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.
The Center for Asian American Media Fest runs March 14-24. Venues include the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; New People Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Great Star Theater, 636 Jackson, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post, SF. For tickets (most films $12) and complete schedule, visit www.caamedia.org. For commentary, see "Truth and Daring" and "In the Blood."
The ABCs of Death Variety is the spice of life, yet this international omnibus with 26 directors contributing elaborate micro-shorts on various methods of death one per alphabetical letter is like eating dried dill or cilantro for two-plus hours. It’s pungent, but what might color a complex stew proves insufferable in this narrow one. Just why it seems narrow is anyone’s guess this should have been a genius idea. Yet there are almost no outstanding or memorable contributions, despite the wide-open invitation to extreme content. Filmmakers include Jorge Michel Grau (2010’s We Are What We Are), Simon Rumley (of brilliant 2006 feature The Living and the Dead), Srdjan Spasojevic (2010’s A Serbian Film), cult-favorite actress Angela Bettis, and many more. Nearly all seem to have spent far more than their allotted $5000 budget. There are segments parodying exploitation cinema and video games; offering hyperbolic Terminator-style sci-fi; line-drawing and claymation segments; plus plenty of gross-out narratives. Yet it’s all surprisingly crappy (not least an episode called "Toilet"), with precious few more than halfway decent episodes. The sum impact is of a mean-spirited project that brings out the vacuously shock-value prone worst in everyone involved. (2:03) Clay. (Harvey)
Beyond the Hills Cristian Mungiu one of the main reasons everyone’s all excited about the Romanian New Wave follows up his Palme d’Or winner, 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, with another stark look at a troubled friendship between two women. Beyond the Hills‘ Voichita and Alina (Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, who shared the Best Actress prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival; for his part, Mungiu won Best Screenplay) were BFFs and, we slowly realize, lovers while growing up at a Romanian orphanage. When they aged out of the facility, the reserved Voichita moved to a rural monastery to become a nun, and the outburst-prone Alina pinballed around, doing a stint as a barmaid in Germany before turning up in Voichita’s village, lugging emotional baggage of the jealous, needy, possibly mentally ill, and definitely misunderstood variety. It can’t end well for anyone, as all involved dismissive local doctors, Alina’s no-longer-accommodating foster family, the priest (Valeriu Andriuta), and the other nuns would rather not spend any time or energy caring for a troubled, destitute outsider. Even Voichita can only look on helplessly as an exorcism, a brutal and cruel procedure, is decided upon as Alina’s last, best hope. Based on a real 2005 incident in Moldavia, Mungiu’s unsettling film is a masterpiece of exquisitely composed shots, harsh themes, and naturalistic performances. For an interview with Mungiu, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision. (2:30) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Eddy)
The Call Brad Anderson (2004’s The Machinist) directs Halle Berry as a 911 operator who has to save a girl (Abigail Breslin) from a killer. (1:34) Shattuck.
Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey The director of 2003’s Imelda returns with this portrait of a way more sympathetic Filipino celebrity: Arnel Pineda, plucked from obscurity via YouTube after Journey’s Neil Schon spotted him singing with a Manila-based cover band. Don’t Stop Believin‘ follows Pineda, who openly admits past struggles with homelessness and addiction, from audition to 20,000-seat arena success as Journey’s charismatic new front man (he faces insta-success with an endearing combination of nervousness and fanboy thrill). He’s also up-front about feeling homesick, and the pressures that come with replacing one of the most famous voices in rock (Steve Perry doesn’t appear in the film, other than in vintage footage). Especially fun to see is how Pineda invigorates the rest of Journey; as the tour progresses, all involved even the band’s veteran members, who’ve no doubt played "Open Arms" ten million times radiate with excitement. (1:45) Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet San Franciscan Mark Kitchell (1990’s Berkeley in the Sixties) directs this thorough, gracefully-edited history of the environmental movement, beginning with the earliest stirrings of the Audubon Society and Aldo Leopold. Pretty much every major cause and group gets the vintage-footage, contemporary-interview treatment: the Sierra Club, Earth Day, Silent Spring, Love Canal, the pursuit of alternative energy, Greenpeace, Chico Mendes and the Amazon rainforests, the greenhouse effect and climate change, the pursuit of sustainable living, and so on. But if its scope is perhaps overly broad, A Fierce Green Fire still offers a valuable overview of a movement that’s remained determined for decades, even as governments and corporations do their best to stomp it out. Celebrity narrators Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, and Meryl Streep add additional heft to the message, though the raw material condensed here would be powerful enough without them. (1:50) Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, and Jim Carrey star in this comedy about rival Las Vegas magicians. (1:40) Presidio.
