Kelly’s favorite store, Costco; overt appropriations like a slithery, long-haired ghoul girl that slimes her way out of a cardboard box; and that important, indelibly spooky image that comes far too late to count — and you’ll find yourself rooting for the fiend to put these kids out of their misery. (1:22) Metreon. (Chun)

Bachelorette A movie called Bachelorette is inevitably going to be accused of riding Bridesmaids‘ coattails, even if — as it happens — Bachelorette‘s source-material play was written years before the 2011 comedy hit theaters. (That said, there are inevitable similarities, what with the shared wedding themes and all.) Playwright turned scriptwriter-director Leslye Headland does a good job of portraying women who are repulsive in realistic ways: a decade ago, Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Gena (Lizzy Caplan), Katie (Isla Fisher) were the popular "B-Faces" at their high school and haven’t matured much since. Competitive Regan is a Type A blonde; Gena’s the queen of one-night stands; and Katie’s a self-destructive party girl. All of them are pushing 30, and though Regan’s the most functional among them, she’s the hardest-hit when she learns that Becky (Bridesmaids‘ Rebel Wilson), always treated as a second-tier B-Face by virtue of being plus-sized, is engaged. "I was supposed to be first," Regan wails via three-way cell call to Gena and Katie, who’re sympathetic to this sense of entitlement. The wedding is a fancy New York City affair, so the B-Faces reunite for what they think will be a bachelorette party for the ages. Most of the film takes place during that single night, a madcap, coke-fueled, mean-spirited spiral into chaos. It’s raunchy and funny, but every character is utterly unlikable, which becomes more of a problem and less of an amusement as the movie trundles onward toward the expected happy ending. Bachelorette would’ve been better served by sticking with its rallying cry — "Fuck everyone!" — to the bitter end. (1:34) Metreon, Presidio. (Eddy)

Beasts of the Southern Wild Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d’Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn’t attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about — improbably — Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting. Benh Zeitlin’s film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. But not all is well: when "the storm" floods the land, the holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate. With its elements of magic, mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology, Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film’s cost and length. (1:31) California, Embarcadero, Presidio, Smith Rafael, Vogue. (Harvey)

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) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Branded (1:46) SF Center.

The Bullet Vanishes Veteran Hong Kong actor Lau Ching-wan stars as a Sherlock Holmes type in 1930s Shanghai, bumped up from prison-guard detail to homicide detective by top brass impressed with his talent, if not his unusual methods. Good timing, since there’s been a series of killings at the local munitions factory, an operation run by a Scooby Doo-ish villain — in cahoots with corrupt cops — who’s prone to snappy hats and checkered overcoats. Adding to the mystery: a tragic back story involving Russian roulette and blood-written graffiti promising "The phantom bullets will kill you all!" Helping solve the crimes is Nicholas Tse as "the fastest gun in Tiancheng," no slouch of an investigator himself; together, the sleuths compile evidence and recreate scenes of murders, including one that seemingly transpired in a locked room with only one exit. The Bullet Vanishes contains more plot twists, slightly fewer steampunk flourishes, and way less slo-mo fist action than Guy Ritchie’s recent attempts at Holmes; though it’s no masterpiece, it’s a fun enough whodunit, with a reliably great and quirky performance from Lau. (2:00) Metreon. (Eddy)

The Campaign (1:25) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

Celeste and Jesse Forever Married your best friend, realized you love but can’t be in love with each other, and don’t want to let all those great in-jokes wither away? Such is the premise of Celeste and Jesse Forever, the latest in what a recent wave of meaty, girl-centric comedies penned by actresses — here Rashida Jones working with real-life ex Will McCormack; there, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Zoe Lister Jones (Lola Versus), and Lena Dunham (Girls) — who have gone the DIY route and whipped up their own juicy roles. There’s no mistaking theirs for your average big-screen rom-com: they dare to wallow harder, skew smarter, and in the case of Celeste, tackle the thorny, tough-to-resolve relationship dilemma that stubbornly refuses to conform to your copy-and-paste story arc. Nor do their female protagonists come off as uniformly likable: in this case, Celeste (Jones) is a bit of an aspiring LA powerbitch. Her Achilles heel is artist Jesse (Andy Samberg), the slacker high school sweetheart she wed and separated from because he doesn’t share her goals (e.g., he doesn’t have a car or a job). Yet the two continue to spend all their waking hours together and share an undeniable rapport, extending from Jesse’s encampment in her backyard apartment to their jokey simulated coitus featuring phallic-shaped lip balm. Throwing a wrench in the works: the fact that they’re still kind of in love with each other, which all their pals, like Jesse’s pot-dealer bud Skillz (McCormack), can clearly see. It’s an shaggy, everyday breakup yarn, writ glamorous by its appealing leads, that we too rarely witness, and barring the at-times nausea-inducing shaky-cam under the direction of Lee Toland Krieger, it’s rendered compelling and at times very funny — there’s no neat and tidy way to say good-bye, and Jones and McCormack do their best to capture but not encapsulate the severance and inevitable healing process. It also helps that the chemistry practically vibrates between the boyish if somewhat one-note Samberg and the soulful Jones, who fully, intelligently rises to the occasion, bringing on the heartbreak. (1:31) Marina, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Chicken With Plums Steeped in whimsy — and a longing for love, beauty, and home — this latest effort from brilliant Persian-French cartoonist-filmmaker Marjane Satrapi and director Vincent Paronnaud flaunts the odd contours of its eccentric narrative, enchants with its imaginative tangents, sprawls like an unincapsulated life, and then takes off on aching, campy romantic reverie—a magical realistic vision of one Iranian artist’s doomed trajectory. Master violinist Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) is seeking the ineffable — a replacement for his destroyed instrument — and otherwise he’s determined to die. We trace the mystery of his passing, backward, with wanders through the life of his family and loved one along the way in this playful, bittersweet feast. Despite Amalric’s glazed-eyed mugging, which almost spoils the dish, Satrapi’s wonderfully arch yet lyrical visual sensibility and resonant characters — embodied by Maria de Medeiros, Jamel Debbouze, Golshifteh Farahani, and Isabella Rossellini, among others — satisfy, serving up so much more than chicken with plums. (1:31) Opera Plaza. (Chun)

The Cold Light of Day (1:33) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

Compliance No film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival encountered as much controversy as Craig Zobel’s Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with an audience member yelling "Sundance can do better!" You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Every screening that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at Sundance, and the film did not disappoint. (Beware: every review I have happened upon has unnecessarily spoiled major plots in the film, which is based on true events.) What is so impressive about Zobel’s film is how it builds up a sense of ever-impending terror. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the film steps into Psycho (1960) terrain, as it boldly aims to confront a society filled with people who are trained to follow rules without questioning them. Magnolia Pictures, which previously collaborated with Zobel on his debut film Great World of Sound (which premiered at Sundance in 2007), picked up the film for theatrical release; if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized as well as intellectualized. You’ll be screaming about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that’s exactly why the film is so brilliant. For an interview with Zobel, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (1:30) Lumiere. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

Cosmopolis With end times nigh and the 99 percent battering the gates of the establishment, it’s little wonder David Cronenberg’s rendition of the Don DeLillo novel might rotate, with the stately rhythm of a royal funeral and deliciously tongue-in-cheek humor, around one of the most famed vampire heartthrobs at the cineplex. Sadly, a recent paparazzi scandal threatens to eclipse this latest, enjoyably blighted installment in the NYC urban nightmare genre. Robert Pattinson’s billionaire asset manager Eric Packer takes meetings with his new wife Elise (Sarah Gadon) and staffers like his monetary theorist Vija (Samantha Morton) in his moving office: a white, leather-bound stretch limo that materializes like a sleek, imposing extension of his pale frame. Seriously disassociated from reality on multiple levels, Eric is a 28-year-old boy in a bubble, speaking of himself in third person and willing to spend all day making his way across town to get a haircut at his father’s old barbershop, even though his head of security (Kevin Durand) warns him that at least one "credible threat" has designs on his life. The passing of his favorite Sufi rapper (K’Naan), a possible Rothko for sale, a mad pie-thrower, and an asymmetrical prostate all threaten to capsize those, as it turns out, not-so-humble plans. Warning: the brainier members of Team Edward might plan on finding their minds blown by this thoughtful and mordantly humorous meditation on this country’s cult of money, while Cronenberg watchers will be gratified to pluck out his recurring themes, here dealt with a lighter hand than usual. At this date, rather than telegraphing how one might feel about a scene by way of, say, music, the director is increasingly comfortable with the ambiguity — and the uneasy, pleasing mix of sneaking repulsion and gimlet-eyed humor, of these scenes and their language. Thus the autoerotic-car fetishism of Crash (1996) and hallucinatory culture grazing of Naked Lunch (1991) — and that fascination with how a body intersects sexually or otherwise with a machine or "other" — seems completely natural here. Or perhaps it’s a measure of how much Cronenberg’s preoccupations and cinematic language have made themselves at home in the vernacular. (1:49) Opera Plaza. (Chun)

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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

The Expendables 2 (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Farewell, My Queen (Benoît Jacquot, France, 2012) Opening early on the morning of July 14, 1789, Farewell, My Queen depicts four days at the Palace of Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution, as witnessed by a young woman named Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) who serves as reader to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Sidonie displays a singular and romantic devotion to the queen, while the latter’s loyalties are split between a heedless amour propre and her grand passion for the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). These domestic matters and other regal whims loom large in the tiny galaxy of the queen’s retinue, so that while elsewhere in the palace, in shadowy, candle-lit corridors, courtiers and their servants mingle to exchange news, rumor, panicky theories, and evacuation plans, in the queen’s quarters the task of embroidering a dahlia for a projected gown at times overshadows the storming of the Bastille and the much larger catastrophe on the horizon. (1:39) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Rapoport)

For a Good Time, Call&ldots; Suffering the modern-day dilemmas of elapsed rent control and boyfriend douchebaggery, sworn enemies Katie (Ari Graynor) and Lauren (Lauren Miller) find themselves shacking up in Katie’s highly covetable Manhattan apartment, brought together on a stale cloud of resentment by mutual bestie Jesse (Justin Long, gamely delivering a believable version of your standard-issue young hipster NYC gay boy). The domestic glacier begins to melt somewhere around the time that Lauren discovers Katie is working a phone-sex hotline from her bedroom; equipped with a good head for business, she offers to help her go freelance for a cut of the proceeds. Major profitability ensues, as does a friendship evoking the pair bonding at the center of your garden-variety romantic comedy, as Katie trains Lauren to be a phone-sex operator and the two share everything from pinkie swears and matching pink touch-tone phones to intimate secrets and the occasional hotline threesome. Directed by Jamie Travis and adapted from a screenplay by Miller and Katie Anne Naylon, the film is a welcome response to the bromance genre, and with any luck it may also introduce linguistic felicities like "phone-banging" and "let’s get this fuckshow started" into the larger culture. The raunchy telephonic interludes include cameos by Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen (Miller’s husband) as customers calling from such unfurtive locations as a public bathroom stall and the front seat of a taxicab. But the two roomies supply plenty of dirty as Katie, an abashed wearer of velour and denim pantsuits, helps the more restrained Lauren discover the joys of setting free her inner potty mouth. (1:25) SF Center. (Rapoport)

Hit and Run Annie (Kristen Bell) has a Stanford doctorate but is treading in the academic backwaters until the prospect is raised of an ideal department-heading position at UCLA. She’s thrilled, but also conflicted, because live-in beau Charlie (Dax Shepard) is in the Federal Witness Protection program, and can’t leave the nowhere burg he lives in incognito — particularly for Los Angeles — without risking serious personal harm. However, for love he decides he’ll risk everything so she can take the job. Unfortunately, this fast attracts the attention of various people very much interested in halting this exodus, for various reasons: notably Charlie’s inept U.S. Marshall "protector" (Tom Arnold), Annie’s psycho ex (Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum), and a guy with an even more serious grudge against Charlie (Bradley Cooper in a dreadlock wig). A whole lot of wacky chases and stunt driving ensues. The second feature Shepard’s co-directed (with David Palmer) and written, this aims for a cross between 1970s drive-in demolition derbies (1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, 1974’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, etc.) and envelope-pushing comedy thrillers like 1993’s True Romance. There’s a lot of comic talent here, including some notable cameos, yet Hit and Run is one of those cases where the material is almost there, but not quite. It moves breezily enough but some of the characters are more annoying than funny; the dialogue is an awkward mix of bad taste and PC debates about bad taste; and some ideas that aim to be hilarious and subversive (naked old people, a long discussion about jailhouse rape) just sit there, painfully. Which makes this only the second-best Dax Shepard movie with incarceration rape jokes, after 2006’s Let’s Go to Prison. (1:38) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (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) Piedmont, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

The Imposter A family tragedy, an international thriller, a Southern-fried mystery, and a true story: The Imposter is all of these things. This unique documentary reveals the tale of Frédéric Bourdin, dubbed "the Chameleon" for his epic false-identity habit. His ballsiest accomplishment was also his most heinous con: in 1997, he claimed to be Nicholas Barclay, a San Antonio teen missing since 1994. Amazingly, the impersonation worked for a time, though Bourdin (early 20s, brown-eyed, speaks English with a French accent) hardly resembled Nicholas (who would have been 16, and had blue eyes). Using interviews — with Nicholas’ shell-shocked family, government types who unwittingly aided the charade, and Bourdin himself — and ingenious re-enactments that borrow more from crime dramas than America’s Most Wanted, director Bart Layton weaves a multi-layered chronicle of one man’s unbelievable deception. (1:39) Lumiere. (Eddy)

The Inbetweeners The bro-bacchanal never stops being funny in some circles, and those acolytes might want to attempt to penetrate the thick, juicy UK accents in this writ-large version of the English sitcom of the same name. The deliciously awkward teenage boy gang’s all here — with an added dose of ultragross-out humor that one-ups the American Pie gang. Brainy Will (Simon Bird), aggressively gelled Simon (Joe Thomas), super-horndog Jay (James Buckley), and lanky oddity Neil (Blake Harrison) are off on summer break before "uni" on a booze- and sex-swathed Greek isle. The goal: to get soundly laid and eradicate Simon’s heartbreak over recently departed girlfriend Carli (Emily Head). As luck would have it, the bunch even stumble over some nubile, nice cuties — including doll-faced blonde Allison (Laura Haddock) and far-too-accommodating brunette Lucy (Tamla Kari) — in their quest for "fit" slatterns. In between them and a very certain happy ending, in more ways than one, are plenty of excess, barf, poo, blackouts on ant hills — what’s not to love, provided you can overlook the very un-PC rumblings from this dude-a-rama? A self-fellatio interlude even takes on the Jackass posse on their own physically challenging turf. (1:37) Metreon. (Chun)

The Intouchables Cries of "racism" seem a bit out of hand when it comes to this likable albeit far-from-challenging French comedy loosely based on a real-life relationship between a wealthy white quadriplegic and his caretaker of color. The term "cliché" is more accurate. And where were these critics when 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy and 2011’s The Help — movies that seem designed to make nostalgic honkies feel good about those fraught relationships skewed to their advantage—were coming down the pike? (It also might be more interesting to look at how these films about race always hinge on economies in which whites must pay blacks to interact with/educate/enlighten them.) In any case, Omar Sy, portraying Senegalese immigrant Driss, threatens to upset all those pundits’ apple carts with his sheer life force, even when he’s shaking solo on the dance floor to sounds as effortlessly unprovocative, and old-school, as Earth, Wind, and Fire. In fact, everything about The Intouchables is as old school as 1982’s 48 Hrs., spinning off the still laugh-grabbing humor that comes with juxtaposing a hipper, more streetwise black guy with a hapless, moneyed chalky. The wheelchair-bound Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is more vulnerable than most, and he has a hard time getting along with any of his nurses, until he meets Driss, who only wants his signature for his social services papers. It’s not long before the cultured, classical music-loving Philippe’s defenses are broken down by Driss’ flip, somewhat honest take on the follies and pretensions of high culture — a bigger deal in France than in the new world, no doubt. Director-writer Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano aren’t trying to innovate —they seem more set on crafting an effervescent blockbuster that out-blockbusters Hollywood — and the biggest compliment might be that the stateside remake is already rumored to be in the works. (1:52) Lumiere. (Chun)

Kumaré Just as there was a certain bullying pride of snark that made Bill Maher and Larry Charles’ Religulous (2008) more mean-spirited than necessary, Kumaré leaves a sour, smug aftertaste. Raised in New Jersey by a first-generation immigrant family of Hindus, Vikram Gandhi proclaims himself a skeptic who started out wanting to make a documentary about the opportunistic charlatans one can find passing as spiritually enlightened gurus in both India and around the booming US yoga industry. "I wanted to prove to others looking for answers that no one is more spiritual than anyone, that spiritual leaders are just illusions," he tells us. A noble impulse. Yet somehow this took the form of growing his hair and beard out, wearing saffron robes, and posing as Sri Kumaré, a fresh-off-the-boat guru who arrives in Phoenix, Ariz. to open up shop as a one-stop spiritual guide for the gullible. He asks "Could people find the same peace in a made-up religion that they would in a real one?" But too often the real question here seems to be "How silly can I make these chumps look while starring in my very own nonfiction version of The Love Guru?" The comedy Kumaré has been primarily compared to is 2006’s Borat, another Larry Charles joint. As unhappy as their portraiture in Borat made its duped participants, it was hard to feel sorry for them — given enough rope they gladly hung themselves expressing racism, homophobia, sexism, and sheer Ugly Americanism. But those who fall under Kumaré‘s farcical spell don’t deserve to be exposed and ridiculed; they’re just people with real-world issues — financial struggles, low self-esteem, empty-nest loneliness, etc. — looking for somebody to tell them what to do. (1:24) Roxie. (Harvey)

Lawless Lawless has got to be the most pretentiously humorless movie ever made about moonshiners — a criminal subset whose adventures onscreen have almost always been rambunctious and breezy, even when violent. Not here, bub. Adapting Matt Bondurant’s fact-inspired novel The Wettest County in the World about his family’s very colorful times a couple generations back, director John Hillcoat and scenarist (as well as, natch, composer) Nick Cave have made one of those films in which the characters are presented to you as if already immortalized on Mount Rushmore — monumental, legendary, a bit stony. They’ve got a crackling story about war between hillbilly booze suppliers and corrupt lawmen during Prohibition, and while the results aren’t dull (they’re too bloody for that, anyway), they’d be a whole lot better if the entire enterprise didn’t take itself so gosh darned seriously. The Bondurant brothers of Franklin County, Va. are considered "legends" when we meet them in 1931, having defied all and sundry as well as survived a few bullets: mack-truck-built Forrest (Tom Hardy); eldest Howard (Jason Clarke), who tipples and smiles a lot; and "runt of the litter" Jack (Shia LeBeouf), who has a chip on his shoulder. The local law looks the other way so long as their palms are greased, but the Feds send sneering Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), it’s an eye for an eye for an eye, etc. The revenge-laden action in Lawless is engaging, but the filmmakers are trying so hard to make it all resonant and folkloric and meta-cinematic, any fun you have is in spite of their efforts. (1:55) California, Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Little White Lies In the wake of a serious accident that puts magnetic Ludo (Jean Dujardin, just briefly seen) in the hospital, his circle of closest friends go without him on their annual vacation at a beachfront summer home, courtesy of well-off restaurateur Max (Francois Cluzet) and wife Vero (Valerie Bonneton). But this year they’ve all got a lot of drama going on. Marie (Marion Cotillard) is suffering the uncomfortable consequences of all the lovers (male and female) she’s run out on when "commitment" reared its head. Similarly, the roving eye of actor Eric (Gilles Lellouche) threatens the stable relationship he’s finally sorta settled on. Hapless boy-man Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) obsesses over the longtime girlfriend who’s dumping him. And Vincent (Benoit Magimel) endangers his marriage to Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot) by privately proclaiming more-than-platonic love for best friend Max — whose discomfort manifests itself in hostile behaviors that threaten to ruin everyone’s stay. Actor Guillaume Canet’s third film as writer-director (following the 2006 hit thriller Tell No One) has been compared, even by himself, to 1983’s The Big Chill. But while that slick, somewhat glib seriocomedy’s characters had 1960s activist pasts and faded ideals to square with encroaching midlife, this slicker, glibber ensemble piece is about people who’ve never shared much more than good times and mutual self-absorption. Though Canet has worked with most of these actors before, and developed Lies in collaboration with them, the thinly amusing, often contrived results hardly tax anyone’s resources. (Nor are they equal-opportunity: star attraction Cotillard aside, he barely seems interested in the women here.) It takes two and a half hours for this overblown fluff to arrive at a group-hug freeze frame (ugh), aiming for emotional heft it still hasn’t earned. (2:34) Albany. (Harvey)

Moonrise Kingdom Does Wes Anderson’s new film mark a live-action return to form after 2007’s disappointingly wan Darjeeling Limited? More or less. Does it tick all the Andersonian style and content boxes? Indubitably. In the most obvious deviation Anderson has taken with Moonrise, he gives us his first period piece, a romance set in 1965 on a fictional island off the New England coast. After a chance encounter at a church play, pre-teen Khaki Scout Sam (newcomer Jared Gilman) instantly falls for the raven-suited, sable-haired Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, ditto). The two become pen pals, and quickly bond over the shared misery of being misunderstood by both authority figures and fellow kids. The bespectacled Sam is an orphan, ostracized by his foster parents and scout troop (much to the dismay of its straight-arrow leader Edward Norton). Suzy despises her clueless attorney parents, played with gusto by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand in some of the film’s funniest and best scenes. When the two kids run off together, the whole thing begins to resemble a kind of tween version of Godard’s 1965 lovers-on the-lam fantasia Pierrot le Fou. But like most of Anderson’s stuff, it has a gauzy sentimentality more akin to Truffaut than Godard. Imagine if the sequence in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums where Margot and Richie run away to the Museum of Natural History had been given the feature treatment: it’s a simple yet inspired idea, and it becomes a charming little tale of the perils of growing up and selling out the fantasy. But it doesn’t feel remotely risky. It’s simply too damn tame. (1:37) Four Star, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Michelle Devereaux)

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2:05) Four Star, SF Center.

