Sundance Film Festival

Film Listings

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

OPENING

And While We Were Here This second collaboration between writer-director Kat Coiro and actor Kate Bosworth is a far cry from 2011’s oops-a-baby comedy Life Happens — owing, perhaps, to that film’s co-writer and co-star, Krysten Ritter. There’s no snarky, raunchy Ritter-ness in And While We Were Here, a drama about a brittle woman named Jane (Bosworth) whose marriage to a workaholic viola player (Iddo Goldberg) is more polite than passionate; their relationship has baggage that he’d prefer not to work through, despite the expanding tension between them. On a trip to Naples, Jane meets a free-spirited 19-year-old (Jamie Blackley) who sparks her interest; before long, it’s groove-reclaiming time. Alas, sun-dappled scenery can’t offset a familiar story — with themes heavily underlined by a subplot that has Jane listening to tapes of her grandmother (richly voiced by Claire Bloom) reminiscing about love and loss during wartime. Jane’s too self-centered to be particularly likable (to her husband, mid-argument: “You’re not curious about me!”), but Here deserves some backhanded props for gender-bending a tired plot device. Ready or not, the manic pixie dream boy has arrived. (1:23) Presidio. (Eddy)

The Family Luc Besson directs mob-comedy veterans Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in this tale of a mafia family bumbling their way through their new, witness-protection-program lives. (1:51) Presidio, Shattuck, Vogue.

Insidious: Chapter 2 Hot off this summer’s The Conjuring, horror director James Wan turns in a sequel to his 2011 hit, also about a family with big-time paranormal problems. (1:30) California.

Our Nixon Cobbled together from previously unseen footage shot by some of Richard Nixon’s closest aides — the destined-for-infamy trio of H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin — Penny Lane’s doc, which also uses Oval Office recordings and additional archival material (not to mention the best-ever use of Tracey Ullman’s 1983 pop confection “They Don’t Know”), offers a new perspective on Tricky Dick and White House life during his tumultuous reign. But while Our Nixon brings fresh perspective to notable moments like Nixon’s visit to China and Tricia Nixon’s lavish wedding, and peeks behind the public façade to reveal the “real” Nixon (hardly a spoiler: he’s shown to be bigoted and behind the times), the POTUS is just one of many figures in this inventive collage. The home movies themselves are the real stars here, filled with unguarded moments and shot for no reason other than personal documentation; as a result, and even taking Lane’s editing choices into account, Our Nixon feels thrillingly authentic. (1:25) Roxie. (Eddy)

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) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Rapoport)

ONGOING

Adore This glossy soap opera from director Anne Fontaine (2009’s Coco Before Chanel) and scenarist Christopher Hampton, adapted from a Doris Lessing novella, has had its title changed from Two Mothers — perhaps because under that name it was pretty much the most howled-at movie at Sundance this year. Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright) are lifelong best friends whose hunky surfer sons Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Tom (James Frecheville) are likewise best mates. Widow Lil runs a gallery and Roz has a husband (Ben Mendelsohn), but mostly the two women seem to lay around sipping wine on the decks of their adjacent oceanfront homes in Western Australia’s Perth, watching their sinewy offspring frolic in the waves. This upscale-lifestyle-magazine vision of having it all — complete with middle-aged female protagonists who look spectacularly youthful without any apparent effort — finds trouble in paradise when the ladies realize that something, in fact, is missing. That something turns out to be each other’s sons, in their beds. After very little hand-wringing this is accepted as the way things are meant to be — a MILF fantasy viewed through the distaff eyes — despite some trouble down the road. This outlandish basic concept might have worked for Lessing, but Fontaine’s solemn, gauzily romantic take only slightly muffles its inherent absurdity. (Imagine how creepy this ersatz women-finding-fulfillment-at-midlife saga would be if it were two older men boning each others’ daughters.) Lord knows it isn’t often that mainstream movies (this hardly plays as “art house”) focus on women over 40, and the actors give it their all. But you’ll wish they’d given it to a better vehicle instead. (1:50) Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Afternoon Delight It takes about five seconds to suss that Kathryn Hahn is going to give a spectacular performance in Jill Soloway’s charming seriocomedy. Figuring to re-ignite husband Jeff’s (Josh Radnor) flagging libido by taking them both to a strip club, Rachel (Hahn) decides to take on as a home- and moral-improvement project big-haired, barely-adult stripper McKenna (Juno Temple). When the latter’s car slash-home is towed, bored Silver Lake housewife and mother Rachel invites the street child into their home. Eventually she’s restless enough to start accompanying McKenna on the latter’s professional “dates.” Afternoon Delight is a better movie than you’d expect — not so much a typical raunchy comedy as a depthed dramedy with a raunchy hook. It’s a notable representation of no-shame sex workerdom. It’s also funny, cute, and eventually very touching. Especially memorable: a ladies’ round-table discussion about abortion that drifts every which way. (1:42) Albany, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints “This was in Texas,” reads the hand-lettered opening of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s a fittingly homespun beginning to a film that pays painstaking homage to bygone-era cinema. After its Sundance Film Festival premiere, writer-director David Lowery’s first high-profile release earned frequent comparisons to 1970s works by Robert Altman and Terrence Malick. That’s no accident; Saints openly feasts upon the decade’s intimate, sun-burnished neo-Westerns. Though Saints earned praise on the film-fest circuit for its craftsmanship, its big-name cast — Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as lovers separated by his jail stint; Keith Carradine as a shopkeeper with a dark past; Ben Foster as a cop who pines for Mara’s character — is likely what will pique mainstream interest. But will pre-release hype translate to a Beasts of the Southern Wild-style breakthrough? Saints‘ storytelling keeps to a very deliberate pace, a quality owing to Lowery’s background as a film editor (most notable credit: Upstream Color), and Saints‘ dipped-in-amber, outlaw-chic mise-en-scène — 10-gallon hat tips to cinematographer Bradford Young, production designer Jade Healy, and composer Daniel Hart — is overtly antique-y. But its actors, particularly Affleck and Carradine, ground what could’ve been an overly constructed objet d’cinema in subtle, deep emotions. (1:45) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Austenland Jane (Keri Russell) is a Jane Austen fanatic who finds real-life modern romance highly lacking as compared to the fictive Regency Era variety — though having a life-sized cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in her bedroom surely didn’t help recent relationships. After yet another breakup, she decides to live her fantasy by flying to England to vacation at the titular theme park-fantasy role play establishment, where guests and staff meticulously act out Austen-like scenarios of well-dressed upper class leisure and chaste courtship. Upon arriving, however, Jane discovers she’s very much a second-class citizen here, not having been able to afford the “platinum premium” package purchased by fellow guests. Thus cast by imperious proprietor Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) as the unmarriageable “poor relation,” she gets more flirtatious vibes from the actor cast as sexy stable boy (Bret McKenzie) than the one playing a quasi-Darcy (JJ Feild), at least initially. Adapting Shannon Hale’s novel, Jerusha Hess (making her directorial bow after several collaborations with husband Jared Hess, of 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite) has delightfully kitsch set and costume designs and a generally sweet-natured tone somewhat let down by the very broad, uninspired humor. Even wonderful Jennifer Coolidge can’t much elevate the routine writing as a cheerfully vulgar Yank visitor. The rich potential to cleverly satirize all things Austen is missed. Still, the actors are charming and the progress lively enough to make Austenland harmless if flyweight fun. (1:37) Shattuck. (Harvey)

Blackfish The 911 call placed from SeaWorld Orlando on February 24, 2010 imparted a uniquely horrific emergency: “A whale has eaten one of the trainers.” That revelation opens Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish, a powerful doc that offers a compelling argument against keeping orcas in captivity, much less making them do choreographed tricks in front of tourists at Shamu Stadium. Whale experts, former SeaWorld employees, and civilian eyewitnesses step forward to illuminate an industry that seemingly places a higher value on profits than it does on safety — skewed priorities that made headlines after veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum, a massive bull who’d been involved in two prior deaths. Though SeaWorld refused to speak with Cowperthwaite on camera, they recently released a statement calling Blackfish “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate” — read the filmmaker’s response to SeaWorld’s criticisms at film blog Indiewire, or better yet, see this important, eye-opening film yourself and draw your own conclusions. (1:30) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

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) Albany, Balboa, Clay, Metreon, Piedmont, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Closed Circuit (1:36) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki.

Cutie and the Boxer Ushio “Gyu-Chan” Shinohara was a somewhat notorious artist in Japan’s fertile avant-garde scene of the 1960s. In 1969, he decided he needed a bigger stage, so he moved to New York. An early 1970s TV documentary excerpted here calls him perhaps “the most famous of the poor and struggling artists in the city,” noting that while his often outsized work gets a lot of attention, people seldom actually want to buy it. This is a situation that, we soon learn, hasn’t altered much since. Gyu-Chan was 41 when he met wife Noriko, a 19-year-old art student also from Japan. She was swept up in the “purity” of his art and lifestyle; within six months she was pregnant with their only child, Alex (also a talented visual artist). In hindsight, she flatly tells us “I should have married a guy who made a secure living and took responsibility for what he did.” We first meet the protagonists of Zachary Heinzerling’s doc on Gyu-Chan’s 80th birthday. It’s hardly a conventionally comfortable old age — in a tone so weary it can hardly be classified as nagging, Noriko reminds him that they’re late with the rent on their fairly large yet cluttered Brooklyn apartment-studio. It’s a classic dysfunctional-yet-still maintaining marital dynamic: the easygoing, charming, eternal bad boy herded about as successfully as a cat on a leash by the long-suffering wife. Meanwhile Noriko, who one senses has long resented living under the shadow of this larger-than-life figure, feels she’s finally escaped his influence in her own work. A quiet, almost meditative portrait of messy lives, Cutie and the Boxer doesn’t really answer the question of why these two remained together despite all (her) dissatisfaction. But you get the feeling Noriko, while hardly an emotional open book, loves her burdensome, unruly spouse more than she’d admit. Or at least she’s accepted the “struggle” of life with him as her own goading raison d’être. You know the saying: life is short, art is long. (1:22) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

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, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Fruitvale Station By now you’ve heard of Fruitvale Station, the debut feature from Oakland-born filmmaker Ryan Coogler. With a cast that includes Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and rising star Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights), the film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize en route to being scooped up for distribition by the Weinstein Company. A few months later, Coogler, a USC film school grad who just turned 27, won Best First Film at Cannes. Accolades are nice, especially when paired with a massive PR push from a studio known for bringing home little gold men. But particularly in the Bay Area, the true story behind Fruitvale Station eclipses even the most glowing pre-release hype. The film opens with real footage captured by cell phones the night 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot in the back by BART police, a tragedy that inspired multiple protests and grabbed national headlines. With its grim ending already revealed, Fruitvale Station backtracks to chart Oscar’s final hours, with a deeper flashback or two fleshing out the troubled past he was trying to overcome. Mostly, though, Fruitvale Station is very much a day in the life, with Oscar (Jordan, in a nuanced performance) dropping off his girlfriend at work, picking up supplies for a birthday party, texting friends about New Year’s Eve plans, and deciding not to follow through on a drug sale. Inevitably, much of what transpires is weighted with extra meaning — Oscar’s mother (Spencer) advising him to “just take the train” to San Francisco that night; Oscar’s tender interactions with his young daughter; the death of a friendly stray dog, hit by a car as BART thunders overhead. It’s a powerful, stripped-down portrait that belies Coogler’s rookie-filmmaker status. (1:24) Four Star, Metreon, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Getaway (1:29) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

The Grandmaster The Grandmaster is dramatic auteur Wong Kar-Wai’s take on the life of kung-fu legend Ip Man — famously Bruce Lee’s teacher, and already the subject of a series of Donnie Yen actioners. This episodic treatment is punctuated by great fights and great tragedies, depicting Ip’s life and the Second Sino-Japanese War in broad strokes of martial arts tradition and personal conviction. Wong’s angsty, hyper stylized visuals lend an unusual focus to the Yuen Woo-Ping-choreographed fight scenes, but a listless lack of narrative momentum prevents the dramatic segments from being truly engaging. Abrupt editing in this shorter American cut suggests some connective tissue may be missing from certain sequences. Tony Leung’s performance is quietly powerful, but also a familiar caricature from other Wong films; this time, instead of a frustrated writer, he is a frustrated martial artist. Ziyi Zhang’s turn as the driven, devastated child of the Northern Chinese Grandmaster provides a worthy counterpoint. Another Wong cliché: the two end up sadly reminiscing in dark bars, far from the rhythm and poetry of their martial pursuits. (1:48) Four Star, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Stander)

I Give It a Year This glossy feature writing-directing debut from longtime Sacha Baron Cohen collaborator Dan Mazer has been called the best British comedy in some time — but it turns out that statement must’ve been made by people who think the Hangover movies are what comedy should be like world-wide. Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall play mismatched newlyweds (she’s stiff-upper-lippy advertising executive, he’s a manboy prankster novelist) who worry their marriage won’t last, in part because everyone tells them so — including such authorities as her bitchy sister (Minnie Driver), his obnoxious best friend (Stephen Merchant), and their incredibly crass marriage counselor (Olivia Colman). Also, they’re each being distracted by more suitable partners: she by a suave visiting American CEO (Simon Baker), he by the ex-girlfriend he never formally broke up with (Anna Faris). This is one of those movies in which you’re supposed to root for a couple who in fact really don’t belong together, and most supporting characters are supposed to be funny because they’re hateful or rude. There’s plenty of the usual strained sexual humor, plus the now-de rigueur turn toward earnest schmaltz, and the inevitable soundtrack stuffed with innocuous covers of golden oldies. Some wince-inducing moments aside, it all goes down painlessly enough — and Mazer deserves major props for straying from convention at the end. Still, one hopes the future of British comedy isn’t more movies that might just as well have starred Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. (1:37) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

In a World… (1:33) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki.

Instructions Not Included (1:55) Metreon.

Kick-Ass 2 Even an ass-kicking subversive take on superherodom runs the risk of getting its rump tested, toasted, roasted — and found wanting. Too bad the exhilaratingly smarty-pants, somewhat mean-spirited Kick-Ass (2010), the brighter spot in a year of superhero-questioning flicks (see also: Super), has gotten sucker-punched in all the most predictable ways in its latest incarnation. Dave, aka Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and Mindy, otherwise known as Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), are only half-heartedly attempting to live normal lives: they’re training on the sly, mostly because Mindy’s new guardian, Detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut), is determined to restore her childhood. Little does he realize that Mindy only comes alive when she pretends she’s battling ninjas at cheerleader tryouts — or is giving her skills a workout by unhanding, literally and gleefully, a robber. Kick-Ass is a little unnerved by her semi-psychotic enthusiasm for crushing bad guys, but he’s crushing, too, on Mindy, until Marcus catches her in the Hit-Girl act and grounds her in real life, where she has to deal with some really nasty characters: the most popular girls in school. So Kick-Ass hooks up with a motley team of would-be heroes inspired by his example, led Colonel Stars and Stripes (an almost unrecognizable Jim Carrey), while old frenemy Chris, aka Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) begins to find his real calling — as a supervillain he dubs the Motherfucker — and starts to assemble his own gang of baddies. Unlike the first movie, which passed the whip-smart wisecracks around equally, Mintz-Plasse and enabler-bodyguard Javier (John Leguizamo) get most of the choice lines here. Otherwise, the vigilante action gets pretty grimly routine, in a roof-battling, punch-’em-up kind of way. A romance seems to be budding between our two young superfriends, but let’s skip part three — I’d rather read about it in the funny pages. (1:43) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (1:53) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Opera Plaza, Piedmont, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones Adapted from the first volume of Cassandra Clare’s bestselling YA urban fantasy series, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones follows young Clary Fray (Lily Collins) through her mother’s disappearance, the traumatic discovery of her supernatural heritage, and her induction into the violent demon-slaying world of Shadowhunters. This franchise-launching venture is unlikely to win any new converts with its flimsy acting, stilted humor, and clichéd action. It will probably also disappoint diehard fans, since it plays fast and loose with the mythology and plot of the novel, with crucial details and logical progressions left by the wayside for no clear reason. It’s never particularly awful — except for a few plot twists that fall wincingly, hilariously flat — but it’s hard to care about the perfectly coiffed, emotionally clueless protagonists. Fantastic character actors Jared Harris, Lena Headey, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are all dismally underused, though at least Harris gets to exercise a bit of his vaguely irksome British charm. (2:00) SF Center. (Stander)

One Direction: This is Us Take them home? The girls shrieking at the opening minutes of One Direction: This Is Us are certainly raring to — though by the closing credits, they might feel as let down as a Zayn Malik fanatic who was convinced that he was definitely future husband material. Purporting to show us the real 1D, in 3D, no less, This Is Us instead vacillates like a boy band in search of critical credibility, playing at an “authorized” look behind the scenes while really preferring the safety of choreographed onstage moves by the self-confessed worst dancers in pop. So we get endless shots of Malik, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson horsing around, hiding in trash bins, punking the road crew, jetting around the world, and accepting the adulation of innumerable screaming girls outside — interspersed with concert footage of the lads pouring their all into the poised and polished pop that has made them the greatest success story to come out of The X Factor. Too bad the music — including “What Makes You Beautiful” and “Live While We’re Young” — will bore anyone who’s not already a fan, while the 1D members’ well-filtered, featureless, and thoroughly innocuous on-screen personalities do little to dispel those yawns. Director Morgan Spurlock (2004’s Super Size Me) adds just a dollop of his own personality, in the way he fixates on the tearful fan response: he trots out an expert to talk about the chemical reaction coursing through the excitable listener’s system, and uses bits of animation to slightly puff up the boy’s live show. But generally as a co-producer, along with 1D mastermind Simon Cowell, Spurlock goes along with the pop whitewashing, sidestepping the touchy, newsy paths this biopic could have sallied down — for instance, Malik’s thoughts on being the only Muslim member of the biggest boy band in the world — and instead doing his best undermine that also-oh-so-hyped 3D format and make One Direction as tidily one dimensional as possible. (1:32) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Pacific Rim The fine print insists this film’s title is actually Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures Pacific Rim (no apostrophe, guys?), but that fussy studio demand flies in the face of Pacific Rim‘s pursuit of pure, dumb fun. One is tempted to picture director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro plotting out the battle scenes using action figures — Godzillas vs. Transformers is more or less what’s at play here, and play is the operative word. Sure, the end of the world seems certain, thanks to an invading race of giant “Kaiju” who’ve started to adapt to Earth’s decades-long countermeasures (giant robot suits, piloted by duos whose minds are psychically linked), but there’s far too much goofy glee here for any real panic to accumulate. Charlie Hunnam is agreeable as the wounded hunk who’s humankind’s best hope for salvation, partnered with a rookie (Rinko Kikuchi) who’s eager, for her own reasons, to kick monster butt. Unoriginal yet key supporting roles are filled by Idris Elba (solemn, ass-kicking commander); Charlie Day (goofy science type); and Ron Perlman (flashy-dressing, black-market-dealing Kaiju expert). Pacific Rim may not transcend action-movie clichés or break much new ground (drinking game idea: gulp every time there’s an obvious reference or homage, be it to Toho or Bruckheimer), but damn if it doesn’t pair perfectly with popcorn. (2:11) Metreon. (Eddy)

Passion The notion of Brian De Palma directing a remake of Alain Corneau’s 2010 hit Love Crime suggested camp guilty pleasure at the very least. The original film was a clever if implausible psychological thriller in which a corporate boss (Kristin Scott Thomas) and junior-executive protegee (Ludivine Sagnier) come to fatal comeuppance blows over a particularly cruel abuse of power in the name of love. It was a stereotypical girlfight par excellance, dressed up via reasonably smart treatment. You’d expect De Palma to ramp up the lurid and tawdry-violent aspects to delightfully tasteless degrees — but what’s most depressing about Passion is that the life has gone out even from his love of violence and sexploitation. It’s a tepid movie, and not even a stylish one. In contrast to Scott Thomas’ formidible strength through-negativity, Rachel McAdams’ villain is just another yuppie princess with a snit fit in store. Sagnier might well be the Gallic answer to Chloe Sevigny, yet her waxy inexpressiveness is still better than another horribly awkward English language performance (see: last year’s Prometheus) by Swedish star Noomi Rapace. Passion (which notably took a full year to secure any US release after a festival debut) commits a sin that De Palma has seldom attained: it is just dull. It promises titillation, yet real people and real sex are so plastic and cartooned here they seem the last call of an old-school playboy horndog who can’t get it up anymore. (1:42) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Vizcarrondo)

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, 1000 Van Ness. (Stander)

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) California, SF Center. (Eddy)

The Spectacular Now The title suggests a dreamy, fireworks-inflected celebration of life lived in the present tense, but in this depiction of a stalled-out high school senior’s last months of school, director James Ponsoldt (2012’s Smashed) opts for a more guarded, uneasy treatment. Charming, likable, underachieving, and bright enough to frustrate the adults in his corner, Sutter (Miles Teller, 2012’s Project X) has long since managed to turn aimlessness into a philosophical practice, having chosen the path of least resistance and alcohol-fueled unaccountability. His mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), raising him solo since the departure of a father (Kyle Chandler) whose memories have acquired — for Sutter, at least — a blurry halo effect, describes him as full of both love and possible greatness, but he settles for the blessings of social fluidity and being an adept at the acquisition of beer for fellow underage drinkers. When he meets and becomes romantically involved with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a sweet, unpolished classmate at the far reaches of his school’s social spectrum, it’s unclear whether the impact of their relationship will push him, or her, or both into a new trajectory, and the film tracks their progress with a watchful, solicitous eye. Adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (2009’s 500 Days of Summer) from a novel by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now gives the quirky pop cuteness of Summer a wide berth, steering straight into the heart of awkward adolescent striving and mishap. (1:35) Balboa, Marina, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

This Is the End It’s a typical day in Los Angeles for Seth Rogen as This Is the End begins. Playing a version of himself, the comedian picks up pal and frequent co-star Jay Baruchel at the airport. Since Jay hates LA, Seth welcomes him with weed and candy, but all good vibes fizzle when Rogen suggests hitting up a party at James Franco’s new mansion. Wait, ugh, Franco? And Jonah Hill will be there? Nooo! Jay ain’t happy, but the revelry — chockablock with every Judd Apatow-blessed star in Hollywood, plus a few random inclusions (Rihanna?) — is great fun for the audience. And likewise for the actors: world, meet Michael Cera, naughty coke fiend. But stranger things are afoot in This Is the End. First, there’s a giant earthquake and a strange blue light that sucks passers-by into the sky. Then a fiery pit yawns in front of Casa Franco, gobbling up just about everyone in the cast who isn’t on the poster. Dudes! Is this the worst party ever — or the apocalypse? The film — co-written and directed by Rogen and longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg — relies heavily on Christian imagery to illustrate the endtimes; the fact that both men and much of their cast is Jewish, and therefore marked as doomed by Bible-thumpers, is part of the joke. But of course, This Is the End has a lot more to it than religious commentary; there’s also copious drug use, masturbation gags, urine-drinking, bromance, insult comedy, and all of the uber-meta in-jokes fans of its stars will appreciate. (1:46) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck. (Eddy)

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) Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Chun)

The Way, Way Back Duncan (Liam James) is 14, and if you remember being that age you remember the awkwardness, the ambivalence, and the confusion that went along with it. Duncan’s mother (Toni Collette) takes him along for an “important summer” with her jerky boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) — and despite being the least important guy at the summer cottage, Duncan’s only marginally sympathetic. Most every actor surrounding him plays against type (Rob Corddry is an unfunny, whipped husband; Allison Janney is a drunk, desperate divorcee), and since the cast is a cattle call for anyone with indie cred, you’ll wonder why they’re grouped for such a dull movie. Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash previously wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for 2011’s The Descendants, but The Way, Way Back doesn’t match that film’s caliber of intelligent, dry wit. Cast members take turns resuscitating the movie, but only Sam Rockwell saves the day, at least during the scenes he’s in. Playing another lovable loser, Rockwell’s Owen dropped out of life and into a pattern of house painting and water-park management in the fashion of a conscientious objector. Owen is antithetical to Trent’s crappy example of manhood, and raises his water wing to let Duncan in. The short stint Duncan has working at Water Wizz is a blossoming that leads to a minor romance (with AnnaSophia Robb) and a major confrontation with Trent, some of which is affecting, but none of which will help you remember the movie after credits roll. (1:42) California, Four Star, Presidio. (Vizcarrondo)

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, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck. (Chun)

The Wolverine James Mangold’s contribution to the X-Men film franchise sidesteps the dizzy ambition of 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine and 2011’s X-Men: First Class, opting instead for a sleek, mostly smart genre piece. This movie takes its basics from the 1982 Wolverine series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, a stark dramatic comic, but can’t avoid the convoluted, bad sci-fi plot devices endemic to the X-Men films. The titular mutant with the healing factor and adamantium-laced skeleton travels to Tokyo, to say farewell to a dying man who he rescued at the bombing of Nagasaki. But the dying man’s sinister oncologist has other plans, sapping Wolverine of his healing powers as he faces off against ruthless yakuza and scads of ninjas. The movie’s finest moments come when Mangold pays attention to context, taking superhero or Western movie clichés and revamping them for the modern Tokyo setting, such as a thrilling duel on top of a speeding bullet train. Another highlight: Rila Fukushima’s refreshing turn as badass bodyguard Yukio. Oh, and stay for the credits. (2:06) Metreon. (Stander)

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, Presidio. (Eddy)

You’re Next The hit of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival’s midnight section — and one that’s taken its sweet time getting to theaters — indie horror specialist (2010’s A Horrible Way to Die, 2007’s Pop Skull, 2012’s V/H/S) Adam Wingard’s feature isn’t really much more than a gussied-up slasher. But it’s got vigor, and violence, to spare. An already uncomfortable anniversary reunion for the wealthy Davison clan plus their children’s spouses gets a lot more so when dinner is interrupted by an arrow that sails through a window, right into someone’s flesh. Immediately a full on siege commences, with family members reacting with various degrees of panic, selfishness. and ingenuity, while an unknown number of animal-masked assailants prowl outside (and sometimes inside). Clearly fun for its all-star cast and crew of mumblecore-indie horror staples, yet preferring gallows’ humor to wink-wink camp, it’s a (very) bloody good ride. (1:36) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey) *

 

Film Listings: September 4 – 10, 2013

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, Sam Stander, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. Due to early Labor Day deadlines, theater information was incomplete at presstime.

OPENING

Adore This glossy soap opera from director Anne Fontaine (2009’s Coco Before Chanel) and scenarist Christopher Hampton, adapted from a Doris Lessing novella, has had its title changed from Two Mothers — perhaps because under that name it was pretty much the most howled-at movie at Sundance this year. Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright) are lifelong best friends whose hunky surfer sons Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Tom (James Frecheville) are likewise best mates. Widow Lil runs a gallery and Roz has a husband (Ben Mendelsohn), but mostly the two women seem to lay around sipping wine on the decks of their adjacent oceanfront homes in Western Australia’s Perth, watching their sinewy offspring frolic in the waves. This upscale-lifestyle-magazine vision of having it all — complete with middle-aged female protagonists who look spectacularly youthful without any apparent effort — finds trouble in paradise when the ladies realize that something, in fact, is missing. That something turns out to be each other’s sons, in their beds. After very little hand-wringing this is accepted as the way things are meant to be — a MILF fantasy viewed through the distaff eyes — despite some trouble down the road. This outlandish basic concept might have worked for Lessing, but Fontaine’s solemn, gauzily romantic take only slightly muffles its inherent absurdity. (Imagine how creepy this ersatz women-finding-fulfillment-at-midlife saga would be if it were two older men boning each others’ daughters.) Lord knows it isn’t often that mainstream movies (this hardly plays as “art house”) focus on women over 40, and the actors give it their all. But you’ll wish they’d given it to a better vehicle instead. (1:50) (Harvey)

Afternoon Delight It takes about five seconds to suss that Kathryn Hahn is going to give a spectacular performance in Jill Soloway’s charming seriocomedy. Figuring to re-ignite husband Jeff’s (Josh Radnor) flagging libido by taking them both to a strip club, Rachel (Hahn) decides to take on as a home- and moral-improvement project big-haired, barely-adult stripper McKenna (Juno Temple). When the latter’s car slash-home is towed, bored Silver Lake housewife and mother Rachel invites the street child into their home. Eventually she’s restless enough to start accompanying McKenna on the latter’s professional “dates.” Afternoon Delight is a better movie than you’d expect — not so much a typical raunchy comedy as a depthed dramedy with a raunchy hook. It’s a notable representation of no-shame sex workerdom. It’s also funny, cute, and eventually very touching. Especially memorable: a ladies’ round-table discussion about abortion that drifts every which way. (1:42) Shattuck. (Harvey)

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story Fairy tales really do come true — even when they’re as strange as the one lived by Hans Christian Andersen Award-winning illustrator, writer, and activist Tomi Ungerer. As a child, he was torn between Nazi Germany and occupied France, growing up in the Alsace region; as an artist, Ungerer possesses a creative fire fueled by the trauma of war and a bisected identity — his native Strasbourg, as he paints it with archetypal vivid colors, “is the sphincter of France. When France has indigestion, we’re the first to feel it.” In keeping with that free spirit, director Brad Bernstein playfully, beautifully captures Ungerer’s early years, from the artist’s preteen renderings of Nazi horrors, to his formative artistic inspirations, to the outpouring that followed during NYC’s golden age of illustration. In Big Apple, children’s classics like Crictor (1958), Adelaide (1959), and The Three Robbers (1961) inspired colleagues like Maurice Sendak (here in one of his last interviews) and Jules Feiffer. No niche branding and self-censorship for Ungerer, who happily fed the mid-century’s appetite for his drawings; imbued his kids tales with absurdity, fear, and his lifelong fascination with death; and created powerful anti-war posters and iconic illustrations reflecting the struggles of the ’60s (and very adult “Fornicon” erotica as well). The latter finally ushered in a kind of closing chapter to Ungerer’s American success story, when word spread that the “kidso” favorite also did porno and his children’s books were blacklisted from libraries. Bernstein generally hastens through the decades of “exile” that followed — staying so far from some of Ungerer’s personal particulars that we never even get the name of his wife (or is it wives?) — but the time he takes to give the viewer a sense of the witty, quirk-riddled artist’s personality keeps a viewer riveted. (1:38) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Chun)

The Flu As a shipping crate stuffed with illegal immigrants creeps into a ritzy Seoul suburb, one poor soul within stifles a cough; before long, everyone’s dead — save a crusty-eyed youth who’s apparently resistant to the disease yet still capable of kick-starting a devastating epidemic. Can the headstrong doctor (Soo Ae) save her sassy tot (Park Min-ha) from certain, blood-spewing death? Will the cocky EMT (Jang Hyuk) be able to help her, and win her heart in the process? Will the muckety-mucks in power get their shit together in time to prevent mass panic and a global outbreak? Zzzzz. Save some gnarly third-act visuals (you won’t believe what the government does with the bodies of the afflicted), this disaster movie from writer-director Kim Sung-su fails to innovate on the template laid down by films like 2011’s Contagion or 1995’s Outbreak. Also, for all the gory drama, the central storyline (re: the sick kid and the nascent couple) is completely devoid of tension, trudging for two hours toward the most predictable ending imaginable. (2:00) (Eddy)

I Give It a Year This glossy feature writing-directing debut from longtime Sacha Baron Cohen collaborator Dan Mazer has been called the best British comedy in some time — but it turns out that statement must’ve been made by people who think the Hangover movies are what comedy should be like world-wide. Rose Byrne and Rafe Spall play mismatched newlyweds (she’s stiff-upper-lippy advertising executive, he’s a manboy prankster novelist) who worry their marriage won’t last, in part because everyone tells them so — including such authorities as her bitchy sister (Minnie Driver), his obnoxious best friend (Stephen Merchant), and their incredibly crass marriage counselor (Olivia Colman). Also, they’re each being distracted by more suitable partners: she by a suave visiting American CEO (Simon Baker), he by the ex-girlfriend he never formally broke up with (Anna Faris). This is one of those movies in which you’re supposed to root for a couple who in fact really don’t belong together, and most supporting characters are supposed to be funny because they’re hateful or rude. There’s plenty of the usual strained sexual humor, plus the now-de rigueur turn toward earnest schmaltz, and the inevitable soundtrack stuffed with innocuous covers of golden oldies. Some wince-inducing moments aside, it all goes down painlessly enough — and Mazer deserves major props for straying from convention at the end. Still, one hopes the future of British comedy isn’t more movies that might just as well have starred Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. (1:37) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

Passion See “Blah Lust.” (1:42) Castro, Smith Rafael.