Reincarnated Reinvention is the name of the game for some mercurial, inventive pop artists, but for rapper Snoop Dogg, now going by the moniker Snoop Lion you get the scoop on the name change in this doc transformation turns out to be unexpectedly serious, earnest business. Flirting with Cheech and Chong travelogue comedy, Reincarnated ostensibly spins off the making of the hip-hop artist’s forthcoming 12th album of the same name in Jamaica, with smokin’ production help from Diplo’s Major Lazer gang. The camera is there for many standard behind-the-music moments sessions with family and adulation in the musical-fertile Trenchtown along with many not-quite-ready-for-prime-times spent lighting up with other musicians, growers up in the mountains, and reggae forebears like Bunny Wailer. But there’s more going on beneath the billowing smoke: providing the context for today’s high times and ultimately chronicling the rhyme-slinger’s life and times and his path to Jamaica, reggae, and Rastafarian spirituality and culture, Vice Films director Andy Capper lays the foundation for Snoop’s shift from rap to Rastafari by revisiting his gangster youth, the rise and fall of Death Row Records, the passing of 2Pac and Nate Dogg, and the music that made the man’s name and continues to give us a reason to care. The easy, sexy charisma that made Snoop a star is on full display here, and doubtless his latest experiences on reality TV have made Capp’s job that much easier when it came to digging deeper, while the clouds of herb, Cali and Jamaican alike, give viewers a taste of the fun, and possibly healing, attendant with life with the Doggfather. (1:36) Opera Plaza. (Chun)
Stoker See "Family Plot." (1:38) California.
Upside Down This sci-fi romance from Argentine-French director Juan Solanas is one of those movies that would look brilliant as a coffee-table photo book nearly every shot is some striking mix of production design, CGI, color grading, and whatnot. Too bad, though, that it has to open its mouth and ruin everything. Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst play star-crossed lovers who live on adjacent twin planets with their own opposing gravitational forces. Nonetheless, they somehow manage to groove on one another until the authorities miscegenation between the prosperous residents of "Up Top" and the exploited peasants of "Down Below" being forbidden interfere, resulting in a ten-year separation and one case of amnesia. But the course of true love cannot be stopped by evil energy conglomerates, at least in the movies. Sturgess’ breathless narration starts things off with "The universe…full of wonders!" and ends with "Our love would change the entire course of history," so you know Solanas has absolutely no cliché-detecting skills. He does have a great eye but after a certain point, that isn’t enough to compensate for his awful dialogue, flat pacing, and disinterest in exploring any nuances of plot or character. Dunst is stuck playing a part that might as well simply be called the Girl; Sturgess is encouraged to overact, but his ham is prosciutto beside the thick-cut slabs of thespian pigmeat offered by Timothy Spall as the designated excruciating comic relief. If the fact that our lovers are called "Adam" and "Eden" doesn’t make you groan, you just might buy this ostentatiously gorgeous but gray-matter-challenged eye candy. If you think Tarsem is a genius and 1998’s What Dreams May Come one of the great movie romances, you will love, love, love Upside Down. (1:53) Embarcadero. (Harvey)
War Witch They should give out second-place Oscars. Like, made of silver instead of gold. In that alternate-universe scenario, Canadian writer-director Kim Nguyen’s vivid, Democratic Republic of the Congo-shot drama might’ve picked up some hardware (beyond its many film-fest accolades) to go with its Best Foreign Language Film nomination. War Witch couldn’t stop the march of Amour, but it’s deeply moving in its own way the story of Komona (played by first-time actor Rachel Mwanza), kidnapped from her village at 12 and forced to join the rebel army that roams the forests of her unnamed African country. Her first task: machine-gunning her own parents. Her ability to see ghosts (portrayed by actors in eerie body paint) elevates her to the status of "war witch," and she’s tasked with using her sixth sense to aid the rebel general’s attacks against the government army. But even this elevated position can’t quell the physical and spiritual unease of her situation; idyllic love with a fellow teenage soldier (Serge Kanyinda) proves all too brief, and as months pass, Komona remains haunted by her past. The end result is a brutal yet poetic film, elevated by Mwanza’s thoughtful performance. (1:30) Elmwood, Roxie. (Eddy)
Adventures of Serial Buddies (1:31) 1000 Van Ness.