ParaNorman (1:32) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

The Possession (1:31) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Premium Rush "Fixed gear. Steel frame. No brakes. Can’t stop … don’t want to." Thus goes the gear breakdown and personal philosophy of New York City bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an aggro rider who uses his law school-refined brain to make split-second decisions regarding which way to dart through Midtown traffic. Though bike messengers had a pop culture moment in the 1990s, Premium Rush is set in the present day, with one of Wilee’s numerous voice-overs explaining the job’s continued importance even in the digital era. One such example: a certain envelope he’s tasked with ferrying across the city, given to him by the troubled roommate (Jamie Chung) of the pretty fellow messenger (Dania Ramirez) he’s romantically pursuing. The contents of the envelope, and the teeth-gnashingly evil-cop-with-a-gambling-problem (Michael Shannon, adding some weird flair to what’s essentially a stock villain) who would dearly love to get his mitts on it, are less crucial to Premium Rush than the film’s many, many chase scenes featuring Wilee outwitting all comers with his two-wheeled Frogger moves. Silly fun from director David Koepp (2008’s Ghost Town), but not essential unless you’re a fixie fanatic or a JGL completist. (1:31) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

The Queen of Versailles Lauren Greenfield’s obscenely entertaining The Queen of Versailles takes a long, turbulent look at the lifestyles lived by David and Jackie Siegel. He is the 70-something undisputed king of timeshares; she is his 40-something (third) wife, a former beauty queen with the requisite blonde locks and major rack, both probably not entirely Mother Nature-made. He’s so compulsive that he’s never saved, instead plowing every buck back into the business. When the recession hits, that means this billionaire is — in ready-cash as opposed to paper terms — suddenly sorta kinda broke, just as an enormous Las Vegas project is opening and the family’s stupefyingly large new "home" (yep, modeled after Versailles) is mid-construction. Plugs must be pulled, corners cut. Never having had to, the Siegels discover (once most of the servants have been let go) they have no idea how to run a household. Worse, they discover that in adversity they have a very hard time pulling together — in particular, David is revealed as a remote, cold, obsessively all-business person who has no use for getting or giving "emotional support;" not even for being a husband or father, much. What ultimately makes Queen poignantly more than a reality-TV style peek at the garishly wealthy is that Jackie, despite her incredibly vulgar veneer (she’s like a Jennifer Coolidge character, forever squeezed into loud animal prints), is at heart just a nice girl from hicksville who really, really wants to make this family work. (1:40) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Red Hook Summer It seems like lifetimes ago that Michelle and Barack found each other beneath the flicker of filmmaker Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), so the director-cowriter’s cameo in his now-graying, still-pizza-delivering Mookie guise, in this hot, bothered return to Brooklyn, reverberates with meaning. Less polemical and now complicated by an acute, confused love and loathing for certain places and faces, Red Hook Summer takes a different tact — the Red Hook projects rather than the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant — and narrows its focus on Flik Royale (Jules Brown), the reluctant young visitor to the humble home of his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters from Treme and The Wire). A true child of his time and place, the introverted, rebellious Atlanta kid would rather hide behind his favorite screen, a.k.a. the iPad that he’s using to document his world, than engage with reality, even when it’s raging in his face by way of his grandfather’s fiery sermons or threats from the glowering rapper Box (Nate Parker). Only a charismatic girl his age, Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith), seems to get through, despite the Bishop’s passionate efforts to bond with the boy. Alas, Lee himself doesn’t seem to quite get his youthful protagonist — one who’s predisposed to turn inward rather than turn a politicized lens outward — and instead casts about restlessly to the detriment of this supposed coming-of-age narrative. No shock that somehow Red Hook Summer gets caught in the undertow of the magnetic Peters, who will turn heads with his take on a tormented believer, eager to forgive and equally hopeful for forgiveness. (2:01) Roxie. (Chun)

Robot and Frank Imagine the all-too-placid deadpan of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) coming out of a home-healthcare worker, and you get just part of the appeal of this very likable comedy debut with a nonrobotic pulse directed by Jake Schreier. Sometime in the indeterminate near future, former jewel thief and second-story man Frank (Frank Langella) can be found quietly deteriorating in his isolated home, increasingly forgettable and unable to care for himself and assemble a decent bowl of Cap’n Crunch (though he can still steal fancy soaps from the village boutique). In an effort to cover his own busy rear, Frank’s distracted son (James Marsden) buys him a highly efficient robotic stand-in (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), much to his father’s grim resistance ("That thing is going to murder me in my sleep") and the dismay of crunchy sibling Madison (Liv Tyler). The robot, however, is smarter than it looks, as it bargains with Frank to eat better, get healthier, and generally reanimate: it’s willing to learn to pick locks, participate in a robbery, and even plan a jewel heist, provided, say, Frank agrees to a low-sodium diet. Frank flourishes, like the garden the robot nurtures in a vain attempt to interest his human charge, and even goes on a date with his librarian crush (Susan Sarandon), though can the self-indulgent idyll last forever? A tale about aging as much as it is about rediscovery, Robot tells an old story, but one that’s wise beyond its years and willing to dress itself up in some of the smooth, sleek surfaces of an iGeneration. (1:30) Albany, Embarcadero, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Samsara Samsara is the latest sumptuous, wordless offering from director Ron Fricke, who helped develop this style of dialogue- and context-free travelogue with Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Baraka (1992). Spanning five years and shooting on 70mm film to capture glimmers of life in 25 countries on five continents, Samsara, which spins off the Sanskrit word for the "ever-turning wheel of life," is nothing if not good-looking, aspiring to be a kind of visual symphony boosted by music by the Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and composers Michael Stearns and Marcello De Francisci. Images of natural beauty, baptisms, and an African woman and her babe give way to the madness of modern civilization — from jam-packed subways to the horrors of mechanized factory farming to a bizarre montage of go-go dancers, sex dolls, trash, toxic discarded technology, guns, and at least one gun-shaped coffin. After such dread, the opening and closing scenes of Buddhist spirituality seem almost like afterthoughts. The unmistakable overriding message is: humanity, you dazzle in all your glorious and inglorious dimensions — even at your most inhumane. Sullying this hand wringing, selective meditation is Fricke’s reliance on easy stereotypes: the predictable connections the filmmaker makes between Africa and an innocent, earthy naturalism, and Asia and a vaguely threatening, mechanistic efficiency, come off as facile and naive, while his sonic overlay of robot sounds over, for instance, an Asian woman blinking her eyes comes off as simply offensive. At such points, Fricke’s global leap-frogging begins to eclipse the beauty of his images and foregrounds his own biases. (1:39) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Chun)

Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter’s stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock’n’roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician — long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) Clay. (Chun)

Sleepwalk with Me Every year lots of movies get made by actors and comedians who want to showcase themselves, usually writing and often directing in addition to starring. Most of these are pretty bad, and after a couple of festival appearances disappear, unremembered by anyone save the credit card companies that vastly benefited from its creation. Mike Birbiglia’s first feature is an exception — maybe not an entirely surprising one (since it’s based on his highly praised Off-Broadway solo show and best-seller), but still odds-bucking. Particularly as it’s an autobiographical feeling story about an aspiring stand-up comic (Mike as Matt) who unfortunately doesn’t seem to have much natural talent in that direction, but nonetheless obsessively perseveres. This pursuit of seemingly fore destined failure might be causing his sleep disorder, or it might be a means of avoiding taking the martial next step with long-term girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose, making something special out of a conventional reactive role) everyone else agrees is the best thing in his life. Yep, it’s another commitment-phobic man-boy/funny guy who regularly talks to the camera, trying to find himself while quirky friends and family stand around like trampoline spotters watching a determined clod. If all of these sounds derivative and indulgent, well, it ought to. But Sleepwalk turns a host of familiar, hardly foolproof ideas into astute, deftly performed, consistently amusing comedy with just enough seriousness for ballast. Additional points for "I zinged him" being the unlikely most gut-busting line here. (1:30) Embarcadero, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Ted Ah, boys and their toys — and the imaginary friends that mirror back a forever-after land of perpetual Peter Pans. That’s the crux of the surprisingly smart, hilarious Ted, aimed at an audience comprising a wide range of classes, races, and cultures with its mix of South Park go-there yuks and rom-commie coming-of-age sentiment. Look at Ted as a pop-culture-obsessed nerd tweak on dream critter-spirit animal buddy efforts from Harvey (1950) to Donnie Darko (2001) to TV’s Wilfred. Of course, we all know that the really untamable creature here wobbles around on two legs, laden with big-time baggage about growing up and moving on from childhood loves. Young John doesn’t have many friends but he is fortunate enough to have his Christmas wish come true: his beloved new teddy bear, Ted (voice by director-writer Seth MacFarlane), begins to talk back and comes to life. With that miracle, too, comes Ted’s marginal existence as a D-list celebrity curiosity — still, he’s the loyal "Thunder Buddy" that’s always there for the now-grown John (Mark Wahlberg), ready with a bong and a broheim-y breed of empathy that involves too much TV, an obsession with bad B-movies, and mock fisticuffs, just the thing when storms move in and mundane reality rolls through. With his tendency to spew whatever profanity-laced thought comes into his head and his talents are a ladies’ bear, Ted is the id of a best friend that enables all of John’s most memorable, un-PC, Hangover-style shenanigans. Alas, John’s cool girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) threatens that tidy fantasy setup with her perfectly reasonable relationship demands. Juggling scary emotions and material that seems so specific that it can’t help but charm — you’ve got to love a shot-by-shot re-creation of a key Flash Gordon scene — MacFarlane sails over any resistance you, Lori, or your superego might harbor about this scenario with the ease of a man fully in touch with his inner Ted. (1:46) Metreon. (Chun)

To Rome with Love Woody Allen’s film legacy is not like anybody else’s. At present, however, he suffers from a sense that he’s been too prolific for too long. It’s been nearly two decades since a new Woody Allen was any kind of "event," and the 19 features since Bullets Over Broadway (1994) have been hit and-miss. Still, there’s the hope that Allen is still capable of really surprising us — or that his audience might, as they did by somewhat inexplicably going nuts for 2011’s Midnight in Paris. It was Allen’s most popular film in eons, if not ever, probably helped by the fact that he wasn’t in it. Unfortunately, he’s up there again in the new To Rome With Love, familiar mannerisms not hiding the fact that Woody Allen the Nebbish has become just another Grumpy Old Man. There’s a doddering quality that isn’t intended, and is no longer within his control. But then To Rome With Love is a doddering picture — a postcard-pretty set of pictures with little more than "Have a nice day" scribbled on the back in script terms. Viewers expecting more of the travelogue pleasantness of Midnight in Paris may be forgiving, especially since it looks like a vacation, with Darius Khondji’s photography laying on the golden Italian light and making all the other colors confectionary as well. But if Paris at least had the kernel of a good idea, Rome has only several inexplicably bad ones; it’s a quartet of interwoven stories that have no substance, point, credibility, or even endearing wackiness. The shiny package can only distract so much from the fact that there’s absolutely nothing inside. (1:52) Albany, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Total Recall Already the source material for Paul Verhoeven’s campy, quotable 1990 film (starring the campy, quotable Arnold Schwarzenegger), Philip K. Dick’s short story gets a Hollywood do-over, with meh results. The story, anyway, is a fine nugget of sci-fi paranoia: to escape his unsatisfying life, Quaid (Colin Farrell) visits a company capable of implanting exciting memories into his brain. When he chooses the "secret agent" option, it’s soon revealed he actually does have secret agent-type memories, suppressed via brain-fuckery by sinister government forces (led by Bryan Cranston) keeping him in the dark about his true identity. Shit immediately gets crazy, with high-flying chases and secret codes and fight scenes all over the place. The woman Quaid thinks is his wife (Kate Beckinsale) is actually a slithery killer; the woman he’s been seeing in his dreams (Jessica Biel) turns out to be his comrade in a secret rebel movement. Len Wiseman (writer and sometimes director of the Underworld films) lenses futuristic urban grime with a certain sleek panache, and Farrell is appealing enough to make highly generic hero Quaid someone worth rooting for — until the movie ends, and the entire enterprise (save perhaps the tri-boobed hooker, a holdover from the original) becomes instantly forgettable, no amnesia trickery required. (1:58) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (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) Bridge, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

The Words We meet novelist Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) as he’s making his way from a posh building to a cab in the rain; it’s important the shot obscures his generally shiny exterior, because we’re meant to believe this guy’s a sincere and struggling novelist. Jeremy Irons, aged with flappy eye makeup, watches him vengefully. Seems Rory fell upon the unpublished novel Irons’ character wrote in sadness and loss — and feeling himself incapable of penning such prose, transcribed the whole thing. When his lady friend (Zoe Saldana) encourages him to sell it, he becomes the next great American writer. He’s living the dream on another man’s sweat. But that’s not the tragedy, exactly, because The Words isn’t so concerned with the work of being a writer — it’s concerned with the look and insecurity of it. Bradley and Irons aren’t "real," they’re characters in a story read by Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) while the opportunistic, suggestive Daniella (Olivia Wilde) comes onto him. She can tell you everything about Clay, yet she hasn’t read the book that’s made him the toast of the town — The Words, which is all about a young plagiarist and the elderly writer he steals from. "I don’t know how things happen!", the slimy, cowering writers each exclaim. So, how do you sell a book? Publish a book? Make a living from a book? How much wine does it take to bed Olivia Wilde? Sure, they don’t know how things happen; they only know what it looks like to finish reading Hemingway at a café or watch the sun rise over a typewriter. Rarely has a movie done such a trite job of depicting the process of what it’s like to be a writer — though if you found nothing suspect about, say, Owen Wilson casually re-editing his 400-page book in one afternoon in last year’s Midnight in Paris, perhaps you won’t be so offended by The Words, either. (1:36) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Sara Vizcarrondo)

Film Listings

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, and Lynn Rapoport. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. Due to the Labor Day holiday, theater information was incomplete at presstime.

OPENING

Bachelorette See "Goodbye to Romance." (1:34)

Chicken With Plums Steeped in whimsy — and a longing for love, beauty, and home — this latest effort from brilliant Persian-French cartoonist-filmmaker Marjane Satrapi and director Vincent Paronnaud flaunts the odd contours of its eccentric narrative, enchants with its imaginative tangents, sprawls like an unincapsulated life, and then takes off on aching, campy romantic reverie—a magical realistic vision of one Iranian artist’s doomed trajectory. Master violinist Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric) is seeking the ineffable — a replacement for his destroyed instrument — and otherwise he’s determined to die. We trace the mystery of his passing, backward, with wanders through the life of his family and loved one along the way in this playful, bittersweet feast. Despite Amalric’s glazed-eyed mugging, which almost spoils the dish, Satrapi’s wonderfully arch yet lyrical visual sensibility and resonant characters — embodied by Maria de Medeiros, Jamel Debbouze, Golshifteh Farahani, and Isabella Rossellini, among others — satisfy, serving up so much more than chicken with plums. (1:31) (Chun)

The Inbetweeners Horny teens on holiday — what could go wrong? Based on the British sitcom, not the recent MTV remake. (1:37).

Kumaré See "False Idol." (1:24) Roxie.

Samsara Samsara is the latest sumptuous, wordless offering from director Ron Fricke, who helped develop this style of dialogue- and context-free travelogue with Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Baraka (1992). Spanning five years and shooting on 70mm film to capture glimmers of life in 25 countries on five continents, Samsara, which spins off the Sanskrit word for the "ever-turning wheel of life," is nothing if not good-looking, aspiring to be a kind of visual symphony boosted by music by the Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard and composers Michael Stearns and Marcello De Francisci. Images of natural beauty, baptisms, and an African woman and her babe give way to the madness of modern civilization — from jam-packed subways to the horrors of mechanized factory farming to a bizarre montage of go-go dancers, sex dolls, trash, toxic discarded technology, guns, and at least one gun-shaped coffin. After such dread, the opening and closing scenes of Buddhist spirituality seem almost like afterthoughts. The unmistakable overriding message is: humanity, you dazzle in all your glorious and inglorious dimensions — even at your most inhumane. Sullying this hand wringing, selective meditation is Fricke’s reliance on easy stereotypes: the predictable connections the filmmaker makes between Africa and an innocent, earthy naturalism, and Asia and a vaguely threatening, mechanistic efficiency, come off as facile and naive, while his sonic overlay of robot sounds over, for instance, an Asian woman blinking her eyes comes off as simply offensive. At such points, Fricke’s global leap-frogging begins to eclipse the beauty of his images and foregrounds his own biases. (1:39) (Chun)

The Words A writer (Bradley Cooper) faces the consequences of passing off the work of another man (Jeremy Irons) as his own. (1:36)

ONGOING

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry Unstoppable force meets immovable object — and indeed gets stopped — in Alison Klayman’s documentary about China’s most famous contemporary artist. A larger than life figure, Ai Weiwei’s bohemian rebel persona was honed during a long (1981-93) stint in the U.S., where he fit right into Manhattan’s avant-garde and gallery scenes. Returning to China when his father’s health went south, he continued to push the envelope with projects in various media, including architecture — he’s best known today for the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ "Bird’s Nest" stadium design. But despite the official approval implicit in such high-profile gigs, his incessant, obdurate criticism of China’s political repressive politics and censorship — a massive installation exposing the government-suppressed names of children killed by collapsing, poorly-built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake being one prominent example — has tread dangerous ground. This scattershot but nonetheless absorbing portrait stretches its view to encompass the point at which the subject’s luck ran out: when the film was already in post-production, he was arrested, then held for two months without official charge before he was accused of alleged tax evasion. (He is now free, albeit barred from leaving China, and "suspected" of additional crimes including pornography and bigamy.) (1:31) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

The Amazing Spider-Man A mere five years after Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man 3 — forgettable on its own, sure, but 2002’s Spider-Man and especially 2004’s Spider-Man 2 still hold up — Marvel’s angsty web-slinger returns to the big screen, hoping to make its box-office mark before The Dark Knight Rises opens in a few weeks. Director Marc Webb (2009’s 500 Days of Summer) and likable stars Andrew Garfield (as the skateboard-toting hero) and Emma Stone (as his high-school squeeze) offer a competent reboot, but there’s no shaking the feeling that we’ve seen this movie before, with its familiar origin story and with-great-power themes. A little creativity, and I don’t mean in the special effects department, might’ve gone a long way to make moviegoers forget this Spidey do-over is, essentially, little more than a soulless cash grab. Not helping matters: the villain (Rhys Ifans as the Lizard) is a snooze. (2:18) (Eddy)

The Ambassador Mads Brügger’s Danish documentary might be considered a cross between Borat (2006) and Jackass — its subject impersonates a fictional character to interact with real people in a series of reckless stunts that could conceivably be fatal. But the journalist-filmmaker-protagonist is up to something considerably more serious, and dangerous, than showing Americans doing stupid pet tricks. He buys a (fake) international diplomatic credential from a European broker, then uses his status as an alleged ambassador representing Liberia to set up a gray-market trade smuggling blood diamonds under the thin cover of building a never-to-be matchstick factory in the Central African Republic. What surprises is not so much how corrupt officials make that possible at every step, but how confoundedly easy it is — even if Brügger might well be in mortal peril from time to time. Clearly, leeching money out of Africa into First World hands is everyday big business, with few questions asked and no risk of having to share the spoils with those invisible ordinary citizens whose toil (in, for instance, diamond mines) makes it all possible. All the above is filmed by hidden cameras, offering damning proof of
a trade many know about but few will actually admit exists. This amusing, appalling expose is "controversial," of course — the Liberian government and that purveyor of instant diplo-cred have already threatened legal action against Brügger for his "ethical violations" posing as someone he’s not to reveal their own very real ethical violations. Which underlines that truly corrupted people seldom have any sense of humor, or irony. (1:37) Roxie. (Harvey)

The Apparition Does this horror flick stand a ghost of a chance against its predecessors? So many bodies, so many mysteriously slammed doors, so many girl ghouls — they all surface in this obviously low-budget cash-in on the coattails of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Look to the signs: the slow build of zero-CGI/bucks tension-building devices like flung-open doors that are supposed to be locked, scarily grainy, nausea-inducing handheld video footage and spastic editing, and screams in pitch blackness—with a dash of everything from 1979’s Phantasm to Fulci to J-Horror. Prefaced by the story of psychics’ attempts to rouse a spirit, then a flashback to a group of college students’ try at recreating the séance by magnifying their brainwaves, The Apparition opens on the cute, perfectly made-up, and way-too-glamorous-for-suburbia Kelly (Ashley Greene) and her boyfriend Ben (Sebastian Stan), who have just moved into a new faceless development in the middle of nowhere, into a house her family has bought as an investment. Turns out they aren’t the only ones playing house, as the building’s alarm is continually bypassed, mysterious mold appears, and the neighbor’s adorable pup whimpers at thin air and obligingly dies in their laundry room. Matters go from bad to worst, as some invisible force does in Kelly’s cactus, messes up her closet, and blows the lights — all of which also sounds like the antics of a lousy roommate. Add in choppy, continuity-destroying editing; throwaway dialogue; music that sounds like it came from Kelly’s favorite store, Costco; overt appropriations like a slithery, long-haired ghoul girl that slimes her way out of a cardboard box; and that important, indelibly spooky image that comes far too late to count — and you’ll find yourself rooting for the fiend to put these kids out of their misery. (1:22) (Chun)

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) (Harvey)

Beasts of the Southern Wild Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d’Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn’t attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about — improbably — Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting. Benh Zeitlin’s film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. But not all is well: when "the storm" floods the land, the holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate. With its elements of magic, mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology, Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film’s cost and length. (1:31) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

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) (Eddy)

Brave Pixar’s latest is a surprisingly familiar fairy tale. Scottish princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) would rather ride her horse and shoot arrows than become engaged, but it’s Aladdin-style law that she must marry the eldest son of one of three local clans. (Each boy is so exaggeratedly unappealing that her reluctance seems less tomboy rebellion than common sense.) Her mother (Emma Thompson) is displeased; when they quarrel, Merida decides to change her fate (Little Mermaid-style) by visiting the local spell-caster (a gentle, absent-minded soul that Ursula the Sea Witch would eat for brunch). Naturally, the spell goes awry, but only the youngest of movie viewers will fear that Merida and her mother won’t be able to make things right by the end. Girl power is great, but so are suspense and originality. How, exactly, is Brave different than a zillion other Disney movies about spunky princesses? Well, Merida’s fiery explosion of red curls, so detailed it must have had its own full-time team of animators working on it, is pretty fantastic. (1:33) (Eddy)

The Bullet Vanishes Veteran Hong Kong actor Lau Ching-wan stars as a Sherlock Holmes type in 1930s Shanghai, bumped up from prison-guard detail to homicide detective by top brass impressed with his talent, if not his unusual methods. Good timing, since there’s been a series of killings at the local munitions factory, an operation run by a Scooby Doo-ish villain — in cahoots with corrupt cops — who’s prone to snappy hats and checkered overcoats. Adding to the mystery: a tragic back story involving Russian roulette and blood-written graffiti promising "The phantom bullets will kill you all!" Helping solve the crimes is Nicholas Tse as "the fastest gun in Tiancheng," no slouch of an investigator himself; together, the sleuths compile evidence and recreate scenes of murders, including one that seemingly transpired in a locked room with only one exit. The Bullet Vanishes contains more plot twists, slightly fewer steampunk flourishes, and way less slo-mo fist action than Guy Ritchie’s recent attempts at Holmes; though it’s no masterpiece, it’s a fun enough whodunit, with a reliably great and quirky performance from Lau. (2:00) (Eddy)

The Campaign (1:25)

