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.
MILL VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL
The 36th Mill Valley Film Festival runs Oct. 3-13 (most shows $12.50-$14). Major venues are the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St, San Rafael; Cinéarts@Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton, Mill Valley; Lark Theater, 549 Magnolia, Larkspur; and 142 Throckmorton Theater, 142 Throckmorton, Mill Valley. Complete schedule at www.mvff.com; for commentary, see “Go North, Film Fan.”
Blind Detective Johnnie To’s latest makes its local debut as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s “Hong Kong Cinema” series, hot on the heels of his Drug War, which had a theatrical run earlier this year. Blind Detective shares Drug War‘s crime theme and moody palette, but it also has — whimsy alert! — an accordion-inflected score. The cute quotient is further upped by Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng, who’ve been frequently paired in To’s lighter fare (perhaps most memorably in 2001’s Love on a Diet, which attired its attractive stars in fat suits). Lau plays a former cop who left the force after losing his vision, yet continues to solve crimes (in pursuit of reward money) using, among other unorthodox methods, his superior sense of smell. Cheng plays a scrappy policewoman who admires his investigative skills and asks him to track down a long-lost childhood friend. He agrees, but not before slyly tricking her into helping him pursue lucrative paydays on unrelated cases. Lau’s wannabe-Sherlock antics and Cheng’s lovelorn flailings wear thin after two-plus hours, but Blind Detective still manages to entertain despite its odd blend of broad comedy and serial-killer thrills. (2:10) 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) Balboa, Cerrito, Presidio. (Eddy)
The Institute In 2008, mysterious flyers began popping up around San Francisco that touted esoteric inventions such as “Poliwater” and the “Vital-Orbit Human Force Field” and included a phone number for the curiously-monikered Jejuene Institute. On the other side of the phone line, a recording would direct callers to a Financial District office building where they would undergo a mysterious induction process, embarking on an epic, multi-stage, years-long alternate reality game, designed primarily to reveal the magic in the mundane. In Spencer McCall’s documentary The Institute, viewers are introduced to the game in much the same way as prospective inductees, with few clues as to what lies in store ahead. A handful of seemingly random interviewees offer a play-by-play recap of their own experiences exploring rival game entities the Jejune Institute and Elsewhere Public Works Agency — while video footage of them dancing in the streets, warding off ninjas, befriending Sasquatches, spelunking sewers, and haunting iconic Bay Area edifices gives the viewer a taste of the wonders that lay in store for the intrepid few (out of 10,000 inductees) who made it all the way to the end of the storyline. Frustratingly, however, at least for this former inductee, McCall’s documentary focuses on fleshing out the fictions of the game, barely scratching the surface of what must surely be an even more intriguing set of facts. How did a group of scrappy East Bay artists manage to commandeer an office in the Financial District for so long in the first place? Who were the artists behind the art? And where am I supposed to cash in these wooden “hobo coins” now? (1:32) New Parkway, Roxie. (Gluckstern)
Parkland Timed to tie in with the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, writer-director Peter Landesman’s sprawling ensemble drama takes that tragedy as its starting point and spirals outward, highlighting ordinary folks who were caught up in the drama’s aftermath by virtue of their jobs or circumstance. There’s a lot going on here, with a huge cast of mostly-recognizable faces (Billy Bob Thornton as Secret Service Agent Forest Sorrells; Paul Giamatti as amateur filmmaker Abraham Zapruder; Ron Livingston as an FBI agent; hey, there’s Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden in two scenes as a stern nurse!), but the events depicted are so familiar that the plot never becomes confusing. Landesman — who favors scenes of breakneck-paced action punctuated by solemn moments of emotion — might’ve done better to narrow his focus a bit, perhaps keeping just to the law-enforcement characters or to Lee Harvey Oswald’s family (James Badge Dale plays his shell-shocked brother, while Jackie Weaver hams it up as his eccentric mother). But paired with 2006’s Bobby, Parkland — named for the hospital where both JFK and Oswald died — named for the hospital where both JFK and Oswald died — could make for an interesting, speculative-history double-feature for Camelot buffs. That said, Oliver Stone fans take note: Parkland is strictly Team Lone Gunman. (1:33) Elmwood, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
Runner Runner Justin Timberlake is a gambler who runs afoul of con man Ben Affleck in this action drama from Brad Furman (2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer). (1:31) Elmwood, Presidio.
We Are What We Are See “Eat Your Meat.” (1:45) California.
