Presidio

Still Steppin’

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arts@sfbg.com

The Boogaloo is a dance, descended from the Twist but landing firmly between the Philly Dog and the Skate.

“I like to dance. Always did,” says Oscar Myers, who turns 70 next week, while demonstrating his moves in front of a whooping, sweating, grinning 1am crowd at San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room. Myers knows the Boogaloo because he was there when it happened, and because he plays the melange of funk, soul, jazz, and Latin music that make up its unique sound.

Myers, a trumpet player, percussionist, and singer, has been a Bay Area mainstay for decades, but if you wandered into any of his regular nights here or Madrone Art Bar, you might not immediately realize you were in the presence of a musical forefather.

“Want something slow, something fast, or something half-assed?”

His band, Steppin’, plays tunes by Lou Donaldson, Melvin Sparks, and Ivan “Boogaloo Joe” Jones, alongside classics by James Brown and Michael Jackson. The 30-somethings in Steppin’ are talented, but all eyes are usually on the man up front: It’s Myers who played with James Brown, Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, Lowell Fulson, and R&B icon Jimmy McCracklin. There aren’t many musicians of Myers’ era left — much less playing regular late-night gigs around San Francisco. (His next will be his 70th birthday party, at the Boom Boom Room this Friday, Oct. 10.)

No one ever asks for anything “half-assed.”

Born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 1944, Myers moved to Charleston, South Carolina as a kid. His father worked the graveyard shift at the city water pump station and dug actual graves during the day. His parents weren’t especially musical, but they had a piano, on which Myers began to pick out songs by ear. Through the family’s record player, he got to know the era’s swing greats: Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. He picked up the trumpet as a teenager, which got him into the orchestra and marching band at North Carolina A&T, alongside classmate (and future saxophone legend) Maceo Parker.

oscar
Oscar Myers. Photo by Saroyan Humphrey.

Following college, he joined the military, landing in San Francisco after serving in Vietnam. He doesn’t talk about it much, but he was wounded in the Tet Offensive, and ended up in physical therapy at the Letterman Army Hospital in the Presidio. He ultimately decided to stay: “The Bay Area was humming,” says Myers, with an inimitable, throaty husk in his voice. “There was music coming from everywhere.”

His list of collaborators is an index to the Bay Area’s music history — “The Bishop” Norman Williams, Jackie Ivory, Julian Vaught, Bill Bell, Bill Summers, and Babatunde Lea — and his gigs map out its nearly forgotten musical nervous system: the jazz, funk, and R&B clubs that once hosted the area’s thriving scene.

By the ’90s, Myers was leading a band that included two former bandmates of James Brown: organist Louis Madison and saxophonist C.A. Carr. Madison — a member of the Famous Flames, who were unceremoniously fired by Brown after a gig in San Francisco in 1959, reportedly after asking to be paid fairly — is rumored to have penned such Brown hits as “I Feel Good,” “Try Me,” and “Please, Please, Please.” Sans Brown, the Flames stuck around the Bay for good.

“How many of y’all know who the Godfather of Soul is?”

In the early ’90s, Myers got a call from James Brown’s manager, saying Brown wanted to meet up with Madison and this new bandleader in San Francisco. Myers declined, citing their gig at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland that night. Since two of Brown’s alumni were in the band, Myers added, Brown should actually come to them. Sure enough, during the show, Brown showed up with his wife, and the band broke into “I Feel Good.” After “I’ll Go Crazy,” Brown rushed the stage to hug his old band-members.

Soon after, Brown invited Myers to sit in on trumpet when he played the West Coast. Myers did about eight gigs with Brown, a perfectionist who notoriously fined his musicians for mistakes.

“All that’s true,” says Myers, though he didn’t personally receive any penalties. “He’d go down to the front of the stage and be leaning and crying and singing and then he’d hold up his hand: $5.” Don’t miss a note, was the lesson. “And don’t be late either!”

“I’ve never seen so many dead people breathing in my life!”

It takes a lot to get away with chastising a crowd. “He can tell the audience to shut up and it’s ok, because he has the credibility to do it,” says organist Wil Blades, who’s been playing with Myers for over a decade, since Blades was 20. “Oscar has big ears and he knows how this music should sound, because he came up with it.”

Mentorship is important to Myers, who now lives with his wife off Alamo Square. “Nowadays, you don’t see that stuff happening, where the older cats let the younger ones come and play and test their knowledge,” says the bandleader. Go to any Myers gig, and you’ll see one or two young musicians trying to prove their worth. If Myers likes what he hears, they’ll receive a smile and a handshake at the end of the night.

That said: “If you can’t play I’m not going to let you get up there. If you’re bad, I’ll run your ass off stage.” He’s not kidding.

“He let me up there and gave me an old-school butt-whooping,” remembers Blades. “That’s how you really learn this music, to me. You don’t learn it in school.”

How does it feel to be playing on his 70th birthday? “I did it when I was 69!” says Myers with a laugh. “You’re blessed just to be here this long. You can wake up, open your eyes, wiggle your toes, everything’s working. Everything from here on out is gravy for me.”

Which might explain why, on a typical night, you’ll find him dancing spontaneously during a set break, even when the curtain is down and the audience can’t see a thing.