Celeste and Jesse Forever Married your best friend, realized you love but can’t be in love with each other, and don’t want to let all those great in-jokes wither away? Such is the premise of Celeste and Jesse Forever, the latest in what a recent wave of meaty, girl-centric comedies penned by actresses — here Rashida Jones working with real-life ex Will McCormack; there, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Zoe Lister Jones (Lola Versus), and Lena Dunham (Girls) — who have gone the DIY route and whipped up their own juicy roles. There’s no mistaking theirs for your average big-screen rom-com: they dare to wallow harder, skew smarter, and in the case of Celeste, tackle the thorny, tough-to-resolve relationship dilemma that stubbornly refuses to conform to your copy-and-paste story arc. Nor do their female protagonists come off as uniformly likable: in this case, Celeste (Jones) is a bit of an aspiring LA powerbitch. Her Achilles heel is artist Jesse (Andy Samberg), the slacker high school sweetheart she wed and separated from because he doesn’t share her goals (e.g., he doesn’t have a car or a job). Yet the two continue to spend all their waking hours together and share an undeniable rapport, extending from Jesse’s encampment in her backyard apartment to their jokey simulated coitus featuring phallic-shaped lip balm. Throwing a wrench in the works: the fact that they’re still kind of in love with each other, which all their pals, like Jesse’s pot-dealer bud Skillz (McCormack), can clearly see. It’s an shaggy, everyday breakup yarn, writ glamorous by its appealing leads, that we too rarely witness, and barring the at-times nausea-inducing shaky-cam under the direction of Lee Toland Krieger, it’s rendered compelling and at times very funny — there’s no neat and tidy way to say good-bye, and Jones and McCormack do their best to capture but not encapsulate the severance and inevitable healing process. It also helps that the chemistry practically vibrates between the boyish if somewhat one-note Samberg and the soulful Jones, who fully, intelligently rises to the occasion, bringing on the heartbreak. (1:31) (Chun)

Compliance No film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival encountered as much controversy as Craig Zobel’s Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with an audience member yelling "Sundance can do better!" You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Every screening that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at Sundance, and the film did not disappoint. (Beware: every review I have happened upon has unnecessarily spoiled major plots in the film, which is based on true events.) What is so impressive about Zobel’s film is how it builds up a sense of ever-impending terror. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the film steps into Psycho (1960) terrain, as it boldly aims to confront a society filled with people who are trained to follow rules without questioning them. Magnolia Pictures, which previously collaborated with Zobel on his debut film Great World of Sound (which premiered at Sundance in 2007), picked up the film for theatrical release; if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized as well as intellectualized. You’ll be screaming about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that’s exactly why the film is so brilliant. For an interview with Zobel, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (1:30) (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

Cosmopolis With end times nigh and the 99 percent battering the gates of the establishment, it’s little wonder David Cronenberg’s rendition of the Don DeLillo novel might rotate, with the stately rhythm of a royal funeral and deliciously tongue-in-cheek humor, around one of the most famed vampire heartthrobs at the cineplex. Sadly, a recent paparazzi scandal threatens to eclipse this latest, enjoyably blighted installment in the NYC urban nightmare genre. Robert Pattinson’s billionaire asset manager Eric Packer takes meetings with his new wife Elise (Sarah Gadon) and staffers like his monetary theorist Vija (Samantha Morton) in his moving office: a white, leather-bound stretch limo that materializes like a sleek, imposing extension of his pale frame. Seriously disassociated from reality on multiple levels, Eric is a 28-year-old boy in a bubble, speaking of himself in third person and willing to spend all day making his way across town to get a haircut at his father’s old barbershop, even though his head of security (Kevin Durand) warns him that at least one "credible threat" has designs on his life. The passing of his favorite Sufi rapper (K’Naan), a possible Rothko for sale, a mad pie-thrower, and an asymmetrical prostate all threaten to capsize those, as it turns out, not-so-humble plans. Warning: the brainier members of Team Edward might plan on finding their minds blown by this thoughtful and mordantly humorous meditation on this country’s cult of money, while Cronenberg watchers will be gratified to pluck out his recurring themes, here dealt with a lighter hand than usual. At this date, rather than telegraphing how one might feel about a scene by way of, say, music, the director is increasingly comfortable with the ambiguity — and the uneasy, pleasing mix of sneaking repulsion and gimlet-eyed humor, of these scenes and their language. Thus the autoerotic-car fetishism of Crash (1996) and hallucinatory culture grazing of Naked Lunch (1991) — and that fascination with how a body intersects sexually or otherwise with a machine or "other" — seems completely natural here. Or perhaps it’s a measure of how much Cronenberg’s preoccupations and cinematic language have made themselves at home in the vernacular. (1:49) (Chun)

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) (Eddy)

The Expendables 2 (1:43)

Farewell, My Queen (Benoît Jacquot, France, 2012) Opening early on the morning of July 14, 1789, Farewell, My Queen depicts four days at the Palace of Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution, as witnessed by a young woman named Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) who serves as reader to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Sidonie displays a singular and romantic devotion to the queen, while the latter’s loyalties are split between a heedless amour propre and her grand passion for the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). These domestic matters and other regal whims loom large in the tiny galaxy of the queen’s retinue, so that while elsewhere in the palace, in shadowy, candle-lit corridors, courtiers and their servants mingle to exchange news, rumor, panicky theories, and evacuation plans, in the queen’s quarters the task of embroidering a dahlia for a projected gown at times overshadows the storming of the Bastille and the much larger catastrophe on the horizon. (1:39) (Rapoport)

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate The wuxia film is as integral to China’s cinema as the Western is to America’s — though the tradition of the "martial hero" in literature and other art forms dates back well before Clint Eastwood ever donned a serape. Still, the two genres have some notable similarities, a fact acknowledged by Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, which adopts "the good, the bad, and the ugly" as a tagline in the splashy trailer for its American release. Hardcore fans of flying swordsmen and their ilk will recognize the (ill-) fated locale of the title, previously seen in the 1962 King Hu classic Dragon Gate Inn and the 1992 Tsui-produced New Dragon Gate Inn. Flying Swords is less remake, more continuation, and it’s also the first time the dusty desert way station has been rendered in 3D IMAX. Tsui, whose trademark mix of martial arts and special FX wizardry goes back to 1983’s Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, is a prolific filmmaker who’s worked often with Flying Swords star Jet Li. Li plays Zhao Huai’an, crusading fly in the ointment of powerful eunuchs who’ve injected mass corruption into Ming Dynasty-era China. Chief among them is Eunuch Yu (Chen Kun), a preening, eyeliner’d villain intent on capturing both Zhao and a pregnant maid (Mavis Fan) who’s escaped from palace clutches. The cast expands to include a taciturn woman in disguise (Zhou Xun, as butched up here as her Painted Skin: The Resurrection co-star Chen is camp-ified) and multiple ne’er-do-wells, all of whom descend upon Dragon Gate Inn as a massive sandstorm looms on the horizon. Alliances form (and are betrayed), schemes are launched (and botched), and the fight scenes — acrobatic and dynamic, with airborne tables, snapping chains, razor-sharp wires, and clashing swords — are mind- and eardrum-blowing. (2:01) (Eddy)

For a Good Time, Call&ldots; Suffering the modern-day dilemmas of elapsed rent control and boyfriend douchebaggery, sworn enemies Katie (Ari Graynor) and Lauren (Lauren Miller) find themselves shacking up in Katie’s highly covetable Manhattan apartment, brought together on a stale cloud of resentment by mutual bestie Jesse (Justin Long, gamely delivering a believable version of your standard-issue young hipster NYC gay boy). The domestic glacier begins to melt somewhere around the time that Lauren discovers Katie is working a phone-sex hotline from her bedroom; equipped with a good head for business, she offers to help her go freelance for a cut of the proceeds. Major profitability ensues, as does a friendship evoking the pair bonding at the center of your garden-variety romantic comedy, as Katie trains Lauren to be a phone-sex operator and the two share everything from pinkie swears and matching pink touch-tone phones to intimate secrets and the occasional hotline threesome. Directed by Jamie Travis and adapted from a screenplay by Miller and Katie Anne Naylon, the film is a welcome response to the bromance genre, and with any luck it may also introduce linguistic felicities like "phone-banging" and "let’s get this fuckshow started" into the larger culture. The raunchy telephonic interludes include cameos by Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen (Miller’s husband) as customers calling from such unfurtive locations as a public bathroom stall and the front seat of a taxicab. But the two roomies supply plenty of dirty as Katie, an abashed wearer of velour and denim pantsuits, helps the more restrained Lauren discover the joys of setting free her inner potty mouth. (1:25) (Rapoport)

Hermano As a child, Julio (Eliu Armas) discovered foundling Daniel (Fernando Moreno) abandoned in a dumpster; taken in by the former’s mom (Marcela Giron), the two boys are raised as brothers. They’re close as can be, even if Julio is physically slight, shy, and straight-arrow, while strapping Daniel is a born leader and survivor quite willing to cross the legal line when it serves his purposes. One area in which they’re of the same mind is the soccer field, where both (especially Daniel) are talented players with hopes of going pro. But that seems a remote dream in their violence-ridden slum. Marcel Rasquin’s Venezuelan sports-crime drama is built on some hoary clichés — the "good" brother/"bad" brother dynamic, the tragedy that sparks revenge that sparks more tragedy, etc. — but is so unpretentious, energetic, sincere. and well-cast that skeptical resistance is futile. It’s a modest movie, but a true, satisfying pleasure. (1:37) (Harvey)

Hit and Run Annie (Kristen Bell) has a Stanford doctorate but is treading in the academic backwaters until the prospect is raised of an ideal department-heading position at UCLA. She’s thrilled, but also conflicted, because live-in beau Charlie (Dax Shepard) is in the Federal Witness Protection program, and can’t leave the nowhere burg he lives in incognito — particularly for Los Angeles — without risking serious personal harm. However, for love he decides he’ll risk everything so she can take the job. Unfortunately, this fast attracts the attention of various people very much interested in halting this exodus, for various reasons: notably Charlie’s inept U.S. Marshall "protector" (Tom Arnold), Annie’s psycho ex (Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum), and a guy with an even more serious grudge against Charlie (Bradley Cooper in a dreadlock wig). A whole lot of wacky chases and stunt driving ensues. The second feature Shepard’s co-directed (with David Palmer) and written, this aims for a cross between 1970s drive-in demolition derbies (1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, 1974’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, etc.) and envelope-pushing comedy thrillers like 1993’s True Romance. There’s a lot of comic talent here, including some notable cameos, yet Hit and Run is one of those cases where the material is almost there, but not quite. It moves breezily enough but some of the characters are more annoying than funny; the dialogue is an awkward mix of bad taste and PC debates about bad taste; and some ideas that aim to be hilarious and subversive (naked old people, a long discussion about jailhouse rape) just sit there, painfully. Which makes this only the second-best Dax Shepard movie with incarceration rape jokes, after 2006’s Let’s Go to Prison. (1:38) (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) (Rapoport)

The Imposter A family tragedy, an international thriller, a Southern-fried mystery, and a true story: The Imposter is all of these things. This unique documentary reveals the tale of Frédéric Bourdin, dubbed "the Chameleon" for his epic false-identity habit. His ballsiest accomplishment was also his most heinous con: in 1997, he claimed to be Nicholas Barclay, a San Antonio teen missing since 1994. Amazingly, the impersonation worked for a time, though Bourdin (early 20s, brown-eyed, speaks English with a French accent) hardly resembled Nicholas (who would have been 16, and had blue eyes). Using interviews — with Nicholas’ shell-shocked family, government types who unwittingly aided the charade, and Bourdin himself — and ingenious re-enactments that borrow more from crime dramas than America’s Most Wanted, director Bart Layton weaves a multi-layered chronicle of one man’s unbelievable deception. (1:39) (Eddy)

The Intouchables Cries of "racism" seem a bit out of hand when it comes to this likable albeit far-from-challenging French comedy loosely based on a real-life relationship between a wealthy white quadriplegic and his caretaker of color. The term "cliché" is more accurate. And where were these critics when 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy and 2011’s The Help — movies that seem designed to make nostalgic honkies feel good about those fraught relationships skewed to their advantage—were coming down the pike? (It also might be more interesting to look at how these films about race always hinge on economies in which whites must pay blacks to interact with/educate/enlighten them.) In any case, Omar Sy, portraying Senegalese immigrant Driss, threatens to upset all those pundits’ apple carts with his sheer life force, even when he’s shaking solo on the dance floor to sounds as effortlessly unprovocative, and old-school, as Earth, Wind, and Fire. In fact, everything about The Intouchables is as old school as 1982’s 48 Hrs., spinning off the still laugh-grabbing humor that comes with juxtaposing a hipper, more streetwise black guy with a hapless, moneyed chalky. The wheelchair-bound Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is more vulnerable than most, and he has a hard time getting along with any of his nurses, until he meets Driss, who only wants his signature for his social services papers. It’s not long before the cultured, classical music-loving Philippe’s defenses are broken down by Driss’ flip, somewhat honest take on the follies and pretensions of high culture — a bigger deal in France than in the new world, no doubt. Director-writer Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano aren’t trying to innovate —they seem more set on crafting an effervescent blockbuster that out-blockbusters Hollywood — and the biggest compliment might be that the stateside remake is already rumored to be in the works. (1:52) (Chun)

Killer Joe William Friedkin made two enormously popular movies that have defined his career (1971’s The French Connection and 1973’s The Exorcist), but his resumé also contains an array of lesser films that are both hit-and-miss in critical and popular appeal. Most have their defenders. After a couple biggish action movies, it seemed a step down for him to be doing Bug in 2006; though it had its limits as a psychological quasi-horror, you could feel the cracking recognition of like minds between cast, director, and playwright Tracy Letts. Letts and Friedkin are back in Killer Joe, which was a significant off-Broadway success in 1998. In the short, violent, and bracing film version, Friedkin gets the ghoulish jet-black-comedic tone just right, and his actors let themselves get pushed way out on a limb to their great benefit — including Matthew McConaughey, playing the title character, who’s hired by the Smith clan of Texas to bump off a troublesome family member. Needless to say, almost nothing goes as planned, escalating mayhem to new heights of trailer-trash Grand Guignol. Things get fugly to the point where Killer Joe becomes one of those movies whose various abuses are shocking enough to court charges of gratuitous violence and misogyny; unlike the 2010 Killer Inside Me, for instance, it can’t really be justified as a commentary upon those very entertainment staples. (Letts is highly skilled, but those looking for a message here will have to think one up for themselves.) Still, Friedkin and his cast do such good work that Killer Joe‘s grimly humorous satisfaction in its worst possible scenarios seems quite enough. (1:43) (Harvey)

Lawless Lawless has got to be the most pretentiously humorless movie ever made about moonshiners — a criminal subset whose adventures onscreen have almost always been rambunctious and breezy, even when violent. Not here, bub. Adapting Matt Bondurant’s fact-inspired novel The Wettest County in the World about his family’s very colorful times a couple generations back, director John Hillcoat and scenarist (as well as, natch, composer) Nick Cave have made one of those films in which the characters are presented to you as if already immortalized on Mount Rushmore — monumental, legendary, a bit stony. They’ve got a crackling story about war between hillbilly booze suppliers and corrupt lawmen during Prohibition, and while the results aren’t dull (they’re too bloody for that, anyway), they’d be a whole lot better if the entire enterprise didn’t take itself so gosh darned seriously. The Bondurant brothers of Franklin County, Va. are considered "legends" when we meet them in 1931, having defied all and sundry as well as survived a few bullets: mack-truck-built Forrest (Tom Hardy); eldest Howard (Jason Clarke), who tipples and smiles a lot; and "runt of the litter" Jack (Shia LeBeouf), who has a chip on his shoulder. The local law looks the other way so long as their palms are greased, but the Feds send sneering Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), it’s an eye for an eye for an eye, etc. The revenge-laden action in Lawless is engaging, but the filmmakers are trying so hard to make it all resonant and folkloric and meta-cinematic, any fun you have is in spite of their efforts. (1:55) (Harvey)

Little White Lies In the wake of a serious accident that puts magnetic Ludo (Jean Dujardin, just briefly seen) in the hospital, his circle of closest friends go without him on their annual vacation at a beachfront summer home, courtesy of well-off restaurateur Max (Francois Cluzet) and wife Vero (Valerie Bonneton). But this year they’ve all got a lot of drama going on. Marie (Marion Cotillard) is suffering the uncomfortable consequences of all the lovers (male and female) she’s run out on when "commitment" reared its head. Similarly, the roving eye of actor Eric (Gilles Lellouche) threatens the stable relationship he’s finally sorta settled on. Hapless boy-man Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) obsesses over the longtime girlfriend who’s dumping him. And Vincent (Benoit Magimel) endangers his marriage to Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot) by privately proclaiming more-than-platonic love for best friend Max — whose discomfort manifests itself in hostile behaviors that threaten to ruin everyone’s stay. Actor Guillaume Canet’s third film as writer-director (following the 2006 hit thriller Tell No One) has been compared, even by himself, to 1983’s The Big Chill. But while that slick, somewhat glib seriocomedy’s characters had 1960s activist pasts and faded ideals to square with encroaching midlife, this slicker, glibber ensemble piece is about people who’ve never shared much more than good times and mutual self-absorption. Though Canet has worked with most of these actors before, and developed Lies in collaboration with them, the thinly amusing, often contrived results hardly tax anyone’s resources. (Nor are they equal-opportunity: star attraction Cotillard aside, he barely seems interested in the women here.) It takes two and a half hours for this overblown fluff to arrive at a group-hug freeze frame (ugh), aiming for emotional heft it still hasn’t earned. (2:34) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Moonrise Kingdom Does Wes Anderson’s new film mark a live-action return to form after 2007’s disappointingly wan Darjeeling Limited? More or less. Does it tick all the Andersonian style and content boxes? Indubitably. In the most obvious deviation Anderson has taken with Moonrise, he gives us his first period piece, a romance set in 1965 on a fictional island off the New England coast. After a chance encounter at a church play, pre-teen Khaki Scout Sam (newcomer Jared Gilman) instantly falls for the raven-suited, sable-haired Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, ditto). The two become pen pals, and quickly bond over the shared misery of being misunderstood by both authority figures and fellow kids. The bespectacled Sam is an orphan, ostracized by his foster parents and scout troop (much to the dismay of its straight-arrow leader Edward Norton). Suzy despises her clueless attorney parents, played with gusto by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand in some of the film’s funniest and best scenes. When the two kids run off together, the whole thing begins to resemble a kind of tween version of Godard’s 1965 lovers-on the-lam fantasia Pierrot le Fou. But like most of Anderson’s stuff, it has a gauzy sentimentality more akin to Truffaut than Godard. Imagine if the sequence in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums where Margot and Richie run away to the Museum of Natural History had been given the feature treatment: it’s a simple yet inspired idea, and it becomes a charming little tale of the perils of growing up and selling out the fantasy. But it doesn’t feel remotely risky. It’s simply too damn tame. (1:37) (Michelle Devereaux)

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2:05)

The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure (1:28)

ParaNorman (1:32)

The Possession (1:31)

Premium Rush "Fixed gear. Steel frame. No brakes. Can’t stop … don’t want to." Thus goes the gear breakdown and personal philosophy of New York City bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an aggro rider who uses his law school-refined brain to make split-second decisions regarding which way to dart through Midtown traffic. Though bike messengers had a pop culture moment in the 1990s, Premium Rush is set in the present day, with one of Wilee’s numerous voice-overs explaining the job’s continued importance even in the digital era. One such example: a certain envelope he’s tasked with ferrying across the city, given to him by the troubled roommate (Jamie Chung) of the pretty fellow messenger (Dania Ramirez) he’s romantically pursuing. The contents of the envelope, and the teeth-gnashingly evil-cop-with-a-gambling-problem (Michael Shannon, adding some weird flair to what’s essentially a stock villain) who would dearly love to get his mitts on it, are less crucial to Premium Rush than the film’s many, many chase scenes featuring Wilee outwitting all comers with his two-wheeled Frogger moves. Silly fun from director David Koepp (2008’s Ghost Town), but not essential unless you’re a fixie fanatic or a JGL completist. (1:31) (Eddy)

The Queen of Versailles Lauren Greenfield’s obscenely entertaining The Queen of Versailles takes a long, turbulent look at the lifestyles lived by David and Jackie Siegel. He is the 70-something undisputed king of timeshares; she is his 40-something (third) wife, a former beauty queen with the requisite blonde locks and major rack, both probably not entirely Mother Nature-made. He’s so compulsive that he’s never saved, instead plowing every buck back into the business. When the recession hits, that means this billionaire is — in ready-cash as opposed to paper terms — suddenly sorta kinda broke, just as an enormous Las Vegas project is opening and the family’s stupefyingly large new "home" (yep, modeled after Versailles) is mid-construction. Plugs must be pulled, corners cut. Never having had to, the Siegels discover (once most of the servants have been let go) they have no idea how to run a household. Worse, they discover that in adversity they have a very hard time pulling together — in particular, David is revealed as a remote, cold, obsessively all-business person who has no use for getting or giving "emotional support;" not even for being a husband or father, much. What ultimately makes Queen poignantly more than a reality-TV style peek at the garishly wealthy is that Jackie, despite her incredibly vulgar veneer (she’s like a Jennifer Coolidge character, forever squeezed into loud animal prints), is at heart just a nice girl from hicksville who really, really wants to make this family work. (1:40) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Red Hook Summer It seems like lifetimes ago that Michelle and Barack found each other beneath the flicker of filmmaker Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), so the director-cowriter’s cameo in his now-graying, still-pizza-delivering Mookie guise, in this hot, bothered return to Brooklyn, reverberates with meaning. Less polemical and now complicated by an acute, confused love and loathing for certain places and faces, Red Hook Summer takes a different tact — the Red Hook projects rather than the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant — and narrows its focus on Flik Royale (Jules Brown), the reluctant young visitor to the humble home of his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters from Treme and The Wire). A true child of his time and place, the introverted, rebellious Atlanta kid would rather hide behind his favorite screen, a.k.a. the iPad that he’s using to document his world, than engage with reality, even when it’s raging in his face by way of his grandfather’s fiery sermons or threats from the glowering rapper Box (Nate Parker). Only a charismatic girl his age, Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith), seems to get through, despite the Bishop’s passionate efforts to bond with the boy. Alas, Lee himself doesn’t seem to quite get his youthful protagonist — one who’s predisposed to turn inward rather than turn a politicized lens outward — and instead casts about restlessly to the detriment of this supposed coming-of-age narrative. No shock that somehow Red Hook Summer gets caught in the undertow of the magnetic Peters, who will turn heads with his take on a tormented believer, eager to forgive and equally hopeful for forgiveness. (2:01) (Chun)

Robot and Frank Imagine the all-too-placid deadpan of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) coming out of a home-healthcare worker, and you get just part of the appeal of this very likable comedy debut with a nonrobotic pulse directed by Jake Schreier. Sometime in the indeterminate near future, former jewel thief and second-story man Frank (Frank Langella) can be found quietly deteriorating in his isolated home, increasingly forgettable and unable to care for himself and assemble a decent bowl of Cap’n Crunch (though he can still steal fancy soaps from the village boutique). In an effort to cover his own busy rear, Frank’s distracted son (James Marsden) buys him a highly efficient robotic stand-in (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), much to his father’s grim resistance ("That thing is going to murder me in my sleep") and the dismay of crunchy sibling Madison (Liv Tyler). The robot, however, is smarter than it looks, as it bargains with Frank to eat better, get healthier, and generally reanimate: it’s willing to learn to pick locks, participate in a robbery, and even plan a jewel heist, provided, say, Frank agrees to a low-sodium diet. Frank flourishes, like the garden the robot nurtures in a vain attempt to interest his human charge, and even goes on a date with his librarian crush (Susan Sarandon), though can the self-indulgent idyll last forever? A tale about aging as much as it is about rediscovery, Robot tells an old story, but one that’s wise beyond its years and willing to dress itself up in some of the smooth, sleek surfaces of an iGeneration. (1:30) (Chun)