Riddick This time around, the escaped con with exceptional night vision (Vin Diesel) battles aliens and the lingering stink of 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick. (1:59)

Spark: A Burning Man Story A few months after kicking off DocFest — and mere days after the flames of Burning Man ’13 were extinguished — doc Spark: A Burning Man Story opens for a theatrical run. With surprisingly open access to Burning Man’s inner-circle organizers, San Francisco filmmakers Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter chronicle the organization’s tumultuous 2012 season, a time when the group was forced to confront concerns both practical (a stressful ticket-sale snafu) and philosophical (why are they selling tickets in the first place?) Spark doesn’t shy away from showing the less-graceful aspects of Burning Man’s exponential growth and transformation, but at its core it’s a fairly starry-eyed celebration of the event’s allure, reinforced by subplots that focus on artists who view “the playa” as their muse. (1:30) (Eddy)

ONGOING

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints “This was in Texas,” reads the hand-lettered opening of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s a fittingly homespun beginning to a film that pays painstaking homage to bygone-era cinema. After its Sundance Film Festival premiere, writer-director David Lowery’s first high-profile release earned frequent comparisons to 1970s works by Robert Altman and Terrence Malick. That’s no accident; Saints openly feasts upon the decade’s intimate, sun-burnished neo-Westerns. Though Saints earned praise on the film-fest circuit for its craftsmanship, its big-name cast — Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as lovers separated by his jail stint; Keith Carradine as a shopkeeper with a dark past; Ben Foster as a cop who pines for Mara’s character — is likely what will pique mainstream interest. But will pre-release hype translate to a Beasts of the Southern Wild-style breakthrough? Saints‘ storytelling keeps to a very deliberate pace, a quality owing to Lowery’s background as a film editor (most notable credit: Upstream Color), and Saints‘ dipped-in-amber, outlaw-chic mise-en-scène — 10-gallon hat tips to cinematographer Bradford Young, production designer Jade Healy, and composer Daniel Hart — is overtly antique-y. But its actors, particularly Affleck and Carradine, ground what could’ve been an overly constructed objet d’cinema in subtle, deep emotions. (1:45) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Austenland Jane (Keri Russell) is a Jane Austen fanatic who finds real-life modern romance highly lacking as compared to the fictive Regency Era variety — though having a life-sized cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in her bedroom surely didn’t help recent relationships. After yet another breakup, she decides to live her fantasy by flying to England to vacation at the titular theme park-fantasy role play establishment, where guests and staff meticulously act out Austen-like scenarios of well-dressed upper class leisure and chaste courtship. Upon arriving, however, Jane discovers she’s very much a second-class citizen here, not having been able to afford the “platinum premium” package purchased by fellow guests. Thus cast by imperious proprietor Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) as the unmarriageable “poor relation,” she gets more flirtatious vibes from the actor cast as sexy stable boy (Bret McKenzie) than the one playing a quasi-Darcy (JJ Feild), at least initially. Adapting Shannon Hale’s novel, Jerusha Hess (making her directorial bow after several collaborations with husband Jared Hess, of 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite) has delightfully kitsch set and costume designs and a generally sweet-natured tone somewhat let down by the very broad, uninspired humor. Even wonderful Jennifer Coolidge can’t much elevate the routine writing as a cheerfully vulgar Yank visitor. The rich potential to cleverly satirize all things Austen is missed. Still, the actors are charming and the progress lively enough to make Austenland harmless if flyweight fun. (1:37) Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Closed Circuit (1:36) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki.

Cutie and the Boxer Ushio “Gyu-Chan” Shinohara was a somewhat notorious artist in Japan’s fertile avant-garde scene of the 1960s. In 1969, he decided he needed a bigger stage, so he moved to New York. An early 1970s TV documentary excerpted here calls him perhaps “the most famous of the poor and struggling artists in the city,” noting that while his often outsized work gets a lot of attention, people seldom actually want to buy it. This is a situation that, we soon learn, hasn’t altered much since. Gyu-Chan was 41 when he met wife Noriko, a 19-year-old art student also from Japan. She was swept up in the “purity” of his art and lifestyle; within six months she was pregnant with their only child, Alex (also a talented visual artist). In hindsight, she flatly tells us “I should have married a guy who made a secure living and took responsibility for what he did.” We first meet the protagonists of Zachary Heinzerling’s doc on Gyu-Chan’s 80th birthday. It’s hardly a conventionally comfortable old age — in a tone so weary it can hardly be classified as nagging, Noriko reminds him that they’re late with the rent on their fairly large yet cluttered Brooklyn apartment-studio. It’s a classic dysfunctional-yet-still maintaining marital dynamic: the easygoing, charming, eternal bad boy herded about as successfully as a cat on a leash by the long-suffering wife. Meanwhile Noriko, who one senses has long resented living under the shadow of this larger-than-life figure, feels she’s finally escaped his influence in her own work. A quiet, almost meditative portrait of messy lives, Cutie and the Boxer doesn’t really answer the question of why these two remained together despite all (her) dissatisfaction. But you get the feeling Noriko, while hardly an emotional open book, loves her burdensome, unruly spouse more than she’d admit. Or at least she’s accepted the “struggle” of life with him as her own goading raison d’être. You know the saying: life is short, art is long. (1:22) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)

Drinking Buddies Mumblecore grows up in this latest from actor-writer-director Joe Swanberg (currently starring in You’re Next), about brewery co-workers Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), BFFs who’d obviously be the perfect couple if they weren’t already hooked up with significant others. At least, they are at the start of Drinking Buddies; the tension between them grows ever-more loaded when the messy, chaotic Kate is dumped by older boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston) — a pairing we know is bound to fail when we spot him chiding her for neglecting to use a coaster. Luke’s long-term coupling with the slightly younger but way-more-mature Jill (Anna Kendrick) is more complicated; all signs indicate how lucky he is to have her. But the fact that they can only meander around marriage talk indicates that Luke isn’t ready to settle down — and though Jill may not realize it, Luke’s feelings for Kate are a big reason why. Working from a script outline but largely improvising all dialogue, Swanberg’s actors rise to the challenge, conveying the intricate shades of modern relationships. Their characters aren’t always likable, but they’re always believable. Also, fair warning: this movie will make you want to drink many, many beers. (1:30) Roxie. (Eddy)

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, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Fruitvale Station By now you’ve heard of Fruitvale Station, the debut feature from Oakland-born filmmaker Ryan Coogler. With a cast that includes Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and rising star Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights), the film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize en route to being scooped up for distribition by the Weinstein Company. A few months later, Coogler, a USC film school grad who just turned 27, won Best First Film at Cannes. Accolades are nice, especially when paired with a massive PR push from a studio known for bringing home little gold men. But particularly in the Bay Area, the true story behind Fruitvale Station eclipses even the most glowing pre-release hype. The film opens with real footage captured by cell phones the night 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot in the back by BART police, a tragedy that inspired multiple protests and grabbed national headlines. With its grim ending already revealed, Fruitvale Station backtracks to chart Oscar’s final hours, with a deeper flashback or two fleshing out the troubled past he was trying to overcome. Mostly, though, Fruitvale Station is very much a day in the life, with Oscar (Jordan, in a nuanced performance) dropping off his girlfriend at work, picking up supplies for a birthday party, texting friends about New Year’s Eve plans, and deciding not to follow through on a drug sale. Inevitably, much of what transpires is weighted with extra meaning — Oscar’s mother (Spencer) advising him to “just take the train” to San Francisco that night; Oscar’s tender interactions with his young daughter; the death of a friendly stray dog, hit by a car as BART thunders overhead. It’s a powerful, stripped-down portrait that belies Coogler’s rookie-filmmaker status. (1:24) Metreon. (Eddy)

Getaway (1:29) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

The Grandmaster The Grandmaster is dramatic auteur Wong Kar-Wai’s take on the life of kung-fu legend Ip Man — famously Bruce Lee’s teacher, and already the subject of a series of Donnie Yen actioners. This episodic treatment is punctuated by great fights and great tragedies, depicting Ip’s life and the Second Sino-Japanese War in broad strokes of martial arts tradition and personal conviction. Wong’s angsty, hyper stylized visuals lend an unusual focus to the Yuen Woo-Ping-choreographed fight scenes, but a listless lack of narrative momentum prevents the dramatic segments from being truly engaging. Abrupt editing in this shorter American cut suggests some connective tissue may be missing from certain sequences. Tony Leung’s performance is quietly powerful, but also a familiar caricature from other Wong films; this time, instead of a frustrated writer, he is a frustrated martial artist. Ziyi Zhang’s turn as the driven, devastated child of the Northern Chinese Grandmaster provides a worthy counterpoint. Another Wong cliché: the two end up sadly reminiscing in dark bars, far from the rhythm and poetry of their martial pursuits. (1:48) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Stander)

Instructions Not Included (1:55) Metreon.

Jobs With the upcoming Aaron Sorkin adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s biography nipping at its heels, Jobs feels like a quickie — true to Silicon Valley form, someone realized that the first to ship can end up defining the market. But as this independent biopic goes for each easy cliché and facile cinematic device, you can practically hear Steve Jobs himself spinning in the ether somewhere. Ashton Kutcher as Jobs lectures us over and over again about the virtues of quality product, but little seemed to have penetrated director Joshua Michael Stern as he distracts with a schmaltzy score (he should have stuck to Bob Dylan, Joe Walsh, and era-defining AOR), and relies on corny slow-motion to dramatize the passing of a circuit board. The fact that Kutcher might be the best thing here — he clearly throws himself into impersonating the Apple icon, from his intense, upward-glancing glare to his hand gestures — says a bit about the film itself, as it coasts on its self-made man-captain of enterprise narrative arc. Dispensing with much about the man Jobs became outside of Apple, apart from a few nods to his unsavory neglect of friends and offspring, and simply never acknowledging his work at, say, Pixar, Jobs, in the end, comes off as a lengthy infomercial for the Cupertino heavyweight. (2:02) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Kick-Ass 2 Even an ass-kicking subversive take on superherodom runs the risk of getting its rump tested, toasted, roasted — and found wanting. Too bad the exhilaratingly smarty-pants, somewhat mean-spirited Kick-Ass (2010), the brighter spot in a year of superhero-questioning flicks (see also: Super), has gotten sucker-punched in all the most predictable ways in its latest incarnation. Dave, aka Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and Mindy, otherwise known as Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), are only half-heartedly attempting to live normal lives: they’re training on the sly, mostly because Mindy’s new guardian, Detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut), is determined to restore her childhood. Little does he realize that Mindy only comes alive when she pretends she’s battling ninjas at cheerleader tryouts — or is giving her skills a workout by unhanding, literally and gleefully, a robber. Kick-Ass is a little unnerved by her semi-psychotic enthusiasm for crushing bad guys, but he’s crushing, too, on Mindy, until Marcus catches her in the Hit-Girl act and grounds her in real life, where she has to deal with some really nasty characters: the most popular girls in school. So Kick-Ass hooks up with a motley team of would-be heroes inspired by his example, led Colonel Stars and Stripes (an almost unrecognizable Jim Carrey), while old frenemy Chris, aka Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) begins to find his real calling — as a supervillain he dubs the Motherfucker — and starts to assemble his own gang of baddies. Unlike the first movie, which passed the whip-smart wisecracks around equally, Mintz-Plasse and enabler-bodyguard Javier (John Leguizamo) get most of the choice lines here. Otherwise, the vigilante action gets pretty grimly routine, in a roof-battling, punch-’em-up kind of way. A romance seems to be budding between our two young superfriends, but let’s skip part three — I’d rather read about it in the funny pages. (1:43) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (1:53) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki.

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

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones Adapted from the first volume of Cassandra Clare’s bestselling YA urban fantasy series, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones follows young Clary Fray (Lily Collins) through her mother’s disappearance, the traumatic discovery of her supernatural heritage, and her induction into the violent demon-slaying world of Shadowhunters. This franchise-launching venture is unlikely to win any new converts with its flimsy acting, stilted humor, and clichéd action. It will probably also disappoint diehard fans, since it plays fast and loose with the mythology and plot of the novel, with crucial details and logical progressions left by the wayside for no clear reason. It’s never particularly awful — except for a few plot twists that fall wincingly, hilariously flat — but it’s hard to care about the perfectly coiffed, emotionally clueless protagonists. Fantastic character actors Jared Harris, Lena Headey, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are all dismally underused, though at least Harris gets to exercise a bit of his vaguely irksome British charm. (2:00) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Stander)

One Direction: This is Us Take them home? The girls shrieking at the opening minutes of One Direction: This Is Us are certainly raring to — though by the closing credits, they might feel as let down as a Zayn Malik fanatic who was convinced that he was definitely future husband material. Purporting to show us the real 1D, in 3D, no less, This Is Us instead vacillates like a boy band in search of critical credibility, playing at an “authorized” look behind the scenes while really preferring the safety of choreographed onstage moves by the self-confessed worst dancers in pop. So we get endless shots of Malik, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson horsing around, hiding in trash bins, punking the road crew, jetting around the world, and accepting the adulation of innumerable screaming girls outside — interspersed with concert footage of the lads pouring their all into the poised and polished pop that has made them the greatest success story to come out of The X Factor. Too bad the music — including “What Makes You Beautiful” and “Live While We’re Young” — will bore anyone who’s not already a fan, while the 1D members’ well-filtered, featureless, and thoroughly innocuous on-screen personalities do little to dispel those yawns. Director Morgan Spurlock (2004’s Super Size Me) adds just a dollop of his own personality, in the way he fixates on the tearful fan response: he trots out an expert to talk about the chemical reaction coursing through the excitable listener’s system, and uses bits of animation to slightly puff up the boy’s live show. But generally as a co-producer, along with 1D mastermind Simon Cowell, Spurlock goes along with the pop whitewashing, sidestepping the touchy, newsy paths this biopic could have sallied down — for instance, Malik’s thoughts on being the only Muslim member of the biggest boy band in the world — and instead doing his best undermine that also-oh-so-hyped 3D format and make One Direction as tidily one dimensional as possible. (1:32) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Pacific Rim The fine print insists this film’s title is actually Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures Pacific Rim (no apostrophe, guys?), but that fussy studio demand flies in the face of Pacific Rim‘s pursuit of pure, dumb fun. One is tempted to picture director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro plotting out the battle scenes using action figures — Godzillas vs. Transformers is more or less what’s at play here, and play is the operative word. Sure, the end of the world seems certain, thanks to an invading race of giant “Kaiju” who’ve started to adapt to Earth’s decades-long countermeasures (giant robot suits, piloted by duos whose minds are psychically linked), but there’s far too much goofy glee here for any real panic to accumulate. Charlie Hunnam is agreeable as the wounded hunk who’s humankind’s best hope for salvation, partnered with a rookie (Rinko Kikuchi) who’s eager, for her own reasons, to kick monster butt. Unoriginal yet key supporting roles are filled by Idris Elba (solemn, ass-kicking commander); Charlie Day (goofy science type); and Ron Perlman (flashy-dressing, black-market-dealing Kaiju expert). Pacific Rim may not transcend action-movie clichés or break much new ground (drinking game idea: gulp every time there’s an obvious reference or homage, be it to Toho or Bruckheimer), but damn if it doesn’t pair perfectly with popcorn. (2:11) Metreon. (Eddy)

The Patience Stone “You’re the one that’s wounded, yet I’m the one that’s suffering,” complains the good Afghan wife of Patience Stone in this theatrical yet charged adaptation of Atiq Rahimi’s best-selling novel, directed by the Kabul native himself. As The Patience Stone opens, a beautiful, nameless young woman (Golshifteh Farahani) is fighting to not only keep alive her comatose husband, a onetime Jihadist with a bullet lodged in his neck, but also simply survive on her own with little money and two small daughters and a war going off all around her. In a surprising turn, her once-heedless husband becomes her solace — her silent confidante and her so-called patience stone — as she talks about her fears, secrets, memories, and desires, the latter sparked by a meeting with a young soldier. Despite the mostly stagy treatment of the action, mainly isolated to a single room or house (although the guerilla-shot scenes on Kabul streets are rife with a feeling of real jeopardy), The Patience Stone achieves lift-off, thanks to the power of a once-silenced woman’s story and a heart-rending performance by Farahani, once a star and now banned in her native Iran. (1:42) Opera Plaza. (Chun)

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

The Spectacular Now The title suggests a dreamy, fireworks-inflected celebration of life lived in the present tense, but in this depiction of a stalled-out high school senior’s last months of school, director James Ponsoldt (2012’s Smashed) opts for a more guarded, uneasy treatment. Charming, likable, underachieving, and bright enough to frustrate the adults in his corner, Sutter (Miles Teller, 2012’s Project X) has long since managed to turn aimlessness into a philosophical practice, having chosen the path of least resistance and alcohol-fueled unaccountability. His mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), raising him solo since the departure of a father (Kyle Chandler) whose memories have acquired — for Sutter, at least — a blurry halo effect, describes him as full of both love and possible greatness, but he settles for the blessings of social fluidity and being an adept at the acquisition of beer for fellow underage drinkers. When he meets and becomes romantically involved with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a sweet, unpolished classmate at the far reaches of his school’s social spectrum, it’s unclear whether the impact of their relationship will push him, or her, or both into a new trajectory, and the film tracks their progress with a watchful, solicitous eye. Adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (2009’s 500 Days of Summer) from a novel by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now gives the quirky pop cuteness of Summer a wide berth, steering straight into the heart of awkward adolescent striving and mishap. (1:35) SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

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)

The Way, Way Back Duncan (Liam James) is 14, and if you remember being that age you remember the awkwardness, the ambivalence, and the confusion that went along with it. Duncan’s mother (Toni Collette) takes him along for an “important summer” with her jerky boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) — and despite being the least important guy at the summer cottage, Duncan’s only marginally sympathetic. Most every actor surrounding him plays against type (Rob Corddry is an unfunny, whipped husband; Allison Janney is a drunk, desperate divorcee), and since the cast is a cattle call for anyone with indie cred, you’ll wonder why they’re grouped for such a dull movie. Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash previously wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for 2011’s The Descendants, but The Way, Way Back doesn’t match that film’s caliber of intelligent, dry wit. Cast members take turns resuscitating the movie, but only Sam Rockwell saves the day, at least during the scenes he’s in. Playing another lovable loser, Rockwell’s Owen dropped out of life and into a pattern of house painting and water-park management in the fashion of a conscientious objector. Owen is antithetical to Trent’s crappy example of manhood, and raises his water wing to let Duncan in. The short stint Duncan has working at Water Wizz is a blossoming that leads to a minor romance (with AnnaSophia Robb) and a major confrontation with Trent, some of which is affecting, but none of which will help you remember the movie after credits roll. (1:42) Metreon. (Vizcarrondo)

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, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

The Wolverine James Mangold’s contribution to the X-Men film franchise sidesteps the dizzy ambition of 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine and 2011’s X-Men: First Class, opting instead for a sleek, mostly smart genre piece. This movie takes its basics from the 1982 Wolverine series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, a stark dramatic comic, but can’t avoid the convoluted, bad sci-fi plot devices endemic to the X-Men films. The titular mutant with the healing factor and adamantium-laced skeleton travels to Tokyo, to say farewell to a dying man who he rescued at the bombing of Nagasaki. But the dying man’s sinister oncologist has other plans, sapping Wolverine of his healing powers as he faces off against ruthless yakuza and scads of ninjas. The movie’s finest moments come when Mangold pays attention to context, taking superhero or Western movie clichés and revamping them for the modern Tokyo setting, such as a thrilling duel on top of a speeding bullet train. Another highlight: Rila Fukushima’s refreshing turn as badass bodyguard Yukio. Oh, and stay for the credits. (2:06) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Stander)

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)

You’re Next The hit of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival’s midnight section — and one that’s taken its sweet time getting to theaters — indie horror specialist (2010’s A Horrible Way to Die, 2007’s Pop Skull, 2012’s V/H/S) Adam Wingard’s feature isn’t really much more than a gussied-up slasher. But it’s got vigor, and violence, to spare. An already uncomfortable anniversary reunion for the wealthy Davison clan plus their children’s spouses gets a lot more so when dinner is interrupted by an arrow that sails through a window, right into someone’s flesh. Immediately a full on siege commences, with family members reacting with various degrees of panic, selfishness. and ingenuity, while an unknown number of animal-masked assailants prowl outside (and sometimes inside). Clearly fun for its all-star cast and crew of mumblecore-indie horror staples, yet preferring gallows’ humor to wink-wink camp, it’s a (very) bloody good ride. (1:36) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey) *

 

Film Listings: August 28 – September 3, 2013

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

OPENING

Closed Circuit British thriller about a pair of lawyers (Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall) drawn into a possible government cover-up while investigating a London explosion. (1:36) Piedmont, Shattuck.

Drinking Buddies Mumblecore grows up in this latest from actor-writer-director Joe Swanberg (currently starring in You’re Next), about brewery co-workers Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), BFFs who’d obviously be the perfect couple if they weren’t already hooked up with significant others. At least, they are at the start of Drinking Buddies; the tension between them grows ever-more loaded when the messy, chaotic Kate is dumped by older boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston) — a pairing we know is bound to fail when we spot him chiding her for neglecting to use a coaster. Luke’s long-term coupling with the slightly younger but way-more-mature Jill (Anna Kendrick) is more complicated; all signs indicate how lucky he is to have her. But the fact that they can only meander around marriage talk indicates that Luke isn’t ready to settle down — and though Jill may not realize it, Luke’s feelings for Kate are a big reason why. Working from a script outline but largely improvising all dialogue, Swanberg’s actors rise to the challenge, conveying the intricate shades of modern relationships. Their characters aren’t always likable, but they’re always believable. Also, fair warning: this movie will make you want to drink many, many beers. (1:30) Roxie. (Eddy)

Getaway Ethan Hawke and Selena Gomez team up in a high-speed, high-stakes race to save Hawke’s kidnapped wife. Jon Voight co-stars as “Mysterious Voice,” so there’s that. (1:29)

The Grandmaster The Grandmaster is dramatic auteur Wong Kar-Wai’s take on the life of kung-fu legend Ip Man — famously Bruce Lee’s teacher, and already the subject of a series of Donnie Yen actioners. This episodic treatment is punctuated by great fights and great tragedies, depicting Ip’s life and the Second Sino-Japanese War in broad strokes of martial arts tradition and personal conviction. Wong’s angsty, hyper stylized visuals lend an unusual focus to the Yuen Woo-Ping-choreographed fight scenes, but a listless lack of narrative momentum prevents the dramatic segments from being truly engaging. Abrupt editing in this shorter American cut suggests some connective tissue may be missing from certain sequences. Tony Leung’s performance is quietly powerful, but also a familiar caricature from other Wong films; this time, instead of a frustrated writer, he is a frustrated martial artist. Ziyi Zhang’s turn as the driven, devastated child of the Northern Chinese Grandmaster provides a worthy counterpoint. Another Wong cliché: the two end up sadly reminiscing in dark bars, far from the rhythm and poetry of their martial pursuits. (1:48) Four Star. (Stander)

Instructions Not Included Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez stars in this comedy about a ladies’ man who finds redemption when he’s suddenly tasked with being a single parent to his young daughter. (1:55)

One Direction: This is Us Take them home? The girls shrieking at the opening minutes of One Direction: This Is Us are certainly raring to — though by the closing credits, they might feel as let down as a Zayn Malik fanatic who was convinced that he was definitely future husband material. Purporting to show us the real 1D, in 3D, no less, This Is Us instead vacillates like a boy band in search of critical credibility, playing at an “authorized” look behind the scenes while really preferring the safety of choreographed onstage moves by the self-confessed worst dancers in pop. So we get endless shots of Malik, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson horsing around, hiding in trash bins, punking the road crew, jetting around the world, and accepting the adulation of innumerable screaming girls outside — interspersed with concert footage of the lads pouring their all into the poised and polished pop that has made them the greatest success story to come out of The X Factor. Too bad the music — including “What Makes You Beautiful” and “Live While We’re Young” — will bore anyone who’s not already a fan, while the 1D members’ well-filtered, featureless, and thoroughly innocuous on-screen personalities do little to dispel those yawns. Director Morgan Spurlock (2004’s Super Size Me) adds just a dollop of his own personality, in the way he fixates on the tearful fan response: he trots out an expert to talk about the chemical reaction coursing through the excitable listener’s system, and uses bits of animation to slightly puff up the boy’s live show. But generally as a co-producer, along with 1D mastermind Simon Cowell, Spurlock goes along with the pop whitewashing, sidestepping the touchy, newsy paths this biopic could have sallied down — for instance, Malik’s thoughts on being the only Muslim member of the biggest boy band in the world — and instead doing his best undermine that also-oh-so-hyped 3D format and make One Direction as tidily one dimensional as possible. (1:32) (Chun)

The Patience Stone “You’re the one that’s wounded, yet I’m the one that’s suffering,” complains the good Afghan wife of Patience Stone in this theatrical yet charged adaptation of Atiq Rahimi’s best-selling novel, directed by the Kabul native himself. As The Patience Stone opens, a beautiful, nameless young woman (Golshifteh Farahani) is fighting to not only keep alive her comatose husband, a onetime Jihadist with a bullet lodged in his neck, but also simply survive on her own with little money and two small daughters and a war going off all around her. In a surprising turn, her once-heedless husband becomes her solace — her silent confidante and her so-called patience stone — as she talks about her fears, secrets, memories, and desires, the latter sparked by a meeting with a young soldier. Despite the mostly stagy treatment of the action, mainly isolated to a single room or house (although the guerilla-shot scenes on Kabul streets are rife with a feeling of real jeopardy), The Patience Stone achieves lift-off, thanks to the power of a once-silenced woman’s story and a heart-rending performance by Farahani, once a star and now banned in her native Iran. (1:42) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Chun)

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) California, Metreon. (Eddy)

Thérèse Both Emma Bovary and Simone de Beauvoir would undoubtedly relate to this increasingly bored and twisted French woman of privilege stuck in the sticks in the ’20s, as rendered by novelist Francois Mauriac and compellingly translated to the screen by the late director Claude Miller. Forbiddingly cerebral and bookish yet also strangely passive and affectless, Thérèse (Audrey Tautou) looks like she has it all from a distance — she’s married to her best friend’s coarse, hunting-obsessed brother (Gilles Lellouche) though envious of her chum’s affair with a handsome and free-thinking Jewish student. Turns out she’s as trapped and close to death as the birds her spouse snares in their forest, and the suffocatingly provincial ways of family she’s married into lead her to undertake a dire course of action. Lellouche adds nuance to his rich lunk, but you can’t tear your eyes from Tautou. Turning her pinched frown right side up and hardening those unblinking button eyes, she plays well against type as a well-heeled, sleepwalking, possibly sociopathic sour grape, effectively conveying the mute unhappiness of a too-well-bred woman born too early and too blinkered to understand that she’s desperate for a new century’s freedoms. (1:50) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Chun)