Amour Arriving in local theaters atop a tidal wave of critical hosannas, Amour now seeks to tempt popular acclaim though actually liking this perfectly crafted, intensely depressing film (from Austrian director Michael Haneke) may be nigh impossible for most audience members. Eightysomething former music teachers Georges and Anne (the flawless Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) are living out their days in their spacious Paris apartment, going to classical concerts and enjoying the comfort of their relationship. Early in the film, someone tries to break into their flat and the rest of Amour unfolds with a series of invasions, with Anne’s declining health the most distressing, though there are also unwanted visits from the couple’s only daughter (an appropriately self-involved Isabelle Huppert), an inept nurse who disrespects Anne and curses out Georges, and even a rogue pigeon that wanders in more than once. As Anne fades into a hollow, twisted, babbling version of her former self, Georges also becomes hollow and twisted, taking care of her while grimly awaiting the inevitable. Of course, the movie’s called Amour, so there’s some tenderness involved. But if you seek heartwarming hope and last-act uplift, look anywhere but here. (2:07) Four Star, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
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) SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Barbara The titular figure (Nina Hoss) looks the very picture of blonde Teutonic ice princess when she arrives exiled from better prospects by some unspecified, politically ill-advised conduct in at a rural 1980 East German hospital far from East Berlin’s relative glamour. She’s a pill, too, stiffly formal in dealings with curious locals and fellow staff including the disarmingly rumpled, gently amorous chief physician Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld). Yet her stern prowess as a pediatric doctor is softened by atypically protective behavior toward teen Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), a frequent escapee from prison-like juvenile care facilities. Barbara has secrets, however, and her juggling personal, ethical, and Stasi-fearing priorities will force some uncomfortable choices. It is evidently the moment for German writer-director Christian Petzold to get international recognition after nearly 20 years of equally fine, terse, revealing work in both big-screen and broadcast media (much with Hoss as his prime on-screen collaborator). This intelligent, dispassionate, eventually moving character study isn’t necessarily his best. But it is a compelling introduction. (1:45) Opera Plaza, Shattuck. (Harvey)
Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives When Ina May Gaskin had her first child, the hospital doctor used forceps (against her wishes) and her baby was sequestered for 24 hours immediately after birth. "When they brought her to me, I thought she was someone else’s," Gaskin recalls in Sara Lamm and Mary Wigmore’s documentary. Gaskin was understandably flummoxed that her first experience with the most natural act a female body can endure was as inhuman as the subject of an Eric Schlosser exposé. A few years later, she met Stephen Gaskin, a professor who became her second husband, and the man who’d go on to co-found the Farm, America’s largest intentional community, in 1971. On the Farm, women had children, and in those confines, far from the iron fist of insurance companies, Gaskin discovered midwifery as her calling. She recruited others, and dedicated herself to preserving an art that dwindles as the medical industry strives to treat women’s bodies like profit machines. Her message is intended for a larger audience than granola-eating moms-to-be: we’re losing touch with our bodies. Lamm and Wigmore bravely cram a handful of live births into the film; footage of a breech birth implies this doc could go on to be a useful teaching tool for others interested in midwifery. (1:33) New Parkway, Roxie. (Vizcarrondo)
Dead Man Down Pee. Yew. This Dead Man reeks, though surveying the cast list and judging from the big honking success of director Niels Arden Oplev’s previous film, 2009’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, one would hope the stench wouldn’t be quite so crippling. Crime boss (Terrence Howard) is running panic-stricken after a series of spooky mail-art threats and it isn’t long before we realize why: his most handy henchman Victor (Colin Farrell) is the one out to destroy him after the death of his wife and daughter. The wrinkle in the plot is the moody, beautiful, and scarred French girl Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) who lives across the way from Victor’s apartment with her deaf mom (Isabelle Huppert) and has plans to extract her own kind of vengeance. Despite Rapace’s brooding performance (Oplev obviously hopes she’ll pull a Lisbeth Salander and miraculously hack this mess unsure about whether it’s a shoot-’em-up revenge exercise or a Rear Window-ish misfit love story into something worthwhile) and cameos by actors like Dominic Cooper and F. Murray Abraham, they can’t compensate for the weak writing and muddled direction, the fact that Victor conveniently dithers instead of putting an end to his victim’s (and our) agony, and that the entire mis-en-scene with its Czechs, Albanians, et al, which reads like a Central European blood feud played out in Grand Central Station just a few components as to why Dead Man stinks. (1:50) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck. (Chun)
Django Unchained Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western homage features a cameo by the original Django (Franco Nero, star of the 1966 film), and solid performances by a meticulously assembled cast, including Jamie Foxx as the titular former slave who becomes a badass bounty hunter under the tutelage of Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing the evil yet befuddlingly delightful Nazi Hans Landa in Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds, is just as memorable (and here, you can feel good about liking him) as a quick-witted, quick-drawing wayward German dentist. There are no Nazis in Django, of course, but Tarantino’s taboo du jour (slavery) more than supplies motivation for the filmmaker’s favorite theme (revenge). Once Django joins forces with Schultz, the natural-born partners hatch a scheme to rescue Django’s still-enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whose German-language skills are as unlikely as they are convenient. Along the way (and it’s a long way; the movie runs 165 minutes), they encounter a cruel plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose main passion is the offensive, shocking "sport" of "Mandingo fighting," and his right-hand man, played by Tarantino muse Samuel L. Jackson in a transcendently scandalous performance. And amid all the violence and racist language and Foxx vengeance-making, there are many moments of screaming hilarity, as when a character with the Old South 101 name of Big Daddy (Don Johnson) argues with the posse he’s rounded up over the proper construction of vigilante hoods. It’s a classic Tarantino moment: pausing the action so characters can blather on about something trivial before an epic scene of violence. Mr. Pink would approve. (2:45) Metreon, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Emperor This ponderously old-fashioned historical drama focuses on the negotiations around Japan’s surrender after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While many on the Allied side want the nation’s "Supreme Commander" Emperor Hirohito to pay for war crimes with his life, experts like bilingual Gen. Bonners Fellers (Matthew Fox) argue that the transition to peace can be achieved not by punishing but using this "living god" to wean the population off its ideological fanaticism. Fellers must ultimately sway gruff General MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) to the wisdom of this approach, while personally preoccupied with finding the onetime exchange-student love (Kaori Momoi) denied him by cultural divisions and escalating war rhetoric. Covering (albeit from the U.S. side) more or less the same events as Aleksandr Sokurov’s 2005 The Sun, Peter Webber’s movie is very different from that flawed effort, but also a lot worse. The corny Romeo and Juliet romance, the simplistic approach to explaining Japan’s "ancient warrior tradition" and anything else (via dialogue routinely as flat as "Things in Japan are not black and white!"), plus Alex Heffes’ bombastic old-school orchestral score, are all as banal as can be. Even the reliable Jones offers little more than conventional crustiness as opposed to the inspired kind he does in Lincoln. (1:46) Albany, Embarcadero, Piedmont, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Escape from Planet Earth (1:35) Metreon.