Ruby Sparks Meta has rarely skewed as appealingly as with this indie rom-com spinning off a writerly version of the Pygmalion and Galatea tale, as penned by the object-of-desire herself: Zoe Kazan. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris helm this heady fantasy about a crumpled, geeky novelist, Calvin (Paul Dano), who’s suffering from the sophomore slump — he can’t seem to break his rock-solid writers block and pen a follow-up to his hit debut. He’s a victim of his own success, especially when he finally begins to write, about a dream girl, a fun-loving, redheaded artist named Ruby (scriptwriter Kazan), who one day actually materializes. When he types that she speaks nothing but French, out comes a stream of the so-called language of diplomacy. Calvin soon discovers the limits and dangers of creation — say, the hazards of tweaking a manifestation when she doesn’t do what you desire, and the question of what to do when one’s baby Frankenstein grows bored and restless in the narrow circle of her creator’s imagination. Kazan — and Dayton and Faris — go to the absurd, even frightening, limits of the age-old Pygmalion conceit, giving it a feminist charge, while helped along by a cornucopia of colorful cameos by actors like Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s boho mom and her furniture-building boyfriend. Dano is as adorably befuddled as ever and adds the crucial texture of every-guy reality, though ultimately this is Kazan’s show, whether she’s testing the boundaries of a genuinely codependent relationship or tugging at the puppeteer’s strings. (1:44) (Chun)

Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter’s stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock’n’roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician — long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) (Chun)

Sleepwalk with Me Every year lots of movies get made by actors and comedians who want to showcase themselves, usually writing and often directing in addition to starring. Most of these are pretty bad, and after a couple of festival appearances disappear, unremembered by anyone save the credit card companies that vastly benefited from its creation. Mike Birbiglia’s first feature is an exception — maybe not an entirely surprising one (since it’s based on his highly praised Off-Broadway solo show and best-seller), but still odds-bucking. Particularly as it’s an autobiographical feeling story about an aspiring stand-up comic (Mike as Matt) who unfortunately doesn’t seem to have much natural talent in that direction, but nonetheless obsessively perseveres. This pursuit of seemingly fore destined failure might be causing his sleep disorder, or it might be a means of avoiding taking the martial next step with long-term girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose, making something special out of a conventional reactive role) everyone else agrees is the best thing in his life. Yep, it’s another commitment-phobic man-boy/funny guy who regularly talks to the camera, trying to find himself while quirky friends and family stand around like trampoline spotters watching a determined clod. If all of these sounds derivative and indulgent, well, it ought to. But Sleepwalk turns a host of familiar, hardly foolproof ideas into astute, deftly performed, consistently amusing comedy with just enough seriousness for ballast. Additional points for "I zinged him" being the unlikely most gut-busting line here. (1:30) (Harvey)

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) (Eddy)

Ted Ah, boys and their toys — and the imaginary friends that mirror back a forever-after land of perpetual Peter Pans. That’s the crux of the surprisingly smart, hilarious Ted, aimed at an audience comprising a wide range of classes, races, and cultures with its mix of South Park go-there yuks and rom-commie coming-of-age sentiment. Look at Ted as a pop-culture-obsessed nerd tweak on dream critter-spirit animal buddy efforts from Harvey (1950) to Donnie Darko (2001) to TV’s Wilfred. Of course, we all know that the really untamable creature here wobbles around on two legs, laden with big-time baggage about growing up and moving on from childhood loves. Young John doesn’t have many friends but he is fortunate enough to have his Christmas wish come true: his beloved new teddy bear, Ted (voice by director-writer Seth MacFarlane), begins to talk back and comes to life. With that miracle, too, comes Ted’s marginal existence as a D-list celebrity curiosity — still, he’s the loyal "Thunder Buddy" that’s always there for the now-grown John (Mark Wahlberg), ready with a bong and a broheim-y breed of empathy that involves too much TV, an obsession with bad B-movies, and mock fisticuffs, just the thing when storms move in and mundane reality rolls through. With his tendency to spew whatever profanity-laced thought comes into his head and his talents are a ladies’ bear, Ted is the id of a best friend that enables all of John’s most memorable, un-PC, Hangover-style shenanigans. Alas, John’s cool girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) threatens that tidy fantasy setup with her perfectly reasonable relationship demands. Juggling scary emotions and material that seems so specific that it can’t help but charm — you’ve got to love a shot-by-shot re-creation of a key Flash Gordon scene — MacFarlane sails over any resistance you, Lori, or your superego might harbor about this scenario with the ease of a man fully in touch with his inner Ted. (1:46) (Chun)

To Rome with Love Woody Allen’s film legacy is not like anybody else’s. At present, however, he suffers from a sense that he’s been too prolific for too long. It’s been nearly two decades since a new Woody Allen was any kind of "event," and the 19 features since Bullets Over Broadway (1994) have been hit and-miss. Still, there’s the hope that Allen is still capable of really surprising us — or that his audience might, as they did by somewhat inexplicably going nuts for 2011’s Midnight in Paris. It was Allen’s most popular film in eons, if not ever, probably helped by the fact that he wasn’t in it. Unfortunately, he’s up there again in the new To Rome With Love, familiar mannerisms not hiding the fact that Woody Allen the Nebbish has become just another Grumpy Old Man. There’s a doddering quality that isn’t intended, and is no longer within his control. But then To Rome With Love is a doddering picture — a postcard-pretty set of pictures with little more than "Have a nice day" scribbled on the back in script terms. Viewers expecting more of the travelogue pleasantness of Midnight in Paris may be forgiving, especially since it looks like a vacation, with Darius Khondji’s photography laying on the golden Italian light and making all the other colors confectionary as well. But if Paris at least had the kernel of a good idea, Rome has only several inexplicably bad ones; it’s a quartet of interwoven stories that have no substance, point, credibility, or even endearing wackiness. The shiny package can only distract so much from the fact that there’s absolutely nothing inside. (1:52) (Harvey)

Total Recall Already the source material for Paul Verhoeven’s campy, quotable 1990 film (starring the campy, quotable Arnold Schwarzenegger), Philip K. Dick’s short story gets a Hollywood do-over, with meh results. The story, anyway, is a fine nugget of sci-fi paranoia: to escape his unsatisfying life, Quaid (Colin Farrell) visits a company capable of implanting exciting memories into his brain. When he chooses the "secret agent" option, it’s soon revealed he actually does have secret agent-type memories, suppressed via brain-fuckery by sinister government forces (led by Bryan Cranston) keeping him in the dark about his true identity. Shit immediately gets crazy, with high-flying chases and secret codes and fight scenes all over the place. The woman Quaid thinks is his wife (Kate Beckinsale) is actually a slithery killer; the woman he’s been seeing in his dreams (Jessica Biel) turns out to be his comrade in a secret rebel movement. Len Wiseman (writer and sometimes director of the Underworld films) lenses futuristic urban grime with a certain sleek panache, and Farrell is appealing enough to make highly generic hero Quaid someone worth rooting for — until the movie ends, and the entire enterprise (save perhaps the tri-boobed hooker, a holdover from the original) becomes instantly forgettable, no amnesia trickery required. (1:58) (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) Smith Rafael. (Chun)

Film Listings

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, and Lynn Rapoport. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.

OPENING

The Ambassador Mads Brügger’s Danish documentary might be considered a cross between Borat (2006) and Jackass — its subject impersonates a fictional character to interact with real people in a series of reckless stunts that could conceivably be fatal. But the journalist-filmmaker-protagonist is up to something considerably more serious, and dangerous, than showing Americans doing stupid pet tricks. He buys a (fake) international diplomatic credential from a European broker, then uses his status as an alleged ambassador representing Liberia to set up a gray-market trade smuggling blood diamonds under the thin cover of building a never-to-be matchstick factory in the Central African Republic. What surprises is not so much how corrupt officials make that possible at every step, but how confoundedly easy it is — even if Brügger might well be in mortal peril from time to time. Clearly, leeching money out of Africa into First World hands is everyday big business, with few questions asked and no risk of having to share the spoils with those invisible ordinary citizens whose toil (in, for instance, diamond mines) makes it all possible. All the above is filmed by hidden cameras, offering damning proof of a trade many know about but few will actually admit exists. This amusing, appalling expose is “controversial,” of course — the Liberian government and that purveyor of instant diplo-cred have already threatened legal action against Brügger for his “ethical violations” posing as someone he’s not to reveal their own very real ethical violations. Which underlines that truly corrupted people seldom have any sense of humor, or irony. (1:37) Roxie. (Harvey)

The Bullet Vanishes Veteran Hong Kong actor Lau Ching-wan stars as a Sherlock Holmes type in 1930s Shanghai, bumped up from prison-guard detail to homicide detective by top brass impressed with his talent, if not his unusual methods. Good timing, since there’s been a series of killings at the local munitions factory, an operation run by a Scooby Doo-ish villain — in cahoots with corrupt cops — who’s prone to snappy hats and checkered overcoats. Adding to the mystery: a tragic back story involving Russian roulette and blood-written graffiti promising “The phantom bullets will kill you all!” Helping solve the crimes is Nicholas Tse as “the fastest gun in Tiancheng,” no slouch of an investigator himself; together, the sleuths compile evidence and recreate scenes of murders, including one that seemingly transpired in a locked room with only one exit. The Bullet Vanishes contains more plot twists, slightly fewer steampunk flourishes, and way less slo-mo fist action than Guy Ritchie’s recent attempts at Holmes; though it’s no masterpiece, it’s a fun enough whodunit, with a reliably great and quirky performance from Lau. (2:00) Metreon. (Eddy)

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate See “Live By the Sword.” (2:01) Bay Street 16 Emeryville, Mercado 20 Santa Clara.

For a Good Time, Call&ldots; Suffering the modern-day dilemmas of elapsed rent control and boyfriend douchebaggery, sworn enemies Katie (Ari Graynor) and Lauren (Lauren Miller) find themselves shacking up in Katie’s highly covetable Manhattan apartment, brought together on a stale cloud of resentment by mutual bestie Jesse (Justin Long, gamely delivering a believable version of your standard-issue young hipster NYC gay boy). The domestic glacier begins to melt somewhere around the time that Lauren discovers Katie is working a phone-sex hotline from her bedroom; equipped with a good head for business, she offers to help her go freelance for a cut of the proceeds. Major profitability ensues, as does a friendship evoking the pair bonding at the center of your garden-variety romantic comedy, as Katie trains Lauren to be a phone-sex operator and the two share everything from pinkie swears and matching pink touch-tone phones to intimate secrets and the occasional hotline threesome. Directed by Jamie Travis and adapted from a screenplay by Miller and Katie Anne Naylon, the film is a welcome response to the bromance genre, and with any luck it may also introduce linguistic felicities like “phone-banging” and “let’s get this fuckshow started” into the larger culture. The raunchy telephonic interludes include cameos by Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen (Miller’s husband) as customers calling from such unfurtive locations as a public bathroom stall and the front seat of a taxicab. But the two roomies supply plenty of dirty as Katie, an abashed wearer of velour and denim pantsuits, helps the more restrained Lauren discover the joys of setting free her inner potty mouth. (1:25) (Rapoport)

Lawless See “Heavy Drinking.” (1:55) California, Four Star, Marina, Vogue.

Little White Lies In the wake of a serious accident that puts magnetic Ludo (Jean Dujardin, just briefly seen) in the hospital, his circle of closest friends go without him on their annual vacation at a beachfront summer home, courtesy of well-off restaurateur Max (Francois Cluzet) and wife Vero (Valerie Bonneton). But this year they’ve all got a lot of drama going on. Marie (Marion Cotillard) is suffering the uncomfortable consequences of all the lovers (male and female) she’s run out on when “commitment” reared its head. Similarly, the roving eye of actor Eric (Gilles Lellouche) threatens the stable relationship he’s finally sorta settled on. Hapless boy-man Antoine (Laurent Lafitte) obsesses over the longtime girlfriend who’s dumping him. And Vincent (Benoit Magimel) endangers his marriage to Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot) by privately proclaiming more-than-platonic love for best friend Max — whose discomfort manifests itself in hostile behaviors that threaten to ruin everyone’s stay. Actor Guillaume Canet’s third film as writer-director (following the 2006 hit thriller Tell No One) has been compared, even by himself, to 1983’s The Big Chill. But while that slick, somewhat glib seriocomedy’s characters had 1960s activist pasts and faded ideals to square with encroaching midlife, this slicker, glibber ensemble piece is about people who’ve never shared much more than good times and mutual self-absorption. Though Canet has worked with most of these actors before, and developed Lies in collaboration with them, the thinly amusing, often contrived results hardly tax anyone’s resources. (Nor are they equal-opportunity: star attraction Cotillard aside, he barely seems interested in the women here.) It takes two and a half hours for this overblown fluff to arrive at a group-hug freeze frame (ugh), aiming for emotional heft it still hasn’t earned. (2:34) Albany, Bridge, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure Strictly for kids and parents, this comedy starring costumed characters encourages audience members to sing and dance along with the action. (1:28)

The Possession What kind of an asshole sells an antique box filled with supernatural evil to a child at a yard sale? Ticked-off father Jeffrey Dean Morgan would like to have a word with you. (1:31) Shattuck.

Red Hook Summer It seems like lifetimes ago that Michelle and Barack found each other beneath the flicker of filmmaker Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), so the director-cowriter’s cameo in his now-graying, still-pizza-delivering Mookie guise, in this hot, bothered return to Brooklyn, reverberates with meaning. Less polemical and now complicated by an acute, confused love and loathing for certain places and faces, Red Hook Summer takes a different tact — the Red Hook projects rather than the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant — and narrows its focus on Flik Royale (Jules Brown), the reluctant young visitor to the humble home of his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters from Treme and The Wire). A true child of his time and place, the introverted, rebellious Atlanta kid would rather hide behind his favorite screen, a.k.a. the iPad that he’s using to document his world, than engage with reality, even when it’s raging in his face by way of his grandfather’s fiery sermons or threats from the glowering rapper Box (Nate Parker). Only a charismatic girl his age, Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith), seems to get through, despite the Bishop’s passionate efforts to bond with the boy. Alas, Lee himself doesn’t seem to quite get his youthful protagonist — one who’s predisposed to turn inward rather than turn a politicized lens outward — and instead casts about restlessly to the detriment of this supposed coming-of-age narrative. No shock that somehow Red Hook Summer gets caught in the undertow of the magnetic Peters, who will turn heads with his take on a tormented believer, eager to forgive and equally hopeful for forgiveness. (2:01) Metreon, Shattuck. (Chun)

Sleepwalk with Me Every year lots of movies get made by actors and comedians who want to showcase themselves, usually writing and often directing in addition to starring. Most of these are pretty bad, and after a couple of festival appearances disappear, unremembered by anyone save the credit card companies that vastly benefited from its creation. Mike Birbiglia’s first feature is an exception — maybe not an entirely surprising one (since it’s based on his highly praised Off-Broadway solo show and best-seller), but still odds-bucking. Particularly as it’s an autobiographical feeling story about an aspiring stand-up comic (Mike as Matt) who unfortunately doesn’t seem to have much natural talent in that direction, but nonetheless obsessively perseveres. This pursuit of seemingly fore destined failure might be causing his sleep disorder, or it might be a means of avoiding taking the martial next step with long-term girlfriend (Lauren Ambrose, making something special out of a conventional reactive role) everyone else agrees is the best thing in his life. Yep, it’s another commitment-phobic man-boy/funny guy who regularly talks to the camera, trying to find himself while quirky friends and family stand around like trampoline spotters watching a determined clod. If all of these sounds derivative and indulgent, well, it ought to. But Sleepwalk turns a host of familiar, hardly foolproof ideas into astute, deftly performed, consistently amusing comedy with just enough seriousness for ballast. Additional points for “I zinged him” being the unlikely most gut-busting line here. (1:30) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)

ONGOING

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry Unstoppable force meets immovable object — and indeed gets stopped — in Alison Klayman’s documentary about China’s most famous contemporary artist. A larger than life figure, Ai Weiwei’s bohemian rebel persona was honed during a long (1981-93) stint in the U.S., where he fit right into Manhattan’s avant-garde and gallery scenes. Returning to China when his father’s health went south, he continued to push the envelope with projects in various media, including architecture — he’s best known today for the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ “Bird’s Nest” stadium design. But despite the official approval implicit in such high-profile gigs, his incessant, obdurate criticism of China’s political repressive politics and censorship — a massive installation exposing the government-suppressed names of children killed by collapsing, poorly-built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake being one prominent example — has tread dangerous ground. This scattershot but nonetheless absorbing portrait stretches its view to encompass the point at which the subject’s luck ran out: when the film was already in post-production, he was arrested, then held for two months without official charge before he was accused of alleged tax evasion. (He is now free, albeit barred from leaving China, and “suspected” of additional crimes including pornography and bigamy.) (1:31) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Alps Yorgos Lanthimos is well on his way to a reputation for sick yet oddly charming high-concept spectacles. Here, a group calling themselves Alps offers substitution services for the recently bereaved — that’s right, they’ll play your dead loved one to fill that hole in your life. Pitch-black comic moments abound, and the sensibility that made 2009’s Dogtooth so thrilling is distinctly present here, if not quite as fresh. Beyond the absurd logline, the plot is rather more conventional: things get out of hand when Alps member Anna (Aggeliki Papoulia, the eldest daughter from Dogtooth) gets too invested in one of her assignments, and the power structure of Alps turns on her. If Alps is not exactly a revelation, it’s still a promising entry in a quickly blossoming auteur’s body of work. (1:33) Roxie. (Sam Stander)

The Amazing Spider-Man A mere five years after Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man 3 — forgettable on its own, sure, but 2002’s Spider-Man and especially 2004’s Spider-Man 2 still hold up — Marvel’s angsty web-slinger returns to the big screen, hoping to make its box-office mark before The Dark Knight Rises opens in a few weeks. Director Marc Webb (2009’s 500 Days of Summer) and likable stars Andrew Garfield (as the skateboard-toting hero) and Emma Stone (as his high-school squeeze) offer a competent reboot, but there’s no shaking the feeling that we’ve seen this movie before, with its familiar origin story and with-great-power themes. A little creativity, and I don’t mean in the special effects department, might’ve gone a long way to make moviegoers forget this Spidey do-over is, essentially, little more than a soulless cash grab. Not helping matters: the villain (Rhys Ifans as the Lizard) is a snooze. (2:18) Metreon. (Eddy)

The Apparition Does this horror flick stand a ghost of a chance against its predecessors? So many bodies, so many mysteriously slammed doors, so many girl ghouls — they all surface in this obviously low-budget cash-in on the coattails of the Paranormal Activity franchise. Look to the signs: the slow build of zero-CGI/bucks tension-building devices like flung-open doors that are supposed to be locked, scarily grainy, nausea-inducing handheld video footage and spastic editing, and screams in pitch blackness—with a dash of everything from 1979’s Phantasm to Fulci to J-Horror. Prefaced by the story of psychics’ attempts to rouse a spirit, then a flashback to a group of college students’ try at recreating the séance by magnifying their brainwaves, The Apparition opens on the cute, perfectly made-up, and way-too-glamorous-for-suburbia Kelly (Ashley Greene) and her boyfriend Ben (Sebastian Stan), who have just moved into a new faceless development in the middle of nowhere, into a house her family has bought as an investment. Turns out they aren’t the only ones playing house, as the building’s alarm is continually bypassed, mysterious mold appears, and the neighbor’s adorable pup whimpers at thin air and obligingly dies in their laundry room. Matters go from bad to worst, as some invisible force does in Kelly’s cactus, messes up her closet, and blows the lights — all of which also sounds like the antics of a lousy roommate. Add in choppy, continuity-destroying editing; throwaway dialogue; music that sounds like it came from Kelly’s favorite store, Costco; overt appropriations like a slithery, long-haired ghoul girl that slimes her way out of a cardboard box; and that important, indelibly spooky image that comes far too late to count — and you’ll find yourself rooting for the fiend to put these kids out of their misery. (1:22) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

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) Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Beasts of the Southern Wild Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d’Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn’t attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about — improbably — Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting. Benh Zeitlin’s film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. But not all is well: when “the storm” floods the land, the holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate. With its elements of magic, mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology, Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film’s cost and length. (1:31) California, Embarcadero, Presidio, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

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) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Brave Pixar’s latest is a surprisingly familiar fairy tale. Scottish princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) would rather ride her horse and shoot arrows than become engaged, but it’s Aladdin-style law that she must marry the eldest son of one of three local clans. (Each boy is so exaggeratedly unappealing that her reluctance seems less tomboy rebellion than common sense.) Her mother (Emma Thompson) is displeased; when they quarrel, Merida decides to change her fate (Little Mermaid-style) by visiting the local spell-caster (a gentle, absent-minded soul that Ursula the Sea Witch would eat for brunch). Naturally, the spell goes awry, but only the youngest of movie viewers will fear that Merida and her mother won’t be able to make things right by the end. Girl power is great, but so are suspense and originality. How, exactly, is Brave different than a zillion other Disney movies about spunky princesses? Well, Merida’s fiery explosion of red curls, so detailed it must have had its own full-time team of animators working on it, is pretty fantastic. (1:33) Shattuck. (Eddy)

The Campaign (1:25) California, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center.