ONGOING

The Act of Killing What does Anwar Congo — a man who has brutally strangled hundreds of people with piano wire — dream about? As Joshua Oppenheimer’s Indonesia-set documentary The Act of Killing discovers, there’s a thin line between a guilty conscience and a haunted psyche, especially for an admitted killer who’s never been held accountable for anything. In fact, Congo has lived as a hero in North Sumatra for decades — along with scores of others who participated in the country’s ruthless anti-communist purge in the mid-1960s. In order to capture this surreal state of affairs, Oppenheimer zeroes in on a few subjects — like the cheerful Congo, fond of flashy clothes, and the theatrical Herman Koto — and a method, spelled out by The Act of Killing‘s title card: “The killers proudly told us stories about what they did. To understand why, we asked them to create scenes in whatever ways they wished.” Because Congo and company are huge movie buffs, they chose to recreate their crimes with silver-screen flourish. There are costumes and gory make-up. There are props: a stuffed tiger, a dummy torso with a detachable head. There are dancing girls. Most importantly, however, there are mental consequences, primarily for Congo, whose emotional fragility escalates as the filming continues — resulting in an unforgettable, at-times mind-blowing viewing experience. (1:55) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints “This was in Texas,” reads the hand-lettered opening of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. It’s a fittingly homespun beginning to a film that pays painstaking homage to bygone-era cinema. After its Sundance Film Festival premiere, writer-director David Lowery’s first high-profile release earned frequent comparisons to 1970s works by Robert Altman and Terrence Malick. That’s no accident; Saints openly feasts upon the decade’s intimate, sun-burnished neo-Westerns. Though Saints earned praise on the film-fest circuit for its craftsmanship, its big-name cast — Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara as lovers separated by his jail stint; Keith Carradine as a shopkeeper with a dark past; Ben Foster as a cop who pines for Mara’s character — is likely what will pique mainstream interest. But will pre-release hype translate to a Beasts of the Southern Wild-style breakthrough? Saints‘ storytelling keeps to a very deliberate pace, a quality owing to Lowery’s background as a film editor (most notable credit: Upstream Color), and Saints‘ dipped-in-amber, outlaw-chic mise-en-scène — 10-gallon hat tips to cinematographer Bradford Young, production designer Jade Healy, and composer Daniel Hart — is overtly antique-y. But its actors, particularly Affleck and Carradine, ground what could’ve been an overly constructed objet d’cinema in subtle, deep emotions. (1:45) California, Smith Rafael, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Austenland Jane (Keri Russell) is a Jane Austen fanatic who finds real-life modern romance highly lacking as compared to the fictive Regency Era variety — though having a life-sized cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in her bedroom surely didn’t help recent relationships. After yet another breakup, she decides to live her fantasy by flying to England to vacation at the titular theme park-fantasy role play establishment, where guests and staff meticulously act out Austen-like scenarios of well-dressed upper class leisure and chaste courtship. Upon arriving, however, Jane discovers she’s very much a second-class citizen here, not having been able to afford the “platinum premium” package purchased by fellow guests. Thus cast by imperious proprietor Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) as the unmarriageable “poor relation,” she gets more flirtatious vibes from the actor cast as sexy stable boy (Bret McKenzie) than the one playing a quasi-Darcy (JJ Feild), at least initially. Adapting Shannon Hale’s novel, Jerusha Hess (making her directorial bow after several collaborations with husband Jared Hess, of 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite) has delightfully kitsch set and costume designs and a generally sweet-natured tone somewhat let down by the very broad, uninspired humor. Even wonderful Jennifer Coolidge can’t much elevate the routine writing as a cheerfully vulgar Yank visitor. The rich potential to cleverly satirize all things Austen is missed. Still, the actors are charming and the progress lively enough to make Austenland harmless if flyweight fun. (1:37) Albany, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Blackfish The 911 call placed from SeaWorld Orlando on February 24, 2010 imparted a uniquely horrific emergency: “A whale has eaten one of the trainers.” That revelation opens Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish, a powerful doc that offers a compelling argument against keeping orcas in captivity, much less making them do choreographed tricks in front of tourists at Shamu Stadium. Whale experts, former SeaWorld employees, and civilian eyewitnesses step forward to illuminate an industry that seemingly places a higher value on profits than it does on safety — skewed priorities that made headlines after veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum, a massive bull who’d been involved in two prior deaths. Though SeaWorld refused to speak with Cowperthwaite on camera, they recently released a statement calling Blackfish “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate” — read the filmmaker’s response to SeaWorld’s criticisms at film blog Indiewire, or better yet, see this important, eye-opening film yourself and draw your own conclusions. (1:30) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

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)

The Conjuring Irony can be so overrated. Paying tribute to those dead-serious ’70s-era accounts of demonic possession — like 1973’s The Exorcist, which seemed all the scarier because it were based on supposedly real-life events — the sober Conjuring runs the risk of coming off as just more Catholic propaganda, as so many exorcism-is-the-cure creepers can be. But from the sound of the long-coming development of this project — producer Tony DeRosa-Grund had apparently been wanting to make the movie for more than a dozen years — 2004’s Saw and 2010’s Insidious director James Wan was merely applying the same careful dedication to this story’s unfolding as those that came before him, down to setting it in those groovy VW van-borne ’70s that saw more families torn apart by politics and cultural change than those ever-symbolic demonic forces. This time, the narrative framework is built around the paranormal investigators, clairvoyant Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) and demonologist Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson), rather than the victims: the sprawling Perron family, which includes five daughters all ripe for possession or haunting, it seems. The tale of two families opens with the Warrens hard at work on looking into creepy dolls and violent possessions, as Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) move into a freezing old Victorian farmhouse. A very eerie basement is revealed, and hide-and-seek games become increasingly creepy, as Carolyn finds unexplained bruises on her body, one girl is tugged by the foot in the night, and another takes on a new invisible pal. The slow, scary build is the achievement here, with Wan admirably handling the flow of the scares, which go from no-budg effects and implied presences that rely on the viewer’s imagination, to turns of the screws that will have audiences jumping in their seats. Even better are the performances by The Conjuring‘s dueling mothers, in the trenches of a genre that so often flirts with misogyny: each battling the specter of maternal filicide, Farmiga and Taylor infuse their parts with an empathetic warmth and wrenching intensity, turning this bewitched horror throwback into a kind of women’s story. (1:52) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Cutie and the Boxer Ushio “Gyu-Chan” Shinohara was a somewhat notorious artist in Japan’s fertile avant-garde scene of the 1960s. In 1969, he decided he needed a bigger stage, so he moved to New York. An early 1970s TV documentary excerpted here calls him perhaps “the most famous of the poor and struggling artists in the city,” noting that while his often outsized work gets a lot of attention, people seldom actually want to buy it. This is a situation that, we soon learn, hasn’t altered much since. Gyu-Chan was 41 when he met wife Noriko, a 19-year-old art student also from Japan. She was swept up in the “purity” of his art and lifestyle; within six months she was pregnant with their only child, Alex (also a talented visual artist). In hindsight, she flatly tells us “I should have married a guy who made a secure living and took responsibility for what he did.” We first meet the protagonists of Zachary Heinzerling’s doc on Gyu-Chan’s 80th birthday. It’s hardly a conventionally comfortable old age — in a tone so weary it can hardly be classified as nagging, Noriko reminds him that they’re late with the rent on their fairly large yet cluttered Brooklyn apartment-studio. It’s a classic dysfunctional-yet-still maintaining marital dynamic: the easygoing, charming, eternal bad boy herded about as successfully as a cat on a leash by the long-suffering wife. Meanwhile Noriko, who one senses has long resented living under the shadow of this larger-than-life figure, feels she’s finally escaped his influence in her own work. A quiet, almost meditative portrait of messy lives, Cutie and the Boxer doesn’t really answer the question of why these two remained together despite all (her) dissatisfaction. But you get the feeling Noriko, while hardly an emotional open book, loves her burdensome, unruly spouse more than she’d admit. Or at least she’s accepted the “struggle” of life with him as her own goading raison d’être. You know the saying: life is short, art is long. (1:22) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)

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

Fruitvale Station By now you’ve heard of Fruitvale Station, the debut feature from Oakland-born filmmaker Ryan Coogler. With a cast that includes Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and rising star Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights), the film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize en route to being scooped up for distribition by the Weinstein Company. A few months later, Coogler, a USC film school grad who just turned 27, won Best First Film at Cannes. Accolades are nice, especially when paired with a massive PR push from a studio known for bringing home little gold men. But particularly in the Bay Area, the true story behind Fruitvale Station eclipses even the most glowing pre-release hype. The film opens with real footage captured by cell phones the night 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot in the back by BART police, a tragedy that inspired multiple protests and grabbed national headlines. With its grim ending already revealed, Fruitvale Station backtracks to chart Oscar’s final hours, with a deeper flashback or two fleshing out the troubled past he was trying to overcome. Mostly, though, Fruitvale Station is very much a day in the life, with Oscar (Jordan, in a nuanced performance) dropping off his girlfriend at work, picking up supplies for a birthday party, texting friends about New Year’s Eve plans, and deciding not to follow through on a drug sale. Inevitably, much of what transpires is weighted with extra meaning — Oscar’s mother (Spencer) advising him to “just take the train” to San Francisco that night; Oscar’s tender interactions with his young daughter; the death of a friendly stray dog, hit by a car as BART thunders overhead. It’s a powerful, stripped-down portrait that belies Coogler’s rookie-filmmaker status. (1:24) Four Star, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Hannah Arendt New German Cinema’s Margarethe von Trotta (1975’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1986’s Rosa Luxemburg) delivers this surprisingly dull biopic about the great German-Jewish political theorist and the heated controversy around her New Yorker article (and subsequent book) about Israel’s 1961 trial of Nazi Adolph Eichmann. Played with dignified, slightly vulnerable countenance by the inimitable Barbara Sukowa, Arendt travels from her teaching job and cozy expat circles in New York to Jerusalem for the trial. There she comes face to face with the “banality of evil” in Eichmann, the petty careerist of the Holocaust, forcing her to “try and reconcile the shocking mediocrity of the man with his staggering deeds.” This led her to further insights into the nature of modern society, and triggered a storm of outrage and vitriol — in particular from the Commentary crowd of future neocons — all of which is clearly of relevance today, and the impetus for von Trotta’s revisiting this famous episode. But the film is too mannered, too slick, too formulaic —burdened by a television-friendly combination of posture and didacticism, and bon mots from famous and about famous figures in intellectual and literary history to avoid being leaden and tedious. A mainstream film, in other words, for a very unconventional personality and dissident intellectual. While not exactly evil, there’s something dispiriting in so much banality. (1:49) Opera Plaza, Smith Rafael. (Robert Avila)

The Heat First things first: I hated Bridesmaids (2011). Even the BFF love fest between Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig couldn’t wash away the bad taste of another wolf pack in girl’s clothing. Dragging and dropping women into dude-ly storylines is at best wonky and at worst degrading, but The Heat finds an alternate route. Its women are unlikable; you don’t root for them, and you’re not hoping they become princesses because such horrifying awkwardness can only be redeemed by a prince. In Bridesmaids and Heat director Paul Feig’s universe, friendship saves the day. Sandra Bullock is Murtaugh to Melissa McCarthy’s Riggs, with tidy Bullock angling for a promotion and McCarthy driving a busted hoopty through Boston like she’s in Grand Theft Auto. Circumstances conspire to bring them together on a case, in one of many elements lifted from traditional buddy-cop storylines. But! The jokes are constant, pelting, and whiz by like so much gunfire. In one running gag, a low-rung villain’s worst insult is telling the women they look old — but neither character is bothered by it. It’s refreshing to see embarrassment humor, so beloved by chick flicks, get taken down a peg by female leads who don’t particularly care what anyone thinks of them. (1:57) Castro. (Vizcarrondo)

The Hunt Mads Mikkelsen has the kind of face that is at once strikingly handsome and unconventional enough to get him typecast in villain roles. Like so many great foreign-accented actors, he got his big international break playing a bad guy in a James Bond film — as groin-torturing gambler Le Chiffre in 2006 franchise reviver Casino Royale. Currently, he’s creeping TV viewers out as a young Dr. Lecter on Hannibal. His ability to evoke both sympathy and a suspicion of otherness are particularly well deployed in Thomas Vinterberg’s very Danish The Hunt, which won Mikkelsen the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year. He plays Lucas, a lifelong small-town resident recently divorced from his son’s mother, and who currently works at the local kindergarten. One day one of his charges says something to the principal that suggests Lucas has exposed himself to her. Once the child’s misguided “confession” is made, Lucas’ boss immediately assumes the worst. She announces her assumptions at a parent-teachers meeting even before police can begin their investigation. By the time they have, the viral paranoia and suggestive “questioning” of other potential victims has created a full-on, massive pederasty scandal with no basis in truth whatsoever. The Hunt is a valuable depiction of child-abuse panic, in which there’s a collective jumping to drastic conclusions about one subject where everyone is judged guilty before being proven innocent. Its emotional engine is Lucas’ horror at the speed and extremity with which he’s ostracized by his own community — and its willingness to believe the worst about him on anecdotal evidence. Engrossing, nuanced, and twisty right up to the fade-out, The Hunt deftly questions one of our era’s defining public hysterias. (1:45) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

In a World… (1:33) Sundance Kabuki.

Jobs With the upcoming Aaron Sorkin adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s biography nipping at its heels, Jobs feels like a quickie — true to Silicon Valley form, someone realized that the first to ship can end up defining the market. But as this independent biopic goes for each easy cliché and facile cinematic device, you can practically hear Steve Jobs himself spinning in the ether somewhere. Ashton Kutcher as Jobs lectures us over and over again about the virtues of quality product, but little seemed to have penetrated director Joshua Michael Stern as he distracts with a schmaltzy score (he should have stuck to Bob Dylan, Joe Walsh, and era-defining AOR), and relies on corny slow-motion to dramatize the passing of a circuit board. The fact that Kutcher might be the best thing here — he clearly throws himself into impersonating the Apple icon, from his intense, upward-glancing glare to his hand gestures — says a bit about the film itself, as it coasts on its self-made man-captain of enterprise narrative arc. Dispensing with much about the man Jobs became outside of Apple, apart from a few nods to his unsavory neglect of friends and offspring, and simply never acknowledging his work at, say, Pixar, Jobs, in the end, comes off as a lengthy infomercial for the Cupertino heavyweight. (2:02) 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Kick-Ass 2 Even an ass-kicking subversive take on superherodom runs the risk of getting its rump tested, toasted, roasted — and found wanting. Too bad the exhilaratingly smarty-pants, somewhat mean-spirited Kick-Ass (2010), the brighter spot in a year of superhero-questioning flicks (see also: Super), has gotten sucker-punched in all the most predictable ways in its latest incarnation. Dave, aka Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and Mindy, otherwise known as Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), are only half-heartedly attempting to live normal lives: they’re training on the sly, mostly because Mindy’s new guardian, Detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut), is determined to restore her childhood. Little does he realize that Mindy only comes alive when she pretends she’s battling ninjas at cheerleader tryouts — or is giving her skills a workout by unhanding, literally and gleefully, a robber. Kick-Ass is a little unnerved by her semi-psychotic enthusiasm for crushing bad guys, but he’s crushing, too, on Mindy, until Marcus catches her in the Hit-Girl act and grounds her in real life, where she has to deal with some really nasty characters: the most popular girls in school. So Kick-Ass hooks up with a motley team of would-be heroes inspired by his example, led Colonel Stars and Stripes (an almost unrecognizable Jim Carrey), while old frenemy Chris, aka Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) begins to find his real calling — as a supervillain he dubs the Motherfucker — and starts to assemble his own gang of baddies. Unlike the first movie, which passed the whip-smart wisecracks around equally, Mintz-Plasse and enabler-bodyguard Javier (John Leguizamo) get most of the choice lines here. Otherwise, the vigilante action gets pretty grimly routine, in a roof-battling, punch-’em-up kind of way. A romance seems to be budding between our two young superfriends, but let’s skip part three — I’d rather read about it in the funny pages. (1:43) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (1:53) Balboa, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki.

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

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones Adapted from the first volume of Cassandra Clare’s bestselling YA urban fantasy series, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones follows young Clary Fray (Lily Collins) through her mother’s disappearance, the traumatic discovery of her supernatural heritage, and her induction into the violent demon-slaying world of Shadowhunters. This franchise-launching venture is unlikely to win any new converts with its flimsy acting, stilted humor, and clichéd action. It will probably also disappoint diehard fans, since it plays fast and loose with the mythology and plot of the novel, with crucial details and logical progressions left by the wayside for no clear reason. It’s never particularly awful — except for a few plot twists that fall wincingly, hilariously flat — but it’s hard to care about the perfectly coiffed, emotionally clueless protagonists. Fantastic character actors Jared Harris, Lena Headey, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are all dismally underused, though at least Harris gets to exercise a bit of his vaguely irksome British charm. (2:00) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck. (Stander)

Pacific Rim The fine print insists this film’s title is actually Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures Pacific Rim (no apostrophe, guys?), but that fussy studio demand flies in the face of Pacific Rim‘s pursuit of pure, dumb fun. One is tempted to picture director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro plotting out the battle scenes using action figures — Godzillas vs. Transformers is more or less what’s at play here, and play is the operative word. Sure, the end of the world seems certain, thanks to an invading race of giant “Kaiju” who’ve started to adapt to Earth’s decades-long countermeasures (giant robot suits, piloted by duos whose minds are psychically linked), but there’s far too much goofy glee here for any real panic to accumulate. Charlie Hunnam is agreeable as the wounded hunk who’s humankind’s best hope for salvation, partnered with a rookie (Rinko Kikuchi) who’s eager, for her own reasons, to kick monster butt. Unoriginal yet key supporting roles are filled by Idris Elba (solemn, ass-kicking commander); Charlie Day (goofy science type); and Ron Perlman (flashy-dressing, black-market-dealing Kaiju expert). Pacific Rim may not transcend action-movie clichés or break much new ground (drinking game idea: gulp every time there’s an obvious reference or homage, be it to Toho or Bruckheimer), but damn if it doesn’t pair perfectly with popcorn. (2:11) Metreon. (Eddy)

Paranoia (1:46) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (1:46) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio. (Vizcarrondo)

Red 2 Are blockbusters entitled to senior moments? Even the best can fail the test — and coast along on past glories on their way to picking up their checks — as Red 2 makes the fatal error of skimping on the grunt work of basic storytelling to simply take up where the first installment on these “retired, extremely dangerous” ex-black ops killers left off. Master hitman Frank (Bruce Willis) and his girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) are semi-contentedly nesting in suburbia when acid-damaged cohort Marvin (John Malkovich) warns them that they’re about to get dragged back into the life. Turns out the cold war isn’t quite as iced out as we all thought, and a portable nuclear device, the brainchild of a physicist (Anthony Hopkins) once in Frank and Marvin’s care, just might be in Moscow. Good-old-days-style high jinks ensue, along with the arrival of old chums like Victoria (Helen Mirren), former flames such as Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and new-gen assassins like Han (Byung-hun Lee). Plus, jet-setting, and the deaths of many, many nameless soldiers, goons, and Iranian embassy staffers (almost all played for laughs, as cued by the comic book-y intertitles). A pity that the thrown-together-ish, throwback story line — somewhat reminiscent of those trashy, starry ’60s clusters, like the original 1960 Ocean’s Eleven — lazily relies on the assumption that we care a jot about the Frank and Sarah romance (the latter now an stereotypically whiny quasi-spouse) and that Frank can essentially talk any killer into joining him out of, er, professional courtesy or basic human decency. Wasting the thoroughbred cast on hand, particularly in the form of Mirren and Hopkins, one wishes the makers had only had the professional courtesy not to phone this effort in. (1:56) Metreon. (Chun)

The Smurfs 2 (1:45) Metreon.

The Spectacular Now The title suggests a dreamy, fireworks-inflected celebration of life lived in the present tense, but in this depiction of a stalled-out high school senior’s last months of school, director James Ponsoldt (2012’s Smashed) opts for a more guarded, uneasy treatment. Charming, likable, underachieving, and bright enough to frustrate the adults in his corner, Sutter (Miles Teller, 2012’s Project X) has long since managed to turn aimlessness into a philosophical practice, having chosen the path of least resistance and alcohol-fueled unaccountability. His mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), raising him solo since the departure of a father (Kyle Chandler) whose memories have acquired — for Sutter, at least — a blurry halo effect, describes him as full of both love and possible greatness, but he settles for the blessings of social fluidity and being an adept at the acquisition of beer for fellow underage drinkers. When he meets and becomes romantically involved with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a sweet, unpolished classmate at the far reaches of his school’s social spectrum, it’s unclear whether the impact of their relationship will push him, or her, or both into a new trajectory, and the film tracks their progress with a watchful, solicitous eye. Adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (2009’s 500 Days of Summer) from a novel by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now gives the quirky pop cuteness of Summer a wide berth, steering straight into the heart of awkward adolescent striving and mishap. (1:35) SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

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)

2 Guns Rob a bank of cartel cash, invade a naval base, and then throw down against government heavies — you gotta expect to find a few bullet-hole-sized gaps in the play-by-play of 2 Guns. The action flick is riddled with fun-sized pleasures — usually centered on the playful banter and effortless chemistry between stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg — and the clever knot of a narrative throws a twist or two in, before director Baltasar Kormákur (last year’s Wahlberg vehicle Contraband) simply surrenders to the tidal pull of action. After visiting Mexican mafia kingpin Papi (Edward James Olmos) and finding the head of their contact in a bag, Bobby (Washington) and Stig (Wahlberg) decide to hit Papi where he’ll feel it: the small border bank where his men have been making drops to safe deposit boxes. Much like Bobby and Stig’s breakfast-time diner gab fest, which seems to pick up where Vincent and Jules left off in Pulp Fiction (1994), as they trade barbs, truisms, and tells, there’s more going on than simply bank robbery foreplay. Both are involved for different reasons: Bobby is an undercover DEA agent, and Stig is a masquerading navy officer. When the payout is 10 times the expected size, not only do Papi, Bobby’s contact Deb (Paula Patton), and Stig’s superior Quince (James Marsden) come calling, but so does mystery man Earl (Bill Paxton), who seems to be obsessed with following the money. We know, sort of, what’s in it for Bobby — all fully identifiable charm, as befits Washington, who makes it rain charisma with the lightest of touches. But Stig? The others? The lure of a major payday is supposed to sweep away all other loyalties, except a little bromantic bonding between two rogue sharp shooters, saddled, unfortunately, with not the sharpest of story lines. (1:49) Metreon. (Chun)

The Way, Way Back Duncan (Liam James) is 14, and if you remember being that age you remember the awkwardness, the ambivalence, and the confusion that went along with it. Duncan’s mother (Toni Collette) takes him along for an “important summer” with her jerky boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) — and despite being the least important guy at the summer cottage, Duncan’s only marginally sympathetic. Most every actor surrounding him plays against type (Rob Corddry is an unfunny, whipped husband; Allison Janney is a drunk, desperate divorcee), and since the cast is a cattle call for anyone with indie cred, you’ll wonder why they’re grouped for such a dull movie. Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash previously wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for 2011’s The Descendants, but The Way, Way Back doesn’t match that film’s caliber of intelligent, dry wit. Cast members take turns resuscitating the movie, but only Sam Rockwell saves the day, at least during the scenes he’s in. Playing another lovable loser, Rockwell’s Owen dropped out of life and into a pattern of house painting and water-park management in the fashion of a conscientious objector. Owen is antithetical to Trent’s crappy example of manhood, and raises his water wing to let Duncan in. The short stint Duncan has working at Water Wizz is a blossoming that leads to a minor romance (with AnnaSophia Robb) and a major confrontation with Trent, some of which is affecting, but none of which will help you remember the movie after credits roll. (1:42) Four Star, Metreon, Presidio. (Vizcarrondo)

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, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

The Wolverine James Mangold’s contribution to the X-Men film franchise sidesteps the dizzy ambition of 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine and 2011’s X-Men: First Class, opting instead for a sleek, mostly smart genre piece. This movie takes its basics from the 1982 Wolverine series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, a stark dramatic comic, but can’t avoid the convoluted, bad sci-fi plot devices endemic to the X-Men films. The titular mutant with the healing factor and adamantium-laced skeleton travels to Tokyo, to say farewell to a dying man who he rescued at the bombing of Nagasaki. But the dying man’s sinister oncologist has other plans, sapping Wolverine of his healing powers as he faces off against ruthless yakuza and scads of ninjas. The movie’s finest moments come when Mangold pays attention to context, taking superhero or Western movie clichés and revamping them for the modern Tokyo setting, such as a thrilling duel on top of a speeding bullet train. Another highlight: Rila Fukushima’s refreshing turn as badass bodyguard Yukio. Oh, and stay for the credits. (2:06) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Stander)

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, Presidio, Vogue. (Eddy)

You’re Next The hit of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival’s midnight section — and one that’s taken its sweet time getting to theaters — indie horror specialist (2010’s A Horrible Way to Die, 2007’s Pop Skull, 2012’s V/H/S) Adam Wingard’s feature isn’t really much more than a gussied-up slasher. But it’s got vigor, and violence, to spare. An already uncomfortable anniversary reunion for the wealthy Davison clan plus their children’s spouses gets a lot more so when dinner is interrupted by an arrow that sails through a window, right into someone’s flesh. Immediately a full on siege commences, with family members reacting with various degrees of panic, selfishness. and ingenuity, while an unknown number of animal-masked assailants prowl outside (and sometimes inside). Clearly fun for its all-star cast and crew of mumblecore-indie horror staples, yet preferring gallows’ humor to wink-wink camp, it’s a (very) bloody good ride. (1:36) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey) *

 

Film Listings: August 21 – 27, 2013

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

OPENING

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints See “Lone Stars.” (1:45) California, Smith Rafael.

Austenland Jane (Keri Russell) is a Jane Austen fanatic who finds real-life modern romance highly lacking as compared to the fictive Regency Era variety — though having a life-sized cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in her bedroom surely didn’t help recent relationships. After yet another breakup, she decides to live her fantasy by flying to England to vacation at the titular theme park-fantasy role play establishment, where guests and staff meticulously act out Austen-like scenarios of well-dressed upper class leisure and chaste courtship. Upon arriving, however, Jane discovers she’s very much a second-class citizen here, not having been able to afford the “platinum premium” package purchased by fellow guests. Thus cast by imperious proprietor Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour) as the unmarriageable “poor relation,” she gets more flirtatious vibes from the actor cast as sexy stable boy (Bret McKenzie) than the one playing a quasi-Darcy (JJ Feild), at least initially. Adapting Shannon Hale’s novel, Jerusha Hess (making her directorial bow after several collaborations with husband Jared Hess, of 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite) has delightfully kitsch set and costume designs and a generally sweet-natured tone somewhat let down by the very broad, uninspired humor. Even wonderful Jennifer Coolidge can’t much elevate the routine writing as a cheerfully vulgar Yank visitor. The rich potential to cleverly satirize all things Austen is missed. Still, the actors are charming and the progress lively enough to make Austenland harmless if flyweight fun. (1:37) Albany, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

Cutie and the Boxer See “Scenes from a Marriage.” (1:22) Opera Plaza, Shattuck.

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

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones Lily Collins stars as a teen who discovers her supernatural powers in this adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s YA fantasy novel. (2:00) Shattuck.

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) (Eddy)

You’re Next The hit of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival’s midnight section — and one that’s taken its sweet time getting to theaters — indie horror specialist (2010’s A Horrible Way to Die, 2007’s Pop Skull, 2012’s V/H/S) Adam Wingard’s feature isn’t really much more than a gussied-up slasher. But it’s got vigor, and violence, to spare. An already uncomfortable anniversary reunion for the wealthy Davison clan plus their children’s spouses gets a lot more so when dinner is interrupted by an arrow that sails through a window, right into someone’s flesh. Immediately a full on siege commences, with family members reacting with various degrees of panic, selfishness. and ingenuity, while an unknown number of animal-masked assailants prowl outside (and sometimes inside). Clearly fun for its all-star cast and crew of mumblecore-indie horror staples, yet preferring gallows’ humor to wink-wink camp, it’s a (very) bloody good ride. (1:36) (Harvey)

ONGOING

The Act of Killing What does Anwar Congo — a man who has brutally strangled hundreds of people with piano wire — dream about? As Joshua Oppenheimer’s Indonesia-set documentary The Act of Killing discovers, there’s a thin line between a guilty conscience and a haunted psyche, especially for an admitted killer who’s never been held accountable for anything. In fact, Congo has lived as a hero in North Sumatra for decades — along with scores of others who participated in the country’s ruthless anti-communist purge in the mid-1960s. In order to capture this surreal state of affairs, Oppenheimer zeroes in on a few subjects — like the cheerful Congo, fond of flashy clothes, and the theatrical Herman Koto — and a method, spelled out by The Act of Killing‘s title card: “The killers proudly told us stories about what they did. To understand why, we asked them to create scenes in whatever ways they wished.” Because Congo and company are huge movie buffs, they chose to recreate their crimes with silver-screen flourish. There are costumes and gory make-up. There are props: a stuffed tiger, a dummy torso with a detachable head. There are dancing girls. Most importantly, however, there are mental consequences, primarily for Congo, whose emotional fragility escalates as the filming continues — resulting in an unforgettable, at-times mind-blowing viewing experience. (1:55) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector Dan M. Kinem and Levi Peretic’s documentary peeks into the tidy lairs of borderline hoarders (all horror and genre fans) who oversee their massive VHS collections with a mixture of pride, good-natured defensiveness, and culty spirit. A few celebrities drop by (Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman admits he prefers DVDs “because of the extras”), but this is mostly regular-dude turf, with a home-video history lesson (“Blockbuster ruined it for everybody”) mixed into the nostalgia. High points include extended discussions of “VHS covers that lie to you,” as in, when box artwork promises wonders that aren’t actually in the film; and of Tales from the Quadead Zone, a (terrible) film so exquisitely rare it sparked an eBay bidding war and inspired at least one tattoo. (1:24) Balboa. (Eddy)

The Artist and the Model The horror of the blank page, the raw sensuality of marble, and the fresh-meat attraction of a new model — just a few of the starting points for this thoughtful narrative about an elderly sculptor finding and shaping his possibly finest and final muse. Bedraggled and homeless beauty Mercè (Aida Folch) washes up in a small French town in the waning days of World War II and is taken in by a kindly woman (Claudia Cardinale), who seems intent on pleasantly pimping her out as a nude model to her artist husband (Jean Rochefort). As his former model, she knows Mercè has the type of body he likes — and that she’s capable of restoring his powers, in more ways than one, if you know what I mean. Yet this film by Fernando Trueba (1992’s Belle Époque) isn’t that kind of movie, with those kinds of models, especially when Mercè turns out to have more on her mind than mere pleasure. Done up in a lustrous, sunlit black and white that recalls 1957’s Wild Strawberries, The Artist and the Model instead offers a steady, respectful, and loving peek into a process, and unique relationship, with just a touch of poetry. (1:41) Opera Plaza. (Chun)

The Attack After an explosion in Tel Aviv kills 17, respected surgeon Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman of 2005’s Paradise Now) — an Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, who deflects moments like a bleeding man on his operating table gasping, “I want another doctor!” with a certain amount of practiced detachment — is called to ID a body nestled in the morgue of his hospital. It’s his wife, Siham (Reymonde Amsellem, seen in flashbacks) — the apparent suicide bomber. Amin can’t believe it, but Israeli officers sure do, and the doctor is interrogated for hours about his wife’s alleged terrorist leanings and her suspicious behavior in the days leading up to the attack. When Siham’s involvement in the bombing is confirmed, Amin visits family in the West Bank, intent on discovering more about her secret fundamentalism and answering one simple question: “Why?” Emotions and tension run high as he digs into a world that’s been carefully constructed to keep unsympathetic parties from obtaining access. Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri, directing from a script he co-wrote from the 2008 novel by Yasmina Khadra (former Algerian army major Mohammed Moulessehoul, who wrote under his wife’s name to evade military censorship), delivers a suspenseful tale that offers new perspective on the Palestine-Israel divide. (1:42) Vogue. (Eddy)