56 Up The world may be going to shit, but some things can be relied upon, like Michael Apted’s beloved series that’s traced the lives of 14 disparate Brits every seven years since original BBC documentary 7 Up in 1964. More happily still, this latest installment finds nearly all the participants shuffling toward the end of middle-age in more settled and contented form than ever before. There are exceptions: Jackie is surrounded by health and financial woes; special-needs librarian Lynn has been hit hard by the economic downturn; everybody’s favorite undiagnosed mental case, the formerly homeless Neil, is never going to fully comfortable in his own skin or in too close proximity to others. But for the most part, life is good. Back after 28 years is Peter, who’d quit being filmed when his anti-Thatcher comments provoked "malicious" responses, even if he’s returned mostly to promote his successful folk trio the Good Intentions. Particularly admirable and evidently fulfilling is the path that’s been taken by Symon, the only person of color here. Raised in government care, he and his wife have by now fostered 65 children with near-infinite love and generosity, from all appearances. If you’re new to the Up series, you’ll be best off doing a Netflix retrospective as preparation for this chapter, starting with 28 Up. (2:24) Magick Lantern, Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
The Gatekeepers Coming hard on the heels of The Law in These Parts, which gave a dispassionate forum to the lawmakers who’ve shaped some might say in pretzel form the military legal system that’s been applied by Israelis to Palestinians for decades, Dror Moreh’s documentary provides another key insiders’ viewpoint on that endless occupation. His interviewees are six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service. Their top-secret decisions shaped the nation’s attempts to control terrorist sects and attacks, as seen in a nearly half-century parade of news clips showing violence and negotiation on both sides. Unlike the subjects of Law, who spoke a cool, often evasive legalese to avoid any awkward ethical issues, these men are at times frankly and surprisingly doubtful about the wisdom of some individual decisions, let alone about the seemingly ever-receding prospect of a diplomatic peace. They even advocate for a two-state solution, an idea the government they served no longer seems seriously interested in advancing. The Gatekeepers is an important document that offers recent history examined head-on by the hitherto generally close-mouthed people who were in a prime position to direct its course. (1:37) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Harvey)
A Good Day to Die Hard A Good Day to Die Hard did me wrong. How did I miss the signs? Badass daddy rescues son. Perps cover up ’80s era misdeeds. They’re in Russia&ldots;Die Hard has become Taken. All it needs is someone to kidnap Bonnie Bedelia or deflower Jai Courtney and the transformation will be complete. What’s more, A Good Day is so obviously made for export it’s almost not trying to court the American audience for which the franchise is a staple. In a desperate reach for brand loyalty director John Moore (2001’s Behind Enemy Lines) has loaded the film with slight allusions to McClane’s past adventures. The McClanes shoot the ceiling and litter the floor with glass. John escapes a helicopter by leaping into a skyscraper window from the outside. John’s ringtone plays "Ode to Joy." The glib rejoinders are all there but they’re smeared by crap direction and odd pacing that gives ample time to military vehicles tumbling down the highway but absolutely no time for Bruce’s declarations of "I’m on VACATION!" Which may be just as well it’s no "Yipee kay yay, motherfucker." When Willis says that in A Good Day, all the love’s gone out of it. I guess every romance has to end. (1:37) Metreon. (Vizcarrondo)
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga The ever-intrepid Werner Herzog, with co-director Dmitry Vasyukov, pursues his fascination with extreme landscapes by chronicling a year deep within the Siberian Taiga. True to form, he doesn’t spend much time in the 300-inhabitant town nestled amid "endless wilderness," accessible only by helicopter or boat (and only during the warmer seasons); instead, he seeks the most isolated environment possible, venturing into the frozen forest with fur trappers who augment their passed-down-over-generations job skills with the occasional modern assist (chainsaws and snowmobiles are key). Gorgeous cinematography and a curious, respectful tone elevate Happy People from mere ethnographic-film status, though that’s essentially what it is, as it records the men carving canoes, bear-proofing their cabins, interacting with their dogs, and generally being incredibly self-reliant amid some of the most rugged conditions imaginable. And since it’s Herzog, you know there’ll be a few gently bizarre moments, as when a politician’s summer campaign cruise brings a musical revue to town, or the director himself refers to "vodka vicious as jet fuel" in his trademark droll voice over. (1:34) Magick Lantern, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)
Harvest of Empire This feature spin-off from Juan Gonzalez’s classic nonfiction tome aims to temper anti-immigration hysteria with evidence that the primarily Latino populations conservatives are so afraid of were largely invited or driven here by exploitative US policies toward Latin America. Dutifully marching through countries on a case-by-case basis, Peter Getzels and Eduardo Lopez’s documentary covers our annexing much of a neighboring country (Mexico) and using its citizens as a "reserve labor force;" encouraging mainland immigration elsewhere to strengthen a colonial bond (Puerto Rico); covertly funding overthrow of progressive governments and/or supporting repressive ones, creating floods of political asylum-seekers (Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador); and so on and so forth. Our government’s policies were often justified in the name of "fighting the spread of Communism," but usually had a more pragmatic basis in protecting US business interests. The movie also touches on NAFTA’s disastrous trickle-up effect on local economies (especially agricultural ones), and interviews a number of high achievers from immigrant families (ACLU chief Anthony Romero, Geraldo Rivera) as well as various activists and experts, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, while sampling recent years’ inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric. There’s a lot of important information here, though one might wish it were packaged in a documentary with a less primitive, classroom-ready episodic structure and less informercial-y style. (1:30) Shattuck. (Harvey)