When Comedy Went to School This scattershot documentary by Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya is about two big subjects — the Catskill Mountains resorts that launched a couple generations of beloved Jewish entertainers, and mid-to-late 20th century Jewish comedians in general. There’s a lot of overlap between them, but the directors (and writer Lawrence Richards) can’t seem to find any organizing focus, so their film wanders all over the place, from the roles of resort social directors and busboys to clips from History of the World Part I (1981) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971) to the entirely irrelevant likes of Larry King. That said, there’s entertaining vintage performance footage (of Totie Fields, Woody Allen, etc.) and interview input from the still-kicking likes of Sid Ceasar, Jackie Mason, Mort Sahl, Jerry Stiller, and Jerry Lewis. For some this will be a welcome if not particularly well crafted nostalgic wallow. For others, though, the pandering tone set by one Lisa Dawn Miller’s (wife of Sandy Hackett, who’s son of Buddy) cringe-worthy opening rendition of “Make ‘Em Laugh” — to say nothing of her “Send in the Clowns” at the close — will sum up the pedestrian mindset that makes this doc a missed opportunity. (1:23) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Baggage Claim Robin Thicke may be having the year of a lifetime, but spouse Paula Patton is clearly making a bid to leap those “Blurred Lines” between second banana-dom and Jennifer Aniston-esque leading lady fame with this buppie chick flick. How competitive is the game? Patton has a sporting chance: she’s certainly easy on the eyes and ordinarily a welcome warm and sensual presence as arm candy or best girlfriend — too bad her bid to beat the crowd with Baggage Claim feels way too blurry and busy to study for very long. The camera turns to Patton only to find a hot, slightly charming mess of mussed hair, frenetic movement, and much earnest emoting. I know the mode is single-lady desperation, but you’re trying too hard, Paula. At least the earnestness kind of works — semi-translating in Baggage Claim as a bumbling ineptitude that offsets Patton’s too-polished-and-perfect-to-be-real beauty. After all, we’re asked to believe that Patton’s flight attendant Montana can’t find a good man, no matter how hard she tries. That’s the first stretch of imagination, made more implausible by pals Sam (Adam Brody) and Janine (singer-songwriter Jill Scott), who decide to try to fix her up with her old high-flying frequent-flier beaus in the quest to find a mate in time for her — humiliation incoming — younger sister’s wedding. Among the suitors are suave hotelier Quinton (Djimon Hounsou), Republican candidate Langston (Taye Diggs), and hip-hop mogul Damon (Trey Songz), though everyone realizes early on that she just can’t notice the old bestie (Derek Luke) lodged right beneath her well-tilted nose. Coming to the conclusion that any sane single gal would at the end of this exercise, Patton does her darnedest to pour on the quirk and charm — and that in itself is as endearing as watching any beautiful woman bend over backwards, tumbling as she goes, to win an audience over. The strenuous effort, however, seems wasted when one considers the flimsy material, played for little more than feather-light amusement by director-writer David E. Talbert. (1:33) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Battle of the Year Nothing burns Americans more than getting beat at their own culture game. Hence the premise of this 3D dance movie named after the international b-boy competition that regularly shuts out US teams. Diddy-like hip-hop kingpin Dante (Laz Alonso) is feeling the softness of the market, never mind that the trend cycles have spun the other way — we gotta win the b-boy crown back from the Koreans and Russians! So he enlists his old friend and now-down-and-out coach Jason (Lost‘s Josh Holloway) to assemble a winning crew from ragtag talents pulled from across the country, among them the strutting Rooster (Chris Brown). How does one put together a real team from this loose gathering of testosterone-saturated, ever-battling egos? Korean American director Benson Lee twirls off his own documentary Planet B Boy with this fictitious exercise that begs this question: why aren’t there more 3D dance movies? Probably because, much like porn, everything surrounding the money shots usually feels like filler. Leave aside the forced drama of bad news unbearables like Brown and his frenemies — the moments when Battle really lives up to the hype are when the movie’s many hyperathletic, gravity-defying b-boys like Ivan “Flipz” Velez, Jon “Do Knock” Cruz, and David “Kid” Shreibman show off their moves. (1:49) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)
Blue Jasmine The good news about Blue Jasmine isn’t that it’s set in San Francisco, but that it’s Woody Allen’s best movie in years. Although some familiar characteristics are duly present, it’s not quite like anything he’s done before, and carries its essentially dramatic weight more effectively than he’s managed in at least a couple decades. Not long ago Jasmine (a fearless Cate Blanchett) was the quintessential Manhattan hostess, but that glittering bubble has burst — exactly how revealed in flashbacks that spring surprises up to the script’s end. She crawls to the West Coast to “start over” in the sole place available where she won’t be mortified by the pity of erstwhile society friends. That would be the SF apartment of Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a fellow adoptive sister who was always looked down on by comparison to pretty, clever Jasmine. Theirs is an uneasy alliance — but Ginger’s too big-hearted to say no. It’s somewhat disappointing that Blue Jasmine doesn’t really do much with San Francisco. Really, the film could take place anywhere — although setting it in a non-picture-postcard SF does bolster the film’s unsettled, unpredictable air. Without being an outright villain, Jasmine is one of the least likable characters to carry a major US film since Noah Baumbach’s underrated Margot at the Wedding (2007); the general plot shell, moreover, is strongly redolent of A Streetcar Named Desire. But whatever inspiration Allen took from prior works, Blue Jasmine is still distinctively his own invention. It’s frequently funny in throwaway performance bits, yet disturbing, even devastating in cumulative impact. (1:38) Clay, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 (1:35) Balboa, Cerrito, Elmwood, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio.