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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

The Conjuring Irony can be so overrated. Paying tribute to those dead-serious ’70s-era accounts of demonic possession — like 1973’s The Exorcist, which seemed all the scarier because it were based on supposedly real-life events — the sober Conjuring runs the risk of coming off as just more Catholic propaganda, as so many exorcism-is-the-cure creepers can be. But from the sound of the long-coming development of this project — producer Tony DeRosa-Grund had apparently been wanting to make the movie for more than a dozen years — 2004’s Saw and 2010’s Insidious director James Wan was merely applying the same careful dedication to this story’s unfolding as those that came before him, down to setting it in those groovy VW van-borne ’70s that saw more families torn apart by politics and cultural change than those ever-symbolic demonic forces. This time, the narrative framework is built around the paranormal investigators, clairvoyant Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) and demonologist Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson), rather than the victims: the sprawling Perron family, which includes five daughters all ripe for possession or haunting, it seems. The tale of two families opens with the Warrens hard at work on looking into creepy dolls and violent possessions, as Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) move into a freezing old Victorian farmhouse. A very eerie basement is revealed, and hide-and-seek games become increasingly creepy, as Carolyn finds unexplained bruises on her body, one girl is tugged by the foot in the night, and another takes on a new invisible pal. The slow, scary build is the achievement here, with Wan admirably handling the flow of the scares, which go from no-budg effects and implied presences that rely on the viewer’s imagination, to turns of the screws that will have audiences jumping in their seats. Even better are the performances by The Conjuring‘s dueling mothers, in the trenches of a genre that so often flirts with misogyny: each battling the specter of maternal filicide, Farmiga and Taylor infuse their parts with an empathetic warmth and wrenching intensity, turning this bewitched horror throwback into a kind of women’s story. (1:52) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)

Despicable Me 2 The laughs come quick and sweet now that Gru (Steve Carell) has abandoned his super-villainy to become a dad and “legitimate businessman” — though he still applies world-class gravitas to everyday events. (His daughter’s overproduced birthday party is a riot of medieval festoonage.) But like all the best reformed baddies, the Feds, or in this case the Anti-Villain League, recruit him to uncover the next international arch-nemesis. Now a spy, he gets a goofy but highly competent partner (Kristen Wiig) and a cupcake shop at the mall to facilitate sniffing out the criminal. This sequel surpasses the original in charm, cleverness, and general lovability, and it’s not just because they upped the number of minion-related gags, or because Wiig joined the cast; she ultimately gets the short end of the stick as the latecomer love-interest (her spy gadgets are also just so-so). However, Carell kills it as Gru 2 — his faux-Russian accent and awkward timing are more lived-in. Maybe the jokes are about more familiar stuff (like the niggling disappointments of family life) but they’re also sharper and more surprising. And though the minions seemed like one-trick ponies in the first film, those gibberish-talking jellybeans outdo themselves in the sequel’s climax. (1:38) SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)

Drug War The sleek, gloomy Drug War is the latest from Hong Kong’s Johnnie To — a director who needs no introduction for fans of his prolific output (2001’s Fulltime Killer, 2005’s Election, 2006’s Exiled, 2009’s Vengeance). Unlike To’s previous crime dramas, Drug War was shot in mainland China, where heavy-handed censors rule. According to the film’s press notes, To decided “nobody will disagree with the idea of arresting drug dealers,” particularly in a country fond of imposing death sentences for drug-related offenses. The tactic appears to have worked, since this thing’s dripping with vicious shootouts — even as it subtly points out China’s surveillance-state abundance of CCTV cameras, and examines how just far criminals will go to avoid those draconian punishments. Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), for one, is terrified of execution. Busted for manufacturing meth after his factory explodes, Timmy runs up against Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), a no-nonsense drug cop who reluctantly takes on a new informant with the goal of busting a kingpin higher up the cartel’s chain of command. Timmy’s a slippery character whose motivations remain murky right up until the last act; it’s all Zhang can do to keep up, which he does for the most part. In one incredible sequence, the cop pretends to be Chang, a taciturn junkie accompanying Timmy for a meeting with the flashy “Haha,” named for his staccato laugh. With a quick wardrobe change and seconds to spare, Zhang then morphs into Haha to meet with the real Chang. In the process, tiny cameras are deployed, drugs are snorted, and loyalties are stretched razor-thin. It’s a tour de force — yet remarkably unforced — moment for both actor and director. (1:45) Metreon. (Eddy)

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

Europa Report Directed by Ecuador’s Sebastián Cordero (2004’s Crónicas), deep-space tale Europa Report benefits from its interesting international cast, including Michael Nyqvist (Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish Girl With a Dragon Tattoo series); Romanian Anamaria Marinca (2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days); Bay Area-born Daniel Wu, who’s a megastar in Hong Kong; and South African Sharlto Copley, also in concurrent sci-fi release Elysium. Together, they comprise the bulk of a crew crammed into an elegant ship bound for Europa, a moon of Jupiter that may have water — and therefore, life — beneath its icy surface. These journeys never end well, do they? As we’re told by grim-faced Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz), what we’re watching has been pieced together from “recently declassified footage” — and yes, that makes Europa Report yet another “found-footage” movie. At this point, it’s a stale way to tell a story, though it’s mostly plausible in this case; time-stamped scenes are cut together from multiple cameras mounted aboard the spacecraft, plus some astronaut helmet-cam shots. From the start, we know the mission is doomed. But even if its conclusion is a little abrupt and dissatisfying, at least Europa Report heaps on the claustrophobic atmosphere while rocketing toward the inevitable. (1:30) Opera Plaza. (Eddy)

Fruitvale Station By now you’ve heard of Fruitvale Station, the debut feature from Oakland-born filmmaker Ryan Coogler. With a cast that includes Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and rising star Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights), the film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize en route to being scooped up for distribition by the Weinstein Company. A few months later, Coogler, a USC film school grad who just turned 27, won Best First Film at Cannes. Accolades are nice, especially when paired with a massive PR push from a studio known for bringing home little gold men. But particularly in the Bay Area, the true story behind Fruitvale Station eclipses even the most glowing pre-release hype. The film opens with real footage captured by cell phones the night 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot in the back by BART police, a tragedy that inspired multiple protests and grabbed national headlines. With its grim ending already revealed, Fruitvale Station backtracks to chart Oscar’s final hours, with a deeper flashback or two fleshing out the troubled past he was trying to overcome. Mostly, though, Fruitvale Station is very much a day in the life, with Oscar (Jordan, in a nuanced performance) dropping off his girlfriend at work, picking up supplies for a birthday party, texting friends about New Year’s Eve plans, and deciding not to follow through on a drug sale. Inevitably, much of what transpires is weighted with extra meaning — Oscar’s mother (Spencer) advising him to “just take the train” to San Francisco that night; Oscar’s tender interactions with his young daughter; the death of a friendly stray dog, hit by a car as BART thunders overhead. It’s a powerful, stripped-down portrait that belies Coogler’s rookie-filmmaker status. (1:24) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Hannah Arendt New German Cinema’s Margarethe von Trotta (1975’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1986’s Rosa Luxemburg) delivers this surprisingly dull biopic about the great German-Jewish political theorist and the heated controversy around her New Yorker article (and subsequent book) about Israel’s 1961 trial of Nazi Adolph Eichmann. Played with dignified, slightly vulnerable countenance by the inimitable Barbara Sukowa, Arendt travels from her teaching job and cozy expat circles in New York to Jerusalem for the trial. There she comes face to face with the “banality of evil” in Eichmann, the petty careerist of the Holocaust, forcing her to “try and reconcile the shocking mediocrity of the man with his staggering deeds.” This led her to further insights into the nature of modern society, and triggered a storm of outrage and vitriol — in particular from the Commentary crowd of future neocons — all of which is clearly of relevance today, and the impetus for von Trotta’s revisiting this famous episode. But the film is too mannered, too slick, too formulaic —burdened by a television-friendly combination of posture and didacticism, and bon mots from famous and about famous figures in intellectual and literary history to avoid being leaden and tedious. A mainstream film, in other words, for a very unconventional personality and dissident intellectual. While not exactly evil, there’s something dispiriting in so much banality. (1:49) Smith Rafael. (Robert Avila)

The Heat First things first: I hated Bridesmaids (2011). Even the BFF love fest between Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig couldn’t wash away the bad taste of another wolf pack in girl’s clothing. Dragging and dropping women into dude-ly storylines is at best wonky and at worst degrading, but The Heat finds an alternate route. Its women are unlikable; you don’t root for them, and you’re not hoping they become princesses because such horrifying awkwardness can only be redeemed by a prince. In Bridesmaids and Heat director Paul Feig’s universe, friendship saves the day. Sandra Bullock is Murtaugh to Melissa McCarthy’s Riggs, with tidy Bullock angling for a promotion and McCarthy driving a busted hoopty through Boston like she’s in Grand Theft Auto. Circumstances conspire to bring them together on a case, in one of many elements lifted from traditional buddy-cop storylines. But! The jokes are constant, pelting, and whiz by like so much gunfire. In one running gag, a low-rung villain’s worst insult is telling the women they look old — but neither character is bothered by it. It’s refreshing to see embarrassment humor, so beloved by chick flicks, get taken down a peg by female leads who don’t particularly care what anyone thinks of them. (1:57) Castro. (Vizcarrondo)

The Hunt Mads Mikkelsen has the kind of face that is at once strikingly handsome and unconventional enough to get him typecast in villain roles. Like so many great foreign-accented actors, he got his big international break playing a bad guy in a James Bond film — as groin-torturing gambler Le Chiffre in 2006 franchise reviver Casino Royale. Currently, he’s creeping TV viewers out as a young Dr. Lecter on Hannibal. His ability to evoke both sympathy and a suspicion of otherness are particularly well deployed in Thomas Vinterberg’s very Danish The Hunt, which won Mikkelsen the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year. He plays Lucas, a lifelong small-town resident recently divorced from his son’s mother, and who currently works at the local kindergarten. One day one of his charges says something to the principal that suggests Lucas has exposed himself to her. Once the child’s misguided “confession” is made, Lucas’ boss immediately assumes the worst. She announces her assumptions at a parent-teachers meeting even before police can begin their investigation. By the time they have, the viral paranoia and suggestive “questioning” of other potential victims has created a full-on, massive pederasty scandal with no basis in truth whatsoever. The Hunt is a valuable depiction of child-abuse panic, in which there’s a collective jumping to drastic conclusions about one subject where everyone is judged guilty before being proven innocent. Its emotional engine is Lucas’ horror at the speed and extremity with which he’s ostracized by his own community — and its willingness to believe the worst about him on anecdotal evidence. Engrossing, nuanced, and twisty right up to the fade-out, The Hunt deftly questions one of our era’s defining public hysterias. (1:45) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

In a World… (1:33) Sundance Kabuki.

Jobs With the upcoming Aaron Sorkin adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s biography nipping at its heels, Jobs feels like a quickie — true to Silicon Valley form, someone realized that the first to ship can end up defining the market. But as this independent biopic goes for each easy cliché and facile cinematic device, you can practically hear Steve Jobs himself spinning in the ether somewhere. Ashton Kutcher as Jobs lectures us over and over again about the virtues of quality product, but little seemed to have penetrated director Joshua Michael Stern as he distracts with a schmaltzy score (he should have stuck to Bob Dylan, Joe Walsh, and era-defining AOR), and relies on corny slow-motion to dramatize the passing of a circuit board. The fact that Kutcher might be the best thing here — he clearly throws himself into impersonating the Apple icon, from his intense, upward-glancing glare to his hand gestures — says a bit about the film itself, as it coasts on its self-made man-captain of enterprise narrative arc. Dispensing with much about the man Jobs became outside of Apple, apart from a few nods to his unsavory neglect of friends and offspring, and simply never acknowledging his work at, say, Pixar, Jobs, in the end, comes off as a lengthy infomercial for the Cupertino heavyweight. (2:02) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Kick-Ass 2 Even an ass-kicking subversive take on superherodom runs the risk of getting its rump tested, toasted, roasted — and found wanting. Too bad the exhilaratingly smarty-pants, somewhat mean-spirited Kick-Ass (2010), the brighter spot in a year of superhero-questioning flicks (see also: Super), has gotten sucker-punched in all the most predictable ways in its latest incarnation. Dave, aka Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and Mindy, otherwise known as Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), are only half-heartedly attempting to live normal lives: they’re training on the sly, mostly because Mindy’s new guardian, Detective Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut), is determined to restore her childhood. Little does he realize that Mindy only comes alive when she pretends she’s battling ninjas at cheerleader tryouts — or is giving her skills a workout by unhanding, literally and gleefully, a robber. Kick-Ass is a little unnerved by her semi-psychotic enthusiasm for crushing bad guys, but he’s crushing, too, on Mindy, until Marcus catches her in the Hit-Girl act and grounds her in real life, where she has to deal with some really nasty characters: the most popular girls in school. So Kick-Ass hooks up with a motley team of would-be heroes inspired by his example, led Colonel Stars and Stripes (an almost unrecognizable Jim Carrey), while old frenemy Chris, aka Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) begins to find his real calling — as a supervillain he dubs the Motherfucker — and starts to assemble his own gang of baddies. Unlike the first movie, which passed the whip-smart wisecracks around equally, Mintz-Plasse and enabler-bodyguard Javier (John Leguizamo) get most of the choice lines here. Otherwise, the vigilante action gets pretty grimly routine, in a roof-battling, punch-’em-up kind of way. A romance seems to be budding between our two young superfriends, but let’s skip part three — I’d rather read about it in the funny pages. (1:43) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (1:53) Balboa, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki.

Pacific Rim The fine print insists this film’s title is actually Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures Pacific Rim (no apostrophe, guys?), but that fussy studio demand flies in the face of Pacific Rim‘s pursuit of pure, dumb fun. One is tempted to picture director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro plotting out the battle scenes using action figures — Godzillas vs. Transformers is more or less what’s at play here, and play is the operative word. Sure, the end of the world seems certain, thanks to an invading race of giant “Kaiju” who’ve started to adapt to Earth’s decades-long countermeasures (giant robot suits, piloted by duos whose minds are psychically linked), but there’s far too much goofy glee here for any real panic to accumulate. Charlie Hunnam is agreeable as the wounded hunk who’s humankind’s best hope for salvation, partnered with a rookie (Rinko Kikuchi) who’s eager, for her own reasons, to kick monster butt. Unoriginal yet key supporting roles are filled by Idris Elba (solemn, ass-kicking commander); Charlie Day (goofy science type); and Ron Perlman (flashy-dressing, black-market-dealing Kaiju expert). Pacific Rim may not transcend action-movie clichés or break much new ground (drinking game idea: gulp every time there’s an obvious reference or homage, be it to Toho or Bruckheimer), but damn if it doesn’t pair perfectly with popcorn. (2:11) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Paranoia (1:46) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (1:46) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Vizcarrondo)

Portrait of Jason Nearly half a century ago, Shirley Clarke’s documentary “portrait” of one rather flaming real-life personality — not just gay, but African American, too — seemed unprecedentedly exotic. The latest in Milestone Films’ “Project Shirley” series of restored Clarke re-releases, Portrait of Jason can’t be experienced that way now. Any surviving exoticism is now related to the subject’s defining a certain pre Stonewall camp persona, and the movie’s reflecting a 1960s cinema vérité style of which its director was a major proponent. The setup couldn’t be simpler: we spend 12 hours in the company of Jason Holliday, née Aaron Payne. Or rather, Clarke and her then-partner, actor Carl Lee, spend those hours — from 9 pm to 9 am — with Jason, while we get a 107-minute distillation. Nattily attired, waving a cigarette around while downing an epic lineup of cocktails, Jason is a natural performer who relishes this filmic showcase as “my moment.” No matter what, he says, he will now “have one beautiful something that is my own.” At first Clarke and Lee simply let him riff, prompting him to speak calculated outrages they’ve probably already heard. (“What do you do for a living, Jason?” “I’m a … I’m a stone whore. And I’m not ashamed of it.”) He’s indeed the life of his own party — increasingly smashed as wee hours encroach in Clarke’s Chelsea Hotel room — but there’s a certain desperation to this act that she and particularly Lee eventually pounce on. “Nervous and guilty and simple as I am,” Jason’s braggadocio camouflages a self-loathing he’s just as willing to expose. When actual tears-of-a-clown are shed, the filmmakers seem cruel. Still, the “portrait” is incomplete — Clarke and Lee don’t press their subject to explicate the past spousal abuse, suicide attempt, and “nuthouse” and jail stays he drops into conversation as casually as he mentions a friendship with Miles Davis. (1:47) Roxie. (Harvey)

Prince Avalanche It has been somewhat hard to connect the dots between David Gordon Green the abstract-narrative indie poet (2000’s George Washington, 2003’s All the Real Girls) and DGG the mainstream Hollywood comedy director (2008’s Pineapple Express, yay; 2011’s Your Highness and The Sitter, nay nay nay). But here he brings those seemingly irreconcilable personas together, and they make very sweet music indeed. Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch play two men — one a fussy, married grown-up, another a short-attention-spanned manchild — spending the summer in near-total isolation, painting yellow divider lines on recently fire-damaged Texas roads. Their very different personalities clash, and at first the tone seems more conventionally broad than that of the 2011 Icelandic minimalist-comedy (Either Way) this revamp is derived from. But Green has a great deal up his sleeve — gorgeous widescreen imagery, some inspired wordless montages, and a well-earned eventual warmth — that makes the very rare US remake that improves upon its European predecessor. (1:34) Roxie. (Harvey)

Red 2 Are blockbusters entitled to senior moments? Even the best can fail the test — and coast along on past glories on their way to picking up their checks — as Red 2 makes the fatal error of skimping on the grunt work of basic storytelling to simply take up where the first installment on these “retired, extremely dangerous” ex-black ops killers left off. Master hitman Frank (Bruce Willis) and his girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) are semi-contentedly nesting in suburbia when acid-damaged cohort Marvin (John Malkovich) warns them that they’re about to get dragged back into the life. Turns out the cold war isn’t quite as iced out as we all thought, and a portable nuclear device, the brainchild of a physicist (Anthony Hopkins) once in Frank and Marvin’s care, just might be in Moscow. Good-old-days-style high jinks ensue, along with the arrival of old chums like Victoria (Helen Mirren), former flames such as Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and new-gen assassins like Han (Byung-hun Lee). Plus, jet-setting, and the deaths of many, many nameless soldiers, goons, and Iranian embassy staffers (almost all played for laughs, as cued by the comic book-y intertitles). A pity that the thrown-together-ish, throwback story line — somewhat reminiscent of those trashy, starry ’60s clusters, like the original 1960 Ocean’s Eleven — lazily relies on the assumption that we care a jot about the Frank and Sarah romance (the latter now an stereotypically whiny quasi-spouse) and that Frank can essentially talk any killer into joining him out of, er, professional courtesy or basic human decency. Wasting the thoroughbred cast on hand, particularly in the form of Mirren and Hopkins, one wishes the makers had only had the professional courtesy not to phone this effort in. (1:56) Metreon. (Chun)

The Smurfs 2 (1:45) Metreon.

The Spectacular Now The title suggests a dreamy, fireworks-inflected celebration of life lived in the present tense, but in this depiction of a stalled-out high school senior’s last months of school, director James Ponsoldt (2012’s Smashed) opts for a more guarded, uneasy treatment. Charming, likable, underachieving, and bright enough to frustrate the adults in his corner, Sutter (Miles Teller, 2012’s Project X) has long since managed to turn aimlessness into a philosophical practice, having chosen the path of least resistance and alcohol-fueled unaccountability. His mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), raising him solo since the departure of a father (Kyle Chandler) whose memories have acquired — for Sutter, at least — a blurry halo effect, describes him as full of both love and possible greatness, but he settles for the blessings of social fluidity and being an adept at the acquisition of beer for fellow underage drinkers. When he meets and becomes romantically involved with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a sweet, unpolished classmate at the far reaches of his school’s social spectrum, it’s unclear whether the impact of their relationship will push him, or her, or both into a new trajectory, and the film tracks their progress with a watchful, solicitous eye. Adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (2009’s 500 Days of Summer) from a novel by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now gives the quirky pop cuteness of Summer a wide berth, steering straight into the heart of awkward adolescent striving and mishap. (1:35) SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

This Is the End It’s a typical day in Los Angeles for Seth Rogen as This Is the End begins. Playing a version of himself, the comedian picks up pal and frequent co-star Jay Baruchel at the airport. Since Jay hates LA, Seth welcomes him with weed and candy, but all good vibes fizzle when Rogen suggests hitting up a party at James Franco’s new mansion. Wait, ugh, Franco? And Jonah Hill will be there? Nooo! Jay ain’t happy, but the revelry — chockablock with every Judd Apatow-blessed star in Hollywood, plus a few random inclusions (Rihanna?) — is great fun for the audience. And likewise for the actors: world, meet Michael Cera, naughty coke fiend. But stranger things are afoot in This Is the End. First, there’s a giant earthquake and a strange blue light that sucks passers-by into the sky. Then a fiery pit yawns in front of Casa Franco, gobbling up just about everyone in the cast who isn’t on the poster. Dudes! Is this the worst party ever — or the apocalypse? The film — co-written and directed by Rogen and longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg — relies heavily on Christian imagery to illustrate the endtimes; the fact that both men and much of their cast is Jewish, and therefore marked as doomed by Bible-thumpers, is part of the joke. But of course, This Is the End has a lot more to it than religious commentary; there’s also copious drug use, masturbation gags, urine-drinking, bromance, insult comedy, and all of the uber-meta in-jokes fans of its stars will appreciate. (1:46) 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

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)

2 Guns Rob a bank of cartel cash, invade a naval base, and then throw down against government heavies — you gotta expect to find a few bullet-hole-sized gaps in the play-by-play of 2 Guns. The action flick is riddled with fun-sized pleasures — usually centered on the playful banter and effortless chemistry between stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg — and the clever knot of a narrative throws a twist or two in, before director Baltasar Kormákur (last year’s Wahlberg vehicle Contraband) simply surrenders to the tidal pull of action. After visiting Mexican mafia kingpin Papi (Edward James Olmos) and finding the head of their contact in a bag, Bobby (Washington) and Stig (Wahlberg) decide to hit Papi where he’ll feel it: the small border bank where his men have been making drops to safe deposit boxes. Much like Bobby and Stig’s breakfast-time diner gab fest, which seems to pick up where Vincent and Jules left off in Pulp Fiction (1994), as they trade barbs, truisms, and tells, there’s more going on than simply bank robbery foreplay. Both are involved for different reasons: Bobby is an undercover DEA agent, and Stig is a masquerading navy officer. When the payout is 10 times the expected size, not only do Papi, Bobby’s contact Deb (Paula Patton), and Stig’s superior Quince (James Marsden) come calling, but so does mystery man Earl (Bill Paxton), who seems to be obsessed with following the money. We know, sort of, what’s in it for Bobby — all fully identifiable charm, as befits Washington, who makes it rain charisma with the lightest of touches. But Stig? The others? The lure of a major payday is supposed to sweep away all other loyalties, except a little bromantic bonding between two rogue sharp shooters, saddled, unfortunately, with not the sharpest of story lines. (1:49) Metreon. (Chun)

The Way, Way Back Duncan (Liam James) is 14, and if you remember being that age you remember the awkwardness, the ambivalence, and the confusion that went along with it. Duncan’s mother (Toni Collette) takes him along for an “important summer” with her jerky boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) — and despite being the least important guy at the summer cottage, Duncan’s only marginally sympathetic. Most every actor surrounding him plays against type (Rob Corddry is an unfunny, whipped husband; Allison Janney is a drunk, desperate divorcee), and since the cast is a cattle call for anyone with indie cred, you’ll wonder why they’re grouped for such a dull movie. Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash previously wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for 2011’s The Descendants, but The Way, Way Back doesn’t match that film’s caliber of intelligent, dry wit. Cast members take turns resuscitating the movie, but only Sam Rockwell saves the day, at least during the scenes he’s in. Playing another lovable loser, Rockwell’s Owen dropped out of life and into a pattern of house painting and water-park management in the fashion of a conscientious objector. Owen is antithetical to Trent’s crappy example of manhood, and raises his water wing to let Duncan in. The short stint Duncan has working at Water Wizz is a blossoming that leads to a minor romance (with AnnaSophia Robb) and a major confrontation with Trent, some of which is affecting, but none of which will help you remember the movie after credits roll. (1:42) Metreon, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)

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, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

The Wolverine James Mangold’s contribution to the X-Men film franchise sidesteps the dizzy ambition of 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine and 2011’s X-Men: First Class, opting instead for a sleek, mostly smart genre piece. This movie takes its basics from the 1982 Wolverine series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, a stark dramatic comic, but can’t avoid the convoluted, bad sci-fi plot devices endemic to the X-Men films. The titular mutant with the healing factor and adamantium-laced skeleton travels to Tokyo, to say farewell to a dying man who he rescued at the bombing of Nagasaki. But the dying man’s sinister oncologist has other plans, sapping Wolverine of his healing powers as he faces off against ruthless yakuza and scads of ninjas. The movie’s finest moments come when Mangold pays attention to context, taking superhero or Western movie clichés and revamping them for the modern Tokyo setting, such as a thrilling duel on top of a speeding bullet train. Another highlight: Rila Fukushima’s refreshing turn as badass bodyguard Yukio. Oh, and stay for the credits. (2:06) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Sam Stander) *

 

Film Listings: August 14 – 20, 2013

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

OPENING

Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector See “Midsummer Mayhem.” (1:24) Balboa.

The Artist and the Model The horror of the blank page, the raw sensuality of marble, and the fresh-meat attraction of a new model — just a few of the starting points for this thoughtful narrative about an elderly sculptor finding and shaping his possibly finest and final muse. Bedraggled and homeless beauty Mercè (Aida Folch) washes up in a small French town in the waning days of World War II and is taken in by a kindly woman (Claudia Cardinale), who seems intent on pleasantly pimping her out as a nude model to her artist husband (Jean Rochefort). As his former model, she knows Mercè has the type of body he likes — and that she’s capable of restoring his powers, in more ways than one, if you know what I mean. Yet this film by Fernando Trueba (1992’s Belle Époque) isn’t that kind of movie, with those kinds of models, especially when Mercè turns out to have more on her mind than mere pleasure. Done up in a lustrous, sunlit black and white that recalls 1957’s Wild Strawberries, The Artist and the Model instead offers a steady, respectful, and loving peek into a process, and unique relationship, with just a touch of poetry. (1:41) Opera Plaza. (Chun)

Blue Exorcist: The Movie Though it’s spawned from Kazue Kato’s manga-turned-TV-series, familiarity with the source material is not necessary to enjoy Blue Exorcist: The Movie‘s supernatural charms. Set in True Cross Academy Town — named for the Hogwarts-ish school of exorcism at its center — the film opens with a folk tale about an adorable demon that wrecked an entire town by turning all of its inhabitants into lazy slackers. The creature was eventually captured, but nobody knows where it’s been hiding — until boyish exorcist-in-training Rin, half-demon himself, encounters a suspiciously adorable critter while chasing yet another demon, this one huge and prone to damaging city blocks (and cracking open things that should remain sealed in the process). Trouble ahead! Blue Exorcist does contain some yep-this-is-anime moments (there’s a powerful female exorcist … who wears a tiny bikini top that barely contains her enormous bazongas), but it’s mostly fun fantasy, with a sly sense of humor (“Let’s put a beatdown on these Tokyo demons!”) and some endearingly flawed heroes. (1:28) Four Star. (Eddy)

Drug War See “Midsummer Mayhem.” (1:45) Four Star, Metreon.

Europa Report See “Midsummer Mayhem.” (1:30) Opera Plaza, Shattuck.

In a World… Lake Bell (Childrens Hospital, How to Make It in America) writes, directs, and stars in this comedy about a women who sets her sights on a career in movie-trailer voiceovers. (1:33) Shattuck.

Jobs Yep, it’s that biopic, in which Ashton Kutcher portrays Apple CEO Steve Jobs. (2:02) Presidio.

Kick-Ass 2 Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moritz) and company return in this sequel to the 2010 superhero hit. (1:43) California.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler Forest Whitaker stars as the White House’s longtime butler in this based-on-a-true-story tale, with the added bonus of some creative POTUS casting (John Cusack as Richard Nixon; Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan; Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower). (1:53) Balboa, Marina, Piedmont.

Paranoia A young go-getter (Liam Hemsworth) gets drawn into the world of corporate espionage thanks to a feud between evil tech billionaires (Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman). (1:46)

Portrait of Jason See “Real to Reel.” (1:47) Roxie.