Identity Thief America is made up of asshole winners and nice guy losers or at least that’s the thesis of Identity Thief, a comedy about a crying-clown credit card bandit (Melissa McCarthy) and the sweet sucker (Jason Bateman) she lures into her web of chaos. Bateman plays Sandy, a typical middle-class dude with a wife, two kids, and a third on the way. He’s always struggling to break even and just when it seems like his ship’s come in, Diana (McCarthy) jacks his identity a crime that requires just five minutes in a dark room with Sandy’s social security number. Suddenly, his good name is contaminated with her prior arrests, drug-dealer entanglements, and mounting debt; it’s like the capitalist version of VD. But as the "kind of person who has no friends," Diana is as tragic as she is comic, providing McCarthy an acting opportunity no one saw coming when she was dispensing romantic advice on The Gilmore Girls. Director Seth Gordon (2011’s Horrible Bosses) treats this comedy like an action movie as breakneck as slapstick gets and he relies so heavily on discomfort humor that the film doesn’t just prompt laughs, it pokes you in the ribs until you laugh, man, LAUGH! While Identity Thief has a few complex moments about how defeating "sticking it to the man" can be (mostly because only middle men get hurt), it’s mostly as subtle as a pratfall and just as (un-)rewarding. (1:25) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Vizcarrondo)
Jack the Giant Slayer (1:55) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files Chris James Thompson’s The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, a documentary with narrative re-enactments, is savvy to the fact that lurid outrageousness never gets old. It also plays off the contrast between Dahmer’s gruesome crimes and his seemingly mild-mannered personality; as real-life Dahmer neighbor Pamela Bass recalls here, the Jeff she knew ("kinda friendly, but introverted," Bass says) hardly seemed like a murdering cannibal. Though homicide detective Pat Kennedy and medical examiner Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen both share compelling details about the case, Bass’ participation is key. Not only did she have to deal with the revelation that she’d been living next to a killer ("I remember a stench, an odor"), she found herself surrounded by a media circus, harassed by gawkers, and blamed by strangers for "not doing anything." Even after she’d moved, the stigma of having been Dahmer’s neighbor lingered lending a different meaning to the phrase "serial-killer victim." Essental viewing for true-crime fiends. (1:16) Roxie. (Eddy)
The Last Exorcism Part II When last we saw home-schooled rural Louisiana teen Nell (Ashley Bell), she had just given birth to a demon baby in an al fresco Satanic ritual that also saw the violent demise of her father and brother, not to mention the visiting preacher and film crew who’d hoped to debunk exorcisms by recording a fake one. (They were mistaken on many levels.) We meet her again now … about five minutes later, as a traumatized survivor placed in a New Orleans halfway house for girls in need of a "fresh start." Encouraged to view her recent past as the handywork of cult fanatics rather than supernatural forces, she’s soon adjusting surprisingly well to independence, secular humanism, and life in the big city. But of course malevolent spirit "Abalam" isn’t done with her yet. This sequel eschews the original’s found-footage conceit, stoking up a goodly fire of more traditional atmospherics and scares, albeit at the cost of simplified character and plot arcs. As PG-13 horror goes, it’s quite creepy even if the finale paints this series into a corner from which it will require considerable future writing ingenuity to avoid pure silliness. (1:28) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center. (Harvey)
Life of Pi Several filmmakers including Alfonso Cuarón, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and M. Night Shyamalan had a crack at Yann Martel’s "unfilmable" novel over the last decade, without success. That turns out to have been a very good thing, since Ang Lee and scenarist David Magee have made probably the best movie possible from the material arguably even an improvement on it. Framed as the adult protagonist’s (Irrfan Khan) lengthy reminiscence to an interested writer (Rafe Spall) it chronicles his youthful experience accompanying his family and animals from their just shuttered zoo on a cargo ship voyage from India to Canada. But a storm capsizes the vessel, stranding teenaged Pi (Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with a mini menagerie albeit one swiftly reduced by the food chain in action to one Richard Parker, a whimsically named Bengal tiger. This uneasy forced cohabitation between Hindu vegetarian and instinctual carnivore is an object lesson in survival as well as a fable about the existence of God, among other things. Shot in 3D, the movie has plenty of enchanted, original imagery, though its outstanding technical accomplishment may lie more in the application of CGI (rather than stereoscopic photography) to something reasonably intelligent for a change. First-time actor Sharma is a natural, while his costar gives the most remarkable performance by a wild animal this side of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a charmed, lovely experience. (2:00) 1000 Van Ness, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Harvey)