Don Jon Shouldering the duties of writer, director, and star for the comedy Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has also picked up a broad Jersey accent, the physique of a gym rat, and a grammar of meathead posturing — verbal, physical, and at times metaphysical. His character, Jon, is the reigning kingpin in a triad of nightclubbing douchebags who pass their evenings assessing their cocktail-sipping opposite numbers via a well-worn one-to-10 rating system. Sadly for pretty much everyone involved, Jon’s rote attempts to bed the high-scorers are spectacularly successful — the title refers to his prowess in the art of the random hookup — that is, until he meets an alluring “dime” named Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who institutes a waiting period so foreign to Jon that it comes to feel a bit like that thing called love. Amid the well-earned laughs, there are several repulsive-looking flies in the ointment, but the most conspicuous is Jon’s stealthy addiction to Internet porn, which he watches at all hours of the day, but with a particularly ritualistic regularity after each night’s IRL conquest has fallen asleep. These circumstances entail a fair amount of screen time with Jon’s O face and, eventually, after a season of growth — during which he befriends an older woman named Esther (Julianne Moore) and learns about the existence of arty retro Swedish porn — his “Ohhh&ldots;” face. Driven by deft, tight editing, Don Jon comically and capably sketches a web of bad habits, and Gordon-Levitt steers us through a transformation without straining our capacity to recognize the character we met at the outset — which makes the clumsy over-enunciations that mar the ending all the more jarring. (1:30) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
Elysium By the year 2154, the one percent will all have left Earth’s polluted surface for Elysium, a luxurious space station where everyone has access to high-tech machines that can heal any wound or illness in a matter of seconds. Among the grimy masses in burned-out Los Angeles, where everyone speaks a mixture of Spanish and English, factory worker Max (Matt Damon) is trying to put his car-thief past behind him — and maybe pursue something with the childhood sweetheart (Alice Braga) he’s recently reconnected with. Meanwhile, up on Elysium, icy Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster, speaking in French and Old Hollywood-accented English) rages against immigration, even planning a government takeover to prevent any more “illegals” from slipping aboard. Naturally, the fates of Max and Delacourt will soon intertwine, with “brain to brain data transfers,” bionic exo-skeletons, futuristic guns, life-or-death needs for Elysium’s medical miracles, and some colorful interference by a sword-wielding creeper of a sleeper agent (Sharlto Copley) along the way. In his first feature since 2009’s apartheid-themed District 9, South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp once again turns to obvious allegory to guide his plot. If Elysium‘s message is a bit heavy-handed, it’s well-intentioned, and doesn’t take away from impressive visuals (mercifully rendered in 2D) or Damon’s committed performance. (2:00) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
Enough Said Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a divorced LA masseuse who sees naked bodies all day but has become pretty wary of wanting any in her bed at night. She reluctantly changes her mind upon meeting the also-divorced Albert (James Gandolfini), a television archivist who, also like her, is about to see his only child off to college. He’s no Adonis, but their relationship develops rapidly — the only speed bumps being provided by the many nit-picking advisors Eva has in her orbit, which exacerbate her natural tendency toward glass-half-empty neurosis. This latest and least feature from writer-director Nicole Holofcener is a sitcom-y thing of the type that expects us to find characters all the more adorable the more abrasive and self-centered they are. That goes for Louis-Dreyfus’ annoying heroine as well as such wasted talents as Toni Colette as her kvetching best friend and Catherine Keener as a new client turned new pal so bitchy it makes no sense Eva would desire her company. The only nice person here is Albert, whom the late Gandolfini makes a charming, low-key teddy bear in an atypical turn. The revelation of an unexpected past tie between his figure and Keener’s puts Eva in an ethically disastrous position she handles dismally. In fact, while it’s certainly not Holofcener’s intention, Eva’s behavior becomes so indefensible that Enough Said commits rom-com suicide: The longer it goes on, the more fervently you hope its leads will not end up together. (1:33) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)