ONGOING

The Act of Killing What does Anwar Congo — a man who has brutally strangled hundreds of people with piano wire — dream about? As Joshua Oppenheimer’s Indonesia-set documentary The Act of Killing discovers, there’s a thin line between a guilty conscience and a haunted psyche, especially for an admitted killer who’s never been held accountable for anything. In fact, Congo has lived as a hero in North Sumatra for decades — along with scores of others who participated in the country’s ruthless anti-communist purge in the mid-1960s. In order to capture this surreal state of affairs, Oppenheimer zeroes in on a few subjects — like the cheerful Congo, fond of flashy clothes, and the theatrical Herman Koto — and a method, spelled out by The Act of Killing‘s title card: “The killers proudly told us stories about what they did. To understand why, we asked them to create scenes in whatever ways they wished.” Because Congo and company are huge movie buffs, they chose to recreate their crimes with silver-screen flourish. There are costumes and gory make-up. There are props: a stuffed tiger, a dummy torso with a detachable head. There are dancing girls. Most importantly, however, there are mental consequences, primarily for Congo, whose emotional fragility escalates as the filming continues — resulting in an unforgettable, at-times mind-blowing viewing experience. (1:55) Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

The Attack After an explosion in Tel Aviv kills 17, respected surgeon Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman of 2005’s Paradise Now) — an Palestinian with Israeli citizenship, who deflects moments like a bleeding man on his operating table gasping, “I want another doctor!” with a certain amount of practiced detachment — is called to ID a body nestled in the morgue of his hospital. It’s his wife, Siham (Reymonde Amsellem, seen in flashbacks) — the apparent suicide bomber. Amin can’t believe it, but Israeli officers sure do, and the doctor is interrogated for hours about his wife’s alleged terrorist leanings and her suspicious behavior in the days leading up to the attack. When Siham’s involvement in the bombing is confirmed, Amin visits family in the West Bank, intent on discovering more about her secret fundamentalism and answering one simple question: “Why?” Emotions and tension run high as he digs into a world that’s been carefully constructed to keep unsympathetic parties from obtaining access. Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri, directing from a script he co-wrote from the 2008 novel by Yasmina Khadra (former Algerian army major Mohammed Moulessehoul, who wrote under his wife’s name to evade military censorship), delivers a suspenseful tale that offers new perspective on the Palestine-Israel divide. (1:42) Shattuck. (Eddy)

Blackfish The 911 call placed from SeaWorld Orlando on February 24, 2010 imparted a uniquely horrific emergency: “A whale has eaten one of the trainers.” That revelation opens Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish, a powerful doc that offers a compelling argument against keeping orcas in captivity, much less making them do choreographed tricks in front of tourists at Shamu Stadium. Whale experts, former SeaWorld employees, and civilian eyewitnesses step forward to illuminate an industry that seemingly places a higher value on profits than it does on safety — skewed priorities that made headlines after veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum, a massive bull who’d been involved in two prior deaths. Though SeaWorld refused to speak with Cowperthwaite on camera, they recently released a statement calling Blackfish “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate” — read the filmmaker’s response to SeaWorld’s criticisms at film blog Indiewire, or better yet, see this important, eye-opening film yourself and draw your own conclusions. (1:30) SF Center, Shattuck. (Eddy)

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) Albany, Clay, Metreon, Piedmont. (Harvey)

The Canyons Now that “train wreck” is an official celebrity category popular media ignore at their peril, certain people and projects are deemed doomed automatically. Lindsay Lohan can’t redeem herself — she’d lose her entertainment value by regaining any respect. Ergo, The Canyons was earmarked as a disaster from the outset. How could it be otherwise, with the former Disney luminary co-starring opposite porn superstar James Deen in an envelope-pushing screenplay from literary bad boy Bret Eaton Ellis (Less Than Zero, American Psycho)? Lohan’s widely reported difficulty on set only heightened a sense that The Canyons would be a pretentious, full-frontal crapfest. But The Canyons isn’t exactly bad. Instead, it’s a middling exercise in upscale erotic-thrillerdom, beautifully crafted (on a Kickstarter dime), clever yet superficial in terms of psychological depth. Ellis trades on his usual themes of corrosive privilege, sex, and violence to deliver a rather simplistic if sardonic lesson in Hollywood amorality that director Paul Schrader angles toward credibility, turning the film into a stern, chilly, minimalist exercise in psychological suspense. A little underwhelming at first (in part because Lohan’s performance is little wobbly, Deen’s a tad one-note), it actually improves with repeat viewings. (1:40) Roxie. (Harvey)

The Conjuring Irony can be so overrated. Paying tribute to those dead-serious ’70s-era accounts of demonic possession — like 1973’s The Exorcist, which seemed all the scarier because it were based on supposedly real-life events — the sober Conjuring runs the risk of coming off as just more Catholic propaganda, as so many exorcism-is-the-cure creepers can be. But from the sound of the long-coming development of this project — producer Tony DeRosa-Grund had apparently been wanting to make the movie for more than a dozen years — 2004’s Saw and 2010’s Insidious director James Wan was merely applying the same careful dedication to this story’s unfolding as those that came before him, down to setting it in those groovy VW van-borne ’70s that saw more families torn apart by politics and cultural change than those ever-symbolic demonic forces. This time, the narrative framework is built around the paranormal investigators, clairvoyant Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) and demonologist Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson), rather than the victims: the sprawling Perron family, which includes five daughters all ripe for possession or haunting, it seems. The tale of two families opens with the Warrens hard at work on looking into creepy dolls and violent possessions, as Carolyn (Lili Taylor) and Roger Perron (Ron Livingston) move into a freezing old Victorian farmhouse. A very eerie basement is revealed, and hide-and-seek games become increasingly creepy, as Carolyn finds unexplained bruises on her body, one girl is tugged by the foot in the night, and another takes on a new invisible pal. The slow, scary build is the achievement here, with Wan admirably handling the flow of the scares, which go from no-budg effects and implied presences that rely on the viewer’s imagination, to turns of the screws that will have audiences jumping in their seats. Even better are the performances by The Conjuring‘s dueling mothers, in the trenches of a genre that so often flirts with misogyny: each battling the specter of maternal filicide, Farmiga and Taylor infuse their parts with an empathetic warmth and wrenching intensity, turning this bewitched horror throwback into a kind of women’s story. (1:52) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)

Despicable Me 2 The laughs come quick and sweet now that Gru (Steve Carell) has abandoned his super-villainy to become a dad and “legitimate businessman” — though he still applies world-class gravitas to everyday events. (His daughter’s overproduced birthday party is a riot of medieval festoonage.) But like all the best reformed baddies, the Feds, or in this case the Anti-Villain League, recruit him to uncover the next international arch-nemesis. Now a spy, he gets a goofy but highly competent partner (Kristen Wiig) and a cupcake shop at the mall to facilitate sniffing out the criminal. This sequel surpasses the original in charm, cleverness, and general lovability, and it’s not just because they upped the number of minion-related gags, or because Wiig joined the cast; she ultimately gets the short end of the stick as the latecomer love-interest (her spy gadgets are also just so-so). However, Carell kills it as Gru 2 — his faux-Russian accent and awkward timing are more lived-in. Maybe the jokes are about more familiar stuff (like the niggling disappointments of family life) but they’re also sharper and more surprising. And though the minions seemed like one-trick ponies in the first film, those gibberish-talking jellybeans outdo themselves in the sequel’s climax. (1:38) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck. (Vizcarrondo)

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

Fruitvale Station By now you’ve heard of Fruitvale Station, the debut feature from Oakland-born filmmaker Ryan Coogler. With a cast that includes Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and rising star Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights), the film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize en route to being scooped up for distribition by the Weinstein Company. A few months later, Coogler, a USC film school grad who just turned 27, won Best First Film at Cannes. Accolades are nice, especially when paired with a massive PR push from a studio known for bringing home little gold men. But particularly in the Bay Area, the true story behind Fruitvale Station eclipses even the most glowing pre-release hype. The film opens with real footage captured by cell phones the night 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot in the back by BART police, a tragedy that inspired multiple protests and grabbed national headlines. With its grim ending already revealed, Fruitvale Station backtracks to chart Oscar’s final hours, with a deeper flashback or two fleshing out the troubled past he was trying to overcome. Mostly, though, Fruitvale Station is very much a day in the life, with Oscar (Jordan, in a nuanced performance) dropping off his girlfriend at work, picking up supplies for a birthday party, texting friends about New Year’s Eve plans, and deciding not to follow through on a drug sale. Inevitably, much of what transpires is weighted with extra meaning — Oscar’s mother (Spencer) advising him to “just take the train” to San Francisco that night; Oscar’s tender interactions with his young daughter; the death of a friendly stray dog, hit by a car as BART thunders overhead. It’s a powerful, stripped-down portrait that belies Coogler’s rookie-filmmaker status. (1:24) California, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Hannah Arendt New German Cinema’s Margarethe von Trotta (1975’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, 1986’s Rosa Luxemburg) delivers this surprisingly dull biopic about the great German-Jewish political theorist and the heated controversy around her New Yorker article (and subsequent book) about Israel’s 1961 trial of Nazi Adolph Eichmann. Played with dignified, slightly vulnerable countenance by the inimitable Barbara Sukowa, Arendt travels from her teaching job and cozy expat circles in New York to Jerusalem for the trial. There she comes face to face with the “banality of evil” in Eichmann, the petty careerist of the Holocaust, forcing her to “try and reconcile the shocking mediocrity of the man with his staggering deeds.” This led her to further insights into the nature of modern society, and triggered a storm of outrage and vitriol — in particular from the Commentary crowd of future neocons — all of which is clearly of relevance today, and the impetus for von Trotta’s revisiting this famous episode. But the film is too mannered, too slick, too formulaic —burdened by a television-friendly combination of posture and didacticism, and bon mots from famous and about famous figures in intellectual and literary history to avoid being leaden and tedious. A mainstream film, in other words, for a very unconventional personality and dissident intellectual. While not exactly evil, there’s something dispiriting in so much banality. (1:49) Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Robert Avila)

The Heat First things first: I hated Bridesmaids (2011). Even the BFF love fest between Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig couldn’t wash away the bad taste of another wolf pack in girl’s clothing. Dragging and dropping women into dude-ly storylines is at best wonky and at worst degrading, but The Heat finds an alternate route. Its women are unlikable; you don’t root for them, and you’re not hoping they become princesses because such horrifying awkwardness can only be redeemed by a prince. In Bridesmaids and Heat director Paul Feig’s universe, friendship saves the day. Sandra Bullock is Murtaugh to Melissa McCarthy’s Riggs, with tidy Bullock angling for a promotion and McCarthy driving a busted hoopty through Boston like she’s in Grand Theft Auto. Circumstances conspire to bring them together on a case, in one of many elements lifted from traditional buddy-cop storylines. But! The jokes are constant, pelting, and whiz by like so much gunfire. In one running gag, a low-rung villain’s worst insult is telling the women they look old — but neither character is bothered by it. It’s refreshing to see embarrassment humor, so beloved by chick flicks, get taken down a peg by female leads who don’t particularly care what anyone thinks of them. (1:57) SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)

The Hunt Mads Mikkelsen has the kind of face that is at once strikingly handsome and unconventional enough to get him typecast in villain roles. Like so many great foreign-accented actors, he got his big international break playing a bad guy in a James Bond film — as groin-torturing gambler Le Chiffre in 2006 franchise reviver Casino Royale. Currently, he’s creeping TV viewers out as a young Dr. Lecter on Hannibal. His ability to evoke both sympathy and a suspicion of otherness are particularly well deployed in Thomas Vinterberg’s very Danish The Hunt, which won Mikkelsen the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year. He plays Lucas, a lifelong small-town resident recently divorced from his son’s mother, and who currently works at the local kindergarten. One day one of his charges says something to the principal that suggests Lucas has exposed himself to her. Once the child’s misguided “confession” is made, Lucas’ boss immediately assumes the worst. She announces her assumptions at a parent-teachers meeting even before police can begin their investigation. By the time they have, the viral paranoia and suggestive “questioning” of other potential victims has created a full-on, massive pederasty scandal with no basis in truth whatsoever. The Hunt is a valuable depiction of child-abuse panic, in which there’s a collective jumping to drastic conclusions about one subject where everyone is judged guilty before being proven innocent. Its emotional engine is Lucas’ horror at the speed and extremity with which he’s ostracized by his own community — and its willingness to believe the worst about him on anecdotal evidence. Engrossing, nuanced, and twisty right up to the fade-out, The Hunt deftly questions one of our era’s defining public hysterias. (1:45) Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Kid-Thing At last year’s Sundance Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild rode its deserved attention all the way to the Oscars. Yet another, in some ways eerily similar Southern-wild-child tale — this latest by the Zellner Brothers, two things that are actually good about today’s Texas — was almost completely ignored. A pity, because it, too, is rather bizarre and inspired. Ten-year-old Annie (Sydney Aguirre) is a little terror running amok in the backwoods with scant-to-zero supervision by an airhead father (Nathan Zellner) much more interested in hanging with his equally dim sometime-demolition-derby-driver pal Caleb (David Zellner). Furious at a neglect she probably can’t even pinpoint as such, Annie acts out in all kinds of ways — from minor vandalism and crank calls to scaring local kids who don’t want to play with her anyway. Her clashing desire for company and resistance toward any authority reach a crisis when one day she hears a voice crying for help in the woods — an elderly woman (voiced by Susan Tyrell) has apparently fallen in a deep hole can’t get herself out of. The latter’s increasingly desperate pleas that Annie get outside assistance trigger mixed emotions in a child who’s at once sympathetic yet suspicious, because nothing in her own experience has taught her to trust adults making demands. This could have been played for grim tragic realism, but the Zellners still inject a large strain of absurdist humor even as they make Annie’s troubled psychology disturbingly vivid — greatly assisted by one helluva performance from wee Miss Aguirre (who could no doubt bring the wrath of God if circumstances necessitated). Though no one seems to be paying attention in commercial terms, these filmmakers are true originals who keep growing artistically in intriguing ways. Kid-Thing‘s belated week-long booking is one of those times when you just have to thank Zoroaster for a venue like the Roxie that’s willing to go out on a limb because a movie is just so damn interesting without necessarily being pleasant. (1:22) Roxie. (Harvey)

Lovelace We first meet Linda Boreman (Amanda Seyfried) in 1970 as a slightly prudish 21-year-old living under the thumb of her strict Catholic parents (Robert Patrick, Sharon Stone) in suburban Florida. Then she meets Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), a titty-bar owner and all-around swinging dude who turns her on to all kinds of stuff —including the how-not-to-gag-while-giving-a-b.j. trick that would rocket her to fame two years later. The vehicle for that was Deep Throat, a crudely made XXX feature that arrived at just the right time to ignite the “porn chic” vogue and break down censorship laws. (It grossed as much as $600 million, all of which disappeared into the pockets of mob financiers.) Halfway through Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film, “Linda Lovelace” is basking in the glow of celebrity at a private screening orchestrated by Hugh Hefner (James Franco). At that point, however, the movie rewinds to present the dark underside of the Traynors’ marriage, in which (according to Linda several years later) she was regularly beaten, pimped, and kept a virtual prisoner. This second narrative feature from the Oscar-winning local documentarians is a much more straightforward biopic than 2010’s Howl. Andy Bellin’s script pretty much hews to the version of events put forward by the subject’s 1980 book Ordeal — an account still disputed in parts by some former associates. After a first section that’s a savvy, lively recreation of the Me Decade’s dawn (with particular attention to the era’s garish fashions and décor), film’s latter half turns into a somewhat one-note, familiar saga of domestic abuse, escape and recovery, albeit with a few very powerful scenes. The directors have assembled a great cast, with Juno Temple, Chris Noth, Hank Azaria, Wes Bentley, Eric Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, and Chloe Sevigny all turning up (sometimes unrecognizably) in supporting roles. For a different, fully contextualized take on a watershed moment in American cultural (and sexual) history, check out Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s excellent 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat. (1:32) Metreon. (Harvey)

Monsters University Seven-year-old Mike Wazowski is even more adorable than grown-up, Billy-Crystal-voiced Mike Wazowski. It’s a pity, then, that one of the big lessons Monsters University teaches is that the essence of monster-identity is how scary one is. What Mike loses in frightfulness he forcefully recovers in spunk, and after a trip to the scare floor that briskly reminds us the premise of 2001’s Monsters, Inc., mini-Mike becomes the first ever career-driven Pixar character. (For this, I love him.) We all know he eventually becomes a superstar in this scare-powered retro-verse, but first he has to overcome frat boy-inflicted embarrassment and flunk out of school. The most noteworthy thing about Pixar’s first prequel is how very massively its characters fail — it’s a lovely tilt that suggest the greatness of tomorrow begins when you overcome the failures of today. The administrators of Monsters University (in particular Helen Mirren’s dragon-lady Dean) require formal perfection in the scares they grade, but in the world of actual scarers, oddness and difference actually become advantages. It’s all theory but no rulebook. And doesn’t that sound like a good lesson from the studio that once proudly said “story is king,” yet now scrambles to meet Disney’s once-a-year feature demands? Such rigidity comes at a price. (1:50) SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)

Pacific Rim The fine print insists this film’s title is actually Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures Pacific Rim (no apostrophe, guys?), but that fussy studio demand flies in the face of Pacific Rim‘s pursuit of pure, dumb fun. One is tempted to picture director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro plotting out the battle scenes using action figures — Godzillas vs. Transformers is more or less what’s at play here, and play is the operative word. Sure, the end of the world seems certain, thanks to an invading race of giant “Kaiju” who’ve started to adapt to Earth’s decades-long countermeasures (giant robot suits, piloted by duos whose minds are psychically linked), but there’s far too much goofy glee here for any real panic to accumulate. Charlie Hunnam is agreeable as the wounded hunk who’s humankind’s best hope for salvation, partnered with a rookie (Rinko Kikuchi) who’s eager, for her own reasons, to kick monster butt. Unoriginal yet key supporting roles are filled by Idris Elba (solemn, ass-kicking commander); Charlie Day (goofy science type); and Ron Perlman (flashy-dressing, black-market-dealing Kaiju expert). Pacific Rim may not transcend action-movie clichés or break much new ground (drinking game idea: gulp every time there’s an obvious reference or homage, be it to Toho or Bruckheimer), but damn if it doesn’t pair perfectly with popcorn. (2:11) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Eddy)

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (1:46) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

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) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Vizcarrondo)

Prince Avalanche It has been somewhat hard to connect the dots between David Gordon Green the abstract-narrative indie poet (2000’s George Washington, 2003’s All the Real Girls) and DGG the mainstream Hollywood comedy director (2008’s Pineapple Express, yay; 2011’s Your Highness and The Sitter, nay nay nay). But here he brings those seemingly irreconcilable personas together, and they make very sweet music indeed. Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch play two men — one a fussy, married grown-up, another a short-attention-spanned manchild — spending the summer in near-total isolation, painting yellow divider lines on recently fire-damaged Texas roads. Their very different personalities clash, and at first the tone seems more conventionally broad than that of the 2011 Icelandic minimalist-comedy (Either Way) this revamp is derived from. But Green has a great deal up his sleeve — gorgeous widescreen imagery, some inspired wordless montages, and a well-earned eventual warmth — that makes the very rare US remake that improves upon its European predecessor. (1:34) Shattuck. (Harvey)

Red 2 Are blockbusters entitled to senior moments? Even the best can fail the test — and coast along on past glories on their way to picking up their checks — as Red 2 makes the fatal error of skimping on the grunt work of basic storytelling to simply take up where the first installment on these “retired, extremely dangerous” ex-black ops killers left off. Master hitman Frank (Bruce Willis) and his girlfriend Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) are semi-contentedly nesting in suburbia when acid-damaged cohort Marvin (John Malkovich) warns them that they’re about to get dragged back into the life. Turns out the cold war isn’t quite as iced out as we all thought, and a portable nuclear device, the brainchild of a physicist (Anthony Hopkins) once in Frank and Marvin’s care, just might be in Moscow. Good-old-days-style high jinks ensue, along with the arrival of old chums like Victoria (Helen Mirren), former flames such as Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and new-gen assassins like Han (Byung-hun Lee). Plus, jet-setting, and the deaths of many, many nameless soldiers, goons, and Iranian embassy staffers (almost all played for laughs, as cued by the comic book-y intertitles). A pity that the thrown-together-ish, throwback story line — somewhat reminiscent of those trashy, starry ’60s clusters, like the original 1960 Ocean’s Eleven — lazily relies on the assumption that we care a jot about the Frank and Sarah romance (the latter now an stereotypically whiny quasi-spouse) and that Frank can essentially talk any killer into joining him out of, er, professional courtesy or basic human decency. Wasting the thoroughbred cast on hand, particularly in the form of Mirren and Hopkins, one wishes the makers had only had the professional courtesy not to phone this effort in. (1:56) Metreon. (Chun)

The Smurfs 2 (1:45) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck.

The Spectacular Now The title suggests a dreamy, fireworks-inflected celebration of life lived in the present tense, but in this depiction of a stalled-out high school senior’s last months of school, director James Ponsoldt (2012’s Smashed) opts for a more guarded, uneasy treatment. Charming, likable, underachieving, and bright enough to frustrate the adults in his corner, Sutter (Miles Teller, 2012’s Project X) has long since managed to turn aimlessness into a philosophical practice, having chosen the path of least resistance and alcohol-fueled unaccountability. His mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), raising him solo since the departure of a father (Kyle Chandler) whose memories have acquired — for Sutter, at least — a blurry halo effect, describes him as full of both love and possible greatness, but he settles for the blessings of social fluidity and being an adept at the acquisition of beer for fellow underage drinkers. When he meets and becomes romantically involved with Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a sweet, unpolished classmate at the far reaches of his school’s social spectrum, it’s unclear whether the impact of their relationship will push him, or her, or both into a new trajectory, and the film tracks their progress with a watchful, solicitous eye. Adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (2009’s 500 Days of Summer) from a novel by Tim Tharp, The Spectacular Now gives the quirky pop cuteness of Summer a wide berth, steering straight into the heart of awkward adolescent striving and mishap. (1:35) SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Star Trek Into Darkness Do you remember 1982? There are more than a few echoes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in J. J. Abrams’ second film retooling the classic sci-fi property’s characters and adventures. Darkness retains the 2009 cast, including standouts Zachary Quinto as Spock and Simon Pegg as comic-relief Scotty, and brings in Benedict “Sherlock” Cumberbatch to play the villain (I think you can guess which one). The plot mostly pinballs between revenge and preventing/circumventing the destruction of the USS Enterprise, with added post-9/11, post-Dark Knight (2008) terrorism connotations that are de rigueur for all superhero or fantasy-type blockbusters these days. But Darkness isn’t totally, uh, dark: there’s quite a bit of fan service at work here (speak Klingon? You’re in luck). Abrams knows what audiences want, and he’s more than happy to give it to ’em, sometimes opening up massive plot holes in the process — but never veering from his own Prime Directive: providing an enjoyable ride. (2:07) Metreon. (Eddy)

This Is the End It’s a typical day in Los Angeles for Seth Rogen as This Is the End begins. Playing a version of himself, the comedian picks up pal and frequent co-star Jay Baruchel at the airport. Since Jay hates LA, Seth welcomes him with weed and candy, but all good vibes fizzle when Rogen suggests hitting up a party at James Franco’s new mansion. Wait, ugh, Franco? And Jonah Hill will be there? Nooo! Jay ain’t happy, but the revelry — chockablock with every Judd Apatow-blessed star in Hollywood, plus a few random inclusions (Rihanna?) — is great fun for the audience. And likewise for the actors: world, meet Michael Cera, naughty coke fiend. But stranger things are afoot in This Is the End. First, there’s a giant earthquake and a strange blue light that sucks passers-by into the sky. Then a fiery pit yawns in front of Casa Franco, gobbling up just about everyone in the cast who isn’t on the poster. Dudes! Is this the worst party ever — or the apocalypse? The film — co-written and directed by Rogen and longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg — relies heavily on Christian imagery to illustrate the endtimes; the fact that both men and much of their cast is Jewish, and therefore marked as doomed by Bible-thumpers, is part of the joke. But of course, This Is the End has a lot more to it than religious commentary; there’s also copious drug use, masturbation gags, urine-drinking, bromance, insult comedy, and all of the uber-meta in-jokes fans of its stars will appreciate. (1:46) 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Turbo It’s unclear whether the irony of coupling racing — long the purview of white southern NASCAR lovers — with an animated leap into “urban” South Central LA is lost on the makers of Turbo, but even if it is, they’re probably too busy dreaming of getting caught in the drift of Fast and Furious box office success to care much. After all, director David Soren, who came up with the original idea, digs into the main challenge — how does one make a snail’s life, before and after a certain magical makeover, at all visually compelling? — with a gusto that presumes that he’s fully aware of the delicious conundrums he’s set up for himself. Here, Theo (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) is your ordinary garden snail with big, big dreams — he wants to be a race car driver like ace Guy Gagne (Bill Hader). Those reveries threaten to distract him dangerously from his work at the plant, otherwise known as the tomato plant, in the garden where he and brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) live and toil. One day, however, Theo makes his way out of the garden and falls into the guts of a souped-up vehicle in the midst of a street race, gobbles a dose of nitrous oxide, and becomes a miraculous mini version of a high-powered race car. It takes a meeting with another dreamer, taco truck driver Tito (Michael Pena), for Theo, a.k.a. Turbo, to meet up with a crew of streetwise racing snails who overcome their physical limitations to get where they want to go (Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Michael Bell). One viral video, several Snoop tracks, and one “Eye of the Tiger” remix later, the Indianapolis 500 is, amazingly, in Turbo’s headlights — though will Chet ever overcome his doubts and fears to get behind his bro? The hip-hop soundtrack, scrappy strip-mall setting, and voice cast go a long way to revving up and selling this Cinderella tall/small tale about the bottommost feeder in the food chain who dared to go big, and fast; chances are Turbo will cross over in more ways than one. (1:36) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Chun)

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) Shattuck, Smith Rafael, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

2 Guns Rob a bank of cartel cash, invade a naval base, and then throw down against government heavies — you gotta expect to find a few bullet-hole-sized gaps in the play-by-play of 2 Guns. The action flick is riddled with fun-sized pleasures — usually centered on the playful banter and effortless chemistry between stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg — and the clever knot of a narrative throws a twist or two in, before director Baltasar Kormákur (last year’s Wahlberg vehicle Contraband) simply surrenders to the tidal pull of action. After visiting Mexican mafia kingpin Papi (Edward James Olmos) and finding the head of their contact in a bag, Bobby (Washington) and Stig (Wahlberg) decide to hit Papi where he’ll feel it: the small border bank where his men have been making drops to safe deposit boxes. Much like Bobby and Stig’s breakfast-time diner gab fest, which seems to pick up where Vincent and Jules left off in Pulp Fiction (1994), as they trade barbs, truisms, and tells, there’s more going on than simply bank robbery foreplay. Both are involved for different reasons: Bobby is an undercover DEA agent, and Stig is a masquerading navy officer. When the payout is 10 times the expected size, not only do Papi, Bobby’s contact Deb (Paula Patton), and Stig’s superior Quince (James Marsden) come calling, but so does mystery man Earl (Bill Paxton), who seems to be obsessed with following the money. We know, sort of, what’s in it for Bobby — all fully identifiable charm, as befits Washington, who makes it rain charisma with the lightest of touches. But Stig? The others? The lure of a major payday is supposed to sweep away all other loyalties, except a little bromantic bonding between two rogue sharp shooters, saddled, unfortunately, with not the sharpest of story lines. (1:49) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

The Way, Way Back Duncan (Liam James) is 14, and if you remember being that age you remember the awkwardness, the ambivalence, and the confusion that went along with it. Duncan’s mother (Toni Collette) takes him along for an “important summer” with her jerky boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) — and despite being the least important guy at the summer cottage, Duncan’s only marginally sympathetic. Most every actor surrounding him plays against type (Rob Corddry is an unfunny, whipped husband; Allison Janney is a drunk, desperate divorcee), and since the cast is a cattle call for anyone with indie cred, you’ll wonder why they’re grouped for such a dull movie. Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash previously wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for 2011’s The Descendants, but The Way, Way Back doesn’t match that film’s caliber of intelligent, dry wit. Cast members take turns resuscitating the movie, but only Sam Rockwell saves the day, at least during the scenes he’s in. Playing another lovable loser, Rockwell’s Owen dropped out of life and into a pattern of house painting and water-park management in the fashion of a conscientious objector. Owen is antithetical to Trent’s crappy example of manhood, and raises his water wing to let Duncan in. The short stint Duncan has working at Water Wizz is a blossoming that leads to a minor romance (with AnnaSophia Robb) and a major confrontation with Trent, some of which is affecting, but none of which will help you remember the movie after credits roll. (1:42) California, Metreon, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)

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) California, Four Star, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

The Wolverine James Mangold’s contribution to the X-Men film franchise sidesteps the dizzy ambition of 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine and 2011’s X-Men: First Class, opting instead for a sleek, mostly smart genre piece. This movie takes its basics from the 1982 Wolverine series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, a stark dramatic comic, but can’t avoid the convoluted, bad sci-fi plot devices endemic to the X-Men films. The titular mutant with the healing factor and adamantium-laced skeleton travels to Tokyo, to say farewell to a dying man who he rescued at the bombing of Nagasaki. But the dying man’s sinister oncologist has other plans, sapping Wolverine of his healing powers as he faces off against ruthless yakuza and scads of ninjas. The movie’s finest moments come when Mangold pays attention to context, taking superhero or Western movie clichés and revamping them for the modern Tokyo setting, such as a thrilling duel on top of a speeding bullet train. Another highlight: Rila Fukushima’s refreshing turn as badass bodyguard Yukio. Oh, and stay for the credits. (2:06) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Sam Stander)

World War Z Or, Brad Pitt saves the world from undead beings with rotted brains but super-sharp hearing. Somehow, Max Brooks’ innovative multi-character book — written in the form of interviews with survivors of a recent zombie outbreak — becomes by-the-numbers action horror in the hands of director Marc Forster (2008’s Quantum of Solace, a.k.a. that Bond movie nobody remembers), complete with credit sequence filled with real news reports of environmental disasters, global unrest, and even a little shout-out to that guy who ate another guy’s face off last year in Florida. No bath-salt jokes here, though; instead, we have Pitt playing a verrrry serious former UN investigator — former, because he quit to spend more time with his family, a promise he actually considers keeping even when the survival of the world hinges, apparently, on his very specific expertise. He jets around the world (South Korea! Israel! Wales?) in search of a cure, but it’s obvious from the beginning — when he escapes immediate death in the initial rampage with his picture-perfect wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters — that he’ll eventually suss out a planet-saving solution. (Sorry, but if that’s a spoiler you’ve never seen a movie before.) A few nifty setpieces can’t save World War Z from more or less embodying the descriptor “meh,” with its undynamic 3D, uninspiring CG, and cobbled-together script, complete with reassuring final voice-over. And one more thing: for the love of flesh-ripping gore, can we please make this the last PG-13 zombie movie? (1:56) 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy) *

 

Once upon a time in Oakland

1

cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM By now you’ve heard of Fruitvale Station, the debut feature from Oakland-born filmmaker Ryan Coogler. With a cast that includes Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and rising star Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights), the film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize en route to being scooped up for distribition by the Weinstein Company. A few months later, Coogler, a USC film school grad who just turned 27, won Best First Film at Cannes.

Accolades are nice, especially when paired with a massive PR push from a studio known for bringing home little gold men. But particularly in the Bay Area, the true story behind Fruitvale Station eclipses even the most glowing pre-release hype. The film opens with real footage captured by cell phones the night 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot in the back by BART police, a tragedy that inspired multiple protests and grabbed national headlines. With its grim ending already revealed, Fruitvale Station backtracks to chart Oscar’s final hours, with a deeper flashback or two fleshing out the troubled past he was trying to overcome.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yy1znso-fc

Mostly, though, Fruitvale Station is very much a day in the life, with Oscar (Jordan, in a nuanced performance) dropping off his girlfriend at work, picking up supplies for a birthday party, texting friends about New Year’s Eve plans, and deciding not to follow through on a drug sale. Inevitably, much of what transpires is weighted with extra meaning — Oscar’s mother (Spencer) advising him to “just take the train” to San Francisco that night; Oscar’s tender interactions with his young daughter; the death of a friendly stray dog, hit by a car as BART thunders overhead. It’s a powerful, stripped-down portrait that belies Coogler’s rookie-filmmaker status.