Like Someone in Love A student apparently moonlighting as an escort, Akiko (Rin Takanashi) doesn’t seem to like her night job, and likes even less the fact that she’s forced into seeing a client while the doting, oblivious grandmother she’s been avoiding waits for her at the train station. But upon arriving at the apartment of the john, she finds sociology professor Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) courtly and distracted, uninterested in getting her in bed even when she climbs into it of her own volition. Their "date" extends into the next day, introducing him to the possessive, suspicious boyfriend she’s having problems with (Ryo Kase), who mistakes the prof for her grandfather. As with Abbas Kiorostami’s first feature to be shot outside his native Iran the extraordinary European coproduction Certified Copy (2010) this Japan set second lets its protagonists first play at being having different identities, then teases us with the notion that they are, in fact, those other people. It’s also another talk fest that might seem a little too nothing-happening, too idle-intellectual gamesmanship at a casual first glance, but could also grow increasingly fascinating and profound with repeat viewings. (1:49) Opera Plaza. (Harvey)
Lincoln Distinguished subject matter and an A+ production team (Steven Spielberg directing, Daniel Day-Lewis starring, Tony Kushner adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Williams scoring every emotion juuust so) mean Lincoln delivers about what you’d expect: a compelling (if verbose), emotionally resonant (and somehow suspenseful) dramatization of President Lincoln’s push to get the 13th amendment passed before the start of his second term. America’s neck-deep in the Civil War, and Congress, though now without Southern representation, is profoundly divided on the issue of abolition. Spielberg recreates 1865 Washington as a vibrant, exciting place, albeit one filled with so many recognizable stars it’s almost distracting wondering who’ll pop up in the next scene: Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant! Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln! Lena Dunham’s shirtless boyfriend on Girls (Adam Driver) as a soldier! Most notable among the huge cast are John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a daffy James Spader as a trio of lobbyists; Sally Field as the troubled First Lady; and likely Oscar contenders Tommy Lee Jones (as winningly cranky Rep. Thaddeus Stevens) and Day-Lewis, who does a reliably great job of disappearing into his iconic role. (2:30) Metreon, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Lore Set in Germany amid the violent, chaotic aftermath of World War II, Lore levels some brutally frank lessons on its young protagonist. Pretty, smart 14-year-old Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) is tasked with caring for her twin brothers, sister, and infant brother when her SS officer father (Hans-Jochen Wagner) and true-believer mother (Ursina Lardi) depart. Her seemingly hopeless mission is to get what’s left of her family across a topsy-turvy countryside to her grandmother’s house, a journey that’s less a fairy tale than a kind of inverted nightmare yet another dystopic vision as seen by children who must beg, barter, and scrounge to survive when they aren’t singing songs in praise of the Third Reich. Enter magnetic mystery man Thomas (Kai Malina), who offers Lore life lessons about the assumed enemy. Tarrying briefly to savor the sensual pleasure of a river bath or the beauty of a spring landscape, albeit one riddled with bodies, director and co-writer Cate Shortland rarely averts her eyes from the sexual and psychological dangers of her charges’ circumstances, making us not only care for her players but also imparting the dark magic of a world destroyed then born anew. (1:48) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (Chun)
No Long before the Arab Spring, a people’s revolution went down in Chile when a 1988 referendum toppled the country’s dictator, Augusto Pinochet, thanks in part to an ad exec who dared to sell the dream to his countrymen and women using the relentlessly upbeat, cheesy language of a Pepsi Generation. In No‘s dramatization of this true story, ad man Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) is approached by the opposition to Pinochet’s regime to help them on their campaign to encourage Chile’s people to vote "no" to eight more years under the brutal strongman. Rene’s well-aware of the horrors of the dictatorship; not only are the disappeared common knowledge, his activist ex (Antonia Zegers) has been beaten and jailed with seeming regularity. Going up against his boss (Alfredo Castro), who’s overseeing the Pinochet campaign, Rene takes the brilliant tact in the opposition’s TV programs of selling hope sound familiar? promising "Chile, happiness is coming!" amid corny mimes, dancers, and the like. Director-producer Pablo Larrain turns out to be just as genius, shooting with a grainy U-matic ’80s video camera to match his footage with 1988 archival imagery, including the original TV spots, in this invigorating spiritual kin of both 2012’s Argo and 1997’s Wag the Dog. (1:50) Embarcadero, Piedmont, Shattuck. (Chun)