OSCAR MYERS & STEPPIN
With Bootie Cooler & DJ K-Os
Fri/10, 9pm, $10
Boom Boom Room
1601 Fillmore, SF
www.boomboomblues.com

 

This Week’s Picks: August 27 – September 2, 2014

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sloppy yet endearing

WEDNESDAY 27

 

Mount Kimbie

Around the time dubstep started making its rounds with American artists and audiences in the late ’00s, a host of Londoners were developing the style into something more experimental. Among the earliest practitioners of this “post-dubstep” style was Mount Kimbie, which dropped its debut, Crooks & Lovers, in 2010 and unwittingly became one of the genre’s most influential practitioners. Though the duo may not skew as pop as its contemporary James Blake, Mount Kimbie has maintained a loyal following among electronic music fans, and it’s esteemed enough to have released its second album, Cold Spring Fault Less Youth, on the prestigious Warp label. Featuring guest vocals from London pop prodigy King Krule, Cold Spring only bolstered the duo’s reputation after its stripped-down sound had already made a mark on the mainstream. (Daniel Bromfield)

9pm, $20

The Chapel

777 Valencia, SF

(415) 286-2334

www.thechapelsf.com

 

 

El Terrible

Not too many people have seen El Terrible yet. The band announced its arrival quietly at the start of the year with the release of its eponymous debut EP, a murky four-track affair that evokes the guttural vocals of Joy Division and the intricate guitar sounds of My Bloody Valentine. While it may be a new band, the members of El Terrible are all journeymen of the SF music scene. Main writer and singer Terry Ashkinos was formerly the frontman of SXSW veteran Fake Your Own Death, while his live band, made up of locals Scott Eberhardt and Adrian McCullough, has also been on the scene for many years. Get ready to celebrate, as the group will be performing and dropping its new single at this show. Also playing are Rich Girls, the solo project from The Black’s singer Luisa Black, and Katelyn Sullivan’s acoustic Kitten Grenade, which has been performing all over the city and making quite a splash over the last few months. (David Kurlander)

8pm, $5

Brick and Mortar Music Hall

1710 Mission, SF

(415) 800-8782

www.brickandmortarmusic.com

 

THURSDAY 28


Midnites for Maniacs: Popeye and The Wiz

This might appear to be an unlikely double bill of musicals, until you take a look at its stars: Robert Altman’s mile-a-minute 1980 musical Popeye has the recently departed, greatly loved Robin Williams doing his manic thing in the title role, with Shelly Duvall at his side as Olive Oyl, in a performance that makes it hard to imagine any other (live-action) human taking the part on. The Wiz (1978) features another seemingly divinely-inspired talent gone before his time — a 20-year-old Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow to Diana Ross’ Harlem-dwelling Dorothy. Bonus: Richard Pryor as the Wiz. This could count as tearjerker programming, if each of these films wasn’t so likely to make you grin instead. (Emma Silvers)

7:20pm, $12

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6350

www.castrotheatre.com

 

FRIDAY 29

 

Mission of Burma

It’s been 33 years since Boston’s Mission of Burma unleashed its initial volley of sound, an EP and an album, Vs., followed by more than 20 years of silence. While the band unleashed 70 minutes of recorded material before an unfortunate breakup spurred by singer and guitarist Roger Miller’s worsening tinnitus, the group grew in stature for the next two decades. After an unexpected reunion in 2004, Mission of Burma has released four additional critically-acclaimed albums. The most recent, 2012’s Unsound, is full of impossibly fast tempos, odd tape-loops, and complex rhythms — generally the band’s modus operandi, but even more amped up than ever before. Truly ageless and anything but a nostalgia act, the band hasn’t visited the West Coast in upwards of four years. This set should include both stuff from the ’80s as well as newer albums, along with (if we’re lucky) a couple of delightfully dissonant Beatles covers the band’s been known to play on special occasions. (Kurlander)

7pm, $20

Independent

628 Divisadero, SF

(415) 771-1421

www.theindependentsf.com

 

 

 

 

Dev

If you listened to the radio at any point during 2010, you’ve probably heard Dev’s uncanny-valley croon on Far East Movement’s reference-heavy single “Like A G6.” But she’s since surpassed the shadow of that song, releasing the equally prom-wrecking single “In The Dark.” With her processed vocals and lewd lyrics, Dev is often compared to Ke$ha and her Parisian foil Uffie. However, Dev differentiates herself from those artists with a subdued, detached vocal style and a love of space-age, almost loungey production. Though she may or may not score another pop hit, she’s certainly not going anywhere — she released an excellent and surprisingly experimental EP with producer Nanosaur last month, and she’s currently prepping another EP, Bittersweet July, scheduled to drop Sept. 23. (Bromfield)

9pm, $18

The Mezzanine

444 Jessie, SF

(415) 625-8880

www.mezzaninesf.com

 

 

SATURDAY 30

 

San Francisco Zine Fest

Put down your iPhone, tablet, or other glowing device and stop thinking about zines in the past tense. DIY culture is thriving, and the San Francisco Zine Fest — which returns to Golden Gate Park this year — spotlights indie artists and writers, small presses, and the readers who love them. This year, there’ll be panels on “Race, Gender, and the Future of Zines” and “Creating Feminist Spaces in DIY Culture;” an “Intro to Silkscreen” workshop; and a rather impressive slate of exhibitors and special guests, including Ryan Sands (Youth in Decline), Tomas Moniz (RAD DAD), and illustrator-cartoonist Hellen Jo. (Cheryl Eddy)

Today, 11am-5pm; Sun/31, 11am-4pm, free

SF County Fair Building

1199 Ninth Ave, SF

www.sfzinefest.org

 

 

 

SF Shakespeare Festival’s The Taming of the Shrew

Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew has always been one of his most controversial plays, both for its rampant misogyny and its unique framing device — the protagonist, Petruchio, performs the entire play as a diversion for a drunk. The production he puts on is a retelling of the courtship of his wife Katherina, the “shrew” in question, who he eventually manipulates into being a devoted wife. Despite its turbulent reputation, the play is frenetic and funny, replete with sexy (and yes, particularly sexist) banter and a series of subplots involving winning women through feats of athletic and mental strength. The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival presents the play in its original setting, Renaissance-era Padua, and promises to play up the physical comedy, costumes, and clowns that punctuate faithful versions of the text. Cross your fingers that the weather is sunny, bring a picnic blanket, and enjoy the Presidio and the brilliance of the Bard. (Kurlander)

Through Mon/2

2pm, free

Presidio Lawn

Between Graham St and Keyes Ave, SF

(415) 558-0888

www.sfshakes.org

 

 

SUNDAY 31

 