I spoke with Coogler the day after Fruitvale Station‘s emotional local premiere at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater.

San Francisco Bay Guardian How was the screening at the Grand Lake?

Ryan Coogler It was intense! Pretty much everybody at the screening had a stake in the film and the story: being from the Bay Area, being there when [Grant’s death] happened, being a member of Oscar’s family, being an employee of BART or a law enforcement officer, being a member of my family, or being someone who opened up their home or business to our film. Everybody was there under one roof, you know? In many ways, we wanted our film to be something that brought people together — and that screening was a personification of that.

SFBG The film doesn’t make Oscar out to be a saint; rather, it shows that he was a real human who’d made some serious mistakes. Were you careful to portray him that way?

RC Absolutely. We set out to examine him through the lens of his relationships with the people who knew him best. I think that’s often what’s not looked at, in terms of tragedies that get politicized like this: people forget that this guy was a person who mattered to specific people — and he couldn’t make it home to those people. When you know somebody intimately, you know their good qualities and their faults. You know their flaws firsthand, and [their behavior] affects you firsthand. I think it would have been a mistake not to look at the things he was struggling with in his life.

SFBG You were born in 1986, the same year as Oscar, and you’re both from the East Bay. Were there other things that drew you to his story?

RC Those commonalities were a major factor. But young people like Oscar Grant’s lives are lost constantly over violence, and I was really interested in exploring why it happens, and why people shouldn’t be OK with it.

Oscar was the kind of person who is often marginalized, both in the media and in fiction films. I thought that giving his story this type of personal perspective could be eye-opening for people that wouldn’t get to know a character like him in their own lives. So that’s what really drew me to it — to add a perspective that might promote some healing and some growth.

SFBG What was the reaction when members of Oscar’s community found out you were making the film?

RC The Bay Area is culturally diverse, but it’s also diverse as far as opinions go. Obviously, there were people on both sides of the fence, since this was a complicated situation. Some people were glad the story was being told; others were like, “That story doesn’t deserve to be told.” There were also a lot of opinions between those two ends of the spectrum. But overwhelmingly, the community supported the film in many ways, especially when they found out the approach we were taking.

SFBG Did you ever consider making the BART cops full-fledged characters, or did you always plan to just focus on Oscar?

RC I decided from the beginning that Oscar would be the focal point of the story. That was the type of film that I wanted to make, and that was the one perspective that I felt wasn’t really heard — because he’s not around to speak anymore. In terms of filmmaking, it was really a creative choice. You have these types of films that follow one character around, and we really wanted to follow Oscar and see how other characters bump off of him. In the scope of his day, the cops were only involved for a very small amount of time.

SFBG BART itself is almost a character in the film. It’s something that non-locals might not pick up on, but Bay Area residents will be able to tell how carefully you chose your locations to include it in the background.

RC When I was researching the film, I noticed a lot of things that were always there, but that I hadn’t thought about before. In San Francisco, BART is underground. You don’t see or hear it when you’re walking around. In the East Bay, however, it’s always above you. Oscar’s from the East Bay, and I’m from the East Bay, so that’s how I know BART. It’s something that you can always hear in the distance — and it’s something that rushes over you. 

 

FRUITVALE STATION opens Fri/12 in Bay Area theaters.

Screening is believing

0

cheryl@sfbg.com

SFIFF Most contemporary Americans don’t know much about Uganda — that is, beyond Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning performance as Idi Amin in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland. Though that film took some liberties with the truth, it did effectively convey the grotesque terrors of the dictator’s 1970s reign. (Those with deeper curiosities should check out Barbet Schroeder’s 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait.) But even decades post-Amin, the East African nation has somehow retained its horrific human-rights record. For example: what extremist force was behind the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which proposed the death penalty as punishment for gayness?

The answer might surprise you, or not. As the gripping, fury-fomenting doc God Loves Uganda reveals, America’s own Christian Right has been exporting hate under the guise of missionary work for some time. Taking advantage of Uganda’s social fragility — by building schools and medical clinics, passing out food, etc. — evangelical mega churches, particularly the Kansas City, Mo.-based, breakfast-invoking International House of Prayer, have converted large swaths of the population to their ultra-conservative beliefs.

Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, an Oscar winner for 2010 short Music by Prudence, follows naive “prayer warriors” as they journey to Uganda for the first time; his apparent all-access relationship with the group shows that they aren’t outwardly evil people — but neither do they comprehend the very real consequences of their actions. His other sources, including two Ugandan clergymen who’ve seen their country change for the worse and an LGBT activist who lives every day in peril, offer a more harrowing perspective. Evocative and disturbing, God Loves Uganda seems likely to earn Williams more Oscar attention.

>>Check out our short reviews of several SFIFF films of interest.

More outrage awaits in Fatal Assistance, Port-au-Prince native Raoul Peck’s searing investigation into the bungling of post-earthquake humanitarian efforts in Haiti. So many good intentions, so many dollars donated, so many token celebrities (Bill Clinton, Sean Penn) involved — and yet millions of Haitians remain homeless, living in “temporary” shelters. Disorganization among the overabundance of well-meaning NGOs that rushed to help is one cause; there’s also the matter of nobody trusting the Haitian government to make its own financial decisions. Peck, a former Minister of Culture, offers a rare insider’s perspective. Though the film’s voice-overs (framed as letters that begin “dear friend”) can get a little treacly, the raw evidence Peck collects of “the disaster of the community not being able to respond to the disaster” is powerful stuff.

There’s more levity sprinkled amid the tragedy (and bureaucratic frustration) contained in Ilian Metev’s Sofia’s Last Ambulance. If nothing else, this doc will make you extremely cautious if you ever find yourself visiting the capital of Bulgaria; its depiction of the city’s medical care is grim at best. An underpaid, harried trio — doctor, nurse, and driver — grapple with dispatchers who don’t pick up and drivers who don’t let ambulances pass, bad directions, outdated equipment, and other unbelievable situations that would be funny if lives weren’t hanging in the balance. Metev never films the patients, instead keeping his focus on the paramedics. Sarcastic nurse Mila Mikhailova is a standout, sweetly calming down an injured child, bluntly advising a drug addict, and joking about her love life with her co-workers. Only during rare moments of downtime does her exhaustion emerge.

>>Dennis Harvey on SFIFF’s Finnish angle.

More lives in chaos — albeit slightly more existentially — are depicted in A River Changes Course, which picked up a Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Cambodian American filmmaker Kalyanee Mam followed a trio of rural Cambodian families over several years, eventually crafting a vividly-shot, meditative look at lives being forced to modernize. Talk about frustrating: farmers grapple with a new worry — debt — so the eldest daughter heads to Phnom Penh to work in a factory. But the paltry wages she earns aren’t enough to offset the money they will have to spend on food, since they can’t farm enough to eat without her around to help. Elsewhere, a teenage boy who figured he’d grow up to be a fisherman takes a backbreaking planting job when the fish grow scarce; he confesses to Mam that he’s long since given up any dreams of getting an education. “Progress” has rarely felt so bleak.

Adding a much-needed dose of quirk to all of the above is Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s Rent a Family Inc., about Ryuichi, a Tokyo man whose business name translates to “I want to cheer you up.” He’s a professional stand-in, offering himself or any of his rotating cast of staffers to pretend to be friends or relatives in situations, including weddings, where the real thing is either not available or won’t suffice.

That premise alone would make for an intriguing doc — though there’s a disclaimer that certain scenes with clients are “reconstructed” — but Ryuichi’s career choice feels even more surreal once it’s revealed how dysfunctional his own family is; among a wife and two kids, he gets along best with the family Chihuahua. Though Schröder focuses on Ryuichi’s ennui at the expense of delving into, say, what it is about Japanese culture that enables the need for fake family members, the guy is undeniably fascinating. “I’m like a handyman, fixing people’s social engagements,” he explains — but he has no clue how to mend his own. *

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

April 25-May 9, most shows $10-15

Various venues

festival.sffs.org

 

Stop making sense

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cheryl@sfbg.com

FILM A woman, a man, a pig, a worm, Walden — what? If you enter into Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color expecting things like a linear plot, exposition, and character development, you will exit baffled and distressed. Best to understand in advance that these elements are not part of Carruth’s master plan. In fact, based on my own experiences watching the film twice, I’m fairly certain that not really understanding what’s going on in Upstream Color is part of its loopy allure.

Remember Carruth’s 2004 Primer, the DIY filmmaker’s $7,000 sci-fi tale about time travel? Did you try to puzzle out that film’s array of overlapping and jigsawed timelines, only to give up and concede that the mystery (and sheer bravado) of that film was part of its, uh, loopy allure? Yeah. Same idea, except writ a few dimensions larger, with more locations, zero tech-speak dialogue, and — yes! — a compelling female lead, played by Amy Seimetz, an indie producer and director in her own right.

There are YouTube videos of Carruth’s post-screening Q&A at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival (where Upstream Color debuted and won a prize for its innovative sound design), where he answers “What did that mean?”-type questions with fast-paced references to “the architecture of a story,” “speaking with emotional language,” and his interest in how people who’ve been shattered by trauma fumble their way toward creating new narratives for themselves. Or something.

At any rate, “trauma” is a somewhat mild description of what happens to Kris (Seimetz) at the start of the film. Upstream Color‘s first quarter is its most coherent, appropriate since it takes place before Kris’ health and sanity are compromised by an unnamed character (dubbed the Thief in the credits, and portrayed by Thiago Martins). At first, he appears to be some kind of hipster mad scientist, fiddling with plants and worms in his home lab; there’s no apparent connection between the Thief and Kris — a well-adjusted yuppie type, with a fast-paced job and tasteful wardrobe. This makes it all the more shocking when he stun-guns her in a restaurant and forces her to swallow a worm that turns her into a docile zombie. Before long, she’s emptied all of her bank accounts and signed her house over to him. She snaps out of her fugue state remembering nothing, but the aftereffects are grim: she’s fired, her ATM card doesn’t work, and there are weird things wriggling under her skin.

From there, things go from creepy to confusing, and it takes a few beats to get into Upstream Color‘s new rhythm of randomness. A pig farmer who is also fond of making field recordings and exudes zero menace helps, maybe, Kris by hooking her up to a machine that links her to a piglet and … is that a tapeworm? Then the story moves forward an unknown amount of months or years; the formerly put-together and content Kris is now sporting a chopped-short haircut and a skittish expression. On the train, going to her unglamorous job in a sign shop, she meets the haggard, similarly on-edge Jeff (Carruth) and there’s an instant connection.

Were Upstream Color a rom-com, or even a more conventional sci-fi flick, this pair of lost souls would use their new romance as a springboard for healing. But since “there isn’t a molecule of Hollywood” in Upstream Color — per Carruth, in an insightful post-Sundance interview with Wired magazine — there’s way more abstract weirdness to come, with occasional happy fragments sprinkled in to suggest there’s still hope for Kris and Jeff despite all of their multiple layers of damage.

If it hasn’t already been made clear, enjoying (or even making it all the way through) Upstream Color requires patience and a willingness to forgive some of Carruth’s more pretentious noodlings. (You also have to be OK with having a lot of questions left unequivocally unanswered: why is the pig farmer obsessed with making recordings? Why Walden? Aaarrrgghh!) In the tradition of experimental filmmaking, it’s a work that’s more concerned with evoking emotions than hitting some kind of three-act structure.

Upstream Color has been compared elsewhere to 2011’s Tree of Life, in that it uses avant-garde techniques and focuses on one small story to explore Big Themes. A key difference between Carruth and Terrence Malick — whose poised-to-polarize To the Wonder also opens this week; see Dennis Harvey’s review in this issue — is that Carruth is operating, as mentioned above, completely outside of Hollywood. No Ben Affleck or studio bucks here; Upstream Color was made fast and on the cheap, stars virtual unknowns, and is being self-distributed by Carruth (who, in addition to starring and directing, is also credited as writer, co-producer, cinematographer, composer, and co-editor).

There was word some years back that Carruth’s follow-up to Primer would be an ambitious, medium-budgeted sci-fi epic; it was endorsed by A-listers like Steven Soderbergh. When that fell apart, the story goes, he turned to Upstream Color as his on-my-own-terms rebound project. If that back story influenced his uncompromising (for better and worse) vision for Upstream Color, it’s a subtext that makes the end result even more profound; Hollywood would never take a chance on something so risky as this bold effort, which somehow manages to be both maddening and moving at the same time.

 

UPSTREAM COLOR opens Fri/12 at the Roxie.

Sundance 2013: championing Campion

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For more Sundance 2013 reports, go here, here, here, and here.

Easily the greatest screening event at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Jane Campion’s multi-part miniseries Top of the Lake, a co-production of the Sundance Channel, BBC Two, and UKTV in Australia and New Zealand.

Though it was made for TV, this 353-minute, Twin Peaks (1990) meets Silence of the Lambs (1991) extravaganza was shown on the big screen, which gave it even more impact. Not that it needed much help: when intermission came at the end of the third episode, audience members filed out for lunch with similar (stunned, shocked, obliterated) expressions on their faces.


When the series concluded, it was clear that Top of the Lake was one of those Sundance experiences that bonds people together for the rest of their lives. (It happens. Trust.) The cast of this haunting psychological thriller is headed up by a stunning Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men); also of note are supporting turns by Holly Hunter (re-teaming with Campion 20 years after her Oscar-winning turn in 1993’s The Piano), Peter Mullan, and Michelle Ang.

Luscious New Zealand landscapes provide the backdrop for a tangled web of dark and troubling things — hence the thematic comparisons to David Lynch (there’s a bit of 1986’s Blue Velvet in there too). Campion uses her usual finesse to explore Top of the Lake‘s uncompromising subjects — though unlike her two most recent films, the underrated Bright Star (2009) and In the Cut (2003), she has the luxury of six hours to flesh them all out. (You can catch Top of the Lake on the Sundance Channel in March, but don’t read too much about it, since most reviews seem to unnecessarily spoil some major key points.)

The epic screening concluded with a nearly 75-minute Q&A complete with the full cast and crew, and we’d all probably still be in that theater if they hadn’t kicked us out. Hopefully people will stop categorizing Campion as merely a great female filmmaker and start recognizing her as one of the greatest living directors, because Top of the Lake proves just that.

Sundance 2013: what’s NEXT?

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Earlier fest reports here, here, and here.

At Sundance 2013, no other category could compete with the NEXT programming. NEXT was initiated in 2010; its aim is to highlight “pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling. Digital technology paired with unfettered creativity proves the films selected in this section will inform a ‘greater’ next wave in American cinema.”

Matthew Porterfield’s I Used to Be Darker showcases Ned Oldham (brother of indie fave Will Oldham) as a father-husband-musician whose teenage daughter starts to drift away as his marriage dissolves. Wonderfully awkward and trying moments arise from every suburban-hipster angle, making Darker not only a disturbing blueprint of divorce among the indie-rock generation, but — with three fully performed songs — a reminder of why so much music from this time period remains utterly relatable. (Clearly, not everyone agrees; I overheard a group of SLC locals calling Darker their “least favorite movie of all time.”)

Yen Tan’s surprisingly powerful Pit Stop and “Best of NEXT” winner Chad Hartigan’s This is Martin Bonner both showcase quiet and emotionally implosive relationships; both also have such well-earned conclusions that I was confused as to why they weren’t in the Dramatic Competition category instead. Tan’s interwoven structure reminded me of Megan Griffiths’ overlooked gem The Off Hours (2010), while Hartigan’s slow burner was excitingly reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (1998). Remember their names, because these filmmakers are about to have major breakthroughs.

But the two NEXT entries that have already achieved “major” status in my mind already are Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (USA) and Alexandre Moors’s Blue Caprice (discussed in Thu/7’s post). Oddly enough both films inspired extremely aggressive Q&As, in which an audience member attacked the film and filmmaker with the very first question.

Mumblecore master Bujalski, who studied under minimalist Chantal Akerman (1975’s Jeanne Dielman), walked up onto the stage after his mind-numbing, purposefully janky, addictively hilarious, and ultimately transcendental psychedelic mind-fuck. First question right out of the gate: “Would you explain three or four concepts from your film, so I know what I just watched?” Though some audience members groaned, Bujalski made a valiant effort to respond. (After a few moments, he asked, “Is it okay if I come back to that one?” “No!” was the angry response.)

Bujalski shot the film on old Portapak video cameras from the late 1970s he’d purchased on eBay; he meticulously edited the video to look and feel as if it had been made on a linear editing system though it was done on Final Cut Pro. By trading in his beloved 16mm cameras from his previous three films — Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2005), and Beeswax (2008) — he has captured the look and feel of the early video era.

Computer Chess not only gets its techie vocab right, it also captures the spirit of the entire era (aging hippies and emerging New Agers mingling with proto-nerds), and does so without being mean-spirited. In fact, it was so scientifically spot-on it won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at this year’s festival — an award given to the best feature film that focuses on science or technology as a theme, or depicts a scientist, engineer, or mathematician as a major character. Computer Chess was also my favorite feature at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I wanted to watch the film again as soon as it was over.

Rep Clock

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Schedules are for Wed/30-Tue/5 except where noted. Director and year are given when available. Double and triple features marked with a •. All times pm unless otherwise specified.

BAY MODEL 2100 Bridgeway, Sausalito; www.tiburonfilmfestival.com. Free. "Tiburon Film Society:" Banganà (Sincich, 2012), Tue, 6.

CASTRO 429 Castro, SF; (415) 621-6120, www.castrotheatre.com. $8.50-11. Noir City: The 11th Annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival: •The Sniper (Dmytryk, 1952), Wed, 1:30, 7, and Experiment in Terror (Edwards, 1962), Wed, 3:30, 9; •The Other Woman (Haas, 1954), Thu, 7:30, and The Come-On (Birdwell, 1956), Thu, 9:15; •Man in the Dark (Landers, 1953), Fri, 7:30, and Inferno (Ward Baker, 1953), Fri, 9; •Street of Chance (Hively, 1942), Sat, 1, 6; The Chase (Ripley, 1946), Sat, 2:35, 7:30; and The Window (Tetzlaff, 1949), Sat, 4:20, 9:15; •Smooth as Silk (Barton, 1946), Sun, 12:30; Mary Ryan, Detective (Berlin, 1949), Sun, 1:50; Strange Impersonation (Mann, 1946), Sun, 3:20; and Fly By Night (Siodmak, 1942), Sun, 4:45; •Night Editor (Levin, 1946), Sun, 7:30, and High Tide (Reinhardt, 1947), Sun, 9. More info at www.noircity.com; advance tickets ($10-15) at www.brownpapertickets.com.

CHRISTOPHER B. SMITH RAFAEL FILM CENTER 1118 Fourth St, San Rafael; (415) 454-1222, www.cafilm.org. $6.75-$10.25. Amour (Haneke, 2012), call for dates and times. Quartet (Hoffman, 2012), call for dates and times. The Rabbi’s Cat (Sfar and Delesvaux, 2011), call for dates and times. Sparrows (Beaudine, 1926), Thu, 7. With live piano accompaniment and introduction by Mary Pickford expert Christel Schmidt. This event, $12. "World Ballet on the Big Screen:" "An Evening With Sol León and Paul Lightfoot from the Netherlands Dance Theater," Sun and Tue, 6:30. This event, $15.

CLAY 2261 Fillmore, SF; www.landmarktheatres.com. $9-10. "Midnight Movies:" Night of the Living Dead (Romero, 1968), Sat, midnight. With host Miss Misery.

MECHANICS’ INSTITUTE 57 Post, SF; (415) 393-0100, milibrary.org/events. $10 (reservations required as seating is limited). "CinemaLit Film Series: Hollywood Dames: In the Name of Love:" Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophüls, 1948), Fri, 6.

NEW PARKWAY 474 24th St, Oakl; www.thenewparkway.com. Free. "Documentary Film Series:" The Loving Story (Buirski, 2011), Tue, 7.

PACIFIC FILM ARCHIVE 2575 Bancroft, Berk; (510) 642-5249, bampfa.berkeley.edu. $5.50-9.50. "Film 50: History of Cinema: The Cinematic City:" Metropolis (Lang, 1926), Wed, 3:10. With lecture by Marilyn Fabe; advance tickets (special pricing: $5.50-$11.50) recommended as programs often sell out. "Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense:" North by Northwest (1959), Wed, 7; Suspicion (1941), Fri, 9. "Campus Connections: Playwright-Director Stan Lai:" The Peach Blossom Land (1992), Thu, 7. "The Sounds of Silence:" Silence (Collins, 2012), Fri, 7; "A Kind of Hush: Experimental Works," Sun, 5. "Screenagers: 15th Annual Bay Area High School Film and Video Festival," Sat, 3. "On Location in Silent Cinema:" Études sur Paris (Sauvage, 1928), Sat, 6. "African Film Festival 2013:" How to Steal 2 Million (Vundla, 2011), Sat, 8:20; Our Beloved Sudan (Elsanhouri, 2011), Sun, 2:30; Broken Stones (Felin, 2012), Tue, 7.

ROXIE 3117 and 3125 16th St, SF; (415) 863-1087, www.roxie.com. $6.50-11. Beware of Mr. Baker (Bulger, 2012), Wed-Thu, 7, 9. Yes, We’re Open (Wong, 2012), Wed, 7:15. First Generation (Fenderson and Fenderson, 2011), Thu, 7. Presented by ScholarMatch with a post-screening discussion moderated by Dave Eggers. Sound City (Grohl, 2012), Jan 31-Feb 6, call for times. Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (Neilan, 1924), Fri, 7:15. With introduction by Mary Pickford expert Christel Schmidt. "SF Sketchfest:" The Bitter Buddha (Feinartz, 2012), Sat, 1, with subject Eddie Pepitone in person, Sat, 1; "The Benson Movie Interruption:" The Notebook (Cassavetes, 2004), Sat, 4:20; "On Cinema with Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington:" Beyond the Doors (Buchanan, 1984), Sat, 7; "Olde English: The Exquisite Corpse Project with Colin Mahan in ‘Preview: The Movie!’," Sat, 10; American Splendor (Springer Berman and Pulcini, 2003), Tue, 9. More info and advance tickets (these events, $15-20) at www.sfsketchfest.com. "Superbowl XLVII: Men in Tights," Sun, 3. Superbowl viewing party; $10 donation to benefit SF IndieFest and the Roxie. "A Tribute to Arch Hall, Jr:" The Choppers (Jason, 1961), Mon, 6:30; The Sadist (Landis, 1963), Mon, 8; Wild Guitar (Steckler, 1962), Mon, 9:45. Hosted by Johnny Legend.

SUNDANCE KABUKI 1881 Post, SF; www.sundancecinemas.com. $15. "Sundance Film Festival USA:" In a World… (Bell, 2012), Thu, 7:15. With director Lake Bell in person.

YERBA BUENA CENTER FOR THE ARTS 701 Mission, SF; www.ybca.org. $8-10. "The Wooster Group On Screen:" Rumstick Road (1977), Sun, 2.

Rep Clock

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Schedules are for Wed/9-Tue/15 except where noted. Director and year are given when available. Double and triple features marked with a •. All times pm unless otherwise specified.

CASTRO 429 Castro, SF; (415) 621-6120, www.castrotheatre.com. $8.50-11. •Samsara (Fricke, 2011), Wed-Thu, 3, 7, and Beau Travail (Denis, 1999), Wed-Thu, 5, 9. "Midnites for Maniacs:" •Wayne’s World (Spheeris, 1992), Fri, 7:30; Step Brothers (McKay, 2008), Fri, 9:30; Freddy Got Fingered (Green, 2001), Fri, 11:45. •Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981), Sat, 1:50, 7, and Superman (Donner, 1978), Sat, 4:05, 9:15. Cloud Atlas (Wachowski, Wachowski, and Tykwer, 2012), Sun, 1, 4:30, 8. Argo (Affleck, 2012), Tue, 2, 4:30, 7, 9:20.

CHRISTOPHER B. SMITH RAFAEL FILM CENTER 1118 Fourth St, San Rafael; (415) 454-1222, www.cafilm.org. $6.75-$10.25. My Worst Nightmare (Fontaine, 2012), call for dates and times. "Short Films from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival," call for dates and times. "For Your Consideration: A Selection of Oscar Submissions from Around the World:" Keep Smiling (Chkonia, 2012), Fri, 6:30; Sat, 3; Blancanieves (Berger, 2012), Fri, 8:30; Our Children (Lafosse, 2012), Sat, 6; Pieta (Kim, 2012), Sat, 8:30; The Delay (Pia, 2012), Sun, 4:30; Nairobi Half Life (Gitonga, 2012), Sun, 6:30; War Witch (Nguyen, 2012), Sun, 8:30; The Intouchables (Toledano and Nakache, 2012), Mon, 9; When Day Breaks (Paskaljevic, 2012), Tue, 6:30; The Third Half (Mitrevski, 2012), Tue, 8:30.

INTERSECTION FOR THE ARTS 925 Mission, SF; www.theintersection.org. $10. Follow Me Down: Portraits of Louisiana Prison Musicians (Harbert, 2012), Sat, 7.

MECHANICS’ INSTITUTE 57 Post, SF; www.milibrary.org. $10. "Cinemalit: New Years Revolution Redux 3:" The Year of Living Dangerously (Weir, 1983), Fri, 6.

PACIFIC FILM ARCHIVE 2575 Bancroft, Berk; (510) 642-5249, bampfa.berkeley.edu. $5.50-9.50. "The Hills Run Red: Italian Westerns, Leone, and Beyond:" Duck, You Sucker (Leone, 1971), Thu, 7; The Mercenary (Corbucci, 1968), Sat, 8:10. "Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense:" The 39 Steps (1935), Fri, 7; Sabotage (1936), Fri, 8:45; The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Sat, 6:30.

ROXIE 3117 and 3125 16th St, SF; (415) 863-1087, www.roxie.com. $6.50-11. Tchoupitoulas (Ross and Ross, 2012), Wed-Thu, 7, 8:45. Only the Young (Mims and Tippet, 2012), Jan 11-17, call for times. *

Ficks’ picks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Unreleased Films of 2012

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

Black Rock (Katie Aselton, USA)

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK)

Pilgrim Song (Martha Stephens, US)

The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, US)

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

Film Listings

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

OPENING

Amber Alert An audition tape for The Amazing Race quickly turns into an epic chase in this low-budget "found footage" drama. Arizona BFFs Nate (Chris Hill) and Sam (Summer Bellessa, wife of director Kerry Bellessa) — and Sam’s teenage brother, shaky-cam operator Caleb (Caleb Thompson) — notice they’re driving behind the very Honda that’s being sought by an Amber Alert. "Following at a safe distance," as advised when they call the cops, leads to high-decibel arguments about how to handle the situation — and for the next hour-plus, the viewer is trapped in a car with two people communicating only in nails-on-chalkboard tones. Amber Alert‘s nonstop bickerfest is so tiresome that it’s actually a relief when the child molester character starts taking an active role in the story. Not a good sign. (1:20) Rohnert Park 16. (Eddy)

The Bay Top-quality (i.e., realistically repulsive) special effects highlight this otherwise unremarkable disaster movie that’s yet another "found footage" concoction, albeit maybe the first one from an Oscar-winning director. But it’s been a long time since 1988’s Rain Man, and the Baltimore-adjacent setting is the only Barry Levinson signature you’ll find here. Instead, parasites-gnaw-apart-a-coastal-town drama The Bay — positioned as a collection of suppressed material coming to light on "Govleaks.org" — is a relentlessly familiar affair, further hampered by a narrator (Kether Donohue) with a supremely grating voice. Rising star Christopher Denham (Argo) has a small part as an oceanographer whose warnings about the impending waterborne catastrophe are brushed aside by a mayor who is (spoiler alert!) more concerned with tourist dollars than safety. (1:25) (Eddy)

"Don’t Shoot the Player Piano: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow" The late Texarkana-born composer’s birth centenary is celebrated in this two-part (Fri/2 and Sun/4) program of films examining his unique contribution to 20th century music. Frustrated early on by the inability of standard musicians to play his incredibly complicated scores, he turned to composing for player pianos, with their greatly heightened capacity for producing density of notes and rhythms. A member of the American Communist Party, he returned from fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War to discover the U.S. government had revoked the passports of many citizens with similar political convictions. As a result, in 1940 he moved to Mexico, where he remained until his death 57 years later — his reputation remaining an underground musicologists’ secret until the early 1980s, in large part due to his disinterest in fame and dislike of crowds (he’d always avoided any gathering of over five people). But in his last years he became much more widely known, thanks in large part to fans like fellow composer Gyorgy Ligeti, who in one documentary here calls him "the most important composer of our time," comparing him to Beethoven and saying "his work is completely, totally different from [his contemporaries]." Among the movies screening are Uli Aumuller and Hanne Kaisik’s 1993 German Music for 1,000 Fingers, in which the reclusive, elderly subject allows us into his studio to explain his (still somewhat inexplicable) methodologies. The brand-new, hour-long Conlon Nancarrow: Virtuoso of the Player Piano offers a posthumous appreciation of his life, music and influence. It’s a first film from James Greeson, a professor of music at the University of Arkansas who knew the man himself. Also featured are several international shorts that provide interpretive visual complements to Nancarrow pieces. His widow and daughter, as well as kinetic sculptor Trimpin and composer-former KPFA music director Charles Amirkhanian will appear at both PFA programs. Pacific Film Archive. (Harvey)

The Flat See "Past Lives." (1:37) Albany, Embarcadero.

Flight Robert Zemeckis directs Denzel Washington as an airline pilot whose act of heroism brings to light his secret drinking problem. (2:18) Presidio.

A Late Quartet Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken head up a star-spangled cast in this drama about a famous string quartet. (1:45) Embarcadero.