Celeste and Jesse Forever Married your best friend, realized you love but can’t be in love with each other, and don’t want to let all those great in-jokes wither away? Such is the premise of Celeste and Jesse Forever, the latest in what a recent wave of meaty, girl-centric comedies penned by actresses — here Rashida Jones working with real-life ex Will McCormack; there, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Zoe Lister Jones (Lola Versus), and Lena Dunham (Girls) — who have gone the DIY route and whipped up their own juicy roles. There’s no mistaking theirs for your average big-screen rom-com: they dare to wallow harder, skew smarter, and in the case of Celeste, tackle the thorny, tough-to-resolve relationship dilemma that stubbornly refuses to conform to your copy-and-paste story arc. Nor do their female protagonists come off as uniformly likable: in this case, Celeste (Jones) is a bit of an aspiring LA powerbitch. Her Achilles heel is artist Jesse (Andy Samberg), the slacker high school sweetheart she wed and separated from because he doesn’t share her goals (e.g., he doesn’t have a car or a job). Yet the two continue to spend all their waking hours together and share an undeniable rapport, extending from Jesse’s encampment in her backyard apartment to their jokey simulated coitus featuring phallic-shaped lip balm. Throwing a wrench in the works: the fact that they’re still kind of in love with each other, which all their pals, like Jesse’s pot-dealer bud Skillz (McCormack), can clearly see. It’s an shaggy, everyday breakup yarn, writ glamorous by its appealing leads, that we too rarely witness, and barring the at-times nausea-inducing shaky-cam under the direction of Lee Toland Krieger, it’s rendered compelling and at times very funny — there’s no neat and tidy way to say good-bye, and Jones and McCormack do their best to capture but not encapsulate the severance and inevitable healing process. It also helps that the chemistry practically vibrates between the boyish if somewhat one-note Samberg and the soulful Jones, who fully, intelligently rises to the occasion, bringing on the heartbreak. (1:31) Balboa, Marina, Metreon, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Compliance No film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival encountered as much controversy as Craig Zobel’s Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with an audience member yelling “Sundance can do better!” You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Every screening that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at Sundance, and the film did not disappoint. (Beware: every review I have happened upon has unnecessarily spoiled major plots in the film, which is based on true events.) What is so impressive about Zobel’s film is how it builds up a sense of ever-impending terror. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the film steps into Psycho (1960) terrain, as it boldly aims to confront a society filled with people who are trained to follow rules without questioning them. Magnolia Pictures, which previously collaborated with Zobel on his debut film Great World of Sound (which premiered at Sundance in 2007), picked up the film for theatrical release; if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized as well as intellectualized. You’ll be screaming about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that’s exactly why the film is so brilliant. For an interview with Zobel, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (1:30) Lumiere. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

Cosmopolis With end times nigh and the 99 percent battering the gates of the establishment, it’s little wonder David Cronenberg’s rendition of the Don DeLillo novel might rotate, with the stately rhythm of a royal funeral and deliciously tongue-in-cheek humor, around one of the most famed vampire heartthrobs at the cineplex. Sadly, a recent paparazzi scandal threatens to eclipse this latest, enjoyably blighted installment in the NYC urban nightmare genre. Robert Pattinson’s billionaire asset manager Eric Packer takes meetings with his new wife Elise (Sarah Gadon) and staffers like his monetary theorist Vija (Samantha Morton) in his moving office: a white, leather-bound stretch limo that materializes like a sleek, imposing extension of his pale frame. Seriously disassociated from reality on multiple levels, Eric is a 28-year-old boy in a bubble, speaking of himself in third person and willing to spend all day making his way across town to get a haircut at his father’s old barbershop, even though his head of security (Kevin Durand) warns him that at least one “credible threat” has designs on his life. The passing of his favorite Sufi rapper (K’Naan), a possible Rothko for sale, a mad pie-thrower, and an asymmetrical prostate all threaten to capsize those, as it turns out, not-so-humble plans. Warning: the brainier members of Team Edward might plan on finding their minds blown by this thoughtful and mordantly humorous meditation on this country’s cult of money, while Cronenberg watchers will be gratified to pluck out his recurring themes, here dealt with a lighter hand than usual. At this date, rather than telegraphing how one might feel about a scene by way of, say, music, the director is increasingly comfortable with the ambiguity — and the uneasy, pleasing mix of sneaking repulsion and gimlet-eyed humor, of these scenes and their language. Thus the autoerotic-car fetishism of Crash (1996) and hallucinatory culture grazing of Naked Lunch (1991) — and that fascination with how a body intersects sexually or otherwise with a machine or “other” — seems completely natural here. Or perhaps it’s a measure of how much Cronenberg’s preoccupations and cinematic language have made themselves at home in the vernacular. (1:49) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Chun)

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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

The Expendables 2 (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Farewell, My Queen (Benoît Jacquot, France, 2012) Opening early on the morning of July 14, 1789, Farewell, My Queen depicts four days at the Palace of Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution, as witnessed by a young woman named Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) who serves as reader to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Sidonie displays a singular and romantic devotion to the queen, while the latter’s loyalties are split between a heedless amour propre and her grand passion for the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). These domestic matters and other regal whims loom large in the tiny galaxy of the queen’s retinue, so that while elsewhere in the palace, in shadowy, candle-lit corridors, courtiers and their servants mingle to exchange news, rumor, panicky theories, and evacuation plans, in the queen’s quarters the task of embroidering a dahlia for a projected gown at times overshadows the storming of the Bastille and the much larger catastrophe on the horizon. (1:39) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Rapoport)

Hermano As a child, Julio (Eliu Armas) discovered foundling Daniel (Fernando Moreno) abandoned in a dumpster; taken in by the former’s mom (Marcela Giron), the two boys are raised as brothers. They’re close as can be, even if Julio is physically slight, shy, and straight-arrow, while strapping Daniel is a born leader and survivor quite willing to cross the legal line when it serves his purposes. One area in which they’re of the same mind is the soccer field, where both (especially Daniel) are talented players with hopes of going pro. But that seems a remote dream in their violence-ridden slum. Marcel Rasquin’s Venezuelan sports-crime drama is built on some hoary clichés — the “good” brother/”bad” brother dynamic, the tragedy that sparks revenge that sparks more tragedy, etc. — but is so unpretentious, energetic, sincere. and well-cast that skeptical resistance is futile. It’s a modest movie, but a true, satisfying pleasure. (1:37) Metreon. (Harvey)

Hit and Run Annie (Kristen Bell) has a Stanford doctorate but is treading in the academic backwaters until the prospect is raised of an ideal department-heading position at UCLA. She’s thrilled, but also conflicted, because live-in beau Charlie (Dax Shepard) is in the Federal Witness Protection program, and can’t leave the nowhere burg he lives in incognito — particularly for Los Angeles — without risking serious personal harm. However, for love he decides he’ll risk everything so she can take the job. Unfortunately, this fast attracts the attention of various people very much interested in halting this exodus, for various reasons: notably Charlie’s inept U.S. Marshall “protector” (Tom Arnold), Annie’s psycho ex (Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum), and a guy with an even more serious grudge against Charlie (Bradley Cooper in a dreadlock wig). A whole lot of wacky chases and stunt driving ensues. The second feature Shepard’s co-directed (with David Palmer) and written, this aims for a cross between 1970s drive-in demolition derbies (1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, 1974’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, etc.) and envelope-pushing comedy thrillers like 1993’s True Romance. There’s a lot of comic talent here, including some notable cameos, yet Hit and Run is one of those cases where the material is almost there, but not quite. It moves breezily enough but some of the characters are more annoying than funny; the dialogue is an awkward mix of bad taste and PC debates about bad taste; and some ideas that aim to be hilarious and subversive (naked old people, a long discussion about jailhouse rape) just sit there, painfully. Which makes this only the second-best Dax Shepard movie with incarceration rape jokes, after 2006’s Let’s Go to Prison. (1:38) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (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) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Presidio, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Ice Age: Continental Drift (1:27) Metreon.

The Imposter A family tragedy, an international thriller, a Southern-fried mystery, and a true story: The Imposter is all of these things. This unique documentary reveals the tale of Frédéric Bourdin, dubbed “the Chameleon” for his epic false-identity habit. His ballsiest accomplishment was also his most heinous con: in 1997, he claimed to be Nicholas Barclay, a San Antonio teen missing since 1994. Amazingly, the impersonation worked for a time, though Bourdin (early 20s, brown-eyed, speaks English with a French accent) hardly resembled Nicholas (who would have been 16, and had blue eyes). Using interviews — with Nicholas’ shell-shocked family, government types who unwittingly aided the charade, and Bourdin himself — and ingenious re-enactments that borrow more from crime dramas than America’s Most Wanted, director Bart Layton weaves a multi-layered chronicle of one man’s unbelievable deception. (1:39) Lumiere. (Eddy)

The Intouchables Cries of “racism” seem a bit out of hand when it comes to this likable albeit far-from-challenging French comedy loosely based on a real-life relationship between a wealthy white quadriplegic and his caretaker of color. The term “cliché” is more accurate. And where were these critics when 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy and 2011’s The Help — movies that seem designed to make nostalgic honkies feel good about those fraught relationships skewed to their advantage—were coming down the pike? (It also might be more interesting to look at how these films about race always hinge on economies in which whites must pay blacks to interact with/educate/enlighten them.) In any case, Omar Sy, portraying Senegalese immigrant Driss, threatens to upset all those pundits’ apple carts with his sheer life force, even when he’s shaking solo on the dance floor to sounds as effortlessly unprovocative, and old-school, as Earth, Wind, and Fire. In fact, everything about The Intouchables is as old school as 1982’s 48 Hrs., spinning off the still laugh-grabbing humor that comes with juxtaposing a hipper, more streetwise black guy with a hapless, moneyed chalky. The wheelchair-bound Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is more vulnerable than most, and he has a hard time getting along with any of his nurses, until he meets Driss, who only wants his signature for his social services papers. It’s not long before the cultured, classical music-loving Philippe’s defenses are broken down by Driss’ flip, somewhat honest take on the follies and pretensions of high culture — a bigger deal in France than in the new world, no doubt. Director-writer Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano aren’t trying to innovate —they seem more set on crafting an effervescent blockbuster that out-blockbusters Hollywood — and the biggest compliment might be that the stateside remake is already rumored to be in the works. (1:52) Lumiere. (Chun)

Killer Joe William Friedkin made two enormously popular movies that have defined his career (1971’s The French Connection and 1973’s The Exorcist), but his resumé also contains an array of lesser films that are both hit-and-miss in critical and popular appeal. Most have their defenders. After a couple biggish action movies, it seemed a step down for him to be doing Bug in 2006; though it had its limits as a psychological quasi-horror, you could feel the cracking recognition of like minds between cast, director, and playwright Tracy Letts. Letts and Friedkin are back in Killer Joe, which was a significant off-Broadway success in 1998. In the short, violent, and bracing film version, Friedkin gets the ghoulish jet-black-comedic tone just right, and his actors let themselves get pushed way out on a limb to their great benefit — including Matthew McConaughey, playing the title character, who’s hired by the Smith clan of Texas to bump off a troublesome family member. Needless to say, almost nothing goes as planned, escalating mayhem to new heights of trailer-trash Grand Guignol. Things get fugly to the point where Killer Joe becomes one of those movies whose various abuses are shocking enough to court charges of gratuitous violence and misogyny; unlike the 2010 Killer Inside Me, for instance, it can’t really be justified as a commentary upon those very entertainment staples. (Letts is highly skilled, but those looking for a message here will have to think one up for themselves.) Still, Friedkin and his cast do such good work that Killer Joe‘s grimly humorous satisfaction in its worst possible scenarios seems quite enough. (1:43) Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Moonrise Kingdom Does Wes Anderson’s new film mark a live-action return to form after 2007’s disappointingly wan Darjeeling Limited? More or less. Does it tick all the Andersonian style and content boxes? Indubitably. In the most obvious deviation Anderson has taken with Moonrise, he gives us his first period piece, a romance set in 1965 on a fictional island off the New England coast. After a chance encounter at a church play, pre-teen Khaki Scout Sam (newcomer Jared Gilman) instantly falls for the raven-suited, sable-haired Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, ditto). The two become pen pals, and quickly bond over the shared misery of being misunderstood by both authority figures and fellow kids. The bespectacled Sam is an orphan, ostracized by his foster parents and scout troop (much to the dismay of its straight-arrow leader Edward Norton). Suzy despises her clueless attorney parents, played with gusto by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand in some of the film’s funniest and best scenes. When the two kids run off together, the whole thing begins to resemble a kind of tween version of Godard’s 1965 lovers-on the-lam fantasia Pierrot le Fou. But like most of Anderson’s stuff, it has a gauzy sentimentality more akin to Truffaut than Godard. Imagine if the sequence in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums where Margot and Richie run away to the Museum of Natural History had been given the feature treatment: it’s a simple yet inspired idea, and it becomes a charming little tale of the perils of growing up and selling out the fantasy. But it doesn’t feel remotely risky. It’s simply too damn tame. (1:37) Four Star, Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Michelle Devereaux)

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2:05) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

ParaNorman (1:32) Balboa, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Premium Rush “Fixed gear. Steel frame. No brakes. Can’t stop … don’t want to.” Thus goes the gear breakdown and personal philosophy of New York City bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an aggro rider who uses his law school-refined brain to make split-second decisions regarding which way to dart through Midtown traffic. Though bike messengers had a pop culture moment in the 1990s, Premium Rush is set in the present day, with one of Wilee’s numerous voice-overs explaining the job’s continued importance even in the digital era. One such example: a certain envelope he’s tasked with ferrying across the city, given to him by the troubled roommate (Jamie Chung) of the pretty fellow messenger (Dania Ramirez) he’s romantically pursuing. The contents of the envelope, and the teeth-gnashingly evil-cop-with-a-gambling-problem (Michael Shannon, adding some weird flair to what’s essentially a stock villain) who would dearly love to get his mitts on it, are less crucial to Premium Rush than the film’s many, many chase scenes featuring Wilee outwitting all comers with his two-wheeled Frogger moves. Silly fun from director David Koepp (2008’s Ghost Town), but not essential unless you’re a fixie fanatic or a JGL completist. (1:31) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

The Queen of Versailles Lauren Greenfield’s obscenely entertaining The Queen of Versailles takes a long, turbulent look at the lifestyles lived by David and Jackie Siegel. He is the 70-something undisputed king of timeshares; she is his 40-something (third) wife, a former beauty queen with the requisite blonde locks and major rack, both probably not entirely Mother Nature-made. He’s so compulsive that he’s never saved, instead plowing every buck back into the business. When the recession hits, that means this billionaire is — in ready-cash as opposed to paper terms — suddenly sorta kinda broke, just as an enormous Las Vegas project is opening and the family’s stupefyingly large new “home” (yep, modeled after Versailles) is mid-construction. Plugs must be pulled, corners cut. Never having had to, the Siegels discover (once most of the servants have been let go) they have no idea how to run a household. Worse, they discover that in adversity they have a very hard time pulling together — in particular, David is revealed as a remote, cold, obsessively all-business person who has no use for getting or giving “emotional support;” not even for being a husband or father, much. What ultimately makes Queen poignantly more than a reality-TV style peek at the garishly wealthy is that Jackie, despite her incredibly vulgar veneer (she’s like a Jennifer Coolidge character, forever squeezed into loud animal prints), is at heart just a nice girl from hicksville who really, really wants to make this family work. (1:40) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Robot and Frank Imagine the all-too-placid deadpan of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) coming out of a home-healthcare worker, and you get just part of the appeal of this very likable comedy debut with a nonrobotic pulse directed by Jake Schreier. Sometime in the indeterminate near future, former jewel thief and second-story man Frank (Frank Langella) can be found quietly deteriorating in his isolated home, increasingly forgettable and unable to care for himself and assemble a decent bowl of Cap’n Crunch (though he can still steal fancy soaps from the village boutique). In an effort to cover his own busy rear, Frank’s distracted son (James Marsden) buys him a highly efficient robotic stand-in (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), much to his father’s grim resistance (“That thing is going to murder me in my sleep”) and the dismay of crunchy sibling Madison (Liv Tyler). The robot, however, is smarter than it looks, as it bargains with Frank to eat better, get healthier, and generally reanimate: it’s willing to learn to pick locks, participate in a robbery, and even plan a jewel heist, provided, say, Frank agrees to a low-sodium diet. Frank flourishes, like the garden the robot nurtures in a vain attempt to interest his human charge, and even goes on a date with his librarian crush (Susan Sarandon), though can the self-indulgent idyll last forever? A tale about aging as much as it is about rediscovery, Robot tells an old story, but one that’s wise beyond its years and willing to dress itself up in some of the smooth, sleek surfaces of an iGeneration. (1:30) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Ruby Sparks Meta has rarely skewed as appealingly as with this indie rom-com spinning off a writerly version of the Pygmalion and Galatea tale, as penned by the object-of-desire herself: Zoe Kazan. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris helm this heady fantasy about a crumpled, geeky novelist, Calvin (Paul Dano), who’s suffering from the sophomore slump — he can’t seem to break his rock-solid writers block and pen a follow-up to his hit debut. He’s a victim of his own success, especially when he finally begins to write, about a dream girl, a fun-loving, redheaded artist named Ruby (scriptwriter Kazan), who one day actually materializes. When he types that she speaks nothing but French, out comes a stream of the so-called language of diplomacy. Calvin soon discovers the limits and dangers of creation — say, the hazards of tweaking a manifestation when she doesn’t do what you desire, and the question of what to do when one’s baby Frankenstein grows bored and restless in the narrow circle of her creator’s imagination. Kazan — and Dayton and Faris — go to the absurd, even frightening, limits of the age-old Pygmalion conceit, giving it a feminist charge, while helped along by a cornucopia of colorful cameos by actors like Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s boho mom and her furniture-building boyfriend. Dano is as adorably befuddled as ever and adds the crucial texture of every-guy reality, though ultimately this is Kazan’s show, whether she’s testing the boundaries of a genuinely codependent relationship or tugging at the puppeteer’s strings. (1:44) Four Star, Piedmont. (Chun)

Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter’s stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock’n’roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician — long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) Clay. (Chun)

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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Ted Ah, boys and their toys — and the imaginary friends that mirror back a forever-after land of perpetual Peter Pans. That’s the crux of the surprisingly smart, hilarious Ted, aimed at an audience comprising a wide range of classes, races, and cultures with its mix of South Park go-there yuks and rom-commie coming-of-age sentiment. Look at Ted as a pop-culture-obsessed nerd tweak on dream critter-spirit animal buddy efforts from Harvey (1950) to Donnie Darko (2001) to TV’s Wilfred. Of course, we all know that the really untamable creature here wobbles around on two legs, laden with big-time baggage about growing up and moving on from childhood loves. Young John doesn’t have many friends but he is fortunate enough to have his Christmas wish come true: his beloved new teddy bear, Ted (voice by director-writer Seth MacFarlane), begins to talk back and comes to life. With that miracle, too, comes Ted’s marginal existence as a D-list celebrity curiosity — still, he’s the loyal “Thunder Buddy” that’s always there for the now-grown John (Mark Wahlberg), ready with a bong and a broheim-y breed of empathy that involves too much TV, an obsession with bad B-movies, and mock fisticuffs, just the thing when storms move in and mundane reality rolls through. With his tendency to spew whatever profanity-laced thought comes into his head and his talents are a ladies’ bear, Ted is the id of a best friend that enables all of John’s most memorable, un-PC, Hangover-style shenanigans. Alas, John’s cool girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) threatens that tidy fantasy setup with her perfectly reasonable relationship demands. Juggling scary emotions and material that seems so specific that it can’t help but charm — you’ve got to love a shot-by-shot re-creation of a key Flash Gordon scene — MacFarlane sails over any resistance you, Lori, or your superego might harbor about this scenario with the ease of a man fully in touch with his inner Ted. (1:46) Metreon. (Chun)

To Rome with Love Woody Allen’s film legacy is not like anybody else’s. At present, however, he suffers from a sense that he’s been too prolific for too long. It’s been nearly two decades since a new Woody Allen was any kind of “event,” and the 19 features since Bullets Over Broadway (1994) have been hit and-miss. Still, there’s the hope that Allen is still capable of really surprising us — or that his audience might, as they did by somewhat inexplicably going nuts for 2011’s Midnight in Paris. It was Allen’s most popular film in eons, if not ever, probably helped by the fact that he wasn’t in it. Unfortunately, he’s up there again in the new To Rome With Love, familiar mannerisms not hiding the fact that Woody Allen the Nebbish has become just another Grumpy Old Man. There’s a doddering quality that isn’t intended, and is no longer within his control. But then To Rome With Love is a doddering picture — a postcard-pretty set of pictures with little more than “Have a nice day” scribbled on the back in script terms. Viewers expecting more of the travelogue pleasantness of Midnight in Paris may be forgiving, especially since it looks like a vacation, with Darius Khondji’s photography laying on the golden Italian light and making all the other colors confectionary as well. But if Paris at least had the kernel of a good idea, Rome has only several inexplicably bad ones; it’s a quartet of interwoven stories that have no substance, point, credibility, or even endearing wackiness. The shiny package can only distract so much from the fact that there’s absolutely nothing inside. (1:52) SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Total Recall Already the source material for Paul Verhoeven’s campy, quotable 1990 film (starring the campy, quotable Arnold Schwarzenegger), Philip K. Dick’s short story gets a Hollywood do-over, with meh results. The story, anyway, is a fine nugget of sci-fi paranoia: to escape his unsatisfying life, Quaid (Colin Farrell) visits a company capable of implanting exciting memories into his brain. When he chooses the “secret agent” option, it’s soon revealed he actually does have secret agent-type memories, suppressed via brain-fuckery by sinister government forces (led by Bryan Cranston) keeping him in the dark about his true identity. Shit immediately gets crazy, with high-flying chases and secret codes and fight scenes all over the place. The woman Quaid thinks is his wife (Kate Beckinsale) is actually a slithery killer; the woman he’s been seeing in his dreams (Jessica Biel) turns out to be his comrade in a secret rebel movement. Len Wiseman (writer and sometimes director of the Underworld films) lenses futuristic urban grime with a certain sleek panache, and Farrell is appealing enough to make highly generic hero Quaid someone worth rooting for — until the movie ends, and the entire enterprise (save perhaps the tri-boobed hooker, a holdover from the original) becomes instantly forgettable, no amnesia trickery required. (1:58) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (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) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

Film Listings

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, and Lynn Rapoport. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.

OPENING

Alps Yorgos Lanthimos is well on his way to a reputation for sick yet oddly charming high-concept spectacles. Here, a group calling themselves Alps offers substitution services for the recently bereaved — that’s right, they’ll play your dead loved one to fill that hole in your life. Pitch-black comic moments abound, and the sensibility that made 2009’s Dogtooth so thrilling is distinctly present here, if not quite as fresh. Beyond the absurd logline, the plot is rather more conventional: things get out of hand when Alps member Anna (Aggeliki Papoulia, the eldest daughter from Dogtooth) gets too invested in one of her assignments, and the power structure of Alps turns on her. If Alps is not exactly a revelation, it’s still a promising entry in a quickly blossoming auteur’s body of work. (1:33) Roxie. (Sam Stander)

The Apparition A couple with a ghost problem (Ashley Greene and Sebastian Stan) hire Slytherin’s own Tom Felton to help clean house. (1:22)

Compliance No film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival encountered as much controversy as Craig Zobel’s Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with an audience member yelling "Sundance can do better!" You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Every screening (public and press) that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at Sundance, and the film does not disappoint. (Beware: every review I have happened upon has unnecessarily spoiled major plots in the film, which is based on true events.) What is so impressive about Zobel’s film is how it builds up a sense of ever-impending terror. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the film steps into Psycho (1960) terrain, specifically in the final act of the film. Compliance aims to confront a society filled with people who are trained to follow rules without questioning them. Magnolia Pictures, which previously collaborated with Zobel on his debut film Great World of Sound (which premiered at Sundance in 2007), picked up the film for theatrical release; if you dare to check it out, prepare to be traumatized. You’ll be screaming about one of the most audacious movies of 2012 — and that’s exactly why the film is so brilliant. For an interview with Zobel, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (1:30) Bridge, Shattuck. (Jesse Hawthorne Ficks)

Cosmopolis David Cronenberg directs Robert Pattinson in this Don DeLillo adaptation. (1:49) Embarcadero, Shattuck.