Pookie & the Poodlez

I saw Pookie open this year’s Burger Boogaloo with a toothbrush still in his mouth; the story was that he’d overslept for his slot but luckily lived close enough to Oakland’s Mosswood Park to drive over in 15 minutes. Though I have no idea whether or not there’s any truth to this story, it’s a neat anecdotal summary of Pookie & the Poodlez’ aesthetic — sloppy yet endearing in an almost teen-idol way. Pookie’s pinched, nasal voice isn’t that far removed from that of Seth “Hunx” Bogart, with whom he has a degree of separation through performing with Bogart’s old flame Nobunny. But Pookie is weirder, more stoned, more affable, and less concerned with performance or with subverting pop tropes than he is with banging out minute-and-a-half pop-punk songs with little pretense or pretention. (Bromfield)

8:30pm, $7

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF

(415) 923-0923

www.hemlocktavern.com

 

Oakland Pride Parade and Festival

San Francisco may get all the glory, but Oakland? Oakland’s where Sheila E.’s from, and that, friends, is why Oakland’s annual pride celebration gets the drum queen as a headliner and celebrity grand marshal. The festival, which will take over downtown Oakland until 7pm, features three stages with a stacked bill full of live music, a children’s area, a senior area, and a “wedding pavilion” where couples will be able to tie the knot — there’s a story for the grandkids. And of course, food, booze, and all your favorite LGBT organizations will be out in style. Worth the BART trip? And how. (Emma Silvers)

Parade starts at 10:30am, festival 11am-7pm, $10

Parade: Broadway & 14th St; festival: Broadway & 20th St, Oakl.

(510) 545-6251

www.oaklandpride.org


MONDAY 1


The 12th Annual Cowgirlpalooza

Dust off your best boots and work up an appetite for hooch, because this party on the Mission’s sunniest patio — that’s El Rio’s — will have you cuttin’ a rug to the best country crooners the Bay Area has to offer, including the Patsychords (a Patsy Cline tribute band), Velvetta, Jessica Rose, and more. Enthusiastically encouraged: Boots, checkered shirts, creative belt buckles, lassos, getting there early. This annual shindig, thrown by the bar’s beloved, longtime sound guy Frank Gallagher, fills up in less time than it’d take you to watch City Slickers again. (Silvers)

4pm, $10

El Rio

3158 Mission, SF

(415) 282-3325

www.elriosf.com

 

TUESDAY 2


Gina Arnold

Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series of compact volumes examining popular albums offers a range of both musical styles (Dusty Springfield, ABBA, Jethro Tull, DJ Shadow, Sonic Youth, Van Dyke Parks, Guns N’ Roses, Celine Dion) and authors (John Darnielle, holding forth on Black Sabbath). The 96th entry comes from veteran rock journalist and recent Stanford Ph.D Gina Arnold, whose take on Liz Phair’s 1993 grunge-grrrl thesis Exile in Guyville offers what the New York Times calls “the most curious” entry in the 33 1/3 canon, taking a “free-form” approach rather than simply combing through each of Phair’s lo-fi anthems. Seems kinda perfect, considering Phair’s own unconventional music-biz approach — plus, any excuse to revisit “Fuck and Run” is always welcome. (Eddy)

7:30pm, free

Booksmith

1644 Haight, SF

www.booksmith.com

 

The Guardian listings deadline is two weeks prior to our Wednesday publication date. To submit an item for consideration, please include the title of the event, a brief description of the event, date and time, venue name, street address (listing cross streets only isn’t sufficient), city, telephone number readers can call for more information, telephone number for media, and admission costs. Send information to Listings, the Guardian, 835 Market Street, Suite 550, SF, CA 94103; or e-mail (paste press release into e-mail body — no attachments, please) to listings@sfbg.com. Digital photos may be submitted in jpeg format; the image must be at least 240 dpi and four inches by six inches in size. We regret we cannot accept listings over the phone.

The mayor of tiki

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culture@sfbg.com

WEEKNIGHTER The best tiki bar I’ve ever been to is Smith’s Union Bar in Honolulu’s Chinatown. It’s a shitty little tiki dive bar with even shittier karaoke. It’s also the oldest bar on the island. The night I was there it was full of Navy dudes, punk chicks, gay guys, and a big hulking, transgendered Pacific Islander. I had the crowd arm-in-arm singing “Tiny Dancer” and “Don’t Let Me Down” while cheering me on and buying me drinks after I sang. It was pretty much what I wish happened every night of my life.

While nothing can quite compare to Smith’s Union for obvious reasons, Trad’r Sam (6150 Geary Blvd, SF. 415-221-0773) is probably my second favorite tiki bar in the world. Sitting way out on Geary and 26th Avenue, Trad’r Sam got its start as a Trader Vic knockoff back in the 1930s. And it seems not much has changed since then. Cheap, powerful, colorful drinks come in punch bowls while wicker and cushion booths line the perimeter of the room. Cash is the only form of legal tender accepted and really drunk people abound. The bar itself is shaped in an irregular half circle with a lump, like a boob job gone wrong.

It was a foggy Tuesday night and Ashley and I had just come from Rockin Crawfish down the way. Neither of us make it out to the Richmond very often so it was an excuse to wander into places that she’s never been and I hadn’t been in years. As we walked in the door we were blown away by how busy it was. It seemed like the only business with any customers on that side of Park Presidio. “Damn, it’s busy,” I said to the door guy. “Is it always like this on Tuesdays?” I asked. He replied, “Pretty much.”

We were impressed. Most of the bars in that part of town, at that particular hour on a weeknight, had a client base consisting of old drunks pissing away what little money they had while staring into their beers. Somehow Trad’r Sam had every young and attractive person in the Richmond inside its walls that night. People of all ethnicities mingled together sipping flamboyant drinks while laughing, flirting, and grooving to music like MGMT.

“Can I touch your coat? Where’d you get it?” a girl asked as she approached us.

“Sure,” I said, “I got it at some thrift store.”

To which she responded by hugging me and saying, “I’m Jillian and you smell like garlic fries.” Jillian told us that Trad’r Sam was her favorite bar and since she lived nearby, she was there all the time. “Everyone here is so nice,” she told me, “Most of the time one of the bartenders walks me home. And if I black out I always make it home safely.” Blacking out is an easy thing to do at Trad’r Sam. Considering how many new SF bars have drinks that start at $12, the most expensive drink at Trad’r Sam is $16 and comes in a bowl meant for multiple people.