The Family It’s hard to begrudge an acting monolith like Robert De Niro from cashing out in his golden years and essentially going gently into that good night amid a volley of mild yuks. And when his mobster-in-witness-protection Giovanni Manzoni takes a film-club stage in his Normandy hideout to hold forth on the veracity of Goodfellas (1990), you yearn to be right there in the fictional audience, watching De Niro’s Brooklyn gangster take on his cinematic past. That’s the most memorable moment of this comedy about an organized criminal on the lam with his violent, conniving family unit. Director-cowriter Luc Besson aims to lightly demonstrate that you can extract a family from the mob but you can’t expunge the mob from the family. There’s a $20 million bounty on Giovanni’s head, and it’s up to his keeper Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) to keep him and his kin quiet and undercover. But the latter has his hands full with Gio penning his memoirs, wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) blowing up the local supermarket, daughter Belle (Dianna Agron, wrapped in bows like a soft-focus fantasy nymphet) given to punishing schoolyard transgressors with severe beatings, and son Warren (John D’Leo) working all the angles in class. Besson plays the Manzoni family’s violence for chuckles, while painting the mob family’s mayhem with more ominous colors, making for a tonal clash that’s as jarring as some of his edits. The pleasure here comes with watching the actors at play: much like his character, De Niro is on the run from his career-making albeit punishing past, though if he keeps finding refuge in subpar fare, one wonders if his “meh” fellas will eventually outweigh the Goodfellas. (1:51) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
In a World… (1:33) Presidio, Sundance Kabuki.
Inequality for All Jacob Kornbluth’s Inequality for All is the latest and certainly not the last documentary to explore why the American Dream is increasingly out of touch with everyday reality, and how the definition of “middle class” somehow morphed from “comfortable” to “struggling, endangered, and hanging by a thread.” This lively overview has an ace up its sleeve in the form of the director’s friend, collaborator, and principal interviewee Robert Reich — the former Clinton-era Secretary of Labor, prolific author, political pundit, and UC Berkeley Professor of Public Policy. Whether he’s holding forth on TV, going one-on-one with Kornbluth’s camera, talking to disgruntled working class laborers, or engaging students in his Wealth and Poverty class, Inequality is basically a resourcefully illustrated Reich lecture — as the press notes put it, “an Inconvenient Truth for the economy.” Fortunately, the diminutive Reich is a natural comedian as well as a superbly cogent communicator, turning yet another summary of how the system has fucked almost everybody (excluding the one percent) into the one you might most want to recommend to the bewildered folks back home. He’s sugar on the pill, making it easier to swallow so much horrible news. (1:25) California, Metreon. (Harvey)
Insidious: Chapter 2 The bloodshot, terribly inflamed font of the opening title gives away director James Wan and co-writer and Saw series cohort Leigh Whannell’s intentions: welcome to their little love letter to Italian horror. The way an actor, carefully lit with ruby-red gels, is foregrounded amid jade greens and cobalt blues, the ghastly clown makeup, the silent movie glory of a gorgeous face frozen in terror, the fixation with 1981’s The Beyond — lovers of spaghetti shock will appreciate even a light application of these aspects, even if many others will be disappointed by this sequel riding a wee bit too closely on its financially successful predecessor’s coattails. Attempting to pick up exactly where 2011’s Insidious left off, Chapter 2 opens with a flashback to the childhood of demonically possessed Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson), put into a trance by the young paranormal investigator Elise. Flash-forward to Elise’s corpse and the first of many terrified looks from Josh’s spouse Renai (Rose Byrne). She knows Josh killed Elise, but she can’t face reality — so instead she gets to face the forces of supernatural fantasy. Meanwhile Josh is busy forcing a fairy tale of normalcy down the rest of his family’s throats — all the while evoking a smooth-browed, unhinged caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. Subverting that fiction are son Dalton (Ty Simpkins), who’s fielding messages from the dead, and Josh’s mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), who sees apparitions in her creepy Victorian and looks for help in Elise’s old cohort Carl (Steve Coulter) and comic-relief ghost busters Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). Sure, there are a host of scares to be had, particularly those of the don’t-look-over-your-shoulder variety, but tribute or no, the derivativeness of the devices is dissatisfying. Those seeking wickedly imaginative death-dealing machinations, or even major shivers, will curse the feel-good PG-13 denouement. (1:30) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)
Instructions Not Included (1:55) Metreon.