A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman Blessed with recordings made by Monty Python member Graham Chapman (King Arthur in 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Brian in 1979’s Life of Brian) before his death in 1989 from cancer, filmmakers Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, and Ben Timlett recruited 14 different animation studios to piece together Chapman’s darkly humorous (and often just plain dark) life story. He was gay, he was an alcoholic, he co-wrote (with John Cleese) the legendary "Dead Parrot Sketch." A Liar’s Autobiography starts slowly — even with fellow Monty Python members Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and Michael Palin lending their voices, much of the bone-dry humor falls disappointingly flat. "This is not a Monty Python film," the filmmakers insist, and viewers hoping for such will be disappointed. Stick with it, though, and the film eventually finds its footing as an offbeat biopic, with the pick-a-mix animation gimmick at its most effective when illustrating Chapman’s booze-fueled hallucinations. In addition to opening theatrically, the film also debuts Fri/2 on premium cable channel Epix. (1:22) Smith Rafael, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

The Loneliest Planet Travel broadens, they say — and has a way of foregrounding anxiety and desire. So the little tells take on a larger, much more loaded significance in The Loneliest Planet when contextualized by the devastatingly beautiful Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. In this film by Russian American director and video artist Julia Loktev, adventuring, engaged Westerners Nica (an ethereal Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal) hire a local guide and war veteran (Bidzina Gujabidze) to lead them on a camping trip through the wilderness. They’re globe-trotting blithe spirits, throwing themselves into new languages and new experiences, though the harsh, hazardous, and glorious Georgian peaks and crevasses have a way of making them seem even smaller while magnifying their weaknesses and naiveté. One small, critical stumble on their journey is all it takes for the pair to question their relationship, their roles, and the solid ground of their love. Working with minimal dialogue (and no handlebar subtitles) from a Tom Bissell short story, Loktev shows a deliberate hand and thoughtful eye in her use of the space, as well as her way of allowing the silences to speak louder than dialogue: she turns the outdoor expanses into a quietly awe-inspiring, albeit frightening mirror for the distances between, and emptiness within, her wanderers, uncertain about how to quite find their way home. (1:53) Clay, Shattuck. (Chun)

The Man With The Iron Fists Erstwhile Wu Tang-er RZA directs (and co-wrote, with Eli Roth) this over-the-top homage to classic martial arts films. (1:36)

Miami Connection See "Black-Belt Sabbath." (1:23) Roxie.

The Other Son The plot of ABC Family’s Switched at Birth gets a politically-minded makeover in Lorraine Lévy’s The Other Son, in which the mixed-up teens represent both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. When mop-topped wannabe rocker Joseph (Jules Sitruk) dutifully signs up for Israeli military duty, the required blood test reveals he’s not the biological son of his parents. Understandably freaked out, his French-Israeli mother (Emmanuelle Devos) finds out that a hospital error during a Gulf War-era evacuation meant she and husband Alon (Pascal Elbé) went home with the wrong infant — and their child, aspiring doctor Yacine (Medhi Dehbi), was raised instead by a Palestinian couple (Areen Omari, Khalifia Natour). It’s a highly-charged situation on many levels ("Am I still Jewish?", a tearful Joseph asks; "Have fun with the occupying forces?", Yacine’s bitter brother inquires after his family visits Joseph in Tel Aviv), and potential for melodrama is sky-high. Fortunately, director and co-writer Levy handles the subject with admirable sensitivity, and the film is further buoyed by strong performances. (1:53) Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

A Simple Life When elderly Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), the housekeeper who’s served his family for decades, has a stroke, producer Roger (Andy Lau) pays for her to enter a nursing home. No longer tasked with caring for Roger, Ah Tao faces life in the cramped, often depressing facility with resigned calm, making friends with other residents (some of whom are played by nonprofessional actors) and enjoying Roger’s frequent visits. Based on Roger Lee’s story (inspired by his own life), Ann Hui’s film is well-served by its performances; Ip picked up multiple Best Actress awards for her role, Lau is reliably solid, and Anthony Wong pops up as the nursing home’s eye patch-wearing owner. Wong’s over-the-top cameo doesn’t quite fit in with the movie’s otherwise low-key vibe, but he’s a welcome distraction in a film that can be too quiet at times — a situation not helped by its washed-out palette of gray, beige, and more gray. (1:58) Four Star. (Eddy)

Wreck-It Ralph Wreck-It Ralph cribs directly from the Toy Story series: when the lights go off in the arcade, video game characters gather to eat, drink, and endure existential crises. John C. Reilly is likable and idiosyncratic as Ralph, the hulking, ham-fisted villain of a game called Fix-It-Felix. Fed up with being the bad guy, Ralph sneaks into gritty combat sim Hero’s Duty under the nose of Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a blond space marine who mixes Mass Effect‘s Commander Shepard with a PG-rated R. Lee Ermey. Things go quickly awry, and soon Ralph is marooned in cart-racing candyland Sugar Rush, helping Vanellope Von Schweetz (a manic Sarah Silverman), with Calhoun and opposite number Felix (Jack McBrayer) hot on his heels. Though often aggressively childish, the humor will amuse kids, parents, and occasionally gamers, and the Disney-approved message about acceptance is moving without being maudlin. The animation, limber enough to portray 30 years of changing video game graphics, deserves special praise. (1:34) Balboa, Presidio, Shattuck. (Ben Richardson)

The Zen of Bennett Landing somewhere between a glorified album making-of and a more depthed exploration, this documentary about famed crooner Tony of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" fame shows him recording last year’s all-standards Duets II disc. His vocal collaborators are an eclectic — to say the least — mix of mostly much younger artists including Norah Jones, John Mayer, Carrie Underwood, Willie Nelson, and Andrea Bocelli. Some pairings are clearly a matter of commerce over chemistry, while others surprise — Lady Gaga is better than you might expect, while Aretha Franklin is certainly worse. Most touching as well as disturbing is his session with the late Amy Winehouse, whose nervous, possibly hopped-up appearance occasions his most gentlemanly behavior, as well as genuine admiration for her talent. (Others on the record, including Mariah Carey and k.d. lang, do not appear here.) Unjoo Moon’s rather mannered direction includes little displays of temperament from the octogenarian star, and glimpses of his family life (which extends well into his work life, since they all seem to be on the payroll), but just enough to tease — not enough to provide actual insight. Still, fans will find this less than-definitive portrait quite satisfying enough on its own limited terms. (1:24) Vogue. (Harvey)

ONGOING

Alex Cross (1:41) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center.

Argo If you didn’t know the particulars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, you won’t be an expert after Argo, but the film does a good job of capturing America’s fearful reaction to the events that followed it — particularly the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran. Argo zeroes in on the fate of six embassy staffers who managed to escape the building and flee to the home of the sympathetic Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Back in Washington, short-tempered CIA agents (including a top-notch Bryan Cranston) cast about for ways to rescue them. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs), exfil specialist and father to a youngster wrapped up in the era’s sci-fi craze. While watching 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Tony comes up with what Cranston’s character calls "the best bad idea we have:" the CIA will fund a phony Canadian movie production (corny, intergalactic, and titled Argo) and pretend the six are part of the crew, visiting Iran for a few days on a location shoot. Tony will sneak in, deliver the necessary fake-ID documents, and escort them out. Neither his superiors, nor the six in hiding, have much faith in the idea. ("Is this the part where we say, ‘It’s so crazy it just might work?’" someone asks, beating the cliché to the punch.) Argo never lets you forget that lives are at stake; every painstakingly forged form, every bluff past a checkpoint official increases the anxiety (to the point of being laid on a bit thick by the end). But though Affleck builds the needed suspense with gusto, Argo comes alive in its Hollywood scenes. As the show-biz veterans who mull over Tony’s plan with a mix of Tinseltown cynicism and patiotic duty, John Goodman and Alan Arkin practically burst with in-joke brio. I could have watched an entire movie just about those two. (2:00) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

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

Chasing Mavericks Sidestepping the potential surf-porn impact of influential docs like The Endless Summer (1966) and Step Into Liquid (2003), Chasing Mavericks directors Curtis Hanson and Michael Apted instead focus on the coming-of-age back story of Santa Cruz surf legend Jay Moriarity, who landed on the cover of Surfer magazine at the very unripe age of 16 while attempting the way-challenging waves at Half Moon Bay’s Mavericks. How did the teenager manage to tackle the mythically massive, highly dangerous 25- to 80-plus-foot waves that have killed far more seasoned surfers? It all started at an early age, a starting point that’s perhaps a nod to Apted’s lifetime-spanning Up documentaries, as Moriarity (Jonny Weston) learned to gauge the size of the waves on his own and grew up idolizing neighbor and surfing kahuna Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler). After tailing Hesson on a Mavericks surfing jaunt, Moriarity becomes enthralled with the idea of tackling those killer waves — an obsession that could kill the kid, Hesson realizes with the help of his wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer). So the elder puts him through a makeshift big-wave rider academy, developing him physically by having the teen, say, paddle from SC to Monterey and mentally by putting him through a series of discipline-building challenges. The result is a riptide of inspiration that even Moriarity’s damaged mom (Elisabeth Shue) can appreciate, that is if the directors hadn’t succumbed to an all-too-predictable story arc, complete with random bullying and an on-again-off-again love interest (Leven Rambin), plus the depthless performance of a too-cute, cherubic Weston. Too bad Butler, who tasted the ocean’s wrath when he got injured during the production, aged out of the Moriarity role: he brings the fire — and the fury that fuels a drive to do the physically unthinkable — that would have given Moriarity’s story new life. (1:45) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Chun)

Cloud Atlas Cramming the six busy storylines of David Mitchell’s wildly ambitious novel into just three hours — the average reader might have thought at least 12 would be required — this impressive adaptation directed (in separate parts) by Tom Twyker (1998’s Run Lola Run) and Matrix siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski has a whole lot of narrative to get through, stretching around the globe and over centuries. In the mid 19th century, Jim Sturgess’ sickly American notory endures a long sea voyage as reluctant protector of a runaway-slave stowaway from the Chatham Islands (David Gyasi). In 1931 Belgium, a talented but criminally minded British musician (Ben Whishaw) wheedles his way into the household of a famous but long-inactive composer (Jim Broadbent). A chance encounter sets 1970s San Francisco journalist Luisa (Halle Berry) on the path of a massive cover-up conspiracy, swiftly putting her life in danger. Circa now, a reprobate London publisher’s (Broadbent) huge windfall turns into bad luck that gets even worse when he seeks help from his brother (Hugh Grant). In the not-so-distant future, a disposable "fabricant" server to the "consumer" classes (Doona Bae) finds herself plucked from her cog-like life for a rebellious higher purpose. Finally, in an indeterminately distant future after "the Fall," an island tribesman (Tom Hanks) forms a highly ambivalent relationship toward a visitor (Berry) from a more advanced but dying civilization. Mitchell’s book was divided into huge novella-sized blocks, with each thread split in two; the film wastes very little time establishing its individual stories before beginning to rapidly intercut between them. That may result in a sense of information (and eventually action) overload, particularly for non-readers, even as it clarifies the connective tissues running throughout. Compression robs some episodes of the cumulative impact they had on the page; the starry multicasting (which in addition to the above mentioned finds many uses for Hugo Weaving, Keith David, James D’Arcy, and Susan Sarandon) can be a distraction; and there’s too much uplift forced on the six tales’ summation. Simply put, not everything here works; like the very different Watchmen, this is a rather brilliant "impossible adaptation" screenplay (by the directors) than nonetheless can’t help but be a bit too much. But so much does work — in alternating currents of satire, melodrama, pulp thriller, dystopian sci-fi, adventure, and so on — that Cloud Atlas must be forgiven for being imperfect. If it were perfect, it couldn’t possibly sprawl as imaginatively and challengingly as it does, and as mainstream movies very seldom do. (2:52) Balboa, California, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)

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

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

Frankenweenie Tim Burton’s feature-length Frankenweenie expands his 1984 short of the same name (canned by Disney back in the day for being too scary), and is the first black and white film to receive the 3D IMAX treatment. A stop-motion homage to every monster movie Burton ever loved, Frankenweenie is also a revival of the Frankenstein story cute-ified for kids; it takes the showy elements of Mary Shelley’s novel and morphs them to fit Burton’s hyperbolic aesthetic. Elementary-school science wiz Victor takes his disinterred dog from bull terrier to gentle abomination (when the thirsty Sparky drinks, he shoots water out of the seams holding his body parts together). Victor’s competitor in the school science fair, Edgar E. Gore, finds out about Sparky and ropes in classmates to scrape up their dead pets from the town’s eerily utilized pet cemetery and harness the town’s lightning surplus. The film’s answer to Boris Karloff (lisp intact) resurrects a mummified hamster, while a surrogate for Japanese Godzilla maker Ishiro Honda, revives his pet turtle Shelley (get it?) into Gamera. As these experiments aren’t borne of love, they don’t go as well at Victor’s. If you love Burton, Frankenweenie feels like the at-last presentation of a story he’s been dying to tell for years. If you don’t love him, you might wonder why it took him so long to get it out. When Victor’s science teacher leaves the school, he tells Victor an experiment conducted without love is different from one conducted with it: love, he implies, is a variable. If that’s the variable that separates 2003’s Big Fish (heartbreaking) from 2010’s Alice In Wonderland (atrocious), it’s a large one indeed. The love was there for 29 minutes in 1984, but I can’t say it endures when stretched to 87 minutes 22 years later. (1:27) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Vizcarrondo)

Fun Size (1:45) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Shattuck.

Here Comes the Boom The makers of September’s Won’t Back Down might quibble with this statement, but the rest of us can probably agree that nothing (with the possible exception of Trapper Keepers) says "back to school" like competitive steel-cage mixed martial arts — particularly if the proceeds from the matches go toward saving extracurriculars at a down-at-the-heels public high school. Kevin James plays Scott Voss, a 42-year-old biology teacher at the aforementioned school, whose lack of vocational enthusiasm is manifested by poor attendance and classroom observations about how none of what the students are learning matters. He’s jolted from this criminally subpar performance of his academic duties, however, when budget cuts threaten the school’s arts programs, including the job of an earnest and enthusiastic music teacher (Henry Winkler) whose dedication Scott lazily admires. It seems less than inevitable that this state of affairs would lead to Scott’s donning his college wrestling singlet and trundling into the ring to get pummeled and mauled for cash, but it seems to work better than a bake sale. Less effective and equally unconvincing are Scott’s whiplash arc from bad apple to teacher-of-the-year; a percolating romance between him and the school nurse, played by Salma Hayek; and the script’s tortuous parade of rousing statements celebrating the power of the human spirit, seemingly cribbed from a page-a-day calendar of inspirational quotes. (1:45) SF Center. (Rapoport)

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

The House I Live In Much like he did in 2005’s Why We Fight, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki identifies a Big Issue (in that film, the Iraq War) and strips it down, tracing all of the history leading up to the current crisis point. Here, he takes on America’s "war on drugs," which I put quotes around not just because it was a phrase spoken by Nixon and Reagan, but also because — as The House I Live In ruthlessly exposes — it’s been a failure, a sham, since its origins in the late 1960s. Framing his investigation with the personal story of his family’s housekeeper — whose dedication to the Jarecki family meant that she was absent when her own son turned to drugs — and enfolding a diverse array of interviews (a sympathetic prison guard, addicts and their families, The Wire‘s David Simon) and locations (New York City, Sioux City), Jarecki has created an eye-opening film. Particularly well-explained are segments on how drug laws correlate directly to race and class, and how the prison-industrial complex has played a part in making sure those laws remain as strict as possible. (1:48) Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Looper It’s 2044 and, thanks to a lengthy bout of exposition by our protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), here’s what we know: Time travel, an invention 30 years away, will be used by criminals to transport their soon-to-be homicide victims backward, where a class of gunmen called loopers, Joe among them, are employed to "do the necessaries." More deftly revealed in Brick writer-director Rian Johnson’s new film is the joylessness of the world in which Joe amorally makes his way, where gangsters from the future control the present (under the supervision of Jeff Daniels), their hit men live large but badly (Joe is addicted to some eyeball-administered narcotic), and the remainder of the urban populace suffers below-subsistence-level poverty. The latest downside for guys like Joe is that a new crime boss has begun sending back a steady stream of aging loopers for termination, or "closing the loop"; soon enough, Joe is staring down a gun barrel at himself plus 30 years. Being played by Bruce Willis, old Joe is not one to peaceably abide by a death warrant, and young Joe must set off in search of himself so that—with the help of a woman named Sara (Emily Blunt) and her creepy-cute son Cid (Pierce Gagnon)—he can blow his own (future) head off. Having seen the evocatively horrific fate of another escaped looper, we can’t totally blame him. Parsing the daft mechanics of time travel as envisioned here is rough going, but the film’s brisk pacing and talented cast distract, and as one Joe tersely explains to another, if they start talking about it, "we’re gonna be here all day making diagrams with straws" —in other words, some loops just weren’t meant to be closed. (1:58) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Masquerade (2:11) Metreon.

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

Middle of Nowhere All the reasons why movie publicist turned filmmaker Ava DuVernay scored the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival are up here on the screen. Taking on the emotionally charged yet rarely attempted challenge of picturing the life of the loved one left behind by the incarcerated, DuVernay furthers the cause of telling African American stories — she founded AaFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement) and made her directorial debut with 2008 LA hip-hop doc This Is The Life — with Middle of Nowhere. Medical student Ruby (the compelling Emayatzy Corinealdi) appears to have a bright future ahead of her, when her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) makes some bad choices and is tossed into maximum security prison for eight long years. She swears she’ll wait for him, putting her dreams aside, making the long bus ride out to visit him regularly, and settling for any nursing shift she can. How will she scrape the money together to pay the lawyer for Derek’s parole hearing, cope with the grinding disapproval of her mother (Lorraine Toussaint), support the increasingly hardened and altered Derek, and most importantly, discover a new path for herself? All are handled with rare empathy and compassion by DuVernay, who is rewarded for her care by her cast’s powerful performances. Our reward might be found amid the everyday poetry of Ruby’s life, while she wraps her hair for bed, watches Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), and fantasizes about love in a life interrupted. (1:41) Stonestown. (Chun)

Paranormal Activity 4 (1:21) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.

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

Pitch Perfect As an all-female college a cappella group known as the Barden Bellas launches into Ace of Base’s "The Sign" during the prologue of Pitch Perfect, you can hear the Glee-meets-Bring It On elevator pitch. Which is fine, since Bring It On-meets-anything is clearly worth a shot. In this attempt, Anna Kendrick stars as withdrawn and disaffected college freshman Beca, who dreams of producing music in L.A. but is begrudgingly getting a free ride at Barden University via her comp lit professor father. Clearly his goal is not making sure she receives a liberal arts education, as Barden’s academic jungle extends to the edges of the campus’s competitive a cappella scene, and the closest thing to an intellectual challenge occurs during a "riff-off" between a cappella gangs at the bottom of a mysteriously drained swimming pool. When Beca reluctantly joins the Bellas, she finds herself caring enough about the group’s fate to push for an Ace of Base moratorium and radical steps like performing mashups. Much as 2000’s Bring It On coined terms like "cheerocracy" and "having cheer-sex," Pitch Perfect gives us the infinitely applicable prefix "a ca-" and descriptives like "getting Treble-boned," a reference to forbidden sexual relations with the Bellas’ cocky rivals, the Treblemakers. The gags get funnier, dirtier, and weirder, arguably reaching their climax in projectile-vomit snow angels, with Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as grin-panning competition commentators offering a string of loopily inappropriate observations. (1:52) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)

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

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

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

Seven Psychopaths Those nostalgic for 1990s-style chatty assassins will find much to love in the broadly sketched Seven Psychopaths. Director-writer Martin McDonough already dipped a pen into Tarantino’s blood-splattered ink well with his 2008 debut feature, In Bruges, and Seven Psychopaths reads as larkier and more off-the-cuff, as the award-winning Irish playwright continues to try to find his own discomfiting, teasing balance between goofy Grand Guignol yuks and meta-minded storytelling. Structured, sort of, with the certified lucidity of a thrill killer, Seven Psychopaths opens on Boardwalk Empire heavies Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg bantering about the terrors of getting shot in the eyeball, while waiting to "kill a chick." The talky twosome don’t seem capable of harming a fat hen, in the face of the Jack of Spades serial killer, who happens to be Psychopath No. One and a serial destroyer of hired guns. The key to the rest of the psychopathic gang is locked in the noggin of screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell), who’s grappling with a major block and attempting the seeming impossible task of creating a peace-loving, Buddhist killer. Looking on are his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) and actor best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who has a lucrative side gig as a dog kidnapper — and reward snatcher — with the dapper Hans (Christopher Walken). A teensy bit too enthusiastic about Marty’s screenplay, Billy displays a talent for stumbling over psychos, reeling in Zachariah (Tom Waits) and, on his doggie-grabbing adventures, Shih Tzu-loving gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Unrest assured, leitmotifs from McDonough plays — like a preoccupation with fiction-making (The Pillowman) and the coupling of pet-loving sentimentality and primal violence (The Lieutenant of Inishmore) — crop up in Seven Psychopaths, though in rougher, less refined form, and sprinkled with a nervous, bromantic anxiety that barely skirts homophobia. Best to bask in the cute, dumb pleasures of a saucer-eyed lap dog and the considerably more mental joys of this cast, headed up by dear dog hunter Walken, who can still stir terror with just a withering gaze and a voice that can peel the finish off a watch. (1:45) Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Silent Hill: Revelation 3D The husband and adopted daughter of Rosa (Radha Mitchell, star of the 2006 first film and seen briefly here), Harry (Sean Bean) and Heather (Adelaide Clemens) have been on the run from both police and ghouls since mom vanished into the titular nether land some years ago. When dad is abducted, Heather must follow him to you-know-where, accompanied by cute-boy-with-a-secret Vincent (Kit Harington). There she runs screaming from the usual faceless knife-wielding nuns and other nightmare nemeses while attempting to rescue Pa and puzzle out her place in resolving the curse placed on the ghost town. The original 2006 film adaptation of the video game was a mixed bag but, like the game, had splendid visuals; this cut rate sequel lacks even that, despite the addition of 3D (if you’re willing to pay for a premium ticket). It’s pure cheese with no real scares, much-diminished atmosphere, and laughable stretches of mythological mumbo-jumbo recited by embarrassed good actors (Martin Donovan, Deborah Kara Unger, Carrie-Anne Moss, a punishingly hammy Malcolm McDowell). There is one cool monster — a many-faced "tarantula" assembled from mannequin parts — but its couple minutes aren’t worth ponying up for the rest of a movie that severely disappoints already low expectations. (1:34) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Sinister True-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn’t had a successful book in a decade. So he uproots wife (Juliet Rylance) and kids (Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley) for yet another research project, not telling them that they’re actually moving into the recent scene of a ghastly unsolved murder in which an entire family — save one still-missing child — was hanged from a backyard tree. He finds a box in the attic that somehow escaped police attention, its contents being several reels of Super 8 home movies stretching back decades — all of families similarly wiped out in one cruel act. Smelling best-sellerdom, Ellison keeps this evidence of a serial slayer to himself. It’s disturbing when his son re-commences sleepwalking night terrors. It’s really disturbing when dad begins to spy a demonic looking figure lurking in the background of the films. It’s really, really disturbing when the projector starts turning itself on, in the middle of the night, in his locked office. A considerable bounce-back from his bloated 2008 Day the Earth Stood Still remake, Scott Derrickson’s film takes the opposite tact — it’s very small in both physical scope and narrative focus, almost never leaving the Oswalt’s modest house in fact. He takes the time to let pure creepiness build rather than feeling the need to goose our nads with a false scare or goresplat every five minutes. As a result, Sinister is definitely one of the year’s better horrors, even if (perhaps inevitably) the denouement can’t fully meet the expectations raised by that very long, unsettling buildup. (1:50) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Tai Chi Zero A little boy dubbed "the Freak" for the curious, horn-like growth on his forehead grows up to be Lu Chan (Jaydan Yuan), who becomes a near-supernatural martial arts machine when the horn is punched, panic-button style. But activating the "Three Blossoms of the Crown," as it’s called, takes a toll on the boy’s health, so he’s sent to the isolated Chen Village to learn their signature moves, though he’s repeatedly told "Chen-style kung fu is not taught to outsiders!" Stephen Fung’s lighthearted direction (characters are introduced with bios about the actors who play them, even the split-second cameos: "Andrew Lau, director of the Infernal Affairs trilogy"), affinity for steampunk and whimsy, engagement of Sammo Hung as action director, and embracing of the absurd (the film’s most-repeated line: "What the hell?") all bring interest to this otherwise pretty predictable kung-fu tale, with its old-ways-versus-Western-ways conflict and misfit hero. Still, there’s something to be said for batshit insanity. (Be warned, though: Tai Chi Zero is the first in a series, which means one thing: it ends on a cliffhanger. Argh.) (1:34) Metreon. (Eddy)

Taken 2 Surprise hit Taken (2008) was a soap opera produced by French action master Luc Besson and designed for export. The divorced-dad-saves-daughter-from-sex-slavery plot may have nagged at some universal parenting anxieties, but it was a Movie of the Week melodrama made on a major movie budget. Taken 2 begins immediately after the last, with sweet teen Kim (Maggie Grace) talking about normalizing after she was drugged and bought for booty. Papa Neeson sees Kim’s mom (Famke Janssen) losing her grip on husband number two and invites them both to holiday in Istanbul following one of his high-stakes security gigs. When the assistant with the money slinks him a fat envelope, Neeson chuckles at his haul. This is the point when women in the audience choose which Neeson they’re watching: the understated super-provider or the warrior-dad whose sense of duty can meet no match. For family men, this is the breeziest bit of vicarious living available; Neeson’s character is a tireless daddy duelist, a man as diligent as he is organized. (This is guy who screams "Victory loves preparation!") As head-splitting, disorienting, and generally exhausting as the action direction is, Neeson saves his ex-wife and the show in a stream of unclear shootouts. Taken 2 is best suited for the small screen, but whatever the size, no one can stop an international slave trade (or wolves, or Batman) like 21st century Liam. Swoon. (1:31) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Vizcarrondo)

The Waiting Room Twenty-four hours in the uneasy limbo of an ER waiting room sounds like a grueling, maddening experience, and that’s certainly a theme in this day-in-the-life film. But local documentarian Peter Nicks has crafted an absorbing portrait of emergency public health care, as experienced by patients and their families at Oakland’s Highland Hospital and as practiced by the staff there. Other themes: no insurance, no primary care physician, and an emergency room being used as a medical facility of first, last, and only resort. Nicks has found a rich array of subjects to tell this complicated story: An anxious, unemployed father sits at his little girl’s bedside. Staffers stare at a computer screen, tracking a flood of admissions and the scarce commodity of available beds. A doctor contemplates the ethics of discharging a homeless addict for the sake of freeing up one of them. And a humorous, ultra-competent triage nurse fields an endless queue of arrivals with humanity and steady nerves. (1:21) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

Film Listings

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

Opening

Chasing Mavericks The Bay Area’s big-wave spot hits the big screen, with Gerard Butler and Jonny Weston as real-life surfers Rick “Frosty” Hesson and Jay Moriarity. (1:45)

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

Fun Size When a teen (Victoria Justice) is forced to baby-sit her brother the night of the social event of the Halloween season, PG-13 chaos ensues. (1:45) Shattuck.

Masquerade A king hires an actor from the local village (both portrayed by Korean megastar Byung-hun Lee) to be his body double in this historical drama. (2:11) Metreon.

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

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

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

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

Silent Hill: Revelation 3D Game of Thrones reunion! Sean Bean and Kit Harington both star in this video game adaptation, which may be its only bragging point. (1:34)

Wake in Fright See “Points Of No Return.” (1:54) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. 

Ongoing

Alex Cross (1:41) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Shattuck.