Walking out that night and towards the next bar on our adventure, I told Ashley about Smith’s Union and all the incredible things that happen there. “That’s all well and good,” she told me, “but I bet you never met the mayor there.”

“Huh?” I asked and she showed me her phone check in at Trad’r Sam. Apparently Jillian was the mayor on Foursquare. I never new smelling like garlic fries would lead me to meet such illustrious people. If you make it to Trad’r Sam, give the mayor a hug for me.

 

Film Listings: June 25 – July 1, 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. For complete film listings, see www.sfbg.com.

FRAMELINE

Frameline 38, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, runs through June 29 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF; Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St, SF; and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, 2966 College, Berk. For tickets (most shows $10-15) and schedule, visit www.frameline.org.

OPENING

Breathing Earth: Susumu Shingu’s Dream Japanese artist Susumu Shingu has built his career through his concerted engagement with the natural world. The wise and eternally smiling 75-year-old creates angular and often gargantuan mobiles that harness the power of wind and water to gyrate in ever-changing directions. In Breathing Earth, German director Thomas Riedelsheimer crafts a deliberately paced rumination on Shingu’s life philosophy that, while devoid of the frenetic facts, figures, and trite biographical rehashes that punctuate hyper-informative pop-docs, uses a beautifully simplistic narrative arc to illuminates Shingu’s attempt to create a hilly, open-air collection of windmills. The sculptor’s impassioned narration and charming conversations with potential landlords and investors (who usually entirely miss the point of his mission to raise environmental consciousness through aesthetic beauty) make Shingu impossible not to fall in love with — he is laid-back, funny, and astonishingly youthful. Riedelsheimer’s camera is similarly relaxed, gliding sumptuously over the green and wild landscapes on which Shingu installs his works. Despite his meditative tempo, Riedelsheimer manages to explore a remarkably wide scope; Shingu’s late-life marriage to a fellow sculptor, his appeals to both Japanese and German schoolchildren to care for the earth and help to avoid environmental disasters, and his intricate technical processes all receive intimate and inspiring sections. (1:37) Roxie, Smith Rafael. (David Kurlander)

Citizen Koch After quietly influencing conservative ideology, legislation, and elections for decades, the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers have found themselves becoming high-profile figures — much to their dismay, no doubt. The relative invisibility they hitherto enjoyed greatly abetted their impact in myriad arenas of public policy and “popular” conservative movements. Look behind any number of recent red-vs.-blue flashpoint issues and you can find their fingerprints: Notably state-level union busting; “smaller government” (i.e. incredible shrinking social services); seeding allegedly grassroots organizations like the Tea Party; furthering the Corporations = People thing (see: Citizens United); and generally helping the rich like themselves get richer while fostering working-class outrage at everybody else. This documentary by Trouble the Water (2008) co-directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessen touches on all those matters, while also focusing on Wisconsin as a test laboratory for the brothers’ Machiavellian think-tank maneuvers, following a Louisiana GOP candidate on the campaign trail (one he’s marginalized on for opposing corporate influence peddling), and more. Any one of these topics could support a feature of their own (and most already have). Citizen Koch‘s problem is that it tries to encompass too much of its subjects’ long reach, while (despite the title) leaving those subjects themselves underexplored. (It also suffers from being a movie completed at least 18 months ago, a lifetime in current US political terms.) For the reasonably well-informed this documentary will cover a lot of familiar ground—which is not to say that ground isn’t still interesting, or that the added human interest elements don’t compel. But the film covers so much ground it ends up feeling overstuffed and unfocused. (1:26) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Coherence See “Vortex Room.” (1:29) Presidio.

Korengal This companion piece to 2010’s Oscar-nominated Restrepo — one of the best docs about modern-day warfare to date, offering unfiltered access to an Army platoon stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley — uses previously unseen footage shot during the year filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington spent shadowing their subjects. Korengal is structured as a more introspective work, with musings on what it feels like to be a soldier in the Korengal, surrounded by rough (yet strikingly beautiful) terrain populated by farmers who may or may not be Taliban sympathizers, not to mention unpredictable, heavily armed opponents referred to simply as “the enemy.” Interviews reveal sadness, boredom, a deep sense of brotherhood, and the frustrating feeling of going from “100 miles an hour to a dead halt” after the surreal exhilaration of a firefight. Korengal also functions as a tribute to Hetherington, who was killed in 2011 while on assignment in Libya. Not only does his death add a layer of poignant subtext, it also suggests why Junger felt moved to revisit this story. That said, though Korengal‘s footage is several years old, its themes remain distressingly timely. (1:24) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Snowpiercer Eighteen years after an attempt to reverse global warming has gone wildly awry — freezing all life into extinction — the only known survivors are on a one-of-a-kind perpetual-motion train that circles the Earth annually, has its own self-contained ecosystem, and can smash through whatever ice buildup has blocked its tracks since the last go-round. It’s also a microcosm of civilization’s worst class-economic-racial patterns over history, with the much-abused “tail” passengers living in squalor under the thumb of brutal military police. Unseen at the train’s front is its mysterious inventor, Wilford, whose minions enforce “Eternal Order Prescribed by the Sacred Engine.” Curtis (Chris Evans) is default leader of the proletariat’s latest revolt, in which they attempt to force their way forward though the prison section (where they free Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung as the train’s original lock designer and his psychic daughter) on to the wonders of the first class compartments, and beyond. This first (mostly) English-language feature by South Korean Bong Joon-ho (2006’s The Host, 2009’s Mother), based on a 1982 French graphic novel, starts out as a sort of locomotive, claustrophobic Mad Max (1979) variation. But it gets wilder and more satirical as it goes along, goosed by Tilda Swinton’s grotesquely comic Minister Mason, and Alison Pill as a teacher propagandist in a particularly hilarious set piece. In case the metaphor hasn’t already hit you on the head, one character explains “The train is the world, we the humanity.” But Snowpiercer‘s sociopolitical critique is as effective as it is blunt, because Bong handles everything here — visceral action, absurdist humor, narrative left-turns, neatly etched character archetypes, et al. — with style, confidence, and wit. Some of the FX may not be quite as seamless as it would have been in a $200 million Hollywood studio production, and fanboys will no doubt nitpick like nitwits at various “credibility gaps.” (As if this movie ever asks to be taken literally.) But by current, or any, sci-fi action blockbuster standards, this is a giddily unpredictable, risk-taking joy. (2:07) (Harvey)