Inuk Though the Greenlandic-language Inuk takes its name from its troubled Inuit protagonist, ice is arguably its central character. And the lyrical sweep and striking beauty of the icy expanses in Uummannaq Bay and Nuuk, Greenland, threaten to upstage the adventure story at Inuk‘s heart. Seeking refuge from his alcoholic mother and her abusive friends and escaping into hip-hop, the teenage Inuk (Gaaba Petersen) has been found battered and sleeping his car far too often, so he’s taken to a in the north by teacher and foster care worker Aviaaja (Rebekka Jorgensen) to learn about the old ways of hunters and an ancient wisdom that is melting away with the polar icecap. A journey by dogsled with local hunters turns into a rite of passage when bear hunter Ikuma (Ole Jørgen Hammeken) takes Inuk under his damaged wing and attempts to reconnect him to his heritage. “The ice is no place for attitude,” he declares, as Inuk makes foolish choices, kills his first seal, and learns the hard way about survival north of the Arctic Circle. You can practically feel the freezing cold seeping off the frames of this gorgeous-looking film — a tribute to director Mike Magidson and his crew’s skills, even when the overt snow-blinding symbolism blots out clarity and threatens to swallow up Inuk. (1:30) Roxie. (Chun)
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (1:53) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki, Vogue.
Metallica: Through the Never The 3D IMAX concert film is lurching toward cliché status, but at least Metallica: Through the Never has more bite to it than, say, this summer’s One Direction: This is Us. Director Nimród Antal (2010’s Predators) weaves live footage of the Bay Area thrash veterans ripping through hits (“Enter Sandman,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” etc.) into a narrative (kinda) about one of the band’s roadies (The Place Beyond the Pines‘ Dane DeHaan). Sent on a simple errand, the hoodie-wearing hesher finds himself caught in a nightmarish urban landscape of fire, hanging bodies, masked horsemen, and crumbling buildings — more or less, the dude’s trapped in a heavy metal video, and not one blessed with particularly original imagery. The end result is aimed more at diehards than casual fans — and, R-rated violence aside, there’s nothing here that tops the darkest moments of highly personal 2004 documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. (1:32) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)
Morning (1:30) Metreon.
Museum Hours Feature documentaries Benjamin Smoke (2000) and Instrument (2003) are probably Jem Cohen’s best-known works, but this prolific filmmaker — an inspired choice for SFIFF’s Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award, honoring “a filmmaker whose main body of work is outside the realm of narrative feature filmmaking” — has a remarkably diverse resumé of shorts, music videos, and at least one previous narrative film (albeit one with experimental elements), 2004’s Chain. Cohen appears in person to discuss his work and present his latest film, Museum Hours, about a guard at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum (“the big old one,” the man calls it) who befriends a Montreal woman visiting her comatose cousin. It’s a deceptively simple story that expands into a deeply felt, gorgeously shot rumination on friendship, loneliness, travel, art history and appreciation, and finding the beauty in the details of everyday life. (1:46) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)
On the Job Filipino director Erik Matti’s gritty crime thriller has such a clever hook that Hollywood is already circling it for a remake. No shock there. It is surprising, however, that On the Job is based on true events, in which prisoners were temporarily sprung to work as hired guns for well-connected politicos. (Kinda genius, if you think about it.) The big-screen version has veteran inmate Tang (Joel Torre) dreading his imminent parole; he’d rather have the steady income from his grisly gig than be unable to provide for his wife and daughter. As he counts down to his release, he trains volatile Daniel (Gerald Anderson) to take his place. Poking around on the other side of the law are world-weary local cop Acosta (Joey Marquez) and hotshot federal agent Francis (Piolo Pascual), who reluctantly team up when a hit cuts close to home for both of them. The case is particularly stressful for Francis, whose well-connected father-in-law turns out to be wallowing in corruption. Taut, thrilling, atmospheric, and graphic, On the Job makes up for an occasionally confusing storyline by offering bang-up (literally) entertainment from start to finish. Groovy score, too. (2:00) Metreon. (Eddy)