Oz: The Great and Powerful Providing a backstory for the man behind the curtain, director Sam Raimi gives us a prequel of sorts to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Herein we follow the adventures of a Depression-era Kansas circus magician named Oscar (James Franco) Oz to his friends as he cons, philanders, bickers with his behind-the-scenes assistant Frank (Zach Braff), and eventually sails away in a twister, bound for a Technicolor land of massively proportioned flora, talking fauna, and witches ranging from dazzlingly good to treacherously wicked. From one of them, Theodora (Mila Kunis), he learns that his arrival in Oz, just to clarify has set in motion the fulfillment of a prophecy: that a great wizard, also named Oz, will bring about the downfall of a malevolent witch (Rachel Weisz), saving the kingdom and its cheery, goodhearted inhabitants. Unfortunately for this deserving populace, Oz spent his last pre-twister moments with the Baum Bros. Circus (the name a tribute to L. Frank Baum, writer of the Oz children’s books) demonstrating a banged-up moral compass and an undependable streak and proclaiming that he would rather be a great man than a good man. Unfortunately for the rest of us, this theme is revisited ad nauseam as Oz and the oppressively beneficent witch Glinda (Michelle Williams) whose magic appears to consist mainly of nice soft things like bubbles and fog stand around debating whether he’s the right man for the task. When the fog clears, though, the view is undeniably pretty. While en route to and from the Emerald City, Oz and his companions among them a non-evil flying monkey (voiced by Braff) and a rather adorable china doll (Joey King) wander through a deliriously arresting, Fantasia-esque landscape whose intricate, inventive construction helps distract from the plodding, saccharine rhetoric and unappealing story line. (2:07) California, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, SF Center, Sundance Kabuki. (Rapoport)
Quartet Every year there’s at least one: the adorable-old-cootfest, usually British, that proves harmless and reassuring and lightly tear/laughter producing enough to convince a certain demographic that it’s safe to go to the movies again. The last months have seen two, both starring Maggie Smith (who’s also queen of that audience’s home viewing via Downton Abbey). Last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which Smith played a bitchy old spinster appalled to find herself in India, has already filled the slot. It was formulaic, cute, and sentimental, yes, but it also practiced more restraint than one expected. Now here’s Quartet, which is basically the same flower arrangement with quite a bit more dust on it. Smith plays a bitchy old spinster appalled to find herself forced into spending her twilight years at a home for the elderly. It’s not just any such home, however, but Beecham House, whose residents are retired professional musicians. Gingerly peeking out from her room after a few days’ retreat from public gaze, Smith’s Jean Horton a famed English soprano spies a roomful of codgers rolling their hips to Afropop in a dance class. "This is not a retirement home this is a madhouse!" she pronounces. Oh, the shitty lines that lazy writers have long depended on Smith to make sparkle. Quartet is full of such bunk, adapted with loving fidelity, no doubt, from his own 1999 play by Ronald Harwood, who as a scenarist has done some good adaptations of other people’s work (2002’s The Pianist). But as a generator of original material for about a half-century, he’s mostly proven that it is possible to prosper that long while being in entirely the wrong half-century. Making his directorial debut: 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman, which ought to have yielded a more interesting final product. But with its workmanlike gloss and head-on take on the script’s very predictable beats, Quartet could as well have been directed by any BBC veteran of no particular distinction. (1:38) Albany, Clay, Marina, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)
Safe Haven Over a decade and a half, as one Nicholas Sparks novel after another has hit the shelves and inexorably been adapted for the big screen, we’ve come to expect a certain kind of end product: a romantic drama that manages, in its treacly messaging and relentless arc toward emotional resonance, to give us second thoughts about the redemptive power of love. The latest, Safe Haven, directed by Lasse Hallström (2011’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), follows the formula fairly dutifully. Julianne Hough (2012’s Rock of Ages) plays Katie, a Boston woman on the run from the kind of terrifying event that causes a person to dye their hair platinum blond and board a Greyhound in the middle of the night, a trauma whose details are doled out to us in a series of flashbacks. Winding up in a small coastal town in North Carolina, she meets handsome widower and father of two Alex (Josh Duhamel), who runs the local general store and takes a shine to the unfriendly new girl. Viewers of last year’s Sparks adaptation The Lucky One will find some familiar elements (the healing balm of a good man’s love, cloying usage of the paranormal), as will viewers of 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy, another film that presents the fantasy of a fresh start in Smalltown, U.S.A. (1:55) Metreon. (Rapoport)
Side Effects Though on the surface Channing Tatum appears to be his current muse, Steven Soderbergh seems to have gotten his smart, topical groove back, the one that spurred him to kick off his feature filmmaking career with the on-point Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) and went missing with the fun, featherweight Ocean’s franchise. (Alas, he’s been making claims that Side Effects will be his last feature film.) Here, trendy designer antidepressants are the draw mixed with the heady intoxicants of a murder mystery with a nice hard twist that would have intrigued either Hitchcock or Chabrol. As Side Effects opens, the waifish Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), whose inside-trading hubby (Tatum) has just been released from prison, looks like a big-eyed little basket of nerves ready to combust internally, it seems, when she drives her car into a wall. Therapist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who begins to treat her after her hospital stay, seems to care about her, but nevertheless reflexively prescribes the latest anti-anxiety med of the day, on the advice of her former doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Where does his responsibility for Emily’s subsequent actions begin and end? Soderbergh and his very able cast fill out the issues admirably, with the urgency that was missing from the more clinical Contagion (2011) and the, ahem, meaty intelligence that was lacking in all but the more ingenious strip scenes of last year’s Magic Mike. (1:30) Four Star, Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Chun)