Third Person A screenwriter, Paul Haggis, pens a script in which a novelist (Liam Neeson) sits alone in a smoke-filled hotel room in Paris struggling over a manuscript about a novelist who can only feel emotions through his characters. What that psychic state would actually look like remains unclear — when the woman (Olivia Wilde) he’s left his wife (Kim Basinger) for shows up, their playful, painful, fraught interactions reveal a man with above-average emotional reserves. Meanwhile, in another hotel in another city, Rome, a sleazy fashion industry spy (Adrien Brody) finds his life turned sideways by a seemingly chance encounter in a bar with a beautiful Romanian woman (Moran Atias) in dire need of money. And in a third hotel, in Manhattan, a young woman (Mila Kunis) cleans up the suites she used to stay in when she was married to a renowned painter (James Franco), with whom she has a son she may or may not have harmed in some terrible way. The film broadly hints at connections between these three sets of lives — in each, the loss or endangerment of a child produces an unrelenting ripple effect; speaking of which, objects unnaturally submerged in water present an ominous visual motif. If the movie poster doesn’t give the game away as you’re walking into the theater, the signposts erected by Haggis ensure that you won’t be in the dark for long. Learning how these characters relate to one another, however, puts considerable drag on the fabric of the plot, exposing the threadbare places, and where Haggis offers his tortured characters redemption, it comes at the cost of good storytelling. (2:17) Shattuck. (Rapoport)

Transformers: Age of Extinction Mark Wahlberg and the Dinobots star in the latest installment of Michael Bay’s action sci-fi series. (2:30) Presidio.

Under the Electric Sky Hey, raver! This 3D concert film enables you to experience the Electric Daisy Carnival without punching any holes in your brain. (1:25)

Violette Taking on another “difficult” woman artist after the excellent 2008 Séraphine (about the folk-art painter), Martin Provost here portrays the unhappy life of Violette Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos), whose fiction and autobiographical writings eventually made her a significant figure in postwar French literature. We first meet her waiting out the war with gay author Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), one of many unrequited loves, then surviving via the black market trade before she’s “discovered” by such groundbreaking, already-established talents as Jean Genet (Jacques Bonnaffé) and Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain). It is the latter, a loyal supporter who nonetheless retains a chilly emotional distance, who becomes bisexual Violette’s principal obsession over the coming 20 years or so. Devos does her best to portray “a neurotic crazy washed-up old bag” with an “ugly mug” — hardly! — who is perpetually broke, depressed, and awkward, thanks no doubt in part to her mean witch of a mother (Catherine Hiegel). “Screaming and sobbing won’t get you anywhere,” Simone at one point tells her, and indeed Leduc is a bit of a pill. For the most part lacking the visual splendors of Séraphine (this character’s environs weren’t so pastoral), Violette is finely acted and crafted but, like its heroine, hard to love. (2:18) Albany, Embarcadero. (Harvey)

ONGOING

Belle The child of a British naval officer and a Caribbean slave, Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is deposited on the doorstep — well, the estate grounds — of her father’s relatives in 1769 England after her mother dies. Soon she’s entirely orphaned, which makes her a wealthy heiress and aristocratic title holder at the same time that she is something less than human in the eyes of her adopted society. For Belle is black (or more properly, mixed-race), and thus a useless curiosity at best as a well-bred noblewoman of the “wrong” racial makeup. Based on a murky actual historical chapter, Amma Asante’s film is that rare sumptuous costume drama which actually has something on its mind beyond romance and royalty. Not least among its pleasures are a fine supporting cast including Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, and Emily Watson. (1:45) Embarcadero, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Harvey)

A Coffee in Berlin How do you say “mumblecore” in German? Jan Ole Gerster’s debut feature has certain arty pretensions — it’s shot in black-and-white, and scored with peppy jazz — but it’s more or less a rambling day in the life of law school dropout Niko (Tom Schilling). It happens to be the very day Niko’s golf-loving father decides to stop funding his shiftless son’s slacker lifestyle, though that crisis (which, you know, Lena Dunham built an entire HBO comedy around) receives nearly equal heft as a cutesy ongoing gimmick that sees Niko incapable of getting a cup of coffee anywhere in Berlin. Hipster ennui can be compelling if it has some underlying energy and purpose (see: 2013’s Frances Ha, to which this film has been compared), but A Coffee in Berlin comes up short on both. That said, it does offer an intriguing portrayal of Berlin — a city whose modern-chic façade barely contains the history that haunts it — and some of its supporting characters, particularly Friederike Kempter as a former schoolmate of Niko’s who has outgrown him emotionally by about one thousand percent, provide pleasant enough distractions. (1:28) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)

The Fault in Our Stars I confess: I’m no card-carrying, vlog-flogging Nerdfighter in author John Green’s teen-geek army. But one can admire the passion — and teary romanticism — of the writer, readers, and the breakthrough novel that started it all. Much has been made over the cinematic tweaks to the best-selling YA book, but those seem like small beefs: OK, male romantic lead Gus’s (Ansel Elgort) perhaps-understandable brattiness seems to have been toned down a touch, but we’ll all get the somewhat-subversive push and pull of Green’s love story centered on two cancer-stricken innocents. Sixteen-year-old Hazel (a radiant Shailene Woodley) has been battling cancer almost all her life, fighting back from the brink, and now making her way every day with an oxygen tank and her devoted parents (Laura Dern, Sam Trammel) by her side. Her mordant wit, skeptical attitude, and smarts attract Gus, a handsome teen with a prosthetic leg, at a cancer support group, and the two embark on what seems like the most normal thing in the world — sweet, sweet love — albeit cut with the poignancy of almost-certain doom. Would the girl who calls herself a grenade dare to care for someone she will likely hurt? That’s the real question on her mind when the two reach out to the solitary author (Willem Dafoe) of their favorite book, An Imperial Affliction. The journey the two make leaves them both open to more hurt than either ever imagined, and though a good part of Fault‘s denouement boils down to a major puddle cuddle — with solid performances by all, but particularly Dern and Woodley — even a cynic is likely to get a bit misty as the kids endure all the stages of loss. And learning. (2:05) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center. (Chun)