Planes Dane Cook voices a crop duster determined to prove he can do more than he was built for in Planes, the first Disney spin-off from a Pixar property. (Prior to the film’s title we see “From The World of Cars,” an indicator the film is an extension of a known universe — but also not quite from it.) And indeed, Planes resembles one of Pixar’s straight-to-DVD releases as it struggles for liftoff. Dreaming of speed, Dusty Crophopper (Cook) trains for the Wings Around the World race with his fuel-truck friend, Chug (Brad Garrett). A legacy playing Brewster McCloud and Wilbur Wright makes Stacy Keach a pitchy choice for Skipper, Dusty’s reluctant ex-military mentor. Charming cast choices buoy Planes somewhat, but those actors are feathers in a cap that hardly supports them — you watch the film fully aware of its toy potential: the race is a geography game; the planes are hobby sets; the cars will wind up. The story, about overcoming limitations, is in step with high-value parables Pixar proffers, though it feels shallower than usual. Perhaps toys are all Disney wants — although when Ishani (a sultry Priyanka Chopra) regrets an integrity-compromising choice she made in the race, and her pink cockpit lowers its eyes, you can feel Pixar leaning in. (1:32) 1000 Van Ness. (Vizcarrondo)
Populaire Perhaps if it weren’t set in the 1950s, this would be the fluorescent-lit story of a soul-sucking data entry job and the office drone who supplements it with a moonlighting gig. But it is the ’50s — a cheery, upbeat version of the era — and director Régis Roinsard’s Populaire reflects its shiny glamour onto the transformation of small-town girl Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) from an incompetent but feisty secretary with mad hunting-and-pecking skills into a celebrated and adored speed-typing champion. Her daffy boss, Louis Échard (Romain Duris), is a handsome young insurance salesman who bullies her (very charmingly) into competing against a vast secretarial pool in a series of hectic, nail-biting tourneys, which treat typing as a sporting event for perhaps the first time in cinematic history. (See also: scenes of Rose cranking up her physical endurance with daily jogs and cross-training at the piano.) The glamour slips a touch when Populaire starts to delve into psychological motivations to rationalize some of Louis’s more caddish maneuvers. But meanwhile, back in the arena, bets are made, words-per-minute stats are quoted by screaming, tearful fans in the bleachers, hearts are won and bruised, a jazz band performs that classic tune “Les Secrétaires Cha Cha Cha,” and we find ourselves rooting passionately for Rose to best the reigning champ’s 512(!)-wpm record. (1:51) Smith Rafael. (Rapoport)
Prisoners It’s a telling sign of this TV-besotted times that the so-called best-reviewed film of the season so far resembles a cable mystery in line with The Killing and its ilk — in the way that it takes its time while keeping it taut, attempts to stretch out beyond the perimeters of the police procedural, and throws in the types of envelope-pushing twists that keep easily distractible viewers coming back. At two and a half hours plus, Prisoners feels like a hybrid, more often seen on a small screen that has borrowed liberally from cinema since David Lynch made the Twin Peaks crossing, than the large, as it brings together an art-house attention to detail with the sprawl and topicality of a serial. Incendies director Denis Villeneuve carefully loads the deck with symbolism from the start, opening with a shot of a deer guilelessly approaching a clearing and picking at scrubby growth in the cold ground, as the camera pulls back on two hunters: the Catholic, gun-toting Keller (Hugh Jackman) and his son (Dylan Minnette), intent on gathering a Thanksgiving offering. Keller and his fragile wife Grace (Maria Bello) are coming together with another family — headed up by the slightly more yuppified Franklin (Terence Howard) and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) — for Thanksgiving in what seems like a middle-class East Coast suburb. The peace is shattered when the families’ young daughters suddenly disappear; the only clues are the mysterious RV that rumbles slowly through the quiet neighborhood and ominous closeups from a predator’s perspective. Police detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is drawn into the mystery when the RV is tracked down, along with its confused driver Alex (Paul Dano). That’s no consolation to the families, each grieving in their own way, with Keller perpetually enraged and Franklin seemingly on the