"Global Threats Film Series" The San Francisco Film Society’s "Global Threats" series continues with a double dose of stuff that’ll kill ya. Though separated by six decades, both features are remarkably similar for their matter-of-fact, location-shot, non-pulp treatment of a prime (if infrequently used) thriller topic: the desperate attempts by health officials to contain a deadly virus before it spreads to the whole population. While in some quarters it was criticized for being too docu-drama-esque and not "thriller" enough, Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion last year was admirably cool-headed in its depiction of various global, national, and local authorities (played by an all-star cast) frantically coping with an outbreak of something that yuppie slut Gwyneth Paltrow brought home from a business trip. A year before A Streetcar Named Desire (which was, contrastingly, almost entirely shot on studio soundstages), Elia Kazan ventured to the real New Orleans for Panic in the Streets (1950), in which another traveler imports an actual plague to the Big Easy. US Public Health Service physician Richard Widmark is tasked with tracking down the rapidly growing number of the infected, which is complicated by the fact that several of them (including Jack Palance and Zero Mostel) are criminal-underground types naturally averse to cooperating with the cops or any other governmental representative. If Contagion irked some for being a little too nuts-and-bolts procedural, the brilliantly black-and-white-shot Panic excited audiences and critics at the time for its unusual realism. That extends to the warmly credible marital relationship between workaholic Widmark (very appealing in one of his few nice-guy leads) and neglected but understanding spouse Barbara Bel Geddes. SF Film Society Cinema. (Harvey)
Hermano As a child, Julio (Eliu Armas) discovered foundling Daniel (Fernando Moreno) abandoned in a dumpster; taken in by the former’s mom (Marcela Giron), the two boys are raised as brothers. They’re close as can be, even if Julio is physically slight, shy, and straight-arrow, while strapping Daniel is a born leader and survivor quite willing to cross the legal line when it serves his purposes. One area in which they’re of the same mind is the soccer field, where both (especially Daniel) are talented players with hopes of going pro. But that seems a remote dream in their violence-ridden slum. Marcel Rasquin’s Venezuelan sports-crime drama is built on some hoary clichés — the "good" brother/"bad" brother dynamic, the tragedy that sparks revenge that sparks more tragedy, etc. — but is so unpretentious, energetic, sincere. and well-cast that skeptical resistance is futile. It’s a modest movie, but a true, satisfying pleasure. (1:37) Metreon. (Harvey)

Hit and Run Annie (Kristen Bell) has a Stanford doctorate but is treading in the academic backwaters until the prospect is raised of an ideal department-heading position at UCLA. She’s thrilled, but also conflicted, because live-in beau Charlie (Dax Shepard) is in the Federal Witness Protection program, and can’t leave the nowhere burg he lives in incognito — particularly for Los Angeles — without risking serious personal harm. However, for love he decides he’ll risk everything so she can take the job. Unfortunately, this fast attracts the attention of various people very much interested in halting this exodus, for various reasons: notably Charlie’s inept U.S. Marshall "protector" (Tom Arnold), Annie’s psycho ex (Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum), and a guy with an even more serious grudge against Charlie (Bradley Cooper in a dreadlock wig). A whole lot of wacky chases and stunt driving ensues. The second feature Shepard’s co-directed (with David Palmer) and written, this aims for a cross between 1970s drive-in demolition derbies (1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, 1974’s Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, etc.) and envelope-pushing comedy thrillers like 1993’s True Romance. There’s a lot of comic talent here, including some notable cameos, yet Hit and Run is one of those cases where the material is almost there, but not quite. It moves breezily enough but some of the characters are more annoying than funny; the dialogue is an awkward mix of bad taste and PC debates about bad taste; and some ideas that aim to be hilarious and subversive (naked old people, a long discussion about jailhouse rape) just sit there, painfully. Which makes this only the second-best Dax Shepard movie with incarceration rape jokes, after 2006’s Let’s Go to Prison. (1:38) (Harvey)

Premium Rush Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as a New York City bike messenger who accidently runs (cycles?) afoul of some dirty cops. (1:31)

Robot and Frank Imagine the all-too-placid deadpan of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) coming out of a home-healthcare worker, and you get just part of the appeal of this very likable comedy debut with a nonrobotic pulse directed by Jake Schreier. Sometime in the indeterminate near future, former jewel thief and second-story man Frank (Frank Langella) can be found quietly deteriorating in his isolated home, increasingly forgettable and unable to care for himself and assemble a decent bowl of Cap’n Crunch (though he can still steal fancy soaps from the village boutique). In an effort to cover his own busy rear, Frank’s distracted son (James Marsden) buys him a highly efficient robotic stand-in (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), much to his father’s grim resistance ("That thing is going to murder me in my sleep") and the dismay of crunchy sibling Madison (Liv Tyler). The robot, however, is smarter than it looks, as it bargains with Frank to eat better, get healthier, and generally reanimate: it’s willing to learn to pick locks, participate in a robbery, and even plan a jewel heist, provided, say, Frank agrees to a low-sodium diet. Frank flourishes, like the garden the robot nurtures in a vain attempt to interest his human charge, and even goes on a date with his librarian crush (Susan Sarandon), though can the self-indulgent idyll last forever? A tale about aging as much as it is about rediscovery, Robot tells an old story, but one that’s wise beyond its years and willing to dress itself up in some of the smooth, sleek surfaces of an iGeneration. (1:30) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont. (Chun)

Sinister A true-crime writer (Ethan Hawke) encounters a demon who looks an awful lot like a refugee from Norway’s 1990 black metal scene. (1:50)

$upercapitalist Greed is good … fodder for cinematic drama these days as all assembled struggle to get out from under the Great Recession and look to immerse themselves in the boardroom battlefields of films like 2011’s Margin Call. Spinning off his time working for CNN in Hong Kong in the halcyon mid-’00s, lead actor, writer, and producer Derek Ting stars as a bright, eager-to-please hedge fund trader from New York, transplanted in the wild, wild East, and forced to learn a lesson about unchecked, profit-driven gamesmanship. In Hong Kong, Conner (Ting) only looks as Chinese as the rest — otherwise he’s American through and through. Unlike, say, the old-fashioned family-run corporation he’s assigned to take down, Conner is estranged from his family and has few loyalties, apart from Quentin (Darren E. Scott), the fellow trader who shows him the ropes and gets him hooked on hand-tailored suits, flash cars, and attractive arm candy, and Natalie (Kathy Uyen), a publicist who’s as brainy as she is beautiful. Unfortunately the game Conner’s playing has real costs for the people around him — and he finds himself questioning his loyalties. Ting and director Simon Yin have the makings of a compelling thriller — nothing is more tempting than a peep behind the curtain of a closed world like Chinese big business — and though the overall narrative pulls you in, they get tripped up on the details, namely easy clichés like $upercapitalist‘s pampered, playboy son of a business dynasty, or the rote devices like the middle-class family rigged to reveal that Conner does indeed have a soul. Much like their hero, Ting and company take a bit for granted, from the viewer’s patience with tired Hollywood conventions to the very system — capitalist, supercapitalist, or socialist market economy — that supports them. (1:36) Opera Plaza. (Chun)

ONGOING

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry Unstoppable force meets immovable object — and indeed gets stopped — in Alison Klayman’s documentary about China’s most famous contemporary artist. A larger than life figure, Ai Weiwei’s bohemian rebel persona was honed during a long (1981-93) stint in the U.S., where he fit right into Manhattan’s avant-garde and gallery scenes. Returning to China when his father’s health went south, he continued to push the envelope with projects in various media, including architecture — he’s best known today for the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ "Bird’s Nest" stadium design. But despite the official approval implicit in such high-profile gigs, his incessant, obdurate criticism of China’s political repressive politics and censorship — a massive installation exposing the government-suppressed names of children killed by collapsing, poorly-built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake being one prominent example — has tread dangerous ground. This scattershot but nonetheless absorbing portrait stretches its view to encompass the point at which the subject’s luck ran out: when the film was already in post-production, he was arrested, then held for two months without official charge before he was accused of alleged tax evasion. (He is now free, albeit barred from leaving China, and "suspected" of additional crimes including pornography and bigamy.) (1:31) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

The Amazing Spider-Man A mere five years after Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man 3 — forgettable on its own, sure, but 2002’s Spider-Man and especially 2004’s Spider-Man 2 still hold up — Marvel’s angsty web-slinger returns to the big screen, hoping to make its box-office mark before The Dark Knight Rises opens in a few weeks. Director Marc Webb (2009’s 500 Days of Summer) and likable stars Andrew Garfield (as the skateboard-toting hero) and Emma Stone (as his high-school squeeze) offer a competent reboot, but there’s no shaking the feeling that we’ve seen this movie before, with its familiar origin story and with-great-power themes. A little creativity, and I don’t mean in the special effects department, might’ve gone a long way to make moviegoers forget this Spidey do-over is, essentially, little more than a soulless cash grab. Not helping matters: the villain (Rhys Ifans as the Lizard) is a snooze. (2:18) Metreon. (Eddy)

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) Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Beasts of the Southern Wild Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d’Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn’t attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about — improbably — Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting. Benh Zeitlin’s film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. But not all is well: when "the storm" floods the land, the holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate. With its elements of magic, mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology, Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film’s cost and length. (1:31) California, Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (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) Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)

Bernie Jack Black plays the titular new assistant funeral director liked by everybody in small-town Carthage, Tex. He works especially hard to ingratiate himself with shrewish local widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), but there are benefits — estranged from her own family, she not only accepts him as a friend (then companion, then servant, then as virtual "property"), but makes him her sole heir. Richard Linklater’s latest is based on a true-crime story, although in execution it’s as much a cheerful social satire as I Love You Philip Morris and The Informant! (both 2009), two other recent fact-based movies about likable felons. Black gets to sing (his character being a musical theater queen, among other things), while Linklater gets to affectionately mock a very different stratum of Lone Star State culture from the one he started out with in 1991’s Slacker. There’s a rich gallery of supporting characters, most played by little-known local actors or actual townspeople, with Matthew McConaughey’s vainglorious county prosecutor one delectable exception. Bernie is its director’s best in some time, not to mention a whole lot of fun. (1:39) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

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) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Brave Pixar’s latest is a surprisingly familiar fairy tale. Scottish princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) would rather ride her horse and shoot arrows than become engaged, but it’s Aladdin-style law that she must marry the eldest son of one of three local clans. (Each boy is so exaggeratedly unappealing that her reluctance seems less tomboy rebellion than common sense.) Her mother (Emma Thompson) is displeased; when they quarrel, Merida decides to change her fate (Little Mermaid-style) by visiting the local spell-caster (a gentle, absent-minded soul that Ursula the Sea Witch would eat for brunch). Naturally, the spell goes awry, but only the youngest of movie viewers will fear that Merida and her mother won’t be able to make things right by the end. Girl power is great, but so are suspense and originality. How, exactly, is Brave different than a zillion other Disney movies about spunky princesses? Well, Merida’s fiery explosion of red curls, so detailed it must have had its own full-time team of animators working on it, is pretty fantastic. (1:33) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Eddy)

The Campaign (1:25) California, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Vogue.

Celeste and Jesse Forever Married your best friend, realized you love but can’t be in love with each other, and don’t want to let all those great in-jokes wither away? Such is the premise of Celeste and Jesse Forever, the latest in what a recent wave of meaty, girl-centric comedies penned by actresses — here Rashida Jones working with real-life ex Will McCormack; there, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Zoe Lister Jones (Lola Versus), and Lena Dunham (Girls) — who have gone the DIY route and whipped up their own juicy roles. There’s no mistaking theirs for your average big-screen rom-com: they dare to wallow harder, skew smarter, and in the case of Celeste, tackle the thorny, tough-to-resolve relationship dilemma that stubbornly refuses to conform to your copy-and-paste story arc. Nor do their female protagonists come off as uniformly likable: in this case, Celeste (Jones) is a bit of an aspiring LA powerbitch. Her Achilles heel is artist Jesse (Andy Samberg), the slacker high school sweetheart she wed and separated from because he doesn’t share her goals (e.g., he doesn’t have a car or a job). Yet the two continue to spend all their waking hours together and share an undeniable rapport, extending from Jesse’s encampment in her backyard apartment to their jokey simulated coitus featuring phallic-shaped lip balm. Throwing a wrench in the works: the fact that they’re still kind of in love with each other, which all their pals, like Jesse’s pot-dealer bud Skillz (McCormack), can clearly see. It’s an shaggy, everyday breakup yarn, writ glamorous by its appealing leads, that we too rarely witness, and barring the at-times nausea-inducing shaky-cam under the direction of Lee Toland Krieger, it’s rendered compelling and at times very funny — there’s no neat and tidy way to say good-bye, and Jones and McCormack do their best to capture but not encapsulate the severance and inevitable healing process. It also helps that the chemistry practically vibrates between the boyish if somewhat one-note Samberg and the soulful Jones, who fully, intelligently rises to the occasion, bringing on the heartbreak. (1:31) Metreon, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (1:34) Metreon.

The Expendables 2 (1:43) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Farewell, My Queen (Benoît Jacquot, France, 2012) Opening early on the morning of July 14, 1789, Farewell, My Queen depicts four days at the Palace of Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution, as witnessed by a young woman named Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) who serves as reader to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Sidonie displays a singular and romantic devotion to the queen, while the latter’s loyalties are split between a heedless amour propre and her grand passion for the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). These domestic matters and other regal whims loom large in the tiny galaxy of the queen’s retinue, so that while elsewhere in the palace, in shadowy, candle-lit corridors, courtiers and their servants mingle to exchange news, rumor, panicky theories, and evacuation plans, in the queen’s quarters the task of embroidering a dahlia for a projected gown at times overshadows the storming of the Bastille and the much larger catastrophe on the horizon. (1:39) Albany, Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)

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) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Ice Age: Continental Drift (1:27) Metreon.

The Imposter A family tragedy, an international thriller, a Southern-fried mystery, and a true story: The Imposter is all of these things. This unique documentary reveals the tale of Frédéric Bourdin, dubbed "the Chameleon" for his epic false-identity habit. His ballsiest accomplishment was also his most heinous con: in 1997, he claimed to be Nicholas Barclay, a San Antonio teen missing since 1994. Amazingly, the impersonation worked for a time, though Bourdin (early 20s, brown-eyed, speaks English with a French accent) hardly resembled Nicholas (who would have been 16, and had blue eyes). Using interviews — with Nicholas’ shell-shocked family, government types who unwittingly aided the charade, and Bourdin himself — and ingenious re-enactments that borrow more from crime dramas than America’s Most Wanted, director Bart Layton weaves a multi-layered chronicle of one man’s unbelievable deception. (1:39) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Eddy)

The Intouchables Cries of "racism" seem a bit out of hand when it comes to this likable albeit far-from-challenging French comedy loosely based on a real-life relationship between a wealthy white quadriplegic and his caretaker of color. The term "cliché" is more accurate. And where were these critics when 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy and 2011’s The Help — movies that seem designed to make nostalgic honkies feel good about those fraught relationships skewed to their advantage—were coming down the pike? (It also might be more interesting to look at how these films about race always hinge on economies in which whites must pay blacks to interact with/educate/enlighten them.) In any case, Omar Sy, portraying Senegalese immigrant Driss, threatens to upset all those pundits’ apple carts with his sheer life force, even when he’s shaking solo on the dance floor to sounds as effortlessly unprovocative, and old-school, as Earth, Wind, and Fire. In fact, everything about The Intouchables is as old school as 1982’s 48 Hrs., spinning off the still laugh-grabbing humor that comes with juxtaposing a hipper, more streetwise black guy with a hapless, moneyed chalky. The wheelchair-bound Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is more vulnerable than most, and he has a hard time getting along with any of his nurses, until he meets Driss, who only wants his signature for his social services papers. It’s not long before the cultured, classical music-loving Philippe’s defenses are broken down by Driss’ flip, somewhat honest take on the follies and pretensions of high culture — a bigger deal in France than in the new world, no doubt. Director-writer Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano aren’t trying to innovate —they seem more set on crafting an effervescent blockbuster that out-blockbusters Hollywood — and the biggest compliment might be that the stateside remake is already rumored to be in the works. (1:52) Clay. (Chun)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi Celebrity-chef culture has surely reached some kind of zeitgeist, what with the omnipresence of Top Chef and other cooking-themed shows, and the headlines-making power of people like Paula Deen (diabetes) and Mario Batali (sued for ripping off his wait staff). Unconcerned with the trappings of fame — you’ll never see him driving a Guy Fieri-style garish sports car — is Jiro Ono, 85-year-old proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny, world-renowned sushi restaurant tucked into Tokyo’s Ginza station. Jiro, a highly-disciplined perfectionist who believes in simple, yet flavorful food, has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of "deliciousness" — to the point of sushi invading his dreams, as the title of David Gelb’s reverential documentary suggests. But Jiro Dreams of Sushi goes deeper than food-prep porn (though, indeed, there’s plenty of that); it also examines the existential conflicts faced by Jiro’s two middle-aged sons. Both were strongly encouraged to enter the family business — and in the intervening years, have had to accept the soul-crushing fact that no matter how good their sushi is, it’ll never be seen as exceeding the creations of their legendary father. (1:21) Four Star. (Eddy)

Killer Joe William Friedkin made two enormously popular movies that have defined his career (1971’s The French Connection and 1973’s The Exorcist), but his resumé also contains an array of lesser films that are both hit-and-miss in critical and popular appeal. Most have their defenders. After a couple biggish action movies, it seemed a step down for him to be doing Bug in 2006; though it had its limits as a psychological quasi-horror, you could feel the cracking recognition of like minds between cast, director, and playwright Tracy Letts. Letts and Friedkin are back in Killer Joe, which was a significant off-Broadway success in 1998. In the short, violent, and bracing film version, Friedkin gets the ghoulish jet-black-comedic tone just right, and his actors let themselves get pushed way out on a limb to their great benefit — including Matthew McConaughey, playing the title character, who’s hired by the Smith clan of Texas to bump off a troublesome family member. Needless to say, almost nothing goes as planned, escalating mayhem to new heights of trailer-trash Grand Guignol. Things get fugly to the point where Killer Joe becomes one of those movies whose various abuses are shocking enough to court charges of gratuitous violence and misogyny; unlike the 2010 Killer Inside Me, for instance, it can’t really be justified as a commentary upon those very entertainment staples. (Letts is highly skilled, but those looking for a message here will have to think one up for themselves.) Still, Friedkin and his cast do such good work that Killer Joe‘s grimly humorous satisfaction in its worst possible scenarios seems quite enough. (1:43) Lumiere, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Love in the City By 1953 Italian cinema had begun to export bombshells (Silvana Mangano from 1949’s Bitter Rice, then Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida); soon would come the sword and sandal epics and international coproductions that would make Rome a crazy hive of commercial filmmaking. Neorealism was on its way out, but as a brand it still had familiarity and a certain market appeal. Ergo a "second generation" of directors were introduced via Love in the City (1953), a recently restored six-part omnibus feature opening for a week at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema. It isn’t a great film so much as a great curio, and a crystal ball forecasting where the local industry would be head for the next 20 years or more. Little of that was immediately apparent, but just months later Federico Fellini (the sole director here who’d already made several well-received features) would cause a sensation with La Strada (1954). The others, including Michelangelo Antonioni, would eventually follow with breakthroughs of their own. The two surviving today are still active — in fact Francesco Maselli and Carlo Lizzani just contriburted to a new omnibus feature last year. (1:45) SF Film Society Cinema. (Harvey)

Moonrise Kingdom Does Wes Anderson’s new film mark a live-action return to form after 2007’s disappointingly wan Darjeeling Limited? More or less. Does it tick all the Andersonian style and content boxes? Indubitably. In the most obvious deviation Anderson has taken with Moonrise, he gives us his first period piece, a romance set in 1965 on a fictional island off the New England coast. After a chance encounter at a church play, pre-teen Khaki Scout Sam (newcomer Jared Gilman) instantly falls for the raven-suited, sable-haired Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, ditto). The two become pen pals, and quickly bond over the shared misery of being misunderstood by both authority figures and fellow kids. The bespectacled Sam is an orphan, ostracized by his foster parents and scout troop (much to the dismay of its straight-arrow leader Edward Norton). Suzy despises her clueless attorney parents, played with gusto by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand in some of the film’s funniest and best scenes. When the two kids run off together, the whole thing begins to resemble a kind of tween version of Godard’s 1965 lovers-on the-lam fantasia Pierrot le Fou. But like most of Anderson’s stuff, it has a gauzy sentimentality more akin to Truffaut than Godard. Imagine if the sequence in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums where Margot and Richie run away to the Museum of Natural History had been given the feature treatment: it’s a simple yet inspired idea, and it becomes a charming little tale of the perils of growing up and selling out the fantasy. But it doesn’t feel remotely risky. It’s simply too damn tame. (1:37) Four Star, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Michelle Devereaux)

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2:05) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center.

Painted Skin: The Resurrection A sort-of sequel to 2008’s Painted Skin (which one need not have seen to enjoy Resurrection), this lavish fantasy stars two of China’s most glamorous leading ladies and follows 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. (2:11) Metreon. (Eddy)

ParaNorman (1:32) Balboa, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio.