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia Nicholas Wrathall’s highly entertaining documentary pays tribute to one of the 20th century’s most brilliant, original, and cranky thinkers, with extensive input from the man himself before his death in 2012 at age 86. The emphasis here is less on Vidal’s life as a literary lion and often glittering celebrity social life than on his parallel career as a harsh scold of US social injustices and political corruption. (Needless to say, recent history only sharpened his tongue in that department, with George W. Bush dismissed as “a goddamn fool,” and earlier statements such as “This is a country of the rich, for the rich and by the rich” seeming more apt than ever.) He’s a wellspring of wisdoms both blunt and witty, sometimes surprising, as in his hindsight doubts about the virtues of JFK (a personal friend) as a president. We get plenty of colorful archival clips in which he’s seen verbally jousting with such famous foes as William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer, invariably reducing them to stammering fury while remaining exasperatingly unruffled. His “out” homosexuality and outré views on sexuality in general (at odds with an increasingly assimilationist gay community) kept him controversial even among many liberals, while conservatives were further irked by his rock-solid family connections to the ruling elite. In our era of scripted political rhetoric and pandering anti-intellectualism, it’s a joy merely to spend an hour and half in the company of someone so brilliantly articulate on seemingly any topic — but particularly on the perpetually self-mythologizing, money-worshipping state of our Union. (1:29) Opera Plaza. (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) Albany, 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) Albany, Clay, Piedmont. (Eddy)

Ivory Tower The latest “issue doc” to come down the pipeline is this very timely and incisive look at the cost of higher education from director Andrew Rossi (2011’s Page One: Inside the New York Times). Rossi is a Yale and Harvard Law grad, and he begins his film in the hallowed halls of the latter to frame the question: In the era of skyrocketing tuition, and with the student loan debt hovering at a trillion bucks, is college still worth it? The answer is left open-ended, though with the very strong suggestion that nontraditional education (including community colleges, online learning, and the Silicon Valley-spawned “uncollege” movement) is certainly something worth exploring, particularly for the non-wealthy. Along the way, we do see some positive tales (a kid from the mean streets of Cleveland gets a full-ride scholarship to Harvard; students at rural Deep Springs College follow philosophy discussions with farm work; African American women at Spelman College thrive in an empowering environment), but there’s a fair amount of cynicism here, too, with a hard look at how certain state schools are wooing deep-pocketed out-of-staters with fancy athletic stadiums, luxurious amenities, and a willingness to embrace, however unofficially, their hard-partying reputations. Segments following a student protest at New York’s Cooper Union, a formerly free school forced to consider collecting tuition after a string of financial troubles, echo Frederick Wiseman’s epic At Berkeley (2013), a thematically similar if stylistically very different work. (1:37) California. (Eddy)

Jersey Boys The musical that turned the back story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — the 1960s hit making machines behind upbeat doo-wop ditties like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and a zillion more; you will recognize all of them — into Broadway gold ascends to the big screen thanks to director Clint Eastwood, a seemingly odd choice until you consider Eastwood’s own well-documented love of music. Jersey Boys weaves a predictable tale of show biz dreams realized and then nearly dashed, with a gangster element that allows for some Goodfellas-lite action (a pre-fame Joe Pesci is a character here; he was actually from the same ‘hood, and was instrumental in the group’s formation). With songs recorded live on-set, à la 2012’s Les Misérables, there’s some spark to the musical numbers, but Eastwood’s direction is more solid than spontaneous, with zero surprises (even the big finale, clearly an attempt at a fizzy, feel-good farewell, seems familiar). Still, the cast — including Tony winner John Lloyd Young as Valli, and Christopher Walken as a sympathetic mobster — is likable, with Young in particular turning in a textured performance that speaks to his years of experience with the role. For an interview with cast members Young, Michael Lomenda (who plays original Four Season Nick Massi), and Erich Bergen (as Bob Gaudio, the member who wrote most of the group’s hits), visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (2:14) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue. (Eddy)

Obvious Child We first encounter the protagonist of writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s funny, original film — a Brooklyn-dwelling twentysomething named Donna (Jenny Slate), who works at a lefty secondhand bookstore and makes regular (if unpaid) appearances at a local comedy night — onstage mining such underdiscussed topics as the effects of vaginal discharge on your garden-variety pair of underwear. This proves a natural segue to other hefty nuggets of embarrassment gold concerning her love life, to the dismay of boyfriend Ryan (Paul Briganti), auditing from the back of the club. He pretty much deserves it, however, for what he’s about to do, which is break up with her in a nasty, well-populated unisex bathroom, taking time to repeatedly glance at the texts coming through on his phone from Donna’s good friend, with whom he’s sleeping. So when Donna, mid-drowning of sorrows, meets a nice-looking fellow named Max (Jake Lacy) at the bar, his post-fraternity-presidency aesthetic seems unlikely to deter her from a one-night stand. The ensuing trashed make-out dance-off in Max’s apartment to the Paul Simon song of the title is both comic and adorable. The fractured recap of the evening’s condom-free horizontal events that occurs inside Donna’s brain three weeks later, as she hunkers down with her best friend, Nellie (Gaby Hoffmann), in the bookstore’s bathroom after peeing on a stick, is equally hilarious — and unwanted-pregnancy jokes aren’t that easy to pull off. Robespierre’s treatment of this extended windup and of Donna’s decision to have an abortion is a witty, warmhearted retort to 2007’s Knocked Up, a couple generations’ worth of Hollywood rom-com writers, and an entertainment industry that continues to perform its sweaty contortions of storytelling in the gutless cause of avoiding the A-word. (1:15) California, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Ping Pong Summer Eighties teen flicks of the My Bodyguard (1980), smart-dweebs-beat-the-bullies ilk are paid homage in Michael Tully’s deadpan satire, which is closer in spirit to the Comedy of Lameness school whose patron saint is Napoleon Dynamite. Radley (Marcello Conte) is an average teen so excited to be spending the summer of 1985 in Ocean City, Md. with his family that he renames himself “Rad Miracle.” He acquires a new best friend in Teddy (Myles Massey), who as the whitest black kid imaginable might make even Rad look cool by comparison. However, they are both dismayed to discover the local center for video gaming and everything else they like is ruled by bigger, older, cuter, and snottier douchebag Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry) and his sidekick. Only kicking Lyle’s ass at ping pong — with some help from a local weirdo (a miscast Susan Sarandon, apparently here because she’s an off screen ping pong enthusiast) — can save Rad’s wounded dignity, and the summer in general. A big step up from Tully’s odd but pointless prior Septien (2011), this has all the right stuff (including a soundtrack packed with the likes of the Fat Boys, Mary Jane Girls, New Edition, Whodini, and Night Ranger) to hilariously parody the era’s inanities. But it’s just mildly amusing — a droll attitude with lots of period detail but not much bite. (1:32) Roxie. (Harvey)