brink of tears. When Alex’s aunt (an unrecognizable Melissa Leo) comes forward with information about her nephew, Keller decides to take matters into his own hands in ways that question the use of force during interrogation and the very definition of imprisonment. Noteworthy performances by Jackman, Gyllenhaal, and Dano highlight this elegant, wrenching thriller — while Villeneuve’s generally simple, smart choices might make the audience question not only certain characters’ morality but perhaps their own. (2:33) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Riddick This is David Twohy’s third flick starring Vin Diesel as the titular misunderstood supercriminal. Aesthetically, it’s probably the most interesting of the lot, with a stylistic weirdness that evokes ’70s Eurocomix in the best way — a pleasing backdrop to what is essentially Diesel playing out the latest in a series of Dungeons & Dragons scenarios where he offers his wisecracking sci-fi take on Conan. Gone are the scares and stakes of Pitch Black (2000) or the cheeseball epic scale of The Chronicles of Riddick (2004); this is a no-nonsense action movie built on the premise that Riddick just can’t catch a break. He’s on the run again, targeted by two bands of ruthless mercenaries, on a planet threatened by an oncoming storm rather than Pitch Black‘s planet-wide night. One unfortunate element leaves a bitter taste: the lone female character in the movie, Dahl (Katee Sackhoff), is an underdeveloped cliché “Strong Female Character,” a violent, macho lesbian caricature who is the object of vile sexual aggression (sometimes played for laughs) from several other characters, including Riddick. (1:59) Metreon. (Stander)
Rush Ron Howard’s Formula One thriller Rush is a gripping bit of car porn, decked out with 1970s period details and goofily liberated camera moves to make sure you never forget how much happens under (and around, and on top of) the hood of these beastly vehicles. Real life drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda (played by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, respectively) had a wicked rivalry through the ’70s; these characters are so oppositional you’d think Shane Black wrote them. Lauda’s an impersonal, methodical pro, while Hunt’s an aggressive, undisciplined playboy — but he’s so popular he can sway a group of racers to risk their lives on a rainy track, even as Lauda objects. It’s a lovely sight: all the testosterone in the world packed into a room bound by windows, egos threatening to bust the glass with the rumble of their voices. I’m no fan of Ron Howard, but maybe the thrill of Grand Theft Auto is in Rush like a spirit animal. (The moments of rush are the greatest; when Lauda’s lady friend asks him to drive fast, he does, and it’s glorious.) Hunt says that “being a pro kills the sport” — but Howard, an overly schmaltzy director with no gift for logic and too much reliance on suspension of disbelief, doesn’t heed that warning. The laughable voiceovers that bookend the film threaten to sink some great stuff, but the magic of the track is vibrant, dangerous, and teeming with greatness. (2:03) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)
Short Term 12 A favorite at multiple 2013 festivals (particularly SXSW, where it won multiple awards), Short Term 12 proves worthy of the hype, offering a gripping look at twentysomethings (led by Brie Larson, in a moving yet unshowy performance) who work with at-risk teens housed in a foster-care facility, where they’re cared for by a system that doesn’t always act with their best interests in mind. Though she’s a master of conflict resolution and tough love when it comes to her young chargers, Grace (Larson) hasn’t overcome her deeply troubled past, to the frustration of her devoted boyfriend and co-worker (John Gallagher, Jr.). The crazy everyday drama — kids mouthing off, attempting escape, etc. — is manageable enough, but two cases cut deep: Marcus (Keith Stanfield), an aspiring musician who grows increasingly anxious as his 18th birthday, when he’ll age out of foster care, approaches; and 16-year-old Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whose sullen attitude masks a dark home life that echoes Grace’s own experiences. Expanding his acclaimed 2008 short of the same name, writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton’s wrenchingly realistic tale achieves levels of emotional honesty not often captured by narrative cinema. He joins Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler as one of the year’s most exciting indie discoveries. (1:36) Opera Plaza, Roxie. (Eddy)
Thanks for Sharing (1:52) Metreon, Sundance Kabuki.