Silver Linings Playbook After guiding two actors to Best Supporting Oscars in 2010’s The Fighter, director David O. Russell returns (adapting his script from Matthew Quick’s novel) with another darkly comedic film about a complicated family that will probably earn some gold of its own. Though he’s obviously not ready to face the outside world, Pat (Bradley Cooper) checks out of the state institution he’s been court-ordered to spend eight months in after displaying some serious anger-management issues. He moves home with his football-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and worrywart mother (Jacki Weaver of 2010’s Animal Kingdom), where he plunges into a plan to win back his estranged wife. Cooper plays Pat as a man vibrating with troubled energy always in danger of flying into a rage, even as he pursues his forced-upbeat "silver linings" philosophy. But the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, who proves the chops she showcased (pre-Hunger Games megafame) in 2010’s Winter’s Bone were no fluke. As the damaged-but-determined Tiffany, she’s the left-field element that jolts Pat out of his crazytown funk; she’s also the only reason Playbook‘s dance-competition subplot doesn’t feel eye-rollingly clichéd. The film’s not perfect, but Lawrence’s layered performance emotional, demanding, bitchy, tough-yet-secretly-tender damn near is. (2:01) Marina, 1000 Van Ness, Piedmont, SF Center, Shattuck, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)
Snitch (1:35) Metreon.
21 and Over (1:33) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness.
Warm Bodies A decade and a half of torrid, tormented vampire-human entanglements has left us accustomed to rooting for romances involving the undead and the still-alive. Some might argue, however, that no amount of pop-cultural prepping could be sufficient to get us behind a human-zombie love story for the ages. Is guzzling human blood really measurably less gross than making a meal of someone’s brains and other body parts? Somehow, yes. Recognizing this perceptual hurdle, writer-director Jonathan Levine (2011’s 50/50, 2008’s The Wackness) secures our sympathies at the outset of Warm Bodies by situating us inside the surprisingly active brain of the film’s zombie protagonist. Zombies, it turns out, have internal monologues. R (Nicholas Hoult) can only remember the first letter of his former name, but as he shambles and shuffles and slumps his way through the terminals of a postapocalyptic airport overrun by his fellow corpses (as they’re called by the film’s human population), he fills us in as best he can on the global catastrophe that’s occurred and his own ensuing existential crisis. By the time he meets not-so-cute with Julie (Teresa Palmer), a young woman whose father (John Malkovich) is commander-in-chief of the human survivors living in a walled-off city center, we’ve learned that he collects vinyl, that he has a zombie best friend, and that he doesn’t want to be like this. We may still be flinching at the thought of his and Julie’s first kiss, but we’re also kind of rooting for him. The plot gapes in places, where a tenuous logic gets trampled and gives way, but Levine’s script, adapted from a novel by Isaac Marion, is full of funny riffs on the zombie condition, which Hoult invests with a comic sweetness as his character staggers toward the land of the living. (1:37) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness. (Rapoport)
Zero Dark Thirty The extent to which torture was actually used in the hunt for Osama Bin Ladin may never be known, though popular opinion will surely be shaped by this film, as it’s produced with the same kind of "realness" that made Kathryn Bigelow’s previous film, the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008), so potent. Zero Dark Thirty incorporates torture early in its chronology which begins in 2003, after a brief opening that captures the terror of September 11, 2001 using only 911 phone calls but the practice is discarded after 2008, a sea-change year marked by the sight of Obama on TV insisting that "America does not torture." (The "any more" goes unspoken.) Most of Zero Dark Thirty is set in Pakistan and/or "CIA black sites" in undisclosed locations; it’s a suspenseful procedural that manages to make well-documented events (the July 2005 London bombings; the September 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing) seem shocking and unexpected. Even the raid on Bin Ladin’s HQ is nail-bitingly intense. The film immerses the viewer in the clandestine world, tossing out abbreviations ("KSM" for al-Qaeda bigwig Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and jargon ("tradecraft") without pausing for a breath. It is thrilling, emotional, engrossing the smartest, most tightly-constructed action film of the year. At the center of it all: a character allegedly based on a real person whose actual identity is kept top-secret by necessity. She’s interpreted here in the form of a steely CIA operative named Maya, played to likely Oscar-winning perfection by Jessica Chastain. No matter the film’s divisive subject matter, there’s no denying that this is a powerful performance. "Washington says she’s a killer," a character remarks after meeting this seemingly delicate creature, and he’s proven right long before Bin Ladin goes down. Some critics have argued that character is underdeveloped, but anyone who says that isn’t watching closely enough. Maya may not be given a traditional backstory, but there’s plenty of interior life there, and it comes through in quick, vulnerable flashes leading up to the payoff of the film’s devastating final shot. (2:39) Metreon, 1000 Van Ness, Presidio, Sundance Kabuki. (Eddy)