The Queen of Versailles Lauren Greenfield’s obscenely entertaining The Queen of Versailles takes a long, turbulent look at the lifestyles lived by David and Jackie Siegel. He is the 70-something undisputed king of timeshares; she is his 40-something (third) wife, a former beauty queen with the requisite blonde locks and major rack, both probably not entirely Mother Nature-made. He’s so compulsive that he’s never saved, instead plowing every buck back into the business. When the recession hits, that means this billionaire is — in ready-cash as opposed to paper terms — suddenly sorta kinda broke, just as an enormous Las Vegas project is opening and the family’s stupefyingly large new "home" (yep, modeled after Versailles) is mid-construction. Plugs must be pulled, corners cut. Never having had to, the Siegels discover (once most of the servants have been let go) they have no idea how to run a household. Worse, they discover that in adversity they have a very hard time pulling together — in particular, David is revealed as a remote, cold, obsessively all-business person who has no use for getting or giving "emotional support;" not even for being a husband or father, much. What ultimately makes Queen poignantly more than a reality-TV style peek at the garishly wealthy is that Jackie, despite her incredibly vulgar veneer (she’s like a Jennifer Coolidge character, forever squeezed into loud animal prints), is at heart just a nice girl from hicksville who really, really wants to make this family work. (1:40) Lumiere, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Ruby Sparks Meta has rarely skewed as appealingly as with this indie rom-com spinning off a writerly version of the Pygmalion and Galatea tale, as penned by the object-of-desire herself: Zoe Kazan. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris helm this heady fantasy about a crumpled, geeky novelist, Calvin (Paul Dano), who’s suffering from the sophomore slump — he can’t seem to break his rock-solid writers block and pen a follow-up to his hit debut. He’s a victim of his own success, especially when he finally begins to write, about a dream girl, a fun-loving, redheaded artist named Ruby (scriptwriter Kazan), who one day actually materializes. When he types that she speaks nothing but French, out comes a stream of the so-called language of diplomacy. Calvin soon discovers the limits and dangers of creation — say, the hazards of tweaking a manifestation when she doesn’t do what you desire, and the question of what to do when one’s baby Frankenstein grows bored and restless in the narrow circle of her creator’s imagination. Kazan — and Dayton and Faris — go to the absurd, even frightening, limits of the age-old Pygmalion conceit, giving it a feminist charge, while helped along by a cornucopia of colorful cameos by actors like Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s boho mom and her furniture-building boyfriend. Dano is as adorably befuddled as ever and adds the crucial texture of every-guy reality, though ultimately this is Kazan’s show, whether she’s testing the boundaries of a genuinely codependent relationship or tugging at the puppeteer’s strings. (1:44) California, Four Star, Piedmont. (Chun)

Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter’s stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock’n’roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician — long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) Embarcadero. (Chun)

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) Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Ted Ah, boys and their toys — and the imaginary friends that mirror back a forever-after land of perpetual Peter Pans. That’s the crux of the surprisingly smart, hilarious Ted, aimed at an audience comprising a wide range of classes, races, and cultures with its mix of South Park go-there yuks and rom-commie coming-of-age sentiment. Look at Ted as a pop-culture-obsessed nerd tweak on dream critter-spirit animal buddy efforts from Harvey (1950) to Donnie Darko (2001) to TV’s Wilfred. Of course, we all know that the really untamable creature here wobbles around on two legs, laden with big-time baggage about growing up and moving on from childhood loves. Young John doesn’t have many friends but he is fortunate enough to have his Christmas wish come true: his beloved new teddy bear, Ted (voice by director-writer Seth MacFarlane), begins to talk back and comes to life. With that miracle, too, comes Ted’s marginal existence as a D-list celebrity curiosity — still, he’s the loyal "Thunder Buddy" that’s always there for the now-grown John (Mark Wahlberg), ready with a bong and a broheim-y breed of empathy that involves too much TV, an obsession with bad B-movies, and mock fisticuffs, just the thing when storms move in and mundane reality rolls through. With his tendency to spew whatever profanity-laced thought comes into his head and his talents are a ladies’ bear, Ted is the id of a best friend that enables all of John’s most memorable, un-PC, Hangover-style shenanigans. Alas, John’s cool girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) threatens that tidy fantasy setup with her perfectly reasonable relationship demands. Juggling scary emotions and material that seems so specific that it can’t help but charm — you’ve got to love a shot-by-shot re-creation of a key Flash Gordon scene — MacFarlane sails over any resistance you, Lori, or your superego might harbor about this scenario with the ease of a man fully in touch with his inner Ted. (1:46) Metreon. (Chun)

To Rome with Love Woody Allen’s film legacy is not like anybody else’s. At present, however, he suffers from a sense that he’s been too prolific for too long. It’s been nearly two decades since a new Woody Allen was any kind of "event," and the 19 features since Bullets Over Broadway (1994) have been hit and-miss. Still, there’s the hope that Allen is still capable of really surprising us — or that his audience might, as they did by somewhat inexplicably going nuts for 2011’s Midnight in Paris. It was Allen’s most popular film in eons, if not ever, probably helped by the fact that he wasn’t in it. Unfortunately, he’s up there again in the new To Rome With Love, familiar mannerisms not hiding the fact that Woody Allen the Nebbish has become just another Grumpy Old Man. There’s a doddering quality that isn’t intended, and is no longer within his control. But then To Rome With Love is a doddering picture — a postcard-pretty set of pictures with little more than "Have a nice day" scribbled on the back in script terms. Viewers expecting more of the travelogue pleasantness of Midnight in Paris may be forgiving, especially since it looks like a vacation, with Darius Khondji’s photography laying on the golden Italian light and making all the other colors confectionary as well. But if Paris at least had the kernel of a good idea, Rome has only several inexplicably bad ones; it’s a quartet of interwoven stories that have no substance, point, credibility, or even endearing wackiness. The shiny package can only distract so much from the fact that there’s absolutely nothing inside. (1:52) Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Total Recall Already the source material for Paul Verhoeven’s campy, quotable 1990 film (starring the campy, quotable Arnold Schwarzenegger), Philip K. Dick’s short story gets a Hollywood do-over, with meh results. The story, anyway, is a fine nugget of sci-fi paranoia: to escape his unsatisfying life, Quaid (Colin Farrell) visits a company capable of implanting exciting memories into his brain. When he chooses the "secret agent" option, it’s soon revealed he actually does have secret agent-type memories, suppressed via brain-fuckery by sinister government forces (led by Bryan Cranston) keeping him in the dark about his true identity. Shit immediately gets crazy, with high-flying chases and secret codes and fight scenes all over the place. The woman Quaid thinks is his wife (Kate Beckinsale) is actually a slithery killer; the woman he’s been seeing in his dreams (Jessica Biel) turns out to be his comrade in a secret rebel movement. Len Wiseman (writer and sometimes director of the Underworld films) lenses futuristic urban grime with a certain sleek panache, and Farrell is appealing enough to make highly generic hero Quaid someone worth rooting for — until the movie ends, and the entire enterprise (save perhaps the tri-boobed hooker, a holdover from the original) becomes instantly forgettable, no amnesia trickery required. (1:58) California, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (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) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

Film Listings

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, and Lynn Rapoport. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.

OPENING

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) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (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) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Rapoport)

The Expendables 2 Pretty much every aging action hero in the universe (except Steven Seagal) appears in this plot-lite but explosion-heavy sequel. (1:43)

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai See "The Trouble with Demons." (2:08) Four Star.

Love in the City See "Mid-Century Modern." (1:45) SF Film Society Cinema.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green A childless couple (Jennifer Garner, Joel Edgerton) adopt a boy after he mysteriously appears in their garden. (2:05) Presidio.

Painted Skin: The Resurrection See "The Trouble with Demons." (2:11) Metreon.

ParaNorman A boy who can speak to the dead saves his small town from a ghoul invasion in this spooky, 3D stop-motion animated film. (1:32) Balboa, Presidio.

Sparkle A 1960s Motown girl group faces the perils of stardom in this musical drama, featuring Whitney Houston in her last screen appearance. (1:56) Marina.

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) Embarcadero, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

ONGOING

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry Unstoppable force meets immovable object — and indeed gets stopped — in Alison Klayman’s documentary about China’s most famous contemporary artist. A larger than life figure, Ai Weiwei’s bohemian rebel persona was honed during a long (1981-93) stint in the U.S., where he fit right into Manhattan’s avant-garde and gallery scenes. Returning to China when his father’s health went south, he continued to push the envelope with projects in various media, including architecture — he’s best known today for the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ "Bird’s Nest" stadium design. But despite the official approval implicit in such high-profile gigs, his incessant, obdurate criticism of China’s political repressive politics and censorship — a massive installation exposing the government-suppressed names of children killed by collapsing, poorly-built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake being one prominent example — has tread dangerous ground. This scattershot but nonetheless absorbing portrait stretches its view to encompass the point at which the subject’s luck ran out: when the film was already in post-production, he was arrested, then held for two months without official charge before he was accused of alleged tax evasion. (He is now free, albeit barred from leaving China, and "suspected" of additional crimes including pornography and bigamy.) (1:31) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

The Amazing Spider-Man A mere five years after Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man 3 — forgettable on its own, sure, but 2002’s Spider-Man and especially 2004’s Spider-Man 2 still hold up — Marvel’s angsty web-slinger returns to the big screen, hoping to make its box-office mark before The Dark Knight Rises opens in a few weeks. Director Marc Webb (2009’s 500 Days of Summer) and likable stars Andrew Garfield (as the skateboard-toting hero) and Emma Stone (as his high-school squeeze) offer a competent reboot, but there’s no shaking the feeling that we’ve seen this movie before, with its familiar origin story and with-great-power themes. A little creativity, and I don’t mean in the special effects department, might’ve gone a long way to make moviegoers forget this Spidey do-over is, essentially, little more than a soulless cash grab. Not helping matters: the villain (Rhys Ifans as the Lizard) is a snooze. (2:18) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Beasts of the Southern Wild Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d’Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn’t attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about — improbably — Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting. Benh Zeitlin’s film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. But not all is well: when "the storm" floods the land, the holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate. With its elements of magic, mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology, Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film’s cost and length. (1:31) Bridge, California, Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Bernie Jack Black plays the titular new assistant funeral director liked by everybody in small-town Carthage, Tex. He works especially hard to ingratiate himself with shrewish local widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), but there are benefits — estranged from her own family, she not only accepts him as a friend (then companion, then servant, then as virtual "property"), but makes him her sole heir. Richard Linklater’s latest is based on a true-crime story, although in execution it’s as much a cheerful social satire as I Love You Philip Morris and The Informant! (both 2009), two other recent fact-based movies about likable felons. Black gets to sing (his character being a musical theater queen, among other things), while Linklater gets to affectionately mock a very different stratum of Lone Star State culture from the one he started out with in 1991’s Slacker. There’s a rich gallery of supporting characters, most played by little-known local actors or actual townspeople, with Matthew McConaughey’s vainglorious county prosecutor one delectable exception. Bernie is its director’s best in some time, not to mention a whole lot of fun. (1:39) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

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) Roxie. (Harvey)

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) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Brave Pixar’s latest is a surprisingly familiar fairy tale. Scottish princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) would rather ride her horse and shoot arrows than become engaged, but it’s Aladdin-style law that she must marry the eldest son of one of three local clans. (Each boy is so exaggeratedly unappealing that her reluctance seems less tomboy rebellion than common sense.) Her mother (Emma Thompson) is displeased; when they quarrel, Merida decides to change her fate (Little Mermaid-style) by visiting the local spell-caster (a gentle, absent-minded soul that Ursula the Sea Witch would eat for brunch). Naturally, the spell goes awry, but only the youngest of movie viewers will fear that Merida and her mother won’t be able to make things right by the end. Girl power is great, but so are suspense and originality. How, exactly, is Brave different than a zillion other Disney movies about spunky princesses? Well, Merida’s fiery explosion of red curls, so detailed it must have had its own full-time team of animators working on it, is pretty fantastic. (1:33) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck. (Eddy)

The Campaign (1:25) California, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Vogue.

Celeste and Jesse Forever Married your best friend, realized you love but can’t be in love with each other, and don’t want to let all those great in-jokes wither away? Such is the premise of Celeste and Jesse Forever, the latest in what a recent wave of meaty, girl-centric comedies penned by actresses — here Rashida Jones working with real-life ex Will McCormack; there, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), Zoe Lister Jones (Lola Versus), and Lena Dunham (Girls) — who have gone the DIY route and whipped up their own juicy roles. There’s no mistaking theirs for your average big-screen rom-com: they dare to wallow harder, skew smarter, and in the case of Celeste, tackle the thorny, tough-to-resolve relationship dilemma that stubbornly refuses to conform to your copy-and-paste story arc. Nor do their female protagonists come off as uniformly likable: in this case, Celeste (Jones) is a bit of an aspiring LA powerbitch. Her Achilles heel is artist Jesse (Andy Samberg), the slacker high school sweetheart she wed and separated from because he doesn’t share her goals (e.g., he doesn’t have a car or a job). Yet the two continue to spend all their waking hours together and share an undeniable rapport, extending from Jesse’s encampment in her backyard apartment to their jokey simulated coitus featuring phallic-shaped lip balm. Throwing a wrench in the works: the fact that they’re still kind of in love with each other, which all their pals, like Jesse’s pot-dealer bud Skillz (McCormack), can clearly see. It’s an shaggy, everyday breakup yarn, writ glamorous by its appealing leads, that we too rarely witness, and barring the at-times nausea-inducing shaky-cam under the direction of Lee Toland Krieger, it’s rendered compelling and at times very funny — there’s no neat and tidy way to say good-bye, and Jones and McCormack do their best to capture but not encapsulate the severance and inevitable healing process. It also helps that the chemistry practically vibrates between the boyish if somewhat one-note Samberg and the soulful Jones, who fully, intelligently rises to the occasion, bringing on the heartbreak. (1:31) Metreon, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Dark Horse You can look at filmmaker Todd Solondz’s work and find it brilliant, savage, and challenging; or show-offy, contrived, and fraudulent. The circles of interpersonal (especially familial) hell he describes are simultaneously brutal, banal, and baroque. But what probably distresses people most is that they’re also funny — raising the issue of whether he trivializes trauma for the sake of cheap shock-value yuks, or if black comedy is just another valid way of facing the unbearable. Dark Horse is disturbing because it’s such a slight, inconsequential, even soft movie by his standards; this time, the sharp edges seem glibly cynical, and the sum ordinary enough to no longer seem unmistakably his. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is an obnoxious jerk of about 35 who still lives with his parents (Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken) and works at dad’s office, likely because no one else would employ him. But Abe doesn’t exactly see himself as a loser. He resents and blames others for being winners, which is different — he sees the inequality as their fault. Dark Horse is less of an ensemble piece than most of Solondz’s films, and in hinging on Abe, it diminishes his usual ambivalence toward flawed humanity. Abe has no redemptive qualities — he’s just an annoyance, one whose mental health issues aren’t clarified enough to induce sympathy. (1:25) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (1:34) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

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) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Farewell, My Queen (Benoît Jacquot, France, 2012) Opening early on the morning of July 14, 1789, Farewell, My Queen depicts four days at the Palace of Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution, as witnessed by a young woman named Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) who serves as reader to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Sidonie displays a singular and romantic devotion to the queen, while the latter’s loyalties are split between a heedless amour propre and her grand passion for the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). These domestic matters and other regal whims loom large in the tiny galaxy of the queen’s retinue, so that while elsewhere in the palace, in shadowy, candle-lit corridors, courtiers and their servants mingle to exchange news, rumor, panicky theories, and evacuation plans, in the queen’s quarters the task of embroidering a dahlia for a projected gown at times overshadows the storming of the Bastille and the much larger catastrophe on the horizon. (1:39) Albany, Opera Plaza. (Rapoport)

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. (Eddy)

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) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Ice Age: Continental Drift (1:27) Metreon.

The Imposter A family tragedy, an international thriller, a Southern-fried mystery, and a true story: The Imposter is all of these things. This unique documentary reveals the tale of Frédéric Bourdin, dubbed "the Chameleon" for his epic false-identity habit. His ballsiest accomplishment was also his most heinous con: in 1997, he claimed to be Nicholas Barclay, a San Antonio teen missing since 1994. Amazingly, the impersonation worked for a time, though Bourdin (early 20s, brown-eyed, speaks English with a French accent) hardly resembled Nicholas (who would have been 16, and had blue eyes). Using interviews — with Nicholas’ shell-shocked family, government types who unwittingly aided the charade, and Bourdin himself — and ingenious re-enactments that borrow more from crime dramas than America’s Most Wanted, director Bart Layton weaves a multi-layered chronicle of one man’s unbelievable deception. (1:39) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Eddy)

The Intouchables Cries of "racism" seem a bit out of hand when it comes to this likable albeit far-from-challenging French comedy loosely based on a real-life relationship between a wealthy white quadriplegic and his caretaker of color. The term "cliché" is more accurate. And where were these critics when 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy and 2011’s The Help — movies that seem designed to make nostalgic honkies feel good about those fraught relationships skewed to their advantage—were coming down the pike? (It also might be more interesting to look at how these films about race always hinge on economies in which whites must pay blacks to interact with/educate/enlighten them.) In any case, Omar Sy, portraying Senegalese immigrant Driss, threatens to upset all those pundits’ apple carts with his sheer life force, even when he’s shaking solo on the dance floor to sounds as effortlessly unprovocative, and old-school, as Earth, Wind, and Fire. In fact, everything about The Intouchables is as old school as 1982’s 48 Hrs., spinning off the still laugh-grabbing humor that comes with juxtaposing a hipper, more streetwise black guy with a hapless, moneyed chalky. The wheelchair-bound Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is more vulnerable than most, and he has a hard time getting along with any of his nurses, until he meets Driss, who only wants his signature for his social services papers. It’s not long before the cultured, classical music-loving Philippe’s defenses are broken down by Driss’ flip, somewhat honest take on the follies and pretensions of high culture — a bigger deal in France than in the new world, no doubt. Director-writer Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano aren’t trying to innovate —they seem more set on crafting an effervescent blockbuster that out-blockbusters Hollywood — and the biggest compliment might be that the stateside remake is already rumored to be in the works. (1:52) Clay. (Chun)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi Celebrity-chef culture has surely reached some kind of zeitgeist, what with the omnipresence of Top Chef and other cooking-themed shows, and the headlines-making power of people like Paula Deen (diabetes) and Mario Batali (sued for ripping off his wait staff). Unconcerned with the trappings of fame — you’ll never see him driving a Guy Fieri-style garish sports car — is Jiro Ono, 85-year-old proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny, world-renowned sushi restaurant tucked into Tokyo’s Ginza station. Jiro, a highly-disciplined perfectionist who believes in simple, yet flavorful food, has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of "deliciousness" — to the point of sushi invading his dreams, as the title of David Gelb’s reverential documentary suggests. But Jiro Dreams of Sushi goes deeper than food-prep porn (though, indeed, there’s plenty of that); it also examines the existential conflicts faced by Jiro’s two middle-aged sons. Both were strongly encouraged to enter the family business — and in the intervening years, have had to accept the soul-crushing fact that no matter how good their sushi is, it’ll never be seen as exceeding the creations of their legendary father. (1:21) Four Star. (Eddy)

Killer Joe William Friedkin made two enormously popular movies that have defined his career (1971’s The French Connection and 1973’s The Exorcist), but his resumé also contains an array of lesser films that are both hit-and-miss in critical and popular appeal. Most have their defenders. After a couple biggish action movies, it seemed a step down for him to be doing Bug in 2006; though it had its limits as a psychological quasi-horror, you could feel the cracking recognition of like minds between cast, director, and playwright Tracy Letts. Letts and Friedkin are back in Killer Joe, which was a significant off-Broadway success in 1998. In the short, violent, and bracing film version, Friedkin gets the ghoulish jet-black-comedic tone just right, and his actors let themselves get pushed way out on a limb to their great benefit — including Matthew McConaughey, playing the title character, who’s hired by the Smith clan of Texas to bump off a troublesome family member. Needless to say, almost nothing goes as planned, escalating mayhem to new heights of trailer-trash Grand Guignol. Things get fugly to the point where Killer Joe becomes one of those movies whose various abuses are shocking enough to court charges of gratuitous violence and misogyny; unlike the 2010 Killer Inside Me, for instance, it can’t really be justified as a commentary upon those very entertainment staples. (Letts is highly skilled, but those looking for a message here will have to think one up for themselves.) Still, Friedkin and his cast do such good work that Killer Joe‘s grimly humorous satisfaction in its worst possible scenarios seems quite enough. (1:43) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)

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. (Harvey)

Magic Mike Director Steven Soderbergh pays homage to the 1970s with the opening shot of his male stripper opus: the boxy old Warner Bros. logo, which evokes the gritty, sexualized days of Burt Reynolds and Joe Namath posing in pantyhose. Was that really the last time women, en masse, were welcome to ogle to their heart’s content? 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 vintage Reynolds 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. 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). 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. Unfortunately the 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. (1:50) Metreon. (Chun)

Moonrise Kingdom Does Wes Anderson’s new film mark a live-action return to form after 2007’s disappointingly wan Darjeeling Limited? More or less. Does it tick all the Andersonian style and content boxes? Indubitably. In the most obvious deviation Anderson has taken with Moonrise, he gives us his first period piece, a romance set in 1965 on a fictional island off the New England coast. After a chance encounter at a church play, pre-teen Khaki Scout Sam (newcomer Jared Gilman) instantly falls for the raven-suited, sable-haired Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward, ditto). The two become pen pals, and quickly bond over the shared misery of being misunderstood by both authority figures and fellow kids. The bespectacled Sam is an orphan, ostracized by his foster parents and scout troop (much to the dismay of its straight-arrow leader Edward Norton). Suzy despises her clueless attorney parents, played with gusto by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand in some of the film’s funniest and best scenes. When the two kids run off together, the whole thing begins to resemble a kind of tween version of Godard’s 1965 lovers-on the-lam fantasia Pierrot le Fou. But like most of Anderson’s stuff, it has a gauzy sentimentality more akin to Truffaut than Godard. Imagine if the sequence in 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums where Margot and Richie run away to the Museum of Natural History had been given the feature treatment: it’s a simple yet inspired idea, and it becomes a charming little tale of the perils of growing up and selling out the fantasy. But it doesn’t feel remotely risky. It’s simply too damn tame. (1:37) Four Star, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Michelle Devereaux)

Moth Diaries The Moth Diaries, Rachel Klein’s 2002 novel turned into Mary Harron’s film, is the director’s most mainstream-friendly effort, being less edgy and grown-up than American Psycho (2000), I Shot Andy Warhol (1996), or even The Notorious Bettie Page (2005). It’s the start of a new academic year at an upscale girls’ boarding school. Becca (Sarah Bolger from The Tudors) is particularly happy to be reunited with best friend Lucie (Sarah Gadon), as the former is still psychologically fragile in the wake of her well-known poet father’s suicide. But a wedge is driven between them by the arrival of Ernessa (Lily Cole), a tall, English-accented student with a face like a creepy porcelain doll. She "colonizes" Lucie, who at first guiltily hides her infatuation from Becca, then (along with everyone else) accuses her of simple jealousy. But Becca notices things others don’t, or dismiss: how Ernessa never seems to eat, how she can’t abide water, the sickly sweet smell emanating from her room and her odd disappearances into the luxury-hotel-turned-school’s off limits basement. Klein’s book, which had our heroine looking back on this episode from middle age, insisted on ambiguity: we’re never sure whether Ernessa really is a supernatural predator, or if all this is just a hysterical fantasy. Adapted by Harron as scenarist, the movie eliminates that frame and leaves little room for doubt that there be vampires here. The film’s weakness is that it still tries to play it both ways, as troubled coming-of-age portrait and Gothic horror, with the result that the two elements end up seeming equally half-realized. (1:22) SF Film Society Cinema. (Harvey)

Nitro Circus the Movie 3D (1:28) Metreon.