20 Feet From Stardom Singing the praises of those otherwise neglected backup vocalists who put the soul into that Wall of Sound, brought heft to “Young Americans,” and lent real fury to “Gimme Shelter,” 20 Feet From Stardom is doing the rock ‘n’ roll true believer’s good work. Director Morgan Neville follows a handful of mainly female, mostly African American backing vocal legends, charts their skewed career trajectories as they rake in major credits and keep working long after one-hit wonders are forgotten (the Waters family) but fail to make their name known to the public (Merry Clayton), grasp Grammy approval yet somehow fail to follow through (Lisa Fischer), and keep narrowly missing the prize (Judith Hill) as label recording budgets shrivel and the tastes, technology, and the industry shift. Neville gives these industry pros and soulful survivors in a rocked-out, sample-heavy, DIY world their due on many levels, covering the low-coverage minis, Concert for Bangladesh high points, gossipy rumors, and sheer love for the blend that those intertwined voices achieve. One wishes the director had done more than simply touch in the backup successes out there, like Luther Vandross, and dug deeper to break down the reasons Fischer succumbed to the sophomore slump. But one can’t deny the passion in the voices he’s chosen to follow — and the righteous belief the Neville clearly has in his subjects, especially when, like Hill, they are ready to pick themselves up and carry on after being told they’re not “the Voice.” (1:30) Smith Rafael. (Chun)
Wadjda Hijabs, headmistresses, and errant fathers fall away before the will and wherewithal of the 11-year-old title character of Wadjda, the first feature by a female Saudi Arabian filmmaker. Director Haifaa al-Mansour’s own story — which included filming on the streets of Riyadh from the isolation of a van because she couldn’t work publicly with the men in the crew — is the stuff of drama, and it follows that her movie lays out, in the neorealist style of 1948’s The Bicycle Thief, the obstacles to freedom set in the path of women and girls in Saudi Arabia, in terms that cross cultural, geographic, and religious boundaries. The fresh star setting the course is Wadjda (first-time actor Waad Mohammed), a smart, irrepressibly feisty girl practically bursting out of her purple high-tops and intent on racing her young neighborhood friend Abudullah (Abdullrahman Algohani) on a bike. So many things stand in her way: the high price of bicycles and the belief that girls will jeopardize their virginity if they ride them; her distracted mother (Reem Abdullah) who’s worried that Wadjda’s father will take a new wife who can bear him a son; and a harsh, elegant headmistress (Ahd) intent on knuckling down on girlish rebellion. So Wadjda embarks on studying for a Qu’ran recital competition to win money for her bike and in the process learns a matter or two about discipline — and the bigger picture. Director al-Mansour teaches us a few things about her world as well — and reminds us of the indomitable spirit of girls — with this inspiring peek behind an ordinarily veiled world. (1:37) Opera Plaza. (Chun)
We’re the Millers After weekly doses on the flat-screen of Family Guy, Modern Family, and the like, it’s about time movieland’s family comedies got a little shot of subversion — the aim, it seems, of We’re the Millers. Scruffy dealer David (Jason Sudeikis) is shambling along — just a little wistful that he didn’t grow up and climb into the Suburban with the wife, two kids, and the steady 9-to-5 because he’s a bit lonely, much like the latchkey nerd Kenny (Will Poulter) who lives in his apartment building, and neighboring stripper Rose (Jennifer Aniston), who bites his head off at the mailbox. When David tries to be upstanding and help out crust punk runaway Casey (Emma Roberts), who’s getting roughed up for her iPhone, he instead falls prey to the robbers and sinks into a world of deep doo-doo with former college bud, and supplier of bud, Brad (Ed Helms). The only solution: play drug mule and transport a “smidge and a half” of weed across the Mexican-US border. David’s supposed cover: do the smuggling in an RV with a hired crew of randoms: Kenny, Casey, and Rose&sdquo; all posing as an ordinary family unit, the Millers. Yes, it’s that much of a stretch, but the smart-ass script is good for a few chortles, and the cast is game to go there with the incest, blow job, and wife-swapping jokes. Of course, no one ever states the obvious fact, all too apparent for Bay Area denizens, undermining the premise of We’re the Millers: who says dealers and strippers can’t be parents, decent or otherwise? We may not be the Millers, but we all know families aren’t what they used to be, if they ever really managed to hit those Leave It to Beaver standards. Fingers crossed for the cineplex — maybe movies are finally catching on. (1:49) Metreon. (Chun)
The World’s End The final film in Edgar Wright’s “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy” finally arrives, and the TL:DR version is that while it’s not as good as 2004’s sublime zombie rom-com Shaun of the Dead, it’s better than 2007’s cops vs. serial killers yarn Hot Fuzz. That said, it’s still funnier than anything else in theaters lately. Simon Pegg returns to star and co-write (with Wright); this time, the script’s sinister bugaboo is an invasion of body snatchers — though (as usual) the conflict is really about the perils of refusing to actually become an adult, the even-greater perils of becoming a boring adult, and the importance of male friendships. Pegg plays rumpled fuck-up Gary, determined to reunite with the best friends he’s long since alienated for one more crack at their hometown’s “alcoholic mile,” a pub crawl that ends at the titular beer joint. The easy chemistry between Pegg and the rest of the cast (Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, and Eddie Marsan) elevates what’s essentially a predictable “one crazy night” tale, with a killer soundtrack of 1990s tunes, slang you’ll adopt for your own posse (“Let’s Boo-Boo!”), and enough hilarious fight scenes to challenge This is the End to a bro-down of apocalyptic proportions. (1:49) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy) *