Argo If you didn’t know the particulars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, you won’t be an expert after Argo, but the film does a good job of capturing America’s fearful reaction to the events that followed it — particularly the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran. Argo zeroes in on the fate of six embassy staffers who managed to escape the building and flee to the home of the sympathetic Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Back in Washington, short-tempered CIA agents (including a top-notch Bryan Cranston) cast about for ways to rescue them. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs), exfil specialist and father to a youngster wrapped up in the era’s sci-fi craze. While watching 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Tony comes up with what Cranston’s character calls “the best bad idea we have:” the CIA will fund a phony Canadian movie production (corny, intergalactic, and titled Argo) and pretend the six are part of the crew, visiting Iran for a few days on a location shoot. Tony will sneak in, deliver the necessary fake-ID documents, and escort them out. Neither his superiors, nor the six in hiding, have much faith in the idea. (“Is this the part where we say, ‘It’s so crazy it just might work?'” someone asks, beating the cliché to the punch.) Argo never lets you forget that lives are at stake; every painstakingly forged form, every bluff past a checkpoint official increases the anxiety (to the point of being laid on a bit thick by the end). But though Affleck builds the needed suspense with gusto, Argo comes alive in its Hollywood scenes. As the show-biz veterans who mull over Tony’s plan with a mix of Tinseltown cynicism and patiotic duty, John Goodman and Alan Arkin practically burst with in-joke brio. I could have watched an entire movie just about those two. (2:00) Four Star, Marina, 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

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

Bel Borba Aqui “The People’s Picasso” and “Brazil’s Pied Piper of Street Art” are both apt descriptions of veteran artist Bel Borba, who has spent decades bringing color and imagination to the streets of Salvador — his seaside hometown, and a place already graced with the nickname “Brazil’s Capital of Happiness.” It’s not a stretch to imagine that Borba’s commitment to public art (a giant Christmas tree made of plastic Coke bottles, a rhinoceros sculpture crafted from old boat planks, hundreds of large-scale mosaics, even a painted airplane) has done its share to lift spirits. Bel Borba Aqui isn’t the sort of doc to delve into its mustachioed subject’s history or personal life (despite a few angry cell phone conversations randomly captured along the way); instead, it’s much like Borba himself — freewheeling and spontaneous, and most alive when it’s showing art being created. Great soundtrack, too. (1:34) Roxie. (Eddy)

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

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

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

Fat Kid Rules the World It really does suck to be Troy (Jacob Wysocki from 2011’s Terri). An XXL-sized high schooler, he’s invisible to his peers, derided by his little brother (Dylan Arnold), and has lived in general domestic misery since the death of his beloved mother under the heavy-handed rule of his well-meaning but humorless ex-military dad (Billy Campbell). His only friends are online gamers, his only girlfriends the imaginary kind. But all that begins to change when chance throws him across the path of notorious local hellraiser Marcus (Matt O’Leary), who’s been expelled from school, has left the band he fronts, and is equal parts rebel hero to druggy, lyin’ mess. But he randomly decrees Troy is cool, and his new drummer. Even if he’s just being used, Troy’s world is headed for some big changes. Actor Matthew Lillard’s feature directorial debut, based on K.L. Going’s graphic novel, is familiar stuff in outline but a delight in execution, as it trades the usual teen-comedy crudities (a few gratuitous joke fantasy sequences aside) for something more heartfelt and restrained, while still funny. O’Leary from last year’s overlooked Natural Selection is flamboyantly terrific, while on the opposite end of the acting scale Campbell makes repressed emotion count for a lot — he has one wordless moment at a hospital that just might bring you to the tears his character refuses to spill. (1:38) Metreon, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Frankenweenie Tim Burton’s feature-length Frankenweenie expands his 1984 short of the same name (canned by Disney back in the day for being too scary), and is the first black and white film to receive the 3D IMAX treatment. A stop-motion homage to every monster movie Burton ever loved, Frankenweenie is also a revival of the Frankenstein story cute-ified for kids; it takes the showy elements of Mary Shelley’s novel and morphs them to fit Burton’s hyperbolic aesthetic. Elementary-school science wiz Victor takes his disinterred dog from bull terrier to gentle abomination (when the thirsty Sparky drinks, he shoots water out of the seams holding his body parts together). Victor’s competitor in the school science fair, Edgar E. Gore, finds out about Sparky and ropes in classmates to scrape up their dead pets from the town’s eerily utilized pet cemetery and harness the town’s lightning surplus. The film’s answer to Boris Karloff (lisp intact) resurrects a mummified hamster, while a surrogate for Japanese Godzilla maker Ishiro Honda, revives his pet turtle Shelley (get it?) into Gamera. As these experiments aren’t borne of love, they don’t go as well at Victor’s. If you love Burton, Frankenweenie feels like the at-last presentation of a story he’s been dying to tell for years. If you don’t love him, you might wonder why it took him so long to get it out. When Victor’s science teacher leaves the school, he tells Victor an experiment conducted without love is different from one conducted with it: love, he implies, is a variable. If that’s the variable that separates 2003’s Big Fish (heartbreaking) from 2010’s Alice In Wonderland (atrocious), it’s a large one indeed. The love was there for 29 minutes in 1984, but I can’t say it endures when stretched to 87 minutes 22 years later. (1:27) Balboa, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Vizcarrondo)

Here Comes the Boom The makers of September’s Won’t Back Down might quibble with this statement, but the rest of us can probably agree that nothing (with the possible exception of Trapper Keepers) says “back to school” like competitive steel-cage mixed martial arts — particularly if the proceeds from the matches go toward saving extracurriculars at a down-at-the-heels public high school. Kevin James plays Scott Voss, a 42-year-old biology teacher at the aforementioned school, whose lack of vocational enthusiasm is manifested by poor attendance and classroom observations about how none of what the students are learning matters. He’s jolted from this criminally subpar performance of his academic duties, however, when budget cuts threaten the school’s arts programs, including the job of an earnest and enthusiastic music teacher (Henry Winkler) whose dedication Scott lazily admires. It seems less than inevitable that this state of affairs would lead to Scott’s donning his college wrestling singlet and trundling into the ring to get pummeled and mauled for cash, but it seems to work better than a bake sale. Less effective and equally unconvincing are Scott’s whiplash arc from bad apple to teacher-of-the-year; a percolating romance between him and the school nurse, played by Salma Hayek; and the script’s tortuous parade of rousing statements celebrating the power of the human spirit, seemingly cribbed from a page-a-day calendar of inspirational quotes. (1:45) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Rapoport)

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

The House I Live In Much like he did in 2005’s Why We Fight, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki identifies a Big Issue (in that film, the Iraq War) and strips it down, tracing all of the history leading up to the current crisis point. Here, he takes on America’s “war on drugs,” which I put quotes around not just because it was a phrase spoken by Nixon and Reagan, but also because — as The House I Live In ruthlessly exposes — it’s been a failure, a sham, since its origins in the late 1960s. Framing his investigation with the personal story of his family’s housekeeper — whose dedication to the Jarecki family meant that she was absent when her own son turned to drugs — and enfolding a diverse array of interviews (a sympathetic prison guard, addicts and their families, The Wire’s David Simon) and locations (New York City, Sioux City), Jarecki has created an eye-opening film. Particularly well-explained are segments on how drug laws correlate directly to race and class, and how the prison-industrial complex has played a part in making sure those laws remain as strict as possible. (1:48) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Looper It’s 2044 and, thanks to a lengthy bout of exposition by our protagonist, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), here’s what we know: Time travel, an invention 30 years away, will be used by criminals to transport their soon-to-be homicide victims backward, where a class of gunmen called loopers, Joe among them, are employed to “do the necessaries.” More deftly revealed in Brick writer-director Rian Johnson’s new film is the joylessness of the world in which Joe amorally makes his way, where gangsters from the future control the present (under the supervision of Jeff Daniels), their hit men live large but badly (Joe is addicted to some eyeball-administered narcotic), and the remainder of the urban populace suffers below-subsistence-level poverty. The latest downside for guys like Joe is that a new crime boss has begun sending back a steady stream of aging loopers for termination, or “closing the loop”; soon enough, Joe is staring down a gun barrel at himself plus 30 years. Being played by Bruce Willis, old Joe is not one to peaceably abide by a death warrant, and young Joe must set off in search of himself so that—with the help of a woman named Sara (Emily Blunt) and her creepy-cute son Cid (Pierce Gagnon)—he can blow his own (future) head off. Having seen the evocatively horrific fate of another escaped looper, we can’t totally blame him. Parsing the daft mechanics of time travel as envisioned here is rough going, but the film’s brisk pacing and talented cast distract, and as one Joe tersely explains to another, if they start talking about it, “we’re gonna be here all day making diagrams with straws” —in other words, some loops just weren’t meant to be closed. (1:58) 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)

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

Middle of Nowhere All the reasons why movie publicist turned filmmaker Ava DuVernay scored the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival are up here on the screen. Taking on the emotionally charged yet rarely attempted challenge of picturing the life of the loved one left behind by the incarcerated, DuVernay furthers the cause of telling African American stories — she founded AaFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement) and made her directorial debut with 2008 LA hip-hop doc This Is The Life — with Middle of Nowhere. Medical student Ruby (the compelling Emayatzy Corinealdi) appears to have a bright future ahead of her, when her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) makes some bad choices and is tossed into maximum security prison for eight long years. She swears she’ll wait for him, putting her dreams aside, making the long bus ride out to visit him regularly, and settling for any nursing shift she can. How will she scrape the money together to pay the lawyer for Derek’s parole hearing, cope with the grinding disapproval of her mother (Lorraine Toussaint), support the increasingly hardened and altered Derek, and most importantly, discover a new path for herself? All are handled with rare empathy and compassion by DuVernay, who is rewarded for her care by her cast’s powerful performances. Our reward might be found amid the everyday poetry of Ruby’s life, while she wraps her hair for bed, watches Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), and fantasizes about love in a life interrupted. (1:41) Shattuck. (Chun)

Paranormal Activity 4 (1:21) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio.

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

Pitch Perfect As an all-female college a cappella group known as the Barden Bellas launches into Ace of Base’s “The Sign” during the prologue of Pitch Perfect, you can hear the Glee-meets-Bring It On elevator pitch. Which is fine, since Bring It On-meets-anything is clearly worth a shot. In this attempt, Anna Kendrick stars as withdrawn and disaffected college freshman Beca, who dreams of producing music in L.A. but is begrudgingly getting a free ride at Barden University via her comp lit professor father. Clearly his goal is not making sure she receives a liberal arts education, as Barden’s academic jungle extends to the edges of the campus’s competitive a cappella scene, and the closest thing to an intellectual challenge occurs during a “riff-off” between a cappella gangs at the bottom of a mysteriously drained swimming pool. When Beca reluctantly joins the Bellas, she finds herself caring enough about the group’s fate to push for an Ace of Base moratorium and radical steps like performing mashups. Much as 2000’s Bring It On coined terms like “cheerocracy” and “having cheer-sex,” Pitch Perfect gives us the infinitely applicable prefix “a ca-” and descriptives like “getting Treble-boned,” a reference to forbidden sexual relations with the Bellas’ cocky rivals, the Treblemakers. The gags get funnier, dirtier, and weirder, arguably reaching their climax in projectile-vomit snow angels, with Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as grin-panning competition commentators offering a string of loopily inappropriate observations. (1:52) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)

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

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

Seven Psychopaths Those nostalgic for 1990s-style chatty assassins will find much to love in the broadly sketched Seven Psychopaths. Director-writer Martin McDonough already dipped a pen into Tarantino’s blood-splattered ink well with his 2008 debut feature, In Bruges, and Seven Psychopaths reads as larkier and more off-the-cuff, as the award-winning Irish playwright continues to try to find his own discomfiting, teasing balance between goofy Grand Guignol yuks and meta-minded storytelling. Structured, sort of, with the certified lucidity of a thrill killer, Seven Psychopaths opens on Boardwalk Empire heavies Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg bantering about the terrors of getting shot in the eyeball, while waiting to “kill a chick.” The talky twosome don’t seem capable of harming a fat hen, in the face of the Jack of Spades serial killer, who happens to be Psychopath No. One and a serial destroyer of hired guns. The key to the rest of the psychopathic gang is locked in the noggin of screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell), who’s grappling with a major block and attempting the seeming impossible task of creating a peace-loving, Buddhist killer. Looking on are his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) and actor best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who has a lucrative side gig as a dog kidnapper — and reward snatcher — with the dapper Hans (Christopher Walken). A teensy bit too enthusiastic about Marty’s screenplay, Billy displays a talent for stumbling over psychos, reeling in Zachariah (Tom Waits) and, on his doggie-grabbing adventures, Shih Tzu-loving gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Unrest assured, leitmotifs from McDonough plays — like a preoccupation with fiction-making (The Pillowman) and the coupling of pet-loving sentimentality and primal violence (The Lieutenant of Inishmore) — crop up in Seven Psychopaths, though in rougher, less refined form, and sprinkled with a nervous, bromantic anxiety that barely skirts homophobia. Best to bask in the cute, dumb pleasures of a saucer-eyed lap dog and the considerably more mental joys of this cast, headed up by dear dog hunter Walken, who can still stir terror with just a withering gaze and a voice that can peel the finish off a watch. (1:45) Marina, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)

Simon and the Oaks Despite being gripping or heartwarming at times, Simon and the Oaks, based on the novel by Marianne Fredricksson, fails to cohere, serving as another reminder of the perennial dilemma of converting literature to film. It tells the story of Simon (Bill Skarsgard — son of Stellan, younger brother of Alexander), a boy coming of age in World War II Sweden. He befriends Isak, son of a Jewish bookkeeper who fled Nazi Germany, and their families become close when Isak’s father nurtures Simon’s love of books and Isak begins to heal his emotional scars by diving into carpentry work with Simon’s father. The moments of true human compassion between the two families begin to falter as the story jumps around to follow Simon’s search for love and identity. More missteps: Simon’s discovery of classical music is conveyed via a series of “artsy” montages, and his brief affair with a fiery Auschwitz victim — problematic, to say the least. (2:02) Albany, Clay. (Molly Champlin)

Sinister True-crime author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn’t had a successful book in a decade. So he uproots wife (Juliet Rylance) and kids (Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley) for yet another research project, not telling them that they’re actually moving into the recent scene of a ghastly unsolved murder in which an entire family — save one still-missing child — was hanged from a backyard tree. He finds a box in the attic that somehow escaped police attention, its contents being several reels of Super 8 home movies stretching back decades — all of families similarly wiped out in one cruel act. Smelling best-sellerdom, Ellison keeps this evidence of a serial slayer to himself. It’s disturbing when his son re-commences sleepwalking night terrors. It’s really disturbing when dad begins to spy a demonic looking figure lurking in the background of the films. It’s really, really disturbing when the projector starts turning itself on, in the middle of the night, in his locked office. A considerable bounce-back from his bloated 2008 Day the Earth Stood Still remake, Scott Derrickson’s film takes the opposite tact — it’s very small in both physical scope and narrative focus, almost never leaving the Oswalt’s modest house in fact. He takes the time to let pure creepiness build rather than feeling the need to goose our nads with a false scare or goresplat every five minutes. As a result, Sinister is definitely one of the year’s better horrors, even if (perhaps inevitably) the denouement can’t fully meet the expectations raised by that very long, unsettling buildup. (1:50) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Harvey)

Smashed A heartbreaking lead performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead drives this tale of a marriage tested when one partner decides to get sober. And it’s time: after an epic night of boozing, first-grade teacher Kate (Winstead) pukes in front of her class, then lies and says she’s pregnant, not anticipating the pushy delight of the school’s principal (Megan Mullally). Plus, Kate’s gotten into the habit of waking up in strange, unsafe places, not really remembering how she stumbled there in the first place. Husband Charlie (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) sees no reason to give up partying; he’s a music blogger whose “office” is the home his wealthy parents bought for the couple, and his problem isn’t quite as unmanageable as hers (at least, we never see him peeing in a convenience store). After Kate joins AA, she realizes she’ll have to face her problems rather than drinking them away — a potentially clichéd character arc that’s handled without flashy hysterics by director and co-writer (with Susan Burke) James Ponsoldt, and conveyed with grace and pain by Winstead —an actor probably best-known for playing Ramona Flowers in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but just now revealing the scope of her talent. (1:25) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Eddy)

Tai Chi Zero A little boy dubbed “the Freak” for the curious, horn-like growth on his forehead grows up to be Lu Chan (Jaydan Yuan), who becomes a near-supernatural martial arts machine when the horn is punched, panic-button style. But activating the “Three Blossoms of the Crown,” as it’s called, takes a toll on the boy’s health, so he’s sent to the isolated Chen Village to learn their signature moves, though he’s repeatedly told “Chen-style kung fu is not taught to outsiders!” Stephen Fung’s lighthearted direction (characters are introduced with bios about the actors who play them, even the split-second cameos: “Andrew Lau, director of the Infernal Affairs trilogy”), affinity for steampunk and whimsy, engagement of Sammo Hung as action director, and embracing of the absurd (the film’s most-repeated line: “What the hell?”) all bring interest to this otherwise pretty predictable kung-fu tale, with its old-ways-versus-Western-ways conflict and misfit hero. Still, there’s something to be said for batshit insanity. (Be warned, though: Tai Chi Zero is the first in a series, which means one thing: it ends on a cliffhanger. Argh.) (1:34) Metreon. (Eddy)

Taken 2 Surprise hit Taken (2008) was a soap opera produced by French action master Luc Besson and designed for export. The divorced-dad-saves-daughter-from-sex-slavery plot may have nagged at some universal parenting anxieties, but it was a Movie of the Week melodrama made on a major movie budget. Taken 2 begins immediately after the last, with sweet teen Kim (Maggie Grace) talking about normalizing after she was drugged and bought for booty. Papa Neeson sees Kim’s mom (Famke Janssen) losing her grip on husband number two and invites them both to holiday in Istanbul following one of his high-stakes security gigs. When the assistant with the money slinks him a fat envelope, Neeson chuckles at his haul. This is the point when women in the audience choose which Neeson they’re watching: the understated super-provider or the warrior-dad whose sense of duty can meet no match. For family men, this is the breeziest bit of vicarious living available; Neeson’s character is a tireless daddy duelist, a man as diligent as he is organized. (This is guy who screams “Victory loves preparation!”) As head-splitting, disorienting, and generally exhausting as the action direction is, Neeson saves his ex-wife and the show in a stream of unclear shootouts. Taken 2 is best suited for the small screen, but whatever the size, no one can stop an international slave trade (or wolves, or Batman) like 21st century Liam. Swoon. (1:31) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Vizcarrondo)

The Waiting Room Twenty-four hours in the uneasy limbo of an ER waiting room sounds like a grueling, maddening experience, and that’s certainly a theme in this day-in-the-life film. But local documentarian Peter Nicks has crafted an absorbing portrait of emergency public health care, as experienced by patients and their families at Oakland’s Highland Hospital and as practiced by the staff there. Other themes: no insurance, no primary care physician, and an emergency room being used as a medical facility of first, last, and only resort. Nicks has found a rich array of subjects to tell this complicated story: An anxious, unemployed father sits at his little girl’s bedside. Staffers stare at a computer screen, tracking a flood of admissions and the scarce commodity of available beds. A doctor contemplates the ethics of discharging a homeless addict for the sake of freeing up one of them. And a humorous, ultra-competent triage nurse fields an endless queue of arrivals with humanity and steady nerves. (1:21) Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport) 

 

Drunks, drugs, kung fu, and rock ‘n’ roll: just another week at the movies

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This week, get thee to the Roxie for “Not Necessarily Noir III” (Dennis Harvey’s preview here), or the wind-whipped moors for Andrea Arnold’s brutal new Wuthering Heights (my chat with Arnold here). Other new stuff we haven’t reviewed yet: the not-screened-for-critics-because-let’s-face-it-these-movies-are-critic-proof Paranormal Activity 4, and Tyler Perry’s first Madea-free enterprise in some time, Alex Cross.

Read on for more new reviews!

Bel Borba Aqui “The People’s Picasso” and “Brazil’s Pied Piper of Street Art” are both apt descriptions of veteran artist Bel Borba, who has spent decades bringing color and imagination to the streets of Salvador — his seaside hometown, and a place already graced with the nickname “Brazil’s Capital of Happiness.” It’s not a stretch to imagine that Borba’s commitment to public art (a giant Christmas tree made of plastic Coke bottles, a rhinoceros sculpture crafted from old boat planks, hundreds of large-scale mosaics, even a painted airplane) has done its share to lift spirits. Bel Borba Aqui isn’t the sort of doc to delve into its mustachioed subject’s history or personal life (despite a few angry cell phone conversations randomly captured along the way); instead, it’s much like Borba himself — freewheeling and spontaneous, and most alive when it’s showing art being created. Great soundtrack, too. (1:34) Roxie. (Cheryl Eddy)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-SQ0pgjXm0

Fat Kid Rules the World It really does suck to be Troy (Jacob Wysocki from 2011’s Terri). An XXL-sized high schooler, he’s invisible to his peers, derided by his little brother (Dylan Arnold), and has lived in general domestic misery since the death of his beloved mother under the heavy-handed rule of his well-meaning but humorless ex-military dad (Billy Campbell). His only friends are online gamers, his only girlfriends the imaginary kind. But all that begins to change when chance throws him across the path of notorious local hellraiser Marcus (Matt O’Leary), who’s been expelled from school, has left the band he fronts, and is equal parts rebel hero to druggy, lyin’ mess. But he randomly decrees Troy is cool, and his new drummer. Even if he’s just being used, Troy’s world is headed for some big changes. Actor Matthew Lillard’s feature directorial debut, based on K.L. Going’s graphic novel, is familiar stuff in outline but a delight in execution, as it trades the usual teen-comedy crudities (a few gratuitous joke fantasy sequences aside) for something more heartfelt and restrained, while still funny. O’Leary from last year’s overlooked Natural Selection is flamboyantly terrific, while on the opposite end of the acting scale Campbell makes repressed emotion count for a lot — he has one wordless moment at a hospital that just might bring you to the tears his character refuses to spill. (1:38) (Dennis Harvey)

The House I Live In Much like he did in 2005’s Why We Fight, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki identifies a Big Issue (in that film, the Iraq War) and strips it down, tracing all of the history leading up to the current crisis point. Here, he takes on America’s “war on drugs,” which I put quotes around not just because it was a phrase spoken by Nixon and Reagan, but also because — as The House I Live In ruthlessly exposes — it’s been a failure, a sham, since its origins in the late 1960s. Framing his investigation with the personal story of his family’s housekeeper — whose dedication to the Jarecki family meant that she was absent when her own son turned to drugs — and enfolding a diverse array of interviews (a sympathetic prison guard, addicts and their families, The Wire‘s David Simon) and locations (New York City, Sioux City), Jarecki has created an eye-opening film. Particularly well-explained are segments on how drug laws correlate directly to race and class, and how the prison-industrial complex has played a part in making sure those laws remain as strict as possible. (1:48)  (Cheryl Eddy)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1vOw9ykpQk

Middle of Nowhere All the reasons why movie publicist turned filmmaker Ava DuVernay scored the best director award at the Sundance Film Festival are up here on the screen. Taking on the emotionally charged yet rarely attempted challenge of picturing the life of the loved one left behind by the incarcerated, DuVernay furthers the cause of telling African American stories — she founded AaFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement) and made her directorial debut with 2008 LA hip-hop doc This Is The Life — with Middle of Nowhere. Medical student Ruby (the compelling Emayatzy Corinealdi) appears to have a bright future ahead of her, when her husband Derek (Omari Hardwick) makes some bad choices and is tossed into maximum security prison for eight long years. She swears she’ll wait for him, putting her dreams aside, making the long bus ride out to visit him regularly, and settling for any nursing shift she can. How will she scrape the money together to pay the lawyer for Derek’s parole hearing, cope with the grinding disapproval of her mother (Lorraine Toussaint), support the increasingly hardened and altered Derek, and most importantly, discover a new path for herself? All are handled with rare empathy and compassion by DuVernay, who is rewarded for her care by her cast’s powerful performances. Our reward might be found amid the everyday poetry of Ruby’s life, while she wraps her hair for bed, watches Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), and fantasizes about love in a life interrupted. (1:41) (Kimberly Chun)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80_L_LsOexE

Simon and the Oaks Despite being gripping or heartwarming at times, Simon and the Oaks, based on the novel by Marianne Fredricksson, fails to cohere, serving as another reminder of the perennial dilemma of converting literature to film. It tells the story of Simon (Bill Skarsgard — son of Stellan, younger brother of Alexander), a boy coming of age in World War II Sweden. He befriends Isak, son of a Jewish bookkeeper who fled Nazi Germany, and their families become close when Isak’s father nurtures Simon’s love of books and Isak begins to heal his emotional scars by diving into carpentry work with Simon’s father. The moments of true human compassion between the two families begin to falter as the story jumps around to follow Simon’s search for love and identity. More missteps: Simon’s discovery of classical music is conveyed via a series of “artsy” montages, and his brief affair with a fiery Auschwitz victim — problematic, to say the least. (2:02) (Molly Champlin)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtT1cKo4RX4

Smashed A heartbreaking lead performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead drives this tale of a marriage tested when one partner decides to get sober. And it’s time: after an epic night of boozing, first-grade teacher Kate (Winstead) pukes in front of her class, then lies and says she’s pregnant, not anticipating the pushy delight of the school’s principal (Megan Mullally). Plus, Kate’s gotten into the habit of waking up in strange, unsafe places, not really remembering how she stumbled there in the first place. Husband Charlie (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul) sees no reason to give up partying; he’s a music blogger whose “office” is the home his wealthy parents bought for the couple, and his problem isn’t quite as unmanageable as hers (at least, we never see him peeing in a convenience store). After Kate joins AA, she realizes she’ll have to face her problems rather than drinking them away — a potentially clichéd character arc that’s handled without flashy hysterics by director and co-writer (with Susan Burke) James Ponsoldt, and conveyed with grace and pain by Winstead —an actor probably best-known for playing Ramona Flowers in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but just now revealing the scope of her talent. (1:25) (Cheryl Eddy)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LSX_UH0F9g

Tai Chi Zero A little boy dubbed “the Freak” for the curious, horn-like growth on his forehead grows up to be Lu Chan (Jaydan Yuan), who becomes a near-supernatural martial arts machine when the horn is punched, panic-button style. But activating the “Three Blossoms of the Crown,” as it’s called, takes a toll on the boy’s health, so he’s sent to the isolated Chen Village to learn their signature moves, though he’s repeatedly told “Chen-style kung fu is not taught to outsiders!” Stephen Fung’s lighthearted direction (characters are introduced with bios about the actors who play them, even the split-second cameos: “Andrew Lau, director of the Infernal Affairs trilogy”), affinity for steampunk and whimsy, engagement of Sammo Hung as action director, and embracing of the absurd (the film’s most-repeated line: “What the hell?”) all bring interest to this otherwise pretty predictable kung-fu tale, with its old-ways-versus-Western-ways conflict and misfit hero. Still, there’s something to be said for batshit insanity. (Be warned, though: Tai Chi Zero is the first in a series, which means one thing: it ends on a cliffhanger. Argh.) (1:34) (Cheryl Eddy)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWIAjsf9Xq0

The Waiting Room Twenty-four hours in the uneasy limbo of an ER waiting room sounds like a grueling, maddening experience, and that’s certainly a theme in this day-in-the-life film. But local documentarian Peter Nicks has crafted an absorbing portrait of emergency public health care, as experienced by patients and their families at Oakland’s Highland Hospital and as practiced by the staff there. Other themes: no insurance, no primary care physician, and an emergency room being used as a medical facility of first, last, and only resort. Nicks has found a rich array of subjects to tell this complicated story: An anxious, unemployed father sits at his little girl’s bedside. Staffers stare at a computer screen, tracking a flood of admissions and the scarce commodity of available beds. A doctor contemplates the ethics of discharging a homeless addict for the sake of freeing up one of them. And a humorous, ultra-competent triage nurse fields an endless queue of arrivals with humanity and steady nerves. (1:21) (Lynn Rapoport)

Film Listings

0

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

3RD I

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

OPENING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ONGOING

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

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

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

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

The Bourne Legacy Settle down, Matt Damon fans — the original Bourne appears in The Bourne Legacy only in dialogue ("Jason Bourne is in New York!") and photograph form. Stepping in as lead badass is Jeremy Renner, whose twin powers of strength and intelligence come courtesy of an experimental-drug program overseen by sinister government types (including Edward Norton in an utterly generic role) and administered by lab workers doing it "for the science!," according to Dr. Rachel Weisz. Legacy‘s timeline roughly matches up with the last Damon film, The Bourne Ultimatum, which came out five years ago and is referenced here like we’re supposed to be on a first-name basis with its long-forgotten plot twists. Anyway, thanks to ol’ Jason and a few other factors involving Albert Finney and YouTube, the drug program is shut down, and all guinea-pig agents and high-security-clearance doctors are offed. Except guess which two, who manage to flee across the globe to get more WMDs for Renner’s DNA. Essentially one long chase scene, The Bourne Legacy spends way too much of its time either in Norton’s "crisis suite," watching characters bark orders and stare at computer screens, or trying to explain the genetic tinkering that’s made Renner a super-duper-superspy. Remember when Damon killed that guy with a rolled-up magazine in 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy? Absolutely nothing so rad in this imagination-free enterprise. (2:15) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Branded (1:46) SF Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dark Knight Rises Early reviews that called out The Dark Knight Rises‘ flaws were greeted with the kind of vicious rage that only anonymous internet commentators can dish out. And maybe this is yet another critic-proof movie, albeit not one based on a best-selling YA book series. Of course, it is based on a comic book, though Christopher Nolan’s sophisticated filmmaking and Christian Bale’s tortured lead performance tend to make that easy to forget. In this third and "final" installment in Nolan’s trilogy, Bruce Wayne has gone into seclusion, skulking around his mansion and bemoaning his broken body and shattered reputation. He’s lured back into the Batcave after a series of unfortunate events, during which The Dark Knight Rises takes some jabs at contemporary class warfare (with problematic mixed results), introduces a villain with pecs of steel and an at-times distractingly muffled voice (Tom Hardy), and unveils a potentially dangerous device that produces sustainable energy (paging Tony Stark). Make no mistake: this is an exciting, appropriately moody conclusion to a superior superhero series, with some nice turns by supporting players Gary Oldman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But in trying to cram in so many characters and plot threads and themes (so many prisons in this thing, literal and figural), The Dark Knight Rises is ultimately done in by its sprawl. Without a focal point — like Heath Ledger’s menacing, iconic Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight — the stakes aren’t as high, and the end result feels more like a superior summer blockbuster than one for the ages. (2:44) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Listings

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

CINE+MAS

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

OPENING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ONGOING

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

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

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

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

The Bourne Legacy Settle down, Matt Damon fans — the original Bourne appears in The Bourne Legacy only in dialogue ("Jason Bourne is in New York!") and photograph form. Stepping in as lead badass is Jeremy Renner, whose twin powers of strength and intelligence come courtesy of an experimental-drug program overseen by sinister government types (including Edward Norton in an utterly generic role) and administered by lab workers doing it "for the science!," according to Dr. Rachel Weisz. Legacy‘s timeline roughly matches up with the last Damon film, The Bourne Ultimatum, which came out five years ago and is referenced here like we’re supposed to be on a first-name basis with its long-forgotten plot twists. Anyway, thanks to ol’ Jason and a few other factors involving Albert Finney and YouTube, the drug program is shut down, and all guinea-pig agents and high-security-clearance doctors are offed. Except guess which two, who manage to flee across the globe to get more WMDs for Renner’s DNA. Essentially one long chase scene, The Bourne Legacy spends way too much of its time either in Norton’s "crisis suite," watching characters bark orders and stare at computer screens, or trying to explain the genetic tinkering that’s made Renner a super-duper-superspy. Remember when Damon killed that guy with a rolled-up magazine in 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy? Absolutely nothing so rad in this imagination-free enterprise. (2:15) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

Branded (1:46) SF Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dark Knight Rises Early reviews that called out The Dark Knight Rises‘ flaws were greeted with the kind of vicious rage that only anonymous internet commentators can dish out. And maybe this is yet another critic-proof movie, albeit not one based on a best-selling YA book series. Of course, it is based on a comic book, though Christopher Nolan’s sophisticated filmmaking and Christian Bale’s tortured lead performance tend to make that easy to forget. In this third and "final" installment in Nolan’s trilogy, Bruce Wayne has gone into seclusion, skulking around his mansion and bemoaning his broken body and shattered reputation. He’s lured back into the Batcave after a series of unfortunate events, during which The Dark Knight Rises takes some jabs at contemporary class warfare (with problematic mixed results), introduces a villain with pecs of steel and an at-times distractingly muffled voice (Tom Hardy), and unveils a potentially dangerous device that produces sustainable energy (paging Tony Stark). Make no mistake: this is an exciting, appropriately moody conclusion to a superior superhero series, with some nice turns by supporting players Gary Oldman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But in trying to cram in so many characters and plot threads and themes (so many prisons in this thing, literal and figural), The Dark Knight Rises is ultimately done in by its sprawl. Without a focal point — like Heath Ledger’s menacing, iconic Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight — the stakes aren’t as high, and the end result feels more like a superior summer blockbuster than one for the ages. (2:44) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film Listings

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

OPENING

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

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

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

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

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

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

ONGOING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Campaign (1:25)

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

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

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

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

The Expendables 2 (1:43)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2:05)

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

ParaNorman (1:32)

The Possession (1:31)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sparkle What started as a vehicle for American Idol‘s Jordin Sparks will now forever be known as Whitney Houston’s Last Movie, with the fallen superstar playing a mother of three embittered by her experiences in the music biz. Her voice is hoarse, her face is puffy, and her big singing moment ("His Eye Is on the Sparrow" in a church scene) is poorly lip-synced — but dammit, she’s Whitney Houston, and she has more soul than everything else in Sparkle combined and squared. The tale of an aspiring girl group in late-60s Detroit, Sparkle‘s ot