The Queen of Versailles Lauren Greenfield’s obscenely entertaining The Queen of Versailles takes a long, turbulent look at the lifestyles lived by David and Jackie Siegel. He is the 70-something undisputed king of timeshares; she is his 40-something (third) wife, a former beauty queen with the requisite blonde locks and major rack, both probably not entirely Mother Nature-made. He’s so compulsive that he’s never saved, instead plowing every buck back into the business. When the recession hits, that means this billionaire is — in ready-cash as opposed to paper terms — suddenly sorta kinda broke, just as an enormous Las Vegas project is opening and the family’s stupefyingly large new "home" (yep, modeled after Versailles) is mid-construction. Plugs must be pulled, corners cut. Never having had to, the Siegels discover (once most of the servants have been let go) they have no idea how to run a household. Worse, they discover that in adversity they have a very hard time pulling together — in particular, David is revealed as a remote, cold, obsessively all-business person who has no use for getting or giving "emotional support;" not even for being a husband or father, much. What ultimately makes Queen poignantly more than a reality-TV style peek at the garishly wealthy is that Jackie, despite her incredibly vulgar veneer (she’s like a Jennifer Coolidge character, forever squeezed into loud animal prints), is at heart just a nice girl from hicksville who really, really wants to make this family work. (1:40) Lumiere, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Ruby Sparks Meta has rarely skewed as appealingly as with this indie rom-com spinning off a writerly version of the Pygmalion and Galatea tale, as penned by the object-of-desire herself: Zoe Kazan. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris helm this heady fantasy about a crumpled, geeky novelist, Calvin (Paul Dano), who’s suffering from the sophomore slump — he can’t seem to break his rock-solid writers block and pen a follow-up to his hit debut. He’s a victim of his own success, especially when he finally begins to write, about a dream girl, a fun-loving, redheaded artist named Ruby (scriptwriter Kazan), who one day actually materializes. When he types that she speaks nothing but French, out comes a stream of the so-called language of diplomacy. Calvin soon discovers the limits and dangers of creation — say, the hazards of tweaking a manifestation when she doesn’t do what you desire, and the question of what to do when one’s baby Frankenstein grows bored and restless in the narrow circle of her creator’s imagination. Kazan — and Dayton and Faris — go to the absurd, even frightening, limits of the age-old Pygmalion conceit, giving it a feminist charge, while helped along by a cornucopia of colorful cameos by actors like Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s boho mom and her furniture-building boyfriend. Dano is as adorably befuddled as ever and adds the crucial texture of every-guy reality, though ultimately this is Kazan’s show, whether she’s testing the boundaries of a genuinely codependent relationship or tugging at the puppeteer’s strings. (1:44) Metreon, Piedmont, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Searching for Sugar Man The tale of the lost, and increasingly found, artist known as Rodriguez seems to have it all: the mystery and drama of myth, beginning with the singer-songwriter’s stunning 1970 debut, Cold Fact, a neglected folk rock-psychedelic masterwork. (The record never sold in the states, but somehow became a beloved, canonical LP in South Africa.) The story goes on to parse the cold, hard facts of vanished hopes and unpaid royalties, all too familiar in pop tragedies. In Searching for Sugar Man, Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul lays out the ballad of Rodriguez as a rock’n’roll detective story, with two South African music lovers in hot pursuit of the elusive musician — long-rumored to have died onstage by either self-immolation or gunshot, and whose music spoke to a generation of white activists struggling to overturn apartheid. By the time Rodriguez himself enters the narrative, the film has taken on a fairy-tale trajectory; the end result speaks volumes about the power and longevity of great songwriting. (1:25) Embarcadero. (Chun)

Step Up Revolution The Step Up franchise makes a play for the Occupy brand, setting up its fourth installment’s Miami street crew, the Mob, as the warrior dance champions of the 99 percent — here represented by a vibrant lower-income neighborhood slated for redevelopment. Embodying the one percent is a hotel-chain mogul named Bill Anderson (Peter Gallagher), armed with a wrecking ball and sowing the seeds of a soulless luxury monoculture. Our hero, Mob leader Sean (Ryan Guzman), and heroine, Anderson progeny and aspiring professional dancer Emily (Kathryn McCormick), meet beachside; engage in a sandy, awkward interlude of grinding possibly meant to showcase their dance skills; and proceed to spark a romance and a revolution that feel equally fake (brace yourself for the climactic corporate tie-in). The Mob’s periodic choreographed invasions of the city’s public and private spaces are the movie’s sole source of oxygen. The dialogue, variously mumbled and slurred and possibly read off cue cards, drifts aimlessly from tepid to trite as the protagonists attempt to demonstrate sexual chemistry by breathily trading off phrases like "What we do is dangerous!" and "Enough with performance art — it’s time to make protest art!" Occasionally you may remember that you have 3D glasses on your face and wonder why, but the larger philosophical question (if one may speak of philosophy in relation to the dance-movie genre) concerns the Step Up films’ embrace of postproduction sleights of hand that distance viewers from whatever astonishing feats of physicality are actually being achieved in front of the camera. (1:20) SF Center. (Rapoport)

Ted Ah, boys and their toys — and the imaginary friends that mirror back a forever-after land of perpetual Peter Pans. That’s the crux of the surprisingly smart, hilarious Ted, aimed at an audience comprising a wide range of classes, races, and cultures with its mix of South Park go-there yuks and rom-commie coming-of-age sentiment. Look at Ted as a pop-culture-obsessed nerd tweak on dream critter-spirit animal buddy efforts from Harvey (1950) to Donnie Darko (2001) to TV’s Wilfred. Of course, we all know that the really untamable creature here wobbles around on two legs, laden with big-time baggage about growing up and moving on from childhood loves. Young John doesn’t have many friends but he is fortunate enough to have his Christmas wish come true: his beloved new teddy bear, Ted (voice by director-writer Seth MacFarlane), begins to talk back and comes to life. With that miracle, too, comes Ted’s marginal existence as a D-list celebrity curiosity — still, he’s the loyal "Thunder Buddy" that’s always there for the now-grown John (Mark Wahlberg), ready with a bong and a broheim-y breed of empathy that involves too much TV, an obsession with bad B-movies, and mock fisticuffs, just the thing when storms move in and mundane reality rolls through. With his tendency to spew whatever profanity-laced thought comes into his head and his talents are a ladies’ bear, Ted is the id of a best friend that enables all of John’s most memorable, un-PC, Hangover-style shenanigans. Alas, John’s cool girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) threatens that tidy fantasy setup with her perfectly reasonable relationship demands. Juggling scary emotions and material that seems so specific that it can’t help but charm — you’ve got to love a shot-by-shot re-creation of a key Flash Gordon scene — MacFarlane sails over any resistance you, Lori, or your superego might harbor about this scenario with the ease of a man fully in touch with his inner Ted. (1:46) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

To Rome with Love Woody Allen’s film legacy is not like anybody else’s. At present, however, he suffers from a sense that he’s been too prolific for too long. It’s been nearly two decades since a new Woody Allen was any kind of "event," and the 19 features since Bullets Over Broadway (1994) have been hit and-miss. Still, there’s the hope that Allen is still capable of really surprising us — or that his audience might, as they did by somewhat inexplicably going nuts for 2011’s Midnight in Paris. It was Allen’s most popular film in eons, if not ever, probably helped by the fact that he wasn’t in it. Unfortunately, he’s up there again in the new To Rome With Love, familiar mannerisms not hiding the fact that Woody Allen the Nebbish has become just another Grumpy Old Man. There’s a doddering quality that isn’t intended, and is no longer within his control. But then To Rome With Love is a doddering picture — a postcard-pretty set of pictures with little more than "Have a nice day" scribbled on the back in script terms. Viewers expecting more of the travelogue pleasantness of Midnight in Paris may be forgiving, especially since it looks like a vacation, with Darius Khondji’s photography laying on the golden Italian light and making all the other colors confectionary as well. But if Paris at least had the kernel of a good idea, Rome has only several inexplicably bad ones; it’s a quartet of interwoven stories that have no substance, point, credibility, or even endearing wackiness. The shiny package can only distract so much from the fact that there’s absolutely nothing inside. (1:52) Albany, Opera Plaza, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Total Recall Already the source material for Paul Verhoeven’s campy, quotable 1990 film (starring the campy, quotable Arnold Schwarzenegger), Philip K. Dick’s short story gets a Hollywood do-over, with meh results. The story, anyway, is a fine nugget of sci-fi paranoia: to escape his unsatisfying life, Quaid (Colin Farrell) visits a company capable of implanting exciting memories into his brain. When he chooses the "secret agent" option, it’s soon revealed he actually does have secret agent-type memories, suppressed via brain-fuckery by sinister government forces (led by Bryan Cranston) keeping him in the dark about his true identity. Shit immediately gets crazy, with high-flying chases and secret codes and fight scenes all over the place. The woman Quaid thinks is his wife (Kate Beckinsale) is actually a slithery killer; the woman he’s been seeing in his dreams (Jessica Biel) turns out to be his comrade in a secret rebel movement. Len Wiseman (writer and sometimes director of the Underworld films) lenses futuristic urban grime with a certain sleek panache, and Farrell is appealing enough to make highly generic hero Quaid someone worth rooting for — until the movie ends, and the entire enterprise (save perhaps the tri-boobed hooker, a holdover from the original) becomes instantly forgettable, no amnesia trickery required. (1:58) California, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Unforgiveable The distinguishing characteristic of André Téchiné’s movies is the speed and force with which life changes people and their relationships with one another, even as the director’s presentation is so matter-of-fact that no single moment betrays the enormity of changes endured. Unforgiveable‘s Francis (the estimable André Dussollier) is the French author of best-selling crime novels who’s decided to recharge his batteries by living in Venice for a year. He’s struck by the brisk attractiveness of Judith (Carole Bouquet), the estate agent he consults to find a rental; 18 months later they’re contentedly married, and hosting two daughters of his by a prior marriage. When the eldest (Mélanie Thierry) disappears, Francis hires a private detective (Adriana Asti), who was once ex-model Judith’s paramour and, like Francis, has a problem child in the recently prison-sprung Jérémie (Mauro Conte). The paternal quest that’s become an obsession oddly fosters a bond between Francis and this mercurial delinquent, even as it erodes the happiness he’s won in autumnal life with Judith. Unforgivable is based on a novel by Philippe Djian, but feels very much of a piece with films whose stories Téchiné originated with or without collaborators. It hurtles forward with a casual intensity that’s uniquely his own, sometimes surprising or even shocking us, but never inflating incidents to the point of melodrama. It isn’t among the director’s most memorable creations, but it’s satisfying to spend two hours with someone who thinks like an adult, and treats the audience as one. (1:52) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

The Watch Directed by Lonely Island member Akiva Schaffer (famed for Saturday Night Live‘s popular digital shorts, including "Dick in a Box"), The Watch is, appropriately enough, probably the most dick-focused alien-invasion movie of all time. When a security guard is mangled to death at Costco, store manager and uber-suburbanite Evan (Ben Stiller, doing a damn good Steve Carell impersonation) organizes a posse to keep an eye on the neighborhood — despite the fact that the other members (Vince Vaughn as the overprotective dad with the bitchin’ man cave; Jonah Hill as the creepy wannabe cop; and British comedian Richard Ayoade as the sweet pervert) would much rather drink beers and bro down. Much bumbling ensues, along with a thrown-together plot about unfriendly E.T.s. The Watch offers some laughs (yes, dick jokes are occasionally funny) but overall feels like a pretty minor effort considering its big-name cast. (1:38) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Eddy) *

Film Listings

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Max Goldberg, Dennis Harvey, and Lynn Rapoport. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock.

OPENING

The Bourne Legacy Jeremy Renner steps into Matt Damon’s super-spy shoes to play a Jason Bourne-esque international man of ass-kicking mystery. (2:15) Balboa. Presidio.

The Campaign A smug incumbent (Will Ferrell) and a naïve newcomer (Zach Galifianakis) battle over a North Carolina congressional seat. (1:25) Presidio, California, Vogue.

Celeste and Jesse Forever Indie dramedy about a couple (Andy Samberg and co-writer Rashida Jones) who try to stay friends despite their impending divorce. (1:31) Metreon, Sundance Kabuki.

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) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Hope Springs A married couple (Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones) turn to a counselor (Steve Carell) to help salvage their relationship. (1:40) Four Star, Marina, Piedmont, Shattuck.

Moth Diaries See “Fangs, But No Fangs.” (1:22) SF Film Society Cinema.

Nitro Circus the Movie 3D The daredevil “action sports collective” hits the big screen with ridiculous stunts aimed at delighting Jackass and X Games fans. (1:28)

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) Elmwood, Lumiere. (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) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Unforgiveable See “When in Venice.” (1:52) Opera Plaza, Shattuck.

ONGOING

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry Unstoppable force meets immovable object — and indeed gets stopped — in Alison Klayman’s documentary about China’s most famous contemporary artist. A larger than life figure, Ai Weiwei’s bohemian rebel persona was honed during a long (1981-93) stint in the U.S., where he fit right into Manhattan’s avant-garde and gallery scenes. Returning to China when his father’s health went south, he continued to push the envelope with projects in various media, including architecture — he’s best known today for the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ “Bird’s Nest” stadium design. But despite the official approval implicit in such high-profile gigs, his incessant, obdurate criticism of China’s political repressive politics and censorship — a massive installation exposing the government-suppressed names of children killed by collapsing, poorly-built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake being one prominent example — has tread dangerous ground. This scattershot but nonetheless absorbing portrait stretches its view to encompass the point at which the subject’s luck ran out: when the film was already in post-production, he was arrested, then held for two months without official charge before he was accused of alleged tax evasion. (He is now free, albeit barred from leaving China, and “suspected” of additional crimes including pornography and bigamy.) (1:31) Lumiere, Shattuck, Smith Rafael, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

The Amazing Spider-Man A mere five years after Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man 3 — forgettable on its own, sure, but 2002’s Spider-Man and especially 2004’s Spider-Man 2 still hold up — Marvel’s angsty web-slinger returns to the big screen, hoping to make its box-office mark before The Dark Knight Rises opens in a few weeks. Director Marc Webb (2009’s 500 Days of Summer) and likable stars Andrew Garfield (as the skateboard-toting hero) and Emma Stone (as his high-school squeeze) offer a competent reboot, but there’s no shaking the feeling that we’ve seen this movie before, with its familiar origin story and with-great-power themes. A little creativity, and I don’t mean in the special effects department, might’ve gone a long way to make moviegoers forget this Spidey do-over is, essentially, little more than a soulless cash grab. Not helping matters: the villain (Rhys Ifans as the Lizard) is a snooze. (2:18) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Beasts of the Southern Wild Six months after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (and a Cannes Camera d’Or), Beasts of the Southern Wild proves capable of enduring a second or third viewing with its originality and strangeness fully intact. Magical realism is a primarily literary device that isn’t attempted very often in U.S. cinema, and succeeds very rarely. But this intersection between Faulkner and fairy tale, a fable about — improbably — Hurricane Katrina, is mysterious and unruly and enchanting. Benh Zeitlin’s film is wildly cinematic from the outset, as voiceover narration from six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) offers simple commentary on her rather fantastical life. She abides in the Bathtub, an imaginary chunk of bayou country south of New Orleans whose residents live closer to nature, amid the detritus of civilization. Seemingly everything is some alchemical combination of scrap heap, flesh, and soil. But not all is well: when “the storm” floods the land, the holdouts are forced at federal gunpoint to evacuate. With its elements of magic, mythological exodus, and evolutionary biology, Beasts goes way out on a conceptual limb; you could argue it achieves many (if not more) of the same goals Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life did at a fraction of that film’s cost and length. (1:31) Bridge, California, Embarcadero, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Bernie Jack Black plays the titular new assistant funeral director liked by everybody in small-town Carthage, Tex. He works especially hard to ingratiate himself with shrewish local widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), but there are benefits — estranged from her own family, she not only accepts him as a friend (then companion, then servant, then as virtual “property”), but makes him her sole heir. Richard Linklater’s latest is based on a true-crime story, although in execution it’s as much a cheerful social satire as I Love You Philip Morris and The Informant! (both 2009), two other recent fact-based movies about likable felons. Black gets to sing (his character being a musical theater queen, among other things), while Linklater gets to affectionately mock a very different stratum of Lone Star State culture from the one he started out with in 1991’s Slacker. There’s a rich gallery of supporting characters, most played by little-known local actors or actual townspeople, with Matthew McConaughey’s vainglorious county prosecutor one delectable exception. Bernie is its director’s best in some time, not to mention a whole lot of fun. (1:39) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

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) Roxie. (Harvey)

Brave Pixar’s latest is a surprisingly familiar fairy tale. Scottish princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) would rather ride her horse and shoot arrows than become engaged, but it’s Aladdin-style law that she must marry the eldest son of one of three local clans. (Each boy is so exaggeratedly unappealing that her reluctance seems less tomboy rebellion than common sense.) Her mother (Emma Thompson) is displeased; when they quarrel, Merida decides to change her fate (Little Mermaid-style) by visiting the local spell-caster (a gentle, absent-minded soul that Ursula the Sea Witch would eat for brunch). Naturally, the spell goes awry, but only the youngest of movie viewers will fear that Merida and her mother won’t be able to make things right by the end. Girl power is great, but so are suspense and originality. How, exactly, is Brave different than a zillion other Disney movies about spunky princesses? Well, Merida’s fiery explosion of red curls, so detailed it must have had its own full-time team of animators working on it, is pretty fantastic. (1:33) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Dark Horse You can look at filmmaker Todd Solondz’s work and find it brilliant, savage, and challenging; or show-offy, contrived, and fraudulent. The circles of interpersonal (especially familial) hell he describes are simultaneously brutal, banal, and baroque. But what probably distresses people most is that they’re also funny — raising the issue of whether he trivializes trauma for the sake of cheap shock-value yuks, or if black comedy is just another valid way of facing the unbearable. Dark Horse is disturbing because it’s such a slight, inconsequential, even soft movie by his standards; this time, the sharp edges seem glibly cynical, and the sum ordinary enough to no longer seem unmistakably his. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is an obnoxious jerk of about 35 who still lives with his parents (Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken) and works at dad’s office, likely because no one else would employ him. But Abe doesn’t exactly see himself as a loser. He resents and blames others for being winners, which is different — he sees the inequality as their fault. Dark Horse is less of an ensemble piece than most of Solondz’s films, and in hinging on Abe, it diminishes his usual ambivalence toward flawed humanity. Abe has no redemptive qualities — he’s just an annoyance, one whose mental health issues aren’t clarified enough to induce sympathy. (1:25) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

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) Balboa, Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

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. (Harvey)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (1:34) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio.

Farewell, My Queen (Benoît Jacquot, France, 2012) Opening early on the morning of July 14, 1789, Farewell, My Queen depicts four days at the Palace of Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution, as witnessed by a young woman named Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) who serves as reader to Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger). Sidonie displays a singular and romantic devotion to the queen, while the latter’s loyalties are split between a heedless amour propre and her grand passion for the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). These domestic matters and other regal whims loom large in the tiny galaxy of the queen’s retinue, so that while elsewhere in the palace, in shadowy, candle-lit corridors, courtiers and their servants mingle to exchange news, rumor, panicky theories, and evacuation plans, in the queen’s quarters the task of embroidering a dahlia for a projected gown at times overshadows the storming of the Bastille and the much larger catastrophe on the horizon. (1:39) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont. (Rapoport)

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. (Eddy)

Ice Age: Continental Drift (1:27) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

The Imposter A family tragedy, an international thriller, a Southern-fried mystery, and a true story: The Imposter is all of these things. This unique documentary reveals the tale of Frédéric Bourdin, dubbed “the Chameleon” for his epic false-identity habit. His ballsiest accomplishment was also his most heinous con: in 1997, he claimed to be Nicholas Barclay, a San Antonio teen missing since 1994. Amazingly, the impersonation worked for a time, though Bourdin (early 20s, brown-eyed, speaks English with a French accent) hardly resembled Nicholas (who would have been 16, and had blue eyes). Using interviews — with Nicholas’ shell-shocked family, government types who unwittingly aided the charade, and Bourdin himself — and ingenious re-enactments that borrow more from crime dramas than America’s Most Wanted, director Bart Layton weaves a multi-layered chronicle of one man’s unbelievable deception. (1:39) Lumiere, Shattuck. (Eddy)

The Intouchables Cries of “racism” seem a bit out of hand when it comes to this likable albeit far-from-challenging French comedy loosely based on a real-life relationship between a wealthy white quadriplegic and his caretaker of color. The term “cliché” is more accurate. And where were these critics when 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy and 2011’s The Help — movies that seem designed to make nostalgic honkies feel good about those fraught relationships skewed to their advantage—were coming down the pike? (It also might be more interesting to look at how these films about race always hinge on economies in which whites must pay blacks to interact with/educate/enlighten them.) In any case, Omar Sy, portraying Senegalese immigrant Driss, threatens to upset all those pundits’ apple carts with his sheer life force, even when he’s shaking solo on the dance floor to sounds as effortlessly unprovocative, and old-school, as Earth, Wind, and Fire. In fact, everything about The Intouchables is as old school as 1982’s 48 Hrs., spinning off the still laugh-grabbing humor that comes with juxtaposing a hipper, more streetwise black guy with a hapless, moneyed chalky. The wheelchair-bound Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is more vulnerable than most, and he has a hard time getting along with any of his nurses, until he meets Driss, who only wants his signature for his social services papers. It’s not long before the cultured, classical music-loving Philippe’s defenses are broken down by Driss’ flip, somewhat honest take on the follies and pretensions of high culture — a bigger deal in France than in the new world, no doubt. Director-writer Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano aren’t trying to innovate —they seem more set on crafting an effervescent blockbuster that out-blockbusters Hollywood — and the biggest compliment might be that the stateside remake is already rumored to be in the works. (1:52) Clay. (Chun)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi Celebrity-chef culture has surely reached some kind of zeitgeist, what with the omnipresence of Top Chef and other cooking-themed shows, and the headlines-making power of people like Paula Deen (diabetes) and Mario Batali (sued for ripping off his wait staff). Unconcerned with the trappings of fame — you’ll never see him driving a Guy Fieri-style garish sports car — is Jiro Ono, 85-year-old proprietor of Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny, world-renowned sushi restaurant tucked into Tokyo’s Ginza station. Jiro, a highly-disciplined perfectionist who believes in simple, yet flavorful food, has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of “deliciousness” — to the point of sushi invading his dreams, as the title of David Gelb’s reverential documentary suggests. But Jiro Dreams of Sushi goes deeper than food-prep porn (though, indeed, there’s plenty of that); it also examines the existential conflicts faced by Jiro’s two middle-aged sons. Both were strongly encouraged to enter the family business — and in the intervening years, have had to accept the soul-crushing fact that no matter how good their sushi is, it’ll never be seen as exceeding the creations of their legendary father. (1:21) Four Star. (Eddy)

Killer Joe William Friedkin made two enormously popular movies that have defined his career (1971’s The French Connection and 1973’s The Exorcist), but his resumé also contains an array of lesser films that are both hit-and-miss in critical and popular appeal. Most have their defenders. After a couple biggish action movies, it seemed a step down for him to be doing Bug in 2006; though it had its limits as a psychological quasi-horror, you could feel the cracking recognition of like minds between cast, director, and playwright Tracy Letts. Letts and Friedkin are back in Killer Joe, which was a significant off-Broadway success in 1998. In the short, violent, and bracing film version, Friedkin gets the ghoulish jet-black-comedic tone just right, and his actors let themselves get pushed way out on a limb to their great benefit — including Matthew McConaughey, playing the title character, who’s hired by the Smith clan of Texas to bump off a troublesome family member. Needless to say, almost nothing goes as planned, escalating mayhem to new heights of trailer-trash Grand Guignol. Things get fugly to the point where Killer Joe becomes one of those movies whose various abuses are shocking enough to court charges of gratuitous violence and misogyny; unlike the 2010 Killer Inside Me, for instance, it can’t really be justified as a commentary upon those very entertainment staples. (Letts is highly skilled, but those looking for a message here will have to think one up for themselves.) Still, Friedkin and his cast do such good work that Killer Joe‘s grimly humorous satisfaction in its worst possible scenarios seems quite enough. (1:43) Embarcadero. (Harvey)

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. (Harvey)

Magic Mike Director Steven Soderbergh pays homage to the 1970s with the opening shot of his male stripper opus: the boxy old Warner Bros. logo, which evokes the gritty, sexualized days of Burt Reynolds and Joe Namath posing in pantyhose. Was that really the last time women, en masse, were welcome to ogle to their heart’s content? 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 vintage Reynolds 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. 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). 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. Unfortunately the chemistry-free budding romance between Mike and Brooke sucks the air out of the proceedings every time it comes into view, whic