The Rover Future days have never seemed quite so bleak as they are depicted in the wild, wild Aussie west of The Rover — rendered by Animal Kingdom (2010) director David Michod, who co-wrote The Rover with Joel Edgerton. Let’s just say we’re probably not going to see any primo Burner ensembles inspired by this post-apocalyptic yarn: Michod ventures to a plausible future only a decade out, after a global economic collapse, and breaks down the brooding road trip to its hard-boiled bones, setting it in a beauteous, lawless, and unceasingly violent outback. A heist gone wrong leads a small gang of robbers to steal the car belonging to monosyllabic, ruthless mystery man Eric (Guy Pearce). The latter wants his boxy little sedan back, badly, and, in the cat and mouse game that ensues, seems willing to die for the trouble. Meanwhile, one of the gang of thieves — the slow, dreamy Rey (Robert Pattinson), who has been left to die of a gunshot wound in the dirt — turns out to be more of a survivor than anyone imagined when he tracks down the tracker hunting for his brother and cohorts. Michod seems most interested in examining and turning over the ties that bind, in a mean time, an eminently absurdist moment, when everything else has fallen away in the face of sheer survival. Cineastes, however, will appreciate the elemental, existential pleasures of this dog-eat-dog Down Under out-Western, not the least of which include the performances. Pearce’s rework of the Man With No Name exudes intention in the very forward thrust of his stance, and Pattinson breaks his cool — and the confines of typecasting — as a blubbering, babbling, thin-skinned man-child. Clad in the mystic expanses of the South Australia desert, which tip a hat to John Ford Westerns as well as scorched-earth-of-the-mind movies such as El Topo (1970) and Paris, Texas (1984), The Rover is taken to the level of tone poem by the shuddering, moaning cellos of Antony Partos’s impressive, atonal electroacoustic score. (1:42) Metreon, Shattuck. (Chun)

The Signal Sharing its title with a 2007 film — also a thriller about a mysterious transmission that wreaks havoc in the lives of its protagonists — this offbeat feature from co-writer and director William Eubank belies its creator’s deep affection for, and knowledge of, the sci-fi genre. Number one thing The Signal is not is predictable, but its twists feel organic even as the story takes one hairpin turn after another. MIT buddies Nic (Brenton Thwaites) and Jonah (Beau Knapp) are driving Nic’s girlfriend, Haley (Olivia Cooke), cross-country to California. Complicating the drama of the young couple’s imminent separation is Nic’s deteriorating physical condition (it’s never explained, but the former runner apparently has MS or some other neurological disease). The road trip turns dark when the trio (who also happen to be hackers) realize an Internet troll they’ve tangled with in the past is stalking them. After a brief detour into found-footage horror — fooled ya, Eubank seems to be saying; this ain’t that kind of movie at all! — the kids find themselves embroiled in ever-more-terrifying realities. To give away more would ruin the fun of being shocked for yourself, but think Twilight Zone meets Area 51 meets a certain futuristic trilogy starring Laurence Fishburne, who turns up here to play a very important role in Nic and company’s waking nightmare. (1:37) Metreon. (Eddy) *

 

Vortex room

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM Coherence begins with an important phone conversation that’s cut off by a crappy connection — just as the phone’s owner, Em (Emily Foxler), realizes its screen has spontaneously cracked. It’s the first eerie moment in a film set at a seemingly normal dinner party among four couples: insecure ballet dancer Em and boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling), who are teetering on the verge of either taking the next step in their relationship, or breaking up; new-agey older married couple Beth (Elizabeth Gracen) and Hugh (Hugo Armstrong); the casually dating Amir (Alex Manugian) and Laurie (Lauren Maher); and hosts Lee (Lorene Scafaria), a techie, and her actor husband, Mike (Nicholas Brendon).

About five minutes into the movie, chatter turns to the comet that’s about to pass overhead — a casual conversation topic that soon becomes an invasive presence. Phones don’t work, and the power shuts off — except for that one house a few blocks over that’s mysteriously illuminated. Tension among the group spikes as various members go to investigate and discover that the comet has some serious fucking-with-reality powers. Spooky, pleasingly mind-bending, and highly creative (the whole thing takes place almost entirely within a single room), Coherence only gets more satisfying with multiple viewings. It’s the directorial debut of James Ward Byrkit, a Hollywood veteran who wrote Oscar-winning animated film Rango (2011) and worked on multiple Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Once my brain had time to untangle a bit, we talked Coherence.

SF Bay Guardian You’re known for your work on Rango and the Pirates movies. What drew you to Coherence, which is a completely different type of film?

James Ward Byrkit I actually have a background of working on much more intimate projects — but all these years, because of my drawing abilities, I ended up working on these huge blockbuster films, which I love, and I love those directors, and I love big crews. But I was really craving getting back to the purity of working closely with actors, and concentrating on storytelling and characters. Especially after Rango — which was super-fun, but it was years of manipulating every pixel of every frame — I wanted to get back into something much more improvisational and grounded in bare-bones filmmaking.

SFBG How did you cast your actors?

JWB They were friends of mine — I knew them all, but they didn’t know each other. I cast people that felt like they would be friends, or partners. They met each other for the first time five minutes before we started shooting, and they had to jump right into it. The whole thing was an improvisational experiment.

I’ve always wanted to try something that did not rely on a script, because everything in Hollywood is all about the script, and that’s the only priority; that’s one way to do it, but it’s not the only way to do it. I wanted to get rid of the script so I could get those naturalistic performances. I wanted eight people talking, and overlapping, and having natural speech patterns. The only way you can do that, really, is to get rid of the script and allow them to be in the moment.

SFBG The dialogue may be improvised, but the story is intricately plotted. How did you approach that without a script?

JWB It took a year of just pounding out the story — the twist and turns and the puzzle of it all, figuring out the clues and the structure. I had a very clear, very solid outline that was just for me, though I made it with my co-writer, Alex Manugian, who plays Amir in the film.

When we actually shot it, before they would show up each day, I gave each actor a note card of their character’s motivations, or back story. Little bits and pieces that they could use that night. But they wouldn’t know what any other character got, so it was all a surprise to them how everybody else reacted. And none of them knew how it was going to end.

SFBG Did the actors help create their characters?

JWB I kind of gave them a general background of what their character was, and what their history was, and what their problems were. Basically everybody is in secret conflict with themselves, or with each other. That’s the whole movie: These people who, in the first 10 minutes, they just look like they’re having a party — but there’s all this unspoken conflict going on either between each other or with themselves.

SFBG Can you talk about the unusual editing choice you made, to have scenes abruptly cutting to black?

JWB Part of it was a rhythmic theme, and part of it was a clue. For the people who watch the film multiple times, there’s definitely a pattern of cutting to black that starts to inform what’s going on, which I’m not going to give away [laughs]. Going into black is such an important theme. The lights go out, they’re plunged into blackness. There’s an even darker space when they go outside. And then, the blackness between characters. So when we tried it as an editorial thing, it was so effective that we committed to it and it ended up being something that took many, many, many weeks to perfect. And it still baffles some people, obviously, because it’s so jarring.

SFBG Coherence is a relationship drama, but it’s also a sci-fi film. What inspired you to include those elements?

JWB Well, we basically didn’t have any money [laughs]. I had a camera, some actors that I knew, and a living room — and that’s it. So how do we make a living room more interesting? It got us thinking about Twilight Zone episodes, and how those are often set in very mundane, normal places, and yet there’s this bigger feeling to them because there’s a cosmic story, or a slightly supernatural element that has permeated their reality. And that got me really excited, to think of a fractured reality, and therefore the living room became much bigger.

SFBG Sci-fi without special effects is kind of a genre on the rise.

JWB I love it. My biggest hope is that someday [Coherence] could be on a double or triple feature with Primer (2004) or Timecrimes (2007), or another super low-budget homemade movie. It’s a really exciting realm to be in. I think people went down the wrong road when they started assuming science fiction meant only big visual effects.

SFBG And wait, did you say you filmed it in your living room?

JWB Yeah! We didn’t have any money to rent another house. It was very challenging because my wife was nine months pregnant and she was planning on having a home birth. She said, “You’re gonna have a film shoot in our house weeks before I’m due? That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard!” I said, “I’m sorry, honey, but if I don’t do it now, we can’t really do it after the baby comes.” And she said, “All right. You have five nights.” We shot five nights, and then a week later, Emily [Foxler] came back to do some pickups around my house, walking around the neighborhood in the darkness. We ended that shoot at one o’clock in the morning; two hours later my wife went into labor. *

COHERENCE opens Fri/27 at the Presidio. For additional theaters, check http://coherencethemovie.com.

Cruise into the weekend (oh yes we did) with new flicks!

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Dudes! The (lucky) 13th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, aka DocFest to those in the know, is underway now, running through June 19 with all kinds of weird and wonderful docs. Check out Dennis Harvey’s recommendations here

From the spangly tentacles of Hollywood, we’ve got Shailene “I Am Not the Poor Man’s Jennifer Lawrence” Woodley in a certified tearjerker, and Tom “Still a Big Enough Star to Avoid Being Cast in an Expendables Flick Just Yet” Cruise fighting aliens (and, surprisingly, his own ego). Plus: indie picks, including the latest from Kelly Reichardt and Lukas Moodysson. Read on for more.

 

Edge of Tomorrow Is it OK to root for Tom Cruise again? (The Oprah thing was almost a decade ago, after all.) The entertaining Edge of Tomorrow, crisply directed by Bourne series vet Doug Liman, takes what’s most irritating about Cruise’s persona (he’s so goddamn earnest) and uses it to great advantage, casting him as military PR guru Cage — repping our armed forces on talk shows amid battles with alien invaders dubbed “Mimics” — whose oiliness masks the fact that he’s terrified of actual combat. When he’s forced to fight by a no-nonsense superior (Brendan Gleeson), he’s gruesomely killed, along with nearly every other human soldier. But wait! Thanks to a particularly close encounter with outer-space pixie dust, he awakens, unharmed, to re-live the day, over and over again (yep, shades of a certain Bill Murray comedy classic). Each “reset” offers Cage a chance to work his way closer to changing the course of the war in humanity’s favor, with key help from a badass (Emily Blunt) whose heroics on the battlefield have earned her the nickname “Full Metal Bitch.” Nothing groundbreaking here — but Edge of Tomorrow manages to make its satisfying plot as important as its 3D explosions, which means it automatically rises above what passes for popcorn fun these days. (1:53) (Cheryl Eddy)

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)

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) (Dennis 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) (Cheryl 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…” 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). (Lynn 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 Le